Blue Marble

Congress Backtracks on Law Aimed to Reduce Flood Risks

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 5:41 PM PDT

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.

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

| Fri Nov. 1, 2013 2:04 PM PDT
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.

CHARTS: How Environmentally-Friendly Are Your City's Commuters?

| Wed Oct. 30, 2013 4:10 PM PDT

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

The Institute for Quality Communities at the University of Oklahoma recently dug through the latest Census metrics on how Americans commute to work, a dataset locally notable for the fact that Tulsa and Oklahoma City don't compare all that well. Relative to the 60 largest cities in America, Oklahoma City ranks last in the share of commuters – 2.2 percent of them – who get to work by biking, walking or transit. That's as much a reflection of the design of the city as the preferences of its commuters: Simply put, Oklahoma City was built for cars.

In the process of unearthing this ignoble distinction, IQC fellow Shane Hampton also posted some nice visualizations of how major cities stack up against each other by commuter mode share. The data comes from the 2012 American Community Survey, which records how people primarily get to and from their jobs (not necessarily how they make all of their daily trips, to destinations like the grocery store or church). The original charts are interactive, with individual data points. But we've pulled out a few here as well.

New York, not surprisingly, has the highest share of non-car commuters (67 percent):


Cities listed in order from largest to smallest percentage of commutes by biking, walking or transit.

Breaking that down by region and individual mode share, here is the Northwest, the Midwest, and the Southeast. Beware, each scale is different:
 

Northeast


Midwest


Southeast

And here is a range of cities – from notably different climates, Hampton points out – where biking mode share has significantly increased in the last decade:

All charts courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Institute for Quality Communities.

The County Council Election That Could Make or Break Big Coal

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 10:00 AM PDT

Last week, the Whatcom County Council in northwestern Washington voted to buy six new SUVs for the local Sheriff's Department and introduced its annual road construction plan. These were significant developments in this sleepy rural enclave of scarcely 200,000 people, but nothing compared to what's on the horizon: A proposal to build the largest coal export terminal on the West Coast, capable of annually shipping a whopping 48 million tons of Montana and Wyoming coal to Asia.

Its role in deciding the fate of Peabody Coal's proposed $700-million Gateway Pacific Terminal has thrust the unassuming Whatcom County Council into the national political spotlight. The coal industry sees the export terminal as a lifeline from sinking domestic sales. Environmental groups view it as the worst climate threat since the Keystone XL pipeline. Each side is backing its own Whatcom County Council candidates in a November 5th election that has become an expensive proxy fight in the global war over the future of coal.

The money pouring into four council seat races dwarfs anything ever seen in this county of lumberjacks, farmers, and banana slugs. Compared to fundraising during the last county election in 2011, money raised by council candidates and their allies has increased more than seven-fold, to roughly $1 million. Much of it comes from fossil fuel interests such as Cloud Peak Energy and Global Coal Sales, and, on the other side, from A-list environmentalists such as California billionaire Tom Steyer.

Backers of the Gateway Pacific Terminal claim it will create 4,400 construction-related jobs and 1,250 permanent positions at the docks and in associated professions—no small thing in a county where the unemployment rate is fifty percent higher than it was six years ago. Yet environmental groups warn of endless pollution-spewing coal trains passing in the vicinity of Bellingham, the liberal college town near where Peabody wants to load cargo ships with coal bound for China. The council will likely vote to approve or deny the coal terminal sometime in the next two years.

As it stands, four or five of the seven council members are believed to support the terminal. So environmental groups want to flip one or two of the seats and coal companies want to stop them. But here's where things get weird, explains Brian Rosenthal of the Seattle Times:

The word "believed" is necessary because of one more quirk in this unusual election: In largely rural Whatcom County, council members have quasi-judicial duties and are supposed to remain impartial about matters that might come before them in the future.

So the candidates have avoided giving specific opinions about the coal terminal, instead offering code words like "proven environmental values" and "committed to creating jobs."

If that approach sounds familiar, it's probably because state and national politicians often do the same thing—though, admittedly, not often during an extended meet-and-greet with a handful of passerby in a small-town Indian casino, flanked by poker tables and slot machines.

WATCH: One Year After Sandy, Breezy Point Rebuilds

| Mon Oct. 28, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

One year ago tomorrow, storm surge from Hurricane Sandy set off a fire in Breezy Point, Queens, that leveled more than 100 homes. Now, construction is underway to rebuild the community from the ground up. But in July 2012, Congress decided to slash subsidies for federal flood insurance, and many residents now worry that rising rates could soon make this quiet beachside neighborhood unaffordable.

CHARTS: Remember Sandy? Storms Like That Could Become the New Normal

| Sat Oct. 26, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

One year ago, when the largest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history swept up the East Coast and collided with a nor'easter, the two massive weather events morphed into a superstorm. Sandy made landfall in New York harbor during a full moon—when the tides are highest—and caused a massive storm swell that flooded much of the region. It was dubbed a Frankenstorm, a Snor'eastercane, the Katrina of New Jersey.

By the time Sandy ran its course, it had created a disaster scenario better than anything Hollywood could dream up. But Sandy wasn't fiction—and climate models show that within the next hundred years Sandy-sized storm surges* could even become the new norm.

For a recent issue of Mother Jones, we set out to determine how soon we can expect floods like those caused by Sandy and 2003's Hurricane Isabel—which devastated coastal Virginia—to become regular events. Using data provided by Climate Central and the National Climate Assessment, we found that the chance of another 9 foot storm surge in lower Manhattan reaches 50 percent in a given year by the end of the century. In some low-lying regions of Gloucester County, Virginia, residents can expect four foot storm surges to become a yearly event by 2060.

We also looked at the toll that weather-related natural disasters have taken on the troubled National Flood Insurance Program. Though it has recently undergone reform—raising the rates for many property owners whose homes have been deemed the most vulnerable to flooding (but also dampening the real estate market)—the federal program remains deep in the hole that Katrina created and Sandy deepened.

NOAA, FEMA, Congressional Research Service, White House Federal Budget

To find out how soon you can expect regular major flooding events in your area, type in your city, state, or zip code into Climate Central's Surging Seas database below and move the water level line.

 

Correction: An earlier version said Sandy-sized storms could become regular events, but it is Sandy-level storm surges.

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CHARTS: US Carbon Emissions Are Dropping

| Tue Oct. 22, 2013 12:41 PM PDT

One of the next big items on President Obama's green agenda is a new set of caps on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Set to roll out over the next few years, the rules aim to slash the climate impact of the nation's biggest polluters. But statistics released yesterday from the federal Energy Information Administration show that even without these new caps, energy-related carbon emissions—those that come from powering factories, homes, cars, and businesses—dropped almost four percent between 2011 and 2012, marking the fifth out of the last seven years for these emissions to decline:

total carbon emissions
EIA

For Climate Scientists, Shutdown Casts Long Shadow

| Fri Oct. 18, 2013 8:00 AM PDT
Antarctic researcher Gretchen Hoffman, left, says consequences of the shutdown "could completely scuttle some projects."

The government shutdown might be over, but for some climate scientists the headache is just beginning. During the shutdown, National Science Foundation-funded research facilities in Antarctica—where some of the world's most important climate research takes place—were left with a skeleton staff at just the time of year they would normally be coming back to life after a long, dark winter.

On its first day back online, NSF released a statement saying it would salvage the research season "to the maximum extent possible," without giving a definite timeline. NSF warned that "certain research and operations activities may be deferred until next year's austral research season." For scientists studying everything from ocean acidification to earthquakes to seal pups, the 16 days of the shutdown were 16 missed opportunities to collect irreplaceable data.

One of those scientists was Gretchen Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who published a column today in Nature about her frustration with the shutdown and its long-term impacts on basic research. As Hofmann and her peers stand by for word from NSF, we spoke to her about how some of the worst pain from the last two weeks could be felt by the next generation of up-and-coming scientists.

Climate Desk: What have the last couple weeks been like for you?

Gretchen Hofmann: We have a research project that's funded to study ocean conditions and ocean acidification in the Southern Ocean, the area around McMurdo Sound. That project was supposed to start October 10, and we were going to deploy one of our field team members down there to go retrieve sensors from under the sea ice. The government shut down and we just sat there and thought, 'Well, I guess she's not going,' and sure enough 24 hours before Lydia Kapsenberg, my grad student, was supposed to deploy, her travel was canceled. A week earlier, my post-doc Amanda Kelley, an NSF funded research fellow, was supposed to go down; she flew down there, landed on the sea ice, and literally was told that the station had gone into caretaker mode. So right away, right in my face, front row center, I had two junior scientists that were really heavily impacted by this. Not only because they stand to lose to data and progress in their careers; it was also really upsetting. I mean, they felt really threatened and jeopardized.

"The shutdown, with respect to Antarctic science, was as poorly timed as you could possibly manage."

CD: You make the point that while there are impacts for everyone working down there, it's especially a problem for young scientists, post-docs and grad students. Explain why. What's different about being in that position that makes a missed opportunity like this even more problematic?

GH: The reason that it's a sensitive life history stage is because, if we talk about Dr. Kelley, she's a post-doc, and that's kind of like being an apprentice electrician: You already have your license, in this case a PhD, and she now comes to work with me to really learn about how to be a scientist. During that time, these jobs are really competitive, and you need to be productive. By that I mean you need to do experiments, you need to publish papers, you need to go to science meetings and get out there. And with no data, with a canceled field season, she will not have that. And so that puts her back incredibly.

And grad students, well, forget about it. Many of them have planned to be at McMurdo to do a specific thing that will give them their PhD or their masters degree. And that's been completely canceled. It's even worse sometimes for grad students because if they know they're going to do something down there, they might spend the whole year training to do that; frankly, they're not doing anything else. They spent a whole bunch of time getting ready to be there, and when that gets canceled, then they've got nothin'. And so a year of their life could be delayed, they might have to stay in school for another year, their advisor might not have funding for them, so it throws them into a really difficult situation that can also involve financial problems. I worry about this every day. People send you their children, and our country depends on this new talent. And so it's kind of like we're eating our young in the Antarctic science community if we can't rescue the field season.

"We're eating our young in the Antarctic science community if we can't rescue the field season."

Amanda Kelley is an unfortunate example of this. She has a two-year fellowship from NSF that just started this summer. She was supposed to work at McMurdo for the field season this October/November, and October/November, 2014, and that's all the money she has for those two years. And so now, if she loses this field season, she'll run out of money before she can get a full set of research done. And everyone [at NSF] will do their utmost to rectify the situation, but whereas I stand to lose some data and an instrument and that's a drag and sets my research back, you know, I'm protected, I'm tenured. And these guys are not.

How to Feed the World Without Wrecking the Planet

| Wed Oct. 16, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Consumed cover
Courtesy of The University of Chicago Press

By now, it's clear that climate change could destroy the food system as we know it. Add to that scary fact the impending weight of an expected three billion more hungry mouths over the next forty years, and we have a lot to worry about. So how in the world are we going to feed ourselves?  

That's the problem that Canadian journalist Sarah Elton tackles in her new book, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet. The pitfall of our modern food system, Elton writes, is that it prioritizes maximizing output—while ignoring the ecology that healthy crops and livestock depend on. Farmers today produce 145 percent more food than they did just a few decades ago, but agriculture is also responsible for more than a third of greenhouse gases worldwide. It also drains our planet of water and pumps chemicals from pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer into our land.

But perhaps the biggest flaw that Elton identifies in modern agriculture is its reliance on the practice of monocropping, or growing a single species of plant over a hundreds or thousands of acres. This method has made the food system incredibly efficient, but Elton argues that it also means we've put all our genetic eggs in one basket at exactly the time when we should be bolstering the natural genetic diversity of our food system and working it to our advantage.

Elton uses corn farming in Nepal as a case study on how monocropping can backfire. Until the 1970's, small farmers there grew hundreds of different kinds of corn. Then agribusiness companies sold them hybrid varieties, and the old tradition of saving and trading the many local varieties disappeared. The new seeds—and the pesticides and fertilizer they required—did yield more corn, but in 2008, the corn crop simply failed to produce, and thousands of farmers, who were already heavily indebted to the seed companies, saw their incomes disappear completely. Though no one is certain exactly why the crop failed, it was clear to the farmers that relying on just a few imported varieties of seeds was a risk they could not afford to take.

A changing climate favors plants that can adapt quickly by drawing from a wealth of genetic material. 

As a point of contrast, Elton describes an experiment in Maryland that showed how genetic diversity allows plants to thrive in changing conditions. In the spring of 2002, Lewis Ziska, a scientist for the US Department of Agriculture's Crop Systems and Global Change lab, isolated a few plots of land in the Baltimore area, one where the climate conditions were average for the region today, and two more where they approximated the forecast around 2030 and 2050. Each plot had the same topsoil and was planted with several common species of weeds. 

After five years, Ziska observed that the samples of ragweed and lamb's quarters that he planted on the warmest plot—down by the steamy, smoggy (and therefore carbon-saturated) Baltimore waterfront—grew up to twice the size of their counterparts further inland, where the weather was typical of current conditions. The reason, Ziska hypothesized, was linked directly to the weeds' inherent genetic wealth. Unlike monocrops, weed clusters like the ones Ziska observed can contain multiple variations of the same species, allowing them to change and adapt over successive generations. For Ziska, the implication was obvious: A changing climate favors plants that can adapt quickly by drawing from a wealth of genetic material. 

Elton goes on to argue that modern agriculture focuses too much on particular crops, and not enough on the ecosystems around them. Elton describes how in China, rice paddies not only produce rice, they also support fish, an important source of protein for people. "[I]f one part of the ecosystem doesn't do well one year, another is sure to flourish," Elton writes. But add some herbicides to the mix and the whole system falls apart. As researchers at the Yunnan Agricultural University in China discovered, when hybrid seeds are introduced to rice paddies, the chemicals that the new seeds require kill off the natural predators of a hazardous group of insects called planthoppers, which then multiply wildly before devouring the rice crop. When the rice is gone, the fish suffer, too.

By concentrating on a few varieties of mass-produced crops, we have done away with many of the alternatives that could carry us through the lean years to come. As Ziska's Baltimore experiment demonstrated, both plants and entire ecosystems need genetic diversity to adapt to a hotter, carbon-rich future. If we eliminate that diversity now, Elton writes, we may pay the price later.

Supreme Court to Take Up Greenhouse Gas Limits

| Tue Oct. 15, 2013 1:12 PM PDT

The Supreme Court announced today that it will take up the question of whether the Environmental Protection Agency can include greenhouse gas emission limits in permits it issues for new or expanding large polluters like refineries and power plants.

But perhaps even more significant was what the court chose not to consider: a challenge to the EPA's broader authority to regulate greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and a challenge to its authority to issue emission limits for cars, both of which have been upheld by lower courts and remained untouched today.

For now, the justices chose to leave intact the legal basis for greenhouse gas emissions limits on new and existing power plants the EPA is expected to roll out over the next several years. Those limits could shutter many of the nation's coal plants and discourage others from opening. Today's announcement also preserves the Obama administration's plan to slash climate change-causing pollutants from cars.

The justices' decision "means that EPA's legal and scientific findings that greenhouse gases harm health and the climate remains the law of the land," said Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney John Walke.

"The EPA's findings that greenhouse gases harm health and the climate remains the law of the land."

The question the court will consider is whether the EPA can use greenhouse gas emissions as a criteria, like it does with smog and soot limits, to determine whether large industrial polluters receive permits to build new facilities or expand existing ones. But even if the justices disallow such a permitting criteria, the EPA would still retain the authority to set greenhouse gas emissions limits for these polluters—just not written into the permits, per se.

The petition behind the permitting issue was brought by a coalition of industry groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers, which in a statement today said "stringent permitting requirements" would "impact every aspect of our economy."

But Walke stressed that the permitting program "is not necessary to establish or enforce" greenhouse gas emission standards for power plants, like those proposed in September that are a signature product of new EPA administrator Gina McCarthy.