If you had to name one sight that summed up 21st century modernity, I’d nominate the Bund in Shanghai. The raised riverwall along the western bank of the Huangpu commands the best view across to the Oriental Pearl tower and the other skyscrapers of Lujiazui. This spectacle sprang from nothing over a few decades—when China’s modernization began the Pudong district was just swamp, and now it is the greatest urban light show on earth. I can remember, fifteen years ago, standing atop that esplanade alongside tens of thousands of Chinese; it wasn’t a special occasion, just one more ordinary night when people flooded in from the countryside to look with real pride at the direction their country was hurrying.
Except today the lights were mostly turned off, because drought in the Chinese interior has dramatically reduced the hydropower available to run the world’s most dynamic economy.
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China is enduring a truly remarkable heatwave—by some accounts “the worst heatwave known in world climatic history.” (Its main competitor for the title may be last year’s insane ‘heat dome’ that ran Canadian temperatures up to 121 Fahrenheit). The heat just never lets up over some of the most densely populated land on planet earth: It hit 113 degrees Fahrenheit in Chongqing Thursday, the highest temperature ever recorded in the country outside of desert Xinjiang. It hit 110 in Sichuan, which is a province of…80 million people, or two Californias. When it gets that hot, water just evaporates—Sichuan is 80 percent dependent on hydropower, but the reservoirs behind the great dams like Three Gorges are falling nearly as fast as Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The province has cut power day after day, including to Tesla and Toyota factories, and to many of the firms that supply the planet’s auto parts; the EV revolution is being held up by the effects of the problem it is trying to solve.
Once that water has evaporated up in the air, it’s going to come down—the average residence time for water vapor in the atmosphere is barely seven days, and so flooding rains have been pouring down on the western edge of the heat dome—the rains have been so extreme that some rivers in Qinghai province have run so high that they changed course.
None of this is unique to China, of course. In Europe the drought is so deep that Nazi gunships have resurfaced along the Danube near Serbia, still fully loaded with the ammunition that was onboard when the Germans sunk them to prevent their capture by the advancing Russians. In America, this summer has seen the warmest nights ever recorded here; the ongoing drought and evaporation have forced the federal government to order states to come up with plans for cutting consumption, a mandate the states have so far not managed to meet.
But of course the damage is deepest in the poorest places. Somalia, and the surrounding region in the horn of Africa, are in the fifth straight rainy season without rain, and the toll is almost unimaginable. A million people have been internally displaced; the ones who haven’t managed to move to grim camps will soon starve. “They have no chance,” one refugee explained. “It is just a matter of time until they die. Even here we might die because we have nothing”.
There are a dozen factors at work here—from governmental incompetence to the remnants of colonialism, from inertia to greed. But basically it’s physics. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold, and from that the main events of post-modern twenty first century will descend. Some of them won’t be so bad: in suburban America, swimming pool owners are beseeching maintenance companies to find the leaks in their backyard oases, not understanding that the leaks are called ‘evaporation.’ But most of them will be terrible. We live on a different planet than we used to, and the most obvious change is the way that water moves, or doesn’t, across our earth.
Other news from the world of climate and energy:
+Since the US and China have stopped formal cooperation on climate change and other issues in the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, analysts are insisting that renewed clean energy competition between the world’s two superpowers is perhaps a good substitute. America has some catching up to do:
Public and private investment in clean energy in China was $381 billion last year, according to the International Energy Agency. That outstrips all of North America by $146 billion. The share of electricity generation provided by renewables is higher in China than in the U.S., while the sheer number of solar panels and wind turbines being installed across China leaves their American rivals in the dust.
Despite being the home of Tesla, the U.S. has also missed the jump on electric vehicles. Chinese buyers bought more electric cars and vans — 3.3 million — in 2021 than the entire world combined bought in 2020. Sales in the first quarter of 2022 then doubled year-on-year. In the U.S., growth has started to ramp up, but from a significantly lower base.
+Republicans who acknowledge the danger of climate change (a small subset) have been unwilling to publicly explain why they voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, Politico reports. The oracular Mitt Romney referred to the legislation as “bag of hammers.”
+Razom, or Together We Stand, formed by Ukrainian clean energy activists to demand a total embargo on Russian fossil fuel exports, is spreading a campaign detailing how Citibank is funding Putin’s regime:
Citi is funding Russian fossil fuel companies like Lukoil and Vitol. Lukoil is the second largest producer of crude oil in Russia, and it’s the country’s second largest company after Gazprom. Lukoil may nominally be a private company, but it acts as an agent of Russian national leadership, engaging in “political targeting” of American voters. Vitol ships Russian oil around the world – it is “one of the main western enablers of Putin’s deadly trade in fossil fuels.” As the Ukrainina government points out, this means this means Citi’s support of Lukoil and Vitol directly prolongs Putin’s war in Ukraine.
+Always read Gus Speth, the veteran environmental campaigner. His latest essay points out that the growing demand for systemic political and economic change may run smack into the climate crisis
As governments and societies struggle to cope with the ensuing situation, the stage will be set for political and other recriminations, scapegoating, anti-immigration hysteria, cross-border and other conflicts, the proliferation of failed and failing states, and political responses that are anti-democratic and authoritarian. Such responses may be brought on by ruthless opportunism but may just as likely result from widespread demand from a public that is fearful, feeling victimized, or betrayed. Meanwhile, governments will likely act to protect their major economic actors and elites, further dividing societies, as well as turning increasingly to their militaries for solutions.
+Drought is damaging Brazilian agriculture during a crucial election year.
+Puerto Rico—plagued by one of the most dysfunctional utilities on planet earth—may be able to start knitting together thousands of rooftop solar installations into a “virtual power plant.”
“Puerto Rico has this existing, constantly growing [energy] resource that could help prevent blackouts for everyone,” said Javier Rúa-Jovet, a leading proponent of VPPs and the chief policy officer for the Solar and Energy Storage Association of Puerto Rico, an industry group. “What we’re saying is to tap into that untapped resource.”
+Now that most UK universities have divested from fossil fuel, the next front may be kicking fossil-funded research off campus. David Wallace-Wells reports on the battle amid the ancient halls of Cambridge.
“By working with the fossil fuel industry, we’re giving them legitimacy and we’re implicitly endorsing them,” said Luke Kemp, a researcher who studies climate risk at Cambridge and one of the academics who called for the vote. “This should be utterly uncontroversial for any academic who is clearly and truly concerned about climate change.”
+Asia is expected to be the growth market for LNG exports—but the current high prices and market instability may be convincing those countries to think more clearly about using domestic resources (like sunlight) instead.
Financiers and investors in new LNG projects must watch closely. On the import side, unaffordability of LNG and fuel supply insecurity may cause new import terminals to go unused, resulting in potentially billions of dollars in stranded assets. For example, as long as unaffordable LNG prices and procurement challenges persist, US$96.7 billion dollars of proposed LNG-related infrastructure projects in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and the Philippines will face a heightened risk of underutilization or cancellation.
+Boston’s marvelous Mayor Wu is trying to ban fossil fuel connections for new construction in the city, a key first step towards the electrification of America we desperately need.
+It’s hard to overstate what a waste of money the carbon capture plans that Joe Manchin forced into the IRA really are. We know this because…we’ve already wasted huge sums on this project
In an effort to capture and store carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel-burning power plants, the Department of Energy has allocated billions of dollars for failed C.C.S. demonstration projects. The bankruptcy of many of these hugely subsidized undertakings makes plain the failure of C.C.S. to reduce emissions economically.
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Beautifully chronicled, the results of our addiction to fossil fuels, the opioid of energy dependence.
Thank you Bill.
Incredibly thoughtful and moving piece. Thank you