May 31 2020

May 31 2020

hurricane strength increasing as predicted, economic stimulus is a chance to build resilience, our changing forest ecosystems, electrifying mail trucks, regenerative agriculture catching on

One of the challenging aspects of our new climate is the greater likelihood of stronger tropical cyclones (also known as hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and typhoons in the Pacific Ocean). As has been predicted for years by climate scientists, the Washington Post reports on a new study concluding that the strength of hurricanes is increasing worldwide. A key to this study was the effort of the scientists to standardize 39 years of cyclone data across the world’s ocean basins, allowing assessment of the long-term trend. Another unfortunate trend is toward hurricanes that suddenly make leaps in their intensity, like Hurricane Michael in 2018 and Cyclone Amphan this week in the Bay of Bengal.

These findings are of great concern as damage costs rise exponentially with wind speed (costs have historically increased by 10 percent for every 5 mph increase in wind speed). Many communities in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Puerto Rico are still recovering from recent major hurricanes. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) notes that FEMA is presently stretched thin due to COVID-19 and other disaster relief. New guidance indicates that much of FEMA’s on-the-ground assistance will now be online, complicating storm response efforts (disclosure: I sit on the UCS Board of Directors). Planning and managing evacuations is greatly complicated by “compound risk” from multiple factors, including COVID-19 exposure. Evacuees already face the challenge of social distancing in normal evacuation centers (during the current flooding in Michigan, citizens are choosing to sleep in their cars rather than risk exposure to the coronavirus). According to NOAA, 2020 will be an unusually active hurricane season.

Greenhouse-gas emissions are on track to drop 8% in 2020, compared to 2019, due to the impacts of the pandemic. As the Washington Post reports, these reductions are happening for the “wrong reasons,” through economic suffering and human casualties rather than proactive policy choices. A fundamental question facing the world is whether we have the foresight to use economic stimulus to rebuild our economy using carbon-free power to address the climate crisis. Frans Timmermans of the European Commission says eloquently that we need to “use the new money not to restore the old world but to help create the new one.”

A great article in Time stresses that the mission of any federal economic stimulus programs be to build our fossil-fuel-free future. “This urgency is driven by science. The trillions of dollars of infrastructure built in the coming years will last for decades, locking the planet into an emissions pathway that will be all-but-impossible to deviate from years down the road. The world has already warmed more than 1°C since the Industrial Revolution, and emissions need to decline 7.5% annually for the next decade to keep temperature rise from topping 1.5°C. This reality has not taken hold in Washington.”

The Los Angeles Times reviews how the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, passed after the financial crisis in 2008, provided a critical stimulus for the economy while also promoting the long-term benefits of renewable energy. Dave Roberts explores a stimulus proposal that would address climate change—electrifying the U.S. Postal Service vehicle fleet. The Verge describes how cities around the world are “pedestrianizing streets” as e-bike sales soar.

An article in the Washington Post examines the future of the oil industry. The author notes that the demand reduction currently depressing prices, the enhanced risk of high-priced production such as fracking and the rise of renewables could force the industry into irrelevancy. He wonders if “investing once more in oil infrastructure might start to sound about as sensible as reinvesting in cassette tape production facilities: a bizarre anachronism to serve a world that no longer exists.” The Hill interviews Obama Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz, who suggests there will be major structural changes in the industry. The Guardian reports on bankruptcies and employment losses in the coal industry, and Scientific American notes 13 more coal power plant closures have been announced for this year.

The Washington Post takes an in-depth look at how a changing climate is impacting the vast northern forests of Minnesota. There is already evidence that the forests are being transformed, and natural resource managers are considering how to respond to maintain these ecosystems (and the communities that depend upon them). A major experiment is underway in which species such as bitternut hickory from southern Minnesota and Illinois, and Ponderosa pine from Nebraska and South Dakota, have been planted to test their ability to survive. These nonnative trees are thriving, indicating that the climate they need has already arrived. The project leader notes that his grandparent’s forest will not be his grandchildren’s forest—but he’s trying to make sure there is still a forest for his grandchildren (it is interesting to note that when Apple Computer built its new headquarters in Cupertino, it planted trees with more southern ranges in anticipation of the future climate in which the trees will live).

An op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle supports Assembly Bill 2693, which calls for a major forest restoration and management program in California (the Shasta, Trinity, Oroville Watershed Restoration Administration). This program would provide much-needed rural jobs, increase water storage, reduce fire danger and sequester carbon. This type of multi-benefit natural resource program demonstrates that innovative approaches are available to address both our short-term economic crisis and the long-term climate crisis. reports on a major new study of the peatlands that are a large part of our subarctic forest biome. The study documents that peatlands dry faster than nearby forest, as the mosses that make up the peatlands are less resistant to desiccation than the forest plants. Drier peatlands mean larger and more intense fires that can release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. InsideClimate News reviews why the Trillion Trees Act and other plans to plant trees to address climate change are unfortunate oversimplifications. Scientists are quite clear that reducing deforestation and cutting greenhouse-gas emissions are much more important steps.

Vox reports that it is not your imagination—allergy season is getting worse due to climate change. In general, pollen is emerging earlier in the year and the season is lasting longer. But it’s not just more pollen, it’s also more allergenic pollen, as rising carbon dioxide concentrations increase the allergenic peptides on pollen. It is estimated that pollen counts of all varieties will double by 2040 in some parts of the country, depending on what pathway the world takes on greenhouse-gas emissions.

In the midst of the pandemic, the Guardian reports on how the Trump Administration has continued its attack on federal rules that protect public health and the environment. Characterized as a “blitzkrieg against the environment,” Trump issued an executive order last month asserting that the U.S. should be mining the moon (and Mars, if we get there), rejecting the concept of space as a global commons. As we exceed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S., it’s great to know that the President is focused on the important stuff.

From the Alternative Facts Department: to support its policies for reopening quickly, the Washington Post reports that the State of Georgia has produced a graph indicating cases of coronavirus virus have been declining over the last few weeks. This graph is an outright fraud, in which a downward trend in cases is created by reorganizing the data (April 30 was followed by May 4; May 5 was followed by May 2, which was followed by May 7, which in turn was followed by April 26). Recognizing that evidence is supposed to be used in public health decision-making, Governor Kemp’s people created their own data in order to lend credibility to their impulsive decisions.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the State of Georgia has now apologized, but left deep doubts about its reputation as a source of credible and legitimate information. “I have a hard time understanding how this happens without it being deliberate,” said State Rep. Jasmine Clark (D-Lilburn), who received her doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics at Emory University. “Literally nowhere ever in any type of statistics would that be acceptable.” That’s for sure.

This harkens back to that insanely data-free moment when President Trump used a Sharpie to alter the projected track of Hurricane Dorian developed by the National Weather Service. An op-ed in the Guardian describes Trump’s presidency as “a dunce cult that denies science” and the Republican party as an organization where “fact-free fairytales about the evil establishment have found a natural home.”

I highly recommend an article in Roll Call about the growing awareness of the benefits of regenerative agriculture among farmers and ranchers. A large coalition of farming and livestock groups has acknowledged the need to alter their professional practices, saying they want to join the fight against climate change rather than remain cast as villains avoiding responsibility. The article has several hopeful examples of farms that have successfully adopted “healthy soils” practices, and also how (as with most things in life) the devil is in the details. In case you have time on your hands right now to stream video, The Biggest Little Farm is an excellent story about the challenges and rewards of regenerative agriculture.