September 15 2020

the West is on fire (and it’s going to get worse), renewable power did not cause rolling blackouts, growing spinach under solar panels, Alexander von Humboldt—the “father of ecology”, cost of wind and solar is even lower than we thought

In the New York Intelligencer, David Wallace-Wells describes the remarkable fires burning in California and their connection to climate change. Lightning strikes ignited over 500 fires in the state’s dry landscape, and in five days in August more land burned than in all of 2019 (the Los Angeles Times describes how the lightning strikes originated from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto). An article in Vox provides more background on the fires, as does another in the New York Times (and also in MIT Technology Review). The authors note that many factors, including the sustained heat and aridity due to climate change and the fuel accumulation due to fire suppression over many decades, are contributing to the intensity of the fires.

Of course, this was all happening without the impact of the Diablo winds, the dry offshore winds that drive California’s greatest fire danger. Two days of these winds arrived September 8-10, and Wallace-Wells reports that the results (particularly in Oregon and Washington) have been absolutely disastrous. As of September 11, the New York Times notes that six of California’s 20 largest wildfires have occurred this year, and more Diablo winds can be expected in the coming weeks. Climate change is no longer an abstract concept in California, with cascading impacts of drought leading to fire, smoke and subsequent deterioration of drinking water due to contamination and loss of treatment facilities. Then there will be the follow-on impacts on the electrical grid and the insurance market (and, of course, all of this is happening during a pandemic). In the Guardian, Peter Gleick describes how the changes we are seeing now are consistent with projections made by climate scientists decades ago…

August 31 2020

transitioning from fossil fuels pays for itself with health benefits, jobs for oil and gas workers to mitigate climate change, Trump’s gift to the oil and gas industry, less coffee in our future

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…

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…

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…

July 15 2020

climate may be more sensitive than we thought to carbon dioxide, California publishes electric-truck rule, Siberia is as warm as Las Vegas, Democrats release ambitious climate plan, a new endangered species: the 30-year mortgage

The Guardian reports on modeling results from more than 20 institutions compiled for the sixth assessment by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the news is a bit alarming. Compared with the last assessment in 2014, 25% of the results demonstrate that the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide (e.g., the temperature increase associated with a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere) is close to 5°C. This is at the high end of previous ranges and, if true, would mean we’ll be lucky to keep global average temperature rise to 2°C even with ambitious emissions reductions. The key factor here is the complex science of clouds. With supercomputers able to run finer scale simulations, and advances in understanding the microphysics of clouds, many models are suggesting that the warming effect of clouds (capturing heat) significantly outweighs their cooling effect (reflecting sunlight).

An article in Grist notes that a green economy must also be a just economy. Transitioning to renewable energy is important, but we also must address the serious inequities in our society to achieve a sustainable outcome. “You can take as many fossil fuels out of the economy as you want and it won’t address the problem that the only American households to accumulate wealth in the 21st century are the wealthiest third, that CEOs are making 287 times the salary of the average worker, or that white families’ median wealth is about 10 times that of black families.”

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) just passed the nation’s first electric-truck standard. The Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT) rule, which will help put more electric trucks on the road, is a major step in reducing air pollution and global warming emissions in California and beyond…