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Climate Change Blog 26 - Facts on the Ground; New Report Finds World's Oceans in Danger; Legal Rulings: Trump's EPA Can't Erase Interstate Smog Rules; Good News; Washington

By Carl Howard posted 10-24-2019 12:51 PM


Climate Change Blog 26

Facts on the Ground:

I had just written that hurricane (usually a violent storm over water) season is over so now it’s wildfire season in the US, but then a tornado (usually a violent storm over land) tore into Dallas, TX. The tornado caused panic at the Memphis airport and at least one death in Arkansas and destruction in Missouri and Tennessee. Passengers at Memphis International Airport were pulled off planes and directed to take shelter in terminal restrooms. In Dallas, the tornado brought golf-ball-size hail and lightning. About 85,000 people in the Dallas-Fort Worth region lost power.

In California, given the persistent drought and a forecast for high winds, Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest utility in the state, cut power to 500,000 customers as a precaution against sparking another fire. The outages extended from the edge of Silicon Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Mountains and affected 800,000 customers. The company was responsible for dozens of wildfires in recent years, including the state’s deadliest which destroyed the town of Paradise last November that killed 86 people. PG&E filed for bankruptcy in January facing tens of billions of dollars in wildfire liabilities. Thirty-four out of 58 counties in CA were affected by the power cut.

Police were dispatched to direct traffic and patrol against break-ins. Schools and businesses have shut down. The economic impact will be significant.

Climate change has led to changes in the jet stream and ocean currents which has led to oddities such as the early October snow-storm in Montana. Governor Steve Bullock issued a state of emergency after an unusually intense storm dropped 48 inches of snow on some parts of the state.

Climate change has been blamed for numerous record-setting weather events in the Northern Hemisphere this year. Heatwaves across Europe and the Arctic made this the hottest summer on record, the midwestern US is still recovering from terrible floods (see Blog 25), and this year’s hurricane season was unusually intense.

Here in NYC, we experienced record-breaking high temperatures (93F) on October 2, the hottest on this date since 1927 (when it reached 90). Both JFK and LaGuardia Airports hit 95 degrees, and it was 96 degrees in Newark.

In Hawaii, record heat has led to a ‘New Era’ of coral bleaching. The death of these corals jeopardize an important source of protection from storm surge, revenue from tourism and food for the state’s consumption and economy. The death of corals world-wide poses similar harms.

Because of climate change, the ocean has become too hot for too long.  It’s causing the corals to expel the symbiotic algae that lives inside them, which leaves their bony skeletons fragile and white. This is the third widespread coral bleaching in Hawaii since 2014. Bleaching events occurred in the 1990s and once in the 1980s, but it likely will become an annual event by 2040 unless carbon emissions globally are rapidly reduced. But corals may well be gone by then if they can’t adopt fast enough to warmer, more acidic, seas.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on the oceans (see below) predicted that marine heatwaves will be 20 times more frequent even if the world’s nations meet the pledges they made in the 2015 Paris accord to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Marine heatwaves could be 50 times more frequent if GHG emissions continue to increase. The bad news is that nations are falling short of the pledges they made to avert the most dire effects of climate change.

The US is currently the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide but Trump still plans to pull the US out of the accord as soon as possible, which is the day after the November 2020 election. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has similar intentions.

But new commitments have been made at local levels. Hawaii has bound itself to the Paris agreement and half the country is now part of the U.S. Climate Alliance in which states agree to accelerate policies that reduce carbon pollution and promote clean energy deployment.

Houston has again suffered through several severe storms and despite its attempts to adapt to the threat of climate change after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, passing tougher building codes, offering buyouts for flood-prone homes and budgeting billions of dollars in new funding for flood control, its residents still were over-whelmed.

Tropical Storm Imelda flooded at least 1,700 homes in Houston and surrounding Harris County. The question now is, ‘can a motivated vulnerable city make enough adaptations to survive?’ “It’s a race against time,” said Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, who talks about the pace of construction projects not in years, but in hurricane seasons. “We’re being battered.”

Imelda hit parts of the county with two and a half feet of rain, killed five people and caused an estimated $8 billion in damage across the region. The storm, which struck two years and two weeks after Harvey, means Harris County has now suffered one 500-year rainfall event and two 100-year events since 2016.

Yet another storm (Lorenzo) broke records, not because it was a Category 5, but because it occurred in a place no climatologist ever expected to see it: the mid-Atlantic, about 1,420 miles southwest of the Azores, an archipelago of volcanic islands and home to about 250,000 people. No Category 5 storm had ever been recorded that far north and east in the Atlantic. Residents were warned to expect waves more than 70 feet high.

“This is something totally unusual for this kind of environment,” said Miguel Miranda, the president of the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and Atmosphere.  “Most of the infrastructure is not really prepared for this kind of situation.”

Returning to the horror of fires, 3,300 wildfires burned across Indonesia in September, turning the sky blood red over central Sumatra and creating dense clouds of smoke that have caused respiratory problems for nearly a million people.

Dense white smoke filled the air across Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo, known as Kalimantan, the two areas that were hardest hit. Many of the fires were set deliberately to clear land for plantations that produce palm oil and wood pulp for making paper.

The blazes occurred in sensitive rain forests where dozens of endangered species live, and have drawn comparisons to the wildfires in the Amazon basin that destroyed more than 2 million acres. Officials estimate that the fires burned more than 800,000 acres in Kalimantan. The smoke and flames threaten three species of endangered orangutans that are found only on Sumatra and Borneo.


New Report Finds World’s Oceans in Danger

Occasionally I refer to the Life Pyramid mentioned in Blog 1. Humanity is perched atop supporting blocks including resources derived from Land, and resources derived from Water/Oceans (as well as Climate and Political Stability). I have been writing about disruptions to the land in recent Blogs (flooding, fires, etc.). Now I’ll address a major new United Nations report issued by the IPCC which warns that the oceans are under severe strain from climate change, threatening our ability to harvest seafood and the well-being of hundreds of millions of people living on the coasts.

Fish populations are declining due to rising water temperatures, and oxygen levels are declining while acidity levels rise, posing risks to key marine ecosystems. Warmer seas, combined with rising sea levels, has produced ever more powerful tropical cyclones and floods, the report said, further endangering coastal regions.

“The oceans are sending us so many warning signals that we need to get emissions under control,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and a lead author of the report. “Ecosystems are changing, food webs are changing, fish stocks are changing, and this turmoil is affecting humans.”

For decades, the oceans have protected us from global warming, absorbing about 25% of the carbon dioxide that humans emit from power plants, factories and cars, and absorbing more than 90% of the excess heat trapped on Earth by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Without that protection, the land would be heating much more rapidly.

But the oceans themselves are becoming hotter and less oxygen-rich as a result, according to the report. If humans keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an increasing rate, the risks to human food security and coastal communities will increase sharply, particularly since marine ecosystems are already facing threats from plastic pollution, unsustainable fishing practices and other man-made stresses.

“We are an ocean world, run and regulated by a single ocean, and we are pushing that life support system to its very limits through heating, deoxygenation and acidification,” said Dan Laffoley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The report, which was written by more than 100 international experts and is based on more than 7,000 studies, represents the most extensive look to date at the inter-related effects of climate change on oceans, ice sheets, mountain snowpack and permafrost.

For instance, as ice sheets atop Greenland and Antarctica melt and raise ocean levels, the report said, previously rare extreme flooding could start occurring once a year or more, on average, in many coastal regions this century. How soon this occurs is dependent on how quickly humanity reduces GHG emissions.

Globally, glaciers are fast receding, affecting the availability of water for millions of people who depend on meltwater for drinking, irrigation and production of electricity through dams and hydropower.

Perhaps most alarming is the report’s description of major oceanic shifts that are already occuring. Three examples: the doubling in frequency since the 1980s of marine heat waves which kill fish, seabirds, coral reefs and seagrasses; the changed migration of numerous fish populations far from their usual locations to find cooler waters, which disrupts local fishing industries; and, the decline in floating sea ice in the Arctic Ocean at rates that are likely unprecedented for at least 1,000 years.

The havoc caused by heat waves in coastal communities is being felt in the North Pacific Ocean, where a “blob” of unusually hot water in 2013 and 2014, partly fueled by global warming, killed thousands of seabirds and helped spawn toxic algae blooms that closed fisheries from California to British Columbia. And now, the blob is back.

The blob in ’14-15 was about 8 to 10 times the size of Alaska. And the current blob is comparable. Researchers think that climate change strongly influences the blob’s creation.

“Parts of Hawaii saw about 50% coral loss for the 2015 event,” according to Jamison Gove, a research oceanographer with NOAA. “It was particularly devastating in areas off Hawaii Island and Maui.” Reef watchers said they were worried about a repeat.

Entire fisheries collapsed along the Pacific during the previous heat wave as high water temperatures upended the aquatic food web. According to some estimates, 100 million cod disappeared off the coast of southern Alaska. Last year, officials in the Gulf of Alaska reduced permitted cod catches by 80% to allow stocks to rebuild in the wake of the heat wave, upsetting the local fishing industry.

“When that happens, it’s like a punch in the gut,” said Brett Veerhusen, a fisheries consultant and commercial fisherman. “And it’s not just fishermen who are affected, it’s an entire supply chain, from processing plants to shipping to grocery stores and restaurants.”

The report notes that some pathogens are proliferating in warmer waters, including vibrio, a bacteria that infects oysters and other shellfish, and has sickened some 80,000 Americans who eat raw or undercooked seafood each year.

Warming waters can trigger the release of a neurotoxin called domoic acid from algae. Shellfish eat the algae and when animals eat the shellfish they get sick and can die. Tens of thousands of dead seabirds washed up on beaches during the 2014 blob, as did sick and dying sea lions. In 2016, domoic acid also prompted officials to close the California Dungeness crab fishery.

If fossil-fuel emissions continue to rise rapidly, the maximum sustainable harvest of ocean fish could decline by as much as 25% by century’s end. Given that 17% of the world’s animal protein comes from the ocean, and millions of people worldwide depend on fishing for their livelihoods, such a decline would be devastating.

The report recommends the obvious reduction of GHGs but is frank about the need to adapt to now unavoidable changes. Even if nations rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels and limit global warming to below an increase of 2C from preindustrial levels, the world’s oceans and frozen landscapes still will be drastically altered by the end of the century. Warm-water coral reefs face devastation. Global sea levels likely will rise another 1 to 2 feet this century as ice sheets and glaciers melt. Fish populations will continue to migrate into new markets (or crash), likely creating winners and losers among fishing nations and potentially leading to conflicts.

Because sea levels will continue to rise, the report notes that coastal cities will need to build costly sea walls and many people likely will need to move away from low-lying areas. To prevent seafood stocks from collapsing, fishery managers will need to halt unsustainable fishing practices.

Recognizing that despite decades of warnings and reports, global GHG emissions continue to rise, the report states that such adaptation measures may be ineffective. The worst-case emissions scenario with unchecked GHG emissions throughout the century may produce sea levels rising at a relentless pace for hundreds of years, potentially reaching 17 feet or higher by 2300.

“Our fate is probably somewhere in between” the best- and worst-case emissions scenarios laid out in the report, said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University and a lead author of the report’s chapter on sea levels. “But if you think about the possibility of indefinite or even accelerating sea level rise for centuries to come, that bodes very poorly for coastal civilization.”


Legal Rulings: Trump's EPA Can’t Erase Interstate Smog Rules:

Out of more than 50 court rulings on agency policy under Trump, the government has lost 93%, according to tracking by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law. The two latest rulings concern interstate pollution. The first involved a Trump-appointed judge, Gregory Katsas, a deputy White House counsel before his appointment to the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. He was joined by Judges Judith Rogers and Thomas Griffith in finding that the administration's so-called "Close-Out Rule" was not permissible under the Clean Air Act. (Rogers was appointed by President Clinton, and Griffith by President George W. Bush.)

The ruling struck a 2018 Trump administration rule that had relieved states of their obligation to curb air pollution that causes smog in downwind states hundreds of miles away. EPA must now propose a new plan for addressing the nation's long-standing problems with ground-level ozone, or smog, to meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act. It's a task complicated by Trump’s rolling back the restrictions on coal power plant pollution in the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration's signature policy on climate change.

The EPA finalized the "Close-Out Rule" last year, ending a requirement that upwind states reduce smog-forming pollution from coal power plants. EPA concluded it was not feasible to implement cost-effective measures, and it projected that all states would soon be in compliance with federal ozone standards without further federal action.

New York, Connecticut and New Jersey sued, arguing that they each had areas with serious smog problems and would be unable to meet the federal ozone standard by the law's 2021 deadline because of pollution from other states. The appeals court panel agreed with them, ruling that the Clean Air Act's Good Neighbor Provision requires that upwind states eliminate significant contributions to other states' pollution problems without regard to feasibility.

The ruling is connected to a decision by the same court a few weeks earlier in a separate case, in which an Obama administration rule that would have partially addressed upwind pollution was thrown out on the same legal basis for not going far enough.

The court noted that the EPA had indicated it might seek rehearings before the full court of appeals on both cases. Given how little time remained for the downwind states to meet the 2021 ozone deadline, the court set an expedited schedule giving the Trump administration until Oct. 28 to file for rehearing.

The genesis of much of the smog that troubles cities is pollution from coal-fired power plants and industrial smokestacks many miles away, combined with emissions from traffic on urban roadways.

Although the Obama administration's cross-state pollution rule only partially addressed the upwind pollution problem, it projected that its Clean Power Plan would result in significant reductions of smog-forming pollutants.

As a side benefit of cutting carbon emissions from coal power plants, the Obama EPA projected smog-forming nitrogen oxides would fall 22% by 2030 compared to the status quo without the rule in place. The Trump administration expects nitrogen oxide emissions to fall by only 0.9% by 2030 compared to the status quo. The Obama and Trump administrations have wildly different projections on pollution trends. The Trump administration sees pollution falling so quickly without regulation that no further controls are necessary.

Without a strong climate policy to reduce coal power pollution in place, the Trump administration has fewer options for addressing smog. Federal officials may have to look to regulation of other industrial sources of pollution if they are to meet the requirements of the law as articulated by the court.

Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that joined in the case, said the decision will benefit more than 36 million people in the Eastern United States and Texas who live in counties that have ozone levels exceeding the federal standard.


Good News:

Pennsylvania, a major fossil fuel state intends to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

Pennsylvania is second to Texas in natural gas production, and third behind Wyoming and West Virginia in coal. Its Governor, Tom Wolf (D) said: "If we want a Pennsylvania that is habitable for our children and grandchildren, where temperatures aren't in the 90s in October ... where flooding doesn't destroy homes and businesses over and over again, we need to get serious right now about addressing the climate crisis."  

If Pennsylvania joins the Northeast's carbon market for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, it would be the largest expansion of the initiative since its inception a decade ago and a milestone in the drive by states to counter the impact of the Trump administration's retreat from climate action.

Pennsylvania would become the largest member in terms of carbon emissions of RGGI, now a nine-state compact to curb pollution from electricity. The other states are NY, ME, VT, MD, CT, MA, DE, NH and RI.

But Wolf’s plan to join RGGI may require action by the Republican-controlled state legislature. The Wolf administration shared a proposal indicating that legislative action is needed to authorize spending the hundreds of millions of dollars per year in proceeds from carbon fees that the state should receive from RGGI. Wolf noted that electricity prices have fallen in the RGGI states while rising overall in the nation.

New Jersey was an original RGGI member but Gov. Chris Christie (R) withdrew it. NJ is currently working to establish rules to rejoin RGGI, perhaps by Jan. 1, 2020.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) tried to join RGGI but was blocked earlier this year by the state's Republican-controlled legislature.

Pennsylvania's move is significant because it would bring the first major fossil fuel producer into RGGI. Because RGGI puts a price on carbon in the electricity marketplace, it reduces demand for those fuels—with coal taking the biggest hit at first.

Pennsylvania gets 40% of its power from nuclear energy, about twice the national average, and the state's nine nuclear power stations have struggled to compete against abundant, cheap natural gas. Some Pennsylvania lawmakers have been pushing the idea of a direct ratepayer subsidy to bail out the nuclear industry—a move that would raise electricity prices throughout the state.

Since RGGI started in 2009, participating states have cut their carbon emissions from electric generation by 47% which is 90% faster than the rest of the country, according to a study by the nonprofit Acadia Center.

Electricity prices in RGGI states have fallen 5.7%, while rising in the rest of the country by 8.6%. Their economies have grown at a faster pace than those of other states, and they've generated $3.2 billion in revenue from the carbon permit auction system.



A report from the National Task Force on the Rule of Law and Democracy, a nonpartisan taskforce of former government officials, found that the treatment of science by the Trump administration has hit a “crisis point” where research findings are manipulated for political gain, special interests are given improper influence and scientists are targeted for ideological reasons. Safeguards meant to ensure that government research is objective and fully available to the public are now at a nadir under Trump.

The report states that there are “almost weekly violations” of previously cherished norms, with the current administration attempting “not only to politicize scientific and technical research on a range of topics, but also, at times, to undermine the value of objective facts themselves.”

The report echoes complaints by a number of former federal government officials who claim their work on areas such as the climate crisis and pollution standards was either sidelined or subverted by the Trump administration as part of its zeal for environmental deregulation.

 “Politics is driving decisions and has been for some time,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican and former administrator of the EPA. Whitman co-chairs the taskforce with former US attorney Preet Bharara. “Right now, any finding that seems to be restricting business, especially the energy industry, appears to be destined for elimination,” Whitman said.

The taskforce, formed under the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, cites the recent “sharpiegate” scandal, in which Trump erroneously claimed a hurricane would hit Alabama, subsequently holding up a doctored map. Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were reportedly pressured to back the president or risk being fired.

In another case, economists at the Department of Agriculture were relocated after they published findings showing the Trump administration’s trade policies would harm farmers. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attempted to relocate 547 employees from the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington DC to Kansas City, Missouri.

At the EPA, scientific advisory boards have been redrawn to include more industry representatives. The EPA’s leadership also told scientists to reverse their findings in a report that showed the economic benefits to protecting wetlands from pollution, while suppressing a separate study that found a far greater threat is posed by a toxic chemical in water than previously thought.

“Let’s face it, without credible science the fundamental responsibilities of our government are threatened,” said Thomas Burke, who was a senior official in the EPA’s office of research and development during the Obama administration. “I fear the public has lost faith in our agencies, and our best and brightest are being discouraged and blocked from federal service.”


Climate Change Not on Agenda For 2020 G7 Summit

Climate change will not be discussed when Trump hosts the Group of Seven summit next year in the US. Mick Mulvaney, still “acting” as the White House chief of staff, said that the G7 summit would be held at Trump National Doral, Florida from June 10-12, 2020 (after an uproar a new location will be selected), and that "climate change will not be on the agenda.”

The topic has been one of contention among G7 leaders as Trump calls the crisis a hoax and questions government reports that warn of serious consequences if action isn't taken. At the most recent summit, Trump was notably absent from a session on climate change that was attended by all of the heads of government of the other six countries.

The views expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-Chair
Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl