Overheated, Unprepared And Under-protected: Climate Change Is Killing People, Pets And Crops
Record heatwaves have caused fatalities for laborers who plant and harvest U.S. crops. A lack of federal standards and policies makes it difficult to protect these agricultural workers. Overheated, Unprepared And Under-protected: Climate Change Is Killing People, Pets And Crops
It was a sweltering day with temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) in the fields, where Gueta Vargas and others were tending to the plants used to make beer. His boss found him slumped over a tractor around 3 p.m. An hour later, he was pronounced dead of heart disease that was exacerbated by the heat.
While it’s difficult to track, labor union United Farm Workers has identified three potential heat deaths in recent months.
The situation is likely worse outside the U.S., which is the world’s biggest agricultural exporter and has farms equipped with the most advanced technologies, like drones that can inspect fields.
In developing nations like India, where 40% of the workforce is in farming, the cost of adapting to climate change with such tools can be prohibitive, according to Cicero Lima, an economist who has researched the effects of heat stress on farm labor and crop yields.
“If you have a lower capacity to adapt, you’re going to get hit twice, maybe three times more by climate change,” Lima said. “With lower crop yields, more people are making lower salaries and paying higher prices for food. In this scenario, the world will be more imbalanced.”
The heat deaths underscore the dangerous working conditions that pervade the world’s food supply chain, yet mostly go unnoticed.
They burst into view last year in the U.S. when crowded meat processing plants became hot spots for Covid-19 outbreaks, forcing people to choose between keeping low-income jobs and putting their lives at risk.
Hired farmworkers are just as vulnerable, if not more. Roughly half lack legal immigration status, and the labor-intensive jobs they do yield little pay and meager benefits. Most don’t have access to adequate health care. Many don’t speak English.
People laboring in the fields “are being used as a human shield to buffer the rest of the country against the most violent effects of climate change,” Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns at United Farm Workers, said in an interview.
Gueta Vargas’ death is being investigated by Washington state’s labor department. Andy Gamache, an owner of the hops farm, said he was devastated, because the elderly worker had been an employee for decades. He had tried to save Gueta Vargas by performing CPR before medics arrived the day he collapsed.
The company, Virgil Gamache Farms, allows workers take as many breaks as they need when it’s hot, and the pauses are compensated, Gamache said.
Gueta Vargas’ daughter, Lorena Gonzalez, blames working conditions on the farm for his death.
“No one deserves to pass away at work,” she wrote on a GoFundMe page to raise money for the funeral. “All my dad was trying to do was provide for his family.”
A similar incident occurred June 26, when first responders arrived at a field in the town of St. Paul, Oregon, to try and revive a 38-year-old worker who had stopped breathing. Sebastian Francisco Perez had been on a crew moving irrigation lines.
He later died, with heat listed as the preliminary cause. Oregon’s branch of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is probing the death, a spokesperson said. The company, Ernst Nursery & Farms, declined to comment.
In late May, Adrian Aguirre, 34, died while traveling with other laborers to work at Zirkle Fruit Co. in Selah, Washington, according to United Farm Workers. He was in a van contracted out by his employer, according to Washington’s labor department.
The union said it had no air conditioning and windows that didn’t open. Union organizers think heat likely played a part in Aguirre’s death. Before Aguirre died, he told his wife he was unbearably hot and felt ill, the union said.
Zirkle said Aguirre wasn’t a current employee when he died, and that to the firm’s knowledge, his death wasn’t due to heat. Washington’s labor department had little information about the incident, and Oregon OSHA couldn’t find any records of it.
At the federal level, there are currently no targeted OSHA rules covering heat stress, though it’s now looking into potentially creating a specific safety standard, according to a spokesperson. An Aug. 3 letter signed by several U.S. senators asked the agency to take action on regulations for excessive heat in the workplace.
“Protecting workers from heat stress is essential” as global temperatures rise, said Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who has introduced legislation to address the issue.
While both Oregon and Washington states have adopted emergency rules, advocates say the measures don’t go far enough.
Heat stress killed 815 U.S. workers while seriously injuring more than 70,000 between 1992 and 2017, according to government data, and farmworkers are 35 times more at risk of dying from heat than the general labor force.
It’s also dangerous because the effects can come suddenly. Slight increases in temperature can significantly increase the risk of premature death from heat.
Employers “can’t expect the same level of productivity or they’re really putting the health of these workers in danger,” said Duke University climate change researcher Drew Shindell.
Strater said she fears fatalities and injuries will continue as extreme temperatures become more usual.
The term heat wave is misleading, because “a wave goes away,” she said. “What we’re really seeing is these increasingly severe weather conditions.”
Meanwhile, advocates say deaths and illnesses are likely undercounted and underreported, though some make it to OSHA.
Last August, 53 workers at Polek Brothers Tobacco LLC in Connecticut were exposed to excessive heat, according to the agency. They harvested and handled tobacco for over 10 hours, including on days when the heat index approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
One employee was found unresponsive and taken to a hospital, where his core body temperature clocked in at 107.1 degrees Fahrenheit despite efforts to cool him down, according to OSHA.
After several days in an intensive-care unit, he died. Mark Polek, a partner in the farm, declined to comment. The case is still open, meaning violations could be added or deleted.
Currently, there is little pressure to make farms safer. OSHA has a general welfare workplace safety requirement, but advocates say it’s often not enforced.
Lawsuits are rare because the lack of federal industry standards and heat stress policies make them difficult to win, said Daniela Dwyer, managing attorney on the farmworker team for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
Whole families often work on farms together, so if they sue, a company might not hire them back the next season. For those who do win, the compensation is often low because farm workers are paid so little in their lifetimes, she said.
Just as Covid-19 outbreaks last year led to turmoil in U.S. meat supply chains, the heat wave could expose similar vulnerabilities in those for fruits and vegetables. The virus outbreaks forced meat facilities to close or pare down crews, disruptions that led to temporary shortages of meat and runs on grocery stores.
There are signs the scorching temperatures are already affecting operations. It’s harder to work full shifts, so some farms have installed bright, sports-game-type lights so workers can pick crops at night or early in the morning.
And there are fewer workers. In California, farmers are worried about fruit potentially rotting on trees because they’re short on labor by as much as 35%.
Still, many will continue to toil in the fields because they have few other options. Severa Cruz, a fieldworker in Florida, normally wears long-sleeve shirts, denim pants, boots and a wide-brimmed hat to shield herself from the sun.
Although she was diagnosed with asthma three years ago, she’s kept her job to support her family. But she’s had to pull back on her productivity. She’s taking more breaks to stay out the sun, even though that means less money, since she’s paid by her rate of output.
“I have to just take a break because I feel like I’m suffocating,” she said.
Heatwave Scorches Mediterranean In Latest Sign Of Climate Change Impacts
There’s a risk the temperatures could worsen dry conditions fueling Greece’s fires.
A dangerous heatwave is sweeping across the Mediterranean, the latest in a series of recent extreme weather events that underscore the real-world impacts of climate change.
The Italian island of Sicily may have smashed continental Europe’s heat record when thermometers hit 48.8 degrees Celsius (119.8 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday. While residents in the region are used to warm weather this time of year, authorities across the Mediterranean are warning their populations to take precautions as temperatures soar above 100°F.
The severe heat comes just days after the world’s top climate scientists said in a landmark report that the past decade was most likely hotter than any period in the last 125,000 years and that global temperatures will only keep rising without drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Researchers found that climate change has caused heatwaves to become more frequent and intense across the world, leading to the deaths of vulnerable people who don’t have access to proper protection. Heat can be particularly dangerous for children and the elderly.
“This is the Mediterranean, so summers are hot and dry, but this is unusually intense,” said Bob Stefanski, head of applied climate services at the World Meteorological Organization. “It’s a taste of things to come.” The weather system that’s causing the heat is set to most greatly impact central and southern Spain, southern Italy, Greece, the Balkans and western Turkey, he said.
In Tunisia, the temperature in the capital Tunis hit a record 48.9° C on Tuesday, breaking the previous record set in 1982, according to Mehrez Ghannouchi, a forecaster at Tunisia’s Institut National de la Meteorologie. Kairouan, another city located south of the capital, recorded a record-breaking 49°C on Wednesday.
There’s a risk the temperatures could worsen fires that have been raging in Greece in recent days. “The heatwave will exacerbate and dry out and make the fire danger much greater,” Stefanski said.
There should be some relief next week with temperatures forecast to dip. Still, as burning fossil fuels continue to play a major role in the world’s energy system, scientists predict that such heatwaves will become more common in the future.
Extreme Weather Makes Everything Harder, Except Climate-Risk Analysis
Financial analysts, policymakers and economists can’t begin to capture the full scale of a warming planet.
It’s been a momentous week for our understanding of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth report on the physical science of global warming on Monday brought home the connection between burning fossil fuels and the floods, heatwaves and wildfires we’ve seen this summer.
The report explained that destructive extreme events — such as heat, droughts and cyclones — are already being worsened by man-made climate change.
The findings were hardly surprising to those who follow climate science closely, but the gravitas of the report, which summarizes work by thousands of academics, will shift the broader conversation on global warming for years to come.
That we now acknowledge, without doubt, that rising global temperatures are causing more extreme weather underlines the importance of all the work being done to assess the financial costs of climate change.
It is also a reminder that financial analysts, policymakers and economists can’t begin to capture the full scale and effect of a warming planet.
The IPCC is conservative in its assessments, and rigid in how it describes the state of research, particularly in the Summary for Policymakers, which must be signed off by every government represented in the United Nations.
It’s thus striking how much more confident its language has grown in terms linking of a hotter world to deadly floods and heatwaves.
The source of that clarity is sobering. It’s partly due to advances in scientific knowledge. But as weather disasters become harsher, they also can be more clearly connected to human influence.
What does this newfound certainty mean for investors trying to hedge against climate risks?
A lot of the business world’s understanding of climate change is mediated through firms that provide analysis, data, financial risk management and consulting.
It’s a welcome coincidence that the increasingly robust link between disasters and climate change is happening at the same time that much of the financial sector, and indeed the broader corporate world, is under pressure to do more to address global warming.
The stronger connection between weather extremes and climate change, as well as increasing attention paid to “event attribution studies” directly linking the two, will likely further boost enthusiasm for climate risk modeling services.
That will be the case even though progress in climate science research won’t necessarily improve the kinds of granular forecasting that businesses and regulators expect.
Identifying the fingerprint of emissions in events that just happened is not the same as predicting what kind of damage events that are turbo-charged by climate change might wreak in a particular place in the future.
Moody’s Investors Service last week announced it would buy catastrophe risk modeling firm RMS. Even though catastrophe modeling is distinct from climate modeling,
Moody’s has been keen to talk up how its climate analysis capabilities can help to boost business lines that take into account environmental, social and governance factors.
The confirmation of weather extremes as an effect of climate change is less welcome for the re-insurers who specialize in natural disasters.
Swiss Re estimates that insured losses from catastrophes in the first half of this year topped $42 billion, thanks to Winter Storm Uri that hit the U.S. as well as increased hailstorms and floods.
The only period of higher losses was the first half of 2011 when devastating earthquakes hit two wealthy countries, Japan and New Zealand.
And Swiss Re had already seen the writing on the wall. A year ago, it indicated that “secondary” perils such as wildfires and floods were an increasing source of payouts, and one that it was keen to calibrate.
Those estimates, remember, are only insured losses. The woes of reinsurers, and even of their customers, can’t compare with the suffering endured by those who can’t afford or don’t have insurance. That includes much of the world’s poorer countries, and almost anyone affected by extreme heat — a hazard that most policies don’t cover.
Some of the effects of heating the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels will never reliably show up in any kind of risk model, let alone be insurable.
A new feature of this year’s IPCC report was the discussion of “compound events.” These include concurrent heatwaves and droughts, or floods from multiple sources such as a storm surge that combines with river flooding. They are the kinds of tragedies that break the systems that humans rely upon, with devastating effects.
Compound events weren’t mentioned in the last IPCC science summary even though we now know they were likely already occurring. A 2018 paper cited in this year’s report traces three events in 2010 that researchers found “strong evidence” of being linked by atmospheric dynamics.
A heatwave in Russia led the country to restrict wheat exports, which may have contributed to instability and uprising in Egypt. It hit at the same time as Pakistan suffered record-breaking floods.
Knowing such calamities are linked to common climate change drivers is useful, of course, but this example illustrates how hard it will be to ever confidently predict how the effects of extremes will unfold. And even if they can be better estimated, it’s not clear how often that information might help prevent losses.
How The Warming Arctic Helped Drive A Deep Freeze Into Texas
The sub-zero temperatures causing blackouts across the southern U.S. are connected to climate change.
The Earth’s poles are warming faster than anywhere on the planet. While the consequences of that aren’t completely understood, it’s becoming apparent that many of the world’s extreme weather events owe the Arctic at least some of the credit.
A blast of cold air that swept out of Canada in mid-February, moving across the Great Plains and deep into the South, has overburdened the electrical grid and triggered widespread power outages in Texas, which like many southern states relies predominantly on electric heating, according to the Energy Information Administration.
It was the second time in six months that extreme temperatures have brought grids to their knees—a heatwave across California in August caused a spike in energy demand for cooling equipment, forcing rolling blackouts for the first time since 2001.
Is the Texas cold blast connected to climate change? “I have argued a definitive yes,” said Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, part of risk analytics firm Verisk, who’s spent more than a decade studying what warming across the Arctic means to weather for the rest of the world.
While Cohen is more confident in making this connection than many in his field, the data show plainly that the region is a warming faster than the rest of the planet.
The North Pole has been heating up about twice as fast as the rest of Earth for the last 30 years, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center. “Most scientists agree that this rapid warming is a signal of human-caused climate change,” the center’s website says.
In the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, this has led to a decrease in the contrast between the heat of the equator and the cold of North Pole. The strength of the summer jet stream, a river of wind that propels weather systems around the globe, depends on extreme temperature differences between these two regions.
As the planet warms and this contrast diminishes, the jet stream weakens and can no longer push large weather patterns out of the way. This is what caused wildfires above the Arctic Circle, droughts throughout the world, and record-setting heat waves from Moscow to the U.S.
In the case of the Texas cold snap, the phenomenon began in the first week of January, when air in the stratosphere above the Arctic warmed suddenly.
This set up a slow-moving atmospheric chain reaction that weakened the polar vortex, the girdle of winds that keeps frigid air corralled at the North Pole, allowing it to spill out into the temperate regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Once the cold starts rolling south, very little can stop it.
“As the old saying goes, there is nothing between the Arctic and Dallas but a barbed wire fence,” said Dan Pydynowski, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. “So when you get a direct discharge like this it will go all the way.”
While these events happen about six times per decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Cohen maintains that climate change has increased the frequency with which the polar vortex weakens and allow the cold to air to run amok.
Texas has certainly seen snow before, said Bob Henson, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections. But he urged observers not to be distracted by individual anomalies. “We know the climate of the central U.S. can produce events like this,” he said.
“The point is, when you sum up all the events that are happening 365 days a year, that is when you see climate change most vividly.”
Why The Fight Over Western Sahara Is Heating Up Again
Tensions are rising in Western Sahara, a large strip of desert stretching along the Atlantic coast north of Mauritania. Formerly a Spanish colony, the area has been claimed for the past half-century by both Morocco and the independence-seeking Polisario Front, which each control part of it.
In November 2020, the Polisario ditched a 30-year cease-fire with Morocco. The severing of diplomatic ties in August between Morocco and Algeria, Polisario’s historic backer, could escalate the tension.
1. How Serious Is The Escalation?
Polisario’s armed forces have claimed daily attacks on Moroccan military bases and outposts since the cease-fire collapsed; the Moroccan army hasn’t confirmed or denied any attacks.
Even so, Moroccan soldiers have extended a section of walls along the border with Algeria to make it harder for the group’s fighters to cross over.
In early March, the International Crisis Group, an independent organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts, urged the United Nations to appoint an envoy to mediate a de-escalation, saying the situation was volatile and could rapidly worsen.
As of early September, a handful of candidates presented by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had failed to win support.
2. What Sparked These Tensions?
They’ve been building for a while. The cease-fire that ended the Polisario’s 16-year insurgency included the promise of a UN-organized referendum with the option of independence, but it hasn’t happened.
Meanwhile, Morocco, which controls 80% of Western Sahara, has been reinforcing its claim to the territory, spending heavily to promote it as an international trade hub, including through the development of a major port in Dakhla.
Things came to a head in October 2020 when Polisario supporters began a blockade of a Moroccan-built road leading to the El Guergarate border crossing inside a UN buffer zone. The road serves as Morocco’s main conduit for overland trade with sub-Saharan Africa.
The next month Morocco deployed troops to end the sit-in and sealed off access to the border crossing to prevent another one. Polisario described the act as an expansion of territory using military force.
Brahim Ghali, president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, the state the Polisario have declared in Western Sahara, announced a resumption of hostilities.
3. What’s The Background To The Conflict?
Spain colonized the territory once called the Spanish Sahara in 1884. In the mid 1970s, as Spain prepared to pull out, Morocco claimed it and moved in, leading to armed conflict starting in 1976 with the Polisario Front.
The front presents itself as the main movement representing the Sahrawis, the region’s indigenous people. It had first emerged in 1973 to battle the Spanish colonists with a goal of an independent state. Morocco bases its claim on history.
As recently as the 17th century, the kingdom of Morocco stretched from Tangier to Timbuktu, including large parts of the area now called Western Sahara.
Morocco’s government insists that the territory, which it refers to as its southern provinces, has been a part of the country “since the dawn of time.”
The kingdom disputes Polisario’s legitimacy and says Sahrawis living under its sovereignty accept its rule and are represented in parliament and local councils.
At the same time, it does not tolerate opponents of its claim voicing their views, whether in the street or in local media. And it restricts the access of independent and foreign news outlets to the territory.
4. What’s Algeria’s Role?
The leaders of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic are based in Algeria. More refugees of the conflict live in camps in southwestern Algeria than in the 20% of Western Sahara controlled by the Polisario.
For years, Morocco has accused Algeria of supplying the Polisario with weapons, ammunition and military training, a charge it has never either confirmed nor denied.
Algeria has certainly lobbied countries to recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The dispute over Western Sahara is widely seen as the main embodiment of a decades-long rivalry between Morocco and Algeria for dominance and influence in the broader region.
5. Who Supports The Different Sides?
The biggest base of support for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is the African Union, where it’s a member. The republic has been recognized as an independent country by 84 UN members, though several have recently withdrawn or frozen their recognition after lobbying by Morocco. Among them are India, Colombia and Jamaica.
The U.S. became the first country to recognize Morocco’s claim to sovereignty in Western Sahara in late 2020, under President Donald Trump.
That endorsement was part of a deal in which Morocco agreed to restore low-key diplomatic ties with Israel, which were severed in 2000.
No country has followed the U.S. move, and Germany questioned it at the UN, calling on the U.S. to “act within the framework of international law.”
That angered Morocco, whose Foreign Ministry subsequently suspended ties with the German government over unspecified “deep misunderstandings.”
6. What’s At Stake?
Stability. Heavier fighting could be triggered by anything from increased weapons transfers to the Polisario to a shift in the movement’s tactics. That would likely further destabilize North Africa just as authorities in both Morocco and Algeria face varying degrees of anger at home over rising unemployment, corruption and weak economies.
The diplomatic divorce between Morocco and Algeria will sharpen focus on the latter’s influence and support for the Polisario, and heighten already deep mistrust between the two arch-rivals.
Cornered for almost a quarter of a century by Algeria’s decision to close its land border, Morocco has been staking a harder claim to the territory since the collapse of the ceasefire and adopting a more confrontational, tit-for-tat approach with Algeria.
For foreign businesses, there are concerns over the security of overland trade through the disputed territory to sub-Saharan African markets. The three-week blockade in November 2020 impacted prices of fresh produce in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, media reported at the time.
Record Heatwaves Are Scorching Eastern Europe And Siberia
The extreme temperatures are linked to variations in the jet stream, a phenomenon that’s also influencing heat and drought in the Western U.S.
Residents in eastern Europe and parts of Siberia unaccustomed to high temperatures are struggling to cope with heatwaves sweeping across the region.
Kyiv, Belgrade and Budapest experienced record-high monthly temperatures in June, leading to a spate of drownings in rivers and swimming pools in Serbia as crowds rushed to cool off.
In Ukraine, residents ignored authorities’ warnings of an unusually high concentration of bacteria at some beaches as they sought relief in the water.
Thermometers in Moscow reached 34.8 degrees Celsius (94.64 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, the highest reading for June since 1901. Temperatures in eastern Siberia rose above 30°C.
While southern European countries have become more accustomed to hot and dry weather in past years as climate change advances, such conditions are not as common in the east, so caught governments off guard.
“The frequency of this kind of extremely hot summers is increasing because of the influence of humans in the planet’s climate,” said Nikos Christidis, a senior scientist at the Met Office in the U.K. “How much and how severe the impacts are going to be depends on the levels of adaptation in each particular country.”
Extreme heat is likely to continue through much of the coming week, with temperatures in Bulgaria forecast to rise to 39°C in some cities, according to the country’s national weather service.
In Romania, seven counties including capital Bucharest are under code red emergency status, with temperatures reaching 41°C in the west of the country.
“It is likely that some all-time temperature records will be set during this heatwave,” said Chris Almond, the Met Office’s global forecaster. In western Russia “thunderstorms will help bring temperatures closer to normal during next week, but the east of the affected region is likely to remain hot or very hot.”
The sort of extreme heatwaves that were expected to occur in southern Europe twice a century in the early 2000s are now likely to happen twice a decade, according to Christidis.
The rest of the continent will get hotter and drier too. Further to the east, the region north of Kazakhstan is extremely cold for this time of the year, according to Carlo Buontempo, director at the Copernicus Climate Change Service.
This pattern of hot and cold extremes is associated with variations in the jet stream, a current of strong winds that blows in the upper levels of the atmosphere from west to east.
The jet stream in the northern hemisphere is also influencing weather in the western U.S., which is currently undergoing a heatwave and extreme drought.
Scientists posit that conditions in eastern Siberia are related both to the jet stream and climate change. On June 20 last year, a weather station in the Russian town of Verkhoyansk registered a reading of 38°C, the highest daily maximum temperature recorded north of the Arctic Circle.
On June 20 this year, temperatures at the same station reached 33.1°C, below last year’s record, but still much higher than average.
“We know that the Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the world,” Buontempo said. “One reason is the ice albedo feedback—by removing ice that’s white and reflects a lot of sunshine you expose barren soil or sea that absorb more heat.”
The prolonged Siberian heatwave of 2020 would have been almost impossible without climate change, according to a study published in May in Springer.
Human-induced climate change has dramatically increased the probability of the frequency and magnitude of heatwaves in the larger Siberian region, which spans across the north of the Asian continent, the scientists concluded.
In another warning sign, Copernicus satellites detected an unusually high land-surface temperature of 48°C above Verkhoyansk this week. That reading corresponds to how hot the surface of the planet is, compared with the metric tracked by meteorological stations on land.
The high reading can be explained by another crisis that’s being exacerbated by climate change, according to Buontempo. The intense fires that spread across the region last year destroyed large areas of tree cover that had helped cool the atmosphere, leaving barren soil exposed. This year, the start of the fire season has been the most active since at least 2003.
Deadly Heat Wave in Pacific Northwest Overwhelmed Healthcare System
Emergency rooms overflowed, 911 calls doubled and ambulances were delayed when temperature rose above 100 for three straight days
As the temperature in Portland, Ore., soared past 100 degrees last week, Penny Clark’s body temperature rose as well. After sitting inside all day without air conditioning, the 79-year-old was running a fever of 102, and the friend she was staying with called 911.
Mrs. Clark, whose daughter said she had a weak heart, died of hyperthermia in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
“It just didn’t have to happen,” said Shelley Robertson, her daughter.
At least 118 people died in the record heat wave that engulfed the Pacific Northwest in late June, when Portland and Seattle hit record highs of 116 degrees and 108, respectively. Lytton, a village in British Columbia, reached 121 degrees. A wildfire destroyed most of its homes, and at least two people died.
Local governments opened cooling centers and asked apartment managers to check on residents who might be at risk. Still, the heat strained the healthcare system in a part of the country unaccustomed to extreme temperatures.
So far, 15 heat-related deaths have been reported in King County, home to Seattle, in addition to 103 across Oregon. Officials in British Columbia believe hundreds of deaths there might be related to the heat but haven’t released an official tally.
Dr. Jennifer Vines, health officer for Portland’s Multnomah County, said most of the 64 people known to have died there fit the same profile as Mrs. Clark: older, with pre-existing conditions and no air conditioning. Many were also socially isolated.
Emergency rooms were overflowing by the third straight day of temperatures above 100 degrees in Multnomah County, on Monday, June 28. Calls to 911 surged to twice their usual level, according to county and hospital officials.
At Legacy Health, a hospital system with six locations in the Portland area, some emergency rooms had up to 10 people waiting for beds, said Melinda Muller, interim chief medical officer. With other area hospitals full and ambulances backed up, hospitals struggled to transfer patients, a normal practice when a facility is near capacity.
“The ambulance service was busy taking care of other people, so there were some delays there,” Dr. Muller said. “It took longer to get people where they needed to go.”
Early last week, emergency-response times averaged 15 minutes, according to Multnomah County officials, more than double the usual time. A spokeswoman for the county’s ambulance service, American Medical Response, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the longer response times.
In British Columbia, the ambulance system reached a breaking point, said Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C. unions. At the peak of the heat wave, he said, dispatchers had a backlog of at least 200 calls.
“Our emergency dispatchers had no ambulances to send because they were tied up on other calls,” Mr. Clifford said.
Tom Harries was in his backyard in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area at around 10:30 p.m. on June 28 when his distraught neighbor approached, asking to use his phone to call 911. The neighbor needed help for his 60-year-old wife, who was having trouble breathing because of the heat, Mr. Harries said.
“It was impossible to get through,” Mr. Harries said. An ambulance arrived at around 11:10 p.m., and in a short time it was determined that his neighbor’s wife had died.
“I thought it was just appalling,” Mr. Harries said of the time it took to get help.
British Columbia’s health minister, Adrian Dix, said record calls were logged on consecutive days during the heat wave, topping out at 1,950 on June 28.
Acknowledging the delayed response times, he said the province was preparing to hire hundreds of additional staff. “We need to transform our ambulance system into what the demands of the 21st century are,” he said.
The province’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said there were 719 deaths reported for the seven days ended Thursday, nearly three times as many as would normally occur in that time span.
“We suspect that many of the deaths are attributable to the heat,” Ms. Lapointe said.
Extreme heat has killed at least 166,000 people world-wide over the past two decades, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., more than 1,000 people died during a 1995 heat wave in the Midwest, including 465 in Chicago. A 2003 heat wave killed more than 70,000 people across Europe.
Research shows that extreme-heat events are becoming more common as climate change pushes up global temperatures.
A study published last month in Nature Climate Change examining data from 1991 to 2018 found 37% of warm-season heat-wave deaths can be attributed to climate change.
The Pacific Northwest is accustomed to temperate summers. In Portland, the average high temperature for June 28, the day the heat peaked last week, is 77 degrees. About 79% of homes in the Portland area and 44% of those in the Seattle area have some form of air conditioning, according to the Census Bureau.
In Oregon, officials are seeking ways to better withstand heat waves in the future. A spokesman for Oregon Occupational Safety and Health said the agency was considering emergency rules for farms related to water and shade after one farmworker, a Guatemalan immigrant, died during the heat wave.
In another case, Tony Mathis was found dead at a homeless encampment in Salem, Ore., on June 28, according to Lisa Letney, who advocates for the city’s unsheltered population.
Mr. Mathis, 62, started showing signs of heatstroke on the afternoon of Saturday, June 26, when temperatures rose above 100 degrees, Ms. Letney said. He had stopped sweating and wasn’t fully coherent.
She and other volunteers gave him Gatorade and soaked his feet in cold water before helping him get to a cooling center.
The next day, Mr. Mathis was back at the camp and looked better. He said he didn’t plan on going to a cooling center that day because he was worried that there wouldn’t be a bus available to get him home once it closed, Ms. Letney said.
Most of the deaths in Oregon were among older people who stayed indoors, such as Mrs. Clark, known as Nene to her eight grandchildren.
Her daughter had searched for an air conditioner, but the only ones she could find during a surge in local demand cost more than $500, higher than Ms. Robertson, a teacher, could afford.
Ms. Robertson and her brother called regularly throughout the weekend, but their mother, who once survived a hurricane in Mississippi, insisted she was fine and didn’t need anything.
The heat finally broke Tuesday, after Mrs. Clark died.
“All she had to do was hold on one more day,” Ms. Robertson said.
When Jet And Gulf Streams Run Amok, We’re In For It
Rising temperatures are already causing floods, heat waves and forest fires. Just wait until global warming disrupts the currents that move air and water around the planet.
The weather disasters spanning the globe this summer — infernal fires in California and Greece, deadly floods from Germany to China, heat waves from Canada to Siberia — are really just nature’s shots across our bow.
That becomes clear if you absorb this week’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of the United Nations that assesses the state of science on global warming. No matter what policies we adopt — and obviously we should aim for good ones — the weather will keep getting more catastrophic more often.
Part of what makes the overall problem of climate change so psychologically daunting is that there’s so much we know, but so much more that we know only partially, and even more that we have yet to understand at all.
We know perfectly well, for example, how coal-fired power plants pump carbon dioxide into the air — bad. We only partially understand how the thawing permafrost could release enough methane on top of the greenhouse gases we’ve emitted to cause additional, sudden and terrifying spikes in warming — really bad.
And we have yet to figure out exactly how all this would affect the earth system as a whole, and in particular the massive currents of air and water that have made the world a familiar habitat to us.
One current of particular concern is the polar jet stream, a group of winds that whips at enormous speeds around the Arctic from west to east (owing to the earth’s rotation) at a height of six-to-10 miles up in the atmosphere.
Another is the Gulf Stream, a vast oceanic conveyor belt that makes warm water from the tropics flow northward on the surface until it cools and, around Iceland, sinks down and heads back south.
One thing these streams have in common, with each other and the many other currents all around the world, is that they’re caused by temperature differences between the hot tropics and the cold poles. Another thing they share is that, in their own ways, they protect or nurture us humans.
The complex swirls of the jet streams tend to blow away pressure systems that could otherwise kill us on the ground with storms and floods and heat. If these streams blow less hard, or more weirdly, or not at all, those meteorological danger domes just hover in place without moving, until they discharge their payloads on us.
Although the details aren’t clear yet, scientists believe this partially explains why the floods in Germany, the heat waves in North America and forest fires in Greece and Turkey turned into such doozies.
Changes in the Gulf Stream work more slowly but are just as consequential. It’s already known that the current is at its weakest in a millennium.
There are many reasons, including torrents of freshwater pouring in from melting ice and bloated rivers (freshwater is lighter than saltwater and prevents cooling water from sinking) and shrinking temperature differentials between south and north as the Artic heats up.
A new study in Nature suggests that the whole Atlantic circulation and convection system may “collapse” altogether.
Whether and when such a “tipping point” will be reached remains controversial among scientists. But if this is our destiny, the world will never be the same again.
Europe would no longer be relatively mild, and the climate would change beyond recognition from eastern North America to Africa and India. The Atlantic — already under duress from from acidification, plastic, overfishing and more — may no longer be able to sustain the food chains we rely on.
As a non-scientist and humanist, I feel humility and awe in the face of this multiplying research. Immodestly, we’ve already named the current geologic epoch after ourselves — the Anthropocene — because for the first time humans determine much of what happens on our planet.
Increasingly, it feels to me like we’re living out an ancient Greek tragedy. In our arrogance (hubris) we’re interfering with every part of nature (phusis) until eventually it — playing the part of the gods in Aeschylus or Sophocles — takes its revenge (nemesis).
Like the tragic figures of old, we’re doomed to be blind until it’s too late. We don’t understand how things are connected; we don’t appreciate how we’re parts of a whole; we don’t see how decisions taken here and now could one day stop the winds and halt the seas.
Making Extreme Heat Less Deadly
After a record-breaking June heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, U.S. state and local governments are making preparations to keep people safer next time.
A growing number of governments and policymakers are adopting strategies to limit the threat of extreme heat after record-breaking temperatures killed hundreds in North America in recent months, even in regions known for cool weather.
Oregon released a report on July 27 that calls for more public health and weather alerts following an unprecedented heat wave that swept over the U.S. Pacific Northwest in late June.
The report also recommends checks on vulnerable people who live alone or lack air conditioning, 24/7 staffing for the state’s nonprofit 211 hotline, which was unattended for part of the heat wave, as well as free public transit to reach cooling centers.
Due to the impact of climate change, “we all must do more at every level — state, county, local, and individually — to prepare for extreme weather events,” Oregon Governor Kate Brown said in a statement about the recommendations.
In Oregon, at least 83 people died when temperatures reached 106 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit across the state in late June, and at least 33 more deaths are under investigation.
The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released on Monday noted that the last decade was hotter than any period in 125,000 years.
It forecast increasing heat waves and, with 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, heat extremes that “would more often reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health.”
Seattle, Washington plans to release a similar report to Oregon’s within a few months. The June heat wave was the deadliest weather event in Washington’s history, with at least 112 fatalities, surpassing the state’s previous record of 96 people killed in a 1910 avalanche. In British Columbia, Canada, as many as 600 people died from heat-related causes.
Heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. and can be particularly intense in urban areas. Concrete-covered neighborhoods with few trees can be more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than surrounding areas due to what’s known as an “urban heat island” phenomenon.
U.S. lawmakers in late July introduced legislation to address extreme heat that includes $100 million for local mitigation projects.
“The risks of this extreme heat have fallen disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color who have less tree cover and more pavement, ” U.S. Senator Ed Markey said in a statement announcing the bill.
The legislation is co-sponsored by fellow Democratic Senators Alex Padilla of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Congressman Charlie Crist of Florida will introduce companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Worker protections may also come before U.S. Congress. Representative Judy Chu, a California democrat, introduced a bill in July calling for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to require its first federal protections for workers in high-heat environments, including paid breaks in cool spaces, access to water and limits on heat exposure.
In Oregon, local OSHA officials are already implementing such rules starting Aug. 9 to protect workers from future extreme heat events, according to the state report.
Emergency protections will also require employer-provided housing to protect against wildfire smoke and heat with cooling areas and other measures.
Heat waves are expected to increase and intensify worldwide, even in cool regions. Ireland experienced unusually high heat this summer. Greece and southern Europe recently recorded temperatures that reached 113 degrees and are battling raging wildfires.
Athens appointed a chief officer of heat on July 23, the first role of its kind in Europe. That followed Florida’s Miami Dade County, which in April appointed the first-in-the-world chief heat officer.
The two cities are part of a global alliance focused on extreme heat resilience launched by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. Freetown, Sierra Leone plans to create a similar chief heat officer position.
Pacific Northwest Faces Another Extreme Heat Wave As Much Of U.S. Bakes
Emergencies are declared with temperatures in Portland, Ore., seen potentially meeting or exceeding daily record highs.
Sweltering heat gripped swaths of the U.S. as forecasters predicted the potential for record-breaking temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and as cooling stations were set up for residents to find some relief in cities across the nation.
More than 145 million Americans on Thursday lived in areas under excessive-heat advisories from the National Weather Service. Warnings spanned the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast and parts of Missouri and Illinois while advisories blanketed parts of the Northeast, Midwest and South.
Over one million residents were in areas under various fire-weather advisories, which indicate hot, dry and windy conditions that could quickly spread wildfires, according to the National Weather Service.
It said triple-digit temperatures in the Pacific Northwest could break daily heat records late this week.
An unprecedented, record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in June left more than 100 people dead.
During most years, the current heat wave hitting cities including Portland and Seattle would be considered the most extreme event of the summer, said Colby Neuman, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Portland.
But this set of sweltering temperatures isn’t as unusual as the record-breaking heat nearly two months ago.
“This event, three days of it in a row, is a very noteworthy event for this region and is relatively rare,” Mr. Neuman said. “But it’s not the three days of all-time record high temperatures that we had in late June. It’s hard to look at it in a positive light, but it’s at least not that bad.”
Temperatures in Portland hit 102 degrees, nearing the city’s daily record high for Aug. 12 of 104 degrees, set in 1977.
It is possible temperatures could meet or exceed the record daily high of 102 degrees for Aug. 13, set in 2002, Mr. Neuman said. On Wednesday, temperatures recorded at Portland International Airport tied a 1977 record of 102 degrees.
Temperatures measured in Seattle on Thursday reached a high of 93 degrees, matching a previous record set in 1977, according to the National Weather Service.
Bellingham, Wash., a city along the coast near the U.S.-Canadian border, recorded an all-time high temperature of 100 degrees. The previous record was 99 degrees, set during the heat wave in June.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency earlier this week that extends through Aug. 20, activating emergency-response protocols and ordering state agencies to provide assistance.
Ms. Brown urged Oregonians to check in with loved ones and urged residents without air conditioning at home to use available cooling centers.
One in five households in the Portland metro area doesn’t have air conditioning, according to Census Bureau figures.
“Please treat these hot temperatures seriously,” Ms. Brown, a Democrat, said Wednesday.
In Multnomah County, the Joint Office of Homeless Services said it would be handing out thousands of bottles of water and cooling supplies to homeless individuals in downtown Portland.
Cooling centers across the county opened Wednesday, said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who signed a local emergency declaration earlier this week.
In Seattle, the city opened cooling centers and shared information on places such as libraries, parks and pools where residents could get some relief from the heat. Meanwhile, smoke from fires in Canada affected air quality in several Washington counties Thursday.
Across the continental U.S., high temperatures baked the East Coast, with excessive-heat warnings in effect Thursday in cities including New York City, Philadelphia and Boston.
The National Weather Service in New York City said highs Thursday would reach the mid-90s but would feel as hot as 110 degrees. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned of the potential burden on the electrical system and urged residents to reduce energy use when possible. The city has 369 cooling centers available, said John Scrivani, commissioner of the city’s department of emergency management.
What To Wear In The Hottest And Muggiest Weather Ever
Sweat-wicking but chic? It’s not impossible. Companies are adjusting to the late-summer heat by making clothing for the times we live in.
After battling the heat in Phoenix all summer, Jill Schildhouse, a 44-year-old freelance journalist, made a decision to give up on nearly all of her nice dresses and almost every garment made from fabrics that weren’t breathable. To the back of the closet went the polyester, the rayon and the denim.
They were replaced by activewear with spandex. “I am less concerned about getting one of those outfits all sweaty, versus a nice dress or other garment made from less breathable fabrics,” Schildhouse says.
As temperatures around the world climb and lots of offices are staying closed due to the ongoing pandemic, cooler dressing has become more popular. Clothes that don’t make you break out in a sweat are quickly becoming an important part of daily uniforms. Designers are meeting that demand, creating everything from dresses to blouses with sweat-wicking in mind.
In a three-month period over this spring and summer, there’s been a 19 percent year-over-year increase in new sweat-wicking activewear arriving at fast-fashion brands’ online sites, according to Edited, a retail market intelligence platform.
Shorts had the highest sell-through rate in the bottoms category in the U.S. this spring and summer, and cycling shorts continue to be a coveted item for sports and leisure, says Kayla Marci, a Melbourne-based market analyst for Edited.
Aday, the New York City- and L.A.-based company known for its capsule wardrobe collections, has also seen the trend. “We focused on a problem that’s universal and no secret: Summer gets hot,” Nina Faulhaber, the co-CEO and co-founder of Aday says. The company’s site emphasizes that their clothing is wrinkle-resistant, durable and breathable.
The brand’s summer-inspired clothing is made from cool weave (a lightweight fabric made from more than 50 percent recycled materials) intended to keep you cooler than other performance fabrics. The clothing is also sweat-wicking and quick-drying and offers UV protection.
Aday’s top-selling products have historically been the Something Borrowed Shirt ($145) and the Easy Days Pants ($155), both of which use technical fabrics including elastane and polyester. In July, Aday says it saw record revenues due to two temperature-informed decisions.
It launched its Soft Serve Capsule, a five-piece collection that promises to dry off quickly and keep you cool. Its best-selling Something Borrowed Shirt also got revamped into a loose-fitting shirtdress.
Like those at Aday, the dresses from HVN are courting customers who want to dress up and not melt down. HVN’s line focuses primarily on dresses, and it’s known for its 100 percent silk dresses ($595). Recently, the company says it’s had a big uptick in sales of its breathable stretch cotton dresses ($495).
“The great thing about these cotton dresses is that you can run around in them all day with sandals or sneakers, no matter the weather—but they can be elevated in the evening with a block sandal or heel,” says Harley Viera-Newton, the owner and creative director of the Los Angeles-based line HVN.
HVN Dress, $395, hvnlabel.com.
While outerwear may be snagging most of the attention, underwear has also undergone a transition. Performance underwear has shifted over the past few years into comfort first, with companies using fabrics that are sweat-wicking and hypoallergenic.
Live The Process, a fashion brand that launched eight years ago, has attempted to marry the need for lightweight clothing and stylish design. “How can you create a collection that is both functional, meaning ‘meant to work out in and sweat-wicking,’ but chic enough to wear on the streets?” asked Robyn Berkley, the co-founder of the New York City company.
She helped create an activewear collection that’s designed to be layered so consumers can go to the gym and then continue on to their day without changing. The Orion Bra ($88) and Orion Short ($128) are among the company’s bestsellers.
They are made from Supplex and Lycra, have four-way stretch and sweat wicking. Live The Process recently added knitwear to its collections to accent the activewear.
Berkley suggests wearing shorts or pants over a bodysuit plus a cardigan to create the ideal outfit for any place or temperature.
Marguerite Wade, the founder and designer of Full Court Sport, an athletic-apparel company in New York City, says consumers have become more interested in what fabrics can do and not just how they look.
She mentions moisture wicking and sun blocking as two of those chief concerns. “What was once limited to a very niche market has become available from high fashion to mass market, and people are here for it,” Wade says.
Companies are now making underwear that incorporates natural fibers like bamboo, which pulls sweat away from your body.
Many consumers think of athletic wear when they hear the term sweat-wicking, but it’s become more common for every type of fabric and every style of clothing, says Mary Young, the CEO and designer of Mary Young, based in Toronto.
“We no longer make excuses for wearing uncomfortable clothing because it’s stylish or because we can’t find alternative options,” Young says.
A Chiller Wardrobe
A selection of fashionable wardrobe additions to make sure you keep things cool in the warmer months ahead.
Tory Burch Skirt, $158, toryburch.com.
Merlette Pants, $420, merlettenyc.com
Mary Young Underwear, $45, maryyoung.com.
Live The Process Shorts, $128, livetheprocess.com.
Fil De Vie Dress, $853, matchesfashion.com.
Louis Vuitton Polo Bodysuit, $2,170, louisvuitton.com.
Attersee Top, $345, shopattersee.com
A Texas Solution To Global Warming: Use More Air-Conditioning
Texas’s oil regulator has a solution for those who fear the world is over-heating: “Turn the damn air conditioner up.”
The sentiment was voiced at an energy conference Friday by Wayne Christian, a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas drilling and transportation in the biggest producing state. The remarks came as he criticized a report published by the United Nations this month incontrovertibly linking global warming to human activity, mostly through the burning of fossil fuels.
The U.N. said the report should be a “death knell” to fossil fuels. But Christian, a Republican seeking re-election in 2022, argued that avoiding global warming isn’t worth the cost of decarbonizing the energy system and rendering decades of oil and gas investments obsolete.
“Rather than $78 trillion dollars in spending, shutting down the industries around the world, keeping third-world countries from having coal-generated electric power and all kinds of things — turn the damn air conditioner up. It’s that simple,” Christian said at the NAPE Summit in Houston.
People are already doing that. Air conditioning use tripled between 1990 and 2016, when it accounted for about 10% of all electricity use and 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.
U.S. Crops Wither Under Scorching Heat
Inventories of grains world-wide are dwindling, further pushing up already high prices for corn and wheat.
Drought is blistering key U.S. cash crops, further elevating prices for staples including corn and wheat.
The punishing dynamics of a torrid summer were evident this month on the Pro Farmer Crop Tour, an annual event in which farmers visit key growing areas across the grain belt to gather data on the coming harvest. Driving along state Route 14 outside of Verdigre, Neb., Randy Wiese turned to see a farmer harvesting hay. The piles were small.
“That farmer is sick to his stomach,” said Mr. Wiese, who farms 800 acres of soybeans and corn in Lake Park, Iowa.
He isn’t alone. Farm incomes have been hit hard over the past two years, first when Covid-19 shutdowns hammered prices and afterward when hot, dry weather reduced output, limiting farmers’ capacity to cash in on rising demand and higher prices.
Extreme heat is baking most of the U.S. North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska all contain areas of extreme drought, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. North Dakota and Minnesota, in particular, are experiencing near-record lows in soil moisture, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As a result, many crops planted this spring are wilting. Some 63% of the U.S. spring wheat crop is in poor or very poor condition, versus 6% at this time last year, according to Agriculture Department data.
The poor weather has caused the USDA to scale back its expectations for U.S. crop production in 2021—which, in turn, is causing domestic inventories to dwindle. In the USDA’s latest monthly supply and demand report, the agency pegged ending stocks for corn, wheat, and soybeans all at their lowest level since 2013.
“The impact of the drought is clear; there’s no way around that,” said Chip Flory, leader of the tour’s western leg.
Grain futures trading on the Chicago Board of Trade have had a volatile year, reaching near-record levels in May. Futures closed higher in trading Tuesday, with most-active corn futures up 1.8% to roughly $5.45 per bushel, soybeans up 3% to roughly $13.32 per bushel and wheat down 0.2% to $7.32 per bushel. For 2021, wheat prices are up 12%, and corn prices are up 11%.
For row crops, prices might climb further if bad weather persists. “The ingredients for a demand-led bull [market] are firmly in place as international markets rise,” said agricultural research firm AgResource Co. in a note this month.
Farms elsewhere are getting scorched, too. Last month, the International Grains Council cut its forecast for global grain harvests in the 2021-22 season. The intergovernmental agency forecast world production at 2.295 billion metric tons, 6 million tons less than it was expecting in June.
Brazil’s second crop of corn, grown in the winter, has been greatly diminished due to drought. The winter crop is projected by the country’s crop agency to be 60.3 million metric tons, down from 75.1 million tons at this time last year.
Wheat crops in Russia are also suffering due to drought, causing forecasters to cut their outlook for wheat production there. In its latest agricultural supply and demand report, the USDA pegged its forecast for Russian wheat at 72.5 million metric tons, down 12.5 million tons from its estimate in July and below estimates provided by other firms tracking the region.
“This season, dry July weather and smaller wheat area numbers were a game-changer for the Russian crop,” said Andrey Sizov, head of Russian agricultural research firm SovEcon. In a note published earlier this month, Mr. Sizov said that soil moisture in wheat-growing regions in Russia was at its lowest levels in a decade.
The Climate Future We Envisioned Is Already Here
After a two-week California vacation, the phrase ‘climate change’ no longer seems adequate.
Leaving Yosemite National Park and traveling west along California State Route 140, you’ll wind down out of the Sierras, into the rolling foothills, and eventually cross the table-flat Central Valley.
If you were driving that route on August 12, as I was, you would have been stopped in traffic Merced River by a fairly dramatic operation.
Buzzing above my family and me in our rental car, helicopters were ferrying workers and concrete to pour the foundations for new power transmission lines hundreds of feet up the eastern mountainside. Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility in the area, has 18,466 miles of transmission lines from Eureka to Bakersfield.
Much of that network is like this: remote, embedded in challenging terrain, at risk from extreme weather, and a fire risk in its own right. Most importantly, this network—and so many others—are in need of a massive rebuilding and scaling to confront today’s climate.
I say “today’s climate” because after my two-week vacation in hot, dry, environmentally stressed California, “climate change” no longer seems appropriate. Whether we move to arrest future changes or merely adapt to them as they arrive, we already live in a climate that’s changed.
For instance: The 1991-2020 average August temperature in Yosemite Valley is a warm-but-manageable 89º Fahrenheit (jokes about dry heat aside, it is indeed very low in humidity). During my family’s visit, the high peaked above 106ºF. At no point in the first three weeks of August did daytime temperatures fail to exceed the average.
Much of Yosemite is forest, as indeed is much of Northern California. Forests, no matter how established and resilient they might be, do not fare well in this sort of heat. Nor do they fare well with low precipitation.
By the end of what was supposed to be the 2021 wet season, the Sierra snowpack was still 41% below average. The result is as predictable as it is terrifying: fires.
While we were in Yosemite, the Dixie Fire was raging several hundred miles to the north. On the day we left Yosemite, it had spread across 515,000 acres of forest. As I write, Dixie has now consumed more than 735,000 acres, an affected area nearly the size of the park—and it’s only 45% contained.
Fires have seasons, and California’s fire season has been starting earlier (in June) and running longer (through November) than in years past. Last year, more than 4 million acres burned in the state.
We’re not yet in the heart of this year’s fire season, but more than 1.5 million acres have burned so far, meaning that 2021 is already the second-worst fire season this millennium.
Things that burn emit carbon dioxide. In 2020, California wildfire emissions exceeded 100 million tons. Given that emissions are highly correlated with area burned, if this year’s is already the second-worst fire season, it’s likely no stretch to assume that it’s the second-highest CO₂-emitting fire season, as well.
Drought and heat feed those fires, but they impact California in other ways, too. Shortly before my visit, the Department of Water Resources took the Hyatt Power Plant offline for the first time ever due to falling water levels at Lake Oroville. It was only four years ago that the Oroville Dam nearly failed because of excessively high water levels, when California’s snowpack was 180% of its average for the year.
My family and I saw and pondered drought, fires, memories of floods, and thoughts of what more a changing climate might cause throughout our trip. This, too, is a glimpse of the future, as more frequent, more extreme extreme weather forces us into climatological hyper-awareness.
What’s the temperature? How dry is it? What’s the air quality? How far away is the nearest big fire? Which way is the wind blowing?
Of course, planning around a changing climate requires looking beyond next week. Doing something about it requires even more, involving some quick wins but also heavy lifts—the equivalent, at trillion-times scale, of helicopters flying workers and concrete up a remote and bone-dry mountain to build low- and zero-carbon infrastructure.
Finally, it requires learning from places that are already doing the work to change the future, as hard and challenging as that work is today. California is one of those places.
The state is planning for zero-emissions power and transport. It’s a laboratory for the world, on the leading edge of what it means to live in our changed climate, but also the thin end of the wedge of what we can do about that change.
Killer Heat Forces Cities To Adapt Now or Suffer
Climate change abruptly gripped North America’s Pacific Coast at the start of summer, setting new heat records by staggering margins across the region’s cities and towns. Hundreds of people died.
The sudden and extreme heat disaster — matched by other recent heat waves in the Southeastern U.S., Northern Africa, Western Asia, Japan, and Europe — means many temperate cities are in for significantly warmer conditions. At the same time, cities built to withstand 20th-century heat will now face far worse.
The question of which cities and regions will be able to adapt to new extreme heat is part of the hard math of climate change. Heat researchers see this process defined by two drivers: income and climate.
It’s wealth that determines which cities have the resources to defend themselves, and future heat mortality that determines if those efforts succeed.
Compare Seattle, San Antonio and Taipei, wealthy cities with vastly different climates. Each is home to professional sports teams and global corporate headquarters. These cities also now have recent severe heat waves in common. Yet heat-related deaths are projected to diverge sharply.
Cities With Similar Incomes in Different Climates
Each line on this chart represents a city’s projected income and temperature from 2020 to 2099, according to Climate Impact Lab. Cities like San Antonio, Taipei and Seattle are projected to see similar increases in income in the next 80 years…
This is one of the major insights about the relationship between temperature, income and mortality from a study that Climate Impact Lab published last summer. The research group found that preparation is central to staving off heat-related deaths, with future income growth making adaptation possible.
As of this summer, the heat records measured in Seattle, San Antonio and Taipei stand at 108°F (42°C), 111°F (44°C) and 103°F (39°C), respectively.
The difference is that San Antonio has invested for decades in infrastructure such as air-conditioning, cooling centers and warning systems. Taipei has likewise followed an urban-cooling plan for at least a decade, and just this week sent out an alert on the city’s color-coded heat alert system.
Seattle, accustomed to temperate weather, was blindsided by the climate change-induced heat wave. As Seattle heads toward a Texas- or Taiwan-like climate, the U.S. city has a lot of catching up to do — and a high per-capita income should help.
Research into the hotter future ended up anticipating the present day. When Climate Impact Lab published its heat study in August 2020, the researchers mentioned in passing the obvious economic reasons that Seattle hasn’t already adapted itself to Texas-style heat.
Investing in defensive measures such as cooling infrastructure made little sense, despite Seattle’s wealth, since it had little experience of severe heat. Then came the heat wave, after which Seattle and Houston suddenly had nearly matching records.
The extreme heat of 2021 adds a layer of urgency to Climate Impact Lab’s intricate analysis, which warned that the annual mortality rate at the end of this century could rise by 73 deaths per 100,000 people solely from excess heat.
The recent research paper “is all about the difference—when you’re prepared and when you’re not prepared,” said Tamma Carleton, an environmental economist at University of California, Santa Barbara, and a co-author of the study.
The June heat wave “was a natural experiment of climate change happening overnight, with Seattle not being prepared.”
If higher income equals more potential for adaptation and fewer future deaths, the opposite is also true. Compare cities with similar climates but very different incomes: Seattle, Kyoto and Istanbul. With far lower per-capita income, Istanbul faces the most severe obstacles of this group.
Local and regional governments trying to understand who is vulnerable and how to protect them increasingly need specific research into heat effects.
This is true whether cities, rich or poor, are cool places facing triple-digit heat for the first time or hot places experiencing new heat records. Until recently, much economic research was limited to simple global analyses.
“Only in the last few years have we had the local-level information on climate risk that we now do,” Carleton said. “It opens the door to really important local-level policy action.”
Heat is the most intimate and universal threat. It kills more people in the U.S. than any other weather. No one is immune, but everyone can be protected. It’s an axiom repeated among emergency managers that nobody should die in a heat wave.
And yet they do, sometimes in overwhelming numbers. More than 70,000 Europeans died in the summer of 2003, the first weather disaster that scientists attributed, in part, to climate change. France alone lost 15,000 people. Some 55,000 died in Russia in 2010.
Three weeks of heat left more than 1,800 dead in Argentina at the end of 2013, with daily deaths 43% above average in Buenos Aires at the time. The final death toll from the Pacific North American heat wave could exceed 1,000, the New York Times has reported.
After Ahmedabad in India lost more than 1,344 people to a heatwave in 2010 when temperatures hit 116°F (47°C), the city became the first in South Asia to issue a heat-action plan and early warning system. The plan saves an estimated 1,200 heat-related deaths a year, and has been published as a 50-page City Resilience Toolkit for other cities to adopt.
With more mass-casualty heat waves, cities around the world are investing in infrastructure and adopting practices to defend against an unfamiliar climate. Planning and preparation really save lives:
France activated a heat plan in 2019 just before temperatures spiked to 115°F (46°C). The country recorded fewer than 1,500 deaths — a tenth of its losses in 2003.
After an extended heat wave combined with inadequate infrastructure and poor communication to kill 739 in Chicago in 1995, city planners established multiple generations of preparedness plans. The result can be seen in reformed emergency services and improved communication.
Chicago’s ongoing response is noteworthy for its continual evolution and includes crucial community partnerships. Many victims in 1995 were low-income, elderly and lived in neglected neighborhoods, and a disproportionate number were Black.
“If people don’t know you, they won’t feel comfortable answering their phone, telling you where they live,” said Ernesto Gonzalez, marketing manager for My Block My Hood My City. “It’s crucial to start working years before. You need to make a plan.”
It doesn’t take catastrophe to motivate a city. Miami-Dade County in Florida is already hot and so far not prone to heat spikes, plus there’s nearly universal access to air-conditioning, according to Jane Gilbert, the region’s first chief heat officer. But air-conditioning can break, power can fail and high electricity bills can inhibit usage.
After public surveys showed that people were especially worried about heat, Gilbert said officials moved to create a statewide agreement with the local utility not to shut off power for a failure to pay when the temperature is above 95°F (35°C).
“We do have a whole series of evacuation shelters that do have backup power that are designed for hurricane response,” Gilbert said. “It’s just we want to create more capacity that isn’t in the format of a shelter, it’s more sort of a neighborhood resource.”
Heat-management strategies tend to recommend common tactics and tools, whether they’re crafted in New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, Ahmedabad or Victoria. A 2017 report called Strategies for Cooling Singapore, for instance, offers a readable and comprehensive overview of more than 80 steps cities can take, from green parking lots to artificial ponds, shaded walkways, lighter car-colors and “urban geometry,” or the physical layout of streets and buildings.
A heat wave “is something else in London than it is in Capetown or Sao Paulo,” said Regina Vetter, senior manager of climate adaptation at C40 Cities, one of several groups that help governments manage heat risk. But the necessary steps to prevent harm are similar, which means the “interchange really works out well across the regions.”
Some of the most important actions are the least expensive, Vetter said, especially those that target the vulnerable, such as public education and early communication.
The differences between rich and poor cities’ tactics are more stark when heat-protection involves infrastructure and planning more than emergency-management, community organizing and communication.
A chronic problem everywhere is called the “urban heat-island effect,” the phenomenon of city infrastructure absorbing and retaining heat, lifting temperatures above rural areas. It’s not a problem that governments may prioritize when they’re busy looking for every poverty-eradicating development opportunity they can find.
Rapidly urbanizing Cairo, for example, saw hard surfaces grow from 23% to 35% of its land between 2000 and 2019. Green areas fell by three percentage points, and bare land by nine. The heat-island effect consequently worsened.
At the same time Cairo was growing the old-fashioned way, richer cities have had the luxury and presence of mind to attend to heat-island cooling strategies. Los Angeles wants to lower the city-rural temperature difference by at least 3°F by 2035 and Melbourne wants to be more than 7°F cooler.
There are many ways to accomplish this. Phoenix’s Maricopa County saw a record 145 days in 2020 that reached above 100°F (37.8°C) and suffered 323 heat-related deaths. The city in June approved the new position of tree and shade administrator, a role meant to help a push for 25% of the city to fall under a shade canopy by 2030.
A cost-benefit analysis found that the city earns a return of $2.23 on every tree planted, with total annual benefits of more than $40 million.
Materials and design also figure into many cities’ heat plans. Just as glaciers reflect solar energy and cool the planet, white roofs reflect 80% of light, compared with 5% for standard dark roofs. A comparison of white and red roofs in Auckland found the lighter roof was 18°F cooler.
Roofs of grass and other vegetation similarly prevent heat absorption in buildings, a feature prominent in marquee “sustainable” buildings, such as Singapore’s ParkRoyal hotel or Chicago’s City Hall. City dwellers have found that green roofs can muffle noise, too.
“Actually changing our urban environment to mitigate urban heat island impacts can take more time,” said Gilbert of Miami-Dade County. “Getting people knowing what to do when they start to feel heat stress is something we can address more short-term.”
There’s an irony to the Climate Impact Lab heat-mortality work, with its granular focus on the power of adaptation to avoid deaths in places that can afford it. That, ultimately, is not the motivation for their research.
The team instead set out to estimate, in dollars, how much damage every metric ton of emitted carbon-dioxide inflicts on the global economy. When the cost of carbon-dioxide is known, the thinking goes, governments can use it to write policy that prevents global heating.
Scientists have for decades pointed to only three possible responses to climate change: prevention of rising temperatures, adaptation to a much warmer world, and human suffering in the heat. The deadly extreme heat of 2021 has put the focus on the suffering that comes to cities that aren’t ready or able to adapt.
World’s Largest Carbon-Sucking Plant Starts Making Tiny Dent In Emissions
In Iceland’s barren landscape, a new container-like structure has risen alongside plumes of steam near the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant. Its job is to reverse some of the damage carbon-dioxide emissions are doing to the planet.
The facility, called Orca and built by Swiss startup Climeworks AG, will suck CO₂ out of the air. Icelandic startup Carbfix will then pump it deep into the ground, turning it into stone forever. Of the 16 installations Climeworks has built across Europe, Orca is the only one that permanently disposes of the CO₂ rather than recycling it.
The plant will capture 4,000 tons of CO₂ a year, making it the largest direct-air capture facility in the world. But that only makes up for the annual emissions of about 250 U.S. residents. It’s also a long way from Climeworks’ original goal of capturing 1% of annual global CO₂ emissions — more than 300 million tons — by 2025. It’s now targeting 500,000 tons by the end of the decade.
The company still hopes to one day reach its 300 million-ton target, “but the timeline has changed as it takes longer than we originally anticipated to build up an entire industry,” said Jan Wurzbacher, one of Climeworks’ co-founders.
“Already the demand for carbon removal at Orca is so high that we have decided to scale up this plant and build a roughly 10 times larger plant in about three years.”
Investment is pouring into carbon capture as companies and governments search for ways to tame global warming that’s already causing devastating weather events. Still, activists argue that focusing too much on carbon-removal technologies could become a distraction from the work of immediately reducing emissions.
The main challenge for Climeworks is lowering the cost of its service. Individuals wanting to purchase carbon offsets can pay the company up to $1,200 per ton of CO₂. For bulk purchases, such as those made by Bill Gates, the cost is closer to $600 per ton.
Climeworks aims to get that cost down to $200 to $300 a ton by 2030, and to $100 to $200 by the middle of next decade, when its operations are at full scale, Wurzbacher said.
With European carbon prices at 62 euros ($73) a ton and many betting it will go above $100 soon, the lower end of Climeworks’s target price would make it cheaper for polluters to use Climeworks than pay the penalty.
Climeworks’ targets are reasonable compared with the billions of dollars paid annually in subsidies for electric vehicles, which price a ton of avoided CO₂ at about $500, said Christoph Gebald, the other co-founder at Climeworks. “If this existed for what we are doing, we would scale up much faster,” he said.
Orca cost $10 million to $15 million to build, including construction, site development and storage, according to Wurzbacher.
“The cost per ton of Orca is perhaps less important than what we will learn, to get quicker to the large scale and ultimately lower prices,” he said.
Climeworks is backed by a group of private investors, as well as Swiss bank Zuercher Kantonalbank. It also has debt financing commitments from Microsoft Corp.’s climate innovation fund. While still unprofitable, the bulk of Climeworks’ revenue comes from corporate customers including Microsoft, Stripe Inc., Shopify Inc. and Swiss Re AG.
In addition, 8,000 private customers have also signed up. Wurzbacher predicts that subscribers will eventually provide half of the Climeworks’ revenue.
Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, falls in two categories of technologies. Capturing emissions from the smokestacks of factories or power plants before they escape into the atmosphere is a lot cheaper.
With current technology, the cost can be as low as $40 a ton, according to BloombergNEF. That’s because the concentration of CO₂ in those gases can be as high as 10%, rather than 0.04% in the air.
Climeworks takes the harder route by filtering air itself, meaning there’s a limit to how cheap its technology can get because the process is very energy intensive.
The Orca plant draws in large amounts of air with huge fans, bringing the air in contact with chemicals that can selectively remove CO₂ while releasing nitrogen, oxygen and other gases back into the atmosphere. The carbon-rich chemicals are then heated to about 100°C to release CO₂ as a pure gas.
Carbfix mixes the gas with water and injects it deep into basaltic rock. The dissolved CO₂ crystallizes into a mineral in about two years, permanently storing it away. The energy for all those steps comes from the Hellisheidi geothermal plant.
Replicating that combination of factors — basaltic rock and cheap zero-carbon energy — at another location won’t be easy. It’s possible to store CO₂ in other geological formations where they don’t turn into rock, akin to what happens to oil and gas. But using zero-carbon energy is key, otherwise the process could generate more CO₂ than it stores.
Wurzbacher said the location of the next, bigger plant will be confirmed in a few months. Iceland remains “a very attractive location,” he said, alongside Oman and Norway.
Carbfix sees opportunity in continuing to expand its collaboration with Climeworks. “We will not reach our climate goals without large-scale carbon capture and storage,” said Edda Sif Pind Aradottir, chief executive officer of Carbfix.
Iceland alone could store more than a 100 times what’s needed globally to meet the Paris agreement, she said.
The United Nations-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers CCS a crucial technology to help meet climate goals. In most scenarios, the world will have to capture and bury billions of tons of CO₂ each year to keep global warming below 1.5°C relative to the pre-industrial period, in addition to drastically reducing emissions.
Climeworks was founded around the same time as two other direct-air capture startups. U.S.-based Global Thermostat LLC, which uses technology similar to Climeworks, abandoned a venture with Exxon Mobil Corp. to build a plant that would capture 4,000 tons per year — the scale Orca has now achieved.
Canada-based Carbon Engineering Ltd. has a working prototype that can capture about 300 tons per year. It’s now working with Occidental Petroleum Corp. to build a plant that can capture 1 million tons of CO₂ from the air annually.
Oil and gas companies, which have been using CCS technology to eke out more oil from aging fields, have the expertise to scale up the technology quickly. That’s one reason direct air capture companies have partnered with them, but Climeworks has resisted that urge.
Gebald says it is important for the company to remain independent from the strategic interests of the oil and gas companies, though it’s open to partnerships as long as that independence isn’t compromised.
“I actually think it’s a big advantage because many customers praise us for this and pick us because we don’t have these associations,” Wurzbacher said.
Biden’s Green Power Plan Is Good For Solar And Also … Bankers?
Ambitious clean-energy targets seem mainly aimed at keeping momentum and investment flowing.
Democrats on Thursday night unveiled a key part of the climate agenda embedded in President Joe Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion Build Back Better package. Here are some initial observations on the Clean Electricity Performance Program.
It’s complicated: The CEPP is sort of like a federal clean energy standard, forcing suppliers to raise the proportion of low-carbon power in the mix over time. Because it’s being pushed through budget reconciliation, though, the process is rather involved.
Essentially, electricity suppliers must raise the share of low-carbon power by 4 percentage points each year from 2023 through 2030. If they do that, then for 2.5 percentage points of that, they are granted $150 per megawatt-hour (except in 2023 itself, when it’s 1.5 percentage points). Fail to reach the 4 point threshold and they must pay $40 for each megawatt-hour missed.
This looks designed to augment existing state incentives rather than be a blockbuster replacement. That $150 should be thought of in the context of new clean-energy sources that run for a couple of decades or more; they aren’t getting that much per megawatt ad infinitum, as the baseline resets every year.
Having seemingly decided as a nation not to do the decent thing and just price the stuff we want less of (carbon), such convoluted carrots and sticks are what we get instead, and this is why we can’t have anything nice.
It’s ambitious: To say the least. Retail sales of electricity were about 3.8 billion megawatt-hours in 2019, of which 37% would meet the CEPP’s definition of “eligible clean electricity.”
Using that as a baseline, and assuming no growth in demand, would mean adding an extra 150 million megawatt-hours of clean power supplied every year through 2030, taking the proportion up to almost 70%.
By way of comparison, the average annual increment for the five years through 2019 was about 41 million megawatt-hours, inferred from Bloomberg NEF data.
Remember, though, that Biden’s agenda is predicated on electrifying most activities, such as transportation, so it implies overall demand rising rather than flatlining (it increased by just 0.2% per annum in the five years through 2019). The expanding baseline would make those 4 percentage points even more ambitious.
Indeed, by my numbers, the program would appear to align with 2% growth in overall demand, since the implied cost would then add up to the $150 billion set aside for the CEPP.
It’s terrible for coal, not great for gas, so-so for nuclear, spectacular for renewables: The CEPP defines clean power sources as emitting no more than 0.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent per megawatt-hour.
That is roughly a tenth of coal’s emissions intensity and one-quarter to one-third that of a combined-cycle natural gas power plant. Seems like the sort of thing that would give Senator Joe Manchin pause.
Moving on, it’s unlikely to spur investment in new nuclear plants. A grant of $150 per megawatt-hour on the first year’s output isn’t nothing, but it doesn’t transform a project supposed to last 30 years or more and with an estimated levelized cost that starts at $189 per megawatt-hour, year in, year out.
Moreover, it’s highly doubtful you would get a single electron from a new nuclear plant this side of 2030, when the program ends.
That said, it could help keep existing nuclear plants open. That’s because closing one would then mean having to replace a big chunk of low-carbon generation even before trying to reach the 4 percentage point threshold to avoid penalties.
The CEPP would act as an extra nudge alongside state-level incentives to keep reactors running, such as those that passed the Illinois House Thursday night.
Renewables would benefit most obviously, as they’re zero-emission sources and relatively quick to build. A 100 megawatt solar farm that qualified for the full bit might receive $16-19 million in its first year against capital expenditure of perhaps $85 million.
Yet the current situation in California should temper enthusiasm. Besides the potential supply-chain pressures, building that much renewable capacity that quickly would require a concomitant leap in the deployment of batteries.
And as the country’s de facto green leader is demonstrating, if those are slow to show up, then the fall-back involves burning a lot of natural gas to keep the lights on. Resolving that inherent tension inside of less than a decade is a monumental challenge.
It’s pretty good for bankers? As with all aspects of Biden’s climate plan, I tend to think the speed of the journey matters more than the ultimate destination. This is about harnessing and encouraging the existing shift in mood and, especially, investment flows toward a greener energy sector.
For example, the same day the CEPP dropped, a company that stores energy via the wonder of lifting and dropping giant lumps of concrete announced it would go public via — what else? — a SPAC, valuing it at $1.6 billion. One can only assume investors speed-read the description about blocks suspended on chains and thought this was a crypto play.
In any case, that’s the mojo Biden’s after as he eyes future elections. This is less about getting to X percent of clean power in 2035, more about making sure his opponents can’t slam on the brakes in 2025.
Beyond the hosepipe of volume this would direct to equity and debt desks, the M&A types might benefit, too. When NextEra Energy Inc. reportedly made an offer for Duke Energy Corp. last year, one rationale was that NextEra could decarbonize Duke faster and cheaper than the company would on its own.
In theory, the sweetener of the CEPP’s grants, rewarding rapid increases in renewable power deployment, might warrant such a deal being revisited.
Hugh Wynne, an analyst with Sovereign & Sector Research, raises an interesting wrinkle here, however. Since any CEPP grants awarded must be spent “exclusively for the benefit of their customers” — isn’t every utility dollar spent thusly? — state regulators may not allow a return on such investment.
Wynne sees a potential parallel with the way investments funded with deferred taxes don’t earn a regulated return.
That said, avoiding the penalty may offer enough incentive to buy a carbon-heavy rival and speed up their emissions efforts. And given the grants can be invested in rebates to customers or further clean-energy projects (batteries?), regulators may look more kindly on such deals.
If the physical infrastructure of the grid transforms at anything close to the pace envisaged by this plan — assuming it’s enacted, of course — then the corporate landscape is bound to change, too.
What Smart People Get Wrong About Climate Change Extremes
There isn’t enough appreciation of the risks associated with new weather patterns we don’t yet understand.
If anyone should be attuned to the real-world impacts of global warming, it’s the policy makers and business heads that have to deal with the fallout. But even the most well-intentioned can fail to grasp just how bad things could get if climate goals aren’t met.
At least that’s the impression I get. That’s why I reached out to Andy Pitman and Sonia Seneviratne, two of the world’s top experts on the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Their fields of study focus on extremes and compound events. Both worry that institutions are too focused on outcomes we can predict with high confidence. There isn’t enough appreciation of the risks associated with new weather patterns we don’t yet understand.
Warming of about 1.2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels has already had devastating consequences. “Once we get around 2°C we are getting to a climate regime which hasn’t been seen for as long as the human species has been at work,” said Seneviratne, a professor at ETH Zurich who oversaw the chapter on extremes in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
The document, published every six to seven years, is the pinnacle of scientific knowledge about global warming.
Decision makers don’t fully comprehend the second-order effects, after physical destruction, that increasingly extreme weather events will have on our social and economic systems. Some of these outcomes are hard to predict and that uncertainty will only grow the more fossil fuels we burn.
That’s one of the reasons why economic policy makers focus their analysis around what is best known, such as mean temperature changes and historical correlations between gross domestic product and climate.
A seminal paper published by the Bank for International Settlements warned that the “Knightian uncertainty” and “epistemic break” created by climate change present a deep challenge to monetary policy. But in practice the unknowns are still being overlooked.
New scenarios produced for the central banks’ climate network in June, for example, only consider the effects of increases in temperature, excluding other factors such as extreme weather and sea-level rise.
Pitman, director of a multi-university center on climate extremes in Australia who has also contributed to previous IPCC reports, points to financial stress tests and macroeconomic modeling as one example of where this kind of thinking goes wrong.
The instruments are meant to estimate the effects of higher levels of warming, but “if it tells you you are resilient at 4°C, that doesn’t mean you’ll be okay. It means your analysis is crap,” he said. It’s like asking “what would happen if you jumped off a 50-meter cliff and then finding you’d land at the bottom and you’d be fine.”
Economists might disagree, he says, but “their modeling systems, the way they utilize information, only gives them a bit of the picture about what 4°C means.”
Seneviratne, meanwhile, says industry and economic analysts might be missing how different climate change impacts will interact with each other. “Different regions’ risks are interconnected and this means much more risk altogether to society,” she said.
For example, consider the face mask shortage early on in the pandemic or the delays still plaguing the global shipping industry.
“We don’t perceive that a few critical areas are responsible for economic supplies,” Seneviratne said. “I see it in Switzerland. We are a rich country but we are quite dependent on supply chains because we rely on imports.”
Compound events, she says, are still not well understood by the public, either. “On top of sea-level rise you have more heavy precipitation and tropical cyclones,” said Seneviratne. “So many coastal communities maybe don’t understand that the risk will be much higher.”
To make matters worse, that narrow understanding of climate risks is often accompanied by an overconfidence in the ability of modeling to produce very granular forecasts.
Pitman says central banks that are beginning to test financial institutions on climate risk assume degrees of precision that simply aren’t yet possible. “The argument I hear is that it’s better than nothing,” he said. “That is profoundly false, it is just plain wrong.”
Rainfall is a case in point. Heavy rainfall events are becoming more frequent globally, and will get worse. But this doesn’t mean that every place will experience more flooding. The effect of background warming on local phenomena resulting from changes in storm tracks mean some areas will likely experience much less rainfall, which can be disastrous in a very different way to flooding.
“It is better than nothing to be told ‘we think rainfall will intensify,’ where it might intensify 10%, 15% or 20% and we’re not sure exactly how much,” said Pitman. “But if we say ‘rainfall will intensify 15% to 30%’ and instead it stops happening over a region, that could be catastrophic. You haven’t adapted and you’ve wasted money.”
Talking about that uncertainty and the limits of what modeling can currently show has long been a double-edged sword. Climate deniers have pounced on it as a way to discredit climate science.
In fact, the opposite is true. “For me, the remaining uncertainties should be used as an argument for acting as fast as we can,” said Seneviratne.
Climate Activists Endured Worst Year On Record In 2020
Nonprofit Global Witness documented 227 murdered environmentalists last year.
Last year was the most dangerous on record for people defending their land and the environment for biodiversity and climate reasons, with nonprofit Global Witness counting 227 murdered environmentalists.
Over half the attacks were documented in Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines, according to its Last Line of Defence report released on Monday. The challenge of recording killings in places affected by conflict means the figures are almost certainly an underestimate, Global Witness said.
Most activists who died were defending forests from deforestation and industrial development, while others lost their lives as they advocated for preserving rivers, coastal areas and the oceans. Over a third of the attacks were linked to resource exploitation—including logging, mining and large-scale agriculture—as well as hydroelectric dams and other infrastructure.
Indigenous peoples were disproportionally affected, the report said. More than a third of green activists who died last year were indigenous, despite only making up 5% of the population globally. They were the target of five of the seven mass killings recorded in 2020.
In Colombia, which registered the highest number of deaths for the second consecutive year, those advocating for environmental protection are increasingly being caught up in the country’s endemic violence, the report said.
Coca crop substitution programs, which support farmers to move to legal crops, were linked to 17 lethal attacks last year and rural communities involved in these programs have seen more threats from criminal and paramilitary organizations.
Mexico saw a 67% increase in lethal attacks last year compared with 2019; half were against indigenous communities. The impunity for these crimes remains shockingly high, the report found, with as many as 95% of murders not resulting in any prosecution.
Among the killings highlighted in the report is that of Mexican indigenous activist Oscar Eyraud Adams. A 34-year-old small farmer in Baja California, Adams advocated for indigenous peoples’ rights to dig water wells amid widespread drought and water shortage, which threatened the community’s livelihood. Authorities denied these requests, even as they awarded permits to multinational companies in the region.
“With all the challenges he took on, I was afraid that something might happen to him,” his mother Nora Adams told Global Witness.
“I thought people might beat or kidnap him, but I never imagined they would go as far as they did.”
Adams was murdered in Tecate, Mexico, on Sept. 24, 2020.
Ireland Takes on Powerful Farm Lobby To Meet Climate Goals
Production of its world-famous beef has made Ireland the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Europe per person.
The cattle that roam Ireland’s fields are a charming part of its stunning landscapes. They’re also the reason the country is Europe’s third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per person.
Finding a way to cut those emissions is the best chance Ireland has of meeting the European Union’s goal of reaching net zero by 2050. The obvious way to do that is to reduce the number of cows the nation rears.
The methane they spew into the atmosphere has more than 80 times the planet-warming impact of carbon dioxide in the first two decades.
Shrinking that herd though means the government will have to take on a powerful farm lobby that has the support of rural communities who are loathe to have anyone tell them how to use their land.
“It’s easy to throw ideas like herd reduction out there, it’s a much more nuanced argument than that,” says Brian Rushe, deputy president of the Irish Farmers Association. “Irish politicians talk about a national herd, but it’s not a national herd.”
Ireland’s farms are smaller and ownership is more dispersed than other developed countries with dominant agriculture sectors. There are more than 130,000 farms with an average size of 32 hectares, according to government data, compared with 55 hectares in France and Germany. The average Irish dairy herd has less than 100 cows, a quarter of those in New Zealand.
Those small family-run farms often aren’t very profitable and many owners have a second job in another industry to supplement their income. But they continue to operate the farms because of their deep emotional ties to the land.
In many cases, it took generations for their families to gain control of the plots, including wresting the estates back from British landowners after Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom. On average, a piece of Irish land is only sold about once every 400 years.
The pushback from the farming industry has manifested in a multitude of ways, from downplaying the heat-trapping effect of methane to advocating for technological solutions as an alternative to shrinking cattle numbers.
The government has in turn tried to incentivize farmers to turn their land into carbon sinks by joining a tree-planting program, rather than penalizing them for their pollution — an approach that New Zealand is considering.
The government’s goal is to add 8,000 hectares of forest a year that will absorb 21 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2030. That will make up about four-fifths of all the CO₂ Ireland has to remove from the atmosphere to meet its target of cutting emissions 51% by the end of the decade.
But even farmers who take up the government’s offer have struggled to secure the right paperwork to start planting trees. The permit system has become snarled with a backlog of applications, according to Dermot Houlihan, chairman of the Association of Irish Forestry Consultants.
Houlihan says new plantings last year were the lowest since 1935, excluding World War II. Only 2,000 hectares of forest was added last year, according to Coillte, the state-owned commercial forestry business. The IFA estimates about 6,000 tree-planting licenses are outstanding over issues such as requirements to plant specific trees.
“The afforestation program has collapsed,” said Houlihan. “Farmers have lost interest in planting trees because of difficulties in dealing with the Forest Service Schemes and the difficulties with getting approval to plant trees in the first place. Many no longer consider afforestation as an option on their farms.”
The government has been working to improve the permit process, but the long-term commitment is still a deterrent. Farmers who sign up are required to replant trees if they cut them down and aren’t allowed to switch back to farming later on.
Tackling emissions from agriculture, which account for 15% of global greenhouse gases, is a pressing issue without an easy solution. Technologies to reduce methane emissions from cows are still experimental and not available cheaply on a large scale.
Gerry Boyle, who heads Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Development Authority, also known as Teagasc, told lawmakers in April that “current scientific understanding indicates that reducing Irish agricultural greenhouse gas emissions through technical means is challenging.”
Animal farming is responsible for more than a third of Ireland’s emissions and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said the nation can “lead the way” on solving the problem. The government plans to publish a Climate Action Plan this fall that Prime Minister Micheal Martin has said will reflect greater ambition in cutting emissions after a landmark United Nations report underscored the urgency of cutting methane emissions.
The coalition government, which includes the Green Party as a junior partner, is under pressure to deliver more aggressive climate policies from urban voters who have also pushed the country to take progressive steps on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Their desire for more action on global warming, however, reflects a divide with rural residents who remain protective of the nation’s agriculture industry.
And the two ruling parties — Fianna Fail and Fine Gael — can’t afford to lose their support: about 58% of their lawmakers come from constituencies outside Ireland’s biggest cities.
“Telling people what to do, pretending you know everything, doesn’t work,” says environment minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. “The farming community understands this. They understand that it’s their children’s future at stake here.”
Extreme weather is estimated to hurt crop productivity by as much as 30% globally by mid-century, according to a study by Alexandre Köberle, a research fellow at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. A report from Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency and other researchers published this month indicated potential drought conditions have increased since 1992, especially in the east of the country.
“How can we develop rural Ireland at the same time that we take on this climate challenge?” Ryan says. “I think that is doable. It requires a very significant change, it’s system change, but it is change for the better.”
Swift Climate Action Could Prevent 80% of Domestic Migration by 2050
Climate change could force more than 216 million people to move within their countries by mid-century, World Bank says.
Climate change effects like drought and sea level rise could result in more than 216 million people migrating within their own countries by mid-century, according to a World Bank report released on Monday.
As much as 80% of that could be prevented with swift action to cut emissions, the report found. Countries have to “close development gaps, restore vital ecosystems, and help people adapt,” World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development Juergen Voegele wrote. If they don’t, “hotspots of climate migration will emerge as soon as within the next decade and intensify by 2050.”
Global warming is already causing destruction around the world and the poorest regions are being hit the hardest. Keeping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century would help reduce internal climate migration, the report found, with average temperatures currently on track to increase at least 3°C by 2050.
In many places, internal climate migration will amplify patterns already unfolding. The number of people who migrated domestically in 2020 due to extreme weather events rose to 30.7 million, or 75% of the total, according to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
The World Bank’s report is the first to estimate internal migration in three different climate scenarios across six regions—East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America.
The report doesn’t cover most high-income countries, including Europe and North America, and also excludes the Middle East and Small Island Developing States.
The 216 million internal migrants by 2050 projected under the most pessimistic scenario represent almost 3% of the population of the regions affected. Under the most optimistic scenario, more than 110 million people would be forced to move within their own countries by mid-century.
Of the six regions analyzed, Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to have the largest number of internal climate migrants—as many as 85 million— while North Africa could have the largest share of internal migrants relative to its total population. Impacts in North and Sub-Saharan Africa will mostly be related to severe water scarcity and the sea-level rise in densely populated coastal areas like the Nile Delta.
Places in these regions with better water availability are expected to become climate immigration hotspots. These include Cairo, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers, the report found.
Bangladesh will be one of the countries most impacted by climate change, with up to 19.9 million internal climate migrants projected by mid-century, almost half the total internal climate migrants for the entire South Asia region. There, the main drivers for people’s displacement are expected to be sea-level rise and storm surges.
Most Citizens In Rich Nations Support Individual Climate Action
As many as 80% of respondents in 17 developed economies said they’re willing to make lifestyle changes to help slow global warming, according to Pew Research.
A majority of citizens in North America, Europe and Asia aren’t too confident that the international community will succeed in fighting climate change, but they’re willing to make changes to their own lives to slow global warming.
As many as 80% of citizens in 17 developed economies including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Singapore and South Korea are willing to make some and a lot of alterations to how they live and work, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center released on Tuesday.
In contrast, 52% said they’re not too confident, or not at all confident, that countries will be able to tackle the effects of climate change. Those surveyed see the European Union’s and the United Nations’ response to the crisis as good, while the U.S. and China got poor marks.
The report was published less than two months before global leaders gather in Glasgow for UN-sponsored talks known as COP26. Countries are expected to come up with more ambitious measures to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to arrest global warming from its current path of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
Citizens are more concerned that climate change will affect them personally than they were in 2015, when the global community signed the Paris Agreement to take steps to keep global warming below 2°C and close to 1.5°C.
Out of the countries surveyed, Germans showed the greatest increase in worry. The number of respondents who said they were “very concerned” that climate change will harm them personally at some point in their lifetime rose 19 percentage points from 2015. The survey was conducted between Feb. 1 and May 26, before devastating floods left over 240 people dead in the country’s west.
A majority of citizens said they’re either “somewhat” or “very” concerned about how global warming would affect their lives even in countries that haven’t led on climate action historically. Only in Sweden 56% of respondents said they were “not at all” or “not too” concerned about climate change. In Japan, the amount of people “very worried” fell 8 percentage points from 2015.
Young people are more likely to be concerned about climate change than their older counterparts, with gaps as large as 40% in Sweden and 31% in New Zealand. Similarly, women are more concerned than men that global warming will harm them personally.
The survey, which was conducted through telephone interviews with 18,850 people, showed citizens have mixed views over the economic impact of actions taken to fight climate change.
A median of 31% across all 17 countries surveyed said these actions will be good for the economy, 24% thought they would mostly harm it and 39% said they will have no economic impact.
We Pay To Treat Waste Water, Why Not Waste Carbon?
Researchers propose that oil and gas companies should have to put the carbon they extract back underground.
My monthly water bill is about £20 ($28). Half of it pays for the water that’s piped into my London flat; the other half covers the cost of treating the wastewater from my property.
That most unremarkable of facts about my ablutions has a climate lesson: we already pay to manage some of the waste generated by daily living.
Water isn’t the only product where this applies. In the U.K., for example, “producer responsibility regulations” are in place for items including electronics, batteries and vehicles. Manufacturers pass that clean-up cost to customers.
Why don’t we have similar laws for managing carbon-dioxide discharge? Researchers at the University of Oxford, lead by Myles Allen, argue that we should. They advocate for a “carbon take-back obligation,” or CTBO.
The idea is simple. Companies that extract fossil fuels should be responsible for ensuring the same amount of CO₂ generated from using them is buried back deep underground.
Some oil and gas companies already claim to do something similar, except that they pay for nature-based projects — such as preventing deforestation — to offset their pollution.
Even if these credits work as promised, and many don’t, a tree can only store CO₂ for a few decades. Eventually, it dies and the carbon is released back into the atmosphere.
Instead, CTBO would be based on the principle that carbon removed from the geosphere should be returned to where it came from and remain there for thousands or millions of years, using carbon-capture technology. That’s the only way to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, says Eli Mitchell-Larson, Allen’s colleague at Oxford.
Of course, this is going to be much more expensive than buying cheap carbon offsets. But the researchers argue that we can start small, with an obligation to capture and store only about 10% of emissions by the end of the decade and 50% by 2040.
They call those shares “stored fractions” that will increase slowly to reach 100% by mid-century, meeting the requirement set under the Paris Agreement to “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases.”
That’s no small feat. Currently, the world captures less than 0.1% of CO₂. That means scaling up the industry by 100 times in less than a decade. But it’s doable, especially if you start smaller, says Margriet Kuijper, an independent consultant on carbon management.
Kuijper wants the Dutch government to adopt the CTBO for natural-gas use. That’s because the Netherlands is already on its way to eliminating coal by 2030, and oil is a little more complicated to monitor at first.
Any company that extracts gas from the Netherlands or imports it from outside will be responsible for ensuring that a determined stored fraction in any given year is put back underground.
If it happens, said Mitchell-Larson, “all of a sudden there will be a demand for carbon dioxide and a lot of very big companies with a lot of capital will have to buy CO₂ with the sole purpose of burying it and meet the government’s obligation.”
It’s a little bit like a carbon tax but more firmly backed by science. “Carbon tax is when a polluter pays to pollute, whereas this is about making a polluter pay to clean up,” said Kuijper.
Peter Kelemen, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, tells a story that explains why the world can afford carbon management. In 1858, London experienced what newspapers called “The Great Stink.”
The city’s broken sewer system stopped working in a summer that saw unusually hot and dry weather.
Or As The City Press Put It: “Gentility of speech is at an end—it stinks, and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.”
As a result, according to Keleman’s estimates, the government spent approximately 2% of the city’s gross domestic product at the time building an advanced sewer system and, as my water bills attest, Londoners continue to pay substantial sums annually to maintain it.
“Until people have the idea that throwing CO₂ in the air is like throwing poop in the street, we’re not going to spend what it costs,” he said.
The Cement Sector Has The Technology To Clean Up Its Emissions
Australia-based Calix Ltd. says it can drive down the cost of capturing carbon dioxide in the industry.
Australian materials company Calix Ltd. is creating a subsidiary to scale up its technology that can cut carbon-dioxide emissions from cement factories.
The production and use of the building material contributes as much as 8% of global carbon pollution, but efforts to cut the industry’s footprint have lagged behind other sectors such as electricity and transport.
One challenge is that even if fossil fuels are eliminated from the process, producing cement itself involves heating limestone and producing CO₂. Attempts to cut cement emissions so far have involved separating CO₂ from a mixture of gases and then burying it deep underground.
Calix developed a technology called Leilac that addresses the CO₂ problem at a lower cost. Instead of separating a mixture of gases — the most expensive part of deploying carbon-capture technology — it simply uses a new type of kiln that heats limestone in the absence of other gases. Limestone goes in one end of the kiln and pure CO₂ comes out the other.
Leilac technology has been shown to work with a pilot project that was built in 2013. Another demonstration plant, which can capture as much as 100,000 tons of CO₂ per year, will begin operations in Europe in 2023.
The next stage is to partner with existing cement and lime companies. That’s why Calix created a subsidiary called the Leilac Group that will have an exclusive global license. A unit of Carbon Direct, a carbon management firm, has invested 15 million euros ($18 million) for a 7% stake, Calix said Wednesday in a statement.
Calix advanced 40% to a record in Sydney trading after confirming details of the deal with Carbon Direct.
Climate Change Will Force People To Move. We Need To Find Out Where They’ll Go
With sea levels rising and extreme weather increasing, it’s becoming more urgent to look ahead to the ways people will adapt.
As the risk of severe climate change rises, and efforts to reduce carbon emissions ramp up, serious thought must also be given to the movement of people that climate change stands to provoke.
This migration looks to be disruptive, but it may also significantly affect the long-term economic consequences of climate change — and not necessarily for the worse.
Many studies have found reason to assume that people will relocate in response to climate change. A recent analysis by Jamie Mullins of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Prashant Bharadwaj of the University of California at San Diego, for example, found “substantial and significant effects of extreme temperatures on outmigration rates.”
The researchers estimate that every additional day per year with an average temperature above 90 degrees Fahrenheit could lead to almost a 1% increase in the migration rate.
(That may sound alarmingly large, but note that the migration rate itself averages about 5% of the population, so a 1% increase means it rises from 5% to 5.05%. Also, the effect is diminishing, so a second day above 90 degrees has a smaller impact than the first day.)
Such movement of people will be costly, but it can also help reduce the ongoing economic damage from climate change. Indeed, a new analysis by a large team of scientists and economists suggests its impact could be surprisingly large.
Sea-level rise associated with climate change is expected to lower global real gross domestic product 4.5% in the year 2200. But that decrease shrinks to just 0.11% once migration is taken into account.
What explains this? Mostly it’s that if we can relocate economic activity away from more affected areas and toward more protected ones, we can attenuate the effect on the economy. The size of the benefit from migration, though, depends on two assumptions: First, migration is assumed to occur because of a gradual rise in sea level, easing the adjustment.
For example, even though the principal results of the new analysis exclude physical capital, most buildings and factories depreciate over time and therefore need to be replaced even if sea level doesn’t rise.
As the authors explain, “ … any substantial rise in sea level takes longer to materialize than the standard time it takes for capital and infrastructure to depreciate. As a result, the cost of capital destruction due to the permanent rise in sea level is likely to be relatively small.”
Second, the effects of migration depend crucially on where people move from and to. Cities, for example, have thrived when talented people have gathered in them, benefiting from the exchange of ideas and a fluid labor market.
If people leave a city that is in danger of being flooded, the economic effects thus depend on whether they mostly gather again in another location.
The analysis effectively assumes that it’s possible to lift people out of Manhattan and move them collectively somewhere else. (Some people in New York during the coldest part of the winter or the warmest part of the summer often bemoan our inability to do so something similar. 2 )
Even making these two assumptions, the effects of migration can be expected to vary substantially across the world. Sea-level rise will cause about 7% of the population in both Amsterdam and Miami to migrate elsewhere, compared with only 0.4% percent of people in New York City.
This highlights how important it is to do this sort of analysis at a very granular level. (These researchers use a model with 64,800 cells across the world.)
To be sure, there are reasons to question the two assumptions. First, people may move not in response to gradual sea-level increases, but rather to an increasing incidence of severe weather events — hurricanes and coastal flooding, for example.
Scientists still do not understand all the potential non-linearities in the climate system, and weather events may become more frequent even if sea level rises only gradually.
In other words, in this analysis, both the cause of migration and its timing may be misplaced. And that is crucial, because more sudden migration could impose more substantial costs than the researchers expect.
What’s more, there may be other reasons that people gather in particular cities than the analysis assumes. Are people attracted to living in Boston only because of the other people already there, or also because of the city’s rich history?
If the Bostonians who scatter in response to climate change had been drawn by the city’s unique heritage, they may not gather together again elsewhere. More broadly, it is extremely challenging to project future migration decisions with any degree of specificity — and yet that is what’s required to predict the effects.
Then again, precise predictions are not what matters most here. More important is the message that our efforts to curb greenhouse gases have not been fast enough to prevent climate change. At this point, it is essential to also pay attention to the inevitable economic adaptation.
Even after the pandemic, cities will have a crucial role in our economic future for this reason (among others), as Ed Glaeser and David Cutler of Harvard University argue in their new book, “Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation.”
The authors argue that even Manhattan’s property is pricey mostly because of the people living in the city, not the physical structures: “Manhattan’s buildings are valuable primarily because of where they are, not because of the cost of rebuilding them.”
The Great Lakes Region Is Not A ‘Climate Haven’
The water-rich U.S. region may have cooler temperatures and sit high above sea level. But it can’t be a refuge for anyone if it doesn’t take action now to adapt to its own changing climate.
I feel conflicted when I think about climate change and the Great Lakes. As the leader of an organization focused on protecting the lakes, I often hear about how our region is a “climate refuge,” and that when people from rapidly warming parts of the U.S. seek shelter further north, they’ll also bring their dollars and innovation.
But this assessment doesn’t acknowledge what climate change has already wrought and the unpredictable reality we’re facing.
Great Lakes residents like to believe that our water will save us. I want this to be true, because I love this part of the world and stand in awe on the shores of the lakes.
I want to believe that someday, more of America’s people will come to the Great Lakes for opportunity, a healthy environment in which to thrive and a “Blue Economy” that benefits our diverse and resilient communities because “water is the new oil.”
Or that the growing season will extend by a month or two, cementing the vitality of our agriculture for another century.
We tell ourselves that being surrounded by this incredible resource and standing tall 600 feet above sea level means we’ll be the winners in a climate lottery.
But it’s too soon to buy that ticket, at least until our elected officials and the private sector are fully on board with adapting to our new climate reality.
The Great Lakes region knows the consequences of decades of working against nature. These consequences are evident in the widespread poisoning of our rivers and harbors, the writhing invasive species infesting our waters, and the toxic algae from an overload of agricultural pollution that fouls our drinking water.
Great Lakes observers have amassed ample evidence that climate change is causing the lakes’ high water cycles to get higher and low cycles to get lower, and predict that these cycles could happen more rapidly. Stronger storms pose a major threat to people, and their homes and businesses.
We know from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that reducing carbon here and globally — while utterly essential — will not insulate the Great Lakes from these climate impacts.
You can’t call the Great Lakes a climate refuge if the people already here are the ones seeking refuge. Before we spend more time and energy imagining that people might return if things get bad enough elsewhere, we’d be well served to turn our gaze inward to the communities that are under water stress right now.
Nearly half a million people around Lake Erie lost access to safe drinking water in 2014 due to agricultural pollution. Some 10,000 people were evacuated from flooding homes in central Michigan in 2020, in the face of a storm that is supposed to only happen once every 500 years.
Thousands of homes in the Detroit area — including my father’s — got socked with flooded basements from extreme storms this summer. Even cold Lake Superior, with its tourism-dependent economy, is now experiencing blue-green algae blooms in the heat of the summer.
These stories are repeating in communities across the region, and just keeping pace with the cost of providing safe and clean water and sanitation is increasingly unaffordable for lower income Great Lakes residents.
The Great Lakes, like every part of the country, has to be part of a national climate strategy that supports people already living here to adapt to climate change while aggressively mitigating root causes.
To be a climate haven means to work with nature and people. It means that all levels of government and the private sector have to step up to make this a haven for everyone who lives here already.
The infrastructure, governance and incentives for economic development we swore by during the 20th century are no match for the impacts of climate change or the inequities in how people are experiencing them, which often fall along lines of race and wealth.
The fact that we do not yet face widespread inundation or fiery cataclysms means changes today can have real impact for generations.
The Great Lakes region is a few steps ahead in our capacity to adapt. Of course, there’s our water — 95% of North America’s surface fresh water, and clean in many places, though not everywhere.
Chicago happens to be the third-largest metropolitan economy in the U.S., and the Great Lakes region in the U.S. and Canada would be the world’s third-largest economy if it was its own country.
Thriving metro areas, smaller cities and robust academic institutions permeate the region, providing a diversity of accessible job and education opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, we have the mixed luxury of time. Crisis begets action, but so often not the strategic kind.
Growing awareness of the impacts on the Great Lakes, and the fact that we do not yet face widespread inundation or fiery cataclysms, means changes today can have real impact for generations.
Our future can be bright. Let’s use the time we’ve got wisely and build an equitable Great Lakes region for the people and wildlife that depend on them today, and for the diversity of potential climate refugees who may one day turbocharge a shared prosperity.
Farming, tourism, manufacturing and utilities must all step up. Build and restore miles of resilient public shorelines to create healthy access to the water while protecting vital and expensive infrastructure. Transform coastal zoning and don’t allow new development so close to the shoreline.
Make clean water an expectation when growing food, not a dirty mess we have to clean up after the fact. Invest in nature-based green infrastructure everywhere with the same vigor and scale that we gave to concrete and pipes in the 20th century.
Take cues from global experts in places such as the Netherlands, where massive efforts to rebuild natural shorelines are helping avoid a fragmented approach. Build with nature.
Yes, an overhaul of our water infrastructure in the Great Lakes is expensive. Changing how we plan for and build on — or preferably away from — the shoreline is, too.
It was expensive when we rebuilt our sewer systems with federal grants in the 1970s and ’80s, and when we decided to pour nearly $4 billion into the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, resulting in at least $3.35 in additional economic benefits for every dollar spent.
Those investments worked out rather splendidly for anyone who likes to swim without getting sick, or who wants to start a business near what used to be a contaminated waste site. If we want the Great Lakes to be a climate haven built around water, we likewise have to invest in this now, or face a future where today’s problems just get worse.
If we do not, this story will keep repeating while we wonder what happened to our water — and our climate refuge.
Green Steel Becomes A Hot Commodity For Big Auto Makers
Car companies are trying to reduce their carbon footprint by developing a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process.
Auto makers are racing to find cleaner steel to build their cars.
The industry’s approach ranges from low-tech—using more recycled steel—to less-proven methods, including trying to source the metal from hydrogen-powered mills instead of more conventional coal-fired ones.
The steel industry is one of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, and the auto sector is one of the largest users of steel.
Steelmakers are seeking ways to produce their steel more cleanly. Auto makers—pushed by regulators, investors and climate-conscious customers—are joining that search.
European car makers and steelmakers are moving faster to develop and use lower-carbon steel, analysts say. A European Union climate plan, called the Green Deal, mandates that the bloc’s manufacturers—including their supply chains—become carbon-neutral by 2050.
Earlier this month, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz signed a deal with Swedish steelmaker SSAB, whose Hybrit unit will produce low-carbon steel for the auto company beginning next year.
The agreement is part of Mercedes’s effort to make its entire auto fleet carbon-neutral by 2039. Volvo Cars is already sourcing steel from Hybrit, and BMW’s parent company is investing in a separate, low-carbon steelmaking startup in the U.S.
General Motors Co. has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2040. Toyota Motor Corp. said it aims to reach that goal by 2050 and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions in its European supply chain 33% by 2030.
Tighter regulations around the world have greatly boosted the fuel efficiency of the world’s passenger fleet over decades. Car makers have tweaked combustion engines to burn cleaner and turned to lighter aluminum, carbon composites, and plastic to reduce weight, further saving fuel.
In recent years, Tesla Inc. has led the industry toward battery-powered electric vehicles, a product that most auto makers have embraced as the industry’s future.
All that has helped reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that occur as cars are driven. Now, pressure is building to clean up the process of making those vehicles in the first place.
“Becoming more electric and sustainable is not just about batteries and alternative drives,” Markus Schäfer, Daimler’s chief operating officer responsible for research and development, told investors in July.
The effort, which executives describe as a long-term goal, faces significant hurdles. A meaningful shift among steelmakers to lower-carbon production is still years away because of the long investment cycles in the steel industry.
The International Energy Agency forecast in October 2020 that hydrogen-based steel production would account for “just under 15%” of primary steel production globally by 2050.
“There is a lot of investment in the steel industry now,” Oliver Zipse, chief executive of BMW AG , the maker of the BMW brand, told reporters at the Munich car show last week. “But it will take some time.”
Low-carbon steel is also more expensive to make. SSAB, the Swedish steelmaker, has said its fossil-free steel would be 20% to 30% more expensive to produce than conventional steel. ArcelorMittal SA has said making steel using hydrogen at a plant in Germany would raise production costs 60%.
Auto makers are already facing increased prices for conventional steel and other raw materials amid bottlenecks and shortages caused by a surge in demand after the end of Covid-19 lockdowns.
While auto makers have lessened their reliance on steel, the metal still makes up about 54% of the weight of the average passenger car, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. A typical sport-utility vehicle contains about 3,000 pounds of steel, which is used in parts such as door panels, chassis and support beams.
The auto industry accounts for around 12% of global steel consumption, according to the World Steel Association. Analysts estimate that steel production accounts for roughly 7% of global carbon emissions related to energy production.
In the EU, steel makes up 25% of the bloc’s carbon-dioxide output from industrial production, according to H2 Green Steel, a low-carbon steel startup based in Sweden.
Daimler is trying to reduce emissions from the steel it uses. It buys recycled steel to make car bodies in the U.S. from a supplier that says it burns 70% less carbon dioxide than steel from conventional blast furnaces.
About one-quarter of the steel in a typical passenger car today is made from recycled steel, according to World Auto Steel, an association representing the world’s biggest steelmakers, based on data from the Steel Recycling Institute. Recycled steel doesn’t require the carbon-intensive process of melting iron ore into steel.
Daimler is also investing in new technologies. In May, Mercedes bought a stake in H2 Green Steel. The Swedish company plans to build a hydrogen-powered steel plant to provide carbon-free steel for the auto industry.
Using hydrogen instead of coal to fuel the heat-intensive process of making steel can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during production, but only if the hydrogen is itself produced without generating carbon dioxide.
H2 aims to do this by tapping Sweden’s plentiful hydroelectric power to produce hydrogen that in turn will power a small steel mill built to produce 5 million tons of steel a year—enough for about three million cars.
The process, H2 says, emits about 0.1 ton of carbon dioxide per ton of steel, compared with 2 tons in a conventional mill.
Mercedes said it would begin producing the first vehicles with H2’s low-carbon steel in 2025.
BMW, meanwhile, said in March that its venture-capital fund, BMW i Ventures, was investing in Boston Metal, a U.S. startup that has developed a process to melt iron ore using electricity instead of by burning coke.
Volvo Cars, the Swedish auto maker owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, says that steel used in its cars accounts for about 35% of the carbon-dioxide emissions of the average conventional car over its lifetime, and 20% of those of an electric car.
It says it aims to reduce the lifetime carbon footprint of its vehicles by 40% between 2018 and 2025 and wants to be carbon-neutral by 2040.
Mental Health Could Be The Next Casualty Of Global Warming
Cyclones, wildfires, floods and the knowledge they’ll get worse are fueling a rising tide of anxiety. Therapists are trying to cope.
One evening in July, Stephanie Felts was lying in bed trying to process simultaneous climate disasters all over the world. From a crushing Canadian heatwave to U.S. wildfires and China floods, the drumbeat triggered memories of a close call her family had with a raging inferno when they lived in Salt Lake City a few years ago.
“I just realized, OK, this is as good as it will ever be—not because we can’t do anything to make things better, but because we just won’t,” said Felts, 43, who works in financial services and now lives near Atlanta. “It makes you feel like, ‘hey, the apocalypse is starting.’”
She’s not alone. More people are finding it hard to cope with a growing sense that governments and businesses won’t do enough to slow global warming. To make matters worse, there’s the knowledge that even if humanity suddenly unified in a historic shift to renewable energy, it’s too late to avoid the grim consequences already baked in.
Perhaps not since the depths of the Cold War has such a profound, widespread despair for the future emerged. Whether one calls it climate anxiety, ecological grief or something else, deep concern about global warming is increasingly affecting many people’s everyday life.
A majority of U.S. adults already say they are somewhat or extremely anxious about the effect the climate crisis has on their mental health, a poll from the American Psychiatric Association found. That’s on top of the stress of trying to protect against the coronavirus.
But while the pandemic may recede in the coming months or years, the atmospheric changes wrought by burning fossil fuels will remain for a long time to come. As this reality dawns on more people, mental health professionals all over the world find themselves racing to develop strategies to help them deal with the fallout, knowing it’s a phenomenon that may someday affect almost everyone.
In the developing world, millions have been dealing with the psychological effects of global warming for years. Rising temperatures in Nigeria are contributing to desertification, forcing herders in the north to move south to feed their cattle.
The shift has precipitated confrontations with crop farmers. Fear of violence over increasingly scarce resources is not uncommon.
Last October, Amuche Nnabueze’s relatives learned that a stand of trees planted by her uncles had been cut down in a property dispute.
“Now that you’ve cut the trees down, the animals that were living there are homeless,” said Nnabueze, 50, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. “The oxygen [the trees] were generating is no longer there.”
The conflict is emblematic of how, thanks to climate change, large swaths of the African Sahel and savanna are expected to become the front lines of a competition for resources.
Mariana Menezes said she celebrated when the Paris Agreement was signed. Living near Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, Menezes said she “felt like we were going to manage to solve everything.” But in 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was going to withdraw from the pact, she was crestfallen.
“I feel like I was naïve, and sort of ill-informed,” Menezes said. “I started getting really worried, thinking, ‘oh no, we’re not going to make it.’”
She started reading more about the crisis. The more she learned, the worse it got. “I became very anxious. I couldn’t sleep,” said Menezes, 44, a mother of three. “I was thinking about my children.”
In Colombia, people are bracing for an increase in average temperature of as much as 0.9 degrees Celsius by 2040, which could reduce agricultural productivity in a coffee-growing country where more than 40% of the population is already poor.
Luis Gilberto Murillo, Colombia’s former environment minister, warns that the developing world already faces life-and-death choices tied to global warming.
“These communities’ concern isn’t necessarily that we’re facing the great catastrophe of climate change, and that in 10 years they won’t exist,” he said. “These communities have no guarantee they’ll still exist in two years.”
The sheer number of people across the globe susceptible to climate-induced stress has fostered a sense of urgency among mental health professionals seeking to understand the issue.
Virtually anyone “could be affected by climate anxiety, regardless of their own personal vulnerability or relative safety,” according to Susan Clayton, a psychology professor and researcher at The College of Wooster in Ohio.
Several studies have found a sizable minority saying the changing climate already affects their normal functioning. Seattle-based counselor Andrew Bryant said people are anxious about both global warming and being directly affected by a climate disaster.
New York psychiatrist Janet Lewis said individuals are struggling with the everyday dissonance of daily activities—things they know are harmful, like eating red meat or driving a gas-burning car.
Lewis, who practices in upstate New York, used to get laughs from colleagues about her climate-related work when she began in 2015. Now there’s increasing evidence that rising temperatures are associated with more violence, including suicide.
The Climate Psychiatry Alliance, of which Lewis is a member, is working with the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America to create training materials for mental health professionals.
The American Psychological Association already has a course for practitioners, and Australian nonprofit Psychology for a Safe Climate has produced a professional development series. Other efforts around the globe are also in the works.
Among practitioners, a lack of awareness of climate-related mental health issues creates a risk of misunderstanding. If someone expresses trepidation about having kids because of the climate crisis, a professional not aware of the issue “might think of it as a defense against some deeper, more personal anxieties,” said psychiatrist Elizabeth Haase.
Mental health experts emphasize that communicating with friends and family remains an effective way to cope—not everyone needs a therapist.
Still, only 37% of Americans say they talk about global warming on a regular basis with people close to them, according to a survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Exploring the nature of the problem is key to finding ways to psychologically cope, according to Clayton. Climate change is real, so it’s rational to be worried. It’s in flux, so complete adaptation is impossible. And it’s uncertain, so anxiety may be more likely than fear.
Normally, Clayton said, it’s possible to face a challenge in at least two ways: solve it or change your attitude towards it. But no one person can slow global warming or climate change, so a sense of powerlessness may take hold—spurring a retreat into denial.
But there’s a third way, she said: finding purpose in the “struggle” to find solutions, from everyday behavior like recycling and buying sustainable food to advocacy.
Lewis said people need to be “in touch with their own agency, their own ability to act and influence change rather than being shut down, overwhelmed or just retreating.”
The idea of “re-earthing,” or strengthening the connection between individuals and the planet, is gaining support as a way of both increasing environmental awareness and staving off despair, according to clinical psychologist Elizabeth Allured. Along similar lines, Portland, Oregon-based psychologist Thomas Doherty said he encourages people to explore their environmental identity.
Though a relatively new concept, some broad classifications could include “egocentric” (inspired by personal benefit), “altruistic” (concern for others), or “Earth-based” (seeking to protect the natural world for its own sake). People often showcase a mix of these motivations, according to Doherty.
Different environmental identities lead some to try different paths—from working to save endangered species to securing access to clean water or reducing waste.
Doherty has treated everyone from a teenager dealing with climate grief to a septuagenarian economist and environmentalist grappling with the sense of having “lost” the battle. He also offers courses for practitioners.
“If you don’t really have any kind of environmental-identity basis, it’s like an empty box that you’re trying to put a heavy thing on,” Doherty said. “It just collapses.”
Rowan Ryrie, 39, discovered her climate identity after wondering for a long time how parents like her could organize around global warming issues. After attending a demonstration in Oxford, in the U.K., she chose to embark on a bigger environmental enterprise.
Eventually, she co-founded a global advocacy network called Parents for Future. Menezes in Brazil and Nnabueze in Nigeria steer national groups that are part of the organization.
“I feel connected with parents all over the world who are trying to do the same climate work that I’m trying to do,” Ryrie said. “That’s really heartening. It gives me a lot of hope.”
In Nigeria, Nnabueze, who is also an artist, makes sculptures out of litter and works to reclaim indigenous knowledge on waste management through skills such as basketweaving, a more sustainable alternative to plastic bags.
Stephanie Felts in the U.S. writes open letters to her daughters, posting them to the Good Grief Network, a digital space to discuss distress over topics ranging from global warming to the coronavirus. She said sharing her thoughts with like-minded people can bring relief.
Then there’s Sophia Kianni, a 19-year-old Iranian-American activist who founded a nonprofit that translates climate research into 100 languages, all while serving on a United Nations advisory group and attending college.
Kianni came up with the idea for her nonprofit while visiting relatives in Iran, where pollution was so bad she could hardly see the stars at night. She realized climate information was only available in select languages, and so she started translating it from English into Farsi.
For Ryrie, advocacy can mean constructing protest signs with her daughters. Her 7-year-old has mastered the art of making placards featuring technicolor birds, even if she doesn’t always spell “I love nature” right.
Sometimes, headlines still rattle Ryrie, forcing her to take a step back.
“Facing climate breakdown while also thinking about your kids inevitably brings up some really hard feelings,” she said. “I’ve realized that allowing space for emotions is important in this work.”
Brazilian Amazon’s Tipping Point May Already Be Here
It’s not just the government and industrial farmers. Voracious consumers all over the world are also guilty of killing the “lungs of the Earth.”
The destruction of Brazil’s rainforest may have passed the point of no return.
But the perpetrators of its demise aren’t just government officials doing the bidding of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro or the industrial farmers profiting from clear-cutting.
It’s all about demand, and voracious consumers the world over are also fueling the frenzy that’s killing the “lungs of the Earth.”
National Flood Insurance Is Changing. Some Homeowners Face Huge Premium Increases
New pricing system that begins Friday considers distance from body of water, cost of rebuilding and other factors.
Chris Dailey and his wife are building a new home in coastal St. Petersburg, Fla., that will sit 7 feet above the flood level expected during a major storm. So he was stunned to learn that under the federal flood insurance program’s revamped pricing, his annual premium is slated to soar to $4,986 from $441.
“It’s absolute insanity,” said Mr. Dailey, 52 years old. “This rate makes no sense.” He said he plans to go through with the project, which is about a block and a half from a canal that leads to Tampa Bay, but worries about the ability to sell it in the future.
The National Flood Insurance Program—the main provider of flood coverage in the U.S., with more than five million policies—is rolling out an overhauled pricing method starting Friday in an effort to reflect more accurately the flood risk that individual properties face.
The issue has gained importance with climate change, which scientists say is fueling sea-level rise and contributing to more-severe weather.
Under the new system, dubbed “Risk Rating 2.0,” some policyholders in especially vulnerable areas will face big premium increases while others in less-exposed spots will see smaller increases or even decreases.
Homes in high-risk flood zones with mortgages from government-backed lenders must have flood insurance, and private carriers also provide coverage in some areas.
The changes could present some homeowners in floodprone areas across the U.S.—especially along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard—with difficult decisions about whether they can afford to live there, insurance and real-estate specialists say.
Some buyers may find mortgages unattainable, making waterfront living increasingly the preserve of wealthy people. Developers may rethink where they build, and coastal real-estate markets could take a hit.
“There is no greater risk-communication tool than a pricing signal,” said Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, an industry research group, and former head of the federal flood insurance program. “For middle-income neighborhoods, this will become a real consideration,” he said.
Under the program’s decadeslong pricing system, the main variables considered were a property’s location on a flood map and its elevation. The new system considers a larger set of factors, including a property’s distance from a body of water, its first-floor height and the cost to rebuild it.
The previous method led to imbalances in pricing, with policyholders in lower-value homes often subsidizing those in higher-value homes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the program.
“Risk Rating 2.0 fixes this injustice,” said David Maurstad, senior executive of the program.
Groups including the Association of State Floodplain Managers and Taxpayers for Common Sense support the changes, saying the updated pricing will encourage property owners to pursue mitigation measures, such as elevating homes or adding flood vents, to reduce flood risks.
Starting Friday, new policies will adjust to the full new rate. For existing policies, the changes kick in on April 1, 2022, with annual increases capped at 18% until they reach the full rate.
Based on a FEMA analysis, 23% of policyholders will see decreases in their premiums in the first year, 66% will have increases of up to $10 a month, 7% will see increases of $10 to $20, and 4% will have increases of more than $20.
Jake Holehouse, president of HH Insurance in St. Petersburg, said that analysis led him to believe homeowners could absorb the impact.
But after getting access to the new system a month ago and deriving quotes, he found many examples of steep rate rises. Exactly why is unclear because the new pricing algorithm isn’t public, but Mr. Holehouse thinks a key reason is the inclusion of the cost-of-replacement variable.
His client Tyler Payne, the mayor of nearby Treasure Island who lives on a canal, currently has a policy with the federal flood insurance program with a $2,710 annual premium. Come renewal time, that is poised to start climbing to a full rate of $5,415, Mr. Holehouse said.
“When you buy a home, you factor in all these costs,” said Mr. Payne, 31. “For one of them to potentially double over the next several years is a game-changer.”
Carl Schneider, an insurance agent in Mobile, Ala., said he doesn’t believe the new pricing method will prove overly disruptive. Among the clients for whom he has run the numbers, some are seeing jumps, but many are set for reductions.
“It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “You are going to see the majority of consumers very happy with the way the program more accurately rates their home.”
Some members of Congress, mainly from coastal states, are urging a delay in implementing the new rating system. Senators including Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and John Kennedy (R., La.) wrote a letter last week to the FEMA administrator expressing concern about sharp premium increases that could become unaffordable for property owners.
The new system could affect the decisions of home buyers and builders. WinWay Homes, a custom-home builder in South Pasadena, near St. Petersburg, canceled a property purchase a few weeks ago because it is in a flood zone and could be harder to sell as a result of the flood-insurance changes, said owner Matt Carr.
He said property prices outside flood zones are increasing rapidly while those inside flood zones that aren’t on the water remain flat.
“Even if I pay more money outside a flood zone, I’m more comfortable that I can sell it to someone,” Mr. Carr said.10
Flood Insurance Costs Set To Rise As FEMA’s New Rates Kick In
The federal government Friday rolls out a flood-insurance program revamped to reflect worsening climate change, a program that will raise rates for millions of homeowners in wealthy coastal areas and humble inland communities alike.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency in April announced the first significant update to the beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program, which covers about 5 million properties. Premiums have risen steadily, but the program is more than $20 billion in debt, thanks in part to rising seas and stronger storms.
Now, a quarter of the participants will see lower costs, while the remainder will see premiums rise in increments as high as 18% annually. The maximum total increase will be $12,000, a level that will affect only the most expensive real estate.
“Climate change is going to make housing more expensive than it already is,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin Corp. “This is just a first step.”
FEMA is facing an urgent but unpopular task. The program was created in 1968, when there were fewer major storms and fewer people living by the sea. But the U.S. coastal population grew by over 15.3 percent between 2000 and 2017, to over 94 million.
Moreover, many inland places that have seen huge surges in flooding lack accurate maps. A 2017 report from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general found that 58% of FEMA flood maps were wrong or outdated.
The insurance program was originally meant as a backstop for homes that private insurers found too risky. Now, however, it covers 95 percent of residential flood policies.
In all, the program sweeps in about 5 million properties, including primary and vacation homes and businesses. Deeply subsidized premiums, averaging under $800 annually, mean that the agency routinely pays out nearly four times what it takes in.
David Maurstad, the program’s senior executive and architect of the overhaul, said that nearly 90% of members would see premiums fall or rise only slightly, rather than the blanket increases of past years.“The new rating methodology is correcting longstanding inequities,” he said Thursday.
“We can no longer continue to ignore the fact that some of our policyholders had been unjustly subsidizing other policyholders. They should no longer bear the cost for the policyholders with higher-value homes, who’ve been paying less than they should.”
Until now, FEMA used a fairly simple methodology developed in the 1970s that based risk ratings on two factors: whether homes were inside a severe flood zone and their elevation within those zones. FEMA says its new model, known as Risk Rating 2.0, is based on huge advances in technology.
The leaps include sophisticated catastrophe models that are standard for the private insurance industry, which will allow officials to evaluate individual properties and assess risk fairly.
Hiking premiums may encourage homeowners to think more deeply about the wisdom of living in endangered areas.
“People need to have very difficult conversations about adaptation, about relocating, “ said Laura Lightbody, project director of the Flood-Prepared Communities initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Price is one of the most clear ways to communicate risks.”
But even large premium increases may not nudge people away from the water. Residents of wealthy vacation spots like Miami Beach, Florida, and New York’s Hamptons can afford them. Kevin McAllister, founder of Defend H20, a Hamptons nonprofit, said that $12,000 is “the cost of a Belgian block driveway or less for these homes.”
Gene Stilwell, executive sales manager at Town & Country Real Estate in East Hampton, said many residents will take the revamped program in stride.
“It’s worth it,” he said. “If something happens, they have the means to reconstruct and rebuild and fix whatever flood damage has occurred.”
Meanwhile, many other places with scant resources will be feeling painful increases for the first time. An $800 policy that increases 18 percent over 10 years would be $4,188, a significant increase for someone on a budget.
Last week, senators including Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida wrote FEMA to ask that the roll-out be delayed, arguing that too many people would see increases too abruptly. “This is a sharp departure,” they wrote.Maurstad replied that the plan had been delayed once, and that the increases would proceed Friday.
The Colorado River Is in Crisis. The Walton Family Is Pushing a Solution
The first-ever official shortage on the Colorado River has intensified a debate over how to provide water for 40 million people across the Southwest and irrigate fields of thirsty crops like wheat, cotton and alfalfa.
Few voices outside government are more influential than that of the Walton family, billionaire heirs to the Walmart Inc. fortune, who have long advocated water markets as a key part to solving the region’s woes. But some environmental groups say the Waltons drown out other, nonmarket approaches.
A Wall Street Journal analysis shows that a charitable foundation controlled by the Waltons, the Walton Family Foundation, has given about $200 million over the past decade to a variety of advocacy groups, universities and media outlets involved in the river.
No other donor comes close. Two federal officials once affiliated with the foundation have been named to key Biden administration posts overseeing the river.
Putting a monetary value on water has raised concerns among those who benefit from guaranteed access to water and those who believe markets benefit investors while hurting farmers and the poor. Water markets in Australia have been blamed for helping dry up waterways due to overuse by a handful of wealthy farmers and investors.
“Any time that the water starts becoming more valuable than the land, you end up with the possibility of outside speculators,” said Andrew Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, a public planning and policy agency that oversees water use in western Colorado.
Mr. Mueller said his state has been seeing continued interest in agricultural water and lands by outside investment groups.
The Walton foundation has for years held that water markets are among the best ways to distribute and conserve the water that flows along the 1,450-mile river. A number of environmental groups that take Walton money are prominent water-market boosters.
The Nature Conservancy, a public charity focused on conservation that has received funding from the Waltons, said in a 2016 report that such markets can “secure a regular flow of water back to depleted ecosystems and sell the rest back to irrigators or cities.” An added benefit, it said, is “a material return for investors.”
“We need every tool in the toolbox, including guided water markets, to increase water security and protect the things we all care about,” a Nature Conservancy spokeswoman said.
In the past decade, the foundation has accounted for a large chunk of institutional funding for Colorado River activism at major environmental charities such as the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund and American Rivers, according to the foundation’s database and the charities.
The Waltons have also given money to foundations run by the University of Colorado and the University of Arizona, among other universities. This year it helped fund a reporting team to cover water issues at the Associated Press.
The AP said it has worked with other nonprofits besides the Walton Family Foundation and retains editorial control in all of the cases.
A University of Colorado spokeswoman said donations don’t influence the outcome of its research. A University of Arizona spokeswoman said that while it has received funding from other groups for its Colorado River program in the last four years, the largest source was the Walton foundation.
The money directed by the Walton foundation has often steered toward advocacy for markets where water is bought and sold like a commodity. Backers say markets can more efficiently value and allocate water, especially as climate change threatens to reduce the supply. In the West, they say longstanding policies that encourage farmers to use all of their water or give it up, known as “use it or lose it,” have led to widespread waste.
The river is now facing one of its biggest crises. The Bureau of Reclamation in August declared the first-ever shortage of water on the Colorado River, triggering cutbacks in several states.
The bureau made the declaration after forecasting that Nevada’s Lake Mead, which stores water from the river, would remain below 1,075 feet above sea level through at least early next year.
“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, said in a statement when the declaration was made.
Walton officials say they are focused on helping farmers conserve water while continuing to grow crops. Moira Mcdonald, director of the foundation’s environmental program, said in an interview it has begun pivoting away from a focus on markets toward keeping water in rivers and improving the health of watersheds.
The foundation has also focused on issues such as forest restoration and sustainable fisheries.
Potentially magnifying the Walton family’s influence, a pair of officials once affiliated with its foundation have been named to positions within the Biden administration that hold considerable sway over the river.
Ms. Trujillo, who was sworn into her current position in June, was project director for the Walton-funded Colorado River Sustainability Campaign, which helps coordinate a range of efforts related to the river among conservation groups.
Her current position oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, the largest wholesaler of water in the U.S.
Ms. Trujillo and the Interior Department declined to comment.
Michael Connor worked for a time as an environmental program fellow for the Walton foundation after serving as a deputy secretary of the Interior Department in the Obama administration.
He has been nominated to be the Defense Department’s assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, a position that oversees the civil-works programs of Army Corps of Engineers, including some of its work on U.S. water resources. The White House declined to comment. Mr. Connor didn’t respond to requests for comment.
While at the Walton foundation, Mr. Connor supported the expansion of so-called water banks, which he described as “a market-based approach to compensate water users for temporarily reducing water diversions to avoid regional shortages.”
The waves of Walton money flowing to environmental groups and researchers have sparked concerns that the family has gained an outsize influence on policy discussions surrounding the Colorado River Basin—especially discussions about water markets.
“Within the broad spectrum of environmental voices, the voices being heard are the ones that agree with market-based solutions,” a 2018 University of Oxford dissertation on the Walton foundation’s grants found. Oxford water-resource researcher Dustin Garrick, who oversaw the study, says he has accepted two grants from the Walton foundation for water projects.
The Walton foundation’s deep pockets have helped forge cooperation around the Colorado River but have also “sharpened the divide between those at the table and those left behind,” Mr. Garrick said.
About a decade ago, the Waltons began enlisting environmental charities it supports to advocate its causes.
In states and Washington, D.C., they have pressed for policies that encourage “water marketing and other projects that improve water efficiency” in the Colorado River Basin, according to a 2017 foundation document reviewed by the Journal.
Walton foundation officials regularly meet with the charities and assign them detailed tasks tied to their grants, according to foundation documents reviewed by the Journal.
Ms. Trujillo was a lead figure in the foundation’s efforts related to the Lower Colorado Basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by the Journal. A March 2017 document details Walton foundation goals, including the achievement of “a growing water market” in Arizona.
A former recipient of Walton funds says his cash was halted after he went off script. For about four years, a Walton-funded Denver charity awarded $60,000 a year to Save the Colorado, a small Boulder, Colo., group focused on restoring water to the river.
Gary Wockner, founder of the group and now a sharp critic of the Waltons’ influence, says his funds were cut off once he began agitating against policies supported by other recipients of the family’s funds, such as new dam projects.
“I was told ‘you’re out of alignment’” with the Walton foundation, he said. A Walton foundation spokesman said Mr. Wockner “tends to be both litigious and combative, which is not in the spirit of collaboration that we try to bring to this work.”
Soaring Heat Is Killing America’s Farm Workers
Despite a rash of climate-related illnesses and deaths, agricultural laborers still have few protections on the job.
On June 26, the temperatures south of Portland, Oregon, approached 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6 degrees Celsius). That didn’t stop Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan farm worker, from going to work moving irrigation lines at a nursery.
At some point, as the scorching afternoon dragged on, he collapsed and died. When Occupational Safety and Health officials turned up to write a preliminary report on the incident, they were concise with their description: “Heat.”
Perez was one of at least 384 workers who died of heat-related causes in the U.S. over the past 10 years, according to a recent report by NPR and Columbia Journalism Investigations. Despite new protective measures just announced by President Joe Biden’s administration, the next decade is shaping up to be worse.
With higher temperatures and longer heat waves already threatening outdoor workers, few employers or regulators have taken adequate steps to protect them.
Even under normal circumstances, there are no shortages of risks on the farm. Machinery, animals and chemicals all present potential hazards. Weather adds to these dangers, especially during planting and harvest, when the work simply can’t stop, and farm workers (often paid by the piece) typically don’t want to.
Floods, lightning and high winds are constant threats. But in the U.S., at least, heat remains the leading cause of weather-related injury and death.
According to one study, farm workers are 35 times more likely to die of heat-related illnesses than those in other occupations. The strenuous nature of the work is one reason.
But so, too, is the nature of the workforce. Of the more than 1 million crop workers in the U.S., three-quarters are foreign-born and only about half are documented.
With limited legal standing, these workers are reluctant to report injuries and vulnerable to exploitation. Only a handful of states have permanent heat regulations for outdoor workers.
The need for change is urgent. Currently, the average American farm worker is exposed to 21 unsafe working days due to extreme heat each year. If global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius — the goal established by the Paris climate agreement — those workers will face 39 days of extreme heat.
According to a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the number of days that feel like they exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit could more than double by midcentury.
For many workers, it will be even worse. Imperial County, California, a major agricultural region, could see heat-indexed extremes topping 115 degrees, a level that U.S regulators label “high risk” for illness.
The human costs of this warming became all too evident this past summer. The heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest in June led to some 600 excess deaths, according to one analysis, including Sebastian Perez. Less certain, but no less real, were the financial losses imposed on workers and businesses.
By one estimate, a collective $55 billion in outdoor workers’ earnings could be at risk annually in the U.S. by midcentury due to extreme heat. If farm workers are idle, the food supply chain will need to adjust, most likely with higher prices.
Regulation could help forestall the worst. Perez’s death was one factor inspiring Oregon to issue emergency heat-related rules for outdoor workers this summer. The new regulations mandated shaded breaks, access to adequate drinking water, training to recognize heat illness and similar measures.
Other states — especially those that employ lots of farm workers — should do the same. Promisingly, Biden’s initiative should lay the groundwork for a long-overdue federal heat standard, even though the process will likely take years.
Any of these steps would be a benefit to workers. But they shouldn’t obscure the bigger picture. Without meaningful action to curb heat-trapping carbon emissions, temperatures will continue to rise inexorably. In recent years, farmers and other contributors to the food supply chain have become far more vocal about the need to adapt their practices to a changing climate, or face lower yields and profits. So far, policy makers haven’t done much in response.
In that sense, at least, tragic figures like Sebastian Perez are a harbinger of worse days to come. Failure to act won’t make these problem go away. Instead, they’ll just grow hotter.
India Houses Half of All People Vulnerable To Life-Threatening Heat
Global heating is disproportionally affecting city dwellers in the world’s second-most populous nation.
When bestselling science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson opened his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, he set the scene in India, where a deadly heat dome wipes out almost the entire population of a provincial city, sewing the seed for a radical political movement to combat climate change.
Two years after the book was released, a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers troubling data that could turn Stanley’s narrative into reality.
The researchers found that more than half the people on Earth who face life-threatening heat stress caused by climate change live in India.
Urban dwellers in world’s second-most populous nation have borne the brunt of global warming over the last three decades, and the risks to their health are poised to rise.
“Our analysis calls into question the future sustainability and equity for populations living in and moving to many of the planet’s urban settlements,” wrote the authors, who are all based in the U.S. “Climate change is increasing the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme heat across the globe.”
India has 17 of the 50 cities most affected by heat stress. New Delhi ranked second, while Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka topped the list.
The researchers conducted a statistical analysis of 13,115 cities worldwide using the so-called wet bulb index — a measure that accounts for temperature, humidity, wind speed and radiant heat.
When that measure exceeds 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), the International Standards Organization says that workers face heat-related illnesses that can lead to death.
“Exposure to extreme heat in urban areas is much more widespread — and increasing in many more areas — than we had previously realized,” said co-author Kelly Caylor, director of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Earth Research Institute. “Almost one in five people on Earth experienced increases in exposure to urban heat over the past 30 years.”
Climate Scientists Created A SWAT Team For Weather Disasters
Friederike Otto and her colleagues jump into action during heat waves, floods, and fires to pinpoint if global warming is to blame.
When weather disaster strikes, observers near and far ask the same question: Climate change—is it or isn’t it?
The simplest answer, yes, lacks specificity. All weather is a joint human-nature venture, because we’ve made the atmosphere hotter than it’s been in 125,000 years. Disasters are nothing new. Assigning blame for them is.
A breakthrough out of the U.K. is providing better, more nuanced answers faster with powerful implications for citizens, first responders, and the media.
Friederike Otto is at the heart of it. Otto is a climate scientist at Imperial College London and co-leader of World Weather Attribution, a research collaboration that quickly analyzes if or how climate change has made extreme weather somehow worse—more intense, more likely, or deadlier.
It’s a small, nimble, and—because of a current lack of funding—mostly volunteer effort assembled to bust science out of the academic quad and let a curious public know when climate change affects them in the most direct and personal way. It’s also beginning to help courts answer the more pointed question: Who, specifically, is responsible?
WWA has run more than 40 analyses over the past six years, answering specific questions about climate change’s impact on weather with even more specific numbers.
A South African drought in 2015-2016 was three times likelier because of the lack of rain. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, its rainfall was 15% more intense and about three times more likely to occur. Last year’s headline-grabbing Siberian heat wave? That was 600 times likelier in our new climate.
These extreme events, of course, don’t happen on anybody’s schedule. Christmas week 2019 found Otto settling into a new house in Oxford, hanging out with housemates, and chatting on the phone with family in Germany who spoke, oddly enough, about fires on the other side of the world, in Australia. “They are not usually people who talk about extreme weather unless it’s happening in their backyard,” she says.
Within days she realized that, holidays or not, protracted Australian fires demanded attention in the two ways the group was designed to deliver: making reliable conclusions fast and informing the media cacophony.
Otto and Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a Dutch climate researcher and co‑head of WWA, phoned Australian colleagues on New Year’s Day with a tentative plan to test immediately for climate fingerprints; in each study they form partnerships with local researchers for their expertise.
“Attribution is really important because it directly addresses the psychological-distance gap in public opinion”
“There is obviously a strong need for some scientific evidence in this debate,” Otto told the group, “because at the moment, everyone is just making wild assumptions about the origins of this fire.”
Over the next several weeks, the team would conduct science at the speed of fire. This new kind of science was designed to improve public understanding as much as deepen scholarly knowledge.
It’s necessary, because the biggest gap in climate communication isn’t between people who heed science and people who disregard it, says Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
It’s between those who think climate affects only other countries and future generations and those who understand that it already affects them.
“We scientists used to say, 10 years ago, we cannot attribute a single event to the changing climate,” says Hayhoe, who’s not involved in WWA. “Now we’re actually able to say, ‘Hold my beer for a couple of weeks, and then I can tell you.’ Attribution is really important because it directly addresses the psychological-distance gap in public opinion.”
How they do it and what they find is breaking ground for a scientific field that didn’t exist a decade ago.
The only thing that may be more surprising than the speed with which event attribution has developed in recent years is the unusual route Otto took into climate science—via a doctorate in philosophy.
“I’m definitely an outsider,” she says. “I didn’t know how you would evaluate a climate model. I didn’t know the people who were highly regarded in the community. I just didn’t notice when I disregarded conventional wisdom. And because I didn’t know the community, I didn’t care what they think about me, at least at the beginning.”
Otto is 39 and has long, dark-blond hair that she often wears swept up into a bun. Her left eyebrow is pierced, and on her left wrist, next to a metal watch, sit three brightly colored plastic bracelets, one with dicelike white cubes that bear the letters “O-T-T-O.”
When she left high school in Kiel, Germany, she had poor grades and thick skin. Bullied and sometimes a target of misogynistic epithets, she emerged alert and unafraid of necessary confrontation.
Bad grades meant “only the unpopular subjects were open to me” in college, she says. “It was basically physics or engineering, and physics was the lesser of the evils.”
What she liked about physics were the eternally tough questions: What exactly can we know? What can’t we know? After a masters in theoretical physics, Otto found herself drawn to skeptical inquiry and discovered it had extremely practical lessons that can “ground science more in reality,” she says.
Her Free University of Berlin graduate work in philosophy of science has made her a permanent “broken record” about the importance of language and clarity when scientists communicate across disciplines or to the public—both of which define WWA. “This sounds trivial, but it’s really hard in practice.”
Otto then joined Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute in 2011—her home until this month— just at the dawn of an untested new subfield of climate research that needed an interpreter who understood the practical side of science and the centrality of clear language. She took on the job of putting cutting-edge work into climate-fueled disasters before the general public.
“There’s a certain fearlessness Fredi’s shown in making it happen,” says Peter Stott, a science fellow in climate attribution at the U.K.’s Met Office.
Extreme weather attribution began with a scientist wondering if anyone would ever be sued for climate change.
As floodwaters lapped up to his kitchen door in January 2003, Myles Allen, a climate scientist at Oxford, wrote an article for the journal Nature asking if courts would ever deliver accountability to the polluters responsible for warming-induced weather disasters. Or, as he put it: “Who to sue when the house price falls?”
This big question is now routinely answered in the affirmative by the existence of dozens of such lawsuits around the world.
Still unresolved is how many suits will be successful. More than 1,500 climate-related cases have been filed globally, according to a database maintained by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Colleagues took note but saw the article “Liability for Climate Change” as largely speculative. “To be honest, I don’t think that any of us at that time thought that it was going to become practical as quickly as it did,” Stott says.
Several months later, Stott was on vacation when temperatures began to spike, not only where he was in Italy, but up through France and across the channel into the U.K. More than 70,000 people died from heat-related causes across Europe that summer.
The heat wave’s scale and destruction changed Stott’s thinking. He teamed with Allen and a colleague to produce the first major study attributing an extreme-heat event to climate change. It took more than a year to publish their conclusion that greenhouse gas had made the disaster twice as likely.
The climate science profession didn’t embrace event attribution immediately. Some still grumble over the speedy and stripped-down analysis necessary just to publish something that hasn’t yet gone through peer review.
WWA’s success has come in part from using a peer-reviewed process—even if the rapid analyses themselves aren’t formally published for a year.
A 2012 workshop at Oxford introduced the field to a broad range of professionals. “They asked user groups whether they would be interested in attribution results, and pretty much all of them said no,” Van Oldenborgh says. There were two notable exceptions: lawyers and journalists.
“We just try to figure out exactly what the question is that society wants answered”
In the same year, Otto first drew attention from fellow researchers by firing off a salvo in a prominent journal. In 2010, Russia suffered an historic heat wave that killed 55,000 people.
She’d come across two studies about it with conclusions so different they might have concerned separate events.
One determined that the heat wave was “mainly natural in origin”; the other found that, without climate change, “the July 2010 heat record would not have occurred.”
The contradiction was stark and begged for resolution. Otto’s expertise for the first time found its complement in climate statistics, when she paired with Van Oldenborgh. The team dismantled the two Russia studies and identified the issue.
“They were actually both right. They just framed the question very differently,” Otto says. “That got me totally hooked.” How to define extreme events—in geography, time, measurements—would later become critical to WWA’s work.
Otto was all-in, and she wasn’t alone. Science had established that weather attribution was possible. News media had demonstrated an appetite for results. Even that wasn’t enough until an opportunity arose.
Climate Central, a research nonprofit, had taken a leading role in event attribution. It raised money to organize a program and in 2014 reached out to Allen, who was then still leading rapid-attribution efforts, and Otto, who would take it over from him.
Climate Central had a request that would help transform the science: “This is actually a really, really important way of bringing home climate change to people,” Otto recalled them saying. “Can you do it faster, please?”
She could, and the era of fast climate calls had begun.
Bush fire projections in 2019 had looked dire, and by early September, Australia’s “Black Summer” had begun. By the time the devastation ended, in March 2020, 92,000 square miles of forest had burned, or more than 13 times the extent of the unprecedented 2020 California fires.
In parallel to the destruction, conflict erupted across Australia’s media, in which, as 2019 moved to a close, there arose false and politically tinged charges that arson was responsible for the fires.
By the first day of 2020, Australia faced two conflagrations: the literal one, raging across the landscape; and the political one, manufactured by politicians, media, and online trolls.
With more land on fire than ever and public discussions led astray by disinformation, WWA entered the fray to discover—as Australian scientists predicted in 2008—whether climate change was actually “directly observable by 2020.”
Heat waves, the simplest of the events the group looks at, can take only a week to study. But bush fires combine heat, drought, geography, and the general shift in weather toward fire-friendly conditions.
When the team needed to figure out the Australian fires, they started by defining their area of interest—literally drawing on a map a trapezoid around the country’s afflicted southeastern area.
Once they identified the specific coordinates of interest, they pieced together the area’s long-term climate history, relying on heat and drought records and an index of fire weather.
Next came simulations of the disaster on 11 groups of climate models, in virtual worlds with and without global warming.
They’d never studied bush fires before, because of their complexity. It took about two months, mostly looking at spreadsheets, charts, and maps, to reach their findings: Climate change made the heat twice as likely and increased fire weather by 30%.
They published their analysis a week after the fires ended in New South Wales, just as a national bush fire investigation was beginning its work. It was another advance for just-in-time science.
World Weather Attribution earns the biggest and most regular headlines, but other groups are also at work analyzing “angry weather”—the title of Otto’s 2020 book.
The climate science and policy website CarbonBrief.org counted more than 350 peer-reviewed studies earlier this year. Since 2012, Stott and colleagues have edited an annual research collection called Explaining Extreme Events From a Climate Perspective.
An international project in many ways similar to WWA never took off, Van Oldenborgh says, because the team was made up only of scientists focused on meteorology, not a hybrid team of scientists, a humanitarian group, and communication experts.
“We just try to figure out exactly what the question is that society wants answered,” he says.
WWA is rarely the same organization twice because Otto, Van Oldenborgh, and several other regular members also tap regional experts for each new study. Interest in the organization’s work among scientists is growing.
Ten people worked on the group’s August 2017 analysis of Hurricane Harvey. Twenty-seven authored its report on June’s North American Pacific Coast heat wave and a record 39 on its most recent report on July’s European flooding.
Otto and Van Oldenborgh, who works at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, have regular collaborators from France’s Institute Pierre-Simon Laplace and ETH Zurich. The Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, which has worked with WWA from its beginning, helps vulnerable people anticipate, prevent, or cope with disasters.
Rapid-event attribution has emerged quickly from humble origins to marquee attention in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, in which the United Nations-backed scientists, including Otto and several WWA colleagues, state that “event attribution is now an important line of evidence for assessing changes in extremes on regional scales.”
When Claudia Tebaldi, an Earth scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, encountered the Oxford team’s ideas for rapid extreme weather attribution in 2012, she was initially skeptical that a push would contribute in a significant way to new science.
But by combining multiple sources of evidence, different methods, observations, and model experiments, WWA has brought rigor to a standardized process and become an influential research group. Its analysis of the North American Pacific heat wave drew at least 3,300 news articles worldwide.
It was completed within eight days of the June 29 record-breaking high temperature of 49.6C (121.3F) in Lytton, B.C.—which was consumed by wildfire on the following day.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, the fact is that global warming is becoming such a driver that even that fairly simple approach is good enough,” Tebaldi says. “And then the other more sophisticated, slower, and more complicated studies will take place.”
Most of WWA’s analyses find an overwhelming climate influence on an extreme weather event. But not all of them do—which is also useful. The goal is to learn what’s making disasters worse, so people and communities can better withstand them.
A drought in southeastern Brazil in 2014-15 turned out to be fueled more by population growth and water use, the group found.
“We shouldn’t fool ourselves, blaming everything on climate change, when there are other triggers that are also important to know about,” says Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and a climate scientist at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.
More than a year went by between WWA’s analysis of the Australian fires and its conclusion that the recent North American Pacific coast heat wave would’ve been “virtually impossible” without greenhouse gas pollution. The pandemic was one reason that attribution work slowed. The other: no money.
WWA’s success has not yet turned into secure funding. “We just sort of do this on top of our other work, and we do it because we think it’s important,” says Roop Singh, climate-risk adviser at the Climate Centre. “We think it’s interesting science, and we think that it’ll be useful when we put it out into the world.”
It wouldn’t take much, Van Oldenborgh says. World Weather Attribution is one of the world’s most influential research groups, and it wants to hire three postdocs and a project manager. Ultimately the goal is to standardize as much attribution as the group can, so weather bureaus can offer it as a regular service, freeing up WWA to focus on developing countries and complex extremes.
There’s all this great new climate research, and courts are missing it. That’s what Otto, one of her graduate students, and several other colleagues found in June, according to their research into how courtroom evidence “lags considerably behind the state of the art.”
“You actually can prove the whole causal chain from emissions, via global mean temperature and/or the climate system, to actual concrete damages that cost money, affect lives, and livelihoods,” Otto says. “And that hasn’t really filtered through, definitely not to the courts.”
The team analyzed 73 cases from 14 countries that might benefit or might have benefited from this rapidly maturing field. Almost three-quarters of these cases cited no evidence from attribution science.
Their recommendations included simple steps such as putting lawyers and scientists together to talk. Otto and other climate researchers have already filed friend of the court briefs in several cases.
There are several kinds of climate cases. Citizens sue local governments for not regulating greenhouse gases or protecting them from impacts. Local governments sue nations for not acting. Various groups have tried to sue fossil fuel companies for deceiving consumers and investors over climate change.
Many cases disappear or get stuck for years before climate science even enters the picture. There are cases in which U.S. cities or counties are suing energy companies in state courts that have been held up while defense lawyers try to move them to friendlier federal courts.
Several high-profile cases have dealt losses to the plaintiffs, including a 2018 New York state securities lawsuit against Exxon Mobil Corp. Climate activists’ wins have tended to come in Europe.
As a general matter, science isn’t new to the courtroom. It’s spurred years of litigation in product liability lawsuits and toxic tort cases, in which a plaintiff files suit over alleged harm from tobacco, opioids, asbestos, pesticides, chemicals, and a world of other poisons.
Climate lawsuits share some characteristics with these kinds of disputes: So many people are responsible, it’s hard to single out anyone.
The way courts in multiple countries may deal with these cases is to ask, as U.K. courts do, whether the harm would have occurred “but for” the defense side, says April Williamson, a lawyer for the climate program of legal nonprofit ClientEarth.
“The way that tort law works is that you’re trying to put the claimant in the position that they would have been in if the damages had never happened,” she says.
From there, the thinking goes, courts in the U.K. can assign responsibility through a kind of “market share” analysis—the more carbon dioxide you’ve emitted, the bigger your share.
U.S. courts in particular may reject novel analysis that spreads blame that everyone shares to a few, albeit major emitters.
Lower courts have never pushed back at Massachusetts v. EPA, which read climate change as a regulatory or congressional problem and less one for the judiciary, says Josh Macey, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
Besides, he says, given the scale and expense of energy and industrial systems that need fixing—building clean power generation and transmission—“environmental attorneys going to court and suing Exxon is not going to address climate change.”
Van Oldenborgh recently told Otto that when they start a major study—the Australian bush fire paper in particular—he often bolts awake from nerves around 4 a.m. to run through the numbers in his head.
She responded that she also wakes up from nerves at 4 a.m. to run through the conclusions based on his numbers.
The two complement each other the way a lyricist and songwriter do. They’re a “dream team,” Van Oldenborgh says, and yet an unlikely one. She’s “a very fashion-conscious woman in her late 30s,” and he’s an “old guy” who’s avoided taking on responsibilities that would distract him from scientific work.
But they’re “both very obsessed with getting things correct,” he says. “She’s really good with words, and I’m pretty good with numbers.”
Van Oldenborgh, 59, who raised extreme weather attribution with Otto from a tiny unknown endeavor to a tiny internationally celebrated endeavor, has also struggled for eight years with an incurable cancer, called multiple myeloma.
After surviving a recent close call, he’s undergoing a new treatment that’s effective for an average of nine months—“which at my stage is really good,” he says.
“I really hope I get another year or two or whatever to continue this kind of work,” he says. “In a way, it’s the same as climate. There’s scenarios in which you cannot assign probabilities.”
Google Rolls Out Emission-Curbing Tools for Nest Thermostat
Tech company says changing people’s behavior around energy use will become crucial as more power comes from intermittent renewable energy sources.
Google on Wednesday introduced new features for its Nest smart thermostat that will let users dial down their use of fossil fuels, the technology company’s latest consumer-facing initiative aimed at addressing climate change.
An update to the thermostat’s software, known as Nest Renew, will allow homes to automatically adjust their energy consumption to use more electricity when more renewable power is available.
The service will be invite-only until Google, owned by Alphabet Inc., is ready to roll it out across the U.S.
A related app will give users a snapshot of the grid’s electricity on a scale from “at its least clean” to “very clean,” meaning it mostly comes from renewable energy, such as wind and solar.
If a homeowner chooses, the device can be set to automatically favor times when electricity is cleaner to run heating and cooling systems. In theory, residents might also decide to run appliances when wind and solar power is abundant.
“These tools and behavioral shifts are important now, but they’ll become increasingly crucial as more intermittent clean energy resources come online over the coming years,” said Ben Brown, director of product management for Google Nest. “Small actions and behavioral changes really do add up.”
The climate benefits of tools such as Nest Renew that aim to tweak the demand side of the energy equation are constrained by the supply of cleaner energy.
In 2020, renewable energy accounted for only 7% of U.S. homes’ end-use energy consumption, compared with 42% for natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Nest update is one of several new features Google introduced Wednesday to help users make more sustainable decisions. Starting this week, the Shopping tab in Google search will start suggesting eco-friendly options when U.S. users browse energy-intensive appliances, such as furnaces, dishwashers and water heaters.
Meanwhile, starting this week for users world-wide, Google Flights will display estimated carbon emissions for a seat on a flight, giving an idea of the additional emissions generated by business and first-class seats, which take up more space.
The company said earlier this year that Google Maps will choose more eco-friendly routes, as long as the route in question takes no longer than other options. The change goes into effect in the U.S. this week and in Europe next year.
Google said Nest Renew can translate into savings for homeowners. If an electricity provider offers so-called time-of-use rates, which charge customers for their energy use based on the time of day as opposed to a fixed rate, Nest can automatically switch usage to less expensive times.
The Nest line includes thermostats, speakers, smoke detectors and security systems, among other smart home products.
Nearly 30% of consumers say the top reason they use a smart home device is because “it provides my household with better entertainment,” though around 12% are “drawn to the promise of reduced energy consumption,” according to a 2021 survey by research firm International Data Corp.
Commercial and residential buildings depend on burning fossil fuels for energy and contributed some 13% of the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
On average, more than half of energy use in homes is for heating and cooling, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The carbon emissions from that energy use fluctuate depending on how much power is being supplied to the grid by gas, coal, nuclear power and weather-dependent renewable energy like wind and solar power.
Google worked with WattTime, a nonprofit group that provides technology for tracking and managing power use and emissions, to estimate emissions data for homes. Seven power providers, including AES Corp. , Duke Energy Corp. and Southern Co. , provided information on electricity rates and other feedback, Google said.
Fed’s Brainard Says Banks Likely to Need Direction From Regulators on Managing Climate Risks
‘Climate change could have profound consequences’ on economic activity, says Fed governor.
A top Federal Reserve official said financial regulators should direct the nation’s biggest banks to take new steps to manage climate-related risks as part of a broader effort to monitor potential hazards posed to the financial system.
Fed governor Lael Brainard detailed how the central bank is preparing to beef up its assessment of growing threats from climate-related events, including natural disasters and wildfires, which could deliver unexpected shocks to the economy and markets.
“Ultimately, I anticipate it will be helpful to provide supervisory guidance for large banking institutions in their efforts to appropriately measure, monitor and manage material climate-related risks,” she said in virtual remarks at a conference Thursday on banking supervision hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Ms. Brainard’s remarks are notable in part because she is seen as a potential candidate to become the Fed’s vice chairman of bank supervision, succeeding Randal Quarles, whose term expires next week. Ms. Brainard is also a potential candidate to succeed Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, whose term is up early next year.
“Climate change could have profound consequences for the level, trend growth and variability of economic activity over time,” Ms. Brainard said. The coronavirus pandemic “is a stark reminder that extreme events can materialize with little warning and trigger severe losses and market disruptions,” she said.
Ms. Brainard said the Fed is currently examining ways to incorporate so-called scenario analysis to account for both the physical risks of climate change and the costs associated with any transition to a lower-carbon-footprint economy.
Natural disasters and government policy actions to address climate change “could quickly alter perceptions of future risk or reveal new information about the value of assets,” she said.
Ms. Brainard identified the need for scenario analyses that model projected revenue and losses for banks to differentiate between risks geographically and within different sectors of the economy. Those assessments would also need to account for an intensification of climate-related risks, at the regional or sectoral level, over time.
Unlike central banks in the rest of the world, the Fed faces a tricky balancing act navigating its role on the issue because the U.S. political establishment hasn’t achieved any consensus over how or whether to address climate change.
Some progressive Democrats have chided Mr. Powell, a Republican, for not using the Fed’s supervisory powers over banks to more explicitly influence the terms and conditions on which certain industries, such as fossil fuel exploration and development, can access credit.
They want President Biden to replace Mr. Powell when his term expires early next year with someone more focused on climate change, including potentially Ms. Brainard, a Democrat.
Ms. Brainard expressed some impatience with the state of climate-related financial policy at an economics conference in Arlington, Va., last week.
“It’s an area where the U.S. has been behind, and we need to catch up,” Ms. Brainard said.
Republicans have warned the central bank against overstepping its authority. House GOP lawmakers, for example, have pushed back against a proposal by the Securities and Exchange Commission to develop climate-risk disclosure standards for publicly traded companies.
Mr. Powell—who was a trustee of The Nature Conservancy, a public charity focused on conservation, before joining the Fed board 10 years ago—warned earlier this year that climate change poses profound challenges for the economy and global markets.
He acknowledged that the Fed should play a role in monitoring and addressing potential risks, but he also said that implementing overarching national climate policy is “not a question for the Federal Reserve.”
The Fed last year joined a global group of financial regulators and central banks that has focused on sharing best practices for climate-related risk management. Ms. Brainard highlighted the uncertainty around and limits of what the central bank might initially find. “We should be humble about what the first generation of climate scenario analysis is likely to deliver,” she said in her remarks on Thursday.
The Fed has created two different internal committees to monitor potential threats posed by climate-related shocks to the economy.
One is focused on improving how bank regulators address risks to the nation’s largest financial institutions as part of the Fed’s role supervising those firms, and the second is dedicated to examining threats to the broader financial system.
Development Banks Told To Ramp Up Green Ambitions Ahead of COP26
Carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector are set to rebound 4% across the world’s major economies this year.
The world’s multilateral development banks must boost their green ambitions to stop carbon emissions from soaring in the most powerful economies, according to the Climate Transparency Report 2021.
Covid-19 lockdowns caused carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector to fall 6% in 2020, but a rebound of 4% is projected across the Group of 20 nations this year. Argentina, China, India and Indonesia are expected to exceed their 2019 emissions levels before next year.
Governments channel financing through multilateral development banks, or MDBs, by providing direct funding and encouraging private investments. Steering this money away from high-carbon assets is crucial for meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals, according to the report.
Organizations such as the World Bank are under pressure from the United Nations to accelerate the green transition. They’ve been criticized for not doing enough to encourage more capital investments from the private sector to accelerate the transition to clean energy.
Earlier this year, the G-20 called on MDBs to align their activities and investments with the 2015 Paris accord before high-stakes global climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, kick off at the end of this month. They also were urged to provide new financial tools and funding instruments to boost green activities.
“The pace is falling short of the mission at hand,” Angela Picciariello, senior research officer at global affairs think tank Overseas Development Institute, said at a press conference.
It’s not just about money. Access to technology is a major issue, said Erik Berglof, chief economist of Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. “MDBs must become a platform to help bring together technology providers and those who use them,” he said.
MDBs should work with financial institutions and companies to reduce their carbon footprints, Berglof said. While MDBs have made commitments to become Paris-aligned, meeting those obligations will be a “very difficult process” requiring drastic changes, he said.
There has been some progress. In May, the Group of Seven nations pledged to stop using public financing for new coal power plants, while the U.S. stepped away from gas projects through MDBs. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development vowed to stop investing in upstream oil and gas projects by the end of 2022 to align. China also committed to stop building coal plants overseas.
But G-20 nations are responsible for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With COP26 just over two weeks away in Scotland, the report urged countries whose targets don’t align with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels to submit stronger ones.
“G-20 countries are really late. Late with 2030 climate targets, fossil fuel phase-out plans and climate finance packages,” said Laurence Tubiana, chief executive officer of the European Climate Foundation. “The G-20 needs to move mountains.”
The Quest To Make Composting As Simple As Trash Collection
Food waste accounts for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. More U.S. cities are exploring door-to-door compost collection, but it’s not as easy it might seem.
Erik Grabowsky is painfully aware that each time he chucks an overripe avocado, he’s not only lost a dollar; he’s also adding to the roughly 3,000 to 6,000 tons of food waste that residents in Arlington County, Virginia, generate every year.
Most of it ends up in a nearby landfill. But Grabowsky, chief of the county’s solid waste bureau, is betting on a new residential composting program to change that.
The county expanded its curbside trash and recycling services last month to begin collecting food scraps from residents, mostly in single-family homes and townhouses.
Residents can put out their food waste in a city-provided cart, just like their garbage, on collection days. The scraps will get composted, then returned to Arlington as soil.
The program marks a significant step toward the county’s 2015 resolution to divert at least 90% of waste away from landfills by 2038. It also adds Arlington County to a handful of U.S. municipalities that offer curbside composting services as the country struggles to combat both food waste and the climate crisis.
Between 30% and 40% of the U.S. food supply is never eaten, amounting to an estimated 40 million tons each year. Most of it ends up in landfills and incinerators, and as waste volumes grow, more cities find themselves paying to send their trash out-of-state.
Landfills and incinerators also pollute the nearby neighborhoods — mostly communities of color — and are major sources of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more than 25 times better at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Food waste accounts for 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions by some estimates — more than airplanes. And although much of that waste doesn’t come from individual households, experts say the best way to divert residents’ food away from the garbage is through free, universal compost pick-up programs.
But door-to-door compost collection is not as simple as it appears. New York City, which has had a program in some neighborhoods for years, has had trouble scaling the service.
For many places, one major obstacle is not actually the collection itself; it’s having the facilities in place to compost the volume of waste that a citywide pick-up program would produce.
Public buy-in is another substantial hurdle to making the service cost-effective, and it can make such programs “nonstarters” in many places, said Alexis Schulman, a professor of environmental sciences at Drexel University.
A survey by the Institute for Local Self Reliance and the composting magazine BioCycle counted 148 residential curbside collection programs serving 5.1 million households across 326 communities in 2017, up from 79 programs serving 2.4 million households in 2014. On top of that, there are at least 67 drop-off programs, according to the survey.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a $1.9 million grant split among 24 cities — including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati — to pilot community compost projects and to test strategies for operating municipal services.
NYC: ‘Collection Trucks Are Not Coming Back Full’
New York City’s ongoing efforts to develop a universal curbside compost service offers a glimpse into the challenges for larger cities. With more than 8 million people, the city generates over 1.3 million tons of food waste each year, making up nearly a third of all the city’s waste.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a pilot program on Staten Island in 2013, with an ambitious goal to make residential composting mandatory.
By 2015 the program serviced some 3.5 million residents, and in 2019 it collected an estimated 50,000 tons of compostables from the curb. (Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg CityLab’s parent company, Bloomberg LP.)
But the sanitation department faces a series of logistical challenges to expanding the program, which is currently voluntary and services most of Manhattan along with parts of the other four boroughs. The city has a high-density landscape of high-rises that rely on garbage chutes, which makes separating organics more complicated.
And overall, residential participation has been low, with little incentive for residents who take the extra step of separating out their food scraps.
Most recently, pandemic-related budget cuts also temporarily halted the service, leaving the city’s community composting organizations to fill the gap.
Service resumed earlier this month, but it’s drawn criticism from some environmental advocates like Eric Goldstein, the New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, for not going far enough.
“You’ve had to sign up for it. There have been other cutbacks in collection frequency, so the participation hasn’t been high enough to have an efficient system,” he said. “[Collection] trucks are not coming back full.”
This limited participation makes the program less cost-effective and harder to sustain. Goldstein’s been advocating for a mandate on residents to put out compost, which he said could go into effect in three or four years, giving residents enough time to adjust their habits. But while that has ultimately been the city’s goal from the start, officials have stopped short of issuing any such legislation.
Sanitation Commissioner Edward Grayson cited the department’s limited budget. “If we are going to now run a limited footprint, who do we go after? Everything that we’re trying to do is to better our learning process on how to best serve this constituency, targeting first the people who want to be involved,” said Grayson, who took office in December 2020.
He adds that the program will keep expanding, and that residents in neighborhoods not currently served by compost collection services can express their interest on the city’s website.
On top of that, the city may not have sufficient facilities to process the amount of food waste that a mandate could potentially generate. “You can mandate, and you start [collecting] all this food waste, you have to have a place to take it,” said Schulman.
“And I don’t think they’ve figured that out yet.” The city has two facilities to handle food waste, one on Rikers Island and another on the former Fresh Kills landfill, but the city sends the majority of its organics to nearby facilities run by community organizations — one of which could face eviction.
San Francisco: A Best-Case Scenario, With Caveats
On the other side of the U.S., San Francisco is celebrating the 25-year anniversary of one the U.S.’s oldest curbside composting programs, which has helped the city divert 80% of all waste from landfills.
Its success depended on a series of incremental steps taken over years, beginning with California’s 1989 Integrated Waste Management Act, which required at least a 50% diversion rate from all jurisdictions.
While other cities collected yard trimmings, San Francisco — with its limited yard space — targeted food scraps, first from the commercial sector then from residents.
The legislation also led to the development of a substantial composting infrastructure across California, which has more full-scale composting facilities than any other state, according to a 2019 survey. That abundance helped when San Francisco needed to find facilities with more capacity as its composting service expanded.
“It’s not static: The volume of what you collect will increase as you increase your outreach or make [composting] mandatory,” said Alexis Kielty from the city’s Zero Waste program. “And we had a huge jump when we made it mandatory. We went from 400 tons a day of compost collection, and now we’re close to 700 tons a day.”
San Francisco didn’t make residential composting mandatory until 2009, nearly a decade after launching the service, and they were met with little pushback. It helped that city residents were generally environmentally friendly.
But Keilty also credits the city’s pay-as-you-throw fee structure, which incentivizes composting. The bigger your trash bin is, the higher your fee.
Having a fee structure is crucial, according to Schulman. In 2014, she and her colleagues at MIT published a study reviewing more than a dozen curbside compost programs from cities of various sizes, outlining best practices and where challenges lie.
“We’ve run into some programs where it sounded like there was a lot of excitement to have residential composting but then participation levels were so low,” she said. “So the excitement and ideological commitment only gets you so far, and that’s when you have to think about the incentives and removing particular obstacles.”
Arlington County’s program didn’t develop overnight, either. It started with the county’s 2004 solid waste management plan, which set a goal to start collecting food waste at some point in the future.
In 2015, the county began taking yard waste, establishing an organics collection program as it waited for access to a composting facility with enough capacity to handle its post-consumer food scraps.
That didn’t come until September 2020, when Freestates Farm, through its public-private partnership with Prince William County, finally built a new facility that fit the bill. “It was thinking ahead about how this can all work together,” said Grabowsky.
After wrapping up its first month of service, Grabowsky and his team are waiting for numbers to come in about its success. He hopes that composting will make residents more aware of how much they throw out.
But San Francisco offers at least one cautionary tale. Despite a high diversion rate, the total volume of compostable waste has crept up over the years, because of the program’s expansion but also because of a change in attitude in the wrong direction.
City surveys reveal that composting reduced the amount of guilt residents felt about throwing edible food out because they felt they weren’t contributing waste to landfills. “Meanwhile, greenhouse gases were still emitted to produce that food and get it to your door,” said Kielty.
The city is now working towards a new “generation reduction” goal, aimed at reducing the amount of waste going into all three bins — trash, recycling and compost — by 15% by 2030. “We will focus on how households can change their purchasing habits, use the food they have, and preserve the food — particularly veggies — better,” she added. “Composting alone isn’t going to get us to our climate goals.”
For cities that don’t yet have composting programs, there are other options for residents. If you don’t compost yourself, many places have facilities for drop-off, or paid pick-up services for those who can afford it.
Ultimately, though, there’s no comparison in the volume of waste that can be diverted with free, citywide collection programs, along with a composting mandate. “The places that have made it mandatory have absolutely seen the highest diversion,” said Schulman.
Site of Glasgow Climate Talks Has Its Own History of Extreme Weather
It’s unlikely the flooding that devastated the conference hall almost three decades ago will recur. But Glasgow still faces dangers from an altered climate.
The last time the river running through the Scottish city of Glasgow overflowed its banks with deadly results occurred nearly three decades ago.
Days of torrential rain reached the breaking point just two weeks before Christmas 1994, and two people died in floods that swamped the city’s SEC Center and caused more than 100 million pounds ($140 million) in property damage.
Back then James Curran oversaw flood-warning systems across the region. As the storm intensified, he was dispatched to the basement of a local police station to help coordinate the emergency response, relaying readings from river and tidal gauges to rescue workers. It caused disruptions, such as the cancelation of a sold-out concert by rock star Meatloaf at the SEC Centre.
That since-renovated venue in the center of Glasgow — now named the Ovo Hydro — will welcome world leaders and thousands of attendees for a crucial United Nations summit on climate change in November.
The COP26 summit kicks off right in the heart of Scotland’s flood season. Negotiators could face rainy conditions that swell the River Clyde, which sluices through the city, to potentially dangerous levels.
“We’re in uncharted territory with the frequency and severity of floods we’re experiencing now,” says Curran. Today he chairs Climate Ready Clyde, a group that’s helping the region better prepare for the impacts of global warming. “There’s no question that the risk across all potential flooding areas in Glasgow city region will escalate in the decades to come.”
The Scottish Environment Protection Agency estimates that about 170,000 people in and around Glasgow face risks from flooding, a number that’s set to rise about 30% by the 2080s. Damage from floods will cost the region about 100 million pounds a year by midcentury.
“There’s tons of flood exposure,” said Beth Tellman, chief science officer at flood monitoring startup Cloud to Street. “It’s already a risky country and will remain a risky country.”
Heightened flood risk has become a global phenomenon. Over the past few decades, Scotland has seen more heavy downpours, accelerating sea-level rise and cutting the number of days with frost and snow cover.
Glasgow received 125% its average annual rainfall last year. Torrential rain this August submerged one street under about 4 feet of water.
It remains unlikely flood conditions will be repeated this November, just as climate talks are underway in Glasgow. But the city still faces dangers from the altered climate.
Deluges of water can pool up in the streets with nowhere to go. Rivers can overflow. Coastal flooding in the region has also become a more pronounced risk as sea levels rise.
Heightened flood risk is now a global phenomenon, with average temperatures worldwide more than 1.1C above preindustrial levels. Northern Scotland’s annual mean sea surface temperature has increased as much as 0.24C per decade since 1990.
Meanwhile, rainfall patterns have changed, with more heavy downpours, accelerating sea-level rise and fewer days with frost and snow cover, according to Adaptation Scotland.
While the U.K. has one of the world’s most aggressive targets to decarbonize its economy, the country’s Climate Change Committee has warned that not enough is being done to protect British residents from the impacts of warming temperatures.
Curran is among those working to change that in Glasgow. The climate-adaptation plan his team is developing is part of a European Union effort to provide examples that local governments across the continent can learn from.
Many of the solutions for flooding, such as building up depleted peat lands, turning sealed culverts into open waterways, and building up park space, aim to not only store more water during periods of intense rain but also make the city a more pleasant place to live.
“The idea is to have the whole city be more spongy,” says David Harley, head of water and planning at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. “It’s the difference between a functional, unhealthy dangerous place in the long term and one that can thrive and survive and be successful in a changing climate.”
To Strike a Climate Deal, Poor Nations Say They Need Trillions From Rich Ones
Industrialized countries were already struggling to pay earlier commitments to help with clean-energy development and other infrastructure needs. Now the cost of buying cooperation has skyrocketed.
At a July global climate gathering in London, South African environment minister Barbara Creecy presented the world’s wealthiest countries with a bill: more than $750 billion annually to pay for poorer nations to shift away from fossil fuels and protect themselves from global warming.
The number was met with silence from U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, according to Zaheer Fakir, an adviser to Ms. Creecy. Other Western officials said they weren’t ready to discuss such a huge sum.
For decades, Western countries responsible for the bulk of greenhouse-gas emissions have pledged to pay to bring poorer nations along with them in what is expected to be a very expensive global energy transition. But they have yet to fully deliver on that promise. Now the price of the developing world’s cooperation is going up.
At the end of the month, negotiators from nearly every country will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for a two-week climate summit, the first major gathering since governments signed the Paris accord in 2015. The goal is to strike a deal to keep the climate targets of the Paris agreement within reach.
Without poorer countries on board, the world stands little chance of preventing catastrophic climate change, say many climate scientists. Emissions in the U.S. and Europe are falling as both regions push to adopt renewable energy and phase out coal-fired electricity.
But emissions in the developing world are expected to rise sharply in the coming decades as billions rise out of poverty—unless those economies can shift onto a lower-carbon path.
Before signing on, poorer countries are demanding a big increase in funding from the developed world to adopt cleaner technologies and adapt to the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and more powerful storms.
Bangladesh says it needs cyclone-resistant housing. Kenya wants its countryside dotted with solar farms instead of coal or natural gas-fired plants. India says its climate-change plan alone will cost more than $2.5 trillion through 2030.
“We cannot be talking about ambition on the one hand, and yet you show no ambition on finance,” said Mr. Fakir who is coordinating climate finance policies for the Group of 77, a coalition of developing nations.
Developed nations say it is unrealistic to put them on the hook for such a large sum without also getting middle-income countries—China in particular—to provide funds.
In Paris in 2015, the U.S., Europe and a few other wealthy nations committed to funding poorer countries to the tune of $100 billion a year from 2020 through 2025. They have so far fallen short.
Developing-world negotiators say the money isn’t financial aid. Rather, they say wealthy countries have a responsibility to pay under the U.N. climate treaties because most of the Earth’s warming since the industrial era is the result of emissions from the rich world.
Moreover, poor nations now face the task of raising living standards without burning fossil fuels unchecked as the U.S. and other rich nations did for almost two centuries.
“If you’re going to ask a much poorer country to forgo that option, then there is a moral claim that they need support to go on a lower emissions development pathway,” said Joe Thwaites, a climate-finance expert at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.
Even developed countries are struggling with the transition to renewables. A surge in demand for power from nations recovering from the pandemic has forced governments to lean on fossil fuels; though investment in renewables has increased, it accounts for only about a quarter of the world’s power.
Western officials say the Glasgow negotiations need to focus first on how to raise enough money to meet the Paris goal. Then they are planning to begin talks on a finance goal for after 2025.
That sum is expected to be too large to pay from the government budgets of rich nations alone, officials say. Instead they are counting on private investors to pick up most of the bill.
“There isn’t enough official development funds in the system to close the gap of climate finance,” said Gustavo Alberto Fonseca, director of programs at the U.N.’s Global Environment Facility, which funds climate infrastructure in the developing world. “There has to be a market-based solution.”
Developing nations want a big portion of the money to come as government grants, not loans from private investors that would saddle them with debt.
They’re demanding control over how the money is spent, wary of dictates from wealthy governments and financiers in the U.S. and Europe.
The developing world also questions whether the U.S. is committed to delivering its portion of the funds over the long haul.
The Biden administration has pledged to double climate funding to developing countries to $11.4 billion annually by 2024, which would make the U.S. by far the biggest single benefactor.
President Donald Trump reneged on previous promises the Obama administration made to finance the Green Climate Fund, the U.N.’s main vehicle for delivering money to the developing world, saying the fund “was costing the United States a vast fortune.”
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of wealthy countries, says the developed world had accounted for $80 billion in climate financing to poor countries in 2019, the most recent year for which data are available. It is unlikely that they reached the $100 billion target in 2020, officials say.
Private-sector investors haven’t piled into investment projects as expected. Only $14 billion of the $80 billion came from the private sector, according to the OECD.
That’s because pension funds, insurance companies and other major institutional investors are uncomfortable funding renewable-energy projects in countries they perceive to be higher risk.
Officials say private investors are ill-suited for underwriting other pressing needs: projects that help developing nations adapt to the effects of climate change. Seawalls that protect against rising sea levels and programs to teach farmers to grow drought-resistant crops don’t generate revenue to compensate investors, unlike a solar farm that sells electricity onto the grid.
To entice private investors, wealthy governments are putting taxpayer money on the line, accepting first losses on projects that don’t work out.
BlackRock Inc, the giant investment manager, has launched a $250 million facility alongside the development agencies of France, Germany and other countries to provide climate financing to the developing world.
“If we just had institutional capital alone, we might be much more constrained in where we could go,” said Jim Barry, BlackRock’s chief investment officer for alternative investments.
Climate funding is channeled through more than two dozen different agencies, each with their own rules and requirements. Some of the requirements—such as one demonstrating that a climate project advances gender equality—reflect the prerogatives of wealthy nations. Others are designed to give developing countries more say over how the funds are spent.
“Sometimes I argue it’s not worth pursuing some little amount of money, because the energy, time and resources for developing a proposal are not worth it,” said Mizan Khan, a climate negotiator for Bangladesh, one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The Green Climate Fund is the cornerstone of the U.N.’s strategy for channeling funds to the developing world. Launched in 2015, the fund can dole out grants or use its money to enlist private investors.
By taking on the riskiest slice of financing on climate-change projects, the fund aims to leverage huge sums of private capital with a relatively small contribution of its own funds.
The GCF helped launch renewable energy in Egypt by financing a huge solar farm in Benban, 400 miles south of Cairo, and wind turbines on the Gulf of Suez.
The GCF gave a $15 million grant for technical consulting for the Egyptian electricity sector and lent $150 million for the project in 2017, when Egypt’s political turmoil meant foreign capital was only available at high interest rates.
Other investors put $850 million into the project. Since then, investors have flooded into Egyptian solar projects, driving down the price of solar power sharply.
Efforts to scale up the GCF’s financial firepower, however, have been beset with disputes between wealthy and developing countries as well as frequent leadership changes.
“The work environment in the fund is very adversarial,” said Wael Aboulmagd, a senior Egyptian diplomat who is on the fund’s board.
At a July 2018 meeting, board members spent days arguing over new policies sought by wealthy countries, such as an update to the fund’s stance on gender equality and allowing the board to make decisions without unanimity.
Developing-world officials feared rich nations, which were due to pledge more money, were using the moment as leverage to impose their priorities.
The executive director unexpectedly resigned during the three-day meeting, citing personal reasons. By the end, the bickering left no time for the board to approve funding proposals.
“After this meeting, I cannot see how I can come home and defend why we should put more money into this fund,” said Lars Roth, a Swedish representative on the board. “We haven’t made any decision of significance. This has to end.”
One project that had already been approved, the Global Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Fund Next, aimed to use $250 million in capital from the GCF to raise another $500 million from private-sector investors.
The money was to be seeded into an array of subsidiary funds with more leverage, bringing the project’s total investment firepower to $30 billion, to pay for renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects in dozens of countries across the developing world, from Belize to Uganda. It was the Green Climate Fund’s most ambitious attempt yet to amplify its money with private-sector finance.
In June 2020 the project was canceled. Under GCF rules, sponsors had asked developing-world governments to preapprove a series of hypothetical projects that could be used to raise money from private investors.
That provoked resistance from India, Rwanda and others that wanted more control over specific projects in their territories.
“I’ve sweated blood and tears on that,” said an official involved in the project. “We spent an incredible amount of time discussing how we could sue each other if something went wrong.”
Yannick Glemarec, the GCF’s executive director, said the project was a great idea but beyond the fund’s capacity when it was proposed.
“We had to start everything from scratch,” he said, adding that cooperation between developed and developing nations “is a challenge at times, but I wouldn’t swap the legitimacy this gives GCF for any other model.”
As Glasgow approaches, wealthy countries are drafting a new plan to hit the Paris agreement’s finance target and to make up for the fact they have likely fallen short in 2020.
“We should be focused on delivering the $100 billion before we start talking about huge numbers,” said an adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron.
The developing world disagrees. When Ms. Creecy, the South African minister, demanded $750 billion in annual climate finance, she wanted to start a discussion that poorer nations felt developed countries were avoiding, said Mr. Fakir.
The figure is based on a formula the Global Environment Facility, a U.N. fund, has used to finance projects in the developing world for decades. The facility typically requires recipient countries and private investors to put up $12 for every dollar provided by the fund.
So South African officials simply took the amount of public funds provided directly by developed countries in 2019—around $62 billion, according to the OECD—and multiplied by a factor of 12. Then they rounded up.
In September, African nations used the South African methodology to settle on an even bigger finance demand to be presented in Glasgow: $1.3 trillion annually by 2030.
Alok Sharma, the U.K. climate minister who is leading Glasgow negotiations, said he is focused on pressuring wealthy countries to deliver on the $100 billion target and to provide more money as grants rather than loans.
“Every nation has taken a huge hit to their public finances because of Covid,” he said. “If you’re going to ladle more debt on developing nations, that’s not going to be particularly helpful.”
10 UNESCO Forests Emit More C02 Than They Soak Up
Sites containing some of the world’s most treasured forests, including the Yosemite National Park and Indonesia’s Sumatra rainforest, have been emitting more heat-trapping carbon dioxide than they have absorbed in recent years, a U.N.-backed report said.
According to the report released Thursday, factors like logging, wildfires and clearance of land for agriculture are to blame. The excess carbon turns up from just 10 of 257 forests classified among UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature and UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural and educational agency, said their report provides the first-ever assessment of greenhouse gases produced and absorbed in UNESCO-listed forests. The study was based on information collected through on-site monitoring and from satellites.
The study adds to growing signs that human activities and the fallout from climate change — which scientists say has made weather extremes like drought and wildfires more likely — have transformed some natural carbon sinks that suck up CO2 from the air into net sources of it over the last two decades.
“All forests should be assets in the fight against climate change,” said Tales Carvalho Resende, a co-author of the report who works at Paris-based UNESCO. “Our report’s finding that even some of the most iconic and best protected forests, such as those found in World Heritage sites, can actually contribute to climate change is alarming.”
The consequences of climate change will be on many minds as world leaders gather in Glasgow starting this weekend for a key United Nations climate conference known as COP26.
The 10 sites that were net sources of carbon from 2001 to 2020 were the Tropical Rainforest in Sumatra; the Río Platano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras; Grand Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park in the United States: Waterton Glacier International Peace Park in Canada and the U.S.; the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa; Kinabalu Park in Malaysia; the Uvs Nuur Basin in Russia and Mongolia; the Greater Blue Mountains area of Australia; and Morne Trois Pitons National Park in Dominica.
All told, however, the net carbon emissions from the 10 sites together amount to little compared to the total of roughly 190 million tons of carbon dioxide that are absorbed each year by all 257 UNESCO-listed forests. Of those, about 80 sites were net neutral, while the rest were net absorbers of carbon.
The 10 sites accounted for nearly 5.5 million tons of net carbon emissions. The most impactful was the Tropical Rainforest in Sumatra, which removed about 1.2 million tons from the atmosphere, but released another 4.2 million — making for net emissions of about 3 million tons.
That was from a combination of logging and wood harvesting, as well as the impact of agriculture, the study found.
In the United States, Yosemite generated a net of approximately 700,000 tons of carbon, largely due to a bout of devastating wildfires in the area in recent years.
Tales Carvalho Resende pointed to four “really huge wildfires” over the last decade at World Heritage sites.
“World Heritage sites serve as a laboratory — as observatories for environmental changes,” he added. “What is happening at World Heritage sites is just the tip of the iceberg … in terms of emissions, it represents only a small portion of the whole picture.”
Crypto Advocates Call For Clarity Amid Climate Summit
Digital-asset companies are pushing back against claims of excessive energy usage in the cryptocurrency sector as world leaders flock to Glasgow this week for key climate change talks.
Global Digital Finance, whose members include industry juggernauts BitMEX, Coinbase Global Inc. and Crypto.com called for greater data transparency around issues of sustainability.
The group published a report on Monday in an effort to set industrywide environmental goals amid greater scrutiny of Bitcoin’s contribution to global warming.
The report contemplates how best to measure environmental impact of digital assets, digs into their social utility and warns policy makers against making a trade-off.
The rise of ESG investing, where investors take account of a company or asset’s environmental, social and corporate governance credentials, risks tempering demand for the digital assets. Crypto advocate Elon Musk cited excessive energy use when he stopped taking Bitcoin as payment for Tesla Inc. vehicles earlier this year.
The industry pushback was apparent in London-based commercial think-thank Z/Yen’s contribution to the report titled: Don’t Throw the Digital Baby Out With the Climate Bathwater.
Bitcoin’s carbon footprint is an awkward reality for investors that have flocked to the digital currency this year amid a rally that has seen the price more than double.
As an ever growing number of investors commit to align their portfolios with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping planetary warming to 1.5°C, bringing clarity to Bitcoin’s carbon contribution and taking steps to mitigate that will become ever more crucial.
Coinbase Chief Policy Officer Faryar Shirzad proposed a commitment to voluntary reporting: “It may be time for our industry to partner with established leaders in carbon accounting and reporting to develop a bespoke, standardized framework for assessing and disclosing the climate impacts of crypto mining, trading, and holdings.”
Data will be a challenge. Global Digital Finance’s report argues that the narrative around crypto mining and energy intensity, which have largely been negative, appear “intellectually dishonest in its assertions and conclusions.”
To be sure, the crypto industry has always asserted that measuring its impact — financial or otherwise — requires special attention to factors that don’t apply to the burgeoning world of nontraditional finance.
Neither claims that “Bitcoin is a climate disaster” nor “one of the most sustainable” industries on the planet holds up when tested against evidence, according to Michel Rauchs and Alexander Neumueller, researchers at Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.
A common misconception about the Bitcoin network’s energy usage starts by comparing it to traditional payment systems, linking electricity consumption to transaction volume, they say. Having a reliable estimate of total power consumption, depends on the carbon intensity of the energy source used to generate the electricity, the Cambridge researchers say.
That would require a closer look at factors including where mining facilities, or networks of computers used to process transactions, are located as well as seasonality.
Meanwhile, there is also a growing effort to apply a social justice lens to digital asset investing. “As an innovative industry, we can and should do more than just offsetting carbon emissions,” Alexander Höptner, chief executive of crypto exchange BitMEX, said.
Blockchain platform Cardano, for its part, intends to plant trees as part of their first “global impact challenge.” Cardano Foundation pledged to plant 1 million trees in Madagascar, and potentially, in Kenya and Southeast Asia.
India’s 2070 Climate Target Is A Far Bigger Deal Than It Sounds
The world’s third-biggest polluter is setting real limits on its carbon footprint, as renewable installations approach the finish line and fossil-fuel power use declines fast.
For a world that needs its carbon emissions to diminish to nothing within the next 30 years, the announcement by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi of a 2070 net zero target might sound profoundly disappointing.
The world’s biggest emitter, China, isn’t promising zero before 2060. The second-largest, the U.S., is unlikely to be able to pass legislation through Congress sufficient to fortify President Joe Biden’s 2050 target against unpicking by future administrations or the courts.
Now the third-ranked polluter is out with a promise that’s 20 years too late. After a lackluster communique on climate from the Group of 20 meeting in Rome, the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow might appear to have already failed.
That view fails to recognize how far India has moved to come to this point — and how far it could still go. Indeed, it’s possible, based on Modi’s other promises, that the country’s emissions have already peaked, or come close to it. If that’s so, the largest remaining piece of the puzzle in tackling climate change is coming into focus.
The Next China
At the time of the Paris Agreement, India was expected to account for about two-thirds of the future increase in global emissions.
Until recently, it was conventional to regard India as “the next China” in terms of emissions, much as boosters used that phrase to characterize its potential economic growth.
Just as China accounted for the bulk of the world’s increase in emissions during the 2000s and 2010s, so would India in the 2020s and 2030s.
About 65% of the additional greenhouse gases pumped between 2013 and 2040 would come from there, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2015 World Energy Outlook.
That situation was well-suited to New Delhi’s long-held stance on international climate negotiations. From the first glimmerings of climate diplomacy in the 1980s, the government has consistently argued that developing nations that bear little of the historical responsibility for global warming shouldn’t be constrained in their ability to pollute.
When Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh signed up to a 2009 declaration stating the importance of keeping to two degrees Celsius of warming or less, it was enough to cause significant upset domestically because of the perceived constraint the acknowledgement imposed.
The change since then has been profound. At the time of the 2015 Paris climate conference, India’s two major energy targets pointed to increasing renewables deployment, and rapid emissions growth.
Coal output would double to 1.5 billion metric tons by 2020. Installations of wind, solar and other renewable generations would quadruple to hit 175 gigawatts by 2022.
India has failed to have 175 gigawatts of renewable power up and running by 2022. But it’s not far off track.
At the time, it was the renewables target that was widely dismissed, labelled as “incredible” by a 2016 Brookings Institution report.
In practice, though, while coal production has barely budged — increasing in line with consumption roughly 12% between 2015 and 2019 — renewables installations are now close to the finish line.
Installed capacity was 96GW in May, with a further 51GW under approval or construction and 30GW under bidding — enough to hit 176GW when it’s completed.
That’s still not good enough. To hit Modi’s new target of 500GW by 2030, India’s renewable installers will need to quadruple their rate of deployments to 45GW or so every year over the rest of this decade — equivalent to building the U.K.’s entire renewable fleet every year for the best past of a decade.
Still, if that target comes close to success, then emissions from India’s power sector, already slowing, will have stopped rising and entered decline more than a decade earlier than most analysts expected.
BloombergNEF research indicates that generation from coal and gas peaked in 2018; if renewable installations exceed its 2030 estimate of 380GW, the decline in fossil power will be even faster.
Blowin’ In The Wind
India’s fossil-fired power generation may have already peaked, and its decline may be faster with more renewable installations
That still leaves substantial emissions from other parts of the economy, to be sure. Power is the biggest slice of India’s emissions and the one contributing the bulk of the increase in the total, but manufacturing, transport and agriculture are nearly as important.
Even there, there’s the prospect that India will bend the curve. Billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani have set their sights on turning India into a superpower of green hydrogen, much as Ambani’s Jamnagar oil refinery, the world’s biggest, turned it into a player in crude oil processing in the 2000s.
That offers the prospect to decarbonize key industrial sectors such as steelmaking — where India’s shortage of high-quality coal and expertise in producing pig iron without blast furnaces, plus a coming glut of Chinese scrap metal, suggest a lower-emissions pathway for ferrous metal production.
In transport, too, electric vehicles are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Low taxes and charging costs mean electric two- and three-wheelers are already cheaper to operate than conventional vehicles.
Local consultancy JMK Research & Analytics estimates electric two-wheelers will hit a 17% share of their domestic market by 2026, and Piaggio & C. expects electric vehicles to have a 20% to 30% share of three-wheelers in the next two to three years. (Four-wheeler cars only comprise around 15% of India’s vehicle sales).
Two Wheels Good
Electric bike sales could hit a 17% share of India’s local two-wheeler market by 2026.
Most importantly, 2070 isn’t the end of the process. In just over a decade, India has gone from a position of accepting no limits on the world’s greenhouse emissions, to setting a constraint on even its own carbon footprint.
If investment dollars flow from rich countries into India’s booming low-emissions sector, industries that seem as hard to decarbonize now as the power sector seemed in 2015 will be the next to move. India’s path to zero is just beginning.
Carney Unveils $130 Trillion In Climate Finance Commitments
Banks and asset managers representing 40% of the world’s financial assets have now pledged to meet the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement, as an alliance championed by former central banker Mark Carney swells under the gaze of a world increasingly alarmed by planetary warming.
More than 450 firms representing $130 trillion of assets now belong to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, almost double the roughly $70 trillion when GFANZ was launched in April, according to a progress report published by the coalition on Wednesday.
Signatories must commit to use science-based guidelines to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, and to provide 2030 interim goals.
GFANZ was created in April. Convened by the United Nations, the alliance comprises six groups spanning all corners of the financial industry.
On Wednesday, the group announced that Michael R. Bloomberg, the owner and founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, will co-chair GFANZ together with Carney.
In a joint op-ed on Wednesday, the two underscored the need for private-sector contributions if the world is to successfully fight climate change.
“Ramping up adoption of clean energy and other sustainable infrastructure fast enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will require trillions of dollars in new investment — likely in the ballpark of $100 trillion,” the GFANZ co-chairs wrote. “Most of that will have to come from the private sector, especially after the enormous toll that the pandemic has taken on governmental budgets.”
For Carney, the announcement marks a milestone moment after he managed to get some of the world’s biggest financial firms to sign up at the eleventh hour. U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak called the commitments “historic” in a separate statement.
He also used the opportunity to announce plans to make Britain, which is hosting the COP26 climate summit, “the world’s first net zero aligned financial center.”
Despite the huge headline number, skeptics question the underlying terms of the commitments. According to French nonprofit Reclaim Finance, none of the sub-alliances that make up GFANZ require signatories to stop financing fossil-fuel expansion.
And since the 2015 Paris accord was struck, global banks have funneled $4 trillion into oil, gas and coal, with almost half a trillion of that allocated this year alone, according to Bloomberg data.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a recent speech that mankind’s “addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink.” He also said that “there is a deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion over emissions reductions and net zero targets, with different meanings and different metrics.”
For that reason, Guterres said he plans to establish an expert panel “to propose clear standards to measure and analyze net zero commitments from non-state actors.”
The Science Based Targets initiative, which certifies corporate climate policies and recently introduced a Net Zero Standard, published a report on Wednesday it says should create a foundation for reaching consensus around net zero.
The “lack of consistent principles, definitions, metrics and evidence of effective strategies to meet the targets limits the ability of financial institutions to support the reduction of emissions in the real economy that is needed to stabilize temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels,” SBTi said.
The GFANZ progress report also outlines work under way to define net-zero pathways for carbon-intensive sectors, alignment on what constitutes suitable transition plans for banks and corporates and a sector-wide plan to deploy capital needed for decarbonisation in emerging markets.
Carney said in a recent interview that he’ll be “ruthlessly, relentlessly” monitoring signatories to make sure they live up to their promises. And GFANZ members themselves also addressed the seriousness of the task ahead.
Referring to the headline figure of $130 trillion, Larry Fink, the chief executive officer of BlackRock Inc., said during a COP26 panel on Wednesday that “deploying that capital is going to be far harder” than securing the commitments.
His comments echoed Citigroup Inc. CEO Jane Fraser, who noted on the same panel that setting consistent sustainability standards “will make it much easier” for clients to invest in green projects.
For the British government, COP has been an opportunity for the country to try to reinvent itself as a climate leader in a post-Brexit world. Sunak says the goal of becoming a net zero aligned financial center will entail a new rule book to ensure that companies follow well-defined standards when reporting their transition plans.
“To guard against greenwashing, a science-based ‘gold standard’ for transition plans will be drawn up by a new Transition Plan Taskforce, composed of industry and academic leaders, regulators, and civil society groups,” Sunak said in the statement.
In its capacity as host of the COP26 talks, Sunak also said that the U.K. has convened over 30 advanced and developing countries representing over 70% of global GDP to back the creation of new global climate reporting standards by the IFRS Foundation “to give investors the information they need to fund net zero.”
“This is critical if we are going to rewire the financial system to prevent climate breakdown,” said Heather McKay, policy adviser at climate think tank E3G. “I hope that other countries follow suit.”
Carbon Offsets Are A Distraction For Crypto
Companies like BitMEX shouldn’t follow the corporate trend in buying these financial assets and build renewables instead.
BitMEX, the Seychelles-based derivatives exchange, is looking to mitigate its environmental footprint by purchasing $100,000 worth of carbon credits. Those credits represent 7,110 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, the amount BitMEX figures it’s on the line for through its bitcoin-based business.
It’s a fine effort especially because, to my knowledge, no one is criticizing BitMEX for its energy draw. The move, which would offset BitMEX’s share of bitcoin transactions and its corporate servers, would make it one of the first “carbon neutral” crypto exchanges, it said in a blog post. (Rival derivatives platform FTX has made a similar pledge.)
There is a hitch: Carbon credits don’t work as advertised, being frequently fraudulent and ineffective. While BitMEX’s “net zero” pledge is laudable, it’s following a familiar corporate playbook of shuffling deckchairs on a sinking ship.
As I write, more than 130 heads of state and thousands of attendees are gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, for a two-week-long conference dedicated to averting dangerous climate change.
As of February 2020, nearly a quarter of all Fortune 500 companies had signed pledges to go carbon neutral by 2030. And carbon offsets are a large part of this trend to go “green.” A generic term for a wide range of assets and activities, offsets are essentially promises to reduce environmental degradation in one area to compensate for environmental degradation elsewhere.
A company can make a green-sounding pledge to go “carbon neutral” by buying credits from some other company that has polluted less that year.
In Short: Offsets allow normal economic activity to continue apace. They operate on the understanding that X amount of emissions will be released no matter what, and that heavy polluters can be made better if other companies pollute less.
A new survey from Ecosystem Marketplace found that the voluntary carbon offset market is on track to cross $1 billion for the first time, as all-time market value hits $6.7 billion. Guilt is distributed.
“Offsetting essentially means for every ton we remove, we emit a ton somewhere else,” Kate Dooley, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne who studies the impact of carbon accounting, said in a recent interview.
“We have no space now for continued carbon dioxide emissions. Emissions need to go to zero within a few decades, and we need removals on top of that to reduce atmospheric concentrations.”
Offsetting is financialization at its worst: reducing activism to arbitrary economic activity. While carbon credits can and do help fund renewable efforts – typically reforestation, but also solar fields and the like – those efforts may be less than advertised.
Greenpeace notes that carbon sinks have a short shelf life: Once a forest burns, or is logged, or dies naturally the carbon it traps is re-released.
The only solution, real-hardcore climate activists admit, is to reduce consumption and the amount of carbon released into the environment.
It’s funny, because BitMEX researchers would likely agree with all this. In their report, they note the limited applicability of carbon offsets. The crypto industry should confront its problems and avoid “hollow promises and vague ESG pledges,” the BitMEX researchers said.
Crypto has a target on its back precisely because of its energy use. Bitcoin has no choice but to burn vast amounts of energy to secure its network.
It transforms a shared commodity – electricity – into a scarce digital asset, a money backed by its supporters, not a state, through “proof-of-work.” You can argue (and I would disagree) that this is literally wasted energy, but you can’t really stop it because that’s the point of being decentralized.
There’s also controversy around how to measure Bitcoin’s energy footprint. Although the network is publicly audible, no one can guarantee what is powering it.
It’s arguable that bitcoin is a greener money than others, because miners are incentivized to find cheap power sources (renewables are often subsidized or naturally cheaper) or make use of “stranded” energy (like from gas flares).
BitMEX took a somewhat heterodox approach to measuring bitcoin’s carbon footprint, deciding to put a kilowatt figure on transaction volume. (Many industry activists have said you cannot compare Bitcoin, a base layer monetary network, to Visa, a payments rail, when it comes to transactions and energy use; Visa, by transaction count, has a far less intensive energy draw.)
BitMEX estimated that every $1 spent on BTC transaction fees can incentivize up to 0.001 tons of carbon emissions. So “assuming a $50 per ton cost of carbon, for every $1 spent on transaction fees, [an exchange] would need to spend 5 cents offsetting the carbon costs, 5%,” BitMEX wrote. That money is better spent elsewhere.
BitMEX notes its consumption model is “imperfect” and “controversial.” I’d argue it’s hardly a solution. But there is still hope.
Bitcoin, and crypto generally, can incentivize investments in renewable energy.
We’ve already built network scaling solutions like SegWit, transaction batching and the Lightning Network that reduce Bitcoin’s footprint.
There are also crypto-based systems for tracking or trading carbon credits, with the idea that blockchain could make these markets less opaque and more liquid. These are notable efforts but are not true solutions.
If crypto companies want to make a difference, they ought to put their outsized profits in building actual infrastructure: propagating scaling layers, building out solar and wind farms, funding carbon trapping research. Real solarpunk stuff, not more financialization.
Crypto can work quietly on solutions to fix the climate crisis. We’re not responsible for the worst of what’s to come. But this is an industry that’s unafraid to experiment and built from the ground up. It’s totally conceivable Bitcoin goes carbon neutral in the not-too-distant future (social pressure is good for that).
But for that to happen, we have to admit that carbon credits are little more than a distraction.
Modi’s COP26 Goals Could Mean A Massive Energy Overhaul In India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised many at the Glasgow climate summit by setting a 2070 net-zero goal for the country, but it’s the ambitious targets that come before that date that may determine the nation’s green success.
In his speech, Modi offered five climate targets India would pursue, four of them set for the end of the decade. Here’s a look at how they measure up to the country’s 2015 goals:
Renewables Have A Thin Share In India’s Primary Energy Mix
The most ambitious of the five targets is the country’s aim to draw half of its energy requirement from renewable sources by 2030.
Reaching that figure would mean a large enough expansion to replace coal for electricity, as well as petroleum fuels used in transport or cooking with renewable power. Coal, oil and natural gas account for 75% of energy use now.
“Sourcing 50% of primary energy needs from renewables will be a tall order,” said Debasish Mishra, a Mumbai-based partner at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. “It may be possible to reach that share in power generation with contributions from other non-fossil sources like hydropower and nuclear.”
India’s target of reaching 500 gigawatts of installed power capacity from non-fossil sources by 2030 is little different from its existing goal of 450 gigawatts from renewable sources by the same year.
The original renewables goal doesn’t include large hydropower dams or nuclear plants, which would count toward non-fossil fuel sources. Those two already combine for 53 gigawatts, according to government data, with more projects already under construction.
“The target to build 500 gigawatts of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030 is a rehashing of the existing target,” according to Shantanu Jaiswal, head of BloombergNEF in India.
India will reduce emissions intensity per unit of GDP by 45% by the end of the decade, Modi said, after previously committing to reducing it by 33-35% from 2005 levels during the Paris summit.
The country has made rapid progress in this area and policy makers have often spoken about surpassing the Paris target. The emissions intensity of India’s economy has already come down by more than 24% from 2005 levels, former environment minister Prakash Javadekar said in June.
1 Billion Tons
India will also cut carbon dioxide emissions by 1 billion tons from business as usual by the end of the decade, Modi said. He pointed to the country’s massive railway network — running mainly on diesel or coal-fired electricity — planning to turn net zero by 2030, an exercise that will help bring down emissions by 60 million tons a year.
To curb emissions, the country is planning to mandate the use of green hydrogen in industries, such as petroleum refineries and fertilizer, while the power ministry is putting together a plan to mandate a minimum use of green energy in other industries.
India’s Oil Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said in a Twitter post Tuesday that state-run refiners and fuel retailers have also embarked upon an ambitious plan to fast-track electric vehicle charging in fuel stations.
Net Zero by 2070
With India making the pledge to reach net zero by 2070, all of the world’s biggest emitters have committed to become carbon neutral, even if Modi’s surprise announcement came after months of resisting international pressure and asking for more recognition of its nearer-term achievements.
Still, Modi reiterated the country’s position that the developed world had failed to keep its promise of supplying enough climate finance to help developing economies make their clean energy transition.
“India managed to push back on demands to set an earlier net zero target and set itself a target it can achieve,” Deloitte’s Mishra said.
Al Gore Sees ‘Subprime Carbon Bubble’ With $22 Trillion Tag
Al Gore, the former vice president of the U.S. and the chairman of Generation Investment Management LLP, said the world is witnessing a sustainability revolution and warned that investors caught on the wrong side of history will face losses.
“We now have a subprime carbon bubble of $22 trillion, based on an absurd assumption that all of those carbon fuels are going to be burned,” Gore said in an interview Wednesday with Bloomberg Television’s Francine Lacqua.
“They’re not going to be, especially because the new renewable sources of electricity are much cheaper now.”
He said that once the risks are “internalized,” then “it’s going to affect the value of all these assets.”
Gore, who spoke from Glasgow, Scotland, where the COP26 climate summit is unfolding, made similar comments almost a decade ago. But the world is now waking up to the “dire” threat of climate change, he said. As a result, such predictions are starting to resonate more as the urgent need for decarbonization sinks in.
Gore spoke as the focus of COP26 turned to the financial industry. The day started with an announcement from the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero that firms representing $130 trillion in assets have now committed to net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.
“I think we’re in the early stages of a sustainability revolution that’s the biggest opportunity in history,” Gore said. “And those who don’t recognize that and adapt to it are in commercial risk. They’re going to be left behind.”
Gore’s 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” brought the issue of climate change to the awareness of the general public. The commitments being unveiled in Glasgow suggest that there’s been a genuine shift in sentiment and that there will also be the necessary follow-through, he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a letdown after this,” Gore said.
Tricky Talks On Carbon Markets; Thunberg Fed Up
Energy Day at COP26 produced a couple of deals meant to phase out fossil fuels and bring in clean energy. But the agreements — crafted as part of the U.K.’s effort to “consign coal to history” — were soon looking a bit thin.
The coal pact didn’t include the U.S. or China. It did include Indonesia, but that country got an opt-out from the most important bit: the clause on not building new plants. Poland, touted as one of the key signatories, said it hadn’t agreed to anything new.
An accord on foreign fossil fuel funding also had some big omissions — even if Italy came onboard at the last minute. And by the end of the day the big backer — the U.S. — was emphasizing where the exemptions lay.
Greta Thunberg said it was all “blah blah blah.”
* Italy Agrees To End Overseas Fossil Fuel Funding At Last Minute
* Cop Also Produced A Deal On Coal, But The U.S. Isn’t On The List Of Signatories…
* …While China Energy’s Coal Output Hit A Record
* Carbon Market Talks Hit Obstacle On Use Of Cash
* Africa Wants Climate Finance Boost
* Iea Sees 1.8-Degree Increase After Net-Zero Pledges
* Blackrock To Add New Climate Finance Metric To Portfolios
A Material Thinner Than Human Hair Could Slash Carbon Emissions
Super-thin membrane from startup Osmoses aims to cut pollution and improve CO2 capture economics.
Osmoses, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, has created a membrane material thinner than human hair to reduce carbon emissions from industrial processes such as natural gas production.
Today, businesses use an energy-intensive technique called separation to filter out the valuable methane from other gases. That often requires using fossil fuels to boil off the unwanted chemicals — a process that can account for as much as 15% of world energy demand, according to a 2016 study.
Instead, Osmoses uses membranes thinner than 1 millionth-of-a-meter — made from carbon and hydrogen — that can remove the unwanted molecules using as much as 60% less energy than a conventional process, said Francesco Maria Benedetti, the startup’s chief executive officer.
“We envision applying our technology to increase the sustainability of existing infrastructure,” said Benedetti, a post-doctoral associate at MIT. He and co-founder Holden Lai, who’s also chief technology officer, started the company as a collaboration between MIT and the lab at Stanford University, where Lai was a post-doctoral fellow.
Cutting emissions now is crucial if nations are going to meet long-term goals set at the ongoing COP26 climate summit in Scotland.
The company raised $3 million more in a pre-seed funding round led by the Engine, a venture capital firm started by MIT that’s an existing investor. That funding will help the company build a prototype that can work in the real world.
Its goal is to have the membrane installed by the end of 2023 and, if that goes as planned, the company would look to raise more money to commercialize their product.
The first application could be used to help capture CO2 emissions from industry. Osmoses’s membrane could help dramatically bring down the cost of purifying oxygen. Using that oxygen would increase the efficiency of burning fossil fuels in power generation, steel making or glass manufacturing. That also makes it easier, and potentially cheaper, to capture and store those emissions.
China, India And Other Developing Nations Seek $1.3 Trillion A Year In Climate Finance
Request is made in paper presented at COP26 summit; richer countries say they aren’t ready to pledge beyond 2025
Most of the world’s developing countries have backed a demand for wealthy nations to channel at least $1.3 trillion in climate finance to them annually starting in 2030, the opening salvo in one of the most contentious negotiating topics at the COP26 climate summit.
African nations and a group called the Like-Minded Developing Countries, which includes China, India and Indonesia, said in a document they submitted to the United Nations at the summit that half the money should go toward funding renewable energy in the developing world and half toward protecting these countries from the effects of global warming.
Developed nations have long pledged to help pay for developing nations to respond to climate change. That promise was crucial to sealing the Paris accord in 2015, when the U.S., Europe and other wealthy countries agreed to provide $100 billion a year from 2020 through 2025.
The $1.3 trillion target for mobilizing funds reflects the huge investments that will be needed after that to reach the climate targets of the Paris accord, the paper says.
“The post 2025 mobilization goal must reflect the ambition, progression and the collective agreement to stay well below 2 (degrees) Celsius and aspire to stay within the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goal,” the paper says.
Developed nations didn’t hit that target in 2020, falling $20 billion short, and aren’t likely to meet it until 2023, climate negotiators said in a report in October. The shortfall has angered developing nations and complicated the talks in Glasgow.
Western officials say they aren’t ready to set a target for climate finance post-2025, given how difficult it has been for them to hit the $100 billion target. They will only begin the talks at COP26 on a goal for post-2025.
“We’re not feeling particularly capable now,” said one European official. “It’s really not the right time.”
Delegates from China, India and Africa didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The European Union said on Thursday that there had been a good start to climate negotiations in Glasgow.
“It’s a bit early to say whether we are on track for a fully successful COP but the early signs seem reasonably good,” said Jacob Werksman, the EU’s lead negotiator.
One of the top priorities for the ongoing meeting is finalizing the rulebook behind the 2015 Paris Agreement. Outstanding issues include defining rules for international carbon trading, whether countries should update their carbon emission reduction plans more frequently than the current five-year cycle, and rules on the reporting of those goals.
Earlier this week some climate negotiators said they had made progress toward establishing a framework for international carbon trading, after Brazil said it was ready to make concessions, having blocked any agreement in the past.
Also on Thursday, two groups that include dozens of countries agreed to stop funding new coal-fired power plants and overseas oil and natural gas projects.
The two agreements fit into a pattern of deals inked by subsets of like-minded countries pursuing their own, limited emissions-reducing ambitions at COP26, which they hope can pressure other countries to act more aggressively.
“These announcements are raising the bar for everyone, including India and China,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at think tank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “It has a knock on effect,”
The two deals come as a broader U.N.-backed agreement on specific, binding emissions-reductions commitments evades delegates so far. Big polluters like China, India and Russia have pledged emissions cuts, but not to the levels that Western nations, like the U.S., the U.K. and members of the EU have insisted are necessary to limit global warming.
Ending coal financing has been a key focus of the U.K. government in its role as host of the climate talks. Signatories to the coal deal have agreed to phase out unabated coal power—meaning projects that don’t have technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions—in major economies that have signed on in the 2030s, and for the rest in the 2040s.
The U.K. government estimates the deal could result in the closure of 40 gigawatts of coal power, equivalent to over half the U.K.’s electricity-generating capacity.
But Thursday’s deal falls significantly short of a global pledge. Leading coal consumers China, India and the U.S. aren’t part of the 40-member group that signed the pledge. Meanwhile, a separate promise by the U.S. and the U.K. to end public funding of oil and gas investments overseas included about 20 signatories.
In that deal, government-backed banks in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. said that they would stop financing unabated coal, oil and natural gas projects abroad by the end of next year.
Priority will instead be given to clean energy projects, according to a statement issued by 20 countries and institutions. The group said they currently spend about $15 billion annually financing such fossil-fuel projects.
The largest funders of fossil-fuel development abroad, including South Korea, Japan and China, weren’t part of Thursday’s oil and gas agreement. Europe was split.
Portugal and the European Investment Bank, a lending arm of the EU, signed up. Italy, Germany and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, a government funded development bank, did not.
On Wednesday, the private sector vowed to help the world transition to cleaner energy. Global banks, major investors and insurers, and financial regulators pledged to incorporate carbon emissions into their most fundamental decisions.
Thunberg Sets Slogan “blah blah blah” For COP26 In Scotland’s City of Protest
It’s climate demonstrators’ turn to take over Glasgow, a place with a long history of defying the establishment.
Promises were made and others blurred, but world leaders hailed progress at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow this week. Inevitably, the mood outside on the streets was more skeptical.
After the political grandees departed from Scotland’s biggest city, the focus at COP26 turned to protesters demanding the kind of action they probably knew they were never going to get.
Police expect as many as 100,000 people will gather in Glasgow on Saturday following a march and rally led by youth activists on Friday that served as a party-like prelude.
In the city’s central George Square, the theater for many a protest over the decades, children, youths, parents and grandparents made their mark on the conference on Friday.
Placards ranged from “There’s no planet B” and “Why don’t you care?” to the more humorous “Looking 4 a hot lover not a hot planet.” One slogan resonated most: an end to what activist-in-chief Greta Thunberg called “blah blah blah.”
COP26 organizers may have been hoping their own messages would cut through more. Indeed, there has been some progress so far in the conference, which runs until Nov. 12.
That includes deals on phasing out methane and fossil-fuel funding. There was also a promise by 100 countries to stop deforestation. But a tough second week ensues.
For Ross Tatham, who was on the march on Friday, the legacy of Glasgow will come from the “ground up” rather than the pledges from leaders.
“One thing is certain and it’s that the main event makes little difference,” said Tatham, 24, a physics graduate from Bristol who had come to volunteer at a community hub. “There’s no accountability for states to follow up on what they’re saying. Civic society has been shut out.”
Reports of public worker strikes during COP26, overflowing refuse bins and a rat infestation cast a cloud over the host city. Yet for protesters that just added to the image of Scotland’s gritty former industrial heartland and its track record in defying the established order.
A century ago, a movement nicknamed Red Clydeside led a political protest that prompted the British government to send in tanks to quell what it thought might turn into a socialist revolution. On the Clyde river a short walk from the central shopping area, there’s a statue of communist Spanish Civil War leader Dolores Ibarruri.
More recently, Glasgow voted for Scottish independence in a referendum in 2014 when the country overall chose to remain in the U.K. by 55% to 45%. The Scottish National Party-led government is pushing for another vote.
Ruth Ewan, 40, was persuaded to come to the event by her eight-year-old daughter, who has been learning at school in Glasgow about climate change and Thunberg’s campaign. She said more people are getting engaged and her home city is the place to demonstrate that.
“Glasgow is a city of protest,” said Ewan, whose wolfhound dog wore a placard made by her daughter saying “paws climate change 4 good.” “It has a rich history of children being involved in politics too.”
China Issues Guidelines To Fight Pollution, Cut Emissions
China issued guidelines to reduce pollution and cut carbon emissions in an effort to address outstanding environmental issues in key regions and industries.
The guidelines reiterated some targets from an earlier roadmap aimed at capping carbon emissions before 2030, including lowering carbon dioxide emissions per GDP by 18% in 2025 compared with 2020, according to a document circulated by the official Xinhua News Agency.
China also plans to lower coal consumption in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area and the Yangtze River Delta by 10% and 5% respectively during the five-year period through 2025, according to the guidelines.
Crypto Sustainability And Green Solutions Highlighted At COP26
Speaking at the COP26 summit, Cointelegraph’s editor-in-chief shared expert insights into the potential impact the crypto community could have on environmental initiatives.
Cointelegraph editor-in-chief Kristina Cornèr spoke at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday about the positive impact of the cryptocurrency ecosystem on environmental objectives.
Arriving in Scotland’s second-largest city following panel hosting duties at Lisbon’s Web Summit last week, Cornèr spoke on topics ranging from establishing interoperable relationships between people and technology to the mining impact of Bitcoin (BTC).
Commenting on the disparity between the traditional energy sectors and the crypto community in implementing climate change initiatives, Cornèr argued that the emergence of new technology provides an opportunity to learn, stating:
“Decentralization is an alternative to campanilism, or as it’s known in the English language, parochialism. This is a local, small mindset versus a global vision of a decentralized world.”
Before she transitioned into the cryptocurrency space, Cornèr established an illustrious background working in the environment sector as a communications manager for the Union of French Entreprises for Energy Efficiency and Ecology before continuing on to study international energy politics and green technologies as a research fellow at the ENERPO Center at the European University.
Discussing the often hypocritical tendencies of attendees at global conferences and summits to advocate for universal behavior change at the consumer level, instead of governmental or corporation-led action, she stated:
“The key to big historical shifts is not in completely changing or shifting, but in new synergy between people, technology and education.”
Non-profit environmental group, Germanwatch shared their latest iteration of their annual Climate Change Performance Index 2022. The panel of experts spoke to a global audience about the performance of 60 nations that account for 92% of the global emissions.
Offering her opinion on the misconceptions surrounding Bitcoin’s mining activity, and the impact of tarnishing a nascent industry for its early flaws, instead of recognizing its future potential for energy efficiency, Cornèr stated:
“Of course there are pitfalls as there is with every new industry, but we are on the way to creating more green solutions. What is really important with the blockchain space is that people are ready to think with a new mindset and searching for the solutions and the climate change coalition is a great example of that.”
The Crypto Climate Accord is an environmentally-focused initiative comprised of over 150 firms from the crypto, blockchain, tech and energy industries that seek to establish a unified approach to supporting sustainability as well as making pledges for net-carbon output by 2030. Notable participants include Consensys, theWeb3 Foundation, Ripple, Near Protocol and Pixl8, among others.
Concluding her speech, Cornèr shared a unifying message about the inherent value of humanity in securing the future prosperity of Earth’s ecosystem:
“The crypto community is ambitious, daring and full of potential. Innovation is about synergy. It’s beyond technology and about people. It’s about us.”
Empty Plastic Bottles Go From Trash To Hot Commodity
Spot prices for recycled PET have skyrocketed this year. A shortage will make consumer brands’ sustainable packaging pledges more expensive to meet.
The used plastic bottles best known for clogging the world’s oceans are in surprisingly short supply, as consumer brands compete to meet recycling targets.
Spot prices for recycled PET flakes that are made from plastic-bottle waste have almost doubled in Europe since the beginning of the year, data from S&P Global Platts shows. Prices have also increased in the U.S., where environmental rules on packaging are less strict, but not by as much.
The cost of food-grade recycled PET has hit $1 a pound, up from around 64 cents before the pandemic, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).
Underpinning the surge is skyrocketing demand for recycled plastic from household-name brands that have set voluntary targets to reduce the amount of oil-intensive virgin plastic they use in their packaging.
Nestlé, the world’s biggest food company, wants to cut its use of virgin plastic by one-third by 2025. Coca-Cola wants to be using at least 50% recycled material by the end of the decade.
They face stiff competition for resources from other industries. Plastic bottles have been recycled into things such as carpets and takeaway food cartons for years. Now clothing brands are also vying for them.
The fashion industry hasn’t yet figured out how to recycle plastic-based garments such as polyester into new clothing at scale, so relies on bottle waste generated by soft-drinks giants to make the fabrics it needs for new sustainable clothing collections.
Tightening environmental laws mean the crunch will probably intensify. By 2025, companies in the European Union will have to use 25% recycled content in new PET drink bottles and minimum quotas are due to be announced for other types of packaging. Only around 5% of packaging in Europe is composed of recycled materials, according to KPMG.
In the U.S., California and Washington State have passed mandatory recycled content quotas for certain types of plastic packaging. Recycled PET became more expensive than virgin PET around 18 months ago and is now priced at a 20% premium as demand increases, according to NAPCOR.
American consumer brands may find it especially tricky to meet their targets. The infrastructure needed to collect plastic waste is less developed in the U.S., where the recycling rate for PET bottles averages around 30%.
That compares with 64% in Europe, according to an estimate by the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services. Major investment in household collection and recycling facilities will be needed to improve these rates.
Big plastics manufacturers could benefit from higher prices, but also need to offer recycled products to offset lower demand for virgin material in future. Indorama Ventures, the world’s biggest producer of PET, plans to recycle 50 billion PET bottles every year by 2025. Shares in the Bangkok-based company have increased 70% over the past 12 months.
An expensive battle for scarce supplies of recycled plastic is looming. The big companies being drawn into it are above all trying to cut their carbon footprints, but an additional environmental benefit could be cleaner oceans.
Venture Capital Is Flowing To Climate Software And Hardware
The climate crisis needs analysis tools as well as scientific breakthroughs.
Two weeks ago I broke down the sectors and trends behind 2021’s three quarters of a trillion dollars of energy transition investment. Renewable energy was the leading sector, followed by electrified transport, taking in a total of more than $600 billion dollars.
Most of that money flows to the financing of assets that will last decades (in the case of electric cars) or many decades (in the case of power generators).
Importantly though, more than $50 billion flowed to early-stage private companies, and not just in energy or transport. A useful way to categorize that early-stage investment is either climate software or climate hardware.
An example of the former is Watershed, which this week announced that it has raised $70 million to build software that allows companies to measure their greenhouse gas emissions. Watershed’s new investors are Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, software-focused venture capital investors who also co-invested in Google.
Watershed has appointed former Governor of the Bank of England (and prior to that, the Bank of Canada) Mark Carney and influential climate diplomat Christiana Figueres as advisers.
I think of the two of them as a form of software, too — adept at creating international standards and systems and engaging at the global level.
Measuring, analyzing, and pricing decarbonization challenges is important. But we also need to solve physics and chemistry problems in order to remove emissions from industrial processes, or change those processes while still producing the same or equivalent products. That’s hardware.
One initiative I have been watching closely is Swedish steelmaker SSAB’s ambitions to nearly eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from its production processes. Steel emissions are a significant source of greenhouse gases, and until recently have been thought of as intractable.
Last year, SSAB said that its pathway to near-zero emissions would take until 2045. Last month, it revised that dramatically – the company now plans to do so by the end of this decade.
One hardware investment is in marine shipping. Marine diesels run on heavy, highly-polluting fuels which emit many other pollutants besides carbon dioxide.
Decarbonizing shipping is also extremely challenging: marine diesel engines are long-lived, the sector is often low-margin, and an enormous global infrastructure exists to fuel today’s ships.
That makes a new initiative from the Singapore-based Global Centre for Maritime Decarbonisation quite important. The GCMD is launching a study that will experiment with using ammonia as a replacement for petroleum-based bunker fuel.
There are many safety, operational and regulatory factors to work through even in the early stages of the study, and a commensurate investment is required.
Importantly, green ammonia with zero net carbon emissions can be produced via renewable energy-powered electrolysis creating hydrogen, followed by a renewable-energy powered Haber-Bosch process, combining one nitrogen molecule with three hydrogen molecules.
Deep decarbonization will need software to guide company strategy and capital deployment, and hardware to build the chemical and physical infrastructure needed to change today’s industries. Both, fortunately, are being developed today in their own ways.