June 15 2021

June 15 2021

climate tipping points underlie emergency declaration, recycled wastewater’s growing importance, the popemobile goes electric, buildings as batteries

An article in Grist examines the key rationale for the scientific conclusion that we are facing a climate emergency: the planet is approaching "climate tipping points," where small changes in global temperature can kick off reinforcing loops that ‘tip’ the climate into a profoundly different state – accelerating heat waves, permafrost thaw and coastal flooding. These effects can themselves then produce more warming. Examples include the slowing of the great Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (of which the Gulf Stream is a part), and the melting of ice in Greenland that lowers the elevation of the ice sheet, exposing it to warmer air that then accelerates melting even more. Another area of significant concern is the warming of permafrost and northern (or boreal) forest ecosystems, where higher temperatures allow for decay in soils that were perennially frozen, turning these ecosystems into producers of carbon dioxide and methane. Warmer temperatures also fuel fires in the boreal forests that produce carbon dioxide and soot that further heat the planet.

There are indications, however, that at least some of these cycles could be interrupted. For example, as boreal forests burn they are being replaced by a forest composed of different species that grow quickly and may eventually store more carbon than the original forest. Most importantly, we may reach a "social tipping point," where people conclude that fossil-fuel use is immoral and human society transitions more quickly than expected. In this context, Al Gore’s formulation of Dornbusch’s law is worth remembering: "Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could."

Meanwhile, the melting of land ice continues to accelerate. The Washington Post reports on the latest measurements of ice loss from the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica, which is flowing toward the ocean 12% faster than at the start of 2017. This increased rate of flow, producing icebergs the size of cities, is attributed to the loss of the ice shelf where the glacier meets the sea. Warmer ocean water erodes the shelf and breaks it apart. This is like "pulling out the cork" on the glacier, enabling it to flow faster into the ocean.

An op-ed in The Hill supports the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bi-partisan legislative proposal that seeks to make it easier for farmers to participate in carbon-offset markets. The concept is that farmers using regenerative-agriculture techniques to accumulate carbon in the soil could proffer carbon credits to sell. This would incentivize farmers to adopt these techniques, reduce atmospheric carbon and diversify farm incomes. Of course, the devil is in the details, and there are many critics who state that carbon markets fail to reduce emissions overall and exacerbate pollution hot-spots in low-wealth communities and communities of color.

Anthropocene reports on a new study concluding that existing economic models do an inadequate job of projecting the impacts of policies involving innovation. This has had important ramifications for estimating the potential cost of decarbonization. For example, models were unable to capture the remarkable drop in the cost of solar power over the last few years. The study suggests that policies that invest in low-carbon technologies will foster innovation and produce a renewable-energy system that’s cheaper than the fossil-fuel system it replaces.

Many parts of California are now in "exceptional drought," the most severe category tracked by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The Huffington Post notes that the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at the end of May is at 2% of normal (e.g., it is essentially already gone), and Lake Mead on the Colorado River is dropping to historic lows. Along the California-Oregon border, the lack of water in the Upper Klamath River Basin is leading to growing political unrest as irrigation diversions have been curtailed in an effort to protect endangered fish. The New York Times reports that some farmers are actively calling for taking matters into their own hands through violence, although the leader of the Klamath Water Users Association calls these people idiots. The Times recently published a general backgrounder on drought. Reuters reports that Brazil is facing its worst dry spell in 91 years.

An op-ed in Bloomberg notes that, in California (and other regions impacted by drought), recycled wastewater is going to be an increasingly important source of drinking water. The article describes the efforts over the last decades in Orange County, which is producing millions of gallons of water for its residents by recycling wastewater. This product, which is completely safe – and, according to the author, quite palatable – can be produced for about half the cost of desalination.

The Hill describes a new initiative from the Pope to end our "predatory attitude" toward the Earth. The goal of the new initiative is to protect the planet and the poor from the impacts of climate change. And the popemobile is going electric, as Fisker Inc. is providing a new EV at the request of Pope Francis. Reuters reports that the vehicle will have sustainably sourced parts (such as carpeting made from plastic bottles recovered from the ocean) and a solar roof. An article in AP describes the first long-haul flight by Air France-KLM, powered in part by aviation fuel made from used cooking oil.

The Guardian reports on the recovery of Big Basin State Park, both operationally and ecologically. The CZU Complex fire there last year destroyed vast amounts of infrastructure (buildings, stairs, bridges, etc.), and many of its famous trees as well. But there is already evidence of ecological recovery, although it will be many years in development. The Visalia Times Delta reports that 10% of the world’s mature sequoias were killed in the Castle fire last year, according to a report from the National Park Service. These are trees that had lived for thousands of years.

An article in Utility Dive argues that decarbonization of the electrical-power sector, a fundamental component of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S., is only possible with a major investment in transmission capacity. This investment will allow states with abundant renewable resources to share the power they can generate. However, this will require a larger federal role in planning and construction of the new transmission capacity, something resisted by many of those same states. The authors argue for a grand political bargain: "A handful of key states that have resisted federal climate policies abandon their opposition, in exchange for what is likely to be trillions of dollars in generation and transmission investment over the next two decades."

One of the most challenging sectors for decarbonization is international shipping, as large container ships burn fuel oil (also known as "bunker fuel), which is almost like asphalt. The New York Times reports on the rather secretive International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN-sponsored agency that sets standards for the shipping industry. The article demonstrates that the challenges to decarbonization in this sector are both political and technical. Even the concept of sustainability remains controversial, and the IMO continues to resist the most basic first steps toward a low-carbon future.

Another way shipping challenges decarbonization is the lack of vessels in the U.S. that are large enough to support installation of large offshore-wind turbines. The New York Times examines this and other problems facing the U.S. offshore-wind industry, which is well behind its European competitors.

Decarbonization also requires that we stop burning fossil fuels, and this means not developing new sources ("leave it in the ground"). The company seeking to build the Keystone XL pipeline just announced that it has abandoned the project, which would have opened up new markets for Canadian tar-sands oil. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Bill McKibben argues that the Line 3 pipeline must also not be built. These battles regarding specific fossil-fuel projects highlight the political challenges associated with transitioning away from technologies that have been central to human society for years, employed many people and were central to local and regional economies.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has invited Stephen Koonin, the author of the recent denialist book, Unsettled, to speak at the lab. Gizmodo reports that, in response, Ben Santer, a leading climate scientist at the laboratory and internationally renowned IPCC author, has decided to end his association with the laboratory (disclosure: Santer is a colleague of mine on the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists). Santer notes that Koonin is “not an authoritative voice on climate science.” Koonin’s book has been praised by right-wing media and canned by scientists, who have heard Koonin’s tired refrain for years. Don Wuebbles of the University of Illinois, another IPCC author, notes that he’s pointed out Koonin’s mistakes to him many times, and states that Koonin "publishes his comments in the Wall Street Journal—that isn’t exactly peer-reviewed literature.”

New York Magazine examines new technologies designed to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete, which is large (about 8% of global emissions). There are efforts underway to both reduce the production of greenhouse gases during cement manufacturing, and create concrete by capturing carbon emissions from other sources (such as power plants). Meanwhile, Swiss researchers have designed a cement battery, opening the possibility of buildings themselves becoming energy-storage devices.