Inconvenient facts about energy, climate change

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”


I read with special interest the New York Times front page report Nov. 14 that George David Banks, “special adviser to President Trump on international energy issues, led a panel with top American energy executives” at the United Nations conference on climate change held in Bonn, Germany. 

The conference was the latest effort by the world community to address global warming. There are growing warnings that the so-called greenhouse effect, caused by burning of fossil fuels and other human activities that increase carbon emissions, threatens to melt the polar ice caps, multiply extreme weather events and wreak other devastation.

I was sad to see Banks jeered by protestors due to his association with Donald Trump, who has vowed to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement signed by more than 190 nations. I remember David Banksas a former student of mine who came to the University of Missouri-St. Louis many years ago from Cape Girardeau. Behind his southern “Missoura” drawl was the brilliant mind of someone who triple-majored in political science, economics and history, went on to earn graduate and law degrees, served in the U.S. State Department and CIA, and held important staff positions in Congress and the executive branch before being appointed this year as special assistant to the president for international energy and environment.

At the Bonn conference, David was jeered for stating an inconvenient fact. He said: 

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“Without question, fossil fuels will continue to be used, and we would argue that it’s in the global interest to make sure when fossil fuels are used that they be as clean and efficient as possible.” 

Was he wrong? No, unless you are a denier of data, of science.

The Institute for Energy Research(IER)projects fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) to continue to be America’s leading energy source between now and 2040, providing nearly 80 percent of our total energy consumption. Solar, wind and other forms of clean, renewable energy are not yet economically competitive and technologically feasible to replace fossil fuels as the dominant energy source. Natural gas use is causing a decline in coal and nuclear power, not so much because it is cleaner — it is still a fossil fuel — but it is cheaper. 

Before one dismisses the IER as a mouthpiece of the fossil fuel industry, note that Daniel Yergin, author of The Quest and a leading energy expert, echoes their predictions: “Renewables will grow a lot, but they will still be 20 years from now a relatively small part of the overall mix.”

The IER also notes (May 26) that “China and India will continue to increase oil and coal consumption, the Paris agreement notwithstanding” and notwithstanding the much-trumpeted Chinese investment in wind and solar power and electric cars aimed at reducing terrible air pollution in Chinese cities. Not only is China increasing its coal-fired generation capacity — coal still constitutes over 60 percent of China’s energy mix — but Beijing is building coal-fired plants in Kenya, Pakistan, and other parts of Africa and Asia. 

Even Germany, the host country of the Bonn conference and an often-cited “paragon of green energy virtue,” is experiencing “a green energy meltdown,” failing to meet its carbon emission reduction targets given its continued significant reliance on coal (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 18).

And that is the point about Trump’s well-founded skepticism toward the Paris Agreement that David Banks was voicing. The administration feels we are oblivious to energy realities. Moreover, the administration believes we got a raw deal and are at risk of being a martyr in the crusade to combat global warming. Not only did the President Barack Obama’s administration commit the United States to more ambitious targets than many other countries, but it remains questionable whether the pact contains adequate transparency provisions for ensuring the latter are honoring their obligations in accurately measuring and reporting their carbon emission reductions.

The “obligations” that parties incurred under the 2015 agreement are purely voluntary, leading even some supporters of the agreement to acknowledge its inherent ineffectiveness. The United States promised to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China and India indicated they would not begin to reduce emissions until 2030. Meanwhile, U.S. carbon emissions declined by 12 percent between 2005 and 2016, while China’s increased by 50 percent, making them now the world’s No. 1 greenhouse gas producer. 

So the inconvenient fact is that no amount of  U.S. buy-in to the Paris Agreement will enable the world to meet the agreement’s goal (of limiting the rise in the Earth’s temperature by 2 degrees Celsius by 2100)  unless China, India and other major carbon emitters share in the costs of shifting to cleaner fuels; and that commitment remains uncertain. Hence, Trump is right to want to drive a tougher bargain.

However, one can find “science deniers” on both sides of the political spectrum. If Trump’s detractors are in denial of some inconvenient facts surrounding the current energy situation, Trump himself is in denial of the inconvenient facts surrounding climate change. When he is called a “climate change denier,” that is a fair criticism he is vulnerable to.

In November, 16,000 scientists from 184 countries signed a “Warning to Humanity,” reiterating the dire warning sounded in a 1992 letter, that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course,” with the planet headed for “irreversible harm,” especially if global warming is not reversed.

Although climate is enormously complicated (e.g., the evidence is murky as to whether recent hurricanes in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico and California wildfires can be blamed on climate change), the data on warming are clear. As reported by the United Nations Panel on Climate Change and other scientific bodies, there has been a distinct warming pattern in recent decades. The 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 1981, with all 10 of the hottest years occurring in the past 12 years. This year is expected to be the hottest year on record without the help of an El Nino weather event.

There is a need for all sides in the climate change debate to stop blowing hot air, to admit inconvenient facts that undermine their arguments, and to work together using the best science and the best politics we can muster to save the planet. 

We could use less jeering and more civil, honest discussion.