September 30 2022

September 30 2022

Senate ratifies Kigali amendment, wildfires undoing benefits of Clean Air Act, sea level rise drives rising groundwater, eroding Nantucket, French nuclear power fails to rescue Europe

The New York Times reports that the U.S. Senate has ratified the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, becoming the 138th nation to do so. The 2016 Kigali Amendment will greatly reduce the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are powerful greenhouse gases. The article notes that Americans for Prosperity, a political action committee founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, sent a letter to lawmakers last week saying that ratifying the Kigali Amendment would be an “abdication (to the UN) of U.S. sovereignty over environmental regulation”. The group also argued it would raise the price of air-conditioning, refrigeration and industrial cooling for American consumers, a claim refuted by a spokesman for the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an industry trade group. The spokesman noted that the industry has spent years preparing for this change, and “if you’re a consumer, this isn’t going to make any difference to you whatsoever.”

Inside Climate News reports that California is considering legislation that would support “natural carbon sequestration programs” to encourage regenerative agriculture and the greening of the state’s cities and suburbs. The goal of these programs is to encourage practices that use ecological processes to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. Critics note that it is difficult to measure the actual carbon sequestration that occurs from regenerative agriculture, and that this sequestration (like other natural carbon solutions) can be impermanent if land-use practices change in the future. An excellent article in Sierra Magazine notes that, while agricultural practices such as not tilling the soil can store carbon (and improve water retention and soil health), there is a danger of over-hyping the beneficial impacts of these practices (Anthropocene Magazine describes how conclusions among studies vary depending upon how long they run and how deep into the soil they sample). Carbon sequestration by natural systems (such as peatlands and intact forests) is considerably greater. The Washington Post notes that the Inflation Reduction Act includes support for regenerative-agriculture practices such as planting cover crops, better managing water sources and conserving grasslands and other landscapes that sequester carbon. The bill also supports reforestation and forest conservation.

In the New York Times, David Wallace-Wells describes the impact of fires on air quality and human health in the western United States. “Over the past decade, smoke exposure has doubled or tripled across the American West. In 2020, wildfire smoke accounted for roughly half of the air pollution in the Western United States, which means that, on that side of the Rockies, as much toxic smog was coming from wildfires as from all human activity combined.” The wildfire pollution is enough to threaten the gains of the Clean Air Act, which — though it was passed five decades ago — is still saving an estimated 370,000 American lives each year. Already, he says, about 30% of the air-quality gains of the landmark law have been undone by wildfire smoke.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is requiring water users in the Colorado River Basin to reduce water diversions by 2-4 million acre feet/yr, which is about equal to the total municipal water use of the seven-state region. High Country News explains what is becoming obvious to everyone: agricultural users will have to reduce their consumption of water. Not all crops are as thirsty as others, and a key change that could conserve a lot of water is to reduce the cultivation of alfalfa (which is used to feed cattle). There are economic and political challenges to achieving this reduction, but there appears to be no feasible alternative. The New York Times notes that many look to the management of the Yakima River in Washington as a model for the future of the Colorado. In that watershed, a science-based collaboration among diverse stakeholders has produced a long-range plan to manage the river’s water for multiple benefits. Others point out that coordinating the interests of 350,000 people in the Yakima Basin pales in complexity to the challenges facing the 40 million dependent on the Colorado River.

The Washington Post reports on a recent study of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which concludes that our past emissions of greenhouse gases have already set in motion massive ice losses in Greenland that cannot be undone. The study projects that 3.3% of the ice sheet will now melt, causing nearly a foot of global sea level rise. This is higher than IPCC estimates using a different method, and the study’s lead author is one of many criticizing IPCC estimates as too conservative. Salon notes that there is debate in the scientific community about the rate at which the ice will melt, with some researchers expecting higher sea levels this century while others say it will take longer.

An episode of the podcast, Hidden Brain, explores the challenges of inevitable sea level rise. This includes a conversation with U.C. Berkeley professor, Kristina Hill, about the connection between sea level rise and groundwater, using examples from the Bay Area. Rising groundwater levels is an under-appreciated impact of sea level rise with profound implications for infrastructure (such as pipelines or septic tanks) buried in low-lying areas. This occurs because the groundwater and sea water often share an underground boundary. As sea level rises, the weight of that water pushes on the groundwater at that boundary, forcing the groundwater to the surface.

Grist reports on a new study that documents how utility companies in the U.S. collaborated with oil and gas companies to “promote doubt around climate change for the sake of continued… profits.” As if on cue to demonstrate that misinformation still permeates our public discussion, the President of the World Bank, David Malpass, when asked whether greenhouse gases cause climate change, trotted out the old and tired denier/delayer line, “I’m not a scientist.” The New York Times reports that this caused an international uproar, with a wide array of people calling for his resignation. Malpass issued a memo to World Bank staff stating, “it’s clear that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are causing climate change,” but this is doing little to assuage his critics.

An op-ed in the New York Times notes that, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the hard work of implementing the law to gain its benefits begins. The legislation provides funding and policy support for decarbonization, but we now have to build things — a lot of things — especially electrical transmission lines that bring renewable energy created by wind, solar and geothermal facilities to the places where people need that power. This is not something we’ve been good at in the U.S. during the last few decades and, as part of the passage of the bill, Senator Manchin was promised legislation to ease permitting for energy infrastructure (including fossil-fuel facilities like natural-gas pipelines). A Volts podcast looks at this issue in more detail with Abigail Dillen, President of Earthjustice. While we often hear the narrative that “environmental regulations” delay and hamper construction, Ms. Dillon notes that recent analyses conclude this is actually rarely the case, particularly when local stakeholders are part of the planning process from the beginning. Gina McCarthy, Biden’s outgoing national climate advisor, notes in the New York Times that, unlike in the past, private capital and major corporations are now aligned with the goal of cutting U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2030.

The New York Times reports on how climate change has altered the experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Backpackers now face the dangers of smoke, loss of shade and changes in water availability. Last year’s Dixie Fire, the largest in California’s history, burned 85 miles of the PCT. A recent report from climate scientists notes that it is going to get more challenging in the future: “the average thru-hiker is likely to experience nearly three times as many 90-degree days as they climb through Northern California and Oregon, alongside dwindling snowpack (the source of most water on the trail) and more intense and sporadic rainstorms.”

The New York Times examines the challenges of coastal erosion on Nantucket. Coastal sandy bluffs are eroding during major storm events, bringing coastal homes closer and closer to the edge and causing the homeowners to move their homes back from the sea. The article describes an experimental effort to limit bluff erosion using sand-filled tubes instead of a seawall. Local residents and regulatory agencies have conflicting viewpoints about the success and wisdom of these efforts, which at the moment have not been expanded to other areas.

The New Yorker looks at the safety of nuclear-power plants, given that many people are advocating for expanding nuclear power as a carbon-free source of electricity. While the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have long held that a major nuclear accident has an exceedingly low chance of occurring, it’s really hard to know such a thing with confidence. There have been about 14,000 “reactor-years” of operations during which there have been “five core-damage accidents”  — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the three reactors at Fukushima. These numbers, in a back-of-the-envelope sense, “suggest that the world should expect one full or partial meltdown every six to seven years.” With this summer’s heat wave in Europe, and a challenging winter ahead as Russia reduces natural-gas flows, there was great hope that France’s nuclear-power plants would help offset any energy shortfalls. Unfortunately, corrosion problems have required the shutdown of a dozen French reactors, and no one knows how long it will take to fix them (it could be years). In addition, the European heat wave has forced other units to go offline because warm river water no longer provides adequate cooling. “Altogether, French nuclear capacity has been effectively cut in half. The fact that nuclear power has fallen on its face when it is needed most is a hint that it is not the key to world energy security.”

An op-ed in the New York Times concludes that new nuclear-power plants don’t make much sense, and it is unlikely nuclear power will be making a major contribution to the world electricity supply by the middle of the century. That is the same conclusion I came to in my post, The Nuclear Mirage, and these doubts are echoed by the past Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Washington Post examines how the growing market for EVs and their components is revitalizing the manufacturing economy in the Midwest. The article focuses on the Rivian plant in Normal, Illinois.