The organizers of the Pyeongchang Games say they want to do their part to limit their impact on global warming. That raises a question: How sustainable are the Olympics? The Pyeongchang organizing committee estimates the Games will generate 1.6 million ...
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In this edition: Pyeongchang’s environmental legacy, an interview with a Trump adviser who resigned last week and a look at climate education in the United States.
CreditClaire O'Neill/The New York Times
By Kendra Pierre-Louis
Last month, we told you about how climate change may limit the available sites for future Winter Olympics. The organizers of the Pyeongchang Games say they want to do their part to limit their impact on global warming. That raises a question: How sustainable are the Olympics?
The Pyeongchang organizing committee estimates the Games will generate 1.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, of which roughly a third will come from transporting athletes and spectators to South Korea and housing them. The emissions total is a bit more than Barbados produces in a year. The organizers are raising funds to buy carbon offsets, but how much they secure won’t be finalized until the end of the month.
The emissions associated with flying people from around the world to the Games is part of what Todd Cowen, an engineer who is faculty director for energy at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University, calls the boundary problem. Let’s say you have a home that has geothermal heating, a rainwater catchment system and solar panels that generate all your electricity: You might say you have a zero-carbon lifestyle.
“But then you step into your SUV that’s a gas-powered vehicle and you go to work,” said Dr. Cowen. “If you draw a boundary around your home you’re green. But if you draw a boundary around the larger footprint of your lifestyle then you’re no longer green.”
The Pyeongchang Games are the first Winter Olympics to achieve ISO 20121 certification, a standard designed to help events incorporate sustainable practices, from the International Organization for Standardization.
The 2016 Rio Olympics were also ISO 20121 certified, but many of the facilities built for those Games now languish in disuse. The Olympics can produce so-called white elephant stadiums, “where there’s absolutely no other use that’s of the scale of the Olympics, so you can’t really call that sustainable,” said Jennifer Minner, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell who studies the sustainability of international expos and other large events.
The International Organization for Standardization directed questions to the American National Standards Institute, which did not respond to a request for comment.
After the Paralympic Games in March, the $109 million Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium will be torn down so the South Korean government can avoid spending more money maintaining it.
It’s not clear what fate will befall the Jeongseon Alpine Center on Mount Gariwang. To build the ski run, tens of thousands of trees, some more than 500 years old, were cut down. (Organizers have pledged to replant about 1,000 trees.) There are questions about whether the ski run will have enough visitors after the Olympics to justify its existence.
Pyeongchang’s environmental legacy will be determined after the Games, but it is likely to be greener than the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. During construction for those Games, environmental groups in the region documented illegal dumping of waste products, construction that blocked migration routes of animals and the logging of rare species of trees — all inside a national park.
And now, your Climate Fwd: sports update: Two weeks ago, we interviewed Jessie Diggins, a cross-country skier on the American women’s team, about her advocacy for climate action to protect winter sports. On Wednesday, Diggins and Kikkan Randall won the women’s team sprint freestyle event, becoming the first Americans to win an Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing.
George David Banks at the 2017 United Nations climate conference in Bonn, Germany.CreditRonald Wittek/European Pressphoto Agency
By Lisa Friedman
George David Banks was the senior White House adviser on international energy issues before he resigned last week after being told he would not be granted a full security clearance. He was known as one of the few people in the White House looking for ways to keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement.
Mr. Banks — who has worked for a conservative think tank, the George W. Bush administration, and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, an outspoken climate change denier — is no environmental activist. But he is a strong supporter of international engagement.
I interviewed Mr. Banks three days after he left the White House to understand why he believes the Paris agreement is worth protecting. In our conversation, he was sharply critical of the Obama administration’s pledge to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.
The following excerpt has been edited and condensed. For more from Mr. Banks, look for our full story publishing soon.
When you came to the White House, what were you told from the get-go about climate change and the Paris agreement?
The guidance at that time was the campaign promise.
You mean, to “cancel” the Paris agreement?
To cancel that, and to cancel the funding for global warming programs. But you know, the president expressed a willingness to stay in Paris right after the election. It wasn’t as if he held to the “we’re getting out” line. I think the first public statement that I ever saw from the president was, “I would renegotiate it.” So for me, coming into the job, I recognized that there was more to it than just canceling, and the president probably wanted flexibility and some options.
What is your personal position on the Paris agreement?
I’m going to say something controversial. I’ve said it before, in 2016. But the Paris agreement is a good Republican agreement. It’s everything that the Bush administration wanted.
How widely was your view shared inside the White House?
I don’t think people were well-informed of the agreement. But I think that’s a failure of the Obama administration. There was the narrative that the Obama team was circumventing the Congress, that this was a treaty in reality, and then the pledge. The pledge was just awful.
I just don’t think it was based on a real economic analysis. They weren’t transparent with the pledge, they didn’t bring stakeholders in. You can’t move forward with a climate policy, or you should not move forward with a climate policy, without the input of those industries that are going to be heavily regulated. That was a fatal flaw and they took a big risk in doing what they did.
At this point is there any climate agreement that Congress would accept?
As long as you are pursuing a top-down approach you’re going to have a problem.
By Livia Albeck-Ripka
Do you have questions about climate change? We’re answering them in this newsletter. Send us yours via the form at the bottom of our climate Q. and A. This one was sent to us from Ailene Rogers.
While scientists overwhelmingly agree that human activity is the primary driver of global warming, climate change is presented as a controversial subject in a significant number of American classrooms, according to research from the National Center for Science Education, which monitors anti-science teaching.
In a 2016 study that surveyed 1,500 public middle- and high-school science teachers, roughly 75 percent said they devoted at least one class session to climate change. But of those teachers, around 30 percent taught their students that scientists are split on whether recent climate change is the result of human activities, and 10 percent emphasized the views of scientists who think that it is not.
“They’re teaching about climate change,” said Glenn Branch, the center’s deputy director, “but a substantial portion of them are saying it’s a hoax.”
Thirty states require high school students to complete a life sciences class in order to graduate, Mr. Branch said. In two — Kentucky and North Carolina — earth science classes, which often include climate change coursework, are compulsory. In a number of other states, including Idaho and New Mexico, there have been legislative attempts to scrub or water down mentions of climate change from state teaching standards. But even in those states, teachers are free to choose to cover climate change.
When states drop climate change from the required curriculum, Mr. Branch said, “the districts that do get affected are going to be the smaller, more rural and more conservative ones, where the teachers are going to take the pulse of their community and realize, ‘I’m going to get blowback if I teach about climate change.’”
Science education advocates argue that, for those teachers, having climate change included in state teaching standards is essential.
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