July 31 2023
July 31 2023
Heat waves continued on three continents in July, which is likely going to be the hottest month ever recorded. The New York Times describes the situation in the U.S., Europe and Asia, which is impacting hundreds of millions of people. Dangerously high temperatures, especially in combination with high humidity in some areas, are causing enormous health impacts and driving people into air-conditioned spaces (if available). The heat and dryness is also exacerbating wildfires. (A former Weather Channel meteorologist has suggested that we name heat waves, just as we name hurricanes, but name them after oil companies.)
While the heat in the northern hemisphere is in the news, there is an unsettling winter trend in the southern hemisphere. Sea ice in Antarctica is not re-forming as normal. ABC News reports that “scientists observed an all-time low in the amount of sea ice around the icy continent, following all-time lows in 2016, 2017 and 2022. Vast regions of the Antarctic coastline were ice free for the first time in the observational record.” Loss of sea ice means the planet will reflect less sunlight, warming it further. In addition, the annual cycle of sea ice formation and melt is important for maintaining the currents that transport nutrient-rich water from Antarctica to support productivity in other oceans. While some of this sea-ice loss represents natural variation, scientists are increasingly convinced that global warming is a major reason for the change. One noted, “We know that this is what the world is going to look like as it warms.” (The Guardian digs into this issue in more detail, including an interesting look at the scientists trying to understand it.)
Coastal California, where I live, has a natural air conditioner this time of year due to the upwelling of colder ocean water. This, combined with an atmospheric circulation pattern that brings cool moist air flowing into the state, has kept temperatures under control (and prevented our huge snowpack from a fast and dangerous melt). For the first time since record-keeping began in 1877, the temperature didn’t reach 80 degrees in May or June in Los Angeles. Of course, our hottest temperatures tend to be in the coming months, so I’m expecting extreme heat in my neighborhood later this year.
The Guardian reports that climate scientist, James Hansen, who famously warned Congress in 1988 that human warming was occurring, said “we are damned fools” for not acting earlier. He notes that we are on the path of climate change “wittingly – we knew it was coming,” and that many scientists are experiencing a sense of disappointment that they were unable to communicate the threat effectively. Ellen Thomas, a Yale University scientist, said: “Things are moving faster than we thought, which is not good.” Hansen notes that, with regards to climate change, “we have to taste it to believe it.” There is a lot of tasting going on these days, and hopefully this will generate more urgent action. In the Guardian, climate scientist Peter Kalmus argues that President Biden must declare a climate emergency and begin eliminating fossil fuels (as I noted previously). “I’ve dreaded this depth of Earth breakdown for almost two decades,” says Kalmus. “I’ve been trying to warn you. Now it’s here… and it’s all just getting started.”
The Washington Post notes that ocean shipping is responsible for about 3% of humankind’s greenhouse-gas emissions, making it as large an emitter as the country of Germany. With pressure from the Biden Administration, the International Maritime Organization voted to reduce shipping emissions of greenhouse gases to net-zero “by or about 2050,” a big change from its previous commitment to halve emissions by that time. The IMO also committed to an interim target of at least 20% (striving for 30%) by 2030. Supporters insist that the goals can be met with existing technologies, including just slowing ships down, moving to alternate fuels and deploying rigid sails. The New Yorker explores how these high-tech rigid sails and other technologies are being actively designed and tested by the long-range shipping industry, which is presently the backbone of our global economy.
California’s water situation has rebounded from years of drought after last winter’s remarkable rains. The Washington Post describes how a cool spring helped prevent major flooding as snowmelt peaked, and anticipates that reservoirs are likely to end the summer at full capacity. Snow surveys show some areas in July contained as much water as the survey teams would normally expect to find in April.
The New York Times reports on water shortages in Iran, where some areas could be running out of water in coming months. Water disputes are inflaming tensions with neighboring countries like Turkey and Afghanistan. The Washington Post describes how the decline of the Great Salt Lake has stimulated the Mormon Church to become a regional leader in water conservation and environmental stewardship.
The New York Times visits Bangladesh, where residents are already facing the need to adapt to rising sea levels. There is limited funding available, and people are pioneering a variety of low-cost ways for acquiring drinking water and for maintaining transportation corridors and the productivity of farms. Despite these measures, many of the lowest-lying villages have already been abandoned, and unless emissions of greenhouse gases decline precipitously, the measures being adopted will not be enough. Why are people buying property on Smith Island, in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, when NOAA says it will be underwater sometime this century? The Washington Post visited the island to find out. The Guardian describes life on the Florida Keys as storms intensify and sea level rises.
In the Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission have released a report that estimates costs for adapting to sea level rise through 2050. Most people don’t realize that the shoreline within San Francisco Bay is as large as half of California’s outer coast, and the report estimates a cost of $110 billion to protect the region (I expect this is likely a conservative estimate). Unfortunately, the report’s authors were only able to identify $5 billion in available funding to address this problem, so we have work to do. A partial estimate of the cost if we don’t act exceeds $230 billion.
On the California Water Blog, Andrew Rypel explores the concept of ecological debt. We can see across our society how previous generations have run up these debts, in essence insisting that there was a free lunch. We must now repay these debts or face ecological (and, for some, actual) bankruptcy. The debts include greenhouse-gas emissions to the atmosphere, nutrient discharges to the nearshore ocean, overdraft of groundwater, over fishing and many others. Debt repayment can be painful and challenging, but the alternative is worse (a visit to this page is worth it just for the historic photo of the Hetch-Hetchy valley).
IEEE Spectrum reports that a French hydrogen producer (Lhyfe) towed the world’s first floating hydrogen-production platform to a test site 20 kilometers off the Normandy coast where it will access electricity from an offshore-wind platform to produce hydrogen from seawater. Adding electrolysis and a hydrogen pipeline to shore will reduce the cost of delivering off-shore wind energy, especially as wind turbines move further offshore. A hydrogen production plant plus pipeline is five to ten times cheaper than an electric substation plus a cable. Meanwhile, Grist notes that, in Maine, the governor vetoed a bill she asked to be introduced to support the offshore-wind industry, due to amendments that incorporated certain labor standards. Negotiations are evidently continuing, but this again shows that there are a myriad of political complexities standing in the way of accelerated adoption of renewable energy.
Heatmap reports that offshore-wind developers are facing significant increases in project costs that are forcing cancellation or restructuring of several planned projects. Higher interest rates are a key factor driving up costs, along with the higher costs for materials like steel, which wind developers blamed both on generalized inflation and specifically the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
An op-ed in the Washington Post notes that, in 2023, “China could add more solar power than the cumulative total in place in the United States.” As this generation replaces coal, China has the chance to have its carbon emissions peak before its stated goal of 2030. In 2022, every third car sold in China was electric — up from 1 in 15 two years before. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Republicans in Congress are seeking to block spending on renewable energy and EVs through budget amendments.
Yale e360 examines the important need to recycle old solar panels. We currently only recycle 10% of old panels (the rate is similar in Europe), and the growth of solar energy ensures that in coming years there will be a massive increase in the need for recycling. This increase will also enhance the profitability of recycling due to the scale of material that can be effectively recovered, but it appears likely that additional policy intervention will be important to encourage higher rates of panel recycling.
In The Guardian, Abigail Disney describes why she has given up private jet travel and was instead recently arrested in a civil disobedience action at a local private airfield. She has come to see climate change for the emergency that it is, and notes that “decency is worthless when unaccompanied by meaningful action, including a vigorous inquiry into the consequences of our personal choices and preferences. And niceness is a hollow virtue if we do not lift a finger to keep our children and grandchildren safe.” She points out that if just a handful of very wealthy people were to change their behaviors, “it could make more of a difference than millions of working-class people can in their lifetimes.”
The courts are now an expanding venue for those seeking climate justice. The New York Times describes a case in Puerto Rico that is seeking billions of dollars in damages from oil companies. The suit “alleges that, by downplaying the effects of global warming for decades, the fossil fuel companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act,” which exposes the companies to potentially huge financial damages. This lawsuit also draws on the science of hurricane intensification due to climate change warming the oceans, tying the oil companies’ products to the strengthening of Hurricane Maria that caused widespread damage to Puerto Rico in 2017.
A note to my dear subscribers: It has come to my attention that some of you are forwarding the In Brief to your own networks, which is great news! If you are doing so, would you please send me an email and let me know how many people receive your forwarded message? This will help me determine how many people the In Brief is actually reaching. Thanks!