Climate Change Blog 43
Facts on the Ground:
The fires, as predicted, continue to grow around the world. The largest and most devastating, is in Siberia. It is not only destroying local communities, but it is adding immense amounts of carbon to the atmosphere in a positive feedback loop increasing global warming and producing more fire. Fires have burned elsewhere including Turkey, Italy and Greece.
Wildfires in Northern California have burned more than 1.3 million acres. The Caldor Fire near Pacific has burned more than 62,000 acres and forced about 23,000 residents of El Dorado County to flee or prepare to leave their homes. The overall number of people under evacuation orders or warnings statewide stood at more than 35,000 people as of Aug 18. That included more than 7,000 residents affected by the Dixie fire, then the second-largest blaze in California’s recorded history (it grew to be the largest). The Dixie has so far burned more than 662,000 acres over four counties, Butte, Plumas, Lassen and Tehama, since it emerged in mid-July. It has destroyed 1,120 structures and threatened another 14,838 buildings. More than 3,000 people have also been ordered to evacuate or to prepare to leave in Trinity County, where the Monument fire has burned over 128,000 acres since late July. And in Lake County, about 700 people were warned to flee a new fire, the Cache, after it started north of Santa Rosa.
The fires polluted the air, reaching unhealthy levels above 150 on the air quality index (anything above 100 is considered unhealthy, meaning the outdoor air may be harmful for older adults, children and those with heart and lung disease) in Sacramento and other cities near the blazes. Plumes of noxious smoke from California have polluted the air over large distances including Salt Lake City and Denver where the air was as unhealthy as anywhere in the world. Fires across western Canada and the Pacific Northwest turned the sun red in New York City.
While wildfires occur throughout the West every year, scientists see the influence of climate change in the extreme heat waves that have contributed to the intensity of fires this summer. Prolonged periods of abnormally high temperatures are a signal of a shifting climate, they say.
According to the United States Drought Monitor, currently 47% of the land area of contiguous 48 states is in various degrees of drought, nearly all of it in the High Plains or from the Rocky Mountains westward. Drought affects the entirety of nine states, including California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Oregon and North and South Dakota. Farmers in California have had sharp cuts in their water allotments, wells are going dry in some towns.
The Dixie fire is one of about 100 wildfires across the West that have forced the U.S. Forest Service to deploy about 21,000 federal firefighters in states parched by drought and scorching temperatures this summer, more than double the number deployed at this time a year ago. It consumed and destroyed the town of Greenville, burning much of its historic center to the ground and leaving stretches of the community unrecognizable in early August.
“We lost Greenville tonight,” Representative Doug LaMalfa, who represents the area in Congress, said, adding that other towns in the region were also threatened by the Dixie Fire. Fire officials estimated that 75% of the structures in Greenville had been lost to the blaze.
The current fire season, spurred on by months of drought and blistering heat waves, has threatened dozens of communities across the West. As climate change exacerbates drought conditions, fires are spreading with a rare speed and scope. California has already had nearly 5,700 wildfires this year. “These are not the normal fires anymore,” Mr. Cagle said. “It’s just intense fire behavior, and it’s not what we’re used to.”
The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon is the largest so far this year in the country, having burned more than 400,000 acres. It was so intense at one point that it generated its own weather.
Earlier this summer, record-setting heat waves gripped the Pacific Northwest. In Portland, temperatures reached 116F, and a majority of the state was primed to burn due to drought.
“West of the Mississippi we have droughts, fires and smoke, and east of the Mississippi there’s flooding,” said a resident. “It’s biblical. It just feels like the plague and everything else.”
More than 80 million Americans were affected as excessive heat warnings and advisories extended across two dozen states in late July. In response to the heat, Governor Kate Brown of Oregon declared a state of emergency in 23 counties.
Biden promised in June to raise pay for federal firefighters and increase state and local grants for wildfire resilience. The bipartisan infrastructure bill he negotiated with Congress also includes $50 billion for “climate resilience” to shore up roads, ports and bridges against the effects of climate change, including drought, floods, wildfires and extreme weather conditions.
Montana also had wildfires, two of which were caused by heat emanating from coal deposits. One of them, the Richard Spring Fire, burned over 171,000 acres. Montana had more large wildfires in mid-August than any other state, with 25 burning. The blaze forced residents of several rural southeastern Montana towns to evacuate. In Utah, the Parleys Canyon Fire east of Salt Lake City forced the evacuation of at least 6,000 homes and burned through about 619 acres.
Across the US, power companies are unable to keep up with demand from extreme weather. In the West, that means trying to supply energy for air-conditioning because of record heat without sparking wildfires made more destructive because of record drought. In a desperate tactic pioneered in California, utilities are intentionally shutting off power lines to avoid starting fires, a tactic that has spread to Oregon and Nevada.
For the sixth time this summer, California’s grid operator asked the state’s 39 million residents to conserve electricity or face rolling power outages. The Texas power grid operator faced record-high demand as a heat dome baked that state.
“It’s fair to say there was this widespread assumption that the impacts of climate change and extreme weather would unfold more gradually, and there would be more time to prepare,” said Alison Silverstein, an energy consultant in Austin, Texas. “But in the past few years, the entire industry has really been smacked upside the head.”
Hurricanes continue to be a problem and as I write Henri is headed toward Long Island. Hurricane-strength winds in Northeastern states like Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts are unusual. The last time a hurricane made landfall in New England was 30 years ago.
Henri is the latest of a trio of storms that formed in mid-August in the Atlantic Ocean. Tropical Depression Fred made landfall in the Florida Panhandle and Tropical Storm Grace came ashore in Haiti (flooding parts of Haiti following a devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake) as a tropical depression before making landfall in Mexico near the resort town of Tecolutla with maximum sustained winds of nearly 125 miles per hour. The authorities in Puerto Rico said that power outages and flooding had been reported across the island. Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center said it is somewhat unusual to have three with tropical storm watches or warnings for land areas at the same time.
The 22-year drought affecting the Colorado River basin forced the Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the Interior Department, for the first time, to impose reductions in the use of water from the Colorado River. Lake Mead, one of the river’s main reservoirs, is at about 34% of capacity.
The declaration of a shortage will initially mostly affect Arizona farmers and next year they may face further reductions in water they have relied on for decades. Nevada and Mexico also face mandated reductions. Larger cuts affecting far more of the 40 million people in the West who rely on the river for at least part of their water supply are likely in coming years as a warming climate continues to reduce how much water flows into the Colorado from rain and melting snow.
The mandatory cuts (“Tier 1” reductions) are part of a contingency plan approved in 2019 by the seven states that use Colorado River water: California, Nevada and Arizona in the lower basin, and New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in the upper basin. American Indian tribes and Mexican officials have also been involved in the planning. The shortage announced Aug 16 affects only the lower basin states, but the Bureau of Reclamation may declare a similar shortage for the upper basin, perhaps as early as next year.
“The river is in uncharted territory,” said Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund. “Climate scientists have pretty well articulated that something like 40 to 60 percent of the decline is due to a warming climate.”
Mr. Moran said that the new infrastructure bill, which has passed the Senate but faces a rockier road in the House, includes at least several billion dollars that could help the region cope with this new reality. This includes money to improve so-called natural infrastructure, including forests, watersheds and underground aquifers, which could help bolster the supply, or at least slow the decline.
“Our water infrastructure is not just man-made reservoirs and treatment plants,” he said. “It’s the natural system, too.”
Researchers at Harvard University estimated that there were nearly 20,000 extra coronavirus infections and 750 Covid-19 deaths associated with exposure to wildfire smoke between March and December 2020 in the American West.
Mary Prunicki, an expert on the health effects of air pollution at Stanford University, said, “When a community is exposed to wildfire smoke, there will be an increase in respiratory disorders showing up in the emergency room and people being hospitalized with asthma and C.O.P.D. It exacerbates pneumonia, acute bronchitis.” Wildfire exposure can also heighten the risk of strokes and create complications with pregnancies.
Exposure to smoke, whether from air pollution or cigarette smoke, is believed to impair the function of white blood cells in the lungs, blunting the body’s immune response. The chemicals in particulate matter can also inflame cells lining the airways and lungs. In both cases, if the body is exposed to a virus in addition to air pollution, the immune response may be slowed and the person may develop a more severe illness than they would have otherwise, researchers say.
“These results provide strong evidence that, in many counties, the high levels of PM 2.5 that occurred during the 2020 wildfires substantially exacerbated the health burden of Covid-19,” the authors wrote (referring to tiny particulate matter.)
After decades of tightening air quality regulations, the air in many American cities is cleaner now than it’s been in 50 years. But in the West, increased wildfire smoke threatens to undo those advances, said Loretta Mickley, an atmospheric chemist at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and one of the paper’s authors.
As the planet warms, droughts intensify and the West becomes drier, wildfires are starting earlier, growing larger, spreading faster and reaching higher elevations. In California alone, a record 2.5 million acres burned during the 2020 wildfire season, 20 times what had burned the previous year.
“We are really talking about climate change,” said Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public. “I hope that this is providing an additional piece of evidence for why it’s important to get our act together to combat climate change.”
July, 2021, was Earth’s hottest month on record, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For the first time since record-keeping began 142 years ago, land and ocean-surface temperatures in July combined were 1.67F greater than the 20th-century average of 60.4 degrees. July beat the previous record, set in July 2016, by 0.02F, which was later tied in 2019 and 2020.
Rick Spinrad, NOAA’s administrator said, “This new record adds to the disturbing and disruptive path that climate change has set for the globe.”
Asia too recorded its hottest July, while Europe had its second hottest, and North America, South America, Africa and Oceania all had top-10 warmest Julys.
North America experienced its hottest June this summer, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service. Temperatures that month beat out the previous record, set in June 2012, by about .25F the agency said.
Washington state’s record-breaking heat wave was also its deadliest with a known death toll of 125 people. The brutal summer also claimed many lives in Oregon and California.
Flooding caused death and destruction in many parts of the globe in June-August. Turkey experienced flash floods in mid-August that killed at least 59 people with dozens missing. Officials said that the damage from the flooding was unprecedented with more than 330 villages losing power. It followed other extreme weather events in Europe including flooding in Germany and Belgium, heat waves in Italy and Russia and wildfires in Greece and elsewhere.
And Texas had flash floods in Austin. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas declared an “all hands on deck” response to flooding in the Capitol’s underground extension. The National Weather Service announced that up to five inches of rain had fallen in some areas, with “the highest amounts reported over downtown Austin.”
Flash floods killed at least 22 people and over 50 were missing in central Tennessee on Aug 20 when record-setting rain fell in Humphreys County (17” in 24 hours), and over a foot of rain in near-by counties. At least 4,200 people across the state had lost power, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Entire neighborhoods in Waverly were swept away.
Midwestern states such as Ohio and Michigan also experienced extreme weather including rain which caused widespread power outages throughout the region. More than 150 million people across the US were under some form of heat alert in mid-August with baking temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Plains and the South, and much of the Northeast.
In Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, hundreds of thousands of people endured boiling temperatures and stifling humidity and winds up to 80mph and heavy rains which toppled trees and power lines, causing widespread power outages.
“Food spoilage, no air conditioning, medicine that needs to be refrigerated,” said DeWayne Smoots, a deputy chief with the Milwaukee Fire Department. “How do you stay cool? Going outside is not going to help you.”
Europe may have hit its hottest temperature on record amid devastating wildfires and floods. A monitoring station on the Italian island of Sicily reached 48.8C, or 119.84F in mid-August. If verified by the World Meteorological Organization, it would mark the hottest temperature ever recorded in Europe.
In Greece, firefighters battled blazes for 10 days across the country. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece said radical changes were required to prevent and respond to the “megafires” that have raged in many parts of Europe this summer amid record-breaking heat waves. “The climate crisis is here,” he said, adding that “everything needs to change,” citing energy policy and the way people treat the environment.
He noted rising temperatures and destruction from fires in Algeria, Sicily and Turkey. “This is not just a Greek phenomenon. It is Mediterranean, it is global,” he said, adding that countries should work together against this “common crisis.”
The fire in Greece was fueled by days of drought as temperatures reached 45C (113F) amid a searing heat wave that officials described as the worst since 1987, when more than 1,000 people died. The National Observatory of Athens weather service registered the highest temperature ever officially recorded in the country, 46.3C, or 115.3F, in the central Greek region of Phthiotis.
Italian firefighters reported that half of the fires active in the country were located in Sicily, where a large area of a natural reserve in the northern mountains was burning, destroying farms and homes. Wildfires started near a forest by the village of Bonacardo, where at least 50,000 acres burned. Hundreds of sheep, goats, cows and pigs died after being trapped in barns at farms in the fires’ path, despite emergency workers’ efforts to save them.
“It is a disaster without precedent,” said the region’s governor, Christian Solinas, invoking a state of emergency. Flames ran through hectares of cork and holm oak forests that are native to the region. A thousand-year-old olive tree that was the symbol of the hilltop village of Cuglieri was destroyed by the fire. Italy has registered almost 13,000 more wildfires than last year, mostly in the southern regions of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily.
Mr. Micillo also said that until 10 years ago, blazes used to take place in the Alpine regions in the winter and in central and southern Italy over the summer. Now, wildfires have extended in time and area, as temperatures remain higher through October and the vegetation dries out. “And these new phenomena are connected to climate change,” Mr. Micillo said, “as Italy is, no doubt, becoming hotter.”
Some of the worst blazes were in Turkey where firefighters were battling a sixth day of wildfires along the country’s southern coast that forced tens of thousands from their homes. The fires were encroaching on residential areas and threatened a power plant. At least eight people have died, and homes and vast tracts of forestland have been destroyed. Strong winds and a dry atmosphere allowed the fires to rapidly accelerate. The wildfires in the south were followed shortly in the north by deadly floods.
The heat wave and an accompanying drought also fueled wildfires in Croatia and Israel. As big as all the above-noted fires are, the fire in Siberia is larger than all of them, combined.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a major report on Aug 9, 2021. The report was approved by 195 governments, it is based on more than 14,000 studies and is the most comprehensive summary to date of the physical science of climate change. The new report is part of the sixth major assessment of climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was created in 1988. It likely will be the focus of diplomats when they meet in November at a U.N. summit in Glasgow to discuss increasing their country’s pledge under the 2015 Paris accord to reduce emissions. It, taken together with numerous other reports the IPCC has issued over the past 33 years, demonstrates just how much of the Pyramid of Life I introduced in Blog 1, that supports human life and civilization, we have undermined.
Humanity is balanced atop two blocks (Resources from the Oceans, and Resources from Land), which balance atop two larger blocks (Climate Stability, and Political Stability). The IPCC reports detail how we have warmed and acidified the oceans, warmed, dried, burned and flooded the land, a half-billion people already live in places turning into desert, and top-soil is being lost between 10 and 100 times faster than it is forming. Over 10% of the world’s population remains undernourished while crop yields decline on a warming planet. Global warming has altered atmospheric jet flows and oceanic currents which have altered the weather patterns upon which homo sapiens depend, and which now produce lethal hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, floods and numerous other extreme weather events. All of which has led to and/or exacerbated conditions leading to the complete collapse of nations and produced millions of environmental refugees and furthered political chaos and collapse. All of these trends have been accelerating over recent decades and given how little effective action has been taken are predicted to continue to accelerate and further exacerbate the above-noted, and many other, environmental degradations.
In fact, the latest report states that so much carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels, that continued warming is assured for the next 30 years. Global temperatures which have already increased 1.1C since the industrial revolution (almost 2F), will continue to increase to around 1.5C (2.7F) within the next two decades, a hotter future that is now essentially locked in. The melting of the polar ice sheets which has begun, will continue and likely speed up, and sea level rise which has already increased by 8–9 inches since 1880, will rise further and at an accelerating rate, which threatens the future viability of the world’s coastal cities and infrastructure and the future habitability of island nations.
The bottom line, as has been said repeatedly by the IPCC for decades, is that without drastic change, now, the future of human civilization is very much at risk.
At 1.5C degrees of warming nearly 1 billion people worldwide could suffer in more frequent life-threatening heat waves. Hundreds of millions more could lack sufficient water due to severe droughts. Animal and plant species will go extinct. Coral reefs, which sustain fisheries for large swaths of the globe, will suffer more frequent mass die-offs.
“We can expect a significant jump in extreme weather over the next 20 or 30 years,” said Piers Forster, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds and one of hundreds of international experts who helped write the report. “Things are unfortunately likely to get worse than they are today.”
The report reiterated that a major, global, coordinated effort to stop emitting CO2 to the atmosphere by around 2050, which requires an immediate and rapid shift away from fossil fuels and efforts to remove CO2 from the air, could halt the increase at around 1.5C. An earlier ICPP report issued in 2018 said the kind of change required has “no documented historic precedent.” Otherwise, that report stated, we face a world of worsening food shortages, wildfires, and mass die-offs of coral reefs as soon as 2040. So far, the global response has been ineffectual.
If the necessary and ambitious steps are not taken, global average temperatures will rise perhaps beyond not just 2C but past 3C or even 4C above pre-industrial levels. The report details that each additional degree of warming brings far greater danger in the form of increasingly lethal and destructive floods and heat waves, worsening droughts, wildfires and accelerating SLR. Also, as the planet warms, the greater the danger of passing “tipping points,” like the irreversible collapse of the immense ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.
“There’s no going back from some changes in the climate system,” said Ko Barrett, a vice-chair of the panel and a senior adviser for climate at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But, she added, immediate and sustained emissions cuts “could really make a difference in the climate future we have ahead of us.”
A growing number of world leaders, including Biden, have endorsed the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C, but current pledges of the major polluting countries are still woefully inadequate and have us on course for a 3C rise. The 10 biggest emitters of GHGs are China, the US, the European Union, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Iran and Canada.
The new report states unequivocally that humans are responsible for global warming, and that virtually all of the rise in global average temperatures since the 19th century is due to the burning of fossil fuels and clearing forests which has increased atmospheric levels of GHGs like CO2 and methane that trap heat.
The report states that the last decade is likely the hottest the planet has been in 125,000 years. The world’s glaciers are melting and receding at a rate “unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.” Atmospheric levels of CO2 have not been this high in at least 2 million years.
That altered Jet Stream noted above recently produced a first-time ever, profoundly unsettling event: it rained at the summit of Greenland. That has never happened before, and it is a worrisome sign of a changing Arctic which is warming faster than any other place on Earth. “It’s incredible, because it does write a new chapter in the book of Greenland,” said Marco Tedesco, a researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. “This is really new.”
Above-freezing temperatures have now occurred at the summit three times in fewer than 10 years (2012, 2019 and 2021) whereas studies indicate no such warming had occurred in the past 2,000 years.
The warming Greenland ice sheet is of immense concern regarding SLR because it is up to two miles thick and covers about 650,000 square miles and on average over the past two decades has lost more than 300 billion tons of ice each year. “Half a degree of warming can really change the state of the Arctic because you can go from frozen to liquid,” he said. “This is exactly what we’re seeing.”
Regarding SLR, the rate of increase has doubled since 2006. Heat waves have become significantly hotter since 1950 and last longer in much of the world. Wildfire weather has worsened across large swaths of the globe. Bursts of extreme heat in the ocean — which can kill fish, seabirds and coral reefs — have doubled in frequency since the 1980s.
The science behind reports such as the most recent one establishes clear links between global warming and specific severe weather events. Extreme weather events such as the record-shattering heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in June “would have been extremely unlikely to occur without human influence on the climate system,” the IPCC report says. GHG emissions are clearly making some droughts, downpours, floods and cyclones worse.
The report warns that if global warming continues, extreme weather events will occur more frequently. For example, a dangerous heat wave that previously would have occurred just once in a given region every 50 years, now, after a 1.1C temperature rise, is expected every 10 years, on average. At 1.5C of global warming, that heat wave will occur every 5 years and be significantly hotter. At 4C it will be an annual occurrence.
Regarding SLR, past inundations of coastal cities that occurred once per century, at 1.5C SLR is projected to be 1 to 2 feet this century which likely will regularly inundate many coastal cities. The report warns that if GHG levels continue to rise, the vast ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland could destabilize potentially adding another three feet of SLR this century in the worst case.
The report notes that a crucial ocean circulation system in the Atlantic Ocean which helps stabilize the climate in Europe, is starting to slow down. The report states with “medium confidence” that while the circulatory system was unlikely to collapse abruptly this century, it warned that if GHG emissions continued, the odds of such “low likelihood, high impact outcomes” rise.
“It’s not like we can draw a sharp line where, if we stay at 1.5 degrees, we’re safe, and at 2 degrees or 3 degrees it’s game over,” said Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University who helped write the report. “But every extra bit of warming increases the risks.”
Biden’s pledge to eliminate America’s net carbon emissions by 2050, and China’s vow to become carbon neutral by 2060, put the world on track for a roughly 2C warming. Sharp reductions of methane emissions from agriculture and oil and gas drilling including fracking, could reduce warming below 2C.
“The report leaves me with a deep sense of urgency,” said Jane Lubchenco, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Now is the critical decade for keeping the 1.5 target within reach.”
A federal judge in Alaska on Aug 18 blocked construction permits for a multibillion-dollar ConocoPhillips plant, known as Willow, which had been approved by the Trump administration and then legally supported by the Biden administration. The drilling project was proposed for the state’s North Slope and was designed to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day for the next 30 years. Environmental groups (including Earthjustice) sued, arguing that the federal government had failed to consider the effects that drilling would have on wildlife and that the burning of the oil would have on global warming.
In her opinion, Judge Sharon L. Gleason (US District Court for Alaska) wrote that the Trump Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management’s exclusion of GHG emissions in its analysis of the environmental effects of the project was “arbitrary and capricious.”
Biden’s decision not to fight the Willow project, despite his pledged commitment to combating climate change, likely was a political effort to persuade Sen. Lisa Murkowski (of Alaska) to support the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that ultimately passed the Senate.
The evolving infrastructure bill contains $73 billion for the electric grid. This attempt to modernize the nation’s electricity grid would be the single largest federal investment in power transmission in history. But it contains only a fraction of the money Biden requested for major environmental initiatives like building a network of EV charging stations ($7.5 billion) and it extends a lifeline to natural gas and nuclear energy, provisions that have angered House progressives. It includes $3.5 billion for climate resilience measures. The legislation includes more than $300 million to develop technology to capture and store CO2 emissions from power plants, and $6 billion to support struggling nuclear reactors.
The bill omits a mechanism to immediately mandate the reduction of fossil fuel emissions, a policy that will be necessary for Biden to honor his Paris Agreement pledge of cutting US GHGs 50 to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030.
“There’s a lot here that, no matter how you slice it, reflects a real fact on the ground, which is the United States is still 70-percent-odd reliant on fossil fuels in its energy mix,” said Kevin Book, managing director of Clearview Energy Partners, a Washington-based research firm. “This is not a transition bill,” he said. “This is an incremental bill that includes transition components.”
In May, Biden said he would double funding, to $1 billion, for another FEMA program, called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), which also gives state and local governments money for projects such as sea walls, drainage or helping people relocate away from vulnerable areas.
Starting with a string of hurricanes and wildfires in 2017, the US has suffered annual devastating disasters: Hurricane Michael destroyed towns in the Florida panhandle in 2018, Midwest flooding in 2019, and a record 12 major storms making landfall in 2020. Last year there were 22 disasters each causing over $1 billion in damages — another record.
Spending on resilience is intended to protect the federal budget. Between 2005 and 2019 the federal government spent almost half a trillion dollars on disaster assistance, according to the Government Accountability Office, which considers climate change a threat to the government’s financial health. A dollar spent on preparation saves an average of $6 post-disaster, according to federal research.
On Aug 5, Biden, flanked by the chief executives of the nation’s three largest automakers, as well as the head of the United Auto Workers, announced that he is restoring and strengthening auto mileage standards to the levels that existed under Obama but were weakened by Trump. The new rules will apply to model year 2023 vehicles, will cut about one-third of the CO2 produced annually by the US and prevent the burning of about 200 billion gallons of gasoline over the lifetime of the cars, according the White House.
The automakers pledged that 40 to 50% of their new car sales would be EVs by 2030, up from just 2% this year, on the condition that Congress passes a spending bill that includes billions of dollars for a national network of EV charging stations, as well as tax credits to make it cheaper for companies to build the cars and consumers to buy them.
Under the Obama standards in 2012, passenger vehicles had to achieve an average of roughly 51 miles per gallon by 2025. Trump reduced it in 2020 to about 44 mpg by 2026. Biden’s standard will be 52 mpg by 2026.
Biden’s future plans for tougher emissions regulations for vehicles produced beyond 2026 are intended to compel automakers to phase out the internal combustion engine.
In a joint statement, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the auto company formed this year after the merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot, announced their “shared aspiration” to achieve sales of 40 to 50% EVs by 2030.
Biden, again surrounded by labor and business leaders from the American auto industry, signed an executive order setting a national goal of half of all new vehicles sold by 2030 be electric.
Biden’s actions amount to an attempt to overhaul a major American industry in order to better compete with China, which makes about 70% of the world’s EV batteries. In an effort that blends environmental, economic and foreign policy, Biden wants to retool and expand the domestic supply chain so that the batteries that are essential to EVs are also made in American factories.
Without a radical change to the type of vehicles Americans drive, it will be impossible for Biden to meet his ambitious pledge to cut planet-warming emissions by the end of this decade. Gasoline-powered cars and trucks are the largest single source of GHGs produced in the US, accounting for 28% of the country’s total carbon emissions.
A second bill, which could move through Congress this fall, could include far more spending on EVs, consumer tax incentives and research. Neither proposal is guaranteed to pass a divided Congress.
The International Council on Clean Transportation, a research organization, concluded that the nation would need 2.4 million EV charging stations by 2030 — up from 216,000 in 2020 — if about 36% of new car sales were electric.
The European Union has announced that all new cars sold will be emissions-free by 2035. In the US, California and Massachusetts have made the same commitment. General Motors has said it will sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.
Labor unions are concerned about a transition to EVs which require about one-third fewer workers to assemble than gasoline-powered cars or trucks. Ray Curry, president of the United Auto Workers said: “While the U.A.W. notes that the companies have made voluntary commitments on electric vehicles, the U.A.W. focus is not on hard deadlines or percentages, but on preserving the wages and benefits that have been the heart and soul of the American middle class.”
Ultimately, however, the success of Biden’s automobile plan will depend on whether Americans put their trust in an entirely new kind of car. “In the world of electrification, you’ve got the regulations, which the executive branch can do, and the need for complementary infrastructure, which is up to a divided Congress,” said David G. Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego. “And then you’ve got the need for a change in human behavior, which is largely uncharted territory.”
The position of many Republicans in Congress has shifted to accept that the Earth is warming due to fossil fuel emissions, but they refuse to alienate the oil, gas and coal industry. And they do not support the strategy in the recent IPCC report to stop burning fossil fuels and are actively resisting efforts by Democrats to cut the emissions that are fueling the disasters in the first place.
The position of Republicans in the House and Senate is that quickly switching to wind, solar and other clean energy will damage an economy that has been underpinned by fossil fuels for more than a century.
“I’m not doing anything to raise the cost of living for American families,” said Senator Rick Scott of Florida, where climate-fueled disasters have cost the state more than $100 billion over the past decade. He said he wants to address climate change, but “you can't do it where you’re killing jobs.”
It’s a message supported by polling that shows Republican voters are more concerned with jobs than the environment. A Pew Research Center survey in May found just 10% of Republican and Republican-leaning independents were deeply concerned with addressing climate change, while a majority thought Biden’s ambitious plans to curb climate change would hurt the economy.
Young Republicans have pressed their party to take climate change more seriously, but conservative voters generally have not shifted much on the issue over the past 10 years.
To the extent that Republicans have a policy on climate change, they favor investment in research and development for technological solutions that are years away from viability, such as cleaning the air after oil, gas and coal are burned. Many also favor expanding nuclear energy, which does not produce GHGs but poses other challenges including the lengthy time it takes to build new plants and concerns about disposal of spent fuel and risk of radioactive leaks.
Very few Republicans support policies favored by Democrats to tax GHG emissions. Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have expressed support for such a policy, but neither man is pushing the idea.
“What they are opposing is any program to meaningfully reduce emissions,” said Mr. Victor, of Republicans.
Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana helped craft the $1 trillion infrastructure package that the Senate passed and made sure it included billions of dollars to protect coastal states from SLR. But he opposes policies to curb the amount of oil that is drilled off the Louisiana coast. “We cannot live without fossil fuels or chemicals, period, end of story,” said Sen. Cassidy, who wants to expand exports of liquefied natural gas which is produced in Louisiana and emits half the CO2 of coal but is a major source of methane, a GHG even more potent in the short term.
Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota allowed that climate change is driving the extreme drought that has devastated crops and decimated livestock in his state this summer, he said the gases produced by burning fossil fuels should be the target, not the fuels themselves. “We need to be on an anti-carbon mission, not an anti-fuel mission,” he said. His state is a top oil and gas producer.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said of climate change, “I concur that it is happening, and it is a problem. The argument is about how to best address it.”
Senator John Cornyn of oil and gas-rich Texas said, “I have no doubt the climate is changing, and people contribute to it.” Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama said he thinks weather disasters simply happen, yet “a lot of it, I’m sure, with all the stuff we put in the air, is self-made.”
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma who famously brought a snowball into the Senate to show the planet is not warming, claimed that he never called climate change a “hoax,” only that the dire consequences have been overblown (despite being the author of a book entitled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future”).
Republican leaders have said they will vote against the budget bill arguing that it is too expensive and that mandates like a clean electricity standard and government-funded EV expansion will hurt taxpayers. Their position reflects that of the major oil and gas companies, which are running advertising campaigns touting “technology innovation” as a response to global warming.
“They are acknowledging their role in climate change, but they want the public to believe they are on top of it,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said of the fossil fuel companies. “They say they are innovating, they are evolving, they’ve got this. They don’t need policy — and Republicans are following that cue.”
Oil and gas interests continue to lobby hard against policies that would reduce emissions, particularly tighter vehicle mileage rules that would prevent the burning of hundreds of billions of gallons of gasoline. Those companies are donating overwhelmingly to Republicans. In the 2020 election cycle alone, oil, gas, coal mining and other energy companies gave $46 million to the Republican Party. That’s more than those industries donated to Democrats over the course of the last decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In many ways the $1 trillion infrastructure package, which the Senate approved in a 69-30 vote shows the limits of Republican action on climate change. The package still needs approval from the House. Left out was any provision that would mandate the reduction of fossil fuels or the emissions they produce. Nineteen Republicans, including the minority leader, voted for the legislation.
The views expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee
NYSBA, Environmental & Energy Law Section
Follow me on Twitter @HowardCarl