All posts by Mike Sandler

The Forks in the Road after the Paris Agreement

Without a doubt, the Paris Agreement is historic. It provides some much-needed relief to the UN process and the leaders of the world who suffered a major setback after the Copenhagen breakdown in 2009. It lets a term-limited President of the United States claim to have set laudably ambitious goals, and it lets him enjoy his retirement, sipping margaritas on a beach somewhere while others try to implement actual actions to meet the goals. It gives the protesters something to support (the 1.5 degree goal), and it gives the business community quite a bit of wiggle room (for example, nobody is in charge of enforcement, and there are no consequences for missing targets). The fossil fuel lobby seemed to have the least to show for itself. It looks like it will be out of business sometime in the second half of the 21st century. And in the meantime, oil prices are very low, and (at least in the U.S.) coal companies are feeling the pinch.

Many of the big environmental NGO’s have issued statements of general support for the Agreement. In some cases this is meant to influence low-information readers and isolate opponents of climate action, something along the lines of, “Look, the whole world has come together, is taking the issue seriously, and is on record to phase out fossil fuels in a few decades.” Other environmentalists have been somewhat ambivalent because the only thing missing from the Agreement is who, what, and how. Like a zen koan, the Agreement is a riddle that just leads to more questions. The signatories recognize that 1.5 degrees Celsius is a better target than 2 degrees, but they are currently at 3.7 degrees, so the rest of us reading the Agreement are meant to take the good feelings at face value and cheer them on: “Sure! Let’s all be ambitious! Why not?”

Even so, cynicism is not a viable path forward. Tackling this problem will take centuries of effort, so for the countries of the world to unite behind a vision of 100% renewable energy and complete phase out of fossil fuels within just a few decades is actually pretty inspiring. On the other hand, inspiration alone will not reduce emissions. It will take real action. In this regard, there are a few paths we can choose:

Business as usual: This is the preferred mode for many fossil fuel companies and the Republican party and its funders, with the exception of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Congressman Bob Ingliss, and perhaps a few others who are in conversation behind the scenes with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. The INDCs presented in Paris are predicted to lead to warming of 3.7°C by 2100. CSE India’s review of the US’s INDC blasts through the win-win rhetoric and lays bare some inconvenient truths. The possibility that this pathway will prevail counteracts all the feel good emotions around the Paris Agreement.

Business as usual cloaked in green: This mode was promoted at various expos and side events in Paris including Solutions 21 (which was derided by activists as “False Solutions 21”). The French utility EDF promoted nuclear power as low-carbon, and numerous banks signed on to future commitments to fund renewables, while their current balance sheets overflowed with fossil fuel companies. Proponents of this view might respond to a protester, “Divestment, sure…some day. We’ll let you know when it works for us.” If you squint one eye tight enough, you might be able to see a slight transition occurring, but it seems unlikely to result in an economic transformation that addresses global poverty, clean development, inequality, decoupling of emissions and economy, and degrowth in the developed world.

Technological wishful thinking: One might think this is just an add-on to the above category, except that in this case the messengers at COP21 were several big NGO groups, even including Greenpeace (!). Here’s how the presentation played out: “We’d prefer a carbon price, but unfortunately it is politically infeasible. But not to worry, renewables are falling in price so rapidly that we don’t even need a carbon price! A little divestment here, a little investment there, maybe a little bit stronger INDC in 2020, and viola: 100% clean energy!” Once again, if you squint one eye tight enough, it is appealing, politically feasible, and being promoted by well-known groups. “Let’s let the titans of industry and the tech geniuses of Silicon Valley take us where we want to go! Tomorrowland, here we come!” So much optimism made me feel like a Debbie Downer.

A rising carbon price under a declining global carbon budget:
As Christina Figueres of the UNFCCC stated ahead of the talks, a carbon price was not really on the table for the Paris Agreement. Neither were the words “global carbon budget.” Ms. Figueres and others would say that could come later, starting at the national or subnational level, and later incorporated into future INDC’s. But rather than waiting around another 10 years, a delegation from the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA) attended COP-21 and presented CapGlobalCarbon, a proposed citizen’s movement to demand the creation of a Global Climate Commons Trust to set a global carbon cap, auction production permits to upstream fossil fuel companies and returns the revenues to people. This was presented at a side event in the Blue Zone at COP-21. Similar concepts were noted at other climate justice-oriented side events, including: The Carbon Levy Project, the Civil Society Equity Review,, remarks by former NASA scientist James Hansen (though he would say he supports a price but not a cap), the Zero Carbon Zero Poverty project, and by numerous Global South advocates. To the extent that the Paris Agreement empowers NGO’s, activists, and others to investigate this pathway, then COP-21 can be considered a success. To the extent that the Agreement promotes the other approaches or provides cover for business as usual, well, let’s take to the streets!

Two final notes. The first goes back to an early mantra of the Center for Climate Protection that was borrowed from ICLEI: “Local Action Moves the World.” Cities and regions were well-represented at the COP, and in many cases had the best stories to tell of actual implementation of the transition off fossil fuel-dependent economics. California was well-represented, and Sonoma Clean Power’s story was told at several events featuring Community Choice Aggregation. But attending COP-21 was a high emissions, high effort endeavor. For example, it may have cost attendees 200 dollars or more per day to participate, which excludes the world’s populations that exist on a dollar or two a day. This trip reinforced the idea that in general, it is more cost-effective, and in many cases more rewarding, to “Think globally, Act locally.”

Second, it is important to mention the shadow cast over Paris from the terrorist attacks that occurred a few weeks prior to COP-21. Following the attacks, France more or less banned civil society, cancelled the climate protests, and invoked emergency powers that subjected citizens to something like a police state. During the COP, France’s National Front, an anti-immigrant political party, won several regional elections. Concurrently, here in the U.S., Republican Presidential Candidate (and front runner) Donald Trump took the opportunity to propose banning Muslims from entering the country. And this is in a world with less than a degree of greenhouse warming.

Climate change is a huge injustice waiting in the wings. It has the potential to cause suffering on the poorest people, with scientific proof pointing back to the tailpipes of the wealthiest 1%. The implications for a future cycle of terror and right-wing reactionary backlash are obvious. It is yet another scary fork in the road. Let’s hope the Paris Agreement points us toward a peaceful, just, and climate-protected world, and let’s work together to make that happen.

Cross-posted on the Center for Climate Protection website.

Featured image: Decision. Source:

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The Paris Agenda: Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground, Auction Permits, Protect People

Climate campaigners have adopted a slogan for the lead up to the international climate change conference (COP-21) in Paris this December: “Leave it in the ground.” The UN’s climate chief Christiana Figueres told the fossil fuel industry, “Three-quarters of the fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.” The slogan illustrates how the discourse is moving “upstream,” from controlling emissions at the smoke stack or tailpipe to limiting the production of fossil fuels at the coal mine or oil well.

Three years ago Bill McKibben laid out the “terrifying math” behind the “excess fossil fuels,” which if unearthed, would push the planet past the safe carbon budget as calculated by scientists. It starts with two degrees Celsius, the maximum level of acceptable temperature change that the world’s nations agreed to above pre-industrial levels. From there, estimates of the world’s remaining carbon budget vary depending on the level of acceptable risk. On the low end is McKibben’s relatively risk-averse estimate of 565 gigatonnes (GT) CO2. A 2013 report from Carbon Tracker put the number at 975 GT for an 80% probability of remaining below 2 degrees C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s proposed a budget of 1000 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2 starting from 2011 that would give the planet a 66% chance of avoiding 2 °C warming. But Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research notes that between 2011 and 2014 CO2 emissions from energy production amounted to about 140 GT of CO2, and when he subtracts emissions from deforestation and cement production through the year 2100 (60 Gt and 150 GT), then at the current global rate of 35 GT per year, the remaining 650 GT would be used up in just 19 years! This puts the climate talks in Paris in perspective. There is no time for low initial national “contributions” with “ratcheting up ambition” after 5 or 10 year review periods. The entire carbon budget will be gone by 2034!

The countries of the world have agreed to 2 degrees C, but they have yet to agree on an approach to leaving the excess fossil fuels in the ground. The most obvious approach is to simply announce a ban on fossil fuel production starting in 2034, and let that market signal filter through the economy over the next few years. The fossil fuels divestment campaign is aligned with this approach, since the investors are basically saying they are moving their money into other industries that will be around for more than 19 years into the future.

Less heavy-handed than an outright ban would be a steadily rising carbon price. The case can be made to countries, industries, and companies that this would help them do a “managed retreat” instead of waiting around for the market to crash. A carbon price could be implemented through either a tax or a permit system. Economists see it as a matter of regulating price or quantity and letting the other fluctuate. Advocates of the fee and dividend model rightly state that the funds raised by a carbon tax can be returned to people as a climate dividend, and recipients of dividend payments could become a constituency for higher and higher carbon prices. Unfortunately, without a production (quantity) limit, the wealthiest companies would be able to afford to continue to pollute, and may simply pass the cost on to their customers. So it is possible that the main result of a tax with no cap may be just raising funds.

If an outright ban is politically unfeasible and the goal is really to leave the fuels in the ground, then the global community must set an internationally agreed-upon limit that countries could sign on to, and to create an institution to regulate the budget under a declining permit system. This is the approach advocated by the group CapGlobalCarbon. The permits would be sold to the upstream fossil fuel companies, and the scarcity rent would be returned to the public as climate dividends. Representatives from CapGlobalCarbon will be attending the climate conference in Paris, and will call for the creation of a Global Climate Commons Trust to set up a science-based permit system that follows the Cap & Share model. Whereas the UNFCCC is comprised of countries, the Trust would represent all of humanity on the basis of “one person, one share.”

The math is clear: there is a fossil fuel bubble. There is more coal and oil in the ground than we can safely burn. In this framing, the Paris climate conference is really an economic conference, perched on the brink of a market crash in the fossil fuel sector. The solution is to leave the fuel in the ground, and set up a price signal to allow a managed retreat from an obsolete industry, and protect the public by sending climate dividends back to households.


Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

Image source: Author:Cordula Braun

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What If Janet Yellen Joined Todd Stern in Paris?

On December 11, the UN Climate Change conference in Paris (called COP-21) will be wrapping up, and the headlines will announce if the negotiators were able to agree to save the Earth or not. Todd Stern, the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, will be leading the U.S. delegation at COP-21. At the photo op at the end of the conference, Secretary of State John Kerry will surely be in the front row. If there is a problem and the conference looks like it might fail, President Obama may fly in at the last minute as he did in 2009 in Copenhagen to try to save the talks. But who else will be part of the delegation, and are they the right people?

COP-21 is not just another regular meeting of diplomats, and climate change is not just another environmental issue. For a real outcome to occur, the delegates need to be talking about a major change to the global economy: a limit on fossil fuel input. It is highly doubtful that a few dozen mid-level staff from the EPA and State Department will be able to talk in terms of “leaving fossil fuels in the ground,” or implementing a global cap on carbon emissions, and returning carbon pricing revenues back to people. Even if they were empowered by Secretary Kerry to do so, would anyone take them seriously, given the current state of Congress? No. The only way to get that type of conversation taken seriously is to add a few key people to Todd Stern’s entourage, starting with Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and President Obama’s Economic Advisers.

Chair Yellen would be a revolutionary addition to the U.S. climate delegation, and would send an immediate message that the U.S. understands the economic implications of serious climate action. Central bankers don’t typically attend environmental conferences. But that’s the point: behind all the green hype, COP-21 is really an economic conference. Yellen’s attendance would highlight the need for the creation of powerful fiscal and monetary instruments to protect the economy and create economic incentives for a low-carbon transition in the new fossil fuel-limited world. Stock markets would immediately begin incorporating fossil fuel limitations into their valuations, and perhaps deflate the “carbon bubble” before it bursts.

Accompanying Yellen could be two of President Obama’s economic team, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Jason Furman, the Chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, to provide additional gravitas from the Executive Branch in economic discussions about a global carbon price that would otherwise be lacking. At the conference Chair Yellen, Secretary Lew, and Chairman Furman could announce new programs run by the Fed and the Treasury for “quantitative easing to the people” along with a plan for “climate dividends” that return revenues from a carbon price back to households. Fed critics would go nuts since Yellen has a nearly unlimited checkbook outside the purview of the climate deniers in Congress. Chair Yellen does not need to wait for an invitation from Todd Stern or the President. She could always buy herself a plane ticket to Paris and would likely garner some press attention for any such announcements she wanted to make there.

President Obama’s best chance to build a lasting legacy will be in Paris. COP-21 provides a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lame-duck President facing a hostile Congress to show courage and leadership on an issue that has implications for decades and even centuries. The consensus document from the UNFCCC will likely contain some nice flowery language, but it will not come close to what the science requires. But there is still time to salvage the process, by bringing a few key people into the U.S. delegation, and supporting a global cap on emissions with revenues returned back to people.

Cross-posted in the Huffington Post.

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Environmental NGOs: Be More Specific for Paris

For environmental groups, the biggest event of the decade will be the international climate change negotiations in Paris in December called COP-21. Enviro groups have been sending out emails, asking their members to sign petitions, and tweeting up a storm (pardon the pun): #ActinParis , #RoadthroughParis, #PathwaytoParis , and so many more. The world will be watching to see if countries reach an agreement or fail again as they did in Copenhagen six years ago.

Many observers have low expectations , given that the UN requires unanimity from nation-states, fossil fuel interests have political control in so many nations, and the convention itself seems to have given up on an international treaty and is focusing instead on adding up nationally adopted actions. Each nation’s “intended” action plan or “INDC” reflects its leaders’ views on what is politically feasible, but not what is scientifically required. In many cases the actions are voluntary and would be implemented by future administrations, so there is no assurance the pledges will be fulfilled.

Much of the outreach by major NGOs working on climate in the run up to Paris has been vague calling for “strong climate action” or general sets of principles. Perhaps they are saving their political capital for a later date, but there may not be a later date. Or it could be the “big tent” strategy: stay vague until you have millions of people inside “the tent,” then announce your solution. But as Laurence Mathews wrote : The current groundswell of people, from pop stars to the Pope, calling for ‘strong climate action’ is a hopeful sign. But they need to adopt a specific tool – such as Cap & Share – to champion, before their voices become really effective.” For Paris to be successful, the NGOs must start lining up behind an actual proposal that can implement those general principles.

Leaving it in the ground is great, and 350 parts per million CO2 is fine, but how do we get there? Even calling for 1.5 degrees instead of 2 degrees still begs the question: how do we get there? Shorter showers and Priuses? No. It is time for NGOs to be explicit about the solution: a carbon cap returning funds to people.

The big NGOs already know about a carbon cap. They have been promoting it for years, but usually in combination with a trading concept that confuses people and implies big business making a lot of money at their expense. An upstream limit on production by the biggest coal, oil and gas producers could generate a carbon price without any trading at all. The worry is (and attacks from opponents will emphasize) that a carbon price could endanger economic security of families. A carbon cap by itself could mean reducing the amount of economic activity, probably causing a recession and throwing millions out of work. This is where returning revenues back to people (the dividend) comes in. The revenues raised by the carbon price are returned back to people, preserving purchasing power as the cap restricts fossil fuel use. The dividend alone may not be enough to support the whole economy, but it could serve to jumpstart additional policies such as a basic income , supplemented by quantitative easing for the people , local/energy-backed currencies and other social supports. This allows fossil fuel use to go down without crashing the economy. Such an approach can also build alliances with social and economic justice groups as it captures the value created by the scarcity and returns it to the people on an equitable basis, thus alleviating global poverty .

NGOs in the run up to Paris can help educate the public about the terminology involved in the proposal. CapGlobalCarbon is the campaign for an international citizen’s movement to demand the creation of a Global Climate Trust. A Global Climate Trust is the entity that sets the cap and handles the transfer of funds from the fossil fuel companies to people using the Cap & Share (or Cap & Dividend) approach described above.

Dear NGOs going to Paris: It is time to be more specific in your demands. The People’s Test on Climate is a start, but let’s get even more specific (and by the way, CapGlobalCarbon satisfies the People’s Test on Climate). CapGlobalCarbon meets the goals of climate justice. It is simple enough to fit a slogan such as, “Cap global carbon, price it, then return the revenues to people” (over time, branding experts can improve on this). Regardless of what happens with the UNFCCC in Paris, a real solution in the form of a citizens’ movement calling for a new organization to set ecological limits required by the climate science is needed. If the NGO community can unify its cacophony of demands, a major outcome from Paris may be a citizen’s movement calling for a Global Climate Trust that will keep the fossil fuels in the ground and give humanity a chance to stabilize the climate.

Cross-posted in the Huffington Post.

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