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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Friday, July 19, 2013

President Obama: Combating Global Warming vs. All of the Above Energy

Summary.  The United States has never passed a law enshrining a national policy to combat global warming.  In the absence of Congressional action, President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan in a speech and accompanying written program on June 25, 2013.  It contains a large number of specific initiatives grouped as cutting carbon pollution, protecting the country from the impacts of global warming, and working internationally to fight global warming.

The Action Plan contains many worthy features, some of which can be put into operation by administrative action, and others requiring budgetary action by the Congress.  It complements actions already taken to make cars and electric generating plants operate with greater fuel efficiency.

The President has also promoted an “All of the Above” energy policy which includes expanding domestic production of fossil fuels.  New fossil fuel uses make certain that GHG emissions will continue for decades.  This policy is incompatible with his newly announced Climate Action Plan, which seeks to reduce GHG emissions.  In order to minimize the harms arising from worsening global warming the President should abandon his “All of the Above” energy policy and expand his Climate Action Plan.

Introduction. The United States has never enacted a comprehensive national global warming policy.  Since the late 1990’s there have been some plans operating at the international, regional and national levels to curb the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere.  These programs have been undertaken recognizing that human activity is responsible for the accumulation of GHGs and that the world’s nations must work together to mitigate emissions.  The U. S. Senate, in contrast, rejected participation in the Kyoto Protocol, the major international agreement.  Only in recent years have certain American states, individually or by interstate agreements, embarked on policies to reduce GHG emissions.  (Please find a Summary of Historical Developments at the end of this post.)

President Obama delivered a major speech on energy policy (video and transcript) on June 25, 2013.   The President, speaking to an audience of college students, stated

“So the question is not whether we need to act [to address global warming]. The overwhelming judgment of science … has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including… some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They've acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.

“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.

“As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.”

The President pointed out that confronting global warming

“is a challenge that does not pause for partisan gridlock [in the U. S. Congress]. It demands our attention now. And this is my [three-part] plan to meet it – [1] a plan to cut carbon pollution; [2] a plan to protect our country from the impacts of [global warming]; and [3] a plan to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a [warming planet].”

In conjunction with the speech the White House issued an extended description of his proposals at the same time.  These encompass both executive actions that the Administration can put in place on its own, as well as spending programs, requiring enactment by Congress, that address global warming.  These are incorporated into the President’s budget for Fiscal Year (FY) 2014.  We summarize important features of President Obama’s three-point program here.

Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.  The administration will finalize pending rules limiting emissions from large new electric power plants and will formulate comparable rules for power plants already built.  The President proposes to double U. S. production of energy from renewable sources by 2020.  For example, public lands will be used to construct significant new renewable energy generating projects.  New efficiency standards for federal buildings using performance-based contracts, and for retail appliances, should contribute to significant reductions in emissions by 2030.  Similarly new incentives to increase energy efficiency of commercial and industrial buildings are planned.

Protecting the U. S. from the impacts of global warming: measures undertaken to adapt to damaging effects of global warming that are already occurring.   The President will promote new policies to protect areas affected by Hurricane Sandy from future flood damage, and will extend flood-risk reduction to all federally funded projects, such as coastal highways.  In recognition of the severe drought that affected portions of the Midwest in 2011 and 2012, the Administration will provide science-based knowledge that helps farmers, ranchers and citizens to overcome hazards and damage from drought and wildfire.  Also, the FY 2014 budget itemizes inter-agency spending for the third U. S. National Climate Assessment.

Leading the world in a coordinated assault on a warming planet.   The President recognizes that global warming is an international challenge, since the harmful impacts of warming are felt worldwide.  The Administration will work toward achieving international action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to help nations in need to prepare for adverse effects of global warming.  It will develop or expand international initiatives, including two-party talks between the U. S. and major emitters such as China, India and Brazil.  It is also pursuing a United Nations agreement by 2015 to follow the expired Kyoto Protocol, for implementation by 2020.  Since one-third of global emissions arises from non-fossil fuel activities such as deforestation and land use practices, the Administration will seek to spread forest preservation and replanting activities in affected countries.  Worldwide fossil fuel subsidies amount to US$500 billion a year.  The U. S. is advocating eliminating subsidies, including the U. S. fossil fuel subsidy. 


 President Obama unveiled his policy to combat global warming in his address of June 25, 2013 and the accompanying “President’s Climate Action Planof June 2013. 

The Climate Action Plan includes an extensive array of detailed administrative initiatives and proposals for new programs that require budgetary approval by the U. S. Congress.  A selection of the policy’s actions has been summarized here.  Its many new programs and policies represent affirmative responses to the perils presented by worsening global warming, in the face of the repeated inability of the U. S. Congress over the last 15 years to come together to enact an integrated national global warming policy (see the Summary of Historical Developments below).  The proposed actions complement a major increase in automobile fuel efficiency that have already been announced, as well as anticipated new regulations limiting GHG emissions by large newly constructed and existing electric generation plants.

President Obama’s Plan to combat global warming, including the emissions limits, represents an important first step to create a comprehensive, meaningful climate policy at the national level.  It is significant in many ways.  We all have, as members of the community of humankind, an obligation to protect and preserve our planet for ourselves and for future generations.  The Plan’s programs will lead to creation of many new jobs, and promote formation of new enterprises, thus helping expand our economy.  It formulates a comprehensive set of policy actions that address abatement of emissions and adaptation to perils already under way at the national level.  These actions promote the standing of the U. S. among nations as making a serious effort to address global warming.  Capitalizing on this positive standing, the Plan sets forth initiatives to secure multinational, and ultimately worldwide international, agreements among major emitting nations.  It also seeks to assist other nations inadvertently harmed by global warming, to abate its progress and to provide assistance to help accommodate to its harms.

As President Obama noted in his speech, climate scientists agree that man-made GHGs that accumulate in the atmosphere cause a warming of our planet.  Global warming brings with it severe strains to human endeavor, ranging from rains and floods, to heat and drought, to sea level rise that causes coastal flooding in areas that had been secure in the past. 

A principal GHG, carbon dioxide (CO2), and other GHGs as well, persist in the atmosphere for a century or more once emitted; they are not cleansed by any natural process.  Ever since humans began burning fossil fuels in the industrial revolution, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.  The rate of accumulation of additional CO2 is now about 100 times faster than has occurred in the geological past from natural processes.   For all these reasons, the longer the nations of the world delay combating global warming, the more difficult it will be to achieve results.

In view of these scientific findings, President Obama’s more general energy policy, enunciated as an “All of the Above” policy, is counterproductive.  “All of the Above” promotes expanded domestic production of fossil fuels while at the same time fostering expansion of renewable energy sources.  But the U. S. generates far more energy from fossil fuels than it does from renewables.  In recent years production of natural gas has been expanding rapidly, and new drilling for offshore oil is being allowed to proceed.  Oil pipelines are growing and a major pipeline, the XL project, for transporting Canadian oil originating from tar sands is being weighed for approval. 

But we must remember: every new fossil fuel facility has a lifetime of, say, 40 years or so, and so will continue to emit CO2 throughout that lifetime, worsening the atmospheric burden and making global warming more severe.  Every policy should be considered according to the criterion of whether it abates emissions or contributes more.  We must remember: we can slow the rate of accumulating more GHGs in the atmosphere, but we are powerless at present to reduce the amount already accumulated.  The atmospheric GHG “bathtub” keeps on filling to higher and higher levels.  “All of the Above” continues filling the “bathtub”.   It is not a viable policy, and is incompatible with the President’s climate speech of June 25.  Our energy economy should have only one objective, namely, to reduce the additional accumulation of GHGs as rapidly as possible.

Summary of Historical Developments

The Kyoto Protocol (see this post) was negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and was completed in 1997.  Under its terms, the developed countries of the world agreed to reduce their emissions of GHGs by prescribed amounts by 2012, the end of the Protocol’s lifetime.  The Protocol explicitly excluded developing countries, including nations like China, India and Brazil, from its requirements, however, on the premise that this group of nations needed energy from all sources to raise their standards of living.  For this and other reasons the U. S. Senate voted 95-0 not to consider the treaty for ratification, so that the U. S. in fact has not been bound by its terms.

Upon ratification by a sufficient number of subscribers, the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005.  Under its terms, most participating states undertook to reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions below their emission levels of 1990 by 8%, during the commitment period, 2008-2012.

As of 1997 developing countries had very low levels of economic activity, and emitted very small amounts of greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide).  Since then, however, the principal developing countries, such as China and India, have expanded dramatically, and have become major contributors to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.  China overtook the U. S. in total amount of emissions around 2009, and now emits the most of any country on earth.

The European Union even before the effective date of 2005 set its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in place to limit GHG emissions through 2020, using a cap and trade market mechanism.  (Unfortunately the ETS has not succeeded in pricing carbon emissions high enough to serve as an incentive to lower emissions.)

The United States has never enacted a national emissions regime.  The McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 was intended to limit GHG emissions by establishing a national cap-and-trade mechanism for trading emissions allowances.  Their proposal failed in the Senate by 43-55, although the vote was considered to reflect a growing bipartisan appreciation of the need for action on the issue.  In 2009 the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act by a vote of 219-212.  Its principal feature likewise was a cap-and-trade emissions trading system resembling the European Union’s ETS.  The U. S. Senate failed to consider the House bill for passage, and it never became law.

The U.  S. Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was obligated to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act in 2007, noting that the “harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized.  The Government’s own objective assessment of the relevant science and a strong consensus among qualified experts indicate that global warming threatens” many harmful and detrimental effects.  (Massachusetts et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency et al.; 549 U.S. 497  (2007)).

Accordingly, following the requirements of the Clean Air Act, after its administrative review, the EPA issued its Endangerment Finding that six important greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and methane “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations”.  It also issued its Cause or Contribute Finding, noting that emissions of these gases from new motor vehicles contribute to this harmful greenhouse gas pollution.  These findings affirm the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

President Bush raised vehicle fuel efficiency requirements in 2007, by signing into law the Energy Independence and Security Act.  The law increased the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard (CAFÉ), requiring that the average reach 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020.  This was the first legislated change in the CAFÉ standard since the efficiency standard was created in 1975.

The Obama administration further raised automotive efficiency standards on August 25, 2012.  The CAFÉ standard for cars and light trucks is set to reach an average level of 54.5 mpg by 2025.  This would represent a doubling of fuel efficiency from current levels.  It is important to note that limiting CAFÉ standards recognizes that transportation vehicles using internal combustion engines are mobile, point sources of GHG emissions.  This renders it essentially impossible to collect and store the emitted GHGs.

EPA is preparing to regulate emissions from large capacity power generation plants.  A pendingrule would limit emissions, only from newly constructed large plants that burn fossil fuels, to 1000 pounds of CO2/MW-hr of energy produced.  This limit is set so that gas-fired plants and coal-burning plants that capture and store CO2 (see this post  on capture and storage) readily meet the limit.  A coal-burning plant without capture and store would not satisfy the limit.  Although the rule was originally intended to be issued in April 2013, the Obama administration postponed issuing it indefinitely in order to respond to comments from the power industry that the rule’s standards could not be met with available methods, according to the New York Times.   Since new coal-fired plants without capture and storage cannot meet the proposed rule, many affected politicians and the coal industry have opposed it.   Its revised version has been sent for final review at the White House and revision by the EPA, by late September 2013.

President Obama directed the EPA to begin writing similar regulations that would cover existing power plants in his Climate Action Plan.
© 2013 Henry Auer