Will President Obama Address Climate Change in the State of the Union?
By Andrew Steer
When President Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday, climate change is expected to be featured. The President recently said that one of his personal passions is "leaving a planet that is as spectacular as the one we inherited from our parents and our grandparents." The next two years will determine if his administration can meet this standard.
Seven months have passed since the President announced the Climate Action Plan. Now it's time to implement the plan. Simply put, this year is when the rubber hits the road.
We'll be listening to hear if the President is ready to recommit to strong actions on climate change in the coming year—and beyond. Doing so would increase the resiliency of U.S. companies and communities while affirming U.S. leadership overseas.
The warning signs are clear. Last year was tied for the fourth warmest in history worldwide. California experienced its driest year on record. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered through $7 billion extreme weather disasters, including deadly flooding in Colorado and ongoing droughts in the Southwest.
At the same time, there are some encouraging developments. At the World Economic Forum last week, more businesses recognized the mounting risks of climate change. The New York Times reported that companies, such as Coca-Cola and Nike, are finding ways to cope with water stress and supply chain risks associated with a warming planet. Multinationals, like ExxonMobil and Walmart, are already incorporating a shadow price on carbon emissions into their strategic plans.
Much more can—and should—be done. Following are some ideas that the President could lay out in his address. These actions would show that the administration is serious about forging ahead with climate action.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is headed toward a critical June 1 deadline to introduce emissions standards for existing power plants. This is the single most significant action the administration can take. The power sector is the largest source of greenhouse emissions, representing one-third of the U.S. total. EPA standards can be both ambitious and flexible. Simply put, it's time to put limits on carbon dioxide pollution, just as we do on other harmful air pollutants.
The President can also make commitments to move forward by reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), pollutants found in refrigerants and air conditioning. The administration has been working to phase down HFCs through bilateral agreements with China and amendments to the Montreal Protocol. Beyond these international actions, the EPA can use the Clean Air Act to further ratchet down domestic HFCs.
Proliferation of natural gas has been a boon to U.S. energy security and the economy. But, harmful methane leakage threatens to undermine the climate benefits of natural gas relative to coal. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that methane leaked or vented during oil and gas production may be five times greater than recent EPA estimates. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has found that implementation of existing technologies could slash fugitive methane emissions and boost the bottom line for business.
The U.S. can make progress on renewable energy and energy efficiency as well. The government can provide incentives to expand clean energy production, like wind and solar, that will drive innovation and create jobs. In addition, there are at least 34 energy efficiency standards available for appliances and equipment that are currently awaiting approval by the Obama administration. These measures would lower energy use, cut emissions, and save consumers some $26 billion.
Two new studies coming this year should bolster the economic case for climate action. First, Risky Business, a study under the supervision of Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson and Tom Steyer, will assess the risks of climate change to the U.S. economy.
Second, the New Climate Economy, commissioned by seven countries and led by a team of top economists and research institutes (including WRI), will investigate the economic risks and benefits of addressing climate change. Both reports will be published before the UN Secretary General's summit on climate change in September—a moment when eyes around the world will be watching to see if the U.S. will step forward on this issue.
With signs that climate change is rising on the international agenda, U.S. leadership could drive momentum toward a strong, universal climate agreement, which is expected to be forged in Paris in 2015. In order to get there, countries have agreed to put their climate commitments on the table by the first quarter of 2015. Last week, Europe presented its initial offer—a goal of cutting emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels. This is a good start, though short of what's ultimately needed. The U.S. will need to create the framework of its offer this year—setting strong climate targets beyond 2020 would raise the bar for other countries.
Some may say that this is impossible. Others will point to current political dynamics in Washington and urge caution. We would argue that the opposite is true.
Climate change is a threat that knows no political bounds. Just look to the mayors around the country, from both parties, who are coping with local climate impacts, such as rising seas that threaten coastal communities, or droughts that shrivel corn stocks. From Norfolk to Miami to Salt Lake City, mayors are forging ahead. They understand the risks. They are not waiting. Neither should the federal government.
Will President Obama send a bold message on climate change? Certainly, the administration deserves credit for the strides it has made thus far. Now, the president can ensure that his administration lives up to its responsibility to truly tackle the climate challenge.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
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By Alexandra Rowles
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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