John Mott-Smith [Credit: Davis Enterprise
John Mott-Smith, member of Cool Davis and columnist for Davis Enterprise reviews whether, overall, the year was one of progress or retreat on tackling climate change, whether we are closer to avoiding or experiencing the consequences of our actions or inactions.

The question is complicated and the answer is difficult to determine. Here are some of the pluses and minuses.

JUST THE FACTS: Starting with the empirical, let’s look at the results of scientists monitoring and measuring carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Last December, the “World Clock” that tracks this and other global metrics ( reported a concentration of 388.8 parts per million. This year, the number is 391.3 — an increase of 2.5 ppm. So, globally, we are not making progress in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and reports indicate the rate of increase is itself still increasing.

Recent reports from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the international scientific collaboration, the Global Carbon Project, indicate a couple of other troubling statistics. Whereas most of our “Climate Action Plans” aim to reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to 1990 levels by the year 2020, thus far those levels have increased about 30 percent above that baseline and are still going up. It moves from “troubling” to “disturbing” when viewed next to the longer term goal of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

IT’S NOT MY FAULT: The increase in greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly driven by three major trends. First, several developing countries — notably China and India — have surpassed most wealthy countries in both emissions and the rate of growth in these emissions.

Second, everybody seems intent on extracting every ounce of coal from the ground and burning it to produce energy. Third, consumption (greater energy use on a per-capita basis) in the wealthy countries continues to blunt efforts in these countries to reduce emissions.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: This term may be becoming an oxymoron, at least in California, according to a recent UC Berkeley study and report on science in the elementary grades. An article summarizing the study indicated that only about 10 percent of classrooms surveyed offer high-quality science programs and, in the Sacramento area, 71 percent of schools didn’t have a dedicated science teacher. Without a grounding in science, how will the public be able to judge scientific issues and make policy decisions?

On the plus side, the magazine Scientific American has begun a “Suspect Science” feature in the magazine to highlight high-profile examples of scientific illiteracy. It’s a good sign that some scientists are speaking up (and out).

BELOW THE RADAR: Contributing to the difficulty in figuring out if we are on a net positive or net negative path is the fact that a whole lot is happening, if not exactly behind the scenes, at least out of the national spotlight. While it is true that international efforts at a global treaty on climate change have faltered (I think they passed out fiddles in the last session), and U.S. leadership on climate change has ground to a halt (maybe even been thrown into reverse) due to congressional inaction, the EPA is going forward with new mileage standards that will require each manufacturer’s fleet to average almost 55 mpg by 2025. And jurisdictions all over the country are acting on their own.

Perhaps the brightest star in the Department of Silver Linings is the news that California is no longer judged to be the most energy-efficient state; that role is now assigned to Massachusetts. California is No. 2, followed by New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Connecticut and Maryland, with honorable mention for “most improved” going to Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Alabama and Tennessee.

Collectively, the states are investing more than $5.5 billion annually in energy-efficiency programs; 29 states have adopted energy-saving building codes and policies to reduce vehicle miles traveled; and half of the 50 states now have policies that direct electric utilities to implement energy-efficiency programs and develop renewable energy sources.

THE WINDS OF CHANGE: Although no one weather event can be traced directly to climate change, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has drawn a cause-and-effect straight line between increases in greenhouse gas emissions and the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. They indicate that in 2011 alone there were at least 12 such events that caused more than a billion dollars each in damage.

The International Energy Agency estimates that for every $1 not spent before 2020 to reduce greenhouse gases, it will take $4.30 to compensate for the increased emissions. Congress may not be raising taxes, or funding efforts to reduce emissions, but it is making the future a lot more expensive.

CAN TECHNOLOGY SAVE US? Probably not (says the pessimist) but there is always hope (says the optimist). Research is under way to modify annual agricultural plants into perennials. The benefit would be that corn, wheat and other staples would have deeper root systems and, if all of our crop land were planted with these varieties, the resulting sequestration of CO2 could reduce atmospheric levels to what it was at the beginning of the industrial revolution.

“It will never happen,” says the pessimist. “Just you wait and see,” says the optimist.