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The COVID-19 pandemic holds lots of lessons for addressing the climate change challenge.  I’ll tackle the knottiest set of lessons — those concerning differing global responses, U.S. partisan cleavages, the psychology of risk and individual choice, and the ethics — in an upcoming post.

For now, I will simply set out a list of ten major impacts which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the climate change mitigation effort.  Four negative, four positive, and two ‘the jury is out.’

FOUR NEGATIVE IMPACTS

 

POACHING, LOGGING & PROTECTED AREAS LOSS

The impacts of COVID-19 — reducing mobility, leading to job cuts, and diverting world attention — have made the work of guarding against poaching, illegal logging and other threats to protected areas much more difficult to accomplish. Endangered specie and protected areas are suffering as a direct consequence.  Possibly, enhanced satellite surveillance and monitoring may be put to greater use in the future to help deal with this problem.

 

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

The Travel & Leisure Industry has been perhaps the single most hard-hit industry sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As a new start-up, the Sustainable Tourism sub-sector has felt this impact particularly hard.  Many Sustainable Tourism operations are in underdeveloped or developing countries and run by local cooperatives which don’t have access to capital resources to sustain them.

 

CIRCULAR ECONOMY & WASTE MANAGEMENT

Circular economy refers to design solutions that repurpose waste from every point in a system so that is can be reused, optimizing the system from an efficiency and sustainability standpoint. Factories and entire cities are working to implement circular economies.  The logistics of waste management is a key link.  As you’ll know post-COVID if you’ve tried to recycle plastic bags at your market, that link in the cycle is currently broken.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL ACTION MOBILIZATION

Humans are hard-wired for connectivity and, while online methods of mobilization allow for greater efficiency and scale, they lack the impact of people gathering together … both from the standpoint of the participants and the observers of the activity.  Countless environmental action events have now been cancelled due to COVID-19.  Even the COP26 meeting to review progress on the Paris Accord has been postponed a year.

 

 

FOUR POSITIVE IMPACTS

 

REGENERATIVE URBAN GARDENS

Along with baking and at-home yoga, urban gardening is one of the activities which has seen a huge spike since COVID-19 forced us to stay closer to home.  This is a hugely positive development since urban gardens have shown — through programs such as the Philadelphia Horticultural Societies Growers Alliance — that they transform neighborhoods. Food deserts become locales with healthy food while improving the quality of the air.

 

15 MINUTE CITY CONCEPT

As  Financial Times and Treehugger have described, the 15-Minute City concept is “having a moment” thanks to COVID-19.  Developed by Professor Carlos Moreno at the Sorbonne in Paris and based on the Lazaretto model developed in Milan during a 16th c. plague, the 15 Minute City plan is to “offer services and quality of life within the space of 15 minutes on foot from home,” the same time a commuter might have waited on the platform for a train.

 

MORE INCLUSIVE LOCAL CLIMATE ACTION PLANS

Among the many things which the COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully obvious is that fact that certain disadvantaged and at-risk communities take a disproportionately heavy hit.  One bright side from this realization is that Sustainability Offices throughout the country are dusting off their city’s Climate Action Plan and reimagining them with a more inclusive vision.  I don’t know if this effort is yet underway in Philadelphia but it should be.

 

IMPACT ON SOCIAL IMPACT INVESTING

COVID-19 initially had a disruptive effect on social impact investing, but that disruption has been overcome.  Perhaps because the pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in our maximally-efficient economy (and maximally-stressed work-lives) ideas and innovations for more balance and resiliency in work- and life-styles are popping up.  Social impact investing is watering the growth of those new ideas.

 

TWO ‘THE JURY IS STILL OUT’ IMPACTS

 

AIR QUALITY

The shutdown of economic activity and drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels has of course led to a short-term amelioration in air quality, as the twin maps of China clearly shows.  But the jury is out on the critical question of what will happen as activity resumes.  Will economic pressure cause backsliding to abundant and cheap carbon fuels or will the Resiliency Lesson from our experience from the pandemic be learned?  We know that areas with worse air quality suffered more from the virus.

 

INFLECTION POINT – YES OR NO?

We can enlarge the air quality question to the environment as a whole.  Our efforts now to revive economic activity can either be rote or be reimagined.  There are lessons which the pandemic has taught us about our interdependence and about what is most important in our lives.  Will we apply what we have learned to recharging our economy in ways that are more resilient and regenerative or will be fall back on old habits? The answer will reverberate across coming generations.

 

These last two impacts are complex, still-evolving and extremely important.  I will return to each in a future post.

For now, stay safe, healthy and involved.

 

 

The global scientific consensus, most prominently supported by the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assesses with high confidence a global warming increase of 1 °C as measured against preindustrial levels. Currently experienced effects from the 1 °C global warming which has already occurred include: loss of sea ice and glacial shrinking, accelerated sea level rises, shifting atmospheric and oceanic currents, longer and more intense heat waves and hurricane seasons. Impacts on the biosphere include the shifting of plant and animal ranges, earlier plant and tree flowering, and rapid declines in bio- diversity. All of these changes threaten the equilibrium of the planet and, more fundamentally, the continued viability of human adaptation to the planet.

The most recent comprehensive report issued by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 compares the difference in impacts on human societies (the ‘delta’) if global warming is allowed to reach 2 °C as opposed to being stabilized at 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels. These delta effects2 include: an additional 10 million people endangered by sea level rise; several hundred million more people made susceptible to poverty; 50% more people exposed to water stress; loss of 1.5 million additional tons of global annual catch for marine fisheries; the number of plant and animal species on which human life depends losing half their habitat.

Clearly, the challenge is epochal. Even assuming that all countries in the world fulfill their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) pledged in the Paris Agreement, the world is currently on track to exceed 1.5° C by 2050 and to remain well above that threshold into the next century.

At a national level, the challenge is no less urgent or less central to societal well-being. Even for an administration notably skeptical of climate change science and aggressively committed to deregulating and redefining environmental standards so as to lessen the severity of threat assessments, the outlook remains dire. According to the Trump Administration’s most recent Climate Assessment3, which synthesizes the data and projections from thirteen federal agencies, key risks facing the nation as a direct result of climate change include risks to communities, the economy, water quality, citizen health, ecosystems, agricultural and food supply; the nation’s infrastructure; and the nation’s defense. To quote directly several specific examples:

  • “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth;”
  • “Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century;”
  • “The quality and quantity of water available for use by people and ecosystems across the country are being affected by climate change, increasing risks and costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation and the environment;”
  • “Impacts from climate change on extreme weather and climate-related events, air quality, and the transmission of disease through insects and pests, food and water increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable;”
  • “Ecosystems and the benefits they provide to society are being altered by climate change and these impacts are projected to continue. Without substantial and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, transformative impacts on some ecosystems will occur; some coral reef and sea ice ecosystems are already experiencing such transformational changes;”
  • “Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the United States. Expected increases in challenges to livestock health, declines in crop yields and quality, and changes in extreme events in the United States and abroad threaten rural livelihoods, sustainable food security, and price stability;”
  • “Our Nation’s aging and deteriorating infrastructure is further stressed by increases in heavy precipitation events, coastal flooding, heat, wildfire, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average precipitation and temperature. Without adaptation, climate change will continue to degrade infrastructure performance over the rest of the century, with the potential for cascading impacts that threaten our economy, national security, essential services and health and well-being.”These effects are felt most directly at the local level. This is because the costs which climate change inflicts globally and nationally – costs of community disruption, slowing economic growth, deteriorating water quality, ecosystem disequilibrium, and infrastructural decay – are mostly borne at the local level. To address this challenge, the City of Philadelphia, like most major cities in the country and many counties and townships as well, has its own Climate Action Plan. Generally, these local plans have three major components: (1) at the grassroots level, the plan serves to connect with various stakeholder groups such as businesses, educational institutions, residential associations, and engaged constituencies to raise awareness and help coordinate common effort; (2) at the local governmental level, the plan articulates the limited number of focal areas where local government has determined its scarce dollars canhave greatest, proactive impact; and (3) at the supra-local governmental level, these plans serve as the blueprints for collaboration with other cities and regions, as the justification for federal budget requests, and as the channel for consolidating and reporting local ‘carbon emissions savings’ into the Paris Agreement NDC process.

As we have learned with the COVID-19 pandemic, a straightforward scientific fact can be politically complicated.  Acknowledging and addressing human-caused climate change is politically complex in the U.S. at this moment.  So is cooperating with China on anything.  Recognizing those complexities does not, however, absolve us of the responsibility to find a way forward on both the science and the international relations.

1.5° is where the U.S. and China must meet.

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change, and almost as many say the problem is already affecting their community in some way” according to a Pew Research Center survey released on June 23rd this year.

While Democrats and Republicans diverge sharply over the question of whether human activity is contributing “a great deal” (72% Democrats vs 22% Republicans) or only “some” (22% Democrat vs 43% Republicans) to climate change, strong majorities of both parties recognize the human contribution and want the government to do more about it.

The story of this post goes back some twelve years. It’s a story of how bipartisanship and cooperative outreach can lead change. It shows what can be achieved when we focus, with a grounding in science, on the common good.  We’re not doing that successfully now with COVID-19.  We’re not doing it successfully now with climate change either  But it’s within reach to do better.

As the second term of the George W. Bush Administration was winding down, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson sensed drift in the U.S.-China relationship. An avid birder and a passionate outdoorsman, Paulson found himself drawn to the environment as a possible new basis for cooperative engagement with China.  If sufficient trust could be generated between the U.S. and China – especially among the career administrators responsible for climate policy in both countries – the quarter-century logjam that had impeded global action on climate change might free up.

What was that logjam?  Ever since the mid-1970s, when the United Nations had first identified climate change as a long-term economic and political threat to the community of nations, the United States and China had never seen the issue eye-to-eye.  The U.S., acting as the de facto leader of the developed nations, wanted joint action with the developing nations but didn’t want the developed nations to be forced to shoulder most costs.  China, as de facto leader of the developing nations, wanted joint action but insisted the developing nations should foot most of the bill.  Their argument, somewhat disingenuous but appealing in its simplicity, used a restaurant tab as an analogy.  Why should developing nations, who had come late to the industrial revolution party, be splitting the bill for all the courses when they had only participated in the post-WWII dessert course?  (The ploy buried in this argument is, of course, that the rates of consumption and carbon output of the post-WWII phase of industrial development outstripped significantly the previous century on a cumulative basis and the developing nations were on course to grow their consumption and carbon output in coming decades while developing nations were moderating theirs).  In any case, this divergence of approach led directly to the breakdown of the Kyoto Protocol in 1999 (and also to the less consequential but unseemly debacle between President Obama and the Chinese delegation at the COP20 (20th UN Conference of Parties) meeting in Copenhagen in 2009).

So against this background, Secretary Paulson traveled to Beijing for discussions with his Chinese government counterparts about a new framework for coordination on global economic issues, resolution of trade disputes and strategic cooperation to mitigate climate change. While on that trip, Paulson traveled with his China-hand Deputy Chief of Staff, Taiya Smith, to Lake Qinghai to see first-hand the condition of that world-heritage lake and its wetland bird habitat.  At the water’s edge, Paulson picked up some beverage cans and plastic bottles discarded there by fishermen and tourists. The Chinese officials traveling with him were surprised and impressed to see a Cabinet-level U.S. official stoop, literally, to help clear a Chinese lake of trash.  In that moment, a ten-year run of strategic cooperation on clean energy and the environment between the U.S. and China was launched.

Over the past two academic years, I taught a masters level course for the University of Pennsylvania’s International Masters of Public Administration with the official Ten Year Framework (TYF) for U.S.-China Cooperation on Energy and Environment as the focal case-study.  I could say a lot about it but, for the purpose of this post, I have only a single point to make.

The TYF is a case-study in the hard work of cooperation.  Launched in late 2008 by a Republican administration, handed off post-inauguration to the Obama Administration in early 2009, and then officially signed by President Obama and President Hu Jintao in November 2019, the first four years of the TYF created a “safe place” – beyond the prying eyes of the press and partisan grandstanders — where officials from the U.S. and China could educate each other about what might be possible and what would be perilous to undertake in their respective administrative and political systems. In short, they learned to trust one another to move in a common direction. The result of this four years of hard work was another official public act by President Obama and the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in November 11, 2014.  The two presidents announced with fanfare that, for the first time in over forty years, the U.S. and China were ready to work together to lead the world towards a climate change agreement.  Once that announcement was made between the U.S. and China, all it took was thirteen more months for over 190 other nations to join with the U.S. and China in agreeing to the Paris Accord at the COP21 meeting.

The TYF is a lesson in leadership or, more precisely, co-leadership.  But it’s over.  What relevance does it have in August 2020?  Less than six months into his Presidency, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Accord.  Now, in the lead-up to the November elections, each day brings a new low in U.S.-China relations.  As someone who was serving at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai before, during and after Tiananmen, I feel able to make the assessment that we are now at a lower point in the U.S.-China relationship than we were even then.  The question is where to do we go from here?

That question is valid and complicated where our relationship is deeply fraught – advanced technology and global supply chains, minority rights in Xinjiang, political space for Hong Kong and Taiwan, military build-ups in the East and South China Seas – but the question is much simpler where our national interests are clearly aligned – in leading the world’s transition to lower-carbon energy in order to build resilience and mitigate climate change for the planet.  Either the U.S. cedes a mega-industry of the future to China along with leadership of the Paris Accord community of nations or the U.S. steps forward again on the global stage with its unparalleled technology leadership and with renewed political vision.  What will this look like?  It will look like working with allies and not against them. It will involve not just supporting the planting of a billion trees globally and helping Big Coal capture and sequester carbon emissions underground but marshaling across-the-board governmental support to spur innovation across the entire spectrum of low-carbon solutions. It will require us to re-enter the Paris Accord and re-learn how to work productively with China in that particular arena while holding China to account in the many other arenas where our interests are at loggerheads.

Trump’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord was on June 1, 2017.  The framers of the Paris Accord, mindful of political cross-winds that can blow in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, included an Article 28 requirement that a four-year waiting period pass before any country’s withdrawal could be formalized.  The date kicking off that waiting period for the U.S. is November 4, 2016, the day on which the Obama Administration secured ratification by Congress of U.S. entry into the Paris Accord.  So, U.S. withdrawal cannot under any circumstance become official until the day after the upcoming November 3rd election in the U.S.

So there’s the Sixty-Seven Percent solution. With nearly two-thirds of Americans believing the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change and with the Paris Accord signatories able to be flexible and eager to welcome a Biden-led America back into the Accord, it’s time for a majority to stand up again in unison.  For each of our poor souls, for our country, for the community of nations and for the planet.

E pluribus (67%) unum.

 

 

 

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