Climate News Roundup 5/6/2016

In just 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, the Fort McMurray wildfire in Alberta, Canada grew from 25,000 acres to 215,000 acres, destroying many buildings in the town of 88,000 people, all of whom were ordered to evacuate.  Ironically, because Fort McMurray has been one of the biggest boom towns of Canada’s Athabasca oil sands, the fire was attributed to a combination of human-caused global warming and natural climate variability.  Elizabeth Kolbert reflects in The New Yorker on the responsibility we all bear for this fire.

In early April I provided a link to an article about a federal judge in Oregon who ruled that a group of young people had the right to sue the federal government under the constitution and public trust doctrine for its failure to protect them against the harm associated with climate change.  Now a judge in the state of Washington has ruled in favor of another group of children, ordering the state Department of Ecology to create rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year.  In announcing her decision, the judge cited an “urgent situation” as a reason.  On a related topic, the latest volume of Future of Children, a joint Princeton University-Brookings Institution publication, outlines how climate change is likely to affect children’s health and wellbeing, identifying policies that could mitigate the harm that climate change will cause.

Virginia Dominion Power submitted its new 15 year Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) to the State Corporation Commission last Friday.  The forecast includes four potential plans for complying with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, three of which rely on solar and natural gas.  The fourth relies on construction of a third reactor at the North Anna nuclear site.  The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) strongly disagrees with the IRP.  Perhaps Dominion needs to contact the developers who just submitted a bid to Dubai Electricity & Water Authority to provide solar generated electricity for 2.99 cents/kWh, which is 1.51 cents/kWh cheaper than electricity from a new coal-fired power plant under construction for the same authority.

In a blog post on Weather Underground, meteorologist Jeff Masters has stated: “The greatest threat of climate change to civilization over the next 40 years is likely to be climate change-amplified extreme droughts and floods hitting multiple major global grain-producing ‘breadbaskets’ simultaneously.”  He then goes on to document why he thinks this is true.

Two recent papers in scientific journals have provided more information about how melting ice in the Arctic influences the weather in the Northern Hemisphere.  Basically, warming in the Arctic leads to increased incidence of blocking patterns over Greenland.  This causes increased warming over Greenland, contributing to more melting and sea level rise, but it can also lead to more blizzards on the East Coast of the U.S.  The kicker is that the frequency of the blocking events has increased since the 1980’s, which is thought to be associated with the melting of Arctic sea ice.  On a related note, the authors of a recent paper examining how conditions in the Pacific influence Arctic warming comment on the significance of their findings.

India is suffering its worst water crisis in years, with around 330 million people, or a quarter of the population, experiencing drought after the last two monsoons failed.  Meteorologists forecast an above average monsoon beginning in June.  Meanwhile, in Africa El Nino associated drought has severely impacted Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi and Zambia.  If all this isn’t bad enough, a new report by The World Bank finds that the major impact of climate change is likely to be on water supplies, with inadequate supplies likely to reduce GDP in 2050 by 14% in the Middle East, nearly 12% in the Sahel, 11% in central Asia, and 7% in east Asia under business-as-usual water management practices.  In addition, the future of the Middle East and North Africa is not encouraging, according to another new study that focused on temperature.  Even if global average warming is kept below 2C, summer temperatures are still expected to exceed 114F in daytime and not fall below 86F at night.

One outcome of our efforts to reduce carbon emissions may be an increase in the amount of electricity consumed.  That is a conclusion of a study by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  It follows from the concept that many direct uses of fossil fuels, such as in cars, can be replaced by electricity.  As we are learn how to make electricity without carbon emissions and to store it efficiently, electrification of the economy would be a way to greatly decrease CO2 emissions.  This suggests that electric utilities have less to fear from decarbonization of the economy than the fossil fuel industry.

There were several items related to economics this week.  Not surprisingly, Berkshire Hathaway shareholders rejected a resolution calling for the company to report on the risks climate change creates for its insurance companies.  Climate scientist James Hansen presented remarks at the meeting.  The Berkshire Hathaway shareholders were not alone, as documented in a report by the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP).  AODP found that just under a fifth of the world’s top investors were taking tangible steps to mitigate the risk associated with climate change, whereas almost half were doing nothing at all.  Meanwhile, investors in electric utilities are introducing shareholder resolutions requiring them to show their ability to function and make a profit under the constraints that will be necessary to limit warming to 2C.

A new report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative finds that the leading energy companies could make more money by abandoning high-cost projects in deep water and Canadian tar sands, and concentrating on schemes with a goal of keeping global warming to 2C.  Also this week, one of Britain’s most influential energy experts warned that oil companies have 10 years to change their business model, through diversification into renewables, scaling back, and mega-mergers, or meet a “nasty, brutish and short” end.

On Monday, Greenpeace Netherlands leaked documents from negotiations surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  They listed four environmental concerns, including the absence of any statements on climate protection.  EU officials disagreed with much of Greenpeace’s interpretation of the documents.

Climate change communication continues to be a topic of interest, probably because it is so important for building consensus for action.  Heather Smith writes on Grist about the latest approach from Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, which focuses on three points: The Threat, The Villain, and The Solution.  Dana Nuccitelli, writing in The Guardian, identifies three key points, gleaned from several studies, that lead people to be willing to tackle climate change: recognition that people are causing it; an understanding of how the greenhouse effect works; and awareness of the 90–100% expert consensus on human-caused global warming.  Finally, a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology has found that “Some reassurances about the stability of the economy may help people take information about human-caused climate change more seriously,” according to the lead author.

A new report from the U.S. Office of the Stockholm Environment Institute finds that annual global emissions of CO2 could drop by 100 million tons by 2030 if the Interior Department stopped issuing or renewing leases from federal lands and waters.  Bill McKibben has a new essay about the international movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground and an article in The Guardian quotes Naomi Klein as saying “Fossil fuels, which are the principal driver of climate change, require the sacrifice of whole regions and people.”

Most climate science is very detached from the actual impact of climate change on people, focusing rather on computer modeling or large scale patterns of change.  A recent paper in Nature Climate Change is different.  It is a meta-study that documents the observations of over 90,000 people from 137 countries currently experiencing climate change firsthand.  Closer to home, Michael Hayden writes about the plight of lower-income residents in Atlantic City as sea level rises.

On Wednesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service revived a proposal to allow energy companies to obtain 30-year permits to disturb or kill protected bald and golden eagles, provided that stable or increasing eagle populations are maintained.  The move is aimed at encouraging more firms to commit to eagle conservation measures.

Utilities in the U.S. have announced the retirement of 101,673 MW of coal-fired power plants since 2010.  The Energy Transitions Commission’s goals are to accelerate change toward low-carbon energy systems that enable robust economic development and to limit the rise in global temperature to well below 2C.  They have recently released a position paper that highlights what needs to be done to achieve those goals.  At a meeting in Washington, DC on Thursday, Jim Young Kim, president of the World Bank, said that if the planned coal-fired power plants in China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia are built, “That would spell disaster for us and our planet.”

These news items have been compiled by Les Grady, member and former chair of the CAAV steering committee. He is a licensed professional engineer (retired) who taught environmental engineering at Purdue and Clemson Universities and engaged in private practice with CH2M Hill, the world’s largest environmental engineering consulting firm. Since his retirement in 2003 he has devoted much of his time to the study of climate science and the question of global warming and makes himself available to speak to groups about this subject. More here.

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