October 31 2023

October 31 2023

September temperatures are “gobsmackingly bananas”, Otis changes from storm to Cat 5 hurricane in 12 hours, the challenge of phasing out fossil fuels, mosquito-borne illnesses on the rise in U.S., electric delivery vans are making economic sense

In The New York Times, climate scientist Zeke Hausfather calls attention to the enormous record warming in September 2023, when temperatures were almost 1°F above the previous high (“gobsmackingly bananas” according to one analyst). He notes: “there is increasing evidence that global warming has accelerated over the past 15 years, rather than continued at a gradual, steady pace.” He points to the reduction of particles in the atmosphere due to air-pollution controls and less coal burning (these particles reflect sunlight and provide a cooling effect), as does James Hansen, while others are not so sure — but all are worried. These scientists note that a long-standing projection of atmospheric modeling has been a possible acceleration of warming if “our aerosol emissions declined while our greenhouse gas emissions did not.” This suggests that, as we transition away from fossil fuels, there will be an additional increase in temperature due to a further reduction in atmospheric particles, making it essential that greenhouse-gas emissions be eliminated as expeditiously as possible. Hausfather concludes that “despite the recent acceleration of warming, humans remain firmly in the driver’s seat, and the future of our climate is still up to us to decide.”

The New York Times reports that a new study concludes “hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean are now twice as likely to grow from a weak storm into a major Category 3 or higher hurricane within just 24 hours.” This makes it much more difficult to forecast how severe a given storm might be, and particularly impacts the ability to accurately recommend evacuations. This study contributes to a growing body of evidence that climate change is accelerating storm intensification.

As if on cue, Hurricane Otis struck Acapulco. It intensified from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in 12 hours, defying predictions from meteorological agencies. This provided virtually no warning to a city of 852,000 people, what a forecaster with the U.S. National Hurricane Center called a “nightmare scenario.” This was the strongest storm ever to hit western Mexico, and 24 hours later at least 27 people were dead and Acapulco was without power, water or communications.

Inside Climate News reports that the EU has adopted the world’s first carbon tariff, which is a major policy revolution. “Under the EU’s new policy, foreign companies must now report all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with certain imported goods: cement, steel, iron, aluminum, fertilizers, hydrogen fuel and electricity. Starting in 2026, any of those imports that don’t meet the bloc’s emissions standards will face an additional fee when crossing the border. Other goods will be considered for the tax in the coming years.” The EU has adopted the policy to encourage foreign manufacturers to meet the same carbon standards as its domestic industries. The latter, as you might expect, support the policy, while foreign governments have complained. Wired notes that “Europe’s experiment could have ripple effects across the entire globe, pushing high-emitting industries to clean up their production and incentivizing other countries to launch their own carbon taxes.”

In another important climate-policy development, Grist reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a challenge from Republican Attorneys General to the Biden Administration’s use of the social cost of carbon (SCC) when assessing the benefits and costs of government decisions. SCC is an attempt to recognize the "hidden" impacts of fossil-fuel use. The article notes that “if the government accounts for the true costs of emitting greenhouse gases — lost lives, dying crops, homes swallowed by rising seas — then decisions that result in more carbon emissions start to look a lot more expensive, while those that reduce emissions look like a smart deal.” This is an enormous change in the government’s approach, as for decades the narrative (backed by the fossil-fuel industry) has been that reducing emissions is an economic burden. Now, however, it is fossil-fuel use that carries the economic harm, and policies that reduce emissions save Americans money.

The Guardian reports that this summer, with the hottest July on record and intense rain storms, has had an impact on the agricultural production in the United States. “In Texas, farmers reported smaller yields as their corn and cotton crops struggled to survive soaring summer temperatures. In Arizona, beekeepers spotted dead honeybees outside hives. Even underwater, off the coast of Long Island, kelp farmers recorded another year of shrinking yields.” Research institutes are working to breed crop varieties that can withstand heat, and farmers have to think carefully about whether traditional crops can be raised reliably on their land as the climate changes. Drought in southern Spain has resulted in empty reservoirs, and the need to deliver drinking water to 80,000 residents by truck.

In the Des Moines Register, a fourth-generation Iowa farmer discusses the reality of climate change and the importance of providing farmers with accurate information so they can adapt their practices. Anthropocene Magazine reviews a recent study that identified 12 agricultural technologies that could bring the world to net-zero emissions if they were deployed at a rate of even 50% worldwide (this even assumes global diets remain unchanged and that food loss and waste stay at current levels).

E&E News Greenwire describes the challenges facing alfalfa farmers who depend upon Colorado River water carried in the All American Canal along the U.S.-Mexico border. Alfalfa is a very water-intensive crop, and as water availability in the Colorado River declines, more and more pressure is being put on farmers to use water efficiently and consider alternative crops (30% of the alfalfa is exported). Of Colorado water diversions, 55% goes toward livestock feed crops, 12% to domestic use, 4% to commercial and industrial and an additional 4% to power plants. While these data suggest that water-conservation efforts should focus on agricultural uses, the farmers have senior water rights, they’ve been growing alfalfa for generations and it is a very profitable crop. They note that there should be no agricultural cut-backs as long as domestic uses for “non-functional grass” continue. Clearly, the negotiations underway in the Colorado River basin will be very challenging, and a sustainable solution will require permanent cut-backs in water use.

The New York Times notes that this past winter was California’s 10th wettest in a 128-year record, after several years of intense drought. “California received 141 percent of its average annual rainfall, according to state data. The state’s snowpack this spring reached the deepest level recorded in at least 40 years.” While this has resulted in a relatively mild fire season to date, that could change quickly, and in recent years major fires have started in November and December. The Times also reviews the future of California’s coastal redwood forests amidst climate changes. Experts suggest that a key to building resilience in these ecosystems is targeted thinning and prescribed burns, which will return these forests and the great trees to a healthier state.

Grist reports on a less-well-publicized impact of flooding. It is “exacerbating health hazards as flooded streets and basements foster mold and release pathogens from raw sewage.” A recent study in Detroit, which has some of the highest asthma rates in the country, found that 84% of homes subject to past floods have mold in the basement. A recent survey of thousands of Detroit homes documented a positive association between mold growth and asthma.

The Washington Post describes the challenge associated with phasing out fossil fuels, which are integrated with every aspect of life in the U.S. As one analyst notes, even if we could all walk to the grocery store there would be no food there without the fossil-fuel-fired truck fleet. And yet, it is essential that a phase-out of fossil fuels begins now if we are to have a livable climate in the future (“The IEA predicts that the world will have to triple renewable energy capacity in just seven years to cut fossil fuel demand by 20 percent.”). Fatih Birol of the IEA says his biggest worry is: “What are the implications of the clean energy transition in some of the segments of the population that are badly affected? In a not very well-planned transition, there could be a bit of a backlash with political implications.” Grist reports that a new analysis from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine “made 80 recommendations for how the United States can justly and equitably pursue decarbonization policies. It includes recommendations for everything from establishing a carbon tax to phasing out subsidies for high-emissions animal agriculture and codifying environmental justice goals.”

The New York Times visits Fort Myers, Florida, to see about the recovery from Hurricane Ian. “The town’s recovery has been uneven. For every reoccupied home and business, there are others lingering in post-storm devastation, leaving neighborhoods in a sort of suspended animation.” Residents don’t know what Fort Myers Beach is going to look like in the future, and who will get to live there. A critical challenge is that the cost of rebuilding, especially to more stringent codes to resist future storms, makes new homes too expensive for some previous residents (especially with the higher cost of home insurance thrown in). Fort Myers had an “unpolished charm” where “Fort Myers Beach was known for its low-slung cottages and haphazard development, allowing teachers and waiters to live next door to retired chief executives.” Many feel this will be lost as the community recovers, as has occurred in other parts of Florida.

Inside Climate News takes a detailed look at “California’s most sustainable dairy farm.” The article documents the innovative steps being taken by the dairy to reduce methane emissions and control other environmental impacts, but also points out the enormous challenges when a major animal-agricultural operation attempts to become sustainable.

Salon reports on the rise in mosquito-borne illnesses in the United States, Europe and other regions, with dengue fever, zika and malaria being of most concern. Over 500 locally-acquired dengue cases (as opposed to infections acquired overseas) occurred in 2023 in Texas and Florida, and the U.S. reported its first cases of locally-transmitted malaria in 20 years. Climate change is going to expand breeding seasons and habitat ranges for mosquitoes, and so the problem is expected to get worse. Medical experts note that future outbreaks are certain to occur and across larger parts of the country — it’s just a matter of when. “A large portion of malaria cases in Texas, Florida, Maryland and Arkansas recently documented have occurred in people who are unhoused,” demonstrating that the economic disparities in the country will help drive infectious diseases. The Washington Post takes a global look at malaria, noting that “two decades of global progress against malaria is being eroded in part because of climate change.”

The New York Times describes how ocean-going vessels are successfully experimenting with wind-assisted travel, by using high-tech sails and kites. The shipping industry is currently responsible for about 3% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. It is estimated that shipping emissions could be cut by up to 47% by 2030 through a combination of wind propulsion, new fuels and reduced speeds.

The New York Times reviews the small but growing market for electric vans and light trucks. EVs are well-suited for working fleets, as they often do not travel far in a day (100 miles maximum) and so do not need large and expensive batteries. These vehicles often return to a central lot where they can be conveniently recharged overnight. Companies testing these vehicles have measured savings from reduced fuel and maintenance costs of $10,000-12,000 per year, or $50,000 over the life of a vehicle. This is getting the attention of fleet operators. Said one, with a laugh, “When I look at the cost over five years, it’s almost like getting a free van.”