Climate 411

Why accurate reporting of air pollution after Hurricane Harvey matters

By Matt Tresaugue. This post originally appeared in Texas Clean Air Matters.

Hartmann Park, Valero Refinery, Manchester County, Houston Texas.

In addition to dumping historic amounts of rain across southeast Texas, Hurricane Harvey triggered a wave of air pollution, with petrochemical plants and oil refineries releasing 8.3 million pounds of harmful chemicals that exceeded state limits. At least, that is what they told state officials.

Companies, however, reduced those estimates by 1.7 million pounds in later filings with the state, a new Environmental Defense Fund analysis found.

The steep drop suggests that some companies may not have accounted accurately for all Harvey-related pollution increases in their reporting to the state. As a result, people’s exposure to hazardous air pollutants, such as cancer-causing benzene and 1,3-butadiene, may be substantially underestimated.

Industry frequently justified the changes in emissions estimates by arguing that flexible state-issued permits, as well as Gov. Greg Abbott’s suspension of several environmental rules in advance of Harvey, made the pollution legal. Read More »

Also posted in Extreme Weather, Health, News / Read 1 Response

Hansen was right: Marking an anniversary by misleading the public

Dr. James Hansen testifying before Congress in 1988

With the thirtieth anniversary of former NASA scientist Jim Hansen’s landmark testimony to Congress on the urgent need to address climate change, numerous articles marked the occasion by demonstrating that his 1988 predictions have proven to be accurate.

Inevitably, some writers seized the opportunity to revive long-debunked arguments in an attempt to cast doubt and confusion on the threat.

Perhaps the most misleading – and certainly the highest profile – was a June 21st op-ed in the Wall Street Journal written by Pat Michaels and Ryan Maue. Michaels is director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute, a think tank financially linked to the fossil fuel industry. And Michaels has been found to have previously misled Congress by presenting a doctored graph of Hansen’s projections during public testimony before the House Small Business Committee.

Four decades of climate model projections have fared well

Their latest effort implies that U.S. climate policy is based on Hansen’s forecasts in 1988, and therefore we must “reconsider environmental policy” according to an evaluation of “how well his forecasts have done.”

In reality, climate policy is based on hundreds of years of collective research and an overwhelming amount of observational evidence gathered from all over the world.

Climate model development began as early as the 1950s, and projections from 1973 to 2013 (including Hansen’s 1988 paper) have been compared to observed temperatures by multiple institutions. All showed reasonably accurate surface temperature increases between 1970 and 2016, Hansen’s 1988 study included.

Read More »

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Setting the Facts Straight / Comments are closed

The path forward for net-zero emissions climate policy

By Nat Keohane and Susanne Brooks

This post originally appeared in The Hill

Climate change is a defining threat of our generation. But the way forward has never been clearer. Electric power generation is being transformed by the rapid deployment of wind, solar and utility-scale storage. Technological innovation is reshaping transportation and industry. New means of capturing and storing carbon are on the horizon.

Even so, the challenge is monumental. To have a reasonable chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change, the world must achieve “net-zero emissions” — taking as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we put into it — in this century. Here in the United States, we are currently emitting carbon pollution at seven times the rate that we are soaking it up. We must take advantage of every cost-effective opportunity to cut climate pollution now, while investing in the innovations that will put us on course for net-zero emissions as soon as possible.

Economic and technological trends alone won’t do the trick. Waiting to act only deepens the challenge and increases the cost and pace of reductions needed. To unleash the full potential of breakthrough clean energy technologies, we need well-designed policies that accelerate the low-carbon transition rather than hinder it.Encouragingly, action is already underway: cities, states, and businesses are forging ahead to enact policies and undertake initiatives to reduce pollution, building on momentum from the plummeting costs of clean energy technologies. Those efforts are crucial. But the world won’t solve climate change without American leadership at all levels. To cut climate pollution at the scale and pace that science tells us is necessary requires national action.

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Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Climate Change Legislation, Energy, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy / Comments are closed

Cherry blossoms: Predicting peak bloom in a warming world with weirder weather

USDA photo by Scott Bauer

Every March, Washington D.C. anxiously anticipates the arrival of the city’s world-famous cherry blossoms.

Millions of people flood the National Mall each year to observe the “peak bloom” – defined by the National Park Service as the day when 70 percent of the Yoshino cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin have opened.

Fluctuating weather patterns render predictions of peak bloom notoriously fickle. Experts consider it impossible to accurately estimate the cherry blossoms’ vibrant debut more than 10 days in advance.

This year has been no exception – with three changes to the 2018 peak bloom date prediction since March 1st.

While bloom forecasting is a historically temperamental exercise, climate change is now further complicating matters.

As global average surface temperatures continue to rise, D.C. has felt the heat. Weather station measurements from the city have recorded a 1.6 degree Celsius per century increase in regional temperature – double the global average warming rate. The warmer winters associated with these increasing temperatures may help explain why between 1921 and 2016 peak bloom dates have shifted earlier by about five days.

A warming regional climate may influence seasonal trends, but blooms are still heavily affected by short term changes in the weather. While 2018 peak bloom was originally projected to occur between March 17th  and 20th – early in the season due to the city’s exceptionally warm February – a major snowstorm and cold temperatures persisting through March delayed the arrival until April 5th.

It may initially seem that heavy snowstorms and colder temperatures are inconsistent with climate change. However, there is a growing body of evidence that shows how changes in atmospheric circulation patterns associated with rapid warming in the Arctic may actually be linked to these dramatic cold snaps in the mid-latitudes. Increased moisture in the atmosphere from a warming world also allows for heavier precipitation events, including snowfall.

These opposing consequences of climate change – hotter temperatures with intermittent cold snaps – make the bloom schedule of D.C.’s cherry blossoms even more complex. But one thing is clear: predictions will certainly not get any easier.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Extreme Weather, News / Comments are closed

The Winter Olympics on hostile terrain: How climate change is harming winter sports

The 2018 Winter Olympics have drawn to a close, and four years will pass before the world’s next opportunity to celebrate the Winter Games.

During that time, emerging athletes and innovations in training methods will inevitably change the face of the sports. But another more malevolent force of change is brewing – one that has begun to shift the landscape of the Games into hostile terrain.

As climate change continues to progress, adverse weather conditions threaten our beloved winter sports as we know them.

Familiar locations no longer suitable for outdoor sports

Researchers from the University of Waterloo recently determined that shifting weather conditions due to human-induced climate change will render 13 of the previous 19 hosts of the Winter Olympics too warm for outdoor sports by the end of the century.

Even recent host cities have faced new challenges in our changing climate. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, for example, experienced peak temperatures of 61 degrees Fahrenheit, inducing poor snow conditions that led to various delays and injuries throughout the weeks of competition.

Winter sport athletes have also begun to find their trusted off-season training locations unrecognizable. Glaciers that once provided ideal conditions for outdoor summer training have been slashed by trails of melt water and are rapidly disintegrating. U.S. athletes who previously looked to the Rocky Mountains to support their off-season practice must now travel across the globe to regions such as Switzerland, further exacerbating global warming as increased international travel pumps greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

Accessibility diminishes for potential athletes

In the years of practice before an athlete may secure sponsorships or funding from national Olympic Committees, training and associated travel costs must be self-supported. The necessity of cross-continental travel thus not only makes tangible the effects of our changing climate, but confines potential talent pools from which Olympic athletes may emerge to socioeconomic groups able to financially support international travel.

The U.S. National Hockey League (NHL) has voiced similar concerns about athletes’ future training access. While the development of indoor rinks has allowed hockey to be played globally, the sport has traditionally relied on backyard rinks and ponds to provide players with their first introduction to skating. These more accessible venues are becoming progressively more limited as global temperatures continue to rise.

Informal backyard matches are not the only events threatened by climate change, as historic outdoor hockey events including the NHL Winter Classic, Heritage Classic, and Stadium Series may also be lost to warming conditions.

Widespread economic implications

We can shift these winter sports indoors or to higher latitudes in order to extend their lifetimes, but what happens to the regions left behind?

In the U.S. alone, snow-based recreation generates $67 billion per year and supports over 900,000 jobs. In a single year with poor snow conditions, more than $1 billion in revenue and 17,350 jobs can be lost.

Such threats are not looming in the distant future – changes are already taking shape.

As precipitation begins to fall as rain rather than snow throughout winter months, U.S. ski resorts are forced to spend more than 50 percent of their annual energy budgets on artificial snowmaking.

Canada’s average 4.5 degree Fahrenheit temperature rise between 1951 and 2005 has been matched with a 20 percent decrease in the country’s outdoor hockey season.

Future impacts are only expected to worsen, with the U.S. ski season projected to be cut in half by 2050.

Athletics are recognizing the impacts of climate change

Many competitors and athletic associations have already acknowledged the undeniable role of climate change in threatening the livelihood of these winter sports:

  • The National Ski Areas Association adopted their Climate Challenge program, aiming to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and costs of energy use for participating ski areas.
  • Preceding the 2014 Winter Games, 75 Olympic medalists in skiing and snowboarding wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama calling for a firmer stance on climate change mitigation and clean energy development.
  • The NHL used their 2014 sustainability reportto voice their “vested interest” in climate change, historically participating in the Paris Agreement conference discussions a year later.
  • A group of athletes and companies has come together to create a group called Protect Our Winters to educate and advocate for policies that mitigate the effects of climate change.

The threat of human-induced climate change recognized by these leaders applies to more than just winter events. Summer sports, such as golf and baseball, are also feeling the strain of our warming world.

In the spirit of the Olympic Games, we must unite as global citizens to join in our most important race – the race to defend the future of our planet.

Also posted in Basic Science of Global Warming, Energy, Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions / Comments are closed

Hurricane Harvey: Climate change, staggering costs, and people at the heart of it all

Texans are no stranger to the devastation of hurricanes. I still vividly remember, as a young child in Austin, being scared of Alicia in 1983 – and thankful that we lived at the top of the hill. Alicia caused nearly $2 billion in damages, a record at the time, and the category 3 storm was so destructive that its name was retired. But only a few years later, that record was broken in Texas by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 ($5 billion), Hurricane Rita in 2005 ($24 billion), and Hurricane Ike in 2008 ($35 billion).

In fact, of the top ten costliest hurricanes of all time in the U.S., nine have been since 2004, and half have been in the past five years. Houston alone has endured three 500-year floods in the past three years. Each of these storms was devastating in its own right, but Harvey brought destruction to a new level.

As a native Texan, this is not the normal I knew. And for those outside Texas, think of the magnitude: You could fit the cities of Boston, Chicago, Manhattan, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Washington, D.C. into the geographical area of Houston. So how does Hurricane Harvey fit into the new normal? Here are three things we know for certain.

  1. Climate change increased the intensity and likelihood of the storm

2017 was a devastating year of natural disasters, by any measure, from wildfires in several western states to intense heatwaves in the Southwest to Harvey, followed closely by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Thanks to the improvement in climate models, scientists are now better equipped to attribute climate change effects to individual natural disasters.

A recent study by hurricane experts in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found that Harvey’s unprecedented 51 inches of rainfall in the Houston area, as well as wind speeds in other parts of the state, were three times more likely and 15 percent more intense than without climate change. The study even called the rainfall “biblical” – as in, it has likely occurred only once since the time the Old Testament was written.

In Texas now, the odds of another Harvey-like rainfall could be nearly 1 in 5 per year by 2100 – put another way, rain of this magnitude could hit the state 18 times more often by the end of the century. Storms that have more than 20 inches of rain in Texas are about six times more likely now than they were at the end of the 20th century, just 18 years ago.

Climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey, but it certainly made its impact much worse. Like an athlete on steroids, climate change enhances the performance of an already powerful force.

  1. The costs are and will continue to be enormous

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the costs from all the 2017 natural disasters clock in at $306 billion – and Harvey comes out on top at $125 billion. Not only is that figure staggering on its face, but if the political leadership continues to go forward as business as usual, the costs of inaction will dwarf these.

Furthermore, these official numbers do not include things like economic impacts in the community, health costs from air and water pollution, mental health costs from the trauma of natural disasters, and repeatedly continuing to rebuild.

Beyond what’s traditionally reported – mainly about homes and businesses – a lot of sectors of the economy were affected by Harvey, such as:

  • Agriculture: Texas A&M University estimates crop and livestock losses at $200 million, with cotton and livestock representing $193 million of that. With Texas leading the nation in cattle and cotton production, those are serious numbers.
  • Fishing: While Gulf oysters took a hit from Harvey, the economic impacts to the fishing communities, especially many immigrant and immigrant-descendant families, along the coast will be felt for a long time. In addition to gear and infrastructure losses, the long-term effects on the marine ecosystem are still unknown. In particular, since oysters filter a lot of water, the loss of oyster populations may have an effect on the bays’ overall health.
  • Oil and gas: 20 percent of offshore oil and gas production was shut down.

If we do not act to mitigate further damage, while adapting our infrastructure and our systems to the reality of climate change, we will face dire financial consequences that may prove impossible to work around.

  1. The impact on people is much deeper than numbers and dollars

Climate change isn’t just about studies and storm patterns, it means people are devastated. Some staggering stats from Harvey:

And for many, climate change will increasingly mean moving, not just rebuilding. Some towns and communities along the coast that have fewer resources than big cities like Houston, such as Rockport and Port Aransas, may never fully recover.

Plus, Houston’s no-zoning policy means a lot of pollution and petrochemical hazards are concentrated in one part of the city, which is largely populated by people of color or people with low incomes. Harvey unleashed a toxic stew in these neighborhoods and the communities, which already have fewer resources for rebuilding, may be permanently displaced. Storms don’t discriminate – some of the wealthiest areas in Houston were flooded – but climate change will hit vulnerable communities the hardest.

No time to lose

As Harris County Judge Ed Emmett put it, “Three 500-year floods in three years means either we’re free and clear for the next 1,500 years or something has seriously changed.” Unfortunately, the reality is the latter.

We have the data. We know the stats. There is no excuse to not act on climate change. The leadership of Texas and the U.S. have a duty to protect the citizens and property of this state and country. Ignoring the new normal is reckless.

Photo source: U.S. Army

This post first appeared on EDF’s Texas Clean Air Matters blog.

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