Category Archives: Climate Change

Open letter from Davis to Benicia: Stop crude by rail

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: A year ago, almost to the day, I wrote an Op-Ed for The Benicia Herald titled, “Valero crude-by-rail: ‘Down-wind’ and ‘up-rail’.”  A few months later, I was contacted by Milton Kalish and Lynne Nittler of Davis, and we’ve stayed in touch.  They – and their wonderful group of activist friends in Cool Davis, Yolano Climate Action and 350 Sacramento – have continued their CBR organizing efforts with great energy and creativity.  This open letter by Lynne serves as a detailed primer of all the reasons why CBR must be stopped.  A must-read.  – RS]

Open letter to Benicia: Stop crude by rail

July 10, 2014 by Lynne Nittler

IN RESPONSE TO JIM LESSENGER’S OPED OF JULY 4, “Open letter to the City Council: Support CBR,” I write today urging Benicia to deny the proposed Valero Refinery Crude-by-Rail Project until all safety measures listed below are in place.

I have been carefully following the proposed Benicia project, reading articles from a wide variety of sources including many reports and, most recently, the Draft Environmental Impact Report.

I follow a number of environmental topics closely, particularly those related to climate change. I am on the board of Cool Davis, a nonprofit organization that helps the city of Davis implement its Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

I have an “uprail” perspective that is important to add to the conversation on the Valero proposal, as the impact of the daily trains would be significant in my community.

I have six reasons Benicia should deny the CBR project. They are as follows:

1. The project is far from contained within Benicia’s 3,000-acre Industrial Park.

Benicia is fortunate to have a buffer area of industries and vacant land around Valero Benicia Refinery. Valero has even promised that the oil trains will not cross city streets during Benicia’s rush hours (though neither Valero nor the city of Benicia can enforce that promise).

Davis and other uprail communities are not so fortunate. The trains will pass through downtown Davis, including residential neighborhoods, the center of downtown, university housing and the entire Mondavi Performing Arts Complex and Conference Center.

Train travel through Davis is made more dangerous because there is a curve with a 10-mph left-handed cross-over between the main tracks several hundred feet east of the Amtrak station, right downtown. All other crossovers on the line are rated for 45 mph. This 10-mph spot in particular is an accident waiting to happen.

While the trains would hopefully avoid rush hour in Benicia, that will surely not be the case for all uprail communities.

2. Valero owns the property but should not be allowed to set profits ahead of public health and safety.

No corporation operates in a vacuum. Valero’s decision to import North American crude has profound effects beyond its own improvement that cannot be ignored.

Valero’s change to crude by rail from crude by ship would allow it to import both Canadian tar sands and Bakken crude, and would add additional dangerous trains to the tracks all the way back to their points of origin, most likely in North Dakota or Alberta, Canada. That means the trains endanger and disrupt towns and cities across our country on their way to Benicia. These tracks are already impacted by oil trains taking precedence over trains transporting grain and other local crops and commuter trains. More importantly, people are endangered by the highly volatile Bakken crude — there have been 12 significant derailments since May 2013, with six explosions — and our precious marshes and waterways are threatened by the possibility of toxic spills of tar sands bitumen, which quickly sinks to the bottom and cannot be removed. The Kalamazoo River, Mich. cleanup of 1 million gallons of leaked tar sands dilbit is still unsuccessful after four years and $1 billion.

In California, the trains would come over the Sierra Nevada Mountains or wind through the Feather River Canyon (rated as a “rail high-hazard area” by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services), or possibly even come from Oregon down through Redding and Dunsmuir, site of a 1991 derailment of a fertilizer tank car that killed fish for 40 miles. In any of these routes, major rivers would be crossed where an accident could contaminate much-needed drinking and irrigation water.

3. The project will clearly affect the environment.

A wider view of “environment” raises serious concerns. California considers the cradle-to-grave lifecycle of products. Extracting, refining and burning heavy, sour crude is a nasty job, start to finish.  That’s why tar sands is called a “dirty” fossil fuel, noted for its energy-intensive carbon footprint. This deserves a full discussion which is beyond the scope of this letter. The recently completed Valero Improvement Project was intended to allow the refinery to handle refining the heavy, sour crude as efficiently as possible, which is laudable, but that is not to say it is a clean process. Setting aside the forests destroyed and the unlined toxic tailing ponds leaking into the waterways in Canada at the point of extraction, we must note that processing tar sands bitumen will produce more of the byproduct petcoke that is so polluting it cannot be burned in the U.S. (It can be sold abroad and burned for energy there. Ironically, when it is burned in China, some of the smog blows back across the ocean to Southern California.)

The heavy crude is high in sulfur and toxic metals, which corrode refinery pipes. The Richmond refinery fire in 2010 was traced partly to corrosion from refining tar sands. Emissions must be carefully monitored to ensure toxic fumes do not escape to neighborhoods or endanger workers.

The 2003 “improvement” project enabling Valero to refine heavy crude opened the door for California to refine more of the world’s dirtiest bitumen, running contrary to our state goals under AB 32 to conserve energy and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by moving to renewable energy sources. In fact, according to California Energy Commission figures, California reduced its total consumption of oil from 700 million to 600 million barrels in the last year, primarily through conservation — i.e., adopting lower-emissions vehicles and Energy Star appliances, changing transportation habits to walk-bike-public transport, and making our buildings more energy efficient. We are moving away from our dependence on oil by reducing our consumption of it.

4. The project will be safer, but not safe.

The outgoing chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has some strong words for the rail industry and the way certain hazardous liquid is transported.

Deborah Hersman’s strong remarks are tied to older-model rail tank cars known as DOT-111s, which carry crude oil and ethanol through cities across the U.S. and Canada. Hersman told an audience that DOT-111 tank cars are not safe enough to carry hazardous liquids — in fact, she said her agency issued recommendations several years ago. “We said they either need to remove or retrofit these cars if they’re going to continue to carry hazardous liquids,” Hersman said on April 22, 2014.

Right now, four California legislators are urging the Department of Transportation to take action on critical safety measures. After a hearing of the joint houses of the Legislature on June 19 chaired by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, Congressmembers John Garamendi, D-Davis, Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, Mike Thompson, D-Napa, and George Miller, D-Martinez, sent a letter to Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, stating that “we cannot allow communities to be in danger when viable solutions are available.”

The summary of their requests, dated July 1, 2014, is as follows:

• Provide a report on the level of compliance by the railroad and petroleum industry to the May 7 Emergency Order.

• Issue rulemaking that requires stripping out the most volatile elements from Bakken crude before it is loaded onto rail cars.

• Expedite the issuance of a final rulemaking to require the full implementation of the Positive Train Control (PTC) technology for all railroads transporting lighter crude, and provide a status report on the progress of PTC implementation to date.

• Expedite the issuance of rulemaking that requires phasing out old rail cars for newer, retrofitted cars.

The Benicia decision comes at a critical moment. Benicia’s approval of the Valero proposal before DOT takes action would undercut what our legislators are trying to do to protect not just Benicia citizens, but all uprail citizens all across the U.S. Regulating that the volatility of crude be reduced will force the industry to build small processing towers — aptly called stabilizers — that remove natural gas liquids (a product that can be saved and sold) from the crude before it is loaded, as they do in other parts of the country (Eagle Ford shale reserves in Texas, for example).

Obviously, creating this necessary infrastructure will increase the cost of Bakken crude. The industry will no doubt balk at the additional expense, as will the refineries. On the other hand, it’s immoral to expose many millions to explosive trains of Bakken crude when there is a remedy! One Lac-Mégantic tragedy is enough.

The trains rumbling into Benicia are the first trains to pass daily through our region to the Bay Area, but others will follow. The approval of this project cannot be viewed in isolation. This fall the DEIR will be available for review for the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery Rail Spur Project that would bring another daily train through my community in Davis, through yours in Benicia, across the aging Benicia rail bridge, along the beautiful Carquinez Strait, through the East Bay and on down the Capitol Corridor to San Luis Obispo County. Based on California Energy Commission data, the Sacramento Bee says we can expect five to six trains daily in the next few years as California receives 25 percent of its crude by rail.

We put ourselves at grave risk to proceed with any rail projects now until we firmly lock in place the safety measures requested by our U.S. congressmembers. In this country, protection for the public must come first.

5. The CBR proposal makes no economic sense for Benicia and for the nation.

We live in a WORLD economy. Rather than destined for domestic purposes, the refined oil from all five Bay Area refineries is sold on the world market for greatest profit. That’s why gasoline rates at the pumps have not decreased during this oil boom.

Considered from the perspective of the weather of our planet, which will become a pivotal concern in the coming years, it makes no sense, financial or otherwise, to extract another drop of fossil fuel from the Earth. We need to put all our attention on renewables and conservation, and cut back drastically on our oil consumption. Realistically, this means refineries will need to produce far fewer products, and the oil extraction frenzy will die down.

6. The Valero refinery cannot befriend Benicia and then turn around and foul the air, risking the health and safety of our children.

Valero may mean well when it makes charitable contributions, but its intentions mean little if it then creates unsafe conditions for those who are in receipt of its generosity. It is not surprising that salaried employees, wage earners and grant recipients would stand up in favor of most anything proposed by the “friendly giant.” But it is incumbent on us all to look at the big picture — and a big picture that contains oil trains is not a pretty one.

In summary, I recommend a “no” vote on the Valero Crude-by-Rail Project until all safety measures requested by our four local congressmembers in Washington are firmly in place, and enough new tank cars are designed and produced to safely convey the crude oil from its source to Benicia, ensuring that no communities or waterways are in danger.

This “no” vote would send a strong message to DOT that their work is urgent, and that the regulations they make will be closely monitored. A “yes” vote, however, would undercut the important work our legislators are doing on our behalf.

Lynne Nittler lives uprail from Benicia in Davis. She devotes much of her time to Cool Davis, a nonprofit that focuses on helping Davis reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to a changing climate and improve the quality of life for all. She has followed the oil train issue closely since last September.

    Al Gore in Rolling Stone – hopeful

    Repost from The Rolling Stone

    The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate

    It’s time to accelerate the shift toward a low-carbon future

    In the struggle to solve the climate crisis, a powerful, largely unnoticed shift is taking place. The forward journey for human civilization will be difficult and dangerous, but it is now clear that we will ultimately prevail. The only question is how quickly we can accelerate and complete the transition to a low-carbon civilization. There will be many times in the decades ahead when we will have to take care to guard against despair, lest it become another form of denial, paralyzing action. It is true that we have waited too long to avoid some serious damage to the planetary ecosystem – some of it, unfortunately, irreversible. Yet the truly catastrophic damages that have the potential for ending civilization as we know it can still – almost certainly – be avoided. Moreover, the pace of the changes already set in motion can still be moderated significantly.

    Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

    There is surprising – even shocking – good news: Our ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted. The cost of electricity from photovoltaic, or PV, solar cells is now equal to or less than the cost of electricity from other sources powering electric grids in at least 79 countries. By 2020 – as the scale of deployments grows and the costs continue to decline – more than 80 percent of the world’s people will live in regions where solar will be competitive with electricity from other sources.

    No matter what the large carbon polluters and their ideological allies say or do, in markets there is a huge difference between “more expensive than” and “cheaper than.” Not unlike the difference between 32 degrees and 33 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s not just a difference of a degree, it’s the difference between a market that’s frozen up and one that’s liquid. As a result, all over the world, the executives of companies selling electricity generated from the burning of carbon-based fuels (primarily from coal) are openly discussing their growing fears of a “utility death spiral.”

    Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, where renewable subsidies have been especially high, now generates 37 percent of its daily electricity from wind and solar; and analysts predict that number will rise to 50 percent by 2020. (Indeed, one day this year, renewables created 74 percent of the nation’s electricity!)

    Scorched Earth: How Climate Change Is Spreading Drought Throughout the Globe

    What’s more, Germany’s two largest coal-burning utilities have lost 56 percent of their value over the past four years, and the losses have continued into the first half of 2014. And it’s not just Germany. Last year, the top 20 utilities throughout Europe reported losing half of their value since 2008. According to the Swiss bank UBS, nine out of 10 European coal and gas plants are now losing money.

    In the United States, where up to 49 percent of the new generating capacity came from renewables in 2012, 166 coal-fired electricity-generating plants have either closed or have announced they are closing in the past four and a half years. An additional 183 proposed new coal plants have been canceled since 2005.

    To be sure, some of these closings have been due to the substitution of gas for coal, but the transition under way in both the American and global energy markets is far more significant than one fossil fuel replacing another. We are witnessing the beginning of a massive shift to a new energy-distribution model – from the “central station” utility-grid model that goes back to the 1880s to a “widely distributed” model with rooftop solar cells, on-site and grid battery storage, and microgrids.

    The principal trade group representing U.S. electric utilities, the Edison Electric Institute, has identified distributed generation as the “largest near-term threat to the utility model.” Last May, Barclays downgraded the entirety of the U.S. electric sector, warning that “a confluence of declining cost trends in distributed solar­photovoltaic-power generation and residential­scale power storage is likely to disrupt the status quo” and make utility investments less attractive.

    See the 10 Dumbest Things Said About Global Warming

    This year, Citigroup reported that the widespread belief that natural gas – the supply of which has ballooned in the U.S. with the fracking of shale gas – will continue to be the chosen alternative to coal is mistaken, because it too will fall victim to the continuing decline in the cost of solar and wind electricity. Significantly, the cost of battery storage, long considered a barrier to the new electricity system, has also been declining steadily – even before the introduction of disruptive new battery technologies that are now in advanced development. Along with the impressive gains of clean-energy programs in the past decade, there have been similar improvements in our ability to do more with less. Since 1980, the U.S. has reduced total energy intensity by 49 percent.

    It is worth remembering this key fact about the supply of the basic “fuel”: Enough raw energy reaches the Earth from the sun in one hour to equal all of the energy used by the entire world in a full year.

    In poorer countries, where most of the world’s people live and most of the growth in energy use is occurring, photovoltaic electricity is not so much displacing carbon-based energy as leapfrogging it altogether. In his first days in office, the government of the newly elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi (who has authored an e-book on global warming), announced a stunning plan to rely principally upon photovoltaic energy in providing electricity to 400 million Indians who currently do not have it. One of Modi’s supporters, S.L. Rao, the former utility regulator of India, added that the industry he once oversaw “has reached a stage where either we change the whole system quickly, or it will collapse.”

    Nor is India an outlier. Neighboring Bangladesh is installing nearly two new rooftop PV systems every minute — making it the most rapidly growing market for PVs in the world. In West and East Africa, solar-electric cells are beginning what is widely predicted to be a period of explosive growth.

    At the turn of the 21st century, some scoffed at projections that the world would be installing one gigawatt of new solar electricity per year by 2010. That goal was exceeded 17 times over; last year it was exceeded 39 times over; and this year the world is on pace to exceed that benchmark as much as 55 times over. In May, China announced that by 2017, it would have the capacity to generate 70 gigawatts of photovoltaic electricity. The state with by far the biggest amount of wind energy is Texas, not historically known for its progressive energy policies.

    The cost of wind energy is also plummeting, having dropped 43 percent in the United States since 2009 – making it now cheaper than coal for new generating capacity. Though the downward cost curve is not quite as steep as that for solar, the projections in 2000 for annual worldwide wind deployments by the end of that decade were exceeded seven times over, and are now more than 10 times that figure. In the United States alone, nearly one-third of all new electricity-generating capacity in the past five years has come from wind, and installed wind capacity in the U.S. has increased more than fivefold since 2006.

    For consumers, this good news may soon get even better. While the cost of carbon­based energy continues to increase, the cost of solar electricity has dropped by an average of 20 percent per year since 2010. Some energy economists, including those who produced an authoritative report this past spring for Bernstein Research, are now predicting energy-price deflation as soon as the next decade.

    For those (including me) who are surprised at the speed with which this impending transition has been accelerating, there are precedents that help explain it. Remember the first mobile-telephone handsets? I do; as an inveterate “early adopter” of new technologies, I thought those first huge, clunky cellphones were fun to use and looked cool (they look silly now, of course). In 1980, a few years before I bought one of the early models, AT&T conducted a global market study and came to the conclusion that by the year 2000 there would be a market for 900,000 subscribers. They were not only wrong, they were way wrong: 109 million contracts were active in 2000. Barely a decade and a half later, there are 6.8 billion globally. 
These parallels have certainly caught the attention of the fossil-fuel industry and its investors: Eighteen months ago, the Edison Electric Institute described the floundering state of the once-proud landline-telephone companies as a grim predictor of what may soon be their fate.

    The utilities are fighting back, of course, by using their wealth and the entrenched political power they have built up over the past century. In the United States, brothers Charles and David Koch, who run Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned corporation in the U.S., have secretively donated at least $70 million to a number of opaque political organizations tasked with spreading disinformation about the climate crisis and intimidating political candidates who dare to support renewable energy or the pricing of carbon pollution.

    A Call to Arms: An invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change

    They regularly repeat shopworn complaints about the inadequate, intermittent and inconsistent subsidies that some governments have used in an effort to speed up the deployment of renewables, while ignoring the fact that global subsidies for carbon-based energy are 25 times larger than global subsidies for renewables.

    One of the most effective of the groups financed by the Koch brothers and other carbon polluters is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which grooms conservative state legislators throughout the country to act as their agents in introducing legislation written by utilities and carbon-fuel lobbyists in a desperate effort to slow, if not stop, the transition to renewable energy.

    The Kochs claim to act on principles of low taxation and minimal regulation, but in their attempts to choke the development of alternative energy, they have induced the recipients of their generous campaign contributions to contradict these supposedly bedrock values, pushing legislative and regulatory measures in 34 states to discourage solar, or encourage carbon energy, or both. The most controversial of their initiatives is focused on persuading state legislatures and public-utility commissions to tax homeowners who install a PV solar cell on their roofs, and to manipulate the byzantine utility laws and regulations to penalize renewable energy in a variety of novel schemes.

    The chief battleground in this war between the energy systems of the past and future is our electrical grid. For more than a century, the grid – along with the regulatory and legal framework governing it – has been dominated by electric utilities and their centralized, fossil-fuel-powered­ electricity-generation plants. But the rise of distributed alternate energy sources allows consumers to participate in the production of electricity through a policy called net metering. In 43 states, homeowners who install solar PV to systems on their rooftops are permitted to sell electricity back into the grid when they generate more than they need.

    These policies have been crucial to the growth of solar power. But net metering represents an existential threat to the future of electric utilities, the so-called utility death spiral: As more consumers install solar panels on their roofs, utilities will have to raise prices on their remaining customers to recover the lost revenues. Those higher rates will, in turn, drive more consumers to leave the utility system, and so on.

    But here is more good news: The Koch brothers are losing rather badly. In Kansas, their home state, a poll by North Star Opinion Research reported that 91 percent of registered voters support solar and wind. Three-quarters supported stronger policy encouragement of renewable energy, even if such policies raised their electricity bills.

    In Georgia, the Atlanta Tea Party joined forces with the Sierra Club to form a new organization called – wait for it – the Green Tea Coalition, which promptly defeated a Koch-funded scheme to tax rooftop solar panels.

    Meanwhile, in Arizona, after the state’s largest utility, an ALEC member, asked the public-utility commission for a tax of up to $150 per month for solar households, the opposition was fierce and well-organized. A compromise was worked out – those households would be charged just $5 per month – but Barry Goldwater Jr., the leader of a newly formed organization called TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed), is fighting a new attempt to discourage rooftop solar in Arizona. Characteristically, the Koch brothers and their allies have been using secretive and deceptive funding in Arizona to run television advertisements attacking “greedy” owners of rooftop solar panels – but their effort has thus far backfired, as local journalists have exposed the funding scam.

    Even though the Koch-funded forces recently scored a partial (and almost certainly temporary) victory in Ohio, where the legislature voted to put a hold on the state’s renewable-portfolio standard and study the issue for two years, it’s clear that the attack on solar energy is too little, too late. Last year, the Edison Electric Institute warned the utility industry that it had waited too long to respond to the sharp cost declines and growing popularity of solar: “At the point when utility investors become focused on these new risks and start to witness significant customer- and earnings-erosion trends, they will respond to these challenges. But, by then, it may be too late to repair the utility business model.”

    The most seductive argument deployed by the Koch brothers and their allies is that those who use rooftop solar electricity and benefit from the net-metering policies are “free riders” – that is, they are allegedly not paying their share of the maintenance costs for the infrastructure of the old utility model, including the grid itself. This deceptive message, especially when coupled with campaign contributions, has persuaded some legislators to support the proposed new taxes on solar panels.

    But the argument ignores two important realities facing the electric utilities: First, most of the excess solar electricity is supplied by owners of solar cells during peak-load hours of the day, when the grid’s capacity is most stressed – thereby alleviating the pressure to add expensive new coal- or gas-fired generating capacity. But here’s the rub: What saves money for their customers cuts into the growth of their profits and depresses their stock prices. As is often the case, the real conflict is between the public interest and the special interest.

    The second reality ignored by the Koch brothers is the one they least like to discuss, the one they spend so much money trying to obfuscate with their hired “merchants of doubt.” You want to talk about the uncompensated use of infrastructure? What about sewage infrastructure for 98 million tons per day of gaseous, heat-trapping waste that is daily released into our skies, threatening the future of human civilization? Is it acceptable to use the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet as an open sewer? Free of charge? Really?

    This, after all, is the reason the climate crisis has become an existential threat to the future of human civilization. Last April, the average CO2 concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere exceeded 400 parts-per-million on a sustained basis for the first time in at least 800,000 years and probably for the first time in at least 4.5 million years (a period that was considerably warmer than at present).

    According to a cautious analysis by the influential climate scientist James Hansen, the accumulated man-made global-warming pollution already built up in the Earth’s atmosphere now traps as much extra heat energy every day as would be released by the explosion of 400,000 Hiroshima-class nuclear bombs. It’s a big planet, but that’s a lot of energy.

    And it is that heat energy that is giving the Earth a fever. Denialists hate the “fever” metaphor, but as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) pointed out this year, “Just as a 1.4­degree-fever change would be seen as significant in a child’s body, a similar change in our Earth’s temperature is also a concern for human society.”

    Thirteen of the 14 hottest years ever measured with instruments have occurred in this century. This is the 37th year in a row that has been hotter than the 20th-century average. April was the 350th month in a row hotter than the average in the preceding century. The past decade was by far the warmest decade ever measured.

    Many scientists expect the coming year could break all of these records by a fair margin because of the extra boost from the anticipated El Niño now gathering in the waters of the eastern Pacific. (The effects of periodic El Niño events are likely to become stronger because of global warming, and this one is projected by many scientists to be stronger than average, perhaps on the scale of the epic El Niño of 1997 to 1998.)

    The fast-growing number of extreme-weather events, connected to the climate crisis, has already had a powerful impact on public attitudes toward global warming. A clear majority of Americans now acknowledge that man-made pollution is responsible. As the storms, floods, mudslides, droughts, fires and other catastrophes become ever more destructive, the arcane discussions over how much of their extra-destructive force should be attributed to global warming have become largely irrelevant. The public at large feels it viscerally now. As Bob Dylan sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

    Besides, there is a simple difference between linear cause and effect and systemic cause and effect. As one of the world’s most-respected atmospheric scientists, Kevin Trenberth, has said, “The environment in which all storms form has changed owing to human activities.”

    For example, when Supertyphoon Haiyan crossed the Pacific toward the Philippines last fall, the storm gained strength across seas that were 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they used to be because of greenhouse­gas pollution. As a result, Haiyan went from being merely strong to being the most powerful and destructive ocean-based storm on record to make landfall. Four million people were displaced (more than twice as many as by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 10 years ago), and there are still more than 2 million Haiyan refugees desperately trying to rebuild their lives.

    When Superstorm Sandy traversed the areas of the Atlantic Ocean windward of New York and New Jersey in 2012, the water temperature was nine degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. The extra convection energy in those waters fed the storm and made the winds stronger than they would otherwise have been. Moreover, the sea level was higher than it used to be, elevated by the melting of ice in the frozen regions of the Earth and the expanded volume of warmer ocean waters.

    Five years earlier, denialists accused me of demagogic exaggeration in an animated scene in my documentary An Inconvenient Truth that showed the waters of the Atlantic Ocean flooding into the 9/11 Ground Zero Memorial site. But in Sandy’s wake, the Atlantic did in fact flood Ground Zero – many years before scientists had expected that to occur.

    Similarly, the inundation of Miami Beach by rising sea levels has now begun, and freshwater aquifers in low-lying areas from South Florida to the Nile Delta to Bangladesh to Indochina are being invaded by saltwater pushed upward by rising oceans. And of course, many low-lying islands – not least in the Bay of Bengal – are in danger of disappearing altogether. Where will the climate refugees go? Similarly, the continued melting of mountain glaciers and snowpacks is, according to the best scientists, already “affecting water supplies for as many as a billion people around the world.”

    Just as the extreme-weather events we are now experiencing are exactly the kind that were predicted by scientists decades ago, the scientific community is now projecting far worse extreme-weather events in the years to come. Eighty percent of the warming in the past 150 years (since the burning of carbon-based fuels gained momentum) has occurred in the past few decades. And it is worth noting that the previous scientific projections consistently low-balled the extent of the global­warming consequences that later took place – for a variety of reasons rooted in the culture of science that favor conservative estimates of future effects.

    In an effort to avoid these cultural biases, the AAAS noted this year that not only are the impacts of the climate crisis “very likely to become worse over the next 10 to 20 years and beyond,” but “there is a possibility that temperatures will rise much higher and impacts will be much worse than expected. Moreover, as global temperature rises, the risk increases that one or more important parts of the Earth’s climate system will experience changes that may be abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible, causing large damages and high costs.”

    Just weeks after that report, there was shock and, for some, a temptation to despair when the startling news was released in May by scientists at both NASA and the University of Washington that the long-feared “collapse” of a portion of the West Antarctic ice sheet is not only under way but is also now “irreversible.” Even as some labored to understand what the word “collapse” implied about the suddenness with which this catastrophe will ultimately unfold, it was the word “irreversible” that had a deeper impact on the collective psyche.

    Just as scientists 200 years ago could not comprehend the idea that species had once lived on Earth and had subsequently become extinct, and just as some people still find it hard to accept the fact that human beings have become a sufficiently powerful force of nature to reshape the ecological system of our planet, many – including some who had long since accepted the truth about global warming – had difficulty coming to grips with the stark new reality that one of the long-feared “tipping points” had been crossed. And that, as a result, no matter what we do, sea levels will rise by at least an additional three feet.

    The uncertainty about how long the process will take (some of the best ice scientists warn that a rise of 10 feet in this century cannot be ruled out) did not change the irreversibility of the forces that we have set in motion. But as Eric Rignot, the lead author of the NASA study, pointed out in The Guardian, it’s still imperative that we take action: “Controlling climate warming may ultimately make a difference not only about how fast West Antarctic ice will melt to sea, but also whether other parts of Antarctica will take their turn.”

    The news about the irreversible collapse in West Antarctica caused some to almost forget that only two months earlier, a similar startling announcement had been made about the Greenland ice sheet. Scientists found that the northeastern part of Greenland – long thought to be resistant to melting – has in fact been losing more than 10 billion tons of ice per year for the past decade, making 100 percent of Greenland unstable and likely, as with West Antarctica, to contribute to significantly more sea-level rise than scientists had previously thought.

    The heating of the oceans not only melts the ice and makes hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons more intense, it also evaporates around 2 trillion gallons of additional water vapor into the skies above the U.S. The warmer air holds more of this water vapor and carries it over the landmasses, where it is funneled into land-based storms that are releasing record downpours all over the world.

    For example, an “April shower” came to Pensacola, Florida, this spring, but it was a freak – another rainstorm on steroids: two feet of rain in 26 hours. It broke all the records in the region, but as usual, virtually no media outlets made the connection to global warming. Similar “once in a thousand years” storms have been occurring regularly in recent years all over the world, including in my hometown of Nashville in May 2010.

    All-time record flooding swamped large portions of England this winter, submerging thousands of homes for more than six weeks. Massive downpours hit Serbia and Bosnia this spring, causing flooding of “biblical proportions” (a phrase now used so frequently in the Western world that it has become almost a cliché) and thousands of landslides. Torrential rains in Afghanistan in April triggered mudslides that killed thousands of people – almost as many, according to relief organizations, as all of the Afghans killed in the war there the previous year.

    In March, persistent rains triggered an unusually large mudslide in Oso, Washington, killing more than 40 people. There are literally hundreds of other examples of extreme rainfall occurring in recent years in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania.

    In the planet’s drier regions, the same extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by man-made global-warming pollution has also been driving faster evaporation of soil moisture and causing record-breaking droughts. As of this writing, 100 percent of California is in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. Record fires are ravaging the desiccated landscape. Experts now project that an increase of one degree Celsius over pre-industrial temperatures will lead to as much as a 600-­percent increase in the median area burned by forest fires in some areas of the American West – including large portions of Colorado. The National Research Council has reported that fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago, and in California, firefighters are saying that the season is now effectively year-round.

    Drought has been intensifying in many other dry regions around the world this year: Brazil, Indonesia, central and northwest Africa and Madagascar, central and western Europe, the Middle East up to the Caspian Sea and north of the Black Sea, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, Western Australia and New Zealand.

    Syria is one of the countries that has been in the bull’s-eye of climate change. From 2006 to 2010, a historic drought destroyed 60 percent of the country’s farms and 80 percent of its livestock – driving a million refugees from rural agricultural areas into cities already crowded with the million refugees who had taken shelter there from the Iraq War. As early as 2008, U.S. State Department cables quoted Syrian government officials warning that the social and economic impacts of the drought are “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.” Though the hellish and ongoing civil war in Syria has multiple causes – including the perfidy of the Assad government and the brutality on all sides – their climate-related drought may have been the biggest underlying trigger for the horror.

    The U.S. military has taken notice of the strategic dangers inherent in the climate crisis. Last March, a Pentagon advisory committee described the climate crisis as a “catalyst for conflict” that may well cause failures of governance and societal collapse. “In the past, the thinking was that climate change multiplied the significance of a situation,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald. “Now we’re saying it’s going to be a direct cause of instability.”

    Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told the press, “For DOD, this is a mission reality, not a political debate. The scientific forecast is for more Arctic ice melt, more sea-level rise, more intense storms, more flooding from storm surge and more drought.” And in yet another forecast difficult for congressional climate denialists to rebut, climate experts advising the military have also warned that the world’s largest naval base, in Norfolk, Virginia, is likely to be inundated by rising sea levels in the future.

    And how did the Republican-dominated House of Representatives respond to these grim warnings? By passing legislation seeking to prohibit the Department of Defense from taking any action to prepare for the effects of climate disruption.

    There are so many knock-on consequences of the climate crisis that listing them can be depressing – diseases spreading, crop yields declining, more heat waves affecting vulnerable and elderly populations, the disappearance of summer-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, the potential extinction of up to half of all the living species, and so much more. And that in itself is a growing problem too, because when you add it all up, it’s no wonder that many feel a new inclination to despair.

    So, clearly, we will just have to gird ourselves for the difficult challenges ahead. There is indeed, literally, light at the end of the tunnel, but there is a tunnel, and we are well into it.

    In November 1936, Winston Churchill stood before the United Kingdom’s House of Commons and placed a period at the end of the misguided debate over the nature of the “gathering storm” on the other side of the English Channel: “Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. . . . The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences. . . . We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now.”

    Our civilization is confronting this existential challenge at a moment in our historical development when our dominant global ideology – democratic capitalism – has been failing us in important respects.

    Democracy is accepted in theory by more people than ever before as the best form of political organization, but it has been “hacked” by large corporations (defined as “persons” by the Supreme Court) and special interests corrupting the political system with obscene amounts of money (defined as “speech” by the same court).

    Capitalism, for its part, is accepted by more people than ever before as a superior form of economic organization, but is – in its current form – failing to measure and include the categories of “value” that are most relevant to the solutions we need in order to respond to this threatening crisis (clean air and water, safe food, a benign climate balance, public goods like education and a greener infrastructure, etc.).

    Pressure for meaningful reform in democratic capitalism is beginning to build powerfully. The progressive introduction of Internet-based communication – social media, blogs, digital journalism – is laying the foundation for the renewal of individual participation in democracy, and the re-elevation of reason over wealth and power as the basis for collective decision­making. And the growing levels of inequality worldwide, combined with growing structural unemployment and more frequent market disruptions (like the Great Recession), are building support for reforms in capitalism.

    Both waves of reform are still at an early stage, but once again, Churchill’s words inspire: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” And that is why it is all the more important to fully appreciate the incredible opportunity for salvation that is now within our grasp. As the satirical newspaper The Onion recently noted in one of its trademark headlines: “Scientists Politely Remind World That Clean Energy Technology Ready to Go Whenever.”

    We have the policy tools that can dramatically accelerate the transition to clean energy that market forces will eventually produce at a slower pace. The most important has long since been identified: We have to put a price on carbon in our markets, and we need to eliminate the massive subsidies that fuel the profligate emissions of global-warming pollution.

    We need to establish “green banks” that provide access to capital investment necessary to develop renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and forestry, an electrified transportation fleet, the retrofitting of buildings to reduce wasteful energy consumption, and the full integration of sustainability in the design and architecture of cities and towns. While the burning of fossil fuels is the largest cause of the climate crisis, deforestation and “factory farming” also play an important role. Financial and technological approaches to addressing these challenges are emerging, but we must continue to make progress in converting to sustainable forestry and agriculture.

    In order to accomplish these policy shifts, we must not only put a price on carbon in markets, but also find a way to put a price on climate denial in our politics. We already know the reforms that are needed – and the political will to enact them is a renewable resource. Yet the necessary renewal can only come from an awakened citizenry empowered by a sense of urgency and emboldened with the courage to reject despair and become active. Most importantly, now is the time to support candidates who accept the reality of the climate crisis and are genuinely working hard to solve it – and to bluntly tell candidates who are not on board how much this issue matters to you. If you are willing to summon the resolve to communicate that blunt message forcefully – with dignity and absolute sincerity – you will be amazed at the political power an individual can still wield in America’s diminished democracy.

    Something else is also new this summer. Three years ago, in these pages, I criticized the seeming diffidence of President Obama toward the great task of solving the climate crisis; this summer, it is abundantly evident that he has taken hold of the challenge with determination and seriousness of purpose.

    He has empowered his Environmental Protection Agency to enforce limits on CO2 emissions for both new and, as of this June, existing sources of CO2. He has enforced bold new standards for the fuel economy of the U.S. transportation fleet. He has signaled that he is likely to reject the absurdly reckless Keystone XL-pipeline proposal for the transport of oil from carbon­intensive tar sands to be taken to market through the United States on its way to China, thus effectively limiting their exploitation. And he is even now preparing to impose new limits on the release of methane pollution.

    All of these welcome steps forward have to be seen, of course, in the context of Obama’s continued advocacy of a so-called all-of-the-above energy policy – which is the prevailing code for aggressively pushing more drilling and fracking for oil and gas. And to put the good news in perspective, it is important to remember that U.S. emissions – after declining for five years during the slow recovery from the Great Recession – actually increased by 2.4 percent in 2013.

    Nevertheless, the president is clearly changing his overall policy emphasis to make CO2 reductions a much higher priority now and has made a series of inspiring speeches about the challenges posed by climate change and the exciting opportunities available as we solve it. As a result, Obama will go to the United Nations this fall and to Paris at the end of 2015 with the credibility and moral authority that he lacked during the disastrous meeting in Copenhagen four and a half years ago.

    The international treaty process has been so fraught with seemingly intractable disagreements that some parties have all but given up on the possibility of ever reaching a meaningful treaty.

    Ultimately, there must be one if we are to succeed. And there are signs that a way forward may be opening up. In May, I attended a preparatory session in Abu Dhabi, UAE, organized by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to bolster commitments from governments, businesses and nongovernmental organizations ahead of this September’s U.N. Climate Summit. The two-day meeting was different from many of the others I have attended. There were welcome changes in rhetoric, and it was clear that the reality of the climate crisis is now weighing on almost every nation. Moreover, there were encouraging reports from around the world that many of the policy changes necessary to solve the crisis are being adopted piecemeal by a growing number of regional, state and city governments.

    For these and other reasons, I believe there is a realistic hope that momentum toward a global agreement will continue to build in September and carry through to the Paris negotiations in late 2015.

    The American poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, “After the final ‘no’ there comes a ‘yes’/And on that ‘yes’ the future world depends.” There were many no’s before the emergence of a global consensus to abolish chattel slavery, before the consensus that women must have the right to vote, before the fever of the nuclear­arms race was broken, before the quickening global recognition of gay and lesbian equality, and indeed before every forward advance toward social progress. Though a great many obstacles remain in the path of this essential agreement, I am among the growing number of people who are allowing themselves to become more optimistic than ever that a bold and comprehensive pact may well emerge from the Paris negotiations late next year, which many regard as the last chance to avoid civilizational catastrophe while there is still time.

    It will be essential for the United States and other major historical emitters to commit to strong action. The U.S. is, finally, now beginning to shift its stance. And the European Union has announced its commitment to achieve a 40-percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. Some individual European nations are acting even more aggressively, including Finland’s pledge to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050.

    It will also be crucial for the larger developing and emerging nations – particularly China and India – to play a strong leadership role. Fortunately, there are encouraging signs. China’s new president, Xi Jinping, has launched a pilot cap-and-trade system in two cities and five provinces as a model for a nationwide cap-and-trade program in the next few years. He has banned all new coal burning in several cities and required the reporting of CO2 emissions by all major industrial sources. China and the U.S. have jointly reached an important agreement to limit another potent source of global-warming pollution – the chemical compounds known as hydro-fluorocarbons, or HFCs. And the new prime minister of India, as noted earlier, has launched the world’s most ambitious plan to accelerate the transition to solar electricity.

    Underlying this new breaking of logjams in international politics, there are momentous changes in the marketplace that are exercising enormous influence on the perceptions by political leaders of the new possibilities for historic breakthroughs. More and more, investors are diversifying their portfolios to include significant investments in renewables. In June, Warren Buffett announced he was ready to double Berkshire Hathaway’s existing $15 billion investment in wind and solar energy.

    A growing number of large investors – including pension funds, university endowments (Stanford announced its decision in May), family offices and others – have announced decisions to divest themselves from carbon­intensive assets. Activist and “impact” investors are pushing for divestment from carbon­rich assets and new investments in renewable and sustainable assets.

    Several large banks and asset managers around the world (full disclosure: Generation Investment Management, which I co-founded with David Blood and for which I serve as chairman, is in this group) have advised their clients of the danger that carbon assets will become “stranded.” A “stranded asset” is one whose price is vulnerable to a sudden decline when markets belatedly recognize the truth about their underlying value – just as the infamous “subprime mortgages” suddenly lost their value in 2007 to 2008 once investors came to grips with the fact that the borrowers had absolutely no ability to pay off their mortgages.

    Shareholder activists and public campaigners have pressed carbon-dependent corporations to deal with these growing concerns. But the biggest ones are still behaving as if they are in denial. In May 2013, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson responded to those pointing out the need to stop using the Earth’s atmosphere as a sewer by asking, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

    I don’t even know where to start in responding to that statement, but here is a clue: Pope Francis said in May, “If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us. Never forget this.”

    Exxonmobil, Shell and many other holders of carbon-intensive assets have argued, in essence, that they simply do not believe that elected national leaders around the world will ever reach an agreement to put a price on carbon pollution.

    But a prospective global treaty (however likely or unlikely you think that might be) is only one of several routes to overturning the fossil-fuel economy. Rapid technological advances in renewable energy are stranding carbon investments; grassroots movements are building opposition to the holding of such assets; and new legal restrictions on collateral flows of pollution – like particulate air pollution in China and mercury pollution in the U.S. – are further reducing the value of coal, tar sands, and oil and gas assets.

    In its series of reports to energy investors this spring, Citigroup questioned the feasibility of new coal plants not only in Europe and North America, but in China as well. Although there is clearly a political struggle under way in China between regional governments closely linked to carbon-­energy generators, suppliers and users and the central government in Beijing – which is under growing pressure from citizens angry about pollution – the nation’s new leadership appears to be determined to engineer a transition toward renewable energy. Only time will tell how successful they will be.

    The stock exchanges in Johannesburg and São Paulo have decided to require the full integration of sustainability from all listed companies. Standard & Poor’s announced this spring that some nations vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis may soon have their bonds downgraded because of the enhanced risk to holders of those assets.

    A growing number of businesses around the world are implementing sustainability plans, as more and more consumers demand a more responsible approach from businesses they patronize. Significantly, many have been pleasantly surprised to find that adopting efficient, low-carbon approaches can lead to major cost savings.

    And all the while, the surprising and relentless ongoing decline in the cost of renewable energy and efficiency improvements are driving the transition to a low-carbon economy.

    Is there enough time? Yes. Damage has been done, and the period of consequences will continue for some time to come, but there is still time to avoid the catastrophes that most threaten our future. Each of the trends described above – in technology, business, economics and politics – represents a break from the past. Taken together, they add up to genuine and realistic hope that we are finally putting ourselves on a path to solve the climate crisis.

    How long will it take? When Martin Luther King Jr. was asked that question during some of the bleakest hours of the U.S. civil rights revolution, he responded, “How long? Not long. Because no lie can live forever. . . . How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    And so it is today: How long? Not long.

    This story is from the July 3rd-17th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

      Oil Majors Resist Call To Boost Leadership On Climate Change

      Repost from Forbes.com
      [Editor: This is a MUST READ report on unsatisfactory results of a great investor effort, called the Carbon Asset Risk (CAR) initiative, (coordinated by Ceres and the Carbon Tracker initiative, with support from the Global Investor Coalition on Climate Change).  – RS]

      Oil Majors Need To Boost Leadership On Climate Change

      5/29/2014  |  Mindy Lubber

      Earlier this month, Shell became the latest oil major to respond to an international group of investors asking the world’s largest fossil fuel companies to assess the risks they face from climate change. These investors, managing trillions of dollars in assets, are motivated by concerns that companies in their portfolios are not adequately preparing for a future of lower demand for fossil fuels as the world transitions to cleaner energy sources. Not to mention climate-related physical impacts such as rising seas, stronger storms and more severe droughts.

      Norwegian oil rig Statfjord A

      Like its peers ExxonMobil and Statoil, which have also responded publicly to the request, Shell says it views climate change as a serious issue, and that the company invests in carbon-reducing technologies and incorporates a carbon price in business planning. And, like Statoil, Shell calls the current international goal to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius “desirable.”

      While it is good to see these companies publicly acknowledging climate change and the need to reduce carbon pollution, Shell and its peers appear to be preparing for a world of ever rising – not declining – oil demand. Indeed, ExxonMobil, Statoil and Shell all argue that oil demand will keep growing until at least 2030. They largely ignore the grim picture painted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of what the world will probably look like if carbon pollution continues unabated, arguing that it is impossible to turn the tide in the timeframe scientists say is necessary. As a result, the companies reject the idea that they face any substantive financial risk.

      Of course, these arguments are not surprising. In fact, the companies’ approach to shareholder engagement on this issue has been a constant refrain about the essential role they play in meeting the world’s insatiable demand for fossil fuels. This perspective is short-sighted and needs to evolve.

      Shell and Statoil do provide some discussion of the International Energy Agency’s scenario that shows how the two-degree goal could be achieved, which shows oil demand peaking around 2020 and then declining. But they are quick to point out that even under that scenario, the world will continue to use oil and companies will need to make new oil discoveries to meet consumer demand. Statoil comes the closest to answering investors, saying, “In Statoil we are of the opinion that we have a fairly robust project portfolio, even in the event that global or regional climate regulations were to become much stricter than what we currently expect.”

      Investors know that the world is not going to stop using oil overnight, and they aren’t advocating for that either. Rather, as smart stewards of capital, investors want to know what oil projects companies are betting billions on, which may be suspect down the road. These riskier, expensive projects – like deepwater drilling and oil sands – might make sense according to the companies’ bullish oil demand growth forecasts, but would be highly questionable in a world where some of that demand growth doesn’t materialize.

      This is a critical question for investors, not just because they don’t want to finance oil projects that shouldn’t go forward in a world that takes the economic threat of climate change seriously, but also because oil demand destruction is a real risk. Companies know this, but are declining to discuss it publicly.

      Recent research by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) shows that, over the last decade, capital spending by the 11 largest publicly traded oil companies has increased five-fold, while their production levels have remained essentially flat. Meanwhile, despite historically high oil prices, their returns have fallen below a 30-year average of 11 percent, leading firms like Goldman Sachs to raise questions about whether companies can generate enough cash to meet their dividend and investment commitments without oil prices rising even higher. Yet, CTI shows how, in a world that tackles climate change, lower oil demand could push oil prices down to around $75 per barrel.

      In its response, Shell outlines an upstream capital investment budget for 2014, including exploration expenditures of $35 billion, with the “oil” element of that being an estimated $10 billion. Indeed, over the next decade, CTI shows that the oil industry has the potential to invest an estimated $1.1 trillion for high-cost oil projects that require oil prices above $95 per barrel to be profitable. Shell accounts for more than $63 billion of that. While such projects are economically marginal even at today’s oil prices of just over $100 per barrel, they could become uneconomic if oil demand were to decline by a relatively small amount. Shell openly admits that high oil prices are needed to make such projects viable.

      Despite how much certainty these companies have expressed that strong international policies on climate change are unlikely in the next few years – and we have reason to believe they’re wrong – this isn’t the only factor that could dampen oil demand. We’re already seeing increasing fuel efficiency, fuel substitution and technological advances in clean energy and electric vehicles. The oil majors themselves are already seeing flat to declining oil demand in the U.S. and other developed countries due to these factors. They see virtually all of the demand growth coming from the developing world, and argue that meeting that demand is important to improve living standards for the world’s poor. It’s a fair point.

      But what is the best way to meet that energy demand, considering that climate change disproportionately affects the world’s poor? Scientists warn that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced by the end of this century due to climate impacts, increasing the risk of violent conflict and wiping trillions off the global economy. Furthermore, how much oil will the developing world actually demand if prices keep rising? Given that oil prices are high now and the industry needs them to stay that way, oil alternatives would be a safer bet as developing countries reach for the living standards of the developed world.

      It’s not only fair for investors to be asking companies for more transparency around their capital spending plans – it is the fiscally responsible thing to do. We have mistakenly invested in companies and markets that were ‘too big to fail’ in the past, and we have seen the catastrophic results. The fact is that the effects of the subprime mortgage meltdown on the global economy pales in comparison to what will happen if we do not change how we invest in energy. As major players in an industry the world relies on for so much, ExxonMobil, Statoil and Shell have not yet demonstrated the kind of leadership we need from them.