Climate Progress Doesn’t Have to be Limited by Politics

In a time of high frustration over the state of US political engagement with climate change, it’s important to acknowledge the progress being made around the world on climate change and the environment. Even if, as Ed Waisenen noted in Climate Blue’s last blog post, environmental progress is stalled or reversed at the national level, there’s still innovative and impactful work being done by a global community. As American climate researchers, we can continue to engage on a broader level, support work being done elsewhere, and learn from others so that we’re ready to act once given the opportunity.

Last week, I traveled to Monrovia, Liberia to learn from that community through a workshop on “Renewable Energy for Development”. Attended by over 60 stakeholders, including policymakers, aid organizations, private sector, and students, this event was an opportunity to share successes and failures and, more importantly, come together as a community to brainstorm the best ways to help electrify rural Liberia.


It was amazing that, in a country of only 4 million, the centralized grid generates only about 60 megawatts of electricity (for reference, the same population in the US would use 100 times that much); and yet everyone we spoke to still cared about the environmental impacts—including GHG emissions—of potential energy projects. Many participants deeply understood the need for rural electricity, but they were committed to providing it without sacrificing their environment. For example, our discussion of biomass energy delved deeply into land use and carbon cycle impacts, despite the position of biomass as by far the cheapest current option for rural electrification.

(For the record, the population of Liberia is so small and diffuse that land use change wouldn’t have major impacts; but in a country where well over 90% of the population does not receive electricity, can you imagine caring about this?)

The nexus of energy and development is something I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand–even though my degree is in physics, I just don’t know how you optimize for so many issues! In the case of Liberia, here are some of the most pressing concerns:

  • Low up-front cost: Small rural communities are can’t afford expensive infrastructure. Diesel generators are the cheapest to buy and install.
  • Low cost over time: Energy generated with hydro or biomass doesn’t require expensive fuel (in fact, the inputs are essentially free—the river always runs and plants on a farm always grow). These two options are by far the cheapest to the consumer in the long-run, but the up-front costs can be daunting
  • Speed: The sooner electricity is delivered to communities, the sooner they are advantaged. Systems like solar or biomass require infrastructure development and training for operations and maintenance, which could slow things down.
  • Funding: Funding was, by far, the biggest concern voiced by Liberian stakeholders. Aid agencies like USAID, GIZ, and the European Commission help with a lot of electricity projects, but it’s still not enough to electrify all of Liberia.

The point, I suppose, is that the high-level conversations and US engagement on global climate change are important, but climate change impacts happen on the ground level regardless. The policy implications of conferences like the COP are meant to trickle down to individual countries and communities, where we can implement actual projects to bring about actual change. In Liberia, energy poverty is a real issue, and projects can and do go on regardless of the international political climate. As spoken by an anonymous speaker in Marrakech: “Political events do not and cannot change the reality of climate change … We all have important work to do and we need to get on it.”

When they go high (level), we go low (level)

Climate denial has found itself a place in the highest office in the land. As Donald Trump assumes office on January 20, the federal executive, the largest branch of the federal government, will stop pursuing policy to combat the threat that is climate change. But no, this blog post is not about Donald Trump. The founders sought to protect the states from the tyranny of a powerful federal government by giving individual states the right to set their own policies in a tremendous breadth of areas. Now, obviously, they didn’t foresee the polar icecaps melting, but I bet they never foresaw the cars that cause it, either. So, this blog is about the local governments, businesses, and civil societies that will continue to lead the charge in the climate policy arena for at least the next four years.

Continue reading “When they go high (level), we go low (level)”

Some Reflections on the Implications of a Trump Presidency for Climate Change Policy

The following blog is a contribution of Alan Miller, a lawyer and internationally recognized expert on climate finance and policy.

Watching the election results from a hotel in Marrakech, the site of the latest climate negotiations, was a sobering experience. To realize that the future of the planet may now be so influenced by a person who has called climate change a “hoax” promoted by China to undermine our economy. Like many of my friends, my impulse was to feel “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” However, after a few days’ reflection, and based on more than 30 years involvement in the issue, I began to feel that, while this is a bad situation, it is far from hopeless. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Global carbon emissions appear to have peaked, mainly due to China’s move away from coal and the declining role of manufacturing there, combined with the shift from coal to gas in the United States. While there are concerns about proposals for new coal plants, many indicators are moving in the opposite direction. Last year, growth in renewables exceeded additional new fossil generation for the first time. With wind and solar prices continuing to decline, and the expectation of a similar decline in storage prices with the advent of the battery gigafactory, it is difficult to see how Trump can make coal “great again.”
  2. A lot of energy policy is increasingly being made by state and even local governments. California is the sixth largest economy in the world and has strong climate change policies; a few days after the election, the state announced a collaboration with the World Bank to work with Chinese cities on climate change and clean energy. A growing number of U.S. cities have pledged to obtain all of their energy needs from renewable sources. A dozen states have “green banks” that provide concessional financing for clean energy. These are not going away and may even receive greater political support.
  3. The financial sector, representing many trillions of dollars and an essential partner for Trump’s plans to massively increase spending on infrastructure, has become increasingly aware of climate risks. The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures chaired by Michael Bloomberg and comprised of representatives from the global financial community is expected to issue a report by the end of the year. Will they be willing to insure and finance long-lived infrastructure projects without considering climate risks? Doing so may subject them to both regulatory oversight and litigation, additional risks that cannot be eliminated by presidential decree.
  4. The U.S. is simply not as dominant a force in international fora as it used to be. Other countries are already making clear that they will not passively accept whatever the new president says. In 1980, I attended one of the first international meetings on ozone layer protection. It was convened by the OECD chemicals group and attended by perhaps a dozen countries and the five key companies producing ozone-destroying chemicals. The U.S. unilaterally reduced global production of CFCs by roughly half, and there was no need to engage developing countries until after initial agreements were reached. The world has changed. Financial discussions require the G20 and not merely the G7 now. China is a major economic power and will soon replace the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. A headline in the Financial Times after Trump’s election effectively captured this new reality: “Beijing warns president-elect against defying world by killing climate deal.” China watchers also pointed out that climate policies there are intimately connected with domestic efforts to reduce pollution and accelerate the use of renewable energy and would not change in response to a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
  5. Reversing regulations cannot be done quickly or by presidential decree. A formal process must be followed, and one can be sure it would be contested by environmental groups at every stage. The elimination of the Clean Power Plan would leave EPA with the obligation to address climate change consistent with a 2007 Supreme Court in a 2007 decision. Congress can amend the law, although that would presumably precipitate a major fight in a closely divided Senate (note: one Senate seat remains to be decided by runoff election in Louisiana; the Republican majority will thus be either 52-48 or 51-49). Unless the Republicans decided to change the filibuster rules – there are reasons to believe they won’t – the Democrats will retain the ability to block votes on the most publicly visible and controversial proposals.

    Despite the above, there is no question that President Trump, with Congressional support, could inflict severe damage on climate policies. Coming at a time when efforts to reduce emissions need to accelerate, not decline, the absence of US participation in the Paris Agreement, much less leadership, is terrible. Support for climate finance, essential for adaptation efforts in poor countries, will almost certainly decline. (Although not disastrously; the U.S. contributes on the order of 20 percent to the major climate funds). On the other hand, as the CPI Landscape of Climate Finance reports show, donor finance is a small fraction of climate-related investment except in the poorest countries, and it is most important as a source of “de-risking” for private investment in projects and countries with high financing costs. Finding ways to do this more effectively is already the subject of international focus through initiatives like the Global Innovation Lab for Climate Finance.

    The potential that Trump, with Congressional support, will defund climate science is a serious threat. The U.S. remains a leader in the field, and much of the work is expensive and requires continuity. There is a parallel with research on gun safety, which has almost disappeared in the United States due to fears of Congressional retaliation. A reduction in support of climate science may also directly and indirectly harm the IPCC, which has come to play such a crucial role in building the scientific consensus that Trump so brazenly disregards. But even here, there are limits. When a political appointee in the George W. Bush administration attempted to rewrite climate science, it was leaked to the press and he was forced to resign.

A final personal admonition: do not overreact to names and comments coming from the Trump transition team. While much has been made of the appointment of a climate skeptic, Myron Ebell, to head the EPA transition team, the process is time limited and carried out by volunteers who may or may not have any influence in the actual Administration. I should know – I had the same role for President Clinton in 1992 and can attest that I had no influence whatsoever!

In closing, I would argue that climate change activists have more ways to resist anti-climate action by the new Administration than might first appear, and that they will find considerable support from the international community. Despite all the uncertainties, we do know climate change is real and increasingly manifesting in ways detrimental to human life and development. There is no room – or time – for despair, which tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

United States Policy at COP22

Today in the morning, US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to COP 22.  In his remarks he talked about the danger as well as the thrill of preaching to the choir, aka the attendants of the conference.  With a sense of optimism, he lauded the COPs for their progress in achieving steps towards attending to climate change issues.  However, he also warned that there is still much more work to be done moving forward because the Paris Agreement, on its own, isn’t enough.

With regards to the ramifications of the recent elections, Secretary Kerry said the markets are going to drive clean energy so a Trump presidency wouldn’t be detrimental to the progress we are currently making.  Brazil, India, and China are already investing in clean energy, so it just makes sense for the US to also do so.  He then emphasized the need to let go of coal as a source of energy because it produces 50% of greenhouse gases but only 30% of energy.  One of the main ways that this can be effectively achieved is through innovative entrepreneurship efforts.  Secretary Kerry then emphasized the morality behind climate change and finished with a note that it should not be a partisan issue.

Later on in the day,  I visited the North American mid-century strategy meeting where Mexico, Canada, and the US presented the goals of their respective states for the year 2050. Brian Deese (a senior advisor to the President) laid out the US’s 2050 goals, which were submitted to the UNFCCC earlier in the morning.  The goals are open to the public and can be found here:

These goals include plans to reduce emissions by 80% from 2005 levels. Mr. Deese stated that a low emission strategy is pro-life, pro-jobs, and pro-income growth.  Like Secretary Kerry in the morning, Brian Deese emphasized how market forces are already leading the way to clean energy. When asked about if the plan factored in a Trump presidency, he commented that the 2050 goals did not include political factors in development.

This blog is a contribution of OJ Adhikari, one of our Week 2 delegates.