President Biden has placed climate change squarely at the center of his White House agenda, using his first hours in office to rejoin the Paris climate accord and begin overturning more than 100 environmental actions taken by the Trump administration.
The order also makes environmental justice a priority across the government, establishing an interagency council in the White House and standing up new offices in both the Health and Human Services and Justice departments.
Those initial moves are the first in what promises to be a much longer -- and more arduous -- effort to unwind the Trump administration's sweeping environmental and energy policies, which were marked by aggressive deregulation, prioritizing the fossil fuels industry and sidelining efforts to combat climate change or protect imperiled animals.
The Post sorts the policies into the following bins: Air pollution and greenhouse gases, Chemical safety, Drilling and extraction, Infrastructure and permitting, Accountability, Water pollution, and Wildlife. For each category, they list "New" policies put into place by the Biden administration and those that are "Easy to overturn" (by executive order, for example), "Medium" (reversible by rewriting regulation or court rule), and "Difficult" (lengthy regulatory process, Congress, or court ruling).
A lot has been made, rightly so, in recent days of President Biden's rollbacks of the Trump Administration's gleeful dismantling of environmental, health, and other regulatory safeguards. Both the NYT and Brookings have been keeping track of what's happening on the regulatory front, with Brookings doing so since at least 2018 if not earlier.
Terry Gross interviews Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post, who outlines the Trump administration's big last-minute push to roll back environmental regulations and to open up drilling in ANWR, among other things. A really interesting and succinct overview of what's going on and how the Biden Administration may respond. Recorded the day before Biden's inauguration.
Among many interesting parts:
GROSS: I want to ask you about this. One of Trump's signature campaign promises was to bring back the coal industry. How did that turn out?
EILPERIN: So in fact, what we've seen is, despite President Trump's dogged efforts to bolster the coal industry, what's happened is that roughly 15% of the nation's coal generated capacity has gone out of business under his time in office. And so that's a faster decline in coal capacity in any single presidential term, so even faster than what happened under Barack Obama. And in addition to the plants that have already retired, there's another 73 that had indicated that they will close more coal burning units by the end of the decade.
Professor John Balmes, close colleague and friend, and physician member of the California Air Resources Board:
PM 2.5 kills people. There has been little dispute that microscopic particulate matter in air pollution penetrates into the deepest parts of the lungs and contributes to the early deaths each year of thousands of people in the United States with heart and lung disease.
One recent study called PM 2.5 “the largest environmental risk factor worldwide,” responsible for many more deaths than alcohol use, physical inactivity or high sodium intake.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s own website says: “Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms.”
Which makes it deeply troubling that the very people at the helm of the Trump administration’s E.P.A. responsible for protecting public health and the environment are now pursuing a course that would make the air we breathe even more hazardous.
At a public meeting Thursday that ran nearly two hours long, multiple members of that committee, including Chair Tony Cox and Steven Packham of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said they do not agree that breathing air polluted with soot can lead to an early death.
“[Committee] members have varying opinions on the adequacy of the evidence supporting the EPA’s conclusion that there is a causal relationship between [particulate matter] exposure and mortality,” said Cox, reading from the committee’s draft recommendations before explaining that he is “actually appalled” at the lack of scientific evidence connecting particulate pollution to premature death.
A quarter of a century of research has shown that breathing in fine airborne particles emitted by cars, power plants and other sources shortens people’s lifespans. But that scientific consensus is now under attack from a top advisor to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just as the agency is rushing to revise the national air-quality standard for such pollution before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. Scientists fear that the result could be weaker rules on air pollution that are bad for public health — and based on politics, not science.
The case has been made — repeatedly — that the health and economic benefits of the Clean Air Act and subsequent regulatory processes are clear. This is summarized succinctly in the figure below, which shows energy consumption, vehicle miles traveled, GDP, and total emissions of EPA criteria pollutants.
Let’s put aside the economic argument and focus on the principles that undergird the Clean Air Act - protection of public health, with standards set to protect the most vulnerable. This critical prerogative is undermined by these (and other) recent efforts to roll back regulations that have clear and demonstrable health benefits. This is yet another example of the Trump administration’s abnegation of responsibility to the health and welfare of the US population.
Conditional cash transfers — paying people to change behavior, usually to spur positive ‘social’ outcomes — continue to be in the news. Much of the focus is on their use as poverty reduction tools (Bolsa Familia in Brazil, JSY in India) through encouraging behaviors like antenatal care visits and sending children to school.
Two recent article — one in the NYT, one in Mother Jones — highlighted the use of CCTs and other targeted cash transfer tools for dramatically different outcomes.
In the NYT, poverty and energy issues were at the fore:
The Indian government subsidizes households’ purchases of cooking gas; these subsidies amounted to about $8 billion last year. Until recently, subsidies were provided by selling cylinders to beneficiaries at below-market prices. Now, prices have been deregulated, and the subsidy is delivered by depositing cash directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, which are linked to cellphones, so that only eligible beneficiaries — not “ghost” intermediaries — receive transfers.
Under the previous arrangement, the large gap between subsidized and unsubsidized prices created a thriving black market, where distributors diverted subsidized gas away from households to businesses for a premium. In new research with Prabhat Barnwal, an economist at Columbia University, we find that cash transfers reduced these “leakages,” resulting in estimated fiscal savings of about $2 billion.
There’s even more “smart” targeting coming soon. My advisor and colleagues in India have been working to “[describe] how the LPG subsidy could be even more completely targeted to the poor without any actual ‘taking away’ of the subsidy from the rich and middle class, which would likely trigger heavy political push back. As a result, several hundred million additional poor Indians could have affordable access in the next decade without increasing subsidy costs to the government (indeed probably reducing them) or LPG imports — both not likely to be popular.”
Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached [Devone] Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren’t the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who’d been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?
It seems to be working.
It was a crazy idea. But since ONS was established, the city’s murder rate has plunged steadily. In 2013, it dropped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—a 33 year low. In 2014, it dropped again. Boggan and his staff maintained that their program was responsible for a lot of that drop-off by keeping the highest-risk young men alive—and out of prison. Now they have a study to back them up.
On Monday, researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a non-profit, published a process evaluation of ONS, studying its impact seven years in. The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”
India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, in the New York Times:
The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.
“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.
Not great news. Vox has interesting coverage of this story, as well; the bottom of their story has a great collection of links.
In a future with more severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising seas that imperil coastal cities, public funding to pay for adaptations and disaster relief will add significantly to our fiscal deficit and threaten our long-term economic security. So it is perverse that those who want limited government and rail against bailouts would put the economy at risk by ignoring climate change.
This is short-termism. There is a tendency, particularly in government and politics, to avoid focusing on difficult problems until they balloon into crisis. We would be fools to wait for that to happen to our climate.
When you run a company, you want to hand it off in better shape than you found it. In the same way, just as we shouldn’t leave our children or grandchildren with mountains of national debt and unsustainable entitlement programs, we shouldn’t leave them with the economic and environmental costs of climate change. Republicans must not shrink from this issue. Risk management is a conservative principle, as is preserving our natural environment for future generations. We are, after all, the party of Teddy Roosevelt.
I’ve got some fundamental issues with this recent article in the NYT, starting with its absurd title: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. The difference between levels in Beijing and Delhi are nigh indistinguishable shades of the same grey - we’re seeing similar and important trends playing out in large urban centers. We know the levels are health damaging and we know that the exposure-response relationships for a number of health impacts are not linear - a decrease from 400 to 300 ug/m3 doesn’t incur the same benefit in a population as the decrease from, say, 150 to 50 ug/m3. The latter decrease seems to have a far more profound and substantial positive impact on health. That, of course, is not to say we shouldn’t applaud any and all decreases in ambient air pollution — but instead to emphasize that we have a long way to go to fully protect public health.
No doubt, these issues need to become more prominent in Indian discourse, as the author acknowledges:
… [For] the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.
“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”
Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.
But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Rural India is fraught with air pollution concerns of a different type — that arising from solid fuel combustion for household cooking. This ‘household air pollution’ results in approximately 900,000 annual deaths in India - 10% of national mortality. It disproportionately affects the rural poor, who, for the most part, don’t have access to modern fuels for cooking, heating, or lighting. It’s estimated that approximately 700 million people - more than twice the US population - in India rely on solid fuel use for household energy needs.
The world’s consumption of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil, and other petroleum products reached a record high of 88.9 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2012, as declining consumption in North America and Europe was more than outpaced by growth in Asia and other regions (see animated map). A previous article examined regional trends in petroleum consumption between 1980 and 2010; today’s article extends that analysis through 2012.
Some other specific points of interest:
Between 2008 and 2012, Asia’s consumption increased by 4.4 million bbl/d. The rapidly industrializing economies of China and India fueled much of Asia’s demand increase, growing 2.8 million bbl/d and 800,000 bbl/d, respectively. If China’s use of petroleum continues to grow as projected, it is expected to replace the United States as the world’s largest net oil importer this fall.
Petroleum use in Europe has declined in every year since 2006. Part of this decline was related to a reduction in overall energy intensity and government policies that encourage energy efficiency. Europe’s weak economic performance has also affected its petroleum use, with declines of 780,000 bbl/d in 2009 and 570,000 bbl/d in 2012 occurring at a time of slow growth and/or recessions in many European countries.
EIA’s recently released International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) to 820 quadrillion Btu. Most of this growth will come from non-OECD (non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, where demand is driven by strong economic growth.
Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing 2.5% per year. However, fossil fuels continue to supply nearly 80% of world energy use through 2040. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel, as global supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane increase.
The industrial sector continues to account for the largest share of delivered energy consumption and is projected to consume more than half of global delivered energy in 2040. Based on current policies and regulations governing fossil fuel use, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise to 45 billion metric tons in 2040, a 46% increase from 2010. Economic growth in developing nations, fueled by a continued reliance on fossil fuels, accounts for most of the emissions increases.
Today the President announced Power Africa, a new initiative to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. More than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lack access. Power Africa will build on Africa’s enormous power potential, including new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas, and the potential to develop clean geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy. It will help countries develop newly-discovered resources responsibly, build out power generation and transmission, and expand the reach of mini-grid and off-grid solutions.
According to the International Energy Agency, sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity access by 2030. Only with greater private sector investment can the promise of Power Africa be realized. With an initial set of six partner countries in its first phase, Power Africa will add more than 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity. It will increase electricity access by at least 20 million new households and commercial entities with on-grid, mini-grid, and off-grid solutions. And it will enhance energy resource management capabilities, allowing partner countries to meet their critical energy needs and achieve greater energy security.
As that first paragraph points out, this is inherently an issue of rural energy — and of household energy. The following bit seems a bit… optimistic:
Power Africa will work in collaboration with partner countries to ensure the path forward on oil and gas development maximizes the benefits to the people of Africa, while also ensuring that development proceeds in a timely, financially sound, inclusive, transparent and environmentally sustainable manner.
A thoughtful and insightful overview of the proposed carbon/environmental tax by Harvard graduate student Ella Chou. Some excerpts follow.
The first thing I want to clarify is that calling it a “carbon tax” would be a gross misnomer, because for a long time to come, the majority of the tax collected from this would still be from what used to be called “pollution discharge fees”, not from taxing carbon emissions.
The tax on carbon would in fact be puny. The Xinhua report noted that previous MOF expert suggestion for the carbon tax was 10 yuan (US $1.5) per ton of carbon dioxide in 2012, with gradual increase to 50 yuan ($7.9) per ton by 2020.
…[T]he tax on coal in China is merely 2-3 yuan (US $0.4) per ton, and 8 yuan (US $1.27) per ton for charred coal, even though the price of coal has increased to several hundreds of yuan per ton.
The point of a carbon tax, be in China or elsewhere, is to set the price signal straight. We tax income; we tax property; we tax goods and services — all the things we want more of, so wouldn’t it be logic to actually tax the thing we want less of: pollution?
I should note that the proportion of environmental tax in the overall revenue of any level of government would be tiny, as is the pollution discharge fee portion of the revenue mix now. Local governments would continue to come up ways to give industries tax rebates and subsidies to attract them to their own jurisdictions, so the effect of the environmental tax or the carbon tax on the industries would be negligible. Standardizing fees into a tax is a step in the right direction. China can use a price on carbon, and environmental issues in general, as a starting point to address the price distortions that are stifling its long-term growth.
This week, amidst all the kerfuffle over Beijing’s smog, both Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic looked back to historical periods of extreme pollution in the US and the UK as proof that cleaning up the air in large, rapidly developing cities can happen — will happen — given long enough time frames. Madrigal points to Chicago and Pittsburgh, noting
The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.
So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.
Similarly, Revkin first looks back to the 1950s London smog episodes and then looks forward, offering potential solutions.
…Much of what we in the West see as shockingly aberrant in today’s industrializing countries and fast-growing cities was our norm a short two generations ago. The same is true for rivers. As I wrote last year, while Nairobi has foaming floods of pollution now, the Hudson, which is now swimmable, had shores sticky with adhesive and shimmering with automotive paint a few decades ago. Prosperity leads to rising public environmental concern and the wherewithal for governments to change rules and practices.
Last year, I asked this question: “Can China Follow U.S. Shift from Coal to Gas?” The country has vast reserves of shale gas but lacks expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, the innovative mix of technologies that is poised to transform America’s energy prospects (if drilling is done with communities and the environment in mind). A prompt shift from coal to natural gas in China — which would have to involve substantial collaboration with the United States — could potentially be a big near-term step toward stopping growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course clearing the air in crowded, coal-dependent cities.
A few things stand out. While it’s perhaps fair to argue that pollution controls will come on a long enough time frame, it’s a bit problematic to compare 1940s - 1960s Chicago and Pittsburgh to emerging market mega-cities. Beijing’s population is approximately 20 million. Delhi and its surrounding National Capital Region, which suffer from similar bouts of intense ambient air pollution, have an estimated population of a bit over 22 million. In 1940, the population of Pittsburgh was ~700,000; Chicago was home to ~ 3.4 million. London was quite a bit larger during the smog episodes, with a population of ~9 million, but still much smaller than current-day mega-cities. The magnitude of the pollution in these cities — coupled with the sheer number of people residing within them — leads to extremely large, health-damaging population level exposures.
As Revkin points out, there’s a path forward that could lead to more rapid improvements in environmental quality and have a number of political and health-related cobenefits — collaboration between developed and developing markets to improve the quality of energy production. While I’m not 100% onboard with fracking, Revkin’s general point emphasizing cooperation should hold. We, the West, have repeatedly been through the pathway of industrialization -> environmental degradation -> outrage, illness, death -> <- regulatory struggles -> technological innovation -> cleaner environments. We’ve emerged from it in two or three generations with vastly improved environmental conditions, though we must now face the looming specter of climate change. It is in our own selfish interests — indeed, in everyone’s interest — to facilitate cleaner energy production and industrialization globally. The pollutants affecting millions in China and India have long-lasting global impacts that affect us all. Developing and developed countries acting in concert to reduce emissions results in a win-win.
Some caveats. I’m in no way implying that Revkin and Madrigal haven’t thought through these issues. They have - repeatedly and far more eloquently than I - throughout their writings. Second, I fully acknowledge that development occurs on vastly different timeframes and scales in each emerging market. The pace of development today is breathtaking — change occurs at a pummeling pace, enabled by our past technological innovations that now have a global reach. One hopes, given our global interconnectedness and inter-dependency, that we could avoid repeating some of these catastrophes. We’ve been through this repeatedly. We know the cost of environmental degradation in terms of human life, ecosystem quality, and money. And, to an extent, we know how to clean up our industrial processes. We have a fundamental obligation to share this knowledge, to make it heard, and to use our significant global clout to bring it to bear.
…While the environment desk itself is fairly new, the Times has been a bulwark of robust climate coverage for decades. While it’s not clear if the reassigned environment desk reporters will still maintain a focus on the environment in their reporting, other areas of the paper will gain new reporters with a deep knowledge of and concern about environmental issues. The Times will still continue to turn out good climate coverage.
Part of the (justifiable!) hand-wringing over the move stems from the poor reporting of climate issues elsewhere. Earlier this week, a study revealed that the number of newspapers that maintain a weekly “Science” section dropped from 95 in 1989 to 14 currently. (The Times is one of the 14.) Television news continues to give climate coverage short shrift, especially in the context of policy and politics. With public opinion suggesting that Americans link the threat of global warming with information about its effects, it’s understandably disconcerting to think that one of the most vocal outlets on the subject is changing its approach.
There’s one thing that is certain. As the months and years pass, every other bureau of the New York Times will have to deal with the effects of a changing climate: business, international, health, even sports. Having reporters close at hand who are well-versed in the subject will be an asset to the paper. The problem is less with how the Times staffs its environment coverage and far more with how few other outlets knowledgeably cover the environment at all.
While I tend to agree with Grist’s take on the issue, a couple things stand out. First, we won’t really know how this will impact the paper’s coverage of environmental issues and climate change for weeks or months.
Second, and importantly, much of the uproar has surrounded potential impacts on coverage of climate change. The Times has been a stalwart source of information on other environmental news, as well — including political positions and opinions on the environment, global environmental change, environmental health,the relationship between industry and the environment, and the like. While climate change is perhaps the most pressing of our ongoing environmental concerns, it is certainly not the only one.
I worry that some the Times’ nuanced coverage of other environmental issues may suffer from this move. Moving knowledgeable reporters to other desks in the news department could help bring an environmental perspective to more stories. But it may also lead to weaker coverage of the environment — one can imagine environmental voices getting drowned out by other concerns and editorial decisions. Time will tell.
These are non-sarcastic gems — honestly outstanding quips. First, on Congress and interest rate hikes on student loans (emphasis added).
For the first eight years of our marriage, [Michelle and I] were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage. So we know what this is about.
And we were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income. But we only finished paying off our student loans—check this out, all right, I’m the President of the United States—we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.
Second, on false and forced dichotomies:
There will always be people in this country who say we’ve got to choose between clean air and clean water and putting people back to work. That is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children.
I heard some interesting facts along these lines today from John Harte. No amount of praise I can heap on John is sufficient — he’s a brilliant scientist, an outstanding professor, and occupies a rare, trusted position in the realm of public intellectuals. John discussed a few examples of the environment vs. jobs myth, honing in primarily on old growth preservation in the Pacific Northwest. He noted that instead of jobs being lost by forest preservation, quite a few were created through the processing of “lesser” wood products that had a larger market. Profits increased, as well. He also pointed to rapid growth in the environmental sector in other countries who have a larger focus on renewables — China and Germany, predominantly.
Finally, back to Obama and the students, as he slow jams the news with Jimmy Fallon.
In a letter to Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administration, the head of the White House office of regulatory affairs, Cass Sunstein, said that the president was rejecting her proposal to tighten the standard.
"He has made it clear he does not support finalizing the rule at this time," Mr. Sunstein said.
He said that changing the rule now would create uncertainty for business and local government. He also said there was no compelling reason to rewrite the ozone standard in advance of the scheduled reconsideration in 2013, a key demand of business interests.
Mr. Sunstein told Ms. Jackson that since the rule is due for reconsideration in 2013, an earlier review would promote confusion and uncertainty.
"In this light," he wrote, "issuing a final rule in late 2011 would be problematic in view of the fact that a new assessment, and potentially new standards, will be developed in the relatively near future."