Climate Change Resilience and Governance: Preparing for the Effects of Global Warming

I just came back from Washington, DC, where I attended an AAAS meeting on Climate Change Resilience and Governance, which included speakers from local governments and federal government agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), industry, and academic researchers. The meeting’s program is here. I’ll summarize the presentations and debates that I found interesting, but if there are others you’d like to hear more about, let me know. By the way, I should do this more often when I write about conferences, but the hashtag participants used is #RGR14.

First I’ll tell you what we mean by resilience and governance, then I’ll mention a couple important new developments that people talked about throughout the conference, and then I’ll tell you about some of the major issues and themes we discussed. If you don’t want to read all the details below, the major issues included these: the framing of climate change with different people; water issues, including droughts and floods; responding and recovering from disasters; and economic issues.

Before I continue, I’d also like to point out that, thanks to the efforts of the organizers, the program was very diverse, with speakers and participants with a variety of backgrounds and coming from a variety of places. In addition, women constituted nearly two thirds of the speakers, and more than 10% of the speakers were people of color. There were even back-to-back sessions of all-women speakers. (This is much better than the physics and astrophysics conferences I usually attend; see this post for more on diversity issues in science.)

key terms and definitions

If you’re interested in my previous posts about climate change issues, including an introduction to the concept and implications of climate change, look here. I and others usually focus on climate change mitigation, since we’re working to avoid the worst of climate change and reduce its many potentially harmful effects. Nonetheless, we know that the climate is changing and our planet is warming. Even with radical and politically unlikely changes to our fossil fuel-based economic system, we still have to contend with the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted, which will warm the planet by an average of at least 1.5 or 2 C this century, according to the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Therefore, we need to adapt to the expected consequences. Let’s be clear though: we need to work on both mitigation and adaptation simultaneously (a point explicitly made by Susan Ruffo, of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality).

“Resilience” is similar to “adaptation,” though it sometimes refers to efforts to restore things back to normal after a weather-event or climate-related disaster, but as some speakers pointed out, in the future we may be adapting to a new normal. “Governance” refers to actions being taken by local, national, and international governments, and it’s of course related to politics and policy. At the meeting last week, it was Laura Petes (an advisor at OSTP) who defined these terms (and see this executive order for official government definitions).

the context

The US Global Change Research Program released its third National Climate Assessment (NCA) in May. The NCA was a major five-year undertaking by hundreds of climate scientists and is both comprehensive and detailed. It’s US focused, unlike the international IPCC reports, though both make for sober reading. It includes studies of the looming climate change effects across the US (such as effects on water resources, agriculture, transportation, urban systems, rural communities, etc.) and within particular regions of the country. (The report also received considerable media attention, such as Phil Plait’s article on Slate.) The NCA’s interactive website is very useful, well organized, and worth checking out. The last of its key findings is the following:

Planning for adaptation (to address and prepare for impacts) and mitigation (to reduce future climate change, for example by cutting emissions) is becoming more widespread, but current implementation efforts are insufficient to avoid increasingly negative social, environmental, and economic consequences.

NCA3_overview_p14

The report includes an entire chapter dedicated to adaptation, which describes examples of actions being taken by federal agencies, states, cities, NGOs, and the private sector, and outlines the next steps, including the identification of critical adaption threshold or “breakpoints” beyond which social or ecological systems are unable to adapt to climate change.

In addition, a week ago the Environmental Protection Agenca (EPA) announced new power plant carbon standards. According to Ken Kimmell of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), this is a potential game changer. As you can see in the following graph, power plants, especially coal-fired ones, dominate our carbon emissions, and these standards could reduce those emissions by half by 2030 (to less than a million metric tons of CO2). The EPA and its administrator, Gina McCarthy, should be applauded for taking this important first step. The new standards must be combined with major efforts to ramp up renewable energy technologies and improved energy efficiency, and they will require strong leadership from the states. As argued by Vivian Thomson (professor at U. of Virginia) at the meeting, California, New York, and Washington are among the “active states” on climate change, and most of the rest of the country can do much much more.

SectorEmissions1990To2012_GHGInventoryReport2014
Power-plant-carbon-dioxide-emissions-chart

framing

A number of speakers argued that we should be careful about how we frame these issues when interacting with different communities and different sectors of the public. For example, some people react different when they hear “global warming” versus “climate change.” Some people can be turned off by hearing either of these, but they will be receptive when they hear about energy efficiency and ways to reduce their family’s gas and electricity bills. In addition, terms like “sustainability,” “smart growth,” and “resilience” may be too vague, but “risk reduction” in a specific context can be clearer, for example.

water

I’ve written before on water policy issues in the southwest , where we’re always talking about drought, but in the east, people are worried about floods and stormwater. Water issues are perhaps the most important of those facing us, and it’s no surprise that the NCA devoted two chapters to water resources and interactions between water, energy, and land use. I should note that climate change affects the food supply as well, through agriculture, fish catch, rising food prices, and so forth.

NCA3_water_Fig11

Many speakers spoke about water issues. Susan Leal (who co-authored a book, Running Out of Water) pointed out that most people take water and wastewater for granted, but maybe the shouldn’t. We should expect water rate payments to increase in the future. Pilar Thomas, who works with the Department of Energy, spoke about the water-energy nexus and the vulnerability of energy systems. She also spoke about water law and water rights, since disputes between states, tribal communities, and the private sector about water will surely increase in the future. I asked a question about preparing for future droughts, and these speakers argued that we can gain much from reduced water usage in agriculture and the food industry; water recycling in urban areas; and maybe we should try again to have “Meatless Mondays,” since producing a pound of animal protein requires, on average, about 100 times more water than producing a pound of vegetable protein (and beef is the worst).

environmental justice

I was happy and impressed that many speakers, especially Jalonne White-Newsome (WE ACT for Environmental Justice), Michael Dorsey (member of EPA’s National Advisory Committee), and Barbara Allen (professor at Virginia Tech) discussed important issues of environmental justice, injustice, and inequality. In my opinion, we don’t talk about these issues enough, and we certainly aren’t adequately addressing them. If you’re interested in learning more about environmental justice (EJ), see my recent post about the issues involved.

Currently EJ communities are not engaged in the process, argues Dr. White-Newsome, and the failure to mobilize the majority of Americans to want action on climate change is partly due to the fact that not everyone is part of the conversation. Many black, Latino, and Native American communities, as well as working class white communities, live closer to power plants, land fills, oil drilling platforms, polluting industries, etc., and are in more vulnerable areas, such as those that will be affected by rising sea levels, droughts, fires, hurricanes, and so on. Dr. Dorsey talked about the injustice of extreme weather events, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which should not be seen as “acts of God.” (He also had a way with words; at one point he referred to “persistent corporate sociopathy.”) Dr. Allen argued that we need endogenous ideas for transforming a community, such as when a community is rebuilding following a weather event, but if green technologies and buildings seem like too external to people, then they won’t “take” and will be less popular and successful.

disasters

A couple speakers, such as Sabrina McCormick (professor at George Washington U.) and Dr. Allen, talked about the benefits and perils of “disaster thinking.” It can be dangerous to think of climate change as a series of disasters; we might benefit from seeing the opportunities for improvement, such as by appealing to people’s self-interest. (For example, because of successful incentives, Germans now associate climate change and renewable energy with ways to make money.) Nonetheless, we can expect more weather events, flooding, and temperature extremes in the future. In fact, and this was new to me, heatwaves kill more people than all other weather events combined! Young children and people over 65, especially those on the top floors of poorly cooled buildings in dense urban areas, are among the most vulnerable. Simple solutions like white-painted roofs can save many lives.

“it’s the economy, stupid”

Finally, a few people, especially David Orr (author of seven books and professor at Oberlin), Kate Sheppard (reporter at Huffington Post), and Gar Alperovitz (writer and professor at U. of Maryland), talked about economic issues and policies. Dr. Orr discussed the relation between carbon emissions, climate change adaptation, and economic systems and unequal wealth distributions. He warned that, if the current political culture doesn’t change, “when times get rough, humans get nasty”—fairness goes out the window. Katrina is just an example of what’s to come. What will governments have to do when sea levels rise to get people out of harm’s way? It will help if we begin to think more like a community. We’re all in this together, but as it is now, the 7% richest people are responsible for half of carbon emissions, while the costs of climate change are being outsourced to the third world and future generations. Dr. Orr also asked a couple provocative questions: Is our capitalist system resilient and sustainable? Is democracy sustainable? (He asked this in the context of a point that Exxon-Mobil could legally burn all of their reserve fossil fuels and single handedly take us all past the tipping point.) While specific questions about responding to the next big storm are important, we should also be asking these big questions about systemic challenges, since climate change is likely the biggest crisis of our time.

Climate change: part 2 (the reckoning)

Now that we’ve talked about how climate change is happening and carbon emissions are increasing rapidly (in the previous post), let’s discuss what’s being done and what can be done to address this global ecological crisis.  I hope this isn’t too heavy for pre-holiday fare.

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, an international organization of climate scientists) released an important report. They argued that climate change is “unequivocal” and that the “dominant cause” has been human actions in pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Moreover, even if the world begins to moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2°C by the end of this century, which would have serious consequences including sea level rises, arctic ice melts, heatwaves, major changes to rainfall, and extreme weather events.  If crucial steps aren’t taken, “tipping points” and thresholds will soon be reached and climatic changes will be irreversible.

It is also important to note that the most vulnerable and poorest peoples–who are not responsible for the crisis–are the most likely to be affected by climate change.  Numerous islands and coastal regions are already being threatened.  Developing nations are unable to cope with extreme weather (such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines), droughts, and water and food shortages.  Climate change is an environmental justice issue, though ultimately it will affect us all and our future generations.

COP19

A month ago, an important climate summit, the 19th “Conference of the Parties” meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19), occurred in Warsaw. International representatives from nearly 200 countries discussed these issues and attempted to continue to negotiate for a new global climate accord by 2015. In addition, developing nations were seeking compensation for the “loss and damage” that they will almost certainly face, while rich countries (which produce most of the carbon emissions) were avoiding taking blame, making commitments, or allowing any statements in UN climate documents that could be used against them in the future. It became so bad that over 800 members of environmental groups and NGOs (including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam, the International Trade Union Confederation, 350.org, and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance) staged an unprecedented walkout of the talks. In the end, very little was achieved, though a deforestation agreement was made and plans were made for the following meeting next year in Peru.

How does the US fit in all this?  Unfortunately, the US is among the countries avoiding making serious commitments to address climate change and rising carbon missions.  President Obama finally laid out a climate action plan earlier this year, nearly 25 years after NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen testified before Congress about evidence for global warming. The plan includes a number of sound policy measures and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, especially with new EPA standards for power plants.  This is a good start, but even with this, we’ll still likely reach 3°C warming.  Far deeper reductions are needed (such as with a carbon “fee-and-dividend” system, which we can discuss later). Furthermore, environmental justice must be a part of the plan (see this Union of Concerned Scientists blog post), since the burden of the impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color.

Climate change: part 1

I’d like to say a bit about climate change. It’s an issue that I’m passionate about, as it’s one of the most important global crises facing us today, and there will be plenty more to write about in later posts.

As a possible future for our own planet, it’s useful to think of Venus.  Although there are no Venusians to ask about it, we can infer what happened to Venus based on observations of its surface and atmosphere.  Venus and Earth likely had similar early atmospheric compositions, but on Earth the carbon is mostly in the crust.  In Venus’s case, its atmosphere is mostly CO2, and it appears to have suffered a “runaway” greenhouse gas effect.  Venus’s surface temperature of nearly 500° C is due to its atmosphere’s depth and CO2 content.  In order to reach Venus-like conditions on Earth, massive amounts of CO2 would need to accumulate and would need to get rid of its oceans via escape of hydrogen to space, which would take at least hundreds of millions of years.

Mariner_10_image_of_Venus_cloud_tops_medium

Nonetheless, it only takes much smaller amounts of CO2 emissions and much less time to change the biosphere and harm human and other life on earth.  It is already happening.  And because the climate responds slowly, so far we’ve only felt about half of the effect of the greenhouse gases that are already in the air.

According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (which is a few blocks from here at UCSD), the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) in May this year.  The Keeling curve below documents the dramatic rise of this potent greenhouse gas over the last half century.

mlo_full_record

More CO2 in the atmosphere means that more of it is absorbing and trapping the infrared radiation of sunlight near the Earth’s surface, gradually raising the temperature.  There are many effects and evidence of climate change, but one key one is that surface temperatures on Earth are increasing.  Last year was the hottest year on record and this year is the seventh hottest. According to climate scientists, 350 ppm should be our goal in order to prevent runaway climate change, but it will require concerted international efforts to substantially reduce carbon emissions to safe levels.

A global problem requires global solutions.  But what can be done and is being done about climate change (including at the UN and by US policies) will be the subject of “part 2”.

Finally, for those of you who’d like more eloquent writing about these issues, check out this essay from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.