Climate change is a clear and present danger to every person on earth. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are or how wealthy or protected you think you are. You are vulnerable. Whether the danger is by fire, rain, flood, drought, blizzard, ice storm or loss of power or access to food and water, no person and no place is immune. The danger may be lethal, it may be economic, it may be ruinous or merely disabling. Wealthy persons and nations may be better able to recover, but we are all in harm’s way.
Facts on the Ground – Typhoons and Hurricanes:
Florence was as deadly and destructive as predicted. The combination of rising and warming seas around the world is producing the forecast stronger more destructive more deadly storms.
As Florence approached the east coast as a Category 4 hurricane, the governors of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland, and the mayor of Washington, D.C. declared a state of emergency and issued evacuation orders affecting about 1.5 million people Mandatory evacuation orders were issued in NC, SC and VA as no rescue would be possible in some coastal areas.
The large-scale flooding affected much of NC's agricultural industry and proved particularly damaging to livestock. Around 3.4 million chickens and turkeys and 5,500 hogs died in flooded farms. Dozens of farms remained isolated with animals unable to be fed. Piles of manure stored at these farms were swept into swollen rivers, and about a dozen pits holding animal waste were damaged by the flooding.
On September 16, approximately 5 million gallons of partially treated wastewater spilled into the Cape Fear River after a treatment plant lost power. An estimated 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash from the closed Sutton Power Station near Wilmington was also swept into the river. Torrential rains from the storm itself, estimated at 30”, also caused a swamp to spill into the cooling pond. On September 19, the H.F. Lee Energy Complex in Goldsboro flooded to the point where their three ponds were completely underwater and began releasing coal ash into the Neuse River. On Sept 21, Duke Energy reported that a dam containing a large lake at a Wilmington, NC power plant had been breached by floodwaters. They said it's possible coal ash from an adjacent dump was flowing into the Cape Fear River. Many rivers in NC were still rising on Sept 25, nearly two weeks after the first impacts of the storm were felt.
Despite making landfall as a weakened Category 1 hurricane, Florence still had enough wind speed to uproot trees and cause widespread power outages to more than 500,000 customers throughout the Carolinas. Florence stalled for several days after making landfall moving forward at only 2–3 mph the storm continually dumped heavy rain along coastal areas from September 13 to September 15. Coupled with a large storm surge, this caused widespread flooding along a long stretch of the North Carolina coast, from New Bern to Wilmington. As the storm moved inland, from September 15 to 17, heavy rain caused widespread inland flooding, inundating cities such as Fayetteville, Smithfield, Lumberton, Durham, and Chapel Hill, as major rivers such as the Neuse, Eno, Cape Fear, and Lumber River all spilled over their banks. Most major roads and highways in the area experienced some flooding, with large stretches of I-40, I-95, and US Route 70 remaining impassable for days after the storm had passed. The city of Wilmington was cut off entirely from the rest of the mainland by floodwaters. The storm also spawned tornadoes in several places along its path. Many places received record-breaking rainfall, with more than 30 inches measured in some locations. At least 40 deaths were attributed to the storm, and damage is currently estimated at more than $17 billion.
Meanwhile, in Asia, the Philippines and China were hit by Typhoon (the term for hurricanes in Asia) Mangkhut. While hurricanes in the Atlantic and South China Sea are not unusual, it is the enhanced power and destructive capabilities of more recent storms which set them apart and enable climatologists to link the devastation of these storms to climate change.
In the Philippines, perhaps 100 people were killed including 33 miners and at least 29 were missing after a landslide hit a mining site. More than 750 buildings were destroyed. The Typhoon blew into China with winds in excess of 110 mph and sea surges of 12’ causing more deaths, over 200 injuries, and the evacuation of more than 2.5 million people in Guangdong and on Hainan island. In Hong Kong, the storm wrecked buildings, blew out windows and shut down the city. Apartments swayed in the wind and scaffolding crashed to the ground. Transport services were suspended, around 900 flights were cancelled, trains stopped and major roads closed. The economic cost of the typhoon will be severe as there is extensive damage to farmland in Cagayan, a key agricultural province. Only about a fifth of produce there had been harvested in advance - threatening staples like rice and corn. Fortunately, preparation and evacuation procedures have improved since Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 which killed more than 7,000 people.
In early September, Typhoon Jebi, the strongest storm to hit Japan in 25 years, had wind speeds up to 130 mph. More than 16,000 people in nine cites were ordered to evacuate with over a million more advised to do so. In July, Japan experienced lethal floods and landslides killing over 200 people, as well as deadly heat-waves killing more than 130 people.
Hawaii too was hit by unusually heavy rainfall. The surrounding waters generally are cool so storms typically do not hit the islands. But a Category 5 storm approached Hawaii in August and hit the islands as a tropical storm still powerful enough to drop nearly four feet of rain on the big island of Hawaii causing landslides which closed roads and hampered rescue efforts. At Hilo International Airport, rainfall over three days totaled nearly 32” — the wettest three-day period on record. An earlier storm in April had dropped 50” of rain in a single day on Kauai.
I recommend The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell. Indeed, the waters have come and will continue to come. Goodell writes about Miami, a major US city underlain by porous limestone. In Al Gore’s Inconvenient Sequel movie, you see Gore standing in water up to his knees at regular high tide on a Miami city street. The water has come. The governor of Florida, Scott Walker, is dealing with the problem of climate change by barring state employees from using the term. At some point, sooner than one might think, the realization will set in that Miami cannot be saved. Then what? I’m still looking for studies as to the domino repercussions from such a fall. (Please advise if you know of any.)
Last week I was 300’ feet underground crawling through a tunnel in Mammoth Cave, KY when I had a realization. I was crawling through the same type of porous limestone that is allowing the sea to come up at high tide and flood Miami. But the fact that I was able to hike, crawl and slither 5 of the 400 miles of underground tunnels in that cave system (the largest in the world), shows that the water, after contact with CO2, became sufficiently acidic to erode the soft limestone. I realized that Miami is not only flooding, it is being undercut as well. And the level of CO2 in the atmosphere 100s of millions of years ago that created Mammoth Cave was orders of magnitude lower than it is today. Miami’s foundation is being eroded by increasingly acidic water which is dissolving the underlying limestone. The more one considers the perils of climate change, the more daunting the findings.
Climate Change, Agriculture and Immigration:
The impacts of climate change on agriculture and immigration are two of the more pressing concerns I have been addressing. I’ve noted that increased heat has been reducing crop yield globally, that this has contributed to the dramatic rise in refugees and immigration which has led directly to tensions between countries and the rise of ultra-right-wing parties in Europe and the US. New studies suggest that these dangerous trends are intensifying and undercutting the foundational blocks supporting human civilization: Political Stability, and Food and Sustenance from Land.
Climate change is predicted to increase the amount of damage insect pests do to human crops, which could lead to increased use of pesticides. Pests such as the corn earworm, the grain weevil and the bean fly consume about 20% of human crops. For every degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) that temperatures rise above the global historical average, the amount of wheat, corn, and rice lost to insects increases 10 to 25% (these crops account for 42% of the calories directly consumed by humans). Temperate agricultural regions, like those in the US and Western Europe, would be at the high end. And with warming likely to increase 4C by the end of the century, that amounts to insects eating two of every eight loaves of bread that otherwise would have been produced. With population growth expected to reach 18 billion by 2100, there likely will be severe scarcity in many parts of the world and millions of additional refugees.
Higher temperatures will also harm thirsty crops regardless of insect activity. Increased summer temperature leads to significant declines in agricultural yields. This summer’s European heat wave, which is in keeping with patterns of climate change, reduced Germany’s grain production by roughly 20%.
In addition, pesticides harm other organisms, and some have been linked to human health problems. Their manufacture, transport and use also contribute to climate change.
Yet another concern is that rice grown in higher levels of carbon dioxide isn’t just warming the planet, it’s also making some of our most important crops less nutritious by changing their chemical makeup and diluting vitamins and minerals.
The potential health consequences are large, given that there are already billions of people around the world who don’t get enough protein, vitamins or other nutrients in their daily diet.
In a test, the 18 varieties of rice that were grown and harvested with elevated levels of CO2 contained significantly less protein, iron and zinc than rice that is grown today. All of the rice varieties saw dramatic declines in vitamins B1, B2, B5 and B9, though they contained higher levels of vitamin E. More than 2 billion people worldwide rely on rice as a primary food source.
A prior 2014 study found that elevated levels of CO2 reduced the amount of zinc and iron found in wheat, rice, field peas and soybeans. In both studies, researchers installed pipes that emitted carbon dioxide onto small open-air plots — rather than simply testing crops in enclosed greenhouses — to simulate future real-world conditions.
The finding that extra CO2 can make crops less nutritious may sound counterintuitive. Plants, after all, rely on CO2 as an ingredient for photosynthesis, so it seems like more CO2 should be beneficial, helping them grow. But what scientists have also found is that the chemical composition of a plant depends on the balance of the CO2 absorbed from the air and the nutrients from the soil. Upset this balance, and the plant can change in unexpected ways.
Currently, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 410 parts per million, up from 350 ppm in the 1980s, largely from the burning of fossil fuels. In the rice study, the researchers looked at how crops responded to levels of around 580 ppm which is predicted this century absent drastic changes.
Scientists expressed surprise that food became less nutritious with more CO2, but also say we should continue to expect surprises. We are completely altering the biophysical conditions that underpin our food system, and we still have very little understanding of how those disruptions will ripple through ecosystems and affect the environment and human health.
The fracking industry is surprisingly unprofitable. While production remains high, and the US remains for the moment “energy independent”, the 60 biggest exploration and production firms are not generating enough cash from their operations to cover their operating and capital expenses. In aggregate, from mid-2012 to mid-2017, they had negative free cash flow of $9 billion per quarter. The financial statements of 16 publicly traded exploration and production companies reveal that from 2006 to 2014, they had spent $80 billion more than they received from selling oil. The industry’s net debt in 2015 was about $200 billion, a 300% increase from 2005.
While fracking has helped the US reduce its GHG emissions, most environmentalists observe that it both releases far more methane than is popularly understood, and it is slowing our move to carbon-free sources of energy. But if the industry needs substantial subsidization, then the issue is joined more directly as to whether to prop it up or truly commit to renewables.
-California’s Gov. Brown signed into law SB 100, which intends to move the state’s electrical grid to 100% clean energy power by no later than 2045.
- A Global Climate Action Summit occurred in San Francisco in early September. It marked the midpoint between the historic signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015—intended to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2C—and the next meeting in 2020, when countries will bolster their commitments. The summit was an opportunity for leaders to share their successes to date and announce initiatives going forward to meet the goals of Paris. The summit’s programming was split into five areas: healthy energy systems, inclusive economic growth, sustainable communities, land and ocean stewardship, and transformative climate investments. Prior to the summit there were marches in San Francisco and in cities around the world for the Peoples Climate Movement in support of “climate, jobs, and justice.” Organizers positioned the rallies to demand bold action from leaders and to demonstrate the strength of the American climate movement in the face of Trump’s abandonment of global leadership on this issue.
Michael Bloomberg, the United Nation’s special envoy for climate action and co-chair of the summit, leads the ‘We’re Still In’ partnership with Gov. Brown. The partnership was organized in the wake of Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and includes 17 states and 400 cities that collectively represent the world’s third-largest economy and is dedicated to meet the Paris goal.
-Orlando, FL intends to wean itself from carbon-based energy. It is experimenting with thousands of ponds all over the city that collect the runoff from Central Florida’s frequent downpours. Floating solar panels rise and fall in the water, sending power to the grid. Solar panels power streetlights of which about 18,000 of the 25,000 have been converted to high-efficiency light-emitting diodes.
Algae pools are being tested as a trap of carbon emitted from the city’s power plants and transportation system, rather than released into the atmosphere.
Orlando is among the 300 American cities and counties that have reaffirmed the goals of the Paris since Trump announced last year that he intended to withdraw the US from the pact (which cannot be done before the 2020 election). Orlando intends to generate all of its energy from carbon-free sources by 2050. By 2020, solar power is expected to make up 8% of the electricity generation of the city-owned utility, which powers much of the metropolitan area, including Universal Studios and SeaWorld, while investor-owned utilities serve neighboring areas.
The municipal utility has installed solar equipment to generate 20 megawatts of power — for roughly 3,200 homes — on places like canopies over parking lots. The city’s 280,000 residents contribute an additional 10 mws of solar power from their rooftops.
As an incentive to install solar panels, homeowners receive full retail value for electricity they send to the electric grid, an arrangement known as net metering. The utility also provides discount installation of home solar equipment and is looking at offering batteries to store energy for use at night and/or windless times. While batteries remain costly and stubbornly resistant to improvement over the past decade or so, they are still useful and functional.
Like other cities, Orlando intends to overcome its reliance on dirty coal. About 47% of its energy mix comes from two coal plants at the Curtis H. Stanton Energy Center, home also to two generators powered by natural gas. Los Angeles, which also generates municipal power, has proposed replacing its remaining coal plants with natural-gas facilities, which produce half as much carbon as coal plants.
Focusing on power plants addresses only a portion of the GHG problem. In 2017, just over a third of the nation’s energy consumption came from the electric power industry, while about half came from the transportation and the industrial sector.
There is also a question as to what 100% carbon-free means. In the electricity industry’s calculus, it may not mean zero emissions. Often it means buying credits produced from carbon-free power plants elsewhere — a benefit used to encourage development of clean power sources — to offset dirty emissions. This likely is Orlando’s only real near-term option.
Natural gas powers the government-run bus system that serves the city and three neighboring counties, and garbage trucks have hybrid engines, reducing the use of gasoline. This reduces, but does not eliminate carbon emissions. (The police use electric motorcycles which still must be charged, preferably by solar.)
Other city buildings and operations have moved to energy-efficient systems under a mandate to show no consumption from the electric grid — a distinction called net-zero energy usage — by 2030. Part of the goal is to reduce emissions and electricity use rather than just shifting to power from carbon-free sources.
Orlando has joined with Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles to combine their collective purchasing power to reduce the cost of carbon-free products — including electric vehicles and batteries for electricity storage — by buying in bulk.
In late August, Trump announced a plan to weaken regulations of coal-fired power plants that President Obama had put in place to reduce US emissions of GHG. The plan promotes old, dirty fuel at the expense of a move toward the cleaner, renewable fuels necessary to limit global warming. The plan would also weaken provisions in the clean air laws designed to regulate pollutants like smog and soot and may cause as many as 1,400 additional premature deaths annually by 2030, as well as many thousands of respiratory infections because of increases in fine particulate matter linked to heart and lung disease.
The Obama plan, finalized in 2015, was designed to help drive down carbon dioxide emissions from power plans by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, and was a crucial component of Obama’s pledge at the Paris climate summit meeting in 2015 to reduce America’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by more than one-quarter below 2005 levels by 2025. To that end, it set firm targets for each state, but gave those states wide latitude in deciding how to reach them — improving in energy efficiency, switching from dirty coal to cleaner natural gas, building wind farms, and emissions trading among the states. The targets and methods for reaching them were worked out in lengthy, detailed consultation with the states to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach.
The Trump plan sets no hard targets and would limit states to basically a single solution, a so-called “inside the fence line” measure aimed solely at improving the efficiency of existing plants. This could provide incentives for some states to keep aging coal-fired plants running, adding millions of tons of pollutants to the atmosphere each year.
Despite Trumps efforts, because of the abundance and low cost of natural gas, many big utilities have moved away from coal and toward gas. CO2 emissions from power plants have dropped 25% to 28% below 2005 levels — 12 years ahead of the Obama 2030 target date. Improvements in energy efficiency have had a lot to do with that, but so has the switch to natural gas and renewables and the consequent retirement of hundreds of aging, inefficient coal plants. More than 200 such plants, about 40% of those in America, have been retired since 2010 or are scheduled to retire. Coal jobs have fallen from nearly 180,000 in 1985 to around 50,000 today.
But Trump continues to promote coal. At a rally in West Virginia he said that coal was the only energy source that could survive a war. “We love clean, beautiful West Virginia coal… And you know, that’s indestructible stuff. In times of war, in times of conflict, you can blow up those windmills, they fall down real quick. You can blow up those pipelines, they go like this,” he said, making a hand gesture. “You could do a lot of things to those solar panels, but you know what you can’t hurt? Coal.”
The Obama plan remains in litigation. The Trump plan will be litigated too. At issue is the government’s duty under the Clean Air Act, which Obama construed expansively to allow a variety of approaches to reduce GHG emissions, and Trump’s coal-centric preference.
Trump also favors prospecting for oil in the oceans. He has proposed exploration in the Atlantic for oil and gas using loud explosive blasts that will seriously harm whales, fish, and other marine life. Extremely loud, underwater explosions, one every 10 seconds, for days or weeks on end is routine for such work.
Following an executive order to open the Atlantic to offshore drilling, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is set to permit five companies to begin seismic airgun blasting—an old but controversial technique for detecting reserves of oil and gas. Ships will tow an array of 24 to 36 cannons behind them along with streamers of underwater microphones. The cannons create explosions by releasing pressurized gas, while the microphones detect the echoes of these detonations to pinpoint petroleum deposits beneath the ocean floor.
Each airgun produces up to 180 decibels of noise, making them around 1,000 times louder than typical July 4th fireworks. And each will go off five or six times a minute, for months at a time, from the back of slow-moving ships that crisscross 90,000 kilometers of Atlantic waters from New Jersey to Florida. There is clear evidence that noise of this magnitude kills or perturbs marine life at every scale—from titanic whales to tiny plankton. It “poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life… the full extent of which will not be understood until long after the harm occurs,” said a group of 75 marine scientists in 2015.
In 2015, Obama considered such a plan but met staunch opposition from scientists and local communities. In response, he banned drilling in the Atlantic and denied six applications for seismic exploration. Trump now seeks to undo the ban by promoting an “America First Offshore Energy Strategy.”
Opposition to airgun testing includes both environmentalists and business interests. 41,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families oppose seismic testing. They do so because the blasts can harm and displace fish, greatly reducing the populations that both commercial and recreational fishers depend upon. In other parts of the world, catch rates for species like cod and rockfish have fallen by 50 to 70% in the days after seismic tests. The tourism industry can also be affected, since airgun noise can potentially force whales to beach themselves. Tourists do not like to see dying marine mammals on the beach.
The pushback from Congress has been similarly un-polarized. Don Beyer (D-VA) and Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) recently introduced a bill to the House that would ban seismic testing. (A similar Democrat-led bill has been introduced in the Senate.) Beyer, together with John Rutherford (R-FL), sent a letter to Secretary Zinke “urging an immediate halt to the permitting process.” It was signed by a bipartisan group of 103 representatives.
Airgun blasts can injure the internal organs of fish, as well as the hair cells that allow them to hear. It can damage the organs that allow invertebrates, from rock lobsters to giant squid, to maintain their balance. It slows development, induces damaging levels of long-term stress, forces animals to seek shelter instead of feeding, prevents them from spotting predators, drowns out the sounds that they use to attract mates, and stops larvae from finding their way to the right habitats. It disrupts the lives of blue and other giant whales, forcing them to abandon their habitats and increasing the risk of calves being separated from their mothers.
Perhaps most alarmingly, last month, a new study showed that airgun blasts can kill zooplankton—the microscopic animals that form the basis of the ocean’s food webs. After a day of blasts, the number of dead plankton rose by two to three times, and the larvae of krill—the little crustaceans that large whales depend upon—were annihilated. And that experiment involved a single airgun, rather than the large arrays that will be towed by actual ships.
Despite the outcry the first set of blasting permits likely will be issued. This administration does not back off. Many more applications are likely to follow. The Department of the Interior is set to announce a five-year plan for offshore drilling, triggering another 30-day period of public comment. Followed by more litigation.