Bringing Natural Resources to the Table: ELI, UNEP Launch New Environmental Peacebuilding Platform

sierra leone artisinal mining
sierra leone artisinal mining

Artisinal mining provides livelihoods for roughly 150,000-200,000 people in Sierra Leone (courtesy of UNEP).

I have a guest post up at the Wilson Center’s New Security Beat on environmental peacebuilding and the work that the UN Environment Programme and the Environmental Law Institute are doing in this area. [Full disclosure, I interned at ELI working on this program from late 2011-early 2013].

Here’s a snippet:

Moreover, UNEP found in 2009 that, although natural resources played a role in roughly 40 percent of all civil conflicts since 1960, new natural resource management schemes have been included in just one-quarter of peace agreements.

The evidence clearly indicates that if we hope to end violent conflict around the world, the environment must be a part of the process. As UNEP noted in its landmark report, From Conflict to Peacebuilding, “integrating environmental management and natural resources into peacebuilding…is no longer an option – it is a security imperative.”

Go read the rest and check out the rest of the great content housed on the blog.

There’s no such thing as a natural disaster

typhoon haiyan image
typhoon haiyan image

An image of Super Typhoon Haiyan as it appeared the morning of Friday, November 8, just before making landfall in the Philippines (courtesy of the Capital Weather Gang).

As we all know, Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines over the weekend. At its peak, Haiyan was perhaps the strongest tropical storm ever recorded at landfall, packing sustained winds of at least 195 mph with gusts of 235 mph. The United Nations and the Philippine Red Cross are both warning that 10,000 people may have been killed in Tacloban alone; this would make Haiyan the deadliest disaster in the history of the Philippines (though President Aquino is revising those numbers down).

I should note, however, that the true scale of a disaster is measured not in the number of dead, but in the number affected and displaced. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Haiyan affected 11.3 million people and displaced at least 673,000 Filipinos. In contrast, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed perhaps 250,000 people throughout Southern Asia but affected roughly 5 million.

The scope and scale of the devastation in the Philippines is, for lack of a better term, biblical. If you are in a position to provide support, I encourage you to make a monetary donation to the Philippine Red Cross or one of InterAction’s partner organizations working on the ground. Please donate money only. Survivors and relief organizations know what is needed, and they can source materials much more quickly and cheaply from regional sources.

As individuals and media outlets have tried to grasp the sheer scale of the devastation, they have almost unanimously referred to Haiyan as the worst natural disaster in Philippines history. The search term “Haiyan natural disaster” brings back at least 49,300,000 hits on Google, including headlines such as:

Let me be blunt: there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Disasters are complex, multifaceted, frequent, and overwhelming. We have a hard time fully grasping the nuance and complexity of each disaster – particularly one that strikes halfway across the world – so we turn to calling it a “natural” event. The term natural disaster is, in essence, a heuristic that we fall back upon in order to interpret the event.

In their landmark work, At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, and Disasters, Wisner, Blaikie, Davis, and Cannon term the tendency to view disasters in this light as the “myth of naturalness.” As Comfort et al put it (PDF):

A disaster is widely perceived as an event that is beyond human control; the capricious hand of fate moves against unsuspecting communities creating massive destruction and prompting victims to call for divine support as well as earthly assistance.

But a tropical storm or a tornado does not a disaster make. Rather, the risk of a disaster is a product of three variables: a natural hazard (e.g. a fault line or damaging winds), physical and economic exposure to the hazard, and socioeconomic vulnerability. To borrow liberally once more from Wisner et al:

Disasters happen when hazards hit vulnerable communities whose inherent capacity is not enough to protect itself and easily recover from its damaging effects. Disasters are the product of the social, economic and political environment.

As I tried explaining to a colleague of mine last Spring, Superstorm Sandy in DC was a hazard or an extreme weather event. Superstorm Sandy on the Jersey Shore or in Lower Manhattan was a disaster. Now, granted, most of this difference was due to the severity of the natural hazard as a result of weather dynamics. But Sandy may very well have been a disaster for someone living in a flood zone in Southwest DC (high levels of exposure) or to a homeless person without access to safe shelter from the storm (high levels of exposure and vulnerability).

Pressure and Release Model chart

The Pressure and Release Model, one way to depict the construction of disaster risk (courtesy of Wikipedia).

To their credit, a lot of journalists are starting to get it. Seth Borenstein has an excellent overview today of the social, economic, and political drivers of Haiyan.

Meteorologists point to extreme poverty and huge growth in population — much of it in vulnerable coastal areas with poor construction, including storm shelters that didn’t hold up against Haiyan.

More than 4 out of 10 Filipinos live in a storm-prone vulnerable city of more than 100,000, according to a 2012 World Bank study. The Haiyan-devastated provincial capital of Tacloban nearly tripled from about 76,000 to 221,000 in just 40 years.

About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. And 1 in 7 homes have grass roofs, according to the census office.

Those factors — especially flimsy construction — were so important that a weaker storm would have still caused almost as much devastation, McNoldy said.

Andy Revkin had a similar analysis of the massive tornado that ravaged Moore, Oklahoma in May over at Dot Earth. But, unfortunately, these types of reports are the exception that proves the rule. Most media coverage falls back upon the “myth of naturalness.” Others obsess over debating whether or not we can attribute each individual disaster to climate change. The science of attribution is improving by leaps and bounds, and perhaps in a year or so, scientists will be able to tell us whether or not they can identify the specific fingerprints of a changed climate in the DNA of Haiyan.

But taking such an all-or-nothing approach to disasters is irresponsible. Every disaster is different, not all natural hazard events are disasters, and whether or not climate change acts through individual extreme events is not the point – it’s our new baseline. Instead, we need to understand that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans can and do influence all three of the disaster variables. And, as a result, the number of disasters has spiked over the last century. I’ll briefly explore how we have altered each variable below.

chart of disaster occurrence 1900-2011

The number of reported disasters increased dramatically from 1900-2011, from roughly 100 per decade during the first half of the 20th century to 385 per year from 2007-2011 (courtesy of EM-DAT).

Exposure

Population and economic growth and rapid urbanization have heightened our exposure to disasters significantly in recent years. According to the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), the number of people and total GDP exposed to flood risks increased by 28% and 98% (PDF), respectively, from 1990-2007. As economies develop and individuals build fixed assets like homes and infrastructure in disaster-prone areas (e.g. floodplains), economic exposure spikes. At least 3.4 billion people are now exposed to one or more hazards, while 25 million square kilometers of land is hazard-prone.

Rapid and unplanned economic development has taken its toll on ecosystems, which provide vital sources of natural protection against disasters. For instance, despite the fact that intact mangrove forests can reduce the flow rate of tsunamis by up to 90%, at least half of all mangrove forests have disappeared globally. In the Philippines, 70% of mangroves were destroyed (PDF) from 1918-1993. This destruction has substantially increased physical exposure to disasters and reduced the natural environment’s ability to mitigate the risk.

Vulnerability

Of the three disaster variables, vulnerability is the most closely linked to the social, economic, and political environments. By definition, some groups appear more vulnerable to disaster risks than others. Key intervening variables include class, occupation, caste, ethnicity, gender, disability, physical and psychological health, age, immigration status, and social networks. One’s ability to access the resources s/he needs to cope with and adapt to stress – their “architecture of entitlements” (paywall) – is determined by these various factors, which shape social relations, political contexts, and structures of domination.

Differential vulnerability helps to ensure that different individuals and groups weather (no pun intended) disasters better than others. During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, women were three to four times more likely to die than men in affected areas. This outcome occurred for a variety of reasons. Due to cultural norms, most women wore bulky clothing that covered most of their bodies; when this got wet, it weighed them down. Women were also far less likely to be able to swim (PDF) given their social roles and religious mores.

Natural Hazards

Interestingly, even natural hazards –the most natural of the three variables – have also undergone changes due to human actions.  Global temperatures have increased 0.85°C since 1880. Since the 1970s, global average precipitation has decreased by 10cm per year, but it has increased by more than 20% in certain regions (including the Northeast and Midwestern US). Accordingly, the number of extreme events associated with climate change rose by 50% over this three decade period. There even appears to be evidence that human activities can alter seismic risks. Researchers have connected a string of earthquakes in states from Ohio to Oklahoma to the high-pressure injection of wastewater into underground wells.

While it is difficult for reporters on a deadline to analyze the social, economic, and political drivers of various disasters, it is important that we begin to inch away from the myth of naturalness. Placing the blame for every disaster on the “capricious hand” of God or nature is dangerous and irresponsible.

First, it strips robs disaster survivors of their agency. They are just poor victims suffering from Acts of God. Secondly, in places where disasters are common (like the Philippines) it allows people who are disconnected from the events to blame the victims for not moving away from the threat. Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – this mindset tends to make us complacent. If we accept disasters as natural events that we cannot control, what is our incentive to invest in disaster risk reduction strategies like curbing poverty, replanting mangrove forests, or hardening critical infrastructure? What is the hook for curbing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change?

The first step to addressing the rise in disasters worldwide is to admit that disasters aren’t natural. They’re manmade. Maybe if we do that we can get off our asses and do something about them.

Recent court case could help address toxic algae issues in Lake Erie, around the country

dead fish algae bloom
satellite image algae lake erie

Satellite image of algal blooms on Lake Erie from October 30, 2013 (courtesy of NOAA).

Cross posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.:

The federal district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana issued a decision (PDF) on Friday, September 20 that could have wide-reaching implications for waterways all across the United States. The case, which pitted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against a coalition of environmental groups, may change the way that surface runoff and nutrient pollution are regulated.

In effect, the district court ruled that EPA had acted improperly in 2011, when it refused to formally determine whether or not federal action was necessary to regulate the types of nutrient runoff and surface pollution that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the court gave EPA 180 days – until Wednesday, March 19 – to determine whether or not the federal government should intervene to address the increasing threat that the algae blooms behind such dead zones pose to the health and well-being of humans, ecosystems, and coastal economies.

While the decision did not require EPA to begin regulating the sources of algal blooms – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff and municipal wastewater – it does mandate the agency to determine whether the threat posed by these blooms necessitates action under the Clean Water Act. Accordingly, the ruling could force the agency’s hand, much like the US Supreme Court’s endangerment finding in Massachusetts v. EPA (2007) has led to recent regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

It remains unclear whether or not EPA will decide to intervene to control nutrient pollution discharges. As I noted earlier, the agency balked on the same issue in 2011, due perhaps to aggressive lobbying from various industry groups. However, the substantial increase in the number and scale of algal blooms throughout the US in recent years could motivate the agency to act.

At least 21 states battled blooms of the toxic, blue-green algae this summer (though this number likely understates the impact of the phenomenon). According to reports collected by Resource Media, there were at least 156 different reports of algal blooms around the country from May 5-September 15. Of these, 10 occurred in Ohio, while 5 affected the Lake Erie watershed.

dead fish algae bloom

Algae blooms create anoxic environments in bodies of water, reducing the available oxygen for other aquatic life (courtesy of Tom Archer, University of Michigan).

Lake Erie is perhaps the most significant waterway in the country facing such an ongoing, acute threat from toxic algae. It is both the shallowest and most densely populated of the Great Lakes, helping to concentrate the levels of harmful nutrients. The western edge of the Lake Erie watershed is also home to a large number of industrial-scale corn farms, which rely heavily upon phosphate fertilizers. Because Lake Erie is a phosphorus-limited environment, when the rain washes over the surface of these fields, it delivers large loads of phosphate runoff into the Lake. These phosphates overcome the naturally-occurring phosphorus deficit in the Lake and provide the fuel needed for algae growth.

Communities in the Maumee River watershed, the largest tributary in the Western portion of Lake Erie, have suffered the effects. This summer, the 2,000 residents of Carroll Township were told not to drink their tap water when dangerous levels of microcystin, a liver toxin produced by the algae, was found in municipal water supplies. The city of Toledo, which is located in the Maumee watershed, has been forced to spend an additional $1 million to battle toxins in its water supply.

Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ is committed to protecting and enhancing the well-being of our Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie. While it is too early to tell how this court case will play out in the coming weeks and months, let alone to forecast its implications for waterways around the country, DLDT continues to encourage government agencies, non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals to take proactive measures to ensure the health of our most precious natural resource.

DLDT supports measures to tackle the growing algae problem, including recent steps by the Ohio EPA to actively monitor nutrient pollution levels and work with farmers to develop comprehensive nutrient management plans. The organization also continues to work to address the myriad challenges facing Lake Erie, including minimizing both plastic and nutrient pollution through its beach cleanups.

Free parking is terrible public policy

warehouse district surface parking

I don’t normally make a point to reply to letters to the editor in the Plain Dealer. To do so would be to write myself a one-way ticket down a slippery slope into the Valley of Derp. That said, this letter from Nancy Kosmin was so wrong-headed that it called for a response.

shoppers at cleveland flea

Shoppers explore two of the dozens of vendors at the September Cleveland Flea (courtesy of Cleveland.com).

In the letter, Ms. Kosmin lamented about how difficult it was for her and others to find parking on the streets around Sterle’s Country House. Sterle’s is home to the Cleveland Flea, a new monthly flea market that features food, drinks, clothing, and wares from a variety of Northeast Ohio vendors. Ms. Kosmin could not believe that there was limited parking on the narrow side streets around Sterle’s or that Cleveland Police had the audacity to ticket people parking on East 55th Street – despite the fact that it is illegal to park on East 55th.

I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s car culture, but I’ve only touched briefly on the issue of parking here. If you thought people were obsessed with driving here, you’ve never spoken to them about parking. From epic battles over charging for parking at the famed West Side Market to entire articles published on which suburban mall parking lot is safest for your car, Clevelanders seem to think that free parking is a God-given right.

Of course, this love of free parking ignores the various externalities associated with the practice. Donald Shoup, an expert on the economics of parking and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has documented these impacts at length over the decades. Although 99% of all car trips include free parking and 95% of all automobile commuters park for free in the US, there is no such thing as “free” parking. As Shoup has written (PDF):

When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking…Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

All this “free” parking carries serious costs. First, parking represents a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Free parking is a common-pool resource, and everyone has an incentive to exploit it. However, as with all commons, when every user consumes too much of it, it quickly becomes depleted. Because the free parking commons are typically exhausted, drivers often cruise around cities, searching for open spots.

Sixteen different studies from 1927-2001 have shown that drivers cruise for 8.1 minutes (PDF), on average, when looking for a parking spot; as a result, up to 30% of all traffic in downtown areas can be attributed to drivers searching for parking. In just a 15-block area in Los Angeles, this search for free curb parking led to 950,000 additional vehicles miles traveled, equivalent to four trips to the moon, 47,000 wasted gallons of gas, and 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the cumulative GHG emissions of 49 countries in 2010).

Secondly, free parking constitutes a massive subsidy for drivers, promoting both excessive driving and sprawl-based development. In 2002, off-street parking received roughly $135-386 billion in subsidies; that same year, the US Government spent $231 billion on Medicare.

In 1997, Shoup estimated (PDF) that if a parking space that cost $124 per month was provided for free, the parking subsidy provided per mile driven was $0.27 per mile. In contrast, AAA estimated that the total cost of operating a car per mile was just $0.092 per mile. Accordingly, the subsidy provided by free parking is roughly 2.9 times greater than the cost of driving to work. This driving subsidy is greatest for shorter trips, helping to skew transportation choices away from walking, biking, and public transportation. Accordingly, “parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.”

warehouse district surface parking

The massive surface parking lot once known as Cleveland’s Warehouse District, as seen from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck.

Thirdly, free parking and parking requirements drive up the cost of living and stymie redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. As Professor Michael Manville has noted (PDF), forcing developers to include the cost of parking when building new housing units drives up the cost of development and becomes a barrier to investment. This crowding out effect should be greatest in areas where the cost of parking is high, where there is a large stock of older buildings, and where there is a large number of vacant buildings – in other words, the inner city.

Research from Brian Bertha in 1964 (PDF) showed that, when Oakland instituted parking requirements in 1961, construction costs increased by 18%, housing unit density fell 30%, and land values dropped by one-third. As a result, developers built larger, more expensive housing units, which negatively affected low-income residents. Manville’s work in LA supports these findings. He noted that condos without parking spaces cost $31,000 less than those with parking spaces.

Sterle’s is located in the 44103 zip code, an impoverished area. From 2007-2011, 44103 had a poverty rate of 34.5%, nearly one-quarter higher than for Cleveland as a whole. Moreover, while 26.7% all households in Cleveland lacked access to a vehicle, this number was 36.9% for households in 44103. Increasing the availability of free parking in this neighborhood may help a few visitors to the Cleveland Flea, but it would come at a high cost for residents of this neighborhood, who would face higher housing prices and even less development.

Furthermore, parking requirements have a sordid and racialized history in Northeast Ohio. In United States v. City of Parma (1980), the US District Court found that the City of Parma’s parking requirements had “the purpose and effect of severely restricting low-income housing opportunities in the City,” which “have been taken with the purpose and the effect of perpetuating a segregated community.” Bending over backwards for people driving into the city once a month would further play into these dynamics.

Call me crazy, but I had a completely different takeaway from this letter than Ms. Kosmin. Rather than seeing this episode as evidence of the plight of the poor suburban driver simply trying to exercise his/her God-given right to free parking, I see the Cleveland Flea as emblematic of the complete opposite. The event shows how parking lots can be more than just a cheap motel for your car. If utilized properly, they can actually serve as worthwhile public space that provides social, cultural, and economic value.

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

map of climate vulnerability

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

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

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

map of temperature anomalies from NASA

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

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

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

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

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

map of climate vulnerability

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

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

Ugandan child collecting water
Ugandan child collecting water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

heat wave

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

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

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

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

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

Ocean acidification will make global warming even worse

Most of the focus and the words spilled on climate change tend to focus on the effects of increasing temperatures, changes in precipitation, and sea level rise. One issue that largely gets mentioned in passing or ignored altogether is ocean acidification.

Much like the way that the oceans have recently absorbed most of the heat trapped on Earth, our oceans have taken up roughly 25-50% of the CO2 which humans have released since 1850. Because carbon dioxide is soluble in water, it dissolves and bonds with the oxygen molecule and one of the hydrogen molecules to form carbonic acid (HCO3). As a result, the IPCC noted in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) that the pH level of the ocean has dropped by at least 0.1 units. Under a high emissions scenario (SRES A2), Feeley, Doney and Cooley (2009) project that the pH level of the ocean will fall from a pre-industrial level of 8.2 to roughly 7.8, equivalent to a 150% increase in acidity (PDF).

Graph of Ocean pH projections

The range of potential pH levels for the world’s oceans through 2100, based on the various IPCC emissions scenarios. Even under the best case scenario, which is becoming increasingly unlikely by the day, pH will fall below 8 for the first time in at least 800,000 years (courtesy of the IPCC).

We already know that ocean acidification will wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems by degrading coral reefs and dissolving aquatic creatures with calcium carbonite shells. These outcomes, in turn, will likely increase food insecurity for the more than one billion people who rely on fish for their primary source of protein. In other words, it’s going to suck – a lot.

image of dissolving aquatic snail shell

Side-by-side images of the aquatic snail Limacina helicina antarctica. The image on the left shows an intact snail shell, while the image on the right shows the same species in a severe state of dissolution from ocean acidification. Shelled aquatic organisms which live in the Southern Ocean, like Limicina helicina antarctica, are uniquely susceptible to acidification (courtesy of the British Antarctic Survey).

But thanks to a new article published this week (paywalled) in Nature Climate Change, we know that ocean acidification may produce another drastic outcome – amplifying global warming. According to the study, seawater that is more acidic is less saturated with dimethylsulphide (DMS), a compound of sulfur that is a byproduct of phytoplankton production. As the authors note (emphasis mine):

[It has been] observed that DMS, a by-product of phytoplankton production, showed significantly lower concentrations in water with low pH. When DMS is emitted to the atmosphere its oxidation products include gas-phase sulphuric acid, which can condense onto aerosol particles or nucleate to form new particles, impacting cloud condensation nuclei that, in turn, change cloud albedo and longevity. As oceanic DMS emissions constitute the largest natural source of atmospheric sulphur, changes in DMS could affect the radiative balance and alter the heat budget of the atmosphere.

Using data from a mecosm study conducted in 2010 off the coast of Svalbard, Norway, the researchers attempted to analyze the relationship between ocean acidity and DMS levels and the associated impact upon radiative forcing in the Earth’s atmosphere. In their analysis, they project that DMS production will decrease 26% by 2100, leading to a drop in DMS emissions of roughly 12-24%.

Because DMS emissions can alter cloud dynamics, the authors project that ocean acidification will lead to an additional radiative forcing of 0.40 watts per square meter (remember that burning fossil fuels since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has so far led to an additional 1.6 W m−2). They conclude (emphasis mine):

We find that even in a future CO2 emission scenario as moderate as the IPCC SRES A1B, pH changes in sea water are large enough to significantly reduce marine DMS emissions by the end of the twenty-first century, causing an additional radiative forcing of 0.40 W m−2. This would be tantamount to a 10% additional increase of the radiative forcing estimated for a doubling of CO2.

As the authors note, ocean acidification may increase global temperatures by an additional 10%, equivalent to perhaps 0.2-0.3C by 2100. This study presents another important piece in the equation for estimating the potential scope and scale of the consequences of our meddling with our Earth’s climate. The climate is one of the most complicated phenomenon in the universe, and our best scientists are only beginning to understand some of its most nuanced facets. For hundreds of years, we have been blindly pulling levers and turning knobs on the machine that controls the habitability of our planet, blissfully ignorant of the implications. We are the guinea pigs in a global experiment of our own making, and the time to stop is now.

The next time the Plain Dealer writes about climate change, maybe it should interview an actual scientist

On July 23, Plain Dealer reporter and editor Cliff Pinckard published an article titled “A ‘pause’ in global warming keeps the climate-change debate in play.” As you can probably guess from the title, the post – which purported to report on recent research regarding the so-called “warming plateau” – ended up turning into a flawed, irresponsible piece that misrepresented climate science and gave climate deniers disproportionate footing and credibility.

The piece begins with a brief discussion of a recent series of three reports released by the Met Office Hadley Centre on the recent “pause” in global warming during the last 15 years. It is accurate to say that global surface temperatures have not increased at as rapid a rate since 1998 as they did in the previous 30 years. As the first of the three Met Office reports (PDF) notes, “Global mean surface temperatures rose rapidly from the 1970s, but have been relatively flat over the most recent 15 years to 2013.”

Climate deniers routinely use 1998 as the year to begin making their patently absurd claim that the Earth has been cooling over the past 15 years. This decision is strategic, as an abnormally active El Niño event that year led to a massive transfer of heat from the Pacific Ocean to the atmosphere. Since this point, the Pacific Ocean has largely remained in a neutral state, though a moderate La Niña period in the past few years has contributed to a moderate cooling trend in the region. Additionally, 1998 is no longer the warmest year on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization (PDF), 9 of the years from 2000-2010 were among the 10 warmest in recorded history, with 2010 and 2005 ranking first and second, respectively.

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

It is important to note, as Mr. Pinckard does briefly, that the Met Office and other climate scientists have attributed this purported “pause” in warming to a variety of potential causes, particularly the trapping of heat in the deep oceans. The first report continues:

Careful processing of the available deep ocean records shows that the heat content of the upper 2,000m increased by 24 x 1022J over the 1955–2010 period (Levitus, 2012), equivalent to 0.09°C warming of this layer. To put this into context, if the same energy had warmed the lower 10km of the atmosphere, it would have warmed by 36°C! While this will not happen, it does illustrate the importance of the ocean as a heat store.

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Had Mr. Pinckard stopped there, his article would have been relatively accurate and innocuous. But instead, he ventured into false equivalence land, feeling the irrepressible need to provide “balance” by quoting climate deniers. James Fallows, who has spent far too much of his outstanding career at The Atlantic reporting on the media’s penchant for false equivalence, has settled on its definition:

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

Mr. Pinckard devotes the next 329 words of his article – 36.4% of the whole piece! – to quoting at length from professional climate denier/right wing columnist Rupert Darwall (who has no background in climate science) and someone named Nirav Kothari writing on a random Indian financial site. I’m not sure how these two gentlemen warrant mentioning or quoting at length, but actual climate scientists are shut out of the piece. Perhaps Mr. Picknard can elaborate.

Even more disturbingly, Mr. Pinckard grants equal footing to the claims of these deniers. He argues in both the piece’s headline and the caption under its sole picture that the Met Office’s work means the “the climate-change debate is in play” and that “some people [are] wondering if man-made emissions really have an impact on the environment.”

Mr. Pinckard’s decision to use a complex debate within the climate science community as a reason to launch these patently false and absurd claims is highly irresponsible, if not journalistic malpractice.

There is no debate within the scientific community as whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions “have an impact on the environment.” Svante Arrenhius first discovered that greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, could alter the heat budget of the atmosphere and lead to global warming in 1895.

We know for a fact that  greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere. Based on evidence from tree rings and ice cores, we know that the average concentrate of CO2 in the atmosphere during the Holocene, the mild and fair geological age in which human civilization has developed, stood at a fairly stead 280ppm. This changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and C02 concentrations have spiked by more than 40%, reaching 400ppm in May for the first time in at least 3,000,000 years.

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly after 1850 (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly within the last 200 years (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

During this period, the atmosphere has begun trapping an additional 1.6 watts per square meter of heat every second, equivalent to the amount of energy stored in four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

We know that the warming has primarily been caused by increasing concentrations of CO2 and, to a lesser extent, other heat-trapping gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Scientists are able to determine this by measuring the wavelengths of long-wave infrared radiation as it reaches the ground and as it leaves the Earth. Sure enough, the mass spectrometers show spikes in radiation levels grouped around CO2 and other known greenhouse gases.

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth, drawn from Evans (2006). As the chart shows, the overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from CH4 (methane), O3 (ozone), and N2O (nitrous oxide), all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth. The overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide, all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Moreover, had Mr. Pinckard bothered to actually read the reports from the Met Office, he might have discovered that a decade or two of relatively flat temperatures has been predicted by climate models.

[T]he results show that a pause of 10 years’ duration is likely to occur due to internal fluctuations about twice every century.

The third Met Office report (PDF) also notes that the recent pause will not continue for long and will have almost no impact on the long-term trends in warming. The authors conclude first that “the physical basis of climate models and the projections they produce have not been invalidated by the recent pause.” Additionally, they argue “the recent pause in global surface temperature rise does not materially alter the risks of dangerous climate change.”

Mr. Pinckard fails to provide this important context to his readers or offer the additional evidence, besides average land surface temperatures, that global warming has continued apace. It is called global warming, not land warming, for a reason.

The next time that The Plain Dealer wants to cover an issue involving our global climate, which is easily one of the most complex and misunderstood topics in the world, I would suggest their reporter(s) do the following:

    • Go to Google and type the following: site:skepticalscience.com climate-related search term.
    • Watch the following video from NASA for further proof that, yes, the planet is warming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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