December 31 2019

December 31 2019

atmospheric rivers, farmers responding to climate change, record heat in Australia, Goldman Sachs says no to coal-fired power

InsideClimate News reports on a recent study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on “atmospheric rivers,” the powerful rivers of water vapor in the atmosphere that produce much of the West’s rainfall but also its flooding (these events can carry twice as much moisture as the Amazon River). The study concludes that atmospheric rivers caused more than 99 percent of all flood damage in parts of coastal Oregon and California. The 10 most extreme atmospheric rivers caused nearly half of all the flood damage in the West between 1978 and 2017, costing about $23 billion. There is now evidence that these events will become more intense with climate warming, as the rivers will become larger and wetter. The study has suggestions for building resilience to these storm events.

Atmospheric rivers have been a component of the climate of western North America as far back as scientists have looked, and they can be enormous. Particularly notable is the winter of 1861-62, when it rained for weeks (66 inches of rain fell in Los Angeles). You could sail a boat from Fresno to Sacramento. The state capitol had to be relocated and California was forced into bankruptcy. I highly recommend the great article in Scientific American, The Coming MegaFloods.

Politico has an excellent article about the rapidly changing attitudes in the agricultural community to climate change. The last several years have included devastating droughts and major downpours that have heavily impacted farmers and ranchers, and they are responding by adopting more climate-friendly practices (such as the planting of cover crops). The article notes a strong feeling among farmers that they have been blamed in the past for environmental problems without much compassion or understanding of the challenges they face just to stay in business.

The Washington Post reports on the vast changes in the Arctic, where evidence of accelerating permafrost melting, sea ice retreat and expanded forest fires are leaving scientists “disquieted.” Arctic ecosystems have enormous quantities of carbon in their frozen soils, and this carbon will be released to the atmosphere as decomposition increases with warmth. This can turn Arctic ecosystems into major emitters of carbon dioxide and methane, frustrating efforts to prevent future warming of the planet as the earth crosses a “tipping point” into a new climate regime.

Yale e360 describes a recent paper from a group of scientists who warn that we may have already crossed a tipping point that could form a cascade, in which new tipping points are then triggered and climate change moves past the point where emission reductions could make a difference. This is another powerful argument for describing our current situation as a climate emergency. An op-ed in the New York Times calls for immediate measures to address ice loss in the Arctic, including testing geoengineering techniques to protect young ice so that it can grow stronger.

This month, Australia suffered through an extraordinary heat wave that set temperature records and caused massive wildfires. The Washington Post reports that the national average temperature on December 18 was a record 107.4°F, and Sydney faces catastrophic fire danger.

At Vox, Dave Roberts has an interesting post on how batteries have been increasing carbon dioxide emissions in California (by storing cheap dirty energy at night). The state has just adopted a rule to change the incentives to prevent this from happening. In another article he reports on the recent analysis that concludes climate models over the past 50 years have generally been quite accurate at predicting global warming.

High Country News reports from Colorado on a high school program that is training kids to join the solar industry in a region that has lost a large number of coal jobs due to mine closures. An article in the New York Times describes personal stories of individuals and their rural communities transitioning from the fossil-fuel industry to jobs in wind and solar. The Associated Press talks to climate scientists about how they are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. The New York Times reports that the recent round of climate negotiations were a dismal failure as major emitting countries blocked even a non-binding resolution for more ambitious emission reductions.

Grist has a wonderful profile of Anna Jane Joyner, an evangelical Christian and climate activist. Anna Jane has been speaking to religious audiences for years, and her father is the famous and influential minister, Rick Joyner. Jane Fonda is now an activist grandma – she has been inspired by Greta Thunberg to move to Washington D.C. in order to perform an act of civil disobedience and get arrested on Fire Drill Fridays. Her speech and press conference at the National Press Club demonstrates that she does her homework and continues to be a powerful public voice on important issues.

The Associated Press reports on a recent study about the damage in the U.S. from major hurricanes. The study uses a new metric (the “Area of Total Destruction”) rather than the cost of damages, as the latter tends to overlook strong storms that hit less populated areas. The study concludes that the biggest storms (top 10%) have become three times more frequent over the last 100 years, with eight of the 20 biggest storms occurring in the last 16 years. This pattern of more powerful storms is consistent with projections from climate models.

Trump’s assault on science and expertise seems to be accelerating. He continues to make inaccurate claims about wind turbines while preposterously stating, “I know windmills very much, I’ve studied it better than anybody.” Trump wants us to return to incandescent light bulbs because he thinks energy-efficient bulbs make him look worse, and says energy-efficient toilets require people to flush “10 times, 15 times.” And then there’s “hurricane trutherism,” a conspiracy theory in right-wing media (where Trump gets his ideas) that is sowing doubt about storm forecasting. Media Matters has a compilation of The Most Ridiculous Things Said About Climate Change in 2019.

Yet, despite Trump’s pathological and ignorant pronouncements, the real world is getting more serious about climate change (example courtesy of the Washington Post): Investment Bank Goldman Sachs announced a new environmental policy that includes no new financing for Arctic drilling, coal-fired power plants that don’t have carbon emissions-reduction technology and coal mines that extract fuel for those power stations. The bank also promised to invest $750 billion in “sustainable finance” over the next decade.

I hope you have a safe and healthy 2020.