Biology Comes to the Rescue

Article by Laura Schumacher

Within the white towers of La Jolla’s Salk Institute, world-renowned plant geneticist Dr. Joanne Chory and her small team of research biologists are trying to save the planet with plants.

It makes sense. We all learned about the role of plants in photosynthesis back in elementary school. Plants use sunlight to turn carbon dioxide (CO2) into sugars the cell can use as energy. When the plant dies, it releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Plants are really good at photosynthesis – they’ve been doing it for 500 million years.

The earth today has too much CO2 in the atmosphere from human activity. Dr. Chory thinks it’s scientifically possible to get plants to absorb more CO2 and bury it deep in the ground instead of releasing it back into the atmosphere. Plants make a product called suberin which absorbs CO2. To solve climate change, Dr. Chory’s team is creating plants with larger and deeper root systems that produce more suberin to sequester carbon.

If this process can be perfected in crop plants such as corn, wheat and rice, Dr. Chory is convinced plants could help solve climate change. The next challenge will be to convince farmers to plant and grow these modified plants.

In April 2019, The Salk Institute received a TED Audacious Project grant of $35 million to scale up Dr. Chory’s research. Dr. Chory will be working on her “one last big experiment” here in San Diego with a sense of urgency. She has Parkinson’s disease and wants to accomplish as much as she can while she’s feeling good.  And like all of us, she wants to leave the Earth better for her grandkids.

To learn more, watch Dr. Chory’s TED Talk here:

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Update on the City of San Diego Community Choice Energy Plan

Article by Linda Gianelli Pratt

The City of San Diego is moving forward with Community Choice Aggregation, also known as Community Choice Energy, in order to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2035. This path will allow the City of San Diego to form a regional entity that can purchase clean energy on the open market at more competitive rates for customers.

On September 17, 2019 the San Diego City Council voted to approve community choice energy and create a joint-powers entity with cities across the region. The regional entity will be the second-largest community choice entity in California in terms of electrical load. San Diego was the first big city in the U.S. to pledge to reach 100 percent renewable when the City Council adopted Mayor Faulconer’s Climate Action Plan in 2015.

After three years of research and analysis, Mayor Faulconer selected Community Choice as the preferred pathway to reach the 100 percent renewable energy goal in the City’s landmark Climate Action Plan.

The cities of Chula Vista, La Mesa, Imperial Beach and Encinitas have voted to join the regional joint-power entity. A regional approach would allow for greater negotiating and buying power as well as create efficiencies in operations and service. Analysis shows that Community Choice would result in lower energy costs compared to the investor-owned utility’s rates.

San Diego Community Power (SDCP), the new regional Community Choice program, has established the Finance Committee and will soon establish the Community Advisory Committee.

Stay Cool applauds the actions and progress made by the City of San Diego.

The County of San Diego voted to direct staff to do an evaluation of Community Choice Energy on September 10, 2019. Since that time, nothing has been updated on the County’s website. https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/general_services/Energy/Energy.html

 

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Rollback of Obama-Era Fuel Economy and Emissions Standards May Stall

Article by Linda Gianelli Pratt

Former energy lobbyist Andrew Wheeler has continued the deregulatory course set by Scott Pruit. Within days of his appointment, he issued a proposed rollback of Obama-era fuel economy and emissions standards, while a new version of the Clean Power Plan could be released to the public in as little as one month.

The decades-long drive to reduce automotive carbon emissions would be at least as significant as the Trump administration’s other main rollback of climate rules—the attempt to dismantle the Clean Power Plan limits on emissions from power plants.

The draft of the revised Fuel Economy and Emissions Standards was leaked to the New York Times and says that regulators will freeze fuel economy standards at 2020 levels through 2026 vehicle model years. The proposal also says EPA will rescind a waiver that allows states to impose higher standards, setting up a potential legal battle between California, which has imposed stiffer standards since the 1970s, and the administration. Twelve states have followed California’s lead.

In the draft proposal, the administration assumes that consumers will drive less if their vehicles get lower gas mileage, which it claims would lower the number of fatal crashes—a controversial calculation that Wheeler used to justify the rollback.

According to one estimate, this proposed roll back of tailpipe rules nationwide could add nearly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Officials have justified this sweeping change by claiming that the new rules will save hundreds of lives a year. They are so sure of those benefits that they have decided to call the policy the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule—or SAFE, for short.

To change a federal rule, the executive branch must do its homework and publish an economic study arguing why the update is necessary. But Trump’s official justification for SAFE is honeycombed with errors. The most dramatic is that NHTSA’s model mixed up supply and demand: The agency calculated that as cars got more expensive, millions more people would drive them, and the number of traffic accidents would increase, my reporting shows. This error—later dubbed the “phantom vehicles” problem—accounted for the majority of incorrect costs in the SAFE study that the Trump administration released in 2018. It is what made SAFE look safe.

Once this and other major mistakes are fixed, all of SAFE’s safety benefits vanish, according to a recent peer-reviewed analysis in Science. If SAFE is adopted into law, American traffic deaths could actually increase, carbon pollution would soar, and global warming would speed up.

In other words, SAFE isn’t actually safe—and the Trump administration based its rollback on flawed math.

A final version of the rule is expected in the next several weeks. But that new version of the SAFE study recognizes that the benefits of the rollback do not exceed its costs, according to a letter from Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, obtained by The Washington Post.

If Carper’s allegation is true, that could doom the proposal in court. In fact, several legal issues could hinder SAFE. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act “requires” the EPA to regulate carbon pollution “from new motor vehicles.” But my reporting has found that NHTSA employees—and not EPA staff—wrote the first version of the rollback, raising questions about whether the rule is legally valid.

The errors could now cause legal trouble for the SAFE rollback. Under federal law, an agency must publish a detailed and genuine explanation of any proposed rulemaking. If it fails to meet that standard, then a court can toss out the new rule, pronouncing it “arbitrary and capricious.” The explanation for SAFE—at least in the proposal—does not appear to be genuine, since it contains fundamental errors that were identified before it was published.

The Trump administration has struggled to publish a final version of the SAFE rollback, pushing the deadline back several times. The extra time has only revealed new problems. Last month, Carper, the Democratic senator from Delaware, alleged that a new version of the NHTSA study admits that SAFE will impose $34 billion of costs on the American economy. (NHTSA had once promised $230 billion in net benefits.) The new study also admits that SAFE will cost consumers an extra $1,400 at the pump on average—and that SAFE will not save hundreds of lives a year, as it once claimed, Carper said.

After the final version of SAFE is published, it will go to the courts. Its odds of survival are unclear. Agencies must “offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,”

References:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/02/an-inside-account-of-trumps-fuel-economy-debacle/606346/

https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02082018/new-epa-chief-andrew-wheeler-scott-pruitt-environment-climate-change-trump-coal

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STAY COOL Tribute to John Atcheson

John Atcheson (1948-2020) was a novelist, climate activist, and STAY COOL Advisor. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

Tragically, STAY COOL recently lost one of our bright stars. On Monday, January 6, 2020, Advisory Council member John Atcheson passed away in a car accident. John joined the council in 2018, and served alongside his wife, Linda Pratt, who is the current Chair of the Advisory Council. John was a dedicated father and grandfather and leaves behind two children, two stepchildren, and three grandchildren. Our hearts go out to Linda and John’s families as they cope with this unexpected loss.

John was passionate about environmental protection and worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency for many years. The team at STAY COOL is grateful to have had his expertise and guidance. He kept us informed on the latest advances in climate change research and helped create more awareness about the application of science toward protecting the environment. He played a strong role in our organization’s various climate policy initiatives and was most knowledgeable about national and international action. 

John was a talented writer, having published two books, and he was a regular contributor to the Common Dreams NewsCenter https://www.commondreams.org/.  Joe Romm, founder of ClimateProgress, called John’s novel, A Being Darkly Wise, a must-read for those interested in climate change and “one part diary of a Washington insider, one part introductory science textbook, one part love story, one part wilderness guide, and one part scary-as-hell thriller.” Notably, Common Dreams posted this excellent tribute to John.

John recently took on the role of newsletter editor for STAY COOL, and many of our detailed blog entries were authored by him, including these good reads:

John was humble, humorous and loved life. As he wrote on the “About John” page of his website (http://jbatcheson.com/aboutjohn.html): “Life is Good” and we know he had a good one. We will miss you, John.

John’s wife Linda shared the following message:

In lieu of flowers, you are welcome to make a contribution to a nonprofit that is aligned with John’s strong commitment to environmental protection. One example is an organization in which he was actively engaged: STAY COOL for Grandkids. Another example is a contribution to our church, UUFSD, where John’s name will be placed on our Memorial Wall.

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PLANNING FOR CLIMATE RESILIENCE: WILDFIRES AND FLOODING

STAY COOL for Grandkids is committed to presenting the latest research on climate change and its impacts on the San Diego region. In October 2019 we presented a forum in Solana Beach that highlighted recent research on the effects of climate change on our region’s ecosystems and our built environment, with a focus on wildfires and flooding.  Our speakers also discussed ways in which we can develop plans and policies and implementing actions to make our communities more resilient to these impacts. 

On February 4, 2020 we will be co-sponsoring another forum on this topic with St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church Peace and Justice Ministry in Poway.

Click here to RSVP on Eventbrite.

We will have two featured speakers: 

  • Dr. James Randerson, Professor of Earth Systems Science at UC Irvine, will provide an overview of his research into the effects of climate change on wildfire risks in California.
  • Robert Leiter, FAICP, who has been involved in local and regional urban planning in the San Diego region for more than 30 years, will present highlights of a recent report published by the American Planning Association (Regional Water Planning for Climate Resilience) which he co-authored.  This report highlights the potential impacts of climate change on the San Diego region, including increased risks from wildfires and flooding. 

The speakers will also discuss ways in which regional and local governments in the San Diego region can proactively deal with these impacts.  Pursuant to California Senate Bill 379, local governments are now required to update the “Safety Elements” of their General Plans, to address the projected impacts from climate change on natural hazards such as wildfires and flooding.  The law provides an overall methodology for preparing these plans, and defines the roles of local, regional, and state agencies in this process.

Date and Time- Tuesday, February 4, 2020 from 7:00 – 9:00 PM 

Location- St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 16725 Pomerado Road, Poway 92064.

For more information, contact: sdstaycool4grandkids@gmail.com

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STAY COOL Launches Partnership with Faith-based Environmental Stewardship Team

The Peace and Justice Ministry of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Poway recently launched an Environmental Stewardship Team (EST) with a focus on the Climate Crisis.  Bob Leiter, who is on the STAY COOL Advisory Council and is also a member of St. Bart’s Church, offered to help the EST to develop an overall strategy for organizing activities that would be interesting to church members and to the community as a whole.  Following a couple of well-attended video presentations on climate issues, on February 4 St. Bart’s EST and STAY COOL co-sponsored a public forum on “Planning for Climate Resilience: Wildfires and Flooding.”

The STAY COOL Events Team, led by Peg Engel and Laura Schumacher, worked with St. Bart’s EST members to organize and publicize the event.  During the public forum Dr. Jim Randerson, a climate scientist at UC Irvine, provided an excellent overview of the scientific research that demonstrates the impacts of climate change on wildfires and flooding in Southern California.  Following Dr. Randerson’s presentation, Bob Leiter, a retired urban planner, provided a “planning and public policy” perspective on climate resilience issues in San Diego County.  Bob then introduced Terri Sorenson, coordinator for the Poway Neighborhood Emergency Corps, who talked about the PNEC and its role in helping the community to prepare for local emergencies such as wildfires and floods.

According to Parth Domke, the coordinator of St. Bart’s EST, the speakers “were extremely skillful and engaging in sharing their knowledge of the science analyzing the climate crisis and the ways in which San Diego communities can – and should – manage the necessary adaptations for climate resilience.   The presentations themselves spoke volumes about the existential threat of climate change. The work that we are all doing in terms of education and action is so critically relevant and necessary.

We had a good crowd, probably around 40 people attending.  The question and answer period was engaging with many thoughtful questions and perspectives.  People came from several different organizations, all committed to the issue and its resolution. People’s energy and focus were evident, and many stayed past the time to talk and network with others.  It was very successful in so many ways!!”

STAY COOL is continuing to work with the St. Bart’s EST steering committee to help organize future programs and activities.  We would like to continue with these kinds of partnerships and we welcome your inquiries or suggestions!

 

 

 

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THE 2019 ARCTIC REPORT CARD: A FAILING GRADE

Each year since 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases an Arctic Report Card which NOAA  describes as “… a timely and peer-reviewed source for clear, reliable and concise environmental information on the current state of different components of the Arctic environmental system relative to historical records.”

In 2019, we got a failing grade.  Here are the highlights – or the lowlights:

  • The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing nearly 267 billion metric tons of ice per year and currently contributing to global average sea-level rise at a rate of about 0.7 mm yr.
  • North American Arctic snow cover in May 2019 was the fifth lowest in 53 years of recordkeeping. June snow cover was the third lowest.
  • Thawing permafrost throughout the Arctic could be releasing an estimated 300-600 million tons of net carbon per year to the atmosphere.
  • Arctic sea ice extent at the end of summer 2019 was tied with 2007 and 2016 as the second lowest since satellite observations began in 1979. The thickness of the sea ice has also decreased, resulting in an ice cover that is more vulnerable to warming air and ocean temperatures.

Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.  For example, the thawing permafrost and the loss of sea ice could dramatically increase the rate and severity of climate change.

Arctic Feedbacks 

Sea ice reflects a substantial amount of the incident solar energy, and as the surface area of the ice sheet diminishes, more heat gets trapped. In 2019, the surface area for sea ice tied for the second lowest in history.  Worse, after several years of recovering, ice volume plummeted in 2019. The thickness of the sea ice is also critical – the thinner the ice sheet, the more abrupt the loss of surface area can be.  

The Arctic ice mass is a major factor in both long-term climate conditions and short-term weather events. Less ice cover means warming accelerates, and it means extreme weather events, including intense storms, flooding, droughts, and Arctic blasts, become more common.

Release of methane from melting permafrost has the potential to set off a major positive feedback that could add as much as 2 degrees C to current forecasts for 2100, according to some scientists. 

The bottom line is that the latest Arctic Report Card is giving us a failing grade, and the semester is almost over.  

In this season, Dickens’ Christmas Carol comes to mind.  After the Ghost of Christmases yet to come shows Scrooge his own grave, Scrooge asks, “Are these the shadows of things that will be, or are these the shadows of the things that may be only?”

For another few years, these dire climate predictions are the shadows of things that may be, only.  But the future world we’re fashioning right now is unsustainable and absent aggressive action, it will be irrevocable. 

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About wildfires: a summary of our Oct. 11 STAY COOL event

STAY COOL for Grandkids is committed to bringing cutting edge information about climate change and its impacts. On October 11th, we presented a forum that highlighted current research about changes to our land-based ecosystems – particularly with regard to wildfires – that are resulting from climate change, and appropriate planning policies that could properly address these impacts. We had two featured speakers: Dr. James Randerson, Professor of Earth Systems Science at UC Irvine and Robert Leiter, who is a member of the STAY COOL Advisory Council. Robert Leiter has been a leader in local land use planning for more than 30 years, serving as the Planning Director for the cities of Escondido and Chula Vista, and for SANDAG, the regional planning agency for San Diego County.

Dr. Randerson led the presentation with an overview of the effects of climate change on California wildfires. He highlighted one recent research project which concluded that “… a 1°C increase in daily temperature in the Sierra Nevada increased the probability of ignition and burned area by about 20% during 2001-2018.”  

Overall, Dr. Randerson summarized what we know about climate change and California wildfires as follows:

  • Summer temperatures are rising and will continue to rise, causing fuels to dry out faster.
  • The warmer temperatures will increase the probability of ignitions.
  • Fires that are ignited will grow more quickly and burn more area.
  • We can expect more intense summer fire seasons over the next few decades.
  • Precipitation may change by a smaller amount, there is some evidence that the north coast will get wetter, but southern Sierra and Southern California will get drier.
  • Climate is likely to become more variable from year to year, with both dry extremes and wet extremes becoming more common.
  • Santa Ana winds are likely to get drier, but they may not become stronger or more frequent.
  • The precipitation season may become compressed so that we get more rain in December and January, and less during fall and spring.

Robert Leitner’s talk provided an overview of a recent report published by the American Planning Association Regional and Intergovernmental Planning Division.  While the report looked at a variety of impacts on ecosystems in the San Diego region that are expected as a result of climate change, the focus of this presentation was on the increased frequency and severity of wildfires.

He then discussed the ways in which regional and local governments can address these impacts in the context of updating city and county General Plans.  Pursuant to SB 379, local governments are now required to update the “Safety Elements” of their General Plans, taking into account the projected impacts from climate change on natural hazards such as sea level rise and wildfires.  The law provides an overall methodology for preparing these plans, and defines the roles of state, regional and local government agencies in this process.

Following the presentations, Randerson and Leiter fielded several questions from the audience, and discussed ways in which an informed public can help to make sure that these issues receive the attention that they deserve.  STAY COOL will be hosting another forum on this topic in Inland North County in February 2020; stay tuned for details!

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Isotopes – fingerprints in climate change, or how we know, what we know

By John Atcheson

Isotopes tell us a great deal about where carbon and methane are coming from.  They act as fingerprints that identify with a great deal of accuracy whether the source of increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are caused by humans, or are by-products of natural processes.  

The first thing we need to do is define what an Isotope is.  Elements are classified by how many protons they have in their nucleus.  Thus, every carbon atom has six protons. But carbon atoms can have six, seven, or eight neutrons, and neutrons weigh essentially the same as a proton. This means that carbon has three naturally occurring isotopes: C12, C13, and C14.  The numeric designations are the atomic weight of an element and they are the sum of both the protons and the neutrons. Since neutrons don’t have a charge, the elements share the same chemical properties. In the case of carbon, C12 and C13 are stable, while C14 decays over time.

The source of the carbon or methane gives it a distinct ratio of Isotopes, and in the case of methane, we can get additional data from hydrogen and oxygen isotopes (the latter because methane reacts in the atmosphere). 

Emissions have a distinct ratio of C12 to C13, depending upon their source.  Carbon from fossil fuel combustion has a lower C-12 to C-13 ratio than the air does. Thus, if the observed increased carbon in the atmosphere comes from fossil fuels or combustion of plants, the ratio of C12 to C13 in the atmosphere should be going down in proportion to the increase in atmospheric carbon.  And it is.

Since methane contains carbon — its formula is CH4, or 1 carbon atom combined with 4 hydrogen atoms – the ratio of C12 to C13 in the emissions and the ratio in the atmosphere can also help us identify the source of those emissions. In addition, Hydrogen has several isotopes that are indicative of the source of the methane, and since methane is highly reactive in the atmosphere oxygen isotopes also tell us something about the source. Now, methane has more potential sources than carbon, and as it is highly reactive in the atmosphere, the fingerprinting gets complex, it can be done.  

What we know about methane is that  there are three main sources contributing to the increase: 1) the output of microbes living in anoxic environments such as wetlands, landfills, and the stomachs and butts of ruminants; 2) fossil methane in gas, coal, and other underground fuel reserves that are released as those reserves are exploited; and 3) the burning of vegetation like forests, bush, and crop residues. 

The shocking thing about methane is that all three sources are increasing, and that humans are contributing to that increase.

Isotopes tell us that microbial sources are the largest cause for an increase in atmospheric concentrations of methane, and human cultivation of rice crops, livestock, and disposal in landfills are contributing to that increase.  Fracking and increased use and transmission of fossil fuels are the second big contributor, and of course, humans are the source of it. Finally, the explosion in wildfires that now occur everywhere on Earth from the Arctic to the Amazon, are a result of anthropogenic warming and poor land-use management.

The next time someone tries to tell you we can’t be sure where the increased emissions are coming from – or whether there’s been an increase – tell them they’re wrong.  The evidence is in the fingerprints.

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About our Sept. 10 tour with Dr. Jeff Severinghaus

Have you wondered what it is like to be a climate science researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography? Thirteen of our STAY COOL members had the opportunity to join Dr. Jeff Severinghaus for an in-depth tour of his laboratory and learn more about his work. 

Dr. Severinghaus is a professor of geosciences in the Geosciences Research Division at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. His current research interests center on using trapped bubbles of gases contained in ice cores to track changes in ancient climate. Severinghaus’ team study historic temperatures at an ice core sites on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Greenland.  He is the recipient of several awards, most recently, the 2011 Claire C. Patterson Medalist of the Geochemical Society, an award given annually for a breakthrough in environmental geochemistry. 

The tour took place on Tuesday, September 10th. Participants learned the science behind how ice cores are used to measure greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations hundreds of thousands of years ago. The ice bubbles are like a snapshot telling us what the atmospheric concentration of carbon was at the time the ice formed.  Some of the ice cores contain air that was trapped more than 800,000 years ago. The isotope Carbon 13 helps us tell what the source of the carbon was (See Isotopes: Fingerprints in climate change). 

We stepped inside a freezer which was very cold, small, and if you are prone to claustrophobia, very stressful! This area housed all the ice cores that are awaiting further analysis. 

Dr. Severinghous remains hopeful about our ability to combat global climate change. He used the analogy to sewage treatment. In 1750, the British thought that installing sewage treatment would break the economy. As we know, it did not do that AND we could not imagine life without a treatment process for this waste. Carbon dioxide is also a waste, and economists know that mitigation and adaptation will not break the economy. 

Funding is often a challenge for scientific research, and measuring carbon in ice cores is no exception. Dr. Severinhaus’s work is currently funded by the National Association of Scientists. 

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