Three Climate Updates You Might Have Missed (and One We Did, Too)

Source: By The New York Times • Posted: Thursday, March 29, 2018

Photo illustration by Claire O’Neill/The New York Times

Don’t say “ c _ i m a _ _ _ h a _ g _ ”

Last week, lawmakers in Washington took a significant step toward addressing climate change. They just didn’t call it that.

Buried in the $1.3 trillion spending bill passed by Congress and grudgingly signed by President Trump were surprisingly large increases in funding for clean energy programs at the Department of Energy. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which has helped reduce the cost of solar power, got a 14 percent bump. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds long-shot technologies like algae biofuels, got a 16 percent increase. The Office of Nuclear Energy got a 19 percent increase.

The bill was seen as a repudiation of Mr. Trump’s budget requests. The president, for instance, had asked lawmakers to eliminate the advanced projects agency, saying that such research was best left to the private sector. But even Republicans balked.

If anything, that political fight obscured the magnitude of what happened. Tarak Shah, a former chief of staff to the under secretary for science and energy, pointed out that at the Paris climate conference in 2015, President Barack Obama set a goal of doubling federal investment in clean energy research. At the time, that seemed impossible. But during the Trump era, Congress has essentially put the country one-fifth of the way there.

The spending bill, Mr. Shah said, is “absolutely huge for energy innovation.” (For more on why experts think such innovation is crucial for tackling climate change, see this article.)

One notable dynamic here: A number of Republicans who don’t typically talk about global warming have nonetheless been eager to support clean energy research in recent years. “The one thing we do better than any country in the world is innovation through research,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, at an advanced projects agency conference this month. “We must be careful not to lose this advantage.”

It’s a story we’ve seen repeatedly of late. When the solar and wind industries warned last year that the tax overhaul bill would cripple renewable energy investment, Republicans like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio stepped in. Mr. Portman’s state is a major manufacturer of wind turbine components and has more than 100,000 jobs in clean energy industries.

Climate policy experts would note that cutting greenhouse gas emissions will require a lot more than a few billion dollars in research. But as industries like wind and solar have expanded, they’ve acquired significant political clout. So far, at least, that’s made it harder for even the most committed climate change denialists in Washington to roll back clean energy programs.

Paris is démodé

Fossil fuel supporters this week said they were excited by President Trump’s recent wave of firings and hirings.

John R. Bolton, Larry Kudlow and Mike Pompeo — tapped, respectively, to be Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, chief economic adviser and secretary of state — all are staunch critics of the Paris Agreement.

Energy industry leaders said they were confident the three were far more likely than their predecessors — H.R. McMaster, Gary D. Cohn and Rex W. Tillerson — to ensure that the president keeps his promise of withdrawing the United States from the global climate change accord.

“The folks coming in are certainly much less interested in seeing a carbon tax or a gas tax or a Paris Agreement,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a think tank that supports fossil fuels. “It lets us all breathe a sigh of relief.”

He said that assurance reduced the likelihood that the energy industry would push the administration to leave the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the underlying 1992 treaty that governs climate change negotiations.

Climate change activists, on the other hand, voiced worry. “All the brakes are coming off the system in terms of anyone who can try to constrain the president’s worst instincts,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Mr. Bolton, a Fox News analyst and a former ambassador to the United Nations, has offered mixed views on climate science. Earlier in his career, he questioned the research showing that warming is caused by human activity. More recently, he has accepted that science.

However, his opinion on multilateral agreements like the Paris accord is consistent: They’re bad for America. He has called the Paris Agreement a “self-licking ice cream cone,” an “utterly meaningless document” and part of an attempt by the United Nations to enact a one-world government.

Mr. Kudlow, the incoming head of the National Economic Council, also cheered Mr. Trump’s call for a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, telling a New York radio station, “the U.S. is not going to be a patsy.” Mr. Pompeo called the agreement a “costly burden” to the country.

Climate change activists said the best they could hope for was that the Trump administration would ignore the international negotiations, particularly since no major decisions are on the horizon. The United States cannot formally withdraw from the agreement until 2020.

“The best case may be that it largely stays beneath the radar,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonprofit advocacy group. Between Syria, the Iran nuclear deal and meetings between Mr. Trump and the leaders of Russia and North Korea, he said, “they’ve clearly got pressing matters to contend with.”

I missed the class, and they didn’t post the video

Dear reader: I blew it.

A federal judge in San Francisco is preparing to hear a landmark lawsuit that could determine whether fossil fuel companies can be held liable for the costs of climate change, and he ordered that an unusual pretrial hearing he held last week: a tutorial on global warming, with scientific evidence presented to the judge by both sides. But I had already scheduled another reporting trip on that day, so I figured I could watch the live stream of the hearing or catch a replay on video.

Technology was not my friend. The judge, William Alsup, is a deeply curious, technically oriented jurist who once discussed his own amateur programming skills in a contentious suit between Oracle and Google. But the court didn’t live-stream last week’s climate hearing. Worse, a representative of the court would later tell me that while the tutorial was taped, it “did not result in any usable footage.”

So I’ll have to wait for the transcript to get the whole story. In the meantime, we can all read the great work of reporters and legal scholars who did attend. Jessica Wentz, an attorney and researcher at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, tweeted the tutorial live from the courtroom. The Associated Press was there, as were the journal Science, Wired magazine and The Verge.

The lawsuit was filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against five fossil fuel companies. The companies, in return, have countersued. This is one of a number of such suits filed by cities (including New York City) and counties around the United States.

At the hearing, both sides discussed eight questions posed by the judge about the science of a warming planet. But the session was not intended to be dramatic; the companies involved have, by and large, already acknowledged that climate change is real and that humans play a major role.

The sole lawyer speaking for the fossil fuel companies, Theodore Boutrous for Chevron, hewed closely to the conclusions of the authoritative 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with some effort to raise issues like the remaining degree of uncertainty regarding climate models. Michael Burger, the executive director of the Sabin Center, said the unusual session did not deal with the question of whether individual companies like Chevron can be held liable for the costs of climate change. “It is the key to the case: Why these defendants, why this handful of companies?” he said. Once the trial truly starts, he added, “Ultimately, that will be a battle of the experts.”

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Brad Plumer is a reporter covering climate change, energy policy and other environmental issues for The Times’s climate team. @bradplumer

Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered eight international climate talks. @LFFriedman

John Schwartz is part of the climate team. Since joining The Times in 2000, he has covered science, law, technology, the space program and more, and has written for almost every section. @jswatzFacebook