Climate Change Blog 32
Facts on the Ground:
The wildfire season is off to a brutal start with more than 1.8 million acres having burned in August in California. There were about 10,849 lightning strikes in the state over 72 hours in mid-August, a “historic lightning siege” that caused more than 367 fires, Jeremy Rahn, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said.
People have been ordered to evacuate neighborhoods in Vacaville, a city of about 100,000 residents near Sacramento, as a combination of uncontrolled fires northwest of the city began to overtake homes. That group of fires, known as the LNU Lightning Complex, has destroyed more than 50 homes and is threatening nearly 2,000 more, the authorities said.
It grew more than 14,000 acres in one night and covered 46,225 acres in Napa, Sonoma and Solano Counties and was growing. At least four people have been injured in the fire, which has blanketed much of the region in smoke.
Residents were ordered to evacuate several other areas where groups of fires, also likely caused by lightning, were spreading quickly. The SCU Lightning Complex, a group of about 20 different fires, burned over 85,000 acres across five counties near the Bay Area — and is growing. A third combination of fires, known as the CZU August Lightning Complex, has grown to 10,000 acres and forced evacuations in Santa Cruz County.
The Northern California wildfires are spreading smoke across a wide region, with the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office warning that air quality in the area will be “very poor for the foreseeable future.” In many parts of the Bay Area, the air quality index was higher than 200, a level at which “everyone may experience more serious health effects if they are exposed for 24 hours,” according to EPA. For comparison, that reading was higher than cities with poor air quality, like Delhi (154) and Beijing (150). The air quality index scale goes up to 500, with anything above 100 considered unhealthy.
The combination of Covid-19 and smoke can be dangerous as both damage and tax the respiratory system, making those already exposed to the virus more vulnerable. Polluted air can also weaken the respiratory and immune systems of those who don’t have the virus, making them more susceptible to respiratory infections like Covid-19, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
Studies have also shown that in areas with poor air quality, people are more likely to die if they contract the virus. And coughing, difficulty breathing and headaches are symptoms that both Covid-19 and wildfire smoke exposure can cause, making it more difficult to know which may be the source.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in response to the fires, which have hit the state as it battles the effects of a sweltering heat wave, rolling blackouts and the coronavirus pandemic. Temperatures reached near 100F in Napa and Sonoma, and 106F in Sacramento. And, on Aug. 16, it was 130F in Death Valley, CA, which is the highest reliably recorded temperature ever on Earth.
In addition to the Northern California fires, the Lake Fire has been burning in the Angeles National Forest northeast of Los Angeles for over a week and has grown to nearly 26,000 acres and counting. The fire forced people to evacuate, destroyed a dozen buildings and threatened thousands more.
Further to the east, the Dome Fire is burning in one of the largest Joshua tree forests in the US, in the Mojave National Preserve near the Nevada border. The fire has covered more than 43,000 acres in just three days and is growing,
The heat has threatened the state’s electrical supply, with operators of the state’s power grid twice ordering rolling outages and pleading with customers to use less power even when the need for air-conditioning was extreme. The state has also used blackouts to avoid sparking wildfires. Last year, Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, shut the power off to millions of customers, some for days, to reduce the risk that its equipment would set off wildfires.
Officials have been bracing for the challenge of fighting fires during a pandemic. Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the state’s office of emergency services, said the pandemic was bringing “an almost oppressive level of complexity” to fire planning, from evacuations to reductions in manpower as members of inmate fire crews have been released from prisons to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Things already are hotter and drier earlier in the season,” Mr. Ghilarducci said. “Looming in the background are the public safety power shutoffs that were infamous last year. And if that’s not bad enough, now we have to deal with a worldwide pandemic. In a fire season. With the power off. What else do you want from us?”
And the hurricane season is off to an unprecedented start. Isaias left 2.5 million people without power in the NY/NJ/CT area. The power outages in the region were the most severe since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Elsewhere, power outages effected 245,000 utility customers in eastern North Carolina, 305,000 in Virginia, and more than 200,000 customers in Maryland, Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania.
Isaias was an unusually powerful storm system with heavy winds extending out 180 miles from its center and sustained winds of 70 mph near its core (reaching 85 mph). It brought rain to much of the East Coast and at least two people were killed by a tornado in NC and falling trees killed one person in MD and two in NYC. The storm spun off tornados in SE VA, and in places not accustomed to seeing tornados, such as Strathmere, (southern) NJ, and another near Dover, DE, and it remained powerful into Canada. Heavy rains caused flash flooding along creeks and roads in southeastern PA. Evacuations and rescues were complicated by efforts combating the coronavirus. Face masks do not function when wet.
Loss of off-site power caused one reactor at the Brunswick nuclear power plant in Southport, NC, to automatically shut down overnight, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission notice. Safety systems worked as intended.
Tropical Storm Isaias hit the Florida coast on Aug 1 with drenching rain, flooding and heavy winds. The storm had hit the Bahamas with hurricane conditions after hitting parts of Puerto Rico (killing one person) and causing mudslides and flooding across the Dominican Republic, northern Haiti, and Turks and Caicos. It became a tropical storm when its sustained winds slipped below 74 mph.
Isaias was the nineth named storms in the Atlantic so far this year, which has never before happened this early in the hurricane season which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Forecasters had predicted an active season, given warm ocean waters and other conditions, but 2020 is on track to be one of the busiest ever.
Tropical Storm Laura was named on Aug 21, the earliest “L” storm ever named. Tropical Storm Marco was named Aug 22. Both storms were in the Gulf of Mexico and both become hurricanes. Marco reduced to a tropical storm upon landfall but Laura hit Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the continental US. Its winds reached 150 mph and the National Hurricane Center warned of an “unsurvivable” storm surge of up to 20 feet (which luckily did not happen). Over half a million people were ordered to evacuate the region, but 23.3% of the population there lives in poverty and is likely unable to move out of harm’s way. So far only one death has been confirmed along with billions of dollars in property damage and a dangerous fire at a chemical plant.
In Washington DC, the daily morning briefing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, usually a mundane document, was anything but. It detailed the hurricane, tornados, wildfires and pandemic responses (and perhaps the August 10 derecho which brought winds of up to 140 mph, left more than 400,000 Iowans without power, and damaged homes, businesses, and more than ten million acres of crops. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds requested $4 billion to cover the cost of the damage; Trump approved the portion that covered federal buildings and utilities but declined to assist homeowners and farmers). It was, in essence, a preview of life under climate change: a relentless assault of overlapping disasters.
“State and local governments already stretched with Covid responses must now stretch even further,” said Lisa Anne Hamilton, adaptation program director at the Georgetown Climate Center in Washington. Better planning and preparation are crucial, she added, as the frequency and intensity of disasters increase.
“Climate change is tough for people to grasp, but attribution studies continue to find its DNA in today’s tropical systems, heat waves, droughts and rainstorms,” said Marshall Shepherd, a professor of atmospheric sciences and geography at the University of Georgia and director of its atmospheric sciences program. “Climate change shifts us into an era of sustained elevated risk from extreme weather and climate events,” Dr. Shepherd said.
Global Impacts of Climate Change – Bangladesh and the Caribbean:
No country is more vulnerable to, or devastated by, the impacts of climate change than Bangladesh. In late July torrential rains submerged at least a quarter of the country, washing away mud and tin homes and invaluable assets, goats and chickens and sacks of rice. Millions of people lost everything. This is one of the world’s most striking inequities: The people least responsible for climate change are among those most harmed by its impacts. The average American is responsible for 33 times more planet-warming carbon dioxide than the average Bangladeshi.
An estimated 24 to 37% of the country’s landmass was submerged, according to government estimates and satellite data. Nearly a million homes were inundated and 4.7 million people were affected. At least 54 have died, most of them children.
It is the latest calamity to strike the delta nation of 165 million people. Only two months prior, a cyclone pummeled the country’s southwest. Along the coast, a rising sea swallowed entire villages. Bangladesh is experiencing a pattern of more severe and more frequent flooding than in the past along the Brahmaputra River and that is projected to worsen in the years ahead as climate change intensifies.
Global warming, primarily from GHG emissions from wealthy nations, has reduced incomes in the world’s poorest countries by between 17% and 30%. The wealthy nations have failed to deliver a $100 billion aid package to help poor countries cope, as promised as part of the 2015 Paris accord.
Poor countries have long sought reparations for loss and damage from climate change. Rich countries, led by the US and European Union, have resisted, mainly out of concern that they could be saddled with liability claims for climate damage.
In June, the Alliance of Small Island Developing States, led by Belize, pressed for a new compact with private and bilateral creditors “to deliver debt relief and increase resilience financing.”
Caribbean countries, with their economies ravaged by hurricanes in recent years, are falling deeper into debt as the pandemic dries up tourism revenues. A study commissioned by the UN found that the 20 most climate-vulnerable countries have paid more than $40 billion in losses from extreme weather events.
Even if average global temperature increase modestly — by 2 degrees Celsius over the average for preindustrial times — flooding along the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh is projected to increase by 24%. With an increase of 4C, flooding is projected to increase by over 60%.
Either way, the country will have to adapt. That requires money to dredge rivers, maintain embankments, improve drainage and assist those who will be displaced and impoverished.
“People are losing whatever little they have,” said Farah Kabir, the Bangladesh country director for ActionAid International. “When and how are they going to be supported? When is the global community going to take responsibility?”
Environmental Refugees - Central America, Asia and Africa:
The devastating impacts are global. In Guatemala once reliable rains have virtually stopped in some areas for the past five years. Desperate, starving workers and families are migrating. Some go to cities, others try to come to the US. Now it is 1,000s of migrants. Soon it will be millions. And not just from Guatemala.
Many semiarid parts of Guatemala will become like a desert. Rainfall is projected to decrease by 60% in some parts of the country, and the amount of water replenishing streams and keeping soil moist will drop by as much as 83%. Researchers project that by 2070, yields of some staple crops in the state will decline by nearly a third.
Scientists have learned to project such changes around the world with surprising precision, and now we are seeing the human consequences of those changes. As the climate changes and the land that has sustained communities for centuries begins to fail, hundreds of millions of people from Central America to Sudan to the Mekong Delta will be forced to flee or die. The result will almost certainly be the greatest wave of global migration the world has seen. It has begun.
For most of human history, people have lived within a narrow range of temperatures, in the places where the climate supported abundant food production. But as the planet warms, that band is rapidly shifting north. According to a recent study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the planet could see a greater temperature increase in the next 50 years than it did in the last 6,000. By 2070, the kind of extremely hot zones, like in the Sahara, that now cover less than 1% of the earth’s land surface could cover nearly 20% of the land, potentially placing one of every three people alive outside the climate niche where humans have thrived for thousands of years.
A 2017 study in Science Advances found that by 2100, temperatures could rise to the point that just going outside for a few hours in parts of India and Eastern China, and elsewhere, “will result in death even for the fittest of humans.”
In Southeast Asia, where increasingly unpredictable monsoon rainfall and drought have complicated farming, the World Bank estimated that more than eight million people have fled toward the Middle East, Europe and North America. In the African Sahel, millions of rural people have moved toward the coasts and the cities pushed by drought and widespread crop failures.
Northern nations are beginning to feel the pressure and must decide whether or not to admit more migrants. The initial response has mostly been to seal our-selves off, thereby trapping millions of people in places that are increasingly unlivable. The UN warns that in the worst case, the governments of the nations most affected by climate change could topple as whole regions devolve into chaos, conflict and war.
As refugees stream out of the Middle East and North Africa into Europe and from Central America into the US, an anti-immigrant backlash has propelled nationalist governments into power around the world. Climate models project a 32% decrease by 2070 in the yield of the rice crop in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala; and in the most extreme climate scenarios, over 30 million migrants may try to cross the southern US border over the next 30 years. It will not stop.
In North Africa’s Sahel, the nine countries stretching across the continent from Mauritania to Sudan are experiencing extraordinary population growth and steep environmental decline. Past droughts, likely caused by climate change, killed over 100,000 people. And the region — with more than 150 million people and growing — is threatened by rapid desertification, severe water shortages and deforestation. Researchers at the UN estimate that 65% of farmable lands are degraded. “My deep fear,” said Solomon Hsiang, a climate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, is that such developments in Africa “leads to a constant outpouring of people.”
Similarly, in South Asia, where nearly one-fourth of the global population lives, the World Bank projects that the region will soon have the highest prevalence of food insecurity in the world. About 8.5 million people have already fled, mostly to the Persian Gulf, and 17 million to 36 million more people may soon follow. They are predicted to migrate to India’s Ganges Valley, but they may find no relief there. By the end of this century, heat waves and humidity will become so extreme there that people without air-conditioning will simply die.
Sea Level Rise and Environmental Refugees
Drought and crop failures have forced large numbers of people to flee, but soon SLR will do the same. Past estimates may have underestimated future displacement from SLR by a factor of three: about 150 million people are now expected to be displaced globally by 2050. That is when much of Vietnam may be inundated — including most of the Mekong Delta, with 18 million residents — as well as parts of China and Thailand, most of southern Iraq and nearly all of the Nile Delta, Egypt’s breadbasket. Many coastal regions of the US are also at risk.
Estimates of total global climate migration range from 50 million to 300 million people displaced. That’s a wide range, but even 50 million is hard to fathom given the current back-lash and immense suffering we are seeing now at numbers well below 50 million.
The World Bank’s expectation for climate hot spots in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, determined that as climate change progressed in just these three regions alone, some 143 million people would be displaced within their own borders, moving mostly from rural areas to nearby towns and cities. But as noted below, bloated cities and towns offer little or no respite or assistance.
The UN estimates that by midcentury, El Salvador, which has 6.4 million people and is the most densely populated country in Central America, will be 86% urban. Around 42% of the population currently lack a reliable source of food. Thus, one in six of El Salvador’s citizens has left for the US over the last few decades, with about 90,000 Salvadorans apprehended at the US border in 2019 alone.
San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, has absorbed refugees for years. They crowd into filthy slums with no running water or sewage system and no jobs. The city is notorious as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, over-run by violent gangs. The horror and desperation of life in a slum tends to fuel extremism and chaos, and migration.
Climate change is a driving force behind migration into cities and out of countries. Around 2012, a coffee blight ruined El Salvador’s crop, reducing the harvest 70%. Drought and unseasonable storms led to what the UN describes as “a progressive deterioration” of Salvadorans’ livelihoods. This is what Defense Department officials call a “threat multiplier.”
The sudden failure of the land to support people and the resulting desperate moves toward cities is well underway. The World Bank has raised concerns about the immense influx of people into the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa, where the population has doubled since 2000 and is predicted to nearly double again by 2035. In Mexico, the World Bank estimates that 1.7 million people may migrate away from newly inhospitable regions, many of them winding up in Mexico City.
Currently, slightly more than half of the planet’s population lives in urban areas, but by the middle of this century, the World Bank estimates 67% will. In 10 years, 40% of urban residents — two billion people globally — will live in a slum.. In the case of Addis Ababa, the World Bank suggests that in the second half of this century, many of the people who fled there will be forced to move again as local agriculture around it dries up. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 96% of future urban growth is likely to take place in some of the world’s most fragile cities, where risk of social unrest is high.
Mexico too has serious climate concerns and likely will see a climate exodus. One in six Mexicans now rely on farming for their livelihood, and close to half the population lives in poverty. Studies estimate that with climate change, water availability per capita could decline 88% percent in places, and crop yields in coastal regions may drop by a third.
Trump, determined to slow migration north to the US, demanded Mexico stop migrants at the Guatemalan border and threatened a 25% tariff on trade. Such a tax would devastate Mexico’s economy so López Obrador’s government militarized the border. Many more Central Americans will become trapped in transit, unable to move north or south, remaining in southern Mexico and making its current stresses far worse. Models suggests that between now and 2050, nearly nine million migrants will head for Mexico’s southern border hoping to migrate north.
El Paso, Texas, has absorbed many migrants. In 2014, it created the city government position of chief resilience officer aimed, in part, to add climate concerns to its urban planning. The resilience chief, Nicole Ferrini,, initiated a discussion concerning the “massive amounts of climate refugees, and are we prepared as a community, as a society, to deal with that?” She sees her city on the front lines of what UN officials and climate-migration scientists have been warning: Without a plan for housing, feeding and employing a growing number of climate refugees, cities can never confidently plan their economic future.
Around the world, nations are building walls. Hungary fenced its boundary with Serbia, part of more than 1,000 kilometers of border walls erected around the European Union states since 1990. India built a fence along most of its 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh.
Trump has his wall-building agenda. The US declined to join 164 other countries in signing a global migration treaty in 2018, the first such agreement to recognize climate as a cause of future displacement. The US is also cutting off foreign aid, money for everything from water infrastructure to GHG-reducing agriculture, that has proven helpful to starving families to produce food, and stave off migration.
What if America and the developed world continue to refuse entry to migrants and fail to help them at home? As we are seeing, land and governmental failures will produce enormous numbers of environmental refugees. They are being trapped in places that are increasingly inhospitable and unsuited to human life. As the planet continues to warm, as it will, researchers suggest that the annual death toll, globally, from heat alone will eventually rise by 1.5 million. And untold more will also die from starvation, or in the conflicts over increasingly scarce resources.
If this happens, the US and Europe risk walling themselves in, as much as walling others out. Policymakers are now facing such planning challenges. Many fear immigrants bring disease and radical ideology. Employers see a need for motivated workers. But the sheer numbers are daunting. Clearly, part of the solution is extending aid to help people where they live, in recognition of the harm wealthy nations have caused via climate change, and to help stem the tide of refugees.
A UN World Food Program effort to help farmers build irrigated greenhouses in El Salvador, for instance, has drastically reduced crop losses and improved farmers’ incomes. It can’t reverse climate change, but it can buy time.
The time for action is short. With every 1C temperature increase, roughly a billion people will be forced outside the zone in which humans have lived for millennia. The climate alarm has been ringing a long time warning of pending economic and ecological harm, now the warnings include human suffering and death.
Staving off a lawsuit, the Trump administration proposed airline emission standards that the industry met in 2016. This requirement would not diminish the industry’s contribution to global warming. Air travel accounts for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, a far smaller share than emissions from passenger cars or power plants. But, assuming air travel resumes, those emissions are projected to triple by 2050, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
“This is the third time in the past two years that this administration has taken major action to regulate greenhouse gases in a way that is legally defensible, reduces CO2 and protects American jobs,” said EPA Administrator Wheeler.
Mr. Wheeler was referring to a 2019 regulation on GHG emissions from power plants and an April rule governing emissions from vehicle tailpipes. Both of those rules replaced far more stringent emission standards from the Obama administration, and in both cases the new rules allow for more planet-warming emissions than their predecessors.
“Those standards are just a joke,” said Clare Lakewood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group. “They don’t require any meaningful emissions reductions.”
In 2016, the Obama administration released a legal conclusion, the “endangerment finding,” which determined that GHG emissions from airplanes endangers human health by contributing to climate change. The endangerment finding established a legal requirement under the Clean Air Act for EPA to establish a rule.
In January, several environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue the Trump administration for its failure to meet that requirement. The Administration had until July 28 to propose a rule. With the release of the draft rule, the environmental groups no longer have grounds to sue.
EPA’s inspector general is investigating whether the reversal of Obama-era fuel efficiency standards violated government rules. Top EPA officials were ordered to turn over briefing materials and other documents pertaining to the rollback. At issue is whether the Trump administration violated requirements, including transparency, record-keeping, and docketing, and followed the EPA’s process for developing final regulatory actions.
A few weeks before the final rule was published, the administration’s own internal analyses showed that it would raise the cost for consumers compared with the Obama-era standard and would increase the number of deaths from lung disease due to greater release of pollution into the air.
“This is really serious,” said Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. “It’s rare for EPA’s inspector general to conduct an investigation of the agency’s rule-making.”
Many outside economists and public health experts questioned the administration’s justification of the rule, finding that its calculations did not withstand scrutiny and calling for the administration to make public the formulas and economic models used to reach its conclusions.
Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said that the documents he reviewed showed that the Department of Transportation wrote most of the draft rule submitted to the White House and that EPA career staff members had complained in writing of being excluded from the process. They also specified numerous errors in the rule.
Senator Carper said his review of documents he gave to the inspector general’s office “demonstrate significant irregularities and illegalities” in rule-making, including “purposefully and potentially illegally with[holding] these documents from being placed into the rule-making docket.” The rollback was “the product of the most procedurally problematic process my office has ever reviewed.”
The process was rushed to complete it before April or else it could be quickly overturned in 2021 should former VP Biden win the White House. Biden could use the Congressional Review Act to overturn any regulation finalized within 60 legislative days of the end of a presidential term with a simple congressional vote that is not subject to filibuster or any other Senate rules to slow it down.
The CRA will apply to an August EPA rule proposing to lift Obama-era controls on the release of methane, a powerful climate-warming gas that is emitted from leaks and flares in oil and gas wells, pipelines and storage sites. The EPA’s new methane rule eliminates federal requirements that oil and gas companies install technology to detect and fix such leaks.
Some major oil and gas companies have spoken out against the weakening of methane regulations (BP, Exxon, Shell), joining some automakers, electric utilities and other industrial giants that have opposed certain administration initiatives to dismantle climate change and environmental rules. Smaller, independent oil companies supported the rule as a welcome measure of relief.
Most climate change regulations address CO2 which is produced by burning fossil fuels and is the most damaging GHG. Methane is a close second, and although it stays in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time, it has 80 times the heat-trapping power of CO2 in the first 20 years in the atmosphere.
Methane constitutes nearly 10% of GHG emissions in the US. Most of the emissions come from the oil and gas industry (especially fracking), and other sources include cattle (1.5 billion cattle emit 2 billion tons of methane globally) and agriculture (especially rice farming and the plowing of soil)l
And, the Trump administration finalized its plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.
Finally, climate change is a major topic in the 2020 presidential election. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. stressed the issue at the Democratic Convention and has used it to raise more than $15 million from hundreds of new donors who specifically identify with climate change as a cause.
Of course, this amount is dwarfed by fossil fuel donations to Trump, who accepted $10 million from a single fund-raiser in June held by the oil billionaire Kelcy Warren, and whose super PAC, America First Action, has received millions from coal and oil moguls, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But the hard money climate donations represent a growing counterweight to oil, gas and coal money that has long dominated the energy conversation in Washington. Self-identified “climate donors” are a new phenomenon in the 2020 election and are working hard to show candidates that campaigning to eliminate emissions from fossil fuels pays — in cash.
“That is a sea change. We’ve now got a class of people called ‘climate donors’ in a way we had environmental donors before,” said David Bookbinder, general counsel for the Niskanen Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
“Climate has taken over as an issue on its own. People are finally understanding that we have a truly existential crisis on our hands,” Mr. Bookbinder added.
-Carl Howard, Co-chair, Global Climate Change Committee
The views expressed above are my own.
Follow me on Twitter @Howard.Carl