July 31 2020

July 31 2020

Biden links climate action with economic stimulus, methane emissions climb, tipping points drawing near, the challenge of managed retreat, record high-tide flooding

An article in New York Magazine describes how Joe Biden’s climate plan is being framed as a key part of the economic stimulus the country requires to recover from the pandemic. This is an important and welcome development, as transitioning from fossil fuels requires a major investment, and if we invest in the “business as usual” fossil-fuel-powered economy, our climate goals will be out of reach (the Biden campaign video introduces this plan for a clean-energy revolution and environmental justice). An article in the New York Times describes how climate change and other environmental issues are emerging as a clear difference between the presidential candidates, and Governor Jay Inslee discusses Biden’s climate plan in an interview in New York Magazine.

An article in the New York Times documents that global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, reached a record high in 2017, driven mainly by leaks from fossil-fuel facilities and emissions from agriculture. The article notes that a given amount of methane produces 86 times more warming than carbon dioxide over a twenty year period. Rob Jackson, a Stanford earth scientist who leads the Global Carbon Project, notes that “if we continue to release methane as we have done in recent decades, we have no chance” to keep global temperature increases to just 2°C. Newsweek reports how scientists are using satellites to measure methane emissions from remote lakes in the Arctic.

In the Guardian, an article describes the first documented methane leak from the ocean floor in Antarctica. The implications of this discovery, that methane being produced in this region is likely escaping into the atmosphere, has scientists worried given that methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas. Its natural release in response to warming is a potential “tipping point” in the climate system, where climatic change starts accelerating beyond our control (tipping points discussed here). Avoiding tipping points is the key objective of keeping temperature rise below 2°C, although there is concern that even that target may not be fully protective. That we are nearing temperatures where we could activate tipping points is the key reason why scientists are now sounding the alarm that climate change is a global emergency.

The Guardian reports on the Experimental Active Forest Centre (CEFA), a research center set up in Brazil in 2016 to develop forest restoration and sustainability practices. At CEFA, farming within the forest, or agroforestry, is the focus rather than clearing it for cattle or soya. CEFA’s director notes, “The culture [in Brazil] is slash and burn, and we’re trying to change that.” An article in the Guardian examines the planting of trees outside of their present distribution, a practice known as “assisted migration.” The Nature Conservancy is applying this technique on a reserve in Maryland, as its scientists have concluded that trees will be unable to migrate fast enough on their own to survive climate change. The Guardian reports on a new satellite-based analysis from the University of Maryland concluding that a football-field-sized area of tropical rainforest is lost every six seconds.

The Washington Post notes a report from Bloomberg News that a program in Chile meant to subsidize tree planting actually accelerated biodiversity losses and made little difference in capturing greenhouse gases. The $408 million subsidy program had the effect of doubling the size of Chile’s plantation forests, while native forests shrank by 13%. While total forest area expanded, the carbon stored in vegetation increased by just 1.98% during the study period.

The New York Review of Books looks at protecting the shoreline of New York City from another major storm like Sandy, the recurrence of which is a future certainty. The article demonstrates how land reclamation activities over the last few centuries were overwhelmed by the storm. “Sandy proved that two can play at ‘land reclamation,’ people and mother nature.” All of the locations reclaimed by people were inundated by the storm, which “temporarily trimmed lower Manhattan back to a fairly close approximation of its shoreline in the 1600s.” The article notes that no comprehensive strategy exists, and defense is being carried out in a piecemeal fashion that “invariably reproduces the city’s inequalities by protecting wealthy areas first” (although at present even wealthy neighborhoods are not well protected). The historic penchant of planners for putting critical infrastructure (power plants, wastewater treatment plants, transportation corridors, warehouses, etc.) in coastal areas—both for aesthetic and practical reasons—has increased vulnerability to a major storm. The article concludes that nearly a decade after Hurricane Sandy, the city is far from protected from an equivalent storm, to say nothing of a larger event.

InsideClimate News reports on Sandy recovery efforts as well, examining the role of managed retreat in the process. The article defines managed retreat as “the purposeful, coordinated movement of people and assets out of harm’s way,” and describes the many challenges associated with this strategy. Another article about managed retreat at Politico notes that “the truth is that despite an avalanche of studies proving that entire regions of our country will become uninhabitable in a matter of decades, political leaders have not even begun a conversation or started to develop a national strategy for the massive dislocation that is inevitable and already on the horizon.” A key problem facing all such efforts is having an answer to the question, “retreat to where?”

The Washington Post reports that “spreading rock dust on farmland could pull enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to remove about half of the amount of that greenhouse gas currently produced by Europe.” In this process, known as enhanced rock weathering, crushed rock is layered into agricultural soils. When silicate or carbonate minerals in the dust dissolve in rain water, carbon dioxide is drawn from the atmosphere into the solution to form bicarbonate ions. The bicarbonate ions are eventually washed by runoff into the ocean, where they form carbonate minerals, storing their carbon indefinitely.

While I try and keep In Brief Climate News a summary of recent items, I found an article in the Atlantic from 2018 of particular interest to those who may be facing drought in the future (like the entire southwest U.S.). The article takes a detailed look at the water supply situation in Cape Town, South Africa, which weathered a severe drought that threatened the arrival of “day zero” (when water doesn’t flow from the tap). While residents of Cape Town have responded by greatly reducing their water use, the article also highlights the enormous political complexities that surfaced during this period. These includes questions about how close “day zero” actually was, longstanding issues around systemic racism and inequity and doubts about the competence of water management. Cape Town is already facing the kinds of resource crunches that will define a hotter Earth. The author notes that other cities in the world also are ripe to experience the impact of such water scarcity, including São Paulo, Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo, Mexico City and even Moscow. He concludes that “climate change will likely make the task of providing water harder, the populations thirstier, and the people angrier, even as many of the cities grow.”

The New York Times describes a NOAA report concluding that parts of the United States saw record levels of high-tide flooding in the last year due to rising seas. Since 2000, NOAA documents an “extraordinary” increase in high-tide flooding, with the frequency increasing fivefold in some cities. This increase is damaging property, threatening drinking water and flooding roads. A neighborhood in Galveston, TX, “reported high-tide flooding on 64 days, or almost one day out of five.”

An op-ed in The Hill argues that the climate policy recommendations of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis correctly view a price on carbon as only one of multiple policies that are required for decarbonization. While a carbon price would generate revenue and send a price signal throughout the economy, those who suggest this is “all we need” fail to understand the shortcomings of this policy. It does not incentivize pollution reductions in frontline communities that have been disproportionately burdened by a legacy of racism. It does not necessarily provide capital (grants and subsidies) to enable industry and communities to invest in the clean-energy transition (although revenue generated could be directed toward this objective). A price on carbon needs to be one part of a comprehensive plan that achieves multiple benefits (such as climate and health improvements), and that addresses the challenges posed to the grid by electrifying transportation and shifting electricity generation to renewables.”

A detailed article in the New York Times notes the many positive changes associated with less auto traffic during the stay-at-home order (less pollution, fewer fatalities and more space for walking/biking). The author wonders if “rather than stumble back into car dependency, cities can begin to undo their worst mistake: giving up so much of their land to the automobile.” Indeed, “car habitat” takes up a large percentage of our urban areas (the land dedicated to car parking in Los Angeles is enough to house almost a million more people at the city’s prevailing density). The article has great visualizations of how New York City could change if there is less area devoted to vehicles, and notes that many cities are moving in this direction (Paris has reduced traffic by 40% in the last decade alone, and these changes are contributing to the Mayor’s popularity).