Bearing Witness to Climate Change October 2022

Bearing Witness to Climate Change provides a monthly summary of news related to the changing climate and its impact on people and the planet.

At the start of the month, category 4 Hurricane Ian struck the southeast Florida coast killing over 100 and inflicting over $50B of damages in a devastating path of destruction. Like in many other extreme weather events, most of those who died were old, disabled, retired, or poor and unable to move fast enough to avoid the carnage. Millions across the state were left without power, water, cell phone coverage, and navigable roads for days. Hospitals and nursing homes seemed unprepared for a changing climate of more extreme storms as many evacuated patients after, not before, the storm’s record surge and flooding.

Ian may become the most visible sanity test of whether low-lying communities will rebuild where they were, in denial of climate change, or make smarter choices. Unfortunately, many conservative climate deniers refuse to admit climate change is real and only talk about rebuilding. However, insurance companies and financial markets may have the last word as building costs and insurance premiums becomes progressively more expensive.

Climate change is making the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf warmer which is supercharging hurricanes, allowing them to undergo rapid intensification, sometimes in less than a day.  In two days, Hurricane Ian’s winds went from 75 mph to 155 mph. There are now about 25% more storms in the Atlantic that undergo such a rapid intensification than 4 decades ago.

Some victims of Ian, many who are retirees, may become one of the largest waves of climate migrants the US has experienced so far. Faced with the cost and energy to rebuild, it is expected many will choose to move inland or northward to sections of the country that will fare better in a changing climate.

The IEA said this month that emissions from burning fossil fuels are continuing to rise this year, but thankfully not as much as thye rose last year. Emissions are expected to increase by 1% at a time when they should be falling by nearly double digits. The agency said that the increase was less than it could have been from rising coal use because of continued significant offsetting increases in renewable energy sources.

A new study concludes that greenhouse gas emissions helped to make this past summer drier and hotter across most of Europe, North America, and China. Climate scientists report that global warming makes extreme periods of heat and drought some 20 times more likely to occur. This past record-breaking summer saw thousands of excess deaths across Europe from what was expected which are now attributed to heat waves.

In the first successful claim of its type, the UN Human Rights Commission has ruled that Australia failed to protect residents of islands off its coast from the harm of climate change and has ordered the country to pay for the damages inflicted. Native islanders claimed that they were harmed because Australia failed to provide them with neither climate change mitigation nor adaptation measures. Until recently, Australia has been slow to act due in part to its huge mining industry and exporting of coal.

The state of Alaska has cancelled its winter snow crab season for the first time due to a drastic drop in its population across Bearing Sea fishery waters. Marine biologists report that some 90% of this crustacean species has been lost in the past three years. Alaska is the fastest warming state in the US, and warming waters are believed to be responsible for the drastic decline.

Indigenous people of Alaska, whose livelihoods and customs depend on cold weather, are having to adapt to warmer weather. Their coastal communities are now facing increased flooding, more severe storms, and thawing permafrost. As example, less sea ice means that storms produce greater surges along the low-lying coasts. Most residents don’t have freezers, and simply depend on deep holes for storing frozen goods, especially where electricity is unreliable or expensive.

As the US mid-term election nears, a new poll has found that half of all expected voters claim that climate change is an important or very important issue. However, like much of America, the reasonable average is due to nearly 80% of Democrats saying it is very important but only 27% of Republicans.  Communities of color and those who are poor are more likely by some 10 points to say climate change is important; not surprising since they are more likely to be harmed.

Sales of electric vehicles in China are expected to surpass 25% of all new car sales this year compared to less than 5% for the US. After a decade of subsidies and infrastructure improvements, EVs in China are competitive on their own with gas-powered vehicles. Nearly 6 million EVs are projected to be sold in China this year.

On the other hand, unfortunately, China says that it will increase coal production by double digits in the next three years to feed coal-powered plants. Officials still claim they will still meet non-fossil fuel source targets of 20% by 2025 and 25% by 2030.

Raised bogs in Ireland are being threatened by the growing European energy crisis. The cutting of bog turf into firewood logs is illegal in the EU, but the practice continues across Ireland, especially in rural areas where the price of gas has soared. Peatland, including bogs, are believed to sequester twice as much carbon as all the planet’s woodlands and are five times more efficient in doing so.  But the Irish bogs, which contain 75% of the country’s sequestered carbon, are already threatened by a warming climate, even without being dug up to burn.

The UN International Civil Aviation Organization has announced agreement by nations of the world to the goal of reducing emissions from aircraft to be net zero by 2050. The aviation industry is reported to be responsible for some 3% of all GHG emissions, having grown by more than 30% in the past decade. Skeptics responded by saying that for this new goal to be reached, it will require much more than buying carbon offset credits without making systemic changes that actually reduce emissions.

Unfortunately, at the same time many airlines promote their greenness, they are having their trade associations fight against new regulations. If the industry does not make progress in emissions, it could be responsible for nearly a quarter of all global emissions by 2050 because other industries will have made vast reductions.

There is growing criticism of the current state of carbon offset markets which often appear to be an exercise in accounting and greenwashing that does little to slow climate change. Some allege that markets lack transparency and are easily manipulated, pumping out millions of credits that do little to actually reduce emissions.

The French government as part of its new energy sobriety has unveiled the most significant energy conservation measures since the oil crisis some 50 years ago. Lowering thermostats, reducing hot water usage, more ridesharing, and turning off lights are all part of the attempt to reduce consumption by 10% over the next two years and 40% by 2050.  Overall, the EU seeks to reduce gas consumption by 15% across its member states in preparation for Russia cutting off all gas imports.

Confirming what many people are already experiencing across the US that when it rains it does so harder, new geophysical research reports that a warming atmosphere which holds more moisture is indeed causing more intense rainfall and flash flooding. Researchers found that on days when it rained, locations reported about 5% increase in average daily rainfall numbers. They also say that many locations see fewer days with rainfall, but when it did rain the deficits were often made up. For every degree F warmer the atmosphere holds 4% more water.

Despite the massive investments in decarbonizing energy provided in recent federal-level legislation, some public policy experts warn that it will ultimately come down to what individual states do in regulating the utilities within their borders. If most states act, nearly three quarters of electricity generated in the US could be clean energy by 2030, reducing energy sector emissions by over two-thirds from 2005 levels.

Yet it seems numerous states will resist the move to a clean energy economy. Missouri, as example, is pulling its state pension fund investment management from firms like Blackrock that support ESG initiatives which then reduce investments in fossil-fuel industries. Its state legislature has also fought against the Grain Belt Express transmission lines bringing renewable energy from the plains states into the Midwest heartland

A US federal appeals court refused to uphold a lower court’s ruling that blocked the Biden’s administration use of the social cost of carbon calculations in environmental rulemaking. The administration currently places a cost of just over $50 per metric ton, which many argue is still too low given the costs and damages expected from climate change.

Rising sea levels and tides are creating climate migrants on the most populous island of the world, Indonesia. Rising sea water is threatening coastal farming among already impoverished populations across the pacific.

Scientists report that monsoons in southern Asia are becoming more extreme due to climate change. Similarly, residents of low-lying villages in India and Pakistan are becoming climate migrants by moving to higher ground after record-setting rainfalls and flooding. Indian officials fear tens of millions of its residents will eventually be forced to move for either work or safety.

How will the world respond to tens if not hundreds of millions of people on the move in the coming decades who are displaced by an inhospitable climate? Public policy experts worry that the rise of nationalism and xenophobic politics in the wealthy first world, who have put the most carbon into the atmosphere, will once again harm the developing world.

The Biden Administration announced it will auction off leases for floating offshore wind turbines along the west coast that could eventually generate 4.5 GW of electricity, enough to power some 1.5 million homes. The President previously set a goal of 30 GW of offshore wind power by 2030.  While this is the first such leases on the west coast, over two dozen are already issued for the east coast of the US.

Unfortunately, during the same week, the administration announced it was releasing 15 million barrels of oil from the US strategic petroleum reserve. Biden had previously authorized the release of up to 180 million barrels, about 20% of the reserve’s total capacity. The hope is it will help drive down gas prices which are contributing to the highest inflation in 4 decades. Gas prices remain stubbornly high and while the impact on working families is significant, cheap gasoline will only prolong the economy’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Oil giants keep racking up record profits while the world suffers with over $50B in the last quarter alone. The IEA reports that net income from the world’s gas and oil producers will reach a new high of $4 trillion in 2022. This is a perfect example of privatizing profits to investors while the true costs are externalized to society and future generations.

All over the world, armed forces and other security forces are being called into action to help recover from extreme weather events and disasters made more frequent and fiercer by climate change. Governments and their armed forces must now invest in dual missions which they are not always equipped to perform.

A new poll finds that almost two-thirds of Americans think the federal government is not doing enough to address climate change. And despite all the investments in the recent legislation, nearly half think it won’t make much of a difference. This despite environmental analysts concluding that the bill should reduce carbon emission by 40% by 2030.

A new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency says that renewable sources were responsible for just over 80% of all new electricity capacity in 2021. Renewables now count for over a third of all total energy capacity.

A new report from the World Meteorological Organization confirms what others have reported that methane emissions are accelerating, not falling, at levels never seen before. Methane in the atmosphere is now some 162% higher than preindustrial times, compared to a nearly 50% increase of CO2. Methane is some 80 times more potent as a greenhouse warming gas. Scientists don’t know yet if the increase in atmospheric methane is due directly from man-made emissions, or indirectly from natural sources, liking melting permafrost, which have been increased by global warming.

The United Nation’s Annual Emissions Gap Report once again warned that the world remains far behind in slowing carbon pollution and the window for action is closing rapidly. Instead of warming being limited to the goal of 3.6 degrees F by 2100, as agreed to in the Paris Accords, a 5 degrees rise is now expected.

In good news, the IEA says that fossil fuel demand could now peak by the mid-2020s, some 10 years earlier than previously forecasted. The agency says that rising energy prices, the war in Ukraine, and loss of Russian imports do have an upside in moving the world faster away from fossil fuels.  A confluence of these once unforeseen events is projected to accelerate investments in renewables from $1.2T this year to nearly double that by 2030.

Featured image is from NPR at referencing Associated Press News photograph Wilfredo Lee.

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