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    Absent legislative victory, the president can still meet US climate goals

    The most recent United Nations climate change report indicates that without significant action to mitigate global warming, the extent and magnitude of climate impacts — from floods to droughts to the spread of disease — could outpace the world’s ability to adapt to them. The latest effort to introduce meaningful climate legislation in the United States Congress, the Build Back Better bill, has stalled. The climate package in that bill — $555 billion in funding for climate resilience and clean energy — aims to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by about 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, the nation’s current Paris Agreement pledge. With prospects of passing a standalone climate package in the Senate far from assured, is there another pathway to fulfilling that pledge?

    Recent detailed legal analysis shows that there is at least one viable option for the United States to achieve the 2030 target without legislative action. Under Section 115 on International Air Pollution of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could assign emissions targets to the states that collectively meet the national goal. The president could simply issue an executive order to empower the EPA to do just that. But would that be prudent?

    A new study led by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change explores how, under a federally coordinated carbon dioxide emissions cap-and-trade program aligned with the U.S. Paris Agreement pledge and implemented through Section 115 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA might allocate emissions cuts among states. Recognizing that the Biden or any future administration considering this strategy would need to carefully weigh its benefits against its potential political risks, the study highlights the policy’s net economic benefits to the nation.

    The researchers calculate those net benefits by combining the estimated total cost of carbon dioxide emissions reduction under the policy with the corresponding estimated expenditures that would be avoided as a result of the policy’s implementation — expenditures on health care due to particulate air pollution, and on society at large due to climate impacts.

    Assessing three carbon dioxide emissions allocation strategies (each with legal precedent) for implementing Section 115 to return cap-and-trade program revenue to the states and distribute it to state residents on an equal per-capita basis, the study finds that at the national level, the economic net benefits are substantial, ranging from $70 to $150 billion in 2030. The results appear in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

    “Our findings not only show significant net gains to the U.S. economy under a national emissions policy implemented through the Clean Air Act’s Section 115,” says Mei Yuan, a research scientist at the MIT Joint Program and lead author of the study. “They also show the policy impact on consumer costs may differ across states depending on the choice of allocation strategy.”

    The national price on carbon needed to achieve the policy’s emissions target, as well as the policy’s ultimate cost to consumers, are substantially lower than those found in studies a decade earlier, although in line with other recent studies. The researchers speculate that this is largely due to ongoing expansion of ambitious state policies in the electricity sector and declining renewable energy costs. The policy is also progressive, consistent with earlier studies, in that equal lump-sum distribution of allowance revenue to state residents generally leads to net benefits to lower-income households. Regional disparities in consumer costs can be moderated by the allocation of allowances among states.

    State-by-state emissions estimates for the study are derived from MIT’s U.S. Regional Energy Policy model, with electricity sector detail of the Renewable Energy Development System model developed by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory; air quality benefits are estimated using U.S. EPA and other models; and the climate benefits estimate is based on the social cost of carbon, the U.S. federal government’s assessment of the economic damages that would result from emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (currently $51/ton, adjusted for inflation). 

    “In addition to illustrating the economic, health, and climate benefits of a Section 115 implementation, our study underscores the advantages of a policy that imposes a uniform carbon price across all economic sectors,” says John Reilly, former co-director of the MIT Joint Program and a study co-author. “A national carbon price would serve as a major incentive for all sectors to decarbonize.” More

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    What choices does the world need to make to keep global warming below 2 C?

    When the 2015 Paris Agreement set a long-term goal of keeping global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels” to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, it did not specify how its nearly 200 signatory nations could collectively achieve that goal. Each nation was left to its own devices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in alignment with the 2 C target. Now a new modeling strategy developed at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change that explores hundreds of potential future development pathways provides new insights on the energy and technology choices needed for the world to meet that target.

    Described in a study appearing in the journal Earth’s Future, the new strategy combines two well-known computer modeling techniques to scope out the energy and technology choices needed over the coming decades to reduce emissions sufficiently to achieve the Paris goal.

    The first technique, Monte Carlo analysis, quantifies uncertainty levels for dozens of energy and economic indicators including fossil fuel availability, advanced energy technology costs, and population and economic growth; feeds that information into a multi-region, multi-economic-sector model of the world economy that captures the cross-sectoral impacts of energy transitions; and runs that model hundreds of times to estimate the likelihood of different outcomes. The MIT study focuses on projections through the year 2100 of economic growth and emissions for different sectors of the global economy, as well as energy and technology use.

    The second technique, scenario discovery, uses machine learning tools to screen databases of model simulations in order to identify outcomes of interest and their conditions for occurring. The MIT study applies these tools in a unique way by combining them with the Monte Carlo analysis to explore how different outcomes are related to one another (e.g., do low-emission outcomes necessarily involve large shares of renewable electricity?). This approach can also identify individual scenarios, out of the hundreds explored, that result in specific combinations of outcomes of interest (e.g., scenarios with low emissions, high GDP growth, and limited impact on electricity prices), and also provide insight into the conditions needed for that combination of outcomes.

    Using this unique approach, the MIT Joint Program researchers find several possible patterns of energy and technology development under a specified long-term climate target or economic outcome.

    “This approach shows that there are many pathways to a successful energy transition that can be a win-win for the environment and economy,” says Jennifer Morris, an MIT Joint Program research scientist and the study’s lead author. “Toward that end, it can be used to guide decision-makers in government and industry to make sound energy and technology choices and avoid biases in perceptions of what ’needs’ to happen to achieve certain outcomes.”

    For example, while achieving the 2 C goal, the global level of combined wind and solar electricity generation by 2050 could be less than three times or more than 12 times the current level (which is just over 2,000 terawatt hours). These are very different energy pathways, but both can be consistent with the 2 C goal. Similarly, there are many different energy mixes that can be consistent with maintaining high GDP growth in the United States while also achieving the 2 C goal, with different possible roles for renewables, natural gas, carbon capture and storage, and bioenergy. The study finds renewables to be the most robust electricity investment option, with sizable growth projected under each of the long-term temperature targets explored.

    The researchers also find that long-term climate targets have little impact on economic output for most economic sectors through 2050, but do require each sector to significantly accelerate reduction of its greenhouse gas emissions intensity (emissions per unit of economic output) so as to reach near-zero levels by midcentury.

    “Given the range of development pathways that can be consistent with meeting a 2 degrees C goal, policies that target only specific sectors or technologies can unnecessarily narrow the solution space, leading to higher costs,” says former MIT Joint Program Co-Director John Reilly, a co-author of the study. “Our findings suggest that policies designed to encourage a portfolio of technologies and sectoral actions can be a wise strategy that hedges against risks.”

    The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. More

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    Empowering people to adapt on the frontlines of climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fifth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    In the coastal south of Bangladesh, rice paddies that farmers could once harvest three times a year lie barren. Sea-level rise brings saltwater to the soil, ruining the staple crop. It’s one of many impacts, and inequities, of climate change. Despite producing less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions, Bangladesh is suffering more than most countries. Rising seas, heat waves, flooding, and cyclones threaten 90 million people.

    A platform being developed in a collaboration between MIT and BRAC, a Bangladesh-based global development organization, aims to inform and empower climate-threatened communities to proactively adapt to a changing future. Selected as one of five MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship projects, the Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet) will forecast the local impacts of climate change on people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods. These forecasts will guide BRAC’s development of climate-resiliency programs to help residents prepare for and adapt to life-altering conditions.

    “The communities that CREWSnet will focus on have done little to contribute to the problem of climate change in the first place. However, because of socioeconomic situations, they may be among the most vulnerable. We hope that by providing state-of-the-art projections and sharing them broadly with communities, and working through partners like BRAC, we can help improve the capacity of local communities to adapt to climate change, significantly,” says Elfatih Eltahir, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    Eltahir leads the project with John Aldridge and Deborah Campbell in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Systems Group at Lincoln Laboratory. Additional partners across MIT include the Center for Global Change Science; the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change; and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. 

    Predicting local risks

    CREWSnet’s forecasts rely upon a sophisticated model, developed in Eltahir’s research group over the past 25 years, called the MIT Regional Climate Model. This model zooms in on climate processes at local scales, at a resolution as granular as 6 miles. In Bangladesh’s population-dense cities, a 6-mile area could encompass tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of people. The model takes into account the details of a region’s topography, land use, and coastline to predict changes in local conditions.

    When applying this model over Bangladesh, researchers found that heat waves will get more severe and more frequent over the next 30 years. In particular, wet-bulb temperatures, which indicate the ability for humans to cool down by sweating, will rise to dangerous levels rarely observed today, particularly in western, inland cities.

    Such hot spots exacerbate other challenges predicted to worsen near Bangladesh’s coast. Rising sea levels and powerful cyclones are eroding and flooding coastal communities, causing saltwater to surge into land and freshwater. This salinity intrusion is detrimental to human health, ruins drinking water supplies, and harms crops, livestock, and aquatic life that farmers and fishermen depend on for food and income.

    CREWSnet will fuse climate science with forecasting tools that predict the social and economic impacts to villages and cities. These forecasts — such as how often a crop season may fail, or how far floodwaters will reach — can steer decision-making.

    “What people need to know, whether they’re a governor or head of a household, is ‘What is going to happen in my area, and what decisions should I make for the people I’m responsible for?’ Our role is to integrate this science and technology together into a decision support system,” says Aldridge, whose group at Lincoln Laboratory specializes in this area. Most recently, they transitioned a hurricane-evacuation planning system to the U.S. government. “We know that making decisions based on climate change requires a deep level of trust. That’s why having a powerful partner like BRAC is so important,” he says.

    Testing interventions

    Established 50 years ago, just after Bangladesh’s independence, BRAC works in every district of the nation to provide social services that help people rise from extreme poverty. Today, it is one of the world’s largest nongovernmental organizations, serving 110 million people across 11 countries in Asia and Africa, but its success is cultivated locally.

    “BRAC is thrilled to partner with leading researchers at MIT to increase climate resilience in Bangladesh and provide a model that can be scaled around the globe,” says Donella Rapier, president and CEO of BRAC USA. “Locally led climate adaptation solutions that are developed in partnership with communities are urgently needed, particularly in the most vulnerable regions that are on the frontlines of climate change.”

    CREWSnet will help BRAC identify communities most vulnerable to forecasted impacts. In these areas, they will share knowledge and innovate or bolster programs to improve households’ capacity to adapt.

    Many climate initiatives are already underway. One program equips homes to filter and store rainwater, as salinity intrusion makes safe drinking water hard to access. Another program is building resilient housing, able to withstand 120-mile-per-hour winds, that can double as local shelters during cyclones and flooding. Other services are helping farmers switch to different livestock or crops better suited for wetter or saltier conditions (e.g., ducks instead of chickens, or salt-tolerant rice), providing interest-free loans to enable this change.

    But adapting in place will not always be possible, for example in areas predicted to be submerged or unbearably hot by midcentury. “Bangladesh is working on identifying and developing climate-resilient cities and towns across the country, as closer-by alternative destinations as compared to moving to Dhaka, the overcrowded capital of Bangladesh,” says Campbell. “CREWSnet can help identify regions better suited for migration, and climate-resilient adaptation strategies for those regions.” At the same time, BRAC’s Climate Bridge Fund is helping to prepare cities for climate-induced migration, building up infrastructure and financial services for people who have been displaced.

    Evaluating impact

    While CREWSnet’s goal is to enable action, it can’t quite measure the impact of those actions. The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a development economics program in the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, will help evaluate the effectiveness of the climate-adaptation programs.

    “We conduct randomized controlled trials, similar to medical trials, that help us understand if a program improved people’s lives,” says Claire Walsh, the project director of the King Climate Action Initiative at J-PAL. “Once CREWSnet helps BRAC implement adaptation programs, we will generate scientific evidence on their impacts, so that BRAC and CREWSnet can make a case to funders and governments to expand effective programs.”

    The team aspires to bring CREWSnet to other nations disproportionately impacted by climate change. “Our vision is to have this be a globally extensible capability,” says Campbell. CREWSnet’s name evokes another early-warning decision-support system, FEWSnet, that helped organizations address famine in eastern Africa in the 1980s. Today it is a pillar of food-security planning around the world.

    CREWSnet hopes for a similar impact in climate change planning. Its selection as an MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project will inject the project with more funding and resources, momentum that will also help BRAC’s fundraising. The team plans to deploy CREWSnet to southwestern Bangladesh within five years.

    “The communities that we are aspiring to reach with CREWSnet are deeply aware that their lives are changing — they have been looking climate change in the eye for many years. They are incredibly resilient, creative, and talented,” says Ashley Toombs, the external affairs director for BRAC USA. “As a team, we are excited to bring this system to Bangladesh. And what we learn together, we will apply at potentially even larger scales.” More

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    Computing our climate future

    On Monday, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the first in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition, and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    With improvements to computer processing power and an increased understanding of the physical equations governing the Earth’s climate, scientists are continually working to refine climate models and improve their predictive power. But the tools they’re refining were originally conceived decades ago with only scientists in mind. When it comes to developing tangible climate action plans, these models remain inscrutable to the policymakers, public safety officials, civil engineers, and community organizers who need their predictive insight most.

    “What you end up having is a gap between what’s typically used in practice, and the real cutting-edge science,” says Noelle Selin, a professor in the Institute for Data, Systems and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and co-lead with Professor Raffaele Ferrari on the MIT Climate Grand Challenges flagship project “Bringing Computation to the Climate Crisis.” “How can we use new computational techniques, new understandings, new ways of thinking about modeling, to really bridge that gap between state-of-the-art scientific advances and modeling, and people who are actually needing to use these models?”

    Using this as a driving question, the team won’t just be trying to refine current climate models, they’re building a new one from the ground up.

    This kind of game-changing advancement is exactly what the MIT Climate Grand Challenges is looking for, which is why the proposal has been named one of the five flagship projects in the ambitious Institute-wide program aimed at tackling the climate crisis. The proposal, which was selected from 100 submissions and was among 27 finalists, will receive additional funding and support to further their goal of reimagining the climate modeling system. It also brings together contributors from across the Institute, including the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, the School of Engineering, and the Sloan School of Management.

    When it comes to pursuing high-impact climate solutions that communities around the world can use, “it’s great to do it at MIT,” says Ferrari, EAPS Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography. “You’re not going to find many places in the world where you have the cutting-edge climate science, the cutting-edge computer science, and the cutting-edge policy science experts that we need to work together.”

    The climate model of the future

    The proposal builds on work that Ferrari began three years ago as part of a joint project with Caltech, the Naval Postgraduate School, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Called the Climate Modeling Alliance (CliMA), the consortium of scientists, engineers, and applied mathematicians is constructing a climate model capable of more accurately projecting future changes in critical variables, such as clouds in the atmosphere and turbulence in the ocean, with uncertainties at least half the size of those in existing models.

    To do this, however, requires a new approach. For one thing, current models are too coarse in resolution — at the 100-to-200-kilometer scale — to resolve small-scale processes like cloud cover, rainfall, and sea ice extent. But also, explains Ferrari, part of this limitation in resolution is due to the fundamental architecture of the models themselves. The languages most global climate models are coded in were first created back in the 1960s and ’70s, largely by scientists for scientists. Since then, advances in computing driven by the corporate world and computer gaming have given rise to dynamic new computer languages, powerful graphics processing units, and machine learning.

    For climate models to take full advantage of these advancements, there’s only one option: starting over with a modern, more flexible language. Written in Julia, a part of Julialab’s Scientific Machine Learning technology, and spearheaded by Alan Edelman, a professor of applied mathematics in MIT’s Department of Mathematics, CliMA will be able to harness far more data than the current models can handle.

    “It’s been real fun finally working with people in computer science here at MIT,” Ferrari says. “Before it was impossible, because traditional climate models are in a language their students can’t even read.”

    The result is what’s being called the “Earth digital twin,” a climate model that can simulate global conditions on a large scale. This on its own is an impressive feat, but the team wants to take this a step further with their proposal.

    “We want to take this large-scale model and create what we call an ‘emulator’ that is only predicting a set of variables of interest, but it’s been trained on the large-scale model,” Ferrari explains. Emulators are not new technology, but what is new is that these emulators, being referred to as the “Earth digital cousins,” will take advantage of machine learning.

    “Now we know how to train a model if we have enough data to train them on,” says Ferrari. Machine learning for projects like this has only become possible in recent years as more observational data become available, along with improved computer processing power. The goal is to create smaller, more localized models by training them using the Earth digital twin. Doing so will save time and money, which is key if the digital cousins are going to be usable for stakeholders, like local governments and private-sector developers.

    Adaptable predictions for average stakeholders

    When it comes to setting climate-informed policy, stakeholders need to understand the probability of an outcome within their own regions — in the same way that you would prepare for a hike differently if there’s a 10 percent chance of rain versus a 90 percent chance. The smaller Earth digital cousin models will be able to do things the larger model can’t do, like simulate local regions in real time and provide a wider range of probabilistic scenarios.

    “Right now, if you wanted to use output from a global climate model, you usually would have to use output that’s designed for general use,” says Selin, who is also the director of the MIT Technology and Policy Program. With the project, the team can take end-user needs into account from the very beginning while also incorporating their feedback and suggestions into the models, helping to “democratize the idea of running these climate models,” as she puts it. Doing so means building an interactive interface that eventually will give users the ability to change input values and run the new simulations in real time. The team hopes that, eventually, the Earth digital cousins could run on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone, although developments like that are currently beyond the scope of the project.

    The next thing the team will work on is building connections with stakeholders. Through participation of other MIT groups, such as the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Climate and Sustainability Consortium, they hope to work closely with policymakers, public safety officials, and urban planners to give them predictive tools tailored to their needs that can provide actionable outputs important for planning. Faced with rising sea levels, for example, coastal cities could better visualize the threat and make informed decisions about infrastructure development and disaster preparedness; communities in drought-prone regions could develop long-term civil planning with an emphasis on water conservation and wildfire resistance.

    “We want to make the modeling and analysis process faster so people can get more direct and useful feedback for near-term decisions,” she says.

    The final piece of the challenge is to incentivize students now so that they can join the project and make a difference. Ferrari has already had luck garnering student interest after co-teaching a class with Edelman and seeing the enthusiasm students have about computer science and climate solutions.

    “We’re intending in this project to build a climate model of the future,” says Selin. “So it seems really appropriate that we would also train the builders of that climate model.” More

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    Can the world meet global climate targets without coordinated global action?

    Like many of its predecessors, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland concluded with bold promises on international climate action aimed at keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, but few concrete plans to ensure that those promises will be kept. While it’s not too late for the Paris Agreement’s nearly 200 signatory nations to take concerted action to cap global warming at 2 C — if not 1.5 C — there is simply no guarantee that they will do so. If they fail, how much warming is the Earth likely to see in the 21st century and beyond?

    A new study by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and the Shell Scenarios Team projects that without a globally coordinated mitigation effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet’s average surface temperature will reach 2.8 C, much higher than the “well below 2 C” level to which the Paris Agreement aspires, but a lot lower than what many widely used “business-as-usual” scenarios project.  

    Recognizing the limitations of such scenarios, which generally assume that historical trends in energy technology choices and climate policy inaction will persist for decades to come, the researchers have designed a “Growing Pressures” scenario that accounts for mounting social, technological, business, and political pressures that are driving a transition away from fossil-fuel use and toward a low-carbon future. Such pressures have already begun to expand low-carbon technology and policy options, which, in turn, have escalated demand to utilize those options — a trend that’s expected to self-reinforce. Under this scenario, an array of future actions and policies cause renewable energy and energy storage costs to decline; fossil fuels to be phased out; electrification to proliferate; and emissions from agriculture and industry to be sharply reduced.

    Incorporating these growing pressures in the MIT Joint Program’s integrated model of Earth and human systems, the study’s co-authors project future energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and global average surface temperatures in a world that fails to implement coordinated, global climate mitigation policies, and instead pursues piecemeal actions at mostly local and national levels.

    “Few, if any, previous studies explore scenarios of how piecemeal climate policies might plausibly unfold into the future and impact global temperature,” says MIT Joint Program research scientist Jennifer Morris, the study’s lead author. “We offer such a scenario, considering a future in which the increasingly visible impacts of climate change drive growing pressure from voters, shareholders, consumers, and investors, which in turn drives piecemeal action by governments and businesses that steer investments away from fossil fuels and toward low-carbon alternatives.”

    In the study’s central case (representing the mid-range climate response to greenhouse gas emissions), fossil fuels persist in the global energy mix through 2060 and then slowly decline toward zero by 2130; global carbon dioxide emissions reach near-zero levels by 2130 (total greenhouse gas emissions decline to near-zero by 2150); and global surface temperatures stabilize at 2.8 C by 2150, 2.5 C lower than a widely used “business-as-usual” projection. The results appear in the journal Environmental Economics and Policy Studies.

    Such a transition could bring the global energy system to near-zero emissions, but more aggressive climate action would be needed to keep global temperatures well below 2 C in alignment with the Paris Agreement.

    “While we fully support the need to decarbonize as fast as possible, it is critical to assess realistic alternative scenarios of world development,” says Joint Program Deputy Director Sergey Paltsev, a co-author of the study. “We investigate plausible actions that could bring society closer to the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement. To actually meet those goals will require an accelerated transition away from fossil energy through a combination of R&D, technology deployment, infrastructure development, policy incentives, and business practices.”

    The study was funded by government, foundation, and industrial sponsors of the MIT Joint Program, including Shell International Ltd. More

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    Bringing climate reporting to local newsrooms

    Last summer, Nora Hertel, a reporter for the St. Cloud Times in central Minnesota, visited a farm just northeast of the Twin Cities run by the Native American-led nonprofit Dream of Wild Health. The farm raises a mix of vegetables and flowering plants, and has a particular focus on cultivating rare heirloom varieties. It’s also dealing with severely depleted soil, inherited from previous owners who grew corn on the same land. Hertel had come to learn about the techniques the farm was using to restore its soil, many of which were traditional parts of Indigenous farming practice, including planting cover crops over the winter and incorporating burnt wood and manure into the earth.

    The trip was part of a multi-part reporting project that Hertel undertook as an inaugural fellow in a new program from the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI). The ESI Journalism Fellowship was created to help local reporters around the United States connect climate change science and solutions with issues that are already of importance to their audiences — particularly in areas where many people are still unclear or unsure about climate change. For Hertel, that meant visiting 10 farms and forest lands across Minnesota to understand how natural climate solutions are taking shape in her state. The practices she saw at the Dream of Wild Health farm not only helped to restore soil, but also helped slow climate change by taking carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it in soils and plants.

    “There is enthusiasm for natural climate solutions,” Hertel says, but these practices can be expensive and difficult to adopt. She wanted to explain the benefits and the hurdles, especially for farmers and land managers considering new agricultural techniques.

    Hertel produced six news pieces for the St. Cloud Times as part of her project, as well as a six-episode podcast series and two videos. To conclude the series, she ran a public event where 130 attendees — including conventional farmers, regenerative farmers, state senators, the St. Cloud mayor, and other community stakeholders — gathered outside in the 40-degree Fahrenheit cold to discuss carbon markets in Minnesota. The stories were republished in 12 additional outlets, including USA Today, Associated Press, Yahoo News, and US News & World Report. 

    “I had been hoping to write about cover crops and carbon markets for about two years before I pitched my project to ESI,” says Hertel. “I hadn’t been able to take the time and resources with all my other responsibilities. Joining the fellowship allowed me to focus on those topics and dive in deep to understand how much is uncertain and changing in the field right now.”

    Supporting local climate reporting

    In today’s news landscape, local coverage is dwindling, which has major effects on the ways people hear about climate change. At times, the only in-depth climate coverage available is covered by specialty or national publications, which can miss the opportunity to understand the nuances of the communities they are parachuting into.

    “Climate change is or will impact all of us, but many Americans don’t see it as relevant to their lives,” says Laur Hesse Fisher, program director at the ESI, who created and manages the fellowship program. “We’re working to help change that.”

    In this first year of the fellowship, five local journalists were selected from around the country to pursue long-form or serial climate-focused reporting. Fellows received funding and stipends to help them dedicate extra time and resources to their projects. They gathered virtually for workshops and were connected with MIT experts in a variety of relevant fields: scientists such as Adam Schlosser, senior research scientist and deputy director for science research at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change; economists and policy experts such as Joshua Hodge, executive director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR); and journalism experts from the MIT Knight Science Journalism Program.

    Fellows were also given full access to MIT’s extensive library databases and geographic data visualization tools, along with tools focused specifically on climate science and policy like the MIT Socio-Environmental Triage platform and CEEPR’s working papers. All these resources aimed to give the journalism fellows the backing they needed to undertake ambitious projects on climate issues their audiences might otherwise never have known were playing out right in their backyards.

    Stories around the country

    The result was five distinct reporting projects spread across the United States.

    ESI Fellow Tristan Baurick is an environment reporter for the Times Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, Louisiana’s largest newspaper. His multi-part series, “Wind of Change: How the Gulf of Mexico could be the next offshore wind powerhouse,” ran on the front page of the Thanksgiving print edition of the paper. It explores how the state’s offshore oil companies are pivoting to support the emerging wind energy industry, as well as the outcomes of the U.S.’s first offshore wind farm in Rhode Island, which Baurick visited on an extended reporting trip. The series looks at the history of Louisiana, which, despite being a hub for wind engineering technology production, has seen most of that technology exported. “The project relied on experts from the oil and gas industry to introduce the idea of offshore wind energy and the opportunities it could offer the region,” says Baurick. “This approach made readers who are skeptical of climate change and renewable energy let their guard down and consider these topics with a more open mind.”

    Oregon-based environmental journalist Alex Schwartz explored water rights and climate change within the Klamath River Basin for the Herald & News. The result was a five-part digital series that examines the many stakeholders, including Indigenous groups, farmers, fishers, and park managers, who depend on the Klamath River for water even as the region enters a period of extended climate change-induced drought. “The fellowship provided me with financial resources to be able to execute a project at this scale,” says Schwartz. “We never would have been able to take the time off and travel throughout the basin without the support of the fellowship.”

    Melba Newsome is a North Carolina-based independent reporter. Her two-part series for NC Health News focuses on Smithfield’s Foods, whose hog houses continue to have lasting health and environmental implications for majority Black communities in the southeastern part of the state. The series, which has been republished by Indy Weekly, the Daily Yonder, and others, interviews residents and activists to untangle a history of legal battles, neglect, and accusations of environmental racism — while noting that sea-level rise has made the region increasingly vulnerable to dangerous releases of waste from its growing factory farms.

    The final project supported by the fellowship came from Wyoming, famous for its vast outdoors and coal industry. In his three-part series for WyoFile, journalist Dustin Bleizeffer — whose beat shifted from education to energy and climate in part as a result of his fellowship — spoke to local residents to capture their personal experiences of warming temperatures and changing landscapes. “[Of] the people I interviewed and featured in my reporting … all but one are climate skeptics, but they spoke in detail about climate changes they’ve observed, and very eloquently described their concerns,” says Bleizeffer. “I’m still receiving comments and enthusiasm to keep the conversation going.” He also looked at how two Wyoming counties, Gillette and Campbell, are faring through the coal industry’s decline. His series provided a boost to efforts by grassroots organizations and conservation groups that are trying to open “the climate conversation” in the state.

    Lessons for climate conversations

    All five fellows joined ESI for a wrap-up event on Nov. 4, Connecting with Americans on Climate Change, which both showcased their work and gave them the opportunity to publicly discuss ways to engage Americans across the political spectrum on climate change.

    The event was joined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of the bestselling “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” who had earlier joined the fellows in one of their workshops to offer her own experience engaging with people who feel ill-served by the national media. Her book, which followed members of the Tea Party in Louisiana for five years, illustrates the importance of deep listening to bridging America’s social and political divides. Hochschild applied this insight to climate change in talking with the fellows and event attendees about strategies to understand and respond to local perspectives on what is often framed as a contentious political issue. “Sociology gives us forgiveness; [it] gets blame and guilt out of the picture,” said Hochschild.

    That was an insight echoed by several of the journalism fellows. “I think rural people feel blamed a lot for every problem,” said Schwartz. “If we were to take the carbon footprint of the Klamath River Basin, it would be minuscule compared to any corporation, right? … We have to create that safety net for our communities to be able to bear the brunt of these cascading disasters that are already occurring and are just going to get worse in the future. Focusing on the adaptation side was really helpful in terms of just getting people to talk about climate change.”

    Other fellows had their own strategies for opening conversations about climate change — and by responding to their audiences’ concerns, they did see opportunities for change in their reporting. In Wyoming, Bleizeffer talked about the need to retain young people in the state, and about changes to landscapes residents loved. Newsome emphasized that people need to see climate change as not someone else’s problem — for her audience, it illustrated and exacerbated injustices they were already feeling.

    And Hertel, speaking of the conventional farmers, everyday people, and local government officials featured in her series, left event attendees with one more insight about effective climate reporting. “Don’t expect people to change on a dime,” she said. “You must bring people [along] on the journey.”

    ESI will be opening journalism fellowship applications for its second cohort later this year. Experienced reporters are encouraged to apply. If you are interested in supporting this fellowship or are curious about opportunities for partnerships, please contact Laur Hesse Fisher. More

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    Pricing carbon, valuing people

    In November, inflation hit a 39-year high in the United States. The consumer price index was up 6.8 percent from the previous year due to major increases in the cost of rent, food, motor vehicles, gasoline, and other common household expenses. While inflation impacts the entire country, its effects are not felt equally. At greatest risk are low- and middle-income Americans who may lack sufficient financial reserves to absorb such economic shocks.

    Meanwhile, scientists, economists, and activists across the political spectrum continue to advocate for another potential systemic economic change that many fear will also put lower-income Americans at risk: the imposition of a national carbon price, fee, or tax. Framed by proponents as the most efficient and cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet climate targets, a carbon penalty would incentivize producers and consumers to shift expenditures away from carbon-intensive products and services (e.g., coal or natural gas-generated electricity) and toward low-carbon alternatives (e.g., 100 percent renewable electricity). But if not implemented in a way that takes differences in household income into account, this policy strategy, like inflation, could place an unequal and untenable economic burden on low- and middle-income Americans.         

    To garner support from policymakers, carbon-penalty proponents have advocated for policies that recycle revenues from carbon penalties to all or lower-income taxpayers in the form of payroll tax reductions or lump-sum payments. And yet some of these proposed policies run the risk of reducing the overall efficiency of the U.S. economy, which would lower the nation’s GDP and impede its economic growth.

    Which begs the question: Is there a sweet spot at which a national carbon-penalty revenue-recycling policy can both avoid inflicting economic harm on lower-income Americans at the household level and degrading economic efficiency at the national level?

    In search of that sweet spot, researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change assess the economic impacts of four different carbon-penalty revenue-recycling policies: direct rebates from revenues to households via lump-sum transfers; indirect refunding of revenues to households via a proportional reduction in payroll taxes; direct rebates from revenues to households, but only for low- and middle-income groups, with remaining revenues recycled via a proportional reduction in payroll taxes; and direct, higher rebates for poor households, with remaining revenues recycled via a proportional reduction in payroll taxes.

    To perform the assessment, the Joint Program researchers integrate a U.S. economic model (MIT U.S. Regional Energy Policy) with a dataset (Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey) providing consumption patterns and other socioeconomic characteristics for 15,000 U.S. households. Using the combined model, they evaluate the distributional impacts and potential trade-offs between economic equity and efficiency of all four carbon-penalty revenue-recycling policies.

    The researchers find that household rebates have progressive impacts on consumers’ financial well-being, with the greatest benefits going to the lowest-income households, while policies centered on improving the efficiency of the economy (e.g., payroll tax reductions) have slightly regressive household-level financial impacts. In a nutshell, the trade-off is between rebates that provide more equity and less economic efficiency versus tax cuts that deliver the opposite result. The latter two policy options, which combine rebates to lower-income households with payroll tax reductions, result in an optimal blend of sufficiently progressive financial results at the household level and economy efficiency at the national level. Results of the study are published in the journal Energy Economics.

    “We have determined that only a portion of carbon-tax revenues is needed to compensate low-income households and thus reduce inequality, while the rest can be used to improve the economy by reducing payroll or other distortionary taxes,” says Xaquin García-Muros, lead author of the study, a postdoc at the MIT Joint Program who is affiliated with the Basque Centre for Climate Change in Spain. “Therefore, we can eliminate potential trade-offs between efficiency and equity, and promote a just and efficient energy transition.”

    “If climate policies increase the gap between rich and poor households or reduce the affordability of energy services, then these policies might be rejected by the public and, as a result, attempts to decarbonize the economy will be less efficient,” says Joint Program Deputy Director Sergey Paltsev, a co-author of the study. “Our findings provide guidance to decision-makers to advance more well-designed policies that deliver economic benefits to the nation as a whole.” 

    The study’s novel integration of a national economic model with household microdata creates a new and powerful platform to further investigate key differences among households that can help inform policies aimed at a just transition to a low-carbon economy. More

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    At UN climate change conference, trying to “keep 1.5 alive”

    After a one-year delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiators from nearly 200 countries met this month in Glasgow, Scotland, at COP26, the United Nations climate change conference, to hammer out a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate impacts. A delegation of approximately 20 faculty, staff, and students from MIT was on hand to observe the negotiations, share and conduct research, and launch new initiatives.

    On Saturday, Nov. 13, following two weeks of negotiations in the cavernous Scottish Events Campus, countries’ representatives agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The pact reaffirms the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement “to pursue efforts” to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and recognizes that achieving this goal requires “reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century.”

    “On issues like the need to reach net-zero emissions, reduce methane pollution, move beyond coal power, and tighten carbon accounting rules, the Glasgow pact represents some meaningful progress, but we still have so much work to do,” says Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, who led the Institute’s delegation to COP26. “Glasgow showed, once again, what a wicked complex problem climate change is, technically, economically, and politically. But it also underscored the determination of a global community of people committed to addressing it.”

    An “ambition gap”

    Both within the conference venue and at protests that spilled through the streets of Glasgow, one rallying cry was “keep 1.5 alive.” Alok Sharma, who was appointed by the UK government to preside over COP26, said in announcing the Glasgow pact: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

    In remarks delivered during the first week of the conference, Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, presented findings from the latest MIT Global Change Outlook, which showed a wide gap between countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — the UN’s term for greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledges — and the reductions needed to put the world on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and, now, the Glasgow pact.

    Pointing to this ambition gap, Paltsev called on all countries to do more, faster, to cut emissions. “We could dramatically reduce overall climate risk through more ambitious policy measures and investments,” says Paltsev. “We need to employ an integrated approach of moving to zero emissions in energy and industry, together with sustainable development and nature-based solutions, simultaneously improving human well-being and providing biodiversity benefits.”

    Finalizing the Paris rulebook

    A key outcome of COP26 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 26th time) was the development of a set of rules to implement Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which provides a mechanism for countries to receive credit for emissions reductions that they finance outside their borders, and to cooperate by buying and selling emissions reductions on international carbon markets.

    An agreement on this part of the Paris “rulebook” had eluded negotiators in the years since the Paris climate conference, in part because negotiators were concerned about how to prevent double-counting, wherein both buyers and sellers would claim credit for the emissions reductions.

    Michael Mehling, the deputy director of MIT’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (CEEPR) and an expert on international carbon markets, drew on a recent CEEPR working paper to describe critical negotiation issues under Article 6 during an event at the conference on Nov. 10 with climate negotiators and private sector representatives.

    He cited research that finds that Article 6, by leveraging the cost-efficiency of global carbon markets, could cut in half the cost that countries would incur to achieve their nationally determined contributions. “Which, seen from another angle, means you could double the ambition of these NDCs at no additional cost,” Mehling noted in his talk, adding that, given the persistent ambition gap, “any such opportunity is bitterly needed.”

    Andreas Haupt, a graduate student in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, joined MIT’s COP26 delegation to follow Article 6 negotiations. Haupt described the final days of negotiations over Article 6 as a “roller coaster.” Once negotiators reached an agreement, he says, “I felt relieved, but also unsure how strong of an effect the new rules, with all their weaknesses, will have. I am curious and hopeful regarding what will happen in the next year until the next large-scale negotiations in 2022.”

    Nature-based climate solutions

    World leaders also announced new agreements on the sidelines of the formal UN negotiations. One such agreement, a declaration on forests signed by more than 100 countries, commits to “working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.”

    A team from MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), which has been working with policymakers and other stakeholders on strategies to protect tropical forests and advance other nature-based climate solutions in Latin America, was at COP26 to discuss their work and make plans for expanding it.

    Marcela Angel, a research associate at ESI, moderated a panel discussion featuring John Fernández, professor of architecture and ESI’s director, focused on protecting and enhancing natural carbon sinks, particularly tropical forests such as the Amazon that are at risk of deforestation, forest degradation, and biodiversity loss.

    “Deforestation and associated land use change remain one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in most Amazonian countries, such as Brazil, Peru, and Colombia,” says Angel. “Our aim is to support these countries, whose nationally determined contributions depend on the effectiveness of policies to prevent deforestation and promote conservation, with an approach based on the integration of targeted technology breakthroughs, deep community engagement, and innovative bioeconomic opportunities for local communities that depend on forests for their livelihoods.”

    Energy access and renewable energy

    Worldwide, an estimated 800 million people lack access to electricity, and billions more have only limited or erratic electrical service. Providing universal access to energy is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, creating a dual challenge: how to boost energy access without driving up greenhouse gas emissions.

    Rob Stoner, deputy director for science and technology of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga, a visiting professor at the Sloan School of Management, attended COP26 to share their work as members of the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty, a collaboration between MITEI and the Rockefeller Foundation. It brings together global energy leaders from industry, the development finance community, academia, and civil society to identify ways to overcome barriers to investment in the energy sectors of countries with low energy access.

    The commission’s work helped to motivate the formation, announced at COP26 on Nov. 2, of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, a multibillion-dollar commitment by the Rockefeller and IKEA foundations and Bezos Earth Fund to support access to renewable energy around the world.

    Another MITEI member of the COP26 delegation, Martha Broad, the initiative’s executive director, spoke about MIT research to inform the U.S. goal of scaling offshore wind energy capacity from approximately 30 megawatts today to 30 gigawatts by 2030, including significant new capacity off the coast of New England.

    Broad described research, funded by MITEI member companies, on a coating that can be applied to the blades of wind turbines to prevent icing that would require the turbines’ shutdown; the use of machine learning to inform preventative turbine maintenance; and methodologies for incorporating the effects of climate change into projections of future wind conditions to guide wind farm siting decisions today. She also spoke broadly about the need for public and private support to scale promising innovations.

    “Clearly, both the public sector and the private sector have a role to play in getting these technologies to the point where we can use them in New England, and also where we can deploy them affordably for the developing world,” Broad said at an event sponsored by America Is All In, a coalition of nonprofit and business organizations.

    Food and climate alliance

    Food systems around the world are increasingly at risk from the impacts of climate change. At the same time, these systems, which include all activities from food production to consumption and food waste, are responsible for about one-third of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions warming the planet.

    At COP26, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab announced the launch of a new alliance to drive research-based innovation that will make food systems more resilient and sustainable, called the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance. With 16 member institutions, the FACT Alliance will better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders around the world.

    Looking ahead

    By the end of 2022, the Glasgow pact asks countries to revisit their nationally determined contributions and strengthen them to bring them in line with the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. The pact also “notes with deep regret” the failure of wealthier countries to collectively provide poorer countries $100 billion per year in climate financing that they pledged in 2009 to begin in 2020.

    These and other issues will be on the agenda for COP27, to be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, next year.

    “Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is broadly accepted as a critical goal to avoiding worsening climate consequences, but it’s clear that current national commitments will not get us there,” says ESI’s Fernández. “We will need stronger emissions reductions pledges, especially from the largest greenhouse gas emitters. At the same time, expanding creativity, innovation, and determination from every sector of society, including research universities, to get on with real-world solutions is essential. At Glasgow, MIT was front and center in energy systems, cities, nature-based solutions, and more. The year 2030 is right around the corner so we can’t afford to let up for one minute.” More