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Posted on on November 28th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (


4 climate policies we’re thankful for.

Unless it’s immediately proceeded by the word “no,” the phrase “good news” rarely appears these days in stories about climate change. But in a year in which we found out that our oceans may rise this century by as much as three feet and that atmospheric carbon dioxide is higher than it has been in nearly a million years, there were still some bright spots. And in preparation for Thanksgiving, we’ve compiled a list of four environmental developments for which you can give thanks. You can see even more on Twitter by searching the hashtag #ClimateThanks.

1. The U.S. and the World Bank will avoid financing coal-fired power plants abroad.

Burning coal is among the dirtiest ways to produce energy and quickest ways to accelerate climate change. So this July, when the World Bank announced that it would limit funding for new coal-burning plants to “rare circumstances” where countries have “no feasible alternatives,” green advocates were thrilled. At the same time, the global development giant also reversed its opposition to hydroelectric power, which many environmental activists had pushed as an alternative to cheap energy from coal. Last month, based on an announcement President Obama made in June, the United States Treasury Department also ceased financing any new coal projects abroad except in cases where coal was the only viable option for bringing power to poor regions. The U.S. and World Bank decisions only affect coal projects that use public financing; around the world, many are built with private money. But a Treasury official told the New York Times that the Obama administration felt “that if public financing points the way, it will then facilitate private investment.”

2. The White House will push carbon limits for new and existing power plants.

Natural gas and coal-fired power plants are responsible for 40 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions and one-third of its greenhouse gas emissions. The country can’t address climate change without regulating this sector of the economy. In his June speech at Georgetown University, President Obama announced that for the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency will propose rules to cap carbon emissions from existing power plants. His administration also pushed forward a rule to limit pollution from new power plants, which had stalled last year. If the EPA finalizes the rule and it’s upheld in court, it would limit new coal-fired plants to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per megawatt hour — the average coal power plant releases 1,800 pounds — and new gas power plants to 1,000 pounds. Obama said the rules were necessary for the U.S. to meet its pledge to bring greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent — or below 2005 levels — by the year 2020.

3. The global warming “slowdown” showed us that international agreements can reduce climate change.

The so-called global warming “slowdown” you heard about over the summer certainly doesn’t mean that global warming has stopped — regardless of what climate skeptics may be saying. Although climate scientists determined that over the past 15 years, the rate of the warming of the planet has slowed — “kind of like a car easing off the accelerator,” as Chris Mooney wrote – the Earth’s surface and oceans are continuing to heat up at an alarming rate. (Other recent research suggests the “slowdown” might not have really occurred at all.) But one study found an unexpected factor contributed to the “slowdown”: the partial cause appears to be a planet-wide phaseout of greenhouse-trapping gases called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which more than 40 countries agreed to by signing the Montreal Protocol in 1988. “Without the Protocol, environmental economist Francisco Estrada of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México reports, global temperatures today would be about a 10th of a degree Celsius higher than they are,” Tim McDonnell explained earlier this month. “That’s roughly an eighth of the total warming documented since 1880.” Bottom line? The global warming “slowdown” actually seems to be a strong indication that international treaties aimed at reducing climate change can work — and that we need more of them.

4. The world’s largest economies will phase down the use of a potent greenhouse gas.

The phaseout of CFCs had another unexpected outcome. Manufacturers began to replace CFCs — used in air conditioners, refrigerators, and aerosol cans — with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs don’t eat away at the ozone layer like CFCs do. But scientists recently concluded that HFCs are a type of “super-pollutant” – gases that have exponentially more heat-trapping ability than carbon dioxide, although they dissipate from the atmosphere within a few years. Without intervention, HFCs were on track to make a huge contribution to global warming. If present trends hold steady, then by the year 2050, the amount of HFCs humans will have released into the atmosphere will cause as much warming as 90 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. But this year saw positive signs that world leaders are ready to curb this powerful greenhouse gas. In a deal that the White House announced in June, the U.S. and China agreed to explore technologies and financial incentives to reduce the use of HFCs. Three months later, leaders of the Group of 20, which includes major economic powers like Russia, announced that their countries, too, would make plans to reduce the use of HFCs.

This story was produced by Mother Jones as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Molly Redden is a reporter in Mother Jones’ Washington bureau. She tweets at @mtredden



What stood out most about the United States’ role in the United Nations climate talks that just wrapped in Warsaw, Poland, was how little the United States stood out.

While the U.S. is used to being the bad guy — or at least one of them — in the international climate arena, this year the Americans seemed perfectly happy to keep their heads down, quietly do their business, and let other big polluters take the punches.

It doesn’t usually work this way. For the nearly two decades that the U.N.’s annual climate talks have been held — and especially for the past 12 years, since the U.S. backed out of the Kyoto Protocol that it had helped design — the world’s largest historical greenhouse gas polluter has taken most of the blame from environmental groups and poor countries for essentially causing the problem and doing squat to solve it.

This year, though, American negotiators are heading home relatively unscathed, if severely sleep deprived from the marathon, 36-hour session that was needed to wrap up the talks with something resembling an agreement. (You can read all about the outcomes in John Upton’s somewhat-less-than-disheartening wrap-up.)

It’s impossible to know if this was a guiding strategy going into the talks, but the U.S. managed to offer just enough to avoid smelling as bad as a host of other countries whose behavior was downright putrid.

Consider this comment by Tim Gore of Oxfam, who was talking specifically about some positions on climate finance (or how rich countries will help poor ones deal with climate change), but who might as well have been talking about the whole UNFCCC process: “Ironically, this is even making the U.S. look good. Not because they’ve actually done anything here, but because other countries are going backwards.”


Indeed, Australia, during the two-week negotiations, Canada, and Japan all took turns officially weakening their emissions pledges. Others wavered and flagged on issues of equity and how quickly to get cash to poor countries that are already suffering through climate impacts. Host nation Poland even scheduled a coal conference on the sidelines of the U.N. meetings, ensuring that the world’s greatest carbon threat would be well represented at the talks.

This race to the bottom made our country’s relatively weak offers look almost, not quite, halfway decent. (And here it has to be said that the official U.S. commitments for emissions reductions — which they won’t actually call commitments, just “pledges” — are worlds away from what the science tells us is necessary to keep global temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius, which the U.S. supposedly agreed to back in Copenhagen.)

A new polluter class

Helping to shade the U.S. from critical view is the ever-growing specter of pollution from the developing world, which undermines the longstanding argument that the developed world should bear the economic burden of addressing climate change since we caused the problem in the first place.

China’s emissions have already topped the U.S.’s on a yearly basis, and it won’t be long until the Chinese have emitted more greenhouse gases cumulatively than have Americans. With that inconvenient truth, there’s a growing rift amongst the developing nations over who should be required to cut emissions. China and India and other emerging economies don’t want to have to make the same commitments as rich countries that have spent centuries spewing greenhouse gases.

“There’s all sorts of divisions emerging that weren’t there before,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who knows as much about the UNFCCC process as anyone. “If you’re a small island nation, you don’t care if it’s emissions from the U.S. or China causing your country to go under water. You want action.”

Complicating things is a recent study, cited by U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern in a press conference, that by 2020 — the year that this prospective climate treaty will go into force —  the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases from developing countries will be greater than those from developed countries.

China and India have grown more and more vocal in their opposition to binding commitments, and, fair or not, the U.S. can pretty easily hide behind their outcries and let the quickly-industrializing giants take lumps from their former allies in the developing world.

Examining the fossil records

To the utter shock of longtime players in these climate talks, the U.S. almost escaped the entire two weeks without receiving the ignoble “Fossil of the Day” award handed out by the Climate Action Network to the counties doing the most to submarine the chances of a deal. It’s been over a decade since the U.S. walked away from a COP fossil-free.

When the Americans were awarded a “Fossil” in the very last ceremony — just a second place fossil, no less! — it wasn’t even for a specifically offensive act, but for a relative lack of ambition and for being “difficult” in certain tracks of the negotiations. It was kind of like Derek Jeter making the MLB All-Star Team (or the inverse thereof) late in his career — not because he’s still good, but because everyone just thinks he should be there.

For sake of contrast, the Aussies racked up no fewer than five “Fossil” awards, landing the shameful, final “Colossal Fossil” awarded for being the most destructive force in the talks. (I call it shameful, but their team probably carried it home to their newly elected, climate-denying government like a trophy or a “mission accomplished” banner.)

If you want to look at the Fossil awards as a reasonably good metric for analyzing the true “bad guys” in these climate talks — and, really, it’s the best tool I can think of — then the U.S. wasn’t even in the bottom five. Among the countries with worse Fossil showings: Australia, Poland, Canada, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, and China.

A couple rays of light

While avoiding most of the criticism for what turned out to be some pretty ineffectual negotiations, the U.S. actually managed to garner a few bits of praise.

On the hot-button subject of loss and damage — a fundamental issue in the talks  – the U.S. actually gave quite a bit more than was expected in the final hours in order to secure a deal. “The United States showed good will by moving beyond their red lines to compromise with developing countries in the loss and damage discussions,” said Meyer, who is typically pretty critical of the American positions in the talks.

Earlier in the week, the U.S. was “even playing a productive role mediating between the E.U. and the G77 [a group of 130 developing nations]” on the issue of climate finance, according to Gore. Though he continued, “this says something not about the strength of the U.S. position, but about lack of leadership from the E.U.” So, again: Hey, we’re not as bad as them!

And here’s a real kicker: In a report released at the talks, the folks at Climate Action Tracker held up the U.S. as an example of a positive factor in their annual calculations of projected future warming. President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, they said, had moved the needle a bit on America’s contribution to future warming.

Back in the blame game?

It probably has more to do with this last point than anything else that the U.S. got a bit of a free ride at this year’s COP. The rest of the world seems to be looking hopefully (if impatiently) to America to translate some modest domestic gains on climate to bigger, bolder leadership positions in the international realm. A few years ago, in Bali and Poznan and Copenhagen and Cancun, there was a palpable contempt for the U.S. role in the talks. This year, delegates and campaigners seem cautiously hopeful that the U.S. has at least turned in the right direction.

That said, this will no doubt be the last free pass granted to the country that grew into the world’s dominant economic force by burning more fossil fuels than anyone else. From Ban Ki-Moon’s climate summit in New York in September through COP 20 next year in Lima, Peru, and on to Paris in 2015 — where the goal is an overarching comprehensive climate treaty — if America brings anything to the table that tastes like weak sauce, it’s going to be pilloried with renewed vigor.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of reason to believe that the U.S. will be bringing any numbers — for emissions cuts or climate finance cash — that will be anywhere close to what the rest of the world (and, well, science) insists is necessary. So the State Department should probably start clearing some space on its already cluttered shelves for more Fossil awards.

By Ben Jervey is a freelance reporter who covers energy, environment, and climate change from his home in Vermont or wherever the story takes him.
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