April 15 2023

April 15 2023

scientists continue to call for stronger action on greenhouse gases, needed new transmission capacity hard to build, we’re clearly in the midst of an EV boom, communities dealing with sea level rise and flooding, an anesthesiologist takes climate action

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a new report, and the New York Times explains it is another in a long line of dire warnings for humanity. As we have heard before, without an immediate shift away from fossil fuels, global average temperatures will exceed the 1.5°C target in “the first half of the 2030s.” The report also notes that worst-case climate scenarios considered in the past, such as a 4°C increase in global average temperature, now look unlikely, as at least 18 countries (including the United States) have managed to reduce their emissions for more than a decade. At the same time, even relatively modest increases in global temperature are now expected to be more disruptive than previously thought. “The pace and scale of what has been done so far and current plans are insufficient to tackle climate change,” said Hoesung Lee, the chair of the climate panel. “We are walking when we should be sprinting.”

CNN reports on the growing likelihood of El Niño conditions developing in the Pacific in the coming months, which will have a profound impact on global weather. In particular, higher global average temperatures are normally associated with El Niño conditions, and 2024 could turn out to be the hottest year on record. Already, ocean temperatures are very high compared to past measurements, increasing the possibility of major coral-reef-bleaching events and accelerated ice loss in Antarctica.

The Washington Post notes the recent finding from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that “global emissions of carbon dioxide related to energy production grew by 0.9 percent in 2022, reaching a new high.” While the growth was slower than expected, the IEA said that “emissions still remain on an unsustainable growth trajectory.” Both China’s zero-Covid policy and the war in Ukraine contributed to the reduction in the rate of emissions increases last year, but increased use of coal as natural-gas prices rose was an offsetting factor.

Building new transmission capacity is vital for being able to meet ambitious goals for renewable electricity, but it is hard to accomplish given our current regulatory and political environment. Inside Climate News reports that this is even true in clean-energy leader California. The San Joaquin Valley, long known as a bastion of irrigated agriculture, has a large and growing solar sector. As irrigation water is harder to come by and marginal agricultural lands are fallowed, repurposing them to solar is an attractive option. Westlands Solar Park in the valley is set to be one of the largest solar-power plants in the world — if transmission capacity is available. 399 out of 450 solar projects awaiting connection are also located in San Joaquin Valley. “In the next two decades, California needs to spend an estimated $30.5 billion on transmission development, according to the 2022 outlook report from the state’s grid operator.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes the challenges facing electric vehicles when it gets cold. In these conditions, range drops, often because of the energy expended to keep occupants warm. Some models are now using heat pumps instead of resistant heating, and that improves range in cold weather.

For those thinking of purchasing an EV, The Washington Post provides an analysis of the benefits of purchasing now or waiting a few years.

ClimateWire reports that “sales of zero-emission vehicles hit a record high in California last year, making up nearly 19 percent of new car purchases.” The New York Times reviews the plans for building electric vehicles in Ohio and neighboring states. The EV boom creates both challenges and opportunities for auto workers and companies that supply the auto industry, which are an important part of the Ohio economy. Inside Climate News looks at the future of fueling stations in an auto market dominated by EVs. Another article describes the enormous momentum that has developed across the economy as the popularity of electric vehicles increases. Walmart has just made a major investment in vehicle charging stations. “We’ve got a Walmart store or Sam’s Club within 10 miles of 90 percent of the population in this country,” says Vishal Kapadia, the company’s senior vice president of energy transformation. It was fascinating to learn that this position exists at Walmart!

The Guardian reports that, in 2022, California wildfires burned only 360,000 acres, compared to the recent five-year average of 2.2 million acres. The article notes that the number of fires ignited was similar to past years, but fortuitous timing of weather, strategic deployment of resources and community preparedness helped keep the number of acres burned lower than in previous years. Meanwhile, another article describes the significant impact that major Australian wildfires had on the ozone layer over that continent. While the ozone layer is healing at about 1% per year due to humans phasing out CFCs, the fires caused an ozone reduction of 3-5%. Smoke aerosols, the researchers found, can react in the stratosphere to form compounds that then destroy ozone molecules.

The Washington Post reports that the enormous amount of precipitation in Utah this winter has already raised the level of the Great Salt Lake by several inches, and it is expected that the snowmelt this year could bring the level of the lake up a couple of feet. This will help ameliorate the ecological damage to the lake (which I’ve reviewed previously), and potential air-quality impacts to the Salt Lake Valley from windblown dust. However, experts are noting that one big precipitation season does not change the long-term outlook for the lake, and they are urging the region to re-think how water is allocated.

The Washington Post visits Pajaro, CA, a small town severely flooded in March when a levee that protected the town broke. This as an important and heart-breaking story, as the inadequacy of the levee had been known for decades. Although Congress approved a repair and strengthening project, funding was never appropriated. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses a cost-benefit formula to determine what projects to undertake, and they calculated that “the construction cost would outweigh the value of protecting a low-income rural area — a formula widely criticized for exacerbating racial and economic inequity.” The Corps has changed their formula recently to make it more just, and Monterey County was making progress in securing additional funds to repair the levee, but it was all too late for the residents of Pajaro.

The Washington Post visits Rodanthe, North Carolina, where beachfront homes are slipping into the ocean as sea level rises and storm surges erode the land. Some residents are spending great sums to move their homes away from the coast, while others are asking government authorities for help that is unlikely to be provided. A County Commissioner notes that there are powerful emotions that are part of these decisions as “we are dealing with people’s hopes and dreams.” “At the same time,” he says, “you are also up against science and hard facts … We cannot keep doing things the way that we’ve done this, with a structure there that’s just waiting to be run over by the ocean.”

An op-ed in the Guardian describes the challenges sea level rise poses for Charleston, South Carolina, and how social, economic and geological factors combined to make the problem more severe and action harder to come by. “When slow-to-change racial structures, a profound respect for white history, an inborn dislike for government intervention, an overwhelming focus on growth and a reluctance to act with urgency meet hurricanes, rising waters and sinking land, what happens? In all its bravura, complacency and cruelty.”

Sea level rise impacts are appearing in the southern U.S. because sea level rise is accelerating in this region. The Washington Post reports on recent findings that, over the last 12-15 years, rates of sea level rise are higher on the Gulf Coast than in other parts of the U.S. This is driving more disruption in everyday life due to “sunny day” flooding, when ocean water appears on roads and in communities, and also contributes to higher storm surges. This phenomenon appears to have several sources, although scientists are still trying to understand it. The Gulf of Mexico has warmed significantly, which drives sea level rise since water expands in volume as it warms. Natural variation also appears to play a part. If this rate of rise continues at its current pace, the sea level by 2050 will be approaching worst-case predictions along the southern coast.

When I speak about climate change, I’m often asked, “I’m not a scientist, what can I do?” I always note that climate change influences so much that everybody can play a part. As an example, a recent study found that “the health sector is responsible for nearly 9 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases,” and an op-ed in The Washington Post documents what one anesthesiologist has done to reduce the impact of his profession. He has focused on reducing the use of certain anesthetic gases that are extremely potent greenhouse gases. In particular, he worked to reduce the use of the anesthetic desflurane, by substituting gases that do not have the same global-warming impact. In his hospital chain, he was able to reduce desflurane from 42% to 0.07%. Not only has the medical group reduced its carbon footprint, but because desflurane is a more expensive option, costs have declined by 80%.

There is a way in all of our lives that we can take steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and accelerate the transition from fossil fuels. In fact, this is essential to making it happen.