Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Coastal communities face ‘retreat’ before rising seas

Some communities would have to relocate to higher ground under New Zealand’s first climate adaptation plan, in a warning signal to low-lying coastal communities worldwide. 

About 70,000 homes along New Zealand’s coasts are at risk from rising seas — with far more at risk from inland flooding along rivers, The Associated Press reported. 

“I am frustrated that for the last three decades, successive governments have not paid any attention in any real form to the challenges that we face from the effects of climate change,” Climate Change Minister James Shaw told reporters, according to the AP. 

“We had to start somewhere,” Shaw added. 

New Zealand’s announcement comes the same day that researchers released findings that U.S. communities in regions vulnerable to sea-level rise have developed faster than inland districts. Seaside neighborhoods also tend to be more densely populated, according to the study, published in the journal PLOS One. 

“These patterns are particularly prominent in locations affected by hurricanes,” the scientists wrote. 

New Zealand’s climate adaptation plan addresses the possibility that conditions — or simply risk — in some coastal communities may become “intolerable.”  

“Inundation of buildings and infrastructure will start to occur, leading to direct damage and loss of some facilities like roads or other lifeline services, and public open space,” the architects of the plan wrote. 

New Zealand is dealing with its version of this problem by considering the possibility of “managed retreat,” in which communities relocate in good times before they are forced to do so under conditions of crisis, the AP reported. 

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. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll start with a United Nations warning about the dwindling water reserves in the U.S. West, followed by OPEC+’s decision to slightly increase oil output. Then we’ll in look at why heat waves can be bad news for nuclear power. 

UN: Largest reservoirs at ‘dangerously low levels’

The United Nations warned on Tuesday that the two biggest water reservoirs in the United States have dwindled to “dangerously low levels” due to the impacts of climate change.  

Approaching ‘dead pool’: The situation has become so severe that these reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, are on the verge of reaching a so-called “dead pool status,” according to the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP).   

  • Dead pool is the point at which water levels drop so low that downstream flow ceases. 
  • Without such flow, hydroelectric power stations would cease to operate, jeopardizing the electricity supply for millions in the region, a statement from the agency said.      

A new normal: “The conditions in the American West, which we’re seeing around the Colorado River basin, have been so dry for more than 20 years that we’re no longer speaking of a drought,” said Lis Mullin Bernhardt, an ecosystems expert at UNEP.  

“We refer to it as ‘aridification’ — a new very dry normal,” Bernhardt added.    

Massive system under threat: The Colorado River system supplies water to more than 40 million people and irrigates about 5.7 million acres of agriculture, as we previously reported.  

  • The system serves seven states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada and California — as well as Mexico.  
  • Scientists have already estimated that Lake Mead and Lake Powell, which are fed by the river, will plunge to 25 percent of their capacity by the end of this year.    

Cuts may not be enough: As the Western water crisis continues to deepen, water cuts will be introduced throughout the region, but experts warn that these actions may not be enough, according to UNEP.  

“While regulating and managing water supply and demand are essential in both the short and long term, climate change is at the heart of this issue,” Maria Morgado, UNEP’s ecosystems officer in North America, said in a statement.  

“In the long term we need to address the root causes of climate change as well as water demands,” Morgado added. 

To read the full story, please click here

OPEC+ announces slight boost in oil production

The OPEC+ consortium of oil producing countries announced plans on Wednesday to slightly boost output by 100,000 barrels per day for the month of September.  

But don’t expect that to cut gasoline prices: The increase, which experts consider largely a “political gesture” to the West, is equivalent to just 0.1 percent of global oil demand, according to Reuters.  

An anticipated announcement: Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and their allies — collectively called OPEC+ — gathered to set oil production policy for September, as we previously reported.  

  • OPEC+ includes oil-producing countries like Russia, which are aligned with OPEC but not official members. 
  • Just last week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak and Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman met to discuss the September policy.     

Pressure from the U.S.: The “symbolic move” follows calls by the U.S. and other major oil consumers to boost global stockpiles, according to The Wall Street Journal.  

  • OPEC, which is led by Saudi Arabia, was under increasing pressure following President Biden’s visit to the kingdom last month. 
  • During the visit, Biden had said he expected Riyadh to help increase oil supplies.    

Political rather than financial gains: The agreement is “more a diplomatic move than an economic one that would have a noticeable impact on world oil markets,” The Washington Post reported.  

OPEC+ nations were already failing to meet production quotas prior to the announcement, so doubt remains as to whether the consortium can deliver on its promises, according to the Post.  

Setback to Biden: Analysts told Reuters that the OPEC+ announcement constitutes a setback to Biden, as it is one of the smallest increases since the consortium introduced its quota system in 1982. 

“That is so little as to be meaningless,” Read Alkadiri, a managing director at the Eurasia Group, told Reuters. 

“From a physical standpoint, it is a marginal blip,” Alkadiri added. “As a political gesture, it is almost insulting.” 

New line of reactors offer solution to safety concerns 

U.S.-based nuclear manufacturer Last Energy recently signed a billion-dollar deal to supply Poland with 10 small modular reactors (SMR) — a cutting-edge form of nuclear power that just received an important approval from federal regulators. 

Shipping out: Last Energy will develop 10 of the reactors for an industrial region in southwest Poland, according to Nuclear Engineering International Magazine. 

  • The shipping-container sized plants are “modular,” which means that multiple self-contained reactors can be combined to make larger banks of nuclear power. 
  • “This project would allow for a safe, stable and emission-free source of energy for factories located in the Zone,” the president of the Polish economic region said. 

New approval: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday approved its first SMR design — from Oregon-based reactor manufacturer NuScale.  

NuScale’s reactors offer significant advantages to existing nuclear power, according to science news site New Atlas.

  • Its power units can be mass-produced and shipped to where they are needed, rather than built in place. 
  • And the newest forms of nuclear power — like NuScale’s models — are designed to shut down safely if power fails, rather than melting down.  

Tough questions remain: But while SMRs may be safer than their predecessors, they risk becoming expensive boondoggles, public policy scholar M.V. Ramana of University of British Columbia wrote in left-leaning magazine Counterpunch.

  • NuScale’s costs for one Utah project ballooned from about $3 billion to
    $6 billion between 2016 and 2020 — even as it had to slash the amount of power the project would provide. 
  • “The gap between nuclear power and renewables is large, and is growing larger,” Ramana wrote.

Warm water means nuclear slowdown 

The heat wave broiling Europe has throttled down the power supplied by French nuclear plants in a blow to Europe’s already jumpy energy markets. 

That’s a sign of the engineering challenges climate change poses to the low-carbon technology — even as longtime opponents to nuclear power in the European Union like Germany consider prolonging its use. 

Too hot for nuclear: Heat waves in France have driven up water temperatures to the point that rivers can no longer be used to cool nuclear reactors, The Guardian reported.

  • French energy supplier EDF cut output from its facilities on the Garonne and Rhône rivers to the minimum necessary to keep the grid stable. 
  • Since the heat wave of 2003, French nuclear reactors have been required to cut production when temperatures soar to avoid damaging local ecosystems. 

In hot water: Nuclear reactors make use of local water resources to cool off their steam turbines — a system which the combined heat wave and drought are putting at risk, according to Reuters.

  • This cooling model requires a water source that’s both cold enough to efficiently chill the reactors — and to sustain the discharge of warmed-up water back into the river once it’s helped cool the plant. 
  • In France, the production cuts resulted from regulators’ concerns that the hot water leaving the plant could cause further damage to already too-warm rivers, The Guardian reported. 

Long term trends: Climate change is making this risk worse, Energy News Network reported. 

  • “As global warming increases the temperature of oceans, lakes and rivers, [plants] will hit these [environmental] limits more often,” nuclear safety expert Dave Lochbaum told the network. 
  • “There are two choices: to reduce power because you can’t exceed those limits. Or … do the homework to get the limit raised,” Lochbaum added. 
  • But a broader issue is simply the availability of water — particularly because increased demand for air conditioning also requires reactors to run longer and hotter. 


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday made the unprecedented announcement that Berlin might postpone the long-planned closure of its nuclear reactors, according to The Wall Street Journal.

A very dangerous situation: Conditions at the major nuclear plant of Zaporizhya in Eastern Ukraine are “completely out of control” and getting worse, Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Associated Press. 

  • “What is at stake is extremely serious and extremely grave and dangerous,” Grossi said. 
  • The plant was undergoing a “catalog of things that should never be happening in any nuclear facility,” he added. 

These conditions include Russian artillery units firing missiles from the cover of the nuclear plant — while Ukrainian techs attempt to work within, The New York Times reported. 

Wildfire Wednesday

Fire and flood combine in Northern California, a lost puppy proves a small bundle of consolation and a strong contender for the “Most Embarrassing Way to Start a Wildfire” Awards. 

Deadly fire, combined with floods, persists in Northern California  

  • As the McKinney Fire — which has killed four people — continues to blaze in Northern California, residents are now confronting the simultaneous threats of “a raging inferno and flooding rain,” The Washington Post reported. While heavy rains that moved in Tuesday night have help slow the growth of the 57,000-acre fire, the storm has unleashed flooding and mudslides in a portion of the area, according to the Post.  

Puppy reunited with owner amid McKinney Fire inferno 

  • A photojournalist documenting the McKinney Fire this weekend was able to rescue a puppy that had escaped the debris of a destroyed home, CBS Bay Area reported. The owners of the puppy told the journalist that they had lost a family member and property in the fire, and that the four-month-old puppy was all they had, according to CBS. 

Man tries to burn spider, causes wildfire 

Stay cool out there, be careful with fires — and be kind to spiders, who tend to eat more troublesome pests, as North Carolina entomologist Matt Bertone wrote in the Conversation. 

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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