Climate Compass Blog

Supreme Court to Weigh in on Greenhouse Gas Common Law Nuisance Cases

The Supreme Court announced on December 6 that it would hear an appeal in one of the several common law nuisance cases against greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters that are making their way through the courts. By granting ceritiorari in AEP v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court has signaled its intention to weigh in on the appropriate role of the courts in addressing damages caused by climate change. As explained below, possible future regulatory actions by EPA or, alternatively, action by Congress to restrict EPA’s regulatory authority, could be factors that influence the Court’s decision.

Green Flights Take to the Air in 2011

From commercial airplanes from Virgin Atlantic to a U.S. Navy fighter jet, powering airplanes with biofuels has been long been a goal of the airline industry. Following test flights by a number of airlines and the U.S. Department of Defense, Lufthansa will be the first to offer a biofuel-powered commercial flight in April of 2011. Though a 50-50 mix of biofuels and jet fuel (traditional kerosene) will power only one of the aircraft’s engines, the German airline is achieving a considerable milestone. The program is a 6-month trial using the Hamburg-Frankfurt route to evaluate the wear and tear of biofuels on an aircraft engine. The program should reduce the airline’s carbon footprint by about 1,500 metric tons of CO2 in total (the annual emissions of about 300 cars) and cost about 6.6 million euros. The plane is no slouch either – an Airbus A321 has a seating capacity of 220 and a range of 3,000 miles.

Evolutionary Progress in Cancún

This post also appears in National Journal's Cancún Insider blog.

CANCUN – We need a new paradigm – one that recognizes the importance of a binding treaty, but appreciates that getting there will take time. 

For 15 years, the primary thrust of the UNFCCC negotiations has been establishing and extending a legally binding regime: the Kyoto Protocol.  This preoccupation has probably precluded more modest steps within the UNFCCC. Worse, it has produced a perennial state of stalemate.

In a new report we are releasing today, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change calls for a more “evolutionary” approach. Looking at other multilateral regimes, the report shows how most have evolved gradually over time: incremental steps build parties’ confidence in the regime and one another, leading to a greater willingness to take on stronger obligations.

Lessons from Extreme Weather: A Minnesota Farmer Gets the Point

Throughout this year I have posted a number of blogs on the record-breaking extreme weather events of recent years, particularly 2010. Events ranged from unprecedented blizzards on the U.S. East Coast to the cataclysmic Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. The key message I’ve tried to communicate is that, rather than debating whether these particular events are being caused by climate change – an interesting academic question that is unanswerable on a practical level – we should learn from these events about our individual and societal vulnerabilities and the real costs of climate change.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, offers an excellent example of the type of practical learning I’m talking about:

“The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.”

Mr. Hedin’s family has farmed the soils of southern Minnesota since the late 19th century. Today he runs a small farm in Rushville, where an onslaught of extreme weather events over several years forced him to retreat to higher ground. This is an example of forced adaptation where abandonment was the best choice. But even in the new location, his farm lost $100,000 worth of crops to excessive soil moisture this summer.

Notice that Hedin doesn’t waste time worrying about whether particular weather events were caused by human-induced climate change:

“The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.”

Climate scientists know the climate is changing, that many mid-latitude locations are becoming wetter as a result (see figure below), and that we can expect that trend to continue. What does it matter whether a particular storm on a particular day in a particular year was caused by human intervention with the climate system? After all, it isn’t one particular event that has Mr. Hedin worried about the future of farming in America’s grain belt; it’s the preponderance of evidence that the climate is already shifting and the common sense realization that farming is getting harder because of that shift.

Please read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in The New York Times. He has the right idea about learning from extreme weather events. 

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program

The Days After

For many of us in the climate world, these days feel a bit like being in the movie The Day After, where nuclear winter had descended and John Lithgow was on the HAM radio calling out, “…Is there anybody out there? Anybody at all…?”

OK. So it’s not quite that bad.  But as we all know, Congress has been reshaped, and some long-time supporters of climate action (and coal) such as Rick Boucher (D-VA) are out, while others who ran ads literally shooting a rifle at a cap-and-trade bill, are in. And the number of actual climate deniers walking the halls of Congress has also increased.

So with the picture seemingly so bleak, and the chances of comprehensive climate legislation highly unlikely in at least the next couple of years, it would be natural for many in the corporate community to relax and think that they no longer have to think about climate change.

I think this would be dead wrong.  And lest you wonder about my grasp on reality, let me explain why.

First, let’s look to California.  Voters forcefully rejected Proposition 23, a measure that was a full-frontal assault on the nation’s most aggressive climate bill.  They also rejected a gubernatorial candidate who had promised to postpone AB32 for at least a year, and instead elected a governor who campaigned on aggressively implementing the same law.

California is the world’s 8th largest economy and typically leads the nation in environmental protection. The fact that it will soon be implementing a cap-and-trade system and other aggressive measures to reduce GHGs should be an indication that the issue is not going to quietly disappear into the night.  It is also remarkable that much of the financial support for the “No on Prop 23” campaign came from the venture capital and tech industries, which understand the market opportunities that clean energy and energy efficiency provide.

And while the political landscape may have changed this week, the businesses' case for taking climate action has not.  Leading companies should continue to keep climate and sustainability as an element of their core corporate strategies, and in my conversations over the past few weeks, they are. Regardless of whether federal climate legislation is adopted, “climate change” is a proxy for a number of critical operational issues such as energy, water, waste, and supply chain efficiency.  Companies that have a comprehensive plan to reduce their impacts in these areas realize not only bottom-line benefits, but reputational benefits as well.

And finally, let’s not forget the climate science.  The reality is that regardless of the state of policy, the climate continues to change, impacts are already being felt in our own backyards, and by not acting we continue to load the dice in favor of deeper floods, longer droughts, and bigger wildfires.  While politicians move at one pace, nature does not react to polls or get voted out of office.  And as one of my favorite cartoons of the last year points out, even if this were all just an elaborate hoax, the biggest risk of investing in clean energy, energy efficiency, water and waste management is that we would have created a healthier, safer world all for “nothing.”

Tim Juliani is Director of Corporate Engagement