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U.S. Faces a Week of Extreme Weather and Signs of Climate Action

Another season of extreme weather events is upon us. A severe storm, with winds up to 70 miles per hour, whipped its way from Illinois to Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Colorado is experiencing one of its worst wildfires in history—the Black Forest Fire has burned 15,700 acres, displaced more than 38,000 people, and impacted 13,000 homes. These events are reminders of what the world will look like as our climate system moves into increasingly dangerous and unfamiliar territory.

This week also brought a trifecta of events with significant implications for climate change.

The latest report from the International Energy Agency revealed that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions hit an all-time high in 2012. These emissions are driving up global temperatures and increasing climate instability. The IEA concludes that it’s not too late to change course, but the window for action is closing rapidly.

Our current response to climate change is grossly inadequate. Fortunately, there are some signs that the winds are starting to change.

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What Exporting U.S. Natural Gas Means for the Climate

This post originally appeared on The National Journal's Energy Experts blog.

The U.S. Department of Energy made a big announcement late last week, green lighting the country’s second liquefied natural gas (LNG) export project. Many argue that natural gas exports will bring economic and geopolitical benefits for the United States--with Japanese and French companies coming on board as key partners in the proposed export station.

Indeed, natural gas can contribute to a lower-emissions trajectory--but only if it’s done right. With effective policies and standards in place, natural gas can help displace coal while complementing lower-carbon, renewable energy sources. But without these protections, U.S. LNG exports will likely lead to an increase in domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, as discussed below, may have a negative effect on global climate change.

The question becomes whether government agencies and businesses will take the necessary steps to limit the emissions risks associated with natural gas, including through LNG exports.

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Nearly Half of U.S. Fracking Sites Overlap with Water-Stressed Regions

A new report from CERES draws a connection between water risk and hydraulic fracturing in the United States. The report adds an important dimension to the conversation about how energy use and water stress will play out in the years ahead.

The report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Growing Competitive Pressures for Water, brings together Aqueduct’s high-resolution water stress maps with FracFocus.org data on the location and water use of U.S. shale oil and gas wells. The complete map (see below) shows where potentially water-intense hydraulic fracturing is happening in water-stressed areas.

The results of the study are eye-opening: Almost half of the more than 25,000 oil and gas wells mapped by Ceres are in water basins with either high or extremely high water stress.

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How Much Did the United States Contribute to International Fast-Start Finance?

This post was co-authored with Jenna Blumenthal, an intern with WRI's Climate and Energy program.

As U.S. government officials take stock of last week’s Ministerial Meeting on Mobilizing Climate Finance and prepare for upcoming UNFCCC talks in Bonn, WRI’s Open Climate Network (OCN), along with Climate Advisers and the Overseas Development Institute, are taking a look back at U.S. efforts on climate finance. (See our new fact sheet).

Back in 2009, developed countries pledged to provide $30 billion in climate finance by the end of 2012 in order to help developing countries implement low-carbon, climate-resilient development initiatives. This funding period—which took place from 2010 to 2012—is known as the “fast-start finance” period.

Our analysis reveals two sides to the U.S. contribution of roughly $7.5 billion in fast-start finance: On one hand, it represents a significant effort to increase international climate finance relative to previous years, in spite of the global financial crisis. On the other, it is not clear that the entirety of the contribution aligns with internationally agreed principles, which stipulate that the finance be “new and additional” and “balanced” between adaptation and mitigation. In any case, the United States, along with other developed countries, is now faced with the challenge of scaling up climate finance to developing countries to reach a collective $100 billion per year by 2020.

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Exploring Prospects for U.S. Coal Exports to China

This post originally appeared on ChinaFAQS.org.

The United States and China are the world’s two largest economies. They are also the two largest producers and consumers of coal, and the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. In recent years, however, their paths on coal have started to diverge.

Over the last few years, coal consumption has dropped dramatically in the United States, mainly due to low natural gas prices. In response to weak domestic demand, the U.S. coal industry has been rushing to find its way out to the international market. Last year, U.S. coal exports hit a historical high of 114 million metric tons.

However, it is worth noting that the shift away from coal in the U.S. may not be permanent. As my colleague, Kristin Meek, pointed out in an earlier blog post, coal use in the U.S. power sector was on the rise again towards the end of 2012, likely driven by the new uptick in natural gas prices.

On the other side of the globe, China’s appetite for coal continues to grow. In response, Chinese power companies are looking to tap the international coal market for sources that are more reliable and cost competitive. Among those markets is the United States. In 2012, China imported 290 million metric tons of coal. China was the third largest destination for U.S. coal exports, behind the Netherlands and the U.K.

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The Race Against Climate Change

This post originally appeared on the National Journal's Energy Experts blog. It is a response to the question: "What's holding back energy and climate policy?"

We are in a race for sure, but it is not a race among various national issues. It’s a race to slow the pace of our rapidly changing climate. The planet is warming faster than previously thought, and we cannot afford to wait for national politics to align to make progress in slowing the dangerous rate of warming.

Recent events, like the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, propelled gun control front and center. Last year’s elections shifted the national conversation on immigration. Climate change, too, should demand the attention of our national leaders.

The evidence of climate change is clear and growing. In 2012, there were 356 all-time temperature highs tied or broken in the United States. As of March, the world had experienced 337th consecutive months (28 years) with a global temperature above the 20th century average. Global sea levels are rising and artic sea ice continues to shrink faster than many scientists had predicted.

There are indications that Americans are deepening their understanding about climate change, especially when it comes to its impacts. People are beginning to connect the dots around extreme weather events, rising seas, droughts and wildfires, which have been coming in increasing frequency and intensity in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that weather-related damages in the United States were $60 billion in 2011 alone.

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New Data Reveals Rising Coal Use

New data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reveals a troubling trend: Coal-fired power generation—and its associated greenhouse gas emissions—were on the rise as 2012 came to an end.

According to the data, which was released yesterday, natural gas prices have risen significantly since April of 2012, prompting a rise in coal-fired electric generation (see figure below). This increase marks a dramatic change from the trends we’ve seen in the United States over the past several years. U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the power sector had been falling, mostly due to more electricity being generated by renewables, slowed economic growth, and a greater use of low-cost natural gas, which produces roughly half the CO2 emissions of coal during combustion.

The new uptick in gas prices and coal use suggests that we cannot simply rely on current market forces to meet America’s emissions-reduction goals. In fact, EIA projects that CO2 emissions from the power sector will slowly rise over the long term. To keep emissions on a downward trajectory, the Administration must use its authority to prompt greater, immediate reductions by putting in place emissions standards for both new and existing power plants.

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Debunking 3 Myths About U.S. Emissions

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

The national conversation around climate change has resumed. In both the Inauguration and State of the Union addresses, President Obama devoted considerable time to the issue, including his declaration that “we must do more to combat climate change.”

For some, this call to action may come as a surprise, as multiple recent reports have hailed falling U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for example, found that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States dropped 13 percent over the past five years.

However, the story is not as simple as it seems. By taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the United States needs to do more to shift to a safer pathway.

Here are three popular misconceptions about U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and the underlying truth behind them:

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