March 15 2021

March 15 2021

possible slowdown of major Atlantic currents, major drought in western U.S. continues, emission-reduction commitments must be more ambitious, mob grazing, plugging abandoned oil and gas wells.

The Washington Post reports on a major recent study of key indicators suggesting that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC, which includes the more famous Gulf Stream current) is slowing down. This change in physical oceanography has long been predicted by climate scientists and, if this trend continues, it will have profound implications for the climate of northern Europe (it will get colder) and the temperature and height of the sea along North America (these will go up). It could possibly also lead to stronger Atlantic hurricanes and less precipitation in already water-stressed parts of Africa. Since the AMOC has only been measured directly since 2004, this study relies on proxies for the current (such as the types of microscopic organisms found in ocean sediments of different ages). The study looked at 11 proxies, 9 of which are varying in a manner consistent with a slowing of the AMOC. In addition, the appearance over the last decade of a colder region south of Greenland is also consistent with a slowing of this major ocean current. It should be noted that some oceanographers are less convinced by proxy data, especially when used to make conclusions about relatively short-term phenomena, and are thus withholding judgement on whether the AMOC is slowing. The New York Times also examines this issue in an article that includes superb animations of the circulation in the Atlantic.The California Water Blog notes that the state appears to be heading into a multi-year drought, as our current winter is shaping up to be a dry one (more in the Guardian). Drought conditions are also growing more extreme in the Colorado River basin, with drought contingency plans being activated as major water reservoirs are at less than half of capacity. Soils in the basin are so dry that, even with a large snowpack this year, river flows will still remain below normal (an article in the New Republic examines the very difficult negotiations facing the states that depend upon the Colorado River). The Washington Post notes that, despite individual wetter years, we remain in the grips of a major drought persisting across the last few decades (researchers recently concluded that “2000 to 2018 was the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s and the second driest since 800 CE”). Climate change is contributing to this with early spring snowmelt, hotter and drier summers and warming winters all acting to exacerbate drought conditions.

Warmer temperatures not only worsen drought conditions by making droughts drier due to more evaporation, they can also expand the range and populations of agricultural pests. Inside Climate News describes a recent study suggesting that the navel orangeworm, an important pest on nut orchards, is likely to become a bigger problem in California’s Central Valley as temperatures warm. Similarly, grape vines are less likely to recover from Pierce’s disease, a bacterial infection spread by the infamous glassy-winged sharpshooter. However, the warmer winters mean less frosts, which should help California’s citrus growers.

The recent oil and gas leases in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge did not raise much revenue for the federal government. Some have argued that, if the lands had been offered for conservation leasing, it would have raised more money. An article in Grist suggests that if environmental groups are willing to pay more to protect an area than industry groups are to develop it, then the land clearly ought to be protected. Meanwhile, the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Deb Haaland to be Secretary of the Interior have turned into a proxy fight on the future of fossil-fuel extraction on public lands.

Norway plans to have 100% of the country’s cars be EVs by 2025. Inside Climate News explains how it is going to get there. In 2019, 56% of the new cars sold in Norway were EVs (including all electric and plug-in hybrids). Car and Driver reports that dropping battery prices should bring the price of EVs down to that of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2023. Battery packs for buses have already reached this price point in China. An article in Axios notes that, while developing battery-powered EVs, Toyota remains committed to also having hybrid vehicles in its mix of offerings, arguing that for certain drivers hybrids make more environmental sense than battery EVs.

A recent study summarized in the Washington Post has confirmed what many others have already concluded: the commitments for greenhouse-gas emission reductions made by nations as part of the Paris Agreement are inadequate to protect from the most serious impacts of climate change. The researchers found that the existing commitments, if met, would provide only a 5% chance of keeping the global average temperature increase to 2°C. The architects of the Paris Accord understood this problem, and the idea was that commitments would become more ambitious over time, which is happening gradually. The problem is that time is running out.

An article and photo essay in the New York Times examines the promise of regenerative or “mob” grazing, in which livestock herds are moved continuously across a ranch to foster healthier soils. This technique mimics the impact of natural herds (such as bison) on grasslands, and this practice is becoming more common as ranchers see improvements in the productivity of their lands. There is also interest in this technique as a method of enhancing carbon sequestration by soils. While sequestration does occur, there is significant variation in the total carbon captured over time depending upon a number of factors, and there is consequently debate about the effectiveness of this technique as a climate solution.

As climate changes, we increasingly find ourselves with a system of dams (and other infrastructure) that was designed for a climate that no longer exists. This was made very clear in 2017 when an intense late-season rain storm generated a massive snowmelt pulse on the Feather River that caused the Oroville Dam spillway to fail, forcing the evacuation of almost 200,000 people. Researchers recently concluded that “in the warmer future climate, the risk of dam failure most likely increases for most of the major dams in California.”

One of our biggest challenges to reaching net-zero carbon emissions is major industrial sectors including long-distance shipping, cement and steel manufacturing and aviation. Grist reports on the Mission Possible Partnership, a new effort sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Institute that brings together the leading companies in each of these industries to game out how to reduce their net emissions to zero by 2050.

The Biden Administration is without a doubt taking the most aggressive and comprehensive approach to climate action in U.S. history. While many executive orders have been signed to reverse the Trump Administration’s policies and to advance new climate actions, Biden’s “Build Back Better” push for infrastructure investment will likely be the most extensive climate action effort ever. An article in the Atlantic takes a look at the challenges and opportunities for major legislative action. A blog post at the Union of Concerned Scientists describes how science-based decision-making is being reintroduced by the Biden Administration at the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies.

The Biden Administration has changed the social cost of carbon, a value equation used to assess the cost and benefit of government projects, from the $7/ton used by the Trump Administration to $51/ton (it was $37/ton at the end of the Obama Administration). This effectively makes it harder for fossil-fuel projects to win government approval by factoring in their long-term costs to society, reports the Washington Post. The Trump Administration reduced the number in order to justify many decisions, such as the lowering of auto efficiency standards. Inside Climate News notes that this was accomplished by the morally-bankrupt approach of aggressively discounting the value of future benefits derived from present-day regulatory decisions, and ignoring benefits that accrue outside of the United States.

The New York Times examines the growth of the wind industry in Wyoming, where coal mining brought prosperity and has much political support. While many Republican politicians have been denigrating the wind industry (most recently Governor Abbott of Texas [which produces the most wind power in the country!] and Donald Trump), there is a growing reality in Wyoming that an energy transition is underway and that the state’s wind resources could be the source of future prosperity. A former Carbon County commissioner (and current Mayor of Rawlins, WY), who worked to advance wind power despite political opposition, notes “You can stand at the tracks when the train is coming at you, or you can stand at the switch… I chose to stand at the switch.” Carbon County had a budget surplus last year because of tax revenue from wind energy, but “don’t mention climate change around here unless you want to get punched in the face,” says the Mayor. The New York Times also visits rural Appalachia to examine the challenges of helping coal-based communities in that region.

The Washington Post highlights the work of mechanical engineer Ryan Pohl, who is combining old EV batteries and small solar panels into “off grid” power packs for recreational vehicles (RVs). His products allow RVs to avoid using diesel generators when hook ups are not available, reducing carbon emissions, air pollution and noise at camping locations while also recycling the EV batteries (these batteries can no longer produce enough power to run a car, but can operate the appliances of an RV).

Mining is an essential part of renewable energy, as many metals are used in batteries, generators and other components of a carbon-free energy system. An article in Reuters examines the conflicts that are arising as proposals for mines to produce these essential products are opposed by those who fear the environmental impacts. The article also reports on collaborative efforts to minimize the impacts from mining.

The Guardian reports on a growing problem with the decline of the fossil-fuel industry; abandoned wells that leak methane into the atmosphere and can pollute groundwater. Yale Climate Connections notes that “According to the EPA, there are more than 2 million unplugged inactive wells in the United States… that emit as much carbon pollution as 2 million passenger vehicles per year.” Policies and programs that purportedly hold well developers responsible for clean up are not sufficient, leaving a multi-billion dollar program in the lap of taxpayers. Many people, including President Biden, have suggested establishing a program to plug many of these inactive wells, which would employ oil and gas workers at a time when this industry is suffering a loss of jobs. This effort is already underway on a non-profit basis under the auspices of the Well Done Foundation. This could be a valuable component of a just transition from fossil fuels, once you get over the idea that it is yet another example of privatizing profits and socializing costs.