Climate and Climate Science
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of more than 100 scientists convened by the United Nations, warns that a hotter future is certain. The planet has already heated by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius since the 19th century. This additional heat created by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is essentially locked in. Even if we started sharply cutting emissions today, total global warming is likely to rise to around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades. How serious we become about cutting future emissions will determine how much hotter our planet becomes.
Extreme weather events this summer have unrelentingly brought the stark, real life consequences of climate change and global warming to our attention. The heat dome over Canada and the United States Northwest in July brought unprecedented hot weather in many localities, including places like Oregon, which are not prepared to deal with such extreme heat. The dry, hot conditions spread wildfires across 12 western states.
I personally experienced this heatwave as we traveled to visit our children in California in July. As we drove across the Mojave Desert to the city of Barstow, our car thermometer registered 118 degrees Fahrenheit. We then headed north through the California Central Valley, one of the most lucrative agricultural regions of the world. It is a $50 billion enterprise that supplies two-thirds of our country’s fruits and nuts and more than a third of our vegetables. The temperature was 110 degrees when we stopped near Fresno. The heat was oppressively suffocating as my wife Ruth and I walked several blocks from our motel to get dinner at a nearby restaurant.
As a Virginia gardener, I know how quickly soil moisture evaporates during sun-drenched 90 degree days. I can only imagine what it would be like in 110 degree temperatures. The main source of water for agriculture in the California Central Valley comes from reservoirs on rivers and streams supplied by snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains and released through a system of aqueducts and canals. Another water source is drilling wells that tap into the rapidly diminishing aquifer underneath the valley.
As we drove through the valley, I saw some abandoned fields and orchards. The situation has become even more desperate in the several weeks since we were there. With the extended drought, state regulators recently took the unprecedented step of imposing an emergency curtailment order forbidding farmers from drawing water from their primary source, the rivers of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed.
Farmers are consequently abandoning water hungry crops like tomatoes. The state produces 90% of the tomatoes in our country. Shortages and escalating prices for tomatoes and tomato products are anticipated. Further north in Napa Valley wine country, vineyards surrounded by burned-out landscapes and dwindling water supplies, are now facing the added challenge of no longer being able to buy insurance for their operations. This could be the end of the road for some for them.
The heatwave this summer is global. A heatwave in Russian Siberia is fueling enormous wildfires that are thawing the permafrost. Last year, 60,000 square miles of forest and tundra (an area the size of Florida) were scorched by wildfires. This year, more than 30,000 square miles have already burned with only two weeks into peak fire season. People who live there are able to take sub-zero weather in stride but 100 degree temperatures are another matter. Many fear that the region will become uninhabitable.
In the Amazon rainforest, a combination of rising temperatures and ongoing land clearing for cattle ranching and crops has extended the dry season and created conditions for more crippling wildfires. As a result, the Amazon, one of the Earth’s biggest carbon sinks, is now releasing more carbon than it is absorbing. Scientists see this is as a disturbing new tipping point in climate change.
There is a growing recognition that nobody is safe as extreme weather is battering the world, including wealthy countries. This includes devastating floods in Germany, Belgium, China, and India. The Mediterranean world is experiencing unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires in Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, and Lebanon. Even Hawaii, one of the wettest places on the planet, is fighting a surge of wildfires on the island of Maui due to the unfettered growth of invasive grass species and dry, hot summers that make them highly flammable.
Stephen Nash, an environmental journalist and researcher, studies the effects of climate change in Virginia. In his book Virginia Climate Fever, he notes that the wildfires in Canada and the American West are exacerbated by ecologically stressed and dying forests. Intense droughts and hotter temperatures have generated both wide-scale insect infestations and fires. While it is difficult to predict the effect of climate change on our regional rainfall, scientists postulate that advancing heat will dry out the landscape due to evaporation, even if we have more rainfall. This will lead to wildfires, which could transform our forests into open savannahs with occasional trees (Nash 2014, 58-59).
Politics and Policy
The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill taken up by the Senate is a hopeful first step in achieving some of our climate and renewable energy goals. It includes more than $150 billion to boost clean energy and promote “climate resilience.” It contains a huge infusion for Amtrak and public transportation and includes $73 billion to upgrade our nation’s electric power grid. The bill, however, still falls short of meeting the Biden Administration’s climate goals. For instance, the $7.5 billion to create a national network of electric vehicle charging stations is only half of what the administration had requested. Even so, President Biden is making a big push to phase out gas cars and trucks and signed an executive order that calls for the government to ensure that half of all vehicles sold in the United States will be electric by 2030.
Recent editorials in the Houston Chronicle and the Washington Post call on Congress and the Biden administration to include carbon pricing in upcoming legislation to address climate change. A carbon tax would impose a fee on coal, natural gas, and petroleum based on how much carbon dioxide is released when they are consumed. The editorials argue that “pricing carbon dioxide is the cheapest, most efficient way to cut emissions, because it harnesses the ingenuity of individuals and businesses to find the best path to decarbonization.”
Climate scientists and marine advocates are calling on governments worldwide to recognize the important role that oceans have in limiting climate change. They argue that more than half of the world’s carbon is captured by animals and plants living in or around the oceans. Mangrove forests store up to four times more carbon per hectare than tropical rainforests. If policies are enacted to restore and protect marine ecosystems, oceans could soak up large quantities of atmospheric carbon.
A Princeton University research team report says it is possible for the US to reach the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 but it will require building clean power infrastructure on a huge scale and at breakneck speed. To get there we will have to build far more wind and solar farms, battery storage facilities, transmission lines and still-unproven energy systems than we have ever built before.
An Energy Information Administration report notes that, for the first time ever last year, we generated more electricity from renewable sources than from coal. Natural gas was used to generate 40 percent of our country’s electricity, followed by renewables at 21 percent; nuclear at 20 percent; and coal at 19 percent. Texas and California stand out as the leaders in generating electricity from wind and solar and the next three leading states, somewhat surprisingly, are Iowa, Oklahoma, and Kansas. This spread across our national partisan divide is hopeful for the development of future renewable energy policies.
A relatively simple experiment in providing renewable energy for trucking is being tested in Germany. It involves an overhead electrical grid similar to what has been used for decades to drive trains and urban street cars. This promises to be more efficient than relying on batteries to power trucks. A perhaps insurmountable detriment would be the sheer cost of stringing thousands of miles of high voltage electrical cable above the world’s major highways.
Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, the last coal power plant in Virginia, was built in 2008. It now costs more to generate electricity there than all other power sources, which is reflected in higher electric bills for consumers. That, plus increasingly stringent environmental regulations, make it increasingly unprofitable. Continuing to operate it has become a matter of “throwing good money after bad.” Dominion Energy is accordingly projecting retiring the plant in 2025 but no concrete plans have been set.
As the world warms because of human-induced climate change, we can expect to see more days when temperatures hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. For instance, Harrisonburg, Virginia, on average, could have expected 8 days that would reach 90 degrees or more in 1960. Today we can expect 18 days, on average, to reach 90 degrees or more.
Central Valley Habitat for Humanity sees going green not only as a way to help save the planet but also as a way to make the houses they build more affordable. Low-income households face an energy burden that is about three times higher than other households. Building to green standards increases quality of life through improved air quality, and conservation of energy, water, and natural resources. Through partnering with the local nonprofit Give Solar, Central Valley Habitat for Humanity has been able to install solar panels on their newly built houses to significantly reduce energy costs for residents as well as help protect the environment.
CAAV Steering Committee