From Yale, Narasimha Rao says basic quality of life for all does NOT require a new burst of carbon into the atmosphere. Brilliant young scientist Zhenzhong Zeng reports growing wind is a bonus for wind power plus startling green news from China. Heather McTeer Toney joins us on the 100% Clean Economy Act and mothers stepping in on climate change.
As we enter the new decade, southern Australia is still on fire after battling emergencies right through the holidays. On December 24, Antarctica has the largest surface melt ever seen by satellite, much bigger than most countries. There is a blob of ocean water five degrees C hotter than normal hovering off the coast of New Zealand. That blob is larger than the state of Texas. The Philippines was just hit by another powerful storm. Little is normal in the hot southern hemisphere.
Closer to my home in Canada, half way through winter I have not shoveled my driveway, snow is so low. Most days hover around or above the freezing mark. Further south an atmospheric river recently flooded the American Southwest while dumping feet of snow in the mountains. It’s been storm after storm across the country all the way to New England. Europe has been very mild and comparatively peaceful, so far. Northern Scotland set a nighttime high record over 60 degrees F, and Sweden felt like Spring. There are winners and losers as the Earth warms. Then there will be just losers. In the coming year, the best and brightest scientists, experts and activists will explain the forces behind the big changes in our lives, right here on Radio Ecoshock. Welcome back.
There is no time to waste, let’s go.
NARASIMHA RAO – WE DON’T NEED TO BREAK THE CARBON BANK TO HELP EVERYONE
Billions of inhabitants on this Earth are very poor. Can the atmosphere support the carbon emissions needed to provide a decent standard of living for all people in South Africa, Brazil or India? Will that just blow up the climate into a catastrophic shift?
Surprisingly, a new study looking at those countries finds there could be room for decent living, if we do it right. Our guest Narasimha Rao is the lead author. Dr. Rao is Assistant Professor of Energy Systems at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is also affiliated with the International Institute For Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg Austria. From New Haven Connecticut, we welcome Narasimha Rao to Radio Ecoshock.
Dr. Narasimha Rao
I live among Canadians with one of the highest energy consumption per person in the world. Some days I get afraid of the terrible future if everyone in the world lived like this. But I don’t want anyone to suffer in poverty either. Should we be afraid of development in India or Brazil? I found it stunning that Rao and his team found the carbon costs of extending well-being to everyone, things like education, communication, and health care – are pretty cheap in carbon, compared to transportation and preparing food. That sounds like good news, like we could make life much better for over a billion people, without blowing the carbon budget.
Their study of three developing countries found meeting basic needs did not even require the construction of new power plants! The authors say “The scale of the energy gap to eradicate poverty is comparable to current energy use.”
Narasimha Rao is lead author of the paper “Energy requirements for decent living in India, Brazil and South Africa“. It was published November 18, 2019 in the journal Nature Energy.
NOT ENOUGH COOLING IN INDIA, SOUTH AFRICA, AND BRAZIL
“We estimate that about 45% of Brazilians and 20% of South Africans also lack access to air conditioning to provide adequate thermal comfort. Otherwise, the Decent Living Standard deficits in Brazil and South Africa largely relate to mobility and sanitation.”
I am preparing a book on coping with extreme heat. Are people in Brazil, India and South Africa ready for the record hot temperatures and duration that are already showing up as Earth warms? Tens of thousands of people die during and after a heat wave strikes. Can we say that during climate change, cooling is not a luxury?
“Compared with the modest energy needs required to avoid heat stress in homes, more luxurious use of air conditioning can entail energy demand of five times this minimum level.”
OPERATIONS EAT UP MORE ENERGY THAN CONSTRUCTION
“We find, somewhat surprisingly, that operating energy dominates total energy needs, despite the large infrastructure gaps, particularly in India.” That is surprising. What does it mean for energy planning?
Bottom line: this new paper from Rao et al shows us social welfare is cheap when measured in energy required. There should be no conflict between social development and climate change goals.
MORE WIND, GLOBAL GREENING, AND NEWS FROM CHINA
In a wave of bad news about climate change, some changes are good! We all cheer on wind power for example. Unfortunately for a decade or so, wind speeds were dropping around the world. But new science shows that general calming has reversed itself. In a boon to wind farms, a typical wind turbine is producing around 17 percent more energy today than in 2010. There is a new wind blowing.
A team of 15 authors published this paper in Nature Climate Change titled: “A reversal in global terrestrial stilling and its implications for wind energy production“. We talk with the lead author, Dr. Zhenzhong Zeng. He was a Postdoctoral Scholar at Princeton, now setting up his own lab in China. From Shenzhen, China we welcome Zhenzhong Zeng to Radio Ecoshock.
Dr. Zhenzhong Zeng
There are several “breaking” stories within this one interview.
FIRST: scientists observed a gradual reduction in overall winds on Earth over the past few decades. They called it “global terrestrial stilling” and ascribed it to climate change. I remember doing interviews with scientists around 2007 where they expected less mixing in the ocean, and less atmospheric turbulence as the world warmed. But now that has changed fundamentally.
Since 2010, the winds have picked up again, increasing revenues at wind farms significantly. That is great news for our hopes for clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels (and a safer climate). However, the increase may not continue, perhaps lasting only a decade says Zeng, although we are not sure.
SECOND: China is greening – it is adding more plant life, particularly as southern China becomes warmer and wetter. There are several ramifications to this. In past years, Zhenzhong Zeng has been co-author in a series of papers about the role of vegetation to moderate climate in China. We discuss this. Also, Zeng and his team have found that added vegetation does NOT slow down wind as previously thought.
THIRD: China may have to rethink it’s re-vegetation strategy. You may have seen images of the Gobi Desert expanding in the North, almost threatening the capital Beijing. But the dust storms that plagued Beijing earlier in this century magically stopped around 2010! It just stopped happening, and even experts like Zeng do not know why. I’m sure residents there appreciate the change.
But reforestation in a drying North is not working well. The place to really invest in revegetation, says Zeng, is in southern China, where climate change will help the effort.
GREENING AND COOLING
During our conversation, I asked Zeng about his earlier co-authored papers on the greening of China and related impact on climate. They found China is greening in the south at a greater rate than plant loss in the north. This vegetation he says helped cool the country, and in fact said that greening over the globe (which I did see somewhere on a NASA image) has reduced current warming by as much as 12%.
I had not seen that number before. If true, and if the sub-tropics dry and tend toward deserts as projected by many scientists, that might mean a warming currently hidden could re-emerge? Perhaps a hidden sort of heat bump still to come? That is my speculation only. We need to know more about the inter-relationships between greening and climate change.
IN THE INTERVIEW ZENG SAYS (based on this paper)
“...because of the greening of the Earth, the vegetation has helped we human beings to slow down the global warming by 12 percent. And we also find that the greening has intensified the terrestrial water cycle. For example, 30% of the increase of precipitation during the past 30 years over land is caused by the greening of the Earth. And 50% of the increase in evapotranspiration is caused by the greening. And we know that the greening in China and India dominates the greening of the Earth.”
Most of our interview is actually about one of the most startling changes that I did not know. Following 50 years when wind speeds slowed significantly, checking over 1400 world weather station data shows winds began picking up significantly since 2010. It’s a huge change, resulting in about 17% more energy production from existing wind farms when averaged out! This change in the wind is an important shift which is not yet widely known by the public.
It is a nice boost for alternative energy, and probably bad news for extreme wind storms, but Zeng says we don’t totally know why this has happened, or why it was decreasing for so long before, or how long the current increase will continue. He and colleagues DID manage to disprove one theory on global terrestrial stilling: the added drag of more plant life (under greening) and more city buildings did NOT cause the previous slowing.
Read more about this new science of increasing wind in Scientific American here.
CHINESE GOVERNMENT SUPPORT FOR CLIMATE RESEARCH AND ACTION
Zeng tells us:
“Our government, and the President and the Prime Minister they highlight a lot of the ecological civilization. And as a result they put a lot of funding for us, so our money increased a lot.”
Zeng was given $1.5 million to set up a lab. He was hiring ten students as we spoke. He graduated from Beijing University and then starting in 2016 spent 3 years at Princeton. Now he has returned, saying he could not find such funding anywhere in the world – except in China.
Meanwhile scientific research funding in America and other countries has been slashed. Is this tipping the balance of cutting edge research toward Asia? Is the Chinese government also intent on dominating climate research?
In 2017 Chinese leader Xi Jinping said China had “taken a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.” But has there been a slow-down in green aspiration there? Check out this news article.
“Recent media reports and satellite images suggest that China is building or planning to complete new coal power plants with total capacity of 148 gigawatts — nearly equal to the entire coal-power capacity of the European Union within the next few years, according to an analysis by Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.
Separately, investment in China’s renewable energy dropped almost 40 percent in the first half of 2019 compared with the same period last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research organization. The government slashed subsidies for solar energy.
Last week in Beijing, China’s vice minister of ecology and environment told reporters that non-fossil-fuel sources already account for 14.3% of the country’s energy mix. He did not indicate that China would embrace more stringent targets soon.”
This comes from the article b
Meanwhile, banks and governments do not yet know wind power is looking better (for the next decade anyway). China is still the world leader in installing new clean energy like solar and wind – while producing more greenhouse gas emissions than the United States and the European Union combined.
And read this excellent article about increasing wind energy from Princeton here.
HEATHER MCTEER TONEY
If we want to stay in a climate that is kind to us, we must stop filling the atmosphere with more carbon than Nature can absorb. Image America taking up that vision. The American Congress has a bill for it. It’s called “The 100% Clean Economy Act“. This new legislation has widespread support, from groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, and even business.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund:
“One hundred fifty members of the U.S. House of Representatives are co-sponsoring the 100% Clean Economy Act, including members from the business-oriented New Democrat Coalition, the Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and senior House committee leaders. 20 of the nation’s leading public health, environmental, and clean energy organizations also support the bill.”
You can read a comparison between the proposed American Green New Deal and the European Green Deal (just passed) here.
To help us understand the vision, we have one of the bright lights: Heather McTeer Toney. From from 2004 to 2012, Heather served as Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. She was the first African American and first woman to hold that position. President Obama appointed Heather as Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast Region, a huge job with a budget around half a billion dollars. Now Heather is Field Director for the nonprofit group “Moms Clean Air Force“.
In November, Heather delivered a keynote talk at the 2019 Bioneers Conference. The title was Climate Action IS the Social Justice Issue of Our Time. That is a big deep learning curve even for many environmentalists: why is climate action our new social justice challenge?
Try the same test Heather used on Google: search for images of environmentalists. The results are pretty well all white people. Demographically, in rough figures, whites are thought to be 30% of all humans. White people are less than one third of humanity, and yet still dominate many fields of power – and dominate critics of power like environmentalists.
Climatically, “people of color” – that is “most people” – will suffer more impacts from climate change than wealthier whites, and have the least resources to adapt or even survive. We have a lot of work to do.
THE CLIMATE FIGHT: ENTER THE MOMS
We have heard the Raging Grannies. We have seen youth, including Greta Thunberg. But I wondered for years “where are the mothers” – the people who care most about a future for our kids. Enter “Moms Clean Air Force” with over a million members in America, fighting both climate change and air pollution. There is a lot of promise and power in that movement, so check out their web site for on-going action.
ALEX’S FOGGY PREDICTIONS FOR THE NEW YEAR & COMING DECADE
I think of the times of my parents. Their parents were the survivors of World War Two. For the kids born after the slaughter and epidemic of the First World War, history tried to skip over those six years (war plus the Spanish flu). Then came the Depression, with a real loss of wealth and status for many. Then World War Two.
I think those kinds of perilous times, accompanied by the shock of losing – financially, losing rights and faith – that is coming. We don’t know when. My guess is within the 2020’s the first wave will strike various parts of the world. The global system will weaken, twist out of shape, become irregular and less dependable. By the 2030’s the first famines might appear, with tens of millions or more starving as they did in my childhood.
Humans will accept all that. The survivors will regroup multiple times. Think of the number of times “the New Roman Empire” was declared, complete with an Emperor. America and Canada may fracture and regroup – but each time at a level of less consumption, more local production, and fewer people.
I really don’t think humans will go extinct. But they may become unrecognizable to our conception.
Of course there could be jokers – good and bad. We may have revolution, race-based biological warfare, an asteroid strike, nuclear winter, – there are so many major players, only a fool can predict a future with confidence.
We are totally out of time – for Radio Ecoshock this week. Thank you for listening, and caring about our world. And my deep thanks to everyone who donated to Radio Ecoshock over the holidays. You give me new power and determination to keep on producing this show, to keep the voices of scientists, authors, and activists coming directly to you and people all over the world. Please help me if you can.