Today is Monday! Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Sign up for the newsletter here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.
Down on Earth, humans are sweating from unprecedented heat waves and new coronavirus variants. But the long-term viability of our civilization may be at the mercy of more than just climate change and mutant microbes.
NASA Administrator Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Climate change turning US into coffee country Elon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? MORE told CNN on Sunday that he is not ruling out the existence of extraterrestrial beings, after reading the classified version of a U.S. intelligence report on a series of UFO sightings by Navy pilots.
“Are we alone?” he asked. “My feeling is that there is clearly something there. The universe is so big. It’s 13.5 billion years ago when the universe started. That’s pretty big.”
If it turns out aliens are buzzing our planet, maybe that’s good news. First, it means you can get off a planet; second, it means that for decades, they came in peace. But until the astrobiologists tell us more, we’ll focus on protecting ourselves against more tangible challenges — like unprecedented heat in the Pacific Northwest and the continuing battle to pass an infrastructure bill through Congress.
For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sharon at email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.
Let’s get to it.
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Pacific Northwest bakes in a once-in-a-millenium heat wave
The heat wave roasting the American and Canadian Pacific Northwest has taken on “an intensity never recorded by modern humans” in a phenomenon “more rare than a once in 1,000-year event,” according to CBS News meteorologist Jeff Berardelli.
By Saturday, Portland, Ore., had already broken its hottest-ever temperature of 107 F by climbing to 108 F. Then it toppled that achievement Sunday when the thermometer reached 112 F, which Berardelli described as “staggering.”
While temperatures may be on the downswing in a few places over the weekend, most spots across the Pacific Northwest were expected to continue breaking records Monday and Tuesday, The Washington Post reported.
“This region has never experienced anything of this magnitude before,” Berardelli wrote. “Given climate change, should we now expect the unexpected — is this now just becoming routine?”
So how did this happen? These unprecedented conditions are the result of a “heat dome” — what happens when a high-pressure atmosphere traps hot ocean air into an enormous lid.
Over the past few decades, the western Pacific Ocean’s temperatures have risen in comparison to those in the eastern Pacific, generating a strong temperature gradient that causes hot air to rise over the western Pacific, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That air can then move east with prevailing winds and get trapped under the jet stream, forming the dome.
Paradoxically, the Pacific Northwest heat wave originated as heavy rains in China, which picked up hot air as it moved across the warm North Pacific before piling into the jet stream, Brian K. Sullivan and Naureen S. Malik reported in Bloomberg Green.
Wet air can hold more heat energy, and the downpours across China, meteorologist Jeff Masters told Bloomberg, fed energy into the jet stream, setting off a chain reaction of weather patterns that drove up temperatures in the U.S. and Canada.
GREEN ROOFS COOL HEAT ISLANDS
“An asphalt future?” Vivek Shandas, an urban sustainability expert at Portland State University, took his 11-year-old son with an infrared camera on a “treasure hunt” for deadly urban temperatures this weekend.
The surface of one entirely concrete area, the duo found, measured 157 degrees. But just across the street, a building covered in a green wall measured 116 F.
The problem of dangerous heat is influenced not only by climate change, but also by the way we build our cities, Shandas suggested at a Monday pop-up session of Andrew Revkin’s “Sustain What?” webcast at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Pavement would amplify temperatures in “an asphalt future,” Shandas said — but cities can cut the impacts of dangerous heating if they “green it up.”
Heat islands: Often, according to Shandas, urban neighborhoods feature “localized heat islands”: baking swaths of asphalt and concrete, devoid of shelter, whose populations tend to include lower-income individuals, communities of color and Indigenous people.
He attributed this phenomenon to a “systemic issue.” The hottest parts of Portland today are where minority groups were consigned by discriminatory redlining policies in the early 20th century.
Cooling centers can help — but do communities feel welcome? One immediate place where these issues come together is the municipal cooling center, where people without air conditioning can take refuge.
During the pandemic, people suffering heat waves without air conditioning have faced a dangerous choice: stay in a sweltering apartment or risk an enclosed space full of strangers.
After the pandemic caused what Shandas described as “a recoiling of community cooling centers,” vaccination has mitigated this fear to some extent, and cities like Seattle and Portland have opened massive, air-conditioned centers.
But Kristie Ebi, of the University of Washington, stressed the importance of both location and communication. She emphasized, for example, that a cooling center should not be housed at a police station in the middle of a marginalized community. Equally essential, she added, is the question, “Does the public even know how to find a cooling center?”
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Passing a climate package will be 'a tense summer slog'
Democrats are walking a tightrope to pass the biggest infrastructure bill since the New Deal, as much of their own party focuses on a separate climate package and as Republicans leave little room for error, Jordain Carney reported Sunday for The Hill.
The fate of the so-called bipartisan infrastructure deal — and of the Biden administration’s best hope for meaningful action on climate change — now hinges on a “tense, summer slog of legislating,” Carney wrote.
Let’s get up to speed. Last week, after Biden reached an agreement with a bipartisan group of 21 senators for $577 billion in new infrastructure spending, Republicans announced cautious support. “If you put your finger up in the air, you’re going to feel a breeze blowing in favor of this bill,” Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyGOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff House passes bill to prevent shutdown and suspend debt limit Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid MORE (R-La.) told The Wall Street Journal.
The trouble was, however, that a lot of Democrats can’t accept the proposal without a sizable second bill that will include substantial climate provisions. “If we don’t have an agreement on both, we’re not going to have the votes for either,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats press Schumer on removing Confederate statues from Capitol Democrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan MORE (D-N.Y.). “Plain and simple.” This led Biden to announce on Thursday that he wouldn’t sign the bipartisan bill without a reconciliation package.
In the face of Republican opposition, Biden then walked back his comments on Saturday — emphasizing that it was not his intent to issue “a veto threat on the very plan” he had just agreed to. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWe don't need platinum to solve the debt ceiling crisis The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble House passes standalone bill to provide B for Israel's Iron Dome MORE (R-Ky.) accepted Biden’s retraction on Monday, while demanding that Schumer and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money — House pushes toward infrastructure vote US mayors, Black leaders push for passage of bipartisan infrastructure bill Lawmakers say innovation, trade rules key to small business gains MORE (D-Calif) also de-link the two bills.
What’s the sticking point? Getting to a bipartisan infrastructure deal meant cutting out a number of measures that climate scientists and international trade groups have argued are immediately necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change.
For example, Biden’s proposal for $174 billion for electric cars and buses was slashed by 90 percent; his proposed clean energy standard was cut entirely.
Now, Democrats want to add those back — along with, for example, expanded child care and home health care. They would pass this by a process called reconciliation, which would let them approve legislation without Republican support. But to do so, they would have to keep all 50 of their senators together.
BILL FACES A LONG, NARROW PATH
What are Democrats pushing for? They see reconciliation as their last chance to pass significant legislation on climate.
To be clear, the bill contains $47 billion for coastal adaptation, and more research and development money for cool technologies like advanced battery storage, as well as new forms of nuclear and geothermal energy.
But those technologies, Jesse Jenkins of Princeton University told Bloomberg Green, “are ones that play a big role in the 2030s and 2040s, not in driving emissions reductions in the short term.” Rather than waiting on innovation, the country can use existing tools to scale up renewables and electric vehicles, as well as increase energy efficiency and drive decarbonization, according to Jenkins.
What now? On Sunday, the battle lines were clear. Republicans won’t vote for an additional bill with “a massive tax increase,” Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight MORE (R-Utah) told CNN’s Jake TapperJacob (Jake) Paul TapperFrederica Wilson rails against Haitian deportation flights, calls treatment 'inhumane' WHIP LIST: How House Democrats say they'll vote on infrastructure bill Yarmuth and Clyburn suggest .5T package may be slimmed MORE.
Meanwhile, for progressives, the bipartisan bill hinges on “a reconciliation bill that substantially improves the lives of working families and combats the existential threat of climate change,” Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDon't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs MORE (I-Vt.) tweeted Sunday.
So, the battle lines are drawn. The only way forward for Democrats seems to be the narrow, cautious passage through reconciliation — if they can keep their caucus together.
But even with its future in jeopardy, the Biden compromise has catalyzed further motion on infrastructure. As Arianna Skibell of E&E News reported Monday, members of the House are voting this week on a sweeping package of water and transportation infrastructure.
Takeaway: Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, summed it up: “We’ve moved from one high wire act to another,” he told The Hill Sunday. “This is going to be ‘will it or won’t it’ until it gets to Biden’s desk.”
Panama Canal needs $2 billion in renovations to stay open
- The Panama Canal — a key passage between the West Coast of the Americas and Europe — is caught between climate extremes, Santiago Pérez reported for The Wall Street Journal. These extremes have caused officials "more challenges during the past 12 years than the rest of the canal’s existence since 1914," Perez reported.
- The canal requires three times the water supply of New York City, but drought and deforestation have kept water levels too low for ships to pass through fully loaded. Meanwhile, storms and sea level rise have battered the infrastructure.
- Officials have planned $2 billion in renovations — a water infrastructure project of unrivaled size — to be finished by 2028.
- This is an awkward time for the canal to be under construction. “The boom in maritime trade increases the strategic value of the canal at a time when you can’t find space on ships, or empty containers for that matter,” the president of a shipping company told the Journal.
Native Americans fall back before climate change
- The European settlement of the Americas left Indigenous people consigned to the nation’s most marginal lands — floodplains, arid half-deserts, windswept prairie — by the push of industrial farming, mining and hydroelectric power.
- “Now, parts of that marginal land are becoming uninhabitable,” Christopher Flavelle and Kalen Goodluck reported for The New York Times. As a result, Native communities around the country are at the front lines of the agonizing questions of managed retreat, which we covered Wednesday for The Hill.
- Like the minority neighborhoods of Red Hook we wrote about, these communities face immediate crisis with reduced resources. They range from Alaska Native towns undermined by rising seas, to Navajo communities running out of water, to Cherokee and Ojibwe communities watching climate change push traditional crops off their reservation.
- “We’re the most disproportionately impacted by climate, but we’re the very least funded,” Ann Marie Chischilly of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals told the Times.
Sri Lanka to invest in a “blue economy” that focuses on coastal and marine ecosystems
- Just as Sri Lanka begins to recover from the X-Press Pearl cargo ship fire that wreaked havoc off its shores, the country is calling for a renewed focus on conserving its rich coastal ecosystems, as a critical component of the nation’s sustainable development strategy, Dennis Mombauer wrote in Mongabay.
- Sri Lanka is planning to invest in a “blue economy,” an economy that promotes economic growth but ensures the sustainability of coastal areas, according to Mombauer.
- A blue economy can include industries like fisheries, renewable energy, waste management, tourism and maritime transport, Ruchira Cumaranatunga, of the University of Ruhuna, told Mongabay.
Americans lacking critical mental health support as coronavirus pandemic wanes
- Sustainability means more than just considering the future of our natural environment. It also requires people to have access to the health care they need to sustain their own physical and psychological welfare.
- But the coronavirus pandemic has prompted “a wave of mental-health crises [that] has grown into a tsunami, flooding an already taxed system of care,” Robbie Whelan reported for The Wall Street Journal.
- That means emergency rooms are overwhelmed by patients who couldn’t access outpatient treatment, or whose symptoms intensified or went undiagnosed during the pandemic, the Journal reported.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveys have found that 38 percent of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression between April 2020 and February 2021. That’s up from about 11 percent during 2019, according to the Journal.
- The pandemic was especially hard on children, the report found, citing the CDC. Children have faced particular difficulties, as school closures have caused serious issues to go unnoticed. Emergency room visits for mental health crises in people 12 to 17 years old increased 31 percent between 2019 and 2020.
This is Equilibrium. See you Tuesday evening.