How the Elections Matter (and Not), in Five Simple Graphics

By Tom Yulsman | November 5, 2014 10:38 am

The view into the coal-fired furnace at Xcel Energy’s Valmont Power Station in Boulder. Limiting the risk of dangerous climate change will require that we phase these out and triple our use of zero- and low-carbon energy sources. (Photo: © Tom Yulsman)

| See update below |

As expected, Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate, as well as a good number of governorships, in the midterm elections yesterday. And not surprisingly, even before the votes were tallied some commentators were predicting  that a Republican victory would be a disaster for the environment in general, and efforts to grapple with climate change in particular.

As Ari Ratner at Vice put it yesterday:

These races — and many more— will decide how the country generates and consumes energy. They will dictate the preservation of our natural resources, and the environmental legacy that we all will inherit.

So let me get this straight: Now that we have an even more politically polarized government than before, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, suddenly we’ll see less gridlock than we have in the past?

In case we didn’t already have enough reasons to end the gridlock, a report published Sunday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the pressing need to slash human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering greenhouse gases. Like those spewing from the furnace of the Valmont Power Station near where I live, pictured at the top of this post.

More specifically, the IPCC noted that holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above the preindustrial level would require rapid improvements in energy efficiency and at least a tripling in how much of the world’s energy comes from zero- and low-carbon energy sources by 2050. These include renewables, nuclear energy, and fossil fuel energy with technology for capturing and storing carbon emissions. By 2100, carbon-free energy must make up 90 percent of the world’s energy mix. (Michael Weiss, one of the ace masters students in a class on blogging that I teach at the University of Colorado has written about this. Check it out here.)

|Update 11/5/14 10:30 a.m. MST: Roger Pielke, Jr., the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research and my colleague here at the University of Colorado emailed me to point out that getting to 90 percent zero/low-carbon energy by 2100 will require “shutting down a Valmont-sized plant (or 2) every day and replacing it with a nuclear power plant (or equivalent low-carbon).” That is indeed a tall order. 

The Obama administration seems to understand the need for action. And in all likelihood, it will continue to press ahead with regulatory efforts, such as the EPA’s proposed rule for limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. And Republicans will try to stymie action with language attached to important legislation on such things as defense spending.

But over the next two years, do you think these political machinations will have much effect on this, one way or the other?:


Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.

Or this?:


Source: IPCC Working Group III

Despite recent decreases in carbon emissions by the United States and Europe, the global picture obviously continues to get worse — at an accelerating rate. And in the short run, the outcome of the midterm elections will neither “decide how the country generates and consumes energy,” as Vice’s Ari Ratner argues, or have any effect on these trends

But while these two graphics make it look like limiting the risks of climate change is a hopeless endeavor, consider again what the IPCC says is required: a tripling, more or less, of our use of zero- and low-carbon energy sources by 2050. That will surely be challenging, but that number doesn’t seems impossible.

And here is one way that the elections two years from now could have a very big effect: Accomplishing the tripling will require much larger R&D investments. As Andrew Revkin points out in at DotEarth today:

…without a substantial boost in basic research and development and large-scale demonstration projects related to technologies like mass energy storage, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, grid management and a new generation of nuclear plants, it’s hard to see timely progress.

So how are we doing? Not so great:


OECD countries’ spending on RD&D as a share of total R&D budgets. (Source: International Energy Agency)

Among the 34 OECD nations, research and development spending on energy has been dead last — and mostly flat.

Here’s the how energy R&D stacks up in the United States:


Source: AAAS

How we choose to spend public money speaks more loudly about our national priorities than any individual politician. And it is clear from these graphics that we haven’t yet heeded what scientists are telling us about the risks of climate change. Not even remotely close.

But here is also where elections could matter — if only enough politicians would stop bloviating about making the future better for our children and actually put our tax money where their mouths are.

  • Ethan Murphy

    We need to stop paving over nature.

  • NiCuCo

    A revenue-neutral carbon tax and dividend will use the market to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, far better than regulations and subsidies will.

    Regional Economic Modeling, Inc. (REMI) conducted a nation-wide macroeconomic study for Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) on the impacts of CCL’s carbon fee and dividend (F&D) policy.

    The tax on carbon was either $0 from 2016-2035 (the baseline), or was $10 per ton in 2016 and increased by $10 every year after that (F&D).

    CO2 emissions decline 33% after only 10 years, and 52% after 20 years relative to the baseline ($0/ton of CO2).

    National employment increases by 2.1 million jobs after 10 years, and 2.8 million after 20 years. This is more than a 1% increase in total US employment we don’t get without a carbon tax

    The cost of living increases by 2035 by about 1.7-2.5%, depending on the region of the U.S.

    Real incomes increase by more than $500 per person in 2025. This increase accounts for cost of living increases.

    Over the first 10 years, 13,000 lives are saved annually, with a cumulative 227,000 American lives saved over 20 years.

    Not included in the report are the benefits that are the raison d’être of the fee and dividend, the reductions in the costs associated with anthropogenic global warming and anthropogenic climate change. Also not included are the reductions in the costs of increasing the acidity of the oceans, due to increased dissolved CO2.

  • StevetheHun

    This is politics and Progressive ideology passed off as science.

    At least when the Religious fundamentalist deny the big bang and evolution, it doesn’t result in a carbon tax, a draconian one world government, and an effort to remove 6 billion people.

  • OWilson

    We are $18 trillion in debt, and it’s growing.

    We selfishly lay this at the feet of unborn generations.

    The world is facing real threats from wars, jihads and nuclear proliferation.

    Perhaps the U.N. should spend their time on these issues rather than trying to control the weather 100 years from now?

    After all, their models, forecasts and projections have been proven wrong already.

  • Ettore Greco

    It must be funny for some to see everyone rushing to the right and to the left, running political campaigns and elections when they already know that everything is fixed right from the start. Why these masquerades when it is clear that Jeb Bush will be at the White House in 2016 and all the promises made by these State politicians will hold no value? Today a widespread turmoil and a growing social discontent should be viewed in a larger context and not simply within the walls of local politics. We are now experiencing one of the stages of a World conspiracy and wherever you are in the World you are also part of it. Don’t let the media fool you. The conspiracy is not a theory. With 2.3 trillion dollars officially declared missing by the Bush administration one day before 9/11 and 2 more trillions stolen between the “Savings and Loan” affair and Enron a few Zionists like the Bush family and Dov Zakheim are now waiting for the total collapse of the world financial system and a World War of Religions. They maneuver from behind the scene to generate terror, chaos and despair in all places setting an idyllic stage for the next big surprise, one New World Order that was invoked for the first time by the father and will be announced by the son and next US president Jeb Bush. From ISIS to Al Qaeda how could anyone still believe the story of Osama bin Laden? The short memory of the people works wonders for the Zionists. Perhaps a few will still remember when George W. Bush told the terrorized US citizens to seal their windows with duct tape to protect from an imminent chemical attack. An irony like this can tell a story. The next day on the shelves of the stores all over the US there was no more duct tape for sale. But a recent revelation should soon come back to mind and clarify any possible inquiry: —Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in an interview with the Daily Beast, Sept. 16 “Here’s the problem. He [Sen. John McCain] did meet with ISIS, and had his picture taken, and didn’t know it was happening at the time”. This picture is the obvious evidence that the World conspiracy is not a theory. The chief of ISIS is that same Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who spent time in a US prison and in a meeting with Mc Cain before being released in 2009. There is no doubt that the Zionists and their counter terrorist agencies have all the means to enlist and pay well mercenaries of all Countries and Islamic extremists without having to show their face or their wallet.

    Once you recognized the objective of the Conspiracy all the rest will be easy to comprehend and to foresee. Besides, it will make no more sense to continue to play Monopoly when somebody has already stolen all the money

  • George Lerner

    Boehner & McConnell haven’t repaired Brent Spence Bridge between
    their districts, rated “functionally obsolete”. Why? They are against
    money being used for anything good. Will they change now they won
    majority in Senate? I hope that bridge gets repaired or closed before
    anyone dies.

    Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) pilot done in 1960s.
    Utility scale design & testing, plus construction of factories to
    roll out 200MW units, would have total cost less than a single Light
    Water Reactor (LWR).

    MSR is completely different design, loss of coolant accidents physically
    impossible, no pressure or chemical explosions, and use over 99% of the fuel (LWR uses about 2%).

    MSR is nuclear power so good the oil and coal companies have blocked it for decades.

    MSR to fuel entire country about 1/10 $ of using 100% wind-solar-tidal-wave.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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