Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Grasshoppers are winning the heat wave

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Grasshoppers are winning the heat wave
© MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

Today is Friday! Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. If you were forwarded this, subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

One unexpected victor in the unprecedented Western heat wave: a group of tiny, four-legged creatures that thrive in hot, dry weather and have a habit of defoliating vulnerable trees — what CNN described as a prolific horde of grasshoppers that are ravaging rangelands. 

The grasshoppers have caused so much damage that many ranchers fear their fields will be stripped bare, causing a conflict between the bugs and the cattle that normally find their food there, according to CNN. A U.S. Department of Agriculture Map showed that in parts of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska, each square yard of land contains at least 15 grasshoppers.  

Like the cattle, humans in the West are also still suffering the consequences of the heat wave, with the death toll mounting and wildfires continuing to rage. We’ll start off today, however, with a different extreme weather episode, and then take a look at how infrastructure plans are progressing in Congress.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


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A tornado threatened the National Mall — is it climate change?

Although two tornadoes toppled fences and scattered debris near downtown Washington, D.C., on Thursday night, scientists do not have definitive evidence linking this type of weather event to climate change.

The National Weather Service (NWS) issued a tornado warning Thursday night for the National Mall, the White House, the Capitol building and Nationals Park, among other sites in the D.C. metropolitan area, as a thunderstorm spun into the region. NWS confirmed to Equilibrium on Friday that two tornadoes touched down in the District and nearby Arlington, Va.

But this was just one unusual weather event among many in the past half-year to raise questions about the role climate change is playing in these events. A Texas ice storm knocked out power for thousands of people in February, wildfires began scorching the West with unusual ferocity in June and Elsa just made an entrance as the first Atlantic hurricane of 2021.

What happened Thursday: The storm toppled trees and power lines, intensifying rapidly and injuring at least one person when a tree struck her home, The Washington Post reported. On the National Mall, the storm knocked down fences that had been set up for Fourth of July festivities. Power companies said that more than 30,000 customers lost electricity during the storm, which lasted about an hour.

So how frequent are tornadoes in D.C.? It’s not uncommon to have a handful of “weak tornadoes'' in the D.C. metro area each year, said Matthew Elliott of the NWS Storm Prediction Center. But most of these storms do not impact people or structures.

Strong tornadoes, on the other hand, are much rarer and usually only hit the region every few years, while the most violent storms only happen once every decade or two, according to Elliott.

Links to climate change remain ambiguous: Looking at tornado trends across America, Elliott said that meteorologists are seeing an increase in the number of weaker tornadoes reported, but they don’t know whether this is due to climate change or simply due to improved weather radars and urban sprawl in previously rural areas. 

But so far, Elliott said, strong tornadoes aren’t becoming more common. 

Scientists are still studying the possible link between extreme weather and climate change: “We need to continue to write this history over the next decade or so,” Elliott said. “These are highly localized events so determining the drivers and linkages is challenging, but these are efforts people are working on.”


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House tries to force Senate’s hand with climate-focused infrastructure bill


 House Democrats passed a $760 billion infrastructure package aimed at laying the groundwork for a future clean transportation system, in a move that Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda MORE (D-Calif.) said would “rebuild the middle class … in a transformative way.”

Democrats hope the new bill — which passed with only two Republican votes — will help build momentum to get the Senate to include climate measures left out of Biden's tenuous bipartisan compromise infrastructure bill, Cristina Marcos and Mike Lillis reported for The Hill.

Wait, another infrastructure bill? Best believe it. With the Senate still working on turning the bipartisan compromise into a bill, Democrats on Thursday passed a sweeping transportation proposal larger than any infrastructure bill since the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, under which the Eisenhower administration created the modern interstate highway system, Jonathan Weisman reported for The New York Times.

Over the next five years, the package "would do more to combat climate change than the Senate’s bipartisan measure embraced by President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE," Weisman reported. But Democrats are viewing it less as a competition than as a template, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioOregon legislature on the brink as Democrats push gerrymandered maps The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sticks to his Afghanistan deadline Biden commends Pelosi for 'masterful' leadership MORE (D-Ore.) told The Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Progressives push for fossil subsidy repeal in spending bill MORE (D-N.Y) told DeFazio he "would like to move quickly,” to which DeFazio responded that his staff took seven months to write the policy. He then suggested to Schumer that the senators “look at our policies and we adopt significant portions of those.”

What's new about the new bill? The new bill package would devote:

  • $343 billion to roads and bridges.
  • $168 billion to wastewater and drinking water upgrades, including bill assistance for Americans hit by the pandemic.
  • $109 billion to mass transit, which the Times noted would "increase federal spending by 140 percent."
  • $32 billion — a threefold increase — to Amtrak, and funding for new high-speed rail
  • $6 billion to make infrastructure resilient to extreme weather
  • $4 billion to charging stations and electric vehicles
  • $3 billion to tear down "bridges and overpasses that separate communities of color from their cities," the Times noted, as in this example from Rochester.


More pressure for the bipartisan bill: Now that the House bill has passed, a future Senate deal will have to merge with it.

On Thursday, a majority of House Democrats sent the White House an open letter requesting for the final version of the package to include five key climate provisions," Zack Budryk reported for The Hill.

These include a full and final replacement of all America's lead piping; more electric vehicles; environmental justice provisions for the final bill; investment in land restoration and access to America's public lands; and government support for millions of clean, local, union manufacturing jobs, Budryk reported.

It is not yet clear how this merges with the White House’s promise, offered in response to Republican threats to walk away from the bipartisan deal if linked to a larger package, not to try to increase line-item totals using a companion bill. 

Biden still wants a clean energy standard: These measures will have to join a potential final agreement through the "reconciliation" process, which would let Democrats move them through the Senate with a simple majority.

One thing that Biden is sticking to is a clean electricity standard, along with tax benefits for renewable energy, according to a White House memo acquired by Ben Geman and Andrew Freedman of Axios.

The clean energy standard, by which the government mandates utilities to provide ever-higher levels of zero-carbon electricity, was one of the key climate forward measures knocked out of the bipartisan deal.

"In the absence of other punitive measures targeting polluters, such as a carbon tax, a [clean electricity standard] is seen by analysts as the most effective way to drive down emissions in the near term," Myles McCormick and Lauren Fedor reported for the Financial Times.

What we're watching. All eyes are now on the Senate. Can they get additional climate measures into reconciliation — and can they find a way to pay for it all without raising taxes?

And — as a bonus question we'll be looking into in the coming weeks — does it matter as much as Republicans say whether they can directly pay for it?


Follow-up Friday

In which we check in on news from earlier in the week to see how things have moved on.

Trees help avert deaths from heat

  • We wrote all week about the heat wave and about how it was drying up and killing trees.
  • But trees can help us resist heat as well: Their canopies provide shade, their bodies store carbon, and the water they release in the process of photosynthesis can cool the air up to “10 lifesaving degrees,” Catrin Einhorn wrote Friday for The New York Times
  • That and other benefits can be worth serious money, but “it’s hard for us to think of trees as actual infrastructure rather than an amenity, and because of that, we don’t allocate sufficient funds,” Brian Stone Jr. of the Georgia Institute of Technology told Einhorn. 
  • Once a year, the director of public works for Des Moines, Iowa gives out “tiny trees,” or $1 saplings for people to plant. They say the cost is a no-brainer. “You could have 99 percent mortality and still be in the money 20 years from now on canopy,” the program director told the Times.

Green investors step back from fossil fuel insurers

  • We reported Tuesday and Thursday about concern by investors over the risk posed to their holdings by climate. 
  • Now, investors and activists are trying to dissuade new fossil fuel investment by means of dissuading the insurers who underwrite it, Ian Smith wrote Friday in the Financial Times.
  • “All that has made life increasingly difficult for insurers that have generally been happier discussing the sustainability features of the investments they make” using customer premiums, Smith wrote. Having to make the same calculus about who they underwrite “risks cutting out” a lot of their existing slate of clients.
  • “The longer it takes for the insurance industry to get itself out of the firing line on this issue, the more attention it is going to get,” Lindsay Keenan of Insure Our Future, an organization focused on making the fossil fuel industry uninsurable, told the Financial Times. 

Arctic’s last ice area may be vulnerable to climate change

  • We wrote last week about how one climate tipping point might knock over others — and one such tipping point was Arctic summer sea ice.
  • Passengers aboard an icebreaker in August found that they could easily push through what was previously packed with solid ice — the Wandel Sea, just north of Greenland, Henry Fountain reported for The New York Times
  • The ship was able to break through the Wandel Sea because the warming Arctic climate thinned the ice, and an unusual shift in winds pushed much of the remaining ice out to sea.
  • Scientists are particularly troubled by the findings because this area had long been referred to as the “last ice area,” according to the Times.
  • Climate models had predicted that the area will likely retain ice, due an ocean current that keeps ice trapped there, but the region is now “not as stable as we used to think,” one researcher told the Times.

Have a great long weekend, and we’ll see you Tuesday evening — be careful with those fireworks and bonfires, and if you’re in the West, perhaps avoid them entirely.