Two leaked Federal reports on energy and climate change are generating lively discussions on how the Trump Administration and Congress may tackle these issues in future legislative and executive actions.
"It is extremely likely [95-100%] that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century" is the conclusion of a nearly 700-page draft Climate Science Special Report.
And according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Electric Power System, Markets, and Reliability Study, low natural gas prices, higher maintenance costs for aging infrastructure, and reduced electrical demand are the primary causes for coal and nuclear plant retirements, and not the proliferation of new renewable energy generation across the country.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program's Climate Science Special Report is part of the fourth congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment. A report draft was made available earlier in 2017 for public comment but did not reach most American households until The New York Times reported about it earlier this month. The purpose of the Climate Science Special Report is to document "the state of science relating to climate change and its physical impacts" and does not assess the literature for climate change mitigation, adaptation, economic valuation, societal responses, or policy recommendations. A White House committee of political appointees from thirteen agencies must approve the report in order for the final reports to be released this fall, however, this committee was disbanded on Sunday, August 20.
The report discusses the physical drivers of climate change detection and attribution of climate change, climate variability and large-scale circulation, temperature and precipitation changes in the United States, changes in land and sea cover, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and compound extremes and tipping elements. Some of the more concerning findings of the report include:
- 16 of the last 17 years are the warmest years on record globally, with 2016 being the hottest year on record.
- The global annual average temperature from 1901-2016 has increased by 1.8°F/1.0°C. [Very High Confidence]
- The average annual temperature over the continuous United States is projected to rise about 2.5°F/1.4°C in the next few decades (relative to the average temperature from 1976-2005) in all emission scenario models. [High Confidence]
- Extreme temperatures are projected to increase even more than average temperatures, and the number of days below freezing is projected to decline while the number of days above 90°F will increase. [Very High Confidence]
Precipitation & Storm Events
- Since 1980, the cost for extreme weather events in the United States has surpassed $1.1 trillion.
- Heavy precipitation events in most of the United States have increased in intensity and frequency since 1901, with the largest increases occurring in the Northeast. [High Confidence]
- Extreme snowfall years in parts of the northern United States have increased, with winter storm tracks shifting northward since 1950. [Medium Confidence]
- The Northeast has experienced a 92% increase in the number of 2-day precipitation events that exceed the 5-year recurrence interval from 1958-2016.
- Oceans have absorbed about 93% of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gases since the mid-20th century, causing waters to be warmer and altering global and regional climate feedback loops.
- Oceans are currently absorbing more than 1/4 of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually from human activities.
- The oceans are becoming more acidic, with higher latitude systems exhibiting seasonal corrosive conditions sooner than low-latitude systems (higher-latitude systems typically have a lower buffering capacity against changing acidity). [Very High Confidence]
- The rate of acidification is unparalleled in at least the past 66 million years. [Medium Confidence]
- In the Gulf of Maine, acidification is regionally greater than the global average as a result of changes in freshwater input. [Medium Confidence]
- Global mean sea level has risen about 7-8 inches since 1900, with about 3 of those inches occurring since 1993. [Very High Confidence]
- Nuisance floods (tidal floods) have increased 5- to 10-fold since the 1960s in several U.S. coastal cities and will continue increasing in depth, frequency, and extent before 2100. [Very High Confidence]
- Sea level rise will increase the frequency and extent of extreme flooding due to coastal storms (e.g. hurricanes and nor'easters). [Very High Confidence]
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
- Global mean atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is over 400 ppm, a level last present over 3 million years ago and combined with significantly higher average global temperature and sea level. [High Confidence]
"Humanity is conducting an unprecedented experiment with the Earth's climate system through emissions from large-scale fossil fuel combustion, widespread deforestation, and other changes to the atmosphere and landscape" and as with any futuristic modeling, predictions, and scenarios, there are factors and elements that cannot be accurately accounted. The more Earth's climate system is changed, the greater the risk of surprises. There are two types of surprises: critical threshold, where some threshold is crossed within the climate system that results in a large impact, and compound events, where multiple extreme climate events occur either simultaneously or sequentially to create a greater overall impact. Either or both types of surprises could occur within the Earth's climate system in the future, creating unanticipated and difficult or impossible to manage changes.
Confidence Level Ranking
Very High: Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus
High: Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus
Medium: Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought
Low: Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts
The Electric Power System, Markets and Reliability Study was developed by the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability per the memorandum issued by Secretary Rick Perry on April 14, 2017. The original study deadline was mid-June, with a DOE spokesperson stating the study draft would be submitted to Secretary Perry in early July with no new release date mentioned. The memo asked the DOE Chief of Staff to focus on three issues:
- The evolution of wholesale electricity markets, including the extent to which federal policy interventions and the changing nature of the electricity fuel mix are challenging the original policy assumptions that shaped the creation of those markets;
- Whether wholesale energy and capacity markets are adequately compensating attributes such as on-site fuel supply and other factors that strengthen grid resilience and, if not, the extent to which this could affect grid reliability and resilience in the future; and
- The extent to which continued regulatory burdens, as well as mandates and tax and subsidy policies, are responsible for forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants.
The leaked draft report assessed previous literature on the subject matter and also conducted original research. While some sections of the report were removed or unfinished, the sections that remained confirmed what most in the energy industry already knew. Some key report findings include:
- Due to advances to the grid, baseload plants are not as necessary for grid reliability and resiliency.
- Low natural gas prices, higher maintenance costs for aging infrastructure, and reduced electrical demand are the primary causes for coal and nuclear plant retirements.
- The grid is operating reliably and has not been impacted by baseload plants retiring since more efficient and cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources are coming online.
- Energy diversity from renewable energy sources can improve grid reliability and lower electricity costs for customers.
- Power plant retirements are driven by regional factors, with more retirements concentrated in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic.
These reports, which effectively remove doubt regarding the causes and impacts of climate change, as well as concerns regarding renewable energy in the electricity grid, will still need to undergo internal political review and polishing. It is vitally important that scientific reports be objective and clear of political influence in order to provide the most accurate data to base future regulatory decisions. These reports provide that opportunity and hopefully remain as this essential source of information unaffected by political agendas.