Weekly Climate
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February 24, 2017
Climate change deniers show signs of worry over Trump's resolve on Paris Agreement

Until this week, climate change deniers seemed confidently rapt by their ascendancy, alongside Donald Trump, to power. But there's been much silence from the Trump administration regarding the Paris Agreement, which seems to have stirred some uneasiness amid all the surety.

On Thursday, a group of 300 deniers, led by the Cato Institute's Richard Lindzen, sent a letter to President Trump and Vice President Pence asking them to take the United States out of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, under which the Paris Agreement was forged. "Since 2009, the U.S. and other governments have undertaken actions with respect to global climate that are not scientifically justified and that already have and will continue to cause serious social and economic harm—with no environmental benefits," the letter said. "While we support effective, affordable, reasonable and direct controls on conventional environmental pollutants, carbon dioxide is not a pollutant," it said, contradicting overwhelming scientific consensus. "To the contrary, there is clear evidence that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is environmentally helpful to food crops and other plants that nourish all life. It is plant food, not poison."

In addition, deniers may have been rattled this week by remarks on Wednesday at the National Press Club by Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from South Carolina who advocates "conservative" climate solutions, including a carbon tax. "There is some chance that President Trump may respond to his daughter Ivanka's interest in climate change," Inglis said. "There is a chance he may listen to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who, as recently as October, was advocating for... [a] carbon tax." Inglis' comments may have been especially unsettling, given that they came on the heels of a group of respected GOP elder statesmen visiting the White House to propose a tax on carbon.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Ivanka Trump and her husband, senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner, talked the president into leaving out reference to the Paris Agreement in a climate-related executive order that may be unveiled as early as today or next week.

Climate change deniers were probably also discomfited by a blog post from ExxonMobil's new CEO Darren Woods, who wrote about climate change and called for a carbon tax to "promote greater energy efficiency and the use of today's lower-carbon options, avoid further burdening the economy and also provide incentives for markets to develop additional low-carbon energy solutions for the future."

International pressure is mounting as well. The G20 reportedly intends to exert its formidable influence on President Trump with regard to the Paris Agreement at its July leaders summit. In the lead up to that, Chinese President Xi Jinping and French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve agreed in Beijing on Wednesday to boost bilateral ties on global affairs, after which the official Xinhua news agency emphasized their cooperation on climate change. Xi "called on the two countries to jointly promote peaceful settlement of global and regional hot issues, fight against protectionism in any form and secure progress in global governance, including the Paris Agreement on climate change," the state mouthpiece reported.

"Will Trump stand up to the world on climate change policy?" the National Review asked in a headline this week for a diatribe about the Paris Agreement.

The way Inglis sees it, art-of-the-deal Trump will be swayed by the economic benefits climate leadership and innovation might bring. But Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, told the Conservative Action Political Conference (CPAC) Thursday that the president is "maniacally focused" on fulfilling all of his campaign promises, which included pulling out of the Paris Agreement.

When asked if Trump was still committed to ditching the Paris Agreement, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president and secretary of state were having a "conversation" about it. "I will leave that to Secretary Tillerson," Spicer said.

Meanwhile, U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa will fly to Washington on Sunday in hope of meeting with Tillerson about the U.S. staying in the global pact. In related news, the Financial Times reported that the U.S. notified the U.N. climate change secretariat that it will send a delegation to the next round of U.N. climate talks in May.

Climate context

The contrast between this week's climatic realities and Republicans' denial of them would be comical if the stakes weren't so high.

At a global security conference in Munich last weekend, top E.U. and U.N. leaders highlighted the risk of war catalyzed by climate change. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres named climate change as one of the two most serious "megatrends" threatening international peace and stability. Finland's President Sauli Väinämö Niinistö pointed to the melting Arctic as "ground zero" for armed conflict related to climate change. "We have already seen flag planting and... some quarrels on the borderlines," he said.

On Tuesday, the British Antarctic Survey released a video of the expanding 100-mile crack across the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula. The fissure is now 1,500 feet across and expected to calve an iceberg the size of Delaware, allowing the glaciers held behind it to add their water content to the world's rising sea levels.

At the opposite end of the planet, scientists from 50 institutions in 14 countries are planning a $52-million mission to the North Pole in 2019 to better predict the potentially catastrophic consequences from the region's startling meltdown. "The decline of Arctic sea ice is much faster than the climate models can reproduce, and we need better climate models to make better predictions for the future," said co-leader Markus Rex of Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute. "There is a potential that in a few decades the Arctic will be ice-free in summer. That would be a different world, and we need to know about that in advance."

Meanwhile, an eerily early spring was on sizzling display this month across the United States. "There have been 3,146 record highs set for the month to date compared to only 27 record lows, ensuring February will go down as the 27th month in a row with more highs than lows," Climate Central reported. "The astonishing 116-to-1 ratio of highs to lows would easily set a record for the most lopsided monthly ratio in history."


Last week ended with a surprise press release from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that basically maligned itself with a series of statements lauding the Senate's confirmation of Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator. "For years, we have struggled with an EPA that was not only tone deaf to the needs and concerns of rural America, it was downright adversarial," said Pat Roberts, a Republican senator from Kansas. "After today's confirmation vote in the Senate, I can hear the sighs of relief coming from thousands of business owners, farmers, and citizens across the country," said Markwayne Mullin, a congressman from Oklahoma. "For far too long, the EPA has been a runaway bureaucracy largely out of touch with how its policies directly affect folks like cattle rancher," said Craig Uben, the head of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Over the weekend, a Russian lawmaker made surprisingly supportive remarks about the Paris Agreement, which Russia has yet to ratify. However, it came as no surprise that Alexei Pushkov, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the State Duma, said Russia would not push President Donald Trump on U.S. fidelity to the global accord. "We will support all the efforts that lead to progress in this area [of climate change]," Pushkov told Bloomberg. "But I don't think we will choose to have it as a topic of contention with President Trump."

While oil industry aficionados had been expecting this, less acute observers found it surprising Wednesday when ExxonMobil announced that it had removed 3.5 billion barrels of tar sands oil reserves in Canada from its list of assets. Low oil prices simply make the reserves uneconomical to tap, but the oil giant had been reluctant until now to make this marked change in its accounting.

Still hitting 'delete'

While President Trump could be thinking twice about resigning from the Paris Agreement, his administration retained its zeal for tearing apart the regulations designed to comply with the accord.

In his first interview as EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt told The Wall Street Journal that he intended to countermand the Clean Power Plan as a matter of urgency. He declined to say whether he thought the EPA should have a role in regulating greenhouse gas emissions but made clear that would not be among his priorities.

With Pruitt in place, the Trump White House was busy preparing an executive order or two to undo Obama-era climate measures, including the federal moratorium on leasing coal mining concessions on federal lands, The Washington Post reported on Monday.

In his first speech to the EPA's 15,000 employees nationwide on Tuesday, Pruitt avoided mentioning climate change. "Regulators exist to give certainty to those that they regulate," the former attorney general of Oklahoma told the agency he repeatedly sued. "Those that we regulate ought to know what we expect of them so that they can plan and allocate resources to comply."

Also on Tuesday, by court order, the Center for Media and Democracy received thousands of pages of emails and public documents from the Oklahoma attorney general's office related to Pruitt and his alleged cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry. "This extensive trail of emails reads like a years-long chain of love letters between soul mates," Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, was quoted as saying by The New York Times.

Pruitt "closely coordinated with major oil and gas producers, electric utilities and political groups with ties to the libertarian billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch to roll back environmental regulations," the Times reported after reviewing the newly-released documents. "...[T]he totality of the correspondences captures just how much at war Mr. Pruitt was with the EPA and how cozy he was with the industries that he is now charged with policing."

Automakers wasted no time in contacting Pruitt with their request—sent before his confirmation to the White House—to reverse fuel-economy standards imposed by the Obama administration. The standards "threaten to depress an industry that can ill afford spiraling regulatory costs," Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, wrote in a letter to the EPA chief on Tuesday. "If left unchanged, these standards could cause up to 1.1 million Americans to lose their jobs due to lost vehicle sales."

In contrast

China declared at least as many checks on carbon emissions this week as the Trump administration talked of undoing.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) dispatched 18 inspection teams to the cities of Beijing and Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Henan, Shanxi and Shandong for what the Xinhua news agency called "a one-month review of pollution controls." After visiting 199 local government agencies and companies in 18 cities as of last Friday, inspectors had already found 42 violations, the MEP said Saturday.

Major coal mining companies, meeting Tuesday in Beijing, asked the government to reinstate limits on coal production to 276 working days from 330 because coal supplies were once again beginning to outpace demand, according to unnamed sources cited by Reuters. The restrictions would mark a third major shift in production mandates from the central government in a year's time, as authorities try by trial and error to transition the country to cleaner energy without leaving utilities short of fuel. Production cuts that proved too steep in 2016 caused coal shortages that triggered a price spike that saw the profits of some Chinese coal companies soar nearly 400 percent, according to data released by China National Coal Association.

The State Administration of Work Safety announced it would crack down on illegal coal mining through a nationwide inspection of all coal mines beginning in March, the official People's Daily reported. "We will completely shut down coal mines that have produced more coal than the government [has] allowed," the agency said.

The government also will increase cuts in steel production and shut down illegal mills, Xinhua reported, citing Zhao Yingmin, a vice minister of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Twenty-six cities in northeast China will be required to meet annual reductions in overcapacity by October, while steel producing cities in Hebei province must cut production in half during the winter smog season, he said, adding that seasonal production cuts also would be required of the cement industry and other heavy air polluters.

On another front important to China's outsized carbon emissions, the country's sales of "new energy" car plunged in January after a surge in December. A total of 5,682 electric cars, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell cars were sold in the first month of 2017, in contrast to the monthly sales record of 104,000 in December, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM). The government's steep cuts in buyer incentives were to blame for the 74.4-percent year-on-year slump, according to CAAM spokesman Xu Haidong.

What these new cutbacks, crackdowns and slowdowns might mean to China's overall greenhouse gas emissions remains to be seen.

Renewables hope

The week brought hopeful news for India's renewable energy ambitions.

Record-low tariffs tendered at a solar auction this month "may catalyze green investments and help tip the balance of new power to renewables and away from fossil fuels," Bloomberg reported. "The outcome for this tender has shown that the holy grail of grid parity has been discovered," said Basant Jain of Mahindra Renewables, which won the right to build 250 megawatts of capacity at the auction.

Wind power tariffs also dropped to a record low at an auction today, prompting Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy Minister Piyush Goyal to tweet: "A green future awaits India."

A joint venture by two of Japan's major power companies appeared bullish on India's clean-energy future. "We have just taken our first step in India's energy market," said Toshiro Kudama, senior executive vice president of Jera Company, referring to acquisition of an equity stake in a renewable energy firm. "Our immediate focus remains the country's renewable energy sector, which looks very promising to investors like us [who are] seeking to build a renewable energy portfolio."

Goyal announced Wednesday that the government is trying to entice manufacturers of solar power equipment to make their products in India. "I am happy to share with you that there is now quite a significant interest to set up solar manufacturing in India,” Goyal said, naming U.S.-based First Solar and China's Trina Solar among the interested parties. "We will shortly bring out a new policy to promote manufacturing of [all] solar power generation equipment in India," he said.

In other encouraging news for solar developers, India's Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs agreed to double the country's allotment of solar parks from 20 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts, opening dozens of new sites for solar developments.

The Indian government needs to provide more enticing legal and financial conditions to bring its renewable energy targets within reach, Erik Solheim, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, told the Indo-Asian News Service. "With Indian firms like Infosys and Tata getting on board, it's easy to see where the market is going," Solheim said. "We're looking at a $150-billion investment opportunity. ...[W]e need to see a level-playing field for renewables and barriers removed."

This week it looked like things were moving in that direction.

Looking forward

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is scheduled to address CPAC on Saturday, when he may provide more insight into the Trump administration's intentions with regard to climate change.

President Trump is expected to sign executive orders soon to unravel President Obama's Climate Action Plan and other environmental protections. While he can't make the Clean Power Plan disappear with the stroke of his pen, he may order his EPA administrator to replace it ASAP. "We're preparing bold actions to lift the restrictions" on energy production, Trump told CPAC this morning, mentioning "clean coal" and saying "miners are going back to work."

Over on Capitol Hill, the Senate will soon vote on whether to do away with the Obama administration's order for oil and gas drillers to cut methane emissions from their operations on federal lands.

While there is other climate news to watch across the world, these next steps by the Trump administration could define countless steps to follow, both nationally and internationally.

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