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October 2016, Volume 22, Number 4

Climate Change

The world is warming: 2014, 2015 and 2016 each set records as the warmest years since accurate temperature records were kept beginning in 1880. Temperatures in 2016 are expected to average 1.3 degrees Celsius or 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit more than 1880, which is close to the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit specified in the December 2015 Paris climate change agreement.

One reason for high temperatures in 2016 was El Niño, warming waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean that pump heat into the atmosphere. Without El Niño, 2017 should be cooler.

In October 2016 in Rwanda, 170 countries agreed to counter climate change by phasing out the use of chemical coolants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), used in air-conditioners and refrigerators and with 1,000 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Under the agreement, richer nations will freeze production of HFCs sooner than poorer countries, though some African nations elected to phase out HFCs more rapidly than required, citing the grave threats they face from climate change.

Some speculate that the agreement on HFCs, which is an amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that banned ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), will do more to slow climate change than the December 2015 Paris agreement, which entered into force in October 2016. Chemical companies responded to the 1987 agreement by developing HFCs, which do not harm the ozone layer but do trap heat in the atmosphere.

Coal. Coal generates a quarter of the world's electricity and almost half of the world's carbon emissions. The Obama administration promoted clean coal, subsidizing a Southern Company Kemper plant in Mississippi that was supposed to cost $2.4 billion when construction started in 2010 but wound up costing $7 billion, and was not yet operational in 2016.

Under a 2008 Mississippi law, the cost of new power plants can be passed on to ratepayers before they become operational, meaning that Mississippi ratepayers have been paying for the non-operational plant. The construction of Kemper began before the plant was designed to qualify for federal subsidies, making it a potential "Solyndra of clean coal;" Solyndra was a failed federally subsidized solar project.

Most of Mississippi's electricity is produced from natural gas, whose cost has been lowered by fracking. Builders of Kemper assumed that gas prices would quintuple (they have not) to make clean coal as cheap as gas-fired plants. They rushed construction, so that low-quality work became the norm. The key to clean coal, the gasifier that converts cheap goal to synthetic gas, is not yet functional at Kemper.

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