Toward a New Global Warming Rhetoric

The meme that most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground, because we have to completely phase out the burning of fossil fuels over the next few decades, does not seem to have entered this country’s consciousness, Environmentalists have tried to down-play what it would mean to accept the meme and take appropriate action, but that rhetorical strategy is not working. We’re stalled at a point where most Americans acknowledge that humans are causing serious global-warming effects, but they don’t know what to do about it or don’t want to know because they don’t want to make a personal sacrifice that will mostly benefit people far-away in distance and time.

It’s time for us as environmentalists to move our rhetoric one step forward: to assume that we’re moving forward on the necessary path and to start working out how to deal with the consequences.

For example, we’re going to remove or idle all of the natural-gas infrastructure world-wide because we have to stop burning natural gas. That means no more natural-gas stoves, water heaters, or furnaces in folks’ homes. Why shouldn’t we start replacing these things now as they wear out? They should be replaced with electric appliances that can eventually be powered by renewable sources.

For the Dakota Access Pipeline, the global-warming consequences are hugely important, but have received little attention. We need to stop building pipelines to carry oil and gas because we need to stop using oil and gas. This important meme has not figured large in the DAP rhetoric, but it’s the strongest argument against the pipeline, and the importance of the DAP story should be used to promote the meme.

The foreign-policy dynamics of the Middle East will be fundamentally altered because the U.S. is much less dependent than it used to be on imported oil. The trend will accelerate as we de-carbonize. It is a truism that we invaded Iraq for oil. But when we seriously move toward a no-oil energy system, we will stop importing oil altogether, and the Middle East may be of marginal strategic importance to this country.

We environmentalists need to move the rhetoric forward by assuming that what needs to get done will get done. There is no question in my mind that we will eventually de-carbonize. The important question is when. As long as we continue emitting greenhouse gases, concentrations in the atmosphere, and global temperatures, will increase. The AR5 IPCC Synthesis Report tells us that we will be stuck “for many centuries after a complete cessation” of GHG emissions with the temperature increase at the time of cessation. We owe a duty to all the humans and other animals who will inhabit the Earth during those many centuries to stop emitting sooner to reduce the temperature increase they will have to live with.

Pearl Harbor and Climate Change

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the U.S. into World War II. Why can’t we make the same all-out effort to deal with climate change that we made 75 years ago to fight Japan and Germany?

Climate change, if we don’t take strong measures to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels within the next few decades, will cause far more harm to this country – and all the countries in the world – than the Japanese could have caused if we ignored their attack, or terrorists or ISIS could cause now. If we ignore climate change, it will affect the economy a few decades from now far more than any of the economic measures that were considered in the last election.

According to the IPCCC AR5 Synthesis Report, temperatures on Earth will increase as long as we continue burning significant amounts of fossil fuels. Once that happens, “surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions.” In other words, Earth will be stuck, perhaps for millennia, with the temperature increases we’ve caused, primarily by burning fossil fuels. This persistence is due to the extremely long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Right now we’re on the catastrophic path to 4 or 5 degrees celsius of average warming. According to the IPCCC report, even though we’ve started down the path of replacing coal with renewables for electricity generation, there has not yet been a substantial deviation in global emissions from the past trend. In spite of our efforts, emissions continue to increase every year. And the costs of fixing the problem will skyrocket if we don’t deal with it soon.

Pearl Harbor Day is a good time to reflect on the dangers we face as a nation and as part of the world. I hate to call for another “war” that isn’t really a war, like the war on terrorism or the war on drugs, but we need something like a war on climate change to deal with the most pressing challenge of our time.


I’m deeply ashamed of the United States of America today. How could we have elected someone like Donald Trump to be our next President? I feel like I’m no longer an American, but rather a citizen of the Earth who happens to live in the U.S., at least for the time being.

Who are these people who voted for Trump, anyway? I don’t personally know anyone who told me he or she was going to vote this way. Trump voters are the dark matter of the electorate: you can’t see them, but by the mass of their large numbers they affect everything, warping the shape of the electoral space. You deduce their presence by observing their effects on the political system.

One reason I can’t perceive Trump voters is that I live in California, which went for Clinton almost 2 to 1. And most of the California Trump voters live in rural areas where I don’t run into them. The largest margins for Trump were in energy-producing states like Wyoming (70% to 23%), West Virginia (69% to 27%), and Oklahoma (65% to 29%). Voters in those states want to go back to full-scale fossil-fuel energy production. This will have disastrous climate-change consequences.

“Go back” is the Trump campaign’s mantra – “Make America Great Again.” But of course there is no real way back, and maybe a lot of things weren’t really so good in the good ol’ days, anyway. Per capita GDP – the value of the goods and services produced in the U.S., adjusted for inflation – is now about three times larger than it was in 1960. My parents scrimped and saved, did without many things we take for granted, and lived in a smaller house than most middle-class families would accept today. We wouldn’t want to go back to the economic lifestyles of the 1950s and 1960s.

Trump supporters reportedly feel that things are so bad in this country that they have little to lose by shaking up the system. Why do they feel this way? On the economic front, we’ve largely recovered from the 2008 recession. Even the poorest Americans live better than most non-Americans. And, as discussed above, we live much better economically than we did 50 years ago. Americans should feel that they are lucky to have been  born or to have moved to such a wealthy country with so many economic opportunities.

It continually surprises me that the many have-nots do not use the ballot box to take some of the wealth from the richest 1%. This could easily be done by changing the tax code to tax the rich more and give the money back to the poor. Do they think that, with Trump as President, the path will be somehow cleared for more of them to be rich by making clever deals like Trump? Don’t they realize that those deals are a zero-sum game — whatever one person gains another person loses? We can’t all be like Trump because nothing would be produced and our economy would collapse.

“Make America White Again” is part of Trump’s platform, at least implicitly. He’ll try to do this by throwing out as many of the darker-skinned immigrants as he can and building a wall to keep them out. It’s a truism that this is a nation of immigrants. Even the native Americans immigrated from Siberia via the Bering Land bridge when it was still open, around 16,500 years ago. Successive waves of immigrants-the Pilgrims, the Protestants, the African-Americans, the Irish and Italians, the Middle-Easterners and Latinos-have kept the U.S. vibrant and growing. We can’t put the immigration genie back in the bottle, nor should we want to. Immigration brings new blood, new energy, and fresh perspectives. It keeps us demographically young.

Another way Trump wants the U.S. to go backwards is by re-instituting trade protections for non-competitive U.S. manufacturing industries. To bring back the U.S. steel industry we’d have to either make it globally competitive, which is hard to do when wages are so much lower in China, for example, or charge tariffs on imported steel to give U.S. manufacturers a domestic advantage in the market. Economists generally agree that free trade is economically beneficial, that the benefits to U.S. consumers of cheap, high-quality goods outweigh the disadvantages to U.S. workers of having to complete in the global markets.

Finally, and most significant, there’s the environment. To my mind, climate change is the most important issue facing the country and the world now. We’re at the turning point. If we delay taking action, it will greatly harm our planet for hundreds of years to come, hurting dozens of future generations. We’re on a path to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius of average warming, which will result in catastrophic changes, including many feet of sea-level rise, droughts in dry places, increased storms in wet places, devastation of the Arctic, the extinction of a large share of the species of plants and animals we take for granted, and much more. Global warming is vastly more important than terrorism or the economy, yet it received very short shrift during the election. Humans by nature are short-term thinkers.

Trump plans to dismantle the limited progress we’ve made via the Clean Power Plan, restrictions on fossil-fuel development on federal lands, and the Paris Agreement. We must resist him using every means at our disposal, including action in the courts and at the state level.

One of the commentators on the election-night news pointed out that it was very rare to elect a President belonging to a party that had just had two terms in power. It’s a dialectical process, and Trump is the swing of the presidential pendulum back to the right after it’s been on the left side for eight years. We can expect Trump and the Republican Congress to overreach in the next two years and we can plan to take back at least the Senate in 2018 the same way the Republicans took over the House two years after Obama was elected. Until then we just have to do the best we can to save the country and the planet.

ABA Environmental Law Conference

At the ABA Environmental Law Conference in Denver, the two main themes are:

  • Energy extraction (mostly oil and gas) law and regulation
  • Brownfield development, litigation, and real-estate sales

The attendees seem to be mostly big-firm lawyers who represent corporate clients, and, secondarily, regulators. This mix is very different from the mix at the Yosemite Environmental Law Conference, where NGO and petitioners-side environmental lawyers are dominant. As far as I’ve noticed, the Nature Conservancy and my NGO, Advocates for the Environment, are the only environmental organizations at this conference.

This morning’s session focused on the Clean Power Plan. The industry lawyer complained “how can coal plants survive when they have to aggregate their emissions with renewable sources to pass muster?” Has he considered that part of the point of the CPP is that coal plants are not supposed to survive? We need to put them out of existence as quickly as possible. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program, pushing this agenda, is one of the most successful environmental campaigns in history, and probably the most important campaign occurring now.

Energy Folks Don’t Get It

I’m sitting here in the first session of the ABA Environmental Law Conference in Denver. Most of the attendees are from industry or government; there are few lawyers at the conference from environmental organizations. We’re listening to Norman Bay, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and John Hickenlooper, the Governor of Colorado.

Bay presented a deck of slides showing how “unconventional production,” i.e. fracking and horizontal drilling, has dramatically brought down the price of producing natural gas and oil. Coal-based production of electricity has been declining, but natural gas, not renewables, is filling in for coal. He happily presented an EIA conclusion that the U.S. will be a net energy exporter by 2030.

Hickenlooper, who started out as an oil and gas geologist, and is very sympathetic to oil and gas interests in Colorado, was also enthusiastic about the U.S. exporting oil and gas soon. He was very upbeat that cheap natural gas is resulting in reduced GHG emissions and cheap energy. He characterized this as a win-win.

On dealing with anti-fracking protestors Hickenlooper stated that 9 out of 10 times when you listen to the protesters, you can reach an accommodation. This is of course wrong.

There’s no sense at all in the room that we need to stop producing oil and gas world-wide as soon as possible to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Perhaps the worst effect of fracking is that it lowers the cost of oil and gas production, extending the period during which we burn these fuels, postponing our day of reckoning.


How Bad is the Aliso Canyon (Porter Ranch) Gas Leak?

A huge underground natural-gas storage field located under the northern San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles has sprung a leak. The California Air Resources Board estimates that the Aliso Canyon leak is releasing about 30,000 kilograms of methane per hour. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich characterized the leak as a “mini Chernobyl.” Erin Brockovich called it the “BP spill on land.”

Methane has about 60 times the global-warming effect of CO2, but it persists a much shorter time than CO2 in the atmosphere – only about 12 years. The EPA, combining these factors, concludes that a pound of methane in the atmosphere has between 28 and 36 times more global warming potential (GWP) than a pound of CO2.

We should be using the higher numbers, 60X and more, in formulating policy. We will eventually reduce GHG emissions to a sustainable level, i.e. the level at which natural processes remove GHGs from the atmosphere at the same rate we emit them. Atmospheric GHG concentrations will continue to increase until we arrive at that point. To reduce the worst effects of global warming, we need to get to the equilibrium point as quickly as possible, so that the peak GHG concentration is as low as possible.

The largest component of our long-term solution to climate change will be the elimination of fossil fuels as energy sources. We will have to stop burning coal, oil, and natural gas, in electric power plants and our homes. In the next decade or two we will have to dismantle our natural-gas distribution infrastructure. This means Southern California Gas Co. will stop using the underground reservoir in which it stores natural gas for Los Angeles, the source of the Aliso Canyon leak.

Re-tooling our energy system is a huge, long-term project. In the meantime, we continue burning fossil fuels, increasing GHG concentrations, increasing the planet’s temperature. We can help minimize the peak long-term GHG concentration by focusing now on short-term GHGs while the longer-term project is being undertaken. As Yale University’s Climate Institute sums it up, “with the world already flirting dangerously with the two degree warming threshold, mitigation of short-lived greenhouse gases offers one of the only opportunities to actually reduce radiative forcing in the near term, so ‘buying time’ to control and begin reducing emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases.”

In this context, the Aliso Canyon mega-leak is an environmental disaster. 30,000 kilograms (30 metric tons or MT) of methane per hour is 262,800 metric tons per year, or 15.8 million MT/year of CO2 equivalent (CO2E), using the 60X methane/CO2 conversion factor. The average car emits 4.7 MT of CO2E/year, so the GHG effects of the leak are equivalent to 3.4 million cars. Another way to appreciate the leak’s huge scale is by comparing it to emissions from coal-fired power plants, which average 1.21 pounds of CO2 per kWh of generated energy. The leak’s GHG emissions are the equivalent of the GHG emissions from coal-fired power plants generating 25 Gigawatts of electricity, which is pretty close to California’s total electric-power usage. Any way you look at it, the Aliso Canyon leak is an environmental disaster, significant on the national scale.

After getting the Aliso Canyon leak under control, we need to examine what potential there is for other large methane leaks, and make sure we have better means of controlling them, should they occur. The gas company detected the Aliso Canyon leak on Oct. 23, 2015, and estimates that it may take until March 2016 for the leak to be plugged. This five-month delay in staunching the leak is unacceptable. We also need to better control smaller methane emissions that occur every day from leaking pipelines, oil fields, waste dumps, and other sources. Reducing emissions of methane and other short-term GHGs is one of the most cost-effective measures we can take to combat climate change. Let’s make sure we do all we can to eliminate methane emissions.

Sustainable Development Goals

The Pope’s visit to the U.S., which begins today, has garnered much publicity, but the main event for which he is coming, the Sustainable Development Summit 2015, has not received much attention here. The purpose of what’s billed as the largest-ever gathering of heads of state is to extend the Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 1990, which were an important factor in substantially reducing worldwide hunger and poverty over the last 25 years by adopting new Sustainable Development Goals.

The environment takes a much more prominent position in the new goals. The 1990 goals included only one goal directly bearing on the environment: “Ensure Environmental Sustainability.” The new goals include several that are primarily environmental:

  • Affordable and Clean Energy: Clean energy is the main solution to the global-warming problem.
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities: Cities are part of the environment, too, especially since half the world’s population lives in cities, causing an enormous environmental impact.
  • Sustainable Consumption and Production: Consumption multiplied by population is the root environmental problem, causing humanity to consume Earth’s resources at an unsustainably high rate.
  • Climate Action: A call for “urgent action” on the highest-profile environmental issue.
  • Life Below Water: Environmental issues in the oceans.
  • Life On Land: Forests, desertification, and species loss.

The elephant in the room is population. For the last decade or two it’s been non-PC in environmental circles to target population, but the Earth can’t sustain the current population of 7, let alone the approximately 11 million souls the U.N. estimates the Earth will harbor in 2100.

We need to get together and manage the Earth as our home, the way a homeowner maintains a house. This is Practical Ecology. Right now, our common home is very badly maintained. It’s falling apart, the roof is leaking, too many people live there, it’s in danger of flooding and collapse. The Sustainable Development Goals seek to reverse this. The Pope’s recent call to action in Laudato Si’ is remarkably consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals, a point I expect him to make when he speaks at the U.N. on Friday.


We environmentalists know the environment is the most important public issue of our time, in this age of climate disruption. But it fails to rise to the top of the issues list in opinion polls—it’s way below the economy, and below terrorism.

I’m therefore calling for environmentalists to declare that the environment is their number one issue in the 2016 elections. I’ll take the pledge—will you?

If enough of us will publicly pledge to vote primarily on the basis of the candidates’ environmental positions, we will have a voting bloc large enough to influence the election. We will be able to ask candidates to declare that they, too, support #EnvironmentFirst.

2 – Rachel Carson

Today is the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. Pollution was front and center on the original Earth Day, and Rachel Carson was the prototype activist for this second phase of the U.S. environmental movement.

I’m very disappointed to have found no obvious reference to Earth Day in today’s Los Angeles Times. The LA-based events are paltry and insignificant, though I’m planning on attending the Sierra Club’s event in Griffith Park. Earth Day clearly has faded in significance.

The initial Earth Day celebration in New York in 1970 had a million participants. That is a huge number. We got 400,000 participants for the New York People’s Climate March in September 2014, the largest recent U.S. environmental event. This disparity is startling in light of the 57% population increase in this country since 1970.

Pollution still polls much more strongly than climate change. (See the Cheap and Clean book by Ansolabehere and Konisky.) Americans are still very concerned about drinking, eating and breathing poisons, direct threats to their personal health. They are much less concerned about climate disruption, feeling that its effects are to distant in time and space to have much effect on them personally.

The Cheap and Clean book has a suggestion U.S. climate activists: focus on the harms (mostly from pollution) from dirty energy (especially coal) rather than dirty energy’s climate-disruptive effects.

Earth Day should be a big deal, because the environment—especially climate change—is the most significant problem of our age.




1 – John Muir

John Muir’s birthday is today. This is the first of three days corresponding to the three phases of the environmental movement.

Muir is the arch-activist for this “conservation” phase. “Saving” Yosemite is the arch-typical action.

The three phases, with their arch-activists are:

  1. Conservation, John Muir (birthday April 21), starting around 1890
  2. Pollution, Rachel Carson (Earth Day April 22), starting around 1970
  3. Climate Change, Bill McKibben (April 23), starting around 2005

Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben were, like Elizabeth Kolbert, who just won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sixth Extinction, writers for the New Yorker whose activism expanded beyond writing.