A focus group participant once said to us: “I don’t think climate change is that big of a deal, because nobody’s doing anything about it.”
This is a remarkable bit of insight. Surely, she deduced, if it were as bad as all that, the responsible authorities would be addressing it with urgency and resolve. That would be a much more reliable barometer of the risk than all the claims and counterclaims on cable news….in a sane world.
We should be able to expect that public institutions and leaders respond to grave threats, guided by objective facts, in order to prevent mass-scale human tragedies. And the fact that we can’t is a truly frightening statement not just about our climate policy, but about the state of democracy generally. Downplaying the risk of cataclysmic climate disruption plays a vital role in the ecosystem of denial – the accommodations, the silences, the tactical retreats, the “soothing and baffling expedients” we all deploy in order to survive and keep moving forward in a world where bold climate action is necessary, but only baby-steps are considered possible. I can only speak definitively for myself (!) but I’m pretty sure it’s sapping our collective sanity.
The President’s speech yesterday punctured that ecosystem of denial, and began to build in its place a culture of responsibility. I’ll get to the specifics in a minute, but consider the psychological impact of his body language: He stepped all the way up to the issue. He took his time. He leaned into it. He treated us like adults. He rolled up his sleeves. He brooked no crap. He told that woman in the focus group, “somebody’s doing something about it.”
And at the risk of being called a romantic (it won’t be the first time), it’s not just any-old-body doing something about it. It’s the President of the United States. It’s the single person on the planet who has the greatest capacity to mobilize for solutions at scale. Let’s face it, we can all do our part within our sphere of effectiveness, but if that person is silent on the matter – as he was for much of his first term – it’s hard to feel very hopeful about our small contributions. Of course he can’t “solve” climate disruption unilaterally, but he has more ability to create the context in which all of our efforts make sense and scale to the problem than any other individual. Until yesterday, he hadn’t done it. And now that he has, I think it will have an impossible-to-measure but profoundly important impact on our work. Not that I’m the target demographic, but I know I’m sitting up straighter.
Now then, on the specifics, a few key takeaways:
First, hey, we’ve still got a long way to go: It’s not a whole new ball game. Vestiges of “all of the above” remain. Irrational fracking exuberance continues. The President is not really pushing Congress to get serious about a national policy that limits and prices carbon. The Copenhagen targets are way too weak. Technically, we’re still screwed (if we choose to live there), so don’t think I’m just swooning because the knight on a white horse finally rode in, OK?
Carbon pollution rules for power plants: You can yap yap yap til the cows come home but until you’re willing to put responsible limits on the biggest source of emissions, it’s just lips flapping. I loved his frame for this – ending free carbon dumping. We of course knew it was coming, and everything depends on how it’s done. (Big hats off to NRDC for shaping the debate with a strong working draft.) But this is very, very big, not just because it reduces pollution, but because it opens the market space for innovation, investment, and deployment in clean energy. The Renewable Northwest Project recently revamped its strategic plan with a major new focus on coal plant retirement, because that’s the biggest market driver going forward. In the Northwest, with the consensus agreement to phase out the Centralia coal plant, we’re demonstrating that we can power past coal in ways that create economic opportunity, build healthier communities, and do right by the affected workers. This is the tough work, the good work, and a whole lot more of it will become possible with responsible limits on climate pollution from power plants.
Keystone: Woah! KXL is not in the public interest if it meaningfully increases climate pollution. And the President will make that determination a dispositive factor in the permit. That is enormous, not just for the KXL decision, but for the principle it establishes. (It gets close to the Keystone Principle.) We’ve seen a lot of fancy footwork among those who claim that KXL won’t increase emissions, none of which passes analytical muster or the common sense test. But the President has nodded to this logic before, so we’ll see. I worry that the test question will be: “Holding everything else in the world constant, how would Keystone XL affect emissions?” The appropriate test would be, “We will do what’s right and necessary to avert catastrophic climate disruption. Does Keystone XL make delivering on that commitment more or less likely, harder or easier?” Only in a world where we have resigned ourselves to climate failure (a world, say, where the tar sands are fully developed and the dilbit travels by other means) is it plausible that Keystone won’t have much climate impact. So, underlying the assertion that KXL won’t increase net emissions is a bitter presumption: Jim Hansen’s “game over.” The President seems to have rejected that presumption, by finally and forcefully saying “Game on.” But if that rejection is to be more than rhetorical, he can’t green-light KXL.
[Note to President and CEQ: Last week the Army Corps of Engineers flagrantly violated the principle you just articulated for evaluating Keystone by refusing to consider the climate impacts of coal export. If that was a statement of Administration policy, it’s contradictory to the policy you laid out today. If it was just the Corps being the Corps, please direct us to a federal partner who can and will cooperate with the states to ensure we get a full, transparent, comprehensive evaluation of all the relevant impacts, including climate impacts. Because this is not going down in our house under the cover of climate darkness. Please advise.]
Efficiency and renewables: Good, solid, meaningful incremental steps forward, nothing fancy or revolutionary. More clean energy. Less climate pollution. Efficient use….it ain’t all that complicated. I will let others who have been working on appliance standards opine on how ambitious this is in the scheme of things.
Reducing methane emissions: It’s vitally important that this is real, not just a token effort to sand the rough edges off metho-mania. Gas has a role to play in the transition, but that role should be limited to meeting peak loads and supporting the integration of more intermittent renewables, and maybe some heavy transportation applications. Simply replacing coal with gas won’t get us much, and it certainly won’t get us to climate stabilization at a livable level. Reducing leakage will help limit the role of gas.
Ending international development loans for coal plants (despite worrisome caveats) is an incredibly positive step, with significant implications for our international posture and for the development of the markets that would drive coal export.
Leading international climate efforts: The announced steps are positive, but it’s a long way from here to international leadership. Maybe soft-pedalling the specifics here is wise. Let us fervently hope that there are deeds to match these words.
Adaptation and resilience. Alas, what else you gonna do?