'Killing all across the world for that coal money'
Climate politics: COP23 & more
As I mentioned last week, the 23rd Conference of the Parties – a fancy way of saying the global climate summit – is currently in session. As we enter the second week, here are some updates and highlights:
- While a handful of representatives from the State Department have been present, the most active US players so far are state and city representatives. The most high profile among these are Al Gore, the Nobel Prize winner and former vice president, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, and Jerry Brown, the governor of California. These representatives have set up an enormous pavilion as a headquarters outside the official meeting zone, and they even have a splashy, defiant slogan: “We are still in.” The goal is to send a message to the rest of the world that, despite the White House’s reneging on the Paris agreement, many US citizens won’t. Maryland senator Ben Cardin said it best when he told activists that “the federal government is not just the president of the United States.”
- On Saturday, America’s Pledge – a group headed by Bloomberg and Brown – released a report meant to demonstrate the power of the commitment from US cities. Among the key takeaways is this gem: “States, cities, and businesses constituting more than half of the U.S. economy have mobilized behind the U.S. pledge under the Paris Agreement. If these institutions were a separate country, they would make up the third largest economy in the world, larger than Japan or Germany.” While this is impressive, the fact remains that cities and other municipalities alone can’t meet the Paris Agreement standards for over-all US emission reductions.
- On Sunday, 25 mayors from major cities around the world made a new pledge to “cut their carbon emissions to net zero by 2050,” and to implement plans for action on this by 2020. These cities alone represent 150 million people. In another initiative, the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (representing around 7,500 cities) plan to reduce “nearly 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon emissions per year by 2030.” To put that in perspective, that is just about equal to the yearly emissions that come from Japan (currently the sixth-largest emitter of CO2 in the world).
- The US, EU, and Canada are “dragging their feet” on financing loss and damage for small, developing countries feeling the effects of climate change caused by industrialization.
- Syria, the only other country not committed to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, has now joined the party, leaving the US as the only outsider country in the whole world.
- On Monday, White House representatives spoke publicly for the first time since the start of the conference in a panel promoting coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. The representatives argued that coal and fossil fuels aren’t going anywhere, and that the focus should be on making them as clean as possible. The US presentation was interrupted by protestors singing rewritten lyrics, such as “killing all across the world for that coal money,” to the tune of “God Bless the USA.”
Despite some of the good news above, the 2017 UN Environment Emissions Gap Report is… sobering. The emissions gap refers to the difference between emission levels that will realistically keep the global mean temperature below the goals set in the Paris Agreements and the actual emission levels from nations, even accounting for changes they intend to make. Essentially, there is a budget of how much carbon can still be produced to stay on target, and the 2017 report reveals that we are way overestimating that amount. Given the standards countries agreed to in the 2015 accords, we will be heading for 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial global temperatures by the end of this century – double the 1.5 degree goal. There are also recent reports that carbon emissions have risen in 2017, after a 3-year period of stability.
And just to pile on, Kathleen Hartnett White – Trump’s recent pick as the White House Council leader on Environmental Quality – has asserted that “climate change is not a danger to society,” just months after climate-change-fueled Hurricane Harvey hit her home state. White has criticized Obama-era limitations on air pollution, water pollution, and carbon emissions. She’s also high up in the ranks of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, “a conservative think tank that has received funding from fossil-fuel companies that include Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Chevron.”
During her confirmation hearing, White struggled to answer questions about her own belief in climate change, the amount of excess atmospheric heat absorbed by oceans, and whether or not heat makes water expand. In one cringe-worthy clip, she claims, “I do not have any kind of expertise, or even much layman study of the ocean dynamics and the climate-change issues.”
Because I don't want to end this in such a sour note, here are some reasons to stay hopeful: increased investment in renewables over dirty energy, reforestation efforts, impressive microgrids in Pittsburgh (ironic, considering Trump’s “Pittsburgh, not Paris” argument when pulling out of the climate accords), offshore windfarms, and other promising technologies.
What about geoengineering?
This past Wednesday, a joint subcommittee in the House of Representatives held a hearing about the potential of geoengineering to “help reduce global temperatures or pull excess greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.” The hearing was led by Lamar Smith (R-TX), a long-time climate change rejecter with a 6% lifetime environmental score from the League of Conservation Voters. Smith actually used the phrase “climate change” in his introduction, but is still clearly not up for discussing green energy as a viable form of climate chaos mitigation. He stated, “Instead of forcing unworkable and costly government mandates on the American people, we should look to technology and innovation to lead the way to address climate change.”
Geoengineering is a broad term used to discuss methods of manipulating environmental processes with the ultimate goal of counteracting the effects of warming. One method discussed was using aerosols to brighten clouds to reflect sunlight and reduce global temperatures, though this could potentially alter rain patterns drastically. Another idea that’s been floating around is atmospheric carbon dioxide removal. While both could potentially help alleviate the effects of global warming, neither would be reasonable substitutes for reducing carbon production.
Look, ma, no hands.
Bike shares have existed for a while in cities, but have inconveniently required you to pick up and drop off at certain locations, or docks. The newest version of bike-sharing requires no docks, no commitments, and no registration. It just requires a smartphone and a cheap 30-minute rental rate. If you live in a large metropolitan area, you’ve probably noticed brightly colored bikes popping up with QR codes on the back and self-locking protections – one of the first companies moving us in this more accessible, green direction is the Chinese company, Mobike, which has had lots of success in its first 18 months.
Before cars hit the mainstream in China, people rode bikes everywhere. And now with the gridlocked streets of metropolises like Beijing, along with the need to lighten their carbon footprint, people are again embracing bike pedals over gas pedals. While a handful of bike-share companies have hit China, Mobike leads the way, with private investment creeping toward $1bn.
Instagrammers love nature too hard #doitforthephoto
A recent article in The Outline discusses the way that social media, specifically Instagram, has had detrimental effects on some of our country’s previously-untouched spaces. People flock to these areas to experience pretty things they’ve seen on a screen – and to capture the same picture to share with their followers, of course. A geological feature of the southwest near the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, has gone from seeing a thousand visitors a year to more than 4,000 people a day in the past five years.
This is just one example. There are lots of other locations that have received hordes of ‘grammers and suffered through their graffiti, trash, and literal defecation. Some popular nature-going photographers have recognized the problem and stopped geotagging the locations of their spots in an attempt to keep them from being overrun with tourists. #leavenotrace, y’all, and find your own damn secret spots.
Some other interesting things you might have missed this week:
Arkansas has been in a legal battle with Monsanto over the use of the herbicide dicamba, which easily evaporates, meaning it is subject to dangerous drifts, and can damage plants not genetically engineered (by Monsanto) to be immune. Aside from the potential threat to neighboring non-GMO farmers, it also has harsh effects on human health.
This weekend, there were three major earthquakes around the world within hours of each other:
- A 7.3 magnitude earthquake on the Iran/Iraq border with a death toll over 400 (and counting), and thousands more injured;
- a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Costa Rica;
- and a 5.2 magnitude quake off the eastern coast of Japan.
Federal troops are on their way out of Puerto Rico, as are many Puerto Ricans.
Add it to the list: according to NPR, Spineless explores the science of jellyfish – their prehistoric beginnings, their oscillation in numbers, the cultural myths surrounding them. It’s “part travelogue, part memoir, part deep-dive (literally) into the world of jellyfish.”
header image: "untitled," lisa mannhardt / flickr