Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Hurricane Laura makes landfall in Louisiana, one of most powerful storms to hit state
- Bread price may rise after dire UK wheat harvest
- Extra UN climate talks mooted for 2021 to help negotiators catch up
- Sticking to UK diet advice cuts premature death and CO2 – study
- Antarctica ice shelves vulnerable to meltwater that could cut ice 'like a knife,' study finds
- 2020s will be ‘decade of hydrogen’
- On climate change, we’ve run out of presidential terms to waste
- Glacial cooling and climate sensitivity revisited
- Arctic amplification: A rapid response to radiative forcing
- Vulnerability of Antarctica’s ice shelves to meltwater-driven fracture
There is rolling coverage in the US of Hurricane Laura striking the coasts of Texas and Louisiana. Reuters reports that “Hurricane Laura made landfall early Thursday in southwestern Louisiana as one of the most powerful storms to hit the state, with forecasters warning it could push a massive wall of water 40 miles inland from the sea”. The Financial Times says Laura’s 150mph winds threaten an “unsurvivable” surge of seawater in the “heartland of American oil refining, natural gas exports and petrochemicals production”. It adds that the US National Hurricane Center has issued a warning for a 400-mile swath of the Gulf coast from Freeport, Texas, to the Mississippi River. Reuters says that “oil prices were mixed in early trade on Thursday even as oil rigs and refineries shut ahead of a massive storm in the Gulf of Mexico racing towards Texas and Louisiana, with slim worries about the impact on supply as oil stockpiles remain high”. Associated Press says that “America and the world are getting more frequent and bigger multibillion dollar tropical catastrophes like Hurricane Laura, which is menacing the US Gulf Coast, because of a combination of increased coastal development, natural climate cycles, reductions in air pollution and man-made climate change, experts say”. AP quotes Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Institute at the University of South Carolina: “We are seeing an increase of intensity of these phenomena because we as a society are fundamentally changing the Earth and at the same time we are moving to locations that are more hazardous.”
Meanwhile, the New York Times has a timely feature on how “using tax dollars to move whole communities out of flood zones, an idea long dismissed as radical, is swiftly becoming policy, marking a new and more disruptive phase of climate change”. It adds: “This week’s one-two punch of Hurricane Laura and Tropical Storm Marco may be extraordinary, but the storms are just two of nine to strike Texas and Louisiana since 2017 alone, helping to drive a major federal change in how the nation handles floods. For years, even as seas rose and flooding worsened nationwide, policymakers stuck to the belief that relocating entire communities away from vulnerable areas was simply too extreme to consider – an attack on Americans’ love of home and private property as well as a costly use of taxpayer dollars. Now, however, that is rapidly changing amid acceptance that rebuilding over and over after successive floods makes little sense.” The Guardian reports on how “US cities are spending millions on trees to fight heat – but are their plans equitable?”. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank observes that as “Hurricane Laura looms, [Donald] Trump is again the man without a plan”. He adds: “Trump didn’t cause Hurricane Laura, but the storm highlights his lack of a plan to lessen climate change, to diversify the nation’s energy supply (major oil and gas facilities are in Laura’s crosshairs) or to prepare a muscular government response.”
BBC News reports that the National Farmers’ Union is warning that the price of flour and bread is set to rise after what could be the worst UK wheat harvest in 40 years. BBC News adds: “Farmers say that the extreme weather over the last year is likely to mean wheat yields are down by up to 40%. As a result, some millers have already increased the price of flour by 10% and they warn a no-deal Brexit could push up prices even further. And we’re likely to see more of the same weather in future, experts say. The UK Met Office told BBC News that the extremes of wet and hot conditions that have marked this year are likely to become more common as our climate continues to change.”
Meanwhile, in other UK news, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says that deaths in the UK have risen above average for the first time since mid-June, reports the Press Association. However, coronavirus is not thought to be behind the rise. Instead, the ONS says the heatwave experienced during the week ending August 14 is likely to explain the weekly increase. PA quotes Prof Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at the University of Reading, who describes the data as “truly extraordinary”. She adds: “While more research needs to be done to confirm this, it is very likely that the week-long heatwave that saw tropical nights and regular daytime temperatures above 35C killed hundreds of people.”
Separately, BusinessGreen notes how Storm Ellen, which battered much of the UK over the weekend, meant that “wind power provided almost 60% [13.5GW] of the UK’s electricity in the early hours of Saturday morning, providing a fresh milestone”.
Finally, the Guardian joins others newspapers in reporting the reaction to the news that controversial former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott is set to be appointed to a senior trade role by the UK government. The Guardian quotes the UK’s shadow trade secretary, Emily Thornberry: “I just find this appointment absolutely staggering,” Thornberry said. “On a personal level, I am disgusted that Boris Johnson thinks this offensive, leering, cantankerous, climate change-denying, Trump-worshipping misogynist is the right person to represent our country overseas.” The Daily Telegraph says that “regardless of whether Abbott can help to push the deals over the line, the government stirring rumours about his appointment is more likely for the benefit of onlookers at home”.
Climate Home News reports that “after losing a year to the coronavirus pandemic, UN Climate Change is considering an extra meeting in 2021 to resolve sticking points in the negotiations”. It adds: “Additional climate talks could be held in 2021 to help countries prepare for the critical COP26 summit, making up for time lost due to the coronavirus pandemic. COP26 in Glasgow, UK, was postponed by a whole year to November 2021 because of the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak. A preparatory meeting in Bonn, Germany was also deferred. Members of the UN Climate Change bureau – a group of top diplomats which includes UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa – met on Tuesday to decide the path forward for international climate negotiations. One option under consideration is to hold a third climate meeting in 2021. This would allow negotiators to catch up on work missed this year and arrive in Glasgow ready to negotiate the last unresolved issues of the Paris Agreement rulebook.”
Several UK news outlets cover the findings of a new study, jointly conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of Oxford, looking into whether adhering official dietary advice helps to reduce the chance of premature deaths as well as help to lower environmental impacts. The Guardian says: “The first analysis of nine government-backed Eatwell dietary guidelines found that those who adhered to five or more of them had an estimated 7% reduction in their mortality risk. [It also] suggested a similar diet was associated with a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, compared with those that adhered to two or fewer.” The Guardian also quotes Prof Alan Dangour, the study’s senior author: “Our new analysis demonstrates that following the Eatwell Guide would substantially improve human health in the UK and reduce our nation’s footprint on the planet.” The Eatwell guidelines, which were published in 2016, recommend that people eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables per day, as well as base meals of potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates and drink six to eight glasses of fluids per day. However, the Daily Telegraph says that the research also found that “very few totally adhere to all nine recommendations within the guide”.
Meanwhile, BBC News has a feature on how the “UK contributes to global deforestation”. It says: “Cocoa, palm oil, pulp and paper, rubber, soy, timber, beef and leather. It’s estimated that an area the size of the UK was used abroad every year between 2016 and 2018, to meet British demand for these natural materials.” And the Guardian reports that “multinational financial services giant HSBC and Pollination, a boutique climate advisory and investment firm, [has] announced a joint venture that they predicted would meet a multi-billion dollar demand for environmentally friendly investment beyond renewable energy”. The newspaper adds: “In a statement on Wednesday, they said the new body would back projects in areas including sustainable forestry, regenerative agriculture, water supply improvement, biofuels and ‘blue carbon’ capture in oceans and coastal ecosystems.”
Various outlets report the findings of a new study published in Nature showing that meltwater could undermine the ice shelves holding back Antarctica’s glaciers. Reuters says the finding “underscores concern about the potential for a significant sea level rise”, adding: “The ice shelves, formed over thousands of years, serve as dams to prevent much of the continent’s snow and ice from flowing toward the ocean. Scientists found that about 60% of the ice shelf area is vulnerable to a process call hydrofracturing, in which meltwater seeps into the shelves’ crevasses, some of which are hundreds of meters deep, and triggers collapse…It’s unclear how long such a process might take. Antarctic weather is highly variable, making it difficult for scientists to determine how much of a role is being played by human-caused climate change.” The Guardian adds that “most climatic models do not include the impact of hydrofracturing in their calculations, although one 2016 paper did account for them in a simpler way than the new study”. The Independent says that “the scientists estimate that between 50 and 70% of the areas of the ice shelves buttressing the glaciers are vulnerable to such processes”.
Meanwhile, MailOnline reports on another Nature study which has found that “the average global temperature during the last Ice Age 20,000 years ago was 7.7-6C colder than today”. It adds: “The findings will help experts understand the link between changes in atmospheric carbon levels and global temperature shifts – and predict future climate change.”
There is continuing media interest in the potential of hydrogen as a low-carbon carrier of energy. The Daily Telegraph reports on research by energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie showing that the cost of so-called “green hydrogen”, which is made from water, will fall almost two-thirds by 2040. The Telegraph adds: “The 2020s will be the ‘decade of hydrogen’ as production costs tumble, experts say, providing a credible alternative to electric batteries to power transport…Debate continues to rage over the most effective way to power cars, buses and trains and meet future climate change commitments. Tesla’s Elon Musk has rubbished hydrogen as the answer, calling the technology ‘staggeringly dumb’ and ‘mind-bogglingly stupid’. Instead the billionaire favours electric batteries. Japan, however, was set to showcase the power source at the Olympics this summer with the Tokyo showcase dubbed the ‘hydrogen games’.” BusinessGreen also covers the Wood Mackenzie findings in a feature about hydrogen, adding “over the past year or so signs have started to emerge that suggest the hydrogen fairy tale could yet have the happiest of endings…Thankfully there is compelling evidence that the fledgling green hydrogen sector is on the cusp of a decade or two of rapid expansion.” Meanwhile, Reuters, also picking up on the Wood Mackenzie findings, reports that “a European Union goal to boost the use of zero-carbon hydrogen is likely to be a pipe dream unless the bloc can find billions in investment and persuade member states, under strain from the pandemic hit to their economies, to give their backing”.
Writing in the New Yorker, veteran environmental campaigner and author Bill McKibben says “if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take over the White House, in January, they’re going to be dealing with an immediate and overwhelming climate crisis, not just the prospective dilemma that other Administrations have faced. It’s not coming; it’s here”. He adds: “The luxury of moving slowly, the margin for zigging and zagging to accommodate various interests, has disappeared. So, if the Democrats win, they will have to address the pandemic and the resulting economic dislocation, and tackle the climate mess all at the same time. Any climate plan must be, in some way or another, the solution to the current widespread loss of jobs.”
Meanwhile, in Foreign Policy, Prof Jason Bordoff, a former special assistant to Barack Obama, argues: “Signs of coal’s demise are everywhere, but the world needs a better plan to phase out thousands of coal power plants still in use…Despite years of activist pressure and government pledges, nations are still building coal-fired power plants, the largest source of emissions. Yet even if that were to change, as it must, the emissions from existing plants still mean there’s no chance of meeting the world’s climate targets. This reality deserves far more attention, with international climate diplomacy and policy efforts focusing far more on developing financially and politically viable plans to curb emissions from the world’s existing coal plants.”
And finally, Nature has published a “spotlight” feature about “China’s plan to cut coal and boost green growth”. Freelance writer Sarah O’Meara says: “China has some of the cheapest electricity prices in the developed world. The costs are set by local governments and approved by the energy bureau in the National Development and Reform Commission, which oversees macroeconomic policy. Prices are kept low to stimulate economic growth. But despite this drive, the country has begun to phase out some subsidies for clean fuels: for example, it will stop those for onshore wind after this year. China’s leaders hope that renewable energy sources will become economically competitive with fossil fuels in the near future. The answer lies in developing stronger energy-storage infrastructure.”
Global average temperatures during the Earth’s most recent ice age – known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) – were approximately 6.1C cooler than today, a new study says. The researchers combine “a large collection of geochemical proxies for sea surface temperature with an isotope-enabled climate model ensemble” to reconstruct LGM temperatures. The level of cooling translates to an equilibrium climate sensitivity of 3.4C, the researchers say, with a range of 2.4-4.5C. This value is “higher than previous LGM-based estimates but consistent with the traditional consensus range of 2.0–4.5C, the authors note.
A new study explores the underlying causes of Arctic amplification (AA) – the phenomenon where temperatures in the Arctic rise more rapidly than the global average. Running climate model simulations in an idealised scenario where atmospheric CO2 is instantaneously quadrupled, the researchers show that “AA develops rapidly (within the first few months)”. This rapid AA “occurs before any significant loss of Arctic sea ice”, the authors say, suggesting that ice loss is “therefore not needed to produce polar‐amplified warming”. The results “provide new and compelling evidence that AA owes its existence, fundamentally, to fast atmospheric processes”.
Around 60% of Antarctic ice shelves are both crucial for holding back the glacier ice behind them and also vulnerable to “hydrofracturing”, new research suggests. Hydrofracturing is a process where meltwater flows into and enlarges fractures, potentially triggering ice-shelf collapse, the authors explain. Using satellite imagery and machine learning tools, the researchers predict where surface fractures in ice shelves would become unstable if filled with water. Increased surface melting “could trigger hydrofracturing if it leads to water inundating the widespread vulnerable regions we identify”, the study concludes. An accompanying News & Views article notes that the study focuses on atmospheric warming as “suspect number one”, but “it remains unclear how tightly the fate of ice shelves is tied to suspect number two: oceanic warming”. In other words, the piece concludes, “the chief suspects in the destabilisation of ice shelves do not act in isolation – they are co-conspirators”.
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.