Thursday, June 02, 2022

It was not global warming that started the New Mexico wildfires

Guess who did

Two blazes that grew into New Mexico's largest ever wildfire were both started by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the agency said on Friday, prompting the state's governor to demand the federal government take full responsibility for the disaster.

Forest Service investigators determined the Calf Canyon Fire was caused by a "burn pile" of branches that the agency thought was out but reignited on April 19, the Santa Fe National Forest said in a statement.

That blaze on April 22 merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, which the USFS started with a controlled burn that went out of control on April 6, the agency previously reported.

The combined blaze has so far torched over 312,320 acres(126,319 hectares) of mountain forests and valleys, an area approaching the size of greater London, and destroyed hundreds of homes.

"The pain and suffering of New Mexicans caused by the actions of the U.S. Forest Service – an agency that is intended to be a steward of our lands – is unfathomable," New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

Lujan Grisham said the USFS investigation was a step towards the federal government taking full responsibility for the destruction of property, displacement of tens of thousands of residents, and millions in state spending caused by the fire.

"The Santa Fe National Forest is 100 percent focused on suppressing these fires," SFNF Supervisor Debbie Cress said in the statement.

Blazing a more than 40-mile-long (64-km-long) path up the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the fire has destroyed watersheds and forests used for centuries by Indo-Hispano farming villages and Native American communities.


What the media won't tell you about hurricanes

In this short post, on the first day of the official Atlantic hurricane season 2022, I’ll share five points of consensus science on hurricanes that seem to be systematically ignored by the media, and especially by those on the climate beat.

1. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its latest report, concluded that there remains “no consensus” on the relative role of human influences on Atlantic hurricane activity.

Here is what the IPCC says exactly:

“[T]here is still no consensus on the relative magnitude of human and natural influences on past changes in Atlantic hurricane activity, and particularly on which factor has dominated the observed increase (Ting et al., 2015) and it remains uncertain whether past changes in Atlantic TC activity are outside the range of natural variability.”

One reason for the inability to unambiguously attribute causality to Atlantic hurricane activity is the large interannual and interdecadal variability. The figure below comes from one of our recent papers and it shows the large variability in U.S. mainland hurricane landfalls and damage based on the state of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). There are more than 2x the median landfalls during La Niña than in El Niño and 16x the median damage — this relationship holds for the basin overall as well. We are currently in a La Niña phase, so watch out!

2. The IPCC has concluded that since 1900 there is “no trend in the frequency of USA landfall events.” This goes for all hurricanes and also for the strongest hurricanes, called major hurricanes.

Below are official data on continental U.S. hurricane landfalls, updated through 2021 from our recent paper. If you think that there have been a lot of major hurricanes in recent years, you’d be correct. One reason for the near-term increase in activity is an incredible unprecedented 11-year period from 2006-2017 during which no major hurricane made CONUS landfall. Recent years are more typical of patterns seen during the 20th century. So for those who come to the climate beat during the past twenty years, it would be easy to think that we didn’t used to have hurricanes and now we do. This is a good example that illustrates why trying to see climate changes with your own eyes is never a good substitute for data and applied climatology.

The data in the two graphs above have never been presented in IPCC or U.S. National Assessment reports, and I cannot recall ever seeing it in major media reporting on climate change (though I am happy to be corrected). One might think that such basic information might be of broad interest.

3. Continental U.S. landfalls are just a small proportion of all North Atlantic hurricanes, which in turn are just a small proportion of all global tropical cyclone activity. Since at least 1980, there are no clear trends in overall global hurricane and major hurricane activity.

You can see trends (or more precisely, the lack of) in the global occurrence of tropical cyclones at hurricane and major hurricane strength (12-month sums since 1980) in the figure below, courtesy @RyanMaue. A little-known fact is that the past 12 months are very close to a 42+ year low in the numbers of major hurricanes on planet Earth (note that “hurricanes” are what “tropical cyclones” are called in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific, they are the same phenomenon).

4. There are many characteristics of tropical cyclones that are under study and hypothesized to be potentially affected by human influences (including but not limited to greenhouse gas forcings). These include tropical cyclone rainfall intensity, speed of storm movement, latitude of storm formation, pace of intensification, length of seasonality and many more. You can easily find different studies and different scientists with contrasting views on the role of human influence on tropical cyclones, but at present, there is not a unified community consensus on these hypotheses, as summarized by the World Meteorological Organization in several recent expert assessments (see the end for links).

Human-caused climate change is of course real and requires vigorous implementation of adaptation and mitigation policies. And of course it is entirely plausible that human influences have had and will have detectable and attributable effects on tropical cyclones. However, if you elicit the views of tropical cyclone experts — as the World Meteorological Organization did recently — you will find a very wide range of views on current states of understandings. The importance of a subject, regrettably, does not compel certainties.

For instance, on the question whether the most intense tropical cyclones will increase worldwide due to greenhouse gas forcing, expert views range widely, from low confidence to high confidence, with many arrayed in between. And if you look across model results, is even plausible under a range of scenarios that tropical cyclones become less frequent and/or less intense. A diversity of legitimate understandings is of course OK — this is how science often works in many areas. If the topic were simple, we wouldn’t need much science.

With hurricanes often placed front and center as the most visible manifestation of climate change, accurate representation of the current, complex state of understandings can be difficult. Can you find an expert or a study to confirm whatever you want to believe on hurricanes? Sure you can — the topic is a cherry-picker’s dream. And I see advocates and polemicists feasting on cherries all through hurricane season.

What we can say with a very high degree of certainty is that the damages from tropical cyclones (both in the U.S. and globally) have increased dramatically over the past century. It is also highly certain that the main reason for this is the ever-increasing amount of wealth we place in their path. The figure below shows the estimated damage from U.S. hurricanes assuming that each hurricane season took places with levels of development of 2021, updated from another of our recent papers.

The data show no upwards trend in damage, which is exactly what we should expect given that there is also no upward trend in hurricane or major hurricane landfalls. Even though there are many aspects of hurricanes past and future that are unknown, uncertain or contested, there is a lot that we do know, but rarely discuss.

5. Hurricanes are common, incredibly destructive and will always be with us. Even so, we have learned a lot about how to prepare and recover.

The table below show damage estimates for individual storms, were they to make landfall in 2022, updated from this paper.

You can see that while a few storms of the past decade make it into the top 25 of loss events, there are many storms from the distant past which would cause much more damage., were they to occur today. That means your and my lived experience cannot capture the realities of hurricane disasters. We don’t need climate change to understand that much greater hurricane disasters are possible, just a sense of history.

With each storm comes lessons and opportunities to better prepare for future inevitable landfalls, regardless what the climate has in store for us. Indeed, policy responses to tropical cyclones — in the U.S. and around the world — are one of the great unheralded success stories of science, technology and policy of the past century. To continue, we need to be ever vigilant as successes don’t happen automatically.

It is important for people to understand that what has been observed in terms of hurricane landfalls and losses of recent years is fairly typical of what has been seen over the past century. Whatever climate signals scientists might tease out of the historical records, the impact of hurricanes on society is overwhelmingly determined by how we build, where we build, what we build, what we place inside, and how we warn, shelter, evacuate, recover and so on. That is in fact good news, because it tells us that the decisions we make (and don’t make) will determine the hurricane disasters of the future.

So sure, go ahead and debate and discuss the past and future effects of climate change on hurricanes. Pick cherries if you must. But never lose sight of the fact that the decisions we make every day will determine the impacts from hurricanes that we experience in the future.


Why a ‘greenwashing’ crackdown should have come as no surprise

On Tuesday, about 50 German police raided the Frankfurt offices of Deutsche Bank’s asset management arm, DWS Group and sent shockwaves through the $US30 trillion ($41.8 trillion)-plus environmental, social and governance sector. DWS and the sector should, however, have seen it coming.

The raid, which sparked the resignation of DWS chief executive Asoka Woehrmann within hours, was triggered by allegations last year by a former head of sustainability at DWS, Desiree Fixler, that the fund manager had made false and misleading claims about its ESG credentials. The group had claimed in 2020 that half the $US900 billion of assets it managed were invested under ESG criteria. Fixler described DWS’ claims as a marketing tool.

The raid on Deutsche Bank’s asset management arm was triggered by allegations last year by a former head of sustainability at DWS, Desiree Fixler, that the fund manager had made false and misleading claims about its ESG credentials.
The raid on Deutsche Bank’s asset management arm was triggered by allegations last year by a former head of sustainability at DWS, Desiree Fixler, that the fund manager had made false and misleading claims about its ESG credentials.CREDIT:AP

DWS wouldn’t be the first and won’t be the last to embellish its ESG credentials to try to cash in on the tide of money flowing towards funds that invest within an ethical framework.

Nor is it only fund managers who try to benefit from the trillions of dollars flowing towards ESG-labelled funds and away from companies perceived as having weak ESG characteristics, particularly on climate-related issues.

Companies themselves have tried to “game” ESG investors by publishing ambitious carbon emissions reductions plans without doing much, if anything, to achieve them.

DWS and other ESG managers ought to have realised that there would be a spotlight shone on what they were saying about their funds and what they were actually doing because the authorities have been broadcasting their intention to crack down on “greenwashing” for several years.

Wall Street’s activist investors have guns in their sights
In Europe, where the regulatory efforts are most advanced, the European Union has adopted a corporate sustainability reporting directive that requires detailed disclosures of the way companies operate and manage social and environmental and is trying to develop a range of legislated benchmarks for asset managers that label themselves as ESG investors.

In the US the Securities and Exchange Commission’s chairman, Gary Gensler, only this week referred to proposals the SEC is now considering to improve disclosures by investment advisers and funds that “purport” to take ESG factors into consideration when making investment decisions.

Under the SEC’s proposals fund managers would have to disclose the ESG factors they consider and the specific strategies, criteria and data they use to invest in line with them. They would also have to disclose metrics like the greenhouse emissions of their portfolios and their annual progress towards their ESG objectives.

In Australia, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission have both shown increasing interest in ESG-related disclosures by fund managers and companies, with ASIC starting an investigation of greenwashing by superannuation and managed funds last year and the ACCC warning that companies falsely promoting their green credentials would face an enforcement crackdown.

Even before the raid on DWS there had been other instances of regulatory action related to ESG disclosure issues.

Last month the SEC fined the Bank of New York Mellon Corp $US1.5 million for misleading claims about its ESG funds.

The commission has also taken action against Brazil’s Vale, alleging the giant iron ore miner had made false and misleading statements about dam safety in its sustainability reports and other ESG disclosures.

Ensuring that what ESG-labelled funds actually do accords with what they say they do is not straightforward task, given that there is no consensus about what constitutes ethical investing and few benchmarks at this point against which to test whether funds’ behaviours are true to what is a very broad range of ESG labels.

It’s the dual appeal of funds that claim to be doing good and backing companies that meet ESG criteria and the claims of superior performance that is turbo-charging the sector’s growth.

Is an ethical investment one that has no carbon footprint and ticks all the boxes for good governance or could the category also include, say, a mining company with a clear and measurable commitment to reducing its carbon emissions and those of its customers?

A case in point might be Shell which, with the help of a court order, is committed to almost halving its emissions and those of its suppliers by 2030 relative to 2019 levels. Should it be shunned or supported by ESG investors?

In practice, companies like Shell are shunned by some investors on ESG grounds but embraced by others. ESG investing frameworks are broad and vague.

Equally, it’s hard to test the sector’s claims of superior performance – claims that have helped, along with the increased interest of investors in ethical investing, drive the massive inflows of funds towards the ESG managers. Bloomberg’s intelligence unit has forecast that the sector will have about $US50 trillion of funds under management by 2025, or about a third of the world’s managed funds.

It’s the dual appeal of funds that claim to be doing good and backing companies that meet ESG criteria and the claims of superior performance – end-investors can both assuage their consciences and be rewarded for it – that is turbo-charging the sector’s growth.

Whether that’s because the underlying companies that tick their boxes are inherently better-performing or whether the external environment in recent years favoured the types of stocks that generate fewer ESG issues (carbon-light tech stocks did spectacularly until very recently) and whether the same investment performance could be achieved by non-ESG-labelled funds with good asset allocations and stock selections is all open to debate.

What the regulators apparently are not going to debate, however, is the intensifying push to ensure that funds claiming to be ESG investors can demonstrate that they have the systems and strategies and can supply the metrics to support and substantiate those claims.

That’s not unreasonable. What the funds actually do should line up with their marketing. For the funds, and their regulators, however, given the extent of the grey areas in the definitions of ESG investing that might prove to be easier, or at least more challenging, when said than done.


Australia: Legislating Net-Zero by 2050 Unnecessary: Nationals Leader David Littleproud

Newly elected National Party leader David Littleproud has said while his party is committed to net-zero by 2050, implementing legislation around it is unnecessary.

Speaking to ABC Radio National on Tuesday morning, Littleproud said that he doesn’t believe the federal government needs to tell Australians what to do.

“Australians are doing this by themselves,” he said. “I mean, we set a target of 26 to 28 percent and Australians by themselves, not only rooftop solar, but Australian industry themselves, are taking the leading role.”

Littleproud stressed that households and industry are doing it anyway because they’re part of a global community.

“I trust Australians; I actually back Australians,” he said. “I don’t need to walk into this place and put a piece of legislation over them,” Littleproud said.

“I think Australians are far more sensible than we give them credit for,” he said, adding that what’s most important is to put the environmental infrastructure around them to achieve emissions targets.

Littleproud went on to say that he has a lot of confidence in the Australian public because emissions have already been reduced by 20 percent, and most of that has been achieved through rooftop solar, while industries are also doing it because they have to be competitive and market their product in international marketplaces.

“So I don’t think government needs to tell everyone what to do all the time. I think Australians have had a gutful of that,” he said.

“They’ve had two and a half years of being told what to do. And if governments just get out of our lives but put the guide rails around us to go and do the things that we need to do, we’ll do it because we’re good people.”

This comes after now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced before the election that Labor had a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 43 percent by 2030, topping Liberal’s 35 percent by 2030 target.

Labor’s Powering Australia plan includes upgrading the national electricity grid, making electric cars cheaper, and adopting the Business Council of Australia’s recommendation that facilities reduce emissions gradually and predictably over time.

Labor will also provide direct financial support for measures that improve energy efficiency within existing industries and develop new industries in regional Australia, as well as work with large businesses to provide greater transparency on their climate-related risks and opportunities.

Former Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman told ABC Radio National on Monday that the new Labor government was elected with a clear mandate about its 2030 emissions reduction target, and the Opposition—Liberals and Nationals, if a coalition is once again formed—should go along with it. “There is now bipartisanship on the end goal, which is the net-zero commitment by 2050, ” he said.

“But for me, I think that the easy early step that the Opposition could take is to recognise that the Labor government does have a mandate for its 43 percent target and that it will accept the outcome, the verdict of voters on that.”




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