Assessing the National Climate Assessment

May 12, 2014

Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, will retire its Fisk and Crawford coal plants, two of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the nation. The February 29, 2012 announcement marks an historic victory for a decade-long grassroots campaign to protect Chicago residents from the harmful impacts of coal pollution. According to agreements signed by Midwest Generation, the Clean Power Coalition, and the City of Chicago, the Fisk coal plant in Pilsen will shut down in 2012 and the Crawford coal plant in Little Village will shut down by 2014. Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace International attends a rally with activists near the Fisk Power Station in Chicago, Illinois, September 24, 2011. Kumi came to Chicago to participate in the Moving Planet global day of action to demand solutions to the climate crisis as well as meet with residents campaigning to close the Fisk and Crawford Coal Plants polluting their neighborhood. Photo by Stephen Carrera/Greenpeace

Stephen J. Carerra/Greenpeace

Just a few weeks after the most recent installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change grabbed world headlines, a panel convened by the United States government has released its very own. It says a lot of the things you expect it to say. Climate change is already occurring. Its effects are being experienced by communities and ecosystems the world over. It is caused by human activity, particularly the pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And any viable solution will require a seismic shift in the way human beings obtain and use energy. carreyduhgif obvioulsygothgifsambergduhgif sortofduhgif Yet another panel of experts confirming climate change is real would seem like exasperating non-news if this report didnt also say things that you might not expect from a government that has tended to downplay climate change. Heres a sample: Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and there is new and stronger evidence that many of these increases are related to human activities. Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather eventsand threats to mental health. Infrastructure across the U.S. is being adversely affected by phenomena associated with climate change. [caption id="attachment_11878" align="aligncenter" width="520"]Aerial views of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coast on October 30, 2012. Aerial views of damage caused by Hurricane Sandy along the New Jersey coast on October 30, 2012.[/caption] While hesitating to draw direct connections between particular extreme events and climate change, the assessment does not shy away from saying that climate change will alter the frequency, intensity, timing, duration, and spatial extent of extreme weather. It also went surprisingly farther than the IPCC assessment on sea level rise, saying it could reach up to six feet and be a lot worse on the east coast than the global average. The assessment also discusses the global context of climate change, reinforcing that what we do here and what others do elsewhere has mutual effects. Again, just because that's obvious doesn't mean the US government has been good at talking about it. A little more on that later. [caption id="attachment_21415" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines A family takes refuge in Tacloban City after it was hit by Typhoon Haiyan.[/caption] As the report itself states, the US may not be the largest emitter of Greenhouse gases anymore (that honor now goes to China), but we are up there with the largest emitters per capita. In other words, at the individual level, Americans addiction is at like junkie level. And like with any addiction, the first step toward a cure is admitting you have a problem. Not just saying, Yeah Im addicted and stuff, but recognizing you are putting your life at risk. romneycoalgif By all appearances, this report is the US government at least part of it giving itself a good look in the mirror and saying: I gotta get my act together. bundymirror Or at least it would be nice to think so. Still, major blindspots persist within Obamas climate action plan. Fossil fuel extraction and exports are still very much part of American energy policy. For all the talk of the dangers of CO2, we are ensconced in business as usual mode. Shale oil production is making the US and Canada into net energy exporters. And natural gas is poised to replace coal as the primary fuel of power plants. And oh yeah, what about coal (aka the leading cause of climate change in the US)? We might be moving slowly toward burning less of it here these days, but that doesnt mean were not mining it. We just send it overseas for other countries to deal with. This recent climate assessment itself states that the problems it addresses are global. If that coal is not burned here only to be burned somewhere else, there is no real difference as far as the climate is concerned (and I'm not even mentioning issues of international environmental justice related to air pollution and location of coal plants). [caption id="attachment_26634" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Coal barges at the United Bulk Terminal coal export terminal in Davant, Louisiana. The terminal can export up to 6 million tons of US coal to foreign markets each year. Coal barges at the United Bulk Terminal coal export terminal in Davant, Louisiana. The terminal can export up to 6 million tons of US coal to foreign markets each year.[/caption] Finally, there is scarce mention in the report of drilling for oil in the Arctic. Although currently the only country drilling in Arctic waters is Russia, the American policy door is still wide open for it. Our government has not yet rejected the practice of granting permits to drill there. In fact, some signals given by regulators suggest they would like to open even more of the Arctic to drilling. It's ironic that the reason we can even consider drilling in the Arctic is that climate change has changed conditions there. Of course, that doesn't mean it's even remotely a good idea. The Arctic is still very harsh, making a spill there just about inevitable. [caption id="attachment_26303" align="aligncenter" width="600"]The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, para-gliders, and Greenpeace inflatables protest against the first shipment of Russian arctic oil in the harbor of Rotterdam. The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, para-gliders, and Greenpeace inflatables protest against the first shipment of Russian arctic oil in the harbor of Rotterdam.[/caption] The National Resource Council has already stated clearly that the US is incapable of dealing with an Arctic oil spill. As with the Keystone XL pipeline, when you bring in climate, the entire controversy boils down to this question: why the hell are we going through all this trouble just to prop up yesterday's damaging energy source? The only way the Obama administration avoids duplicity here is if it makes a good faith effort at keeping a vast majority of US coal and oil reserves in the ground. But while the debate doesnt even treat that as an option, the ring of reports like the National Climate Assessment will always be a little hollow.

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