Climate and Energy News Roundup 8/4/2017

This week’s Roundup was prepared by Erik Bahnson. (email: ebahnson [at] outlook.com)

On Earth

Humidity-bringing monsoons have long brought taxing weather to residents of South Asia, but what effect could runaway climate change bring to the region? New research indicates that, should the global community fail to make good on their emissions-reduction targets, fully three-quarters of the Indian subcontinent’s population will be exposed to degrees of heat and humidity deemed extremely dangerous by the US National Weather service toward the end of this century; some areas will even witness balmy climbs radical enough to kill healthy persons within 6 hours. Concerningly, the 75% figure would only be reduced to 55% if the Paris Agreement is upheld. Anticipating deadly temperatures in its own backyard, the Houston Chronicle recently published an interactive map that allows users to find how many days of temperatures higher than 95°F each Texan county can expect over a given time period under moderate-emissions and high-emissions global warming scenarios.

Communities of pikas – small mammals related to rabbits – have proven adept at identifying terrain features, like cool moss, that improve their adaptability to changing climates. However, recent research has revealed that some pika groups altogether fail to display such skill, resulting in region-specific population drops that carry intriguing implications for efforts to model species loss. Elsewhere in the biosphere, it’s recently been confirmed that abnormally warm Pacific Ocean surface waters near America’s west coast have driven out critical forage fish species, resulting in fatal malnutrition for thousands of the area’s sea lions. The oceanic “Blob”, as it’s called, has even seen greater numbers of humpback whales ensnared in fishing equipment, as anchovies (attractive prey to the whales) are forced to move closer to the coastline.

A breed of methane-munching microbes hard at work within Antarctic reservoirs may be nipping several melt-exposed gas leaks in the bud. Nevertheless, an article in The Washington Post this week communicated the findings of what may be the most dire climate model studies yet: one suggests it may be necessary to shift the bar for “preindustrial” global temperatures even further back in time, which would place us further along the path of warming than we realized; the second reveals there is a sobering probability (scenarios providing 13% and 32% are mentioned) that ceasing global greenhouse gas emissions immediately may already commit the planet to warming beyond 1.5°C above preindustrial temperatures; and a third, weighing factors such as global population, national GDPs, and “the volume of emissions for a given level of economic activity”, gives humanity a brutal 5% chance of holding planetary warming to 2°C. Thankfully, experts do believe that last piece could be unduly pessimistic, as it’s based entirely on historical trends and could easily fail to anticipate future legislation. For a briefing on our emergent climate reality, this report is by far the most essential of the week.

Government

US EPA chief Scott Pruitt has rescinded his pledge to delay compliance enforcement for nationwide ground-level ozone standards one day after 11 states filed suit against his initial intentions. The 2015 standards are to be fulfilled on a state-by-state basis; barring further interference, states have until 1 Oct to meet them. Before an audience of over 130 lawmakers, Hollywood icon and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger revealed a potentially game-changing joint effort of USC’s Schwarzenegger Institute and the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators at the latter group’s Boston conference on Friday: it’s a Web-hosted “digital legislative handbook” aimed at providing state and local governments with an arsenal of tools for crafting and passing pertinent environmental initiatives. The site includes the legal language, voting histories, and fiscal impact findings of successful bills that have passed across the nation.

Estonia’s peat bogs have a long history of heating homes and fertilizing garden industries as lucrative as Holland’s flower market, but their steady clearings have transformed vast tracts of land from a valuable carbon sink into a net greenhouse gas emitter more potent than the country’s entire domestic transportation sector. That’s why the Estonian government has begun pursuing the restoration of fallow bogs, and – with an $8 million grant from the European Union – it’s enlisted the nation’s best environmental scientists to figure out how best to do so. Dubbed the “LIFE Mires” project, its procedures will be mirrored in countries throughout the continent should they prove successful. Further west, German government negotiations with embattled car giants BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen resulted in the big three promising to pay for emissions-cutting software upgrades in over 5 million European diesel cars and to incentivise trade-ins of ageing ones. The deal couldn’t have gone better for the auto companies, since it lacks both concrete targets and the far deeper diesel pollution controls desired by Germany’s more environmentally-minded officials.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, working alongside Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, recently stress-tested the city’s food supply networks under hypothetical disaster scenarios (both natural and inflicted) to provide Baltimore with concrete ideas for improving its crisis response and cities everywhere with important lessons in food resiliency. The Center’s report recommended “redesigning public transport to facilitate access to food, developing community food storage plans and supporting local farmers to be ready for emergencies.” Elsewhere, a study by San Francisco think-tank Next 10 found that California’s climate change initiatives have directly contributed more than 41,000 jobs and $9 billion in economic activity to the state’s Inland Empire region alone between 2010 and 2016. Indirect effects reel in an additional 73,000 jobs and $14.2 billion for the Inland economy; the study’s critics point out, though, that such rosy figures hide the rising costs that low-income residents may soon face if revenues fail to trickle their way.

Business

After nearly a decade of bitter contention, TransCanada’s infamous Keystone XL pipeline project might ultimately be done in by market forces. Not only has the price of oil more than halved, thereby stunting the expansionary prospects of the Canadian tar sands which provided the pipeline’s purpose, but the appearance of competing pipelines has put Keystone XL’s potential customer base into question. While TransCanada searches for new supplier interest, Nebraska regulators will undergo new public hearings; both forums will be central to the pipeline’s fate. And amid government officials’ ostensible desire to expand coal mining jobs, 2017 has already seen more occupational deaths of American coal miners than the year before – the first rise in such fatalities since 2010. Experts attribute the uptick to the increase in America’s coal output, and point to the fact that nearly all of the killed workers could claim less than a year of experience at their final mine.

Energy storage is an increasingly hot topic among power providers as intermittent renewable generators take hold across the US, and if you choose to cover your storage needs with batteries, industrialist Elon Musk and his ilk are confident that lithium-ion cells are the way to go. But not so fast, says rival innovator Bill Joy; with the unveiling of his new solid-state prototype, you may not want to rule alkaline batteries out just yet. Joy believes that alkalines will prove more cost-effective and less hazardous under extreme conditions, and his product proves that they can indeed be made rechargeable. Google’s parent company Alphabet, on the other hand, is taking an altogether different approach to satisfy its storage needs. Produced by X, Alphabet’s R&D outfit, “Malta” absorbs energy by creating a temperature differential between a vat of molten salt and another of chilled antifreeze; Malta beats lithium-ion batteries in longevity, and since it’s made of common parts, it’ll be much cheaper at scale to boot.

Facing the regulatory agendas of countries around the world looking to cut their carbon footprints, more and more manufacturers are rethinking where they get their aluminum. In an industry dominated by coal-powered smelters that pump out 18 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every tonne of metal, legislative pressures and a new low-carbon certification program are making hydro-powered producers increasingly attractive to the likes of Apple and Toyota. “Green” aluminum now often finds itself selling at a premium. In the fight to bring the cost of renewable energies ever lower, Eric Loth is out to prove that the next big leap in the affordability of windmills will come with the advent of gargantuan turbines. The bigger the ‘mill, the more efficiently it can reap power; that’s why Loth is bent on developing 500-meter towers fit to pack 50-megawatt output. Such a beast will need to sway in forceful winds to avoid utter destruction, and sport downwind blades able to flex without chopping their stalk.

Agriculture

In Kenya, the fall armyworm (a type of caterpillar) is ravaging maize farms, putting livelihoods in jeopardy. It’s a good thing, then, that Kenyan farmers have begun intercropping their corn with pulses (like green gram and cassava); pulses take roughly half as much time to grow as maize, which substantially decreases their risk of acquiring pests. Spread in part by a government eager to educate growers in sustainable practices, pulse production is bridging income gaps and restoring soil nutrients – even to the point of negating the need for added fertilizer. The wives of Kenyan cattle ranchers, whose husbands are spending more time away from home to feed their animals under drought conditions, have been exposed to intensifying home raids as their assets constitute an increasingly competitive market. These women are learning new tricks, however; in a bid to escape a shaky reliance on their husbands’ income, some are organizing beekeeping cooperatives – again, with the help of government training – to produce a plethora of in-demand products.

Farmers in Central America’s Dry Corridor are staking territories closer to the Caribbean coast as global warming worsens their homeland’s droughts; should this trend continue at current rates, watershed disturbance and slash-and-burn clearcutting will eliminate the area’s forests by 2050. Clashing with indigenous populations, the farmers’ encroachment has at times proven violent. Fortunately, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is slated to roll out a weather monitoring program in the Dry Corridor that will harness geographic data to alert regions to the onset of drought. The system will help both private and public sectors effectively execute mitigation measures.

In more disturbing news, a study from UC Berkeley reveals that during the growing season in India, every day that is 1°C warmer than average temperatures will see approximately 67 additional farmer suicides; raise that to 5°C, and you can expect 335 more farmers will kill themselves. The upshot of this is a truly gruesome figure: the Berkeley researchers believe that, over the past 30 years, 59,300 farmer suicides can be attributed to warming alone, exacerbating a national tragedy already stoked by high farmer debt. And in a shocking report, Environmental Research Letters revealed that global warming could markedly reduce the protein content of staple crops that fully 76% of humans rely upon for the nutrient. Given a business-as-usual global greenhouse emissions scenario, atmospheric carbon concentrations “will sap the protein contents of barley by 14.6 per cent, rice by 7.6 per cent, wheat by 7.8 percent, and potatoes by 6.4 per cent.” Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are slated for the worst nutritional losses, with India alone potentially facing “53 million people at new risk of protein deficiency.”

You & Me

In recent years, Ashden – a London charity committed to backing sustainable solutions – has bestowed two of its £20,000 Ashden Awards to female entrepreneur groups that proliferate solar power access across rural India and Nepal, contributing to a growing cache of startups that aren’t waiting for a state grid to provide out-of-the-way regions with reliable energy. The Ashden winners and their contemporaries bring leadership skills and expendable capital to women who have typically found themselves socially subservient and devoid of career prospects. In other news, a new wave of artists is seeking to overcome the communication difficulties scientists and other experts have encountered when conveying the physical and emotional urgency of climate change – with arresting, innovative creations.

Addressing the desire of individuals to contribute to emissions reduction while acknowledging the aversion many have toward purist vegetarianism, a team of scientists has discovered that if Americans were to replace all the protein we receive from beef with that of beans, our nation could make more than half of the cuts needed to uphold its 2020 targets under the Paris Agreement even if every other sector of our economy doesn’t bother lifting a finger. In the meantime, UCLA geographer Gregory Okin would like us to think about an area of environmental impact that doesn’t typically come to mind: our pets’ diets. This isn’t something he wants us to wring our hands too fervently over, but the fact is that dog and cat diets require a greater proportion of protein than humans’ do; the two species alone eat “about 25 percent of all the animal-derived calories consumed in the United States each year”. Among Okin’s recommendations: avoid pet foods that offer choice cuts of meat, a nutritionally meaningless move that eschews the environmental benefits of feeding Fido industry leftovers.

Two very different lawsuits filed in the interest of spurring action on climate change are making headway in court. In one, a group of minors affiliated with Our Children’s Trust are suing the Trump administration for failing to adequately secure their constitutional right to a livable climate; in another, California lawyers are taking 37 fossil fuel companies to task for knowingly contributing to sea level rise, a sweeping injury in clear violation of California common law. After President Trump reopened areas of the Atlantic Ocean to energy exploration, opposition to offshore oil prospecting is mounting on America’s East Coast as seaside communities rebuke the harmful side-effects seismic airgun surveys pose to the oceanic ecosystems on which their livelihoods rely. Used to detect the presence of fossil fuel reserves beneath the ocean floor, seismic tests can raise the background noise level of over 2,500 square nautical miles up to 260 decibels – more than enough to rupture a human eardrum, wrought upon “animals that rely on sound as much as we do on sight”.

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