The Paris Climate Agreement
Twenty-one years after the world’s leaders first met to try and hammer out a climate agreement, the UN Paris talks succeeded. The deal’s lofty goal—keeping average global temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius, and as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as possible—are going to be hard to meet. But whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, it’s phenomenal that 195 countries came together on anything at all.
Twenty fifteen was one hell of a year in saving-the-world news. This was the year Shell quit the Arctic, Keystone XL got shut down, and the world’s governments finally agreed to do something about the aforementioned global malady. Hell (I mean, “Heck”), even the Pope got in on the action.
But it wouldn’t be a story about global climate if it didn’t come with a bunch of bad news, too. Remember, drought stoked record wildfires across the American west and Florida straight up decided that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. Oh yeah, and it’s likely climate change made the Syrian war and refugee crisis much worse.
The European Union is the world’s leader on renewable energy, a significant amount of which comes from burning wood pellets. The idea is when you burn wood, you are releasing exactly the same amount of carbon dioxide as was stored in the tree those pellets came from. With proper forest management, the net carbon emissions are essentially zero. Except the the accounting is all wrong. In October, a three part report from Climate Central showed how Europe’s appetite for wood is gobbling up forests in the American south faster than they are being planted. This means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and fewer trees to suck it up.
Oh, Florida, land of sweetest irony. In March, the Miami News Herald reported that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection had an internal embargo on using words like “climate change,” and “global warming.” This despite the fact that the state is the most climate-vulnerable swath of American geography.
Cool Pope has spoken, and it is good. In a 42,000 word encyclical, the pontiff laid out the strongest moral argument yet for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. His take on the ways fossil fuels have hurt the poor is at times withering, at others inspiring. But mostly, it is exciting to see the West’s moral center take an unequivocal stand on what is without a doubt the biggest collective challenge humanity has ever faced.
Politically, it’s historically been pretty close to impossible to regulate greenhouse gases in the US. Anything like a carbon tax, or cap and trade system would require the cooperation of Congress. So Obama (or someone in his administration) came up with the genius plan of tacking on greenhouse gas emissions to the existing Clean Air Act. The result is the Clean Power Plan, which puts strict rules on coal power plants. To date, both houses of Congress and about half of all US states have challenged the rule, but many legal experts believe it will survive. Let’s hope, because the Clean Power Plan is the lynchpin holding up the promises the US made in Paris.
Forty years ago, oil company scientists figured out that greenhouse gas emissions were warming the planet. Instead of warning the world, the company funneled money into denial groups, politicizing the science and spreading anti-science sentiment. It sounds like the plot of a Robert Condon conspiracy thriller, but it’s all true. InsideClimateNews got the scoop on Exxon’s nefarious dealings, and if there’s any justice in the world they’ll get a Pulitzer for telling the rest of us.
For years, oil companies have been trying to successfully get at the 15 billion of barrels of oil buried below the Alaskan Arctic. Shell spent nine years and $7 billion fighting regulations, ice, and hurricane-force storms, only to give up its leases for the one insurmountable obstacle: low oil prices. Throughout 2015, crude sat at around $40 a barrel.
Forget the fact that this might help ease California’s drought. This year’s monster El Niño is wreaking havoc pretty much everywhere else in the world. Bleached coral, droughts, and heat waves galore. At this point, it’s impossible to say whether this climate change caused year’s El Niño—natural cycles, mang.
Since 2008, Volkswagen has been selling many of its cars with a promise of low emissions, great fuel efficiency, and lots of power. In September, the EPA announced that it—and the entire US public—had been conned. The company’s cars were installed with so-called “defeat devices” that would put the vehicles in clean-burning mode during emissions tests. Every other moment the cars were operating, they were spilling millions of tons of harmful greenhouse gases and pollutants into the air.
For the better part of a decade, the Keystone XL pipeline was the most tangible symbol of the American environmental movement. If completed, Keystone XL would have connected the Alberta tar sands with a pipeline delivering oil to Gulf Coast refineries. In October, Obama rejected the project’s application, essentially condemning Canadian oil to its home in the sand.
Back in 2011, Syrians revolted against their oppressive ruler, Bashar Al-Assad. A March study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences posited that an ongoing drought and heat wave exacerbated the ensuing conflict, because of the way it affected food supply and by extension, the region’s economy. This is a horrific glimpse into the future of global warming. It’s not just rising seas and melting ice caps, it’s going to be a global human crisis.
As the Golden State entered its fifth year of drought, its bureaucrats finally started taking a hard look at conservation. This included imposing restrictions on cities, curtailing farm use, and even reforming the state’s antiquated water rights rules.
Between the droughts and record high temperatures, expert predictions of a nasty wildfire season came true. Nationwide, over seven million acres burned, the majority of them in the West (Alaska had five million acres all by itself). Scientists need to do the work to determine exactly how much of that climate change was actually responsible for, but given that seasons are getting longer, and temperatures hotter, it’s a view of what’s to come.