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Even if a Democratic president is sworn in on Inauguration Day, January 2021 — having pledged to make climate change a day-one priority — Congress could still be divided, and the Senate still hamstrung by the filibuster.
With time already running short to prevent runaway global warming, a president will need to make changes without being mired in another four years of gridlock. Ambitious climate reform could still be implemented, however, by exploiting powers that the executive branch has under existing law. A new administration could take leaps forward in addressing transportation, electric, and industrial emissions, buttressed by powerful existing laws like the Clean Air Act. All this could add up to a policy that gets as close as possible to a Green New Deal without involving Congress’ power of the purse.
“There’s a lot of executive authority sprinkled throughout the existing law,” says New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity attorney Avi Zevin. “One could imagine picking various provisions and stitching it together to achieve some of the goals the candidates are talking about. If you’re limiting your toolkit to what you’re doing with existing law you have to find the right tools and get a little creative.”
The few comprehensive plans released by presidential hopefuls so far involve proposals that are heavily dependent on congressional action. But some of these plans also contain ideas for using a president’s executive powers. Rejoining the Paris agreement in 2021, for instance, is obvious, but how to push far beyond where President Obama left off is not as simple as candidates imply when they say they would “reinstate the Clean Power Plan” — which is stalled and outdated anyway.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s plan, the most comprehensive of those released so far, proposes hitting 100 percent of zero-emission new cars and buildings, 100 percent carbon-neutral power, and 100 percent renewable to power buildings all within 15 years. His promises, such as $3 trillion in federal funding over 10 years, would rely on Congress, but directing federal agencies to exploit existing powers could go a long way in the power and transportation sector.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), on the other hand, has released a more limited plan to clean up the military’s carbon footprint and place a moratorium on fossil fuel extraction on public lands — both are areas where the president can already exercise broad powers.
There are many ways to assess a candidate’s seriousness on climate action. You can look at what a candidate is promising to make a priority on day one; who has rolled out a climate plan at all; who has signed a pledge not to take fossil fuel PAC money; or who is listening to priorities for frontline communities. Or you could look at who is thinking about climate change from the most practical political perspective of all, which involves robust executive action.
Here’s how they could start.
A Climate Action Plan
Democrats don’t have to reinvent the wheel on executive action. Stymied by Congress during the cap-and-trade battles of 2010, the second-term Obama administration looked at how executive powers could be used to address greenhouse gas emissions. The strategy could be modeled after the Climate Action Plan that the Obama administration released in 2013, a broad 21-page blueprint laying out cross-agency strategy to cut carbon emissions. The next Climate Action Plan would have to go bigger and come much earlier than a second term to begin making a deep dent in the country’s footprint.
“A test of an incoming president’s actual seriousness about this issue is whether or not the incoming president will do what second-term Obama did,” says Harvard University Environmental Law Program’s Joseph Goffman, a former top EPA attorney, “which is put an encompassing priority across the executive branch to identify and marshal all the tools the executive branch has to promote climate solutions and clean energy.”
Portions of Obama’s plan came too little, too late for the most ambitious reforms to take hold. Trump has had an easier time stalling latecomer initiatives that hadn’t yet fully taken effect under the Obama administration, such as methane limits for oil and gas operations, considering climate costs in public lands leasing, and a slew of energy efficiency standards for new appliances.
Regulations take a long time to draft, finalize, implement, and debate in lawsuits, so an early start for a new administration is necessary for real impact.
Can a president really move the U.S. to 100 percent renewables?
It’s popular to promise 100 percent renewable energy — even if frontrunner Joe Biden isn’t sold on the option. But can the EPA really set a standard that aggressive? The short answer is no, the Clean Air Act grants a lot of broad powers, but they are emissions targets, not a unilateral standard for clean energy.
A new president would have to go back to the drawing board on Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which required states to cut pollution to bring down emissions 32 percent nationally by 2030. Even though it was stalled by the Supreme Court and is facing repeal by Trump, the market has still managed to overtake what was now clearly an overly conservative goal, as coal is being replaced by cheap renewables and gas.
“Notwithstanding the efforts of the Trump administration by 2021 there will have been a significant amount of progress for a new administration to exploit that wasn’t available for the Obama administration,” says Harvard’s Goffman.
If redone today, the EPA could put forward a Clean Power Plan 2.0 that sets a much more ambitious target, all by stitching together the existing powers under the Clean Air Act’s Section 111. “An incoming administration is looking at a landscape, looking at a market, looking at an investment history, and looking, frankly, at a field of data that is much more or will be much more favorable … than the EPA was looking back at 2014 and 2015 when it did the Clean Power Plan,” Goffman says.
Hitting big sources of emissions: transit, buildings, and public lands
Transportation is more of a mixed bag for executive powers than the power sector. Today, it is the biggest source of U.S. emissions, but the executive branch alone could not change urban sprawl, our highway addiction, or clean up all the SUVs already on the road. The first thing to do would be to reinstate Obama’s fleet standards for new passenger cars and light trucks by 2025 and retool new standards that hit zero emissions by a later date, effectively marking an end of gas-powered car sales. In fact, the Obama administration’s jump on regulations have been stalled by Trump.
The same goes for buildings. Commercial and residential count for 40 percent of U.S. pollution, and the Department of Energy has the power to make new appliances more efficient, shrinking that total footprint. That potentially includes refrigeration, heating, and lightbulbs.
Both buildings and transit face limits, but one area the president could pack a major punch is in public lands, responsible for about a quarter of U.S. emissions. A president couldn’t do much about existing fossil fuel leases, but they could place a moratorium on new leasing, much like Obama did for coal.
Cap and trade under the Clean Air Act?
Section 115 of the Clean Air Act has never been tapped by a president, and it offers a new administration broad discretion by giving the EPA power to act if there is reason to believe “any air pollutant or pollutants emitted in the United States” endanger “public health or welfare in a foreign country.”
The section itself is broad and vague enough that with some creative maneuvering of Clean Air Act powers, the EPA could conceivably put a cap-and-trade system forward — not unlike the one that failed in Congress 10 years ago. Few legal experts seriously consider invoking Section 115 a realistic option, given the untested terrain of issuing a new endangerment finding.
There are some things you can’t do without Congress
Obviously we’re not talking about transformative economic change like some of the boldest proposals of a Green New Deal. Executive action wouldn’t lift blue collar workers’ wages and create millions of new clean economy jobs. While the EPA could implement new regulations with an environmental justice lens, that is very different from investing billions directly into programs and infrastructure in frontline communities.
Only Congress can fully meet the demands of building infrastructure, expanding public transit, cleaning up buildings, and investing in frontline communities.
“It’s tough because you really need more than one branch of government to get the results we need,” says Ann Shikany, an infrastructure expert at Natural Resources Defense Council.
Not only does executive action limit the scope of ambition, but there are some risks involved. You see the reverse happening for Trump. In his rush to undo Obama’s climate legacy via the executive branch, Trump lost most of his court fights, racking up an astounding number of failures at over 90 percent on his methane rollback and leasing plans. What a president puts in place is also more easily reversed, through the same mechanisms that allow agency discretion in the first place.
“There’s an inverse relationship between how aggressive you can be and how risky the legal strategy is,” Zevin says. “It’s unclear how far you can go, but the farther you push the more risk you’re creating.”
Climate may finally get its due in the presidential primary debates, but it won’t if the time is spent talking about who cares about climate change more. The real test may be how far candidates see executive powers going on climate, and how early that push may come in their tenure. When candidates say they endorse a Green New Deal, they should explain what that vision really means if Congress is out of the equation.
From above, the crops of California’s Central Valley look like a giant tile floor. Some of the tiles are fuzzy; these are the densely planted almond and mandarin groves that dominate large swaths of the Valley. Others are striped; these are rows of grapes growing on long trellises. They stretch for 450 miles across the heart of California, many belonging to industrial farm operators that net millions of dollars a year in profits.
What a satellite image won’t show you are the complicated social and political frameworks that govern the Central Valley. For every wealthy landowner, there are thousands of workers, many undocumented, laboring in the fields. The inequalities are glaring: The Valley is home to some of the most impoverished cities in the country. Many residents, surrounded by agricultural bounty, live in food deserts.
Aidee Guzman takes soil samples from the Berkeley Student Organic Garden. Sarah Craig for HCN
When Aidee Guzman, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, shows me these satellite images, she sees something else entirely. She zooms in past the hodgepodge of tiles and focuses on one of the small plots of land she’s been researching. LaCha Her, for example, a Hmong refugee who resettled in the valley decades ago, has a 25-acre farm — minuscule by the standards of Fresno County, where the average farm is 345 acres and many are over 1,000 acres. Despite its small size, Her’s farm grows an abundance of produce, upwards of 70 crops a year, including specialty items like ginger, lemongrass, water spinach, asparagus, taro, mint, and broccoli, a diversity that is rare in the valley.
Guzman is focusing on these small farms to find out whether, ecologically, this diversity has any positive effects on soil health. Her work won’t be published for another two years, but there is already a large body of research that explains how large monocropping operations strip soils of their nutrients and make them less capable of storing carbon, which contributes to global warming once the carbon is released in the air. As she works, she is documenting a potential alternative to the industrial mega-farms of the valley and the West.
Guzman talks fast, her vocabulary punctuated by the occasional curse word. Twenty-six-years old, she was born and raised in the Central Valley. Her parents migrated from El Pedregal, a small town in central Mexico where agriculture is a way of life, even as extreme poverty has forced many to leave. They worked seasonal jobs, her father pin-balling between Washington, California, and Florida and switching between fields of cantaloupe and apple orchards, her mother picking lettuce and packaging tomatoes. The Central Valley’s acres upon acres of almonds and grapes were the backdrop to Guzman’s youth, and Firebaugh, her hometown, has been referenced in studies about the poverty and pollution that plague the area.
Many of the region’s inequalities can be traced to the effects industrial agriculture has had on the environment. Industrial dairies, truck emissions, and the intensive use of fertilizers help explain why counties here consistently rank as the worst in the state for air pollution. Yet through her research, Guzman hopes to tell a different story about the place she calls home. In these fields, in a valley that is often painted as a forgotten place by outsiders, Guzman finds seeds of resilience among the immigrant communities. Guzman sees the Central Valley as home to a thriving oasis of diversity, where culturally relevant food grows and gives jobs to people in an area where unemployment is high. What Guzman is trying to prove now is that these farming ventures are important environmentally, too.
“I have to convince Berkeley folks that Fresno matters,” Guzman tells me at a local restaurant, between bites of quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms and huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn. “Even my advisor was surprised I wanted to work there,” she said. Typically, students will flock to work at organic farms in Sacramento or Napa Valley. But Guzman has grown used to having to advocate for her childhood home, bridging the divide between the sustainable agriculture movement and the Central Valley, or what she calls “the Valley of the Beast.”
Through such research, Guzman and other social-ecologists are helping to expand the definition of agroecology, or the application of ecological principles to farming. Elsewhere in the world, for groups like La Via Campesina — described as “the international peasant’s voice” — agroecology has come to embody a social movement invested in helping peasant farmers challenge the social impacts of Big Ag. But in the United States, it is mostly confined to academia, and thought of solely in terms of its benefits to the environment — rather than people. Researchers are more likely to equate it to “white hippy dippy” farmers, as Guzman jokingly calls them, instead of marginalized groups facing agricultural inequalities.
Given this blind spot, in 2016 Guzman designed a research project with Fresno-based small farm advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, from the University of California cooperative extension program. Guzman surveyed 30 small-scale farms run by refugee and immigrant farmers like Her, and took over 400 soil samples. She hopes to determine whether the soils and beneficial organisms that live there, known as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, are healthier in these highly diversified cropping systems. She is also looking at pollinator numbers to see how they vary between small-scale diversified systems and monoculture farms. Preliminary results indicate that the smaller and diversified farms are attracting a greater number of native pollinators, an important factor in a region where monocultures and pesticide sprays have been detrimental to bee populations.
Highly diversified farms make up a small percent of the acreage in the valley, and some people might argue that this makes their impact negligible. “But I disagree,” Guzman told me. “Sustainable farming practices are happening in the valley, and if these farmers are actually providing (soil health benefits) then, shouldn’t we think about them more? And support them?”
Fresno and Tulare counties together had approximately 8,000 small-scale farms, according to the 2012 agriculture census. Many of these are operated by immigrants or refugees, said Dahlquist-Willard, who focuses on the two counties. While the census numbers can be unreliable (“farmers don’t like to fill out paperwork,” Dahlquist-Willard says), a 2007 survey found approximately 900 Hmong farmers in Fresno County. As for the Latino farmers — many of whom started out as farmworkers — Dahlquist-Willard has noticed that they are entering farm ownership at a younger age than white farmers, creating “the next generation of family farms.”
One of those farmers is Isais Hernandez, a portly middle-aged man whose white chin stubble contrasts with his tan skin. On his 33-acre parcel, Hernandez grows Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and Thai varieties of eggplant, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, he started out working alongside his parents on a farm that was run by Japanese farmers. “I never worked for gringos,” he told me with a chuckle. After years of saving their earnings, he and some family members were able to buy their own property. Later, he purchased this parcel of land, too.
Last summer, Guzman visited Hernandez to look at his farm’s soil health. Hernandez didn’t really know too much about the research Guzman was conducting, but he offered insight into why her work is so important here. Gesturing to the farms around him, he expressed frustration over ag subsidies and how they are distributed. “The programs seem to benefit the big companies more than the small farms like us,” he said.
This is true for a few reasons. First, resources for offices like the Cooperative Extension program where Dahlquist-Willard works are limited, so their ability to reach and disseminate information to farmers like Hernandez is constrained. But there is another structural inequality at play: Whenever government resources are up for grabs, they typically go to those who are more plugged in to the system. Other groups can take advantage of the funds simply because they have more resources. Researching these marginalized growers is one way to change that. Not only does that bridge connections between academics and farmers, but it can inform new regulations that might otherwise disproportionately hurt them.
Take, for example, the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. The program was created in 2003 with a mission to hold agricultural producers in California accountable for the water contamination typically caused by Big Ag. New reporting requirements ask farmers to fill out paperwork that lists fertilizer inputs and the crops they grow annually, a difficult data point for farmers who grow between 50 and 70 crops over multiple seasons per year, and who don’t have the time, administrative help, or, in some cases, writing skills to fill out the requests.
Guzman’s research could help these farmers by bringing visibility to their small-scale operations before state agencies create new, more onerous rules, Dahlquist-Willard said. “Whatever (regulations) agencies are making, if they don’t know these people are here, they aren’t going to consider them in that decision.” For Guzman, this type of dilemma gets to the true heart of “agroecology,” where, despite the social and political forces that shape these farmers’ lives, they are able to occupy space. “Them existing and surviving in a landscape like this,” she said, “that’s resistance.”
This story was originally published by Wired and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Plankton don’t get nearly the respect they deserve. These tiny organisms (phytoplankton being plant-like cells that produce much of the world’s oxygen, zooplankton being little animals) float around at the mercy of currents and form the very foundation of the ocean food web. You like whales? They eat krill, which eat, wait for it, plankton. You like your climate? Phytoplankton soak up CO2 and spit out oxygen, helping keep the planet a pleasant human habitat. So even if you don’t care about whales, at the very least you should care about breathing and not boiling alive (just yet): Life on Earth shares its fate with the littlest organisms in the sea.
But plankton don’t do well in warmer waters, which carry fewer nutrients. One study has shown that phytoplankton alone have declined by 40 percent since 1950. Getting a handle on how climate change is affecting other plankton counts, though, has been tricky. Because plankton are generally soft-bodied organisms, they quickly rot away when they die, making it hard to know what their populations were like in centuries past.
That is, save for a group known as the foraminifera (aka forams), hard-shelled organisms that look like Dippin’ Dots. Around 40 of the 4,000 species of foram are planktonic, drifting or floating through life. (The rest live on the bottom of the sea.) When they die, they settle into seafloor sediment, and stay there for scientists to find. And guess what: The forams are also suffering through ecological chaos. By analyzing previously collected sediment samples from over 3,500 sites around the world’s oceans, researchers have shown that plankton communities are rapidly transforming under the weight of warming seas, potentially spelling trouble for all manner of marine life and the health of the planet at large. The findings were reported in the journal Nature Wednesday.
The convenient thing about the seafloor is that sediment accumulates very, very slowly, so you don’t have to dig far to go way back in time. “One centimeter represents a couple of centuries, maybe up to a millennium of time,” says study lead author and micropaleontologist Lukas Jonkers of the University of Bremen in Germany.
The researchers used the sediment samples to get a sense of the ecosystem before we began transforming the planet with the Industrial Revolution. They then compared these multispecies foram communities with samples taken in present-day oceans with sediment traps — essentially big funnels that grab organic matter falling to the seafloor.
The differences were dramatic, with foram species that prefer warm waters generally increasing in numbers. The researchers then asked where in the world you would find a historical foram community similar to what you now find in modern sediment traps. “We found always that the preindustrial counterpart, or analog, was in an area that was warmer than where the sediment trap was,” says Jonkers.
Struggling to adapt to rapidly warming oceans, foram communities are shifting north and south, with a median displacement of 375 miles. In one extreme case, a community had shifted more than 1,500 miles. “Now the modern communities are displaced further toward the poles, which is consistent, of course, with a warming world,” he says.
“I think this is the first real demonstration that we have pushed plankton communities into a totally different state,” adds Jonkers. “We knew they were changing, but we didn’t know to what degree they had already changed. That’s the novelty of our study, just demonstrating that they’re now different from before the Anthropocene.”
Several scary implications come up here. One is that forams’ struggles could be indicative of the plight of other planktonic species. “What’s happening in foraminifera is probably happening in the entire plankton community,” says Catherine Davis, a paleo-oceanographer who studies foraminifera, but who wasn’t involved in this new work. “And because the plankton community is really the base of the food web, any change of what’s going on will be expected to really impact the entire ecosystem that relies on them.” This is particularly concerning in the case of phytoplankton, which each year transfer 10 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean depths when they die and sink.
With plankton populations going haywire, the effects ripple through the chain. The fish larvae that feed on zooplankton go hungry, which in turn means the predators that feed on the larvae go hungry. The krill that feed on phytoplankton go hungry, which in turn starves the whales that feed on them.
Another concern is how quickly this is all happening. Climate change is nothing new — temperatures have fluctuated naturally over Earth’s history. But it’s the rate at which human-made climate change is unfolding that’s alarming. A species might be able to adapt to change that comes slowly, but what’s happening now may be overwhelming.
Even if warming oceans don’t have a very big physiological impact on a species itself, climate change could still affect the organisms it interacts with. So the speed with which all these pieces of the puzzle are coming together is a major consideration. “Will prey move more quickly than the predator does, [and] then what does the predator do?” asks Katie Matthews, chief scientist at the conservation group Oceana. “Does it starve? Does the population get smaller? The big question is, are these different pieces moving at different speeds?”
Further complicating matters is that the ocean itself is fragmenting as it warms: Warm water tends to sit on top of cooler water, creating essentially distinct habitats. “So you get this sort of hot, probably less nutrient-rich water that makes it a less productive place,” says Matthews. How that affects the interactions of species is not yet clear. “That’s another big scary question mark in this oceans and climate conversation.”
What this new study does make clear is that plankton communities haven’t just been transforming as of late — they’ve deviated wildly from the historic norm, before we humans kicked off the Industrial Revolution. Which is increasingly looking like one of the worst things to ever happen to this planet.
Last May, scientists uncovered a worrying trend — there was a global uptick in the emissions of internationally banned, ozone-depleting pollutants. Now, the mysterious rise has been pinpointed to two provinces in Eastern China.
If you’re thinking: “Wait, what? The ozone layer? Didn’t we fix that way back when?” Well, we started to.
A quick primer: The ozone layer is a part of the stratosphere that protects us from harmful UV light — it’s basically the Earth’s sunscreen. Our long history of worrying about this invisible layer started in the mid-’70s, when studies suggested that human-emitted pollutants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) might be depleting it. When an alarmingly thin portion of it was found over Antarctica, people freaked out. News articles warned of significant increases in skin cancer and risks to agriculture. Pretty scary stuff.
A hole in the ozone layer above the tip of South America, as measured by The Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) on board Russia’s Meteor-3, in 1994. Space Frontiers / Getty Images
The world rallied around the issue and adopted the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which required the phasing out of ozone depleting substances like CFCs by 2010. It was a big win, and soon enough, the ozone layer began to fix itself. Case closed.
That is, until 2018. A study published in Nature last May revealed that the rate of decline of atmospheric CFCs significantly slowed after 2012. The scientists were quite certain that there were new emissions of this banned substance coming from somewhere in East Asia, only, no one could figure out from exactly where.
One year later, a new study, also published in Nature, pinpointed the location of these illegal emissions in Hebei and Shandong, two industrial provinces in northeastern China with notoriously bad air pollution. The provinces manufacture everything from glass, iron, and petrochemicals to food and drink.
Although the new paper did not specify what processes were responsible for this CFC bump, the Environmental Investigation Agency has a pretty good guess. Following the discovery of new CFC emissions in May 2018, the EIA led a ground investigation and found that 18 out of 21 inspected Chinese foam factories in 10 different provinces were using CFC-11 in the production of polyurethane foam.
A material as versatile as plastic with incredible insulation properties, PU is probably all around you right now, keeping your building warm or cool, and cushioning the carpet beneath your feet. Only, PU doesn’t have to be made of CFC-11 — that just happens to be a cheap, readily available option, which is likely why so many Chinese companies appear to be using it.
How could the Chinese government allow the production of such a potent pollutant for over seven years? Dongsheng Zang, an associate professor and director of Asian law at the University of Washington, believes we may never know due to a lack of transparency in Chinese environmental regulation.
“In the past 30 years,” Zang said, “there have been different versions of the Environmental Protection Law, but the mechanism of enforcement has been fairly weak.” He pointed out that NGOs and private citizens are limited in what they can do to push for enforcement.
In recent years, China has been a wildcard when it comes to environmental regulation. While the federal government has been taking huge strides toward renewables, and is planning on creating 13 million clean energy jobs by 2020, local governments have repeatedly put economic needs over environmental ones.
A 2018 study looked at data from almost 300 Chinese cities between 2003 and 2010, and found little evidence that environmental regulations were curbing air pollution. Moreover, the trends they observed supported the “pollution haven” hypothesis — that polluting industries, instead of complying with regulations, will simply move to areas with less stringent regulations.
Recently, China’s economic growth has been the slowest in almost 30 years, and coincidentally, the country has also seen higher pollution levels. While local governments say the temperamental weather is to blame for the smog, some environmentalists suspect that reducing air pollution may be on the backburner until the economy bounces back.
In the case of CFCs, however, Chris Nielsen, executive director of the Harvard-China Project, thinks the federal government may be pressured into directly interfering.
“The stakes for the central government in terms of international reputation are far larger than the modest market these illicit chemicals represent,” Nielsen told Grist via email. “Given there are safe substitutes that are only somewhat more expensive, I suspect the central government is itself very unhappy about this lapse in local enforcement.”
Time off isn’t so much a luxury, new research argues, as an urgent necessity.
Working long hours on the job is bad for your health, raising your risk of stroke, heart attack, and depression. And to top it off, it’s also bad for the planet. According to a paper from Autonomy, a future-focused think tank in the U.K, the number of hours spent working every week needs to be slashed in the absence of larger efforts to decarbonize our economies. Businesses are still mostly powered by fossil fuels.
“Provided current levels of carbon intensity of our economies and current levels of productivity,” the report asks, “how much work can we afford?”
Not much, apparently. The report, which came out on Wednesday, found that working hours in high-income countries like the United States “vastly exceed the levels that might be considered sustainable.” These countries would have to drastically cut their working weeks to stay beneath the target of 2 degrees C of warming over pre-industrial levels, assuming no other action was taken.
Workers in the U.K. could only put in nine hours a week. Ever industrious Germany, which still relies on coal power, would have to shorten the workweek to just six hours. And Sweden, one of Europe’s cleanest economies, would have to shift to a 12-hour week. To come up with these numbers, researchers analyzed data from the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks how much greenhouse gas different industries are pumping out.
Sure, productivity sounds like a good thing, but making stuff and keeping offices humming results in a bunch of climate-warming pollution. Oh, and don’t forget about all that gas we burn driving to work and back every day!
This is the most recent in a growing list of studies that suggest shorter work weeks could lower our carbon dioxide emissions. One found that a 1 percent decrease in work hours could shrink the carbon footprint of several high-income countries by nearly 1.5 percent.
OK, you’re thinking, so people in Germany would have to cut down to working just six hours a week now? What’s going to happen to all the pretzels and beer and Volkswagens?
These numbers are pretty much just an exercise in perspective. Calling in sick four days a week isn’t going to get us out of the climate crisis — at least, not by itself. “Working time reduction as an isolated policy by itself will likely be insufficient to combat climate change,” the paper says.
But cutting down on the daily grind can be done, and it could complement more stringent climate policies.
In the Netherlands, an average full-time employee spends just 29 hours working each week. Americans clock in for an average of 47 hours. It’s clear overworked Americans are making our country’s gigantic carbon footprint even bigger. One 2006 study estimated that if U.S. companies had working hours more like Europe’s, energy consumption would drop by 20 percent.
So, on the eve of Memorial Day, enjoy the three-day weekend (assuming you’re lucky enough to have the day off). If Americans decided to go Dutch, we’d all be a lot happier, and maybe a little cooler.
Back in 2007, South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis rebelled against the Republican party and his conservative state: He told the world that climate change was real, that it was caused by humans, and that his party would “get hammered” if they didn’t step up and do something about it. Then, unlike other Republicans who gave the issue lip service at the time, he actually tried.
Why would a dyed-in-the-wool Republican take such a strong stance? Inglis’s son said he’d vote against him if he didn’t.
Apparently, his son’s vote wasn’t the one he should’ve been worried about: Inglis lost his seat in Congress three years later to a guy who famously declared that “global warming has not been proven to the satisfaction of the constituents I seek to serve.” But the story is a good illustration of the potential that young people have to sway their parents’ opinions.
It’s a power that has come into play a lot lately: Pushed by dire circumstances to explore tactics beyond the eye roll, middle and high school students are leading the charge on just about everything, from climate justice, to gun control, to criminal justice reform.
And, it turns out, that cliché about learning more from your kids than they’ll ever learn from you has some scientific backing: To paraphrase researchers at North Carolina State University, kids are damn good at changing their climate skeptic parents’ minds — and climate educators who work with these kids every day have some pretty compelling info about why that might be.
“I see the dialogue between young people and adults as being super critical to shifting perception and understanding around climate change,” says Jen Kretser, director of climate initiatives at the Wild Center, an environmental education nonprofit in the Adirondacks. “We’ve seen a shift from adults saying, ‘Oh, aren’t those kids nice,’ to ‘Oh, these kids really know what they’re talking about.’”
The North Carolina study, published earlier this month in research journal Nature Climate Change, found that middle school-aged students who learned about climate change were pretty good at getting their parents to think differently about the issue. Conservative parents and fathers showed the greatest change in opinion — which makes some sense, as they probably had further to go in the first place (sorry dad!). Daughters were slightly more effective than sons (no surprise to the daughters among us — you know, Jupiter, stupider, all that).
The study involved a hands-on curriculum, where kids in North Carolina learned about the local impacts of climate change (like what it’s doing to hellbender salamanders, which sound way more badass than polar bears), and participated in a service-learning project (like collecting plankton samples for NOAA’s monitoring network — also badass, probably). They also interviewed their parents about climate change — without ever using the term, instead asking questions like, “how have you seen the weather change?” and “how will sea-level rise affect our community?”
Parents of kids in the course showed a greater difference in concern about climate change at the end of the unit than parents of kids in the control group, according to Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author, and a recent PhD graduate from North Carolina State University. In other words: Parents’ change in concern can be attributed to their kids.
It’s not the first study to show this superpower. In 2016, Nature Energy released a study that showed that Girl Scouts who learned about energy-saving techniques were able to bring them into their homes. Kids have also proven effective at getting their parents to recycle more, according to a study in Waste Management. (I can vouch for the power of progeny myself — I recently convinced my parents to get a dedicated recycling bin for all their empty Diet Squirt cans.) Parents have even softened their callused hearts on politically controversial topics like gay marriage.
When you think about it, kids have been the targets of a weird amount of campaigns for causes they don’t seem to have much power over. I get that the ’50s were a different time, but were kids really lighting enough campfires to justify Smokey Bear’s kid-friendly messaging? What about Smokey’s younger, tree-hugging counterpart Woodsy Owl, who spent the ‘70s railing against leaving cigarettes in the woods? If I didn’t know any better, I’d think those campaigns were, at least in part, efforts to get at jaded adults through the most influential people they know: their kids.
“I think about when I was in elementary school in the early ’90s, and recycling was such a big thing — you know, reduce, reuse, recycle,” Lawson says. “It became big because of kids learning about it in schools and taking it home.”
That’s right: Even those of us for whom the door of adorable child activism has long-since closed can harness the power of the teen. That thinking drives the work of educational organizations like the Wild Center and Minneapolis-based Climate Generation that work at getting kids the climate education they want — and the exposure they need to spread the word to the adults in their lives.
“They have this voice that they’re ready to use,” Lawson says.
Earlier this year, a group of students organized by Climate Generation descended on St. Paul, Minnesota, to meet with newly elected Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat who hadn’t made his position on climate change legislation clear. According to Kristen Poppleton, director of programs for Climate Generation, Walz’s daughter was there, and told her dad that she agreed with the youth at the summit. Less than two months later, Walz unveiled plans to generate all of Minnesota’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050.
Why are kids so effective at convincing their parents — and adults in general — to care about climate change?
The North Carolina researchers suggested that, in addition to parents just plain caring about what their kids have to say, it may have to do with what basically amounts to political innocence: Unlike adults, kids aren’t mired in ideology and party politics. They’re more easily convinced on climate change than many adults because they take facts at face value, without the overwhelming filter of worldview. It’s possible that adults perceive that lack of an agenda when kids are trying to get them on board.
“What’s really cool about kids from the age of 10 to 14 is that they’re able to take complex topics, critically think about them, and come to conclusions on their own, but they’re not at a stage yet where they’re ingrained in their own personal ideology yet,” Lawson says.
But even politically aware high school kids, like the ones Kretser works with, can be pretty convincing — just look at the teens behind the Sunrise Movement, which partners with political powerhouses like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to call for climate policy like the Green New Deal. In Kretser’s experience, teens who focus on politics are still effective at swaying opinion on climate change, in part because they’re pretty damn up-front about it. (Cue the collective “you don’t say” from parents of teenagers.)
Sure, not all teens are as quotable as 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, whose zingers make me cringe to think that teenage me believed she’d mastered the art of the burn. (“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she said to an audience of world leaders at last year’s United Nations climate talks.) But they’re certainly authentic — filterless — in a way that seems out of reach or undesirable for a lot of adults.
“They articulate and speak in such a way that goes right to your heart — but it’s also no-holds barred,” Kretser says. “They don’t dance around the issue.”
Kids can also help grown-ups understand just how catastrophic climate change is. For a lot of us, it’s tough to conceptualize those big climate milestones we always talk about, like the fact that we’re on track to reach 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. After all, most of us will be busy composting by then (and not in our kitchens).
Do the health benefits of riding a bike outweigh the exposure to air pollution?
–Having Elevated Anxiety Riding Two-wheelers
A. Dear HEART,
No environmental decision can just be simple, right? Using alternative transit like biking, walking, or busing instead of driving your car is one of the best things that you, personally, can do for the environment and your quads. But it also comes with risks, some of which may rule out biking as a viable option for plenty of would-be pedalers: suburban five-laners with no room for bikes, a poorly placed pothole, a thoughtlessly texting driver. And then there’s the whole breathing element.
Air pollution is definitively an overwhelming universal problem — whether you’re talking about fine particulates like smog and soot or the even-more-invisible pollutants like sulfur dioxide — and almost no one can escape it. A recent analysis from the World Health Organization found that 91 percent of the world has toxic air pollution above levels deemed to be safe. Air pollution has also been connected to infertility, cancer, and depression.
But while you’re right in pointing to air pollution as an important problem to factor into your daily life, it’s also harder to avoid than you might think. It’s no secret that certain regions, cities, and even neighborhoods suffer from higher air pollution burdens than others, and people exposed to higher amounts of particulate matter tend to be those disenfranchised due to their race or socioeconomic status. And it’s not even just an outdoor problem: You are exposed to air pollution inside as well, according to a New Yorker feature from last month.
The sum total of everyday activities that might be considered innocuous on their own — toasting bread, for crying out loud — can emit enough harmful particulate matter and carbon dioxide into the air to turn a kitchen into a place that would get a red flag from the EPA. (Well, maybe not the EPA of 2019.)
In short, you can’t run from all forms of air pollution. But does that make it a good idea to ride with them? I can relate to this kind of dilemma. I spend most of my day reading and writing about the insane breadth and variety of risks that fill up the world, from filling up our bodies with tiny bits of plastic to getting bitten by a psycho mutant tick, and I have personally come to the conclusion that fixating on all the ways we can minimize some of those risks on our small personal selves is — bonkers? A waste of mental space?
There is personal risk everywhere. And with air pollution, your choice is between breathing or not breathing, and one option has a 100 percent chance of death.
Please don’t read this as a criticism of you personally, because I don’t mean it that way. It’s a criticism of our cultural tendency to take on an interesting calculus: How does this thing that’s a huge societal or environmental problem negatively affect me, specifically? And what can I do to limit that?
Believe it or not, there’s actually a study that took on your very question about the health benefits of biking (ripped calves, strong heart) vs. huffing in polluted air (everything we already discussed), and found that the answer is yes, cycling is still worth it. Even in the most extreme cases — cities in the 99th percentile of particulate matter concentration — an hour-long bike ride is still considered to have net-positive benefits. (This graph from the Financial Times, which includes cities above even that level of pollution, lays it out pretty clearly.) According to this study from Salt Lake City, the average air pollution exposure from biking is about equivalent to driving with the windows open (makes sense), and less than riding the bus.
I don’t want to undersell the real health impacts of air pollution. Since you’re asking this question, I assume you are healthy enough to exist in polluted air without immense, imminent risk to your well-being. Not everyone is so lucky. For some — the elderly, people with asthma or other respiratory problems, or young children — a high-particulate-matter day can be a death sentence. And as we move from focusing on individual consequences to the well-being of the community, it’s worth asking about the root causes of the air pollution.
Naturally, combustion engine vehicles are a big part of the air pollution equation in most places. Not only do cars pump out particulate matter via their exhaust, but they also produce more than half of the country’s nitrogen oxide pollution, which is considered a harmful and common air pollutant. Other common causes of local air pollution include stationary point sources such as refineries, industries that emit harmful chemicals, and policies that allow polluting industries to expand unchecked.
Ideally, the decision to bike or not to bike goes beyond our own personal risks and benefits — it’s also about reorienting on what’s best for the environmental health of the community. Even though there’s a single study that essentially gives you the green light to pedal on your merry way with lower exposure than driving, another could theoretically come out tomorrow that says actually, PSYCH, never mind.
In that scenario, would you be justified in choosing to drive in order to slightly reduce your own pollution exposure? Remember, you’re going to get exposed to air pollution no matter what! You, yourself, can be less exposed to air pollution on your commute while you’re driving your car with the windows closed and pumping the air conditioner, but by doing that you’d be adding to the community’s pollution burden without even getting a whole lot in return. Eventually you have to leave your car, I’d imagine, and breathe the same air that everyone else does.
So perhaps you’ll allow me to slightly edit your question: Do the overall benefits of doing anything to help the collective outweigh the personal risks or inconveniences? In the thick of a climate crisis with precious few years left to escape the worst impacts of global warming, I say it’s a frame we need to be bringing to many more of our life choices.
In terms of biking, at least, the answer is thankfully simple and straightforward: If you’re able to, why wouldn’t you take one more car off the road and ride your bike? Yes, the health benefits happen to be in your favor, but you could also be justified in making your contribution to better air quality in your city completely regardless of personal reward. And as a biker, you’ll be more incentivized to push your city’s leadership toward better biking infrastructure and more room for alternative transportation — which is a case of self-interest actually serving collective good! Full circle, baby!
Ride your bike, vote in local elections, and wear a helmet. That’s my advice.
Surging concern among Americans about an overheating planet has done little to shift a political polarization that has now reached a stunning extreme: climate breakdown divides Democrats and Republicans even more than abortion does.
When voters were asked to rank topics important to them for the 2020 presidential election, conservative Republicans put global warming last out of 29 issues. Liberal Democrats placed the issue third, behind only environmental protection and healthcare.
This yawning gap in priorities between the two voting groups, highlighted in new Yale University data, is more stark than traditionally divisive topics such as abortion and gun control. Abortion ranks fifth and gun policies sit in seventh for conservative Republicans, with these issues coming in at number 13 and number seven, respectively, for progressive Democrats.
There is also a large, although slightly narrower, gap between moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans on climate. These more centrist Democrats put global warming in eighth position, with moderate Republicans putting it in 23rd place.
“Climate change is now more politically polarizing than any other issue in America,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program on climate change communication. “The issue has climbed and climbed in importance for the Democratic base since the 2016 presidential election to the point that it’s now a top-tier concern. We have never seen that in American politics before.
“And yet it’s dead last for conservative Republicans. The issue has flatlined for them over the past five years. In the U.S., your political party is the greatest indicator to your view on climate change — more than race, age, or gender.”
This growing alarm within Democratic ranks has already stirred the party’s presidential candidates, with contenders such as Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke releasing policies to slash planet-warming emissions and one hopeful, the Washington governor, Jay Inslee, running solely on the issue of the climate emergency. Joe Biden, the early frontrunner for the nomination, has been put under pressure over his lack of a climate plan to date.
It remains to be seen whether climate will fizzle out as a topic once a Democrat emerges to challenge Donald Trump, who has engaged in conspiracy theories about climate science and sought to dismantle regulations aimed at lowering emissions.
But polling does show the overall American electorate is now more alarmed about the climate crisis than ever before, with Yale’s latest survey finding that nearly four in 10 of all voters consider global heating policies as very important when choosing a candidate. This total includes 64 percent of all Democrats, a third of independents and 12 percent of Republicans.
“The crystal ball is cloudy because politics has entered an era of chaos,” said Leiserowitz. “But it’s safe to say climate will be important in the Democratic primaries and then you won’t hear much about it beyond that. The differences with Donald Trump will be enormous, whoever the candidate is.”
The two major parties in U.S. politics experienced a major split over climate breakdown a decade ago, when the Tea Party helped drive a rightward shift among Republicans and candidates started to routinely dismiss mainstream science, aided by fossil fuel-funded groups that aimed to spread misinformation.
This scenario has helped scupper any sweeping federal action on climate breakdown, although some Republicans are now modifying their position in the face of growing public concern over dire scientific warnings and a string of punishing wildfires, storms, and flooding.
Voters are prepared to back rapid action, too. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans support the Green New Deal, a set of goals to radically reduce emissions, the Yale polling finds. This total includes 44 percent of Republicans, although this number has dropped sharply in recent months.
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (the New York representative behind the plan) has been turned into the boogeyman by Fox News, but if my party wants to win back the House it needs an alternative to the Green New Deal,” said Bob Inglis, a former Republican representative who now runs a group advocating conservative climate solutions.
“Republicans in competitive districts are starting to think: ‘Gee, we need to push away from the president on this issue.’ We are starting to see new talking points from Republicans where they talk about realistic solutions to climate change. It’s a huge change from where we’ve disastrously been for the last decade.”
Inglis said a shift among grassroots Republicans will be enough to convince about a dozen of the party’s lawmakers to back a tax on carbon dioxide emissions after the next election. “A price on carbon is rock-solid conservatism that is, wonderfully, also shared by many progressives,” he said. “But we’ve got a long way to go yet.”
Reaching out to conservatives on climate change remains a conundrum for activists and scientists. But there are now clearer avenues to talk about renewable energy, such as solar and wind, as well as adaptions to climate-related disasters, according to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University.
“There’s nothing about the thermometer that gives you a different answer depending on who you vote for,” she said. “I’ve had many conservative groups say to me ‘Hey, it does look like something is happening, how do we prepare for this?’
The oil and gas industry is dealing with a newly hostile landscape. Exxon, in particular, has had a rough couple of years in the public eye. The #ExxonKnew investigations uncovered the nefarious ways in which the company tried to cover up climate science for decades. And a slew of recent climate liability lawsuits are aimed at getting the biggest players in the industry to pay up for climate-related damages.
So what’s a modern oil company to do? The world’s largest oil companies are starting to realize that a carbon tax might be their smartest move. On Monday, BP and Shell became the latest major supporters of a carbon tax initiative backed by Americans for Carbon Dividends, the advocacy arm of the Republican-led Climate Leadership Council.
Other members include some big-shot economists, an heir to the Walmart fortune, and two former secretaries of state, James P. Baker and George P. Shultz. Both oil companies pledged $1 million over the next two years to back the Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividends plan. Exxon also invested $1 million in the initiative back in 2017. The tax starts at $40 per ton, rises over time, and returns the revenue generated by the tax back to Americans.
The CLC’s carbon tax isn’t the only carbon pricing scheme out there at the moment, though it does have the most financial support from oil companies thus far. Members of a bipartisan group in the House floated a carbon tax proposal in January. And recently, a coalition of environmental groups and corporate giants including some of the same oil companies backing the Baker-Shultz plan launched an initiative called the CEO Climate Dialogue. The group aims to encourage Congress to enact — you guessed it! — a national carbon tax.
It’s clear that these oil companies are starting to see the writing on the wall. At the very least, they’re eager to avoid something like the Green New Deal, which would fundamentally alter the way Big Oil does business by rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and fossil fuel infrastructure.
But there’s another reason the likes of BP and Exxon are supporting a carbon tax: In exchange for a tax on emissions, Congress would “streamline” environmental regulations. Details of the proposal are still being hammered out, according to Climate Leadership Council Vice President Greg Bertelsen, but that could mean rolling back something as big as Obama’s Clean Power Plan or what’s left of it after Trump’s presidency).
And it’s clear oil companies want a carbon tax done on their terms. In Washington state, BP America spent around $13 million to squash a carbon tax initiative that was up for a vote during the 2018 midterm elections. The tax would have left environmental standards intact.
Rolling back regulations in exchange for a carbon tax works for the planet, Bertelsen said, because the tax would provide emissions reductions that surpass the goals laid out in the Paris agreement. By the group’s calculations, the tax would reduce three times the amount of emissions that even the Clean Power Plan promised. And because it would be accomplished by legislative action rather than executive action, the danger of a climate-unfriendly administration swooping in and repealing environmental progress (sound familiar?) would be averted.
There’s another reason that oil companies are amenable to this proposal. “Robust carbon taxes would also make possible an end to federal and state tort liability for emitters,” the plan says. That means oil companies could be granted immunity from those pesky climate liability lawsuits.
“That would be a very good deal for the oil companies,” said Ann Carlson, co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA, who does pro-bono consulting for some of the plaintiffs. “It doesn’t surprise me that they’re seeking immunity, because the damages that are caused by greenhouse gas emissions add up to the many billions of dollars.”
Lawsuits from San Francisco; Oakland; New York City; Boulder, Colorado; and even a group of commercial fishers are trying to pin the costs of adapting to rising sea levels and extreme weather on the biggest players in the oil and gas industry. If one or more of those suits are successful, many more counties and businesses could follow decide to go the legal route as well. Immunity from climate liability would allow Big Oil to sidestep those expensive minefields.
“The problem is that they have been allowed to emit carbon for so long and not paid for the consequences,” Carlson said of the oil companies. Carson pointed out that a price on carbon would mitigate emissions going forward, but would do nothing about the greenhouse gas emissions that are already baked into the atmosphere and causing damage.
“What industry wants most is certainty so that they can make the necessary investments to transition their businesses and the economy to a cleaner energy future,” said CLC’s Bertelsen. “We do envision a limited provision under which … companies would not be liable for their historic emissions which were legal at the time.”
Albert Lin, a professor of law at UC Davis, said success depends on what you view as the big picture strategy for responding to climate change. “Obviously the plaintiffs in these suits want to be covered for their future expenses,” he said.
But those climate lawsuits can also serve another purpose: as leverage. “You may not get the exact outcome you were hoping for,” he said. “But if you move the ball in terms of getting, say, a carbon tax, then maybe that’s a desirable outcome.” The threat of lawsuits and a looming Green New Deal could be what it takes for the U.S. to finally accomplish a climate policy.
While oil companies are starting to warm up to the idea of a carbon tax, they’re also still putting big money against regulations. The five top companies, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP, and Total, have spent a combined $200 million per year to slow or block climate policy since 2015. They also turned to trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute to do their most direct anti-climate lobbying.
A carbon tax isn’t likely to go anywhere with the current administration in power. Both the carbon dividends plan and the Green New Deal more or less depend on a new president taking the White House in 2020 — although the carbon tax, with its bipartisan support and focused goal, would likely fare better if Donald Trump retains his seat on the Iron Throne come 2020.
Grist recently partnered with the Peoples Climate Movement to host the second in a series of live webinars to discuss what the Green New Deal means for workers. The panel was moderated by Grist news writer, Zoya Teirstein, and featured Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of Maine AFL-CIO, and Alison Hirsh, Political Director of 32BJ SEIU, and Theresa Yoon, a Strategic Researcher for SEIU Local 1 in Chicago.
Over 100 people joined to engage in the conversation and ask questions of the panelists. If you missed the event or weren’t able to join for the full discussion, we’ve got you covered:
What does the Green New Deal mean for workers? - Vimeo