August 31 2023
August 31 2023
The city of Lahaina on Maui has been devastated by a wildfire that became an urban inferno, killing more people than any U.S. fire in over a century. There are many threads to this story, including the lack of preparation and public awareness about this previously identified threat. For our purposes, it is important to recognize that climate change contributed to the likelihood of this fire, including months of drought, followed by high winds from a hurricane and a high-pressure system in different parts of the region. This is an example of how climate-change impacts can interact to create severe consequences (a “compound hazard”).
As Eugene Robinson notes in The Washington Post, climate change came for Maui, but it is only one of many places that ignited this summer. The New York Times describes a record fire season underway in Greece, including the ignition of 209 fires in a 24-hour period. In Canada, British Columbia recently declared a state of emergency, as 380 wildfires are burning with several out of control (the entire population of Yellowknife, the provincial capital of the Northwest Territories, was evacuated as a fire advanced on this community of 20,000). Twice as much land in Canada has burned in 2023 than in any previous year, igniting an area equal in size to the state of Alabama. The AP reports that a well-timed rainstorm is helping fire fighters around Kelowna, British Columbia.
Inside Climate News reports on the growing fire risk in the northern hemisphere’s boreal forests, including Canada. These forests represent a vast store of carbon, and global warming is drying them out and making them more prone to very large fires. This leads to the release of more greenhouse-gas emissions as the forests burn, contributing to more warming and an even higher fire risk. The emissions from these fires can be significant globally. In 2021, fires in boreal forests released twice as much carbon as global aviation.
Fire is only one aspect of extreme weather that is now on display in Danger Season (what used to be known as summer, and what a perspective in The New Yorker suggests will, in the future, become “a season for survival”). Intense rainfall occurred in New England and eastern Canada last month. The New York Times reports that Halifax, Nova Scotia, recorded 10 inches of rain over two days, the most since 1971 (and that was due to Hurricane Beth). Four people were missing and 25 bridges were damaged or destroyed. Flooding hit Vermont hard, and set records in China and in Chicago as well. Inside Climate News reports that “Illinois has seen a 12 to 15 percent increase in total annual precipitation and a 40 percent increase in the number of 2-inch rain days in the last 120 years.” New York Magazine interviews a researcher whose work predicts more intense rainfall in the future for New England.
Meanwhile, a tropical storm watch was issued by the national weather service for Southern California. This was due to the projected storm track for Hurricane Hilary, and it was the first time such a warning has ever been issued for this part of the United States. Hilary dropped a record amount of rain in Southern California, but preparations apparently helped keep everybody safe despite extensive property damage, reports The New York Times. The rainfall provides relief from fire risk for a few weeks, but hot days and Santa Ana winds in coming months could change that quickly.
The Times notes that, in our new climate, floods can increasingly happen at any time and any place, and that we’re not ready for it. FEMA flood maps are often out-of-date, and do not factor in climate change. This result contributes to communities not understanding their rising flood risk, and this risk not being reflected in real-estate markets (Grist examines this problem in more detail, and The Washington Post includes a photo essay with its article). One analysis notes that three-times more homes in Vermont are at risk from flooding than what federal flood maps suggest, and the Harris County Flood Control District (of greater Houston) found that 68% of the homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey were outside the 100-year floodplain. It is important to note that FEMA faces local opposition when it attempts to expand flood zones, as this results in more people being required to have flood insurance in order to qualify for a mortgage.
Eugene Robinson states eloquently in The Washington Post the challenge we face: “What most of us haven’t adequately internalized yet is that this is how it’s going to be. We have changed the climate, which has changed the weather. We need to stop making things worse, which means switching from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. And we need to face the new reality we have forged.” Climate scientist, Daniel Swain, says in The Guardian that “this summer will be among the cooler summers this century, it will feel like a remarkably cool summer 30 years from now even though it feels so extreme now.” As a New York Times op-ed notes, this summer is “when it ceased being possible to escape or deny what we have done to our planet and ourselves” (unless, of course, you are a Republican candidate for president as noted below).
In the California Water Blog, a post by Jay Lund and colleagues considers how California can be more prepared for the inevitable major floods in our future. The piece describes eleven maxims, based around so-called “green infrastructure,” as a far-sighted policy to reduce the flood impacts. It points to the Yolo Bypass on the Sacramento River as an example of the type of infrastructure that can support people (e.g., open space, recreation, groundwater recharge, agriculture) and native biota (e.g., expanded wetlands and riparian forests) while keeping us prepared for major floods (including dam or levee failures).
The AP reports on the growing field of agrivoltaics, where solar panels are deployed as part of an agricultural operation. Some crops, but not all, do fine in the shade provided by the panels, while the farmer sells the electricity generated by the panels. The author visits a German farm growing hops while also generating electricity, in collaboration with researchers studying productivity under different crop/solar configurations.
The Guardian reports on Republicans’ plan to dismantle all of Biden’s climate action achievements if they are returned to power in 2025. Called “Project 2025,” the plan proposes to boost fossil-fuel use and hamstring renewable-energy development, which will only ensure a grimmer climate future for today’s young people. Republicans are not waiting for the next election, however, as many “poison pill” riders that reject climate action have been added to GOP-sponsored government funding bills pending in the House, which will lead to confrontations with the Senate that portend a government shutdown in the fall.
To Paul Krugman, this demonstrates the degree to which climate-change denial has moved from a greed-driven phenomenon powered by special interests to a culture-war issue driven by individual grievance and resentment, where people have become convinced that “green energy is a conspiracy against the American way of life.” The powerful desire on the right to reject everything “liberal” now includes science-based argument, which among other things has led to excess deaths among Republicans that refused COVID vaccines. The Washington Post reports on a recent poll finding that 85% of respondents who vote or lean Democratic agree that climate change is contributing to extreme weather events, but only 35% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agree (overall, 63% of Americans who experienced extremely hot days this summer say climate change is a major factor). “Since 2019, the polling shows, Republicans haven’t budged from their skepticism about climate change being a major factor in heat waves, while the percentage of Democrats making the link has increased from 79% to 85%.”
At the first Republican presidential debate, Fox News moderators introduced a question about climate change, which I consider a welcome development. The New York Times reports that candidates’ responses were basically incoherent chaos. One called climate change a "hoax," which climate scientist Ben Santer points out in The Hill is an enormous disservice to Republicans, Democrats (and everybody else the world). Meanwhile, Inside Climate News reports that, at Fox News, the new evening host is an active source of misinformation about climate change. Salon describes why “the little ice age” does not disprove human-caused climate change for those interested in the debunking of specific denier talking points (skepticalscience.com is the authoritative source for science-based rebuttals of climate misinformation).
In The Guardian, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) suggests a “radical” idea: “Instead of spending enormous amounts of money planning for a war against each other, the U.S. and China should come to an agreement to mutually cut their military budgets and use the savings to move aggressively to improve energy efficiency, move toward sustainable energy and end our reliance on fossil fuels. They should also provide increased support for developing countries who are suffering from the climate crisis through no fault of their own.”
Heather Cox Richardson notes: “In 1972, after a century of mining, ranching, and farming had taken a toll on Montana, voters in that state added to their constitution an amendment saying that ‘[t]he state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.’” In March 2020, sixteen young Montana residents sued the state, arguing that its support for coal, oil and gas violated these constitutional rights. They pointed to a Montana law forbidding the state and its agents from taking the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions or climate change into consideration in their environmental reviews, as well as the state’s fossil-fuel-based energy policy.
This month, the court decided the case for the young Montana residents, agreeing that they have “experienced past and ongoing injuries resulting from the State’s failure to consider [greenhouse-gas emissions] and climate change, including injuries to their physical and mental health, homes and property, recreational, spiritual, and aesthetic interests, tribal and cultural traditions, economic security, and happiness.” The New York Times notes that the science of climate change was on trial as part of this case, and the court reiterated what others have found: the science is correct. The Independent reports that the State of Montana argued that it makes only a negligible contribution to the overall climate crisis, and the state called the decision “absurd” and plans to appeal. The New York Times profiles several young people involved in this and other lawsuits, and notes the rising activism among Gen Z around the need for climate action.
Distilled reports that a very important climate regulation just went into effect with little fanfare. The new regulation essentially prohibits the sale of incandescent light bulbs, instead requiring that the highly efficient and longer-lasting LED light bulbs be sold. The article notes that this regulation went into effect without much opposition because LED bulbs have become so much cheaper and are fast becoming consumer favorites. In 2015 only 4% of light bulbs in U.S. homes were LEDs, but in 2020 it was 47%. Manufacturers released their first 60-watt equivalent LED light bulbs (for lamps) in 2010, and they were $40 each. Today that bulb costs $2.
The Washington Post reports on the conclusions of a new study that found “the richest 10% of U.S. households are responsible for 40% of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions.” The study looked at emissions associated with income, including investment income that supports services and products that produce greenhouse gases. The wealthier you are, the greater the percentage of your greenhouse-gas emissions come from your investments. For the top 1% of households, which account for 15-17% of the nation’s emissions, around 42% of those emissions are due to investments. “About 15 days of emissions from a super-emitter [top 0.1%] was equal to a lifetime of emissions for someone in the poorest 10% in America.”
The largest solar facility at an airport has broken ground at Dulles International in Virginia. Electrek reports: “The solar farm will sit on 835 acres of Dulles Airport’s grounds between runways. The 100-megawatt (MW) solar farm will be made up of 200,000 solar panels and 50 MW of battery storage.” Instead of annual lease payments for the use of the airport’s land, the utility is providing the airport with EVs, charging stations and 1 MW of solar carports to help power the airport’s operations.
The Guardian summarizes the results of a recent study which tracked the health of a local community situated around a coal plant in Pittsburgh after it was closed in 2016. “There was an immediate 42% decrease in emergency room visits for heart problems and further declines in the three years that followed, until the end of study, showing that the closure led to long-term health improvements. A similar pattern was seen in stroke cases.” The physician who lead the study concludes: “Policymakers have been greatly underestimating the local and immediate human health benefits that will occur as we phase out fossil fuel processing and combustion in our cities and towns.”
On a related note, let’s remember that wonderful ad for the Nissan LEAF that reminds us about the health impacts of fossil-fuel burning.