Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
By now we're familiar with some of the scarier potential impacts of climate change: Floods, fires, stronger hurricanes, violent conflicts. Well, here's a new one to add to your nightmares. Lightning strikes in the continental United States will increase roughly 12 percent for every degree Celsius of global warming, a study published today in Science finds. If warming continues unchecked, that could translate into a 50 percent increase in lightning by the end of the century—three strikes then for every two strikes now. (On average, there are currently about 25 million strikes per year.)
Does this mean an increase your odds of getting struck by lightning? Technically yes, I guess, but I wouldn't worry about that. Instead, the increase matters because lightning strikes are the principle cause of wildfires, which are already predicted to become more severe due to global warming. In one 24-hour period in August, lightning in Northern California started 34 wildfires. The study doesn't make any specific predictions about wildfire activity, but knowing about future lightning conditions is an important part of that equation.
Lightning is notoriously hard to account for in climate models, because the models can only represent large-scale atmospheric forces like wind speed, moisture, and temperature; they can't show relatively small electric pulses, said Anthony Del Genio, an atmospheric scientist for NASA who was not involved with the study. So to get a sense of how lighting patterns will change in future climates, scientists have to rely on "proxies"—third-party forces they can model that have a known relationship to lightning. Early lightning studies in the 1990s, for example, made inferences based on how the heights of clouds—thought to be one contributor to lightning patterns—are expected to change with global warming, Del Genio said.
But lightning is a complex phenomenon that still isn't fully understood by atmospheric scientists, so proxies have mostly proven to be imperfect for one reason or another. As a result, the Science study explains, previous estimates for how lightning will change with global warming range from an increase of 5 percent to and increase of more than 100 percent for each degree of temperature rise. Not very informative.
This study presents a new proxy for lightning—a proxy that author David Romps of the University of California-Berkeley thinks is much stronger than any of the previous ones. It's actually a combination of two proxies: precipitation and "CAPE," a standard measure of the kinetic energy clouds hold as they rise in the atmosphere. Lightning is the product of electrical charges caused by ice particles of different densities colliding in clouds, so Romps chose factors that would be necessary for lightning to occur: Enough precipitation to form ice, and enough upward energy to keep the ice suspended.
Taken together, those proxies accurately predicted 77 percent of actual lightning strikes observed in the US in 2011 by a national web of electromagnetic sensors. That result, Romps said, is a sign that these proxies are "doing a remarkably good job" of representing lightning patterns.
The video below shows the data Romps used to compare his hypothesis to observed lightning strikes, here represented as red dots. The original was over five minutes long—with one second for every day of the year—so we sped it up a bit.
The next step was to use data from 11 existing climate models to find out how precipitation and CAPE are predicted to change with global warming. Although Romps said the correlation between warming and CAPE is still being studied, all 11 models predicted it would increase by the end of the century. In other words, global warming will probably produce clouds that have stronger upward momentum. Combine that with predicted precipitation and, according to Romps, you get a sense of how much more lightning we can expect to see.
In this study, Romps' dataset paints its predictions with a broad brush; the data isn't detailed enough to know how lightning will change in specific parts of the country, or how the frequency will change in different seasons. But Del Genio says that the study advances our understanding of which weather forces contribute most to lightning. What's more, he says, Romps' work give us a strong indication of what lies ahead.
The deal could also be a big win for the clean energy sector. It calls for more funding for research and development projects focused on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean vehicles. It also includes a major new pilot project in China to study carbon capture and sequestration, the controversial technology that—at least in theory—could help China curb its emissions while continuing to burn coal for electricity.
Perhaps most significantly, the plan says that for China to meet its clean energy production target, it will have to roll out an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of low-carbon energy sources by 2030. That's roughly equivalent to the size of the US's current electric grid, but made up entirely of non-fossil energy. So the renewable energy market in China, already the world's biggest, is poised to grow by a lot over the next decade or so. That's not necessarily a new development, but now we know that the growth expectation is nailed down to some specific numbers—and that it will happen with the support of the US government and American companies.
"This is what energy innovation looks like…innovation that takes advantage of demand in growing markets."
In other words, China's climate goals represent a big economic opportunity for both countries.
"I think the technology stuff is the most important part of this agreement," said Alex Trembath, an energy analyst with the Breakthrough Institute. "This is what energy innovation looks like: Not only partnerships in deploying new technologies, but innovation that takes advantage of demand in growing markets" like China.
Up to this point, trade relations on clean energy have been a little icy between China and the US, especially on solar power. Over the last couple years, the explosion of the solar power market has led to some bitter trade wars between Chinese and American solar panel manufacturers, with US regulators complaining that Chinese companies were dumping super-cheap panels on the American market. The Commerce Department already raised tariffs on Chinese solar technology this summer, and it's poised to do so again in December.
But Nick Culver, a solar market analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says yesterday's announcement effectively signals a pivot in the Obama administration's attitude that will ultimately benefit the US solar industry.
"Folks in the solar world are worried about a discrete number of things that can really throw the brakes in the US, and one of those things is a trade war with escalating tariffs," Culver said. "This seems like it really relieves that fear," because the plan makes it US policy to promote, not inhibit, China's clean energy sector.
Culver cautioned that it could be several years before China's new commitments translate to a noticeable uptick in manufacturing, so don't expect solar stock prices to necessarily skyrocket right away. The bilateral plan is light on details, so it's hard to say exactly when and how China envisions ramping up its solar deployment. But now the tone is set for a relationship between the countries that is less combative and more collaborative.
That attitude applies beyond solar power. China is the world's biggest coal consumer; it gets more than 70 percent of its power from coal. Thanks to China's skyrocketing growth, its coal addiction is expected to rise until 2030, when the International Energy Agency predicts China will, at its peak, consume more than half the world's coal. To reconcile China's need for more cheap energy with its climate goals, the plan calls for a major pilot project to study carbon capture and sequestration, a technology intended to capture carbon dioxide from coal plants and either bury it underground or repackage it for use as an industrial chemical.
The project will be a fresh opportunity to prove that CCS can be made economically viable—the closest equivalent project in the US, a coal plant in Mississippi, is a $5 billion boondoggle.
"Having CCS called out specifically is a good sign that the technology is necessary" for China to meet its climate goals, said Elizabeth Burton, director of the Global CCS Institute, a Melbourne-based think tank.
Nuclear power could also be a winner. China already has 26 nuclear reactors in the works, with an additional 60 planned, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. These will likely become a key component of China's push for low-carbon energy.
Trembath said the agreement is a model for international collaboration on climate action that reduces our collective carbon footprint without the geopolitical hassle of a legally binding global treaty.
"If you really want to gather momentum for clean energy," Trembath said, "you have to take advantage of China."
President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met today in Beijing.
In a surprise announcement Tuesday night, the world's two biggest economies and greenhouse gas emitters, United States and China, said they will partner closely on a broad-ranging package of plans to fight climate change, including new targets to reduce carbon pollution, according to a statement from the White House.
More coverage of the historic US-China climate deal.
The announcement comes after President Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping today in Beijing, and includes headline-grabbing commitments from both countries that are sure to breathe new life into negotiations to reach a new climate treaty in Paris next year.
According to the plan, the United States will reduce carbon emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, nearly twice the existing target—without imposing new restrictions on power plants or vehicles.
Tuesday's announcement is equally remarkable for China's commitment. For the first time, China has set a date at which it expects its emissions will "peak," or finally begin to taper downward: around 2030. China is currently the world's biggest emitter of carbon pollution, largely because of its coal-dependent economy, and reining in emissions while continuing to grow has been the paramount challenge for China's leaders.
The White House said in a statement that China could reach the target even sooner than 2030. It "expects that China will succeed in peaking its emissions before 2030 based on its broad economic reform program, plans to address air pollution, and implementation of President Xi's call for an energy revolution."
But the White House was more cautiously optimistic on China's goal of reaching the goal of 20 percent total energy consumption from zero-emission sources by 2030. It painted a picture of the challenges ahead for the energy-hungry giant: "It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030—more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States."
This is the first time such a policy has come from the very top, President Xi Jinping. Previously, the first and only mention of "peaking" came from Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli at the UN climate talks in New York in September.
"This is clearly a sign of the seriousness and the importance the Chinese government is giving to this issue," said Barbara Finamore, Asia director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the environmental advocacy group, in an interview from Hong Kong. "The relationship [between the US and China] is tricky, but climate has been one of the areas where the two sides can and are finding common ground."
The announcement also sets the stage for conflict with the Senate's new Republican leadership, which just today signaled that attacking Obama's climate initiatives will be a top priority in 2015.
The plan does not entail using the US Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gases, as the bulk of Obama's existing climate strategy does. Instead, it involves a series of initiatives to be undertaken in partnership between the two countries, including:
Expanding funding for clean energy technology research at the US-China Clean Energy Research Center, a think tank Obama created in 2009 with Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao.
Launching a large-scale pilot project in China to study carbon capture and sequestration.
A push to further limit the use of hydroflourocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas found in refrigerants.
A federal framework for cities in both countries to share experiences and best practices for low-carbon economic growth and adaptation to the impacts of climate change at the municipal level.
A call to boost trade in "green" goods, including energy efficiency technology and resilient infrastructure, kicked off by a tour of China next spring by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
NRDC's Finamore said the magnitude of the agreement—which was made well in advance of expectations—will provide fresh impetus to the drive for a new global climate agreement in Paris next year. "Hopefully this will give new ambition to other countries as well to move forward quickly," she said. The agreement "sends a powerful signal to every other country that they are serious and are willing to come to the table to reach a global agreement."
"Even if the targets aren't as ambitious as many might hope, the world's two largest carbon emitters are stepping up together with serious commitments," said Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington policy group. "This will help get other countries on board and greatly improves the odds for a solid global deal next year in Paris."
"For too long it's been too easy for both the US and China to hide behind one another," he said. Or as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon put it: "Today, China and the United States have demonstrated the leadership that the world expects of them."
After last week's midterm elections, the Senate is set to be packed with a brand new crop of Republican climate change deniers. They'll supplement the GOP's old guard of science skeptics, including Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and James Inhofe (Okla.), who will likely become chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
One of the major repercussions of the GOP's Senate takeover could actually play out overseas, at next winter's United Nations climate summit in Paris. The Paris meeting is meant to be a forum for countries—especially big polluters such as the United States, the European Union, China, and India—to hammer out an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help poorer countries adapt to global warming.
"We expect a full frontal attack from some in the Republican party."
President Obama has already signaled that his team in Paris will push for an agreement that is not legally binding—unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the last major climate treaty, which the US never ratified—so as to bypass the need for congressional approval. But that doesn't mean there won't be other opportunities for the Senate's new climate denial caucus to shake up the negotiating process—specifically, by attempting to block Obama's plan to use the Environmental Protection Agency to slash carbon emissions.
The highest hurdle in negotiations like this is something David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council calls "a vicious cycle of finger-pointing," wherein no country wants to commit to something that the other big polluters can't, or won't, commit to. After all, because climate change is a global problem, a climate treaty makes sense only if all the biggest carbon polluters are on board. That means that unless the international community is confident the US will follow through on aggressive climate policies, other countries will be unlikely take meaningful actions to fight global warming.
Last week, an energy analyst at Deutsche Bank came to a startling conclusion: By 2016, solar power will be as cheap or cheaper than electricity from the conventional grid in every state except three. That's without any changes to existing policy. In other words, we're only a few years away from the point where, in most of the United States, there will be no economic reason not to go solar. If you care about slowing climate change or just moving toward cleaner energy, that is a huge deal.
And solar energy is already going gangbusters. In the past decade, the amount of solar power produced in the United States has leaped 139,000 percent. A number of factors are behind the boom: Cheaper panels and a raft of local and state incentives, plus a federal tax credit that shaves 30 percent off the cost of upgrading.
Still, solar is a bit player, providing less than half of 1 percent of the energy produced in the United States. But its potential is massive—it could power the entire country100 times over.
So what's the holdup? A few obstacles: pushback from old-energy diehards, competition with other efficient energy sources, and the challenges of power storage and transmission. But with solar in the Southwest already at "grid parity"—meaning it costs the same or less as electricity from conventional sources—Wall Street is starting to see solar as a sound bet. As a recent Citigroup investment report put it, "Our viewpoint is that solar is here to stay."