Equilibrium/Sustainability — ‘Disaster math’ could avert human extinction

Climate change could lead to “global catastrophes” up to and including human extinction, a new study has found. 

And scientists and policymakers are making it more likely by failing to face the possibility head-on, according to the study, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

“We must do the math of disaster in order to avoid it,” Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said in a statement. 

Some of the potential global disasters the team identified were “tipping points” that could pitch the planet into an unstoppable cycle of rapid warming that feeds on itself. 

Such a scenario could occur if heating causes the massive release of methane from permafrost, or carbon dioxide from forests, leading to further warming in an ever-accelerating cycle. 

But the scientists also highlighted the risk that climate change could exacerbate destabilizing human-caused threats like wars, social inequality, financial crises or political collapse. 

By 2070, 2 billion people will be impacted by annual average temperatures above
85 degrees Fahrenheit, up from 30 million today, the researchers found. 

“These temperatures and the social and political consequences will directly affect two nuclear powers, and seven maximum containment laboratories housing the most dangerous pathogens,” coauthor Chi Xu of Nanjing University said. 

“There is serious potential for disastrous knock-on effects,” Xu added. 

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 look at two lethal, ongoing disasters: Northern California’s largest wildfire this year and eastern Kentucky’s record-breaking floods. Then we’ll look at why heavy rains have put one New Mexico city in danger of running out of water. 

Two dead as California’s largest 2022 wildfire rages 

Two people were found dead inside their vehicle on Monday as California’s largest fire this year raged along the state’s northern border.  

These were the first deaths linked to the rapidly spreading McKinney Fire, which has forced at least 2,000 people to evacuate and ravaged homes and critical infrastructure, Reuters reported.  

  • Blazing uncontained: As of Monday morning, the McKinney Fire had scorched 55,493 acres and was 0 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.  
  • The fire, which began on Friday afternoon, is burning in the Klamath National Forest just south of the Oregon-California border.  

State of emergency: Most of the damage thus far has been in Siskiyou County, where Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) declared a state of emergency on Saturday.  

What’s the current status? Firefighters are fighting to keep the blaze away from the nearby county seat of Yreka, according to the Sacramento Bee.   

The U.S. Forest Service expressed concerns about the chance of “abundant lightning” and wind gusts from thunderstorms, the Bee reported. These conditions could help ignite new flame fronts — or fan existing ones.  

Hot temperatures aren’t helping: A red flag warning was in effect for the region, as temperatures averaged around 100 degrees on Sunday, according to the Los Angeles Times.  

Such weather conditions cause a fire to become “more energetic,” while increasing the potential for further fire spread, Jonathan Garner, of the National Weather Service, told the Times.  

One of many: While the McKinney Fire may be California’s largest in 2022 thus far, it is just one of several big blazes that have raged this summer, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

  • The Oak Fire, which began more than a week ago in the Sierra National Forest, is still just 64 percent contained and had burned nearly 20,000 acres as of Sunday, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Sudden and severe: Both the Oak Fire and the McKinney Fire — which has also closed part of the Pacific Crest Trail — serve as reminders “of how suddenly a threat can arise,” climate editor Kate Galbraith wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle.  

“These days, I generally avoid the Sierra in August,” she said, recalling “wonderful” summers of backpacking in the 1980s. 

Risk is rising: “The risk of a wildfire casting smoke through remote areas — or even burning deep into the backcountry, as is happening more often — seems to escalate with every passing summer month, as vegetation gets drier and drier,” Galbraith added. 

Kentucky death toll rises; hundreds still missing 

More than 30 people have been confirmed dead in eastern Kentucky following last week’s devastating rains, the Lexington Herald Leader reported. 

The Biden administration announced over the weekend that it would be expediting aid to Kentucky survivors, our colleague Caroline Vakil reported for The Hill. 

Still searching: Damage to infrastructure is hampering attempts to find the hundreds of people missing, Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.) told reporters, according to CNN. 

  • “We’re going to be finding bodies for weeks, many of them swept hundreds of yards, maybe a quarter-mile plus from where they were last,” Beshear told NBC’s Meet the Press. 
  • One family lost all four children to the floodwaters as they clung to a tree, The New York Times reported.

Blown-out bridges: Of particular concern are the 50 bridges that have been damaged or destroyed, the Herald Leader reported. 

  • “Our bridges are so important in this community and they are about whether you can access not only your house, but so many critical services,” Beshear said in his press conference. 
  • About 13,000 Kentuckians remained without power, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks regions across the U.S. that have lost electricity. 

Fires, floods leave N.M. city with 50-day water supply

New Mexico declared a state of emergency this weekend as the onset of heavy rains in the Southwest has put the city of Las Vegas, N.M., (population: 13,000) at risk of running out of water. 

The water crisis comes as a result of the annual monsoon season — which has arrived on the heels of New Mexico’s largest wildfire. 

Dwindling supply: Las Vegas, N.M., has about 50 days’ water supply before the city runs out, our colleagues as Nexstar affiliate KRQE reported this weekend.  

That’s because “wildfire damage to our watershed has compromised the availability of water to the Las Vegas municipal water system,” Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said in a statement.

  • The region’s landscape is choked with thousands of acres of “ash and different debris” that rains washed into the adjacent Gallinas River, Trujillo told KRQE.  
  • Las Vegas gets most of its water from this river’s watershed, according to the city. 
  • But the Gallinas River now offers only  “extremely poor quality water” that “cannot be treated in our system and meet drinking water standards,” Las Vegas utility director Maria Gilvarry told the Santa Fe New Mexican. 

Emergency response: New Mexico is providing $2.25 million to help Las Vegas “pre-treat” water from nearby Storrie Lake, about four miles north of the city, according to the city.

  • Pre-treatment involves pulling out contaminants like ash that city intake machinery can’t handle, the New Mexican reported. 
  • “The pre-treatment will bring the extremely poor quality water closer to a dirty water that is treatable with our current system,” Gilvarry told the New Mexican.  

New Mexicans call out feds on repair costs: The damage to the watershed is just one of many downstream impacts of a botched federal attempt to protect upland forests, Trujillo said in his statement. 

The situation has also created the prime conditions for the monsoon to become a crisis, the mayor added. 

‘Why should I pay?’: The federal response to this disaster has many residents feeling betrayed as they face rebuilding costs, Reuters reported.

  • New Mexico’s recent devastating wildfire, whose scars are exacerbating the impacts of the current monsoons, is the result of two federally-orchestrated prescribed burns that went awry, according to Reuters.
  • The Biden administration pledged in June to pay for all damages, but many residents claim they are having to come up with at least 25 percent of repair costs — which they often can’t afford, Reuters reported.  

“Why the hell am I going to pay anything when I didn’t cause this damn fire?” one resident asked Reuters. 

MONSOONS SOAK THE SOUTHWEST 

The monsoons endangering Las Vegas’s water supply are part of the same regional weather system that struck a more-famous city of the same name.  

In Las Vegas floodwaters inundated city streets and casinos throughout the weekend, according to NBC. 

These rains have done nothing to make up for the protracted shortfall in the drought-stricken reservoir of Lake Mead, our Nexstar colleagues at KLAS Las Vegas reported.

Mexico deems drought an issue of ‘national security’ 

Mexico has deemed drought conditions in the northern state of Nuevo León an issue of “national security,” Reuters reported. 

The Mexican government said that water in the region should be prioritized for public use, stressing that water concessions to private companies could be reduced, according to Reuters.  

Growing anger: Residents of the metropolitan area of Monterrey — home to about 5.3 million people — have become increasingly frustrated in recent months, Reuters reported. 

  • While residents faced water shutdowns, commercial bottlers and beer companies have been able to extract billions of gallons due to federal concessions. 
  • Authorities began cutting residential water access to a few hours each morning in June.    

Corporate action garners criticism: Heineken recently said it would allocate 20 percent of its water supply to public use, while Coca-Cola is offering free water from its Topo-Chico water factory, according to The Guardian.  

But the Topo-Chico factory is too far away for most residents, The Guardian reported. Meanwhile, photos of canned Heineken water have sparked the ire of those whose taps have run dry, according to Reuters.  

Actual usage unclear: A joint statement from Coca-Cola and bottler Arca Continental to The Guardian said that Monterey’s industrial sector uses only 4 percent of public water in the Nuevo León state.  

But this amount does not account for private well consumption, The Guardian noted.  

Federal government stepping in: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a decree on Friday to enable Mexico’s water commission, CONAGUA, to oversee efforts of the local water operators, according to the Latin American news service BNamericas.  

Some proactive measures could involve advancing water infrastructure projects, including several dams and aqueducts, as well as facilitating the transport of water containers to remote regions, BNamericas reported.  

Guaranteeing water, for now: “The actions that we are proposing and will carry out with support from the local and municipal governments will allow us to guarantee water during the next eight to 10 years,” López Obrador said. 

Monday Miscellanies

Taylor Swift pushes back on private jet criticisms, fungi offer vital climate-saving tools and Hawaii receives its final shipment of coal. 

Taylor Swift rejects status as biggest celebrity polluter 

Fungi species could be climate saviors 

  • The “vast and poorly understood universe of underground fungi” could provide vital tools to combatting the impacts of climate change, The New York Times reported in an interactive feature. Some such advantages include abilities to store huge amounts of carbon, to fight off pests and to feed nutrients to crops, according to the Times.     

Last coal shipment arrives in Hawaii 

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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