For anyone who cares about stopping climate disruption, yesterday was a big deal. Most of the news we read and watch about climate change is dark. Bleak, even. Depressing. Many of the tweets, posts and stories we see reveal the consequences of government and corporate leaders' inaction on climate—in the form of more intense wildfires, droughts, extreme weather and more.
But there's another story that rarely gets told. Our movement is growing. It is becoming more diverse and more powerful. Clean energy is becoming cheaper every month and is displacing dirty fuels at an increasing rate. All of this momentum is creating a positive feedback loop: As we become more effective at advocating for clean energy, the costs of solar, wind and energy storage are all plummeting. As clean energy gets cheaper, it becomes easier and easier to put fossil fuels in our rearview mirror.
Yesterday's announcement by President Obama gives our movement a shot in the arm. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has at last issued its Clean Power Plan in final form. Until now, power plants faced no real limitation on how much carbon pollution they dumped into our atmosphere. For an administration with many significant climate achievements, this is the crown jewel.
If you're committed to #ActOnClimate, support the Clean Power Plan—add your name now: http://t.co/kWMuOwfi2N pic.twitter.com/rAFdvL9DZm
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 3, 2015
The journey to get here started years ago, in the dark days of the Bush administration. Twelve states, three cities and an array of environmental groups (including the Sierra Club) brought suit to force the administrator of the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Eventually, on April 2, 2007, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed an earlier judgement and found for the plaintiffs.
Now we reap the rewards of that legal victory. If the Clean Power Plan plays out as the EPA expects it to, the net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants by 2030 will be 30 percent or more below 2005 levels—a big step toward meeting our current international climate commitments.
The genius of the Clean Power Plan is that there really is no single plan. Instead the EPA has set individual goals for each state (except Vermont, which has no power plants that qualify for regulation; no wonder my friend Bill McKibben lives there). Each goal is calibrated for what that state can reasonably achieve in reductions through measures like retiring coal power, increasing energy efficiency and encouraging the growth of renewable energy. Yet it's up to each state to determine how it actually will achieve its goal; the EPA will remain hands off unless the state does nothing at all.
To be honest, the EPA has been conservative in putting this plan together. Each state is being asked to reach an attainable goal that is not just possible, but surpassable—and every state will end up in a better place than where it started. Our economy will benefit and so will workers—provided that the federal government and the states ensure that training and funding mechanisms are in place to support workers and communities that previously depended on fossil fuels.
Important as it is, though, the Clean Power Plan is only a first step in the race to stop climate pollution from power plants. This plan, by itself, does not solve climate change. It doesn't even reach the potential for carbon savings in the electric sector—we will meet and exceed this goal.
But there's a saying among marathon runners that nothing affects your average speed like zero miles per hour. The Clean Power Plan officially gets this country moving on the path to a carbon-free economy; we can and almost certainly will pick up the pace later. In fact, polls consistently show that, across party lines, Americans strongly support cutting carbon pollution from power plants. And a just-released poll from NextGen Climate of voters in presidential election swing states found that 70 percent of voters had a favorable reaction to a goal of at least 50 percent clean energy by 2030.
And while cutting carbon emissions is definitely great news for our climate, it also has profound benefits for our health, the environment and consumers. The EPA estimates that by 2030, electricity costs under the Clean Power Plan will drop by 8 percent, owing to the greater efficiency of renewable energy. What's more, creating this more-efficient system for power generation has the potential to create thousands of new jobs in construction, manufacturing and other sectors.
Meanwhile, the cleaner air that results from reducing our use of dirty fuels will save thousands of lives and enable millions of Americans to lead healthier, longer lives. Many of the people who will be helped the most are the ones who need it most. Power plants that emit carbon pollution and other toxic pollutants disproportionately harm nearby low-income communities and communities of color.
The real beauty of this plan is that it enables us to achieve all of these things simply by committing to do what we already know is achievable to reduce carbon pollution. That may not be the ultimate solution to climate disruption, but it certainly is a sensible place to start.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.