Climate Compass Blog

Climate Risks: Lessons from 2010’s Extreme Weather


Update: Dr. Jay Gulledge is featured on National Journal's Energy & Environment Expert Blogs. Click here to read Dr. Gulledge's take on Climate Risks Here and Now

Last fall I posted a blog about the unusual number and severity of extreme weather events that have been striking around the globe for the past several years. That entry focused on the alternating severe drought and heavy flooding in Atlanta in 2007-2009 as an example of the roller coaster ride that climate change is likely to be. As every dutiful scientist does, I stopped short of blaming those individual weather events on global warming, but I am also careful to point out that it is scientifically unsound to claim that the confluence of extreme weather events in recent years is not associated with global warming; I’ll return to this question later.

Tempestuous 2010

The weather of 2010 continues the chaos of recent years. In the past six months, the American Red Cross says it “has responded to nearly 30 larger disasters in 21 [U.S.] states and territories. Floods, tornadoes and severe weather have destroyed homes and uprooted lives …” Severe flooding struck New England in March, Nashville in May, and Arkansas and Oklahoma in June.

CCS Recommendations Hit President’s Desk

Last week, the Obama Administration’s Interagency Task Force on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) released its final report and recommendations. President Obama created the task force, co-chaired by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and involving 14 executive departments and federal agencies, in February. The President’s directive charged the task force with delivering “a proposed plan to overcome the barriers to the widespread, cost-effective deployment of CCS within 10 years, with a goal of bringing 5 to 10 commercial demonstration projects online by 2016.”

Keeping PACE with the States

Despite the uncertain future of comprehensive federal climate legislation, states continue to move forward with energy policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save consumers money on their electricity bills. One policy in particular is quickly gaining traction in the states: Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, programs. Twenty-three states plus Washington, DC, have PACE legislation, and 13 others have proposals on the table including Kentucky, South Carolina, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania.

PACE is an innovative funding mechanism that addresses many of the financial barriers to energy efficiency and renewable energy retrofits on residential, commercial, and industrial properties. In general through PACE states delegate authority to local governments to designate an improvement district and issue bonds, which provide low-interest, long-term loans to property owners for energy saving measures. The loans are paid back through an addition on the property tax bill and often over a 20-year period. If the property is sold, the debt transfers to the new owner. PACE programs usually create a lien on properties that is “senior” to (i.e., takes precedence over) other obligations on the property.

Because PACE is run by local governments, there are different styles of implementation for the various program elements including: program administration, underwriting criteria, source of funds, eligible measures, and quality control.  For example, San Francisco uses a third party for administrative functions and issues “mini-bonds” to be purchased by a pre-determined investor, while Babylon County, in New York, uses in-house staff to administrate and has repurposed an existing solid waste fund for financing. 

The White House strongly supports initiatives that make it easier for homeowners to get loans for energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, and PACE programs have benefited from $150 million in stimulus funding. In an effort to standardize best practices and ensure that PACE is good policy for all stakeholders, the White House released a Policy Framework for PACE Financing Programs in October 2009. The measures initially accelerated the adoption of PACE and served as a guide for the second generation of PACE programs.

However, both existing and developing programs have been slowed or halted entirely due to opposition from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.  In May, both agencies sent letters to mortgage lenders reminding them that an energy-related lien may not be senior to a federally backed mortgage. The letters place a burden on the lender to determine if they originate mortgages in any state or locality that permits a first lien priority on energy loans. Proponents of PACE and its senior lien provision say it is a necessary requirement for local governments to raise funds. 

Following Freddie and Fannie, on July 14 the Federal Housing and Financing Agency (FHFA) released a statement of their opposition to PACE. As a result, the California attorney general’s office has sued the FHFA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac for their actions and unwillingness to guarantee properties with PACE assessments. The July 14 lawsuit asks the court to declare that PACE does not violate the standards of Fannie and Freddie and also requests an injunction to prevent the agencies from taking action against home owners with PACE loans. Congress is also working on legislation that would require Freddie and Fannie to use underwriting standards that would facilitate the use of PACE programs. With a scarcity of financing options that overcome the high upfront cost of retrofits, this is an issue worth watching closely.

Olivia Nix is the Innovative Solutions intern

Go West, Emissions Cap

Less than a week after Senate Democrats decided that including cap and trade in an energy bill was too ambitious for this year, the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) forged ahead with a blueprint for its own such program. Seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, which together represent 13 percent of U.S. and 50 percent of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, have compiled a detailed plan for implementing a market-based system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their region to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The plan is an elaboration on the design recommendations released by the same states and provinces in 2008. 

States Continue Policy Push

As we enter the dog days of August in Washington, it’s become evident that states must continue to push forward with their own efforts to combat climate change. At the regional, state, and local level, public policy is being formed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while maintaining the right balance between protecting the environment and growing the economy. But many states are being forced to make tough decisions using limited resources, and for some, this November’s election could be pivotal for setting the future course of the effort.

If you’re concerned that climate change action ended with Senator Reid’s decision to exclude a cap on GHG emissions from energy legislation this summer, rest assured that action in the U.S. is ongoing and growing in many areas. While Senate inaction has caused the Washington policy community to turn greater attention to potential EPA climate action and the related legal ramifications, it’s important to recognize the valuable work in practice at the state level.

For instance, carbon dioxide (CO2) from electricity in ten Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states has been capped since January of 2009; the regional cap-and-trade initiative, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), will reduce CO2 from electricity by 10 percent by 2018. Many believed that RGGI would be a model for a national cap on utilities with legislation, which may still be the case once climate legislation resurfaces.

Another regional effort, the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), recently released a comprehensive strategy to reduce GHG emissions by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 at a net savings of $100 billion. Furthermore, states have repeatedly taken action that aims to reduce GHG emissions for many years. Below is a small sample of recent action from our website’s section on States News.

Figure 1: States have taken plenty of action over the past two years while Congress considered different climate-related bills.

It is not all good news, though. The ongoing economic recession has led some states to dial back their support for climate change action for the immediate future, while “climategate” has led others to openly question climate change science (all scientists involved in the controversy have been exonerated of any wrongdoing).

Arizona’s governor issued an Executive Order that put off indefinitely the state’s participation in the WCI’s cap-and-trade program set to begin in 2012, citing the recession. Utah’s legislature urged the U.S. EPA to “halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs and withdraw its ‘Endangerment Finding’ and related regulations until a full and independent investigation of climate data and global warming science can be substantiated.” Lastly, a ballot initiative in California could permanently delay implementation of the state’s landmark global warming law (AB-32), citing the law’s effect on the economy despite the state’s own analysis that shows the bill will be a net benefit for jobs, personal income, and overall economic production. The fight over this ballot initiative will be significant and most expect a close vote in the fall. A recent poll has California voters rejecting the ballot initiative, but only by a small margin.

Despite these lapses, dozens of states spread across every region of the country remain leaders on climate change, energy independence, and clean energy economic policies. No matter what happens in Congress this year or after the election in November, action on climate change will continue throughout the United States. The states have long been known as incubators of public policy, and their efforts to reduce GHG emissions remain powerful examples of states taking the lead.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow