Briefly

Stuff that matters


California flooding on such a winter's day

Can Californians blame climate change for their latest weather woes?

Maybe.

Heavy rains hammered Northern California and Nevada over the weekend, causing floods, power outages, and hundreds of evacuations. The storms, which could continue through Thursday, are caused by atmospheric rivers (bands of moisture in the sky) flowing from the Pacific Ocean to the West Coast.

Atmospheric river storms are nothing new. The West Coast gets 30 to 50 percent of its annual rainfall from these flows. But California’s atmospheric river storms will get more frequent, stronger, and more destructive as the climate warms. Whether that’s already happening is unclear.

“It’s tough to point at a given storm and say oh this is climate change,” hydrologist Michael Dettinger of the U.S. Geological Survey told Grist. “I don’t have the tools to tell you that in this case, climate change increased the odds of [California’s storms] by X amount,” he says. “But I can tell you that this is what climate change looks like.”

In the future, the West Coast can expect to see prolonged droughts punctuated by huge storms, he says. Strong droughts and floods are expected to increase at least 50 percent in California toward the end of this century.


Dumb and dumber

Coal-loving Wyoming legislators are pushing a bill to outlaw wind and solar.

On the first day of the state’s legislative session, nine Republican lawmakers filed legislation that would bar utilities from using electricity produced by large-scale renewable energy projects.

The bill, whose sponsors are primarily from the state’s top coal-producing counties, would require utilities to use only approved energy sources like coal, natural gas, nuclear power, hydroelectric, and oil. While individual homeowners and small businesses could still use rooftop solar or backyard wind, utilities would face steep fines if they served up clean energy.

Wyoming is the nation’s largest producer of coal, and gets nearly 90 percent of its electricity from coal, but it also has huge, largely untapped wind potential. Currently, one of the nation’s largest wind farms is under construction there, but most of the energy will be sold outside Wyoming. Under this bill, such out-of-state sales could continue, yet the measure would nonetheless have a dampening effect on the state’s nascent renewable energy industry.

Experts are skeptical that the bill will pass, even in dark-red Wyoming, InsideClimate News reports.

One of the sponsors, Rep. Scott Clem, is a flat-out climate change denier whose website showcases a video arguing that burning fossil fuels has improved the environment.


Breaking up is hard to do

Will this massive iceberg collapse soon? Get your bets in now.

USA Today reports that an Irish bookmaker is offering 6-to-1 odds that this will be the month that an iceberg the size of Delaware splits off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf, a massive sheet of ice along the Antarctic Peninsula. When it does go, it will be one of the 10 largest ice-shelf calving events in recorded history.

Paddy Power, the chain of betting shops offering the odds, says: “You don’t have to be Captain of the Titanic to spot this is a serious problem for the planet, so we thought we’d do our bit to raise some awareness.” But the company is having some fun with the topic too, saying it’ll be “the biggest break-up since Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.”

When it does happen, it won’t usher in sea-level-rise apocalypse — at least not right away. “Because ice shelves are actually floating, they are already in the sea level budget, so they don’t contribute to sea level rise when they break up,” Kelly Brunt, a NASA geophysicist, told Wired.

Still, when it does collapse, the previously adjoining glaciers may melt more quickly — and if all the ice that Larsen C now holds back melted, global sea levels could rise by four inches.


The monuments man

President Obama is giving us a parting gift: a bunch of new national monuments.

The Obama administration announced on Thursday that it will create national monuments at three sites that are important in the history of African-Americans in the South and it will protect two areas on the West Coast to bolster climate resilience.

Two of the sites are in Alabama and will commemorate terrorist attacks by segregationists on African-Americans and civil rights activists. Another, in Beaufort, South Carolina, honors the history of African-American educational advancement during Reconstruction.

These are just the latest of the Obama administration’s many acts to celebrate locations of civil rights struggle and advancement. Last year, Obama created a national monument at the Stonewall Inn in New York City to honor gay rights history. Earlier this week, the Department of Interior established Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, where the Underground Railroad conductor lived in Auburn, New York.

Obama’s announcement on Thursday also included expanding the California Coastal National Monument, where increasing the expanse of undeveloped land on shorelines will help the area better cope with rising sea levels and more severe storms. And the president is expanding the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon.

Obama has protected more land under the Antiquities Act than any other president, by far.


dumpster fire, meet hose

Here are three reasons the world didn’t completely suck this week.

Sure, since last Friday the news cycle was dominated by (unverified) allegations that our golden-coiffed president-elect has deep ties to Russia, mind-numbing confirmation hearings, and Trump’s distaste for anti-nepotism laws.

But we’re here to remind you that not everything in the world is falling apart!

Big Oil is out: On Thursday, the Washington State Supreme Court effectively crushed a proposed oil terminal in the Port of Grays Harbor. The surprise ruling will protect the Quinault Nation’s treaty fishing rights and marks the latest blow to the Northwest’s beleaguered fossil fuel industry.

Obama’s getting bzzzy: With a stash of new national monuments under his conservation belt, it seems the president has moved on to species. The Obama administration just declared the rusty-patched bumblebee an endangered species — the first bee outside of Hawaii to earn a spot on the not-so-lucky list. Thanks, Obama!

Jane Fonda throws some shade: The 79-year-old actor and activist called out the allegedly swoon-worthy Justin Trudeau after the Canadian prime minister approved two new pipelines, pissing off First Nations groups, environmentalists, and those who believed his climate promises. Fonda warned people against being deceived by “good-looking liberals” like Trudeau. In her words: “What a disappointment.”


Dodge City

Trump’s pick for CIA director tried to weasel out of questions on climate change.

New California Sen. Kamala Harris grilled Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo about his views on climate change during a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday.

She asked if he has any reason to doubt current CIA director John Brennan’s assessment that climate change is a contributing factor to rising instability in the Middle East and other areas. Pompeo, a prominent tea partier, said he was unfamiliar with the analysis Harris mentioned. When Harris followed up, asking about whether or not he believes climate change is even happening, Pompeo was equally noncommittal.

Pompeo essentially argued that climate change isn’t relevant to the job he’s being vetted for: “Frankly, as the director of CIA, I would prefer today not to get into the details of the climate debate and science,” he said.

In the past, Pompeo has directly denied the reality of climate change. He has also called President Obama’s environmental agenda “radical” and “damaging,” and said that Obama’s signature climate change initiative, the Clean Power Plan, would not provide “any measurable environmental benefit.”

Unsurprisingly, Pompeo is friendly with the Koch brothers and has deep ties to the oil and gas industry, which has donated over a million dollars to his campaigns.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Even business titans are getting awfully worried about environmental threats.

The World Economic Forum — which gathers CEOs and other bigwigs each January for a swanky conference in Davos, Switzerland — has come out with its annual Global Risks Report. One big takeaway: “This year, environmental concerns are more prominent than ever, with all five risks in this category assessed as being above average for both impact and likelihood.”

Among the most notable risks, according to WEF: “extreme weather events” and “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation.” On the non-eco front, “economic inequality” and “societal polarization” are also big threats.

global risks landscape
World Economic Forum

While progress has been made toward climate action in recent years — in particular the Paris climate agreement — “political change in Europe and North America puts this progress at risk,” WEF says.

This “political change,” of course, refers in large part to the election of Donald Trump, a climate change denier who is stocking his cabinet with like-minded ideologues. While rich and powerful would-be do-gooders are gathered in Davos next week, attending high-minded panels on topics like “Energy’s Clean Transition” and “Sustainable Infrastructure,” Trump will be taking the oath of office and starting to roll back environmental investments and protections.