July 15 2020

July 15 2020

climate may be more sensitive than we thought to carbon dioxide, California publishes electric-truck rule, Siberia is as warm as Las Vegas, Democrats release ambitious climate plan, a new endangered species: the 30-year mortgage

The Guardian reports on modeling results from more than 20 institutions compiled for the sixth assessment by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the news is a bit alarming. Compared with the last assessment in 2014, 25% of the results demonstrate that the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide (e.g., the temperature increase associated with a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere) is close to 5°C. This is at the high end of previous ranges and, if true, would mean we’ll be lucky to keep global average temperature rise to 2°C even with ambitious emissions reductions. The key factor here is the complex science of clouds. With supercomputers able to run finer scale simulations, and advances in understanding the microphysics of clouds, many models are suggesting that the warming effect of clouds (capturing heat) significantly outweighs their cooling effect (reflecting sunlight).

An article in Grist notes that a green economy must also be a just economy. Transitioning to renewable energy is important, but we also must address the serious inequities in our society to achieve a sustainable outcome. “You can take as many fossil fuels out of the economy as you want and it won’t address the problem that the only American households to accumulate wealth in the 21st century are the wealthiest third, that CEOs are making 287 times the salary of the average worker, or that white families’ median wealth is about 10 times that of black families.”

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) just passed the nation’s first electric-truck standard. The Advanced Clean Trucks (ACT) rule, which will help put more electric trucks on the road, is a major step in reducing air pollution and global warming emissions in California and beyond. The new ACT rule requires increasing percentages of truck manufacturers’ sales to be electric vehicles beginning in 2024. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates this policy will result in 15 percent of trucks on the road being electric by 2035. Meanwhile, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak (D) said his state will adopt California’s car emissions rules, which would make it the 17th state to do so, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Washington Post states that the northeastern Siberian town of Verkhoyansk is likely to have set a record for the highest temperature documented in the Arctic Circle since the modern record started in 1885. The reading of 100.4°F (38°C) recorded on June 20th is part of a very hot spring that has accelerated the melting of permafrost (which led to a major oil spill), and initiated an early start to the Siberian wildfire season. An article in the New Yorker describes the oil spill in more detail, as well as multiple other threats posed by melting permafrost. The author notes that, on June 20th, Verkhoyansk and Las Vegas recorded the same temperature.

The Guardian reports on the Democrat’s release of a plan to address climate change. The plan’s goal is to bring the U.S. economy’s greenhouse-gas emissions—including carbon dioxide and methane—to zero by 2050 (also in the Washington Post). This is accomplished by electrifying transportation, enhanced energy efficiency and producing carbon-free electricity among other steps. The 538-page plan also backs placing a price on carbon emissions. This is the first comprehensive legislative proposal to address the climate problem at scale, and it was immediately criticized by Republicans, who have no alternative (other than praising natural gas, calling the Democrats partisan and promising “innovation”). It was also criticized by those who seek much faster action. The New York Times reports that the Democrat’s plan also says the government should prioritize minority communities for new spending on energy and infrastructure.

An article at Grist describes new concepts for energy storage on the grid. These concepts would allow surplus renewable electricity to be stored in chemical or mechanical form for later conversion back to electricity when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. Ideas include storing energy as water pumped underground into pressurized formations, or liquifying air for storage in tanks. These technologies are all competing against the rapidly falling price of batteries.

InsideClimate News reports on a recent speech given by Dan Brouillette, Secretary of Energy, about the “bright future of coal.” As one might expect, the speech is full of misrepresentations and inaccuracies that completely ignore the reality that coal-fired power, and coal use in the country, is in an absolute nosedive. The Union of Concerned Scientists described the inaccuracies in detail on Twitter.

The New York Times reports on a new endangered species: the 30-year mortgage. Risks due to climate change are altering the housing market. Banks are requiring higher down payments on coastal properties to reduce the amount they are financing, and they are selling risky mortgages to the federal government (e.g., Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), which will result in taxpayers holding the bag in case of default. While federal officials insist that these properties have flood insurance, such insurance does not protect against the risk of a house losing value and ultimately becoming unsellable. The article notes a recent study from Harvard that determined that local banks, which understand flood risk better, sold off 43 percent of their mortgages in vulnerable zones in 2009, about the same share as areas less likely to flood. But by 2017, the banks sold off 57 percent of mortgages in vulnerable zones, while the rate did not grow in less vulnerable neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, another major study reports that the flood risk in the U.S. is far greater than government estimates show. The New York Times reports that new analysis takes into account “sea-level rise, rainfall and flooding along smaller creeks not mapped federally, and estimates that 14.6 million properties are at risk from what experts call a 100-year flood, far more than the 8.7 million properties shown on federal government flood maps.” This means that “homeowners, builders, banks, insurers and government officials nationwide have been making decisions with information that understates their true physical and financial risks.” And, big surprise, minority communities often face a bigger share of this hidden risk. The article noted there are some areas, particularly along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast, where the government has more thoroughly studied and planned for floods.

The New York Times reports that, despite a relatively large amount of snowfall in 2020, drought continues to plague the Colorado and Rio Grande watersheds. Many scientists are concerned that the Southwest is in the grip of a multi-decade “mega-drought,” which has occurred before in this region. The added heat from climate change is only making the problem more severe.

The New York Times reports that almost 250 oil and gas companies could file for bankruptcy protection by the end of 2021, more than the previous five years combined. These firms, their financial reserves depleted (many times due to last-minute bonuses paid to top executives), are not stopping leaks of methane from their facilities. There are already three million abandoned wells in the U.S., and it is likely that many companies haven’t set aside enough money, as required by law, to restore well sites to their original state.

An op-ed in the Hill describes the value of working with nature to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Historically we have tried to fight or overpower nature to protect us from natural disasters: hardening shorelines, straightening rivers and erecting levees. A growing body of science reflects how natural systems—like wetlands, forests and coral reefs—are proving to be more effective and often less expensive than traditional approaches to reduce risks from weather and climate-related hazards. Strategies that work with nature to reduce risk also provide “multiple benefits” such as cleaner drinking water, healthy fish and wildlife habitat, as well as more recreational opportunities.