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.
If history is any guide, climate change is likely to make a prominent appearance when President Barack Obama gives his final State of the Union address Tuesday night. He's brought it up in every one of his previous SOTU speeches, most strongly in 2015, when he said that "no challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."
Along with dire warnings about rising sea levels, droughts, and other climate impacts, Obama has made an evolving series of commitments to the American people and demands to Congress regarding climate action. He has called repeatedly for a cap-and-trade bill, for an end to fossil fuel subsidies, for federal investment in renewable energy, and for American leadership in the international fight against global warming.
It's safe to say that his speech Tuesday, at 9 p.m. EST, will revisit some of these ideas. Obama is likely to bring up his administration's success in shepherding the Paris Agreement—the first global pact to fight climate change—that was adopted in December. And he might mention some of the remaining items on his climate change to-do list, which include setting new emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks and fending off Republican attacks on his new regulations restricting power plant emissions.
For some clue about what we might expect to hear this year, we took a look back at the climate-related statements from Obama's previous SOTU speeches. Then we compared his proposals to what actually happened. Turns out, while Obama has pretty clearly done more on climate change than any of his predecessors, there are plenty of goals that remain unfulfilled. Watch the video above for a complete rundown.
In November, environmentalists were ecstatic when President Barack Obama decided not to grant a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. But TransCanada, the company behind the project, was not so happy. On Wednesday, it filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking to overturn the permit rejection. At the same time, it gave notice that it plans to pursue compensation under the North American Free Trade Agreement, to the tune of $15 billion.
In its NAFTA complaint, TransCanada alleges that "the politically-driven denial of Keystone's application was contrary to all precedent; inconsistent with any reasonable and expected application of the relevant rules and regulations; and arbitrary, discriminatory, and expropriatory."
In other words, TransCanada thinks it got misled and ripped off by the Obama administration, just to satisfy a wacky cabal of tree huggers. Now, it wants the US Treasury to cough up an apology in cash.
"It's very troubling if every time the president makes a decision in the interest of the people, he's risking an enormous liability of this sort."
NAFTA is a trade agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico that's meant to protect trade between those countries. One provision of the agreement, Chapter 11, allows a corporation in one country to sue the government of another country if it feels that country's regulations unfairly discriminate against it. It's a provision that has always been highly controversial with environmentalists, since it provides an avenue for corporations to contest another country's environmental policies, as TransCanada is doing now.
That strategy is unlikely to succeed, according to David Wirth, a professor of international trade law at Boston College and a leading expert on international environmental disputes. Wirth said he actually used this very question—could TransCanada win a NAFTA case against the United States?—on a recent exam, and the answer was pretty clearly no. First off, although TransCanada claims to have spent around $3 billion preparing to build the Keystone XL pipeline, it's not clear that this would actually count as an "investment" that was illegally taken from the Canadian company by the US administration.
"They knew that without the permit approval the project wouldn't go forward," Wirth said. "So any money spent in advance is purely speculative."
Second, although the complaint claims that "environmental activists…turned opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline into a litmus test for politicians—including US President Barack Obama," it's not clear how that really constitutes a legal problem.
"The president, in making a decision in the national interest, has to weigh a variety of factors, including arguments of environmentalists," Wirth said. "Just because there was political disagreement doesn't mean the process was defective."
But most importantly, Wirth said, TransCanada's complaint doesn't distinguish between a bureaucratic trade decision that treated a foreign company unfairly—the kind of action NAFTA is supposed to prevent—and a decision made by the president for the benefit of public health and the environment.
"The intent of NAFTA was not to require governments to pay every time they take an action that's in the public interest," Wirth said. "It's very troubling if every time the president makes a decision in the interest of the people, he's risking an enormous liability of this sort."
The US has a good track record on NAFTA suits brought by foreign corporations, having lost just one of 14 since the agreement came into effect in 1994. Wirth said NAFTA tribunals have tended to set a pretty low bar for the minimum standard of treatment foreign companies should expect to receive. In other words, TransCanada would have to prove that it was treated exceptionally unjustly by the Obama administration, not just that it had a frustrating experience.
As for TransCanada's federal lawsuit seeking to reverse Obama's ruling, the odds for that aren't great either, since US courts have previously found that cross-border pipelines really are the president's decision to make, according to Reuters.
Sorry, TransCanada. Maybe try for the permit again in 2017 if a Republican wins the White House. Until then, you might be out of luck.
For billions of people around the world, the most immediate threat posed by climate change is at the dinner table, as staple crops face a steadily worsening onslaught of drought, heat waves, and other extreme weather events. The United States certainly isn't immune to these challenges; for proof, just look at California, where an unprecedented drought has cost the state's agriculture industry billions.
Still, the conventional thinking among many scientists is that developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia—where people are typically hit harder by food price spikes and generally more reliant on agriculture as a primary source of income—are the most vulnerable to food-related climate impacts.
A paper published today in Nature may add a wrinkle to that assumption. Scientists often track the impact that an individual weather disaster has on crops (again, see California), but the new research takes it a step further.
A team of scientists from Canada and the United Kingdom compiled the first-ever global tally of how weather disasters over the past 50 years cut into production of staple cereals. After merging a database of global weather records with a UN record of country-level crop production, the researchers found that, as a rule of thumb, droughts and heat waves typically cut a country's cereal production by 10 percent. That basically accords with predictions from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's predictions for agricultural vulnerability in the future.
But unexpectedly, the researchers also found that the impacts were 8 to 11 percent more severe in developed countries than in developing ones.
"That was a surprise to us," said Navin Ramankutty, an agricultural geographer at the University of British Columbia.
Ramankutty said it's not yet clear why droughts and heat waves tend to hit yields in the United States, Europe, and Australia harder than those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But he suspects it relates to how farmers set their priorities. In developed countries, the emphasis is often on maximizing profit with big monoculture farms that work great in good climates but get trashed when the weather turns sour. Farmers in developing countries, by contrast, may prioritize minimizing their risk, taking a smaller yield in exchange for better resilience.
Of course, these findings don't mean developing countries are out of harm's way. They still face major challenges from climate change, since comparatively small yield losses can have an outsized impact on local economies and food security. But Ramankutty says the new research shows that even in the developed world, farmers may be more at risk from climate change than anyone previously realized.
Volkswagen will likely be spending a lot of time in court over the next few years. On Monday, the automaker was presented with a new lawsuit from the Justice Department over allegations that it had illegally rigged half a million cars sold in the United States to cheat on emissions tests. The suit is the first step the Obama administration has taken to hold VW accountable for the scandal, and it could leave the company on the hook for billions of dollars in fines. Federal criminal charges could also be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, VW is also facing a torrent of outrage from some of the folks who bought those cars, which include the diesel-powered versions of Jetta and Golf models made since 2009. A court in Northern California is scheduled to decide this month whether to hear a group of more than 350 class-action lawsuits from VW customers who feel they were misled about the environmental benefits of the cars before buying them.
But now, lawyers for those plaintiffs are nervously eyeing a Republican-backed bill that could make it much harder to mount a class-action case against Volkswagen—or any class action at all, for that matter. The House is expected to vote this week on the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. The bill is tiny, just about 100 words long. But it would hand a big advantage to corporations opposing suits from aggrieved customers and employees, legal experts said.
In a statement released after the bill passed out of committee this summer, Joanne Doroshow, director of New York Law School's Center for Justice and Democracy, said the new law would "wipe out one of the most important tools for justice in America."
"This bill is particularly insidious. It uses a very few words to do great damage to consumer rights."
Class actions are a powerful way for consumers and employees to hold corporations accountable. They allow plaintiffs who have similar complaints, typically against a corporation, to team up and pool resources. Famous cases include the thousands of commercial fishermen who successfully sued ExxonMobil after the Valdez oil spill and a suit by investors against Enron. It works particularly well when the losses in question—for example, the premium of a few thousand bucks you might pay for an environmentally friendly car—are too small on an individual level to justify mounting a legal case against a massive company, but add up to a lot if you combine everyone whom was wronged.
Goodlatte's bill would raise the bar for plaintiffs to join a class action, requiring each of them to have "suffered the same type and scope of injury." In other words, in order to qualify as a class, plaintiffs would have to prove that they were all affected in exactly the same way. The wording is vague enough that judges would have some leeway in deciding how strict that criteria needs to be, experts said. But it could create a situation where even minor differences—for example, the number of miles driven on a Volkswagen, or whether it was purchased from a licensed dealer or a private seller—could make it impossible for the plaintiffs to qualify as a class. Without class status, it could be much harder and more costly for individuals to fight a corporation with whom they have a grievance.
"This bill is particularly insidious," said Lori Andrus, a San Francisco attorney who is representing Volkswagen customers in one of the pending lawsuits. "It uses very few words to do great damage to consumer rights."
Andrus said she was worried that if the bill became law, it could threaten her case, since not all the Volkswagen customers have the exact same cars, purchased and driven under the exact same conditions. Proving a class status is already hard enough, she said.
John Coffee, a professor at Columbia Law School who is one of the country's leading experts on class actions, agreed the bar for class actions is currently quite high.
"I think this law is unneeded," he said in an email. "The Supreme Court has already greatly constrained, and is continuing this year to limit, class actions, and this makes legislation such as this both superfluous and confusing."
Class action suits have already been dealt some serious blows in recent years.
Indeed, class actions have been dealt a couple of serious blows in recent years. In 2011, conservatives on the Supreme Court succeeded in throwing out a suit brought by female Walmart employees alleging gender discrimination because, the court said, each woman's case was too different to be considered as a class. Lower courts subsequently followed the precedent and threw out several big class-action suits, including one brought by homeowners against Bank of America over its allegedly misleading lending practices.
The Supreme Court is now considering a case involving Tyson Foods. That company has asked the court to throw out a class action brought by employees claiming wage theft, arguing that because each employees' working situation was different, they don't qualify as a class. As my colleague Stephanie Mencimer reported, the Tyson case "is a classic example of why these sorts of collective legal actions are so crucial in enforcing the nation's employment and consumer protection laws," because "if every individual worker screwed out of overtime pay at Tyson's Iowa plant had to file a separate lawsuit, no lawsuits would ever get filed, and the practice would persist because no lawyer would take a case with such a low dollar value."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tyson case and the Goodlatte bill have a key character in common: the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests. In the Tyson case, the Chamber filed briefs supporting the company's position; the Chamber has also lobbied Congress on Goodlatte's legislation, according to federal records. Goodlatte's office declined to comment, and the Chamber did not return a request for comment.
In a letter to Goodlatte last summer, the Chamber argued the bill was necessary in order to "eliminate overbroad, no-injury class actions." But Andrus thinks it would do much more than that.
"It's parading as fixing an injustice," she said. "Really, it's just protecting corporations from their bad behavior."
The Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit on Monday against Volkswagen over charges that the company installed illegal software on more than half a million vehicles sold in the United States that allowed them to cheat on emissions tests.
"Car manufacturers that fail to properly certify their cars and that defeat emission control systems breach the public trust, endanger public health and disadvantage competitors," Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement.
Back in September, the Environmental Protection Agency filed a citation carrying the possibility of billions of dollars in fines against Volkswagen after the agency discovered that 500,000 VW diesel-powered cars sold since 2009 were designed to deliberately emit much lower levels of harmful gases during official testing than during actual on-the-road driving. A month later, the scandal widened to include an additional 10,000 cars. By some estimates, the excess emissions caused by VW's cars could contribute to thousands of deaths.
For VW, the fallout has been long and damning. The company's share price fell off a cliff immediately after the first allegations and has only recovered a little bit in the months since. The CEO has been replaced. The episode prompted the EPA to overhaul its emissions testing procedures to better catch similar evasion tactics in the future. And the company now faces lawsuits from pissed-off drivers and car dealers.
The suit today represents the Obama administration's first steps to follow up on the EPA's allegations. The suit says VW could be liable for up to $6,500 in fines per vehicle—totaling to more than $3 billion—and adds that recalls or other possible remedies are still being considered. It also says criminal charges haven't yet been ruled out. In a statement, a Volkswagen spokesperson said the company "will continue to work cooperatively with the EPA on developing remedies to bring the TDI vehicles into full compliance with regulations as soon as possible," and that it "will continue to cooperate with all government agencies investigating these matters."