September 15 2020

September 15 2020

the West is on fire (and it’s going to get worse), renewable power did not cause rolling blackouts, growing spinach under solar panels, Alexander von Humboldt — the “father of ecology”, cost of wind and solar is even lower than we thought

In the New York Intelligencer, David Wallace-Wells describes the remarkable fires burning in California and their connection to climate change. Lightning strikes ignited over 500 fires in the state’s dry landscape, and in five days in August more land burned than in all of 2019 (the Los Angeles Times describes how the lightning strikes originated from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fausto). An article in Vox provides more background on the fires, as does another in the New York Times (and also in MIT Technology Review). The authors note that many factors, including the sustained heat and aridity due to climate change and the fuel accumulation due to fire suppression over many decades, are contributing to the intensity of the fires.

Of course, this was all happening without the impact of the Diablo winds, the dry offshore winds that drive California’s greatest fire danger. Two days of these winds arrived September 8-10, and Wallace-Wells reports that the results (particularly in Oregon and Washington) have been absolutely disastrous. As of September 11, the New York Times notes that six of California’s 20 largest wildfires have occurred this year, and more Diablo winds can be expected in the coming weeks. Climate change is no longer an abstract concept in California, with cascading impacts of drought leading to fire, smoke and subsequent deterioration of drinking water due to contamination and loss of treatment facilities. Then there will be the follow-on impacts on the electrical grid and the insurance market (and, of course, all of this is happening during a pandemic). In the Guardian, Peter Gleick describes how the changes we are seeing now are consistent with projections made by climate scientists decades ago.

Grist reports that California and the federal government reached an agreement to restore a million acres of forestland a year by thinning trees, chipping up downed wood, prescribed burns and some timber operations. This agreement covers around 34 million acres in and around areas managed by the Forest Service. Wallace-Wells notes that, with the fire season growing every year due to global warming, even more ambitious efforts will be required.

An article in the Atlantic provides a concise and elegant description of how climate change is altering life in California and beyond. UC Santa Barbara political science professor, Leah Stokes, says that she has lived just five years in California, but has already experienced years-long drought and unprecedented heat waves, and has had to evacuate as a wildfire closed in on her home. Yet she explains how some, including the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, right-wing talk show hosts and Fox News, still refuse to acknowledge that climate change is driving these problems (Senator Diane Feinstein makes the case in the Los Angeles Times). Professor Stokes notes that a better world in the future is still possible, but that we must take bold action — and I couldn’t agree more. As I noted last year, the need to wear N95 masks to venture outside must be a clarion call to renew our commitment to fight for climate action as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.

Meanwhile, InsideClimate News reports on record-setting flooding in China, with 55 million people across 27 provinces affected. Over 150 people are already dead and over $20 billion in direct damages have accrued through the end of July. While the precise role of global warming in this flood season is under investigation, scientists project that the historical 1-in-100-year high river flow will happen once every 50 to 60 years if the global temperature rises 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

A narrative that somehow renewable power sources were responsible for the recent rolling blackouts in California has been advanced by The Wall Street Journal and other “conservative” media outlets. In National Geographic, an article cites the managers of the California power grid and other experts who have concluded that this narrative is absolutely untrue.

The Los Angeles Times describes an important but often overlooked impact of sea level rise — the increased elevation of groundwater. As sea level rises, pressure increases on connected groundwater basins, causing the water to rise toward the surface. This can flood basements, damage foundations, buckle pipes, destabilize roadbeds and drive polluted groundwater to the surface. It also forces saltwater into freshwater basins, making groundwater unsuitable for drinking or irrigation. This and other impacts are very well summarized in What Threat Does Sea Level Rise Pose to California? from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office. Unfortunately, reports that the melting of the great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica is currently tracking with the worst-case scenarios described by climate scientists, suggesting that sea level rise will be at the higher end of existing projections.

Anthropocene Magazine describes a new innovation in the growing sector of agrivoltaics, where farmers grow crops while also generating electricity using solar panels. Using semi-transparent panels that generate electricity while also transmitting certain wavelengths to the crops below, researchers concluded that a farmer growing spinach in this configuration could increase total revenue by 35%. During the pandemic lockdown in Delhi, the 50% drop in air pollution resulted in an 8% increase in the output of solar panels.

AP News reports on a recent study by the U.N. Environment Program and the International Energy Agency that examines the challenge of future air-conditioning load. As the world warms, air-conditioning load is projected to quadruple by 2050, but air conditioners use electricity that may be produced by burning fossil fuels and operate with refrigerant chemicals that are themselves powerful greenhouse gases. The study concludes that higher efficiency and the replacement of harmful refrigerants could prevent the equivalent of four to eight years of current global greenhouse-gas emissions over the next four decades (banning these refrigerants is one of the fastest ways to curb global warming, eliminating up to 0.4°C temperature rise by 2100).

Many people are familiar with the name Humboldt — whether it’s Humboldt County, the Humboldt Current, the Humboldt Mountains or Humboldt State University. This is a small part of the legacy of Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859), one of the world’s most remarkable scientists. If you have the time, I highly recommend The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, to learn of the amazing life of the man often called “the father of ecology.” If you don’t have time for a full book, I suggest an article about Humboldt on Weather Underground, which summarizes his remarkable life and accomplishments.

An op-ed by Greta Thunberg in the Guardian notes that “The climate and ecological crisis has never once been treated as a crisis. The gap between what we need to do and what’s actually being done is widening by the minute.” In Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell gives an explicit account of how President Trump, who could be so influential in correcting the problem Greta describes, is purposefully making the crisis worse.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, author Mark Hertsgaard reminds us that climate change is not just an “issue” or “problem,” it is an emergency. All the key data (summarized in the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency), whether reflecting the physical state of the climate, the drivers of change or the impacts of global warming, demonstrate that our efforts to address the emergency are still terribly inadequate. With each passing year, we accelerate the climate system toward irreversible tipping points, where feedbacks will drive climate change independent of human action. Even if we magically eliminated our greenhouse-gas emissions tomorrow, the Earth will continue to heat due to the impact of emissions already in the atmosphere. Given these enormous risks, the Scientists’ Warning describes key actions for our society if we are to protect ourselves and our descendants from the worst impacts.

Carbon Brief reports on a British government announcement that the cost of electricity from wind and solar has fallen even lower than expected. From a 2013 estimate of £140/MWh for electricity from an offshore wind farm, the latest estimate puts the cost at just £57/MWh. The report concludes that electricity from onshore wind or solar could be supplied in 2025 at half the cost of gas-fired power. These economics are a key driver of the growth of renewable-electricity production, which the Texas Observer notes is taking off in that state. The cost of developing a solar-power plant has dropped 40% in Texas in just the last five years. Forbes reports that the cost of building clean-energy plants in China is now well below that of fossil-fuel facilities. “Once again,” the author notes, “it’s cheaper to save the climate than destroy it.”

Energy News reports on the community-driven effort to bring solar energy, jobs and business to coal country in Eastern Virginia. A resilient and persistent effort by an array of partners in the region, driven by Appalachian Voices, has resulted in a commitment to install 12 MW of solar in the region. This includes working with community colleges to help train people losing jobs in the coal industry for the new solar industry, which received a boost when the newly elected Democratic Virginia legislature adopted renewable energy goals for the state.