Friday, August 21, 2015

It’s Official. Climate Change Is Making California’s Drought Worse - Much Worse: A First-Of-Its-Kind Study Quantifies How Rising Temperatures Could Make the State’s Record Dry Spell Permanent

(U Hamacher/Getty Images; S Radosavljevic/Getty Images)
by Taylor Hill, Take Part:
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

How much worse is our carbon spew making California’s record-breaking drought?

About 15 to 20% worse, according to a new study that is the first to put a number on climate change’s impact on the state’s dry spell.

“We weren’t looking at the length of the drought but the severity of it,” said A. Park Williams, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the study, which was published Thursday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “In the absence of global warming, there would still be a drought in California; it would be just be less severe.”

The findings are part of a growing body of evidence that people are playing a major role in the state’s four-year-long drought.

Noah Diffenbaugh, professor of environmental earth system science at Stanford University, said the latest study complements his ongoing research on a persistent high-pressure system called the “ridiculously resilient ridge.” The Triple-R, as it’s been dubbed, has been lingering over the Pacific Ocean and steering storms away from California’s coast. Research shows that the phenomenon is more likely to occur as temperatures increase.

“The historical warming trend we’re seeing is really doubling the probability of severe drought conditions across the state, and this new paper is a confirmation,” Diffenbaugh said.

To get a figure - instead of just an “influence” - on how much climate change is shaping the state’s drought, Williams and his colleagues broke California into a grid of 24,000 regions, or “buckets.”

They then looked at a century’s worth of historical precipitation levels - the main influencer of drought - for each bucket, along with other drought influencers such as temperature, wind speed, humidity, and net radiation.

“Through our models, we can go back and manipulate the climate scenarios, and by just teasing out the temperature increases that we’ve already seen, we were able to show that this drought is substantially worse due to global warming,” Williams said.

Diffenbaugh and other Stanford scientists are now investigating just how dry the state will become if the current rate of carbon emissions continues.

“Look at the last 120 years of data, and you’ll see that California used to have about half of its years above average temperatures and half below average, and half wet years and half dry - but over the past 20 years, that’s not the case,” Diffenbaugh said. “California’s warmed so much that more than 80% of the years now are warmer than average.”

Even if temperatures are kept from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius - the threshold for avoiding catastrophic climate change - California will likely experience longer, more severe, and more frequent droughts.

“Precipitation will vary up and down in California, but the real risk is that the temperature effect becomes so strong that it melts snowpack quicker, draws water out of soil and plants, and puts much of the state in perpetual drought conditions,” Williams said.

In other words, drought could become the new norm for the Golden (Brown) State - something Diffenbaugh says California is not prepared for. “Water storage and water rights in the state are based on the climate of 100 years ago, not for the conditions we’re going to be facing,” he said. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Price of Climate Change - Wildfires Are Burning Through the National Forest Budget: Hotter Days and Less Rain Mean Longer Fire Seasons to Fight With No Extra Dollars to Fight Them With

Cal Fire firefighters back-burning (Photo: Josh Edelson)
by Taylor Hill, Take Part: 

Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife: Bio

Climate change is here. “We can see it, and we can feel it,” as President Obama said recently.

The U.S. Forest Service is feeling it especially hard lately. For the first time in its 110-year history, the agency is spending more of its budget on fighting wildfires than on all its other services combined.

In 1995, the Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, allocated 16% of its budget for wildfire suppression. This year, that cost is expected to triple, with $1.2 billion to be spent and dozens of wildfires still burning.

In Alaska, a series of record-breaking 90-degree-Fahrenheit spring days helped trigger wildfires that have so far charred 5 million acres of the state. In California, 10,000 firefighters are battling 14 wildfires. Since 2000, ten states have endured their largest wildfire on record.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, fighting wildfires will take up two-thirds of Forest Service funding by 2025, or nearly $1.8 billion, as summer temperatures continue to rise owing to greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” Vilsack said in a statement timed to the release of a new report on the Forest Service’s wildfire spending. “But the way we fund our Forest Service hasn't changed in generations.”

Hotter days mean grasslands and trees dry out quicker, leading to more-numerous and more-severe forest fires each year. Adding insult to injury, the loss of millions of acres of carbon-storing trees to fires intensifies climate change even more.

If the Forest Service’s budgeting process stays the same, Vilsack fears that funding for projects that demonstrably reduce both wildfire and climate risks, such as forest restoration, will dry up. “These factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year, and there is no end in sight,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.

Tidwell said the release of the Forest Service’s report is well timed, based on the “hectic pace” of wildfires in the country. “We have been pointing out this challenge for the past few years, but we have not been able to effectively address it through our current budget process,” Tidwell said in a statement. “It is important to keep the focus on this problem, ensure the discussion continues and a solution to the funding problem be found.”

According to the Forest Service, wildfire season in the Western U.S. is 78 days longer than in the 1970s, putting the 190 million acres of federal forests and grasslands at greater risk. Wildfires are also more routinely ending up closer to homes and towns as development expands into once rural or wilderness areas.

The problem isn’t hitting the U.S. alone. According to a study published in July in the journal Nature, fire seasons lengthened on every continent other than Australia (and Antarctica, which was not a part of the study) between 1979 and 2013. Overall, fire seasons have grown by 19%, with areas of South America experiencing an extra month of fire vulnerability.

In the U.S., the Forest Service absorbs increased firefighting costs into its regular budget, which has remained relatively flat since 1995. If the trend continues, the Forest Service will have to move $700 million out of other programs to meet firefighting needs over the next 10 years.

“We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense, but as the natural disasters they truly are,” said Vilsack. “It’s time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs.”

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Obama Builds Legacy on Climate Change With EPA Clean Power Plan

Obama announces the EPA Clean Power Plan (J Ernst/Reuters)
by David Konisky, Indiana University, Bloomington ; Mark Templeton, University of Chicago; Michael Greenstone, University of Chicago, and Robert Percival, University of Maryland, The Conversation: 

Editor’s note: Years in the making, the EPA Clean Power Plan will go down as President Obama’s signature policy in regulating carbon emissions from the electricity sector.

If it survives certain legal challenges and is embraced by future presidents, it will lead to profound changes in how the US generates power, notably accelerating a shift away from coal. We’ve assembled a panel of scholars to explore the significance of the landmark regulations.

A global impact 

Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman professor of economics and the director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, and Mark Templeton, an associate clinical professor of law and director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

When the history books are written, the Clean Power Plan will mark the turning point at which the United States decisively committed itself to confronting climate change – firmly entrenching our nation as a global leader in the fight of this generation.

Enforcing the legal requirements of the Clean Air Act, it obligates states to reduce harmful emissions from power plants that are already changing our climate and exposing our children and their children and so forth to the risks of disruptive climate change.

While giving each state flexibility in the methods that it chooses to reduce emissions, the plan makes tremendous strides in encouraging the development of a carbon price in our nation. Analysts of all political stripes have long agreed that putting a price on carbon is the cheapest and quickest way to reduce emissions.

The trading markets in California and the Northeast have both been successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions costs effectively. As more states join these trading programs or create their own, the resulting pricing of carbon will help to create a financial incentive for innovation in low-carbon energy, which is necessary to reduce the costs of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

What is often missed in calculating the paybacks of climate policies is that reductions in one place produce benefits around the world. Indeed, the biggest payoff from the Clean Power Plan may be the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that it spurs in other nations.

As the worldwide community heads toward the Paris climate talks later this year, the rule provides critical leverage for negotiating carbon emissions reductions from other countries - helping everyone, including us here in the US.

Indeed, the promise of this plan was enough to help produce the historic US-China climate agreement earlier this year. Now, the US will enter these climate negotiations in an even stronger position of leadership and with greater ability to address the problems of climate change.

A path toward cleaner energy 

Robert Percival, the Robert F. Stanton professor of law and the director of the Environmental Law Program at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

Eight years ago, the US Supreme Court declared that the Clean Air Act required the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine whether emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) endanger public health or welfare. After carefully studying the scientific literature, the EPA determined that GHGs do endanger us by contributing to global warming and climate change. Despite a legion of legal attacks launched against this finding, it was unanimously upheld in court.

Now the EPA finally has adopted regulations to control GHG emissions from electric power plants - the largest sources of GHG emissions in the US.

Called the Clean Power Plan, the regulations set emissions targets that will reduce GHG emissions by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. This will produce enormous benefits for public health, saving thousands of lives and putting the country on a path to a greener energy future.

Shuttered: a coal plant in Utah shut down in anticipation of the EPA carbon emissions rules. George Frey/Reuters

The Clean Power Plan also will confirm that the US has resumed its global leadership in the battle against climate change at a particularly crucial time. In December, world leaders will meet in Paris to negotiate a new global agreement to control GHG emissions. These actions have dramatically improved the prospects for a strong global agreement in Paris.

EPA adopted the Clean Power Plan only after considering 4.3 million comments, the most the agency has ever received in any rule-making action during its 45-year history.

The final regulations include some significant changes from the agency’s initial proposal, indicating that EPA listened carefully to the comments it received from electric utilities, the states, the public, trade associations, environmental groups and others concerned about the regulations.

The EPA has, for example, increased the flexibility afforded states in designing plans to determine the most efficient way to reduce emissions. It also has delayed for two years the initial compliance date for power plants, while providing incentives for early action to invest in renewable energy sources.

Since the signing of the Clean Air Act in 1970, any time the EPA has adopted significant new regulations there have been cries of doom from industry opponents.

When auto emissions standards were adopted, when ozone-depleting substances were banned, and when lead additives were removed from gasoline, naysayers said it would be impossibly costly. Yet each of these regulatory initiatives has been an enormous success, which is why the US has avoided the kind of air pollution currently choking hundreds of millions of people in China, killing more than 1.2 million Chinese each year.

Opponents of the rules will wage fierce legal and political battles against them. Last year, before the rules were even issued, they sued the EPA, but their lawsuits were tossed out of court as premature.

With the changes the EPA made between its proposed and final rules, the agency should finds itself on an even firmer legal footing as it steers the country toward a new era of clean energy.

The weight of future presidents 

David Konisky, associate professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, Bloomington.

The EPA Clean Power Plan represents the federal government’s first direct effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. Along with new rules limiting emissions from newly constructed and modified power plants, the federal government finally has, after decades of debate, a program in place to cut emissions from the electric power sector.

The EPA has made a genuine attempt to address many of the criticisms of the Clean Power Plan as it was proposed last year. Among the key changes are modifying the clean energy targets states will have to achieve, delaying the timing of states’ compliance, allowing states more leeway to count nuclear power in compliance and providing guidance on the use of regional approaches - including cap and trade - in meeting targets.

Nevertheless, and unsurprisingly, the Clean Power Plan has already attracted vociferous opposition (soon to be followed by lawsuits) from the coal industry and recalcitrant states, not to mention the candidates comprising the GOP presidential primary field.

The White House released a video explaining the EPA Clean Power Plan over the weekend.

While some are raising legitimate questions about the ambitiousness of the Clean Power Plan, there is no denying its political significance.

No credible effort to address the causes of climate change can proceed without addressing the emissions from the electric power sector, which presently accounts for about one-third of all US greenhouse gas emissions and 40% of CO2 emissions.

Moreover, the coal industry and its political supporters have fought against any efforts to address the climate problem. The willingness and steadfastness of President Obama and the EPA to take on these emissions - even if they do not go far enough - should not be discounted.

It is also essential to put the Clean Power Plan in context with the administration’s other climate policies that include huge investment in renewable energy development through the stimulus package and other programs, stronger fuel economy standards for the nation’s cars and trucks, and the regulation of mercury and other toxic substances which have hastened the retirement of large numbers of old, dirty coal-fired power plants that emitted considerable amounts of CO2.

The real fight over the Clean Power Plan, and to some degree all of President Obama’s efforts to address climate change, will take place in the years to come.

The next president - Democrat or Republican - will have to decide whether to sustain President Obama’s policies. And, while most of the current attention is to the question of what will happen if a Republican president takes over, the same question could (and should) be asked of a future Democratic president.

The Clean Power Plan pushes the United States, even if only gently, closer to decarbonizing the electric power sector, but future administrations will need to do more to reduce these and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions if the United States is to do its part in achieving the targets that the scientific community tells us are necessary.

David Konisky is Associate Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Mark Templeton is Associate Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at University of Chicago.
Michael Greenstone is Professor in Economics; Director, Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago.
Robert Percival is Professor of Environmental Law at University of Maryland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Benefits Far Outweigh Costs of Tackling Climate Change, says LSE Study

Commuters struggle through the smog in Delhi. India’s air pollution costs an estimated one million lives a year.
Smog in Delhi (Photograph: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty)
by , The Guardian:

The economic benefits for a country from tackling climate change easily outweigh the costs, according to a study that seeks to highlight the incentives for individual nations to take urgent action to cut emissions.

Countries stand to gain more than they would lose in economic terms from almost all of the actions needed to meet an agreed global warming limit of no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, according to the paper published by two research institutes at the London School of Economics.

It is the latest research to underscore the apparent economic gains from limiting emissions, which include new jobs and improved health, even before the benefits of preventing dangerous climate change are taken into account.

“The majority of the global emissions reductions needed to decarbonise the global economy can be achieved in ways that are nationally net-beneficial to countries, even leaving aside the ‘climate benefits’,” says Fergus Green in his paper for the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the LSE.

He cites improved air quality, increased energy efficiency and better energy security among the potential benefits to individual countries that more than justify the costs of cutting carbon emissions.
Furthermore, investments in low-carbon energy are likely to be more than paid back by the falling cost of renewable sources, such as solar and wind, and by reduced spending on fossil fuels, Green predicts.

“All things considered, I conclude that there is a very strong case that most of the mitigation action needed to stay within the internationally agreed 2°C limit is likely to be nationally net-beneficial,” adds Green, who is also research adviser to the economist Lord Stern, author of an influential study on climate change.

The world’s nations have agreed that 2C is the maximum safe limit for a rise in global temperatures. Currently, the world is heading for a catastrophic 5C of warming and the deadline to seal a global climate deal comes in December at a crunch UN summit in Paris. It will be the first significant attempt to reach a worldwide consensus on global warming targets since the infamously chaotic UN summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

In the run-up to the meeting, the new paper warns countries against assuming they can, or should, look for a “free ride” on the efforts of other nations to tackle climate change. Green says that countries would gain by working together to bring down the costs of a transition to a low-carbon economy and sharing the benefits that such investment would deliver.

“The findings of this research suggest that the traditional assumption that action on climate change is net-costly is false. Those who think there is an incentive for countries to ‘free-ride’ on the climate protection provided by others are very much mistaken,” says Green.

“Countries should see the climate talks in Paris this December as an opportunity to work with each other to deliver as quickly as possible the mutual gains that can result from decarbonising the economy.”

The report’s conclusions echo those of the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who used an address to a major science conference in the French capital last week to back the affordability for countries of tackling climate change.

“Creating a green economy is not only consistent with economic growth, it can promote economic growth,” he said, especially when there was a lack of demand in the global economy.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Direct Action is a Damp Squib: Will Not Touch Australia’s Top 20 Polluters


Just as US President Barack Obama moves ahead with even tougher cuts on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants across the country, a new report out of Australia has highlighted just how ineffectual the Abbott government’s key climate policy - Direct Action - will be in cutting industrial emissions.

The report, released by energy market analysts RepuTex on Monday, suggests that just 30 of Australia’s 150 largest emitting companies will be required to reduce emissions under the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) “Safeguard Mechanism” - a “light touch” approach, says RepuTex, that will render the policy ineffective.

Moreover, Reputex’s analysis finds that none of Australia’s 20 largest emitting facilities are expected to be accountable for their emissions, despite almost all being forecast to grow emissions over the next 10 years.

Here’s why: The Coalition’s so-called Safeguard Mechanism means to establish emissions baselines for around 150 companies from July 1, 2016, in an effort to ensure emissions reductions purchased through the $2.55 billion ERF are not displaced by a rise in emissions elsewhere in the economy.

But According to RepuTex, the majority of these proposed pollution baselines will be set so high, the companies will not exceed them, even if their emissions grow.

This is because the scheme proposes to set historic baselines at the ‘high point’ of each existing facility’s emissions over the past five years, the report explains.

Given industry emissions have generally fallen over the last five years, this will allow companies to increase their emissions from current levels without facing a liability.

As the report notes, the findings place further pressure on the government to explain how it will curb emissions growth, ahead of the announcement of Australia’s post-2020 emissions target, scheduled for after Parliament resumes next week.

They also highlight just how far behind other major economies Australia stands on emissions reduction and climate change policy.

In the US on Sunday, President Obama moved ahead with unprecedented pollution controls for American power plants, as part of an effort to secure a legacy on fighting global warming that would extend beyond the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Climate change is not a problem for another generation,” Obama said in a video posted to Facebook. “Not anymore.”

On top of this, more than a dozen US corporate giants signed up to a government-led pledge to slash their emissions and invest up to $140 billion in low-carbon investments - including 1.6GW of renewable energy capacity - last week, in a demonstration of their support for a global climate change deal at the UN’s Paris Summit in December.

So, while the US government tightens the screws on its heavy emitting power companies, and invites others to self-regulate, the Abbott government’s key policy effectively provides “a significant amount of headroom” to grow emissions, says RepuTex executive director Hugh Grossman.

“With baselines set so high, we project that emissions will actually grow under the safeguard scheme - by around 20 per cent - so the policy will fail to curb emissions growth, let alone assist in reducing emissions to meet our new post-2020 emissions target,” he said.

The report notes that, of the 30 companies expected to be caught by the government’s baseline scheme - operating 85 facilities - existing metals manufacturing, coal mining, oil and gas, and transport facilities are expected to have the largest exposure.

Meanwhile, after all rules and concessions are applied, not one of Australia’s 20 largest emitting facilities is expected to exceed their baseline – despite almost all being forecast to grow their emissions over the next 10 years.

This means the largest electricity generators such as Loy Yang A and B, Hazelwood, Bayswater, and Yallourn are expected to avoid exceeding their sectoral baseline under the scheme, while new LNG export facilities Wheatstone, Gorgon, Itchys and Pluto are also expected to avoid facing any liability.

Combined, RepuTex forecasts these largest facilities will account for over 50 per cent of all emissions covered by the safeguard mechanism by 2020, yet not be liable for emissions increases.

“Given the ineffectiveness of the scheme, it is untenable for the policy to stay in its current form, particularly with the steepest increase in Australia’s emissions projected to occur in the next 4 years,” said Mr Grossman.

“It is counter intuitive to let emissions grow while at the same time implementing a more ambitious post-2020 emissions target. This approach will simply impose a far greater cost at a later time,” he said.

“It is inevitable that tighter baselines, or a cap on emissions, will ultimately be set, particularly given the significant abatement task we are likely to face to meet our new emissions target,” said Grossman.

“Should even minor adjustments be made to current policy, we anticipate the safeguard compliance market may abate emissions by up to 500 million tonnes through to 2025, covering around 100 companies” he said.

“This would better manage emissions growth, particularly in the Power and Energy sectors, and would more effectively safeguard the abatement being purchased by the Emissions Reduction Fund, which will be wholly displaced under the proposed scheme” said Mr Grossman.