July 15 2023

July 15 2023

July 4th the hottest day ever recorded, methane emissions are major problem and opportunity, many localities building flood protection designed for our previous climate, climate-science denial is still widespread, Michigan makes strides on renewable energy

The New York Times notes that, with climate change, high temperatures once considered improbable are now more commonplace, and intensifying heat and dryness is leading to larger and more catastrophic wildfires. These physical facts have been on conspicuous display recently, in the U.S. and around the world, as the summer of 2023 becomes the hottest we’ve ever recorded. 50 million Americans were living under heat advisories from the National Weather Service on June 28th, and it only got worse from there.

The Washington Post reports that July 4th was likely the hottest day on the planet in 125,000 years (and explains the evidence supporting this conclusion). Emerging El Niño oceanographic conditions, combined with global warming and summer weather patterns, suggest records will continue to fall this year. Sea ice levels in Antarctica are at record lows, while ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic are at record highs by significant margins. June was the hottest month ever recorded, with heat waves striking Texas, Mexico and India, and the El Niño is not expected to peak until December or January.

The AP reports that the heat wave in India “has overwhelmed hospitals, filled a morgue to capacity and disrupted power, forcing staff to use books to cool patients, as officials investigate a death toll that has reached nearly 170.” The heat stress has been exacerbated by consistent power outages, leaving people with no running water, fans or air conditioners. Heat waves are becoming more likely and severe due to climate change. The New York Times describes conditions in Hermosillo, Mexico, where the temperature hit 121°F. Jeff Goodell, who just finished a new book about climate change and heat waves, describes in a Times op-ed the impacts of heat he witnessed both around the world and where he lives in Austin, Texas.

The Guardian notes that heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather in the U.S., and many cities around the country (and the world) have appointed chief heat officers (or “heat tsars”) to promote best practices and improve responses. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, there were 425 heat-associated deaths last year, a 25% increase from the year before (and Phoenix may break its own heat records this month). Some are calling for a national heat officer to coordinate federal responses and educate the public. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) summarizes the evidence of extreme weather and other climate impacts around the world, stating in a Guardian op-ed that “the quality of life that we are leaving our kids and future generations is very much in question.” He calls on Congress to act with the urgency this evidence demands.

While most of our focus when reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is on carbon dioxide, an enormous amount of methane is also being released to the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Atmospheric concentrations are presently 2.5 times higher than pre-industrial levels. Methane’s impact is shorter-term, because it chemically degrades in ten years, so efforts to limit methane emissions can have important near-term impacts on how much warming occurs. The Guardian notes that the main sources of methane are oil and gas production, farming and degrading rubbish, but most countries still have no accurate measurement of how much methane they produce. Even so, just stopping known sources, such as leaky old and new oil wells, would have a sizable impact, cutting 0.5°C off expected temperature increases by 2100. And because the methane captured can be sold, these emissions would have a net cost of little or nothing. The New York Times describes how leaks of methane make natural gas as harmful to the climate as coal burning, which means it cannot be a “bridge” fuel to a renewable future.

The Global Methane Pledge, signed by over 100 countries, sets the goal of a 30% emissions reduction from 2020 levels by 2030. In The Conversation, methane researchers point out that, despite the importance of reducing emissions and the relative ease of doing so, policies to make this happen are still missing (“only around 13% of man-made methane emissions from the biggest sources [agriculture, energy and waste] is regulated by policies capable of controlling and preventing them.”) Newsweek reports that the small country of Turkmenistan has an out-sized global methane footprint due to poorly managed natural-gas drilling, including leaking gas burning and spewing in a flaming crater known as the “Gateway to Hell.” Inside Climate News describes a recent report that concludes, “methane regulations proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency could spur job growth in Texas as oil and gas operators measure, monitor and mitigate the harmful greenhouse gas.” Meanwhile, Texas officials who often exhibit reflexive responses to any regulation of the oil and gas industry, continue arguing that methane regulations would eliminate jobs in the state.

The New York Times reports on a new analysis of the inadequacy of our nation’s flood-protection infrastructure in the face of the intense rainfall that is part of our new climate. The analysis notes that the federal government’s projections of flooding risk use past rainfall patterns, which are in essence based on a climate that no longer exists. “The nation is set to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into new and improved roads, bridges and ports in the coming years under the bipartisan infrastructure plan that President Biden signed into law in 2021. First Street’s calculations suggest that many of these projects are being built to standards that are already out of date.”

Unfortunately, climate misinformation continues to be spread around the world, with scientists and other professionals experiencing threats. Aljazeera reports: “Scientists suffering insults and mass spam are abandoning Twitter for alternative social networks as hostile climate-change denialism surges on the platform following Elon Musk’s takeover.” On Fox News, an ex-Trump staffer who is not a doctor, told Laura Ingraham and her 3-million-plus viewers that “there is no health risk” from the wildfire smoke, and they both agreed that burning fossil fuels has no relation to the frequency or intensity of wildfires. CNN describes the harassment and threats being received by meteorologists and climate educators around the world from people convinced of conspiracy theories and other misinformation online. The Washington Post reports on one TV meteorologist, whose life was so disrupted by online threats that he resigned his “dream job.” Inside Climate News describes climate misinformation being spread on TikTok by the popular podcaster, Joe Rogan, while Media Matters explains how a now-deleted tweet of Greta Thunberg’s from 5 years ago is being purposely misinterpreted by right-wing media to deny the threat posed by climate change.

Canary Media reports on the start-up of a small commercial facility in Alabama that is using a new process to produce low-carbon concrete blocks. This is a small but important step towards reducing the carbon footprint of concrete manufacturing, which produces around 8% of global carbon-dioxide emissions. The New York Times describes the food-waste recycling system in South Korea, where it has been illegal to send food scraps to landfills for almost 20 years. The vast majority of food waste gets turned into animal feed, fertilizer and fuel for heating homes, greatly reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with rotting food.

An op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News describes the promise of off-shore wind for California, and explains the array of next steps required to build this nascent industry that will be an essential contributor to the state’s clean-energy goals. The AP reports that a major transmission line that will bring wind energy from Wyoming to the southwest is under construction after 15 years of planning. While major wind-energy development is slated for Wyoming, past unequivocal support is being tempered as the scale of some these projects is understood.

Those who regularly read In Brief are familiar with increasing reports of intense rainfall causing unprecedented flooding around the world (this month’s major flooding hit Japan, India, New York and Vermont). Climate scientist, Jim Hansen, provides a short review of why climate extremes are becoming more common, using the analogy of “loaded” dice. He notes that he described to Congress in 1989 why intense rainfall events would become more common. An op-ed in The New York Times describes how the reality of climate change is sinking in as floods, heat waves and other weather extremes accelerate in frequency — just as Hansen and his colleagues predicted. Another author notes that it is as if “every alarm bell on Earth is ringing.”

California has simulated the impacts of a major storm (although not as large as storm as the one that caused the Great Flood of 1862). This simulation, known as ARkStorm, projected $750 billion in losses from such an event. The New York Times notes that ARkStorm did not consider intense rainfall leading to dams overtopping and/or failure, yet this risk is quite real. The article tells a detailed story about the high flows from Oroville Dam in 2017, which damaged the main and emergency spillways and required the evacuation of 180,000 people, many of whom remain traumatized by the experience. The author recounts the evidence that major flood events occur regularly in California (with a return frequency of about 150 years), and climate change will make these major storms more frequent. Creating lower-elevation spillways on dams can help prevent overtopping and failing, but these are very expensive and do not eliminate the risk completely. The article describes the projected impacts if some of the most at-risk dams in California failed (reading tip: have a favorite adult beverage at hand).

Bill McKibben takes a step back to examine how we create a sustainable economy that serves everyone. So-called “green technologies” have their own environmental impacts, particularly the need to mine the minerals (such as lithium, copper, cobalt and rare earths) that are required to electrify our society. This mining can have major social and environmental impacts in local communities, while also providing revenue that is vital to regional welfare. Another option is to turn away from economic growth, and return to life as it was in 1960, where we all lived in smaller houses, drove much less and rarely flew in airplanes. Actually, a sustainable future likely will be woven from both of these approaches. He notes the amount of lithium required for electrification varies by almost 100% between different future scenarios.

The New York Times reports that, under the leadership of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan is poised to adopt ambitious climate goals for the first time ever. It has been 40 years since Democrats controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office, and with this power they are proposing steps to greatly increase renewable electricity generated in the state. Public opinion about climate action is also shifting in Michigan, as more and more people experience extreme weather events. Coal still provides the largest share of Michigan’s electricity, with renewables at only 11%.