Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

December 21, 2016

By John Mott-Smith

I typically use the last column of the year to sum up progress, or the lack of it, in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. This year there’s so much to say, perhaps summed up as “elections have consequences.” Future columns will talk about this as words fade away and actions take center stage.

For now, let’s look at the numbers.

The first measuring stick is the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that’s been tracking parts per million, reports that for November 2016 the average is 403.64 ppm. This year’s number is 3.4 ppm above November of last year’s level of 400.24 ppm.

This increase may not sound like much, after all, we are talking about “parts per million.” But let’s look at it in context. First, scientists generally peg the level at which we can avoid the tipping points associated with adverse effects of climate change at 350 ppm; a level we blew past in 1988. And, ominously, the increase of 3.4 ppm represents a continuing acceleration over past average annual increases.

Global temperatures are rising

This is not just a bunch of numbers; atmospheric CO2 levels are directly related to global temperature. The average global temperature in 2015 was 1.67 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for 1901-2000, the highest in the 137 years of recorded data. 2016 is on track to be the second-hottest in recorded history, slightly lower at 1.6 degrees. So, the numbers indicate that as yet we are not making progress, or enough progress. Where does that leave us?

On the one hand, the statements of President-elect Donald Trump give us good reason to believe that the forward-looking and thinking climate policies of the Obama presidency may be curtailed or reversed, that our country’s leadership in efforts to reduce emissions will be forfeited, and that global reduction targets will be much more difficult to reach.

After all, scientific consensus is that actions to date, including the Paris Climate Accords signed by nearly every nation on the planet, will not be sufficient in their current form and will need strengthening in order to avoid adverse global consequences. Without the United States on board, progress is more in doubt.

On the other hand, the president-elect’s statements are inconsistent and some point at rays of hope and possible silver linings as governing replaces running for office. I share no such sunny optimism for policy at the federal level. I expect the worst, and only actions, not words, will change that expectation.

International leadership

I do, however, see the possibility that other nations, and activities on the subnational level, can continue positive momentum. I may be grasping at straws but, as implausible as it once seemed, China may pick up the mantle of leadership, both for reasons of geopolitical leverage, but also, and primarily, because the Chinese people are sick and tired of not being able to breathe clean air.

And, it was recently reported, China “lectured” U.S. officials that it will continue efforts to reduce emissions regardless of what the U.S. does (or doesn’t) do.

Second, banks and insurance companies all over the globe are incorporating risks associated with climate change into their financing, development and insurance policies and activities. It’s about dollars and sense.

Businesses in the lead of the renewable revolution

Third, businesses such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and many other huge global firms are already on a path to decreasing emissions. Google, for example, will be 100-percent converted to renewable energy sources by 2017. Facebook and Amazon also are pursuing deals with developers of renewable energy. Microsoft says it is already at 100-percent renewable energy. LinkedIn is building a zero-net-energy facility.

Reducing emissions, it turns out, has the salutary co-benefit of decreasing uncertainty about future electricity supplies and costs. Tesla/SolarCity is moving into the residential solar market after residents of Florida rejected attempts to handcuff the solar industry, and company president Elon Musk is articulating a vision to combine home solar systems with an electric vehicle in the garage. If the “Sunshine State” wants to go solar, can the rest of the country be far behind?

We live in a big beautiful bubble

Fourth, we do, after all, live in California, a huge bubble in which policymakers operate largely independently of the federal government. The state has continued its efforts to ramp up efficiency standards in buildings, vehicles, land-use planning and appliances. Just this month, California enacted new energy-efficiency standards for computers and monitors.

Fifth, renewables technology is racing ahead, resulting in huge reductions in the cost of wind and solar energy. For example, the first offshore “wind farm” in the United States went on line just this month.

Sixth, the city of Davis and the county of Yolo, a bubble within a bubble, are two of many communities stimulating the renewable industry through adoption of a Community Choice Energy program.

Last, but not least, when Debbie Davis gave me the opportunity to write this column for The Enterprise a decade ago I titled it “Per Capita Davis” out of a strong belief that the underpinning of policy at the national and state levels flows directly from the actions of individuals. Paraphrasing Pogo, “We have met the answer and it is us.”

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. Send comments to