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Understanding Irma, Harvey and a world underwater!
Explaining the hurricanes, monsoons and floods of our warming world
By: Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik
Photo Credit: Punit Paranjpe, Reuters
At the time of writing, Irma, the most powerful known hurricane in the history of Atlantic, is devastating the Northeastern Caribbean.
St Maarten and Barbuda have suffered unspeakable destruction.
Monsoonal storms and floods have killed over a thousand people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, forcing millions from their communities.
Over the last weeks, we have also seen torrential rains ravage countless homes across our shared planet, from Yemen, to Mexico, to Nigeria.
Much has been written about these deluges.
What follows is not an attempt to add to the litany of words, but to bring ideas together for the time-starved reader.
To begin, it’s important to clear the air.
The idea of a natural disaster is misguided.
All climate-driven human catastrophes are caused by the interaction of two things: climate conditions and societal conditions.
Here are some short explainers that can hopefully be of use to you, and help you to understand the expressions of our warming world.
In every one of these incidents, we see intense environmental conditions: powerful winds, torrential rains, storm surges.
Many of these conditions are part of the natural rhythyms and seasons of the planet, but increasingly, climate change is making its mark.
Where can the authorship of climate change be found?
Storms are complex.
The atmospheric science around hurricanes, monsoons and climate change is still developing, often challenging our intuitions.
But this much is clear.
What temperature rise and resulting climate change do is disrupt patterns of weather.
Heat waves become longer, hotter and more regular.
Rains become more torrential, more concentrated, more dispersed.
Droughts become longer, more intense and extensive.
Floods become more frequent, forceful, and destructive.
Extreme heat becomes more common and forceful.
As climate scientist Katharine Haydoe explains, climate change takes familiar weather patterns and “[puts] them on steroids.”
Rising temperatures accelerate the process of evaporation, removing more water from land, lakes and rivers.
That means our air carries higher levels of moisture: when it rains, it rains harder.
This is defined by the Clausius-Clapeyron relation: for every 1C rise in temperature, the air can hold 7% more water.
The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere traps heat, raising the temperatures of both the atmosphere and the ocean.
Warmer ocean water fuels monsoons and hurricanes; Irma is currently travelling over water 1C warmer than normal.
In the Himalayas, rising temperatures increase glacial melt, raising the level of rivers fed by glaciers; this in turn, increases the probability of flooding.
Climate change does not directly cause. It inflames, it exacerbates, it increases risks, it loads the dice. Such words may feel evasive, but they are more accurate. Rather than the pain itself, climate change is like a wind that blows on all the embers that are already there. It’s the detonator, not the explosive.
Models predict that extreme rain events will be more frequent, will extend to unprecedented areas, and will experience. Such events will defy our own expectations; Hurricane Harve, classed as a “500-year” storm, is the third such storm to hit Houston in three years.
Many have noted that the climate extremes we are seeing may become the “new normal”, but even this is misleading. Under current trends and scenarios, the “new normal” may be a world where the barrier of expectation is always pushed further back, a horizon of pain in constant retreat.
The severity of a storm is only part of the equation of climate violence.
The societies, the structures, the buildings, the healthcare systems, and the ecologies that storms meet will determine their impacts.
So be attentive to infrastructure.
Be attentive to response systems, to the resources and deployment of emergency services.
Be attentive to how evacuations unfold.
Be attentive to natural infrastructure.
We know that wetlands, forests, mangroves and other ecosystems play vital roles in flood control. What is the state of such ecosystems in areas hit by storms? What actions have societies taken to clear or care for such ecosystems?
Be attentive to poverty. To history. To corruption. To how a city has been planned. To state neglect and state priorities. To where budget cuts have been made. To a region’s history of disaster. To how environmental risks have been denied and ignored. To wider histories of dispossession and vulnerability.
Be attentive to inequalities. To the imposed neglect of communities. Who lives in flood plains or flood ways? Which populations have been overlooked? How does climate violence affect different groups in different ways?
Be attentive to reconstruction. To flood insurance. To conflicts of interest between recovery and profitable construction.
To help illustrate the importance of human context and social conditions, here are just some examples from the last weeks.
San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, is one of the major cities affected by the path of Irma, and faces major power outage from the impact of the storm. Some areas could be left without power for up to half a year. But what explains the fragility of the country’s energy grid? The region’s decade-long recession, a longstanding process of austerity, the country’s debt burden, a historical process of colonial impoverishment, all contribute.
Safety was sacrificed on the altar of urban expansion.
Water-absorbing wetlands were paved over, replaced with concrete.
Over thirty percent of coastal prairies, basins that can catch water, were cleared through development in the last two twenty-five years.
Thousands of homes were built in areas highly vulnerable to flooding.
In central Nigeria, mainly in the state of Benue, over 100,000 people have been displaced by torrential rains and flooding.
Ill preparation, clogged waterways, poor drainage system, absent long-term planning, and inadequate dam management in Nigeria and up-river Cameroon, all contributed to the toll.
In Bihar, West Bengal and Assad, hundreds of flooded villages have been deserted and abandoned. Inequality, poverty, unpreparedness, and absent infrastructure all play protagonist roles in aggravating such monsoonal impacts.
The city of Mumbai has been badly affected by days of incessant rainfall, ten times the usual levels. Dozens have been killed, hospitals flooded, and buildings collapsed. Such torrential rain and devastating recalls late July in 2005, when similar severe rains devastated the city, claiming hundreds of lives, washing thousands of homes away. Stagnating floodwaters spread disease and led to outbreaks of diarrhoea, leptospirosis and dengue.
But as we understand Mumbai’s floods, where does part of the blame lie?
Majorly, in relentless poverty and reckless urbanisation.
Major development schemes narrowed riverways, destroyed mangroves, and depleted water bodies. A report by a commission of concerned citizens in wake of the 2005 floods wrote, “the future of Mumbai is being strangulated by the politician-builder nexus, which has vitiated even the redevelopment of slums”. Profiteering does not protect.
Even the breadth of a disaster response is determined by disparity: compare the budget of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency ($15.5 billion), with India’s equivalent authority ($100 million).
Across all these countries and cases, the law of impact inequality holds: the poorest, the marginalized, the oppressed, the ignored, the subjugated, and the forgotten, will all be disproportionately affected by disaster, concentrated in those areas with higher environmental risk.
This tragic law meets a bitter reality: not every human life, not every neighbourhood, not every city, not every country, is worth the same.
This is perhaps best represented in the coverage of established media outlets, whose eye is rarely equitable. In the last weeks, the known death toll of floods and mudslides affecting Congo, Niger, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone was twenty-five times higher than that of Harvey; but such incidents were mere footnotes in our published imagination.
Understanding Pain and Recovery
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that unless we are fully present, we often struggle to understand the sadness wrought by climate violence.
Our newspapers focus on numbers: lives lost, houses destroyed, people displaced, economic damage. These become the memorialised markers of suffering, but they fail to capture the sheer volume of possible pain.
What happens when you returned to your flooded home or village? What registers the work of “recovery”: searching for loved ones, burying bodies, clearing, cleaning, calculating costs, scrubbing mold, coping, handling mental strain and anguish? What speaks of the emptied bank accounts, the swept crops, the price of disaster food, rent owed to landlords for unliveable homes, demolished possessions?
The media is a caravansary that moves on. Within weeks, storm seasons will end. Waters will recede. Politicians will assure. We will return to the public spectacle of scandals and statements. The importance of tackling, preventing and bracing for climate violence will fade into the background of urgency. Cameras will turn away from the daily mundanity of “recovery”, impossible for so many. The dimming of media coverage will need to be replaced by the power of our memory and imagination.
Such silences and disparities in coverage reminds us that as we run further into an era of accelerating climate violence, we do not yet have an apparatus of attention that may allow for a humane, proportionate response to our global ecological crisis.
Even more than that, these storms are just a fraction of the panorama of climate violence.
Climate change isn’t just about discrete episodes of extreme weather: floods, hurricanes, rains, mudslides, droughts and heat waves.
It’s also the slow violence of gradually shifting environmental patterns: the patient depletion of water bodies, the ongoing loss of soil fertility, the long-term movement of rains, the growing unpredictability of weather.
We are currently not prepared for an era of encroaching environmental violence; the urgency of our reality is not synchronised with the urgency of our actions.
But we continue to hold the power both to significantly reduce the worst possibilities of climate change, and prepare for its inevitabilities by building fairer and more flourishing societies.
Let us hope that the horrific storms of the last weeks can serve as a wake-up call.
Press link for more: World at 1C
Coastal Cities Are Increasingly Vulnerable, and So Is the Economy that Relies on Them
Gregory Unruh September 07, 2017
There was a time a decade or two ago when society could have made a choice to write off our massive investment in a fossil fuel-based economy and begin a policy driven shift towards a cleaner renewable infrastructure that could have forestalled the worst effects of climate change.
But the challenges of collective action, a lack of political courage, and the power of incumbent pecuniary interests to capture the levers of power meant we did not.
The bill is now coming due.
That means that many of our great, low-lying coastal cities are what we call “stranded assets.”
GreenBiz founder Joel Makower defines a stranded asset as “a financial term that describes something that has become obsolete or nonperforming well ahead of its useful life, and must be recorded on a company’s balance sheet as a loss of profit.”
Makower was talking about Exxon and other companies that built their businesses on the combustion of climate changing fossil fuels, not cities.
But the concept easily transfers from businesses built on carbon to cities threatened by carbon’s impact.
An invaluable, irreplaceable cultural jewel that will be stranded, both figuratively and literally, by climate change.
How can an entire metropolis that encompasses the lives, culture, and wellbeing of millions be considered “nonperforming?”
The physical installations, infrastructures, and architecture upon which Miami are founded were built on what we now can see as a flawed assumption.
An assumption of permanence.
That the sea’s surface would stay as it had for the entirety of human experience.
That Atlantic hurricane season would send infrequent storms of knowable magnitude that we could prepare for and ride out.
It was that perception of permanence and predictability that underlay urban planning and shaped of tens of thousands of investment decisions that fostered billions of dollars of wealth in Miami.
As long as nothing disturbs that perception, value will continue to accrue on paper.
But if the perception of permanence that underlies those expectations is undercut, market value will disappear.
Value is in the eyes of the buyer… until its not.
Climate change in general, and sea level rise in particular, are hard for us to see.
The tides that surround Miami are elevating at a rate of centimeters per year.
It is a slow motion train wreck that will be measured in decades, not seconds.
For now, Miami property buyers don’t see it.
A 2017 survey found that the majority of property buyers (over two-thirds) don’t ask even their brokers about the implications of climate change and sea level rise on the properties they are buying.
But for those willing to look, the impacts of sea level rise are already evident.
So-called “sunny day flooding”, (i.e tidal flooding or flooding that occurs without the rain) is already occurring predictably in many parts of Miami, inundating streets, blocking traffic, killing lawns, corroding infrastructure and cars, contaminating groundwater, and reversing sewage systems.
As sea level rise worsens, the inescapable conclusion is that some point Miami will be inundated and unlivable.
Absent a civil engineering miracle, the entire city will become a stranded asset that society will have to write off.
And it’s not alone: Reuters estimates at least $1.4 trillion in property is sitting within 700 feet of the U.S. shoreline, but the number is much probably larger.
When the irrational exuberance about the value of coastal real estate pops and thousands of buyers collectively mark down those assets, it will make the housing bubble of ten years ago look like a small blip.
The consequences will reverberate through the economy, through society and through the political landscape.
Depending on what Hurricane Irma does, we could get a sobering preview of what that will look like.
We have already seen the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, a city that was also built on the flawed founding assumption of permanence.
Houston’s city planners and businesses also ignored warnings as far back as 1996 that climate change would bring exactly the kind of disaster they city is currently suffering today.
It’s hard to blame them.
We’ve all ignored the warnings.
We can’t anymore.
Business leaders and politicians need to begin wrapping their heads around the big idea that climate change may mean huge financial losses in the world’s great coastal metropolises.
Press link for more: Harvard Business Review
Human-induced climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation: an adverse outcome that would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.
Special precautions that go well beyond conventional risk management practice are required if the “fat tails” — the increased likelihood of very large impacts — are to be adequately dealt with.
The potential consequences of these lower-probability, but higher-impact, events would be devastating for human societies.
The bulk of climate research has tended to underplay these risks, and exhibited a preference for conservative projections and scholarly reticence, albeit increasing numbers of scientists have spoken out in recent years on the dangers of such an approach.
However, IPCC reports also tend toward reticence and caution, erring on the side of “least drama”, and downplaying more extreme and more damaging outcomes.
Whilst this has been understandable historically, given the pressure exerted upon the IPCC by political and vested interests, it is now becoming dangerously misleading, given the acceleration of climate impacts globally.
What were lower-probability, higher-impact, events are now becoming more likely.
This is a particular concern with potential climatic “tipping points” — passing critical thresholds which result in step changes in the system — such as the polar ice sheets (and hence sea levels), and permafrost and other carbon stores, where the impacts of global warming are non-linear and difficult to model at present.
If climate policymaking is to be soundly based, a reframing of scientific research within an existential risk-management framework is now urgently required.
This must be taken up not just in the work of the IPCC, but also in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations if we are to address the real climate challenge.
Current processes will not deliver either the speed or the extent of change required.
Three decades ago, when serious debate on human-induced climate change began at the global level, a great deal of statesmanship was on display.
There was a preparedness to recognise that this was an issue transcending nation states, ideologies and political parties which had to be addressed proactively in the long-term interests of humanity as a whole, even if the existential nature of the risk it posed was far less clear cut than it is today.
As global institutions were established to take up this challenge, such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and the extent of change this would demand of the fossil-fuel-dominated world order became clearer, the forces of resistance began to mobilise.
Today, as a consequence, and despite the diplomatic triumph of the 2015 Paris Agreement , the debate around climate change policy has never been more dysfunctional, indeed Orwellian.
In his book 1984, George Orwell describes a double-speak totalitarian state where most of the population accepts “the most flagrant violations of reality, because they never fully grasped the enormity of what was demanded of them, and were not sufficiently interested in public events to notice what was happening.
By lack of understanding they remained sane.”
Orwell could have been writing about climate change and policymaking.
International agreements talk of limiting global warming to 1.5–2°C, but in reality they set the world on a path of 3–5°C.
Coal is “clean”.
The planetary future is hostage to myopic national self-interest.
Action is delayed on the assumption that as yet unproven technologies will save the day, decades hence.
The risks are existential, but it is “alarmist” to say so.
A one-in-two chance of missing a goal is normalised as reasonable.
Climate policymaking for years has been cognitively dissonant, “a flagrant violation of reality”.
So it is unsurprising that there is a lack of a understanding amongst the public and elites of the full measure of the climate challenge.
Yet most Australians sense where we are heading: three-quarters of Australians see climate change as catastrophic risk and half see our way of life ending within the next 100 years.
Politics and policymaking have norms: rules and practices, assumptions and boundaries, that constrain and shape them.
In recent years, the previous norms of statesmanship and long-term thinking have disappeared, replaced by an obsession with short-term political and commercial advantage Climate policymaking is no exception.
Since 1992, short-term economic interest has trumped environmental and future human needs.
The world today emits 48% more carbon dioxide (CO2 ) from the consumption of energy than it did 25 years ago, and the global economy has more than doubled in size.
The UNFCCC strives ” to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner”, but every year humanity’s ecological footprint becomes larger and less sustainable.
Humanity now requires the biophysical capacity of 1.7 planets annually to survive as it rapidly chews up the natural capital.
A fast, emergency-scale transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change. But this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive.
The orthodoxy is that there is
time for an orderly economic transition within the current short-termist political paradigm.
Discussion of what would be safe –– less warming that we presently experience –– is non-existent.
And so we have a policy failure of epic proportions.
Policymakers, in their magical thinking, imagine a mitigation path of gradual change, to be constructed over many decades in a growing, prosperous world.
The world not imagined is the one that now exists: of looming financial instability; of a global crisis of political legitimacy; of a sustainability crisis that extends far beyond climate change to include all the fundamentals of human existence and most significant planetary boundaries (soils, potable water, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity, and so on); and of severe global energy sector dislocation.
In anticipation of the upheaval that climate change would impose upon the global order, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), was established by the UN in 1988, charged with regularly assessing the global consensus on climate science as a basis for policymaking.
The IPCC Assessment Reports ( AR ), produced every 5–6 years, play a large part in the public framing of the climate narrative: new reports are a global media event.
AR5 was produced in 2013-14, with AR6 due in 2022.
The IPCC has done critical, indispensable work of the highest standard in pulling together a periodic consensus of what must be the most exhaustive scientific investigation in world history.
It does not carry out its own research, but reviews and collates peer-reviewed material from across the spectrum of this incredibly complex area, identifying key issues and trends for policymaker consideration.
However, the IPCC process suffers from all the dangers of consensus-building in such a wide-ranging and complex arena.
For example, IPCC reports, of necessity, do not always contain the latest available information.
Consensus-building can lead to “least drama”, lowest-common-denominator outcomes which overlook critical issues.
This is particularly the case with the “fat-tails” of probability distributions, that is, the high-impact but relatively low-probability events where scientific knowledge is more limited.
Vested interest pressure is acute in all directions; climate denialists accuse the IPCC of alarmism, whereas climate action proponents consider the IPCC to be far too conservative.
To cap it all, the IPCC conclusions are subject to intense political oversight before being released, which historically has had the effect of substantially watering-down sound scientific findings.
These limitations are understandable, and arguably were not of overriding importance in the early period of the IPCC.
However, as time has progressed, it is now clear that the risks posed by climate change are far greater than previously anticipated.
We have moved out of the twilight period of much talk but relatively limited climate impacts. Climate change is now turning nasty, as we have witnessed in 2017 in the USA, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe, with record-breaking heatwaves and wildfires, more intense flooding and more damaging hurricanes.
Scientific reticence — a reluctance to spell out the full risk implications of climate science in the absence of perfect information — has become a major problem.
Whilst this is understandable, particularly when scientists are continually criticised by denialists and political apparatchiks for speaking out, it is extremely dangerous given the “fat tail” risks of climate change.
Waiting for perfect information, as we are continually urged to do by political and economic elites, means it will be too late to act.
Irreversible, adverse climate change on the global scale now occurring is an existential risk to human civilisation.
Many of the world’s top climate scientists quoted in this report well understand these implications — James Hansen, Michael E. Mann, John Schellnhuber, Kevin Anderson, Eric Rignot, Naomi Oreskes, Kevin Trenberth, Michael Oppenheimer, Stefan Rahmstorf and others — and are forthright about their findings, where we are heading, and the limitations of IPCC reports.
This report seeks to alert the wider community and leaders to these limitations and urges change to the IPCC approach, and to the wider UNFCCC negotiations. It is clear that existing processes will not deliver the transformation to a low-carbon world in the limited time now available.
We urgently require a reframing of scientific research within an existential risk-management framework. This requires special precautions that go well beyond conventional risk management.
Like an iceberg, there is great danger “In what lies beneath”.
Press link for more: What lies beneath Report
Sue the Bastards
L. Hunter Lovins, Contributor President Natural Capitalism Solutions, Professor of Sustainable Management Bard MBA
When flood waters rose in Houston and Hurricane Harvey spread eastward to already battered regions of the Gulf coast, the urgent priority was preservation of life, evacuation of those threatened and long-term care of the displaced.
The unfolding tragedy that is Harvey has already killed dozens, with more to come.
Cost estimates rose from $30 billion before the storm, to $75 billion, as the severity became obvious, to over $100 billion.
Harvey will certainly exceed Katrina, the previous record holder, costing up to one percent of U.S. GDP.
As always, groups like the Red Cross stepped up, offering Text HARVEY to 90999 to donate $10
But is anyone responsible for Harvey?
When the Deep Horizon well blew out, no one questioned that the parties who killed eleven people and spewed oil across the Gulf of Mexico would be held to account.
The only question was how much.
BP’s costs for taking a $500,000 short cut was in the neighborhood of $62 billion, although they offset many of the fines against taxes.
Legal dictionaries define this as, “An event that directly and exclusively results from occurrence of natural causes that could not have been prevented by the exercise of foresight or caution; an inevitable accident.”
But is that true of Harvey?
The ultra warm waters of the Gulf and the tendency of storms now to move very slowly—the warming arctic is unable to maintain the jet stream that previously blew such storm away from the hot Gulf that fuels them—clearly contributed to the billions in damage.
These, we now know, are results of global warming.
Several California communities recently tired of blaming God and sued the oil and coal companies claiming THEY caused the climate change that forecasts warned would devastate their communities in years to come.
Global warming, they said, could have been prevented.
They’re right: my first book on how to do this was in 1981.
Since then many of us have shown that energy efficiency and renewable energy is cheaper than burning the fossil fuels that drive climate change, and that it would be better business to go green and just solve the crisis.
Using the work of my colleague Richard Heede who showed that just 90 companies are responsible for two thirds of human caused global warming, they decided if you can name the creators of the harm, you ought to be able to sue them.
Wake up to the day’s most important news.
The governments argued, “37 coal, oil, and gas companies including Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and Peabody Energy, knew about the harm their products posed to the planet and continued to undermine and obfuscate the dangers of climate change.”
The suit faces challenges.
Peabody, once the world’s largest coal company, promptly claimed its recent bankruptcy shields it from such liability.
Interestingly, it did not deny that it might have been liable, only that its early recognition of the unviability of its business model now enabled it to duck any ongoing responsibility. Mighty neighborly….
For arcane legal reasons (preemption by the Federal government limits people’s ability to sue) previous efforts to hold companies liable have failed.
When the Inuit village being eaten by rising sea levels sought federal damages, they were told that only the legislative and executive branches could deliver relief.
But what if Congress and the Child-in-Chief are bought and paid for advocates for the fossil industry?
Yes, apportioning blame will be tricky.
And yes, every one of us is to blame every time we fire up a car or board an airplane.
But we’ll already be paying the costs through our tax dollars.
Isn’t it time that those who have made billions keeping us all addicted to oil pay their share?
Framing their case to mimic the successful public nuisance suits that forced tobacco companies to settle and pay damages for the public costs imposed on taxpayers to treat smokers, and filing in state court, may enable California plaintiffs to overcome the hurdles that derail federal law suits.
Still, they must prove that any particular defendant is responsible for their specific harm, especially when the damage they allege is only anticipated.
But Harvey’s harm is all too real, compounding daily with creeping mold, exploding chemical plants, loss of water supplies, and the threat of disease.
Harvey has already forced the release of millions of pounds of chemicals from oil operations spread across Houston.
One Exxon facility collapsed, releasing 13,000 pounds of nastiness including benzene, a known carcinogen.
And the challenge of dealing with global warming is only beginning. As meteorologist Eric Holthaus put it, “Harvey is what climate change looks like.”
“In all of U.S. history,” he stated, “There’s never been a storm like Hurricane Harvey…. Houston, as it was before Harvey, will never be the same again.”
He points out that Harvey is the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in three years. A storm like Harvey should not happen more than once in a millennium.
The week before, 1,200 people died in floods also triggered by record rainfall across India, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Futurist Alex Steffen calls our tendency to deny threats like climate change “predatory delay”—it adds inevitable risk to the system.
Legal liability is supposed to impose a measure of responsibility on parties with the capacity do damage.
But if no one can be held liable, what will stop the catastrophe?
Holthaus warns, “It’s up to the rest of us to identify this behavior and make it morally repugnant….The symbolism of the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history hitting the sprawled-out capital city of America’s oil industry is likely not lost on many.
Institutionalized climate denial in our political system and climate denial by inaction by the rest of us have real consequences.
They look like Houston.”
Press link for more: Huffington Post
These 5 charts explore the human impact on extreme weather
Flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey encompass the Motiva Enterprises LLC in Port Arthur, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif – RC1254851E70
It’s not an exact science, but it’s science: humans are partly to blame for worsening weather
Linking specific extreme weather events to global warming is difficult, and this plays into the hands of climate-change deniers.
In the past couple of weeks, tropical storms have devastated communities around the world. Hurricane Harvey has wreaked havoc in Texas, destroying homes and claiming lives.
Typhoon Hato has left a similar trail of destruction in southern China and Hong Kong.
There is a strong argument to be made that humans are at least partly responsible for both of these extreme weather events.
The problem is it’s often difficult to produce tangible evidence.
What we do know for sure, however, is that climate change enhances storm surges and causes flooding – both of which can have devastating consequences.
Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Richard Carson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RC1BA1656450
Parts of Texas remain submerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Spike in carbon emissions
This chart, which was produced by NASA, shows the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide – or C02, to give it its chemical formula – over the past 400,000 years.
As human activity gathered momentum in the mid 20th century – in the form of growing populations and the rise of heavy industry – carbon emissions also followed an upward trajectory.
The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide has created a warming effect. This has coincided with an uptick in the number and scale of natural disasters such as droughts, floods, wildfires and storms.
CO2 levels have increased rapidly since the 1950s
These countries produce the most C02
It will come as no surprise to learn that China and the United States are the most prolific carbon emitters. Both countries are among those with the biggest populations, the most factories and the highest number of cars.
China produces more carbon emissions than any other country
Image: US Energy Information Administration
The same countries suffer the most natural disasters
Interestingly, it is those same countries that top the table in terms of carbon emissions that have experienced the highest number of hydrological, meteorological and climatological disasters in recent years.
According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), China, the US and India were among the countries worst hit by extreme weather events from 1995 to 2015.
Large parts of Africa and Europe have so far been relatively unscathed by the onslaught of these types of natural disasters.
China, the US and India have suffered the highest number of natural disasters in recent times
More floods than ever before
As the atmosphere gets warmer it absorbs more moisture – this works out at roughly 7% more for every 1℃ rise in temperature. The end result is worse flooding.
Higher sea levels in turn lead to bigger storm surges, such as those that have caused devastation in Texas and southern China.
It’s no coincidence that an increase in carbon emissions coincides with a steady rise in the number of hydrological disasters over recent years.
2016 saw an increase in the number of hydrological disasters around the world
Image: Munich Re
The cost of catastrophe
It has been estimated previously that flooding could cost coastal cities around $1 trillion per year by the year 2050.
Yet again, it is towns and cities in the US and China that are expected to bear the brunt.
Press link for more: WEForum.org
Hurricane Harvey Is Testing Our Ability To Communicate Natural Disaster Risks
How do scientists drive home a threat that has no precedent?
WASHINGTON — Since slamming into the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane late Friday, Harvey has dumped at least 9 trillion gallons of rain across the state — enough to fill Utah’s Great Salt Lake twice.
And with Houston already inundated, the rain continues to fall.
One meteorologist estimates that by the time the storm subsides it will have dropped a mind-boggling 25 trillion gallons of water across the state.
Certain locations along the Gulf of Mexico are expected to see as much rain in a few short days as is typical in an entire year.
To accurately portray the staggering totals, the National Weather Service had to add new colors to its precipitation maps.
Harvey has wreaked havoc along the Texas Gulf Coast, just as meteorologists warned it would. But it has also proved somewhat of a communications nightmare.
Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society, told HuffPost that the bottom line is this: Harvey is an unprecedented storm system.
“We’re kind of making this up as we go,” he said of meteorologists’ mapping and communication about the sheer magnitude of the event.
“We haven’t seen this type of rainfall over [such a short] amount of time.”
Given precipitation totals through Monday and the forecast for the rest of the week, Shepherd said the situation in Texas “is shaping up to be [the] worst flood disaster in U.S. history.”
The previous benchmark for flooding in an American city was Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which dumped 40 inches of rain on Houston in five days, killing nearly two dozen people and causing $5 billion in damage. (The one-day U.S. record, 43 inches, hit rural Alvin, just south of Houston, during 1979′s Tropical Storm Claudette.)
Harvey delivered as much rain as Allison in roughly half the time — a statistic Shepherd described as “ridiculous.”
For Shepherd and other experts, the extent of the disaster came as little if any surprise. Early forecasts called for massive amounts of rain and “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding.” On Friday, the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi offered this stark warning: “Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months.” And by Sunday morning, the NWS was cautioning that “all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced.”
As Harvey has shown, conveying to the public the deadly risks of such an unprecedented weather event is not easy.
Sarah Watson, a climate and flood risk communication consultant that does contract work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told HuffPost she sees the problem as cultural. Many people associate tropical storms with wind and storm surges but not necessarily with heavy rain — which often proves to be the most destructive effect. When a storm like Harvey is downgraded from a Category 4 hurricane to a tropical storm, for example, people are often quick to think the threat has subsided.
Gina Eosco, a social scientist and risk communication expert at Eastern Research Group, addressed this in a pair of posts to Twitter on Saturday.
As Watson sees it, a larger issue is how Americans use — and react to — certain language.
“We can describe a burrito and a pizza as ‘epic,’ but when we are trying to describe rainfall as ‘epic,’ and we’re truly meaning this is epic — we’ve never seen anything like this in this country — it’s not necessarily resonating,” she told HuffPost.
Harvey has been reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina.
As Katrina strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane and barreled toward the coast of Louisiana in late August of 2005, the National Weather Service in New Orleans warned of “devastating damage” that would leave areas “uninhabitable for weeks.”
Many people ignored or were unable to comply with a mandatory evacuation order.
In counties across southeast Texas this weekend, residents refused to leave their homes despite voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders. Partly that’s because of horrific earlier experiences with evacuation attempts, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told an NBC affiliate in Houston: “A lot of people are taking this storm for granted thinking it may not pose much of a danger to them.”
Finding ways to better communicate the risks associated with natural disasters is an ongoing and complicated battle.
Among other things, the team of researchers concluded that “people differ in how they react to uncertainty; for some, not having a concrete example of what a risk means can make them uncertain of what the actual impacts might entail and thereby impede their decision on whether to take action.”
They also found that “motivation for action came from knowing what was forecast for their specific town, and knowing what neighbors, friends, and family were doing to prepare.”
Jennifer Marlon, an associate research scientist as Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication, told HuffPost via email that improvements in technology and forecasting do not always translate into better communication or members of the public taking appropriate action.
“Humans,” she said, “are not built to quickly and easily translate something as abstract as a precipitation map into a vivid, visceral feeling. And yet feelings and memories are what drive us in many cases, even more so than logic or reason.”
In a study published in 2015, Marlon surveyed more than 1,000 people living along the Connecticut shore — where a mandatory evacuation was ordered in advance of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — about whether they would evacuate or ride out a Category 2 storm. What she found was people fall somewhere in a spectrum — on one end are those who will evacuate any hurricane, on the other are “diehards” confident they can remain in place — and that different audiences would benefit from targeted messages.
If the goal is to get people’s attention, she said, agencies must help the public grasp how a natural disaster is going to affect their daily life.
“Harvey was incredibly severe, of course, and evacuation isn’t always the safest thing to do if officials are not prepared for it,” Marlon said. “But these kinds of events are part of our warming world now, so unfortunately we are beginning to get more practice with them.”
Sunshine Menezes, executive director of the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, told HuffPost that when federal meteorologists are using words like “unprecedented” to describe a weather event, it’s easy for the public to feel overwhelmed.
“When you’re dealing with something that is quite literally beyond the scale that any of the professionals have worked with before, it doesn’t matter how good a job they did within the divisional media they have to work with and the words they have to work with,” Menezes said. “The understanding of that information is what, of course, is the most important, and we clearly don’t know yet how to communicate that without effectively sounding like kind of doomsday scaremongers.”
Given the magnitude of the the flooding in Texas and the increased risk of extreme weather as a result of climate change, Menezes expects Harvey will trigger a national conversation in the science-communication world about how to improve weather warnings.
When it comes to hurricanes, Shepherd wants to see less emphasis on a storm’s category. With Harvey, he said, forecasters were stressing that the more serious threat was long-term, sustained rainfall — a point he felt was lost on some residents and local officials.
“We need a way to elevate significant flood threats like this to a level that gets people’s attention in the same way the category of a hurricane does or the rating of a tornado does,” he said.
Shepherd sees Harvey as a learning opportunity, not only for the low-lying city of Houston but also for other flood-prone states, including Louisiana.
There’s also the threat of more intense and frequent rainstorms as climate change drives up global temperatures.
“We’re going to get tested time and time again with extreme rainfall like this,” Shepherd said. “We better figure it out quickly in terms of how to message, how to respond.”
Press link for more: Huffington Post
Bill McKibben: ‘100% Renewables Needed ‘As Fast as Humanly Possible’
By Jake Johnson
“Given the state of the planet,” wrote 350.org founder Bill McKibben in his new feature piece for In These Times, it would have been ideal for the world to have fully transitioned its energy systems away from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable sources “25 years ago.”
But we can still push for the “second best” option, McKibben concluded. To do so, we must move toward wind, solar and water “as fast as humanly possible.”
The transition to 100 percent renewable energy is a goal that has gained significant appeal over the past decade—and particularly over the past several months, as President Donald Trump has moved rapidly at the behest of Big Oil to dismantle even the limited environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration.
Trump also withdrew the U.S. from the Paris agreement, a move McKibben denounced as “stupid and reckless.”
“Environmental groups from the Climate Mobilization to Greenpeace to Food and Water Watch are backing the 100 percent target,” McKibben wrote, as are many lawmakers, U.S. states and countries throughout the world.
Given the climate stance of both the dominant party in Congress and the current occupant of the Oval Office, McKibben noted that we shouldn’t be looking toward either for leadership.
Rather, we should look to states like California and countries like China, both of which have made significant commitments to aggressively alter their energy systems in recent months.
The newest addition to the push for renewables is Maryland, which is set to announce on Thursday an “urgent” and “historic” bill that, if passed, would transition the state’s energy system to 100 percent renewables by 2035.
McKibben also pointed to individual senators like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who in April introduced legislation that would transition the U.S. to 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050. The bill will not pass the current Congress, “but as a standard to shape the Democratic Party agenda in 2018 and 2020, it’s critically important,” McKibben argued.
“What Medicare for All is to the healthcare debate, or Fight for $15 is to the battle against inequality, 100 percent renewable is to the struggle for the planet’s future,” McKibben wrote. “It’s how progressives will think about energy going forward.”
Previously a fringe idea, the call for 100 percent renewables is “gaining traction outside the obvious green enclaves,” McKibben added. This is in large part because technology is such that a move toward 100 percent renewable energy “would make economic sense … even if fossil fuels weren’t wrecking the Earth.”
“That’s why the appeal of 100% Renewable goes beyond the left,” McKibben wrote. “If you pay a power bill, it’s the common-sense path forward.”
Writing for Vox last week, David Roberts noted that “wind and solar power are saving Americans an astounding amount of money” already.
“[W]ind and solar produce, to use the economic term of art, ‘positive externalities’—benefits to society that are not captured in their market price,” Roberts wrote. “Specifically, wind and solar power reduce pollution, which reduces sickness, missed work days, and early deaths.”
For these reasons, and for the familiar environmental ones, 100 percent renewables is no longer merely an “aspirational goal,” McKibben argued. It is “the obvious solution.”
“No more half-measures … Many scientists tell us that within a decade, at current rates, we’ll likely have put enough carbon in the atmosphere to warm the Earth past the Paris climate targets,” McKibben concluded. “Renewables—even the most rapid transition—won’t stop climate change, but getting off fossil fuel now might (there are no longer any guarantees) keep us from the level of damage that would shake civilization.”
Press link for more: Eco watch
A New Roadmap to Renewable Dependence Could Eliminate 99% of CO2 Emissions by 2050
Far-Reaching and Inclusive
Setting goals to reduce carbon emissions and then figuring out a way to achieve those goals is difficult for any country.
Now, imagine doing that for not just one nation but 139 of them.
That’s the enormous task a team of researchers led by Stanford University environmental engineer Mark Jacobson decided to take on.
He and his colleagues built a roadmap for 139 countries across the globe that would lead to them relying solely on renewable energy by 2050, and they’ve published that plan today in Joule.
renewable energy solar energy wind energy water energy
The 139 countries weren’t picked arbitrarily.
The researchers chose them because data on each was publicly available through the International Energy Agency. Combined, the chosen nations also produce more than 99 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.
To develop their roadmap, the researchers first analyzed each country.
They looked at how much raw renewable energy resources each one has, and then they determined the number of wind, water, and solar energy generators needed for that country to reach 80 percent renewable energy dependence by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
Aside from the energy sector, the team also took into account the transportation, heating/cooling, industrial, and agriculture/fishing/forestry industries of each of the 139 countries while creating their roadmap.
“Aside from eliminating emissions and avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] global warming and beginning the process of letting carbon dioxide drain from the Earth’s atmosphere, transitioning eliminates 4-7 million air pollution deaths each year and creates over 24 million long-term, full-time jobs by these plans,” Jacobson said in a press release.
“What is different between this study and other studies that have proposed solutions is that we are trying to examine not only the climate benefits of reducing carbon but also the air pollution benefits, job benefits, and cost benefits,” he added.
Benefits Beyond the Climate
As each of these 139 countries is unique, their paths to 100 percent renewable energy are necessarily unique as well.
For instance, nations with greater land-to-population ratios, such as the U.S., the E.U., and China, have an easier path to renewable dependence and could achieve it at a faster rate than small but highly populated countries surrounded by oceans, such as Singapore.
For all countries, however, the goal is the same: 100 percent dependence on renewables.
According to the study, this transition would lessen worldwide energy consumption as renewables are more efficient than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts.
It would also result in the creation of 24 million long-term jobs, reduce the number of air pollution deaths by 4 to 7 million annually, and stabilize energy prices.
The world could potentially save more than $20 trillion in health and climate costs each year.
And these 139 nations now know exactly what they need to do to reach this goal and all the benefits that come with it.
“Both individuals and governments can lead this change.
Policymakers don’t usually want to commit to doing something unless there is some reasonable science that can show it is possible, and that is what we are trying to do,” Jacobson explained.
“There are other scenarios.
We are not saying that there is only one way we can do this, but having a scenario gives people direction.”
For co-author Mark Delucchi from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the study sends a very clear message: “Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water, and solar, as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can.”
Press link for more: Futurism.com
We saved the whale. The same vision can save the planet | Susanna Rustin
Susanna RustinFriday 18 August 2017 16.00 AEST
Illustration by Mark Long
“Hope is essential – despair is just another form of denial,” Al Gore said last week, in an interview to promote the sequel to his 2006 climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth.
As well as the very bad news of Donald Trump’s science-denying presidency, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which opens in the UK today, brings good news: the plummeting cost of renewable electricity and the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
In 2017, denial of the facts of climate change – and myriad linked dangers including air and ocean pollution, famine and a refugee crisis the likes of which we can hardly imagine – is in retreat, with the Trump administration the malignant exception.
Virtually all governments know that climate change is happening, and polls show most people do too – with those living in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa particularly worried.
The question is not whether global warming is happening, but what we are going to do about it.
There are, and need to be, many answers to this.
Gore believes the solutions to climate change are within reach, if people can only find the political will to enact them.
Even if how to whip up sufficient zeal to make this happen remains a puzzle, his essential message is one of optimism.
A widely shared article by David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine last month sketching out some worst-case scenarios included an interview with pioneering climate scientist Wally Broecker, now 84, who no longer believes even the most drastic reductions in carbon emissions are sufficient to avert disaster.
Instead, he puts his hopes in carbon capture and geoengineering.
Others oppose anything that smacks of a techno-fix, believing the very idea that human ingenuity can get us out of this mess is yet another form of denial.
The human reaction – or lack of one – to climate change is a subject of interest in itself.
The novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote The Great Derangement, a book about why fiction writers mostly ignore the subject, and argued that the profound alteration of Earth’s climate is difficult to think about.
Wallace-Wells, in New York magazine, refers to “an incredible failure of imagination”.
Politics, supposed to help us make sense of the world, has sometimes been more hindrance than help: is climate change really an inconvenient truth, because it means we have to give up eating beef and taking long-distance flights, or a too-convenient truth for anti-capitalists who want to bring down the financial system?
Such left-right binarism, and the relentlessly partisan nature of US politics, is surely why Gore now prefers to frame climate change more as a “moral” issue than as a political one.
But the clearest and simplest message from his decade of advocacy is the need for action at every level.
Such action takes many forms, ranging from protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in the US to anti-fracking demonstrations in Lancashire.
This year the Guardian in conjunction with Global Witness is documenting the deaths of people all over the world who are killed while attempting to defend the environment from damage or destruction.
In a similar vein, the Natural History Museum has chosen its revamped central hall to showcase a key moment for environmental activism.
When it was first announced that Dippy the dinosaur would be replaced with a blue whale skeleton that had previously hung quietly among the mammals, there were grumbles.
But a month after its grand reopening in the presence of royalty and Sir David Attenborough, the revamped museum is a smash hit with more than 115,000 visitors a week.
Partly this is because the installation of the skeleton brings Alfred Waterhouse’s 1870s terracotta building, with its marvellous moulded monkeys, back to life in the most magnificent way.
Whereas visitors once mostly stuck to the ground floor until they joined the procession to the dinosaurs, the aerial position of the whale bones now draws people upstairs. From an overcrowded lobby, Hintze Hall has been raised into a wondrous public space.
But the whale, which died as a result of being stranded off the coast of Ireland in 1891, is more than a 19th-century relic.
What the museum has done by giving this vast, dead creature such prominence is to issue a warning and a call to action.
And it makes no bones about this: “Rescued from the brink of extinction in the 1960s, the blue whale is a symbol of hope for the future of the natural world,” says the information panel.
“Threats such as marine pollution and climate change linger – the blue whale remains a vulnerable and endangered species.”
Like the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica, which stopped growing after a 1987 treaty phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), whale conservation is one of the global environmental movement’s greatest success stories.
Blue whales were critically endangered, until activists persuaded governments to legislate to save them, and the museum’s new exhibit is called Hope.
Optimism alone won’t halt climate change, or prevent further extinctions.
But like Gore, the director of the Natural History Museum, Michael Dixon, and his colleagues understand that the most vital currency of the environmental movement is hope.
With the knowledge we now have of climate change’s likely consequences, the alternative is nihilism.
• Susanna Rustin is a Guardian columnist
Press link for more: The Guardian