Climate Change Blog 24
Facts on the Ground:
The US women’s soccer team beat and heat and the Netherlands to win the World Cup. The Tour de France rode through record-breaking heat. But in NYC, I was denied the opportunity to compete in my 10th NYC Triathlon as the heat forced the cancellation of the event for the first time ever.
It’s summer and it’s record-breaking hot in many places globally. The Arctic, including much of Siberia, is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world, and the permafrost — “permanently” (i.e., year-round) frozen ground — is thawing. As it thaws it releases huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas which threatens to trigger a possibly irreversible ‘positive” feed-back loop: the more methane released the warmer the atmosphere; the warmer the atmosphere the more permafrost thaws releasing more methane.
At the local level, the loss of permafrost deforms the landscape, makes farming hard if not impossible, knocks down houses and barns, and disrupts migration patterns of animals hunted and relied on by indigenous peoples for centuries. Severe floods wreak havoc almost every spring threatening entire villages with permanent inundation. Waves erode the less frozen Arctic coastline. The loss of permafrost also afflicts the regional capital, Yakutsk. Subsiding ground has damaged about 1,000 buildings, while roads and sidewalks require constant repair.
“Everything is changing, people are trying to figure out how to adapt,” said Afanasiy V. Kudrin, 63, a farmer in Nalimsk, a village of 525 people above the Arctic Circle. “We need the cold to come back, but it just gets warmer and warmer and warmer.”
“People don’t comprehend the scale of this change, and our government is not even thinking about it,” said Aleksandr N. Fedorov, deputy director of the Melnikov Permafrost Institute, a research body in Yakutsk.
In a regionwide pattern, the average annual temperature in Yakutsk has risen more than four degrees, to 18.5 F from 14 F, over several decades, said Mr. Fedorov.
Warmer winters and longer summers are steadily thawing the frozen earth that covers 90 percent of Yakutia. The top layer that thaws in summer and freezes in winter can extend down as far as 10 feet where three feet used to be the maximum.
The government is also unable to address other environmental problems, including wildfires surging through millions of acres of remote forest across Siberia. Reaching them is too costly.
European climate researchers declared last July the hottest month ever recorded, eclipsing the previous record-holder, July 2016. This continues a long-term trend: The past five years have been the hottest on record, including the record single year in 2016. The 10 hottest years have all occurred in the past two decades. This June was the warmest on record, and the previous five months were among the four warmest for their respective months. That puts this year on track to be in the top five, or perhaps the hottest ever.
Temperature records were set in Paris (108.6F), France, in Germany (108.7), Belgium (105), and the Netherlands (104), and Cambridge, England, (100.5). “This is only the second time temperatures over 100 Fahrenheit have been recorded in the U.K.,” the Met Office tweeted. World Weather Attribution found that climate change made the heat wave more likely. (In the US, Phoenix had 128 days at or above 100F last year and can expect that to be its new normal.)
The highest above-average conditions were recorded across Alaska, Greenland and large swathes of Siberia. Large parts of Africa and Australia were warmer than normal, as was much of Central Asia. Nuclear reactors in France and Germany were forced to reduce output or shut down because the water used to cool them was too warm.
As uncomfortable as Europe’s heat wave was (and many deaths were attributed to it), the larger danger comes from the melting ice caps on Greenland which is where the heat wave hit after Europe. Greenland’s ice sheets melted at near-record levels. On the southwestern coast, Nuuk, the capital, reported temperatures in the high 50Fs, about 10 degrees higher than average for this time of year.
The warmth increased the surface melting of Greenland’s vast ice sheet, which covers about 80% of the island. Analysis of satellite data by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., showed that melting extended across 380,000 square miles, or about 60% of the total ice area. But while the extent of melting has been higher than average this year — including a day in June that set an early-season record — it is less than the record 2012 melt season, when warm temperatures persisted for much of the summer and at one point nearly 100% of the ice sheet was melting.
Greenland’s ice sheet is nearly two miles thick in places, and if as some fear we have passed the tipping point and all of it were to melt, global sea levels will rise about 24 feet. Melting has increased in recent decades because of climate change and has been outstripping accumulation from snow, resulting in a net loss of ice. Estimates vary, but a 2018 study found that the ice sheet has been losing an average of nearly 300 billion tons of ice per year this decade, contributing a total of about one-quarter of an inch to global sea level rise over that time.
The hottest summers in Europe in the past 500 years have all come in the past 17 years. Several heat waves have been linked to human-caused climate change. In the years ahead, many more are likely to scorch temperate zones like northern Europe.
Nicky Maxey, a spokeswoman for the weather service, said, “Heat waves are extreme weather events, but research shows that with climate change, they are likely to become more common, perhaps occurring as regularly as every other year.”
She said that a Met Office study into the heat wave that Britain experienced last summer showed it was 30 times more likely for a heat wave to occur now than in 1750 “because of the higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
The French authorities had issued hundreds of warnings to avoid the devastating death toll the country suffered during the 2003 heat wave, which contributed to almost 15,000 deaths.
In Myanmar, thirty inches of water flooded much of Mon State in early August. At least 50 people were killed, dozens are missing, over 105,000 have been displaced and mudslides buried nearly 30 houses. The effects of heavier than normal rains were exacerbated by heavy deforestation for mines and plantations and timbering operations which destabilized mountain-sides.
Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply
A recent United Nations report states that the world’s land and water resources are being exploited at “unprecedented rates.” Combined with climate change there is a very real question as to whether humanity will be able to feed itself. The report was released in early August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group of scientists convened by the UN that gathers and summarizes a wide range of existing research to help governments understand climate change and make policy decisions. This report was prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries and states that the window to address the threat is rapidly closing. A half-billion people already live in places turning into desert, and soil is being lost between 10 and 100 times faster than it is forming.
Climate change is making these threats worse, as floods, drought, storms and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over time shrink, the global food supply. Already, more than 10% of the world’s population is undernourished, and food shortages lead to an increase in cross-border migration and refugees.
The heightening danger is that food crises could develop on several continents at once. Food shortages are likely to affect poorer parts of the world far more than richer ones. That could increase a flow of immigration that is already redefining politics in North America, Europe and other parts of the world.
Between 2010 and 2015 the number of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras moving to the US border with Mexico increased fivefold, coinciding with a dry period that left many with insufficient food and was so unusual that scientists attribute it to climate change.
The report predicts that climate change will accelerate the danger of severe food shortages. As a warming atmosphere intensifies the world’s droughts, flooding, heat waves, wildfires and other weather patterns, it is speeding up the rate of soil loss and land degradation. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — a GHG put there mainly by the burning of fossil fuels — will also reduce food’s nutritional quality, even as rising temperatures cut crop yields and harm livestock.
It is unlikely that the agriculture industry can adapt to these rapid changes. In fact, climate change is already hurting the availability of food due to decreased yields and lost land from erosion, desertification and rising seas, among other things. Food costs are also rising and will continue to do so which causes stress and rioting.
“[We’re] reaching a breaking point with land itself and its ability to grow food and sustain us,” said Aditi Sen, a senior policy adviser on climate change at Oxfam America, an antipoverty advocacy organization.
The report said that agricultural activities are contributing to climate change. For example, draining wetlands in Indonesia and Malaysia to create palm oil plantations is particularly damaging. When drained, peatlands, which store between 530 and 694 billion tons of carbon dioxide globally, release it back into the atmosphere. Every 2.5 acres of drained peatlands release the carbon dioxide equivalent of burning 6,000 gallons of gasoline.
The emission of carbon dioxide continues long after the peatlands are drained. Of the five gigatons of GHG emissions that are released each year from deforestation and other land-use changes, “One gigaton comes from the ongoing degradation of peatlands that are already drained,” said Tim Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. (By comparison, the fossil fuel industry emitted about 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide last year, according to the Institute.)
Cattle are significant producers of methane and an increase in global demand for beef and other meats has increased their numbers and promotes deforestation in critical forest systems like the Amazon.
Since 1961 methane emissions from ruminant livestock, which includes cows as well as sheep, buffalo and goats, have significantly increased, according to the report. And each year, the amount of forested land that is cleared — often for pasture for cattle — releases the emissions equivalent of driving 600 million cars.
Planting as many trees as possible would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by about nine gigatons each year, according to Pamela McElwee, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers University and one of the report’s lead authors. But it would also increase food prices as much as 80% by 2050.
“We cannot plant trees to get ourselves out of the problem that we’re in,” Dr. McElwee said. “The trade-offs that would keep us below 1.5 degrees, we’re not talking about them. We’re not ready to confront them yet.”
Preventing global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius is likely to require both the widespread planting of trees as well as “substantial” bioenergy to help reduce the use of fossil fuels, the report finds. And if temperatures increase more than that, the pressure on food production will increase as well, creating a vicious circle.
“Above 2 degrees of global warming there could be an increase of 100 million or more of the population at risk of hunger,” Edouard Davin, a researcher at ETH Zurich and an author of the report, said. “We need to act quickly.”
The report said that the longer policymakers wait, the harder it will be to prevent a global crisis. “Acting now may avert or reduce risks and losses, and generate benefits to society,” the authors wrote. Waiting to cut emissions, on the other hand, risks “irreversible loss in land ecosystem functions and services required for food, health, habitable settlements and production.”
A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises
Seventeen countries, including parts of India, Iran and Botswana, are currently under extremely high water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have, according to new World Resources Institute data published in early August. Large cities have faced acute shortages recently, including São Paulo, Brazil; Chennai, India; and Cape Town, which in 2018 faced Day Zero — the day when all its dams would be dry.
Climate change heightens the risk. As rainfall becomes more erratic, the water supply becomes less reliable. As the days grow hotter, more water evaporates from reservoirs just as demand for water increases. Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, is drawing groundwater so fast that the city is literally sinking. Dhaka, Bangladesh, relies so heavily on its groundwater for both its residents and its water-intense garment factories that it draws water from aquifers hundreds of feet deep. Chennai’s residents, accustomed to relying on groundwater for years, are now finding there’s none left. Across India and Pakistan, farmers are draining aquifers to grow water-intensive crops like cotton and rice.
WRI data shows that among cities with more than 3 million people, 33 of them, with a combined population of over 255 million, face extremely high water stress, with repercussions for public health and social unrest. By 2030, the number of cities in the extremely high stress category may rise to 45 and include 470 million people.
After a three-year drought, Cape Town in 2018 was forced to take extraordinary
measures to ration what little it had left in its reservoirs. That acute crisis magnified a chronic conflict with Cape Town’s 4 million residents competing with farmers for limited water.
For Bangalore, years of paltry rains revealed the city’s mismanagement of its water. The many lakes that once dotted the city and its surrounding areas have either been built-over or filled with the city’s waste. They can no longer store rainwater. And so the city ventures further away for water for its 8.4 million residents, and much of it is wasted along the way.
New York Awards Offshore Wind Contracts in Bid to Reduce Emissions
As noted in Blog 23, NYS last month passed an ambitious law to reduce the emissions that cause climate change. In July it reached an agreement for two wind farm projects, which will be the country’s largest. They will be built off the coast of Long Island and should start operation within the next five years. One of the projects will be 14 miles south of Jones Beach and the other will be 30 miles north of Montauk. They are meant to be an important part of the state’s plan to get 70% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The projects will be built by a division of Equinor, the Norwegian oil and gas company, and a joint venture between Orsted, a Danish company, and Eversource Energy, an American firm.
Offshore wind farms have increasingly become mainstream energy sources in Northern Europe. They supply some of the cheapest electricity in Britain and Germany. Offshore wind’s share of annual electricity generation in Britain increased to more than 6% in 2017, from less than 1% in 2010. By 2020, it may reach 10%.
Wind farms in the US provided about 7% of all electricity last year, up from about 2% in 2010. Almost all of those turbines are on land. Interest in offshore wind has grown in recent years as fears of climate change have mounted and technological advancements have reduced the cost of power from offshore turbines. Developers have also figured out ways to put turbines in deeper waters so that they are not visible from shore.
There are currently five commercial wind turbines in American waters, near Block Island, R.I. Several other projects are in development, including a small one under construction in Virginia by Dominion Energy. New Jersey last month selected Orsted to build a 1,100-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Atlantic City.
But some other projects, like Vineyard Wind’s plans for turbines near Martha’s Vineyard, have been delayed by federal and local officials.
The NY wind projects must still clear permitting and environmental hurdles. And the cost of the project will not be disclosed until after the agreements have been signed.
The state has set ambitious targets for renewable energy, but it received less than 5% of its electricity from wind and solar last year, according to the Energy Information Administration. NY faces numerous hurdles in increasing the use of renewable energy. In addition to finding space for more wind turbines and solar farms, it has to build more transmission lines — projects that invariably draw opposition from residents and others.
The EPA’s Inspector General will investigate allegations that William L. Wehrum, the agency’s former air quality chief, violated ethics rules when he met with former clients from his days as a lawyer and lobbyist for the oil, gas and coal industries.
The inquiry will look into whether Mr. Wehrum’s efforts at the EPA to weaken climate change and air pollution standards improperly benefited those former clients.
At issue are Mr. Wehrum’s ties to the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a coalition of utilities and trade groups that lobbies on behalf of coal-fired power plants, which he represented as a lawyer at his former firm, Hunton & Williams.
Last year Politico reported that the 25 power companies and six trade groups that make up the coalition paid the firm more than $8 million in 2017 just before Trump appointed Mr. Wehrum. (The law firm is now known as Hunton Andrews Kurth. The Utility Air Regulatory Group announced its intention to disband.)
Mr. Wehrum resigned after helping to finalize a regulation relaxing restrictions the Obama administration had sought to impose on GHG emissions from coal-fired power plants. As the agency’s assistant administrator for air and radiation, he was the legal expert behind other rollbacks of key climate change and air pollution regulations, including weakening Obama-era regulations on GHG emissions from automobiles and methane from oil and gas wells. (A coalition of 22 states and 7 cities in mid-August sued to block the rollback.)
The House Energy and Commerce Committee opened an inquiry into whether Mr. Wehrum and David Harlow — a senior counsel at the EPA who worked with Mr. Wehrum at the law firm — improperly worked to reverse an enforcement action against a former client, DTE Energy.
Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, sent an investigative report to the EPA Inspector General that outlined allegations about both Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Harlow. Those included accusations that Mr. Wehrum’s recusal statements did not disclose some meetings with former clients.
Michael Abboud, issued a statement from EPA disputing the facts in the Senate Democrats’ report and described it as “a replay of old allegations that have repeatedly been answered by the agency and Mr. Wehrum.”
Under ethics rules developed under both the Obama and Trump administrations, public officials are not permitted to take part in “particular matters” involving specific parties that they represented in the private sector.
Four of the world’s largest automakers reached a deal with California to reduce tailpipe pollution, in a setback to the Trump administration as it prepares to weaken national emissions standards and revoke states’ rights to set their own such rules.
While Trump administration officials in the White House and EPA have been working to weaken Obama-era rules on planet-warming vehicle emissions, four automakers — Ford, Honda, Volkswagen Group of America and BMW of North America — held secretive talks in Sacramento on a plan to move forward with the standards in California, the nation’s largest auto market. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California said he was “very confident” that more automakers would join the deal.
The move is another blow in the battle between Mr. Trump and California, a state which has filed more than 50 lawsuits against his administration. “We in California see these regulations as a good thing. The Trump administration is hellbent on rolling them back,” Mr. Newsom said. “They are in complete denialism about climate change.”
Spokesmen for the White House and the EPA did not comment on the deal.
Environmental policy experts called it a powerful pushback against Trump’s efforts to unwind one of the central policies of the Obama administration to fight climate change. “I think this is a breakthrough,” said Daniel Lashof, the US director of the World Resources Institute. “This shows that state leadership is indispensable. That’s where the leadership is coming from right now in the US on climate.”
The EPA and Transportation Department are expected to announce this summer a plan that would effectively eliminate the Obama-era rule, which requires passenger vehicles to achieve an average mileage of about 52.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That rule would have significantly lowered vehicle emissions of planet-warming GHG pollution. Instead, the new standard will be about 51 miles per gallon by 2026.
The new Trump rule is expected to lower that standard to about 37 mpg. It is also expected to revoke the legal authority of California and other states to set their own, stricter, state-level standards.
In a joint statement, the four automakers said the agreement with California would lead to “much-needed regulatory certainty.” The deal would let them “meet both federal and state requirements with a single national fleet, avoiding a patchwork of regulations while continuing to ensure meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”
Trump has promoted his plan to roll back federal vehicle pollution standards as a gift to the auto industry. But automakers have said it could actually harm them by creating regulatory uncertainty as California and other states claimed the legal right to set their own standards and fought back in the courts.
Thirteen other states already follow the California pollution standards, and are expected to fight in court if the Trump administration revokes their right to do so. Automakers fear that a mix of state and federal pollution standards could split the US auto market, forcing them to make and sell entirely different types of vehicles in different states.
Last month, 17 automakers sent a letter to Mr. Trump telling him that his plan to weaken tailpipe pollution standards threatened to cut their profits and produce “untenable” instability in a crucial manufacturing sector.
In response, a White House spokesman blamed California, saying it “failed to put forward a productive alternative.”
After that letter, several auto companies approached California officials asking if they could work out a separate deal. “It became clear very quickly that following up on that letter and the lack of response from the administration that they were ready to sit down with us,” said Mary D. Nichols, California’s top clean air official.
On July 30, 2019, Rod Schoonover published an opinion piece in the NYT. He wrote that the White House blocked his report on Climate Change and National Security forcing him to quit his job as an intelligence analyst for the State Department.
His focus was on the impact of climate change on national security, a growing concern of the military and intelligence communities. For ten years he enjoyed the apolitical nature of the work in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
But in June the White House blocked the submission of his bureau’s written testimony on the national security implications of climate change to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The stated reason was that the scientific foundation of the analysis did not comport with the administration’s position on climate change.
Mr. Schoonover was permitted to give a five-minute verbal summary of the 11-page testimony. Congress was deprived of the full analysis, including the scientific baseline from which it was drawn. And this written testimony on this critical topic was never entered into the official record.
The bottom line was this: “Climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security over the next 20 years.” This assessment is based on peer-reviewed scientific studies and findings of the government’s own scientists. This conclusion was not new. The intelligence community has repeatedly warned of the dangers that climate change poses to national security. Earlier this year, Dan Coats, then director of national intelligence, warned in the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” that, “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”
As I have been chronicling in this Blog, decades of scientific measurements have established that global temperatures are rising and ocean waters are acidifying. As a result we are seeing changes in Earth system processes: in the atmosphere, ocean, freshwater, soil, ice masses, permafrost and organisms comprising the biosphere. Some, as Mr. Schoonover says, are well known, like increased frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts and rising sea levels. Others are less familiar, like decreasing oceanic oxygen levels and the redistribution of species.
And consistent with the Life Pyramid I noted in Blog 1 (http://communities.nysba.org/blogs/carl-howard/2017/08/15/global-climate-change-blog-1-81517) where humanity balances atop the healthy and well-functioning oceans, land, stable climate and politics, Mr. Schoonover notes that the disruption to our basic Earth systems “combine with existing social and political conditions and can disrupt societies and nations. They harm people directly or degrade the social, political, economic, agricultural, ecological or infrastructural systems that support them.”
He wrote that “we should expect disruptions to global water and food security, reduced economic security and weakened livelihoods, worsened human and animal health, and risks to the global supply chain on which the United States and its partners depend. Political instability, heightened tensions over resources, climate-linked humanitarian crises and adverse effects to militaries in some places are likely to increase. Migration will probably increase both within and between nations, with sociopolitical and resource implications already becoming clear.”
As I’ve said, we could not be more effectively and systematically undermining the Life Pyramid if we tried.
After the administration changed in 2017, Mr. Schroonover saw his job as even more important because of the skepticism within the Trump administrative over climate change. The intelligence community tries to deliver objective truth to decision makers regardless of who occupies the White House. But the Trump administration “decision to block the written testimony is another example of a well-established pattern in this administration of undercutting evidence that contradicts its policy positions.” “When a White House can shape or suppress intelligence analysis that it deems out of line with its political messaging, then the intelligence community has no true analytic independence. I believe such acts weaken our nation.” And threaten the planet.
The views expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter: @Howard.Carl