Johnson Clean Energy District 2020 Virtual Clean Energy Tour


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Thomas Robinson | November 24th, 2020

The Johnson Clean Energy District (JCED) held a virtual tour of solar energy installations across Johnson County this past Friday.

The event was held to celebrate and discuss clean energy transitions occurring within the county.  The tour included the Prairie Hill Cohousing site, the Johnson County solar power installation by the county building, and an installation at Herbet Farms.  Attendees included state legislators and community members who are involved in the district.

Clean energy districts are local groups that strive to speed up transitions to clean energy. These organizations have been styled after the soil and water conservation districts that emerged in the 1930s following the Dust Bowl.  The first district formed in Iowa was the Winneshiek Energy District and the idea has spread to surrounding states like Illinois and Wisconsin.  The JCED works for homeowners and businesses alike, through education on available energy incentives, as well as their STEP program that installs energy efficiency measures directly in homes.

In a recent brief, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has confirmed that solar energy is the cheapest electricity in history.  Their report emphasizes the importance of a clean energy transition, and the potential cost reductions it could bring for consumers around the world and right here in Iowa.

Farmers are Beginning to Back the Fight Against Climate Change


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Nicole Welle | November 23, 2020

The American Farm Bureau has strongly opposed legislation aimed at slowing global warming in the past, but its recent decision to form the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance indicates that it may be changing course.

This coalition brings together climate advocates and agricultural lobbies that plan to urge the government to adopt policy changes that will make it cheaper and easier for farmers to reduce emissions. The coalition’s list of proposals do not include an increase in regulation or mandatory cuts to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the proposals are voluntary and, in some cases, involve paying farmers for their efforts, according to an Iowa Public Radio Article.

The recent shift in farmers’ willingness to address climate change is happening for a few different reasons. Many big food companies, like Pepsico and Kellogg’s, have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and are pushing farmers to make changes as well. Some are even paying farmers to do so. More farmers are also starting to feel the effects of climate change as droughts and flooding events become more common.

The coalition did not quantify the impact of their proposed policy changes, and some environmentalists are against the idea of farmers making money from their greenhouse gas reductions since it is not known how much pollution might actually be reduced. However, while farmers are still opposed to direct regulation, many environmentalists are celebrating the coalition as a step forward in adding farmers to the conversation about climate change.

Trump Pushes For Further Environmental Deregulation During Final Weeks in Office


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Nicole Welle | November 19, 2020

The Trump administration is using its final weeks to push through dozens of environmental rollbacks that weaken protections for migratory birds, expand arctic drilling and increase future threats to public health.

One proposed change would restrict criminal prosecution for industries that cause the deaths of migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 currently protects over 1,000 species of bird including hawks and other birds of prey, and it is used to recover damages in situations like the BP oil spill in 2010 that killed more than 100,00 seabirds, according to an AP article. The Trump administrations wants to ensure that companies face no criminal liability for preventable deaths such as this in the future. Officials advanced bird treaty changes to the white house two days after news organizations declared Joe Biden’s win.

Another recent proposal put forth by the Trump administration would set emission standards for dangerous particles of pollution emitted by refineries and other industrial sources. Others would allow mining and drilling on public lands around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico and in Alaska.

Most of these proposed changes directly benefit gas and oil industries, and some of them could be difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to reverse once he takes office. Biden could easily reverse some with executive action, but others, like putting protected lands up for sale or lease, could pose a bigger challenge.

Most of the proposed changes will go quickly through the approval process. It is not unusual for presidents to push rule changes through at the tail end of their terms, but many environmentalists and former officials believe this environmental deregulation reflects a pro-industry agenda taken to the extreme. It could have serious negative impacts on the safety of imperiled wildlife, climate change and human health.

Are We Already Past the Point of No Return for Climate Change?


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Nicole Welle | November 16, 2020

A new study found that global temperatures may continue to rise for hundreds of years even after humans completely cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Authors of the study, which was published Thursday in the British Journal Scientific Reports, wrote that the only way to stop global warming would be to eliminate human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and find a way to extract huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, according to an article in USA Today.

The scientists used a model to study the effect of greenhouse gas emission reductions on the Earth’s climate from the year 1850 to 2500. They then created projections of global temperatures and sea level rises. The model showed that cutting greenhouse gas emissions at any point in the future will not be enough if it is the only tool humans employ to combat rising temperatures and sea levels.

As the burning of fossil fuels release gases like methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, global temperatures increase. This causes Arctic ice and carbon-containing permafrost to melt, a process that releases even more carbon into the atmosphere and reduces the ability of Earth’s surface to reflect sunlight. Human action triggered these processes, and they will continue to warm the earth unless humans capture carbon in the atmosphere and make the Earth’s surface brighter, according to the study’s authors.

This study was an important thought experiment, but some environmental experts are skeptical about the accuracy of its results. Penn State University meteorologist Michael Mann said that the computer model used was too simple and failed to accurately represent large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns that could affect the results.

Regardless of the results’ accuracy, this study still reflects on the importance of finding ways to combat climate change even after global emissions reach net zero. The authors also urge other scientists to follow up and expand on their work.

United States Formally Withdraws from Paris Agreement


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Nicole Welle | November 5, 2020

The United States became the first nation to formally withdraw from the Paris agreement on Wednesday, the day after election day.

Trump announced the plan to withdraw back in June of 2017, but there are UN regulations in place that prevented the decision from taking effect until this week. Previous attempts to create a global pact for climate change failed because of internal U.S. politics, so President Obama’s negotiators worked with the UN to agree on a set of regulations that would prevent the U.S. from withdrawing too early in the case of a change in leadership. The rules stated that no country could leave the agreement until three years had passed since the date it was ratified. Once those three years had passed, countries needed to submit a 12-month notice to the UN. Because of these rules, Trump could not submit a formal notice until November of 2019, according to a BBC News article.

The Paris agreement requires participating nations to set their own targets for reducing greenhouse gases, and they must increase those goals every few years. The accord does not determine what those goals have to be, but countries are required to accurately report on their efforts. The overall goal is to keep rising average temperatures globally below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, according to a euronews article.

While Donald Trump made leaving the Paris agreement part of his election platform in 2016 and many of his supporters agree with the move, a large percentage of Americans are deeply disappointed by the decision. The U.S. currently represents about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The decision to leave the agreement has hurt the country’s reputation globally, and Many Americans believe that the U.S. should be leading the fight against climate change because it is such a large contributor.

The results of the 2020 presidential election are not yet decided, but Joe Biden vowed to rejoin the Paris agreement on his first day in office if he is elected.

“Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it,” Biden said in a Tweet on Wednesday.

Next Steps For Addressing Climate Change Could Be Learned From COVID-19


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Thomas Robinson | November 3rd, 2020

Action is needed to mitigate the coming climate crisis.  In a recent post from Yale Climate Connections (YCC), four experts emphasize lessons from the current pandemic that could prove important for the climate crisis.

 A key component preventing immediate climate action is the amount of uncertainty associated with climate science.  Not that the message of climate change is uncertain, but that the science supporting climate conclusions relies on models and predictions that include an element of risk and uncertainty.  The experts make the point that even though there is uncertainty in the models, inaction is unacceptable in the face of the threat posed by climate change.

Another lesson that COVID has revealed, is that inequality results in different experiences for those who face crisis.  COVID in the United States has resulted in a disproportionate effect on those with limited means, particularly black americans resulting in heightened death tolls and economic damages.  Similarly, climate change is affecting poorer countries more than richer countries which has only widened the wealth gap.

The 2020 Iowa Climate Statement draws similar parallels, that what we learn from the current pandemic can help address the climate crisis.  Inaction because of uncertainty only worsens the problem. To prevent inaction, informed and early measures must be taken, otherwise the challenges we face will only become more difficult to deal with.

August’s Derecho Was The United States Most Expensive Thunderstorm In Recent History


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Thomas Robinson | October 20th, 2020

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that August’s Derecho caused $7.5 billion worth of damages and that the number is still increasing.

The Derecho in August resulted in extensive damage to Iowa and has been identified as the most expensive thunderstorm to hit the US in recent history.  August’s storm comes second only to Hurricane Laura, which had a damage cost of $12 billion, for storm damages for this year.  Cedar Rapids was hit particularly hard, where it is estimated that 90% of all buildings sustained damages from the storm.

A factor for why the storm has cost so much is that the corn crop had grown enough in August to be damaged by the heavy winds.  That damage has resulted in around 850,000 acres of corn crop lost, around 50% more than previously thought.  Unfortunately, grain silos were also affected by the storm where it is estimated that 57 million bushels of stored grain were damaged.

Even now in October, Iowa is still working to recover from the storm.  Some Iowans remain unable to return home after the events and there was a spike in people filing for unemployment benefits after the storm.  Around $4 billion in federal help was asked for by Gov. Kim Reynolds to address the damages to Iowa’s farms.

How Trump’s and Biden’s Plans for the Environment Compare


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Nicole Welle | October 19, 2020

With election day drawing nearer, it is important to know where the two presidential candidates stand on environmental policy issues.

Joe Biden has spoken repeatedly about his comprehensive plan to combat climate change, but president Trump has not clearly outlined his plans for the environment if he is reelected. In order to see where exactly Trump stands, one must look at his past actions and brief comments on the issue.

Joe Biden proposed a $2 trillion clean energy plan. This plan sets a number of research and development goals, the primary one being reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. He believes these goals will ultimately increase job opportunities and reduce the negative effects of climate change on communities according to an Iowa Public Radio article. Here are some of the main goals Biden has pledged to address:

  • Allocate 40% of clean energy plan investments toward low-income and minority communities more heavily affected by pollution and climate change.
  • Seek to rejoin the Paris climate accords.
  • Increase climate-focussed investments in the auto and transportation industries to cut emissions and create jobs.
  • Implement energy upgrades in 4 million buildings, weatherize two million homes in the U.S. and build 1.5 million sustainable homes and housing units.
  • Create a division within the Justice Department that regulates and penalizes companies for environmental effects on communities.

President Trump has denied the validity of climate science in the past and has made a number of statements about his stance on climate change that often contradict each other. Here are some of Trump’s past actions and statements that could reflect his plans if reelected:

  • The president’s website lists partnering “with other nations to clean up our planet’s oceans” as one of his innovation goals for the future. He has also supported legislation to remove garbage from the oceans.
  • He put $38 billion toward “clean water infrastructure.”
  • He allocated additional funding for national parks and public lands.
  • He pulled the U.S. out of the international Paris climate deal and has tried to push policies that back the coal industry.
  • He has supported boosting production of oil and natural gas in the U.S.
  • Trump has called man-made climate change a “hoax,” and reversed multiple climate policies put in place during the Obama administration.

Some Republican lawmakers have begun to separate themselves from the outright denial of climate change, and they are pushing for a “clean energy mix” that involves multiple energy sources. This makes it unclear what Trump’s reelection could mean for energy policy in the next congress, according to an article in Market Watch.

Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


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Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.

After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires.  These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.

One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen.  Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017.  Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products. 

Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires.  Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.

Climate change clearly linked to increased wildfire severity


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Thomas Robinson | September 29th, 2020

In a review of recent climate science, researchers have demonstrated that climate change increases the risk of wildfires across the globe.

Their review makes it clear that the influence of anthropogenic climate change on fire weather is moving beyond what can be accounted for by normal climate variations. Locations around the world have seen an increase in the severity and extent of fires, such as Australia or the Amazon and fire trends are only worsening. Models suggest that the length of fire season in the higher latitudes may increase by more than 20 days per year by 2100.

An unsurprising finding from the report is that fire weather only results in fires if natural or human sources of ignition occur. One way for humans to influence the frequency of wildfires is to manage burnable areas and address potential ignition sources.

These observations come as California is facing the worst fire season in the state’s history that is currently threatening the wine country. Climate conditions have led to drier vegetation and longer periods of drought that have resulted in these severe wildfires that have burnt more than a million of acres and displaced around 200,000 people.