TIME Environment

Obama Mulls Circumventing Congress for International Climate Change Agreement

Climate Change Global Warming Asbestos Mines
Asbestos mines in Amiandos, Troodos Mountains, Cyprus, June 15, 2014. G. Nimatallah—De Agostini/Getty Images

Possible end-run around Senate ratification

The Obama Administration is working on an international agreement for countries to cut their fossil fuel emissions, a move that could set up a showdown with Congress by avoiding the need for formal treaty ratification.

The accord, meant to be signed at a United Nations summit next year, will likely bypass the usual ratification procedure, the New York Times reports. Ratification would require a two-thirds vote from the Senate, but any action on climate change faces stiff resistance from Republicans and from some moderate Democrats, and President Barack Obama has increasingly looked for ways to work around congressional opposition as his time in office winds down. The Administration is considering framing an agreement as “politically binding” instead of legally binding as a way to circumvent the need for ratification, the Times reports. Obama’s climate negotiators told the Times that the framework would help “name and shame” negligent countries.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it’s premature to say the Administration is planning to circumvent the Senate.

“Not a word of the new climate agreement currently under discussion has been written, so it is entirely premature to say whether it will or won’t require Senate approval,” Psaki said in a statement. “Our goal is to negotiate a successful and effective global climate agreement that can help address this pressing challenge. Anything that is eventually negotiated and that should go to the Senate will go to the Senate. We will continue to consult with Congress on this important issue.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced opposition to the possible maneuver, saying it’s indicative of what he called the Obama Administration’s tendency to “ignore the elected representatives of the people when they don’t agree.”

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller

TIME Environment

Climate Change Could Happen Slower for the Next Decade, Study Says

California's Drought Becomes Critical
One of two major water storage lakes on the Russian River is lake Mendocino, which is nearly empty on January 24, 2014, near Ukiah, California. George Rose—Getty Images

Atmospheric temperatures are expected to rise slowly in the next decade

Temperatures have risen more slowly in the past decade than in the previous 50 years and will continue to rise at a somewhat slower rate in the next decade, according to a new study, even as climate change continues to raise temperatures to unprecedented levels worldwide.

The study, published in the journal Science, explained the temporary slowdown in rising temperatures as a potential consequence of the end of a 30-year current cycle in the Atlantic Ocean that pushes heat into the ocean.

“In the 21st century, surface warming slowed as more heat moved into deeper oceans,” the study says.

Despite this brief respite, the study says temperatures will begin to rise more quickly after the cycle is complete.

“Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850,” according to a different study published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends,” the IPCC study said, cautioning that the slowdown in global warming does not mean the atmosphere will not continue to heat at a faster rate.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 21

1. Perspective matters: To tell the stories of Ferguson, America needs black journalists.

By Sonali Kohli in Quartz

2. After James Foley, America’s policy against paying ransom to kidnappers deserves a public debate.

By David Rohde at Reuters

3. To keep American democracy alive, citizens need to use their voice and their votes.

By Robert Reich in Guernica

4. Climate change will make the coffee of the future bitter and pricey.

By Jessica Leber in FastCo.Exist

5. Business school students have much to learn from the “Market Basket” family-corporate feud.

By Judith Samuelson in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME energy

Germans Happily Pay More for Renewable Energy. But Would Others?

Germany solar power
Germany has become a world leader in solar power Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany has embraced subsidies for renewable energy, but not every country is willing to bear the economic burden

This article originally appeared on OilPrice

While Germany is breaking world records for the amount of sustainable energy it uses every year, German energy customers are breaking European records for the amount they pay in monthly bills. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to mind.

In the first half of 2014, Germany drew 28 percent of its power generation from renewable energy sources. Wind and solar capacity were hugely boosted, now combining to generate 45 terawatt hours (TWh), or 17 percent of national demand, with another 11 percent coming from biomass and hydropower plants.

This proves that Germany’s controversial Energiewendepolicy is on target to meet highly ambitious goals by 2050 — as much as a 95 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, 60 percent of power generation from renewables, and a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency over 2010.

All well and good, but the economics of renewable energy don’t usually allow for such a smooth transition. As part of the Energiewende, the costs of associated subsidies have been passed on to German customers, who pay the highest power bills in Europe.

Fifty-two percent of the power bill for retail businesses in July 2014 is now made up of taxes and fees. The average bill for a household has reached 85 euros a month, 18 euros of which is the renewable energy levy. The reaction to such fees should have been furious.

It hasn’t been. A 2013 survey revealed that 84 percent of Germans would be happy to pay even more if the country could find a way to go 100 percent renewable.

So how can this model of high targets, high fees and high public support find traction in other countries? The answer is, with difficulty.

Germany’s national engagement toward renewable energy came after a period of prolonged public education, opening up to locally owned wind and solar infrastructure, and investment support. To be sure, other major countries are finding success in the renewable sphere, but not in quite the same way.

While renewable installations in the U.S. may account for 24 percent of the world’s total, they only accounted for 13 percent of the country’s power generation. This compares to Germany, which has more than 12 percent of global installed renewable capacity, but takes 28 percent of its power from it. Spain, China and Brazil trail behind, with 7.8 percent, 7.5 percent and 5 percent of global capacity respectively.

Brazil’s model has similarities to Germany’s, with the government carrying out public auctions for contracts and putting out favorable investment terms for foreign companies looking to set up renewable energy projects. Spain was doing well as wind became its largest source of power generation in April 2013, but economic woes have seen Madrid begin to double back on its commitments.

Political gridlock in Washington, D.C. means renewable energy in the U.S. has been boosted by state and private efforts. Arizona now has the biggest solar power plant in the world, while California has the largest geothermal plant in the country.

In Mexico, the country’s solar potential and the improving cost-effectiveness of PV technology has seen projects like the 30MW Aura Solar I crop up. But the national electricity regulator, CFE, has been slammed for taking up to six months to connect residential PV installations to the grid.

Perhaps the most ambitious plans come from China, which is busy working to transform its reputation from an energy pariah to a respected renewable leader. However, these are being mandated at a central level, with little to no attention being paid to the opinions of the Chinese public.

And there’s the rub. The German public is a willing participant in the government’s efforts, happy to face higher bills in exchange for a cleaner and more energy-efficient future, paying an average of 90 euros a month in 2013. It is true that Germans’ power bills are the highest in Europe, but the trade-off is known, increases are announced and negotiated months in advance, and surprises are few.

In the UK, which was proud of having among the lowest electricity rates in the EU, the government has been hard-pressed to explain to customers just why Scottish Power, Southern Electric, and British Gas have all raised prices, while the Labour Party has promised a 20-month price freeze if it wins 2015 elections.

The UK has left its coal and nuclear infrastructure to stagnate, reversed Blair-era commitments to renewable sources and opened vast swathes of the country to fracking exploration.

Ask them, and Germans might tell you that a pricey electricity bill might actually save everyone from a few headaches down the line.

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TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 7

1. Climate change and increased fertilizer use could mean more poisonous algae blooms and contaminated drinking water.

By Jane J. Lee in National Geographic

2. If the world community isn’t careful, the very concept of sovereignty could be finished.

By the editorial board of the Christian Science Monitor

3. From Nigeria to Gaza and beyond: what happened to our ability to feel empathy?

By Lauren Wolfe in Foreign Policy

4. What if pay reflected a job’s social worth?

By Robert Reich in Guernica

5. International development is too focused on the very poor. Transformational strategies to improve whole societies do more to help the poor – and everyone else.

By Lant Pritchett in Effective States and Inclusive Development

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Environment

Your Whole Foods Tote Could Be More Harmful Than a Plastic Bag

Banning plastic bags doesn't reduce litter, threaten sea life or contribute to greenhouse gases nearly as much as proponents would have you believe

Do you want paper or plastic?

You’ve probably been told that the right answer is paper – unless you want to hasten climate change and choke marine life. But the plastic bag has been wrongfully convicted. And labeling it as an environmental villain – and banning its usage – is blinding us to better behavior.

Plastic bags haven’t always been Public Enemy No. 1. Introduced by Safeway and Kroger in 1982, they soon dominated the grocery bag market – by 1996, 80 percent of all bags were made from lightweight plastics. Customers loved ‘em. They became thinner, lighter and able to contain more recycled material. And then…the tide turned.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first major city in America to ban the lightweight plastic shopping bag. Since then, over 150 municipalities across the country, including the cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago have passed ordinances imposing similar bans. Most of these ordinances also include mandatory fees on paper and “reusable” plastic bags – like the five cent bag tax in Washington, D.C. In California, home to around 100 plastic bag bans, the state senate is considering a bill (SB 270) that would impose restrictions statewide.

Where did this ire come from? Ban proponents claim that restricting the distribution of plastic bags will have significant environmental benefits and reduce municipal costs. That means money saved for taxpayers. In a recent study for Reason Foundation, Brian Seasholes and I investigated these claims and found they’re mostly untrue.

Let’s start with the basic environmental claims: Banning plastic bags won’t make litter disappear, dissipate litter removal costs, or save innocent animals. Plastic bags constitute a tiny proportion of all litter, so banning them has very little impact on the amount of litter generated. A recent review of numerous analyses of litter in our streets found that plastic shopping bags constituted one percent or less of visible litter in the United States. They also comprise only .4 percent of all municipal solid waste that’s discarded. To that end, there’s no evidence that banning plastic bags has reduced litter removal costs, and it won’t do much in the way of reducing trash collection costs, either. This first point isn’t surprising since litter removal tends to be done by municipal employees or contractors who are not paid per item, so a tiny reduction in the number of items of litter generated makes essentially no difference to costs of removal.

At sea, the impact may be even smaller. Plastic bags have not caused a giant “garbage patch” in the North Pacific. Sure, plastic in the oceans has increased over the past four decades, corresponding to the increase in plastic use in general. Yet the notion that this has resulted in a gigantic landfill at sea is contradicted by the evidence, which shows that most plastic in the oceans is widely dispersed and in the form of tiny pieces.

Plastic bags aren’t threatening the fish, either. Or birds for that matter. Claims that plastic bags kill hundreds of thousands of marine animals seem connected to a misreading of a study that investigated the impact of discarded fishing gear. As David Santillo, a senior biologist with Greenpeace, explained to The Times of London:

“It’s very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite…. With larger mammals it’s fishing gear that’s the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren’t an issue.”

So the animals are safe–but what about us and our homes? Another common claim is that plastic shopping bags block storm drains, so banning them will reduce the risk of flooding. That’s not true. Reducing litter in general and cleaning storm drains are far more effective solutions to the problem.

Okay, you say, but what about the use of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases? Those must be pretty bad, right? Wrong again. Lightweight plastic shopping bags are made from high density polyethylene, the feedstock for which – ethylene – is nearly entirely (over 97 percent) derived from natural gas. Given the newfound abundance of such gas in the United States and globally, there is little reason to be concerned about plastic shopping bags as a significant cause of resource depletion. And if you look at the per bag consumption of energy, water and emissions of greenhouse gases across different types of bags, those numbers are far lower for lightweight plastic bags than for paper or reusable ones.

Of course that does not tell the full story, since some bags are reused more than others. Surveys suggest that most people reuse their lightweight plastic bags, mainly for trash disposal, and on average each one is used 1.6 times. By contrast, paper bags are typically used only once. The thicker plastic bags, made from low density polyethylene, now being promoted as “reusable,” typically are used about 3.1 times.

All of this means that an average consumer using only lightweight plastic bags consumes less energy and water and generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a consumer sporting a Whole Foods tote. Perversely, restrictions on the distribution of plastic bag likely results in an increase in the overall environmental impact of the bags we use to shop.

Not to mention that reusable bags are kind of disgusting, from the public health perspective. Putting food into bags that have previously been used to carry perishable items poses a health risk. Several outbreaks of food-borne diseases have been traced to unhygienic reuse of bags. To solve this problem, consumers are advised to disinfect bags before reuse – a process that consumes resources and time – and to store bags away from sources of germs. Surveys suggest that consumers rarely wash or otherwise disinfect their reusable bags. What a surprise.

If that’s not enough to sell you, consider this: plastic bag bans and mandatory fees on alternative bags disproportionately affect the working poor, for whom the cost of paying for bags represents a greater burden. A dollar spent on ten paper bags is a dollar not available for other purchases. That obviously matters more to a household on a tight budget.

Let’s bag the ban. I’ll take plastic, please.

Julian Morris is Vice President of Research at Reason Foundation and co-author, with Brian Seasholes, of How Green is that Grocery Bag Ban? This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Research

The High Risks of High Summer Temperatures

When the mercury rises, so do some health risks

A new CDC report out Wednesday shows that 2,000 Americans died each year from 2006 to 2010 from weather-related causes and, as TIME reported earlier, twice as many Americans died of winter cold compared to summer heat.

While the recent CDC numbers show more weather-related deaths attributed to the cold, the agency says heat-related health problems are concerning—and growing. According to the agency, a good example is Chicago. In 1995, there were 465 heat-related deaths in the city, but from 1999 to 2010, there were 7,415, which averages to 618 deaths a year. Low-income Americans without access to air conditioning—or those who have A/C but can’t afford to run it—are at a particular risk, as are children and the elderly.

This has some scientists concerned. “Previous research shows that extreme heat on average causes more deaths per year than tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes combined” says Olga Wilhelmi, a scientist who studies heat-related illness and climate at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Heat-related deaths are a serious concern. When you look at the relationship between human health and extreme heat, it presents very complex medical, social, and environmental issues, and that’s what we’re trying to understand.”

Wilhelmi is studying what combination of factors influence heat-related health problems and death in a given place–primarily focusing on cities. The idea is that by gaining a vast knowledge of who are at the greatest risks and why, local health departments can better protect their residents.Wilhelmi has done a lot of recent work in the city of Houston, looking partly at the number of 911 calls made for heat-related health problems. One of her early findings is that the majority of Houston nights hit heat-stress levels, and that cities may need to consider issuing more alerts and interventions to protect its most vulnerable residents.

 

 

TIME Environment

Delay Action on Climate Change by 10 Years and Costs Rocket 40%: Report

Inside the DTE Energy Inc. Coal-Fired Power Plant
Steam rises from a tower at DTE Energy Co.'s Monroe Power Plant in Monroe, Michigan, U.S., on Monday, June 30, 2014. Jeff Kowalsky—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The longer the U.S. holds off action to mitigate climate change, the more costly the effort will become, a new report shows

A new report estimates the cost of mitigating the effects of climate change could rise by as much as 40% if action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is delayed 10 years — immediately outweighing any potential savings of a delay.

The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, U.S. President Barack Obama’s source for advice on economic policy, compared over 100 actions on climate change laid out in 16 studies to extract the average cost of delayed efforts. Released Tuesday, the findings suggests policymakers should immediately confront carbon emissions as a form of “climate insurance.”

“Events such as the rapid melting of ice sheets and the consequent increase of global sea levels, or temperature increases on the higher end of the range of scientific uncertainty, could pose such severe economic consequences as reasonably to be thought of as climate catastrophes,” the report reads. “Confronting the possibility of climate catastrophes means taking prudent steps now to reduce the future chances of the most severe consequences of climate change.”

The report also found that any increase in climate change amid that delayed action would gravely exacerbate the problem; a rise to 3°C above preindustrial temperatures would mean mitigation costs would increase by about 0.9% of global economic output year on year. (To put this into perspective, 0.9% of U.S. economic output is estimated at $150 billion for 2014.)

Tuesday’s report comes as the Obama Administration announces more executive actions to reduce methane emissions to “continue to make progress in modernizing the nation’s natural gas transmission and distribution systems,” according to an administration official.

The White House began renewing its commitment to climate change earlier this year with the release of the third National Climate Assessment in May, which painted a grim picture of the current and future effects of climate change on the environment. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a sweeping plan to cut carbon emissions 30% by 2030. Though environmentalists have praised the plan, it has split some lawmakers and business owners who worry it could have an adverse impact on energy prices.

TIME Science

Note to Science: The GOP’s Just Not That That Into You

Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it
Rick Scott: Not a scientist—and darn proud to say it Orlando Sentinel; MCT via Getty Images

Fla. Gov. Rick Scott is the latest Republican to play the scientific ignorance card. It's a game that's gotten old

Every dysfunctional relationship proceeds though the same stages: from promise to problem to crisis and, ultimately, to repetitive farce. There is one more embarrassing public scene, one more fight that disturbs the neighbors—a lather-rinse-repeat cycle that becomes more tiresome than anything else. That final stage is where the hard right of the GOP has at last arrived in its tortured pas de deux with science.

The most recent Republican to get into an ugly dust-up with the scientific truth is Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Running for re-election against former Gov. (and former Republican) Charlie Crist—and currently trailing in polls—Scott was asked by a reporter whether he believes climate change is real. Depressingly but predictably, he went for what is becoming the go-to dodge for too many in the GOP when pressed on a scientific fact that they dare not acknowledge for fear of fallout from the base, but can no longer openly deny for fear of being called out for willful know-nothingism. “I’m not a scientist,” Scott thus began—and there he should have stopped.

The device, of course, is meant to suggest that the issue is just too complex, just too abstruse for people without advanced degrees to presume to pass judgment on. It was the bob-and-weave used by Fla. Senator Marco Rubio when GQ magazine asked him the age of the Earth. “I’m not a scientist, man,” he said—adding the “man” fillip because it presumably suggested a certain whew-this-stuff-is-hard fatigue.

It was used as well by House Speaker John Boehner when he was pressed about proposed EPA regulations intended to curb greenhouse gasses. “Well, listen,” he began, “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”

There’s something not just risibly dishonest about this reg’lar-folk pose, it’s flat-out unseemly too, which is why less disingenuous Republicans, whatever their views, tend to find a defter way to phrase things. Boehner, Scott, Rubio and the like are seeking to have things two incompatible ways—they deny the science, even ridicule the science, and then they seek to hide behind the skirts of the science, recusing themselves from answering questions because it’s all just too dang complicated.

Never mind that if you take them at their word—if you say, okay, let’s see what the eggheads in the labs say, and it turns out that the eggheads in the labs all but universally agree that global warming is dangerously, frighteningly real—they neatly flip the script. The scientists—the ones to whom they pretend to defer—are suddenly dismissed as “grant-grubbing” hoaxsters, conniving with liberal politicians to “expand the role of government.”

But, okay, let’s pretend the politicos are sincere. If the Speaker, by his own admission, isn’t qualified to debate climate change, fine, he’s excused from the conversation—and he should be expected not to offer further opinion on the matter. This, however, is a dangerous game to play. If being a scientist, man, is a threshold requirement for taking a thoughtful, honest position on climate change, then the same is true for being an economist or physician or astronomer if you presume to offer an opinion on the federal budget or the health care law or NASA funding.

The “both sides do it” faux equivalency game is hard to play on this one, since science denial is simply not endemic in the Democratic party the way it is in the GOP. But that hardly means all Dems have covered themselves in glory. West Va. Sen. Joe Manchin literally shot a hole in a copy of the cap and trade bill in a 2010 election ad, a crude symbolic twofer that signaled yes to guns and no to climate regulation in his rural, coal-producing state. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, locked in a tough reelection battle, has consistently blocked climate action, opposing tighter regulations on coal-fired power plants, because, she says, “Requiring [the plants] to use technology that has not been proven viable in industrial settings is completely backward,” a good argument if what she says about the technology were remotely accurate—which it isn’t.

But the hard truth is Manchin and Landrieu are outliers among the Democrats, while the counterfactual voices are among the loudest within Republican ranks. The time really has come for the GOP to fix its relationship with science—or just break up for good. Either way, they should do something soon, because the rest of us are getting sick of the fighting.

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