Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/10/2017

Scott Pruitt is drawing up plans to repeal climate rules, cut staffing, close offices, and permanently weaken the regulatory authority of the EPA, which he has been nominated to lead.  As a result, on Monday almost 500 former EPA employees sent an open letter to Senate Majority Leader McConnell explaining why they oppose making Pruitt administrator of the agency.  The New York TimesCoral Davenport explored how Pruitt might go about his task, using interviews with senior former EPA officials.  In addition, Eric Roston at Bloomberg, examined how EPA’s history and structure might limit Pruitt’s actions.  If you are too young to remember what the U.S. was like before the EPA, then you may want to read this introduction to Documerica.

According to Politico, George David Banks, a former George W. Bush climate aide, is expected to join the National Security Council as an adviser to President Trump on international energy and environmental issues.  He would work with the State Department to help shape the approach to climate change negotiations, including whether the U.S. should remain committed to the Paris Climate Accord.  And according to E&E News, Mike Catanzaro, an energy lobbyist who’s worked on environmental issues in the executive branch and both chambers of Congress, is expected to become special assistant to the president for energy and environmental issues in the National Economic Council.

Climate

You may recall that in 2015 Thomas R. Karl of NOAA and eight coauthors (seven of whom were from NOAA) published a paper in the journal Science correcting the sea surface temperature record to bring older measurements taken in ship engine rooms into line with more recent measurements taken with buoys and other modern techniques.  The paper received a lot of press because the impact of the corrections was to eliminate the “global warming hiatus” that apparently occurred during the first 15 years of the 21st century.  This caused outrage on the part of those who question whether climate change is occurring.  Now the paper is back under the microscope because of an article published over the weekend in the British paper The Mail on SundayE&E News, the Associated Press, and The Guardian had good coverage of the events while Carbon Brief presented a guest post by climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, who fact-checked the article that appeared in the Mail on Sunday.  The bottom line: the science is sound, but some NOAA data handling protocols may have been breached.  There were two good posts on RealClimate related to this incident.  One was about living in a time of fake news and “alternative facts.”  The other presented NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt’s views on the challenges of science communication in a politicized world.

Robert McSweeney at Carbon Brief reported on two new papers that appeared in scientific journals this week.  One, published in Current Biology, concerns African penguins.  Warming sea surface temperatures and overfishing have made food scarce in the usual feeding areas for the penguins.  Unfortunately, young penguins instinctually head north and west for food, while the fish are shifting south and east, setting up an “ecological trap” for the penguins.  The other, published in Nature, concerns the impact of changes in ocean circulation patterns on the amount of CO2 they take up.  It found that weakening circulation patterns since 2000 have resulted in an increase in CO2 uptake, but the authors caution that there is no guarantee this will continue in the future.

Towns and cities in the mid-Atlantic region could see more than 160 high tide floods every year by 2045, according to a paper published in the journal PLOS One.  That’s up from once-a-month flooding in the region now.  In addition, high tide floods along southeastern shorelines are expected to strike more than 100 times a year.

A new paper, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, used satellite data and climate change projections for the middle of this century to estimate how climate change will impact the frequency of large wildfires.  The study suggests that there will be a 35% increase in the days with high danger of large fires across the world, with some regions seeing even larger increases, such as the western states of the U.S., southeastern Australia, the Mediterranean region, and southern Africa.  In addition, a paper in the journal Nature suggested that a warming climate will fundamentally change the chemistry of mountain soils by shifting the balance of nutrients, visibly disrupting fragile, high-elevation ecosystems of grasses, flowers, and trees within decades.  That, in turn, will substantially alter the way these sensitive ecosystems function.

Authors of a new book entitled Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations examined the history of climate and human health and concluded that “The main general conclusion to be made about climatic impacts on health and survival during the Holocene is this: whether in the Arctic, temperate regions, or the tropics, the climatic comfort zone that sustains food and water supplies, stability of ecosystems, and other basic needs is confined within a narrow range of temperatures and a particular pattern of seasonal rainfall.”  That does not bode well for life in the Anthropocene.

Energy

Members of the Climate Leadership Council met Wednesday with White House officials to discuss the idea of imposing a national carbon tax, rather than using federal regulations, to address climate change.  The plan appears to be patterned after the Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.  It comprises four elements: a gradually increasing carbon tax, carbon dividends for all Americans, border carbon adjustments, and significant regulatory rollback.  In an op-ed in The New York Times, members of the Council stated “…an ideal climate policy would reduce carbon emissions, limit regulatory intrusion, promote economic growth, help working class Americans and prove durable when the political winds change.  We have laid out such a plan…”  Nevertheless, the proposal by the group of elder statesmen in the Republican Party “is already meeting entrenched opposition from within their own party.”  Brad Plumer of Vox has an analysis of the carbon tax proposal.  In his article, he states “Every few years, various economists and wonks will try to sell the Republican Party on a carbon tax as a conservative solution to climate change.  And so far, these campaigns have attracted public support from … exactly zero elected Republicans in Washington.”  While this may be technically correct, it apparently ignores the 12 Republican members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which is exploring policy options for addressing climate change.  Finally, opposition from most Republicans should come as no surprise since the energy industry spent $160 million on federal candidates during the last election cycle, with 80% of it going to Republicans.  In addition, it spends $300 million a year lobbying Congress, deploying three lobbyists per member.

On Wednesday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted the developer of the Dakota Access pipeline formal permission to lay pipe under a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota and the developer has resumed work.  Phillip Ellis, a spokesperson for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm representing the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, stated that they will file litigation against the Army Corps within days, but legal experts have said the tribe faces long odds in convincing any court to halt work on the pipeline.  Also on Wednesday, former interior secretary Sally Jewell said that the Corps of Engineers was “reneging” on its commitment to other federal agencies and tribal leaders to conduct a thorough environmental review of the pipeline.

According to a report released on Tuesday by the solar advocacy group The Solar Foundation, jobs in the U.S. solar industry grew 25% last year to include more than 260,000 workers.  In addition, a new report released Wednesday by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that Americans spent less of their average annual household income on energy in 2016 than ever before. Furthermore, retail electricity prices fell 2.2% in real terms from 2015.

Wind, solar, biomass and hydro made up 86% of new power added to Europe’s electricity grids last year.  As a result, wind power now contributes 16.7% of Europe’s total power capacity.  In the U.S., during the last quarter of 2016 wind passed hydropower dams to become the largest source of renewable electricity, according to a new study by the American Wind Energy Association, making wind the fourth-largest energy source overall.  And in China, installed photovoltaic (PV) capacity more than doubled last year, rising to 77.42 GW with the addition of 34.54 GW over the course of the year.

California’s three largest utilities have filed proposals with the state’s public utilities commission that would allocate up to $1 billion in new spending to “accelerate widespread transportation electrification.”  The money would come from surcharges on utility bills submitted by all three companies to their subscribers.  The goal is to remove as many medium and heavy duty diesel powered vehicles from the roadways as possible.  Electric vehicle (EV) sales numbers in the U.S. for 2016 were recently released.  Following a 5% decline in sales from 2014 to 2015, U.S. EV sales increased by 37% in 2016.  More than half of all EV sales took place in California.

Recently The Guardian held a roundtable on the future of wind and solar power with participants from several organizations with an interest in energy.  The consensus was that the Trump Administration will have little impact on the prospects for renewable energy because the strength of the renewables sector is driven by decreasing costs and increasing interest among both the public and businesses.  Meanwhile, the nuclear power industry is having to revamp its arguments for government support in light of the views of the Trump Administration about climate change.

If Europe’s 300 coal-fired power plants run to the end of their natural lifespans, the EU nations will exceed their carbon budget for coal by 85%, according to a new report by Climate Analytics.  It says the EU would need to stop using coal for electricity generation by 2030 to meet its Paris climate pledges.

A new paper in the journal Science describes an almost science-fiction like way to increase the cooling of objects, thereby increasing their efficiency in cooling applications.  The technique applies “passive cooling”, which increases the rate of infrared radiation to space without the input of mechanical or electrical energy.  It is papers like this that give me hope that humankind can solve the climate change problem.

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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