The POW Dispatch: Our take on climate news, March 19, 2021

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 WORDS: DONNY O’NEILL | HEADER IMAGE: ADAM CLARK

Welcome to The Dispatch, Protect Our Winters’ weekly wrap-up of climate news, complete with our take on each topic and how that impacts our ongoing efforts to reduce the effects of climate change.

Before we dive into this week’s Dispatch, we encourage you to get outside and CrushIt4Climate this March. Not sure what that is? Never fear, we have all the details (and a few rad prizes to giveaway), here.

The lead story in this week’s POW Dispatch is Deb Haaland’s historic confirmation as Secretary of the Department of Interior. Haaland’s confirmation will have a huge impact on the present and future of America’s public lands and marks a monumental turning point in the department’s relationship with the country’s Native American population. 

We also explore a striking discovery from a long-forgotten Cold War experiment that paints a picture of climate change’s impacts on the Greenland ice sheet, wind’s role in America’s energy transition, the current electric vehicle revolution and much more. Dive into this week’s POW Dispatch.

Notable Quote:

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior. Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.” – Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland

Our Takeaway:

After what seemed like an eternity, former New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland was finally confirmed by the Senate for the position of Secretary of the Department of Interior (DOI). We’ve been talking about Haaland’s potential confirmation for the majority of 2021 and with it finally official, we can all breathe a big sigh of relief. 

Haaland’s confirmation is historic and her role will be instrumental in sharply reducing carbon emissions from America’s public lands. The confirmation is historic as Haaland is the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency and now heads the department responsible for the 1.9 million Native people living in the United States. Not only does this population stand to suffer the most from the effects of climate change, but have been historically abused and neglected by the DOI, two trends Haaland will be tasked with reversing. 

Additionally, the DOI oversees 500 million acres of public land and federal waters, where about a quarter of the nation’s carbon emissions come from. Included among Haaland’s top priorities are halting new oil and gas drilling on public lands, expanding wind and solar power on public lands and elevating the DOI’s central role in President Biden’s climate agenda. 

The White House has already placed a short-term moratorium on new oil and gas leases on public lands, but a long-term ban is a key to successfully ridding public lands of carbon emissions. The initial halt of new permits has been met with pushback from the oil and gas industry and politicians who support fossil fuel extraction, and any long-term ban is guaranteed to be met with similar vitriol. 

Marcella Burke, an energy policy lawyer and former DOI official, notes that total ban legislation will likely be met with a court challenge, but a “death by a thousand cuts” approach could be more effective. This would entail enacting stringent regulations and cleanup rules that would make the cost of new oil leasing far outweigh the potential revenue. This diversified approach would lower the probability that a single overarching ban would be thrown out in court. 

Haaland and the DOI are also tasked with submitting a detailed plan for federal management of the outer continental shelf of the American coastline by June 2022, where a rich opportunity to expand offshore wind power and limit offshore drilling exists.

Haaland represents a beacon of light for a near-future where America’s public lands are treated as cherished and necessary cultural and recreational assets, rather than places ripe for extraction. We’ll be following the actions of the DOI closely over the coming weeks and months to do our part to ensure this becomes a reality.

Image courtesy of Tesla

Article Synopsis:

After years of sluggish adoption, electric vehicles are poised for a sharp increase in sales, new products and investments that could eventually make the gasoline engine a thing of the past.

Our Takeaway:

The electric vehicle (EV) hype train is moving at blistering speed. With big-name automakers like General Motors, Volvo, Ford and Jaguar announcing EV goals in the next five to 15 years, investors pumping funds into those companies and the hope for a new round of EV tax incentives driven by the arrival of the Biden administration, the hype is deserved. Remember when 29-inch wheels first hit the mountain bike scene? Proponents of the 29er bikes highlighted its efficiency in clearing obstacles while detractors noted the larger wheelbase made it more difficult to maneuver around corners. In any case, it’s clear benefits for efficiency on the trails outweighed any cons and now 29ers make up a huge portion of the mountain bikes you see on the trail systems. 

EVs could be in for a similar rise to prominence. Americans are more open than ever to purchasing EVs, with 52% of the country stating they probably or definitely will own an EV within the next five to 10 years. 

Lower price tags for EVs are one of the most important factors in the continued EV revolution. The lower range of pricing of EVs still comes in at over $30,000 today, and making EVs more affordable is a top priority of automakers. However, the higher upfront cost is usually offset by the amount saved on gas and maintenance, as EVs have fewer parts that can malfunction, don’t use gas and don’t require oil changes. 

Of course, ensuring there’s an adequate charging infrastructure available for EVs is imperative to a vast increase in the amount of charged-up cars on the road. Planning a mountain bike road trip with that new 29er of yours is a lot harder when your planned route is void of charging stations. 

Then there’s the issue of tax incentives. Currently, there’s a federal tax incentive worth up to $7,500, but big-name manufacturers like General Motors and Tesla have already hit their cap. Multiple bills introduced in Congress at the beginning of President Biden’s term would raise those limits, however, providing more incentives that could electrify the EV market.

The EV revolution depends on technological and financial advancements, political will and a cultural shift in how the nation views climate change (sound familiar? Click here for POW’s Theory of Change). The cultural shift seems to be in place, while increased investment into charging solutions will help check the technological and financial solutions box. And further tax incentives put in place by the federal government (political will) will help entice automakers to keep focusing on the electric revolution. In short, it’s all hands on deck to keep the wheels rolling down the trail to carbon-neutral vehicles. 

Fossilized plant remains from the bottom of the Camp Century ice core. Photo: Andrew Christ 

Notable Quote:

“…what we found means the ice sheet melted away and raised sea level within a climate system kind of like ours. That, as a climate scientist, has more gravity.” – Andrew Christ, geologist at the University of Vermont

Our Takeaway:

Back in 2016, the ski world was introduced to one of climate change’s ground zeroes, the Greenland ice sheet, via the Salomon TV film, Guilt Trip. Salomon team athletes went to Greenland in search of first descents but, acknowledging the impact of their carbon footprint, brought along climate scientist Alan Hubbard to study the rapidly melting ice sheet.

Hubbard’s ice core samples, taken near Greenland’s second highest peak, Mt. Forel, would help determine if the ice was melting at Greenland’s highest elevations and what impact that was having on sea-level rise. His hypothesis was confirmed, that high elevation, refrozen melt layers were forming and increasing run-off from the ice sheet, indicating that sea level was rising faster than previously thought.

Fast forward to this week, and new findings have emerged detailing just how susceptible Greenland is to subtle changes in global temperatures, and how crucial it is to reset the systems that are contributing to the man-made climate change that’s causing runoff from its ice sheet. 

Findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on Monday reveal that Greenland’s frozen surface—the biggest reservoir of ice in the Northern Hemisphere—can collapse as a result of small increases in temperature over long periods. For reference, if the entire ice sheet were to collapse—which is unlikely in the near future—it would raise global sea levels by over 20 feet. If your eyebrows aren’t raised at that figure, you’re not paying attention. 

Researchers at the University of Vermont studied ice core samples taken from Greenland during the Cold War and found previously undiscovered twigs, leaves and moss that froze near the bottom of the cores. Andrew Christ, a geologist at the University of Vermont, said they appeared as if they could’ve been alive just yesterday, like the dirt and vegetation found at the bottom of a snowpack in your local mountain range. Christ determined that if this kind of greenery once grew in multiple locations on the now frozen surface of Greenland, it meant that the ice had once melted completely in the not-so-distant past. And if it happened once in a similar climate, it could happen again. 

The samples were determined to be from a period of repeated ice ages known as the Pleistocene when the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures were drastically lower than today. Average global temperatures have risen over 1 degree Celsius since 1880 and Greenland’s ice is melting faster than an ice cream cone on a sizzling sidewalk. 

While thoughts of Greenland often come with visions of far-off expeditions, winter camping and first ascents and descents for outdoors people, the conditions of Greenland’s ice sheet offer a ton of data about the effects of climate change and help underscore the urgency with which action is needed.

A Wyoming wind farm beneath the banner of Utah’s Uinta mountains.

Photo: Donny O’Neill

Article Synopsis:

Wind is now America’s top renewable source of electricity generation. 2020 in particular was a banner year for wind power in the U.S., with more capacity installed in the final quarter of 2020 alone than in all of 2019. Now, the total capacity exceeds 120,000 MW, enough to power about 38 million homes.

Our Takeaway: 

Wind is a constant for people who recreate outside, whether it’s a soft, cool ocean breeze or the subtle touch of air that rustles a tree’s leaves or that icy gust that threatens to pick you up and send you flying off the side of a mountain like a paper airplane. The wind is a constant companion in many ways. It’s also become the country’s top source of renewable energy. 

Wind’s ascension to the top of the renewable energy throne is a perfect example of financial and technological instruments working hand in hand to solve America’s carbon emissions problem. Thanks to federal funding for research and development, subsidies and state renewable energy requirements, the cost of wind energy has plummeted since the 1980s. Wind is now one of the cheapest energy sources in the United States, with its levelized cost making it less expensive than gas-fired power plants. Wind is also a perfect tag team partner for solar power; it’s generally windiest at the beginning and end of the day when solar production is low, making the two types of electricity generation work perfectly together to extract the most power throughout the course of a day. 

The overwhelming majority of the United States’ wind power comes from onshore sources (99.9% to be exact) with recent technological advances (longer and lighter blades with curved tips to operate more efficiently at lower wind speeds) helping to boost possible energy collection on land. However, offshore wind is both stronger and more reliable than its landlocked counterpart and is the obvious next step to increase America’s reliance on wind energy. While the country’s current offshore wind capabilities are small, there are tons of projects in the works, especially on the gusty East Coast. At the end of 2019, the United States boasted a mere 42-megawatt offshore wind capacity, but the planned capacity for offshore projects now stands at 28,521 megawatts. It makes economic sense for densely populated coastal communities to source energy from nearby ocean-bound wind farms rather than have it transported from onshore developments in the middle of the country, far, far away. New technologies, like Vestas’ new 15-megawatt offshore wind turbine, are rapidly increasing the efficiency of offshore wind, and projections put the market at $70 billion by 2030. 

Next time a gentle breeze causes you to reach for your coat on top of a mountain peak, remember that natural phenomenon can produce energy for your home and the houses of 38 million others in the country. It’s a pretty mind-blowing thing to think about. 

Photo: Donny O’Neill

Notable Quote:

“In honor of the spring equinox, which falls this coming weekend and brings with it the return of longer days, I offer some news that might bring you, too, a glimmer of light in all this darkness. I share these stories with the usual caveat attached to any kind of climate optimism: Hope is not a license to relax. Hope is only a reminder not to give up.” – Margaret Renkl, New York Times contributing writer covering flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South

Our Takeaway:

It’s far too easy in today’s world of constant interconnectivity to devour the climate news cycle and spin into the depths of despair. This New York Times column reminds us that it’s not all doom and gloom and that behind the dwindling winter snowpacks, raging wildfires and climate-altering pollution, there are steps being taken to solve the great problems of our time. 

Margaret Renkl notes a few of the bright spots in the effort to protect the planet from climate change, including a handful of strategies we love to talk about at POW. Renewable energy is knocking fossil fuels off the traverse to the top of the ski line (shoutout Alta, Utah) with wind and solar becoming cheaper and cheaper and projections of renewables’ share of the country’s energy generation mix expected to double by 2050. We’ll need to more than double its share, of course, but the trail to the top of a mountain starts with a few steps in the right direction. 

Renkl also highlights the major court wins in favor of the climate over the past four years, including stopping oil-drilling in Arctic waters and forcing a reconsideration of fossil fuel extraction on federal lands in five separate western states. 

Lastly, Renkl points out that the American population is waking up to the need to act on climate, with over 50% of the country considering themselves “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with growing numbers, to boot. This cultural shift—one of the three main pillars that we believe will get the United States to carbon neutrality by mid-century—in the way the population thinks and acts on climate is important in the push for systemic change that can really protect our outdoor playgrounds, and the planet itself, from climate change. 

Like going to bed praying for a powder day, here’s to hope, right?

Local Climate News

While national climate topics often dominate the news cycle, there’s still plenty going on surrounding renewables, electrified transit, public lands and more in states and local communities across the nation. Take a look at what’s going on locally via the news blurbs below.

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