April 30 2023

April 30 2023

emergence of extreme weather as climate warms now unequivocal, California’s “big melt” has begun, Biden Administration air-pollution rules will boost EVs, emissions of private jets and superyachts, changing climate story from despair to opportunity

A new study confirms with satellite data what has been predicted by physicists and computer models for decades. Our warming climate has fueled more intense drought and heavier rainfall globally over the last 20 years, which is indisputable evidence that the carbon we’ve emitted is exacerbating extreme weather. While there was much confidence in the model projections, “This is an observation,” one of the study’s co-authors told The Washington Post, “It’s actual data.”

The Washington Post describes how climate change is driving up the price of homes throughout much of the American west. Fires and flooding both damage the existing housing stock and limit where new housing can be constructed. “The median price of a home in Sonoma County, where Santa Rosa is the seat of government, has risen by more than 25 percent since the Tubbs Fire, according to recent monthly sales figures. That increase was even more precipitous before recent interest-rate hikes cooled the market.”

This problem is exacerbated by our construction of millions of homes in places that were known to be vulnerable to fires or floods. This is causing a forced migration due to climate change. Over 3 million Americans have lost their homes in recent years, and many will never be able to return. An excellent op-ed in The Guardian notes that “the total number of displaced will swell by millions and tens of millions, forcing Americans from the most vulnerable parts of the country into an unpredictable, quasi-permanent exile from the places they know and love.”

The Guardian explores whether this year’s massive precipitation has actually taken California out of drought. That is not as straightforward a question as some would imagine. While some areas have full reservoirs and streams (the AP has some great before and after photos), others have had less rainfall (especially in the far north and south of the state), and the state’s groundwater basins remain greatly depleted. Many smaller communities, comprised predominantly of people of color, have lost their reliable access to water. The article quotes from an interview with Dr. Peter Gleick: “There really is no agreed upon definition of drought. Sometimes it’s, it’s a hydrologic drought – referring to how much water is available to nature. Sometimes it’s a meteorological drought – related to how much rain and snow we get. And sometimes it’s a political drought. I’d describe a drought as when we don’t have as much water to do all of the things that we want. And in California I’m afraid that problem has not gone away.”

Meanwhile, the “big melt” is beginning. The Sierra Nevada snowpack is about 233% of average, and The Guardian quotes climate scientist, Daniel Swain, that the snowpack’s water content could fill the state’s reservoirs “multiple times over.” This article describes the complexities of being able to predict the rate of melt and the consequent flooding threat. Models and forecasts that rely on historical data are less reliable due to our changing climate, and small shifts in solar radiation and groundwater flow can make a big difference in outcomes. The New York Times reports that NOAA forecasts moderate spring temperatures this year, which would help prevent massive flooding triggered by a heat wave, but an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times describes how, as a society, we’ve not done what is necessary to reduce rising flood risks.

What we do know is that many of the impacts will be borne by disadvantaged communities that have never had the political clout to get public resources for preparation. We also know that the “big melt” will bring back Tulare Lake in the Central Valley, which used to be the largest body of water west of the Mississippi before its inputs were diverted for human use (which destroyed the native Yokuts tribes). The California WaterBlog notes that this is already happening, as it did during the major precipitation years of 1969, 1983 and 1997, and an entire ecosystem will reappear along with the water. The New York Times states that, while state and local government officials are working hard to plan for the rapid growth of Tulare Lake, there is only so much that can be done to avoid its impacts given how much development has occurred in the historic lake basin.

Heated describes that, despite international pledges to the contrary in Glasgow in 2021, the countries of the world have actually expanded fossil-fuel subsidies. “Each year, governments around the world pour around half a trillion dollars into artificially lowering the price of fossil fuels — more than triple what renewables receive.” The International Energy Agency recently concluded that global fossil-fuel subsidies more than doubled from 2021 to 2022. A key reason for these increases was governments taking action to reduce the impact to consumers of price increases caused by the war in Ukraine. Of course, if governments had been implementing previous pledges to reduce fossil-fuel use, much less emergency aid would have been necessary.

The Biden Administration has announced rules “designed to ensure two-thirds of new passenger cars and a quarter of new heavy trucks sold in the United States are all-electric by 2032.” The New York Times reports that the rules are structured to reduce air pollution from vehicles, essentially requiring that a larger percentage of cars offered every year for sale be electric.

The political, economic and logistical challenges confronting the Biden Administration’s plan to electrify the vehicle fleet are reviewed by The New York Times. These include sourcing materials for batteries, vehicle cost, availability of charging infrastructure and legal challenges from those who consider the rules a government overreach. Of the “91 unique electric vehicle models now on the market in the country, fewer than 40 qualify for the tax credits” due to requirements that components be manufactured in the U.S. Autoworkers are also skeptical of the rules, as electric cars have many fewer parts and require less labor to assemble (in addition, manufacturing facilities for cars and batteries are being built in southern states where union labor is less common).

There are several ways that climate change is impacting human health. These include drying the landscape that leads to more particles in the air, forcing movement of wild mammals that bring them and their pathogens into contact with human communities and changing the distribution of insects that carry diseases. An op-ed in The New York Times examines another: how a warming climate might lead to more human illness caused by fungi. We have only described about 5% of the fungi in the world, and the author notes that research on fungal-caused disease in humans has never been well-supported because most fungi cannot reproduce at human body temperatures. That is likely to change as fungal species adapt to the warming world.

Another op-ed in the New York Times examines the carbon emissions from the private jets and superyachts of the ultra-wealthy. While their per-capita emissions are enormous, some suggest these are just a drop in the bucket and a distraction. The author disagrees, noting: “Research in economics and psychology suggests humans are willing to behave altruistically — but only when they believe everyone is being asked to contribute.” People “stop cooperating when they see that some are not doing their part. In that sense, super-polluting yachts and jets don’t just worsen climate change; they lessen the chance that we will work together to fix it.”

The Guardian reports that Stacey Abrams has decided to devote her extraordinary capacities to the transition away from fossil fuels, taking a position as Senior Counsel for Rewiring America. “Her role will focus on helping thousands of people across America wean their homes and businesses off fossil fuels and on to electricity.” She certainly has her work cut out for her, as The New York Times reviews the challenges of electrifying America. The Guardian describes the need for 1 million electricians in the U.S. to meet electrification goals, and barriers to recruiting women into this male-dominated profession.

Grist describes the decline of coal-fired electric power in the U.S. The generating capacity of the nation’s coal-fired power plants peaked at 318 gigawatts in 2011, but nearly half of that generating capacity will be gone the end of 2026, with another 173 coal-fired power plants set to close or stop using coal by 2030. While this is good news for greenhouse-gas emissions, the benefits are moderated by a growing use of coal globally (especially in India and China) and of natural gas in the U.S. The AP reports that “electricity generated from renewables surpassed coal in the United States for the first time in 2022.”

While Texas is leading the nation in the production of energy from wind and solar, Texas Republicans just introduced a package of bills intended to punish renewable energy and boost fossil fuels. Inside Climate News describes the bills, including one that would prohibit local governments from banning gasoline-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other landscaping equipment. Once again, we see the political power of the fossil-fuel industry, and the insanity of making climate action another plank in the culture wars.

This week from “the extreme precipitation” department: AP reports that over a foot of rain fell in a few hours in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, closing the regional airport and halting regional commuter-train service. This intense storm came after days of rain had already saturated the soil (sound familiar, Californians?), causing dangerous flooding that led the National Weather Service to announce: “This is a life-threatening situation. Seek higher ground now!” The Washington Post reports further that, in just a few hours, one-third of Fort Lauderdale’s annual rainfall came down, creating a 1-in-1,000-year flood event that closed the main hospital, and did more damage than any hurricane that has ever hit the city. The impact would have been even greater except the storm hit during low tide. The San Francisco Chronicle describes how areas ravaged by fires can then become sources of devastating debris flows during subsequent heavy-rainfall events.

It is always interesting to remember that, while the transition from fossil fuels is essentially a political problem at the moment, technological advances are likely to help accelerate it in coming years. Anthropocene Magazine reports on a new process that uses relatively low temperatures and common solvents to recover 97% of the cobalt from lithium cobalt oxide, the compound used in most laptop and cellphone batteries. This publication also notes that “Plastics are made from petroleum, and nearly every stage of their production creates greenhouse gas emissions. If plastic production and use grow as usual, by 2030 the emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year, equivalent to emissions from nearly 300 large coal-fired power plants.” Scientists in Korea have harnessed bacteria to produce bioplastics from carbon dioxide in the air.

Inside Climate News reviews the new anthology, Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility. The editors note that their book is “for anyone who is despondent, anxious, or unsure about climate change and seeking answers.” One of them writes: “It is late… but it is not too late. The outcome is not decided. We are deciding it now.” The article quotes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was inspired to run for Congress after participating in the 2016 Standing Rock protests: “hope is not something you have. Hope is something you create with your actions.”