World speeds toward ‘new abnormal,’ barely touching the brakes


Weekly Climate Review for November 16, 2018:

“Take a good look, America. This is what the reckoning looks like,” warned Wired in a Tuesday headline about the hellscape of California’s wildfires and their link to climate change.

As of midweek, the Camp Fire north of Sacramento ranked as the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. By Thursday evening, state officials reported the fire had taken 63 lives, left 631 people unaccounted for and destroyed 9,700 homes. Survivors recounted flames racing out of nowhere, blinding smoke, blocked escape routes, melting vehicles and harrowing escapes on foot. Pictures of the charred aftermath were nothing short of apocalyptic.

“This is not the new normal,” Governor Jerry Brown said at a press conference on Sunday. “This is the new abnormal, and this new abnormal will continue… . Unfortunately, the best science is telling us that dryness, warmth, drought, all those things, they’re going to intensify. … We have a real challenge here threatening our whole way of life.” Experts blamed a number of human-caused factors, including Californians’ tendency to err on the side of preserving forests over mitigating fire risks. But better forest management will not stop the climatic changes that brought years-long drought, prolonged heat waves, a shrinking snowpack and tinderbox conditions, Brown said.

“With just a little bit of drying, you get a substantial increase in the amount of burning,” Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado, told NPR. Since the 1970s, the number of large wildfires has soared five-fold in the western United States, she said. Wildfires are also increasingly frequent, erratic and destructive. “I think what we have been observing has consistently been outpacing what we’ve been predicting,” said LeRoy Westerling, a University of California professor whose research on the interface between climate change and wildfire helped inform the California Climate Change Assessment.

“Every time I come to California I say this is the worst fire I’ve seen,” U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, tweeted Wednesday after seeing some of the devastation from the Camp Fire. “Once again, this is the absolute worst—worse than any war zone I saw in Iraq.”

The Camp Fire may be California’s worst yet, but the state is nowhere near the “new abnormal” because climate change continues to escalate, said Glen MacDonald, a professor of forest economics at the University of California who was forced from his home this week by the Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles. “This isn’t a stationary target,” MacDonald told the WBUR “On Point” radio show. “We have not arrived at the station yet. This train is still moving.”

The rising numbers of mega wildfires globally also could cause a significant rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, further spurring climate change. “It is a double whammy,” said William Lau, an atmospheric scientist at NASA. “Big forest fires first lead to significant reduction of forests that suck in CO₂ from the atmosphere, and the second loss is they cause [a] significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.”

Juxtaposed with news accounts of Californians watching their homes ignite, friends die trapped in cars and entire communities burn beyond recognition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its World Energy Outlook 2018on Tuesday. On the world’s current trajectory, its appetite for energy will grow more than 25 percent by 2040, the intergovernmental organization’s new analysis concluded. And while cleaner-burning natural gas looks set to supplant coal as the world’s second largest energy source after oil by 2030, relatively new coal-fired power plants in Asia will be able to operate for decades to come.

“We have no room to build anything that emits CO2 emissions,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told the Guardian. “We are eating up 95 percent of the [remaining carbon] budget, even if we don’t do anything else. Which, of course, is impossible—not building any more trucks or power plants. … There is a growing disconnect between the new international [climate] research and what is happening in the energy market.” In essence, the world is barely tapping the brakes on humanity’s acceleration of climate change.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s new president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has appointed a foreign minister who insists that climate change is a Marxist plot to benefit China, and the Trump administration plans to once again promote U.S. oil, natural gas and coal at the annual U.N. climate summit, which convenes just over two weeks from now in Poland. Brazil’s new chief diplomat says he aims to “help Brazil and the world liberate themselves from globalist ideology,” while Team Trump’s participation in global climate negotiations—despite intentions to withdraw from the Paris Agreement as soon as legally possible—are about “making sure U.S. interests are paramount—nothing more, nothing less,” an unnamed source told Reuters.

At the same time, the world’s oil giants together spent only 1.3 percent of their capital expenditures on lower-carbon endeavors in 2018, a study released Monday by CDP revealed. “This 1-percent figure pales in comparison with the amount of money Big Oil spends blocking climate initiatives and regulations and invests in fossil fuel projects that have no place in a well-below 2-degree Celsius world,” said Jeanne Martin, a campaigns officer at ShareAction, which advocates for responsible investing.

Climate context

California’s wildfires were not the only evidence this week of advancing climate change.

Even if the world were able to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial times as prescribed by the Paris Agreement—which increasingly seems all but impossible—the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets might still collapse, causing a massive rise in sea levels, according to research published Monday in Nature Climate Change. “We say that 1.5 to 2°C is close to the limit for which more dramatic effects may be expected from the ice sheets,” senior author Frank Pattyn, head of geosciences at the Free University of Brussels, told Agence France Presse. His team calculated that both ice sheets would reach a “tipping point” at around 2°C. “The existence of a tipping point implies that ice sheet changes are potentially irreversible,” he said. “Returning to a pre-industrial climate may not stabilize the ice sheet once the tipping point has been crossed.”

Human-caused climate change increased the rainfall from Hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Maria by 4 to 8 percent, although it did not increase wind speeds, research published Wednesday in Nature found. However, “future anthropogenic warming would robustly increase the wind speed and rainfall,” the researchers said.

Similarly, in a research letter published Thursday in Nature, scientists pointed to human urbanization as a culprit in stalling Hurricane Harvey over greater Houston, where it dropped a record 5 feet of rain in one area. “Overall, we find that the probability of such extreme flood events… increased on average by about 21 times in the period 25-30 August 2017 because of urbanization,” the authors wrote. “The effect of urbanization on storm-induced extreme precipitation and flooding should be more explicitly included in global climate models, and this study highlights its importance when assessing the future risk of such events in highly urbanized coastal areas.”

Scientists this week backtracked on their certainty about results of a study published on October 31 in Nature, which warned that oceans are heating up to 60 percent faster than previously estimated. “Unfortunately, we made mistakes here,” said Ralph Keeling, a lead climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and one of the study’s co-authors. “I think the main lesson is that you work as fast as you can to fix mistakes when you find them.” While the findings were not invalidated, they had a much larger margin of error than stated in the publication.

“Conservation, restoration and improved land management interventions on natural and agricultural lands” could offset 21 percent of current annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to research published Wednesday in Science Advances. “We’re not saying these strategies are a substitute for getting to zero-carbon energy. We still need to do that too,” said senior author Joseph Fargione, a scientist at The Nature Conservancy. “But we think that natural climate solutions generally get overlooked. And we found a lot of opportunities here to help mitigate climate change.”

At the same time, the world’s rapidly increasing demand for air conditioning to cope with rising temperatures day and night requires “radical action” to make cooling systems more climate-friendly, a new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) warned. Without intervention, cooling for human comfort could add 0.5°C to global warming by the end of this century, the report says. “You can’t build enough renewable energy fast enough to keep pace with the growth of air conditioning,” said lead author Iain Campbell, a senior fellow at RMI.

Surprises

Newly-elected U.S. Representative Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, made a surprise appearance Tuesday to offer support scores of young demonstrators calling for climate action outside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill. “We need a Green New Deal and we need to get to 100 percent renewables because our lives depend on it,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters. “The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] themselves… say we have 10 years left, and I—not just as an elected member, but as a 29-year-old woman—am thinking not just about what we are going to accomplish in the next two years but the America that we’re going to live in in the next 30 years.” Pelosi released a statement that said, “We are inspired by the energy and activism of the many young activists and advocates leading the way on the climate crisis, which threatens the health, economic security and futures of all our communities.”

Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), surprised critics Tuesday when he kicked off a “Cleaner Trucks Initiative” that could see the Trump administration limit tailpipe emissions from heavy-duty trucks. “This may be the first rulemaking initiated by the Trump administration that is actually designed to reduce air pollution,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association. (President Donald Trump announced today that he intends to nominate Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, to become the EPA’s  new chief.)

And in a move that may have surprised Big Oil, West Coast crab fishermen filed a lawsuit Wednesday against 30 fossil fuel companies, accusing them of negligent obfuscation of human-caused climate change that warmed the oceans, which shortened crabbing seasons, causing severe economic losses for crabbers. “The scientific linkage between the combustion of fossil fuels and ocean warming… is clear,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which filed the complaint in state Superior Court in San Francisco on behalf of California and Oregon crab fishermen. “We know it, and it’s time to hold that industry accountable for the damage they’ve caused.”

United States

President Trump opened the week blaming California officials for causing the deadly Camp and Woolsey Fires with “gross mismanagement” of the state’s forests, and he planned to close it Saturday by visiting with some of those same officials to inspect the damage.

“The president’s assertion that California’s forest management policies are to blame for catastrophic wildfire is dangerously wrong,” Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters, responded in a statement. “…[N]early 60 percent of California forests are under federal management, and another two-thirds under private control. It is the federal government that has chosen to divert resources away from forest management, not California.” Indeed, the Trump administration’s budgets for this fiscal year and next proposed cutting tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Interior and Forest Service allocations for the tree and brush clearing needed to mitigate the risk of wildfires.

In news not related to California’s fires, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced Thursday that it would begin the environmental review process necessary to allow lease sales for oil drilling in an area of Alaska’s Beaufort Sea officially put off limits by President Barack Obama. “We see [this] as an encouraging sign—a recognition that they really do want to make America energy dominant,” said Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a federal lawsuit against the move on behalf of themselves and other environmental organizations. “It’s our contention that President Trump doesn’t have the authority to revoke President Obama’s protections,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs. “They were permanent and were put in place for very, very good reasons.”

Marcy Rockman, the first and only Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for Cultural Resources at the National Park Service, resigned in early November after a seven-year tenure. She shared her a resignation letter via Twitter on Thursday, explaining that she had been forced to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying her existence rather than doing her job.

President Trump announced this week that he was nominating Neomi Rao, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to fill the judge’s seat formerly held by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals—known as the second highest court in the country. “Rao has been central to the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations,” Greenwire reported. “Last month, she touted federal agencies for rolling back four regulations for every new regulation added.” Her nomination now awaits Senate approval.

Senate Democrats did not take kindly to Bernard McNamee, Trump’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), who faced a grilling this week by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “You played a key role in developing the legal underpinnings of a Trump [coal and nuclear] energy bailout that was so flawed every member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected it,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. “Now the president wants to put you on the commission that rejected the plan you wrote. …[T]his is not like having the fox guard the chicken coop. This is like putting the fox inside the chicken coop.” McNamee promised he would not bring his White House pursuits with him to FERC. The committee is expected to vote on his nomination before the end of the year.

Two years after Trump was elected president with the help of Kentucky coal miners, the state now has 169 fewer coal jobs, according to a report released this week by Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. “It ain’t happened like [the Trump administration] said it would,” said Martin County Judge-Executive Kelly Callaham. Perhaps that and the looming 2020 presidential campaign prompted the U.S. Department of Energy to announce on Tuesday its “Coal FIRST” initiative to “develop the coal plant of the future needed to provide secure, stable and reliable power.”

Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, called the program “a step in the right direction,” but some market watchers say the effort provides too little, too late. “I’m sure there are companies willing to take federal money to consider some of these issues, but right now no one is even considering building a coal plant in the U.S. because they are way too costly, and some of the elements [in DOE’s vision] would substantially add to cost,” John Coequyt, Sierra Club’s global climate policy director, told Utility Dive. “This is what the [coal] industry should have done 20 years ago—try and solve all their environmental and operational challenges.”

China

Northern China officially started the winter heating season on Thursday, bringing with it the region’s annual blanket of gritty smog. But China’s central government has vowed to continue increasing the number of “blue sky” days by increasing the country’s reliance on natural gas over coal.

China has now replaced Japan as the world’s largest importer of natural gas, according to Reuters‘ calculations based on data from China’s General Administration of Customs. It is also the biggest importer of oil and coal.

As part of the central government’s “war on air pollution,” mandatory regional quotas for use of renewable energy could be imposed as early as January, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said on Thursday. Despite opposition from operators of coal-fired power plants, the NEA has produced a third draft proposal for a quota system that would set minimum renewable energy targets by region starting in 2019, with compliance monitored at the local level. The program aims to lower the amount of renewable energy that now goes to waste because it is denied access to a grid crowded with coal power. If the draft plan wins approval, the NEA could assign region quotas in the first quarter of the new year, with immediate effect.

Still, transformation of China’s industrial, transportation and energy sectors is “a must” if central authorities are to reach their goals for cutting air pollution, He Kebin, dean of the School of Environment at Tsinghua University, was quoted as saying Thursday in the state-owned China Daily. “We can all see we are enjoying an increasing number of days with blue skies,” he said. “These blue skies, however, are still vulnerable. Air pollution remains, as does the root cause of it.”

In light of these comments in the China Daily, it is interesting to note that Zhang Jianhua, president of China’s largest oil-and-gas company, the China National Petroleum Corporation, was just named the new head of the NEA.

India

Nearly 90 percent of New Delhi residents feel some ill effects from the capital’s toxic air, according to a new survey by India’s Association for Scientific and Academic Research. In addition, as many as 35 percent of residents surveyed by the social media platform LocalCircles said they would like to move somewhere with cleaner air.

IKEA on Thursday announced plans to come to the rescue with its new “Better Air Now” initiative. “Starting off in India, IKEA wants to turn rice straw—a rice harvesting residue that is traditionally burned and contributes heavily to air pollution—into a new renewable material source for IKEA products,” the Swedish multinational said in a press release. “The ambition is to create a model for how to reduce air pollution that could be replicated in other mega cities. … Working closely with central and state governments in India, private companies, innovators, NGOs, the U.N., universities, suppliers and farmers, the long-term ambition for IKEA is to contribute to villages reaching zero rice straw burning.”

Of course, the power and transportation sectors contribute the lion’s share of India’s air pollution, and the country is set to overtake the United States as the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide from power generation before 2030, the International Energy Agency (IEA) concluded in its just-released World Energy Outlook 2018. The IEA also projectsthat India will surpass Australia and the United States in the early 2020s to become the world’s second-largest producer of coal for power generation, behind only China. “India is pushing strongly to expand the role of renewables in its power mix, yet robust growth in electricity demand still means a near doubling in coal-fired power output to 2040,” the IEA said. That outcome might be mitigated if India follows through with plans to more than triple its nuclear power capacity by 2031.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met Wednesday on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Singapore and pledged to strengthen ties in the energy sector. “There was a lot of discussions on energy. This is a new sector in Indo-U.S. relations,” said Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale. “We have begun importing oil and gas from the U.S. worth about $4 billion this year. We expressed our readiness to import more oil and gas from the U.S. as a way of expanding our trade.”

Looking forward

Government “sherpas” are working feverishly toward agreement on wording for a communiqué to be issued by the G20 Leaders’ Summit scheduled for November 30 and December 1 in Buenos Aires, but the Trump administration is fighting against any mention of climate goals, an Argentine official said on Thursday.

However, none of the countries that make up the G20 group of major world economies—Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States—is on track to significantly slow climate change, given that 82 percent of the their energy supplies still come from fossil fuels, according to a report released Wednesday by Climate Transparency, a global consortium focused on catalyzing G20 climate action. “The G20 economies actually need to cut their emissions by half by 2030 to keep warming below 1.5°C,” said co-author Jan Burck, senior adviser at Germanwatch, a member of the consortium. “But instead of responding to the urgency of climate change, the G20 countries continue to pour money into factors that drive climate disruption, like fossil fuel subsidies… .”

Looking toward the U.N. climate summit beginning on December 2 in Poland, the Financial Times reported today that China is expected to assume the role of chief “power broker” at the annual global conference. “If the U.S. and China could agree, usually everybody would fall into place behind them,” an unnamed negotiator said about how things worked before President Trump abdicated U.S. climate leadership. “But now there’s no one who can pull back on China.” Will a country so heavily reliant on coal push for the wholesale decarbonization called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the only means of avoiding a global climate calamity?

Come January 3, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives say they’ll do their part to jump-start America’s federal climate action. “We plan to hit the ground immediately with a series of hearings early in the next Congress on how best to combat this growing global crisis,” Representatives Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, top Democrats on key committees, said Wednesday in a joint statement. “Our committees plan to work closely together to aggressively assess the public health, economic and environmental impacts of climate change and to explore the best solutions to combat this challenge.”