Fighting for the Health of Kids and the Future of Our Planet
This week I’m in Paris for events around the international climate summit. It’s an honor to be here at all, but it’s even better to be here representing the powerhouse grassroots movement that’s moving America beyond coal.
Here in Paris, there’s a lot of buzz about coal, which is the number one source of the carbon pollution that’s throwing our planet into chaos, both in the U.S. and internationally. As the New Yorker pointed out this week, everyone knows the coal industry is on the ropes, but we’re still digging up and burning a lot of the stuff. The New York Times reported on a study finding the coal industry is in a permanent decline. Another report released in Paris this week found if all planned coal plants are built around the world, it will truly be game over for the climate. But the good news is that, thanks to clean air safeguards, the transition to a clean energy economy and grassroots activism all around the world, that coal pipeline is going bust.
The bottom line is no matter what path you take to a safe climate, all roads lead to much bigger reductions in coal use as an essential part of the solution. Can we do enough in time to leave a safe world for our kids?
I’m here to answer that question with a resounding yes. Based on a decade of working with one of the most effective and tenacious campaigns in the history of the environmental movement, I know that we can—and will—prevail in the push to clean energy, even in unlikely places. For proof of that, you can look at the 184 new U.S. coal plants stopped by this movement or the 206 plants that have announced retirement since 2010.
But for a more recent example, look no further that Oklahoma, home to Climate-Denier-in-Chief James Inhofe, where we just won an epic round in an epic campaign.
Earlier this year, Michael Grunwald at POLITICO wrote about our work in Oklahoma as part of his feature story on the Beyond Coal Campaign. He profiled a year-long proceeding and trial before the state utility commission, where Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) was seeking to saddle it’s customers with a $1 billion rate increase that included $500 million to retrofit and prop up an aging coal plant.
Well this week, the utility commissioners voted 2-1 to deny the request by OG&E for approval and cost recovery for their so-called "environmental compliance plan." The utility said it was “stunned” by the rejection.
With this vote, OG&E has no approval to move forward with its plan or to raise the rates of Oklahoma families and businesses to pay for propping up the 35-year-old Sooner coal plant. That means we saved ordinary Oklahoma families $500M in rate increases going to an aging coal plant that spends another half billion per year to import coal from Wyoming. It also means we persuaded an elected board of utility commissioners in Oklahoma to reject life extension plans for aging coal plants on the grounds of economic risk. Oklahoma and its neighboring states of Texas, Kansas and Colorado are home to world-class wind energy resources that provide jobs to tens of thousands families and generate zero carbon electricity for millions of homes.
This is a game changing victory and it should send a signal of hope all the way to Paris. It's because of this momentum and our nation's commitment to cut carbon emissions through the Clean Power Plan, that the U.S. is positioned as a leader in the Paris negotiations.
As world leaders debate and discuss the path forward to a safe climate, this grassroots victory is one of many that should give them confidence—the people are leading, the wind is at our back, the economics are on the side of clean energy and even in the most challenging of places, we can win. If we can be bold, so can they. As UN climate envoy Mike Bloomberg and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune put it in a recent op-ed for CNN, “the decline in coal use ... stems in large measure from citizens demanding cleaner air and action on climate change.”
They’re standing up to protect our climate and also to defend the health of their families. A new study released this week found that coal pollution is one of the most dangerous threats to our hearts. As the Washington Post reported:
"Exposure to emissions from coal-fired power plants over a long period of time is significantly more harmful to the heart than other forms of carbon pollution, a new study says.
"The risk of death from heart disease, including heart attacks, was five times higher for people who breathed pollution from coal emissions over 20 years than for those who were exposed to other types of air pollution, according to the study’s findings. The burning of coal releases fine particles with a potent mix of toxins, including arsenic and selenium."
In fighting for the health of their kids and the future of our planet, these regular Americans are taking on one of the most powerful industries in the history of the planet and winning. We just did it again and we’re just getting started. I’m proud to be carrying that message to Paris and I’m so grateful to every advocate and supporter out there who made it possible.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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