The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consideration of cost impacts when developing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, (MATS) which are set to go into effect next month. At issue in the case is whether the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to consider costs in addition to health and environmental impacts when determining whether (not just how) to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants.
The MATS rule, finalized in December 2011, requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of toxic pollutants by installing control technologies. The EPA estimates the rule would cost industry about $9.6 billion a year but have the benefits of cutting coal and oil emissions by 90 percent and generating $37 billion in savings through “co-benefits.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held that it is in EPA’s discretion whether to consider costs when deciding whether it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants emitted by power plants. During Wednesday’s Supreme Court oral argument, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, asserting that Congress instructed the EPA to use its expertise to decide what was appropriate and did not mandate consideration of costs.
Forbes reports that Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly attacked EPA’s interpretation. He asserted, “I would think it’s classic arbitrary and capricious agency action for an agency to command something that is outrageously expensive and in which the expense vastly exceeds whatever public benefit can be achieved.”
The Supreme Court’s final decision is expected by the end of June (subscription).
Global Warming Imperiling Artic Ice, Slowing Ocean Circulation
This week the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that on Feb. 25 Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, “the lowest in the satellite record,” with implications for the Arctic’s ecology and economy and for weather patterns in North America, Europe, and Asia. The news, the Belfast Telegraph reported, increases fears that summers in the polar region could be ice free within 20 or 30 years.
Warming Arctic temperatures triggered by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are accelerating ice melt and increasing the amount open ocean exposed to the sun’s rays. Unlike white ice, which reflects those rays, the dark ocean absorbs them, causing further heating and melt.
“[The record low extent] is significant, in that it shows that the Arctic is being seriously impacted by our warming climate,” said NSIDC’s Senior Research Scientist Ted Scambos. “In general, sea ice retreat has proceeded faster than modelling expects in the Arctic, although models are catching up.”
The NSIDC announcement comes in the wake of a new study reporting that Arctic sea ice is thinning at a faster rate than researchers previously thought. It shows that the ice in the central Arctic Ocean thinned 65 percent between 1975 and 2012, from 11.78 feet to 4.1 feet.
Global warming also appears to be slowing ocean circulation according to a new study in Nature Climate Change. The study reveals a deceleration of the ocean circulation that helps to drive the Gulf Stream off the U.S. east coast, the consequences of which could be significant extra sea level rise for coastal cities and shifts in U.S. and European weather.
The findings suggest that the slowdown—the most dramatic in recorded history and well outside the norm—is probably not part of natural fluctuation.
If the climate relationships identified in the study hold true, increasing melt rates in Greenland “might lead to further weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation within a decade or two, and possibly even more permanent shutdown” of key components of it, the scientists warn.
“If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning continues, the impacts might be substantial,” said lead author Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Disturbing the circulation will likely have a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, and thereby fisheries and the associated livelihoods of many people in coastal areas. A slowdown also adds to the regional sea-level rise affecting cities like New York and Boston. Finally, temperature changes in that region can also influence weather systems on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America as well as Europe.”
Obama Cuts Fed’s Carbon Emissions
In an effort to help meet emissions reduction goals and spur others to do the same, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 2008 levels in the next decade. Specifically, the executive order calls for agencies to ensure 25 percent of their total energy consumption is from clean sources, to reduce energy use in federal buildings by 2.5 percent each year and decrease per-mile greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2014 levels.
“America once again is going to be leading by example,” said Obama. “So we’re proving that it is possible to grow our economy robustly while at the same time doing the right thing for our environment and tackling climate change in a serious way.”
The move by Obama is part of a broader plan to tackle climate change. He previously pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Daily Caller’s Michael Bastasch reports that Obama’s latest moves on climate are part of a larger effort to increase political pressure on other countries to follow suit in the months before a global climate treaty will be discussed at an international climate summit in Paris.
“If I can encourage and gain commitments from the Chinese to put forward a serious plan to start curbing their greenhouse gases, and that then allows us to leverage the entire world for the conference that will be taking place later this year in Paris,” Obama said.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The EPA Administrator this week, suggested (subscription) that interim goals for existing power plants to comply with the agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan could be softened before the rule is finalized this summer.
The proposal unveiled last year calls for a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and sets state-by-state emissions targets, beginning as early as 2020. Regulators and electric utilities have complained that a lack of time could destabilize electric supplies. According to the News and World Report, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy stated that changes to the 2020 date are “very, very much on the table.”
“While states can craft their own glide path, we want to make sure they hit the targets that we need and they’re going to be effective strategies,” McCarthy told an audience at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners winter meeting. “We clearly need to make sure there is trajectory towards a goal that is as far away as 2030 and that there is an ability to ensure that states are actively working and on a trajectory to achieve that final goal.”
New Climate Agreement Draft Long on Diversity of Views, Short on Resolutions
“86 pages, 54,000 words, 1,234 square brackets here’s official draft of #Paris2015”—that’s how Sebastian Duyck, an Arctic Centre researcher and observer at last week’s climate talks in Geneva summarized the proceedings’ output on social media. The draft negotiated in Lima last November more than doubled in size, and the number of words, phrases, and sentences not agreed by all countries—the brackets referred to in Duyck’s tweet—also increased, but although the new draft became more complex—not simpler as planned—it represents progress to some participants.
“Although it has become longer, countries are now fully aware of each other’s positions,” said Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations climate change secretariat.
“After years of false starts and broken promises, restoring ownership and trust in the process is no small achievement. And I think we have come a long way toward doing that,” said Ahmed Sareer, a Maldives delegate who represents an alliance of island nations.
Among the new draft’s significantly varying proposals for checking climate change are a zero net greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050 and a peaking of emissions “as soon as possible.”
In new text, developed countries, including the United States, emphasized the need for all countries to contribute to emissions reductions efforts, and developing countries asked for financial help to deal with climate change.
The international agreement, to be reached in Paris in December, is supposed to go into effect in 2020. The next critical date is June in Bonn, where all countries are to announce their emissions reductions plans.
Experts Debate Economic, Carbon Impacts of Biomass Conversion to Electricity
Last November, the EPA issued a policy memo that appeared to promote the harvest of forests to produce power by treating bioenergy as a carbon-free energy source. But there are a couple of problems with that strategy, reports the New York Times. It ignores the opportunity cost of dedicating land to bioenergy rather than to other purposes, potentially imperiling food supplies and ecosystems—and, according to a recent World Resources Institute report, energy from forests and fields is not carbon neutral.
In a Feb. 9 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy that decries the new power plant policy, 78 scientists said, “Burning biomass instead of fossil fuels does not reduce the carbon emitted by power plants.” In fact, “Burning biomass, such as trees, that would otherwise continue to absorb and store carbon comes at the expense of reduced carbon storage.”
In a Feb. 11 letter to McCarthy, six environmental Massachusetts-based environmental groups also opposed the policy, stating, “We are pleased that EPA is moving forward with the Clean Power Plan. However, we write to express our deep concern at EPA’s apparent decision to treat biomass power as carbon neutral for the purposes of EPA’s Clean Power Plan and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting.” They added that the decision “contradicts sound science and promotes burning forest wood for electric power production, which is exactly the wrong direction for our county’s renewable energy policy.”
But a just-published report in the journal Nature Climate Change argues that deploying bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) could produce a net reduction in atmospheric carbon—with up to a 145 percent emissions cut from 1990 levels. Moreover, according to energy expert and study coauthor Daniel Kammen, BECCS may be one of the few cost-effective carbon-negative opportunities available to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and could be critical should that change be worse than anticipated or should emissions reductions in non-energy sectors prove difficult to realize.
On the basis of analysis of various fuel scenarios using a detailed model of the American West power grid developed at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, the University of California–Berkeley report predicts that biomass conversion to electricity combined with prospective carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies could result in a carbon-negative power grid in the western United States by 2050.
“There are a lot of commercial uncertainties about carbon capture and sequestration technologies,” admitted the study leader, Daniel Sanchez. “Nevertheless, we’re taking this technology and showing that in the Western United States 35 years from now, BECCS doesn’t merely let you reduce emissions by 80 percent – the current 2050 goal in California—but gets the power system to negative carbon emissions: you store more carbon than you create.”
These latest contributions add to and continue what has been several years of debate (subscription) on the possible benefits and drawbacks of biomass energy and how best to quantify the ultimate impact of its use.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report warning that greenhouse gas levels are at the highest they have been in 800,000 years.
“We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within the 2C of warming closes,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “To keep a good chance of staying below the 2C, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, and falling to zero or below by 2100.”
To have a 66 percent chance of limiting total average warming to the U.N.-set threshold of less than 2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels, the world’s population can emit no more than one trillion tons of carbon dioxide. But we’ve already emitted more than half that much.
One key finding: It’s “extremely likely” that humans are contributing to climate change—mainly through the burning of fossil fuels. There is evidence—through sea-level rise, shrinking glaciers, decreasing snow and ice cover and warmer oceans—that human-caused climate change is happening now.
The report indicates that “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.” In fact, if we stick to our current path, we could see 3.7 to 4.8 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.
The report is timed just ahead of international negotiations in Lima, Peru, set to take place in December and intended to establish parameters for an emissions reduction agreement that negotiators may sign in Paris next year.
This piggy backs on another recent report, Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas 2015, provides comparable risk data for 198 countries across 26 climate-related issues. Echoing studies by groups such as the Pentagon, the report finds climate change and food insecurity could lead to increased civil unrest and violence in 32 countries assessed in the next 30 years. The countries include Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Haiti, Ethiopia and the Philippines. All 32 depend on agriculture; 65 percent of their combined working population are employed in farming.
“I think the most surprising thing [the new data shows] is how closely linked food security and climate change are,” said James Allan, associate director of global analytics firm Maplecroft. “We were not expecting this level of linkage.”
New Cause for Arctic Warming?
A new mechanism may be a large contributor to warming in the Arctic according to a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at a long-wavelength region of the electromagnetic spectrum called far infrared.
“Our research found that non-frozen surfaces are poor emitters compared to frozen surfaces,” said lead author Daniel Feldman. “And this discrepancy has a much bigger impact on the polar climate than today’s models indicate. Based on our findings, we recommend that more efforts be made to measure far-infrared surface emissivity. These measurements will help climate models better simulate the effects of this phenomenon on the Earth’s climate.”
Through their simulations, researchers revealed that far-infrared surface emissions have the biggest impact on the climates of arid high-latitude and high-altitude regions. In the Arctic, open oceans were found to hold more far-infrared energy than sea ice, resulting in warmer oceans, melting sea ice and a 2-degree Celsius increase in the polar climate.
White House Releases Federal Agency Climate Plans
The White House released a series of reports documenting 38 federal agencies’ vulnerabilities to climate change and their plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, save energy, cut waste and save taxpayer dollars.
“Under President Obama’s leadership, federal agencies have already made significant progress in cutting carbon pollution, improving energy efficiency, and preparing for the impacts of climate change,” said Mike Boots, who leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “These agency climate plans underscore the administration’s commitment to leading by example throughout the federal government so we can leave behind a planet that is not polluted and damaged and protect our ability to provide the vital services American communities depend on.”
Among some of the findings by agency:
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates an increase by 2050 of up to 100 percent in the number of acres annually burned by wildfires.
- The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) not only sees rising sea levels and extreme storms as a major risk but believes that climate change could hinder its ability to get to space. It writes that “Many agency assets—66 percent of assets when measured by replacement value—are within 16 feet of mean sea level and located along America’s coasts, where sea level rise and increased frequency and intensity of high water levels associated with storms are expected.”
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services outlines risks that include more frequent or worse extreme heat events—one weather-related cause of death in the United States.
The reports stem from a five-year process that began with an executive order by President Obama in 2009. The order called on the federal government to reduce its emissions and become more energy efficient and sustainable. According to separate documents, measures to fulfill the order have resulted in a 17 percent decrease in emissions by the federal government since Obama came into office.
A federal court of appeals on Friday unanimously found that the Clean Air Act gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) substantial discretion in setting air quality standards. The ruling upheld the EPA’s tightened limits on soot, or fine particulate matter from coal plants, refineries, factories and vehicles. In the challenge brought by industry groups, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) pointed to scientific studies and lack of public comment on revised rules.
“Under the arbitrary and capricious standard, we exercise great deference when we evaluate claims about competing bodies of scientific research,” the court wrote. “Petitioners simply have not identified any way in which the EPA jumped the rails of reasonableness in examining the science.”
The stricter air quality standards, set in 2012, limited the annual level of outdoor ambient exposure to soot by 20 percent. EPA had justified the change by pointing to a number of studies that linked exposure to soot particles to a variety of cardiovascular illnesses.
“We’re disappointed in today’s ruling that only further adds to thousands of regulations facing manufacturers,” said NAM’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Linda Kelly. “The court’s decision also underscores the difficulty manufacturers face in pushing back against a powerful and often overreaching EPA.”
Last month, a Supreme Court ruling reinstated the agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which regulates pollution from coal-fired power plants that drift across state lines. In June—the same month proposed rules for existing coal-fired power plants will be issued—a Supreme Court decision is expected on whether the EPA’s regulation of stationary source emissions through permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act was “a sensible accommodation or an impermissible exercise of executive authority.”
Studies Look at Climate Change Risk
A report authored by 16 generals and admirals on the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Corporation’s Military Advisory Board finds that climate change poses a severe risk to U.S. national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict.
“Political posturing and budgetary woes cannot be allowed to inhibit discussion and debate over what so many believe to be a salient national security concern for our nation,” they wrote. “…Time and tide wait for no one.”
The report, which follows up a 2007 study, suggests an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will raise demand for American troops. It also suggests that rising seas and extreme weather could threaten U.S. military bases and naval ports. These findings, The New York Times reports, would influence American foreign policy.
The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board found that climate change impacts are already speeding instability in regions such as the Arctic.
“We think things are accelerating in the Arctic faster than we had looked at seven years ago,” said Gen. Paul Kern, the board chairman. “As the Arctic becomes less of ice-contaminated area it represents a lot of opportunities for Russia.” He noted that the situation has the potential to “spark conflict there.”
Another study published in Nature indicates climate change caused by humans could be responsible for as little as half the melting of sea ice in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. The other half is traced to changes in temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean—that is, to natural climate variability, not greenhouse gases.
“We find that 20 to 50 percent of warming is due to anthropogenic [man-made] warming, and another 50 percent is natural,” said lead study author Qinghua Ding. “We know that global warming due to human impacts can’t explain why it got warm so fast.”
The area north of Greenland and the Canadian archipelago has seen temperature increases nearly twice as large as the Arctic average.
“We find that the most prominent annual mean surface and tropospheric warming in the Arctic since 1979 has occurred in northeastern Canada and Greenland,” the authors wrote. “In this region, much of the year-to-year temperature variability is associated with the leading mode of large-scale circulation variability in the North Atlantic, namely, the North Atlantic Oscillation.”
In the Antarctica, a combination of warm ocean currents and geographic peculiarities has begun a glacial retreat that “appears unstoppable.” Two studies—one to be published in Geophysical Research Letters and the other out in Science—find there’s little to nothing that can be done physically to slow the thaw of these glaciers. In fact, melting is expected to push up sea levels in the region by four feet or more. This melt will occur over a longer period of time—centuries not decades.
“This retreat will have major consequences for sea level rise worldwide,” said University of California-Irvine Professor Eric Rignot and author of the Geophysical Research Letters study. It will raise sea levels by 1.2m, or 4ft, but its retreat will also influence adjacent sectors of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which could triple this contribution to sea level.”
Energy Efficiency Bill Fails, While Research Tax Credit Wins Vote
On Monday, a bill to promote U.S. energy conservation by tightening efficiency guidelines for new federal buildings and providing tax incentives to make homes and commercial buildings more efficient fell short.
The bill co-sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was just 5 votes shy of the 60 needed to move forward. Its demise also derailed a promised vote on the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Friday prior, the House voted to make permanent a tax credit that rewards businesses for investing in research and development. Although the bill would give businesses a tax break of 20 percent for qualifying research, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate amid criticism that no new tax credit offsets its estimated 10-year, $156 billion cost to U.S. taxpayers.
Carbon dioxide emissions are soaking into Arctic waters and affecting the chemistry of the ocean, a new report by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program shows. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions and freshwater runoff challenge the ocean’s ability to neutralize acidification—an imbalance caused by absorption of the greenhouse gas from the air. The study said the Arctic’s cold water makes it more vulnerable to absorbing carbon dioxide, lowering pH levels and thereby increasing acidity.
“We have already passed critical thresholds,” said Richard Bellerby, report chairman. “Even if we stop emissions now, acidification will last tens of thousands of years.”
In fact, the average acidity of surface ocean waters is now roughly 30 percent higher than at the start of the Industrial Revolution. This month, experts predict carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to reach 400 parts per million for a sustained period of time—40 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than before that revolution began. Among the report’s other key findings: Arctic marine ecosystems are highly likely to undergo significant change, acidification may contribute to the alteration of fish species, acidity is not uniform across the Arctic, and acidity rise is the result of an uptake in carbon dioxide emissions from human activities.
Negotiating Climate Policy
Nations gathering for the week-long climate talks in Bonn, Germany, moved closer to solidifying details for a 2015 international climate agreement that would take effect in 2020. Although there were no breakthroughs in bridging the divide between the U.S. and China, participants began to lay the groundwork for progress at November’s climate summit in Poland. More specifically, a U.S. proposal to move away from a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and let countries draft their own emissions reduction plans gained support at the meeting. The current level of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is far too low, says U.N. Climate Change Secretariat Christiana Figueres. “The challenge for the 2015 agreement is precisely to bridge the gap,” Figueres said. “The process is not on track with respect to the demands of science.”
In the European Union, politicians announced plans for a “rescue attempt” centered on the union’s carbon trading system, which is designed to provide incentives to industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union Parliament rejected a proposal to backload the auctioning of credits within the system last month, a plan that would have removed a surplus of emissions permits from the system dubbed the world’s largest carbon market. A second vote determining whether to withhold carbon permits from the oversupplied market to address the current imbalance is expected by July.
Obama’s Energy and Environment Team Takes Shape
With Ernest Moniz—a Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor—now confirmed as the Energy Secretary, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was scheduled to vote on whether U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee Gina McCarthy would get her turn in front of the full Senate. All eight Republican lawmakers on the committee boycotted the hearing on the vote today, contending that McCarthy hasn’t answered several questions fully. At least two Republicans were needed to move ahead with a vote, according to committee rules.
“As you know, all Republicans on our EPW committee have asked EPA to honor five very reasonable and basic requests in conjunction with the nomination of Gina McCarthy, which focus on openness and transparency,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “While you have allowed EPA adequate time to fully respond before any mark-up on the nomination, EPA has stonewalled on four of the five categories. Because of this, no Republican member of the committee will attend [Thursday]’s mark-up if it is held.” Chairwoman Boxer vowed to move McCarthy’s nomination through the committee, even if it required her to change the committee rules to remove the requirement for Republican attendance for a quorum.
After weeks of deliberation among representatives of nearly 200 countries, the United Nations climate talks ended with an agreement to extend the life of the Kyoto Protocol. The only global agreement in place to curb greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations, it was set to expire at the end of this year. The second phase of the Kyoto Protocol still leaves off the world’s two largest emitters—the United States and China—and covers no more than 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
In addition, the package adopted at Doha includes assurances to address “loss and damage” at the next conference in Warsaw, where richer nations may be financially responsible to poorer nations for failure to reduce emissions. There was also confirmation of a decision made at last year’s U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to work toward adopting a universal climate change agreement by 2015. The extension of the Kyoto Protocol keeps existing climate targets until this new international agreement takes effect in 2020. This agreement would set emissions goals for all nations, whereas the Kyoto Protocol extension establishes emissions cuts for only a handful of industrialized nations, which include Switzerland, Australia and the European Union.
While the U.S. did join in backing the establishment of the universal treaty, several former U.S. presidential aides and advisors say the country’s involvement hinges on President Barack Obama’s willingness to talk about the issue of climate change. “President Obama needs to talk about climate change and help the American public connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change, our energy policy and the progress we are already making on reducing emissions,” said Congressman Edward Markey. “The public will be more accepting of an international climate deal if they understand what we are already doing” to fight global warming.
The outcome of the conference was widely criticized, but some offered glimpses of hope. Michael Jacobs of The Guardian called the talks a start, but noted that 2015—the deadline for negotiating the successor to Kyoto—“will be the moment of truth.” Mother Jones, meanwhile, offered a fairly pessimistic assessment of the talks, but called the extension of Kyoto “something”—even though it doesn’t include the U.S., China or India. China and the U.S. are to be a clear focus next year, others said. And Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action described the outcome as crossing “the bridge from the old climate regime to the new system. We are now on our way to the 2015 global deal … Very intense negotiations lie ahead of us. What we need now is more ambition and speed.”
Arctic Report Card Shows Record Lows
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) again released its annual Arctic Report Card, summarizing the latest scientific observations about the region. Of note: 2012’s record ice loss follows a fairly unremarkable year temperature-wise—relative to the previous decade. The report also found that this year’s summertime sea ice pack was the smallest ever seen, and a new record low June snow cover extent was set.
The melting of ice, it seems, is also affecting the food chain—specifically through the creation of phytoplankton, which is experiencing increasing blooms on land and in open water as ice melts. The report suggests that previous estimates of phytoplankton production may have been ten times lower.
NOAA’s report findings come just days after the release of another study showing increased melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. It found smoke from Arctic wildfires may have contributed to this melting.
Major Brands Focus on Sustainability
With climate and energy policy close to dormant in Congress, a new study finds the majority of the world’s largest companies aren’t waiting on governments to lower emissions and shift to clean energy. Many—approximately 56 percent of Fortune 100 and Global 100 companies—are investing in renewable energy and emission reduction. This comes on the heels of a new list from Climate Counts, which ranks 145 companies’ efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. Rankings were based on 16 criteria and included support of progress on climate legislation as well as their ability to communicate their efforts to reduce emissions to consumers.
A new study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences contends that the U.S. government significantly underestimated the social cost of carbon in 2010 in its effort to establish a unified cost of carbon for various agencies to use when formulating policy. The government arrived at a cost at $21 per ton of carbon, but the new study argues the “discount rate” was set too high, and that it the true social cost of carbon could be anywhere from $55 to $266 per ton.
Potential greenhouse gas policy, post-November, remains a murky picture. While candidate Mitt Romney has said he opposes a carbon tax, some of his economic advisers embrace the idea (subscription) as a means to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, especially in tight fiscal times. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein frames the carbon pricing debate as a bargain between Democrats and Republicans, and a Slate piece offers that carbon taxes are good not only for the environment, but also for the treasury. Meanwhile, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross argues in The Atlantic that, given the national-security challenges the issue poses for the U.S., Romney and the Republican party are “ceding important ground by tolerating and encouraging denialism” of climate change. Ralph Nader says Obama and the Democrats are “running away from the issue” of climate change.
Climate Change in the Stone Age
Just like fossils, climate change leaves a trail in sediments, coral and buried pollen. A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which used models to simulate climate conditions over the last 120,000 years, indicates changes in climate coincided with some of early man’s migrations through Asia, north to Europe and all the way to Australia and North America. “The study fills in many of the links that have only been assumed or guessed at,” said Rick Potts of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It is the first time anyone has been able to explore climate’s power to facilitate human expansion, he added.
In the present day, humans’ expansion may cause urban areas to triple in size by 2030, placing more pressure on resources. Our everyday consumption could be linked to record melting in the Arctic, making highly sought-after oil, gas and mineral resources more accessible. Local pollution created by the oil and gas industry, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says, may accelerate that thaw. “There is a grim irony here that as the ice melts … humanity is going for more of the natural resources fuelling this meltdown,” said Nick Nuttall, spokesman for UNEP. One need fueling this resource hunt: transportation. A new report says fuel consumption in new cars could be halved in less than two decades.
PBS Newshour has generated criticism for presenting “false balance” on the issue of climate change. Its Sept. 16 episode focused on the findings by “converted skeptic” Richard Muller that are consistent with the scientific consensus about climate change, but the show offered an equal-time rebuttal by climate change denier Anthony Watts—without disclosing his ties to the Heartland Institute, which has long promoted climate change denial. The New York Times’ Anthony Revkin called the interview with Watts “surreally softball.”
Climate change may affect one ecosystem—covering 71 percent of the planet—most severely. As emissions continue to rise, ocean waters will rise with them, causing long-term degradation to about 70 percent of coral reefs by 2030. “Our findings show that under current assumptions regarding thermal sensitivity, coral reefs might no longer be prominent coastal ecosystems if global mean temperatures actually exceed 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level,” said lead study author Katia Frieler of the Potsdam Institute.
It turns out man-made emissions are not the only problem for our oceans. When disturbed, coastal habitats such as wetlands, mangroves and sea grasses, are also a huge factor in the production of greenhouse gases. Destruction of coastal wetlands, often as a result of urban development, aquaculture or farming, releases between 150 million and 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon per year with a central value of 450 million tons—10 times higher than previous reports. These coastal habitats could be protected and climate change combated, the study said, if a system were implemented that assigned credits to carbon stored in these habitats and provided economic incentive if they are left intact—much like what is being done to protect trees through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). It would work similar to what the American Carbon Registry has just developed for wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico.
The U.S. Energy Department announced plans to spend more than $5 million researching the potential to produce natural gas from deep-sea methane hydrates—ice-like formations that contain natural gas and are stable at depths of more than 300 feet. The Energy Department calls them “the world’s largest untapped fossil energy resource”—some estimate they are twice as abundant as all remaining natural gas and petroleum reserves. According to William Dillon of the U.S. Geological Survey, “The worldwide amounts of carbon bound in gas hydrates is conservatively estimated to total twice the amount of carbon to be found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.” This is the same methane hydrate that could be released into the atmosphere if Antarctica’s ice sheets thin as a result of climate change.
Another abundant resource sharing headlines is wind: there may be enough wind on Earth to meet global power demands (subscription), at least technically, according to a new report. Wind power to such a degree would require covering much of the Earth’s surface and oceans with turbines. Though wind power currently supplies about 4.1 percent of U.S. electric power, the study concludes that we could produce about 400 terawatts of wind power from the Earth’s surface and 1,800 terawatts of power from the upper atmosphere.
Challenges of Climate Change
In the U.S., drought and rising temperatures are posing challenges for power plants. The Washington Post details the burdens these factors are placing on coal-fired, nuclear and hydroelectric power generators—including the Hoover Dam, where low water levels make meeting demand difficult. The news has Henry Waxman and Bobby Rush calling for a probe into whether climate change could threaten the nation’s electricity supply. In their letter, the two cite several cases in which power plants were forced to cease operation or cut back output when nearby water sources became too warm to cool the plants.
Despite suffering the worst drought in 50 years, farmers will collect far more corn crop than previously predicted. Still, at 10.727 billion barrels and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts prices will remain at $7 per bushel. The corn yield is still projected to be the worst since 1995.
While climate conditions are impacting farmers, more and more big businesses are seeing the potential impact to their operations. A new report indicates approximately 81 percent of the largest global companies that report sustainability strategies and greenhouse gas emissions include disruptions from climate change among corporate risk disclosures. Thirty-seven percent of those companies consider droughts, fires and the like a serious threat.
Arctic Drilling Sees More Delays
Drifting ice halted Shell’s efforts to drill its first well in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea just one day into the already-delayed project. The arrival of the ice is the latest in a series of regulatory and equipment setbacks for the company, which has already spent about $4 billion on the effort. Though the federal government estimates the Alaska Arctic offshore region contains close to 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil, sea ice and harsh conditions make for a short drilling season. The moving ice may bring them closer to the Sept. 24 close of the drilling season—stated in the terms of their permit—with little progress toward their goal. “Depending on conditions, it could be a few or, potentially, several days before it’s safe enough to resume drilling,” said Shell spokesman Curtis Smith.
Shell has petitioned for an extension of the season because its projections had shown the arrival of ice much later in the season. The area’s unforgiving conditions have led some doubt how safely these efforts could be carried out—despite extra efforts to beef up the same equipment that failed in the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Even so, the U.S. Coast Guard’s Paul F. Zukunft, who served as the federal coordinator on the 2010 BP spill, said, “I would never be confident [we could handle a major spill]. You’ll never get all the oil.”
In Louisiana, that’s been the case. Nearly two years after the BP spill Hurricane Isaac has churned up tar balls positively identified as originating from the 2010 event. BP has proposed a “deep clean” of these beaches—sifting as deep as 4 feet—to remove contaminants before sand deposited by new storms covers over the tarballs. Researchers at Louisiana State University are looking at other methods—more specifically, blooms of bacterial biomass and whether they could consume oil and gas from the BP spill trapped about a half-mile below the water’s surface. Tests so far say yes—showing these microbes have consumed about 200,000 tons of this oil.