HANSEN HAD IT NAILED
June 23 is milestone in climate history. Today in 1988, then NASA scientist James Hansen told Congress human-caused global warming was with us.
Already esteemed as one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Hansen cited the string of record hot years starting to break out in the 1980s. He told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the probability this was caused by human greenhouse gases was 99%.
The fossil fuel industry knew it too. ExxonMobil scientists had accurately projected the track of climate disruption. Its oil industry peers were also well aware. But corporations whose capital assets and profits are totally tied to continued fossil fuel burning instead funded a monumentally evil disinformation campaign to block action. Today some 400,000 people die annually from heat waves, hunger, disease, storms and other climate disruption-connected impacts. Fossil industry executive hands are soaked in blood.
If political leaders had been listening to Hansen then, we could have avoided a lot of death and destruction. In fact, they should have been listening earlier, in 1981, when Hansen made temperature projections that have proven remarkably close. He wrote, "Potential effects on climate in the 21st century include the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia as part of a shifting of climatic zones, erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage."
It is the 21st century and Hansen’s predictions have materialized. California and the Southwest have suffered long-term drought. Colorado River dam pools are at record lows. Sea levels are rising the fastest in 6,000 years. West Antarctic ice is on death watch. The Northwest Passage has been opening since 2007, and in 2016, a year when climate disruption has spiked to a new level, Arctic Ocean ice melt is a month ahead of the 2012 record. An ice-free ocean is seriously possible this year or soon, promoting a deadly climate feedback – white ice that reflects 90% of solar heat back into space replaced by blue water that absorbs 90%. Global warming is already feeding global warming in the Arctic, threatening to unlock huge land and ocean stores of super-potent global warming gas methane. Humanity faces the real prospect of global warming beyond its control, short of highly uncertain geoengineering schemes.
Meanwhile, global temperatures are jumping in ways that have scientists shouting out climate emergency. For 13 months temperatures have not only been exceeding the record – They have been exceeding it by such a wide margin that it is virtually certain, halfway into 2016, that it will be the hottest year on the books. This plays out as drought and extreme heat searing hundreds of millions in India, and an unprecedented three years of coral-killing bleaching, the third ever global coral bleaching. It has hit almost all of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
HANSEN FORECASTS HAVOC, UNLESS . . .
Hansen got it right in 1981, virtually on the back of the envelope. In 1988 he accurately told us global warming had arrived. Now, in 2016, he and his team are projecting worldwide havoc. All of us should be listening. In a video discussion of his new, peer-reviewed paper, “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms,” Hansen calls out feedbacks between oceans and ice sheets that “raise questions about how soon we lock in points of no return, which lock in consequences that cannot be reversed on any time scale people can care about.”
Those include multi-meter sea level rise this century, or next at latest, causing the “loss of all coastal cities.” “Sea level is known to have risen rapidly many times.” That ice sheet meltwater is apparently already slowing the circulation of tropical water into the North Atlantic – fresh meltwater reduces saltiness and makes water lighter, which stops it from sinking into the depths. This hinders the mechanism that keeps circulation moving. So currents back up, warm water stays in the south and the north becomes cooler. That temperature contrast “will drive superstorms stronger than any in modern times.” In past geologic eras they were strong enough to hurl 1,000-ton boulders onto land. “All hell will break loose in the North Atlantic.”
“We are in a position of potentially causing irreparable harm to our children, grandchildren and future generations,” concludes the scientist, who now serves as director of Columbia University’s Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program.
But we have not reached the point of no return, Hansen believes. In an earlier paper he and his team lined out the scientific necessities to avoid this climate havoc. Hansen developed the science in 2013 as the basis for atmospheric trust cases filed by youth plaintiffs seeking action by governments to protect their future. The effort led by Eugene, Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust (OCT) has filed cases in a number of states, including Washington, as well as against the federal government in U.S. District Court in Oregon. Hansen and his granddaughter, Sophie, are plaintiffs in the federal case, which two weeks ago won an important decision allowing it to move forward.
The science Hansen et al developed for the litigation is demanding, and complex. But it boils down to several key points:
- The critical goal is to bring down the level of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, to 350 parts per million by 2100. 350ppm is where planetary energy balance is restored – The planet is no longer taking in more solar energy than it is sending back to space. (The level has now reached over 400ppm, spiking recently over 407ppm, and in fact grew at a record pace in 2015.) Staying above 350ppm much longer than 2100 risks radical climate feedbacks.
- Achieving 350ppm x 2100 requires immediate and large carbon pollution reductions. If the world had started in 2013, an annual rate of 6% would have been needed. If we wait until 2020, the figure grows to 15%. In 2016, the figure is probably around 10%. Besides pollution reductions, 100 billion tonnes of carbon must be soaked from the atmosphere into plants and soil.
- The threshold for dangerous climate warming is sometimes given as 2° Celsius, or the more ambitious 1.5° C limit set at the recent Paris climate summit. The 350ppm pathway would hold total warming to the peak seen since the last ice age, just a little over 1°C, with a temporary spike this century around 1.2°C. Hansen asserts we should aim at the lower temperature target to reduce the odds for dangerous feedbacks. Warming of recent months puts us in this range, underscoring the urgent necessity for rapid carbon reductions.
|Five of the Washington Our Children's Trust lawsuit plaintiffs with their attorney, Andrea Rodgers.|
THE KIDS TAKE IT ON
The Washington OCT case has won a series of court rulings that could eventually force the state onto the Hansen carbon reduction pathway. But, ironically, the administration of Gov. Jay Inslee, who came into office as the “greenest governor” with stellar credentials as a Congressional climate leader, is trying to overturn the most recent victory through an appeal to a higher court. In an astounding move guaranteed to provoke intense cognitive dissonance, it’s the “greenest governor” versus the climate kids.
The kids are the eight youths who last year filed suit against the state Department of Ecology in King County Superior Court. Foster et al v. Ecology asks the state to protect their generation by implementing carbon limits based on the Hansen science. That followed an unsuccessful petition to Ecology along the same lines. Limits enshrined in a 2008 Washington law are far below what science requires – reaching 1990 levels by 2020, reducing 25% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50% by 2050. This is the basis of a carbon cap rulemaking ordered by Inslee in July 2015 to give the limits some teeth.
In her arguments before the court the youths’ attorney, Andrea Rodgers of Western Environmental Law Center, asserted that because carbon pollution endangers air, land, water and natural resources, the state is obligated to regulate carbon under its constitutional and legal responsibilities, and to levels indicated by science. The plaintiffs gained a partially favorable ruling from Judge Hollis Hill in last November.
“In fact, as Petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming by accelerating the reduction of emission of GHG’s (greenhouse gases) before doing so becomes too costly and then too late. The scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of reduction mandated by Washington law cannot achieve the GHG reductions necessary to protect our environment and to ensure the survival of an environment in which the petitioners can grow to adulthood safely.”
Judge Hill ruled that the state has an obligation to cap carbon under its Clean Air Act and the Public Trust Doctrine in the Washington Constitution. “In this context, the emission standards currently adopted by Ecology do not fulfill the mandate to ‘(p)reserve, protect and enhance the air quality for current and future generations’ (quoting the Clean Air Act).”
In fact, when Gov. Inslee ordered Ecology to implement a Clean Air Rule to cap carbon in July 2015, he did it on a fundamental premise of the OCT case, that sufficient authority to cap carbon exists under the state Clean Air Act. He did it on his own executive authority, rather than that of the court ruling though. That has important implications discussed below.
The ruling was also a partial victory for Ecology. Because the department had already undertaken the carbon cap rulemaking, Hill declined to uphold the youth’s original petition to Ecology.
BACK TO COURT
Under pressure from industry and other stakeholders, Ecology withdrew its first rule draft in February. Rodgers and the kids went back to court. In April they won a second victory. Judge Hill ordered Ecology to produce a rule by year’s end, and to recommend science-based greenhouse gas reductions to the 2017 legislature. Ecology must consult youth plaintiffs on those recommendations, she said.
“The reason I'm doing this is because this is an urgent situation,” Judge Hill said. “These children can't wait, the polar bears can't wait, the people of Bangladesh can't wait. I don't have jurisdiction over their needs in this matter, but I do have jurisdiction in this court, and for that reason I'm taking this action.”
“For the first time, a U.S. court not only recognized the extraordinary harms young people are facing due to climate change, but ordered an agency to do something about it,” Rodgers said. “Ecology is now court-ordered to issue a rule that fulfills its constitutional and public trust duty to ensure Washington does its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the planet.”
Gov. Inslee himself lauded the decision in a May 10 email to his supporters entitled, “HUGE ruling for our planet.” “Eight courageous kids went to court to compel us adults to take action on climate change. I'm happy to say that they won. These eight kids know that our state can do more to fight climate change -- and I do, too. Their case has been a call for action to no longer ignore our climate and our kids. And now, the court has affirmed that our plan to reduce carbon pollution is the right thing to do, and now is the right time.”
Then, last Thursday, in what would seem a stunning contradiction of those statements, the administration filed an appeal against the victory in the Washington Supreme Court. The “greenest governor” was going crosswise of the climate kids.
“The governor and Ecology continue to deceive the public by claiming they are doing all they can to protect our children from climate change, but their actions in court prove otherwise,” Rodgers charged. “It is important for the public to know that their leaders have many of the legal tools they need to address climate change, but instead work to avoid being held accountable for protecting the rights of young people.”
STATE PLAN FALLS SHORT
In one particular, crucial to understanding this turn of events, Inslee’s email was less than accurate. The court did not, in fact, affirm “that our plan to reduce carbon pollution is the right thing to do . . . “ Ecology’s second draft Clean Air Rule released on June 1 instead uses the outdated science that Judge Hill ruled did not meet the legal test. The rule falls short in at least three major ways:
- It mandates only 1.7% annual carbon reductions.
- Those are only on a set of large polluters that will represent at most two-thirds of the state’s economy, so the actual yearly statewide carbon reduction is more like one percent.
- It allows polluters to meet obligations through a broad set of offsetting schemes, which many analysts find uncertain and leaky.
“The stark reality is that the leading climate scientists tell us that one percent annual reductions of GHG emissions, which Ecology has proposed, are essentially useless,” Rodgers and fellow OCT attorney Julia Olson wrote. “The glaciers will still melt, the seas will still rise, the oceans will acidify, communities will be relocated, and we and our children will suffer . . . This is simply not a problem that can be handled by half-measures.”
While the governor is enmeshed in a complex politics pulling him many different directions, it is up to the state’s climate advocacy community to stand up for science-based limits. Two of the state’s leading climate groups did take that position in an Oct. 29, 2015 letter to Ecology.
“The Washington State Clean Air Act is a health-based statute that directs Ecology to set standards on air pollution to protect the health and welfare of the state,” wrote Climate Solutions and the Washington Environmental Council (WEC). “While the legislature established statewide emissions limits in 2008, these limits should be a floor for climate action, not a ceiling preventing the state from responding to the critical threats that global warming poses to public health and the environment.
“The best available science . . . clearly indicates that emissions in developed world economies need to drop more steeply than the 2008 law established. This would require Washington State to achieve at least an 80% reduction from 1990 levels by mid-century, or a 4% annual reduction in overall CO2 emissions to achieve the 2050 target.”
CLIMATE URGENCY – TALK ABOUT IT
In calling for 4% the groups endorsed the original science developed for the Washington OCT case. The state has slightly less challenging targets than the global numbers because Washington carbon emissions have peaked. If reductions had started in 2013 or soon after, 4% would be the number. The 8% figure cited by Hansen comes from a current scientific review being done by his team. This shows how rapidly the challenge is moving beyond control, and why Washington state and Inslee need to rapidly step up to the plate for science-based carbon reductions.
So far Climate Solutions and WEC have not reflected this urgency in their communications strategies. Even though they have supported science-based limits in their comments to Ecology, this position has not made it into their public messaging. An April 11 action alert from WEC called on supporters to make comments to Ecology on the rule, and specified a number of needed improvements for which to ask. But the list left science-based limits off the table.
The need for science-based limits was also absent from comments by leaders of Climate Solutions, WEC, Sierra Club and other environmental groups in statements lauding the June 1 re-release of the rule. Comments were more in the tone of Climate Solutions Washington Director Vlad Gutman, who said it took “ . . . steps in the right direction.” WEC Climate and Clean Energy Program Director Sasha Pollack called it “an important step forward.” The post carried a number of calls for policy improvements, but again did not include science-based limits.
I can only hope that the groups will foreground the science-based limits message when they encourage public comment at upcoming July hearings. This is an issue of utterly critical importance. The state’s most prominent climate advocacy groups need to bring their public weight to bear on it. Public comment opportunities are here. The big westside public hearing is in Olympia Thursday, July 14, 6 p.m., at The Red Lion Hotel, 2300 Evergreen Park Drive SW.
And while the groups have also enthusiastically praised the youths’ victory in the Washington OCT suit, as of this writing they have not issued any public comment on the Inslee Administration appeal of the case. Admittedly the groups are in a tough spot. They have been among Inslee’s strongest supporters. But now is time for them to push harder, and publicly, using all their resources, for science-based limits. They should be calling on the governor to withdraw the appeal and conduct the rulemaking under the authority of Judge Hill’s order.
THE NUB OF THE ISSUE
Ecology is an agency under Inslee’s executive control. He could have instructed Director Maia Bellon to accept Judge Hill’s order, and write the carbon rule under the color of this order. But instead Inslee chose to move the rulemaking forward under his own executive authority. That makes it far less secure. A Governor Bryant, perish the thought, could as easily use his executive authority to revoke the order. That would not be so easy with a rulemaking under the color of a court mandate
The administration has now decided to contest Judge Hill’s order to produce a rule by year’s end. This is another step to deny her rulings, and the youth on whose behalf they were made, any legal standing in the process. Ecology spokeperson Camille St. Onge claimed this was about the timeline. “One of the things that’s important in a rule-making process is that we need a rule to be strong and durable, and the public needs an opportunity to influence the outcome,” she told The Stranger. “A court-ordered deadline would hamper that.”
But St. Onge also “said that the state still expects the rule to be finalized by the end of the summer—a schedule that doesn’t conflict with the court-ordered deadline,” wrote reporter Sydney Brownstone. “Nevertheless, the state is appealing the judge’s ruling in the event that they need to change the plan.”
It seems quite an assertion of bureaucratic prerogatives to move against a groundbreaking legal precedent for climate protection, and a precedent won by those most affected, youth, on the theoretical possibility that more time might be needed. In response to Judge Hill's ruling, and her statement, "These children can't wait," Ecology is saying, wait a little longer. It seems that if the need for an extension actually arose, a motion to Judge Hill would be a better course. The judge has granted extensions to Ecology in the proceedings, and has proven she too wants a strong and durable rule.
What really seems at play is a desire on the part of the state to operate on its own authority, rather than the legal mandates under the rulings. One can only surmise this is because the implications of the rulings lead to Public Trust responsibilities. And those ultimately lead to the science-based carbon reduction goals specified under the Hansen science. At 4% a year, now rising to around 8% or even greater, that might seem impossibly greater than any one state can accomplish.
Indeed, meeting carbon reduction goals that do not leave the world a wreck for our children and theirs requires far more broad reaching efforts than most political leaders or climate groups are yet addressing. We need a rapid shift to 100% renewable energy in all sectors, with deep transformations in transportation and buildings. We need transformation of forestry and agriculture. This is the context for achieving deep carbon reductions. It involves a complex set of public initiatives that include carbon caps and prices but go beyond them, such as power grid modernization and vehicle electrification.
To accomplish needed transformations quickly enough to avert climate meltdown, we need a World War II-scale mobilization of resources at all levels, from state to nation to world. Something this huge will require immense political will. The only way to build this will is to bring it to the foreground of discussion and advocacy. That new World War II message needs to be taken up by political leaders who claim a climate commitment, and all groups working in the climate arena. At this point, just about the only major U.S. group focusing the message is The Climate Mobilization. Everyone should study TCM’s approach.
DEAR JAY . . .
Now let me address some words to Jay Inslee personally. I have known you for more than 15 years, maybe better than any politician in my life. I know you have more understanding of the climate challenge than probably at least 95% of politicians. We have traded clean energy economy ideas. You even told me how you challenged the President of the United States to a basketball game, and how Obama played. In being critical of you, I have heard back from people close to you how you are doing the best you can in difficult situations. On a human level, I confess a level of personal pain in all of this. Though others might, I do not doubt your sincerity. But your policy directions have left me with many questions, particularly about the level of advice you are receiving.
Consider the political optics of the “greenest governor” going against the climate kids. They are simply horrible. They undermine your credibility with a green constituency that you need for reelection. Among the grassroots progressive and environmental constituencies I touch nowadays, there is a lot of skepticism about your “greenest governor” credentials. They have been undermined by your support for gigantic methanol refineries in Tacoma and Kalama fed by fracked natural gas, with questionable carbon reductions. And by allowing oil train terminals to go in three refineries without environmental review, before a citizen uprising gained such review for the proposed Shell Anacortes refinery terminal. Your support of a massive $9 billion highway construction package did not help much either.
And you have not yet called for a moratorium on oil trains running through Washington. In sharp contrast Oregon Gov. Kate Brown just made that call following the fiery oil train derailment in Mosier on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge June 3. If anything, Washington has more to lose. Explosive oil trains run some distance from downtown Portland, but in a tunnel under the Seattle downtown core. An explosion in the city would be utterly catastrophic.
In an email sent this week you acknowledged that the Mosier explosion was “yet another reminder of the dangers that oil trains pose to our communities. We need stronger protections for our residents in Washington state.” The Take Action box has the headline, “Get dangerous oil trains off our tracks.” But the button goes to a petition that only calls for “stronger safety standards.” You have thus bought into the argument that there is such a thing as a safe oil train. In fact, no level of standards could make the inherently dangerous animal that is the unit oil train safe. The Oregon crash was the result of a broken bolt that might well have been invisible to inspectors, rendering any train improvements moot.
While many people in the Washington climate community with whom I have worked in the past will be inside the Washington State Convention Center tomorrow night for your fundraiser with President Obama, I will be on the outside with members of the climate grassroots. We will be demanding you ask for an oil train moratorium, as well as that you order the youth lawsuit appeal dropped. In other words, we really want you to live up to your “greenest governor” title.
I really wish I could go back to the old days when I was one of your unabashed supporters. But your positions on carbon-intensive fossil and transport infrastructure have undermined that. And going crosswise of the climate kids, the real climate leaders of Washington state, has left me deeply disappointed. To really look our kids in the face we need to stand up for their world. That means accepting science-based carbon limits, using every legal pathway at our disposal, and pushing for all the policies needed to reach them.
Just going in the right direction is not enough. Our test will be in what ultimately happens to our children’s world. That is the test you face now, as Governor of the State of Washington. Please step up now as a climate leader, stand with the kids, and put the state on the pathway to 350ppm. We’re just one state, but we need to pick up our share of the load. Help mobilize us to do it. The science and our children’s world demand nothing less.
KEYWORDS: WASHINGTON STATE, GOV. JAY INSLEE, CLIMATE POLICY, CLIMATE CHANGE, CLIMATE DISRUPTION, GLOBAL WARMING, JAMES HANSEN, OUR CHILDREN'S TRUST, ATMOSPHERIC TRUST LAWSUITS
KEYWORDS: WASHINGTON STATE, GOV. JAY INSLEE, CLIMATE POLICY, CLIMATE CHANGE, CLIMATE DISRUPTION, GLOBAL WARMING, JAMES HANSEN, OUR CHILDREN'S TRUST, ATMOSPHERIC TRUST LAWSUITS