Not Doomed Yet: The Sonorous Forest Languages

Our weekly summary of climate-change news

A boy fees pigeons in Harbin, a city in northeastern China. Some schools were closed there this week due to severe air pollution. (Reuters / China Stringer Network)

This is “Not Doomed Yet,” The Atlantic’s new weekly newsletter about global warming. It lives here in the science section; you can also get it in your inbox.

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Most strategies for fighting climate change aim to reduce demand. They want to get people to burn less fossil fuel, either through increasing technological efficiency or by introducing Pigovian carbon-pricing schemes.

Last week, a number of writers advocated ways to limit supply—that is, limiting the amount of coal and natural gas that gets taken out of the ground in the first place. The first was Vox’s Dave Roberts, who covered a new paper which says such strategies might be more effective as a way of reducing global emissions.

Roberts frames supply-side tactics in elite/grassroots terms. Climate activists and protesters tend to rally around supply problems: Think of how stridently environmentalists in North America oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. But climate-concerned technocrats, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the power of innovation or demand-side schemes.

That tension, then, makes an interesting pair with my appeal, which also ran last week: that climate-anxious billionaires (or non-profits) should buy coal and keep it in the ground.

My story doubles as a last-ditch strategy for sleepless oligarchs and as a potentially politically feasible U.S. coal policy. It leans hard on the ideas of two men: Matt Frost, a friend (and subscriber, hi!) who works in natural resource management; and Bård Harstad, a Norwegian economist who thinks supply-side schemes are in fact the most efficient way of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide.

(I also get into land rights, which to my eye is maybe the closest that U.S. statute comes to magic—it’s where saying something on paper changes the shape, texture, and potential of a mindless plot of Earth far away—but anyway just go read the story.)

But what would a supply-side policy look like in action? Look to the Pacific Northwest, where a recent study from the Sightline Institute found that more than 20 gigatons of carbon would be unleashed into the atmosphere if Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver permitted coal exports. Sightline terms the coastal ports—which are successfully fighting the terminals, pipelines, and railroads that would allow Western coal exporting—a kind of “thin green line.” By one estimate, those 20 gigatons of carbon could cause $8,800,000,000,000 worth of climate damage.

But I’ll have more to say about estimates of climate change’s damage next week.

* * *

The Macro-Trends

The atmosphere is filling with greenhouse gases. The Mauna Loa Observatory measured an average of 398.48 CO2 molecules per million in the atmosphere this week. A year ago, it measured 397.01 ppm. Ten years ago, it measured 377.48 ppm.

Renewable energy costs are plunging faster than anyone anticipated. A parable of American green energy use in 2015: Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the U.S. by a factor of four, is now also “the single biggest commercial solar generator in the country.” It generates a quarter of the energy it uses from renewables, much of that coming from solar panels on store roofs. Its mechanism for funding solar installations is wow-you-are-really-big-and-good-at-capitalism levels of ingenious:

[Wal-mart] gives access to its roof space to SolarCity or other installers, which pay to put up the panels (at a cost of about $1.2 million for the average array). SolarCity then sells the power generated to Wal-Mart under a long-term deal–at a price often cheaper than what the local electric utility would charge.

It’s also allowing Tesla to install some of its first household-sized batteries to store power during the day.

+ A new study finds that solar panels can cause some local climatic warming, especially when placed together in a desert. (But it’s not nearly as much as global warming as would be caused by sticking with fossil fuels.)

The U.S. greenhouse gas regulations start ambling down the long road to implementation. Vox’s Roberts highlights that (as previously reported here) even the states that are fighting the White House’s Clean Power Plan are drafting plans to comply with it. And he takes this one step further, arguing the quasi-consensus position that the regulation will decarbonize U.S. utilities even if it’s repealed by the Supreme Court or President Rubio:

The utility business is capital-intensive and slow-moving. It wants a predictable path ahead. If a coal-friendly utility in the heart of Appalachia has come to terms with the decline of coal, you can bet other utilities have as well. But right now, at least in conservative states, they are in a weird and uncomfortable position, stuck between unambiguous market trends on one side and posturing local politicians on the other.

In the end, having been prompted by (at least the threat of) the Clean Power Plan to begin grappling with these trends in earnest, utilities are unlikely to return to their head-in-the-sand posture.

+ For international readers curious as to what Republican-friendly coverage of the plan looks like, here’s the Fox News report on the rules’ publication. “The Clean Air Act was not designed as a tool for climate negotiations.”

China is planning a cap-and-trade program to limit carbon emissions. Since China announced its carbon pricing scheme, skeptics have said that the country simply did not keep enough accurate data about itself to make cap-and-trade work. “We’re not even sure just how much energy we consume, so how can you go ahead with trading?,” a Beijing University scholar told The New York Times’s Chris Buckley.

Here is just how inaccurate that data is: In the last month, China quietly revised its coal use upward by 17 percent for every year going back to the new millennium. Because China is so big, and already burns so much coal, the annual emissions accounted for solely by the revision exceed Germany’s total yearly emissions. They also equate to about 70 percent of annual American coal emissions.

What stood out to me, though, is that this statistical change doesn’t adjust scientists’ larger estimates of the state of the climate. That’s because we measure carbon levels in the atmosphere directly—at Mauna Loa Observatory, of course, with the number near the top of this newsletter. So as science accounts for this upward emissions correction, it will have to examine what else might be absorbing all the carbon that should have shown up in the atmosphere. Is it forests, oceans, or something else?

Before Paris

There are four weeks until the most significant UN climate talks since 2009.

China and France have agreed that, if the talks produce a deal, signatories should meet every five years to review mutual compliance. The Obama administration wants to review and revise whatever emerges from the talks every five years as well.

Eric Holthaus of Slate summarizes what will likely be the legacy of the negotiations:
+ that it will be impossible to avoid two degrees Celsius of climatic warming, i.e., that the world will warm significantly;
+ and that it will be unlikely that the world warms more than 4.5 degrees Celsius, the absolute worst case scenario.

Brad Plumer, of Vox, does the math on why two degrees is looking so hard to avoid. Other mainstream press accounts (like the sidebar in this New Republic primer) have called for the world to drop the two-degree target at the Paris talks and set a more realistic one.

This week in the Earth system

+  The fires in Borneo and Sumatra continue, emitting more carbon than the U.S. every single day. “Indonesia is burning. So why is the world looking away? The Wall Street Journal reports on how the fires are choking the palm oil, rubber and paper industries.

+  Mount Rinjani, on the Indonesian island Lombok well south of the fires, began erupting Tuesday. Ash and smoke from the volcano has covered hundreds of miles, and it’s delaying flights on the nearby island and tourist destination Bali.

+ The eruption as captured by Himawari-8, Japan’s weather satellite. Notice also the convection off the rainforest, the flash of the ocean (it looks like thunder) at midday:

+ In the Horn of Africa, millions of people depend on two seasonal rains for food. The first is the belg, in the spring; the second is the kiremt, in the summer. The heavy kiremt storms are especially important: They feed between 80 and 85 percent of Ethiopians. (They are important elsewhere, too, but data is best from Ethiopia.) This year, the belg failed, and then the arrival of El Niño greatly weakened the kiremt. 8.2 million people now need food assistance, and the UN is urgently requesting additional funding.

+ Last time there were food insecurity issues in the Horn, in 2011, at least 258,000 people died. Half of them were children younger than 5. This year’s famine is forecast to be worse.

+ The Economist, in globalist glamour, has my favorite map so far of El Niño.

+ Some evidence that a region’s climate and topography can affect the languages used and  developed there, an effect previously observed in birds and bats:

Languages in hotter, more forested regions such as the tropics tended to be “sonorous,” employing lower frequency sounds and using fewer distinct consonants, whereas languages in colder, drier, more mountainous places were consonant-heavy.” […] One possible explanation for why vowel-rich languages appear more frequently in the tropics is that they travel farther than languages dominated by rapid-fire, high-frequency consonants, which lose their fidelity in humid, forested environments, he says. Heat and humidity interrupt sound, as do solid tree branches and leaves, he adds.

+ Before it becomes a product, what is fossil fuel like? “That Time I Tried to Buy an Actual Barrel of Crude Oil.”