2012 has drawn to a close. We chronicle here six of the most significant stories on the climate change front in the last six months. For those looking for hope that government is taking action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, the focus is on California, where cap-and-trade stepped into reality with California's first emissions auction. Nationally and internationally regulation is at a standstill or going backward. In the courts, the climate change liability plaintiffs were pounded again as the Ninth Circuit confirmed the dismissal of Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. Responding to climate change, however, is a different story. Superstorm Sandy was a wakeup call on adaptation and the impacts of extreme weather; the National Flood Insurance Program managed to obtain statutory authority to include climate change in its considerations.
1. Superstorm Sandy – Climatologists are confident that the changing climate will lead to more frequent and more severe storms. Sandy, following Hurricane Irene the previous year, delivered on both predictions. A nine-foot storm surge at Battery Park. Transformers exploding and putting Manhattan into darkness. The Hoboken PATH station submerged. $50 billion in damage. Superstorm Sandy set records and was completely consistent with the concerns of proponents of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Did it have anything to do with climate change or was it simply a chance confluence of events? The weather pattern was unusual. There was a hurricane (albeit fading), coupled with a nor’easter, intersecting with an arctic high pressure front, under a full moon. Individually, those are independent of climate change. But there was also a record lack of sea ice, which has a measured and observed effect on global atmospheric circulation, which could result in severe weather coming together more severely. So quite possibly Sandy is a result of climate change. More important than the academic debate, however, is the impact on adaptation. Regardless of one’s views on climate change, Sandy demonstrated that a major metropolitan area is vulnerable to extreme weather. Steps will be taken to flood-proof subways, bury electric lines, raise seawalls, improve evacuation plans and emergency response, etc. All of these are part of the steps needed to adapt to climate change. Whether it is acknowledged as linked to climate change or not (but see Bloomberg Business Week cover following Sandy: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!”), adaptation is going to happen.
2. Presidential Election - Climate change was an important part of the campaign: "The Obama-Biden cap-and-trade policy will require all pollution credits to be auctioned, and proceeds will go to investments in a clean energy future, habitat protections, and rebates and other transition relief for families." The 2008 election campaign that is. It was a completely different position in 2012. Or maybe not different at all. No one could tell because nobody was talking about it. Even Sandy wasn't enough to propel climate change into the debate in the last week of campaigning.
3. Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil - The last filed of the original quartet (American Electric Power, General Motors, Comer, and Kivalina) of climate change nuisance cases, Kivalina finally made it to a federal appellate court, where in September it met the same fate as its brethren: dismissal affirmed. Plaintiffs asked for rehearing. The Ninth Circuit wasn't interested. As of this writing, the only case left is Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, which is on appeal following its dismissal last March (for the second time) by the Southern District of Mississippi. According to that court, plaintiffs lose for a wide variety of reasons: standing, political question doctrine, res judicata, collateral estoppel, displacement, statute of limitations and proximate cause.
4. Cap-and-trade - California, alone among the fifty states, instituted its multi-industry full-fledged cap-and-trade program auctions in November. All of its allowances for 2013 were sold at a price slightly above the mandated floor price of $10/ton. Regulators and environmental groups hailed the auction as a success; some business groups were less enthusiastic. The California Chamber of Commerce sued the California Air Resources Board to invalidate the auctions. Meanwhile, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast continues with its allowances trading at the floor price, and with less than 2/3 of its allowances selling in its August and December auctions. Some commentary concludes that it is time for RGGI to shut down as its CO2 emission goals have been met. From where we sit, RGGI's success or failure can't be judged until its carbon trading is done in connection with a robust economy. The world economic malaise suppresses business, and with it, carbon dioxide emissions. California may face the same issue.
5. National Flood Insurance Program Reform - Could a poisonously partisan Congress vote for this:
(1) IN GENERAL- The Council shall consult with scientists and technical experts, other Federal agencies, States, and local communities to--(A) develop recommendations on how to--(i) ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the best available climate science to assess flood risks; and (ii) ensure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses the best available methodology to consider the impact of--
(I) the rise in the sea level; ..."?
Not the Congress we know. Or so we thought. Somehow, somewhere, someone put this into a draft, which made it into and out of a committee, ended up on the floor of both houses, survived two votes and came out as an enrolled bill for the president's signature. The president signed it into law in July. This was part of the miscellaneous section of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (aka the Transportation and Student Loan Bill), which may explain how this occurred. In any event, climate change considerations are statutorily mandated as part of the NFIP. 42 USC § 4101a(d)(1). We can expect a report by July 6, 2013. Id. § 4101a(d)(1)(B). Who'd have thunk?
6. Global GHG Regulation - COP-18, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, wrapped up in Doha, Qatar in the middle of December widely panned as ineffective. While it extended to 2020 the Kyoto Protocol addressing global greenhouse gas emissions, major nations (Canada, Russia, Japan and New Zealand) dropped out, and the United States continued to refuse to participate. Thus, only about fifteen percent of global emissions are now covered by the protocol (the EU and other European nations, as well as Australia, continue to support the protocol). Developing nations (whose emissions are not restricted by Kyoto) had hoped to obtain commitments for funding "climate finance" of $100 billion, but that did not occur either. One can see parallels between the Kyoto Protocol and the Western Climate Initiative and RGGI. In all three members have dropped out and the commitment to address greenhouse gas emissions waivers.
The fiscal cliff was the focus at the end of 2012; climate change got short shrift. 2013 may establish that that was short-sighted.