Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Thick haze from forest fires shrouds the city of Palangkaraya in Indonesia on Tuesday.
On Monday afternoon, Indonesian President Joko Widodo cut short a visit to the United States and headed home to oversee efforts to extinguish a rash of epic wildfires that have engulfed his country.
Joko was in Washington, DC, for a photo op with President Barack Obama, to talk about climate change, and to promote Indonesia as a choice venue for foreign investors. His trip was also supposed to include a stopover in San Francisco for meetings with tech industry executives. But Joko's decision to return to Indonesia early underscores the challenges his country faces in stopping the worst deforestation on Earth—deforestation that is playing a critical role in global climate change.
There's more to global warming than pollution from cars and power plants. In the United States, coal-fired power plants are the No. 1 source of carbon dioxide emissions, followed by tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. That's why the Obama administration has focused its climate policies on those sources; Obama's signature plan aims to reduce power-sector emissions by one-third by 2030. Those policies get some natural help from the ecosystem, as trees and soil soak up carbon out of the atmosphere. In the United States, thanks to forest conservation and climate-friendly farming practices, land use (a term climate wonks use to describe emissions that come from the land rather than from man-made infrastructure and vehicles) actually offsets about 13 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the rest of the economy.
We can't stop climate change without saving Indonesia's rainforests
But on a global scale, land use is a source of greenhouse gas emissions, rather than a sink. The biggest culprit is deforestation: Living trees store carbon; dead trees release it back into the atmosphere as they decompose. Emissions from crop soil, fertilizer, and livestock also play a major role. Overall, land use accounts for about one-quarter of the world's total greenhouse gas footprint.
In Indonesia, the situation is even more dire. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), land use represents 61 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. That means deforestation causes far more climate pollution than all of the country's cars and power plants combined.
In fact, Indonesia has the world's highest rate of deforestation, even higher than Brazil, which contains most of the Amazon rainforest. From 2000 to 2012, according to research published in Nature, Indonesia lost more than 23,000 square miles of forest to logging, agriculture, and other uses. That's roughly the size of West Virginia. In 2010, the government attempted to put the brakes on deforestation by exchanging a two-year moratorium on new logging permits for $1 billion in aid from Norway and the United States. But according to Susan Minnemeyer, a forest analyst at the WRI, that policy appears to have had the "perverse impact of accelerating [deforestation], because those with permits felt that they had to take action quickly or they would no longer be able to."
This all adds up to global-scale pollution: Indonesia is the world's fifth-ranking greenhouse gas emitter, coming in just behind Russia and India. In other words, we can't stop climate change without saving Indonesia's rainforests.
Indonesia is in the middle of a public health crisis from forest fire haze. The problem isn't just deforestation, but how that deforestation is happening. In Indonesia, forests are often cleared out with fire. This can be done legally with a permit, but it's often carried out illegally as well. This year, forest fires are also being fueled by El Niño-related weather patterns. The combination of El Niño and intentional deforestation has proven incredibly dangerous: The country has experienced nearly 100,000 fires so far this year, the worst since the last major El Niño in 1997. Fire activity typically ramps up in September and October, the end of the dry season, and over the last couple of weeks the conflagrations have grown to crisis proportions—hence Joko's hasty return. The fires are so big they can be seen from space.
The greenhouse impact from those fires is staggering: On several days over the last month, emissions from Indonesian forest fires have exceeded all emissions from the US economy:
World Resources Institute
To make matters worse, more than half of those fires occur on land made of peat, the thick, soil-like material made from decomposed plant matter. Peat is packed with carbon, and fires that occur on peatland can have a global warming impact 200 times greater than fires on normal soil, according to the WRI. Last week, Joko said the government would stop issuing new permits for commercial development on peatland, but that won't stop the fires that are already burning.
Climate pollution is just part of the problem. Firefighting costs are pushing $50 million per week. The impact of this fire season on Indonesia's economy could reach $14 billion. And the thick blanket of haze that is stretching from the country across Southeast Asia has caused at least 10 deaths from haze-related illness and 500,000 cases of acute respiratory illness.
Your snacks and makeup are part of the problem. Of course, Indonesians aren't just chopping and burning down trees for fun. Besides logging, one of the main uses for cleared land is to plant African oil palm, the fruits of which are used to produce palm oil. Palm oil is the world's most popular form of vegetable oil, and half of it comes from Indonesia. It's also found in about half the processed food you encounter in a grocery store (as well as many cosmetics).
"There has been very weak enforcement of Indonesia's environmental laws."
Palm oil has some advantages over other oils: It's cheap to produce and doesn't contain trans fats, and the trees yield far more oil in the same land area—using fewer chemical fertilizers—than soybeans or sunflowers. According to the World Bank, the increase in global demand for cooking oil by 2020 could be met with palm oil using one-seventh the land area that would be required to fill that demand using soybeans. For that reason, it could actually have many environmental advantages over other types of oil.
Unfortunately, much palm oil production now happens in highly vulnerable ecosystems, often in the former habitats of endangered animals such as tigers and orangutans. Pressure is growing on Indonesia's palm oil producers to stop deforestation and stay out of sensitive areas. A handful of major US food processors, including Nestlé and PepsiCo, have adopted commitments to rid their supply chains of palm oil linked to deforestation, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. But that report also that found many fast-food chains are lagging behind. Last year, an Indonesian court ordered the first-ever major fine—$30 million—for a palm oil company found to have cleared forest in protected orangutan habitat.
Indonesia's climate test. For the international climate negotiations coming up soon in Paris, Indonesia has pledged to increase its emissions over the next 25 years by 29 percent less than it would have under a "business as usual" scenario. That won't be possible without curbing forest fires and deforestation. So for Indonesia, getting a grip on palm oil producers will be even more important than going after power plants, as Obama is doing. Joko has been moving in the right direction, Minnemeyer said, but it's unclear how his promises will hold up.
"Across the board, there has been very weak enforcement of Indonesia's environmental laws," she said. If they're going to meet their climate target, "the fires are going to be a key part."
This year, the world's governments are expected to hand out tax breaks and subsidies to the oil, gas, and coal industries to the tune of $233 billion. But the free ride for fossil fuels goes beyond that. That's because fossil fuel companies don't have to pay for the huge amount of damage caused by pollution from their products. Instead, we all do.
Recent research by the International Monetary Fund finds that the hidden economic and environmental costs of fossil fuel consumption—"externalities" in econspeak—add up to nearly $5 trillion a year, or 33 percent more than the federal budget.
About three-quarters of that comes from air pollution—for example, medical expenses incurred by people sickened by smog. The rest comes from climate change-related impacts: The costs of wildfires, floods, droughts, etc. The remedy, researchers say, is to increase taxes on fossil fuel energy so that we use less of it, and so that the biggest consumers will shoulder more of the social costs. That would make a gallon of gas more expensive—but potentially save tens of thousands of lives.
President Barack Obama's signature plan to fight climate change was formally published this morning, thus opening the season for a fresh round of legal challenges from two dozen states, most of which are major coal consumers.
The Clean Power Plan, as it's known, aims to reduce the nation's power-sector carbon footprint to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. To reach that goal, each state has a unique target that it can achieve by cleaning or shuttering coal-fired power plants, building renewable energy systems, and investing in energy efficiency. Ever since it was first proposed a couple years ago, it's been a punching bag for Republicans in Congress, in state capitals, and in the 2016 presidential race. Marco Rubio recently promised to "immediately stop" the plan if elected.
The plan has also already spent a lot of time in court, so far surviving a series of attempts by states and coal companies to block it from being implemented. The last such case ended in September, when a federal court ruled that legal challenges couldn't be brought until the final version of the new rules was officially published.
Now that threshold has been crossed, and the lawsuits are flooding in. According to the Hill, 24 states and Murray Energy, a coal company, filed suits Friday morning:
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who is leading the legal fight against the plan, called it "the single most onerous and illegal regulations that we've seen coming out of D.C. in a long time."
The West Virginia and Murray lawsuits came the day the rule was published in the Federal Register, the first day court challenges can legally be filed. The states joining West Virginia are Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Arizona and North Carolina.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that most of these states are major consumers of coal, the most carbon-polluting form of energy, and are thus the most likely to take a beating from the regulations. (Of course, coal has been struggling since before Obama even took office). Here's a look at how much the suing states depend on coal; I've ranked them by the share of their total electricity mix that comes from coal, rather than by their total consumption volume:
It's worth noting as well that all but three of those states (Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina) have Republican attorneys general. Now that the dust has basically settled on battles over gay marriage and Obamacare, the Clean Power Plan is the next logical thing for GOP-led states to fight with the Obama administration about.
But the plan really isn't as crazy as Morrisey, et al., would have you believe. In fact, it has taken some heat from environmentalists for not going far enough, and for doing little more than locking in the incremental greenhouse gas reductions that were already happening. Still, there's a lot riding on these legal challenges, because the Clean Power Plan is the administration's main bargaining chip for the global climate negotiations coming up in a month in Paris. The promises that Obama has made to the rest of the world as to how the United States will help slow climate change basically ride on this plan. So if the plan were to be killed in court, the whole international agreement could collapse.
Fortunately, it seems very unlikely that the court will throw the rule out, said Tomás Carbonell, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Carbonell added that if history is a guide, the litigation is likely to come to a conclusion before Obama leaves office, which would preclude the possibility that a President Donald Trump or another climate change denier could let the plan wither on the vine by refusing to defend it in court.
The Natural Resources Defense Council has a good explainer on the plan's strengths, not least of which is that most states are already well on their way to coming up with a plan for compliance. So far, it doesn't seem like anyone is following Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) advice to just ignore the plan altogether.
Three years ago next week, when Superstorm Sandy swept through the New York City area, the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., was right in the line of fire. The experience gave the school's engineers and architects plenty of food for thought on how to design a storm-proof coastal building. So when the Obama administration launched the 14th annual Solar Decathlon—a contest to build the most badass, cutting-edge, solar-powered home—they put pen to paper and hammer to nail.
The result is the Sure House (a take on "shore house"), which was awarded first place in the competition this weekend. The house, shown off in the video above, is custom-built for the Jersey Shore, hardened against hurricanes, and uses a fraction of the energy of a normal house. It has tons of cool features: It's sealed water-tight against up to six feet of flooding; gets 100 percent of its power from solar panels that are designed to stay operational even when the electric grid goes down; and regulates its temperature without using any power for air conditioning or a heater, by using custom-built insulation and ventilation. (David Roberts at Vox has more details.)
He was at it again on Monday, tweeting that since it was "really cold outside," we "could use a big fat dose of global warming!" Sick burn, Donald!
Indeed, it's been kind of cold on the East Coast over the last week. But, Trump's local weather report notwithstanding, 2015 is still on track to be the warmest year on record, globally. And today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data showing that this September was the hottest September on record (the records go back to 1880), following an August that also experienced record-breaking heat.
Here's NOAA's latest map, showing that in September, much of the globe had record or above-average temperatures:
The dark red blob off the US West Coast is El Niño, which is continuing to strengthen and is expected to produce above-average rain and snowfall in California this winter (although probably not enough to end the state's epic drought).
Sorry, Donald. I think we have a big enough dose of global warming already.