While Earth’s Carbon Clock Ticks, Climate Danger Goes Missing From Election Fight

Events are conspiring to make Clinton or Trump the most powerful player in the effort to slow global warming.

Meltdown: The Science Behind Climate Change

For a relatively slow-burning phenomenon, climate change is having a moment of great consequence this week. A cascade of events—physical, legal, political, and diplomatic—is underway. While you wouldn’t know it from the cacophony of the presidential campaign, these dramatic changes may allow the winner to dictate what direction the world heads in, for better or worse, when it comes to fighting global warming.

QuickTake The Background on Climate Change 

First off, this year is expected to smash the global average heat record, set last year, which eclipsed the mark set the year before. Each decade since the 1980s has been hotter than the previous one. (Scientists explain the human contribution like this.) Second only to temperature, climate risk is most commonly represented by a single number: The amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Humanity has increased the CO2 level by 43 percent since industrialization in the mid-19th century.

This fall, the CO2 level crossed a symbolic threshold for good—400 parts per million. For the uninitiated, take any volume of atmospheric gas, divide it into a million parts, and there will be enough CO2 to make up more than 400 of them. It may not seem like a lot, but it’s the highest level in at least 800,000 years. The period right before industrialization averaged about 280 ppm.

This week happens to be a special time of year, when a seasonal five-month drop in atmospheric carbon reverses itself. The CO2 level actually falls from May to October, the result of Northern Hemisphere plants and forests pulling it out of the air, and storing it in roots, bark, and leaves. The Bloomberg Carbon Clock reflects this reality, running backwards during this time. As the leaves fall and the winter approaches, vegetation decays, and CO2 resumes its inexorable march upwards—as the Carbon Clock did on Sunday. We may drop back a little every summer, but make no mistake, overall the carbon dioxide content of the Earth's atmosphere is climbing.

The acceleration of the clock is the baseline for major decisions here on Earth that will determine how we deal with climate change. Given humanity’s entrance into this uncharted territory, and how it comes as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump vie to replace President Barack Obama, it seems fair to ask what the next president can do about such an existential subject. It turns out quite a bit, from rolling back rules or making new ones, building on treaties or withdrawing from them, to deciding whether to appeal a critical court ruling.

Responsibility for emissions

The president is the most powerful person in the climate world because the U.S. is responsible for more energy-related, cumulative CO2 emissions than any other country. Those past emissions translate into responsibility—often culpability in the diplomatic arena.

With a steadfastly uncooperative Republican-controlled Congress blocking legislation, Obama was able to push through a landmark change in rules governing power plants responsible for much of the carbon in the air. He also managed to sidestep Senate approval for a brittle foreign-policy arrangement, the Paris climate accord, that is dependent on those new environmental rules. But the fate of both achievements is largely out of his hands.

China, meanwhile, now out-pollutes the U.S. annually. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping made the Paris agreement (which requires all nations to implement national plans) politically possible by announcing national goals together in November 2014. In September, they accepted the agreement, making global ratification possible. India just ratified it, and this week the European Union is expected to follow suit. These actions make it very likely the agreement will take effect this year, binding member nations to monitor and report progress to the UN on their voluntary commitments.

These achievements, however tenuous, can be at least partially attributed to Obama's leadership. In Paris, the White House basically won the two-decade-long United Nations climate negotiations, having held out for a deal that all nations would participate in. The agreement may not be perfect—for example, it doesn't lower emissions enough—but it does meet the longstanding American demand that all countries contribute to solving the problem.

Judges are now in charge

Obama's rulemaking, central to U.S. environmental policy and the Paris accord, is now in the hands of federal judges. During oral arguments last week, an extraordinary panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington shredded the administration's Clean Power Plan and a massive lawsuit challenging it. At the heart of the case, which turns on several byzantine legal issues, is how much authority a White House agency, in this case the Environmental Protection Agency, has to change the energy system after Congress declined to do so. 

A coalition of fossil fuel industry interests and 27 states argued that Obama stepped into Congress's patch by effectively legislating—capping CO2 from existing power plants, which makes up about 30 percent of U.S. emissions.

The case may not be decided until after the election, and will likely be appealed to the now evenly split U.S. Supreme Court (Senate Republicans have stuck to their unprecedented, Constitution-stretching refusal to vote on Obama's nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia). The stakes are high for Obama's legacy: If the Clean Power Plan is struck down with the Paris Agreement in place, the U.S. would be unable to meet its commitments to a global climate change plan it helped design. That would not bode well for the nation's international standing.

David Victor, professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, called the climate conundrum part of “a generic accountability problem in a democratic society where executive leadership is weak.” Perhaps, though more specifically it's seen by environmental advocates as another victim of a cash-based U.S. election system controlled by deep-pocketed special interests.

Presidential power

Presidential power to control the sources of climate change has largely been limited. The energy system is shaped by “a powerful mix of market, technology, and policy forces,” said Richard Newell, president and chief executive of the research nonprofit Resources for the Future and a former senior member of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. Things like gasoline prices are driven by global market forces.

“Other aspects, particularly energy’s environmental consequences, are much more heavily influenced by policy, including presidential action,” Newell said. “When it comes to energy emissions that cause global warming, presidential choices strongly influence not only domestic U.S. actions, but also the degree to which these are leveraged by actions in other countries through international diplomacy.”

Presidents have pronounced but limited effect on the national economy, but that doesn't stop others from crediting or blaming him for them anyway. Do the president's regulatory levers over energy and CO2 make it any easier to tie policy to performance?:

Presidents CO2 climate

 With climate change underway, and a global policy framework in place, presidents may have increasing power, and responsibility, to fight the problem, according to Max Holmes, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. 

If that's true, the coming election may have repercussions for many generations to come. Trump supports U.S. energy independence, domestic production, and environmental protection. He has said he would “renegotiate” or “cancel” the 197-party negotiation of the Paris accord, a position with unknown consequences. Though he has called climate change a hoax, his campaign has sent mixed messages, none of them matching up with an explanation scientists might call accurate. Clinton, who executed Obama's climate policy as secretary of state, supports increased renewable energy, waste-reduction, and better infrastructure. Her bottom-line climate goal—80 percent CO2 cuts below 2005 levels by 2050—is the same as Obama's.

In 2017, global adherence to the Paris accord, rulings on the constitutionality of new U.S. pollution rules, and a potentially remade Congress will await the next resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps the contenders should start talking about it more, because the clock is ticking.

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