2014 Climate Change Crystal Ball: Upcoming Stories to Keep an Eye On

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Don’t let likely reports of inaction on Capitol Hill on climate issues fool or distract you: The coming year holds promise for a wide range of significant developments on climate change.

Reporter Bryan Walsh of Time magazine on December 12 engaged in a little climate science 101 for the benefit of readers. Yes, November was cold in many places across the U.S., he wrote. And yes, the climate globally is still warming.

Five days later, The Atlantic published a similar story with the title: “November Was the Warmest November Since We Started Keeping Track: It’s amazing what we can do when everybody works together.”

As coming cold temperatures are accompanied by reminders that global warming is alive and well, journalists, scientists, policymakers, and others are gearing up for another year of climate change developments. Here are a few things to keep an eye on in 2014:

International Climate Change Developments

Making news in 2014 will be the continued releases of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Reports, following September’s publication of the Working Group I report, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. The Working Group II report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability is due to be released in late March, followed by the Working Group III report in April on mitigation, and finally the Synthesis report in late October.

Moon
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report’s (AR5) outcomes will synthesize the climate impacts and drive home the reality of climate change and its impacts upon national interests,” said an article this month in Commodities Now.

The reports are sure to help set the stage for a one-day “solutions” summit on climate change scheduled for September 23, 2014 called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In LinkedIn’s “Big Idea 2014” series, he wrote on December 10:

In 2014, we must turn the greatest collective challenge facing humankind today — climate change — into the greatest opportunity for common progress towards a sustainable future. … Next year is the year for climate action. … Countries have agreed to finalize an ambitious global legal agreement on climate change by 2015. But there is a steep climb ahead and 2014 is a pivotal year for generating the action and momentum that will propel us forward.

The September summit, he wrote, is “meant to be a solutions summit, not a negotiating summit. I have invited all Heads of State and Government, along with leaders from business and finance, local government and civil society. I am asking all who come to bring bold and new announcements and action. I am asking them to bring their big ideas.”

More on Ban Ki-moon’s call for a summit can be found here.

The Secretary General’s summit will precede next year’s United Nations climate change meeting in Lima, Peru and the drive toward a new international agreement in Paris in 2015.

Ban Ki-moon may have at least some reason for optimism. In a separate “Big Idea 2014″ essay, Michael Andrew, global chairman and CEO of KPMG, December 11 wrote that climate change will be back on the agenda for many nations as the world economy continues to improve.

During the global economic downturn of recent years, “governments became less concerned about CO2 emissions and more worried about unemployment and interest rates,” Andrew wrote. “But in the last few years huge investments have been made in green energy across Europe, (and) solar power and technologies are now one of China’s most famous export. … In 2014 I think it will be right back at the top of business and government’s agendas, where it should be.”

The View from The Nation’s Capital…and Capitol

As partisan fights continue to dominate Washington in a mid-term election year, any action on climate change will come directly from Obama Administration regulatory initiatives, and not from legislation.

In a December 12 story on the Vermont Law School’s annual environmental Watch List, The Hill summarized the big stories to watch. Among them:

  • The President’s decision on whether to allow completion of the Keystone XL pipeline (On December 16, Politico reported that “a contractor who worked on the State Department’s environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline is a member of several industry groups that have urged the government to support the project.”
  • Debates over fracking regulations;
  • Draft EPA rules limiting pollution from new and existing power plants; and
  • EPA efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources.
EPA
EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., where climate rule-making on existing coal-fired power plants will be a focus in 2014. Credit: Flickr user c_nilsen.

A review of federal agency rules expected in 2014 was released by the White House in late November and reported on by E&E Publishing. High-profile regulations tightening CO2 emissions from both new and existing power plants and regulations for ozone pollution and lowering levels of sulfur in gasoline are reviewed in the article.

At the Supreme Court, meanwhile, the justices will be hearing oral arguments on EPA rules on interstate air pollution — a tool the Obama Administration has tried to implement under the federal Clean Air Act to protect downwind states primarily from coal-fired power plants. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the EPA had exceeded its authority, and the Supreme Court has decided to review the issue.

More on the EPA actions related to interstate pollution can be found here.

One big federal study reporters and others will be looking out for is the upcoming National Climate Assessment, an updated review of how climate change is expected to impact the United States. The Yale Forum reviewed the first draft of this report earlier this year, and a final draft is due in 2014.

Release of the final draft has been delayed somewhat as a result of the government shutdown earlier this fall. It’s now expected to be released in April, rather than in March, meaning it’s likely to have to compete for the shrinking front-page “news hole” with IPCC report releases due out around that same time.

Trends in Fossil Fuels

Domestic oil production is expected to soar in 2014 and beyond — reaching levels by 2016 not seen in half a century, The New York Times reported on December 17.

On December 16, The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’ suggestion that the U.S. may need to reconsider its 40-year ban on most oil exports may open the door for the U.S. to become an exporter of crude.

The future of coal production, meanwhile, may be less bullish, several recent reports have suggest:

  • Reuters reported on the International Energy Agency’s annual report on the coal industry, writing: “Coal is playing the most important role in meeting escalating electricity demand in the fast-industrializing economies of China, India, and across southeast Asia. But in its current form coal is ‘simply unsustainable,’ according to the IEA. Coal power stations are responsible for around 60 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions since 2000. The IEA does not mince its words: ‘When it comes to a sustainable energy profile, we are simply off track — and coal in its current form is the prime culprit.’”
  • The Guardian on December 16 reported that “a string of projects to create some of the world’s largest coal mines in Australia risks becoming financially unviable due to falling demand from China, a new report by the University of Oxford has warned.” Coal projects could be derailed by several developments in China, including environmental regulation, carbon pricing, investment in renewable energy, and moves toward further improving energy efficiency.
  • In the U.S., The Daily Climate (TDC) recently ran an interesting profile of coal production in eastern Wyoming and southern Montana. A related TDC story covers coal in the context of other fossil fuel production in the West.

In California, investor and climate activist Tom Steyer appealed to voters in a December 15 letter in the San Francisco Chronicle to pressure Sacramento to stop tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry. The state assesses only a 14-cent fee per barrel of oil, “an amount referred to as a ‘free ride’ by experts,” Steyer wrote. Even after property, income, and corporate taxes are accounted for, the state’s charges amount to $4.22 per barrel — compared with $14.40 per barrel in Texas, Steyer wrote. Those cost differences are seen as major reasons California now has become the fourth largest oil producer in the nation, behind Alaska, Texas, and North Dakota.

Steyer wrote that his political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, will be launching a policy and public awareness campaign to “shine a very bright spotlight on an indefensible corporate tax giveaway that is costing California and its future.”

Wind Energy Future Uncertain

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Source: energyquest.ca.gov.

As fossil fuel production booms, alternative energy development continues to struggle. A story on December 17 by Inter Press Service pointed to uncertainties in the U.S. wind industry as an important government subsidy expires at the end of the month with “no clear plan for lawmakers to work towards an extension.

“Because of the way the subsidy, known as the wind production tax credit (PTC), was extended in January this year, the industry has an extra cushion of time before the effects of the expiration would be felt directly,” IPS reported. “While this has muted some of the urgency around the issue, trade groups say inaction by Congress will become increasingly problematic during the coming year and are urging lawmakers to put in place policies that will offer longer-term stability.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times on December 16 pointed to an ongoing controversy over wind power involving environmental groups concerned over the impacts of wind farms on wildlife – in particular bald and golden eagles.

Other Topics to Follow in the Year Ahead

As the climate change calendar moves ahead into 2014, other subjects also are likely to warrant some attention. Check out these stories:

Water Issues

Study: Climate Change Could Put Millions More at Risk of Water Scarcity:
Changes in rainfall and evaporation will put pressure on water resources.
US New & World Report, December 16

California’s Santa Ana River Watershed faces severe climate challenges.
E&E Publishing, December 16

Parched Jordan Faces Water Crisis as Syrian Refugees Flood In.
Reuters, December 16

Media Trends

Why Did Reddit Ban Climate Change Deniers From Commenting In Their Science Forums?
International Business Times, December 16

Heat Waves

Heat Waves in Eastern US Will Become Deadlier, Study Says.
Environmental Health News, November 8

Appeals for Climate Action

Opinion: The Climate Change Era is Already Upon Us.
The Daily Climate, December 18

… and finally, if you’re interested in brushing up on the basics of climate change, check out this new course on climate change being offered by University of California San Diego scientists beginning in January. The online course is free. “Climate Change in Four Dimensions: Scientific, Policy, International and Social” is one of the first massive open online courses (MOOC) being offered as a non-credit course by U.C. San Diego. The course is to feature lectures by professors Charles Kennel, Naomi Oreskes, Richard Somerville, David Victor, and Veerabhadran Ramanathan.

 

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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