Chasing Ice: Visualizing a Changing Climate

A few weeks ago, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that seemed to show a way to reduce climate change skepticism among political conservatives.

Framing messages around “past comparisons”—that is, comparing the damaged environment of today with a more verdant, pure past—increased conservatives’ pro-environmental feelings more than dire warnings about future scenarios.

Could this be the One Weird Trick to finally convince climate deniers to get on board?

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Could a new study provide a way to turn climate deniers into believers?

I have to admit, I’m skeptical. For one thing, results in a lab are decidedly not the same as taking action in the real world—there are no consequences or compromises. Also, it’s not particularly surprising to me that past-focused materials, showing actual evidence of something happening, are more persuasive than theoretical predictions of what could possibly take place in the future.

But, that’s not to say the idea doesn’t have merit! Indeed, sometimes seeing evidence of change with your very own eyes is absolutely critical, especially when it revolves around something as hard to envision as climate change.

Capturing Change on Film

Over the holidays, while decompressing from family overload with a nightly Netflix binge, I stumbled upon a documentary that, in my opinion, is most moving, most beautiful visualization of climate change I’ve ever seen.

Chasing Ice is a 2012 film that follows National Geographic photographer James Balog as he embarks upon a personal quest to chronicle the planet’s shrinking glaciers. Traveling with a team of young adventurers across some of the world’s most brutal terrain, Balog deploys an array of time-lapse cameras trained on glaciers in Alaska, Montana, Greenland, and Iceland.

The cameras were designed to withstand extreme conditions—think sub-zero temperatures and 150 mph winds—and to snap about 8,000 frames per year. Balog and his team periodically returned to the cameras to retrieve the footage, and after several years, compiled the hundreds of thousands of images into short “films” that literally show glaciers receding in real time, right before your eyes.

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The Sólheimajökull Glacier near the southern tip of Iceland as it appeared in April 2006 (top). The same view in February 2009 (bottom), shows the glacier much diminished. Photographs: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey.

Sometimes the melting was so rapid that the ice retreated right out of the camera’s view. (See some of the footage here.)

The results are incredibly beautiful and undeniably troubling. Years are compressed into seconds as ancient mountains of ice shrink, collapse, and disappear. Chunks of glacier larger than lower Manhattan break apart, crash into the sea, and float away.

It’s truly haunting, and very compelling, which is exactly what Balog was going for. “I want them [viewers] to be fascinated,” he said, “and to viscerally understand that climate change is real, and this is what it looks like.”

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The calving edge of the Rink Glacier on the west coast of Greenland, observed by EIS camera GLA2 on July 22, 2011. Photo credit: James Balog / Extreme Ice Survey

I admit that it’s hard to come away from this film feeling particularly optimistic (especially in our current political climate). But, it’s not hard to come away feeling energized and inspired to take some kind of action. And this may actually be where the film falters a little bit—it fails to provide any kind of next step for viewers.

It’s a small criticism for a big film, and one that’s absolutely recommended, for all the climate change activists—and deniers—in your life. You can find Chasing Ice on Netflix or Amazon.

Cuomo Can Bypass Trump’s Anti-Climate Agenda Now, Lawmakers & Activists Say

With President-elect Trump’s inauguration only days away, individual states are preparing to lead the way on responding to climate change – how to prepare for it, and how to reduce its worst effects by cutting carbon emissions.

New York State has already shown that it is prepared to prioritize human health over fossil fuel extraction with its refusal in 2014 to permit high-volume fracking. Now Governor Cuomo is being urged to support what advocates say is the “most ambitious climate legislation in the country” – the Climate and Community Protection Act.

Details on the Bill

The bill, which has already passed the New York State Assembly, has four key objectives:

• Commit New York State to the use of 100% renewable energy by 2050, and 50% by 2030;
• Dedicate 40% or more of climate investments to environmental justice and low income communities;
• Create good local jobs in clean energy, and protections for workers impacted by the transition away from fossil fuels; and
• Use funding to “accelerate a worker and community-centered transition to a sustainable economy.”

Read the text of the legislation here.

“New Yorkers have witnessed firsthand the devastating loss of life, homes and livelihoods caused by Superstorm Sandy and tropical storms Irene and Lee,” said Assemblymember Steve Englebright after the bill passed the Assembly in June. Englebright chairs the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation committee and is the bill’s lead sponsor.

“These extreme weather events are related to climate change…storms, the migration of lobsters to cooler waters, new pests, and threats to public health all point to the undeniable fact that climate change is happening now, not in some distant future,” he continued.

“This legislation includes provisions to both minimize the potential impacts of climate change and address the impacts that cannot be mitigated. It will also advance environmental justice and provide new well-paying jobs in the field of clean energy,” Englebright concluded.

The Climate & Community Protection Act is also being pushed by NY Renews, which describes itself as a multi-sector, statewide coalition of 100 environmental, social, labor and economic justice organizations.

The group’s stated mission is to “move New York State’s economy off of fossil fuels and foster a just transition to renewable energy.”

Lawmakers and activists are urging Governor Cuomo to include the legislation in his 2017 budget. In the State Senate, a bipartisan majority reportedly supports the bill.

New Yorkers can contact the Governor’s office at (518) 474-8390, or via his webform, to share their thoughts.

The National Context

New York State has already set the goal of an 80 percent cut in fossil fuel emissions by 2050 (relative to 1990 levels), as has New York City. It is unclear if the incoming Trump administration will have any objectives related to climate change.

Trump has stated publicly that there is no scientific consensus on climate change, and that the U.S. should exit the Paris Climate Accords. He has appointed a series of fossil fuel advocates to high-level cabinet posts, including Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil as the new U.S. Secretary of State; former Texas governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy; and Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the central arguments used to delay action on climate change is that cutting back on fossil fuel use and extraction will harm the U.S. economy and cause job loss.

NY Renews, which arose from organizing around the 2014 People’s Climate March, argues that New York State will be able to address climate change and socio-economic inequality with the same set of policies.

The coalition says that an economy centered around renewable energy has the potential to revitalize many local communities, and create thousands of new jobs, with the added benefit that jobs in solar, wind and hydro are safer for workers than jobs in the fossil fuel industry.

“This legislation offers tremendous opportunities to preserve and expand our workforce,” said Assemblymember Michele Titus, chair of the State Assembly’s Labor committee. “As our state begins to rely more on renewable energy, the demand for quality skilled jobs will also increase, offering hardworking New York families the job security they need and deserve.”

Five Things To Focus On As We Prepare For A Trump Presidency

Like everyone else, I have spent the last two weeks trying to wrap my head around the results of the presidential elections.

Without a doubt, Donald Trump’s election is a huge setback for this country’s efforts to come to grips with our changing climate and threatened natural environment.

Among my colleagues at NYER, there is a range of political opinions, but we are clear on the primacy of science, and everyone’s need for a healthy environment. The vast majority of the scientific community has been sounding an alarm for years that if our planet is to support future generations, we have to change course now, especially when it comes to fossil fuels.

For the time being, this country’s incoming leadership refuses to acknowledge the profound importance, and compromised state, of our environment. In light of that, here are five things that I am personally taking to heart as we head into 2017.

To be clear, these are my opinions, based on what I’ve learned as a reporter and as a person.

I really hope you’ll send us your feedback. And we’ll do our very best to keep covering the environmental issues — like air and water quality, trash management & recycling, energy supply, and climate resiliency — that impact readers in the metro area.

1.) We are not alone — there is a global environmental movement

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Local villagers celebrate the Indian government’s September decision to stop a coal company from mining in the Mahan forests of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. (Photo: Greenpeace)

There is not enough media coverage of the fact that people of all backgrounds are engaged in important environmental work across the world. You can hear their voices and stories from organizations like Greenpeace International, and news outlets like Democracy Now, which reported directly from the U.N. climate talks in Morocco last week.

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Activists protesting construction of the Iowa section of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Opposition to the pipeline in Iowa has not attracted as much media attention as the protests in North Dakota. (Photo via Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Facebook page.)

There are a myriad of important and useful ways we can support — and be a part of — the global environmental movement in the next year.

For starters, citizens of this country can contact incoming members of Congress, and the new administration, to voice their opinion on whether the U.S. should remain an active participant in the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, and its 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Will that accomplish anything?” a friend said to me the other day. Well, the alternative is that we remain silent as the Trump administration tries to pull the U.S. out of the global climate accords. Consider this: 48 nations — including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the Philippines — promised to “rapidly move to 100% renewable power” at the UN climate summit last week, the Guardian reported.

It’s worth noting that significant public resistance to the Keystone Pipeline paved the way for the Obama administration to squash it, and, yes, this battle may very well be fought again.

(There are more ideas on what we can do below.)

2.) The majority of the American people accept the reality of climate change, and want to address it.

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Over 400,000 participated in the September, 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City. There were solidarity actions in 160 countries the same day.

According to a Gallup Poll earlier this year, 65 percent of Americans now say that increases in the earth’s temperature over the last century are primarily attributable to human activities, rather than natural causes.

This represents a “striking” 10-percentage-point increase in the past year and is four points above the previous high of 61 percent in 2007, Gallup reports.

64 percent of U.S. adults told Gallup they are worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about global warming — the highest reading since 2008.

3.) The facts, and science, will have the last word.

Satellite view of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Satellite view of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

According to an analysis released this month by the World Meteorological Organization, the planet just had its hottest five-year period on record, with 2015 claiming the title of hottest individual year, which will be beat by 2016.

“The effects of climate change have been consistently visible on the global scale since the 1980s,” the WMO reported, pointing to “rising global temperature, both over land and in the ocean; sea-level rise; and the widespread melting of ice. It has increased the risks of extreme events such as heatwaves, drought, record rainfall and damaging floods.”

The WMO singled out Superstorm Sandy as one of several “high-impact” global weather events whose likelihood was increased by climate change.

The October 29th, 2012 storm caused the deaths of 43 New York City residents and created $19 billion in economic damage in the five boroughs. Sandy had a ‘storm tide’ over 14 feet above Mean Low Water at the Battery. Fifty-one square miles of New York City flooded during the storm, 17 percent of the city’s total land mass.

4.) Local action is going to matter — a lot.

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When the gas industry first indicated that they wanted to carry out high-volume hydraulic fracturing in upstate New York, it was hard to imagine that a grassroots movement of regular people could stop it.

Some of this country’s most populous states — like California and New York — are moving ahead now to cut carbon emissions, and transform their energy supplies. How much will it matter? I heard a participant at the U.N. climate talks last week argue that local governments in the U.S. could accomplish half of our carbon reduction commitments, as per the Paris Agreement, without federal support.

In the next 14 years, New York State is planning to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, relative to 1990 levels. And the State says that half of New York’s electricity will come from renewable energy sources by 2030.

The State’s long-term goal is to decrease total carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. The City of New York has similar goals, and says it is looking even further ahead to a 100 percent carbon free future, along with zero waste to landfills by 2030.

Undoubtedly, there are many hard questions to be asked about how, for example, the State is reconfiguring our energy markets, and whether New York City can get to a zero waste future. But, we are arguably on the road.

5.) Building an environmentally sustainable society will be a long, challenging process, but we already knew that.

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Since 2007, almost 50,000 citizen volunteers have helped plant more than one million new trees across New York City.

Building a truly sustainable society — which is not a net drain on the planet — could take generations. That was true before November 8th, and remains so.

And as quixotic as it may seem, we know that it’s worth it. Every child — and every adult — deserves a fighting chance at a decent life, which will not be possible on a degraded planet.

How can we participate? Here are just a few suggestions that show the wide range of actions (personal, and as part of a group) that we can take:

  • call your senators and congresspeople and tell them what you think about retaining the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and the Clean Power Plan.
  • support candidates at all levels of government who share your views on clean energy, waste reduction, and strong protections for air and water
  • better yet, run for public office yourself!
  • get involved with and/or donate funds to national environmental advocacy organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and 350.org; and local groups like Environmental Advocates of New York and the NY League of Conservation Voters.
  • talk with your friends, neighbors and co-workers about climate change, and share fact-based information
  • participate in community meetings with local officials about issues like cleaning up polluted waterways and climate resiliency planning. If you live in NYC, these meetings are often sponsored by your local community board
  • learn about ways to reduce energy and water use, and generate less trash at home
  • participate in a neighborhood clean-up day
  • talk with the children in your life about environmental issues
  • you tell us — what can people do?

 

Finally, here are some interesting thoughts from Randy Cohen, who used to write The Ethicist column for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. In November, 2008, a Texas woman wrote to Cohen for advice because her neighbors had decided to lease their land for gas drilling, and she was under pressure to join them.

“For environmental reasons, we strongly oppose this drilling,” the woman wrote on behalf of herself and her partner. She asked Cohen if holding out, while all her neighbors went ahead, was a futile, meaningless gesture.

Cohen responded, in part:

“It is understandable that you feel powerless in the face of community-wide sentiment…but you should not sign the lease…

To fail to resist what you see as injustice simply because you fear that you cannot win the fight assures the very defeat you dread.

If nothing else, this is a short term view. Political struggle is long. Even if you lose the first battle, you fight on, and by resisting from the outset, you shape the conditions of that struggle.

The most potent argument for your declining to sign what you regard as a devil’s bargain is this: It violates your own principles…Ethics concerns our actions, not just our arguments.”

 

And so this next chapter in our history begins. As this post was being finished, President Obama moved to prohibit any new oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean, one of his last actions before leaving office.

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Photo: Greenpeace

Your Morning Latte is Seriously in Trouble

Whether served up like art at a high-end coffee bar or sloshed into a paper cup at the corner bodega, New Yorkers drink a lot of coffee. In this city, thousands of independent shops go toe-to-toe with Starbucks without flinching, and we even have our very own annual Coffee Festival.

But the city that never sleeps may soon face a caffeine shortage (along with the rest of the world), thanks to our inability to curb carbon emissions. A new report released by the nonprofit Climate Institute indicates that climate change will have a stark effect on the world’s coffee supply.

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A coffee farmer inspects his crop in Colombia’s southwestern Cauca department. Photo credit: CIAT/Creative Commons

The study warns that coffee-growing regions could see a 50% drop in the acreage suitable for growing coffee plants, which need a precise combination of temperature and precipitation to thrive.

In addition, the report highlights the way warmer weather could lead to an increase in diseases like coffee rust, and pests like the coffee berry borer.

Major coffee-producing countries in the “bean belt”—including Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Vietnam—are already facing challenges because of shifts in weather patterns.

To make matters worse, more than 120 million people in more than 70 countries rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods.

“It’s a severe threat,” said Doug Welsh, the vice president of coffee at Peet’s Coffee and a member of the board of World Coffee Research.

Think about that next time you brew up your morning buzz.

 

 

Dry Spell: New York Faces Worst Drought in Decades

For those of us living in New York City, this summer’s overall lack of rain may not have registered in any major way, beyond, say, fewer impulse buys of cheap bodega umbrellas. But for our neighbors to the east in Long Island, or westward in Central New York, things are starting to get a bit…crispy.

Dust clouds trail tractors as they plow through fields. Pastures, normally lush and green, are spiky and yellow. Corn stalks are stunted, brown. Streams are running dry. Black bears are raiding bird feeders and garbage cans, searching for additional food.

More than 80% of New York State is currently facing some level of abnormal dryness or drought this summer, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. At least 10% of the state is experiencing what officials have deemed “extreme drought” conditions, complete with major agricultural losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions.

 

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Twenty-four drought-stricken counties in New York have been designated “natural disaster areas” by the USDA. The 13,000+ farms contained within, encompassing some 3.7 million acres, are now eligible for federal assistance.

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Stunted corn crops in Phelps, New York. Photo credit: Finger Lakes Times

Hardest hit crops in New York include corn and other crops that farmers rely on to feed their animals. Steve Ammerman, public affairs manager and associate director of public policy for the New York State Farm Bureau, reported that the corn crop, on average, is a foot shorter than last year, and farmers are reporting losses in yield of 50 to 60 percent.

The drought has also cut into quality. The USDA estimates 40 percent of the crop is fair to poor in quality.

These conditions extend beyond New York’s borders, too: as of September 15th, nearly 40% of the Northeast is experiencing some sort of drought, up from 28% the week before.

Beyond a Lack of Rain

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This picture may look green, but look closer: the summer drought and sustained heat have killed thousands of pine trees at the Hemlock Haven Christmas tree farm in Oswego County. Photo credit: Payne Horning/WRVO News

The cause of New York’s record drought is more complex than a simple lack of rain. Sustained high temperatures this summer, along with a record warm winter (resulting in minimal snowpack), have contributed to the parched conditions.

This past June was the driest in some parts of the state since 1973, and in the parts of the state experiencing “Extreme Drought,” rainfall over the past 6 months has totaled a meager 50 to 60 percent of normal, with most streamflows in the lowest 5th percentile.

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The water level in Fall Creek, the source of Cornell’s water, is low due to the drought. Photo credit: Cornell Chronicle

Long, sunny days and low humidity have continued to dry out plants and soil, so that even when rain does fall, it evaporates quickly and doesn’t make it deep into the soil, where it can help crops and groundwater supplies.

There hasn’t been a long, soaking rainfall in months, David Thomas, a weather service meteorologist in Buffalo, told New York Upstate. Instead, more scattered thunderstorms have been the main source of moisture for much of the state. Thunderstorms dump a lot of rain quickly, so much of it ends up running off rather than soaking in, he said.

The Climate Prediction Center anticipates that the drought is likely to persist through at least the end of the year.

Statewide Drought Watch In Effect; First Time In 14 Years

New York State needs more rain.

For the first time in 14 years, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has issued a drought watch for all 62 counties.

Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state DEC, made the announcement last Friday.

“While most public water supplies are still generally normal throughout the state, below normal precipitation over the last 9 months, low stream flows, and reduced groundwater levels have prompted the need for this action,” Commissioner Seggos said.

A watch is the first of four levels of state drought advisories (“watch,” “warning,” “emergency” and “disaster”). The hardest hit areas in the state thus far are Western New York and the central Southern Tier, reports the Albany Times Union.

The DEC is not issuing any mandatory water use restrictions at the moment, but said that local public water suppliers “may require such measures.”

Water levels in the reservoirs that supply New York City’s drinking water are currently normal.

Precipitation Deficit

There is a “significant precipitation deficit…a lack of rain,” a staff member from the DEC’s Bureau of Water Resource Management told us. Rain shortfalls of 4 to 8 inches have been common over the last three months, the DEC said in a statement.

The dry weather dates back to October 1st — the start of the “water year” — and is beginning to significantly affect other water metrics, the agency said.

Stream flows and groundwater levels are “well below normal” throughout much of the state. Groundwater levels were seasonally worse in June compared to May and they are not expected to improve in the immediate future due to the existing shortfall, the DEC reported.

How You Can Help

The drought watch is expected to continue through the summer. The state has issued water conservation tips that “homeowners can take to voluntarily reduce their water usage”:

  • Fix dripping and leaking faucets and toilets. A faucet leaking 30 drops per minute wastes 54 gallons a month.
  • Raise your lawn mower cutting height. Longer grass needs less water.
  • Water lawns and gardens on alternate mornings instead of every day. Less frequent watering will develop grass with deeper roots, and early morning watering minimizes evaporation.
  • When using automatic lawn watering systems, override the system in wet weather or use a rain gauge to control when and how much water to use. A fixed watering schedule wastes water. Irrigate only when needed.
  • Sweep sidewalks and steps rather than hosing them. Eliminating a weekly 5-minute pavement hose-down could save between 625 and 2500 gallons of water per year depending on the flow rate.

More water saving tips can be found here.

More information on how drought can impact New York State can be seen here.

“We are encouraging residents throughout the state to conserve water whenever possible during the coming months,” Commissioner Seggos added.

Heat-Related Deaths in NYC Could Soar by 2080

More than 3,330 New Yorkers could die each year from climate change-related extreme heat by 2080, warns a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Elisaveta Petkova, the lead author of the study, noted that the number of hot days (when the temperature is at or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit) in New York City is expected to triple by the year 2080 and beyond, causing death by heat exhaustion, dehydration, or heart and respiratory conditions.

By comparison, between 2000 and 2006, there were about 600 heat-related deaths annually in New York City.

Many of the predicted deaths could be avoided if greenhouse gas emissions were curbed and the city made significant efforts to shield residents from rising temperatures (such as opening more cooling centers, planting more trees, and installing reflective rooftops).

Under their most optimistic scenario, the researchers projected just 167 heat-related deaths per year by the 2080s.

“This difference underlines the magnitude of the potential public health benefit associated with reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere,” they conclude.

Read the entire study here: Towards More Comprehensive Projections of Urban Heat-Related Mortality: Estimates for New York City under Multiple Population, Adaptation, and Climate Scenarios 

 

East Coast Cap & Trade Program Raises Millions for NYS, Clean Energy

As climate talks continue in Paris, New York and eight other mid-Atlantic states earned over $115 million this week from the sale of carbon allowances- $7 million more than projected. This week’s carbon auction, the third of four such auctions this fiscal year, was organized by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a “wildly successful” nine-state carbon trading program.

New York State’s share of the proceeds from the auction was $44.3 million. The funds will go toward energy efficiency and clean energy programs.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, RGGI, is designed to both cap and reduce power sector CO2 emissions emitted by participating states. Since the program’s inception, thirty RGGI auctions have collectively delivered $895 million for clean power, energy efficiency, technology innovation and green workforce development projects across New York. Projects have been initiated in every county, say advocates.

 Paying to Emit Carbon Pollution

RGGI includes New York State, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. It is the “first mandatory, market-based CO2 emissions reduction program in the United States.”

New Jersey was a participant in RGGI but Governor Chris Christie pulled the state out of the program in 2011.

Power plants in RGGI states must pay to emit carbon pollution. They participate in “auctions” in which they purchase “carbon allowances.” The price for these allowances is guided by a cap on how much carbon all RGGI states can collectively emit.

The idea is to keep lowering the cap in order to raise the allowance price- thus incentivizing power plants to switch to less polluting sources of energy. RGGI’s price on carbon allowances (currently $7.50 per allowance) has increased 256 percent in two years.

RGGI has implemented a new carbon emissions cap of 91 million short tons for participating states. That cap is supposed to decline 2.5 percent each year from 2015 to 2020.

Does RGGI Work?

Supporters say RGGI is a national model for reducing carbon emissions and accelerating the use of renewable sources of energy.

Climate pollutant emissions from power plants across the region have dropped by more than 40 percent since RGGI was initiated in 2005, a coalition of 26 environmental and clean energy groups wrote in a February 10th letter to Governor Cuomo.

The program has raised almost $2 billion from auction proceeds across the nine participating states since 2008. RGGI has “defied critics by proving that reducing climate-altering pollution in a way that raises funds for clean energy is a true win-win,” says Albany watchdog group Environmental Advocates.

New York, as the largest state in the coalition, and the one with the most pollution emitted, received a little more than one-third of all RGGI proceeds in 2014. The funds are managed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

RGGI’s success has proved dangerous. In this year’s state budget, Governor Cuomo reportedly “raided” as much as $41 million (more than one-fourth of 2014’s proceeds) from RGGI, despite significant opposition. Twenty-three million of what was taken this year was to go directly to the state’s general fund to help offset “various energy related tax credits.”

Buildings = Carbon Pollution

A major portion of RGGI funds have been directed toward making the state’s residential building stock more energy efficient. New York’s buildings -residential, commercial and industrial- are the state’s second leading emitter of greenhouse gases, surpassed only by the transportation sector.

In New York City, buildings are the number one source of carbon pollution.

RGGI has paid for over 30,000 free or reduced-cost energy audits for New York State homeowners. It also helps to fund low-cost energy efficiency retrofits for single and multi-family buildings.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

As RGGI’s financial success continues, Governor Cuomo has moved to codify the goal that 50 percent of New York’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2030.

The state is also calling attention to the fact that Congress passed two joint resolutions this week seeking to overturn the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which restricts carbon emissions from the electricity sector. The resolutions now head to the White House.

“The people of New York expect more out of the Republican members of the New York Congressional Delegation who voted to disapprove of the Clean Power Plan,” said Basil Seggos, acting commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

“The science has spoken and action to address climate change has bipartisan support,” Seggos continued. “It’s time for policy makers to act and protect our citizens from our uncertain climate future.”

 

Joaquin highlights need to deal with rising risk of flooding, sea level rise & climate change

 

Hurricane Joaquin is moving north and continues to batter the Bahamas. We may get lucky and it won’t make landfall in the U.S. but Joaquin is still going to cause widespread flooding by dumping huge amounts of rain and pushing a surge of water into coastal areas. The National Weather Service is forecasting tides over 8 feet in some parts of the Mid-Atlantic coastline.

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Hurricane Joaquin. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. http://www.ssd.noaa.gov/goes/east/tatl/vis-animated.gif

Hard to believe, but Joaquin is the first major hurricane (a hurricane with sustained wind speeds over 110 mph) to threaten the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Sandy, you may recall, was a huge and destructive storm, but with winds less than 75 mph it was technically not a hurricane. The decade since Wilma is the longest stretch of time without a major hurricane, dating back to 1851 when records began being kept.

Despite ten years with no major hurricanes we have still had our share of major flood events. Since Wilma struck (causing $23 billion in losses) we’ve seen 16 floods or tropical storm events that have caused in excess of $1 billion in losses including Superstorm Sandy ($67 billion), Hurricane Ike ($33 billion), Hurricane Irene ($14 billion), and major floods on the Mississippi River in 2008 and 2011 (combined $14 billion).

In the past two years, the Obama administration has advanced several smart initiatives that recognize the role climate change is playing in making many natural disasters more frequent and/or more severe. And the administration is taking steps to better prepare the nation for a future where sea levels are higher, extreme weather is more likely, and the risk of flooding is on the rise.

Federal Flood Protection Standards

President Obama updated an executive order that improved the flood risk standard that federal agencies must follow when building or funding the construction of projects near coastlines and riverine floodplains. The new standard requires a higher margin of safety to account for the increased likelihood of floods and directs agencies to factor in the future risks of sea level rise and other climate impacts where necessary. Unfortunately, some in Congress want to gut this common sense measure.

Integrate Climate Impacts Into State Disaster Plans

In March, FEMA began requiring states to assess the future impacts of climate change in disaster preparedness plans that they submit to FEMA for approval. For too long, states have relied exclusively on historical data to gauge their vulnerability to floods, droughts, tropical storms, and other natural disasters. To prepare for future disasters, it’s essential to look at how climate change loads the dice in favor of more frequent and/or more severe weather events. FEMA, at the urging of NRDC, has made it clear that states need to factor climate impacts into their plans, also known as hazard mitigation plans.

National Disaster Resilience Competition

This $1 billion competition, sponsored by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, is encouraging states and communities to pursue innovative approaches for becoming more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Sixty-seven state and local governments were invited to participate in the competition. Forty finalists will submit applications at the end of this month with winners announced later this year. This effort was modeled on the highly successful Rebuild By Design program, which Congress approved as part of its Post Sandy recovery assistance.

Past Damages and Future Risks

If we just look at the areas threatened by Hurricane Joaquin, you can see just how vulnerable we are to flooding and how much more vulnerable we’ll be due to climate change.

Let’s look at some numbers for the nine states stretching from North Carolina to Massachusetts where Joaquin could make landfall.

537 Number of water and sewage treatment plans in coastal counties
894,655 Flood insurance policies backed by FEMA as of July 31, 2015
452,939 Flood insurance claims paid out by FEMA since 1978
$13.8 billion
Total amount of those claims
$11.9 billion
Additional assistance from FEMA provided to rebuild public facilities after floods and hurricanes since 1998. This does not include tens of billions of dollars in other federal assistance from HUD, USEPA, the Army Corps, etc.

 

These numbers are even more sobering when you consider that they only reflect our present risk and a small portion of the total amount of federal disaster assistance paid out in the nine states most at risk from Hurricane Joaquin.

Future hurricanes are likely to be more dangerous, given that sea levels are likely to be as much as 4 – 6 feet higher by the end of the century.

The National Climate Assessment projects up to 4.6 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century (and more after the end of the century), but even this doesn’t take into account the possibility of rapid melting of the polar regions. Other studies indicate sea levels could be even higher. Even 4 feet of sea level rise still has deadly serious ramifications. Every inch of sea level rise can translates into water moving up to 100 inches (over 8 feet) inland on flat coastal beaches. An analysis by the National Academy of Sciences determined that about 5 million people in the US live in the area that would be inundated by 4 feet of sea level rise.

For future storms, like Joaquin, the 8 foot tides currently forecast for the Virginia coast would be on top of 4 feet of sea level rise, which means flooding will be higher and extend far further inland.

How do we protect that many people from the encroaching oceans?

Luckily, it’s not a problem that requires one all-encompassing solution. Just as our efforts to curb the pollution that causes climate change are made up of a multitude of strategies from reducing fossil fuel use to increasing the use of renewable non-polluting energy, our efforts to manage the inevitable impacts of climate change will require an array of adaptable solutions.

Here at NRDC we’re working on a range of ways to deal with sea level rise and the rising risk of coastal and riverine flooding. We’re looking at everything from ways to make our water infrastructure better prepared for these risks to climate-smart reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that would encourage people to move away from vulnerable areas over the next several decades.

We certainly are worried about people in the Bahamas and hope that Hurricane Joaquin heads out to sea without making landfall in the U.S. But its presence on our shoreline is a powerful reminder of how vulnerable we are and how much more vulnerable we will be in the future due to climate change’s impacts.

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This article appeared yesterday on Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Read Rob Moore’s blog here.

Rob Moore joined NRDC in May 2013 as a Senior Policy Analyst and leads the Water & Climate team. The Water & Climate team is working to identify and address the water-related impacts that result from our rapidly warming climate, while also making climate preparedness a priority for communities across the nation.

Prior to joining NRDC, Rob was the executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York (2004-2013), New York State’s main watchdog for environmental policy-making. Earlier he served as the executive director of Prairie Rivers Network (1997-2002), the only statewide river organization in Illinois, and also as the Lake Champlain Lakekeeper at the Conservation Law Foundation (2002-2004). He has a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Illinois State University and a master’s degree in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Illinois.

We thank Rob for allowing us to re-publish this article.

New York City Moves to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Mayor de Blasio announced today that he will be pushing for the divestment of the city’s pension funds from investments in coal. The Mayor has also proposed that New York City’s public sector pension funds, worth over $160 billion, develop a long-term strategy relative to all fossil fuels in order to “further reduce contributions to climate change while protecting retirees.”

“New York City is a global leader when it comes to taking on climate change and reducing our environmental footprint. It’s time that our investments catch up – and divestment from coal is where we must start,” said the Mayor in a statement.

Noting that the Mayor’s announcement came the day after a White House summit on how to expand offshore wind power projects, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck stated that, “every level of government has a vital role to play to reduce carbon pollution that threatens our children’s future.”

The city’s five pension funds’ assets total over $160 billion. This includes at least $33 million of exposure to thermal coal alone in the public markets, reports the Mayor’s Office.

Perhaps the pension funds will eventually consider investing in the Long Island – New York City Offshore Wind Project, which has been described as the largest potential offshore wind project in the U.S. If executed, almost 200 3.6-megawatt wind turbines would be constructed 13 miles off the Rockaway Peninsula. The project is currently working its way through a multi-year federal review process.

Making the case that divesting from fossil fuels is smart financially

The de Blasio administration says it will meet with the city’s five primary pension boards over the coming months to “examine the specific impact and optimal reallocation of these assets [currently invested in fossil fuels].”

The city’s five primary pension funds are administered on behalf of public school teachers and other Board of Education employees, police and fire department personnel, along with employees from other city agencies.

According to the Mayor’s Office, an initial analysis has found that divestment from coal “poses little risk to pension fund returns, especially given the federal EPA’s new clean power plant rules and increased regulatory limitations on emissions, which help reduce the attractiveness of thermal coal as an investment.”

John Adler, who directs the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, argues that investing in coal at this juncture is risky. There is an urgent need, Adler says, to “address the risks that climate change poses to the long-term performance of the pension funds that protect the futures of our over 700,000 beneficiaries.”

Striving towards an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Taking action on pension fund investments is the de Blasio administration’s latest initiative related to climate change. The city has set the goal of an 80 percent reduction [relative to 2005 levels] in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the cleanest air of any large U.S. city by 2030.

“Divesting from coal reflects both our emissions reduction and clean air goals,” said Nilda Mesa, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, in a statement. “Ozone that drifts to NYC from coal-powered plants is a major source of smog, which affects our most vulnerable populations… We should be investing in energy sources that lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as make our air cleaner.”

The de Blasio administration says it also plans to “dramatically” increase the use of renewable energy in New York, including a new initiative to power 100 percent of city government operations from renewable sources.

Referring to the twin goals of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 and moving towards renewables, the Mayor noted that, “we’re going to need every city asset helping us achieve them.”