Here’s the editorial on carbon emissions the PD should have written

coal plant carbon emissions

So The Plain Dealer is at it, once again, on climate change and carbon regulations. As I documented last June, when President Obama announced his plan to use his executive authority to curb power plant carbon emissions, the PD has a history of drafting inaccurate, lazy editorials on this subject. Surprise surprise, they’ve struck once more.

On Saturday, the paper posted a piece titled “The EPA’s overly ambitious carbon-reduction mandate is unacceptable as written.” Needless to say, the editorial rehashed the same tired, easily refuted, arguments that the EPA’s proposed rule on power plant carbon emissions will kill jobs, raise electricity costs, and drive investments out of Ohio.

The PD seems to hold some impressively incongruous views on climate change. They can call for action on the issue, writing that inaction would force us to “watch some of our most beloved and vital cities be eaten away like sand castles on the beach” and decry SB 310 as “obnoxious” and “an unacceptable bill,” all while criticizing anyone who tries to actually tackle the challenge as a radical. I imagine any other person might find it difficult to stand up straight given the vertigo that holding such contrary views would surely produce.

I took the liberty of rewriting the piece for the editorial board to make it more accurate and intellectually honest. Since that link expires at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 10 (the only draw back of shrturl), below you will find the original text of the piece, overlain with my changes. The original text that I’ve deleted is crossed out, and my additions are in red. Feel free to use any of these, PD editors.

The EPA’s overly ambitious carbon-reduction mandate is unacceptable as written: editorial

The EPA’s proposed carbon rule is an overdue step to tackle climate change: editorial

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a major step this week toward battling climate change by announcing a plan to cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent nationally by 2030.

It’s an ambitious goal designed to reduce the country’s reliance on coal, boost the use of natural gas and renewable energy, improve plant efficiency and shrink consumer demand through conservation.

Climate change already poses serious risks of catastrophic ocean-level rises and other impacts both globally and domestically, ranging from of catastrophic sea level rise, to crushing heatwaves, to deadly floods. Policy actions to reduce the manmade carbon emissions causing global warming are long carbon emissions known to contribute to global warming are overdue. More than 97 percent of climate scientists and every major national academy of science agrees on this point.

Ohio needs to do more — far more — than it’s doing now to expand its energy portfolio, encourage energy conservation, support energy innovation and renewable-energy jobs and clean its air. The current legislative backsliding in Columbus on renewable-energy and energy-efficiency requirements is embarrassing and terribly shortsighted.

Nonetheless, the proposed EPA carbon rule as written is unacceptable.

It raises more unanswered questions and unpredictable scenarios than there are electrons on the grid. The lack of specifics about potential impacts on coal-reliant states such as Ohio is especially worrisome — as are the short time lines and large reductions involved. The obvious politics of the effort, driven by the White House, leaves it vulnerable to destructive political demagoguery in the 2016 presidential campaign and possible elimination by the next occupant of the White House.

At a minimum, the rule needs to be drastically revised before it’s finalized, to reduce the size of the mandate, extend the timeline and add safeguards to prevent devastating utility-bill increases in states with the greatest reliance on coal power.

Given these facts, the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations constitute an important, if ultimately inadequate, step to tackle the preeminent policy issue of our times.

The rule, as written, is highly flexible and takes into account the different energy mixes in each state. It provides significantly more leeway for states that rely heavily on coal for electricity production, like Ohio. The plan is part of President Obama’s attempt to tackle climate change before leaving office in January 2017, a commitment he made in his 2008 convention speech.

It would obviously be preferable for Congress to act on this issue by passing a national cap on carbon emissions, much like the 2009 cap and trade proposal that passed the House but floundered in the Senate. But, due largely to the rampant rise of the radical, climate change denying wing of the Republican Party, such talk is anathema on Capitol Hill.

The rule, which seeks to meet President Obama’s 2009 Copenhagen commitment to cut carbon emissions, puts the United States on the right path. Moreover, it has already begun to pay dividends at the international level, as China has committed to implement a national carbon cap by 2016. The rule may help foster the good will needed to secure a binding global agreement next fall in Paris.

The EPA says it In crafting the rule, the EPA applied a national formula to each state’s individual power profile to set target emission rates for “carbon intensity,” defined as the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity generated by all types of fuel, be it fossil, nuclear or renewable. Each state can come up with its own plan for meeting the mandate.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis says Ohio’s 28 percent reduction goal by 2030 is The proposed rule sets Ohio’s 28 percent reduction goal by 2030, less than that of 31 other states. West Virginia and Kentucky, which is are even more coal-reliant than Ohio, has a target rate of 20 percent have targets of 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively.

Steve Frenkel, Midwest director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says Ohio has already begun to chip away at its reliance on coal, and that meeting the mandate is not only doable but affordable because it will create a more efficient and sustainable energy system less subject to the price volatility of coal.

“It requires investment, there’s no question,” he said, “but we think that investment will pay dividends.”

Just how much investment remains to be seen, but it most surely will be substantial. He’s right. The investment may be substantial, but it will put Ohio on a path for more sustainable growth. Ohio’s net electricity generation in 2012, according to the federal Energy Information Agency, was nearly 130 million megawatt-hours. With nearly 70 percent of Ohio’s generation attributable The state currently gets 65 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, so a 28 percent reduction in the carbon emission rate, as foreseen in the EPA rule, would be equivalent to conserving, producing more efficiently or finding cleaner power sources for about 25 million megawatt-hours of electrical generation by 2030.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy likened any short-term national rate increase as a result of the mandate to the price of a gallon of milk per month, and said that by 2030, average rates should be down 8 percent.

That’s unlikely to be the case in Ohio. Moreover, it seems irresponsible to make such assertions when there are so many moving parts to take into consideration, and when state plans are at least two years from being finalized.

Fortunately, Ohio can cut its carbon emissions while lowering electric prices and creating jobs. From 2009-2012, Ohio reduced its electricity consumption by more than 5 million megawatt hours, even as the state created jobs, and energy efficiency lowered electric bills by 1.4%. According to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the proposed rules could be a boon for the state. The proposal has the potential to created 8,600 new jobs and cut the average household’s monthly electric bill by $6.80.

EPA will be soliciting more input on its draft plan over the next three months with all states required to submit complete or initial plans by June 30, 2016. Among the strategies that could be employed is a multistate market that allows pollution credits to be bought and sold. Among the strategies that could be employed is a multistate market that allows pollution credits to be bought and sold.

Climate change is a real concern that could have serious impacts, including in the Great Lakes region, whether by producing a larger number of violent storms that overload sewers and flood basements, contributing to the formation of dead zones in Lake Erie or nurturing the growth of toxic algal blooms.

It’s about time Ohio got serious about addressing carbon emissions and repositioned the state for the future energy and energy-innovation marketplace. The question is whether the EPA rule is the best or proper way to achieve those goals. If Ohio’s economy tanks because its electricity costs are three times those of Pennsylvania, Michigan or New York, there will be major economic and, likely, health impacts.

At a minimum, the rule should be significantly altered before it is finalized to lower the targets and protect against burdensome rate hikes in coal-reliant states.

All the evidence suggests it is. While opponents in the coal industry will claim that this plan will doom the economy and drive up energy costs, we’d be wise to ignore their claims. They have been wrong before – time after time – and they will be wrong yet again. This rule is an excellent first step in the right direction, but we must do more to ensure that we can prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Tackling this crisis is an imperative to protect not just to ourselves, but to the generations to come.

Ohio already has a compliance plan for the EPA’s carbon rules. It’s called SB 221.

epa carbon reduction goals by state
epa carbon reduction goals by state

Carbon reduction goals by state under the EPA’s proposed rule (courtesy of Business Insider).

As you’ve no doubt heard, President Obama took the most serious executive action in American history to tackle climate change on Monday. The US EPA unveiled its long-anticipated rule to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. The rule calls for a 30% reduction in carbon intensity within the electric power sector by 2030. The rule is extremely complex and lengthy (645 pages, to be exact), but the details are starting to emerge.

Like the Affordable Care Act, the EPA’s proposed rule is highly flexible and will be implemented at the state level. Cognizant that states have different fuel makeups within the electric sector, the EPA set carbon reduction targets for each state, ranging from just 10.6% in North Dakota to 71.8% in Washington. The rule also provides states with tremendous flexibility in how they can reduce carbon emissions, listing a bevy of different options, including:

  1. Improving fossil fuel plant efficiency
  2. Switching from coal to natural gas for electric generation
  3. Ramping up electricity production from renewable energy
  4. Investing in end user energy efficiency
  5. Adopting a cap-and-trade system or join an existing program, like the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)

This rule is far from being finalized. It still needs to go through a public comment period, an implementation phase, and – no doubt – a lengthy battle in the courts. That said, it is already starting to reap potential dividends. Yesterday, Chinese officials announced that they may include a carbon cap in its next Five Year Plan, which begins in 2016. The Chinese have are already experimenting with pilot cap and trade systems in seven cities, though the experiment has not been a rousing success.

How will this rule affect Ohio?

Understanding that it will be more difficult for some states – namely, the most coal-dependent ones – to reduce their electric power emissions, the EPA set more lenient emissions reductions standards for these states. Ohio, which gets 65% of its electricity from coal and emits more CO2 than all but three other states, is required to reduce its carbon emissions from 1,850 tons per megawatt (MW) of energy to 1,338 tons per MW (see page 30 of PDF) by 2030. That represents a 27.7% reduction, slightly under the overall 30% standard nationwide.

Predictably, lawmakers in Columbus have already started their posturing over the issue. More than a week before EPA even announced the rule, a bipartisan group of coal boosters in the Statehouse introduced House Bill 506, which requires the Ohio EPA to establish rules that dictate how the state will implement the regulation. The bill, which passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, is intended to shield Ohio’s coal industry. According to Gongwer (subscription required):

[Rep. Jack Cera (D-Bellaire] said the bill looks to continue Ohio’s energy supply portfolio that relies heavily on coal-fired generation. He said the industry has a significant impact in his district, and the use of coal is vital to the region’s economic security….

[Rep. Andy Thompson (R-Marietta)] said he is looking to make sure Ohio continues to have affordable, reliable power supplies based on reasonable policies. He said the bill allows the state agency to consider each power generating unit, and how changes would impact local communities. If done properly, the state policy could prevent the retirement of older coal-fired plants.

Mr. Cera said a rush to meet federal requirements could be detrimental to families by increasing energy costs and eliminating jobs. He said further reduction of coal-fired power facilities could bring the state and region closer to having inadequate power supplies. Mr. Cera added that while technology is advancing, additional time may be needed to get enhanced controls in place.

Mr. Thompson told Rep. Tony Burkley (R-Paulding) there is a place for a mix of power sources, but said it is essential that the state has a baseload source that is available at all times.

“Coal is there,” he said. “Coal is on site. There is no delay.”

Craig Butler, the Director of the Ohio EPA, who would be tasked with developing the compliance plan, has decried the proposed regulations as “unnecessary federal mandates.” He has also sworn to “preserve as much existing coal-fired electric generation” as possible.

Because nothing makes sense any more, FirstEnergy has actually downplayed the rule and made it seem like it’s happy to comply. CEO Tony Alexander, who last made news for bashing the same EPA over its nonexistent “war on coal,” told the New York Times he supports cap and trade, saying,

By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost. The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.

VP Ray Evans even told the AP that the company was “generally pleased by the overall direction of the federal plan.”

Now, under normal circumstances, if FirstEnergy approved of an environmental regulation and felt it could comply with it easily, I’d be freaking out over how lax the rule was. And I do have some concerns about the plan, namely the decision to make the baseline year 2005, which is when carbon emissions reached their peak in the US. I would be much happier with 2012 as the baseline, as emissions fell 16% during that seven-year span. This would make the rule far more ambitious and beneficial. As it currently stands, the rule would only lead to a 17% reduction from 2012 emission levels, not the 30% headline number we are all seeing (which is relative to 2005).**

But I digress. What I really want to emphasize here that the executives at FirstEnergy are apparently more progressive on environmental regulations than the head of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Let that one sink in for a minute.

SB 221 and the carbon rule

So how should Ohio go about meeting this new rule? What should the state’s compliance plan look like? Well, it’s first important to note that, in addition to the 2030 goal, the EPA’s rule also includes an interim reduction target for states to achieve by 2025; for Ohio, this involves a reduction to 1,452 tons per MW. This amounts to a 21.5% decrease by 2025. So Ohio roughly needs to reduce its carbon emissions from the electric power sector by 22% by 2025.

Wait, 22.2% by 2025 – where have I heard that number before? Oh, right, that’s the standard for energy efficiency set by SB 221 back in 2008. Under those standards, Ohio’s four investor-owned utilities need to reduce the amount of electricity that their customers use by 22.2% through 2025, against a 2006-2008 annualized baseline. The similarities are startling.

sb 221 energy efficiency benchmarks

Annual energy efficiency benchmarks for Ohio’s investor-owned utilities, as specified by SB221 (courtesy of Mark Rabkin).

Now, you may note that carbon emissions and energy efficiency are not the same thing. And you’d be right.

But, under the EPA’s proposed plan, states that choose to invest in energy efficiency would need to improve demand-side energy efficiency by 1.5% per year from 2020-2030. Conveniently, SB 221 requires the state to improve its energy efficiency by 2% per year from 2020-2025, allowing it to meet and even exceed that standard. And while 22.2% savings still comes up short of the 27.7% mark required by 2030, the state would be well on its way to meeting this standard, and it could make up the rest of the gap by continuing to implement its existing renewable portfolio standard, which also exists due to SB 221.

In other words, Ohio already has compliance plan in place. The state passed it, nearly unanimously, six years ago. But, thanks to the legislature, we are just one signature away from derailing these standards.

SB 310 and Ohio’s compliance plan

SB 310 will leave Ohio in a precarious situation. The freeze would last until December 31, 2016, six months after the date that EPA has set for states to submit their compliance plans*. The state could sue over the rule, which may affect that date – Mike DeWine has already shown a predilection to waste taxpayer resources over the latest right wing cause du jour – but I feel pretty confident the courts will uphold the regulation.

So, where will Ohio find itself as the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2017? Will it implement weakened energy standards, as SB 310 makes clear the legislature plans to do, or will it allow SB 221 to come back into force? Will it put together a satisfactory compliance plan, or will the US EPA have to step in and take over?

Surely, the legislators behind SB 310 considered these questions when crafting the law. Not quite. According to Tom Knox at Columbus Business First,

Rep. Sandra Williams of Cleveland, the ranking Democrat, asked him how the freeze would impact the state’s ability to meet new regulations to limit coal-plant carbon dioxide emissions. Balderson said he was unaware of the rules but didn’t think they would impact his bill.

That’s right. An elected official who sits on the Senate Public Utilities Committee and introduces a bill as significant as SB 310 openly admitted that he was “unaware” of forthcoming EPA standards that anyone with a passing knowledge of Google could have found out about. Did he miss the massive speech that President Obama gave last summer when he announced these rules? It wasn’t exactly a secret.

The climate change imperative in policy making

That’s what makes things like SB 310 or Cuyahoga County’s decision to sign a 20-year deal to get coal-fired power from from  Cleveland Thermal so mind boggling. Policy making doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Obviously uncertainty always exists, and it’s sometimes necessary to make simplifying assumptions and leave out exogenous factors. But the preeminent policy challenge of our times is not just one of those things you can ignore. Pretending science doesn’t exist won’t make it so.

A changing climate is not just one of many factors at play. It is a baseline factor that directly and indirectly influences everything else. From insurance markets to credit worthiness, from allergies to vector-borne diseases, from human and economic development to violence and conflict, climate change is always a factor in play. While it would be nice to pretend otherwise, it’s no longer an option available to us.

Even if you reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue, it makes sense to assume it’s true. Because consider the risks if your wrong. What if that expensive new bridge or road your state just built was only designed to withstand one foot of sea level rise? Or what if a farmer invested his or her life savings in a crop that can’t survive the megadrought happening in the West?

Every single policy decision we make now, regardless how mundane or seemingly unrelated, must have climate change embedded in it. It may be convenient to pretend this one local project can’t possibly have any bearing on such a global issue – I’m looking at you, ODOT – but we cannot afford that luxury.

So the people in charge in Columbus can – and, I’m quite sure, will – continue to ignore what I’ve just said, because they have a clear profit motive to do so. But if there is one thing that these new carbon rules make clear, it’s that the day of reckoning on issue is coming, and it’s a lot closer than some people may like.

Ohio has 30 months to decide whether or not it will act on climate change or whether it will cling to the status quo. Because, whether or not Columbus likes it, the EPA has supremacy on this issue, and it has the law in its side.

So what does this all mean?

Oh, I guess you were expecting me to actually go somewhere with this. Okay then.

Ohio’s best option is for John Kasich to veto SB 310 and call on lawmakers to not only protect the state’s clean energy standards, but actually discuss ways to strengthen them through 2030. But seeing as I’m not the benevolent dictator of this state (but seriously, I’d be ever so benevolent…), and the Governor has made it clear he will sign SB 310, that leaves us searching for alternatives.

Given the options available, our next best choice is to ensure that Ed Fitzgerald and David Pepper get elected as Governor and Attorney General this fall. That would empower Governor Fitzgerald to veto any GOP-led plan to weaken the standards that may emerge during the freeze and ensure that Attorney General Pepper does not foolishly sue the EPA over the carbon rules. That may seem like a long shot at this point, but the alternative is far, far worse.

Ohio is poised to meet the EPA’s carbon rules while creating jobs, cleaning its air, and creating thousands of good jobs. Or we can throw all of that out the window to gamble that the GOP-led legislature can somehow come up with a law that is better equipped to do all of this than SB 221. Don’t hold your breath.

Update (6/4/2014 3:31 p.m.): I originally thought the EPA was requiring states to submit their compliance plans by December 31, 2016, the same date as the end of the proposed freeze. The actual date is June 30, 2016; I have updated the post to reflect this change.
Update 2 (3:44 p.m.): Brad Plumer just pointed me to a post from Resources for the Future, which argues that everything people have been saying about the 2005 baseline is incorrect. Apparently EPA was only using 2005 as the headline year, because President Obama’s commitment to reduce US emissions by 17% at the Copenhagen Conference uses 2005 as its reference point. But, in reality, all of the EPA targets for state carbon reductions are based on 2012 numbers, meaning that this rule really does represent a strong emissions reduction standard. Look for cheers from fellow environmentalists and cries of impending economic doom from fossil fuel boosters.

Here’s how climate change will screw up Memorial Day

children kiribati vickers gun
children kiribati vickers gun

Children sit astride a Vickers gun on Tarawa Island, a remnant from the Japanese defenses on the island during World War II (courtesy of The Global Mail).

Memorial Day was yesterday, a solemn holiday to recognize those men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country and did not return home from the field of war.

While President Lyndon B. Johnson officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of the holiday, the first Memorial Day took place on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Here, a group of least 10,000 freed slaves staged a parade to commemorate the Union soldiers who had fought and died on their behalf. The parade took place on the site of Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a race track that Confederate soldiers had converted into an outdoor prison for Union troops. Before the parade, 28 former slaves gathered on the site to provide a proper burial to the 257 soldiers who died in the camp’s deplorable prison and were unceremoniously laid to rest in a shallow, mass grave.

Memorial Day and climate change

Like all holidays, it is unsurprising to see Memorial Day sometimes used to promote political agendas. Joe Romm capitalized on Thomas Friedman’s column from Saturday to discuss the links between climate change and violent conflict. According to the Los Angeles Times, President Obama is expected to highlight that connection in his major foreign policy address at West Point tomorrow.

There has been much ink spilled over the climate-conflict nexus, including a chapter in the latest IPCC Working Group II report (PDF) and the recent update to the landmark 2007 report from the CNA. Accordingly, given these clear and potentially acute links, it is unsurprising to see commentators make the connection.

I want to focus on a different connection between Memorial Day and climate change. Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report documenting how climate change threatens vital national landmarks, including the historical Jamestown settlement and Cape Canaveral. We’ve already seen firsthand how rising seas and more severe storm surges can damage important sites, as evinced by the inundation of Ground Zero during Superstorm Sandy.

The Battle of Tarawa

But not all of these threatened landmarks are located in the US. Halfway around the world lies the small island nation of Kiribati (prounounced KIRR-i-bas), an archipelago of 33 coral atolls and islands that sits astride the Equator in the Pacific Ocean about 3,100 miles east of Australia. The country’s capital and largest city, South Tarawa, sits on the narrow coral atoll of the same name. More than 50,000 Kiribati – almost half of the country’s population – are squeezed onto this small islet just six square miles in area.

While this nation exists as little more than a blip in international politics or the global economy, it played an outsized role in the fight for supremacy in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. As The New York Times discussed on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa,

By themselves, the islands held little value to the Japanese or the American government. They were situated about halfway between Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and were barely large enough to hold an airfield. But they served as an essential steppingstone across the Pacific: If American bombers wanted to reach Japan, they would need an air base in the Mariana Islands; to capture the Marianas, they would first need the Marshall Islands; and for the Marshalls, they needed Tarawa. To fortify the atoll, the Japanese sent in 3,800 imperial troops, along with 1,200 enslaved Korean laborers to be thrust onto the front lines. They spent a year building concrete bunkers and planting massive cannons along the beaches. The leader of the Japanese garrison, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibazaki, predicted that it would take “one million men, 100 years” to seize the islands.

Beginning November 20, 1943, some 35,000 Marines stormed the island in an attempt to wrest it from Japanese control. By the time the fighting ended three days later, roughly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died. This number included around 1,100 Marines who, though they fell, did not die in vain. Their sacrifice allowed their comrades to seize the island and establish an essential foothold for Admiral Chester Nimitz’ island hopping strategy. Adm. Nimitz reportedly said that “The capture of Tarawa knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”

Unfortunately, the tropical heat eliminated any hope for a proper, dignified burial of the dead. The surviving Marines quickly buried their fallen comrades in shallow graves (due, in part, to the island’s low water table), then moved on. Military engineers soon moved in to pave over much of the island and construct an airfield. When crews returned to Tarawa in 1946 to exhume the remains of the Marines, the haste of the burials and poor record keeping made their task nearly impossible.

Forensic investigators located just half of the buried Marines. Supplemental crews, both official and volunteers, have helped to locate the unidentified remains of just over 100 others. But perhaps 520 Marines remain buried somewhere in the sands of South Tarawa.

north and south tarawa

North and South Tarawa islands in Kiribati (courtesy of The Guardian).

Climate change in Kiribati

Today, as in 1943, Kiribati sits on the front lines of the world’s greatest crisis. This crisis is not a world war, but the battle against global climate change. Most of Tarawa lies less than three meters above sea level, while the country’s entire land area sits, on average, just 1.3 meters above the Pacific. Under a high emissions scenario, the IPCC projects that global sea levels will rise by 52-98 centimeters by 2100. That number is likely low, however, as the report excludes recent research that shows more ominous trends, such as the news this month that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has entered an irreversible (if gradual) collapse.

Additionally, Kiribati’s location makes it even more vulnerable to sea level rise (SLR). It is located in the Western Pacific Ocean, where seas have been rising three times faster than the rest of the globe. According to the World Bank, by 2050 – within my lifetime – some 54-80% of South Tarawa could be fully inundated (PDF).

sea level rise rate western pacific

Rates of sea level rise in the Pacific Ocean (courtesy of NOAA).

Clearly, Kiribati is at tremendous risk. Anote Tong, the country’s president, has been pushing a policy of “migration with dignity,” whereby he works with neighboring states to take Kiribati migrants. Stating that his country has perhaps three decades before it becomes uninhabitable, President Tong recently purchased more than 6,000 hectares of land in Fiji. This represents just one of his contingency plans for his endangered (and rapidly growing) population of more than 100,000.

Ultimately, it won’t be too much water but, rather, too little water that dooms Kiribati and other small island states. That’s because, as sea levels rise, saltwater pushes into underground freshwater reserves. This process, known as saltwater intrusion, contaminates the freshwater resources upon which the islands’ residents depend. The IPCC has projected that South Tarawa’s supply of underground freshwater will shrink by two-thirds through 2050. This, along with the repeated impacts of more intense storm surges on infrastructure and crops will likely push those left on the islands to flee long before the seas reach their doorsteps.

Climate change will seriously challenge our existing international law system. Will we redefine refugee to include climate-induced migration? Can our definition of national sovereignty stay the same in a greenhouse world? Is it really possible for a nation-state to exist when its people have all left and its territory lies under the sea?

President Tong has proposed one possible solution to the latter issue. He has suggested that, in a worst case scenario, the Kiribati government could establish an outpost on Banaba atoll, which, at 81 meters above sea level, is the highest point in the country. This would allow the Kiribati state to maintain at least a ceremonial presence in its territory, even if most of it lies empty.

But the 520 US Marines who lie buried under the beaches of South Tarawa will not be so fortunate. They will not get the same dignified burial as those 257 Union soldiers in Charleston, nor will they get a tangible memorial like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Unless we act immediately, both to search for their remains and to curb the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, these brave men who fought and died for their country will end up interred, anonymously, under the sea forever.

 

What is the real cost of freezing Ohio’s clean energy standards?

oec clean energy infographic
students protesting against sb 310

Students protesting against SB 310 in front of the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday, May 14 (courtesy of Ohio Beyond Coal).

I have asthma. According to the CDC, I am one of 831,787 Ohioans and 25.9 million Americans living with this condition (PDF). That means that 1 out of every 12 Americans is living with asthma, up from 1 out of 14 in 2001.

While people who may not have firsthand experience with this illness may not understand, asthma is far more than just an inconvenience. I’ve heard and seen children with asthma describe feeling like fish out of water when they are suffering an attack. It’s terrifying to not be able to get the air you need. While I don’t think I was ever really in any acute danger, the fact remains that 185 children and 3,262 adults died of asthma in 2007.

As much as I hate to admit it, asthma came to define much of my childhood. From the day that I was diagnosed at either 5 or 6 (I can’t remember the exact date), my severe asthma was omnipresent. Many of my memories from this period involve such episodes, including the role that my mom played in helping me deal with these attacks. Growing up, my mom routinely worked 60-hour weeks and stayed until 3:00 a.m. or later every Tuesday night to edit her newspapers. Despite this, she was always there to listen to my lungs to see if I was wheezing; to pick me up from school or practice if I had an attack; to ferry me to and from the the ER when I needed treatment; and to sit next to me in the hospital for the long hours while I underwent tests, got chest x-rays, and did my nebulizer treatments.

I vividly remember my first major asthma attack. It was the spring of 1993, and I started having breathing trouble towards the end of the school day. The attack only got worse throughout the afternoon, and when my mom got home from work around 6:00 p.m., she immediately drove me to the ER at Fairview Hospital. We sat in that ER for hours before a doctor could see me and for several hours more before they were able to admit me for care. My mom stayed with me right until they took me up to my room for admittance at 3:30 a.m. I ended up spending three days in the hospital for treatment and observation (thankfully, it was the only time that I actually got admitted for asthma). This is just one of the thousand acts of kindness from her that I can never fully repay.

Fortunately, as I got older, I began to grow out of this severe asthma. Today, I am able to live a normal life without worrying about when my next attack will come. But, at the same time, I know that the threat remains, and I have my emergency inhaler on hand, just in case. I was reminded of this quite vividly back in the fall of 2005 when I went in for routine surgery. The procedure required me to go under general anesthesia, so the doctors intubated me. But, after the surgery, when they tried to remove the tube, I suffered a severe bronchial spasm that cut off my breathing. My blood-oxygen saturation levels plummeted into the mid to upper 60s (normal levels are 95-100%), and I ended up spending the next 24 hours in the ICU, an experience I recommend avoiding, if at all possible.

I have no idea how much my asthma diagnosis ended up costing my parents in medical bills and lost time at work, but I imagine the amount was substantial. I did see the medical bills that came in during my stay at the ICU and, even with insurance, they were staggering. For the millions of Americans who suffer with asthma everyday, many of whom do not have insurance, this diagnosis is a real burden. On average, asthmatics spend $3,300 in medical costs each year. According to CDC numbers, asthma costs total $56 billion in direct medical costs, lost school and work days, and premature deaths. Everyday in this country, 36,000 children miss school and 27,000 adults miss work due to this condition.

My past (and present) as someone living with asthma has made me an advocate for clean air. We know that air pollution is both a root cause of the condition and a proximate trigger of asthma attacks. And that’s what pisses me off so much at SB 310. By crippling Ohio’s clean energy industry and protecting the fossil fuel industry, it will directly contribute to more asthma attacks and more chronic pulmonary diseases. This bill will carry a high cost in blood and treasure for our state.

It’s great to focus on how this bill will destroy jobs and harm a thriving clean energy industry in the state (which I’ve done), but SB 310 proponents just counter with their BS “war on coal” retort, a completely disingenuous argument that is, nonetheless, powerful in this state. But it’s another thing entirely for proponents of this bill to hear about the ways that it will directly affect the health of thousands of Ohioans and just not even give a shit.

Yesterday. the Ohio Environmental Council released this infographic showing the benefits of the state’s clean energy standards during 2013:

oec clean energy infographic

Source: Ohio Environmental Council

Using these numbers and EPA incidence factors, we can roughly calculate the economic and health benefits of the clean energy standards in 2013 alone. According to 2011 EPA standards, every ton of NOx, SO2, and PM2.5 has has the following benefits:

incidence factors for power plant emissions

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

Accordingly, using these numbers, the reductions in NOx and SO2 emissions saved 3.5 lives, 267 lost work days, 59 asthma attacks, and 2.5 non-fatal heart attacks last year alone. And, based on Lepuele et al.’s economic benefit estimates, these standards had a health-related economic benefit of $208,620,000 in 2013.

But these numbers don’t even take into account the social benefit of the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by the standards. The US government currently uses $37 per ton as its social cost of carbon emissions. Accordingly, given that these standards saved 1,061,300 tons of GHGs in 2013, they created an economic benefit of $39,268,100. In total, using these conservative estimates, Ohio’s clean energy standards generated an additional economic benefit of $247,888,100 in 2013 alone.

These savings are not included in other analyses, but they are real, and they affect the lives of ordinary Ohioans everyday. The facts are clear – a vote for SB 310 is a vote for more asthma attacks, more heart attacks, more work and school days missed, more trips to the ER, more premature deaths, and more of the carbon pollution that is driving climate change. These are the the stakes.

If SB 310 proponents really wanted to show the real cost of these standards on Ohioan’s electric bills, as they claim, they should include a provision in the bill that requires the inclusion of these numbers. Somehow I doubt that would go over too well.

Will climate change disasters really lead to more conflict? Maybe.

naval station pensacola
naval station pensacola

Damage to Naval Air Station Pensacola following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The US military has devoted a considerable amount of attention to climate change, which makes sense given the various risks it poses to military operations. These risks include potential increased demand for humanitarian responses to climatic disasters and the threat of climatic changes, such as stronger tropical storms and sea level rise, to existing military installations. For instance, Hurricane Ivan knocked one of the Navy’s key bases, Naval Air Station Pensacola, out of commission for a year.

Climate change’s most severe potential military threat – increasing the risk of violent conflicts – is also its least likely, by far. Yet, unsurprisingly, this has gotten the lion’s share of attention from the media.

Last week, Eric Holthaus at Slate published an interview with retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley. The piece is worth a read. I would say the Rear Admiral’s comments accurately reflect the views of many military officials who are concerned about climate change.

Let me just preface this by noting that Rear Admiral Titley has forgotten a hell of a lot more about military strategy, history, and operations than I will ever learn. But I do take exception with the way that he framed the issue:

Let me give you a few examples of how that might play out. You could imagine a scenario in which both Russia and China have prolonged droughts. China decides to exert rights on foreign contracts and gets assertive in Africa. If you start getting instability in large powers with nuclear weapons, that’s not a good day.

Here’s another one: We basically do nothing on emissions. Sea level keeps rising, three to six feet by the end of the century. Then, you get a series of super-typhoons into Shanghai and millions of people die. Does the population there lose faith in Chinese government? Does China start to fissure? I’d prefer to deal with a rising, dominant China any day.

If you take Rear Admiral Titley’s comments at face value, you’d be forgiven if you came away believing that climate-related disasters may inevitably spawn violent conflict. This is an all-too-common perception, one to which I used to subscribe.

What can we say about disasters and conflict?

But the fact remains that nothing about disasters inherently leads to conflict. Quite the opposite, really. There have been a few studies that find such a connection, including a one in 2008 from Philip Nel and Marjolein Righarts (PDF), who examined the connections between various forms of disasters and the risk of civil conflict onset. They found that disasters increase the likelihood that civil conflict will occur. Such disasters may create incentives for rebel groups to attack state institutions, or they can generate new grievances from heightened resource scarcity.

But an array of studies dispute these findings. Back in the 1960s, sociologist Charles Fritz suggested that disasters often alter social relations and help to mitigate pre-existing cleavages within communities. If securitization requires the existence of an “other” against which people can organize, the disaster itself may take that role, leading to the development of a  “common community of sufferers,” that promotes social cohesion and cooperation.

Ilan Kelman has further suggested that this ameliorative effect can take place at both intra and interstate levels, leading to “disaster diplomacy.” He has cataloged dozens of examples of disaster diplomacy, ranging from earthquakes in Greece and Turkey (PDF) to the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (paywall) in Aceh. Overall, the preponderance of evidence suggests that disasters do not inherently precipitate violence.

So can disasters lead to conflict?

Disasters, on their own, are highly unlikely to cause conflict. But the politics of the disaster response, or the lack thereof, is a different story. Think of Hurricane Katrina; it wasn’t the storm itself that caused so much outrage and discord, but the massive failure of the Bush administration to respond adequately to the needs of survivors.

Weak governments that are poorly equipped and lack sufficient international support are unlikely to respond effectively to disasters. This outcome could potentially anger survivors and provide them with incentives to take up arms, perhaps in an attempt to seize additional resources. But the real problem emerges when governments intentionally divert relief aid for their own gain or to serve their own political ends.

On December 23, 1972, a devastating earthquake rattled Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The quake destroyed three-quarters of the city’s housing stock and killed at least 11,000 Nicaraguans as they slept. Strongman Anastasio Somoza immediately began to abuse his power to take advantage of the catastrophe. According to a 2010 Miami Herald article,

Somoza began directing reconstruction efforts from a family estate on the outskirts of Managua. Cabinet ministers, businessmen, foreign officials and international relief bosses — many of them addressing Somoza as “Mr. President” — trooped in and out all day long. It was Somoza with whom foreign diplomats negotiated aid packages; it was Somoza who decided Managua would be rebuilt.

While later independent investigations cast some doubt upon the scale and significance of the profiteering, it left an indelible mark upon Nicaraguans. As evidence of the corruption mounted, event the conservative Catholic Church turned on the regime. These events contributed to a resurgence of the Sandanista movement, which formally took up arms three years later.

managua earthquake damage

An aerial image of the damage to Managua following the devastating 1972 earthquake (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Evidence suggests that inadequate and/or politically motivated disaster responses may have fed into subsequent conflict in Bangladesh (following the 1970 Bhola cyclone), Guatemala (after the 1976 Guatemala earthquake), and Sri Lanka (after the Indian Ocean tsunami).

How else might disasters spawn conflict?

When conflict occurs in the wake of disasters, it is not always an unintended and unforeseen consequence. In fact, according to Travis Nelson, it can actually be a survival tactic (paywall) employed by weak states. Nelson suggested that weak leaders may be more likely to launch small, diversionary conflicts in order to distract from inadequate disaster responses and generate nationalistic solidarity.

In July 1959, severe flooding occurred along the Yellow River, killing approximately two million Chinese. The disaster occurred at a time when the Maoist regime was weak and dealing with several crises, including the catastrophic Great Leap Forward. In the midst of these crises, the regime was unprepared for the floods, and Chinese elites began openly to question Mao’s rule. In response, the regime launched a series of border skirmishes with India, which eventually fed into the 1962 Sino-Indian War. The war aroused nationalist fervor and distracted from other challenges.

But do disasters really cause conflict?

In a word, maybe. But now we’re wading into a difficult and highly complex area that deals with endogeneity. In statistical modeling, a variable is said to be endogenous when it can be affected by other variables within the model. In other words, we cannot truly isolate the variable from the effects of others, making it difficult to determine whether or not its effects are mitigated by other factors.

As I’ve written before and will continue to say until I’m blue in the face, there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Disaster events are inherently shaped and controlled by the extant political, economic, and social environments. As a result, disasters do not occur in a vacuum, and we can’t treat them as such. So even if it seems likely that a disaster helped cause a conflict, it would be difficult to say that it was an exogenous effect, as its effects would likely be influenced by existing political and social dynamics.

While it’s true that the 1972 Guatemala earthquake helped reignite civil war (paywall), as it seems to be, it’s also true that the vulnerability of Mayan peasants to the earthquake’s effects was dictated by structural inequalities and existing violent conflict. So can we really say that the quake caused the subsequent return to war? Yes. No. Maybe. Honestly, it depends on how you define “cause.”

Did climate change cause Syria’s civil war then?

Keith Kloor hammered this point home in his recent post on the question of whether Syria’s drought caused its brutal civil war. Kloor takes Tom Friedman to task for suggesting that the Assad regime’s response to the drought helped fuel the war but failing to acknowledge that the regime’s actions also helped facilitate the drought. He quotes, at length, from an article last year where authors Jeannie Sowers and John Waterbury argue,

When terms such as ‘stressor’ or ‘threat multiplier’ are applied to drought, shifting rainfall patterns, floods, and other environmental events in the Middle East, they often obscure rather than illuminate the causes of uprisings and political change. There is perhaps no better illustration of this dynamic than Syria, where a closer examination shows that government policy helped construct vulnerability to the effects of the drought during the 2000s. State policies regarding economic development, political control in rural areas, and water management determined how drought impacted the population and how the population, in turn, responded.

So yes, the regime’s response to the drought – which may have been driven by climate change – helped incite the rebellion. But the regime’s policies also helped drive the drought in the first place. So did the drought and – by extension – climate change cause the rebellion? Yes. No. Maybe. It depends on how you define “cause.”

So will climate change really be different then?

Probably. In a 1987 article, Beverley Cuthbertson and Joanne Nigg consider under what circumstances a disaster may produce discord among survivors (paywall), which they term a “nontherapeutic community.” They find that, unlike with geological and weather disasters, victims do not see manmade disasters, like chemical spills, as natural. Accordingly, survivors often disagree as to whether a disaster has actually occurred and who is accountable. These disagreements can lead to the emergence of “victim clusters,” elevating tensions. In extreme circumstances, this could potentially lead to violence.

Given the fact that climate change is unequivocally manmade and that it has increasingly been linked to disasters, like droughts and heatwaves, it’s possible that climate-related disasters could be different. Disaster survivors could point to climate change’s fingerprints in the events that damage their livelihoods and use it as a call to take up arms. It seems unlikely, but it’s hard to be sure. Clearly, manmade climate change is different than anything we have dealt with in the past, and it is likely to change our calculus on these issues.

We may be able to say, to this point, that disasters probably don’t directly cause conflict, but as my grad school professor Ken Conca always says, you should be careful about driving forward by looking through the rear view mirror.

If you care about water, you need to worry about energy production

lakeshore power plant
lakeshore power plant

FirstEnergy’s Lake Shore power plant, which is slated to close this fall, sits along the shore of Lake Erie on Cleveland’s east side. Thermal pollution from the plant has historically prevented the waters near the site from freezing over in winter (courtesy of WKSU.org).

This article is cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Saturday was World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme centered on the water-energy nexus, a topic which has become increasingly important in recent years.

According to the United Nations, energy production currently accounts for 15% of global water use, a number which is projected to grow to 20% within the next two decades. In the US, this number is significantly higher; the US Geological Survey estimates that electricity production alone makes up 49% of all water use.

Unfortunately, people tend too often to overlook the water-energy nexus until a catastrophic event happens. Water plays a vital role in the entire lifecycle of energy production, and it remains extremely vulnerable to the deleterious consequences that may arise from each step in the process – from extraction to refining to generation to distribution and beyond.

We know, for instance, than at least 20% of streams in West Virginia are heavily degraded due to mountaintop removal mining, an incredibly destructive form of coal extraction. In addition, we have seen several recent mishaps at other stages the process, whether it was the massive Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River (refining), Saturday’s oil tanker spill outside of Houston (distribution), or the major coal ash spill on the Dan River.

Thermal pollution and water quality

But there exists another, less understood impact of energy production on freshwater resources – thermal pollution. The US gets 91% of its electricity from thermoelectric power plants; this category largely includes nuclear power plants and plants that run on fossil fuels. Thermoelectric plants generate massive amounts of heat during electricity generation process. This heat builds up within the plant and forces plant operators to draw in huge amounts of freshwater to cool the generators.

water withdrawals for power production

Daily water withdrawals for power production by state. As the map shows, water use is particularly high in the Great Lakes region (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Once-through cooling systems, which take in water once for cooling and then discharge it back into waterways, make up 31% of the US’s power plant fleet. These systems require 20,000-60,000 gallons of freshwater for cooling per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced. As a result, the Sierra Club estimates that power plants suck up more than 135 trillion gallons of water (PDF) each year for cooling alone.

This staggering total exacts a serious toll upon aquatic environments. Dicharged water temperatures are, on average, 8-12ºC warmer than the intake temperatures. As Madden, Lewis, and Davis noted in a 2013 study,

Aquatic organisms are highly dependent on specific thermal conditions in aquatic environments; water temperatures above or below optimal thermal regimes can cause stress or even death.

Such thermal pollution can negatively alter aquatic ecosystems in a number of ways. It can reduce the solubility of oxygen, stymie animal growth rates, change nutrient cycling processes, and increase the toxicity of chemicals like heavy metals and pesticides. Accordingly to Madden, Lewis, and Davis, increasing water temperatures by 7ºC has been shown to halve key biological processes, such as growth and reproduction. It’s no surprise, then, that power plants are responsible for the deaths of trillions of fish each year.

How water quality affects energy production

Interestingly enough, however, elevated water temperatures can also harm the efficiency of thermoelectric power plants. As water temperatures increase and stream levels drop, both the suitability and availability of cooling water decreases. During the severe heat wave that struck Western Europe in the summer of 2003, France saw its nuclear energy capacity fall by 7-15% for five consecutive weeks. This event marks a harbinger for our future in a warming world.

Climate change will reduce thermoelectric power production

According to a 2013 article in the journal Global Environmental Change (paywall), climate change will ensure that river temperatures increase significantly for a large swathe of the planet, while low river flows (lowest 10th percentile) will decrease for one-quarter of the global land surface area. Throughout much of the US, mean river temperatures are projected to increase by at least 2ºC, while high water temperatures will climb by 2.6-2.8ºC.

This spike in high water temperatures will be particularly critical for power plants, as they will occur during the period at which both water temperatures and energy demand are highest – the peak of summer. The Clean Water Act sets restrictions on the maximum temperature of water withdrawn and discharged by power plants; while the specific thresholds may vary by state, the temperature is commonly set between 27ºC and 32ºC. Research shows that more than half of all power plants with once-through cooling systems already exceed these numbers, demonstrating the vulnerability of the electricity system to global warming.

Using these numbers, van Vliet et al projected the impact that climate change will have on thermoelectric power plants (paywall) due to the combination of higher water temperatures and decreased river flows. They found that summer capacity for these plants will fall by 4.4-16% from 2031-2060. Moreover, these plants appear extremely sensitive to major reductions (greater than a 90% drop) in output as a result of global warming; the same study concludes that these events will increase nearly three-fold.

The Great Lakes region appears particularly vulnerable to falling electric output in a greenhouse world due to its heavy reliance on an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants. The National Climate Assessment notes that 95% of the Midwest’s electricity generating infrastructure (PDF) will likely see declines in output due to higher temperatures. As climate change increases stress simultaneously on aquatic ecosystems, drinking water supplies, and electricity production, potential conflicts over water uses will almost certainly increase among stakeholders.

Those of us who wish to protect our vital freshwater resources, like the Great Lakes, cannot afford to focus solely upon this sector, given its inextricable links to other areas. We need to worry as well about the stability of our climate and the makeup of our energy system. Renewable energy technologies use substantially less water than fossil fuel plants and will help shift us away from carbon-intensive energy sources. A 2012 study shows that if the US invests heavily in energy efficiency and renewable energy production, by 2050, water withdrawals and water consumption for energy production would fall by 97% and 85.2%, respectively. This shift would save 39.8 trillion gallons of water.

If we want to truly be stewards of our freshwater resources, we need to act as stewards for our climate.

How global warming will cause more lake-effect snow

lake erie ice
lake erie ice

Ice engulfs most of the surface of Lake Erie on January 10, following the severe polar vortex event a few days prior (courtesy of Discover Magazine).

Today may be the first day of spring, but winter’s icy grip continues to linger for most of us in the Midwest. But as we move – we hope – into warmer weather, NOAA has provided an overview of the winter from which we have emerged. It released its latest monthly state of the climate data last week, which also included the data for this year’s meteorological winter (December-January).

Unsurprisingly, the report reveals that this winter was cold, but far from historically so. It was just the 34th coldest on record, and no state recorded its coldest winter ever. In contrast, California had its warmest winter ever, and Arizona had its fourth warmest. As the AP’s Seth Borenstein put it, this winter demonstrated a “bi-polar winter vortex.”

One climatological variable that did reach near-record levels was the extent of lake ice on the Great Lakes. Due to the spate of below-freezing temperatures in the Great Lakes region, ice cover reached a maximum of 91% this winter, far higher than the long-term average of 51.4%. Lake Erie, which typically has the highest level of ice cover of the five lakes, jumped from just 5% ice cover on New Year’s day to more than 80% ten days later as a result of the polar vortex on January 6-7.

One year does not make a trend, though. According to the National Climate Assessment (PDF), surface water temperatures have increased dramatically in the Great lakes since the mid-20th century. From 1973-2010, annual Great Lakes ice cover fell by 71%, a startling downward trend despite the noisy year-to-year variation. Additionally, the IPCC has noted the duration of lake ice throughout the entire Northern Hemisphere has decreased by approximately two weeks since the middle of the 20th century.

great lakes ice cover trend

The average percentage of the Great Lakes covered with ice decreased dramatically from 1973-2010 (courtesy of the National Climate Assessment).

Cleveland’s winter was largely in line with the overall regional trend. January-February temperatures were 7.1ºF below the historical average, making it the sixth coldest such span in the past 75 years. Cleveland also recorded 65″ of snow this winter, 36% higher than average. That number would likely have been higher, however, had the brutal temperatures not iced over the lakes, effectively shutting down the lake-effect snow conveyor belt.

That got me thinking – as global warming continues to warm the lakes, could the Great lakes region actually see more lake-effect snow?

Lake-effect snow

As Kunkel et al note (paywall), the presence of the Great Lakes provides the necessary heat and moisture to generate precipitation where none would otherwise exist. Lake-effect snow constitutes a major part of winter in the Great Lakes region, where it can account for up to 50% of winter precipitation (PDF).

Because lake-effect occurs (paywall), as a result of “the destabilization of relatively cold, dry air mass by heat and moisture heat fluxes from a comparatively warm lake surfaces,” ice cover can significantly influence the amount of lake-effect snow that falls in a typical winter. The existence of open water in the winter allows the development of a “significant surface-atmosphere temperature gradient,” which facilitates the development of lake-effect events. Accordingly, because we know that global warming has and will continue to reduce lake ice extent, it should also generate more lake-effect snow in the Great Lakes region.

The evidence

So what does the evidence say? Do we have research to backup this seemingly counterintuitive outcome? In a word, yes.

In a 2003 study, Burnett et al examined long-term changes in lake-effect snowfall (paywall) and compared them with October-April snowfall totals and air temperatures from 1931-2001. According to the authors, lake-effect snowfall totals increased significantly at 11 of 15 sites studied. Their research also demonstrated that lake surface temperatures increased significantly at the majority of sites examined. Consequently, they concluded that

[I]ncreased lake-effect snowfall is the result of changes in Great lakes whole-lake thermal characteristics that involve warmer lake surface waters and a decrease in lake ice cover.

While the Burnett et al piece is now more than a decade old, several additional studies have largely supported its findings. Vavrus, Notaro, and Zarrin examined how ice cover affected a subset of 10 heavy lake-effect snow (HLES) events in order to quantify the impact of the ice. They found that “the suppression of open water [i.e. expansion of ice cover] on the individual lakes causes over an 80% decline in downstream” HLES. Ice cover on Lake Erie lowered snowfall by 73%, while Lake Michigan saw a reduction of nearly 100%.

The authors note that ice cover reduces heat fluxes over the lakes, lowers atmospheric moisture, stymies cloud formation, and depresses near-surface air temperatures. All of these changes can suppress lake-effect. For all five lakes, complete ice cover reduces downstream snowfall by 85%. As a result,

The results of the current study suggest that this change toward more open water should favor significantly greater lake-effect snowfall.

Wright, Posselt, and Steiner conducted a similar study, examining the relative amount and distribution of snowfall under four different models: a control (observed lake ice in mid-January 2009), complete ice cover, no ice cover, and warmer lake surface temperatures. The authors also show that moving from complete ice cover to no ice cover dramatically increases lake-effect totals. The total area seeing small (≤2mm) and large (≥10mm) lake-effect events increase by 28% and 93%, respectively. In contrast, while elevated lake surface temperatures do not increase the area affected by lake-effect, they do tend to increase the amount of heavy snowfall; areas that already experienced HLES saw 63% more snowfall.

It remains important to note that, while higher lake surface temperatures and reduced ice cover should lead to more lake-effect snow during the coming decades, a decrease in the number of cold-air outbreaks could work to counter this effect. But if lake-effect increases, as the preponderance of evidence suggests it will, it could carry major additional economic costs for Great Lakes states. According to a study of 16 states and two Canadian provinces from IHS Global Insight, snowstorms can costs states $66-700 million in direct and indirect losses per day if they render roads impassable. Great Lakes states had among the most significant losses, with Ohio forfeiting $300 million per day and New York leading the pack at $700 million.

Additional major lake-effect events will only serve to drive up this price tag even more, further constraining limited state and municipal budgets well into the future.

Maintaining road quality is good for the climate & the budget

cleveland potholes
cleveland potholes

Driving down West 117th has been a real adventure this winter (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

It’s not exactly a secret that Cleveland’s roads are in rough shape right now. The city’s streets are pockmarked with potholes of all shapes and sizes, most of them enormous. The Scene recently parodied the issue, writing

After driving into a massive pothole at Clifton Boulevard and West 117th Street last week, Lakewood resident Harold Dreifer has now begun to live there. He tells Scene, “There was just nowhere else to go. It was a long fall down here; I decided that I may as well set up shop.”

While the City claims that this year has been relatively average, it does seem to be admitting it has been overwhelmed by the problem, as evinced by the fact that it is paying a private “pothole killer” $225 per hour to patch city streets. I have no doubt that I had to repair two flat tires last week in large part because of the fact that driving down my street is like driving down a Connect Four board lain on its side.

connect four

Connect Four: great for leisure, not so much for road surfaces (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Obviously much of this road quality issue stems from this year’s relatively brutal winter. January’s polar vortexes gave way to Cleveland’s 5th coldest February since 1964. This winter has produced 10 days with temperatures below 0°F, the most in three decades, and 66 days with at least a trace of snow (through February 28). The persistent cold and snow, followed by continual freeze-thaw cycles, provides prime conditions for potholes. It weakens the pavement, leads to continued plowing, and prevents road crews from repairing potholes in timely manner.

But other factors beyond the weather have conspired to create this problem. Since taking office in 2011, Governor Kasich has balanced the state budget on the backs of local governments. Over the past four years (two biennial budget cycles), the State of Ohio has pilfered roughly $1 billion from the Local Government Fund, the primary pool of state tax revenues available to municipalities. The 2012-2013 state budget alone cost the city of Cleveland $45 million in foregone tax revenues that could fund vital city services.

In this era of slashing government revenue to provide tax breaks for the wealthiest Ohioans, it’t not surprising that road maintenance has gotten short shrift. While investing in public infrastructure construction and maintenance can create jobs and generate a wide array of other benefits, it’s also extremely expensive. According to data from a 2008 report by Nicholas Lutsey, maintaining road surface quality, or “strategic management of pavement roughness” in academ-ese, is much less cost effective than other transportation sector options, as shown in the table below.

transportation sector cost effectiveness

Cost-effectiveness of various transportation sector policies. Note that lower numbers – particularly negative values – indicate more cost-effective options (courtesy of Wang, Harvey & Kendall).

But incorporating the value from reducing greenhouse gas emissions can change these ratios. According to Ting Wang, John Harvey, and Alissa Kendall, authors of a recent article with the incredibly captivating title “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through strategic management of highway pavement roughness,” maintaining road quality is an excellent strategy for tackling climate change.

Road maintenance can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector because pavement roughness causes vehicles to lose energy as waste heat. As the authors note,

Because an improvement in smoothness immediately affects every vehicle traveling over the pavement, the cumulative effects on GHGs can be substantial in the near term.

According to their research, implementing optimal road maintenance strategies in California could reduce GHG emissions by 0.57-1.38 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year in the state. The maximum value is similar to the annual GHG emissions of 300,000 passenger vehicles or, using the State Department’s extremely flawed analysis, the Keystone XL pipeline. Accounting for GHG reductions and total user costs, the cost effectiveness of maintaining pavement quality goes from $416 per ton of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), a net loss, to -$710 to -$1,610/tCO2e, a major net benefit. Accordingly, incorporating the climate benefits of proper road maintenance can make the practice 2.75-4.9 times more cost effective for governments.

President Obama ordered federal agencies to incorporate climate change into their planning and policy making activities last fall. As this research demonstrates, this approach is a sound one, and municipal governments should follow suit.

Climate hawks should focus more on the persuadable, less on the trolls

tea party global warming sign
tea party global warming sign

One of the more brilliant signs I saw at the fall 2010 Tea Party Rally at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds.

For years, climate hawks have devoted considerable time and energy to refuting arguments proffered by those who deny the basic tenets of climate change. This focus on countering climate deniers is evinced by the prevalence of handy lists of counter-arguments, including those from Skeptical Science, Grist, and Scientific American.

But, as I emphasized in a recent post, outright denial of the science is no longer the most potent weapon that “skeptics” have at their disposal. Instead, many of these actors have turned to denier 2.0 arguments, which frequently center on what Young and Coutinho term (paywall) the “acceptance-rejection approach.” This rhetorical acceptance that climate change is occurring opens up new pathways to forestall action on the issue by lulling the average observer into a false sense of security.

And, according to a recent article in the journal Global Environmental Change, this form of climate “skepticism” is exactly where we should be focusing our energies.

In the article, Drs. Stuart Capstick and Nick Pidgeon from the University of Cardiff develop a new taxonomy of climate change skepticism (or, as they British-ly spell it, “scepticism”). Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, the researchers define two basic types of climate skepticism – epistemic and response skepticism.

Epistemic skeptics turn their attention to the physical and scientific aspects of climate change. They challenge the fundamental nature of climate science, question whether whether it is man-made, and/or emphasize scientific uncertainty to cast doubt upon the topic. Epistemic skeptics seek to “construct climate change as an objectively uncertain phenomenon.”

Response skeptics, in contrast, don’t explicitly reject the science of anthropogenic climate change; in fact, many of them accept it. Despite this acceptance, however, response skeptics:

employ this type of skepticism to justify or explain lack of personal action on climate change, or as a way of distancing themselves from the need or requirement to do so.

Theses skeptics routinely question the effectiveness of potential responses to climate change, doubt that politicians can work together to address the issue, believe that the media exaggerates the risk, and are prone to fatalistic worldviews. Response skeptics are fare more likely to demonstrate a lack of concern over climate change as an issue than epistemic skeptics, perhaps due to the fact that many from the latter group may define themselves in opposition to climate “alarmists” and scientists engaged in the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” as Senator Inhofe has claimed.

As the research from Young and Coutinho demonstrated, smart climate deniers have begun to play more to such response skeptics by utilizing the acceptance-rejection approach. Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon argue that climate hawks should focus more directly on this audience as well. As they note:

whilst there are clear arguments that can be made concerning the level of scientific consensus and degree of confidence in an anthropogenic component to climate change, doubts concerning personal and societal responses to climate change are in essence more disputable.

Though it has become increasingly difficult to sway epistemic skeptics (who fall into either the “Doubtful” or “Dismissive” categories in the Yale “Six Americas” construction), response skeptics (the “Concerned,” “Cautious,” and “Disengaged”) are still persuadable. Moreover, these three groups accounted for 55% of Americans as of November 2013, far more than the 27% who identify as “Doubtful” or “Dismissive.”

six americas november 2013

Global Warming’s Six Americas breakdown, as of November 2013.

Most response skeptics view climate change as an issue that will largely affect people who are distant in both space and time. They fail to see it as an immediate, concrete issue that will affect them or the people they know and love. Accordingly, emphasizing the dire impacts that climate change is likely to have or is currently having in Bangladesh, the Philippines, or small Pacific island states will not only fail to motivate them to act, it may actually make them feel less engaged and more hopeless (PDF) about the issue, leading to greater inaction and division.

Accordingly, Capstick and Pidgeon discuss the need to focus on ways to localize climate change, as previous research has emphasized. As Lorenzoni et al noted (PDF) in a 2010 study,

Local environmental issues are not only more visible to the individual, but present more opportunities for effective individual action than climate change.

Rather than devoting so much of our time, resources, and energy to convincing people about whether Antarctic sea ice is waxing or waning, climate hawks should look to connect the issue to local environmental concerns. And one of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is to frame climate as a public health issue. According to research published in 2012, framing climate change as a human health issue “was the most likely [way] to generate feelings of hope.”

Making the link between health and local environmental challenges in a greenhouse world may represent the single most effective strategy for getting people from response skeptic to climate hawk. I have tried to do this by focusing on heat-related mortality in Cleveland, Great Lakes levels, and issues of microplastic pollution and algal blooms in Lake Erie. Fortunately, there now exist a number of excellent tools that allow people to bring climate models down to the local level, from these new interactive Google Maps from Berkeley Earth to “Your Warming World” from New Scientist.

Hearing and reading nonsensical rants from climate deniers gets my blood boiling just as much as any other climate hawk. But, given the amount of research available on this issue, perhaps we should all try to take a step back, realize the deniers are trolling us, and focus on more constructive efforts instead.