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The Chronicle July-August 2014

The Chronicle

By Alice Loyd (through August 31, 2014)



We begin this edition with the warming of Gaia. June 2014 was the hottest June we’ve ever had, and was the 352nd hotter-than-average month in a row.The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced on July 21 that June’s average global temperature was 16.2C (61.2F), which is 0.7C higher than the 20th-century average. Heat records were broken on every continent except Antarctica. Global temperature records go back to 1880.

A new draft of the IPCC Fifth Assessment speaks in blunt, forceful language to issue a harsh warningabout what’s causing global warming and what it will do to humans and the environment. It also describes what can be done about it. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on August 25 sent governments a final draft of its synthesis report, which combines three enormous earlier documents. While the reports that underpin the new draft employ somewhat dry scientific language, the message here is clearly meant to match the urgency of the risks. The final report will be issued after governments and scientists go over the draft line by line in an October conference in Copenhagen.

A recent studyshows Antarctica heating up from below. The changes to winds circling the Antarctic have already been linked to southern Australia’s drying climate, but a new model indicates they may also warm ocean temperatures under the ice shelves along the coastline of West and East Antarctic. Lead author Dr. Paul Spence from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science (ARCCSS) reported, “When we included projected Antarctic wind shifts in a detailed global ocean model, we found water up to 4°C warmer than current temperatures rose up to meet the base of the Antarctic ice shelves.” Previous global models did not adequately capture these currents and the structure of water temperatures at these depths. Recent estimates suggest the West Antarctic Ice Sheet alone could contribute 3.3 meters to long-term global sea level rise.

Ice melt in the Arctic has opened water lanes for two kinds of exploration. Drilling for oil has begun in both Norwegian and Russian waters, and so has pleasure boating. Crystal Cruises announced in July that a 32-day journey across the Canadian Arctic archipelago to Greenland will set sail in the summer of 2016. The cost of passage in dollars?—$20,000—with the rate climbing to $44,000 per person in the ship’s penthouse suite. Perhaps the oil drillers might be called “Those who do the burning,” while the tourists might be viewed as those who fiddle.

Changes in sea ice and weather events help to account for a movement in public opinion that Robert J. Lifton sees as a climate “swerve”—a “complex collective process.” In an editorial published August 24, the psychiatrist also credits recent warnings by leading financial authorities that investments in fossil fuels face devaluation as climate action becomes more likely. The third influence Lifton mentions is a growing sense that destroying the planet is “deeply wrong, perhaps evil.” Lifton distinguishes between fragmentary awareness (images that come and go without prompting action) and a “formed awareness, which is more structured, part of a narrative that can be the basis for individual and collective action.” He senses that “experience, economics and ethics are coalescing” to create this more formed awareness that would support strong climate-stabilizing action.

A July 8 report “Pathways to Deep Decarbonization” outlines technological paths by which the world’s largest economies could maintain reasonable rates of growth and cut their carbon emissions enough by 2050 to prevent climatic catastrophe. To limit temperature rise to 2oC over pre-industrial levels, every country, rich and poor, would reduce annual CO2 emissions to 1.6 tons per person, whether it is responsible for a lot or a little of the climate change so far.

While the new assessment finds that the reductions can be made without breaking any economy, they can’t be achieved through small changes, such as replacing coal with natural gas in power plants. New but not speculative technologies must be employed aggressively on a commercial scale, as, for instance, carbon capture and storage, which is expected to be available by 2024. Second-generation biofuels are assumed to come into play by 2020, with hydrogen fuel cells and power storage technology becoming available by 2030.

The report purposefully does not assess the costs of the recommendations, and obviously fairness is not one of the goals of the research. Seeing a long-term path could encourage the large investments that will be required, however, and it is hoped that a map might show countries how climate change mitigation would look.

The cost of delay for the U.S. economy is being described in dollars in two recent reports.

In late June Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, billionaire Tom Steyer and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warnedthat rising sea levels, increasing storm surges and warmer temperatures will cost the UNITED STATES billions if little action is taken. The report issued by the Risky Business Project, whose members include former Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, was prepared by the largest catastrophe-modeling company in world, Rhodium Group and Risk Management Solutions. It expects that in the next 15 years, higher sea levels and storm surges will increase the cost of damages from sea level rise nationwide by $35 billion. The result would be significant federal budget liabilities, since many businesses and property owners turn to the federal government as the insurer of last resort. Increasing temperatures will reduce labor productivity across the UNITED STATES in the construction, utility maintenance, landscaping and agriculture sectors by as much as 3 percent.

In July the White House issued an analysis of research on the cost of delay for hitting a specified climate target. It states, “Net mitigation costs increase, on average, by approximately 40 percent for each decade of delay. If delayed action causes the mean global temperature increase to stabilize at 3° Celsius above preindustrial levels, instead of 2°, that delay will induce annual additional damages of 0.9 percent of global output . . . or approximately $150 billion. The next degree increase, from 3° to 4°, would incur greater additional annual costs of 1.2 percent of global output. These costs are not one-time: they are incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by additional climate change resulting from the delay.” The report is available here.

The Obama administration is also working to forge a sweeping international climate change agreement to compel nations to cut their planet-warming fossil fuel emissions in an approach that would sidestep the requirement of Senate ratification. Negotiators are meeting with diplomats from some of the world’s largest economies to broker a deal to commit to enact laws to reduce their carbon pollution. What they call a “politically binding” deal that would “name and shame” countries into cutting their emissions is being negotiated prior to a U.N. summit meeting in 2015 in Paris. Negotiators say it may be the only realistic path to emissions reductions.

And then, in the kind of turnaround environmentalists find so maddening, President Obama moved toward opening the Atlantic Ocean to drilling for oil and gas. Seismic surveys to test Atlantic waters for potential energy sources were given the go-ahead sign; supporters and critics alike see drilling approval to follow. Guidelines for seismic surveys were set by an environmental review released by the Interior Department in February.

More than 120,000public comments were submitted during the comment period, with about two-thirds against it. The plan is opposed by numerous coastal municipalities, scientists and members of Congress, including 11 members of Florida’s congressional delegation, and the 21 environmental groups signing a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell warning that offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific is “at odds with fighting climate disruption.”

Advocates of drilling, however, spend a lot of money cultivating elected officials and their advisors. Last year alone, oil and gas interests spent almost $145 million on lobbying at the federal level. That represents an increase over the $143.6 million it spent on lobbying in 2012, though it was down from the $150.7 million spent in 2011. The five oil and gas companies that spent the most on federal lobbying in 2013 were Exxon Mobil ($13.4 million), Chevron ($10.5 million), Koch Industries ($10.4 million), American Petroleum Institute ($9.3 million), and Royal Dutch Shell ($9 million).

The coal industry is going all out against the EPA’s new power plant standards. A dozen states representing America’s coal country are suing the Environmental Protection Agency to block forthcoming regulations imposing new limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The lawsuit, filed in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, accuses the agency of overstepping its authority under the Clean Air Act. The states are West Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming.

The EPA’s new standards asks the most from the states that pollute the least, says an article published July 7. The rule provides every state with a target carbon-emissions intensity for its power plants, with preliminary standards due to be met by 2020 and full goals to be achieved by 2030. The article questions the fairness of the uneven requirements and includes a Brookings Institute-generated interactive map to show each state’s total percentage reduction goal in emissions. It notes that states already moving toward cleaner power sources will be penalized, but concludes that political opposition in big coal states would make stronger rules impossible to meet.

Another article with a map gives the examples of South Carolina and Texas. Each state’s goal is different based on how much the EPA believes that state can reduce the carbon intensity of power plants through efficiency improvements; how much a state can offset its emissions from the most-polluting power plants with natural gas and renewables; and how many energy efficiency measures have been taken by electric power customers that reduce the demand for electric power. 2012 is the baseline year for each state.

South Carolina is low on the list of states with the greatest volume of CO2 to slash, but its CO2 emissions target is the highest. The state released about 32 million metric tons of CO2 in 2012 with an emissions rate of 1,587 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, and the EPA wants to see the state slash that rate by 815 pounds in 2030.

Texas emitted the most CO2 measured in actual metric tons released into the atmosphere—223 million metric tons in 2012. But its emission rate was 1,298 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour of electricity generated that year, and EPA has set its target number as 507 pounds by 2030.

An abundance of information about The Clean Power Plan is available on the EPA site, http://www2.epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards, and the opportunity to make comments is offered at http://www2.epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards/how-comment-clean-power-plan-proposed-rule. Comments must be received by October 16, 2014.


In the past 20 years, neonicotinoids (pronounced nee-oh-NIK-uh-tin-oyds) have become the fastest growing class of pesticides, now claiming nearly 40 percent of the global insecticide market. They are systemics, affecting the whole plant rather than a single part, and they can persist in the ground for years. When farmers buy seeds preloaded with neonicotinoid coatings, the growing plant incorporates the insecticide into every bud and branch. The process of planting can actually dislodge the neonicotinoid coating, which tractors and wind can carry as dust even to the sides of a field, producing unintended consequences.

Up to now campaigns against their use have focused on the harm to bees, but new research out of the Netherlands found that in areas where water contained high concentrations of imidacloprid—a common neonicotinoid pesticide—bird populations tended to decline by an average of 3.5 percent annually. Concurrently an independent group, composed of 29 multidisciplinary scientists, released a report reviewing 800 scientific studies on the effects of neonicotinoids on wildlife. The Task Force on Systemic Pesticidespresents evidence that earthworms, aquatic invertebrates, lizards, fish, and many other animals are suffering ill effects as a result (either direct or indirect) of systemic pesticides.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have to hold public hearings on the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock, declared the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 17. The decision reversed a 2012 ruling by a district court that sided with health and consumer organizations who want the FDA to withdraw approval of using penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed. They say the practice can promote the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The appeals court found that the FDA isn’t required to hold the hearings because it hasn’t made an official finding that the antibiotics pose a health risk. No search, no find.

For two days in August the water in Toledo, Ohio, was not safe to drink due to a small bloom of toxic algae that formed directly over the city’s water-intake pipe in Lake Erie. The toxin, called microcystin, causes diarrhea, vomiting and liver-function problems, and is deadly to dogs and other small animals that drink contaminated water. The problem is phosphorus, discharged from industry and agriculture, and as yet only voluntary measures are in place to control it. The federal Clean Water Act limits pollution from fixed points like industrial outfalls and sewer pipes, but most of this spillage is spread over thousands of square miles. Addressing so-called nonpoint pollution is mostly left to the states, and as with many states, Ohio has chosen not to act. A federal Environmental Protection Agency proposal to restore part of the Clean Water Act’s authority has come under fire in Congress, largely from Republicans who view it as an infringement on private rights.

Palmer amaranthhas already devastated Southern cotton farms and is moving into the Midwest. Palmer, as farmers tend to call it, is the most troublesome of a growing number of weeds now immune to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup. The chemical has been used so widely by farmers after Monsanto began selling crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate in the 1990s, that 16 types of weed in the United States have become resistant. There are enough glyphosate-resistant weeds to cover a plot nearly as big as Oregon, and the total infestation has grown 51 percent in one year. Glyphosate-resistant palmers first surfaced in 2005, in a field in Macon County, Georgia. Nine years later, they are in at least 24 states.

The industry is generating a new array of genetically engineered crops that tolerate other weed killers. The Environmental Protection Agency is set to approve plans by Dow AgroSciences to sell soybean seeds that tolerate not only glyphosate, but a much older herbicide, 2,4-D, and a third widely used herbicide, glufosinate. Monsanto hopes to market soybeans and cotton next year that resist dicamba.

Consumer Reports is contesting recommendations to pregnant women to eat more tuna. In June, the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration proposed a minimum weekly level for fish consumption for the first time. Women who are pregnant, breast-feeding or trying to become pregnant, it said, should eat up to 12 ounces of fish per week.

“We encourage pregnant women to avoid all tuna,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. When the magazine analyzed the FDA’s data on the amount of mercury in tuna, they found 20 percent of the light canned tuna samples tested since 2005 have almost twice as much mercury as the FDA lists as the average amount. Just as some samples have higher mercury than the average, some may have lower levels of mercury. But consumers can’t know whether the cans of tuna they’re buying might have an above average amount, and the fetal damage that could result from eating mercury is too serious to risk, according to the findings that resulted in the Consumer Reports advice.


General Motors emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 promising to build fuel-efficient cars. Facing the collapsing sales of its largest vehicles, GM did introduce the Chevrolet Cruze and the subcompact Chevrolet Spark. But as GM reels from a wave of recalls that now stands at around 29 million vehicles worldwide, the company has fallen back on cavernous SUVs to bolster sales, by design or not. While competitors like Ford and Nissan have largely shifted resources away from such large vehicles, GM has stayed with them, and now holds more than 70 percent of the market.

Victoria Salinas has been named Oakland’s first Chief Resilience Officer, a position being created in other cities across the world as well. She’ll lead the city’s efforts to prepare for and respond to a number of challenges, from executing earthquake retrofits for 24,000 at-risk multi-family housing units to developing long-term strategies for protecting the city from sea-level rise and intensifying storms. She will also implement Oakland’s Energy and Climate Action Plan, which was adopted by the city council in December 2012.

A system proposed by researchers recycles materials from discarded car batteries into solar panels. It is based on a recent development in solar cells that makes use of a compound called perovskite—specifically, organolead halide perovskite, a technology that has rapidly progressed from initial experiments to a point where its efficiency is nearly competitive with that of other types of solar cells. Initial descriptions of the perovskite technology identified its use of lead as a drawback. But by using recycled lead from old car batteries, the manufacturing process can instead be used to divert toxic material from landfills and reuse it in photovoltaic panels that could go on producing power for decades.