Climate Change Blog 28
I have been focusing on some of the big ticket items, melting polar ice caps, rising, warming, acidifying seas with altered currents affecting weather systems, major natural disasters such as draught, flood and wildfire. In this Blog I will focus on some of the effects, retreat, managed and forced.
Except this just happened (Feb 8-9): an iceberg twice the size of Washington DC calved from the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica. The Pine Island Glacier is one of the fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica, and along with the Thwaites Glacier nearby, it is being closely monitored. The danger is that these glaciers have begun an irreversible melting phase which could open the literal floodgates freeing immense amounts of inland ice to flow into the sea which would significantly raise sea levels about four feet.
Most of you are aware of the horrific wildfires in Australia. I will just touch on how extreme they have been, then a few points about the past year, and then retreat from the coasts.
Facts on the Ground:
Australia has had many fires over the centuries but 2019-2020 was the country’s most disastrous fire season ever. About 16 million acres burned in New South Wales and Victoria, an area about the size of West Virginia. Millions more acres have burned in other parts of the country. The most devastating impact of these fires from a human standpoint is that they are happening in populated areas. Until now, fires this large happened mostly in places like northern Canada or Siberia, where few people live and blazes burn largely uncontrolled.
“What we’re seeing in Australia, in a completely different environment, are fires that are approaching or even exceeding the magnitude of things that we only saw in the most remote forested regions in the world,” said Ross Bradstock, the director of the Center for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales.
These fires are unprecedented. “We’re looking at a globally significant fire season in Australia,” he added. The numbers from Australia dwarf those from some of the most high-profile fires in recent years. The bushfires in southeastern Australia this season have burned about eight times as much land as the 2018 fires in California, which covered nearly two million acres and were the worst in that state’s recorded history. They are also far larger than the estimates of 2.2 million acres burned by September last year in the Amazon basin, where farmers, some emboldened by the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, ignited tens of thousands of fires to clear land.
“It’s quite phenomenal and far exceeds anything you would see in the western U.S.A., which is a very fire-prone area, the southwest of Canada, the Mediterranean and parts of South America,” Dr. Bradstock said. “It’s so much bigger than anything else.”
The losses Australia is experiencing in lives and property are staggering. At least 29 people have been killed. More than 2,500 homes have been destroyed. For Australia’s wildlife, the toll has been incalculable. About 87% of Australia’s wildlife is endemic to the country, which means it can only be found on this island continent.
And a great many of those species, like the koala, the southern brown bandicoot and the long-footed potoroo, have populations living in the regions now being obliterated by the fires. Because the fires this season have been so intense and consumed wetlands as well as dry eucalyptus forests, there are few places many of these animals can seek refuge. Scientists estimate that close to half a billion native animals have been killed and fear that some species of animals and plants may have been wiped out completely. Surviving animals are abandoning their young in what is described as mass “starvation events.”
“We’ve never seen fires like this, not to this extent, not all at once, and the reservoir of animals that could come and repopulate the areas, they may not be there,” said Jim Radford, a research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
Smoke generated by the fires has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, at times giving them some of the worst air in the world. The prolonged exposure of bushfire smoke to millions of people has raised fears of health effects that could last for years.
NASA has been tracking a plume of smoke from the fires the size of the continental US. By Jan. 14, smoke had circumnavigated the globe, returning to eastern Australia. Along the way, it caused hazardous breathing conditions in New Zealand and discolored skies in South America.
The fires have also produced huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon emissions. The fires in southeastern Australia produced as much carbon as the entire country emits from man-made sources in more than eight months of the year.
While Australia is normally hot and dry in the summer, climate change is bringing longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat. That makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn. Last year was the hottest and driest year on record in Australia, and some regions have experienced drought for years. This season, the fires started earlier than usual — some as soon as July — and lasted into March.
“The wildfires decimating Australia, killing people, ravaging wild habitats and pushing communities and firefighters to their absolute limits are growing and coalescing into the country’s worst peacetime catastrophe precisely because of climate change,” said Paul Read, a co-director of the National Center for Research in Bushfire and Arson at Monash University in Melbourne.
While scientists have long predicted that climate change would bring longer and more intense fire seasons, the blazes were not expected to be this bad this soon. Australia was not projected to see wildfires this devastating for another 40 to 50 years. Recalibrating means expecting these phenomenal fires to continue to occur, particularly as Australia’s drought persists and temperatures are expected to continue to climb after the warmest decade on record.
In another first, the government deployed military assets, a move not seen since World War II. About 3,000 army reservists, along with aircraft and naval ships, helped with evacuations and firefighting efforts. In anticipation of the bad conditions, thousands of people were evacuated, largely from communities along the southeastern coast, where the towns swell with tourists during the summer.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been widely criticized for his response to the fires. He had resisted a major intervention by the national government, and left firefighting to the volunteers in individual states. He has also minimized the link between global warming and the extreme conditions that have fueled the fires. In fact, the response of Australia’s leaders has been not to defend their country but to defend the coal industry, a big donor to both major parties. While the fires were exploding in mid-December, the leader of the opposition Labor Party went on a tour of coal mines expressing his unequivocal support for coal exports. Mr Morrison, went on vacation to Hawaii.
Since 1996 successive conservative Australian governments have successfully fought to subvert international agreements on climate change in defense of the country’s fossil fuel industries. Australia is currently the world’s largest exporter of both coal and gas and was ranked last of 57 countries on climate-change action.
Mr. Morrison owes his narrow election victory to the coal-mining oligarch Clive Palmer, who formed a puppet party to keep the Labor Party — which had been committed to limited but real climate-change action — out of government. Mr. Palmer’s advertising budget for the campaign was more than double that of the two major parties combined. Mr. Palmer subsequently announced plans to build the biggest coal mine in Australia.
Mr. Morrison has tried to present the fires as catastrophe-as-usual, nothing out of the ordinary. This is a political calculation: With no effective opposition from the Labor Party and with media dominated by Rupert Murdoch — 58% of daily newspaper circulation — firmly behind his climate denialism, Mr. Morrison may prevail as long as he down-plays the magnitude of the problem.
Mr. Morrison’s resume includes immigration minister, where he adhered to a policy that interned refugees in hellish Pacific-island camps, and he seems indifferent to human suffering. Now his government is following authoritarian tactics cracking down on unions, civic organizations and journalists. Under legislation pending in Tasmania, and expected to be copied across Australia, environmental protesters could be jailed up to 21 years for demonstrating.
2019 Was a Record Year for Ocean Temperatures
Last year was the warmest year on record for the world’s oceans, part of a long-term warming trend, according to a study released in January. “If you look at the ocean heat content, 2019 is by far the hottest, 2018 is second, 2017 is third, 2015 is fourth, and then 2016 is fifth,” said Kevin E. Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and an author on the study.
The study was published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. It followed an announcement by European scientists that Earth’s surface temperatures in 2019 were the second-hottest on record.
Since the middle of last century, the oceans have absorbed roughly 93% of the excess heat caused by GHG from human activities such as burning coal for electricity. That has shielded the land from some of the worst effects of rising emissions.
“Ocean heat content is, in many ways, our best measure of the effect of climate change on the earth,” said Zeke Hausfather, the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute in California. Surface temperature measurements are more variable from year to year because they are affected by things like volcanic eruptions and El Niño events, cyclical weather patterns that pump energy and moisture into the atmosphere.
While 2016 was the fifth-hottest year on record for the oceans, it was the hottest year on record in terms of surface temperatures. There was a significant El Niño that year, Dr. Trenberth said, which moved the heat from the ocean into the atmosphere.
Increasing ocean temperatures have harmed marine life and contributed to mass coral reef bleaching, the loss of critical ecosystems, and threatened livelihoods like fishing as species have moved in search of cooler waters.
The impacts of warming oceans also affects global climate. “The heavy rains in Jakarta just recently resulted, in part, from very warm sea temperatures in that region,” said Dr. Trenberth, who also drew connections between warming ocean temperatures to weather over Australia. The recent drought there has helped to propel what many are calling the worst wildfire season in the nation’s history.
“These sea temperatures influence regional weather patterns and sometimes even global weather patterns,” Dr. Trenberth said.
2019, the Second-Hottest Year Ever, Closed Out the Warmest Decade
The 2010s were the warmest decade on record. Six of the warmest years ever have occurred since 2010 including last year, which was the second hottest. 2019 was only slightly cooler than 2016.
The independent analyses by researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration showed that global average surface temperatures last year were nearly 1 degree Celsius (1.8F) higher than the average from 1951 to 1980.
The warming trends “are clear and unequivocal,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which conducted the NASA analysis. “The surface temperature record tells us that the last decade was more than 1 degree Celsius higher than the late 19th century and we know that this has been driven by human activities.”
Australia, in addition to wildfires, experienced temperatures 1.5C (2.7 F) higher than the mid-20th century average, according to the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology. Combined with low rainfall totals — in December the country set a record for least rainfall - the heat has contributed to a severe drought that has gripped most of the country since 2017.
Alaska recorded its hottest month in July 2019, NOAA reported in an analysis in January. All-time temperature records were set across the state, including in Anchorage, the largest city. In early July there were successive days of record-high average temperatures statewide.
2019 continued a long-term warming trend, one that has led to increased melting of Alaska’s thousands of glaciers, thawing of permafrost, and a lack of sea-ice coverage in some of the Arctic waters surrounding the state.
The Bering Sea, off Alaska’s northwest coast, was ice-free for much of last year. Satellite images taken in late March showed largely open water at a time when the sea is normally completely covered in ice. The lack of ice is thought to have contributed to the increased warming across the state — a climate feedback loop in which warming creates conditions that lead to more warming.
Southern Africa is also experiencing drought especially the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. Extreme heat in southern Africa has contributed to the region’s worst drought in decades. Zambia and Zimbabwe are most affected with millions of people suffering food shortages as production of maize and other grains declined by at least 30%.
The countries’ electricity supply is also at risk, as water levels along the Zambezi, one of Africa’s major rivers, are exceptionally low. Under normal conditions Zambia and Zimbabwe get about half of their electricity from a dam on the Zambezi; the reservoir behind the dam is currently at less than 20% of capacity.
Climate Change Is Accelerating; May Be ‘Dangerously Close’ to Irreversible
Europe had its warmest year ever, with all seasons warmer than average. Single-day temperature records were set in Paris and other cities, and nuclear reactors in France and Germany were forced to reduce output or shut down because the cooling water became too warm.
The Arctic, which is warming more rapidly than other parts of the world, experienced extraordinary conditions last year. Large stretches of Arctic waters, including the Chukchi, Barents and Kara seas, remained ice free for much of the year. And in late July, Europe’s heat moved north to Greenland where the Greenland ice sheet lost a net total of about 300 billion tons of ice, higher than the average of about 240 billion tons in recent years.
Global Warming Produces Rising Seas
Approximately 600 million people live in an area most vulnerable to climate change, the world’s coastlines. By the end of this century, seas are expected to rise one to four feet. And increasingly ferocious storms will drive higher tides that could destroy entire communities/cities.
Since the early 1990s, sea levels have risen 5 to 7 centimeters a year, or double the global average, by Manila, Philippines. The rate of sea level rise is predicted to increase for the foreseeable future. The poorest residents live in flimsy bamboo homes on stilts by the water’s edge. They have repeatedly been displaced by storm-surges and many have died. But the poor have nowhere to go and return to the only place they know. There is little money and less talk of a managed retreat for them. North of the city, the village of Pariahan, is now permanently underwater. The villagers were forced to retreat. Where they went is unknown.
In wealthier areas of Manila the city has taken adaptive steps such as raising roads. Those with money have raised their homes to stay above the road. Some have poured cement and sand on the floor four times in 30 years. A poorer homeowner abandoned his house. Its roof is barely above street level now.
Retreat is complex and expensive. Forcing people to move away from the coast is not enough, said Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga, a member of the board of directors of the Manila Observatory, a research organization. People must be able to find work nearby, or efficient public transportation. The average commute into Manila is currently two hours or more each way. New communities must be planned, new, affordable housing built. Even planning is expensive and time consuming. Time is short as the sea is already intruding, and money even shorter.
In wealthy communities in the US, such as San Francisco, where the Pacific has risen 4 to 8 inches over the last century, projections are for an additional rise of 2.4 to 3.4 feet by 2100. The California Coastal Commission has urged city governments to plan accordingly. Options include fortifying flood defenses, restoring wetlands, and forced retreat. All have begun to be implemented.
But, as in Manila, people are loath to leave what they call home. “People’s properties and investments are at risk,” Jack Ainsworth, head of the commission, said in an interview. “It becomes very political and very emotional.” And again, those who can afford it, pay whatever it takes to fortify high-value at risk coastal infrastructure.
Voters in San Francisco approved a $425 million bond measure to start fortifying a sea wall along a bayfront road, the Embarcadero. The hope is to protect some of the city’s most expensive real estate and infrastructure including a subway line, a light rail tunnel, and sewage infrastructure.
In Mission Creek, the builders of a new real estate development in a former industrial area are raising old roads and warehouses by as much as 10 feet. And the San Francisco airport, situated in tidal marshlands (like JFK), is getting $587 million to raise its sea wall.
At San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, large sums are being spent to control erosion, and a section of the adjacent coastal road, the Great Highway, is being moved inland.
“We basically built everything just about at the high tide line,” said Laura Tam, a policy director at SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning and research group. “Nothing was built thinking of future changes in tides. We didn’t think about sea level rise.” That could be said of every coastal community world-wise.
Erosion is a natural process. The shoreline has always shifted. But people have drawn lines in the sand and built their homes and lives around these lines. They intend to fight and stay. Many have nowhere to go and no money to get there. Nature doesn’t care. Climate change is speeding up the process of erosion and shoreline movement. Something has to give.
As in Manila, the poor may pay with their lives. In San Francisco, where money can be found it will be spent on defenses. But that only buys time, not safety nor security. It is on this purchased time that the problems facing many Bay Area communities are being discussed: How much do you armor the coast? What should be saved? Who will be forced to move? Who gets to decide? Managed retreat is a political live wire.
And managed retreat is the good option, as opposed to forced retreat. In Pacifica, some sea walls crumbled endangering a row of apartments. The 52 tenants were forced to move and received no compensation. As this was one of the most expensive counties in the state, the city spent $620,000 on demolition.
By 2050 Many Cities Will Be Erased By Rising Seas
Rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought, threatening to all but erase some of the world’s great coastal cities. New research shows that 150 million people live on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury.
Southern Vietnam could all but disappear. More than 20 million people in Vietnam, almost one-quarter of the population, live on land that will be inundated. Much of Ho Chi Minh City, the nation’s economic center, could disappear. Studies by Climate Central, a science organization based in New Jersey, and published in the journal Nature Communications, focused on these dangers.
In Thailand, more than 10% of citizens now live on land that is likely to be inundated by 2050, compared with just 1% according to the earlier data. The political and commercial capital, Bangkok, is particularly imperiled.
Climate change will put pressure on cities in multiple ways, said Loretta Hieber Girardet, a Bangkok resident and United Nations disaster risk-reduction official. Even as global warming floods more places, it will also push poor farmers off the land to seek work in cities.
In Shanghai, one of Asia’s most important economic engines, water threatens to consume the heart of the city and many other cities around it.
The new data shows that 110 million people already live in places that are below the high tide line, protected by seawalls and other barriers. Cities must invest vastly greater sums in such defenses, Mr. Strauss said, and they must do it quickly.
The new projections suggest that much of Mumbai, India’s financial capital and one of the largest cities in the world, is at risk of being wiped out. Built on what was once a series of islands, the city’s historic downtown is particularly vulnerable.
Over-all, the research shows that countries should start preparing now for more citizens to relocate internally, according to Dina Ionesco of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group that coordinates action on migrants and development.
“We’ve been trying to ring the alarm bells,” Ms. Ionesco said. “We know that it’s coming.” There is little modern precedent for this scale of population movement, she added.
The disappearance of cultural heritage could bring its own kind of devastation. Alexandria, Egypt, founded by Alexander the Great around 330 B.C., could be lost to rising waters.
In other places, the migration caused by rising seas could trigger or exacerbate regional conflicts. Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq, could be mostly underwater by 2050. If that happens, the effects could be felt well beyond Iraq’s borders, according to John Castellaw, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general who was chief of staff for US Central Command during the Iraq War.
Further loss of land to rising waters there “threatens to drive further social and political instability in the region, which could reignite armed conflict and increase the likelihood of terrorism,” said General Castellaw, who is now on the advisory board of the Center for Climate and Security, a research and advocacy group in Washington.
“So this is far more than an environmental problem,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian, security and possibly military problem too.”
Trump Administration Is Sidelining Science
This Blog focusses on Climate Change so I will omit the ways the Trump administration has been diminishing the role of science in federal policymaking in other areas. The Administration is transforming the federal government whose effects, experts say, could reverberate for years.
Political appointees have terminated government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The latest instance involves Indur Goklany, a former low-level Interior Dept employee who suddenly was elevated by the Trump Administration for his misleading statements that elevated CO2 levels are beneficial to the ecology. He is now empowered to insert such language into 9 government reports which could shield harmful governmental action from legitimate legal challenges. This is likely to play out in battles in CA’s central valley as farmers demand more scarce water which should be denied to them for the protection of wildlife including salmon runs.
The Administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. But it has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.
“The disregard for expertise in the federal government is worse than it’s ever been,” said Mr. Gerrard who has tracked more than 200 reports of Trump administration efforts to restrict or misuse science since 2017. “It’s pervasive.”
Hundreds of scientists, many of whom say they are dismayed at seeing their work undone, are departing.
“Regulations come and go, but the thinning out of scientific capacity in the government will take a long time to get back,” said Joel Clement, a former top climate-policy expert at the Interior Department who quit in 2017 after being reassigned to a job collecting oil and gas royalties. He is now at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group.
Trump maintains that government regulations stifle businesses and thwart some of the administration’s core goals, such as increasing fossil-fuel production. Many of the starkest confrontations with federal scientists have involved issues like environmental oversight and energy extraction — areas where industry groups have lobbied for regulatory roll-backs.
At the EPA, staffing has fallen to its lowest levels in at least a decade. More than two-thirds of respondents to a survey of federal scientists across 16 agencies said that hiring freezes and departures interfered with their scientific work. In June, the White House ordered agencies to cut by one-third the number of federal advisory boards that provide technical advice.
The White House said it aimed to eliminate committees that were no longer necessary. Panels cut to date had focused on issues including invasive species and electric grid innovation, an essential piece if we are to move rapidly to a sustainable, renewables-based energy system.
“When we decapitate the government’s ability to use science in a professional way, that increases the risk that we start making bad decisions, that we start missing new public health risks,” said Wendy E. Wagner, a professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the use of science by policymakers.
In an article published in the journal Science last year, Ms. Wagner wrote that some of the Trump Administration’s moves, like a policy to restrict certain academics from the EPA’s Science Advisory Board or the proposal to limit the types of research that can be considered by environmental regulators, “mark a sharp departure with the past.” Rather than isolated battles between political officials and career experts, she said, these moves are an attempt to legally constrain how federal agencies use science in the first place.
This year, for instance, the National Park Service’s principal climate change scientist, Patrick Gonzalez, received a “cease and desist” letter from supervisors after testifying to Congress about the risks that global warming posed to national parks.
Shortly after Trump’s election, the Commerce Department disbanded a 15-person scientific committee that had explored how to make National Climate Assessments, the congressionally mandated studies of the risks of climate change, more useful to local officials. It also closed its Office of the Chief Economist, which for decades had conducted wide-ranging research on topics like the economic effects of natural disasters.
A Commerce Department official said the climate committee it discontinued had not produced a report, and highlighted other efforts to promote science, such as a major upgrade of the nation’s weather models.
Research that potentially posed an obstacle to Trump’s promise to expand fossil-fuel production was halted, too. In 2017, Interior officials canceled a $1 million study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the health risks of “mountaintop removal” coal mining in places like West Virginia.
Many top government positions, including at the EPA and the Interior Department, are now occupied by former lobbyists connected to the industries that those agencies oversee.
Scientists and health experts have singled out two moves they find particularly concerning. Since 2017, the EPA has moved to restrict certain academics from sitting on its Science Advisory Board, which provides scrutiny of agency science, and has instead increased the number of appointees connected with industry.
And, in a potentially far-reaching move, the EPA has proposed a rule to limit regulators from using scientific research unless the underlying raw data can be made public. Industry groups like the Chamber of Commerce have argued that some agency rules are based on science that can’t be fully scrutinized by outsiders. But dozens of scientific organizations have warned that the proposal in its current form could prevent the EPA from considering a vast array of research on issues like the dangers of air pollution if, for instance, they are based on confidential health data.
“The problem is that rather than allowing agency scientists to use their judgment and weigh the best available evidence, this could put political constraints on how science enters the decision-making process in the first place,” said Ms. Wagner, the University of Texas law professor.
As noted, given this work atmosphere, federal employees, especially scientists, are leaving.
“In the past, when we had an administration that was not very pro-environment, we could still just lay low and do our work,” said Betsy Smith, a climate scientist with more than 20 years of experience at the EPA who in 2017 saw the cancellation of her long-running study of the effects of climate change on major ports.
“Now we feel like the EPA is being run by the fossil fuel industry,” she said. “It feels like a wholesale attack.” After her project was killed, Dr. Smith resigned.
The loss of experienced scientists can erase years or decades of “institutional memory,” said Robert J. Kavlock, a toxicologist who retired in October 2017 after working at the EPA for 40 years, most recently as acting assistant administrator for the agency’s Office of Research and Development.
His former office, which researches topics like air pollution and chemical testing, has lost 250 scientists and technical staff members since Trump came to office, while hiring 124. Those who have remained in the office of roughly 1,500 people continue to do their work, Dr. Kavlock said, but are not going out of their way to promote findings on lightning-rod topics like climate change. “You can see that they’re trying not to ruffle any feathers,” Dr. Kavlock said.
The views expressed above are my own.
Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee, NYS Bar Association,
Environmental Law Section
Follow me on Twitter @HowardCarl