March 31 2019

March 31 2019

extreme flooding, TV meteorologists bring climate science to conservative viewers, future carbon emissions from existing infrastructure, Trump a loser in court (where facts matter), Green New Deal changes Congressional conversation

Some of our most devastating floods, like the 1997 San Joaquin flood or the 2017 flood on the Feather River that damaged Oroville Dam and caused the evacuation of 180,000 Californians, are caused in part by rain falling on a large snowpack. A warm rainstorm can melt snow very quickly, overwhelming flood control infrastructure. InsideClimate New reports on recent conclusions that, if greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to continue at their current pace, the odds of severe rain-on-snow floods could triple in 10 Western river systems. In the spring of 2019, given our large snowpack, a warm “pineapple express” or “atmospheric river” storm could greatly enhance flood danger in the Sierras and the Central Valley.

Rain-on-snow is one of the physical phenomena driving the current flooding in the Midwest, and Wired reports on the recent announcement by NOAA that this year’s flooding is by no means over. NOAA’s spring flood outlook indicates that two-thirds of the country is at risk of “major to moderate flooding, from Fargo, North Dakota, on the Red River of the North down to Nashville, Tennessee, on the Cumberland River.” The floods from the past two weeks have compromised 200 miles of levees in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Reuters examines the role of climate change in this flooding event. An article in the New York Times provides a great (and painful) illustration of the challenge we face as the hydrologic cycle changes in our new climate, in this case the inability of our existing infrastructure to manage the amount of water in the Missouri River basin.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) produces maps that are used to identify the 100-year floodplain. If you have a federally-backed mortgage on a structure in the floodplain, you must purchase federal flood insurance (private insurance is usually unavailable due to the risk). FEMA does not take climate change (including sea level rise) into account when establishing the floodplain. InsideClimate News reports that many local jurisdictions, especially those hit by frequent flooding in recent years, are not relying on FEMA but are instead using local building codes to force new construction to be more flood resistant, even in the 500-year floodplain. This reflects the understanding that areas that used to have a chance of flooding only once in 500 years are now much more prone to flooding due to climate change. USA Today describes steps being taken around the world to build resilience to flooding.

The Los Angeles Times reports on a recent USGS study that for the first time projects the combined impact of sea level rise, coastal erosion, storm surge and storm-driven waves on coastal flood damage. The results are sobering, with damages at the end of the century from a 2m sea level rise totaling over 6% of the state’s GDP (a 100-year storm increases by a factor of seven the number of people at risk from a 0.25m rise in sea level). This is a greater economic threat to the state than fires or earthquakes, and does not include the subsequent socio-economic impacts of storm damage. Some of these impacts will likely be mitigated by investments to make shorelines more resilient, but this study documents the enormous risk posed to the coastal cities due to rising seas and more extreme storms.

An op-ed in the Washington Post describes the inadequate response of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to seismic and flood hazards at U.S. nuclear power plants. Despite the fact that 55 of 61 U.S. nuclear sites analyzed were exposed to flood hazards beyond their designed protection, by a 3-2 vote the NRC will not require costly upgrades to address these hazards. One of the dissenting NRC commissioners called this decision “nonsensical,” stating: “In the United States, there exists incontrovertible evidence that the current design bases for some plants do not address a flood hazard identified by the licensees’ [plant operators’] own analyses.”

For those who wonder how to deliver climate science information to viewers of conservative media in red states, CNN reviews an analysis of the Climate Matters program. This program delivers information about climate change for use by local TV meteorologists (disclaimer; I am a supporter of Climate Matters), including many who work for TV stations owned by Fox or Sinclair. Analysis of the work of Climate Matters by researchers at George Mason University demonstrates that TV meteorologists have been successfully educating their viewers about climate change.

The former Secretary of the Navy, Ray Maybus, writes in the Military Times that climate change is a national security threat, but the Trump Administration is making believe this is not so. Maybus notes that a new panel to be convened by the President, which is proposed to meet in secret, “is the antithesis of proper military planning. It seems that instead of gathering facts that will improve our ability to manage a dangerous world, this is an exercise meant to justify a political position based on nothing.”

Mother Jones reports on a rather disheartening speech made by Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, on the projected carbon emissions from existing fossil-fuel infrastructure. Birol notes that oil production in North America has more than doubled since 2009, and this will keep prices low and allow the world’s existing cars, trucks, power plants and industrial facilities to continue to burn fossil fuels. As a consequence, projections conclude that almost all of our “budget” for carbon emissions is used by this infrastructure (the “budget” is what we can emit if we are to keep global average temperature increase to 2°C). This fact, combined with the new coal-fired power plants that will come on-line in India and Southeast Asia, suggests that our existing infrastructure and plans will drive global warming into very dangerous territory. And yet, governments and corporations are pushing for even more fossil-fuel development, which would ensure we cannot meet our global targets.

On the other hand, the IEA is renown for making unrealistically conservative projections about renewable energy, and economic transitions can happen faster than we think. Bill McKibben makes this point reviewing two recent reports for the New York Review of Books, where he discusses the political and economic forces that can drive industrial transformation more quickly. The reports make the case that demand for oil will peak in the next decade, and this is already driving investment faster into the renewable technologies of the future. McKibben notes that in one year (2017), the price of wind and solar in India dropped 50%, and it’s “no wonder that over the first nine months of 2018, India installed forty times more capacity for renewables than for coal-fired power.” Dave Roberts notes that MIT researchers have concluded smart government policy was an essential component of driving down the cost of solar.

KQED reports on Bay Area students who marched as part of the global School Strike for Climate on March 15th. The Guardian reports on a potentially far-reaching decision by a federal judge to block Trump Administration oil and gas leases because the Bureau of Land Management did not estimate the climate impact of this decision. I am heartened by the response of the judiciary to the Trump Administration’s efforts to change regulations and plans without considering evidence; the Washington Post reports that in 63 of 68 cases the Administration has lost because it provided no rationale nor evidence to back up its decisions.

While there have been many difficult times in the Trump Presidency, a true low point for me was the President’s recent tweet calling climate change “fake science” after listening to climate denier Patrick Moore on Fox and Friends. Abraham Lincoln and Congress established the National Academy of Sciences in 1863 to advise federal leaders on matters of science, which has proven to be a valuable practice, but Trump prefers to get his advice from Fox instead. That the American President is so ignorant, gullible and pathologically sure of himself should terrify every person on the planet. An article in Rolling Stone describes responses to Trump’s tweet from scientists aboard the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer in Antarctica, and Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann has a perspective in Newsweek.

Finally, Time has an excellent article noting that the introduction of the Green New Deal has altered the national discussion on climate, as most Republican elected officials are now being forced to explain how they propose to deal with the problem (Vice has an interview with Congressman Matt Gaetz, a conservative Trump supporter who accepts climate science and is developing a Republican response). As an editorial in the New York Times puts it, Where is Your Climate Plan, Mr. McConnell?