The Case for Declaring a National Climate Emergency
On Tuesday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders announced their proposal for a resolution declaring a national climate emergency. The timing was appropriate. Ten years ago, President Obama travelled to Denmark to pledge to the world that by 2020, through the Copenhagen Accord, the United States would reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions seventeen per cent below its 2005 levels. The pledge was on shaky ground, with no binding terms, but it was a start. Six years later, in 2015, Obama travelled to France to negotiate the Paris climate accord, joined by every country in the world but two (Syria and Nicaragua, who have both since signed), and promised that by 2025 the U.S. would reduce its emissions twenty-six to twenty-eight per cent. Although the U.S. target was modest, considering the urgency of the crisis and the U.S.’s historic contributions to climate change (the U.S. has, from 1750 until the beginning of this year, emitted vastly more carbon than any other country on the planet), it was an important step and presented a goal that would be tough but not impossible to meet. The agreement also included a stipulation that the world’s countries would come together every five years to commit to higher targets.
Unfortunately, according to yet another grim new report, published on Monday by Rhodium Group, a private climate-research firm, the U.S. is not going to meet either its Copenhagen or Paris targets. By next year, given current policies and potential future energy-market dynamics, the U.S. will have reduced national greenhouse-gas emissions thirteen to sixteen per cent below 2005 levels—not the seventeen per cent that seemed modest back in 2009. Much more concerning is the fact that, in what the report regarded as the best possible scenario, in 2025, the U.S. will have reduced greenhouse-gas emissions only nineteen per cent below 2005 levels, which would leave us terrifyingly far from the Paris goal. Given that the fate of millions of species, the future livelihoods of current high schoolers, and the stability of modern civilization rests in the balance, the only word to describe the situation is: emergency.
President Trump, in his surreal and brazen speech on the U.S. environment on Monday, failed to mention climate change but boasted that, “since 2000, our nation’s energy-related carbon emissions have declined more than any other country on earth.” This may be true, but none of those reductions have anything to do with the Trump Administration. Energy-related emissions went up last year, not down, and emission reductions are nowhere near the level they need to be. The resolution that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and the Oregon representative Earl Blumenauer introduced to Congress on Tuesday (which was co-sponsored by more than two dozen other lawmakers), echoed the Green New Deal in calling for “a national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization of the resources and labor of the United States at a massive scale to halt, reverse, mitigate, and prepare for the consequences of the climate emergency.” It’s a symbolic resolution in Congress for now, given the Senate’s resistance to any climate-change policy, but it at least puts pressure on the 2020 Presidential candidates to keep discussing the issue as an emergency and debating climate solutions. It also reflects the reality of what’s needed, in the face of current facts.
For example, the authors of the Rhodium Group report found that the biggest reductions in emissions will occur in the power sector, where the coal fleet will shrink to a third of its current size by 2025, due to the continually falling costs of natural gas and renewables. But this country’s natural-gas boom (proudly touted on Monday by Energy Secretary Rick Perry) presents its own threat. Although the spread of renewable-power plants will continue to increase—thanks to steady declines in costs, tax incentives, and the increasing number of states with ambitious renewable-power requirements—they will still not spread fast enough if natural gas is as cheap as it is today. In the best-case scenario, by 2025, if natural-gas prices were a dollar and thirty-five cents higher (per one million British thermal units) than they are now, and if that were coupled with further steep price declines in renewables, solar deployment would quadruple and wind capacity would increase by half. But, in a troubling, business-as-usual scenario, with gas prices persisting at current levels over the next six years, solar is likely to grow much more slowly and wind is anticipated to only rise by twenty per cent. Nuclear would also quickly disappear in that scenario; forty-five per cent of the current nuclear fleet, representing twelve per cent of the power grid’s current zero-carbon capacity, could be retired.
Outside the power sector, things don’t look much better. Industrial emissions—from steel and cement production, chemicals, and refineries—which have proved the hardest to reduce, generally increase with low natural-gas prices, meaning that, under current federal policy and at today’s prices, they could rise seven per cent from 2018 levels in the next six years. In the world of transportation, low oil prices likewise point to disaster. Even if electric-vehicle prices fell dramatically, the report’s authors wrote, “consumers continue to favor larger, higher-emitting vehicles.” This is unlikely to change if oil prices fail to rise from their current levels. (Although oil-price fluctuation is largely determined by the global market and OPEC controls, among other things, U.S. shale-oil production also has an impact on the price.) Even if electric-vehicle-battery costs came way down, such cars are likely to represent no more than sixteen per cent of sales by 2025. Trump’s rollback of Obama’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, a rollback that automakers themselves are protesting, is—go figure—not helping.
The problem is not only carbon emissions. If all of Trump’s climate-policy rollbacks succeed, helping natural-gas prices stay very low, methane emissions could increase over the next six years by thirty per cent. Though methane does not last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (which lasts hundreds to thousands of years), it produces a planet-warming effect dozens of times more powerful. Two other greenhouse-gas-related decisions, both of which regard policies introduced by Obama and which could have a major impact on immediate emissions reduction, also remain in limbo. One concerns ways to control methane leaks from oil-and-gas production; the other concerns plans to decrease hydrofluorocarbon emissions, through both federal standards and participation in an international agreement known as the Kigali Amendment. Without these policies, over all U.S. emissions in 2025 would be eighty-nine million metric tons higher than they are today (or about 1.4 per cent of total annual emissions for that year), unless additional states, beyond those that already do, take steps to fill the federal void. I guess that’s why they call it an emergency.
While Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s calls for a climate-emergency declaration are not solving any problems, they are providing the language that needs to dominate the national conversation. And that matters. The United Nations recently warned that climate disasters are happening at the rate of one per week. This past June was the hottest on record. At the end of the month, a freak storm buried Guadalajara, Mexico, in hail, and on Thursday morning news outlets reported that freak hailstorms in Greece killed seven people. A month’s worth of rain fell on Washington, D.C., in an hour on Monday (while Trump completely ignored the climate crisis in his speech on the environment), then more flash floods drowned New Orleans, which is now preparing for a tropical storm that could dump another twenty inches of rain and test the city’s levees. The warming that happens over the next few decades could kill all of the world’s coral reefs, lead to even more severe storms and wildfires, and set off the sorts of tipping points that most concern scientists—specifically, the irreversible dissolution of the Greenland ice sheet, where, in June, a heatwave set off melting across half of its surface. More than seven hundred and forty governments in sixteen countries have now declared some form of climate emergency, according to activists from the Climate Mobilization, who have been helping lead the campaign. The city government of Darebin, Australia, was the first, in December, 2016. Fierce little Hoboken, New Jersey, was the first in the United States, in November, 2017, and the third in the world. New York City declared a climate emergency on June 26th this year. That month, in interviews with the New York Times and in Presidential debates, several of the Democratic candidates used the phrase “climate emergency,” and others referred to the “climate crisis,” “climate ruin,” and “climate chaos.” (On Thursday, Columbia University, The New Republic, Gizmodo, and a group of environmental organizations announced that they, too, would be hosting a climate summit, in September, for all of the Democratic candidates.) The alarm bells are working, the wheels are turning. State and city policies won’t get us where we need to be by 2025, but they—along with a new President—could get us closer to where we need to be by 2030. It’s just going to keep getting harder.
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