Scientists don’t always like being right: take the team that warned in a paper published in 2017 that the St. Patrick Bay ice caps in Canada would soon disappear, for example. The latest NASA satellite imagery shows that their prediction has sadly come true, and even faster than they expected.
Scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder initially predicted the disappearance of the St. Patrick Bay ice caps would take place over five years, but it’s actually only taken three.
The frozen sheets, probably in place for several centuries, measured more than 10 square kilometres (3.86 square miles) combined at the end of the 1950s, and have now shrunk down to nothing. It’s a sign of the climate change that’s gaining momentum all around the world, and showing no signs of stopping.
Ice cover in 2015 (left) and 2020 (right). (Bruce Raup/NSIDC)
Serreze was a young graduate student when he first set foot on the ice caps in 1982, and he was the lead author of the 2017 paper alerting the world to their drastic demise. By 2015, the ice caps were only five percent the size of what they were in 1959.
The two ice caps that have vanished are part of a group on the Hazen Plateau, in the north of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, way up in the Arctic Archipelago – one of the most northerly points of Canada.
Two ice caps often linked with the St. Patrick Bay pair, the Murray and Simmons ice caps, are faring better due to their higher elevation – in 2015 their ice cover was at 39 percent and 25 percent respectively, compared with the 1959 figure. However, scientists think they too could soon be gone.
When Serreze and his colleagues first started surveying the Hazen Plateau ice at the start of the 1980s, scientific consensus on global warming was still forming, and some researchers had suggested the planet was actually in a period of global cooling. The studies started back then were partly an attempt to find out one way or the other.
Ice cover tracked over time. (NSIDC)
Now there’s no doubt what’s happening. While the St. Patrick Bay ice caps may not be two of the most famous or significant points of geological interest in the world, they represent a small microcosm that reflects what’s happening to our planet as a whole.
They’re also a reminder that while scientists aren’t infallible, they very often do know what they’re talking about – and that when we get warnings about what’s coming our way in the future, we’d do well to take heed and to take action.
“We’ve long known that as climate change takes hold, the effects would be especially pronounced in the Arctic,” says Serreze.
“But the death of those two little caps that I once knew so well has made climate change very personal. All that’s left are some photographs and a lot of memories.”
By David Wallace-WellsSatellite image of smoke from active fires burning near the Eastern Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, Russia, on June 23, 2020. Photo: Handout/NASA Earth Observatory
On June 20, in the small Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, north of the Arctic Circle, a heat wave baking the region peaked at 38 degrees Celsius — just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic. In a world without climate change, this anomaly, one Danish meteorologist calculated, would be a 1-in-100,000-year event. Thanks to climate change, that year is now.
If you saw this news, last weekend, it was probably only a glimpse (primetime network news didn’t even cover it). But the overwhelming coverage of perhaps more immediately pressing events — global protests, global pandemic, economic calamity — is only one reason for that climate occlusion. The extreme weather of the last few summers has already inured us to temperature anomalies like these, though we are only just at the beginning of the livable planet’s transformation by climate change — a transformation whose end is not yet visible, if it will ever be, and in which departures from the historical record will grow only more dramatic and more disorienting and more lethal, almost by the year. At just 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming, where the planet is today, we have already evicted ourselves from the “human climate niche,” and brought ourselves outside the range of global temperatures that enclose the entire history of human civilization. That history is roughly 10,000 years long, which means that in a stable climate you would only expect to encounter an anomaly like this one if you ran the full lifespan of all recorded human history ten times over — and even then would only encounter it once.
You may register temperature records like these merely as the sign of a new normal, in which record-breaking heat waves fade out of newsworthiness and into routine. But the fact of those records doesn’t mean only that change has arrived, because the records are not being set only once; in many cases, they are being set annually. The city of Houston, for instance, has been hit by five “500-year storms” in the last five years, and while the term has obviously lost some of its descriptive precision in a time of climate change, it’s worth remembering what it was originally meant to convey: a storm that had a one-in-500 chance of arriving in any given year, and could therefore be expected once in five centuries. How long is that timespan, the natural historical context for a storm like that? Five hundred years ago, Europeans had not yet arrived on American shores, so we are talking about a storm that we would expect to hit just once in that entire history — the history of European settlement and genocide, of the war for independence and the building of a slave empire, of the end of that empire through civil war, of industrialization and Jim Crow and World War I and World War II, the cold war and the age of American empire, civil rights and women’s rights and gay rights, the end of the cold war and the “end of history,” September 11 and 2008. One storm of this scale in all that time, is what meteorological history tells us to expect. Houston has been hit by five of them in the last five years, and may yet be hit with another this summer — which is already predicted to be a hurricane season of unusual intensity. Of course, that won’t be the end of the transformations. Climate change will continue, and those records — high temperatures, historic rainfall, drought, and wind speed and all the rest — will continue to fall. From here, literally everything that follows, climate-wise, will be literally unprecedented.$5 a month for unlimited access to Intelligencer and everything else New YorkLEARN MORE »
Land surface temperature anomalies from March 19 to June 20 in Eastern Siberia. The reds mark areas that were hotter than average for the same period from 2003-2018. The blues mark areas that were colder. From the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Illustration: Handout/NASA Earth Observatory
The arctic numbers from June 20 are terrifying enough; with more context they become only more so. It was warmer there than it was that same day, in Miami, Florida. In fact, it was warmer north of the Arctic Circle than it has ever been, on any June day, in the entire recorded history of Miami, which has only once, in the whole tropical century for which temperatures there have been registered, reached 100. It was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, in Verkhonaysk, than the average high temperature in the region for June, which means the arctic record was the equivalent, in terms of temperature anomaly, of a 110-degree June day in New York or a 115-degree June day in Washington, D.C. According to preliminary satellite data, land surface temperature in parts of arctic Siberia reached that level last week, too — 45 Celsius, or 113 Fahrenheit. In terms of temperature anomaly, that’s the equivalent of a 130-degree day in D.C. On Capitol Hill, that would be, very comfortably, lethal heat.
Thankfully, for Americans at least, that isn’t how global warming works — its punishing effects are distributed unequally around the globe, and, at the moment, the Arctic is being punished most vindictively, warming at three times the rate of the rest of the planet. In Siberia, in May, temperatures averaged as much as 10 degrees Celsius higher than normal. The arrival of the arctic summer reignited “zombie fires” that had, improbably, burned through the arctic winter, smoldering in peat rather than burning out. Those fires, like all fires, released carbon, which is stored in trees as surely as it is in coal, in this case releasing as much CO2 in the last 18 months as had been produced by Siberian wildfires in the last 16 years. In early June, an industrial-scale oil-storage facility there collapsed when the melting permafrost on which it had been built finally destabilized, releasing about 21,000 tons of oil and turning local rivers red. That spill was about two-thirds the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill, which horrified an entire generation; this one, we’ve hardly read about, though it befell a far more ecologically degraded planet, with more than half of all carbon emissions ever produced by the burning of fossil fuels in the entire history of humanity coming since the Valdez spill. Perhaps though is a less precise word than because, the intervening generation of environmental calamity having quite thoroughly normalized horrors like these. Even Vladimir Putin — presiding over a petrostate which, so far north, actually stands to benefit from some amount of global warming — declared it an emergency. All told, the planet’s melting permafrost contains twice as much carbon as hangs in the planet’s atmosphere today, and it’s expected that over the course of the century, at least 100 billion tons of it will be released through melt, about three years worth of global emissions and functionally enough to close the window on the goals of the Paris accords.
A June 11 view of the site of a diesel fuel spill at Norilsk’s Combined Heat and Power Plant No 3 in Siberia. Photo: Denis Kozhevnikov/TASS via Getty Images
That window was not open very far to begin with. One recent study suggested that even the decarbonization targets of Britain and Sweden, often hailed as global climate leaders, would produce emissions between two and three times the carbon budget required to meet the Paris goals. (And those are just their decarbonization plans, which are probably optimistic.) Another analysis suggested that, for all the talk of halving our emissions by 2030 — as the IPCC says is necessary to safely avoid 2 degrees of warming — the planet has only a 0.3 percent chance of doing so. If Donald Trump won reelection, the analysis suggested, those chances would fall to 0.1 percent — one in a thousand.
Those projections will invariably prove imprecise, or perhaps worse — that is both the nature of science, which proceeds by revision, and humanity, which will likely adapt to at least some measure of these impacts. But the Siberian heat wave reminds us just how large the scale of necessary adaptation will likely be — requiring us to respond not just by shoring up the proverbial shorelines of our civilizations but by preparing them in much more fundamental ways to endure conditions never seen before in the whole span of human history. It is also a reminder of just how much we miss when we regard the projections of any neat, linear model of future warming as a straightforward prediction of that future and of what level of adaptation will be require — especially when we reflexively discount the uncertainty warnings scientists invariably include, as any lay reader (including me) is likely to do. Perhaps the most important lesson of the freakish Siberian heatwave is: however terrifying you find projections of future warming, the actual experience of living on a heated planet will be considerably more unpredictable, and disorienting.
Just how freakish and unpredicted is this heatwave? Over the last few years, a growing chorus of critics have argued against one climate model built on predictions of high-end carbon emissions in particular, called RCP8.5 —arguing that, though it had been endorsed by the U.N.’s IPCC and formed the basis of much recent science since that organization’s last major report, its projections were simply implausible, relying as they did on the dramatic growth of coal use over the course if the century. As I’ve written before, that pathway does indeed look increasingly hard to credit as a model of our future, and is best understood, in terms of emissions, as an absolute worst-case scenario, which would require almost a global climate nihilism to achieve. But for those suggesting we should discard that model, or any other that charted a high-end course for warming, the arctic heatwave makes a very strong counterargument. Because even in that worst-case pathway, hundred-degree summer days in the Arctic do not become routine until the very end of the century. This heat wave is, today, an outlier, not a routine event. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Instead, it is giving us at least a brief preview of what the world would look like, more than a half-century from now, in a timeline we understand to be, at least in terms of emissions, impossibly pessimistic. But if our timeline could accommodate such extreme events from that worst-case one, and decades ahead of schedule, it is also a sign that “timeline” is probably a misguided way of thinking about the new swirling universe of extreme events we are plunging headlong into. Making sense of climate change requires more than trying to determine where on a particular linear plot we are and where on it we are likely to be in ten years, or in fifty. It may require more profoundly revising our sense of linearity itself. In this way, global warming isn’t just scrambling our sense of geography, with Verkhonaysk, at least briefly, playing the role of Miami. It is also scrambling our sense of time. You may feel, because of the pandemic, that you are living to some degree in 1918. The arctic temperatures of the past week suggest that at least part of the world is living, simultaneously, in 2098.
But climate change isn’t just a brutal form of time travel, it is discombobulating to our very sense of time. When looking at projections for future warming, an event like the Siberian heat wave appears as an acceleration of history, but when looking at the paleoclimate record, it seems like a trip deep into the prehuman past, toward eras like those, lasting millions of years, when palm trees dotted the Arctic and crocodiles walked in their shade there. Especially at extreme levels, warming threatens the apparent march of progress on which the modern, Western “timeline” model of history was built. But at least until the arrival of large-scale carbon removal technologies, it also illustrates the fact that time — in the form of carbon emissions, which hang in the atmosphere for centuries — is irreversible. Because we are doing so much damage so quickly, destabilizing the entire planet’s climate in the space of a few decades, warming can seem like a phenomena of the present. But its effects will unfurl for millennia, with the climate stabilizing perhaps only millions of years from now. Climate change unwinds history, melting ice frozen for many millennia and pushing rainforests like the Amazon closer to their long-overgrown savannah states. It also makes new history, drawing new borders and new riverbeds, turning breadbaskets like the Mediterranean into deserts and opening up arctic shipping routes to be contested by a new generation of great power military rivalries. It compresses history — those Houston storms, for instance, represent more than a millennia of extreme weather, concentrated in a period of just five years. And it scrambles and scatters it, too, disrupting the cycle of seasons and relocating rain belts and monsoons, among many other distortions. At the same time temperatures in Verkhoyansk reached 100 degrees, in other parts of Siberia it was snowing. Was it winter or summer, a Russian catching the national weather forecast could have been forgiven for asking. They may have wondered, is this our hellish climate future or the return of the Little Ice Age?
Contemplating the impacts of climate change from this perspective can seem naïvely abstract — and it is, when compared to the storms and the wildfires and the droughts. (Not to mention the literal plague of locusts, 360 billion of them, which have devastated agriculture in East Africa and South Asia this year, descending in clouds so thick you couldn’t see through the insects and leaving millions hungry.) But in addition to its humanitarian cruelties, for instance making pandemics like COVID-19 much more likely, warming is already recalibrating much more hard-headed models of time, too. This is a sign that warming is truly the meta-narrative of our century, touching every aspect of our lives. Beyond the catastrophes and crises, the surreal and disorienting aspects of climate change are showing up even in the most numbingly pragmatic places. Like, for instance, mortgages.
“Up and down the coastline, rising seas and climate change are transforming a fixture of American homeownership that dates back generations: the classic 30-year mortgage,” Christopher Flavelle of the New York Times reported June 19. (As it happens, the day before the record-setting temperatures in the Arctic.) As Kate Mackenzie has relentlessly chronicled for Bloomberg, mortgages aren’t the first or only financial instrument to feel the intrusion of a new climate reality much less forgiving, and less stable, than the one on which not just the financialization of the global economy but indeed all of human civilization has been erected. Insurance and reinsurance, municipal bonds and sovereign wealth funds, boutique hedge funds and massive asset-management operations are all beginning to reckon with a future made, at least, much rockier by climate change. How much rockier? Well, according to a Climate Central estimate, at least half a million American homes are on land expected, 30 years from now, to flood every single year. Altogether, those homes are today worth $241 billion. This is just homes, just in America, and annual flooding isn’t the only flood risk a homeowner or a bank might want to consider, which means, even looking only at flooding, many, many more homes are vulnerable than that. Of course, flooding is not, by any stretch, the only climate risk those homes and homeowners would face.
Residents with a dog sit in the back of a truck while waiting to be rescued from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas on August 28, 2017. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Like many of those other financial instruments, a mortgage isn’t just an instrument but also a theory of time — a bet on future value built on the proposition that three decades is a long enough period to absorb the short-term turbulence of real-estate markets and a short-enough period that larger systemic shocks would not have time to develop and reverberate. That is, at least, how the mortgage looks from the bank side. From the consumer side, a mortgage represents a related, but slightly different, theory of time. For most of postwar American history, it has represented “adulthood,” as defined in mostly white and middle-class-and-up terms. For all those distortions and delusions embedded in it — ideas about housing and the real-estate market but also race and class and urbanization and family structure — the 30-year mortgage also embedded an idea about the stability of society through time, that one could expect to arrive at the end of adulthood in a world recognizable to the person who began it, and indeed that whatever changes had transpired would be, on net, of value to the homeowner, who by virtue of his or her property had become a small-scale stakeholder in the prospects of the community, the region, the nation and indeed the world as a whole. As the Times reports, both sides of that bargain are already, now, beginning to look very different.
Congratulations. You’ve done everything humanly possible to cut carbon dioxide—to zero. But what if even that won’t be enough?
It’s one of the most uncomfortable realizations in climate research. Inertia in the climate system implies that even if emissions stopped, temperatures and especially sea levels would continue to rise for a long time. The logical conclusion leads almost immediately to the specter of solar geoengineering, an attempt to use technology to reflect a portion of sunlight back into space. The principle behind solar geoengineering is simple enough. With less sunshine coming through the atmosphere, the planet would invariably cool—and fast. At least temporarily. There’s even a natural analogue: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. In June 1992—ironically, the same time as the pivotal Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit—global average temperatures were about 0.5C cooler than they would have been without all the ash and sulfur dioxide, SO₂, catapulted into the lower stratosphere by the volcano a year prior.
Alas, the millions of tons of gunk from Mount Pinatubo soon fell out of the stratosphere, temperatures shot back up—and they’ve been increasing since.
That leads to another thought experiment. What if some entity, be it an international body or a lone nation, decided to use large-scale tech to re-create the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption? The engineering would be straightforward: release SO₂ near the equator about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) up into the stratosphere. The SO₂ would turn into tiny reflective sulfate particles that would spread around the globe within weeks and linger for months. A bit of sunlight would be reflected away, and everything down below would be cooled.
This is the premise of solar geoengineering via stratospheric aerosols. It’s fast. Unlike cutting CO₂, adding SO₂ cools the Earth within weeks, not decades. It’s powerful. Millions of tons of SO₂ could help offset the global warming effects of hundreds of billions of tons of CO₂. It’s also highly imperfect and risky. It’s akin to adding one type of pollution (SO₂) to help counter the effects of another pollutant (CO₂). Think of it as an experimental drug taken in a pandemic. It might show promise, but watch out for unknown side effects.
In fact, SO₂ is a harmful pollutant. Burning fossil fuels releases tens of millions of tons of SO₂ into the lower atmosphere, killing about 4 million people each year through heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. The resulting acid rain kills trees and melts medieval cathedrals. If all SO₂ emissions were to stop overnight, it would be a boon to human health but a setback for global warming because it cools the planet. Average global temperatures would rise by at least 0.5C—an eruption of Mount Pinatubo in reverse.
It was precisely this thought experiment that led to a resurgence in solar geoengineering research. Too little is known to actually do solar geoengineering now, and research funding is less than $20 million a year. By comparison, the federal government alone spends more than $2 billion on climate research, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Of the few dozen climate scientists actively engaged in the research, most focus on computer models. Only a handful are conducting lab experiments. A Harvard group is working on an experimental balloon platform, as well as on alternatives to SO₂. Calcium carbonate has shown promise in models and the lab. (I was until last year the founding co-director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.) Much more research is needed to make anything akin to an informed deployment decision, and any process of moving toward deployment will be messy.
Solar geoengineering is potentially so powerful that one actor might be able to lower temperatures for the globe. It’s only a matter of time before pressure will increase to do just that, regardless of how fast the world slashes CO₂ emissions. With more frequent extreme heat and weather, it’s not hard to foresee conditions miserable enough to make an attempt at a little relief seem worth the risk to some. Limited research is already making one thing clear: Solar geoengineering isn’t only technically feasible, it’s a bargain. Next to the trillions in costs from unmitigated climate change, and even the expense of cutting CO₂, solar geoengineering costs practically nothing. If anything, it’s too cheap. A program that releases SO₂ to decrease average temperatures by about 0.1C would cost less than $5 billion per year. This should prompt the world to prepare for its inevitability. Dozens of countries have both the capacity and possible motivation. The operative word is “when,” not “if.”
While carbon dioxide is more abundant in the atmosphere and therefore more commonly associated with global warming, methane is around 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas. Given its importance, Canadian company GHGSat have worked in collaboration with the Sentinel-5P team at SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research to investigate hotspots of methane emissions during COVID-19.
Carbon dioxide is generally produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, while fossil fuel production is one of the largest sources of methane emissions. According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s State of the Global Climate report last year, current carbon dioxide and methane concentrations represent respectively 150% and 250% of pre-industrial levels, before 1750.
Owing to the importance of monitoring methane, SRON’s and GHGSat’s research teams have been working since early-2019 to detect methane hotspots. The SRON team uses data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite to detect emissions on a global scale. The GHGSat team then utilises data from GHGSat satellites to quantify and attribute the emissions to specific facilities around the world.
Their work has led to several new hotspots being discovered in 2020, for instance over a coal mine in China. The team have also detected methane emissions over the Permian Basin—the largest oil-producing region in the United States. The team observed concentrations from March-April 2020, compared to the same period as last year in an effort to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 activities on methane emissions.
An initial look at these data suggest a substantial increase in methane concentrations in 2020, compared to 2019. Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager, says, “An explanation for this could be that as a result of less demand for gas because of COVID-19, it is burned and vented—leading to higher methane emissions over this area.”
Ilse Aben, from SRON, comments, “However, these results are inconclusive when using only Sentinel-5P data in the Permian Basin as the number of observations are limited.”
The spatial distribution of Sentinel-5P concentrations in 2020 and in 2019 both indicate local enhancements of methane concentrations in the Delaware and Midland portions of the basin. But higher-resolution measurements, such as those provided by GHGSat, are needed to attribute these enhancements to specific facilities.
The joint analysis of GHGSat and Sentinel-5P regional methane data will continue to explore and quantify how COVID-19 is affecting emissions from the natural gas industry on a regional scale—all the way down to the level of industrial facilities.
Stephane Germain, CEO of GHGSat, comments, “GHGSat continues to work closely with ESA and SRON’s Sentinel-5P science team. We are advancing the science of satellite measurements of atmospheric trace gases while simultaneously providing practical information to industrial operators to reduce facility-level emissions. GHGSat’s next satellites, scheduled to launch in June and December of this year, will help improve our collective understanding of industrial emissions around the world.”
Eric Laliberté, Director General Utilization from the Canadian Space Agency, says, “The Canadian Space Agency is committed to developing space technologies and supporting innovative missions to better understand and mitigate climate change. The results achieved by GHGSat are already having an impact and we are excited to continue working with GHGSat and ESA to better understand greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.”
Claus adds, “In order to further support the scientific uptake of GHGSat measurements, ESA has organised, together with the Canadian Space Agency and GHGSat, a dedicated Announcement of Opportunity Call that will provide around 5% of the measurement capacity of the upcoming commercial GHGSat-C1, also known as the Iris satellite, to the scientific community.”
The Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, with its state-of-the-art instrument Tropomi, can also map other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and aerosols—all of which affect the air we breathe.
Supporting renewables can cut emissions and boost the economy, all while providing cost-competitive energy. Yet the Trump Administration continues propping up the fossil fuel industry — despite the sector facing real financial problems that began long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Disney World solar installation, by Cynthia Shahan/CleanTechnica
Just over a decade ago the Obama Administration and Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009: a stimulus package response to the Great Recession. Notably, it included unprecedented support for renewable energy and other green initiatives.
Since then, installed solar capacity in the US has grown from about 2 gigawatts to 78 gigawatts: enough to power 14.5 million homes. Similarly, wind capacity around the country grew from 35 gigawatts in 2009 to over 107 gigawatts in 2020. These clean energy sources haven’t just prevented millions of tons of planet-warming, air-polluting emissions — they’ve created millions of high-quality jobs, helping boost the economy when it mattered most. The stimulus push wasn’t the only factor, but it was an important one.
Now, 10 years later, you might say the opposite is happening.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump Administration is largely shunning clean energy, a sector that has demonstrated outstanding economic promise, while propping up the oil, gas, and coal industries, which faced real financial challenges long before this pandemic started.
So, why are we prioritizing fossil fuels over clean energy? It didn’t make sense 10 years ago and it certainly doesn’t make sense now.
Integrated gas station with EVgo fast chargers in South Carolina, by Cynthia Shahan/CleanTechnica
Fossil Fuels: An Industry In Decline
First things first, how exactly has the Trump Administration been propping up fossil fuels? To name a few highlights, since the pandemic started, the administration has:
The threat of our changing climate aside, these actions just don’t make economic sense. Why? Because these industries were in decline before this pandemic even started. Let’s take a look at each one.
First off, coal.
In 2019 alone, US coal-fired electricity output dropped by 18 percent, reaching its lowest level since 1975. This consistent, years-long decline is largely the result of increasingly cost-competitive solar and wind energy.
So cost competitive, in fact, that it’s now more expensive to operate 74 percent of US coal plants than to build and use renewables. Those facts, combined with rising public concern over coal’s health-damaging, planet-warming pollution, make it clear that a US coal phase-out should be only a matter of time.
Next up, oil and gas.
Despite a boom over the past decade thanks to shale fracking, oil and gas face an increasingly pressing problem — they’re largely unprofitable for US drillers. Many companies in the space today continue to operate exclusively thanks to billions of dollars of investment that might never be paid back.
“Despite the hype of lower breakeven prices, and despite the hype around longer laterals, energy digitalization, and other technological breakthroughs, most shale companies are still not profitable. In fact, roughly 9 out of every 10 U.S. shale companies are burning cash, according to Rystad Energy. The Oslo-based consultancy studied 40 U.S. shale companies and found that only 4 of them had positive cash flow in the first quarter of 2019.”
Similarly, a 2020 report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) describes how oil, gas, and petrochemical companies showed “clear signs of systemic weakness” long before the COVID-19 economic crisis as a result of:
Long-term underperformance on stock markets
Massive accumulations of corporate debt
Legal opposition in countries critical to the industry’s future
The increasing cost-competitiveness of renewable energy
Growing investor skepticism about the long-term prospects for fossil fuels during an escalating climate crisis.
Clearly, just like coal the oil and gas industries were already in trouble. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis is just amplifying their preexisting woes.
Renewables: Good For The Planet And For The Economy
Recent headlines highlight how, even in the midst of this crisis, the US clean energy transition is still going strong:
The Department of Interior just approved plans for a 690-megawatt solar project in Nevada— the largest ever in the US.
For the first time ever America’s renewable energy sources have produced more electricity than coalevery day for 40 days straight.
The city of Houston, Texas, the self-proclaimed “energy capital of the world”, has announced its plan to move to 100 percent renewable energy sources starting in July. This change is expected to save the city $65 million over the next seven years.
In California, an electric utility just announced that it will build 770-megawatts worth of battery storage for renewable energy. This single project tops all 2019 US installations by more than 200 megawatts.
Those are a just a few US-focused headlines, but long-term projections tell the same story all around the world: renewables are here to stay.
According to the International Energy Agency, although growth in renewable electricity generation is smaller than anticipated before the COVID‑19 crisis, it’s still expected to rise by nearly 5 percent in 2020.
Similarly, the Financial Times recently described how, “Renewable energy is one of the few sectors that has managed to weather the devastating effects of coronavirus, with new deals and new records being struck, even while the rest of the world has been grappling with the pandemic”.
Economics are increasingly on the side of renewables, making them the right choice both financially and environmentally. So, why won’t the Trump administration embrace the transition away from fossil fuels that we need? Just like a decade ago, supporting clean energy today could supercharge our economy while tackling the climate crisis.
It wouldn’t be spring in the climate change era without a massive heat wave in the Arctic.
Freakishly warm air has billowed up from Siberia over the Arctic Ocean and parts of Greenland, and the heat will only intensify in the coming days. The warmth is helping to spread widespread wildfires and to kickstart ice melt season early, both ominous signs of what summer could hold.
The Arctic has been on one recently. Russia had its hottest winter ever recorded, driven largely by Siberian heat. That heat hasn’t let up as the calendar turns to spring. In fact, it’s intensified and spread across the Arctic. Last month was the hottest April on record for the globe, driven by high Arctic temperatures that averaged an astounding 17 degrees Fahrenheit (9.4 degrees Celsius) above normal, according to NASA data.
Now, a May heat wave has pushed things into overdrive. Martin Stendel, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute, told the Washington Post that the mid-May warmth is “quite extraordinary…there is no similar event so early in the season.”
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Siberia has been one of the blistering hot spots on the globe all year, and heat is pushing out of the region and traversing the Arctic. Plumes of abnormally warm air have snaked over the North Pole. Norway’s weather service is forecasting temperatures there will approach freezing in the coming days. That might not sound hot, but remember, this is the North Pole. The warmth could pose a threat to sea ice, which saw its fourth-lowest extent on record for April.
Heat has also gripped portions of Greenland, where the ice sheet’s annual melt got started two weeks early. According the Polar Portal run by three Danish research institutions, including the Danish Meteorological Institute, the western and southern margins of the ice sheet saw abnormal melt over the weekend, and more warmth could spur more melt this week as well. The season is still early, and the spike in melt is relatively small compared to previous sudden upticks in melting (See: last summers’s record-setting meltdown).
Still, early melt is never a good thing, and doubly so given this year’s lower-than-normal snowfall. That means more crusty, dirty snow on the surface could absorb more warmth in summer, something that helped spur record mass loss last year. And when there’s less mass added to the ice sheet, it can set up more mass loss year over year. The ice sheet is already losing six times more mass than it was in the 1980s, so this setup is not good!
Adding to the not-goodness are the massive wildfires raging in Siberia. The region has quietly been ablaze since last month, and flames have continued to spread across millions of acres. While most have burned below the Arctic Circle—or 66.5 degrees North—the warmth has allowed at least some flames to spread north of it. Satellite monitoring expert Pierre Markuse tweeted an image on Monday showing fires creeping across the tundra in the Republic of Sakha that makes up most of eastern Siberia. There are also signs that some “zombie” fires from last fire season have reignited after smoldering underground in peat-rich soil. Congrats if you had that on your climate crisis bingo card.
The Arctic is the fastest-warming region on the planet, and these types of heat waves havebecomeaseasonaloccurrence. But that shouldn’t make them any less shocking or alarming, particularly since the changes happening there could actually cause the rest of the glove to warm up even more quickly. Melting sea ice exposes darker ocean waters that can absorb more heat, while fires cough up more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping yet more heat. The zombie fires are even more worrisome, since peat is extremely rich in carbon. The stubborn heat looks to be locked in until at least next week, so we’ll get to see all these horrible feedbacks on display through at least then.
The Great Barrier Reef is in themidst of its third mass-bleaching event in the last five years. This year’s heat-induced bleaching—which occurs during the region’s summer season—is more severe than the previous two, with 25 percent of the reefs experiencing widespread bleaching. At this point, over 15 percent of the world’s largest reef system has turned a ghostly, skeletal white.
We stand at the very beginning of a long fight for the survival of coral. “Even if we stopped emitting CO2 today, the ocean would still get warmer for 30 to 40 years,” Stephen Palumbi, a coral researcher and professor of biology at Stanford University, told me. “It’s hard to conclude anything but that this ecosystem is in serious trouble.” As the ecosystem becomes more and more unstable, possible solutions become scarcer and increasingly expensive. High-tech measures like geoengineering, assisted evolution, and robot-assisted reproduction are quickly turning into scientists’ best bets.
The current reality of coral reefs is a clear warning about the future of the climate crisis. With each passing day of emissions, ecosystems under pressure become harder and more expensive to recover, eventually reaching a point where the only viable solutions could involve highly resource-intensive technology with uncertain outcomes. Coral reefs can show us what a losing battle the climate crisis could feel like once we reach a certain point.
Climate “tipping points” are thresholds where a tiny change in conditions pushes a system into a completely new state. While scientists say we’re not there yet with coral, we’re frighteningly close. Nearly50 percent of the world’s coral has died in the last 30 years; climate change is the primary culprit. Surface water temperature just a few degrees warmer than normal for several weeks is enough to drive widespread bleaching. Abnormally hot waters aremore common every year.
“Coral reefs provide a variety of different ecosystem services and functions,” said Emma Camp, a biologist and researcher focusing on coral reefs and climate change. “Many fish stock rely on coral reefs. Reefs play a huge role in nutrient recycling and coastal protection.”
The global economic value of coral reefs is estimated to be$36 billion each year. This revenue comes from diving, snorkeling, and wildlife watching as well as “reef-adjacent” tourism that relies on beautiful beaches and views. Reefs also serve as the first line of defense for many coastal areas against storm and wave activity, dissipating large waves and protecting islands from coastal erosion. “As we lose coral reefs, there will be socioeconomic ripple effects that spill far beyond the immediate communities affected,” Camp said.
Before the 2016-2017 bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, the consensus among scientists was that those Pacific reefs wouldn’t require drastic technological solutions in order to be preserved. Now, out of necessity, the attitude has become closer to that of Silicon Valley than traditional science. Governments and private entities like Microsoft co-founderPaul Allen’s charity foundation and theUnited Arab Emirates havepoured billions of dollars into speculative initiatives to save coral reefs. While we’ve all heard about proposals like cloud-seeding or sun-shading floated as theoretical countermeasures to climate change, in the field of coral, many experts believe that the time to move forward with these risky geoengineering solutions isalready here.
In Australia, scientists tinker with creating new species of coral at the $25 millionNational Sea Simulator, using age-old plant domestication techniques and cutting-edge gene editing tools alike. An experimental program called assisted evolution brings corals into the lab and exposes them to heat gradually, creating coral that can survive under temperature stress for three times as long as the average coral.
While acknowledging the ethical implications of genetic engineering, Line Bay, a coral geneticist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, toldScience magazine that delaying work on these proposals may leave the world unable to protect coral reefs in the future. “The worst thing that we could do is ignore genetic engineering because it’s frightening for some people, and then get 10 or 15 years down the road and realize it’s the only option,” Bay said.
Other proposals include geoengineering, such as spraying saltwater into the clouds to reflect more sunlight and dim the sun over the reefs. Another option involves countering ocean acidification—a side-effect of the oceans absorbing ever-greater amounts of carbon dioxide—by planting a massive amount of seagrass to turn seawater more alkaline. And the Australian government has already started funding the use of giant underwater fans to bring cooler water up to the surface.
Some scientists remain wary of some of these proposals. “I haven’t seen a geoengineering scheme that doesn’t make me really worried about what we’re doing,” Palumbi said, “especially without a couple of other planets to experiment on.”
Manufacturing and deploying massive fleets of underwater robots, while absurd on the surface, has quickly become one of the more scalable and easily controlled options when it comes to restoring dying reefs. In 2018, scientists at two Australian universities deployed robots to to re-seed reefs with millions of baby corals and help them grow back faster than they are bleaching.
The problem with coral restoration is the one we could soon be facing with multiple ecosystems: Its right to invest billions of dollars in protecting coral—without fighting to preserve these structures, we risk of the complete collapse of coral ecosystems, involving massive environmental and economic fallout. But focusing on coral-restoration technology can also draw attention away from the culprit driving this change to begin with: emissions.
The most important step for saving coral is moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels. “The future trajectory of reef health is entirely dependent on how soon we act,” Camp said. “The sooner we reduce emissions, the more likely we are to have healthy reefs in the future.” While scientists are increasingly wearing multiple hats as activists and communicators, the dialogue around restoring reefs can sometimes glance over the more important truth: Stopping emissions is the best and surest way to guarantee that reefs survive the century. Scientists have only turned to these alternative solutions because the world won’t act. “Our biggest tool to save coral, reducing emissions, isn’t working. So we have to think about the other tools in our toolbox like assisted evolution and geoengineering,” Camp said. But, at the same time, the emissions fight has never been more important: It’s the only way to avoid these battles of diminishing returns with other ecosystems down the line.
The situation facing coral reefs right now is a dry run for the tipping points rainforests, agriculture, and the polar ice caps could soon face. Right now, the most effective ways to save the Amazon rainforest are preventative—stopping deforestation and reducing carbon emissions. Butif the Amazon suddenly starts to collapse, it will already be too late and scientists will need to look to new, murky horizons, investing tremendous amounts of money in risky solutions in order to avoid imminent, drastic consequences.
Ecological systems under warming pressure can turn into a runaway train. The trillions of dollars in economic costs of climate inaction are not theoretical: The collapse of reef ecosystems today show us clearly what those economic and ecological costs will look like. Eliminating oil industry subsidies, a transition to a green economy, carbon taxes, far-reaching changes to individual lifestyles—everything needs to be on the table. While scientists can help coral survive into the short-term, it’s up to the greater community—and, in particular, that means policy at the national and international level—to create a future that coral can survive in.
Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I frequently hear and read that COVID-19 is a nefarious attempt by the so-called “elite” among us to depopulate the burgeoning human population on Earth. Other conspiracy theories abound, including COVID-19 as an attempt to further reduce human rights, promote expensive medical therapies, and otherwise enrich the wealthy at the expense of the bamboozled masses.
I do not doubt the ability of the informed wealthy to fleece the ignorant masses. Nor do I doubt the ability of the informed wealthy to turn virtually any situation into an opportunity for monetary gain. A quick glance at the past two centuries provides plenty of examples. However, I doubt the monetarily wealthy among us are interested in accelerating human extinction, even for financial gain. As I explain below, the ongoing reduction in industrial activity as a result of COVID-19 almost certainly leads to loss of habitat for human animals, hence putting us on the fast track to human extinction. I doubt the knowledgeable “elite” are interested in altering the sweet deal they are experiencing with the current set of living arrangements.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, the ongoing Mass Extinction Event, and abrupt, irreversible climate change, I am pleasantly surprised humans still occupy Earth. I strongly suspect the ongoing reduction in industrial activity will reduce the aerosol masking effect sufficiently to trigger a 1 C temperature spike, as described in the peer-reviewed literature. In fact, I suspect it already has. The outcome is not yet obvious because the timing of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was favorable for human habitat. Trees produced leaves in the Northern Hemisphere spring of 2020 as a result of carbohydrates stored the previous year. Grain crops were harvested before the novel coronavirus emerged. I suspect the results of the recent and ongoing rise in temperature, which has already been reported in China and India, will become obvious to most humans when many more trees die. Large-scale die-off of trees likely will approximately correspond with catastrophic crop failure. This might occur by the end of this year, although I would rather it not.
History is replete with examples of human hubris. We thought we were mighty, and we thought we were human, whatever that means. Collectively, we certainly have left our mark on Earth. How embarrassing for the big-brained human species that a microscopic virus could pull the trigger on our extinction. How wonderful for thoughtful individuals that we get to ponder our deaths, and therefore our lives. We get to contemplate not only our lives, but also how we live.
For many residents, the sight is something which they have never witnessed in their entire lives…
For the first time in 30 years, India’s snow-covered Dhauladhar mountain range has become visible to locals as a result of plunging pollution levels resulting from measures taken to check the spread of the novel coronavirus.
For many residents, the sight of the Dhauladhar Range—which translates to “White Range” and forms part of the Himalayas—is something which they have never witnessed in their entire lives, reportsSBS.
Many have been eager to share their feelings about it on social media, including former Indian cricket player Harbhajan Singh, who wrote:
“Never seen Dhauladar range from my home rooftop in Jalandhar. Never could imagine that’s possible. A clear indication of the impact the pollution has done by us to mother earth.”
Never seen Dhauladar range from my home rooftop in Jalandhar..never could imagine that’s possible..clear indication of the impact the pollution has done by us to Mother Earth .. this is the view
While anti-pollution activist Sant Balbir Singh Seeechewal told SBS:
“We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs. And not just that, stars are visible at night. I have never seen anything like this in recent times.”
India, a country with upwards of 1.3 billion residents, has been placed under a strict nationwide lockdown from March 22 until at least April 14. The draconian move limits the movement of the entire population, and has been criticized by rights groups as well as figures from private industry who claim that the measure is arbitrary and damages the country and its economy.
On Tuesday, the Economic Timespublished an opinion piece by auto company executive Rajiv Bajaj arguing that “virtually no country has imposed such a sweeping lockdown as India has; I continue to believe this makes India weak rather than stronger in combating the epidemic.”
However, the lockdown—which shut down factories, marketplaces, small shops, places of worship, most public transportation and construction projects—has also provided a temporary respite from the suffocating pollution levels India is known for. No less than 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in the South Asian giant.
From my home town in Punjab…. we had never seen mountains
This is from Jalandhar. Dhauladar Range approx 200-250km
“Not just normal traffic is off the roads, but most industry is also shut down. This has helped bring the pollution level to unbelievably low levels.”
According to CNN, government data has shown that India’s capital New Delhi has seen a 71 percent plunge of the harmful microscopic particulate matter known as PM 2.5. The particulate matter, which lodges deep into the lungs and passes into vital organs and the bloodstream, causes a number of serious risks to people’s health.
In the meantime, nitrogen dioxide spewed into the air by motor traffic and power plants has also fallen by 71 percent from 52 per cubic meter to 15 in the same period.
Similar drops in air pollutants have been registered in major cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, and Mumbai.
Shailen Pratap शैलेन्द्र @shailen_pratap
Today’s best news should be that Dhauladar Range,Himachal Pradesh, Himalayas have started to be visible from Jalandhar ( approximately 300 Kms). This has never happened in our lifetime. Loving Views……