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Updated: 4 hours 48 min ago

Can the Realities of “Danger Season” Pierce Climate Denial?

June 10, 2024 - 08:53

Can a heat wave ever melt climate denial in Florida? It certainly hasn’t yet. Governor Ron DeSantis’s recent response is a scorched-earth campaign to wipe out climate science from state policy. On the very day in May that Key West registered a record 115-degree heat index, DeSantis signed a bill that:

  • Eliminates requirements for businesses to consider climate friendly products and practices in lodging and vehicle fuel efficiency;
  • Prohibits offshore wind energy;
  • Prohibits localities and homeowners associations from restricting or banning fuel sources and appliances, most notably gas;
  • Eliminates requirements for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to establish goals and strategies to increase renewable energy and include renewable energy development and reduction of fossil fuels in long-range forecasts of energy supply and demand;
  •  Repeals grant programs and incentives for individuals, businesses, school districts and local governments to diversify energy supplies to mitigate the effects of climate change;

Waving his magical-thinking wand to make climate change disappear from virtually every aspect of policymaking, DeSantis bloviated that he is “rejecting the agenda of radical green zealots.” Not even two weeks later, Florida was hit with a Memorial Day weekend of yet more heat records in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Tampa hit a daily record of 97 degrees on May 29.

That caused a television meteorologist at NBC’s Miami affiliate to all but say that Florida is under a state of climate emergency, inflamed by political insanity. Meteorologist Steve MacLaughlin said on social media that “Florida is on fire, underwater and unaffordable.” He told viewers in a video that the state was rolling back important climate change legislation and language despite “record heat, record flooding, record rain, record insurance rates and the corals are dying all around the state.”

MacLaughlin did not stop there. He made a public plea for viewers to register their concern for climate change at the ballot box. “Please keep in mind the most powerful climate change solution is the one you already have in the palm of your hands — the right to vote,” MacLaughlin said. “And we will never tell you who to vote for, but we will tell you this: We implore you to please do your research and know that there are candidates that believe in climate change and that there are solutions, and that there are candidates that don’t.”

MacLaughlin’s stance was especially notable given the harassment many television weather forecasters have experienced for following the science to tie climate change to increasingly severe weather. The harassment was symbolized by last year’s resignation by Chris Gloninger, an award-winning television meteorologist in Des Moines, Iowa after he received threatening emails.  

“Danger Season” realities

Florida is hardly the only state in a state of denial as the United States enters what the Union of Concerned Scientists describes as “Danger Season”–the period from late spring through early fall where the nation is at particular risk of a host of devastating rains that can trigger floods, hurricanes and storms that can deliver baseball-sized hail, and extreme heat and drought that can kill people and ignite wildfires.

As heat saturated the Sunshine State, a siege of severe storms killed at least dozen people on Memorial Day weekend across Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama. Hundreds of thousands of people in Texas lost power, many streets in Houston were under water and several people were killed by blown-down trees and limbs that fell on houses, tents, trailers and vehicles. A few days later, Denver recorded the largest hailstones in 35 years.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has dutifully issued disaster declarations for many counties that have been battered by severe weather since late April. On May 15, as DeSantis deleted climate change from state policy while Florida broke heat records, Abbott wrote President Biden for a White House disaster declaration. Abbott said the incidents were “of such severity and magnitude that an effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments, and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary to save lives and to protect property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster.”

Deadly state policies

When it comes to acting on climate change to avert the threat of disasters, though, Abbott is much like DeSantis. He has vetoed legislation for energy efficiency in new construction, signed laws banning localities from banning gas in new construction and issued an executive order that directs “every state agency” to fight federal actions to reduce dependence on oil and gas.

Most cruelly, Abbott signed a bill last year that bars cities and counties from mandating heat protection rules stronger than the state’s, that might allow for things such as more frequent water breaks,. This year, DeSantis signed a similar bill. This is despite the fact that Texas has set heat death records three years in a row, and  leads the nation in heat-related construction worker deaths. Both Texas and Florida were in the top five states for heat deaths last year. A 2021 analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that by 2065, the outdoor exposure to hazardous heat could quadruple.

Last week, the Associated Press published an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that last year was the deadliest for heat across the nation in 45 years of record keeping, with heat listed as a factor on more than 2,300 death certificates. It was a sorry exclamation point on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s assessment that 2023 was the Earth’s warmest year on record..

And even that number of US deaths may be a vast understatement given that heat illnesses are often not mentioned on death certificates. Texas A&M climate scientists Andrew Dessler and Jangho Lee told the AP that last year’s real national annual heat death toll may be more like 11,000–and that it could get much worse. “We’re going to look back at 2023 and say, man, that was cool,” Dessler said. “The problem with climate change is, if it hasn’t pushed you over the edge yet, just wait.”

The question is: when will the toll of heat and severe weather push DeSantis, Abbott and like-minded politicians toward policies to cool the planet? Last year, the nation suffered a record 28 billion-dollar weather disasters, hugely impacting Midwestern and Southern states thus far resistant to climate-friendly policies.

Quietly reaping benefits

There are occasional nods to reality as DeSantis last month signed into law a measure requiring homeowners to disclose a property’s flood history. But for the most part, conservative states are engaged in a selfish game of quietly reaping the benefits of renewable energy while doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry, to retard progress on the national level.

For instance, the top four states for wind generation growth over the last decade, according to a report in April by Climate Central, are Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas. The top states for solar power growth since 2014 are Texas and Florida. Two of the top three states for adding clean energy jobs in 2022 were Texas and West Virginia, according to the US Department of Energy.

Nonetheless, all of those states are among the more than two dozen suing the Environmental Protection Agency over the Biden administration’s rules that cut carbon pollution at the national level from existing coal-fired power plants and new natural gas plants. They all are also among the two dozen states that currently have laws on the books prohibiting localities from banning gas in new buildings, despite the wealth of science showing that the methane associated with gas production is a potent contributor to global warming. Not surprisingly, many of these same states also rank in the bottom half of the State Energy Efficiency Scorecard published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Yet, when climate-related disaster strikes, these same states beg for federal disaster aid. Only then do they become, to borrow from DeSantis, “radical green zealots.” Except that the only green they are seeking is federal cash.

While the government should indeed deliver aid to families and businesses that suffer destruction, it would be a lot better if Abbott and others returned the favor by not trying to destroy federal efforts to stem the forces behind the damage. Abbot has boasted that “Texas is not going to stand idly by and watch the Biden administration kill jobs.” It will be more momentous when he and his ilk are finally humbled enough by storms and heat to say they will no longer stand idly by to watch climate change kill people.

Categories: Climate

Get Ready: 85% Chance of Above-Normal Atlantic Hurricane Season that May Break Records

May 29, 2024 - 11:49

Source: https://www.noaa.gov/news-release/noaa-predicts-above-normal-2024-atlantic-hurricane-season

The May 23 outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts 17 to 25 named storms, eight to 13 of which could become hurricanes.

NOAA https://www.noaa.gov/news-release/noaa-predicts-above-normal-2024-atlantic-hurricane-season

Four to seven major hurricanes are forecast. This is a concerning outlook, and it can be explained as follows.

The recipe for the 2024 hurricane outlook

Ingredients:

  1. Record warm sea surface temperature (SST) for most of the Atlantic (currently 1-2 degrees Celsius above average, which is more like temperatures seen in August; promotes rapid intensification).
  2. High Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE – second highest after 2010; a high ACE is linked with the most destructive hurricanes).
  3. La Niña (77% chance of forming in late summer-early fall; La Niña is linked to reduced wind shear. High wind shear breaks down cyclone formation, especially in the Western Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean).

NOAA https://www.climate.gov/media/13556

Instructions:

Put everything together leading up to May, test for possible results.

Results:

  1. A likelihood of higher-than-normal level of activity (record warm SST contributes to the high end of the forecast; the longer the ocean is super warm, the longer and stronger the season is likely to be).
  2. Potential for rapid intensification of storms when approaching land (in less than 24h, brings intense rainfall and challenges for preparedness; most if not all Category 5 hurricanes in the last few years intensified rapidly).
Serious potential consequences, need for increased preparedness

This is the highest ever May hurricane outlook issued by NOAA. But that is not what we should focus on, because we know it only takes one landfall to bring disaster.

We must be ready. US coastal communities are tired of crossing their fingers and hoping these storms of epic, record-breaking proportions veer away from their homes, dissipate, or spin out over the Atlantic.

It’s imperative that local, state, and federal policymakers and emergency planners help keep communities safe by prioritizing investments to get homes, businesses, and infrastructure in frontline communities climate-ready and be prepared to ensure a quick and just recovery should disaster strike. Reining in heat-trapping emissions driving the climate crisis is also essential.

If we act on climate, we may be able to substitute some of the ingredients in the outlook recipe, and come out with better results in future tries. And who doesn’t like a good recipe substitution?

Categories: Climate

Here’s What We’re Asking Major Fossil Fuel Corporations at This Year’s Annual Meetings

May 28, 2024 - 16:45

At this year’s annual general meetings, major investor-owned fossil fuel corporations are facing fewer climate-related shareholder proposals than at any time since the adoption of the Paris climate agreement in 2015. But that doesn’t mean they’re under less pressure over their role in driving the climate crisis. As ExxonMobil retaliates against its own shareholders with an unprecedented lawsuit over a resolution requesting medium-term targets for reducing global warming emissions, institutional investors are upping the ante with calls to vote against members of the company’s board of directors.

And this spring’s corporate annual meetings are taking place against a backdrop of protests, new climate lawsuits (including a criminal complaint against the CEO and directors of TotalEnergies), a bicameral congressional investigation into Big Oil’s climate disinformation, and a call by congressional leaders for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long history of engaging in deceptive practices.

Here’s what’s happening—and what to expect as Big Oil’s annual meetings wrap up this week.

Shell evades questions and highlights “uncertainty”

On May 21, Shell held its hybrid annual meeting—disrupted by shareholders fed up with the corporation’s weak-and-getting-weaker climate action.

Attending virtually thanks to a proxy provided by the UK responsible investment organization ShareAction, I was able to ask our question:

Internal corporate documents made public through a bicameral Congressional investigation in the US demonstrate that days after President Trump was elected, a Shell media manager worked to “soften [methane reduction] language and still be true to ourselves” in an effort not to upset the Trump Administration, which sought to roll back methane standards. Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute (API)—in which Shell holds a leadership role—launched a voluntary methane program in 2017 that internal documents reveal was explicitly designed “to stave off future regulation.” Why, then, did Shell’s Gretchen Watkins call the final watered down Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations “frustrating and disappointing” in 2020?

Unfortunately, Shell CEO Wael Sawan’s response failed to address the blatant inconsistency between Shell’s internal and external communications about methane regulations, or between the corporation’s stated support for methane regulations and its trade association’s creation of a voluntary initiative to block mandatory rules.

Throughout the meeting, Shell used “uncertainty” as an excuse for rolling back its climate targets, claiming that the corporation can’t stick with medium-term emissions reduction benchmarks because it doesn’t know what governments or customers will do. Such doublespeak is the latest evolution in the fossil fuel industry’s deception playbook. These corporations may no longer be disputing climate science—now they are creating doubt about climate policy even as they seek to water it down, directly and through trade associations such as API. Yet no such uncertainty prevents them from planning further expansion of their oil and gas business.

In the face of opposition by the board, about one-fifth of Shell’s shareholders nonetheless voted in favor of a resolution put forward by the climate advocacy organization Follow This, calling for the corporation to align its medium-term emissions reduction targets—including emissions from use of its oil and gas products—with the goals of the Paris agreement.

BP keeps climate-conscious shareholders out

BP faced no climate-related shareholder proposals this year. On April 25, the corporation held only an in-person annual meeting, with no webcast and very little news coverage—even as activists protested the corporation’s role in the climate crisis and fueling the war in Gaza.

A supporter of ShareAction had planned to ask a question on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, but was wrongly denied entry into the meeting.

Here’s the question we wanted to ask BP:

In its annual report, BP disclosed that total emissions had increased over the past year as a result of increased oil and gas production, representing a setback to corporate climate goals. Climate attribution science has quantified BP’s historical responsibility for global emissions, and social science is building a base of evidence of past and ongoing climate disinformation and obstruction campaigns by the fossil fuel industry. In recent weeks, two more jurisdictions in the US brought lawsuits to hold BP and other major fossil fuel producers accountable for climate damages and deception. Also, a report by the NGO Carbon Tracker found that BP’s transition plan is not aligned with the Paris climate goals. How do you calculate BP’s potential liability for its past actions and future foreseeable and preventable harms associated with its business plans?

We are still waiting for an answer.

ExxonMobil and Chevron on the hot seat

This week, ExxonMobil and Chevron will hold their annual meetings. They’ve both been in the news recently for being represented at a meeting at which former President Trump reportedly requested $1 billion in oil and gas industry contributions to his campaign in exchange for promised deregulation and dismantling of climate measures, accelerated permitting, and preservation of tax breaks.

Chevron bankrolls front group

Chevron’s virtual annual meeting comes near the end of what our allies at Amazon Watch are calling #AntiChevronMonth, when people around the world take action to call out the corporation’s horrific track record driving climate change, pollution, environmental injustice, and human rights violations.

Attending on the proxy of a climate-conscious shareholder, my colleague Laura Peterson plans to ask one question of Chevron:

In the first six months of 2023, Chevron directed between $2.5 and $7.5 million to a group new to Chevron’s trade association disclosures—Californians for Energy Independence. The group characterizes itself as a coalition of 200,000 Californians, but research has shown it’s actually a classic “astroturf” group funded by fossil fuel companies and related organizations. The group is behind expensive media campaigns to defeat legislation that would protect communities from harmful emissions resulting from oil and gas extraction, and incorrectly blames high gas prices in California on state politics. A Chevron 2023 report says the company lobbies “ethically, constructively and in a nonpartisan manner.” How does financing a front group that spreads partisan disinformation align with that statement?

ExxonMobil adapts disinformation strategies

ExxonMobil’s virtual annual meeting comes amid an unprecedented lawsuit by the corporation against its own shareholders, with growing numbers of institutional investors saying they will vote against one or more board members to protest this bullying. It also marks the end of the Board tenure of climate scientist Dr. Susan Avery.

I’ve submitted two questions to ExxonMobil:

  1. ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Darren Woods has recently been dismissing evidence of the company’s climate deception as “what was said 30 years ago,” and insisting that “the world has moved on.” But when I asked one of my climate scientist colleagues to evaluate the corporation’s latest “Advancing Climate Solutions” reports, she found them misleading at best, dishonest at worst—and concluded that while ExxonMobil’s strategy may have changed, its output of disinformation continues. And this month, congressional leaders called on US Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate ExxonMobil, other major oil and gas companies, and two of their trade associations for their decades-long climate disinformation campaign—including claims and actions since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015. What legal and financial consequences should shareholders anticipate from the ever-growing mountain of evidence of ExxonMobil’s deceptive practices and other corporate misconduct?
  2. In its latest Climate Lobbying Report, ExxonMobil revealed that in 2022 it withdrew from the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents “independent” (i.e. smaller) oil and gas producers. The same report found 52 trade associations “aligned” with ExxonMobil’s climate policy positions, and three groups “partially aligned.” Yet many of the associations in which the corporation maintains membership are actively spreading climate disinformation and obstructing climate progress. For example, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers is running a massive ad campaign falsely claiming that the US Environmental Protection Agency has banned gasoline-powered cars. Why is ExxonMobil using a report requested by shareholders to justify its ongoing support for trade associations that promote climate disinformation, oppose climate action, and seek to delay the urgently needed transition to clean energy?

Based on my experience attending ExxonMobil corporate annual meetings on behalf of climate-conscious shareholders since 2016, I don’t expect a sudden rush of candor from Chair and CEO Darren Woods. Yet ExxonMobil’s efforts to censor climate-conscious shareholders—rather than transforming climate-destroying business model—are likely to provoke increased outrage from investors and affected communities.

The leaders of these corporations may think they can escape accountability by stonewalling, greenwashing, blocking shareholders from even discussing climate-related issues, and engaging in a concerted campaign to undermine Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing. They couldn’t be more wrong. These efforts to suppress shareholder input are exactly why investors are turning their attention to unseating oil and gas company board members.

As Danger Season 2024 brings extreme events like heat waves, heavy rainfall, wildfires, and poor air quality to millions of people across the United States, major oil and gas corporations should expect growing scrutiny from policymakers and public prosecutors over their role in driving the climate crisis—and rising votes of no confidence in corporate leadership the longer they continue to delay, deceive, and disinform.

Categories: Climate

In the Race for Clean Energy, the United States is Both a Leader and a Laggard—Here’s How

May 27, 2024 - 18:00

Announcing recently that the world broke a record by generating 30 percent of all electricity from renewable sources in 2023, the British think tank Ember said the data proves we are in a “new era” of energy in which a permanent decline in fossil fuels is “inevitable.”

The new era would be even more inevitable if the United States fully committed to phasing out fossil fuels. More on that shortly. But first, the undeniably good news.

The new global record in the generation of renewable energy was powered primarily by solar and wind. Solar power has been the fastest growing source of electricity in the world for 19 years in a row according to Ember’s Global Electricity Review 2024. Providing just 1.1 percent of the globe’s electricity in 2015, solar now produces 5.5 percent of the supply.

In that regard, the United States is a major player. Our share of solar electricity has grown from 1 percent to 6 percent since 2015. In terms of raw numbers, the United States is the world’s second-leading generator of electricity from solar energy, with China the global leader by far.

Wind power offers a similar story, having more than doubled its share of the world’s electricity from 3.5 percent in 2015 to nearly 8 percent in 2023. And again, the United States looks great, doubling wind’s share of US  electricity generation from 5 percent in 2015 to 10 percent in 2023, coming in, again, second behind China.

The combined 16 percent of wind- and solar-powered electricity flowing throughout the nation is especially impressive given the fact that only 0.2 percent of US electricity came from these sources just a quarter century ago. The shift helped the United States to drop its share of fossil fuels in the energy mix from 67 percent in 2015 to 59 percent last year. The shift, combined with the huge shift from ultra-dirty goal to more-moderately dirty gas helped cut our power sector carbon dioxide emissions by 41 percent  from a peak in 2007.

US still needs to do more

But that pace of change remains far from sufficient for the United States to do its part for climate change and to help the planet’s temperatures stay under the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7-degrees Fahrenheit) limits of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The main reasons: our unsustainable levels of energy consumption as a wealthy nation and our too-slow phaseout of fossil fuels.

According to the Ember report, per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United States are three times higher than the global average and remain among the highest of all major economies.

Many US politicians who are apologists for the fossil fuel industry often deflect blame for heat-trapping gases onto newer mass emitters such as China or India. Indeed, China is a conundrum, adding more than half of the world’s solar and wind installations last year yet still producing more than half the world’s electricity from coal and spewing nearly a third of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Countries like China and India clearly need to do more. But the fact remains that, even with reductions of recent years, the United States, which produced one quarter of the world’s global warming gases two decades ago, still produces between 13 percent and 14 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, more than triple our share of the world’s population. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says on its Climate.gov website: “The United States bears a greater share of the responsibility for current conditions—on both a national and per-person level.”

A recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) shows that the best ways for the United States to meet its climate goals under the Paris Agreement and achieve a near phaseout of fossil fuels are to ramp up renewables in the power sector, increase energy efficiency, and  electrify buildings, transportation, and industry.

Doing so would generate tremendous benefits, including a more than $100 billion reduction in consumer energy costs in 2030, $800 billion in public health benefits by 2050, and nearly $1.3 trillion in avoided climate damages by 2050. While the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) roughly doubles the current pace of annual emissions reductions to about 3 percent per year through 2030, the country will need to further accelerate its reductions to roughly 5 percent per year to achieve its climate targets.

Slash gas

Fully decarbonizing the power sector—which is a key strategy for meeting our climate goals—will require dramatically slashing gas use as we continue to phase out coal. A UCS analysis showed that wind, solar and other renewables would nearly triple to 60 percent of US electricity generation in 2030 and 92 percent in 2050, while gas use would fall from more than 40 percent of the US electricity mix today to 25 percent in 2030 and a mere 2 percent in 2050.

Gas once played an important role in suppressing coal-fired electricity, with less carbon emissions. But the benefit has expired. The emissions of methane, which traps heat much more effectively than carbon dioxide, is now widely viewed alongside carbon dioxide as a critical threat that could lead the United States to miss its commitment to the Paris Agreement.

One key reason our power sector emissions are triple the global rate, according to the International Energy Agency, is that we still source 42 percent of our electricity from gas. Politicians can sneer at China all they want for coal and carbon emissions, but the United States spews so much methane via gas and oil operations that it is far and away the world leader for that fossil fuel. The United States pumped a world-record amount of crude oil last year, with ExxonMobil and Chevron seeing some of their biggest profits in a decade. Our gas generation last year hit a new record too, preventing a global drop in generation.

Globally, the IEA’s net zero scenario says the world’s gas generation must fall from its current 23 percent of the world’s electricity to just 2.4 percent over the next 16 years, with “no need for new long lead time upstream oil and gas conventional projects.” To help meet that goal, both UCS and IEA analyses call for roughly tripling the electricity generated by wind, solar, and other renewables by 2030. 

Other wealthy nations are proving that the technology is already here to reduce our carbon intensity and speed the energy transition. While 59 percent of electricity in the United States is produced by fossil fuels, the share in several other wealthy major economies such as the United Kingdom and Germany, now stands under 50 percent. Britain’s per-capita carbon emissions are a quarter of those in the United States.

Tug of war

The major question in this country is the will to act. We are currently in a tug-of-war between progress and the pugnacity of the fossil fuel industry. Our potential to speed toward net zero is obvious. There are the commercial-scale offshore wind farms being developed off the East Coast. Solar offers many avenues for adoption, from individual rooftops to large-scale fields. Electrification, from home heat pumps to vehicles, is no longer an oddity.

Significant tax credits and incentives are available in the Inflation Reduction Act that will significantly ramp-up investments in all these areas. The Biden administration has also launched several initiatives to boost renewable energy infrastructure and announced several major rules to cut methane emissions and carbon pollution from coal plants and motor vehicles and trucks. If they all became permanent, the United States would take a rightful place in global leadership.

But some of those rules are already being challenged in the courts by the fossil fuel and auto industries, and conservative states friendly to oil and gas interests; more are likely to be challenged. The ultimate future of those rules may rest in the hands of a conservative US Supreme Court and former President Trump, who pledges to kill those rules if elected.

He renewed that pledge last month at a private gathering of oil and gas executives at his Mar-a-Lago resort. In attendance, according to the Washington Post and the New York Times, were executives from ExxonMobil, Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobbying arm.  

Meanwhile the oil industry continues to smother this nation like no other wealthy nation with disinformation, denial, and delay on the transition. Last month, Democrats in the House and Senate published a joint staff report loaded with so much evidence of disinformation that Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin last week urged the US Department of Justice to investigate the fossil fuel industry for its coordinated campaign.

Last fall, ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Darren Woods deployed the industry’s playbook of doubt and diversion in a speech to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit. Despite the IEA’s assessment that no more major oil and gas projects are needed, Woods claimed, “While renewable energy is essential to help the world achieve net zero, it is not sufficient—wind and solar alone can’t solve emissions in the industrial sectors that are at the heart of a modern society.”

This month, the American Petroleum Institute launched an ad campaign urging the nation to “harness America’s abundant oil and natural gas.” The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a top trade organization representing many top oil and chemical companies, launched a Don’t Ban Our Cars ad campaign against the Biden administration’s new tailpipe rules. The rules are not a ban; rather, they tighten standards that the administration hopes will result in incentivizing 56 percent of new cars to be electric by 2032.

When you consider all the disinformation, it’s remarkable that the United States has any kind of leadership in the renewable revolution. What we can hope for is that reports such as the one from Ember are a sign that, for all the huffing and puffing of Big Oil and Gas, the market—that is to say, the people—are speaking more loudly.

Most people in the United States—perhaps because of disinformation—are not yet be ready to completely do away with oil and gas. Still, according to a Pew survey last year, two of every three people in the United States want policies that prioritize renewables over more fossil fuel generation. In a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll last year, three out of four respondents say they would be comfortable with solar panels in their community and nearly 7 in 10 respondents said they would be comfortable with wind turbines.

As Darren Woods pontificates about the “unmatched” societal benefits of oil and gas, the deficits are piling up all around us. Climate change and its associated storms, heat waves, droughts and spread of infectious diseases now stand at the tipping point of making life miserable and unsustainable across the planet. Woods skips over the wealth of studies in recent years that say millions of people die every year around the world from pollution associated with fossil fuels.  

More and more, people no longer want to join Woods and the fossil fuel industry in skipping over the carnage. No matter the disinformation, the nation has begun to say the benefits are far greater from weaning ourselves off oil and gas. A majority wants the United States to enter the new era of renewable energy and play its part in assuring that inevitable decline of fossil fuels.

Categories: Climate

Danger Season 2024: It’s Already Started

May 23, 2024 - 14:40

Ahead of Memorial Day, the unofficial kick-off of summer, we are back with an annual warning that gets more pointed each year: it is now Danger Season 2024, and everyone needs to be ready. Because the hits are coming, and they’re going to hurt.

“Danger Season” refers to the warmer months when, turbo-charged by climate change, extreme events like heat waves, heavy rainfall, wildfires, and poor air quality bring miserable and often dangerous, conditions. You already know you’re not experiencing the summers of your youth (given the accelerating pace of climate change, this applies to almost anyone who can read this post). It’s important to know, also, that climate change isn’t going to unfold for us in barely perceptible increases in temperature, upticks on a graph we can scan in the morning news. It’s going to crash into our lives in the form of damaging, even devastating, extreme events, particularly in Danger Season.

Here at UCS, we’re tracking Danger Season impacts on a daily basis with this interactive tool, capturing and communicating the climate change connections, highlighting harm to vulnerable people, and talking about what we can do to prepare, to build equitable resilience, and to slow down this runaway climate train with a fast, fair phaseout of fossil fuels and accountability for the fossil fuel companies whose deception and delay tactics played a huge role in getting us into this mess—and who continue to profit as people suffer.

What happened to summer?

Summers–and all the seasons–happen because of Earth’s tilt on its axis as it orbits the sun. With this tilt, the Northern Hemisphere will face more directly toward the sun during the May through August stretch of the orbit, causing us to experience summer, while from December-February the tilt causes the Southern Hemisphere to experience summer. “Danger Season” follows that more direct gaze of the sun. With fossil-fuel pollution trapping heat and driving up global average temperatures, those warmer months are warmer than ever. And, in human history, I do mean ever. Higher ocean and air temperatures manifest in storms, heat, precipitation, drought and wildfires that can be more intense, more frequent, and/or longer lasting.

This NASA graphic captures how climate change affects the extreme weather that tends to play out in Danger Season. Watch the full animation here: https://science.nasa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/11/ExtremeEventsGraphic.mp4

Wherever one lives in the U.S., these trends are inescapable. Whether we’re under the orange skies millions experienced last summer amidst smoke from Canadian wildfires or evacuation orders from those same fires, whether unnerving or downright traumatizing, climate change is making its presence known, and these warm months—Danger Season—are its main stage.

Now, is every extreme weather event we experience made worse by climate change? No. But we know that climate change has made many disasters more frequent and more severe. Scientific analysis, called “event attribution,” can help quantify whether and how the fingerprint of climate change impacted a particular event, and these analyses are often available in rapid response formats following a disaster.

What’s happening with this summer?

Any sense that climate change would unfold gradually was laid to rest in 2023 when so many significant climate records were shattered by previously unthinkable margins. The first few months of 2024 have seen the continued march of record global heat conditions. April marked the 11th hottest month on record.

Source: https://climate.copernicus.eu/copernicus-global-temperature-record-streak-continues-april-2024-was-hottest-record

Average ocean temperatures have also been at record levels since May of 2023.

Source: https://climatereanalyzer.org/clim/t2_daily/?dm_id=world

This heat was enabled in part by the fact that we were in the El Niño phase of the so called El Niño Southern Oscillation inter-annual climate cycle. El Niño typically drives higher global average temperatures. Here in 2024, we are seeing the transition from El Niño to a neutral phase, and we can likely expect a shift to La Niña to happen late this summer. Given that global average ocean temperatures remain at record high levels, and air temperatures continue to break records, there’s uncertainty about how summer 2024 will play out. But here’s what NOAA, our federal climate agency, is currently forecasting.

  • Widespread above-normal heat

The forecast for July through September is for above-normal heat conditions from coast to coast, with highest heat risk in parts of the country—like the Southwest and Texas—that weathered unprecedented heat last year.

Source: https://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/predictions/long_range/seasonal.php?lead=3
  • A hectic hurricane season

Just this morning, NOAA released its Atlantic hurricane season outlook, anticipating an above-normal and possibly record-breaking season. The North Atlantic remains incredibly hot, and hot water is a hurricane’s source of fuel. With the official start of hurricane season next week, we’re entering a “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” situation.

Source: https://www.noaa.gov/news-release/noaa-predicts-above-normal-2024-atlantic-hurricane-season
  • Precipitation and drought forecast

An updated drought forecast will be released next week, but at this time, drought persistence and development are forecast for large areas of the Northwest, Southwest and South Central U.S.

Source: https://www.drought.gov/data-maps-tools/us-seasonal-drought-outlook

It is worth noting that the drought conditions our northern and southern neighbors are facing are currently far more severe, with much of Mexico facing severe, extreme, or exceptional drought.

  • Wildfire forecast

Atmospheric rivers doused California with such exceptional rainfall earlier this year that the threat of wildfire there has for now been greatly tamped down (though this also spurred the growth of vegetation that will fuel future fires). The persistent dry conditions in Canada, unfortunately, point to an active wildfire season there, with potentially harmful air quality impacts for Canadian territories and U.S. states downwind. And Hawaii, still reeling and recovering from last year’s devastating wildfires, faces another season of wildfire risk.

Source: https://www.nifc.gov/nicc-files/predictive/outlooks/NA_Outlook.pdf What we’re already seeing on the ground

It’s the third week in May, and already we’re seeing extremes that alarm us in their magnitude and hurt like hell on the ground.

Canadian wildfires are once again burning and compromising air quality in the Midwest.

A prolonged heat wave has beset a large swath of the Southeast. In Florida, Key West was shocked with 115 degree Fahrenheit heat index conditions last week, tying the all-time record high temperature in the middle of May.

Source: https://x.com/BMcNoldy/status/1790880195609547084

Much of Puerto Rico has endured heat index conditions well over 100 degrees. And Texas… whew.

The derecho that slammed down in Texas earlier this week has left the Houston area reeling and the recovery situation is being made much worse by early-season extreme heat, an outbreak of mosquitoes, some of which are testing positive for West Nile Virus, and power outages which, though largely addressed, left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity and air conditioning over a miserable several days.

The official start of summer may be a month away, but Danger Season has begun.

What’s next?

As outlined above, the forecasts are coming into better focus. Inevitably, it promises to be a dangerous season. And given the enduring inequity and legacy of racism across the nation, it promises to harm marginalized and historically disadvantaged people most. Tune in soon for my colleague Juan Declet-Barreto’s take on the outlook for inequitable harm as the season’s impacts unfold.

We’ll be tracking the 2024 Danger Season in our daily-updated web feature, and with quick-breaking analyses focused on issues of racial equity. We’ll be flagging fossil fuel accountability for climate harm. And we’ll be calling for more ambitious climate action on both heat-trapping emissions reductions (e.g., the clean energy transition and a modernized grid) and adaptation (e.g., just and climate-informed preparedness and recovery efforts in the wake of inevitable disasters).

Follow us on social media for rapid response updates as situations unfold.

Stay tuned, prepare now, and let’s try to stay safe.

Categories: Climate

Wildfires and Power Grid Failures Continue to Fuel Each Other

May 23, 2024 - 08:00

It’s that time of the year again, when many of us are relieved that the bitter cold weather is finally behind us, yet apprehensive about the dangerously extreme weather events that are likely to come. May is not only the first month of Danger Season, it is also wildfire awareness month, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

With high-fire-risk months still ahead of us, 2024 has seen significant wildfire damage already. The largest fire so far this year has been the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Texas, which tends to experience the most wildfires in winter, unlike western states. The fire was the largest in the state’s history, burning more than a million acres, killing two people, and passing within a few miles of a nuclear weapons facility in the area.

The Smokehouse Creek fire, along with smaller fires that burned in the region simultaneously, also knocked out power for thousands of people, due to both preemptive shutoffs of power lines, as well as direct grid damage.

In this case, grid damage appears to have sparked the Smokehouse Creek Fire as well. Xcel Energy acknowledged its equipment’s apparent role in igniting it, and about a month later, the same utility company preemptively shut off power to 55,000 of its Colorado customers to prevent another fire from being sparked in that state.

Grid failures can cause wildfires. Wildfires and fire risk can cause more grid failures. In this blog post I’ll walk through how wildfires and grid failures have exacerbated each other in recent years and continue to do so, sometimes in deadly ways.

But first, it’s critical to understand this phenomenon’s connection to climate change. Both fossil fuel and utility companies bear some responsibility for wildfires’ damage, and must be held accountable to ensure disadvantaged and low-income communities aren’t left to shoulder the costs and impacts of these disasters. With that, let’s get into the details.

Emissions fuel more wildfires

Since 1960, the five years with the most area burned by US wildfires have all been within the last 20 years. While 2023 was a low year in terms of total acreage burned in the United States, some 2.6 million acres were still consumed by wildfires, including in Maui where one of the deadliest fires in US history killed more than 100 people. In addition, Canada experienced its worst wildfire season on record last year, which drove significant reductions in air quality in certain parts of the country as well as the United States.

Forests in western North America are particularly susceptible to wildfires due to development, land management, and climate change. The rising amount of area burned is attributable in part to an increase in “vapor pressure deficit”, which is essentially a measure of the air’s ability to dry out plants and soil.

Last year, my UCS colleagues working on climate science and corporate accountability found, in a peer-reviewed study, that 37% of the area burned in western North America since 1986 is attributable to the carbon emissions of just 88 fossil fuel companies and cement manufacturers. That 37% equates to 19.8 million acres scorched in the western United States and southwestern Canada.

While climate change has not been specifically linked to the Maui and Texas wildfires, broken power lines are being investigated as a cause of both of them. These would not be one-off instances if the power lines are found to have sparked the fires; this is a growing problem that more and more utilities, and the communities they serve, are having to grapple with. So how extensive is this problem and how does it happen?

Grid failures start fires

From 2001 to 2023, roughly 92 million acres in the United States have been burned by lightning-caused fires, and about 68 million acres have been burned by fires caused by human activity, electrical operations being just one example. Fires sparked by failures of power lines and associated grid equipment present an area of increasing concern in the era of climate change, with a geographic scope that appears to be expanding within the United States.

A utility industry group executive recently told the New York Times that utilities’ equipment causes less than 10% of fires nationally. That percentage was actually the same for wildfires between 2016-2020 in California – a high-risk wildfire state.

However, those California fires caused by electrical equipment accounted for 19% of the total acreage burned in the state during the same period, and in some years, they accounted for the majority of the burned acreage. This discrepancy between number of fires and area burned by fires aligns with research finding that human-caused fires spread more rapidly than naturally caused fires, since human-caused fires tend to start in hotter, drier conditions.

Source: California State Auditor

There are various mechanisms through which electrical operations can spark wildfires, both on transmission and distribution grids. Downed power lines can remain “energized” as they fall to the grass below. Trees and other vegetation can come into contact with lines and create an improper flow of electricity (called a fault), causing sparks to fly. Parallel lines can even blow in the wind and “slap” together, creating a different type of fault and a fire-ignition risk.

Many fires are put out before they grow to a dangerous size. The grid equipment of California utilities, for example, starts hundreds of fires every year, but most of them are put out rather quickly before spreading.  

The last five years of compiled California data show hundreds of fires sparked each year by equipment of the state’s three largest investor-owned utilities, led by Pacific Gas & Electric in the northern part of the state. Most fires are extinguished before spreading far, but the small number of fires that grow to hundreds or thousands of acres can cause significant devastation. | Source: California Public Utilities Commission. | Note: Six PG&E fires with a reported size of “Unknown” or “Other” were excluded from the table.

However, extinguishing fires is challenging in dry, warm, and windy weather conditions, which are only getting worse with climate change and can spread fire at a terrifyingly high rate. In November 2018, the Camp Fire in northern California was sparked by a nearly 100-year old transmission line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which negligently failed to properly maintain it. The wildfire spread across more than 150,000 acres, killed 85 people, and destroyed the California towns of Paradise and Concow, with most of the damage taking place in just the first four hours. The resulting liabilities helped push PG&E into one of the most complex bankruptcy cases in US history.

PG&E emerged from bankruptcy back in 2020 and is gradually doing the long-overdue work needed to improve the safety of its infrastructure, but this will be a long process, and the company’s equipment has started multiple other deadly fires since the Camp Fire.

Utilities outside of California are also facing liabilities for their potential roles in starting wildfires, including Xcel Energy in Texas as previously mentioned, and Hawaiian Electric in Maui. Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary PacifiCorp expects it could face $8 billion in liabilities for fires it may have started in both California and Oregon.  

As wildfire risk worsens with climate change, more and more utilities are increasingly turning to a risk-management method that was not common at all just a decade ago: purposely shutting off power to customers, as I mentioned above.

Fire risk forces intentional grid shutoffs

On a fateful dry, windy day in early November 2018, PG&E announced that it was no longer planning to shut off power to customers in northern California because weather conditions had improved, making its grid infrastructure safe to operate. Later that day, the Camp Fire was ignited by PG&E equipment, starting the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.

Had PG&E either properly maintained its infrastructure, or decided to shut off the power that day, 85 people likely would not have lost their lives. This tragedy, along with thousands of other utility-caused fires, is why PG&E and other California utilities have since formalized so-called public safety power shutoff programs. The idea is that if utilities “de-energize” their power lines until the unsafely dry and windy weather conditions subside, a wildfire won’t be sparked.

The resulting tradeoffs for utility customers, who are left temporarily without power, range from minor inconveniences to full-blown matters of life and death. When PG&E proceeded with a 2-million-customer public safety power shutoff event in 2019, Robert Mardis Sr.–a man who used an electric oxygen tank to aid his breathing–tragically died just minutes after his power was shut off.

In 2022, my UCS colleague Mark Specht authored a blog post analyzing public safety power shutoff events in California, finding that utilities have reduced the overall scope of these events since PG&E’s large 2019 power shutoff. But the power shutoff events continued to last quite long, averaging one to two days, and this practice persists to this day. Southern California Edison shut off power to more than 5,000 customers as recently as December 2023, with the event lasting roughly two days.

While this method of managing wildfire risk can be annoying, inequitable, and sometimes outright dangerous, utilities outside of California are nevertheless increasingly turning to it due to wildfires’ catastrophic potential. A number of states have either already experienced public safety shutoffs, or are served by utilities that have formed protocols to declare such events. These states include Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Arizona, and Louisiana.

To sum it up, wildfire risk is making our grid less reliable due to the resulting need for public safety shutoff events. But even with such programs in place, fires of course still break out, and can have an even more direct impact on the power grid.

Wildfires pose direct, physical threats to power grid

Wildfires can impact many key components of the power grid, including transmission lines, distribution lines, and even generation facilities such as power plants.

Transmission lines are typically suspended high above ground by steel or aluminum towers, making them relatively well-positioned to avoid direct destruction by wildfires, although destruction still occurs in extreme cases. But fires can also cause transmission lines to “trip” offline automatically as a protective measure to isolate “faulty”, or unsafe, electric current from the rest of the grid. Wildfires’ intense heat can cause excessive line sagging toward the ground, and the soot and smoke in the air can weaken the lines’ insulation, both of which can make faults more likely.

Distribution lines are buried underground more often than transmission lines, which protects them from wildfire damage. But aboveground distribution lines are still very common and many of them are suspended by wooden poles, making them more vulnerable than transmission lines to being burned down completely. From 2000 to 2016, wildfire damage to California’s transmission and distribution systems amounted to more than $700 million.

Wildfire also poses risks to generation facilities, even though that subject is less discussed than the threat to transmission and distribution. Smoky and sooty air can decrease output from solar facilities, and fires themselves can sometimes directly threaten fossil fuel power plants. In 2019, a fire in Maui came within 150 feet of an oil-fired power plant. In 2021, a fire breached a coal plant in Turkey, prompting evacuations and the removal of explosive substances from the plants.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) also published a report earlier this year recommending that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) better account for climate impacts in its risk assessments of nuclear plants, including the risk from wildfires. The report found that roughly 20% of the nation’s nuclear plants are located in areas with high, or very high, wildfire risk.

In addition to increasing the potential for onsite fires at nuclear plants, wildfires can cut off external grid power that the plants need for keeping their reactors cool. Once grid power is cut off, the plants must resort to onsite sources of backup power, such as diesel generators. A complete and prolonged cutoff of external power would lead to a disastrous meltdown similar to that of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. While US regulators implemented additional safeguards in the wake of that disaster, questions remain about their effectiveness.

Looking ahead – managing wildfire risks

We’ve entered a new era of wildfire damage, and we know that, at least in the western United States, this is due, at least in part, to climate change. While we should continue to mitigate these changes to the global climate by transitioning to a clean energy economy, we are now well into the phase of adapting to this new world and managing the “locked-in” risks that lie ahead.

Policymakers and utilities must act on the wide array of environmental justice and equity considerations while proceeding with this wildfire risk management. Understanding these evolving threats to communities will require good data collection on utility-caused fires, and a commitment to transparency. California currently appears to be an outlier in publishing such data. Other states must do better.

In any case, it’s safe to assume there are going to be many disruptions and costly changes moving forward, and these impacts must be alleviated for already-disadvantaged communities. For example, there are solutions that can mitigate the impacts of public safety power shutoff events, which can be very dangerous for those living with disabilities. Utilities can also be proactive in using the wide array of available wildfire modeling tools, and can make investments to ensure that the same households aren’t getting hit with public safety shutoff events over and over again.

But another area that deserves a whole separate blog is the enormous costs that come with such wildfire adaptation investments. Utilities in California are spending enormous amounts of money on undergrounding power lines, trimming trees, installing fire-detection equipment, and other measures aimed at reducing the risk of sparking another catastrophic blaze.

As the potential grows for similar wildfire investments to spread beyond California, policymakers must use their authority to minimize the resulting economic harm to low-income ratepayers. Those ratepayers are already spending far too much of their incomes on energy bills and, of course, they’re not responsible for the situation we’re in.

Emissions traced to fossil fuel companies, on the other hand, have contributed to 19.8 million acres of wildfires’ destruction in the western half of the continent, as the previously mentioned UCS study found last year.

The UCS study also called for fossil fuel companies to pay their fair share of climate-related damages. Ongoing climate-damage and deception lawsuits brought by more than three dozen US states, cities and counties against a subset of these companies could force them to pay for their share of the damages, and those funds could be used to help us more equitably adapt for the future of wildfires.

We can’t undo the scorching of entire towns and the loss of human lives, but pressing for accountability from both fossil fuel and utility companies for contributing to such devastation can at least start to resemble justice.

Categories: Climate

International Court Backs Need to Protect Oceans and Island Nations from Climate Impacts

May 21, 2024 - 14:31

In a historic development, a recent opinion by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) recognizes global warming emissions as a marine pollutant. While nonbinding, the unanimous advisory opinion offers important support for small island nations facing climate impacts and raises the bar for other nations to reduce their global warming emissions to protect the world’s oceans.

Background

Back in December, 2022, a group of small island nations, under the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law, submitted a request to the tribunal (pictured above in Hamburg, Germany). They sought to clarify the obligations of state parties under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), specifically regarding their duties to prevent, reduce, and control pollution of the marine environment in the context of climate change.

This week, the tribunal released its decision, which marks a significant step forward in the fight against climate change, especially for vulnerable small island countries that are disproportionately affected by rising sea levels and ocean acidification.

Five key highlights

Here are five critical features of the opinion that have potentially far-reaching implications for international environmental policy and marine protection. The opinion:

  • Recognizes global warming emissions as marine pollution. The opinion unequivocally found that human-caused global warming  emissions constitute pollution of the marine environment. This aligns marine protection efforts with broader climate change mitigation strategies and reinforces the need for comprehensive policies that address the root causes of ocean degradation.
  • Lays out polluting nations’ obligations. The court mandates that nations take all necessary measures to prevent, reduce, and control marine pollution from global warming emissions. This sets a stringent standard of “due diligence,” acknowledging the high risks of serious and irreversible harm to marine ecosystems. The opinion also clearly explains that this obligation extends beyond national borders, emphasizing the transboundary nature of both marine and climate pollution, and the need for international cooperation.
  • Brings together international climate agreements. The tribunal highlights the importance of harmonizing national policies with international climate agreements, such as the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. This directive ensures that efforts to protect the marine environment are consistent with global temperature goals and emission reduction pathways.
  • Supports vulnerable nations. The decision underscores the need for developed nations to assist vulnerable developing countries, particularly small island countries, in addressing marine pollution. This includes capacity building, technology transfer, and preferential treatment in funding and technical assistance.
  • Calls for comprehensive monitoring and reporting. The decision calls for continuous surveillance, monitoring, and environmental impact assessments to track the effects of global warming emissions on the marine environment. It recommends that nations publish these findings, ensuring transparency and accountability in their environmental policies.
The next challenge: implementation

While the advisory opinion by the international court provides an important legal framework for addressing the impacts of climate change on the marine environment, its nonbinding nature presents a challenge for effective implementation. To ensure that this decision can truly protect our oceans and climate, we need to consider larger global systems and opportunities for ensuring compliance.

Moving forward, nations must begin to incorporate the directives from this decision into their own national laws and regulations. This includes adopting stringent measures to reduce global warming emissions, implementing robust monitoring systems, and conducting thorough environmental impact assessments.

The tribunal’s decision lends important weight to the notion that developed nations have a moral and legal obligation to support vulnerable small island countries. This support should include financial aid, technological assistance, and capacity-building initiatives to help these nations adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As a global community, we have fallen short on this so far and must prioritize equitable global support.

Finally, continuous scientific research is crucial for understanding the pathways, risks, and remedies of marine pollution from global warming emissions. Countries should invest in data collection, scientific research, and fostering a robust exchange of knowledge to develop effective mitigation and adaptation strategies.

While there is no doubt much to be done, this new international advisory opinion is a historic decision that reinforces the interconnectedness of climate change and marine protection. It sets a high standard of due diligence and calls for comprehensive, international efforts to safeguard our oceans. It also sets an important precedent in international law; I am looking forward to seeing how the Interamerican Court of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice will build upon this decision to help ensure meaningful global action to address climate change.

Right now, nations must urgently and committedly implement the directives in this opinion to protect our marine environment and climate for future generations and countries need to work together through international organizations and diplomatic conferences to establish global and regional rules, standards, and best practices. I hope to see these follow-on mandates from this advisory opinion prominently discussed at the U.N. climate change talks in Azerbaijan (COP29) later this year.

Categories: Climate

The State of the Air in 2024? Not Great

May 13, 2024 - 07:01

I am into air quality.

Especially when it means I can breathe outside because there is no pesticide drift, wildfire smoke, vehicle exhaust, or pungent odors. However, the reasons why I am into air quality are a bit contradictory.

On the one hand, I am fascinated by air quality because I love working with sensors and monitoring equipment. I enjoy doing outreach and education about electronics with kids. I am also into open hardware and open data access. I have been collaborating for a few years with AirGradient and am part of a team of worldwide volunteer scientists who advocate for air quality justice.

And, importantly, I strongly believe in community-driven data collection to empower people with relevant information to advocate for a safe and healthy environment. It’s fun! You should try it! Check out the air quality data from my backyard in Merced, California, this past year:

This is the air quality data in my backyard in Merced for the past year. Source: AirGradient.

The graph shows PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers). Spikes in PM2.5 make the air unhealthy. My best guess is that the fall spikes are dust from almond operations near my home, and the winter spikes come from a combination of sources, including burning fuel. The air in Merced is trapped by the classic temperature inversion of the San Joaquin Valley. In addition, Merced County applies more than 10 million pounds of pesticides per year that contribute to the area’s poor air quality.

On the other hand, I am scared about bad air quality. I live in the region with the worst air quality in the United States: the San Joaquin Valley in central California. But I consider myself lucky because I live in Merced, which has one of the best air qualities in the region, although best doesn’t mean it’s good.

The air quality in Merced County is the best in the San Joaquin Valley, but best doesn’t mean it is good. The San Joaquin Valley has the worst air quality in the United States. Our county has a triple failing grade from the American Lung Association. Source: ALA.

Why do I choose to stay in a place with such bad air quality? I suppose I’m stubborn enough to believe that my presence here can make a difference. I moved to Merced in 2015 to study for my PhD, and I found a place I could call home. This is a diverse and wonderful community I now call my own. I became attached to the people and to the place. Maybe one day I will move out of the San Joaquin Valley, but not yet. I’m deeply committed to socioenvironmental justice and agricultural sustainability, and I want to help people who need it the most. Failure is not an option because I live here; I cannot just disconnect. This is more than just my job.

This is personal.

The 2024 State of the Air report

I work every day on topics related to air in my role as a Senior Climate Scientist at UCS, through my volunteer grassroots work, and because I want to be a well-informed resident in the San Joaquin Valley. So of course the American Lung Association’s yearly report, State of the Air (SOTA), published every year since 2000, is of professional and personal interest.

Since its inception, the report has effectively heightened the awareness of some hazardous air pollutants, and engaged the public, media, advocates, and policymakers in the ongoing fight against air pollution. The report aims to empower individuals like me to inform ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The air quality for this report was calculated using data reviewed by EPA from 2020, 2021, and 2022. That means it includes the extreme wildfires exacerbated by the fossil fuel industry that burned more than 4% of California in 2021 and 2022. You can find this year’s SOTA report, released last month, on the American Lung Association’s website, and you can compare it with 2023’s report, 2022’s, and all of the reports.

Bad news first: challenges with air quality persist

Unfortunately, there were no significant changes this year, and California and the southern San Joaquin Valley still have the worst air quality in the country by far. 

This is not new. For the last several years, Bakersfield in Kern County, Visalia in Tulare County, the metropolitan area of Fresno, Kings, and Madera Counties, and Los Angeles have had the worst air quality in the United States out of more than 200 metropolitan areas nationally.

In the US, approximately 40% of the population, about 130 million people, live in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of air quality.

Disparities in air quality disproportionately impact communities of color, highlighting systemic inequalities rather than individual choices. Across the county, people of color are 2.3 times more likely than white people to live in a county with failing grades in air quality.

This is not a new finding either. As UCS has been reporting for years, cars, trucks, and buses are a significant source of air pollution in California that disproportionately exposes Black, Latino, and Asian communities to higher levels of harmful pollution compared to majority white communities.

It is important to note that some extremely toxic air pollutants you may have heard about, such as ethylene oxide (EtO), are not included in the report. EtO is extremely difficult to monitor, yet very dangerous. You can inform yourself more in this UCS report.

One very important piece of information missing from the State of the Air report is air quality data for farmworker communities and other rural areas in the United States or California. The American Lung Association focuses only on metropolitan areas, and they use only official EPA air quality monitors. These monitors are very expensive and largely absent from small rural communities. All data used in the report must be reviewed by EPA, which makes the process slower.

In the San Joaquin Valley where I live, most rural communities are farmworker communities. Farmworkers are exposed to poor air quality both as outdoor workers and as residents inside homes that often are not properly insulated nor equipped with air conditioning to endure the scorching summer. While I think the American Lung Association report is a very important tool for millions of people in the US, we cannot forget that millions more live far from air quality monitors and may be breathing and living with poor air without knowing it. That is why community science for air quality monitoring in rural areas is extremely important to have everyone informed.

What pollutants are in the San Joaquin Valley’s (and California’s) air?

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report measures three of the major types of pollutants in the San Joaquin Valley: long-term particle matter, short-term particle matter, and ozone.

Particle matter pollutants consist of extremely small solid and liquid particles in the air, originating from various sources like oil refineries and fossil fuel burning, fracking, transportation, conventional agriculture, wildfires, construction, and biomass burning (like heating with fireplaces). These particles are categorized by size. Coarse particles (PM10, that is particulate matter that is 10 micrometers or less) include dust and pollen, fine particles (PM2.5) come from burning fossil fuels and pesticide use, and ultrafine particles (PM0.1) come from reactions of industrial pollutants (nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides) with sunlight and unfinished fuel combustion. Ultrafine particles can make the air look hazy even though individual particles are invisible to the naked eye. While the nose and throat mostly filter coarse particles trying to get into our bodies, fine and ultrafine particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. The negative effects include negative effects on cardiovascular and respiratory health, increased risk to babies and pregnant people, and increased risk of premature death in older adults. Even brief exposure to elevated levels of fine particles can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular events.

Ozone, too, poses significant risks to respiratory health. Ozone plays a dual role in our atmosphere. High up, it forms a protective layer that shields the Earth from ultraviolet rays. However, at ground level, where it can be inhaled, ozone becomes a key component of smog, a harmful mix of air pollutants. Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in sunlight, and it is exacerbated under higher temperatures that make ozone pollution worse in the summer. In California, VOCs can come from fossil fuel industry, refineries, methane (especially in Los Angeles and southern San Joaquin Valley), and pesticides (in the San Joaquin Valley). NOx can come from vehicle pollution (Los Angeles, San Joaquin Valley, and the rest of California) and agricultural fertilizers (San Joaquin Valley). Short-term ozone exposure worsens asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, increases pneumonia risk, and impairs lung function. Long-term exposure can lead to asthma development, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and systemic health issues, including premature death.

As a reminder, California has about one quarter of a million oil wells: some small communities in Kern County, at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, are surrounded by thousands of wells, and people in L.A., Bakersfield, and other cities are familiar with oil wells in their metropolitan areas. For example, there are 1,700 oil wells inside the small rural community of Derby Acres and 9,500 within one mile. Inside the relatively large city of Bakersfield (population 410,000), also in Kern County, there are around 2,000 wells, and within one mile of the city there are more than 9,000. The metropolitan area of Bakersfield is and has been for several years the most polluted metropolitan area in the United States by short-term and year-round particulate matter, and ranks in third position for ozone pollution.

California has about 250,000 oil and gas wells, and Kern County has more than 156,000 of them. The metropolitan area of Kern County (Bakersfield) is the most polluted region in the United States. While there are thousands of wells inside and near Bakersfield, most of the burden is borne by small rural communities in the county. Source: California Natural Resources Agency. There’s good news: we’re working on solutions

The air quality in the San Joaquin Valley is poor, and we don’t even know how bad it actually is in the valley’s rural areas. But the good news is there are plenty of people doing something about it because we live here and we care.

For example, several groups like Central California Asthma Collaborative, Central California Environmental Justice Network, and the SocioEnvironmental and Education Network are installing accurate and affordable air quality monitors in many rural communities to raise awareness of air quality injustice and conduct outreach about its health impacts.

Another example is that of researchers at UC Merced who are trying a new generation of AI models to better estimate air quality in rural areas. Data collected with low-cost air quality monitors by community members can be used to inform their communities and support local leaders to make real-time decisions in response to air quality changes. Data can also be used to improve the accuracy of air quality models, which in turn will give even better information to communities.

The news from the SOTA report may be dire, but what gives me hope (besides phasing out fossil fuels) is a solution that I and many colleagues here in the San Joaquin Valley are actively working on: cropland repurposing. It’s a powerful solution that I blog about often (here, here, and here).  

Cropland repurposing is a viable solution to address water scarcity and water quality; and, the good news is it is also a solution to improve air quality. Cropland repurposing alongside sustainable agriculture that prioritizes healthy soil, limited to no use of pesticides, and reduced application of toxic fertilizers can improve air quality in places like the San Joaquin Valley. Here we will need to repurpose probably more than one million acres of crops over the next decades.

If we do it right, cropland repurposing can dramatically improve the quality of life in disadvantaged communities and increase economic and agronomic resilience for farmers while achieving sustainable water use and fostering environmental health.

In rural areas, a one-mile revitalization zone around the smallest 123 agricultural disadvantaged communities of the San Joaquin Valley could decrease water usage by 1.45 million acre-feet, pesticide usage by 11 million pounds, nitrate leaching to aquifers by 193 million pounds, and CO2 emissions by 1.85 million metric tons. This was the conclusion of a peer-reviewed study I was involved in.

But reimagining sustainable agriculture in California can also help the metropolitan areas reported on by the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report.

As a reminder, the worst air quality in the United States is in Kern, Tulare, and Fresno counties, and by far these three are the counties with the highest pesticide application in California. I don’t know if better agricultural practices can give a passing grade to our San Joaquin Valley cities because fossil fuel-related pollution is still very bad in those areas. But ending our reliance on fossil fuels combined with better agricultural practices can dramatically increase air quality in California for all of us.

This is a conceptual idea of how cropland repurposing around agricultural disadvantaged communities can help communities, ecosystems, and agricultural areas—everyone involved! The way forward

California’s air quality issues stem from a combination of its geography, climate, and anthropogenic factors. California’s beautiful topography, with its valleys and mountains, can make the air stagnant and trap air pollutants, leading to the accumulation of pollution in certain areas like the San Joaquin Valley or Los Angeles. We cannot change the topography.

Climatically and meteorologically, California has temperature inversions, where a layer of warm air traps cooler air near the ground, preventing pollutants from dispersing into the atmosphere. Again, this is particularly common in the Central Valley and in Los Angeles. Additionally, wildfires, exacerbated by climate change and drought conditions, release large amounts of smoke and particulate matter into the air, further worsening air quality.

While we can do a better job managing our forests to prevent wildfires, we cannot modify California’s meteorological characteristics. But we can change the anthropogenic factors that lead California to having the worst air quality in the United States.

We need to do more to improve air quality in both urban and rural areas and to inform people about it. We need to care about how public policies shape Californians’ health. We need to demand better, cleaner alternatives for energy, transportation, and agriculture. We need to reverse climate change.

Of course, I know this is easy to say… but if we act together, it can also be feasible to do!

In California cities, to improve our air quality and our well-being, we must end the reliance on fossil fuels, promote clean transportation, and enhance greener urban planning.

In California rural and agricultural areas, in addition to the above, we need to learn from the past and become sustainable. Cropland repurposing is an opportunity to improve everyone’s quality of life, bring economic and environmental sustainability to farmers and rural communities, and improve our air quality by drastically reducing the reliance on pesticides and fertilizers and by stopping inadequate agronomic practices that release polluting dust.

We are at a critical moment in California with a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity to correct injustices and improve climate resilience in the United States thanks to funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. If California is going to continue to lead in environmental protection, agriculture, and technology, and make its air cleaner, then our elected leaders must incentivize more than ever the cleanest energy and transportation, the most sustainable agricultural practices, and the most equitable and environmentally-friendly economic growth.

Our noses, throats, hearts, and lungs deserve it.

Categories: Climate

¿El estado del aire en 2024? No es bueno.

May 13, 2024 - 07:00

Me interesa mucho la calidad del aire.

Especialmente cuando eso significa que puedo respirar afuera porque no nos están rociando con pesticidas, no hay humo de incendios forestales, ni gases de escape de vehículos ni olores repulsivos. Sin embargo, las razones por las que me importa la calidad del aire son un poco contradictorias.

Por un lado, me fascina la calidad del aire porque me encanta trabajar con sensores. Disfruto haciendo divulgación y educación sobre electrónica con niños (y a veces no tan niños). También me gusta la electrónica abierta para que todos tengan acceso a la información y a los datos. De hecho, llevo unos años colaborando con AirGradient. Formo parte de un equipo internacional de científicos voluntarios que abogan por justicia en la calidad del aire.

Y, lo que es más importante, creo firmemente en colectar datos con ciencia comunitaria para empoderar a las personas con información que sea relevante para defender un entorno seguro y saludable. ¡Es divertido! ¡Deberían probarlo!

Miren los datos de calidad del aire de mi patio trasero:

Estos son los datos de la calidad del aire en mi patio trasero en Merced durante el año pasado. El gráfico muestra PM2,5 (partículas de menos de 2,5 µm). Los picos de PM2,5 hacen que el aire sea peligroso. Mi suposición es que los picos de otoño son polvo de operaciones agrícolas en almendros cerca de mi casa, y los picos de invierno provienen de una combinación de fuentes, incluida la quema de combustibles.
El aire en Merced está atrapado por la clásica capa de inversión de temperatura del Valle de San Joaquín. En el condado de Merced se aplican más de 10 millones de libras de pesticidas por año que contribuyen a la mala calidad del aire del área.

Por otro lado, me asusta la mala calidad del aire. Vivo en la región con la peor calidad del aire de Estados Unidos: el Valle de San Joaquín en el centro de California. Al mismo tiempo, me considero afortunado porque vivo en Merced, que tiene una de las mejores calidades de aire de la región, aunque que sea la mejor no significa que sea suficientemente buena.

La calidad del aire en el condado de Merced es la mejor del Valle de San Joaquín, pero ser la mejor no significa que sea suficientemente buena. El Valle de San Joaquín tiene la peor calidad de aire de Estados Unidos. Nuestro condado reprueba las tres calificaciones evaluadas por la American Lung Association (asociación estadounidense de salud pulmonar). ¿Por qué elijo quedarme?

Supongo que soy lo suficientemente testarudo como para creer que mi presencia aquí puede hacer alguna diferencia.

Me mudé a Merced en 2015 para estudiar mi doctorado y encontré un lugar al que podía llamar hogar. Encontré una comunidad diversa y maravillosa que podría considerar mía. Me apegué a la gente y al lugar. Quizás algún día me mude fuera del Valle de San Joaquín, pero todavía no. Estoy profundamente comprometido con la justicia socioambiental y la sostenibilidad agrícola, y quiero ayudar a las personas que más lo necesitan. El fracaso no es una opción porque vivo aquí: no puedo simplemente desconectarme. Esto es más que solo mi trabajo.

Esto es personal para mí.

Informe sobre el estado del aire 2024

Trabajo todos los días en temas relacionados con el aire aquí en UCS, a través de mi trabajo voluntario de base y porque quiero ser un residente bien informado en el Valle de San Joaquín. Por supuesto, el informe anual de la American Lung Association llamado State of the Air (estado del aire o SOTA), que se publica cada año desde 2000, es de interés profesional y personal.

Desde su creación, el informe ha aumentado efectivamente la conciencia sobre algunos contaminantes atmosféricos peligrosos y ha involucrado al público, los medios de comunicación, los defensores y los políticos en la lucha contra la contaminación del aire. El informe busca empoderar a personas como yo para que nos informemos a nosotros mismos, a nuestras familias y a nuestras comunidades.

La calidad del aire para este informe se calculó con datos revisados por la EPA de 2020, 2021 y 2022. Eso significa que incluye los incendios forestales extremos exacerbados por la industria de combustibles fósiles que quemaron más del 4% de California en 2021 y 2022. El informe de este año recién publicado está online, en inglés, junto con informes anteriores.

Primero las malas noticias: Persisten los problemas con la calidad del aire

Desafortunadamente, no hubo cambios significativos este año, y California y el sur del Valle de San Joaquín todavía tienen la peor calidad de aire del país con diferencia.

Esto no es nuevo. Durante los últimos años, Bakersfield en el condado de Kern, Visalia en el condado de Tulare, el área metropolitana de los condados de Fresno, Kings y Madera, y Los Ángeles han tenido la peor calidad del aire en Estados Unidos entre más de 200 áreas metropolitanas a nivel nacional.

En Estados Unidos, aproximadamente el 40% de la población, unos 130 millones de personas, viven en lugares con malas calificaciones por niveles insalubres de calidad del aire.

Las disparidades en la calidad del aire impactan de manera desproporcionada a las comunidades de color, resaltando desigualdades sistémicas en lugar de elecciones individuales. En todo el país, las personas de color tienen 2.3 veces más probabilidades que las personas blancas de vivir en un condado con malas calificaciones en calidad del aire.

Este tampoco es un hallazgo nuevo. Como UCS ha informado durante años, los automóviles, camiones y autobuses son una fuente importante de contaminación del aire en California que expone desproporcionadamente a las comunidades negras, latinas y asiáticas a niveles más altos de contaminación nociva en comparación con las comunidades mayoritariamente blancas.

Es importante tener en cuenta que algunos contaminantes del aire extremadamente tóxicos como el óxido de etileno (EtO, por sus siglas en inglés) no están incluidos en el informe. El EtO es extremadamente difícil de monitorear a pesar de ser muy peligroso. Puedes informarte más en este informe de UCS  (en español e inglés).

Un dato muy importante que falta en el informe sobre el estado del aire son los datos sobre la calidad del aire de las comunidades de trabajadores agrícolas y otras zonas rurales de Estados Unidos o California. La American Lung Association se centra únicamente en áreas metropolitanas y utiliza únicamente monitores de calidad del aire oficiales de la Agencia de Protección Ambiental (EPA, por sus siglas en inglés). Estos monitores son muy caros y en gran medida no se encuentran en las pequeñas comunidades rurales. Además, todos los datos utilizados en el informe deben ser revisados por la EPA, lo que hace que el proceso sea más lento.

En el Valle de San Joaquín donde vivo, la mayoría de las comunidades rurales son comunidades de trabajadores agrícolas. Los trabajadores agrícolas están expuestos a la mala calidad del aire tanto cuando trabajan al aire libre como dentro de sus hogares, que a menudo no están adecuadamente aislados ni siquiera tienen aire acondicionado para soportar el abrasador verano.

Si bien creo que el informe de la American Lung Association es una herramienta muy importante para millones de personas en Estados Unidos, no podemos olvidar que también millones más viven lejos de los monitores de calidad del aire y pueden estar en riesgo de respirar y vivir con aire tóxico sin saberlo. Por eso es sumamente importante utilizar ciencia comunitaria para monitorear la calidad del aire en áreas rurales para que todos estemos bien informados.

¿Qué contaminantes hay en el aire del Valle de San Joaquín (y de California)?

El Estado del Aire de la American Lung Association mide tres de los principales tipos de contaminantes en el Valle de San Joaquín: partículas a largo plazo, partículas a corto plazo y ozono.

La contaminación por partículas proviene de partículas sólidas y líquidas extremadamente pequeñas suspendidas en el aire, que se originan en diversas fuentes, como refinerías de petróleo y quema de combustibles fósiles, fracking, transporte, prácticas inadecuadas de agricultura convencional, incendios forestales, construcción y quema de biomasa (como calefacción con chimeneas).

Estas partículas se clasifican por tamaño. Las partículas mayores (PM10, es decir, partículas de 10 micrómetros o menos) incluyen el polvo y el polen, las partículas finas (PM2,5) provienen de la quema de combustibles fósiles y el uso de pesticidas, y las partículas ultrafinas (PM0,1) provienen de reacciones entre contaminantes industriales (óxidos de nitrógeno y óxidos de azufre) con la luz solar y de combustión incompleta de combustibles.

Las partículas ultrafinas pueden hacer que el aire parezca turbio, aunque las partículas individuales sean invisibles a simple vista. Mientras que la nariz y la garganta filtran principalmente partículas gruesas que intentan ingresar a nuestro cuerpo, las partículas finas y ultrafinas pueden penetrar profundamente en los pulmones e incluso ingresar al torrente sanguíneo. Los efectos negativos incluyen afecciones a la salud cardiovascular y respiratoria, aumento del riesgo para los bebés y las personas embarazadas y elevar el riesgo de muerte prematura en los adultos mayores. Incluso una exposición breve a niveles elevados de partículas finas puede aumentar el riesgo de ataques cardíacos, accidentes cerebrovasculares y otros eventos cardiovasculares.

El ozono también plantea riesgos importantes para la salud respiratoria. El ozono juega un doble papel en nuestra atmósfera. En las capas más altas, forma una capa protectora que protege a la Tierra de los rayos ultravioleta.

Sin embargo, a nivel del suelo, donde se puede inhalar, el ozono se convierte en un componente clave del smog, una mezcla dañina de contaminantes del aire. El ozono se forma cuando los óxidos de nitrógeno (NOx) y los compuestos orgánicos volátiles (COV o VOCs por sus siglas en inglés) reaccionan con la luz solar, y se agrava con temperaturas más altas que empeoran la contaminación por ozono en el verano.

En California, los COV pueden provenir de la industria de combustibles fósiles y del metano (gas natural) especialmente en Los Ángeles y el sur del Valle de San Joaquín, y de los pesticidas en el Valle de San Joaquín. Los NOx pueden provenir de la contaminación de vehículos (en Los Ángeles, el Valle de San Joaquín y el resto de California) y de los fertilizantes agrícolas (Valle de San Joaquín).

La exposición al ozono a corto plazo empeora el asma y la enfermedad pulmonar obstructiva crónica, aumenta el riesgo de neumonía y perjudica la función pulmonar. La exposición prolongada puede provocar el desarrollo de asma, enfermedad pulmonar obstructiva crónica y problemas de salud sistémicos, incluida la muerte prematura.

Como recordatorio, California tiene alrededor de 250.000 pozos petroleros. Algunas comunidades pequeñas del condado de Kern están rodeadas por miles de pozos, y la gente de Los Ángeles, Bakersfield y otras ciudades están familiarizadas con los pozos petroleros en las áreas metropolitanas.

Por ejemplo, hay 1.700 pozos petroleros dentro de la pequeña comunidad rural de Derby Acres y 9.500 en un radio de una milla; dentro de la ciudad relativamente grande de Bakersfield (con una población de 410.000 habitantes) hay alrededor de 2.000 pozos, y a una milla de la ciudad hay más de 9.000. El área metropolitana de Bakersfield es y ha sido durante varios años el área metropolitana más contaminada de Estados Unidos por partículas a corto y a largo plazo, y ocupa la tercera posición en contaminación por ozono.

California tiene alrededor de un cuarto de millón de pozos de petróleo y gas, y el condado de Kern tiene más de 156.000. El área metropolitana del condado de Kern (Bakersfield) es la región más contaminada de Estados Unidos. Si bien hay miles de pozos dentro y cerca de Bakersfield, la mayor parte de esa carga recae en pequeñas comunidades rurales del condado. Fuente: datos públicos de la Agencia de Recursos Naturales de California.

Hay buenas noticias: Estamos trabajando en soluciones

La calidad del aire en el Valle de San Joaquín es mala y ni siquiera sabemos qué tan mala es en las zonas rurales. Pero la buena noticia es que estamos haciendo algo porque nos importa.

Por ejemplo, varios grupos como Central California Asthma Collaborative , Central California Environmental Justice Network y  la Red SocioAmbiental y Educativa están instalando monitores de calidad del aire precisos y asequibles en muchas comunidades rurales para crear conciencia sobre la injusticia en la calidad del aire y realizar actividades de divulgación sobre sus impactos en la salud.

Otro ejemplo es el de los investigadores de UC Merced que están probando una nueva generación de modelos de IA para estimar mejor la calidad del aire en las zonas rurales. Los datos recopilados por miembros de la comunidad con monitores de calidad del aire de bajo costo se pueden utilizar para informar a sus comunidades y ayudar a los líderes locales a tomar decisiones en tiempo real en respuesta a los cambios en la calidad del aire. Los datos también se pueden utilizar para mejorar la precisión de los modelos de calidad del aire, lo que a su vez brindará aún más información de calidad a las comunidades.

Las noticias del informe pueden ser nefastas, pero lo que me da esperanza (además de la eliminación gradual de los combustibles fósiles) es una solución en la que yo y muchos colegas aquí en el Valle de San Joaquín estamos trabajando activamente: el reúso de tierras de cultivo. Es una solución poderosa sobre la que escribo blogs con frecuencia (aquí, aquí y aquí).

El reúso de tierras de cultivo es una solución viable para abordar la escasez y la calidad del agua, y la buena noticia es que también es una solución para mejorar la calidad del aire. El reúso de tierras de cultivo junto con una agricultura sostenible que prioriza suelos saludables, un uso limitado o nulo de pesticidas y una menor aplicación de fertilizantes tóxicos puede mejorar la calidad del aire en lugares como el Valle de San Joaquín, donde probablemente necesitaremos reusar más de un millón de acres de cultivos durante las próximas décadas.

Si lo hacemos bien, el reúso de tierras de cultivo puede mejorar drásticamente la calidad de vida en las comunidades desfavorecidas y aumentar la resiliencia económica y agronómica de los agricultores, al mismo tiempo que nos volvemos sostenibles con nuestro uso del agua y fomentamos la salud ambiental.

En las zonas rurales, una zona de revitalización de una milla alrededor de las 123 comunidades agrícolas más pequeñas y desfavorecidas del Valle de San Joaquín puede reducir el uso de agua en 1,45 millones de acres-pie, el uso de pesticidas en 11 millones de libras, la lixiviación de nitratos a los acuíferos en 193 millones de libras y emisiones de CO2e en 1,85 millones de toneladas métricas. Esta fue la conclusión de uno de nuestros estudios científicos.

Pero reinventar la agricultura sostenible en California también puede ayudar a las áreas metropolitanas. Como recordatorio, la peor calidad del aire en los Estados Unidos se encuentra en Kern, Tulare y Fresno, y estos tres son, con diferencia, los condados con mayor aplicación de pesticidas en California. No sé si mejores prácticas agrícolas puedan dar una calificación satisfactoria a nuestras ciudades del Valle de San Joaquín porque la contaminación relacionada con los combustibles fósiles todavía es muy grave en esas áreas. Pero poner fin a nuestra dependencia de los combustibles fósiles combinado con mejores prácticas agrícolas puede aumentar drásticamente la calidad del aire en California para todos nosotros.

Esta es una idea conceptual de cómo la reutilización de tierras de cultivo en torno a comunidades agrícolas desfavorecidas puede ayudar a todos los involucrados. El camino a seguir

Los problemas de calidad del aire de California surgen de una combinación de su geografía, clima y factores antropogénicos. La hermosa topografía de California, con sus valles y montañas, puede estancar el aire y atrapar los contaminantes, lo que lleva a la acumulación de contaminación en ciertas áreas como el Valle de San Joaquín o Los Ángeles. Pero eso no lo podemos cambiar.

Desde el punto de vista climático y meteorológico, California tiene inversiones de temperatura, donde una capa de aire cálido atrapa el aire más frío cerca del suelo, evitando que los contaminantes se dispersen en la atmósfera. Repito, esto es particularmente común en el Valle Central y Los Ángeles. Además, los incendios forestales, exacerbados por el cambio climático y las condiciones de sequía, liberan grandes cantidades de humo y partículas al aire, empeorando aún más la calidad del aire.

Si bien podemos hacer un mejor trabajo administrando nuestros bosques para prevenir incendios forestales, no podemos modificar las características meteorológicas de California.

Lo que sí podemos cambiar son los factores antropogénicos que llevan a California a tener la peor calidad de aire de Estados Unidos.

Necesitamos esforzarnos más para mejorar la calidad del aire tanto en las zonas urbanas como rurales e informar a la gente al respecto. Necesitamos preocuparnos por cómo las políticas moldean la salud de los californianos. Necesitamos exigir mejores alternativas de energía, transporte y agricultura que sean más limpias. Necesitamos revertir el cambio climático.

Por supuesto, esto es fácil de decir… pero si actuamos juntos, también puede ser factible hacerlo.

En las ciudades de California, para mejorar nuestra calidad del aire y nuestro bienestar, debemos poner fin a la dependencia de los combustibles fósiles, promover el transporte limpio y mejorar una planificación urbana más ecológica.

En las zonas rurales y agrícolas de California, además de lo anterior, necesitamos aprender del pasado y volvernos sostenibles. El reúso de tierras de cultivo es una oportunidad para mejorar la calidad de vida de todos, brindar sostenibilidad económica y ambiental a los agricultores y las comunidades rurales, mejorar la calidad del aire al reducir drásticamente la dependencia de pesticidas y fertilizantes y detener las prácticas agronómicas inadecuadas que liberan polvo contaminante.

Estamos en un momento crítico en California con una oportunidad de financiamiento única en una generación para corregir injusticias y mejorar la resiliencia climática en Estados Unidos gracias a los fondos de la Ley de Reducción de la Inflación y la Ley de Empleo e Inversión en Infraestructura. Si California va a seguir liderando la protección ambiental, la agricultura y la tecnología, y hacer que su aire sea más limpio, entonces nuestros líderes electos deben incentivar más que nunca la energía y el transporte más limpios, prácticas agrícolas más sostenibles y políticas más equitativas que ayuden a un crecimiento económico basado en mejorar la calidad de vida de todos. Nuestras narices, gargantas, corazones y pulmones lo merecen.

Categories: Climate

Calling Out Climate Lies for a Living

April 29, 2024 - 12:02

I have spent the better part of the last 12 years writing about lies. My colleagues call it “disinformation,” and I generally do, too, but let’s call it for what it is: lying. During this stretch, I have written more than 200 articles and columns, and most of them were either about CEOs who lie, experts who lie, scientists who lie, attorneys general who lie, legislators who lie, or a president who lies. And I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill white lies. I’m talking about lies that have grave consequences for the future of the planet.

(I should add that I also wrote 65 columns featuring Q&As with scientists and experts who work for my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). They don’t lie. They follow the science. The series is called “Ask a Scientist,” and the last one I wrote will run in mid-May.)

After a dozen years unmasking lies and five years before that overseeing UCS’s media relations operation, I am leaving the organization. But before I walk out the door, I wanted to provide a retrospective of some of my columns on the biggest sponsors of climate disinformation in the country: ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, and Charles Koch, CEO of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries.

See no evil

I wrote more columns about ExxonMobil and its top executives than any other major source of climate lies. Most of these pieces were about the company’s support for a seemingly independent network of anti-regulation, “free-market” nonprofits that spread falsehoods about the reality and seriousness of climate change. ExxonMobil spent at least $39 million on some 70 of these organizations from 1998 through 2020, more than any funder besides Charles Koch and his brother David, co-owner of Koch Industries until his death in 2019.

I first wrote about ExxonMobil in March 2013 after I saw the company’s then-CEO, Rex Tillerson, on the Charlie Rose talk show, who provided me with fodder for perhaps my favorite of two dozen ExxonMobil-related columns.

Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO from 2006 to 2016. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Rose asked Tillerson open-ended questions on a range of subjects, including climate change and national energy policy. And Rose did, at times, ask follow-up questions. But in nearly every instance, Rose listened politely, refrained from challenging Tillerson on the facts, and went on to his next question. So I decided to write a column in which I pretended to have been on the show alongside Tillerson, calling it “Rex & Me: The Charlie Rose Show You Should Have Seen Last Friday,” a nod to Michael Moore’s first film, Roger & Me.

The column featured excerpts from Rose and Tillerson’s hour-long conversation with comments I inserted as if I were sitting there in the studio rebutting Tillerson’s statements.

Rose first asked Tillerson about his take on global warming. Repeating his company’s long-standing talking point, Tillerson emphasized scientific uncertainty, despite the fact that Exxon’s own scientists had been warning management about “potentially catastrophic” human-caused global warming since at least 1977. “We have continued to study this issue for decades…,” he said. “The facts remain there are uncertainties around the climate, climate change, why it’s changing, what the principal drivers of climate change are.”

In my retelling of the show, I quickly pointed out that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had by then concluded that “most” of the increase in average global temperatures since 1950 was “very likely” due to the increase in human-made carbon emissions.

When Rose asked Tillerson if there is a link between extreme weather events and global warming, Tillerson told Rose that he had “seen no scientific studies to confirm [one].” In the original broadcast, Rose went on to another topic. But before he was able to do that in my imaginary scenario, I corrected the record. “There is, in fact, substantial scientific evidence that there’s a strong link between global warming and heat waves and coastal flooding from sea-level rise,” I said. “There’s also a strong link to heavy precipitation and drought, depending on the region and time of the year.”

Later in the hour, Tillerson told Rose that the federal government should end subsidies for renewable energy. “I mean, wind has received subsidies for more than 20 years now,” he said. “Maybe if we took the subsidy off and it was challenged and had to perform, people would take it to a new level.”

It was a bogus argument that fossil fuel proponents would repeat ad nauseum over the next 10 years, so when Rose failed to provide some needed context, I jumped in.

“Rex,” I interjected, “it’s bizarre that your top national energy priority is ending federal support for renewables. … [W]hat about the oil and gas industry’s subsidies and tax breaks?” I then explained that, at the time, the oil and gas industry had been receiving an average of $4.86 billion (in 2010 dollars) in federal tax breaks and subsidies for nearly 100 years. “Renewables,” I added, “have gotten peanuts in comparison.”

Four years later, when Tillerson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after President Trump nominated him to be his secretary of state, a senator asked him if he would pursue the Group of 20 pledge to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. His reply? “I’m not aware of anything the fossil fuel industry gets that I would characterize as a subsidy.”

Still funding lies after all these years

Tillerson’s successor, Darren Woods, now 59, has carried on his company’s tradition of deceit. During an October 2021 hearing the House Oversight and Reform Committee held on the oil industry’s decades-long climate disinformation campaign, Woods—one of four oil company executives testifying that day—was asked if he would “commit right here to stop funding organizations that reject the science of climate change.”

“We do not support climate denial,” he replied. “We do not ask people to lobby for anything different than our publicly supported [climate] positions.”

Darren Woods, ExxonMobil CEO from 2017 to the present. (Photo: Pool/Getty Images)

The history of that lie bears retelling. For years, ExxonMobil executives have acknowledged climate change is happening—but not its cause—and insisted they want to be “part of the solution.” And since 2015, they have claimed that their company supports the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which was brokered that year. Why? ExxonMobil wants to be seen as a good corporate citizen. It wants to protect what academics call its “social license,” meaning that it wants to be seen as being legitimate, credible and trustworthy. At the same time, however, the company has continued to expand oil and gas development and fund climate science denier groups that undermine efforts to address climate change.

The genesis of ExxonMobil’s brazen hypocrisy can be traced back to 2007. In January of that year, UCS released consultant (now UCS editorial director) Seth Shulman’s report, “Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science,” revealing that the company had spent $16 million between 1998 and 2005 on more than 40 anti-regulation think tanks to launder its message. When asked by a Greenwire reporter a month later about the grantees identified in the UCS report, Kenneth Cohen, then ExxonMobil’s vice president of public affairs, said the company had stopped funding them. Hardly. In 2007 alone, the company gave $2 million to 37 denier groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, Heartland Institute and Manhattan Institute.

In July 2015, after UCS discovered that Exxon (before it merged with Mobil) was aware of the threat posed by climate change more than 30 years earlier and had been intentionally deceiving the public for decades, reporters contacted ExxonMobil spokesman Richard Keil for comment. One reporter asked him about ExxonMobil’s long history of funding climate change denier groups. “I’m here to talk to you about the present,” Keil said. “…We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change.”

I wrote a column a week later dissecting Keil’s carefully crafted whopper. “Technically [Keil was correct], perhaps, because practically no one can say with a straight face that global warming isn’t happening anymore,” I wrote. “Most, if not all, of the people who used to deny the reality of climate change have morphed into climate science deniers. They now concede that climate change is real, but reject the scientific consensus that human activity—mainly burning fossil fuels—is driving it. Likewise, they understate the potential consequences, contend that we can easily adapt to them, and fight government efforts to curb carbon emissions and promote renewable energy. ExxonMobil is still funding those folks, big time.”

By its own accounting, ExxonMobil has continued to fund those folks—albeit fewer of them—to this day. For at least a decade, the company has been listing its grantees in its annual World Giving Report, and beginning in 2015 I wrote a column every year citing how much it gave climate science denier groups the previous year through 2021, when it stopped listing grantees receiving less than $100,000. Previously, its reports included grants of $5,000 or more. That lack of transparency has made it impossible to discern exactly how much the company is still spending on climate disinformation, but nonetheless it amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

My 2021 column on the company’s grants from 2020, “Despite Cutbacks, ExxonMobil Continues to Fund Climate Science Denial,” ran two days before Woods and top executives from BP America, Chevron and Shell testified before the House Oversight Committee. Despite Woods’s insistence at the hearing that his company does not support “climate denial” and does not ask its grantees to support anything other than its official climate-related pronouncements, three ExxonMobil grantees that received at least $100,000 in 2020 contradicted the company’s professed positions. They included a climate science-denying economist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which has received more than $5 million from ExxonMobil since 1998; George Washington University’s anti-regulation Regulatory Studies Center, which opposed stronger efficiency standards for home appliances and vehicles that would significantly reduce carbon emissions; and the US Chamber of Commerce, which at the time dubiously called for “the increased use of natural gas” to “further progress” in addressing climate change.

Since I wrote that column, my last one on ExxonMobil’s annual grants, the company’s Worldwide Giving Report in 2022 indicated that in 2021, ExxonMobil contributed another $150,000 to AEI and $150,000 to the GWU Regulatory Studies Center. The company has yet to publish a report for its grantmaking in 2022, let alone 2023.

Things go worse with Koch

My other bête noire is the 88-year-old libertarian industrialist Charles Koch—the 22th-richest person in the world with a net worth of $67.6 billion—and his network of uber-rich friends and “free-market” think tanks and advocacy groups. From 1997 through 2020, Koch family-controlled foundations donated more than $160 million to at least 90 groups to manufacture doubt about climate science and delay efforts to address global warming—four times more than even what ExxonMobil reportedly spent over the same time period.

Koch is a lot more doctrinaire than his current counterpart at ExxonMobil. Woods downplays the central role human activity—mainly burning fossil fuels—plays in triggering climate change, but he has grudgingly conceded that global warming poses an “existential threat.” Koch, by contrast, has never acknowledged that climate change is a serious problem and has questioned—with no evidence—the veracity of climate models, which studies have found to be quite accurate.

Charles Koch, Koch Industries CEO from 1967 to the present. (Photo: Fortune Conferences)

For more than two decades, the Koch network has been diligently spreading disinformation to sabotage efforts to transition to a clean energy economy, more often than not by attacking proposed climate policies on economic grounds. Over the last 12 years, I wrote eight columns on the Koch network’s escapades, including:

  • Its attempt in 2012 to scare consumers about the cost of state renewable energy standards, which require utilities to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels by increasing their use of wind and solar power. In fact, such standards have had a negligible effect on electricity prices and often save ratepayers money.
  • Its effort in 2013 to kill the federal production tax credit for wind, when the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity and 100 other Koch network groups made the same disingenuous argument that Rex Tillerson made on the Charlie Rose show. “Americans deserve energy solutions that can make it on their own in the marketplace,” they wrote in a letter to Congress, “not ones that need to be propped up by government indefinitely.”
  • Its 2018 campaign to kill a federal income tax credit for electric vehicle buyers, trotting out the same phony argument it made against wind tax breaks. The 18 Koch-funded groups that collaborated in the campaign, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Manhattan Institute, and the Koch-founded American Energy Alliance and Americans for Prosperity, argued that the government shouldn’t subsidize any energy technologies, but confined their objections to tax breaks for clean energy alternatives, again falsely claiming—like Tillerson—that the oil and gas industry receives no subsidies.

But my favorite Koch column is my most recent one, “It’s Time for Charles Koch to Testify About His Climate Change Disinformation Campaign,” which ran in March 2022. I urged the House Oversight Committee to pull Koch in for questioning before it ended its investigation given the fact that he “is as consequential a disinformer as the four oil company executives who testified last fall … combined.”

Unfortunately, the committee did not take my advice, but the column did give me the opportunity to report on the considerable amount Koch Industries’ political action committees (PACs) and employees spend on campaign contributions, how much the company spends on lobbying, and the fact at least 50 Koch network alumni landed key positions in the Trump administration. They included Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short, and … Vice President Mike Pence, who led Trump’s transition team. Egged on by Koch devotees both inside and outside the government—as well as by more than 60 executive branch staff from the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation—the Trump administration rolled back at least 260 regulations, including more than 100 environmental safeguards.

Is the day of reckoning coming?

As I said at the beginning of this essay, the lies uttered and underwritten by the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil executives—as well as their employees and PACs’ generous campaign contributions to climate science deniers in Congress—have had serious consequences.

Last year, the United States suffered an unprecedented number of climate change-related billion-dollar disasters, including record heat waves, drought, wildfires and floods, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 28 extreme weather events collectively caused nearly $93 billion in damage. Last year also was hottest in at least 173 years, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service. The annual temperature was 1.48 degrees Celsius (2.66 degrees Fahrenheit) above the preindustrial average.

While the world is burning up, oil industry profits last year—while lower than in 2022—were still quite robust. The two US oil giants, ExxonMobil and Chevron, netted $36 billion and $21.3 billion respectively. Chevron CEO Mike Wirth, one of the oil company executives who testified before the House Oversight Committee in October 2021, boasted that Chevron “returned more cash to shareholders and produced more oil and natural gas [in 2023] than any year in the company’s history.” Meanwhile, Koch Industries’ annual revenue was $115 billion last year, down slightly from $125 billion in 2022. (Because the company is privately held, it is not required to divulge profit data.)

Cities, counties, states and US territories are now taking steps to hold these and other fossil fuel companies, as well as their trade associations, accountable. So far, some 40 of them have filed 28 lawsuits in state and territory courts for fraud and damages. Chicago and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, 30 miles north of Philadelphia, are the most recent municipalities to file a climate lawsuit. In both cases, the defendants include BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Philips 66 and Shell, as well as the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s biggest trade association.

ExxonMobil has been named as a defendant in all of the cases. To date, Koch Industries has been named in only one, filed by the state of Minnesota in June 2020. That lawsuit alleges that API, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, which owns an oil refinery in the state, violated state consumer protection laws by misleading Minnesotans about the role fossil fuels play in causing the climate crisis.

As I pointed out in a column about Minnesota’s lawsuit, the state has a storied history when it comes to such litigation. It was one of the first states to sue the tobacco industry, and its lawsuit in the 1990s—the only one that made it to trial—resulted in a groundbreaking settlement of $6 billion over the first 25 years and $200 million annually thereafter. The case also pried 35 million pages of documents from tobacco company files revealing details of the industry’s campaign to sow doubt about the links between smoking and disease. As UCS pointed out in its 2007 exposé of ExxonMobil’s climate disinformation campaign, the tobacco and fossil fuel industries used many of the same strategies and tactics.

US climate litigation is only expected to grow this year, following the US Supreme Court’s rejection of the oil industry’s attempts to transfer climate lawsuits from state courts to federal courts, where industry lawyers believe they are more likely to prevail. If the lawsuits are ultimately successful, courts could order oil companies and their trade associations to pay out hundreds of billions of dollars to impacted communities.

That eventuality, much like the deserved comeuppance the tobacco industry received, would be a just outcome. But even a huge payout wouldn’t begin to compensate for the damage already done by Koch and ExxonMobil lies.

Categories: Climate

New California Legislation Would Help Us Better Understand Wildfire Health Impacts

April 29, 2024 - 07:00

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) made headlines across the country when we published a report demonstrating how worsening wildfires in the West are linked to the unrelenting, shameless emissions of the fossil fuel companies. While we hope that our science will bolster efforts to hold these companies accountable, the truth is that such accountability is necessary but insufficient.

Climate-change fueled disasters will continue to have impacts on human health. We must measure these impacts and mitigate them. Wildfires have the most obvious and devastating effects on the lives of the people living in the neighborhoods that they destroy, but the impact they have on our air and water can spread far beyond the burn scar.

Two bills being considered by the California legislature can help mitigate the public health impacts of wildfires. UCS supports the passage of both.

Wildfires and water quality

Most of California’s water comes from rain and snow that falls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and flows down to the population centers throughout the state. Usually, vegetation and soil will help soak up the rain and slow the flow of rainwater, nutrients, and soil over the land.

When a wildfire burns away vegetation and scorches soil, the soil becomes less absorbent and precipitation flows more quickly into the rivers, eroding away soil and picking up nutrients in higher quantities than usual, along with ash and debris. Worse, if a wildfire burns through an area populated by humans, when the rain falls, toxic chemicals from burning cars, plastics, and all sorts of synthetic products can flow into waterways and drinking water systems.

For more on the impacts that wildfires have on water quantity and quality, read our 2022 factsheet, Fire and Water in the Western United States.

Wildfire and air quality

Anyone who has lived in California for the past few years knows that our summers are plagued with unhealthy air quality days. And as is too often the case, the Central Valley bears the brunt of this impact.

There is an enormous amount of data on the adverse health impacts associated with poor air quality: respiratory issues, cognitive issues, impacts on pregnant people and their babies, and more. Many California communities already have some of the highest rates of heart and lung disease in the country, and these problems are only made worse by wildfire smoke.

What can we do?

California must continue to aggressively and equitably phase out fossil fuels across all sectors to minimize growth in the size and severity of future wildfires. The state should also plan for and fund projects that make our forests and communities more resilient to wildfire.

However, even with these actions, wildfires are a part of our lives in the western United States, as they have been for generations given our climate and our ecosystems. We must understand and mitigate their impact on human health.

There are two bills currently moving through the California Legislature that the Union of Concerned Scientists supports as key steps towards this end:

  • Senate Bill 945 (Alvarado-Gil)would require state agencies to create, operate, and maintain a statewide-integrated wildfire smoke and health data platform to facilitate action from state authorities and the medical community to confront this critical, public health issue. We can’t improve what we can’t measure, and the current status quo makes it difficult to get a comprehensive picture of how smoke is affecting the health of Californians throughout the state.
  • Senate Bill 1176 (Niello) would require state agencies and research entities to form a work group to establish best practices and recommendations for wildfire-impacted communities and first responders to avoid exposure to heavy metals after a wildfire.

California should pass these bills, continue to look for opportunities to make data on wildfire impacts accessible, and make data-informed decisions on protecting people from wildfire-associated human health impacts.

Categories: Climate

A Call for Climate Justice at the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights

April 25, 2024 - 12:05

This week, the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights (IACHR) started to hear testimony at the University of the West Indies, near Bridgetown, Barbados, addressing one of the most pressing global issues of our time: climate change and its implications on human rights. Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Research Scientist Carly Philips (pictured on the left above) testified on April 24. With dozens testifying over three packed days, the court heard powerful statements focused on impacts to small nation-states, connections between climate and health, calls for intergenerational justice, and—the focus of UCS’s input—state obligations to reduce corporate emissions. All testimony was recorded and can be watched here.

Greater capacity brings greater responsibility

The landmark hearing opened with statements by representatives from Chile and Colombia, which, in 2023, had sought the court’s advisory opinion on the interplay between climate change and human rights. Their requests underline a need for clarity about states’ responsibilities, emphasizing protections for children and women, environmental defenders, and the frameworks of loss and damage.  Importantly, loss and damage frameworks suggest that while all nations have a role in combating climate change, those with more capacity and resources should shoulder a greater burden.

Barbados, a small island state profoundly affected by climate change, brought to light the tangible harms it faces—increased difficulty in agriculture, threats to its fishing and tourism industries, and significant losses from recent tropical storms. Its position is a poignant reminder of the immediate and severe impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities.

During the sessions, Robert Volterra, a representative for Barbados and an expert in international law, argued persuasively that states contributing to climate change owe compensation to those that suffer its adverse effects disproportionately. He highlighted the potential danger of the court’s advisory opinion becoming a “rich person’s climate change advisory opinion,” which would fail to hold wealthy nations accountable and leave developing countries to face the consequences alone.

Bridging science and law

UCS expert Dr. Phillips provided a compelling scientific perspective that reinforced the urgency of addressing climate change as a threat multiplier and clarified the disproportionate impact of climate change on the Americas. You can watch the full testimony here.

UCS was invited to testify before the court as co-author of a joint amicus brief that focused on corporate accountability for the climate crisis, written with Greenpeace International, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), and the New York University School of Law’s Climate Law Accelerator (CLX). The organization’s testimony served as a scientific backbone to the legal discussions, stressing the need for immediate and coordinated action to address the intertwined crises of climate change and human rights.

Dr. Phillips’s testimony pointed out that attribution science—identifying the direct links between specific actions and climate change—confirms the causal connections between the conduct of major polluters, primarily large companies from the Global North, and the adverse effects now being suffered globally. Citing this evidence, she made the case for the need to regulate business activities.

Dr. Phillips also painted a stark picture of the narrowing window for action. Ignoring the escalating threat posed by climate change, and by the unaccountable corporations driving the crisis, risks pushing global temperatures beyond the critical goal of 1.5ºC, she said. Such a failure would be not only an ecological catastrophe, but also a profound failure of our legal systems, potentially undermining the legitimacy of human rights law and its institutions.

Our legal partners at Greenpeace International then argued that states have a primary responsibility to enact and enforce laws and regulations, which means requiring businesses to respect human rights—including by swiftly and sharply reducing global warming emissions.

Potential precedents

The court’s task is formidable. It must navigate a complex landscape of varied vulnerabilities and capacities among the nations under its jurisdiction. Yet, its role is crucial. As the court’s president Nancy Hernández López noted, the outcome of these hearings could profoundly influence regional and global approaches to climate justice, ensuring that no voice is silent and no opinion lacks legitimacy.

The IACHR’s hearings are not merely procedural; they are a beacon of hope for those most at risk. As the world watches, the decisions made here could set a precedent for how we address the legal and moral obligations of climate change mitigation and compensation globally.

This is the first of three sessions for hearings before the IACHR. As we continue to monitor these hearings, one thing is clear: climate justice is not just about legal battles, it’s about securing a sustainable and equitable future for all. I’m grateful that the court has made the space to hear from experts and communities impacted by its rulings. We will keep you posted as this decision, and other climate advisory requests, move through the courts.

Categories: Climate

Justice40 Can Be Strengthened with These 3 Fixes

April 25, 2024 - 07:01

Read part 1 of this blog post series on the White House’s initiative.

In a previous blog post about the federal Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent report about how the White House can better implement its Justice40 initiative, I noted that the GAO should have said the program needs much more transparency at multiple levels. That is the first of three fixes that I and my former colleague and senior official at the EPA Matthew Tejada agree should have been recommended.

As former EPA officials in the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights, we had a front row seat to how Justice40, a landmark initiative born via President Biden’s executive order 14008, was rolled out.

There are two more fixes we think the GAO should have recommended to the White House to strengthen implementation of Justice40.

What the GAO should have said Fix #2: Appoint OMB as the lead White House entity for Justice40 oversight.

GAO’s recommendations treated each component of the EOP as equal. Both Matthew Tejada and I wish they had gone further to point out that no initiative as potentially ambitious and transformative as Justice40 can be successful without clear decision-making authority from the White House and an effective structure to engage executive branch agencies that have likewise committed the necessary staff and budget.

In the case of Justice40, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Climate Policy Office (CPO) each have co-equal roles, given their various policy mandates. This has resulted in significant delays across key decisionmakers, as pointed out by GAO.

“The Equitable and Just National Climate Forum (EJNCF) [of which UCS is a part] got it right on the money in recommending that the lead entity for oversight of the implementation of Justice40 should be OMB, especially now that they received $25 million through the Inflation Reduction Act,” Matthew said to me.

OMB can ensure durability of these goals across administrations if they commit to addressing the GAO critique of enhancing and improving coordination with EJ leaders appointed to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (WHEJAC), led by CEQ.

Clarifying leadership could also greatly help to cure another common critique in GAO’s report—lack of coordination with and activation of the newly-constituted Interagency Council on EJ (EJ IAC). Clear leadership, authority, and focus from one office in the White House would empower the political and career leads from each agency to quickly and effectively bring ideas from their agencies to shape the initiative through the EJ IAC.

GAO also noted the lack of process for systematically accepting agency feedback (p. 40). For example, because Justice40 implementation guidance was so long in coming and had to move through so many decision-making centers in the White House, the initiative has been slow to adapt to changing circumstances, such as the expansion of Justice40-covered programs after passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. Similar delays and confusion have been met with providing guidance to define disadvantaged communities when the IRA gave that authority individually to the leads of different agencies. The result is that agency officials had to wait for new guidance documents that they didn’t always have a hand in shaping.

Moving forward, the hope would be for the EJ IAC to not just be part of a more responsive and clear chain of communication but also relied upon for crafting the policies that they will then in turn be charged with implementing across the different programs at their agencies.

OMB has the horsepower to look across the executive branch and dive into programs, methodologies, and reporting. CEQ has the clear authority to lead the WHEJAC and EJ IAC. Establishing clear authority across these critical areas and aligning the efforts of the different offices, rather than mixing their actions and authorities together, would be a dramatic improvement.

Fix #3: Only use the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool for its designed intent.

The final fix for Justice40 I recommend is to make clear what the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) should be used for and, just as importantly, not used for.

CEJST represents a huge step forward in the use of equity-centric tools across the United States. Despite the word “screening” in its name, CEJST was not built to be just another “screening” tool. Executive Order 14008 laid out a specific policy question for CEJST—if at least 40% of the benefits were to go to certain places based on the intersection of climate, economic, and environmental injustices, where are those places? CEJST was custom built to provide that answer.

What has happened since CEJST was released? There was the predictable confusion amongst many people; citizens, government officials, industry representatives—all asking which tool to use. CEJST started showing up in inappropriate policy arenas, such as identifying potentially disproportionately-impacted communities during permitting processes under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act. CEJST was not built for a host of analytical screening purposes and should not be used as such. There are other tools—EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (EJScreen) and NEPAssist, and Department of Health and Human Service’s EJ Index—that were.

CEJST was built to specifically identify which parts of the country should receive at least 40% of the benefits of those 400-plus government programs. As Matthew says, “CEJST was tuned to include somewhere less than 40% of the country, or else what’s the point? It wasn’t built to capture all of the communities that deserve government benefits. It wasn’t designed to show which communities might need and deserve certain attention or specific resources more than other communities based upon compounding, or cumulative, challenges. It wasn’t designed to be used in permitting, rulemaking, compliance, emergency response and recovery, clean-ups…the list goes on. And it certainly wasn’t designed to provide an answer for which disadvantaged communities should receive 100% of a program’s benefits, which is exactly what numerous Inflation Reduction Act programs have been statutorily mandated to achieve.”

Then there’s the issue of spatial resolution

For you data geeks out there, like me, pay attention to this: the Census Bureau has a tool for using populations and land masses, starting from the smallest geographies, actual blocks, then block groups, then tracts, and so forth. Most analysts prefer using the smallest geographical unit possible because they can get much more granular in their understanding of community-scale needs and disparities. Because of CEJST’s reliance on census tract geographies rather than census block groups, many disadvantaged communities that happen to be near other more affluent areas are averaged out and don’t make the cut for Justice40’s threshold. This happens when disadvantaged census block groups in heavily populated areas are surrounded by more affluent neighbors, or rural disadvantaged communities get averaged in with affluent resort areas that are not particularly close but included in the vast bounds of rural census tracts.

Sometimes even at the block group level, getting to community needs is difficult but less perilous than operating at the tract scale.  

CEJST estimates that approximately 33% of the country’s population lives in areas labeled as disadvantaged; that means 40% of benefits is a meaningful number as compared to the target populations and geographies. It is not the be-all and end-all to identifying every disadvantaged community in the United States.

In that way, CEJST is a simple but effective tool which will go a long way toward advancing progress if used appropriately, even with the clearly articulated and well-put criticism of its exclusion of race and ethnicity. There are important opportunities to improve it in future iterations.

Matthew says, “if CEJST is used as a simple but powerful lever, it can move our government—not just the Justice40 programs and not only 40% of the benefits of those programs—because it forces civil servants at all levels of government to contend with issues of equity, history, disinvestment, and their own singular decision-making in incredibly powerful and tangible ways. Once you start that process, it ripples out across the rest of government action and thinking.”

Coupled with fixing the reporting, transparency, and accountability issues we’ve noted are still problematic within Justice40, using CEJST will enable those ripples to swell into waves. With an all-of-government approach, we can learn how to think about equity issues, use data tools, and then make different policy decisions about how government works to achieve a better and more equitable result.

CEJST and Justice40 don’t have to dictate all of those results and specify every community destination. Trying to do so only limits the scope of what it can achieve, and it will also guarantee that many deserving communities will be left out of the change we collectively seek.

There is no doubt that Justice40 and CEJST are driving significant change across federal government. As long-serving EPA leaders, we saw the difference. It was clear, necessary, and almost instantaneous. The EJ truism holds here as in so many other places—we’ve come a long way but have a long, long way yet to go. There’s so much left to be done to solidify the wins of Justice40 in the face of skepticism and growing political hostility towards both equity and climate issues.

In this post and the previous I have provided a few ideas to help institutionalize practices that would allow agencies to showcase and scale the changes. What would be not just unfortunate but also tragic is if we fail to learn from the early struggles of Justice40’s historic policy and fail to support the efforts emerging from the Inflation Reduction Act’s absolutely unprecedented funding amounts. If done right, Justice40 can continue to achieve the lasting, meaningful, systemic, and structural changes that so many have spent their lives fighting to achieve.

What else should the GAO have said in its report about Justice40? Read my previous blog post to learn more.

Categories: Climate

The White House’s Justice40 is Good and Can Be Better

April 25, 2024 - 07:00

Since the inception of the environmental justice (EJ) movement, EJ leaders have called for accountability by the federal government for meeting the needs of communities that for generations have been systematically excluded, environmentally overburdened, and starved of much needed and deserved resources.

The federal government has responded in many ways over the ensuing decades, from the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) original 1983 study on the siting of hazardous waste facilities, to President Clinton’s 1994 executive order 12898 on environmental justice, to then-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson’s ambitious Plan EJ 2014 strategic plan.

While valiantly cultivating the bureaucratic soil, none of these efforts offered the promise of holding government accountable when making one of the most fundamental decisions of governance—the distribution of benefits.

President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, born in 2021 via executive order 14008, is the first meaningful attempt in decades to get at that basic function of government and prioritize the needs of communities that have been left behind for far too long.

The Justice40 Initiative’s goal is for 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments to flow to disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened. Taken together with other important equity and justice mandates, such as those included in additional executive orders dedicated to environmental justice and racial equity, we now are seeing the most comprehensive set of presidential equity and justice actions since the 1960s.

Yet more needs to be done to ensure the bold commitments of the past three years take root and grow into the systemic and structural changes our country and its most oppressed communities deserve. Because of the clarity of its goal and sharp focus on where and to whom benefits should flow during a time of historic government investment, the success of Justice40 will in many ways be the measuring stick of the Biden administration’s equity and justice efforts.  

A recent Government Accountability Office report made a series of recommendations to strengthen Justice40 implementation, including five recommendations to each of the different White House units (aka Executive Office of the President, or EOP) that are leading Justice40 implementation. Those units are the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Climate Policy Office (CPO). The reason GAO’s recommendations matter is that agencies and the White House need to respond formally to their recommendations, while those of us in the public and nonprofit sector are easier to ignore.

I am a former EPA official who worked in the agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights and have over 20 years of experience in equity-centered public service. I have some insights and I also encourage readers to delve into the expert insights and recommendations from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), which are rich and valuable.

Here’s what I think about the GAO’s report about Justice40:

What the GAO report on Justice40 got right Having a clear whole-of-government focus on Justice40 has been a crucial catalyst for action.

GAO pointed this out in findings from its interviews with federal and nonfederal officials, saying “some respondents (7 of 18) wrote that the interim guidance was useful for developing implementation plans because it established clear deadlines for taking action. For example, one respondent stated that the ‘aggressive’ deadlines set in the interim guidance made implementing the Justice40 Initiative the program’s main priority.” (p. 33)    

Indeed, in a few short years, the focus on Justice40 has resulted in the creation of numerous new programs across many agencies to improve community engagement and advance environmental justice. This has been accompanied by a significant increase in related levels of staff commitment and expertise, such as new EJ offices at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ). The US Department of Energy (DOE) opened its doors to the Office of Energy Justice and Equity and set up numerous programs funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to expand community engagement.

Each institutional change gave agencies like EPA, where the first Office of Environmental Justice was opened in 1992, more and stronger collaborators across the federal family to work alongside. Thanks to the historic support for EJ and personal commitment of EPA Administrator Michael Regan, EPA significantly increased the heft of its EJ program by aligning with its external civil rights program and reorganizing to create a national program (a big step up from the previous solo office) with a senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator position to head the new Office of EJ and External Civil Rights.  

GAO also shared important recommendations around improving transparency and accountability, including through better use of its scorecard, in order to allow Congress and the public to hold the executive branch accountable for upholding Justice40. See, p. 52 and p. 43 of the report.

Very importantly, the Equitable and Just National Climate Forum (EJNCF) has noted concerns about including racial demographic data to improve the scorecard’s efficacy, saying “As it currently stands, the information provided in the Phase One Scorecard does not include any racial demographic data that would allow verification of the extent to which agencies have ensured racial equity in their work.” EJNCF has also provided recommendations in response to the one-year anniversary of the EJ executive order 14096 on April 21, 2024.

What I wish the GAO had also said

I wish the GAO had also said this in its recommendations:

Fix #1: Accountability will only happen with public transparency at multiple levels.

Unfortunately, the way Justice40 is set up right now, it will not provide transparency on a program-by-program basis across federal agencies. With nearly 470 programs in the mix, the White House communicated through its original guidance that public reporting will be neither program-by-program nor agency-by-agency, but rather will roll up the results of multiple “buckets” of programs into overall government-wide totals.

This is problematic.

Matthew Tejada, the senior official in charge of EPA’s EJ program from 2013-2023, shared with me that “failing to include some mechanism for transparency at multiple levels undermines the goal of Justice40 in several respects. First, it eliminates the opportunity for individuals and organizations inside and outside of government to look at single programs of interest and monitor their success in providing at least 40% of benefits to disadvantaged communities.”

He’s right. By rolling programs together, it is possible and perhaps even likely that big-ticket, large-scale programs eclipse the success of smaller, more targeted programs. For example, Solar for All is a $7 billion program targeted exclusively for low-income solar projects. This large infusion to disadvantaged communities coming from EPA could mask the hard-fought efforts of many other smaller renewable energy programs from multiple federal agencies that are working to move the needle above 40%.

Further, there’s another more pernicious issue of whether to include certain programs in analyses of benefits at all. DOE’s hydrogen hubs (H2Hubs) program selected seven projects for award negotiations in the fall of 2023. The projects include disadvantaged parts of Appalachia and Houston where EJ communities (and the WHEJAC) are contesting any approaches, including hydrogen facilities, that prolong reliance on fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Including this program in the denominator of any overall calculation is critical, since the H2Hub program was included in the list of J40-covered programs. However, also including it in the numerator would mean each H2Hub could dwarf tens of smaller Justice40 investments in the same bucket of programs. The way around this is to encourage J40 data to be shared in a disaggregated way so that program administrators and the public can independently evaluate the effect of these programs.

Matthew also said, “This approach sets the White House up for what is a potentially impossible task —coming up with some defensible means for mathematically aggregating benefits from a multitude of programs with varied benefits, measured at different scales and units, without showing the individual program-by-program numbers.”

He’s right again. We need a way to understand the bigger picture, but it cannot come at the cost of transparency and accountability for individual programs and agencies. Allowing analysts within and outside of government to see data and benefits methodologies at various scales is critical for this outcome.

Even if the White House redirects the executive branch to change its reporting structure to include a program or agency basis, there would still be data hurdles to surmount. Many federal programs do not currently track exactly where their appropriated funds touch down on the ground (i.e., at the local neighborhood, individual level, or depending on the funding stream). For some programs, this is the result of historic systemic inequities baked into programs (e.g., transportation formula funding) that have never been concerned about justifying where taxpayer dollars flow beyond the political wins of road-widening projects. In some cases, the fix is easy: programs should be required to track and report on the final destination of funds, and not just to the state agency or regional planning body that initially receives them. Matthew and I recognize there are reporting questions that would need to be sorted through with the support of OMB, who shepherds the Paperwork Reduction Act. And of course, wrestling with state and local agencies’ capacity and willingness to share information with the federal government would also need to be addressed.

In the case of some programs whose funding goes through multiple transactions, this might not be possible. Matthew thinks that’s ok. He says, “We should figure out which programs those are and push them to find an alternative means for tracking where the money will be spent in a way that is not so burdensome as to overwhelm the usefulness of the resources provided.”

Before the end of 2024, basic information that tags to geography across the board needs to be made, so that agencies can start reporting in a way that allows communities and civil society—not to mention the civil servants in charge of these programs—to monitor progress and support implementation. And, like EJNCF has advocated, we should request them to provide more technical assistance to navigate the complex programs so the data can be used meaningfully.

If this could be done quickly, more agencies would have the institutional capacity built up to implement programs with an equity lens as a matter of course.

What else should the GAO have said in its report about Justice40? Read my next post to learn more.

Categories: Climate

Earth Day 2024: The Climate Benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act Are Worth Celebrating

April 22, 2024 - 07:00

Leading up to Earth Day this year, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning and purpose of the annual celebration. Earth Day began under the Nixon Administration in 1970 as a day to support environmental protection and has grown to include nations and communities around the world in appreciation of Mother Earth.  

Of course, like any other holiday, there have been instances of co-optation where big polluters seek to cover up their dirty deeds and greenwash their image by sponsoring Earth Day festivities. But I’m looking to celebrate the positives.

I’ve been to my fair share of trash cleanups, concerts, and craft fairs, but this year there’s one big policy I want to focus on that I think deserves some credit on Earth Day: the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

Earth Day and the IRA go hand in hand

Don’t get me wrong, I still plan on showing some love for the planet this Earth Day, but I’m also grateful that the US was able to pass the IRA in 2022 because it represents the single biggest investment in cutting heat-trapping emissions in history (here’s to you, Mother Earth). This super important bill is expected to result in $780 billion to $1 trillion in investments over 10 years that will drive down emissions, improve public health, and help protect the environment on our planet for future generations.

It’s also worth noting that while the IRA will make a massive difference in our fight against climate change, it alone won’t be enough to help us meet the US’s Paris Climate Agreement commitment of reducing its economy-wide emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030. Together with existing state and federal policies including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the IRA puts the US on a trajectory of about 34% reductions (with recent estimates ranging from 27% to 42%). And even that’s not a given.… How the programs and tax credits are carried out by federal and state agencies can affect the overall progress that can be made as a result of the IRA.

At UCS, we’re working to ensure effective and equitable implementation of key clean energy and clean transportation provisions. The IRA also includes some less than ideal fossil-fuel supporting incentives that will need continued monitoring .

To realize the IRA’s goals, implementation is key

Now, like anything else passed by Congress, the devil will be in the details, or in this case, the implementation of all the programs established under the IRA.

There’s an unprecedented amount of federal funding coming down the pike. This unprecedented amount of federal funding has mobilized nonprofit and community groups around the nation to help ensure the benefits flow to the people and places that deserve them. One of our jobs at UCS is to help make sure it winds up benefiting communities most in need. And those needs are great. Many Americans are still struggling to make ends meet while prices remain high. At the same time, energy burdens make utility bills unaffordable for many. Thankfully, the IRA aims to meet the White House’s Justice 40 goals of delivering at least 40% of the benefits of these investments to disadvantaged communities.

So, what are we doing to help?  UCS is working with coalition partners, our expert staff, and our extensive network of over 20,000 scientists and technical experts to help with the unprecedented need for technical assistance and grant reviews. Here are a few specific examples from UCS’s Climate and Energy team:

  • Community Change Grants: $2 billion grant funding opportunity to support local community efforts to build climate resiliency and adaptation; mitigate climate and health risks from urban heat islands, extreme heat, and wildfire events; support investments in low- and zero-emission technologies and related infrastructure; and expand workforce development to reduce climate-warming emissions and other air pollutants. UCS is partnering with the Environmental Protection Network to help connect our network of experts to community groups looking to apply for funding. (If you’re a scientist or expert reading this and want to help, we’re hosting a webinar on Thursday May 2nd where you can learn more about the opportunity and how you can offer assistance.)
  • Solar for All: The $7 billion provision that is included in the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund seeks to expand access to solar for low-income communities with all funds required to be used to enable low-income and disadvantaged communities to deploy and benefit from residential distributed solar. UCS has submitted letters of support for Illinois, Maine, and Massachusetts applying to the Solar for All program and we are continuing to meet with officials in Michigan to help influence the program design and outreach should that state be awarded funding. We are also working with GreenLatinos to determine community needs and questions around Solar for All and planning to offer additional resources to those community members once the awardees are announced (expected sometime in April 2024).
  • Low-Income and Energy Communities Bonus Tax Credits: These “bonus” tax credits offer a 10% additional credit for projects located in energy communities (communities defined as places affected by refinery/coal mine/power plant closures), a 10% credit for renewable energy projects located in low-income communities or tribal lands, AND a 20% bonus for renewable energy projects that are installed on low-income residential buildings or that deliver at least 50% of power to low-income households. UCS is working with our coalition partners to ensure these credits are being properly considered as part of our state utility regulatory work. As utilities develop their long-term resource plans for meeting energy demand, we will track the proceedings and give comments and testimony if needed to encourage adequate and accurate consideration of the benefits these credits could have on communities and the grid.
  • Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program: the EJ Thriving Communities Grantmaking program has established 11 grant makers to distribute $550 million in small grants. UCS is partnering with the RE-AMP network, one of the selected grant makers, to help target grant outreach in rural communities in the Midwest using the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, and to address extreme heat threats to outdoor workers with data from our Too Hot to Work report.
  • EPA Climate Pollution Reduction Grants: This $5 billion program administered by the EPA aims to reduce climate warming emissions and other air pollution. It is made up of $4.75 billion for implementation grants and $250,000 for planning grants. Applicants submitted initial priority climate action plans, or PCAPs, in March, and they must submit comprehensive climate action plans by mid-2025. UCS submitted comments with recommendations on the PCAPs of Massachusetts, Illinois, Maine, and Michigan, and will continue to engage on the implementation of this grant program with the forthcoming comprehensive climate action plans.
  • UCS is actively working to ensure tax credits passed or modified as part of the IRA are rigorously implemented to minimize potential for harm, such as with the Clean Hydrogen Production Tax Credit (45V) and the Carbon Capture and Sequestration Tax Credit (45Q).
How is the IRA impacting people and the planet so far?

It’s important to note that many of the programs established or expanded under the IRA are yet to be established, and there is a lot of money yet to be allocated. But, so far there’s a lot to like.

A recent report from the US Department of the Treasury found most of the investments from the IRA so far have gone to underserved and frontline communities.

And MIT and the Rhodium Group have noted the following:

  • 81% of clean investment dollars announced since the Inflation Reduction Act passed have been for projects in counties with below-average weekly wages.
  • 86% of clean investment dollars since the Inflation Reduction Act passed are landing in counties with below-average college graduation rates.
  • 70% of clean investment dollars since the Inflation Reduction Act passed are in counties where a smaller share of the population is employed.
  • 78% of clean investment dollars since the Inflation Reduction Act passed are in counties with below-average median household incomes.
  • The share of clean investment dollars going to low-income counties rose from 68% to 78% when the Inflation Reduction Act passed. 

An updated analysis from US Treasury, including Q3 and Q4 data from 2023, also shows the continued increase in investments going toward these communities, with an additional $2.4 billion going to energy communities through the Energy Community Bonus tax credit (as opposed to $1 billion going to non-energy communities when compared to pre-IRA levels). However, it is worth noting, that analysis from the US Treasury counts all investments, including those that some environmental justice communities don’t consider beneficial.

Interestingly, additional analysis shows that most funding from the IRA is flowing toward Republican-represented Congressional districts, even though not a single Republican voted for the measure.

It’s still too soon to get a good sense of the planetary impacts the IRA will have, but as a big down payment on the US’s contribution to global efforts, the initial outlook is promising. It’s clear we’ve still got a long way to go to limit the worst impacts of climate change and keep planetary warming below 2 degrees, but I for one will be celebrating both our planet, and the IRA this Earth Day. Will you join me?

Categories: Climate

Earth Day Is a Day to Celebrate the Environmental Progress We’ve Made in Recent Years

April 19, 2024 - 07:00

Earth Day each year marks an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come as a society. Personally, I find it an exhilarating time to be part of the U.S. environmental movement that birthed Earth Day out of outrage over rampant use of toxic chemicals.

To address the global environmental and equity crisis of our generation, in the past three years Congress has passed two significant pieces of legislation advanced by the Biden administration that contain the most climate funding in the nation’s history: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). However, Congress has stubbornly refused to pass legislation that slashes carbon emissions directly. Instead, they have left much of that work to the discretion of the administration, which can only do so much without the say-so of Congress (aka statutory authority).

Is this recent progress significant? Absolutely. Recent executive action taken by the administration, alongside record-breaking milestones and these two pieces of legislation deserve celebrating.

There also are places where we must keep working alongside the public sector to make change that reflects the true scale of the problem. Let’s dig in.

Progress cutting transportation emissions

Transportation is the biggest source of global warming emissions in the US, as well as a major source of dangerous air pollution. Building a cleaner transportation system—one that includes electric vehicles (EVs)—is vital to meeting our climate goals and improving public health and equity.

The EPA issued new standards this year to cut climate-endangering emissions from new passenger cars and light trucks. In concert with state policies and the growing global shift to electrification, these policies should help get more zero-emission vehicles on the road.  

As these new standards bring cleaner vehicles to the market, investments and tax incentives emerging from BIL and IRA will make it easier for US drivers to buy and get around in an EV. That includes tax incentives for buying EVs, whether new or, for the first time, used. It also includes major investments in building new EV charging stations across the country, both in communities and along highway corridors. While EVs are already cleaner over their lifetime than gasoline vehicles, that advantage gets bigger as the grid they’re charged on gets cleaner. Policies to speed up the EV transition go hand in hand with policies to power our electrical system with fewer fossil fuels and more renewable energy.

Of course, investments in vehicle electrification are only part of the solution; people need more clean, accessible ways to get around. Though the climate impact of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is mixed, one of the clearest wins is that it invests over $200 billion in funding to support public transportation and rail, breaking with decades of federal underinvestment in these modes​.

While there’s much more work to be done cutting pollution from the transportation system, these policies move us in the right direction.

Progress protecting people from pollutants

The EPA also has been busy issuing new rules aimed at protecting people from exposure to pollution and toxic chemicals.

  • Standards for one of the most common pollutants—fine particulate matter (PM2.5)—had lagged for years as the evidence of the harms of this pollution mounted. In February, EPA issued new, stronger PM2.5 rules.
  • Facilities that handle dangerous chemicals pose a risk to workers and neighbors. In March, EPA finalized a new Risk Management Program rule to minimize the impact of chemical disasters.
  • This month, for the first time, EPA issued enforceable standards to reduce the danger of PFAS chemicals in drinking water, along with funding for water testing and treatment.  And EPA has finally named PFOA and PFOS as hazardous chemicals, which will help rein in their use and reduce contamination.
  • EPA is also addressing the threat of ethylene oxide with long-awaited new rules to reduce ethylene oxide from commercial sterilizers and emissions from chemical manufacturing facilities.
  • Since 2021, EPA also has introduced a range of new rules that will improve public health. These include standards for methane emissions from oil and gas operations, a strong lead and copper rule supported by funding for water system upgrades authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a ban on chlorpyrifos contamination in food, and a long-awaited ban on asbestos. They’ve also issued a new Equity Action Plan that can help incorporate cumulative impacts into future rulemaking.  

It’s also encouraging to see efforts to protect expert federal staff from political interference, making sure we can all benefit from the best available science. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has introduced a model scientific integrity policy and agencies across government are at work designing their own scientific integrity guidelines. Meanwhile the Office of Personnel Management has finalized new civil service rules to ensure federal employees are protected from politically motivated firings.

None of these rules is perfect on its own, but taken together and combined with other complementary policies, they represent a serious effort to address the biggest threats to our health, our ecosystem, and our climate.

Progress investing in clean energy, clean air, and environmental justice

In 2022, Congress passed President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)—the biggest climate action in US history. The legislation is galvanizing the nation’s transition to clean energy by helping to clean up our electricity, transportation, and industry, and make energy use in homes and buildings cleaner and more energy efficient.

So far, more than $53 billion has already been allocated from the law to advance environmental justice, deliver cleaner air, and tackle climate pollution. This includes $6.9 billion for tackling climate pollution, $270 million for cleaner air, and $45.7 billion for environmental justice.

When it comes to environmental justice, the IRA, together with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, provide $126 billion for more than 28 federal programs that are helping to reduce global warming emissions and disproportionate amounts of pollution in low-income communities and communities of color. The legislation is also helping to reduce the unequal household energy burdens and climate risks that these communities bear.

Progress stalling fossil fuel expansion

In January, the Biden administration correctly delayed a decision on whether to approve a massive new fossil gas export terminal in southwest Louisiana pending a review of its potential climate and environmental impacts. UCS believes that proper accounting of these harms will make it clear that this project, and others like it in the United States, are not in the public interest.

With the climate crisis rapidly worsening and given long-standing environmental injustices from the production and use of fossil fuels, the US must chart a path toward a fast, fair phaseout of polluting fuels and ramp up clean energy solutions.

Progress cutting power sector carbon emissions

The power sector is the second largest source of global warming emissions in the U.S. and also a major contributor of traditional air pollution. We may see progress in this area very soon because next week the administration is expected to finalize a regulation that requires existing coal-fired power plants—the largest carbon emitter in the power sector—to significantly reduce their carbon emissions and future natural gas plants to release limited amounts of carbon.

The administration will release a regulation limiting carbon and other pollutants from existing natural gas plants later.

Since the key to reducing U.S. global warming emissions is powering everything, including vehicles and buildings, with clean electricity from the grid, these rules are critical.

Progress transitioning to renewable energy

In 2024, US renewables likely will set lots of new records. The US solar industry likely will handily blow past its (record-breaking) 2023 tally for installations in a single year. Solar is breaking records for generation almost daily, from coast to coast and in between, and wind has been notching up its own records.

Offshore wind will have a banner year in 2024, with two new projects that will bring the US total to enough capacity to generate the equivalent of more than a half million Northeast households’ electricity use.

Solar and wind together, which in spring 2023 hit a new high for portion of total US monthly generation, may break their combined record, too. Add in hydroelectric and geothermal power, and renewable energy could account for fully one-quarter of US electricity—double what they contributed a decade ago!

Where does all this action put us?

There is no question there is much more that must be done, not only to achieve the United States’ climate goals of cutting economywide heat-trapping emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050, but also to further reduce traditional pollution.

Let’s celebrate the truly incredible progress that has been made to date. The progress we’ve seen from the administration and federal agencies in recent years was a long time coming, the result of thousands of people working together to make significant, lasting environmental change.

This administration has made historic progress on multiple fronts, and traditional environmental groups, science organizations, and environmental justice communities are exercising their individual and collective power in ways not previously seen. As a former federal official and a current advocate for environmental justice, I am glad to pause and take a beat to acknowledge how far we’ve come before we put the pedal back to the metal.

Categories: Climate

Fossil Fuel Companies Make Billions in Profit as We Suffer Billions in Losses: 2024 Edition

April 17, 2024 - 13:40

Above: Lahaina, Hawai’i after the devastating August 2023 wildfire that killed more than 100 people and destroyed 2,700 homes.

Last year, I wrote that fossil fuel companies made billions of dollars in profit during 2022 as people around the world suffered billions of dollars in damage from climate and weather related disasters. The climate impacts people around the world experience are connected to the fossil fuel industry’s record-breaking profits:

“The profits made by the oil and gas majors come at the direct expense of all of us and our shared planet. These companies continue to extract more fossil fuels from the ground, lobby for their interests, deceive and misinform the public about climate change, and build new infrastructure to lock us into this continual cycle of extraction, combustion, and the dire consequences it brings. They need to be held accountable for these actions.”

Now that all the numbers are in for 2023, we can say that, tragically, this trend continues. Last year was one of extremes, yet again breaking the record for hottest year with an annual temperature 1.48°C above the preindustrial average. Records were smashed in terms of extreme air and ocean temperatures; people around the world experienced wildfires, floods, severe storms, and other disasters. While fossil fuel industry profits were down from their 2022 earnings, these companies still pulled in a dizzying amount of money in 2023, with the combined profits of ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP totaling over $100 billion. The CEO of Chevron bragged about the company’s record profits and fossil fuel production levels, saying: “In 2023, we returned more cash to shareholders and produced more oil and natural gas than any year in the company’s history.” The comment shows an atrocious disregard for the fossil fuel industry’s harmful impacts on the world and for global efforts to confront climate change and prioritize human rights.

US disasters and disaster response

In 2023, the United States suffered 28 separate weather- and climate-related disasters, the highest number of such events recorded in a single year that each caused over $1 billion in economic damages. Taken together, these disasters caused $92.9 billion in damage. This monetary damage is just a crude measure that doesn’t fully account for the loss of life, cultural heritage destroyed, trauma endured, and other types of damage that cannot be described in economic terms. These calamities tragically caused the deaths of 492 people. That figure doesn’t capture the full extent of the trauma experienced by survivors of these disasters, many of whom face myriad difficulties in recovering emotionally, physically, and financially long after the time when the news cycle has shifted away from the aftermath of catastrophe. 

One of these billion-dollar disasters was the wildfire that devastated Lahaina, Hawai’i. That fire alone killed more than 100 people, destroyed important cultural heritage sites and 2,700 homes, and severely impacted local ecology. The fire also left toxic ash in its wake, the disposal of which has proven problematic. While the role of climate change hasn’t been quantified for this fire, we know that climate change is making wildfires more frequent and severe. The history of colonization that still shapes the land to this day also played a role. While the media had only limited coverage of the role of fossil fuels in creating the conditions for such an unusual fire, Maui County is suing fossil fuel producers for deceiving the public about climate change harms they knew their products would cause. The lawsuit notes, for example, that wildfire season is no longer a season, but rather a year-round struggle. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, the fossil fuel companies likely won’t have to pay for any of the recovery efforts from the devastation in Lahaina.

In the United States, recovery efforts after disasters are paid for in part by funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But with a growing number of disasters and the rising cost of recovery, FEMA does not have enough money to meet the growing need. Vastly underfunded, FEMA has relied on Congress for emergency supplemental funding in recent years to shrink its multi-billion dollar deficit. As my colleague Shana Udvardy wrote, this funding deficit means FEMA has to preserve limited funds for immediate life-saving needs while stalling projects to help with recovery from disasters that happened in previous years. Such deferrals in Congressional appropriations for disaster recovery most severely impact underserved people, including people who are unhoused, displaced, and historically disadvantaged.

Disasters and disaster response around the world

Major climate and weather disasters occurred across the world last year, including the record-breaking cyclone Freddy which devastated parts of Mozambique and Malawi, catastrophic flooding in Libya, severe floods and drought in Kenya, and many more. Thousands of people were impacted by these events and face a long road to recovery.

Global efforts to assist in this recovery are desperately needed and movement is starting to happen. At COP28, the long-awaited loss and damage fund was operationalized. The purpose of this fund is to provide compensation to those impacted by disasters. While operationalizing the fund is a positive step, the funds pledged so far by nations are severely lacking, with a paltry $400 million in the fund so far. This is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed as climate change continues to make the world less safe. The United States has pledged $17.5 million—an embarrassingly low sum from the world’s largest historic emitter and the nation where many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies are headquartered.

Climate Analytics presented a new analysis putting the need for pledges to the loss and damage fund alongside profits of the world’s largest oil and gas producers. Their research shows that, in just over three decades (1985-2018), fossil fuel producers made $30 trillion in profit while a partial accounting of damages linked to their products was $20 trillion. This implies that they could have paid for all the climate damage associated with their products—and still walked away with $10 trillion in profit.

It is clear that people around the world are suffering from the harms of fossil fuels, and it is clear that these companies have the money to compensate for economic damages. The question remains, does the political will exist to bridge these issues?

Profiting off climate damage and conflict

While disaster recovery efforts around the world struggle to keep up with community needs, the fossil fuel industry has money to spare, paying out record amounts to shareholders and conducting stock buybacks. This is occurring simultaneously with rollbacks to their climate pledges as we see them again taking the path they have chosen too many times before to prioritize profit over the planet.

The fossil fuel industry’s high profits come primarily from the world’s continued addiction to its products, which the companies themselves lobby to maintain. But the profits are also buoyed by global conflict. An analysis from Global Witness recently found that, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the five largest fossil fuel companies in the United States and Europe have raked in a quarter of a trillion dollars as the conflict drove up energy prices.

While fossil fuel companies profit, people suffer.

It’s time to change course

In 2023, heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuels increased by 1.1%. This may sound like a small amount. But, in a world where we have known for decades that these emissions need to decline and that we are far off track from meeting emissions reduction goals, any increase represents a threat to life on this planet. Increases in the fossil fuel production that drives climate change will continue to wreak havoc. Such increases will allow fossil fuel companies to continue making jaw-dropping profits while efforts to fund disaster response—such as FEMA in the United States and the loss and damage fund globally—continue to lag far behind what is needed.

The fossil fuel companies have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to do the right thing. They have continued to prove this as they walk back their previous climate pledges even as the impacts of record-breaking heat are causing unimaginable damage around the world. This is why we must keep up public pressure toward a fast, fair phaseout of fossil fuels, consider the role of banking in propping up this system, shine a light on the industry’s decades of disinformation and denial, and continue to call for accountability via the courts. Action is needed to ensure that these companies are not allowed to continue to line the pockets of shareholders while people suffer from the devastating impacts their products have caused.

Categories: Climate

The Gas Utility Industry is Gaslighting Us

April 11, 2024 - 09:07

During my first decade in Washington, D.C., my windows were caked with soot from the diesel buses that ran up and down my street. So when I found a place to live just a few blocks away on a street without buses, it was a relief. What I didn’t know is that my health was still at risk—from indoor pollution.

Thanks to a recent test conducted by my local Sierra Club chapter, I learned that the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions from the hoodless gas stove I’ve been cooking on for the last 30 years in my poorly ventilated galley kitchen exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum safe level of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for a one-hour exposure outdoors. (There is no EPA standard for indoor air.)

The highest level the Sierra Club’s air quality monitor detected when my oven and two burners were on was 103 ppb, but even at low concentrations, NO2 irritates the upper respiratory tract and lungs, and longtime exposures have been associated with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and childhood asthma.

Fortunately, I don’t have COPD and I didn’t contract asthma when I was young, perhaps partly because I grew up in a home with an electric range. But other Washingtonians may not be as lucky. While less than 40 percent of households nationwide cook on a gas stove, 62 percent of households in Washington do. Perhaps not coincidentally, a higher percentage of adults in the District suffer from asthma than in all of the 50 states, and the prevalence of asthma among children under 18 in the nation’s capital is second only to that of kids in Mississippi. 

Certainly, gas stoves are just one source of air pollution in the District. But a study published in the December 2022 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health calculated that gas stoves are responsible for 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States, comparable to the risk posed to children by secondhand smoke. The situation is even worse in some states. According to the study, gas stoves trigger more than 20 percent of childhood asthma cases in California and Illinois, and nearly 19 percent in New York. The study concluded that these childhood asthma cases could have theoretically been prevented by using electric appliances.

I was not fully aware of this issue until roughly a year ago, when I wrote a column about it, and I’ve been working for environmental organizations for 25 years. No doubt, the fact that gas stoves are hazardous to our health was also news to most Americans. What accounts for that?

Fifty Years of Disinformation

It’s no longer a secret that the US oil industry was well aware as early as 1957 that its products threaten the climate. As we now know, fossil fuel companies lied about it for decades to protect their profits. Thanks to exemplary spade work by news organizations and advocacy groups (including my organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists), we have known about the industry’s duplicity for at least 20 years.

Less known is the fact that the gas utility industry has been engaged in the same kind of deceit. According to an October 2023 report by the Climate Investigations Center (CIC), a nonprofit watchdog organization, the industry has been gaslighting us by promoting the idea that “cooking with gas” is a good thing, despite knowing as far back as 1970 that gas stoves pose a threat to public health and the environment.

Now that there is a desperate need to slash global warming emissions worldwide to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, it is critical to rapidly phase out the use of all fossil fuels. That would of course include fossil gas, which consists of 85 to 90 percent methane, a significantly more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

A 2022 study found that gas stoves leak methane, and more than three-quarters of the emissions occurred when the stoves were off. Meanwhile, a 2023 study in Environmental Research Letters concluded that as little as 0.2 percent of gas leaking from the gas production and delivery system would make gas as bad as coal for the climate—and it turns out the leaks are worse than that. The EPA estimates that about 6.5 million metric tons of methane leak from the oil and gas supply chain each year—approximately 1 percent of total gas production—five times more than the 0.2 percent threshold.

In my town, gas accounts for 23 percent of global warming emissions, according to the District’s Department of Energy and the Environment. But gas emissions are likely much higher when accounting for leaks, which are widespread in the Washington metro area system.

Public health also hangs in the balance. Gas stoves, which are in 38 percent of US households, not only emit methane, but also toxic pollutants besides NO2 that are associated with respiratory ailments and cancer. A 2022 study in Environmental Science and Technology detected more than 20 volatile organic compounds, including hexane, toluene and benzene, in unburned stove gas.

In spite of all of the data, the American Gas Association (AGA), the industry’s leading trade group that represents more than 200 investor-owned gas utility companies and their suppliers, contends there is no problem. It maintains that gas stoves are a “minor source” of NO2 and dismisses the mounting evidence that gas stove emissions contribute to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Following the Disinformation Playbook

The gas utility industry, which won over the public with its cooking with gas campaign in the 1930s, found itself at a crossroads in the late 1960s when sales of electric ranges outpaced gas stove sales for the first time. In 1969, AGA launched a million-dollar advertising campaign (worth $8.45 million in today’s dollars) in response to recapture the market, which was especially critical given gas stoves function as a “gateway” appliance. If a new home has a gas stove installed, homeowners are more likely to buy other big-ticket gas appliances—a furnace, a water heater, a clothes dryer—which use a lot more gas than a stove.

Just a year later, however, the industry encountered a potentially major obstacle: A study conducted by the government’s National Air Pollution Control Administration found a link between outdoor NO2 exposure and childhood respiratory problems. The lead author of that study, Dr. Carl Shy—who spoke with NPR last fall for an article based on the CIC report—recalled that when he met with gas industry representatives after publishing the study, they conceded that gas stoves emit NO2 and that hood vents were not strong enough to remove it.

Shy’s study provided a shining example of the threat posed by industrial pollution that galvanized public attention in the late 1960s and led to the first Earth Day in April 1970. Given that heightened awareness, a Commerce Department advisory committee of electric and gas utility executives acknowledged at a meeting in the fall of 1970 that their industry needed “to show what they are doing about pollution [and] suggested that the gas industry take a look at the NOx [nitrogen oxides] problem.”

Since then, however, the gas industry—much like the oil industry—has cribbed heavily from the tobacco industry’s playbook to block government regulation by manufacturing doubt about the reality and seriousness of its “NOx problem.” Its main tactics include funding studies that magnify uncertainties in health research to create confusion about the science, running deceptive public relations campaigns, and creating front groups that spread disinformation to protect—and expand—the industry’s market share.

Attacking Credible Science

Since the 1970s, the gas industry has been commissioning epidemiological studies—whose authors often failed to disclose their funding source—that find no association between gas stove emissions and respiratory illness. As the CIC report describes in painstaking detail, these studies were designed to call into question the results of a growing number of studies that have discovered such a link. Many of the private labs and scientists the industry has commissioned, including Battelle Laboratories in the 1970s and the Arthur D. Little consulting firm in the 1980s, had previously done contract work for the tobacco industry for the very same purpose—to poke holes in studies that found that its products are hazardous by insisting that those findings were “inconclusive” or “invalid” and that more research was needed.

This gas industry tactic continues today. Just last year, AGA contracted with Gradient Corporation—a scientific consulting firm with a history of downplaying the health threat posed by toxic substances on behalf of its industry clients—to examine past studies that investigated the link between gas stoves and respiratory problems. Predictably, Gradient’s review, published last December in Global Epidemiology, concluded that the evidence presented in previous studies was insufficient.

Running Misleading PR Campaigns

Funding its own research is just one of the PR tactics the gas industry borrowed from the tobacco industry, the CIC report pointed out. Other tried-and-true tactics it appropriated include publicizing any information showing it in a positive light and disseminating the results of its research to legislators, regulators, journalists, health professionals, and other opinion leaders.

Where did the gas industry pick up the finer points of PR disinformation? From the very same firm that orchestrated Big Tobacco’s campaign in the 1950s and 1960s to sow doubt about the link between smoking and cancer: Hill & Knowlton.

Successful PR campaigns also require advertising, and the gas industry has spent generously. Its 1969 million-dollar ad campaign, for instance—called the “most ambitious advertising and marketing program [it has] ever undertaken”—featured commercials on the three television networks and ads in the top mass-circulation magazines of the day, including Life, Reader’s Digest and Better Homes & Gardens

In recent years, the gas utility industry has embraced social media to make its pitch. Working with Porter Novelli and other PR firms, AGA and its sister trade group, the American Public Gas Association (APGA), which represents municipally owned gas utilities, have been paying social media influencers hundreds of thousands of dollars to tout the benefits of gas stoves and other appliances in their posts.

Since May 2018, AGA also has spent more than $113,000 on 440 Facebook and Instagram ads. The Consumer Energy Alliance, whose 350 members include AGA and 78 other fossil fuel producers, suppliers and trade associations, has spent considerably more. Disingenuously calling itself the “voice of the energy consumer,” the group paid more than $700,000 for some 2,300 Facebook and Instagram ads over the same time period. Last August and September, the group posted a series of ads warning that EPA efforts to rein in methane emissions may mean “higher costs for your household” and “unintended consequences for every American family.”

Gas utilities have likewise launched their own social media campaigns. Southwest Gas, for example, sponsors influencers on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to reach potential customers in Arizona, California and Nevada, according to the Energy and Policy Institute, a watchdog group that monitors the oil, gas and utility industries. One Southwest Gas-funded TikTok spot featured an influencer in her kitchen parroting gas industry talking points while frying eggs on a gas stovetop. She then went on to rave about her gas clothes dryer and fireplace. The spot did not disclose who paid for it, but the influencer’s Instagram profile included a link to the Southwest Gas website.

Hiding Behind Front Groups

Some local governments across the country have responded to the climate crisis by changing their building codes to ban gas hookups in new homes and buildings. In 2019, Berkeley, California, became the first city to initiate such a ban, but a federal appeals court in San Francisco overturned a lower court decision in a case brought by the California Restaurant Association, ruling that federal energy efficiency standards preempt the ordinance.

Although Berkeley agreed to repeal its ban last month, nearly 100 cities and counties have passed similar ordinances, and another 35 cities and counties now require “electric readiness” so newly constructed buildings can easily switch to all-electric appliances. How the appeals court ruling will affect those initiatives is not clear.  

Not surprisingly, AGA applauded the court decision, calling it a “huge step” toward helping the nation “continue on a path to achieving our energy and environmental goals.”

Besides getting a favorable ruling in what may prove to be a pivotal case, gas utilities have succeeded in lobbying legislators in at least 24 states to pass laws blocking cities and counties from banning or restricting new gas hookups. Likewise, they have been busy shoring up their markets. In addition to paying social media influencers to hawk gas appliances, gas utilities operating in 17 states have been offering builders cash and free vacations to install gas appliances in new homes, according to a December 2023 Guardian investigation.

At least partly in response to the Berkeley gas ban, gas utilities in more than a dozen states also have set up front groups to promote gas as “clean, reliable and affordable,” denigrate renewable energy, and oppose gas bans and other climate solutions, the Energy and Policy Institute has reported. Southern California Gas Company, for instance, surreptitiously launched a phony grassroots group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions in 2019. New Jersey Gas, New Jersey Natural Gas, and the Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group joined forces with local business associations to create Affordable Energy for New Jersey in 2020. And in 2022, Atmos Energy, Black Hills Energy, Summit Utilities, and Xcel Energy were among the founders of Coloradans for Energy Access.

Since May 2018, 15 of these state and regional front groups spent $3.6 million on more than 14,000 Facebook and Instagram ads. The top spender, Natural Allies for a Clean Energy Future, paid more than $1 million for some 2,000 ads. Founded in 2020 with a war chest of more than $10 million, its members include the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America; gas pipeline companies Kinder Morgan, TC Energy, and Williams Companies; liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy; and Southern Company, owner of gas utilities in Georgia, Illinois, Tennessee and Virginia.

The result of all this activity? Notwithstanding initiatives to ban new gas hookups, the industry’s 50-year disinformation campaign has thus far paid off. The federal government has yet to set a stringent standard for toxic gas stove emissions, and the percentage of new single-family homes across the country with an installed gas stove has jumped from less than 30 percent in the 1970s to nearly 50 percent in 2021.

Federal Agencies Fail to Protect the Public

The federal government has been aware of gas stove pollution issues for decades. Remember, that 1970 study identifying a link between outdoor NO2 exposure and respiratory problems in schoolchildren that so alarmed the gas industry was conducted by the National Air Pollution Control Administration, which predated the EPA. Throughout the following decades, epidemiologists worldwide continued to find an association between gas stove emissions and respiratory illnesses, as documented by the CIC report. In addition, some clinical trials examining the impact of NO2 on human volunteers under controlled conditions found pronounced increases in “airway resistance” even at low levels of NO2 exposure. Regardless, industry-funded studies have generated enough controversy over the conclusions of government and independent studies to hold regulators at bay. The EPA finally introduced a much-delayed 1-hour exposure limit for outdoor NO2 in 2010, but there is still no comparable standard for indoor exposure.

The most recent attempt to address toxic gas stove emissions at the federal level came in January 2023, when Richard Trumka Jr., one of five members of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), touched off a firestorm of protest. He said his agency, which regulates dangerous household products, should consider banning new gas stoves, calling them “a hidden hazard.”

The blowback, mainly from Republicans on Capitol Hill, was immediate. “Democrats are coming for your kitchen appliances,” warned Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. “I’ll NEVER give up my gas stove,” exclaimed Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson, a former White House physician. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”

Two days later, CPSC Chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric issued a statement clarifying the agency’s position, explaining that the agency is not planning a ban but is investigating ways to curb toxic stove-related emissions. In March 2023, Trumka followed through, issuing a “request for information” (RIF) on gas stove emissions and possible solutions, a potential first step in regulating the appliances. In the RIF announcement, he pointed out that it was “not the first time CPSC has considered the health effects of chronic exposure to emissions from home appliances, particularly nitrogen dioxide.” He listed five examples, from 1982 to 2017, when the agency took up the topic, but each time it refrained from issuing a gas stove regulation.

Supporters of CPSC taking action often cited the December 2022 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH) study that found that 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States “is attributable to gas stove use.” In rebuttal, AGA and APGA cited a 2013 Lancet study investigating the association between different cooking fuels and childhood asthma in 47 countries. The study found that open fire cooking increased the prevalence of asthma, but failed to find an asthma link with gas.

However, according to a co-author of that Lancet study, environmental epidemiologist Bert Brunekreef, the study is an outlier. “You can always find a study that doesn’t find an effect,” he told E&E News in January 2023, “but you have to look at the combined effect of all the studies to reach a conclusion.” The way AGA cited it, he added, is “not a good use of our study.” 

Brunekreef also pointed out that the December 2022 IJERPH study linking asthma to gas stoves is “entirely based on” a 2013 meta-analysis he co-authored that reviewed more than 40 research papers. It found that, in “children, gas cooking increases the risk of asthma and indoor NO2 increases the risk of current wheeze.”  

Regardless, AGA sent CPSC a 97-page comment that dismissed Brunkreef’s 2013 meta-analysis and cited his anomalous 2013 Lancet study to bolster its argument.

By the time CPSC closed its comment period on gas stoves in May of last year, it had received more than 9,000 comments. About 30 percent of them were apparently generated by a template letter AGA promoted in ads on Facebook, according to the Energy and Policy Institute. The sample letter, the group said, cited Brunekreef ‘s 2013 Lancet study.

There is no way to gauge how much influence AGA’s campaign has had, but since last May, there has been no word from the agency. When contacted recently, a CPSC spokesperson said that “no regulatory action is planned, and any such action would require a vote by the full commission, which has not expressed support for any regulation.”

A federal agency did issue a new regulation for gas stoves recently, but it was the Department of Energy—not the CPSC—and it focused on reducing energy use, not toxic emissions.

In late January, the DOE—which is required by law to periodically update appliance efficiency standards—announced a relatively modest new energy-efficiency regulation for new gas and electric stoves. The standards, which will go into effect in 2028, will affect only 3 percent of gas stoves because 97 percent already meet them today. The standards will have a bigger impact on electric stoves. Nearly a quarter of them currently on the market would not be in compliance.

DOE projects that the standards will save Americans approximately $1.6 billion on their utility bills and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 4 million metric tons over 30 years, roughly equivalent to the combined annual emissions associated with 500,000 US households’ combined energy consumption. But will the new standards appreciably reduce gas stove emissions of NO2, methane or volatile organic compounds? No.

The new standards for both gas and electric stoves will only cut an estimated 7,610 tons of NOx and 34,700 tons of methane over a 30-year period, according to a DOE spokesperson. Those estimates, he said, not only include “end use” emissions from cooking on a gas stove, but also emissions from the entire fuel cycle, from extracting fuel to generating electricity. The agency, he added, did not specifically calculate emission reductions for NO2 or volatile organic compounds.

So, it is still up to the CPSC, which has been investigating the threat posed by indoor NO2 emissions for more than 40 years, to follow the science and do something to ensure new gas stoves are safe. But what about the 47 million US households (including mine) cooking with gas today? We can lower our health risk by opening our windows while cooking, using exhaust fans and air purifiers, and switching to electric kettles, pressure cookers, toaster ovens and microwaves. Or, better yet, we can take advantage of government incentives and replace our gas stoves—and other gas appliances—with electric ones, which would protect our health and the climate at the same time.

Categories: Climate

Swiss Women Lead the Way in Historic Climate Justice Victory

April 10, 2024 - 15:03

In a pivotal week for environmental justice, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France, delivered rulings on three climate cases. A landmark ruling in the Swiss Women’s case criticized governments for not acting in line with science and unequivocally stated that inadequate government action on climate change constitutes a violation of human rights. The other two cases were dismissed due to procedural issues, not due to the merits of the cases. The ECHR rejects as inadmissible approximately 90 percent of all cases brought before it.

Below, I detail some of the key aspects of each case and outline how the courts ruled. Looking at each of these rulings, it’s important to remember what Catarina Mota, one of the Portuguese plaintiffs, aptly notes: a victory in any one of these cases symbolizes a triumph for all, heralding a hopeful step toward holding governments accountable for securing a safe and livable planet for present and future generations.

Victory for Swiss women

A collective of elderly Swiss women challenged their government’s “woefully inadequate” climate efforts, arguing that such negligence exposed them to a heightened risk of death during heatwaves. Invoking their right to life, they demanded accelerated emission cuts to align with the global warming limit of 1.5°C set in the Paris climate agreement. The court’s ruling in this case was groundbreaking, explicitly linking climate change action with human rights protections for the first time. The ruling found that Switzerland’s inadequate climate measures violated the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically the right to private and family life due to the serious adverse effects of climate change. This victory sets a precedent for future climate litigation, affirming that climate action is a legal duty of states under human rights law.

Portuguese youth must first seek justice nationally

In a separate case, six Portuguese youth brought attention to the urgency of addressing climate change through legal avenues. Born between 1999 and 2012, these youths argued that the adverse effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and wildfires, pose a threat to their right to life. They sought to hold Portugal and 32 other countries accountable for not meeting the emissions reduction targets set under the 2015 Paris climate accord. At its  core, this case argued that climate change is a major threat to human rights now and in the future. It sought to highlight that countries must do everything they can to shield people from its harmful effects, as agreed upon in the European Convention on Human Rights. This isn’t just about legal arguments; it’s a push for action based on the global scientific agreement represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) political consensus of the UNFCCC.

The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote a brief for the ECHR in support of the six youth plaintiffs from Portugal in collaboration with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Greenpeace International. Our involvement in this case drew attention to the IPCC’s urgent warning: we must cut emissions significantly and quickly to stop the planet from warming more than 1.5°C, a threshold beyond which the dangers to humanity grow sharply.

However, the Court found the application inadmissible, determining that no jurisdiction could be established for the countries outside Portugal since the group had not pursued available legal avenues domestically. This decision underscores the complex legal landscape of international environmental law and human rights, highlighting the challenges faced by claimants in addressing climate change through legal avenues.

French ambitions case lacked legal status

A third case before the court involved Damien Carême, former mayor of the French commune of Grande-Synthe, contesting France’s refusal to adopt more ambitious climate actions. This case sought to evaluate whether inadequate governmental response to climate change constitutes a breach of the right to life by increasing the vulnerability of homes and communities to climate-induced risks. Similar to the Portuguese case, the European court  also ruled this case inadmissible because the applicant moved away from Grande-Synthe and therefore no longer had status under the Convention.

Implications and future outlook

These rulings, particularly the Swiss victory, could significantly impact Europe and potentially influence the United States by setting an international precedent for linking climate change action with human rights protections. All these cases uplifted climate science and the ruling in the Swiss case calls for better integration of robust climate science into national policy. The decisions could well inspire similar legal strategies and increase the global momentum for stronger climate action and accountability. Furthermore, they highlight the potential for climate litigation to inspire similar legal frameworks globally, potentially leading to broader applications against companies for failing to adequately address their climate impacts.

At the Science Hub for Climate Litigation, we stand at the nexus of science and the law. Our work emphasizes the urgency of climate action in the face of undeniable scientific evidence and the stark realities faced by communities worldwide. These cases are not just about legal principles; they address crucial issues about the future of our planet and the need to safeguard human rights in the face of climate change. The Swiss victory shines a spotlight on the judiciary’s vital role in addressing climate change—potentially paving the way for future legal actions to uphold environmental justice and the protection of human rights in the era of climate change.

Categories: Climate

What’s the Role of the Land Carbon Sink in Achieving US Climate Goals?

April 10, 2024 - 09:00

The longevity of naturally occurring carbon sinks, like those in Earth’s forests, is a key part of all modeled and projected pathways to net-zero. Without the considerable carbon absorption capacity of our lands (and oceans), we’d currently have much more CO2 in the atmosphere and an accelerated timeline of warming.

But the complexities of the interactions between the land and atmosphere, especially in a rapidly changing climate, are challenging to model, leading to uncertainty around the magnitude and persistence of this critical carbon sink. I dug into this complexity with my energy colleagues in the context of their recent analysis of pathways for how the US can meet its goals to cut heat-trapping emissions 50%-52% below 2005 levels by 2030, and achieve net zero emissions no later than 2050.   

That analysis assumed the U.S. land sink stays fixed at current levels, given the high level of uncertainty shown in recent studies around whether emissions absorbed by the US land sink will increase or decrease. Here, I’ll dig into why we made that choice, and provide an overview of the history and disruptions to the land carbon sink as well as some thoughts about its future.  

A brief history of the land carbon sink

Every year, globally, land-based ecosystems remove roughly 30% of human emissions from the atmosphere, slowing both the accumulation of atmospheric CO2 and increases in global temperature. In North America, the land carbon sink between 2004 and 2013 offset roughly 39% of fossil fuel emissions,  but varied substantially year to year.

This carbon absorption occurs through photosynthesis, where plants use water, light, and the nitrogen-rich enzyme RuBisCo to turn CO2 into sugars and other carbon compounds. While this process occurs at the very small scale of an individual cell within an individual leaf, the cumulative impact of this process over time and across ecosystems is enormous.

Land based ecosystems have also historically emitted carbon through processes like decomposition, harvest, and combustion in wildfire, but overall have absorbed more than they release. As human emissions increase, the sink strength of these ecosystems has continued to expand due to CO2 fertilization, but their capacity to absorb carbon is not unlimited. 

Climate change threatens the strength of the carbon sink

Climate change disrupts many of the processes that govern the land carbon sink and can vary substantially by region, creating conditions that decrease photosynthesis and increase carbon losses. Drought and extreme heat can limit the ability of plants to photosynthesize, as can highly variable rainfall. Similarly, global increases in vapor pressure deficit (VPD), a variable that captures the thirstiness of the atmosphere and is projected to continue rising, have already reduced vegetation growth globally.

These same environmental changes can also increase carbon losses from land-based ecosystems. Insect outbreaks, aggravated by climate change, can both decrease carbon absorption by killing trees and increase carbon emissions through the decomposition of those same trees. Drought and extreme heat can also dry out vegetation, priming it to burn, even in systems that are not historically adapted to wildfire. Rising VPD has been linked to a near doubling of burned area in forests of the western US, and an increase in the area burned at high severity, both of which can lead to huge emissions from forests. While some of these emissions may be reabsorbed relatively quickly as forests regrow, combustion of soil carbon, which can take decades to centuries to accumulate, can result in net carbon emissions, particularly in boreal and arctic ecosystems, where the majority of ecosystem carbon is below ground. In Canada, a combination of factors including a large mountain pine beetle outbreak and record setting wildfires, have transitioned their forests from carbon sink to carbon source.

Thawing permafrost, the vast stores of ancient carbon that remain frozen year-round beneath Earth’s arctic and boreal biomes, similarly represents a threat to the historical strength of the land carbon sink. Both gradual and abrupt thaw can release huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating warming.

The future of the land carbon sink

The future of the land carbon sink will be determined by the net effect of policies and investments that can 1) enhance land-based carbon absorption and storage and 2) reduce the magnitude of carbon losses from ecosystems. These include strategies like reforestation, wetland restoration, and proactive forest management.  

Using data from complex earth system models (ESMs), the most recent IPCC assessment concludes that the global land sector is very unlikely to switch from a source to a sink before 2100. However, when focused on just North America, the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report highlights that ‘the net land sink within North America is projected to either remain near current levels or decline significantly by the end of the century.’ This difference can be partially explained by the global versus regional scope of each statement, but the inner workings of models may play a role too. While these models are the best available and continue to improve in complexity, they still do not fully capture many of the climate feedbacks outlined above. Wildfire is only represented in roughly half of the models used and permafrost is only rarely represented, both of which are large contributors of emissions in North America.

Together, this suggests that current models may be underestimating the extent of emission reductions required to achieve certain temperature targets. This does not undercut the conclusions drawn from any given model, but rather increases the urgency with which we must phase out fossil fuels and adapt to coming climate change. At the same time, policies and investments to help protect and enhance the existing land sink remain urgent and vital, not just for climate purposes but also for biodiversity and ecosystem benefits and for benefits to the lives, livelihoods, and health of communities.

Categories: Climate