Our climate crisis
After pummeling Cuba, Hurricane Ian was among the most powerful and devastating hurricanes to make landfall in the US. The destruction of property alone appears to be among the worst recorded. According to Michael Wehner at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “Climate change didn’t cause the storm but it did cause it to be wetter.” Warming oceans caused it to absorb and dump 10% more water than it otherwise would have, creating a significant multiplying effect.
According to a recent scientific report, global warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius will most likely set off several climate “tipping points.” This includes the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, abrupt thawing of Arctic permafrost, the loss of mountain glaciers, and the collapse of ocean currents in the North Atlantic. This will have long-term effects such as unrelenting sea level rise, the release of more heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere, and more extreme weather.
South Asia’s monsoon, which brings life-giving water to nearly a quarter of humanity, is becoming more extreme. This includes erratic periods of drought punctuated by heavy rainfall events. Climate change induced warmer air holds more moisture, which can stay in the atmosphere for longer periods and then dump it in a short period of time. A normal week’s or month’s rainfall can fall in a few hours to a few days, creating severe flooding as recently experienced in Pakistan.
Politics and policy
Environmentalists fear that the side deal on federal energy permitting reform that majority leader Chuck Schumer agreed to with Sen. Joe Manchin could be a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry. Others see it as necessary for building out necessary clean energy infrastructure. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine sharply criticized such permitting reform if it is used to force completion of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline, saying that “it could open the door to serious abuse and even corruption.”
Chevron is exploiting a news desert created by the closure of local newspapers to serve up a mixture of local news and energy propaganda in Texas. This copies the tactics of right-wing operatives who used a sprawling network of 28 fake news sites to publish almost 5,000 articles about teaching critical race theory in schools to influence the Virginia governor’s race in 2021.
Sixty-one Virginia Democrats signed onto a letter opposing Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed regulatory route to remove Virginia from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The letter states that participation in RGGI is mandated by law, making it a decision for the General Assembly. This makes Gov. Youngkin’s proposed regulatory route improper and illegal. Even so, Youngkin says he supports flood mitigation even though RGGI funds are used for this purpose.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia Energy Plan takes an all-of-the-above approach to energy and regulatory reform. It calls for looking beyond solar- and wind-powered generation of electricity by supporting the development of hydrogen fuel, geothermal energy, small modular nuclear reactors, and carbon sequestration. It also seeks to roll back aspects of the Virginia Clean Economy Act. Climate activists are concerned about its reliance on unproven technologies and fear that it is little more than a thinly veiled attempt to support the fossil fuel industry while obstructing our transition to a clean energy economy.
Current Virginia laws regulating electric utilities hinder an affordable and equitable clean energy transition in Virginia. The regulatory system rewards utilities for capital-intensive investments rather than cost-saving measures for customers. Additionally, they’re able to pass along 100% of fuel costs to customers, incentivizing them to sell as much energy as possible instead of prioritizing energy efficiency, which saves money and reduces pollution.
There’s a surge in electric vehicles in India but not necessarily electric cars. Instead, electric powered mopeds and three-wheeled rickshaw taxis that sell for as little as $1,000 are zipping along India’s congested urban streets. This is providing a template for how developing countries can get rid of combustion engines and combat climate change as well as urban smog.
Renewable energy (including wind, hydropower, solar, biomass and geothermal) now powers 24.8% of U.S. electricity generation, leapfrogging past coal last year. Natural gas remains the leading fuel for electricity, with 37.9% of the country’s total; coal contributes 18.5%; and nuclear, 17.9%. It will be a while until renewables dethrone natural gas, but that day is coming.
The notion that switching to clean energy sources will be expensive has been stood on its head by rising fossil fuel prices and the dropping costs of wind and solar energy. An Oxford University study shows that switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy could save the world as much as $12 trillion by 2050.
Building large-scale, high-power EV charging centers across the U.S. is rapidly moving forward. The startup company Terawatt Infrastructure has raised $1 billion to roll out charging depots for electric cars and trucks. To date, more than $6.4 billion toward this effort has been raised by equity and debt financing through various private-sector efforts. In a related development, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the approval of the first 35 states to build out EV charging infrastructure across 53,000 miles of highway. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law makes $5 billion available for this effort over five years.
The Inflation Reduction Act will make clean energy much more competitive in the next decade according to analysis from ICF Climate Center, a global consulting firm. The cost of solar energy could fall 20 to 35% and the cost of wind energy could fall 38 to 49%. The cost of green hydrogen could fall a whopping 52 to 67% and become cost-competitive with new natural-gas-powered facilities by 2030.
The nations of the world recently committed to drastically lower greenhouse gas emissions from the world’s airplanes in an effort to reach net zero by 2050. Airline companies have previously relied on offsetting aviation’s emissions growth through tree-planting programs or through investing in yet unproven technology to pull carbon dioxide out of the air. Reaching net zero will, however, require them to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in increasingly efficient planes and cleaner fuels to sharply reduce emissions from air travel.
The United States now gets about 40% of its electricity from carbon-free sources and researchers have a pretty good idea of how to cost-effectively get to about 90%. But there’s little agreement about how to get to the last 10%. Some researchers say we can do it with wind and solar power along with battery storage. Others think it will take options like nuclear and hydrogen, with perhaps fossil fuels connected to carbon capture.
The US Department of Defense is the single largest institutional fossil fuel user in the world, being responsible for 77 to 80% of federal energy consumption. While the Pentagon looks at the world in terms of threats, it fails to see its own role in increasing greenhouse gas emissions as part of a massive global threat.
Some $60 billion in environmental spending recently passed by Congress has been earmarked for environmental justice. Robert Bullard, a scholar at Texas Southern University known as the father of environmental justice, sees this as a reason for celebration, but also caution. Never before has so much been at stake. Too often, federal money and relief funds are “doled out inequitably by state and local governments, and away from people of color and poor communities, who are the most afflicted by pollution and most vulnerable to climate change.”
Africa is most disproportionally affected by the impact of climate change even though its contribution is historically negligible. Around 15% of the world’s population lives on the continent but they contribute less than 3.8% of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.
Vanessa Nakate, a 25-year-old, thoughtful, smart and quietly spoken climate activist from Uganda, comments, “Africa is on the frontlines of the climate crisis but it’s not on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Every activist who speaks out is telling a story about themselves and their community, but if they are ignored, the world will not know what’s really happening, what solutions are working. The erasure of our voices is literally the erasure of our histories and what people hold dear to their lives.”
Rising sea levels, heatwaves, wildfires, and increasingly intense hurricanes are putting more Americans in harm’s way. People looking for places to live have flocked to areas vulnerable to such disasters, leaving some 40 million people at risk. Now local, state, and federal officials are increasingly considering managed retreat, or buyouts, as a way to get people out of such areas. But this raises questions of equality? What gets lost, and who gets left behind?
California’s power grid was strained to the limit by record-high demand in the beginning of September during a searing heat wave. Californians saved the grid by responding to a call from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services asking them to “conserve energy now to protect public health and safety.” The state should, therefore, go all in on smart thermostats, solar-charged batteries, EVs and other devices that can help shore up the grid when it is stressed.
Various ways to combine solar power with agriculture are being tested. The most common and successful combination is grazing sheep under and around solar installations. A farmer in Maine is also experimenting with growing wild blueberries under a solar installation on his farm. Researchers at the University of Vermont are successfully growing saffron between solar panels.
Virginia schools are among the top in utilizing solar energy in the US. The solar capacity of Virginia’s K-12 schools has more than doubled over the past two years, saving them millions of dollars. This progress was largely spurred by a policy change in Virginia allowing tax-exempt entities like schools and localities to use third-party power purchase agreements.
Compiled by Earl Zimmerman of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley