August 31 2020
August 31 2020
Opponents of climate action often resort to the foolish retort that “we can’t afford it.” Supporters of climate action note that the costly impacts of climate change mean we can’t afford to not take action. Now, research from Duke University has proven what many scientists studying air pollution from fossil fuels have predicted for decades: the reduction in health-related costs achieved by transitioning away from fossil fuels exceeds the costs of making the transition, even without factoring in the benefits of avoiding climate change. Dave Roberts describes the results of this new study, which in using new huge datasets has uncovered long-expected relationships between air pollution and a myriad of health impacts. Unlike climate impacts, where benefits accrue in the future, health benefits accrue as soon as fossil-fuel use stops. This means that in the United States, and particularly in countries where air pollution is worse like India and China, transitioning away from fossil fuels pays for itself by reduced health costs—the climate benefits are free! (I don’t normally use bold font, but this is an extraordinary finding). This is why the Trump Administration (driven by the fossil-fuel industry) has been pushing to ignore these health “co-benefits” of regulations, and why they have proposed that data from health studies that keep patient’s information confidential (like this study from Duke) should not be included in regulatory analyses.
InsideClimate News reports on the latest study documenting the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which has accelerated in the last 20 years. The rate of melting now greatly exceeds the rate of snowfall, a situation that will lead to the complete loss of the ice sheet. Researchers do not see anything happening to alter this dynamic; in fact, there are processes that will likely accelerate it (e.g., as the altitude of the ice sheet declines the ice is in warmer air and so melts faster). Total loss of the ice sheet will take several thousand years, and this will raise sea levels by about 20 feet. Transitioning away from fossil fuels now could double the length of time it will take for the ice sheet to disappear, providing our descendants with valuable time to plan their retreat from the coasts. Time Magazine describes the collapse of the Milne Ice Shelf in Northern Canada, which occurred at the end of July.
An article in the Los Angeles Times notes that heat waves are the deadliest form of extreme weather, but that they receive less focus than storms and wildfires (an average 12,000 heat-related premature deaths occur each year in the lower 48 states). Partly, this is because we don’t call attention to them by naming or ranking them, and also because they don’t do much damage to infrastructure. Due to climate change, U.S. cities are experiencing three times as many heat waves as in the 1960s. We can make ourselves more resilient to heat waves by behavioral changes (drinking water or avoiding strenuous activity), planting trees to create shade and replacing heat-absorbing pavement with green spaces and reflective surfaces.
National Geographic describes the growing water scarcity in the Colorado River basin. Seven western states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California) rely at least in part on the waters of the Colorado, and the river’s average flow has decreased 19% compared to its 20th century average. This decline, predicted by scientists for years, is projected to worsen, as the river flow could fall as much as 55% by 2100. Increasing aridity will impact agriculture and water availability to urban users. The states recently signed the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan, with the goal of reducing risks to water supplies through water sharing and conservation.
Resources for the Future suggests that there is an important role for oil and gas workers in a “green” economic stimulus package; plugging “orphaned” or abandoned oil and gas wells that are currently leaking greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While 76,000 oil and gas industry jobs have been lost during the economic downturn this year, as many as 120,000 jobs could be created to plug an estimated 500,000 oil and gas wells. An article in Grist notes that there is great uncertainty in the estimated costs for plugging wells, and a government program would likely reduce the incentive for oil and gas companies to fulfill their legal mandates to plug their wells when production is complete. Michael Bloomberg published an op-ed endorsing the government model contained in the HEROES Act passed by the House and in Joe Biden’s climate action plan. Bill McKibben describes in the New Yorker how oil workers in North Dakota are being retrained for jobs in the wind industry.
An article in the New York Times describes a gift to the oil and gas industry—a recent decision by the Trump Administration to eliminate regulations that measure and control methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The decision flies in the face of scientific reality. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is building up in the atmosphere, and has contributed 25% of the human-caused warming over the past 20 years. An editorial in the Washington Post argues against this decision, which was not supported by major companies like Exxon, Shell and BP. An op-ed in the Post points out that this rule change is not just anti-science, it is anti-measurement.
A recent book by Michael Shellenberger, Apocalypse Never, claims that any legitimate concern about climate change is obscured by “environmental alarmism.” This, of course, is the same narrative that has been pushed for decades by the fossil-fuel industry and various contrarians, and has led us to the present situation of a climate emergency. Shellenberger goes so far as to state that people (like me) who are actively seeking a transition away from fossil-fuels are motivated by “the opposite” of a love of humanity. In Yale Climate Connections, Peter Gleick describes in detail how the book is full of logical fallacies, scientific inaccuracies, ad hominem attacks and misleading arguments that undermine the credibility of its conclusions. A review in the Guardian criticizes many of Shellenberger’s assumptions, and those of contrarian Bjorn Lomborg in his recent book, False Alarm. I highly recommend the review of Lomborg’s book in the New York Times by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. He notes that “this book proves the aphorism that a little knowledge is dangerous.”
The New York Times reports on efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete, the manufacture of which accounts for about 8% of global carbon emissions. The article focuses on the progress of U.S. Concrete, a manufacturer based in Texas. 70% of the material the company produces annually is low-carbon concrete, up from 20% in the early 2000s.
At Vox, Dave Roberts reviews in detail a recent study that concludes it is possible to eliminate 70-80% of U.S. carbon emissions by 2035 using existing electrification technologies. This would cut energy use in the country by 50%, save consumers money and place the country on an emissions pathway that would keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C. The project worked with the assumption that, given our need to act immediately, changes would have to be accomplished with available technology; particularly, wind and solar power plants, rooftop solar, electric vehicles, heat pumps and batteries. The key is to make sure that, within a few years, every fossil-fuel-powered device or power plant is replaced by one that uses clean energy. This means that “within three to five years, production of electric vehicles would have to increase four-fold, batteries 16-fold, wind turbines 12-fold, and solar modules 10-fold.” Because these clean-energy technologies are more efficient, total U.S. energy use would drop by about 50%. A three-to five-year industrial ramp-up, followed by a sustained period of 100% substitution, would require the government to work directly with industry to hit specific production targets through some mix of incentives, penalties and mandates. Roberts compares this with our WWII mobilization: “In 1939, the US had 1,700 aircraft; in 1945, it had 300,000 military aircraft and 18,500 B–24 bombers.”
The Department of Energy has proposed to ease water-conservation standards for showers. Instead of limiting total water use to 2.5 gal/minute, the limit will now be applied to each shower head. This is an excellent example of prioritizing comfort over resilience, which I think is a poor idea. Of course, President Trump has whined about the inadequacy of controlled-flow shower heads.
Despite potential financial returns of 15-25% from energy-efficiency improvements, commercial building owners are slow to make these upgrades. An article in Utility Dive explains the specific barriers at work preventing these investments, including split incentives between landlord and tenants, frequent building sales, counterparty risk (generating higher borrowing costs) and the challenge of accurately quantifying savings. The article also proposes solutions for each of these problems.
An op-ed in the Guardian describes the damage to agriculture in Iowa from climate change, including the long-term drought and the recent derecho. The author, the Pulitzer-prize-winning editor of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa, argues for eliminating carbon emissions and adopting regenerative agriculture techniques.
Physics World explores the growth of the conspiracy theory that the Earth is flat, not spherical. While there are many ways we experience the Earth that can only happen if the Earth is round (and Aristotle reached this conclusion), the flat-Earthers distrust NASA and other scientific authorities, all of whom (they think) are part of a massive conspiracy to prevent the flat-Earth truth being revealed. Scientists who attended this year’s meeting of the Flat Earth Society note that, while there is disagreement among attendees about some details of the flat Earth, attendees all agree that the moon landing was faked. This type of conspiratorial thinking plays a role as well in the denial of climate science and in the efficacy of vaccines.
And, in a fundamentally important agricultural impact for people like me, a video at Vox describes the challenges that climate change poses to farmers who grow coffee. One of the most popular products in the world, it is estimated that by 2050 the amount of land that can sustain coffee will have fallen by 50%.