Bearing Witness to Climate Change July 2021

The previous month of June 2021 had now been deemed to be the hottest June on record for the United States. Numerous all-time records for any month and date were set at several locations. Temperatures were 4.2 degrees F above their 20th century average.

The extreme temperatures in the Pacific Northwest last month were so far off the charts that scientists suggested that global warming may be triggering non-linear climate response. An estimated 800 people died as a result of the heat that reached as high as 121 degrees F in Lytton, Canada.

Marine scientists are reporting that up to 1 billion sea creatures, like mussels,  may have been killed along the Pacific coast in a massive die off. Fishermen in the Western US are sounding the alarm of massive fish kills due to record hot weather. Officials are worried that up to 80% of baby salmon could die in some warm rivers and low-level reservoirs which are also running warmer. They blame an extreme cascading of climate events.

Other marine biologists along the pacific coast are fighting to save the ocean’s most important carbon capture system, kelp forests. Underwater kelp forests are said to capture and store up to 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests. Unfortunately, the size of the kelp forests is reported to have shrunk by a frightening 95%. Global warming of oceans is to blame as higher temperatures kill the predators of the sea urchins, which then are left to devour kelp.

Across the US Midwest public utilities are planning to retire coal-fired power plants and transition to renewables. Financial markets are responding with creative mechanisms like “securitization” to allow these plants to be shut down before their original costs of construction are paid for, typically by electric customers.  But the dilemma is that consumers ultimately will still be paying off the bonds to these fossil fuel plants all while having to fund investment in new renewable plants. all because we did not act sooner.

Meanwhile, the jobs and families of thousands of coal miners and coal plant workers across the Midwest are at risk and whole communities could be devastated. Will public policy and programs evolve fast enough to help these workers transition as a new climate justice movement is demanding?

The EU has announced a number of transformative new proposals to combat climate change. The most ambitious proposals to date include banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars by 2035,  a carbon cross-border tax on steel and cement, and aviation fuel taxes. Activists though say the package of legislation is not nearly bold enough to reach the EU’s target of a 55% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030 then becoming net-zero by 2050. The EU produces about 8% of the world’s total global carbon emissions.

In the US, a group of Democrats have agreed to support a carbon tax or tariff that would be similar to the EU’s cross-border tax on imports. The tax would be based on every ton of CO2 that the producer of a product, like iron or steel, is responsible for emitting.

This month China has begun carbon trading in the first national exchange of the right to emit CO2. The country is the largest emitter in the world but has stated its goal of carbon neutrality by 2060.

A study in the journal Nature reports that some parts of the Amazon are now releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than it captures.  Warmer temperatures, droughts, burning and deforestation are thought to be responsible. Scientists are concerned that this could be a tipping point that destabilizes the atmosphere and accelerates global warming.

A new industry is emerging in the US composed of companies promising to build thousands of miles of new pipelines to transport CO2 from sources to where it can be captured and sequestered.  Activists warn this may be just a gimmick to allow some industries to continue to pollute, all while the money invested could be used to reduce emissions instead of burying them underground.

Utilities in the far west are considering the necessity of having to bury thousands of miles of high voltage power transmission lines. As devastating droughts, heat waves, dry vegetation, disease-stricken forests, and wildfires become annual occurrences due to climate change, the source of many fires have been downed or arcing power lines.

Within a few days of each other, record rainfalls and floods struck parts of Europe and China killing hundreds. In China subway lines were flooded with passengers stranded inside the cars. Nearly a year’s worth of rain fell in three days in one area of the country with 18 inches in one 24-hour period.   In Belgium and Germany entire villages were swept away by water or landslides as they received two month’s of rain in just two days. More record rains created flash floods in streams, rivers and roads.

While some parts of the globe are seeing extreme precipitation, other regions continue to suffer from droughts and water shortages. Sections of Iran have experienced record high temperatures and record low rainfall. Water shortages have incited civil unrest and protests in a country already suffering from international sanctions. Could this be the next Syria where similar conditions fueled a massive migration and international refugee crisis?

Things are not much better in the American West which is experiencing record heat wave, severe megadrought, low soil moisture, dry lakes and rivers, and wildfires burning over 1 million acres. Temperatures in the west are said to be nearly 3 degrees warmer in the past 3 decades. Could this be seeding a massive migration of people within the US?

With the American West in a megadrought with record heat and wildfires, followed by extreme rainfalls and flooding across Europe and China, it is clear that all parts of the world, including the richest countries, are suffering from a changing climate for which they are woefully unprepared. In the US, President Biden has included funds in the budget to help harden the nation’s infrastructure to make it more resilient to extreme weather events.

Water levels across the West continue to drop during the month to record lows during the mega drought. The Great Salt Lake has reached a historic all-time low despite it being months before typical seasonal lows are seen. Lake Powell also reached an all-time low this month.

The pollen season in the US starts on average 20 days earlier and last 10 days longer with over 20% more pollen than just 3 decades ago.  Another example of how a changing climate affects the everyday health of humans.

The US Securities Exchange Commission is formulating a proposal that would require public companies to disclose risks to investors due to climate change. As it currently exists, only a few companies do so, and they use a large variety of forums and standards which make comparisons and assessments difficult.

President Biden is said to be proposing a return to Obama-era mileage standards that were rolled back by the Trump administration. By 2025 mileage rates would have to increase by 5% annually and emissions would fall also by 5% annually. The expectation is that by 2030 the standards will be so difficult to meet by gas-powered vehicles that electric vehicles will be the only way to meet the goals.

Extreme weather events in China are said to be a threat to their continued economic growth. China’s President Xi had previously announced that China must build an ecological civilization that maintains harmony between man and nature to pursue sustainable development. This is a far more progressive goal than that from leaders of most western economies.

A new paper based on the work of William Nordhaus’s “social cost of carbon”  puts that cost at about $37 per metric ton. Others argue the actual cost at closer to $250 per ton. Another finding is that it the lifetime emissions of 3.5 Americans will result in one additional heat-related death attributed to climate change.

More major newspapers across the US, including the Houston Chronicle at the center of the oil industry, are calling for Congress and the Biden Administration to start putting a price or tax on carbon.  The editors argue that putting a price on carbon emissions will be the cheapest and most efficient way to cut total emissions. However, some climate activists are worried it would just be an economic shell game that is gamed by industry and their lobbyists at the expense of consumers with little net reduction in emissions.

A prominent economist is arguing that the Paris Climate Agreement may be doomed to failure because it does not provide well defined positive incentives and negative penalties. It also does not address the “free rider” dilemma where countries can enjoy the benefits of slowing climate change regardless of their participation of contributions.

The world’s most powerful and largest tidal turbine is being launched off the coast of Scotland. It is expected to produce 2 MW, enough to power about 2,000 homes annually.


Featured image of temperature variance across the US is from Climate.gov at https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/us-climate-summary-june-2021-hottest-june-record.