October 31 2020

October 31 2020

economic challenge for fossil-fuel-based state economies, drop in value of coastal real estate in Florida, climate-change denial loses influence, solar is now the cheapest electricity in history, it’s getting really hot in Phoenix

An article in The Conversation examines the predicament facing states that are highly dependent upon fossil-fuel extraction to power their economies, such as Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota. Energy production was responsible for 70% of Alaska’s revenue in 2019, and 52% of that for Wyoming. Wyoming is forecasting a 54% decline in fossil-fuel-derived taxes in 2021-22 as compared to the previous year. The authors explore the issues of developing and financing a “just transition” to a more diverse and future-focused economy for these states. A report from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has concluded that climate change poses a significant financial risk to U.S. markets, according to the New York Times. The risks identified include falling home values due to climate change (including fires and floods) and wild variations in commodity prices driven by extreme weather. It recommends the declaration and consideration of climate risks in investment decisions.

And right on cue, the New York Times reports on research documenting a drop in real-estate values in coastal parts of Florida. In Bal Harbour near Miami Beach, prices fell 7.6 percent from 2016 to 2020, part of a larger decline in low-lying areas of Florida that appears to have begun in 2013. Sales and prices in less-vulnerable areas do not show this change. Elected officials and real-estate agents in South Florida contend that buyers aren’t worried and that infrastructure improvements are keeping pace with the problem. The market, economists note, appears to disagree with this rosy assessment. The Washington Post reports on high-tide flooding on the East Coast this month due to the king tides (the highest tides of the year — California’s king tides for 2020 are coming up November 15-16 and December 13-15). Because sea level rise is accelerating, the impacts from king tides are going to become more severe relatively quickly in the coming years.

An op-ed in the Sun Sentinel notes that insurance rates in southern Florida are bringing a major dose of reality to climate deniers. The author notes that “consumers face increases of 30% to 40%, with no discounts for property owners who embrace the Trumpian theory that climate change is a hoax.” The Miami Herald has a detailed look at another piece of reality in south Florida — the fact that many residents rely on septic tanks rather than being connected to a sewer system (there are over 120,000 tanks in Miami-Dade County alone). As groundwater rises in response to sea level rise, these tanks are a “ticking time bomb” of water pollution and potential for disease, as they stop working if the groundwater table reaches the height of the leach field (the tank’s drainage system).

An article in the Guardian cites a new study concluding that, in the first half of 2020, ads that deny the reality of climate change or the need for action were viewed at least 8 million times in the U.S. The sponsors of the ads were unwilling to identify the source of the funds used to pay for them. Despite such misinformation efforts, more and more Americans are facing the reality of climate change, and political support for action is growing. Grist reports on the most recent analysis of American attitudes about climate change from Yale’s Global Warming’s Six Americas, which characterizes Americans’ views on the issue as Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful or Dismissive. In 2014, the ratio of alarmed to dismissive Americans was roughly one to one. The most recent data indicated there are now four alarmed Americans for every dismissive one. The director of the Yale program notes that this represents “a massive shift in our political, social, and cultural understanding of climate change.” A CBS News segment (For many climate change finally hits home), is indicative of this growing trend being reflected in media coverage.

It was gratifying that climate change was part of the confirmation hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, although the result was rather frustrating. The New York Times reports that Senator Kamala Harris asked Judge Barrett whether it is a fact that smoking causes lung cancer and coronavirus is contagious. The Judge agreed these were facts, but when then asked if climate change is real, she called it a political controversy on which she would not opine, stating “she did not have firm views on it.” Common Dreams describes Greta Thunberg’s response: “To be fair, I don’t have any ‘views on climate change’ either. Just like I don’t have any ‘views’ on gravity, the fact that the earth is round, photosynthesis, nor evolution… But understanding and knowing their existence really makes life in the 21st century so much easier.”

Meanwhile, Hurricane Delta was the record 10th named storm to hit U.S. soil during the 2020 hurricane season, after it intensified from a tropical depression to a hurricane faster than any previous storm on record according to the Washington Post. This storm was followed by Hurricane Zeta, which cut off power to over 2 million people and was the fifth named storm to hit Louisiana this year.

An article in Vox reviews the science of extreme-event attribution. This new science allows examination of how climate, while not the only cause of events like large wildfires or powerful hurricanes, is contributing to their severity, frequency or likelihood. Powerful computer models now allow scientists to project the weather if there was no global warming, and compare that to the actual weather in order to understand the contribution of greenhouse gases to current conditions. This allows scientists to conclude, for example, that climate change made the great fires in Australia this year 30 percent more likely.

In Newsweek, climate scientist Michael Mann describes new research suggesting that, as the ocean warms, it is stabilizing (e.g., less mixing of surface waters with the deep ocean). While it has been assumed this was going to occur, it appears to be happening faster than previously expected. This means the atmosphere will warm faster as less heat will be transferred to the deep ocean, amplifying the impacts of global warming.

The Washington Post reports that in Phoenix, Arizona, it has been over 100°F during half of the days in 2020, a new record. This is one of many heat records shattered this year, in part because of a failure of the North American monsoon to materialize. Another article in the Post examines how the monsoon failure is fueling the drought throughout the Southwest. The emerging La Niña oceanographic state for the Pacific Ocean is predicted to enhance this drought during the coming 6-8 months. A recent study published in Science suggests that, on a larger timescale, the southwestern U.S. is in the midst of a “megadrought.” 2000 to 2018 was the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800 CE. The study concludes that such megadrought conditions will become more likely as global warming continues, and the Guardian reports on how climate change is becoming a voting issue in Arizona.

PV Magazine describes some of the regulatory and institutional challenges associated with moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewables for generating electricity. Despite the fact that in many places solar — including storage — is now cost competitive with fossil fuels, there are regulations and financial structures built into energy markets that can favor certain utilities and technologies. The Virginian-Pilot describes the completion of initial testing for a major offshore-wind facility off the coast of Virginia.

Yet, despite barriers to introducing renewables, coal-fired power continues to decline in the United States. The Chicago Tribune reports that Texas-based Vistra Energy announced it will close its nine coal plants in Illinois — and three others in Ohio — by 2027 as part of a shift toward solar installations with industrial-size batteries. In addition, Reuters reports on the last coal-fired power plant operating in Oregon. Portland General Electric will be closing this facility in eastern Oregon 20 years ahead of schedule as the utility moves to electricity from renewable sources. Driving these changes is the economic fact, just announced by the International Energy Agency, that solar is now the cheapest form of electricity in human history. An op-ed in the Washington Post notes that “it has become cheaper to build and operate an entirely new wind or solar plant than it is to continue operating an existing coal one.”

The World Economic Forum notes that, according to the International Energy Agency, over the next five years 70,000 solar panels will be installed every hour, tripling global solar power capacity by 2022. By this same year, China, which is the world’s leader in solar-panel manufacturing, will have a total solar capacity (320 GW) greater than the total electrical-generation capacity of Japan. Meanwhile, the first solar panels are now approaching the end of their useful life, and the Good News Network describes the efforts of First Solar to lead the industry in recycling old panels. The EU, Korea and Japan have already adopted regulatory frameworks to encourage recycling.