Actually, cyclists do pay road taxes

cyclists on detroit superior bridge

I’ve written before about how the Cleveland area is generally pretty car crazy. I would argue that most people see driving as the status quo; any effort to challenge that by promoting alternative transportation modes is seen as an affront to the system and highly suspicious. If you don’t believe me, read the comments on any article at about bikes.

cyclists on detroit superior bridge

Cyclists ride across the Detroit-Superior Bridge during Cleveland Critical Mass in June 2013 (courtesy of Ivan Grieve & Cleveland Critical Mass.)

So as the city has taken some (albeit mediocre) efforts to become more bike-friendly and as cycling rates have increased – the 280% increase over the last decade was the highest for any metro area – drivers have gotten a bit testy. I have been honked at repeatedly, sworn at, buzzed by vehicles, had anti-gay slurs shouted at me, you name it. Fortunately no one has actually caused me any physical harm to this point (knock on wood). I know this is hardly unique to Cleveland – it certainly happened when I lived in DC as well – but it’s definitely par for the course here.

Enter the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC). The organization was created in 2011 as a 12-county effort to foster a more collaborative, sustainable approach to regional development. It received a $4.25 million grant from the federal government to support the effort.

Now whenever government agencies begin talking about regionalism, sustainable development, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, the tin foil hat brigade that sees sprawl-based development and car-centric infrastructure as their God-given rights start to freak out. And so they start talking about socialism, Agenda 21, and how the UN’s black helicopters are just over the horizon. See Beverly Goldstein, the chairwoman of the Youth Outreach Committee of the Cuyahoga Valley Republicans:

NEOSCC intends to subject citizens of Northeast Ohio to 1) the elimination of individual rights, private property and local sovereignty through the blurring of political boundaries in order to redistribute local resources and revenues for the general use of the region as a whole…

These types of hyperbolic, patently absurd rants are nothing new and have occurred throughout the country at various times. But it’s worthwhile to note that they continue to plague the NEOSCC effort.

In August, the group released four potential scenarios of what Northeast Ohio could look like in 2040, based upon the economic growth and development models we follow. The “Trend” scenario – the status quo to which people like Ms. Goldstein so fervently cling – would ensure that the region loses 18 houses a day to abandonment, sees 3,000 miles of new roads built to support the ongoing sprawl, swallows an additional 31,000 acres of agricultural land, and has its expenditures outpace revenues by 33%. In all, a cheery proposition.

After publishing these scenarios, NEOSCC held a series of public workshops throughout the region to garner input on the way forward. Now, let me just say that workshop attendees (including me) were far from representative of the population. They were overwhelmingly white (88%), highly educated (three-quarters had at least a Bachelor’s degree), and affluent (nearly half had incomes above $75,000).

On the whole, most of the respondents seemed eager to work towards a more sustainable region. Many were concerned that, while the alternative scenarios seemed like good ideas, they would be difficult to achieve. And then there were the handful of people from the Agenda 21 set. My favorite response to the questions NEOSCC posed would have to be this answer to “What does your ideal community look like”:

1) Hands off my personal freedom, 2) Mix as the market allows, 3) Keep your bike out of my way. You don’t pay road taxes.

Ah yes, that argument against bikes. We should stay off the road because we don’t pay gas taxes or tolls. Of course, it’s completely untrue. The federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993; since this point, inflation and improved gas mileage have continued to chip away at its value. Adjusted for inflation, the current gas tax is at its lowest level since the mid-1980s and risks falling below the value when it was introduced in 1932.

nominal & inflation-adjusted gas tax

The value of the federal gas tax, in nominal and inflation-adjusted dollars, from 1932-2011. As you can see, while the nominal value has jumped, the inflation-adjusted value continues to drop (courtesy of Greater Greater Washington).

Moreover, user fees do not, in fact, cover the cost of road construction and maintenance. According to a report from the Tax Foundation, “user taxes and fees do not cover the costs of road spending in any state.”

In Ohio, which ranks 11th, user fees account for all of 58.7% of road costs. Alaska, which unsurprisingly is last, sees user fees make up just 19.9% of all road spending. The rest of this shortfall is covered by general funds, which – you guessed it – are borne by all taxpayers, including cyclists and those who don’t drive at all.

In effect, non-drivers and occasional drivers are subsidizing the cost of road maintenance for people who live in their cars. When you take into account the respective amount of space taken up by cars and bikes, along with the respective wear they put on roads, this subsidy becomes even larger.

This graphic shows the amount of space occupied by 60 people in cars, a bus, and on bikes. As you can see, cyclists and people utilizing transit occupy far less space on the roads (courtesy of the Press office of the City of Münster, Germany).

This graphic shows the amount of space occupied by 60 people in cars, a bus, and on bikes. As you can see, cyclists and people utilizing transit occupy far less space on the roads (courtesy of the Press office of the City of Münster, Germany).

Blogger Elly Blue has noted the discrepancy for people in Seattle.

The cost of road maintenance is averaged at 5.6 cents per mile per motor vehicle. Add the so-called external costs of parking (10 cents), crashes (8 cents), congestion (4 cents), and land costs and that’s another 28 cents per mile! Meanwhile, for slower, lighter, smaller bicycles, the externalities add up to one meager cent per mile.

The average driver travels 10,000 miles in town each year and contributes $324 in taxes and direct fees. The cost to the public, including direct costs and externalities, is a whopping $3,360.

On the opposite pole, someone who exclusively bikes may go 3,000 miles in a year, contribute $300 annually in taxes, and costs the public only $36, making for a profit of $264.

So the next time that you roll down your window and yell at a cyclist to get off your road, dear driver, please keep two things in mind.

  1. In many areas (e.g. downtown Cleveland), you are likely ordering that cyclist to violate the law by riding on the sidewalk, which may endanger pedestrians.
  2. You are essentially telling that cyclist that s/he cannot ride on the road that s/he is helping to pay for. In essence, you are trying to force that cyclist to continue subsidizing your driving habits, which is a form of transportation socialism. And we all know we can’t have that.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, Part 2.5: Great Lakes ecosystem also vulnerable to climate change

map of climate vulnerability

I know I said my next post would be on what Cleveland can do/is doing to address its vulnerability to heat-related mortality related to climate change. But it’s my website, and I lied. I’ll get on that post as soon as I’m able.

But in the meantime, I came across this piece from Science Daily today on a new global study of vulnerability to climate change. The authors of the article in Nature Climate Change (paywalled) works to build upon weaknesses they have identified in previous analyses of vulnerability by incorporating the extent to which a changing climate will affect both the adaptive capacity of an ecosystem (which they measure as how intact its natural vegetation is currently) and how exposed it is to such changes (as measured by the projected stability of the region’s climate going forward).

Climatic instability will be significant for locations at higher latitudes, as warming tends to be far more drastic near the North Pole, as the map below illustrates. Accordingly, while the Great Lakes region may not be Siberia, it will likely experience a temperature increase higher than the global average.

map of temperature anomalies from NASA

This map shows global temperature anomalies (averaged from 2008-2012) compared to the 20th century average. As you can see, temperature increases have been particularly extreme in the Arctic (courtesy of NASA).

Moreover, as I discussed in my last post, the built environment within Greater Cleveland (and the Rust Belt, at large) amplifies the vulnerability of our ecosystems to climate change. While Cleveland is emblematic of the sprawl-based development that has cemented up millions of acres of natural vegetation, it is far from the only city to pursue this model. Kansas City, for instance, has 54% more freeway lane miles per capita than Cleveland.

Accounting for these two key variables, the authors produce a global map of vulnerability to climate change. Interestingly, their results contrast significantly from most previous studies.

For example, when climate stability (as a measure of exposure) is combined with vegetation intactness (as a measure of adaptive capacity), ecoregions located in southwest, southeast and central Europe, India, China and Mongolia, southeast Asia, central North America, eastern Australia and eastern South America were found to be relatively climatically unstable and degraded. This contrasts sharply with other global assessments (based only on exposure to climate change) that show that central Africa, northern South America and northern Australia are most vulnerable to climate change.

As the map below shows, the Great Lakes region falls within the region the authors identify as “central North America.” Accordingly, while climate change may not substantially hammer people living in Greater Cleveland, that’s more than I can say for our non-human neighbors. This study is just another thing to keep in mind as we plan for how to make the region more resilient to the changes we know are coming.

map of climate vulnerability

The map displays the relationship between climatic stability and ecosystem intact-ness. Those regions in pale green have low levels of both variables, indicating high levels of vulnerability to climate change. As the map illustrates, the Great Lakes ecosystem falls within such a zone (courtesy of Nature Climate Change).

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, part 2: The social & political roots of heat-related mortality

children at water park
children at water park

Children attempt to escape from the heat during July 2012 in Louisville (courtesy of the AP).

In my last post, I explored some recent research that outlined projections of climate change in Cleveland and its potential to drive an increase in heat waves. But climate/weather is just one factor behind heat-related mortality; socioeconomic and political issues are, perhaps, just as, if not more important, determinants.

Just as Cleveland’s historic climate and the associated lack of acclimatization to heat waves will likely leave the region more vulnerable to extreme heat, so too do the region’s various socioeconomic and political pathologies leave it ripe for a public health crisis. (As I write this, it is 97° outside, and I just got an extreme heat advisory from the National Weather Service. On September 10.)

Last month, the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan released a new mapping tool that explores the social and economic factors underlying climate change vulnerability in the Great Lakes region. This great new tool allows you to zero in on any county around the Great Lakes to the extent to which its economy, infrastructure, and vulnerable citizens are likely to suffer in a greenhouse world. Unsurprisingly, Cuyahoga County (of which Cleveland is the seat) does not fare particularly well.

The Greater Cleveland area possesses a number of characteristics which, if they do not change, may create a perfect storm for heat-related mortality in a warmer world. I will explore four of these – the built environment, poverty, changing demographics, and racial segregation.

The Built Environment

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 waves of suburbanization in the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

According to data from the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, 33.6% of the county (and 56.2% of Cleveland) is covered by impervious surfaces. These surfaces (e.g. asphalt) conduct heat, contributing to the urban heat island effect. The EPA notes that urban areas can experience annual mean temperatures of 1.8–5.4°F higher than their surroundings, while this difference can reach an astonishing 22° during the evening.

Cuyahoga County’s sprawl-based development structure presents a number of other challenges, as well. As people have spread out throughout the region, we have become increasingly car-dependent. Car use has come to dominate our policy discussions – transportation commentators like to note Ohio stands for Only Highways In Ohio” – despite its myriad of side effects.

According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), 86% of commuters in Northeast Ohio report driving alone to work. This car culture contributes to the development of chronic disease, which I discuss below. Additionally, combined with Cleveland’s industrial base and Ohio’s coal dependence, it significantly reduces air quality in the region. In its 2012 “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association gave Cuyahoga County an F for ozone pollution and a failing grade for annual particle pollution.

Climate change will likely exacerbate this issue further. Last year, largely due to the abnormally warm summer, Northeast Ohio experienced 28 ozone action days – double the number from 2011. We know that high air temperatures increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory distress for vulnerable groups. Accordingly, Bell and colleagues have projected that ozone-related deaths will increase 0.11-0.27% in the eastern US by 2050. This issue adds to the risk of heat-related mortality in Greater Cleveland.

Changing Demographics

Like much of the Rust Belt, Cleveland has been shrinking and aging. From its peak in the 1950s, Cleveland’s population has plummeted. The city had 914,808 in 1950; by the 2010 census, the number had fallen to 396,815 – a 56.6% decrease in six decades.

This precipitous decrease in population has left large swaths of Cleveland abandoned and, increasingly hollowed out. Even before the Great Recession and the housing crisis that precipitated it began in 2007-2008, Cleveland had foreclosure rates on par with those in the Great Depression. From 2005-2009, Cuyahoga County average roughly 85,000 foreclosure filings per year, and parts of Cleveland saw nearly half of their homes enter foreclosure. The destruction of neighborhoods undermines social capital, a key coping mechanism for surviving extreme events.

foreclosures in Cuyahoga County 1995-2012

The number of annual foreclosure filings in Cuyahoga County from 1995-2012. As the chart indicates, the number of filings spiked in 2005, two years before the housing crisis began (courtesy of Policy Matters Ohio).

As people have fled the region, particularly young people and people of means, those who remain are increasingly poor and disconnected. Accordingly, the region’s population has aged significantly. Nationally, approximately 13% of the total population is age 65 or older. In Ohio, the number is 14.3%, while it sits at 15.8% in Cuyahoga County.

Older persons are far more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of extreme heat, particularly those suffering from chronic illnesses, like diabetes, and those living alone. Unfortunately, 20.6% of people 65 years and over (PDF) in the county suffer from diabetes; this number climbs to over 35% in Cleveland. Additionally, more than one-third of older persons in the county live alone, adding further to their vulnerability.


Given the region’s challenges, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Greater Cleveland struggles with high levels of poverty. Cleveland was named the poorest city in the country in 2004; it has remained at or near the top since that point. Roughly one-third (32.7%) of Cleveland’s residents live below the poverty level. Even worse, more than half of Cleveland’s children are growing up in poverty.

map of poverty rates in Northeast Ohio

Poverty rates and changes in poverty rates within Northeast Ohio from 2005-2009 (courtesy of Rust Wire)

Much of this poverty is concentrated in highly depressed portions of the inner city and, increasingly, in the inner-ring suburbs. It creates regions where public health suffers dramatically; the Plain Dealer recently reported that portions of Cleveland had infant mortality rates higher than most of the developing world, including Bangladesh, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda.

As one would expect, poor people suffer disproportionately in disasters. Roughly 95% of disaster deaths occur in the developing world, and the same principle applies within the developed world (see: Hurricane Katrina).

Racial Segregation

Lastly, Cleveland suffers from high levels of racial segregation. It was the 8th most segregated city in the US in 2011, which likely does not surprise Cleveland natives. For decades, the Cuyahoga River has been seen as something akin to the Berlin Wall – African-Americans stay to the East of the river, while whites and Hispanics live on the West Side.

Recently, the Atlantic Cities posted a map that showed the location of every person in the country (color-coded by race), based on Census data. The close-up shot of Cleveland is below. It quite clearly illustrates the racial divide within the city: African-Americans (green dots) to the east, whites (blue dots) and Hispanics (red dots) to the West. If you look closely, you can even see the small cluster of red dots that makes up Cleveland’s Asia Town.

map of Cleveland showing racial divide

The map, a closeup from the Racial Dot Map, shows the racial divide in the city of Cleveland.

Now, such spatial segregation creates a host of problems, but it also has a connection to heat-related mortality. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that persons of color are far more likely to live in areas at risk of suffering extreme heat waves than whites. The study found that a high risk of suffering from the urban heat island effect is more closely correlated with race than class. Accordingly, severe spatial segregation, as we find in Cleveland, will ensure that poor minority neighborhoods have yet another risk factor to account for in a greenhouse world.

Taken together, Cleveland’s combination of heavy, sprawl-based development; an aging, sickly population; high rates of concentrated poverty; and racial segregation may create a perfect storm for heat-related mortality in the coming decades. The fact that sea level rise isn’t going to drown us, and it snows 6 months a year doesn’t mean we can get complacent as the climate changes. Like I said in my last post, just because it won’t suck as much as Bangladesh doesn’t mean it won’t still suck here.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed everyone, I will use my next post to look at some of the things Cleveland can do to mitigate the threat of heat-related mortality, including some of the initiatives the region is already undertaking.

Celebrating World Water Week & supporting Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Ugandan child collecting water
Ugandan child collecting water

A child at the Family Spirit AIDS orphanage collects water from a gravity-fed system installed by Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

I’ve been doing some work with Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc., a Cleveland-based NGO that focuses on promoting clean water both locally and in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The organization focuses on inspiring “individuals to recognize and solve our water issues through creative education, events, and providing safe water access for people in need” through education & awareness raising, advocacy, and service.

In order to commemorate World Water Week and 2013, which is the International Year for Water Cooperation, I wrote a guest blog post for DLDT on how water can be a tool for peacebuilding, cooperation, and cross-cultural understanding.

I would encourage you to check it out and support their work. If you are based in Cleveland, they are hosting a beach clean-up at Edgewater Park tomorrow from 10am-12pm, with a party hosted by Barefoot Wine & Bubbly afterwards. Otherwise, you can make a financial contribution to support their work in Northeast Ohio or in Uganda.

Beginning in December, DLDT’s founder and Executive Director Erin Huber will travel to Uganda to help provide clean water to children living in an home for orphans of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. To figure out how you can support DLDT’s work, visit their site.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, Part 1: Climate change & future heat waves

Snowball is ready for when Cleveland's climate becomes more tropical.

Snowball is ready for when Cleveland’s climate becomes more tropical.

For the most part, it would appear that Cleveland is poised to cope relatively well with the effects of climate change. When The Nature Conservancy developed a list of the cities which will be best positioned to adapt to climate change; Cleveland ranked first. Grist did a similar piece back in May, and it placed Cleveland 6th on a list of the 10 “best cities to ride out hot times.”

Without question, Cleveland has a lot of assets that will help it deal with climate change. First, Lake Erie. Unlike other water-stressed cities which will suffer from the crippling effects of drought and water shortages, Cleveland has ample water resources thanks to Lake Erie and our various rivers. And as a result of the Great Lakes Compact, we can be relatively sure that our freshwater resources cannot be diverted to other areas.

Secondly, Cleveland is (largely) immune to many types of disasters. Sure, we get a lot of snow (not as much as, say, Syracuse), and our skies are as gray as our steel 6 months per year, but we don’t have to fear hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes (unless you live near Youngstown), or tornadoes (for the most part). Trulia lists Cleveland as the 2nd best place to live if you want to avoid disasters; our sister city to the south, Akron, came in at 4th.

All of this good news can lead some people in the region to get cocky (see cartoon below) and assume that Clevelanders will be sitting pretty in a greenhouse world. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – climate change will still suck for Cleveland; it will just suck less, relative to other locations.

This cartoon appeared on on July 8. While it's certainly true that Baby Boomers have fled Cleveland in droves for cities that only exist due to the air conditioning & Manhattan financiers have screwed our city over, it won't be they who suffer the most from climate change. It will be the poor, elderly, disabled, and persons of color (courtesy of

This cartoon appeared on on July 8. While it’s certainly true that Baby Boomers have fled Cleveland in droves for cities that only exist due to the air conditioning & Manhattan financiers have screwed our city over, it won’t be they who suffer the most from climate change. It will be the poor, elderly, disabled, and persons of color (courtesy of

I’ve already explored how changing temperature and precipitation patters will likely affect the levels of the Great Lakes and algal blooms in Lake Erie. But I also want to hone in on one risk that a lot of people in the region appear to overlook – the risk of increasing heat-related mortality in Greater Cleveland.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – heat-related mortality in Cleveland?! Winter lasts 6 months per year! Our average annual temperature is a whopping 49.6 degrees, and the thermometer dips below the freezing point 122 days a year. All that’s true, and that’s actually part of the issue. Heat-related mortality risk is a combination of two sets of factors – environmental and socioeconomic (which I explore in my next post).

Recently, Environmental Research Letters published a peer-reviewed article that explored how climate change will drastically increase extreme heatwaves globally. According to the authors, severe heat waves, those which fall at least 3 standard deviations above the mean (so-called 3-sigma events), will quadruple from affecting roughly 5% of the world’s land area to around 20% by 2040. More disturbingly, the models project that 5-sigma events, which are “now essentially absent” could cover 60% of land area by 2100 (under a high emissions scenario). In other words, we risk entering an entirely new climate reality, in which ever-increasing parts of the Earth may become uninhabitable.

Now, some people in Cleveland other northern climates may brush this off, believing that shorter, milder winters are somehow a blessing for the region (“Now we can swim any day in November,” as The Postal Service put it).

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (PDF), the number of days with temperatures at or above 90°F in Cleveland will likely climb from an historical average of just 9 to 61 by the end of the century, under a high emissions scenario. More disturbingly, the city is projected to endure 21 days in excess of 100°F by 2100, a situation which could be catastrophic for public health in the city.

The number of days above 90F and 100F in Cleveland under a low and high emissions scenario (courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

The number of days above 90°F and 100°F in Cleveland under low and high emissions scenarios (courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

We already know that such extreme heat waves can be deadly. The 2003 European heat wave was ultimately connected to the deaths of as many as 70,000 people. Such extreme heat waves are becoming more common and will continue to increase in frequency. According to the World Meteorological Organization, heat-related mortality jumped by more than 2000% during the last decade. Moreover, a 2011 study from Vorhees and colleagues, published in 2011, projected that, as a whole, there will be an additional 21,000-27,000 heat-related deaths (paywalled) per year in the US by 2050 due to climate change.

heat wave

Acclimatization in action. Suck it, heat wave (courtesy of Creative Commons).

Many of these deaths will likely occur in cities like Cleveland, Chicago, and Cincinnati, which are not currently equipped to handle extreme heat. Because they do not have to deal with such high temperatures on a regular basis, most people in Cleveland and other related cities have not become acclimatized to deal with significant heat waves. Air conditioning use is not nearly as prevalent as it is in Sun Belt cities, and municipal governments are unlikely to have sophisticated systems in place to help residents cope.

Scott Sheridan, a geographer at Kent State University (and, coincidentally, the program director of my semester in Geneva, Switzerland) published a study in 2011 that looked at the role of acclimatization and heat-related mortality in California. While the study predicts that morality rates will spike in most of California’s cities, Sheridan notes that acclimatization can help reduce these rates by 37-56%.

Such reductions are likely to occur in cities that are used to extreme heat, like Los Angeles, but not necessarily in places like Cleveland with much milder climates. Accordingly, while Cleveland’s relatively cool climate and mild summers will provide a buffer against the punishing heat that’s likely headed for the Southwest and Plains states, it may, ironically, leave the city more vulnerable to extreme heat waves. Such radical changes will almost certainly undermine people’s coping strategies, which they’ve developed over decades of living in a fairly stable climatic regime.

But, as I noted, the climate is just one of two factors that determine the impact of heat waves on mortality rates; the other is socioeconomic (and political). I will explore those issues in my next post.

On the shores of Lake Erie, where the children are above average & the sand is made of plastic

Over the weekend, I participated in a beach cleanup along Lake Erie at Perkins Beach in Edgewater State Park. The event was organized by Drink Local. Drink Tap., a local non-profit organization focusing on water issues in Northeast Ohio and globally.

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Councilman Matt Zone (far right) and two volunteers flank me from the cleanup effort at Perkins Beach on Saturday, July 6 (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap.).

Unsurprisingly – particularly given that the event took place just two days after the 4th of July – the beach was strewn with a variety of litter and debris. I lost count on the number of cigarette butts and cigar tips that I picked up after I reached triple digits. Overall, the organizers reported that the other volunteers and I cleaned up 357.9 pounds of trash and 134.9 pounds of recyclable materials. Unfortunately, this effort did not even begin to make a dent in the problem; by the end, it had begun to feel like a Sisyphean task.

But while most of the other volunteers focused on the large and unusual items we found – including two discarded tires – I was particularly discouraged by the prevalence of small pieces of plastic and styrofoam. These tiny particles of plastic pollution, known as microplastic, are the real threat to the health of Lake Erie’s ecosystem.

Last fall, the 5 Gyres Institute and the State University of New York released a study on the problem of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. The research provided the first comprehensive plastic pollution survey of the lakes, and it represents an important baseline against which we can measure progress or, God forbid, further regression.

According to the survey, the researchers primarily found high concentrations of this microplastic, which is a piece of plastic debris less than 5 millimeters in diameter. According to the researchers,

One sample drawn near the border of Lake Erie’s central and eastern basins yielded 600,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer — twice the number found in the most contaminated oceanic sample on record, Mason said.

A second sample in Lake Erie yielded 450,000 plastic pieces, while the average sample across the three lakes studied yielded about 8,000 plastic pieces.

Microplastic litter comes from a variety of sources, including the breaking down of larger pieces of plastic by the elements; this was the primary source of the plastic and styrofoam pieces that I found littering Perkins Beach. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say that, in some areas, these pieces of plastic had become almost as numerous as the grains of sand. They are clearly an integral part of the beach at this point.

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

Concentrations of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. As the map illustrates, concentrations are highest in Lake Erie, which is the shallowest of the five lakes (courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute).

However, another key source of microplastic are conventional cosmetics and personal cleaning supplies, many of which contain small, abrasive plastic pellets. These pellets serve as exfoliates, and they have become increasingly popular in recent years. Because these plastic pieces are frequently used in the presence of water, i.e. in the shower, they readily enter our watercourses and end up in the lake.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Microplastic pollution littering the shores of Lake Erie on Wendy Island on July 20, 2013.

Because it is so small and can be easily ingested by aquatic life and waterfowl, microplastic poses a major threat to the health of aquatic ecosystems like Lake Erie. It can leach chemicals into the bodies of these aquatic organisms and clearly bioaccumulates overtime. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that, if and when people consume animals that have ingested microplastic, the chemicals contained in the particles can leach into our systems as well (Thank God I’m a vegetarian…).

It’s important to note that, because the plastic pollution in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is far smaller than that in ocean garbage patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and is therefore nowhere no as big of an issue by volume. Yet, the concentration of this plastic debris is, in many instances, far greater than the average concentration of plastic in ocean gyres.

Microplastic pollution is yet another major environmental challenge we have created that threatens the health of Northeast Ohio’s most important natural resource. All in the name of vanity. As Solomon said in the Book of Ecclesiastes,

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Surely the Earth will abide and last far longer than humanity. But we are consciously and unconsciously altering it in countless ways, mostly for the worse.

PD editorial on Obama’s climate plan is lazy, wrong & shortsighted

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

President Obama wipes his brow while delivering his climate speech at Georgetown University on June 25 (courtesy of The Atlantic Wire).

Last Sunday (June 30), the editorial board of The Plain Dealer published an editorial titled “Don’t bypass Congress on climate-change policy,” which criticized President Obama’s climate policy speech at Georgetown on June 25. In the piece, the board argued that the President is acting inappropriately by taking executive action to tackle the US’s greenhouse gas emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. They note that the proposed regulations on GHG emissions from existing coal-fired power plants would “drive many of them out of business.” They continued:

Such plant closures would disproportionately hurt coal-dependent states such as Ohio. It is unfair to expect one region or small group of states to shoulder the chief economic impacts of a radical policy shift without subsidies or offsets.

An extreme U.S. policy aimed at divesting the nation from coal-fired energy should not be decided by the White House alone.

Unfortunately for the PD editorial board (and the public in Northeast Ohio it’s supposed to inform), this argument is a house of cards that one can easily dissect. So allow me to do so.

First, the board refers to the proposal as one of the “mandates that need no congressional approval” of which Americans must be “wary.” Nowhere in the piece does the board mention the fact that in Massachusetts et al. v. EPA (2007, PDF) the US Supreme Court ordered the EPA to determine if carbon dioxide constitutes a danger to public health in the country, the so-called “endangerment finding”. Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, noted that:

Because greenhouse gases fit well within the [Clean Air] Act’s capacious definition of “air pollutant,” EPA has statutory authority to regulate emission of such gases…

On December 7, 2009, the EPA issued the results of its endangerment finding, noting that

the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases…in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.

Yet, despite this judicial ruling that EPA regulate GHGs, the editorial board makes no reference to the jurisprudence or the endangerment finding. It treats the President’s actions as if they were capricious and unexpected, rather than mandated by the highest court of the land.

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikicommons).

Bipartisanship & consensus are to the PD editorial board as the ring was to Gollum (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Secondly, the editorial board criticized the President for not working towards the consensus it reveres so highly. “Consensus” and “bipartisanship” are the buzzwords of the day for the Very Serious Persons who sit on editorial boards around the country. Yes, if only President Obama could reach out to Congressional Republicans and bring them to the table on climate action.

Of course, this belief completely belies reality. The modern Republican Party is the only opposition party in the world that steadfastly denies climate science. Moreover, the party remains completely obsequious to the fossil fuel industry. According to a recent study from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, 411 elected officials around the country have signed a pledge to the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity promising to avoid taking action on climate change.

Furthermore, while VSPs at the PD and The Washington Post continue to write ballads about their fantasy carbon tax, recent evidence suggests that the EPA route may be the better alternative. A report from Resources for the Future suggests that, depending on the details, EPA regulation would likely be more effective at reducing GHG emissions than a carbon tax. This is particularly true, given the carbon tax that would likely come out of the current Congress – none.

Thirdly, the PD editorial board asserts, without providing any evidence, that the President’s climate plan will necessitate “sweeping economic sacrifice” and will change the “lifestyles and energy sources” of Ohioans.  Once again, the board refused to let fact get in the way of a [not so] good argument.

For decades, industry shills and their supporters have cried out against EPA regulations, claiming they would destroy the American economy. Yet, in case after case, the benefits of these regulations have far exceeded estimates, while the costs have been vastly lower than projected. The Edison Electric Institute claimed (PDF) that the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) amendments would carry $4-5 billion in annual compliance costs. The actual annual cost? $836 million. They were only off by 81.4%. According to a 2010 study, the benefits of the CAA and the 1990 amendments outweighed the costs by a ratio of 32.1 to 1 ($23.42 trillion in benefits to $730 billion in costs).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

The monetized costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act and its 1990 amendments. As the table shows, the benefits of the CAA have vastly outweighed its costs (courtesy of Small Business Majority).

A recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council suggest that EPA regulations on GHG emissions will once again provide a significant net benefit. In December, NRDC put together a proposed set of regulations for EPA to implement. This plan would set state-by-state emissions reductions standards, allowing coal-dependent states like Ohio to make a more gradual shift to more renewable energy sources. According to their assessment, the plan would reduce GHG emissions by 26% by 2020; its benefits would be roughly 6 to 15 times greater (PDF) than its associated costs.

NRDC recently had a respected firm run an economic assessment of this plan (PDF). The firm, Synapse Energy Economics, found that, contrary to the warnings of the naysayers at the PD, this plan would create 210,000 jobs and reduce electric bills by $0.90 per month through 2020.

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic's report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Graph from Synapse Energy Economic’s report on the NRDC policy proposal. As the graph shows, Ohio is projected to gain the second most jobs from EPA action (courtesy of Synapse Energy Economics).

Ohio, one of the 14 states included in the analysis, would particularly benefit. The state would gain an additional 12,000 jobs – second only to Florida – and households would pay $1.03 less per month for electricity. Moreover, these regulations would simply speed up the transition away from coal that the state is already making. Under SB 221, Ohio is already obligated (PDF) to improve its energy efficiency by 22.2% and get 12.5% of its energy from renewable energy sources. Rather than increasing prices or killing jobs, a study from Ohio State has concluded that the policy saved ratepayers $170 million on their electric bills from 2008-2012 and created 3,200 jobs in the state.

Lastly – and unsurprisingly, given Ohio’s fealty to the coal industry – the editorial fails to mention any of the serious consequences of the state’s dependence on coal. A myriad of studies shows that coal carries significant costs for public health and well-being. According to a 2011 research article (PDF),

the life cycle effects of coal and the waste stream generated are
costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually.

If we were to internalize these externalities, the authors estimate that the price of coal-fired electricity would double or triple, making it noncompetitive with renewables. The Clean Air Task Force has concluded (PDF) that coal plants are responsible for 13,200 premature deaths, 20,400 heart attacks, and 217,600 asthma attacks annually in the US. Given Ohio’s dependence on this filthy fuel, the state ranked 2nd in 2010 for in coal-related mortality risk, hospital admissions, and heart attacks. The Cleveland metro area ranked 8th for mortality. All in all, evidence suggests that, for every $1 in economic benefits from coal, it carries $2 in costs to the public.

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

Mortality per 100,000 people from coal-fired power plants. As the map illustrates, coal-dependent states and their neighbors, including Ohio, suffer substantially from its effects (courtesy of the Clean Air Task Force).

The Plain Dealer‘s editorial is just the latest in a series of inaccurate claims that EPA regulations will doom the American economy. They have proven wrong, time and again, and the PD will almost certainly be wrong here. The editorial is inaccurate, shortsighted, and – to be frank – an extremely lazy argument. As President Obama said in his climate speech,

[T]he problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can’t or they won’t do it. They’ll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that’s not true.

The next time the PD wants to write about climate policy, I suggest the editorial board actually does its homework, rather than relying on a tired set of easily disproved talking points.

Cleveland’s Climate Action Plan marks a good first step, but it can get better

Downtown Cleveland, as seen from the Ohio City Farm (courtesy of the Sustainable City Network).

Downtown Cleveland, as seen from the Ohio City Farm (courtesy of the Sustainable City Network).

On Wednesday and just in time for the Independence Day long weekend, the City of Cleveland Office of Sustainability released its long-awaited (by me, anyways) draft Climate Action Plan. As one would expect with a draft report, the city is welcoming public comments, so I went through the document with a fine-toothed comb yesterday. Here are my major takeaways/comments:

  • Methodology: The report really calls out for a detailed methodology section. Part of sustainability is transparency, and failing to provide a clear picture of how you have reached your conclusions undercuts this goal. This methodology could take many forms, such as a complete section at the start of the report or a shorter section at the beginning with a detailed technical appendix at the end. However it is done, this piece is an essential component. It’s important for people reading and tracking the Climate Action Plan to know what emissions scenario was used, where the temperature and precipitation projections are coming from, and whether a sensitivity analysis was completed. I understand the desire to make this easily approachable to the general public, and I laud that. Perhaps the technical annex would be the better alternative.
  • Methodology Part 2: On page 12 of the draft, the report discusses the costs and benefits of the proposed action plan. However, once again, it demands a methodology for how this cost-benefit analysis was completed (provided one actually was). What were the assumptions and parameters that went into this calculation? What was the discount rate (for a good primer on discount rates, read David Roberts’ piece) used? Did it include a sensitivity analysis?
  • Business As Usual Projections: On page 20, the report describes future projections and how its authors put together the Business As Usual (BAU) baseline that was used. Clearly, as with all medium- to long-term climate plans, these projections carry a high level of uncertainty. The report discusses this issue by saying:

Due to the high level of uncertainty associated with this type of forecasting exercise, a flat line BAU forecast was assumed for now. However, this assumption of no growth or decline in emissions can be adjusted in the future to account for changing conditions.

I have to question the decision to approach uncertainty in this manner, however. It seems to me that the best practice for approaching uncertainty is to internalize that uncertainty and attempt to manage the associated risk. Accordingly, I would prefer to see the flat line forecast used as just one of a few different BAU models. It could constitute a mid-range analysis to be supplemented by low-range (conditions improve significantly in the region) and high-range (conditions significantly deteriorate in the region) analyses.

  • Parking Minimums: In Focus Area 3, Sustainable Mobility, the report notes the City’s desire to “reduce single occupancy vehicle mode share from 69% to 62% by 2020, 55% by 2030.” Logically, one action step noted to address this goal is to “review parking space requirements and prioritize advanced parking strategies.” Unfortunately, the report never directly mentions the issue of minimum parking standards. As Matt Yglesias from Slate has discussed on many occasions, minimum parking standards are a major urban planning boondoggle that waste valuable public space, lower economic production, and reduce tax revenues. Cleveland is considerably overbuilt currently, and our abundance of parking is not something we should be proud of. The city was recently included as one of 16 cities in Streetsblog’s “Parking Madness” competition. We should be lamenting the fact that the Warehouse District has undergone this transformation since the 1970s:
Animated GIF showing the transformation of Cleveland's Warehouse District from a vibrant downtown are in the 1970s to a black hole of surface parking lots currently (courtesy of Streetsblog and Rust Wire).

Animated GIF showing the transformation of Cleveland’s Warehouse District from a vibrant downtown area in the 1970s to a black hole of surface parking lots currently (courtesy of Streetsblog and Rust Wire).

  • Plastic Bags: Page 55 of the Climate Action Plan (part of Focus Area 4: Waste Reduction & Resource Conservation) alludes to the challenge of properly managing plastic bag waste:

An organized and coordinated approach to waste reduction and diversion across the Cleveland community, starting with policies that restrict certain materials, such as plastic bags, or divert others, such as organic waste, are important tools in encouraging waste reduction both at the residential and commercial level.

Interestingly, despite noting the issue, the plan never goes so far as to propose implementing a plastic bag tax. It stops short of this approach, calling instead for implementing an “approach that significantly reduces the use of disposable plastic bags, including a public education campaign.”

While I understand that you don’t want to promote a specific approach without studying alternatives, the Climate Action Plan could have at least suggested conducting a study of the extent of plastic bag waste in our watercourses and landfills. This was the first step Washington, DC took prior to implementing its bag tax. The District’s study found that plastic bags accounted for 21% and more than 40% of total waste in the Anacostia River and its tributaries, respectively. Within just the first five months of its program, which applies a $0.05 tax on bags, DC saw plastic bag waste fall by 60% and raised $2.5 million in revenues. Surely a similar program could help reduce Cleveland’s waste stream and improve its paltry 9.25% recycling rate.

Plastic bag pollution has formed an artificial dam in the Anacostia River.

Plastic bag pollution had formed an artificial dam in the Anacostia River in this 2001 photograph.

Overall, I’m pleased with the draft Climate Action Plan, and I think it represents a good first step in the right direction. The City assembled an impressive working group of diverse stakeholders and fielded input throughout the process. That said, I definitely think it can be better, and I hope they will consider my comments. I have also submitted a copy of marked-up version of the plan directly to the Office of Sustainability for their review.

To read the report yourself and submit your comments, visit the Climate Action Plan page at


If we could avoid coating Lake Erie in a permanent layer of toxic algae, that would be great

So I wanted to discuss this issue in my post on lake levels in the Great Lakes, but length became a factor. Fortunately, two recent articles touched on the topic, so it gave me an opportunity to circle back to it.

First, two officials from the Cuyahoga Water and Soil Conservation District published an op-ed in The Plain Dealer on Sunday that discussed the disturbing rise in algal blooms on Lake Erie during recent years. As the author’s noted, Lake Erie and other inland lakes in Northern Ohio, including Grand Lake St. Mary’s, have become enveloped in large blue-green algal blooms. The issue became particularly acute in 2011 and 2012, largely due to extremely high temperatures during the latter and heavy precipitation in the former.

A satellite photo showing Lake Erie taken by NOAA on June 14. If you look at the bottom left portion of the image (Northwest Ohio), you can clearly see blue-green algal blooms growing already on the lake surface (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

A satellite photo showing Lake Erie taken by NOAA on June 14. If you look at the bottom left portion of the image (Northwest Ohio), you can clearly see blue-green algal blooms growing already on the lake surface (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

The most obvious cause for these algal blooms is the excessive application of chemical fertilizers on farms and, to a lesser extent, residential lawns in Northern Ohio. Farmers in Northwest Ohio, in particular, have switched to no-till practices in order to reduce soil erosion. Unfortunately, no-till farming typically requires even larger chemical inputs, as the soil is not turned over. No-till soil is also more susceptible to chemical runoff during precipitation events. It appears likely that commercial agriculture is the main culprit, as the Great Lakes are phosphorus-constrained environments, and agricultural fertilizers are rich in chemical phosphates. The algal blooms that have resulted threaten a $10 billion tourism industry in the region, pose a threat to public health, harm commercial fishing, and increase the costs of water treatment.

In related news, Scientific American published a piece today on a recent study examining the effects of climate change and rising water temperatures on nine large lakes in Austria. These lakes are vital for tourism, industry, and the ecology of the region. The region has warmed at a rate 3.5 times higher than the global average since 1980, and the study argues that surface water temperature (SWT) in these lakes will rise by at least 2°C through 2050. This rise in poses a major challenge to the ecology of the lakes. From the SciAm piece:

“The predicted changes in surface water temperatures will affect the thermal characteristics of the lakes,” said Dokulil. “Warmer water temperatures could lead to enhanced nutrient loads and affect water quality by promoting algal blooms and impairing the biological functions of aquatic organisms.

Interestingly (though, perhaps, not surprisingly), the CWSCD officials largely sidestepped the role of climate change in the algal blooms on Lake Erie. That said, the Austrian study makes it clear that, while it may not be the predominant issue to worry about at the moment (and it’s not one that local conservation officials can actively address), climate change does compound the anthropogenic impacts and will only get worse in the future.

Research suggests that SWT have increased at a significantly faster rate that air temperatures in the Great Lakes region. According to a 2007 study (PDF) from Jay A. Austin & Stephen M. Colman in Geophysical Research Letters, SWT on Lake Superior rose by 2.5°C from 1979-2006, a rate that was “significantly in excess of regional atmospheric warming.” The authors argue that this outcome largely stems from an increased albedo effect due to declining lake ice cover during this period. To make matters worse, they conclude by noting that, at the current rate of decline, Lake Superior will be completely ice free during the winter within the next three decades.

The number of days with extreme precipitation has increased through the country in recent years. The Midwest saw a substantial rise of 27% during this period (courtesy of the U.S. Global Change Research Program).

The number extreme precipitation days has increased through the country in recent years. The Midwest saw a 27% increase from 1958-2007 (courtesy of the U.S. Global Change Research Program).

This study accords with other research on these issues within the Great Lakes region. According to an excellent 2003 review (PDF) from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region, ice cover will continue to decrease dramatically on Lakes Erie and Superior in the coming decades. By 2030, up to 61% of winters could be ice free on Lake Erie; by 2090, this number could reach a staggering 96%.

Moreover, while there hasn’t been a large amount of research done in the past few years, a handful of studies from the 1990s and early 2000s suggest that SWTs in the Great Lakes may jump by another 1-7°C. Combine these higher SWTs with more extreme precipitation events, and we have a recipe for even more massive algal outbreaks.

We already know that extreme precipitation has increased by roughly 20% in the Central US over the last century. This trend is projected to continue into the future, particularly during the winter and spring months; runoff produced during these seasons largely controls the extent of algal growth during the summer months.

Considerable evidence exists to suggest that Cleveland will be well positioned to withstand the most severe effects of climate change, and the city may even see an influx of migrants from other, harder hit areas of the country. However, as I have argued ad nauseum, the city needs to be proactive to ensure that it will be prepared for the challenges that await it. The draft Climate Action Plan is a start, but it needs to put more focus on adapting to climate changes, lest we squander our best natural asset – Lake Erie.

Algae blooming on Lake Erie during the massive bloom that developed in 2011 (courtesy of The Plain Dealer).

Algae blooming on Lake Erie during the massive bloom that developed in 2011 (courtesy of The Plain Dealer).