As negotiators from around the world gathered in Poland to discuss how to lower carbon emissions, the Trump Administration unveiled two schemes promoting fossil fuels.
That’s one of the many climate developments reported by Elizabeth Kolbert in Coal for Christmas at the U.N. Climate Conference appearing in the New Yorker.
Last week, representatives from around the world gathered to begin another round of climate negotiations in Katowice, a city in the heart of Poland’s coal-mining country. Delegates arriving at the meeting, known in United Nations-speak as a Conference of the Parties, or cop, were treated to an outdoor performance by a Polish coal miners’ band. Inside the convention pavilions, they found mounds of coal displayed behind glass, like objets d’art, as well as arrangements of coal-based cosmetics and coal-encrusted jewelry. Poland gets about eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, the most carbon-intensive of carbon-based fuels, and the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, noted in his opening remarks that the country had enough as yet unmined supplies to last another two centuries. “It would be hard not to use them,” he said.
So one impediment to solving problems triggered by climate change is the plentiful fossil fuels. The time horizon for running out is centuries; the time horizon for massive extinctions, displacements, and economic hardships is merely decades. Policy makers are falling into one horizon or the other. They need to address both.
Depending on how you look at things, a coal-stuffed climate summit is either completely absurd—“beyond parody,” as one commentator put it—or merely appropriate. With each passing month, the threat posed by global warming grows clearer. And so, too, does the world’s failure to take that threat seriously. “We are in trouble,” the United Nations’ Secretary-General, António Guterres, said at the cop’s opening session. “It is hard to comprehend why we are collectively still moving too slowly—and even in the wrong direction.”
I just gave you one reason for our sluggish movement in the wrong direction: the consequences are not believed to be iminent. Here is another.
Last week, just as the session in Katowice was getting under way, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, suspended plans to raise that nation’s gasoline and diesel-fuel taxes. The increase had been intended to speed the transition to cleaner cars; the postponement came in response to violent protests by the so-called “yellow vest” movement. Demonstrators complained that Macron was worried about the end of the world, while they were worried about the end of the month.
Constrained by these two divisions the world talks while the planet burns in spite of the panic button hit by climate scientists
In October, a report from an international team of scientists warned that the planet was closer to dangerous warming than had previously been believed, and that a critical threshold could be crossed within a matter of years. To avoid this, a rapid and total overhaul of global energy systems would be needed. Such a transformation, the team observed, has “no documented historical precedent.”
Then, in November, a study put together by experts from thirteen U.S. federal agencies laid out the extent to which warming is already wreaking havoc in this country—via drought, intensifying storms, and an increasing number of wildfires. The study predicted that, as temperatures continue to rise, the country will experience “losses to infrastructure and property” that could run to hundreds of billions of dollars annually. (The Trump Administration did not tamper with the contents of the study, a version of which must, by law, be presented every four years. Instead, it sought to bury the assessment, by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving.) In the brief interval between the publication of the two reports, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, claimed the lives of at least eighty-five people.
As these alarms were going off, one nation after another reached for the snooze button. Last month, the President-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, chose as his Foreign Minister a climate-change denier, Ernesto Araújo. (Araújo has described climate science as part of a plot by “cultural Marxists” to cripple Western economies.) The incoming government promptly announced that Brazil was reneging on its offer to host the next cop, which is scheduled for November, 2019.
And the Trump administration in the United States actively pursues actions in the wrong direction - undermining climate science while promoting fossil fuels.
The Trump Administration, meanwhile, has already made plain its intention of undermining the whole cop process. Last week, the Administration basically flipped off negotiators in Poland by unveiling not one but two new schemes for promoting fossil-fuel use. The first was a proposed rollback of an Obama-era rule that effectively blocked new construction of coal-fired power plants. (The rollback was presented by the acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist.) The second was a plan to open some nine million acres of public lands in Western states to oil and gas drilling by sweeping aside protections for the greater sage grouse. Environmentalists—justifiably—labelled this move a “giveaway” to the fossil-fuel industry. As the Times noted, it would “open more land to drilling than any other step the administration has taken.”
This year’s cop—the twenty-fourth in the series—is supposed to resolve procedural questions left hanging when the Paris Agreement was negotiated, three years ago, at cop21. Under the agreement, each country was asked to formulate its own emission-reduction plan. The aim of this give-what-you-can approach was to nudge developed and developing countries toward a consensus. It was hoped that nations would, over time, push one another to increase their commitments. Back in 2015, this might have been a reasonable expectation. Now, in the era of America First, it looks increasingly like wishful thinking.
On Wednesday, even as negotiators in Poland were debating how to monitor CO2 reductions, researchers at the University of East Anglia and a group called the Global Carbon Project announced that emissions are again on the rise. Worldwide, they are expected to have increased by almost three per cent in 2018, to more than forty billion tons. In the United States, emissions rose by about 2.5 per cent, following a decade of decline. The message from this year’s tally “is more brutal than ever,” David Reay, a climate scientist at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian. “We are deep in the red and heading still deeper.”
Even gloomier was the assessment of a trio of prominent researchers at universities in California and Texas, which appeared last week in Nature. They argued that, while the latest warnings have been dire, they have not been dire enough. Owing in part to the recent uptick in emissions, warming will be “faster and more furious” than predicted. “For decades scientists and policymakers have framed the climate-policy debate in a simple way: scientists analyse long-term goals, and policymakers pretend to honour them,” they wrote. “Those days are over.”
If they’re right, this year’s carbon-friendly cop may indeed mark a turning point—the moment when climate negotiations can no longer be considered even a useful fiction.
The time for talk is over; we need action. We should consider treating our response to more rapid climate change as an infrastructure imperative, one that supersedes the need for bridges and roads, one that creates new economic opportunities while reducing carbon emissions. That approach might let us deal with “end of the month” issues while still addressing our very real concerns about the “end of the world.”
The same kind of approach can be deduced from futile efforts to bail out the coal industry. Mark Sumner at Daily Kos reports that Coal falls to level not seen since 1979, as Trump prepares final effort to bail out failing industry. Here are his introduction and conclusion.
Donald Trump has done everything he can think of to try and make it appear as if he’s “saving coal.” He’s signed a bill to allow more coal waste to be dumped into streams and rivers without remediation. He’s halted a study on the health issues of coal miners and another on the health effects of surface mining on nearby residents. He’s relaxed regulations on emissions from coal power plants, killed the entire Clean Power Plan, opened up new areas of federal land for mining, relaxed emissions standards, and put forward a plan that would simply nullify most federal regulations over coal power plants. He’s disbanded the EPA’s air pollution panel and proposed allowing power plants to send more mercury and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Along with can-you-believe-he’s-still-Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Trump even tried to use emergency powers not touched since the 1950s to force utility companies to use more coal. That last attempt was stopped at the last minute, because Trump’s own advisers finally convinced him—for the moment at least—that it was both idiotic and illegal.
But in spite of all Trump’s promotion, coal plants closed at a record pace in both 2017 and 2018. And on Wednesday, the Energy Information Administration reports that coal consumption has plunged to levels not seen since 1979.
At this point, Trump could roll back every requirement for building a coal power plant — not just Obama-era regulations, all regulations. It wouldn’t result in a single new plant. Because not only is no one convinced that coal plants will be around to collect their first check in 2058, even right now it is cheaper to build new solar or wind power, from scratch, than it is to simply operate an already existing plant.
Forget rolling back regulations. Trump could be handing out ready-made plants. For free. And no one would sign up to operate them. However, if Trump starts handing off money to plan for new coal plants, there are plenty of operators who will be happy to take the cash and pretend, until he is gone.
Coal is going to finish out 2018 at a level 44 percent below where it was in 2007. 529 coal generation units have been retired since then. The one new unit coming on line next year represents 17 megawatts of power. However, there are already 11 gigawatts of coal-based generation slated to end next year, and that number is steadily increasing. Still, those planned retirements for 2019 and 2020 are much smaller than the numbers that closed in 2017 and 2018. That’s not because Trump is “saving coal.” It’s because, now that it’s less than 30 percent of electrical generation, there’s not that much coal left to save.
The biggest issue utilities face now is simply building out new wind and solar quickly enough to replace coal, and doing it before the falling demand brings on an ultimate crisis that makes it impossible to supply remaining plants.
Elizabeth Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” Mark Sumner is a staff writer at Daily Kos.