Climate Change Blog 25.
Facts on the Ground:
Environmental injustice is an important part of discussions involving climate change. The fact is that those least culpable for the existence of climate change suffer disproportionately from it. Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane destroyed much of the Bahamas over two deadly, terrifying days.
When Dorian made land-fall on the Bahamas, its winds were a sustained 185 mph gusting to 220 mph, making it the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded on land. At least 51 people were killed. Over 2,500 people have been reported missing. All survivors are traumatized. Many will suffer PTSD. None can imagine a future on the island. Who will lend them money to re-build? Many have tried to leave only to be denied access to the US for lack of a visa.
Given the fact that the waters of the world’s oceans are only gong to get warmer, and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is only going to increase, such storms are expected to be the norm during future hurricane seasons. Such storms could hit just about anywhere on the eastern coast of the US, including NYC. It’s unimaginable what the Bahamians just suffered through.
Flooding is another of the catastrophic effects of climate change. Fifteen mid-western states suffered months of destructive and deadly flooding during the first half of 2019. An interconnected catastrophe unfolded along the Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers, a system that drains more than 40% of the US. North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi all had major flood stages and all had federal assistance in over 400 counties.
Bryan Tuma, assistant director of Nebraska’s Emergency Management Agency, said, “I would describe it as biblical.”
The year through May 2019 was the wettest 12-month period on record in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Nearly 38 inches of water fell, almost eight inches above average.
A Mississippi River mayors council estimated that the cost of infrastructure damage and emergency response alone was at least $2 billion. That number will rise as the water recedes and the extent of the damage can be assessed. The full cost to repair homes and businesses has yet to be calculated. Hundreds of homes were flooded, 100s of 1,000s of acres of farmland was flooded. In Cairo, Ill, water was above flood stage for a record 156 consecutive days. In Arkansas, nearly 40% of the soybean crop could not be planted.
David Alexander, a professor of risk and disaster reduction at University College London, said that typical recovery times from such major disasters are “in the range of 10 to 25 years.”
The flood-waters of the Mississippi carried chemical fertilizers from upstream farms, lawns and other sources which produced a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area with too little oxygen to support fish and other marine life. NOAA predicts that it will cover 8,717 square miles — about the size of New Hampshire.
As I write, Houston and the surrounding areas have again been flooded two years after Hurricane Harvey. Tropical Storm Imelda dropped 43” of rain in three days in the areas between Winnie and Beaumont, east of Houston. Two people are known to have drowned and 1,000s were rescued from their homes and stranded vehicles. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster for 13 counties.
Wildfire is another of the catastrophic effects of climate change. Fires burned unprecedented amounts of forests releasing immense amounts of carbon. Out of control fires burned Amazonian forests in Brazil and Bolivia, fires also burned in Central Africa, Southern Africa as well as Alaska, Greenland and Siberia.
The Amazonian and Southern Africa forest fires are doubly destructive as they both destroy carbon sinks (which absorb carbon) and release carbon to the atmosphere. Angola had the most fire alerts by province while Brazil ranked second, with Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo third and fourth respectively. The Democratic Republic of Congo has more than its usual number of fires for the year. This area is of great concern as its forests are considered the planet’s “second lungs” after Brazil’s.
Climate change is contributing to the increase in forest fires. Rising temperatures, altered weather patterns resulting in less rain and industrial practices like logging have made forests increasingly vulnerable to out-of-control blazes. Less rain leaves the land dry and more vulnerable to sparks, while logging thins the forest, making it less dense and less humid, and more vulnerable to fire. Illegal logging by farmers clearing land set intentional fires which often get out of hand.
At the Group of 7 summit of political leaders this summer, amid a global feud over how to handle the Brazil blazes, President Macron of France said he was considering an aid program to help. Indeed, several of the G7 nations pledged more than $22 million to fight the fires in the Amazon but it was angrily rejected by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil who has favored development of the Amazon as the right of Brazilians. Brazil has strict environmental laws and regulations, but they are often violated with impunity. The vast majority of fines for breaking environmental laws go unpaid with little or no consequences.
As a result, illegal logging and the intentional setting of fires in Brazil has produced more than 74,000 wildfires this year, an 84% increase from the same period last year. About 4.6 million acres have burned so far in Brazil, a 62% increase over 2018.
The European Parliament is considering a trade deal between the European Union and Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but environmentalists are pressing lawmakers to address Brazil’s fires first. Police in London arrested six activists from the Extinction Rebellion group who glued themselves to the windows of the Brazilian Embassy.
Just as US federal workers are voicing displeasure with the anti-environmental policies of Trump, so too are federal Brazilian workers in revolt. Hundreds of government workers who enforce Brazil’s environmental laws signed an open letter warning that their work has been hampered by President Bolsonaro, contributing to a rise in deforestation and the fires sweeping through the Amazon.
Employees of the country’s main environmental agency, Ibama, said that their mission had been hobbled in recent years as a result of budget cuts, 44% staff reductions over the past decade, including in remote areas, political interference and a weakening of environmental regulations. Leaders of two employee associations described a demoralized, beleaguered work force that had been contending for years with budget cuts and a rise in illegal mining.
“There is no way to separate those factors and the significant rise in deforestation and fires,” they wrote in the letter.
Since Mr. Bolsonaro took office in January, deforestation has increased at a significant rate and Ibama has carried out fewer enforcement actions, which include issuing fines and warnings and conducting worksite raids. Like Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has long supported scaling back environmental protections.
This year’s burnings are likely to worsen in part because the US trade war with China — one of the world’s biggest soybean buyers — has driven Beijing to find new suppliers to replace American farmers. Brazil has happily stepped in.
Fires burned at a historic pace in the Arctic regions of Siberia too. This year has seen a dramatic increase in wildfires in some arctic regions that traditionally rarely burned. Since July, fire has covered six million acres of Siberian forest, an area roughly the size of Vermont. In Alaska, fires have consumed more than 2.5 million acres of tundra and snow forest, leading researchers to suggest that the combination of climate change and wildfires could permanently alter the region’s forests and ecology.
Over the first 18 days of August alone, Arctic wildfires emitted 42 megatons of carbon dioxide. That brought the total for June, July, and the first part of August to more than 180 megatons, roughly three and a half times more than Sweden emits in a year.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and some studies have noted that, as it warms, there also is expected to be more lightning. Lightning is a significant cause of fires.
Some researchers warn that as fires strike places where they were previously rare, it threatens to contribute to a feedback loop in which wildfires potentially accelerate climate change by adding significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
And though the Amazon is widely understood to produce oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide, Siberian forests are as important to the global climate system as tropical rainforests.
One reason that arctic wildfires are particularly concerning is that in addition to trees and grassland burning, peat also burns, a dirt-like material in the ground that releases much more carbon dioxide when it burns than do trees per acre of fire. In the past, peat fires in northern climates were rare because of moisture that is now disappearing as the region becomes warmer and drier.
Similarly, in Southeast Asia, 71% of peat forests have been lost across Sumatra, Borneo and peninsular Malaysia between 1990 and 2015. In many cases the forests were replaced by farms that produce palm oil, which is used in everything from cookies to cologne and is one of the most important crops in the region.
Not only are the fires widely seen as a signal of climate change, but they can also exacerbate global warming because of the soot produced by burning peat, which is rich in carbon. When the black soot settles on nearby glaciers, it causes the ice to absorb the sun’s energy instead of reflecting it, speeding up the melting of the glacier.
The catastrophic effects of climate change, such as those noted above, lead to environmental injustice such as death and destruction of homes and lives and forced migration mostly in developing nations. During the first half of 2019, a record 7 million people were displaced by extreme weather according to The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
“In today’s changing climate, mass displacement triggered by extreme weather events is becoming the norm,” the center said in its report, adding that the numbers represent “the highest midyear figure ever reported for displacements associated with disasters.”
The latest numbers reflect both bad news and good. Extreme weather events are becoming more extreme in the era of climate change, according to scientists, and more people are exposed to them, especially in rapidly growing and storm-prone Asian cities.
But, many governmental bodies have become better prepared for extreme weather, with early warning systems and evacuation shelters in place that prevent mass casualties.
Thus, the number of refugees this year include many who might otherwise have been casualties. That was almost certainly the case for the 3.4 million people who were evacuated from their homes in India and Bangladesh in May before Cyclone Fani barreled over the Bay of Bengal. Fewer than a hundred fatalities were reported from both countries, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs agency.
By contrast, in southern Africa, where Cyclone Idai struck in March, more than 1,000 people were killed and 617,000 were displaced across Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Madagascar.
In March and April, half a million Iranians were forced from their homes and camped in temporary shelters after a huge swath of the country endured the worst flooding in decades. And in Bolivia, heavy rains triggered floods and landslides in the first four months of the year, forcing more than 70,000 people to flee their homes, according to the report. All told, nearly twice as many people were displaced by extreme weather events, mainly storms, as the numbers displaced by conflict and violence in the first six months of this year, according to the monitoring center.
The numbers hold lessons for countries, especially those like the Caribbean island nations, repeatedly pummeled by intensifying storms.
The Trump administration announced its intention to sharply curtail the regulation of methane emissions. Methane is a major contributor to climate change with perhaps 80 times the heating-trapping power of CO2 in the first 20 years in the atmosphere.
The EPA, in a proposed rule, aims to eliminate federal requirements that the oil and gas industry use technology to inspect for and repair methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities.
The proposal is notable because major oil and gas companies have opposed it (Exxon, Shell, BP America), just as some other industries have opposed the Trump administration’s other major moves to dismantle rules to address climate change and other environmental rules put in place by President Obama. For example, some of the world’s largest auto companies have opposed Trump’s plans to allow more vehicle pollution, and some electric utilities have opposed the relaxation of restrictions on toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.
“This is extraordinarily harmful,” Rachel Kyte, the United Nations special representative on sustainable energy, said of this and other Trump administration efforts to undo climate regulations. “Just at a time when the federal government’s job should be to help localities and states move faster toward cleaner energy and a cleaner economy, just at that moment when speed and scale is what’s at stake, the government is walking off the field.”
The proposed rule must go through a period of public comment and review. The earliest it could be finalized is early next year.
The Trump administration also announced new rules to roll back requirements for energy-saving light bulbs, which will contribute to increased GHG emissions as well.
The Energy Department’s filing in the Federal Register will prevent new efficiency standards from going into effect on Jan. 1 under a law passed in 2007 during the administration of President George W. Bush. The new changes are likely to be challenged in court.
The gradual shift toward more efficient light bulbs is one of the largely unsung success stories in the fight to reduce energy use and GHG emissions. “U.S. household energy consumption is down 6% since 2010, and this is due in part to the increase in the use of energy-efficient lighting,” said Lucas Davis, a professor at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.
One part of the new standards would have required the adding of four kinds of incandescent and halogen light bulbs to the energy-efficient group. The new rule will eliminate the requirement for those four categories of bulbs. The Department of Energy was also supposed to begin a broader upgrade concerning energy efficiency in pear-shaped bulbs, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. The DOE is proposing a new rule that eliminates this requirement too.
Some consumers disapprove of the light quality and durability of compact fluorescent bulbs, but LED bulbs have a richer light spectrum, last for many years and have sold well. Companies that manufacture light bulbs have resisted the regulatory shift requiring more efficiency.
The trade association for companies that make light bulbs supported DOE’s proposal. But Noah Horowitz, director of the Center for Energy Efficiency Standards at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said regulation was necessary. “Energy-wasting incandescents and halogens still make up more than a third of new bulb sales. We need standards to ensure every new bulb sold is an efficient one.”
His group estimates that using efficient bulbs in all six billion light sockets in the US could produce $14 billion in savings in 2025, “equivalent to the electricity generated by 25 large power plants.”
Trump is also moving forward with his plan to revoke California’s legal authority to set state tailpipe pollution standards that are stricter than federal regulations. Trump had originally sought to affect a more sweeping roll-back of Obama-era rules designed to cut the emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases via weakening federal fuel economy standards. But he appears to have abandoned that effort as staff members have been unable to prepare adequate legal, technical, economic and scientific justifications for it.
In addition, four major automakers (Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen of America, Honda and BMW) signed a deal in July with California agreeing to abide by the state’s stricter standards if the national rollback goes through. The four automakers agreed to standards slightly less stringent than the Obama-era rules but requiring them to significantly improve the fuel economy of their vehicles.
In response, Trump’s Justice Department opened an antitrust inquiry. Trump appears to be pushing these efforts so that any legal challenges reach the Supreme Court before the end his first term.
California’s right to set its own tailpipe pollution rules dates to the 1970 Clean Air Act. The law granted California a waiver to keep its stricter standards which pre-dated the federal statute. A revocation of the California waiver would have national significance as thirteen states follow California’s tighter standards, together representing roughly a third of the national auto market.
Thus, the fight over federal auto emissions rules could split the US auto market, with some states adhering to stricter pollution standards than others. For automakers, that would be an unacceptable scenario.
The Obama-era tailpipe pollution rules that the administration hopes to weaken would require automakers to build vehicles that achieve an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, cutting about six billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution over the lifetimes of those vehicles. The proposed Trump rule would lower the requirement to about 37 mpg, allowing for most of that pollution to be emitted.
Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, restated his intention to sue over any attempt to undermine his state’s legal authority to set its own pollution standards. “California will continue its advance toward a cleaner future,” he wrote in an email.
A spokeswoman for the American Auto Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of the largest automakers, declined to comment until any plan had been made public.
Our Section has asked DEC Commissioner Seggos and NYSERDA President Alicia Barton to add our colleague Mike Gerrard to the NYS Climate Action Council of which they are co-chairs. The Council was created pursuant to the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act recently signed by the Governor. Mike’s latest book, Pathways To Deep Decarbonization in the United States literally guides the way to a scoping plan required of the Council by the Act. We urge you to support Mike’s appointment to this position.