Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Turning back time

Scientists have innovated a “time machine” that can recreate the lifecycles of galaxies billions of years past — a capability they hope will help shape our current understanding of the universe.

Harnessing a new set of cosmological simulations, the researchers can look up to 11 billion years in the past and reproduce the distant ancestors of present-day galaxy clusters, according to a new study published in Nature Astronomy.  

The simulations allow the scientists “to see how structures started out and how they ended,” lead author Metin Ata of Japan’s Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe said in a statement.

Because light from the distant universe is only now reaching the Earth, the galaxies that telescopes can observe today are just “a snapshot of the past,” the authors note.

“It’s like finding an old black-and-white picture of your grandfather and creating a video of his life,” co-author Khee-Gan Lee said in a statement.  

But their time machine can take photos of “young” grandparent galaxies and fast-forward their age to see how galaxy clusters would form, according to the study.  

With the power to predict the final distribution of structures in a given space, the authors said they hope researchers will be able to surface previously undetected discrepancies in the way we view the universe.  

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at President Biden’s decision to exempt Southeast Asian countries from solar tariffs and a fresh demand from the U.N. climate change chief. Plus: Why experts say prescribed burns are needed.

Biden scales back solar tariffs

President Biden announced on Monday that he will sign an order exempting Southeast Asian countries from tariffs on solar panels for the next two years, our colleague Morgan Chalfant reported for The Hill.

What it means: The decision is an attempt to ameliorate a supply chain crisis affecting the U.S. solar industry amid a Commerce Department investigation into Chinese solar companies.

That probe, which began in March, is investigating whether firms in Southeast Asia that manufacture solar panel parts are being used to evade U.S. tariffs on Chinese solar companies.

A temporary bridge: A White House fact sheet said Biden would “create a 24-month bridge for certain solar imports” from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

  • The White House said this would afford the U.S. “access to a sufficient supply of solar modules to meet electricity generation needs while domestic manufacturing scales up.”   
  • Biden will also be invoking the Defense Production Act to broaden manufacturing of solar panel parts and associated equipment, the fact sheet noted.

Solar installers vs. manufacturers: The New York Times described the decision as “a victory for domestic solar installers,” who feared that tariffs would have threatened the administration’s climate goals.

Domestic solar manufacturers and labor unions, on the other hand, had been pushing for stricter barriers on cheaper imports.

  • U.S. manufacturer Auxin Solar, the firm responsible for initiating the Commerce inquiry, slammed the administration’s decision on Monday, accusing Biden of “significantly interfering in Commerce’s quasi-judicial process,” Axios reported.  
  • “By taking this unprecedented — and potentially illegal — action, he has opened the door wide for Chinese-funded special interests to defeat the fair application of U.S. trade law,” the company said. 

Saving solar: Despite the pushback, Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, praised Biden in a statement for “addressing the current crisis of the paralyzed solar supply chain.”

“Today’s actions protect existing solar jobs, will lead to increased employment in the solar industry and foster a robust solar manufacturing base here at home,” she said.

Outgoing UN climate chief to nations: ‘Do better’ 

The departing United Nations climate change chief called upon countries to “do better” on Monday ahead of this fall’s Climate Change Conference (COP27).

What she said: Speaking at a conference in Germany, outgoing U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa stressed the need for “political-level interventions and decisions” if countries want “to achieve a balanced package.”

“Doing so will send a clear message to the world that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

A push for ‘progress’: Espinosa, head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which oversees U.N. climate conferences, noted the world will want to know “what progress” leaders have made since last year’s Glasgow summit.

“It is not acceptable to say that we are in challenging times — they know that climate change is not an agenda we can afford to push back on our global schedule.”

More work ahead: Espinosa highlighted more collaboration and other progress nations have made, but she said they remain “very much behind the climate curve.”

“But we can do better, we must,” she said.

  • Delegates are convening this week in Germany to work on areas of mitigation, adaptation and support to developing countries. This is the first such meeting since the conclusion of COP26 in Glasgow last November, when parties finalized the operational details of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
  • Officials attending this week’s summit are laying the groundwork for COP27, which will be held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and will focus on “putting the ambitious Paris Agreement into practice,” according to the U.N.

Benefits of planned burns outweigh risks: fire experts

U.S. forest managers can’t afford to abandon prescribed burns — even if they come with risks, fire experts told Equilibrium. 

“There’s no ‘no fire’ alternative for a lot of these landscapes,” said Matthew Hurteau, a professor of fire ecology at the University of New Mexico.

Hurteau spoke with Equilibrium in the wake of the U.S. Forest Service’s admission last week that New Mexico’s still-burning Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire came as the result of two planned fires running together

  • Prescribed burns are the planned and controlled application of fire to a landscape to remove flammable fuels — treatments that nonetheless still sometimes escape control. 
  • Three firefighters were injured in the battle against the combined blaze last Thursday when a helicopter-based water drop went awry, Albuquerque-based Nexstar station KRQE reported. 

Fire as necessary tool: “We can’t afford to have people’s homes burning up in managed fires, but we also can’t just forego burning altogether,” Hurteau said. 

“We have to figure out how to deal with that risk,” he added. 

Ecosystem shift: Although these mountain ecosystems would always have burned, such a blaze would typically have occurred as a low-intensity fire along a carpet of grass and beneath a canopy of ponderosa pines, Hurteau explained. 

Now — after a century of overgrazing and fire eradication — the grassy fire corridors are gone, and New Mexico’s wildfires are destructive, high-intensity affairs fueled by energy-dense dead logs, according to Hurteau.

TAKING A PAUSE

The announcement that prescribed burns had caused the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire came one week after U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a 90-day moratorium on prescribed fire

“In 99.84 percent of cases, prescribed fires go as planned,” Moore said. “In rare circumstances, conditions change, and prescribed burns move outside the planned project area and become wildfires.”

Marc Castellnou, senior fire analyst for Spain’s Corps of Firefighters of Catalonia argued the Forest Service risks wasting time with a blanket moratorium.

  •  “There are places they could burn with good weather,” Castellnou told Equilibrium, stressing that getting “a lot of burning” done requires using “all the days available.”  

Forest Service chief promises low impact on big plans: The Forest Service currently burns 1.4 million acres of National Forest lands every year — and wants to begin burning four times that much, Moore said last month. 

  • He argued that the moratorium wouldn’t keep the Forest Service from meeting those goals, because it “conducts more than 90 percent of its prescribed burn operations between September and May.”

Stay cautious: When prescribed burns get cleared to start again, Hurteau suggested that fire managers stick to the more conservative side of their models — because there’s less water in the drought-riddled forests to protect them from a mistake. 

The fire managers who set the fires that escaped control to become Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon, he said, were likely “using a prescription and conditions” from decades of past experience.   

“Had this been 20 years ago, it probably would have been fine,” Hurteau added. 

VIRTUAL EVENT INVITE

Closing the Gaps in Health Insurance, Wednesday, June 8 at 1 p.m. ET

A record number of Americans are insured yet many remain vulnerable to significant medical expenses, including high premiums, out-of-pocket costs and prior authorization burdens. The Hill sits down with Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C), Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) and more to discuss closing the gaps in health insurance. RSVP today.

Monday Miscellanies 

Protecting tribal wetlands, saving energy in chemical reactions and reevaluating our carbon budget. 

Army Corps blocks strip mine proposed near tribal lands

  • The Army Corps of Engineers is blocking the construction of a titanium strip mine just outside the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, The Washington Post reported. This move reversed an earlier decision that had garnered opposition from environmental groups and political leaders, according to the Post. 

Liquid platinum injections for energy savings

  • Tiny amounts of liquid platinum can help chemical reactions happen at very low temperatures — potentially allowing enormous reductions in energy usage across a variety of industries, according to a new study in Nature Chemistry.  

The carbon budget is running out fast

  • The amount of fossil fuels humans can burn while staving off climate catastrophe may be smaller than expected, scientists warned in Nature Climate Change. One new factor to consider is “how much future warming will occur just based on what we’ve already emitted,” coauthor Michelle Dvorak of University of Washington said in a statement. 


One last thing: ‘Endangered Species Condoms’

A conservation group plans to hand out environmental-themed condoms on Capitol Hill this week seeking to emphasize protections for the North Atlantic right whale.

The whale’s population has plunged to its lowest number in two decades, with about 30 animals left, says Catherine Kilduff, an attorney the Center for Biological Diversity.

Activists said they plan to distribute the condoms in honor of World Ocean Day. The group has distributed other “Endangered Species Condom” varieties since 2009.

That’s it for today. Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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