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The unexpected culprit that could throw a wrench in the world’s efforts to stop climate change? Runaway methane levels. Researchers monitoring air samples have noticed an alarming observation: Methane levels are on the rise and no one’s quite sure why.
NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory scientists have been analyzing air samples since 1983. Once a week, metal flasks containing air from around the world at different elevations find their way to the Boulder, Colorado, lab. The scientists look at 55 greenhouse gases, including methane and its more-famous climate villain, CO2.
You might know methane as the stuff of cow farts, natural gas, and landfills. It’s also an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, absorbing heat 25 times more effectively than CO2. While the rise of carbon dioxide has been stealing the spotlight as of late, methane levels have also been on the incline.
Methane levels, not surprisingly, have been steadily rising since the Industrial Revolution. Things picked up in 1980 and soon after, the NOAA scientists began consistently measuring methane. Levels were high but flattened out by the turn of the millenium. So when levels began to increase at a rapid rate in 2007, and then even faster in 2014, scientists were baffled. No one’s best guesses came close to predicting current methane levels of around 1,867 parts per billion as of 2018. This means studies evaluating the effects of climate change and action plans to address them, like the Paris Climate Agreement, may be based on downplayed climate crisis forecasts.
Methane levels from 1950 to present. 2° Institute
So what’s the big deal? Carbon dioxide emissions are relatively well understood and can be tracked to various human activities like transportation and electricity, which means policies can be enacted to target and lower emissions. Pinning down the source of methane, on the other hand, is a little more complicated.
“The really fascinating thing about methane,” Lori Bruhwiler, a NOAA research scientist, told Undark, “is the fact that almost everything we humans do has an effect on the methane budget, from producing food to producing fuel to disposing of waste.”
As if things weren’t complicated enough, a study published in AGU100 distinguished microbe-produced methane from fossil fuel methane — historically the more abundant one — and found that “natural” methane had taken the lead. This unexpected result might explain the upticks in methane levels that do not seem correlated with human activity. Of course, it could also be any number of human-made causes, including warming temperatures freeing up the gas and more frequent floods amplifying the methane output of wetlands.
Natural methane or not, this finding doesn’t exonerate anyone. The study’s authors made that clear in their concluding remarks.
“If the increased methane burden is driven by increased emissions from natural sources,” they wrote, “and if this is a climate feedback—the warming feeding the warming—then there is urgency to reduce anthropogenic emissions, which we can control.”
Curbing methane could be a powerful tool in our upcoming climate fight. Since the greenhouse gas is relatively short lived, only around 12 years, versus the 20 to 200 years of CO2, and is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, addressing methane emissions could be effective as a short-term climate remediation tool. The first step? Bringing more attention to methane so we can figure out where it comes from and nip it in the bud.
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Earth Month starts tomorrow, and there’s never been a better time to?kick your green living into gear. These easy sustainability will help you get started.
Climate change is looking pretty grim?we no longer have the luxury of considering sustainability an “option”. Each and every one of us needs to start pulling our weight and pressuring businesses and governments to make rapid, significant?shifts if we care about?rescuing our planet.
To get you started on the road to personal sustainability, here are a few straightforward ways you can have a major impact on the planet (without much effort)?just in time for Earth Month!
1. Buy less stuff.
Fast fashion is a sustainability nightmare.?Buying new clothes every season? Guess what happens when you?toss your old clothes out?they get thrown in the landfill. And since?many clothes are made with manmade materials like polyester, they likely aren?t biodegradable. Let?s not forget that manufacturing clothing requires a tremendous amount of water resources and chemicals pollutants.
To lessen your impact, shop second hand when you have a craving to go shopping.?If you must buy new, invest in high-quality pieces that will last for years to come. It?s time to ditch fast fashion for good.
2. Take it easy on the new smartphones.
It can be tantalizing to go out and buy the latest and greatest tech device as soon as it hits the market, but if you care about sustainability you?re going to want to think twice.
According to the New York Times, ?The production of an iPhone 6, for example, released the equivalent of 178 pounds of carbon dioxide, or about as much as burning nine gallons of gas, according to a 2015 study.?
Sure, Apple and other tech companies have become more environmentally conscious since the iPhone 6 launched way back in 2014 (Apple has some particularly cool green initiatives going on), but the most sustainable option is still to keep your current phone for as long as possible.
You don’t?really need the latest,?shiniest phone, if you have a perfectly fine functioning one. And when it is time to replace your old phone, definitely make sure to recycle it with the manufacturer, so that it doesn’t leach chemicals in a landfill somewhere.
3. Divest from fossil fuels.
Take a peek at your retirement funds or other investments. Are you supporting the fossil fuel industry (and climate change alongside it)? Divesting is becoming a popular (and effective) way to take a stand.
According to a 2018 report, ?Today, nearly 1,000 institutional investors with $6.24 trillion in assets have committed to divest from fossil fuels, up from $52 billion four years ago?an increase of 11,900 percent.?
It’s not a fringe idea anymore?and it’s sure to make a direct impact on fossil fuel companies. Don?t be afraid to?take a real stand.
4. Reduce your use of plastics.
If you’ve been avoiding it, it’s finally time. No more single-use plastics. That means cutting back on plastic straws, single-use flatware, cups and bottles, grocery and produce bags, food wrap and even garbage bags.
It?s relatively?easy to find more sustainable alternatives?for all these plastic products?whether they?re compostable bio plastics or 100 percent plastic-free. All it requires is a small amount of effort.
5. Support businesses who care about sustainability.
When you buy things, put your money where your mouth is.?Find sustainable alternatives for the products you use most, and support the businesses that make them. For instance, instead of buying plastic food wrap a couple times a year, why not invest in parchment paper or reusable (and incredible) Bee?s Wrap?
The more we support green businesses, the more power we gain as consumers to encourage greater sustainability efforts across the board.
Do you have any other easily-adoptable tips for living a sustainable lifestyle? Share them with the community in the comments section below!
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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.
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A battle is erupting over a proposed gas pipeline on the doorstep of New York City, with environmental groups claiming the project is unnecessary and would lock in planet-warming emissions for decades to come.
Energy company Williams, based in Oklahoma, plans to build a 23-mile-long underwater pipeline through New York’s lower bay to bring fracked gas from Pennsylvania to New York. The $1 billion project would link existing infrastructure in New Jersey to the Rockaways in the New York borough of Queens.
Pipeline proponents argue the project is needed to allow thousands more New Yorkers to switch from oil to gas for their heating, but environmental groups are marshaling a growing protest movement to pressure Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, to block the development.
“This pipeline would incentivize reliance on gas, which is way more carbon-intensive than renewables,” said Robert Wood, a campaigner at 350.org, a climate advocacy group. “It would be a nightmare happening, not in a rural area, but right here in New York City.”
A draft of a study commissioned by 350.org disputes many of the assertions made by Williams and National Grid, the utility that will be the sole customer for the gas. According to the analysis, New York is already well on its way to eliminating the dirtiest types of oil, a carbon-heavy fuel, for heating, and the state’s power operators are forecasting a drop in electricity use due to efficiency improvements.
Measures such as installing heat pumps, replacing old boilers, expansion of renewable energy, and planned improvements to building energy efficiency should be “ramped up before considering construction of costly and potentially risky infrastructure like a massive pipeline in the New York harbor,” concluded the analysis, conducted by Suzanne Mattei, a consultant and former regional director of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Environmentalists also fret that the pipeline’s construction could stir up toxins from the harbor’s seabed and potentially harm vulnerable marine life such as humpback whales, which have made a comeback to the New York area in recent years.
Wood said a decision on the pipeline will be a “major test” of Cuomo’s green credentials. The Democratic governor previously banned fracking in New York and has set climate change goals that would cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
The building of the pipeline would be a “a monumental step backwards” in meeting this target, according to Scott Stringer, comptroller of New York City. Stringer, along with a host of other local elected officials and green groups, contends that while gas has a lower carbon content than oil or coal, methane leaks from gas drilling and transportation can make it a nefarious fossil fuel.
However, National Grid said it has experienced “significant growth” in the need for natural gas in New York City and Long Island, with demand expected to grow by more than 10 percent over the next decade as households make a city-mandated switch away from oil to gas for heating.
“A clean energy transition is good for our customers and the economy, and the right thing to do,” said a statement from National Grid that estimated the so-called Northeast Supply Enhancement Project (NESE) would displace 900,000 barrels of oil a year, the equivalent of removing 500,000 cars from the road.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been holding public hearings into the pipeline in the wake of its approval by the federal regulator. Williams has said it could start construction within a year.
The battle over the pipeline is a microcosm of the struggles within the Democratic party over whether to follow a more incremental approach to climate change or heed the warnings of scientists and conduct a rapid shift away from fossil fuels.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a congresswoman from New York, has spearheaded the more energetic approach as outlined by the Green New Deal, while Cuomo is seen as more of a moderate on the issue.
While environmental groups are planning a series of protests to sway Cuomo, labor unions, another key part of the governor’s base, have said they support the Williams project because of the promise of thousands of construction jobs.
Meanwhile, it emerged last year that Cuomo hired a Williams lobbyist to run his re-election campaign.
Comment was sought from the offices of Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, but neither would answer whether they supported the Williams project.
Over the past decade, the honeybee story has been the stuff of science fiction. Back in 2006, beekeepers first noticed their honeybees were mysteriously dying off in huge numbers, with no clear cause. For some, a whopping 30 to 90 percent of their colonies were disappearing, especially on the East Coast. Worker bees were abandoning their queens and leaving hives full of honey. That first winter, beekeepers nationwide lost about a third of their colonies. Since then, the numbers haven’t improved.
Researchers now call this ongoing phenomenon “colony collapse disorder,” but scientists still haven’t identified a singular cause. They say it’s a combination of factors: pollution, habitat loss, herbicides, and viruses, though some experts believe viruses may be the primary driver. For instance, “deformed wing virus,” which causes bees to develop disfigured, nonfunctional wings, can be nasty, and, like other viruses, is transferred to bees by parasitic mites. Until now, scientists haven’t developed any antiviral treatments to protect the bees.
But in a landmark study published Thursday in Nature journal Scientific Reports, researchers revealed they’ve discovered the first-ever “vaccine” for bees, procured from an unexpected source: mushrooms. Specifically, it’s mycelia — cobweb-like fungal membranes found in and on soil — from two species, “tinder fungus” and Red Reishi mushrooms.
Total winter colony loss rate in the United States (preliminary 2017-2018 results)National Honey Bee Colony Loss Survey / Bee Informed.
“Up until this discovery, there were no antivirals reducing viruses in bees,” Paul Stamets, the lead author on the study, tells Mother Jones. “Not only is this the first discovery, but these extracts are incredibly potent.” Stamets is a Washington-based mycologist and author whose work includes books “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save The World, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, and Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World.” Stamets also holds patents “pertaining to the use of fungal extracts for antiviral activity and honeybee health,” according to the study.
This giant discovery actually has very humble origins. Decades before colony collapse hit the United States, Stamets says he had noticed bees in his own yard feeding off water droplets on the mushrooms that were growing on wood chips in his garden. They had pushed the wood chips aside to expose the mycelium. At the time, he thought they might be getting sugars from the fungi, and it wasn’t until about five years ago — after researching the antiviral properties of fungi for humans — that he made the connection to viruses affecting bees. “I had this waking dream, ‘I think I can save the bees,’” he says.
In collaboration with researchers from Washington State University, Stamets decided to conduct a two-part study to test his theory that fungi could treat the viruses in honeybees. First, in a controlled, caged experiment, he and his team added small amounts of mushroom extract, or “mycelial broth,” to the bees’ food (sugar water) at varying concentrations and measured how it affected their health. Then, they tested the best-performing extracts in the field.
The extracts worked better than Stamets ever imagined.
The team measured the virus levels in 50 bees from 30 different field colonies and found the bee colonies that consumed the mycelium extracts saw up to a 79-fold decrease in deformed wing virus after 12 days and up to a 45,000-fold reduction in Lake Sinai virus (another virus linked to colony collapse) compared to the bees that only ate sugar water.
“We went out of the laboratory, into the field — real-life field tests,” says Stamets. “And we saw enormous benefit to the bees.”
So what’s going on here? Stamets says the operating hypothesis is this: “These aren’t really antiviral drugs. We think they are supporting the immune system to allow natural immunity to be strong enough to reduce the viruses.” More research, he says, is needed to fully understand how the fungi are working.
Diana Cox-Foster, a research leader and entomologist at the USDA’s Pollinating Insects Research Unit in Utah who was not involved in the study, tells Mother Jones the research looked “promising” and adds that it could have ramifications for other pollinators, like bumblebees. “These viruses are widely shared,” she says. “If we could knock down viruses in honeybee colonies, it could lead to greater health in other pollinators.”
The paper provides “valuable new data,” Erik Tihelka, an insect researcher Hartpury College in the U.K., tells Mother Jones in an email. But it may only help solve part of the problem. “The health challenges honeybees are facing are multifactorial and interacting,” he says, “ranging from loss of the flowering plots for nutrition, use of pesticides in agriculture, a complex of parasites and pathogens, and other stressors.”
The results could be particularly impactful for farmers. Some crops are almost entirely dependent on honeybee pollination for survival, including blueberries, avocados, onions, broccoli, carrots, and cantaloupe. Almonds are 100 percent dependent on honeybees. California farmers currently rent bee colonies from out of state to pollinate their trees in spring.
On a planet where about one-third of all our crops rely on pollinators, losing bees could be disastrous. “A loss of bees is like rivets in an airplane,” says Stamets. “If we lose the bees, it is a critical rivet in an airplane that can lead to catastrophic failure.”
The giant vessels that carry colorful boxes of cargo around the world are becoming more energy efficient.
China’s COSCO Shipping has outfitted its container ships with new propellers and a protruding “bulbous bow” to reduce wave resistance and curb fuel consumption. CMA CGM of France has equipped vessels with electronically controlled engines to optimize performance, and more of its ships can plug into shoreside electricity supplies to avoid running their massive diesel engines at berth.
As a result, carbon emissions associated with moving those boxes have steadily declined in recent years. From 2009 to 2017, container ship emissions dropped roughly 37 percent on average — per container, per kilometer for global ocean transportation routes, the Clean Cargo Working Group reported earlier this month. (Per mile, that’s about a 60-percent reduction.)
But that progress is starting to level off, showing the limits of the shipping industry’s existing actions to tackle climate change, according to the new study.
Examining the emissions-reduction efforts of those operating container ships could help illuminate some of the challenges involved in getting oil tankers, bulk carriers, and other types of cargo vessels to curb pollution. Container ships account for only about 5.5 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, and it’s the only sector that reports its collective emissions in such a comprehensive way.
When it comes to emissions data, says Suzanne Greene of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, “The shipping industry has so much potential to be more transparent.” (Greene was not a contributor to the new report.)
The container ship survey tallied annual data from about 3,200 vessels, or nearly two-thirds of the world’s container fleet, shared by 22 companies. The data don’t reveal exactly what portion of the reductions were due to energy-efficiency investments or were a result of external factors, such as the consolidation of major container carriers or shifting trade patterns, says Nate Springer, who manages the Clean Cargo Working Group for BSR, a sustainability-focused consultancy. However, he adds, “The consistent progress since 2009 provides compelling evidence that progress is due in large part to industry efforts.”
Like its rivals COSCO and CMA CGM, A.P. Moller-Maersk has invested in new, fuel-efficient vessels and retrofitted older ships with energy-saving designs. Its real-time tracking system allows it to avoid delays, maximize cargo space, and optimize ship speeds for fuel efficiency. Thanks to these measures, the company’s container division — the largest in the world — has seen a 43-percent drop in emissions per container moved since 2007.
Despite all of this, the rate of emissions reductions is slowing down for the broader container industry, the report said. Container-related emissions fell by 1 percent from 2016 to 2017 — below the 2.4 percent from 2015 to 2016, which was below the previous year’s reductions.
Springer says he expects container companies will continue reducing emissions. But he concedes: “We know that if the progress continues at this lower rate, then it will be difficult to remain on track to meet the ambitious climate goals recently announced in the International Maritime Organization climate strategy.”
Last April, the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping by at least 50 percent from 2008 levels by 2050. If all types of cargo ships formed a country, their total annual emissions would rank in the top 10, between those of Japan and Germany.
The Clean Cargo data don’t provide a full picture as to why carbon reductions are shrinking. But one partial explanation could be that rising shipping activity is offsetting improvements in efficiency.
Container port traffic rose by nearly 15 percent from 2013 to 2017, while ships of all types unloaded more than 12 percent more cargo tonnage over that five-year period, according to a United Nations trade database. At the same time, the world’s container fleet has added dozens of new (and enormous) vessels.
Another explanation might be be that companies’ individual efforts are beginning to hit a wall. “We are reaching the point where it will be more and more challenging to drive significant CO2 efficiency on our own,” says John Bang Kornerup, head of sustainability strategy and shared value at Maersk.
Companies can only do so much to trim emissions from existing technology. To truly move the needle, the entire industry will need to shift toward cleaner fuels and zero-emissions propulsion technologies. That requires widespread investment in research and development to make alternatives more commercially viable, Kornerup says.
“Efficiency measures alone are not enough to deliver shipping’s share of achieving the Paris ambition,” he explains, referring to the landmark climate agreement. He adds that it is “an industry challenge to drive the needed innovation in new propulsion technologies.”
Yet many shipping companies, container or otherwise, still haven’t adopted even relatively straightforward strategies for curbing emissions, such as tracking and reporting their carbon footprints. Much of the data available today is based on averages from shipping routes or sectors, not individual ship performance.
Without more rigorous accounting, it will be difficult to truly know how well the industry is progressing toward meeting its climate targets, says Greene, the MIT logistics expert. That lack of data will also make it harder for major shipping customers — the IKEAs and DHLs of the world — to calculate their supply chain emissions.
“The bottom line in sustainability these days is really the carbon emissions number,” she notes. “And if that’s what we’re using, it should be decently accurate.”
Almost 75 percent of declared disasters in the United States are flood-related, and flood risk continues to rise due to development in floodplains and a changing climate. The beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which was due to expire on July 31 but just got a four-month extension from Congress, can help lessen some of that risk and serve as a lifeline for survivors.
However, in reauthorizing the program, Congress did not fix its many problems. The need to make the NFIP more effective is urgent. And as America’s flood risk grows, we will be even more reliant on it.
The NFIP was created 50 years ago after losses mounted from disasters such as 1965’s Hurricane Betsy. In creating the program, Congress recognized three things: first, that the federal government would have to provide flood insurance because private insurers would not. Private insurers had, by and large, refused to cover floods since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in U.S. history to that point. Insurers must weigh the level of risk to individual properties, how much payouts will cost and how profitable policies are, and homeowners’ willingness to pay premiums — all of which are problematic for assessing flood risk.
Second, Congress knew that national flood risk was too high. The government had been working to address this through the Flood Control Act of 1938 and other laws. But by 1968, these policies had been relatively unsuccessful at lowering the risk; flood insurance was seen as a different strategy. Third, and finally, Congress realized that homeowners needed financial assistance to recover from floods.
In its first four decades, the program was generally solvent — that is, revenue from premiums was approximately equal to payouts. Between 1968 and 2005, when the program did incur debt, FEMA, which oversees the NFIP, borrowed money from the U.S. Treasury and quickly repaid it.
Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the resulting levee failure instigated an outpouring of anger and frustration with the NFIP. Katrina’s impacts were more severe than anything the United States had experienced since the program began. Post-Katrina, FEMA borrowed $18 billion from the Treasury without a repayment plan, instead of adding it to the supplemental appropriations passed by Congress. The agency borrowed billions more after Hurricane Sandy, and the debt eventually rose to $24.6 billion.
This debt has become the pressure point for the NFIP, with critics citing it as evidence of the program’s failure. But when we consider why the program was created, the debt shows just how vital the NFIP is. Private insurers could not provide affordable flood insurance to the people who needed it, but through subsidies, the federal government — and by extension, the American taxpayer — could. So complaints about insolvency seem misplaced, given that the program’s debt is an obvious outcome of its design.
Financial solvency is of clear interest to taxpayers and politicians. But it’s worth considering the other problems, besides the scarcity of private insurance, that Congress hoped to address by creating the NFIP: flood mitigation and recovery.
A key objective of emergency management is to prevent or limit risk from disasters. Homeowners tend not to voluntarily implement such measures, but the designers of the NFIP thought the program could be used to incentivize safer building and better land-use practices. To this end, the NFIP was intended to work in tandem with the community rating system (CRS), which scores communities for undertaking flood mitigation (by, for example, building levees or changing land-use policies) and offers commensurate reductions in premiums.
There is evidence that the NFIP has succeeded in improving mitigation. Even so, it could do more. The program could be reformed so that more communities are incentivized to join and participate fully in CRS, and it could refuse to cover repetitive-loss properties, or require that they be rebuilt to higher standards.
Repetitive-loss properties are a real problem: Less than 1 percent of homes insured under the program have been responsible for nearly 10 percent of paid claims. Allowing homes to be rebuilt or repaired multiple times without requiring sufficient modifications to prevent future damage is not an efficient use of taxpayer money, and this loophole needs to be closed.
The NFIP was designed to provide insurance to people who could not afford to pay its actuarial price. Critics claim that simply by offering affordable flood premiums, it incentivizes development in hazardous areas. In fact, researchers have found that other factors, such as the high desirability of beachfront property, road and bridge access, and the availability of public services, are equal if not bigger contributors to the increase of development in high-risk areas.
To the extent that the NFIP does help encourage such development, of course, it must be reformed to prevent that. For example, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate argued that future development in 100-year floodplains should be ineligible for NFIP coverage.
The NFIP was also designed as a resource for American homeowners during recovery from floods. Disaster survivors often describe recovery as “the second disaster,” a long, expensive process of cobbling together aid from savings accounts, second jobs, loans, friends, family, nonprofits, and the government.
Homeowners with flood insurance can receive substantially more money than those who are helped through FEMA’s individual-assistance program. The maximum NFIP payout is $350,000, whereas the largest possible individual-assistance payment is about $34,000. After Sandy, the average payout from FEMA’s individual-assistance program was only $8,000, compared with over $66,000 from the NFIP. Nevertheless, some survivors have struggled to access the NFIP funds they needed or were entitled to. An investigation following Sandy found evidence of poor management by both FEMA and the private insurance companies tasked with NFIP’s administration.
The extremely small number of people who carry policies also inhibits the program’s assistance in recovery. Currently, only about 5 million American households (or about 4 percent) hold flood-insurance policies, even though about 10 percent of households are located in the 100- or 500-year floodplain and face substantial risk. And the real number is likely higher, given the inaccuracy of flood maps.
These, too, are fixable problems. To improve NFIP’s effectiveness in recovery, FEMA must strengthen its oversight. The agency must provide clarity to policyholders about payout requirements and increase the number of people who buy flood insurance by updating flood maps and extending the requirement to purchase a policy to homeowners at lower risk of flooding.
Congress has, on numerous occasions, attempted to reform the NFIP so that it would avoid future debt. These efforts have consistently failed, because the financial burden they place on homeowners is so large and so politically unpalatable. As a result, the program has been caught in a cycle of short-term reauthorizations, with debt from Katrina and Sandy keeping it on the proverbial chopping block.
As attempts at reform have demonstrated, big, expensive changes to the program will be unpopular. Still, the NFIP has the potential to create safer communities and help people recover faster and more smoothly. Another way of looking at it: The federal government spent more than $100 billion on the response to and recovery from Katrina, and over $48 billion for Sandy. The NFIP’s debt of $24.6 billion is just what’s left of those bills.
That the NFIP costs American taxpayers money is the result of policy choices made over decades. We decided we weren’t going to pay up-front to avoid climate change, and we decided to build along the coasts and in floodplains. The debt the NFIP has incurred is expensive, and it will continue to grow. But it is only a small fraction of the interest on the loan that we’ve taken out on our future.
The debt also tends to overshadow the real good that the program does for Americans. Nearly 1.8 million losses have been paid out since the program’s inception. Without it, where would these survivors be in their recovery process?
Although the country has been debating whether and how to limit long-term climate change, we have done relatively little to protect ourselves from its consequences that are already here, including more flooding. The NFIP can help us manage the effects of climate change. But for it to be successful, we have to make it more effective and just — which means accepting its financial cost.
This weekend, the New York Times’ print subscribers will get something kind of crazy in the mail: A 66-page magazine with only a single article — and it’s on climate change. The long-form piece, written by Nathaniel Rich and titled “Losing Earth,” is online now and makes for fascinating, if sometimes depressing, reading. Between 1979 and 1989, Rich writes, humanity almost solved the problem of global warming.
The piece follows climate scientist James Hansen and environmental lobbyist Rafe Pomerance as they try to get pretty much anyone — politicians, the media, energy companies — to engage and act on the issue of climate change. But while they managed to move global warming onto the public stage, the opportunity for binding international action came and went with the 1989 U.N. climate conference in the Netherlands. The U.S. delegation, led by a recalcitrant Reagan appointee, balked when faced with an actual agreement.
“Why didn’t we act?” Rich asks, almost plaintively, in his prologue. He argues that the primary barriers to inaction today — widespread climate denial and propagandizing by far-right groups and fossil fuel companies — had not emerged by the mid-1980s. “Almost nothing stood in our way — except ourselves,” he writes.
Rich has already come under fire for this perspective. Many writers have complained that he is letting fossil fuel companies and Republicans off the hook. But is it true? Is human nature itself to blame for inaction?
A fair number of scholars agree — to a point. For a long time, climate change has been called a “wicked problem” or even a “super-wicked problem” by behavioral economists and policy experts. As political scientist Steve Rayner has written, climate change has no simple solution, no silver bullet. It is scientifically complex and comes with deep uncertainties about the future. It cuts across boundaries, both disciplinary and national. Its worst effects will occur in the future, not in the here and now. And it requires large-scale, systemic changes to society.
Unfortunately, humans suck at dealing with wicked problems, like poverty and nuclear weapons. Economist Richard Thaler’s work shows that we are only rational some of the time; and, when we are rational, we’re also pretty selfish. We think about ourselves more than others, and we think about the present more than future generations. “We worry about the future,” Rich writes. “But how much, exactly? The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little.”
This idea — that the long timescale of climate change has made it difficult for us to act on it — is the theoretical underpinning of “Losing Earth.” It’s no one’s fault that we didn’t act in the 1980s. But at the same time it’s everyone’s fault.
Rich isn’t wrong that the timescale makes a difference, and that humans struggle with an issue as global and complex as climate change. But his sweeping vision of human nature at times takes on a tinge of inevitability. It reminds me, in a way, of Garrett Hardin’s 1968 “Tragedy of the Commons” — another dark theory on collective irrationality. Hardin argued that, as a species, we would always tend towards overuse of shared resources and overpopulation. His thesis was hugely influential, and continues to be a staple in environmental research.
The thing is: Hardin was wrong. Forty years after his paper debuted in Science, economist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for showing that communities around the world do successfully manage and share resources — even over many generations. They do it through cooperation, communication, and small-scale local institutions. She was famous for showing that environmental problems can be solved from the bottom-up.
And that’s what Rich misses, in his otherwise fascinating and in-depth piece for the Times. It’s hard to say what would have happened if the United States had signed the 1989 agreement. As Robinson Meyer notes in the Atlantic: “There are too many counterfactuals to consider.”
But climate change, as a super-wicked problem lasting generations, could never have been “solved” in one fell swoop. The decade of climate action that Rich traces is only a small window into a fairly high level of decision-making: climate policy at the federal level. And, according to experts like Rayner, wicked problems need to also be addressed at the levels of states, cities, and provinces — not just by governments and nation-states.
The good news: That’s already happening. States, municipalities, neighborhoods, and community groups are already working to address climate change to the best of their ability. Many have redoubled their efforts in the Trump era. In 2006, Rayner predicted that states would file lawsuits against the federal government — 12 years later, climate lawsuits are common, and are even brought by children.
So did we really “lose Earth” in 1989? Of course not. But it is a sobering reminder of how much work we have left. “Human nature has brought us to this place,” Rich writes. “Perhaps human nature will one day bring us through.”
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Want to flex your skills as a journalist and get paid? You have a few days left to apply for Grist’s fall 2018 fellowship. The deadline is Monday, July 9, 2018.
If you’re just now hearing about the fellowship, here’s the deal: We’re looking for early-career journalists to come work with us for six-month stints. This time around, we’re looking for all-stars in three areas: news, environmental justice, and video. You’ll find a full program description and application requirements here.
Our past fellows are continuing to do high-impact work. Emma Foehringer Merchant has you covered on all things energy and policy at Greentech Media. Sabrina Imbler makes consumers smarter about upcycled bananas and lots more at The Wirecutter, a New York Times Company. Vishakha Darbha, a digital fellow at Mother Jones, produces videos on forced family separations and other of-the-moment topics. Raven Rakia recently received a Livingston Award finalist nod for her powerful piece on The Intercept about women visitors at Rikers Island jail complaining of invasive searches. And break out the bubbly: Recent environmental justice fellow Justine Calma just joined Grist as a staff writer.
So what are you waiting for? Oh, right, the last possible minute. As long as we receive your application by 11:59 p.m. PT on July 9, no judgment here.
First: Toxic coal ash, which was a problem on the territory well before Maria’s landfall. A coal-fired power plant in the southeastern city of Guayama produces 220 thousand tons of the stuff each year, which studies have linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart, and respiratory ailments.
Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board directed the plant, operated by multinational corporation Applied Energy Systems (AES), to cover its giant pile of coal ash prior to the storm. This weekend, PBS News reported that never happened.
Researchers and community members had worried that the heavy rainfall heightened the risk of coal ash toxins leaching into the soil and contaminating drinking water. Now, AES’ own groundwater monitoring report showed a sharp increase in the levels of arsenic, chromium, and two radioactive isotopes in groundwater near the plant after Hurricane Maria. Federal and local government have historically ignored this region of the island, experts told Grist shortly after the storm.
Second: Statehood! A disaster response nearly as chaotic as the storm itself has highlighted the real risks of the United States’ colonial relationship with the island.
Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González plans to introduce a bill to the House this spring petitioning for Puerto Rico to become a state, the Washington Post reports.
“Ask yourself, if New Jersey or Connecticut had been without power for six months, what would have happened?” she asked, “This is about spotlighting inequities and helping Congress understand why we are treated differently.”
More here –