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March in Climate News: There Might Be Hope for Us Yet!

Despite continued inaction by Congress, March was a really good month for clean-energy reform.
Perito Moreno Glacier

Ice breaks off the wall of the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina on March 10, 2016. (Photo: Walter Diaz/AFP/Getty Images)

From the ominous report on global energy use to the headlines about record-high temperatures in 2016, this past month has given the world no shortage of sobering climate news. Global warming is happening faster than expected, we've learned, and the window to take action before it's too late is narrowing—even as many United States leaders still refuse to acknowledge the problem even exists.

But amid these pronouncements of doom, there's a silver lining: Climate action is gaining momentum in the U.S., and this month has been particularly momentous. In Oregon, for example, Governor Kate Brown signed a bill that will move the state to 50 percent renewable energy production by 2040 and end the state's use of coal power by 2030; in Montana, sagging demand and economic pressures caused Arch Coal to scrap its plans for a massive strip-mining operation on federal land; and in a recent Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans said they worried a "great deal" or "fair amount" about global warming, up from 55 percent only a year ago.

Even Washington, D.C., produced a hint of climate progress this month when President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Obama's pick has drawn criticism from some liberals who view Garland as too moderate, but the objections on the left deal primarily with Garland's more conservative decisions on criminal justice issues. When it comes to climate change, Garland has "consistently come out on the side of the environment and against big polluters," as Tim McDonnell writes for Mother Jones. Indeed, by nominating Garland, Obama sent a clear message that tackling climate change and preserving the landmark Clean Power Plan are top priorities for his final year in office.

The real lesson this month is that a bipartisan coalition is quietly uniting behind clean energy, and it has less to do with climate science or politics or morality than with climate economics.

So what to make of the month of March? One could easily argue that recent climate successes are insufficient steps in the face of catastrophic climate change. After all, at the Paris climate conference, the U.S. pledged to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. A single state promising to eliminate coal power by 2030 certainly won't get us there.

But what’s encouraging is that this month's pattern of climate progress appears to be part of a bigger trend. Including Oregon, 29 states have now enacted mandatory renewable energy targets, and major cities like San Diego and San Francisco have made even bolder commitments, pledging a transition to 100 percent renewable energy within the coming decades.

Meanwhile, even deep-red states in America's heartland are embracing clean energy. Last year, for example, Iowa's Republican Governor Terry Branstad lobbied for an extension of federal renewable energy tax credits, and along with five other U.S. governors, including Republicans Rick Snyder of Michigan and Brian Sandoval of Nevada, he signed an accord with Chinese leaders pledging to promote clean energy development.

It's worth noting, of course, that the renewable energy leadership by governors like Branstad is not indicative of a climate change epiphany within the Republican Party. In fact, when 17 state governors recently announced an agreement to work together on clean energy goals, their document made no explicit mention of climate change, and one of the signatories, embattled Snyder, is a vocal opponent of Obama's climate agenda.

The real takeaway is that a bipartisan coalition is quietly uniting behind clean energy, and it has less to do with climate science or politics or morality than with climate economics. And that might not be a bad thing. As the cost of generating solar and wind power continues to drop, and as demand for coal and natural gas dries up in countries committed to reducing carbon emissions, market forces will reward states and countries that invested early in renewable energy, while punishing those that placed their eggs squarely in the carbon basket.

Republican governors may be constricted by ideology and politics, but they, too, can read the tealeaves. The share of coal-generated power in the U.S. energy market hit a 45-year low during 2015, and clean energy commitments in Asia and Europe squeezed demand for fossil fuels, forcing corporate giants like Arch Coal to file for bankruptcy protection. The industry has also been the target of a grassroots divestment movement, which is pushing, with increasing success, to get deep-pocketed foundations and endowments to dump their shares in fossil fuel companies. So far, investors have divested about $3.4 trillion from the fossil fuel industry, and the total is growing each week, as major investors like the Rockefeller Family Fund divest from Exxon Mobil and other dirty-energy corporations.

These economic factors help explain why reliably red states like Iowa and South Dakota are now leading the country's shift toward renewable energy. Even with no federal carbon tax and no infrastructure support from Congress and no enforcement of the CPP, which the Supreme Court put on hold in January, global markets are beginning to favor renewable energy — and governors in the Midwest are realizing they would be foolish not to take advantage. Iowa, for example, now generates 31 percent of its electricity from wind power, and Branstad has announced plans to reach 40 percent by 2020.

The bigger point here: Even though the renewable-energy law that passed in Oregon this month is only an inch in the right direction, the many hard-earned inches are starting to add up, and more might be coming. According to this month's Gallup polling data, a record 65 percent of Americans, including 38 percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Independents, now believe that human activity contributes to climate change. If that trend continues, public opinion could pave the way for bipartisan climate action, especially if Republican governors show that clean energy policies play well politically in their home states.

Another reason for optimism is Obama's nomination of Garland, who more than once sided with the Environmental Protection Agency while serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals. If Senate Republicans eventually cave to public pressure and confirm Garland before the presidential election, or if Democrats retain the White House in November, the balance of power on the Supreme Court could shift in favor of climate action, boosting the chances that the CPP and its provisions to slash carbon emissions would outlive the Obama presidency.

All of this is good news especially because, compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. has some catching up to do. This month, while the state of Oregon celebrated its plan to eliminate coal power by 2030, Scotland went even bigger, closing the country's last coal power plant as part of an effort to shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Other countries, such as Uruguay, are already producing 95 percent or more of their electricity from renewables, with plans to go even further.

Like Uruguay, the other global leaders in renewable energy conversion—countries such as Costa Rica, Iceland, and Bhutan—all have populations smaller than many U.S. states, so it's not entirely fair to compare them with a country of 318 million people. But when it comes to scaling up clean energy, their experiences might yield important lessons for the world powers. As the Guardian explains, the government of Uruguay was once gridlocked in a "seemingly endless and rancorous debate about energy policy." But, since 2008, the democratic nation has united behind renewable energy, especially wind power, and dramatically reduced its carbon footprint. Meanwhile, electricity prices in the country have dropped, and gross domestic product growth has consistently come in above three percent.

The U.S. will need to follow a similar path to Uruguay's if it hopes to make any meaningful dent in carbon emissions before global warming accelerates beyond our ability to keep up. Every day that Congress sits on the sidelines puts us in more danger.

But the progress made in March offers hope.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.