I am writing to stress to the new administration that you will soon be faced with crucial policy issues that require good scientific input in formulating policy. At the top of list must be providing the leadership that will bring us out of the pandemic. In that regard, formulating consistent policy on social distancing, testing and tracing, and vaccines and distribution are all complex problems that need the best scientific inputs and advice.
A second issue of great importance to the world is nuclear proliferation. We must make viable agreements with other countries having nuclear capability, as well as agreements for Iran or other countries that could develop capability. Renewing the U.S. nuclear stockpile is a very complex domestic issue that again needs the best scientific guidance.
A third crucial issue is climate change. We have had unprecedented heat, melting ice caps, forest fires, polluted cities, etc. in the recent past. We must develop forward-looking and workable policy, working with the rest of the world and using the best advice of scientists.
Of course, there will be other major issues, where the advice of scientists will be crucial to decision making and formulating policies. The U.S. is a wonderful place to be a scientist and to do science. Please take advantage of our skills and knowledge as you face the challenges of the coming years.
Barry Barish, Ph.D.
Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus
California Institute of Technology
2017 Nobel Laureate in Physics
Humanity is facing unprecedented challenges of a simultaneous and urgent nature rarely before seen in our history. A pandemic infection has brought the world’s economy to its knees. Authoritarian assaults on democracy are increasing mistrust in governments and institutions. Global climate change is destabilizing lives and livelihoods. Now, more than ever, Americans and our allies are looking to the U.S. to lead the world through these monumental challenges.
Science and scholarship are the most powerful tools by which we may understand these challenges and how best to address them. The pursuit of truth, which is the bedrock of science and the linchpin of functioning democracy, must be our top priority for the next four years.
I urge you to commit to making evidence-based policy decisions, and to making science and foundational research your compass to help guide the world to a healthier, more stable future. It is not hyperbole to say humanity is at a crossroads, and that we face existential threats in the form of climate change and distrust of science.
Jonas Salk, who developed the first polio vaccine in response to the polio pandemics of the early 20th century before going on to found the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, once said, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”
We owe future generations a healthy, habitable world.
Joanne Chory, Ph.D.
Professor and Director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory
Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
2018 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Laureate
I wish to draw your attention to a thorny issue whose impact on America will steadily grow in coming years as climate warming becomes ever more destructive to our food supply. I speak of the growing gap between what science can do to help agriculture and what’s actually being done for farmers.
Spectacular advances in genetic knowledge and methods over the past half century have made it possible to adapt agriculture to a warming climate even while increasing agriculture’s productivity and sustainability and reducing its environmental footprint.
But over the same half-century, public opinion has been systematically turned against the use of such modern methods of genetic modification (GM) by the organic food industry and public interest groups who have successfully vilified GM and created fear to increase their market share and raise money. A majority of consumers is now convinced that GM foods are bad or dangerous.
But the science says that GM foods are entirely safe for consumption by both people and animals. GM crops have now been grown commercially for a quarter of a century, boosting farmer incomes around the world, even while reducing pesticide use and greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, current regulatory policy has all but precluded the rapid development of GM animals.
It is essential that the upcoming administration listen to the science and direct efforts toward relaxing excess regulatory constraints on GM. But more than that, it is essential that the government boldly promote GM approaches in agriculture to overcome the widespread disinformation promulgated by anti-GM groups. Public acceptance of GM foods is critical to their success in the marketplace.
Government investment can encourage private and public sector scientists to develop badly needed agricultural organisms biologically protected from the pathogens, pests, and stresses of the warming climate. But unequivocal government support of GM foods will be crucial to unleashing the scale of investment needed for farmers to stay ahead of the warming climate’s growing downward pressure on their ability to feed the nation.
Nina Fedoroff, Ph.D.
Emeritus Evan Pugh Professor, Pennsylvania State University
Senior Science Advisor, OFW Law
2006 National Medal of Science Laureate
Congratulations on your election, during a moment in history when the health and well-being not only of the human population but also the biodiversity of the planet will almost certainly be affected by decisions you make while you’re in office.
For this reason, please depend on the knowledge that the scientific community can offer to inform your decision-making.
In 1863, your predecessor Abraham Lincoln, recognizing the need for independent, objective advice for a nation embroiled in a civil war, created the National Academy of Sciences as a mechanism to obtain such advice. Scientists answered the call, advising the federal government on many scientific and technological issues, including consistency across weights and measures and accuracy of magnetic compass readings on iron-hulled warships.
For over 150 years, the federal government has benefited from making decisions based on the best independent, objective scientific evidence available from a rapidly expanding community of scientists. Keep in mind, though, that scientific research comprises not just the knowledge produced, but also the process through which it’s obtained, a process designed to be iterative, self-correcting, and objective.
It’s true that scientific views can change, sometimes rapidly—but such change is intrinsic to the process, as long as changes come not from whimsy or political stratagems, but from the collective accumulation of well-designed, unbiased, repeatable studies, particularly when new fields or unprecedented problems arise.
The utility of relying on scientific advice in policy-making has been abundantly demonstrated, as have the often tragic consequences of rejecting a strong scientific consensus to suit political agendas (think of the deaths of millions resulting from the Soviet-era implementation of Trofim Lysenko’s politically tinged agronomic theories).
Like it or not, your legacy will depend on the extent to which you embrace both the process and the products of the scientific enterprise.
President Joseph R. Biden Jr. brings with him the largest team of climate change experts ever assembled in the White House, and action on global warming is expected quickly.
WASHINGTON — Joseph R. Biden Jr. assumed the presidency on Wednesday, bringing an expansive team of climate change experts to staff a White House that is preparing to focus on global warming in a way no other administration has done before.
Mr. Biden enters office with the largest team ever assembled inside the White House to tackle global warming and has installed policy experts at the State Department as well as the National Security Council, the president’s top advisory body for all foreign policy decisions. The Treasury Department, the Transportation Department and the office of Vice President Kamala Harris all will have dedicated climate policy staff, with more hires expected in the coming days throughout the government.
An executive order aimed at re-establishing scientific integrity in federal decision-making is high on the list, after four years of an administration thatmocked or belittled the established scienceof climate change,elevated discredited climate denial studiesand sidelined scientists who work on the issue. He also is expected to begin the process of forcing agencies to calculate the costs that carbon dioxide emissions impose upon society. By raising the costs of climate change, the Biden administration hopes to change cost-benefit analyses in a way that makes strong regulatory action more economically appealing and less susceptible to negative court rulings, two people familiar with the plans said.
Even fossil fuel advocates said they have been surprised by the intensity of the Biden team’s focus on climate change.
“I underestimated the level of seriousness that these guys had about this,” said Thomas J. Pyle, the president of the Institute for Energy Research, an organization that supports the expanded use of gas, oil and coal.
“They are devoting a lot of personnel to the issue set, and I think that just emphasizes the level of influence that the greens have on the Democratic Party,” Mr. Pyle said.
As with other policy areas, when it comes to climate policy the incoming president has relied heavily on old hands from the Obama administration.
He selected Gina McCarthy, who led the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, start up a new White House office on climate policy. Ali Zaidi, a former top energy official in the Obama administration’s White House Office of Management and Budget, will be Ms. McCarthy’s deputy.
Last week Mr. Biden appointed David Hayes, who served as the deputy interior secretary in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, to be a special assistant to the president for climate policy. Former Secretary of State John Kerry will serve as Mr. Biden’s international climate envoy.
In the coming days, two people with knowledge of new hires said, Mr. Biden is expected to announce several additions to Mr. Kerry’s team. They will include Jonathan Pershing, who served as the State Department special envoy for climate change under President Obama; Sue Biniaz, a former top climate lawyer for the State Department across multiple administrations who played a key role in drafting the Paris Agreement; and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury Department for energy and environment under Mr. Obama. Rick Duke, who served as a special assistant to Mr. Obama on climate change also is in talks to join Mr. Kerry’s team, the two people confirmed.
But Mr. Biden also has reached into the worlds of clean energy development, the youth climate movement and environmental justice activism for key deputy-level positions.
Cecilia Martinez, a prominent advocate for addressing racial inequality in environmental policies, will serve as senior director for environmental justice at the Council on Environmental Quality. Tarak Shah, a former Energy Department official under Mr. Obama is also expected to be chief of staff to Jennifer Granholm, the nominee to be Energy Secretary.
The mix of expertise was applauded by moderate Democrats as well as the liberal wing of the climate movement, which has been critical of some of the incoming president’s policy positions and personnel choices.
“The picks are genuinely encouraging,” said Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, a group that pressed for the Green New Deal, an expansive suite of climate and economic policies that Mr. Biden has not embraced in full.
“These are serious advocates who understand the policy details, who have connections to the climate movement and the environmental justice movement,” Mr. Weber said.
Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser in the Clinton White House, said the picks showed the White House was becoming the “domestic nerve center” for climate change in the Biden administration.
Mr. Bledsoe said Mr. Hayes in particular, with whom he worked in the Interior Department in the 1990s, “has an encyclopedic knowledge of the connection between public lands and climate,” and called him “the perfect complement” to Ms. McCarthy, whose expertise is in mitigating emissions through clean air and water laws.
Working with Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Hayes in the White House Office of Climate Policy will be Sonia Aggarwal, who co-founded the San Francisco-based energy and environmental policy firm Energy Innovation. There, Ms. Aggarwal helped develop a model called the Energy Policy Simulator to help policymakers drill down on specific clean energy policies and measure in real time the costs and emissions impacts of various plans. She will serve as senior adviser for climate policy and innovation.
One of Ms. Aggarwal’s areas of expertise is the development of a clean energy standard — that is, the percentage of non-fossil fuel sources that utilities must reach in their power generation and sales. By setting a standard without a source-by-source prescription, the policy is supposed to allow businesses and utilities to determine the most efficient way of meeting the targets. With the Senate now controlled by Democrats, even with a razor thin margin, the possibility of passing such a mandate could be within reach.
Maggie Thomas, who served in climate adviser roles in the presidential campaigns of Governor Jay Inslee of Washington and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, will serve as Ms. McCarthy’s chief of staff.
Jahi Wise, who was a policy director for the Coalition for Green Capital, a nonprofit group that works to drive investment in clean energy, will be a senior adviser for climate policy and finance.
The expansive White House team, which is not subject to Senate confirmation, has provoked consternation among Republicans. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who will be the top Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, said he believed increased energy innovation and “not the appointment of countless unchecked czars” would be best for both the economy and the environment.
An urgent and essential call to arms from one of Australia’s most respected climate scientists, Tim Flannery. A compelling and solution-focused declaration of the action required to win the climate battle, and how change must start in our board rooms and parliaments.
Australians are witnessing an unprecedented government response to crisis-swift decisive action to avert catastrophe. And the advice of scientists has informed every step of the way.
But for decades the advice of scientists on the impending catastrophe that climate change will bring has been ignored, dismissed and even ridiculed.
Renowned climate scientist Tim Flannery takes aim at those in government and in the fossil fuel industries for their inaction and lies in response to calls to address the very real and immediate threats posed by climate change. Threats that are now upon us, as the 2019/20 Australian bushfires and floods have shown.
Flannery sees 2020 as a turning point. He explores the measures at our disposal to reduce CO2 emissions. He looks at the ways carbon can be drawn out of the atmosphere and safely stored to stabilise atmospheric carbon levels. And he demands a new approach that puts tackling climate change in the hands of the scientists who can lead the way.
The Climate Cureis an action plan for survival, a call for government policies that, like its COVID-19 response, rise to the very real climate challenges we face. There is reason for optimism-if we act now.
James P. Pfiffner, an emeritus professor of public policy at George Mason University and an expert on the presidency, noted that presidents have increasingly centralized control in the White House by creating special positions around policies of high importance, with mixed results.
A new White House climate office staffed with at least five people is a lot, he said, and a White House “czar” like Ms. McCarthy would have her challenges.
“White House staffers do not have the authority to make decisions on spending or personnel,” he said. “Certainly, they can be powerful, but only to the extent that their policy area is of primary importance to the president.”
The war on climate denial has been won, writes New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, author of ‘The Uninhabitable Earth.’ And that’s not the only good news about climate change and global warming.
In the American Southwest,birds fell dead from the sky by the tens of thousands, succumbing mid-flight to starvation, emaciated by climate change.
Across the horn of Africa swarmed 200 billion locusts, 25 for every human on earth, darkening the sky in clouds as big as whole cities, descending on cropland and chewing through as much food as tens of millions of people eat in a day, eventually dying in such agglomerating mounds they stopped trains in their tracks — all told, 8,000 times as many locusts as could be expected in the absence of warming.
The fires, you know. Or do you? In California in 2020,twice as much land burnedas had ever burned before in any year in the modern history of the state — five of the six biggest fires ever recorded. In Siberia, “zombie fires” smoldered anomalously all through the Arctic winter; in Brazil, a quarter of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, was incinerated; in Australia, flames took the lives of 3 billion animals.
All year, a planet transformed by the burning of carbon discharged what would have once been called portents of apocalypse. The people of that planet, as a whole, didn’t take much notice — distracted by the pandemic and trained, both by the accumulating toll of recent disasters and the ever-rising volume of climate alarm, to see what might once have looked like brutal ruptures in lived reality instead as logical developments in a known pattern.
Our time has been so stuffed with disasters that it was hard to see the arrival of perhaps the unlikeliest prophecy of all: that the plague year may have marked, for climate change, a turning point, and for the better.
When trying toshare good news about climate, it pays to be cautious, since so many have looked foolish playing Pollyanna. A turning point isn’t an endgame, or a victory, or a cessation of the need to struggle — for speedier decarbonization, for a sturdier future, for climate justice. Already, a future without profound climate suffering has been almost certainly foreclosed by decades of inaction, which means the burden of managing those impacts equitably will be handed down, generation to generation, into an indefinite and contested climate future.
But if the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House feels like something of a fresh start, well, to a degree it is. The world’s most conspicuous climate villain has been deposed, and though Biden was hardly the first choice of environmentalists, his victory signals an effective end to the age of denial and the probable beginning of a new era of climate realism, with fights for progress shaped as much by choices as by first principles.
The change is much bigger than the turnover of American leadership. By the time the Biden presidency finds its footing in a vaccinated world, the bounds of climate possibility will have been remade.
Just a half-decade ago, it was widely believed that a “business as usual” emissions path would bring the planet four or five degrees of warming — enough to make large parts of Earth effectively uninhabitable.
Now, thanks to the rapid death of coal, the revolution in the price of renewable energy, and a global climate politics forged by a generational awakening, theexpectationis for about three degrees. Recent pledgescould bring us closer to two. All of these projections sketch a hazardous and unequal future, and all are clouded with uncertainties — about the climate system, about technology, about the dexterity and intensity of human response, about how inequitably the most punishing impacts will be distributed. Yet if each half-degree of warming marks an entirely different level of suffering, we appear to have shaved a few of them off our likeliest end stage in not much time at all.
The next half-degrees will be harder to shave off, and the most crucial increment — getting from two degrees to 1.5 — perhaps impossible, dashing the dream of avoiding what was long described as “catastrophic” change. But for a climate alarmist like me, seeing clearly the state of the planet’s future now requires a conspicuous kind of double vision, in which a guarded optimism seems perhaps as reasonable as panic. Given how long we’ve waited to move, what counts now as a best-case outcome remains grim. It also appears, miraculously, within reach.
In December,a month after Biden was elected promising to return the U.S. to the Paris agreement, the U.N. celebrated five years since the signing of those accords. They were five of the six hottest on record. (The sixth was 2015, the year the agreement was signed.) They were also the years with the highest levels of carbon output in the history of humanity — with emissions equivalent to what was produced by all human and industrial activity from the speciation ofHomo sapiensto the start of World War II.
They have also been the five years in which the nations of the world — and cities and regions, individuals and institutions, corporations and central banks — have made the most ambitious pledges of future climate action. Most of them were made in the past 12 months, in the face of the pandemic. Or, perhaps, to some degree,becauseof it — because the pandemic demanded a full-body jolt to the global political economy, provoking much more aggressive government spending, a much more accommodating perspective on debt, and a much greater openness to large-scale actions and investments of the kind that might plausibly reshape the world. And because decarbonization has come to seem, even to those economists and policy-makers blinded for decades to the moral and humanitarian cases for reform, a rational investment. “When I think about climate change,” Biden is fond of saying, “the word I think of isjobs.”
There are two ways of looking at these seemingly contradictory sets of facts. The first is that the distance between what is being done and what needs to be done is only growing. This is the finding of, among others, the U.N.’s comprehensive“Emissions Gap” report, issued in December, which found that staying below two degrees of warming would require a tripling of stated ambitions. To bring the planet in reach of the 1.5-degree target — favored by activists, most scientists, and really anyone reading their work with open eyes — would require a quintupling. It is also the perspective of Greta Thunberg, who has spent the pandemic year castigating global leaders for paying mere lip service to far-off decarbonization targets and who called the E.U.’s new net-zero emissions law “surrender.”
The second is that all of the relevant curves are bending — too slowly but nevertheless in the right direction. The International Energy Agency, a notoriously conservative forecaster, recentlycalledsolar power “the cheapest electricity in history” and projected that India will build 86 percent less new coal power capacity than it thought just one year ago. Today, business as usual no longer means a fivefold increase of coal use this century, as was once expected. It means pretty rapid decarbonization, at least by the standards of history, in which hardly any has ever taken place before.
Both of these perspectives are true. The gap is real, and the world risks tumbling into it, subjecting much of the global South to unconscionable punishments all the way down. But in the months since the pandemic wiped climate strikers off the streets, their concerns have seeped into not just public-opinion surveys but parliaments and presidencies, trade deals and the advertising business, finance and insurance — in short, all the citadels presiding over the ancien régime of fossil capital.
This is not exactly a climate revolution; the strikers and their allies didn’t win in the way they wanted to, at least not yet. But they did win something. Environmental anxieties haven’t toppled neoliberalism. Instead, to an unprecedented degree, they infiltrated it. (Or perhaps they were appropriated by it. It’s an open question.) Climate change isn’t an issue just for die-hards anymore — it’s for normies, sellouts, and anyone with their finger in the wind. It will take time, of course, for voters to see empty rhetoric for what it is, and for consumers to learn to distinguish, say, between the claims of guiltless airline tickets, or between carbon-free foods in the supermarket aisle. Harder still will be sorting through the differences between real corporate commitments like Microsoft’s and more evasive ones, like BP’s. Already, there is considerable consternation among climate activists that the public doesn’t understand the tricky math of “net-zero” on which so many of these commitments have been made—it is not a promise of ending emissions, but of offsetting some amount of them, in the future, with “negative emissions,” sometimes called “carbon dioxide removal,” though no approach of that kind is ready to go at anything like the necessary scale.
In the political sphere, the uneasy alliance between activists and those in power will be tested, producing new conflicts, or new equilibria, or both. Consider, though, that Varshini Prakash, whoseSunrise Movementgave Biden’s primary candidacy an F, later helped write his climate plan along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Climate expertise has been distributed throughout the incoming administration, as was promised during a campaign that closed, remarkably, with a climate-focused advertising blitz. During the transition, Biden’s pick for director of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, was targeted by the environmental left for his time with BlackRock, but even this purported stooge had been married by Bill McKibben, one of the godfathers of modern climate activism.
Elsewhere in the world, where 85 percent of global emissions are produced, the great infiltration of climate concerns represents what the British environmentalwriterJames Murray has called “an alternative history to 2020” and what the scientist turned journalist Akshat Rathihas declared“a strong sign that climate action is starting to be ‘institutionalized’ — that is, getting deeply embedded into how the world works.” This is not about coronavirus lockdowns producing emissions drops or “nature healing.” It is instead about long-standing trajectories in coal use and political salience passing obvious tipping points; promises and posturing by powerful if compromised institutions; and policy progress almost smuggled into place, all over the world, under cover of pandemic night. In the U.S., in the second coronavirus stimulus,$35 billion in clean-energy spendingpassed in the Senate 92-6 — an effective down payment, energy researcher Varun Sivaram has estimated, on the innovation spending needed for a full electrification of the country.
Did you even notice?
Biden’s climate plan now faces the challenge of a filibuster, a skeptical Supreme Court, and the mood of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, which means American climate action over the next four years is probably more likely to be delivered piecemeal — through appropriations and stimulus, executive action, and regulation — than through a landmark Green New Deal–style piece of legislation. That does limit what can be achieved, but it also means avoiding a protracted battle over climate as a referendum on the identity of the nation. And at least nominally, having been pressured by activists to do so, Biden is promising to multiply the green spending in that recent stimulus by a factor of 60.
The numbers are numbingly large — reminders that in the midst of pandemic turmoil, the rules of state spending have been dramatically revised and perhaps even suspended. Is this global free-spending binge the beginning of a new era or merely a crisis interregnum to be followed by a new new austerity? “We don’t know what the recovery packages of COVID are going to be,” Christiana Figueres, one of the central architects of the Paris accords, told me this summer. “And honestly, the depth of decarbonization is going to largely depend on the characteristics of those recovery packages more than on anything else, because of their scale. We’re already at $12 trillion; we could go up to $20 trillion over the next 18 months. We have never seen — the world has never seen — $20 trillion go into the economy over such a short period of time. That is going to determine the logic, the structures, and certainly the carbon intensity of the global economy at least for a decade, if not more.”
For those dreaming of a climate recovery, the first round of spending was not so encouraging. The E.U. was the gold standard, promising that 30 percent of its stimulus would be earmarked for climate. The U.S. and China each pledged only a fraction of that (and in each case, there was fossil stimulus, too). But in October, a team of researchers including Joeri Rogelj of the Imperial College of Londoncalculatedthat just one-tenth of the COVID-19 stimulus spending already committed around the world, directed toward decarbonization during each of the next five years, would be sufficient to deliver the goals of the Paris agreement and stop global warming well below two degrees. That analysis may be a touch optimistic, but the level of spending seems, now, doable.
When Donald Trumpwas elected, trashing Paris, climate hawks were left hoping that the world would hang on for the length of his administration — insisting that, in the long term, the crisis couldn’t be solved without America at the helm. But the past four years of missing leadership have produced astonishing gains.
The price of solar energy has fallen ninefold over the past decade, as has the price of lithium batteries, critical to the growth of electric cars. The costs of utility-scale batteries, which could solve the “intermittency” (i.e., cloudy day) problem of renewables and help power whole cities in relatively short order, have fallen 70 percent since just 2015. Wind power is 40 percent cheaper than it was a decade ago, with offshore wind experiencing an even steeper decline. Overall, renewable energy is less expensive than dirty energy almost everywhere on the planet, and in many places it is simply cheaper to build new renewable capacity than to continue running the old fossil-fuel infrastructure. Oil demand and carbon emissions may both have peaked this year. Eighty percent of coal plants planned in Asia’s developing countries have been shelved.
This summer, I heard the Australian scientist and entrepreneur Saul Griffith talk about what it would take to get the U.S. within range of a 1.5 degree world. He said it would mean that beginning in 2021, this year, every single person buying a new car would have to be buying an electric one.That seems unrealistic,I thought, making a note of it as a useful benchmark illustrating just how far we have to go.
Then, in the fall, the U.K. pledged to ban nonelectrics by 2030—a once-unthinkable law coming both too slow and much more quickly than seemed possible not very long ago. Similar plans are now in place in 16 other countries, plus Massachusetts and California. Canada recently raised its tax on carbon sixfold. Italy cut its power-sector emissions 65 percent between 2012 and 2019, and Denmark is now aiming to reduce its overall emissions 70 percent by 2030. “We set ourselves challenges that on paper looked almost impossible,” the country’s minister for the environment, Dan Jørgensen, told me recently. “And I think experts in many countries said, when looking at Denmark, ‘This is going to be too expensive, this is going to lower their living standards, this is going to hurt their ability to compete.’ But actually I’m proud to say that the opposite has happened. Now, of course, we have set even higher standards.”
In the midst of the pandemic, new net-zero pledges, far more ambitious than those offered at Paris, were independently made by Japan, South Korea, the E.U., and, most significant, China, the world’s biggest emitter, which promised to reach an emissions peak by 2030 and get all the way to zero by 2060. China’s promise is so ambitious it has inspired one wave of debate among experts about whether it is even feasible — given that it would require, for instance, roughly twice as much renewable power to be installed every year for the next decade as Germany has operating nationwide today — and another debate about whether it has revived the possibility of that 1.5-degree target, with economic historian Adam Tooze writing, just after Xi Jinping’s surprise announcement in September, that it single-handedly “redefined the future prospects for humanity.” Together, the new net-zero pledges may have subtracted a full half-degree from ultimate warming. Add Biden’s campaign pledge of net zero by 2050, and you’ve got about two-thirds of global emissions at least nominally committed to firm, aggressive timelines to zero.
These are all just paper promises, of course, and the history of climate action is littered with the receipts of similar ones uncashed. Plot the growth of carbon concentration in the atmosphere against the sequence of climate-action conferences and a distressing pattern emerges: the World Meteorological Conference of 1979, the U.N. framework of 1992, the Kyoto protocol of 1997, the Copenhagen accord of 2009, and the 2015 Paris accords, all tracking an uninterrupted trajectory upward for carbon from a “safe” level under 350 parts per million, past 400, to 414 today, and pointing upward from there. Before the industrial revolution, humans had never known an atmosphere with even 300 parts per million. Inevitably now, within a few years, the concentration will reach levels not seen since 3.3 million years ago, when sea levels were 60 feet higher. And for all their momentum, renewables still only make up 10 percent of global electricity production.
But alarmists have to take the good news where they find it. And while mood affiliation is not always the best guide to the state of the world, in 2020, for me, there were three main sources of hope.
The first is the fact that the age of climate denial is over, thanks to extreme weather and the march of science and the historic labor of activists — climate strikers, Sunrise, Extinction Rebellion — whose success in raising alarm may have been so sudden that they brought an end to the age of climate Jeremiahs as well. Their voices now echo in some unlikely places. Exxon was booted from the S&P 500 within months of Tesla making Elon Musk the world’s richest man. The cultural cachet of oil companies is quickly approaching that of tobacco companies. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil aside, practically every leader of every country and every major figure in every corporate and industrial sector now feels obligated — because of protest and social pressure, economic realities, and cultural expectation — to at least make a show of support for climate action. It would be nice not to have to count that as progress, but it is. The questions are: How much does it matter? And what will follow? Disinformation and human disregard are not the only instruments of delay, and the age of climate denial is likely to yield first not to an age of straightforward climate deliverance but to one characterized by climate hypocrisy, greenwashing, and gaslighting. But those things, ugly and maddening and even criminal as they are, have always been with us. It is the other thing that is new.
The second source of good news is the arrival on the global stage of climate self-interest. By this I don’t mean the profiteering logic of BlackRock, which opportunistically announced some half-hearted climate commitments last year, but rather the growing consensus in almost every part of the globe, and at almost every level of society and governance, that the world will be made better through decarbonization. A decade ago, many of the more ruthless capitalists to analyze that project deemed it too expensive to undertake. Today, it suddenly appears almost too good a deal to pass up. (A recent McKinseyreport: “Net-Zero Emissions at Net-Zero Cost.”)
The logic may be clearest in considering the effects of air pollution, which kills an estimated 9 million people per year. In India, where more than 8 percent of GDP is lost to pollution, poor air quality is also responsible for 350,000 miscarriages and stillbirths every year. Globally, coal kills one person for every thousand people it provides power to, and even in the U.S., with its enviably clean air, total decarbonization would be entirely paid for, Duke’s Drew Shindellrecently testifiedbefore Congress, just through the public-health benefits of cutting out fossil fuels. You don’t even have to calculate any of the other returns — more jobs, cheaper energy, new infrastructure. Of course, countries all around the world are incorporating those considerations too, turning the page on a generation of economic analysis that said decarbonization was too costly and its benefits too small to sell to the public as upside.
What is perhaps most striking about all the new climate pledges is not just that they were made in the absence of American leadership but that they were made outside the boundaries of the Paris framework. They are not the result of geopolitical strong-arming or “Kumbaya” consensus. They are, instead, plans arrived at internally, in some cases secretly. This has been eye-opening for the many skeptics who worried for decades about climate’s collective-action problem — who warned that because the benefits of decarbonization were distributed globally while the costs were concentrated locally, nations would move only if all of their peers did too. But arecent paperby Matto Mildenberger and Michaël Alkin suggests this shouldn’t be a surprise. In their retrospective analysis, they found that, despite much consternation about designing climate policy to prevent countries from “cheating,” there was basically no evidence of any country ever pulling back from mitigation efforts to take a free ride on the good-faith efforts of others. There was, in other words, no collective-action problem on climate after all. For a generation, the argument for climate action was made on a moral basis. That case has only grown stronger. And now there are other powerful, more mercenary arguments to offer.
The third cause for optimism is that, while the timelines to tolerably disruptive climate outcomes have already evaporated, the timelines to the next set of benchmarks is much more forgiving. This is why Glen Peters, the research director at the Cicero Center for International Climate Research, often jokes that while keeping warming below two degrees is very hard, perhaps even impossible, keeping it below 2.5 degrees now looks like a walk in the park.
This isn’t to say we’re on a glide path to safety. At current emissions levels, the planet will entirely exhaust the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees in just seven years — stay merely level, in other words, and we’ll burn through the possibility of a relatively comfortable endgame within the decade. We could buy ourselves a little more time by starting to move quickly, but not that much more. To decarbonize fast enough to give the planet a decent chance of hitting that 1.5-degree target without any negative emissions would require getting all the way to net-zero emissions by around 2035. Simply running the cars and furnaces and fossil-fuel infrastructure that already exists to its expected retirement date would push the world past 1.5 degrees—without a single new gasoline SUV hitting the road, or a single new oil-heated home being built, or a single new coal plant opened.
A two-degree target, by contrast, yields a much longer timeline, requiring the world to achieve net-zero by 2070 or 2080 — without even the help of negative emissions. We’d have to cut carbon production in half in about three decades, rather than one. That pathway will almost certainly prove harder than it looks. The good news is that we seem to be beginning, at least, to try.
It won’t be enough.It can’t be, because we are too far along. There is no solution to global warming, no going back. Achieving a two-degree goal, by rates of decarbonization only dreamed of a decade ago, would deliver a world that looked then quite unforgivably brutal — and should today, too.
Already, the planet is warmer, at just 1.2 degrees, than it has ever been in the long stretch of human civilization, with everything we have ever known as a species — our histories, our agricultures, our cultures, our politics, our geopolitics — the result of climate conditions we have already left behind. It is as if we have landed on a different planet, with a different climate, and are now trying to determine what aspects of the civilizations we’ve brought with us can survive these new conditions, what will have to be adapted, and what discarded. The questions raised go beyond political science and into the domain of political philosophy. For some on the left, like Jason Hickel and Julia Steinberger, growth itself is a problem; they’ve proposed a model of “degrowth,” a sort of retreat from consumption by the world’s wealthiest 10 percent, who contribute half of all emissions. Economists like Gene Sperling and Joseph Stiglitz want to redefine GDP, or at least make it less synonymous with prosperity, and in New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is trying to design an alternative measure. In the age of Trump and Brexit and Bolsonaro have arisen warnings of incipient “eco-fascism” and what Nils Gilman has described as “avocado politics” — green on the outside, brown pit at the core. Bruno Latour predicted a new age of world war, fought in the name of survival; Andreas Malm called for “war communism in the twenty-first century.” Polly Higgins campaigned for a legal regime built around the principle of “ecocide,” and Olufemi Taiwo has suggested the only way to avoid an era of climate colonialism is through climate reparations. As the Paris agreement has faded, the fantasy of global climate governance has given way, too, to a raft of alternate proposals: the U.S. and China working together, on the nuclear nonproliferation model; a WTO-style “climate club,” enticing participants with trade incentives and punishing latecomers with sanctions; a “G40” to help coordinate and manage the decarbonization of the developing world.
Two degrees is no one’s idea of a happy climate outcome — or shouldn’t be, I should say. African diplomats have wept at climate conferences at what it would mean for the fate of their continent, calling it “certain death”; island nations have called it “genocide.” At two degrees, it’s expected that 150 million additional people would die from air pollution, that storms and flooding events that used to hit once a century would hit every year, and that many cities in South Asia and the Middle East that are today home to many millions would become so hot during summer that it often wouldn’t be possible to walk around outside without risking death by heatstroke.
“It is a totally different world,” Figueres told me. “It’s two completely different worlds from the point of view of human misery. It’s two completely different worlds from the point of view, certainly, of ecosystem resilience. It is two completely different worlds with respect to economic profitability and stability. And it will be unmanageable for any social system in any country to deal with the increased poverty and the increased migration pressure that a two-degree world will bring.”
When I say we are now heading toward a best-case outcome, this is what I mean.
So what canwe do to get through this very, very difficult time for planet Earth?”
It is early January, and I am speaking with Elizabeth Kolbert, from her home in Massachusetts, about her spellbinding new work of you-broke-it-you-bought-it environmental reportage. As is often the case in exchanges like these, our conversation is built on a presumed baseline of climate disruption. But we are not talking about how bad things will be at two degrees or north of it. We are talking about what will be done, in that new world, to try to secure some semblance of normalcy and possibility — for some, at least. Warming in the global South, Kolbert says, will be “an unmitigated disaster.”
Under a White Skyis one of several major books on warming being published this winter, presumably timed to the inauguration of a new climate-conscious president. But unlike Michael Mann’sThe New Climate Waror Bill Gates’sHow to Avoid a Climate Disaster,it marks a notable turn in perspective for its author. Kolbert is, by temperament and intellectual inclination, a preservationist and a conservationist. Her first two climate books,The Sixth ExtinctionandField Notes From a Catastrophe,were works of explicit lamentation and implicit exhortation. The new book begins from the premise that the world is already past a point of no return: “Humans are producing no-analogue climates, no-analog ecosystems, a whole no-analog future,” she writes. The book’s key question is: What innovations will we jerry-rig, and what risky interventions will we conscience, as we slide down the precipice? Her ambivalent response is “If there is to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control.”
The word for this in the climate vernacular isadaptation,and it has been, for a few decades, a dirty one. Adaptation has traditionally been the favored approach of skeptics, agnostics, and the growth-focused advocates sometimes called “lukewarmers.” It has given rise to an entire school of thought, “ecomodernism,” conceived to reckon with and plan for future life on a Frankenstein’s planet, but has been seen by activists as a dangerous illusion encouraging indifference and apathy. “In the United States and other wealthy countries, efforts to adapt to global warming have always played second fiddle to efforts to reduce carbon emissions,” veteran climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer recently wrote. “This emphasis is understandable, since if greenhouse-gas emissions are not restrained, successfully adapting to climate change will be impossible for most of humanity.”
The choice, as Oppenheimer suggests, was always false, or at least has been for some time, since the world passed outside the envelope of comfortable climates that have enclosed all of our history. When unprecedented-seeming disasters began arriving in the northern hemisphere with regularity, the logic became clearer to those who had long assumed that their wealth would protect them — and that, therefore, growth alone could protect others. And while recent climate action has apparently lowered the ceiling of possible warming this century, long delays have raised the floor. “Policy-makers no longer have the luxury of downgrading adaptation,” Oppenheimer continued, “because climate change’s devastating effects are no longer in the future; they are occurring now.”
And worsening. If fires in the American West are, in a best-case scenario, going to grow sixfold, Americans living there can’t count on a project of decarbonization alone to protect them. If Calcutta will see, at two degrees, a hundred days of lethal heat each year, stabilizing warming at merely that level isn’t going to do the trick. “We’re used to the Hollywood ending,” Kolbert tells me. “Oh, you know, at the last minute, something comes and saves us. That just isn’t happening.” To her, the course is almost laughably clear. “Adaptation — well, you know, duh, of course, we’re going to have to do it. We are doing it.”
In her book, Kolbert sketches a spectrum of interventions, from electrifying rivers to using CRISPR to save endangered species to solar geoengineering, often called “solar-radiation management,” by which aerosol particles are suspended in the stratosphere to deflect some sunlight back into outer space and artificially cool the planet. “There is a slippery slope here, you know?” she says. “And where does that end? But there are not a lot of great choices. We’re not returning to a preindustrial climate — not in my lifetime, not in your lifetime.” Perhaps, she allows, over many lifetimes, given a relatively quick carbon exit followed by large-scale negative emissions, the climate that has prevailed for all of human history might conceivably be restored. But the timescales are so long that generations would be spent neck deep in the big muddle, with many drowned along the way. “We are halfway across that river, and we can’t get out of it now. We can’t,” she says. “And why assume that we’re going to figure that out? I mean, I think that we have to be radically agnostic about everything. You can’t say, ‘Well, we figured it out in the past, we’re going to figure it out again.’ I don’t think that’s a given by any stretch of the imagination. Emotionally, at least, I don’t give us great odds.”
Even many “natural solutions” favored by environmentalists, Kolbert says, don’t really live up to the name — or represent a true exit ramp from a self-degrading Anthropocene. She mentions building out marshland to help manage river flooding and genetically modifying chestnut trees to repel an insidious fungus. “One big conservation proposal that’s out there is E. O. Wilson’s ‘half-earth’ — we should put a half of the planet aside for other species. But even that — which I would certainly support — isn’t really conserving the world. That is changing the world. That’s not the world that we had.”
To this point, the returns on engineered adaptations have been spotty. Advocates point to awe-inspiring flood-management systems in the Netherlands, but the $14 billion levees built in New Orleans after Katrina don’t protect against category-five hurricanes today and, thanks to sea-level rise and ground subsidence, may no longer provide “adequate” protectionas soon as 2023. The challenges will grow, in some cases exponentially, but the larger blueprint of adaptation is there for all to see, a photonegative of all of the impacts scientists have told us to expect even over the next few decades: heat stress and sea-level rise, wildfire and river flooding, agricultural decline, economic stagnation, migration crises, conflict, and state collapse.
Much of the most eye-opening work to integrate these has been done by Solomon Hsiang of the Climate Impact Lab; when I mentioned adaptation to him, he laughed. He was all for adaptation, he said, and has focused some recent work on the question of just how we might better respond to climate impacts. But he’s also built most of his models on recent history, he said, precisely in order to reflect at least our present-day capacity to adapt. Those models suggest unmitigated warming could cost global GDP more than 20% of its value by the end of the century; limit warming to two degrees and climate change would still kill as many people each year as COVID-19 has. You don’t do adaptation on top of that, Hsiang said. Those figures already reflect the adaptation.
In a certain way, a response to sea-level rise is the easiest to conceptualize. Its most dramatic impacts arrive slowly, over centuries, giving generations time to adjust. But the adjustment will have to be very large indeed: Perhaps half the world’s coastline will have to be abandoned, according to one climate rule of thumb, the other half protected by defensive infrastructure of a scale straight out of the realm of cyberpunk. The city of Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, recently green-lit a $2 billion seawall proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has also produced a few options for New York Harbor, including a $100 billion barrier that would nevertheless expose much of the city’s suburban sprawl. The Army Corps proposal for South Florida doesn’t even aim to protect Miami Beach, with flood barriers erected instead on the mainland and the barrier island left, presumably, to fend for itself. This is in the world’s richest country. Places like Bangladesh or Myanmar, barring meaningful climate reparations, will likely focus on flood-alarm systems, concrete bunkers, and a goal of managed retreat.
Declines in deaths during heat waves in parts of Europe have shown that there are some possible responses to the problem of heat. (They include more widespread air conditioning and public cooling centers; better public communication and water-drinking campaigns; and reworking the elements of urban infrastructure, like asphalt and black roofs, that amplify dangerous temperatures.) But whether these measures will work as well when extreme heat is seasonal as when it is daily, in much poorer parts of the world, remains to be seen. Farmlands can’t be moved all that much, but crops can be genetically edited to thrive in the new world, with aversions to GMO foods becoming either a residue of an earlier era of relative abundance or a luxury of the affluent, or both. Fossil-fuel infrastructure will have to be retired early, and its workforce too, meaning trillions of dollars in stranded assets and perhaps millions of workers stranded, too — maybe a million in the U.S. alone, 20 times as many as work today in the coal industry. This is what climate advocates mean when they talk about managing a “just transition,” and, in recent years, they have broached the thorny subject of adaptation through the language of climate justice: Who is protected? Who is exposed? At what cost? And to whom?
In theory, the fossil-fuel business could be functionally replaced by negative-emissions plantations, both industrial and “natural,” undoing the whole work of industrialization by recapturing carbon from the sky. But this is not work that can be done out of sight or out of mind. Planting forests at a scale large enough to meaningfully alter the planet’s carbon trajectory, for instance, could elevate food prices by 80 percent. Reforestation might require, according toone recent review, land between five and 15 times the size of Texas. Doing it with machines, the same review found, would require something on the order of a third of today’s global energy use. Even in the most optimistic scenario, billions of tons of carbon would have to be removed from the air every year and stored somewhere—and less optimistic scenarios, of course, will require more. At the local, national, and international levels, these projects are likely to provoke NIMBY resistance beyond the ones we’ve seen over wind and solar farms — though those, of course, will continue too. Decarbonizing America’s power sector with renewables, arecent Princeton studysuggested, would require 10 percent of the country’s continental land — though another research project suggested it could create as many as 25 million jobs. But the fight to build turbines in Nantucket Sound to power much of the deep-blue region took a decade and was ultimately defeated. Today, a major offshore wind project is being blocked by the wealthy homeowners of Wainscott, a hamlet of 349 people in the Hamptons, even though the turbines would be located on the other side of Long Island, entirely out of their view. They just don’t want the intrusion of a power cable, which would be installed underground and remain out of sight.
And there will be fights for new resources, too — with demand for the materials in solar panels tripling or more over the next few decades, and the need for battery ingredients like cobalt, lithium, and other rare earths growing so quickly that a renewable-energy transition almost necessitates an explosion of “extractivism,” too. That is, mines all around the world opened to disgorge resources at a rate much faster than those that powered the global industrial revolution over centuries, and in ways that invariably generate state conflict, as Thea Riofrancos, among others, has documented.
Living with fire will probably require a root-and-branch rethink of housing policy, at least in California, where millions are already at risk and where 60 percent of new residential housing built since 1990 has been on fire-prone land. During that time, the wildfire threat has grown, by one estimate, 900 percent. On top of that, as Zeke Hausfather and Mark Paul have proposed, perhaps many thousands could be employed in a new Civilian Conservation Corps that could thin the state’s forests of brush and manage the “controlled burning” of 20 million California acres — a fifth of the state’s land and five times what burned in the catastrophic 2020 season.
And yet, this is the face of the new world. Or it will be, if we’re lucky. While adaptation sounds like a technocratic, “just fix it” option, what is required even now seems to approach the scale of terraforming — at least until you remember that 95 percent of the earth’s surface has already been remade by human hands. These measures aren’t trivial; they aren’t a way to avoid hard choices but a last-resort attempt to square the punishing climate we are making with one we may feel comfortable living in, relatively speaking. In the century to come, which will be defined both by ghastly impacts and, one hopes, extraordinary human responses, even conditional success may require as much world-building as world-saving.
UN Climate Change News, 19 January 2021 –Whilst setting out key deliverables for the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, at the end of this year, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa today underlined the critical importance of a swift transition to sustainable energy to tackle the global climate crisis.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), approximately two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes.
“Energy is at the heart of the climate change emergency and it must be at the heart of its solution. A swift and broad transition to renewable energy will be essential to achieve the emission reduction goals laid down by theParis Agreement,” Ms. Espinosa said.
The UN’s top climate change official was speaking at a Ministerial Meeting today on energy planning and implementation, part of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA’s) 11th Assembly.
IRENA’sGlobal Renewables Outlookreport outlines the potential for emissions to fall to 70% less than today’s level over the next three decades, and even reach net zero by 2060 at the latest. The report also shows that investment in an energy system fit for the 21stcentury could push jobs in the renewable sector to 42 million by 2050.
COP26 a Key Opportunity for Progress
Addressing Ministers, Ms. Espinosa underlined the importance of ensuring the success of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow in November, reiterating the major opportunity this year presents to tackle the climate crisis by means of a green economic recovery.
While stating that the global community needs to progress in numerous areas throughout the year and during negotiations at COP26, she highlighted the five key items where work must be advanced:
Nations must meet pre-2020 commitments made in the last 10 years.
Negotiations on the implementation of the Paris Agreement must be finalized, resulting in a balanced agreement.
Nations must live up to their financial commitments.
We need to see clear and unequivocal political determination to raise climate ambition.
And we need more positive engagement by observers and initiatives driven by Non-Party Stakeholders.
“The coexistence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency is a formidable challenge, but it is also a unique opportunity to shape the future… What we do or fail to do over the coming months will be decisive to our success in confronting that two-fold challenge,” Ms. Espinosa said.
Importance of Revised and Updated NDCs
Ms. Espinosa highlighted countries’ climate action plans, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), as the best instruments to turn climate pledges into concrete programmes and ambition into action.
Out of 189 Parties that have ratified the Paris Agreement, 90% mentioned renewables and roughly 70% included quantifiable energy targets in their initial NDCs, which according to Ms. Espinosa is“a sound basis on which to build greater ambition.”
In this context, Ms. Espinosaunderlined the central importance of countries’ revised and updated NDCs, which must be submitted by the end of this year, as a means of translating this ambition into climate action.
She also welcomed the important role played by IRENA in the energy transition and NDCs, with the organization already helping dozens of countries around the world to scale up renewable energy, including 17 of the world´s least developed countries and 20 small island states.
As the US deals with the tragic drama of President Donald Trump’s final days in office, and the world reels under a now-yearlong assault by a virus, the Earth continues to evolve into a dangerously inhospitable environment. And it is our collective fault.
This past year was, in essence, in a statistical tie with 2016 for the hottest on record, with temperatures driven upward by the warming effects of human activities that spew carbon and other greenhouse compounds into the atmosphere.
Temperatures breached 100C in, of all places, Siberia, setting a record for north of the Arctic Circle. Climate change-driven wildfires scorched the Earth’s surface from Australia to the American West – the August Complex fire in Northern California became the first in the state to burn more than 1 million acres – to the Arctic, all adding yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
It is telling, some climate scientists argue, that the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005 – including each of the last seven years – suggesting a steady pace upward that could push the average global temperature to 1.5C above preindustrial levels within the decade.
That, notably, is the level at which scientists believe nature will deliver even more dire consequences than what we’re already experiencing.
So what is the world doing about this?
Hardly much of anything at levels sufficient to address the problem.
Part of the drag has been the Trump administration’s abject opposition to efforts to reduce our production and use of fossil fuels, an immoral and arrogant policy of prioritising short-term (and short-lasting) profits above the health of the planet and everything that lives on it.
But other nations have been slow to act as well, something we hope will change with President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to once again make the US a global leader. He already has named John F Kerry who, as the Obama administration’s secretary of State, was instrumental in reaching the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change, as an international envoy on the issue, and is creating a White House office to address climate change domestically to be led by Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Both will be working within the framework of Biden’s ambitious climate change agenda.
As the United Nations annual Adaptation Gap Report released recently shows, nations have a long way to go. The report found that while nearly three of four nations recognise the need for direct and concerted action to adapt to the changes already underway, few have actually devised plans sufficient to address it, and annual global funding by wealthy nations to help under-developed nations is less than half of what is needed.
That followed annual UN reports released in December that found similarly distressing mismatches between individual nations’ need to reduce emissions, and the reality.
Even if countries meet the promises they made under the Paris agreement, the average global temperature would still rise by the end of the century to 3.2C above preindustrial levels.
The world’s nations would need to triple promised reductions in carbon emissions to meet Paris’ target of 2C, and quintuple the reductions to hit the lower, preferred target of 1.5C.
Adapting to the realities of climate change will be expensive, but not confronting this head-on and in as unified a manner as possible will endanger lives, disrupt food chains and biospheres, propel even more migration of climate refugees, and potentially destabilise governments. The world cannot afford that. — Tribune News Service
A surge in donations at the last federal election has taken the resource industry’s political payments to $136.8 million over two decades and a new analysis has named the sector as the biggest donor in Australian politics.
Mining and gas companies ramped up their spending on political parties in recent years to outstrip property developers and other big donors, led by a funding blitz from coal and iron ore magnate Clive Palmer.
The analysis, compiled by the Centre for Public Integrity from public data, shows the Liberal and Nationals parties collected $15.2 million over the period, more than three times the $4.9 million paid to Labor.
This shows the lion’s share of the funding was paid by Mr Palmer and his companies to his own political parties.
The centre, a non-profit group that includes corruption investigators and former judges, says the findings show the need to overhaul election funding laws to cap donations and force greater disclosure.
The results come two weeks before the Australian Electoral Commission reveals the next annual disclosures from the parties and their donors, while a federal inquiry calls for submissions by January 29 on the funding laws.
In a finding that highlights gaps in rules, some of the biggest payments since 1999 have come from companies that claimed to have policies against political donations while funding campaigns that sought to influence political outcomes.
“The resources industry is by far the largest donating industry,” said Anthony Whealy, the chair of the Centre for Public Integrity and a former NSW Supreme Court judge.
Donations can lead to greater access and influence.
“Companies that have policies against making donations are still having influence by donating to political campaigners and peak bodies.”
In a sign of the link between donations and policy outcomes, the figures show a spike in payments during the debate over climate change and a carbon price during the 2013 federal election and its aftermath.
The next spike came when Mr Palmer turned against the Liberal and Nationals to create his own parties, winning seats in 2013 but failing to repeat the result in 2019 despite spending $116.2 million on his United Australia Party.
“Clive Palmer made the largest political donation in Australian history in the 2019 election,” Mr Whealy said.
“He influenced voters through ads and direct communications. There is nothing stopping other mining magnates from doing this in the future.”
The analysis shows Mr Palmer’s two main companies, Mineralogy and Queensland Nickel, donated $98.6 million and $21.1 million over the period from 1999 to 2019.
They were followed by gas companies Woodside and Santos, with $2 million and $1.5 million respectively, and Ausgold Limited with $1.1 million.
Other big donors included Western Mining, which donated $755,000 and was bought by BHP Billiton in 2005, and Australian Gypsum Industries, a resources company in Western Australia that paid $555,777.
“The enormous amounts donated by a sector whose existence depends on the issuing of government permits is highly problematic for public trust in the democratic process,” the report says.
After all, impartiality in decision-making must not only exist but also be seen to exist.”
The findings are the result of months of analysis of AEC files that collect annual disclosures from companies and parties in a paper-based system that are available online but difficult to search and subject to error. The AEC will release the next disclosures on February 1.
The community has until January 29 to lodge submissions to a review of federal funding laws by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, but committee chairman James McGrath, a Queensland Coalition senator, has rejected calls for reform in the past.
In the committee’s last look at donations law, Liberal Party federal director Andrew Hirst and Nationals federal director Jonathan Hawkes opposed a bill to require donors to disclose payments over $1000 compared to the existing threshold of about $13,000.
“The Liberal Party does not support changes which fail to recognise that political parties are broad-based organisations with large volunteer wings and limited resources,” Mr Hirst wrote last March.
Others argue people would stop donating if more of their payments were revealed.
“The ‘quiet Australians’ do not want their names on the front page of the newspaper and online for a donation of over $1000,” wrote Grant Layland, spokesman for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, in a submission last year.
Queensland Premier with Adani while the Great Barrier Reef is dying
Labor has argued in Parliament for donations law reform including greater disclosure, while the Greens support greater transparency as well as a cap on donations.
The Centre for Public Integrity board includes former federal court judge and Queensland corruption commissioner Tony Fitzgerald, former Victorian Court of Appeal judge Stephen Charles, NSW barrister and corruption inquiry counsel Geoffrey Watson and University of Melbourne professor Joo-Cheong Tham.
Separate to the donations, the report highlights funding for organisations such as the Minerals Council of Australia, the Business Council of Australia and a coal industry group called Coal21 to help with industry lobbying, while also naming the CFMMEU as a resource industry union that engages in campaigns.
“We need urgent reform to cap donations and spending, and make all donations transparent to voters in real time,” Mr Whealy said.
With the impacts of climate change becoming more apparent, is it time for an ecocide amendment to be passed, 20 years after the ICC was established?
In December 2019 at the 18th Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court (ICC), ambassadors of the Maldives and Vanuatu called for 123 nations to extend the Court’s jurisdiction to ecocide.
While the Maldives and Vanuatu acknowledged that an ecocide amendment was still somewhat of a“radical idea,”the time was ripe, given how serious the threat of climate change is to their soon-to-be submerged small island nations.
Pope Francis, Emmanuel Macron, Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai have joined those calling on world leaders to make ecocide the fifth crime against peace, alongside genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.
With the devastating impacts of climate change becoming more apparent by the day, is it time for an ecocide amendment to be passed, more than 20 years after the ICC was established?
In 2017, the heat waves, extreme wild fires, and flooding around the world confirmed beyond doubt that climate disruption is now a full-blown emergency.
We have entered Churchill’s “period of consequences”, yet governments have simply watched the disasters magnify, while rushing ahead with new pipelines and annual trillions in fossil fuel subsidies.
Governments simply cannot say they did not know.
The events we are seeing today have been consistently forecast ever since the First Assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was signed by all governments back in 1990, which The Lancet has described as the best research project ever designed.
Unprecedented Crime first lays out the culpability of governmental, political and religious bodies, corporations, and the media through their failure to report or act on the climate emergency.
No emergency response has even been contemplated by wealthy high-emitting national governments.
Extreme weather reporting never even hints at the need to address climate change.
It then reports how independently of governments, scores of proven zero-carbon game changers have been coming online all over the world.
These exciting technologies, described in the book, are now able to power both household electricity and energy-dense heavy industry.
We already have the technical solutions to the CO2 problem.
With these solutions we can act in time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to near-zero within 20 years.
These willful crimes against life itself by negligent governments, oblivious media and an insouciant civil society are crimes that everyday citizens can nonetheless readily grasp – and then take to the streets and to the courts to protest on behalf of their children and grand-children.
This thoroughly researched and highly-documented book will show them how.
The idea of ecocide was then picked up by law professor Harry W. Pettigrew, who argued in 1971 in his article “A Constitutional Right of Freedom from Ecocide” that the Ninth Amendment of the US Constitution supports the existence of a right to freedom from ecocide. He posited that, since we have an absolute right to protection of life, and due process is needed to secure our rights against the state, we should also enjoy a right to freedom from ecocidal acts which substantially threaten life itself. Ecocide was initially included in the draft of the Rome Statute in 1991, but was dropped because ofstrong resistance from the Netherlands, France and the UK.
Since then, many civil society organisations and lawyers have supported the criminalisation of ecocide in international law. In 2010, Scottish barrister and environmentalist Holly Higgins introduced a proposal to the UN Law Commission to amend the Rome Statute to include ecocide. Herproposed amendmentcovered acts or omissions committed in peacetime or war by any senior person within the course of State, corporate, or other entity, which causes widespread or long-term “ecological, climate or cultural loss” or “damage to or destruction of ecosystems and territories” that severely diminishes inhabitants’ peaceful enjoyment of these ecosystems and territories.
In 2016, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor in its “Policy paper on case selection and prioritisation” declared that it wouldprioritise the prosecution of the four Rome Statute crimescommitted by means of “illegal exploitation of natural resources,” “land grabbing,” and the “destruction of the environment.” While the policy paper was significant as it entrenched a “green” approach to interpreting the Rome Statute, the Office of the Prosecutor ultimately could not extend the ICC’s jurisdiction without a formal amendment to the Rome Statute, which has not yet been forthcoming.
Failures of Current International Environmental Law Regime
Given that ecocide is currentlyonly considered a war crimeunder Rome Statute Article 8(2)(b)(iv), only environmental damage in times of war can be prosecuted. However, no charges have been filed, possibly due to the very high threshold of injury required under the Article – there must be an intentional attack that causes “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the environment which would be clearly excessive.” Corporate and state criminal responsibility is also excluded under the Rome Statute. Thus, corporations and states that cause water and air pollution, or participate in illegal deforestation and cause oil spills during peacetime cannot be prosecuted for their environmental damage.
International environmental law also lacks frameworks to deal with mass environmental damage and destruction. A2018 UN Reportfound the environmental law regime we currently have to be fragmented, piecemeal, unclear and reactive. With no single overarching legal framework or institution and largely voluntary and non-binding obligations, international environmental law cannot be used to prosecute ecocide. Although at least two environmental treaties – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal – require states to create domestic criminal laws on specific subjects, they are“episodic and limited in scope,”only applying within state boundaries, and do not extend to ecocide more generally.
Why Should Ecocide Become a Crime?
According to environmentalist George Monbiot, criminalising ecocide is the“difference between a habitable and an uninhabitable planet.”By making ecocide a crime, individuals, corporations and states can be held criminally liable for their destructive anthropogenic environmental degradation and damage, that result in the irreversible transformation of natural environments. Currently, there is a missing responsibility to protect both the Earth and humanity, which allows“state-sanctioned industrial and corporate immunity” for ecocidal acts. An international crime against ecocide would force culpable CEOs and heads of state to accept personal accountability for ecocide and climate change, compelling them toconsider the environmental consequences of their actions, even if and especially when there are transboundary effects. This proactive approach to preventing environmental disasters and their attendant human rights violations from occurring goes some ways to remedying the shortfalls of the international environmental law regime.
Normatively, listing ecocide as a crime against peace sets an ideological and“moral red line” for destroying the environmentwhich perpetrators cannot fall below, even if they ultimately are not prosecuted by the ICC. It is an expression of international intolerance and moral outrage towards ecocide and provides tools for lawyers and civil society to speak out against this unacceptable crime. It also accurately reflects existential threat that ecocidal activities pose to the very existence of humanity, and underlines that we live in a state of emergency – with only10 more years leftto prevent irreversible damage from climate change – and are in dire need of what Pope Francis calls a“moral awakening.”
Amending the Rome Statute is no easy feat. Any member state can propose an ecocide amendment, which cannot be vetoed and must then be passed by a two-thirds majority. This two-thirds majority may bedifficult to achieve, given that powerful states’ economies – think China, Russia, or US – depend on anthropocentric environmental damage, and despite not being parties to the ICC, they can exert their influence over other smaller states to vote against an amendment. At the same time, the amendment process may be advantageous to smaller countries, asall countries have an equal voteregardless of their size.
Before an amendment can even be made, a definition of ecocide must be agreed upon. We can draw inspiration from states that have already criminalised ecocide within its borders, likeFrance, Kazakhstan and Moldova.
So where do we go from here? Your voice is important. You can read more about ecocide onStop Ecocideand look at their helpful summary ofways you can take action, including signing theirinternational petitionto voice your support for making ecocide an international crime. At the end of the day, the more we talk about ecocide and other “radical” environmental movements, the less “radical” these ideas become and the more likely our leaders will begin to rally behind them.
A new survey finds broad support among American voters for doing more on climate change.
A newstudyhas found widespread support for climate-friendly energy policies among registered Republicans and Democrats.
The study, conducted by Yale University and George Mason University’s climate change communication programs, surveyed nearly 1,000 registered voters from across the political spectrum — Republicans, Democrats, and independents —in December.
The survey found 53 percent of registered voters think global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress while 66 percent feel the same about developing clean energy sources.
There was also broad support from both Democrats and Republicans for eight energy policies that would help address climate change.
The two most popular policies were providing tax rebates for the purchase of solar panels or energy-efficient vehicles and funding research for renewable energy, with 82 percent approval among all voters.
While both proposals garnered close to 90 percent approval, or higher among Democrats, figures for conservative Republicans were notably lower, at about 60 percent approval for both the tax rebates and renewable energy research.
Using public lands for renewable energy generation was also popular, with80 percent of all registered voters surveyed supporting the measure.
Policies geared at regulating industry saw slightly less support. Two-thirds of respondents supported making fossil fuel companies pay a carbon tax and using that money to reduce other taxes, but the measure only received 41 percent approval among conservative Republicans.
Figures were even lower among conservative Republicans when it came to requiring electric utilities to get their energy from 100 percent renewable sources by 2035, with only 28 percent in support.
Decarbonization — eliminating all carbon pollution from coal, oil, and gas — registered approval among roughly two-thirds of American voters. But it’s also worth noting that among moderate Republicans, support for that policy was just above 50 percent and dropped to just 29 percent for the most conservative.
The survey is good news for Biden’s climate agenda
This latest polling is part of a larger trend that shows Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change and interested in policies to address it.
In April, during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Yale and George Mason University researchersfoundthat a “record-tying 73 percent of Americans think global warming is happening.” In the same study, two-thirds said they were at least “somewhat worried” about climate change.
The report assuaged concerns that the public had a “finite pool of worry,” which would prevent people from being worried about two crises at the same time.
Biden has said he plans torejoin the Paris climate agreementon day one of his presidency. According to survey results, 75 percent of all voters — 95 percent of total Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans — would support Biden’s plan.
Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050 | PNAS
Achieving a rapid global decarbonization to stabilize the climate critically depends on activating contagious and fast-spreading processes of social and technological change within the next few years.
Drawing on expert elicitation, an expert workshop, and a review of literature, which provides a comprehensive analysis on this topic, we propose concrete interventions to induce positive social tipping dynamics and a rapid global transformation to carbon-neutral societies.
These social tipping interventions comprise removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing decentralized energy generation, building carbon-neutral cities, divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels, revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels, strengthening climate education and engagement, and disclosing greenhouse gas emissions information.
Safely achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement requires a worldwide transformation to carbon-neutral societies within the next 30 y.
Accelerated technological progress and policy implementations are required to deliver emissions reductions at rates sufficiently fast to avoid crossing dangerous tipping points in the Earth’s climate system.
Here, we discuss and evaluate the potential of social tipping interventions (STIs) that can activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization within their functional domains that we refer to as social tipping elements (STEs).
STEs are subdomains of the planetary socioeconomic system where the required disruptive change may take place and lead to a sufficiently fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The results are based on online expert elicitation, a subsequent expert workshop, and a literature review.
The STIs that could trigger the tipping of STE subsystems include
1) removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing decentralized energy generation (STE1, energy production and storage systems),
2) building carbon-neutral cities (STE2, human settlements),
3) divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels (STE3, financial markets),
4) revealing the moral implications of fossil fuels (STE4, norms and value systems),
5) strengthening climate education and engagement (STE5, education system), and
6) disclosing information on greenhouse gas emissions (STE6, information feedbacks).
Our research reveals important areas of focus for larger-scale empirical and modeling efforts to better understand the potentials of harnessing social tipping dynamics for climate change mitigation.
Preventing dangerous climate change and its devastating consequences is a defining task for humanity (1,2).
It is also an indispensable prerequisite for achieving sustainable development (3,4).
Limiting global warming to 1.5 °C as stipulated in the Paris Climate Agreement (5) scientifically implies a complete net decarbonization of the world’s energy and transport systems, industrial production, and land use by the middle of this century.
In their “roadmap for rapid decarbonization,” Rockström et al. (6) highlight that rapid increase of the share of zero-carbon energy within the global energy system would be needed to achieve this objective, likely alongside a considerable strengthening of terrestrial carbon sinks.
In one scenario, the zero-carbon share of the energy system doubles every 5 to 7 y for the next several decades (6).
Carbon emissions that are currently still on the rise at rates of 0 to 2% per year, despite decades-long efforts in international climate negotiations, would thereby need to pivot to a rapid decline of ultimately 7% per year and more.
These emission reduction rates would surpass by far even those experienced only during periods of massive socioeconomic crisis in the 20th century, such as World War II and the collapse of communism