Facts on the Ground:
When I started this Blog, 47 editions ago, I did not expect the Facts on the Ground section to grow the way it has. But it is now clear that climate change will continue to produce lethal and costly extreme weather events around the planet all year long. No one and no place is safe or immune. Extremes of heat, drought, fire, as well as precipitation, flooding, landslides, tornados/typhoons, storm surges and sea level rise will be a constant feature of this Blog.
As I write on July 11, about 50 million people in the Central US (primarily Texas) are under heat warnings or advisories as the heat index is forecast above 100F for at least two days. The expected surge in air conditioner and electricity usage has also prompted warnings from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to residents and businesses to reduce electricity usage to avoid rolling blackouts across the state. Local reports have suggested that the power grid, which has failed in previous heat waves, could be at its breaking point. Frank Pereira, a meteorologist with the Weather Service, described the conditions as “oppressive” and “dangerous.” The regulator forecast demand in Texas to peak at 79,671 megawatts, just short of the 80,168 megawatts that will be available.
The heat wave began in the Central Plains and the Southeast US at the start of July and has moved west. Advisories were also issued in parts of Arizona and Alabama.
Heat and drought and fires killed people and wildlife and destroyed homes and infrastructure this past Spring in many places around the globe.
In mid-June, much of the US Midwest and Southeast suffered through several days of unrelenting extreme, record-breaking, heat affecting 95 million people from Southern California to western Pennsylvania to West Virginia south to Florida. On June 15, 17 weather stations reported record high temperatures for that day including Chicago (96F), Atlanta (99), and Lansing, Mich., (95), and Macon, Ga., (104). Nine additional cities tied their records for the day.
Southwest Indiana, southeast Missouri, western Kentucky, Southern Illinois, all experienced excessive heat warnings (heat indexes reached 110 in places, and 112 in Tallahassee, Fla). Most of Arkansas, Missouri and parts of Kansas were equally uncomfortable. And this is before summer even began.
The heat caused the death, in Kansas, of about 2,000 cattle, said Matthew Lara of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “There wasn’t a lot of wind to help cool them,” he said. “It was just too hot.”
Climatologists report that heat waves are becoming more frequent, hotter and longer lasting than in previous decades. The federal National Climate Assessment stated in 2018 that the frequency of heat waves had increased from an average of two per year in the 1960s to six per year by the 2010s. The heat-wave season in the US is now 45 days longer than it was in the 1960s. And relief is not in sight. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that above-normal temperatures are likely across most of the contiguous US through August.
In later June the heat wave enveloped much of Europe including parts of France and Spain. Parts of India experienced extraordinary heat in March. A team of researchers who studied the devastating heat in India found that climate change had made it 30 times as likely to occur.
Concurrent heat waves are affecting distant places with increasing frequency due to the altered jet stream and other rivers of air that influence global weather systems. Studies have shown a linkage between parts of North America, Europe and Asia and it is likely that simultaneous heat extremes will continue affecting these places which are home to much of the world’s economic activity.
“To have a heat wave, we need the heat, and we need the atmospheric circulation pattern that allows the heat to accumulate,” said Daniel E. Horton, a climate scientist at Northwestern University. With global warming, he said, “we’re definitely getting more heat.” But climate change may also be affecting the way this heat is distributed around the world by globe-circling air currents, he said.
Individual heat waves can lead to illness and death, wildfires, and crop failures. Concurrent weather extremes threaten global food supplies, which have been further strained by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and cause political instability, conflicts, and environmental refugees.
One recent study found that the average number of days between May and September with at least one large heat wave in the Northern Hemisphere doubled between the 1980s and the 2010s, to around 152 from 73.The number of days with two or more heat waves was seven times higher, growing to roughly 143 from 20. That’s nearly every single day from May to September.
The study also found that these concurrent heat waves affected larger areas and were more severe by the 2010s, with peak intensities that were almost 20% higher than in the 1980s. On days when there was at least one large heat wave somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, there were 3.6 of them happening per day on average.
Scientists are studying how the meandering of the jet stream, which has long shaped weather patterns globally, is changing due to warming. One factor is the recent warming, and loss of ice, in the Arctic, which narrows the difference in temperatures between the northern and southern Northern Hemisphere. Those temperature differences are the keys driving weather systems around the planet. As the temperature differences narrow, these air currents appear to be slowing down, said Kai Kornhuber, a climate scientist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. That results in extreme events like heat waves and heavy downpours lasting longer. “The longer a heat wave lasts, the more you push natural and societal systems to the edge,” Dr. Kornhuber said.
Climate change already means the world will see more extreme weather events, and more extremes occurring simultaneously, he said. “These circulation changes, they will act on top of it,” he said, “and would make extremes even more severe and even more frequent.”
In early June, the temperature exceeded 100-110F for days on end in large parts of California, Nevada and Arizona affecting the lives and well-being of over 22 million people. The NOAA predicted that in addition to the high temperatures, lower-than-normal precipitation was expected across the West, which remains in a gripping drought. In May too, terrible heat and humidity tied or broke heat records in cities from Texas to Massachusetts.
And where there’s drought and excessive heat, there often is wildfire. In late May, such conditions plus strong winds fueled wildfires on over 600,000 acres across New Mexico making it one of the worst fire years in the state’s history with at least another month of peak fire risk ahead.
The Black fire in Gila National Forest also in NM exploded in mid-May to become the second largest fire, and another large Spring wildfire near the village of Ruidoso in the south of the state destroyed or damaged more than 200 structures and killed two people.
This spring, the risk factors aligned for an extreme fire season in New Mexico, said Park Williams, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies long-term drought trends and the effects of climate change. Much of the state saw its driest or near-driest April on record. Spring temperatures were above average, too.
Long-term drought and warmer-than-usual temperatures have contributed to increased fire risk across much of the Western US in recent years. And large, destructive wildfires have become more common, especially in California. As the climate has warmed, traditional fire seasons have been expanding too — starting earlier and ending later in many parts of the world. This year in New Mexico, major fires began burning three to five weeks earlier than normal.
In mid-May, winds up to 30 mph, drought conditions and extreme temperatures exceeding 100F led to a series of wildfires in Texas, including one that burned more than 9,000 acres and destroyed about 30 structures. That fire, the Mesquite Heat Fire, was southwest of Abilene, Texas, and was one of nine wildfires in the state. The Coconut Fire, in Wilbarger County, North Texas, burned 25,000 acres.
In late April wildfires burned over 130,000 acres in Arizona, Nebraska, and Texas causing at least one death and the evacuations of about 4,000 homes. The fire season started early here too and affected California and Colorado. Drought conditions, elevated heat and recent trends suggest it will be a long, dangerous fire season.
In New Mexico, the largest threat was the Calf Canyon fire, east of Santa Fe, endangering more than 900 homes. The Calf Canyon fire merged with the Hermits Peak fire, about 12 miles northwest of Las Vegas, N.M., at the base of Hermits Peak in the Pecos Wilderness. The Hermits Peak fire started as early as April 6 after “unexpected erratic winds” from a prescribed fire in the area caused the blaze to grow. More than 200 structures were burned and the Calf Canyon fire burned more than 54,000 acres. Over 3,400 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders and more than 3,000 homes were under voluntary evacuation.
Coconino County in Northern Arizona was under a state of emergency as firefighters struggled to contain a wildfire, about 14 miles northeast of Flagstaff. More than 750 households were ordered to evacuate. The Tunnel Fire began on April 17, burned more than 21,000 acres and destroyed about 25 structures. It also destroyed the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which was “burned in its entirety,” said the park service.
The nation’s wildfire risk is widespread, severe and accelerating, according to new data compiled by the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research group. The group calculated the risk facing every property in the contiguous US. The study is timely as rising housing prices in cities and suburbs push Americans into fire-prone areas without consideration of the fire risk because, unlike flooding, there is no federal wildfire map at the property level. “For too long, we have let people live in communities, and even attracted them to join a community, while keeping them in a state of ignorance about the risk that they’re under,” said Roy Wright, a former head of risk mitigation at FEMA.
According to First Street, more than 686,000 US properties face at least a 1% chance this year of damage from wildfire, the same degree of risk that the government uses to determine which houses must have flood insurance. But wildfire risk is far more dangerous given its destructiveness.
A 1% risk is not small as it compounds over time becoming a 26% risk over 30 years, the span of a typical mortgage. During that 30-year mortgage, more than 381,000 properties nationwide face a risk of wildfire that is greater than 50%.
In 30 years, First Street’s model predicts that California residents will be most at risk with 631,755 addresses facing at least a 1% annual risk from wildfire, followed by Texas (474,367 properties) and Florida (383,634). In the US, the number of existing properties that will face at least a 1% risk will almost quadruple, to 2.5 million. Matthew Eby, the executive director of First Street, called the projected increase in wildfire risk “just mind-boggling.”
Parts of northern and central India recorded their highest average temperatures for April. Such extreme heat is destroying the health and livelihoods of India’s working poor. And if global GHG emissions continue to grow, climate models suggest that the combination of heat and humidity could be literally unbearable. This year, the unrelenting heat covers a vast swath of the country, and it’s raising an urgent question: is it possible to protect people in a future of such extreme heat?
The temperature in the capital, Delhi, exceeded 45C (114F). West Bengal, in eastern India, is one of several regions where the combination of heat and humidity could create conditions where the human body is at risk of cooking itself. That limit is the “wet bulb” temperature (like a thermometer wrapped in a wet cloth, accounting for both heat and humidity), of about 35C (95F). Parts of Asia, Africa and the Middle East are already experiencing this and people are leaving as agriculture fails.
Friederike Otto, a leader in the science of attributing extreme weather events to climate change, said that the rise in the average global temperature has already intensified heat waves “many times faster than any other type of extreme weather.” Get used to extremes and adapt to the greatest extent possible because this is going to happen, he warned.
Heat has also damaged India’s wheat harvests. It has caused the demand for electricity to soar, and too the demand for coal. During the heat wave, India stopped passenger trains to allow coal trains to deliver coal to power plants.
The 10-year-old Indian climate activist Licypriya Kangujam said that playing outdoors is impossible. “It’s very difficult. I’m all the time dehydrated, resulting in dizziness,” she said. After two years of being forced to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic, “finally we have gone back to school. Now rising temperatures are posing a new threat,” she said.
Joshua Stevens, the lead cartographer at NASA Earth, produced a map of the most populous cities in the world indicating the most vulnerable to heat stresses. In India alone, roughly 99 million people live in India’s 10 hottest cities.
What India is witnessing now comes as average temperatures there have risen by about 1C (1.8F) since the beginning of the industrial age. Its economy is among the largest in the world, and in a few years India’s population is projected to be the largest. Its emissions will certainly grow — but how fast and how much they grow depends on how quickly India can pivot away from burning coal.
Under the current trajectory, the average temperature in India is projected to rise by 3.5C by century’s end. By all estimates, such an increase will be catastrophic and force well over one billion people to become refugees in search of a place that won’t cook them alive. Similar projections hold for other areas in southern Asia as well as parts of Africa and the Middle East.
Floods, landslides, tornados:
In mid-June, four days of record rains and 5.5” of melted snow led to mudslides which obliterated bridges and roads, flooded homes and forced 10,000 people to evacuate Livingston and Gardiner, Mont. The storm closed access to northern Yellowstone National Park, one of the nation’s most-visited natural wonders. Residents face a long summer without the main driver of the local economy.
Park superintendent Cameron Sholly described the storm as a “thousand-year event, whatever that means these days. They seem to be happening more and more frequently.” He estimated that at least 10,000 people were visiting when the evacuations began.
Gov. Greg Gianforte declared a statewide disaster which included one casualty. Hundreds of homes were flooded in communities north of the park, which were also cut off from supplies of food and clean water.
At the end of May, a possible tornado damaged around 100 homes and downed power lines in Forada, and Eagle Bend, about 135 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Stephen VanLuik, Forada’s fire chief, was amazed: “Oh, the devastation to homes, vehicles, trees — it’s unbelievable,” he said. “In this stretch of road that we’re standing on now, if there’s isn’t something that hasn’t been hit, it’s remarkable.”
Tornadoes are very rare in Forada and included golf ball-size hail and wind gusts of 60 to 80 mph. More than 72,000 customers in Minnesota were without power.
The prior week another tornado killed two people and injured dozens more as it tore through the city of Gaylord, in northern Mich. It destroyed a three-block area in the city. “It all just flashed before my eyes,” said Logan Clayton, 18, who was in the Nottingham Forest mobile home park. The wind was so intense it shattered a window. He saw “someone getting picked up, trailers getting picked up. It all just happened within 10 seconds and then it was gone.”
Over 40 people were treated for injuries and one person remained unaccounted for. The National Weather Service said it had maximum winds of 140 mph. Cars were tossed on top of one another in a Hobby Lobby parking lot. A truck was upended and the roofs of several businesses collapsed.
Tornados are rare in that region of northern Mich. Most occur well to the south of Gaylord, which is about 60 miles from the northern tip of the state’s Lower Peninsula. “Up here, stuff like this doesn’t happen,” said resident Joshua Comoford, 22. “You have rainstorms or severe winds. But a tornado actually ripping through our town? Nothing like that’s ever happened in my lifetime.”
Jasmine Vandenbrook’s mobile home was smothered by other trailers and destroyed. She could not afford renters’ insurance and could only salvage a few items. “It’s very hard seeing that you have nothing,” she said while collecting donated blankets, clothes, and food at a local church. “All your belongings, everything just ripped out of your house.”
In early May, 25 million people from Virginia to Alabama endured severe thunderstorms with hail and winds up to 70 mph days after a line of storms ripped through portions of the South and Midwest. Tornadoes hit northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, tearing the roof off a school and damaging homes and businesses. Roads across parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas were flooded and impassable.
A line of thunderstorms moved eastward across Texas into parts of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In central Oklahoma, there were reports of golf-ball sized hail as severe thunderstorms moved northeastward across the state.
In mid-June, large parts of China endured extreme weather. Southern China (including Guangdong province), experienced the worst flooding in decades after several days of steady rainfall, submerging houses and cars as water levels in more than a hundred rivers across the country prompted authorities to issue alerts at the highest level. Northern and central provinces suffered through record-high heat waves causing roads to buckle.
The flooding disrupted the lives of about half a million people. Many needed to be rescued from their homes. Schools and airports were closed. Water levels reached a 50-year high, ruined nearly 30 hectares of crops, caused the collapse of more than 1,700 houses, and led to financial losses of $261 million.
Temperatures reached a high of 104F in nine northern and central provinces. In Henan, roadside surface temperatures as high as 165F created road ruptures making travel dangerous. High temperatures increased the demand for and use of air conditioning which led to record electricity consumption. In the northern province of Shandong with a population of 100 million, the maximum electricity load was a record 92.94 million kilowatts, breaking the 2020 high of 90.22 mks. Premier Li Keqiang said that the country must increase coal production capacity to prevent power outages.
Elsewhere toward the end of June, northeastern Bangladesh was hit with torrential rain. Bamboo homes were swept away along with everything in them. The annual monsoon typically runs from June to September and provides water to grow rice, a primary food. But climate change is bringing more extreme weather around the world. In China, the above-noted flooding displaced hundreds of thousands of people. In Bangladesh and northern India, the flooding washed away entire towns and train stations, killing at least 68 people by drowning, electrocutions and landslides and displacing millions of others. More than 4,000 people have been infected with waterborne diseases and many more will be similarly afflicted. Crops have been devastated.
“Every piece of real estate in Bangladesh is populated, and this entire area is underwater,” said Sheldon Yett, the United Nations Children’s Fund representative to the country, referring to the northeast.
This is just the start of the monsoon season. In South Asia, recent research has strengthened the theory that climate change is disrupting the annual monsoon. India and Bangladesh are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they sit near the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. In 2020, torrential rains left at least a quarter of Bangladesh submerged. Last year, extreme rainfall and landslides washed away a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp overnight.
Abdus Sattar, 70, a former village mayor in northeastern Bangladesh, put the scale of the latest floods in historical context. “I’ve never seen a flood like this,” he said. “My father used to tell me many stories of their struggles, but he never told me about anything like this flood. It has ruined many of the villagers.”
Their schoolhouse shelter, which sits in a submerged area accessible only by boat, has one toilet for about 190 families. The sacks of rice that some flood victims brought have made it even more crowded. This epitomizes the environmental injustice of climate change. Those least responsible for it suffer the most from it and are not getting the relief and assistance promised them by wealthy countries.
And even before the monsoon season, in late May, similarly devastating rains and floods hit India and Bangladesh washing away towns, villages and infrastructure including train stations, railway tracks, bridges and roads. More than 60 people were killed in days of flooding and landslides and millions of people were left homeless.
One of the worst affected regions, in India’s northeast, in the state of Assam, 31 of its 33 districts were flooded, upending the lives of more than 700,000 people. At least 33 people were killed in the neighboring state of Bihar by lightning strikes and heavy rain in its 16 districts.
About two million people have been affected in the Sylhet region, in eastern Bangladesh, in what officials describe as one of the worst floods in many years. “We haven’t seen such a widespread flood in Sylhet for around two decades,” S.M. Shahidul Islam, a chief engineer of the Bangladesh Water Development Board, said. “Heavy rainfall and increased flow of floodwater through the Surma River is the main reason for this situation,” said Mr. Islam, explaining that dams in the area are unable to hold the floodwaters that have started pouring into cities.
The government of Bangladesh has closed nearly 600 schools and colleges indefinitely to use them as shelters for the displaced. At least 3,000 hectares of rice paddy fields have been flooded, which is expected to affect the livelihoods of of thousands of farmers.
Here in the northeast, we had a rare mid-April snow-storm that blanketed parts of Pennsylvania (8”) and much of central and upstate New York (12+”). The storm brought down power lines and made driving impossible. Ostego and Northern Oneida, NY were hard-hit and south-central parts of the state received up to 8” of snow with higher accumulations in higher elevation regions such as the Adirondacks and Catskills. Syracuse and Ithaca got about 7.”
More than 35,000 customers in NY and more than 30,000 in PA lost power. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reported several multivehicle crashes due to poor visibility and slippery roads. “I wouldn’t consider this to be a normal snowfall,” said Robert Deal, a meteorologist with the Weather Service, noting its timing in early Spring.
Punishing mid-April rains in and around Druban, South Africa destroyed nearly 4,000 homes and more than 8,300 were damaged with a confirmed death toll of 443 and about four dozen people missing. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in South Africa’s history.
President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster, noting that more than 40,000 have been displaced from their homes. “Tonight, we are a nation united in our grief,” he said.
Southern and eastern Africa have endured repeated natural disasters in recent years that have claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed impoverished communities. Scientists point to the increasing toll of climate change, especially for the most socioeconomically vulnerable, and call for a more aggressive government response in South Africa and elsewhere to adapt to increasingly dangerous weather systems. President Ramaphosa echoed this sentiment, “We need to increase our investment in climate adaptation measures to better safeguard communities against the effects of climate change.”
Also in mid-April, a tropical storm, Megi, caused flooding and landslides that killed at least 123 people in the Philippines. About nine regions and an estimated 139,000 people in the Philippines’ eastern seaboard were affected.
Severe thunderstorms including tornados ripped through portions of the US Midwest and the Mississippi Valley in mid-April, killing at least one person in Arkansas and causing damage in several other states. Powerful storms swept through Louisville, Ky., knocking out power and blowing over trees onto cars. Similar damage was reported in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. Over 40,000 customers in Mississippi, 30,000 in Louisiana, and 25,000 in Kentucky lost power.
Major areas of the US have suffered from relentless severe weather this past Spring. Central Texas had several storms sweep through with at least one tornado (maximum sustained winds near 165 mph). That storm injured at least 23 people, 12 of whom were taken to local hospitals. At least one other tornado tore through Central Iowa destroying property. In earlier April, severe weather caused two deaths, one in Georgia and one in Texas. And in late March, a powerful storm killed at least two people and injured two others in the Florida Panhandle.
A Gallup survey found that 33% of US adults said they had been affected by extreme weather since 2020. The most common events cited were extreme cold, hurricanes and winter weather, such as snow, ice storms and blizzards, followed by extreme heat and floods. No part of the US has escaped extreme weather.
Above, I have noted a lot of climate change related impacts. It is important to mention one more which has global implications: the continued melting of the polar ice caps in both the arctic and Antarctic. Parts of both poles were simultaneously hit recently by extreme heat waves driving temperatures in the Antarctic to 70F warmer than the average for this time of year, and 50F warmer in parts of the Arctic.
“They are opposite seasons — you don’t see the North and the South (Poles) both melting at the same time,” said Walter Meier, a researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “It’s definitely an unusual occurrence.” As a result, an ice shelf the size of New York City collapsed in East Antarctica at the beginning of these bizarre heat waves.
It was the first time humans observed “that the frigid region had an ice shelf collapse,” the A.P. noted, adding that if all the water frozen in East Antarctica melts, it would raise sea levels more than 160 feet globally. And while that amount of SLR won’t happen anytime soon, the fact that it is happening, and may be beyond the point of no return, should have governments everywhere adopting both mitigation (GHG reductions) and adaptation policies.
I will cover extreme weather not just to stress the dangers we all live with, but because of the impacts on global weather systems which are also in flux. The melting polar ice is affecting global weather systems, as is the globally heated air and water which increases both the amount of water vapor in the air and the temperature of the seas which both add to the power of storms and disrupt air and water circulatory flow which affects global weather which affects agricultural productivity, drinking water supply and irrigation. And all of this degrades the life sustaining pyramid (see Blog 1, and below) atop of which humanity sits.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, issued its 6th report, approved by 195 nations, again warning that unless countries drastically accelerate efforts over the next few years to slash their emissions from coal, oil and natural gas, the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5C (2.7F), likely will be out of reach by the end of this decade. All nations must rapidly phase out fossil fuels if humanity is to retain any hope of preventing a perilous future on an overheated planet. If we exceed this threshold, we likely will have worsening floods, droughts, wildfires and ecosystem collapse on a far greater scale than we are currently seeing. Humans have already heated the planet by an average of 1.1C since the 19th century, largely by burning fossil fuels for energy and we remain on a path to exceed 3C.
To avoid such a fate, nations must collectively reduce their planet-warming emissions roughly 43% by 2030 and to stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere altogether by the early 2050s, the report states. But current policies by governments are estimated to reduce global emissions by just a few percentage points this decade. Last year, fossil fuel emissions worldwide rebounded to near-record highs after a brief dip as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (see below).
“This is a climate emergency,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, adding that wealthy economies and corporations “are not just turning a blind eye; they are adding fuel to the flames. They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security, and greater price stability.”
The report coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which caused oil and gas prices to skyrocket and diverted political attention from climate change. In the US and Europe, leaders are focused on shoring up domestic fossil fuel supplies to avoid price spikes and energy shortages, which has produced higher short-term emissions.
“Every year that you let pass without going for these urgent emissions reductions makes it more and more difficult,” said Jim Skea, an energy researcher at Imperial College London who helped lead the report, which was compiled by and agreed to by 278 experts from 65 countries. “Unless we really do it immediately, it will not be possible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.” However, scientists believe that global warming will largely stop when humans stop adding GHGs to the atmosphere, a concept known as “net zero” emissions. “Reducing emissions substantially is much less painful than you would think, and probably beneficial in the short term,” said Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway, who contributed to the report.
The new report addresses numerous strategies proposed by scientists and energy experts to help nations make the transition. First, virtually all electricity-generating power plants worldwide must phase out fossil fuels and be replaced by wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal or hydropower. The majority of the world’s coal and natural gas plants must either be shut down or phased out. Residual carbon emissions must be captured and buried (by technology that remains expensive and developmental).
Second, transportation, industry and other segments of the global economy must be converted to run on clean electricity rather than fossil fuels. Gas powered cars must be replaced by EVs charged by low-carbon grids. Gas-burning furnaces in homes must be replaced with electric heat pumps. Steel mills must shift from coal to electric furnaces that melt scrap.
Third, the demand for energy must be reduced by more efficient home insulation, increased recycling of raw materials, more energy efficient factories, and improved public transit. Such efficiencies could cut emissions 40-70% by 2050.
Fourth, emissions from deforestation, wetland destruction and agriculture, which produce about 20% of global GHGs, must be addressed. Improvements in global meat production, which emits methane and CO2, and is responsible for rampant deforestation in vital places like the Amazon rainforest, is essential.
The report notes political obstacles including “incumbent fossil fuel interests” which thwart policies to cut emissions; organized disinformation campaigns by climate change deniers; and avoidance of difficult decisions that might affect the next election cycle.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres urged people around the world to press for action. “If you live in a big city, a rural area, or a small island state, if you invest in the stock market, if you care about justice, and our children’s future, I am appealing directly to you,” he said. “Demand that renewable energy is introduced now — at speed and at scale. Demand an end to coal-fired power. Demand an end to all fossil fuel subsidies.”
Atmospheric concentrations of methane have increased steadily over the past decade, and in 2021 they rose by a record amount over the year before, reaching a new high, according to NOAA. The previous record for annual increase in methane levels was in 2020.
“Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace,” said Richard W. Spinrad, the NOAA administrator. “Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to lessen the impacts of climate change in the near term, and rapidly reduce the rate of warming.”
Methane is less abundant in the atmosphere than CO2 but it is more potent in its near-term effects on global warming. Large amounts of methane pour into the air from gas wells and pipelines and from leaks. Livestock, landfills and decaying organic matter in wetlands also emit the colorless, odorless gas.
Similarly, the amount of planet-warming CO2 in the atmosphere broke a record in May, continuing its relentless climb. It is now 50% higher than the preindustrial average before humans began burning oil, gas and coal in the late 19th century. Humans pumped 36 billion tons of the gas into the atmosphere in 2021, the highest level in history. There is now more CO2 in the atmosphere than at any time in at least 4 million years, NOAA officials said. The concentration of the gas reached 420.99 parts per million in May. This is about 2 ppm higher than last year’s record and is 140 ppm above the preindustrial average which was consistently about 280 ppm. Since then, humans have pumped about 1.6 trillion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
On June 30, the Supreme Court ruled that EPA lacked broad authority to transform the nation’s electrical system away from fossil fuels. EPA maintains its authority to regulate GHG emissions, but it may only use narrow policies to regulate how individual power plants operate. The Court found that Congress must “speak with particular clarity when it authorizes executive agencies to address major political and economic questions” (the “major questions doctrine”). The 3 dissenters wrote that EPA had been stripped of “the power to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.”
“While the Court sided with special interests trying to take the country backwards, it did not take away EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and protect people from pollution,” Gina McCarthy, the White House climate change adviser, said.
In another ruling, the Supreme Court will allow the Biden administration to continue to take account of the costs of GHG emissions in regulatory actions, rejecting an emergency application from Louisiana and other Republican-led states to block the use of a formula that assigns a monetary value to changes in emissions.
The case concerned an interagency working group created by President Obama that in 2010 announced a framework for assessing the costs of GHG emissions. Trump disbanded the group and Biden revived it instructing the group to develop “estimates of the monetized damages associated with incremental increases in greenhouse gas emissions.” “An accurate social cost is essential for agencies to accurately determine the social benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when conducting cost-benefit analyses of regulatory and other actions.”
White House officials said Biden’s goal of slashing emissions roughly in half by the end of this decade, and fully eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035, is still doable. They cited the falling cost of renewable energy like wind and solar as well as an increasing number of policies at the state and local levels to fight climate change, along with new EPA regulations.
The agency intends to issue proposed regulations early next year. One will curb GHG emissions from existing coal-burning power plants, the other will lead to emissions reductions from new gas-burning power plants. Such an approach would fit within the Supreme Court’s mandate.
The federal government’s piecemeal approach may complicate reaching Biden’s goals. Power plants that burn fossil fuels are one of the single largest contributors of CO2 to the atmosphere. The EPA is enacting tougher restrictions on coal plants to reduce traditional pollutants like mercury, acid gases, particulate matter and nitrous oxides. Administrator Regan said such rules will have a side-benefit of reducing GHG emissions. He indicated that these rule changes may increase the cost of operations resulting in more closures.
Coal provides about 21% of electricity in the US, but accounts for more than half of all CO2 emissions from power production, making it one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. About 28% of coal-fired capacity is expected to be retired by 2035, according to the Energy Information Administration, due largely to the falling costs of gas-burning power plants and renewable energy.
One person familiar with the Biden administration’s approach said the White House believes it can achieve economywide emissions reductions of as much as 40% below 2005 levels by the end of this decade by tightening regulations. That would get the country close to Biden’s goal of cutting emissions at least 50% from 2005 levels in that same time frame.
Michelle Bloodworth, chief executive of America’s Power, a coal industry group, said that forcing more coal plant retirements would hurt the reliability of the grid. “Electric grid officials have issued warnings about the prospect of electricity shortages and blackouts in many parts of the country, and more coal retirements would only make the situation worse.”
A key question is how EPA proposes to regulate emissions from more than 90 gigawatts of new gas-burning plants that are being planned, said Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Santa Barbara, California. “That’s going to be hugely consequential for the planet,” she said. “If we don’t have a plan for new gas plants, we will not meet President Biden’s goals.”
Jeffrey Holmstead, an energy lawyer who served in the EPA in both Bush administrations, said utility companies feel that new regulations on power plants is a “sideshow” compared with the emissions cuts achievable if Congress approved billions of dollars in tax credits for wind, solar and battery storage. That package is still being negotiated in Congress because of objections from Senator Manchin (Democrat-WV), whose vote is key in the evenly divided Senate.
“It will be interesting to see how aggressively the administration moves to regulate CO2 emissions,” Mr. Holmstead said. “What’s unclear is how high a priority that will be for the agency.”
Earlier in June, Biden’s advisors had considered banning new offshore oil and gas drilling. The Department of Interior is required to release a plan for new oil and gas leases in federal waters every five years. Deb Haaland, the Interior secretary, promised to make available the plan this summer.
The administration had promised to reduce GHG emissions but is facing enormous pressure given the high rate of inflation and gas prices and the approach of the November midterm elections. Candidate Biden pledged to end new drilling on public lands and in federal waters. Environmentalists argue that offshore drilling is inconsistent with a clean energy future.
The International Energy Agency has said nations must stop approving new coal mines, or oil and gas fields to hold global warming to an average increase of 1.5C.
Tré Easton, a Democratic strategist, said “Joe Biden breaking a major campaign promise and extending new leases will have no bearing on energy prices in this country,” he said. “It’s a distraction and I really hope the White House recognizes it as such.”
The fossil fuel industry and Republicans are blaming the Biden administration for record high gas prices and accusing it of slowing fossil fuel production. “The administration can’t pretend to support oil and gas production while doing everything in their power to slow down and block expanded production on public land,” Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), said.
Trump tried to open all coastal waters of the US to oil and gas drilling, including the areas protected by the Obama administration. But under intense pressure from Florida Republicans who feared drilling would hurt tourism, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting drilling for 10 years off the coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
Shortly after taking office, Biden signed an executive order to pause the issuing of new leases — but a successful legal challenge from Republican states and the oil industry has forced the administration to hold new lease sales while it appeals that ruling.
In early June, EPA issued a proposed rule enabling state and tribal officials to stop pipelines and other energy projects that could pollute local waters. The rule would reverse a Trump-era rule that had curtailed such power. The reversal is consistent with 50 years of prior operations under the CWA where states and tribes reviewed federal permits and could block projects (by withholding approval) to protect local waterways. “The rule was in place since 1971 and the Trump administration moved to undo it, basically constraining the ability to challenge the environmental impacts of projects,” said Richard L. Revesz, a professor of environmental law at New York University.
The Biden Administration announced plans to cut in half the amount it charges companies to build wind and solar projects on federal lands. The move addressed complaints from wind and solar developers that lease rates and fees for projects on federal lands were too high to attract investors.
Representative Mike Levin (D-CA), who has sponsored legislation to expedite renewable energy development, applauded the move. “As Americans continue to face worsening effects of the climate crisis and rising energy bills, it’s paramount that we strengthen our clean energy independence to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower energy costs.”
The federal Bureau of Land Management announced that it was creating five new offices across the West to review proposed projects to strengthen its ability to handle a growing number of applications by wind, solar and geothermal developers.
The Biden administration stated that it will raise the royalty fees it charges oil and gas companies to drill on federal land and in federal waters. And in May, the administration canceled three oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska. Republican lawmakers criticized the new renewable energy policies as detrimental to energy producing states. Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, said, “Here is Biden‘s energy policy: wind, solar and wishful thinking. It’s just not realistic and, among other things, it is hurting our country. It is hurting my people in Louisiana desperately.”
In an April report to Congress, the Interior Department said it expected to approve 48 wind, solar and geothermal energy projects capable of generating about 31,827 megawatts of electricity, which could power roughly 9.5 million homes, by the end of the fiscal 2025 budget cycle.
The reduction in fees and rental rates may aid the solar industry struggling due to politics. The Commerce Department is investigation whether Chinese companies are circumventing U.S. tariffs by moving components for solar panels through four Southeast Asian countries. The investigation has held up over 300 new solar projects across the country including plans to install 60 square kilometers of solar panels in Vermont, a partially built project in Maine, and one in Texas that would have powered more than 10,000 homes. Tens of thousands of jobs are at risk.
No evidence of trade violations has been found but the threat of retroactive tariffs has disrupted imports of crystalline silicon panels and components from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. These four countries provide 82% of the most popular type of solar modules used in the US.
Energy experts warn that the fallout is only beginning. A monthslong halt on imports from the four countries could have lasting ramifications for the multibillion-dollar solar industry and for the Biden administration’s ambitious goals to ramp up renewable energy development to combat climate change.
“The industry is essentially frozen,” said Leah Stokes, a political scientist who studies climate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s already leading to layoffs, to say nothing of the impact on our climate goals.”
Last year, the US installed roughly 24 gigawatts of new solar capacity, a record aided by the plummeting cost of panels. But only about one-fifth of those panels were manufactured domestically, while the rest were imported primarily from Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
In total, the Solar Energy Industries Association said that its members were forecasting a 46% decline in the number of solar panels they will install through next year.
Some analysts have argued that the US would have to invest far more heavily in domestic manufacturing in order to compete with the overseas production of solar products. The Build Back Better bill in Congress, for instance, would provide new tax credits for solar wafers, cells and modules produced at home. But that legislation remains in doubt due to Republican and Senator Manchin’s opposition.
“It’s going to slow down the industry at a time when we need to be moving faster,” said Ms. Stokes. “This could be catastrophic.”
Given that about 27% of GHG emissions in the US are from the transportation sector, the Biden Administration announced plans in early May on a $3.1 billion effort to spur the domestic production of batteries, which are essential to speed the adoption of EVs and renewable energy. With the war in Ukraine continuing, administration officials have urged the transition to clean energy to insulate consumers from the fluctuation of global oil markets and achieve true energy independence.
Jennifer Granholm, the energy secretary, last week called renewable energy “the greatest peace plan this world will ever know.”
The problem is that lithium, cobalt and other minerals needed for EV batteries and energy storage are processed primarily in Asia. China alone controls nearly 80% of the world’s processing and refining of those critical minerals.
The $3.1 billion in grants, along with a separate $60 million program for battery recycling, is an effort to “reduce our reliance on competing nations like China that have an advantage over the global supply chain,” according to a Department of Energy statement.
The funding is aimed at companies that can create new, retrofitted or expanded processing facilities as well as battery recycling programs. The grants will be funded through the $1 trillion infrastructure law, which includes more than $7 billion to improve the domestic battery supply chain.
In April, President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to enhance government support of the mining, processing and recycling of critical materials, such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese.
Achieving widespread electrification will require major federal investment. A June report from the Energy Department said there was “a real threat that U.S. companies will not be able to benefit from domestic and global market growth” for batteries, and that “the U.S. risks long-term dependence on foreign sources of batteries and critical materials.”
Independent experts and industry officials expressed similar concerns before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “Although the demand for EVs is robust, market penetration will be limited by supply chain constraints,” Chris Nevers of Rivian Automotive Inc., an RV manufacturer, told lawmakers.
Mr. Nevers said the US had the mineral resources and industrial capability to create a fully domestic EV battery supply chain, but it would take a huge “all of the above” mobilization of the federal government to achieve it.
The Biden administration wants half of all new vehicles sold in the US to be EVs by 2030. The president also has issued procurement guidelines to transform the 600,000-vehicle federal fleet, so that all new cars and trucks purchased by the federal government by 2035 are zero-emission.
In mid-April, the Biden administration reversed Trump and restored the requirement of the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act to consider climate impacts and ensure that local communities have input before federal agencies approve highways, pipelines and other major projects. The final rule requires federal agencies to analyze the amount of GHG emissions over the lifetime of a proposed project, as well as how climate change might affect new highways, bridges and other infrastructure, according to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the council, described the regulation as restoring “basic community safeguards” that the Trump administration had eliminated.
Under the changes, agencies would have to consider the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of a decision — including the effect a new project would have on neighborhoods already burdened by pollution.
Republicans and some business groups are hostile to the changes, arguing that additional reviews would delay the development of badly needed infrastructure.
The new rule also proposes giving federal agencies the authority to work closely with communities to develop alternative approaches to projects. Historically, the N.E.P.A. process has been one of the most important tools available to local communities to try to amend or stop projects that could cause significant harm.
The Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a landmark rule requiring companies to disclose their financial risk from climate change.
EPA is advancing new rules to limit methane. The administration is setting tougher energy efficiency standards for refrigerators, washers, dryers and other appliances. And through the bipartisan infrastructure law, it is providing $3.2 billion to weatherize homes and $5 billion to help states create networks of EV charging stations.
Biden’s nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin for vice chair of the Federal Reserve was scuttled by Senator Manchin who objected to her views that climate change poses a serious risk to the financial system. Senator Manchin and Republicans also pressured the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to back off plans to consider climate effects when approving new gas pipelines. FERC recently scaled back plans to consider how natural gas projects affect climate change and environmental justice.
“President Biden wants to spend more taxpayer dollars on his green energy schemes instead of increasing American energy production to solve the energy crisis he created,” Senator Barrasso said. Wyoming is the nation’s top coal producing state and eighth in crude oil production.
With an eye toward this Fall’s midterm elections, Republicans have ramped up attacks on Biden’s climate agenda. The Republican National Committee has launched a campaign to register voters at gas stations across the country, aiming to connect high prices at the pump to Biden’s policies.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” wrote David Axelrod, a Democratic political strategist and former top counselor to President Obama. “The economic dislocations caused by the pandemic and war in Ukraine have led to record gas prices, and with them, tremendous pressure to encourage more oil and gas production. All in an election year.”
The EPA is drafting two regulations to reduce emissions from vehicle tailpipes and power plant smokestacks. If those rules are stringent and enacted soon, analysts say, they could cut the nation’s GHG pollution and accelerate its transition to EVs and wind and solar power.
The agency could still make an impact with another rule, which is not expected to be completed until 2023, designed to force auto companies to rapidly increase sales of zero-emission EVs.
The White House is advancing its climate agenda via its $5.8 trillion budget request for fiscal year 2023. It includes nearly $45 billion for several federal agencies to tackle climate change. The trick is getting it through both houses before the midterms in November. Should the Republicans gain the majority of the House or the Senate, there likely will be no movement on climate change.
Biden is trying to make good on a promise he made to help poorer countries expand renewable energy and adapt to the effects of warming with $11.4 billion in annual climate finance by 2024. His proposed budget envisions shoring up that money a year early. Congress may not agree. In approving his 2022 budget request, Congress approved barely $1 billion for international climate finance.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, called on lawmakers to make amends. “If enacted, this would help overcome Congress’ recently approved anemic international climate funding, and all parties should rally around this plan,” the group said. Senator James Risch (R-ID), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Tweeted in opposition that climate aid “will not stop malign actions from Russia, China and Iran.”
The budget would enable the US Forest Service to hire more than 3,000 staff to fight wildfires. The Department of Agriculture would get $1.8 billion, to ensure rural homes are built to withstand extreme weather events. The Pentagon would get $3 billion to prepare military installations for climate impacts.
The budget creates an office within the Department of Justice to examine how environmental risks disproportionately affect communities of color. It would allocate $1.45 billion across several EPA-run programs to protect communities facing disproportionately high levels of air and water pollution.
The largest allotment of the $142 billion for transportation would be used to repair roads and bridges — or perhaps build new highways, as some Republican state governors prefer. About 15% of the agency’s budget would go toward mass transit.
The Bureau of Land Management would get $1.4 billion to issue permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands, and another $237 million to oversee offshore drilling. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to calls from administration officials to export more gas to Europe to reduce the continent’s dependence on Russian energy.
The views expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair Global Climate Change Committee, NYSBA, EELS