As Climate Week begins in New York, a lot of the world is asking Americans, "How are you doing at making climate progress with a climate denying president?"
The surprising answer is, "Not well enough yet, but much better than you imagine."
The American political conversation about climate is, indeed, scary and depressing. But the decarbonization of the real U.S. economy—as opposed to the cardboard, fossil fuel-handicapped White House version—continues. Indeed, decarbonization is accelerating, giving me confidence that in a year or so it will be clear to everyone that the U.S. is on track to meet and perhaps exceed its (inadequate) 2025 Paris objective, cutting emissions 26 to 28 percent.
9 States Embrace Clean Energy, Agree to Cut Power Plant Emissions an Extra 30% https://t.co/vcxkqNjd31 @UCSUSA @climatehawk1 @ClimateReality— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1503585483.0
That goal requires reducing emissions by 1800 million tons of CO2. At the end of 2016 the U.S. was almost halfway—emissions down 850 million tons, 13 percent. This progress was led by the utility sector, where efficiency, renewables and natural were replacing coal so fast that power sector carbon was down 25 percent.
The world rightfully worries when they hear Donald Trump proclaim he is going to bring back coal, and watch the administration and the Republican Congress try to roll-back such common sense requirements limits on the wasteful flaring and leaking of methane from oil and gas fields.
But Trump's promise to have America withdraw from the Paris climate agreement has sparked a stunning wave of climate leadership from U.S. cities, states and businesses, a wave that is still building, but by the time it crests may more than make up for Trump's stubborn foot-dragging.
Let's begin with "bringing back coal." Since Trump was elected, no new coal plants have been announced or opened; 10 plants with 5600 megawatts instead have announced they will shut down. West Virginia's largest utility won't expand coal generation because it can't find customers for coal power; CSX, a leading coal hauling railroad, thinks coal is going away so fast that it has stopped replacing coal rail cars.
Now the Sierra Club has estimated that additional coal plants whose retirement have already been announced would cut emissions about 160 million tons. Closing vulnerable plants, facilities that no longer make economic sense to keep operating, could avoid another 275 million tons. If present trends continue, the Sierra Club also documented that the U.S. could triple renewable electricity; overall the utility sector should be emitting 500 million tons less of carbon in 2025 than it was just last year.
While coal fades, state governments representing almost 60 percent of the American economy are racing forward. In January, California released its plan to cut its emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and went on to extend its cap and trade program for another decade, until 2030—this time with support for the first time from the oil industry! California is also on the verge of requiring 100 percent of its power to come from renewables. Overall, a dozen states are debating increasing their reliance on renewable power. Maryland just established a 25 percent renewable power goal, overriding the veto of a Republican governor. (The Nevada legislature went for 40 percent, but has not yet been able to overturn a similar veto.)
The fifteen "early adaptor" states in the Climate Alliance will report this week that they are already on track to reduce their 2025 emissions by 24 to 29 percent. And some of America's most Republican, climate skeptical states—Oklahoma, Kansas, North Dakota and even Texas, are steadily replacing coal with renewables—for economic reasons. These don't usually get counted in reporting on bottom up climate action—but they have a huge positive impact on emissions.
Whether their state legislatures and governors are leading on climate or not, America's cities, where most of our climate pollution originates, are embracing a decarbonized future. In June, when Trump promised to pull out of the Paris agreement, 125 cities told the world, "We are still in" the Paris agreement. Today, only three months later, the number has ballooned to 238. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing more than 1000 of America's largest cities, voted unanimously to endorse the goal of 100 percent renewable power—and since Trump's election, the number of U.S. cities with 100 percent policies has mushroomed—more than 40 cities are now committed individually, and five have hit that target!
But government is not alone. The private sector, where companies are increasingly competing with each other to succeed in the carbon-free economy of the future, is making Trump's climate-denial braggadocio increasingly irrelevant. The Mars Candy Company recently committed a billion dollars to ensure that it's operations and supply chain would reduce their climate impact by 67 percent by 2050. The number of companies who have signed the pledge of support for the Paris agreement has almost doubled, from 906 in June to 1729 this week. And global firms will impact the U.S. climate footprint. VW announced a few days ago that it will offer electric versions of all its models—entering the competition against current global EV leader, U.S. based Tesla, which delivered its first Model 3 in July.
It is true, the Trump administration is struggling to hold back the future, with appalling decisions like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) recent announcement that it would delay cleaning up toxic water pollution from coal power plants for two years. But the courts are steadily shredding much of this; the conservative 10th Circuit just ruled that Trump must consider climate impacts before issuing new coal leases on federal lands. As the CEO of one of America's historically coal dependent utilities, Southern Company, Tom Fanning said, "You can't keep waves off the beach." King Canute knew this. And the decarbonization of the American economy—the real economy, not the fake news economy—shows it's still true. The world can see and measure—America is still in.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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By Stuart Braun
"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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