Climate Crisis Causing Severe Water Shortages in U.S.

The United States cannot afford to waste any more time addressing the climate crisis.  It is already drastically impacting the western U.S., particularly California.  The Golden State is in the grips of a drought so severe that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has designated 50 out of 58 Californian counties as a primary disaster area.  The snowpack that California depends upon for 30% of its’ water supply has dried up months early.  The state’s 51,000 reservoirs are only at 50% of their average capacity.  Low water supplies will hamper hydroelectric power generation, and increase the severity of this year’s wildfire season.  The lack of water will also devastate the California’s agricultural industry, which in turn impacts the rest of the U.S as California provides two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, and over one-third of its vegetables.  State officials anticipate that 500,000 acres of agricultural lands will remain unused this year due to water shortages. [1]

Sometimes, it can be difficult to identify anthropogenic climate change as the specific cause of a natural disaster. However, this is not the case with California’s historic drought.  In 2020, researchers from NASA, Columbia University, University of Idaho, University of California Merced, University of Colorado Boulder, and the Universities Space Research Association examined tree-ring constructions and hydrologic models.  Their research concluded that the southwestern U.S. is experiencing the second worst megadrought since 800 AD.  In addition, the data revealed that 46% of the factors leading to CA’s megadrought were a result of anthropogenic climate change.[2]

Water conservation is crucial even in regions that are not experiencing drought.  The water supply that can be used for human consumption is not limitless.  Ninety-seven percent of the Earth’s water supply is salt water.  Out of the remaining 3% fresh water, 2.5% is stored in glaciers and ice caps, the atmosphere, and the soil.  That leaves a mere 0.5% of the Earth’s supply readily available for human consumption.  Desalination (removing the salt from seawater) is still prohibitively expensive.  In 2015, a thousand gallons of water from a desalination plant costed up to $5 versus $2 for a thousand gallons from a traditional plant, due to the massive energy requirements.[3]   Researchers are working on improving the desalination process through more efficient membranes and developing better methods of handling the leftover brine.[4]

Conserving water ensures that the maximum possible amount is available to ecosystems, human communities, and farms.  Critically, it reduces the impacts of droughts and water shortages.[5]  There are also economic benefits to individuals and communities  in conserving water.  Water conservation reduces the costs and energy demands of wastewater treatment, and results in lower household water bills.

There are many ways that individuals can take steps to conserve precious water.  Some tips from the non-profit “The Water Project” include:[6]

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Moving Past Natural Gas for a Clean, Green World

One of the next major challenges for renewable energy providers is to displace natural gas.  As demand for oil and coal decreases, power generation is frequently being replaced by natural gas.  In the United States, natural gas currently generates about 40% of the nation’s electricity supply, compared to about 20% for renewables.  However, economic forces look promising for growth in renewables.  For example, solar panels can deliver energy at $31 to $111 a megawatt-hour compared to $122 to $162 a megawatt-hour for natural gas.[1] 

The weight of historical inertia helps explain why natural gas currently has an edge over renewables.  The U.S. already has approximately three million miles of pipeline transporting natural gas between facilities and consumers.  The top five producers are Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ohio.  One of the major products is liquefied natural gas (LNG), a natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid state at sub-zero temperatures for storage and shipping in areas where pipelines are not feasible.  The U.S. has been a net exporter of LNG since 2017 due to a significant increase in domestic natural gas production.  The majority of LNG exports went to South Korea, Japan, Spain, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.[2]

Natural gas production has a devastating effect on the environment, particularly the practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).  Fracking is the process of injecting liquid, usually a mixture of water and chemicals, into the ground to force open cracks in order to extract oil or gas.  Fracking requires great quantities of water, and when the wastewater is injected back into the ground, it can cause small earthquakes and contaminate the surrounding area with toxic chemicals.  Another significant impact of natural gas production is methane emissions.  Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.  When compared to carbon dioxide over 100 years, methane is more effective at trapping heat by a factor of 25[3].  According to estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems, including abandoned wells, were responsible for 29% of total U.S. methane emissions and 3% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.[4]  In 2015-2016, a prolonged leak from a processed natural gas (PNG) well in Aliso Canyon, California was the greatest single accidental release of greenhouse gases in U.S. history. The release prompted the evacuation of 5,790 households.[5] 

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Halting the Food Waste Flood: Now More Than Ever

There is no better time than now to tackle the pervasive issue of food waste in the United States.  As so many of our neighbors struggle to put food on their tables during this pandemic, we can all take steps to reduce food waste.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. wastes 30-40% of its food supply annually.  A snapshot from 2010 reveals that Americans wasted 133 billion pounds and $161 billion dollars’ worth of food in that year alone.[1] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated that in 2018 Americans generated 63 million tons of food waste, contributing to 24% of landfill materials.  Decomposition in landfills contributes significantly to emissions of the potent greenhouse gas, methane – 14.1% of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA estimates.[2]  This figure does not even include the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the production and transportation of food products that end up in landfills.

Studies by non-profit organizations working on climate change solutions corroborate government studies.  Project Drawdown calculated that reducing food waste could decrease worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 70 gigatons.  Crucially for ecosystem health, generating less food waste will have a significant effect on stemming the tide of biodiversity loss.  The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 70% of biodiversity loss is a result of converting habitat to agricultural land.  Cutting food waste would mean that we need less land to feed humanity.[3]

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International Treaties and Recovery after COVID-19

On September 27th, 2020, world leaders from 64 nations signed the voluntary Leaders’ Pledge for Nature.  This international agreement committed these nations to addressing the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and pollution as part of their post-COVID economic recovery plans.  Signatory nations included Bangladesh, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, and the U.K. Conspicuous in their absence were Australia, China, Brazil, India, and the U.S.[1]

The Leaders’ Pledge for Nature served as a prelude to the U.N. Biodiversity Summit on September 30th.  Nearly 150 nations met virtually to discuss the extensive global loss of biodiversity, and to build political capital for a biodiversity agreement at next year’s Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) meeting.  Interestingly, between September 27th and 30th, ten more nations signed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature.[2]

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Endangered Species in the Era of COVID-19 and the Climate Crisis

August 31, 2020

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 in response to growing concerns about biodiversity loss.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are the primary agencies tasked with carrying out actions under the ESA.  The ESA’s Section 9 prohibits any entity from taking direct actions that would harm an endangered species.  Despite mounting scientific evidence, it is presently difficult to prove a direct causal link between climate change and a specific “harm” to an endangered species.  To date, USFWS has declined to define climate change as a “harm” under Section 9.  The polar bear is one of the few species successfully listed under the ESA primarily due to climate change, listed as “threatened” in 2005. 

Despite these limitations, the ESA is a vital tool for protecting vulnerable species in a warming world.  The Vermont Journal of Environmental Law argues that the best tool the ESA has to fight climate change is critical habitat designation. The Journal reasons that USFWS can consider future migrations when proposing such designations.  Providing species with additional habitat allows them to do what they do best: adapt to a changing world. 

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COVID-19 and the Rise of Renewables

July 4, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has likely affected every aspect of our economy, including the construction of renewable energy projects.  However, even a pandemic cannot stop the continued march of renewable energy’s dominance in the U.S. energy market. On May 21, 2020, in a historical and unprecedented moment, renewable energy outshone coal by providing a higher percentage of U.S. energy consumption for 100 consecutive days.  Consumption of renewable energy sources increased 1% and coal consumption decreased 15%.

Consumer demand in the face of climate change, declining costs, and the increasing imperative for grid resiliency will continue to drive the growth of renewable energy projects.  According to the 2019 Cogent Reports Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement™ Residential study, over 40% of U.S. consumers would choose renewable energy over fossil fuels.  In a December 2019 Gallup poll, 55% of U.S. adults ranked climate change as an extremely or very important issue in the 2020 elections.  Deloitte has calculated that the levelized costs of commercial-scale solar projects fell 10% in 2019.  Onshore and offshore wind costs fell 18% and 24%, respectively.  According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the power generation costs of solar photovoltaics and onshore wind decreased 82% and 39%, respectively, from 2010 to 2019.

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"They Just Don't Get the Science!"

July 16, 2018

I have a favor to ask. Before you read this blog post any further, would you mind taking this very brief survey? This survey—composed of 11 true or false statements involving science and engineering concepts—is presented every year by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As a further favor, I also ask that you take a four-question anonymous Survey Monkey poll regarding the results of the survey. I assure you that the NSF survey does have something to do with this blog post. The poll, on the other hand, is just for me, although it may make an appearance in the future.

(I will be waiting here patiently until you get back)

A widely held belief among people who accept Climate Change is that people who deny the science just don’t understand it. Thus, if we just keep tossing off “the facts,” these people will eventually be convinced. This idea is often based on the opinion that people who accept Climate Change know more than those who don’t, or at least understand it a little better.

If only that were true.

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A Quick Aside

May 16, 2018

Note: A post on a world-wide issue that relates to Climate Change.

Climate Change is not the only area where humans can have an impact on the entire Earth. Two stories from last month, one that received widespread coverage in the mainstream press and one that didn’t, talk about the widespread problem we have with plastic pollution.

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Can We Talk?

April 14, 2018

I am pretty confident that everyone reading this blog post already accepts Climate Change science.

When Ted Conwell, the Director of Climate First!, asked if I would be interested in restarting the blog on the nonprofit’s website, I spent a good amount of time thinking about what I would blog about, and more importantly what I wouldn’t blog about. It was immediately obvious that debating Climate Change would be carrying coals to Newcastle—sorry, I am dating myself, Google it. It also seemed pointless to talk about Climate First!’s protest campaigns. They already do a good job with that, and it honestly isn’t my specialty.

So what should I blog about?

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What's Next for the Climate Movement?

March 3, 2017

Now that the first month of the Trump administration is over, those fighting for climate protection have a better idea of what they are up against for at least the next four years. While there are many negatives that we could dwell on--EPA's measures to address climate change (such as the Clean Power Plan) are very likely history, the president wants to return the coal industry to its glory days, work on the Dakota Access Pipeline has started anew, and the tightening-up of fuel economy standards for the nation's vehicles could be eased, are just a few--there are a few bright spots that we shouldn't overlook.

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