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Weekly Roundup 1-20-2017

Your Roundup of Climate and Energy News for the week ending January 20, 2017 follows.  Please forward it to anyone you think might be interested. 

On Wednesday President-Elect Trump’s nominee to head EPA, Scott Pruitt, appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, while on Thursday his nominee to head DOE, Rick Perry, appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.  As was done last week, Science magazine had reporters following the hearings and they have prepared a summary of major points covered in the Pruitt and Perry hearings, as well as others in which science policy was discussed.  Science staff also compiled a list of ten questions scientists might like Perry to answer.  As pointed out by Brady Dennis and Chris Mooney at The Washington Post, there was a remarkable degree of consistency among the nominees regarding climate change.  Indeed, Zack Colman and Amanda Paulson at The Christian Science Monitor argued that the nominees are amplifying small disagreements among model projections to sow doubt about the widely-held conclusion that humans are driving emissions higher and raising temperatures, mainly from burning fossil fuels.  In a recent issue of Nature Climate Change, climate modelers Ben Sanderson and Reto Knutto wrote that if the Trump administration caused 4 to 8 years of U.S. inaction on climate change, it would set back climate efforts by 15 to 25 years.  Science writer Dan Grossman interviewed Sanderson and the transcript was posted on Yale Climate Connections.  Finally, at The New Yorker, Madeline Ostrander interviewed William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of EPA, to learn about EPA’s history and powers, and science writer Elizabeth Kolbert presented her views on the Pruitt hearing.

Our Children’s Trust issued a press release announcing that the U.S. Department of Justice had filed its answers to the youth plaintiffs’ complaint in Juliana v. United States, the lawsuit being brought by a group of young people alleging that governmental action against climate change is insufficient to protect their future rights.  In the press release they listed several allegations admitted by the defendants.  Climate Home had a post about this development.

Climate

NASA, NOAA, and the UK Met Office/University of East Anglia all confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year on record globally, making it the third year in a row to set a record.  As Chris Mooney of The Washington Post explained, NASA and NOAA disagree on the global average temperature in 2016, primarily because of differences in the way they handle temperatures in the Arctic, with NASA posting a slightly higher temperature.  Roz Pidcock at Carbon Brief offered more details about the year, along with an interview with Gavin Schmidt of NASA.  Schmidt had a post on RealClimate about the new record and James Hansen’s team at Columbia University provided a deeper analysis.  The New York Times provided an interesting interactive showing the daily temperature range from AccuWeather during 2016 for more than 5,000 cities worldwide.

NOAA and Princeton University scientists produced the first global analysis of how climate change may affect the frequency and location of mild weather. The scientists defined "mild" weather as temperatures between 64°F and 86°F, with less than a half inch of rain and dew points below 68°F, indicative of low humidity.  The research, published in the journal Climatic Change, projects that by the end of the century the tropics will lose milder days while the U.S., Canada, and northern Europe will gain them.

A new paper in Nature Communications examined the impact of business-as-usual CO2 emissions on the yields of corn, wheat, and soybeans at the end of this century in the U.S.  The study found that under rain-fed conditions the yields will fall 49%, 22%, and 40% for the three crops, respectively, compared to yields today.  The expected boost from the extra CO2 in the atmosphere did little to reduce the loss.  Irrigation, on the other hand, largely eliminated the loss in yield, suggesting that it was primarily due to water stress associated with the elevated temperatures.

A new study published in the journal Science compiled estimates of sea surface temperatures during the last interglacial period, which lasted from about 129,000 to 116,000 years ago.  The global annual mean temperatures were indistinguishable from the 1995–2014 mean.  This is a sobering point, because sea levels during the last interglacial period were 20 to 30 ft higher than they are now.  It should be noted that it would take centuries for sea level to come to equilibrium with temperature.

Global sea ice is now the smallest it has been since measurement began in 1978.  This is due to declines in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.  In the Arctic, sea ice extent is running well below last year, as well as below the expected range observed from 1981-2010.  Sea ice growth is being hampered by a surge of warm air and stormy weather.  Unfortunately, as sea ice melts, more open water is exposed to solar radiation, allowing it to absorb heat, reinforcing Arctic warming.  A new study published in the journal Earth’s Future found that to offset the warming associated with a full month free of Arctic sea ice, global CO2 emissions would need to reach zero levels 5–15 years earlier and the carbon budget would need to be reduced by 20%–51%, depending on what happened to sea ice thereafter.

A new survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication taken after the election has revealed several important findings relative to climate change.  Sixty-one percent of Americans describe themselves as 'very' or 'somewhat' worried about climate change, with 19% being very worried.  Furthermore, 55% understand that climate change is mostly caused by human activity.  Sixty-nine percent of registered voters think the U.S. should participate in the Paris Climate Agreement and 70% support proposals to set strict CO2 emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants.

A study of the rings of Picea balfouriana trees, a type of spruce that can live for more than 300 years, revealed that climate change started impacting the Tibetan Plateau as early as the 1870s, at the start of the industrial revolution.  The results were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Energy

According to Greenpeace, China has suspended work on 104 coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of 120 GW that were being planned or were under construction.  A follow-up story provides a map of the locations of the suspended projects as well as more background on the suspensions.  However, coal is still a powerful industry in China and this has hampered full use of the many large wind farms being built.

A group of 13 companies, called the Hydrogen Council, is pledging to invest more than $10 billion during the next five years to accelerate infrastructure-construction and technology advancements to support hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.  The group says that hydrogen "can play an important role in the transition to a clean, low-carbon, energy system."  Nevertheless, Europe and China are still moving forward with battery-electric vehicles, even though sales have slumped in the U.S.

Within an hour of President Trump’s swearing-in, an “America First Energy Plan” was posted on the White House website and all reference to climate change was removed.  Although written before that posting, Julia Pyper at GreenTech Media reminded us that the U.S. is losing the race on clean energy innovation and examined courses of action that might be taken to develop a truly innovative energy plan.  Meanwhile, even some states led by Republican governors are considering strengthening their renewable energy portfolio standards as a way of stimulating job growth.

According to Jeff St. John at GreenTech Media: “Last summer, First Solar and California grid operator CAISO ran a set of tests to show that utility-scale solar PV, instead of being a disruptive influence on the power grid, could actually help stabilize it.··· All told, the data from CAISO, First Solar and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) indicates that a utility-scale solar farm, equipped with standard inverters and software controls, can serve to smooth out grid fluctuations from the solar itself or from other sources.”

Energy storage with batteries is beginning to see more application, on both large and small scale.  On the large side are the utility scale installations in California that are being made in reaction to the large natural gas leak in the fall of 2015.  On the small side is the installation at Sierra Nevada brewery, which is being used to reduce peak energy charges, thereby reducing cost.

Small modular nuclear reactors were in the news this week.  TVA has submitted an early site permit application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the site to be approved and ready if such plants are ultimately developed and TVA decides to pursue them.  Meanwhile, NuScale Power, based in Portland, Ore., has submitted a design for a small modular nuclear power plant to the NRC for approval.

Les Grady
R. A. Bowen Professor Emeritus