The Hill's Sustainability Report: Extreme heat threatens Olympics of yesteryear — and today

The Hill's Sustainability Report: Extreme heat threatens Olympics of yesteryear — and today
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Today is Thursday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Athletes in Tokyo are confronting some of the hottest conditions in the history of the Olympic Games — leading some competitors to withdraw from their events, The Wall Street Journal reported. And on the other side of the world, at the site where the first Olympics took place, firefighters fought to protect an archeological relic of Games past, according to Reuters.

Temperatures in Tokyo have been so hot that tennis player Daniil Medvedev last week told the chair umpire, “I can finish the match but I can die,” while requesting a medical timeout, The Associated Press reported.

In Tokyo, the humidity is weighing down some of the world’s fittest people, hindering the evaporation of their sweat, according to the Journal. Although the conditions are on par with Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, athletes are finding there’s only so much their bodies can endure.

Grappling with heat also means confronting drought — and the ramifications that dangerously dry conditions can have on the larger sustainability of our water and food systems. We’ll take a look today at how agriculture in an arid West is struggling to evolve with changing circumstances, and at how the Biden administration is counting on a gentleman’s agreement with Big Three automakers to usher in the electric vehicle revolution.

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.

Proposal for a thirsty West: Pay farmers not to water

Colorado is considering paying farmers to leave their water in the Colorado River, as drought conditions stress a system that serves some 40 million people, Colorado Public Radio reported. 

Without taking such measures, Colorado and other Upper Basin states — New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — could risk multistate litigation if they are unable to meet downstream delivery obligations set in a 100-year-old compact, the station reported. 

In addition, the 2019 Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan requires these states to send more water to the Lake Powell storage reservoir if its level drops below 3,525 feet — now a real possibility.

The federal government is expected to declare shortage limits soon for the Colorado River for the first time, as KUNC reported and we covered in a previous edition of Equilibrium. 

Could reimbursing farmers make an impact? This concept, called demand management, would involve “temporary, voluntary, and compensated reductions” in water consumption, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. 

And in the face of a growing drought, officials are evaluating whether such a program could be scaled up to include millions of people across multiple states, Colorado Public Radio reported.

This builds on current efforts initiated by nonprofits. One farmer who spoke with the radio station has received $15,000 from Trout Unlimited to send his water downstream. “If they're paying us more than we think the value is of the production, it's a no-brainer to do it,” he said.

Other farmers are fallowing land and leasing water to municipalities, by means of “conservation easements,” as Sharon reported for Headwaters Magazine, which allow landowners to transfer their development rights to a trust and receive tax credits for conserving land while earning revenue from leasing water.

WESTERN AGRICULTURE 'IN AN EMERGENCY NOW'

The U.S. may need to rethink its food system entirely. In the short term, this could mean new policies on crop insurance and risk management for farmers coping with “unusual weather patterns,” according to former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. 

In the long term, it means developing crops that use less water.

“We’re really in an emergency now,” he said at a Drought in the American West briefing, held by water news site Circle of Blue. 

Global best practices exist, but not at scale. Entrepreneurial farmers have figured out innovative technological solutions to improve their output but they must wait for governments to get involved before their practices can be shared, according to Glickman. 

Glickman also called for a “Manhattan Project” sized look at water utilization across America, to determine exactly how we use it and how we should be using it.

Running out of water wreaks regulatory and reputational havoc: Sudden disruptions in agricultural supply chains can impact multiple markets at the same time and create global disarray — as occurred in many other sectors during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Andre Fourie, water sustainability director at Anheuser-Busch InBev, said at the Circle of Blue briefing.

So what can businesses do? Companies can invest in systems where the supply chains are not directly relevant to their businesses, according to Fourie. 

For example, he explained, if Anheuser-Busch has a brewery — which requires water — in a water-stressed location, it makes sense for the company to invest in shifting nearby farms to drip irrigation, as agriculture tends to consume 60 to 80 percent of regional water supplies.

Creating resilient water systems means including robust technologies that ensure “nature and people, especially the most vulnerable, thrive under shocks or stresses or change,” Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, said at the briefing.

Takeaway: Such resilience is currently lacking in the Colorado River basin — and the futures of some 40 million people and a sprawling network of farms depends on rapidly reimagining our aging food and water infrastructure.

A gentlemen’s agreement to cut auto emissions

President BidenJoe BidenHow 'Buy American', other pro-US policies can help advocates pass ambitious climate policies Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan Photos of the Week: Manchin protestor, Paris Hilton and a mirror room MORE encouraged automakers to cut emissions and make about 50 percent of their vehicle sales electric by 2030 at an event with the heads of America’s Big Three automakers Thursday.

The Biden executive order set out a plan to gradually return emissions standards to the levels approved by former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama pays tribute to Merkel Supreme Court agrees to review Texas's 6-week abortion ban Youngkin to launch bus tour on same day as Obama, McAuliffe event in Virginia MORE. That goal, like the electric vehicle standard, relies on the self-interest and voluntary commitments of automakers to fulfill.

The automakers say this goal will be impossible without sweeping government support for a new electric economy.

What the order does: It splits the difference between the contentious Obama administration standard of a 5 percent annual drop in tailpipe emissions and the Trump rollback of 1.5 percent.

Precise numbers have not been released. According to an EPA official cited in the AP, emissions standards would be 10 percent more stringent than Trump rules through model year 2023, after which it would rise by 5 percent per year until model year 2026 — a total of 25 percent over four years.

Like the commitment to make half of new cars electric by 2030, this pledge is voluntary and “unenforceable” — which isn’t enough to guarantee compliance, Dan Becker of the Center for Biodiversity told Reuters.

This standard, Becker said, makes “a New Year’s weight-loss resolution look like a legally binding contract.” 

A wish list, not a fiat: The order is an aspirational signal to private investors and Congress of where the government and industry leaders want to go, Rachel Frazin reported for The Hill.

The White House announcement featured Biden alongside leaders from Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — formerly Fiat Chrysler — each of whom announced intentions to reach 40 to 50 percent electric vehicles by 2030.

That’s 20 to 25 times the current electric market share of 2 percent, according to Bloomberg.

 

SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS FROM TWO FRONTS

Was anyone missing from that ceremony? It “seems odd that Tesla wasn’t invited,” Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskPrince William urges focus on saving planet instead of space travel Democrats' electric vehicle push sparks intense lobbying fight Blue Origin is taking William Shatner to space — but can it distract from internal criticism? MORE tweeted overnight, despite the company having two out of three of the top selling cars made in the United States, according to Cars.com.

One possible explanation is that “Tesla is a nonunion shop” and Biden has consistently stated that “he is interested in promoting good union auto jobs,” Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research told The Wall Street Journal. 

Only three automakers in America fit that bill, she added.

Some union members are worried: Opposition from the United Auto Workers (UAW), which represents the Big Three workforces, led the Biden administration to back off plans to set 2035 as the date to phase out new gas-powered light trucks, according to Reuters.

After a UAW statement said it supported Biden’s “ambition,” the union did not endorse the 40 to 50 percent electric vehicle standard, the AP reported.

Why? Electric cars tend to have both fewer components and a less unionized supply chain, which has the potential to “eliminate jobs and undercut wages,the Financial Times reported.

Wall Street, however, was excited: Investors are “eager to see more spending, faster” by the Big Three on new factories and production lines in what one analyst called “‘an arms race’” against Tesla, according to the Times.

The Big Three say these goals will be difficult to fulfill without federal spending on tax credits and charging stations far beyond that included in the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan, the Journal reported.

Still not enough: The Biden administration seems to believe that gently guiding the market will work better than spending the next two years in court wrangling over strict, binding standards.

But its plan would allow gas cars to remain on the roads for decades — as experts argue that even the new, more stringent targets offered here and in U.S. commitments to the Paris agreement aren’t nearly enough. 

In contrast to the current zeal for setting goals for 2030 to 2050, "what the countries are doing or not doing is what matters," Bangladeshi scientists Saleemul Huq, chair of the expert advisory group of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, told Reuters.

"And what they're doing is not keeping us below 1.5 degrees."



Thursday Throwdown

Big fights over wolves, evictions and gun-running to the drug cartels. 

Wisconsin officials to limit wolf hunting this fall

  • Wildlife officials in Wisconsin want to restrict the number of wolves that hunters can target this fall to 130, The Associated Press reported.
  • The state held three hunting seasons between 2012 and 2014, before wolves were relisted as an endangered species, according to the AP. 
  • After the Trump administration removed them in January, a hunting advocacy group won a court order allowing an impromptu season in February.
  • Although the state’s Department of Natural Resources set a quota for 119 wolves, hunters killed 218 animals in just four days, the AP reported.
  • Department of Natural Resources officials are still uncertain how that rushed February hunt may have impacted the wolf population, the AP reported.

The eviction moratorium is back in court, as temperatures soar

  • A Washington, D.C., district court ruled that the Justice Department had until Friday morning to respond to a lawsuit by the Alabama Association of Realtors challenging its 60-day “targeted” extension of the eviction ban, Reuters reported.
  • The administration focused the new ban on counties with “substantial” or “high” coronavirus transmission rates — covering 90 percent of the population.
  • Housing insecurity and energy poverty, coupled with the pandemic, have “put millions of Americans at risk from heat stress,” said Olga Wilhelmi of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
  • About 28 percent of Americans believed they had suffered from symptoms related to “extreme heat,” according to a study Wilhelmi and colleagues are publishing in Environmental Research Letters.

Mexican government wants $10 billion in damages from U.S. gunmakers

  • Mexico’s foreign minister said the country is suing six U.S.-based companies — including Smith & Wesson and Colt — for “negligence,” the Financial Times reported. 
  • Gun violence has killed more than 200,000 Mexicans since 2006, much of it carried out by the 2.5 million illegal firearms imported by criminal cartels.
  • It’s a sustainability problem for the Mexican state: How do they cut off a flood of cutting-edge foreign weapons to their criminal insurgencies?
  • The lawsuit is a start. “Without US weapons, [the cartels’] capacity to make war and kill would be drastically lower,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Friday. 

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