Climate Change Blog 31
Facts on the Ground:
I keep a close watch on the major indicators as to how humanity is fighting climate change: are we preventing the ice at the poles from melting and limiting sea level rise? Are we preserving our forests which absorb greenhouse gas? Are we scaling back GHG emissions and limiting global warming? The answer to all of these questions, is an emphatic ‘no’. We are losing, badly.
Not only did Verkhoyansk, a Siberian town once used as a place of exile by Russian czars hit a record 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38 degree Celsius, on June 20, but the heat and dried vegetation in the Artic resulted in wildfires which released record amounts of carbon and air pollution (soot, which darkens the ice, adds to absorption of warmth and hastens melting). The fires in June produced more carbon dioxide emissions than in any other month in 18 years of data collection, according to a report by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. The fires released 59 million metric tons of planet-warming CO2, which exceeded the annual carbon emitted by Norway, an oil-producing country. The last time fires in the Arctic released this much carbon was the record-setting last year. The soil in the Siberian Arctic is drier than ever, and snow cover reached a record low in June 2020.
Meteorologist Eric Holthaus tweeted in response to the Arctic heat. “100°F about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle today in Siberia. That’s a first in all of recorded history,” he said. “We are in a climate emergency.”
By releasing so much CO2, the fires are contributing to global warming and a positive feedback loop. The more warming the drier the soils and vegetation, which leads to more fires, which produces more warming. In fact, it is a double positive feedback loop as the fires could also lead to more thawing of Arctic permafrost. Decomposition of the organic matte in the permafrost, like dead vegetation and animals, results in the release of methane, another potent GHG. The more warming and fires, the more melting of permafrost, and the release of methane, which adds to the warming, which increases drying and more fires.
Scientists convened by the United Nations said last year that the process could unleash as much as 240 billion tons of carbon by 2100, potentially accelerating climate change beyond control.
Exceptionally high temperatures in Russia’s Far North is suggestive of an unusually hot year worldwide. Average global temperatures in June nearly matched the record for 2019, and 2020 is on track to be among the five hottest years on record. Average temperatures in Europe in June were 1.3F warmer than the average over the period between 1981 to 2010, according to European data.
Arctic warming has global effects. Many studies, including one in 2018 by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that Arctic warming may be influencing extreme weather events around the world.
The South Pole Is Warming Too
Surface air temperatures at the South Pole have risen three times faster than the global average since the 1990s. The pole, home to a US research base, warmed by about 0.6C, or 1.1F, per decade over the past 30 years, researchers reported in Nature Climate Change. The global average over that time was about 0.2C per decade. The finding shows that no place is unaffected by global warming.
The warming is likely due to human-caused emissions. “You’re very, very unlikely to get a warming trend that strong without increasing greenhouse gases,” said Kyle R. Clem, a postdoctoral researcher at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and the lead author of the study.
A researcher at the University of Colorado, Sharon E. Stammerjohn, said that while the rest of the world has experienced steady warming over the past five decades, Antarctica has had major swings. Along coastal West Antarctica, rising warm water is melting ice shelves from below, which leads to sea level rise.
Dr. Stammerjohn said there was increasing evidence that the way the planet is responding to global warming was changing the atmosphere and ocean circulation on a large scale. “And that’s what’s contributing to the warmer waters at depth,” she said. “There’s going to be a lot of variability superimposed on that, but the direction, and the projection, would be toward more and more warm water and more ice sheet loss.”
“It’s so easy to think that Antarctica is isolated and remote and is not going to respond to climate change,” Dr. Stammerjohn said. Ice loss along the coast has huge implications, “it’s the one that’s going to change our sea level dramatically,” she said. It is “the ultimate canary in the coal mine, one that we can no longer ignore.”
US: Huge Tropical Storm Cristobal
June 1 marked the beginning of hurricane season. By June 10, Tropical Storm Cristobal became the third named storm of 2020. It was a massive storm that slammed into the Gulf Coast including Louisiana and Mississippi bringing flooding rain, coastal inundation and strong winds all along the northern Gulf Coast. It survived its long trek up the Mississippi River Valley, causing widespread flooding and severe storms in the Great Lakes region, affecting Michigan and Ohio, as well as Indiana, eventually making its way into Canada.
Cristobal and Tropical Storm Amanda, the first storm of the Pacific hurricane season, have been blamed for the deaths of 30 people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, which was hit with heavy flooding and landslides.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (La) declared an emergency, warning residents to prepare to evacuate their homes ahead of the storm. Officials acknowledged that finding safe shelter could be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Flash flood watches stretched more than 1,000 miles, from the Florida Panhandle to central Wisconsin. This unusual system may have been the nation’s farthest north and west tropical depression in more than two centuries of record-keeping.
Shell Beach, La. had a storm surge of 6.2’— a greater surge than experienced in Miami during Hurricane Irma in 2017. Sea-level rise due to human-caused climate change is causing storm surge events to be more damaging in the Gulf Coast and other parts of the country, due to the higher water baseline.
Cristobal followed Tropical Storms Arthur and Bertha, which arrived in the US before the official start of the season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. In May, Tropical Storm Arthur formed off the coast of Florida making 2020 the sixth consecutive year in which a named storm occurred before the official start of the season.
An analysis of satellite images beginning in 1979 shows that hurricanes have become stronger worldwide over the past four decades, supporting the theory that climate change is intensifying these storms. The analysis shows that warming has increased the likelihood of a hurricane developing into a Category 3 or higher storm, with sustained winds exceeding 110 mph.
Rare and Powerful Cyclone (named Nisarga) Hit India
The Indian city, Mumbai, home to 20 million people, was also hit in early June by a powerful hurricane (termed a Cyclone in Asia). The region rarely experiences cyclones, and the last storm to threaten Mumbai with such intensity was more than 70 years ago. Thousands of people sheltered in emergency structures already crowded with coronavirus patients. Officials said about 65,000 people were evacuated from the area, plus tens of thousands of people were evacuated from the neighboring state of Gujarat.
Record Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Levels
Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere reached their annual peak in May, and once again were the highest in human history. Despite the global economic collapse due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to sharp declines in CO2 emissions, the amount of GHG has continued to climb. The May monthly average was 417.2 parts per million, according to scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.
The May average first topped 400 parts per million in 2014. The latest full-year average, for 2018, was 407.4 parts per million, about 45% higher than the preindustrial average of 280.
The world has not experienced such CO2 levels in several million years, the Scripps scientists said. By analyzing ice cores and ocean sediments, researchers have determined that temperatures millions of years ago were 2 to 3C (about 3.5 to 4.5F) higher than in the modern preindustrial era and that sea levels were at least 50 feet higher.
The 30-Year Mortgage Threatened by Sea-level Rise
The impacts of climate change are steadily increasing. One I have not yet reported is its impact on home-ownership. Many banks, often smaller banks familiar with local vulnerabilities, especially coastal and low-lying properties, are requiring buyers to make bigger down payments, often as much as 40% of the purchase price (nonconventional loans), up from the traditional 20% — a sign that lenders recognize the dangers of climate change and want to risk less of their own money.
Home buyers too recognize the risks (flooding, wildfire, drought), and are increasingly using mortgages that make it easier for them to stop making their monthly payments (e.g., interest-only mortgages) and walk away from the loan if the home becomes unsellable or unlivable.
Banks clearly are worried about global warming as they are now moving 30-year mortgages off their books. They sell the mortgages to government-backed buyers like Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac where taxpayers are liable should the loans fail.
“Conventional mortgages have survived many financial crises, but they may not survive the climate crisis,” said Jesse Keenan, an associate professor at Tulane University. “This trend also reflects a systematic financial risk for banks and the U.S. taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill.”
As the world warms, the long-term nature of conventional mortgages is no longer desirable if the property is threatened and may become uninhabitable. The loss of the 30-year mortgage could put homeownership beyond the means of many home-buyers.
During the 2008 financial crisis, a decline in home values helped cripple the financial system and pushed almost nine million Americans out of work. But increased flooding along coasts, rivers and in flood zones could have more far-reaching consequences on financial housing markets. In 2016, Freddie Mac’s chief economist at the time, Sean Becketti, warned that losses from flooding both inland and along the coasts are “likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and the Great Recession.”
If sea level rise, flooding and wildfires make homes uninsurable, Dr. Becketti wrote, their value could fall to nothing, and unlike the 2008 financial crisis, “homeowners will have no expectation that the values of their homes will ever recover.”
If CO2 emissions continue along current trajectories, within 30 years almost half a million existing homes likely will flood at least once a year (Blog 32 will address increasing flood risk), according to data from Climate Central, a research organization. Those homes are valued at $241 billion. And that’s just flood risk.
Writing in the journal Climatic Change, Dr. Keenan and Jacob T. Bradt, a doctoral student at Harvard University, stated that in 2009, local banks sold 43% of their mortgages in vulnerable zones, about the same share as other areas. But by 2017, the share had jumped by one-third, to 57% despite staying flat in less vulnerable neighborhoods.
In a separate paper with Marco Tedesco and Carolynne Hultquist of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Dr. Keenan found that in coastal Carteret County, N.C., with a high number of properties exposed to SLR, the share of nonconventional mortgages increased by 14% between 2006 and 2017. But in areas in that county not prone to flooding, nonconventional loans became less common during the same period.
Similarly in St. Johns County, Fla., south of Jacksonville, between 2006 and 2017, the share of nonconventional loans in the most vulnerable areas increased by 6% while falling 22% in the rest of the county. “You’re seeing a statistically significant trend,” Dr. Keenan said.
That some homeowners are resorting to interest-only mortgages would have been unthinkable pre-climate change. It is what it sounds like, monthly payments that only cover the interest so that the loan, the principal, is never paid off. The advantage to the buyer is a lower payment and an easier loss to swallow should one have to walk from a property that has lost its value.
“A household that expects the house will be flooded within a decade, say, is unlikely to value the accumulation of equity in this house,” said Amine Ouazad, an associate professor of real estate economics at HEC Montreal. “The ability to walk away from a mortgage in case of major floods or sea-level rise is a feature.”
Dr. Ouazad found that since the housing crash, the share of homes in the US with fixed-rate, 30-year mortgages has declined sharply — to less than 80%, as of 2016 — in areas most exposed to storm surges. Elsewhere in the country, the rate has remained at about 90% of home loans.
Part of the difference was the interest-only loans, Dr. Ouazad found. More than 10% of homeowners in those areas had interest-only loans in 2016, compared with just 2.3% in other ZIP Codes. He said there’s reason to think climate risks are part of the explanation.
Then the question, according Carolyn Kousky, executive director of the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania, is what happens when people no longer want to live in homes that keep flooding. “What happens when the water starts lapping at these properties, and they get abandoned?” she said. We’ll see.
Global Methane Emissions Reach a Record High
Scientists expect methane emissions, driven by fossil fuels and agriculture, to continue rising rapidly. Global emissions of methane set a record high in 2017, the most recent year for which worldwide data are available, researchers said.
“There’s a hint that we might be able to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions very soon. But we don’t appear to be even close to peak methane,” said Rob Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University who heads the Global Carbon Project, which conducted the research. “It isn’t going down in agriculture, it isn’t going down with fossil fuel use.”
Scientists warn that if GHG emissions continue to rise on the current trajectory, there is little hope of limiting global warming to 1.5C, or even 2C. If the world warms beyond that, tens of millions of people could be exposed to life-threatening heat waves, freshwater shortages and coastal flooding from sea level rise and social, economic and political disruptions from environmental refugees.
Methane, a colorless, odorless gas that is the main component of natural gas, is a powerful GHG that traps the sun’s heat, warming the earth 86 times as much as the same mass of CO2 over a 20-year period.
And while the coronavirus pandemic led to a temporary drop in CO2 emissions as much transportation and industry ground to a halt, there are signs methane emissions have not dropped nearly as much, Dr. Jackson said.
“We’re still producing food. We’re still producing natural gas,” he said. “If we continue to release methane as we have done in recent decades, we have no chance.”
Overall, global methane emissions are up 9% from the early 2000s, according to the latest findings, and human activity is responsible for more than half of those emissions. Raising livestock like cattle and sheep, which burp copious amounts of methane, is a major source of methane emissions, as is coal mining, which releases methane from deep within the rock.
Methane also leaks from oil and gas wells, pipelines, distribution lines and even the gas stoves in our homes, and from landfills. The amount of methane leaking from fracking operations has only recently been revealed and it far surpasses what industry has represented. The rest comes from natural sources, like wetlands.
Of the anthropogenic emissions, agriculture makes up about 66%, while fossil fuels contribute most of the rest. The increase in emissions between 2000-17, though, came equally from agriculture, which rose nearly 11% from the 2000-06 average, and fossil fuels, which rose nearly 15%.
Methane emissions grew quickest in three regions: Africa and the Middle East; China; and South Asia and Oceania, including Australia. A surge in coal use caused methane emissions to jump in China, while population growth and rising incomes have led to more emissions elsewhere, the scientists said.
Curbing methane emissions will require better plugging leaks and other fugitive emissions from oil and gas infrastructure, like wells and pipelines, which are a major source of methane emissions, the scientists said. It will also require an overhaul of agriculture, especially cattle and rice farming.
A major concern is that thawing permafrost in the Arctic could start releasing large quantities of methane into the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change. For now, scientists have found little evidence of increasing methane emissions in the Arctic, though they warn that could change.
“The key message is that methane concentrations and emissions are still rising, and we know the main cause,” said Marielle Saunois, a scientist at the Laboratory for Climate and Environmental Sciences in France, and a member of the research team. “This is not the right path.”
Deforestation Continues in Brazil and Elsewhere
Since becoming President in 2019, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has enabled increased razing of the Amazon rainforest. Now, he appears to be using the coronavirus pandemic as cover to accelerate the destruction. The increase in illegal deforestation heightens the risk of fires in the Brazilian rainforest even more destructive than those that drew international outrage last year.
Bolsonaro openly favors expanding commercial development in the Amazon and views environmental regulations as a hindrance to economic growth. An estimated 464 square miles of Amazon tree cover was slashed from January to April, a 55% increase from the same period last year and an area roughly 20 times the size of Manhattan, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research that tracks deforestation with satellite images. Last year, deforestation in the Amazon had reached levels not seen since 2008.
The coronavirus has killed more than 34,000 people in Brazil, which had the highest daily number of deaths in the world. It has also fueled political polarization and dominated headlines and policy debates in recent months, eclipsing the increased razing of the rainforest.
Environment Minister Ricardo Salles supports loosening of environmental regulation and was recorded during an April cabinet meeting saying that he saw the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce restrictions while attention was focused elsewhere. “We need to make an effort here during this period of calm in terms of press coverage because people are only talking about Covid.”
The association that represents government environmental workers issued a statement calling Mr. Salles a “criminal.”
In May, an enforcement official in uniform was swarmed by illegal loggers in Pará after a truck with timber was intercepted. The official was harassed and struck in the face with a glass bottle by a logger, according to a video of the attack.
Destruction of tropical forests worldwide increased last year, led again by Brazil, which was responsible for more than a third of the total. The worldwide total loss of old-growth, or primary, tropical forest — 9.3 million acres, an area nearly the size of Switzerland — was about 3% higher than 2018 and the third largest since 2002. Only 2016 and 2017 were worse.
“The level of forest loss we saw in 2019 is unacceptable,” said Frances Seymour, a fellow with the environmental research group World Resources Institute, which released the deforestation data through its Global Forest Watch program. “We seem to be going in the wrong direction.”
“There has been so much international effort and rhetoric around reducing deforestation, and companies and governments making all these commitments that they are going to reduce by half their tropical forest loss by 2020,” said Mikaela Weisse, who manages the Global Forest Watch program. “The fact that it’s been so stubbornly persistent is what’s worrying to us.”
Global Forest Watch researchers estimated that the loss of primary tropical forest in 2019 resulted in the release of more than 2 billion tons of CO2, or more than the emissions from all on-road vehicles in the US in a typical year.
In Bolivia, fires were a major cause of what was a significant increase in deforestation last year. The country’s primary forest loss of 720,000 acres was nearly double the total from 2018. Bolivia now ranks fourth in deforestation globally behind Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia.
In Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, annual loss of primary forest more than doubled since 2012. Although the 2019 total was slightly lower than the year before, it was higher than 2017. “We’re seeing sustained amounts of loss,” said Elizabeth Goldman, a research manager for Global Forest Watch.
EPA Limits States’ Power to Oppose Pipelines and Other Energy Projects
EPA has limited states’ ability to block the construction of energy infrastructure such as pipelines, part of the Trump administration’s goal of promoting fossil fuel development. The completed rule curtails sections of the Clean Water Act that NY has used to block an interstate gas pipeline, and Washington employed to oppose a coal export terminal.
The new rule limits to one year the amount of time states and tribes can take to review a project and restricts states to taking water quality only into consideration when judging permits. The Trump administration has objected to states which have blocked projects.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the agency was moving to “curb abuses of the Clean Water Act that have held our nation’s energy infrastructure projects hostage, and to put in place clear guidelines that finally give these projects a path forward.” States, he said, would no longer be allowed to use the law to object to projects “under the auspices of climate change.”
Democrats and environmentalists denounced the rule saying that it infringes on states’ rights. Section 401, they said, has been a critical tool for states to protect their drinking water quality. They also argued that the time restrictions will burden states that have limited resources to evaluate complicated projects. Companies will now have an incentive to run out the clock by delaying requests to submit data.
“In the latest example of the Trump administration’s disdain for the rule of law, it is trying to excise states’ clean water rights to object to projects that violate state water quality standards,” said David Hayes, who runs the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center at the NYU School of Law.
Clean water law experts also noted the Supreme Court in 1994 explicitly affirmed states’ authority to impose conditions on projects based on state law.
“It’s a pretty significant retreat from what they were doing the last 40 years,” said Mark Ryan, a Clean Water Act expert who served as regional counsel for the EPA in its Pacific Northwest regional office.
He predicted the rule would be “very vulnerable” to a legal challenge, adding, “the EPA will have a very hard time convincing the Supreme Court that its current interpretation of the Clean Water Act is correct.”
The American Gas Association, which represents natural gas distribution and transmission companies, praised the changes and described states’ objections to pipelines and other projects as “abuse.”
The Trump administration has particularly criticized New York for its lengthy, and successful, battle to block the Williams Companies’ Constitution natural gas pipeline from Pennsylvania. And in 2017, Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington used the 401 provision to block a permit for a coal export facility that would have shipped fuel to Asian markets.
Mr. Wheeler called the decision by Gov. Cuomo of New York to reject the Constitution line “probably the worst environmental decision by an elected official last year.”
Trump Weakens Two Environmental Protections, Cites Pandemic
Two recent environmental actions underscored Trump’s push to roll back regulations during the coronavirus crisis. The administration intends to expedite the approval process for the construction of energy projects and to permanently weaken federal authority to issue stringent clean air and climate change rules.
Trump signed an executive order directing agencies to waive required environmental reviews of infrastructure projects to be built during the pandemic-driven economic crisis. At the same time, EPA proposed a rule that changes the way the agency uses cost-benefit analyses to enact Clean Air Act regulations, effectively limiting the strength of future air pollution controls.
By changing the way the government weighs the value of the public health benefits, Administrator Wheeler would allow the agency to justify weakening clean air and climate change regulations with economic arguments.
Trump’s executive order cites “emergency authorities” to waive parts of the cornerstone National Environmental Policy Act to spur the construction of highways, pipelines and other infrastructure projects (see Blog 29). Environmental activists and lawyers questioned the legality of the move and accused the administration of using the coronavirus pandemic and national unrest to speed up actions that have been moving slowly through the regulatory process.
Fossil fuel companies have long asserted that the economic formulas used by the federal government to justify pollution controls have unfairly harmed them. During the Obama administration, when EPA drafted a rule to limit mercury pollution from power plants, it estimated that it would cost the electric utility industry $9.6 billion a year. But when an initial analysis found that reducing mercury would save just $6 million annually in health costs, an analysis of “co-benefits” identified an additional $80 billion in savings from the incidental reduction of soot and nitrogen oxide that would occur as side effects of controlling mercury.
The Trump administration’s rollback of the Obama mercury rule no longer counts co-benefits. Mr. Wheeler said that EPA would still calculate the economic value of such co-benefits, but “co-benefits would not be used to justify the rule” noting specifically that the change would mean that regulations like the Obama-era mercury rule would no longer be defensible.
Now, Mr. Wheeler has proposed extending that measure by eliminating or reducing the emphasis on co-benefits across all new Clean Air Act regulations. He is expected to propose a similar revamp of the cost-benefit formulas that govern clean water and chemical safety regulations.
Critics said the change defies the intent of the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970. “These economic cost-benefit analyses have been an important driver of Clean Air Act regulations for 40 years,” said Richard Morgenstern, a former EPA official who served from the Reagan to the Clinton administrations. “What this rule is doing is altering the math in such a way to potentially downplay the economic benefit to public health, so they are justified in writing weaker rules in the future.”
Allies of Mr. Trump celebrated that prospect.
If former Vice President Biden Jr. is elected and inaugurated before the draft rule is made final, a process that could take a year, his administration could discard the proposal. If the rule is made final, but Mr. Biden wins the White House and Democrats take control of the Senate, they could use the Congressional Review Act to undo the Trump regulation. The act, almost never used until Trump took office, allows Congress to nullify any regulation that has been in place for fewer than 60 legislative days.
The executive order would be even more vulnerable, since it could be undone with a new president’s signature. Trump’s order cites “the nation’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 emergency” to justify directing federal agencies to use their emergency authorities to “expedite construction of highways and other projects,” according to the White House.
The order would encourage agencies to bypass requirements under NEPA, which requires the federal government to prepare detailed analyses of projects that could have significant environmental effects.
Joel Mintz, a former attorney for EPA and now a professor at the Nova Southeastern University College of Law, said it was unclear what legal authority Mr. Trump had to invoke such waivers.
“NEPA is a clear directive from Congress to federal agencies that the president cannot ignore or change unilaterally,” he said. “This is also very bad public policy. Pipelines and other infrastructure can do great environmental harm. Their impact should be carefully examined, as NEPA requires, before they are allowed to go forward.”
The Trump administration aimed to dismantle parts of NEPA long before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. In January Trump released a plan to weaken the law. That measure, which was recently finalized, no longer requires that climate change be considered when federal agencies weigh the environmental consequences of infrastructure projects.
The views expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl