2017: A year of drastic climate change, both environmentally and politically

By Andrea McGimsey
Global Warming Solutions Program Director

As if it wasn’t already clear, 2017 provided much more evidence that we are changing our planet in dangerous ways. The average temperature across the United States was 2.6°F warmer than normal – making it one of the three warmest years in U.S. history. Fires raged across western states, with more than a million acres burned in Montana, while in California, wildfires are burning into the usually-calm month of December – destroying thousands of homes and millions of acres of forest. The massive Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria brought unprecedented levels of rain, storm surges, and heavy winds – super-charged by unusually warm ocean temperatures – to Houston, parts of Florida and Puerto Rico. And seawater increasingly flooded low-lying areas in places such as Annapolis, Atlantic City, NJ, and Miami, as sea-levels continued to rise.

These signs are a planet-wide fire alarm, warning us that we are burning far too much coal, oil and gas. In September, top U.S. climate scientists confirmed that human activities are responsible for practically all of the global warming we are experiencing – and in fact, warming would be even worse if we weren’t also polluting the air with soot particles, which have a cooling effect.

The political climate also changed in 2017. In many ways, it changed for the better in the states, cities and boardrooms across the country where leaders came together to accelerate our transition to clean, climate-safe sources of energy.  

A large coalition of leaders confirmed the United States’ commitment to cut pollution, limit global warming and achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, despite the U.S. federal government’s intention to withdraw from the agreement. Fifteen governors and 2,500 leaders of cities, counties, corporations and universities – banded together to pledge collective action. Altogether, these entities represent more than half of the U.S. economy and population. If they were a country unto themselves, they would be the third-largest in the world.

In December, five Republican and four Democratic governors in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states finalized new rules to cut power plant pollution by at least two-thirds below 2005 levels over the next decade. This decision expands a popular and effective program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), that makes polluters pay and expands clean energy. RGGI has delivered major, proven benefits since a bipartisan coalition first launched it in 2009 – including cleaner air, improved efficiency and a stronger economy. Now, it will work even better.

Moreover, after climate champions won November gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, both states are poised to join their neighbors in limiting dangerous warming pollution from power plants. And seven of these states, plus Washington, D.C., are now turning their attention to creating a new program to limit climate-changing pollution from cars and trucks – which have replaced power plants as the biggest source of pollution nationwide.

Perhaps the most significant state-level action came over the summer, when California re-authorized its landmark climate protection law. By 2030, this action will cut as much pollution as closing 40 coal fired power plants, or switching out 6 billion inefficient light bulbs with high-performance LED lights. More than 70 percent of lawmakers voted to keep the state on track – including impressive numbers of both Democrats and Republicans.

Not only coastal states led the charge. For example, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered his state to cut pollution in line with our national pledge as part of the Paris Climate Agreement. And Minnesota continued to implement a 2007 strategy that is even more ambitious.

Cities and counties took concrete actions as well. For example, New York City set a strong new standard to cut pollution from buildings. Los Angeles pledged to transition its bus fleet to clean electric power over the next decade. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system purchased enough solar and wind power in 2017 to make its entire system run with almost zero pollution by 2021 – and for less cost than sticking with dirty fuels. Montgomery County, MD – home to more than a million people – passed one of the most aggressive climate targets in the country, aiming to eliminate pollution by 2035. And more than 50 cities – including Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and St. Louis – have now committed to reach 100 percent clean, renewable energy by no later than mid-century.

Corporations and universities also implemented bold new plans. For example, this year Google reached 100 percent renewable energy as the power source for its entire operation. The number of major corporations committed to this goal now exceeds 100. Major institutions of higher learning, including Cornell University, Boston University, and Colorado State University, have also committed to transitioning entirely to clean energy.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pouring more gasoline on the fires of climate change instead of trying to put them out. The administration has launched a wide-ranging effort to reverse prior administrations’ actions to reduce pollution:  rolling back the Clean Power Plan, weakening Clean Car Standards, declaring an intention to abandon the Paris Climate Agreement, willfully ignoring the risks that climate change poses to national security, and doubling down on dangerous coal, oil and gas extraction from the Arctic to the Atlantic coast.

No matter what the administration does, however, the clean energy revolution is unstoppable. Technologies that were once novelties — solar panels, wind turbines, LED light bulbs, electric cars — have become everyday parts of America’s energy landscape. America produces nearly eight times more renewable energy from the sun and the wind than in 2007, while the average American uses 10 percent less energy than a decade ago.

But when it comes to global warming, time is a luxury we don’t have. Despite all the progress we’ve made, U.S. climate action remains insufficient. We need to take the successes of 2017 and build on them, with greater ambition and much wider scope. We need more of the kind of climate change that is taking hold in leading states, cities, and businesses – and less of the kind that threatens our future.

People want less pollution and more clean energy. So in 2018, let’s work together and make it happen.