Thursday, June 15, 2017 Blog

I was in Paris (for 3 hours), so I’m writing about Paris. Great Scott! Please help the environment! The messy business of climate change. Hope for John’s Island mobility. Crab Bank on life support. Ten rivers that pollute the ocean. Eat for GrowFood!

by Dana Beach


I received a lot of compliments on last week’s email condemning America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.  But my comments also spawned more complaints than usual.  I’ll boil them down to three points:  1) I should have reported that, unlike Syria, Nicaragua refused to sign the accord because it failed to include binding emission reduction targets. (Actually, I don’t know why Syria didn’t sign.  It could be that the country has its unclean hands full already.)  2) Pulling out of the accord was appropriate because the U.S. shouldn’t have to bear one-third of the total costs of the Green Climate Fund, ($3 billion out of a total of $10 billion), while India and China contribute nothing, and 3) Stop ranting about President Trump and stick to protecting the S.C. coast.

To the first point, I agree.  (Thank you, Greg Vanderwerker.)  My apologies to Nicaragua. Here is an excerpt from an article in the New York Times on this point:

In the case of Nicaragua, the argument actually went the other way. As world leaders gathered in the French capital in November 2015 to reach an agreement on fighting climate change, Nicaragua’s lead envoy explained to reporters that the country would not support the agreed-upon plan as it hinged on voluntary pledges and would not punish those who failed to meet them. That was simply not enough, Paul Oquist argued.

“We’re not going to submit because voluntary responsibility is a path to failure,” Oquist told the website Climate Home on Nov. 30. “We don’t want to be an accomplice to taking the world to 3 to 4 degrees and the death and destruction that represents.” 

To the second point…  It’s hard to argue with the logic of fair contributions.  It’s also hard to decide what “fair” means.  Is it based on the country’s total greenhouse emissions?  If so, China should pay a lot, since they produce roughly 50 percent more emissions than the U.S. does.  Based on per capita greenhouse gases, however, things look different.  Per capita emissions from China are about one-tenth those of the average American. And the average Indian produces about one-thirtieth the emissions of the average American.  So, India’s and China’s shares of the fund would be considerably lower than the U.S. share.  But that logic would imply that these countries get a pass on population size, which sounds like a mistake.

This is a complicated question.  I come down on it this way.  Yes, India and China should have contributed to the Green Climate Fund, and the amount should have reflected both relative emissions per capita and each country’s total emissions.  But greenhouse gas reductions anywhere benefit the planet everywhere, so I say that the failure to obtain said contributions was not enough to torpedo the whole accord.  Virtually everyone agrees that this agreement is not the final instrument for international action on greenhouse gases.  Instead, it is a starting point.

But, on the other hand, (this is beginning to sound like the old story about the one-armed economist…), with Paris moving forward without U.S. participation, and American cities, states, colleges and businesses taking up the charge of meeting, or exceeding, the Paris targets, we are in the interesting position of making progress on climate, sans our remaining Green Climate Fund obligation ($2 billion).

I had some skepticism about whether Green Climate Fund proceeds would be spent on projects that achieve meaningful emissions benefits.  Here is a link to an excellent website on the current funding breakdown, which looks impressive.

Green Climate Fund: Portfolio

The reality is that the accord would not have been ratified by the U.S. Senate if we had remained a party, even though the U.S. targets could be changed unilaterally.  Finally, there is little doubt, with the current administration, that remaining in the accord would have been a fig leaf for the evisceration of the Clean Power Plan and automobile fuel efficiency standards, which, unlike the accord, deploy mandatory measures to achieve emission reductions.

This suggests that it is far from clear what the withdrawal will mean for the global effort to combat climate change.  I’m going to predict that it will not be fatal to the cause and that it may even stimulate a bolder effort on behalf of the planet.

This editorial from the Washington Post by Robert Samuelson makes similar observations, but draws a different conclusion:

There was no need for President Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement to achieve his goal of overturning the Obama administration’s global warming policy. This had already occurred through court rulings and executive orders, which effectively halted higher vehicle fuel economy standards (up to 54.5 miles per gallon) and ended the Clean Power Plan program, which pushed electric utilities to shift away from coal. Moreover, national commitments to slash emissions made in Paris are voluntary. Countries can modify or ignore them. There is no enforcement or penalty for missing targets. 

Under the Paris accord, countries made these commitments based on their own circumstances and political judgment. The United States pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The European Union promised to reduce emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. China said that its carbon dioxide (CO2) would peak by 2030 and that, by the same year, renewable fuels would represent about 20 percent of its energy use.

But as noted, none of these goals was binding. There was little, if any, loss of national sovereignty. The Trump administration could have accepted what it liked (presumably, cheap natural gas with lower CO2 emissions) and rejected what it didn’t (say, the tougher vehicle fuel mileage standards). 

Samuelson’s point is that the withdrawal focuses attention on President Trump and diverts it from the “messy” challenge of figuring out how to curb emissions adequate to protect the planet.  Of the withdrawal, he says:

It also sends the wrong message: If only Trump would come to his senses, we could get on with the serious business of solving climate change. Trump is allegedly the big obstacle — his apparent unwillingness to admit human-induced warming — just as greedy oil companies were before him (most big oil firms now seem to have shifted). The truth is more complicated.

WaPo: Samuelson editorial: Trump ignores the messy reality of global warming — and makes it all about him

This is a sobering and important editorial.  The takeaways are that there is no silver bullet for climate change (including, of course, the Paris accord) and that we don’t know what policies will effectively curb emissions. We do know that the goals of the accord are inadequate, but we must redouble our efforts and try as many things as we can, including a carbon tax and green climate funds. We should also understand that this is very much a work in progress (with a heavy emphasis on “work”).  The President’s decision to withdraw from the accord, while unfortunate, should not, and must not, divert us from that path.

Speaking of U.S. Senate action, columnist Steve Bailey writes that South Carolina’s junior senator, Tim Scott, is no friend of the environment.  This next Post and Courier op-ed reveals that Senator Scott has one of the worst conservation voting records in the Senate.  Steve quotes me as saying:

“Actions speak louder than words… From his zero rating by the League of Conservation Voters, to his consistent and active endorsement of offshore oil drilling, to his vocal support for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, the senator has aligned himself with environmental exploitation since his first day in office.”

P&C: Bailey editorial: Tim Scott stands as S.C.’s friendly face of anti-environmentalism

One could argue that Senator Scott is simply representing the interests of his constituents.  But that would ignore the fact that Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressmen Mark Sanford, Tom Rice and Jim Clyburn, representing the same constituents, have vastly better records on environmental protection.  And it would ignore the fact that Senator Scott has received vastly more money from oil companies than any other member of South Carolina’s congressional delegation.  It is telling that the only pro-conservation action Senator Scott cited was his vote as a Charleston County council member to spend some of the first half-cent sales tax increase protecting green space, (as every other council member did), way back in 2004.  South Carolina deserves stronger representation on the environment.

Public spending, whether from the sales tax, the Green Climate Fund, or elsewhere has to be justified by the results it produces.  President Trump has promised to spend public money on “infrastructure.”  So far, we have no idea what exactly that means.  This next editorial, from the New York Times, argues that the President has jumped ahead of the program by declaring war on regulations that he asserts impede the speed with which new public projects can be constructed.  He pledges to make environmental reviews “a few pages long,” thereby stimulating a renaissance of economic opportunity based on a trillion dollars of public spending.  (Who knew we elected a Keynesian?!)

NYT: Editorial board: Trump picks the wrong fight on infrastructure

Says the Times:

Mr. Trump complained that public works projects were subjected to a prolonged permitting process in which officials must produce detailed environmental impact statements that can be hundreds or thousands of pages long. What he did not say was that fewer than 1 percent of federal projects require such exhaustive evaluations, with the rest needing no evaluation or a much less demanding environmental assessment…

Taking a sword to a half-century of bipartisan environmental law isn’t the answer… What ails the country’s infrastructure is clear enough: the lack of serious investment. Mr. Trump promised during his campaign to increase investment by $1 trillion. So far, we have seen none of the money — and in its place, besides a gauzy plan that relies on tax credits for private investors, we have the straw man of environmental regulation.

We will see how this all unfolds over the next six months.

On the local infrastructure front, it has taken the City of Charleston, Charleston County and the S.C. Department of Transportation 10 years to begin construction of a new lane on Maybank Highway.  The lane addition project is less than one mile long and extends between the James Island Bridge and River Road.  And the regulatory process wasn’t the problem.  The project has been funded, permitted and supported by almost everybody, yet for unknown political reasons, or maybe just because of simple ineptitude, it has failed to move forward.  This does not bode well for the new era of transformative infrastructure investment.  Nonetheless, there will be a lot of happy people on Johns Island once the lane is complete.  Here is the article with the welcomed news.

P&C: Work to begin on next phase of widening of Maybank Highway

One badly needed, and modestly priced, public investment is in breeding habitat for pelicans, terns, oystercatchers and skimmers.  Bo Petersen reports in the Post and Courier that the fate of Crab Bank, one of the five seabird rookeries on the South Carolina coast, hangs in the balance.  Ship traffic in Charleston Harbor, combined with high tides, has decimated the island, with especially heavy damage coming just two weeks ago.  Without help, Crab Bank will probably disappear before next spring.

P&C: New ships may control fate of Charleston’s eroding Crab Bank shorebird rookery

The Corps of Engineers could rebuild it, but putting sand from the harbor deepening project on Crab Bank is not the “lease cost” disposal option, according to the Corps.  And it is unclear exactly what measures could be taken to stabilize the Bank, even if it does receive some of the dredged sand.  From the article:

The environmental advocacy group South Carolina Coastal Conservation League is still working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District to understand the analysis in the two-year-old study.

“We’re concerned about Crab Bank, and want to find the best long-term solution to address erosion,” said Emily Cedzo, the league’s air, water and public health projects director.

One thing we know is that failing to act will be one more strike against the survival of these beautiful denizens of the Lowcountry.  Keep an ear out for more on Crab Bank shortly.

Seabirds, and sea turtles, face threats beyond loss of breeding habitat.  As this article from reports, “microplastics” threaten marine life in every ocean on earth.  These particles, the products of decomposing plastic garbage, have now thoroughly permeated the aquasphere.  And because the oceans are an essential source of food for human populations, they also pose a danger to human health. Why microplastic debris may be the next big threat to our seas

This next article, from the BBC, reports that an enormous proportion of ocean plastic pollution emanates from just a few rivers.

BBC: Asian nations make plastic oceans promise

According to the article:

The Helmholtz Centre in Leipzig, Germany, estimated that 75% of land-borne marine pollution comes from just 10 rivers, predominantly in Asia.  Reducing the plastic loads in these rivers by 50% would reduce global plastic inputs by 37%, it said.

What about putting a strainer in the mouth of each of these rivers?  Seriously, the article reports that the Philippines, China, Thailand and Indonesia are taking steps to reduce their oversized contributions to the plague of marine plastic.  The steps seem grossly inadequate, in my view.  Educating children is fine, but the giant open dumps on the edges of these rivers are the creations of adults in those countries, not children.  Still, at least there is some acknowledgement of the problem and of the need to correct things.  Like Paris, it’s a start.

Finally, Whole Foods has once again chosen GrowFood Carolina as the beneficiary of their “Giving Day.”  The City Paper reports:

Mark your lunching/grocery shopping calendars — on Thurs., June 22, Whole Foods Market will be donating five percent of the day’s net sales to GrowFood Carolina.

CHAS City Paper: GrowFood Carolina selected as Whole Foods 5% Day Community Giving Recipient

Thanks to Whole Foods!  (Where you can deploy your reusable bags when you shop for locally produced groceries.)

I’ll be on a family vacation for two weeks, so the next few news summaries may be slightly abbreviated, which could be a welcomed relief!

Have a great week!


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