Nevadans on what’s at stake at Glasgow climate conference
Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Conference, known as COP26, began this week. Across the world, policymakers and activists are looking to the conference in Glasgow as a make-or-break moment for addressing the climate crisis. Last month, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry referred to the talks as the “last best hope” to avert the most extreme impacts of climate change. But there remain significant roadblocks at home and abroad. And even though global leaders have been meeting for years, scientists say deeper short-term emission cuts are needed to slow warming.
More than 130 heads of state and thousands of officials are attending COP26, which will run through Nov. 12. Several Nevada officials are at the conference, including Sen. Jacky Rosen. David Bobzien, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy, and Brad Crowell, director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (more on COP26 below).
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Great Basin National Park sits at the eastern edge of the state. The park is home to a towering rock glacier and slow-growing groves of bristlecone pines, iconic trees with twisted limbs that have stood for centuries. Great Basin bristlecone pines can live to be more than 4,000 years, making them the oldest non-clonal species on the planet. Other trees dot the landscape in the park, and like so much of Nevada, the park’s peaks quickly transition to valleys of sagebrush.
Ben Roberts, the park’s natural resources manager, closely monitors conditions on the ground, and that includes the climate. Since the area is part of the national parks system, researchers have studied its climate history — and changes to it — in greater depth than other parts of the Great Basin, a dry region of the country that stretches from the Sierra Nevada into Utah.
And climatic changes, Roberts said, have already marked the landscape. Between 2006 and 2018, average daily minimum temperatures at the park increased by 2.1 degrees Celsius, according to one paper. There have also been more intense storms — microbursts of precipitation that can leave a big imprint on the land.
Roberts is specifically watching impacts to limber pines at the park. They are not as well-known as the bristlecones, but they also have a lifespan that can stretch thousands of years, he said.
These pines are facing threats from mountain pine beetles, which target a critical tissue layer in trees and can ultimately lead to tree mortalities. Importantly, they are resilient to warm weather.
“We think a lot of that has to do with temperatures,” Roberts said.
Across the West, climate change is already leaving its mark on our ecosystems, landscapes and cities. In Nevada, these impacts are chronicled in the state’s climate strategy. Consequences of a warming planet, for Nevada, will likely include increased temperatures, a higher frequency of drought and changes to snowpack, the primary source of drinking water for much of the West.
This week, as world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP26, I talked to activists and experts in Nevada about the conference and what is at stake. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report finding that a warmer future is all but certain, with warming expected to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the coming decades, even with emission cuts. The report, produced by more than 200 scientists across the globe, concluded that even more aggressive cuts are needed to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
Matt Lachniet, who studies long-term paleoclimate records at UNLV, helped put together the section of the state’s climate strategy that looks at climate impacts. He said the good news coming out of the conference is that policymakers are taking climate science seriously.
“This is ultimately a conference on policy,” Lachniet said. “And on the one hand, I’m pretty happy that we’ve gotten beyond questioning the science because the science is solid. And now it’s a question of how do we make policies that can help reduce the warming in the future?”
At the same time, Lachniet, who sees water and precipitation as the biggest climate threat to Southern Nevada, said policymakers should plan beyond 2100, the current timeline for many climate conversations. As Lachniet notes, “climate change doesn’t stop in the year 2100.” Last year, he co-published a paper showing what a “worst-case” climate scenario might look like.
But the fact that politicians are starting to listen is significant, and it’s not all about the problem. There are also solutions, Lachniet noted. Nevada could play a big role in the deployment of solar and other renewables needed to move the electric grid and transportation off fossil fuels.
A question for many, though, is whether politicians are moving fast enough to meet the window that scientists say is critical for action. Even as President Joe Biden was delivering a speech at the Glasgow conference this week, Congress was still debating the details of a spending bill that is considered a key part of the administration’s efforts to start addressing climate change.
When Dexter Lim, a UNLV undergraduate, hears stalling from politicians in the U.S. and abroad, it can be frustrating. Lim, a coordinator for the Sunrise Movement’s Las Vegas chapter, said the conference has highlighted the generation gap between those making political decisions and those who will have to live with the most severe impacts of climate change.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recognized the reality on Monday, saying that the average age of leaders gathered at COP26 were over 60. Lim, who is 19, noted that by the end of this decade, they would not even be in their 30s.
“I will have a lot of life left to live on a planet that is clearly going to get worse,” they said.
The effects, they said, can already be seen in Las Vegas, with warmer temperatures and as water levels in Lake Mead have dropped to record-low levels. They said this thinking informs their climate activism. Lim has vocally opposed policies that could lead to greater sprawl in Las Vegas and is advocating, through the Sunrise Movement, for a more rapid local response to climate change.
“I don’t want it to be unlivable in 20 years,” Lim said Tuesday. “I want to be able to have a future in this city or at least in this area … And I think everybody feels that way about their home.”
Other activists view the issue as a spiritual responsibility. That’s how Paulette Stauffer Henriod, an environment and sustainability specialist for the Nevada Chapter of the Mormon Women for Ethical Government, described the issue to me this week. She said the conference is extremely important because “government holds the big lever.” It’s also important, she said, to show the globe that the U.S. is serious about acting on climate change after ignoring it for four years.
Stauffer Henriod, who grew up in an environmentally conscious family and spent time outdoors, said that her faith has helped inform her advocacy on the issue through what she described as an “ethic of caring for something entrusted to our care.” She has advocated for changes on the local and state level during the Legislature and in regulatory proceedings.
But she said it’s important to also remember that climate change remains a “global issue.”
“While there are things we can do locally and things we can do on a state basis, environmental issues don't recognize boundaries,” she said during a phone interview on Wednesday.
With COP26 underway, leaders from across the globe have pledged to reduce their emissions. But it’s one thing to make pledges. It’s another thing to follow through — and to implement them in a way that does not disproportionately affect those who are the least responsible for the problem. Stauffer Henirod said, in many cases, “the people who suffer the worst consequences of our environmental choices are the ones that are doing the least amount of harm.”
Jose Silva, who works as an environmental justice organizer with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, is concerned that officials are saying all of the right things, but might not be up to the task of making the hard choices that climate mitigation and adaptation will require.
“I think there are a lot of people that use the language of ‘people of color,’ of ‘environmentally impacted communities,’ of ‘environmental racism,’” he said. “I don't know that they follow those words all the way through. I think for us to start scratching the surface on this world-threatening issue, I think what will do it is a whole ideological shift as to who we are in society and how we structure our society and how we structure our economy."
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
A ban on Colorado River water for new golf courses in Las Vegas: The Las Vegas Valley Water District board voted Thursday to prohibit Colorado River water from being used to irrigate new golf courses. Blake Apgar from the Las Vegas Review-Journal has the story. Although the move will not reduce existing water consumption, it will prevent future golf courses from further straining the system. Golf courses comprise about 6 percent of Southern Nevada’s water use.
- Groundwater flow on the Colorado River: “A new study projects that a hot and dry future climate may lead to a 29% decline in Upper Colorado River Basin “baseflow” at the basin outlet by the 2050s, affecting both people and ecosystems,” via the USGS.
- What the Colorado River cuts mean in Arizona: Buzzfeed News’ Caitlin Ochs wrote about the shortages in an in-depth piece last week. From the story: “In 2022, Arizona will implement the largest cuts, losing 20% of its Colorado River water. This shortage falls hardest on farmers in its central valley, who are navigating a difficult decision between using less water on their farms, selling their land, or returning to pumping groundwater.”
Mining fees remain in House bill. Sen. Cortez Masto says they’re a non-starter: When Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives released a new version of their “Build Back Better” legislation last week, lawmakers included a provision to reform the General Mining Law of 1872 by placing royalties on the gross income from hardrock mines, including in Nevada.
In October, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said such a proposal would not be in the Senate bill after holding a hearing with Barrick, which operates Nevada Gold Mines. After the updated language was released, Cortez Masto told our reporter, Humberto Sanchez, that she did not support passing the royalty provision through the process known as budget reconciliation, which only requires a majority vote. Cortez Masto said she is working on standalone legislation with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) with input from industry groups and environmentalists.
- E&E News’ Jael Holzman, Emma Dumain and Timothy Cama wrote an excellent piece about Cortez Masto’s move and the politics around passing a mining royalty. It includes an interesting quote about Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), who said leaving the royalty out of the spending bill would represent “an enormous missed opportunity.”
Mining oversight commission holds first meeting since 2015: On Thursday last week, the Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission, known as MOAC, held its first meeting since 2015. For years, the commission had been left to wither without a quorum until, eventually, the board had no members left. In September, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced plans to reconstitute the board. The first meeting was more organizational than anything else, as April Corbin Girnus explained in an article for the Nevada Current. Several commenters at the meeting criticized the lack of Indigenous representation on the seven-member commission and urged the governor to take that into consideration when considering future appointments (there are two vacancies).
“We feel like we were meant to be here at this time, fighting for the land.” Grist’s Maddie Stone writes about opposition to the Thacker Pass mine, a proposed open-pit lithium project north of Winnemucca, from Indigenous communities in Northern Nevada. A lawsuit challenging the underlying federal approval of the project continues to make its way through federal court (and we are closely watching the case). Last week, the Associated Press’ Scott Sonner wrote about a new filing to seek additional documents from third-party consultants on the project.
Climate change and Aspen tree declines: A new study from UNR researchers has found that Aspen trees are declining because of changes in the climate. "Human-caused climate change is an unavoidable reality, and our research findings clearly indicate that it is a major driver of aspen decline," Hall Cushman, a UNR ecology professor, said in a press release this week.
Mapping air pollution: ProPublica released an important in-depth mapping project on risks of cancer from industrial chemical pollution across the U.S. It’s worth spending some time with this.
“We want the mill to close. We want them to clean it up:” An important piece from High Country News’ Jessica Douglas looks at the nation’s last uranium mill, which has operated next to the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation for four decades. In that time, trucks have spilled radioactive waste. Today, tribal members are concerned that the mill, set to import radioactive waste from Estonia, has contaminated groundwater, despite a state agency that disagrees.
Rooftop solar, climate justice, net metering: Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth wrote an excellent piece about an important debate taking place in California over the future of rooftop solar. The state is considering whether to slash incentives meant to encourage homeowners to put solar panels on their roofs. But as the article explains, supporters and opponents of the new rules do not fall into categories that are easy to define. And it’s reignited a long-running debate over how to transition the grid while integrating new technologies like rooftop solar that generate their own electricity. That debate will likely only intensify as we add more renewables to the grid.
Three Sierra towns grappling with fire: The San Francisco Chronicle’s J.D. Morris looks at three towns in the Northern Sierra, hit hard by devastating wildfires over the past three years. The towns face uncertainty, continued threats and hard choices about how to recover from fire.