The American Jobs Plan & Power Generation by Source

Last week, when I discussed the new $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” I listed the costs of items that directly address climate change mitigation. The second most expensive item was the $174 billion program for electric vehicle incentive. A few years ago, I wrote a set of three blogs (March 1226, 2019) that examined the sustainability of electric cars. I concluded that these cars are only as sustainable the electric grids that feed them. The Biden administration knows this is true. On another occasion, President Biden declared his intention for US electrical utilities to be carbon free by around 2035. Since the approximate lifetime of an electric power plant is about 20 years, this timeline would mean that every new power plant we build now must be carbon free. This week, I am trying to figure out where we stand on this issue—both on international and national levels.

Figure 1, taken from the International Energy Administration (IEA), shows the changes in the installed power generation capacity from the beginning of this century, extrapolated to 2040 based on IEA’s 2019 Stated Policy Scenarios.

power generation capacity IEA

Figure 1 – Power generation capacity by type

EIA summarizes the projected data in Figure 1:

The expansion of generation from wind and solar PV helps renewables overtake coal in the power generation mix in the mid-2020s. By 2040, low-carbon sources provide more than half of total electricity generation. Wind and solar PV are the star performers, but hydropower (15% of total generation in 2040) and nuclear (8%) retain major shares.

If the world is to turn today’s emissions trend around, it will need to focus not only on new infrastructure but also on the emissions that are “locked in” to existing systems. That means addressing emissions from existing power plants, factories, cargo ships and other capital-intensive infrastructure already in use. Despite rapid changes in the power sector, there is no decline in annual power-related CO2 emissions in the Stated Policies Scenario. A key reason is the longevity of the existing stock of coal-fired power plants that account for 30% of all energy-related emissions today.

Figures 2 and 3, taken from the American Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2021, show the expected electricity generation in the US, over approximately the same period.

electricity, energy, source, solar, gas, renewables, coal, nuclear

Figure 2

According to Figure 2, renewable energy production is projected to dwarf both nuclear and coal by 2050, with natural gas trailing close behind. Within that renewable label, solar and wind both see significant increases.

US electricity, energy, source, solar, gas, renewables, coal, nuclear

Figure 3

Interestingly, Figure 3 shows that the extrapolated competition between natural gas and zero-carbon power stations sources depends a lot on the available supply of natural gas. In other words, reducing the availability of natural gas could be an excellent mitigation policy. Unfortunately, no one else seems to be investigating this option.

None of these scenarios predict that the US will successfully reach zero-carbon electricity generation within President Biden’s timeline. However, both the internationally declared scenario in Figure 1 and the low gas supply scenario in Figure 3 predict that sustainable, carbon-free power will soon be on its way to dominating electricity production in the US.

However, recent results by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), show that even the American Jobs Plan’s proposed pace of slowing carbon emissions might not be fast enough. COVID-19 almost immobilized the world and there are predictions that there was resulting decline in carbon emissions around 7% over the last year. Unfortunately, we have not seen any sign from direct measurements of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere that their levels have been significantly affected. Figures 4 and 5 show the results, followed by some possible explanations from NOAA.

global monthly C02 emissions

Figure 4Global monthly mean of carbon dioxide

global methane, emissions

Figure 5 – Global monthly mean of methane

According to NOAA:

The economic recession was estimated to have reduced carbon emissions by about 7 percent during 2020. Without the economic slowdown, the 2020 increase would have been the highest on record, according to Pieter Tans, senior scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. Since 2000, the global CO2 average has grown by 43.5 ppm, an increase of 12 percent.

The atmospheric burden of CO2 is now comparable to where it was during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period around 3.6 million years ago, when concentrations of carbon dioxide ranged from about 380 to 450 parts per million. During that time sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra.

Methane in the atmosphere is generated by many different sources, such as fossil fuel development and use, decay of organic matter in wetlands, and as a byproduct of livestock farming. Determining which specific sources are responsible for variations in methane annual increase is difficult. Preliminary analysis of  carbon isotopic composition of methane in the NOAA air samples done by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, indicates that it is likely that a primary driver of the increased methane burden comes from biological sources of methane such as wetlands or livestock rather than thermogenic sources like oil and gas production and use.

“Although increased fossil emissions may not be fully responsible for the recent growth in methane levels, reducing fossil methane emissions are an important step toward mitigating climate change,” said GML research chemist Ed Dlugokencky.

The NOAA results are certainly worrying but they are still preliminary at this stage. Of particular concern are the methane results. As a reminder, the radiative forcing per molecule of methane is 20 times bigger than that of carbon dioxide. In other words, not only must we work to significantly reduce methane emissions, we must also pay special attention to them into our mitigation plans.

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The American Jobs Plan

I started to write this blog a day after President Biden presented his infrastructure plan in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The location’s symbolism was obvious; this was the same city where President Trump announced his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement:

I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris. (Applause) I promised I would exit or renegotiate any deal which fails to serve America’s interests. Many trade deals will soon be under renegotiation. Very rarely do we have a deal that works for this country, but they’ll soon be under renegotiation. The process has begun from day one. But now we’re down to business.

President Biden announced the US return to the Paris Agreement via an executive order on the day of his inauguration. His real assurances, however, came during his April 1st speech, when he proclaimed his intention to codify his administration’s commitment to climate change mitigation via an innovative new piece of legislation. The plan is big on almost every level. Not only does he address the return to the Paris Agreement but he also details his approach to the overlapping issues of of COVID-19, climate change, jobs, equity, and population rise (see my Venn diagram in my August 4, 2020 blog).

Tables 1-3 show the details of this new “American Jobs Plan.” I will try to address them in the next few blogs. This week I want to highlight the magnitude of the proposed budget and its distribution, specifically in the context of the global post-Paris-Agreement situation.

Tables 1, 2 & 3 – Details of President Biden’s “American Jobs Plan”

American Jobs Plan, buildings American Jobs Plan, transportation

American Jobs Plan, jobs

In addition to the three sections shown above, $400 billion are proposed for “in-home care.” This money is targeted to: “Expand access to caregiving for those who are older and those with disabilities, and to improve pay and benefits for care givers.”

These are the main goals of the plan’s three sections:

Transportation: To revitalize the aging or crumbling corridors that get American people and products from place to place, while reducing the sector’s reliance on fossil fuels that drive climate change.

Buildings and Utilities: To make homes and commercial buildings more energy efficient; reduce the lead hazards of old water pipes; bridge the urban-rural digital divide; and modernize the electrical grid for greater reliability and wider deployment of low-carbon electricity.

Jobs and Innovations: The president has said that he wants to position America to compete against China and other rivals in the race to build and dominate industries of the future, like semiconductors and advanced batteries.

In Tables 1-3, I have highlighted the entries that can be associated with climate change, and which I will speak to specifically in future blogs. Of course, the whole effort addresses a multitude of overlapping issues; none of the items can be exclusively associated with one of the entries of my earlier Venn-diagram. Rounding up from the sum of the estimated costs for all of the entries, we come to $1.9 trillion. With the addition of the $400 billion for in-home care, we reach the plan’s quoted $2.3 trillion. The sum of the highlighted, climate-related items comes to $1.35 trillion, 70% of the total cost.

At this stage, the plan is a proposal, not a legislative commitment. In this sense, it is similar to the Paris Agreement (great intentions but little enforcement/implementation power). Right now, the size and the scope of the plan make it vulnerable to cherry-picking by both supporters and opponents. Serious questions remain in terms of timing (the plan is supposed to take the rest of the decade) and payment (suggested distribution over the next 15 years). The soonest, most important commitment in terms of timing is the promise of carbon-free electric power delivery by 2035.

Meanwhile, with regards to the rest of the world, a blog from Columbia University’s Earth Institute summarized the global climate change mitigation efforts since the Paris Agreement:

The Paris Agreement calls for countries to make their pledges to reduce emissions — called nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — more ambitious every five years; the first step-up was to occur at the end of 2020. According to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, only 73 countries proposed revised goals, with 69 countries including the E.U., U.K., Argentina, and Ethiopia submitting more ambitious emissions reduction targets.

The E.U. pledged to cut emissions 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, and the U.K. promised to cut emissions 68 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. While China has not formally submitted an updated pledge, at the summit it declared that it would aim for carbon neutrality by 2060 and submit an enhanced NDC for 2030 in line with this goal; China also aims to peak its emissions by 2030.

Several other countries, including Russia, have kept the status quo. Brazil’s new pledge has effectively backtracked, and while Brazil did propose a 2060 net-zero goal, this would be contingent on receiving $10 billion a year in climate finance from other countries. Later this year, at COP 26, all other parties will have to submit updated NDCs.

The critical question, however, is whether or not countries can translate their long-term net-zero goals into the short-term policies that are necessary to realize them.

Figure 1 presents a comparison between the three largest economies’ major investments in sustainable energy resources.

Figure 1Global clean energy investments: Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) vs. the Americas vs. the Asia Pacific region (APAC)

I will continue to follow both domestic and foreign implementation/follow up of these plans and commitments over the next few months.

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Production Gap: Actual Emissions vs. Paris Promises

emissions, China, US, India,

Figure 1Relative country contributions to total global carbon emissions and percentages of emissions over time, 2017

The new administration and the accompanying new leadership of many federal offices have strongly signaled a renewed and strengthened dedication to confront the challenges that we face in battling climate change. Our country’s act of rejoining the 2015 Paris agreement (see December 14, 2015 blog) was a key step in marking this transition. The eye-catching figures above summarize various nations’ carbon emissions, as of 2017, as well as the rise in fossil fuel emissions relative to the birth year of the observer. Not only is the US the second largest emitter, close to 90% of the total global emissions have been emitted during my lifetime; I’m not directly responsible for all of that but I still feel guilty.

Recently, many around the world have made commitments to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by mid-century. This is a solid goal but it puts much of the burden on future generations. Many people who make such commitments now will not be alive to deal with the consequences should those promises prove hollow.

Last year, there was a report published that tried to quantify the actual commitments made during the Paris agreement, as compared to the overall objective of limiting carbon emissions enough to keep global temperature rise to less than 2oC (or 1.5oC). As we can see from Figure 2, the gap between intent and action is large.

production gap, fossil fuel, global warming, climate change

Figure 2 – This graph of global fossil fuel production (2015-2040) under 4 scenarios shows the vast disparities between the total Paris agreement pledges, a business-as-usual scenario, and the action needed to reach the objectives of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC or 2oC.

“The Production Gap: The discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and global production levels consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C”

The first Production Gap Report was launched in November 2019 by leading research institutions and experts, in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Modelled after UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report series — and conceived as a complementary analysis — the Production Gap Report conveys the large discrepancy between countries’ planned fossil fuel production and the global production levels necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C and 2°C. This year’s report comes as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown measures impact societies — and their use and production of coal, oil, and gas — in unprecedented ways. The context for fossil fuel production is thus changing rapidly. Governments are pouring money into their economies, taking on increasing debt, and even changing environmental regulations in a bid to respond and recover from the pandemic’s economic and social fall-out. This could have lasting consequences for the nature and speed of transitions away from fossil fuels — and, consequently, for the production gap. This year’s report is a special issue that considers the production gap in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It recognizes that the world is still at a potential turning point towards a healthier and more resilient, low-carbon future. It considers government responses to the COVID-19-induced crisis and the implications of those responses for the production gap. It includes an interim update of the production gap, while acknowledging the current uncertainty of long-term government planning amid the focus on near-term solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Next year, the 2021 Production Gap Report will include a broader assessment of the production gap, including the country profiles that were a centrepiece of the 2019 report.

Key Findings:

  • To follow a 1.5°C-consistent pathway, the world will need to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6% per year between 2020 and 2030.
  • Countries are instead planning and projecting an average annual increase of 2%, which by 2030 would result in more than double the production consistent with the 1.5°C limit.
  • Pre-COVID plans and post-COVID stimulus measures point to a continuation of the growing global fossil fuel production gap, locking in severe climate disruption.
  • To date, governments have committed far more COVID-19 funds to fossil fuels than to clean energy. Policymakers must reverse this trend to meet climate goals.
  • Countries with lower dependence and higher financial and institutional capacity can undertake a just and equitable transition from fossil fuel production most rapidly, while those with higher dependence and lower capacity will require greater international support.
  • Policymakers can support a managed, just, and equitable wind-down of fossil fuel production through six areas of action.

Key Areas of Action:

  1. Ensure COVID-19 recovery packages and economic stimulus funds support a sustainable recovery and avoid further carbon lock-in.
  2. Provide local and international support to fossil-fuel-dependent communities and economies for diversification and just, equitable transitions.
  3. Reduce existing government support for fossil fuels.
  4. Introduce restrictions on fossil fuel production activities and infrastructure.
  5. Enhance transparency of current and future fossil fuel production levels.
  6. Mobilize and support a coordinated global response.

The steps suggested in the Production Gap Report are not much different from the new shifts in policy that President Biden announced on his inauguration day. Unfortunately, they are not quantitative and they don’t secure key requirements necessary to significantly slow mid-century warming. Next week, I will focus on intermediary markers and their feasibility and effectiveness in global efforts for long-term mitigation.

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Help: How Can We Set Up an Energy Education Park?

In 2012, I was with Vinit Parmar, filming the energy transition in the Sundarbans region in India as it moved from traditional hunter-gatherer life to an electrified society (Quest for Energy – 2012, see the April 29, 2014 blog). In addition to experiencing lifestyle changes in both personal and professional settings, those in this area of the Sundarbans started to learn a lot about energy production. These two photographs from 2007 show the general plan and an overview of the Energy Education Park in Kolkata.

Now we find ourselves in the beginning of a different energy transition, much closer to home. New York State and the City of NY, have mandated carbon neutrality by mid-century. They have set up a well-defined rate of change that start three years from now, with the prospect of penalties for laggers (see the July 721, 2020 blogs). I decided to use this transition as a teaching laboratory for my students. I also sit on committees that try to reorient our energy usage in ways that will minimalize carbon emissions.

In an earlier set of blogs (May 28June 18, 2019), I described my university (CUNY) and campus’ (Brooklyn College) efforts to follow the sustainability criteria that agencies such as Stars and the Sierra Club set up for American university campuses. I mentioned then that the consortium structure of our university means that “obvious” energy transition steps such as replacing fossil fuels with sustainable energy sources are not as easy as you might think. Such choices are not under the control of individual colleges but are determined centrally by university administrations, albeit with their input. The colleges do, however, determine much of the energy usage. This means that the current lockdowns will prove to be a useful tool in allowing individual campuses to measure the difference between student-dependent and independent energy use, as I described several times last year.

Within this spirit, I suggested at a meeting of the Energy Utilization Committee, that we construct an on-campus energy education park similar to that I saw in Kolkata, with three main objectives:

  1. Make exhibits available to faculty and students at all levels for research and education.
  2. Convey BC’s commitment to action regarding the threat of climate change.
  3. Position the university to serve as an example and leader in helping the surrounding communities in the transition. The energy transition requirements apply to any building (larger than 25,000 ft2), and the university can demonstrate best practices.

We have a student representative on the Energy Utilization Committee. When asked about his opinions, he said that he didn’t feel qualified to respond to most of the other issues we’d discussed, but he was enthusiastic about the prospect of the energy park.

Not surprisingly, the committee’s agenda also addressed our budgetary restraints. The full year of lockdown has had an impact on all campuses. As with many other institutions, we are stretched for resources and will have to adapt to survive. The demographics don’t seem to be in our favor, though. Among other changes, our country’s younger population is projected to shrink in the coming decades.

The fraction of the college future prospect (under 18 old) is expected to slowly decrease while the fraction of older adults (older than 65) is expected to increase as the table below shows:

Table 1 – Census projection of older and younger age groups in the US

Year % of total population older than 65 % of total population younger than 18
2016 15 22
2020 17 22
2030 21 21
2040 22 20.6
2050 22 20.1
2060 23 19.8

Keeping all of this in mind, the committee chair asked me for an initial estimate of the cost of the park. I contacted friends around the world regarding science museums and other facilities but I am still waiting for their answers. That said, I realize that presently, the only answer that my administration will accept is zero.

The only option that seems feasible, then, is to attract local sustainable energy businesses and partner with them to demonstrate their products in a designated area on the college campus. The New York Times has reviewed several solar power facilities in NYC. There are quite a few such facilities in Brooklyn, specifically: Solar One, Brooklyn Microgrid, Brooklyn Solarworks, Solar Energy Systems, Solar Panels in Brooklyn, Sunset Park Solar.

In my view, such cooperation is a win-win situation for everybody. Our documentary in India showed the metaphorical and physical power of a solar energy transition. This is not limited to a large developing country such as India; we can benefit from adopting similar practices here. The companies that we invite to present their technology in the college will naturally work to advertise their products to potential new customers, while students, faculty, and our surrounding communities will be able to use the facility for advice, learning, and research.

After a time, if the project is successful, research by faculty, students, unaffiliated community members, and perhaps even local high schools will yield new discoveries that can also be displayed.

This blog is a cry for help: please let me know if you have other cost-effective proposals and energy transition examples from which we can all learn.

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Green Taxonomy

taxonomy, green, sustainable, sustainabilityOn December 27, 2016, I posted a blog, “Impact Assessment: Self-Inflicted Genocide and the Toronto Principle.” I cited an Op-Ed from Benjamin A. Franta:

Last December, a committee at the University of Toronto released a report on the issue of divestment, drawing a clear line by aligning itself with the needs of the Paris agreement. It recommended that the university not finance companies whose “actions blatantly disregard the international effort to limit the rise in average global temperatures to not more than one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages by 2050…These are fossil fuels companies whose actions are irreconcilable with achieving internationally agreed goals.” This principle, basic as it is, aligns rhetoric and action. It suggests that it is all institutions’ responsibility to give life to the Paris agreement. Harvard could adopt this Toronto principle, too, and the world would be better for it.

In practice, adopting the Toronto Principle would likely mean moving investments away from coal companies and coal-fired power plants, companies seeking non-conventional or aggressive fossil fuel development (such as oil from the Arctic or tar sands), and possibly also companies that distort public policies or deceive the public on climate. At present, these activities are incompatible with the agreement in Paris.

Since then, the US Federal Reserve and other financial institutions have strongly recommended that every business decision that we make should account for the impact of climate change (see my January 14, 2020 blog). Many schools and other institutions have indicated that they want their investments to be “green” but what does that mean? We need a taxonomy of the term. Wikipedia gives us the basics on taxonomy:

Taxonomy is the practice and science of categorization or classification based on discrete sets.

A taxonomy (or taxinomical classification) is a scheme of classification, especially, a hierarchical classification, in which things are organized into groups or types.[1][2][3][4][5][6] Among other things, a taxonomy can be used to organize and index knowledge (stored as documents, articles, videos, etc.), such as in the form of a library classification system, or a search engine taxonomy, so that users can more easily find the information they are searching for. Many taxonomies are hierarchies (and thus, have an intrinsic tree structure), but not all are.

Originally, taxonomy referred only to the categorisation of organisms or a particular categorisation of organisms. In a wider, more general sense, it may refer to a categorisation of things or concepts, as well as to the principles underlying such a categorisation. Taxonomy organizes taxonomic units known as “taxa” (singular “taxon”).

In other words, taxonomy sorts things into groups and subgroups based on shared characteristics. Now for the often-posed question: where/how can I invest so as to be able to label my investments as “green”? The Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI) released a comprehensive document in January regarding the sustainability of various industries:

The Climate Bonds Taxonomy identifies the assets and projects needed to deliver a low carbon economy and gives GHG emissions screening criteria consistent with the 2-degree global warming target set by the COP 21 Paris Agreement. It has been developed based on the latest climate science including research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), and has benefited from the input of hundreds of technical experts from around the world. It can be used by any entity looking to identify which assets and activities, and associated financial instruments, are compatible with a 2-degree trajectory. First released in 2013, the Climate Bonds Taxonomy is regularly updated based on the latest climate science, emergence of new technologies and on the Climate Bonds Standard Sector Criteria.

The Taxonomy is the foundation used by the Climate Bonds Initiative to screen bonds to determine whether assets or projects underlying an investment are eligible for green or climate finance. Where detailed analysis of a sector has been undertaken and specific eligibility Criteria have been developed, bonds in that sector can be Climate Bonds Certified. This is indicated via a blue ‘Climate Bonds Certification tick’. Where detailed sector based Criteria for Certification are still under development, this is indicated by a yellow circle. In this case, bonds in this sector cannot yet be certified under the Climate Bonds Standard.

taxonomy, green, energy, electricity, solar, infrastructure, generation

A traffic light system has been adopted to indicate whether identified assets and projects are considered to be automatically compatible with a 2-degree decarbonisation trajectory. Green Light is automatically compatible. Orange Light is potentially compatible, depending on whether more specific criteria are met. Red Light is incompatible. A Grey circle is used to indicate where further work is required to determine which traffic light colour is appropriate for a specific sub-set of assets or activities.

The figure above shows the first segment of the Energy category within the document, specifically the beginning of the Electricity and Heat group and the Solar subgroup. Other subgroups in this group include Bioenergy, Wind, Geothermal, Hydro Power, Marine Renewables, Fossil Fuels, and Nuclear Energy. The categories of Transportation, Water Infrastructures, Buildings, Land Use and Marine Resources, Industry, Waste and Pollution Control, and Information and Communication Technologies have similar taxonomies.

This kind of taxonomy has inconsistencies, however, especially when it comes to determining whether something is “green.” Just look at the case of electric passenger cars in the Transportation category. They got a green traffic light in the CBI document, indicating full compatibility with limiting the rise of global temperature to below 2oC, as advocated by the Paris Agreement. As I wrote in my March 12 and 19, 2019 blogs, however, while the idea of electric cars is great, they are only as “green” as their power sources. If they continue running on energy sourced from fossil fuels, electric cars just keep contributing to the same pollution as gas guzzlers. Similar connectivity holds true for many other entries in the CBI Taxonomy. The practice of taxonomy is great in helping us visualize anchors and connections, if not particularly helpful in describing them.

You can see an example of simple taxonomy just by looking at the “Category” section on the right side of this blog. The advantage here is that every entry in this list has a live link to the corresponding posts. However, as is often the case, the categorization is incomplete, failing to account for many of the issues that I have covered. So, if you want to know what the blog is about, you have two options: read it all the way through or randomly choose posts until you find some sense of consistency.

The NYT opinion piece, “The Secret Life of a Coronavirus” delves further into the difficulties in categorizing viruses, animals, and other “live” things.

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My “Now”

We are reaching the anniversary of one full year since we moved teaching and learning online. My school is preparing for face-to-face classes for the next semester (starting in the beginning of September), with some healthy skepticism and the provision that their status can obviously change with fluctuations in the pandemic. The transition was a large change for everybody. I, like many others, started the transition with asynchronous classes over Blackboard. My school offered professors some much-needed help: in addition to teaching and other duties associated with our jobs (all of which are obviously now online), we had the option take a class from the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) for guidance in this new setup. This is my first pedagogical class in the 50 years or so that I have been teaching university students. It’s about time; I have plenty to learn. One of the issues that this class has emphasized is the importance of convincing students to take ownership of the material that they are learning by incorporating their own experiences into their work. Unfortunately, especially in classes with a large and diverse set of students, I often know next to nothing about their experiences.

In small senior classes that are anchored to students’ research, the issue is manageable. In the first class, I ask my students to give a short overview of their lives. That means that by the time we start on research projects, I can work with them to choose appropriate, personalized topics.

With larger classes—which often contain up to 50 students—this becomes more difficult. As well as sheer numbers, the diversity of backgrounds is considerably broader. These classes are also General Education and don’t require prerequisites, meaning that in addition to differences in personal and political backgrounds, there is the additional factor of academic level (from freshman to seniors).

For these large classes, I find that the safest starting point that I can offer my students is to describe my own background and its relationship to climate change.

Table 1 – Changes in global indicators from 1945 to “now”

Indicators “Early” Current
Population 2.4*109 (1945) 7.5*109 (2017)
GDP/Capita (1990 US$) 2030(1945) 5950(2017)
Global life expectancy 44 (1945) 71 (2017)
Urbanization (% of population) 28% (1950) 55% (2017)
Electricity availability (% of population) 71% (1990) 87% (2016)
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration(ppmv) 310(1945) 409(2018)
Energy use (kg oil equivalent per capita) 1336(1971) 1921(2014)

Table 1 is my starting point for this discussion. The year specified in the “current” column indicates the most recent year for which the data were available to me (usually from the World Bank database). As always, the database is a bit behind the actual date of the semester but the overall picture remains the same. I share part of the “now” with my students but we are worlds apart in our relationships to the “early” column. For most of my students, that time period feels like ancient history but I was born in 1939, so it represents part of my “now.”

I have described this distinction before. I dedicated my book, Climate Change – The Fork at the End of Now (Momentum Press – 2011) to my three grandchildren, all of whom were born around the beginning of this century. I refer to them as part of what anchors my use of “now”: I have used their expected lifetimes to demarcate the end of the period. Hopefully, that will be somewhere in the last fifth of this century. By combining Table 1 with the definition in my book, I have extended my “now” to cover approximately 150 years or about 6 generations.

In my August 25, 2020 blog, “School Curriculum: The NYT,” I quoted Einstein as saying, “The distinction between past, present and future is only stubbornly persistent illusion.” I focused that blog on the role of education in securing our next generation’s future. This week, my emphasis is on the “present” or “now” that I share with my students and my grandchildren (who are approximately the same age). In physics, the present doesn’t exist. It is simply a delineation between the past and the future. The “thickness” of this demarcation line depends on the speed in which my tool can gather data and my distance from the source of the information.

I am calling on my students to engage with the course material and make their own definition of “now.”

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The Green Climate Fund

Green Climate FundPresident Biden signed 15 executive orders and two agency directives on the day of his inauguration (January 20th). Most of this activity was targeted at trying to reverse President Trump’s previous directives. One of the new executive orders that attracted global attention was a promise to reenter the US into the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement that the Trump administration left in 2019. The US has now officially rejoined. The Paris Agreement is best-known for securing commitments from all participating countries to significantly reduce emissions. The goal is to collectively limit the global temperature rise to less than 2oC (3.6oF) above the pre-industrial level by mid-century. One of my students plans to quantify the actual meaning of these commitments, along with the withdrawal and the reentry. I’ll keep you updated.

A recent UN report reminded us that so far, the world has fallen short of the Paris commitments. The US’ rejoining of the accord is at least a step in the right direction.

One of the impacts of the US withdrawal from the agreement was the associated withdrawal from the Green Climate Fund. While this didn’t get much attention at the time, it had a big impact. Rich countries committed themselves to using this fund to support developing countries in mitigating their current impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, the poorer countries would use the resources to redirect their future energy production away from fossil fuels. The Green Climate Fund’s webpage explains it in this way:

There is a shrinking window of opportunity to address the climate crisis. Average global temperature is currently estimated to be 1.1°C above pre-industrial times. Based on existing trends, the world could cross the 1.5°C threshold within the next two decades and 2°C threshold early during the second half of the century. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C is still narrowly possible and will be determined by the investment decisions we make over the next decade. The Green Climate Fund (GCF) – a critical element of the historic Paris Agreement – is the world’s largest climate fund, mandated to support developing countries raise and realize their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) ambitions towards low-emissions, climate-resilient pathways.

Climate change offers businesses an unprecedented chance to capitalise on new growth and investment opportunities that can protect the planet as well. GCF employs part of its funds to help mobilise financial flows from the private sector to compelling and profitable climate-smart investment opportunities.

In 2009, one outlet reported the fallout of the US’ abandonment of these promises:

Green Climate Fund replenishment fails to fill hole left by Trump’s US

Rich countries failed to increase the amount of money pledged to the Green Climate Fund on Friday, after struggling to mitigate Donald Trump’s refusal to provide green finance.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF), which was created to help poor countries curb their emissions and cope with the impacts of climate change was seeking fresh contributions to replenish its funding, due to run-out at the end of the year.

A total of 27 countries raised $9.8 billion at a pledging conference in Paris to fund green projects for the 2020-2023 period – including 4% in zero-interest loans. That was less than the $10.3bn donors promised for the first period to 2020 and not enough to fund the $15bn pipeline of projects identified by the GCF as of December 2018.

In 2014, under Barack Obama’s administration, the US pledged $3bn to the fund – the biggest pledge to the fund. Donald Trump reneged on the US commitment to the tune of $2bn.

Both the US and Australia said they would not pledge new money to the GCF, leaving smaller European countries along with Japan, Canada and New Zealand to compensate for a $3.2bn hole. They fell around half a billion short.

To bridge the gap, 13 countries announced a doubling or more of their contributions: Germany, Norway, France, UK, Sweden, South Korea, Denmark, Iceland, Poland, New Zealand, Luxembourg, Ireland and Monaco.

Before the conference, the GCF said contributions totalling between $9bn and $10bn would be “a big success” after 16 countries pledged $7.4bn in the lead up.

Earlier this month, the World Research Institution published a list of, “4 Climate Finance Priorities for the Biden Administration.” Primary among these was re-commitment to the Green Climate Fund:

Trump stopped U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which has a mandate to help countries build low-carbon, resilient economies and take ambitious action under the Paris Agreement. Biden has said he would “recommit the United States to the Green Climate Fund,” and it should be number one on his list of international climate finance priorities.

The Fund gives developing countries an equal voice in decision-making, and it has some of the strongest policies of any financial institution promoting gender responsiveness and Indigenous peoples’ rights. It delivers funding through a diverse range of more than 100 organizations, from major U.S. investors to local businesses and nonprofits in developing countries. While the GCF has faced problems with slow decision making in the past, a new voting procedure instituted in 2019 has led to far more efficient delivery. Last year the Fund approved a record $2 billion for 37 projects, more than any other international climate fund.

Obama pledged $3 billion to the GCF in 2014 but only delivered $1 billion before leaving office, meaning the United States still owes $2 billion from that original pledge. In 2019, most other developed countries made a new round of pledges, with many doubling their original commitments.

Resumed U.S. contributions to the GCF would deliver the most diplomatic bang for the buck. The GCF was a key part of the grand bargain that underpinned the Paris Agreement: that poorer countries would undertake more climate action but needed increased support from richer countries to do so. Developing countries, as well as the U.S. climate movement, have made clear that ambitious backing for the GCF is a key test of Biden’s recommitment to global climate leadership.

The GCF now has significant support in Congress: for the first time last year, the House of Representatives requested funding for the GCF. With Democrats also gaining control of the Senate, and members of the pivotal Appropriations Committee backing the Fund, the potential for GCF appropriations has never looked better. To get back up to speed, Biden should deliver the outstanding $2 billion from the country’s existing pledge and make a new, more ambitious commitment of $6 billion to match peers who have already doubled their pledges.

Figure 1 illustrates the main argument behind the initial creation of the fund. We see that the richest 10% of the global population is responsible for 50% of all carbon emissions. Conversely, the poorest 50% are responsible for a mere 10% of the emissions.

carbon inequality, CO2, emissions, poor, rich, green climate fund

Figure 1 

Figure 2 shows that, over the last 30 years, Federal Disaster Relief appropriations in the US exceeded $100 billion. The sharp, consistently increasing trend of these disasters indicates that most of the damage was triggered by climate change. What happens if you don’t have the money to mitigate these disasters?

disaster, relief, US, climate change

Figure 2

Figure 3 indicates that in most poor countries in the world, the majority of the population is employed in agriculture, mostly in their own small fields. Climate change disrupts the global distribution of precipitation, increasing the frequency and the severity of draughts and/or floods and making many of these fields unproductive. Some of this has happened already; much worse is still to come.

labor force, agriculture

Figure 3

A recent paper focusing on the Mexico-US border, was able to quantify the relationship between climate change’s effects on agriculture and the need to emigrate to seek a better future:

Linkages among climate change, crop yields and Mexico–US cross-border migration

Climate change is expected to cause mass human migration, including immigration across international borders. This study quantitatively examines the linkages among variations in climate, agricultural yields, and people’s migration responses by using an instrumental variables approach. Our method allows us to identify the relationship between crop yields and migration without explicitly controlling for all other confounding factors. Using state-level data from Mexico, we find a significant effect of climate-driven changes in crop yields on the rate of emigration to the United States. The estimated semielasticity of emigration with respect to crop yields is approximately −0.2, i.e., a 10% reduction in crop yields would lead an additional 2% of the population to emigrate. We then use the estimated semielasticity to explore the potential magnitude of future emigration. Depending on the warming scenarios used and adaptation levels assumed, with other factors held constant, by approximately the year 2080, climate change is estimated to induce 1.4 to 6.7 million adult Mexicans (or 2% to 10% of the current population aged 15–65 y) to emigrate as a result of declines in agricultural productivity alone. Although the results cannot be mechanically extrapolated to other areas and time periods, our findings are significant from a global perspective given that many regions, especially developing countries, are expected to experience significant declines in agricultural yields as a result of projected warming.

Mitigation of global climate change will be impossible without a fund to help poor countries manage the disasters that they are already facing in addition to those looming on the horizon. Rejoining the Paris Agreement is a good first step but it cannot be the last.

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Energy Resilience: Winter in Texas

 I have written often about resilience and its importance in our energy transition. You can put the word into the search box and see a plethora of posts. Most of them focus on California and Australia, where climate change has triggered uncontrollable summer fires. Now, in mid-winter, Texas joins the list of places overpowered by extreme weather:

Electricity was restored to most Texans who had lost power after a winter storm, but water systems for nearly two-thirds of residents were disrupted, leaving millions without drinkable water.

Major disruptions to the Texas power grid left more than four million households without power this week, but by Thursday evening, only about 347,000 lacked electricity. Much of the statewide concern had turned to water woes.

More than 800 public water systems serving 162 of the state’s 254 counties had been disrupted as of Thursday, affecting 13.1 million people, according to a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

In Harris County, which includes Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, more than one million people have been affected by local water systems that have either issued notices to boil water so it is safe to drink or that cannot deliver water at all, said Brian Murray, a spokesman for the county emergency management agency.

Residents in the Texas capital, Austin, were also told to boil water because of a power failure at the city’s largest water-treatment facility. The director of Austin Water, Greg Meszaros, said that plummeting temperatures caused water mains to break and pipes to burst, spurring an increase in water usage and allowing water to leak out of the system. 

This phenomenon of global warming extending cold spells in historically temperate places has been documented. Some of us remember the blockbuster 2004 movie, “The Day after Tomorrow,” which illustrated the extremes of such trends (see my February 23, 2016 blog). The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world. This warming increases the chances that frigid arctic polar air will shift the jet stream and move southward. The movie was a bit exaggerated, especially in terms of timing, but what’s happening in Texas is real. It is likely that the frequency of cold waves in unusual places, such as Texas, will increase with climate change. As the temperatures drop below zero for an extended period of time, the existing infrastructure freezes around almost everything, including natural gas facilities, coal and nuclear power facilities, and wind farms. Any place where water flows is vulnerable to freezing.

In spite of warning signs, the state was woefully unprepared:

For scientists, the havoc wreaked by the extreme winter weather that hit Texas in mid-February–dropping several inches of snow and leaving millions without power –did not come as a surprise. Ten years ago, in 2011, energy regulators warned the state’s electric-grid operators that they were ill-prepared for an unprecedented winter storm. And for decades before that, climate scientists had cautioned that a warming planet would cause climate chaos, raising the average global temperature while driving unusual weather events like this one. For Texas, it was always just a matter of time.

Despite these warnings, the state was unprepared–which Texans realized as soon as the storm swept in. Equipment froze at power plants, leaving about half of the state’s electricity-generating capacity offline. Natural gas wells iced over, slowing the fuel supply that heats homes. Millions were left without electricity, at least one city turned off its water supply, and Harris County, where Houston is located, reported hundreds of cases of carbon monoxide poisoning as Texans turned on their own generators to warm up. “This shows a disastrous level of under   preparation,” says Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, speaking to TIME shortly after he had lost water pressure. “We knew this weather event was coming … What went wrong?”

The catastrophe can be linked to a string of planning failures that didn’t take that threat seriously. Much of the electricity infrastructure in Texas wasn’t hardened–think of insulation and other protections that allow it to function in extreme winter weather. Several power plants remained offline for scheduled maintenance, ignoring weather forecasters’ warnings of the fast-approaching storm. And the storm disrupted the supply of fuel needed to run other such plants.

Well, more than half of the country that sits north of Texas regularly experiences such sub-freezing temperatures during the winter, without the catastrophic consequences that Texas is currently experiencing. Why can’t Texas learn from them? Good question. The main reason is that the authorities in Texas didn’t believe that these problems would hit “them” (See my November 17, 2020 blog about “them” vs. “us”). Texas was prepared for hot summers but not for cold winters. When the weather system and its accompanying problems inevitably came, like Don Quixote, they blamed the windmills.

“No, Wind Farms Aren’t the Main Cause of the Texas Blackouts”

As his state was racked by an electricity crisis that left millions of people without heat in frigid temperatures, the governor of Texas took to television to start placing blame.

His main target was renewable energy, suggesting that the systemwide collapse was caused by the failure of wind and solar power.

“It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states to make sure we will be able to heat our homes in the winter times and cool our homes in the summer times,” said Gov. Greg Abbott, speaking on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. Other conservative talk-show hosts had already picked up the theme.

However, wind power was not chiefly to blame for the Texas blackouts. The main problem was frigid temperatures that stalled natural gas production, which is responsible for the majority of Texas’ power supply. Wind makes up just a fraction — 7 percent or so, by some estimates — of the state’s overall mix of power generation this time of year.

Gov. Abbott’s false attribution shows a marked refusal to listen to scientists. Unfortunately, ignoring a problem does not make it go away. Nor is Texas alone. These extreme weather occurrences are only going to get stronger and more frequent. To prepare for the ever-escalating consequences of climate change in every season, we need to build resiliency into the system. The Federal Reserve is advocating this change:

As Winter Sweeps the South, Fed Officials Focus on Climate Change. A top Federal Reserve official says climate scenario analysis could be valuable in making sure that banks mind their climate-tied weak spots.

A top Federal Reserve official issued a stark warning on Thursday morning: Banks and other lenders need to prepare themselves for the realities of a world racked by climate change, and regulators must play a key role in ensuring that they do.

“Climate change is already imposing substantial economic costs and is projected to have a profound effect on the economy at home and abroad,” Lael Brainard, one of the central bank’s six Washington-based governors, said at an Institute of International Finance event.

This is almost an identical observation to the one I cited on the January 14, 2020 blog. Our homes, jobs, food supply, and many other essential elements of our lives are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It’s high time we start paying attention.

Posted in Climate Change, Electricity, Energy, Extreme Weather, Sustainability, US, Water | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Climate Change, Social Media & Politics

I teach different levels of climate change courses and do my own research on the subject. My semester started at the end of January and I had four senior students who needed to select their own research topics regarding the climate and physics. I wrote my February 2nd blog on my perceptions of the physics of reality in part to serve as a guideline for these selections. Doing so, I have encountered another aspect of our reality: the role of social media.

One of Brooklyn College’s objectives in requiring science for all students is to produce well-rounded citizens who can make their own decisions about a variety of issues and vote (or serve) accordingly. Climate change is an excellent example of this aspiration.

Of course, the danger always exists that a teacher may try to impose his own politics on his students. Coming from a position of power, this is ethically questionable. I have been, at least nominally, trying to avoid politics in my teaching, making resentment from students with different political views less likely. However, politics can have a relatively broad definition. According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary:

the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.

  • the activities of governments concerning the political relations between countries.
    plural noun: politics
  • the academic study of government and the state.

In one sentence, it comes down to how the interactions between the individual and the collective are governed.

Recently, I tried to boost my readership of this blog via Facebook. Facebook was happy to accept the money to promote my post from two weeks ago, “Physics of Reality” (February 2nd). It boosted my blog considerably (thousands of new viewers) and brought in a slew of comments, many of which my great editor, Sonya Landau, determined came from trolls. I was unfamiliar with the term and had to Google the term to get some insight but I agree with her assessment. Meanwhile, Facebook refused to boost an earlier blog “Peaceful Presidential Transition vs. the Rise of Nazis” (January 26th), because it was judged to be too “political.” I am guessing this determination had to do with my repeated mention of Nazis.

Below are Facebook’s instructions as to the censorship of blogs that are too political:

As of November 4 at 12:00 AM PT, we temporarily stopped running all ads about social issues, elections or politics in the United States. We’ll notify advertisers when this policy is lifted. Learn more.

Following the Georgia runoff election, starting early on January 6, 2021, we’ll no longer allow ads about the Georgia runoff elections on our platform in line with our existing nationwide social issues, electoral or political ads pause.

Learn more about how Facebook has been preparing for the elections.

Given the evolving COVID-19 situation, we have fewer people and resources available to process new authorizations for ads about social issues, elections or politics. In certain cases, our review times to review ID documents has exceeded 48 hours. Our teams are actively working to review your documents in a timely manner. Continue to visit to check status. If it’s been 30 days or more since you submitted your ID and you haven’t received a notification that it’s been rejected or approved, try submitting your ID again. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Ads about social issues, elections or politics are:

  • Made by, on behalf of, or about a candidate for public office, a political figure, a political party or advocates for the outcome of an election to public office; or
  • About any election, referendum, or ballot initiative, including “go out and vote” or election campaigns; or
  • About social issues in any place where the ad is being placed; or
  • Regulated as political advertising

A Washington Post piece covers the topic of Facebook’s political filters:

Facebook is exploring ways to play down political content on users’ feeds as it continues to reckon with the role its site played in boosting interest in the Jan. 6 rally that ended with a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the social media titan announced Wednesday.

Starting this week, Facebook will temporarily reduce political content in news feeds for a small slice of users in Brazil, Canada and Indonesia. It will do the same with a small percentage of American users in the coming weeks. The company also said it will stop recommending civil and political groups to users worldwide, just as it did in the United States before the Nov. 3 election. 

I understand the urgency of the political censorship on Facebook and other social media outlets. It came, in large part, as a response to the extreme politicization of these outlets surrounding both the 2016 and 2020 US elections and the vast polarization in between. Thomas Friedman gives his take:

“Cyberspace Plus Trump Almost Killed Our Democracy. Can Europe Save Us?”

If we don’t find a solution fast, China will pass us economically.

Fast forward to today. Cyberspace is starting to resemble a sovereign nation-state, but without borders or governance. It has its own encrypted communications systems, like Telegram, outside the earshot of terrestrial governments. It has its own global news gathering and sharing platforms, like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It even has its own currencies — Bitcoin and others — that no sovereign state has minted.

In recent years, all these platforms have mushroomed. They can elevate important voices that were never heard before. But they can also enable a believer in Jewish-run space lasers that start forest fires to connect with enough voters to become a congresswoman. They can generate mass movements for racial equity and women’s rights, and also generate crowds to block Covid-19 vaccinations or to interrupt a nation’s sacred peaceful transfer of power.

The illustration at the top of this blog outlines the evolution of long-distance human communication throughout the ages. The figure below shows social media’s immense presence worldwide.

Sociologists have long been interested in the close correlation between social movements and mass communication. The 2018 book, “The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Social Movements” includes a chapter about the link:

“Social Movements and Mass Media in a Global Context” by Deana Rohlinger and Catherine Corrigall-Brown

This chapter identifies two key dimensions that shape when (and how) activists use mass media: (1) the target of activist communication; and (2) the relative openness of the media system. By examining these two dimensions, one can move beyond simply focusing on types of outlets (traditional outlets or Internet Communication Technology) as well as media outcomes to understand how activists use media for different goals across political contexts. This framework underscores that conventional media (such as mainstream news), commercial media (such as books and music), and Internet Communication Technology are all shaped by state mandates and, consequently, affect how activists use them in their political projects. Using the existing literature on social movements and mass media, the chapter highlights the utility of this approach and draws attention to the obstacles and risks associated with different choices across media systems.

My issue with Facebook and other social media in the context of this evolution is this:

If you want to censor politics, be careful about your approach. Dedicate sufficient resources to the process that will facilitate actual reading of the stuff. Don’t censor based on what you think is a clever algorithm.

I am fully aware that the internet (and real world) abounds with references to Nazis and Hitler (see the January 19th blog, “Godwin’s Law and Us”). I haven’t checked but I am willing to bet that many of the people who used Nazi symbols of any kind at events like that on January 6th, don’t know much about the period under their reign. Obviously, I do.

When I mentioned Nazis in the blog that Facebook refused to boost, they were not a metaphor. I meant, instead, to highlight the historical correlations of their rise to power out of a polarizing, chaotic, environment. We know what followed the Nazi rise to power but we don’t know what will follow our present reality. We are once again in a time of polarization and chaos; we’d better keep our eyes open. I am not trying to use this blog to tell anybody whom to follow or what political party to join. I use this to examine a historical precedent that might help us analyze our time.

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Winners and Losers: COVID and Coal

President Biden signed 17 executive orders immediately after his inauguration on January 20th (January 26th blog). Many of them nullified President Trump’s policies which had deliberately ignored climate change and thwarted mitigation efforts. Foremost of these new policies was the US return to the 2015 Paris Agreement. As we see in these quick changes, however, executive orders are not laws; the next administration can void them easily. The November 2020 election ended with Democrats winning both the presidency and both houses of Congress but it was a very thin win. The election has delivered a 50:50 tie in the Senate and 222-211 Democratic advantage in the House of Representatives. Despite a gap of 7 million in the popular vote and 306-232 difference in the electoral college, changes of fewer than 50,000 votes in a few key states could have given the presidency back to President Trump.

The country is polarized to the extreme. As a break from the anger and politicization, there’s a cute piece in The New York Times that collected some funny opinions of how else we could divide the people of world.

The destructive polarization is not restricted to the United States; such extreme opposition also exists between poor and rich countries. Right now, we face two global disasters in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. In this circumstance, such schisms can have deadly consequences. These are collective disasters, where nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

Fortunately, COVID-19 will be a much shorter problem. We already have mitigating vaccines at hand; the main issue now is distribution. This serves as a teaching moment regarding what to do in other global disasters. Here is what the NYT writes about the global distribution of vaccines against COVID-19:

“If Poor Countries Go Unvaccinated, a Study Says, Rich Ones Will Pay”
Peter S. Goodman

A failure to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine in poor nations will worsen economic damage, with half the costs borne by wealthy countries, new research shows.

In monopolizing the supply of vaccines against Covid-19, wealthy nations are threatening more than a humanitarian catastrophe: The resulting economic devastation will hit affluent countries nearly as hard as those in the developing world.

This is the crucial takeaway from an academic study to be released on Monday. In the most extreme scenario — with wealthy nations fully vaccinated by the middle of this year, and poor countries largely shut out — the study concludes that the global economy would suffer losses exceeding $9 trillion, a sum greater than the annual output of Japan and Germany combined.

Everything is connected. Even if we’re only acting in our own self-interest, we have to care for each other. The immediate economic mitigation efforts are, not surprisingly, focused on COVID-19. In the US, any economic stimulus bill will need bipartisan support because it requires 60 votes for approval. So far, this is not within reach. Republican senators agree that, as it stands, the stimulus bill proposed by Democrats is too big and costly. They also object to the bill’s independent measures, including a federal increase to a minimum wage of $15/hour. It would be possible for Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority along party lines (a reconciliation bill), however, such an accomplishment would necessitate complete unanimity.

Joe Manchin is the sole Democratic senator from West Virginia, which voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2020 elections (68.6% vs. 29.7%). West Virginia is a poor state (personal income per capita is 76% of the national average). The coal industry there employs about 30,000 people and is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi river. Senator Manchin’s vote is essential for any legislative achievement of the Biden administration. He holds a lot of power in Congress right now and President Biden and VP Kamala Harris know it.

In order to put some pressure on Senator Manchin, VP Harris went to WV and gave a speech on how important the stimulus bill will be to the state’s poorer residents. Senator Manchin’s support will be especially critical in passing climate change legislation. Presently, the senator believes in climate change mitigation but he advocates research and advanced technology rather than ending the use of coal or other fossil fuels. This is, technically, possible. Major developments in the technology of carbon capture can remove some pressure from the fossil fuel industry. That was not VP Harris’ focus, however:

Harris also spoke about the economic situation of the West Virginia coal industry.”All of those skilled workers who are in the coal industry and transferring those skills to what we need to do in terms of dealing with reclaiming abandoned land mines; what we need to do around plugging leaks from oil and gas wells; and, transferring those important skills to the work that has yet to be done that needs to get done,” she said.

Every major transition involves closing some old venues and opening new ones. VP Harris identified an obvious loser in the energy transition: the coal industry. However, the solution that she has offered is not likely to gain much support. Successful solutions need to subsidize both the winners and the losers. I used the example of Germany in my October 8, 2019 blog, “Wisdom from Germany: How to Transition Away From Coal”:

TOKYO (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that her country would withdraw from coal-fired power production by 2038, showing her support for the deadline recommended by a government-appointed commission.

The so-called coal commission said last month that Germany should shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2038 at the latest and proposed at least 40 billion euros ($45.7 billion) in aid to coal-mining states affected by the phase-out.

West Virginia has a long history of conflict over coal and nobody is going to be swayed by the simple suggestion that coal miners look for another job. Indeed, after Harris’ speech, Senator Manchin expressed his disappointment with the new administration’s approach. Nor is he alone in being open to proposals from both sides of the aisle, but none of his peers in this ambivalence are climate deniers. They include: Arizona Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly as well as Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

The 2022 elections are not far away and politicians are mindful of their constituencies. Coal miners are not the only losers in this transition. President Biden is looking to accelerate the energy transition by banning new oil and gas leases on federal lands. Over a quarter (27.4%) of the US belongs to the federal government. This includes more than 20% of the land in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

This step is necessary to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels but at the same time, states that are going to be directly impacted should be compensated. Big oil companies, which have long denied climate change, have been suffering because of both the pandemic and the shift to renewable energy. They will certainly be among the losers in the energy transition and that loss will transfer to workers.

In my December 26, 2018 blog, I discussed the Yellow Vests demonstrations that took place in France. France taxed transportation fuels to minimize carbon emissions but didn’t take into account the millions of people who live outside of major metropolitan areas and need their cars for essential purposes such as driving to work. Understandably, people were upset.

In terms of fuel sources, Poland is probably in a similar position within the European Union to West Virginia in the US. The EU stands at the forefront in its commitment to replace fossil fuels by sustainable energy sources. Poland, however, is one of the EU’s poorest countries and is heavily dependent on coal. As with Senator Manchin, Poland has veto power on many EU decisions. Special arrangements had to be made for Poland to go along with the transition.

In his inauguration, President Biden made a commitment to be the president of all Americans, regardless of whether they voted for him. In any major transition that he plans to try to institute, he has to apply this commitment to include winners and losers of more than just the election. I agree with the argument that mitigating climate change makes all of us, including future generations, winners. However, by the nature of these transitions, we must make sacrifices now in order to ensure a better future. Some of us will bear the brunt of these changes. We should be able to offer remedies to ameliorate these sacrifices.

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