November 15 2020

November 15 2020

year of the hurricane, a Civilian Climate Corps, the political problems of a carbon price, more evidence of the rapidly warming Arctic, U.S. out of Paris Accord (but only for a couple months)

Among many other dubious achievements, 2020 has become the year of the hurricane, with 29 named storms with the formation of tropical storm Theta on November 9th (update: Iota became the 30th named storm just as this In Brief was being published). The New York Times reports that this is even more storms than predicted at the beginning of the season, but notes that this large number of storms should not be considered a result of climate change. Five named storms hit Louisiana this year, which is a record. Many of these storms were quite devastating, and more powerful storms are a predicted result of climate change.

While in the U.S. we focus on hurricanes in the Atlantic and Caribbean, climate change is powering typhoons in the Pacific Ocean and cyclones in the Indian Ocean as well. An article in the Washington Post describes super typhoon Goni, which slammed into the Philippines with 195 mile-per-hour winds. The article includes video from a weather satellite demonstrating the development of the sharply-defined eye and near-perfect symmetry that are characteristic of the most intense tropical cyclones.

The New York Times describes how the Trump Administration has been elevating climate-science deniers to positions of power at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Their clear goal is to change the National Climate Assessment, which the U.S. government produces by law every four years. They are starting by preventing the free flow of information among NOAA officials. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is attempting to discredit the research that documented its deceptive practices around climate science, but an op-ed in the Guardian points out that this effort has only served to increase the validity of the research. And let’s not forget the actions of the auto industry. New findings reported in E&E News demonstrate that executives at Ford and GM understood as early as the 1960s the impact of auto emissions on the climate but, like ExxonMobil, invested in efforts to deceive Americans.

Utility Dive examines the growth and popularity of lithium-ion batteries for utility-scale electricity storage, and the possibility that other electricity-storage technologies (including other battery types) will become broadly commercialized in the future. Experts note that we are only at the beginning of the large-scale electricity-storage industry.

An article at Yale e360 examines several proposals for creating a Civilian Climate Corps modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps that was created during the Great Depression. Such a Corps could achieve valuable public conservation and resilience objectives, while providing training and employment to youth across the country (including those from communities that have suffered from environmental injustice). Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced the formation of the California Climate Action Corps.

An article in the Boston Review describes the political problems associated with establishing a carbon price. These problems mean that, despite this being an elegant solution economically, a carbon price won’t be the sole solution to the climate crisis as it won’t drive emissions reductions quickly enough. What is required are policies to ensure that, as fossil-fuel machines (cars, furnaces, power plants) come to the end of their useful life, they are replaced by climate-smart devices. The authors note that, “As a policy, carbon pricing has the politics backward. It starts by changing the incentives to pollute. Theoretically these incentives will undermine carbon polluters’ economic and political power. But this puts the cart before the horse: we need to disrupt the political power of carbon polluters before we can meaningfully reshape economic incentives.”

An article in the Guardian describes the impact of anxiety about climate change. Opening yourself to the implications of this existential threat can produce dread and fear, leading to a type of paralysis. Psychologists note that the human psyche is hardwired to disengage from information or experiences that are overwhelmingly difficult or disturbing. To overcome this, we must acknowledge the extreme discomfort in confronting the crisis and take action in the present.

The Guardian looks at the threat of the Amazon rainforest transitioning to grassland. Climate change is reducing the rainfall in the region, and this makes it less likely that the rainforest can endure, particularly in the face of stress from fires (both natural and those ignited by people). Large tracts of forest can actually help generate regional rainfall that sustains the forest. Once transformed to grassland, however, the forest is unlikely to recover as the fire ecology of grasslands makes it hard for trees to get large and establish a canopy.

And more from the bad news department: the Guardian reports on recent evidence of the release of methane hydrates from the sea floor north of Siberia. There are large quantities of methane stored in the shallow sea shelves of the Arctic, and the release of this greenhouse gas into the atmosphere would accelerate global warming — independent of human actions.

Another article in the Guardian describes a further indicator of rapid change in the Arctic: delayed formation of sea ice in the Laptev Sea. Known as the “nursery” of Arctic sea ice, the unprecedented lack of sea ice in October will have impacts across the Arctic in the coming months, including a loss of nutrients for phytoplankton that accompany the spreading edge of the ice pack. Arctic scientists are finding that they don’t need to wear the long underwear they packed.

The New York Times reports on methane emissions from cattle-feeding facilities, and the work underway to reduce these emissions through changes in feed and facility operations. The EPA estimates that methane emissions from livestock (mainly from belching) account for over two percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.

At Vox, Dave Roberts does a deep dive into geothermal power and comes away quite enthusiastic. Among other factors, geothermal can provide consistent power to “fill the gaps” in a renewables-powered grid when solar or wind aren’t producing. In addition, many skills required for geothermal development can be found in the oil and gas industry, where there are going to be many idled workers.

As expected, the Washington Post reports that on November 4 the U.S. became the first nation on Earth to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord (I have written previously on the foolishness of this decision). There is no doubt that President-elect Joe Biden will ask the U.N. to allow the U.S. to re-enter the Accord in February. With the Senate remaining under Republican control, however, it is unlikely that much of Biden’s plan to address climate change will be enacted into law (this op-ed in the Boston Globe argues that Biden has a mandate to address climate change and outlines the steps he should take).

Grist describes eight policies for reducing carbon emissions and building resilience to climate change impacts in the United States. These include imposing higher auto-mileage standards, increasing energy efficiency in buildings, supporting communities traditionally reliant on fossil fuel production and others. The article includes polling results that demonstrate the national popularity of these policies. The Guardian identifies five key factors that are challenging the success of global efforts to address climate change. These include readily-available financing schemes for emissions-intensive electricity, political division, industrial lobbying (especially in Europe) and disinformation campaigns.

Joe Biden’s campaign theme of “Build Back Better” is on display in a Kansas county that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. The Washington Post visits Greensburg, KS, which was virtually wiped out by a tornado in 2007 and re-built its infrastructure to be more sustainable and low-carbon. The town draws all of its electricity from local wind turbines, has energy-efficient buildings and streetlights and water-efficient plumbing (Greensburg was the first city in the country to require all municipal buildings to be LEED certified). While there were complications and setbacks, Greensburg has become a model that is visited by officials from around the world.