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Notebook: The latest in what’s making news in climate, energy, the environment

Our Climate Crisis

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(© Blue Planet Studio – stock.adobe.com)

The ocean has been breaking temperature records every day for more than a year by wide margins. The oceans have absorbed the vast majority of the planet’s warming from greenhouse gases but these massive increases are beyond what scientists would expect to see even considering climate change.

Throughout Virginia, scientists are documenting significant warming of water temperatures from inland freshwater streams and rivers, which has huge cascading effects on ecosystems. The rising water temperatures are a result of global climate change as well as localized changes in the environment, like loss of shading from trees that have been removed along streams.

In the past year, anomalously warm ocean temperatures have left a trail of devastation for the world’s corals, bleaching entire reefs and threatening widespread coral die back. The world is now experiencing its fourth global bleaching event, the second in the last decade.

Global levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide rose to 419 parts per million in our atmosphere in 2023, around 50% more than before the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide levels are currently rising at near-record rates—last year had the fourth-highest annual rise.

We’re bending the curve in global greenhouse gas emissions and may be at near peak emissions. Even so, we’re still adding to the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We will need to bring down emissions rapidly in the next decades to avoid the worst of global warming.

Local Climate News

About 200 enthusiastic members of eight different congregations gathered on a chilly Sunday morning for an outdoor Ecumenical Earth Day Worship Service at Turner Pavilion in downtown Harrisonburg on April 21. Participants were thrilled by their joint energy on such a cold morning and are already talking about doing it again next year.

Climate STARR (Strategies for Climate Trauma, Action, Resilience, and Regeneration) is a three-day in-person training at Eastern Mennonite University June 10-12. It will provide individuals, communities, and climate action organizations who encounter climate angst and fatigue (or experience it themselves) a space to pause, reflect, and gain new skills for living and leading in uncertain times. As a climate activist, you will want to consider registering for the training to enhance your skills and expand your climate network.

Eastern Mennonite University, in partnership with the JMU Center for the Advancement of Sustainable Energy, is hosting a Solar Solutionary Camp for rising eighth- and 12th-graders June 10-14. Students will be challenged with ensuring access to electricity for the nearly one-billion people who lack it today while keeping climate change below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Politics and Policy

The Biden administration issued new rules ordering power companies to cut pollution from coal plants. This is a major plank in Biden’s efforts to fight climate change, amid complaints from progressive green voters who say he’s done too little to curb fossil fuels. Many of the progressives who helped send him to the White House in 2020 are expressing frustration at his approval of several high-profile oil and gas projects as well as his handling of the war in Gaza.

Marking a major step in US climate change mitigation efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency has set regulations aimed at slashing pollution from heavy-duty trucks. They aim to cut 1 billion tons of CO2 by 2055.

The Department of Energy released its first ever federal blueprint to decarbonize America’s building sector, which accounts for more than a third of the harmful emissions jeopardizing our air and health. The comprehensive plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050.

The European Union has been backpedaling on its environmental promises, yielding to agribusiness and far-right demands. In particular, they scrapped initiatives aimed at reducing pesticide usage, protecting nature, and curbing toxic chemicals.

The Biden administration has approved the construction of a new deepwater oil export terminal off the Texas coast that will be the largest of its kind in the United States. Environmentalists claim it will lead to “disastrous” planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. The administration, in turn, claims that it will not substantially increase oil production.

The Biden administration announced $34.7 million in grants to three Virginia projects that will help strengthen transportation infrastructure against the effects of climate change. The projects will address flooding and facilitate emergency evacuations due to extreme weather events in Virginia’s Tidewater and Chesapeake region.

Ranting against wind power during a fundraising dinner with oil and gas industry executives, former president Trump claimed that the renewable-energy source is unreliable, unattractive and bad for the environment. “I hate wind,” he told the executives over a meal of chopped steak at his Mar-a-Lago Club and resort in Florida.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is shaping his independent run for president on a climate platform designed to appeal to supporters of both Biden and Trump. He’s staking out some positions well to Biden’s left—such as calling for a permanent ban on natural gas exports, while criticizing the size of Biden’s subsidies for green energy. He’s adorning these positions with the anti-big-government rhetoric and conspiracy theories that he promoted during the Covid pandemic.

Energy

Massive data centers in Northern Virginia, processing nearly 70% of global digital traffic, are gobbling up electricity at a rate that power grid operators say is unsustainable. Therefore they’re planning several hundred miles of new transmission lines to coal-powered electricity plants in West Virginia that had been scheduled to go offline. Those coal plants will now keep running to fuel the increasing need for more power.

Global renewable energy capacity increased by 36% last year but that is only half as fast as necessary to meet our global climate commitments. Rising energy demand and weak electric grid infrastructure underlie our continued dependence on burning fossil fuels for energy.

Natural gas prices have plunged as the world grapples with an oversupply after a warmer-than-expected winter. The recent heyday in liquefied natural gas boosted prices and profits, spurring a huge wave of investment in the sector.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission approved more than a dozen new solar projects that will significantly expand Dominion Energy’s growing clean energy capacity. They will include four solar projects that will be owned by Dominion Energy and 13 independently owned solar projects.

An old on-demand gas plant in California is being replaced by a billion-dollar, 680-megawatt grid battery—one of the biggest batteries in the U.S. The big advantage of this giant grid battery is that it can supply power instantaneously. The old 800-megawatt gas plant took 12 hours to be fired up before coming online.

Electric vehicles, with an average equivalent of 106 miles per gallon, blow past the energy efficiency of hybrid cars. That number could more than double in the next decades to more than 200 miles per gallon. This growth in efficiency could help ease the strain that electric vehicles are expected to place on the grid and extend battery range.

Energy developers are more eager than ever to build new solar, wind, and battery projects in the U.S. but the interconnection queue is getting longer and longer. It is now taking about five years to get through the queue, which, as a result, is now more than twice the size of the entire U.S. power capacity.

Climate Justice

Installing solar panels on school buildings and big-box stores could provide one-fifth of the power that disadvantaged communities need, bringing renewable energy to people who can least afford it. Research has found that marginalized neighborhoods generate almost 40% less renewable energy than wealthy ones.

The Environmental Protection Agency selected 60 organizations that, under its Solar for All program, will receive a combined $7 billion in grants to bring residential solar to low-income neighborhoods. The funding will flow into state, municipal, and tribal governments as well as nonprofits for low-income solar and battery storage installations and to support existing ones.

The Department of Energy aims for 5 million households around the country to sign up for community solar by next year. Subscribers will pay a monthly charge and then receive a credit on their utility bills—usually larger than the fee they pay—for the power generated by their fraction of a solar array. Community solar has gained bipartisan support because of its benefits to low-income households now burdened by disproportionate energy bills.

Having lost many of their cattle due to drought, traditional herders in Kenya are trying out milk-producing camels that are more resilient to climate change. Jonathan Lati Lelelit, the governor of Samburu, a county about 240 miles north of Nairobi, comments, “We have so many other things to do with the little money we have. But we have no option.”

Climate Action

Rising global temperatures are giving new urgency to geoengineering—trying to engineer our way out of our climate crisis. Lots of resources are being poured into direct air capture systems designed to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store it underground. Critics say such efforts are dangerous distractions from the more urgent task of rapidly reducing the use of fossil fuels.

The Virginia Department of Transportation selected 18 different sites to receive electric car chargers under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This first $11 million tranche of funding focuses on electric car chargers for interstates, while the next rounds will add charging stations along state highways and for freight carriers. Virginia is set to receive about $106 million total funding over the next five years.

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 10% last year as renewable energy grew in importance. This puts Europe’s biggest economy on course to meet its target for cutting emissions by 65% by 2030. It aims to cut its emissions to net zero by 2045.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a group of older Swiss women who claimed that the Swiss government had violated their rights by failing to combat climate change and meet emissions targets. The landmark case sets a legal precedent in the European Union against which future lawsuits will be judged.

America’s first fully battery-powered tugboat is being put into service at the Port of San Diego. Waterfronts are incredible sources of pollution and carbon emissions. Port officials are working to decarbonize not just tugs but also diesel cranes and trucks.

The apparel industry is responsible for somewhere between 8 and 10% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and about 4% of solid waste in the United States. Jeans contribute to this industry but are not all equal polluters. Chief among ways to mitigate the environmental impact of the jeans you wear is buying jeans made from organic and recycled cotton.

The “Green Islam” movement in Indonesia seeks to kindle an environmental awakening through Islam. Top clergy have issued fatwas, or edicts, on how to rein in climate change. Neighborhood activists are beseeching friends, family and neighbors that environmentalism is embedded in the Quran.

Earl Zimmerman is a member of the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley Steering Committee.