Blue Marble - November 2013

Why Dengue and Yellow Fever Could Be Coming to a City Near You

| Mon Nov. 4, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Estimated Population at Risk for Dengue Fever in 1990 (A) and 2085 (B) Based on Climate Data from 1961 to 1990

This past summer, Aedes aegypti—the invasive African mosquito best known for carrying the potentially deadly diseases dengue and yellow fever—made its unexpected debut in California, squirming up from Madera to Clovis to Fresno and the Bay Area.

For a blood-sucking nightmare, Aedes aegypti is surprisingly attractive: Its dark skin and bright white polka-dots make it hard to miss. Unfortunately, it is also notoriously difficult to control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Aedes aegypti can lay its eggs in less than a teaspoon of liquid and survive without water for months.

While Aedes aegypti has long resided in Texas and the southeastern United States, this is the first time it's reached California. News outlets have covered the story extensively, but few have mentioned climate change's role in the mosquito's spread. The CDC says it's "likely that Ae. aegypti is continually responding or adapting to environmental change." In a 2012 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that "temperatures, precipitation and humidity have a strong influence on the reproduction, survival and biting rates" of Aedes aegypti.

Climate change studies predict that dengue—which infects as many as 100 million people a year—will expose an additional 2 billion by 2080. In 2009, the mosquito kicked off a Florida outbreak of dengue in a state that hadn't seen the disease in more than 70 years, and Thailand is currently undergoing its worst dengue epidemic in more than 20 years.

Dengue's initial symptoms often resemble the flu, but advanced infections—which cause lung and heart problems, severe abdominal pain, and bleeding from the nose and mouth—kill 15,000 people in 100 countries annually.

Yellow fever is no picnic, either: The disease was one of the world's most feared before the development of a vaccine in 1936. Its name comes from the illness' trademark jaundice, and it also causes severe stomach bleeding (often resulting in black vomit). It kills 15 percent of those infected and closer to 50 percent when left untreated.

In the past, yellow fever in the United States made its way as far north as New York City. In 1793, an outbreak even wiped out 10 percent of Philadelphia. Luckily, citizens figured out that they could stop its spread by overturning containers of standing water where mosquitoes bred, and yellow fever was largely eradicated in the United States. In the last 40 years, there have been only nine cases of yellow fever in the United States, all of which were contracted abroad. But in Africa and Central and South America, it's a much bigger problem: Roughly 200,000 new cases of yellow fever occur every year. Over the last 20 years, outbreaks have occurred in more countries with more frequency, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2010, Uganda had its first outbreak in more than 40 years. WHO reports the increasing number of cases is likely linked to climate change.

There is no vaccine for dengue, and American citizens typically do not get vaccinated against yellow fever unless they travel to a region where it's endemic. So far, there have been no cases of dengue or yellow fever connected to California's new Aedes aegypti, and none of the insects have tested positive for the diseases. But public health officials remain vigilant. "We were shocked," one insect control official in Madera, California, told the Los Angeles Times. "We never expected this mosquito in California."

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Congress Backtracks on Law Aimed to Reduce Flood Risks

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 8:41 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Demolishing coastal habitats and replacing them with buildings is just asking for trouble. Mangroves, sand dunes, and other coastal ecosystems can buffer rising tides and storm surges. Homes, driveways, and roads, on the other hand " well, they just flood.

Yet since the late 1960s, the federal government has been promoting the construction of homes in flood-vulnerable coastal areas through the National Flood Insurance Program. Under the NFIP, taxpayers subsidize the costs of insuring homes in flood-prone neighborhoods. The program has led to the demolition of coastal habitats and the construction of flood-vulnerable homes in coastal areas around the country.

Fortunately, lawmakers came to understand the folly of the nation's ways. Last year, by a 412 to 18 margin, Congress did something unusual: It passed a bill that went on to become law. The bill started raising flood insurance rates to something resembling market prices.

Unfortunately, now Congress wants to backtrack. Seems members didn't comprehend the scale of the problem they were trying to fix. The issue of unsuitable homes built on flood plains is so entrenched that the new law led to severe economic impacts for homeowners who were forced to foot greater shares of the insurance bills needed to protect their properties.

"All the houses, all the stores, all the businesses" everything has to be raised six, eight, ten feet high," Mike O'Reilly, a resident of New York's Broad Channel Island, told CBS News during a protest last month that took place on land that was inundated after Superstorm Sandy struck the region. "If you don't comply with this impossible task, the insurance premiums are going to up $20,000-$30,000 a year."

Reacting to widespread anger, Congress is now scrambling to undo the program changes that it once so heartily supported.

Here is Salon's summary of the 2012 legislation:

The Biggert-Waters…reform legislation forced the creation of new FEMA maps to determine who needed flood insurance. It also allowed higher annual premium increases "to 20 percent from 10 percent" so premiums could gradually come more in line with actuarial realities. And for high-risk homes built before flood maps were adopted, which enjoyed generous subsidies, flood insurance rates would increase 25 percent a year, until they reached a level commensurate with the actual risk. If the homes changed hands, they would immediately move to the risk-adjusted rates. Over time, subsidies for 1.1 million policyholders, 20 percent of the program, would be phased out.

And here is its summary of Congress's new effort to undo its own legislation:

[A] deal…would delay the changes to the program by four years. It would force FEMA to conduct an "affordability study" to ensure that homeowners wouldn't pay undue costs, and would allow reimbursement to policyholders who successfully appeal a change to flood maps that increase their rates.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the federal government is spending billions of dollars buying up coastal homes in New Jersey. Those homes will be replaced with flood- and storm-buffering sand dunes like those that used to line the shore. As Congress looks for a fair way to fix 45 years of irresponsible home building promoted by the NFIP, more neighborhood-eliminating projects like these might need to be considered.

Why This Red-State Republican Mayor Backs Obama on Climate Change

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 5:04 PM EDT
Federal agencies are required to clear the way for more climate change adaptations, like this house being raised out of the floodplain in Virginia.

Just a few days after the Treasury Department announced it would no longer back funding for most overseas coal-fired power plants, today President Obama issued a new executive order that lays the groundwork for how the US will prepare for climate change within its borders. The order is the latest in a series of policies stemming from the president's Climate Action Plan; earlier this year, for example, the administration issued new greenhouse gas emission limits for power plants and cars. But rather than addressing carbon pollution, per se, today's plan focuses on how cities and states can prepare for the climate impacts already on the way.

"We need to work on bipartisan solutions, and put politics aside," said Mayor James Brainard of Carmel, Indiana, a Republican who is one of the local officials taking part in a new advisory task force created by today's order. "The climate is changing, and we need to be prepared for it."

So what does the order call for? Here's what you need to know:

Prioritize climate-ready projects: In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, many civic planning experts called for future infrastructure plans—for bridges, roads, housing development, and the like—to emphasize climate resilience (a popular buzzword among climate wonks that means being able to quickly bounce back from disasters).

Today's order requires federal agencies to support and incentivize "smarter, more climate-resilient investments" through grants, guidance, and other forms of assistance. These could include moving roads away from crumbling coasts or requiring seaside homes to be built higher above the floodplain. The order also directs agencies to "identify and seek to remove or reform barriers that discourage" resilient investments—for example, policies that currently encourage cities to apply weak rebuilding standards after natural disasters.

"What we're seeing here is a promise that resources that might have been dedicated just to rebuilding, there would now be a mandate to rebuild in a more resilient fashion," said Rachel Cleetus, a climate economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The order gives a nod to natural systems, too: Federal agencies are required to look for ways to protect places like watersheds, marshes (which are themselves an important protective barrier from sea level rise), and forests from climate impacts and are directed deliver specific recommendations to the White House within nine months.