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Climate Change Blog 21 - Facts on the Ground; US Polling and Climate Change; Oceanic Impacts; Good News; Washington

By Carl Howard posted 04-03-2019 09:41 AM


Climate Change Blog 21

Since Blog 20, huge, deadly, record-breaking storms occurred in Nepal, Mozambique and in the US major floods occurred in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and nearby states. In addition, 25 states are at risk of flooding this Spring.

In southern Nepal, at least 28 were killed and over 500 injured in a rainstorm with destructive winds that struck in the night. While thunderstorms outside of the regular monsoon season are common in Nepal, this was the deadliest single storm on record. Hundreds were killed in 2017, when multiple storms led to flooding which devastated much of South Asia.

In Mozambique, Cyclone Idai caused devastating destruction followed by flooding creating an ‘Inland Ocean’ stalling rescues. Aid agencies called it the worst natural disaster in southern Africa in two decades.

Rescue workers reported seeing people on rooftops and in trees days after the storm struck. In areas near rivers, homes were submerged, with water rising near the tops of telephone poles. The storm also struck Malawi and Zimbabwe. Approximately 1.5 million people were affected in the three nations.

These countries are among the world’s poorest and have limited capacity to respond to the disaster.  Officials called for outside help and warned that delays in reaching survivors could lead to an outbreak of illnesses, including cholera and malaria. The limited amount of aid that has arrived cannot effectively be distributed due to the destruction of roads and bridges and the flooding and general destruction. The early estimated death toll was over 1,000. In Chikwawa alone, the worst-affected area, more than 54,000 people have been displaced.

In the US, nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states will have an elevated risk of some flooding until May, and 25 states could experience “major or moderate flooding,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The National Weather Service predicts that the flooding this year could be worse than anything we’ve seen in recent years, even worse than the historic floods of 1993 and 2011. The major flooding this past March is a preview of what is expected for the rest of the Spring. Thirteen million people could be exposed to major flooding, making this a “potentially unprecedented” flood season and yet possibly the new normal.

Infrastructure is proving incapable of coping with the rising floodwaters. The levees in much of the mid-west are aging and, in many cases, not designed to withstand the river levels seen in the last decade. Last year, landowners from four Midwestern states won a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers that claimed the repeated floods amounted to a seizure of their property.

At least 62 levees were breached or overtopped in the Midwest in March, and hundreds of miles of levees were damaged. An estimated $80 billion in reconstruction is needed to the nation’s levee system.

Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, said that the Corps was “hamstrung” by “radical environmentalist lobbyists that are forcing the agency to prioritize wildlife over farmers.”

Much of the eastern US, and parts of California and Nevada, home to more than 200 million people, could experience flooding this Spring. The dire prediction is based on the fact that the basins of the Upper Mississippi and the Red River of the North have had heavy rain and snow this Spring at double normal levels.

NE., IO., and SD set over 30 records in the end of March alone. Flooding devastated farmers and ranchers across the region, put communities like Hamburg, Iowa, underwater, and wiped out roads and bridges in others.

Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska put a preliminary estimate of $1.4 billion in damages in his request for a federal disaster declaration, including $439 million in damages to public infrastructure and $85 million to homes and businesses.

NOAA identified the greatest risks for flooding in the upper, middle and lower Mississippi River basins, the Red River of the North, the Great Lakes, and the eastern Missouri River, lower Ohio River, lower Cumberland River and Tennessee River basins.

Chemical runoff from the rains likely will cause above-average hypoxia conditions — “dead zones” of water with low oxygen caused by nutrient pollution that can kill fish and other marine life — in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay.

More rainfall in the Midwest is a predictable consequence of climate change, according to the most recent National Climate Assessment, produced in 2018 by 13 federal agencies. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture which comes down as precipitation.

Scientists are increasing sure of its ability to link record-setting climatic events to climate change via “attribution science.”

The 1993 flood in the Midwest killed 50 people and caused $15 billion in damages. In the 2011 floods, the Army Corps of Engineers took the extraordinary measure of blowing up 11,000 feet of Mississippi River levee to let water flow into the Birds Point floodway in Missouri, saving the little Illinois town of Cairo but inundating more than 100,000 acres of farmland and homes. We can expect more controversial and desperate decisions such as this to be made in the future. Possibly the very near future.

Earlier in March a deadly tornado hit Alabama. It was the Region’s worst in 30 Years. It flattened parts of rural Alabama and killed at least 23. Nearly 4,000 tornadoes have struck Alabama and the surrounding region since 1989. Over 50 storms in the last 30 years have rated 4 or 5 out of 5 on the scale of intensity. This year, six tornadoes in a single day struck near Beauregard, an area that rarely sees such strong storms.

US Polling and Climate Change:

A recent survey by researchers at Yale and George Mason University found that 69% of Americans were “worried” about global warming, an 8-point increase from the previous Spring. A possible explanation, the researchers suggested, was the run of extreme weather disasters in 2018, from wildfires to hurricanes, along with increased efforts by scientists to link such events to climate change.

Polling consistently shows that more than half of Americans now accept that climate change is caused by human activities. While most surveys show that among Republicans, less than half accept that science, the data also reveals a sharp generational divide among Republicans.

A 2018 poll found that just 18% of Republicans born in the postwar baby boom accepted the reality of human-caused climate change, but twice that number of millennial Republicans, those born from 1981 through 1996, accepted that science.

In addition, the 2018 poll found that 45% of millennial Republicans said they were seeing some effects of global climate change in the communities where they live, compared with a third of baby boomer Republicans.

Oceanic Impacts:

In Blog 20 I noted that two key climate change indicators are the stability of the polar ice caps (briefly addressed in Blog 20) and the health of the oceans. A recent study has shown that ocean heat waves are posing multiple threats to marine life. Such heat waves are now happening far more frequently than they did last century and are harming the diversity of marine life. From coral reefs to kelp forests to sea grass beds, researchers found that heat waves were destroying many ocean ecosystems.

Marine heat waves occur when sea temperatures are much warmer than normal for at least five consecutive days. In August, 2018, at Scripps Pier in San Diego the sea surface temperature set an all-time record high (25.9℃, 78.6 ℉).

Scientists estimate that the oceans have absorbed over 90% of the heat trapped by excess greenhouse gases since midcentury. Humans have added these gases to the atmosphere largely by burning fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas, for energy.

An earlier study found that from 1925 to 2016, marine heat waves became, on average, 34% more frequent and 17% longer. Over all, there were 54% more days per year with marine heat waves globally.

The most severe years tended to be El Niño years. Warmer ocean temperatures are one of the characteristics of an El Niño pattern. But regional marine heat waves can happen even without an El Niño. And El Niños may be getting more extreme due to climate change.

As ocean heat waves proliferate, problems mount for people who depend on fishing and fish farming, or aquaculture. As ocean water heats, and as sea level rises, coastal populations, including many employed in commercial fisheries and aquaculture, are threatened both in terms of their livelihood and physical safety due to decreased productivity, storms/flooding and erosion. An estimated one billion people depend on coral reefs, which are highly sensitive to temperature, for food or income.

The study found many parts of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans where aquatic life was especially vulnerable. These areas were home to great biological diversity and had plants and animals that were already living in the warmer parts of their ranges. They were also affected by other human impacts like pollution and overfishing.

Seabirds too are being adversely affected as heat waves impact their food sources which either died or moved in response to the warming.

The biggest surprise may have been the significant loss of “foundational species” like coral reefs, sea grasses and kelp forests. They support the diversity of aquatic life by providing shelter from predators, moderating temperatures and acting as food sources. When they disappear, the entire ecosystem disappears along with them.

These studies focused just on heat impacts. Other studies have shown multiple additional oceanic insults such as acidification from carbon absorption which is altering the marine food chain from its microscopic foundation through apex predators, as well as more direct assaults such as over-fishing and pollution. Sea levels continue to rise due to heat-induced expansion. Additional threats to humans perched atop the Life Pyramid (see Blog 1[1]), is that oceanic currents are changing which impacts fish migration, disrupts commercial fishing and alters global weather patterns.

Good News:

On March 27, I attended a program on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Three panelists and the moderator opined that after 15 years of developmental projects technologies are ready to be sized up to a scale that could begin the capture and sequester of significant amounts of carbon. Projects have demonstrated the feasibility of injecting captured carbon into bedrock (both on the land and at sea) where it is absorbed into porous sandstone, and an impermeable rock cover ensures that the carbon will not escape. The US has trillions of tons of storage capacity, we emit billions of tons of carbon annually and are theoretically capable of beginning to capture and sequester millions of tons annually. What is needed now is infrastructure (mostly pipelines to move the condensed carbon) and funding. One of the panelists was from the Department of Energy which has been actively working to develop this technology.

If we are to have any chance of keeping global temperature from rising more than 2C, such technology is essential. In 1994, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 358 ppm. Now it’s over 410 — a level not seen for at least the last three million years. And still rising. CCS projects have proven successful in Decatur, Ill, and two in Texas, and elsewhere including under the North Sea. Internationally, China, Norway, Australia, Japan, certain European countries, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are all working on CCS.


In February, Trump reportedly was establishing a12-member Presidential Committee on Climate Security to examine how climate change affects national security. The panel was to include a White House adviser whose views are sharply at odds with the established scientific consensus that human-caused global warming poses a threat to the nation’s economy, health and security.

The controversial member was William Happer, a Princeton physicist who serves as Trump’s deputy assistant for emerging technologies. Dr. Happer has gained notoriety in the scientific community for his statements that carbon dioxide is beneficial to humanity.  He wrote, “More CO2 will benefit the world. The only way to limit CO2 would be to stop using fossil fuels, which I think would be a profoundly immoral and irrational policy.”

Due to tremendous negative response, this panel was scrapped. However, the National Security Council intends to move forward more quietly and less publicly with an internal, ad hoc group of scientists designed to provide an “adversarial” peer review of recent climate change findings by the federal science agencies, including the National Climate Assessment – a process that seeks to undermine scientific findings, as opposed to evaluate their soundness, and then feed that into national security policy.

Earlier this month, the director of national intelligence released its 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, which concluded that “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond. Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security.”

The report listed specific threats posed by climate change, such as the threat of rising sea levels to the safety of low-lying military installations and the likelihood that increased drought and flooding could lead to mass human displacement and increased conflict. The report concluded that climate-driven food shortages could increase “the risk of social unrest, migration, and interstate tension in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq and Jordan.”

Similarly, the recent National Climate Assessment, a sweeping report issued by the White House in November, concluded decisively that the burning of fossil fuels was warming the atmosphere, leading to a raft of harmful effects across the US and the world.

The Administration stated that such reports had not undergone rigorous, independent, peer review and may now be attempting to fashion such a review.

Trump also announced, on Twitter, that he would nominate Kelly Knight Craft to be his ambassador to the United Nations. Ms. Craft said in a 2017 interview that, on the issue of climate change, there are “scientists on both sides that are accurate.”

“She’s taken this bizarre position,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who served as under secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration. “She will find that in New York, at the Security Council, climate change is one of the top issues. If the representative of the world’s largest economy and one of the largest emitters doesn’t understand the science of this issue, it makes the U.S. look feckless and irresponsible.”

Ms. Craft, currently the US ambassador to Canada, and her husband, Joseph W. Craft III, a billionaire coal magnate from Kentucky, were major contributors to Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and donated to his inaugural committee.

In February 2019, three top-ranking Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Greg Walden of Oregon, Fred Upton of Michigan, and John Shimkus of Illinois, published an op-ed on the website Real Clear Policy stating that “climate change is real” and calling for innovations to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Similarly, in December, Senator John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times expressing his acceptance of climate science but also criticized the Paris Agreement and proposals to tax carbon dioxide emissions.

Globally, climate change is seen as the top international threat, according to a poll conducted in 26 countries and published by the Pew Research Center.

Finally, on March 7, 2019, the NYT published an op-ed by a four-star retired general, John R. Allen, now president of the Brookings Institution, and David G. Victor, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California at San Diego, and a co-chairman of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate. Their article made clear that Trump is not only openly denying the conclusions made by his intelligence agencies (and those of 195 other nations), but he is also rejecting the findings of the National Academies of Science, created by President Abraham Lincoln to provide unbiased scientific findings to the country’s leaders. No President has ever sought to undermine the Academy which played a key role in reviewing the conclusions of the National Climate Assessment.

General Allen and Professor Victor note that fifty-eight former military and intelligence officials sent a letter to the president warning him that “imposing a political test on reports issued by the science agencies and forcing a blind spot onto the national security assessments that depend on them, will erode our national security.”

The article concluded that “[i]gnoring the anti-science noise in the White House is dangerous for the nation. Climate change is arguably America’s and its allies’ longest-term security crisis. But the immediate national security crisis is a White House browbeating our scientific and intelligence community into its political line or seeking to tamper with the science and intelligence itself.”

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

[1] Note that all prior Blogs may be read at NYSBA.ORG, Quicklinks - Blogs, Environmental and Energy Law Section Blog.