May 31 2022

May 31 2022

future threat of a mass marine extinction, restoring river floodplains, keeping nuclear plants operating, Governor DeSantis sides with solar, most-popular U.S. vehicle goes electric

A new study summarized by the New York Times concludes that a mass extinction of ocean life will occur by 2300 if humans continue emitting greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The risk of this extinction event, on par with the five great extinctions in the fossil record, can be reduced by 70% if emissions are kept to the upper limit of the Paris Accord. As with so many other assessments of the future, this study demonstrates again that the world we get will be the world we choose. We have great agency now, as argued in a Times Magazine op-ed, to impact the future if we can find the political will to use it.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that the Great Barrier Reef has been hit with a sixth mass coral-bleaching event. This one has occurred during La Niña ocean conditions, which are cooler than El Niño. Scientists had hoped La Niña years would be periods where the reef could recover. One scientist states: “Unexpected events are now to be expected. Nothing surprises me any more.”

Rising sea levels and more intense storms are generating a smelly health hazard as septic systems stop functioning. These systems were designed with the assumption that groundwater levels would remain static but, in many places, groundwater is rising with higher sea levels and heavy precipitation. The Washington Post notes that about 20% of U.S. households rely on septic systems, and of particular concern are the systems in coastal communities from New England to Florida. While experts note that we lack a comprehensive understanding of rates of failure, the numbers are already daunting. In Miami-Dade County, more than half of the 120,000 systems experience inadequate functioning at some point during each year. A key solution is to connect the most vulnerable homes and businesses to a sewer, but this can be very costly, and many low-income communities are particularly hard hit by the problem.

An article in Grist reviews changes to the Federal Flood Insurance Program (FFIP). Created in the late 1960s to protect floodplain homeowners from risks that private insurers didn’t want to cover, the program’s premiums have failed to keep up with actual risks. This has provided a hidden subsidy to homeowners, particularly given the extreme flooding that climate change is generating. FEMA has now created a new rate structure and, for some homeowners, insurance rates are skyrocketing as their premiums begin to reflect their actual risk. The author notes that “FEMA hasn’t changed the rules — it’s just that the stakes are much higher.”

An article (with dramatic video) in the Washington Post documents how two homes on North Carolina’s Outer Banks were claimed by the ocean, demonstrating the relentless impact of sea level rise. Grist describes this event as a warning to homeowners nationwide, noting that 21 states do not require disclosure of flood risk during the sale of a home. An article in the San Francisco Examiner looks at the challenges of “managed retreat” in the face of sea level rise.

In California’s Central Valley, managing major storm events will require that raging rivers be allowed to expand onto their historic floodplains. AP examines some river restoration projects that are preparing for this new reality. Since the 1850s, 95% of the historical wetlands and river habitats in the Central Valley have been eliminated, according to state flood planners. Floodplains provide important habitat for native species, including juvenile salmon. Young salmon that have access to floodplain habitat grow to sizes that allow them to more successfully migrate to the ocean and return to spawn. An article in the New York Times notes that, in Minnesota and North Dakota, residents are adapting to the flooding Red River by defending key urban areas while allowing the river to flow into previously inhabited areas. The town of Oslo, MN, is often cut off from the rest of the state because of flooding, and residents have adapted to days at a time without a road connection.

Energy News Network reports that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill that would have eliminated net-metering in his state. This decision, in which the governor took the side of consumers and clean-energy advocates — and against the utility companies and the state legislature — is an important signal that momentum for clean energy is crossing party lines. This is a very welcome development, and the article notes that other Republican governors have also taken steps recently to support clean energy in their states.

A study by scientists at UCLA concludes that climate change is a major driver of increased fire risk in the western U.S. The key factor is increased aridity as higher temperatures dry out soil and vegetation. From 1984 – 2000, the average burned area in 11 western states was 1.69 million acres per year. From 2001 – 2018, that increased to 3.35 million acres per year. And in 2020, 8.8 million acres burned in the West. The study’s lead author concludes, “I am afraid that the record fire seasons in recent years are only the beginning of what will come, due to climate change, and our society is not prepared for the rapid increase of weather contributing to wildfires in the American West.”

While less rainfall is increasing aridity in the West, there has been an increase in precipitation in the Midwest, South and the East. This is providing the opportunity to increase the amount of renewable electricity generated by hydro-power in those regions, as described by the Washington Post. The Department of Energy has projected that 50 GW of hydro-power (a 50% increase) could be added by upgrading existing facilities and adding generating capacity to non-powered dams (those that are maintained, not older dams that are candidates for decommissioning). However, reservoirs can be a source of methane, and this could cancel some of the greenhouse-gas reduction benefits (this is an area that requires further study). The Conversation looks at the role of hydro-power in the U.S. electrical grid, and the challenges brought by climate change.

After the meltdown of the nuclear-power plants in Fukushima, Japan, the Japanese government stopped operations at most of the remaining nuclear-power stations in the country. The New York Times notes that, with the war in Ukraine and concern about climate change, 53% of the Japanese public supports a restart of the plants (just four years ago, more than 60% opposed re-opening the plants). The article describes the politically complicated situation, and some real questions regarding the quality and safety of engineering at some of the stations. In Utility Dive, Amory Lovins makes a technically detailed argument for why nuclear power will not be a climate solution, both because of its cost, the lead time for plants construction and the increasing ability (based on operating experience) to integrate renewables into the grid. Meanwhile, an article in Huffington Post describes a soon-to-be-opened nuclear-waste repository in Finland, and Anthropocene Magazine considers the pros and cons of more nuclear power in Europe.

Utility Dive reports on the plan to close the last remaining operating nuclear-power plant in California (at Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo), which is being questioned by some analysts. Recent federal funds made available to keep nuclear plants operating might change the economic analysis that led to the plan to close the facility. A recent study concludes that “California could reduce its power sector emissions by over 10% from 2017 levels and save $2.6 billion in electric system costs by continuing to operate the plant through 2035.” However, others note that the process to renew the plant’s operating license at this late stage, when the planned closure has been scheduled for 2025, make renewal infeasible. The Washington Post describes a growing “pro-nuclear” movement among those concerned about climate change, particularly with respect to keeping existing plants operating.

As our climate warms, the atmosphere becomes “thirstier” and evaporation increases. An article in The Conversation notes that this is an important way to think about drought. The southwest U.S. has seen an 8% increase in this evaporative demand since the 1980s. “The thirstier atmosphere is turning what would otherwise be near-normal or moderately dry conditions into droughts that are more severe or extreme. As the climate heats up further, the increasing atmospheric thirst will continue to intensify drought stress, with consequences for water availability, long-lasting and intense heat stress, and large-scale ecosystem transformation.”

In the New York Times, David Wallace-Wells puts the ongoing heat wave in Asia into the perspective of recent climate changes, and notes that what seems exceptional is actually becoming commonplace. “As recently as 2015, the 10-year average of global temperatures showed, according to the I.P.C.C., warming of 0.87 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average. Just five years later, it had jumped to 1.09 — 25 percent higher in half a decade.” He notes that climate change has made every single heat wave in the world more intense and more likely, and the word “extreme” should now be reserved only for events like the heat dome that settled over British Columbia last year (“recently identified as one of the six most anomalous heat waves in recorded history”). A leading scientist in the field notes that the heat wave in British Columbia was “probably a one-in-a-thousand-year event given today’s climate conditions. But with just two degrees of warming it will happen once a decade, on average.” Prior to human alteration of the atmosphere, it would have been a 1-in-eight-million-year event.

In the midst of the heat wave in Asia, flood damage continues from extreme storm events. The New York Times reports on the damage caused by heavy downpours in India and Bangladesh. “More than 60 people have been killed in days of flooding, landslides and thunderstorms that have left many people without food and drinking water.” In Bangladesh, “about two million people have been affected in the Sylhet region, in the country’s east, in what officials describe as one of the worst floods in many years.”

The Guardian describes a major heat wave that struck the eastern U.S. in late May, with temperatures far exceeding “normal” for this time of year and impacting over 120 million Americans. The narrative should sound familiar: “intensifying heatwaves result from the climate crisis, with models indicating that there could be between 25 and 30 extreme events a year by mid-century — up from an average of between four and six a year historically.”

Inside Climate News reports that “U.S. electric vehicle sales rose 76 percent in the first quarter, which was enough to double EVs’ share of the market to 5.2 percent, up from 2.5 percent in the first quarter of 2021.” Tesla is far and away the top seller, with 41 percent of EVS sold being the Model Y. Grist examines the economic, political and cultural factors that are creating the increasing momentum for a shift to electric vehicles. The article notes that sales outside the United States are leading the industry, with 3.2 million sold in China and 2.3 million in Europe, compared to only 535,000 in the U.S. Reuters reports that Tata Motors, India’s leading auto manufacturer, has announced major investments to produce full-featured EVs starting in 2025. A recent survey of car buyers in 18 countries, summarized in Axios, finds that — for the first time — over 50% of those interviewed are interested in an EV.

An op-ed in the Washington Post describes the rave reviews for the electric version of the Ford F-150 pick-up truck. The F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for 45 years. Canary Media notes that electric big rigs are being purchased and put to use for shorter haul routes by major logistics companies. While the electric trucks represent only a small fraction of the big rigs in use, a recent analysis indicated that electric trucks can meet about half of North America’s current road freight-hauling needs.