February 15 2023

February 15 2023

the return of El Niño, offshore-oil lease sale flops in Alaska, Colorado River challenges mount as states squabble, value of offsets questioned, turns out climate models are quite accurate

The Guardian reports that, after three years of La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean, climate scientists are warning of the likely return of El Niño conditions later this year. As El Niño brings warm ocean water to the surface, which heats the atmosphere, it is expected to cause global average temperatures to rise significantly in 2024. The hottest year on record, 2016, was driven by an El Niño, and The Conversation notes that during this next one a new record for global average temperature is likely. Other expected impacts include major wildfires, particularly in Asia and Australia, extreme cold in northern Europe and a drying Amazon rainforest.

An op-ed in Bloomberg notes that El Niño warming will generate short-term emergencies that could help “focus minds and dollars” on the importance of curbing carbon emissions and transitioning to green energy. Of course, “Foresight hasn’t exactly been humanity’s strong suit when it comes to climate, but it’s not too late to give it a try.”

One of Senator Joe Manchin’s demands in exchange for his vote on the Inflation Reduction Act was that the Department of Interior re-open Lease Sale 258 for oil and gas resources in Cook Inlet, Alaska. The lease sale had originally been put off for lack of interest by the oil and gas industry, but Manchin was insistent. Lawsuits to stop the lease sale were unsuccessful, and Gizmodo reports that it went ahead in late 2022 — and was a total flop. Only one bid was submitted for one of the 193 blocks available for lease.

The federal government has asked the seven states that are signatories to the Colorado River Compact, which governs the distribution of Colorado River water, to make major cuts in their use of the dwindling river. The Washington Post reports that, while six of the states have outlined a joint proposal, California has declined to accept this new framework, which would require California to take 1 million acre-feet of cuts rather than the 400,000 it has offered. The heart of the challenge is that water demand outstrips supply, and the legal system governing diversions is based on “first in time, first in right.” Agricultural users tend to have the most senior water rights (e.g., they were there first), meaning that urban users in Los Angeles will lose their water before farmers in Southern California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys who grow alfalfa to feed livestock.

The New York Times also notes that, if the states cannot reach an agreement, the Interior Department must impose the cuts, and that will likely create lengthy legal challenges. “We’re using more water than nature is going to provide,” said Eric Kuhn, who worked on previous water agreements as general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Someone is going to have to cut back very significantly.” Why should feeding cows take precedence over urban water uses, ask the cities. Why should we stop growing crops so people can build more subdivisions, ask the farmers. This article provides some background on the existing system, noting that it was actually designed based on an amount of water that only existed when river flows were at their highest early in the 20th century.

The Los Angeles Times reviews how the level of the Colorado River reservoirs got so low. The reservoirs filled in the 1980s and 1990s as demand for water was lower. However, as water demand rose (especially with the construction of the Central Arizona Project) and precipitation declined, reservoir levels dropped. Some experts do not expect reservoirs will refill within our lifetimes.

An op-ed in Time Magazine notes that addressing the crisis is going to require “killing some sacred cows. The water going to grass, swimming pools, and golf courses will have to be cut. New housing will have to be denser and much more water efficient. More than half of Colorado River water currently irrigates crops fed to animals — a lot of those crops will have to go, reducing the amount of land and water in agriculture.” Our political system is not very good at dealing with issues like this where the basic reality is “less pie for everybody.”A Washington Post editorial describes the general outline of a solution, noting that “leadership and investment now could spare parched states an enormous amount of grief in the future — and start the overdue transition to a more sustainable relationship with water in the region.”

CBS News reports that Wall-Street-based hedge funds are buying farms in the Colorado River basin. They are not really interested in farming, but rather in owning the water rights. These firms have identified the growing scarcity of water in the region as a money-making opportunity.

The Guardian describes the results of a study that sought to verify if “certified” carbon offsets actually reduce deforestation in South America. The results are not encouraging. For a variety of reasons, it appears that the vast majority of offsets being purchased by major corporations as part of sincere efforts to reduce emissions are not effective (the company providing the offsets disputes this conclusion). This is not a result of fraud, but rather reflects how very difficult it is to determine that expected offsets actually occur, and that the offsets are “additional” (i.e., only happened because of the investment). Anthropocene Magazine examines the dilemma: “Do we double down on offsets, fix the worst mistakes, and accept that some “cons” are worth playing? Or do we put all our decarbonization efforts into the tougher battle of reducing emissions in our daily lives?” The New York Times reports on the growing number of people that are pledging not to fly rather than purchasing offsets.

For those who wonder how well global climate models project global temperatures, RealClimate has an updated comparison. The short answer: models do very well, and we should therefore pay attention to what they are telling us about the future. In fact, models have been accurate for a long time. The Guardian reports that it is now clear that oil-company models accurately projected global temperatures as early as 1977. This is vital to the legal argument that the industry hid this knowledge in order to deceive the public into continued use of its products. Many suits have been filed under laws protecting the public from false advertising. Grist provides an update on how these lawsuits are progressing, which generally has been very slow due to procedural challenges from the oil industry. In particular, the oil industry is attempting to prevent cases from coming to trial in state courts. EuroNews reports on a novel lawsuit that is attempting to hold the directors of Shell personally liable for failing to transition the corporation’s business away from the failing fossil-fuel sector.

In the New Yorker, Bill McKibben describes the recent comments of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is calling out the oil industry in particularly blunt terms. The Secretary-General’s message is “that the central problem with climate change is the fossil-fuel industry’s product, that the industry is immorally undermining climate action, and that, if it continues, it should be shut down.”

For “This Week in Unprecedented Rainfall,” we turn to Auckland, New Zealand, where CNN reports that an entire summer’s worth of rain fell in one day, and that was before the arrival of Cyclone Gabrielle. The storm resulted in a national emergency declaration for only the third time in the history of New Zealand, according to the Washington Post. The Guardian describes “fatal landslips, closed highways that cut off towns, flooding so severe and rapid that hundreds of people awaited rescue on their roofs, and widespread power, water and telecommunications outages.” One resident noted mournfully that “all you can do is run away.”

Yale Climate Connections describes how heavy rainfall in Oklahoma is posing a pollution threat from flooding in areas that were extensively mined. Grist interviews author Stephen Markley about his new novel, The Deluge, which follows our climate future for the next several decades. Markley focuses on the natural and political problems with an eye towards helping us understand what we need to do to mitigate worst-case outcomes. He also discusses how he had to edit his draft book to enhance his fictional extreme events, as actual extreme weather equaled events he wanted to be unprecedented in his novel.

A huge iceberg has calved from the Brunt Ice Shelf. The Washington Post reports that this calving was a natural process caused by stress forces in this part of the ice shelf, and has nothing to do with climate change. It is just nice to be able to write that.

Inside Climate News notes that the Energy Information Administration is projecting that renewables will reach an all-time high, comprising 25% of U.S. electricity production in 2024.