Sunday, February 2, 2014

2014: The Defining Year of the Critical Decade to Act on Climate

“All years are important, but decisions made in 2014 will have a striking impact for decades to come. –Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute

While celebrating New Year’s Eve in 2009, as the clock ticked down to a new decade I felt a tinge of apprehension.  The Copenhagen climate talks had just failed, yet the evidence was mounting that climate change was becoming more and more threatening.  As the clock struck midnight and 2009 turned into 2010, I sensed that this was the critical decade.  The next ten years, from 2010 to 2020, would largely define the state of the world for rest of the century.  Scientists have repeatedly warned that unless we peak total global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, we won't be able to stabilize the climate below 2 degrees C of warming.  Can we peak global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020?  Can we figure out a viable global agreement to collectively act on climate?  Can the US enact meaningful climate policy?  All of these questions loomed large for me in 2009 as I thought about the years ahead.

Four years later on this most recent New Year’s Eve, I held a similar feeling to 2009.  But rather than seeing the next decade as critical, I felt something more immediate: that this was the defining year of the critical decade.  The events of 2014 could largely drive global climate policy for the remainder of the decade, and perhaps even beyond.  As Andrew Steer of the World Resources noted in a recent article on stories to watch for 2014, “All years are important, but decisions made in 2014 will have a striking impact for decades to come.” In this post, I highlight the five most important climate decisions relevant to the United States in this defining year of the critical decade.

1) The strength of EPA carbon standards for the power sector:
For the first time ever, the United States is regulation carbon dioxide pollution from power plants.  With climate policy stalled in Congress, President Obama has directed the EPA to regulate carbon emissions through the Clean Air Act.  The first public draft of the proposed rules will be released on June 1.  If ambitious, the regulations will significantly reduce US carbon emissions and help meet the 17% reduction target Obama set out in Copenhagen.  If weak, the regulations will have little impact on US greenhouse gas emissions.

The graph below shows the stark choice available for the US.  Without strong policy, greenhouse gas emissions will rise (blue area).  With ambitious policy, we can achieve greater emission reductions than pledged at COP15 (green area) and create momentum for continued future reductions.  The strength of the EPA carbon regulations for power plants will be the key determinant what actually happens.

2) The final decision on the KeystoneXL pipeline:
While the EPA regulations are the major policy test for Obama’s stated commitment to “Act On Climate,” the KeystoneXL pipeline is by far his most important symbolic test.  With all of the organizing effort over the last few years on #NoKXL, Obama’s entire Climate Legacy (at least from the Climate Movement) will likely come down to this decision.  And with the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement by the State Department on Friday, the time is short before a final decision.  We should expect a decision to happen before the end of the summer.  It's now up to Obama: will he become the "Pipeline President" or a true "Climate Champion?"

3) The march at the Ban Ki-Moon Climate Summit:
On September 23, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon will convene a Climate Summit of heads of state to increase momentum for an ambitious global climate treaty in 2015.  The last time world leaders gathered solely to discuss climate change was in 2009 at Copenhagen in the disastrous finale of the UN climate treaty negotiations. Ban Ki-Moon told summit attendees that “I challenge you to bring to the Summit bold pledges... and deliver concrete action that will close the emissions gap and put us on track for an ambitious legal agreement through the UNFCCC process.”  

But ambition is not just being proposed inside the UN halls.  Inspired by the nuclear freeze march of over 1 million people in New York City in 1982, campaigners are already working to mobilize on an unprecedented scale outside of the meeting.  This demonstration will be the biggest climate march in world history.  But it's up to climate movement leaders to find the best way to use the Climate Summit as a transformative moment.

4) How climate change fares in the US Midterm elections:
Since the “Climate Silence” of the 2012 presidential election, climate has started to actually matter in electoral politics.  It certainly helps when billionaires like Tom Steyer are bank-rolling campaigns for pro-climate candidates.  But polling shows that the American electorate is increasingly embracing real policy on climate.  Recent work from Stanford shows that in every single state, a majority of Americans believe that climate change is happening and that governments should limit greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from power plants.  Meanwhile, conservatives and the coal continue to deny climate change and brand proposed carbon regulations as a “War on Coal.” 

Percentage of Americans who believe global warming been happening
Percentage of Americans Who Believe Global Warming Has Been Happening (source:
Given the hyper-polarized and gerrymandered nature of Congressional districts, not much is likely going to change in terms of the make-up of Congress.  However, the political perception of climate could see a shift akin to the shift on gay marriage that occurred last year.  According the Jeff Nesbit of ClimateNexus, by the end of 2014 climate denial will no longer be a tenable political position.  Many politicians will still remain that deny the problem and attempt to block progress, but there will be broad recognition that climate denial can no longer be maintained.  This could have big reverberations in midterm gubernatorial elections in swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which could pave the way for climate to be a key issue in 2016.

5) The US pledge for post-2020 greenhouse gas reductions:
This story will probably get the least traction throughout the year, but potentially the most important climate-policy decision will be how the US State Department crafts its reduction pledge for the 2015 climate treaty.  In Warsaw, countries agreed to submit their nationally-determined greenhouse gas reduction pledges to the UN by early 2015.  The US will likely determine this pledge based on its existing policies (most notably the carbon regulations of existing power plants) and the political calculus of future climate policies (based largely on the results of the 2014 midterm elections).  We won’t know the end results of the US pledge until early 2015.  But whatever the US pledges will impact the ambition brought forward by China, Europe, India, and other major emitters.  And for that reason, the US pledge may be one of the most important decisions in the world.

We don't yet know what Secretary of State John Kerr, Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern, and others at the State Department will include in their post-2020 pledge. But organizing from the climate movement throughout 2014 can create the political space needed to put real ambitious in the pledge that spurs the world to act in 2015 and beyond.

A Moral Response for the Defining Year of 2014: #FastForTheClimate
With all of these huge decisions looming, I want to offer two hopeful initiatives that I hope will help to turn the tide on climate throughout this critical year.  The first campaign, #FastForTheClimate, was started by Filipino UN climate negotiator Yeb Sano at COP19 this past November.  Every first day of the month, tens of thousands (and probably a lot more) fast in order to demonstrate the moral urgency of climate change.  I spent yesterday fasting, and intend to fast every first of the month for the entire year.

I realize that fasting by itself will not lead to any political change, but I believe that it provides a great starting point to talk about climate.  More that other tactics, I hope that fasting can highlight the moral injustice that those most impacted impacted (the poor in the least industrialized countries) have also contributed the least to the problem. This is a fast done in a spirit of solidarity, for as Yeb Sano says in this note on the movement, "Fasting for the Climate is Fasting for humanity."  If you are interested in joining this monthly fast, find more information here from the Lutheran World Federation, one of many partner organizations  in the movement.

Yeb Sano and young protesters fasting for the climate at COP19 in November.
Launching a New Initiative for a Year of Action: Climate Action Lab
The second initiative I want to share is "Climate Action Lab," a new program I am working full-time to create that will incubate youth-driven campaigns to push for ambitious domestic action on climate change. It will take groups of 8 to 10 committed young activists, put them together in a house (with expenses covered!) for three months, and help them run campaigns pushing for tangible policy change on climate. Climate Action Lab will be inaugurated with one house this spring, followed by a national expansion this summer.

A couple SustainUS friends and I started Climate Action Lab because we believe that empowering young people to lead is one of the best ways to push for deep emission cuts in the US. Climate Action Lab fellows will fight for aggressive carbon pollution standards at the national and state levels, since both the President and governors will be essential to bring about strong climate policy. If we're successful, we’ll slash US emissions and build the political will needed for ambitious global action on climate. As this blogpost shows, we have less than a year to change the course of history. So we're planning to make the most of it, and have the time of our lives while doing it.

The Avaaz 2009 action factory.
Photo of the 2009 Avaaz  Climate Action Factory, an inspiration for Climate Action Lab.
2014 will be an incredibly exciting year for action on climate.  I'm incredibly grateful to be part of this fight, and I invite you to join by supporting #FastForTheClimate, Climate Action Lab, or any of the other numerous campaigns pushing for climate justice throughout this defining year.

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