May 31 2023

May 31 2023

El Niño is coming with higher temperatures, insurance companies continue to fail and pull back, 80% of new cars in Norway are EVs, fossil-fuel power plants have reliability problems, the “big melt” reaches its peak

As El Niño conditions continue to develop in the Pacific Ocean, The Washington Post reports on a new study that found some of the most intense past El Niño events cost the global economy more than $4 trillion. The study authors were surprised how large the damage estimate was, and one notes “persistent depressions in economic growth that last for five or even ten years after these events because of the strength of those extreme events.” By accounting for losses in subsequent years, this study estimated a loss for the 1997-1998 El Niño 100 times greater than previous estimates. Axios notes that NOAA recently increased the chances of El Niño formation this year to well over 90%. The Guardian reports that the coming El Niño will likely cause the world to exceed the 1.5°C global average temperature increase for the first time ever.

I have previously described the failure of insurance companies in Louisiana and Florida (ten have become insolvent in Florida in just the last two years), and E&E News now reports that this problem has spread to Texas. Smaller insurance companies (more common in the south than in the west) have become insolvent in the past year, forcing the state to step into the market as an insurer of last resort. Yet these state programs lack the resources to respond in the case of a major storm, which will force surcharges to other insurance companies and taxpayers to cover damage claims. This problem is clearly a function of the higher frequency of extreme storms in our new climate, as three of the most destructive hurricanes in the history of the Gulf region (Laura, Ida and Ian) have occurred in the past three years. And then there was Winter Storm Uri which, in early 2021, knocked out power across Texas and caused $80-$130 billion in damage. (The Governor of Texas responded to the impacts of this storm by blaming wind power, which I noted was not true.) Inside Climate News reports that estimates of damage in Florida from Hurricane Ian have risen to $109.5 billion, making it the most costly hurricane disaster after Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Harvey (2017).

An op-ed in The New York Times notes that “Climate risk is driving insurer decisions like never before.” The author states that “the average cost of coverage has reached $1,900 a year nationwide, but it’s $4,000 a year in New Orleans and about $5,000 a year in Miami.” The San Francisco Chronicle reports that State Farm will stop writing property insurance in California next year (they will still provide auto insurance). The company cites “historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market.” The company provided 8.3% of property insurance in California in 2021.

Grist explores the benefits and challenges of bi-directional EV charging, which allows the large batteries of EVs to be a source of power to one’s home during power outages. There is currently a bill in the California State Legislature that would require EVs to be equipped to support bi-directional charging. In addition to hardware and software on the EV, a homeowner needs other hardware to allow the EV to deliver power to the home.

Heatmap reports on GM’s decision to end production of the Bolt EV, the only small and affordable ($26,500) EV in its fleet. GM will be announcing several new EVs later this year, but all of them will be larger and more expensive vehicles. Los Angeles Times columnist, Paul Thornton, describes his positive experience with his Chevrolet Bolt, and notes how this decision will (for now) drive the cost of EVs beyond the reach of many potential buyers.

In Norway, 80% of new cars sold are now EVs, and the country plans to end the sale of cars that use internal combustion engines in 2025. The New York Times reports that the air in Oslo is measurably cleaner, the city’s greenhouse-gas emissions have fallen by 30% and fears of mass unemployment at gas stations and collapse of the electrical grid have proven unfounded. The article describes construction sites and ferry terminals, among other locations, where all-electric equipment has improved the quality of life. During crowded periods of auto travel, there can be lines for chargers, and some experience frustration with inoperable charging stations. Companies operating charging centers are working hard to provide a smooth charging experience, including learning to service dozens of vehicle brands that each have unique charging software. A recent study summarized by Gizmodo shows air pollution declining in California due to EV use, but this is predominantly in affluent areas.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected petitions from Chevron, Shell, BP and other oil companies to move to federal court multiple climate-related cases filed by local governments in state courts. Grist reports that many of these lawsuits were set in motion “by revelations that ExxonMobil had known about the dangers of burning fossil fuels since 1977, but publicly cast doubt on the science and worked to block legislation to restrict carbon pollution.” In The New Yorker, Bill McKibben quotes the basic rationale from one of these lawsuits. Defendants should help pay because they “knowingly and substantially contributed to the climate crisis by producing, promoting and selling a substantial portion of the fossil fuels that are causing and exacerbating climate change, while concealing and misrepresenting the dangers associated with their intended use.” The New York Times has an excellent review of these efforts to hold oil companies accountable. One expert notes: “For all the skeletons we’ve already found in Big Oil’s closet, in reality we’ve only been looking through the keyhole. There’s this kind of avalanche of discoveries now building that is helping to strengthen, and I think inspire, these cases.” A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists concludes that “37 percent of the cumulative burned forest area in western North America since 1986 can be traced to carbon emissions from the products” of 88 oil companies (a video describes the results in more detail).

The Guardian describes record heat striking southeast Asia. The Washington Post notes that this is considered the worst heat wave in Asian history, and it has been particularly acute in Thailand, where a new national heat record was set. April temperatures also set records in China and Laos. The New York Times reports that 12 million people were under a heat advisory in the Pacific northwest during a mid-May heat wave, with temperature records being set for this time of year in the areas around Seattle and Portland. The article notes that the average season for heat waves in the United States is 45 days longer than it was in the 1960s.

An op-ed in The New York Times describes legislative proposals in Texas that would hamper renewable-energy development while subsidizing fossil fuels. These include requiring setbacks from property lines for wind turbines but not for oil and gas wells, and even “impose retroactive permitting requirements for already operating renewable power plants.” This is despite Texas being a national leader in the deployment of renewable energy, a sector that employs 37,000 Texans. These proposals demonstrate both the political power of the fossil-fuel industry and the unfortunate capture of energy and climate policy by the culture wars. Another op-ed in the Times describes how efforts for “permitting reform” at the national level can easily exacerbate the already unjust distribution of health impacts from fossil-fuel development, especially “in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, where the state government offers little protection and the federal government is the only real ally.” In “cancer alley” in Louisiana, according to Environmental Protection Agency data, “the risk of cancer from the air in one town is already 50 times the national average.”

Distilled explores the myth of the reliability of fossil-fuel power plants. While Republican elected officials are quick to blame recent grid failures on renewable-energy sources, extreme weather is causing widespread failures of fossil-fuel infrastructure. The article argues that a more resilient grid can be created by diversifying sources of electricity, and connecting different regions with long-distance transmission lines. The Guardian reports on the fact that the U.S. must build more transmission to support the transition from fossil fuels, and provides three examples (of many nationally) where that is not happening. In Mother Jones, Bill McKibben reviews the importance of learning how to say “yes” to renewable-energy development. Meanwhile, the residents of Gerlach, Nevada, along with the Burning Man festival, are saying no to a geothermal power plant proposed for the area.

As the weather continues to warm in California, the “big melt” is in full swing. The Fresno Bee reports that there is still a significant amount of snow above 7,000 feet, and the melting of this snow will drive up river flows, which are expected to peak in late May or early June. The State of California has provided emergency funding to allow the Cross Creek Flood Control District to raise the levee to help protect the City of Corcoran from flooding as Tulare Lake expands. The Business Journal notes that the latest models suggest Corcoran will not flood, due to a combination of fortuitous moderate temperatures, and efforts across the region to divert floodwaters to wildlife refuges and other locations for groundwater recharge.

And as a refresher in a real and persistent problem, Salon reports on the statements of Kandiss Taylor, the recently elected GOP Chair in Georgia’s first district. Taylor, who received over 3% of the vote in a failed bid for Governor in 2022, stated that she believes the world is flat and that the proliferation of representations of the Earth as a globe is part of a conspiracy. While one part hilarious and one part sad, let’s remember that this type of ignorance has been present for a long time, and we don’t need to convince these people to reach a political consensus to drive action.

This edition of In Brief is dedicated to my father, who recently passed away at 98. He had a great life, and may his memory be a blessing.