Climate Change Ups and Downs in 2009

by Phil Carver

While the outcome of Copenhagen negotiations on limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was disappointing, 2009 saw good progress on restricting emissions.

Hanna McCrea and Doug Kendall note:

“A year ago, Warming Law published a four-part blog series (in entitled President Obama’s Roadmap to Cap-and-Trade, the general thesis of which was that the Obama administration could and should use its authority under the Clean Air Act to introduce greenhouse gas regulations without congressional approval — partly to prod Congress into passing a tailor-made climate bill, but also to serve as a critical regulatory “back-up plan” in the event Congress fails (as it has done so far) to pass legislation. We also argued that action by states could serve a similar dual function of prodding Congress to act and supplying a layer of climate regulation that would limit greenhouse gas emissions until Congress gets its act together.

It is no small feat that many of our recommendations and predictions from the “Roadmap” have been realized: despite other setbacks, the U.S. has now adopted its very first nationwide auto emission standards for greenhouse gases, and is poised to adopt its first set of mandatory, federal power plant regulations specifically targeting greenhouse gases. Ongoing state action has resulted in the country’s first mandatory cap-and-trade scheme for greenhouse gases (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – RGGI – in the Northeast), and a significant revival in tort-based climate litigation may soon lead to yet another source of protection from (and pressure on) firms that emit greenhouse gases.

Coal Plants Get Cold Shoulder

In other good news, the Sierra Club reported that no new coal plants began construction in 2009.  Coal-fired electric generation emitted 33 percent of U.S. CO2 in 2008.  Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions accounted for more than 80 percent of U.S. GHG emissions.

Many utilities have officially abandoned plans for new coal plants.  Portland General Electric announced plans to close the existing Boardman (OR) coal plant in 2020 rather than spend $500 million to retrofit the plant to reduce emissions of sulfur and oxides of nitrogen.

The Copenhagen Agreement

While the final Copenhagen (Climate) Agreement is a disappointment, it is just as well the agreement dropped most of the target numbers.  Still included in the agreement is a limit on the rise in worldwide average temperature of 2 degrees Celsius.  It is better to have only that target because the c latest climate science indicates that the original proposal, of a 50 percent GHG reduction, would not attain the 2 degree C goal.  A reduction of 70 to 85 percent in worldwide GHG emissions by 2050 is likely needed and doable.

Federal Legislation

According to Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post, there is growing doubt that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will propose that Congress strip the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its authority over GHG emissions as an amendment to the Senate’s debt ceiling vote in late January.

Murkowski had originally planned to offer the amendment last September.  It is doubtful she can gather the votes necessary for passage.

While the Republicans and coal state Democrats are unlikely to remove EPA’s GHG authority under the Clean Air Act, Senate Democrats may not have the 60 votes needed to pass an effective climate change bill.  With Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT) resigning, the Senate Democrats seem concerned that taking on climate change may risk their large Senate majority.

Given the experience with the health insurance bill, it seems unlikely some Republicans and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will provide the votes needed to pass an effective climate bill.  That would be disappointing.

However, as long as EPA retains its authority under the Supreme Court decision in Mass, v. EPA (2007), there will be continued pressure on Congress to pass a climate bill.  EPA will continue with its plans to regulate GHG emissions from power plants and major industrial sources.  It has already announced its plan to impose the California GHG standards on new cars.

Climate Science

Joe Romm provides good links to the breaking climate science stories in 2009 at

The most current summary of climate science is at

The report was written by dozens of leading climate scientists.  It notes:

The turning point must come soon: If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2 degree C above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly. To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – needs to be reached well within this century. More specifically, the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80-95% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000.

Note that even a 2 degree C rise would bring devastation to many parts of the world including prolonged droughts in the U.S. Southwest and sea level rise with increased storm surges along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The report also notes:

  • There are several elements in the climate system that could pass a tipping point this century due to human activities, leading to abrupt and/or irreversible change.
  • 1 degree C global warming (above 1980-1999) carries moderately significant risks of passing large-scale tipping points, and 3 degree C global warming would give substantial or severe risks.
  • There are prospects for early warning of approaching tipping points, but if we wait until a transition begins to be observed, in some cases it would be unstoppable
  • Impacts of past climate changes have been severe. The last great Ice Age, when it was globally 4-7  degree C colder than now, completely transformed the Earth’s surface and its ecosystems, and sea level was 120 meters lower. When the Earth last was 2-3 degree C warmer than now, during the Pliocene 3 million years ago, sea level was 25-35 meters higher due to the smaller ice sheets present in the warmer climate.

More Information

For up-to-date reports on many progressive issues, see the Center for American Progress at and the Gristmill at

For justice issues, see the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at

For the issues of peace, national defense and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, see the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) at

For the issues of energy and global warming, see the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) at and the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) at Φ

Phil Carver worked on energy and climate change issues for Oregon’s state government from 1980 until this year. He is a former OPW Board Co-Chair who writes this column exclusively for each issue of The PeaceWorker. He, Carol Reece, a current board member, and Courtney Collins organized a 350 mile walk to focus attention on sea level rise from climate change. See

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