Climate Compass Blog

Are 2015's extreme weather events driven by climate change or El Niño?

Hurricane Patricia (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

Record warmth, increased precipitation, and more intense tropical cyclones.

These are just a few of the consistent predictions from models investigating our future in a world with climate change. Or, it’s a list of some of the impacts of the periodic weather pattern called El Niño.

So which one has been driving some of this year’s extreme weather events?

A record year for Pacific tropical cyclones

The National Hurricane Center reports that eight major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) have developed in the eastern North Pacific Ocean so far this season. This is consistent with the characteristics of El Niño that have been shaping up over the course of the year.

During an El Niño year, the surface ocean in the Eastern Pacific basin warms (it’s usually very cold) and the trade winds in the area weaken. These two meteorological developments favor the formation of tropical cyclones, the general term that includes hurricanes and related systems. Hurricane Patricia achieved record strength in a record short period of time this month, becoming the strongest Pacific hurricane to make landfall. Meanwhile, climate change will probably not change the number of hurricanes overall, but warmer ocean surface temperatures and higher sea levels are expected to intensify their impacts.

Driver: El Niño

Remember when Boston was buried in snow?

The Northeast saw record amounts of snowfall during the 2014-2015 winter. The extreme snow amounts were caused by two factors. First, a weakened polar vortex (the global wind pattern that usually keeps Arctic-cold air trapped over the poles) brought extended periods of bitter cold weather to the region. Then major storm systems arrived, bringing large amounts of moisture that fell as snow.

It’s unclear if or how climate change affects the polar vortex. But it’s very clear that a warmer world is a wetter world. Warmer air causes more water to evaporate over the oceans, forming storm systems heavy with moisture. When these systems hit cold air, as they did repeatedly this winter, that means lots of snow.

Driver: Climate change

More record high temperatures

Final global average temperature data is in for September 2015, and it was the hottest September ever measured. Moreover, this year is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded. While El Niño makes many (but not all) parts of the world warmer than normal, the effect is strongest in winter months, so it probably had little effect in September.

A record-setting month for temperature probably sounds like familiar news because records for high temperatures have been broken over and over again in recent years. This is one of the most certain outcomes of climate change. As the climate warms, it means not only hotter summers, but warmer autumns and springs, too.

Driver: Climate change

While climate change isn’t the cause of all extreme weather events, it contributes to many of them. And it is playing a role in making other long-term weather phenomena like El Niño more impactful. That’s why it’s critical to both build resilience to climate impacts and also reduce climate-altering emissions so that those impacts aren’t more than we can bear.



There's growing business momentum for climate action

Can you feel the momentum?

With negotiators meeting in Bonn this week and only six weeks to go until Paris, the business community is not only stepping up to the plate, but is swinging for the fences on its support climate action (Yes, it’s playoff season, so baseball is also on my mind).

This week’s announcement that 69 companies have joined the White House’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge brings the total to 81. Many of these companies pledging to reduce their emissions, take other actions to tackle climate change and support a strong international agreement include a number of members of our own Business Environmental Leadership Council: Alcoa, Bank of America, GE, General Motors, HP, IBM, Intel and PG&E. Together the 81 companies represent a combined $3 trillion in revenue and 9 million employees.

And last week, 14 companies with a combined revenue of $1.1 trillion and 1.5 million employees signed a statement organized by C2ES in support of a Paris climate agreement, that began “Paris presents a critical opportunity to strengthen efforts globally addressing the causes and consequences of climate change, and to demonstrate action by businesses and other non-state actors. ”

But these companies aren’t just talking about climate change; they’re doing something about it. They’re making commitments to reduce their own emissions, and some are even committing to use 100% renewable energy through the RE100 campaign.  They are also working both internally and with communities and cities to increase climate resilience.

Now it’s time to take this enthusiasm and put it to work. We know there is growing support for a strong agreement in Paris, and hopefully that’s what we’ll get in December.  But that’s just the first step—we’ll need to ensure that countries live up to their commitments, and back here in the United States, we’ll be working with businesses, states, and cities to build partnerships that harness the power of the markets to reduce emissions, develop innovative financing for clean energy and strengthen our resilience to climate impacts.

We have some real momentum going now. Let’s make the most of it.

Cities are driving climate solutions

Cities and counties are increasingly emerging as climate leaders, becoming laboratories and incubators for climate solutions. These solutions take a fresh approach to emerging local challenges, and could drive progress at a larger scale.

Here are two key ways cities are stepping up:

·      Local governments are creating an invaluable knowledge base for efficiency and sustainability efforts.

To reach your destination, you have to know where you are starting from. That’s why it’s so important that cities are taking advantage of ever-improving data collection and analytical capabilities to become the providers of rich databases of energy and water use in their jurisdictions.

Philadelphia's Energy Benchmarking program requires large commercial buildings to disclose their energy use. As a result, the city has a baseline of energy usage by nearly 2,000 buildings across multiple sectors. By sharing this data with building owners and energy managers, the city is focusing more attention on saving energy. And by sharing building data online with potential tenants, the city hopes to create a market for efficient buildings.

A similar program in New York City has had promising results. The disclosure policy corresponded with energy savings of nearly 6 percent - worth more than $260 million.

·      Local governments are leveraging technology to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A partnership between the City of Charlotte and Envision Charlotte, a local nonprofit, was among the examples of this strategy featured at the recent Smart Cities week in Washington, D.C. Working with the city and Duke Energy, Envision Charlotte has installed shadow meters in uptown commercial buildings to gather real-time energy use data that informs customized training for building managers. Recent assessments document a 16 percent drop in energy use over a 2010 baseline.

Envision Charlotte plans to reach more buildings in the city and is developing an app to engage office tenants. It’s also partnering with the White House to launch the newly unveiled Envision America program, which aims to achieve similar energy savings in other cities.

In both of these cases, access to strong data is helping to identify candidates for educational programs and investment opportunities to improve building performance. Local leaders know that these activities can strengthen their communities and local economies, and cities have a growing track record of facilitating such projects and ensuring they are implemented and monitored successfully.

As programs like these show, cities can be valuable partners as states and companies seek to improve sustainability and save energy. They can also play a key role as states seek emissions-cutting strategies under the Clean Power Plan.

That’s why local governments are playing a key role in the new C2ES Solutions Forum initiative. By sharing their experiences with states and businesses, cities and counties will help inform decisions and promote climate solutions that work. 



New commitments to reduce HFCs show leadership

The fastest growing family of greenhouse gases – extremely potent hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) -- aren’t going to be growing as fast in the future.

Today’s White House announcement of voluntary industry commitments to reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), along with new regulations put in place over the past year, have created game-changing shifts toward more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Developed as substitutes for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the late 1980s, HFCs have become widely used worldwide in refrigerators, air conditioners, foam products, and aerosols. While they don’t contribute to ozone depletion, HFCs can trap 1,000 times or more heat in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. This means they have a high global warming potential (GWP).

The amount of these compounds produced around the world has been growing at a rate of more than 10 percent per year. Unless controlled, emissions of HFCs could nearly triple in the U.S. by 2030. Strong international action to reduce HFCs could reduce temperature increases by 0.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, a critical contribution to global efforts to limit climate change.

The 16 voluntary industry commitments that make up today’s announcement highlight the innovation and leadership U.S. industry is showing in meeting the challenges of addressing climate change. These actions build on 22 commitments made by industry at a White House event just a year ago.

Progress in developing alternatives has been dramatic and is likely to accelerate even more over the next few years. For example:

  • Coca Cola has installed 1.5 million HFC-free cooler units in its global network.
  • Dow Chemical is shifting several of its foam lines to low-GWP alternatives.
  • Mission Pharmacal introduced the first zinc oxide aerosol product using a new low-GWP alternative.
  • Goodman Global Inc. will soon be introducing the first package terminal air-conditioning unit that relies on a low-GWP coolant.
  • Both Chemours (formerly DuPont) and Honeywell have commissioned a number of new plants to ensure adequate quantities of alternatives with lower global warming potential are available to companies worldwide.

As a critical complement to these voluntary industry actions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has implemented a series of new rules over the past year under its Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP). These rules both expanded the range of acceptable low-GWP alternatives and limited the use of high-GWP HFCs where more environmentally friendly alternatives are available.

Today’s announcement also includes a new proposed rule that would extend refrigerant managing practices (e.g., recycling) now required for ozone-depleting substances to HFCs.

Together, these voluntary and regulatory actions demonstrate both the importance of acting and the feasibility of shifting to alternatives. They also help the United States make a strong case to the international community as nations gather the first week in November to discuss phasing down HFCs globally.

Why businesses, states and cities must collaborate on climate

When it comes to dealing with climate and energy challenges, you often get the sense that the right people aren’t talking to one another.

Energy policies at different levels of government aren’t always coordinated. How one business, state or city is reducing greenhouse gases or planning for climate impacts may not be well understood or even known outside its area or industry.

The sustainability director for the city of Philadelphia, Katherine Gajewski, expressed this feeling during a recent C2ES panel discussion, saying there’s almost “no alignment” on climate and energy issues.

We hear you, Katherine. And we agree.

That’s why C2ES is launching a major new initiative – the C2ES Solutions Forum -- to bring together businesses, states, and cities to expand clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and strengthen resilience to climate change impacts.

Over the next two years, these key players will join us in a series of public and private forums around the country to explore critical, cross-cutting issues, develop collaborative approaches, and create a set of practical solutions that we can broadly share.
As we’ve talked to business, state and city leaders across the country, it became clear that a platform for communication and collaboration on climate and energy issues was needed.

State leaders told us they want to hear from businesses about ways to cost-effectively reduce emissions as they work on their Clean Power Plan implementation.

City leaders said they often talk to one another, but not always with states and businesses about efforts to improve energy efficiency or prepare for extreme weather.

Business leaders told us they have ideas for financing clean power and efficiency they’d like to share with cities and states.

After a series of public discussions in Washington and consultation with a broad group of stakeholders, we chose to focus on three principal challenges that would benefit most from closer collaboration:

  • Market Approaches to Reducing Emissions. States have tremendous flexibility to implement the new federal Clean Power Plan. Many are weighing market-based approaches as a cost-effective way to cut emissions, incentivize renewables and efficiency, drive technological innovation, and promote interstate cooperation. We’ve already started exploring questions that need to be addressed.
  • Innovative Climate Finance. Stronger investment in energy infrastructure, clean energy technology, efficiency, and resilience is critical. States and cities are seeking innovative finance mechanisms to leverage limited public dollars to mobilize more private sector investment. C2ES will examine innovative financing mechanisms that can help at workshop early next year in Seattle.
  • Strengthening Resilience. Extreme weather and other climate impacts are already imposing significant costs on companies and communities. Many states, cities and businesses are assessing their climate risks, but not always together. Creating venues for sharing knowledge and resources is essential. Starting with a Nov. 5 workshop in Detroit, C2ES will identify ways to overcome barriers to stronger collaboration on resilience.

The obstacles to progress are real and complex. But solutions do exist.

And, as we heard from Martha Rudolph, Director of Environmental Programs, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment: “When ideas and experiences are shared and barriers are addressed collaboratively, success will follow.”

We look forward to sharing insights and recommendations from this initiative in the months ahead, as we work toward a clean energy economy and resilient communities—together.