Despite climate change's status as persona non grata during the presidential election, 2012 may well be remembered as the year America began taking the threat seriously.
2012 was the hottest year on record, with extreme drought plaguing much of the country and wildfires burning throughout the West. Up north, Arctic ice melted at a historic rate, while superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast and then rode rising sea levels inland to multiply its devastation.
That's all the warning needed by most Americans and a growing number of politicians. An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted at the end of 2012 found demand for action on climate change to be greater than it had been for years.
But the warnings are growing, too. In November of 2012, the World Bank—hardly a bastion of radical environmental thought—predicted dire consequences if global temperature increase is not capped at 4 degrees Celsius. And famed environmentalist Bill McKibben toured the country, warning against any further delay in making dramatic cuts to carbon emissions.
Amid all this, newly re-elected President Obama re-embraced climate change as an urgent issue, but he suggests a false choice between that priority and economic growth—a caveat that concerns Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen.
"Building a strong economy and fighting climate change are only inconsistent if you perpetuate the mistakes that brought us to this point. And by that I mean an economy built on the same fossil fuels that are causing climate change," Van Noppen says. "You can't fight climate change by investing in its causes."
The only way to achieve both goals is by rebuilding the economy on a plan for a clean energy future, says Van Noppen. It's the goal of Earthjustice's three-pronged approach to tackling climate change that ends our reliance on coal, oil and gas; supports methods that help the environment adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change; and promotes clean energy alternatives such as solar.
The most critical step is stopping the advance of climate change by moving the country away from coal power—the biggest single source of greenhouse gases. Earthjustice's strategy is to force the coal industry to internalize the costs of its pollution—rather than pass them on to the public—so that clean energy sources like wind and solar can compete.
Earthjustice's recent landmark court victory, which put in motion strict new limits on toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants, is an important step forward. These limits force coal-fired power plants to install new pollution control technologies. The upgrades are very expensive and, with demand for coal waning in the United States with the low price of natural gas, the economic incentive to invest in aging coal infrastructure has vanished. As a result, we are winning the argument in utility commissions across the nation that the worst polluters should shut down.
Adding to the momentum, in June 2012, Earthjustice litigators and many allies won a historic court ruling, beating back challenges to EPA actions limiting carbon pollution from cars, trucks, power plants and other pollution sources. The organization also is fighting to stop the construction of coal export facilities on the West Coast, which would send coal overseas to be burned in poorly regulated power plants.
Earthjustice is targeting oil drilling and refining, which generate large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. Courtroom victories in 2012 blocked oil drilling on Colorado's Roan Plateau and spared Utah's Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument from drilling. In addition, Earthjustice attorneys are working at the federal level to force stronger EPA standards that would limit carbon emissions at refineries.
Earthjustice also is striving to reduce black carbon—commonly known as soot—which significantly increases the rate of snow and ice melt in the Arctic and elsewhere. Ocean-going vessels, aircraft and inefficient cook stoves in developing countries produce the vast majority of black carbon. Earthjustice is working with Arctic indigenous peoples and Arctic nations to reduce black carbon emissions in the far north, thus slowing the melt that is the biggest threat to Arctic species such as polar bear and walrus, and contributes to sea level rise around the world.
"Science tells us that we have a limited window of opportunity to reduce emissions of black carbon and other short-lived pollutants to slow the rate of warming and melting from the Arctic to the Andes to the Sierra," says Erika Rosenthal, an attorney in Earthjustice's International Program.
While combatting the causes of climate change is paramount, climate adaptation—creating conditions where ecosystems are better prepared to weather the challenges of climate change—is also critical. Following superstorm Sandy, the country's leaders began to discuss in earnest how to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Earthjustice work in New England, Florida and on the West Coast aims at building more resilient fisheries and protecting forage fish that feed larger ocean species. The strategy is to ensure that marine ecosystems are healthy enough to survive increasing temperatures and ocean acidification.
On land, Earthjustice attorneys are in court defending keystone species in the northern Rockies such as grizzly bears and gray wolves. By keeping deer and elk populations at natural levels, these apex predators help ensure healthy and resilient ecosystems, allowing indigenous plants and wildlife to thrive despite climate change. In the Sierra, Earthjustice is advocating for wildlife corridors between national parks to provide migration routes for species such as the heat-sensitive pika to access habitats with lower temperatures.
While limiting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and building resilient ecosystems are important steps, investing in clean energy is Earthjustice's prescription for simultaneously growing the American economy while stopping the advance of climate change.
The energy grid of tomorrow must rely primarily on renewables with fossil fuels serving only to fill in gaps. To facilitate this transition, Earthjustice is involved in cases around the country where decisions are being made that will dictate the design of America's energy future.
In Hawaiʻi, attorney Isaac Moriwake recently won a nationally significant settlement removing barriers to the localized production of clean energy, allowing homeowners and small businesses to install rooftop solar systems and feed the electricity into the local grid.
And in California, attorney Will Rostov successfully strengthened a key energy policy that sets state priorities for power generation. Under this groundbreaking policy, California's utilities must first employ energy efficiency and conservation to meet demand, and then use energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal.
Ultimately, says Van Noppen, achieving a clean energy future will take a nation united in that effort. To that end, he is encouraged by a groundswell of public support for action. Polls taken after the 2012 presidential election show that two-thirds of voters want immediate action to address climate change and that they prefer clean energy alternatives over fossil fuels by a two-to-one margin.
"Investing in a clean energy future will eliminate the primary causes of climate change while simultaneously offering a boost to the economy," Van Noppen asserts. "It's a solution that offers real hope for the future of our planet."
Written by David Lawlor. First published in the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine, Winter 2012 issue.
Bill McKibben, environmental activist and founder of 350.org, talks about building a global movement to solve the climate crisis.