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As if the pandemic weren’t enough, 2020 might be the hottest year ever

Welcome back to Boiling Point, a newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. If this is your first edition, we’re glad to have you.

I’m Sammy Roth, writing from Los Angeles, where it’s been pretty hot lately. The mercury hit 89 degrees this weekend — far from a record, but hot enough to make me sweat in my apartment, which does not have air conditioning. The heat was worse further inland. Palm Springs, the desert city two hours east of L.A. where I used to live, set a daily record with a high of 121 degrees. Death Valley reached 128 degrees — the hottest temperature on Earth this year.

More records were set across the Southwest, with Borger, Texas, hitting an all-time high of 116 degrees and Roswell, New Mexico, exceeding 110 degrees on five straight days for the first time ever.

Globally, the situation is no better.

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U.S. government data shows that so far, 2020 is the second-hottest year on record globally, trailing only 2016. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates 2020 has a 36% chance of becoming the hottest year on record. NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt thinks the odds are even worse, giving 2020 a three in four shot of overtaking 2016.

Here’s a map from the nonprofit research organization Climate Central showing how anomalously hot the planet has been this year, compared to the decades around turn of the 20th century:

Global temperature anomalies, 2020

Here’s another Climate Central graphic showing how 2020 stacks up against other record-hot years. Note that before 2020, the hottest years ever measured were 2016, 2019, 2017 and 2015 — followed closely by 2018 and 2014.

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Hottest years on record

You probably don’t need me to tell you that global warming, caused predominantly by the burning of fossil fuels to power our cars and factories and computers, is exacerbating heat waves. There have been many scientific studies attesting to this fact.

But this week’s sweltering temperatures offer a reminder of why we ought to care, and why we ought to do something about it.

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Extreme heat is deadly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 600 people in the United States are killed by hot weather each year, but the true death count is almost certainly much higher. Last month, a new study estimated that heat contributes to an average of 5,600 deaths in the U.S. each year — and that’s just in a few hundred counties making up three-fifths of the country’s population.

The CDC warns that infants, people over age 65, people who work outside and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes face the greatest risk of heat stroke. Lack of access to air conditioning is another risk factor, as I wrote in this newsletter in May, putting low-income families in additional danger.

“Heat actually has a lot of morbidity and mortality that I think goes under-recognized,” says Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA. “Public health officials get it, but I think it’s less obvious to other people.”

When I reached out to Swain to ask about the recent hot weather, he described what we’re experiencing here in Los Angeles as “a somewhat more run-of-the-mill heat wave.” He told me the truly eye-popping weather is in Siberia, above the Arctic Circle, where extremely high temperatures have lasted for months and wildfires are raging like never before.

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Warming in the Arctic is especially bad for the planet because melting sea ice results in darker sea surfaces that absorb more heat, accelerating global warming — a vicious cycle. And Arctic wildfires can thaw the region’s frigid soil, known as permafrost, releasing more planet-warming gases into the atmosphere — another vicious cycle.

None of this is to say high temperatures in the Southwest aren’t also significant. Not only does the recent heat wave threaten people’s health, it adds to the risk of a devastating fire season, as Swain explained on his Weather West blog. Even before this week, 2020 was shaping up to be yet another hotter-than-average year in California and neighboring states.

“It may not be life-changing to you personally if it’s a couple degrees warmer. But if that anomalous warmth is maintained over months and years, all of a sudden it is enormously consequential for things like wildfire risk,” Swain told me.

Getty fire
Firefighters battle the Getty fire in the Sepulveda Pass, along the 405 freeway, in October 2019.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For the Times)
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All signs point to the climate crisis getting worse, not better. The fact that 2020 could end up being the hottest year on record is especially remarkable because there’s no El Niño weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean, like there was during the previous record-hot year, 2016.

Also worrying: The World Meteorological Organization said last week there’s a 20% chance of global temperatures exceeding pre-industrial levels by 1.5 degrees Celsius at least one out of the next five years. That’s the first global-warming threshold the Paris climate agreement aims to avoid, past which it will become increasingly difficult to prevent escalating damage from storms, fires, sea level rise, diminished ecosystems and food shortages.

Vox’s David Roberts wrote a fascinating piece last week arguing that as temperatures continue to rise, it’s critical we don’t allow ourselves to normalize the ever-worsening conditions of life on Earth.

He pointed to research on “shifting baselines syndrome,” which is basically the idea that humans are pretty good at adjusting to whatever new normal is forced upon us. Either we quickly forget what came before — richer ecosystems, cooler temperatures — or we don’t know how good prior generations had it.

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Roberts included this gem from the web comic xkcd:

xkcd

If we resign ourselves to the planet getting hotter and hotter indefinitely, we’re unlikely to act with sufficient urgency. And from Swain’s perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic is no excuse to delay.

“Everything is bad news right now, objectively. But unfortunately climate change is still there lurking in the background, or in some cases in the foreground,” Swain said. “We need to be able to walk and chew gum and deal with more than one crisis at once.”

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On that note, here’s what else is happening around the West:

TOP STORIES

Joe Biden rolled out a $2-trillion clean energy plan. My colleague Evan Halper reports that the former vice president would put that money toward “expansion of high-speed rail, building electric cars and greatly increasing the use of wind, solar and other renewable technologies to generate power.” One detail in particular jumped out at me: Biden would target 100% carbon-free electricity nationwide by 2035, a full decade earlier than California is currently aiming to meet that goal.

Dangerous methane emissions continue to rise. The latest research from the Global Climate Project, led by Stanford University’s Rob Jackson, shows that emissions of methane — a heat-trapping gas far more powerful than carbon dioxide — rose by 9% between the early 2000s and 2017, as Kurtis Alexander reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. The increase was driven by several sources, including belching dairy cows, flooded rice fields and leaky oil and gas infrastructure.

Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park
Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
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The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote next week on the Great American Outdoors Act, which would make billions of dollars available for land purchases and overdue maintenance in national parks. The bill was previously approved by the Senate, and President Trump says he’ll sign it. Brian Contreras reports for The Times that California’s desert landscapes are likely to benefit, since more money would be available for the federal government to acquire and protect treasured spaces.

AROUND THE WEST

Negotiations are scheduled to begin later this year on the future of the Colorado River, a key western water source. Here’s a primer from Judy Fahys at InsideClimate News. In the meantime, the Imperial Irrigation District — the river’s largest water user — is suing the L.A.-based Metropolitan Water District over the previous interstate Colorado River agreement, arguing that the so-called Drought Contingency Plan fails to protect the Salton Sea. More details here from the Desert Sun’s Mark Olalde.

Speaking of the Salton Sea, I was sad to read that a birding oasis in Niland, near the lake’s southern shore, burned down in a recent fire that swept through the town. The Desert Sun’s Olalde wrote about Niland Ranch’s peculiar proprietor, a man named Barnacle Snug Luffy — and about the time Elon Musk supposedly stopped by for dinner. (I learned in 2016 that Tesla had offered $325 million to buy a Salton Sea lithium startup, so the idea of Musk passing through Niland isn’t so far-fetched.)

Continuing with this week’s theme, Phoenix is America’s hottest big city — and it’s growing. The Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan wrote a great deep dive on how city officials hope to reverse a rising death toll from extreme heat, through steps such as planting more trees for shade, repaving sidewalks to absorb less heat, and switching to power sources (such as solar) that don’t depend on water for cooling like coal and nuclear plants do.

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POWER STRUGGLES

There’s lots of evidence that oil and gas companies haven’t set aside nearly enough money to plug their abandoned wells. That’s the conclusion of this story by Hiroko Tabuchi at the New York Times. (A recent Los Angeles Times investigation reached a similar conclusion.) Abandoned wells are a big contributor to the methane emissions I mentioned earlier. And they’re especially big problem in the West, where the Bureau of Land Management “tends to set its reclamation bond amounts at the regulatory minimum, using figures that haven’t been updated since the 1950s,” as Kendra Chamberlain writes for the NM Political Report.

The Supreme Court affirmed that much of Oklahoma remains tribal land under a longstanding treaty. Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, according to Kolby KickingWoman at Indian Country Today. The court’s decision could lead to new taxes and regulations for the oil and gas industry on tribal land in Oklahoma, which is the fourth-largest oil-producing state, per Reuters’ Jennifer Hiller.

It’s hard to keep track of the Trump administration’s many regulatory rollbacks. But yesterday there was an especially significant one: President Trump announced a new rule to speed up the environmental review process for gas pipelines, highways and other infrastructure projects, potentially limiting public input. The new rule takes aim at the National Environmental Policy Act, one of America’s foundational environmental laws. It will almost certainly result in a bunch of lawsuits.

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WESTERN WILDLIFE

California condor
A female California condor soars above the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Ventura County, California.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Endangered California condors were spotted in Sequoia National Park for the first time in 50 years. It’s good to have some good news, right? Let’s take a moment to enjoy it. My colleague Kailyn Brown talked to a wildlife biologist who explained that the return of North America’s largest land bird to Sequoia is “good evidence that they are utilizing and occupying habitat where they once lived” and an “important milestone” on the condor’s road to recovery.

People worried that reintroducing gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park would wipe out elk. But Yellowstone’s elk populations are healthier than ever (more good news!), a sign that bringing back apex predators — many of which were once hunted near to extinction — can help stabilize ecosystems. Here’s the story from Christine Peterson for National Geographic.

I’d never heard of Wildlife Waystation, a sanctuary for exotic animals in Angeles National Forest, until reading this story by Louis Sahagun for The Times. The sanctuary shut down a year ago, and while it’s managed to relocate most of the animals, it’s still raising money to provide new homes for 32 chimpanzees, mostly rescued from medical research laboratories.

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What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

ONE MORE THING

It’s been many years since I’ve eaten at Burger King. But now I’m at least tempted to go back.

The fast-food giant started selling a meat-free Impossible Whopper last year. And now it’s promoting its efforts to reduce methane emissions from cow burps and farts — a serious climate problem, as I mentioned earlier — through a music video that can only be described as extremely weird and kind of wonderful. The video features a kid in a cowboy hat emerging from a cow’s rear end and singing about how planet-warming emissions “ain’t no laughing matter.”

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The song goes on to suggest that Burger King has figured out a way to somewhat reduce methane from cows by altering their diets. More details here from the AP’s Michelle Chapman.

None of this will solve the problem of meat’s role in the climate crisis. But Burger King’s video ends with a statement that, unlike many companies, at least acknowledges its own responsibility: “Since we are part of the problem, we are working to be part of the solution.”

I’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues.


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