Climate change

The politics of climate change

The Republican party’s campaign against nature

October 18th 2017 | Chicago | Xavier Ward

Photograph from NASA

On June 1st, US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. It was not necessarily unexpected given his previous train of Obama-era policy reversals, but nonetheless his decision was met with widespread criticism from politicians, environmentalists, and business leaders around the world. Yet, his own party members have either continued to praise the decision to withdraw or remained silent on the issue.


Climate science

For the political party that has heralded global climate change as a non-issue, natural fluctuation in the climate, or – as the President has said – a “myth” conjured by the Chinese, this response, much like the President’s decision, was unsurprising.

According to Article II, The agreement aimed to keep global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels, decrease greenhouse gas emissions in a way that does not halt food production, and carve a financial pathway consistent with those aims.

Nearly all scientists – at an overwhelming 97% of peer-reviewed studies – agree that global climate change is real. Through recent research, we have been able to tie human activity and industrialisation directly to this unprecedented global rise in temperatures.

Diagram from NASA

Ever since the second industrial revolution, planet Earth has been facing the most dramatic rise in climate change and pollution that human civilisation has ever witnessed.

Now, with the new millennium’s rapidly increasing trends of globalisation and consumerism, the threat of reaching a “tipping point” caused by positive feedback loops in the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) looms dangerously close.

Since its establishment in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has continuously upgraded its synthesis of the scientific community’s opinion, most recently stating that it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause” of climate change due to the anthropogenic release of GHGs.

Failing to meet the Paris Agreement’s vision could result in a range of catastrophic consequences, including failing crop yields, melting glaciers, decreased water availability, damaged coral reefs, rapid extinction, and extreme weather events.


Political fuel

So, knowing all this, why were Republican lawmakers under the Trump administration elated at the decision to withdraw from this agreement? What element are we missing from this equation of facts?

Lobbyism is the likely answer. After all, the oil industry’s campaign donations and close relationships with the GOP are no coincidence. They are the manipulators of a deliberate and long-standing strategy to undermine climate science at every opportunity, and the results thus far have been disastrous.

Yet, it was not so long ago that a Republican, not a Democrat, ran a presidential campaign with a pro-environment agenda. As The New York Times reported shortly after the president’s decision to withdraw from the accord, it was Republican Senator John McCain who had run against former President Barack Obama on a climate change platform in 2008.

Photograph from Democracy Now!

McCain touted himself as the man who stood tough on climate change in the face of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. And more recently, he suggested that America should uphold the Paris Agreement, citing the death of the Great Barrier Reef as a symptom of global climate change.

He has since been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Unfortunately for the 81-year-old senator and Vietnam War veteran, treatment options are limited. However, he is not alone as a Republican in the fight against climate change.

Other politically vocal Republicans – politicians or otherwise – have also articulated concerns about climate change. In March, 17 Republicans introduced a resolution to the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledging climate change as a real, man-made phenomenon.

“We want the caucus to act as an ideas factory for climate change solutions,” said Carlos Curbelo, Florida Republican Congressman who co-chairs the Climate Solutions Caucus. “We will be modest at first, but I think you’ll see more and more ideas.”


International multilaterialism

Nevertheless, when Trump decided to withdraw, Republicans were largely united in their praise of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement.

When did that become a trend among Republicans? And why must Republican politicians either oppose climate change or remain silent on the issue?

When his decision was made public, Trump cited the “draconian” nature of the agreement, stating that it set in place arbitrary climate goals that hurt U.S. workers and businesses.

Photograph from C-SPAN

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the President said in his speech. He then stated that he would personally call the leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Canada to reassure his commitment to trans-Atlantic relations and tell them that he wished to negotiate a better deal for Americans.

Only minutes later, however, the leaders of France, Italy, and Germany issued a joint statement stating that the climate standards set in place by the Paris Agreement were non-negotiable.

Withdrawal from the agreement marked a victory for former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who both reportedly urged the president to withdraw behind closed doors.


Coal is doomed

The isolationist and job-centric justification that Trump gave for his decision, all while decrying the empirical findings of climate science, is in-line with much of the other rhetoric witnessed during his campaign and throughout his early days in office.

On the campaign trail, Trump gave an impassioned decree to the people of Pennsylvania that he would bring coal workers back to the mines and steel back to Pittsburgh.

The rough-and-tumble industries that built the area are now struggling, and many of the workers in the formerly lucrative industries spend their days sending out résumés rather than hauling coal or refining steel.

Photograph by Mark Lyons

Still, his lavish campaign promises struck a chord with workers seeking to remedy a dying industry. Just enough to get their votes. It’s no coincidence that Trump won Greene County, Pennsylvania by a whopping 40 points, where John McCain and former President Obama nearly tied in the presidential election.

Coal jobs are projected to their lowest numbers since 1978, and roughly 30,000 jobs have been lost in the past few years. Withdrawing from the Paris accord will not bring jobs back to these industries, and therein lies the issue with his justification for leaving.


Renewable progress

According to a survey from The Solar Foundation, jobs in the solar industry have soared in past decade, showing aggressive job growth since 2010 with around 260,000 Americans employed in that ecosystem.

The only energy industry that still employs more than solar is oil & petroleum, which constitutes 38% of the country’s energy workers.

Trump’s commitment to job growth may seem noble at the surface level, but the reality is that the industry is dying. Human workers are being replaced by machines, old methods are being swept aside by new technology, and mines all across coal country are closing.

Photograph from WindEurope

Despite the apparent facts, Republican lawmakers still praised the President’s decision to leave this historic agreement with 195 countries committed to fighting climate change together.

In the Trump era, U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is the archetype of the Republican establishment. He was a vocal critic of Donald Trump on the campaign trail, and even rescinded an invitation to speak at a major event in his home state of Wisconsin after tapes emerged of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women and entering their changing rooms during a pageant.

However, when Trump actually secured the votes he needed to claim the office of the President, Ryan said that Trump had done a great thing for the Republican establishment by giving them control of all three branches of government.


Time is running out

Since he took office in January, the Republican establishment has grown ever more congruent with Trump’s agenda. Whether it is for fear of voter backlash or out of general unwillingness to break from establishment ideology, the GOP continues to add fuel to the fire of Trump’s rhetoric against climate science.

The result is a nation filled with people who are in denial of the facts: climate change is the greatest existential threat our species has ever faced. Politics can always change, but the environment only has one chance.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

Geothermal Energy

Harnessing Iceland’s volcanic potential

The science behind the European island’s geothermal resources

March 15th 2015 | Montana | Christopher Beddow

Photograph by Askja Energy

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano violently erupted in April of 2010, making international headlines as it grounded international flights on both sides of the Atlantic for several weeks to come.

The tephra produced by the eruption interfered with flight traffic into late spring, but soon settled as the summer tourist season approached. Volcanic activity is commonplace in Iceland, including frequent tectonic changes, occasional smaller eruptions, and a plethora of hot springs and geysers. The tephra produced by past eruptions is usually swept northward by winds, but 2010 proved to be an exception. In centuries past, other Icelandic eruptions have certainly had worldwide effects, particularly in the late 1700s when the atmospheric effects of the eruption of Laki resulted in what the famous Benjamin Franklin, in contemporary writings, described as “the year without a summer”.

Since the 2010 eruption, however, Iceland has seen consistent tourism and expansion of nonstop flights from both Europe and North America. While tourist campaigns particularly emphasize the alluring beauty of Iceland’s volcanoes, the tumultuous landscape offers its patrons much more than just a claim to fame.


The geothermal island

Iceland has been relying on geothermal energy to provide for its needs for decades, and today it is a rare case of a society that is more dependent on renewable resources than it is of traditional fossil fuels such as oil and coal. While automobiles and airplanes see a continued demand for petroleum in Iceland, virtually all other sectors of industry and have seen a shift toward renewable energy. While a handful of power plants provide power to the national grid, many renewable energy sites, particularly geothermal ones, operate at the local scale and provide power for farms and households within a certain radius.

Iceland energy

Iceland is situated in a very unique location with regards to geothermal activity. It happens to be a volcanic hotspot which also sits atop the active tectonic rift of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The result of this is what we see today; a terrain where volcanic eruptions occur twice or more every decade and where minor volcanic activity is a daily occurrence.

Geothermal energy has proven to be an especially abundant resource as a result of these characteristics, giving Iceland a unique advantage compared to other regions of the world as far as renewable energy generation is concerned. Whilst many countries have a strong focus on solar, wind, and hydroelectric power generation, Iceland is currently able to provide for over 60% of its energy needs using geothermal energy.


Volcanic hotspots

Other parts of the world have a similar potential for geothermal development, including the Hawaiian Islands and the area surrounding Mount Fuji in Japan.

Yet, none have been able to harness the natural sources of heat and energy in the way that Iceland has. The European island nation currently has 6 geothermal power plants, and many smaller sites that help convert heat from the ground into usable electricity for the national grid. Of these plants, 5 are located on the Reykjanes Peninsula surrounding the capital city of Reyjavik, 2 of them at Svartsengi, and the other 3 near the towns of Reykjanes, Hellisheidi, and Nesjavellir. Most of Iceland’s population of over 300,000 resides in this area, with volcanic activity including some of Iceland’s most famous geysers in the Haukadalur Valley as well as the world renowned hot spring resort called the Blue Lagoon.

Diagram by Christopher Beddow

Iceland’s geothermal energy is tapped by drilling beneath the surface. Often, this does not have to be very deep, as ground temperature rises rapidly near areas with tectonic activity. Groundwater running through these hot earth zones turns to steam, which can sometimes be seen emanating from geysers and hot springs. Many of these geothermal reservoirs have no actual other way of flowing out into open air. Apart from drilling, another method is to provide water externally and let it be heated by geothermal sources in order to produce steam. In both cases, steam is used to power turbines, thus generating an output of energy.


A global outlook?

Geothermal power plants produce a byproduct called brine, a type of contaminated water which must be carefully cooled down and separated in order to prevent it from mixing with freshwater ecosystems. In many places around the world, brine is not handled with care and can present a serious threat to fish, plants, and other parts of the environment. Overall, geothermal plants have a very low rate of carbon emission, often near-zero, but responsible maintenance and handling of byproducts is an essential requirement for it to be considered a truly clean source of energy.

When it comes to percent of clean energy meeting society’s needs, Iceland is a world leader. While its circumstances certainly cannot be replicated at will in other countries, teams from Iceland have been actively working around the globe to help develop other geothermal energy projects insofar as geological conditions permit. There are active volcanic regions on every continent of the Earth, and although they have often been regarded as dangers in the past, many of them hold future potential as abundant energy reserves. North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa have all began developing geothermal energy systems, and in some cases Icelandic participation has contributed to their success substantially.

Diagram by Icelandic National Energy Authority

Although geothermal energy can provide an essentially endless supply of power, there are also potential dangers associated with over-development. The geothermal process is in some ways similar to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing – which involves drilling into the earth and injecting fluids into shale rock layers in order to fracture the earth and release natural gas deposits. While fracking releases natural gases such as methane and other hydrocarbons, geothermal drilling only releases water vapor. Yet, in both cases, water is injected directly into the rock with the specific intention of causing fractures, which can cause small earthquakes to occur. However, these are often at a magnitude of around 1, which is unlikely to pose any real threat to infrastructure.


21st century prospects

Future geothermal projects in Iceland include the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), which plans to test the practice of boring over 5 kilometers into the earth in order to extract heat from some of Iceland’s largest geothermal reservoirs.

This depth, double that of conventional plants, is ambitious, but perhaps also dangerous. A feasibility report by the IDDP acknowledged the possibility of damage to geological features and formations, to wetlands and sensitive areas, and to local flora and fauna. However, these risks were deemed to be easily mitigated by undertaking the drilling far from roads. This would ensure that any damage is neither noticeable nor of any real social importance. The opposition to this project appears to be relatively silent, there has been very little activism on the issue, which suggests that there are no major concerns about the long-term risk of geothermal drilling to local communities. If all of this is correct, then the IDDP may represent a revolutionary step forward in renewable energy, allowing for much larger-scale extraction of geothermal resources that may further reduce the need for fossil fuels in grid distributed energy.

Photograph by Christopher Beddow

Iceland, while not without its troubles, has recently become one of the world’s wealthiest, most stable, and most energy independent nations, despite being isolated and economically poor only a century ago. This very same isolation has contributed to the need for local energy development, in what is referred to as a spatially segregated system rather than one which is well-integrated with neighboring countries.

As an island, Iceland has found that it is burdened with a more crucial need for self-sufficiency, and geothermal power has played a large part in achieving this. As the European nation continues to improve its own energy ecosystem, it has the noble goal of lending both knowledge and helping hands to other nations in their own endeavor for energy independence.

Geothermal energy as a whole is one of the many beacons of hope in our world’s future, and with sufficient effort and funding it has the potential to make other regions of the world as commendable and remarkable as the beautiful, volcano-covered country of Iceland.