Tag: Paris Climate Agreement

Tribes Commit To Uphold Paris Climate Agreement

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community started planning for climate change a decade ago. Located on the southeastern peninsula of Fidalgo Island on Puget Sound in Washington, the reservation is surrounded by water and at high risk for sea-level rise. A destructive 100-year storm event in 2006 led tribal leaders to research and fund climate programs, and the Swinomish became the first tribal nation to adopt a climate adaptation plan.

So when President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations’ Paris climate agreement, the Swinomish reacted swiftly and, together with other tribes, publicly committed to uphold the accord in the West, where many tribal communities and reservations are on the frontlines of climate change, tribal leaders are determined to move forward on climate action as sovereign nations despite budget cuts, climate denial, and inaction. “We came together with one another to raise the level of environmental awareness,” said Debra Lekanoff, governmental affairs director for the Swinomish. “We can’t just pick up and move the places where we live.”

Though Indigenous communities have a small carbon footprint, they are often the most severely impacted by climate change. There are 567 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. — 40 percent of them in Alaska — and climate change threatens many of them. In California and the Pacific Northwest, tribal nations are at increased risk of sea-level rise. Coastal communities like the Quinault Indian Nation in western Washington and at least 31 Alaska Native villages, including the Shishmaref village near the Bering Strait, face the danger of coastal erosion. Already, several have been forced to relocate.

Around the Southwest, heat and drought are baking streams and shifting sand dunes, leaving the Navajo Nation and other tribes and pueblos with fewer resources, while wildfires endanger tribal nations from eastern California to the Rocky Mountains. Primary food sources, like salmon and other endangered fish, are dying from acidifying and warming oceans.

On June 3, just two days after Trump made his announcement on the Paris Agreement, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska in committing to support the agreement. The National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund did so as well.

Their decision to publicly announce their support is more than symbolic, experts and leaders say: It tells the United Nations that tribal nations are climate leaders and intend to remain part of the global conversation about climate change.

“Tribes have already taken a lot of leadership in planning for the negative impacts of climate change,” said Kyle Powys Whyte, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and professor of philosophy and Indigenous studies at Michigan State University. “It’s really important that some tribes begin to take the lead on what it means to have the biggest possible energy-saving impact in the area they live, and to exercise self-governance.”

Though tribes and states are sovereign entities within the U.S., they are not allowed to enter treaties or negotiate with foreign nations. Under United Nations policy, Indigenous people are treated as self-determining when it comes to cultural issues, but lack the political self-determination of member nations.

The 2008 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples allows tribal communities to participate in U.N. matters. Signing an agreement like the 2015 Paris climate accord, however, would require changing policies at the U.N. and in the U.S. Tribal leaders say it’s possible. “Just to have them recognize us was a step in the right direction,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

But changing the law is an arduous process, so tribes in the U.S. are taking a short cut: working more closely with Indigenous populations from around the world through programs like the United League of Indigenous Nations, which has its own climate program, or the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change.

“Tribes are really trying to get out there and represent themselves, and become stronger partners in agreements where U.S. representation isn’t necessarily good for them, like the Paris Agreement,” Whyte said. According to Whyte’s research, more than 50 U.S. tribes have engaged in formal climate change planning, and many have had climate adaptation plans approved by their councils.

In addition to assessing larger climate goals, tribes are working on the ground to address the impacts. The Swinomish have partnered with the Skagit Climate Consortium to protect the region’s salmon from pollution and warming waters. In Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes are monitoring ocean acidification levels and harmful algae blooms while adapting buildings and infrastructure to cope with rising sea levels along rivers and the coasts.

Since 2008, the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico has been working on small and utility-scale solar projects, as well as biomass and geothermal energy projects. Last September, the Samish Indian Nation in Washington landed a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for climate adaptation planning and education. But funding is increasingly uncertain: Another Department of Energy grant that arrived this summer was five months later than expected.

“What happens in the future is anyone’s guess at this point,” said Todd Woodard, director of natural resources for the Samish. “Tribal country funding has never been so murky as it is now.”

Trump’s federal budget proposal would cut tribal climate resilience award money by $9.9 million, and in June, the Bureau of Indian Affairs scrubbed all references to “climate change” from the agency’s website about the Tribal Climate Resilience Program. Whyte noted that many tribes may not be able to start renewable energy projects alone; usually, an investment from the federal government is needed.

“It behooves tribes to find ways for their climate change plans to be part of discussion,” Whyte said. “By publicizing them as much as they can and getting interactions with as many parties as possible, we can see if that begins to build traction, so parties at the U.N. begin to see them as what they are: sovereign entities that should be able to self-determine.”

How Much Can This Planet Stand?

President Trump’s environmental onslaught will have immediate, dangerous effects. He has vowed to reopen coal mines and moved to keep the dirtiest power plants open for many years into the future. Dirty air, the kind you get around coal-fired power plants, kills people.

It’s much the same as his policies on health care or refugees: Real people (the poorest and most vulnerable people) will be hurt in real time. That’s why the resistance has been so fierce.

But there’s an extra dimension to the environmental damage. What Mr. Trump is trying to do to the planet’s climate will play out over geologic time as well. In fact, it’s time itself that he’s stealing from us.

What I mean is, we have only a short window to deal with the climate crisis or else we forever lose the chance to thwart truly catastrophic heating.

In Paris in 2015, the world’s nations pledged to do all they could to hold the rise of the planet’s temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). It was a good idea since, though we’re still half a degree short of that number, we’re already seeing disastrous ice melt at the poles, the loss of coral reefs and the inexorable rise of the oceans. But at current rates of burning coal, gas and oil, we could put enough carbon in the atmosphere in the next four years to eventually push us past that temperature limit.

The planet’s hope, coming out of those Paris talks, was that we’d see such growth in renewable energy that we’d begin to close the gap between what physics demands and what our political systems have so far allowed in terms of action.

But everything Mr. Trump is doing should slow that momentum. He’s trying to give gas-guzzlers new life and slashing the money to help poor nations move toward clean energy; he and his advisers are even talking about pulling out of the Paris accords. He won’t be able to stop solar and wind power in their tracks, but his policies will slow the pace at which they would otherwise grow. Other presidents and other nations will have spewed more carbon into the atmosphere, but none will have insured, at such a critical moment, that carbon’s reign is extended.

The effects will be felt not immediately but over decades and centuries and millenniums. More ice will melt, and that will cut the planet’s reflectivity, amplifying the warming; more permafrost will thaw, and that will push more methane into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The species that go extinct as a result of the warming won’t mostly die in the next four years, but they will die. The nations that will be submerged won’t sink beneath the waves on his watch, but they will sink. No president will be able to claw back this time — crucial time, since we’re right now breaking the back of the climate system.

We can hope other world leaders will pick up some of the slack. And we can protest. But even when we vote him out of office, Trumpism will persist, a dark stratum in the planet’s geological history. In some awful sense, his term could last forever.

New Politics For Clean Energy

The diplomats have done their job, concluding the Paris climate agreement in December. And political leaders gathered… at the United Nations to sign the new accord. But implementation is surely the tough part. Governments need a new approach to an issue that is highly complex, long term, and global in scale.

At its core, the climate challenge is an energy challenge. About 80% of the world’s primary energy comes from carbon-based sources: coal, oil, and gas. When burned, they emit the carbon dioxide that causes global warming. By 2070, we need a world economy that is nearly 100% carbon-free to prevent global warming from running dangerously out of control.

The Paris agreement recognizes these basic facts. It calls on the world to cut greenhouse-gas emissions (especially CO2) to net-zero levels in the second half of the century. To this end, governments are to prepare plans not only to the year 2030 (the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs), but also to mid-century (the so-called Low-Emission Development Strategies, or LEDS).

The world’s governments have never before attempted to remake a core sector of the world economy on a global scale with such an aggressive timeline. The fossil-fuel energy system was created step by step over two centuries. Now it must be comprehensively overhauled in just 50 years, and not in a few countries, but everywhere. Governments will need new approaches to develop and implement their LEDS.

There are four reasons why politics as usual will not be sufficient. First, the energy system is just that: a system of many interconnected parts and technologies. Power plants, pipelines, ocean transport, transmission lines, dams, land use, rail, highways, buildings, vehicles, appliances, and much more must all fit together into a working whole.

Such a system cannot be overhauled through small incremental steps. A deep overhaul requires system-wide re-engineering to ensure that all parts continue to work effectively together.

Second, there are still many large technological uncertainties in moving to a low-carbon energy system. Should vehicles be decarbonized through battery-electric power, hydrogen fuel cells, or advanced biofuels? Can coal-fired power plants be made safe through carbon capture and storage (CCS)? Will nuclear energy be politically acceptable, safe, and low cost? We must plan investments in research and development to resolve these uncertainties and improve our technological options.

Third, sensible solutions require international energy cooperation. One key fact about low-carbon energy (just like fossil fuels) is that it is not generally located where it will ultimately be used. Just as coal, oil, and gas must be transported long distances, so wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower must be moved long distances through transmission lines and through synthetic liquid fuels made with wind and solar power.

Fourth, there are of course powerful vested interests in the fossil-fuel industry that are resisting change. This is abundantly clear in the US, for example, where the Republican Party denies climate change for the sole reason that it is heavily funded by the US oil industry. This is certainly a species of intellectual corruption, if not political corruption (it’s probably both).

The fact that the energy system involves so many complex interconnections leads to tremendous inertia. Shifting to a low-carbon energy system will therefore require considerable planning, long lead times, dedicated financing, and coordinated action across many parts of the economy, including energy producers, distributors, and residential, commercial, and industrial consumers. Policy measures such as a tax on carbon emissions can help to address some – but only some – challenges of the energy transition.

Here is another problem. If governments plan only 10-15 years ahead, as is typical in energy policy, rather than 30-50 years, they will tend to make poor system-related choices. For example, energy planners will move from coal to lower-carbon natural gas; but they will tend to underinvest in the much more decisive shift to renewable energy.

Similarly, they may opt to raise fuel standards for internal-combustion automobiles rather than to push the needed shift to electric vehicles. In this sense, planning 30-50 years ahead is vital not only to make the correct long-run choices, but also to inform the correct short-term choices. The UN’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project has shown how long-term plans can be designed and evaluated.

None of these challenges sits easily with elected politicians. The decarbonization challenge requires consistent policies over 30-50 years, while politicians’ time horizon is perhaps a tenth of that. Nor are politicians very comfortable with a problem that requires large-scale public and private financing, highly coordinated action across many parts of the economy, and decision-making in the face of ongoing technological uncertainties. Small wonder, then, that most politicians have shied away from this challenge, and that far too little practical progress has been made since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992.

One key step, I believe, is to remove these issues from short-term electoral politics. Countries should consider establishing politically independent energy agencies with high technical expertise. Of course, key energy decisions (such as whether to deploy nuclear energy or to build a new transmission grid) will require deep public participation, but planning and implementation should be free of excessive partisan politics and lobbying. Just as governments have successfully given their central banks some political independence, they should give their energy agencies enough leeway to enable them think and act for the long term.

With the Paris climate agreement now in force, we must move urgently to effective implementation.