April 30 2021

methane concentration in the atmosphere reaches record high, Biden holds climate summit, threat of coal-fired power in China, solar becoming “insanely cheap” energy

An article in Gizmodo notes NOAA’s announcement that methane concentrations in the atmosphere reached an all-time high last year, with the rise from 2019 to 2020 being the largest year-over-year increase since record keeping began (carbon-dioxide concentrations are also demonstrating a major rebound with increased economic activity as the pandemic recedes). Initial chemical analysis suggests that a significant amount of this methane is from natural sources, such as bogs or thawing permafrost. This is not good news. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas and, while its lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, it absorbs much more heat while present. Natural increases in methane emissions may be a response to the change in earth’s average temperature, and this would be evidence that a feedback loop has been activated that may not be controllable.

An important strategy for slowing climate change is to eliminate the emissions of powerful, short-lived greenhouse gases as fast as possible. Energy Monitor examines the various sources of methane emissions, and highlights an initiative by the European Union to launch a global effort to reduce these emissions. Inside Climate News reports on efforts to convince President Biden to commit the U.S. to immediate reductions in methane emissions, particularly by focusing on emissions from fossil-fuel facilities…

April 15 2021

The Guardian reports that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have reached record levels. This is not a surprise given the rate of emissions, and even the drop in economic activity during the pandemic did not prevent the rise. The speed of this change (“like a human meteorite hitting the earth” according to one scientist quoted in the article), is sometimes hard to grasp.

In an outstanding article in the Atlantic, science writer Peter Brannen gives a wonderful but sobering description of our climate at different periods in the Earth’s past, providing a perspective on how large a change we have initiated. His compelling descriptions help one understand the meaning of our altered atmosphere, and how the Earth’s ecosystems are only slowly responding to the heat that the carbon-rich atmosphere is now capturing on the planet. As things accelerate, the world will change drastically, as the record of past climates documents. The urgency of stopping this change by immediately reducing the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is viscerally apparent throughout this excellent piece.

An article in the Guardian reports that, as U.S. Forests recover from recent fires, new trees are not always growing back. In many cases, this occurs because the climate is now different than when the forest grew originally, and the new climate will not support regrowth of the trees. A hotter climate, more insects and other factors have resulted in a doubling of the tree mortality rate in some temperate and tropical forests. The author notes that “the changes being observed today — in which slow-growing trees that have survived for hundreds of years are dying in a drought or wildfire — cannot be undone in our lifetimes,” and this is “prompting a broad and looming sense of disquiet” among those aware of the magnitude of this change. An op-ed at CNN notes that saving intact forests (not cutting them down nor replanting with monocultures) is the way to make sure that forest uptake of carbon from the atmosphere remains significant…

March 31 2021

solving the climate crisis pays for itself, the growth of offshore wind, reality of sea level rise strikes North Carolina, the enormous carbon footprint of food waste, University of Michigan divests from fossil fuels

The Guardian reports on a study that documents the pervasive and deadly impact of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Globally, the death toll from fossil-fuel burning exceeds the combined total of people who die each year from malaria and smoking tobacco. These effects derive mainly from the impact of PM2.5 — the particles produced by combustion that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. These particles, once inhaled, lodge in the lungs and can cause a variety of health problems. An article in Grist argues that the Centers for Disease Control should add a code to its official list of causes of death that can be used to identify air-pollution fatalities, as one does not currently exist. In another article, the Guardian documents how the fossil-fuel industry understood the impacts of particulates and fossil-fuel combustion products. However, just like in the case of tobacco and climate change, the industry hid its knowledge and attempted to sow doubt in the public sphere about the health impacts. The costs to health from fossil fuels are so large that eliminating them by transitioning to renewable energy will more than pay for the costs associated with the transition (in other words, saving ourselves from the climate crisis pays for itself).

Yale e360 examines the growth of the offshore-wind industry in the U.S. Several large wind farms are under construction off the Atlantic coast from Rhode Island to Virginia, and these will begin generating large amounts of electricity in the next few years (a blog post from the Union of Concerned Scientists provides an update on the Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts, one of the first major offshore projects that is set to be approved by the Biden Administration). As the industry has matured (particularly from experience in Northern Europe), costs have come down, and state policies for purchasing renewable electricity have contributed to solid projections of future demand. Thousands of jobs are being created, and this corps of workers will expand as the industry spreads south along the Atlantic coast, where strong winds and relatively shallow offshore waters combine to create excellent conditions for wind power…

March 15 2021

possible slowdown of major Atlantic currents, major drought in western U.S. continues, emission-reduction commitments must be more ambitious, mob grazing, plugging abandoned oil and gas wells

The Washington Post reports on a major recent study of key indicators suggesting that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC, which includes the more famous Gulf Stream current) is slowing down. This change in physical oceanography has long been predicted by climate scientists and, if this trend continues, it will have profound implications for the climate of northern Europe (it will get colder) and the temperature and height of the sea along North America (these will go up). It could possibly also lead to stronger Atlantic hurricanes and less precipitation in already water-stressed parts of Africa. Since the AMOC has only been measured directly since 2004, this study relies on proxies for the current (such as the types of microscopic organisms found in ocean sediments of different ages). The study looked at 11 proxies, 9 of which are varying in a manner consistent with a slowing of the AMOC. In addition, the appearance over the last decade of a colder region south of Greenland is also consistent with a slowing of this major ocean current. It should be noted that some oceanographers are less convinced by proxy data, especially when used to make conclusions about relatively short-term phenomena, and are thus withholding judgement on whether the AMOC is slowing. The New York Times also examines this issue in an article that includes superb animations of the circulation in the Atlantic.

The California Water Blog notes that the state appears to be heading into a multi-year drought, as our current winter is shaping up to be a dry one (more in the Guardian). Drought conditions are also growing more extreme in the Colorado River basin, with drought contingency plans being activated as major water reservoirs are at less than half of capacity. Soils in the basin are so dry that, even with a large snowpack this year, river flows will still remain below normal (an article in the New Republic examines the very difficult negotiations facing the states that depend upon the Colorado River). The Washington Post notes that, despite individual wetter years, we remain in the grips of a major drought persisting across the last few decades (researchers recently concluded that “2000 to 2018 was the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s and the second driest since 800 CE”). Climate change is contributing to this with early spring snowmelt, hotter and drier summers and warming winters all acting to exacerbate drought conditions…

February 28 2021

oil companies invest in offshore wind, Biden creates Civilian Climate Corps, the benefits of bamboo, winter storm causes major Texas power outage, coal-fired power doesn’t pencil out

An article in the Guardian notes that BP recently submitted a record-breaking bid to build two giant wind farms in the Irish Sea, indicative of oil companies diversifying into renewable energy. The article notes that even major offshore wind farms are small investments compared to the multi-billion dollar projects routine for oil companies, and “companies with a strong stable of renewable energy projects are beginning to reach market valuations many times the size of their annual earnings, while oil company share prices are grazing multi-year lows.” Grist notes that “oil companies don’t want to be known for oil anymore,” and French oil giant Total is changing its name to TotalEnergies. Whether changes such as these are fundamental or mainly “greenwashing” remains to be seen.

President Biden has established the Civilian Climate Corps, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps created during the Great Depression by President Roosevelt. An article in the Guardian describes this effort, which could provide job training while building resilience to climate change in urban communities and on natural lands. In addition to repeating the work of the historic CCC, which built hiking trails, planted trees and tackled other forestry related projects, the modern CCC could build green stormwater management systems, install solar panels on homes, help clean up toxic waste sites and develop urban gardens. Grist describes legislation that has been introduced to provide direct funding for this effort. Another article notes that the original CCC was one of Roosevelt’s most popular programs, and many of the public works it created are still in use today…

February 15 2021

“whole of government” approach to climate change, grid-scale batteries, coal industry collapse, GM goes all electric

President Biden is using his power to initiate a broad suite of actions on climate change by the federal government, over and above the inauguration-day steps that included rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, canceling the Keystone XL pipeline permit and making FEMA money available to build community resilience to climate change. The New York Times describes these new actions, which are being appropriately framed as job-creating efforts to enhance public safety, international relations and national security (or, as Vox notes, a “whole of government” approach to climate action). In the two weeks of his presidency, Biden has taken steps that a Washington Post columnist notes represent “a return to sanity,” generating optimism among climate scientists and joy among activists for science-based decision-making.

Grist reports on the growth of utility-scale batteries, which are key for decarbonizing the grid by storing excess solar and wind power for use when it is needed. The price for utility-scale battery storage in the United States has plummeted, dropping nearly 70 percent between 2015 and 2018, and this is leading to very large battery arrays being built. With 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of storage projects commissioned, California has already passed its 2013 goal of 1.325 GW by 2020…