Climate Change is a Main Issue in 2020

There are 23 Democratic candidates running for President in 2020 so far, and for the first time, climate change appears to be a main topic voters want to hear about. Even Al Gore, the well-known climate activist, didn’t have climate change as his main campaign issue, and climate change was not discussed at all during the 2016 presidential debates.

Why Now?

There are several factors that might be causing voters to put their focus on the environment. For one thing, there have been a lot of news stories that put climate change front and center. The IPCC report recently gave us a deadline of 2030 to drastically reduce emissions if we want to avoid catastrophic results. The next four years are almost half of that time, and if a president gets two terms that effectively makes climate change a one-president issue. Movements like Fridays for Future (led by school-children) and proposals like the Green New Deal have kept our attention on the issue. Besides press coverage, more and more people are also seeing climate change beginning to impact them directly. Wildfires in California, droughts wiping out crops, and unusual weather patterns across the country have turned climate change from a distant concern to a pressing worry we need to address now.

Voters are Motivated

There has been a lot of lost ground for environmental protection and climate change at the federal level over the last few years. This appears to have activated many states and individuals to take stronger action independently. Voter activism around climate change has prompted many of the Democratic candidates to issue detailed proposals as part of their platform. There also appears to be a demographic shift from last election cycle, with groups that see climate change as a major issue making up a larger share of the voter pool for 2020 than ever before.

2020 Has to Be the Year We Take Action

With a tight deadline to make some drastic changes, this election cycle is the time to make sure climate change is the priority. The conditions are right, and the candidates are prioritizing it for the first time, so it’s more crucial than ever to get out and vote.

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Fed Up with the Federal Government, States Form Climate Alliance

It’s the two year anniversary of the US government pulling out of the Paris Agreement, but all hope is not lost. Many states and local governments have stepped up and committed to uphold their commitment to fight climate change.

The US Climate Alliance

The US Climate Alliance is, in their own words, “…a bipartisan coalition of 24 governors committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Alliance represents 55 percent of the U.S. population and an $11.7 trillion economy – an economy larger than all countries but the United States and China.” And states are still joining – this April, Nevada and Pennsylvania became the 23rd and 24th states to join the alliance.

The states in the alliance have not only cut their carbon emissions by 14% from 2005-2016, they also saw an economic benefit. These same states saw a 16% growth in economic output, as compared to the national average of 14%.

Coastal Communities and Cities Lead the Charge

Climate Change may seem like a distant or nonexistent threat to some, but many of the country’s largest populations are on the coast. According to NOAA, as of 2010 39% of America’s population lived in coastal areas. These communities have been increasingly active on the issue of climate change. Florida’s newly elected governor Desantis has made climate change a top priority – a big pivot from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection banning the term “climate change” just four years ago.

New York City and Boston have already accepted that climate change is happening and will have a huge impact on them, and both cities have ongoing initiatives to prepare. Boston also hosted an International Mayors Climate Summit, where mayors from around the world met to share ideas on effective climate action. Locally, cities like Everett are choosing to buy solar credits to offset their municipal carbon footprint and save money.

The key to solving climate change is not looking to come in time from the federal level. It’s up to local action to get us where we need to be – taking individual action and, crucially, voting in local elections will determine our success in tackling climate change.

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New Activists Forcing Attention on Climate Change

Climate change first came out as front page news thirty years ago. Since then, a familiar pattern has developed – scientists issue increasingly dire warnings, which create a stir, but emissions continue to rise. That’s the issue with the climate crisis – changes are gradual, and for the most part, people can go on with their everyday lives. But there is a new generation of activists starting movements that are forcing us to pay attention to climate change.

Child Activists and Fridays for Future

One of the largest movements has been the “Fridays for Future” movement, led by Greta Thunberg. What makes it notable is that it’s led by school kids. Children around the world walked out of class to try and force their countries to adhere to the Paris agreement. Friday, May 24, is on track to be the largest walk-out to date. The last strike on March 15 made quite a stir as well, with 1.6 million students from 125 countries walking out of school to demand climate change action. Here in the US, Haven Coleman leads the US Youth Climate Strike and coordinated the strike in March. Their objectives include reframing the conversation about our heating planet as a climate crisis, and to make sure it stays a top global priority – and so far, it seems to be working.

The Time for Action is Now

The past year has included a few alarming reports on the environment. We’ve gotten dire warnings from the IPCC about the consequences of letting the globe warm more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. There was also a recent report arguing that “One million of the planet’s eight million species are threatened with extinction by humans.” Many of the young climate strikers have been motivated by experiencing the effects of climate change already. Student activists have cited bushfires in Tasmania, wildfires in California, flash flooding and coral bleaching in Mauritius as some of their reasons for joining the Fridays for Future movement. But the positive side of all of this is that it seems to be waking us up to the reality we’re facing, and motivated many to take action. Even staunch Republican Lindsey Graham conceded that climate change is caused by humans, and endorsed a price on carbon. On May 1st, the UK became the first country to declare a climate emergency. Here in the U.S., many states have banded together to try and tackle climate change. Nevada became the 23rd state to join the United States Climate Alliance in March. The hour is late but we still have time to solve the climate crisis, and it seems like we may have finally started to find the motivation.

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Why Coal Plants are Going Out of Business

Coal plants are struggling to keep up with the fast paced changes in the energy sector, despite federal efforts to prop them up.

Coal Doesn’t Make Economic Sense

  • It’s expensive to build and run coal fired plants
    • “In many areas, it is not cost-effective to building a coal plant: Increasingly, building a new solar or wind farm is cheaper than just operating an existing coal plant.”
    • The average coal fired plant in America is 43 years old, meaning they require lots of maintenance and run less efficiently.
  • It’s important to acknowledge the decline, and to plan how we want our power grid and economy to develop.
    • A town in Montana had proposed to purchase a struggling coal plant a few years back, fearing what it going under might do to the economy.

Can We Use Decommissioned Plants?

  • Coal plants suddenly shutting down could cost jobs, and burning coal causes contamination at the old sites.
    • There have been some creative solutions – to avoid losing around 1,600 jobs, Acme Equities LLC purchased an old coal plant in New Mexico that was about to shut down for $1.
      • They plan to keep the plant running, but install carbon capture technology and sell off the CO2 as an additional revenue stream.
    • A coal plant in Germany was faced with a similar issue.
      • They’re investigating turning the old plant into molten salt storage unit – basically a huge battery that would preserve the coal plant jobs and also add storage capacity for renewable energy.

What’s Taking Coal’s Place?

  • There are several drivers of coal’s decline. Although GDP is up, energy usage has remained fairly flat due to efficiency increases.

Cheap natural gas and explosive additions to our solar and wind capacity are a more economically feasible way to meet our current energy demands.

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Fighting Climate Change for Kids’ Sake

We’ve Left it up to the Kids

Children and teenagers have gone on strike this past Friday to protest inaction on climate change. Around the world, young protestors like Greta Thunberg feel that we’ve reached a tipping point and they must take action into their own hands, even though they are not yet out of grade-school.

What they’ve had to say is powerful. Greta’s speech included moving lines like this:

  • “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes…Because the adult generations have used up all our carbon budget.

What’s the Impact of Inaction?

The IPCC’s climate report gives us ten years to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and it’s had a big impact on these Generation Z activists, who are mostly aged in their mid teens. In ten years’ time, they’ll be in their mid twenties and dealing with the repercussions of older generations’ inaction.

These bleak prospects have a real impact, even beyond the climate. The United States has an aging population, and young people have cited climate change as a concern for having children. Business Insider conducted a poll which found

  • Nearly 38% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 agreed that climate change should be a factor in a couple’s decision about whether to have children. And 34% of Americans between the ages of 30 and 44 agreed.

What Can We Do?

By powering most of the world on electricity that comes from wind and solar and other renewable, carbon-free sources and offsetting things like plane travel that have to use fossil fuel with higher prices and carbon capture, we can put a stop to the worst of climate change.  “It’s 2050 And This Is How We Stopped Climate Change” outlined a clear vision of the future:

  • “This is the foundation of a zero-carbon world: Electricity that comes from clean sources, mainly the sun and the wind, cheap and increasingly abundant. Today, it powers this house; tomorrow, it could drive the world.”

The good news is that we still have a few years to turn things around, and we have the solutions we need to do it – all that’s missing is action.

  • “In order to have impact, timely impact, I figured that I need to leave research and focus on impactful things that I want to do. And fast,” she says.

As consumers and citizens, we can also have a big impact. Voting, both at the polls and with our dollars, combined with individual choices on things like transportation, are powerful ways to combat climate change. One easy switch to make is to support the transition to clean energy through community solar, which is becoming increasingly available in many states.

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The Green New Deal: Can We Both Solve Climate Change and Build the Economy?

Last week Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey released details on the ambitious, if potentially divisive, Green New Deal. Whether you agree with it or not, it is catapulting climate change back into the national political conversation.  

What is “The Green New Deal?”

  • The Green New Deal is a plan to address some the biggest issues facing the US: climate change, social justice, and economic inequality. It’s styled after the New Deal of the great depression era, which aimed to fix an economic crisis with public works projects.
    • The resolution aims to offset enough carbon to meet the deadline set by the IPCC recently to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
    • It calls for heavy investment in clean technology and energy efficiency projects.
    • These efforts would focus on areas of the country that previously relied on fossil fuels, as well as rural and poor areas that have historically suffered from pollution.

What Makes it Controversial?

  • Opponents to the plan argue that it’s too expensive and ambitious.
  • There has also been pushback on the resolution’s focus on a social safety net, including union protections, affordable housing, and universal health care.
  • Defenders of the resolution argue that previous American achievements such as going to the moon were also ambitious and thought to be impossible, but they started with a goal and a timeline.
  • Whether you agree with the scope and goals of the Green New Deal or not, at least it has brought the topic of climate change back into public discussion.

Can we Strengthen the Economy by Fighting Climate Change?

  • Skeptics have long argued that transitioning to “greener” technologies would be prohibitively expensive and harm the economy.
  • But in practice, states investing in clean energy have seen an economic boost.
  • There are practical success stories of clean energy addressing pollution and climate change as well as social justice and economic issues.
    • For example, community solar delivers jobs, offsets pollution, and brings financial saving to the communities where the solar farms are installed.
    • Community solar and programs like it are more accessible to people who are not in an economic position to buy or install clean energy individually.

The Green New Deal may be criticized as divisive and ambitious, but the idea that we can boost the economy, address inequality, and fight climate change may not be so far fetched.

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The Push For 100% Renewables

There’s new blood in the state and federal legislatures, and climate change is at the top of their agenda. Here in MA, fourteen of the twenty four newly sworn in state representatives support aggressive action on climate change. At the federal level, we’ve seen ambitious new proposals and a new committee to address climate change as a top priority.

Massachusetts Fights Climate Change

  • Over half of the incoming state representatives have formed a bipartisan group they’re calling GreenTeamMA
  • The Green Team supports 100% renewable energy sources in Massachusetts by 2050
    • This will be achieved with measures such as carbon pricing and driving up demand for energy sources such as wind and solar
  • They are focussing on a bottom up approach with grassroots action by voters and consumers who are concerned about public health and climate change

The Federal\Climate Crisis Committee

  • The midterm elections saw an infusion of progressive new representatives and a flip to a House controlled by Democrats
  • New members have proposed a “Green New Deal,” an aggressive plan which would combine action on climate change and economic inequality while creating job growth
  • Nancy Pelosi has put together a Climate Change Committee, which has a narrower scope but still emphasizes the importance of preparing for and combating climate change

A key component of all of these plans is encouraging consumers to choose greener options. Legislation is important to level the playing field for clean energy, but there are impactful choices we can make right now to fight climate change, especially here in Massachusetts.

Be Part of the Solution

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The True Cost of Fossil Fuels

Skeptics of clean energy often cite high costs and “the need for subsidies” as a reason we shouldn’t or can’t afford to transition away from fossil fuels. But dirty energy has many costs attached to it which are not always readily apparent. Fossil fuel prices can be volatile, and we don’t always use domestically sourced products. Aside from the actual cost to consumers, the fossil fuel industry also receives subsidies, and we pay indirectly for using polluting energy sources in healthcare and pollution cleanup costs. It’s well past time to reframe the conversation around energy costs, and to even the playing field for cleaner energy sources.

While it’s true that most renewable energy sources can have high startup costs, once they’re running they’re inexpensive to keep up – after all, you don’t have to pay for wind or sunshine. In comparison, using fossil fuels for energy means we have to constantly buy oil, gas, and coal at the market rate. And this money doesn’t always stay in the US economy: “In 2007, America spent more than $360 billion importing fossil fuels, with the vast majority of that money spent on crude oil. That money is a direct transfer of wealth from American consumers to oil companies and foreign governments.” Even when we are buying within the country, volatile fuel prices can negatively impact consumers.  In comparison, prices for electricity generated from renewable sources has been shown to be more predictable.  In 2016, we spent $5.6 billion on renewable energy incentives, most of which went to biofuels.  Studies attempting to put a number on subsidies supporting fossil fuels, not including subsidies for things like fuel assistance programs, pegged them at around $20 billion dollars a year including the federal and state levels. The US has been slow to get rid of these subsidies and tax breaks compared to other developed countries, and that’s no coincidence. “In the 2015-2016 election cycle, oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million in campaign contributions and lobbying and received $29.4 billion in federal subsidies in total over those same years.” We are already spending a lot to prop up fossil fuels, but it’s taken for granted and doesn’t get much coverage, while any changes to incentives for clean energy are often hotly debated.

While the concrete costs to buy and subsidize fossil fuels are important to look at, arguably more important are the added costs of things like health care for asthma and cancer, cleaning up pollution, and fallout from a changing climate. These are difficult to put a price on, but we do know some of the costs. For example, the BP Deepwater oil spill costed tax payers fifteen point three billion dollars. There has also been impact on agriculture: “A 2007 study by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University found that global production of three of the six largest global crops experienced significant losses due to global warming between 1981 and 2002. The study concluded that global wheat growers, for example, lost $2.6 billion and global corn growers lost $1.2 billion in 2002 alone.” Projections are that these costs will sky rocket if climate change is not mitigated.

The price we pay for healthcare on pollution-related illness is difficult to pinpoint, but we do have some studies that have attempted to put a number on it. Sarah Rizk* and Ben Machol of the Clean Energy and Climate Change Office, U.S. EPA Region 9, in San Francisco published a peer reviewed article attempting to put a concrete price per kilowatt hour that we pay in healthcare. They found costs of “…19 to 45 cents per kilowatt-hour for coal, 8 to 19 cents per kilowatt-hour for oil, and 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for natural gas. “For coal and oil,” Rizk and Machol write, “these costs are larger than the typical retail price of electricity, demonstrating the magnitude of the externality.” This cost isn’t distributed evenly, either – places that are the site of extraction and energy generation pay a higher price in their health.

Clean energy is often dismissed as being too expensive, but really the cost of energy from fossil fuel is artificially low and much of what we pay is hidden or part of the status quo. When you really dig into the numbers, it’s clear that the playing field is uneven. There are many reasons to transition to clean energy, and now we can add the comparative cost of it to the list.

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Midterms and the Future of Clean Energy

In light of the recent midterm elections, it seems like a good time to look at what makes good energy policy and what we might expect as a result of voter choices going forward. Policy plays an important role in the success of clean energy. As more states set targets for a future powered by renewables, there’s some trial and error in how to integrate new types of shared power to the existing grid, as well as how to support their growth and ensure ratepayers see the benefit of cleaner, less expensive energy. Community solar, when it’s supported by a state’s policies, is a very accessible and relatively inexpensive solution to these challenges.

Twenty nine states have a mandatory amount of clean energy utilities have to use, called a “Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)” while eight more have a voluntary clean energy target. These regulations have different ambition levels and methods of reaching their goals. Of these, only nineteen states have a shared renewables program.  Shared renewables are those, like community solar, which allow everyone to participate in the benefits of clean power. Shared renewables programs allow new power sources like community solar to scale up. To compare how different states stacked up, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) made a scorecard for states with established community solar programs. They evaluation criteria included such things as if the program is accessible to underserved and low income communities, if all residents are eligible to use the program, if it promotes subscription portability and transferability (being able to “take it with you” or give it to the next resident if you move) and how much benefit residents can get from joining a solar farm.

Massachusetts has one of the strongest programs in place to allow community solar to grow. It allows offset of both distribution and supply charges, targets benefits to low and moderate income customers, and has recently changed its program to remove barriers between utility load zones. This makes farms more accessible and beneficial to more residents, and it makes subscriptions much more portable.

At the polls this week, there was more good news for the future of clean energy. With a shift in congress, Democratic leadership has promised to “resurrect the defunct select committee on climate change.” Nevada also voted for a measure to use 50% renewable energy by 2030, and has seen increasing investment in clean energy recently.

Overall, states, rather than the federal government, continue to lead the charge against climate change. Experimenting with different programs to find the best practices paves the way for other states to follow suit. And as states with strong renewable energy programs reap rewards such as economic growth, financial savings, and environmental benefits, hopefully more policymakers and voters will come around.

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