Over the past week, it became clear that considerable changes were underway in the global climate system, in the realm of government policy, and in the world’s energy markets. This blog post will touch on as many of these issues as possible. More importantly, it will serve as an open forum for discussing these recent trends over the coming weekend.
52,000 Square Miles of Permafrost Decaying in Canada
This week, Inside Climate News produced a must-read report high-lighting the latest science on permafrost thaw. The report found that:
“Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama.”
The article linked various permafrost thaw studies and produced a broad overview of the many and wide-ranging local and regional impacts. It identified major geophysical changes due to permafrost subsidence and erosion along the Arctic coastline (which in places is losing as much as 70-80 feet per year). It covered large regions experiencing land deformation due to permafrost thaw — some of which were quite large. As an example, one permafrost thaw related sink hole in Russia was a quarter mile across and growing. And it also identified a threat to river and estuary health posed by soil outflows produced by the thaw:
According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.
But perhaps what is more concerning are the implications of the research highlighted by Inside Climate News. To this point, permafrost thaw isn’t just a local issue — it’s a geophysical change the produces global impacts.
(Carbon and albedo feedback produced by permafrost thaw is a serious concern. However, impacts produced by permafrost thaw are even more wide-ranging. Image source: Carbon Brief.)
Permafrost thaw can add amplifying feedback carbon emissions to the Earth System at a time when atmospheric carbon levels are already the highest we’ve seen in about 5-15 million years. Frozen permafrost is a carbon sink –taking in more atmospheric carbon than it produces. Active, thawed permafrost generates the opposite effect. Microbes coming alive in the soil produce methane and carbon dioxide that contribute to the growing pools of carbon in the atmosphere and the world ocean. And with so much permafrost thawing as the world warms, the issue is one that simply will not go away.
Such amplifying feedbacks are a serious concern due to the fact that they make the need for global carbon emissions cuts more immediate and urgent. Carbon budgets, for example, become considerably more constrained when you can expect 50, 100, 250 billion tons or more of additional carbon emission coming from the thawing permafrost over timeframes relevant to human civilizations.
In addition, soil flushed down streams and into estuaries eventually deposits carbon into the world ocean system. As a result, you end up with still more carbon hitting an ocean that is already reeling from acidification stresses. The nutrients in the soil also feed algae blooms that speed acidification and potentially rob the ocean surface regions of vital oxygen when they decay. Considerable and rapid permafrost thaw has the potential, therefore, to also add to the larger and ongoing damages to ocean health due to fossil fuel emissions and to push the world to warm at a more rapid rate. So the Inside Climate News report is important, not just for the various regional impacts that it highlights, but for the larger implications due to the wide-ranging permafrost thaw that the research currently identifies.
Advancing Ocean Acidification
Recently, we highlighted threats to the world’s corals and, in particular, to the Great Barrier Reef as a result of a big warm-up in the world’s ocean system. One that is now producing a global coral bleaching event that could last for decades.
But warming ocean waters aren’t the only threat to corals and other marine species produced by human-caused climate change. Ocean acidification and ocean anoxia (in which warming combines with algae blooms and other factors to rob the oceans of oxygen) represent two of the other major threats to oceans related to climate change. Of these, ocean acidification has received a good deal of attention in the scientific press recently. In particular, this comprehensive piece in DW this week highlighted growing scientific concerns over ocean acidification.
The DW report shined a light on a new study:
…in Nature Climate Change this week [that] says ocean acidification is spreading rapidly in the western Arctic Ocean in both area and depth. That means a much wider, deeper area than before is becoming so acidic that many marine organisms of key importance to the food chain will no longer be able to survive there.
The study found that the region in which the ocean is uptaking high levels of CO2 and coordinately increasing ocean acidification has enlarged and expanded northward by 5 degrees of latitude. In particular, the zone of ocean acidification in the Western Arctic Ocean has expanded considerably. As a result, the rate at which the Arctic Ocean is acidifying is increasing.
(As atmospheric CO2 levels increase, the oceans take up more carbon and become more acidic. Polar oceans become acidic first. Then acidified waters expand southward. With atmospheric CO2 levels hitting around 410 ppm this year [peak value] polar ocean species are now threatened by acidification. Eventually, at around 500 ppm CO2, levels of acidity are high enough to threaten key ocean species the world over. Image source: Threat to Coral Reefs From Ocean Acidification.)
The study sounds an alarm among ocean researchers and environmentalists concerned about key ocean species vulnerable to acidification. The threat to species posed by climate change in the Arctic is now expanding from walruses, whales, polar bears, puffins and various fishes to include calcareous creatures like star fish, mollusks, shrimps, sea snails, various crabs and others. Where warmth has robbed some species of habitats, acidification dissolves the shells that protect the bodies of these creatures or kills off the chief food source of other key ocean animals.
As the oceans take up more and more of the amazing overburden of carbon flooding into the atmosphere chiefly from fossil fuel emissions, the cooler polar waters acidify first. And that’s where ocean researchers are seeing the early warning signs of harm. But acidic waters at the poles don’t just stay there. They expand southward — bringing the damage they cause with them. In this way, the lower latitude corals that are already experiencing mass die-offs spurred by warming waters will soon face the threat of acidic oceans as well.
Renewable Energy — An Economic Force of Nature
Despite a rightward shift in various global economic dynamos like the U.S., the U.K, and Australia, the hope for rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and related carbon emissions remains alive as renewable energy becomes an ever more powerful economic and political force.
In the U.S., 23 cities, townships and counties have now pledged to run their economies on 100 percent renewable electricity and California has just introduced legislation aiming at achieving 50 percent of its electricity generation from renewable sources by 2025 and 100 percent by 2045. More good news also came from the auto sector as electric vehicle sales in the U.S. jumped 59 percent year on year during the month of January.
(In the US, the unsubsidized, levelized cost of wind and solar now beat out every other competing energy system. Image source: Clean Technica.)
Globally, even the Pope is going electric as solar cell production is expected to hit near 80 gigawatts in 2017 — another record year following 10 years of uninterrupted expansion. And wind energy is racing to catch up to solar by setting new record low prices near 5 cents per kilowatt hour at power purchase bids in India. At such low prices, wind and solar now boast the lowest levelized costs of all major power sources according to this research. Meanwhile, in a trend that’s fantastic enough to make even computer chip manufacturers jealous, clean energy prices just keep falling even as renewable energy capabilities keep on improving.
The good news continues in China where 110 gigawatts of solar energy capacity is expected to be installed by 2020 and where sales of zero oil electric buses are now exploding. The adds to clean tech are also contributing to China’s plans to cut coal burning by a further 30 percent in 2017. These cuts are helping to spur planned cuts of 1.8 million coal and steel jobs coordinate with a responsible (something republicans and Trump would never consider) 15 billion dollar effort to retrain and place these workers in the new, less dangerous, cleaner industries of the future.
Trump — the Chief Beneficiary of a Russian Cyberwarfare Campaign Against the U.S. Electoral System — is Trying to Turn EPA into a ‘Vending Machine for Fossil Fuel Companies’
All this great news on the renewable energy front is, of course, tempered by the terrible and rapidly deteriorating state of the global climate. In addition, the forces opposing responses to climate change and actively seeking to throw a wrench into the amazing works of the renewable energy revolution have taken power in the form of the corrupt and Russian-influenced Trump Administration in the U.S.
It’s worth noting that Donald Trump and his ilk in the form of republicans in the U.S. and various allied fossil fueled politicians around the world are unlikely to be able to completely sabotage the economic juggernaught that renewable energy has become unless they succeed in a campaign aimed at total political dominance. And as Trump and his Russian helpers have learned, total dominance in a country with considerable separation of powers, as in the U.S., is a very difficult thing to achieve. Especially when the opposition to the forces of that dominance are as invigorated and diverse as they are today.
(Scott Pruitt spent most of his career attacking the EPA. Now, under Trump, he heads it. It could well be said that the environmental version of Bizzaro superman now sits at the helm of the agency that, in the US, is responsible for protecting the environment. Video source: Youtube.)
Despite these difficulties, Trump and his allies can probably effectively slow the renewable energy revolution down — to the great harm of pretty much everything living on Earth. Despite this fact, it’s well worth noting that renewable energy grew up into the economic force it is today despite continued attempts to stymie its growth by fossil fuel special interest groups over at least the past half-century. The rise of Trump and of so many powerful fossil fuel connected politicians around the world today can well be seen as a reactionary outgrowth of the old and inherently autocratic economic power associated with fossil fuels. One that is arguably now suffering an existential crisis. For the threat to fossil fuels now posed by renewables has grown considerably. In the U.S., solar alone accounted for 1 in 50 new jobs in 2016. In other words, substantially rolling back the renewable industry at this time would be very harmful to the U.S. economy. The systemic forces now protecting renewables are stronger than ever before simply due to the fact that the U.S. economic system increasingly has come to rely and depend on them.
But this inherent system change hasn’t stopped the Trump administration and its allied republicans from trying to sabotage the very forces that threaten a big chunk of their power base. And their initial efforts to this end since the election have involved rolling back key environmental laws and practices (those helpful bits of government that republicans like to blanket-label ‘regulation’). An example of this is the recent removal of rules requiring fossil fuel companies to report methane emissions at the EPA. A move that Vera Pardee of the Center for Biological Diversity identified as an attempt to turn “the EPA into an oil industry vending machine.”
Where the Trump Administration isn’t withdrawing the EPA from its responsibilities to prevent environmental harms by applying publicly helpful government oversight to industry, it’s attempting to de-fund the EPA altogether. A recent budget proposal by Trump aimed at raising defense spending by 54 billion on the backs of cuts to domestic agencies would have slashed the EPA’s scientific workforce, removed funding for key protections like preventing lead from entering U.S. drinking water, and slashed the EPA climate change prevention program by 70 percent.
Thankfully, Trump’s draconian cuts to domestic spending, the EPA, and public health are unlikely to make it through even a republican controlled Congress. But his budget proposal is an excellent illustration of how a far-right government tries to govern in the US these days — leverage puffed up fears of outsiders and a hyper-focus on security and defense to force cuts in critical programs while always denying the necessity of actually raising revenues through taxation to fund beneficial public programs.
In a related reference, Steve Hanley, responding to Trump’s transport secretary’s cuts to electric rail funding succinctly noted today that:
Republicans hate high-speed rail. In fact, Republicans pretty much hate spending taxpayer dollars on anything that might benefit taxpayers. They would prefer to give the money to defense contractors, corporate executives, and Wall Street investment bankers. After all, those are the folks who paid to get them elected.
The same could be said for the Trump Admin overall which was a monstrosity that grew up out of Wall Street and that apparently got a huge assist from the Russian petrostate by hacking and cyber-warfaring their way to electoral success in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race. And to this final point it’s worth noting that the significant political headwinds those concerned about climate change now face issue from all the groups that have produced so much resistance to helpful climate action in the past. From corrupt smokestack industries and from even more corrupt petrostates headed by autocratic dictators with a penchant for funding right wing groups in an attempt destabilize the world’s democratic governments as apparently now happened (at least to some degree) to the Executive Branch in the United States.
Andy in San Diego
Ryan in New England
The Washington Post
The New York Times
The Huffington Post