Climate and Energy News Roundup 7/21/2017

As might be expected, the article by David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine that I linked to last week caused quite a stir; it was the most-read article in the history of the magazine.  One commentator was Farhad Manjoo, a The New York Times columnist, who argued that we can learn a lot about how to mobilize to fight climate change by studying our response to Y2K, in which the worst-case outcome was emphasized.  On Tuesday, New York Times reporter Coral Davenport had a TimesTalks conversation with Al Gore about what went through his mind when President Trump made his announcement about withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.  Although not about climate change per se, Justin Gillis and Jonathan Corum have an interesting article in The New York Times about infrastructure problems at the National Science Foundation’s research facility in Antarctica.  You might also be interested in Corum’s fantastic photo essay about what he and Gillis saw while in Antarctica, or in John Sutter’s reflections on iceberg A68, which recently broke off of the Larsen C ice shelf.  In response to French President Macron’s offer of employment for climate scientists, France’s basic research agency has been flooded with applicants, many from the U.S.

On Wednesday, the former top climate policy official at the Department of Interior filed a complaint and a whistleblower disclosure form, alleging that the Trump administration is threatening public health and safety by trying to silence scientists like him.  Also, the Department canceled plans for a climate change expert from the USGS to join Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during his visit to Montana’s Glacier National Park last weekend.  On Wednesday, President Trump nominated former economics professor and climate change skeptic Sam Clovis to the top scientific post at USDA, while the House passed two bills streamlining the federal permitting process for oil and gas pipelines.  On the other hand, dozens of House Republicans joined Democrats to vote down an anti-climate amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and sent a strong message that the military should prepare for and fight climate change.  Former New Hampshire Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte will join the center-right Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES) as a senior adviser.  California lawmakers voted Monday night to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program for cutting greenhouse gas emissions until 2030.  The bill was complex so Citizens’ Climate Lobby summarized some of its merits and drawbacks.

Climate

This week the journal Earth Systems Dynamics published an article written by climate scientist James Hansen and 14 coauthors.  They argue that it will be necessary to remove CO2 from the atmosphere to reduce the concentration to no more than 350 ppm (we are currently above 400 ppm).  Consequently, as we continue to put more and more CO2 in the atmosphere, we burden today’s youth with greater expenses to remove it, in addition to greater risks of living with the impacts of that CO2Ensia presented a summary of techniques for removing CO2 from the atmosphere and Science published an editorial about governance of geoengineering, of which CO2 removal is a part.

A new paper in Nature Scientific Reports has found that 17% of methane emissions in the Mackenzie Delta of Canada comes from only 1% of the land surface, locations where thawing permafrost allows methane to seep out of buried oil and gas formations which had previously been sealed off by permafrost.

NOAA announced that the first half of 2017 was the planet’s second warmest on record, trailing only 2016.  Carbon Brief summarized temperature and sea ice extent so far this year.  Using Philadelphia as a case study, researchers at the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Battelle Memorial Institute developed techniques for identifying heat islands in cities so at-risk citizens can be helped.  In 2003 Europe was hit with an extreme heat wave.  Now, scientists from France and Australia have asked how high temperatures might get in France in 2100 under a similar heat wave, but with CO2 concentrations that would exist if we continue with business-as-usual emissions.  The answer: 50°C (122°F).

Two coastal counties and one coastal city in California are suing a group of major fossil fuel companies for damages that they will incur due to rising sea level.  Although many legal experts consider the suit to be a long-shot, if successful it is likely to spur other similar litigation.  On the other side of the U.S., the city of Miami is considering surrendering some developed land to nature, to accommodate the rising seas.  The city government would buy out property owners in notoriously flood-prone areas and convert the land into parks and retention basins.

Images from the European Space Agency showed that the iceberg released from the Larsen C ice shelf is already beginning to break up.  In addition, a new rift has been detected in the ice shelf.  Meanwhile, a new paper in Nature Climate Change has provided additional information about the factors causing weakening of the ice shelves in West Antarctica.

So far in 2017, the U.S. has endured 49 separate weather, climate, and flood disasters, according to data from Munich Re, a global reinsurance firm.  That’s tied with 2009 as the second-highest January-June number on record.  Only 2012, with 59 events, had more.  Many of the people impacted by floods are insured by the National Flood Insurance Program.  Unfortunately the program is heavily in debt and badly in need of an overhaul.

Newly published research has shown that extreme weather events could devastate food production if they occurred in several key areas at the same time.  The researchers found there is a 6% chance every decade that a simultaneous failure in corn production could occur in China and the U.S., which would result in widespread misery, particularly in Africa and south Asia, where corn is consumed directly as food.

Energy

Bloomberg had an interesting piece summarizing where the world stands on electric cars right now.  It seems there is more news about them than there are actual cars.  Also, Mark Harris at The Guardian argued that the broad acceptance of electric vehicles will be limited until there is big improvement in batteries.  Conversely, OPEC and others are revising their estimates of EV sales upward.

A new study in Nature Climate Change has pointed out that as production declines at large oil fields, more energy is required to extract the oil, making the net energy extraction lower.  The study provided tools for examining this reality and considering it when estimating the climate impacts of oil production.  The big oil companies have been planning on becoming big gas companies as oil demand drops.  Now, however, reports from Bloomberg New Energy Finance and BP question whether those plans are realistic.  Also, speaking of gas, NPR had a very comprehensive piece about FERC and the gas pipelines awaiting approval.

Despite praising the work of scientists at a “clean coal” lab in West Virginia during a recent visit, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has proposed significant cuts to the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy, which funds the lab.  Nevertheless, U.S. coal exports for the first quarter of 2017 were 58% higher than in the same quarter last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported.  Still, in the long run, will the U.S. go the way of the UK?  Only five years ago, coal was generating more than 40% of the UK’s electricity, but a new analysis by Imperial College London revealed that coal supplied just 2% of power in the first half of 2017.

Minnesota tripled its solar energy capacity through the first quarter of this year and has increased solar output 12-fold since 2015.  Much of this has happened because it has embraced community solar.  In addition, a new report by the University of Minnesota’s Energy Transition Lab concluded that solar-plus-storage may be a more cost effective way to meet peak electricity demand than building new gas-fired peaking plants.  In Virginia, Dominion Energy will build a 15 MW solar farm on land in Middlesex County owned by the University of Virginia and will dedicate all of its output to the university.

With President Trump considering opening the Atlantic coastline to oil exploration, he might consider a cautionary tale from 2010.  A new study by Louisiana State University scientists indicates that crude oil from the BP oil spill has become lodged in wetland soils, where it remains almost as toxic as the day it was deposited.

Wind and solar power don’t pose a significant threat to the reliability of the U.S. power grid, Department of Energy (DOE) staff members said in a draft report, contradicting statements by DOE Secretary Rick Perry.  A DOE spokeswoman cautioned that the draft is “constantly evolving.”  That evolution may well be the result of differences between political and professional staff at DOE.

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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