June 15 2020

June 15 2020

wind power in deep water, the Colorado River mega-drought, zombie fires burn in the Arctic, climate policy could unite the left behind Biden, tropical deforestation continues

Nobel Laureate economist, William Nordhaus, writes in Foreign Affairs that international climate policy has not progressed over the last three decades. The dangers of global warming are much better understood, but nations have not adopted effective policies to slow the coming peril. This is mainly due to the fact that countries have an incentive to be “free riders”—to rely on the emission reductions of others without making costly domestic reductions themselves. He argues that an effective climate treaty must have strong incentives to participate, and that nations that do not participate or do not meet their obligations must incur penalties.

While virtually all offshore wind turbines are mounted on foundations fixed to the seafloor, most of the world’s wind resources are over water too deep for this type of deployment. Yale e360 examines the development of floating offshore wind turbines, which are anchored to the seafloor by cables. Many see this technology as an important component of a decarbonized electrical grid, as the best onshore and nearshore wind-power locations will eventually be utilized.

AZCentral.com has a detailed article on water scarcity in the West that is well worth a read. The Colorado River basin currently appears to be in a historic decade-scale “mega-drought,” despite the high precipitation year of 2019. There is no doubt that this drought has been made more severe by climate change (“regular” droughts are now more likely to be “extreme” droughts), and there is a growing recognition among western states that we must plan for a future with less water. The good news is that conservation efforts have made a difference, and that there is growing interest in using recycled water and other strategies to conserve even more of our most precious resource. The New Zealand Herald reports on major water-use restrictions being considered in Auckland as the region experiences its worst drought on record.

The Washington Post reports on a recent study that concludes sea level is now rising so fast that the wetlands in Southern Louisiana will not be able to keep up. With more gradual rise in sea levels, coastal wetlands can maintain themselves through a combination of capturing sediment and decaying plant matter to build soils higher and also by following the water inland as it rises. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, a quarter of the land that existed in southern Louisiana at the beginning of the last century is now gone, due to a combination of sea level rise and land subsidence (in years with the highest rates of wetlands loss, an area the size of a football field vanishes every 34 minutes). The wetlands weaken storm surges during hurricanes, and so the loss of these ecosystems is increasing the risk of flooding in New Orleans. Curtailing emissions will slow future sea level rise and, along with restoration efforts (such as allowing the Mississippi river to flow more freely to distribute sediment into the marshes), these rates of wetlands loss can be slowed.

High Country News has a short article about sea level rise in the Bay Area. The article focuses on the political complexity of the region, with so many cities, counties and special districts, and the efforts of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to build a regional plan without the regional authority to do so. (This is an opportune moment to let you know that I have been appointed as a BCDC Commissioner, so BCDC’s challenges are now more personal!)

An article in Yale e360 examines the challenges of dead trees and accumulated brush in California’s forests. The state is working to reduce the dangers of catastrophic fires, restore forest health and provide employment while not exacerbating climate change. It is an interesting balancing act.

In a milestone that seemed all but unthinkable a decade ago, the New York Times reports that the U.S. is on track in 2020 to produce more electricity from renewables than coal. Despite the Trump Administration’s efforts to bolster the coal industry, powerful economic forces are driving utilities away from coal. This means coal plants are being used less frequently and being shut down sooner than planned. The Chattanooga Times Free Press notes that the drop in electricity demand due to the coronavirus has pushed coal-fired power to further lows. For the Tennessee Valley Authority, coal provided 58% of electrical generation in 2007, but just 17% in 2019.

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports on the Well Done Foundation, a nonprofit founded by ex-oil and gas workers to plug abandoned oil and gas wells. Many of these wells are large producers of methane, but often the wells are inadequately sealed when they are no longer being worked. The U.S. EPA has estimated that there are over 3 million of these “orphaned or abandoned” wells.

At Vox, Dave Roberts has a very detailed look at the emerging climate-policy consensus on the left. Powered in part by the Green New Deal, and the work of Jay Inslee and other national leaders, there is a growing coalition of groups from diverse interests supporting a climate-policy approach based on standards, investment and justice. Roberts notes that Biden has the opportunity to use this growing consensus to unite the left around his candidacy in November.

The Washington Post reports on so-called “zombie fires” burning in Arctic regions. These fires get their name because even though it appears they die out in the winter, they actually smolder in peat soils and then reappear in the spring. The record heat in the region is also expanding the fire risk (the Siberian town of Khatanga, located well north of the Arctic Circle, recorded a temperature of 78°F on May 22, about 46 degrees above normal).

An op-ed in the Hill by a former senior vice-president of the World Bank argues for immediate action on climate risks, just as we’ve taken action on COVID-19. While some question whether we can afford to do this, the reality is that we can’t afford to not do it. Climate-change mitigation is an investment that avoids massive damages and sustains economic growth into the future. Another opinion piece in the Guardian by several Central Bank governors calls for a “green recovery” from the pandemic as essential for addressing the climate crisis. An article in Forbes reviews the massive subsidies provided to the fossil-fuel industry and the need to change this situation to make progress.

A new film, called 2040 (trailer), imagines what the future could look like by the year 2040 if we simply embraced the best solutions already available to us to improve our planet and shifted them rapidly into the mainstream (The New York Times reviewed the film).

The New York Times reports that 2019 saw in increase in tropical deforestation. The total loss of tropical forest—9.3 million acres, an area nearly the size of Switzerland—was about 3 percent higher than 2018 and the third largest since 2002. Much of this was driven by Brazil’s increase in clear-cutting of primary forests for agriculture. On a positive note, the rate of loss of old-growth forest in Indonesia declined for the third year in a row.

The enormous disruption to human society of the coronavirus pandemic has me (and you as well, I’m sure) wondering what the short- and long-term changes will be from this event. An article in Yale e360 notes that “We are on the closest thing we”re ever going to get to a worldwide meditation retreat,” and we all sense that the potential for change is larger than we’ve ever seen before. Of course, it’s also possible that we’ve lost our ability to rise to the occasion. I hope we find it in ourselves to take the bold and decisive action required to address the pandemic, the climate crisis, systemic racism and the myriad of other unsustainable patterns and behaviors in our lives.