April 15 2020

April 15 2020

Trump action advances climate disruption, Trump’s disdain for science hampers coronavirus fight, economic stimulus is an opportunity for climate action, “power to gas” could help decarbonize the electrical grid

The Trump Administration moved to accelerate climate disruption by rolling back vehicle mileage standards (the previous head of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality summarizes this regulatory disaster). President Obama has spoken out against this move, which is yet another example of Trump’s rejection of science. As I discussed in the February 29, 2020 In Brief, this regulatory change has no technical justification. Many organizations will challenge EPA’s action in court, which will cause great uncertainty for the automobile industry. Avoiding this uncertainty is why several auto companies decided to work collaboratively with the State of California to produce fuel-efficient vehicles. The New York Times reports how government scientists are including key data and analyses in the Trump Administration’s draft rule that clarify the health and safety impacts of the rollback—material that could be used by lawyers fighting these changes in court.

An article in the Guardian describes how the Trump Administration’s disdain for science contributed to the federal government’s delayed and chaotic response, which will clearly cause more Americans to die in the pandemic. InsideClimate News describes how science denial, from denying the science on the origins of smog to the reality of climate change, is now influencing how communities respond to the coronavirus. While the emergence of COVID-19 does not have a compelling link to climate change, there are many different ways that our changing climate will alter the distribution of existing diseases and lead to the emergence of new ones. David Wallace-Wells reviews these in New York Magazine. An op-ed in Newsweek describes the coronavirus pandemic as a time-lapse version of the climate-change crisis. The authors note that in both cases taking appropriate action pays future dividends, and that intellectual humility is required for success.

An article in the Huffington Post argues that while climate change and coronavirus are both major threats, we will not get commensurate action on climate change until we address the “predatory delay” being practiced by the fossil-fuel industry and its allies. It will be interesting to see if the inevitable federal recovery spending, which again will be in the trillions of dollars, will be recognized as an opportunity to push the country toward zero carbon emissions and build resiliency to climate impacts. The president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ken Kimmell, argues for the importance of this step.

The Independent describes a British government report that envisions a major transformation of transportation in Britain to meet goals for carbon emissions. The Transportation Minister is quoted as saying, “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

The Guardian describes the impact of the pandemic and producer price-war on the oil industry. With demand historically low and supply high, prices have cratered. Analyses are suggesting the oil industry will never be the same again, particularly as renewables become ever more economically competitive and politically desirable. Grist reports that what’s bad for the oil industry might be good for renewable geothermal energy. The costs to drill geothermal wells is dropping as drilling equipment is idled with the crash of oil prices, and this allows the construction of more economically competitive geothermal power plants.

The New York Times reports on the loss of ice from the Denman Glacier in East Antarctica. It was recently discovered that this glacier fills a deep canyon, so there is a potential mechanism for the glacier to retreat quickly and make a major contribution to sea level rise. Most focus on ice loss and sea level rise in Antarctica is on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. However, there is nine times as much ice in East Antarctica, and so if this ice sheet were to destabilize, the sea level rise problem would become much more severe.

The Washington Post describes the third coral-bleaching event in five years on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, an unprecedented situation. Driven by warmer water temperatures, this year’s bleaching is more widespread than the major events of 2016 and 2017. More frequent bleaching events are predicted by climate models, which suggest this could be an annual experience by 2030.

In Vox, Dave Roberts explores the greatest challenge for reaching a very low-carbon electrical grid—the need for backup resources that are always available and can be quickly turned on or off to match demand. While batteries are a potential solution, they can’t store enough energy, or hold it long enough, to serve as the sole backup for a large system like California’s (at least not without extraordinary cost). A potential part of the solution gaining traction is “power to gas”—the concept of using renewable electricity to create methane or hydrogen—that is then combusted when needed to generate electricity or distributed through existing pipelines for direct use. If the methane is made from carbon taken from the air, there is no net emission of greenhouse gases. Initial modeling suggests that this technology could help bridge the very expensive gap for the electrical grid if it is to move from 80% to 100% renewable powered.

The New York Times looks at the lack of enforcement by FEMA of the regulations that are part of the National Flood Insurance Program. This results in buildings throughout the country being rebuilt after floods using taxpayer money, but not addressing known risks of flooding by raising the height of structures (to say nothing of accounting for enhanced risks from stronger storms or sea level rise). Enforcement is supposed to be in the hands of cities, but local officials clearly have little incentive to push increased costs onto their residents.

A coalition of agencies in the Bay Area released its latest long-term assessment of sea level rise impacts in the region. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the assessment describes the vulnerability of the region’s economic and transportation systems, requiring a thoughtful long-term response. The analysis considers a variety of future water heights, with a particular focus on the 48-inch rise projected for 2120 by the California Ocean Protection Council (a water height that could come much sooner under “worst case” scenarios). Among the impacts: the access points to four major bridges would be affected, including the Bay Bridge in Oakland and both sides of the Dumbarton Bridge at the south end of the bay; runways at San Francisco and Oakland airports would be largely under water; nearly 31,000 jobs planned for north San Jose would need to be relocated; cropland that now generates more than $15 million in annual revenue for local farmers could be lost.

Texas Monthly reviews the changing attitudes about climate change among Texas Republicans, especially younger members of the party. A recent University of Texas poll found that only 33% of Texas Republicans over 40 said they thought climate change was happening, compared to a whopping 70% of those under 40.

The Guardian reports how Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany drew on her scientific background to help her fellow citizens understand the vital importance of mitigation measures like social distancing. She explained how the challenges of the exponential growth of coronavirus infections mean that only a small change in the rate of transfer of infections among people can make the difference in overwhelming her country’s health system.