Monday, September 14, 2015

Obama's Clean Power Plan: "So Weak As to Be Potentially Destructive"


Do you trust your climate future to the heart of a CEO? (source; click to enlarge)

by Gaius Publius

There's plenty of political news these days, and it's being well covered in these pages. (My own crystal ball gazing piece is still a question without an answer — is something hidden going on with Democratic "insiders" that will soon change the balance of power in the presidential race? The ripples are certainly there. Plus, I'll have comment on that rumored Biden-Warren rapprochement in a bit.)

So let's turn to climate, the one issue that ought to be front and center, since in a decade or less it's going to be the only conversation anyone on the planet is having. (If you're a reader who circles the circles of influence, and you think this stuff matters, you may want to be paying attention. We're not talking theory when we talk climate; this will get very real — California real — very fast. Climate collapse is not a linear process.)

Why Obama's "Clean Power" Plan Is Dangerous

I've long suspected that the "Clean Power" plan, which in my view is suspiciously named after the methane industry's self-branding — "Natural Gas, America's Clean Energy" — is in fact a methane industry enrichment proposal. Even the EPA seems to be in on the branding.

It's not that the Obama plan does nothing; it's that it does the least it can do while appearing to be more than it is. Which makes it, according to Brad Johnson writing at Jacobin, "potentially destructive." I'll have my own explanation of why Obama's plan is destructive below. Johnson and I — and climate scientist James Hansen — are in complete agreement.

Johnson opens by writing about the plan's virtue (singular):
The information necessary to understand the rule is impressively buried on the EPA website amid “fact sheets” that list out-of-context factoids and fail to cite references from the one-hundred-plus-page technical documents or ZIP files of modeling runs. The structure of the plan is complex (for example, states can choose to comply with “rate-based” pollution-intensity targets or “mass-based” total-pollution targets) and carefully designed to satisfy a wide range of stakeholders.

With sufficient inspection, the plan’s impact on climate pollution — its entire purpose — emerges: the rule locks in the rate of coal-plant retirement that has been ongoing since 2008, and that’s about it:

Under both the rate-based and mass-based approaches, the projected rate of change in coal-fired generation is consistent with recent historical declines in coal-fired generation. Additionally, under both of these approaches, the trends for all other types will remain consistent with what their trends would be in the absence of this rule.

Now, that’s a pretty good accomplishment in political terms. The administration is seizing on the ascendant power of the natural-gas industry to codify an existing economic trend at the expense of the presently weak coal industry. Coal-plant pollution has been protected from air-pollution regulation for generations; some of the plants in operation today were built during the Great Depression. These plants — immensely profitable for their owners — are not only climate killers, but destroyers of the lives of anyone who lives downwind of their poisonous effluvia.
The "rule locks in the rate of coal-plant retirement that has been ongoing since 2008, and that’s about it."

So the plan is an attempted coal-killer, though not a very aggressive one. After all, locking in the current rate of coal plant retirement is not the same as accelerating that rate. But it's a lot better than letting coal experience a "market"-based comeback if or when the price of alternative fuels rise.

And note the downside of this plan. Johnson (my emphasis):
From the perspective of actual reality, however, the proposed rule is so weak as to be potentially destructive. It is built around the premise that the United States will extend its commitment to fracked gas for decades to come, even as the climate targets Obama personally signed onto can only be met if the dismantling of all fossil-fuel infrastructure begins immediately.
Thus the contradiction built into the plan, and the danger. Obama's own climate targets can be met only if all fossil-fuel infrastructure is dismantled, starting immediately. Remember, no investor in methane (natural gas) infrastructure expects it to be dismantled. Not one.

Physics Bats Last

In other words, climate change isn't something that can be negotiated. To paraphrase Bill McKibben, Physics bats last. McKibben:
President Obama is visiting Alaska this week — a territory changing as rapidly as any on earth thanks to global warming. He’s talking constantly about the danger that climate change poses to the planet (a welcome development given that he managed to go through virtually the entire 2012 election without even mentioning it). And everything he’s saying is right: we are a nation, and a planet, beset by fire, flood, drought. It’s the hottest year in earth’s recorded history. July was the hottest month ever measured on planet earth.

But of course the alarm he’s sounding is muffled by the fact that earlier this year he gave Shell Oil a permit to go drill in the Arctic, potentially opening up a giant new pool of oil.

It’s as if the health teacher giving the anti-smoking talk to junior-high assembly had a Marlboro dangling from her lip.

To most of us this seems like a contradiction. ...

[David] Balton [the State Department’s diplomat for ocean issues ]— and Obama, and almost everyone else in power — makes the same simple-but-deadly category mistake. They think the relevant negotiation is between the people who want to drill and the people who don’t. But actually, this negotiation is between People and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation.
Here's what that means...

"Stop Now" means Stop. Now.

Echoing Brad Johnson, I wrote above:
Obama's own climate targets can be met only if all fossil-fuel infrastructure is dismantled, starting immediately.
Colloquially translated, that means "Stop Now." Not, stop when David Koch and Rex Tillerson (methane-owning Exxon's CEO) find it convenient to cease being profitable. Now.

Here's the benefit of stopping and the downside of not stopping from a physics standpoint. James Hansen, in a recent peer-reviewed paper, published this diagram:

Figure 4. Decay of atmospheric CO2 perturbations.
(A) Instantaneous injection or extraction of CO2 with initial conditions at equilibrium. (B) Fossil fuel emissions terminate at the end of 2015, 2030, or 2050 and land use emissions terminate after 2015 in all three cases, i.e., thereafter there is no net deforestation. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648.g004 (source; click to enlarge)

It's the (B) part we're interested in, so look at the graph on the right side of the figure. This gives three "stop now" (i.e., year when "Fossil Emissions = 0") scenarios. The graph goes out to the year 2500, so first, find 2100 on the X-axis and draw an imaginary vertical line. We're not interested in time after that. The Y-axis is atmospheric CO2 concentration. We're at 400 ppm now and headed higher at an accelerating rate of 2.1 ppm per year.

We know that polar ice, both Arctic and Antarctic, is melting (again, at an accelerating rate) in our current, 400-ppm world. If we stay above 400 ppm until 2100, the planet will have stored enough heat to melt all standing ice, likely sooner than anyone expects. We know from the table in this piece that melting all glacial ice represents 80 meters of sea level rise (about 250 feet) — not something we want to happen.

The good news is that a "stop now" scenario — which in practice means "go to zero emissions in the next ten years" — lets the climate system remove that added CO2 using natural processes. Note that each "stop now" scenario has CO2 ppm declining over time.

Now the bad news — what if we stop "later"?
  • Stop after 2015 — CO2 is 350 ppm in 2100
  • Stop after 2030 — CO2 is still close to 400 ppm in 2100
  • Stop after 2050 — CO2 is about 450 ppm in 2100
A century of emissions over 400 ppm means warming continues — not holds steady, continues — and it's basically over for us. We're now scrambling as a species in a very different and likely uncivilized world. (If you're interested in a couple of "stop slowly" scenarios, see Figure 5 of the same paper; cutting emissions by 6% per year with reforestation produces a very workable decline.)

Johnson concludes (my emphasis):
Dismantling the global fossil-fuel economy is a civilization-scale fight. Fossil-fuel industrialists have every incentive to resist democratic control to prevent their economic extinction. And that extinction is what climate policy needs to bring about, not forestall — global warming won’t stop until we stop burning fossil fuels. The Obama years have been spent in skirmishes and accommodations that have served mainly to delay the inevitable, seismic conflict between extractive capitalism and democratic society.

The modest accomplishments for climate and environmental justice in the Clean Power Plan will have little meaning unless they turn out to be the first salvos in a relentless assault on the carbon economy. In 2008, Obama envisioned that he would oversee from the White House “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

That moment has not yet come.
Nor will it under the "Clean Power" plan alone. For "that moment" to come would take something built upon the "Clean Energy" plan — for example, denying Shell's application to drill in the Arctic. Didn't happen.

If you're in any way in position to influence policy, or a friend of someone who is, take note. This is not something a compromise or "deal" will address.


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At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So Weak As to Be Potentially Destructive" - That's pretty much the nicest summary one could make of the entire Obama Administration.

At 1:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article by Barnicle summarizes what Biden can do if he decides to try and take over :-)


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