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Sen. Wyden tees up bill to protect grasslands amid drought, wildfires

The Climate 202

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Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! ICYMI, our colleague Jason Samenow spoke with Resources for the Future about why it's important to mention climate change when reporting on extreme weather. You can listen to the full podcast here. But first:

Exclusive: Sen. Wyden introduces bill to conserve threatened grassland ecosystems

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will introduce legislation on Wednesday to establish the first-ever strategy for the protection, restoration and management of grassland ecosystems across North America, according to bill text and a summary shared exclusively with The Climate 202.

The North American Grasslands Conservation Act seeks to empower farmers, ranchers, Native American tribes and rural communities to conserve some of the continent’s most imperiled ecosystems while combating the climate crisis. 

“With grasslands, you’ve got millions of acres of land that are currently not part of the climate solution,” Wyden said in an interview. “This bill changes that for the first time.”

Grasslands are among the most vulnerable ecosystems in the world. Over the last decade, millions of acres of grasslands have been lost to wildfires, extreme drought, fragmentation, commercial development, invasive species and other threats.

While forests mostly store carbon in woody biomass and leaves, grasslands sequester most of their carbon in their roots underground. That makes grasslands a more reliable carbon sink than forests, which release their sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere when wildfires cause trees to go up in flames, according to a 2018 study from the University of California at Davis.

The North American Grasslands Conservation Act is co-sponsored by Sens. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). It does not have any Republican co-sponsors so far, despite efforts to drum up GOP support.

“We’re talking to Republicans; I always try to find common ground,” Wyden said. “I’m not talking about Democratic grasslands or Republican grasslands.”

New programs

Roughly 85 percent of grasslands are privately owned. To that end, the Wyden legislation would establish the following programs aimed at empowering farmers, ranchers and tribes to conserve grasslands and the wildlife species that depend on them:

  • A North American Grassland Conservation Strategy for the protection, restoration and management of grassland ecosystems.
  • A Grassland Conservation Grant Program for voluntary, incentive-based conservation of grasslands, including projects to restore degraded grasslands, increase carbon sequestration, mitigate the threats of wildfire and drought, improve biodiversity and support habitat connectivity. (The Fish and Wildlife Service would have $290 million annually to carry out the grant program from fiscal years 2022 through 2026.)
  • National and Regional Grassland Conservation Councils to recommend and approve grassland conservation projects to be funded under the grant program.
  • Research initiatives on native seed crop systems and regenerative grazing practices.

“Grasslands are North America’s most imperiled ecosystem and without urgent, collaborative, conservation efforts, this essential habitat and the lives and livelihoods it supports are at risk,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

“Just as we’ve restored millions of acres of wetlands through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Duck Stamp, the North American Grasslands Act will mark a sea change in how we conserve, restore, and revitalize our prairies for ranchers, hunters, and wildlife alike,” O'Mara said. “Congress should take up this landmark bill as soon as possible.”

The path forward

A Wyden aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, acknowledged that the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate as a stand-alone measure. 

However, the legislation could hitch a ride on a broader package that advances out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee or the Environment and Public Works Committee, the aide said.

The grasslands legislation comes after Democrats dropped the climate provisions from their signature spending bill because of opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), a conservative Democrat. Wyden chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the clean energy tax credits that formed the centerpiece of the climate package.

“We’re not in any way, shape or form giving up on” the clean energy incentives, Wyden said, adding that he is still “looking for a way to advance” the credits, despite Manchin’s resistance to new spending amid inflationary pressures.

Pressure points

Biden administration launches website on extreme heat

The Biden administration on Tuesday launched the website heat.gov to provide local officials and the public with information and tools for responding to extreme heat, which ranks as the leading weather-related cause of death in the country.

The website came as nearly 40 million Americans were under heat alerts on Tuesday, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Washington Post. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, temperatures are expected to be the highest of the summer this week. Seattle may see temperatures of 90 degrees on four consecutive days through Friday, while Portland, Ore., may get afternoon temperatures near 100.

The new site will “reach people where they are and give them the information that they need to adapt in real time,” Ali Zaidi, the deputy White House national climate adviser, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. 

Other speakers on the call included Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Rick Spinrad, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

International climate

Leaders in the Amazon should enforce environmental laws. They often break them.

While deforestation is pushing the Amazon toward a tipping point, the very people accused of playing a role in that destruction have gained political power over it, according to an investigation by our colleague Terrence McCoy as part of The Washington Post's “The Amazon, Undone” series

Inside the Amazon, which is imperiled by climate change, the local leaders charged with enforcing environmental laws are typically the very people alleged to have broken them as a shortcut to obtain wealth and power, according to an analysis of thousands of federal infractions and candidate data in the Amazon.

The Post found that many of the people and companies accused of wrongdoing by federal environmental law enforcement authorities have also pumped tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns in the past two decades and won public office more than 1,900 times. Taken together, the electoral victories and campaign finances have formed a parallel political system. 

Law enforcement officials say this trend has helped undermine attempts to safeguard the natural resource that scientists warn must be preserved to avert catastrophic global warming.

“This is the rule, not the exception,” said Alexandre Saraiva, who was chief of the federal police in Amazonas state until last year. “Those who deforest the Amazon completely dominate local politics, both through economic power and through violence. The representatives of the people are, in fact, the representatives of those who deforest.”

Europe agrees to curb gas consumption as Russia threatens supply cutoffs

The European Union on Tuesday struck a deal on cuts to natural gas consumption as the threat of a Russian supply cutoff mounted amid Western sanctions over the war in Ukraine, Kim Mackrael and Joe Wallace report for the Wall Street Journal. 

The long-awaited agreement calls for member countries to voluntarily slash their gas use by 15 percent beginning in August. While the target could become mandatory in an emergency, an E.U. official said Tuesday that country delegates didn’t discuss possible sanctions for members that decline to participate. 

The deal also includes carve-outs that exclude certain areas from the reductions, including island countries that are not connected to other E.U. nations’ gas networks and Baltic countries whose electricity systems are not linked to the rest of the continent. 

The agreement comes just one day before exports of Russian natural gas through Nord Stream 1 are expected to fall to one-fifth of the pipeline’s capacity, meaning the bloc will face an even more challenging road ahead as it scrambles to fill storage tanks with gas supplies before the winter.

Extreme events

Drastic flooding inundates parts of St. Louis, kills at least 1

Unprecedented flooding sparked by torrential rainfall in St. Louis on Tuesday killed at least one person and stranded residents in their cars and homes, with some parts of the city receiving more than 7.68 inches of rain in six hours overnight, Jason Samenow and Marisa Iati report for The Post. 

The severe downpour had less than a 1-in-1,000 chance of happening in a given year, according to the National Weather Service. Extreme precipitation events have become more frequent in the past century and are tied to human-caused global warming. The heaviest such events increased by 42 percent in the Midwest between 1901 and 2016, with additional increases expected as the planet continues to warm, according to the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment. 

The rain in St. Louis prompted the National Weather Service to warn of “life-threatening flooding” and later declare a flash flood emergency — its most serious flood alert. The risk is forecast to shift from southeast Missouri through West Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday.

Droughts and more wildfires may be next for Britain after record heat wave

The record-breaking triple-digit heat in Britain last week could trigger drought and more wildfires if it does not relent, according to the U.K. Environment Agency, Ellen Francis reports for The Post. 

Already, rivers and reservoirs in the United Kingdom are depleted from prolonged dry weather, threatening crop harvests and fish. Scientists have linked climate change to the brutal hot spell.

“We must adapt to this change,” the London Fire Brigade said in an email Tuesday, describing the recent fires and temperatures as “an example of how we are increasingly being challenged” by the weather.

While fire departments prepare for a worsening fire season, local water companies have also indicated they are considering new restrictions and conservation measures to maintain water supply.

In the atmosphere

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