Climate Change Blog 29
Facts on the Ground:
It’s hurricane season in the south. A series of violent and deadly storms have killed dozens, including 2 on April 19 and 6 on April 22 as tornadoes hit Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas. Homes were destroyed, two factories were damaged and thousands were left without power.
But over 100 storm tracks constituting the deadliest tornado outbreak in six years caused at least 36 deaths over two days in several southern states beginning on Easter Sunday. The storms covered over 770 miles, the worst one was on the ground for nearly 68 miles in Mississippi. First responders wearing face masks to protect against the spread of the Coronavirus searched for residents in their destroyed homes in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas. Radar revealed that “debris lift” (trees, structures from homes, etc.) was recorded at an elevation of 5,000 feet. While tornados are customary in Mississippi in April, the added warmth and extra humidity in the atmosphere due to global warming strengthens them and makes them extra destructive and lethal.
I’ve been reporting on the big-ticket items climatologists are watching, melting polar ice sheets, melting permafrost (that may be releasing bacteria and viruses long dormant that could unleash the kind of long-predicted global pandemic that we are currently experiencing but is not linked to climate change) and warming oceans and their effects including the bleaching and dying of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Recent reports reveal alarming developments, for the first time, along 1,500-miles of the natural wonder.
Oceans absorb 93% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by humans into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Recent findings show they are warming 40% faster on average than scientists estimated six years ago. A recent study revealed 2019 was the hottest year on record for the world’s oceans. Most concerning is the fact that in past years corals recovered from the stress of warming water if a cool period followed, a process that could take 10 to 15 years. But no such cooling is occurring now. A wide range of species of coral reefs all over the world are experiencing mass die-offs.
The worst die-off was in 2016 when approximately 30% of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef died. The 2019 die-off ranks second and predictions are the worst is yet to come.
Water temperature in February 2020, during the Southern Hemisphere summer, was the warmest month on record near the reef, with readings in some places peaking at more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average for the time of year.
Hundreds of millions of people are dependent for their protein on reef fish like the coral trout, which is being adversely affected by the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of marine species depend on the reefs. Scientists fear that the loss of that food supply could cause a humanitarian crisis.
As reported in Blog 28, Australia experienced its worst-ever wildfires in 2019 and that has been followed by the worst-ever coral bleaching. Research has stopped due to the Coronavirus. But what is known is that the record-breaking warm waters have bleached large parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef this year, as they did in 2016 and 2017. The Great Barrier Reef is experiencing its third mass bleaching event in five years and that reefs around the world have been dying at an alarming rate for several years because of global warming.
Reef corals grow very slowly, and while most of them can live only in warm water, they are highly sensitive to above-normal temperatures.
The Great Barrier Reef is estimated to support thousands of marine species, and it is essential to the lives of some aboriginal groups and the natives of the Torres Strait Islands, between the Australian mainland and New Guinea.
A detailed assessment of the reef published in 2019 found that about 40% of the reefs “are in poor to very poor condition,” and “some critical ecosystem functions have deteriorated since 2014.” And that was last year before the most recent warming.
The government of Scott Morrison, who is supported by and in return supportive of fossil fuel interests, and further supported by the dominant press owned by Rupert Murdoch (see Bog 28), announced in Reef 2050 a plan to reduce the water pollution that also threatens corals, reducing agricultural runoff, dredging and port development, and reducing the population of crown-of-thorns seastars, which feed on coral. Needless-to-say, such measures do not address global warming.
Global Climate Talks Delayed by Coronavirus
The 26th annual Convention of the Parties (COP26) was cancelled. The parties to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change were scheduled to meet in Nov 2020 but will instead gather in 2021.
While the conference is considered vital to the world’s ability to avert the worst effects of climate change, including fatal heat waves and flooded coastal cities, it has achieved nothing thus far in terms of binding GHG emissions reductions. The 196 signatory nations have all proposed their own emissions reductions in an attempt to keep the planet from warming beyond 2C (3.6F) above preindustrial levels, but few if any are on track to meet their pledge and even if all pledges were met the planet still likely would warm around 3-4C. Trump has pledged to withdraw the US from the agreement but the US plans to attend the meetings to promote continued smart use of fossil fuels.
The goal of the cancelled conference was to spur countries to strengthen their targets for GHG reductions, as required by the Paris agreement every five years. No country has made such a revised pledge.
Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of U.N. Climate Change agency, urged governments to rebuild their economies after the pandemic with climate goals in mind.
“Soon, economies will restart,” she said. “This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient.”
Pre-pandemic, Wind and Solar Energy Was Thriving, Oil Companies Collapsing
Renewable energy may account for nearly 21% of the electricity the US uses for the first time in 2020, after an increase of 3% last year and 10% in 2010. Work has largely stopped but is expected to resume in 2020 as oil, gas and coal companies struggle financially or seek bankruptcy protection.
As in other parts of the world, wind turbines and solar panels in California and Texas now produce electricity more cheaply than natural gas and coal. That has made them attractive to electric utilities and investors alike.
“Renewables are on a growth trajectory today that I think isn’t going to be set back long term,” said Dan Reicher, the founding executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University and an assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, estimates that about 50% of the 250,000 workers in the industry could lose their jobs at least temporarily due to the pandemic. The Association has downgraded projected growth by about 33% of the more than 19 gigawatts of new solar capacity predicted for 2020.
Other experts are more optimistic. Wood Mackenzie, an energy research and consulting firm, estimates that solar and wind power will continue adding capacity this year and next as wind turbines are typically erected outside urban areas and many states have deemed construction an essential activity.
The decreasing price of solar panels has helped the industry expand. In 2019, solar capacity increased 23% from 2018 and it added 13.3 gigawatts, exceeding new wind and natural-gas generation.
“We blew through all of the projections,” said Caton Fenz, chief executive of ConnectGen, a wind, solar and electricity-storage developer based in Houston. “We’re surfing a long-term wave,” he said. “We just can’t get specific things done because of the pandemic, but I don’t think that affects the broader trajectory.”
His company has 3,000 megawatts — the equivalent of three large power plants — under development in 11 states. About 40% is wind projects, 40% solar and the rest electricity storage.
Investors, such as Quantum Energy Partners, are switching from the oil and gas entities to renewables, including ConnectGen. Because developers can build wind and solar farms more quickly than natural-gas, coal and nuclear plants, renewables have become more attractive financially. In tough economic times like these, private equity investors look for businesses that can quickly scale up and start earning money. Congress could be of greater assistance if it make it easier for the solar industry to take advantage of tax credits.
The Department of Homeland Security included electricity production on its list of essential activities. That should enable the Lotus Solar Project, a 67-megawatt solar farm north of Fresno, Calif., to resume work.
Warmest January Ever Puts 2020 on Track to Be One of Top 10 Hottest Years
January was so warm that 2020 is already “virtually certain” to be among the 10 warmest years on record, and has nearly a 50% chance of being the warmest ever, per National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists.
January was the warmest ever in 141 years of record keeping, according to Karin Gleason, a climatologist with the National Centers for Environmental Information. Global average January temperatures were 2.05F (1.14C) above average, slightly higher than in January 2016, the previous record-holder.
“According to our probability statistics, it’s virtually certain that 2020 will rank among the top 10 years on record,” she said. Their analysis also showed a 49% chance of this year being the warmest ever, and a greater than 98% likelihood it will rank in the top five.
The forecasts are consistent with a long-term trend of global warming that is occurring as a result of human-caused emissions of GHGs that trap heat in the atmosphere. All of the 10 current warmest years on record have occurred since 2004, and the past five years have been the hottest five. Last year was only slightly cooler than 2016, the hottest year ever.
The record warmth in January was extraordinary because it occurred in the absence of an El Niño event. El Niño, which is linked to warmer than average sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, tends to affect global weather patterns and leads to generally warmer temperatures. The record temperatures of 2016 were associated with a strong El Niño.
“We’re in sort of new territory here with a record in a non-El Niño month,” Ms. Gleason said.
Sudden Collapse of Wildlife Due to Climate Change Predicted
A recent study published in Nature predicts that crucial ecosystems may falter causing mass die-offs for both wildlife and humans who are similarly dependent on such ecosystems. Such losses could occur starting in the next decade if GHG emissions are not reduced, according to the report.
“For a long time things can seem OK and then suddenly they’re not,” said Alex L. Pigot, a scientist at University College London and one of the study’s authors. “Then, it’s too late to do anything about it because you’ve already fallen over this cliff edge.”
More than a million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction due to human activities including industrial farming, over-fishing, excessive logging, destructive mining, poaching and burning fossil fuels.
Based on current GHG emission rates, the research suggests that sudden collapses in tropical oceans could begin in ten years. We are already experiencing severe coral bleaching. Tropical forests, which include some of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, could experience severe break-downs by the 2040s.
The study adds greater urgency to meeting the target set in the Paris accord of holding global warming below 2C. If that goal were met, the number of species endangered by climate change would decrease by 60%, and only 2% of the planet’s ecosystems might face collapse. As noted, the 2C goal does not appear tenable.
According to the latest IPCC Report (2014), at the current rate of GHG emissions, there is no path to staying below 2C. The best we could hope for is “more unlikely than likely” if by 2050 global emissions are within a range of 38% below 2010 levels or 24% above 2010 emissions levels, and if by 2100 emissions are within a range of 50% below 2010 levels to 134% below 2010 levels. That would require no net carbon emissions (100% reduction) and the removal of 34% of the carbon in the atmosphere emitted in 2010. There is currently no technology available at that scale to accomplish such a feat.
Litigation: Youth Climate Change Case Against Government is dismissed; NY loses Climate Change Fraud Case Against Exxon Mobil
A federal appeals court dismissed the landmark climate change lawsuit brought on behalf of young people against the federal government, Juliana v. United States. The appeals court decision reversed the district court judge, Ann Aiken, that allowed the case to proceed.
While the young plaintiffs “have made a compelling case that action is needed,” wrote Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz, climate change is not an issue for the courts. “Reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power. Rather, the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.”
In a lengthy and impassioned dissent, Judge Josephine L. Staton wrote that “the government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response — yet presses ahead toward calamity. It is as if an asteroid were barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses.”
The third judge on the panel was Mary H. Murguia. All three were appointed by President Obama.
The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Julia Olson, said she would appeal the ruling to the full Ninth Circuit for an en banc hearing. Ms. Olson is an environmental lawyer with Our Children’s Trust. She originally filed the suit in 2015 against the Obama administration, demanding both that the government drop policies that encouraged fossil fuel use and take faster action to curb climate change.
Ms. Olson argued that under the public trust doctrine, which has been used to compel the government to preserve natural resources for public use, government officials had “willfully ignored” the dangers of burning fossil fuels.
The 21 young plaintiffs, now between the ages of 12 and 23, claim that the government’s actions, and inaction, in the face of global warming violate their “fundamental constitutional rights to freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, and property.” [See Blog 27 for a Dutch court ruling upholding such rights.]
Michael B. Gerrard, one of my Co-chairs on the NYSBA EELS Global Climate Change Committee and the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, called the decision “a disappointment but not a surprise.” He said that “Many U.S. judges have vigorously enforced the environmental laws written by Congress but won’t go beyond that.” “They want to leave the key decisions to the ballot box,” he said. “So for now, all three branches of the federal government are sitting on their hands as the planet burns.”
In the NY case against Exxon, judge, Barry Ostrager, found that attorney general Letitia James failed to prove that Exxon violated the Martin Act, New York’s powerful legal tool against shareholder fraud. The State alleged that Exxon had engaged in fraud through its statements about how it accounted for the costs of climate change regulation. Judge Ostrager found the testimony by Rex Tillerson more convincing.
The state argued that Exxon kept two sets of books concerning climate change: one presented to the public that accounted for the potential future costs and another internal set in which those costs were disregarded. The state was asking for as much as $1.6 billion in restitution to shareholders.
Exxon’s lead attorney, Ted Wells, Jr., argued that the company had developed a “robust” system for dealing with future climate costs, and that its statements about its accounting for such costs were not misleading.
The judge called the attorney general’s lawsuit “hyperbolic” and accepted Exxon’s argument that its internal practices to evaluate the possible costs of regulations of greenhouse gases on future projects “do not impact the company’s financial statements and other corporate books and records” at issue in the shareholder fraud charges. He said the state had presented no testimony that any shareholder had been misled, and that a company report that the state had argued was misleading was, based on evidence presented at trial, “essentially ignored by the investment community.” As a result, he said, the company had not made “any material misrepresentations” that would have misled a reasonable investor.
Judge Ostrager was careful to point out that “nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve Exxon Mobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change in the production of its fossil fuel products.” “But Exxon Mobil is in the business of producing energy, and this is a securities fraud case, not a climate change case.”
A large number of cities and counties across the US, as well as the state of Rhode Island, are pursing lawsuits against the oil industry seeking compensation for their costs in dealing with climate change. While some judges have met those cases with skepticism, many of the cases are moving forward.
Another state case asserting that Exxon committed fraud, filed by the Massachusetts Attorney General, is pending. That case resembles NY’s case in some aspects, but relies on that state’s laws, and a broader ambit of accusations concerning fraud and advertising.
EPA Rollbacks Lack Scientific Basis
A top panel of government-appointed scientists, many of them chosen by the Trump administration, said that three of Trump’s most far-reaching proposals to weaken major environmental regulations are at odds with established science.
Draft letters posted online by the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, which is responsible for evaluating the scientific integrity of the agency’s regulations, addressed the Trump administration’s rewrite of an Obama-era regulation of waterways, and an Obama-era effort to reduce planet-warming vehicle tailpipe emissions and a plan to limit scientific data that can be used to draft health regulations.
In each case, the 41 scientists on the board — many of whom were appointed by the Trump administration to replace scientists appointed by the Obama administration — found that the regulatory changes were inconsistent with established science.
The scientists concluded that the proposed rule on water pollution “neglects established science” by “failing to acknowledge watershed systems.” They saw “no scientific justification” for excluding certain bodies of water from protection under the new rule.
Regarding vehicle emissions standards, they saw “significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis of the proposed rule” which was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s effort to address climate change.
And they stated that “key considerations that should inform the proposed rule have been omitted from the proposal or presented without analysis” regarding the proposal to limit scientific data in health regulations.
Legal experts believe that the advisory body’s opinion may undermine the Trump administration’s rollbacks which will be challenged in the courts. “The courts basically say if you’re going to ignore the advice of your own experts you have to have really good reasons for that,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of law with the Vermont Law School. “And not just policy reasons but reasons that go to the merits of what the critiques are saying.”
Trump has openly espoused an aggressive agenda of weakening environmental regulations. During his first year, more than a quarter of the academic scientists on the panel departed or were dismissed and many were replaced by scientists with industry ties who were perceived as likely to be more friendly to the industries that the EPA regulates.
“We are trying to give the EPA the best science it can in order to make decisions,” said Dr. Michael Honeycutt, the new head of EPA’s scientific advisory board, who had a reputation at the Texas Council on Environmental Quality for supporting policies that were more lax than those of the federal government.
Trump Rule Proposes to Exclude Climate Change From Infrastructure Planning
The Trump administration has proposed to weaken the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act. To environmentalists, it is the Magna Carta of environmental law. It requires that major energy and infrastructure projects receiving federal funding or requiring federal approval undergo environmental reviews. Citizens have a right to comment on these proposals in hearings and through a public comment process. It also requires the federal government to consider alternatives and mitigation for projects that threaten communities with lasting harm. Under the proposed changes, federal agencies would no longer be required to consider climate change implications when they assess the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects such as highways and pipelines.
The proposed rule relaxes language meant to prevent conflicts of interest. Trump’s rules would allow environmental reviews to be conducted by contractors with a financial interest in the project. That could give corporations more influence over how those reviews are written, increasing the chances of reports favoring corporate interests. The rules would enable fossil fuel companies and others to put their profits ahead of the public interest.
The fossil fuel industry does not favor long-term climate impacts to be considered in decisions over whether to allow more coal to be mined from public lands, for example, or more oil drilled offshore.
The proposed changes could ease the way for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other fossil fuel projects that have been delayed by court findings that the Trump administration failed to properly consider climate change when analyzing the environmental effects of projects.
The administration has also proposed to narrow the scope of projects subject to environmental review. That would enable more projects to move through the approval process without having to disclose plans for such things as waste discharge, tree cutting or increased air pollution.
The new rule proposes to eliminate the requirement that agencies consider the “cumulative” impacts of projects. In recent years courts have interpreted that as a requirement to study the effects of allowing more planet-warming GHG emissions into the atmosphere. It also has meant evaluating the possible impacts of rising sea levels and other foreseeable results of climate change on a given project.
NEPA has only been amended once since 1970. In 1983 the White House Council on Environmental Quality limited the use of worst-case scenarios in project reviews.
NEPA is not being amended now. But, as part of the Trump administration roll-back of rules, the CEQ is revising the rules that guide the implementation of the Act. The proposed changes will be published in the federal register and the public will have 60 days to comment on them. A final rule is expected before the presidential election in November.
Environmentalists and legal experts said the proposed changes would weaken critical safeguards for air, water and wildlife. The move, which will be challenged in court, could eliminate a powerful tool used to stop or slow Trump’s encouragement of coal and oil development as part of its “energy dominance” policy.
In March, a federal judge found that the Obama administration did not adequately take into account the climate change impact of leasing public land for oil gas drilling in Wyoming. This ruling also threatens Trump’s plans for fossil fuel development.
One month later, another federal judge set back Trump’s plan to lift an Obama-era moratorium on coal mining on public lands. The court found the administration failed to adequately study the environmental effects of mining as required by NEPA.
In 2018 a federal court cited NEPA when it halted construction on the Keystone pipeline, which Trump has championed. The court said the Trump administration had failed to justify reversing the Obama administration’s ruling that the pipeline would unduly worsen climate change. The case is on-going.
The Trump administration “simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change to support its course reversal,” according to Judge Brian Morris of the United States District Court for Montana.
Mr. Gerrard said eliminating the need to consider climate change would lead to more pipelines and other projects that emit GHGs. It could also put roads, bridges and other infrastructure at greater risk, he said, because developers would no longer be required, for instance, to consider the potential impacts of such things as sea-level rise and flooding.
“It has the potential to distort infrastructure planning by making it easier to ignore predictable futures that could severely degrade the projects,” Mr. Gerrard said.
The required NEPA analysis has been especially important in addressing environmental injustice. There is a long and shameful history of siting big projects in or near low-income communities. NEPA provides a process for all citizens to address federal officials, through public hearings or written comments, to which federal agencies must respond.
Trump Declines to Tighten Clean Air Rules Linked to Increased Coronavirus Deaths
Despite scientific studies linking air pollution and Covid-19 death rates, the Trump administration declined to tighten a regulation on industrial soot emissions.
Public health experts say that the administration ignores scientific research, including the work of the EPA’s own public health experts, showing that PM 2.5 (extremely small particulate matter) pollution contributes to tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, and that even a slight reduction of fine soot could save thousands of American lives.
Researchers at Harvard recently released the first nationwide study showing a link between long-term PM 2.5 exposure and Covid-19 death rates. The study revealed that a person subject for decades to high levels of PM 2.5 is 15% more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with slightly less PM 2.5.
“The timing of this is unbelievable,” said Richard Lazarus, a professor of environmental law at Harvard. “There’s this big study that just came out linking this pollutant to Covid. This seems like a colossal mistake on the administration’s part.”
EPA’s administrator Wheeler said EPA will not impose stricter controls on the tiny, lung-damaging industrial particles claiming that the scientific evidence was insufficient to merit tightening the current emissions standard.
“We believe the current standard is protective of public health,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Through the 5-year review process we’ve identified a lot of uncertainties. Through those uncertainties we’ve identified that the current standard does not need to be changed.”
The published proposal says that Mr. Wheeler places “little weight on quantitative estimates” of the mortality risk associated with fine soot pollution.
The decision was praised by Republican lawmakers and the nation’s oil companies and manufacturers, which had said tighter regulation on smokestack emissions of fine soot would threaten their economic viability — even prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Paul Billings, a senior vice president of the American Lung Association, noted that the Harvard study affirmed earlier reports linking PM 2.5 to premature deaths. “This pollution already kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. This is an affirmation of a standard that already does not provide adequate safeguards to public health,” he said.
Administrator Wheeler claimed that some of the Harvard study’s authors who have publicly criticized decisions made by the Trump administration “seem to have a bias.”
The proposed rule will be open to public comment for 60 days before being reviewed by the White House and made final. It retains a standard enacted in 2012, of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, about 1/30th the width of a human hair, but associated with heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths. EPA is legally required every five years to review the latest science and update that standard.
After the latest review, EPA scientists concluded that if the standard was tightened to about nine micrograms per cubic meter, annual deaths would fall by about 27%, or 12,150 people a year. But the administration decided to stick with the current standard which is “associated with 45,000 deaths” annually.