Written By:

The Chronicle (through July 18, 2015)

The Chronicle

(through July 18, 2015)


The pope has spoken. On June 18, 2015, the much-anticipated papal encyclical on climate change was officially presented with fanfare to the media behind the walls of Vatican City. Published in at least five languages, the 192-page document focuses on our shared moral responsibility to address the impact of continued reliance on fossil fuels on the Earth—particularly on the poor who bear the severest consequences. Pope Francis blamed the indifference of those who hold power, saying they put humanity and the whole creation at risk as they pursue unlimited economic growth. Up to now the world, he says, lacking the will up to now to change habits for the good of the Earth, has accepted a “cheerful recklessness” in its approach to the issue. theguardian.com

Such memorable language is sure to add years to the life of the encyclical. Here are some additional quotations:

  • “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”
  • “We are not God. The Earth was here before us and was given to us.”
  • “The idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology . . . is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the Earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry at every limit.”
  • “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.”
  • “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”
  • “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.”
  • “People no longer seem believe in a happy future, a better tomorrow.”
  • “Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”

“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.” cnn.com

Despite the publicity surrounding the message, and the welcome it is receiving by climate activists and world leaders mindful of the need, the immediate response of many US politicians was outright disdain. Even a few voices in the moderate national press seemed mildly skeptical. The first coverage in The Washington Post stated: “He warns of ‘synthetic agrotoxins’ harming birds and insects and ‘bioaccumulation’ from industrial waste. He calls for renewable fuel subsidies and ‘maximum energy efficiency.’ Although he offers prayers at the beginning and end of his heavily anticipated missive on the environment, Pope Francis unmasks himself not only as a very green pontiff, but also as a total policy wonk.” The encyclical, it said, “is sort of a combination between Saint Augustine and a National Academy of Sciences report.” washingtonpost.com

Later, however, the Post’s religion reporter gave opportunity for supporters to characterize the pope’s statement, including this perspective from Anthony Annett, climate change advisor at Earth Institute at Columbia University: “Very few people view the environment as a moral issue. This encyclical hopefully has a chance to change that. Have you ever in your life seen such interest in an obscure document? It’s stunning. It’s remarkable. I don’t think people are going to pick it up and say, ‘Been there, done that.’” washingtonpost.com

The pope himself has said that his text should not be read as a green manifesto, but instead as a social teaching. The entire encyclical can be read in English here.

The world’s best-known climate scientist has also recently spoken with new force. James Hansen and his 16-member team presented an important warning of potentially rapid sea level rise combined with more intense storm systems. On July 27, 2015 he published the results of their eight-year study in an open-access “discussion journal,” which allows the paper to become public while undergoing peer-review. The research includes global climate simulations aimed at trying to understand what happened at the end of the Eemian interglacial period and its relevance to climate change today. Hansen headlined the email he sent to the public: “It’s Time to Stop Waffling So Much and Say that the Evidence is Pretty Strong…Multi-meter Sea Level Rise is an Issue for Today’s Public, not Next Millennium’s.” Hansen writes that he long suspected that “ice sheet disintegration is a very nonlinear phenomena and that the IPCC studies were largely omitting what may be the most important forcing of the ocean: the effect of cold freshwater from melting ice.” His announcement states that comparing today’s temperatures and CO2 with the Eemian “is useful for investigating climate feedbacks, the response of polar ice sheets to polar warming, and the interplay between ocean circulation and ice sheet melt.” His conclusion, based on the total information available, is that continued high emissions would result in multi-meter sea level rise this century, locking in continued ice sheet disintegration.

Like the pope, Hansen had the December 2015 climate negotiations in Paris in mind when he published in the discussion journal. In addition to influencing policymakers, he hopes the public peer review process will expose the general public to the scientific method—helping to make clear that scrutiny and questioning are a natural and healthy part of scientific research. As various scientists weigh in on the findings there should be press coverage, increasing public awareness and making the reality of the climate situation clearer. columbia.edu.pdf and atmos-chem-phys-discuss.net.pdf

The situation addressed by Pope Francis and James Hansen becomes more serious day by day. The first six months of 2015, with an average temperature of 57.83 degrees, were one-sixth of a degree warmer than the old record, set in 2010. But in 2010, the El Niño became weak. Forecasters are predicting this year’s El Niño will get stronger, not weaker. “If that happens, it’s just going to go off the charts,” said Jessica Blunden, a climate scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. noaanews.noaa.gov. One study shows that if carbon dioxide and methane emissions are not dramatically cut extremely rapidly, anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is likely to bring about the most dramatic and encompassing rearrangement of ocean species in at least the last 3 million years. truth-out.org and nature.com. Moose in North America are dying by the thousands. ibtimes.co.uk. Redwoods and other iconic trees in California are dying in record numbers. eenews.net. In India over 2,500 people have died in a heat wave that was at least the fourth deadliest in world history. telegraph.co.uk. Zimbabwe is suffering the worst regional drought in ten years, and the maize harvest is expected to produce only 950,000 metric tons of the 1.8 million metric tons needed to prevent starvation. reuters.com. São Paulo, Brazil, with a population of over 20 million people, is facing severe water rationing as its largest water reservoir is almost depleted by drought. washpost.bloomberg.com. Yet May was the wettest month ever recorded in the United States, despite the mega-drought in California and the West. usatoday.com.

There are some signs that these outrages are being noticed. One is the June 8, 2015, announcement by the G7 that they support a 40-70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2010 levels by 2050. The group committed to do its part to meet this goal by striving to transform the energy sector by mid-century and to put long-term, national low-carbon strategies in place. In any pathway chosen by an individual member, fossil fuel use drastically must be cut while increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency. The leaders also put a major focus on strong provisions to increase transparency and accountability in future negotiations. greenbiz.com

The White House has initiated about 40 new measures to fight carbon pollution just since the start of 2015. Following Barack Obama’s sweeping promise in June 2013 to fight climate change with executive powers, his administration has introduced one measure every 4.5 days this year, according to the running tally kept by the White House. But on May 11, 2015, the President gave approval to Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic off the coast of Alaska. (The permit must also be approved by other federal and state agencies, and Shell must also prove it can comply with the Endangered Species Act.) As with other pro-oil decisions that frustrate climate activists, here the President seems to balance his concern about climate change with the desire to maintain US economic dominance. newrepublic.com


As of July 1, 2015, Expandable Polystyrene Foam (EPS) products such as cups, trays, plates, and clamshell containers, and packing peanuts are banned in New York City. EPS, or Styrofoam, is made when small beads of the polymer polystyrene are steamed with chemicals until they expand to 50 times their original volume. The finished product is about 95% air “These products cause real environmental harm,” said Mayor de Blasio. “They can’t be recycled,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation. Marine biology professor Douglas McCauley of the University of California, Santa Barbara, said polystyrene causes two main issues for marine animals—mechanical and chemical. When eaten, the foam causes blockages that can be lethal, and chemically, foam’s absorbent properties make EPS even more dangerous. “Polystyrene foams essentially act like little pollutant sponges, picking up and concentrating some of the nastiest contaminants in the ocean,” McCauley says. “Then something like a sea turtle comes along and eats this thinking it is a jellyfish.” That’s not just bad for the fish and the oceans. It could be bad for humans. bbc.com

On June 29, 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency must take cost into account when deciding whether to regulate mercury and other toxics emitted from coal-burning power plants. The decision will complicate federal efforts to control these pollutants. Twenty-one states joined in the challenge to the EPA, while sixteen states including California and North Carolina joined to support the EPA’s regulation. The federal Clean Air Act requires the EPA to decide whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by electric utilities fueled by coal or oil. This threshold question precedes the actual setting of power plant emission standards. While “necessary” means protecting health, the meaning of “appropriate” is open to interpretation. “Appropriate is a capacious term,” Justice Anthony Kennedy noted during oral argument. The meaning of the word shifts with the political winds. kansascity.com

In May, 2015, Home Depot and Lowe’s announced they will ban toxic phthalates added to vinyl flooring by the end of 2015. Together, the two largest home improvement chains in the country sell nearly $10 billion of flooring a year. Most vinyl flooring tested by ecocenter.org contained toxic phthalates, which are commonly used to soften the vinyl. The chemicals get into the air and dust and then make their way into bodies. Certain phthalates have been banned in children’s products since 2009: di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl pththalate (DBP), and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP). Earlier this year, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) proposed to permanently ban the use of another five phthalates in children’s toys and childcare articles. chemicalwatch.com

BP has agreed to pay the largest environmental fine in US history—a record $18.7 billion. The legal action brought by the US justice department, along with the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida, concerns damages from the fatal 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill not covered by the company’s earlier settlements with businesses. The settlement announced July2, 2015, allows the company to pay over 18 years and ends all litigation between BP, the states, and the US government. BP’s share price rose following the announcement. motherjones.com


Powered only by the sun, the airplane Solar Impulse flew from Japan to Hawaii, landing on July 3, 2015. After a historic 4474-mile (7,200km) flight across the Pacific, Pilot Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, Borschberg’s project co-founder and occasional co-pilot, were elated. Their 118 hours in the sky is a record for a solo, un-refueled journey. The plane, with 17,000 solar cells on its wings and a top speed of about 87mph,is faster than a ship but much slower than traditional aircraft. Weighing only about as much as a car, the plane is easily tossed about by strong winds and driving rains. www.bbc.com/news/. The next leg of the around-the-world journey—from Hawaii to Phoenix AZ, USA, can be followed at www.solarimpulse.com/.

The United States could convert to 100 percent renewable energy through wide-scale implementation of existing technologies. A study published by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University and Mark Delucci of the University of California at Berkeley and others on June 9, 2015, is the first to outline how each of the 50 states could replace fossil fuel energy with entirely clean, renewable energy by 2050. The 50 individual state plans call for aggressive changes to both infrastructure and the ways we currently consume energy, but indicate that the conversion is already technically and economically possible with no more than 0.5 percent of any state’s land covered in solar panels or wind turbines. The upfront cost of the changes would be significant, but wind and sunlight are free. So the overall cost spread over time would be roughly equal to the price of the fossil fuel infrastructure, maintenance and production. sciencedaily.com

Bill Gates has announced he will invest $2bn in renewable technologies initiatives. Gates said that he would double his current investments in renewables over the next five years in a bid to “bend the curve” on tackling climate change. He dismissed the calls of the fossil fuel divestment movement on the basis that it would have little impact. Instead he said there was an urgent need for “high risk” investments in breakthrough technologies. He said that a “miracle” on the level of the invention of the automobile was necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe. theguardian.com

The Biennial Energy Efficiency Scorecard ranks Boston as the most energy-efficient city in the nation, followed by New York City, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) rated Atlanta as the leading city in the South with an improvement of five points, earned through local government operations, buildings policies, energy and water utilities, and transportation policies. Charlotte made a strong showing as well, improving by nearly eight points. Boston was the only city to earn over 80 points, and all of the ranked cities, even the highest scorers, have significant room for improvement. The full report is available online at aceee.org.

In September of 2013 an average neighborhood in the city of Suwon, South Korea, banned cars for a month. When planning began, the neighborhood was filled with cars, and people typically drove everywhere, even pulling up on sidewalks to park in front of shops while they ran errands. Most of the people could not envision how their lives could work car-free.

After two years of planning and countless meetings to get support from skeptics, fifteen hundred cars were moved out of the neighborhood to parking lots elsewhere in the city. Four hundred temporary bikes and electric scooters were brought in and the neighborhood was transformed. Mail was delivered by electric vehicles. Shuttle buses ran every 15 minutes to take people to their cars. Cafes and restaurants added new sidewalk seating, and the streets filled with people. The length of the experiment helped show how people could actually live without cars in everyday life. After the festival ended, residents made a few permanent changes. They cut the speed limit to 18 miles per hour to reduce traffic and eliminated side parking on sidewalks and some major streets. More people walk and bike now, and every month, the community celebrates a car-free day. The celebration is reported in a new book called Neighborhood in Motion: One Month, One Neighborhood, No Cars.

Over 7.7 million people are employed in the renewable sector worldwide—an 18% increase over 2013. On May 19, 2015, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reported that solar is the largest renewable sector employer worldwide, with China, Brazil, and the United States boasting the largest overall employment figures. The report came out as the International Monetary Fund announced that fossil fuel subsidies, along with the external costs associated with extracting and burning coal, oil and gas, adds up to $5.3 trillion each year. The IMF figures show fossil fuels globally subsidized at the rate of $10 million dollars a minute. treealerts.org