November 30 2020

November 30 2020

looking at both sides of clouds, a first: multiple major hurricanes in November, scientists raising their voices, developing solar electricity in West Virginia’s coal country

One of the greatest uncertainties in our projections of global warming is the influence of clouds. InsideClimate News reviews what we know about clouds and climate. Clouds can cool or heat the planet depending how high and thick they are, and how much water and ice they contain. While clouds presently appear to cool the planet, two new studies suggest that, as the world warms, clouds are likely to change in ways that will intensify warming. The article notes that “clouds have such a big effect on the climate system that, if their extent or reflective properties were to change by 20%, it would have more of an impact than all the greenhouse gases released by human activity.”

Hurricane Iota became the latest-forming Category 5 hurricane ever in the Atlantic, according to the Washington Post, and came ashore as a Category 4 storm only 15 miles from where Hurricane Eta came ashore just two weeks prior. In the New Yorker, Bill McKibben reviews the damage of Hurricane Eta in Honduras, which is estimated to amount to 20% of the country’s GDP. This is the first time there have been two major hurricanes in the Atlantic in November. Like many other recent storms, Iota intensified rapidly, an event atmospheric scientists link to warmer sea-surface temperatures that are being created by global warming.

The New York Times reviews California’s efforts to develop hydrogen as a transportation fuel. The state now has roughly 40 fueling stations, with dozens more under construction, and 7,500 hydrogen-fueled vehicles on the road. Some experts suggest the best use of hydrogen is for large vehicles, because the fuel is much lighter than batteries, leaving power and room for cargo and passengers (this article at Bloomberg describes some shortcomings of hydrogen as a fuel for passenger cars). CleanTechnica describes how “green” hydrogen, produced by electrolysis from water using electricity from renewable sources, is getting a major boost as the cost of solar and wind power drops. InsideClimate News reports on the idea of operating commercial jet aircraft on hydrogen fuel. While AirBus has committed to flying a jet on hydrogen by 2035, many challenges remain before that first flight can occur, including how to store the fuel on-board.

The Japan Times reports that Toshiba will stop taking orders for coal-fired power plants, a business that represented 6.6% of its total sales in the last year. The company aims to quadruple its renewable energy business in the coming decade — because this is where the market is! The New York Times notes that consumption of electricity generated by wind, solar and hydroelectric sources is projected to grow nearly 7% in 2020, despite the fact that overall energy demand will slump by 5%.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that General Motors just announced the conversion of its third U.S. auto plant to the assembly of electric vehicles, and an article in the New York Times describes a major investment by the company in electric vehicles. GM also abandoned its legal efforts (in conjunction with the Trump Administration) to curtail California’s efforts to advance electrification of vehicles. CNBC reports that Ford is investing $100 million in a plant in Missouri to produce an all-electric van, part of more than $11.5 billion the firm is spending on electric vehicles through 2022. China plans to phase out conventional (non-hybrid) gasoline cars by 2035 while encouraging electric vehicles.

Carbon Brief reports on the recent World Energy Outlook 2020 produced by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Renown for its conservative outlook, the IEA’s main scenario has 43% more solar output by 2040 than it projected in 2018, due in part to new analysis showing that solar power is 20-50% cheaper than previously estimated (as noted in the last In Brief, the IEA says the world’s best solar plants are now the cheapest form of electricity in human history). The cost of capital is dropping for solar developers, as the technologies become more established and government policies encourage solar technology. The IEA also projects that India will develop 86% less coal-fired power than the agency estimated just last year, and an article in CNN Business chronicles the decline of the coal industry during the Trump Administration. While great news, these changes are still inadequate to meet the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 due to a continued reliance on oil and gas.

From the Anthropocene threats department: glacial retreat in a warming Alaska is increasing the likelihood of tsunamis caused by landslides from newly exposed areas, reports the Guardian. Steep hillsides, held in place by glacial ice, can suddenly give way and fall into the water to create huge waves.

In his waning days as President, the New York Times reports that Donald Trump has fired Dr. Michael Kuperberg, the leader of the National Climate Assessment. The Assessment is the most important U.S. government analysis of climate change and its impacts, required by law to be updated every four years. It is expected that Trump will replace Kuperberg with a climate-change denier, although it is unclear how much impact this will have in the last 60 days of the Administration.

In an article in Scientific American, several leading American scientists describe how the election of Joe Biden provides a vital opportunity to move climate action forward in the U.S. While scientists are aware that the hyper-partisan environment (and a Senate controlled by Republicans) is a challenge to taking action at the necessary scale, BuzzFeed News quotes scientists who are relieved and ecstatic that we will be entering a renewed era of evidence-based decision-making in Washington, D.C. At the same time, scientists expressed dismay about the support for Trump, which suggests that the partisan commitments of many Americans “are so strong that ordinary truth-finding methods are failing them.” In an election that was characterized by unprecedented forays into politics by scientific journals and publications, such as Nature, Science, the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine and Scientific American, scientists are clear that “going back into the lab” is not an option if progress is to be made (e.g., see

An article in The Verge describes the impact of the Trump Administration on federal scientific capacity, as many career government scientists decided they could no longer conduct objective research in an environment untethered from facts. Ben Santer, a recently-retired federal climate scientist (and member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists), has penned an open letter to President-elect Biden in Scientific American. He describes how, for the first time in his long career, the Trump Administration politicized the federal scientific enterprise. He calls upon the President-elect to “restore public trust in science and scientists,” and to convince federal scientists that “their new prime directive is not political loyalty to one person — the new directive is ‘get the science right.’”

The Guardian reports on a recent study that concludes that the flights of 1% of the world’s population were responsible for 50% of all carbon emissions from aviation. The aviation emissions of U.S. air passengers are larger than those of the next 10 countries combined.

An article in Carbon Brief examines the important implications of the demand for cooling as the world warms. This has the potential to drive one of the most substantial increases in energy and greenhouse-gas emissions in recent history, as air conditioning is responsible for about 20% of global electricity use. As air-conditioning demand rises, so do greenhouse-gas emissions, powering a feedback loop that pushes greenhouse-gas emissions ever higher. This is why strategies such as embedding passive and energy-efficient cooling features in the urban infrastructure (and the use of shade trees) are so important.

Forbes looks at redevelopment in West Virginia’s coal country, and highlights the role that large-scale solar projects can play. Appalachian Power is currently planning for up to 200 megawatts of solar energy as a way to reduce energy bills and to diversify its offerings. Areas suffering from the loss of the coal industry are excellent prospects and could host solar projects that provide jobs — a policy that is endorsed by President-elect Biden. West Virginia has hundreds of square miles of distressed land, some of which is perfect for utility-scale solar as it is relatively flat with access to the grid.