Discover more from The Crucial Years
We're in for a stretch of heavy climate
Ominous signs that the next step phase of global warming is starting;
This week’s Fort Lauderdale rainstorm was, on the one hand, an utter freak of nature (storms ‘trained’ on the same small geography for hours on end, dropping 25 inches of rain in seven hours; the previous record for all of April was 19 inches) and on the other hand utterly predictable. Every degree Celsius that we warm the planet means the atmosphere holds more water vapor; as native Floridian and ace environmental reporter Dinah Voyles Pulver pointed out, “with temperatures in the Gulf running 3 to 4 degrees above normal recently, that's at least 15% more rainfall piled up on top of a ‘normal’ storm.”
Get ready for far more of it; there are myriad scattered signs that we’re about to go into a phase of particularly steep climbs in global temperature. They’re likely to reach impressive new global records—and that’s certain to produce havoc we’ve not seen before.
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Climate change is, of course, an inexorable and grinding process; every year we pour more carbon and methane into the air, and eventually this inevitably results in higher temperatures. The real damage goes on without cease, month after month—see, for instance, our recent discussion about the ongoing collapse of the Antarctic ocean current that cycles nutrients across the earth’s seas. But our planet is not a simple test-tube, and its particular dynamics mean sometimes that warming is slower and sometimes faster. The last global record temperature came in 2016, and coincided with the peak of an El Nino warm cycle in the Pacific.
For much of the time since then we’ve been in a La Nina cool phase in the Pacific, and that’s depressed global temperatures—just a little. Every year has been in the top ten all time, but the global temperature has only matched, not exceeded, that record. Every time this cycle happens, climate deniers claim that the planet has begun to cool—but of course with the next El Nino the planet sets a new record, pushed higher by all the greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the meantime. Here’s a nifty graphic that makes the point quite elegantly; watch it and you’ll have a keener sense of the rhythms of our planet in this odd era.
The fact that we’ve seen the most extreme heat waves and rainfalls in human history during this period of slightly depressed global temperatures is scary—when it hit 121 Fahrenheit in Canada the year before last, or when Chinese weather stations recorded all 30 of the hottest days in their history last summer, or when parts of Pakistan saw 700% of annual rainfall in one month last autumn, it was as if the beast that is global warming was snarling at the end of a very threadbare rope.
And now that rope is about to snap. Here are the latest odds from the Yale climate watchers Bob Henson and Jeff Masters:
Most of the El Niño models are predicting a weak to moderate strength El Niño event forming by late summer, with the dynamical model consensus favoring a borderline weak/moderate event for the peak of hurricane season. Toward the end of the year, the odds of a strong El Niño will be as high as 40%, according to the NOAA discussion.
And here’s the scary part. Even before that El Nino officially forms, we’re already seeing global ocean temperatures setting a new all-time record, breaking the one set in 2016. The next jump in temperature will start from such a high base that Jim Hansen, the world’s most renowned climatologist, recently predicted that not only will we see a new global record air temperature in 2024 (“even a little futz of an El Niño should be sufficient for record global temperature”), but that it could, at least temporarily, bust through the 1.5 degree mark that the world swore to avoid in Paris just eight years ago. Hansen’s not alone in the prediction
“It’s very likely that the next big El Niño could take us over 1.5C,” said Prof Adam Scaife, the head of long-range prediction at the UK Met Office. “The probability of having the first year at 1.5C in the next five-year period is now about 50:50.”
As this happens, novel forms of chaos will ensue. No human has ever left us a shred of evidence about what life is like on a globe with these average temperatures. I imagine the phrase “on steroids” will get a regular workout, but it’s not quite right, since pharmaceutical enhancements work on the existing body. A planet at 420 parts per million co2 is a different planet than one at 275 parts per million. If Captain Kirk was landing on it, the first thing his tricorder would register is the composition of the atmosphere; when you’re talking planets, it’s a pretty basic data point. So we don’t really know what surprises are in store—though that news that the Antarctic current was starting to slow like a hose with a crimp is fair warning.
I don’t say all this in the service of despair, but of preparation. We need to be psychologically prepared for the fact that, for all we’ve tried to do together, this crisis is about to worsen. Forewarned is, to some small extent, forearmed. I suppose some might need to prepare themselves individually too, though that’s not my focus (Alex Steffen, the futurist, has begun offering courses on ‘ruggedization,’ which links personal preparation to community resilience, and defintiely beats buying out-of-date MREs from your favorite rightwing podcaster).
But we really need to be prepared politically. Each of these surges in warming unleashed by the next El Nino comes with new political possibilities, as people see and feel more clearly our peril. At the moment, our climate politics, like our climate itself, is a little stalled. The surge of change that came from Greta’s school strikes, the Paris accords, the Green New Deal has waned; we’re in a new stalemate where the oil industry has learned to rely on delay instead of denial. It often takes them a few years, but eventually they get good at working the politics—for the moment, for instance, they’ve got their captive state treasurers locking banks and asset managers in place with the charged that worrying about the fiscal implications of the climate crisis represents ‘woke capitalism.’
As the next round of savage heatwaves proceeds, it will come with new pressure for action from our governments and corporations. We need to be able to channel that pressure effectively, with key goals in mind: the absolute end to new fossil fuel development and exploration, the quick weaning from existing supplies of coal and gas and oil and with it the equally rapid buildout of cleaner sources of energy, the unwavering support for the places and people hardest hit. There will be all sorts of emotions; I hope that the anger people will rightly feel is channeled toward the corporate and legal destruction of the companies that have lied for three decades and still represent the largest barrier to change.
It’s just the right moment for Not Too Late, a new anthology compiled by two old friends who are also among the most stalwart leaders of the climate fight. Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young-Latunatabua have managed something important: an alternative to doomism that isn’t sentimental or treacly, but absolutely serious. “Hope is not the guarantee that things will be okay,” Young-Lutunatabua says. “It’s the recognition that there’s spaciousness for action, that the future is uncertain, and in that uncertainty, we have space to step into and make the future we want.” I agree with that—with the caveat that the spaciousness doesn’t last forever. I have the strong instinct that this El Nino may be the last of these moments that the earth offers us in a time frame still relevant to making coherent and savvy civilization-scale change. We dare not misuse it.
In other climate and energy news:
+Every year the global investment bank Lazard tallies up how much it costs to power our world from different sources. And every year the numbers just show what idiots we are for not making the rapid move to running everything off sun and wind and batteries:
The Lazard assessment shows that on pretty much any assessment – cost of energy, cost of energy and firming, marginal cost of energy, and cost of capital – wind and solar win easily. And that’s without counting the carbon cost of their competitors, and the impact of the Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
“The central findings show, among other things, that even in the face of inflation and supply chain challenges the LCOE (levellised cost of energy) of best-in-class renewables continues to decline,” Lazard notes.
This is timely news, because as the Times points out in a mammoth survey, there are plenty of obstacles besides cost to electrification on the timescale physics requires.
+High drama over the New York State climate bill continues. Having beat back efforts to go easy on methane, groups like NY Renews are now pushing to make sure that Governor Kathy Hochul keeps promises to focus on environmental justice communities
“Our stance is clear: There’s no viable Cap and Invest (C&I) system for New York State without the Climate and Community Protection Fund (CCPF) and guardrails to ensure the program is just, equitable, and does what it's intended to do—make polluters pay for their waste and direct money raised back to the communities impacted first and worst by the climate crisis and environmental harm, racism, and inequality. CCPF brings the invest part of ‘Cap and Invest’ to life.
Meanwhile, the propane industry is trying to scare New Yorkers with the assertion that electric heat pumps can’t operate in the cold weather that still sometimes reaches the Empire State. Happily, veteran campaigner Rich Schrader, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, has the receipts
While heat pumps have been common in warmer regions of the U.S. for decades, the new generation of technology now works effectively for colder northern states like New York. Consumer Reports affirms that the Energy Star standards for 2023 include a certification mark for cold-climate heat pumps, designating a suitable level of performance and efficiency. In addition, Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships recent data show that numerous models can heat your home at -5 degrees Fahrenheit, not only at 47 degrees Fahrenheit. As the heat pump market expands — in part aided by President Joe Biden’s authorization of the Defense Production Act to “rapidly expand American manufacturing of … clean technologies” and in part because they’re cheaper in new buildings and better for the planet — the costs of heat pumps will only continue to decline.
Oh, and Governor Hochul: please do not let burning trees for electricity count as clean energy in the new law. Because it isn’t.
And a reminder that this fight is worth it for everyone to participate in, because New York is the tenth largest economy on earth.
+From Marie Holmes, some emotionally sound advice about how to talk with your kids about global warming
+Big and hopeful news: Legal and General Investment, a European investment giant, said it will vote its shares in the big banks behind resolutions demanding that they stop financing fossil fuel expansion
The UK fund manager, which oversees $1.5 trillion of assets, said in a statement on its website that it intends to vote for proposals that request Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo & Co. adopt a “time-bound policy to phase out lending and underwriting for fossil fuel exploration and development.” The banks have guided shareholders not to endorse these resolutions.
This is especially good news because the latest grim edition of the annual Banking on Climate Chaos report was released this week, and it makes it clear that our financial overlords are as eager as ever to fry the earth. In fact, Mephistopelian congrats to Canadian banking giant, which has climbed atop the list with its all-out support for tarsands development. Meanwhile, Jessye Waxman at the Sierra Club brings us more aggravating news about uberfinancier Larry Fink of Blackrock
For those following the financial sector’s approach to climate change, Larry Fink’s annual letters in the past few years have served as a barometer for measuring Wall Street’s aptitude for management of climate-related risks. Unfortunately, this year’s letter is cause for concern, with signals throughout that Wall Street’s former climate darling is dragging his feet on climate change.
+In LA? Earth Day Comedy Show. Brett Goldstein. Enough said.
+I have said before, and I will probably say again, that Leah Stokes understands the details of our energy policy dilemmas better than anyone. The latest proof is an excellent description of the choices the Biden administration will face in the next few weeks on the development of hydrogen. God help us if they give in to the fossil fuel industry again, because the mistake will ramify for decades. To be of actual use,
hydrogen projects must draw on new clean power. If a hydrogen plant just pulls clean power from the grid, then it’s not creating additional power; it’s simply diverting power that could otherwise be used for running an electric vehicle or heating a home. In fact, it would actually make the grid dirtier, since most utilities would respond to the increased demand by burning fossil fuels. That hydrogen cannot in any honest way be called “clean.”
+Maybe don’t call me on the phone unless you want to talk with oil industry too (but if you need to send them a message…) The Intercept has great new reporting on how the private surveillance industry carved out a new niche after the pipeline protests of the past decade, offering to track Indigenous organizations and various environmentalists
“We need to always be very clear that the industry knows what a risk the climate movement is,” said May Boeve, the executive director of 350.org, a climate nonprofit that was repeatedly mentioned in TigerSwan’s marketing and surveillance material. “They’re going to keep using these kinds of strategies, but they’ll think of other things as well.”
+Here’s a link to an important new film on global warming and the Arctic, now showing on PBS.
+Vanuatu has been ground zero for a lot of climate action—the tiny nation has punched above its weight internationally, rallying others to serious work. Now it’s ground zero for climate damage, as two late-March cyclones wreaked unprecedented destruction. Here’s a GoFundMe sponsored by people I know and trust for relief
+The rise in sea level seems to be suddenly accelerating, especially along the southeast U.S., according to a fascinating account in the Washington Post.
This much seems clear: The rapid sea-level rise appears to start in the Gulf of Mexico, which has been warming far faster than the global ocean. Warm water naturally expands, causing sea levels to rise. That warm water also gets carried by currents out of the gulf and along the East Coast, affecting places such as Georgia and the Carolinas.
+We’re getting better at recycling old solar panels, and doing it with ever-gentler methods, which is very good news because hopefully there will be a lot of them to recycle. Also: bricks as batteries. The human brain is remarkable; put to work on useful tasks, it gets stuff done!
+David Helvarg is a fine writer who has devoted his life to ocean conservation, but once in a while writers have to kick back and just write. Sometimes it comes out as satire.
Today, the best available science is creating the worst imaginable scenarios for our immediate futures. Unfortunately, scientists are not always the best communicators of coming disaster. If your house were on fire and your best friend was a scientist, you might not understand her urgent call warning you that a rapid oxidation process was occurring in the living room… ‘What?’ you might ask, to which she’d frantically reply, ‘An exothermic reaction is underway resulting in the evolution of light and heat of various intensities and… never mind. I got your mother out. She’s still respirating.’
+Joyful accounts of our 3/21/23 Rocking Chair Rebellion against the banks continue to flood in. Here’s one of the best, from Claire Elise Thompson in Grist, featuring an interview with Third Act-ivist Lani Ritter Hall. Made me tear up, anyway:
Q. Were you involved in the recent day of action that targeted banks?
A. Yes, I was. For the first time in 76 years, I was out on the street with a sign in front of a bank in Cleveland, Ohio.
Q. Wow! What was that experience like for you?
A. It was like, oh, my gosh, am I really doing this? Yes, you are!
And on top of that … I had been helping Third Act Ohio with their Twitter account. And the night before the event, the co-facilitator emailed me and she said, “Lani, do you think that you can live tweet from the event?” And, as much as I can do on a computer, I’m really phone challenged. I said, “Oh, my goodness, I don’t know, let me see if I can figure this out.” So I figured it out the night before.
We were out in front of the bank for over an hour. Everybody had a sign. There was a huge banner, we had stuff to pass out.
I had a family Zoom call, I think it was the Friday after our event. And I’m sharing with my 97-year-old mother-in-law, who’s in an assisted living facility, [a picture of] me downtown with a sign, with a bunch of other people — “Is that really you?” Yes! “Did you really?” Yes! “I’ve seen stuff like this on TV!” Yes! It was amazing.
+Meanwhile, here’s the bottom of all bottom lines: NOAA reports that the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases spiked sharply again last year. This is what all our work is about:
Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide, the three greenhouse gases emitted by human activity that are the most significant contributors to climate change, continued their historically high rates of growth in the atmosphere during 2022, according to NOAA scientists.
The global surface average for CO2 rose by 2.13 parts per million (ppm) to 417.06 ppm, roughly the same rate observed during the last decade. Atmospheric CO2 is now 50% higher than pre-industrial levels. 2022 was the 11th consecutive year CO2 increased by more than 2 ppm, the highest sustained rate of CO2 increases in the 65 years since monitoring began. Prior to 2013, three consecutive years of CO2 growth of 2 ppm or more had never been recorded.
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