I’m unsure how to write about the final defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline. On the one hand, it’s a domestic-politics story, a story of party signaling and allegiance, and thus outside the purview of this newsletter. On the other hand, it’s successful supply-side climate activism on an international scale.
The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. For the week beginning on November 8, 2015, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured atmospheric CO2 levels at 400.43 parts per million (ppm). One year ago this week, CO2 levels were measured at 396.90 ppm. Ten years ago, the Observatory measured levels at 377.95 ppm.
Renewable-energy costs are plunging faster than anyone anticipated. Britain announces it will phase out all coal plants by 2025, if it can make the math work. 2025 is also when the country will start bringing new nuclear plans online. And the same government commission that projects coal closures at 2025 says that wind and solar will make up 20 percent of Europe’s electricity mix in five years.
- A renewable-energy anecdote: November 13 was a windy day in northern Texas. And because that state’s electricity mix is now 10 percent renewable, electricity prices there fell to their lowest daily rate in five years.
The U.S. greenhouse-gas regulations start ambling down the long road to implementation. The U.S. Senate has voted to block the Obama administration’s signature climate-change regulation—which is a symbolic move that the White House has quickly vetoed. That legislation, though, was notably supported by two Democratic senators: Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota (a former director of Dakota Gas), and Joe Manchin, of West Virginia. American readers will recognize those two states as the resource-cursed centers of the coal and fracking industries, respectively.
Congressional Republicans are also threatening to block $3 billion in aid, part of the $100 billion promised to climate-threatened countries six years ago.
China is planning a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions. This year, 155 new coal-fired power plants received a permit to build in China, reports The New York Times. “China already has more coal capacity than it will ever need,” says a senior Chinese hydropower executive quoted by the paper.
Though that story’s headline says the new plants “cast doubts on China’s energy priorities,” its body text identifies a subtler mechanism: While the national government sets energy goals, provinces have to regulate local economic job growth as well as meet their own energy needs. Building coal plants is an easier way to create both jobs and energy than investing in riskier green tech.
In other words: Local governments, starved for growth, lead to the construction and maintenance of fossil-fuel resources. Wonder where else that story is playing out.
Less than two weeks to the most anticipated climate talks since 2009.
The negotiations will go on in Paris despite the recent terrorist attack there, taking place in a “highly secure venue” in the city’s Le Bourget suburb. The city has said it intends to ban major public demonstrations, though activists with the Global Climate March also say they’re still negotiating with authorities. A spokesman for 350.org tells Slate’s Eric Holthaus: “The government can prohibit these demonstrations, but it can not stop the mobilization and it won’t prevent us from strengthening the climate movement. Our voices will not be silenced.”
Local news worldwide is beginning to fill with news of local marches and rallies. Anglican News reports that “50 pilgrims” began the 200-mile walk to Paris on November 13. Yeb Sano, the Filipino negotiator who fasted during UN talks two years ago, is in the middle of a 500-mile march from Rome to Paris. And outside of Europe, the Indian Country Media Network reports on a similar march last week in Washington, D.C. Catholic groups are meeting across Australia as well.
Very little word about how issues of climate justice might be resolved before the talks, though it remains the great unsettled issue.
This week in the Earth system
— After an “absurdly hot October,” 2015 will almost certainly be the hottest year ever recorded, according to both the U.S. and U.K. national weather services. The planet’s mean temperature is almost certainly going to exceed 1 degree Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial global average for the first time.
—All the extra atmospheric heat is due, in part, to an El Niño that has only intensified since the last newsletter. The UN now predicts it to be among the strongest three El Niño patterns, ever, likely to continue to strengthen until mid-winter. More than 13 million people, mostly concentrated in Central America and the Horn of Africa, will suffer food insecurity in coming months due to the climatological change.
—Monsoon rains have finally arrived in Indonesia—they were also delayed by El Niño-related weather patterns—and stifled the fires there. For the more than three months that the wildfires took hold, they released more carbon into the atmosphere than the United States during that same period. Unlike many fires in the Western U.S., forest fires in Indonesia are mostly “unnatural”—they’re set by paper-pulp and palm-oil companies in order to clear the land for agriculture.
—The Earth is currently surrounded by the dust cloud left over by Comet 55P/Tempel Tuttle, otherwise known as the Leonid meteor shower. The comet passes through about every 31 years, but its dust cloud causes a shower on Earth yearly. Tempel Tuttle was first observed in 902 AD, but it was named by astronomers in 1866 while they worked at an observatory that was about 300 meters from where I’m sitting right now.
* * *
Pretty much all available energy on the earth comes from energy radiated by the sun. Straight sunlight offers heat and light. Some of that is captured by plants, which can in turn be eaten or burned for light and heat. The plant eaters (human or otherwise) can be put to work or eaten. Some of the sunlight evaporates water, which rises into the atmosphere and then falls as rain. Some of this rain lands on very high places and converges as gravity pulls it into streams and rivers that run towards lakes and oceans. The mechanical energy offered by running water is essentially stored sunlight. Meanwhile, differences in temperature because of the uneven distribution of sunlight (owing in part to the shape, tilt, and rotation of the earth) causes air to circulate, meaning winds are stored sunlight too. As are waves (which are driven by winds). And, of course, fossil fuels are reserves of stored sunlight, derived from biological depositions which have been accumulating for millions upon millions of years.