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 Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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