Axios Generate

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June 17, 2022

🚀 Happy Friday everyone! Andrew here, Ben is off today. Today's newsletter, edited by Carlos Cunha, has a Smart Brevity count of 1,221 words, 4.5 minutes. 

🎶 We have a story today based on satellite data, leading me to this song from Guster that serves as today's intro tune ...

UN leader's unique and lonely role on climate

Photo illustration of U.N. Secretary-General Guterres in front of bursting shapes, including one filled with images of greenhouse gas emissions
Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Mark Baker-Pool/Getty Images

Among the leaders participating in a virtual climate and energy meeting hosted by the White House Friday morning is a man who has become the voice of climate activists worldwide, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Andrew writes.

Driving the news: Guterres, who will deliver virtual remarks to the Major Economies Forum (MEF) on Energy and Climate, will portray further investments in fossil fuels as "a danger," and implore leaders to swiftly change course.

  • This morning Guterres will, according to a copy of his speech, tell leaders: "The first duty of leadership is to protect people from clear and present dangers. Nothing could be more clear or present than the danger of fossil fuel expansion."

Why it matters: Guterres has carved out a role on climate that is distinct from that of his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon. Instead of a bridge-builder, Guterres acts as a truth-teller and champion of climate activists and developing-country citizens who are acutely aware of present-day damages from climate change.

Yes, but: Given the energy crunch in the wake of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Guterres is swimming against the tide in trying to speed up climate action now.

The big picture: Guterres's speech to the MEF comes as gas prices have eclipsed $5 per gallon in the U.S. and there is domestic political pressure to de-emphasize the White House's climate goals in favor of short-term fossil fuel expansion.

  • The war has sent Europe scrambling for alternate sources of natural gas for next winter while trying to hasten its long-term transition away from fossil fuels.
  • Other countries, such as China, are consuming more of Russia's oil and gas, and are also turning back to coal, the most greenhouse gas intensive fuel, to generate electricity.
  • Watchdog groups warn that these developments are further endangering the Paris climate targets.

Zoom in: Against the backdrop of these geopolitical headwinds, Guterres has issued increasingly dire warnings associated with climate science reports, and has addressed recent confabs in Davos and the Austrian World Summit.

  • His statements are rarely subtle, and while they often travel far in the press they can fail to move some world leaders.

What they're saying: "Even in the short-term, fossil fuels don’t make political or economic sense," Gutteres will tell leaders from 23 nations today. "Yet we seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat."

  • A senior UN official told Axios that today's speech will be free of diplomatic niceties. Describing the remarks, the advisor stated: “Even given the Secretary-General’s impressive track record of speaking truth-to-power, this is [a] blistering intervention, to the leaders of the world’s largest economies."

Read the whole story

2. A surprising polar bear discovery in Greenland

A polar bear stands on a snow-covered iceberg surrounded by fast ice, or sea ice connected to the shore, in southeast Greenland in March 2016. Photo: Kristin Laidre/University of Washington

Scientists have identified a previously unknown group of polar bears in southeast Greenland living in an environment with relatively little sea ice, potentially showing a way to preserve some of the iconic species as the Arctic warms, Axios' Alison Snyder and Andrew write.

Why it matters: The research suggests polar bears can live in a wider variety of conditions than scientists thought — and, some scientists say, raises the possibility that some groups of polar bears in select locations could be more resistant to global warming's sweeping changes.

Driving the news: The newly discovered group of polar bears lives among the isolated fjords and glaciers in southeast Greenland.

  • Researchers tracked the group — which they say is likely to be made up of a few hundred bears — using satellite data and ground-based tracking devices. They published their findings Thursday in the journal Science.

Polar bears typically use sea ice that freezes along the coastlines as their hunting ground to catch seals. But, in southeast Greenland, that ice is absent for more than 250 days each year.

  • Unlike other polar bear populations, this newly discovered group was able to stay put and keep hunting, relying instead on freshwater ice from glaciers.

Yes, but: The ice these bears rely on is also under threat, since Greenland's glaciers are also melting.

Read the whole story

3. Heat sets records in Texas, and may get worse

Data: NWS; Table: Thomas Oide/Axios Visuals

The heat wave that has broken records from California to Minnesota and east to North Carolina this past week has been particularly prolonged in Texas, Andrew writes.

The big picture: With its notoriously fragile electricity grid, Texas is likely to see temperatures climb yet again by early next week.

  • The heat dome responsible for the extreme temperatures is forecast to build back west and strengthen, sending temperatures soaring across the Central states, Plains and Texas by the end of the weekend into next week.
  • According to Victor Murphy of the National Weather Service, Texas may approach or surpass its record for the hottest June, due in part to the severe drought.

By the numbers: Murphy called San Antonio "the poster child for heat" in Texas so far this summer, with nine 100-degree days this month, close to their all-time June record of 12 days.

Context: Studies show climate change makes heat waves more likely and intense, and also can tip the odds in favor of hydrological extremes, like drought.

4. Satellite spots huge methane burst in Russia

Illustration of a thermometer with a methane molecule as the base.
Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

A series of massive methane releases from a Russian coal mine were detected on Jan. 14 and analyzed, according to GHGSat, which uses satellites to pinpoint emissions down to the facility level, Andrew writes.

  • The company released its findings this week, saying it was the largest methane release from a single facility it has detected since its measurements began in 2016.
  • The methane release had an emissions rate of about 90 metric tons per hour.

Why it matters: Methane is a short-lived, potent greenhouse gas. While much of policy makers' attention is focused on reducing methane from the oil and gas industry as well as landfills, the new data indicates coal mines are another key source.

Zoom in: The methane emissions came from the Raspadskaya coal mine in Kemerovo Oblast, Siberia, and totaled 13 simultaneous leaks in a single satellite pass overhead, Jean-Francois “J-F” Gauthier, vice president of measurements and special initiatives at GHGSat, tells Andrew.

  • According to GHGSat, if the total release rate were sustained over a year, the mine would emit enough methane to power 2.4 million homes with natural gas, and emit an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to that of five average-sized coal-fired power plants.
  • GHGSat said the methane releases may have been related to safety, noting that a methane explosion there due to a buildup of the gas within its tunnels killed dozens in May 2010.

🏃🏽 Catch up fast: Gas cuts, climate talks, Permian

🇪🇺 Russia sharply curtailed gas flows to Western Europe this week, which has sent natural gas prices soaring.

  • Why it matters: Russia cut the flow of gas through the Nord Stream pipeline by as much as 60%, Bloomberg reports, which has sent leaders of Germany and other nations searching for even more alternative supplies to fill up storage capacity.
  • Of note: Russia claims the cuts stem from a lack of repair parts due to international sanctions, a claim Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi called "lies." Reuters has more.

Elsewhere on our radar:

🌡️ Climate talks in Bonn ended bitterly, with a divide between developing countries and industrialized nations over paying for climate change damages. BBC has more.

🛢️ Targa Resources, an oil and gas infrastructure company, has agreed to buy the Lucid Energy Group for $3.55 billion in cash.

  • Why it matters: The deal would give the company more of a presence in the Permian Basin. Reuters has more.

Ben says: "Whoops, I wrongly said the comment period on the SEC's draft climate disclosure rules ended Thursday. The final day is actually today."

Note: We will be off on Monday for Juneteenth, so see you all on Tuesday.