Climate change: New battleground for 2016 US election

Climate change: New battleground for 2016 US election

As if economic growth, inequality and the state of Donald Trump’s narcissism were not enough to bewitch potential voters, climate change and carbon emissions are also poised to play a role in the 2016 presidential election. J BROOKS SPECTOR surveys the issues.

As far as the climate change debate goes, the past couple of weeks have delivered a double whammy in the lead-up to the next US national election. At the end of July, former National Aeronautical and Space Administration (Nasa) chief climate scientist James Hansen released a new – and highly controversial – report that argued that human intervention affecting global climate is even more severe than was previously believed, as sea levels are now on course to rise significantly – with all the baleful effects such changes will deliver.

Then, on August 3, President Barack Obama released the details of a big change in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, aimed at significantly decreasing the use of coal for electrical power generation in the US by 2030 – thereby cutting down the carbon footprint of electrical power, the primary use of coal in the US. Together, the two developments seem poised to push climate change to the foreground of the 2016 electoral competition. It will be a political hot potato of major proportions – with Democrats tarred as “economy wreckers” and “job killers” and Republicans ridiculed as “backward-facing climate change deniers” unwilling to remove their blindfolds and face some difficult policy choices.

Politico said of this new presidential announcement: “The tougher coal standards Obama announced on Monday will force major adjustments to power companies in Michigan, Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania — the battleground states Democrats usually need to win the White House. That gives conservatives ample ammunition to insist once again that Democratic leadership will drive up energy prices and wipe out thousands of jobs, a theme that contributed to big losses for the president’s party in the last two midterm elections.

Still, Democrats insist that embracing Obama’s climate agenda is a winning message for 2016, including with key voting blocs like Hispanics, and they say it offers another opportunity to paint the GOP (Grand Old Party) as anti-science and beholden to corporate polluters. (Hillary) Clinton did exactly that this weekend, when she praised the climate rule while vowing to defend it from ‘Republican doubters and defeatists’. In turn, the Republican National Committee attacked Clinton on Monday for supporting ‘yet another job-killing Obama policy’.”

Politico went on to argue: “Clinton is pushing the climate argument as part of an effort to portray Republican views as backward, a storyline that also encompasses women’s health, relations with Cuba and resistance to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, a campaign official told Politico: ‘The issue works in terms of painting out a larger narrative around the Republican Party as being out of step and out of touch’. Clinton ‘will continue to invoke and defend the president’s proposal over the course of the campaign,’ the official said. ‘We think that’s a good issue not just in the upcoming primary audience but among the general electorate.’”

Virtually nothing escapes the US political realm once a presidential election actually begins in earnest, nevertheless, climate issues – and the debates circling around them – are just as real as they would be, even if an electoral contest was not just around the corner. However, an election in the air will heat up the climate debate considerably – and in turn the election’s texture is likely to be affected by that argument.

Under this new Obama-initiated plan, the EPA will set limits for coal use, state by state, for electric power generation, with the levels decreasing over the next 15 years to reduce the US’s carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide, largely from coal combustion, is understood to be a prime contributor to the blanket of greenhouse gases surrounding the Earth that contributes, in turn, to global warming. This is the case even though some climate denialists continue to insist, despite the growing mountain of evidence, that human endeavour has little or nothing to do with climate change phenomena.

A brief bit of personal history is useful here. Many years ago, when the writer lived in East Java, one weekend trip out of the big city was an excursion to the partially dormant Mount Bromo volcano. Partially, that is, because, every once in a while, it erupted and spewed gases, ash and rocks high up into the stratosphere and blanketed the stuff across a wide expanse of land, miles beyond the volcano’s actual caldera. Beyond that central volcanic core, for many square kilometres in all directions, the landscape was covered with a deep layer of nothing but ash and broken rock like basalt and pumice as far as the eye could see. The amount of ejecta from the volcano’s eruptions over the generations must truly have been astonishing.

And yet the total of Mount Bromo’s violent eruptions were dwarfed by the truly global impact of yet another volcano, Mount Tambora, further to the east, on the island of Sumbawa. Scientists now understand that  the mountain’s enormous volcanic eruption in early in 1815 led directly to the freezing temperatures, massive crop failures and famines in “the year there was no summer” across in the northern hemisphere. Tambora’s vast volume of ash and other particulate matter, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, rose up into the upper atmosphere, dispersed around the world and stayed aloft for months on end, preventing a perceptible amount of the usual warmth of solar radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface, even as it increased the planet’s albedo – its brightness as seen from space.

By contrast, the vast, increasing amounts of gases like carbon dioxide and nitrogen compounds pumped out by coal burning have produced something of the opposite effect. Sun energy enters the Earth’s atmosphere, but those molecules in the atmosphere help to prevent energy from moving back out into space – the commonly described phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect. Its name comes from the way such an enclosed garden with its glass roof and walls helps keep things warm and cozy for the plants, despite lower temperatures outdoors. By now, scientists have sufficient data to point to fast-rising carbon levels pumped out into the atmosphere having major effects on all of the complex relationships between various aspects of climatic change, including increases in the greenhouse effect, changes in ocean currents, vast alterations to rainfall patterns, growing ice melts and the like.

In announcing his plan, Obama said: “I am convinced that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future, to future generations, than a changing climate.” The Obama measures rolling back permissible carbon emissions from electrical power generation plants on a broad, state-by-state basis, and issued under the EPA’s current legislative framework, have been virtually guaranteed to be the kind of thing to provoke most Republican legislators – and most of their party’s presidential nomination contenders as well – into near-inchoate, foaming fury. This is especially the case since there will be a niggling legal challenge to the new measures, based on wording deep in the weeds of the enabling legislation that can also be read as permitting the EPA to act on individual power plants – but not on a statewide or national basis.

As the Los Angeles Times reported on the issue: “President Obama’s climate-change plan will face a fierce challenge in the courts this fall, when lawyers for at least 15 states join the coal and power industries to block the carbon-reducing rules before they take effect. They will argue that the 1970s-era Clean Air Act did not authorise a national attack on greenhouse gases, and that states should not be forced to begin changing their systems for producing electric power until the legality of Obama’s plan has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

The case could feature another legal battle over a wording ‘glitch’, similar to the one just fought over the Affordable Care Act, and a dispute over whether an obscure provision in the 1970s anti-pollution law authorises a broad 21st century campaign against greenhouse gases. As he did with the battle over immigration reform, the president is trying to use his regulatory authority to impose sweeping changes without new legislation from Congress.”

In specific terms, this new clean power plan requires American power plants to lower emissions 32% below their 2005 levels, 15 years into the future. But, crucially, each of the states will be able to decide how best to achieve that result. Options available to them include investing in renewable energy sources like solar and wind, switching to natural gas, or upgrading existing coal plants to produce more electricity with lower emissions.

It can be argued that this approach is federalism at its best, with the national government setting an overall goal, but allowing the different states the options to experiment with different regimens and approaches to discover what can work best. And even the overall impact of this plan could be contested. Offering a slight demurral over the presumed massive effects of the new plan, the Economist argued: “In political terms, Mr Obama’s new rules are momentous. As far as their likely impact on the climate or on America’s energy sector are concerned, they are more modest than the claims made by either side would suggest.”

(The chart below shows the significance of coal to the US’s power generation, as well as the impact Chinese coal burning has on international levels of carbon emissions.)

smoke stack graph

(Source: The

Despite an already-steady drumbeat of criticism from the coal industry and Republicans, a CNN analysis of the plan has argued that the president certainly has full authority to make this policy change under EPA regulations. As the paper noted: “Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency have 100% of the authority they need to do this. You know who gave them the power? Hippie environmentalists like Richard Nixon and John Robert’s conservative Supreme Court. Nixon created the EPA. He also signed the Clean Air Act, which gave the executive branch authority to regulate air pollution. And in 2007, the Supreme Court found in Massachusetts vs EPA that carbon counted as an ‘air pollutant’. Under that case, Obama has the authority – and perhaps the duty – to act boldly to protect public health.”

CNN went on to say that Obama’s clean energy rules would actually save Americans money on their burdensome energy bills over the long haul, arguing: “Under the clean power plan, states will have incentives to bring down utility bills while putting up solar panels. It will also encourage energy producers to become more efficient. More efficient production and cheaper energy sources will add up to saving. The EPA estimates consumers will save $8 per month. Another study finds some Americans will save $14 a month. The White House estimates the average American will save $85 on their utility bill by 2030.”

Finally, despite a somewhat disingenuous criticism by some Republicans who have suddenly found a new warm spot in their hearts for the poor and minority communities, the Obama plan will help poor and minority communities. As that same CNN analysis concluded: “The clean power plan will massively help minorities and low-income Americans. After all, one in six black kids and one in nine Latino children has asthma. Seventy-eight percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a dirty, polluting coal plant. African-Americans are also more likely to live in coastal areas and die during heat waves. In fact, health concerns are already driving a move away from coal. Since 2010, more than 200 coal plants have been shut down or had their retirements announced. Do not blame Obama. Communities most affected by polluted air led those fights … Separately, the Obama budget includes a programme, POWER+, to invest in coal workers affected by the transition to cleaner energy.

On top of it all, the administration recently announced a low-income solar programme. This initiative will lower utility bills, raise solar panels, and make solar the most diverse energy sector in America. It will do so through a national partnership between solar companies, housing authorities, rural electric co-ops, and states and cities. America’s government today limits the amount of mercury and arsenic that polluters can spew into our skies. But right now, carbon polluters can dump as much greenhouse gas as they want. They just pass the high costs along to the rest of us, in the form of dangerous weather, health risks, and higher utility bills. But the free ride for dirty energy is coming to an end. The clean power plan is dramatic leap toward a healthier, more prosperous America.”

Regardless of the facts of the matter, or thoughtful analyses of the plan’s pros and cons, the debate already on the go has real implications for the 2016 electoral process already unfolding. Republicans are going to paint the Democratic candidate – presumably Clinton, of course – as a maven of anti-growth measures and as a surefire job killer, especially in politically potent states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois with their substantial coal industries (and coal miners) that might be pivotal in a close election. But this may not really be such a big risk for putative candidate Clinton, says former Representative Rick Boucher. Boucher is a Virginia Democrat who had lost his re-election bid under the 2010 Tea Party wave, especially after he had voted in favour of the earlier Obama-supported cap-and-trade climate bill that passed the House of Representatives but not the Senate. As Boucher argued: “The table is already set on that issue in these states. In the coal-producing parts of Virginia, Democrats are losing those coal-producing counties. And it’s not going to get any worse if Democrats continue to take the positions that they’ve been taking on climate change.”

Meanwhile, Democrats are now gearing up to batter Republican candidates for their views on climate change and environmental action – especially since the GOP and most of its leaders still seem unable to embrace the idea that any deleterious climate change effects have human elements involved in those changes., for example, reporting on the political ramifications of this newest environmental measure, noted that as political science professor at the University of Dayton Michelle Pautz observed, Democrats should frame the climate rule “the way Obama did: as something that’s good for the economy”, that can generate jobs in wind and solar power and make power bills cheaper rather than as a simple environmental issue. Pautz went on to argue that Democrats can also link this to recent statements by Pope Francis making climate action a moral imperative, given the large Catholic populations in states like Ohio.

Politico went on to say: “On the GOP side, supporters of aggressive federal climate action say polls point to a disconnect between Republican voters and candidates. On Monday, for example, a poll commissioned by the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund found that a plurality of Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina believe climate change is happening, support limits on carbon pollution and to a lesser degree favour the EPA setting ‘strict carbon dioxide limits on existing coal-fired power plants with a goal of reducing emissions significantly by the year 2030’. The Republican firm American Viewpoint conducted the survey in July, before Monday’s White House climate rule roll-out.”

Politico added: “Some Republican advisers acknowledge privately that the GOP is vulnerable to attacks on climate science. And while more hardline GOP candidates outright deny that the planet is warming, others like (Marco) Rubio and fellow Floridian Jeb Bush have taken more complicated stances. Rubio has danced around the question of whether humans are one cause of climate change, while Bush has openly acknowledged that human activities play a role.” The risk here for the GOP will be a Republican Party at war with itself over climate change, even as Democrats build a coherent argument on growth terms with plans like the one being put into place by Obama.

Meanwhile, just before this was about to break, Hansen released his newest report on July 20, postulating a dramatic rise in sea levels in the foreseeable future as a result of climate change factors already under way. As Hansen’s data and conclusions come to be more thoroughly digested and analysed by other scientists and – presumably – as the implications of his study enter the public discussion on climate change, his conclusions may well become critical in how the discussion is framed for the upcoming election.

As the Washington Post report on this study explained: “Hansen — who retired in 2013 from his Nasa post, and is currently an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute — is publishing what he says may be his most important paper. Along with 16 other researchers — including leading experts on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets — he has authored a lengthy study outlining a scenario of potentially rapid sea level rise combined with more intense storm systems. It’s an alarming picture of where the planet could be headed — and hard to ignore, given its author. But it may also meet with considerable skepticism in the broader scientific community, given that its scenarios of sea level rise occur more rapidly than those ratified by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its latest assessment of the state of climate science, published in 2013.”

The Post went on to explain that Hansen’s research was available online in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion, an open-access journal published by the European Geosciences Union. Now that this paper is online, the larger peer review process will happen in public. As this paper is uploaded, and other scientists evaluate it then submit comments, its authors respond in turn, eventually forging a scientific consensus. As the Post noted: “In the new study, Hansen and his colleagues suggest that the ‘doubling time’ for ice loss from West Antarctica — the time period over which the amount of loss could double — could be as short as 10 years. In other words, a non-linear process could be at work, triggering major sea level rise in a time frame of 50 to 200 years.”

The way other scientists evaluate Hansen and his team’s conclusions over the coming months will be crucial in shaping how they are taken up in the public policy discussion. This will happen even as that court challenge to the new Obama plan is framed. The result will be that both the Obama plan and Hansen and his group’s results will almost inevitably be put into partisan play in the upcoming 2016 election.

Perhaps it will soon be time for readers to re-evaluate their plans for beachfront property while this all plays out. DM

Photo: Fishermen endure waves breaking over Kalk Bay harbour wall in Cape Town, South Africa, 01 October 2009. As the earths climate changes the sea level rises and storms worsen leading to greater risks of storm surges in coastal cities and more damage due to wave action. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

For more, read:

  • The world’s most famous climate scientist just outlined an alarming scenario for our planet’s future at the Washington Post;
  • Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modelling, and modern observations that 2C global warming is highly dangerous at Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion;
  • Climate debate for 2016: ‘Job-killing’ Democrats vs ‘backward’ GOP at;
  • Next step for Obama’s climate rules: A court debate over wording ‘glitch’ at the Los Angeles Times;
  • Climate change and the president; Hotter than August; New rules to curb emissions from power plants are not as bold as they seem, at The Economist;

  • Obama unveils major climate change proposal, at CNN;
  • Busted: 3 myths about Obama’s climate plan at CNN;
  • President Obama’s Tough, Achievable Climate Plan at the New York Times;
  • Move to Fight Obama’s Climate Plan Started Early; at the New York Times.

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