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Weekly Climate
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February 17, 2017
 
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World warns, cajoles and carefully nudges Trump on climate action

This week brought some subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on President Donald Trump to think carefully before making good on his campaign promise to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement.

As foreign ministers of the G20—including newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—prepared to meet in Germany on Thursday, the managers of 16 funds with assets totaling more than $2.8 trillion called on the world's leading economies to phase out "all fossil fuel subsidies by 2020" in order to stave off climatic havoc. "Global investors and insurers are sending a clear message that burning public money through fossil fuel subsidies is not just bad for the planet but bad economic policy, too," said Shelagh Whitley, head of the climate and energy research program at the Overseas Development Institute.

"Outside the confines of Trump campaign rallies, the offices of a few free-market think tanks and the Tea Party stalwarts in Congress, the broader consensus is that abandoning Paris won't save trillions of dollars, as Trump promised, but hurt the economy," concluded an analysis in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times, which counted Tillerson's former employer ExxonMobil, DuPont, Unilever and Monsanto among the powerful proponents of the U.N. pact that Trump may not have expected.

"If the United States does not continue robust federal research and development programs in wind and solar energy, we will cede leadership in these critical technologies to other nations that have demonstrated ongoing high-priority commitments to these technologies, such as China," the 20 U.S. states in the Governors' Solar & Wind Coalition told Trump Monday in an open letter. "The nation's wind and solar energy resources are transforming low-income rural areas in ways not seen since the passage of the Homestead Act over 150 years ago," they wrote. "Last year, the country's solar industry employed over 200,000 and added 31,000 new jobs."

Bloomberg reported that the United Kingdom was quietly lobbying Trump to support the Paris Agreement. "British government representatives stationed in Washington have been talking to officials in the U.S. president's administration about climate policy, focusing on the jobs and growth that tackling pollution can bring to the U.S.," the story said.

When Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the White House on Monday, he and Trump did not discuss the global climate accord. However, they used "a coded language that suggests that climate action is not off the table," according to Canadian Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who deemed the meeting "a good start."

At Thursday's G20 meeting, diplomats reportedly tiptoed around Tillerson with regard to Trump's plan for the Paris Agreement. "The main reason for this is to avoid an unproductive clash with U.S. on Paris if possible," said  Nick Mabey of London-based E3G.

In what seemed like a veiled message to Trump, Germany's foreign minister told reporters at the G20 meeting that no country could go it alone to solve the most pressing problems of the day, including climate change, terrorism and mass migration. "It can only be done with cooperation and openness, not by withdrawing into one's national shell or circling the wagons," Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said.

It is interesting to note that coverage of the G20 by China's official Xinhua news agency did not mention the U.S. at all but rather emphasized cooperation with Europe.

"Climate change stands at the center of the world's shared interests in managing instability," Ed Davey, former British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, wrote Thursday in an Aljazeera op-ed. "Rich countries must recognize their own self-interest in helping support the developing world with climate mitigation, if only because it manages risks closer to home. Surely President Trump does not want to bear the costs of building a wall along the entire West Coast to keep the people of the Pacific from scrambling to higher ground."

Republican Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina congressman who advocates "conservative" climate solutions, seemed to make an appeal to President Trump's ego. "Donald Trump is used to winning things, not walking away like a scalded dog," Inglis was quoted as saying by the Tribune Washington Bureau. "Leaving a very hard-won international agreement on the table so China can lead the world would be a strange look."

Even if Trump does make good on his campaign vow to leave the Paris Agreement, the global community remains likely to forge ahead with its pledges to decarbonize, Moody's Investor Services said in a report released today. "Some aspects of climate policy in the U.S. may be altered or dropped under the new administration," said Rahul Ghosh, a Moody's vice president and the report's co-author. "Nevertheless, we believe that powerful structural forces at play, including robust institutional and private sector momentum, will continue to drive global sustainable and climate agendas regardless of the direction of U.S. federal climate policy."

Climate context

Climatic news brought another week of jaw-dropping headlines.

Humans are altering Earth's climate 170 times faster than natural forces, according to a new mathematical analysis published last Friday in The Anthropocene Review. "We are not saying the astronomical forces of our solar system or geological processes have disappeared, but in terms of their impact in such a short period of time, they are now negligible compared with our own influence," said co-author Will Steffen, a climate researcher at the Australian National University. "Crystallizing this evidence in the form of a simple equation gives the current situation a clarity that the wealth of data often dilutes."

In another stunner, Climate Central reported, "Antarctica just shed a Manhattan-sized chunk of ice." And that was small compared to an iceberg 10 times the size of Manhattan that broke off at the same place—Pine Island Glacier on the coast of West Antarctica—in July 2015. While scientists are reluctant to tie these events to climate change, "many studies have shown that Pine Island Glacier is retreating and thinning," said Simon Gascoin of France’s National Center for Scientific Research. "...[T]he recent rifting and calving could totally be evidence of an ongoing, rapid disintegration of the ice shelf, mostly due to ocean warming."

Sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic reached record lows this week. While widespread melting in and around the North Pole has been shocking researchers repeatedly for some time, the Antarctic record marked a drastic reversal from record high ice cover in recent years.

The loss of ice from glaciers on Canada's Queen Elizabeth Islands in the country's Arctic Archipelago accelerated from 3 billion tons to 30 billion tons a year between 2005 and 2015, according to new research published Wednesday in Environmental Research Letters. These islands hold a quarter of all Arctic ice—an amount second only to Greenland—and their melting is a major contributor to sea level rise.

Scientists also have documented a 2-percent reduction in the amount of oxygen in the world's oceans, which has long been forecast by climate scientists, according to research published Wednesday in Nature. "Since large fishes in particular avoid or do not survive in areas with low oxygen content, these changes can have far-reaching biological consequences," said lead author Sunke Schmidtko, an oceanographer at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. "It is alarming to see this [climate] signal begin to emerge clearly in the observational data," said Matthew Long, an oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who was not involved in the study.

A new study in Nature Climate Change found that only 7 percent of animals and 4 percent of birds among the hundreds of species negatively impacted by climate change are actually flagged as threatened by climate change in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. "The results ring loud alarm bells and show that climate change will exacerbate existing threats for many species, greatly increasing the scale of the conservation challenge," said co-author Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife International.

Given all of the above, it seemed almost ho-hum when NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week that January was the third-warmest January on record.

Surprises

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron issued a surprise invitation last Friday to climate researchers and innovators in the U.S. who may be feeling demoralized by President Trump's moves to relinquish the country's leadership on the issue. In a video posted on his Twitter account, the centrist politician said in English: "I do know how your new president now has decided to jeopardize your budget, your initiatives, as he's extremely skeptical about climate change." Macon promised public and private support for the work of those who move to France. "We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technologies," he said.

In what may be a precedent-setting surprise, an Austrian court blocked construction of a new runway at Vienna's airport, citing climate considerations as a major deciding factor. "We have had some other big cases in Austria where projects were blocked for other environmental reasons, but this was the first time it was about climate change," said Berthold Lindner, a lawyer not associated with the case. The three-judge panel in a federal court ruled that the potential harm caused by additional greenhouse gas emissions from the project outweighed its benefits.

In a surprise of the sci-fi variety, researchers proposed in the journal Earth's Future to employ 10 million wind-powered pumps to refreeze the Arctic at a cost of $500 billion. The proposal is the result of astrophysicist Steven Desch challenging students at Arizona State University to devise means to stop the defrosting of the Arctic by 2030, as predicted by some climate scientists. "We want to provoke discussion, get people thinking about the Arctic in particular—about the need to intervene strongly there—because nothing we do on the world scale is going to be fast enough to save... summer sea ice in the Arctic," Desch said.

More undoing

The CEOs of 18 major automakers sent a letter last Friday asking President Trump to revisit the Obama administration's decision to lock in vehicle fuel-efficiency rules through 2025. The chief executives of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, with the top North American executives at Toyota, Volkswagen, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and others, urged Trump to reverse the decision for the sake of "as many as a million jobs."

On Tuesday, President Trump signed legislation from Congress to repeal the Obama-era rule requiring energy and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments as a guard against corruption. On Thursday, he signed a resolution to block the previous administration's rule aimed at protecting waterways from pollution by coal mining.

Also on Thursday, TransCanada Corporation submitted a new application for permission to build the Keystone XL pipeline to carry Alberta crude oil through Nebraska en route to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast—permission denied by former President Barack Obama. "Keystone XL is a foreign-owned pipeline, using foreign steel headed to the foreign export market," said Jane Kleeb, president of the anti-pipeline Bold Alliance, in what was surely an appeal to Trump's "America first" ideology.

Meanwhile, the controversy over confirming Trump's nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency escalated. The week began with Senate Democrats asking for the vote on Scott Pruitt's nomination to be delayed until resolution of a court case over public release of emails between the Oklahoma Attorney General and fossil fuel interests. "These records are needed for the Senate to evaluate Mr. Pruitt's suitability to serve in the position for which he has been nominated," the Democrats wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who accused them of obstructing installation of Trump's cabinet picks.

On Wednesday, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine broke ranks with her party, announcing she would oppose Pruitt's confirmation. "I have significant concerns that Mr. Pruitt has actively opposed and sued the EPA on numerous issues that are of great importance to the state of Maine, including mercury controls for coal-fired power plants and efforts to reduce cross-state air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions," Collins said. "His actions leave me with considerable doubts about whether his vision for the EPA is consistent with the agency's critical mission to protect human health and the environment."

Also on Wednesday, dozens of craft beer brewers wrote to the Senate to express their opposition to Pruitt, citing his attacks on EPA protections for clean water. "Mr. Pruitt has challenged virtually every important EPA safeguard in recent years, often falsely accusing the agency of overstepping its authority," they wrote. "We need an EPA administrator who will enforce our laws to protect our resources and our communities, not someone who tries to weaken safeguards on behalf of polluters."

EPA employees from around the country joined the fray, calling their senators to urge them to vote against Pruitt's confirmation. "It seems like Trump and Pruitt want a complete reversal of what EPA has done," said Nicole Cantello, a lawyer with the agency who heads its union in the Chicago area. "So it's in our interests to do this."

Late Thursday afternoon, a state judge in Oklahoma ordered the release of emails between Pruitt's office and fossil fuel advocates. Nonetheless, the Senate remained intent on keeping the vote scheduled for today. After two Democrats said Thursday they would support Pruitt, his confirmation was all but assured, and the Senate voted 52-46 in his favor this afternoon. "Clearly, this is an epic ram-job," said Rhode Island Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.

Sum confusion

China's climate-related news this week centered around more cuts for the industries blamed for the country's persistent smog and questions raised about the efficacy of previous cuts.

On Monday, Reuters broke a story about the central government contemplating cutting steel and fertilizer production by half and aluminum output by at least 30 percent in 28 cities across five regions during the winter heating season, when smog is at its heaviest. "If implemented, they would be some of the most radical steps so far to tackle air quality in the country's most polluted cities," the news service said.

On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that China also was considering reinstating cuts in coal production that were relaxed this winter after a shortage of supply caused spikes in coal prices and imports. "The National Development and Reform Commission may resume mining curbs that cap output to an equivalent of 276 days of operational capacity after the heating season ends in mid-March," the story said, citing unnamed sources.

A report released this week by Greenpeace asserted that, despite government-mandated cuts in China's steel industry, the country had actually brought more coal-powered steel production online in 2016. While the world's top producer and consumer of steel said last year it would cut up to 150 million tons of capacity over the next five years, its steelmaking actually saw a net increase of 36.5 million tons, according to the report. Greenpeace estimated another 49 million tons of steel production was restarted during 2016 in response to a recovery in prices.

Radio Free Asia ran an analysis this week that also raised doubts about China's cuts in coal production. "The cumulative 13.2-percent cut in coal output since 2014 reported by the the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) suggests citizens should be seeing some relief, but doubts about the figures may outweigh the agency's claims," the report said. However, getting a firm grasp on the math can be difficult. For example, the NBS claimed coal production fell by 5.1 percent in November and 3 percent in December, whereas the data provided by the agency indicates decreases of only 2.7 and 1.8 percent, respectively. At the same time, coal imports climbed 25.2 percent last year, the General Administration of Customs said. Confusion is compounded by questions about whether the government counts unauthorized coal production in its totals. "With the government calling for cuts in production, the incentive is to report them, whatever the reality," said Tim Wright, an expert on China's coal industry at the U.K.'s University of Sheffield.

Chink in coal's armor?

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) caught the attention of the global coal industry on Monday when it released an analysis concluding that India would not need to build another coal-fired power plant after 2025, if the costs of renewable energy continued to fall and battery technology continued to improve. "This is perfectly achievable if government gets its policies right," said Ajay Mathur, TERI's director general. "India's power sector could be coal-free by 2050."

In reaction, the World Coal Association (WCA) insisted India could not supply electricity to all its citizens nor meet its goals for economic growth without heavy reliance on coal. "India's energy needs are too huge for any suggestion that it will not need coal in the future," WCA CEO Benjamin Sporton said. "In a country where 244 million have no electricity..., it is impossible to find a solution without coal being part of the energy mix."

Piyush Goyal, India's minister of power, coal, renewable energy and mines, chimed in to say that coal was just as important as renewable energy because of its essential role in maintaining the country's baseload electricity supply on a 24/7 basis. Goyal also said this week that the government may extend the December 2017 deadline for coal-fired power plants to meet stricter emissions standards.

India's generation of coal-fired power increased 6 percent from April 1 through February 11 over the same period a year prior, The Financial Express reported on Wednesday. However, India Ratings and Research announced Thursday that it was maintaining its negative outlook for the country's power sector because of idled coal-fired generation capacity, soft demand for electricity made from coal and increasing investments in renewable energy. "With a sub 50-percent plant load factor, they have a high probability of debt default," the agency said. "Under the current scenario, the survival of such players is not possible."

In another indication that coal's fortunes may be shifting in India, The Economic Times reported that state-run Coal India, the world's largest coal miner, is contemplating diversifying into oil and gas production and the generation of conventional and solar power. "The board of directors of Coal India is seriously contemplating diversifying into energy-related fields," said an unnamed senior company executive. "The proposals are to be placed before the company board soon."

Looking forward

Look for President Trump to announce executive orders regarding federal environmental regulations after he swears in Scott Pruitt, possibly tonight.

Trump also is shopping for a chief scientific adviser. Princeton physicist William Happer—who once likened climate science to a cult "like Hare Krishna"—is said to be in the running.

The Senate's vote on Ryan Zinke to head the Department of Interior has been scheduled for March, according to Montana's Billings Gazette. Rick Perry's nomination to head the Department of Energy remains pending as well.

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