As I engage government officials and scientists in discussions about climate change, I frequently encounter a gap between what politicians say is possible and what scientists say is necessary to address the issue. Try as we might to bridge that gap with economic, political, and social innovations around the world, our global climate continues to grow unstable as CO2 concentrations rise to dangerous and unprecedented levels. Push too hard on the politicians for climate action, and they call you unrealistic. Push too hard on our natural systems and climate scientists call you unrealistic (and inviting catastrophe). How can a moral, rational person meaningfully navigate these two seemingly irreconcilable positions? I suggest that we “mind the climate gap.”
Minding the climate gap involves a very simple process that aims to enable communities to set politically reasonable climate policy goals while simultaneously articulating the “gap” between those feasible political goals and the scientifically necessary goals. Once the gap is clear, the community’s resources can be galvanized to address them. Here are the essential steps in this process:
What is possible? Adopt the strongest climate policy goals that the community is willing to support.
What is necessary? Determine, in proportion to each community’s ability and responsibility, how much stronger those goals would need to be to achieve what scientists determine is necessary.
What’s the gap? Explicitly articulate the differences between the policies that are deemed possible vs. those that are deemed scientifically necessary.
Eliminate the gap! Focus the attention of the community not only onto the established political goals (from step 1), but also onto the necessary goals (from step 2) and the gap between the two (from step 3). Promote the list of differences as a challenge to students, educators, and social/business entrepreneurs. Celebrate those who attempt and tackle the challenges, and gradually work to eliminate all differences between what is possible and what is necessary by focusing the creative genius of the entire community on this monumental but inspiring challenge.
Share what works. Collaborate with communities around the world who are similarly challenged by gaps between what is politically feasible and what is necessary, and share ideas about what does and does not work.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t mind and mend the gap between what is possible and what is necessary, somebody will have to make up for our slack or we will simply fail in our endeavors to meaningfully address climate change. Both of these outcomes are morally untenable, but with this simple “mind the climate gap” model we can meaningfully build a plan that has the potential to inspire the full spectrum of policy makers, activists, businesspeople, and average citizens to work together towards a common goal of meaningful climate action.
Pittsburgh is taking comments on their DRAFT Climate Action Plan 3.0 through Friday (tomorrow, 10/6/17). You may submit your own comments on the DRAFT Plan (link) via e-mail to email@example.com.
I’m sharing my comments publicly below to spark dialogue. While I feel the what IS shown is a reasonable start, it stops short of sufficiently bending the CO2 emissions curve for our city to meaningfully address the climate crisis. Significantly more action is required.
As a city, we need to “mind the gap” between our anticipated carbon emissions reductions and what the science calls for to reach at most 1.5C above pre-industrial levels (per COP21 Paris Climate Agreement). If all cities and nations accomplished the goals that we have set for ourselves, what would be the net result? If the result is insufficient, who do we expect to fill that gap for us OR what plan can we put in place to address this gap? This is the essential question for the entire plan. It is foolish to create a plan that explicitly has no chance of accomplishing a given goal unless part of the plan seeks remedy of that problem. Consider reviewing the following website to get a better idea of what our climate would like like if all other nations were held to our goals: http://climateactiontracker.org/countries/usa.html
Carbon sequestration is essential to a successful climate plan. More emphasis should be placed on endeavors to sequester CO2 via investments in technology, universities, land use, etc.
Refugees will become common in a climate-changed world. How can Pittsburgh prepare to support global climate refugee populations in the coming decades?
Our region cannot support a petrochemical industry expansion if we expect to realize our climate goals. The Shell Ethane Cracker alone may well emit as much CO2 as ⅓ of all sources in the City of Pittsburgh, and more crackers are under active consideration, let alone additional polluting support facilities. Pittsburgh leadership must take a public stand against the Shell Ethane Cracker and related petrochemical industry build-out if their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement is to be taken seriously. Read more about the connection between the Shell Cracker and climate change in this piece that I wrote: https://nopetropa.wordpress.com/2017/08/14/climate-change-the-beaver-shell-petrochemical-plant/ . Part of stopping the petrochemical build-out must include a ban on fracking state-wide, then nation-wide. Any conversation about climate change that assumes the Shell Cracker must inevitably be constructed is inherently unproductive.
I really like how the plan connects air quality to climate change. Since the vast majority of our air quality problems relate to fossil fuels, if we remove the fossil fuels we win on BOTH climate change AND air quality.
The CO2e of methane is inconsistent between statements on pages 18 and 29. I prefer to use the higher estimate.
We should consider whether it is worthwhile to replace all the gas lines instead of just turning them all off and moving our entire city to electronic heating and cooling. Then we can move the grid to renewable power and be done with related CO2 emissions.
Pittsburgh’s district energy plan must be able to convert to 100% renewable sources immediately after construction. Otherwise that investment may be orphaned when we realize how few CO2e emissions we may put into the atmosphere and still expect to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement terms.
I did not see any explicit support for electric bicycles. That would be a welcome addition, as it makes biking accessible to a wider range of people over a broader geographical area.
Any conversions to natural gas are foolish when we must move immediately over to full electrification of most industrial engines and processes (particularly relates to boats, p65)
It would be helpful if there was more effort put towards integrating the section on the circular economy into classrooms, policy, and communities.
Update 11/29/17 – I just got out of a public hearing held by the Pittsburgh City Council regarding their Climate Action Plan 3.0. There was a great crowd in attendance and several dozen comments shared by the public. I have summarized some of the key points I feel are worth sharing below. Feel free to add your own in comments…
MANY comments touched on themes of needing more concrete implementation steps in the plan, along with additional budget and staff formally allocated to support that implementation.
MANY people talked about the Shell Cracker and how the climate goals in the plan were not compatible with the petrochemical build-out underway throughout the SWPA and Ohio/PA/WV region.
MANY people talked emotionally about the horrible air quality in Pittsburgh and how they viewed the climate plan as a pathway to address some of these issues.
Additional comments touched on these valuable issues:
Addressing inequality in a transition to a low carbon economy
Increasing the attractiveness of the city for bicyclists and increasing the goals for bicycle commuting.
Consider measuring “energy productivity” measured as the economic output per unit of CO2 emissions.
At the end of Al Gore’s recent climate change film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, he calls for the audience to fight [for climate action] like your world depends on it. I appreciate the encouragement, and the film was beautifully crafted, but the fight is ill-defined. Despite decades of political struggle and mass demonstrations, the climate movement has overlooked the necessary task of clearly defining what it means to actually “win.” We have substituted comfort for clarity, and it could cost us the world if we don’t change course.
Truth to Power skillfully winds its way through global climate disaster stories, dances through the struggles of herding cat-like nations towards signing the relatively weak but important Paris Climate Agreement, then dumps you by the curb of Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the U.S. from it. Ten years into my own environmentalism, I have seen that this kind of bad news can disappoint veteran climate advocates, and believe it may well cause new activists and skeptics alike to declare “game over” without having properly defined what the “game” is! The global community generally agrees that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions with some urgency, but how will we know if and when the climate fight is won? To answer this question, we need to know what victory really means.
The widely acclaimed Paris Climate Agreement made a valiant attempt at clarifying our collective climate goals, but it introduces more questions than it answers. In order to attain the broadest level of participation, it carefully avoided specificity. It declares a non-binding intention to keep warming “well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C.” But when exactly is pre-industrial? 1700’s? 1800’s? And is 1.5-2° C even a worthwhile goal? Renowned climatologist James Hansen’s research suggests that 1° C is a more appropriate target. And when negotiating commitments to reach these poorly justified targets, politicians often ask scientists to develop models that achieve those targets with 50% or 66% probability of success, but why not press for near 100%? (I certainly would not want to fly in an airplane rated with a “66% chance of not crashing.”) Furthermore, virtually all plans to “win” at climate change do so by pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere using technologies untested at scale. Should we bet on such “carbon sequestration” or rely on the more grounded options carefully examined in Paul Hawken’s book, Drawdown? The answers to these questions lay the groundwork for getting to the really tough part: who pays for it? There is more than enough money in the world to make a profound dent in the climate crisis, but it is not being sufficiently deployed for lack of “return on investment.” Is this how we want civilization to end? I certainly don’t, but what can we do about it?
My answer is simple and challenging: (1.) Clarify the questions above, then (2.) use those answers to set uncompromising CO2 emissions/sequestration goals for local, regional, and international governments and institutions, and (3.) if/when cultural, economic, and technological barriers prevent the accomplishment of those goals, highlight and track where reality falls short of the goals (i.e. “mind the gap”). Finally, (4.) support local and global collaboration to creatively address the list of gap challenges.
Al Gore has spent much of his life educating and activating tens of thousands of climate advocates, myself included. The Paris Climate Agreement spurred millions around the globe to seriously consider how their cities, states, nations, and businesses could take climate action to the next level. An Inconvenient Sequel beautifully tells these stories and so much more, setting the stage for the climate movement to grapple with the potent questions that will define the lives of generations to come. Once we define victory, we can pursue it relentlessly, marching forward with the effectiveness and purpose that our descendants deserve.
Just a few short months after the COP21 event in December, and coinciding with Earth Day, world leaders gathered today at United Nations HQ in New York City to sign what is being called the “Paris Climate Agreement.” The details of the signing and ratification process are complicated, so I’ll just say that it is likely that it will be signed and ratified by enough nations to come into effect, though I’m not sure when.
Friday’s signing sets a record for the number of countries signing an agreement on the first available day, the Associated Press reported. The old record goes back to the Law of the Sea in Montego Bay, which was signed by 119 countries in 1982, according toAccuWeather.
Signing the accord is only one step in the process. The leaders must now go back to their home countries’ governments to ratify and approve the agreement, which could take months or years. The deal goes into effect once 55 countries representing at least 55% of global emissions formally join.
I am not in a celebratory mood on this occasion. Just since December we have seen the global heat record get “smashed,” as noted by Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at the Weather Underground here. The annual mean growth rate of CO2 in the atmosphere also hit a record high in 2015, with 3.05ppm.
The Paris Agreement will be useful IF and ONLY if it triggers massive global action AND we do not use it as cover to grow complacent in our local, regional, and global efforts to combat climate change. I believe, as Bernie Sanders has mentioned and as championed by the Climate Mobilization, that a wartime-scale mobilization to address the climate crisis is our only option. Hillary Clinton still supports burning natural gas as part of a broad energy transition (which I view as a non-starter), and Republican presidential candidates are barely worth mentioning on this front (though Kasich does at least believe it exists).
One of my most trusted climate news aggregator sites, CarbonBrief.org, highlighted these two articles today that I feel are particularly important to consider on this day:
And don’t forget that I keep a curated breadcrumb trail of climate articles I find noteworthy in Mark’s Climate Mag(azine) via Flipboard. Subscribe to this ever-updated collection of articles (662 articles so far!) that I think might be interesting to those who follow my climate work. Great for mobile devices, too. Beautifully formatted on the Flipboard platform.
While not an occasion for a victory dance, today is an important day in climate history. I encourage you to use it as an opportunity to redouble your own carbon reduction efforts at home and in your community. Gather yourself, then step outside of your comfort zone. Nothing less will preserve a livable planet for future generations.
(Paris) We’re one week into the two-week COP21 climate negotiations summit and I can report that COP21 seems very similar to previous COPs, only bigger and more stylish. And more heavily guarded.
Furthermore, I suspect that everybody who came here with a preexisting expectation of what they would get out of it is probably getting exactly that out of it. In other words, while we certainly have have a city-wide, globally impacting, “World Cup of Climate”-scale convergence right now in Paris, I’m not seeing much in the way of breakthroughs, sea changes, or particularly unexpected circumstances. If you expected to see nations defend their self interest at the expense of the common good, you are seeing that. If you planned to see nations coming together in unprecedented ways for the common good, you’re seeing that. If you expected the agreement under consideration to be sufficient or insufficient, you’ll probably get that. If you feel that capitalism and/or technology are or are not up to the task of solving the problem, nothing here will change your mind. I’ve never attended anything so simultaneously over and underwhelming all at the same time! Let’s dig into some of the under/overwhelming highlights of the last few days…
Early Procedural Drama
I arrived in Paris with some cautious optimism that this time, THIS time, when it really really mattered, at the very last possible second, nations would set aside a little bit of self-interest for the sake of the common good. There aren’t clear signals to me about whether or not that is happening. (I wish I could get inside the negotiating back rooms!) One of the first points of “drama” at the conference was when Saudi Arabia blocked the inclusion (in the draft agreement) of a reference to a U.N. study on the impacts of choosing a 1.5°C warming limit vs. a 2°C limit (above pre-industrial levels)(more about that here). Despite the existence of a major cohort of nations (including the United States) seeking language referencing 1.5°C in the agreement (not as a goal, I believe, but just as a “reference”–possibly for more serious consideration in future COPs), the consensus nature of the proceedings makes it difficult to put it in if one country–like Saudi Arabia–doesn’t want it in. That said, the latest version (Dec. 5) of the draft COP21 agreement offers the following clause:
To hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 1.5 °C] [or] [well below 2 °C] above preindustrial levels by ensuring deep reductions in global greenhouse gas [net] emissions;
That means that nations are only considering options of “below 1.5°C” and “well below 2°C,” which I read as very good news (though I have no idea how nations will accomplish it). I’m not sure how Saudi Arabia feels about these options, but it is a bit of a mystery to my why the blockage of a reference was such a drama point if 1.5°C is still explicitly referenced as a potential goal. I’m still learning the nuance of this COP dance…
This is another section that caught my attention in the latest draft agreement. Nations are apparently considering language referencing a long-term goal decarbonization goal in a variety of different ways, including an annual percent reduction per year, zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2060-2080, or more generalized language pointing to the same. Which will it be? I have no idea, but I like that they’re even considering a %/year goal. Here’s the language in the official draft agreement:
[Parties [collectively][cooperatively] aim to reach the global temperature goal referred to in Article 2 through: (a) [A peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible[, recognizing that peaking requires deeper cuts of emissions of developed countries and will be longer for developing countries]] (b) [Rapid reductions thereafter [in accordance with best available science] to at least a X [-Y] per cent reduction in global [greenhouse gas emissions][CO2[e]] compared to 20XX levels by 2050]]; (c) [Achieving zero global GHG emissions by 2060-2080] (d) [A long-term low emissions transformation] [toward [climate neutrality][decarbonization] [over the course of this century] [as soon as possible after mid-century]; (e) [Equitable distribution of a global carbon budget based on historical responsibilities and [climate] justice]
One interesting feature that appears to be making its way into this COP21 agreement is a ratchet mechanism that requires nations to only improve their commitments at each review point (likely to be every 5 years). While 5 years is a bit slow for my preference, if a ratchet mechanism can make it into the agreement AND be legally binding, that will be a significant signal to businesses around the world that this is really happening. Indeed, the “ratchet” could be one of the most important features of this agreement. Note the language in the latest draft:
Each Party’s successive ### [shall][should][will] represent a progression beyond the Party’s previous efforts and reflect its highest possible ambition
That said, a ratchet mechanism without sufficient transparency is difficult to enforce. Here’s a snippet that is trying to address that:
…all Parties shall provide the information necessary for the clarity, transparency and understanding…
That same language is also referenced in another section a bit differently:
In tracking progress towards achievement of their ###, Parties shall apply the principles of transparency, accuracy, completeness, comparability, consistency, avoidance of double counting, and environmental integrity, as further elaborated in…
From what I’ve heard around here, people are particularly concerned about transparency with respect to China’s reporting. Accuracy with China’s reporting is quite possibly more important than any other nation on earth, and China hasn’t exactly had the best track record in this regard.
The draft agreement also references quite an array of human rights and progressive-sounding ideas that I’m surprised to see make it this far into a consensus-based agreement involving so many nations. Take a look:
Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should follow a country-driven, gender-responsive, participatory and fully transparent approach, taking into consideration [human rights,][the rights of people under occupation,] vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems, and should be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional, indigenous peoples knowledge and local knowledge systems, with a view to integrating adaptation into relevant socioeconomic and environmental policies and actions, where appropriate.
You’d think that people who knew to use this kind of language in any document would also understand the how closely they’re flirting with disaster embodied by the other terms of the agreement–particularly the non-binding 2°C limit on warming. We shall see…
Those are my reflections for now, on this relatively quiet Monday in Paris. There underwhelmingly remains an overwhelming number (basically infinite) of opportunities for linguistic loopholes to get into the final agreement. I suspect that many will stay, a few will go, and we’ll get some kind of well-ground climate agreement sausage at the end of it all.
(By the way, this past weekend I discovered a bakery around the corner from my apartment that is apparently very highly regarded even by French standards, so I celebrated by having an eclair. It was so good that I had another one today. Tomorrow I’ll brave the croissant. I know. I’m having such a tough time out here. I expect tomorrow to also be relatively quiet, and then things should heat up again between Wednesday and Friday when world leaders supposedly return to finalize the COP21 agreement and release it to the world. Stay tuned, and send questions as you have them!)
Still getting information about this, but it appears that Canada has just endorsed a 1.5°C goal for COP21. That’s pretty big news, and fits into the rare category of a “surprise” at COP21. The U.S. has simply endorsed the inclusion of a verbal reference to 1.5°C, while Canada actually wants it to be the goal. We’ll see if other nations follow suit… Here’s the link.
Loss and damage. That’s what I’m hearing around here now. Will concerns about compensating developing nations for losses and damages from climate change break the momentum at COP21? Will developing nations band together and stand up to demand a little help from the few nations who got rich while causing most of this trouble? And just where is all the momentum headed, anyway? Does it need to be broken? This is a constant conflict in my head. So many people here are abuzz with talk of “it feels better than COP15” and “there WILL be an agreement,” but I can’t help but wonder if this is all just more talk. Would you really trust an addict and/or abuser who kept telling for twenty years that THIS is the year they will get off their (oil) addiction? It certainly doesn’t come easily, and no one wants to play the fool. That said, I’m not getting the impression that we have a lot of options here. And that seems a bit strange. There are 40k people here who care passionately about solving the climate challenge, but through this formalized UN process we have somehow boxes ourselves into this rut of words, words, more words, and some 80 thousand fingers crossed that these words will, this year, after 20 years and countless empty promises, finally set us on a course to solve the climate crisis. You’d think we would have come up with more options than “show up and hope for a good outcome.” At times like this I wish I could get into the back rooms where the nitty gritty negotiations are literally taking place. Surely they are discussing more than just one main option? I don’t want to sound too cynical but I have a funny feeling that Machiavelli would be rolling in his grave if he knew about all the hope we have placed in politicians setting their personal/national ambitions aside for the common good. But Machiavelli never had to stare down a threat as monumental and comprehensive as climate change. Maybe world leaders will respond well this time. I’ll be watching.
The leadership at COP21 has backed itself into a tricky corner pitting a declaration that “COP21 was a success” against the latest, best science. Leaders have a huge stake in declaring a successful outcome at this conference, but any declaration of success will likely need to suppress or disregard critical pieces of the climate puzzle. So in mid-December if/when the United Nations declares “SUCCESS! We have laid the foundations for keeping the planet below 2°C above pre-industrial levels!” don’t forget to dig into what their version of “success” means by asking these questions:
Success? With what probability? 66%?
Over what time horizon? What happens after 2100?
Assuming what climate feedback mechanisms? Only a subset of known mechanisms?
How much CO2 must be removed from the atmosphere? Probably lots, but how?
At what financial cost and paid by whom? How much have they contributed to-date?
Is 2°C a worthwhile goal? Do coastal cities and African + island nations lose out?
What penalties are applied to unhelpful nations? Is it legally or financially binding?
Once you receive answers to these questions and check them against your own internal senses of right vs. wrong, spin vs. science, and possibility vs. reality, you will have the tools to make your own decision about whether COP21 was a success.
And now for a little bit more detail:
Much of the research that the COP21 negotiators are working from (generally data from the IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) orbits around staying below 2°C with a 66% likelihood of success. That’s often what they mean when they say “likely stay below 2°C.” But I have to ask, would you fly on an airplane or drive in a car that has a 66% chance of delivering you safely to your destination? If we seek a 90% probability of staying below 2°C, then we must stop burning all fossil fuels immediately (per David Spratt, “RECO2UNT”).
Negotiators will often limit predictions about the climate to 2100 as the time horizon. The climate system, however, doesn’t just stop warming when the clock ticks over. It seeks an equilibrium of energy that may not settle out for hundreds of years or more. So if you hear a climate prediction that sounds palatable, dig into whether the estimates work with an equilibrium state or not. Very often estimates just stop at 2100 with no mention that temperatures will likely rise after that year.
In the pursuit of non-controversial data to support its findings, the IPCC does not take into account all known positive feedback mechanisms in the climate system (for review, a well-known feedback positive mechanism works like this: the arctic icecap melts and changes a highly reflective white ice surface into a highly absorptive dark water surface, accelerating the heating). That’s a problem in my book, and generally causes the IPCC to predict lesser climate impacts than what actually happens. (Consider this detailed assessment of feedback mechanisms by David Wasdell at the the Apollo-Gaia Project.)
All the IPCC scenarios used by the negotiators at COP21 that show us keeping warming below 2°C require some form of massive CO2 removal from the atmosphere. Any way you slice it, we’re no longer looking at a simple emissions reduction as sufficient to keep the planet below that goal. We must also actively pull CO2 from the atmosphere with technologies that have yet to be proven cost effective and/or at scale.
Decarbonizing the global economy will require a whole lot of money. The World Bank recently announced an assessment putting the number in the range of $89 trillion over the next 15 years (to stay below 2°C, and I’m not sure about the probability they use). That money will need to come from somewhere, and whoever it is has yet to put that kind of money on the table. I’m watching this front closely, possibly closest of all. The best intentions will sit on the drawing board without the financing to bring them to life.
The 2°C goal is somewhat arbitrary and is often characterized as a target that will help us “avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” Renowned climate scientists James Hansen calls the 2°C target “catastrophic” and argues for a 1°C limit (we’re already experiencing this in 2015), while many others–even those within the COP21 negotiations process, particularly African and low-lying island nations– are actively trying to get the U.N. to adopt a 1.5°C target at COP21. Why those nations? Because we already have at least 1-3m of sea level rise baked into the system, and many low-lying nations disappear under those conditions. For them, this is a mortal fight. Furthermore, 2°C is a global average, but that value will vary globally depending on many factors including the proximity to oceans vs. large land masses and local weather patterns. African nations are set to bear the brunt of temperature increases for those reasons and more, and since they generally have done little to contribute to the problem, they see it as only fair that developed nations (like the United States) should bear the brunt of the atmospheric CO2 reduction burden. (I discuss the 2°C goal in great detail in the following article on Climate Change Numbers for COP21 in Paris.)
I hate to say it, but sometimes people are moved to act or not act based on the penalties applied to them. In the case of the COP21 climate negotiations, I see little evidence of anybody signing up for a legally binding agreement with any real teeth. If the word is used in a final pronouncement, check to see exactly what is legally binding. It might just be that the only legally binding thing to emerge is a provision for nations to review and revise their 2015 commitments every few years to address updates in the scientific literature.
Whatever the result at COP21 this year, it has already turned out to be a massive international focal point for collective climate action. Do the specifics matter? I think they do, but I suspect we’ll have to take whatever we can get and then cheerlead our way to even greater action the very next day. And the next. And the next. Holding ourselves accountable to the latest science, the possibilities within our collective genius, and our best moral selves.
For additional details and more of my (Mark Dixon’s) personal reflections on COP21, feel free to check out my hour-long lecture here: