October 15 2020

October 15 2020

we can’t afford to not have a Green New Deal, “green” hydrogen, the importance of natural forest restoration, a “gigafire” arrives 30 years early

Critics of the Green New Deal suggest we can’t afford such an investment. The reality is that we can’t afford not to do it. An article in New York Magazine examines the public investment made by the U.S. government to fight World War II as an analogy. “Between 1940 and 1945, the U.S. government managed to increase military spending by an amount equal to 70 percent of 1940 GDP — while increasing productivity and technological innovation, raising civilian living standards, laying the groundwork for a decades-long postwar boom, and avoiding runaway inflation… If we could figure out how to execute public spending and planning on that scale 80 years ago, we can presumably execute it at a fraction of that scale (say, $5 trillion over five years?) today.” The article notes that the WWII mobilization resulted in the income of the top one percent of earners declining by a third. Are the richest Americans willing to make the same investment today?

An article in the New York Times addresses an important scientific truth about climate change through interviews with experts studying the issue. The truth is that the future is going to get worse than the present, even with aggressive reductions in greenhouse gases, because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time. But through our actions we can control how bad things get. As I wrote last year, “the world we get will be the world we choose. We just can’t choose the world we had.” Or, as Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler says, “If you don’t like all of the climate disasters happening in 2020, I have some bad news for you about the rest of your life.”

The Washington Post reports on recent evidence indicating that the physical restraint on the movement of the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers in Antarctica is diminishing as their ice shelves break apart. The glaciers already contribute around five percent of global sea level rise. The survival of the Thwaites glacier is seen as critical to slowing the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. From the other end of the planet, the New York Times describes the new climate of the Arctic — one that is characterized by warmer temperatures, open water and rain.

One of our great challenges in transitioning away from fossil fuels is providing energy for cement, steel and other energy-intensive industries. The Washington Post reports that one fuel receiving a lot of attention in this regard is hydrogen, which burns very hot and clean. At the moment, most hydrogen is generated from natural gas in a process that produces carbon dioxide. However, it is possible to produce hydrogen by electrolysing water using electricity from renewable sources, and the Guardian reports that reductions in the cost of production mean that this so-called “green hydrogen” will be available sooner than many expect. Axios reports on hydrogen as a fuel for heavy-duty trucks.

An article in the New York Times describes how “managed retreat” is quietly becoming a more common response to coastal flooding. FEMA, the Corps of Engineers and HUD are all recognizing that rebuilding over and over after successive floods makes little sense. While there is still understandable resistance among impacted communities and homeowners (who ask, “retreat to where?”), even these constituencies are seeing that continual flooding is becoming an impossible situation.

In The Hill, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) describes her bipartisan and bicameral bill that would accelerate the adoption of regenerative agriculture techniques by American farmers. These techniques develop healthier soils while sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Rep. Spanberger’s bill would establish within the Department of Agriculture a program to help farmers adopt these techniques and receive the benefits of being able to sell carbon credits. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Iowa. She told me that there is great interest in regenerative agriculture among farmers in Iowa, and that this grows naturally from a long-term focus on soil conservation in the state.

Forest restoration can be a valuable component of addressing climate change, and Yale e360 summarizes a new global study that finds the potential for natural forest restoration has been seriously underestimated. While there is great interest in tree planting (e.g., The Trillion Trees Initiative), the study suggests that natural regeneration can quickly and securely capture more carbon than tree plantations. The authors identified up to 1.67 billion acres that could be set aside for natural reforestation, and estimates that natural forest regrowth could capture 73 billion tons of carbon between now and 2050, making natural reforestation “the single largest natural climate solution.” The study also notes that tree planting has its place, particularly on degraded soils where trees will no longer germinate naturally.

Time Magazine describes how a more conservative Supreme Court could impede efforts by the federal government to address climate change. A new court could entertain a challenge to the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision, which called on the EPA to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions if its scientists found that these emissions endangered human health. EPA’s subsequent endangerment finding is the foundation of all regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and this regulatory foundation could be threatened by the court overturning Mass. v EPA. An article in Grist reviews the environmental legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and how a more conservative court could reverse key decisions in which she participated.

An article in the Guardian notes that, because of the Trump Administration’s explicit disregard for climate science, the November election is a huge moment in human history. If Donald Trump is not voted out of office, his fossil-fuel focused policies will essentially ensure we have no chance of keeping average global temperature rise below 1.5 — 2°C. The Trump Administration has destroyed Obama-era climate policies such as the Clean Power Plan, fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles, controlling methane leaks from oil and gas facilities and efforts to curb the potent greenhouse gases used as refrigerants. An analysis by the Rhodium Group estimates that these major climate policy rollbacks could add 1.8 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions to the atmosphere by 2035, equivalent to nearly one-third of all U.S. emissions in 2019.

The Biden campaign has issued what is being called the first-ever presidential campaign ad focused on climate change, featuring cherry farmers in Michigan. An article at Gizmodo examines the growing political power of youth climate activists using the Sunrise Movement as an example. Organizations like this weren’t politically active in 2016, and barely getting started in 2018. But in the two years since, their on-the-ground political power has exploded. The New York Times reviews the vital role of girls in organizing among young people around the world.

The Guardian reports that the August complex fire in California has now reached over one million acres in size, the largest single blaze in California history. It continues to burn (only 50% contained), leading to it being called the first ever “gigafire.” In 2020, over four million acres of California have burned, with five of the six largest fires in state history occurring this year. This doubles the previous record fire season, 2018, when 1.9 million acres burned. An article in Grist notes that climate scientists did not expect “gigafires” for at least another 30 years.

CNN reports that the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious scientific journal founded in 1812, has called for the current Administration to be voted out of office. The Journal notes that the Trump Administration has “undercut trust in science and in government by ignoring experts in favor of “uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies” and that “they have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent.” The authors continue, “We should not abet them… by allowing them to keep their jobs.” That sums it up for me.