August 31 2022

August 31 2022

under-the-radar” elements of the Inflation Reduction Act, sea level rise challenging the Outer Banks and Miami, local resistance to renewable energy, lawns leaving southern California, solar powers Australia

The New York Times notes that one of the least publicized aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is how it amends the Clean Air Act, the country’s key air-quality law, to define carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels as an “air pollutant.” (An op-ed in the Washington Post further describes the importance of this small amendment to the Clean Air Act.) This gives explicit authorization to the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide, which should allow it to use its power to push renewable-energy sources despite the recent decision by the Supreme Court in West Virginia v. EPA. At the very least, it will make legal challenges to the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide much more difficult, which is why Republicans tried unsuccessfully to strip this language from the bill during the Senate debate.

In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer explains that the IRA will also allow the EPA to pass much stricter rules than it could have previously. This is because provisions of the law that support renewable energy will reduce the cost of complying with regulations for reducing carbon emissions. This should enhance the EPA’s ability to demonstrate that benefits of stricter regulations outweigh the costs and are therefore in the public interest.

Another important but poorly publicized component of the IRA is the expansion of the federal loan program to support commercialization of renewable technologies. This program, operated by the Department of Energy, will be able to offer up to $350 billion in additional federal loans and loan guarantees. This is the program that provided a crucial loan to help Tesla expand from a company that sold only expensive two-door electric sports cars into the world’s most valuable automaker (the program also backed Solyndra, which was a commercial failure that became a political football). National Geographic describes the fee on methane emissions, another “under the radar” component of the IRA (one of the few “sticks” in a bill full of “carrots”).

Climate scientist James Hansen explains that, while the IRA is a step in the right direction, it is a very small step when placed in the global emissions context. As recent U.S. emissions are about 14% of the global total, and the IRA will decrease U.S. emissions an additional 15-20% over the already expected decline, the impact of the bill will be on the order of 1% of global emissions. Hansen takes a pessimistic view of the possibility that the IRA could be more successful, and calls for a carbon tax. In Salon, a political scientist notes that his research indicates that “people’s real-life experiences with extreme weather are acting as a catalyst driving support for reducing CO2 emissions, and will likely fuel rising support for action in the future as the climate crisis worsens.” While I hope such changes will result in the U.S. being more successful at reducing emissions than Hansen expects, I have to acknowledge that his projections have been accurate in the past.

Yale e360 takes an in-depth look at the challenges facing the Outer Banks of North Carolina as sea level rises. Highway 12, which runs along the Outer Banks and connects different towns, is probably the most threatened road in the United States. The article includes a video I previously shared of a house in the region falling into the ocean, an event that is becoming more common. This area is a huge tourist draw, and so towns are spending millions to pump sand back onto the eroding beaches, but this is not a permanent solution. “I don’t see how this ends well,” says a geologist from Eastern Carolina University who has studied the region. “They’re trying to preserve a coastal economy that was built on a pile of shifting sand and in the long run has a high probability of failure.” An op-ed in the Hill calls for strengthening the Coastal Barrier Resources Act, a federal law that discourages development in flood-prone coastal areas to protect ecosystems and prevent inevitable economic losses. An op-ed in the New York Times suggests that taxpayers will end up footing the bill for damages to coastal vacation homes as private insurance becomes harder to acquire. An op-ed in The Hill explains the challenge of getting insurance in coastal Louisiana, where storm damage is driving insurance companies into bankruptcy. The author notes that “places will be underwater financially before they are underwater physically.”

One frequent response to coastal erosion is to build seawalls (often called revetments by engineers), but this is a solution that engenders other problems. While protection accrues behind the wall, reflected wave energy and the disrupted flow of sand along the shore can impact neighboring areas. The Guardian describes one such situation along Lake Michigan, where construction of a seawall by a local university had a domino effect along the shore that caused erosion at other properties. Seawalls also damage themselves, as reflected waves scour out sand in front of the wall, causing them to eventually fall toward the water. The article notes that “Experts say at best, seawall construction is a short-term maneuver that benefits those who are fastest to build.”

For those who are particularly interested in sea level rise, I highly recommend this video (26 min) by CBS news regarding Miami and surrounding communities. The report showcases the issue of climate gentrification, where climate impacts are raising the cost of living in formerly affordable communities. In Miami, this can be seen in the changes to property values, which are rising much more quickly in slightly inland areas where elevations are higher. The video focuses in particular on the Little Haiti neighborhood.

Mother Jones has a detailed report on how climate change is forcing people to relocate. The article concludes that little organized-government assistance exists for preventing the loss of homes and lives before a disaster, and that FEMA is often focused on rebuilding homes despite the likely recurrence of damage. Climate migration is underway already due to sea level rise, coastal erosion and extreme weather. We are either going to manage this retreat or have unmanaged retreat, as many people will not be able to stay where they currently live. An op-ed in the New York Times suggests that a key first step is more effectively communicating risk to property owners, as many do not understand the increasing flood risk in their communities.

The New York Times reports on the resistance to offshore-wind projects in northern Spain, and to other proposed renewable-energy facilities. While those resisting recognize the need for renewable energy, there are specific objections to each proposed facility that in total frustrate efforts to decarbonize the power sector. Inside Climate News describes the conflict among neighbors regarding the construction of utility-scale solar arrays on agricultural land in Ohio. This article takes an in-depth look at one proposal, and how residents in the community have opposing views of the concept. The Union of Concerned Scientists examines the recently approved plan to upgrade transmission in the upper Midwest (a Volts podcast goes into more detail).

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that California is planning for extensive offshore-wind development in the future. The California Energy Commission recently voted to have the state produce 25 gigawatts from offshore wind by 2045, which “would be more than 11 times the capacity of the state’s last remaining nuclear plant.” Wind turbines deployed off of California would need to be floating platforms anchored to the sea floor with cables, a technology that has yet to be deployed in the U.S. However, analysts do not expect this to be an insurmountable problem. Some skeptical voices are warning of impacts on wildlife and fisheries, and these issues will need to be addressed as projects move forward. The first leases of offshore areas for development will occur in late 2022.

Inside Climate News describes how a current pattern of the jet stream (know as wavenumber 5) is contributing to simultaneous heat waves in five different regions of the planet. The jet stream is driven in part by the temperature gradient between the poles and tropics. The gradient is changing because the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on the planet, which is expected to change the jet stream and consequently the weather. Many scientists suspect that this mechanism is underlying the more-frequent appearance of “blocking highs,” high-pressure areas that are stable for extended periods (such as the “ridiculously resilient ridge” of high pressure that blocked storms from reaching California a few years ago). Scientists also note that long-term datasets will be needed to sort out the various causes of jet-stream changes.

There are many proposals now for logging using the narrative that these operations reduce fire danger, but that is often not true. An op-ed in the New York Times notes that “logging activities such as commercial thinning reduce the cooling shade of the forest canopy and change a forest’s microclimate in ways that tend to increase wildfire intensity.” The article cites research concluding that logging emits more carbon than forest fires, particularly as many of the noncommercial parts of felled trees are burned for energy, and commercial logging removes large trees that would likely survive wildfire. An op-ed in Truthout notes that commercial logging in the U.S. is a huge producer of greenhouse gases, while at the same time reducing the capacity of U.S. forests to store carbon.

The New York Times examines how attitudes about lawns in Southern California are beginning to change. More and more residents are realizing that, in the face of a changing climate that will include more heat and drought, a non-native lawn that guzzles water simply makes no sense. Programs that provide incentives for lawn replacement have become exceedingly popular, and contractors who specialize in removal of lawns and substitution of drought-tolerant landscaping are struggling to keep up with demand. Said one, “I feel like an analogy is it’s Covid and we’re the only ones with the masks.”

The Washington Post reports on the challenges and opportunities for transitioning the traditional coal economy and workforce in southwestern Virginia and West Virginia toward renewable energy. This includes a major effort underway by the Nature Conservancy to develop solar on land it has purchased that was previously strip-mined for coal. The article notes that, last year, 12,000 people worked in the coal industry in West Virginia, down from more than 100,000 in the 1950s. In 2020, just over 1,000 worked in renewable energy, which is a less labor-intensive industry than coal.

The New York Times has a special article about California’s coming “mega-storm.” A new study has provided updated analysis of what we’ve always known — every so often, California is hit by enormous amounts of precipitation. As the climate warms, there is a strong likelihood that such storms could be even wetter, and more of the precipitation could fall as rain instead of snow. The Great Flood of 1862, when one could sail a boat from Fresno to Sacramento and the State of California almost went bankrupt, is an historical example of such an event. The state has improved its capacity to forecast these conditions, but there is still great uncertainty regarding exactly where and how much precipitation will fall, and real risks that our current flood-protection infrastructure will be overwhelmed.

The Guardian describes the relationship between a warming climate and the intense downpours that are causing more extreme flooding around the world. Even communities dealing with long-term drought are not immune to this phenomenon, as Las Vegas saw a major flood on July 29th. A scientist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research notes that “climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of flooding and it will likely get worse with further warming.” The Washington Post also examines this issue, and the AP has a good two-minute video (a second article in the Post goes into more detail, and also has a good video). The New York Times reports on flooding that struck West Virginia, and flooding also struck Dallas, Arizona and Utah.

One of the hardest processes to decarbonize is the production of cement, in which limestone is cooked at very high temperatures, generating carbon dioxide. Cement production accounts for 8% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Inside Climate News describes a new process to make cement production carbon neutral by substituting limestone that is grown instead of quarried. The grown limestone is obtained by farming microalgae called coccolithophores, that create a limestone shell from atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Cement manufactured this way still releases carbon dioxide, but only that which was previously removed from the atmosphere by the algae.

The New York Times reviews why California is so prone to major wildfires. Historic fire suppression, the mediterranean climate (with its long dry summer and fall), human settlement and climate change all play important roles. Since record keeping started in 1932, nine of the ten largest fires in the state have occurred in the last decade. The San Francisco Chronicle uses excellent graphics to describe the many recent fires that are events of higher severity than in the past (high severity typically means that more than 75% of overstory trees in the forest died or most plants and shrubs in a grassland were almost completely charred). In such severe fires, all the trees die and in a few years there is only a shrubland that burns easily. The forest does not regenerate. The article notes how areas that had been restored though prescribed burns and other types of “active stewardship” were not severely impacted in recent fires. The New York Times also examines the major wildfires burning in Alaska, and the challenges of addressing this threat in such a large and wild state.

For a half-hour in mid-August, Australia stepped into the future. “Solar energy eclipsed coal as the lead source of power across the energy market, which includes all states and territories except Western Australia and the Northern Territory,” noted ABC News (Australia). This will become a more-common seasonal experience in Australia, as spring conditions often have lots of sun and relatively mild temperatures.