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…"

May 31 2021

multi-year drought in the West, longer fire and hurricane season, importance of electric F-150 pickup, lithium mining, growth of offshore-wind industry

An article in the New York Times discusses the deep, multi-year drought in the Southwestern U.S. and the concomitant severe fire season that is threatening the region. In the first four months of 2021, the area burned in Arizona already equaled that burned in 2020. The author notes that climate change has altered precipitation patterns across the Southwest, drying out soil and vegetation. The Los Angeles Times argues that this is not a drought, but rather our new climate, stating "the years of steady and predictable water flow are over, and there is no sign of them coming back in our lifetimes. This is it. We have to build, and grow, and legislate, and consume for the world as it is, not as we may remember it." An op-ed in the New York Times compares the construction and filling of Lake Mead with its subsequent drying out, suggesting that the limits of human engineering are forcing their way into the consciousness of our society.

Inside Climate News describes the impact of the drought in California’s Central Valley. Particularly hard hit are poor communities in the Tulare and San Joaquin basins, where groundwater pumping to maintain agricultural production has lowered the water table, resulting in shallower drinking-water wells going dry. There is also more reliance on groundwater that is contaminated by nitrates and other pollutants.

California must adjust to the fire season beginning in May, given the Palisades Fire that erupted on May 14 in Southern California (possibly the result of arson). The New York Times notes that Californians should be bracing for a serious fire season. Last month was the driest April in Sacramento since official record keeping began in 1877, and the snowpack in the Sierras currently contains just 5% of historical norms. The AP reports that a giant sequoia in the path of last year’s Castle Fire continues to smolder this spring, another indicator of how dry the winter has been…

May 15 2021

EV sales climbing, but still small, expanding wind energy, a climate-change real-estate bubble, the uncertainty in sea level rise, a case for cautious optimism

Axios reports that EV sales in February 2021 were 138% above sales from the same month in 2020. While this is exciting news, there is still a long way to go: EV sales represented only 2.3% of total U.S. car sales in that month. Volvo announced a partnership with a steelmaker to produce vehicles with “fossil-fuel-free” steel — small-scale production will begin in 2022. BBC reports on efforts in Europe to recycle EV batteries, which will be vitally important given the projected rise in EV sales. An article in The Hill calls for an ambitious mix of investment and U.S. regulatory policies to advance EV adoption, because it will take decades to replace the 289 million registered motor vehicles in the country with internal-combustion engines.

As wind energy expands, local opposition is beginning to surface. Despite the economic benefits derived from wind-energy development, there are many areas where residents are concerned about the proliferation of wind turbines. Inside Climate News looks at the situation in Indiana, where the tradition of local control is colliding with statewide forces supporting expansion of the wind industry. Drilled News reports on how the experience and expertise of companies and workers from the offshore-oil industry is being used in the growing field of offshore wind. An article in the Washington Post announces the Biden Administration’s approval of the Vineyard Wind offshore-wind project. As with all articles about U.S. offshore wind, it is accompanied by a photo of the Block Island offshore-wind project in Rhode Island, now the largest of the two operating projects. That is about to change, as several massive offshore-wind arrays are in the works that will place up to 3,000 wind turbines in the Atlantic from Maine to North Carolina…

April 30 2021

methane concentration in the atmosphere reaches record high, Biden holds climate summit, threat of coal-fired power in China, solar becoming “insanely cheap” energy

An article in Gizmodo notes NOAA’s announcement that methane concentrations in the atmosphere reached an all-time high last year, with the rise from 2019 to 2020 being the largest year-over-year increase since record keeping began (carbon-dioxide concentrations are also demonstrating a major rebound with increased economic activity as the pandemic recedes). Initial chemical analysis suggests that a significant amount of this methane is from natural sources, such as bogs or thawing permafrost. This is not good news. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas and, while its lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide, it absorbs much more heat while present. Natural increases in methane emissions may be a response to the change in earth’s average temperature, and this would be evidence that a feedback loop has been activated that may not be controllable.

An important strategy for slowing climate change is to eliminate the emissions of powerful, short-lived greenhouse gases as fast as possible. Energy Monitor examines the various sources of methane emissions, and highlights an initiative by the European Union to launch a global effort to reduce these emissions. Inside Climate News reports on efforts to convince President Biden to commit the U.S. to immediate reductions in methane emissions, particularly by focusing on emissions from fossil-fuel facilities…

April 15 2021

The Guardian reports that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have reached record levels. This is not a surprise given the rate of emissions, and even the drop in economic activity during the pandemic did not prevent the rise. The speed of this change (“like a human meteorite hitting the earth” according to one scientist quoted in the article), is sometimes hard to grasp.

In an outstanding article in the Atlantic, science writer Peter Brannen gives a wonderful but sobering description of our climate at different periods in the Earth’s past, providing a perspective on how large a change we have initiated. His compelling descriptions help one understand the meaning of our altered atmosphere, and how the Earth’s ecosystems are only slowly responding to the heat that the carbon-rich atmosphere is now capturing on the planet. As things accelerate, the world will change drastically, as the record of past climates documents. The urgency of stopping this change by immediately reducing the carbon-dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is viscerally apparent throughout this excellent piece.

An article in the Guardian reports that, as U.S. Forests recover from recent fires, new trees are not always growing back. In many cases, this occurs because the climate is now different than when the forest grew originally, and the new climate will not support regrowth of the trees. A hotter climate, more insects and other factors have resulted in a doubling of the tree mortality rate in some temperate and tropical forests. The author notes that “the changes being observed today — in which slow-growing trees that have survived for hundreds of years are dying in a drought or wildfire — cannot be undone in our lifetimes,” and this is “prompting a broad and looming sense of disquiet” among those aware of the magnitude of this change. An op-ed at CNN notes that saving intact forests (not cutting them down nor replanting with monocultures) is the way to make sure that forest uptake of carbon from the atmosphere remains significant…

March 31 2021

solving the climate crisis pays for itself, the growth of offshore wind, reality of sea level rise strikes North Carolina, the enormous carbon footprint of food waste, University of Michigan divests from fossil fuels

The Guardian reports on a study that documents the pervasive and deadly impact of air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. Globally, the death toll from fossil-fuel burning exceeds the combined total of people who die each year from malaria and smoking tobacco. These effects derive mainly from the impact of PM2.5 — the particles produced by combustion that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. These particles, once inhaled, lodge in the lungs and can cause a variety of health problems. An article in Grist argues that the Centers for Disease Control should add a code to its official list of causes of death that can be used to identify air-pollution fatalities, as one does not currently exist. In another article, the Guardian documents how the fossil-fuel industry understood the impacts of particulates and fossil-fuel combustion products. However, just like in the case of tobacco and climate change, the industry hid its knowledge and attempted to sow doubt in the public sphere about the health impacts. The costs to health from fossil fuels are so large that eliminating them by transitioning to renewable energy will more than pay for the costs associated with the transition (in other words, saving ourselves from the climate crisis pays for itself).

Yale e360 examines the growth of the offshore-wind industry in the U.S. Several large wind farms are under construction off the Atlantic coast from Rhode Island to Virginia, and these will begin generating large amounts of electricity in the next few years (a blog post from the Union of Concerned Scientists provides an update on the Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts, one of the first major offshore projects that is set to be approved by the Biden Administration). As the industry has matured (particularly from experience in Northern Europe), costs have come down, and state policies for purchasing renewable electricity have contributed to solid projections of future demand. Thousands of jobs are being created, and this corps of workers will expand as the industry spreads south along the Atlantic coast, where strong winds and relatively shallow offshore waters combine to create excellent conditions for wind power…