October 31 2019

October 31 2019

if everybody planted a tree, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture little help as farmers suffer from climate change, GM investors ask company to join California auto mileage agreement, Walmart and Target try to “out-green” each other, a solar-powered steel mill

An article in Wired presents a back of the envelope computation to answer the question, “if everybody planted a tree would it reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?” The answer is yes, but tree-planting is not a panacea that will solve the climate problem. An op-ed in The Hill notes the importance of reducing the emissions of other greenhouse pollutants besides carbon dioxide, including methane, refrigerants and soot from fires. These pollutants do not stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but they absorb much more heat while they are there, so eliminating them quickly will immediately reduce the intensity of the greenhouse effect. InsideClimate News reports on nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas emitted by human activities (predominantly agriculture) that receives less attention than it deserves.

The City of Del Mar near San Diego has developed a coastal adaptation plan that is at odds with the guidance of the California Coastal Commission, according to the Los Angeles Times. The debate revolves around “managed retreat” from the shore as a long-term strategy for dealing with sea level rise. Del Mar has rejected this approach, instead focusing on replenishing sand and reinforcing sea walls, which are unlikely to be sufficient as sea level rise accelerates. This is a conflict that will be more and more common along the coast of California and other states.

Politico has an excellent article describing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) inadequate response to climate change as American farmers suffer. Focusing on the farmers impacted by last year’s historic floods on the Missouri River, it documents how the USDA’s regional climate hubs (set up during the Obama administration to provide the latest regionally-specific climate information to farmers) have no long-term funding and little visibility with farmers. The USDA, like other departments in the Trump Administration, has downplayed climate science and eliminated much climate change information from its website. It also abandoned a broad “Climate Smart” effort it launched under the Obama administration in 2015 that was aimed at reducing agriculture’s net emissions and sequestering more than 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2025.

In addition, the Trump Administration has decimated two key USDA bureaus that serve farmers and the public: the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service (ERS). This was accomplished by precipitously deciding to move these bureaus from Washington D.C. to Kansas City, forcing government scientists to uproot their families or find new jobs. An op-ed in the Washington Post gives a first hand account from the ERS of the damage caused by this decision.

The Washington Post reports on remarkable tidal flooding around Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River due to a combination of Tropical Storm Melissa and seasonal high tides. High Country News describes how climate change is altering life in Alaska, and an article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports on the massive, climate-related decimation of the kelp forest along the northern California coast.

A group of General Motors investors with $1.1 trillion in assets have sent a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra asking GM to join the voluntary agreement with California to raise vehicle fuel efficiency standards. The letter states that mitigating climate change is essential to safeguarding their investment, and they note that “joining the agreement with California would provide significant benefits for GM by allowing it to avoid regulatory uncertainty and litigation delay, rewarding its efforts to increase EV deployment, enhancing its global competitiveness, and helping demonstrate to investors and consumers that GM has a genuine commitment to reducing emissions in the near-term.” While this was a very welcome development, it did not prevent GM from deciding to not join the California agreement. Wired describes Volvo’s corporate commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, and its first all-electric car (an SUV).

A worthwhile article by Dave Roberts at VOX explains why economists with backgrounds in finance are arguing for a carbon price that starts high, rather than the more common argument for a price that starts low and increases as impacts become more severe. These economists, who regularly think about pricing risk rather than damages, note that at present we have high uncertainty around very severe outcomes (including passing tipping points where change accelerates), and that means high risk. They conclude that the rational response is a significant price on carbon now – a pricing scheme that results in a much faster decline in carbon emissions. This pricing scheme forces us to act now to avoid future impacts, which is what Greta Thunberg and young people around the planet are demanding. In other words, by pricing risk we are inherently placing a higher value on preventing future impacts, instead of devaluing the future world in which our children will live.

An op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle calls for more aggressive development of offshore wind in California. The depth of our nearshore ocean (as opposed to the Atlantic) requires floating wind turbines, a technology that is not yet commercialized.

The New York Times reports on a recent publication from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco regarding the financial implications of climate change. This article is well worth reading, as is points out how climate change can set off a chain of events in financial and real estate markets. Already there is a detectable impact of sea level rise on real estate prices, with properties in flood-prone areas selling for 15% less, and it is likely that in such areas mortgages will become more difficult to obtain. Lower property prices will also reduce property tax revenues, challenging the ability of local governments to respond to climate change.

The CEO of Canada’s largest oil company (Suncor Energy) called climate change denial, and the politicization of science in general, complete nonsense. The Intelligencer reports that Republican members of the Florida State Senate are now willing to at least talk about the problem, lamenting their “lost decade” under the leadership of Governor Rick Scott. Meanwhile, President Trump’s Chief of Staff has made it clear that the White House has no interest in talking about climate change at the G7 meeting next year. The Hill documents another entry in the annals of “Trump’s best people.” An appointed official in Trump’s Bureau of Land Management denied the existence of climate change and ozone depletion, compared undocumented immigrants to cancer and claimed these people spread disease.

The Guardian has a great timeline of climate science denial that documents how – despite knowing their product was going to alter the climate of the earth – Mobil, Shell and other oil companies funded a widespread disinformation campaign to sow doubt about the need for action by suggesting there was a scientific debate. An op-ed in the Guardian describes the tactics used by ExxonMobil and others to raise questions about climate science, the link between smoking and lung cancer and the impact of lead and asbestos. An article at Truthout describes ExxonMobil’s continued funding of organizations that deny climate science.

The New York Times reports on the rapidly advancing rooftop solar programs of Walmart and Target as these two retail giants attempt to “out-green” each other. Nearly three in four Target customers say that sustainability is “extremely” or “very” important to them, and Target has responded by getting 25% of its electricity from solar a year earlier than its original goal. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that PacifiCorp, Utah’s largest utility that has long relied on coal for the bulk of its generation, will make a big shift toward renewables. The utility plans to retire 16 of its costliest coal-fired power-generation units by 2030, reducing its coal generation by 3,000 megawatts and developing 7,000 megawatts of solar and wind over this time period.

An op-ed in the Guardian argues that we’ve reached an economic tipping point where new renewable electricity is even cheaper than that from existing fossil-fuel power plants. The Guardian describes a small but growing group of businesses that are providing carbon-free oceanic shipping using sailing ships, and Grist explores modern ship designs that could reduce or eliminate emissions from large cargo ships. And, in another sign of industrial transformation, America is getting its first solar-powered steel mill.