The last few weeks have brought a bundle of good news for the climate. No, scientists have not revised their view that the globe is dangerously warming (globally, 2013 was the fourth hottest year on record). Nor have they discovered that the problem isn’t caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. Instead, scientists, politicians and an unlikely business are taking significant actions to change the nation’s fossil fuel ways.
First, the science. Last Tuesday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest nongovernmental scientific body, issued its own climate report, “What We Know” (http://whatweknow.aaas.org). It summarizes the “three R’s” of climate change: reality — what climate scientists are saying; risk — life on our planet, including human life, is gravely threatened, with effects underway faster than previously thought; response — immediate policy and technology solutions.
Response is underway. Two weeks ago, 31 Democratic senators held a rare all-night session to focus their colleagues — and the rest of us — on the seriousness of climate change. Minnesotans should be proud that both of our senators, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, were among the early supporters of that effort.
The White House is on the offense as well. Through his six years in office, President Obama has assembled an impressive regulatory framework constraining future growth of fossil fuels — increased car and truck mileage standards, and research and development into new energy sources, including coal-fired power plants that capture and sequester waste carbon dioxide underground. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, empowered by the Supreme Court to regulate carbon dioxide, continues to tighten regulations for new and old coal plants, and will soon issue needed standards to stop leaks of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — from natural gas extraction. On March 19, the administration unveiled Climate.Data.gov, a promising tool for communities to map climate risks, beginning with coastal flooding as sea levels rise.
Finally, on March 20, under pressure from shareholders, Exxon Mobil, the nation’s largest oil company, agreed for the first time to assess its “carbon risk” should carbon regulations begin to strand its fossil fuel assets. It’s about time. The United Nations concluded last September that much of the world’s remaining fossil fuels must stay in the ground to avoid extremes of sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts and other dangerously unpredictable effects of climate change. The International Energy Agency was even clearer: “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2C goal, unless carbon capture and storage technology is widely deployed.”
Some Republicans complain that the administration and the Democrats are pursuing a “war on coal.” Some even accuse the scientific community of complicity. No, they are fighting a war against the awful effects of climate change. As the latest report reminds us, it’s time to respond.
James P. Lenfestey is a former Star Tribune editorial writer.