November 5, 2013
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

One of the more important — but least remarked upon — aspects of the big gubernatorial election in Virginia today is that in a sense, climate change is on the ballot. Republican Ken Cuccinelli is a climate denier. As Virginia’s Attorney General he also investigated the climate scientist Michael Mann over the trumped-up “climategate” affair in a campaign of intimidation which failed after much legal wrangling.

Meanwhile, as Ron Brownstein has detailed, Dem Terry McAuliffe may be on track to win after having taken liberal positions on climate change — even in a purple state – thanks to the growth of a new Democratic coalition that is liberal on climate issues. So it may be in Dems’ interest to keep stressing climate change.

Here’s one place for Dems to start. With Congress incapable of acting on climate, they need to focus on executive action, and one place to do this is to push for limiting the use of fluorinated gases, or HFCs. Just last week, an international effort to phase HFCs out under the Montreal Accord (the 1987 agreement to restrict ozone-depleting molecules) hit a roadblock when India refused to cooperate, but even climate activists barely noticed.

Here’s why they should. Fluorinated gases (or HFCs) get little attention because they aren’t used much in developed nations and are irrelevant to the fight against coal and oil companies. But these gases have many, many times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and can last for thousands of years. While stopping their use would be far less disruptive than phasing out coal, if nothing is done their concentration is projected to skyrocket, and could represent as much as a fifth of total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Reaching an international accord to keep HFCs out of the atmosphere would be the very first action of any sensible climate policy.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how effective fluorinated gases are at trapping heat (table 2.14 here). Tetrafluoroethane, or HFC-134a, has an atmospheric lifetime similar to methane (about a dozen years), and measured over 100 years has a heat-trapping potential that is 3,800 times that of carbon dioxide. Sulfur hexafluoride, the most potent greenhouse gas ever measured, has a lifetime of 800-3,20o years, and its heat-trapping potential over a century is over twenty-two thousand times that of carbon dioxide. Any middle-income country or large corporation could easily produce enough of that stuff to induce catastrophic global warming. It’s the stuff of James Bond villain schemes — like the time a Chinese company held the atmosphere hostage to keep scamming the EU’s emission permit-trading system.

Over the past year, the US, Canada and Mexico have been pushing for an amendment to the Montreal Accord to include HFCs, and even China and India had made positive signals in support. Andrew Freedman reports what happened in Bangkok:

Despite high hopes going into the Bangkok talks, negotiators did not move the amendment toward formal considerations after developing countries, led by India, raised questions about the costs and availability of alternatives to HFCs and the viability of tackling global warming within a treaty system designed to handle a different environmental challenge…India helped block formal discussions of the amendment, and negotiators instead agreed to have the treaty’s technical support team conduct a study of the costs and benefits of reducing HFC use, and hold a workshop on the issue in 2014.

Foot-dragging aside, India and China will probably give up their HFCs sooner or later. But it’s important for climate activists to keep up the pressure, and not let this slide under the radar. Atmospheric concentration of sulfur hexafluoride, while very low, has been increasing steadily. Dawdling will have climate consequences thousands of years hence, but pushing to do away with HFC’s wouldn’t be even all that politically controversial.


UPDATE:  This post originally implied that carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime of a dozen years. The correct figure is on the order of 100-1000 or more years. We’ve edited the post to correct that.