Data Series #6: Partnering to meet climate, energy challenges

I met Dr. Joe Casola in November at an EPA-sponsored climate summit. We spoke at length about energy policies and climate change and I asked him if he'd be willing to be interviewed for this blog. He graciously agreed.

As always, timing is everything. With the EPA now proposing rules to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, it's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Casola, who serves as Staff Scientist and Program Director for Science and Impacts at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. In these roles he oversees the organization’s efforts to assess and communicate the current state of knowledge regarding climate change and its associated impacts, and to promote actions that strengthen climate resilience.

The nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions seeks to offer independent, nonpartisan strategies for strong policy and action to address the interrelated challenges of energy and climate change. Launched in November 2011, C2ES is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Visit here for more on C2ES.

Catholic Ecology: What is the most up-to-date science regarding climate change. Has there been any new research or projections since the fall 2013 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

Image of Dr. Joe Casola smiling wile posing near a rushing river.
Dr. Joe Casola

Dr. Joe Casola: Although there has been plenty of new research conducted since the IPCC reports were released, the reports represent a comprehensive assessment of the state of climate science, and won’t become obsolete anytime soon. In fact, many of the “big picture” statements in the report have not changed from previous reports: The Earth has been warming; greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, especially fossil fuel combustion, have been an important driver of the warming; and the impacts of climate change have important consequences for communities, infrastructure, and businesses. Overall, the evidence about climate change has been getting stronger.

For the United States, the recently released National Climate Assessment is a great source of information about climate impacts that have occurred, as well as those we anticipate occurring. The report looks at various regions within the country, as well as different sectors (e.g., water, energy, transportation) offering a more “zoomed-in” view of climate impacts, tailored for a domestic audience.

CE: Tell us about the new EPA rules. How might they help? What do they really mean for the energy industry and the average energy user in the United States?

Dr. Casola: The U.S. took a major step toward reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are affecting our climate. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Clean Power Plan, released June 2, would limit CO2 emissions from power plants – the single largest source.

(C2ES outlines the proposal in a new Q&A, and provides links to more resources.)

The new rule would reduce emissions from the electricity sector by an estimated 30 percent by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. Combined with the already-proposed rules for new power plants, these efforts put us on a path to a lower-carbon power system.

From first impressions, it appears EPA is trying to strike the right balance–a rule that's strong enough to drive real action, yet flexible enough for states and utilities to meet it at a reasonable cost. If electricity rates go up, but we also improve energy efficiency, individual's electric bills could stay the same or even go down.

What's especially important is that the rule would allow states to build on the existing cap-and-trade programs in California and the Northeast and allow other market-based approaches. Letting states use carbon pricing is the best way to cut emissions cost-effectively.

CE: How would you characterize governments’ responses to climate change on the international and national level—especially after the State of the Union address? What are the overall positives and negatives?

Dr. Casola: The world has not reduced its greenhouse gas emissions much. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. The United States has made some progress in reducing its emissions in recent years, but we can do more to solidify that progress by pursuing policies that put us on the road to a lower-carbon economy, and that help us better prepare for climate impacts.

There is some good news out there–fuel standards for many types of vehicles have helped to reduce emissions, and many states have enacted programs to reduce emissions (like California’s cap-and-trade system) or incentivize the deployment of cleaner energy. And EPA’s proposed rule for reducing emissions from power plants represents a good first step at the federal level for reducing emissions across the electricity sector.

CE: What has been the biggest obstacles when working with local communities?

Dr. Casola: Local communities often confront a couple of issues when thinking about climate change, including a lack of technical resources to assess how climate impacts will affect them and limited financial resources or staff to implement solutions that lower emissions or improve resilience to impacts.

Many communities that have had success in reducing emissions or bolstering resilience have overcome these obstacles by forming partnerships to leverage resources. For example, there is a lot of expertise in universities that can be harnessed to address climate issues. Partnerships among communities (as has been done in South Florida) or with private sector decision-makers (as has been done on the Gulf Coast) also have helped address these constraints.

CE: One of your recent newsletters includes a story on businesses that have recognized climate risks. Can you tell us a little about this?

Dr. Casola: Companies have always had to navigate a changing business environment. But now they face a changing physical environment, as climate change leads to more frequent and intense heat waves, higher sea levels, and more severe droughts, wildfires, and downpours.

For many businesses, these climate impacts are beginning to impose real costs. They damage facilities, interrupt power and water supplies, drive up insurance costs, and disrupt supply and distribution chains.

Many leading businesses are beginning to connect the dots between changes in climate and their bottom lines, both in terms of managing risks and seizing opportunities. However, gaps remain. The tools to transform climate information into decision options are often lacking. Some policies may impede actions designed to build resilience. And the risks to roads, ports, and the electricity grid are often outside a company’s fence line. Government can play a role in closing these gaps.

CE: In particular, how is the energy industry responding to the science of climate change—especially industries focused on fossil fuels?

Dr. Casola: Many energy companies are investing in lower carbon, or zero carbon, technologies such as wind and solar power, or carbon capture and storage. Accelerating these trends should be an important objective for state, national, and international policy. In addition, many companies have been improving the efficiency of their processes, saving energy, and often water too, along the way.

Also, many energy companies are assessing how climate impacts may affect their facilities and operations. Utilities operating in the Northeast have had to combat several notable storms in the past few years (Sandy, Irene, and a number of strong Nor’easters), and many are taking step to harden or relocate vulnerable assets, or to establish greater redundancy across their systems.

CE: What are some near-term issues that require addressing, whether by business, governments, or individuals?

Dr. Casola: Bolstering our resilience to impacts is critical. We have a significant amount of infrastructure that is vulnerable, and we rely on resources, such as water, that are climate sensitive. We shouldn’t wait until the next strong storm, flood, drought, or wildfire to take steps to prepare. And all the players that you mentioned have a role in contributing to preparedness.

Businesses, governments, and individuals can also take steps to reduce their emissions. Becoming more efficient with the way we use energy and switching to lower carbon or zero carbon forms of energy are steps that can be taken by businesses, government, or individuals.

CE: Has C2ES worked with faith communities to help educate people about climate change and its impacts? If so, tell us a little about that.

Dr. Casola: Not specifically. But there are some initiatives related to climate action that focus on the faith community, such as Blessed Tomorrow. [Editor: And we can't forget the Catholic Climate Covenant.]

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.