Tag Archives: China

China Poised to Lap U.S. in Race for Climate Leadership

 

This morning, we woke up to the news that President-elect Donald Trump had nominated former Texas Governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy. Social media was instantly abuzz with the irony: In the 2012 Republican primary, candidate Perry had vowed to kill this very agency, although he infamously couldn’t remember its name.

Next came comparisons to the two most recent energy secretaries: Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist, and Ernest J. Moniz, a distinguished nuclear physicist from M.I.T. By contrast, Perry was his class “social secretary” and “Yell Leader” at Texas A&M, on the way to earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science.

But Perry’s nomination is particularly notable in light of the current episode of “Years of Living Dangerously,” which premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel. With help from Sigourney Weaver and America Ferrera, “Years” examines the diverging climate-response paths of the world’s two largest polluters – China and the US.

Latest episode compares climate responses in U.S. and China

Viewers may be surprised to learn that China is taking enormous steps in transforming its economy onto a post-carbon footing. Whatever we may think about the alleged “War on Coal” here in the States, China makes no bones about it. Just last year, China abandoned construction on thirty new coal plants. Together, those plants would have had a greater generating capacity than all of Great Britain. And they’ve become the largest worldwide producer of solar electric power.

By contrast with A&M “social-secretary” Perry, China has entrusted its energy program to Premier Li Keqiang, the second most senior leader in China, ranked by Forbes as the 12th “Most Powerful Person” in the world.

How are they doing it? “Years” explores China’s new carbon “cap & trade” program which is being rolled out nationwide next year. The CEO of China Power & Light offered Weaver a perspective echoed by virtually everyone she spoke to: “I actually welcome the clarity brought about by a price on carbon. It makes our job much easier….”

Back in the U.S., actor America Ferrera explores a very different struggle. Where pollution is unpriced, it is the poor and powerless who suffer the worst impacts – respiratory diseases and other ills. Ferrera’s trail takes her to Waukegan, Illinois, where one of the oldest coal-fired power plants in the country stands cheek-to-jowl with a Latino and African-American community. In Waukegan, one-third of all children suffer from asthma.

Ferrera follows a citizen action group seeking desperately to address municipal leaders and the plant’s corporate owner, NRG Energy. They’re seeking relief from the pollution that is sickening their community. And we feel the maddening frustration of citizen activists rebuffed by a wall of rejection from those in power. Even their cleverest strategy, becoming small shareholders and packing the NRG annual meeting, produces only empty promises that the CEO will visit Waukegan at some future date.

But in fact, the Waukegan story is repeated in study after study across the US. The United Church of Christ has found over more than 20 years that racial minorities and poorer communities comprise the majority of populations living near hazardous waste facilities. The University of Pennsylvania has shown that African-American communities are twice as likely to suffer toxic accidents as in other places. And UCLA  found that low-income and minority children are disproportionately exposed to hazardous vehicle exhaust. Poor kids and children of color – these are the ones who get the asthma and emphysema, and who live with hazardous toxins.

Waukegan Generating Station.   Source: Midwest Energy News

Despite this depressing tale, we take some real hope from the nexus of today’s news about Gov. Perry and the narrative explored by “Years.”

First, China is moving ahead aggressively on climate, and is becoming the world leader in clean energy. Of course, we all benefit from a world with fewer greenhouse gases, no matter where we live. But of equal importance, competitive impulses will surely lead the US eventually to take steps to salvage some leadership in the energy of the future, rather than squeezing every penny from an aging oil industry.

And second, the looming prospect of an American petro-state cabinet typified by Perry at Energy, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson at State, and Oklahoma oil champion Scott Pruitt at EPA stands to spur citizen action groups – like those in Waukegan – in every community.

It’s time for citizens to demand that our leaders assert our country’s greatness by moving forward into the clean economy that the world desperately needs. And in the process, to hear the cries – and wheezes – of our neighbors in poorer communities. Maybe then, we can call ourselves “great” again.

Climate Change: Looking Back at an Alarming Future

“The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.”  George Savile, Marquis of Halifax

A slender volume arrived in the mail yesterday: Naomi Oreske’s fictional history of the late 21st Century, recounted in the words of a 24th Century Chinese historian. Just before midnight, I turned the last page.

You might remember Oreskes. She’s the Harvard geologist and science historian who first showed that almost all climatologists – 97 percent of them – agreed that the Earth is warming, due in large measure to human causes: the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. After suffering a withering backlash from industry-funded “think tanks,” she discovered that many of the leading “denial experts” were the same characters who were once on the payroll of the tobacco industry, lending a fig leaf of scientific cover to their arguments against the links between smoking and lung cancer. In the case of climate change denial, the strategy turns out to have been the same, and provided the title for Oreskes’ earlier book: Merchants of Doubt.

appOreskes’ new book is a bit less ambitious. Written with Cal Tech historian Erik Conway, it bears a dreary title: The Collapse of Western Civilization. And unlike most fictional dystopias, it is completely devoid of personal drama, thrilling action or heroes. It is simply written as history, recorded far off in the future. It chronicles the Penumbral Age, that dark time beginning in the late 20th Century when the looming shadow (or “penumbra”) of ignorance and denial spread over Western civilization, preventing it from acting on the discoveries of environmental science, and leading to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2073-2093.

Like most science fiction, the value of “Collapse” is that it actually permits us to envision a better world, and identify those forces that might prevent it from happening. Sadly, in this case, almost all those forces in fact prevail, and the world of our grandchildren ends up looking dismal indeed.

How dismal? Well, here’s a short list. Before the end of the 21st Century:

  • Global temperatures rise almost 4oC by 2040, as catastrophic volumes of methane escape from the melting Arctic permafrost in a positive feedback loop long predicted by scientists;
  • Desperate geo-engineering solutions backfire, disrupting the monsoons vital to India’s survival, and the resulting cessation causes a sling-shot effect raising temperatures another 6oC;
  • 60 percent of all known species of animals and plants perish in a Sixth Great Extinction event;
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates and melts, raising sea levels five meters, followed by the breakup of the Greenland ice sheet which adds another two meters.;
  • The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Florida slip almost entirely beneath the waves, as do coastal regions everywhere, driving the forced migration of 1.5 billion souls;
  • Only authoritarian governments survive in the face of pressures that demand rapid forced migration of millions of humans; and …
  • … one last thing: Humanity becomes entirely extinct on its two most vulnerable continents, Australia and Africa.

So! I’ve had my horror story a couple of days before Halloween, right? Thank God it’s only fiction! And anyway, who can actually look back on a future threatened by climate change?

Well, actually, in fact, we can. No, I’m not talking about computer models that look forward with increasing accuracy. We can look BACK at climate change. That’s because it has already happened in modern human history. The 17th Century coincided with the peak of the global event called The Little Ice Age. Brought on by a century-long hiatus in sunspot activity, coupled with a rash of mid-century volcanoes and a run of extremely weak El Niño events, the Little Ice Age ushered in more than a century of global cooling, with average surface temperatures falling about 1oC below historical averages.

And so a serious look at the 17th Century – with its one-degree cooling record – might just tell us something about what could be in store for the 21st Century, as we debate whether warming can be kept close to 2oC, or run to 4oC or even worse.

17th Century cold in contrast with today's runaway warming

17th Century cold in contrast with today’s runaway warming

A few months ago, we summarized the global chaos of the 17th Century, as set forth in Geoffrrey Parker’s magnum opus, Global Crisis. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by roughly one-third. Rebellions and civil wars ravaged Russia, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Ukraine. Starving Ottomans strangled their Sultan. The English executed their king. The German states fell into the sectarian chaos of the Thirty Years’ War.

But the non-European world suffered at least as badly. So let’s take a quick look at the world’s largest empire, where the Ming dynasty ruled in China. For it’s there where we see how drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor, seven decades of warfare, and the death of an estimated 50% of the population. Here are a few notable events from that time:

  • Drought brought on by the weakest monsoons in 2,000 years destroyed Chinese agriculture in the 1620s, giving farmers no choice but to resort to mass banditry.
  • Heavy snowfall blanketed tropical Guangdong Province in the 1630s, further depressing crop yields.
  • Cannibalism ran rampant in the 1640s in numerous provinces, with China’s daughters at particular risk.
  • In 1642, a Ming official reported that “the human price of a peck of rice” – barely enough to feed one person for a week – “was two children.” He reported watching a woman eat her own child outside of the government office.
  • In Manchuria, 1643 brought on the coldest winter in a thousand years, forcing starving Manchus to mobilize a desperate effort to breach the Great Wall and conquer the warmer empire to the south.
  • Total cultivated land fell more than two-thirds by mid-century, and tax rolls declined by as much as 90 percent in some provinces.

In the end, stresses aggravated by climate change in the 17th Century cost about half of Chinese souls their lives, and as many as one in three humans on earth. It was a time we’d much rather not repeat.

And so, whatever we think about the progress we’ve made over the last four centuries – for better (global institutions and scientific advances), or worse (nuclear weapons and extreme environmental degradation) – Oreskes’ fictional “history” just might warrant our attention. We’re often called “alarmists” when we look seriously at the future of a world in which we have disregarded the laws woven by the Creator into his work. But to me, the ACTUAL history of climate change makes Oreskes’ fictional account look plausible, or perhaps worse.

Do you think that maybe it’s time to join the alarmists, and start talking about what we’re doing to our children’s world? It’s not really that far off.