Climate Change News June 25, 2012

Climate Change News

Carol Werner, Executive Director
June 25, 2012


Court Strikes Down Challenge to New York Cap and Trade Program

On June 13, the New York State Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit aimed at blocking the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) cap and trade program. The lawsuit was filed by two New York business executives and backed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Americans for Prosperity, arguing that the state joined RGGI without the support of the state legislature. The court ruled that the plaintiffs had no grounds to challenge the program. "This is a significant victory for those of us who take the threat of climate change seriously, and want to mitigate its harmful effects," said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. "I applaud the court for soundly rejecting this attempt—backed by out-of-state political interests—to stop New York from protecting its own citizens against the potentially devastating impacts of climate change.” RGGI, formed in 2005 by a group of northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, establishes a cap and trade system for fuel-burning power plants. The New York RGGI regulations aim to reduce overall CO2 emissions in the power sector to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2018.

For additional information see: Chicago Tribune, Reuters, Energy Biz

Court Upholds California Cap and Trade Plan

The California state Court of Appeals rejected a challenge last week to the state’s planned cap and trade system, a market-based plan designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge was made by environmental groups that argued the plan is not strict enough and could allow for air pollution increases in some industries. The court unanimously ruled that the Air Resources Board (ARB), which oversees the implementation of California’s climate change initiatives, gave sufficient reasons for rejecting alternate policies like a carbon tax and a binding limit on emissions. The cap and trade plan was designed as a way to implement AB32, a landmark 2006 law requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Under the cap and trade system, businesses that exceed their emissions limits will have to buy allowances from other firms or offset their emissions with tree planting and other eco-friendly practices. While the plan enjoys support among most environmental groups, others view the emissions offsets as largely unenforceable and would prefer more binding limits on emissions. CARB argues that the system can be changed after implementation if problems arise.

For additional information see: San Francisco Chronicle

States Differ on Use of Sea Level Rise Data

The Virginia state legislature recently commissioned a study on coastal flooding, but only after all references to climate change were removed from the funding proposal. Republican state lawmakers objected to the proposal’s original language, which referred to global warming and sea level rise, forcing the proposal to be modified with phrases such as “increased flooding risk”. This comes a week after the North Carolina state senate passed a bill banning the use of peer-reviewed sea level rise projections for planning purposes. In contrast, a survey of 600 California coastal planners and resource managers found that a majority of them believe in the threats posed by climate change. The survey, conducted by Stanford University, also showed an increase in city planning and adaptive measures to combat climate change in the six years since the last such survey.

In a related story, rising sea levels are becoming a major threat to Norfolk, Virginia. Built on sinking ground and surrounded by waterways, Norfolk has experienced frequent flooding in recent years from storm surges, high tides and heavy rains. The floods have already forced the city to buy and condemn about 20 homes in a particularly vulnerable neighborhood. Scientists say that Chesapeake Bay has risen a few inches around Norfolk every year, and the spring high tide is sometimes a foot or more above normal levels. To combat the problem, the city has brought in planners, engineers, and a Netherlands-based firm to develop ways to hold back the rising waters. Aware that they may soon face a similar crisis, other cities in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Florida are closely following Norfolk’s adaptation efforts.

For additional information see: U.S. News and World Report, Inside Climate News, Washington Post

Rio+20 Agreement Reached

World leaders and diplomats came to an agreement on global sustainable development last week at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, though the European Union and environmental groups expressed disappointment with the text. The summit was intended to create a set of global environmental, economic and developmental objectives, but the agreed-upon text failed to define any concrete goals and largely reaffirms commitments that nations have already made. The draft agreement, titled The Future We Want, calls for an end to fossil fuel subsidies if they are found to be “harmful and inefficient” but gives no timetable for action. It also calls for nations to pursue “sustainable development goals” without defining what those goals should be. "We have reached the best possible equilibrium at this point; I think we have a very good outcome," explained Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota of host-country Brazil. Denmark, the current holder of the EU presidency, voiced the EU’s concerns over the agreement. “The EU would have liked to see a much more concrete and ambitious outcome,” said Danish Environmental Minister Ida Auken. Environmental and civil activists responded to the agreement by protesting outside of the Rio summit, ripping up a giant mock version of the Rio text. “We were promised leaps and bounds but this agreement barely moves us forward by inches," said one protester. Expectations for progress were low going into the summit, with many world leaders preoccupied by events like the Eurozone crisis, the ongoing crisis in Syria and the Egyptian elections.

For additional information see: Reuters, Guardian, BBC News

Arctic Sea Ice on Pace for Record-Low Year

Arctic sea ice coverage is dropping rapidly this month, indicating that the Arctic may soon experience its lowest ice levels on record. The record was set in September 2007, with 1.65 million square miles of sea ice. The Arctic is on pace to break this record. The region currently has 4.0 million square miles of sea ice coverage; the same period in 2007 saw 4.3 million square miles of sea ice. The baseline, or average for 1979-2000, for mid-June is 4.6 million square miles. "We are seeing a lot of areas opening up within the Arctic Ocean, and along coastlines that normally are still ice covered," said Walt Meier of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. The Arctic is almost certain to experience a low-ice year, but several factors will determine whether the record will be broken this September, when the annual sea ice cycle historically reaches its lowest point. Regional cloud cover, wind patterns, snowfall totals, soot levels, the flow of water through the Bering Strait all influence the rate of sea ice melt. Lower ice coverage this early in the summer will amplify melting, as dark open water absorbs more solar energy than the reflective ice. This year continues the recent trend of reduced sea ice in the Arctic, which scientists attribute to a combination of climate change and natural weather fluctuations.

In related news, last week The Economist published a special report on the Arctic entitled “The Melting North.” The report discusses the geopolitical, economic and environmental impacts of an increasingly warmer and ice-free Arctic. Arctic nations are largely working together to pursue new economic opportunities, such as northward expansion of fossil fuel extraction and new shipping lanes. Last August, a Russian tanker delivered its cargo from the northwest corner of Russia to Thailand in seven days, one of 34 ships to use the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s northern shore and through the Bering Strait. This route, made possible by reduced sea ice, cut the ship’s travel time and distance nearly in half from the traditional route through the Suez Canal. The report notes that such opportunities are largely the result of climate change and come at additional environmental cost.

For additional information see: Discovery News, The Economist

UK Firms Will Publish Emissions Data Next Year

The British government has created a new policy that will force public companies to record and publish full details of their greenhouse gas emissions each year. The policy will apply to the 1,800 companies listed in the London Stock Exchange, including global brands like British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell. The firms will be required to publish their 2012 emissions data in April of next year. According to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, forcing companies to measure and publish their emissions data will allow them to better manage their environmental impact. “While nine out of 10 [chief executives] say sustainability is fundamental to their success, only two out of 10 record the resources they consume," said Clegg, who formally announced the new policy at the Rio+20 Earth Summit last week. Officials hope to expand the policy to include additional firms when the policy comes up for review in 2015.

For additional information see: Guardian, Chicago Tribune

Major Cities Announce 2020 Emissions Targets

The C40 Cities Climate Group, a collection of 59 major international cities, announced plans at the Rio+20 Earth Summit to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by one-quarter billion tons by 2020. The mayors of New York and Rio de Janeiro made the announcement. “We’re not arguing with each other about emissions targets. What we’re doing is going out and making progress,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, pointedly contrasting the group’s efforts with international-level climate change negotiations. The C40 group determined a set of policies that will help 48 member-cities cut 248 million tons of emissions by 2020. The group also believes that all 59 member-cities together, which currently produce 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, have the capacity to cut one billion tons of emissions by 2030 over business-as-usual projections. Such reductions will come from energy-efficient building codes, more efficient lighting, methane capture in urban landfills, and other measures.

For additional information see: Charlotte Observer

International Network to Monitor Ocean Acidification

The new International Coordinating Office for Ocean Acidification was launched this weekend at the Rio+20 Earth Summit. The monitoring network will be the first international entity to track the effects of ocean acidification. The world’s oceans absorb 20 to 30 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere, and increased CO2 levels in the water have lowered the average pH by 0.1, making the ocean 30 percent more acidic compared to preindustrial levels. The impacts of this acidification on marine animals and ecosystems are still largely unknown. “We really need to get probes into the water and see what’s going on,” Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “This will help to acknowledge that ocean acidification is a major global threat to ocean resources.” The office will be part of the Environment Laboratories in the International Atomic Energy Agency in Monaco. The United States has pledged $1 million to the network over the next three years.

In related news, a new study has concluded that rising ocean temperatures are largely due to increased greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. The study, published in Nature Climate Change, found that natural variations in currents and volcanic activity could account for 10 percent of the temperature increase, but the primary cause was greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. “We can actually say that we're virtually certain that the oceans have warmed, and that warming is caused not by natural processes but by rising greenhouse gases primarily," said Nathan Bindoff of the Institute for Marine and Arctic Studies. "Ninety per cent of the temperature change stored in the whole of the Earth's system is stored in the ocean, so global warming is really an ocean warming problem."

For additional information see: Washington Post, ABC News Australia

Study Analyzes Climate Change Impacts in Southwestern United States

At the recent Southwest Climate Summit, conference organizers released the executive summary of the upcoming report, Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States. The conference and report were both overseen by the Southwest Climate Science Center of the University of Arizona. Developed as a regional-scale companion to the climate change reports released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 800 page report includes contributions from over 100 researchers. The study finds that the second half of the 20th century was the region’s warmest period in 600 years and predicts increased periods of severe drought that will further decline river flows and soil moisture. Said lead author Jonathan Overpeck, “We need to be worried about climate change because it’s clearly already affecting our region in ways that impact many areas—we’re seeing landscapes burning, dying because of heat and dryness.” The report includes a section on the region’s Native American tribes, which finds that tribal lands and culture will be disproportionately impacted by climate change. The report explains that tribes are at particular risk due to marginalized lands, limited water rights, minimal political influence, and endangered cultural practices. The full report will be released in August.

For additional information see: Arizona Daily Star, Indian Country Today

Report Looks at Past Century Warming Trends by State

According to a new report from Climate Central, average temperatures in the United States have increased much more rapidly since 1970 than they have over the past century. The continental United States has warmed by 0.435 degrees (Fahrenheit) per decade since 1970, while warming by 0.127 degrees per decade from 1912-2011. The report provides similar analysis for each state, finding that states are warming at very different rates over the past century. Three states—Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama—experienced very slight net cooling since 1912. Temperatures have increased in all lower 48 states over the past 40 years, with the fastest warming occurring in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont and New Mexico. The report was based on data from National Climatic Data Center's U.S. Historical Climatology Network.

For additional information see: NPR, New York Times

Other Headlines

Writers: Daniel Querejazu, Samuel Brock, John-Michael Cross, and Alison Alford

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