Politics and Policy
The Senate confirmed Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Agriculture Department, by a 92-7 vote. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm won Senate confirmation to be energy secretary, by a vote of 64-35. New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, Biden’s pick to head the Department of the Interior, appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a contentious confirmation hearing that reflected deep divisions over some of Biden’s climate-focused executive orders. The Guardian reported that hostile questioning of her was led by senators who have taken large amounts of campaign cash from the oil and gas industry, with some being personally invested in fossil fuels. If she is confirmed, what will be the major items on her agenda for the Department?
The Economist reviewed techniques whereby policy makers could determine which strategies would lower CO2 emissions for the lowest unit cost. Robinson Meyer provided a rundown of what is happening on a Biden climate bill. Energy Innovation maintained that a strong clean energy standard is among the most vital policy steps needed to push the US toward an entirely decarbonized economy. Ed Dolan of the Niskanen Center reviewed four papers by writers who are committed to forceful climate action but who have little enthusiasm for carbon pricing as a policy tool. The administration dramatically altered the way the US government calculates the social cost of carbon. A new analysis by the Brookings Institution showed that regions with a high share of fossil fuel jobs have a lot of potential to benefit from wind and solar development. Cities and towns across the country are rewriting local building codes so that new homes and offices would be blocked from using natural gas, but the American Gas Association and its members are campaigning in statehouses to prohibit such ordinances. Twenty-five House Republicans held a summit to discuss how to position themselves to address climate change in the new Congress. Ivy Main compiled a descriptive list of the energy bills that are still alive in the Virginia General Assembly.
FERC said on Monday that it will examine threats that climate change and extreme weather events pose to the country’s electric reliability in the wake of last week’s deadly Texas freeze. The Texas energy emergency provided ammunition for proponents of a single national power grid. Wade Schauer of Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables examined the question of fuel diversity for the decarbonized grid. The cost of federal flood insurance will need to increase significantly in much of the country to meet the growing risks of climate change. The Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it will update its guidelines on how publicly traded companies should disclose climate change-related risks to investors. In the wake of the Texas disaster, four scientists argued that the Biden administration should convene a group to draft a plan for an advanced Earth observation system with the goal of expanding our ability to forecast extreme weather events.
By the time COP26 rolls around, new national targets for long- and short-term emissions cuts will have been tallied by the UN, so unless the organizers come up with a vision for something specific they can agree on, the meeting could end up accomplishing little. Unfortunately, the combined impact of the new and updated targets submitted by the deadline was “far short of what is required” to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Biden said on Tuesday that he and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed to work toward achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The European Commission released a new adaptation strategy designed to ensure the bloc not only ramps up efforts to drastically cut emissions by 2050 but also survives forest fires, heatwaves, droughts, and storms. Xie Zhenhua, who served as China’s chief negotiator during key climate meetings in Copenhagen and Paris, has been appointed the country’s new special climate envoy. Speaking before a session of the UN Security Council, US climate envoy John Kerry warned that climate change was making the world a more dangerous place and posed risks to peace and security around the world, but Russia, India, and China argued that it should not be an issue for the Council. In anticipation of that meeting, Reuters high-lighted five regions of the world where climate change poses significant risks.
Climate and Climate Science
Data from 11 types of proxy evidence have confirmed that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, a system of currents that includes the Gulf Stream, is now “in its weakest state in over a millennium,” with implications for everything from the climate of Europe to the rates of sea-level rise along the US East Coast. As the planet experiences increased CO2 concentrations in its atmosphere, its oceans experience three different phenomena: warming, acidification, and deoxygenation. A recent paper examined how these interact around the world to threaten ocean productivity.
Carbon Brief has updated its map of climate attribution studies, showing that 70% of the 405 extreme weather events included were made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change. Many more homes in Appalachian communities in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia are at risk of flooding than the federal government’s emergency managers have indicated.
During the first week of February, avalanches killed 14 people across the US, and halfway through the avalanche season, 31 people have died across the country. It appears that avalanche patterns are changing on our warming planet, but a linkage cannot yet be proven. Polar bears and narwhals are using up to four times as much energy to survive because of major ice loss in the Arctic. Alaska may need to brace for more thunderstorms — along with the landslides, floods, and wildfires they can bring — if current climate trends continue.
Scientists have just taken a detailed look at the 14 glaciers flowing into the ocean along a 600 mile stretch of the Antarctic coastline known as the Getz region and found that all of them have sped up.
Rising temperatures are shortening the lives of trees in tropical forests and reducing their capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, with major implications for our ability to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. California’s iconic redwoods, sequoias and Joshua trees are increasingly threatened by bigger and more frequent wildfires as the planet warms.
Texas officials’ repeated failures to act on expert advice for averting grid catastrophes paralleled their long ignoring experts’ warnings about dangers of climate change, leading to last week’s unnatural disaster. Dual hearings in the Texas House and Senate highlighted shortcomings by grid planners, electric utilities, natural gas suppliers, renewable energy, and transmission operators that led to the grid disaster. Ezra Klein had an insightful reflection on the Texas crisis in his column at the New York Times. At Earther, staff writer Dharna Noor argued that the US needs a supergrid. Dan Gearino provided four lessons he had learned from the debacle, the first of which is particularly important as we move to an electrified economy.
Thanks in large part to reductions in flying and driving associated with COVID-19, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped 4.4% in the 12 months to September last year, falling to the lowest levels since 1995. Up to five of Australia’s remaining 16 coal-fired power plants could be financially unviable by 2025 due to a flood of cheap solar and wind energy entering the electricity grid. Fossil fuel companies risk derailing the UK’s climate targets by planning to build a string of 17 new gas-fired power plants with a combined generation capacity of 14 GW. As of January 2021, global institutional investors, such as pension funds, asset managers, and insurance companies, held investments worth more than $1 trillion in coal, with US investors collectively holding 58% of them. According to 2020 figures released this week, US renewable energy sources for the first time generated more electricity than coal, although natural gas was far ahead of all other energy sources.
A new “green steel” venture in Sweden has been launched with plans to start production as early as 2024 using green hydrogen to process iron into steel. Also, a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed for the assessment of the building and operation of a hydrogen powered steel mill in France. Meanwhile, Enegix Energy from Australia is behind the construction of a green hydrogen hub in Brazil, which will not only support the economic activities of Brazil, but also export hydrogen to Europe and other continents.
Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools awarded a contract to Highland Electric Transportation which will supply it with the country’s largest electric school bus fleet by taking on its financing and management in exchange for a fixed annual leasing fee. The US Postal Service said on Tuesday it had awarded a $482 million contact to Oshkosh Defense to finalize production plans for the next-generation of postal vehicles, but that only 10% will be electric. Carbon emissions from passenger cars across Britain have fallen by just 1% since 2011, despite a steep rise in the sale of electric and hybrid vehicles, due to the popularity of SUVs and an increase in road traffic.
Tesla could be shifting more EVs to lithium iron phosphate battery cells over concerns about the long-term availability of nickel, which is required for lithium ion batteries. Redwood Materials has reached an agreement to recycle scrap and defective battery cells for Envision AESC, which manufactures batteries for the Nissan Leaf in Smyrna, Tennessee. One use for EV batteries once they are no longer suitable for their original use is for storage of solar energy in houses. National Geographic explored the role that such batteries could play in averting disasters like that in Texas.
Peter Sinclair’s latest video focused on the question of whether capitalism and free-market forces could supplant political expediency as a major factor in advancing bipartisan support for renewable energy. Determining how hard companies are trying to meet climate pledges can be very difficult when there are no regulatory standards that require uniform disclosures of important information like emissions. Corporations were also the focus of Bill McKibben’s column this week. More than a third of all food grown for human consumption in the US never makes it to someone’s stomach, and the carbon footprint of that waste is greater than that of the airline industry. Being a person who spent many years loving road trips (and for way too long being oblivious to the climate impacts), I couldn’t resist including this column by Amy Brady, even though it didn’t come out this week.
Jeremy Lent, author of the forthcoming book The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe, addressed the question “What does an ecological civilization look like?” in Yes! magazine.
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.