The climate disasters have been relentless this summer. Hurricane Ida took down the power grid in New Orleans, where more than 300,000 households remain without electricity as of Wednesday. A few days later, Ida dumped 7 inches of rain on New York City, drowning people in their basements and paralyzing the subways. Deadly heat waves scorched the Pacific Northwest, a massive wildfire spurred residents to evacuate South Lake Tahoe and flash floods devastated Tennessee.
There are two big lessons from this nonstop parade of extreme weather, as Christopher Flavelle, Anne Barnard, Michael Kimmelman and I wrote last week. First, the United States is not prepared for the climate shocks we’re already seeing today. Adapting to extreme weather will be a difficult and costly task: Electricity grids need to be fortified, sewer systems revamped, forests cleared of flammable undergrowth.
But second: There are limits to how much the country can adapt. If nations don’t do more to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases — the driver of climate change — they may soon run up against the outer edges of resilience as heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires become ever more extreme.
How the United States responds remains to be seen. As Coral Davenport and I wrote recently, there are currently two enormous bills in Congress intended to address climate change risks.
One would provide the largest single infusion of federal money ever for programs to adapt to climate change. The other would contain the most ambitious policies to date to cut planet-warming emissions, including a program that would push utilities to switch to cleaner sources of power.
Some Democrats are betting this summer of disasters could spur passage of both bills. But political obstacles remain.
Quotable: “These events tell us we’re not prepared,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw planning for climate risks on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “We have built our cities, our communities, to a climate that no longer exists.”
After Ida, oil spills spied from space
Last Friday, my colleague Blacki Migliozzi and I were examining flyover images of the waters off the Louisiana coast with John Scott-Railton, a researcher at The Citizen Lab, who had been tracking the devastation from by Hurricane Ida.
We’d noticed some very small slicks on the water. Then Mr. Scott-Railton shouted in my ear.
He had spotted a leak that experts would later describe as “substantial” emanating from a point off Port Fourchon, the main hub for Louisiana’s offshore oil and gas industry.
From there, we scrutinized satellite imagery, ship tracking data and interviewed scientists, local officials and others involved in the cleanup to break news of a spill and cleanup that hadn’t yet been communicated to the public. The spill, thought to be from a damaged underwater pipe, is one of many now spotted in the Gulf. Read what we reported this week.
The numbers: A report published earlier this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that since the 1960s, federal regulators have allowed oil and gas producers in the Gulf to leave some 18,000 miles of pipeline on the seafloor, which are often abandoned without cleaning or burial.
Bitcoin wastes energy by design. Could it ever be greener?
Bitcoin. Litecoin. Bitcoin Gold. Ethereum. Dogecoin.
Cryptocurrencies have emerged as one of the most captivating, yet head-scratching, investments in the world. They soar in value. They crash. They’ll change the world, their fans claim, by displacing traditional currencies like the dollar, rupee or ruble.
And in the process of simply existing, some of the most popular cryptocurrencies use astonishing amounts of electricity. This week we explained how they work, why they are so energy intensive and whether they could be greener. Here’s the whole project by Jon Huang, Claire O’Neill and Hiroko Tabuchi.
The big picture: Managing a valuable digital currency with no central authority takes a whole lot of computing power.
The numbers: Bitcoin’s energy use is close to half-a-percent of all the electricity consumed in the world.
Why it matters: Bitcoin mining is digital, yet it is still connected to the physical world of fossil fuels, power grids and the climate crisis. What originated as a forward-thinking currency has mounting real-world ramifications.
Quotable: Bitcoin mining means more than just emissions. AMiners wanting the newest, fastest machinery, which causes high turnover and a new e-waste problem as unused hardware gets discarded and then piles up, too. “Bitcoin miners are completely ignoring this issue, because they don’t have a solution,” said Alex de Vries, who runs Digiconomist, a site that tracks the sustainability of cryptocurrencies. “These machines are just dumped.”
Also important this week:
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How climate change is driving small towns to financial ruin
A series of brutal storms around the country have demonstrated the physical toll of climate change. But more frequent and severe disasters bring another type of threat, especially for small towns: the risk of long-term financial collapse.
That danger is especially clear in North Carolina, where small towns near the coast are still reeling from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Floyd in 2018. Those storms didn’t just cause flooding; they also pushed away residents and businesses, shrinking the tax base in towns that were already hard off economically. Now they’re struggling to pay for basic services.
The plight of those towns is a cautionary tale for what climate change means for much of small-town America. And they show the inherent contradictions in the federal government’s response to repetitive disasters — rebuilding some people’s homes, while paying others to leave, often in the same town, making those towns’ predicament even harder.
You can read more about what I found in North Carolina, and what it says about the long-term impacts of climate change for small towns, here.
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