Today's climate and energy headlines:
- Texas city loses water, 44 dead, but thousands of Harvey survivors rescued
- Georgia Power provides lifeline for $19bn nuclear power plant
- US Strategic Petroleum Reserve makes emergency release in wake of Harvey
- Global warming doubles growth rates of Antarctic seabed's marine fauna – study
- US states hit back at EPA chief over climate rule guidance
- Finland to introduce law next year phasing out coal
- Counting the costs of Hurricane Harvey
- Resilience, not devastation, is the real story of the Texas floods
- Tropical semi-arid regions expanding over temperate latitudes under climate change
The number of people dead, or feared dead, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding it brought to southern US is up to 44, Reuters reports. 779,000 Texans have been told to leave their homes and another 980,000 fled voluntarily amid dangers of new flooding from swollen rivers and reservoirs, according to Department of Homeland Security acting secretary Elaine Duke. Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert said the White House would ask Congress for emergency funding to help those affected, some of whom are uninsured, reports the BBC. The BBC also looks at what makes Houston so susceptible to flooding. Meanwhile, there have been two explosions at a flooded chemical plant in a small town outside Houston, reports New Scientist. The plant lost power and refrigeration, and soon thereafter lost control of highly flammable organic peroxides it produces for use in paints and polystyrenes, explains the Guardian. Chemical maker Arkema SA, who owns the plants, said it expects more fires to come, reports Reuters. Arkema and local officials said they believed the smoke from the blaze was non-toxic, but they urged people to stay away as the fire burns itself out. Residents within 2.5km of the plant have been told to leave. The Associated Press and Washington Post also cover the explosions, while the New York Times has some “short answers to hard questions” about the health threats from the flooding. Elsewhere, the Telegraph reports that another Atlantic hurricane – “Irma” – intensified into a Category 3 hurricane. The storm is currently far from land, but is heading straight towards the southern Caribbean. And Reuters reports that Tropical Storm Lidia is nearing Mexico’s Baja peninsula and is expected to bring a dangerous storm surge and flash flooding.
The only new nuclear plant still being built in the US has won a reprieve, reports the Financial Times. Georgia Power, the largest investor in the state’s Vogtle plant, has said the project should go ahead, following a review of the costs of abandoning or completing the work. The firm asked state regulators to approve the decision on Thursday, reports the New York Times. It expects the $19bn twin reactors to come online in 2021 and 2022. The decision to proceed comes despite billions of dollars of cost overruns that pushed the main contractor, Westinghouse, into bankruptcy, reports Reuters. A decision from the regulator is expected by February, it adds. Meanwhile Think Progress reports that Florida’s Duke Energy has abandoned plans to pursue the Levy new nuclear scheme, opting instead to invest $6bn in solar, smart meters, grid modernisation, electric car chargers and a battery storage pilot.
The US Department of Energy has authorised the release of half a million barrels of crude oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve as the refining hub on the US Gulf Coast struggles with the fallout from Hurricane Harvey. The US has faced a growing fuel crunch since Harvey knocked out almost a quarter of all US refining capacity as it churned across Texas and into Louisiana. 200,000 barrels of sweet crude oil and 300,000 barrels of sour crude oil will delivered to Phillips 66′s refinery in Lake Charles, Louisiana. US petrol prices have risen after a key network of pipelines was shut in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, says the BBC. And Energy Secretary Rick Perry also warned yesterday that, “Gas prices are going to go up,” reports The Hill. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency yesterday amid fears of a possible gasoline shortage in the state, says another article in The Hill. “Hurricane Harvey’s damage to refineries in Texas and Louisiana could ripple throughout the southeast, causing gasoline shortages and rising prices,” Cooper said. “I’m taking action to make it easier to get gasoline into our state so North Carolinians who need gas can get it.” The US’s curtailed oil refining capacity could ripple out into higher prices in Mexico and Europe as refiners scramble to divert supplies from elsewhere, says the Times. Harvey is “exposing an Achilles heel” of the global energy market, notes the Financial Times: “The concentration of US energy assets in a low-lying, hurricane-prone coastal corridor makes the world more exposed to local weather.” A flotilla of European fuel tankers is preparing to sail to the US as oil traders rush to replace supplies of petrol, says another FT article. Shipbrokers in London said almost 40 cargoes of petrol had been booked or were being negotiated so far this week, well up on the usual volume.
Marine life on the Antarctic seabed is likely to be far more affected by global warming than previously thought, a new study suggests. Growth rates of some creatures doubled – including colonising moss animals and undersea worms – following a 1C increase in temperature, making them more dominant, pushing out other species and reducing overall levels of biodiversity. Lead author Gail Ashton told the Guardian that she was not expecting such a significant difference. “The loss of biodiversity is very concerning. This is an indication of what may happen elsewhere with greater warning.” The New York Times and Nature News also cover the study.
Democratic state officials say the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued “legally incorrect” advice on climate rule compliance, reports Reuters. EPA chief Scott Pruitt had written to states advising they did not need to comply with the Clean Power Plan, president Obama’s signature climate policy that remains on hold pending legal ruling. But until then, it “remains the law of the land”, the Democratic officials say. The The Hill also has the story.
Finland will introduce legislation next year to phase out coal and increase carbon taxes, a government official told Reuters. Coal currently produces roughly 10% of the energy consumed by Finland. “This strategy has a goal of getting rid of coal as an energy source by 2030 … We have to write a law … and that will be next year,” Riku Huttunen, director general in Finland’s energy department, said. Huttunen added that Finland will propose higher carbon taxes in 2018, but he didn’t give further details.
“America’s response to Hurricane Harvey has so far been good,” says the FT in an editorial, but “the same cannot be said of America’s approach to disaster preparedness”. “Though Harvey is classified as a once-in-500-year flood, this is the third time Houston has been blighted with freak rainfall in as many years. Global warming is real.” “Prevention is cheaper than cure,” says the FT, and “it was thus reckless of Donald Trump’s administration to pull out of the Paris agreement on climate change earlier this year.” Meanwhile, an editorial in the Times notes that scientists have long-predicted that rainfall events will get more extreme in a warmer world: “Using the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, scientists have established that for every degree the world’s average sea surface temperature rises, the atmosphere’s water content should rise by 7%…That is the theory, and decades of measurements by American military weather satellites have provided proof.” This extra moisture enters the water cycle and “much of it must fall as rain,” the Times says: “’Nobody has ever seen anything like this,’” President Trump said, and he may well have been right.” The amount of rain dumped on Texas by Hurricane Harvey has set a new high for a tropical system in the US, writes Jonathan Watts, the global environment editor for the Guardian, but “it is unlikely to last long as rising man-made emissions push the global climate deeper into uncharted territory.” Over in the US comment pages, an editorial in USA Today says that a definitive answer on the link between Hurricane Harvey and climate change will “in all likelihood” be that “climate change didn’t cause Harvey, but it almost surely made the storm worse”. Therefore, it says, “the question isn’t whether the nation can afford to get serious about global warming. We can’t afford not to”. In the New York Times, op-ed contributor Rebecca Elliott looks at the financial impacts of Harvey – for which, she says, “the heaviest burdens, of course, will fall on the shoulders of low- and middle-income residents.” And finally, senator Bernie Sanders has told CNN that “it is pretty dumb not to ask some hard questions” about climate change considering the unprecedented rainfall and resulting flooding brought by Harvey.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey is “the story of human development: when a nation grows more prosperous, it is less at the mercy of the elements,” write Rupert Darwall and Fraser Nelson in the Spectator. “It isn’t that the storms are more severe or more frequent — just that America has the money to cope better,” they say: “Outsmarting the weather is part of the basic story of human progress.” Quoting figures from Indur Goklany – a science analyst at the US Department of the Interior, and former member of the academic advisory council of the climate sceptic lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation – they say that deaths for extreme events are declining: “And why? Not because the weather is any milder, but because developed countries can afford to protect people from it.” Using much the same argument, Bret Stephens in the New York Times writes that “Texans will find few consolations in the wake of a hurricane as terrifying as Harvey. But here, at least, is one: A biblical storm has hit them, and the death toll – 38 as of this writing – is mercifully low, given its intensity.” “Why do richer countries fare so much better than poorer ones when it comes to natural disasters?,” Stephens asks. It largely comes down to wealth, he says: “Every child knows that houses of brick are safer than houses of wood or straw – and therefore cost more to build. Harvey will damage or ruin thousands of homes. But it won’t sweep away entire neighbourhoods, as Typhoon Haiyan did in the Philippine city of Tacloban in 2013.” It is “poverty, not wealth, [that] is the enemy of the environment,” he argues. Writing in Think Progress, Joe Romm responds to the “unfact-checked nonsense on climate change” in Stephens’ column: “The entire point of climate action is to avoid the enormous threat to the economy (and to humanity) posed by climate change — by using low-carbon strategies that would have little noticeable impact on long-term growth.”
The amount of Earth that is covered in semi-arid dry land could increase by 38% by 2100 if no efforts are made to curb global greenhouse emissions, new research finds. The research also suggests that warm semi-arid land, which is characterised by little annual rainfall and relatively low agricultural potential, could cover a total of 7 to 9% of the Earth’s surface by 2100 under uncurbed greenhouse emissions. “This expansion will essentially take place outside of the tropical belt, showing a poleward migration as large as 11 degrees of latitude in the Northern Hemisphere,” the researchers conclude.
Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.
Get a Daily or Weekly round-up of all the important articles and papers selected by Carbon Brief by email.