The Hottest January in History
And other news from the Earth system
This is ‘Not Doomed Yet,’ The Atlantic’s weekly newsletter about global warming. It lives here in the science section; you can also get it in your inbox:
It has been the most consequential week for America’s climate politics—and, by extension, the world’s—since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December.
Last Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw the Obama administration’s central climate policy into question, issuing an unprecedented stay to halt the implementation of the Clean Power Plan. For perplexed non-Americans, the Clean Power Plan isn’t a law, but a set of federal regulations meant to guide the U.S. power sector from coal-fired electricity generation to natural-gas, renewable, and nuclear sources. The rule anchored the White House’s second-term climate plan, allowing the United States to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to the levels it promised in Paris.
The Court was expected to rule on the climate plan eventually, perhaps in June 2017 or 2018. But until then, experts were sure that the Court would let the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the rules. Indeed, before last week, the Supreme Court had never stayed a federal regulation while the case about them was being heard in a lower court.
By the middle of last week, respected American environmental lawyers insisted that the policy was doomed. “One has to conclude that five justices have decided that the rule must go,” one of them told me.
And then the makeup of the court suddenly changed. On Saturday, Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s conservative lion and “the most famous judge in the English-speaking world,” died unexpectedly in Texas. Either President Obama or his successor will nominate the next justice.
Now the outlook for the rules seems sunny again. As I wrote this week, a reconfigured Court is more likely to uphold the regulations—unless, that is, a Republican wins the presidential election in November. But a Republican president would halt the EPA rules anyway.
So what are the next steps? In the coming months, we’ll see whether states (including the 29 that sued the Obama administration, prompting the stay) continue to create plans under the Clean Power Plan, even though the EPA will not require them to.
And in the meantime, the United States will keep decarbonizing—if slower than it would otherwise. Two things to read:
- Chris Mooney of The Washington Post writes that many prudent utilities will shift to wind and solar generation even without the Clean Power Plan. (The numbers he cites, some of which I haven’t touched on in this newsletter, continue to seem like some of most inspiring news in the world to me.)
- And I looked at the many, many Obama climate-minded regulations that will still be at work despite the Supreme Court stay. These rules don’t draw attention to themselves—stricter ambient air-quality standards, hurray!—but they’re important.
The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. For the week beginning on February 7, 2016, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured 403.76 carbon dioxide molecules per million in the atmosphere (ppm).
One year ago this week, it measured CO2 levels at 400.05 ppm. Ten years ago, the Observatory measured levels at 382.43 ppm.
Renewable energy costs are falling quickly, as are oil prices.
Little news on the global renewables front that wasn’t noted above. But fossil fuels, especially oil, continue to fluctuate wildly in price.
Russia and Saudia Arabia, the world’s two largest oil producers, pledged to freeze production going forward at their near-record January levels. Venezuela and Qatar said they would also freeze production. It’s the first collaboration between an OPEC nation and a non-OPEC country in 15 years.
Goldman Sachs worries that oil could fall below $20 per barrel before prices rise, especially if certain oil inventories (that is, physical places on the planet that store crude) literally run out of space to store oil. Lol.
The Obama administration is trying to implement its first major greenhouse-gas-limiting regulations.
But, uh. You read about how that’s going up at the top of this letter. It’s not clear how many states will move forward with their own plans, but the signs aren’t good: Michigan, a party to the EPA suit whose governor also promised to comply with the Clean Power Plan, said it would pause its own efforts. Colorado says it will continue with its plans, but its governor predicts most Western states will wait until the Supreme Court lifts the stay.
In the course of my reporting this week, I learned something new: The Obama administration’s most consequential domestic climate policy may originate in its first term. Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the car and truck fuel-efficiency requirements from 2012 forestalled nearly as much CO2 emissions as the Clean Power Plan: The Energy Information Administration says the CPP will save 581 million metric tons in 2030, and the fuel-efficiency requirements saved about 570.
China is planning a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions. No word on that front, but China installed more than half of the world’s new wind power capacity in 2015, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.
It’s been almost ten weeks since 195 countries adopted the final version of the Paris Agreement.
Todd Stern, the lead American climate negotiator, affirms that the United States will sign the Paris Agreement on April 22 of this year, no matter what ultimately happens to the Clean Power Plan.
The International Civilian Aviation Organization reached the first worldwide limits on greenhouse-gas emissions for passenger aircraft. Many environmental groups say the ICAO standard don’t go far enough: The proposed standards only cover fuel efficiency, but they should also extend to requiring increased renewable-fuel use.
This week in the Earth system
+ El Niño continues to decline. The World Meteorology Organization certified Thursday that it has peaked. Cooler-than-normal waters are drifting east. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology notes that, in the Southern Hemisphere, trade winds are stronger than they have been in two years. The Bureau forecasts a neutral Pacific in the second half of 2016, though there’s some possibility it could become a La Niña.
+ NASA reports that the four hottest months since records began in 1880 are: January 2016, December 2015, October 2015, and November 2015. In fact, every month since April of last year was the hottest on record.
+ Last month was particularly grueling in the Arctic, where temperatures were often stuck four degrees Celsius above normal. (A reminder that the really scary effects of climate change start to kick in when global temperatures are two degrees warmer than normal.) Ice on the Arctic Ocean is much lower than it was at this time of year in 2012, when it was at its lowest winter levels ever. An Arctic researcher bemoans the state of the Arctic to the Post: “It’s unraveling, every piece of it is unraveling, they’re all in lockstep together.”
+ Thanks to El Niño, summer rains have essentially failed in southern Africa, as was predicted earlier this season. Here is an Extremely Western report from CBS on the drought in Lesotho. The Lesotho Times reports the country is seeking $22 million to fund relief. In late December, Oxfam worried that the global humanitarian system would be placed under “unprecedented strain” in 2016, thanks to a combination of El Niño and ongoing civil wars.
+ Parts of Europe and North America also cooked. Cities throughout California broke decades-old heat records last week with temperatures reaching the 90s Fahrenheit. Cities throughout Kansas have shattered heat records by 15 degrees, and grassfires are spontaneously kicking up across the state. In central Wyoming, right now, in the middle of winter, it’s almost 70. And in Europe, Crete recorded a daily high of 84.6 degrees Fahrenheit—its August average—in a warm system that pushed into the Balkans.
+ Last edition, I reported that snow in the Sierra Nevadas was above normal levels, possibly signaling an imminent end to California’s drought. But the extreme heat since has melted much of that reservoir: Where levels once stood at 110 percent of normal, they have now deteriorated to 91 percent of normal. Precipitation is not in the 10-day forecast.
+ Hurricane Patricia, previously understood to be the strongest Western hurricane ever measured, was much stronger than known at the time: 215 miles per hour, compared to the well-publicized 200 mph figure. “I regard Patricia as unmatched for the strongest winds of any tropical cyclone in recorded history,” writes Jeff Masters, a forecaster at Weather Underground.