05 May 2014

Climate Battle Lines

“Water seeps up through the ice on Greenland.” “Water seeps up through the ice on Greenland.” http://scienceblogs.com/chaoticutopia/2007/12/28/greenland-melting-a-photo-essa/


Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose almost twice as fast in the 2000s than they did in the couple of decades before, says the latest report by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Comprised of several hundred experts from all over the world, including scientists and economists, the IPCC regularly distills the latest and most authoritative scientific findings on global warming and its impact on our planet.

In other words, a combination of accelerated use of coal-fired power plants in rapidly emerging economies (especially China) and lots of foot-dragging on the part of rich countries in their commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions is pushing us dangerously close to the brink of severe disruptions to the life we’ve known so far as humans on this planet.

Yet there is both good news and bad news I want to share in this blog. The good news is that technological advances are quickly bringing down the production of renewable energy like wind and solar. The bad news is that the formidable barons of the fossil fuel industry (coal, gas and oil) are fighting back, desperately trying to resist the inevitable turn to clean energies.


The certainty of human-induced climate change

I’m sure you’ve been reading about the scientific consensus on global warming yourself for several years now. You can also read my own summaries of what’s been published in the “Faith and Ecology” section of my blogs. But in the last nine months the IPCC has produced even more convincing data on global warming and its human footprint.

The IPCC was born as an international body in 1988. Its first milestone was the famous Rio Summit of 1992, which brokered the first environmental global treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This was the result of the IPCC’s First Assessment Report (AR1) in 1990, which pinpointed the rise of greenhouse gases as the cause of the Earth’s accelerated warming.

Three assessment reports followed, the fourth being published in 2007. Three years later, the US National Research Council published a report broadly supportive of the IPCC’s conclusions, saying that “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems.”

2007 was also the year the Noble Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and Al Gore for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Many will remember too that there was a backlash, particularly in political circles on the right, alleging on the basis of emails made public that some of the top scientists had exaggerated some of their claims for political purposes. There was much talk of “Climategate.” But that also led to reforms of the IPCC structure and its work has been ongoing.

Finally, the Fifth Assessment (AR5) will be finalized this year in September. As always, there are 3 successive Working Group reports followed by a Synthesis report. The working groups have now issued their reports:


WG1 (Stockholm, September 2013): the probability that climate change is caused by human activity is now rated between 95 to 100 percent.

WG2 (Yokohama, March 2014): “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” was one of the report’s most striking phrases.

WG3 (Berlin, April 2014): unless the international community can muster the political will to dramatically reduce its current level of emissions in the next decade, the window for achieving a tolerable level of global warming might well be closed.


The Synthesis report is scheduled to come out in September 2014.

Like I said, there is some good new as well. Justin Gillis, reporting for the New York Times, put it this way:


“The good news is that ambitious action is becoming more affordable, the committee found. It is increasingly clear that measures like tougher building codes and efficiency standards for cars and trucks can save energy and reduce emissions without harming people’s quality of life, the panel found. And the costs of renewable energy like wind and solar power are falling so fast that its deployment on a large scale is becoming practical, the report said.

Moreover, since the intergovernmental panel issued its last major report in 2007, far more countries, states and cities have adopted climate plans, a measure of the growing political interest in tackling the problem. They include China and the United States, which are both doing more domestically than they have been willing to commit to in international treaty negotiations.”


That last sentence about China and the US, the two greatest polluters on the planet, is good news indeed! But so is the fact of falling prices of renewable energy – a solar panel costs 75 percent cheaper today than it did in 2008!

Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman wrote about this in his column last week, stating that sound environmental policy is good for business. Folks on the left and the right – for different reasons – are adamant about green policies shrinking the economy. They’re dead wrong, he asserts. The IPCC panel’s report about “decarbonizing” electricity generation is true, simply because clean energy is booming.

But there are some obstacles. As Krugman wryly concludes his piece,


“So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.”


“Ignorance, prejudice and vested interests” are the topic of the next section. Sadly, the battle lines are clearly drawn.


A weakening Goliath fights back

For years now, billionaires Charles and David Koch, owners of the second largest private oil company, have been the target of environmentalist ire. Greenpeace USA published online a large file on Koch Industries – “still fueling climate denial.” I’ll let you peruse the list of think tanks and organizations they have funded in their bid to roll back state and federal incentives for clean energy development. From 1997 to 2011, they spent $67 million, and that pace has accelerated of late.

This past week, the New York Times published an editorial, “The Koch Attack on Solar Energy.” They’ve been funding initiatives, chiefly through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to cancel or limit a mandate in twenty-nine states to increase renewable energy production by 10 percent or more by 2015.

In a particularly hard-hitting article, the Los Angeles Times painted the ongoing political storm in these terms:


The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation's largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states.

Alarmed environmentalists and their allies in the solar industry have fought back, battling the other side to a draw so far. Both sides say the fight is growing more intense as new states, including Ohio, South Carolina and Washington, enter the fray.”


That the Big Carbon advocates worry about the renewable revolution is obvious. It’s really a battle of two paradigms. For over a century the US government has supported large power plants owned by capital-intensive corporations. In turn the utilities sell the power to their customers. But what if individual households that collect solar energy could sell their surplus to the wider grid? The new paradigm, one would think, should be a conservative favorite. Yet the Tea Party and the Koch brothers are its main opponents, and, of all things, want to add a tax for people using solar power!

That procedure is called “net metering,” which is practiced in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes explains it this way in an investigative article in Sierra magazine:


“. . . a policy that requires utilities to purchase energy from homeowners at retail prices. Investor-owned companies hate that; they want to pay the wholesale rate, or less.”


What’s been happening in Hawaii, for instance, is disheartening. Electricity there costs about five times what it costs in many other states, and as a result many have installed solar panels in their homes. In fact, it has a higher proportion of solar users than any other state (1 in 10 on the largest island, Oahu). The largest utility, Hawaiian Electric, resenting the loss of so many customers, has fought back. It simply stopped connecting new solar installations to the grid, under the pretext that these could wreak havoc with the whole system. They would first have to conduct a study, customers were told.

But six months later the study hasn’t been completed and people who’ve invested so much in their solar systems continue to pay exorbitant electric bills while in limbo. Meanwhile, the grid hasn’t shown any wear or tear . . .

You can find summaries for how this battle is shaping up in twenty other states in the Sierra Club article.

But there is one model that threatens utility companies even more than net metering. It’s taking shape in California, as SolarCity partners with electric car company Tesla to build specialized batteries enabling people to bypass the grid altogether. As Humes puts it,


“Even more than net metering, battery storage threatens the utility business model; it could, for instance, allow homeowners to form small, super-efficient neighborhood microgrids that huge, costly utilities could never outcompete . . . More than 300 California households are awaiting the commission’s decision [CA Public Utilities Commission] so they can flip the switch on the solar-battery systems waiting in their garages.”

Meanwhile, solar-generated electricity keeps becoming more reasonable, and citizens groups lobbyng for it are multiplying. One particularly effective one is the Solar Action Alliance.


A short theological postscript

When it comes to the issue of climate change, despite many challenges that vary from place to place, as inhabitants of our one planet we are all equally concerned. But whereas battles rage between Big Carbon, renewable initiatives and many American homeowners, research has shown that it is the poor worldwide who already suffer the most from a warming Earth.

People of faith should see this as a theological – and of course, moral – issue. For western Christians this year, Earth Day and Earth Week followed Holy Week. Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote on that occasionthat “creation is not just a unique witness to God’s glory — it is, as the apostle Paul wrote, ‘groaning’, waiting also for its redemption.” Resurrection and renewal is not just our hope as people; it is also the hope of a creation marred by human greed and selfishness.

Though Muslims and Jews cannot identify with the “redemption” theme, they certainly buy into the theology of humanity as God’s trustees of creation, called to care for each other and for the beautiful creation we all share. And for this we will each give account on the Last Day.


[The day after I posted this, Justin Gillis was reporting on the National Climate Assessment prepared by a panel of scientists and just released by the US government. That report only brings home with greater urgency the message I was trying to convey above. Also of interest is an article that compares public opinion worldwide on climate change. Just to give you an idea, South Koreans are the most likely to say that climate change is "a major threat to their country" (85%), while Americans are the least likely (40%). In between you find Japan at 72%, Germany at 56%, France at 54%, and Britain at 48%.]