Penguins losing habitat in Antarctica, could be decimated by 2099

(Photo: University of Delaware)

Penguins losing habitat in Antarctica, could be decimated by 2099

Doyle Rice, USA TODAY 2:47 p.m. EDT June 29, 2016

Penguins — easily the most known and beloved wild animal in Antarctica — could be decimated by man-made global warming over the coming decades, according to a new study.

Habitat loss caused from warmer water and loss of sea ice could bring a 60% decline in population of the Adélie penguin by 2099, said study lead author Megan Cimino.

For millions of years,  Adélie penguins across Antarctica weathered natural climate change as glaciers expanded and melted. The penguins needed the warm periods as shrinking glaciers allowed them to return to their rocky breeding grounds.

But the study concludes that such helpful warming may have reached its tipping point. Longer warm periods may be shrinking the penguins’ habitat, leading to the declining population.

It is only in recent decades that we know Adélie penguins population declines are associated with warming, which suggests that many regions of Antarctica have warmed too much and that further warming is no longer positive for the species,” Cimino said.

A 2009 study reported that another penguin species — the emperor penguin — could face extinction by 2100 as Antarctic sea ice melts. “Sea ice is essential to the emperor penguin life cycle, as the animals use it to breed, feed, and molt,” the authors said in the 2009 study.

The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports on Wednesday, looked at various levels of warming expected over this century as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ group that is the gold standard for climate forecasts.

The study used satellite observations from 1981-2010 of sea surface temperature, sea ice and bare rock locations, and penguin population estimates from satellite photos to predict the impact of warming trends on the penguins.

Overall, the researchers reported that climate change impacts on penguins in Antarctica will likely be highly site-specific, based on regional climate trends. Some parts of the continent, and thus some of the penguins, may not be as affected by climate change as others.

Climate change is disrupting seasonal behavior (phenology) of Britain’s wildlife

Climate change is disrupting seasonal behaviour of Britain’s wildlife

Global warming is causing breeding and migration cycles of related plants and animals to fall out of sync with potential impacts on entire ecosystems, research shows

Jessica Aldred Wednesday 29 June 2016 13.00 EDT Last modified on Wednesday 29 June 2016 13.02 EDT

Climate change is disrupting the seasonal behaviour of Britain’s plants and animals, with rising temperatures having an impact on species at different levels of the food chain, new research shows.

The result could be widespread “desynchronisation” between species and their phenological events – seasonal biological cycles such as breeding and migration – that could affect the functioning of entire ecosystems, according to the large-scale study published this week in the journal Nature. It also warns of changes in the key seasonal interactions between species that could disrupt relationships between predators and prey and affect their breeding success and survival.

The study, led by Dr Stephen Thackeray from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in collaboration with 17 other organisations, analysed 10,003 long term phenological data sets of 812 of the UK’s marine, freshwater and land-based plant and animal species collected between 1960-2012 on everything from fish spawning to plant flowering. The data was split into three levels of the food chain and spatially matched with local temperature and rainfall data, and models of seasonal timing and climatic variables, to show the variation in which species at different “trophic” levels are sensitive climate change.

“This is the largest study of the climatic sensitivity of UK plant and animal seasonal behaviour to date. Our results show the potential for climate change to disrupt the relationships between plants and animals, and now it is crucially important that we try to understand the consequences of these changes,” Thackeray said. He said the findings highlighted the importance of managing ecosystems within a “safe operating space” that considered the likely impacts of projected climate change.

The UK has a rich history of biological recording by scientists and ‘citizen scientists’ who document the first signs of spring. Photograph: Alamy The study shows that seasonal events – including flowers blooming, leaves falling or animals hibernating – are generally more sensitive to temperature rises brought about by climate change than to changes in precipitation or snowfall.

But the “direction, magnitude and timing of climate sensitivity” varies significantly among species in different groups or levels of the food chain, the study showed.

Secondary consumers (such as predatory birds, fish and mammals) were consistently less sensitive to climate variations than species at the base of the chain (such as seed-eating birds and herbivorous insects), which were twice as sensitive to temperature. Using estimates, the study predicted that by 2050, these primary consumers will have shifted their seasonal timing by more than twice as much as species at other levels of the food chain — an average of 6.2 days earlier compared to 2.5–2.9 days earlier….

Species being disrupted by climate change

Early spider orchids and solitary miner bees
The solitary miner bee (Andrena nigroaenea) has been found to be more affected by climate change than the early spider orchid that it pollinates. Although both orchids and bees are both affected by temperature rises, they have a greater impact on the bees, the females of which emerge earlier, meaning that the males are less likely visit the orchids for pseudocopulation.

Oak buds and winter moths
Research has shown that an increase in spring temperatures without a decrease in the incidences of freezing spells in winter leads to poor synchronicity between the winter moth (Operophtera brumata) caterpillars and the oak tree (Quercus robur) buds on which they feed.

Cuckoos and their host species
While the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) has only advanced its migration slightly in response to earlier springs, many of its host species (the nests of which the cuckoo lays its eggs in) have begun to migrate much earlier, and are arriving at the breeding grounds well before the cuckoos.

Make climate-change assessments more relevant

Make climate-change assessments more relevant
27 June 2016 PDF
Nature 534, 613–615 (30 June 2016) doi:10.1038/534613a

Stéphane Hallegatte, Katharine J. Mach and colleagues urge researchers to gear their studies, and the way they present their results, to the needs of policymakers.

With the ink just dry on the Paris climate agreement, policymakers want to know how they can act most effectively. Ambition is high: the long-term goal is to keep the average warming of the planet to well below 2 °C, and even to 1.5 °C. …
No single approach will work for all. The risks and impacts of climate change differ by place and time. Local values and contexts matter. Small islands are vulnerable to sea-level rise, for example, and fossil-fuel exporters will lose profits from the transition to low-carbon energy. We must consider value judgements, such as the relative importance of economic damage versus biodiversity loss, as well as inequality and fairness.
And the relevant climate and social sciences are themselves diverse, from studies of the physics of storm formation to investigations of the role of heritage in cultural identity. The challenge for those who assess such scientific knowledge, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is to summarize results in ways that are true to the original research, explicit about the values and judgements in the analysis, and digestible by and useful to policymakers and the public.…..In the IPCC’s sixth cycle of assessment, the climate-science community needs to supply the right sorts of information to help decision-makers to construct policies from myriad mitigation and adaptation options.
Producing this information will require more multidisciplinary research, updated strategies for communicating uncertainty and studies of a broader range of climate and risk projections that include the impacts of policy responses.

Here, we set out four steps to putting policy relevance at the core of both research and assessment.

Integrate disciplines from the start. …The range of risks summarized in the IPCC’s 2014 Synthesis Report was limited by the research available. For example, the assessment highlighted increasing risks of climate extremes but said little about how climatic hazards interact with societal vulnerability. Sparse information on how risks evolve at specific warming levels resulted in the reporting of broad, qualitative levels of risk — for example, ‘undetectable’ to ‘very high’, as judged by experts. But comparison across risks was difficult.
Climate scientists need to close these gaps by scrutinizing the feedbacks between development pathways, climate change and its impacts and risks, and policies and responses.
..But covering many climatic and societal futures, globally to locally, is a monumental task. Projects that compare assumptions and results between different models are a start, but need to include more evidence and expert judgements across disciplines.
….… Research and assessments must be designed to solicit and answer questions crucial to decision-making. For example, how do risks and requirements compare for a climate goal at 1.5 °C, 2 °C or more? How can we avoid locking in to carbon-intensive development pathways and keep open options for rapid decarbonization? How can the effectiveness of adaptation actions be ensured? And how can emissions be reduced without slowing the pace of poverty reduction?

Explore multiple dimensions. More research is needed on regional challenges and opportunities that go beyond the use of a single metric — global mean warming — as a proxy for climate change and its impacts4. For example, ocean acidification and sea-level rise are not linearly related to peak temperature, and the risks that they create require more detailed investigation. And reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants such as soot and tropospheric ozone precursors might not change peak warming, but would slow the rate of warming globally5; this would allow more time for ecosystems and societies to adapt, as well as provide local health benefits….

Consider uncertainty. Decision-makers need to appreciate a wide range of possible outcomes, including uncertainty in the consequences of global climate policies. Four aspects of uncertainty must be evaluated and communicated: probability ranges that can be narrowed with future research; unknowns that are linked to a deep lack of knowledge; uncertain reactions that depend on societal decisions and geopolitical events; and other areas of uncertainty that reflect random or chaotic features of the climate system…..Researchers need to assess how different sources of uncertainty affect decision-making, especially in worst-case scenarios. What should we do if temperatures start to rise more rapidly or the impacts are more dangerous than we expect? How can we detect such departures and how should we alter course? Climate policies might prove to be harmful and need revising; technology costs might not fall; carbon capture and sequestration might not work….

Inform holistic solutions.
A fuller evaluation of risks and options is needed that includes those created by climate-change responses for other policy goals. For example, the assessment of climate-change risks at 1.5 °C in the IPCC’s 2014 Synthesis Report foresaw impacts on coral reefs, Arctic sea ice, water availability, food production and sea-level rise. But the bigger picture should also include issues related to climate mitigation, such as economic duress, land- and water-use trade-offs and calls for high-risk geoengineering methods.

The impacts of climate changes and climate policies will interact if, for instance, a slower reduction in poverty owing to higher energy costs increases vulnerability. Synergies and trade-offs must be evaluated, including risks arising from mitigation actions — not just inactions. Social and climate scientists must investigate the political and socio-economic impacts of climate policies (short- as well as long-term), the distribution of those who benefit and those who are adversely affected, and the influences of powerful interest groups.

It is important to explore how climate responses can advance the Sustainable Development Goals and especially poverty reduction10. For instance, improving access to clean energy and decreasing the economic impacts of extreme weather events can accelerate development progress while protecting poorer nations against climate change. Climate action and protection will never be the sole priorities for decision-makers, but they will be integral to the full policy landscape. Research and assessment can create a powerful foundation for these interactions, and empower decisions in the years ahead.

Alpine soils storing up to a third less carbon as summers warm

Alpine soils storing up to a third less carbon as summers warm

Posted on 28 June 2016 by Guest Author This is a re-post from Robert McSweeney at Carbon Brief

The top metre of the world’s soils contains three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. This means that losing carbon from the soil can quicken the pace of human-caused climate warming. A new paper, published today in Nature Geoscience, finds this is already happening in the forests of the German Alps. Soils there are losing carbon as summer temperatures rise, the researchers say.

In the last three decades, soil carbon across the German Alps has decreased by an average of 14% – and by as much as 32% for certain types of soils. The findings might be a sign of how soils could amplify warming in future, other scientists say.

Soil carbon cycle. Source: Kirk et al. (2016).

Crucial role

Soils play a crucial role in the global carbon cycle. The figure below, from a News & Views article that accompanies the paper, illustrates how carbon is taken up and released by soils.

Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and transfer carbon into the ground when dead roots and leaves decompose in the soil. Here, carbon is “immobilised” for anything from a week to thousands of years. Eventually, the carbon is broken down completely, or “mineralized”, releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere.

….Across the forest sites, they find that levels of soil carbon has decreased by an average of 14% since the first samples were collected. The size of the decrease is almost identical for the two different locations, the researchers note, with an average decline in carbon of 14.0% for Set 1 and 14.5% for Set 2. The scientists also find that soils with a higher carbon content to begin with lost more of their carbon over the 30-year study period, averaging 32%.
While the researchers found a decrease in carbon in forest soils, they didn’t find a change in the samples taken from pasture soils.

Carbon appears to be more stable in these soils because of their high mineral content, says Dr Jörg Prietze, lead author of the paper and associate professor of soil science at the Technical University of Munich. The carbon in the soil clings to these minerals and isn’t released into the atmosphere as easily, he explains.

Prof Guy Kirk, professor of soil systems at Cranfield University and author of the News & Views article, writes that the findings of this “exemplary” monitoring study might be a sign of how soils could amplify warming in future, perhaps triggering a self-reinforcing loop. He writes:

“[The study’s] evidence that climate change has already started depleting soil carbon in the German Alps raises the possibility that a positive feedback between climate and ecosystems is beginning.” This positive feedback would see warming conditions speed up the release of carbon from the world’s soils, which would in turn warm the climate further.

Humans artificially drive evolution of new species

Humans artificially drive evolution of new species

Posted: 28 Jun 2016 07:17 PM PDT

Species across the world are rapidly going extinct due to human activities, but humans are also causing rapid evolution and the emergence of new species. A new study summarizes the causes of humanmade speciation, and discusses why newly evolved species cannot simply replace extinct wild species.

A growing number of examples show that humans not only contribute to the extinction of species but also drive evolution, and in some cases the emergence of entirely new species. This can take place through mechanisms such as accidental introductions, domestication of animals and crops, unnatural selection due to hunting, or the emergence of novel ecosystems such as the urban environment.

Although tempting to conclude that human activities thus benefit as well as deplete global biodiversity, the authors stress that extinct wild species cannot simply be replaced with newly evolved ones, and that nature conservation remains just as urgent.

….The study which was carried out in collaboration with the University of Queensland was published today in Proceedings of Royal Society B. It highlights numerous examples of how human activities influence species’ evolution. For instance: as the common house mosquito adapted to the environment of the underground railway system in London, it established a subterranean population. Now named the ‘London Underground mosquito’, it can no longer interbreed with its above ground counterpart and is effectively thought to be a new species.

“We also see examples of domestication resulting in new species. According to a recent study, at least six of the world’s 40 most important agricultural crops are considered entirely new” explains Joseph Bull.

Furthermore, unnatural selection due to hunting can lead to new traits emerging in animals, which can eventually lead to new species, and deliberate or accidental relocation of species can lead to hybridization with other species. Due to the latter, more new plant species in Europe have appeared than are documented to have gone extinct over the last three centuries.

Although it is not possible to quantify exactly how many speciation events have been caused through human activities, the impact is potentially considerable, the study states.

In this context, ‘number of species’ becomes a deeply unsatisfactory measure of conservation trends, because it does not reflect many important aspects of biodiversity. Achieving a neutral net outcome for species numbers cannot be considered acceptable if weighing wild fauna against relatively homogenous domesticated species. However, considering speciation alongside extinction may well prove important in developing a better understanding of our impact upon global biodiversity. We call for a discussion about what we, as a society, actually want to conserve about nature” says Associate Professor Martine Maron from the University of Queensland.

Researchers do agree that current extinction rates may soon lead to a 6th period of mass extinction. Since the last Ice Age, 11.500 years ago, it is estimated that 255 mammals and 523 bird species has gone extinct, often due to human activity. In the same period, humans have relocated almost 900 known species and domesticated more than 470 animals and close to 270 plant species.

Joseph Bull et al. How humans drive speciation as well as extinction. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2016 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0600

New study shows impact of human-made structures on Louisiana’s coastal wetlands–+ScienceDaily%29

Researchers use satellite data to quantify wetland loss

June 28, 2016

University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

As Louisiana’s wetlands continue to disappear at an alarming rate, a new study has pinpointed the human-made structures that disrupt the natural water flow and threaten these important ecosystems. The findings have important implications for New Orleans and other coastal cities that rely on coastal wetlands to serve as buffer from destructive extreme weather events.

Scientists at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science found that human-made canals limit the natural tidal inundation process in roughly 45 percent of the state’s coastline, and disruptions from levees accounted for 15 percent.

“This study demonstrates that human infrastructure development along coastal areas have long-term consequences on the ability of coastal wetlands to adapt to sea-level rise and other processes that reduce the size of coastal wetlands,” said Talib Oliver-Cabrera, the study’s first author and a UM Rosenstiel School Ph.D. student.

Coastal wetlands in Louisiana are economically and esthetically important by providing storm protection, flood control, and essential habitats for a myriad of wildlife. They support economically important commercial and recreational fishing industries, tourism, and oil and gas industries.

Human-made structures, such as levees and canals, have changed the regular patterns of tidal inundation in coastal wetlands and have become a main element in determining coastal wetland distribution.

Using a remote sensing technique, called Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR),
the researchers analyzed water-level changes in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands that occurred due to tidal inundation. Based on the detected changes observed, they were able to determine the extent of tidal inundations along the Louisiana coast….

Talib Oliver-Cabrera, Shimon Wdowinski. InSAR-Based Mapping of Tidal Inundation Extent and Amplitude in Louisiana Coastal Wetlands. Remote Sensing, 2016; 8 (5): 393 DOI: 10.3390/rs8050393

The red frames show the location of enlarged interferograms presented in Figures A, B and C. A) Radarsat-1 interferogram of the western Chenier Plain spanning 24-day period (2004/01/03-2004/01/27). In the central part of the interferogram fringe patterns show changes in inland water bodies. The left side of the interferogram shows fringe patterns due to the morphology of the Chenier reflecting water level changes in the mudflats in between the ridges of the Chenier’s. B) ALOS interferogram, 92 days (2007/07/03-2007/10/03), of the central Chenier Plain showing phase changes due to elongated fringe patterns sub-parallel to the coastline coinciding with man-made canals. C) ALOS interferogram of the west of the Mississippi River delta, spanning 92-day period (2007/09/11-2007/12/12). The interferogram showing two fringe cycles across the tidal zone mapping the tide inundation extent.

Credit: Talib Oliver-Cabrera, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

Major Science Organizations Again Urge Congress to Take Climate Change Seriously

Science Organizations Again Urge Congress to Take Climate Change Seriously

The letter, signed by many major American groups, pushes back against climate denial and calls for policy solutions to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

By Lisa Song Jun 28, 2016 Inside Climate News

Thirty-one major American scientific organizations sent a letter to Congress on Tuesday emphasizing the overwhelming consensus on climate change science and the urgent need for climate action. The letter served as a scientific counterpoint to recent actions by Congress designed to question that consensus.

Reminding members of Congress that “rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver” of global warming, they cited nearly universal support for  the scientific consensus as expressed  by the U.S. National Academies, the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must be substantially reduced,” said the letter, which was endorsed by institutions such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium that includes more than 100 North American universities.

“In addition, adaptation is necessary to address unavoidable consequences for human health and safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others,” the letter continued.

Under Republican leadership, Congress has persistently worked to block President Obama’s climate agenda. A report released this spring found that a third of current Congressional representatives and Senators publicly doubt the scientific consensus on global warming….

Rep. Lamar Smith, left, who has led many of Congress’ efforts to question climate science, speaks with John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Credit: Getty Images

Water windfall’ discovered beneath California’s Central Valley

Mary Kang and Robert B. Jackson. Salinity of deep groundwater in California: Water quantity, quality, and protection. PNAS, 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1600400113

Water windfall’ discovered beneath California’s Central Valley

Posted: 27 Jun 2016 01:01 PM PDT

New research indicates that California’s Central Valley harbors three times more groundwater than previously estimated, but challenges to using it include pumping costs, ground subsidence and possible contamination from fracking and other oil and gas activities.

California’s drought-stricken Central Valley harbors three times more groundwater than previously estimated, Stanford scientists have found. Accessing this water in an economically feasible way and safeguarding it from possible contamination from oil and gas activities, however, will be challenging. “It’s not often that you find a ‘water windfall,’ but we just did,” said study co-author Robert Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor at Stanford. “There’s far more fresh water and usable water than we expected.”

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of June 27, highlights the need to better characterize and protect deep groundwater aquifers not only in California but in other parched regions as well. “Our findings are relevant to a lot of other places where there are water shortages, including Texas, China and Australia,” said study co-author Mary Kang, a postdoctoral associate at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences…. …In the new study, Jackson and Kang used data from 938 oil and gas pools and more than 35,000 oil and gas wells to characterize both shallow and deep groundwater sources in eight California counties. The researchers concluded that when deeper sources of groundwater are factored in, the amount of usable groundwater in the Central Valley increases to 2,700 cubic kilometers — or almost triple the state’s current estimates.

Complications to consider

While this is good news for California, the findings also raise some concerns. First, much of the water is 1,000 to 3,000 feet underground, so pumping it will be more expensive. Without proper studies, tapping these deeper aquifers might also exacerbate the ground subsidence — the gradual sinking of the land — that is already happening throughout the Central Valley. Groundwater pumping from shallow aquifers has already caused some regions to drop by tens of feet. Furthermore, some of the deep aquifer water is also brinier — higher in salt concentration — than shallower water, so desalination or other treatment will be required before it can be used for agriculture or for drinking.

Another concern the Stanford scientists uncovered is that oil and gas drilling activities are occurring directly into as much as 30 percent of the sites where the deep groundwater resources are located. For example, in Kern County, where the core of California’s oil and gas industry is centered near the city of Bakersfield, one in every six cases of oil and gas activities was occurring directly into freshwater aquifers. For useable water — water that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems drinkable if treated — the number was one in three.

….. “What we are saying is that no one is monitoring deep aquifers. No one’s following them through time to see how and if the water quality is changing,” Kang said. “We might need to use this water in a decade, so it’s definitely worth protecting.”

Setting the Climate Agenda for the Next U.S. President- May 2016 Stanford- Key Take Aways

Stanford’s May 6th 2016 conference: “Setting the Climate Agenda for the Next U.S. President

The terrific line-up of speakers advanced important observations and recommendations about how our next President might approach climate change-related issues and advance a successful agenda. All of the speakers agreed that, regardless of who wins the election, he or she will need to forthrightly address the impact that climate change already is having on our environment and our economy. He or she should advance a thoughtful agenda that engages key stakeholders in energy, infrastructure, land use, and many other sectors, as well as impacted state and local governments and, importantly, the international community.

Availability of Conference Presentations

All of the presentations made at the conference are now available online, including both the speakers’ individual presentations (which averaged about 15 minutes in length and are well worth your time) and in the provocative, moderated discussions that followed all of the individual presentations (also worth your time!). Here is the link:

By way of reminder, the presentations that you can find online include all of the speakers involved in the conference, along with moderated discussions, listed here in the order of their presentations:

Former Governor Jennifer Granholm

Former Secretary George Shultz

Arun Majumdar — Co-Director, Stanford Precourt Institute on Energy; former Acting Undersecretary for Science and Energy, U.S. Department of Energy; former Director, ARPA-E, DOE

Jagdeep Bachher — Chief Investment Officer, University of California system; representing the UC system in Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Coalition

Reed Hundt — Former Chairman, Federal Communications Commission; CEO, Coalition for Green Capital

Andy Karsner — Managing Partner, Emerson Collective; Senior Strategist, Google X; Stanford Precourt Energy Scholar & Former Assistant Secretary for Efficiency and Renewable Energy, DOE

Michael Picker — Chair, California Public Utilities Commission; former Senior Advisory for Renewable Energy for Governor Jerry Brown

Nancy Pfund — Founder and Managing Partner, DBL Partners

Dan Reicher — Executive Director, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance; former Assistant Secretary of Energy; former Director, Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, Google

David J. Hayes — Visiting Lecturer in Law, Stanford Law School; former Deputy Secretary, Department of the Interior

Kate Gordon — Vice Chair for Climate and Sustainable Urbanization, Paulson Institute; former VP for Energy Policy, Center for American Progress

Jim Connaughton — President and CEO, Nautilus Data Technologies; Board, former Chairman, White House Council on Environmental Quality

John Podesta — former Chief of Staff for President Clinton and former Counselor to President Obama

William K. Reilly — Senior Advisor, TPG Capital; former Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency

Steven Chu — Professor of Physics and Molecular & Cellular Physiology, Stanford University; former Secretary of the Department of Energy

[Discussion moderators included David J. Hayes (Stanford Law School); Michael Wara (Stanford Law School), Sally Benson (Co-Director of the Precourt Institute for Energy), Buzz Thompson (Co-Director of the Woods Institute for the Environment), and Bruce Cain (Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West).]

Key Conference Take Aways

I have summarized below some of the key take aways from the conference. There was some divergence about how the next President might most effectively approach the climate issue (which is not surprising, given that experienced hands from both sides of the aisle participated in the conference), but there was a remarkable degree of coalescence around a number of key themes.

Caveat: The conference was not designed to provide a comprehensive list of recommendations for the next President. Indeed, speakers were encouraged to lean into creative ideas, and give less attention to proposals that are commonly identified for consideration.

Note also that several of the most important observations and recommendations will be fleshed out by the speakers, and other contributors, in written papers that will be presented and discussed at a Stanford-sponsored event at the National Press Club on September 15, 2016. Mark your calendars for that date.

The key observations and recommendations highlighted by speakers in the conference fall into two buckets:

  • Substantive Observations/Recommendations for the next President; and
  • A Potential Organizational/Governance Agenda for the next President.


General Themes

Innovation and Job Creation

  • Several speakers made the strong, optimistic and non-partisan case for viewing the climate change challenge through the positive lens of unleashing U.S. competition, innovation, and job creation.
  • The President should rally the U.S. innovation economy — the U.S.’s “bread and butter” — as being particularly well suited to take on the climate challenge.
  • The demand side of the equation, and the economic opportunity that it provides to the U.S., is enormous.
    • Climate change puts the need for innovation in a global market context, providing global opportunities for U.S. innovators, financiers, and job-creators.
    • In addition to tackling the carbon-heavy existing energy infrastructure in the U.S. and around the world, the global need to provide electricity to the 1.3 billion people who currently are without it will provide significant new demand for U.S. products.
  • Here in the U.S., several states already have seen substantial job growth in the energy sector due to the implementation of clean energy.
  • The next President can accelerate job growth by providing financial incentives for states that exceed clean energy goals, and by facilitating the siting of new ventures and industries that match the states’ needs and existing industrial eco-systems. States might be measured for awards based on advances in workforce development, permit streamlining, access to capital, and the like.

(See generally Granholm; Shultz; Majumdar; Connaughton)(note: speakers identified under subject areas in this outline were among the speakers who addressed some aspects of the area during the conference.)

Establishing an Effective R&D and Deployment “Ecosystem”

  • Mission Innovation, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, and other initiatives to increase R&D in the energy area were applauded. Speakers emphasized, however, the importance of closely tying government-sponsored R&D activities with private industry research investments, potentially through a new Presidential initiative that would establish joint research collaboratives that are supported by both private and public entities and that have, from the outset, the goal of bringing promising clean energy innovations to scale.
  • A deployment-oriented ecosystem will need strong private sector support, both from sponsoring companies, and from institutional investors who have the wherewithal to invest the billions of dollars needed to bring clean energy to scale. The President has an opportunity to promote partnerships and bring together a strong community of interests from across the private and public sectors to create a successful ecosystem that can scale up clean energy. The traditional approach of “handing off” R&D for private sector up-take will not meet the clean energy challenge on an acceptable timeframe.
  • Adopting an R&D focus that emphasizes scalability and deployment will require “innovation” in more than technology. Innovation also will be needed in finance, institutional structures and regulatory systems so that barriers to bringing clean energy solutions to market can be removed.
  • The next President should work with the R&D community to promote the development of small, modular systems that can be deployed and improved in an iterative basis. This will accelerate innovation and lead to quicker scale-up of new systems.
  • The President should turn to the “A” list of government players, including the Department of Defense, to serve as an “early adopter” and facilitate the deployment of new technologies.

(See generally Majumdar, Bachher; Connaughton; Shultz.)

Incentives and Tax Reform

  • Several speakers from both sides of the aisle expressed support for a revenue neutral carbon tax as a means of enabling the market to more accurately reflect the true costs of fossil fuels and facilitate increased competition and innovation. Because a carbon tax is unlikely to be adopted in the near term, several speakers recommended that the next President focus on providing support for clean energy tax incentives — including for storage and the removal of legacy fossil fuel incentives.
  • One speaker recommended that the next President revise the corporate tax rate, repatriate the trillions of dollars that corporations have parked overseas, and reinvest proceeds in clean energy. Bringing dollars back to the U.S. for reinvestment here also will reduce the “export” of carbon emissions that are generated overseas, and financed by U.S. companies.
  • Another speaker recommended that the new President advocate for the application of long-standing grant and incentive programs to emerging clean energy applications (e.g., the Community Reinvestment Act’s applicability to low-income solar installations).

(See generally Shultz; Majumdar; Chu; Podesta; Connaughton; Pfund; Reilly)

Addressing Economic Dislocation

  • The next President should forthrightly address economic dislocation caused by changing energy markets with focused retraining programs and providing assistance in locating new, clean energy jobs in stressed communities.

(See generally Shultz; Reilly; Pfund.)

Sector-Based Observations/Recommendations


  • In some areas of the country, the electricity/utility sector has been facilitating the pivot to a cleaner energy economy through renewable portfolio standards, net metering, etc. However, the record is decidedly mixed and many incumbent utilities are pushing back against market trends and opportunities (e.g., distributed energy; customer choice, etc.). The regulatory structure is not keeping up with the pace of innovation and change.
  • Several speakers emphasized that the utility monopoly’s reach beyond the transmission system (the “wires”) into generation (before the wires) and an exclusive customer relationship (behind the meter) is inhibiting competition and innovation, and is ripe for disruption.
    • Strong parallels were drawn to the successful, government-led antitrust litigation strategies that led to the break-up of “Ma Bell.” Three speakers argued that the next President should consider pursuing a similar path and initiating antitrust litigation against utilities that may be engaged in restraint of trade on the generation or end-user sides of the business as a means of opening up more fair competition and innovation in the electricity sector.
    • Reference was made to moderator Michael Wara’s recent publication relating to this subject: “Competition at the Grid Edge Innovation and Antitrust Law in the Electricity Sector.”
  • Several speakers emphasized that the President has an opportunity to lay out a vision for increasing competition in the utility sector, and diminishing the application of monopoly power beyond the wires business. The next President should facilitate a “transition by design” approach for the sector, rather than continuing in the industry’s and regulators’ current fragmented, reactive mode. The President should not seek to supplant the states’ traditional role in energy regulation, but to lay out a vision and pathway for change.
  • Along these lines, one speaker recommended that the next President more actively promote the identification and adoption of best practices in how states are approaching competition and accommodating new entrants like rooftop solar providers. The next President could help the states work through these important issues by acknowledging the national implications of state-based decisions and promoting a dialogue that brings together a diverse set of interested stakeholders.
  • Speakers noted that the President should put equity and the development of a “social compact” in terms of providing all Americans with cost-effective access to clean energy at the heart of reform in the electricity/utility space. The universal service charge used in the telecom industry was referenced as a potential template for addressing the equity issue.
  • Major infrastructure investments are needed to upgrade the existing electrical grid, which was not designed to address today’s emerging electricity system. The smart grid should have open source availability of key data to facilitate innovation and competition in demand reduction opportunities, the availability of distributed energy, efficiency upgrades, etc.
  • Several speakers expressed concern about the potential loss of nuclear capacity in the U.S. and the importance of investing in next generation nuclear power solutions — both technical and regulatory.

(See generally Hundt; Karsner; Picker; Connaughton; Majumdar)

Steel, Cement, Infrastructure

  • While significant attention has been directed at decarbonizing the electricity sector, more attention needs to be directed at other large energy users associated with major infrastructure (e.g., steel, cement, and other industrial applications).
  • Cement and steel are global industries that are tied to infrastructure development and will continue to grow. Low carbon technologies including carbon capture — are urgently needed in these large, infrastructure-heavy categories.
  • U.S. companies in these industries could gain a global competitive edge by successfully innovating in this space, with cost-effective carbon capture being the biggest prize for U.S. companies. Also, carbon capture in these industries could dramatically lower emissions in developing countries whose steel and concrete production is growing quickly to meet expanding infrastructure needs. For these reasons, the next President should press for low carbon solutions in these industries. Given the recognized need to increase investment in U.S. infrastructure, this is an arena in which there is an opportunity for the next President to lead a bi-partisan initiative.
  • As a related point, one speaker emphasized that infrastructure also needs to be built intelligently in the right places, as well as in the right (lower carbon) way to improve resilience to climate impacts. In some cases, for example, some traditional, centralized infrastructure might give way to more distributed infrastructure. Projects should be built away from coasts and flood plains, etc.

(See generally Gordon; Chu; Picker; Reilly)

Transportation; Buildings; Energy Efficiency

  • To meet the nation’s climate goals, it will be important that the next President push for electrification of the transportation fleet by, for example, focusing on infrastructure development (charging stations) and other incentives.
  • The next generation of CAFE standards should be a priority for the next President. One speaker suggested moving toward a “feebate” system for improving fuel efficiency in the transportation sector.
  • The next President should advocate for additional investments in energy efficiency, including in the federal building stock, as typically the most cost-effective way to reduce GHG emissions. Jim Sweeney’s (Director of Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center) forthcoming book entitled “Energy Efficiency: Building a Clean, Secure Economy,” received a shout-out; it will be published in August.

(See generally Shultz; Podesta; Picker; Reilly; Chu; Connaughton)

Land Use and Conservation

  • The next President has an opportunity to emphasize, and capitalize on, the U.S.’s forests and rangelands and the carbon sequestration stronghold they represent. A relatively modest investment by the next President in developing consistent measurement and monitoring methodologies and processes can lay the groundwork for significant additional mitigation associated with increased carbon sequestration from natural landscapes, forest restoration and improved rangeland and ag land stewardship.
  • The public lands provide an opportunity to pilot test carbon sequestration strategies and potentially to develop market-based opportunities to invest in low-cost sequestration options in the U.S.
  • If the U.S. invests in measuring and enhancing carbon storage in our own forests and other landscapes, the U.S. will be well positioned to renew and reinvigorate global attention and strategies to reduce emissions associated with tropical deforestation a major source of emissions in the developing world.
  • Given the significant GHG emissions associated with the agriculture industry, the next President should focus on assisting farmers and ranchers to apply methane reduction strategies and enhance soil management and other carbon-friendly strategies. U.S. leadership in the sector has the potential to reap global benefits.
  • Additional land use-related climate change opportunities available to the next President include:
    • Developing leasing strategies for extracting coal and other fossil fuels from public lands that take into account the carbon-related costs of such activities, and ensuring that leasing activities conform with national climate change budgets and policies.
    • Facilitating the deployment of renewable energy projects and related transmissionlines by improving both the speed and the quality of federal permitting processes.
    • Emphasizing the positive role of coastal wetlands and other natural and restored landscapes on enhancing resilience against climate impacts.

(See generally Hayes; Chu)


  • One speaker persuasively demonstrated that private investment interest in clean energy continues to grow and attract both U.S. and global investors. In addition, “impact investing” is gaining in currency among key financiers, and will help inject capital in the clean energy sector.
  • Large institutional investors also are beginning to invest in the energy innovation space. President Obama has used his convening power to help spawn the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the Aligned Intermediary project, etc.; the next President should continue to embrace this convening role.
  • Increased federal funding of research and development is an important form of financial help for clean energy. In addition, the next President should consider administrative and legislative changes that would make REITs, Master Limited Partnerships, and Private Activity Bonds available for clean energy projects.
  • As noted above, tax credits will continue to be vitally important for the renewable energy industry in the U.S., pending progress on instituting a broad-based carbon tax.
  • Federal tools, including procurement, can be more effectively consolidated and used to help finance clean energy projects.
  • The next President should explore how to reinvigorate DOE’s loan guarantee program and utilize its remaining authority wisely. A couple of speakers expressed caution about the relative competence of governmental decision-making in evaluating new business opportunities.
  • Establishing an infrastructure bank, and promoting more public/private partnerships, has the potential to free up large amounts of capital that can be invested in clean energy infrastructure projects.

(See generally Pfund; Reicher; Bachher; Podesta; Shultz)

Potential Regulatory Priorities (in addition to sector-specific initiatives identified elsewhere)

  • Several speakers emphasized the importance of having the next President continue to implement the Clean Power Plan as a foundational element of the U.S.’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions.
  • One speaker suggested the potential “simplification” of clean energy mandates and their conversion into technology neutral, performance based, and cost capped requirements.
  • Methane controls on existing oil and gas exploration and distribution systems should be a top priority for the next President, given the GHG intensity of methane and new information about the nature and scope of methane venting and leakage.
  • The next President should rally the international community to address HFCs and other “super emitters” under the Montreal Protocol.

(See generally Connaughton; Podesta; Hayes)


  • Climate change already is causing significant impacts that require the development of vigorous resilience/adaptation strategies in response to sea rise, storm surge, tropical disease, drought, and other impacts.
  • Risks associated with climate impacts should be a centerpiece of the next President’s agenda. Risk recognition and response is non-partisan. Companies are comfortable undertaking such reviews, and risk evaluations promote discussions about solutions, including support for mitigation.
  • The nature and scope of the societal costs that climate change already are causing is underappreciated. The next President has an important opportunity to use the levers of the federal government to gather and disseminate data about the costs of climate impacts on infrastructure and on human and natural resources.
  • The federal government also is well positioned to consolidate GIS-based mapping data from across the federal government and make it readily available for states and local communities who are eager to understand current and projected climate impacts on infrastructure and other resources in their area.

(See generally Gordon; Hayes; Majumdar; Podesta; Chu)


  • Speakers emphasized the importance of continued U.S. leadership in the international arena, both in connection with implementing the Paris agreement, and in continuing bilateral dialogues and engagement with major emitting nations like China and India.
  • Two speakers recommended that the next President also focus on, and take advantage of, a North American collaboration among the U.S., Canada and Mexico to facilitate the development of clean energy initiatives in the northern hemisphere.
  • One speaker emphasized that developing nations will require support to reduce emissions and develop sustainable energy, and suggested that the next President lead the international community in acknowledging this need, and facilitating the delivery of such needed support.

(See generally Reilly; Majumdar; Podesta)


White House/Cabinet Relationship

  • There was a broad consensus that the President and a senior advisor in the west wing should be personally and actively involved in developing climate change policy initiatives, working with appropriate White House offices and cabinet agencies, and then in supporting cabinet secretaries and their agencies in implementing agreed-upon policies.
  • Speakers noted the importance of having a policy blueprint with specific benchmarks that can be used by the White House to work collaboratively with the relevant cabinet agencies to measure progress in meeting such benchmarks. Active, top level White House engagement with cabinet and sub-cabinet officials can help identify budget resources and coordinate complementary efforts within the federal family, while pushing the agencies to implement the next President’s climate plan. This model reinforces the importance of strong communication and shared accountability among the President and top White House officials and cabinet secretaries.
  • One speaker emphasized the importance of having the President regard the cabinet and subcabinet as his “staff,” as a way to inspire and gain access to the career officials in the agencies who will play an indispensable role in implementing new climate policies throughout the sprawling federal bureaucracy.
  • Another speaker recommended that when seeking to coordinate activities that cut across several cabinet departments (as, for example in connection with the siting of transmissionlines), the President and his top advisors should identify a lead cabinet secretary who will be held responsible for ensuring that a unified implementation plan moves forward and that the required coordination occurs, backed up by the support of the White house.

Presidential Use of Soft Power

  • Several speakers emphasized that the next President should recognize, and exercise, his or her enormous “convening power,” and actively use it to advance the President’s climate agenda. Using this soft power effectively is particularly important in the climate context, given the large number and type of actors in the public and private sectors that must work together to make progress on the complex and wide-ranging climate agenda.
  • Effective outreach and convening should extend, for example, to state, tribal and city leaders who are on the front lines of climate issues; to regulators and industry participants who are grappling with specific issues such as modernizing the electric grid; and to governmental and private sector companies and financiers engaged in research, development and deployment of clean energy solutions.
  • The next President also can exercise soft power by facilitating broad public access to important climate-related information that the federal government is in a unique position to identify and consolidate for interested governmental and private stakeholders. (See, e.g., the discussion above regarding GIS-based mapping data.)

(See generally Podesta; Hayes; Shultz; Granholm; Majumdar; Reilly; Chu)

A special thanks to Steve Denning, Chair of Stanford’s Board of Trustees, for opening up the conference, to Larry Kramer and Tom Steinbach of the Hewlett Foundation for supporting the conference and related activities, and for the Stanford schools and institutes that sponsored the conference, including Stanford Law School; Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences; and Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and Precourt Institute for Energy.