May 15 2019

May 15 2019

social cost of carbon, species extinction, sea level rise adaptation in the Bay Area, carbon farming, Bill Nye tells it like it is

What is the total cost of emitting a ton of carbon into the atmosphere, otherwise known as the “social cost of carbon?” MIT Technology Review examines recent research on this topic, noting that it is likely higher than has been estimated in the past. In addition, while the social cost of carbon is normally presented as a single number, the costs are not evenly distributed geographically around the world (or even across the U.S., with higher costs being born by those who live in the south and southwest of the country).

Tree rings are a vital source of information about past climate, and help place current temperatures and aridity in historical context. The New York Times has an in-depth look at tree ring science (dendrochronology) and the largest tree ring laboratory in the world at the University of Arizona. InsideClimate News reports on a recent study that uses tree rings and other methods to describe how global warming has been intensifying droughts starting in the 20th century.

The Washington Post reports that the U.S. just finished its wettest 12 months on record. While this eliminated drought across the country, it has produced problematic flooding in many places. Meanwhile, in Alaska, warmer temperatures are creating all sorts of problems for people and ecosystems.

The United Nations released a sobering report projecting that as many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, hunting, pollution and, increasingly, climate change (summarized in the New York Times here). The report explains how natural ecosystems provide invaluable material services to people (“ecosystem services“) – from mangrove forests that protect millions from coastal flooding to wild insects that pollinate our crops. The lead author of this report explains the importance of biodiversity to humans in an op-ed in the Guardian. Others have argued that it’s simply wrong to drive other species to extinction, even if they’re not crucial for economic growth or humanity’s survival (the UN report does acknowledge that nature also has a spiritual or inspirational value that can often be “difficult to quantify”).

Yale e360 reviews the climate benefits of mass timber (also known as cross-laminated timber), a new construction material that can substitute for steel and concrete in high-rise buildings. There is the possibility that using mass timber can result in new buildings sequestering more carbon than released during construction, but this is still uncertain as the actual emissions from the forestry operations that create the timber in the first place might negate this benefit.

The San Jose Mercury News reports on the San Francisco Bay Adaptation Atlas, which describes a variety of strategies to deal with sea level rise in different parts of the Bay (disclaimer: I was a scientific advisor to this project). Combining expertise in science and urban planning from state and local institutions, the Atlas identifies the natural processes influencing the shoreline landscape, and from that baseline identifies available adaptation strategies. This suite of mainly nature-based strategies is systematically applied to 30 ecologically-based units along the Bay shoreline, and combined with existing urban and economic metrics to provide information about adaptation options for Bay Area communities.

An article in Yale e360 describes how villagers on the northern coast of the Indonesian island of Java are using natural barriers to create conditions that allow for the regrowth of mangrove forests. The mangroves will help protect the region from the impacts of sea level rise, restore fisheries production and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. The town of Davenport, Iowa, has also relied predominantly on nature-based flood protection methods (as has Grafton, IL), rejecting the costly investment of large flood walls made by many other communities along the Mississippi. The Washington Post reviews how current floods are causing the city to examine its traditional approach.

Grist has a wonderful article about “carbon farming,” the practices used by some farmers to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil. Taking a detailed look at a farm in New York, the article describes how carbon farming generates more healthy soil and improves productivity and resilience to both droughts and floods. A New York state legislator is trying to develop a program to incentivize farmers to adopt these practices, although it is a challenge to establish and measure metrics to be used in a regulatory program. The Marin Carbon Project is another such effort in the Bay Area.

A growing body of research, the New York Times reports, suggests that warming temperatures and loss of snowpack linked to climate change may significantly shrink the range where it’s possible to make maple syrup. (This was predicted years ago – a scientist who briefed President Clinton on the impacts of climate change told me the projected reduction in the availability of maple syrup really caught the President’s attention.) An op-ed in the New York Times argues that we must stop using natural gas in buildings to achieve our climate goals. Gas furnaces can be replaced by heat pumps, and gas stoves by induction cooktops.

In Harper’s Magazine an excellent article by Kevin Baker describes the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the rise of the New Deal in response to the challenges of the time. He notes that there was resistance to these efforts, which of course were not perfect, just as there is resistance to the Green New Deal today. It is inescapable that we must do something given the challenges we face currently, and opponents of the Green New Deal have yet to suggest anything of the scale and urgency necessary to address the problem.

Elizabeth Kolbert interviews Bill McKibben at Yale e360 about the current state of climate politics and his thoughts about the future. “Thirty or 50 years out, the world’s going to run on sun and wind, because they’re free,” McKibben says. “The question is… what kind of world will it be?” Mckibben notes in the New Yorker that we have arrived at an exciting and important moment in climate politics, although many politicians seem to think we can negotiate with physics, a strategy doomed to fail.

John Oliver takes a look at climate change and the Green New Deal, with the help of Bill Nye. If you don’t have time to watch it all, make sure not to miss Bill’s explanation of the urgent need to take action to reduce carbon emissions (at 18:30 in the video).