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Obama's Clean Power Plan Tips the Scales Toward Successful Paris Climate Talks

Climate

President Obama’s determination to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 sends a message to the rest of the world’s leaders that the UN climate talks in Paris could succeed in saving the planet from overheating.

Past talks have foundered on a range of political excuses, but now that the world’s two largest polluters, China and the U.S., have committed to far-reaching changes in their energy production to keep the world below the dangerous threshold of a 2°C temperature increase, the door is open for all the rest to follow.

The stumbling block to U.S. action so far has been the refusal of die-hard members of the Republican Party to accept that climate change is happening and the well-funded fossil fuel lobby’s legal and political campaign to block any legislation.

But President Obama’s use of an existing law—the Clean Air Act of 1970—has allowed him to bypass Republican opposition simply by issuing new regulations.

Dangerous Pollutant

The law says that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must regulate any pollutant that is deemed a danger to human health and wellbeing. And the Supreme Court upheld the agency’s finding that carbon dioxide in large amounts did qualify as a dangerous pollutant.

The fact that President Obama’s regulations are backed by a number of power companies that see the regulations as an opportunity to invest in renewables and by corporate giants such as Coca-Cola, Walmart and Google, shows there is increasing support for him across America.

Of course, the Republicans will continue to challenge the new regulations in the courts and they will be an issue in the next presidential elections. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has already endorsed the Obama proposals.

The Republican opponents who say it will cost jobs in the coal industry will also have to explain whether they are in favour of the asthma, the premature deaths and the danger to the planet that coal plants cause.

The U.S. political battle will come to a head long after the Paris talks have succeeded or failed. At the moment, the policy of both the U.S. and China is far more forward-thinking and their actions more far-reaching than even the optimistic could have hoped for two years ago.

China has been under huge pressure from its increasing middle class to take action on air pollution and so phasing out dirty coal power plants has become a national priority.

This will take a long time because the plants are so numerous and China needs more power, but a start has already been made and the country has a massive renewable energy program, where it is already the world leader.

In the World Resources Institute list of the top 10 polluter countries, the European Union's (EU) 28 member states—ranked third behind China and the U.S.—are classed together, since the EU has a joint reduction target.

However, this masks massive differences in government approaches. For example, Germany is going for renewables in a big way and is phasing out nuclear power, while the UK is intent on building nuclear and is no longer encouraging on-shore wind and solar energy.

Further down the list are India in fourth place, Russia fifth, Japan sixth and then Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Iran.

India is still trying to provide its vast population with access to regular electricity supplies, or in some cases any electricity at all, so its priority is still development, rather than curbing pollution.

That said, the Indian government, like China’s, is under heavy pressure because of the killer smogs that regularly envelop its major cities. The government is currently investing heavily in solar power, along with coal plants. It remains to be seen whether its targets to make a contribution to reducing emissions will improve in Paris.

Unknown Quantity

The remainder of the top 10 are more difficult to assess. Russia remains an unknown quantity, Japan is still struggling with the closure of its nuclear power plants following the Fukushima accident in 2011 and the others are, like India, dominated by concerns for development more than environment.

The Obama intervention, four months before the Paris talks, does demonstrate to every world leader that, in the world’s largest economy, the future is renewables and that no new coal-powered plants will be built. If this is the way forward for the richest nation, then the rest of the world should at least take note.

Canada and Australia, at 11 and 13 in the table of top carbon polluters, will come under pressure to at least accept some targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Both at the moment have ditched reduction targets in favour of exploiting fossil fuel resources.

Australia seems intent on denying climate change and providing the world with coal, but it may now find its exports suffering.

Obama’s announcement certainly tilts the balance towards a good outcome in Paris.

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."

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