Record heat is searing the West for the second time this month. A massive heat dome is building over the region and is set to intensify for the latter half of this week. The heat wave could cause some all-time records to fall while worsening the region’s already catastrophic drought.
The region is already in the grips of sweltering temperatures. Over the weekend, temperatures topped 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46.1 degrees Celsius) in Phoenix and reached 110 degrees (43.3 degrees Celsius) in both Las Vegas and Palm Springs. The National Weather Service is warning of “dangerously hot conditions” on Monday across parts of Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah. More than 48 million people in 10 states are under a heat advisory watch or warning.
The extreme heat is only a taste of what’s the come, though, as high pressure spreads and locks in sunny skies and even more intense heat over a wide area. Later this week, temperatures from the Southwest to the Northern Rockies are forecast to be 15 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 13.8 degrees Celsius) above average. Thursday and Friday are expected to be particularly brutal.
Many daily and monthly heat records are expected to be broken, and someplaces may even see their highest temperatures in recorded history. Parts of California are expected to get as hot as 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius). Last Vegas is currently forecast to hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46.7 degrees Celsius) on Wednesday and again on Friday, just a degree off its all-time heat record. Record hot overnight lows in the 90s also mean cooling off will be nigh impossible without access to air conditioning.
But that will be tame compared to the heat at Furnace Creek in Death Valley. Regularly one of the hottest places on Earth, Furnace Creek is forecast to reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit (51.7 degrees Celsius) on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. That’s a shade off the record it set last year for the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded on Earth, but that’s hardly comforting. Even places as far north as Montana could reach triple-digit heat.Skip Adhttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.464.0_en.html#goog_220230001https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.464.0_en.html#goog_345398263https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.464.0_en.html#goog_1540528760
Extreme heat is becoming all the more common due to the climate crisis. It isn’t just uncomfortable, it can also be deadly. Research shows that high temperatures are the deadliest form of extreme weather on the planet due to increased threat of conditions like heat stress, heatstroke, and cardiovascular and respiratory disease. Older people are especially at risk, and the National Weather Service underscored that in its warnings this week referring to the heat as “DEADLY” in all caps.
The week’s severe heat will also further parch the West, which is experiencing a megadrought. The entirety of California, Utah, Nevada, and Oregon are in some form of drought, according to the Drought Monitor. The conditions are already spurring almond farmers to tear out their orchards, and California officials to create schemes to truck millions of salmon to the sea since waterways are too shallow and hot for the fish to navigate safely. Meanwhile, Lake Mead has dropped to its lowest levels since the Hoover Dam was built. This week’s heat will almost certainly make things much worse.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the coming heat it will make the West even more of a tinderbox, exacerbating wildfire conditions. Parts of the Southwest are already under “critical” or “extreme” fire warnings, and dire conditions could spread to the Northwest later this week. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there are 22 large blazes are already alight, including ones that prompted evacuations in California, Utah, and Arizona this past weekend. With more heat on the way, things are looking pretty terrifying. If you’re out there, please check the forecasts regularly and do all you can to stay safe.
Play VideoDuration 5:13Gov. Gavin Newsom announces proposal of $5.1 billion drought planCalifornia Gov. Gavin Newsom announces a proposal of a $5.1 billion investment for drought preparedness, infrastructure and response to ensure a more climate resilient system, in Merced County, Calif, on Monday, May 10, 2021. BY ANDREW KUHN
Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded his drought emergency declaration to 39 more counties Monday, underscoring the rapid deterioration of California’s water supply in recent weeks.
The governor broadened his earlier drought order, which was limited to two counties on the Russian River, to cover most of parched California, which is plunging into its second major drought in less than a decade.
Newsom didn’t issue any mandatory drought conservation measures, as his predecessor Jerry Brown did during the last drought.
But such mandatory orders, which could force urban Californians to cut back on outdoor usage, “are on the table” if the state has another dry winter, said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot.
Newsom issued the declaration shortly before arriving at San Luis Reservoir on the west side of Merced County, where he announced a proposal for a plethora of short- and long-term drought-assistance measures totaling $5.1 billion.
Some Newsom critics say he has been reluctant to declare a statewide drought for fear of angering voters with a recall election coming this fall. But hydrology is forcing the issue.
Since he issued a regional drought emergency last month for Sonoma and Mendocino counties, warm spring temperatures have melted and evaporated most of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which was well below average to begin with. Relatively little snowmelt — normally a big piece of the state’s summer and fall supply — reached California’s reservoirs.
The Sierra is producing “far less inflow into the reservoirs than any modeling would have predicted,” Crowfoot told The Sacramento Bee. “Much of the snowpack has melted into the ground.” Many of the major reservoirs, such as Folsom Lake and Lake Oroville, are just half as full as they normally are this time of year.
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While Newsom stopped short of declaring a statewide emergency, he acknowledged that the pain from the drought is spreading throughout much of the state at a rapid clip.
“We looked at the issue of hydrology, we looked at the issue of snowmelt,” Newsom said as he stood in front of San Luis Reservoir, where much of the shoreline was exposed because of low water levels. He bemoaned “this climate-induced drought, which obviously is extreme and self evident.”
Still, he urged Californians to take voluntary steps, like keeping showers to five minutes, fixing leaks and switching to drought-tolerant landscaping.
Crowfoot said the emergency declaration could lead to orders from the state water board that would curtail farmers and others from pulling water from rivers that feed into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the California water delivery network. That will leave more water flowing through the system, which is necessary to flush salinity out of the Delta and into the ocean.
The emergency order could also speed up the installation of temporary rock barriers in the Delta, like the state used in the last drought, to prevent salt from getting into the estuary.
The order in the the Tulare basin would enhance the state’s ability to truck emergency supplies to communities that ran out of drinking water in the last drought and could become vulnerable again, he said.
In addition, Newsom is proposing spending for long-term projects, including $500 million to help communities that will have to permanently retire farmland because of the state’s groundwater-management law; and $200 million to help repair major San Joaquin Valley canals that have buckled because of subsidence — the phenomenon that occurs when so much groundwater is pumped that the valley floor sinks. That includes the California Aqueduct, the Delta-Mendota Canal and the Friant-Kern Canal.
Elected officials who accompanied Newsom to the reservoir applauded his plans for improving the state’s water infrastructure. “We can stop the boom-and-bust cycle of drought and no water, and a wet year,” said state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, whose district includes parts of Merced County.
This story originally appeared in Mongabay and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
As the planet warms, it isn’t just humans who are feeling the heat — trees are too. Rising temperatures are disrupting a primary engine of life on Earth: photosynthesis.
A recent study from Brazil adds to fears that climate change is altering the face of the planet. Literally. Tropical forests could look more and more like deciduous forests or savannas in the future, according to the research based in Brazil’s Cerrado biome. This ecoregion abjacent to the Amazon Rainforest is where savanna, grasslands and forests mingle.
The paper, published in Environmental Research Letters in March, focused on four trees species found in both the Amazonian tropical forests and savanna land: Qualeaparviflora, known as pau–terra in Portuguese; Pseudobombax longiflorum, or the Brazilian shaving-brush tree; Hymenaea stigonocarpa (jatobádoCerrado); and Vatairea macrocarpa, also known as angelim.
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“The article extends present knowledge of heat tolerance to tropical species in particularly hot regions, testing species not tested before,” said Gotthard Heinrich Krause, professor of plant physiology at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany.
Krause, who was not involved with the study, noted that the paper underlines how “increased number of extreme heatwaves, often combined with drought stress,” compound the heat stress faced by trees.
The maximum temperatures in the Cerrado region and neighboring forests can reach 45° Celsius (113° Fahrenheit). The area has warmed perceptibly in recent decades, and heat waves that regularly sweep the region are becoming hotter and dryer.
How much a leaf warms depends on how much solar radiation it absorbs and what it loses through conduction and as long-wave radiation. Leaves facing the harsh tropical sun heat up faster than the ambient air around them.
“Prolonged exposure to heat can induce damage to leaf tissue, compromising photosynthetic efficiency and, consequently, trees’ fitness,” said Igor Araújo, first author of the new paper and an ecologist at the Mato Grosso State University, Brazil.
The disproportionate warming in the Cerrado belt is driven not just by global temperature rise, but also by local deforestation and fragmentation of wooded areas. As pastureland and cropland have eaten away into forests, their cooling effect is becoming muted.
Trees cool themselves and areas around them by transpiring water through the stomata dotting their leaf surfaces. This process, along with evaporation, is also why forested areas induce rainfall. “One single adult tree in the Amazon can transpire up to 1000 L [264 gallons] of water per day, functioning as a natural air conditioner of the environment. This process is called biotic pump, which is reduced by deforestation,” Araújo said.
When faced with scorching heat and dry spells, the pores on leaves clamp shut to conserve water. “This will reduce or prevent transpirational cooling of leaves, causing substantial increases of leaf temperature above air temperature,” Krause said.
The study estimated, for the first time, what temperatures leaves can tolerate. To do this, the authors calculated the temperature at which a critical component of the photosystem breaks down and the temperatures that leaves are experiencing. The difference between the two levels is called the thermal safety margin (Tsm).
Krause said he expected that the temperature at which scientists observe permanent damage to leaf tissue to be higher than what the researchers estimate. This would mean a wider safety net, but it still would not be enough to protect most species considered in the research, given the current pace of warming.
Such a hostile environment is dangerous for leaves and trees. The tree is not shedding leaves as part of a seasonal cycle but rather because they are not performing their function of harnessing energy.
The authors found that in some species, the maximum leaf temperatures are already exceeding this threshold. But if average temperatures rise by even 2.5°C (4.5°F), this will be true for most tree species, they estimate. With a 5°C (9°F) rise, all tree species studied will suffer from leaf burn.
It’s not just tree health that declines; other scientists have shown that heat stress also affects carbon dioxide uptake by trees. According to Krause, there is a reduction in the CO2 absorbed by plants even at temperatures lower than those that short-circuit photosynthesis. “Such reduction will contribute to the reduction in carbon sink of the tropical forest,” he said.
At the moment, savanna species adapted to higher temperatures are doing better than the rainforest species. “Our results thus indicate expected shifts in deciduousness in the future and thus a trend towards savanna vegetation replacing forests in the regions in Southern Amazonia characterized by large patches of deforestation,” the authors write.
What is happening at the Amazon-Cerrado boundary may be a precursor for feverish tropical forests across the world. Unlike humans, these forests won’t have air conditioners or sunscreens to protect them.
Araújo, I., Marimon, B. S., Scalon, M. C., Fauset, S., Marimon Junior, B. H., Tiwari, R., … Gloor, M. U. (2021). Trees at the Amazonia-Cerrado transition are approaching high temperature thresholds. Environmental Research Letters,16(3), 034047. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/abe3b9
Tiwari, R., Gloor, E., Cruz, W. J., Schwantes Marimon, B., Marimon‐Junior, B. H., Reis, S. M., . . . Galbraith, D. (2020). Photosynthetic quantum efficiency in south‐eastern Amazonian trees may be already affected by climate change. Plant, Cell & Environment. doi:10.1111/pce.13770
Extreme drought across the Western U.S. has become as reliable as a summer afternoon thunderstorm in Florida. And news headlines about drought in the West can seem a bit like a broken record, with some scientists saying the region is on the precipice of permanent drought.
That’s because in 2000, the Western U.S. entered the beginning of what scientists call a megadrought — the second worst in 1,200 years — triggered by a combination of a natural dry cycle and human-caused climate change.
In the past 20 years, the two worst stretches of drought came in 2003 and 2013 — but what is happening right now appears to be the beginning stages of something even more severe. And as we head into the summer dry season, the stage is set for an escalation of extreme dry conditions, with widespread water restrictions expected and yet another dangerous fire season ahead.
With this in mind, there is little doubt that the drought in the West, especially the Southwest, this summer and fall will be the most intense in recent memory. The only real question: Will it last as long as the last extended period of drought from 2012 to 2017? Only time will tell.
Right now, the U.S. Drought Monitor places 60% of the Western states under severe, extreme or exceptional drought. The reason for the extensive drought is two-fold; long term drying fueled by human-caused climate change and, in the short term, a La Niña event in which cool Equatorial Pacific waters failed to fuel an ample fetch of moisture.
Consequently, this past winter’s wet season was not very wet at all. In fact, it just added insult to injury, with only 25 to 50% of normal rainfall falling across much of the Southwest and California. This followed one of the driest and hottest summers in modern times, with two historic heat waves, a summer monsoon cycle that simply did not even show up and the worst fire season in modern times.
Zimbabwean villager Dumisani Khumalo appeared to be in pain as he walked gingerly towards a chair under the shade of a tree near his one-room brick shack.
The 45-year-old was attacked by a buffalo days earlier, and he was lucky to be on his feet.
Wild animals in Zimbabwe were responsible for the deaths of at least 36 people in 2019, up from 20 in the previous year.
“I thank God that I survived the attack,” said Khumalo with a laugh, making light of the fact that the buffalo almost ripped off his genitals.
Authorities recorded 311 animal attacks on people last year, up from 195 in 2018.
The attacks have been blamed on a devastating drought in Zimbabwe which has seen hungry animals breaking out of game reserves, raiding human settlements in search of food and water.
“The cases include attacks on humans, their livestock and crops,” said national parks spokesman Tinashe Farawo.
He said elephants caused most fatalities, while hippos, buffalos, lions, hyenas and crocodile also contributed to the toll.
Hwange National Park, which is half the size of Belgium, is Zimbabwe’s largest game park and is situated next to the famed Victoria Falls. The park is not fenced off.
Animals breach the buffer and “cross over to look for water and food as there is little or none left in the forest area,” Farawo said
Khumalo vividly remembers the attack.
He was walking in a forest near his Ndlovu-Kachechete village to register for food aid, when he heard dogs barking.
Suddenly a buffalo emerged from the bush and charged, hitting him in the chest and tossing him to the ground.
It went for his groin and used its horn to rip off part of the skin around his penis.
Khumalo grabbed the buffalo’s leg, kicked it in the eye and it scampered off.
Villagers in Zimbabwe’s wildlife-rich but parched northwestern region are frequently fighting off desperately hungry game.
More than 200 elephants starved to death over three months last year.
Despite suspecting that Khumalo was hunting illegally when he was attacked, Phindile Ncube, CEO of Hwange Rural District Council admitted that wild animals are killing people and that the drought has worsened things.
“Wild animals cross into human-inhabited areas in search of water as … sources of drinking water dry up in the forest,” said Ncube.
He described an incident that took place a few weeks earlier, during which elephants killed two cows at a domestic water well.
Armed scouts have been put on standby to respond to distress calls from villagers.
But it was while responding to one such call that the scouts inadvertently shot dead a 61-year-old woman in Mbizha village, close to Khumalo’s.
“As they tried to chase them off one (elephant) charged at them and a scout shot at it. He missed, and the stray bullet hit and killed Irene Musaka, who was sitting by a fire outside her hut almost a mile away.”
Chilli cake repellant
Locals are encouraged to play their part to scare off animals. One way is to beat drums.
But the impact is limited.
“Animals, such as elephants get used to the noise and know it… won’t hurt them, so it does not deter them in the long term,” said George Mapuvire, director of Bio-Hub Trust, a charity that trains people to respond to animal attacks.
Bio-Hub Trust advocates for a “soft approach” that encourages peaceful co-existence between humans and wildlife.
Mapuvire suggested burning home-made hot chilli cakes to repel wildlife.
“You mix chilli powder with cow or elephant dung and shape it into bricks, once the bricks dry, you can burn them when elephants are approaching. They can’t stand the smell!”
Villagers have created an elephant alarm system by tying strings of empty tin cans to trees and poles.
When the cans click, they know an elephant is approaching and they light chilli cakes to keep it away.
Another way of keeping elephants at bay is the chilli gun, a plastic contraption loaded with ping-pong balls injected with chilli oil.
“When it hits an elephant, it disintegrates, splashing the animal with the chilli oil,” Mapuvire explained.
How fast can our planet’s climate change? Too slowly for humans to notice, according to the firm belief of most scientists through much of the 20th century. Any shift of weather patterns, even the Dust Bowl droughts that devastated the Great Plains in the 1930s, was seen as a temporary local excursion. To be sure, the entire world climate could change radically: The ice ages proved that. But common sense held that such transformations could only creep in over tens of thousands of years.
In the 1950s, a few scientists found evidence that some of the great climate shifts in the past had taken only a few thousand years. During the 1960s and 1970s, other lines of research made it plausible that the global climate could shift radically within a few hundred years.
In the 1980s and 1990s, further studies reduced the scale to the span of a single century. Today, there is evidence that severe change can take less than a decade. A committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has called this reorientation in the thinking of scientists a veritable “paradigm shift.” The new paradigm of abrupt global climate change, the committee reported in 2002, “has been well established by research over the last decade, but this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policymakers.” 1
Much earlier in the 20th century, some specialists had evidence of abrupt climate change in front of their eyes. The evidence was meaningless to them. To appreciate change occurring within 10 years as significant, scientists first had to accept the possibility of change within 100 years. That, in turn, had to wait until they accepted the 1000-year time scale. The history of this evolution gives a good example of the stepwise fashion in which science commonly proceeds, contrary to the familiar heroic myths of discoveries springing forth in an instant. The history also suggests why, as the NAS committee worried, most people still fail to realize just how badly the world’s climate might misbehave.
Michael Mann: “A new normal makes it sound like we have arrived in a new position, and that’s where we’re going to be. But if we continue to burn fossil fuels … we are going to … get worse and worse droughts, and heat waves, and super storms, and floods, and wildfires.”
Kate Marvel: “The whole idea that everything’s going to work out isn’t really helpful because it isn’t going to work out ” said Kate Marvel a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Climate change is going to worsen to a point where millions of lives, homes, and species are put at risk she said.
Instead, utilities and energy companies are continuing to invest heavily in carbon-polluting natural gas. An exclusive analysis by USA TODAY finds that across the United States there are as many as 177 natural gas power plants currently planned, under construction or announced. There are close to 2,000 now in service.
All that natural gas is “a ticking time bomb for our planet,” says Michael Brune, president of the Sierra Club. “If we are to prevent runaway climate change, these new plants can’t be built.”
It also doesn’t make financial sense, according to an analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank that focuses on energy and resource efficiency. By the time most of these power plants are slated to open their doors, the electricity they’ll provide will cost more to produce than clean energy alternatives.
By 2023, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates the average cost of producing a megawatt hour of electricity will be $40.20 for a large-scale natural gas plants. Solar installations will be $2.60 cheaper and wind turbines will be $3.60 cheaper.
Catastrophic effects ahead unless we make changes
The world needs to reduce its carbon emissions rapidly – by 50% within the next decade – or face the prospect of a global temperature rise of more than 2.7 degrees within decades, said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Pennsylvania State University.
That’s enough warming to kill off the coral reefs, melt large parts of the ice sheets, inundate coastal cities and to yield what Mann calls “nearly perpetual extreme weather events.”
“By any definition, that would be catastrophic,” he said.
We’re seeing the start of it now. There’s strong data to suggest that global warming is already causing changes in the jet stream and other weather systems. That can cause hurricanes to slow down and wreak devastation in single areas for longer, said Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.
“With Dorian, we saw it stall over the Bahamas. We saw that with Harvey in Houston and Florence in the Carolinas,” he said.
More gas = more carbon dioxide
Adding dozens of new natural gas plants in the coming decades is going in the exact opposite direction of what we need, clean energy advocates say.
“If the current pipeline of gas plants were to get built, it would make decarbonizing the power sector by 2050 nearly impossible,” said Joe Daniel, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
An analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute published Monday looked at 88 gas-fired power plants scheduled to begin operation by 2025. They would emit 100 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to 5% of current annual emissions from the U.S. power sector.
The institute calculated the cost of producing a megawatt-hour of electricity of a clean energy portfolio in each state that would provide the same level of power reliability as a gas plant. It determined that building clean energy alternatives would cost less than 90% of the proposed 88 plants.
It would also save customers over $29 billion in their utility bills, said Mark Dyson, an electricity markets analyst who co-authored the Rocky Mountain Institute paper.
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“If you look at how things pencil out, we’re at a tipping point,” he said. “Here’s evidence that the switch from gas to clean energy makes economic sense and is compatible with utility companies’ need for reliability.”
More power plants coming to a state near you
USA TODAY compiled its own list of 177 planned and proposed natural gas plants through August, using data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, which tracks power plants that have been officially announced, and the Sierra Club, which tracks proposed plants.
Of those, 152 have a scheduled opening date of between 2019 and 2033, though only 130 have specific locations chosen. An additional 25 are part of companies’ long-term planning processes and don’t have estimated opening dates yet.
The plants are a mix of large-scale installations meant to provide lots of electricity much of the day and smaller plants used for short periods when demand for energy is particularly high.
Texas has the most proposed plants, with 26. Next is Pennsylvania with 24, North Carolina with 12, Florida with 10, California with nine and Montana with eight.
Not all will be built. Power companies are required to estimate future needs and plan as much as 15 years out, and this list includes plants which the companies may eventually decide they don’t need.
But the numbers show that greenhouse gas-producing natural gas is still on the table for many power producers, despite warnings that the energy sector needs to be quickly moving away from carbon-producing power sources.
Another concern raised by clean energy advocates is that once built, natural gas plants typically have a 30-year lifespan. Many of these plants will end up as “stranded assets,” unused because they’re too expensive to run, while consumers will still be on the hook for the cost of the construction, said Daniel.
It’s also true that power companies are building out solar and wind generation. Over the next two years, clean energy is expected to be the fastest-growing source of U.S. electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Even so, that will only bring the share of wind and solar in the United States electricity market to slightly under 11%.
By 2020, EIA expects natural gas will make up about 36% of U.S. electricity generation. In comparison, coal is at 23%, nuclear at 20% and hydroelectric at 7%.
Why are we still building natural gas plants?
If natural gas plants contribute to global warming and most of them are going to be more expensive, why are so many still on the drawing board? The reasons are varied.
Energy companies say gas is more reliable than renewables and cheaper and less carbon polluting than the coal it often replaces.
But renewable energy advocates say the incentives for utilities and energy producers aren’t always in line with those of consumers.
For regulated utilities, one of the easiest ways to make money is to invest capital in large building projects, such as natural gas plants. Regulators allow utilities to set rates so that they get a return on invested capital of about 10%, Dyson said. That gives energy companies an incentive to build as much as possible.
In contrast, utilities that procure wind and solar power via commonly available purchase contracts earn no returns for these projects.
“There’s a perverse incentive for some utilities to build as big as they can, rather than to build as smart as they can,” said Ben Inskeep, an analyst with EQ Research, a clean energy policy consulting firm in Cary, North Carolina.
Companies also focus on reliability. Duke Energy, a power company based in Charlotte, North Carolina, has more than 7 million customers. As it transitions away from coal, it has embraced natural gas, announcing last week that it was considering as many as five new gas plants.
Today 5% of Duke Energy Carolinas’ electricity comes from solar, a percentage it plans to increase to between 8% and 13% by 2034, according to its most recent filing with state regulators. The state has almost no wind energy because of laws restricting the placement of wind turbines.
“We know our customers and communities want cleaner energy, and we’re doing our part to deliver that,” said spokeswoman Erin Culbert.
But she emphasized that Duke doesn’t believe solar and wind can be cost-effective and reliable enough to meet all its customers’ energy needs.
“Continued use of natural gas is key to our ability to speed up coal retirements, and its flexibility helps complement and balance the growing renewables on our system,” she said.
Government regulators favor gas
Another hurdle for renewable energy, some supporters say, is a combination of state-level rate-setting requirements and regional market rules that have led to a compensation structure for companies that favors coal and natural gas.
Who sets those rules depends on where the plant is.
In states where retail utilities own their own power generation facilities, the rates are approved by public utility commissions. Commissioners are typically appointed by state governors.
The process is less clear in the Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, California, and Texas, where utilities buy and sell their power through organized markets run by regional transmission organizations.
These are run by boards that by law must be independent. They are typically composed of people from the business and energy world and are chosen by complex systems. In some cases they are voted on by existing board members.
The boards set the rules, which are then approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Ultimately these commissions and boards are supposed to decide what’s cost-effective for both the companies and ratepayers, said Scott Hempling, an adviser to regulators, law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and author of two books on public utility law and regulation.
“A utility’s preference for profit is neither surprising nor wrong. But it’s not the utility’s job to balance its self-interest against the customers’ interest. It’s the job of regulators to constrain the private profit impulse with public interest principles,” he said.
It’s not news that there is bias towards profit, which can disadvantage customers. “The question is why it’s allowed to persist,” he said.
There are signs that what clean energy advocates have called an automatic rubber stamp for natural gas is beginning to change.
In April, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission denied a permit for a southern Indiana utility named Vectren South to build a $780 million natural gas plant. The regulators weren’t convinced the utility had chosen the best option to ensure its customers weren’t in danger of being “saddled with an uneconomic investment” in the future, it said.
In Michigan last year, local utility DTE won a bruising battle to build a 1,100 megawatt natural gas plant that will open in 2022 and cost nearly $1 billion. Critics complained the projections DTE used to make its case to regulators made wind and solar look less attractive.
The three members of the Michigan Public Service Commission, who are appointed by the governor, ended up approving the project. But the board’s 136-page opinion was not complimentary toward the utility, noting it was “concerned” about the constraints DTE built into the models it used to estimate whether renewable energy would be a viable alternative.
Some utilities choose clean energy
Not every utility company is ignoring warnings about the planet’s health, or customers’ pocketbooks.
Michigan utility Consumers Energy decided last year not to build new natural gas plants and instead focus on a combination of energy efficiency, renewable energy and batteries, which it says will be cheaper for customers.
The company, which has more than 4 million customers, plans to use 90% clean energy by 2040, said Brandon Hofmeister, senior vice president for governmental, regulatory and public affairs.
When the utility was putting together its existing energy plan, it took a new approach, balancing the cost to consumers and to the Earth.
“Honestly, there was some pushback. There were several pretty tense meetings,” Hofmeister said. “You’d hear someone ask in a meeting, ‘Is that really the right thing to do for Michigan and the planet?’”
A similar story played out in Indiana, one of the nation’s top 10 coal-producing states. A few years ago, Northern Indiana Public Service Company, based in Merrillville, Indiana, was getting ready to retire its old, expensive coal-fired power plants. An analysis in 2016 said they should be replaced with natural gas plants.
To be on the safe side, Joe Hamrock, president and CEO, checked again last year.
“We knew this is moving pretty fast and we needed to take a new look. A 30-year bet on a gas plant is a long time,” he said.
When his team sat down to look at the 90 project proposals that had come in, the answer came as a shock – natural gas wasn’t even in the picture anymore.
“The surprise was how dramatically the renewables and storage proposals beat natural gas,” Hamrock said. “I couldn’t have predicted this five years ago.”
The company is now set to retire all its coal-fired power plants, which produce 65% of its electricity today, and replace them all with renewables. In nine years, it expects to get 65% of its electricity from renewables and 25% from natural gas.
What will U.S. energy look like in the future?
Electricity generators counter that it’s impossible to get entirely away from natural gas because solar and wind are intermittent. When it comes time to turn on the lights, consumers can’t wait for the sun to come up or the wind to blow.
“We believe that natural gas has a role in a clean future because we believe it will be needed to balance out renewables,” said Emily Fisher, general counsel for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, D.C. EEI is the trade association that represents investor-owned electric utilities in the United States.
“But we’ve also got to make sure the power supply stays affordable and reliable,” she said.
Electricity generators have a point, say energy analysts who aren’t necessarily in the pro-renewable camp. But those same analysts suggest a lot less natural gas is needed than we’re using today.
“The cheapest way to reduce carbon is to replace coal with a combination of renewables and as little natural gas as you can get by with to keep the lights on,” said Arne Olson, a senior partner with Energy and Environmental Economics, a San Francisco-based energy consulting firm that works with multiple states to craft energy plans.
That makes getting to the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change – cutting greenhouse gas emissions at least 26% below 2005 levels by 2025 – not quite so daunting. The United States initially pledged to join the agreement but President Donald Trumpsaid in 2017 that the nation would not uphold the deal.
In fact, the electric industry is already undergoing a major restructuring. Largely because of the rapid rise of cheap natural gas, coal went from producing almost 45% of U.S. electricity in 2010 to a predicted 23% next year, according to EIA data.
The energy sector has shown it can move quickly when the prices are right, said Dyson of the Rocky Mountain Institute. And, he said, it’s imperative that a similar shift happen now with natural gas – and fast.
“Constructing these gas plants is incompatible with a low carbon future,” he said.
Nature provides the dangerous winds that have whipped the fires, and human-caused climate change over the long haul is killing and drying the shrubs and trees that provide the fuel, experts say.
“Natural factors and human-caused global warming effects fatally collude” in these fires, said wildfire expert Kristen Thornicke of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
Multiple reasons explain the fires’ severity, but “forest management wasn’t one of them,” University of Utah fire scientist Philip Dennison said.
Trump tweeted on Saturday: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests.”
One reason that scientists know that management isn’t to blame is that some areas now burning had fires in 2005 and 2008, so they aren’t “fuel-choked closed-canopy forests,” Dennison said.
In those earlier fires, Paradise was threatened but escaped major damage, he said. In the current blazes, it was virtually destroyed.
The other major fire, in Southern California, burned through shrub land, not forest, Dennison said.
“It’s not about forest management. These aren’t forests,” he said.
California wildfires destroy long-standing Hollywood landmarks
The dean of the University of Michigan’s environmental school, Jonathan Overpeck, said Western fires are getting bigger and more severe. He said it “is much less due to bad management and is instead the result of our baking of our forests, woodlands and grasslands with ever-worsening climate change.”
Wildfires have become more devastating because of the extreme weather swings from global warming, fire scientists said. The average number of US acres burned by wildfires has doubled over the level from 30 years ago.
As of Monday, more than 13,200 square miles have burned. That’s more than a third higher than the 10-year average.
From 1983 to 1999, the United States didn’t reach 10,000 square miles burned annually. Since then, 11 of 19 years have seen more than 10,000 square miles burned, including this year. In 2006, 2015 and 2017, more than 15,000 square miles burned.
The two fires now burning “aren’t that far out of line with the fires we’ve seen in these areas in recent decades,” Dennison said.
“The biggest factor was wind,” Dennison said in an email. “With wind speeds as high as they were, there was nothing firefighters could do to stop the advance of the fires.”
These winds, called Santa Ana winds, and the unique geography of high mountains and deep valleys act like chimneys, fortifying the fires, Thornicke said.
The wind is so strong that fire breaks — areas where trees and brush have been cleared or intentionally burned to deprive the advancing flames of fuel — won’t work. One of the fires jumped over eight lanes of freeway, about 140 feet, Dennison said.
Southern California had fires similar to the Woolsey Fire in 1982, when winds were 60 mph, but “the difference between 1982 and today is a much higher population in these areas. Many more people were threatened and had to be evacuated,” Dennison said.
California also has been in drought for all but a few years of the 21st century and is now experiencing its longest drought, which began on Dec. 27, 2011, and has lasted 358 weeks, according to the US Drought Monitor. Nearly two-thirds of the state is abnormally dry.
The first nine months of the year have been the fourth-warmest on record for California, and this past summer was the second-hottest on record in the state.
The wars of the future will be fought over water not oil
Because of that, there are 129 million dead trees, which provide fuel for fires, Thornicke said.
And it’s more than trees. Dead shrubs around the bottom of trees provide what is called “ladder fuel,” offering a path for fire to climb from the ground to the treetops and intensifying the conflagration by a factor of 10 to 100, said Kevin Ryan, a fire consultant and former fire scientist at the US Forest Service.
While many conservatives advocate cutting down more trees to prevent fires, no one makes money by cutting dead shrubs, and that’s a problem, he said.
Local and state officials have cleared some Southern California shrubs, enough for normal weather and winds. But that’s not enough for this type of extreme drought, said Ryan, also a former firefighter.
University of Alberta fire scientist Mike Flanigan earlier this year told the Associated Press that the hotter and drier the weather, the easier it is for fires to start, spread and burn more intensely.
It’s simple, he said: “The warmer it is, the more fire we see.”
For every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit that the air warms, it needs 15 percent more rain to make up for the drying of the fuel, Flannigan said.
Federal fire and weather data show the years with the most acres burned were generally a degree warmer than average.
“Everyone who has gardened knows that you must water more on hotter days,” Overpeck said. “But, thanks in part to climate change, California isn’t getting enough snow and rain to compensate for the unrelenting warming caused by climate change. The result is a worsening wildfire problem.”
(AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov) (The Associated Press)
Earth is on track to face devastating consequences of climate change – extreme drought, food shortages and deadly flooding – unless there’s an “unprecedented” effort made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, a new United Nations report warns.
The planet’s surface has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius – or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit – and could see a catastrophic 1.5 C — 2.7 F — increase between 2030 and 2052, scientists say.
“This is concerning because we know there are so many more problems if we exceed 1.5 degrees C global warming, including more heat waves and hot summers, greater sea level rise, and, for many parts of the world, worse droughts and rainfall extremes,” Andrew King, a climate science academic at the University of Melbourne, said in a statement to CNN.
The stunning statistics were released Monday in a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that we must take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” in order to save our planet.
Scientists with the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC said in order to have even a 50-50 chance of staying under the 1.5 degree cap, the world must become “carbon neutral” by 2050. Any additional carbon dioxide emissions would require removing the harmful gas from the air.
If nothing is done, Earth can expect heat wave temperatures to rise by 3 degrees Celsius, more frequent or extreme droughts, an increase in deadly hurricanes and as much as 90 percent of coral reefs dying off — including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, according to the report.
Countries in the southern hemisphere would see the most drastic effects.
“The next few years are probably the most important in human history,” IPCC co-chair Debra Roberts, head of the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department in South Africa, told Agence France-Presse.
“The window on keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees C is closing rapidly and the current emissions pledges made by signatories to the Paris Agreement do not add up to us achieving that goal,” said King.
Staying within the 1.5 degrees C target, instead of 2 degrees C, would result in the global sea level rising 3.9 inches less by 2100, reducing flooding. It would also cut down on species loss and extinction and reduce the impact on various ecosystems.
“There were doubts if we would be able to differentiate impacts set at 1.5 C and that came so clearly. Even the scientists were surprised to see how much science was already there and how much they could really differentiate and how great are the benefits of limiting global warming at 1.5 compared to 2,” Thelma Krug, vice-chair of the IPCC, told Reuters. “And now more than ever we know that every bit of warming matters.”
(CNN)Deadly fires have scorched swaths of the Northern Hemisphere this summer, from California to Arctic Sweden and down to Greece on the sunny Mediterranean. Drought in Europe has turned verdant land barren, while people in Japan and Korea are dying from record-breaking heat.
Climate change is here and is affecting the entire globe — not just the polar bears or tiny islands vulnerable to rising sea levels — scientists say. It is on the doorsteps of everyday Americans, Europeans and Asians, and the best evidence shows it will get much worse.
This summer, 119 people in Japan died in a heat wave, while 29 were killed in South Korea, officials there say. Ninety-one people in Greece died in wildfires, and ongoing fires in California have taken at least eight lives. Spain and Portugal sweltered through an exceptionally hot weekend with a heat wave that has killed three people in Spain and pushed temperatures toward record levels..
Remarkably, scientists can now work out in just a matter of days how much human-induced climate change has had to do with a particular weather event, using a combination of observation, historical data and current information from weather stations.
“The European heat wave was at least twice as likely to happen because of human intervention. Based on findings in Ireland it was double — and we know that with very high confidence — and based on data from all other weather stations it was more than double,” said Karsten Haustein from the World Weather Attribution Project, part of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.
Scientists have been able to use this kind of modeling for more than a decade, but improved technology now allows them to do it nearly in real time, letting people understand the links between what they are seeing and climate change.
Despite the deadly summer, overwhelming evidence that humans are altering the planet, and ever-improving science that links specific weather events to global warming, the international politics around the issue of climate change are in disarray. And there are alarming signs that the planet may be in worse shape than ever before.
A house is caught up in the Carr fire in Redding, California, on July 27.
The major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — all rose to record levels last year. The global average carbon dioxide concentration was the highest ever recorded, and higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years, according to ice-core data.
Spending on oil and gas increased last year, pushing up the share of fossil fuels in energy supply investment for the first time since 2014, according to the International Energy Agency.Investment in renewable energy dropped 7%, while demand for coal rose, largely to keep Asia’s furnaces burning as the region rapidly develops.
And last year also saw US President Donald Trump announce his plan to pull the US from the Paris Agreement, in a striking blow to global action on climate change. The US is the world’s second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and a pact without the powerhouse nation is significantly weakened.
The symptoms of climate change were also dramatic. Last year was the second or third-hottest year on record, depending on the dataset used, following three record-breaking hot years, the NOAA report showed. It was the hottest year on record without an El Niño, the natural weather event that adds to the warming of the seas and the whole planet.
A new record for global sea levels was set. Unprecedented coral bleaching occurred, and both the Arctic and the Antarctic saw record-low levels of sea ice, as warmer air and seas continued the trend of thinning out the polar ice.
Most Americans accept man-made climate change is real
The Earth has been getting steadily warmer since humans began using high levels of fossil fuels in the 18th to 19th centuries, during the Industrial Revolution. The planet has already warmed by around 1 degree Celsius since the late 19th century.
More and more Americans are starting to accept climate change is happening, despite Trump’s pledge to pull the US from the Paris Agreement.
American acceptance of climate change returned to an all-time high of 71% in October last year after sliding significantly from around a decade ago, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which conducts quarterly surveys on attitudes to global warming. It has dropped to 70% this year so far.
Some 58% of Americans believe that climate change is mostly man-made, a clear majority but a lower percentage than in most other developed nations.
This understanding that climate change is at least happening has a lot to do with what people are seeing and experiencing, according to the Yale program’s director, Anthony Leiserowitz.
After the US was hit with several catastrophic hurricanes, the number of people who felt global warming was affecting US weather “a lot” leaped to 33% last October from 25% in May, five months earlier. That number went back down when winter came and extreme weather events subsided.
People walk through flooded roads in Houston, Texas, on August 27, 2017 as Hurricane Harvey hit the city.
“People are increasingly connecting the dots when they see these weather events happening across the United States,” Leiserowitz said.
“It’s about the pattern — if an extreme event happens once or twice, it’s just a coincidence, but three, five, 12, 22 times, seeing record-setting events, seeing 1,000-year event after 1,000-year event happen frequently, people begin to see that larger pattern, that climate change is actually affecting the weather today. And that’s a new concept for many Americans.”
This increase in awareness appears to be happening in Redding, California. The Carr Fire has torched more than 130,000 acres of land — the equivalent of nearly 100,000 football fields — and it became so big and hot this week, it created its own weather system.
Firefighter Gabriel Lauderdale, 29, has lived all his life by the forest near Redding, and he says even that’s enough time to have noticed the pattern and behavior of wildfires change dramatically.
“There seems to be more destructive wildfires and they’re happening more frequently,” said Lauderdale.
“It used to be that a 10,000-acre fire was a large fire, and in these cases, we’re seeing many exceed 100,000 acres, and they reach that size relative quickly. They move into homes and businesses, and they move very fast from structure to structure.”
The US pulls the plug on Paris
The Paris Agreement in 2015 was widely celebrated as an achievement, but it has major flaws — it is not legally binding, it’s unenforceable and soon it is likely to lack one of the world’s biggest polluters.
The agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, was much stronger. It set ambitious and legally binding emissions reduction targets. But it too had its problems.
It included only developed nations, so China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, was not obliged to make reductions.
This was always a sticking point for the US. George W. Bush in 2001 pulled his country out of the Kyoto agreement, which Congress had never ratified.
Kyoto’s other major flaw was that although it was legally binding, no one was ever sanctioned for over-polluting.
So the success of Paris lies in the fact that it at least engaged more than just developed nations. Those who ratify it make pledges to combat climate change as their countries see fit, and they are obliged to report on them transparently, in more of a name-and-shame system than one with mutually set goals.
Another success of Paris is the recognition that the world should try to contain warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or two degrees as a worst-case scenario.
The agreement, however, did not include the legally binding goals to reduce carbon emissions that were sought by Europe but largely opposed by the US.
Cars are blocked after a wildfire caused a road closure in Kineta in Greece on July 23.
Now the world is left with a watered-down agreement, and the country that pushed strongly for that dilution is no longer playing along.
Todd Stern, the chief US negotiator in Paris, and the Obama administration are credited with bringing the US back into the fold after pulling out of Kyoto. But, Stern said, they knew they would never get binding targets past Congress, so they went into talks seeking an agreement that wouldn’t need Congressional approval.
Stern denies, however, that the US was the only one against binding targets, saying he would be “stunned” if all countries had agreed to get on board.