Some of the most interesting, least-covered climate-related stories of 2017

Kate Mackenzie
Jan 3, 2018 · 7 min read

AKA: stuff that piqued my interest and still does, even months later

Source: Pixabay, YIvers

More important things happened, for sure, but here are some I remembered, brought up in conversation, went looking for later… and could easily find.

1.Ratings agencies are starting to reconsider giving AAA ratings to debt issued by states and cities that are actually sinking

Except for Fitch, which seems to think repairing ruined infrastructure and falling real estate prices will be a net good. But S&P and Moody’s are kind of getting there. Meanwhile some fixed income analysts at places like Bernstein are already factoring in climate risks themselves for muni & state bonds.

Moody’s Warns Cities to Address Climate Risks or Face Downgrades — Bloomberg, Christopher Flavelle

Rising Seas May Wipe Out These Jersey Towns, but They’re Still Rated AAA — Bloomberg, Christopher Flavelle

2. Even Bill Nordhaus thinks his cost-benefit approach to climate policy might have understated the costs of climate change

William Nordhaus pioneered a method to calculate the costs and benefits of mitigating climate change that is still prevalent, known as cost-benefit Integrated Assessment Models. These models have been incredibly influential, despite being extremely problematic and thus roundly criticised by just about any economist who isn’t actually involved in developing them. The problems range from the discount rate to non-linear damage funtions to just poor assumptions. All these shortcomings tend towards results that show only limited action to reduce emissions is warranted in the short term, because too much mitigation now would be too costly (as opposed to, say, a >10% chance of catastrophic climate impacts, or the almost-inevitable loss of all our coral reefs). Now, Nordhaus says maybe the IAMs have understated the costs of damage that climate change will wreak — but, he says, it’s too late to mitigate severe climate change anyways! Thankyou, Bill, I think we are good now.

An Climate Change Economist Sounds the Alarm — Bloomberg View

3. Coal actually won’t bring electricity to everyone in India and Africa

The number one reason given for supporting thermal coal development is that developing countries need coal to get access to electricity.

The IEA, which has historically tended to underestimate the role of renewables, is now quite emphatically saying that’s no longer the case.

Renewables will help more people access electricity than coal, says IEA — Carbon Brief, Simon Evans

4. Climate change is reducing plant nutritive content and almost no-one is paying attention

The great nutrient collapse — Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich

A thoroughly-reported piece on a well-established, but little-known fact: increased CO2 concentrations lead to lower nutritional content in plants we use for food.

What is most worrying:

To say that it’s little known that key crops are getting less nutritious due to rising CO2 is an understatement. It is simply not discussed in the agriculture, public health or nutrition communities. At all. When POLITICO contacted top nutrition experts about the growing body of research on the topic, they were almost universally perplexed and asked to see the research.

The reasons seem to mainly be silos in academia, particularly in research funding.

5. The shipping industry’s climate committee reportedly has no idea about how greenhouse gases work (plus, they are seriously hamstrung by bad industry actors)

Shipping executive: “We have been deliberately misleading public on climate” — Climate Home News

This story is mostly about how a shipping industry veteran defended a report by Influence Map, a UK-based NGO, showing how the industry had “infiltrated” International Maritime Organisation climate talks. Influence Map is terrific, but I find narratives that “industry being in the room is bad” can run into all kinds of problems. Industry being in the room can be necessary and isn’t necessarily bad. However in the case of global limits on shipping industry emissions, it does seem like industry participation has been very harmful indeed, judging by this and several other Climate Home reports.

However this is the bit that I found jaw-dropping. It concerns Belgian climatologist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, who had just given a talk to the IMO’s working group on greenhouse gas emissions in London:

[van Ypersele’s] presentation ran over many of the most basic facts about climate change, addressing common tropes proliferated by sceptics.

“From the feedback I got, it was an eye opener for many [IMO] delegates,” van Ypersele told Climate Home News. When asked what exactly had been surprising for those in the room, he said as far as he knew, they had not known that “CO2 is a stock pollutant, and therefore that zero net emissions are needed to stabilise the CO2 and temperature”. Stock pollutants are long-lasting chemicals that accumulate in the environment over time.

Just to re-iterate: van Ypersele is talking about members of the International Maritime Organisation’s working group on greenhouse gas emissions. These are people who sit on a group that is fairly consequential in determining how the shipping industry responds to climate change. And apparently they literally did not understand how greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere.

6. Why small shifts matter in electric vehicles (and renewable energy and more)

The electric vehicle takeover? Think different — Liam Denning, Bloomberg Gadfly

Even if EVs are still a relatively small part of the fleet in say, 10 years, that’s still a problem — because they are where the growth is at. This is a great quote explaining why the “energy systems are slow to change” axiom isn’t cause for complacence:

Systemic change is indeed slow, but marginal change can be extremely rapid. And it is marginal change that matters for companies and financial markets.

This piece struck me just because it explored a fact that is often unsaid: Changes at the margin — and therefore, the direction of travel — matter a lot. Because that’s where finance goes.

It seems simple and obvious, but how many times have you read or heard the phrase “fossil fuels still account for the vast majority of energy use” with a tone of sombre realism, implying that for all the hype about renewables, nothing is really changing?

7. Norway’s central bank thinks Norway’s sovereign wealth fund should reduce its exposure to oil

This is mostly because the country is already so exposed to oil markets via its own production. I was worried this news would get lost in among all the other “so-and-so country authority says something about financial climate risk”, or seen as just an extension of the 2015 decision for the GPFG to exit thermal-coal intensive investments. That coal decision was taken by the parliament and had something of a moral dimension; by contrast, this recommendation came from the central bank and was purely driven by financial risk concerns. Plus, thermal coal is much, much easier to bet against than oil; it’s smaller and more obviously already facing an existential threat.

Liam Denning, again, had a good take — one of the few that picked up on the above points.

8. Everyone discovered that atmospheric CO2 removal is assumed in most of the 1.5C and 2C climate scenarios, even though it’s really difficult and hardly anyone is even trying to do it

You just have to read both of these stories. They are incredibly important. CO2 removal and other “negative emissions technologies” are terribly neglected, yet we really, really, need them to happen.

Can Carbon Dioxide Capture Save the World — The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert

The Dirty Secret of The World’s Plan to Avoid Climate Change — Wired, Abby Rabinowitz and Amanda Simson

9. Big investment managers are frequently voting against very pedestrian shareholder resolutions on climate change — despite their signalling

How hard is it to vote in support of a shareholder resolution calling for climate scenario disclosure? Apparently very hard, even if you’re a) one of the biggest asset managers in the world and b) have actually said publicly that you expect better climate disclosure from companies you invest in.

According to Proxy Insight, the data provider, BlackRock voted against so-called scenario-planning climate change resolutions, which are typically put forward by shareholders and often not supported by management, at 14 oil and gas companies[…] In most cases, the resolutions asked that companies annually assess how they might be affected by measures to limit temperature rises to 2C, in line with the 2015 Paris agreement.

Blackrock and Vanguard’s climate change efforts are glacial — FTfm, Attracta Mooney

10. This isn’t specifically about climate but it’s awesome and should be read by anyone interested in climate change or indeed anything important:

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds — Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, 2017)

Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us.

Elizabeth Kolbert is the journalist we need in times like this.

See also:

Stop raising awareness already — (Ann Christiano and Annie Niemand, Stanford Social Innovation Review)

I Don’t Want to be Right (Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, 2014)

Kate Mackenzie

Written by

Climate finance & policy person. @FT and @FTalpha alum.