August 15 2020

August 15 2020

bigger storms in California’s future, Trump cooks the books (again!), shifting baseline syndrome, low-carbon aluminum, leading economists call for ending the carbon economy

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a recent study concluding that, in the future, “the biggest of Pacific storms will dump 40% more rain and snow on parts of the Sierra, boost the hourly rate of precipitation in hills and valleys nearly a third, on average, and be about 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer upon landfall.” Driving these changes is the physical reality that, as air warms, it can hold more moisture. The future projection of more intense Pacific storms is making people remember the Great Flood of 1862, when you could sail from Fresno to Sacramento, the new Governor had to travel to his inauguration in a rowboat, the state capitol was moved temporarily to San Francisco and California almost went bankrupt.

The Public Policy Institute of California has an interesting article about the growing flood risk in California from the more intense atmospheric river events expected as the climate changes. The article summarizes the recent analysis of the First Street Foundation, which demonstrated how the flood-risk projections of FEMA are out of date. FEMA estimates that 500,000 properties in California face a 1% chance of flooding in a given year, while First Street found that number to be 1.1 million properties and growing. Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that more than 800 hazardous Superfund sites near the Atlantic and Gulf coasts are at risk of flooding in the next 20 years, even with low rates of sea level rise. It is interesting to note that the lead author of this study started this work at the U.S. EPA under President Obama, but the Trump Administration sidelined the analysis. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a recent study from Stanford that describes how sea level rise not only will flood some coastal roadways, but will also generate traffic far from the flooding as motorists seek alternate routes.

An article at Yale e360 looks at attempts to breed food crops that can remain productive in a warming world. Rising temperatures are projected to reduce production of major crops, with a 1°C rise leading to a drop in yield of corn (7%), wheat (6%), soybeans (3%) and rice (3.2%). In addition, changes in precipitation patterns, pest abundance, crop diseases and other factors will impact productivity. One research focus is on improving the photosynthetic efficiency of plants (the rate at which they convert sunlight into plant matter, which is currently less than 1%). Efforts also are underway to breed crop strains that are drought, disease and saltwater resistant. Chickens are quite sensitive to heat as well, and this has led to interest in the Naked Neck chicken, a bird that stays cooler as there are no feathers from the bottom of its neck up to its head. An op-ed in the New York Times argues that it is essential for the planet’s health and well-being to give up eating meat regularly.

The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating story about how the warming of the planet is contributing to stronger storms, focusing in particular on the high plains of Argentina—a region prone to such events (the number of storms with winds topping 155 MPH has tripled since 1980). It is extraordinarily difficult to predict storm events with precision, although in recent decades meteorologists have improved forecasting methods and results (responses to forecasting, such as preventive road closures, supply-chain rerouting and the like save the world economy more than $100 billion annually).

An op-ed in The Hill describes how the Trump Administration has “cooked the books” to lower the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC). Sometimes called “the most important number you’ve never heard of,” the SCC represents the damage done by carbon emissions, and is used by the federal government to assess the benefits and costs of regulations. The SCC was established in the Obama Administration through a lengthly process that included review by the National Academy of Sciences. The Trump Administration has made changes using absurd assumptions that lower the SCC by 90% (this tactic is similar to that used by the Trump Administration to change vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, an action that is now under investigation by the EPA’s Inspector-General). This reduces the projected benefits of proposed regulations that support the transition away from fossil fuels, mainly by discounting the value of these regulations to future generations. In essence, it is the policy of the Trump Administration to run up our kids’ credit-card balances without telling them.

InsideClimate News examines the growth of the wood pellet industry in the United States, where trees are being turned into pellets and shipped to Europe where they are burned to produce electricity. This industry is expanding throughout the southern U.S., as exports more than tripled from 2012 to 2019. Proponents of this new industry argue that only a small amount of the forest is cut at any one time so, while the burning of pellets adds carbon to the atmosphere, the remaining forests are removing more carbon as trees grow. Opponents note that we must be reducing emissions now, not substituting wood-based emissions for fossil-fuel-based emissions. Thus, we need to stop burning fossil fuels and enhance the uptake of carbon from the atmosphere by forests.

Science Daily summarizes a new study that provides the most detailed look yet at land subsidence along the California coast. When thinking about planning for sea level rise (SLR), it is essential to take into account “relative sea level rise”—the combination of land movement and water-level changes. One of the reasons the mouth of the Chesapeake (DC, Norfolk, Hampton Roads) is a SLR hot spot is that the area is subsiding. This study notes that, in the Bay Area, subsidence at SFO makes relative sea level rise higher there than other nearby locations.

November 4th, the day after election day, is expected to be the day that the U.S. actually withdraws from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. The Guardian explains the implications. The U.S. can rejoin the agreement in 30 days, which is what is expected in February 2021 if Joe Biden is elected President. Ban Ki-moon, previous General Secretary of the United Nations, calls Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord “politically shortsighted, scientifically wrong and morally irresponsible,” and notes that “it lessens America.”

The New York Times Magazine has a detailed and troubling article about climate-change-induced human migration in the future (note: adult beverage recommended). All around the world, combinations of food insecurity, political instability and increasingly unlivable heat are driving people to move. The article examines scenarios being developed by scientists studying the problem, which go from bad to worse, as climate change becomes a major disruptive force that displaces vast populations.

Grist reports on a recent analysis of Democratic and Republican speeches about climate change. The article notes that “Democrats tend to make arguments about climate change backed up by facts and evidence, while Republicans tend to tell stories, using imagery, emotional appeals, and humor to sway people to their side.” The study’s authors state that communicating something that is not true, but using a compelling story or vivid imagery, can be more influential than just speaking the facts. And, as the San Francisco Chronicle describes, humans are renown at being very poor at assessing risk.

While most climate activists are concerned that our society is not going to wake-up to the problem and take action in time, Dave Roberts at Vox explores a more disturbing scenario: that we never wake-up at all. Is it possible that “the atmosphere becomes progressively more unstable, but it never does so fast enough, dramatically enough, to command the sustained attention of any particular generation of human beings?” Unfortunately, human behavior suggests this is a possibility. Not only does one generation not really understand or experience the conditions of a previous generation, but individuals within their lifetimes will “reset” their thinking and adjust to a new baseline condition. Thus, conditions that worsen over our lifetimes are not viewed with that perspective, and this can have a very dampening impact on our action for change. Roberts notes, “Even though atmospheric temperatures are, on a geological time scale, changing at a headlong pace, on a human time scale, they are still changing too slowly to be perceptually or emotionally salient. Put more bluntly: The public may never notice that it’s getting warmer.” To avoid this problem, we must develop laws and practices through politics that force action.

On a related topic, the Washington Post examines the question of “climate departure,” when average temperatures at a particular location are so different that the “old climate” has clearly been left behind. How fast we reach climate departure depends upon future emissions. For Washington DC, climate departure will occur in 2047, but it can be delayed by 20 years if we aggressively reduce carbon emissions now. Unfortunately, it is possible we may not even notice due to our shifting baselines.

An op-ed in the Guardian notes that well-known climate-change denialists are now promoting coal power in Africa. The author states that Africa, which has done little to cause global warming but is suffering significantly because of it, can become a renewable energy powerhouse if it ignores the denialist voices being funded by the coal industry. The Lincoln Journal Star reports that denialists in the Nebraska state legislature argued against a bill that would have appropriated money to prepare a climate action plan for Nebraska by stating that “global warming is a hoax” and “there’s more damage from high property taxes than any pending weather event.” (A University of Nebraska scientist made the case for the bill in the paper’s op-ed page to no avail.) InsideClimate News reports that William Perry Pendley, who is serving as active head of the Bureau of Land Management, said climate science “is political science or junk science, not real science, and it is, as with real science, far from settled.”

Apple Computer has announced that its new laptop computers will incorporate a new “low-carbon” aluminum, which is manufactured without the direct release of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Grist reports that the process that produces this aluminum represents a breakthrough for the industry which, despite recycling, still generates about 1% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Apple has reported that aluminum represented 27% of its product-manufacturing footprint in 2015. Gizmodo notes that some skepticism of these claims exists as the companies involved have not released the details of how they accounted for carbon emissions in the process.

An op-ed in the Guardian (based on a letter signed by over 100 leading economists) argues that, as we rebuild after the pandemic, we can only address the pressing issues facing us by ending the carbon economy. Fortune interviews Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, which recently called for three key policies in the wake of COVID: accelerating energy-efficiency improvements (especially for buildings), aggressively supporting the installation of solar and wind generation and modernization of the electrical grid.

An article in the Nation argues that Democrats should be welcoming debates and discussion about climate change as part of the Presidential campaign. While President Trump has suggested he will be able to convince voters that the Green New Deal is a poor policy, the authors note that 71 percent of voters polled favor bold government action on climate change.