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).

Spoiler alert: Climate change is still happening

So NOAA is out with its monthly update of climatic conditions in the contiguous United States. The latest report covers the month of May. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • The average temperature for the contiguous US during May was 61.0°F, making it 0.9°F above the monthly average for the 20th century. May was the 339th consecutive month in which the average temperature in the contiguous US was higher than the 20th century average. If you were born after February 1985 (as I was), you have never known a climate not altered by the hand of man.
May 2013 was the 40th warmest May since we began keeping records 120 years ago (courtesy of the NOAA National Climatic Data Center).

May 2013 was the 40th warmest May since we began keeping records 119 years ago (courtesy of the NOAA National Climatic Data Center).

  • May was warmer than average in the Northeast and the West, but it was considerably cooler than average in the South. Florida and Georgia had their 11th and 12th coolest Mays on record, respectively. California had the warmest average temperature, relative to other May records, of any state; it was its 18th warmest May.
While temperatures were higher than average in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and West, they were significantly cooler in the Southeast (courtesy of NOAA NCDC).

While temperatures were higher than average in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and West, they were significantly cooler in the Southeast (courtesy of NOAA NCDC).

  • As you could probably tell by looking outside, May was extremely wet. It wast the 17th wettest May on record; the total precipitation average (3.34 inches) was 0.47 inches about the 20th century average. May was particularly damp in the Midwest and Great Plains, where Iowa had its wettest May on record, and North Dakota had its second wettest May.
May continued our above average precipitation trend for 2013. Total precipitation has only increased during the first third of June (courtesy of NOAA NCDC).

May continued our above average precipitation trend for 2013. Total precipitation has only increased during the first third of June (courtesy of NOAA NCDC).

  • Despite the above average rainfall (and snowfall, for that matter), much of the country west of the Mississippi River continues to experience at least moderate drought. While the total land area under drought fell by 2.8% during May, 44.1% of the US (including Alaska & Hawaii) remains in drought conditions. This prolonged drought is contributing to historic wildfires in Colorado and California.
While the total land area experiencing drought fell in May, nearly half of the country is still experiencing drought conditions (courtesy of US Drought Monitor).

While the total land area experiencing drought fell in May, nearly half of the country is still experiencing drought conditions (courtesy of US Drought Monitor).

The moral of the story: it may not be as insanely hot as last year, but climate change is here to stay, folks.

Dropping cause it’s hot: On climate change & Great Lakes levels

Falling Great Lakes levels have garnered a considerable amount of media coverage in the past few days. First, the New York Times featured a full-length piece on the issue on Monday, and The Plain Dealer followed up yesterday with a piece focused primarily on Lake Erie.

As the Times piece notes, the average monthly mean for the five lakes during this past winter reached its lowest level since officials began taking measurements in 1918. For Lake Erie, 2012 was the first year on record that water levels fell during every month.  According to the 2009 National Climate Assessment, the maximum ice coverage in the Great Lakes decreased by roughly 30% from 1973-2008. The prolonged winter and extremely wet spring this year is beginning to counter the effects of last year’s record drought, but these changes are clearly part of a long-term trend, which one season or  one year worth of precipitation cannot change.

Current lake levels, compared to long-term averages, for (left to right) Lakes Michigan & Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior (courtesy of NOAA GLERL).

Current lake levels, compared to long-term averages, for (left to right) Lakes Michigan & Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Superior (courtesy of NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory).

Both pieces noted the causes and likely effects of these changes for the Great Lakes region. By and large, however, they focused on the role of dredging. From the Times piece:

A measure of the drop in water levels can also be attributed to the engineering that makes Great Lakes shipping possible. The 1962 dredging of the St. Clair River may have lowered the water in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan by five inches, said John Nevin…Other dredging projects may have emptied 16 inches in all from the lakes, Mr. Nevin said.

In the comments section on his piece, Robert Smith, the PD reporter who covered the story, explicitly noted that he was focusing on dredging. Clearly dredging matters, and it will continue to into the future. It is a complicated issue, however, as it costs a considerable amount of money and is controlled by action from the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Congress, who appear to be engaged in a fight over who bears the burden for the issue.

The effects of the drop in lake levels will continue to take a significant toll on the Great Lakes. According to the US Department of Transportation (PDF), every 1″ drop in lake levels reduces the cargo capacity of a 1,000-foot bulk carrier by 270 tons. Given that the Great Lakes maritime trade industry is worth $34 billion annually, any long-term reductions in lake level will significantly hamper the regional economy.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what climate models project. While neither piece directly addressed the issue (though the Times article does mention it in passing), climate change is likely to add to any natural and direct anthropogenic impacts on lake levels. As the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted (PDF), higher air temperatures contribute to the reduction of lake levels in two main ways. First, they will continue to reduce the extent of lake ice cover during the winter months, which provides a crucial buffer against surface evaporation on the open water. Secondly, higher surface temperatures themselves lead to greater rates of surface evaporation.

Projected changes in lake levels on the Great Lakes according to the Canadian global climate model (courtesy of the Second National Climate Assessment).

Projected changes in lake levels on the Great Lakes according to the Canadian global climate model (courtesy of the Second National Climate Assessment).

According to the First National Climate Assessment, mean annual temperatures in the Midwest are expected to increase by 3-6°C (5-10°F) by the end of the century. These changes will lead to wholesale climatic shifts in the region. According to the World Bank (PDF), in a 4°C warmer world (which, as I’ve noted, is becoming increasingly likely), the coolest months in the Central US by 2070 will be significantly warmer than the warmest months today. Even as early as 2030, summers in Illinois are projected to resemble current summers in Oklahoma.

As such, the effects of rising temperatures will likely outweigh projected increases in regional precipitation, contributing to the long-term decline of lake levels. The First National Climate Assessment projected a 5-6 foot drop in lake levels for all five of the lakes, while the Second Assessment (2009) revised these down to 1-2 feet, depending on the climate model used. Regardless of the projection, these declining lake levels will significantly increase the cost of shipping (PDF) on the Great Lakes by as much as 30%.

While we should be careful to neither attribute all ecological changes to climate change nor to blame direct anthropogenic environmental changes on the effects of climate change, it’s not wise to treat them as completely distinct phenomena. Climate change is currently adjusting the baseline for all weather-related phenomena; we have already forced global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to their highest levels in human history and increased global average temperatures by roughly 0.8-1°C. Anthropogenic environmental changes and climate change will interact with one another and almost certainly create multiplicative effects over the next several decades. We need to recognize as such.

What if we approached climate change like nicotine addiction?

Dr. Steve Suranovic of the GW Institute for International Economic Policy (courtesy of George Washington University).

Dr. Steve Suranovic of the George Washington Institute for International Economic Policy.

Steven Suranovic, an economist from George Washington University, published an interesting article in this month’s edition of Global Environmental Change. The piece examines our current addiction to fossil fuels from a behavioral economics perspective, analyzing it through a cigarette addiction model.

According to this addiction model, which Suranovic initially developed in 1999 (PDF) treats an individual’s decision to smoke as a function of three factors: the immediate satisfaction from smoking, the potential health effects of smoking, and the perceived costs of nicotine withdrawal. He argues that, while a number of scholars have argued that addicts are irrational actors, they are, in fact, rational based on this model.

He then applies this model to our current dependence upon fossil fuels, which we know are currently damaging public health and the environment, effects on which will only exacerbate as a result of climate change. He describes individuals living within our current economic system as “unhappy addicts.”

The unhappy addict is completely aware that the negative future impacts outweigh the current benefits but continues to smoke at a high rate because the immediate adjustment cost is too high.

The article goes on to examine fossil fuel use, climate change, and the potential to transition away from fossil fuels through this perspective. Suranovic makes an important point about the difficulty of this transition – because individual efforts to reduce carbon emissions will not be felt immediately and, even if they were, these efforts would largely be imperceptible on the global level – “it does not make economic sense for any one person to reduce usage of fossil fuels.”

David Roberts at Grist has explored this issue in depth in several posts on uncertainty and the behavioral economics of climate change, so I won’t go into too much depth here. Suffice it to say that the uncertainty over climate change projects and impacts, the seemingly random distribution of extreme events, and our human tendency to value the present more than the future makes climate change the quintessential “wicked problem.”

Suranovic distinguishes climate change and fossil fuel use from cigarette addiction, however, by pointing out that, while cigarette use is an individual choice, our extant energy system presents a monumental collective action problem. Not only does one’s inability to make a perceptible impact on greenhouse gas emissions make it an irrational economic decision to switch to clean energy, other individuals (or countries, from a global perspective) can take advantage of this decision and benefit from it. If the United States suddenly banned the domestic use of coal tomorrow, there would be a massive glut of coal on global markets, drastically lowering its price. This would provide an incentive for other countries to take advantage of this decision and buy up coal at this reduced price. As such, climate change represents the classic “prisoner’s dilemma.”

While this component of Suranovic’s article is far from new, he does make one extremely interesting contribution to the debate. The Kyoto Protocol, which currently dictates international climate policy, calls for graduated reductions in carbon emissions for member parties. While the US is not a party to the agreement, President Obama made a commitment at Copenhagen to reduce emissions 17%, relative to 2005 levels, by 2020.

While the US has made progress on this front, global emissions levels have continued to increase in recent years, reaching a record high of 35.6 billion tons in 2012. Every year that the global community delays and fails to meet its marks, the annual reduction number inevitably increases. Kevin Anderson has traced this process in great detail, showing how waiting until 2020 to begin cutting global emissions would require a near immediate reduction of all carbon emissions in order to meet the Kyoto goal of an 80% reduction by 2050.

Anderson's emission reduction pathways, with peak emission years of 2015, 2020, and 2025. As the graphs illustrate, waiting until 2020 to implement carbon reduction programs, as the Durban Accord calls for, would require eliminating nearly all global carbon emissions overnight (courtesy of Grist).

Anderson’s emission reduction pathways, with peak emission years of 2015, 2020, and 2025. As the graphs illustrate, waiting until 2020 to implement carbon reduction programs, as the Durban Accord calls for, would require eliminating nearly all global carbon emissions overnight (courtesy of Grist).

Interestingly, Suranovic argues that, based on the addiction model, this approach is the likely way that we would act to avoid catastrophic climate change. He argues that the current economic and political systems would necessarily produce a “cold turkey” approach, rather than the gradual reduction approach laid out in UNFCCC documents.

Government leaders might recognize that the negative future impacts of climate change greatly outweigh the current benefits but may fail to act because the political cost of fossil fuel reduction is too great. In a similar vein, politicians may promise that something will be done tomorrow, and yet that tomorrow may take a very long time to arrive. However, once the negative future impacts loom large enough, cold-turkey adjustment would suggest a period of very rapid reductions in fossil fuel usage after a long period of almost no adjustment.

While he doesn’t acknowledge it in the piece, which isn’t surprising given that he’s an economist, Suranovic’s article seems to suggest that tackling climate change will require much, much more than making some adjustments on the margins. It will require an enormous mobilization of collective action to completely reform our existing economic, political, and social systems. Unfortunately, I’m still pretty skeptical that we can overcome the major barriers to collective action and actually precipitate this change.

It took 40 years to reduce smoking rates in the US by half. We don’t have 40 years to halve carbon emissions.

I sure hope I’m wrong.

The political drivers of disaster in Burma

Recently, Dr. Ilan Kelman of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo posted my paper on the political dynamics of Cyclone Nargis on his website about disaster diplomacy. I appreciate his willingness to publish my work, and I hope it contributes to the development of disaster diplomacy as a field.

Cyclone Mahasen as it looked, forming in the Bay of Bengal on May 12.

Cyclone Mahasen as it looked, forming in the Bay of Bengal on May 12 (courtesy of CNN iReport).

Coincidentally, the publication of the paper happened just as Cyclone Mahasen was coming ashore from the Bay of Bengal into eastern Bangladesh and western Burma. The center of the storm was located near Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city. Fortunately, the storm weakened from a category 1 cyclone to a tropical storm before it made landfall, reducing its potential impact. That said, even the weakened storm killed at least 75 people in the affected areas, rendered thousands of people homeless, and damaged crops. Its impact was clearly less devastating than other recent cyclones, including Nargis (which killed more than 130,000 Burmese in May 2008) and Sidr (which killed 3,500 people in Bangladesh during 2007, after passing through the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest).

Similar to Nargis, however, Cyclone Mahasen highlighted the ongoing political rifts within Burma. In this patchwork state, composed of more than 100 ethnic groups lumped together by the British, ethnic hostilities and rebellions have been endemic. The Uppsala Conflict Encyclopedia lists at least 10 different conflicts between separatist ethnic groups and the Burmese government.

Fortunately, the new government in Burma, which replaced the ruling military junta in March 2011 has worked to settle many of these conflicts, signing a rash of ceasefires and peace agreements. One lingering ethnic challenge which has actually gotten worse since this point, however, involves the minority Rohingya people. The Rohingya, a group comprised of at least one million ethnic Muslims, have experienced severe and ongoing repression within Burma.

The Burmese constitution, which supposedly celebrates the country’s ethnic diversity, does not acknowledge the Rohingya. Despite the fact that at least 800,000 Rohingya live in Rakhine state, they are officially stateless persons, according to the Burmese government. Around 140,000-200,000 Rohingya live in displacement camps in Rakhine, where they struggle to provide for their basic needs. Additionally, they live under constant fear of violent repression by radical Buddhists in Burma, who view them as invaders and threats to Burmese identity. Many of the same monks who were trumpeted by the West for their role standing up to the junta in the 2007 Saffron Revolution have denounced Rohingya and/or led attacks against them.

A young Rohingya girl and her sibling brace for Cyclone Mahasen in an IDP camp in Rakhine state (courtesy of The Los Angeles Times).

A young Rohingya girl and her sibling brace for Cyclone Mahasen in an IDP camp in Rakhine state (courtesy of the Los Angeles Times).

Given this recent history of ethnic violence, it is unsurprising that many Rohingya resisted efforts to relocate them in the wake of Cyclone Mahasen. Fortunately, the storm appears to have largely spared Rakhine and will leave nothing like the trail of devastation from Nargis. However, the disaster and the political issues surrounding it did generate casualties. At least 100 Rohingya crammed onto small boats in the Bay of Bengal as the storm approached, attempting to find refuge in Bangladesh (which refuses to provide asylum to most Rohingya). Tragically, several of these boats sank off the Rakhine coast in the days before the storm, killing an unknown number of people.

This story demonstrates, once again, the fact that disasters are far from “natural” events. As Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told the BBC, “any disaster that results [from Mahasen] will not be natural but man-made.” The vulnerability and physical exposure of Rohingya people to Cyclone Mahasen were the products of the social and political environments. They were intentionally constructed by people in power.

This “myth of naturalness” creates the impression that disasters are all acts of God that are beyond human capacity to manage. This perception is largely false and provides cover for malevolent actors, like the military junta in Burma, to deflect from their own actions. Disaster are political events, and they demand political responses. The Burmese people cannot hope to enjoy peace, stability, and development if its state continues to formally repress and marginalize the Rohingya.

More on the environmental/climate refugee question

My last post on environmental refugees generated a bit of conversation and discussion on Twitter, and it garnered some push back from other activists (as I had hoped). Additionally, I unknowingly posted it at an opportune time for this discussion, as The Guardian has just launched its excellent series on the effects of climate change on communities in Alaska.

The series begins with a discussion of the threat posed to Newtok, as the river that surrounds it on all sides continually erodes the land upon which the town is built at a startling pace. As the author notes:

A federal government report found more than 180 other native Alaskan villages – or 86% of all native communities – were at risk because of climate change. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life threatening.

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Interestingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, The Guardian opted to title this series “America’s Climate Refugees.” Now, before I get into my argument, let me make a few disclaimers. I find the plight of people living in such Arctic communities to be horrific, and I find the unwillingness or inability of the United States government to address the threats to their livelihoods, culture, and personal security to be shameful. As I noted in my last post, I believe climate change represents the single largest environmental injustice ever enacted upon vulnerable people in history. The fact that the physical and cultural survival of peoples is threatened by anthropogenic changes to our atmosphere is, without question, a fundamental human rights issue. I fully support the effort by the Inuit Circumpolar Council to push for redress (PDF) over climate change to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, despite (and perhaps more so because of) the Commission’s refusal of their petition.

That said, I find it odd that The Guardian would seek to couch a discussion over climate refugees in this particular case study. It’s a tragic story that absolutely demands action. But it’s not a case of climate refugees by a long shot. In order to be a refugee, an individual needs to cross an international border and fear reprisal from his/her host government or another group should s/he return. The Alaskan communities in question have not, to my knowledge, migrated into Canada from fear of the US government or fellow Alaskans. On the contrary, they have received (woefully inadequate) technical and financial support from the US government, particularly the Army Corps of Engineers, to relocate their village.

As the article notes, Newtok residents developed a plan to move their village approximately nine miles away to higher ground. This plan lines up closely with evidence from other groups displaced by environmental events and/or disasters. As I discuss in my paper on climate change and national security:

Environmental migration follows a distinct pattern: it is largely internal, temporary, and nearby. Migrants moved an average of two miles in response to flooding in Bangladesh, and the vast majority returned shortly after the disaster had dissipated.

Now, that is not to say that all migrants relocated to nearby communities or returned to their homes. Approximately 10-25% of migrants permanently relocated, most of whom moved into Dhaka. Moreover, research does suggest (PDF) that nearly all types of environmental disasters create international migration flows. But that’s not what is occurring in this Alaska case. The suffering of innocent Alaskan communities at the hands of our fossil fuel-based economic is no less important than that of people living on small island states in the Pacific Ocean. But that does not mean that they are “climate refugees.”

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

Another one of the threads running through the push back I got on Twitter dealt with the fact that people displaced by environmental and climatic changes defy the current definition of refugees, IDPs, etc. I would generally agree with that argument, and I think most international migration scholars (of which I am not one) think that the current paradigm needs to change to better reflect current realities.

But we also need to consider the moral issues involved in creating a special protected class in international law for people displaced by climate change. The single largest source of displacement globally is violence/conflict. The IFRC estimates that 10.4 million refugees and 26.4 million IDPs fled violence/conflict in 2011, adding to the 43 million total who have left their homes from these threats over the years. If we provide a special, internationally recognized status for people forcibly displaced by climate change, what does that mean for the millions already displaced by violent conflict? Is an IDP in Sudan, who lives under the constant threat of violence, somehow less worthy of protection and support than someone displaced by groundwater salination in the Maldives?

And what of the 43 million people who have been forcibly displaced and relocated by large-scale development projects, including big dams and mines, worldwide? The vast majority of these people have not received adequate relocation and livelihoods support, and they are highly vulnerable to the looming impacts of climate change. Should they only be eligible for special protection after they have been displaced again by sea level rise?

The plight of marginalized communities facing the effects of conflict, disasters, and climate change is what keeps me up at night. It’s what I devoted my entire graduate school education and my Master’s thesis to. Marginalized people displaced by climate change, whether in the developing or developed world, are absolutely entitled to financial and, I would argue, legal retribution. But we need to be mindful about the potential consequences of our proposals to address these issues. It has taken more than 60 years to get our addled, ineffective international refugee system to where it is today. We need to be very careful about throwing out the baby with the rising bathwater.

Stop using the term environmental refugee

Grist had an article last week discussing the new book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, from UC Berkeley’s Anthony Guzman. In the book, Guzman discusses the potential socio-political consequences of 2°C warming, the threshold that the international community has set as the limit for global warming. Of course, recent research and our current emissions trajectory has us on pace to blow right past that number, but that’s for another post.

Anyways, the description of the article intrigued me, so I clicked on the link. In the post, Michael C. Osbourne from Grist describes his reading of the book:

Some of the scarier parts of the book are about the overabundance of water that’s coming our way: 2 degrees warming probably equates to about a one-meter rise in sea level this century. That’s enough to displace hundreds of thousands to millions of people in low-lying nations, and, as of now, there is no plan to deal with environmental refugees.

Cover of Andrew Guzman's new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.

Cover of Andrew Guzman’s new book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change.


And that’s where he lost me. I know that the term “environmental refugee” and its sister term, “climate refugee” have become buzzwords for environmental activists, particularly when we discuss the dire implications of climate change. In addition, they’re far from new. Essam El-Hinnawi of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) coined the term “environmental refugee” in 1985. A number of researchers and activists have bandied the term about to serve their own purposes over the years. Different reports offer a variety of wildly speculative projections on the potential number of people who will be displaced by climate change; they range from 162 million to 1 billion people displaced by 2050.

To put it succinctly, these estimates are, largely, absurd doomsday predictions that ignore the actual research on environmental migration issues. I explore the shortcomings of such projections in my previous research on climate change and national security, so I won’t go relitigate the issues here. Instead, I want to point out the inaccuracy of the term environmental refugee itself.

The word refugee has an internationally recognized legal definition, which emerged from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugeesthe document that established the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. According to this refugee convention, a refugee is a person who:

owing to wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former
habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

People displaced by climatic disasters do not meet this definition. Now, if Guzman had argue that disasters and climate change are politically constructed phenomena and that climate change represents the single greatest environmental injustice ever enacted on the developing world by the developed world, I would be a vocal supporter. I steadfastly hold these beliefs. But that’s not the argument here.

Issues surrounding migration and displacement over environmental issues are highly complex and context-specific. Claiming that an extreme weather event will inevitably force a poor Bangladeshi to migrate to northeastern India belies evidence to the contrary and, more importantly, robs this hypothetical individual of his or her personal agency. And calling people who do flee in the face of environmental stresses a refugee strips the term of its incredibly important political and legal weight.

All of this is not to say that people are not forcibly displaced by environmental stress and/or extreme weather events. The work of the Environmental Change and Forced Migration (EACH-FOR) project demonstrates that environmentally induced migration and displacement are exceedingly pervasive throughout the Global South. According to the IFRC, roughly 5,000 new people become environmentally displaced every day. A new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre suggests that 32.4 million people were displaced by disaster events in 2012, and some 98% of this displacement was the result of climatic disasters.

The evidence is quite robust that environmental catastrophes displace and/or force millions of people to migrate from their homes every year. So say that. Environmentally induced migration and environmental displacement are perfectly accurate, forceful terms. I know that refugee carries a certain set of connotations and a clear mandate for action, but climate hawks cannot just claim it for their own ends. Just as people need to be aware that their actions have consequences for the environment and the habitability of our planet, we need to learn that our words have meaning and consequences.

Comment to the State Department opposing Keystone XL

I have just (finally) submitted my comment to the State Department, urging it to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. I encourage anyone reading this post to submit your own comment to the State Department by 5:00pm today. You can find more information and talking points from, which is pushing for 1,000,000 public comments. You can email comments to

Join the effort to submit 1,000,000 comments against Keystone XL (courtesy of

Join the effort to submit 1,000,000 comments against Keystone XL (courtesy of

Here is the text of my comment; feel free to borrow from it liberally:

State Department Office of Environmental Quality and Transboundary Issues:

I would like to make it clear that I firmly oppose the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project and am certain that it does not fulfill a national interest. Moreover, the State Department’s own Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) undermines the case which you have made in favor of the pipeline. I would like to highlight just a few of the problematic claims which your office has made during this review process.

First, the SEIS claims that, in the absence of a the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands companies operating in Alberta will merely deliver the oil which they extract to or through the United States via other means, principally rail. However, the evidence clearly indicates that this alternative is neither economically nor logistically feasible. The SEIS assumes that it costs $15.50 per barrel to deliver tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico for refining; yet, the current price for delivering this double that estimate – $31 per barrel. This fact alone obviates your cost-benefit analysis. Additionally, the current rail infrastructure cannot support the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands industry that Keystone XL would facilitate. Less than 4% of Canadian oil entered the US on rail in 2011. I fail to understand how you project that the existing rail infrastructure – or that which may exist in the near future – can possibly pick up the slack to carry the remaining 96.7% of Canadian crude oil that needs refining.

Secondly, your study grievously downplays the threat that Keystone XL spills pose to the inland waterways. As recent spills in Minnesota (by rail, mind you), Arkansas, and Kalamazoo have demonstrated, tar sands present a clear and present danger to air and water quality throughout America. Two years after the largest inland oil spill in American history, the Kalamazoo River has not fully recovered. ExxonMobil has failed to adequately address the crisis its pipeline crated in Mayflower, Arkansas, and it has effectively taken control of this suburban town for its own devices. We already know that TransCanada’s original Keystone pipeline has leaked at least 20 times since it began operating in 2011. Any one of these spills would become vastly more severe if it occurred from the proposed XL pipeline. Tar sands oil does not float, like normal crude. Instead, it sinks and becomes mixed with sediment, making it nearly impossible to clean up properly in the case of a spill. Furthermore, every time water or wind disrupts that sunken bitumen, it can release into the water, creating ever newer ecological disasters. The EPA recently noted that more than 50% of America’s waterways are in poor shape for human use. Keystone XL threatens to exacerbate this challenge further.

Thirdly, the SEIS makes the odd claim that Keystone XL is of little consequence for climate change. Yet, a comprehensive report released last week shows that the pipeline would carry 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, roughly equal to the carbon potential 51 coal-fired power plants. Imagine making the argument that building 51 new coal-fired power plants would be in the national interest. This statement is absurd on its face. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. US EPA that if the government determines carbon dioxide constitutes a hazardous material, it is obligated to regulate it under the Clean Air Act. I fail to see how building 51 new coal plants or approving a pipeline that meets the same end fits within the confines of this endangerment ruling.

Fourthly, the SEIS claims Keystone XL is in the national interest, as it reduces dependence on oil from Middle Eastern sources. Yet, the very market analysis included in your report suggests that most of the tar sands oil that would travel through the pipeline is destined for export to other countries, particularly the emerging economies of East Asia. How exactly does facilitating the export of oil from Canada to China, in order to benefit a handful of tar sands companies, benefit the American people?

Lastly, your SEIS began from the assumption that Keystone XL would secure approval, then justified its way to this predetermined outcome. This approach violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the National Environmental Protection Act. Your job, as a reviewing agency, is to weigh the benefits and costs of the proposed project and determine whether or not it is in the national interest. This review process failed to meet that essential criterion, undermining any findings which it may have produced. In addition, the State Department apparently tried to hide the fact that the consultants who completed the SEIS have business dealings with TransCanada and may have a financial interest in seeing this pipeline come to fruition, as a result.

Ultimately, the State Department’s own analysis belies the conclusion that Keystone XL stands in the national interest. If the US is committed to fighting the existential threat posed by climate change, as President Obama has eloquently stated, it must stop making decades-long investments in large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Now is the time to act on climate change, and rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline is a first step toward this end. I urge the State Department to reconsider its stance and recommend that President Obama reject the project. Twenty years from now, we will all be accountable for the consequences of our actions. It is time for the US government to stand on the right side of history and commit itself to tackling the climate crisis.


Tim Kovach

MA Candidate, Global Environmental Policy

American University School of International Service

Reshaping America’s climate and food aid policies to tackle instability

UPDATE (4/3/13 at 1:08pm): The New York Times ran a piece this morning reporting that the Obama administration has proposed changing the US food aid system to purchase crops from local producers, as I suggested below. While this change faces major opposition from big agribusiness and shipping interests, it would be a major feather in the cap for the President, and I commend his effort.

I submitted the following to the Center for International Policy Student National Security-Foreign Policy Solutions Contest:

Recently, the Center for American Program released a report that traced the connection between climate change and the Arab Spring. It illustrated how a volatile mix of extreme weather, reduced food production, and food price spikes contributed to the instability that ripped through the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011. Following a rash of extreme weather events, including severe drought and wildfires in Russia & Ukraine – which scientists have connected to climate change – the price of wheat jumped from just $4 per bushel in July 2010 to nearly $9 by February 2011. For the average Egyptian family, which spends 40% of its income on food, watching the price of food stuffs increase by up to ten-fold was too much to bear. Egyptians marched through the streets carrying loaves of bread and demanding the end of the Mubarak regime.

Changes in the FAO World Food Price Index and major instability events globally from 2008-2012 (courtesy of American Security Project).

Changes in the FAO World Food Price Index and major instability events globally from 2008-2012 (courtesy of American Security Project).

The Arab Spring is far from the only time that food price spikes have driven instability and revolt, however. Food riots destabilized Haiti in 2008, while the Tortilla Crisis rocked Mexico in 2007. The violent response by Liberia’s Tolbert regime to rice riots in1979 contributed to Samuel Doe’s coup the following year.

Given this clear link between food shocks and domestic instability, it will be vital to address food security concerns in a greenhouse world. IFPRI projects that food prices will rise across the board through 2050, with increases up to 100.7% for maize. Research suggests that climate change could significantly reduce crop yields  in Sub-Saharan Africa by 22%. The US is suffering from an historic drought, which affected 80% of farmland and reduced grain yields by 8%. Globally, grain consumption has exceeded production in 8 of the last 13 years. This trend is likely to worsen in the future, particularly as China increases its grain imports; research suggests Chinese grain yields could decrease by 37% in the coming decades.

Projected changes to cereal productivity, due to climate change, through 2080 (courtesy of UNEP/GRID Arendal).

Projected changes to cereal productivity, due to climate change, through 2080 (courtesy of UNEP/GRID Arendal).

In his inaugural address, President Obama said he “will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” To live up to this statement, the President should use his second term to tackle the climate-food insecurity nexus by leading on international climate negotiations and reforming US food policy.

First, the President and Secretary of State John Kerry must work proactively with the leaders of developed countries, India, and China to meet their commitment to craft a legally-binding international climate treaty by 2015. Secondly, the President must coordinate with our OECD partners to fulfill their 2009 pledge to provide $100 billion per year to tackle climate change in the developing world. A portion of these funds should finance climate-resilient agriculture for smallholder farmers. This investment should promote proven agricultural tactics, including agroforestry and regional seed banks.

Thirdly, the President should begin a conversation to change the face of US farm policy. Currently, inefficient farm subsidies in the US and the European Union encourage wasteful and otherwise noncompetitive practices. Western governments spend $2.50 per day in subsidies on each head of cattle, compared to just $0.90 per day for children in the developing world. Additionally, Western farm subsidies allow farmers to produce commodity crops at below-market prices; in turn, Western governments dump this surplus crop on the world market, undercutting farmers in the developing world. President Obama should use the negotiations with the EU over the proposed trans-Atlantic free trade zone to reform these harmful subsidies.

Pakistani soldiers unload food aid from a US Navy helicopter during the 2010 Pakistan Floods relief effort (photo courtesy of  Paula Bronstein/Getty Images).

Pakistani soldiers unload food aid from a US Navy helicopter during the 2010 Pakistan Floods relief effort (photo courtesy of Paula Bronstein/Getty Images).

Lastly, President Obama should use his executive power to reform the way the federal government distributes food aid.  According to Oxfam, the current US food aid system loses at least $500 million annually from waste and inefficiency. Reforming this system could enable food aid to reach an additional 17 million food insecure people. Currently, federal law requires that the US government purchase 75% of its food aid domestically and ship it to recipients. Transportation costs eat 65% of the total budget. Pilot programs demonstrate that purchasing food from local producers can reduce costs by 54% and cut delivery time by 62%. These common-sense reforms would save lives, taxpayer money, and reduce food waste in a time of worsening food insecurity.

The agenda I have laid out is broad and complex; however, the threat that climate change and food security pose to the developing world is as well. If President Obama moves on these items, he will go a long way towards tackling the climate crisis.