Could climate change actually increase winter mortality?

great lakes ice cover
great lakes ice cover

Ice engulfs much of the Great Lakes in this image from February 19 (courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory).

If you already thought that the impacts of climate change were incredibly complicated and, often, downright confusing, I’ve got bad news for you – things just got even more complex.

For years, researchers focusing on climate change concluded that increases in heat-related mortality would, by and large, be accompanied by decreasing cold-related mortality. As winter temperatures warm – which they have at an extremely fast rate – the health risk posed by extreme cold is assumed to decrease in a nearly inverse proportion. In its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), for instance, the IPCC highlighted research that projected cold weather deaths would decrease by 25.3% in the United Kingdom from the 1990s to the 2050s.

But a new study in Nature Climate Change calls this assumption into question (paywall). As the study’s authors note:

An extensive literature attests to the fact that changes in daily temperature influence health outcomes at the local levels and that [excess winter deaths] are influenced by temperature. However, our data suggest that year-to-year variation in EWDs is no longer explained by the year-to-year variation in winter temperature: winter temperatures now contribute little to the yearly variation in excess winter mortality so that milder winters resulting from climate change are unlikely to offer a winter health dividend.

In order to explore the potential effects of climate change on winter mortality rates, the authors analyzed the factors which contributed the number of excess winter deaths (EWDs) in the UK from 1951-2011. They found that, across this entire span, housing quality, heating costs, the number of cold winter days, and influenza accounted for 77% of variation in annual EWDs.

cold weather death correlations

These charts depict the correlation between excess winter deaths and either the number of cold days (left) or influenza activity in the UK. As the charts suggest, the number of cold days drove excess mortality until around 1976, when the flu became the dominant factor.

But, when they further broke the data down into three 20-year timeframes (1951-1971, 1971-1991, and 1991-2011), they concluded that, while housing quality and the number of cold days were the primary drivers of winter mortality from 1951-1971, this effect disappeared after that point. Instead, flu activity became the only significant driver from 1976-2011. Accordingly, as they argue,

[W]e show unequivocally that the correlation between the number of cold winter days per year and EWDs, which was strong until the mid 1970s, no longer exists.

But, the authors don’t stop here. They continue by explaining that climate records actually suggest that “winter temperature volatility has increased in the UK over the past 20 years,” despite global warming. As I discussed in a previous post on heat-related mortality, the ability of people to acclimate to local weather patterns is a key determinant in temperature-related mortality rates.

As winters continue to warm, people will slowly see their comfort baseline shift; accordingly, when extreme cold snaps, like the Polar Vortex that hit the Eastern US in January, occur,

The nefarious effects on EWDs could be substantial, with especially the vulnerable being caught off-guard by abrupt changes in temperature.

Due to this increasing volatility in winter temperatures, population growth, and the continued graying of populations (people aged 65 and over are far more susceptible to influenza), it’s entirely possible that global warming could actually increase cold weather mortality rates.

A similar study from fall 2012 (paywall), also published in Nature Climate Change, lends further credence to this research. The article examined the influence of climate change on mortality rates from extreme temperatures in Stockholm; the authors compared mortality rates from 1900-1929 to those from 1980-2009.

mean winter temperatures stockholm

This chart depicts the distribution of the 26-day moving average for mean winter temperatures in Stockholm. The black bars, which show data from 1980-2009, suggest that baseline winter temperatures have increased over the last century.

The study, which examined changes in mortality rates from both extreme cold and extreme heat, found increases in both phenomena. The number of extreme cold events increased to 251 in 1980-2009 from 220 during 1900-1929. This change led to an additional 75 deaths.

Significantly, this study echoed two key findings from the UK article. First, cold weather extremes appear to have increased in frequency over the last century, likely as a result of global warming. Secondly, little evidence exists to suggest that people have adapted to the changing climate. According to the authors of the Stockholm article,

The stable and constant mortality impact of cold and heat over the past three decades, independent of the number of extreme events, shows the difficulties in adapting to changing temperatures…Future changes in the frequency and intensity of heat waves might be of a magnitude large enough to overwhelm the ability of individuals and communities to adapt. The expected increase in the number of elderly and other potentially vulnerable groups, in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population, could make the impact of temperature extremes on human health even more severe.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated, it can. Two studies published in 2009, one focusing on Sweden and one focusing on Italy (paywall), established an inverse relationship between weather-related mortality rates in the winter months and mortality rates during the following summer.

In other words, because the vulnerability factors for both cold- and heat-related mortality overlap to such a degree, any decrease in winter mortality due to global warming will likely be offset by a corresponding increase in excess mortality during the summer months. As the authors of the Italian study wrote,

Low-mortality winters may inflate the pool of the elderly susceptible population at risk for dying from high temperature the following summer.

So, to all of the climate deniers or “skeptics” who claim that global warming will somehow be beneficial – I’m looking at you, Congresswoman Blackburn – please take note: climate scientists keep discovering new ways that life is going to get drastically worse, unless we act now to slash carbon emissions and prepare for the warming that’s already locked in.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, part 3: Climate change in your backyard

If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you exactly three times that climate change is going to be a bigger deal for Cleveland than people seem to realize.

Well, thanks to the indispensable US Geological Survey, I now have even more data to back me up. With the help of NASA, the USGS has taken the data on temperature and precipitation from the various climate models used by the IPCC and broken it down to the county level. Thanks to this awesome new tool with a terrible name (NEX-DCP30), you can now find out what the mean temperature projections for April are in Charles Mix County in South Dakota from 2025-2049, if that’s your sort of thing.

NEX-DCP30 provides breakdowns for each county in the continental United States for three time periods (2025-2049, 2050-2074, and 2074-2099), compared to the averages from 1980-2004. You can even toggle between RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway; e.g. projected emissions scenario) 4.5, a mid-range scenario, or RCP 8.5, which is a worst-case scenario. Christmas came early for climate nerds like me.

Naturally I decided to check in on the projections for the state of Ohio and for Cuyahoga County. Here’s what I found.

Using the mid-range warming scenario (RCP 4.5), Ohio’s mean temperature will increase by 2.5°C (4.5°F) during the period 2050-2074. This puts it right in the middle of the pack – it’s average temperature change is tied for 16th of the contiguous 48 states, making it higher than 23 states, tied with 8, and lower than 15.

temperature increases mid-range emissions

Average temperature increases for the lower 48 states in 2050-2074, under RCP 4.5 (courtesy of USGS).

In the same scenario, Cuyahoga County warms at by 2.6°C (4.7°F), slightly more than the state as a whole. As you can see below, the state appears split along a diagonal line, that starts in Columbiana County and ends by cutting Hamilton in half. Those counties above the line warm at a higher rate than those below it. Overall, in the RCP 4.5 model, Ohio and Cuyahoga County warm at roughly the same rate as the country as a whole.

temperature increases ohio mid-range scenario

Average temperature increases for the 88 counties in Ohio in 2050-2074, under RCP 4.5 (courtesy of USGS).

These rates change under the RCP 8.5 model. Under this scenario, Ohio warms by an alarming 3.6°C (6.5°F) by 2050-2074, a rate of change above the national average. As the map below suggests, those states that are farthest North and/or are located in the interior of the country will experience the most warming. Ohio experiences warming greater than 26 states, the same as 4 states, and less than 18 states. While Alaska will likely see the greatest warming of all 50 states, Minnesota’s 4.0°C is the most among the lower 48.

temperature increases ohio worst case scenario in 2050-2074

Average temperature increases for Ohio’s counties in 2050-2074, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS).

Once again, under this scenario, Cuyahoga County outpaces the state as a whole. The county will see temperatures increase by 3.7°C (6.7°F). This number exceeds most of the state, though the greatest warming will take place in Northwest Ohio and in the counties along the Indiana border.

temperature increases worst case scenario 2050-2074

Average temperature increases for the lower 48 states in 2050-2074, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS).

Alarmingly, if you fast forward to the end of the century (2074-2099) using RCP 8.5, the picture becomes even bleaker. Ohio warms by a terrifying 5.3°C (9.5°F), while Cuyahoga County once again comes in higher at 5.4°C (9.72°F). The average July temperature in Ohio and Cuyahoga County would increase by 6.4°C, reaching 96.08°F and 93.74°F, respectively. Mid- to upper-90s would become the rule, not the exception.

change in monthly temperatures in worst case scenario

Mean monthly temperatures for the State of Ohio (left) and Cuyahoga County (right) in 2075-2099, under RCP 8.5 (courtesy of USGS)

Cleveland annual mean temperature currently stands at roughly 10°C (50°F), while the annual average maximum temperature of 15°C (59°F). Under a high-emissions scenario, Cleveland’s climate could became much closer to that of Oklahoma City than what we are used to experiencing now.

The current rate of climatic change – which The Geological Society now says is unprecedented in the history of the planet (PDF) – is far beyond what we are able to absorb. For a region that is not acclimatized to extreme heat and is highly vulnerable to heat-related mortality, climate change poses an immense public health risk to Northeast Ohio.

So, once again, I caution you that, while things may not become as bad in Cleveland as they may elsewhere, they’re still going to be crappy. To paraphrase The Lorax, unless we all start caring a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.

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

map of climate vulnerability

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

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

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

map of temperature anomalies from NASA

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

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

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

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

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

map of climate vulnerability

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

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

children at water park
children at water park

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

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

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

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

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

The Built Environment

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

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Demographics

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

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

foreclosures in Cuyahoga County 1995-2012

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

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

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


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

map of poverty rates in Northeast Ohio

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

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

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

Racial Segregation

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

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

map of Cleveland showing racial divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

heat wave

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

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

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

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

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

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


Moving beyond the mitigation vs. adaptation debate

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country's climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country’s climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Last week, there was a blog post at AlertNet titled “Climate Conversations – Is acceptance of climate change adaptation an admission that mitigation has failed?” The title caught my attention, and I read the piece with some dread; I thought we had already moved beyond this debate. Fortunately, the piece does not rehash this tired argument.

That said, the fact that climate activists still have to use raise this question is disheartening. I had thought that recent international actions hard largely shelved this line of thought. For instance, through the 2001 Marrakesh Accords, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) noted the need to explore adaptation and created the Least Developed Countries Fund to support the development and implementation of adaptation plans. Subsequent UNFCCC actions supplemented this:

    • Marrakesh established The Adaptation Fund, though this body did not officially begin operating until 2008. The fund recognizes the vulnerability of developing countries to the impacts of climate change and is supposed to “finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes.”
    • The 2007 Bali Action Plan (PDF) formally established that adaptation represents a key component of the international response to climate change and called for increasing resources for this purpose.
    • The 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework stated that “adaptation must be addressed with the same priority as mitigation” and called for additional action and support to make this a reality. Cancun also launched the Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to supplement the Adaptation Fund by promoting “low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways” and providing support to developing countries for adaptation.

It is clear that the international commitment has made a commitment to adaptation (at least vocally). The otherwise highly disappointing Cophenagen Accord that emerged in 2009 included a commitment from developed countries to mobilize “USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries” (emphasis mine). It remains highly unclear where those funds will come from, and, to date, the developed countries have come nowhere close to meeting their pledge. Yet, the commitment is on paper, and it demonstrates that adaptation is here to stay.

Generally, climate researchers argue that we must “adapt to what we cannot mitigate, and mitigate what we cannot adapt to.” The international community has agreed that we should not go beyond 2°C warming. This is the point at which adaptation becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. However, it has become increasingly clear in recent months that we are on the verge of blowing past this cutoff. The World Bank has argued we are on the path to a 4°C world, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers projects that our current emissions trajectory puts us on a path to 6° of warming. Even the normally conservative International Energy Agency notes that business as usual will exhaust the carbon budget for 450ppm by 2017.

British climate scientist Kevin Anderson has argued that the difference between 4°C & 6°C is essentially irrelevant; 4°C will likely quickly give way to 6°C due to a series of feedback mechanisms. As such, once we hit 4°C, it becomes “extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death,” as this level of warming “is incompatible with an organized global community.” (Listen to Anderson speak about this risk below).

Clearly, the conventional mitigation-adaptation equation does not fit this formula. It is missing another key variable – suffering. As (my professor at AU) Dr. Paul Wapner has argued, “We need to mitigate, we need to adapt, but no matter how much we mitigate and no matter how much we adapt, there is going to be suffering. There already is and it’s inevitable.”

One can see this suffering globally. The World Health Organization has estimated that, as early as 2004, climate change was already responsible for 140,000 premature deaths per year.  Last year, DARA International’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor increased this projection to roughly 400,000 climate-related deaths annually. The IPCC estimates that climate change will make an additional 132 million Asians malnourished and increase the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa facing water stress by 350-600 million by 2050.

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

These estimates are based on current warming and/or mid-range projections (at or below 2°C). It’s abundantly clear that mitigation is essential for sustaining an inhabitable planet. Yet, the increasingly obvious effects of extreme weather, much of which is tied to climate change, also make it clear that we must adapt now. Climate-related disasters reduced the US’s GDP by 1% in 2012; the effects are significantly worse in developing countries. Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in 1998, “set back development in Nicaragua by 20 years.”

All of this information makes it clear that, for climate change, mitigation and adaptation are not an either/or proposition. We need both, and we need them now. It’s time to leave this mitigation vs. adaptation debate back in the 1990s, where it belongs.