The NRC is wrong – we’re nowhere near ready to research geoengineering

mr burns solar shade
mr burns solar shade

Geoengineering: The Simpsons already did it.

Last week, the National Research Council released a lengthy, two-volume report on geoengineering. The central crux of the report and the surrounding debate seems to be that, sure, geoengineering is a crazy idea, but, we need to at least research it, because we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we need every tool available at our disposal. Even the IPCC has dipped a toe in the water, noting in its Fifth Assessment Report that we will most likely end up surpassing the 2ºC warming threshold if we exceed 450ppm of CO2. The only way to get back under that threshold is through the “widespread deployment of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation in the second half of the century.” Given these realities, it seems logical to at least start researching geoengineering, right? It’s better to have that arrow in the quiver and never need it than need it and not have it.

The risks & rewards of geoengineering

The problem with geoengineering is that even researching it carries clear risks. In July 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program published a report titled “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.” The report includes a chapter on geoengineering (“climate engineering” in their parlance) by Achim Maas and Irina Comardicea of aldephi, a German think tank.

In their piece, Maas and Comardicea lay out the potential benefits and drawbacks of climate engineering. On the one hand, climate engineering would not need to upend our existing fossil fuel-based global energy system and may be a more appealing option for certain actors. This approach would also allow developing states space to continue to exploiting their fossil fuel reserves as a way to lift their citizens out of extreme poverty, helping to level the potential trade-offs between tackling climate change and global poverty.

On the other hand, tinkering with our climate system could generate some severe unintended consequences. First, it fails to tackle the root cause of climate change, so it is far from an actual solution. Second, it does nothing to curb the impacts of climate change outside of global warming, most notably ocean acidification. Third, the potential side effects of climate engineering could be widespread, and we cannot predict them for sure. We may end up altering the color of the sky or the chemistry the oceans. Fourth, once we start playing God with our atmosphere, we can never stop. According to a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, if we engaged in solar radiation management (SRM) for 50 years, then stopped, we could end up getting all of the delayed warming from that period in just 5 to 10 years. That type of warming would be unprecedented, and we could have no way to adapt.

The trouble with research

But none of the above specifically explains why researching climate engineering is, in and out itself, fraught with risks. Maas and Comardicea delve into this issue at length. Because of the scope and the scale of climate engineering, we cannot accurately replicate it in a lab, and there is no way the international community would sign off on a global chemistry experiment without knowing the real world implications. And that necessitates experimenting outside of the lab.

Say we decided to inject sulfates into the atmosphere on a “small scale” in order to see if we could reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. The risks of even a theoretically controlled experiment could be significant. Thanks to a study that also came out last week, we know that the increase in aerosol emissions in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution altered precipitation patterns in the northern tropics, contributing to a “substantial drying trend” after 1850.

The impacts of climate change and, by extension, climate engineering, are so distant in time and space that we would have no way of knowing exacting where, when, and how the potential consequences of this kind of experiment would play out. What if a prolonged drought occurred in the Caribbean or the monsoon shifted dramatically in South Asia? We would be unable to pinpoint the cause of such a change – whether natural or manmade – for several months or years.

And, during this period, all sorts of social and political consequences could occur. We already know, for instance, that aerosol pollution from India has intensified tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea, including a category 4 cyclone that hit Pakistan in June 2010. Pakistan is already acutely aware of the impacts of drifting air pollution from India. What if the country experienced another disaster on the scale of the 2010 Indus River floods and decided that Indian interference in the atmosphere was to blame?

As Maas and Comardicea argue,

Even if there may be no direct connection between a state’s regional climate engineering scheme and the crop failure of another state, it may provide a convenient scapegoat and lead to increased tensions…The possibility of unilaterally implemented climate engineering, either via world powers or smaller coalitions of states, may thus lead to a “climate control race.” In the same way that states raced to develop arsenals of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, states may compete to develop and control climate engineering technology.

There is already a track record to suggest that states can use weather as a tool of war. The US employed cloud seeding techniques from 1967-1972 as part of “Operation Popeye” to try and interrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Such actions directly led to the 1978 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which barred the using environmental modification to cause harm. But even ENMOD has not halted efforts to control the weather. China, for instance, has widely employed cloud seeding, most famously to clear the skies over Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Governance before research

With all of these potential consequences in mind, what do Maas and Comardicea recommend to stave off the worst effects of climate engineering? In a word, governance:

To reduce the conflict potential of climate engineering, a transparent international dialogue on the research and applications of climate engineering technologies is crucial prior to any field research (emphasis added). Ongoing talks and deliberations should involve a wide variety of stakeholders, and critically evaluate the potential technological benefits and pitfalls, as well as the regulatory development of the range of climate engineering techniques…

In conclusion, the NRC is wrong here. We need governance, first and foremost, before undertaking research and absolutely before trying out any of these crazy ass schemes in the real world. The risks are too great to play it by the seat of our pants. I’m not here to say that we should never employ geoengineering at any point, for any reason. I think it’s a terrible idea with a dramatic downside, but there may come a time when we have no choice. Then, and only then – as a very last resort – should we be ready to employ it. But we are a long way from that point, and we are still a long way from reaching the day at which we can even begin to researching to prepare for this day. Let’s get through Paris first without saddling this conference with yet another intractable problem.

At this rate, Ohio will fully fund transit sometime in the 22nd century

e 79th rapid station
e 79th rapid station

The nearly decrepit East 79th rapid station, which the Greater Cleveland RTA estimates will require $16-18 million in renovations to reach ADA compliance (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

Governor John Kasich released his biennial budget proposal for 2016-2017 last week, and there’s some good news for transit users in Ohio: the budget actually proposes increasing state transit funding! In this budget, the Governor lays out plans to increase the amount of money that the Ohio Department of Transportation allocates from the state’s General Revenue Fund to $8.3 million from $7.3.

This proposal represents the first year-over-year increase in state transit spending since 1998. Given that the state has reduced GRF spending on transit by an astonishing 83.5% since its peak in the year 2000, even this modest increase is kind of a big deal. While $1 million is a drop in the bucket in the big picture – it doesn’t even take the state back to 2011 funding levels – it may signal that Ohio is at least slowing the rate at which it has slashed transit spending. I mean, even a $1 increase would be notable in this environment.

ODOT transit funding study

But, about that bigger picture. Last December, ODOT released the preliminary results of a study it commissioned to explore unmet transit funding needs in the state. The report, from respected consulting firm Nelson Nygard, states that the state needs to double the amount of money it spends on public transit each year to meet projected demand. Moreover, just to fulfill unmet demand in 2015, ODOT would need to increase its transit spending by $289 million ($192 million in capital spending and $97 million in operating costs). As The Plain Dealer‘s Alison Grant noted at the time,

A decade from now, Ohio would have to be spending roughly double its $900 million annual outlay on public transit, or $1.8 billion, to meet expected demand. The ODOT study recommends that the state portion of the budget rise to 10 percent instead of today’s 3 percent.

In light of these realities, I decided to put the Governor’s budgetary outlay into perspective: does it really put Ohio on the right path to meeting transit demand? Does this increase in funding seem to represent an actual change in trends, or is it a minor blip for a state that will continue to lag behind its neighbors?

Placing Governor Kasich’s proposal in context

Let’s do some back of the napkin calculations, shall we? The Nelson Nygard study estimates that Ohio will need to spend $1.842 billion on transit from all revenue sources (rate payers plus municipalities, the state, and the federal government). In 2012, Ohio spent a total of $893.1 million. ODOT contributed $27.3 million, or approximately 3%, of this total, with $7.3 million from the GRF and $20 million coming from federal Flex Funds, which states can allocate to transit or highway projects. If the state increases is portion of total transit spending to 10%, as Nelson Nygard recommends, that would require a total investment of $184.2 million from ODOT, or an increase of 674%.

Accordingly, ODOT needs to come up with an additional $157 million in the next decade. Taking into account that the Governor’s current budget proposal would lock in spending levels through 2017, that reduces that time period from 10 to 8 years. So, to get to the levels suggested by ODOT’s study, Ohio would need to increase spending by $19.5 million per year, on average. That’s considerably higher than what the Governor is recommending.

Where would the Governor’s proposal leave us, then? Well, let’s consider 3 separate proposals. First, we will assume that the state increases GRF funding for transit by an average of $1 million per year (given that the state operates on a biennial budget cycle, this would likely mean that funding increased by $2 million each budget cycle). Second, let’s project that ODOT increases total transit funding by the same year-over-year rate that the Governor is proposing in his current budget. Going from $27.3 million to $28.3 million represents a 3.66% annual increase. Third, let’s be extremely optimistic and imagine that Ohio actually proposes increasing GRF funding for transit by the same rate as we find in 2016-2017 budget. Using the numbers provided, that would give us a 12.05% annual increase in GRF spending, which, of course, is little more than a pipe dream. But anyways.

Scenario 1: Increase of $1 million per year

This estimate isn’t exactly rocket science. Ohio needs to come up with another $157 million to meet projected needs for 2025. So at an annual increase of $1 million per year, the state is currently on course to meet 2025 demand in the year 2172. Now, that number is actually a bit misleading, because it doesn’t take into account inflation. As the total amount of money that ODOT contributes to transit grows, each $1 million funding increase gets proportionally smaller. Assuming a 2% annual rate of inflation (the average rate for the US economy since 2010), state funding would fail to keep pace with inflation starting in 2057. That would dramatically extend the end date for achieving full funding beyond 2172.

Perhaps even more depressingly, if we follow this same trend line, the state would not even return to year 2000 funding levels until 2052. Of course, that number once again fails to take into account inflation; the state would have to spend $60.93 million today to equal the real value of its $44.32 million investment in 2000. Another way of looking at it – the state’s current investment of $7.3 million is only worth $5.3 million in USD 2000. So, for Scenarios 2 and 3, let’s recognize that these quick calculations are nominal, not real, values. Real values would make things that much bleaker.

Scenario 2: Increase in total transit funding by 3.66% per year

If ODOT increased its annual GRF outlay for transit spending by 3.66% each year – a value which should keep pace with inflation, on average – the state would see its transportation funding reach $184.2 million in 2099, just in time to ring in the 22nd century. In nominal values, we would finally get back to year 2000 funding levels in 2063. This estimate is later than that from Scenario 1, as GRF funding grows at an annual rate greater than 3.66% through 2035 in that scenario.

Scenario 3: Increase in GRF funding by 12.05% pear year

Lastly, we get to run this wildly optimistic scenario, which has essentially no basis in reality. If the state continue to increase the amount of money it contributed from its general fund to transit spending at a rate of 12.05% per year, it would still take until 2043 to meet 2025 needs, in nominal terms. Hell, we wouldn’t even catch up to year 2000 funding levels until 2031! And just to emphasize how unlikely this scenario is, it would mean that, by 2068, the state would commit more just to public transit than ODOT will spend in total for 2015. Not happening.

Conclusion

Ultimately, as these scenarios demonstrate, Governor Kasich’s proposed increase in public transit funding hardly amounts to a drop in the proverbial bucket. And that’s only if it gets through the legislature untouched, which is highly unlikely. Keep in mind the Ohio House is more conservative than at any time in the state’s modern history, and the Tea Party generally frowns upon public transportation. Consider, for instance, the all out war on transit launched by the Koch brothers-funded Americans For Prosperity. It’s hard to see how Ohio can get itself on the right course in this current political environment.

I give the Governor credit for at least restoring a sliver of the transit funding that he has slashed since taking office in 2011, but we need to keep things in perspective. This state has consistently failed to support its citizens who rely on public transportation, and it will take a Herculean effort to fix the problem. Providing $1 million more per year is little more to putting a band-aid on a severed artery.

Minnesota’s DOT is ready for climate change. ODOT? Not so much.

duluth flood damage
duluth flood damage

Heavy damage to a road in Duluth, Minnesota following flooding from the Tischer Creek in June 2012 (courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio).

Climate change will have profound and diverse impacts upon infrastructure throughout the United States, including transportation infrastructure. Rising sea levels, stronger storm surges, more severe flooding, land subsidence, soil erosion, melting permafrost, and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles will all strain our already aging, deteriorating roads, bridges, and ports. The American Society of Civil Engineers has consistently given the country’s infrastructure a D or D+ on its annual report card since 1998, and the US slipped from fifth place in 2002 to 24th by 2011 in World Economic Forum’s transportation rankings. Throw in profound and unpredictable changes to the climate that facilitated the rise of human civilization, and you have a recipe for disaster.

It is for this reason that the President Obama’s administration has attempted to drag the federal government into the 21st century on climate change planning, despite considerable institutional inertia, not to mention stalwart opposition from Congressional Republicans and special interests. Just last week, the President issued an executive order requiring all federal agencies to include long-term sea level rise projections during the siting, design, and construction of federal projects. Planning for such changes and the threat of 100- and 500-year flood events, which will become drastically more frequent in a greenhouse world, will be of vital importance for the US Department of Transportation. Critical institutions are already at risk from near-term climate change. Parts of Oakland International Airport, for instance, could wind up under water during the daily high tide if sea levels rise just 16 inches.

But, given the complexity of our federal system of government and the aforementioned institutional inertia, the administration’s actions will take time to trickle down to the state and local level, where many of the daily decisions on transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance occur. While this fragmented structure has enabled some progressive state and municipal governments to take steps to combat climate change in the absence of meaningful legislation from Congress, it can also create a highly uneven system in which certain locales are far more inclined to incorporate climate change considerations in transportation planning. Given the fact that the roads, bridges, and ports we build today will likely still be in operation 30-50 years from now, each day that we delay increases our adaptation deficit – that is, the gap between our current level and an ideal level of adaptive capacity to a changing climate.

To demonstrate this uneven level of adaptation, consider the different approaches to climate change planning from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT). This week, Minnesota Public Radio is featuring a series on climate change in the North Star State. An article this morning discussed how the state has adapted to more severe rainfall events in recent years.

In all three cases, whether officials say it in so many words or not, they are adapting their cities’ infrastructure to a changed climate, one that has been dumping more rain and bigger rains on Minnesota.

Warmer temperatures have an impact on infrastructure as well – more freeze-and-thaw cycles mean more potholes, for example. But because roads require relatively constant maintenance, road planners can adapt to a changing climate on the fly.

Not so with storm and wastewater systems, which are built to last as long as a century. That, say urban planners, is where the real challenge lies, and it is where some Minnesota cities have been focusing their efforts to adapt to climate change.

As the article notes, severe rain and flash floods have taken a drastic toll on infrastructure, including transportation systems, in recent years. Fortunately for Minnesotans, MnDOT has been leading the way in the effort to incorporate changing precipitation patterns and flood risks into planning. The agency recently completed an assessment of climate change risks to infrastructure in two districts, District 1 and District 6, which are located in the northeast and southeast portions of the state, respectively. In the introduction to the assessment, MnDOT writes,

Recognizing this, MnDOT planners and engineers have long considered minimizing the risk of flash flooding in the siting and design of the state’s roadway network. However, as has been the standard practice worldwide, they have traditionally assumed that future climate conditions will be similar to those recorded in the past. Climate change challenges this assumption and calls for new approaches to understanding vulnerabilities across the highway system and at specific transportation facilities so that appropriate actions, adaptations, can be taken to minimize expanding risks.

This project…represents a starting point for developing these new approaches. The focus of this pilot study is on flash flooding risks to the highway system. While flooding is not the only threat to the state’s highway system posed by climate change, it is likely to be one of the most significant and has already caused extensive disruptions to the transportation system in many areas.

If only Ohio had taken such a proactive approach to this issue. To be fair to ODOT, the agency does appear to be considering climate change in its planning process. There is a section devoted to the issue in Access Ohio 2040, the state’s long-term transportation planning vision. Perhaps strategically, the document refers to it as “climate variability” and completely bypasses the question of what is causing climate change. Now, the supplement to this section does touch on the fact that greenhouse gas emissions, including those from transportation, are driving the observed changes, though it does so somewhat halfheartedly. And then there’s the presentation on climate change infrastructure vulnerability that seems more focused on the potential benefits for the state from altering our extant climatic systems.

But, at least ODOT appears to have faced up to the issue. Access Ohio 40 calls for the state to complete a Statewide Climate Variability Study “within the next two years.” If the state meets this metric, the study should be finished by summer 2016, leaving the state roughly 18 months behind MnDOT. Now, I should note that, unlike ODOT, MnDOT’s assessment was one of 19 pilot projects funding by the Federal Highway Administration through its 2013-2014 Climate Change Resilience program. Then again, states, metropolitan planning organizations, and other entities had to actually apply to secure FHWA funding. I can find no evidence that Ohio bothered applying. Additionally, I have searched through the State of Ohio’s FY 2014-2015 transportation budget, and I find no evidence that the legislature has ponied up the $250,000-500,000 that ODOT stated it would need to complete its climate variability assessment. So I question whether Ohio is on track to finish the assessment by next summer.

And, even if ODOT has made some commitment to climate change adaptation at the strategic level – a highly dubious proposition – there is absolutely no evidence that this commitment has worked its way down to the project level. Consider the Opportunity Corridor, one of the largest projects currently being funded in the state. A handful of individuals and organizations submitted comments to ODOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the project, imploring the agency to take climate change into account. Here’s how ODOT responded in its Final EIS:

[I]t is analytically problematic to conduct a project level cumulative effects analysis of greenhouse gas emissions on a global-scale problem… Because of these concerns, CO2 emissions cannot be usefully evaluated in the same way as other vehicle emissions. The NEPA process is meant to concentrate on the analyses of issues that can be truly meaningful to the consideration of project alternatives, rather than simply “amassing” data. In the absence of a regional or national framework for considering the implications of a project-level greenhouse gas analysis, such an analysis would not inform project decision-making, while adding administrative burden.

In other words, we think your request is stupid and a waste of time, so nope.

ODOT does not operate in a vacuum. I’m sure there are a lot of good civil servants trying their best to meet the needs of Ohioans at the agency, but its direction is ultimately shaped by the elected officials in power in Columbus. Governor Kasich may at least pay lip service to climate change, but he has shown no inclination to actually act on the issue. Quite the contrary – he is responsible for signing SB 310 into law last June. Attorney General DeWine, for his part, is currently suing the EPA to stop its efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there’s the GOP-dominated statehouse. The only reason Senator Bill Seitz will ever leave the legislature is through term limits, regardless of how many bombs he tosses about enviro-socialist rent seekers or the Bataan death march. And Senator Troy Balderson, the person who sponsored SB 310 and serves on the committee that regulates electric utilities, was blissfully unaware of the EPA’s plan to regulate coal-fired power plants a year after it was announced. It’s not exactly a shock that ODOT is a laggard here.

Those of us in Ohio who want an agency that is responsive to our desires to create an equitable, low-carbon, fiscally responsible transportation system need to keep pressuring ODOT, but we also need to win elections. Until then, our civil servants and public officials will keep their heads firmly lodged in the sand.

Watch: Find out why rivers change their courses in 3 minutes

cuyahoga river 1917 straighten
cuyahoga river 1917 straighten

A 1917 plan from the federal government to straighten the crooked Cuyahoga River (courtesy of Cleveland State University).

Rivers. They’re pretty amazing things. They provide humans with water for drinking, irrigation, and sanitation. They give us fish and other aquatic animals for food. They can be harnessed to power grind our grain, run our looms, and even power our cities. Their seasonal floods can bring rich silt to our fields or destruction and devastation to our lives. Sometimes, with just a little bit of help, they can even catch on fire. It’s no mistake that the first major human civilizations – Egypt, Mohenjo-Daro, Sumeria – developed along the banks of the world’s great rivers.

But rivers are much more than servants of (wo)man. They are dynamic ecosystems rich with biodiversity that shape and are shaped by the world around them. Any entity that can literally carve the Grand Canyon is pretty damn powerful.

And so rivers change. They top their banks, meander downstream, shift their paths. Sometimes, rivers even stop, turn around, and travel in the opposite direction. Rivers are not the static, shaped bodies that we encounter, but living, breathing systems.

It’s exactly this dynamism that humans don’t seem to like. We don’t like things that are beyond our control. We like to make things knowable, predictable, manageable. So we applied the logic of urban planning to one of the most complex systems in the world. We filled in urban rivers and sent them through channels and culverts. We built artificial banks out of concrete and steel to keep rivers contained. We constructed elaborate systems of dykes, dams, canals, and sluice gates so that we could regulate the seasonal pulses of the Mississippi and the Nile. We even dreamed up cockamamie schemes to make crooked rivers straight. These efforts to regulate rivers have created their own severe side effects – riverbank erosion, declining biodiversity, reduced silt delivery, sedimentation, and altered flood risks. We’re only beginning to face up to these unintended consequences.

So we know that, left to their own devices, rivers will constantly change. But have you ever wondered how and why? Well, wonder no more, thanks to this new video from Minute Earth. If you have three minutes to spare, you can learn a lot about fluid dynamics, fractals, and how muskrats decorate their dens.

(h/t Mental Floss UK)

Don’t blame it on the rain: On the root causes of Northeast Ohio’s flooding problems

Floodwaters submerged vehicles in the parking lot at Great Northern mall in North Olmsted on May 12 (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

“Après moi, le déluge” – King Louis XV (1710-1774)

Northeast Ohio has a flooding problem, as anyone affected by the severe storms last evening can attest. The region has experienced at least four major flooding events in the past few months, the most serious of which occurred five months ago on May 12, when torrential rains caused widespread flooding in several communities.

As the hydrographs below demonstrate, this severe deluge caused several rivers and streams to overflow their banks throughout the western and southern portions of Greater Cleveland. Flash floods also occurred in several areas; one raging flash flood nearly washed away a vehicle containing legendary meteorologist Dick Goddard, who apparently did not heed that famous National Weather Service saying: “turn around, don’t drown.”

This hydrograph displays the streamflow for three Northeast Ohio rivers – the Vermilion River (red), the Black Creek in Elyria (green), and the Rocky River in Berea (blue) – as measured by the US Geological Survey during May of this year. As you can clearly see, the streamflow in each of these rivers spiked drastically on May 12-13, due to the extreme precipitation during that period. Both the Vermilion and Black Rivers exceeded their respective flood stages (courtesy of USGS).

Who is to blame?

Since these floods occurred, people have been looking for answers or, in many cases, someone to blame. Those individuals whose property and piece of mind were damaged by the floodwaters have, in many cases, been understandably and justifiably upset, even angry. Many of these people have turned their anger at their municipal governments for failing, for one reason or another, to prevent the floods from occurring. This anger bubbled over in some instances, leading to highly contentious public meetings, such as the one in North Olmsted during which a resident got on stage to publicly rebuke officials and call for citizens to sue the city. Residents of other municipalities, including Olmsted Township and Strongsville, are also considering class action lawsuits, accusing their cities of negligence for not investing in adequate infrastructure upgrades.

City officials, for their part, have found a different scapegoat – the rain itself. And there can be no question that the rain in some areas in the past few months has been downright biblical. North Olmsted endured 4.44 inches of rain – more rain than it receives, on average, for the entire month of May – in a couple of hours on the 12th. Put another way, that amount of rain would be equivalent to roughly 44 inches of snow. Strongsville, in turn, saw 3.58 inches of rain that evening, just under its monthly average rainfall of 3.66 inches for May.* The following month, Cleveland suffered a similar fate. The 3.54 inches that fell on June 24 made it the fourth rainiest day for the city in the past century.

Yet, major rainfall events are not uncommon for Northeast Ohio during the summer months; in fact, they are the norm. On average, roughly 40% of the total precipitation in the Midwest each year falls during just 10 days; almost all of these days occur during the summer months, when high heat and humidity can lead to major convective storms. But, what is different is the frequency with which these types of flooding events are occurring. Residents in many of the affected communities have testified that they have experienced floods on a semi-regular basis over the past 10-15 years.

Don’t blame it on the rain…or the sewers

While it may be convenient to blame these floods on the rain, it’s not that simple. As the (handful of) people who have perused this blog in the past have no doubt grown tired of reading, there’s no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Rather, disaster risk is the combination of a natural hazard, our physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and our socioeconomic vulnerability. If 4 inches of rain falls in the middle of an uninhabited tract of some national park in Montana, it does not constitute a disaster. In a sense, for disasters, if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to see it, it really doesn’t make a sound.

So, while it may make sense for people to blame inaction by public officials or the heavens for floods, these simply represent the proximate causes of the disaster. We cannot hope to address the real issue at hand by focusing simply on these; that is the equivalent of treating the symptoms of the illness. Rather, we need to focus on the root causes, which one can identify through this disaster risk lens.

Since I cannot readily or adequately examine the various facets of disaster vulnerability for every community affected by this summer’s floods, I want to focus instead on the other two components of the disaster risk triad – natural hazards and exposure. Increases in extreme precipitation events due to climate change and Northeast Ohio’s ongoing sprawl problem, respectively, account for much of the apparent spike in flooding events throughout the region over the past several years. I explore each of these below.

Natural hazard: Climate change and precipitation in Northeast Ohio

Logically, the more rain that falls over an area, particularly within a limited period of time, the higher the likelihood that a flood will occur. We already know that, based on simple physics, as global temperatures increase, the amount of moisture in the air should also rise. According to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapor increases roughly 7% for each 1ºC increase in atmospheric temperatures. This should lead to two general outcomes. First, it will take the atmosphere longer to reach its point of saturation, which may lengthen the periods between rain events for many areas, contributing to droughts. Conversely, because the amount of water vapor available for precipitation also rises, rainfall events should become more extreme in nature. As Dr. Kevin Trenberth put it in a 2007 study (PDF),

Hence, storms, whether individual thunderstorms, extratropical rain or snow storms, or tropical cyclones, supplied with increased moisture, produce more intense precipitation events. Such events are observed to be widely occurring, even where total precipitation is decreasing: ‘it never rains but it pours!’ This increases the risk of flooding.

We are already witnessing this intensification of rainfall in the US, particularly in the Midwest.  According to the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA), total precipitation has increased in the Midwest by 9% since 1991. Over the past century, certain parts of the region have seen precipitation totals climb by up to 20%. This increase is due largely to a spike in the frequency of extreme precipitation events. From 1958-2012, the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy downpour events jumped by 37% in the Midwest. This statistic helps to explain why, of the 12 instances in which Cleveland received more than 3 inches of rain in a day during the last century, 7 have occurred since 1994.

heavy downpours by region

One measure of heavy precipitation events is a two-day precipitation total that is exceeded on average only once in a 5-year period, also known as the once-in-five-year event. As this extreme precipitation index for 1901-2012 shows, the occurrence of such events has become much more common in recent decades. Changes are compared to the period 1901-1960, and do not include Alaska or Hawai‘i. (courtesy of Climate Central).

Unless we take action quickly to reduce our carbon emissions, this situation will only get worse in the coming decades. The NCA projects that, under a business as usual scenario (RCP 8.5), Ohio will see such extreme precipitation events four times more frequently by the end of the century.

extreme precipitation events projections

The increase in frequency of extreme daily precipitation events (a daily amount that now occurs once in 20 years) by the later part of this century (2081-2100) compared to the later part of last century (1981-2000) (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Exposure: Sprawl and flooding in Northeast Ohio

I’ve also written extensively in the past about Northeast Ohio’s problems with sprawl-based development (see here for examples). As I wrote one year ago today,

Northeast Ohio has suffered from decades of sprawl and uncoordinated development patterns, leading to waves of suburbanization followed by exurbanization. In 1948, Cuyahoga County’s population stood at 1,389,532; just 26% of land in the county was developed at the time. Yet, by 2002, although the county’s population had grown by a mere .32% to 1,393,978, sprawl ensured that roughly 95% of the county’s land area had been developed.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the decentralization of the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

We’ve come a long way since 2002. The heyday of sprawl appears to be on its last legs, as the combined effects of the Great Recession, the rise of the Millennial generation, and the gradual retirement of the Baby Boomers has led to a resurgence in the number of people living in walkable urban areas. Multiple sources have proclaimed the end of sprawl; this trend even appears to be taking root in Atlanta.

Cleveland has tried to position itself to follow this emerging trend. The city was recently ranked 10th most walkable among the largest 30 metro areas, enjoys a 98.3% residential occupancy rate downtown, has unveiled a plan to double the amount of bike routes in the city by the end 2017, and has seen a rise in transit-oriented development.

Given all of these positive indicators, why would I suggest that sprawl has increased the frequency and intensity of floods over the past decade-plus? Well, simply put, because it has. While it’s impossible for one to  deny all of these positive indicators, one also cannot ignore the facts.

In its Measuring Sprawl 2014 report, Smart Growth American ranked Cleveland 153 of 221 metros on its sprawl index. The median score was 100; cities with scores over 100 were more compact, while those with scores less than 100 were more sprawling. Cleveland scored an 85.62 (PDF), placing it below other regional metros, including Detroit (12th), Milwaukee (15th), Chicago (26th), Akron (111th), Dayton (116th), Toledo (117th), Pittsburgh (132nd), and Columbus (138). Cleveland does outperform some other nearby metros, including Indianapolis (158th), Cincinnati (166th), and Youngstown (175th).

Moreover, a recent study out of the University of Utah suggests that from 2000-2010, the Cleveland metro area became even more sprawling (PDF). Using Smart Growth America’s sprawl index, the authors examined the rate of change for the 162 largest metro areas (paywalled) during this period. While Akron actually became 2.7% more compact, Cleveland sprawled by another 13.3%, the 10th worst change of any metro area. Though the city’s number improved since 2010, our 85.62 in 2014 is still lower than the 86.01 that we had 14 years ago.

So why does this all matter for flooding? Well, simply put, areas that follow sprawl-based development models are more likely to suffer from flooding problems. Sprawl increases the percentage of land area that is covered with impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads, and driveways. As the extent of impervious surfaces rises, so too does the amount of precipitation that winds up as surface runoff during storms. Forested areas are excellent at controlling stormwater (PDF); trees enable 50% of precipitation to infiltrate the soil and allow another 40% to return to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration. Urbanized areas, in contrast, drastically reduce the amount of water that can infiltrate into the soil, guaranteeing that 35-55% of precipitation ends up as runoff.

As Hollis (1975) has shown, urbanization increases the incidence of small flooding events 10-fold (paywalled). Additionally, if 30% of the roads in an urban area are paved, major flood events with return periods of 100 years or more tend to double in magnitude. Northeast Ohio has more than 48,000 acres of impervious surfaces, equivalent to approximately one-third of the region’s land area. Accordingly, we fall directly into that danger zone for major flood events due, in large part, to our development patterns.

Secondly, because so much of the county is already developed, many new developments are being built in existing flood zones. In December 2010, FEMA released its first comprehensive flood zone maps for Northeast Ohio since the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, these maps show a dramatic increase in the number of people living in flood zone areas, due to the outward expansion of development. Thousands of people woke up one day to find out that they had been living in a flood zone, and they were none too happy to learn that they would now have to shoulder some of the cost of that decision by purchasing federal flood insurance. Interestingly, the gentleman who filed the class action lawsuit against Strongsville over the flooding lives in a housing development in one of these flood plains.

Lastly, sprawl directly contributes to climate change by leading to additional greenhouse gas emissions. Suburban areas account of 50% of the US’s total emissions, despite being home to less than half of the population. While households in downtown Cleveland produce just 26.5 tons of GHGs annually, that number skyrockets to 85.6 tons for Gates Mills residents. Because transportation accounts for such a high portion of the average family’s carbon footprint in this region, our sprawl problem has directly resulted in additional carbon pollution.

Conclusion

There is no question that flooding represents a real threat to the quality of life of people living in Northeast Ohio. Those individuals who have been directly affected by it have every right to be upset and to demand answers. Unfortunately, however, it appears that we are losing sight of the forest for the trees. Focusing exclusively on the proximate drivers of these floods may seem like a good idea, but it allows us to escape examining the real, underlying root causes. Until we step up and begin to shift our regional development patterns away from those centered on sprawl and rampant fossil fuel use, this flooding problem will only get worse.

 

*It’s worth noting that Strongsville is one of eight suburbs that have sued the Northeast Ohio Sewer District to fight the implementation of its stormwater management program. The case went before the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday. Obviously, this action runs directly counter to the city’s interests. While the stormwater management program will lead to an increase in rates, it is also the only chance we have to begin managing runoff as a region, which is essential not only for flood control but for improving our water quality and fighting harmful algae blooms. Additionally, a portion of the revenues from this fee would be made available for cleaning up after floods and helping to prevent future flooding. Perhaps that’s why, after the May 12 storms, North Royalton withdrew as one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case. This region desperately needs the investment that will come from this program, through Project Clean Lake, though I strongly encourage NEORSD to invest a greater portion of the program’s funds into green infrastructure, which is vital for controlling floods and filtering water.

How Afghanistan is quickly becoming a resource conflict

mineral resource map afghanistan
mineral resource map afghanistan

Map of estimated mineral reserves in Afghanistan, produced by the US Geological Survey in 2007. This map, along with another one focused on ferrous materials, have been used to project that the country has $1-3 trillion in available mineral reserves (courtesy of New Security Beat).

Why don’t people who don’t know I exist (and wouldn’t care if they did) follow advice that they had no way of knowing I’d even written?

Back in the winter/spring of 2012, I took a course on post-war peacebuilding with Dr. Charles Call, an expert who has worked with both the United Nations and US governments and penned Why Peace Fails: The Causes and Prevention of Civil War Recurrence.

In the course, Dr. Call broke the class into groups, each of which studied and analyzed a recent civil war and the subsequent international peacebuilding effort. Naturally, I ended up focusing on Afghanistan, because duh. For our final project, each group had to assess the risks of civil war recurrence for its respective country and identify the potential triggers that could foment such unrest. Being the only environmental policy student in a class full of peace and conflict resolution researchers, I was particularly concerned with the way that environmental issues may undermine Afghanistan’s extremely fragile peace (if one is willing to say that the country is actually “post-conflict”).

In the paper, I focused, in particular, on two main issues:

  1. The Afghan government’s emphasis upon harnessing the country’s water resources to expand irrigated agriculture and develop hydroelectric power could exacerbate localized conflicts over shared water resources and undermine the potential for regional cooperation, without which there remains little chance for true peace and stability within the country.
  2. That the focus on Afghanistan’s much ballyhooed mineral reserves could undermine peacebuilding initiatives, help finance rebel groups, and drive additional grievances against an already desperately weak government. To this point, I wrote:

While minerals represent a major potential source of revenue, [the Afghan government] needs to remain mindful of the risks. High-value minerals have contributed to civil conflicts around the world. The case of Papua New Guinea is of particular concern. The Australian colonial government and the national government of PNG touted the Panguna mine in Bougainville as a vital source of employment and revenue. However, the mine quickly became a major fault line due to land seizures, environmental degradation, and uneven distribution of profits. Locals used these grievances to launch a ten-year civil conflict that killed 20,000 people. As a country with limited experience with large-scale mining and serious problems with governance and corruption, encouraging major investments by multinational firms is risky. [Kabul] must tread lightly in this area. Weak land tenure and administration systems create further risks for localized conflicts within the country. Efforts to override customary land tenure systems and seize property for mining may spark violence or generate additional support for the insurgency…

While Afghan mineral reserves are potentially worth more than $1.3 trillion, this number considerably overstates their true value. Due to the lack of physical and institutional infrastructure required to facilitate extraction, the net present value is unlikely to exceed $120 billion. Relying on extractive industries also carries serious potential risks, as noted earlier. The amount of money changing hands will likely foster additional corruption. In exchange for granting the Aynak copper mine to Chinese company MCC, the former Minister of Mines took $30 million in bribes. MoM also left MCC responsible for acquiring land. Without paying close attention to these issues, Afghanistan’s mineral reserves could become another focal point for conflict.

Fast forward to the present. In 2013, persistent attacks from insurgents led to MCC significantly scaling back its investment at Aynak. According to the South China Morning Post,

With copper prices falling and the Chinese economy slowing, and security in Afghanistan deteriorating, the company has yet to begin production on the site and, according to mining industry and other sources, no longer wants to abide by the terms of the contract it signed in 2007.

The company wanted to renege on building a railway, power plant and processing factory, as stipulated in its deal to mine at Mes Aynak, site of one of the world’s biggest copper deposits, the sources said.

MCC also wanted to renege on paying the remainder of a bonus worth US$808 million to the Kabul government, having already paid US$133 million, one source close to Kabul’s ministry of mines said. It also wanted to cut the royalty payments, currently set at 19.5 per cent, about double the worldwide average.

And, as Al Jazeera America reported in June, the central government’s overwhelming desire to mine, baby, mine endangers a treasure trove of thousand-year old Buddhist artifacts. This episode represents just the latest episode in a decades-long assault on the country’s social and cultural history.

One of the legendary Buddhas of Bamiyan, prior to their destruction by the Taliban in March 2000 courtesy of

One of the legendary Buddhas of Bamiyan, prior to their destruction by the Taliban in March 2000 (courtesy of Helena Wangefelt Ström).

Moreover, just last week Foreign Policy published a piece titled “Does Afghanistan’s New Mining Law Benefit Its Mafias?” The piece drew attention to these concerns that the poor management of the country’s mineral resources and the rush to extract minerals – both by the Karzai government and its Western allies – may be endangering the long-term security and development of the country:

This battle for control [over resources] “may consign the country to a prolonged war,” Javed Noorani, formerly of IWA and an expert on the resources sector, told me recently.

With the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops scheduled for December 31, and a drastic drawdown in external development aid, Noorani believes Afghanistan is transitioning not from war to peace, but “from military conflict to resources conflict.” “The Taliban are not spectators to the sector but finance their war from revenues from the sector,” he said. He believes illegal mining will allow non-state groups like the Taliban to consolidate and emerge to threaten the governments of Afghanistan and its neighbors, telling me that: “Their footprints are already here.”

Who could have foreseen such a potential calamity? Oh, right.

It’s not as though this outcome is particularly surprising; scholars and NGOs have been warning about the potential for resources to drive ongoing conflict in Afghanistan for years. Back in 2004, Jonathan Goodhand discussed the role that minerals had played in financing both the mujahideen groups during the Afghan civil war in the book War Economies in a Regional Context: Challenges of Transformation.

While most Western actors have focused on opium, the fact remains that both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance relied on illicitly exploited resources, particularly emeralds and granite, to finance their war efforts. Resource conflict is hardly new to Afghanistan; taking such an ahistorical approach to peacebuilding was destined to fail from the start. I guess the one irony in this whole debacle is the fact that western military and political leaders have used the presence of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth to justify both an ongoing counterinsurgency operation and the rapid withdrawal of forces.

If there’s one thing that I learned from my time working on the Environmental Law Institute/UN Environment Programme environmental peacebuilding initiative, it is that natural resources can be a blessing, but they often end up as a curse for post-conflict developing states. In such settings, transparency and accountability of resource extraction is paramount. Just because the US and NATO allies are withdrawing military forces (rightfully) from Afghanistan does not mean these countries do not have an obligation to push Kabul to adhere to international principles on proper natural resource management. As a party to the Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative, the country has already recognized its obligations.

It’s time for officials in Kabul, Washington, and other Western capitals to step up on this front; the consequences of inaction are too significant to ignore.

Sorry, Roger Pielke, climate change is causing more disasters

typhoon haiyan damage
typhoon haiyan damage

Damage in Tacloban from super Typhoon Haiyan (courtesy of The Daily Mail).

Back in March, controversial political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr. published his first post for FiveThirtyEight. The piece centered on the argument that climate change is not contributing to an increase in scale of disasters globally; rather, Pielke argued, “the numbers reflect more damage from catastrophes because the world is getting wealthier.”

The piece immediately drew consternation and criticism from a number of individuals and even prompted Nate Silver to commission a formal response from MIT climate scientists Kerry Emanuel. In particular, Emanuel and fellow climate scientist Michael Mann criticized Pielke’s decision to normalize GDP data. As Emanuel wrote,

To begin with, it’s not necessarily appropriate to normalize damages by gross domestic product (GDP) if the intent is to detect an underlying climate trend. GDP increase does not translate in any obvious way to damage increase; in fact, wealthier countries can better afford to build stronger structures and to protect assets (for example, build seawalls and pass and enforce building regulations). A grass hut will be completely destroyed by a hurricane, but a modern steel office building will only be partially damaged; damage does not scale linearly with the value of the asset.

Pielke’s critics also noted that he used an oddly brief time span for his investigation (1990-2013), that his use of global data tends to cover up significant differences in disaster damages among regions, and that he does not account for disaster damages that have been avoided due to investments in disaster mitigation and risk reduction. There’s also the fact that he includes geological disasters (i.e. earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) in an analysis that purportedly dismisses climate change as a factor; would it really have been that hard to get the original data on climate-related disasters directly from EM-DAT?

Not suprisingly, Pielke and a number of his friends, colleagues, and allies defended the piece, portraying Pielke as the victim of a coordinated witch hunt from climate activists and radical environmentalist bloggers. In an interview with Pielke, Keith Kloor, someone with whom I have disagreed on many occasions but respect, wrote that various commenters had “used slanderous language in an attempt to discredit” Pielke’s work. The basic argument is that few people had any real qualms with the research itself; instead, Pielke’s critics could not escape their personal feelings towards him and allowed those to color their critiques of his work.

Disaster frequency in the Asia-Pacific region

All of this is just an excessively long introduction to a new study published this week in the journal Climatic Change. In the article, researchers Vinod Thomas of the Asian Development Bank, Jose Ramon G. Albert of Philippine Institute for Development Studies, and Cameron Hepburn from Oxford University (herein known as TAH) “examine the importance of three principal factors, exposure, vulnerability and climate change, taken together, in the rising threat of natural disasters in Asia-Pacific” during the period from 1971-2010.

Now, there are three key reasons why this article piqued my interest and why its results are relevant to the topic at hand, particularly in contrast to Pielke’s research:

  1. The Asia-Pacific region typically accounts for at least a plurality of all disaster metrics – frequency, victims, and economic damages. From 2002-2011, according to EM-DAT (PDF, see page 27), Asia-Pacific was home to 39.6% of disaster events, 86.6% of disaster victims, and 47.9% of economic losses.
  2. The overwhelming majority of disaster events, losses, and victims in Asia result from climate-related disasters. For instance, the region accounts for 40% of all flood events (PDF, see page 6) over the last 30 years, and three-quarters of all flood-related mortality occurs in just three Asian countries – Bangladesh, China, and India.
  3. Both the size of the region’s populations and economies have grown dramatically over the past 40 years. As the figure below demonstrates, East and South Asia have seen GDP per capita growth rates of 8.4% and 5.6%, respectively, easily outpacing other regions. Asia-Pacific is also rapidly urbanizing. From 1950 to 2010, the number of Asians living in urban areas grew seven fold to 1.77 billion (PDF, see page 32). Many of these individuals live in areas highly exposed to disasters; for instance, 18% of all urbanized Asians live in low elevation coastal zones. Accordingly, if population growth and increased exposure to disaster risk were the ultimate drivers of increasing disaster occurrence, Asia would likely be the test case.

So, does this new research validate Pielke’s assertions that disasters are not becoming more frequent and, if they are (which they aren’t), it has nothing to do with manmade climate change?

In a word, no.

Unlike Pielke, who apparently believes that normalized economic losses represents an appropriate proxy for disaster occurrence, TAH actually examine the frequency of intense disasters over a four-decade period. And whereas Pielke considers damages from geological disasters, which, – given the fact that we have not suddenly entered an age of earthquakes – are a function of increasing physical and economic exposure, these authors focus exclusively on climatological (droughts, heat waves) and hydrometeorological (floods, tropical storms, etc.) disasters, which can be influenced by a changing climate.

Moreover, TAH only consider the occurrence of intense disasters, which they define “as those causing at least 100 deaths or affecting the survival needs of at least 1,000 people.” The use of this metric ensures that any increase in the number of observed disasters is unlikely to be the result of better reporting mechanisms alone, countering Pielke’s assertion that any perceived increase “is solely a function of perception.”

TAH explore the frequency of climate-related disasters in 43 Asian-Pacific countries, using both random and country-fixed effects*, which provides them with a greater sense of the validity of their results. They use the log of population density as a proxy for population exposure, the natural log of real income per capita as a proxy for socioeconomic vulnerability, and both average annual temperature and precipitation anomalies as proxies for climate hazards. Additionally, they break the data into 5 subregions and the timeframe into decade-long spans as sensitivity tests.

Climate change is increasing the frequency of disasters in Asia-Pacific

Results show that both population exposure and changes in climate hazards have a statistically significant influence on the frequency of hydrometeorological disasters. For each 1% increase in population density and the annual average precipitation anomaly, the frequency of such events increases by 1.2% and 0.6%, respectively. The authors then applied these results to historical trends in three Asia-Pacific states – Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. As a result, a moderate increase in the precipitation anomaly of 8 millimeters per month (well within the observed changes for Southeast Asia over the past decade) leads to 1 additional hydrometerological disaster every 5-6 years for Indonesia, every 3 years for the Philippines, and every 9 years for Thailand.

In contrast, the models suggest that only changes in precipitation and temperature anomalies affect the frequency of climatological disasters. While a 1 unit increase in the average precipitation anomaly (logically) produces a 3% decrease in the number of droughts and heat waves, an equivalent jump in the annual average temperature anomaly leads to 72% increase.

It is not surprising that population exposure would play a role in determining the frequency of disaster events; if a tropical storm hits an uninhabited island, it doesn’t get recorded as a disaster. But what is surprising, if you take Pielke at his word, is the clear influence of our changing climate. As TAH conclude,

This study finds that anthropogenic climate change is associated with the frequency of intense natural disasters in Asia-Pacific countries. A major implication of this is that, in addition to dealing with exposure and vulnerability, disaster prevention would benefit from addressing climate change through reducing man made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Ultimately, there can be no question that climate change will, is, and has changed the frequency and nature of disasters globally. That’s not to say that exposure and vulnerability are not playing an important role; we know they are. Bending over backwards to inject climate change into every event and subject, as some climate activists are prone to do, is misleading and irresponsible. But so is cherry picking data to downplay its role in shaping the nature and scope of disaster events, when the data tell us otherwise.

*Obviously I am, by no means, an economist or statistician of any repute. That said, here is how TAH define the difference between random and country-fixed effects: “In panel data analysis, while the random effects model assumes that individual (e.g. country) specific factors are uncorrelated with the independent variables, the fixed effects model recognizes that the individual specific factors are correlated with the independent variables.” Accordingly, because there is likely some correlation between the independent variables, it is impossible to assume that they are completely exogenous variables.

Catching up on my sustainability efforts for Gay Games 9

cleveland gay games skyline
cleveland gay games skyline

Cleveland’s skyline was lit up in rainbow lights to commemorate the Gay Games 9 Opening Ceremony on August 9.

Now that Gay Games 9 has ended and I’m not averaging 14-15 hour work days, I finally have some time to work on the site again. I am beginning to pull together some information on our sustainability initiatives for a sustainability report – more on that in the coming weeks – but, in the mean time, The Guardian posted a piece last week that discusses our sustainability plan in the context of environmentalism in the LGBT community. It doesn’t quote me or mention me by name, but that’s fine with me. Here’s a snippet:

“You don’t have to be gay, you don’t have to be good, you just have to be 18,” is the unofficial slogan of the 2014 Gay Games. Perhaps what goes without saying is that it’s best to be eco-friendly as well. Personal commitment to environmentalism is more pronounced in the US LGBTQ community than in the heterosexual population, according to a 2010 Harris poll.

The 2014 Gay Games, taking place this week in Ohio, are working hard to represent this core value of environmental sustainability among the LGBTQ community. Expected to host between 20,000 to 30,000 participants and spectators, the games have a sustainability plan (pdf) that includes everything from water refill stations and bike-sharing, to the greening of internal operations. So what is it that makes the LGBTQ crowd so environmentally friendly in the first place?

Read the rest here. Stay tuned to this space for more.

Ohio’s Clean Energy Bond Proposal Is A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

ohio statehouse
ohio statehouse

The Ohio Statehouse (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

So this is a bit delayed, but I wrote this post for Plunderbund at the end of July:

On Monday, July 7, Attorney General Mike DeWine announced that he had certified the petition language for the so-called Ohio Clean Energy Initiative. This initiative, which would be an amendment to the state Constitution – provided it gets the necessary 385,253 certified signatures – would require the state of Ohio to issue $1.3 billion in bonds per year over the course of 10 years to finance clean energy investments. This marks the fourth separate time that the group behind the idea, Yes for Ohio’s Energy Future, has attempted to put it before voters.

Now, on the surface, this proposal seems like a good idea, particularly in light of the recent Republican-led efforts to smother the growth of Ohio’s clean energy industry. Due to the combined effects of SB 310 and HB 483, which Governor Kasich signed into law in June, clean energy investors now see Ohio as something of a no go zone. Shortly after the Governor signed SB 310 into law, the American Wind Energy Association warned that 10 planned wind energy projects, which together account for more than $2.5 billion in investments, were under threat. Three of these projects already appear to be on the chopping block.

Surely, a proposal that would inject $13 billion into the state’s endangered clean energy industry is worth supporting, right?

Well, though the initiative did get a lot of coverage in Ohio’s newspapers, most of the articles were remarkably short on details. And that’s exactly the issue. Surprisingly, this proposal has managed to unite the Columbus Dispatch editorial board and Secretary of State Jon Husted with the Ohio Sierra Club, the Ohio Environmental Council, Environment Ohio, and the Union of Concerned Scientists in firm opposition. So what gives?

First, the proposal suffers from a startling lack of transparency and accountability. It calls for the creation of the Ohio Energy Initiative Commission (OEIC), a private LLC to be incorporated in Delaware, a state not exactly known for rigorous corporate oversight. This OEIC would have complete control over how the bond revenues would be allocated and spent; no one in the legislative or executive branches would be able to provide input, ostensibly to protect the process from partisanship. Strangely enough, despite the fact that this Commission would have complete control over these public dollars, the proposed amendment does not clearly indicate how or even that its members will be selected.

Given the controversy surrounding the state’s latest venture into this territory – JobsOhio – it should give Ohioans great pause to consider billions in public funding to an anonymous group of individuals who may or may not have any relevant qualifications. While the OEIC would be subject to public records laws, unlike JobsOhio, granting this much power to an unknown entity would represent a dangerous precedent for the state. Moreover, the language specifically requires the state to provide an astonishing $65 million for OEIC’s operational expenses on an annual basis. To put that into perspective, the Ohio EPA has an operating budget of $10.9 million.

Specifics on the initiative’s backers are few and far between. According to The Plain Dealer, Harvard Business Services, Inc. registered the LLC with the Delaware Division of Corporate Records. As a result, we are unable to know the names and affiliations of the individuals behind this group.

While German Trejo, a spokesman for Yes for Ohio’s Energy Future, told Bloomberg Businessweek the effort is “a truly citizen-driven idea” led by a group of concerned Ohioans, the evidence does not seem to back him up. The Dispatchdescribes its backers as “five people from central Ohio,” and neither Trejo nor any other representative has provided additional information on the group’s genesis.

Yes for Ohio’s Energy Future has even tried to gain credibility by stealing it from the Ohio Third Frontier Initiative. On its FAQ page, the group cites outcomes from Third Frontier as a way to justify its proposal. But, unlike the OEIC, Third Frontier is housed under the Ohio Department of Development and subject to public scrutiny and accountability.

Secondly, although the organizers depict themselves as clean energy advocates and liberally use pictures of wind turbines and solar panels, the actual text of the of proposal leaves the door open to financing for dirty energy projects. In section (A)(1) of the proposed Constitutional Amendment, an eligible energy infrastructure capital improvement is defined as projects that  “shall include, but not be limited to, solar, wind, biomass, battery technology, and geothermal facilities…” (emphasis mine).

Perhaps the only positive thing to come out of SB 310 was that it removed the requirement in SB 221 that the state get 12.5% of its energy from “advanced energy” technologies by 2025. These projects can include controversial alternatives to traditional renewables, such as waste-to-energy plants and “clean coal” technologies (perhaps the most oxymoronic name I’ve ever run across). Given Ohio’s continued dependence on fossil fuel energy – the state got two-thirds of its electricity from coal in 2013 and roughly 10% from natural gas – the potential for such dirty energy projects to crowd out funding for clean energy is clear.

Yet, unlike wind and solar, such “advanced” energy alternatives are frequently hampered by environmental and budgetary concerns. We know that many coal-friendly politicians in the Midwest would love to see their states allocate large sums of money for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) at coal plants. Such technologies scrub carbon dioxide from power plant emissions, capture it, and store it underground. While it’s true that we may one day need to invest in CCS in order to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, as a hedge against catastrophic climate change, that day has not yet arrived. CCS technologies require large sums of energy, lowering the efficiency of power plants; as a result, evidence suggests that CCS can increase the cost of coal-fired power by as much as one-third.

Moreover, CCS projects have continually been beset by delays and cost overruns. The Bush administration initially cancelled the much hyped FutureGen 2.0 project in Illinois back in 2008 after the price tag ballooned to $1.65 billion, while Southern Power has once again delayed its Kemper County plant into 2015 over rising costs. Solar and wind, in contrast, enjoy steep learning curves, allowing systems to get cheaper with each subsequent installation. The price of solar panels, for instance, falls by more than 20% each time that the installed capacity doubles.

Unfortunately, it appears as though this proposal would stand a strong chance of succeeding, provided it makes the ballot. In a January poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, 65% of respondents indicated they would likely support the measure.

Ohio’s energy future stands at a crossroads over the next two years. The state can opt to make SB 310’s two-year freeze just that, or it can abandon a path that helped create 25,000 jobs, reduced energy costs, and inject millions into the state’s economy. This proposal muddies that picture even further by making well-intentioned Ohioans think they are acting in the state’s best interest, when the result could be otherwise. I’m optimistic that the people behind this effort will fail, once again, to get their proposal on the ballot. But it is imperative that we truly understand what is in the text and write another bad idea into our Constitution.

Ohio GOP’s attacks on clean energy are already costing the state

blue creek wind farm
blue creek wind farm

The Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert County (courtesy of The Dayton Daily News).

One month ago (well, one month and 4 days, but who’s counting?), Ohio became the first state in the country to freeze its clean energy standards, when Governor Kasich signed SB 310 into law. At the same time, the Governor signed HB 483, the Mid-Biennial Review of the budget, into which the Ohio GOP slipped a new setback requirement for wind turbines.

The American Wind Energy Association, along with other opponents of these bills, warned lawmakers about their potential impacts on the state’s budding clean energy industry. In a press release issued shortly after the Governor signed both bills into law, AWEA said:

Gov. John Kasich and the Legislature today abandoned $2.5 billion in current wind energy projects, which now face cancellation along with jobs, leases, payments to local governments, and orders for factories, over a needlessly restrictive setback requirement that Kasich signed into law today.

In a press conference yesterday, Governor Kasich tried to defend his record on clean energy and environmental issues. He once again claimed that he played an essential role in “moderating” SB 310, ensuring that the bill only froze the standards, rather than rolling them back altogether. He also defended the increased setback rule for the first time publicly, telling a group of business leaders in Bellview,

“Private property rights are important. People choose to live somewhere. You just don’t go in there and disrupt their life.”

Now, the Dispatch piece does not explain if the Governor feels the same way about oil and gas wells, for which the Ohio Revised Code only mandates a 100- to 150-foot setback rule; given his history with the fossil fuel industry, I’m going to guess not. But based on the Governor’s comments, it would seem like SB 310 and HB 438 should have minimal impacts.

Senator Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati), who never met a hyperbolic statement he didn’t like, echoed the Governor’s views. In an article on Gongwer (paywalled) from May, he said,

Today is just the latest in a long line of sky-is-falling hyperbole coming out of their camp. If you’re serious about it, you’d be in there talking to the people that are actually going to vote instead of on the airwaves and jumping up and down at hastily contrived press conferences.

So, one month later, let’s take a look at the clean energy landscape in Ohio. Were those of us opposed to SB 310 and HB 483 really just fear mongering to get our way, as the Ohio GOP has claimed? Would that this were true. In recent days, two major renewable energy companies have stated that they are delaying utility-scale wind installations, and they may end up scrapping the projects altogether.

On Friday, the Lima News reported that Iberdrola Renewables, the company that built the Blue Creek Wind Farm in western Ohio, has suspended work on both its Hog Creek and Leipsic Wind Farms. Hog Creek, which has already been approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board, would include 35 turbines, generating approximately 67 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Iberdrola is awaiting final approval for the Leipsic installation, which would have 75 turbines turning out 150 MW of power.

The next day, Everpower Renewables said that one of its projects, the Buckeye Wind Farm in Champaign County, may never get off the ground, despite the fact that the company has already invested millions in it. The project, which includes two phases, would see the company build roughly 100 turbines, producing enough electricity (200 MW) to power 50,000 houses. Buckeye would also generate $1.2 million in annual tax revenues, create more than 100 construction jobs, and offset 308,000 tons of CO2 each year. Yet, due to a lengthy legal battle and the knock on effects of these two bills, Everpower may have to abandon Buckeye entirely.

While it may seem unlikely that the bills would affect projects that have already been approved (particularly given the fact that the wind siting amendment in HB 483 grandfathered in such projects), that no longer appears to be the case. The way the law is written, the new, more restrictive siting requirements would kick in if any changes were made to a project’s scope of work. These changes could include utilizing a newer wind turbine model.

According to AWEA, Ohio ranked 26th in the country last year for wind power, generating 432 MW. These two bills could effectively derail projects that would generate a combined 417 MW, or 96.5% of this total. So much for the supposed hyperbole from SB 310 opponents. It may be easy to decry the other side as nothing more than another Cassandra, but we should remember one thing – Cassandra was right.