Warming Trends: Telling Climate Stories Through the Courts, Icy Lakes Teeming with Life and Climate Change on the Self-Help Shelf

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

A view of the defendant's table in a courtroom. Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
A view of the defendant's table in a courtroom. Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

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A Crowded Docket of Climate Thrillers 

Everyone loves a juicy courtroom drama. The stories that center on charming serial killers, high profile celebrities or unethical corporate executives can be captivating and addicting despite the legalese and stale, wood paneled courtroom walls.

A new podcast is using this enthralling format to tell the story of the hundreds of court cases that have been popping up around the world that focus on the perpetrators of climate change. 

The first season of the podcast Damages explores cases like a first-of-its-kind challenge in U.S. tribal court against the state of Minnesota which asserts the rights of wild rice to exist, challenging the controversial Line 3 oil pipeline, and a case in Ecuador which affirmed the rights of a rainforest and led to revoked mining permits.

“I’m really in love with the idea of using narrative structures that are very familiar to people to tell climate stories,” said Damages host and journalist Amy Westervelt. “Because I feel like people think of climate as being really complicated or maybe hard to understand or abstract. So I feel like putting this subject matter of climate stories into a framework that is very familiar to people helps with that.”

The podcast will launch Feb. 17 and is hosted by Westervelt, known for her climate true crime podcast Drilled, which explored, among other topics, systematic climate denial perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry.

Future episodes of Damages will look at youth climate lawsuits, a dispute over massive untapped oil reserves in Guyana and a landmark fraud lawsuit against a Big Oil company.

Westervelt said she hopes that listeners realize that more action is happening on climate change in the courts than seems to be happening in other institutions. “Every time I say to people that there are hundreds of climate cases right now they’re like, ‘Wow, really?’” she said. “Really just kind of like letting people know what’s happening, telling them interesting stories, and then maybe it gives them some sense that it’s not just total gridlock all over the place.”


Can Your Air Conditioner Beat the Heat? 

Climate change-fueled summer heat waves will drive up demand for residential air conditioning, but current electricity supplies will not be able to keep up, a new study found, increasing the number of days that households may be without power during severe heat events. 

Published by researchers from Penn State University, the study found that if temperatures rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, demand for air conditioning in the United States will increase by 8 percent, and if temperatures rise 2 degrees, demand will increase by 13 percent. 


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The researchers estimate that efficiency of air conditioners will need to increase by up to 8 percent, especially in some southeastern states, to avoid blackouts during periods of high demand. If this adaptation cannot be achieved, they write in the study, some states could experience an average of two weeks of insufficient power for their air conditioners in a 2 degree warmer world. 

One of the most interesting findings was the stark difference in insufficiency under 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming, said lead author Renee Obringer, an environmental engineer at Penn State. She said the findings “really paint a picture of how important it is to limit our warming and to try to maintain the 1.5 degree threshold as opposed to letting it get to 2 or even further down the line to 2.5 or 3, because we can imagine that the pattern would continue to hold and we would see increasingly large changes to our use of air conditioning.”

Obringer said the technology does exist to achieve the necessary efficiency improvements, but the cost of upgrading to more efficient systems can be prohibitive.

“This starts to become an issue of policy,” she said. “And how we’re going to not only encourage the use of these more efficient appliances, but also how we can ensure that it’s not being distributed inequitably, where the affluent people are able to take on these larger costs and we’re leaving certain people behind.”


Hibernating Lakes? Think Again

High in the most remote areas of the Sierra Nevada mountains are thousands of lakes, home to endangered species like the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog.

Little is known about these lakes because they are so remote and impossible to access by car, especially in the winter months. 

“It’s kind of been a black box up until now,” said Adrianne Smits, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis.

Scientists have thought that these lakes essentially hibernate during these cold months—that they are, in a sense, “asleep.” That nothing is really changing until the spring thaw brings everything back to life. 

But over the last several years, Smits and other researchers from UC-Davis have installed sensors in 15 mountain lakes, which they had to carry on their backs over miles-long hikes. The sensors measure important water quality metrics like temperature and oxygen levels, as well as snowpack and ice cover. What they found is that these lakes are not dormant in the winter. In fact, a lot is happening under the surface. 

“Sometimes when they get big snow storms, you can have so much deposition of snow on the ice that it actually submerges it below the water. The whole water column gets mixed, oxygen gets mixed,” said Smits. “You can really see in the sensor data that these lakes are dynamic places during winter. That has real implications for the biota, the animals and the plants that are basically living in these systems under ice.”

The researchers found that ice cover and snowpack are important factors determining temperature and how much oxygen is stored in the lake, which is necessary to support aquatic life. As the climate changes, Smits said, it’s becoming more important to research mountain lakes.

“These places are changing really fast,” she said. “We’re running out of time to understand what winter really means in these systems.”


Forecasting Eco-Anxiety and a Need for Help

A new self-help book explores the vast health effects of climate change, from physical ailments like allergies and Lyme disease, to mental conditions like eco-anxiety and post traumatic stress, and provides tips on how to prepare for health crises to come.   

The book, “Taking the Heat: How Climate Change is Affecting Your Mind, Body and Spirit and What You Can Do About It” is authored by meteorologist Bonnie Schneider. Inside Climate News recently discussed the book with Schneider. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you, as a meteorologist, want to take on a book about climate change from a health perspective?

Being a meteorologist, you’re not just forecasting the weather. Over the past decade, I’ve been doing national disaster events rather than smaller localized events. I’m doing these big events that are happening like hurricanes or wildfire outbreaks, things like that. So I’m seeing the human impact of it. 

And it’s not just the destruction of people’s homes, it’s how does that affect someone emotionally? So I just saw that from my perspective of covering it as a meteorologist and a reporter. And I think personally, I’ve always been interested in health and wellness, so that the two interests sort of came together.

How did your expertise as a meteorologist help you in writing this book?

There is a connection between extreme weather and physical and emotional health and extreme weather is impacted by climate change. So I had that working knowledge to start with and I just have a general passion for discovery and learning. So I spoke to some really brilliant people and every conversation I had I learned something and I really enjoyed that aspect of it.

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What are some of the health impacts of climate change that your book goes into, and how do they manifest?

I focused at the start with eco-anxiety on the mental health side because that was a more recent  topic of conversation; how young people particularly are fearful of the future for climate change. And just interviewing them, I talked to so many of them, and then I spoke to psychiatrists and psychologists, and it’s very real, people are very troubled by this and young people are so troubled by it and the data reflects that.

And covering all these extreme weather events, I knew that there was an emotional impact from going through something like that. I’ve interviewed storm survivors myself, but I dug deeper with more natural disasters, you’re having more people facing this trauma from extreme weather events. I dove deep into the whole post traumatic stress, and each chapter offers tips on how to deal with these ailments, whether they’re physical or emotional.


How Worms Prevent a Methane Bomb

A delicate ecosystem on the ocean floor is helping to keep hundreds of gigatons of methane trapped in ice-like cages. A new study simulated this ecosystem and found out that a tiny species of deep sea worm is keeping this massive sink of greenhouse gasses locked at the bottom of the ocean. 

In this deep sea ecosystem, feather duster worms, which literally look like a household feather duster with a crown of wispy tentacles atop a tube attached to the ground, feed on a heat-generating, methane-eating bacteria, or methanotrophs. The methanotrophs feed on methane that is either stored in crystalline structures or generated by another kind of bacteria in the ecosystem, methanogens. The methanogens get their energy from the waste products generated by feather duster worms. 

Researchers from New York University found that the feather duster worms help keep the methanotroph populations in balance. If methanotrophs were to proliferate out of control, they could generate enough heat to thaw or “dissociate” the ice-like cages holding the methane in place, unleashing a huge sink of methane.

Ryan Hartman, lead author and a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor at NYU, said the researchers don’t know exactly what would happen if these methane stores were disrupted, but it is possible that the methane could rise through the water column and be released into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. 

“I’m not quite a believer in doomsday scenarios, because there’s more than one possibility here,” Hartman said, The methane “could be retained, but if you’re releasing massive plumes of methane, basically the Earth is like burping methane, would be I think, the worst case scenario.”

There are no current known risks to the feather duster worms, Hartman said, but their role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem is significant. Warming ocean temperatures related to climate change could also lead to increased heat in the ecosystem leading to dissociation of the structures around the methane, known as “hydrates.”

“This is why we think that there should be more research in this area, because if the population of worms changes, it could influence the stability of the hydrates in this way. If the populations of bacteria change for whatever reason, it could also influence the stability of the hydrates,” Hartman said. “If for some reason what we’re doing as humans influences the lifecycle of these organisms, then it could in turn influence the stability of the hydrates.”