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.
Diplomats and scientists are descending on the French capital Monday. They'll try to save the world.
Nov. 27, 2015 7:00 AM
On Monday, roughly 40,000 heads of state, diplomats, scientists, activists, policy experts, and journalists will descend on an airport in the northern Paris suburbs for the biggest meeting on climate change since at least 2009—or maybe ever. The summit is organized by the United Nations and is primarily aimed at producing an agreement that will serve as the world's blueprint for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the impacts of global warming. This is a major milestone in the climate change saga, and it has been in the works for years. Here's what you need to know:
What's going on at this summit, exactly? At the heart of the summit are the core negotiations, which are off-limits to the public and journalists. Like any high-stakes diplomatic summit, representatives of national governments will sit in a big room and parse through pages of text, word by word. The final document will actually be a jigsaw puzzle of two separate pieces. The most important part is the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). These are commitments made individually by each country about how they plan to reduce their carbon footprints. The United States, for example, has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by going after carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Nearly every country on Earth has submitted an INDC, together covering about 95 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. (You can explore them in detail here.) The video above, from Climate Desk partner Grist, has a good rundown of how this all really works.
The Paris summit has already been somewhat successful, and now we'll see just how far that success can go.
The INDCs will be plugged in to a core agreement, the final text of which will be hammered out during the negotiations. It will likely include language about how wealthy nations should help pay for poor nations' efforts to adapt to climate change; how countries should revise and strengthen their commitments over time; and how countries can critically evaluate each other's commitments. While the INDCs are unlikely to be legally binding (that is, a country could change its commitment without international repercussions), certain elements of the core agreement may be binding. There's some disagreement between the United States and Europe over what the exact legal status of this document will be. A formal treaty would need the approval of the Republican-controlled US Senate, which is almost certainly impossible. It's more likely that President Barack Obama will sign off on the document as an "executive agreement," which doesn't need to go through Congress.
Meanwhile, outside the negotiating room, thousands of business leaders, state and local officials, activists, scientists, and others will carry out a dizzying array of side events, press conferences, workshops, etc. It's basically going to be a giant party for the world's climate nerds.
But what about the terrorist attacks in Paris? Of course, all of this will be happening while the French capital is still reeling from the bombings and shootings that left 129 dead on November 13. Shortly after the attacks, French officials affirmed that the summit would still happen. But it will be tightly controlled, with loads of additional security measures. As my colleague James West has reported, many of the major rallies and marches that activists had planned will be canceled at the behest of French authorities. So the festive aspects of the summit are likely to be toned way down, with attention focused just on the formal events needed to complete the agreement. The summit could also direct a lot of attention to the links between climate change, terrorism, and national security.
Is this actually going to stop climate change? Short answer, no. The latest estimate is that the INDCs on the table will limit global warming to about 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. As I wrote in October, "That's above the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts—but it's also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course." No one expects that this summit will be the end of the battle to stop climate change. As technology improves and countries get more confident in their ability to curb greenhouses gases, they'll be able to step up their action over time. That's why it's essential for the agreement to include a requirement for countries to do so. In any case, even if the whole world stopped burning all fossil fuels right now, warming from existing greenhouse gas emissions would continue for decades, so adaptation is also a crucial part of the agreement.
It's basically going to be a giant party for the world's climate nerds
Some environmentalists have criticized that incremental approach as not urgent enough, given the scale of the problem. They could be right. But the fact is that right now, there's no international agreement at all. The Paris talks will lay an essential groundwork for solving this problem over the next couple of decades. And there's a pretty good chance the talks will be successful. At the last major climate summit, in 2009 in Copenhagen, negotiations crumbled because officials couldn't agree on a set of global greenhouse gas limits that would hold most countries to the same standard despite differences in their resources and needs. That's why, this time around, the approach is bottom-up: Because countries have already worked out their INDCs, there's no ambiguity about what they're willing to do and no need to agree on every detail.
Meanwhile, the mere existence of the talks has already spurred a wave of new investment in clean energy, new commitments from cities and states around the globe, and other actions that aren't part of the core agreement.And the international peer pressure around the INDCs has already made it clear that simply ignoring climate change isn't a realistic geopolitical option, even for countries like Russia or the oil-producing Gulf states. That's a significant change from what would be happening in the absence of the talks. In other words, it's safe to say that the Paris summit has already been somewhat successful, and now we have the opportunity to see how far that success can go.
So everything is peaches and cream? Not quite. There are some big remaining questions about how much money the United States and other wealthy countries will commit to help island nations, Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and other places that are highly vulnerable to global warming. The international community is still far short of its goal of raising $100 billion annually by 2020 to fund adaptation. The legal status of the agreement remains unclear. We don't know whether countries can agree on a long-term target date (say, 2100) to fully cease all greenhouse gas emissions. And it's unclear how much tension there will be between juggernauts such as the United States, China, and the 43-country-strong negotiating bloc of highly vulnerable developing nations.
At Climate Desk, we'll have an eye on all these questions, and more—both from the ground in Paris and from our newsrooms in the United States. So stay tuned.
A worker installs solar panels on November 17 in Yantai, Shandong Province, in China.
When world leaders convene on Monday in Paris for two weeks of high-stakes climate negotiations, one of the top items on the agenda will be how developing nations should prepare for and help to slow global warming. Opponents to President Barack Obama's climate agenda, such asGOP presidential contender Marco Rubio, like to argue that anything the United States does to curb greenhouse gas emissions will be pointless because countries like India and China aren't doing the same.
But new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that this argument is just hot air: For the first time ever, over the last year the majority of global investment in clean energy projects was spent in developing countries. In fact, clean energy investment in China alone outpaced that in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France combined, BNEF found. Across 55 major non-OECD countries, including India, Brazil, China, and Kenya, clean energy investment reached $126 billion in 2014, a record high and 39 percent higher than 2013 levels.
The chart below shows how that level of investment is opening up a market for wind, solar, and other clean energy projects in non-OECD countries that is now larger than the market in the traditional strongholds of the United States and Europe. In other words, the very countries Rubio likes to malign as laggards are actually leading the charge.
That trend is likely to continue for decades to come, BNEF found. Check out their projection for growth through 2040:
These numbers add up to a big deal for the climate, because they show that countries in Africa and Southeast Asia that still lack reliable electricity for millions of people are solving that problem, and growing their economies, without relying on dirty fossil fuels. China, to be clear, is still the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and it doesn't plan to peak its emissions until 2030. But its early commitment to clean energy means it can continue its rapid rate of growth with far less pollution than it would produce otherwise.
The BNEF report is just themost recent good sign for the clean energy business. Big corporations in the United States are signing contracts for a record amount of clean energy for their data centers, warehouses, and other facilities. And the Paris talks are likely to send a jolt through the industry, as countries around the world redouble their commitments to get more of their power from renewable sources.
Stay tuned for more news on this front as the talks unfold over the coming weeks.
Companies such as Walmart and General Motors are starting to defect from the fossil fuel-powered electric grid.
Tim McDonnellNov. 20, 2015 3:46 PM
On November 30, world leaders will flock to Paris to hammer out an international agreement to slow global warming. The agreement is likely to give a boost to the clean energy industry, as countries around the world pour money into wind and solar projects as a way to cut their greenhouse gas footprints.
In the United States clean energy is already a booming business. Solar is the fastest-growing energy source in the country, and in 2015 total investment in renewable energy projects here reached nearly $40 billion. Here's some more good news: Big corporations are signing up for a record amount of clean energy for their offices, data centers, warehouses, and other facilities, according to a new analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit environmental research outfit.
"This trend is going to be difficult to stop," says Hervé Touati of the Rocky Mountain Institute.
RMI tracked publicly announced contracts between corporations and large-scale wind and solar farms and found that in 2015 the total reached 2,100 megawatts, roughly equal to 525,000 home rooftop solar systems. That's 75 percent higher than what RMI measured last year, and it includes more than a dozen companies with new contracts. New contracts this year include Dow Chemical, General Motors, Walmart, and Kaiser Permanente. It's also a big win for the climate: Electricity accounts for one-third of US greenhouse gas emissions, and more than one-third of electricity goes to commercial users. So if big companies are clamoring for clean energy, that can have a significant, near-term impact on reducing the nation's greenhouse gas footprint.
"The pressure is mounting [for corporate executives] to take action" on climate change, said Hervé Touati, RMI's managing director. "What they realize is that signing these large deals is the best way to say you are addressing your sustainability agenda."
In most cases, the contracts are "power purchase agreements," where the company agrees to buy a certain amount of power from a wind or solar farm at a fixed price for 10 to 20 years. These contracts are mutually beneficial, Touati explained: They give renewable energy developers the guaranteed revenue they need to finance big new projects, and give the companies long-term certainty about one of their biggest expenses, electricity.
Tech companies such as Google and Facebook were early adopters of large-scale clean energy, thanks to the sky-high electricity consumption at data centers. Last year, Apple announced that 94 percent of its operations are powered by clean energy, including a massive solar array outside its data center in North Carolina. Now, Touati said, a more diverse mix of corporations is getting in on the act, including hospitals, hotels, and shipping companies.
That trend is driven by a confluence of factors that have made clean energy contracts seem like low-hanging fruit to top corporate financial officers. The cost of clean energy is continuing to plummet—solar power could soon be cheaper than conventional grid electricity in all 50 states. Meanwhile, customers and investors are increasingly conscientious about companies' impact on the environment. A recent survey by the World Resources Institute found that half of all Fortune 500 companies have implemented specific goals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewables.
The only losers in this arrangement, Touati said, are traditional electric utilities, which more cling to fossil fuel-fired power plants. For those power companies, the loss of big corporate customers is harder to brush off than losing a few homes to rooftop solar. That could motivate them to clean up their act more quickly.
"When we come with Google and Facebook and those big names and we tell [electric utilities] that these big corporations want this, then they start to listen," he said. "This trend is going to be difficult to stop."
It's pretty hard to be funny about climate change. Not just because the subject tends to be grim, but also because the solutions tend to be technical, wonky, and interesting mostly just to nerds.
The video above, released today by Funny or Die in affiliation with the League of Conservation Voters, makes a valiant effort. It features Jeff Goldblum explaining the Obama administration's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a boardroom full of cartoonishly evil fossil fuel executives. I won't spoil what he says, since it's the punchline (such as it is). Suffice to say the execs don't like it…and something about Miami Vice star Don Johnson.
I also won't go on record vouching for the jokes in this. I chuckled a few times. I will say that Goldblum—or rather his character, the mysterious "Fixer"—nails his description of the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from the power sector by about a third by 2030, and which will form the backbone of Obama's contribution to the upcoming global climate talks in Paris. The framing of the video is also spot-on: The plan is indeed facing stiff opposition from coal companies and the industry's allies in statehouses and in Congress.
The Clean Power Plan is admittedly kind of boring to most people, despite being a groundbreaking policy achievement and an important step toward saving the planet from global warming. So if it takes Jeff Goldblum to get people interested, I've got no problem with that. Enjoy!
Two weeks before the Paris climate talks, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says the United States is serious about taking action.
Tim McDonnellNov. 18, 2015 1:45 PM
With a major global climate summit in Paris less than two weeks away, the Obama administration's top environmental official is saying climate change is a major threat to US national security.
"There are a variety of impacts that we're feeling from a changing climate, and we need to stop those impacts from escalating by failing to take action—one of those is instability," said Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in an interview Tuesday with Climate Desk. McCarthy pointed to drought and wildfires in California as examples of climate impacts that can displace people from their homes, and she noted that many of the same things are happening in less stable parts of the world. You can watch portions of the interview above.
"We can see that underlying issues in many countries that lead to animosity, and then can lead to conflict," she said. "So it is a national security issue for us, as well as an issue that's incredibly important for our local communities."
"It is a national security issue for us, as well as an issue that's incredibly important for our local communities."
McCarthy's comments join a growing chorus of experts who see a direct link between global warming and national security. The debate over that theory seems likely to intensify over the next few weeks, in part because the Paris climate negotiations follow closely on the heels of Friday's terrorist attacks that left 129 people dead in the French capital.
Just days before the Paris attacks, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in which he called climate change "a threat to the security of the United States." On Saturday, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders said "climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism." President Barack Obama has made a similar point several times, as have numerous security experts and defense officials. (Donald Trump is skeptical.)
After the attacks, French officials were quick to confirm that the climate summit—which is meant to yield a groundbreaking international agreement to slow climate change—would go on, albeit with scaled-back public events and heightened security. Obama is expected to attend, along with White House negotiators. McCarthy has not yet said whether she will be there, and while her agency isn't responsible for conducting the core negotiations, she still has a vital role to play in convincing other countries that the United States is serious about climate action.
The US negotiating position—Obama has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025—hinges largely on the Clean Power Plan, a new set of EPA regulations on emissions from power plants that was largely crafted under McCarthy. The plan itself cites national security as a justification for taking action on global warming. "Impacts of climate change on public welfare also include threats to social and ecosystem services…these impacts are global and may exacerbate problems outside the US that raise humanitarian, trade, and national security issues for the US," it states.
McCarthy said she is "very confident" the plan will survive all these challenges. But since it forms the legal basis for the US commitment in Paris, McCarthy said her staff has been in contact with their counterparts in other countries in an effort to assure them that they can count on the United States to follow through.
"We're moving forward, and we try to make people understand that," McCarthy said. The Clean Power Plan is "a signal of the seriousness of the United States and this president, and the fact that we are going to be driving reductions down that other countries can count on, so they can come to the table and also contribute."