Politics and Policy
Prioritizing environmental justice, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday establishing a White House interagency council on environmental justice, created an office of health and climate equity at the Health and Human Services Department, and formed a separate environmental justice office at the Justice Department. Other actions were also taken, causing immediate pushback from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress. Among those actions was a commitment to an ambitious conservation goal and a redetermination of the social cost of carbon. Greentech Media noted that Wednesday’s orders centered on directing federal agencies to shift existing spending because passing new legislation will be difficult. Biden also said climate change should be regarded as “an essential element of US foreign policy,” while Defense Secretary Llyod Austin announced that climate change “is a national security issue, and we must treat it as such.”
Greentech Media staff writer Julian Spector considered how budget reconciliation could be used to pass a bill requiring electric utilities to produce 100% clean energy by 2035. A FEMA proposal could free up funds to support infrastructure such as seawalls and relocating homes prone to flooding. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Biden’s nominee for energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, defended the administration’s push for a clean energy transition. Meanwhile, opposition against Biden’s Interior Department nominee, Deb Haaland, became more vocal. A new report from Americans for a Clean Energy Grid called on FERC to launch a new rulemaking effort aimed at boosting an interregional electric transmission buildout, a goal shared by both former and current FERC chairs. However, S&P Global pointed out that opponents to infrastructure projects for renewables may be able to deploy some of the same legal tactics that upended the pipeline sector.
The Federal Reserve announced the creation of a new committee to deepen the central bank’s understanding of the risks that climate change poses to the financial system. Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to eliminate subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, but it included a key phrase, “as consistent with applicable law.” Grist unpacked this phrase and its implications for what can be done. Twitter accounts run by machines are a major source of climate change disinformation that might drain support from policies to address rising temperatures.
The UN Development Program questioned 1.2 million people in 50 countries about climate change and found that two-thirds think it is a “global emergency”. Climate envoy John Kerry made it clear that the US wasn’t just increasing its own efforts to reduce oil, gas, and coal pollution, but that we intend to push everyone in the world to do more, too. World leaders met at a virtual summit to discuss the need for rich nations to spend more on helping developing countries adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis. Global supply chains, remittances, and migration mean global warming risks in one place can hit others — but improving efforts to adapt can bring shared benefits, researchers say. The leaders of two UK environmental charities have written to Mark Carney, the UN climate envoy, to raise concerns over a blueprint for carbon offsetting that could result in billions of new carbon credits being sold around the world. Australia will effectively be abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement unless it makes at least a 50% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reaches net zero well before 2050, according to an analysis by policymakers and scientists.
Climate and Climate Science
In a commentary in the journal Nature, climate scientist Richard Betts argued that because scientists have developed techniques to attribute disasters to human-caused climate change, they should be applied routinely to help governments act on their responsibilities and improve resilience to extreme weather. A new study in the journal Nature Sustainability incorporated the damages that climate change does to healthy ecosystems into standard climate-economics models, leading to the conclusion that the standard models have been underestimating the cost of climate damages to society by a factor of more than five.
Emphasizing that the point of recognizing existential threats is to avoid them, ecologist and MacArthur Fellow Carl Safina discussed the stark “perspective” article by 17 of the world’s leading ecologists in last week’s issue of Frontiers in Conservation Science. The New York Times published an interesting infographic that showed the vulnerabilities of countries all over the world to climate disasters. Nearly a half-million people, mostly from the world’s poorest countries, died over the past two decades from conditions associated with climate disasters, according to this year’s “Global Climate Risk Index” report. In 2020, Earth was besieged by a record 50 weather disasters costing a billion dollars or more, the most such disasters ever recorded, said insurance broker Aon in its annual report issued Monday.
Earth is hotter now than it has been for at least 12,000 years, a period spanning the entire development of human civilization, according to research published in the journal Nature.
The melting of ice across the planet is accelerating and is now in line with the worst-case scenarios of the IPCC, according to a paper published in the journal The Cryosphere. Furthermore, NASA-led research showed that the undercutting of glaciers by relatively mild ocean waters explains why so many of Greenland’s glaciers have sped-up their movement into the ocean. Scientists have determined that the blooms of algae on the surface of the ice in Greenland are triggered by wind-blown dust containing phosphorus, a limiting nutrient for the microbes. Last week, for the first time, three liquified natural gas tankers travelled the Northern Sea Route to Asia without icebreaker escorts. The decline of sea ice in the Bering Sea is changing almost everything about the region. Peter Sinclair’s latest “This is not Cool” video is about the ice jams at the entrance to Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, through which the Arctic’s oldest and thickest sea ice flows to the Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea, and then the Atlantic Ocean.
An area the size of Israel was deforested in the Amazon biome last year as destruction surged 21% in the region, suggesting that without a reduction in deforestation, the Amazon rainforest will reach a tipping point in 10 to 20 years, after which it will enter a sustained death spiral as it dries out and turns into a savanna.
Biden signed an executive order to “Buy American”, which he says will include replacing hundreds of thousands of vehicles in the federal government fleet, including the Postal Service, with US-made electric vehicles (EVs), raising the question of how he will achieve it. General Motors announced Thursday that it will end the sale of all gasoline- and diesel-powered passenger cars and light sports utility vehicles by 2035. Nissan Motor Co said all its “new vehicle offerings” in key markets would be electrified by the early 2030s, as part of its efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Toyota Motor Corp. is increasing the manufacturing of parts for hydrogen fuel call vehicles, following the December unveiling of its second generation Mirai, a hydrogen-powered sedan. National Geographic examined the question of whether all of this means that EVs’ moment has arrived.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink called on all companies “to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy.” Over 400 companies across some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitting industries — from shipping to steelmaking — have agreed to work together on plans to decarbonize by 2050, according to a coalition of climate advocacy groups that set up the partnership.
Rating agency S&P has warned 13 oil and gas companies, including some of the world’s biggest, that it may downgrade them within weeks because of increasing competition from renewable energy. BP’s oil exploration team has been cut to less than 100 from a peak of more than 700 a few years ago, part of a climate change-driven overhaul triggered last year by CEO Bernard Looney.
According to a new report, EU countries generated more electricity from renewables than from coal and gas for the first time ever in 2020, but the pace of deployment through the 2020s will need to more than double that of the 2010s if the EU is going to hit its target of a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030. A new report from the Sierra Club found that almost no U.S. utilities, including Dominion Energy Virginia and Appalachian Power, are on track to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2030 compared to a 2005 baseline; rather, most utilities’ plans put them on a path to much more modest carbon reductions. Not surprisingly, the utility sector defended its approach to the decarbonization process.
RMI’s newest report, Seeds of Opportunity, addresses the question of what the growth of the renewable energy industry means for rural America. Maine Governor Janet Mills (D) called on the state legislature to implement a 10-year moratorium on offshore wind projects in state-managed waters, citing a need to keep the fishing industry engaged in ongoing talks about such development.
In “The Shortlist” at The New York Times, Tatiana Schlossberg presented three books that offer new ways to think about environmental disaster. At Literary Hub, Amy Brady recommended five inspiring books for 2021. Maxine Joselow interviewed climate scientist Michael Mann about his new book, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet. Jeff Masters reviewed it at Yale Climate Connections. The 36-year-old Canadian musician Tamara Lindeman’s piercing new album, “Ignorance,” explores the emotional impacts of climate change. Climate scientists are dealing with a strange new feeling now that Biden is president: optimism. Kate Yoder argued at Grist that the way we talk about science makes it a polarizing topic. Salla, Finland, has released a video promoting its bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics! Enjoy.
For our “Closing Thought” this week, watch and listen to Amanda Gorman’s December 2018 recitation of her poem “Earthrise.”
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.