Category Archives: climate science
Napa Wines Already Hit Hard By Climate Change

Back in 2009, when I first started working full time on climate change law and policy at Berkeley Law, I saw a presentation by a representative of a Napa winery at a California Assembly select committee hearing on climate change.  Thomas A. Thornhill III, a partner at Parducci Wine Cellars/Paul Dolan Vineyards, showed the following slide:

As you can see from the chart, as the temperature warms (the red line), certain Napa grapes just won’t be able to survive anymore in the Valley, such as chardonay and sauvignon blanc (although it’s good news for raisin production in the Valley, for what that’s worth)

I thought about that slide over Labor Day weekend this year, when a record-breaking heat wave with temperatures up to 117 degrees hit Napa.  This new normal of extreme weather destroyed some of Napa and Sonoma’s premium cabernet grapes, as Bloomberg reported:

Vineyard consultant Steve Matthiasson, who also makes wines under his eponymous label, admitted, “The heat wave screwed us up.”  While you need warmth to ripen cabernet, you don’t want too much, and this summer Napa had more than two dozen days with temperatures over 100 degrees. Before the grapes were completely ripe, an extreme heat wave on Labor Day weekend, which didn’t cool down at night, caused grape dehydration.  As juice evaporated, some of the unripe grapes shriveled into raisins.

As a result, the wine grape crop is likely to be smaller than expected this year in California and beyond, down from 5 to 35 percent for some individual blocks of vines.

While this was a high-end casualty of climate change, it’s a demonstration of what will happen to the broader multi-billion agricultural industry across places like California as we veer into an increasingly hotter world.

And that’s nothing to toast.

The Bible Already Described Climate Change — So Why Don’t Christian Conservatives Accept The Science?

America’s Christian conservatives are pretty well known at this point for being anti-climate science and environmental action. As Bernard Daley Zaleha and Andrew Szasz write in Why Conservative Christians Don’t Believe in Climate Change, studies show that:

[T]he higher the level of religious commitment (as measured by self-reports of religion’s personal importance, frequency of religious service attendance, and frequency of prayer), the lower the level of environmental concern. Another recent study showed, similarly, that American Christians, collectively, when considered without regard for denomination, have less environmental concern than do Americans of other faiths or those who say they are not affiliated with any institutional forms of religion.

Now I’m far from a religious expert, but it seems to me that the Bible — specifically the story of Noah — features a Judeo-Christian God with a history of using extreme weather (i.e. climate change) to further his purposes.  Check out this translation of the story of Noah:

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.

It’s easy to see the parallel with this story to today’s struggle with climate change. The climate crisis is caused by emissions of greenhouse gases from burning carbon fuels to power our economy. While a strong economy is a necessity and can be force for moral goodness, it’s also based on greed in a way that the God of the Bible might easily condemn as “wickedness.” Pope Francis has certainly drawn similar conclusions.

At the very least, continuing on this current path without heed for the consequences certainly sounds stupid, in a “times of Noah” kind of way. So wouldn’t this story be an eye-opener (or at least a conversation-starter) for Christian conservatives to think about climate science?

Jesse Jackson took this approach in a recent column imploring for more climate preparedness:

In Genesis, the Bible teaches that God came to Noah and warned him about the coming floods. He told Noah to build an ark — sophisticated infrastructure — to ensure that man and selected animals and birds could survive. There was no nonsense about each being on his or her own. Strong swimmers went down with the weak. Rich mansions on the hill were flooded with the poor huts in the valley. It took infrastructure, planning and preparedness to survive the flood.

I know there are researchers and advocates trying to reach this community and get them involved with climate solutions. But given the plain text of their religious document, I’m surprised it’s such an uphill battle.

Climate Change & Poor Land Use Decisions Exacerbated Houston’s Epic Flooding

The unfolding tragedy in Houston from catastrophic rainfall and resulting flooding is probably worsened by two human-caused factors: climate change and bad land use planning.  On the climate science, Michael Mann explains how warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico leads to greater rainfall:

There is a simple thermodynamic relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation that tells us there is a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each 0.5C of warming. Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than “average” temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.

That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding. The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing.

But at the same time, the city is woefully unprepared for what appears to be a sadly predictable storm.  Neena Satija previewed these events in a story last year in the Texas Tribune, in which she blamed poor local land use decisions for the city’s lack of resilience to this type of storm:

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

As my colleague Dan Farber notes on Legal Planet, this storm would have caused bad flooding no matter what.  But locals throughout the country need to prepare for the “new normal” of climate change with storms and other events like these.

The resiliency planning will cost money and also mean other types of sacrifice.  For example, in Houston’s case, large swaths of prairie should probably have been preserved rather than be developed.  In other words, infill and smart growth development can be a crucial climate resiliency strategy.  As a model here in California, I think of the Yolo Bypass by Sacramento and how that set aside of land for overflow from the Sacramento River saved the city from catastrophic flooding this year.

The events in Houston will hopefully be a wake-up call around the country that we need to preserve and bolster more natural systems to deal with the coming onslaught of extreme weather events, as well as build in smarter locations.  And we’ll need forward-thinking people with the will to fund and implement these solutions.

The Smartest People Are Most Polarized On Climate Science

The people who deny climate science the most aren’t stupid, but actually are among the smartest, a new study confirms. Previous studies I’ve blogged about have documented this phenomenon, and now a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documents the trend on a range of scientific — yet politicized — issues.

As E&E news summarizes [pay-walled]:

Looking at a nationally representative survey of views on stem cell research, the Big Bang, human evolution, nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms and climate change, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that respondents with the most education and the highest scores on scientific literacy tests had the most polarized beliefs.

On climate change, the researchers found that political identity was a more important signal of where respondents stood than their academic acumen or scientific sophistication.

“Conservatives with higher scores display less concern about climate change, while liberals with higher scores display more concern,” the authors wrote. “These patterns suggest that scientific knowledge may facilitate defending positions motivated by nonscientific concerns.”

The take-home point for advocates of climate action is that more facts won’t change people’s minds.  It’s not a question of ignorance that motivates this reasoning.  Instead, advocates should focus on new frames to address the challenge, as well as on specific facets of climate change that don’t require someone to accept all the science around it, like reducing air pollution or addressing sea level rise.

Essentially, climate change has become an issue of tribal identity and ideology — and no longer one of fact and reason.  While that’s disheartening, it’s also clarifying for understanding how to move forward on the issue.

Is It Productive To Scare People About Climate Change?

Climate change is one of the most difficult political — let alone natural — challenges we face.  It’s a relatively far-off calamity that requires action now among the entire developed and developing world, with uncertain costs associated.  So how do we motivate people to act?

One option is to scare them with the worst-case scenarios.  David Wallace-Wells tried this approach recently with a widely circulated New York Magazine cover story describing the absolute worst-case scenarios for climate change, starting with this intro:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Lots of climate advocates and scientists pushed back on this approach though, arguing essentially that “despair is never helpful.”

But David Roberts at Vox.com celebrated this kind of journalism, pointing out that we need to hear more of this alarming, worst-case potential to motivate action:

It may be that there are social dynamics that require some fear and paralysis before a collective breakthrough. At the very least, it seems excessive to draw a pat “fear never works” conclusion from these sorts of data.

Second, even if it’s true that fear only “works” when it is joined with a sense of agency and efficacy, that doesn’t mean that every single instance of fear has to be accompanied by a serving of hope. Not every article has to be about everything. In fact, if you ask me, the “[two paragraphs of fear], BUT [12 paragraphs of happy news]” format has gotten to be a predictable snooze. Some pieces can just be about the terrible risks we face. That’s okay.

Finally, fear+hope requires fear.

Julie Beck at The Atlantic meanwhile reports on the counter-productive tactic of simply making people anxious, particularly via social media. While the thought may be that anxiety leads to action, it can often instead just immobilize and distract people:

Just as social media allowed fake news to spread untrammeled through ideological communities that already largely agreed with each other, it also creates containers for anxiety to swirl in on itself, like a whirlpool in a bottle.

“If you look at the right-hand side of the aisle, and the left, they’re each talking about the things they fear the most,” says Morrow Cater, the president of the bipartisan consulting firm Cater Communications. “The anxiety that you’re talking about—be vigilant!—it comes when you’re fearful.”

But the article also notes that fear-based messaging can work:

Though several people I spoke to said that fear-based appeals to action don’t work, and may even backfire, there’s actually evidence that they do work. Dolores Albarracin, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, did a meta-analysis in 2015 of all available research on fear-based appeals and found that overall, inducing fear does change people’s attitudes, intentions, and behaviors. She and her team did not find a backfire effect.

But the fear appeals that Albarracin studied came with recommended actions. “If the message is not actionable, then you’re not going to get effects overall,” she says.

For my part, I think the public should think about the absolute worst-case effects of climate change. While the worst-case scenario may not come to pass, we need to be prepared for the full range of impacts. Second, we’ve seen fear lead to some of the biggest mass mobilization efforts in history: namely, wars. And climate change will require a similar level of mobilization and urgency.

But I agree that fear-based messages should be paired with actions. Those steps should range from the individual (eat less red meat, install LED light bulbs, buy an electric vehicle if you need one, install solar panels, etc.) to the political (support candidates and policies that address the problem, such as carbon pricing, renewable energy and energy efficiency mandates, and transit-oriented housing).

Otherwise, anxiety without hope or a achievable remedy will be self-defeating.

What’s The Future Of Coal? Tune In To AirTalk On KPCC Radio At 11am

The coal industry is hoping that the Trump administration will revive its sagging fortunes.  I’ll be on AirTalk on KPCC radio (89.3 FM) in Los Angeles today at 11:20am PT to discuss the industry’s future.  As the AirTalk page describes:

It’s no secret that environmentalists and the coal mining industry have long been at odds.  But more fuel has been added to the fire, so to speak, as the Trump Administration’s Interior Department has moved to lift a moratorium on coal leases in public lands. The temporary ban was enacted under the Obama Administration, which quickly drew opposition from major mining companies.

As reported by the New York Times, about 85 percent of coal is mined from federal lands in the West, from the Powder River Basin. The basin, which includes lands in Wyoming and Montana, produces a small amount of exported coal. Trump has accused the Obama Administration of trying to stifle exports, a market which has become increasingly competitive in sales to power plants in Asia, particularly China. In the West, Vancouver has the most accessible export terminal, but more capacity is needed to stay competitive in the growing global market. And environmentalists have blocked any new developments for a terminal in the U.S.

Joining me on the panel will be:

  • Mark Mills, physicist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute where his focus includes energy and energy technology, and a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Engineering School; he tweets @MarkPMills
  • Daniel Schrag, geochemist and professor of geology, environmental science and engineering; he is also the director at Harvard University Center for the Environment and served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (2009 to 2016)

For those out of the area, you can stream it live.

Game Of Climate Thrones

Just ahead of last Sunday night’s season premiere of HBO’s epic Game of Thrones, Vanity Fair published an article linking the plot of the show to climate change.  It’s a subject I happened to have mused on before, as the threat of the white walkers to Westeros really does mirror the collective threat of climate change to our civilization.

But going even further, the article attempts to determine which characters in the show correspond with real-life leaders in the climate change debate.  They interview some of my UCLA Law colleagues on the subjects, with many comparisons I support.  Here’s the Yara Greyjoy-Hillary Clinton one:

Neither of these women has done much about either the White Walkers or climate change. Still, Reich’s idea is too fun to ignore: “The feminist ass-kicker from the Iron Islands is definitely Hillary Clinton. There was that whole scene where [Yara] is going to become the king, and then this random dude shows up out of nowhere and everyone is like, ‘Yeah, this guy! He’s totally unqualified!’ ” When Yara’s uncle won, she disappeared. Clinton did the same—though not for good.

It’s actually an effective way to make climate change and its “cast of characters” accessible and interesting to the public, so I’m glad Vanity Fair ran this piece.

Of course, nothing beats the video of the show’s theme song sung by goats.

Climate “Skeptic” Bret Stephens Cherrypicks Bad Climate Policies In The New York Times

Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ new columnist, got the climate change world into an outrage with his first column last week, which compared climate science to Hillary Clinton’s pre-election polling and argued for restraint from climate advocates.

In his follow up column today, he took a more measured tone, noting that he believes the Earth is warming but that we’re not being careful on the solutions:

“The British government provided financial incentives to encourage a shift to diesel engines because laboratory tests suggested that would cut harmful emissions and combat climate change. Yet, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average five times as much emissions in real-world driving conditions as in the tests, according to a British Department for Transport study.”

In other words, to say we want to take out insurance for climate change is perfectly sensible. But whether we know we’re buying the right insurance, at the right price, is less clear, and it behooves us to look closely at the fine print before we sign on.

As someone who works day in and day out on climate mitigation policies, I can tell you that Stephens is cherry-picking from a handful of bad examples.

Take his reference to the ethanol subsidies, which resulted from the federal renewable fuel standard, established during the second Bush administration. Yes, the standard did spur more Midwestern corn production to be used for biofuel.

But the policy was never really a climate mitigation measure. It was primarily meant to boost domestic fuel sources, with greenhouse gas reduction as an added selling point but no strict carbon screen on the fuels. If there was a strong carbon screen on the kind of fuel that could qualify, very little of that high-carbon Midwestern corn-based ethanol would have qualified (hence the opposition to the standard even from some environmentalists).

For a better climate policy model on biofuels, just look to California. The state’s low carbon fuel standard (which encourages biofuel production like the renewable fuel standard but with a strong low-carbon requirement) disfavors land-intensive corn for true low-carbon biofuel, like in-state used cooking oil (surprisingly a growing percentage of the state’s biofuel).

Stephens’ reference to the British diesel problem is also unfortunate. Most climate policy experts will tell you that the best way to reduce emissions from transportation is through battery electric vehicles, as long as the electricity doesn’t come exclusively from coal-fired power plants (in which case hybrid vehicles yield better carbon reductions). Other fuels that can work include low-carbon biofuels and possibly hydrogen, depending on the energy source used to produce it. Diesel isn’t on the list, at least in places like California, unless it’s biodiesel.

On that subject, biodiesel does emit conventional pollutants, an issue we’re grappling with in California, as evidenced by the POET lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board’s low carbon fuel standard. Biodiesel is great at reducing carbon emissions but also emits nitrogen oxide (NOx) — a subject we covered in Berkeley/UCLA Law’s 2015 Planting Fuels report.

Resolving this conflict among pollutants will take a policy balancing act, but it ultimately shouldn’t obscure the huge economic and environmental benefits from switching transportation fuels from petroleum to electricity and low-carbon biofuels. Stephens simply ignores this tried-and-true approach, which is resulting in swift advancements in electric vehicle adoption in places like California, Europe, and even China.

To be sure, care is needed when it comes to developing climate policies, and I’d agree with Stephens on that front. But the main concern is around managing the economic impacts of transitioning the grid and transportation fuels to cleaner sources. We have to go slow to avoid price shocks and bring the costs of these new technologies down.

California is doing just that, with a measured, careful plan to bring down the emissions curve steeply over the coming decades. Our economy is now less carbon intensive than it was in the 1990s and has been growing rapidly, too — which is at least an indication that climate policies aren’t getting in the way, if not actually serving as a boost.

There’s no reason that the country as a whole can’t follow suit, except that we have national writers like Stephens who cherrypick their way into sounding like reasonable skeptics — when they’re really just misleading people.

Lessons From Recovering Climate Deniers

People who deny the overwhelming science on climate change may seem stubborn, obstinate and close minded.  But not all of them.  In fact, there are recovering deniers among us, and they may offer interesting lessons for how to reach others stuck in their former state of mind.

A question on Reddit about what changed climate deniers’ minds yielded some interesting answers.  Yale Climate Connections then analyzed the 66 responses.  The biggest reason was a slow acceptance of clear scientific evidence:

atlas_ryJxQi90x@2xAs the news site Quartz explained:

Seeing graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxde and overwhelming data supporting the conclusion that humans are rapidly, catastrophically warming the planet was convincing for many. “It’s just difficult for me to deny it with the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports it,” wrote one. The desire to safeguard the Earth, evidence of extreme weather, and dubious sources among climate change deniers sealed the deal for most of the rest.

Yet at the same time, past studies have revealed that showing climate deniers more facts and charts just gets them more dug into their position. So what’s the response?

Perhaps the most important approach is to start with one that disarms a climate denier.  Frame climate solutions in less threatening terms, such as starting with solutions like geoengineering and nuclear power that can get deniers thinking productively about the challenge.  Other research suggests that talking about what might be lost with climate change or what the impacts of following the denial logic might be could be persuasive to deniers.

Otherwise, these responses on Reddit indicate that continuous hammering of the overwhelming scientific consensus may actually bear fruit over the long run.

Trump’s Budget Assault On The Environment

If there’s one area where Trump is likely to have legislative success, it’s probably the budget and taxes.  A partisan majority of Republicans in Congress will go along with any tax and spending cuts, leaving Trump in a good position to get his way.  And his current budget proposal is nothing less than a full-scale assault on environmental protections and public health.

It’s a bad combination of Trump’s seemingly genuine antipathy to government regulations and his party being captured by big polluters in the oil and gas industry.

My UC Berkeley Law colleague Dan Farber runs through the numbers on Legal Planet, but they basically include massive cuts to environmental enforcement, restoration and monitoring, including on climate data, as well as eliminating research in clean energy.

The last part on clean energy cuts is particularly frustrating.  I’ve blogged before about the success of ARPA-E, the most important governmental agency you’ve never heard of.  It’s the “moonshot” agency that is funding breakthrough technologies in batteries, solar power and other vital technology.  Since 2009, it has provided $1.3 billion in funding to more than 475 projects, of which 45 have then raised $1.25 billion in private sector funds.

So of course Trump and his allies want to eliminate the agency completely.

But all is not yet lost.  The budget will go through a lot of sausage-making in Congress, and even many Republicans are invested in some of these programs, given the benefits they provide their districts.

But environmental and public health advocates will be starting from a tough position, and this is one area where Trump is likely to get a lot of what he wants.

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