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Trump’s latest rule rollback makes natural gas as dirty as coal

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

This summer’s statistics on electricity use and generation included a significant gem: Over the last 12 months, power generation from coal has dropped to a three-decade low. That was party-worthy news for the climate, for air quality, for folks who live near power plants, and for the natural gas industry, which is partly responsible for coal’s decline. Just days later, however, the Trump administration crashed the shindig, causing a major buzzkill.

No, the president’s attempts to revive coal have not succeeded. But on September 18, the Interior Department snuffed out new rules aimed at lowering the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, just days after the EPA started the process of euthanizing its own methane regulations. This is a bummer not only for the planet, but also for the natural gas industry’s efforts to portray its product as the clean fossil fuel.

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Coal began its climb to dominate the electricity mix in the 1960s, peaking in the mid-2000s, when power plants burned about 1 billion tons per year, generating about half of the nation’s electricity — and an ongoing disaster. Donald Trump likes to talk about “clean, beautiful coal.” It’s anything but. The smokestacks that loom over coal power plants kick out millions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide annually, along with mercury, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, and particulates, all of which wreak havoc on human health. What’s left over ends up as toxic (sometimes radioactive) piles of ash, clinkers, and scrubber sludge.

When natural gas is burned to produce power, however, it emits only about half the carbon dioxide of coal, and virtually none of the other pollutants associated with burning coal. So during the 2008 election season — when climate politics were less polarized than now — both parties pushed natural gas in different ways, with Republicans chanting, “Drill, baby, drill,” and Democrats calling natural gas a “bridge” to greater reliance on renewable energy sources. At the same time, advances in drilling were unlocking vast stores of oil and gas from shale formations, driving down the price of the commodity, and making it more desirable to utilities.

(Video via Andrew Thorpe and Joshua Krohn / NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

As a result, natural gas gobbled up a growing share of the nation’s electricity mix, while coal’s portion withered. In 2008, natural gas generated 21 percent of the electricity in the United States; now, its share is 33 percent. Coal use, meanwhile, plummeted from 48 percent to 29 percent over the same period. In consequence, the electric power sector’s total carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 700 million metric tons over the last decade, with an attendant decrease in other harmful pollutants. Every megawatt-hour of coal-fired electricity that is replaced by gas-fired electricity is a net win for the planet — and the humans who live on it.

Except when it’s not. Natural gas has an Achilles’ heel: When it is sucked from the earth and processed and moved around, leaks occur. The main ingredient in natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas with 86 times the short-term warming potential of carbon dioxide. Every punctured pipeline, leaky valve, and sloppy gas-well completion eats away at any climate benefits. And if methane’s leaking, so too are other harmful pollutants, including benzene, ethane, and hydrogen sulfide. And so the fuel’s green credentials, and one of the industry’s main marketing tools, end up wafting into thin air.

An aerial view taken by the airborne imaging spectrometer AVIRIS-NG of a methane plume from a gas storage tank in Kern Front oil field. The leak persisted for multiple years.Riley Duren, Andrew Thorpe and Stanley Sander / NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

When the Obama administration proposed rules that would make the oil and gas industry clamp down on methane emissions, it was a gift, not a punishment. Not only would people and the climate benefit; the natural gas industry would be able to sell itself as a clean fuel and a bridge to the future.

The Obama-era rules are similar to those passed in Colorado in 2014, with the industry’s support. Far from being onerous, they simply require companies to regularly look for and repair leaks and to replace faulty equipment. Some companies already do this on their own; the Obama rules would simply mandate this responsible behavior across the board. That’s why the Republican-controlled Congress ultimately decided not to kill the rules. That, however, did not discourage Trump.

Trump is not being “business-friendly” by ending the rules. Rather, he is once again indulging his own obsession with Obama and with destroying his predecessor’s legacy, regardless of the cost to human health and the environment. Trump’s own EPA estimates that its rule rollback will result in the emission of an additional 484,000 tons of methane, volatile organic compounds, and other hazardous pollutants over the next five years. Meanwhile, the death of Interior’s methane rule on Tuesday will add another half-million tons of pollutants to the air. In the process, it will erode the pillars of the once-vaunted natural gas bridge.

Then again, maybe the time has come to let that bridge burn. We get 70 times more electricity from solar sources now than we did in 2008, and renewables hold 11 percent of the total share of power generation. Perhaps just as significant is a less-noticed fact: Electricity consumption in the U.S. has held steady for the last decade, even dropping during some years, despite a growing population, a burgeoning economy, harder-working air conditioners, and more electric devices. That means we’re becoming more efficient and smarter about how we use energy. If we keep this up, we’ll be able to cross that fossil fuel chasm, no matter how many bridges Trump burns down.

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Trump’s latest rule rollback makes natural gas as dirty as coal

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Your future home could be in a flood zone — and no one’s required to tell you

Olga McKissic lives in an airy, white-brick home with a pillared porch, the kind where you might sit and watch fireflies late in the night. The only issue is that every few years, the rising waters from a nearby river pour into her Kentucky home, ascending the porch like an uninvited guest. Her home flooded in 1997, 2006, 2013, and 2015.

“That property that we purchased back in 1986, that we thought was such a wonderful, tranquil, lovely place — it’s a nightmare to live here with the thought that it is going to flood again,” says McKissic in a video produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council. She explains that the first time it flooded, she replaced the carpet with tiles. When the water tore up the tiles, she installed linoleum. And when the linoleum failed to survive the next flood, she settled for just painting the concrete.

McKissic is just one of 30,000 homeowners or renters in the United States who live on a severe repetitive loss property, by National Flood Insurance Program standards. In North Carolina, where flooding from Hurricane Florence continues to threaten homes and lives, there are 1,132 such properties. From 1978 to 2018, the National Flood Insurance Program shelled out over $1.2 billion to North Carolina alone to repair and rebuild properties damaged by flooding, which often need to be rebuilt all over again after the next flood.  

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So why do homeowners all over the country invest in flood-prone property in the first place? One issue is that they don’t have enough information to know better. Due to an insubstantial patchwork of flood risk disclosure laws, “many Americans who are about to make one of the biggest financial investments of their lives have zero knowledge of whether a house has flooded and is likely to flood again,” according to research published last month in a joint project between the NRDC and the Sabin Center for Climate Law.

In 21 states, there are no statutory or regulatory requirements for a seller to disclose a property’s flood risks or past flood damages to a potential buyer, according to the research. The other 29 states have varying degrees of disclosure requirements. Kentucky and North Carolina, for instance, have some requirements, but not enough to protect many homeowners. (View an interactive map of your state’s laws here.)

“What Hurricane Florence and other major flooding events have really illustrated over the past few years is that the nation’s flood risk is getting worse,” explains Joel Scata, a climate and water attorney at the NRDC. “That really sets potential home buyers to be in a bad situation where they are buying property where they are not fully informed of the risk.”

The Carolinas’ vague, insubstantial disclosure laws likely helped contribute to the situation they now find themselves in: While millions of homes at risk of flooding, only 335,000 have flood insurance.

“Both North Carolina and South Carolina’s disclosure requirements were rated inadequate in our assessment,” explains Dena Adler, a researcher for the flood risk disclosure project and fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Law. The research found that there are no requirements in North Carolina for home sellers to disclose previous flood damage to structures on the property or any requirement to carry flood insurance for the property.

In North Carolina, the Real Estate Commission must disclose that a property is located within a federally designated flood zone, which is based on hundred-year floodplains. That’s the land predicted to flood during a 100-year storm — one so severe it has a 1 percent chance of occurring during any given year. But storms have been getting stronger lately. In the last two years, North Carolina has seen two 1,000-year flood events: Hurricane Matthew and now, Hurricane Florence.

For more accurate flood risk maps, FEMA needs to take climate change into account. “Climate change is a loaded dice, because it makes the risk different,” Scata says. “By not looking at the future effects of climate change on flooding, like sea-level rise and bigger rain events contributing to bigger floodplains, you’re not getting the full picture.”

Scata and the NRDC recommend that states participating in the National Flood Insurance Program should explicitly disclose flood risks. Additionally, FEMA should provide homeowners a “right to know” about their property’s past history and create a public, open-data system to share information related to flood damage.

If better laws were in place, they could help mitigate what has become an unsustainable cycle: real estate developers buying up coastal properties, selling them to unknowing buyers, and then forcing them into a cycle of flooding and buyout.

Another solution is a significantly improved and expanded voluntary property buyout program, where FEMA provides funding for the local government to purchase the flood-prone property and convert it to open space. Currently, the National Flood Insurance Program focuses most of its funding on rebuilding homes, many of which are destined to flood again, and there is only a limited pool of money for property buyouts. As a 2017 report from NRDC puts it: “For every $100 FEMA has spent to rebuild properties through the NFIP, a paltry $1.72 has been spent to help move people to higher ground.”

Oh, and one more thing: The future of flood risk is closely related to what we do about climate change. As Scata explains, “Our future greenhouse gas and carbon emissions will dictate the various levels of sea-level rise. So if it’s going to be business as usual, it’s going to be a lot higher risk than if we take action.”

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Your future home could be in a flood zone — and no one’s required to tell you

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A concept you learned in middle school math could save us from climate disaster

A scientist and a diplomat walked into the Global Climate Action Summit on Thursday and unveiled a roadmap for keeping the world at a low simmer. Things look pretty dire, they said, but they’ve also been surprised to see how a few solutions are scaling up.

The task sure looks daunting. The world will have to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half in the next 11 years, and then slash emissions in half again in each subsequent decade just to have a shot at avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

To do it, we’ll need to double our efforts every decade. In other words, we need more than rapid change; we need exponential change, growing and growing each year. You may have heard this before: It was the conclusion of a paper by scientist Johan Rockström (and others) published in the journal Science last year. Today we have an update, a new report unveiled by Rockström and Christiana Figueres,  a United Nations climate negotiator, at the summit in San Francisco. And that brings us to …

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The good news! We’re already seeing that exponential growth in wind and solar installations. Green bonds (investments that finance a low-carbon future) are also on an exponential trajectory. And perhaps there’s an exponential trend of cities and states pledging to go carbon free.

To be sure, Rockström acknowledged that there are plenty of discouraging trends — coal plants are still getting built, for instance. But emissions have peaked in 49 countries (responsible for 40 percent of all carbon pollution)  and 9,138 cities have committed to the Global Covenant of Mayors committing to major reductions.

“There’s never been such a reason to be worried,” Rockström said. “There’s never been such a reason to be hopeful.”

It’s hard for humans to think in exponential terms, Figueres noted. She demonstrated by striding across the stage doubling her steps: two, four, eight, so far no big deal. But in the next doubling she ran out of space. A few more doublings, and you get a walk equal to the distance around the earth. As hard as it might be for people to grasp, the exponential growth in renewables, green bonds, and pledges offers a reason for hope.

“This is no longer a fantasy,” Rockström said. “It is no longer a utopia.”

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A concept you learned in middle school math could save us from climate disaster

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Jerry Brown has positioned himself as a climate change hero. Not everyone agrees.

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Before they could enter the sleek and sterile conference space where California Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit is taking place this week, attendees were greeted Thursday morning by a scene of nonviolent chaos: Hundreds of protesters blocked entrances as they confronted police who guarded the star-studded event. Protesters sang and chanted, “Tell Jerry Brown, keep it in the ground,” and held replica oil pumps and rigs and “water for life” signs.

On a day that was otherwise dominated by business leaders and politicians congratulating themselves for their leadership in addressing the crisis of a rapidly warming planet, environmental and indigenous activists marched to the Moscone Center. One of the central messages to the rest of the world: Jerry Brown’s climate legacy isn’t worth all the hype.

Mother Jones

But why not? After all, Brown started his week by signing both SB 100, which promises carbon-free electricity by 2045, into a law and an even more ambitious executive order, pledging California to go entirely carbon-neutral by 2045. These were just a few of the many announcements California has rolled out this week to showcase its global leadership in the absence of federal action. But Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Change Law Institute, is unimpressed, noting that Brown has fallen short of doing all he can to curb emissions.

“It’s pushing the problem far into the future,” she says, “when we need to take action today.”

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What Brown could do now that would have far more impact, Siegel and others argue, is stopping new oil permits for fossil fuel projects, creating a buffer around oil and gas development in areas where people work and live, and pledging to phase out California’s existing permits for fossil fuel extraction.

“The things we’re asking for are necessary and inevitable,” Siegel says. “They can’t be denied from a scientific perspective; they can’t be denied form a moral perspective. And we’re not going away until these things are done.”

A report by the advocacy group Oil Change International released in May shows that California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources has approved more than 20,000 permits for new oil and gas wells since Brown began his final two terms as governor in 2011. Those numbers are incompatible with climate leaders’ stated goals to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees C, the report claims. Oil Change notes that 5.4 million Californians live within a mile of oil and gas development, often in communities of color with high poverty rates.

Mother Jones

Brown was not alone as a target of protests. Conference co-chair and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was interrupted by anti-capitalist protesters holding signs when he took the stage to address the summit. Earlier Thursday, he compared the morning protesters — many of them Native Americans with the It Takes Roots coalition — to people advocating for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

“We’ve got environmentalists protesting an environmental conference,” he said. “It reminds me of people who want to build a wall along the Mexican border to keep people out from a country we go to for vacations. Something’s crazy here.”

Outside the summit, the message appears to have an audience: An estimated 30,000 people marched in San Francisco this weekend calling for more world leaders to stop patting themselves on the back and make the commitments that are actually needed to contain warming — and those leaders include Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg.

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Jerry Brown has positioned himself as a climate change hero. Not everyone agrees.

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Trump just doubled down on a lie about Hurricane Maria’s death toll

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

With Hurricane Florence set to pummel the East Coast, President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to brag about his administration’s widely criticized response to last year’s Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. Trump’s comments drew outrage, with critics pointing out that Maria led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. But Trump hasn’t been able to let the matter go. On Thursday, Trump insisted in a pair of tweets that the official death toll was concocted by “Democrats” as part of a conspiracy to “make me look as bad as possible.”

In fact, the Puerto Rico numbers were collected over months by researchers at George Washington University’s school of public health, at the request of the territory’s governor. As the New York Times explained in August:

At issue has been how to assess the severity of a storm whose devastating impact on fundamental needs — water, electricity, communications, and medical care — seemed to rival or exceed that of the deadliest recent storms to hit the United States, but whose official fatality count until now was far less severe. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, is thought to have killed anywhere from 1,000 to more than 1,800 people.

The government’s latest revision brings to a close a year of debate and scientific scrutiny over fatality estimates that had seemed to vary widely — in some cases by thousands. Governor Ricardo Rosselló faced constant political challenges over the disparity between the official death toll, released within weeks of the disaster, and what was apparent to most scientific researchers and reporters who investigated deaths. The inability to provide a reliable death count seemed, to many critics, to echo the dysfunction apparent in the island’s lack of preparation or any swift, effective response from the local and federal governments.

The report came nearly a year after a much-maligned visit to Puerto Rico by Trump two weeks after Maria, where he implied that residents should be “proud” that the official death toll at the time was just 16 people, far lower than that of a “real catastrophe, like Katrina.” That statement ignored the difficulty of counting deaths after the hurricane decimated the island’s infrastructure. In fact, by the time Trump got on his plane to return to Washington, that official death toll had already doubled.

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Trump just doubled down on a lie about Hurricane Maria’s death toll

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China and California want to trump Trump on climate. But can they act fast enough?

A romance between California and China blossomed on stage Wednesday morning at the opening ceremony for a conference in San Francisco. California and China share a common adversary in President Donald Trump, giving them common purpose and strengthening the cross-Pacific bonds of affection. As the proverb says, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The ceremony kicked off the opening of the “China Pavilion,” the name for the Chinese-organized part of the Global Climate Action Summit initiated by California Governor Jerry Brown.

Chinese government officials in black suits smiled, shook hands with the Californian politicians, and pledged to work together with California to slash greenhouse gas emissions, while Brown exhorted them to treat that climate change as an existential threat. But Brown delivered that message in a jocular way.

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“We are going to hell very quickly, very quickly,” he said. “It isn’t certain we are going to avoid that awful outcome, so don’t feel too comfortable even as you drink your California wine and get a little tipsy, I hope. Never forget, we are on the road to perdition. I don’t know how they say that in Chinese, but it’s not good.”

The fact that the room was packed with Chinese officials “says volumes about the commitment of China to confronting climate change,” Brown said.

Representatives from California and China signed several memoranda of understanding, detailing plans to work together on fuel cells, zero emission vehicles, and such, but if you were hoping for China to announce it’s shutting down all its coal plants next year, well, nothing like that happened.

Instead, Xie Zhenhua, who has served as China’s climate negotiator at the United Nations, gave examples of the ways his country is trying to figure out how to lift people out of poverty without the aid of fossil fuels. It all added up to a banal, if honest, assurance: “We have been exploring our own way of green, low-carbon development,” he said.

The future of the world depends on China being able to pull it off, said Nicholas Stern, an expert on economic development and the economics of climate change. “It couldn’t be simpler. We need to find a new growth story.”

China’s Belt and Road Initiative — a bid to extend its economic aegis across Asia — would encompass roughly half the world’s population, potentially bringing them better lives as well as much bigger carbon footprints. “If that group of people have a growth path in the next 10 to 20 years that looks like China’s, we would be in trouble,” Stern said.

California’s path is easier since the state is already tremendously wealthy compared to much of the world. But its challenge is tougher than China’s in that every Californian is responsible for some 11 tons of emissions every year. The average Chinese citizen emits some 7 tons, Brown noted. “It’s too damn much. But we’re worse! But we’re going to get better together, that’s the key point.”

Brown hopes to change that. On Monday, he signed a eye-popping executive order telling California to squeeze off all emissions by 2045. “We have no chance of getting there unless China invests hundreds of billions of dollars in all the technology that will be needed,” Brown told the audience in the China Pavilion.

The potential for Sino-Californian climate collaboration, trade, research, and investment has grown more interesting as Trump rolls back U.S. commitments and slaps tariffs on Chinese products. There’s a clear connection for Trump between climate action and trade because he believes that, as he tweeted: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

For politicians with a better grasp of reality, Trump’s antagonism toward China, and toward climate-change policy, has created a natural opening. In 2017, Brown began courting China in an attempt to sideline Washington.

You can find plenty of contradictions in China’s attempts to balance its ambitions for growth and environmental sustainability. Its emissions tripled from 2000 to 2012, and the country is still building coal plants. At the same time, large-scale Chinese manufacturing has made renewable energy cheap, and China is building clean mass transit infrastructure on a scale that puts the United States to shame.

A short bus ride away from the meeting on the far northern edge of San Francisco is an exhibit that underscores the tensions inherent in China’s growth. “Coal and Ice” displays large photographs of melting glaciers, floods, and other effects of climate change, paired with photographs of coal miners from around the world, including rare images of Chinese workers looking downtrodden and tired. The exhibit first opened in China, but shortly after government officials caught wind of the content, they shut it down.

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China and California want to trump Trump on climate. But can they act fast enough?

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Hurricane Florence is no Hugo. It looks worse.

With winds of 125 mph and a span of hundreds of miles, Hurricane Florence is already one of the largest and strongest hurricanes ever to threaten the East Coast. The National Weather Service in Wilmington, North Carolina — near where Florence is expected to make landfall on Thursday — is already calling it “the storm of a lifetime.”

In this region, the current storm of anyone’s lifetime is 1989’s Hurricane Hugo — with winds of 140 mph, it was the most powerful hurricane to hit land north of Florida since weather records began in 1851.

Even though its winds won’t be quite as strong, Florence could be much worse by many other measures. Take a look at how they compare side-by-side from space (that’s Hugo on the left):

Grist / NOAA

Larger hurricanes typically bring much higher storm surges, historically the deadliest threat from hurricanes, because a larger span of winds can push more water ashore. Hugo’s storm surge peaked at around 20 feet near Moores Landing, South Carolina. Owing to North Carolina’s unique coastal geography, and with the extra nudge from the past 30 years of sea-level rise, Florence’s surge could top 20 feet.

Large, slow-moving hurricanes can also produce more rain. The latest warnings from the National Hurricane Center predict totals of up to 40 inches in isolated areas, far above the 27.84” that fell in Georgia during Hurricane Alberto in 1994 (the current East Coast record), or the 10.28 inches that fell in South Carolina during Hugo. Florence’s deluge will extend inland for hundreds of miles, which would flood virtually every river and stream in the Carolinas.

Worst of all, Florence will likely slide southward after reaching the shore, following the coastline and inflicting damage down to Charleston, S.C. or as far south as Savannah, Georgia. In contrast, Hugo’s landfall was relatively quick, weakening to a tropical storm in less than a day. Florence’s long coastal tour could take as long as two and a half days.

Stronger, rainier, and more damaging hurricanes have long been predicted as a consequence of climate change. Florence is the latest example. There are more to come.

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Hurricane Florence is no Hugo. It looks worse.

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Undaunted by Trump, climate activists and leaders are meeting to plan their next move

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A month after President Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States from the landmark 2015 Paris climate change pact meant to curb global carbon emissions, California Governor Jerry Brown seized the leadership role and announced that San Francisco would host the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS). With the tag line “Taking Ambition to the Next Level,” the summit has become an amalgam of the Trump resistance, a climate pep rally, a marker between crucial United Nations deadlines, and a swan song for California’s four-term governor. Above all, it’s a reminder of how far the world is from avoiding the worst effects of climate change, and how critical the next few years are for determining future global health and stability.

In some ways, the event is a response to the call by the 2015 Paris negotiations for a more active role by subnational actors — jargon for businesses, cities, states, or anything that is not a national government — in addressing climate change. Accounting for more than 70 percent of carbon emissions globally, the role of cities and states has only grown more important as Trump continues his assault on progress in attaining climate goals. But even before Trump, mayors and governors began to playa more visible role internationally as they participated on the sidelines of the United Nations’ formal negotiations process. Back in 2015, Brown was arguing at the U.N. conference that cities, states, and the private sector could take on more saying, “We don’t have to wait for the federal government to say jump.”

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The timing of the San Francisco summit is also significant, occurring during the midpoint between the Paris meeting and the next major deadline in 2020. That’s when the 200 participating countries not only have to ensure they are on track to meet the modest pledges they made in Paris, but that they are exceeding them, because targets established in the Paris pact don’t approach the level of emissions cuts necessary to keep global warming below a destructive 2 degrees C. If all the pledges were added together and adhered to, the global goal would still not be achieved. Nor do the pledges expected at the summit get us much closer. But the idea is that a symbolic event like GCAS can help accelerate global momentum at international, national, and subnational levels.

As former U.S. climate envoy and Brookings Institute senior fellow Todd Stern puts it, the summit is “meant to galvanize and inspire” and also “show ourselves and the world that America is still in the game despite the abdication by the current national regime. To help build the engine of public and political will it will take to protect our future.”

A pep rally for climate action may not sound like much, but the world is at a point where every extra push counts. An estimate by a recent New Climate Economy report shows $26 trillion in economic benefits through 2030 only if the global economy actually is on the path to decarbonize. According to the report, the investments over the next 10 to 15 years “are a unique ‘use it or lose it’ moment in economic history.” In other words, the window is closing for investment in the right priorities. Increasingly, that is in transportation, which has overtaken the power sector as the biggest source of domestic emissions.

There are more than 300 affiliate events taking place this week that’ll echo Stern’s message, along with thousands representing big and small regions, cities, companies, and NGOs around the world. Countries like China and Germany have a presence, showcasing the international alliances California has forged in the Trump era. For the U.S., it’s also a reunion of many of the figures leading the “We Are Still In” movement, a campaign of political leaders, faith institutions, and businesses that have pledged their commitment to delivering on the Paris accord.

Together, the global commitments that roughly 7,000 cities and 6,000 companies have made since Paris do pack a punch. The entities making pledges on clean energy, forests, oceans, and infrastructure represent $36 trillion, far larger than the U.S. economy. In the U.S., actions by the subnational sector helped the country meet nearly half the commitment it made in Paris. An analysis this summer from economic think tank the Rhodium Group found that existing policies in the U.S. mean we are headed toward a reduction ranging from 12 to 20 percent of emissions by 2025, still falling short of its stated 26-28 percent goal. That still leaves some room for uncertainty, given the capacity of forests to absorb carbon and energy costs and the unclear future of many federal climate policies.

The attendees representing more than 100 countries offer both a hopeful moment of international cooperation and a clear indication of how the world is still failing to do as much as is needed. Nick Nuttall, a spokesperson for the summit, framed it as evidence that cities and regions “are not incrementally improving their climate actions, but pole-vaulting” toward the ambitious action needed in 2020. But United Nations Secretary General António Guterres acknowledged on Monday from New York that the private sector and subnational pledges may be “important strides. But they are not enough. The transition to a cleaner, greener future needs to speed up.”

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Undaunted by Trump, climate activists and leaders are meeting to plan their next move

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A more inclusive Global Climate Action Summit can stop us from ‘losing Earth’

Nathaniel Rich has driven much of the summer’s national conversation on climate change with his blockbuster New York Times Magazine piece, “Losing Earth.” Sprawling over more than 66 pages and drawing on more than 18 months of research, Rich tackles the failure of efforts 30 years ago to tackle global warming.

It’s masterful as a piece of storytelling, but Rich’s narrative centers on the unheeded warnings of a small, elite group of scientists and activists. As a result, he misses crucial context and ultimately draws deeply flawed conclusions. And those shortcomings could have serious implications for efforts currently underway to address the still ongoing climate crisis.

What Rich left out is that the mainstream environmental movement – the ecosystem of big green organizations and funders – consistently excluded and failed to provide resources to organizations representing those most vulnerable to climate change: communities of color and low-income communities.

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“There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament,” Rich writes, “without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.”

Who exactly is “we” in Rich’s take? Certainly he’s not implicating all of humanity for ignoring a few brave heroes — especially when a key constituency of the environmental movement was seldom included at the table.

Rich’s striking omission is on my mind as we gear up for the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The summit will bring together a broad coalition of leaders – representing “states, regions, cities, companies, investors, and citizens” – who remain committed to the Paris Agreement and staving off the worst effects of climate disruption. It is an enormous opportunity for catalyzing sustained action in the face of a lack of leadership at the federal level.

But at this massive table of stakeholders, equity-focused movement leaders are largely still fighting for more meaningful seats at the forum — and are instead holding satellite events.

Rich writes that preventing the worst effects of rising temperatures “will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.”

Communities of color and low-income communities have been suffering. They have the most at stake in a warming world. But too many decisions about how to reverse our course continue to be made, as in Rich’s narrative, within the most exclusive, least diverse circles: the top levels of government, big green NGOs, the C-Suite, and science-based organizations.

The shallow engagement of traditionally excluded communities is the Achilles’ heel of the movement. In 1990 – the year following the period of Rich covers in his reporting – a group of leaders from the more grassroots, people of color-led wing of the movement famously wrote a letter to the 10 most prominent environmental organizations of the time.

The letter decried the groups’ dismal diversity records and their engagement with polluters at the expense of communities of color. “It is impossible for you to represent us in issues of our own survival when you are accountable to these interests,” the leaders write. “Such accountability leads you to pursue a corporate strategy towards the resolution of the environmental crisis, when what is needed is a people’s strategy which fully involves those who have historically been without power in this society.”

In 2014, a generation after that prophetic letter, Green 2.0 — a campaign guided by a diverse, intergenerational working group — collaborated with celebrated environmental movement scholar Dorceta Taylor to take stock of representation in mainstream environmentalism. Its research made headlines for the sad reality that the boards and top executives guiding the movement remained overwhelmingly white, even as the country grew steadily more diverse.

Yes, decades ago a small group of individuals alone was not capable of addressing the climate crisis. However, I remain optimistic that today we – in the fullest sense of the word – are up to the challenge. Transformative change requires a people-centered movement demanding action.

Grassroots organizations, though under resourced, have been rolling up their sleeves to ensure that a transition from dirty to clean energy sources is fair and equitable. Jobs to Move America, for example, is working with labor partners in California to ensure that those manufacturing electric buses are paid living wages. The NAACP is building bridges with international climate justice leaders. And People’s Action in Chicago is fighting to ensure that low-income communities benefit from solar energy policies.

Transformative change will require that our strategies rely on a more powerful political force that combines both the grassroots and the grass tops. As one example among many, a coalition of community-level and mainstream organizations saved California’s landmark global warming bill in 2010 when oil interests tried to brand it a job killer. Equity-focused groups ensured that a meaningful chunk of the billions raised as a result of the legislation would benefit those most affected by climate change.

The task ahead is to harness what the full movement has to offer locally, regionally, and at a national scale. We must focus not only on the necessary transition to a low-carbon future but ensure that the benefits of a transition away from fossil fuels flow to everyone. Research shows that the clean energy economy continues to gain in strength, creating jobs and wealth-building opportunities that can produce shared prosperity.

Some philanthropic foundations, have been evolving to support greater inclusion of diverse leaders and equity-focused solutions at policy-shaping events like the upcoming climate summit in California and driving more funding to people of color-led organizations. (And of course, many funders and NGOs are working on their own leadership diversity.) But many of the largest environmental philanthropies need to accelerate their efforts to match the urgency of the climate crisis.

The stories we tell ourselves about what went wrong will shape the remedies of the future. Apple’s entertainment arm has optioned Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times story – a welcome opportunity to share the tale of our climate crisis with broader audiences beyond the paper’s subscribers. My hope is that this version and other efforts that build on “Losing Earth” will offer a more accurate and inclusive history – one that reflects the contributions of a broader swath of activists and leaders – and guide us toward the right solutions.


Danielle Deane-Ryan is director of the Inclusive Clean Economy program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Her multi-sector experience includes serving as the first executive director of Green 2.0 and as a senior advisor to the Obama Administration at the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

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A more inclusive Global Climate Action Summit can stop us from ‘losing Earth’

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National park officials were told climate change was ‘sensitive.’ So they removed it from a key planning report.

This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Park officials scrubbed all mentions of climate change from a key planning document for a New England national park after they were warned to avoid “sensitive language that may raise eyebrows” with the Trump administration.

The superintendent of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in Massachusetts had signed off a year ago on a 50-page document that outlines the park’s importance to American history and its future challenges. But then the National Park Service’s regional office sent an email in January suggesting edits: References to climate change and its increasing role in threats to the famous whaling port, such as flooding, were noted in the draft, then omitted from the final report, signed in June.

The draft and the emails were obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The documents provide a rare peek behind the usually closed curtains of the Trump administration. They illustrate how President Donald Trump’s approach to climate change impacts the way that park managers research and plan for future threats to the nation’s historic and natural treasures.

The editing of the report reflects a pattern of the Trump administration sidelining research and censoring Interior Department documents that contain references to climate science.

The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, located on the shore of southeast Massachusetts, preserves the nation’s whaling history.New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

Earlier this year, Reveal exposed an effort by park service managers to remove references to human-induced climate change in a scientific report about sea-level rise and storm surge at 118 national parks. The Guardian recently reported on the Trump administration’s efforts to stall funding for climate change research in the Interior Department by subjecting research projects to unprecedented political review by an appointee who has no scientific qualifications.

In a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, government scientists reported being asked to stop working on climate change and connecting their science to industry actions. These are just a few of the examples of science under siege compiled by Columbia University in its “silencing science” tracker.

The email suggesting changes in the New Bedford park report was sent in January by Amanda Jones, a community planner with the park service’s northeast region.

“You’ll see that anything to do with ‘climate change’ has been highlighted in these documents. In a nutshell, we’re being told that we can talk about climate change in terms of facts — if we have data to back our claim, that is OK. We should, however, avoid any speculative language — like what ‘may’ happen in the future,” she wrote to Meghan Kish, the New Bedford park’s superintendent.

Scientists say telling park managers to avoid references to “what may happen in the future” is worrisome.

Reveal

Steven Beissinger, a professor of conservation biology at University of California, Berkeley who reviewed the emails and edits in the New Bedford report, called it “irresponsible to future generations of Americans” for the park service to direct managers to ignore research on the future risks of rising sea levels, risks to endangered species, worsening wildfires, and other effects.

“We should have confidence in scientists’ projections and prepare for those kinds of scenarios,” Beissinger said. “We can hope they won’t happen, but we surely want to be prepared for them. We have to be looking at the future because places are going to be changing.”

A comparison of the draft and final documents shows all 16 references to “climate change” were removed.

Park service officials involved in editing the New Bedford report did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. But a park service spokesperson said parks are told to “address issues like climate change … using the best available scientific information.”

“Sound management requires that we rely on specific, measurable data when making management and planning decisions,” Jeremy Barnum, chief park service spokesperson, said in an email response to Reveal. “Climate change is one factor that affects park ecosystems, resources, and infrastructure.”

Barnum did not answer questions about the deletions from the New Bedford park report, which is known as a “foundation document.” But he said such documents are reviewed “to ensure that they are consistent with current policy and directives.”

The New Bedford park was created by Congress in 1996 to preserve 13 city blocks of a Massachusetts seaport that was home to the world’s largest whaling fleet in the 19th century. The park tells the broader history of American whaling.

Flooding from rising seas, increased snow melt and stormwater, larger storm surges and extreme heatwaves are among the threats from human-caused climate change to the park’s historic structures. A 1960s hurricane barrier that protects New Bedford is vulnerable to widespread failure in a 100-year storm if sea levels rise by 4 feet. A Category 3 hurricane could breach the barrier at current sea levels.

The original draft obtained by Reveal was dated Sepember 29, 2017, and signed by Kish. The final version, signed by Kish and Gay Vietzke, regional director of the park service’s northeast region, is dated June 2018. It is not yet available online, but the park sent Reveal a printed version of the 50-page booklet.

Among the sections highlighted for review and then deleted were references to climate change in charts outlining threats to New Bedford’s historic structures, port, and natural resources.

This sentence was removed: “Climate change and sea-level rise may increase the frequency of large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events, all of which havepotential to threaten structures.” In its place, the final document says: “Large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events all of have the potential to threaten structures.”

Also, in a section about research needs, the original draft called for a “climate change vulnerability assessment.” That’s missing from the final version, which instead calls for an “assessment of park resilience to weather extremes.”

In several places, the phrase “changing environmental conditions” is substituted for the deleted term “climate change.”

Also deleted is a mention of how development near the park “could impact character and ambiance of historic district.” Elsewhere, a reference to “gentrification” is replaced with “urban renewal.” Mentions of declining park service funding and the limited control that managers have over privately owned buildings in the park are also removed. The museum in the park, which contains ships, skeletons, and whaling artifacts, is privately owned.

Skeletons of sperm, humpback, right, and blue whales on display.New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

The January email suggests that the edits are part of a broader review of foundation documents that Vietzke assigned a park service official named Ed Clark to conduct for the northeast region, which includes 83 national parks in 13 states.

“This late review came at Gay’s (Vietzke) request when she began her role as (regional director). Ed Clark was asked to review all foundation documents for sensitive language that may raise eyebrows especially with the current administration,” the email from Jones says. She wrote that the edits are “for your consideration, but not mandatory.”

Jonathan Jarvis, who headed the National Park Service under President Barack Obama, said that the direction to scrub the foundation documents must have originated from Trump administration officials, because he knows regional director Vietzke well.

“She would not be doing this of her own accord. This would have come down from on high, verbally,” he said.

Jarvis said career park service officials told him that their supervisors verbally directed them to make changes in a sea-level rise report so that they did not leave anything in writing.

Scientists say climate change already is affecting parks and that the threats will increase if people continue to release greenhouse gases, which come largely from burning fossil fuels.

Jarvis was director of the agency in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to the northeastern coast, including several national parks. The parks incorporated climate change projections into rebuilding efforts, including moving utilities out of the basements in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both of which were flooded by the storm.

“Without considering climate change, we would have put them back in the basement. That’s why it has to be in a planning document,” Jarvis said.

In many national parks, flowers are blooming sooner and birds are nesting earlier, temperatures and seas are rising, and glaciers are disappearing.

Mary Foley retired in 2015 after 24 years as the chief scientist for the park service’s northeast region. She said she was frustrated during the Bush administration because the park service lacked permission and funding to solicit key research about climate change. But she said the Trump administration’s policy of sidelining climate science is much more concerning. Now much of the science has been done, but the unwritten policy seems to be to order park managers to ignore it, she said.

“Managing a park is a difficult and expensive task,” Foley said. “It’s pretty shortsighted to ignore future climate change. If you are going to plan for construction of a visitor center you wouldn’t want to put it where sea-level rise is going to challenge that structure.”

But Foley and other former park service leaders said they hope that park managers will incorporate science into the planning for parks even if they scrub documents to please Trump’s team.

“Current managers are pretty knowledgeable of the implications of climate change. Whether or not that is written into formal documents, I don’t think that they will ignore it,” Foley said.

“The bottom line is, this is just paper,” Jarvis added. “You can’t erase in the superintendents’ minds the role of climate change. They’re going to do the right thing even if it’s not in the policy document.”

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National park officials were told climate change was ‘sensitive.’ So they removed it from a key planning report.

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