March 31 2023

March 31 2023

Biden approves drilling in Alaska, Antarctic sea ice declines, the Great Salt Lake continues to shrink, Glen Canyon Dam struggles to operate, hairdressers conduct climate-change education

President Biden, under significant pressure from Alaskan politicians, oil companies and political allies who fear rising gas prices, approved drilling in a pristine area of northern Alaska that the federal government had already leased to ConocoPhillips. Known as the Willow Project, it is the biggest pending oil development on U.S. public lands. The New York Times reports that this oil field is projected to produce 600 million barrels of oil over its lifetime, or about a 30-day supply for the country at our current rate of use. While Biden reduced the size of the overall project, and preserved vast stretches of neighboring land and ocean from drilling, he nonetheless violated his campaign pledge: “No more drilling on federal lands, period. Period, period, period.”

Climate activists, including leading environmental organizations and those representing young voters, were deeply disappointed in this decision (The Anchorage Daily News reports that multiple organizations have filed two lawsuits to prevent the project from going forward). While the government would have been sued by the oil company if it refused to allow drilling, which could have resulted in billions of dollars of damages awarded, climate activists argue that this is a small cost compared to the impact of not transitioning away from fossil fuels. In The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit notes, “The deal was inherited from the Trump administration, and rejecting it would have been a break with convention, but convention dooms us, and we need the break.” HEATED points out how most news organizations frame this issue as a political fight between environmental activists and the Biden Administration, rather than as an ecological fight for a stable climate. “Achieving [net zero by 2050] requires governments to stop approving new oil, gas and coal projects, according to the International Energy Agency.”

For more on the Willow Project, see Carrots Are Not Enough.

The Guardian reports that sea ice in Antarctica has hit an all-time low. Antarctic sea ice helps protect the ice shelves and glaciers from the impact of waves and warmer water, acting as a mechanism to slow sea level rise. While climate models predict less sea ice in Antarctica as the planet warms, it is not clear that the present decline is related to climate change. Winds, particularly in the spring, have a big influence on the extent of Antarctic sea ice, but a climate scientist studying the problem notes: “Everyone should be concerned about what’s happening in Antarctica.”

NBC News reports on the increasingly large blooms of sargassum seaweed in the Atlantic. These blooms are being driven by nutrient flows into the ocean from major rivers, flows that are enhanced by extreme precipitation due to climate change. The blooms have become so large that, over the last decade, scientists have used satellites to track their size. The massive amounts of seaweed have significant impacts onshore, clogging pipes, fouling beaches and producing respiratory problems as the material decays.

The Washington Post interviews Dr. Kim Cobb, the first climate scientist to ever be appointed to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, an independent body that evaluates the quality of the intelligence assessments delivered to the President. CNN explores the arguments for and against solar-radiation management, a form of geoengineering in which humans take actions that reflect incoming solar radiation to help cool the Earth. Such actions can have a temporary cooling impact, but there are potential side effects (like altering weather patterns among nations or damaging the ozone layer) that are very troubling.

An op-ed in Capitol Weekly by my colleague, Linda Rudolph, notes that air pollution from fossil-fuel burning causes one in five deaths worldwide, and the fossil-fuel industry spends billions to hide this fact from the public — just as the tobacco industry did decades before. She advocates for California launching “a creative, coordinated, aggressive, well-funded media advocacy campaign that connects the dots between the fossil fuel industry and its catastrophic impacts on our health and our climate.”

The Guardian describes the growing threat to air quality in Salt Lake City as water diversion reduces the size of the Great Salt Lake, increasing the chance of toxic dust clouds being blown across the city. While water conservation programs are active in the city, the urban area only uses 9% of the water diverted from the lake, meaning such measures are of limited benefit. Most of the water is diverted for agricultural purposes. The mayor of Salt Lake City notes: “Certainly the idea of a western lifestyle has to change not only for Great Salt Lake basin residents, but westerners as a whole.” The Washington Post notes that while “nearly 70 percent of Utah’s diverted water goes to alfalfa and hay, the crops account for only 0.2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.” Author Terry Tempest Williams takes an in-depth tour of the Great Salt Lake’s shore, its history and its future. She notes in The New York Times that it is just one of many great saline lakes in the world that are in decline, and argues that its restoration is a moral imperative if Salt Lake City is to thrive.

The Guardian explores the transition from whaling to fossil fuels for energy and other organic products, seeking to understand if there are lessons in that transition that could be applied to our current attempt to transition away from fossil fuels. The author notes that, despite an alternative to whale oil being in place, whaling continued until it was uneconomical to do so. But it is also clear that a social tipping-point was reached, when understanding and compassion among people lead to a movement to “save the whales,” and this was a vital force to end the high-seas slaughter. It is just such a social tipping-point that is building now to transition away from fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, documented deaths of whales on the Atlantic coast have prompted Republicans in Congress to support a moratorium on offshore-wind development. Inside Climate News reports that Representative Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) and others are responding to widespread social-media posts claiming that new offshore-wind developments are the cause of the whale deaths. The fact is that none of the offshore-wind facilities have even begun construction. Once again, disinformation is being placed on the Internet and magnified by Fox News and fossil-fuel interests. Necropsies of dead whales indicate that over 40% of them show injuries from collisions with ships.

The New York Times assesses how this year’s large amount of precipitation has impacted California’s drought, which has eased significantly but is never really that far away given our state’s climate. This year’s storms have accelerated the momentum for using rainfall and runoff during wet years to recharge groundwater basins that are drawn down during droughts. The Public Policy Institute of California reviews how these efforts are developing in an interview with U.C Davis Professor, Helen Dahlke. The Washington Post reports that California regulators just approved a plan to divert floodwaters from the San Joaquin River to replenish critical groundwater stores that were depleted during drought years. The Post also talks to Professor Dahlke, and provides more details on how groundwater recharge works. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times argues as well for restoring the floodplains of major California rivers.

The Associated Press reports that there is a new delay in starting new units at the Vogtle nuclear power station in Georgia. “A third and a fourth reactor were approved for construction at Vogtle by the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2009, and the third reactor was supposed to start generating power in 2016. The cost of the third and fourth reactors was originally supposed to be $14 billion.” The total cost of the project is now over $30 billion, with the third reactor now scheduled to start in June and the fourth in the fall. While nuclear advocates have been pinning their hopes on a new small modular-reactor design, Wired Magazine notes that the cost of the first of these reactors was just increased by 50%. This has caused some utilities to look elsewhere for future power, and many worried that they will not meet decarbonization goals.

The New York Times examines the growth of seaweed cultivation, which has increased 75% in the last decade. In addition to the traditional use of seaweed for human food, there is interest in the carbon sequestration of seaweed farms and using seaweed as a feed supplement to livestock to reduce methane burps. As the industry is growing rapidly, some are concerned about the environmental impacts of expanded operation, while warming ocean water makes cultivation more challenging. Anthropocene Magazine notes that initial research suggests kelp farms can also absorb excess nitrogen in coastal waters, helping control algae blooms and dead zones.

Inside Climate News reports on Cyclone Freddy, an exceptionally powerful, long-lasting and devastating storm that struck southeast Africa — three times! After a 37-day, 5,000 mile journey across the Indian Ocean, the cyclone struck Madagascar, then Mozambique and Malawi. After dropping torrential rains, it reversed course and struck Madagascar for a second time. “The World Meteorological Organization said that Freddy generated about as much accumulated cyclone energy as an average full North Atlantic hurricane season.” Hundreds are dead, 80,000 are displaced and flooding is expected to exacerbate cholera outbreaks in Malawi and Mozambique.

Inside Climate News reports that water levels in Lake Powell have dropped to a new record low, approaching two critical points. These are “minimum power pool,” when the Bureau of Reclamation will be unable to generate electricity for the 5 million people who use that power, and “dead pool,” when water will not be able to flow past the Glen Canyon Dam under the force of gravity. The latter condition is the effective end of the Colorado River downstream, and is causing many to claim that serious study of decommissioning the dam should be undertaken. An op-ed in the New York Times describes the accumulation of sediment behind the Glen Canyon Dam. This is a problem that was foreseen when the dam was constructed, but it has been ignored for decades. Now, with falling water levels, the sediment is exposed and the question of what to do with it can no longer be ignored. In the end, the Glen Canyon Dam will need to be reconfigured so the sediment can pass through, another reason to seriously consider decommissioning it.

The Guardian describes an effort called A Brush with Climate, to get hairdressers and beauticians in Australia to talk about climate change with their clients. The founder, Paloma Rose Garcia, notes: “My climate journey started a few years ago, and part of this was coming to the realisation that we as hairdressers have an amazing opportunity to hold conversation with our guests; gently sharing information to make a change.” She adds: “You have this individual in your hands for a minimum of 45-minutes, why not use the time to make a difference in the world? There are not many industries that can do that.”