3 important climate stories
Trump moves to wipe out Obama’s climate-change progress
President Trump will take the most significant step yet in obliterating his predecessor’s environmental record Tuesday, instructing federal regulators to rewrite key rules curbing U.S. carbon emissions.
The sweeping executive order also seeks to lift a moratorium on federal coal leasing and remove the requirement that federal officials consider the impact of climate change when making decisions.
The order sends an unmistakable signal that just as President Barack Obama sought to weave climate considerations into every aspect of the federal government; Trump is hoping to rip that approach out by its roots.
“This policy is in keeping with President Trump’s desire to make the United States energy independent,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the directive Monday evening and asked for anonymity to speak in advance of the announcement. “When it comes to climate change, we want to take our course and do it in our own form and fashion.”
Some of the measures could take years to implement and are unlikely to alter broader economic trends that are shifting the nation’s electricity mix from coal-fired generation to natural gas and renewables. The order is silent on whether the United States should withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which it has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, because the administration remains divided on that question.
The order comes after several moves by Trump to roll back Obama-era restrictions on mining, drilling and coal- and gas-burning operations. In his first two months as president, Trump has nullified a regulation barring surface-mining companies from polluting waterways and set aside a new accounting system that would have compelled coal companies and other energy firms to pay more in federal royalties.
The administration also has announced it will reconsider stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks and has approved two major oil pipelines, Dakota Access and Keystone XL, that Obama had halted.
Accelerating fossil-fuel production on federal lands and sidelining climate considerations could lead to higher emissions of the greenhouse gases driving climate change and complicate a global effort to curb the world’s carbon output. But Trump has repeatedly questioned whether climate change is underway and emphasized that he is determined to deliver for the voters in coal country who helped him win the Oval Office.
“He’s made a pledge to the coal industry and he’s going to do whatever he can to help those workers,” the senior administration official said.
U.S. coal jobs, which number about 75,000, have been declining for decades. The official did not predict how many jobs might be spurred by this shift in policy. Legal fight possible
The centerpiece of the new presidential directive, telling the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting the 2015 regulation that limits greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants, will trigger a laborious rulemaking process and a possible legal fight.
The agency must first get permission from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where the rule is tied up in litigation, to revisit the matter. Then, agency officials will have to justify reaching the opposite conclusion of the Obama EPA, which argued it was technically feasible and legally warranted to reduce carbon pollution by about one-third by 2030, compared with 2005 levels.
“So, for the president, even if he would like to revoke the Clean Power Plan, he doesn’t have legal authority to do that,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the Bracewell law firm who opposes the Obama-era rule. Holmstead, who headed the EPA’s air and radiation office under President George W. Bush, said he thinks the agency can justify reversing the regulation. But “they have to justify why they have changed,” he added.
Climate Change; when it’s time to bail
Isle de Jean Charles, a stitch of land on the tattered southern fringe of Louisiana, is thin and getting thinner. Battered by storms and sea-level rise, and deprived of revitalizing sediment from the Mississippi River, its surface area has shrunk by ninety-eight per cent since 1955, and its remaining three hundred and twenty acres can flood in little more than a stiff breeze. Most island residents are members of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, and early last year, thanks to a forty-eight-million-dollar federal resettlement grant, they began the process of relocating their community to the nearby city of Houma. Though headlines routinely call the band’s members the first American climate refugees, the label applies only in the narrowest sense. They may be the first to receive federal funding for a collective retreat from the effects of climate change, but what disaster experts call managed retreat—abandoning areas vulnerable to floods, tsunamis, and rapid erosion—is already well under way, in the United States and worldwide.
In a paper published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, a trio of Stanford researchers examined twenty-seven recent cases of managed retreat affecting twenty-two countries and 1.3 million people. They found that, regardless of a country’s wealth and level of development, relocations are most likely to happen when a government and its citizens are in accord. In the early two-thousands, for instance, the Dutch farming community of De Noordwaard was “de-poldered”; its seventy-five households were moved, its protective dikes were lowered, and its land was allowed to flood. Residents who initially opposed the retreat came around after repeated inundations, and the government’s initiative helped not only them but also many thousands of others downstream. Likewise, after the Australian state of Queensland suffered a series of catastrophic floods in late 2010 and early 2011, more than two hundred and fifty people in the Lockyer Valley chose to leave, first with local government support and later with assistance from the state and national governments. Similar relocations took place in Guatemala after Hurricane Stan, in 2005. In the United States between 1993 and 2011, the federal government purchased more than thirty-six thousand high-risk properties from willing sellers through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, in many cases converting the land to open space that can serve as a buffer against future floods.
Louisianans are more familiar than most Americans with the immediate effects of climate change, having lived through a number of record-breaking rainstorms and hurricanes in recent decades. The state is implementing a comprehensive plan to reduce flood risk, and officials in Washington, D.C., and Baton Rouge hope that the Isle de Jean Charles retreat, which has been carefully planned to preserve community ties, will serve as a model for future relocations along the Louisiana coast. But in other parts of the country the situation is murkier. Residents of coastal Alaska, for instance, where the threats from erosion and flooding are also dire, have struggled to secure assistance; because there is no bureaucratic framework for relocation, retreat has been haphazard at best. “The stalemate isn’t any one agency’s fault, but the system as a whole is allowing them to fall through the cracks,” Miyuki Hino, the study’s lead author, told me. Unless a single government entity, or a shattering disaster, makes a strong argument for the benefits of relocation, inertia tends to set in.
In many places, this inertia is endemic for more basic reasons. Climate-change forecasts are inherently uncertain, and the possibilities they predict range from politically inconvenient to outright terrifying. It is far easier to ignore them—or, as the North Carolina state legislature notoriously did in 2012, simply outlaw their application to land-use planning—than to address them. Most current coastal-adaptation measures focus on protection (higher seawalls, for instance) or tweaks to development rules, steps that come at little cost to either individuals or governments. The barriers to retreat, on the other hand, are much larger, psychologically, politically, and economically. Katharine Mach, one of Hino’s co-authors, noted the bullish tone of the report that New York City’s Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency published after Hurricane Sandy. “The time has come to make our city even tougher,” the report declared—a statement that suggests little tolerance for retreat. “The concept is just not in the city’s ethos,” Mach said. While the state has purchased and demolished hundreds of properties on the Staten Island shoreline, the city has encouraged rebuilding and development elsewhere on its waterfront, drawing new residents into areas that were flooded by Sandy—or may well be by the next superstorm.
While managed retreat is not always the right choice for communities threatened by climate change, both Mach and Hino said that it may be the right choice more often than we’re willing to admit, and they hope that their analysis will lead to its more forthright consideration. Well more than a hundred million people are expected to face displacement by rising seas before the end of the century. “We’re going to have to think really hard about how and where it happens, who moves and who stays, and whose values matter most,” Mach said. “In so many ways, it’s a perfect unfolding of both the tensions and the opportunities in adaptation.”
Climate Change-Fueled Jet Stream Linked to Brutal Floods and Heatwaves….A slowdown in planetary winds triggered recent episodes of extreme weather, according to research by climatologist Michael Mann.
When Michael Mann goes before Congress Wednesday to testify on global warming, he’ll be armed with one more piece of evidence that greenhouse gases from fossil fuel burning are fundamentally altering the climate and leading to life-threatening and costly extreme weather.
Mann is the lead author of a new study showing that the greenhouse gas buildup is slowing down planetary atmospheric waves, which results in regional summer climate extremes. That includes a deadly 2003 European heat wave, as well as extensive wildfires in Siberia and severe flooding in Pakistan that took place simultaneously in 2010.
Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Mann said he and his fellow scientists discovered, by studying extensive climate data, “a particular type of jet stream pattern that is associated with many of the extreme events we’ve seen in recent years.” He added that there is every reason to expect “these persistent weather events to become more prominent over time…with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.”
Mann is a high-profile scientist whose advocacy of climate action has made him a lightning rod for criticism from the right. He will testify Wednesday before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, led by Texas Republican Lamar Smith, in a hearing that is stacked with climate change skeptics.
The study, published March 27 in the journal Scientific Reports, examines temperature data related to the jet stream and winds that flow around the Northern Hemisphere from west to east and that loop from north to south between the tropics and the Arctic. The pattern is called Rossby waves.
“We identified particular temperature patterns that occur when these large planetary waves slow down, and we found that, in the course of the past 100 years, this pattern is becoming more frequent,” said study co-author Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
The Rossby waves shape day-to-day and seasonal weather, said Rutgers University climate researcher Jennifer Francis, who was not involved in the study but has done related research on changes in hemispheric wind patterns. The northward loops carry warm air up from the tropics and help form high pressure systems, associated with warm and dry weather. The southward dips pull cold Arctic air down, generating stormy low pressure areas, she explained.
The study found that as greenhouse gases have increased in the atmosphere, those waves have lingered longer over particular regions. “Anything that makes those waves more persistent means the weather is going to be more persistent too, and summer extreme events are associated with these persistent patterns,” Francis said.
The 2010 summer heatwave over Siberia and simultaneous widespread flooding in Pakistan was a classic example of such a “stuck” pattern, according to Francis. “What we’re learning is there are multiple ways that global warming is going to affect weather systems in different regions and different seasons.”
The culprit in the climate change associated with the Rossby waves is the decreasing temperature contrast between the Arctic and the tropics and between sea surface and land surface areas, the study finds. High latitudes are warming much faster than mid-latitudes so the contrast is decreasing, which causes weather patterns to slow down or get stuck. Since the start of the industrial age, conditions favoring Rossby wave stalling have increased 70 percent, with most of that change in the past 40 years, according to co-author Kai Kornhuber. He is also with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Previous studies by Francis and other scientists have linked changes in Northern Hemisphere summer wind patterns to the shrinking of Arctic sea ice and the rapid spring meltdown of Northern Hemisphere snow cover. Both reduce the north-south temperature contrast that drives the winds. “The temperature pattern changes they found are very consistent with the loss of spring snow cover in high latitudes,” Francis said, explaining that bare ground heats up faster than a reflective white shield of snow.
One recent study linked widespread melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2015 with a significant and sustained shift in hemispheric winds that carried warm air north. Those winds had never before intruded so far into the Arctic during summer, researchers reported in the journal Nature Communications.
A similar pattern this past winter led to several weeks of temperatures far above the average in the Arctic, where sea ice set a record for low maximum extent the third year in a row. That was just the latest sign that fundamental changes in the Earth’s climate system are literally in the wind.