Transition is not easy – How we are doing on climate change.

Posted by on August 31, 2017
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Do you ever wonder about how the global transition away from fossil fuels is going?  Or how climate change is progressing?  Lately, the media have been so stuffed with stories from the circus, that other kinds of news have been crowded out.  Even the circus has some acts relevant to the climate question, but let’s start at the beginning.

On June 8th, 2017, Andreas Goldthau published a commentary in Nature on the needed global transition to a low-carbon economy.  It does not appear to have attracted much attention, but then the current Trump circus spectacle is monopolizing the media, both fake and social, at least in the western world.  Goldthau may be well known in economic circles, although his is a new name to lowly marine ecologist me, but I believe he knows what he is talking about.  He is director of the Centre of International Public Policy, Royal Holloway, University of London; an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University; and provides scientific support to the German G20 presidency.  (With those responsibilities, I’m surprised he had time to write an article for Nature!)

In his Nature piece (which is open access), Goldthau argues that the G20 is an appropriate global grouping to govern the global shift to a low-carbon economy.  Whether or not the G20 is capable of doing this, the need for global governance should be readily apparent when we consider the extent of the change that is required if we are to accomplish a smooth transition in the short time necessary to keep the warming of the world’s climate within a 2oC limit set by the Paris Agreement.  Since many environmental scientists are now arguing that even 1.5oC is too large an increase to retain reasonable ecological sustainability, the need to keep within the 2oC limit should now be seen as beyond dispute if we want a reasonably sane future.  (Coral reefs are an ecosystem that is being radically and irrevocably changed by the 0.9oC increase already seen.)  Goldthau’s article provides a concise listing of the changes that have to occur, the costs of same, and the degree of economic and societal disruption that is likely.  The need for global governance to make this transition as smooth as possible is a no-brainer.  Goldthau’s article is worth a read, because few people yet understand the extent of the transition that faces us.

Some countries, such as most of those in (A) gain most of their GDP from exploitation of their fossil fuel resources, and could be hit hard as we transition.  Other countries (B), with the capacity to develop low-carbon technologies, should be winners.  This mismatch demands global governance of the transition to minimize and spread risks if economic disruption is to be minimized.  Figure © A. Goldthau and Nature.

The issue that makes this transition particularly complex, is that there will be losers as well as winners among countries.  For example, the global price tag for the energy transition could be US$ 120 trillion between now and 2050, because we must halve oil use and cease use of coal during that time to have even a 66% chance of remaining within the 2oC limit.  That is about twice the current annual investment in energy projects, every year until 2050.  During this transition, there could be big winners and big losers, partly because fossil fuels yield most of their dollar value as they are extracted, while renewables yield value through innovations in advanced technology.  Technologically strong nations, particularly among the OECD nations and China, will have most to gain, while technologically weak, but fossil fuel rich countries will lose.  Countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia, rich in fossil fuels, may be unable to sell their fuels, and the falling tax revenues in such countries, and failing corporations with major fossil fuel investments, could combine to stress and perhaps collapse economies.  Goldthau argues that global governance is essential to prevent the risks involved spiraling out of control.

The current global value of all recoverable fossil fuel reserves is about $100 trillion, five times the GDP of the USA.  Those assets are held by pension funds, banks, companies, municipalities and private households around the world, but keeping within the 2oC limit requires that we burn no more than one third of them.  Most of those assets are going to have to disappear into thin air when coal, oil, or gas gets left in the ground.  In addition to these losses, there are capital costs of old energy infrastructure, from wells to refineries, to pipelines to power plants that will never be recouped.  The losses won’t be limited to investors, but will ramify through the world economy – fossil fuels represent 20-30% of the value of stocks across world markets.

There are economic benefits in the renewable energy sector as well.  Indeed, Goldthau repeats IRENA’s estimate that doubling the proportion of renewables in the global energy mix by 2030 would increase the global rate of economic growth by 1 percent.  But the benefits are unlikely to accrue to those sectors losing out as fossil fuels collapse.  We will need some degree of global coordination to minimize and spread the risk associated with these changes.  Given the current (political) state of the world I have little confidence that putting such governance in place will be easy.  So, in the final analysis, this need for global governance is just one more way in which the task in front of us is massively wicked.  (Wicked problems are large, complex, and hideously difficult to solve… and we caused this problem ourselves!)

What about Canada?

Goldthau barely mentioned Canada in his article, although his chart does show Canada as receiving only a small percentage of net GDP in the form of oil rents – a sign of how unprofitable the Canadian oil sector is at present, rather than a measure of the importance of the fossil fuel sector to our economy.  And Canada’s transition out of fossil fuels seems increasingly likely to be driven more by market forces than by concerted action on climate.  This is because our chief oil reserves are locked up in tar sands, difficult and costly to extract, and difficult to refine into desired products, and because our main oil and gas reserves are in places that are far from existing markets, and separated by highly valued natural environments from getting better access.  Canadian past foolishness in not providing for refining capacity, or in carefully thinking through routes to market is now making our products a lot less desirable than competing products from elsewhere.  In an economy in which demand for fossil fuels is no longer guaranteed to grow and may well shrink rapidly, Canadian products are at a distinct disadvantage.

Supporting evidence of the current state of Canada’s fossil fuel sector is readily available in the media.  To begin with, the price of oil remains stubbornly under $50 per barrel despite OPEC efforts to reduce supply.  On August 24th, the Globe & Mail reported that bond-rating service DBRS is forecasting continued sluggishness through 2019, with crude prices that year in the $50-55 per barrel range.  This is at least $10 lower than the number being used by Canada’s oil-producing provinces in their own financial forward planning, suggesting that significant shortfalls are in the offing.  Alberta, with a $10 billion deficit this year, is likely to face particularly difficult times.

Low prices also affect investment in the Canadian industry.  Back in June, Adam Waterous discussed the changing pattern of investment in Canadian oil reserves.  He noted that foreign corporations had divested themselves of $24 billion in Canadian oil assets over the previous three months, selling to Canadian partners.  He suggested this is part of a global trend for companies to invest in resources closer to home, to specialize in extraction from the stores they know best, and in the regulatory regime they understand best.  He argued, as an oilman, that this means we are going to enjoy the benefits of Canadian ownership of our oil patch.  I find that an interesting spin that conveniently forgets the difficulty of selling tar sands product on a global market for prices that will allow even a modest profit on investments.  I think it much more likely that Canadian oil corporations are being set up to be left holding the bag when the value evaporates, as it must if we are to keep most oil reserves in the ground.  My conclusion – we definitely don’t need lots of new pipelines, because we are not going to be selling much oil overseas in future.  We will use some of our oil to fill domestic need, and will have to write off the value of most of it.

Which brings me to another cost looming for places like Alberta – the cost of environmental remediation after the oil boom fades.  This is a cost with a perverse negative effect on decisions to invest in these resources, as well as one that looms over current owners and citizens.  On July 14th, Tim Gray of Environmental Defense, writing in the Globe & Mail, raised this issue.  His article was prompted by a recent court case in which costs of clean-up had not been deemed important enough to be paid ahead of debts to creditors of a bankrupt oil company.  That case is being appealed by the Alberta Energy Regulator, which wisely recognizes the immense, and growing, unfunded costs of environmental remediation on the books of oil companies throughout that province.  In the tar sands, in particular, there are now tailings ponds (lakes really) that in total cover an area greater than that of Vancouver plus downtown Toronto combined, and growing at 25 million litres per day.  These lakes are filled with toxic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, water and sand, and oil companies have yet to propose any way to remediate them, other than hoping for the best (the naïve idea that they will somehow settle out, allowing a vibrant living lake to exist on top of the toxic mess below).  Canada and its provinces have been lax in not requiring oil companies to set aside funds to cover remediation costs.  With lots of nodding and winking, all parties have pretended that promises to leave the environment clean and functioning after the oil is extracted would be good enough.  When value evaporates, as it will, and companies collapse, or move off to greener pastures, such promises will be long forgotten, and funding will simply not appear.  The mess will remain, as a long-term cost to the people (and environments) of Alberta, and perversely an additional reason why Canadian tar sands oil will not fare well on world markets.

Lest you think I am just an environmental scientist wading into waters he does not understand, a recent article in Hill Times makes essentially the same point I am making about the role of the fossil fuel industry in Canada’s economy – it is going to get a lot smaller.  That article points also to patterns in the gas industry showing similar things to oil – claims that are bolstered by several recent news items on developments in BC.  In Canada, large, export-driven natural gas projects are fizzling as their development costs prove uncompetitive.  Canada is not becoming a global petrostate, after all, which is actually a good thing if we are going to do our fair share to rein in climate change.

Reverting to a global perspective, it is quite difficult to discern what is happening with the demand for oil.  While current data indicate that the demand for oil continues to rise, though at a slowing rate, different sources claim their own crystal balls tell quite different stories about the next few decades.  A big part of the problem lies in uncertainty about the rate at which electric cars, self-driving cars, and an Uber economy in which private vehicles become increasingly a nostalgic luxury, are going to alter the demand for oil for transportation.  In an article in late May, the Wall Street Journal provided a list of predictions:

Shell, headquartered in Europe, has the most pessimistic view and is actively shifting out of oil and into gas.  The IEA, also in Europe, sees the peak in demand not coming until sometime after 2040, although they report that 2018 will see a lower increase in demand compared to 2017.  Other oil companies are all over the place (and you can bet that what an oil company says publicly is likely more optimistic about continuing demand than what it whispers in closed-door meetings).  Chevron and Exxon-Mobil, both based in the climate-denying USA – don’t even see a peak on the horizon!  Still, regardless of what oil companies proclaim, our need to fight climate change will likely bring down our use of oil more rapidly than most prognosticators claim to expect.  ThinkProgress heads its article on the coming decline in use of oil an investor death spiral driven by the rise of electric cars.

So how is the environment faring anyway?

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere above Mauna Kea stood at 404.82 ppm on August 27th, declining slowly from its seasonal peak this May (when it approached 410 ppm).  July tied July 2016 as the warmest July on record, despite relatively cooler, wetter weather in the eastern portion of North America.

Yes, I’ve seen this map before.  In fact, all the maps for the past 7 years have looked remarkably similar – the planet is becoming pink.  But the message is serious; this July was just 0.05oC cooler than July 2016, the warmest July on record.  And this month was also the 391st consecutive month that was warmer than the 20th century average for that month.  I’d bet on maps continuing to look like this into the future!  Image courtesy NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

The draft Climate Science Special Report, being finalized by the US government, and brought to public attention by the New York Times, is quite clear.  “The world has warmed (globally and annually averaged surface air temperature) by about 1.6°F (0.9°C) over the last 150 years (1865–2015), and the spatial and temporal non-uniformity of the warming has triggered many other changes to the Earth’s climate.”  “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate changes.”  And it goes on to report all the things you and I know already about likely increases in temperature, changes in patterns of precipitation, and greater frequency of severe weather events during coming decades.  I cannot wait to learn what chief clowns Scott and Donald will do with it, but it likely won’t make their climate change-denying souls happy.

What new science is telling us

There has been other climate news if one ventures into the science literature.  On 24th July Nature Climate Change posted a new article by Guojian Wang, of the Ocean University of China, and a team of seven colleagues from Chinese, Australian and US laboratories (available here).  It reported analyses of global climate model performance with respect to el Niño events.  By studying responses of 13 global climate models under the aggressive RCP2.6 scenario – the only modeled IPCC scenario for CO2 mitigation that achieves a warming target of <+1.5oC during this century — they reveal that the frequency of extreme el Niño events (comparable to that in 1997-98, or in 2014-16) increases linearly with global mean temperature and has doubled by the time temperature reaches +1.5oC.  Furthermore, they find that even though modeled global temperature stabilized at +1.5oC around 2050, the frequency of extreme el Niños continued through this century.  Where el Niños of 1997-98 size occurred about once every 22 years under preindustrial conditions, the models generated them about once every 10 years around mid-century, and about once every 7 years by century end.   Comparable effects on severity of la Niña were not seen.

This is a modeling study, and while the models are very good, models can deceive.  Still, given the extent to which extreme el Niños now impact weather patterns around the world, these results should give us pause.  They suggest that even if we can stabilize warming, keeping it within 1.5oC – a very demanding task itself – we are still going to have to deal with an increased frequency of severe el Niños and the damage they cause.  We really opened Pandora’s box when we began to warm the climate.

Another piece of bad climate news was provided by an article in Science Advances, which appeared on 2nd August (it’s open access).  In it, Im Eun-Soon of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, with two colleagues from US institutions, reported on the likelihood of life-threatening heat waves as climate warms.  They used a wet-bulb temperature of 35oC, recognized as a lethal threshold for humans, and examined occurrences of heat this extreme under a business-as-usual (RCP8.5) and under a moderate emissions reduction (RCP4.5) scenario of fossil fuel use.  (The wet-bulb temperature is defined as the temperature that an air parcel would attain if cooled at constant pressure by evaporating water within it until saturation.  It is a combined measure of temperature and humidity, and is always equal to or less than the usual (dry-bulb) temperature as reported in weather forecasts.)  Eun-Soon and colleagues note that previous studies have already pointed to problems of extreme heat in the Persian Gulf region, so they turned their attention to south Asia.

Figure 2 (part) from the Eun-Soon article showing annual maximum levels of wet-bulb temperature for present-day (left), and expected at end-century (2071-2100) under moderate emissions mitigation (center) and business-as-usual scenarios (right panel).
Figure
© Eun-Soon and Science Advances.

Eun-Soon and colleagues show that towards the end of this century, under the more extreme, business-as-usual conditions, the 35oC wet-bulb threshold is exceeded at a few locations in the Chota Nagpur Plateau, northeastern India, and Bangladesh, and that this threshold is approached over most of South Asia, including the Ganges river valley, northeastern India, Bangladesh, the eastern coast of India, Chota Nagpur Plateau, northern Sri Lanka, and the Indus valley of Pakistan. many regions in south Asia, and some in south-east Asia, exceed this limit.  We don’t need to be reminded of the enormous numbers of people who live in these places, or of the fact that they have modeled average climates rather than results for particularly warm years.  As they state in the final sentence of their abstract, “climate change, without mitigation, presents a serious and unique risk in South Asia, a region inhabited by about one-fifth of the global human population, due to an unprecedented combination of severe natural hazard and acute vulnerability”.  What do we do with this information?  Some of us in the west, may simply breathe a sigh of relief that we live where we do.  Others might be motivated to work even harder to bring climate change under control.

There has also been some good climate news in the technical press.  On 24th August, Nature published a report by Vasilii Petrenko of the University of Rochester, and a team of 15 colleagues from institutions in Australia, the US, and Europe.  It concerned methane emissions in the past, specifically during the time known as the Younger Dryas-Preboreal warming period, 11,700 to 11,300 years ago.  That was a time long before humans were having significant effects on climate, when the planet underwent a rapid warming over a matter of decades at the start of the Holocene.  Petrenko and colleagues sampled methane trapped in bubbles of ancient air in ice from the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, and separated methane comprised of 14C from methane comprised of 12C.  Methane from ancient fossil sources contains essentially no 14C because it will have all decayed, while methane from recently living sources contains a ratio of 14C to 12C that approximates that in the atmosphere (as much more abundant CO2) at the time the methane was formed.  At the present time, the world is experiencing a combination of methane emissions from fossil sources that includes natural emissions and man-made emissions due to our fossil fuel and other mining activities, but in the Younger Dryas all fossil methane emissions were natural.

The changing concentration of methane in the atmosphere is shown as parts per billion by volume for the period from the late Pleistocene through the Holocene.  YD and PB refer to the Younger Dryas and Preboreal periods when the second of two very rapid increases in concentration occurred, and the time frame within which Petrenko and colleagues did their analyses.  Not shown is the recent very rapid rise in methane concentration to more than 1800 ppbv due primarily to human-caused emissions during the last 100 years.
Image
© P. Hopcroft and Nature.

So, what on earth does all this have to do with climate change?  Methane is ‘the other’ greenhouse gas that we are emitting into the atmosphere, and while we can get estimates of the rate of total emissions (human-caused plus natural) by measuring the concentration of methane in the atmosphere, and using our knowledge of the processes and pathways that remove it from the atmosphere, those estimates of emission rate are relatively imprecise.  By looking at what happened during the Younger Dryas-Preboreal time, it is possible to gain a more accurate estimate of the rate of natural emissions of fossil methane at a time when the world was warming, under conditions not too very far removed from today.  And that is what Petrenko and colleagues have done.

To appreciate what their approach required, understand that they are measuring trace amounts of methane in minute bubbles of air (at ratios of the order of 10-19 parts methane per part of air), while discriminating methane composed using 14C from that using 12C.  This is micro-scale measurement that makes the eyes of this environmental scientist blur – not something I’d want to do, but something that causes me to be impressed by the capabilities of those who dig doing this type of science.  To make their measurements, Petrenko and colleagues had to use rather large samples of subsurface, dated ice from the glacier – about 1000 kg per sample.

What did they find?  That the rapid increase in atmospheric methane during that time period was due almost entirely to emissions of methane from wetlands and other sources of recently-formed methane, and that no more than 19% of the methane emissions originated from fossil sources such as marine methane hydrates and melting permafrost.  Their best estimates are that natural emissions of fossil (14C-free) methane at that time were 15.4 teragrams CH4 per year or less (that’s 15.4 billion kilograms of methane).

What does this have to do with present-day climate change?  A lot, because our current estimates of the contribution of fossil methane to total emissions are around 52 teragrams CH4 per year.  If we assume, as Petrenko and colleagues do, that present-day rates of emissions of fossil methane from natural sources are no greater than they were during Younger Dryas-Preboreal times, our current estimates of that rate are too high by at least 36 teragrams CH4 per year.  Conversely, and this is the important point, our estimates of human-caused emissions of fossil methane are too low by that same amount.  Climate scientists have long recognized that preventing the so-called fugitive emissions of methane that leak from oil and gas wells, that are often deliberately flared (burned) rather than being captured, would reduce overall methane emissions, thereby curtailing climate change and capturing additional hydrocarbon supplies from our mining activities.  What seems evident, based on Petrenko and colleagues’ work, is that we have greater scope for such fugitive capture than we had anticipated.  (What galls me is that I bet the oil and gas companies have known this all along, even if they did not know just how much more fugitive methane was available for capture.)

Another encouraging outcome, is that these results confirm that the rate of emissions of fossil methane did not grow during the rapid warming period (although emissions of methane from sources like wetlands clearly did).  While the Younger Dryas, a bit colder than now and only recently following a major glaciation, is not an exact analog of today, we can perhaps relax our concern over what will happen as climate warms and the Arctic melts.  Sure, there will be some positive feedback as frozen methane stores are released, but the extent of that positive feedback, seems, just perhaps, less frightening than it had.  And in this crazy world, a slight diminution of frightening news is definitely good news!

On to the more political news

My final article from the technical press is a fun one indeed.  Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard, has done a great job exposing the systematic pattern of lying and misinformation practiced by the climate deniers, and the degree to which they cooperate with each other to systematically cast doubt on the evidence for climate change.  This group, well-represented in the USA, but with outlier cells in other countries such as Canada, Australia and the UK, has applied the lessons learned from the successful, multi-year campaign by the cigarette manufacturers to muddle the evidence on the link to cancer, thereby gaining many years of profitable sales by denying the inevitable.  (Indeed, many of the active participants in climate change denial had previous lives in the ‘smoking is not dangerous’ campaign.)  Anyway, Oreskes decided to take up a challenge thrown down by Exxon-Mobil.

As part of a probe begun in 2015 by various parties including the New York Attorney General into Exxon-Mobil’s possible criminal behavior in deliberately misreporting the climate science being done by its own scientists, the giant company found itself beset by numerous subpoenas and similar legal entanglements.  In its defense, Exxon-Mobil posted an extraordinary statement on its website, in which it claimed categorically that it had never distorted or withheld the results of climate research by its science team over its 40-year long history as a company.  On the site, on 20 October, 2015, Exxon-Mobil posted copies of the 50 peer-reviewed documents its climate scientists had generated over that time, as well as a number of other public documents it had produced over the same period.  On the site, Exxon-Mobil stated: “Read the documents.  Go ahead, you really should. Read the documents InsideClimate News cites that purportedly prove some conspiracy on ExxonMobil’s part to hide our climate science findings.  In case you need help finding them, the link to the documents in question is right here.”

This was a challenge Naomi Oreskes could not refuse!  The article, in Environmental Research Letters, authored by Geoffrey Supran, her post-doctoral fellow, and Naomi Oreskes, appeared on 23rd August.  It’s open access, here, and the New York Times wrote an interesting report on it.  Supran and Oreskes compared 187 climate change communications from ExxonMobil, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and paid, editorial-style advertisements (‘advertorials’) in The New York Times.  These included all documents offered by Exxon-Mobil with its challenge, and all other publicly accessible documents they could obtain.  They specifically excluded “archived internal documents, advertorials published in newspapers beyond the NYT, and non-peer-reviewed materials such as speech transcripts, television adverts, patent documents, shareholder reports, and third-party communications (for example, from lobbyists, think-tanks, and politicians funded by ExxonMobil)”, but acknowledged that such documents could form the basis of a more extensive analysis.  They looked specifically for positions taken in the various documents on the reality of climate change, on whether it is human-caused, on its seriousness, and on the degree to which there are solutions to it.

What they found was a systematic increase in doubt as one moved from the relatively hidden (from the general public) internal and peer-reviewed documents through the other public documents to the advertorials, which raised the greatest amount of doubt.  This was true whether one considered the question of whether climate change was real and human-caused, whether it was serious, or whether feasible solutions to this problem existed.

The shifting perspective on climate change available in Exxon-Mobil documents, as assessed by Supran and Oreskes.  In each case, more readily accessible documents are more likely to cast doubt on the existence, cause, importance or solvability of climate change.
Figure
© N. Oreskes and Environmental Research Letters.

In their conclusions, Supran and Oreskes are careful to note that they are NOT concluding that Exxon-Mobil suppressed, withheld, or sought to hide data on climate science.  They note explicitly that Exxon-Mobil contributed to climate science.  However, they argue their analysis supports the conclusion that Exxon-Mobil misled non-scientific audiences on climate change.  They support this claim with three points: 1) the claims about climate change vary substantially among the categories of article, with the advertorials being far and away the most skeptical; 2) in public, Exxon-Mobil contributed quietly to climate science and loudly to raising doubts about it; 3) the advertorials contained several instances of explicit factual misrepresentations concerning climate science.  Supran and Oreskes reached their conclusion about quiet contribution and loud casting of doubt in the following way.  They report that Exxon-Mobil purchased space for an advertorial in the New York Times every week from 1972 to 2001, that these cost, on average $31000 each, and that one quarter of them fell on the Op-Ed page.  This is a hefty expenditure to secure a very public pulpit for the doubt-creating advertorials.  While Exxon-Mobil peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed articles are poorly cited (suggesting readership in the 10s to 100s), and peer-reviewed articles are usually locked behind paywalls, inaccessible except to scientists and others with access to an academic library, the advertorials were seen by millions of readers.  My summation: Supran and Oreskes did precisely what Exxon-Mobil asked – they looked at the evidence and found Exxon-Mobil guilty as charged.  Climate change denial is alive and well at one of the largest fossil fuel corporations on the planet.

I’ll close with brief comments about three other political event-chains relevant to climate change.  In Canada, the Liberal government of British Columbia fell unexpectedly in an election called by a Premier who expected to strengthen her hand, and the New Democratic Party came to power.  The NDP campaigned on opposition to several resource development projects in the province, in particular the expansion of pipeline capacity from Alberta (Kinder Morgan twinning project), and the development of major LNG export projects.  Petronas has already withdrawn from the large LNG project it was leading, and the Kinder-Morgan twinning looks quite shaky now that the provincial government will join the indigenous and environmental groups opposing it.  This poses an interesting dilemma for Justin Trudeau, whose national government has endorsed both projects.  My guess is that Justin is hoping that market forces will make such projects financially non-viable.  That way, he won’t have to make a difficult decision in which he cannot please his followers who want climate action and his followers who want to ensure the resource sector and the national economy flourishes.  Time will tell, but this cartoon from some months ago captures our Prime Minister’s predicament well.

 Cartoon © David Parkins, Globe & Mail.

In Australia, the federal government seems to be entangling itself in something rather sticky and a bit smelly as it tries to encourage development of major new coal export programs, while also claiming it is protecting the Great Barrier Reef, which will inevitably suffer directly as tankers laden with coal sail through its waters, and indirectly when that coal is burned further warming a climate which is already proving too warm for the corals the reef depends upon.  Australia’s latest report on greenhouse gas emissions reveals a particularly poor result (continuing increase in rate of emissions) for a wealthy, developed country that has signed on (half-heartedly) to Paris.  Since the Liberal Country coalition government wrested power from Labor in 2013, greenhouse gas emissions have risen 6% compared to a 10% drop during the 6-year Labor reign.  Emissions are currently 550.4 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year, pretty high for a country of 24.6 million people, and on par on a per capita basis with emissions in the USA and Canada.

Executive Orders are playing in the center ring while Pruitt and Zinke quietly undo regulations offstage.  Cartoon © J Darcy

And in the USA, the only country on earth where a three-ring circus serves as its government, we have an ongoing performance at center stage by an artful illusionist, the great Donald Trump, who keeps the crowd mesmerized and distracted by a never-ending series of explosive, outrageous, distressing, and even sometimes plain disgusting antics, while his minions quietly dismantle important parts of the country’s governance.  With Donald’s own series of Executive Orders (most of which are admittedly just photo ops using meaningless pieces of paper) creating a drum beat of deregulatory action, henchmen Scott Pruitt at EPA and Ryan Zinke at Interior are quietly dismantling decades of environmental protections affecting land, water, and air across the USA.  Even Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross got into the act by stepping in to reject a decision on flounder catch made by the Atlantic States Fishery Commission, the 75-year old, well-respected fisheries management body for most of the US East Coast.  National Monuments are having their borders redrawn to free up land for mineral exploration, water quality rules are being thrown out like so much bathwater, and regulations governing the releases of greenhouse gases by the energy industry or the automotive industry are all being looked at and rejected when possible.  Along the way, virtually every science-based advisory panel has been re-staffed with industry cronies, or simply disbanded, science information is disappearing from agency websites, and scientists are being reassigned.  It is all very reminiscent of how Harper’s government tried to shut down Canada’s government science, but it is being done far more rapidly, and more thoroughly.  Even some of their fans in the oil and gas industries are becoming worried that they are moving too fast and too far.

The latest move, rolling back the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which will remove a requirement to consider climate change and sea level rise when building infrastructure, seems particularly ironic in the week that Hurricane Harvey submerges most of coastal Texas in a meter or so of rain over three days.  As The Guardian said in an article on effects of sea level rise on flood risk two days ago, “Houston already has some of the laxest building regulations for structures in potential flood zones and the president wants to spread that policy across the US”.

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