November 30 2019

November 30 2019

fire impacts on communities that don’t burn, scientists underestimate climate impacts, bad grades on our energy report card, growth of offshore wind power

The Los Angeles Times has an important article that describes the ongoing impact of the Camp Fire, over a year later, on Chico, a town that was not in the burn area. Residents of the burn area fled to Chico, which overnight saw its population increase by over 20%. This has strained police resources, the wastewater treatment plant and virtually every other public service required by the new residents (most of whom are not paying property taxes or sewer fees).

An op-ed in Time discusses why we should trust science, focusing in detail on how claims are evaluated in the scientific community. An article in the Guardian examines why it is frequently the case that scientists have underestimated the impacts and risks of climate change. An op-ed in the New York Times describes the evidence that climate change is occurring much faster than previously estimated by scientists.

The Guardian reports on a scientific paper that describes why climate change is an emergency, noting that the paper has been endorsed by over 11,000 scientists from 153 countries. The paper uses easily understood indicators to substantiate the claim of emergency, and identifies six key steps for humanity to take to address the problem. Professor William Ripple of Oregon State, the lead author, states that scientists have a moral obligation to issue warnings of catastrophic threats based on evidence. “It is time to go beyond just research and publishing, and to go directly to the citizens and policymakers.” That’s a good idea, as the Washington Post reports that 3 in 4 Americans have heard little or nothing about the Green New Deal.

The Los Angeles Times has a detailed report on a dangerous and little-publicized impact of sea level rise: the breach of a concrete structure built to entomb radioactive debris from U.S. bomb testing on the Marshall Islands. The concrete dome, constructed in the late ’70s over an unlined pit, is showing signs of decay. If it crumbles, its radioactive contents will be released into the lagoon and ocean. A report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, summarized by the New York Times, stresses that climate change poses risks to public health due to impacts on our most-polluted (“superfund”) sites. Superfund sites are vulnerable to fire, heavy downpours and flooding from storms and sea level rise (an op-ed in the Washington Post critiques the Trump Administration’s response to this threat). InsideClimate News reports on how sea level rise could impact the large installation of petroleum storage tanks in South Portland, Maine.

Scientific American reports on this year’s king tides, which are proving particularly troubling on the Atlantic coast and are clearly a sign of things to come. The Washington Post visits Ocracoke Island on the outer banks of North Carolina, a community hit very hard by Hurricane Dorian. This excellent article describes the difficult choices facing such communities including whether to rebuild given the certain future of stronger storms, sea level rise and coastal erosion. A Washington Post editorial notes the challenge that is facing all coastal communities, using the backdrop of the recent historic flooding of Venice. The Post has a nice pictorial essay about the recent Venice floods, and an op-ed in Forbes uses this event to drive home the point that climate change is often interacting with other factors to produce extreme impacts.

An op-ed in The Hill describes how the irresponsible decision by General Motors and Toyota to join with the Trump Administration’s efforts to weaken auto emissions standards is bad for the environment and their business (if you want to express your displeasure to Toyota for refusing to sign on to California’s clean car agreement, you can do so by signing this petition). Grist notes that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, long a powerful source of climate-change denial, is changing its tune (at least on paper). In the Guardian, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz describes why Gross Domestic Product is failing as a metric of economic and social progress.

The Los Angeles Times reports on an “assisted regeneration” project at Lake Tahoe, where scientists have identified sugar pines that have survived beetle infestation and droughts while neighboring trees perished. Thousands of descendants of the resistant trees are being planted in the hope that the genetics of these individuals will make the population more resilient to the stresses of climate change.

An article in the Atlantic describes the current proposals in Congress to tax carbon, a key part of the solution to the climate crisis. Unfortunately, there is only one Republican co-sponsor among the bills under review, and he is retiring from Congress this year. Meanwhile, the fake scandal, “Climategate,” is now 10 years old; here are some worthwhile perspectives from Michael Mann in Newsweek and Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate.

While hydropower is normally considered a low-carbon energy source, Grist points out that when a large dam creates a reservoir, greenhouse-gas production can result. The production of these gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, varies over time and with the physical conditions of the reservoir. This fact must be taken into account if expanding hydropower is going to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. National Geographic describes a recent study that concludes that the rapid rise of methane in the atmosphere measured since around 2006 is mainly due to releases from fracking operations.

The New York Times reports on the publication of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, an annual projection of future energy supply and demand. While the report concludes that the spread of solar and wind power are exceeding past projections, even these increased rates are not fast enough to reduce emissions as energy demand continues to grow (or, as Grist notes, this is our energy report card and we “failed three subjects“). Despite the growth of renewables (particularly offshore wind) and the fading of coal-fired electrical generation, many of Asia’s coal plants are scheduled to run for decades and frustrate global emissions goals (and China is about to ramp up coal). Similarly, a love-affair with SUVs is countering much of the benefit from the growth in use of electric cars (42 percent of passenger vehicles now sold are SUVs, compared to just 18 percent in 2000).

An article in Forbes describes a pathway for the industrial sector to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz testified in Congress on the need for a major federal effort to develop technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. All scenarios that keep average global temperatures at 2°C or below require major contributions from carbon removal technologies that do not yet exist, supporting the need for a major effort to build this industry.

One of the most important shifts I’ve seen this year is how climate change has become a campaign issue. The Des Moines Register has an op-ed by Pete Buttigieg on how rural America in general and farmers in particular can benefit from solutions to the climate crisis. Fossil-fuel divestment advocates stormed the field in protest before the Harvard-Yale football game. The group Divest Harvard notes that “Harvard and Yale can’t claim to truly promote knowledge while at the same time supporting the companies engaged in misleading the public, smearing academics and denying the truth.”

As climate change alters water availability, some are pointing to the water resources of the Great Lakes and calling the region “the 21st century’s Saudi Arabia.” Yet those waters – particularly Lake Erie, the southernmost and shallowest of the Great Lakes – are polluted by nutrient runoff from farms and cities. The Chicago Tribune has an excellent article about the toxic algae blooms in western Lake Erie (a bloom in 2014 made drinking water unsafe in Toledo, OH), and how climate change is exacerbating an already daunting and complex problem. The Washington Post describes how climate change is driving greater fluctuations of the water levels in the Great Lakes.

If it seems like over the past year the documentation of a climate crisis got more robust, that’s because it did. Quartz has a great summary of what we learned and where we’re at. The flurry of reports and events over the last year leave “a heightened sense of urgency, as well as uncertainty… as the future came faster than science had predicted.” However, the reports also note that “it is likely not too late to prevent the worst effects of global warming by adopting meaningful adaptation and mitigation strategies.”

The potential for offshore wind power around the world is growing as technology improves and prices plummet. InsideClimate News reports that global benchmark prices for offshore wind have plunged 32 percent in just the past year, and technological advances are allowing for the testing of floating offshore wind platforms. These new platforms, as opposed to the standard platforms that must be anchored to the sea bed, will open a vast amount of wind resources for development.