Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A business-as-usual climate rule for a climate crisis world

Following is my testimony submitted to the Washington State Department of Ecology in response to its draft Clean Air Rule to limit climate pollution.  Comments are due by 5pm this Friday, July 22. They can be filed on line here,or emailed to Please take a moment to ask Ecology for a stronger rule that meets the scientific requirements to restore climate stability.  You can also sign a petition for a stronger rule here.

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in 2015 ordered the state Department of Ecology to draft a rule limiting greenhouse gas emissions, he set a precedent.  For the first time, a state government moved to cut climate pollution on the authority of existing environmental legislation. 

The groundwork for the rule was the state Clean Air Act, which mandates state government to “(p)reserve, protect and enhance the air quality for current and future generations.”  On this basis, Ecology has drafted a rule that is in a public comment phase ending this week.

Pollution reductions called for under the rule fall substantially far short of what it would take to actually meet the Clean Air Act mandate.  The rule calls for annual 1.7% emissions cuts from large polluters.  It would eventually cover two-thirds of state greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions.  Thus the overall yearly pollution reduction is more like 1%. That assumes that offsets, which polluters can purchase to meet 100% of their obligations, will actually all generate the real emissions reductions that are claimed.  Many are skeptical, and loopholes in the draft rule actually allow one unit of carbon reduction to count for two units in some circumstances.

The actual scientific requirement is closer to an 8% annual ghg cut, and this curve is rapidly growing steeper.  By next year it will be around 9%.  These numbers are based on the target for recovery of climate stability, returning atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million by 2100.  350ppm is where the atmosphere stops trapping solar heat, the basis of global warming.  The longer that CO2 levels are higher than 350ppm – they are now above 400ppm – the more heat the planet will absorb, and the more probable that feedbacks will push global warming beyond human control – feedbacks including loss of natural carbon sinks such as Arctic permafrost.

This is based on science done by leading climatologist James Hansen and his team for a series of lawsuits promoted by Our Children’s Trust.  Youth lawsuits are being brought against a number of state governments, the federal government and other national governments.  They argue, along the same lines as the theory under which Gov. Inslee ordered the climate rulemaking, that existing constitutional and statutory obligations to protect natural resources are sufficient grounds regulate carbon and other ghgs. 

In one of the cases, eight youth have won a court order requiring Washington state to limit climate pollution.  King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill said the state must issue a rule by the end of the year.  Though the state opted to appeal the order, it nonetheless is the legal requirement under which the state is now operating.  

The state claims it might need more time.  But truly, there is no more time for delay.  NASA just reported that the first six months of the year were the hottest on record, 1.3°C warmer than the late 19th century.  That is perilously close to the 1.5°C target set by the recent Paris climate summit to avert the worst consequences of climate disruption.  Even more alarming is the fact this is 0.3°C above any temperature high previously recorded – a phenomenal spike indicating the planet may be moving into a new climate state.  

This chart from NASA illustrates the dramatic 2016 temperature spike.  Never before this year had temperates gone 1 degree Celsius above the late 19th century level.  The first six months of this year, temperatures averaged 1.3 degrees Celsius, an 0.3 degree spike above anything before. 

NASA also reported that Arctic sea ice was at record lows five of the year’s first six months.  During winter, Arctic sea icepack typically peaks at 40% of its early 1980s extent.   That drives growing heat. Ice sends 90% of solar heat back to space, while blue water absorbs 90%.  Global warming is already feeding global warming in the Arctic, with a worldwide impact.

If ever the climate crisis was upon us, it is upon us now.  Yet the world continues to operate as if it was business as usual – As if minor course corrections can possibly avert a collision with the physical realities of an increasingly disrupted climate.  No, they can’t.  This is why Ecology’s draft climate rule is not an adequate response to the Clean Air Act mandate. It is not a climate crisis rule.  It is a business-as-usual rule. 

A fundamental problem is a contradiction in the rulemaking process itself.  When Gov. Inslee ordered the rulemaking, it was done not only on the basis of the Clean Air Act, but also a 2008 law that set ghg limits for the state: 1990 levels by 2020; 25% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2050.  There is wide agreement that these limits are too low, including from Ecology.  In a December 2014 update required by law, the department said (on page 18):  

“Washington State’s existing statutory limits should be adjusted to better reflect the current science. The limits need to be more aggressive in order for Washington to do its part to address climate risks and to align our limits with other jurisdictions that are taking responsibility to address these risks. . . Ecology concludes that Washington’s existing statutory statewide reductions limits under RCW 70.235.020, especially limits for 2035 and 2050, need to be updated through changes to the statute.”

Critically, Judge Hill also found those limits inadequate to meet Clean Air Act requirements. In a November ruling she said, “. . .  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.’”

Ecology is required under law to submit updates in the limits to the Legislature.  In its 2014 report the department recommended waiting until after the Paris summit.   In her most recent ruling in April the Judge ordered Ecology to fulfill this legal mandate. That is also part of the ruling that has been appealed.  At a July 14 public hearing on the rule in Olympia an Ecology representative said the department is exploring an update and hopes to make recommendations by the end of the year. Everyone understands the 2008 limits are inadequate.

Thus, it is clear that to base the rulemaking on both the Clean Air Act and the 2008 limits sets up a contradiction. If Ecology holds within the 2008 limits, it cannot meet the legal requirements of the Clean Air Act to protect the atmosphere for present and future generations. It’s either one or the other.

To say the rule proposed by Ecology even meets the 2008 standard would be a misnomer.  In fact, parallel to its coverage of polluters, the rule would only hit around two-thirds of the 2035 target.  The remaining emissions reductions would have to come from currently uncovered sectors. 

Chart from Our Children's Trust shows how far short the current proposed Washington state climate rule falls compared to the scientific necessities for climate stabilization.  The green line second from the bottom depicts the stabilization pathway.  The red line shows what meeting the state's 2008 carbon limits would accomplish.  The proposed rule does not even reach the 2008 limits, only around two-thirds of them, reflecting its limited coverage of state emissions. 
One reason state officials give for holding the rulemaking within the 2008 limits, making them a ceiling rather than a floor, is because they believe it provides more solid footing to fight off inevitable industry lawsuits than basing the process on the Clean Air Act alone.  They would rather win a 1% annual pollution reduction than lose with a requirement closer to scientific necessities.  But just how solid a groundwork the 2008 law actually provides is open to question.  In 2015 State Sen. Doug Ericksen, the oil industry’s best friend in Olympia, asked the state attorney general his opinion on what the law actually required. 

The AG responded that it places no requirement on the Legislature.  “There is no language in the statute requiring the legislature to create a program to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions.”  Neither does it provide a legal ground to sue the state if it does not meet the limits.  The law “does not expressly create a cause of action for obtaining a court order requiring that the greenhouse gas emission reductions identified in that statute be enforced.” Nor can anyone collect damages for failure to reach the limits. “There is no language in RCW 70.235.020 that expressly creates a cause of action for damages against the state for a failure to achieve the greenhouse gas emission reductions identified in that statute.”

Certainly any lawsuit brought by the oil industry and other interests will cite that AG opinion to undermine the legal authority of the 2008 law in the rulemaking.  They will argue the law is essentially toothless, and have a basis on which to make that case.  The Clean Air Act authority is far more solid, and really meeting its mandate would require much more than the business as usual rule now proposed by Ecology. 

These are legal points, and they are important.  But beyond the legal, technical and bureaucratic framework in which this rule is conceived, another force is at play.  It was evident in the July 14 Ecology hearing when person after person placed the issue in the overriding moral context.  Around 24 people had been fasting the three days before, mostly parents and grandparents, to ask for a rule worthy of our children.  I was one of them.  I concluded my testimony with this:

“The ultimate test of any climate policy is what happens on this planet.  What will the world look like in 44 years when my 19-year-old daughter is my age?  I fear it will be a nightmare world in which civilization is breaking down.  The longer we delay acting in proportion to the crisis, the more likely this catastrophic future becomes.

“I implore you, as people I know are aware of these facts, and as concerned about them as I am, to listen to your heart and enact a rule to save our children’s generation.  It is up to us to act now in proportion to the crisis we face.”

Once again, I make that call to Ecology, and the governor.  This is no longer a business-as-usual world. We need a climate crisis rule for a climate crisis world.  Please give us one.  



Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hungry for climate justice: Fasting at the Washington State Capitol

I am sitting at the foot of the north stairs of the Washington State Capitol, outside Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.   I am one of 17 parents and grandparents who are here in the early part of a three-day fast for climate and our children’s future.  We are joined by a number of others fasting at home. 

We share many feelings.  Grief over the many losses our world faces because our parental generations have not honestly addressed the climate crisis.  Deep concern for what we are leaving our children and grandchildren.  Even a measure of hope that our modest act of self-denial can have an impact. 

I am the father of a 19-year-old, and I know the world she will face when she reaches my age in 44 years will be hotter and more turbulent, no matter what we do now.   This is the tough fact we must all face.  By increasing the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere to levels not seen in millions of years, our civilization has set our planet on a disastrous pathway.  Our task now, as parents and grandparents of coming generations, is to steer our world as much off this course as possible.  We must do all we can to leave our kids a world with which they can cope. 

We are here on these days because the Washington Department of Ecology has proposed a rule to limit carbon pollution, and will have a public hearing here in Olympia Thursday night.   It starts at 6 p.m. at The Red Lion Hotel, 2300 Evergreen Park Dr. SW.

Parents and grandparents fasting for climate and our children's future at the Washington State Capitol
The rule is built on a groundbreaking legal theory, that existing environmental protection laws provide a ground on which to regulate carbon pollution.  Inslee last year ordered the rulemaking under the authority of the state Clean Air Act, which mandates that the state “(p)reserve, protect and enhance the air quality for current and future generations.” 

But the draft rule proposed by Ecology doesn’t hit that mark. It’s in the numbers.  The essential goal is to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million by 2100.  That is the point where the atmosphere stops trapping heat, and the climate can begin to recover stability.  Currently, the Earth is accumulating extra solar energy at a mindboggling rate equal to four Hiroshima bombs exploding every second.  To reach that 350ppm goalpost, dramatic and deep carbon pollution reductions are needed now, in the range of 10% annually on a global basis. 

Because Washington state has a cleaner economy, our contribution to reaching the global goal is around 8% annually.  The Ecology Clean Air Rule calls for large polluters which emit two-thirds of Washington carbon emissions to cut at a rate of 1.7% per year, amounting to 1% against the whole state economy.  The effect is even less because the rule does not kick in for some polluters until 2020.  Offset trading can be used to meet 100% of requirements, creating uncertainties about how much carbon will actually be cut.  Piling onto that, the rule’s flawed language allows some offsets to count for double their carbon reductions. 

Clearly, there is a vast gap between what science requires and what the rule offers.  The parents and grandparents out here today are calling on Ecology to strengthen the rule so it actually does what the Clean Air Act requires.  We will all be at the hearing Thursday to make that call, and we encourage others to do the same, or to send in comments to this site by July 22, the cut-off date.

The question is whether Washington, or any state, can achieve such deep and rapid carbon reductions.  This has everything to do with how we are approaching the climate challenge, as people, as governments, as a society. We are still largely treating climate as just another issue on the plate that we can handle in a business as usual context.  Acting as if it is sufficient to alter the course by a few degrees.  That is the context of the Ecology rule.

But it isn’t sufficient.  Any honest appraisal of the science and the escalating impacts now emerging, from spiking temperatures to melting polar ice, can lead to only one conclusion.  We need to very rapidly change the course we are on, or soon a catastrophic level of climate impacts will lock in.  Our children will face a world that stresses their capacity to cope.  Human societies and economies will crack under the load. 

That is why we are committing this unusual act, a three-day climate fast for our children’s future.  It is a small way of breaking free from our own everyday lives, sitting in front of the Capitol, the center of our state government, calling on our governor and state officials to themselves break away from the assumptions of business and politics as usual. It’s just too late for anything else.

We need a stronger climate rule that moves as close to science-based carbon limits as humanly possible, and we need a wide range of policies and initiatives to back it up.  We need a commitment to move to 100% renewable energy in all sectors as fast as we can.  That involves shutting down fossil fueled power plants, electrifying transportation and renovating buildings. This calls for an ambitious climate agenda to rapidly transform our economy, with direct public investments and mandates to drive the process.

Before any of this can happen, we need to change the dialogue, and the context.  We need to move beyond the business as usual assumptions that undergird Ecology’s Clean Air Rule draft, and create a comprehensive state climate recovery effort.  We need to honestly address what we must do to protect our children’s world, the dramatic change in course this requires us to make. 

The parents and grandparents here today are fasting to make this point. We are hungry for climate justice, for our kids and all the youth who must cope with the world we will leave them. Particularly the poor and non-white who will take the hardest hits. Let’s do all we can to give them a fighting chance.