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.
The US stands to save trillions of dollars from climate change action in other countries.
Tim McDonnellNov. 5, 2015 9:00 AM
No one thinks the fight against climate change will be cheap. But the US economy stands to benefit handsomely—in the trillions of dollars—from the efforts other countries make to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.
Opponents of action on climate change like to claim that the United States acting alone will accomplish nothing, and that countries such as China and India will get a free ride while Americans suffer. "America is not a planet," Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio observed at a debate in September. "We're not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government we're under wants to do." Chris Christie added that "we shouldn't be destroying our economy in order to chase some wild, left-wing idea that somehow, us, by ourselves, are going to fix the climate."
Existing global policies to limit warming could benefit the American economy by up to $2 trillion by 2030.
On the contrary, economists at New York University's Institute for Policy Integrity found that existing global policies to limit warming could benefit the American economy by up to $2 trillion by 2030. That's because the consequences of climate change are expensive: losses in agricultural productivity, storm damage, disruptions to supply chains, public health impacts, etc. Averting those impacts saves money, but because climate change is a global phenomenon, stopping it requires contributions from countries worldwide. And in the run-up to this year's major climate summit in Paris, more than 100 countries have made commitments to reign in their carbon pollution.
In other words, every ton of greenhouse gas emissions not released by China, Germany, or wherever, eventually benefits American pocketbooks as much as it benefits pocketbooks in those countries.
The same logic works in reverse, explained report co-author Jason Schwartz. "If the US takes a back seat [on climate action], then we're the ones who risk looking like a freeloader, and risk undermining a global agreement that would really benefit the US enormously. It's in our interest to act on climate change globally."
Here's another way to put it: The benefit to the US economy from global climate action far exceeds the cost of our own domestic climate policies. The Environmental Protection Agency projects that President Barack Obama's signature climate plan, which seeks to cut emissions from the power sector about a third by 2030, will cost about $8 billion per year to implement. The domestic public health benefits alone will add up to more $30 billion per year by 2030, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And to the extent that Obama's plan encourages other countries to come to the table with plans of their own, the bargain looks even better, since the emissions cuts other countries implement (and pay for) will lead to further savings for the United States.
Schwartz's analysis is built from a metric called the "social cost of carbon," a peer-reviewed number produced by federal scientists that attempts to quantify the financial cost, globally, caused by every ton of carbon dioxide emissions. The cost increases over time, reflecting the incrementally worsening impacts of climate change:
Institute for Policy Integrity
Schwartz worked backwards from that number, totaling the carbon costs the world will avoid if countries follow through on existing climate commitments. Then he and his colleagues came up with what he calls "a very conservative" estimate of what the US share of that avoided cost will be.
"There doesn't have to be a physical climate impact within the US boundaries for it to matter to the US," he said. Devastating storms in Thailand could disrupt supply chains for computer equipment. Violent conflict linked to water shortages and crop failures in the Middle East could result in military costs and drive up the price of oil. So when other countries take steps to avert these impacts, it helps the US save money; combined with our own actions, that adds up to $2 trillion, Schwartz found.
The upshot is that taking action on climate change is, as Donald Trump would say, a great deal.
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama's signature climate action plan was formally published. The new regulations will require many states to reduce their use of coal, the dirtiest form of energy, in an effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by about a third by 2030. Almost immediately, the plan came under a barrage of legal attacks from two dozen coal-dependent states, almost all led by Republican governors and attorneys general. Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress introduced legislation to overturn the plan.
On Tuesday, after the House of Representatives resolution was approved in committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) claimed a victory for all Americans. The vote, he said, shows that "the American people are not happy with President Obama's climate change policy."
Except that, they kind of are happy about it. That's according to new polling by Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, which found that 61 percent of residents in the states suing the Obama administration support tight limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Individual state results are listed in the table above. Even in Kentucky, home to the plan's biggest opponent, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), most residents support the plan.
Makes you wonder whose interests all these governors, attorneys general, and legislators are really representing.
The rationale, according to the letter TransCanada sent Secretary of State John Kerry, is to await a decision by regulators in Nebraska about a possible change to the pipeline's route. But since that decision isn't expected for seven to twelve months, a delay would likely punt the final decision to whoever takes over the White House after President Barack Obama.
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have said they would reject the pipeline application; all the GOP candidates have expressed support for it.
Environmental groups were quick to claim the development as a victory, a sure sign that TransCanada knows its project doesn't stand a chance under the Obama administration (which has to approve the construction permit, since it crosses an international border), and is reverting to desperate tactics.
"Clearly TransCanada has lost and they recognize that," Bill McKibben, founder of activist group 350.org, said in a statement. "It's one of the great victories for this movement in decades."
But the $8 billion pipeline, which would enable crude oil from Canada's oil sands to reach refineries and ports in the United States, isn't dead yet. The next step will be for the State Department to decide whether or not to grant TransCanada the delay it is seeking. The Department is "reviewing" the letter while it continues to weigh a final decision, a spokesperson said today. If it does choose to delay, the final outcome will essentially boil down to whether a Republican or a Democrat wins the 2016 presidential election. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley have said they would reject the pipeline application; all the GOP candidates have expressed support for it.
The other option, advocated by McKibben and his peers, is that State reject the requested delay and forge ahead to reject the permit. That would send a clear signal to other countries that Obama is serious about climate action ahead of upcoming international negotiations in Paris. It would also test the relationship of Obama with soon-to-be Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has promised to take more serious action on climate than his predecessor Stephen Harper, but who last month visited Washington, D.C. to advocate for the pipeline.
Whether that rejection would really benefit the climate is less clear. The oil sands oil destined for Keystone XL—some of the most carbon-intense fossil fuels on Earth—needs to stay buried in order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, according to a growing body of science. Would a rejection from Obama keep in the ground? Not necessarily: TransCanada would have the option to re-apply for the permit starting from scratch under the next administration.
Without sufficient pipelines in place, the low oil price is already squeezing oil sands production and forcing companies out of the game.
Meanwhile, with global oil prices persisting at the very low level of around $50 per barrel, oil sands developers are eager for more pipelines, since exporting oil by pipe is much less expensive than doing so by truck or train. An analysis this year from the Environmental Protection Agency noted that as long as oil prices remain under about $75 a barrel, building the pipeline would lead to "increased oil sands production, and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, over what would otherwise occur."
Even if oil prices dip further, the pipeline could still look attractive to oil producers, so they can be prepared to pounce when the market turns back in their favor, said Anthony Swift, an international affairs attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"For risk-averse companies, in many ways knowing that cheap transportation is available is more important than a sense of where oil prices are today," he said.
Still, a rejection from Obama would be a considerable setback. Reapplying, which would require starting the State Department's complex formal environmental review process from scratch, could still be long and costly even under a Republican president. And TransCanada would be racing against the clock: Without sufficient pipelines in place, the low oil price is already squeezing oil sands production and forcing companies out of the game. Just last week, Shell announced it will abandon a $2 billion investment in a oil sands project in Alberta, citing concerns about how it would move the oil to market.
Meanwhile, opposition to the project by environmental groups isn't getting any weaker.
"TransCanada would be reapplying in a very different climate" than when it first proposed the pipeline in 2008, Swift said. "On both sides of the border there's a new awareness of the environmental impacts of tar sands development."
The Porsche Cayenne was among a handful of Volkswagen models named in a new citation.
Things just keep getting worse for Volkswagen. In mid-September, the German automaker was suddenly faced with the possibility of billions of dollars in fines after federal regulators accused it of selling half a million diesel-powered cars in the United States that were equipped with software that intentionally falsified emissions performance.
The citation, which named half a dozen models sold since 2009, drove the company's share price off a cliff and forced the ouster of CEO Martin Winterkorn. In testimony last month in Congress, VW's chief of US operations apologized for the deception but maintained that responsibility lay with a handful of German engineers and not with the company's top management. That same day, the company's offices in Germany were raided by police.
The story took another turn on Monday, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced it is expanding its investigation to include several previously unmentioned VW models, covering an additional 10,000 cars sold in the US. Those models are the diesel versions of:
2014 VW Touareg
2015 Porsche Cayenne
2016 Audi A6 Quattro, A7 Quattro, A8, A8L, and Q5
The inclusion of a Porsche on the list is especially interesting, as Winterkorn was replaced in VW's driver's seat by Matthias Müller, who had previously run the Porsche division. Volkswagen did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new allegations.
By some estimates, the excess emissions caused by VW's cars could contribute to thousands of deaths. In addition to continuing its investigation into VW, the EPA has also promised to implement more stringent emissions testing procedures designed to counteract such software.
On Friday, the United Nations released a survey of the plans laid out by more than 100 countries to fight climate change. Its report uncovered some interesting trends, including that most countries are planning to invest in renewable energy and that global adaptation efforts focus first and foremost on protecting the food and water supply.
But the survey also affirmed that all this collective global action doesn't add up to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the internationally agreed-upon goal. That brought to mind the great interview with Bill Gates that The Atlantic, one of our Climate Desk partners, recently released. In the above video, Gates points out another key flaw in the international negotiating process: Most countries' goals focus on the progress to be made by 2030—phase one of the global push to slash greenhouse gas emissions. The United States' goal, for example, calls for cutting emissions by about a third by that time.
If we're really serious about keeping global warming in check, Gates argues, we need to start thinking more concretely about what comes after 2030. The Obama administration has promised that the short-term goal will get us on track to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. But Gates cautions that that second phase will much more difficult to achieve than the first.
"Let's be realistic about how we're going to get to the 2050 goal," Gates says. "There are things that have such long lead times—including innovation itself—that if they're a part of your 2050 solution, you need to get started now. The rate of innovation should be doubled."
To that end, Gates has pledged $2 billion out of his own pocket to invest in sustainable-energy projects. He thinks research and development funding by the United States and China needs to grow massively, since "the climate problem has to be solved in the rich countries." In the extended interview between Gates and Atlantic editor James Bennet, he also makes a case for a "significant" global tax on carbon emissions. That's the only way to fix the market failure that lets companies get away with the pollution caused by fossil fuels—and, he says, the only way to encourage the private sector to switch to clean energy.
"Yes, the government will be somewhat inept," he said. "But the private sector is in general inept."