World’s first ‘negative emissions’ plant has begun operation — turning carbon dioxide into stone

Akshat Rathi writes: There’s a colorless, odorless, and largely benign gas that humanity just can’t get enough of. We produce 40 trillion kg of carbon dioxide each year, and we’re on track to cross a crucial emissions threshold that will cause global temperature rise to pass the dangerous 2°C limit set by the Paris climate agreement.

But, in hushed tones, climate scientists are already talking about a technology that could pull us back from the brink. It’s called direct-air capture, and it consists of machines that work like a tree does, sucking carbon dioxide (CO2) out from the air, but on steroids—capturing thousands of times more carbon in the same amount of time, and, hopefully, ensuring we don’t suffer climate catastrophe.

There are at least two reasons that, to date, conversations about direct air capture have been muted. First, climate scientists have hoped global carbon emissions would come under control, and we wouldn’t need direct air capture. But most experts believe that ship has sailed. That brings up the second issue: to date, all estimates suggest direct air capture would be exorbitantly expensive to deploy.

For the past decade, a group of entrepreneurs—partly funded by billionaires like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Edgar Bronfman Jr. of Warner Music, and the late Gary Comer of Land’s End—have been working to prove those estimates wrong. Three companies—Switzerland’s Climeworks, Canada’s Carbon Engineering, and the US’s Global Thermostat—are building machines that, at reasonable costs, can capture CO2 directly from the air. (A fourth company, Kilimanjaro Energy, closed shop due to a lack of funding.) [Continue reading…]

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Scientists think that global warming may already be influencing fire seasons

ClimateWire reports: As deadly wildfires rage across California’s wine country, leaving at least 29 dead and a trail of destruction in their wake, the influence of climate change is again being questioned.

Just Monday, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at the University of California, Davis, in which she noted that “it’s been a tough couple of weeks with hurricanes and earthquakes and now these terrible fires” (Climatewire, Oct. 12).

“So in addition to expressing our sympathy, we need to really come together to try to work to prevent and mitigate, and that starts with acknowledging climate change and the role that it plays in exacerbating such events,” she added.

While there’s growing interest in investigating the fingerprints of climate change on extreme weather events, it’s often challenging for scientists to parse out its influence versus other natural and human factors—and, as experts have warned time and again, no single weather event can be attributed solely to the effects of climate change. This may be particularly true for wildfires, which are heavily influenced by human land-use and management practices in addition to the weather.

Still, scientists are increasingly suggesting that climate change has already had a hand in shaping fire seasons, not just in California but elsewhere around the world, and will likely continue to play a major role. These are a few of the major climate-related factors that may be at play. [Continue reading…]

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EPA announces repeal of major Obama-era carbon emissions rule

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration announced Monday that it would take formal steps to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, setting up a bitter fight over the future of America’s efforts to tackle global warming.

At an event in eastern Kentucky, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said that his predecessors had departed from regulatory norms in crafting the Clean Power Plan, which was finalized in 2015 and would have pushed states to move away from coal in favor of sources of electricity that produce fewer carbon emissions.

“The war on coal is over,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., I will be signing a proposed rule to roll back the Clean Power Plan. No better place to make that announcement than Hazard, Kentucky.”

The repeal proposal, which will be filed in the Federal Register on Tuesday, fulfills a promise President Trump made to eradicate his predecessor’s environmental legacy. Eliminating the Clean Power Plan makes it less likely the United States can fulfill its promise as part of the Paris climate agreement to ratchet down emissions that are warming the planet and contributing to heat waves and sea-level rise. Mr. Trump has vowed to abandon that international accord. [Continue reading…]

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September sets alarming global temperature record and negates a favorite denier talking point

Joe Romm writes: September 2017 smashed multiple climate records, alarming scientists and further negating a favorite talking point of climate science deniers.

First and foremost, last month was the hottest September ever recorded in the four decades of satellite data analyzed by the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH).

Equally amazing, “of the 20 warmest monthly global average temperatures in the satellite record, only September 2017 was not during an El Niño,” reports Dr. John Christy, director of UAH’s Earth System Science Center — and an infamous climate science misinformer.

Global records for hottest month or year typically occur when the underlying human-caused global warming trend gets a temporary boost from an El Niño’s enhanced warming in the tropical Pacific. So when temperature records are set in the absence of an El Niño, it is another sign that the underlying human-caused global warming trend is stronger than ever. [Continue reading…]

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Alarm as study reveals world’s tropical forests are huge carbon emission source

The Guardian reports: The world’s tropical forests are so degraded they have become a source rather than a sink of carbon emissions, according to a new study that highlights the urgent need to protect and restore the Amazon and similar regions.

Researchers found that forest areas in South America, Africa and Asia – which have until recently played a key role in absorbing greenhouse gases – are now releasing 425 teragrams of carbon annually, which is more than all the traffic in the United States.

This is a far greater loss than previously thought and carries extra force because the data emerges from the most detailed examination of the topic ever undertaken. The authors say their findings – published in the journal Science on Thursday – should galvanise policymakers to take remedial action.

“This shows that we can’t just sit back. The forest is not doing what we thought it was doing,” said Alessandro Baccini, who is one of the leader authors of the research team from Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University. “As always, trees are removing carbon from the atmosphere, but the volume of the forest is no longer enough to compensate for the losses. The region is not a sink any more.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s hiring freeze shrunk National Weather Service staff before hurricanes hit

The Washington Post reports: Ahead of what would turn out to be a potentially record-breaking hurricane season, the National Weather Service had 216 vacant positions it could not fill due to a governmentwide hiring freeze imposed by the Trump administration, according to a recently released document.

Some of those Weather Service vacancies listed in the document, obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act and shared with The Washington Post, were in locations that would be hit by the major hurricanes that barreled through the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.

Staffing levels at the federal government’s weather bureau, responsible for tracking hurricanes and warning the public about hazardous weather, have fallen since 2010 when the agency employed more than 3,800 nonmanagerial and nonsupervisory employees. Staffing had declined so much that the Government Accountability Office wrote in May that employees were challenged in their ability “to complete key tasks.” [Continue reading…]

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After a decade of reduction, global hunger is rising again due to conflict and climate change

Quartz reports: After a decade of progress made to cut the number of undernourished people on Earth, global hunger appears to be rising again.

The primary driver of growing hunger is the increase of conflicts around the world, many of which have been compounded by climate change, according to the 2017 State of Food Security and Nutrition report published by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on Sep. 15.

Among the 815 million undernourished people—representing more than one in 10 people alive today—more than 489 million live in parts of the world afflicted by armed conflicts. Many of these are regions that have suffered years of violence, including the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes of Africa, and the parts of the Middle East affected by the Syrian War. Countries outside these regions that have faced similar ongoing conflict include South Sudan, Yemen, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. [Continue reading…]

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Maria fallout lays bare Puerto Rico’s sharp income divide

Bloomberg reports: A humanitarian crisis began to take hold in Puerto Rico on Saturday, three days after Hurricane Maria hammered the commonwealth, and its most vulnerable citizens were the most exposed.

Health-sector workers said the island was nearing a critical moment as some care organizations ran low on fuel for generators. Maritza Lamoso, executive director at Residence Senior Living in the Puerto Nuevo section of San Juan, said she’d put out 20 calls for emergency diesel and been visited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. But as of Saturday afternoon, she still had no fuel.

“If the diesel doesn’t arrive today, I’m going to have to start removing people,” she said from the lobby of the center, adding that two other facilities in the same network were in similar circumstances.

Governor Ricardo Rossello, who met with mayors and state and federal officials in San Juan on Saturday, said agencies were rushing to deliver fuel to hospitals, bring water, food and other aid to isolated communities, and evacuate families living near a failing dam in the northwest. The government couldn’t begin to estimate the financial toll, he said, but it would be more than the billions of dollars in damage caused by Hurricane George in 1998.

“This is, without a doubt, the biggest catastrophe in modern history for Puerto Rico in terms of the damage to infrastructure and in terms of damage to the island as a whole,” he said. “Our consideration is not a fiscal consideration. It’s restoring people’s security and restoring normalcy.”

On an island marked by sharp income disparities, there was a notable ratcheting up of private security by those at the top. [Continue reading…]

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Who’s the world’s leading eco-vandal? It’s Angela Merkel

George Monbiot writes: Which living person has done most to destroy the natural world and the future wellbeing of humanity? Donald Trump will soon be the correct answer, when the full force of his havoc has been felt. But for now I would place another name in the frame: Angela Merkel.

What? Have I lost my mind? Angela Merkel, the “climate chancellor”? The person who, as German environment minister, brokered the first UN climate agreement, through sheer force of will? The chancellor who persuaded the G7 leaders to promise to phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century? The architect of Germany’s Energiewende – its famous energy transition? Yes, the very same.

Unlike Trump, she has no malicious intent. She did not set out to destroy the agreements she helped to create. But the Earth’s systems do not respond to mission statements or speeches or targets. They respond to hard fact. What counts, and should be judged, as she seeks a fourth term as German chancellor in the elections on Sunday, is what is done, not what is said. On this metric, her performance has been a planetary disaster.

Merkel has a fatal weakness: a weakness for the lobbying power of German industry. Whenever a crucial issue needs to be resolved, she weighs her ethics against political advantage, and chooses the advantage. This, in large part, is why Europe now chokes in a fug of diesel fumes.

The EU decision to replace petrol engines with diesel, though driven by German car manufacturers, predates her premiership. It was a classic European fudge, a means of averting systemic change while creating an impression of action, based on the claim (which now turns out to be false) that diesel engines produce less carbon dioxide than petrol. But once she became chancellor, Merkel used every conceivable tactic, fair and foul, to preserve this deadly cop-out. [Continue reading…]

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In the Caribbean, colonialism and inequality mean hurricanes hit harder

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A satellite image of Hurricane Irma spiraling through the Caribbean.
NOAA/AP

By Levi Gahman, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus and Gabrielle Thongs, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus

Hurricane Maria, the 15th tropical depression this season, is now battering the Caribbean, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the region.

The devastation in Dominica is “mind-boggling,” wrote the country’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, on Facebook just after midnight on September 19. The next day, in Puerto Rico, NPR reported via member station WRTU in San Juan that “Most of the island is without power…or water.”

Among the Caribbean islands impacted by both deadly storms are Puerto Rico, St Kitts, Tortola and Barbuda.

In this region, disaster damages are frequently amplified by needlessly protracted and incomplete recoveries. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan rolled roughshod through the Caribbean with wind speeds of 160 mph. The region’s economy took more than three years to recover. Grenada’s surplus of US$17 million became a deficit of $54 million, thanks to decreased revenue and the outlays for rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Nor were the effects of a 7 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010 limited to killing some 150,000 people. United Nations peacekeepers sent in to help left the country grappling, to this day, with a fatal cholera outbreak.

A tent city in post-earthquake Haiti.
Fred W. Baker III/Wikimedia Commons

These are not isolated instances of random bad luck. As University of the West Indies geographers who study risk perception and political ecology, we recognize the deep, human-induced roots of climate change, inequality and the underdevelopment of former colonies – all of which increase the Caribbean’s vulnerability to disaster.

[Read more…]

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New climate change calculations could buy the Earth some time — unless they’re miscalculations

The Washington Post reports: A group of prominent scientists on Monday created a potential whiplash moment for climate policy, suggesting that humanity could have considerably more time than previously thought to avoid a “dangerous” level of global warming.

The upward revision to the planet’s influential “carbon budget” was published by a number of researchers who have been deeply involved in studying the concept, making it all the more unexpected. But other outside researchers raised questions about the work, leaving it unclear whether the new analysis — which, if correct, would have very large implications — will stick.

In a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience, a team of 10 researchers, led by Richard Millar of the University of Oxford, recalculated the carbon budget for limiting the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above temperatures seen in the late 19th century. It had been widely assumed that this stringent target would prove unachievable — but the new study would appear to give us much more time to get our act together if we want to stay below it.

“What this paper means is that keeping warming to 1.5 degrees C still remains a geophysical possibility, contrary to quite widespread belief,” Millar said in a news briefing. He conducted the research with scientists from Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland and Norway.

But the new calculation diverged so much from what had gone before that other experts were still trying to figure out what to make of it.

“When it’s such a substantial difference, you really need to sit back and ponder what that actually means,” Glen Peters, an expert on climate and emissions trajectories at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo, said of the paper. He was not involved in the research.

“The implications are pretty profound,” Peters continued. “But because of that, you’re going to have some extra eyes really scrutinizing that this is a robust result.”

That may have already begun, with at least one prominent climate scientist confessing he had a hard time believing the result. [Continue reading…]

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McMaster says no redo on Paris climate deal decision

The Washington Post reports: National security adviser H.R. McMaster denied Sunday that President Trump is reconsidering his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord but said the door remains open to a better agreement down the road.

“That’s a false report,” McMaster said of published reports over the weekend that the administration might not pull out of the deal after all and might seek new terms instead.

“The president decided to pull out of the Paris accord because it’s a bad deal for the American people and it’s a bad deal for the environment,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” [Continue reading…]

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Conflicting statements on Trump administration’s position on Paris climate accord

The Wall Street Journal reports: Trump administration officials said Saturday the U.S. wouldn’t pull out of the Paris Agreement, offering to re-engage in the international deal to fight climate change, according to multiple officials at a global warming summit.

The U.S. position on reviewing the terms of its participation in the landmark accord came during a meeting of more than 30 ministers led by Canada, China and the European Union in Montreal. In June, President Donald Trump said the U.S. would withdraw from the deal unless it could find more favorable terms.

U.S. officials in Montreal, led by White House senior adviser Everett Eissenstat, broached revising U.S. climate-change goals, two participants said, signaling a compromise that would keep the U.S. at the table even if it meant weakening the international effort. Still, the move would maintain international unity behind the painstakingly negotiated Paris accord, after Mr. Trump suggested he might seek a new agreement.

“The U.S. has stated that they will not renegotiate the Paris accord, but they will try to review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement,” European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete said.

In a statement Saturday afternoon, a White House spokeswoman said the administration’s position on Paris had not changed, but also noted that the president’s stance on withdrawing from the deal had never been set in stone.

“There has been no change in the U.S.’s position on the Paris agreement,” said deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters. “As the president has made abundantly clear, the U.S. is withdrawing unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country.”

Multiple participants at the Montreal gathering said Mr. Eissenstat’s approach, though it is likely to entail a significant reduction in the U.S.’s ambition to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, fueled optimism among proponents of the Paris deal. Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration in January, officials from China to the EU and Canada have tried to convince his administration that fighting climate change is also a boon for the economy and jobs, and not just an ideological battle.

“We are pleased the U.S. continues to engage and recognize the economic opportunity of clean growth, including clean energy,” said Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in a statement to The Wall Street Journal. [Continue reading…]

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This season, Western wildfires are close by and running free

The New York Times reports: Some fires suddenly exploded in size. One in Montana doubled in 24 hours, charring 78 square miles overnight — an area bigger than Brooklyn. Already burning fires started new ones, shooting embers like artillery barrages, including one that apparently jumped several miles across the Columbia River into Washington from Oregon, breaching a natural firebreak that long seemed impregnable.

Extreme fire behavior — difficult to predict and dangerous to fight — has been the watchword of the 2017 season across the West. More large, uncontrolled wildfires were burning in 10 Western states in early September than at any comparable time since 2006.

And those fires have leaned in, menacing more lives and property, by their size and their proximity, than in any recent season. Two firefighters died in Montana, and dozens of buildings and homes have been destroyed in California. About 150 hikers had to be rescued in Oregon when a fire encircled them. Evacuation orders — residents told to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice — reached to within 15 miles of downtown Portland. One of the largest fires ever recorded in Los Angeles County roared down from a canyon near Burbank, leapt a highway and forced hundreds of residents, from Burbank into Los Angeles itself, from their homes. [Continue reading…]

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Will rebuilding after Harvey and Irma make more flooding inevitable?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes: The aim of the National Flood Insurance Program, which was created by Congress, in 1968, in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy, is to provide “affordable insurance to property owners.” The program offers what amounts to subsidized coverage, and according to its critics, and also to some of its supporters, the N.F.I.P. has had the perverse effect of encouraging rebuilding in areas where homes and businesses probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.

Many homes enrolled in the program have been flooded and repaired more than once. These are known as “repetitive-loss properties.” Then there are homes that have been flooded and repaired at least four times. These are known as “severe repetitive-loss properties.” Into this latter category falls a Mississippi house valued at sixty-nine thousand dollars. The house has flooded thirty-four times, resulting in a total of six hundred and sixty-three thousand dollars in claims.

“It’s basically lather, rinse, repeat,” Steve Ellis, the vice-president of the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense, recently told Politico. [Continue reading…]

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A lesson from Hurricane Irma: capitalism can’t save the planet – it can only destroy it

George Monbiot writes: here was “a flaw” in the theory: this is the famous admission by Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, to a congressional inquiry into the 2008 financial crisis. His belief that the self-interest of the lending institutions would lead automatically to the correction of financial markets had proved wrong. Now, in the midst of the environmental crisis, we await a similar admission. We may be waiting some time.

For, as in Greenspan’s theory of the financial system, there cannot be a problem. The market is meant to be self-correcting: that’s what the theory says. As Milton Friedman, one of the architects of neoliberal ideology, put it: “Ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand.” As long as environmental goods are correctly priced, neither planning nor regulation is required. Any attempt by governments or citizens to change the likely course of events is unwarranted and misguided.

But there’s a flaw. Hurricanes do not respond to market signals. The plastic fibres in our oceans, food and drinking water do not respond to market signals. Nor does the collapse of insect populations, or coral reefs, or the extirpation of orangutans from Borneo. [Continue reading…]

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A $150 billion misfire: How disaster models got Irma wrong

Bloomberg reports: Twenty miles may have made a $150 billion difference.

Estimates for the damage Hurricane Irma would inflict on Florida kept mounting as it made its devastating sweep across the Caribbean. It was poised to be the costliest U.S. storm on record. Then something called the Bermuda High intervened and tripped it up.

“We got very lucky,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan. If Irma had passed 20 miles west of Marco Island instead of striking it on Sunday, “the damage would have been astronomical.” A track like that would have placed the powerful, eastern eye wall of Irma on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

By one estimate, the total cost dropped to about $50 billion Monday from $200 billion over the weekend. The state escaped the worst because Irma’s eye shifted away from the biggest population center of Miami-Dade County.

The credit goes to the Bermuda High, which acts like a sort of traffic cop for the tropical North Atlantic Ocean. The circular system hovering over Bermuda jostled Irma onto northern Cuba Saturday, where being over land sapped it of some power, and then around the tip of the Florida peninsula, cutting down on storm surge damage on both coasts of the state. [Continue reading…]

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