Environment: Supreme Court gives the world a climate headache

Jul 9, 2022
Earth wrapped in a bandage
Image: iStock

US Supreme Court favours ‘democracy’ over climate action. Overshooting 2oC of warming will be bad news for ecosystems. Space tourism preparing for launch.

US Supreme Court hobbles Biden’s emissions ambitions

I’m sure that you don’t need me to tell you that the US Supreme Court has dealt a severe blow to President Biden’s plans to reduce the USA’s 2005 level of greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030. But should Australians care? Well, yes, because what the USA does is important for two reasons.

First, over the last two centuries the USA has been the largest emitter of CO2 (25% of the global total) and it is currently the second largest annual emitter (12% of the global total). So the success or failure of the USA in reducing its emissions over the next 10-20 years will seriously influence the level of global warming during this century. This makes the Supreme Court’s decision important for all the world’s population. Second, there’s no doubt in my mind that the most important element in the fight to control global warming is not the science or the dollars or the fossil fuel industry or the UNFCCC. It’s the commitment and leadership demonstrated jointly by the USA and China, now and for the next 50 years.

The post-Trump, strongly conservative Supreme Court decided that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not have the authority to issue broad ranging regulations to limit the greenhouse gases emitted by coal- and gas-fired electricity generating plants, regulations that would force many of the plants to close and accelerate the transition to renewable energy. The court was of the view that only the democratically elected Congress, not an unelected administrative agency, has the power to make decisions that fundamentally affect the US economy (now referred to as the ‘major questions doctrine’). The legal challenge to the Federal EPA’s authority was launched by a coalition of states with Republican administrations. The states’ success is likely to be followed by a challenge to EPA plans to issue stricter rules on vehicle emissions that are intended to speed the uptake of electric vehicles – transport is the USA’s largest greenhouse gas emitting sector.

The Court’s ruling severely restricts Biden’s ability to make the 50% cut to emissions that he has promised, but it does not eliminate it. The EPA can still issue more modest pollution-controlling regulations. The Biden administration can also work with the Senate to legislate a less ambitious finance package for climate action than the one that was scuppered by Democrat Senator Manchin a few months ago. And individual states that wish to take a more aggressive approach to controlling greenhouse gases and energy transitions are still able to do so.

I have previously highlighted ways in which climate activists around the world have been using legal systems to assist their cause, for instance with Rights of Nature laws and by using the courts to force governments and companies to take appropriate climate action. The Supreme Court’s ruling demonstrates the two-edged nature of that sword. It is also indicative of the influence that a very small number of individuals (in this case, six) can have in determining major legal and social issues and the importance of not just ‘who decides’ but more crucially ‘who decides who decides’ (in this case, Trump).

Consequences of overshooting 2oC of warming

The general strategy among the governments of the world for tackling climate change is that:

  • global warming will be well under 2oC in 2100 as a result of …
  • net-zero for CO2 emissions being achieved by 2050 and net-zero for all greenhouse gases by 2070 or thereabouts,
  • this will result in global warming temporarily overshooting 2oC for an unspecified period of time between, say, 2040 and 2100,
  • and that sometime between, say, 2040 and 2080, as yet unproven ‘negative emissions’ technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will be rolled out, CO2 levels in the atmosphere will fall and warming will return to below 2oC (and even possibly 1.5oC) before 2100.

There is evidence that overshooting 1.5oC, never mind 2oC, will seriously disturb numerous Earth Systems that have been critical for maintaining a stable environment over the last 12,000 years; an environment that has permitted human civilisations to develop and that has facilitated the survival of the vast array of ecosystems and individual animal and plant species that share Earth with us today. Indeed, the disturbances created in some Earth Systems may be so severe as to cause them to pass no-return tipping points and trigger runaway global warming (‘hothouse Earth’). Notwithstanding the threats these environmental changes would pose for human civilisations and even human existence, the global bodies responsible for examining and coordinating the world’s responses to climate change (e.g. the UNFCCC and IPCC) have paid too little attention to the dangers posed by overshooting 1.5 or 2oC and to triggering tipping points.

At 2 degrees of warming approximately 10% of species globally are projected to be at risk of extinction but little research has been conducted into the effects of overshooting 2oC on ecosystems, biodiversity and individual species. A new study has examined the effects on the reproduction and survival of over 30,000 species of land and marine animals and plants of a continuing rise in CO2 emissions until 2040. This will result in a 60 year overshoot of 2oC between 2040 and 2100 and peak warming of 2.5oC around 2068 (see graph below).

The researchers found that almost 4,000 species would have their entire populations exposed for 60 years, and often longer, to temperatures (both average temperatures and/or heatwaves) beyond their evolutionary experience, seriously questioning their ability to survive.

Some species will be especially threatened, particularly those inhabiting tropical and subtropical regions that have one or more of the following characteristics: currently live very close to the limit of their heat tolerance, will be exposed to particularly frequent and severe extreme heating events, and are very sensitive to even small changes in temperature for even short periods. In some ecological communities, most of the species would be simultaneously exposed to dangerous conditions for several decades and even centuries, resulting in waves of extinctions and the complete collapse of, for instance, coral reefs, mangrove swamps and rainforests. About 50% more marine species will be threatened than terrestrial species. The consequences for human settlements, food and water supplies and health could be enormous.

According to the researchers:

“Avoiding any temperature overshoot must be a priority for reducing biodiversity risks from climate change, followed by limiting the magnitude and duration of any overshoot. A 2oC overshoot would come at an astronomical cost to life on Earth that negative emission technologies will not reverse. The effort to stop temperatures rising isn’t an abstract attempt at bending curves on a graph: it’s a fight for a liveable planet.”

Cool Paris

When the restoration of Notre-Dame and its surrounds is complete in 2027, following the devastating fire in 2019, the spaces around the world famous cathedral will be cooled to help worshippers and tourists cope with the increasingly frequent and hotter heatwaves that Paris is expecting as global warming increases. Neighbouring streets will be made more pedestrian friendly; the adjacent square and parks will contain more vegetation and trees to provide shade and reduce the local temperature; and a five millimetre-thick sheet of water will stream down the square in front of the cathedral during heat waves to lower the temperature by several degrees. At a cost of approximately $75 million, it seems like pretty good value to me, not to mention a sensible investment to protect Paris’s tourist industry.

Space tourism will accelerate climate change

It’s been known for a long time that the rockets that launch satellites and spacecraft emit a range of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Depending on the fuel burnt, rockets release water vapour, nitrogen oxides and black carbon (or soot), the last being particularly problematic as it is released into the stratosphere where it has 500 times the warming effect that it has when released closer to the Earth. Rockets that burn chlorine-based fuels also release chlorine which depletes the ozone layer. So far, however, rocket launches have made an insignificant contribution to global warming. This may be about to change.

Considerable publicity has been generated recently by billionaires such as Musk, Branson and Bezos both manufacturing rockets and participating in brief joy rides. These isolated launches are, however, planned to lead to a significant space tourism industry – Branson alone is planning to offer 400 flights per year. More grandly, Bezos sees ‘millions of people living and working in space’. Two studies have demonstrated that this level of launch activity could make a dangerous contribution to global warming and have suggested that international regulations are required to regulate the industry before there are multiple launches each day by different groups and the situation is beyond control.

Talking of billionaires, here’s an interesting titbit from a recent Oxfam publication:

“Elon Musk, the wealthiest man in the world, is so rich that he could lose 99% of his wealth and still be in the top 0.0001% of the world’s richest people. Since 2019 his wealth has increased by 699%.”

All these very rich men shooting into space reminds me of the old feminist joke: If they can send a man to the moon, why can’t they send them all? Boom boom!

Adoption of new technologies

Let’s hope designer rockets don’t follow the trajectory of smartphones. Twenty years ago smartphones (i.e. sophisticated pocket computers and cameras rather than telephones) were unknown. Fifteen years later 1.5 billion were sold annually and over 80% of the world’s population now owns one. The uptake of smartphones has followed the well-known S-shaped curve for successful new technologies. As with many things, I was a late developer with mobile phones, purchasing my first only in 2019.

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