Climate and Energy News Roundup 1/31/2020

Politics and Policy

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday that the Fed can help keep climate change from destabilizing U.S. banks and financial markets.  The German government approved a bill Wednesday that will codify the country’s closure of coal-fired power plants by 2038, defending the plan against critics who say it’s not ambitious enough.  At Open Democracy, author Simon Pirani argued that decarbonizing the economy will be impossible unless we transform our economic and social systems.  Meanwhile, at Yale Environment 360, Prof. David Victor wrote that attaining deep decarbonization will require creating the incentives and markets essential for sparking new technology and businesses.  The New York Times published excerpts from panels and speeches on climate change at the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

House Democratic leaders rolled out their vision for a $760 billion, five-year infrastructure proposal that places a major emphasis on climate change.  According to an article in the Washington Examiner, the major themes of the pending Republican agenda for addressing climate change are capturing CO2, curbing plastic waste, exporting natural gas, and promoting “resilience” or adaptation to sea-level rise and other effects of climate change.  At Politico, Zack Coleman and colleagues also wrote about Republican plans.  In spite of what they think about climate change, many liberals and conservatives agree on the benefits of renewable energy. 

In a clear-eyed essay in MIT Technology Review, James Temple wrote that planting trees is “a limited and unreliable way of addressing climate change.”  Although people have often discussed increasing the carbon content of soil as one way of fighting climate change, few large-scale programs have been implemented.  As discussed by Sarah Wesseler, that now may be about to change because of the actions of some start-ups aiming to pay farmers to sequester carbon.  New Jersey will become the first state to require that builders take into account the impact of climate change, including rising sea levels, in order to win government approval for projects.  Four Native-American tribes in Louisiana and one in Alaska have filed a formal climate change complaint with the UN, arguing that the U.S. is violating their human rights and not addressing the serious harm climate change is having on their communities.  Lawsuits against energy companies in U.S. courts face critical legal challenges.

Social scientists speak of social tipping points, whereby a society’s attitudes about a given movement change rapidly after a precipitating incident triggers cascading changes in perceptions.  Some climate activists think this provides hope for the climate movement.  Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) constructs a framework for understanding social tipping points and the kinds of interventions that might trigger them. 

Climate and Climate Science

The Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) has announced an independent inquiry into the ongoing bushfires, including how climate change, human activity, and other factors had contributed to the blazes.  With the increasing frequency, severity, and extent of forest fires, even forests made up of species that thrive on cycles of fire and regrowth are losing resilience.

In a commentary for the journal Nature, Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters argue against the use of the phrase “business as usual” to describe the RCP8.5 emissions scenario.  The pair say emissions as high as in RCP8.5 are “increasingly implausible” and that the scenario, while still useful to study, would be better described as a “worst case”.  Climate scientist Michael Mann commented on the article on his website.  The Capital Weather Gang at The Washington Post released new temperature maps that show where records were broken around the world in each of the past several years.  A study published in the journal PLOS One used machine learning to predict where people would move in the U.S. if sea level rose 3 ft and 6 ft, looking at in-migration at the county level.  Climatologist Gavin Schmidt has released his annual comparison of modeled and actual mean global temperatures at RealClimate.  The models continue to track the real world.

Scientists in Antarctica have recorded unusually warm water (35.6°F) beneath Thwaites glacier at its grounding line, where it transitions from resting wholly on bedrock to spreading out on the sea as ice shelves.  A reporter from BBC News accompanied the scientific expedition for part of the time and described what the scientists did and learned.

Climate change may be powering the swarms of desert locusts that have invaded eastern Africa, ravaging crops, decimating pasture, and deepening a hunger crisis, experts on locusts and climate said.  The world’s tropical forests are losing their ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, while boreal forests are absorbing emissions at an increasingly fast rate, a study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution finds.  Furthermore, A perfect storm of climate change, extreme weather, and pressure from human activity is threatening to collapse Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems, according to a new study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.  This is particularly important because indigenous lands and protected areas in the Amazon contribute far less to climate change than the rest of the rainforest since they account for only 10% of carbon emissions while covering 52% of the region, a study in PNAS shows.  Likewise, in Africa indigenous groups battle to maintain control over their lands.

In case you have friends who still maintain that climate change is due to the sun, try showing them the graphs in this article from The Conversation.  A study, published Monday in PNAS, detected a pattern that links Arctic sea ice decline since the late 1990s with more frequent El Niños in the Central Pacific Ocean.  Research published Monday in Nature Communications found that marine heat off the coast of California led to a change in forage species, which caused whales to move closer to shore and into fishing grounds, causing more whale entanglements in nets.  A study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that acidity in the Pacific Ocean is affecting the shells of Dungeness crab larvae, making them more vulnerable to predators and limiting shell effectiveness in supporting the growth of muscles. 


According to a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the amount of CO2 the U.S. adds to the atmosphere each year is projected to begin rising by the 2030s and by 2050 emissions are expected to be just 4% below 2019 levels.  Carbon Tracker warns that the oil industry is at risk of a global market shock that could halve the value of fossil fuel investments if governments delay setting policies to tackle the climate crisis and must abruptly change their policies.

Nicholas Kusnetz of Inside Climate News took a comprehensive look at methane leakage from the oil and gas industry as he addressed the question of whether natural gas can be part of a climate change solution.  Australia’s government plans to boost natural gas supply and renewable energy as part of a $1.4 billion deal with New South Wales, its most populous state.  It will upgrade parts of the east coast power grid, help pay for two new interstate transmission links, and back emissions reduction projects.

The Canadian firm Svante and the Swiss company Climeworks AG have a new “joint development agreement” to pilot the combination of the former’s industrial CO2 capture system alongside the latter’s direct air capture technology.

Texas accounted for more than a quarter of all corporate renewable energy deals signed around the world last year.  Denmark-based energy company Ørsted has agreed to lease a portion of the Portsmouth Marine Terminal from the Virginia Port Authority to stage materials and equipment for Dominion Energy’s offshore wind project.  The world’s first commercial-scale green-hydrogen plant to be powered solely by surplus offshore wind energy has been announced by a trio of Belgian companies.  Meanwhile, in England, green-hydrogen is being injected into a small natural gas grid in a test of the concept of mixing hydrogen and methane.

Electrical grid congestion costs consumers billions of dollars and is hampering renewable energy deployment.  However, Hudson Gilmer, co-founder and CEO of LineVision Inc., says that his company has demonstrated that there’s additional capacity in our existing grid that can be unlocked by using dynamic line rating technology.


By embracing climate science and presenting it in a simple, locally-relevant manner, TV meteorologists have become some of the most effective and trustworthy climate change educators in the country.  Journalist Nina Burleigh wrote lovingly of the beauty and fragility of the Everglades in a time of climate change and sea level rise; the accompanying photos by Erik Freeland are spectacular.  Michael Svoboda has compiled information on 16 books about “life in the Anthropocene”.  If you are interested in talking about climate change to business people, you might benefit from this interview with climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe at Harvard Business Review.  At Fast Company, Adele Peters imagined what work might be like in 2040 when the global average temperature is 1.5°C above preindustrial times and Kristin Toussaint visited a Singapore apartment to see what life might be like in a hotter future.  Steve Mnuchin’s wife, Scottish actress Louise Linton, defended Greta Thunberg on Instagram, but the post was deleted without explanation about 30 minutes after it appeared.

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.