The 10 year countdown for the climate starts TODAY
by Tim Donaghy
November 7, 2018
The midterm results show that we can take action to protect the climate, but we're going to have to fight like hell to get real solutions passed.
© Michael Short / Greenpeace
This week’s midterm elections put points on the board for action on climate change and resistance to Trump’s dirty energy agenda — along with the realization that we’re going to have to fight like hell to get real solutions to the crisis facing us.
We elected a lot of politicians who are ready to fight the fossil fuel industry head on, and a Democratic House of Representatives means that Trump’s deregulatory agenda and dirty energy cronies won’t get a free pass anymore. Still, too many climate deniers are calling the shots in D.C., and a flood of over $47 million in fossil fuel money led to the defeat of some good state climate policies yesterday. But victories by climate champs and some key ballot initiatives point the way forward.
The State of Play
The science is clear that baby steps are no longer enough. Global carbon emissions still have not peaked, and carbon dioxide levels breached 410 parts per million earlier this year, already well beyond the safe level of 350 parts per million. 2016 was the hottest year on record, with 2017 right behind. Yet in the U.S. oil and gas production is still increasing and oil companies are frantically building out infrastructure in an effort to lock us into dependence on their polluting product.
That’s what we’re up against. But renewable energy is getting cheaper and expanding rapidly all over the world. Electric vehicles are poised for rapid growth, which could significantly reduce demand for oil over the next decade. And, although Trump has tried to remove the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, that move wouldn’t take effect until 2020.
The recent IPCC Special Report shows that there is still a chance to limit catastrophic global warming to safer levels, but only if strong, smart, continuous action starts today and doesn’t stop.
We can do this! But first, let’s take stock of where we are and what’s on the to-do list.
Trump’s Regulatory Rollback
In the past two years, Trump, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have been frantically giving handouts to the coal, oil and gas industries. But despite their best efforts, Trump’s deregulation efforts have so far only managed a 5% “win rate” in federal courts, and there might be more losing in his future.
- Clean Power Plan: In August, EPA proposed a rule that would significantly weaken the Obama-era plan to reduce emissions from power plants, a move that the EPA admits could kill as many as 100,000 Americans. Lawsuits against the original plan are on hold for now, although legal battles are highly likely to continue for years. Even without the CPP, emissions from the U.S. power sector continue to decline, driven by strong state and local policies, and demand for greener electricity.
- Coal Bailout: Trump’s plan to bail out money-losing coal and nuclear power plants have already been rejected once by regulators. This past summer he ordered Department of Energy head Rick Perry to try again using some legally dubious tactics. This new attempt will also spend a lot of time in court, assuming united opposition from environmentalists and utilities doesn’t kill it first.
- Clean Car Standards: Obama’s rule to increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks was a central part of his plan to tackle climate change, while also saving money for Americans. Trump moved to weaken those standards and, for good measure, revoked California’s right to protect its citizens with a higher standard. California and 17 other states have sued to defend the more protective standard. EPA staff reportedly challenged the internal analysis behind the decision, and even the automakers are starting to back away from this debacle.
- Methane Leaks. Recent studies have confirmed that methane leaking from oil and gas infrastructure is a potent threat to the climate. Obama finalized two rules to prevent methane leaks, one through the Department of the Interior which applied to federally owned oil and gas, and one through the EPA which applied to private lands. After failing to delay the rule, Trump finalized a DOI rollback in September but was promptly sued by California and New Mexico. Stephanie Garcia Richard, newly elected as New Mexico’s Public Lands Commissioner, vowed to crack down on methane leaks and the expansion of oil and gas fracking in the state.
- Restricted Science. Taking a page from now-retired Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Pruitt proposed a truly terrible plan that would allow EPA to exclude scientific studies from its consideration on the grounds that the underlying data were not made public (an arbitrary standard that would improperly exclude many high-quality studies). This plan would lead to a less-informed EPA and would put Americans in harm’s way. Thankfully, EPA head Andrew Wheeler seems to have put that idea on the backburner… for now.
- Air Quality. Most observers guessed that EPA’s restricted science proposal was aimed at weakening air quality standards for ozone and particulate matter. To this end, Wheeler recently fired a panel of experts charged with reviewing health standards for particulate matter and scrapped plans for a similar ozone panel.
- Offshore Oil Drilling. While Obama protected parts of the Arctic and Atlantic from offshore drilling, Zinke has proposed a wildly unpopular plan to expand offshore drilling to virtually every American coastline. House candidates in New Jersey, South Carolina, Florida, and California ran and won on opposing offshore drilling off the coasts of their states. The plan has attracted bipartisan opposition from coastal communities around the country. The next phase in the Five-Year Plan process will likely arrive in late-November, where Interior will unveil which unlucky shores will see lease sales starting as soon as 2019.
- Monuments & Public Lands. Zinke also undertook a review of National Monuments and other federal protected areas, and recommended reductions and management changes for a number of them. So far Trump has acted to reduce the area of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Documents show that interest in coal, oil and gas resources in those monuments were key to the decisions. Both actions were met with lawsuits arguing that the Antiquities Act does not give the President that authority.
Pruitt is already gone in a storm of scandal, and rumor has it that Zinke might soon follow. Both leave behind less headline-grabbing, but no less dangerous, deputies. But between the scandals and court setbacks, Trump’s pollution momentum is stalling.
Outside the Beltway
Outside of Washington, D.C., the fossil fuel industry has hit roadblocks. California doubled down on ambitious climate policies, but newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom must do more to protect frontline communities from oil and gas extraction. In New York, the Attorney General brought a serious lawsuit against ExxonMobil for misleading its shareholders on climate risks to its bottom line.
And the groundbreaking lawsuit brought by 21 young people demanding a livable climate was allowed to move ahead in federal courts.
Three pipelines designed to expand Canada’s tar sands have run into fierce resistance. Court rulings have delayed the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline in Canada, while grassroots activists have contested the permitting process for the Keystone XL and Line 3 expansion pipelines in the U.S.
A growing number of politicians — including 11 of the Democrats who flipped Republican House seats this week — have signed a pledge not to take money from fossil fuel interests. Ballot initiatives restricting fracking in Colorado and pushing a carbon fee in Washington couldn’t overcome millions spent by dirty industry, but even in defeat, momentum is building for strong climate policies in the states.
Real Climate Leadership
Halting Trump’s rollback of climate regulations and investigating the climate deniers running the government is important, but the next Congress also needs to start developing stronger tools to truly halt carbon emissions. False solutions are already starting to pop up on Capitol Hill — like a weak, inadequate carbon tax that would let oil companies off the hook for the damages they’ve caused.
This next Congress must commit to passing 21st-century energy laws that give the authority to phase out coal, oil, and gas. Ending costly fossil fuel subsidies and federal oil and gas leasing are only the first steps. This fossil fuel phase-out should be packaged with a Green New Deal that raises taxes on dirty energy and kickstarts the build out of sustainable energy jobs and infrastructure that we will need – while ensuring a just transition for workers and communities.
The 2020 election begins today. Trump’s cronies are leaving and he could be on his way out, too. Momentum is building for real climate action as Americans are already seeing the impacts of climate change in their daily lives. We need to start laying the groundwork for real solutions now. Let’s demand that Congress start flexing their planet-saving muscles, and organize like hell to send more climate champs to Congress in 2020.