August 15 2021

climate scientists to humanity: time’s up!, extreme weather events everywhere, Chicago struggles as the level of Lake Michigan keeps changing, helping abalone populations recover… from fire?, DHL orders all-electric cargo planes

The Guardian has several articles describing the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is a stark warning to humanity. Carbon dioxide levels in the air are now at their highest point in at least two million years, altering the energy balance of the earth and disrupting the climate that gave rise to human civilization. The climate crisis is unequivocally caused by human activities and is already affecting every corner of the planet’s land, air and sea. If we do not take immediate and sustained action to reduce (and soon eliminate) fossil-fuel burning, all of the impacts will get more severe, costly and dangerous. As Washington Post columnist, Eugene Robinson, puts it, "We’re out of time." The New York Times summarizes the report’s findings: "Nations have delayed curbing their fossil-fuel emissions for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years, though there is still a short window to prevent the most harrowing future."

Meanwhile in the Washington Post, George Will wrote a contrarian op-ed about climate change, in which his sole source of information is the recent book by Stephen Koonin (yes, that Stephen Koonin, whose book has been canned by scientists). The article is full of misinformation and scientific inaccuracies (a thorough debunking is available here). It is quite disheartening that the Washington Post would publish such a misleading and inaccurate article about climate change at this juncture. In the New York Times, Paul Krugman considers the similarities and differences between climate-change denial and Covid-19 denial, and tries to decide which one is worse…

July 15 2021

our hot "megadrought," outlawing nonfunctional grass, the prophets of doom (were right), recognizing coal communities as energy "veterans"

The Guardian interviews three leading scientists about the "megadrought" in the western U.S., which has now reached a length and intensity that is matching the worst droughts in the region in a thousand years. Scientist Jonathan Overpeck notes in the Hill that this is a "hot drought," where low precipitation is combined with high temperatures, a situation which will become more common as the world warms. As described in the Washington Post, Lake Mead (the reservoir behind Hoover Dam, the largest in the country), is now at the lowest level since it was filled in the 1930s (this site tracks Lake Mead’s level in real time). The governor of Utah, one of the hardest hit states, has resorted to praying for rain, and California agriculture is facing some difficult questions in the short and longer term due to reduced water availability. California is also facing the need to generate more gas-fired electricity due to the loss of hydroelectric generating capability.

To underscore the reality that this is indeed a "hot drought," a meteorologically stable dome of high pressure developed over the Pacific Northwest, sending temperatures skyrocketing to new records in Portland, Seattle and British Columbia, where the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada was measured in Lytton, B.C. (115°F on June 27). The heat literally cooked one billion intertidal marine organisms at low tide, and fruit on trees. The stable high-pressure system may be linked directly to climate change. This was not “just another heat wave,” said extreme-weather expert Christopher Burt in the Washington Post, but rather “the most anomalous extreme heat event ever observed on Earth since records began two centuries ago.” A heat wave of this magnitude is virtually impossible without human-caused climate change (said one scientist, “Global warming is not our grandchildren’s problem; it is ours, here and now”). While such an extreme episode used to be considered a one-in-a-thousand-year event (based on frequency of occurrence in the past), scientists predict it will happen every 5 to 10 years in 2050 on our current emissions path. Lost in the news of heat in the Northwest was the fact that Phoenix set a record with six days in a row at 115°F, and that nighttime temperatures are setting records across the continent. This is a predicted impact of climate change, and is a major threat to human lives as it makes cooling down at night impossible.

June 30 2021

Exxon Mobil management loses Board seats, fires burn in high-elevation forests, coal-mine cleanup a "house of cards", linking home batteries to create virtual power plants, expanding EV charging infrastructure

NOAA has a great animation that shows how global temperatures have changed over the last 70 years. The New York Times notes that, under President Biden, the U.S. EPA has updated its website to feature and track indicators of climate change, something that the Trump Administration refused to do. Another climate-change indicator from the political realm: a growing number of elected Republicans are speaking out about the reality of climate change (a small but necessary step).

Exxon Mobil’s stock value has dropped nearly 30% in five years, with the company taking on debt to buoy its stock price and pay dividends after posting a $22 billion loss in 2020. The New York Times has a detailed look at how a small investment firm organized shareholders to win two seats on Exxon Mobil’s Board of Directors. The firm argued that the company needs to change its business model to be successful as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. These investors believe that the effect a company has on society, in addition to its bottom line, will determine its long-term success…

June 15 2021

climate tipping points underlie emergency declaration, recycled wastewater’s growing importance, the popemobile goes electric, buildings as batteries

An article in Grist examines the key rationale for the scientific conclusion that we are facing a climate emergency: the planet is approaching "climate tipping points," where small changes in global temperature can kick off reinforcing loops that ‘tip’ the climate into a profoundly different state – accelerating heat waves, permafrost thaw and coastal flooding. These effects can themselves then produce more warming. Examples include the slowing of the great Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (of which the Gulf Stream is a part), and the melting of ice in Greenland that lowers the elevation of the ice sheet, exposing it to warmer air that then accelerates melting even more. Another area of significant concern is the warming of permafrost and northern (or boreal) forest ecosystems, where higher temperatures allow for decay in soils that were perennially frozen, turning these ecosystems into producers of carbon dioxide and methane. Warmer temperatures also fuel fires in the boreal forests that produce carbon dioxide and soot that further heat the planet.

There are indications, however, that at least some of these cycles could be interrupted. For example, as boreal forests burn they are being replaced by a forest composed of different species that grow quickly and may eventually store more carbon than the original forest. Most importantly, we may reach a "social tipping point," where people conclude that fossil-fuel use is immoral and human society transitions more quickly than expected. In this context, Al Gore’s formulation of Dornbusch’s law is worth remembering: "Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen much faster than you thought they could…"