February 15 2024

February 15 2024

global process for handling life’s risks is breaking down, time to “buckle up” for hotter droughts in the western U.S., a foot of rain falls on Los Angeles in one day, U.S. world’s largest exporter of natural gas, solar farm replaces coal plant in Minnesota

2023 was the hottest year ever recorded, and The Washington Post notes that some leading scientists are concerned that a feared acceleration of global warming is underway. James Hansen notes: “The proximate cause of the acceleration is an increase of Earth’s energy imbalance, specifically a substantial darkening of the planet (decreased albedo) equivalent to a CO2 increase of more than 100 ppm, although it is difficult to apportion the albedo change between aerosol forcing and cloud feedbacks because of limited global measurements.”

Several agencies that compute global average temperature have reported that, in 2023, the Earth reached 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, and The New York Times reminds us this is a milestone to note. While the global climate goal of keeping average temperatures to 1.5°C or below is a multi-year average, not just a single year, clearly the Earth will be at this temperature level soon. “Based on the current pace of carbon emissions, it will only be a few more years before we have altered the atmosphere’s chemistry so much that even drastic cuts to emissions wouldn’t be enough to stop warming from eventually creeping above 1.5 degrees.”

As Earth’s average temperature approaches 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, Inside Climate News describes the results of social-science research concluding that “the increasing climate shocks could trigger more social unrest and authoritarian, nationalist backlashes.” The article notes that the large number of social crises currently underway are crowding out people’s attention to climate change. This is exacerbated by a new flood of disinformation that seeks to further confound efforts to reduce fossil-fuel use. Some of the resistance arises from those who think they are losing privileged access to resources, funding and subsidies. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus notes that stopping global heating is “a life-or-death task for humanity and the planet, just most people haven’t realized it yet.”

Grist has an important review of the impacts of climate change on the insurance industry, which is now experiencing insured losses of about $100 billion annually, compared to $4.6 billion in 2000. The average homeowner has seen a 21% increase in premiums since 2015, with people in states that are experiencing the worst disasters (like Texas and Florida) seeing the greatest rate hikes. More people than ever are forgoing coverage, increasing the risk exposure for all the remaining people who are paying premiums. Key to our functioning insurance markets are the global reinsurance companies, who sell insurance to insurance companies to spread risk more widely. “Reinsurers globally raised prices for property insurers by 37 percent in 2023, contributing to insurance companies pulling back from risky states like California and Florida. In a worse-case scenario, this all leads to a massive stranded asset problem: Premiums get so high that property values plummet, families’ investments dissipate, and banks are stuck holding what’s left. More simply, the global process for handling life’s risks is breaking down, leaving those who can least afford it unprotected.”

Grist goes on to report that the nonprofit, First Street Foundation, estimates that 39 million homes are insured at prices artificially lower than their true risk, often due to state regulations that cap premiums and because government-backed insurer-of-last-resort programs contribute to concealing the extent of the crisis. First Street predicts that, “as disasters continue surging, what they call the ‘growing climate bubble in the housing market’ will pop — leaving millions of homes uninsurable and destroying their value.”

The Washington Post describes why the National Park Service (NPS) recently purchased two homes on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The homes were likely to fall into the ocean in the next few years, and the danger to beach users and wildlife (from both the homes themselves and the debris they’d generate upon collapse) figured into the NPS decision. The area will be converted into public beach access. This is a model for a type of “managed retreat” that could be conducted in other locations as well. Experts think this is particularly noteworthy as it is “creating a public beach access from what is a public hazard.” The Washington Post points out why creative thinking is needed: “Figures show that the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which covers millions of homeowners across the nation, now has on its books at least 44,000 structures where damage has been covered again and again by taxpayers, in some cases with cumulative payouts that exceed a property’s worth.”

The Guardian examines the argument that climate change is essentially a problem of human behavior, not of fossil-fuel consumption. The problem is known as “overshoot,” as humanity is using 1.7 times more resources that can be maintained by the Earth sustainably. Instead of carbon emissions, overshoot highlights the impacts on the biosphere from materials usage, waste output and the growth of human society. In this framing, “most climate ‘solutions’ proposed so far only tackle symptoms rather than the root cause of the crisis.”

The Guardian has a primer on atmospheric rivers (ARs) in California. “California’s climate has long vacillated dramatically from wet to dry, but models show these shifts will occur with increasing intensity as the world warms. ARs are also becoming more likely to arrive in sets, which can cause up to four times more economic damage than each would have individually, according to a study published in Science Advances.” In addition, individual ARs could also grow more severe, adding to flood risks. As temperatures rise, precipitation is more likely to fall as rain rather than snow, which could pose problems for the state’s water supply.

Reuters reports on the recent atmospheric river that struck Southern California, where a foot of rain was measured in 24 hours on the campus at UCLA. The storm triggered flooding and mudslides throughout parts of southern California and southwestern Arizona, an area home to 35 million people. In northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area National Weather Service Forecast Office issued its first-ever “Hurricane Force Wind Warning.” Meteorologist Daniel Swain noted that “this tells us something about what California winters may look like increasingly in a warmer climate,” and added that it’s “both an El Niño story and a climate crisis story.”

The Washington Post describes the results of new research using tree rings to assess the current megadrought in western North America. While there have always been droughts in the region, the new study demonstrates that the drought from 2000 to 2020 has also been the warmest two-decade span of the past half-millennium across much of the West. Brad Udall of Colorado State summarizes the problem: “In short, high temperatures create more intense droughts… My simple advice for Western water and land managers: Buckle up. The fires and droughts of the last 20 years are going to get much worse, given current greenhouse gas emission trends.”

The Guardian reports that new documents establish that the oil industry understood the impacts of carbon emissions on climate as early as 1954. The industry funded early research by Charles David Keeling, which established that carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were rising due to fossil-fuel combustion.

After 12 years of legal wrangling, The New York Times reports that Michael Mann’s defamation suit against climate denialists was going to trial. Mann, the scientist who published the famous “hockey-stick” graph showing the rise of global temperatures in recent decades, was compared to child molester Jerry Sandusky by two denialist bloggers. The Washington Post provides an excellent background to both the science and legal case. And on February 8, the Post reports that Mann won the case and was awarded $1 million by the jury. The New York Times notes that Mann’s attorneys indicated they will pursue action against The National Review and The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which are the organizations that employed the bloggers.

The New York Times reports that, “In just eight years, the United States has rocketed from barely selling any gas overseas to becoming the world’s No. 1 supplier, a remarkable shift that has profited oil and gas companies and strengthened American influence abroad.” There are more export projects under construction that will nearly double America’s export capacity by 2027, and three more facilities are currently being built in Mexico “that will receive U.S. gas by pipeline and then ship it abroad.” Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Bill McKibben notes that the Biden Administration has delayed permitting for even more natural-gas export terminals, which he thinks is a huge political moment in the battle with the oil and gas industry over the future climate of the world. The Department of Energy now must consider the climate impacts of expanding the gas export industry, which will greatly alter the benefit/cost analysis that drives permits (of course, brass-knuckles politics will figure into these decisions as well).

Anthropocene Magazine reports on recent research that compares the carbon footprint of pasture-finished (“grass-fed”) beef to that which is grain-finished. The research concludes that pasture-finished beef actually has a higher carbon footprint, and this is because natural lands have to be converted to pasture for the cattle. This conversion results in a “carbon opportunity cost,” as the natural lands sequester carbon that the pasture does not.

Inside Climate News reports that “On New Year’s Eve, Xcel Energy shut down one of three power generating units at the Sherburne County Generating Station (Sherco), Minnesota’s largest power plant and among the biggest coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. The utility, which has pledged to generate 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040, plans to shutter the facility’s remaining two units in 2026 and 2030.” Coal-plant retirements like this are going to result in major changes to the communities in which they operate, and this article examines the impact on Becker, Minnesota, where Sherco has employed hundreds of residents for nearly five decades. Even as late as 2019, the plant provided 75% of the city’s tax base. “The workers and communities that have hosted this energy infrastructure have helped keep the lights on for generations,” Jeremy Richardson, the manager of RMI’s carbon-free electricity program and a co-author of the report, said in an interview. “They should not be expected to bear all of the negative impacts of the shift to clean energy that we have to make to protect the climate.” Jeremy, who I knew when he worked at the Union of Concerned Scientists, understands such communities well — he grew up in one in West Virginia.

In an effort to mitigate the economic impact of the plant closure on the Becker community, Xcel decided to replace Becker’s coal plant with a solar farm. Construction of the facility began last year and, if it proceeds to full build-out, the project will have a generating capacity of 710 megawatts, making it the largest solar farm in the country. More such projects are expected as “utilities and local governments take advantage of generous tax incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act.” Incentives include requirements for paying employees the prevailing wages, and developers can reduce costs by 10% if their new facility is in a city where a coal plant or mine has closed.

Inside Climate News describes a new proposal from the Biden Administration to make the process for permitting solar-power facilities on public lands more efficient. Under the plan, developed by the Bureau of Land Management, 22 million acres of public land within 10 miles of transmission lines across 11 states would be prioritized for solar development. It is estimated that 700,000 acres of federal land will be needed to meet the nation’s renewable-energy goals, so only a small portion of the acreage identified in the plan will eventually be developed. By focusing on lands near transmission lines, the plan is attempting to address availability of transmission, which is a key bottleneck to developing solar on federal lands in the West.