January 31 2020

January 31 2020

the hottest five years in recorded history, 1.5°C goal likely unachievable, Australian fires challenge narrative of Murdoch-owned media, U.S. Treasury Secretary insults 17-year-old girl, Indiana utility phases out coal-fired electricity for cheaper solar

It is no surprise that the last five-year period was the hottest in recorded history, as reported by the Washington Post. The authors point to troubling signs that natural feedback loops may trigger more warming sooner than scientists hoped. The New York Times notes that 2019 was the second hottest year ever, and the last decade was the hottest ever recorded. InsideClimate News reports on the rising heat content of the oceans, which is the real powerhouse of climate-change impacts. The heat accumulating in the oceans every day is equivalent to the energy produced by 400,000 atom bombs the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima (you can review the math behind this claim in my previous blog post, The Unseen Atomic Bombs). Meanwhile, the Washington Post summarizes President Trump’s nearly 500 lies about environmental issues since his inauguration.

Dave Roberts at VOX examines the unfortunate reality that our chances of meeting the aspirational goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C is now virtually impossible (this short animation from Carbon Brief demonstrates how challenging the 1.5°C path has become). Roberts notes that to hit the 1.5°C target, emissions would have to drop 15% per year everywhere from here on out. Despite all our action to date, the unfortunate truth is that not only have emissions never fallen at 15% per year anywhere ever, they are still growing. This assures that we are going to see major impacts but, as Kate Marvel notes in Scientific American, it is vital to remember that these impacts do not arrive because we fall off a cliff. Rather, we are sliding into them, and we do have the power to slow and eventually arrest that slide (Roberts has previously described the case of conditional optimism).

An article in the Guardian explores the astonishing potential of farm-free food – food products created in laboratories (and soon factories), predominantly from unicellular organisms. Some studies suggest these technologies will produce a “death spiral” for the livestock industry, with the American beef industry’s revenues declining 90% by 2035. Anthropocene examines mycoprotein, a fungal-based food product that is a meat substitute.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is in April, and a coalition of youth, climate and environmental organizations are going to be active with a day of education and a strike on Friday, April 24th. An op-ed in the New York Times offers a five-point plan to manage the psychological toll of living with climate change and to become part of the solution.

The New York Times reports on proposals to build a barrier to protect New York City from storm surges. The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed several different options, including a 5-part barrier that would run across the mouth of New York Harbor. The article reviews the many problems posed by such a barrier, including how wastewater discharges escape the harbor and how quickly sea level rise will make the barrier ineffective. The Times also has an op-ed that looks back 10 years at the massive flood of the Cumberland River in Nashville. The author notes that this one-in-a-thousand-year event is much more likely now that the climate is changing.

The Los Angeles Times reports on a UCLA research effort to capture carbon dioxide in the process of making concrete. Such carbon capture and utilization schemes are receiving a lot of research attention, as they provide much more attractive economics than simply capturing carbon and storing it underground.

A fascinating op-ed in the Washington Post describes the challenge facing Murdoch-owned media outlets in Australia. After years of fueling climate-change denial by deriding those seeking climate action as “climate catastrophists” across the 60% of Australian media outlets owned by the Murdoch family, they now are having to cover an actual climate catastrophe. These outlets are suggesting it is “hysterical” to say the fire season in Australia is linked to climate change, that arsonists are responsible or that environmentalists have caused the crisis by opposing controlled burns. Of course, none of these are true, and a growing chorus of criticism in Australia is putting the Murdoch-owned media on the defensive. An article in Foreign Affairs also examines the power of climate denialism in Australia, and notes that these right-leaning media outlets (and the government) find themselves increasingly “at odds with a pissed-off public.” The New York Times profiles an Australian member of parliament and climate-change denier who is doubling-down on his ignorant proclamations despite the fires.

The New York Times reviews the federal Appellate Court decision in Juliana v. United States, a ground-breaking case in which a group of young people are attempting to apply the public-trust doctrine to the atmosphere in order to force government action on climate change. The Appellate Court upheld a lower-court judgement that, despite the reality of climate change, the young people lacked standing to sue the federal government for relief. The court reached this 2-1 decision “reluctantly,” according to the majority, who concluded that addressing climate change is too complex a matter for relief to be provided by the court.

Judge Josephine Staton dissented strongly, claiming the majority was just “throwing up their hands” in the face of the problem. She noted, “It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward the Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses. Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation.”

While this decision is disappointing in its timidity, the findings of fact are extraordinary. The court concludes as fact that, “Absent some action, the destabilizing climate will bury cities, spawn life-threatening natural disasters, and jeopardize critical food and water supplies.” The court also found that government policies have actively worsened the problem by promoting the development and use of fossil fuels. The dissenting judge stated, “…a federal court need not manage all of the delicate foreign relations and regulatory minutiae implicated by climate change to offer real relief.” The plaintiffs plan to appeal to the full 12-member Appellate Court, in the hopes of getting the opportunity to conduct the Trial of the Century.

In response to her call for divestment from fossil fuels at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which Time Magazine reports was dominated by discussion of climate change, Greta Thunberg was told to “study economics” by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. President Trump stated that activists like Thunberg “… are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers.” Thunberg responded (with support from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) by noting, “it doesn’t take a college degree in economics to realize that our remaining 1.5°C carbon budget and ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and investments don’t add up,” and she requested that Mnuchin explain his plan for mitigating climate change (recommendation: don’t hold your breathe for Mnuchin’s explanation). Mnuchin should read the wonderful article by Christiana Figueres, who has a message for those assembled in Davos. She led the U.N. negotiations that produced the Paris Agreement, and she describes the importance of “stubborn optimism” in addressing the climate crisis. Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman states that it is Thunberg, not Mnuchin, who is making the economically sound argument.

Grist summarizes a new study of how to achieve California’s climate goals with the headline, “California could meet its 2030 climate goals, but it would mean saving money.” The study concludes Californians will save $7 billion over the next decade, mostly by reducing the gas, oil and other fuels they have to buy (if you include the health and climate benefits of fossil fuel emissions, the savings amounts to $21 billion). CleanTechnica reports that Kenya, which committed to have 100% renewable electricity by the end of 2020, has reached 93% with a year to go.

The news is demonstrating that rapid changes are underway in the utility industry, as states set mandates for renewable power and the costs of generating renewable electricity continues to plummet. Axios reports on the growing interest in electric school buses. The challenge for school districts is finding the capital to purchase them (operating costs are lower than diesel buses), but utility companies are buying buses in pilot programs as they are seeing the batteries in parked buses as valuable sources of electricity to even out grid fluctuations.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the need for carbon-free power after sunset may be creating a new era for geothermal power in the western U.S. New contracts with geothermal developers have been signed by cities and utilities, and the federal government is providing resources for research on new techniques for accessing geothermal reservoirs. The Washington Post reports that Arizona Public Service, a large utility that successfully fought to defeat a ballot initiative that would have required utilities in Arizona to transition to carbon-free power, has now decided to go carbon-free by 2050. This is another in a growing list of major utilities that are “seeing the writing on the wall.” As another Post article notes, “this drastic about-face for the electric utility is a sign of how the political climate has changed.”

In Indiana, the Indianapolis Star reports that the legislature is proposing to intervene to slow the closing of coal-fired power plants. Such decisions have traditionally been the province of the utilities themselves, and recently northern Indiana’s NIPSCO announced it will retire most of its coal units by 2023 and all by 2028. The utility determined accelerating the closure of all its coal plants and a transition to renewable energy sources – particularly wind – would save its customers nearly $4 billion over a few decades. Due to this reality, InsideClimate News describes the broad opposition to the proposed legislation.