Water levels have dropped so low in the Colorado River that they threaten a dam trusted by millions of Americans. In Texas, it was so hot last week that the state grid operator had to ask people twice to save electricity. And in western Kansas, it’s so dry that hardly any wheat sprouted this year, further straining global agricultural markets upended by the war in Ukraine.
Such events are a sign of how climate change is altering life in the United States. However, they have yet to provoke a serious response in Washington, where Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told his Democratic counterparts last week that he could not support climate provisions in a broader budget bill (E&E Journal, July 15). In an evenly divided Senate, the pronouncement likely kills prospects for federal climate legislation.
The result is a collision of political and atmospheric reality.
The atmospheric reality is this: the world has already warmed about 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial levels, causing many of the extreme weather events seen today. As long as people continue to dump more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere than machines and the Earth can absorb, the planet will get hotter. And a hotter planet is a recipe for even more frequent and stronger heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes, among other extreme weather events.
But the political reality is that the US federal government, which sets policy for the world’s second largest emitter today, is not taking action that will lead to a significant reduction in greenhouse gases this decade. That leaves it up to states, cities and markets, not to mention other countries, to try to make up for the lack of action in Washington.
Few analysts believe they can deliver the necessary reductions.
“There’s no time for the world’s biggest carbon emitters to scoff at emissions cuts,” said Rob Jackson, an Earth systems scientist at Stanford University.
Jackson is the leader of the Global Carbon Project, a group of international climate researchers tracking global emissions. In 2021, they estimated that the world had 11 years at current emissions rates before the planet reached 1.5C of warming, the threshold after which the dangers of a warming world begin to rapidly accelerate. The planet has 32 years before it reaches 2 C of warming, the initial goal of the Paris climate agreement.
In recent years, Democrats have talked about efforts to cut emissions. And so, when the party took control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House in 2020, expectations for a federal climate bill soared. However, the combination of narrow legislative majorities and a series of historic crises have relegated climate to the to-do list of President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats.
“The political reality is that climate is not a priority for Democrats,” Jackson said. “I think it means we’ll be over 1.5 C in a couple of years and hit 2 C before we know it.”
The situation is reminiscent of 2009, when then-President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers passed a federal stimulus bill, health care legislation and financial reforms only to fail on the climate, Jackson said. The problem, he said, is that the global emissions budget is almost exhausted and Republicans have shown no serious signs of getting involved in climate policy.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting another 10 years,” Jackson said.
As Washington dithers, Americans begin to grapple with the consequences of global warming. In the Southwest, federal regulators recently warned states they needed to slash water use to protect dams on Lake Mead and Lake Powell in Nevada and Arizona, respectively. The two reservoirs are critical to managing the flow of water along the Colorado River, making them a key source of water for some 40 million Americans in the desert Southwest. And as large hydroelectric facilities, they are also the cornerstone of the Western power grid.
At least they have been.
Water levels were just 32 feet above the elevation needed to generate electricity at Glen Canyon Dam on Lake Powell earlier this year, prompting the US Bureau of Reclamation to make efforts without precedents to reinforce the levels of the reservoir (green cable, May 3). In an average year, Glen Canyon Dam generates about 5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, according to Reclamation, enough to power about 466,000 homes. But as water levels have receded, so has the dam’s output. Initial data from the Department of Energy shows it generated just over 3 billion kWh of power last year.
In the center of the country, Texas is experiencing its hottest summer since 2011 (climate cable, 12th of July). Temperatures in Austin reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit for five consecutive days, according to to the National Weather Service, the third-longest streak on record. The scorching heat sent energy demand soaring as Texans sought relief from their air conditioning. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s main grid operator, twice asked consumers to reduce power consumption to avoid rolling blackouts.
Further north, parts of western Kansas have gone more than 300 days without recording an inch of rain. As a result, wheat farming is suffering, an unwelcome development as the world struggles to find grain following the Russian invasion of Ukraine (climate cableJuly 8).
Climate change alone is not solely responsible for events such as low water levels in Lake Powell or the difficulties of the Texas power grid. In both cases, rapid population growth is taxing water and electricity supplies. A changing power grid, which is replacing old coal and gas plants with renewables, is also a factor.
But global warming has made those challenges more difficult.
“We have gone through a degree of warming. In a sense, we at least have an idea of the magnitude of the impacts. Two degrees of warming would be twice as intense,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University and a Texas state climatologist. “But it takes us further away from historical conditions, which means extreme events are increasingly likely to be worse than anything previously experienced.”
Scientists were once hesitant to attribute individual weather events like the heat wave that hit Texas last week to global warming. However, that thinking has begun to change in recent years amid a growing body of irrefutable evidence that the planet is warming.
Events like the heat dome that engulfed the Pacific Northwest last year are nearly impossible in a colder world, scientists said. So are storms like Hurricane Harvey, which dropped up to 60 inches of rain in parts of Texas, one of the most significant rain events since record-keeping began in the 1880s.
Finding a consensus on policies that can reduce emissions is difficult enough, as evidenced by the inability of Congress to pass meaningful federal climate legislation. But the challenge is compounded by atmospheric reality. The methane emitted today will remain in the atmosphere for several decades. Carbon dioxide released into the air today can stay there for centuries, according to NASA.
“If we wake up in 5 to 10 years and say, ‘This is unbearable for our economy, for our communities, for a livable future; we need to act,’ it will be too late to reduce and stop the losses that will occur,” said Kim Cobb, a climatologist at Brown University. “This is a challenge where the decisions we make this year, next year and the next year will determine what kind of weather we will have at least through the middle of the century and probably beyond.”
Right now, Washington is making a decision not to act in a way that seriously limits emissions this decade. Congress passed an infrastructure bill last year that puts money toward research into technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, hydrogen and advanced nuclear power. However, most experts expect it to be at least a decade before those technologies can begin to be deployed at scale (climate cableAugust 13, 2021).
In an interview with a West Virginia radio station on Friday, Manchin held the door open to work on a climate bill after Congress’s summer recess. The West Virginia senator said he wanted to see July inflation figures before proceeding with a climate bill. But many Democrats said they had little hope of securing Manchin’s vote, which is needed in a 50-50 Senate, after seeing him withdraw from two potential climate packages (green cableJuly 15).
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is transfixed by a recent Supreme Court ruling that limits the options available to the EPA to regulate power plant emissions. While the agency has some important tools left to regulate CO2, the high court’s ruling suggests that justices would be skeptical of future agency actions that do not have the explicit approval of Congress.
Despite all these difficulties, emission reductions are likely to continue. Continued deployment of renewable energy and increased adoption of electric vehicles mean emissions are likely to fall 24 to 32 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade without significant policy changes, Rhodium said. Group in an analysis last week. US emissions were 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2021, Rhodium reported.
The problem is that those cuts fall well short of the 50-52 percent reduction envisioned by Biden, and leave the United States a long way from achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century.
The impact of US climate inaction on global emissions will ultimately depend on how far the US is from meeting its goals, said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University.
“The direct impact on global emissions may be modest, but the indirect impact could be huge,” he wrote in an email. “If the US, the world’s largest historical emitter, cannot meet its commitments to the rest of the world, that provides an excuse for countries like China and India, which are likely to dominate more emissions, to scale back their own efforts. .”
The risks of a warming planet increase as temperatures rise. At 1.5°C, there will be more glacial melting and sea level rise, causing additional “death and destruction,” Mann said. But the impact becomes even more damaging and widespread after temperatures exceed 2°C, he noted.
“It’s a world,” Mann said, “that we want to avoid.”