Climate Change Blog 19 - Facts on the Ground; Climate Assessment Report; Court Cases; FEMA Response to Climate Change; Washington DC

By Carl Howard posted 01-11-2019 03:47 PM


Climate Change Blog 19

Facts on the Ground:

2018 will be the earth’s fourth warmest on record, with the five warmest years all having occurred since 2010. A warmer world is a more dangerous world for all living things. Warmer temperature leads to increased evaporation and more moisture in the atmosphere which produces more and heavier rains and flooding. People drowned in the Carolinas and in the Indian state of Kerala. Heat waves killed people in Montreal, Karachi, and Tokyo.

California’s Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. At least 86 people were killed, 153,336 acres burned, 18,804 structures were destroyed. Damage was estimated to be $7.5–10 billion. All of which pales in comparison to the human, and non-human, suffering and terror.

Other wildfires in CA included the Woolsey Fire that burned in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. It burned 96,949 acres and destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people, and forced the evacuation of over 295,000 people. Pushed by strong winds the fires at times spread at a rate of an acre per second catching and incinerating people in their cars as they tried to escape or in their homes as they hoped to ride out the disaster. Those who survived describe the experience as sheer terror. In speaking with friends in the area, the challenge now is accepting that this is their new normal and deciding whether they are willing to live in an area this dangerous (not to mention the likely decreased value of their property).

Federal Government’s National Climate Assessment

Toward the end of November 2018, 13 federal agencies issued a report on current and future global warming effects across the US. The report cited numerous essential adaptation measures (costing many billions of dollars) to harden coastlines, rebuild sewer systems and overhaul farming practices to protect against the kinds of floods, wildfires and heat waves that have already begun.

Citing the state of unreadiness for this challenge, the report states that the Midwest has only four counties and cities that have written climate change plans. Scientists are forecasting bigger crop failures and heavier floods that could cripple transportation networks in this region. And at the federal level, Trump is rolling back policies to take future sea-level rise into account when building new roads and railways.

The report details five major steps the country must take by mid-century:

  1. Rethink how we farm

The nation’s food supply is in jeopardy as global warming intensifies. Crop yields for corn, wheat and soy decline as the number of extremely hot days increases. More frequent droughts could reduce supplies of irrigation water. Dairy cows produce less milk in the sweltering heat.

In areas at risk for drought, farmers will need to use more precise irrigation techniques to conserve water. In the Great Plains, dairy farmers and ranchers may need to relocate production or invest in climate-controlled buildings to protect their cattle from heat stress. The report emphasized that “these approaches have limits under severe climate change impacts.”

One hope is that seed companies might develop new crop varieties that are better able to tolerate drought, heat waves and pests. However, the report notes that “progress in this area has been modest.”

  1. Build for the future, not based on the past

Much of the nation’s infrastructure, like roads and sewers, was built based on a more stable climate. But climate change has brought a new normal which includes extreme weather as a new normal so the past is no longer a good guide to the future.

Nearly half the residents of Hampton Roads, Va., were unable to drive out of their neighborhoods at some point last year due to high tide flooding due to sea level rise. In the Northeast, sewer systems built for the storms of the past are expected to overflow more frequently as climate change produces heavier rainfall.

  1. Retreat from the coasts

Depending on future GHG emissions, global sea levels are likely to rise between 1 and 4 feet (or more) this century putting trillions of dollars worth of coastal homes, infrastructure and businesses in the US at risk of flooding.

While large cities like New York and Boston will likely invest heavily in sea walls, tide gates and pumping stations (like London and Japan), they won’t be able to protect everyone. In Norfolk, Va., officials are looking into relocating vulnerable neighborhoods.

The report states that millions of people nationwide may have to move away from the coasts. Yet policymakers are unable to broach such an unpopular topic. Many local governments, in search of more tax revenue, still promote development along coastlines. And numerous federal policies (see FEMA, below), such as subsidized flood insurance and rebuilding communities in place after disasters, encourage people to stay in at-risk areas.

Katherine Greig, a senior fellow at the Wharton Risk Center and co-author of the report’s chapter on adaptation, said that “We’re still a long ways” from having “a serious conversation about retreat.”

  1. Enlist nature to help

The report details ways that our natural environment can be a cost-effective defense against climate change. Planting more trees in cities can help reduce urban temperatures and protect people from deadly heat waves. Restoring degraded wetlands and marshes can protect cities and coasts from flooding and improve water quality. Healthy forests that are allowed to burn at a low level periodically, as they did in the distant past, are less prone to extreme wildfires. Protecting pollinators could help make our agricultural system more resilient.

The report points to several Midwestern cities, including Milwaukee, which have begun to restore streams to their natural state, removing concrete linings so that they can safely carry away more water during heavy storms.

  1. Expect the unexpected

The 1,656-page Assessment warns that global warming will bring unpredictable dangers, particularly as complex systems like energy, water, transportation and public health all come under severe stress at once. The “cascading failures” experienced during Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year served as an example. Flooding shut gasoline refineries, strained hospitals, clogged roadways and spread toxins and pathogens. These sorts of impacts are difficult to study and predict.

At a broad level, the report warns that officials at every level of government and in every corner of the economy will have to include climate change in their decisions, to plan for a wide range of possible futures, and to continually re-evaluate those plans. “Adaptation entails a continuing risk management process,” the report notes. “It does not have an end point.”

With this in mind, my co-chairs, Mike Gerrard, Kevin Healy and Ginny Robbins organized a day-long conference on climate change for non-environmental lawyers. CC impacts many areas of law, including real estate, contracts, labor, and any business relationship with a supply chain that may be disrupted due to infrastructure damage or impassible seas or other impediments. Lawyers are well advised to consider such potential impacts in their legal relationships.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of the global community recognizes the imminent danger posed by climate change, global GHG emissions rose faster in 2018 than in 2017, 2.7% vs 1.6%.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued a report in October 2018 warning that if emissions continue to rise at the current rate the planet will warm 2.7F (1.5C) above preindustrial levels by 2040, which likely will cause widespread food shortages, wildfires, coastal flooding and environmental refugees.

Led by China (27%), the US (15%) the European Union (10%) and India (7%), humanity will release a record 37.1 gigatons of planet-warming emissions in 2018 (roughly 100,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building).

Even as coal has fallen out of favor in some markets, the rise in emissions has been driven primarily by stronger demand for natural gas and oil. Renewable energy generation has expanded exponentially but demand for energy, often met by fossil fuels, more than off-sets such gains. Cheap gasoline prices, bigger cars and people driving more miles boost oil use. The fact that extreme weather disasters cost the US a record $306 billion is not equated with climate change by policy makers or voters.

The new IPCC study was issued as delegates from nearly 200 countries gathered in Poland to decide on the “rule book” to implement their next steps under the Paris climate agreement. But increasing global emissions are making the goals of the Paris accord, to limit warming to well below 2C, virtually impossible.

Meeting in Poland:

With the need for swift, decisive action to combat continued global warming more dire than ever, the US delegation advocated increased use of fossil fuels. The result of the conference was some baby steps in the right direction in terms of how countries will track and report their GHG emissions. Siding with the US were other major fossil-fuel producers, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia.

The majority of delegates wanted to formally endorse the IPCC Report, but the US, along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia, refused to allow a collective statement that would “welcome” the IPCC report, agreeing only to “note” it.  The Report states that fossil-fuel emissions must fall roughly in half within 12 years to avoid severe climate disruptions. There is no reason to believe this is achievable.

Trump’s international energy and climate adviser, Wells Griffith, stated that “The United States has an abundance of natural resources and is not going to keep them in the ground. We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”

A deal was reached which requires all participating countries to follow a uniform set of standards for measuring their GHG emissions and tracking their climate policies. It requires countries to hasten their plans to cut emissions before the next round of talks in 2020 and directs richer countries to clarify how they intend to aid poorer nations install clean energy or build resilience against natural disasters. Despite Trump’s vow to abandon the Paris Agreement (in 2020), the US agreed to this deal. But Trump has reneged on Obama’s pledge to provide two billion dollars in aid to poor countries and this thorny issue was punted until the next round of talks. Similarly, no agreement could be reached on rules regarding carbon trading markets so it too was tabled.

Thus, limping forward with a few rules in the book, it is once again up to individual countries to pledge before the 2020 talks concrete emissions reductions. Very few countries (Chile, Vietnam and Norway) expressed eagerness to start that process.

“Of course it’s important to have these rules, but a lot of the real action is happening by entrepreneurs; it’s happening by business people; it’s happening by the finance sector; by the money flowing; it’s happening at the city and state level,” said Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister. “Climate change is a complicated problem,” she said, “and it’s not going to be solved by national governments alone.” But it is imperative that governments hasten and encourage movements in the market that reduce GHG emissions and aid sustainable energy. Change is occurring, but as made clear by the IPCC and National Assessments reports, it must happen faster.

Another recent report, this one by the Institute of International and European Affairs found that last year, American banks invested more heavily in coal and oil from tar sands while renewable energy investments have sagged globally, a reversal of the trends seen shortly after the Paris agreement was signed in 2015.

“It’s hard to draw a direct cause and effect, but we know that investors do pay close attention to political signals,” said Joseph Curtin, a senior fellow at the institute and the author of its report. “The Paris Agreement sent a strong signal that carbon-intensive investments were risky. Now we’re seeing signals the other way.”

The US’ alignment with Kuwait, Russia and particularly Saudi Arabia is another troubling dynamic. Saudi Arabia has long been an obstruction in the climate talks. For the US to stand with Saudi Arabia in rejecting science is a shocking reversal of the former US leadership role.

Court Cases: Supreme Court Lets Youths’ Case Demanding Climate Action Proceed

The Supreme Court refused to halt the trial in a lawsuit brought by 21 young people seeking to force the federal government to address climate change. The court’s unsigned order said the Trump administration had raised substantial questions about the plaintiffs’ legal theories and the sweeping relief they sought. But the court said it would not intercede, instructing the plaintiffs to take the case back to an appeals court.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch said they would have granted the administration’s request to block the trial until the Supreme Court had an opportunity to consider the case.

In July the Supreme Court was skeptical about the legal theory in the case in which the plaintiffs, led by Julia Olson, assert their constitutional right to a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” In a brief unsigned order in July, the Supreme Court said the breadth of that theory was striking. But the court let the case move forward, saying its intervention would be premature.

 Judge Blocks Disputed Keystone XL Pipeline

As the Trump administration has moved aggressively to roll back environmental protections and speed up oil and coal projects it has repeatedly been blocked by courts finding that the administration did not follow longstanding rules in making its sweeping changes.

Judge Brian Morris (District Court, Mt), issued a repudiation of one of President Trump’s first acts as president, his decision to allow the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline to proceed, saying that the administration failed to present a “reasoned explanation” for the move and “simply discarded” the effect the project would have on climate change.

The judge’s finding quickly drew fire from Trump, “It was a political decision made by a judge,” said Mr. Trump. “I think it’s a disgrace.”

The ruling blocked construction on the 1,179-mile pipeline which would carry 800,000 barrels a day of petroleum from the Canadian oil sands to the Gulf Coast and has, over the past decade, become a lightning rod in broader political battles over energy, the environment and climate change. While experts have long said that the substantive impact of the pipeline on jobs, climate change and the nation’s energy economy is small, it has nonetheless taken on an outsize prominence in the national discussion.

Judge Morris’ decision echoes a common theme in many judicial rejections of Trump policies, particularly on environmental issues. In short, the court said, the administration failed to follow established rules and procedures for decisions like these. Specifically, it failed to provide a fact-based analysis justifying its actions.

The ruling specifically takes the Trump administration to task for failing to address the Obama administration’s arguments about climate change, including the need to keep rising global temperatures at safe levels as a basis for denying the pipeline permit. Rather, the government declared it was embracing a policy shift toward “energy security, economic development and infrastructure.”

The judge said an administration had the right to reverse a previous policy, but still must back up its reason for doing so with facts. “The Department instead simply discarded prior factual findings related to climate change to support its course reversal,” the judge wrote.

He cited a US Supreme Court ruling that noted, “An agency cannot simply disregard contrary or inconvenient factual determinations that it made in the past, any more than it can ignore inconvenient facts when it writes on a blank slate.”

Responding to Climate Change - FEMA:

Climate change has caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, infrastructure and businesses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed billions of dollars in aid. But as the following examples demonstrate, it is a program in dire need of reform as it primarily requires re-building but not adaptation to climate change.

Hurricane Katrina demolished the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center (La) but FEMA rebuilt it in the same location atop 19-foot concrete pillars at a cost of $105 million. This was a boondoggle as on average in early 2018 more than 40% of its 872 beds were unoccupied making it one of the emptiest jails in the state. Due to its flood-prone location in a marsh it still must be evacuated before major storms.

The reason this jail was rebuilt in such an inappropriate locale, with excess capacity at immense cost, was because sheriff Irvin F. Hingle Jr. demanded it and FEMA lacked the authority to over-rule him. Unlike most new jail construction his project did not require bond sales or other local revenues or any accountability from voters. Because the old jail was destroyed by a natural disaster the cost was covered by federal taxpayers through a FEMA program that is legally required to distribute billions in aid but lacks authority to control how the money is spent or where the rebuilding occurs.

FEMA has provided at least $81 billion in this manner to state, territorial and local governments in response to declared disasters since 1992. One of every five public assistance dollars has gone to the flood-prone state of Louisiana, by far the most per capita of any state. Last year, estimated to be the costliest ever with $306.2 billion in damage, saw repeated major storms: Harvey (Tx), Irma (Fl), Maria (PR), Nate (Ms) and Florence (NC/SC).

While it is understandable that local officials would be authorized to decide how to spend federal dollars to rebuild their communities, experience has shown that rebuilding just causes a repeat of these problems and that the authority to spend federal dollars needs to include persons removed from the devastated community.  

In Princeville, NC, a town of 2,000 on the Tar River, the 1999 Hurricane Floyd caused flooding ruining the town hall, Princeville Elementary School, the police and fire station, the senior center and almost every other structure.

Leaders of the town rejected suggestions from state officials to move the entire community to higher ground. Bowing to local pressure and authority, FEMA spent over $5 million in public assistance grants to repair and replace the damaged properties. Not surprisingly, Princeville was flooded again in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew and the same structures were again repaired at a cost of over $2.5 million (the town typically pays a 25% share).

Clearly, more forward-thinking planning is necessary. But Trump is not so inclined. Last August, Trump rescinded an executive order signed by President Obama that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects. Then in March, FEMA released a four-year strategic plan that deleted mention of climate change and sea-level rise.

Trump ignores warnings from government agencies about the budgetary threat due to climate change. The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office projected in 2016 that costs from hurricane damage would “increase significantly in the coming decades because of the effects of climate change and coastal development.” As a result, government spending for relief and recovery may outpace economic growth and consume an increasing share of gross domestic product.

FEMA’s public assistance program paid for 683,035 separate projects between 1992 and mid-September 2018 removing debris after natural disasters and repairing and reconstructing public buildings, roads, bridges and utilities. During that time more money was spent on public assistance than on reimbursements by FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program which covers losses by homeowners and businesses and encourages people to live, and rebuild, in flood-plains.

Grants have gone to every state and territory with New York and Louisiana the biggest recipients because of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. About a fourth of the money has been used to repair or replace, but not to relocate, public buildings.

When structures in designated flood plains are rebuilt or repaired, FEMA requires that they be elevated to at least the 100-year flood level — meaning high enough to withstand a storm with a 1% chance of occurring in a year. Buildings that serve a critical function, like a hospital or a power plant, must be raised higher, to the 500-year level.

FEMA can only pay to relocate destroyed buildings if it is deemed cost-effective, which rarely happens. In NYC, FEMA spent over $700 million, and the city payed $80 million, to repair 72 schools damaged by Sandy. But the high cost of real estate and construction in NYC dictated that only one would be moved, to an adjacent site where it will be elevated, according to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Instead, the money was spent anticipating future flooding, raising vents, relocating electrical systems and generators to rooftops and replacing drywall with building materials that could be easily dried and disinfected.

Since Sandy, Congress has twice amended the Safford Act which authorizes federal disaster aid, attempting to make public assistance available to relocate and rebuild more responsibly.  Trump signed a bill to provide more FEMA funding for projects designed to diminish future storm damage in vulnerable communities. But neither measure fundamentally alters the balance of power between federal and local officials concerning those decisions.

It is not possible to determine how much has been spent to rebuild the same structures more than once due to a lack of transparency in publicly available data. But the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, found that the separate flood insurance program paid $5.5 billion from 1978 to 2015 to repair and rebuild more than 30,000 properties that had flooded more than once. Claims for those residences and businesses had been submitted an average of five times.

The NRDC report estimated that the number of “severe repetitive loss properties” could increase to 820,000 based on predicted sea levels ris of three feet by the end of the century. It urged the government to restructure the program with incentives to encourage owners to accept buyouts and relocate.

Do we want the government, through FEMA, to continue to spend billions of dollars bailing out residents, businesses, and government agencies flooded in storms if they are rebuilding at the same sites? Should insurance companies continue to take advantage of the government when they insure flood-prone areas and can't cover the claims? This cycle of destroy and reconstruct benefits the insurance and construction industries while sticking federal taxpayers with endless, increasing, bills. Such questions are not being addressed on the federal level.

Developments in Washington, DC:

Christopher S. Zarba, a former staff director of the Scientific Advisory Board at EPA wrote an article in the Fall about the Agency disbanding a scientific panel of experts on microscopic airborne pollutants that helped the agency determine what level of pollutants are safe to breathe. EPA also dropped plans for a similar panel of experts to help assess another dangerous pollutant, ground-level ozone.

The disbanded panel on particulate pollution reported to EPA’s seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee which is responsible for advising the Agency on overall air quality standards. Now, without the work of that panel it is entirely likely that the advisory committee will be unable to provide authoritative guidance on the regulation of this pollutant and ground-level ozone.

EPA studies show that particulate pollution can lead to premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, aggravated asthma and decreased lung function. Ground-level ozone can affect the breathing of people with asthma, children, older adults, and people who are active outdoors.

These are only the latest efforts at EPA to undermine science. EPA has barred scientists who received EPA research grants from serving on its nearly two dozen scientific advisory committees because of some misplaced concern over conflicts. But it has had no problem appointing scientists to those panels who hold industry-supported research grants.

Trump’s Response to the Administration’s Scientific Report

The National Climate Assessment (discussed above) is the most comprehensive scientific study to date detailing the effects of global warming on the US economy, public health, coastlines and infrastructure. It details how the warming planet will cause hundreds of billions of dollars of damage in coming decades.

Historians and veterans of public service said it was notable that policymakers didn’t try to soften the report’s conclusions because that indicated the strength of the administration’s belief that it could ignore the findings in favor of policies driven by political ideology. “This is a new frontier of disavowance of science, of disdain for facts,” said William K. Reilly, who headed EPA under the late President Bush.

A White House statement said the report, started under the Obama administration, was “largely based on the most extreme scenario” of global warming and that the next assessment would provide an opportunity for greater balance.

Under a 1990 law the federal government is required to issue a climate assessment every four years. The latest version introduces new complexity in the political fight over regulations designed to fight climate change because until the Obama administration no such regulations existed to be fought over.

Steven J. Milloy, a member of Trump’s EPA transition team who runs the website, which is aimed at casting doubt on the established science of human-caused climate change said “We don’t care. In our view, this is made-up hysteria anyway.”

Mr. Milloy echoed Trump calling the Assessment the product of the “deep state” a term that refers to the conspiratorial notion of a secret alliance of bureaucrats and others who oppose the President.

White House officials sought to avoid the political blowback that hit the George W. Bush administration when it was revealed in 2005 that a White House official and former oil lobbyist, Philip A. Cooney, altered the language of government climate science reports to weaken the link between fossil fuel pollution and the warming of the planet.

Other Climate-related Changes:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved its Climate and Health Program into a branch that studies asthma and struck the word climate from the name of the newly consolidated office.

The climate and health office was the Center’s only program focused on helping state and local governments prepare for the health consequences of fiercer storms, longer droughts and other extreme weather events. It was also an important contributor to the National Climate Assessment (discussed above).

The former head of the unit, George E. Luber, has been reassigned to the agency’s waterborne diseases unit. He had been issued a dismissal notice but it was retracted after lawyers for a nonprofit watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, considered filing a federal whistle-blower complaint. Asked about the retraction notice, the agency declined to comment.

The $10 million Climate and Health Program within the agency is funded by Congress and, under federal law, those funds cannot be diverted to other areas of research.

Carl Howard, Co-chair Global Climate Change Committee
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl
The views expressed above are entirely my own.

1 comment



01-12-2019 08:30 AM

Does anyone know the implications for sea level rise projections of the new study findings in Science that oceans are warming much faster than previously thought?  Also, in light of these and other observations that suggest projections of climate impacts may be too conservative, I found the New Yorker's description of the Poland COP (Coal for Christmas) particularly frustrating: