In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea. A fourth leak has been detected in the undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, after explosions were reported earlier this week in suspected sabotage. Credit: Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images
In this Handout Photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 2022 in At Sea. A fourth leak has been detected in the undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, after explosions were reported earlier this week in suspected sabotage. Credit: Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images

A growing number of international officials and global security experts believe Russia sabotaged its own natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea, resulting in the release of an estimated 300,000 metric tons of methane gas into the atmosphere.

Researchers say that amounts to the largest-ever release of the potent greenhouse gas during a single event, with an impact similar to the annual emissions of 1 million cars. Because methane is 81 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet over a 20-year period, the rupture of the Nord Stream pipelines, which deliver gas from Russia to Western Europe, could be considered a climate disaster in its own right.

The gas could be seen rising to the surface of the ocean Monday, following what seismologists say were two explosions that didn’t appear to be caused by natural forces, such as an earthquake or underwater landslide. European security officials also said they observed Russian Navy support ships and submarines in the vicinity of the pipeline leaks Monday and Tuesday. And NATO ambassadors released an official statement Thursday, declaring that “all currently available information indicates that this is the result of deliberate, reckless, and irresponsible acts of sabotage,” which is “causing risks to shipping and substantial environmental damage.”

In that sense, the Nord Stream incident could also signal an ominous geopolitical trend that climate advocates and security experts have warned about for years—that a warmer world could also mean a less cooperative one, driven by rising conflict over territory, resources and the permeation of isolationist and nationalist ideologies.

“Global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions—that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries,” the Department of Defense wrote to Congress members in a 2015 report.

Officials with the United Nations reiterated those concerns last year, during the COP26 global climate talks in Scotland. Although global warming itself may not always be a direct cause of conflict, they said, it can often act as a “risk multiplier,” by exacerbating financial burdens for communities and governments dealing with extreme weather, driving displacement and undermining human rights in regions where frequent disasters are contributing to a surge in migration, as well as leaving women especially vulnerable to harm in situations where societal laws and social safety nets are breaking down.

“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperiling food security,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in his opening remarks at last year’s summit. “And it is making our work for peace even more difficult, as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict.”

In fact, a study published back in March by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research group, found that climate change is “unambiguously worsening” conditions that contribute to clashes and deepen human suffering. Violent conflicts related to water disputes have increased sharply over the last 20 years, the study found, especially in regions where drought conditions and other climate impacts have made competition over dwindling resources fiercer. 

A fourth of the conflicts the researchers observed in that timeframe occurred in the Middle East, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa—areas that have been hit especially hard by climate change. Those clashes include a 2016 incident during Syria’s brutal civil war when government forces surrounded the city of Aleppo and deprived its residents of running water, as well as a 2018 incident in which rival groups destroyed water tanks at a hospital in Yemen and a similar 2019 incident where the extremist group Al Shabab blew up a water tank in Somalia.

In terms of the Nord Stream pipeline explosions, those who suspect Russia’s involvement see a similar situation unfolding in which resource access is being cut off—or being threatened to be cut off—to instill fear and gain leverage over rivals in a broader conflict. And while the impacts of climate change may not be directly influencing that conflict, including the Russian war in Ukraine, some political and energy analysts believe climate change issues are still playing a central role in it.

Russia has been accused before of using its dominance over the European energy market to bully other countries and bolster its influence. Turkmenistan accused Russia of similarly blowing up a gas pipeline in its country in 2009 for economic gain. And this summer, during its ongoing war with Ukraine, Russian troops occupied a Ukrainian nuclear power plant and put the facility at risk of a meltdown, prompting some American intelligence officials and policymakers to speculate that Russia was attempting to intimidate Ukraine’s leaders and warn the West to stay out of the conflict.

Russia generates most of its income from exporting fossil fuels, and likewise, nations in Western Europe have been dependent on those fuels to heat their homes and power their electrical grids. Over the years, tensions have grown between those countries and Russia, in part because Russian President Vladimir Putin feels threatened financially and politically by the European Union’s efforts to transition to renewable energy and by the expansion of NATO, a global defense coalition that Russia has long seen as a military threat to its interests. Political analysts broadly believe that those dynamics were among the core motivations behind Putin’s decision in February to invade Ukraine, which was considering joining NATO.

When European countries, along with the United States, imposed sanctions on Russian fuel imports as punishment for the country’s aggression, Putin responded by cutting off deliveries of natural gas to Western Europe, primarily by shutting down its Nord Stream pipelines last year. That has since caused widespread economic pain across the continent and exacerbated already record-high global inflation.

Now, by blowing the pipeline up just weeks before winter, when demand for heating and electricity in Europe is at its highest, Russia is sending another threatening message to its former clients, David Goldwyn, who ran the State Department’s energy program during the Obama administration, told POLITICO. “Prepare for a life without Russian gas,” he said. “It’s a threat of a complete cut-off.”

Such hostile dynamics also pose a serious threat to the global effort to curb climate change. Shifting geopolitics over fossil fuels and clean energy resources, compounded by the increasing cost of climate-driven natural disasters, is making it harder to foster cooperation between nations at a time when scientists say it’s most needed to prevent catastrophic global warming by the end of the century. 

Worsening tensions between Western Europe and Russia, as well as between the United States and China, are already jeopardizing international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement. A report released earlier this week found that just 19 of the 193 countries that signed the climate accord have fulfilled their promise from last year to create more ambitious emissions reductions targets. That finding—paired with the possibility that Russia would sabotage its own pipelines to keep the world dependent on planet-warming fossil fuels—bodes poorly for smooth and easy negotiations at the upcoming COP27 climate talks, now just weeks away. 

Foreseeing those challenges, clean energy advocates urged U.S. and European leaders to double down on their efforts to build new renewable power sources in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying it would reduce Russia’s ability to use energy as a weapon against other countries. Unlike the fossil fuel systems we use today, which rely on centralized power plants that burn fuels and deliver electricity to a large area, renewable energy systems draw from free sources—such as the sun and wind—and can power smaller, independent grids that are less vulnerable to power failures due to natural disasters or hostile attacks, advocates argue.

“Renewable energy such as wind and solar” not only “offers more control to local communities and businesses,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and renewable energy expert Scott Brown said in an opinion essay this summer, it can also “provide resilience from the impacts of war, natural disasters and corruption.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

24,000 kilometers

If combined together, that’s roughly the length of all the new oil and gas pipelines that are currently being developed around the world, a new report found. The projects, led by the U.S., Russia, China and India, are “dramatically at odds” with the targets of the Paris Agreement, the report added.

A man and his dog walk past a sign reading,' Bark Off Ian, No Treat for you,' painted on a building that is boarded up for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. Ian is expected in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A man and his dog walk past a sign reading,' Bark Off Ian, No Treat for you,' painted on a building that is boarded up for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. Ian is expected in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday night into early Thursday morning. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Fiona, technically, was no longer a hurricane by the time it hit Newfoundland early Saturday. But for the residents of Canada’s most easterly province, which hugs the Atlantic Ocean, it was the most powerful storm they’ve seen in their lifetimes.

The post-tropical cyclone, which had already devastated Puerto Rico with massive flooding earlier in the week, made landfall in Eastern Canada with Category 2 hurricane strength, tearing the roofs off of schools, waterlogging roads and playgrounds and washing entire homes into the sea. On Monday, hundreds of buildings across Canada’s eastern provinces had been damaged or destroyed in the storm and more than a quarter million customers remained without power.

Forecasters called Fiona “historic.” Others described it as “unprecedented,” “unbelievable” or “breathtaking.” One resident of Channel-Port aux Basques, a small town on the southern shore of the province, described the siding of her home disintegrating and flying into the air “just like confetti at a wedding.”

To longtime climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, however, a better way to describe Fiona would be “a pink elephant with polka dots.”

Ekwurzel, who has studied global warming since 1991 and is now the director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, borrowed the phrase from another climate researcher to describe how the consequences of the planet’s rising temperatures are largely outpacing all scientific expectations. The connection between more destructive storms and climate change has been well established, but Ekwurzel said the issue has become larger than that.

Not only is global warming making natural disasters like storms, wildfires and heat waves more frequent and severe, she told me, but they’re also occurring in unexpected places and playing out in unexpected ways that often baffle the science community’s understanding of the world—like discovering a pink elephant with polka dots in nature: a reality no one imagined was possible.

Ekwurzel said the metaphor can be seen everywhere. It’s in the unexpected way Hurricane Dorian hovered for days over Gulf Coast states in 2019, causing massive flood damage. It’s in the way wildfires are cropping up in ancient sequoia groves in California, killing off hundreds of trees once thought impervious to fire damage. And it’s in the way record-shattering heat waves are blowing modern precedent out of the water, like the heat wave that killed some 800 people in the Pacific Northwest last summer, or the one this summer that brought temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit to the United Kingdom for the first time in modern history. 

It’s the bizarre polar vortex that disabled the Texas power grid last winter; the massive monsoon rains that submerged a third of Pakistan underwater this summer; the way that Hurricane Ian, currently on its way toward the Florida coast, supercharged from a tropical storm to a major hurricane overnight and is now expected to hit the city of Tampa with Category 3 strength.

“As scientists, we are not finding the language to tell people what’s really going on,” Ekwurzel said. “In a way, our statistics are failing us” because “we’re getting into uncharted territory” and “our models only show what we know, which is based on the past.”

In Fiona’s case, people in Puerto Rico were caught off guard not because of the windforce, which dictates the categorical strength of a hurricane, but by its massive output of rain. Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm when it hit the U.S. territory five years earlier, was considered far more powerful than Fiona. But when the Category 1 storm made landfall on the island last week, it left many Puerto Ricans shocked by how much damage it caused. One video, which was widely shared online and in the news, shows floodwaters overtaking and destroying a recently built metal bridge, as bystanders watch in disbelief.

It was a similar situation in Newfoundland and other eastern Canadian provinces. While those living along Canada’s Atlantic coast were no strangers to powerful winds, such as the 70 mile-per-hour winds produced by Fiona, most of them weren’t prepared for its storm surge. In fact, the waves Fiona created were so large, they reached homes that had safely existed on the coastline for nearly a century.

It wasn’t the wind Newfoundlanders were worried about, a local newspaper editor told the New York Times. “We’re used to that,” he said. “But what we’re not used to is 30-, 40-, 50-foot waves coming up onto the roads, moving houses 60 feet or just completely vaporizing them.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed a similar sentiment at a press conference on Saturday, as he promised that his country was quickly working to better prepare communities for the new reality climate change is creating. “Whether it was wildfires this past summer, whether it was the terrible flooding in BC just last year, we know there is a need for more resilient infrastructure,” he told reporters, adding that a “one in a 100 year storm” is now “hitting every few years instead of every century.”

But even Trudeau’s speech shows that humanity is preparing for the past, Ekwurzel told me, and scientists need to better convey just how quickly the goalpost of climate change is shifting. In most cases, she said, cities, states and countries are using outdated benchmarks in their plans to mitigate and adapt to global warming.

For something like the so-called “one in a 100 year storm,” which essentially means a storm of such magnitude that it has a 1 percent chance of happening every year, the term itself is outdated, since such storms are already happening far more regularly, Ekwurzel said. “A one in a 100 year storm, the way people understand it, I think we’re not conveying what that statistic means,” she said. “A 1,000 year storm, at this point, is probably what people should be talking about—that’s what we should be designing our infrastructure for because that will soon be upon us.”

Though powerful storms like those are still rare, they’re becoming more extreme when they do occur, said Jill Trepanier, an associate professor at Louisiana State University who studies hurricanes, extreme weather phenomena and climate change. “I think of it like this,” Trepanier told me in an email. “The average hurricane of today is not the average hurricane of the past. While Category 5 storms will still be rare, they will become more frequent, and the storm someone is ‘used to’ will likely become a slightly higher level.”

As Ian makes its way toward Florida, after lashing western Cuba Monday night, forecasters are warning that the state’s west coast could see “life threatening storm surge” of up to 12 feet, starting as soon as Tuesday evening, along with 6 to 12 inches of rain. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged residents to take the threat seriously, and officials have ordered more than 2.5 million people to evacuate.

While Ian is expected to be less intense than Hurricane Michael, which flattened Florida’s Mexico Beach in 2019 with 160 mile-per-hour winds and as much as 14 feet of storm surge, Ian would mark the first time in 100 years that Tampa has suffered a direct hit from a major hurricane, said Allison Wing, an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Florida State University.

That’s particularly worrisome, Wing told me, since flooding—both from storm surge and rainfall—is the leading cause of death in tropical storms and the Tampa region is “incredibly vulnerable to storm surge.”

In that sense, Hurricane Ian could very well be Tampa’s one in a 100 year storm—another historic disaster to add to the quickly growing list of such catastrophes that keep catching communities off guard.

For Ekwurzel, she hopes the tragedies of 2022 will be a wake up call for lawmakers, business leaders and other people in power, showing them that incremental steps to address climate change aren’t cutting it, and in fact, the world should be preparing for much worse. “These are our neighbors and our friends, and people are losing their faith in leadership,” she said. In other words, we need to start preparing for “pink elephants with polka dots.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

James Bruggers contributed to this report.

Today’s Indicator

36

That’s how many people died in extreme storms in India over the weekend, including 12 who were struck by lightning and 24 who died when their homes collapsed amid torrential rainfall. Climate change has made lightning strikes more common, research has found.

Work crews from Winkelman's Environmentally Responsible Construction (WERC) and Trillium Development readied a SES wind turbine for lifting atop 160 foot tower at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota. Credit: Star Tribune via Getty Images

Just a week after receiving similar criticism from congressional Democrats, Big Oil is once again facing allegations of misleading the public in an attempt to stall climate action and protect its bottom line. 

In a report published Monday, environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch accuses the industry’s biggest trade association of exaggerating the number of nationwide jobs created and sustained by oil and gas companies by more than 10 million. Fossil fuel advocates cite those inflated numbers, the report’s authors argue, when lobbying against fracking bans, drilling limitations and other policies aimed at reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The American Petroleum Institute’s most recent “State of American Energy” report, which uses the trade association’s estimates from 2019, “claims that 11.3 million jobs are supported by the oil and gas industry,” Food and Water Watch wrote in its Monday report. “In reality, there were only 695,000 oil and gas jobs nationally in 2019.”

“The oil and gas industry and its proponents are misleading the public and policymakers about the economic benefits produced by this destructive industry,” the report’s authors added. “Their false claims do not add up and cannot be allowed to stall a rapid transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.”

Both the American Petroleum Institute, or API, and Food and Water Watch use government data in their analyses—though API draws from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, while Food and Water Watch pulls its numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the environmental group said in its report that the main reason for API’s much higher estimate is because it includes “entirely unrelated jobs,” such as truck drivers and wholesalers, who deliver or sell fossil fuel products, and even companies that manufacture asphalt and roofing materials made from petroleum.

Gas station jobs, including those from attached convenience stores, account for roughly half of the jobs cited in fossil fuel industry studies, the report added.

Those “indirect” or “induced” jobs come mostly from fossil fuel industry supply chains and from the wages employees spend at other businesses, rather than from oil and gas companies themselves, the report said, and could easily be replaced by clean energy jobs. Truck drivers, for example, could deliver parts for wind farms and solar systems, wholesalers could sell them, and manufacturing plants could build them.

“In other words, the jobs that these companies identify as being endangered” by climate action “would only be ‘lost’ if the alternative to investment in oil and gas had nothing to do with capital and did not involve using power or energy,” the report’s authors conclude. “This is a false choice.”

The American Petroleum Institute rejected the conclusions of Monday’s report, calling it “misleading” and saying it reflects the authors’ “fundamental misunderstanding of how our industry benefits all sectors of the economy.”

“There’s no question that America’s natural gas and oil industry has been a complete game-changer for local economies, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country and lowering household energy costs, all while strengthening our energy security and driving environmental progress,” an API spokesperson said in an email to Inside Climate News.

But the Food and Water Watch’s assessment appears to align more squarely with the Department of Energy’s 2021 analysis on U.S. energy sector jobs, which found that clean energy jobs led the sector’s boom in employment last year, while jobs for gas, coal and petroleum companies declined by more than 29,271, or about 3.1 percent. The International Energy Agency also estimated in its annual “World Energy Employment Report,” published earlier this month, that up to 14 million new clean energy jobs worldwide could be created by 2030, with another 16 million workers expected to switch to new roles related to clean energy.

The Food and Water Watch’s report marks the second time this month that fossil fuel companies have faced public scrutiny over how their products impact climate change and the sincerity behind their commitments to address it. Facing mounting public pressure, the world’s top oil companies have announced goals in recent years to either transition to renewable energy sources or at least reduce their carbon footprint.

A February study, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, however, found that the four biggest oil majors—Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP—aren’t following through on those commitments as they continue to prioritize investments in new oil and gas development. And last week, House Democrats released a series of internal documents that they say proves oil companies are continuing to mislead the public on climate change, undercut global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and push unproven technological solutions as a way to continue selling fossil fuels.

Those documents, which were subpoenaed in a House investigation on climate disinformation, include an email sent to Exxon’s chief executive that discusses how to weaken an industry-wide climate commitment, a guidance memo warning Shell employees to “not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense” to avoid attracting lawsuits from investors, as well as an email from one Shell employee who said the company’s “net zero” pledge “has nothing to do with our business plans.”

In fact, Big Oil has been facing similar allegations for years, if not decades. Since 2017, at least 20 lawsuits have been filed by U.S. cities and states against leading oil companies, accusing them of downplaying the consequences of burning fossil fuels to consumers and investors, despite knowing for decades that their products were causing historic and devastating climate change.

But those allegations, and their broader implications for the world, appear to be coming to a head this year, as fossil fuel companies reap record-breaking profits and as nations discuss ways to pay for the international effort to curb the climate crisis.

Accelerated by the pandemic recovery and the Russian war in Ukraine, both of which experts say have upended global geopolitics and largely contributed to sky-high energy costs, fossil fuel companies around the world are now making some of their largest profits on record. Altogether, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP and TotalEnergies made $55 billion in the second quarter of 2022 alone, with Exxon posting its biggest quarterly profit in history at $17.9 billion. 

At the same time, hundreds of millions of people around the world are paying record-high prices at the pumps and on their energy bills. That has sparked criticism from several top U.S. lawmakers, who have accused the companies of using their recent profits to line the pockets of executives and investors, rather than help struggling everyday Americans. “Instead of using these windfalls to lower prices, oil companies are instead buying back their own stock and increasing shareholder dividends,” the office of Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), wrote in a press release last month.

Big Oil is feeling the heat on the global stage as well. In his opening speech at the 77th United Nations General Assembly, being held this week in New York City, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged all developed economies to tax fossil fuel companies to pay for efforts to help “people struggling with rising food and energy prices” and “countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis.”

“It is high time to put fossil fuel producers, investors and enablers on notice,” Guterres said. “Polluters must pay.”

It’s an issue the authors of the Food and Water Watch report highlighted as well, pointing to the industry’s declining employment rate, even as domestic fossil fuel production increased. Since 2014, the report said, oil and gas companies increased their production by 33 percent, while industry jobs declined 37 percent. In 2021, the latest available year for government employment data, oil and gas companies directly employed just over 500,000 workers nationwide, according to the environmental group’s report. That’s 50,000 fewer than the total number of jobs an API representative claimed would be lost in Pennsylvania alone after state regulators voted last year to ban fracking in the Delaware River Basin.

“While the oil and gas industry uses promises of employment to gain political leverage, increased production does not actually guarantee more jobs,” the Food and Water Watch authors said. “And 2021 shows that even when production returns, jobs continue to be cut.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

$207 billion

That’s how much money U.S. banks provided the coal industry between 2019 and 2021, according to a new report, making American financial institutions second only to Chinese banks when it comes to funding the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

Street lamps are out on a street in the Condado community of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 19, 2022, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona. Credit: AFP via Getty Images
Street lamps are out on a street in the Condado community of Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 19, 2022, after the passage of Hurricane Fiona. Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Most of Puerto Rico remained in the dark Tuesday morning as crews rushed to assess and repair the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona, which continues to gather strength on its northwest path toward the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The U.S. territory suffered “catastrophic damage” over the weekend and through Monday, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said, after the Category 1 storm unleashed violent winds and torrential rain, killing at least three people, forcing hundreds more to evacuate and knocking out power for more than a million homes and businesses.

Fiona, which made landfall on the southern shore of Puerto Rico on Sunday, is the year’s first major hurricane of the Atlantic season and the first storm of its strength to hit the territory since Hurricane Maria crippled the island’s electrical grid in 2017. It’s also the clearest example to date of the Puerto Rico government’s failure to adequately prepare for the increasingly frequent and destructive storms that scientists say are being exacerbated by climate change.

As of Tuesday morning, less than 150,000 of Puerto Rico’s 1.4 million public utility customers had working electricity, despite tens of billions of dollars in federal aid and a massive five-year effort to overhaul and modernize the island’s poorly maintained and unsound powergrid. But a growing number of Puerto Ricans, who have privately installed solar systems on the roofs of their homes and businesses, say the island-wide blackout caused by Fiona could have been entirely avoided, pointing to themselves as proof of a better way.

“We’re fine,” Arturo Massol-Deyá, who uses solar panels and battery storage to power his house, his office and several other buildings in Adjuntas, a mountainside town in central Puerto Rico, told me in an interview Monday afternoon. “Basically, we’re waiting for the sun to shine again—we don’t have damage, all the infrastructure is in place and it’s running. It was running during the hurricane.”

Eddie Ramirez, owner of Casa Sol, a bed and breakfast located in the territory’s northern capital of San Juan, gave a similar response. “Personally, me and my family, we’re good,” Ramirez, who equipped his business with solar panels and battery storage back in 2013, told me over the phone. “Puerto Rico, I can say, is not.”

In the southeastern coastal city of Salinas, which was in the center of Fiona’s path and likely saw some of the storm’s worst damage, environmental attorney Ruth Santiago said her solar system also kept her lights on throughout the storm. “That’s why I’m charging my phone and making lunch and that kind of thing, but no one else has power,” she told me, apologizing as the beep of a timer chirped in the background. 

“Sorry,” she said, “that was just my oven going off.”

The same goes for a gas station in Utuado, a pharmacy in Patillas and a community center in Arecibo. All of them had installed solar panels and battery storage this summer and none lost power during the storm, a local familiar with the businesses told Inside Climate News.

While the full extent of Fiona’s damage to Puerto Rico remains to be seen, the six anecdotes highlight a growing frustration among Puerto Ricans, who don’t trust their government to provide them with reliable electricity, especially during natural disasters, and are increasingly turning to privately-installed rooftop solar systems to provide their energy needs.

Since 2017, more than 40,000 Puerto Rican households have installed, or are in the process of installing, rooftop solar panels, according to a report released last week by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a progressive think tank that promotes renewable energy. The vast majority of those systems have been installed with battery storage, the report said, and currently provide 3.7 percent of the territory’s total electricity consumption, outpacing the island’s utility-scale projects.

But the report also criticizes the Puerto Rican government, which it says “continues its misguided push for natural gas” while building “no new renewable energy.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017 as a Category 4 storm and is believed to have caused nearly 3,000 deaths on the island, many of which were due to a lack of electricity. In its aftermath, the residents of Puerto Rico demanded that their government transition away from expensive fossil fuel imports and toward renewable energy.

Energy analysts and climate activists have said that renewable power, when paired with battery storage and smaller electrical grids, is better suited to withstand the kinds of increasingly destructive storms the territory will face as the climate crisis worsens. Solar and wind energy circumvent the complications associated with importing fuels, they say, and smaller grids help to prevent widespread blackouts when a major power plant goes offline or a key transmission line goes down.

Puerto Ricans broadly agreed with that reasoning, and shortly after Maria, voters pressured their government to pass a law in 2019 that requires the island to be fully powered by solar, wind or other renewable sources by 2050. Additional regulations also require Puerto Rico to prioritize smaller, independent grids.

But progress on that effort has been slow, to say the least, and many residents, including Santiago, Ramirez and Massol-Deyá, say their government and public utility, as well as LUMA Energy—the private company that took over the island’s power transmission system last year—have failed to take the law seriously.

In fact, the two power companies, both of which have significant ties to global investment firms that specialize in fossil fuel infrastructure development and natural gas distribution, have been repeatedly accused by Puerto Rico’s top energy regulator and members of the U.S. Congress of “dragging their feet” when it comes to building new solar, wind and other renewable energy capacity on the island. The Puerto Rico Energy Bureau has even threatened the companies with fines if they didn’t plan for more renewable development and pick up the pace on securing it.

In March, Puerto Rico’s public utility reported that less than 5 percent of the island’s electricity was coming from renewable sources and warned that it would likely miss the first legal benchmark of obtaining 40 percent of the territory’s electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Widespread, daily blackouts, paired with quickly rising energy costs, have also angered many Puerto Ricans, who have called for their governor to resign and for the Puerto Rican government to end its contract with LUMA.

Both LUMA and Puerto Rico’s public utility have defended their track records, however, saying the public has painted an unfair picture of their efforts. “People are trying to portray us as anti-solar and it’s absolutely not true,” Wayne Stensby, LUMA Energy’s CEO, said at a Congressional hearing in October.

Most notably, LUMA pointed to the progress made processing a massive backlog of requests to connect private solar systems to Puerto Rico’s centralized electricity grid. The company has processed thousands of those requests in the matter of months, though many more remain.

In February, the Biden administration promised to help Puerto Rico achieve its renewable energy ambitions, saying it would align a record amount of federal aid Congress has earmarked to repair the territory’s tattered grid and boost its struggling economy with the goals of its landmark 2019 clean energy law.

But Santiago, who also sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which advises the Biden administration on ways to advance environmental justice, said she’s not convinced federal agencies are doing much to follow through on that commitment.

The Government Accountability Office said Thursday that Puerto Rico has spent only 2 percent of the $21 billion that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved for Maria-related recovery efforts. And the recovery money Puerto Rico has spent so far has gone toward rebuilding the island’s centralized grid, as well as bolstering and repairing the fossil fuel power plants that still produce the vast majority of the electricity, she said.

Most Puerto Ricans still can’t afford to install their own private solar systems, Santiago said, so they need help and the historic amount of federal aid going to Puerto Rico could make all the difference. The Puerto Rico government and the Biden administration “could change this whole situation around,” she said. “People don’t have to live like this, for days and weeks and—who knows—maybe months without power. Things could be totally different, it does not have to be this way at all.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

17 percent

If you add up all the money every Caribbean country makes in a year, that’s the average percentage that is lost because of the damages caused by storms, according to the United Nations. Experts say that trend will only get worse as the planet warms.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 16: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) looks to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) after U.S. President Joe Biden signs The Inflation Reduction Act in the State Dining Room of the White House August 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. The $737 billion bill focuses on climate change, lower health care costs and creating clean energy jobs by enacting a 15% corporate minimum tax, a 1-percent fee on stock buybacks and enhancing IRS enforcement. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) isn’t known for taking risks. The centrist Democrat and former CIA officer famously chastised her progressive colleagues on a private conference call in 2020 after the party lost more than a dozen House seats to Republicans, narrowing its majority in Congress and leaving the newly elected President Joe Biden with a tougher landscape through which he could advance his agenda.

In the heated three-hour phone call, Spanberger blamed the party’s embrace of far-left leaning policies, including efforts to “defund the police,” for the election losses, and warned that Democrats risked getting “f—cking torn apart in 2022.”

“We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” Spanberger, who narrowly won her own reelection that year, said during the call. “We lost good members because of that.”

Given her reputation as a moderate, it may have surprised some observers this week to see Spanberger side with those same progressives she ridiculed two years ago. In a letter signed by 77 House Democrats, and led by Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Spanberger joined some of her most liberal colleagues in urging party leaders to abandon a controversial plan that would force lawmakers to choose between preventing a government shutdown next month and overhauling the nation’s environmental review process for new energy projects.

As part of a deal struck with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, top Democrats say they’re moving forward with a plan this month that would streamline the permitting and environmental review process for energy projects, including for fossil fuel pipelines and export terminals. That includes attaching those reforms to a critical funding bill that Congress must pass by the end of the month to continue funding government programs and paying federal workers.

To win Manchin’s vote in passing the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ sweeping spending bill and signature climate law, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other party leaders agreed to a series of concessions, many of which directly benefit the fossil fuel industry. That includes a handshake agreement with the West Virginia coal baron to reform parts of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, two bedrock national laws that dictate how the federal government determines if a proposed industrial project is a threat to human health or the environment.

Both Republicans and Manchin, who blocked President Joe Biden’s environmental agenda for more than a year and is the Democrats’ most conservative member, have complained for years that the environmental review processes of those laws are overly burdensome and harmful to the nation’s economy. But activists say weakening those laws, even a little, would endanger the environment and disproportionately harm low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that already bear the brunt of industrial pollution.

In recent weeks, climate and environmental justice activists have urged Democratic leaders to abandon the agreement with Manchin, dubbing it “the dirty pipeline deal.” Since mid-August, when Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law, activists have flooded lawmakers’ phone lines with calls, blockaded their offices and sent them letters, including one signed by more than 650 environmental and community advocacy organizations.

In some ways, those actions appear to have had at least some impact, considering a moderate Democrat like Spanberger decided to join the group of 77 Democrats to oppose attaching the Manchin deal to this month’s stopgap bill.

“The inclusion of these provisions in a continuing resolution, or any other must-pass legislation, would silence the voices of frontline and environmental justice communities by insulating them from scrutiny,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “Such a move would force [party] members to choose between protecting [environmental justice] communities from further pollution or funding the government.”

But with Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaling in recent days that they’re moving forward with their plans on the Manchin deal, activists are struggling to find ways to stop it. “This was always a tough fight. We don’t have a lot of leverage,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, told me in an interview. “The 72 or 77 Dems, if that’s where we’re at, is great. But it’s still not nearly enough.”

Passing a continuing resolution, known more colloquially as a stopgap bill, requires 60 votes in the Senate and 218 in the current House (a simple majority of the total 435 members). That means if the Manchin deal does get included in the stopgap bill, the 77 Democrats opposing the move would need 141 more votes to stop it in the House. They’d also need 41 votes in the Senate, and so far, only Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a progressive independent, has vocally opposed the plan.

In fact, Spanberger may be the only party member who signed onto this week’s letter because of mounting pressure from activists. As a moderate facing a contentious reelection in November, she likely doesn’t want to lose any constituents. Her office even released another letter that same day telling Democrat leaders to ensure they pass the stopgap bill, seemingly contradicting herself and highlighting the political balancing act Spanberger is performing ahead of the midterms.

But while progressives may not have the leverage to stop the Manchin deal, there is speculation that Republican opposition might. This week, several GOP members publicly voiced their opposition to the deal, saying the reforms Manchin laid out in a draft outline don’t go far enough. Several Republicans even introduced their own competing permitting reform legislation.

Still, it remains unclear how Republicans will ultimately vote. Manchin, at least, has remained optimistic that there will be enough bipartisan support to pass the stopgap bill and that the provisions he wants will be attached. Politicians very rarely allow the government to shut down. In the last 20 years, in fact, it has only happened four times.

As for Spanberger, when I asked her office how the congresswoman would vote if the side deal was included in the stopgap bill, the reply from her spokesperson did little to illuminate if she or other Democrats were willing to risk a government shutdown to thwart it.

“These initiatives backed by Rep. Spanberger are not exclusive. She continues to push Congress to fund the government as soon as possible, as the September 30 deadline is fast-approaching,” the prepared statement said. “Additionally, Rep. Spanberger has reservations about tying permitting reform to a continuing resolution, as indicated by her support for the letter sent to House leadership.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Marianne Lavelle contributed to this report.

Today’s Indicator

134

That’s how many people have died in Sudan since May because of severe flooding, highlighting yet another undeveloped country that has done little to contribute to climate change, yet sits at the front lines of its consequences.

A group of stranded people are rescued from the flood waters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Jackson, Kentucky on July 28, 2022. Credit: Leandro Lozada/AFP via Getty Images
A group of stranded people are rescued from the flood waters of the North Fork of the Kentucky River in Jackson, Kentucky on July 28, 2022. Credit: Leandro Lozada/AFP via Getty Images

They predicted it with eerie accuracy a decade ago, in a report that would ultimately change the way the world thinks and talks about global warming. 

Whether it’s the persistent drought threatening East Africa with famine, the raging wildfires continuing to plague much of Europe, or the wild swing of “weather whiplash” now pummeling much of the United States, climate scientists foreshadowed in their landmark 2012 report—with great detail—the kind of extreme weather the world is now experiencing on a far more regular basis.

“The report was clairvoyant,” Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate scientist and a co-author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2012 special report on extreme events, disasters and climate change, told the Associated Press. “The report was exactly what a climate report should do: Warn us about the future in time for us to adapt before the worst stuff happens.”

In particular, the 2012 report warned governments to watch out for five specific disaster scenarios that have mostly come true in recent years regarding climate change making them more frequent and severe. They warned of increasingly destructive flash floods in less affluent regions, such as the deadly summer floods this year in Kentucky, Pakistan and China. They warned of longer and hotter heat waves in urban hubs, particularly in Europe, like the ones that broke all-time records in the United Kingdom in July. They warned of increased property damage from hurricanes in the U.S., like storms that have frequently pummeled the Gulf Coast and even killed dozens of people across the Northeast last year. And they warned of droughts causing famine in African countries, which experts say is now a serious threat in the Horn of Africa.

They also warned of small island nations losing land and possibly disappearing due to sea-level rise by the end of the century. And while that scenario is harder to illustrate through a definitive example just yet, scientists generally agree that the warning signs are there. This month, the massive glacier known as the Greenland Ice Sheet lost tens of billions of tons of ice, marking  its most extensive melting rate on record for the month of September and prompting fresh warnings from scientists who said the glacier would contribute to at least 10 inches of sea level rise even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases.

In fact, as the summer of 2022 reaches its final days, reports from all around the world this week seem to showcase with grim vividness the warnings scientists underscored in that decade-old report.

Only days ago, California’s Death Valley set a world record when temperatures hit an astonishing 127 degrees Fahrenheit amid another historic heat wave for the region and as drought continued to deplete water reserves and threaten crops across dozens of states. Then over the weekend and through Tuesday, torrential rain poured down in regions spanning both coasts, causing flash floods in part because dry ground helps to repel water rather than soak it up.

In California, the floods washed out roads, overturned cars and even trapped dozens of motorists after a 20-foot-tall “wall of water” triggered mudslides in the southern part of the state. A similar scenario played out in Chicago, as heavy rainfall flooded basements and forced drivers to abandon their cars that had stalled on waterlogged roads. And on Monday and Tuesday, parts of Arizona, Nevada, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey were all under flash flood warnings as storm cells loomed overhead.

In some ways, the recent years of disaster-filled summers have been an especially poignant wakeup call for Americans who, like those in many other wealthy Western nations, have been somewhat insulated from the impacts of climate change and have therefore enjoyed the privilege of being able to ignore it. In developed countries, for example, residents are more likely to have advanced irrigation systems to water crops during droughts and air conditioning to mitigate extreme heat.

Last week, the Biden administration launched a new website that maps just how global warming is affecting different parts of the country, painting a nearly real-time picture of America’s climate threats and providing policymakers with data that can help them better prepare for extreme heat, drought, wildfire, as well as inland and coastal flooding. The new tool, for example, allows users to compare historical trends with climate projections roughly 10, 30 and 60 years from now.

As of today, the website shows more than 114 million Americans experiencing drought, nearly 40 million Americans under flood alerts and 300 wildfires actively burning across the country. Considering how the previous administration intentionally deleted information about global warming from government websites, the new online tool is the latest sign that American politics are beginning to catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to climate change. In November, the U.S. can also go into the United Nations’ global climate talks with at least one legislative victory after Congress dedicated roughly $370 billion to its efforts to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, a growing number of climate scientists say world leaders aren’t moving with enough urgency to properly address the emerging threats of global warming. It’s a message that leading climate research organizations reiterated Tuesday in a new report, saying that even with current efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, the world is quickly approaching dangerous climate tipping points.

The primary question now is whether governments will heed that warning and rapidly phase out the use of fossil fuels. When the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC released its groundbreaking report in early 2012, many of its members hoped their warning would be the catalyst that rallied nations around a common threat, spurring quick and decisive collective action.

Instead, “the world proceeded to do what it usually does,” Princeton’s Oppenheimer said. “Some people and governments listened, others didn’t. I think the sad lesson is the damage has to occur very close to home or else nobody pays attention now.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

50 million

That’s how many people worldwide are believed to be trapped in modern slavery due in part to the pandemic, war and the climate crisis, which have increased the likelihood of someone becoming the victim of forced marriage or forced labor, a new global report warns.

Wind turbines are viewed at a wind farm on January 21, 2016 in Colorado City, Texas. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Wind turbines are viewed at a wind farm on January 21, 2016 in Colorado City, Texas. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Republicans have hardly been vocal supporters of renewable energy or electric vehicles. Yet the U.S. South, a region where the politics lean red, is now primed to greatly benefit from the broader effort to turn America’s economy green.

While Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called it “a gift to radical environmentalists,” and Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said it was “a continuation of Democrats’ radical policies” that have “decimated our economy,” both of their states will likely receive billions in climate-related spending from the Inflation Reduction Act. The Democrats’ $739 billion spending package and signature climate legislation, which President Joe Biden signed into law last month, dedicates roughly $370 billion to fighting climate change, largely through federal tax incentives for electric vehicles, clean electricity and building efficiency. 

Yet despite not a single GOP lawmaker voting for the legislation, some analysts now think the South could soon become America’s new green hub, boosted by a fresh injection of federal dollars aimed at expanding the domestic manufacturing of batteries, solar panels and a host of other key components for the clean energy transition.

Several states in the region already lead the nation when it comes to renewable energy development and electric vehicle production. Last year, Texas came in first for new solar and wind energy installations, surpassing even California, with Oklahoma coming in third. Wind energy alone made up a whopping 41 percent of Oklahoma’s total electricity generation in 2021, according to the Department of Energy.

Southeast states in particular have seen a boom in clean energy industry activity. North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia and Alabama, are all producing—or will soon be producing—large quantities of electric vehicle parts, including the batteries that power them. Some experts believe that industry, which has already gained a solid footing in the region, will only grow further as federal dollars begin flowing to states and consumers.

“The Southeast by far is becoming the EV hub of America,” Bob Keefe, executive director of the nonpartisan clean energy advocacy group E2, told CNN this week. “It’s going to be harder for red states to say clean energy jobs are bogus and that it’s something for California when it’s something that’s happening in their backyards.”

Besides requiring that electric vehicles be made with parts manufactured in the U.S. to qualify for EV tax credits, the spending bill also provides billions in tax incentives to boost clean energy production in the U.S. That includes $10 billion in tax credits for new solar manufacturing facilities and $30 billion for expanding production of clean energy parts, as well as the processing of minerals needed for long-life batteries.

Those incentives appear to be working. Several companies, including major automaker Honda and global battery manufacturer LG, have announced plans in recent weeks to expand their operations in the U.S., with a focus on Southeast states.

In mid-August, shortly after the House passed the spending bill and sent it to Biden’s desk, Korea-based solar panel manufacturer Qcells said the legislation could allow it to expand its U.S. operations even further than its current commitments. In May, the company announced it was spending $171 million to grow its facilities in Georgia, a move expected to bring the Republican-led state nearly 500 new jobs.

First Solar, another major solar panel manufacturer, took an even stronger position. The company announced Tuesday that it would spend $1.2 billion to grow its U.S. presence, including by building a new factory in the Southeast, largely because of the new law. The plan would create nearly 1,000 jobs, it added, though a portion of those would go to its current operations in the Midwest.

But the biggest winner in the region could be Kentucky. Envision AESC, a major battery producer owned by Japanese automaker Nissan, broke ground this week on its new $2 billion plant in the Bluegrass State. The company said the facility, once complete, will be able to manufacture up to 300,000 EV batteries per year and employ as many as 2,000 people full time.

“In April, when Envision AESC announced plans to locate in the commonwealth, it solidified Kentucky’s place as the leader in the emerging electric vehicle sector,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said in a Tuesday press release. “Today’s groundbreaking signifies another major step forward for Envision and our state.”

While Beshear is a Democrat, the state has voted for a Republican president since 2000, and Beshear’s popularity as governor has frustrated many GOP leaders. The fact that Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell—an influential Republican powerbroker and former Senate Majority Leader—only admitted in 2019 that he believes human-climate change exists, speaks volumes to the state’s right-wing political leanings.

As governor, Beshear has refrained from talking about climate change, even while his state reels from its deadly consequences. But his vision for Kentucky as a clean energy leader could signal a broader, albeit incremental, ideological shift in the state.

Beshear “is very boxed in politically, with a Republican Supermajority running the state’s General Assembly,” James Bruggers, ICN’s Southeast reporter, told me. “But it is clear he’s very proud to talk about the rising EV battery industry in the state as he heads into his reelection vote next year.”

In some ways, the recent investments in the region could also mark a new era for American automaking in general, potentially foreshadowing a bigger role for the U.S. in an industry that largely migrated overseas as car assemblies became increasingly automated and as an emerging global economy complicated domestic profit margins.

To Bruggers, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, it’s all a continuation of the state’s “very long automotive legacy,” starting with Ford building Model T bodies in the city as far back as 1913. “If you think about it, there are a lot of automobile assembly plants in the region,” he said. “If cars are going to be electric, and that requires new technology and new kinds of factories, it makes sense they’d be located nearby.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. The newsletter will take a break next week as I catch some much needed R & R and enjoy an extended Labor Day weekend. But I’ll be back in your inbox the following week. Thanks for reading.

Today’s Indicator

6 percent

That’s how much of the share of total U.S. car sales in August were electric vehicles, about double the amount the same time last year, according to analytics firm IHS Markit. Some analysts believe that when EV sales reached 5 percent, it marked a tipping point in consumer adoption.

As a part of the climate organization Extinction Rebellion, scientists march through The Hague during the first scientist climate march in The Netherlands on April 6, 2022. Credit: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images
As a part of the climate organization Extinction Rebellion, scientists march through The Hague during the first scientist climate march in The Netherlands on April 6, 2022. Credit: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For the second time this year, climate researchers are urging their colleagues to risk arrest and commit acts of civil disobedience in an effort to pressure governments to take quicker, more substantial action on the climate crisis and to better convey how seriously the science community views the threats it poses to humanity and the environment.

In an article published Monday in the scientific journal Nature, a group of five climate scientists, joined by a political scientist who studies social movements, argued that it is both ethical and necessary for the broader science community to more forcefully advocate for “meaningful” policies that move society away from the burning of fossil fuels. Taking such action is justified, the group wrote, considering “time is short to secure a livable and sustainable future,” and inadequate government action has set the planet on “course for 3.2 °C of warming” by 2100, “with all the cascading and catastrophic consequences that this implies.”

The researchers, who hail from the United Kingdom’s Cardiff University and the University of Bristol, as well as Switzerland’s University of Lausanne, encouraged other climate scientists to participate in civil disobedience, such as “the bodily obstruction of investment banks enabling new fossil fuel exploration and the pasting without permission of scientific papers to government buildings.”

With the COP27 international climate talks just a couple months away, and with the world largely off track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the Nature article is the latest sign that a growing number of scientists—many of whom have dedicated years of their lives to understanding climate change and are leading experts in their fields—are rethinking their role as neutral information providers as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise to record highs. Back in April, around 1,000 scientists in more than 25 countries staged demonstrations to demand stronger climate action, including several researchers who were arrested for blocking traffic and locking themselves to bank entrances and the White House.

“Civil disobedience by scientists has the potential to cut through the myriad complexities and confusion surrounding the climate crisis,” the climate researchers wrote in Monday’s article. “Scientists have tried to sound the alarm through other means, but years of delay and obfuscation by decision-makers mean that severe consequences are already unfolding around the world, with little time remaining to avoid even more far-reaching and long-lasting harm.”

That message comes as much of the world experiences wildfires, drought, heat waves and flash flooding that scientists say are unprecedented in modern record-keeping, and which they expect to worsen dramatically in the coming decades if global emissions continue to rise at their current pace. Devastating and record-breaking heat waves, wildfires and floods this summer have killed dozens of people in the United States and thousands of people in Europe and Asia. 

In Pakistan alone, a “monster” monsoon season, which experts say was made worse by climate change, unleashed massive flooding that submerged a third of the country underwater, killed more than 1,136 people since June, including 386 children, and washed away entire neighborhoods and critical infrastructure to the tune of $10 billion in damage.

Such extreme weather has only galvanized climate activists, who point to the summer’s events as further evidence that the world’s leaders aren’t moving fast enough to transform the global economy from one that runs overwhelmingly on fossil fuels to one powered by solar, wind and other renewable sources. Because of that, many activists are increasingly turning to acts of civil disobedience out of a sense of desperation, saying they no longer trust their governments or the world’s financial institutions to take the climate crisis seriously. 

This summer alone, climate activists have blocked rush hour traffic, deflated the tires of SUVs, interrupted Congressional baseball games and Formula One races. Some have even glued themselves to famous works of art, including Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” and a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” to name a few. And in every case, the activists said their stunts were drawing attention to the lack of progress by their governments to reduce climate-warming emissions, while continuing to fund new fossil fuel projects.

“Many of our bodies in government are failing to act, businesses are failing to act. We are the last chance,” Just Stop Oil spokesperson Grahame Buss, whose advocacy group organized the Formula One protest and several of the actions where activists glued themselves to artwork, told me in an interview.  “Civil disobedience is our last hope.”

In fact, history has shown that civil disobedience is an effective tool in creating broader societal changes, from the Women’s Suffrage movement in England to the civil rights movement in the United States. More recently, the Indigenous rights and anti-pipeline movement, which garnered national attention amid the 2016 Standing Rock protests in North Dakota, helped bring the issues of tribal rights and the dangers of fossil fuel development to the forefront of mainstream public discourse. Many also credit that movement in influencing President Joe Biden’s choice to make Deb Haaland the first Native American to head the U.S. Department of the Interior—a powerful cabinet position with broad control over federal lands.

In the science community, however, participating in activism has generally been frowned upon, Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, a prominent U.S. environmental advocacy and research center, told me in an interview. Primarily, she said, scientists have traditionally viewed themselves as unbiased observers and reporters of truth and try to avoid taking sides in political fights.

But that has started to shift in recent years, Curry said, as more and more scientists see it as their duty to point out the hypocrisies of politicians when it comes to facts about climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, both of which have been highly politicized in recent years. President Donald Trump, for example, often contradicted scientific facts about both climate change and the pandemic during his term in office, she said, making it difficult for experts to stay neutral.

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, agrees. In April, Kalmus was arrested for locking himself to the front door of a JPMorgan Chase bank branch and has since urged other scientists to join him in protest, saying it’s their duty as experts to convey the weight of their findings  to the public and convince elected officials to take proper recourse.

“For the sake of our children, for the sake of the future of humanity,” Kalmus said, “you have a responsibility to do everything you can to get that information out there.”

Kalmus told me that he’s “disappointed” that, so far, fewer scientists than he had hoped have joined in his call to action, but he sees Monday’s article as a positive sign and believes more researchers will join the movement—especially as extreme weather and other consequences of global warming accelerate in scope and severity.

“Scientists know that all the impacts of global heating are going to get worse and worse,” he said. “So, we have to be the adults in the room because no one’s coming to save us. I think scientists will get out there and engage in civil disobedience sooner or later. I just really hope it’s sooner.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

$5.6 trillion

That’s how much money the global economy is expected to lose by 2050 because of worsening droughts, storms and torrential rain, all exacerbated by climate change, a new report by Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters warned.

Traffic moves along Interstate 80 on February 16, 2022 in Berkeley, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Traffic moves along Interstate 80 on February 16, 2022 in Berkeley, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California will phase out the sale of new gasoline cars by 2035 under a stringent new rule adopted by state regulators Thursday. The policy marks a historic moment for the Golden State and the nation, with potential global implications for the fight to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which experts have long said are some of the hardest to address.

The new rule, which is the first of its kind in the United States and is the strictest among just a handful of similar bans around the world, will be implemented in phases. It requires 35 percent of the available passenger vehicle models offered by auto retailers in the state to be electric or hydrogen gas-powered by 2026, with that proportion increasing to 51 percent by 2028, 68 percent by 2030 and ultimately to 100 percent by 2035. The plan also outlines a goal of having all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles be zero-emission by 2045.

“This is monumental,” Daniel Sperling of the California Air Resources Board, the regulatory body that approved Thursday’s measure, told CNN. “This is the most important thing that CARB has done in the last 30 years. It’s important not just for California, but it’s important for the country and the world.”

That’s a sentiment being shared among many environmentalists and climate activists. Not only is the policy expected to reduce California’s tailpipe emissions by as much as half through 2040, with many other states likely to follow suit, but it tackles a source of emissions that policymakers have especially struggled to grapple with for decades.

Transportation is the leading single-sector source of greenhouse gas emissions in much of the world. It makes up 21 percent of global carbon emissions, 29 percent of U.S. emissions and a whopping 50 percent of California’s emissions. Those numbers have made transportation a top priority for many climate-conscious policymakers, but the sector has remained notoriously difficult to manage for a number of reasons.

One issue is that compared to other major emitting sectors, transportation is made up of an especially diverse body of emission sources. In the power sector, for example, states have made substantial progress reducing emissions by focusing on a few major regional producers and forcing them to limit their carbon footprint through clean energy mandates, cap-and-trade initiatives and targeted investments. Targeting coal plants is a prime example of how the U.S. has been able to drastically reduce the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, despite the nation’s growing demand for electricity over the years.

But experts have noted that officials have fewer options and far more to consider when it comes to tackling transportation, which is largely made up of a menagerie of different consumer, commercial and government vehicles, all with different carbon footprints and operated by people with different needs, behaviors and desires. The majority of the sector’s emissions, about 59 percent, come from cars and other passenger vehicles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, while airplanes, ships, trains and other sources account for 18 percent.

The result has been a kind of diaspora of solutions—a mixed bag of approaches with no central scheme to figuratively call home—that impact different people and industries inconsistently, often complicating the consensus process and slowing down progress. So while many governments, including California and the Biden administration, have made progress on implementing new rules to shift public vehicles to low-emission or zero carbon vehicles, the process has been far more difficult when it comes to the more diverse private sector. For example, automakers based out of state or located overseas are often outside the jurisdiction of governments—another major difference between transportation and the power sector, which has far more federal oversight.

Transportation is also deeply engraved in culture and the demand for it is closely tied to economic growth, personal status and a sense of entitlement to the status quo, Christian Brand, an associate professor of transportation, energy and environmental studies at the University of Oxford, said in a recent opinion essay.

“Many people are reluctant to give up their car or flying, feeling that it is an infringement of their rights,” Brand wrote in the op-ed. “Efforts to decarbonise transport are being hindered by a cultural attachment to the polluting status quo, which isn’t as present in other sectors.”

Those factors help explain why U.S. power sector emissions have fallen while transportation emissions continue to rise. Between 2005 and 2017, the nation’s power sector emissions fell 28 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Tailpipe emissions, on the other hand, rose from 2012 to 2018, says the EPA, with transportation emissions surpassing that of the power sector for the first time in 2016.

California’s new regulation helps to address many of those issues. It groups all future passenger vehicles together under one banner, albeit medium- and heavy-duty trucks come at a later date. It passed with broad support from the auto manufacturing industry, given major companies have had ample time to prepare for it and public opinion had already swayed most of the major automakers. And the way the ban is being implemented helps to ease consumers into the new reality without necessarily making it appear like it’s being forced on them.

California’s policy doesn’t outright ban all gasoline cars, it just limits how many new ones can be sold by retailers by certain dates. Even after 2035, when all new sales must be carbon free, people can keep their existing gasoline cars or buy used ones, and 20 percent of sales can be plug-in hybrids that run on batteries and gas.

Furthermore, because transportation plays such an outsized role in polluting low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, California’s new rule also has broad support from the environmental justice community and health officials, although some activists say they believe the rule should have gone further. Most transportation hubs and major highways cut through or near some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities, disproportionately exposing them to air pollution and exacerbating health conditions like lung disease, asthma and the risk of premature death.

California officials have also promised to find ways, including taking full advantage of federal money available in the Inflation Reduction Act, to make electric vehicles more affordable for low-income buyers. While EVs are believed to save consumers money in the long run because of lower cost for maintenance and fuel, they still cost far more upfront than their gasoline counterparts, on average.

Liza Gross, who covers agriculture and other environmental and social justice issues in California for Inside Climate News, said the new rule will likely have a rippling effect throughout the country. The Golden State has long been considered a bellwether when it comes to environmental, climate and other regulatory policies—especially regarding auto emissions standards and air pollution.

With more than 39 million residents and 10 percent of the U.S. auto market, California is by far the most populous state and often influences the U.S. market and national politics in outsized ways. Congress even granted California special authority decades ago to set its own vehicle emissions standards that are stricter than the federal ones, a move that has since been adopted by more than a dozen other states.

“That’s what happened when California passed a new rule saying furniture could meet fire safety standards without adding toxic flame retardant chemicals,” Gross told me. “The rule effectively created a national market for chemical-free furniture. I could imagine the gasoline ban doing the same thing for cars.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

$226 billion

That’s how much money was invested in renewable energy worldwide during the first half of the year, setting an all-time global record with an 11 percent rise over the same time period last year, according to new data from BloombergNEF.

In this aerial view from a drone the melting Briksdal glacier lies above rocks it ground smooth and once covered in ice next to a lake created by meltwater on August 11, 2020 near Olden, Norway. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
In this aerial view from a drone the melting Briksdal glacier lies above rocks it ground smooth and once covered in ice next to a lake created by meltwater on August 11, 2020 near Olden, Norway. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

To the average consumer of news, the petition’s message might seem reasonable—a healthy dose of skepticism in a debate that affects everyone.

“Computer models are human-made,” the petition begins. “This is precisely the problem of today’s climate discussion to which climate models are central. Climate science has degenerated into a discussion based on beliefs, not on sound self-critical science.”

Dubbed the World Climate Declaration and allegedly signed by “over 1,100 scientists and professionals,” the petition appears to show a faction of the science community that—concerned the debate surrounding climate change has strayed from empirical evidence and become too political—is courageously breaking from dangerous groupthink to declare that “there is,” in fact, “no climate emergency.”

The declaration, whose top signatory is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Ivar Giaever, was shared tens of thousands of times late last week and through the weekend on social media, including by Alex Antic, a senator for Australia’s Liberal Party, who said in a Thursday post that the declaration “dealt a further blow” to the “green zealots in academia” who claim the science of global warming is mostly a settled matter. His post received more than 8,000 likes and was shared nearly 3,000 times as of this week.

But despite its measured tone and its list of supporters with impressive-sounding titles like professor or doctor, the declaration isn’t what it appears to be, several career climatologists and disinformation experts told Inside Climate News. 

Rather, they said, the post seems to be the latest iteration of a broader disinformation campaign that for decades has peddled a series of arguments long discredited by the scientific community at large. Furthermore, the experts told me, the vast majority of the declaration’s signatories have no experience in climate science at all, and the group behind the message—the Climate Intelligence Foundation, or CLINTEL—has well-documented ties to oil money and fossil fuel interest groups. 

“Looking at the list of signatories, there are a lot of engineers, medical doctors, and petroleum geologists and almost no actual climate scientists,” said Zeke Hausfather, a longtime research scientist at Berkeley Earth, a non-partisan nonprofit that specializes in analyzing climate data, and the former director of climate and energy programs at the Breakthrough Institute, another independent environmental research firm.

In fact, Ivar Giaever, who has been promoted as a kind of poster child for the declaration in what some believe is meant to give it credibility, won his Nobel with another scientist in 1973 for their discovery of electron tunneling in superconductors, not for anything remotely related to the study of global warming. Other signatories of the petition, as noted by climate journalist Dave Vetter, included at least eight current or former employees of oil giant Shell.

Hausfather, on the other hand, has spent at least a decade of his career analyzing the benefits and limitations of climate models, which use computer simulations of the Earth to predict how rising carbon dioxide levels will affect global temperatures and the environment. In 2019, he led a team of researchers who published a peer-reviewed study in the science journal Geophysical Research Letters that found most of the climate models being used to predict Earth’s average surface temperature between 1970 and 2017 have been impressively accurate.

Of the 17 climate models the team studied, including several developed by NASA, 10 predicted outcomes that were consistent with real world observations. In other words, even the most rudimentary models created in the early ‘70s tracked closely with real-life temperature readings spanning nearly 40 years.

“There are millions of scientists worldwide, so I’m not sure getting 1,000 people to sign a petition is particularly meaningful,” Hausfather said, “particularly when balanced against the massive scientific agreement around climate change, including the national academies of science in pretty much every major country.”

In fact, the term “massive” in this context could be considered an understatement. A 2013 study found that some 97 percent of peer-reviewed research on climate change was in agreement: rapid climate change is happening beyond what would be considered resulting from natural causes, and humans are largely responsible. And in 2021, another study, this one published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, analyzed 88,125 peer-reviewed studies on climate change and found that a jaw-dropping 99.9 percent of them came to the same conclusion as the 2013 study.

It’s important to note that the scientific process that governs climate science, and any other academic science, is founded in debate and skepticism, involving a “peer review” process in which experts in a field evaluate the research of their colleagues, attempt to recreate the results of their experiments and seek to poke holes in their methodologies. In that sense, not only have climate models been extensively evaluated over the decades, but “climate science is the most rigorously tested science of all history at this point,” said climate disinformation researcher Michael Khoo.

The World Climate Declaration doesn’t just attack climate modeling. It also rehashes several well-known “climate denial” tropes that have long been used in persuasion campaigns that were often traced back to the fossil fuel industry and other players who benefit from unfettered industrial development, said Brendan DeMelle, executive director of Desmog, an investigative climate research organization.

Those tropes include downplaying the role of humans in causing rapid climate change by suggesting natural causes are as much or more of a factor, sowing unfounded doubt in the sciences and implying researchers are pursuing nefarious motives, suggesting that increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere are actually a “good thing” because they help nurture the growth of plants, claiming that global warming doesn’t actually impact the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and suggesting that addressing climate change is incompatible with economic stability.

DeMelle, who has been investigating CLINTEL since it was founded in 2019 by retired professor of geophysics Guus Berkhout and journalist Marcel Crok, said the group has circulated identical petitions almost every year. What he’s uncovered so far is that CLINTEL, and its co-founder Berkhout, have strong political, professional and financial connections to the fossil fuel industry and influential right-wing and libertarian think tanks, many of which are known for working tirelessly over the years to thwart climate action. Those include organizations like the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute, both of which are funded by Koch Industry money and promote unobstructed free market ideals, including unfettered fossil fuel development.

What makes last week’s campaign different, DeMelle said, is that it appears to be coasting on momentum built in recent years over opposition to government restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. As governments implemented lockdowns and other science-based strategies to slow infection and death rates, many of the same groups that see climate action as a threat to their bottom line viewed pandemic restrictions in a similar light, he said. 

The same groups and public figures that spread narratives of government overreach and accused scientists of being politically motivated during the lockdowns are now “exploiting the pandemic to attack climate science from a new angle,” DeMelle told me.

In fact, the Trump administration was highly influential in helping to turn both the pandemic and climate change into top culture war issues in the U.S. Shortly after President Trump took office in 2017, his administration quickly began spreading many of the same “climate denial” tropes that CLINTEL highlights in its declaration, as ICN’s political reporter Marianne Lavelle noted back in 2017.

But with President Biden signing the Inflation Reduction Act into law last week, signaling a historic shift in the direction of U.S. energy and environmental policies, DeMelle believes even more disinformation campaigns like CLINTEL’s are likely to crop up “out of desperation,” which could further exacerbate the nation’s already palpable political tensions.

Research published earlier this summer showed that disinformation about climate change has continued to thrive online, even as social media companies promise to crack down on the matter. Many of the posts promoting false or misleading information are framing the issue of climate change through the lens of Western culture wars, the analysis found.

For Michael Mann, whose own modeling work made landmark contributions to climate science, and who has been debunking the claims made in CLINTEL’s petition last week since at least 2012, engaging in those arguments now seems to him like a waste of time. And websites like skepticalscience.com have made it easier than ever to fact check such claims in real time, he said.

“It’s irrelevant to the actual conversation that is taking place today about the climate crisis,” Mann told me in an email. “Republicans might try to prop up this latest desperate gambit. But the conversation has moved on, and this is really just a distraction and a sideshow.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

2.5 percent

That’s how much the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions rose during the first half of 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, signaling rising demand for natural gas and travel, and underscoring the ongoing challenge for the Biden administration to fulfill its climate pledges.

American Electric Power's Mountaineer coal power plant opened a carbon capture unit (center right), alongside the plant's cooling tower and stacks in 2009. The project was shut down in 2011 due to financial reasons. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
American Electric Power's Mountaineer coal power plant opened a carbon capture unit (center right), alongside the plant's cooling tower and stacks in 2009. The project was shut down in 2011 due to financial reasons. Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The federal government released its first official analysis of the Inflation Reduction Act on Thursday, projecting that the new law will help the United States slash emissions roughly 40 percent below 2005 levels over the next eight years. It’s at least the fourth analysis to come to such a conclusion, which many experts say is a good sign those estimates could be more accurate than not.

The legislation, which dedicates roughly $370 billion to addressing climate change and was signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this week, marks the most substantial federal investment into reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. That money will be used for tax credits, rebates and other financial incentives to rapidly boost the nation’s development and adoption of clean energy, electric vehicles and other strategies to address global warming.

But major questions remain over the models’ calculations, particularly when it comes to their assumptions about the outsized role carbon capture and storage technologies—or CCS—will play in the coming years. At least two of those models attribute between 10 and 20 percent of the additional emissions reductions they project through 2030 to the rapid scaling up and implementation of those technologies, according to a review of models’ data by Inside Climate News.

In other words, at least 100 million metric tons—and potentially as much as 200 million metric tons—of carbon dioxide are expected to be removed from the operations of power plants and industrial facilities by the end of the decade, according to two separate analyses conducted by Princeton University and the think tank Rhodium Group. The Princeton analysis predicts 20 percent of the nation’s emissions reductions through 2030 will come from carbon capture technologies. Rhodium attributes about 10 percent to those efforts. The new federal analysis doesn’t publicly break down its calculations, but alludes to some of its projections coming from carbon capture and removal technologies.

“We cannot overemphasize the transformative effect that the Inflation Reduction Act will have on the deployment of carbon capture technologies,” Matt Bright, carbon capture policy manager at the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group that’s supportive of the technology, said in a statement.

Given that the technologies are widely criticized for being inefficient, expensive and especially difficult to scale, however, the emissions reductions attributed to CCS could signify a notable flaw in the models’ projections and undercut the accuracy of their findings. Some critics also worry implementing the technologies could cost far more than the few billion dollars the federal government estimates it will spend on them through 2031.

Attempts to scale up and prove the viability of carbon capture and storage technologies have so far proven problematic at best. CCS aims to capture CO2 emitted by power plants and other industrial facilities before it reaches the atmosphere and then store those emissions underground.

Both the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed last year, put a substantial amount of federal dollars into the development of those technologies, which have gained broad political support in recent years. But the technologies remain highly controversial among environmental activists, some of whom say they’re a waste of time and money that could go toward more proven climate solutions, such as renewable energy. They also argue that technologies like CCS incentivize fossil fuel companies to continue producing and refining their planet-warming products, with the promise of capturing the emissions later, rather than more quickly transitioning to cleaner energy sources.

It’s a point that Charles Harvey and Kurt House, who helped establish one of the nation’s first privately-funded CCS companies in 2008, reiterated in an opinion essay published in the New York Times on Tuesday, shortly after President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law.

Any public investment in those technologies is “a counterproductive waste of money,” the two wrote in the op-ed, pointing to more than a dozen CCS projects in the U.S. that aimed to scale up the technology and prove its financial viability but eventually failed due to prohibitive costs—despite receiving billions of dollars in federal subsidies.

Those projects include the Kemper Power Project in Mississippi, which spent $7.5 billion to build and equip a coal plant with CCS technology before shutting down in 2017, the FutureGen project in Illinois, which spent $1.65 billion on a similar coal plant project and shut down in 2015, and the Clean Energy CCS project in Texas and Hydrogen Energy CCS project in California, which together allocated over $500 million in funding before they both shut down in 2016.

Even the Petra Nova project, which was “the only recent commercial-scale power project to inject carbon dioxide underground in the United States,” Harvey and House said, “shut down in 2020 despite hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits.”

“The list goes on,” they added, “with at least 15 projects burning billions of dollars of public money without sequestering any meaningful amount of carbon dioxide.”

The article was one of the most scathing critiques of the technologies to date, coming from an industry insider and a civil engineer, both of whom spent at least six years studying and attempting to implement CCS through their own private energy company, C12 Energy, before it too went out of business in 2015.

Many analysts say that the federal investments from the spending bill could be enough to make CCS operations profitable, and policy experts have said that some level of carbon capture is needed to cut emissions from manufacturing cement and steel and other high-carbon industries, said Nicholas Kusnetz, who covers the oil and gas industry for Inside Climate News and has been closely tracking the burgeoning technologies. Taken together, Kusnetz said, it’s likely that some carbon capture projects that might not have moved forward without the expanded tax credits will now get the green light.

It’s important to note that the tax credit that was expanded by the new climate bill will be available only to operations that are actually capturing and storing carbon dioxide. So unlike with the efforts cited by Harvey and House, projects will only be eligible to receive taxpayer money if they’re successful.

Still, even with the boost from federal funding, Kusnetz added, big challenges remain for companies hoping to successfully pursue carbon capture and storage this decade. That includes securing rights to the land where companies hope to store the carbon, obtaining permits to build pipelines that will transport the carbon, as well as inject it underground—and handling all of that while navigating new regulations and a skeptical public.

Ultimately, Kusnetz told me, nobody knows what is going to happen, or the degree to which carbon capture and removal might finally take off. “There are still real hurdles to deploying the technology,” he said. “Pretty much every carbon capture project so far has either struggled to meet the goals the companies set for them, or has just failed to get built.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report.

Today’s Indicator

$3.3 billion

That’s how much just one pipeline project, which would transport carbon dioxide captured by ethanol production plants across six states and inject it underground, could receive in federal tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act, highlighting how much the ethanol industry stands to gain from the new law.

Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farms, looks out at a sprinkler being used to irrigate his crops in Sudbury, Massachusetts, July 26, 2016. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Chris Kurth, owner of Siena Farms, looks out at a sprinkler being used to irrigate his crops in Sudbury, Massachusetts, July 26, 2016. Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A “flash drought” touching much of the Northeast, including every state in New England, has continued to intensify this summer, federal forecasters warned last week. The situation is prompting officials to issue fresh warnings of possible wildfires and even implement new water restrictions, with some experts worried the unusual dry spell could signal an emerging pattern in the region—far from the historic megadrought that has plagued the American West for the past two decades.

On Thursday, federal forecasters with the U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded large sections of eastern Massachusetts and southeast Rhode Island from “severe” to “extreme” drought, the second-most severe rating given by the agency. Drought conditions also expanded into parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, including in New York City, where parts of Brooklyn are now seeing “severe” levels of drought for the first time in 20 years.

Last week, Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee issued a statewide drought advisory, asking residents to voluntarily dial back their water use. Several Massachusetts towns have also begun to enforce mandatory water restrictions, telling residents to “immediately cease using unnecessary water,” such as filling up pools. And this week, state officials in Connecticut, along with the National Weather Service, issued fresh warnings over potential wildfires, saying the threat of an outbreak in parts of the state were now “extreme.”

While the Northeast has experienced such droughts before, experts say the recent spate of summer dry spells has been unusual because of its frequency, speed and severity—a likely sign that climate change is exacerbating the situation. Several states in the area have experienced some degree of severe drought every summer since 2016, causing some experts to worry the streak foreshadows an emerging pattern for a region that many have considered relatively insulated from the threats of global warming.

“We hope this is maybe one period of peaking of drought and we get back to many more years of normal precipitation,” Vandana Rao, director of water policy in Massachusetts, told The Associated Press. “But it could just be the beginning of a longer trend.”

In fact, more than half of the United States was facing some level of drought this month, after an especially dry and hot July, the U.S. Drought Monitor said in another recent update. Record-breaking heat this summer, spanning the nation’s coasts—and mirroring similar extreme weather in Europe and Asia—contributed to a “flash drought” developing in parts of the Midwest, South and Northeast, including in states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Massachusetts.

Flash droughts are defined by the rapid onset or intensification of dry conditions, often in a matter of days, that are largely due to bouts of extreme heat, low precipitation and high winds. The areas now in “extreme drought” have received about half of the rainfall that they normally would over the last six months, federal officials said. That’s about 9 to 11 inches less than normal.

Some cities saw even less rain. Federal officials say that Providence, Rhode Island, had less than half an inch of rainfall in July, making it the city’s third driest on record. Similarly, Boston had six-tenths of an inch that month, making it the fourth driest on record. And while parts of the Northeast have seen short bursts of heavy rainfall this summer, such quick downpours tend to run off rather than properly saturate the soil, therefore offering little relief.

That rapid acceleration makes flash droughts especially threatening to industries like farming. Federal officials warn that flash droughts can quickly cause extensive damage to agriculture, ecosystems and economies. Many farmers in Northeastern states are now scrambling to prepare for potentially worse months ahead. In Massachusetts, where the entire state is now officially considered in drought, farmers are already reporting crop losses.

Such losses are only compounding an already tough market for farmers, who have dealt with a year of skyrocketing inflation and a summer of erratic, record-breaking weather nationwide. On Monday, federal forecasters warned of yet another summer heat wave expected to impact much of the country this week, prompting heat advisories in Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some cities along the West Coast and in the South are expected to hit oppressive temperatures nearing 110 degrees Fahrenheit by Wednesday. Many of those states are also under heightened warnings for flash floods this week.

Parts of the Northeast and the Gulf Coast could see much needed rain this week, too, forecasters said Monday. But many also noted that it’s unlikely that precipitation will be enough to break or even alleviate drought conditions.

Scientists worry that without far more intervention—including more quickly moving the economy away from the burning of fossil fuels—much of the United States will continue to face increasingly unwieldy weather conditions in the coming decades. By 2053, around 107 million Americans can expect to see temperatures above 125 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest stretches of the year, more than 10 times the number expected currently, according to a study published Monday.

Consecutive days of extreme heat will occur most frequently on the West Coast, the study’s authors wrote, but “states in the Midwest, Southeast, and East Coast are most at risk of exposure to extremely dangerous temperatures, meaning virtually the entire country is subject to increasing perils associated with heat exposure.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

$297.5 billion

That’s how much China spent on transitioning its economy to renewable energy sources last year alone, showing how the U.S.—even with its new $370 billion climate package—continues to lag other major economies when it comes to green spending, according to a new Bloomberg analysis.

A bolt of lightning strikes next to lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in New York City during a thunderstorm on Aug. 27, 2020 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. Credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
A bolt of lightning strikes next to lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in New York City during a thunderstorm on Aug. 27, 2020 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. Credit: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Correction: A previous version of this newsletter cited incorrect average warming data. The planet has warmed about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times.

It was a bizarre and tragic scene last week when four strangers, huddling under a tree just outside the White House to take shelter from the rain, were struck by lightning. That even one of the four survived the ordeal, doctors said was an “absolute miracle.”

Being struck by lightning happens so rarely that experts say out of the roughly 25 million lightning strikes that occur across the United States each year, only 3,000 strike people, with just 20 of those victims on average dying as a result. But those odds could be changing, researchers say, as global warming makes storms and the likelihood they’ll produce lightning more common—a message scientists reiterated in the wake of last week’s deadly strike in the nation’s capital.

Climate change is making the air warmer, which allows it to hold more moisture, and both of those factors can boost the chance of thunderstorms. One major study from 2014 estimated that, if warming continues at its current pace, the number of lightning strikes in the U.S. could increase by as much as 50 percent by the end of the century, with each additional 1 degree Celsius of warming generating about 12 percent more strikes. 

Still, scientists and government officials are less concerned with lightning striking people than they are with it striking dry vegetation and igniting wildfires. Besides making the lightning itself more likely, global warming is also exacerbating drought conditions in places like the American West, where dried out grass and trees now act as the perfect kindling, and where lightning strikes play an outsized role in sparking blazes.

Between 1992 and 2015, more than 40 percent of the wildfires in the West were caused by lightning, according to the U.S. Forest Service. And in 2020, California experienced a remarkable barrage of 15,000 lightning strikes over just a few days, igniting more than 600 fires that burned more than 2 million acres and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.

In fact, a study published Monday by Washington State University researchers found that so-called “dry lightning,” when lightning occurs alongside less than 2.5 millimeters of rainfall, is now a leading cause of some of the biggest wildfire flare-ups in California’s history. This intersection of dry conditions and lightning is becoming more common with climate change, the researchers warned. It’s also the cause of at least eight active wildfires in Northern California today, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“Wildfires are a growing threat in California as the climate continues to warm,” Dmitri Kalashnikov, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at Washington State University’s School of the Environment, said in a press release. “Unlike human-caused fires that originate in a single location, lightning outbreaks can strike multiple locations and start numerous simultaneous wildfires, creating a substantial challenge for fire response.”

It’s a scenario that’s also playing out in the quickly warming Arctic, where wildfires threaten to disrupt the region’s delicate ecosystem and trigger dangerous climate feedback loops that could spiral warming out of control. In Alaska, lightning activity has increased 17 percent since the 1980s, one 2020 study found. And ICN’s Bob Berwyn wrote about another study, published last year, that found that lightning strikes in the whole Arctic region could increase by as much as 40 percent for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit of warming. For perspective, the planet has warmed about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times.

Those findings are particularly concerning, considering that the Arctic is already warming four times faster than the rest of the world and because of the role the region plays in regulating the Earth’s weather and climate. For one, think of all that snow and ice that reflects the sun’s heat back into space.

As snow and ice melt, more heat is absorbed by the planet rather than reflected away, warming it even more in a process known as “Arctic amplification.” And as wildfires release carbon dioxide and soot into the atmosphere, they are further exacerbating climate change. The rising temperatures melt vast stretches of permafrost, unearthing caches of methane gas and other potent climate-warming gases that have remained trapped in ice, in some cases, for hundreds of thousands of years. The warming fosters even more warming in a self-perpetuating cycle.

“It’s a really vulnerable environment in the Arctic,” Antti Lipponen, a scientist with the Finnish Meteorological Institute whose latest study found the region was warming faster than previously believed, told The Washington Post this week. “And seeing these numbers, it’s worrying.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

600

As of Thursday, that’s about how many flights airlines have canceled because of thunderstorms hovering over Texas, disrupting operations at one of the busiest airports in the country for a second straight day. Scientists say climate change is making such storms more common.

A photo taken on June 6, 2013 shows a general view of French oil giant Total's Texan plant in Port Arthur. Credit: Marc Preel/AFP via Getty Images
A photo taken on June 6, 2013 shows a general view of French oil giant Total's Texan plant in Port Arthur. Credit: Marc Preel/AFP via Getty Images

Senate Democrats could be “overcounting” the funding for environmental justice provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act and misrepresenting the bill’s benefits for low-income families, communities of color and other historically disadvantaged Americans, according to a coalition of climate and environmental justice advocacy groups that is analyzing the 725-page spending package.

Despite the general disapproval from environmentalists over the bill’s provisions that benefit the fossil fuel industry that were included in the final measure passed by the Senate over the weekend, however, the House is expected to approve the bill with little or no alteration sometime this week.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other party leaders have billed their spending package as a necessary compromise that would ensure the United States can keep its promises to tackle climate change and elevate environmental justice. The draft legislation dedicates nearly $370 billion to address rising greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effects of global warming, including more than $60 billion for projects that in some way advance environmental justice and reduce the nation’s long standing environmental and health disparities.

But a preliminary analysis by the Just Solutions Collective, a nonpartisan think tank that promotes equitable climate policies and acts as a coalition hub for environmental justice groups nationwide, has found just $47.5 billion in the bill that it considers beneficial for low-income families and communities of color.

In some cases, the group says, Senate Democrats appear to be counting the total spending for certain programs where only part of that funding is dedicated to helping disadvantaged communities. For example, all $27 billion for a national green bank appears to be counted, while only $15 billion of that funding pool is dedicated to benefiting disadvantaged communities, according to the analysis. Similarly, all $3 billion for neighborhood access and equity grants appears to be counted, while only $1.1 is earmarked for disadvantaged communities. Same with the $87 million for the low-emissions electricity program, where just $17 million of that goes to those communities. As well as all $281 million for air pollution monitoring, where only $3 million goes to those groups.

If her calculations prove accurate, Sylvia Chi, a senior strategist on federal policies and financing for Just Solutions Collective, said that’s a $12.5 billion shortfall in what proponents of the Inflation Reduction Act say would benefit the nation’s most vulnerable populations. That’s a significant discrepancy, Chi told me in an interview, “especially when you consider what they cut out of Build Back Better, including $9 billion for lead remediation.”

Schumer’s office did not respond to questions about Chi’s analysis. 

Chi said her dissection, which is ongoing, mostly includes funding that had explicit language carving out money for low-income or disadvantaged communities. But she didn’t include funding where those groups were said to be “prioritized” in a competitive grant process because of a lack of guarantees, she said. The analysis also included a handful of programs where such language wasn’t present but the funding would very likely benefit environmental justice groups. The $500 million included for boosting environmental reviews was one example, she said, as was the $3 billion earmarked to mitigate harmful impacts of ports and transportation hubs, which are disproportionately located near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

For many in the environmental justice movement, the report’s findings only reinforce their opposition to the historic climate and energy spending package, which includes significant provisions for the fossil fuel industry and funding for controversial technologies, such as carbon removal. Those provisions, which include opening up more federal land and waters to oil and gas drilling and a commitment from Democratic Senate leadership to streamline the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel pipelines, were included to win the approval of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

As the party’s most conservative Democrat, Manchin has blocked President Joe Biden’s climate agenda for more than a year, largely to protect the fossil fuel industry in West Virginia, where he has extensive coal holdings. 

Activists fear that, even though the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to bring about an overall net benefit when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, its fossil fuel provisions could worsen pollution in areas already saturated by heavy industry, resulting in increased rates of asthma, cancer, premature death and other health problems in those neighborhoods.

Research shows that low-income families and communities of color have benefited least from environmental regulations and are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution, which primarily comes from the burning of fossil fuels in buildings, power plants and vehicles. And for decades, environmental justice activists have said that any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure will further exacerbate those disparities—largely because historically racist housing and zoning practices have made it far more common for polluting industries to be located near environmental justice communities.

If passed as is, the Inflation Reduction Act creates an “existential threat for Gulf Coast communities like mine in Port Arthur, for Appalachia, and for the entire world,” John Beard, founder and CEO of the Port Arthur Community Action Network in Texas, said in a press release this week. “Compromise is about who’s getting what and who’s going to give up what. And what are we getting out of it when you expand fossil fuels: you’re putting us in peril.” 

Port Arthur, where a third of the population is Black, has long been home to a disproportionately high number of industrial polluters—including the largest oil refinery in the country—in relation to its population. Activists say it could also be one of the locations where developers choose to expand fossil fuel infrastructure with help from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Still, the bill has been widely accepted by the environmental community, including some of the nation’s most influential climate hawks, who see it as the best chance of passing national climate legislation during President Biden’s first term and ahead of a midterm election where Democrats could lose their narrow majorities in one or both chambers of Congress. That view is supported by at least three independent analyses of the bill’s climate provisions, which all found that the legislation could cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions some 40 percent by 2030—within striking distance of President Joe Biden’s pledge to cut emissions in half.

The result has been a mixed bag of excitement and disappointment within the climate movement. In a tweet over the weekend, Varshini Prakash, a prominent environmental and social justice activist who co-founded the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said: “This isn’t the bill my generation deserves but it is the one we can get. It must pass to give us a fighting chance at a livable world.”

With Manchin still holding much of the power in what ultimately gets passed by Congress, many environmental justice activists have also resigned to the fact that they may not have the power to stop the legislation from moving forward.

“There’s a very slim chance of anything changing in the bill as it goes to the House,” Adrien Salazar, policy director for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, told me in an interview. “I think we’re at the point of recognizing that some of the writing’s on the wall.”

Instead, Salazar said, groups are now beginning to focus their energy on how they can mitigate any potentially harmful outcomes from the bill after it passes, such as organizing around stopping future oil and gas lease sales and keeping up pressure to halt any fossil fuel infrastructure development in their neighborhoods. Activists also want to make sure they’re at the table when Democrats begin finalizing their deal with Manchin over reforming the federal permitting process for energy projects, he said.

Manchin has said federal permitting for pipelines and other fossil fuel development has been too cumbersome and needs to be streamlined. Salazar said much of their groups’ focus will now be on making sure that doesn’t happen, while also looking for opportunities to boost renewable energy development in the deal.

“We know this is a handshake deal between Manchin and Schumer,” Salazar said. “And so we think that there’s still an opening, even if it’s narrow and even if it’s going to be another uphill battle, to try to stop this deal.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

70 percent

That’s how many electric-vehicle models wouldn’t qualify for a $7,500 tax credit for U.S. buyers under the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, according to a statement from some of the world’s largest automakers, including General Motors, Toyota and Ford.

PARADISE, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Michael John Ramirez hugs his wife Charlie Ramirez after they manage to recover her keepsake bracelet that didn't melt in the fire and held a sentimental value as they recover items from their fire safe in the rubble of their destroyed home, after the Camp fire razed through Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2018. (Photo by Marcus Yam /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

From hurricanes to flash floods, to increasingly destructive wildfires, climate-driven natural disasters are forcing more Americans out of their homes and triggering waves of relocations as some regions of the country become too burdensome or dangerous for many people to continue living in them. 

Known as climate migration, it’s a situation that scientists have been sounding an alarm on for years. Yet a growing body of evidence, including another summer marred by deadly extreme weather, suggests that the United States is still not prepared to handle it.

For the Holden family, who narrowly escaped one of the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California’s history, rebuilding in their hometown of Paradise simply proved too difficult. The 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed 19,000 structures in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, took nearly everything from the family of seven and reduced their home to a “pile of ash and the chimney.”

After several months of living in a trailer, drinking rainwater, trucking in water when drought conditions worsened, relying on mobile hotspots for internet access and dealing with their children being “filthy constantly” from ash, the Holdens decided to leave California altogether and move to Vermont. At least there, they told The Associated Press, the impacts of climate change aren’t being felt as dramatically.

“When you are left with nothing, you start thinking I don’t want to go through anything like this again,” the family’s mother, Ellie Holden, told the AP. “I don’t want a tornado. I don’t want a hurricane. I don’t want a flood. I don’t want a fire.”

Thousands of other Paradise residents made the same choice to leave and live elsewhere. Similarly, a 2020 wildfire in Oregon drove another family to relocate across the country, as well. And along the Gulf Coast, in states like Louisiana and Texas, hundreds to thousands of families have moved further inland in recent decades in reaction to worsening storms, flooding and rising sea levels. Climate change is even forcing some communities in the frozen Tundra of Alaska to leave their homes, as thawing permafrost and erosion has increased flooding risk and caused the land around their homes to crumble and sink.

Scientists have long warned that climate change would become a key driver in migration patterns in the coming decades—especially for poorer nations that are far more vulnerable to the impacts of global warming and have fewer resources to adapt. But as more stories like that of the Holden family emerge, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even wealthy nations like the United States aren’t properly prepared to handle the demographic shifts already playing out in their own backyards, largely because of climate change.

The federal government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment warned that more than 13 million people across the country may need to move by the end of the century due to sea level rise alone. On top of that, the toll of climate-driven disasters on the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, 20 “billion-dollar” natural disasters in the U.S. inflicted an estimated $145 billion in damage and killed nearly 700 people—the most disaster-related fatalities in the contiguous U.S. since 2011 and more than double the number seen in 2020.

“They are not slowing down,” Adam Smith, the U.S. government’s lead scientist for analyzing billion-dollar disasters, told The Washington Post. “The frequency and the cost of U.S. weather and climate disasters is increasing.”

The U.S. has seen an annual average of 7.7 disasters that cause at least $1 billion in damage over the past four decades, Smith added, but in the last five years alone that average has leaped to 18 events every year—with 2020 and 2021 seeing the highest number of billion-dollar climate disasters on record, at 22 and 20, respectively.

And it’s not just the cost of rebuilding homes and replacing damaged and lost goods. Insuring homes is also getting increasingly expensive, to the point where some people are moving from areas simply because the built-in costs of owning homes there have become too burdensome. One report from an insurance analytics firm found that the overall premium that Americans paid for homeowners’ insurance rose by 8.4 percent between the third quarter of 2020 and the third quarter of 2021. Another report from a different analytics firm found that in 2020, nearly 40 percent of all insurance claims were for weather-related damage—the highest percentage since the company started recording weather-related insurance trends six years ago.

But despite those grim data points, and multiple calls from government staffers to more proactively and holistically address the issue, the U.S. is still largely unprepared for a likely surge in relocations in the coming decades, according to an investigation published this week by the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations.

That report found that there is little organized government assistance to prevent the loss of homes and lives before a disaster, nor is there a comprehensive focus on helping people escape untenable situations. Instead, the investigation says, those who are attempting to relocate due to losing their homes to fire or because of chronic damage from floods and storms must often cobble together aid from across different federal agencies, navigating complicated programs that were never designed with climate change in mind. As always, those most affected by the issue are low-income households and communities of color.

Complicating the situation further is the fact that more Americans continue to move to the areas of the country that are most at risk from climate change. It’s a trend that has been confirmed by both independent analyses and U.S. census data. That means that even as some residents leave their homes to seek haven from storms, fires and floods, they’re often being replaced by those coming from other states who will inevitably run into the same issues and likely require government assistance at some point—an endless money suck.

The federal government has long been aware of these issues, and the Biden administration has taken some steps to better prepare the country for “managed retreat,” the term officials use for assisting people to relocate away from areas as they become less habitable. Last October, the White House issued its first “Report on the Impact of Climate Change on Migration,” which delves into the issues and potential solutions regarding both migration from other countries and relocations within the U.S. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed last year also provides the Bureau of Indian Affairs with $130 million for “community relocation” and $86 million for “tribal climate resilience and adaptation projects.”

Additionally, existing federal and state-level programs are currently helping many families to relocate in the wake of disaster, though those processes can be difficult to navigate and are often not well known.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is also in the process of overhauling the government’s flood insurance program so that it factors in the impacts of climate change. Experts have long complained about the program’s outdated flood maps, just one factor contributing to the ongoing trend of people moving to flood-prone cities despite the risks.

Still, climate advocates say not nearly enough is being done to adapt. The administration’s climate migration report was received with general disappointment from the activist community, who said it fell flat on ambition. And experts and climate hawks are still urging the Biden administration to make a more concerted and comprehensive effort to handle the problem, including by designating one federal agency to coordinate relocation initiatives across all the different government programs.

It’s a call to action that could be seen all the more urgent as the U.S. continues its summer of deadly and destructive disasters. That includes last week’s Kentucky floods that killed at least 37 people, the ongoing blazes in California that have claimed several lives and burned down yet another town this week and another wildfire in Montana that, as of Wednesday, had torched four homes to the ground and threatened to displace another 150 residents.

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

30 percent

That’s the percentage of Americans who listed worsening weather conditions, exacerbated by climate change, as a reason they moved this year, according to a survey of 2,000 people commissioned by Forbes Homes.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to reporters about his recent agreement with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, July 28, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The environmental justice movement is up in arms over key fossil fuel provisions included in the Democrats’ landmark climate and energy spending bill, foreshadowing potentially ugly fights in the days ahead as lawmakers race to secure what many now see as the party’s best chance to pass meaningful federal climate legislation during President Biden’s first term. While advocacy groups ramped up pressure on lawmakers Monday to strip those provisions, it’s unclear if their opposition will derail the bill, which depends almost entirely on maintaining the approval of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

The Inflation Reduction Act, a surprise deal struck last week by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Manchin, dedicates nearly $370 billion to climate and energy spending, representing an unprecedented federal investment in the fight against global warming. More than $60 billion of that total is earmarked for projects that in some way advance environmental justice and reduce the nation’s long standing environmental and health inequities.

Three separate analyses by think tanks and academic institutions estimate that the climate provisions of the bill could slash U.S. emissions in the ballpark of 40 percent by 2030—just short of President Biden’s goal of cutting them 50 to 52 percent in that time frame. Without the bill, analysts believe the U.S. would lower greenhouse gas emissions by just a quarter over the next 8 years.

And a breakdown of the bill’s environmental justice spending shows a broad scope of different programs that supporters say would greatly improve the lives and health outcomes of many of the nation’s disadvantaged communities. That includes $11 billion to revitalize the long-depleted Superfund cleanup program; $4.75 billion to help states reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in disadvantaged communities; over $3 billion for programs to improve and expand transportation access in low-income areas and reduce the negative impacts of transportation hubs; $1 billion to improve the climate resilience and electrification projects in public housing; and $1 billion to help federal agencies better implement the National Environmental Policy Act, a bedrock environmental law with major environmental justice implications.

But despite those potential benefits, many in the environmental justice community have come out against the bill in recent days, pointing to provisions in it that they say will harm the nation’s most vulnerable populations.

That’s because in order to get the support of Joe Manchin—the party’s most conservative member, who has made his fortune on fossil fuels and has been the biggest obstacle to President Biden’s environmental agenda—Democrats were forced to include several major concessions to the fossil fuel industry in the package.

Those concessions include opening up more federal land and waters to oil and gas drilling, ensuring fossil fuel and clean energy projects get equal access to public land auctions over the next decade, massive investments in controversial carbon removal technologies and clean hydrogen hubs and a commitment from Democratic Senate leadership to streamline the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects, including fossil fuel pipelines.

Those provisions would be detrimental to environmental justice communities, Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director at the environmental justice nonprofit UPROSE and board co-chair for the Climate Justice Alliance, told me in an interview. Namely, she said, they would encourage further development of pipelines, gas-fired power plants and other fossil fuel infrastructure, which is already disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

“You can’t give with one hand and take away with the other,” Yeampierre said. “While it is great that resources have been allocated for frontline communities, there’s also a lot in there that turns our communities into sacrifice zones.”

Research shows that low-income families and communities of color have benefited least from environmental regulations and are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution, which primarily comes from the burning of fossil fuels in buildings, power plants and vehicles. And for decades, environmental justice activists, including Yeampierre, have said any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure will further exacerbate those disparities—largely because historically racist housing and zoning practices have made it far more common for polluting industries to be located near environmental justice communities.

Activists are also criticizing the money going toward carbon removal technologies and hydrogen gas development, which they say has allowed polluting industries to continue expanding fossil fuel use on dubious promises to reduce their emissions with unproven technologies.

For Indigenous activists, who for years have been at the forefront of the fight against new fossil fuel pipelines, the Inflation Reduction Act would also bolster projects that they say infringe on their tribal rights, threaten to pollute their ancestral lands and even jeopardize their livelihoods.

As part of the deal with Manchin, Democrats also agreed to reform federal permitting for infrastructure in a way that streamlines the process and makes it easier for fossil fuel projects like pipelines to get approved. Manchin was also specifically given assurances that the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a nearly completed 303-mile natural gas pipeline that runs through Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, would get federal approval, according to several news reports.

That pipeline is entangled in numerous lawsuits from Indigenous and environmental justice groups, and for years its developers have struggled to obtain key permits, including a federal permit that would allow the pipeline to cross through the Jefferson National Forest.

If the Inflation Reduction Act gets signed into law, “this administration locks in the violence of the climate crisis and consequences to Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous nations and frontline communities for decades to come,” Tom BK Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network said in a press release.

Many activists also worry the total amount of funding in the package, currently proposed at a bit more than $60 billion, isn’t enough to tackle the whole-of-government approach the Biden administration has promised to take to reduce the nation’s long standing environmental and health inequities.

In Build Back Better, Democrats proposed around $160 billion that would in some way go toward projects that benefit environmental justice communities, said Lew Daly, deputy director of climate policy for the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank. That means the Inflation Reduction Act has shrunk that funding by roughly two-thirds, he said.

Daly also said that the environmental justice funding in the Inflation Reduction Act is out of line with the standards set by Justice40, Biden’s cornerstone environmental justice program, which directs 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of federal environmental and clean energy spending to go to “disadvantaged communities.” 

“So, if you just do the basic math, $60 billion out of $369 billion, which is the value of the total package, that’s 16 percent for disadvantaged communities,” he said. “That falls well short of the Justice40 standard of 40 percent.”

Still, it’s unclear if the environmental justice community’s objections to the bill will necessarily derail it. With midterm elections threatening the Democrat’s narrow Congressional majority, Democrats may see this as their last opportunity to pass meaningful climate legislation before potentially losing control of one or both chambers in November. That pressure was evident on Monday as lawmakers scrambled to shore up their ranks, with hopes of passing the bill before summer recess begins as early as next week.

For Yeampierre, the situation has left a “hard choice” for her and others working across the nation to build a more equitable society. That includes lawmakers like New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, she said, a key architect of the Inflation Reduction Act.

“I sympathize with Sen. Schumer, and I know that he is working diligently to look out for the most vulnerable communities,” she said. But “there’s something really profoundly unfair to ask us to choose between those two realities, to basically say we have to compromise lives” in order to pass this bill.

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

24 tons

That’s the amount of carbon emissions that the Inflation Reduction Act will prevent from going into the atmosphere for every ton of increased emissions caused by the bill’s “oil and gas provisions,” according to a new analysis by the progressive think tank Energy Innovation.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) speaks in a hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on July 19, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) speaks in a hearing at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on July 19, 2022 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

For 13 years, Reed Hundt has chased the idea of a national green bank, but to no avail. 

As CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital, a global incubator for green banks, Hundt has long believed in the green bank financial model of leveraging limited public resources to attract private investors for clean energy projects that governments have been reluctant or can’t afford to support by themselves.

He worked with lawmakers in Colorado, Maryland and Massachusetts to introduce bills to Congress and drum up support in financial circles. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to fund a green bank three separate times, in large part because of Hundt’s efforts, and President Biden included some $27 billion in his initial spending package last year for such a measure. But victory had eluded him, including when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin twice torpedoed Biden’s Build Back Better Act.

The green bank, you might say, was Hundt’s white whale.

So, this week, when Manchin surprised the nation by signing onto a landmark $370 billion climate and energy spending package just weeks after saying for at least the third time that he wouldn’t support such provisions, Hundt was floored to find the final deal included $27 billion for a national green bank.

“You could’ve knocked me over with a feather,” Hundt told me in an interview. “The language is the same, the numbers are the same, the concept is the same. And now we just have to wait and see if the Senate actually votes for it.”

Hundt’s efforts have helped to inspire green banks around the world, including 23 spread across 17 U.S. states. And another 25 states, including New Mexico and New Jersey, are in the process of forming their own. But a growing number of financial analysts and clean energy advocates, including Hundt, believe the implementation of a national green bank would be one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to accelerate climate investments in the U.S., making it a critical tool in keeping the country in line with the Paris Agreement.

Green banks could play an even bigger role in reducing the nation’s emissions, Hundt said, after the recent Supreme Court decision limiting the federal government’s ability to regulate carbon emissions in power plants and national climate regulations like a carbon tax have been taken off the table.

Green banks are similar to regular banks, except that they have more access to public funding since they’re seen by the governments that support them as providing a public service. They lend money for clean energy or energy-efficiency projects with an expected return on investment, leveraging a relatively small amount of public funds to make projects, like community solar arrays, more attractive to private investors looking to make a buck.

They can help develop local markets and supply chains, provide financial guidance to developers and help fill gaps in the market. Many green banks also prioritize vulnerable and low-income communities. Of the $27 billion included in the latest spending bill proposal, $8 billion will be used to target projects in low- to medium-income communities.

The model has proven successful in many countries, including the U.S. Before the United Kingdom government sold it in 2017, it used its green bank to fund much of its offshore wind boom. And Australia’s green bank, which is the largest in the world, has helped to scale up investment in energy efficiency installations, as well as wind, solar and hydrogen energy development.

In the U.S., green banks have on average generated $3.70 in private investments for every $1 the bank invested, according to a 2021 report from the American Green Bank Consortium and the Coalition for Green Capital. And since 2011, American green banks have generated $7 billion in clean energy investment, with nearly $1.7 billion in 2020 alone, the report said.

Hundt estimates that a federal green bank would be even more effective, spurring $10-100 in private capital for every dollar of public investment. “So we’re not talking about grants,” he said. “We’re talking about profitable investment, creating investment value for the consumer, value for the investors. That’s a really important point.”

One area where a national green bank could make a huge difference, Hundt said, is by rapidly scaling up the installation of heat pumps in the U.S., where commercial and residential buildings make up 13 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions. 

Globally, using heat pumps instead of traditional boilers and furnaces could cut global CO2 emissions by 3 gigatons per year, according to a report released this month by the consultancy firm McKinsey and Company.

There’s even evidence that green banks are helping to bridge America’s cultural divide when it comes to talking about climate solutions. A recent poll by Hundt’s Coalition for Green Capital found that the majority of likely voters in two fossil fuel-producing states support the idea of a national green bank.

In Manchin’s homestate of West Virginia, 54 percent of likely voters supported the idea of a national green bank, the survey found, with 31 percent opposing. In Alaska, 68 percent supported the bank and 20 percent opposed. Among oil, gas, and coal workers and their families, support was even higher: 62 percent and 77 percent of them supported a green bank in West Virginia and Alaska, respectively.

As Democrats continue to negotiate the spending agreement, Hundt is holding his breath that the deal goes through and he finally sees his decade-long quest come to fruition. “It’s the biggest amount of money dedicated to public-private investing in energy infrastructure of any capitalist country in the world,” he said. “We need to go from words to reality, and all across the country. But we needed money to do it, so, this is pretty dramatic.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Today’s Indicator

2 percent

That’s the total amount of global GDP—or gross domestic product—that many experts believe the world would need to spend each year on clean technologies and infrastructure in order to avoid catastrophic climate change by the end of the century.

General view of atmosphere at the Hulu 2013 Summer TCA Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 31, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Hulu
General view of atmosphere at the Hulu 2013 Summer TCA Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 31, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Hulu

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect an announcement by Hulu.

After facing fierce backlash, the popular streaming service Hulu has reversed its decision to reject political ads that include topics that the company initially deemed too “controversial,” including abortion rights, gun control and climate change, according to a series of news reports. It’s the latest incident to highlight the role Big Tech plays in America’s increasingly polarizing culture war, which many experts and activists say has become a major impediment to climate action.

Earlier this month, Hulu rejected several political ads from Democratic organizations and political candidates that referenced some of the party’s central campaign issues in this year’s election cycle, as first reported by The Washington Post on Monday. In at least one situation, the streaming service refused to run an ad until the phrase “climate change” was taken out of it.

That’s a problem, Democrats say, because streaming services have become a key platform where younger generations consume media, meaning a major voting bloc could essentially be cut off from their messages. Regarding global warming, it’s an especially poignant problem ahead of a midterm election that many experts believe will determine whether the Biden administration can pass any meaningful national climate legislation at all, and perhaps whether the U.S. will be able meet its commitments to the Paris Agreement to rein in global warming.

“To not discuss these topics in my campaign ad is to not address the most important issues facing the United States,” Suraj Patel, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New York City, wrote in a public letter after his ad was rejected by Hulu for using certain phrases, including “climate change.”

Hulu’s decision to ban advertisements that discuss topics like climate change “has a perverse effect on Democracy,” Patel added.

Hulu didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But an anonymous source who is familiar with the company’s policies told The Washington Post that the streaming service prohibits advertising that takes a position on a controversial issue, regardless of whether it is a political ad. The company apparently reversed that policy Wednesday, when it announced that after “a thorough review of ad policies,” it will now accept “candidate and issue advertisements covering a wide spectrum of policy positions.”

While political discourse in the United States makes climate change appear to be a controversial topic, the scientific community overwhelmingly agrees on the core facts of the issue, with more than 99.9 percent of peer-reviewed studies agreeing that climate change is real and has been caused predominantly by humans burning fossil fuels.

Michael Khoo, the climate disinformation coalition co-chair at Friends of the Earth, an international environmental advocacy group, said in an interview that the situation highlights one of the biggest problems society now faces regarding Big Tech companies: they play an outsized role in the way the world communicates but remain almost wholly unregulated by governments.

Both broadcast television networks and radio stations are regulated by the Communications Act of 1934, which—among other things—requires broadcasters in the U.S. to develop public interest programming, provide space for controversial topics and give equal air time to candidates running for political office. Today, internet companies like Facebook (now Meta) and Hulu have replaced broadcasters as the predominant platform for mass communication, yet those providers aren’t bound by the same rules.

Many analysts and communication scholars, including Khoo, have warned that the lack of regulation is partly to blame for the nation’s growing political divide and could have long-lasting consequences for American democracy. Proprietary algorithms and massive personal data collection efforts, they say, are fueling growing echo chambers and making it harder for the public to have constructive discussions based on a common set of facts.

Last month, a coalition of climate and social media watchdog groups that included Khoo’s organization released a report that found that misleading or false information about climate change was flourishing online despite recent promises from tech companies to crack down on the spread of “fake news” on their platforms. The report, which analyzed hundreds of thousands of social media posts over the last 18 months, also found that disinformation campaigns were explicitly framing global warming issues through the lens of Western culture wars with the goal of delaying climate action.

Some nations are just now beginning to address the issue. Earlier this month, the European Union approved the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, two landmark laws that would force the world’s largest tech companies to more aggressively tackle harmful content on their platforms and more transparently disclose their data to the public, among other things.

And Indonesia also passed its own sweeping law in 2020 that requires Big Tech companies to agree to strict government oversight, including by handing over user data, or be banned from operating in the country. As of last week, several major tech brands, including Meta, Twitter and Google, have agreed to cooperate with the law, though critics worry that the government could use the measure to unfairly censor free speech. Some observers also worry the EU’s laws could be excessively costly and difficult to enforce.

Despite those concerns, Khoo sees the legislation as a significant step in the right direction and hopes other countries like the U.S. follow suit. “Tech companies are finally waking up” and realizing that “running society is hard,” he said. “So, if they want to have that much power, it comes with the need for running it fairly and strongly.”

Thanks for reading Today’s Climate, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.

Today’s Indicator

32 percent

That’s how many Republicans between the ages of 18 and 34 say they worry “a great deal” about environmental issues like climate change, roughly twice the rate compared to older conservatives, according to a new Gallup poll.