Monday, March 27, 2017

Climate Change Makes Weather Extremes the New Normal

On World Meteorological Day, DW provides an overview of how global warming is changing our lived experience of the climate.

News of the hottest year, the wettest winter and suffocating summers are no longer a surprise. We're getting used to extreme weather - and that's worrying.

In 2016, Earth's surface reached its warmest temperatures since 1880. It was the third year in a row to set a global record, as confirmed in the recently published World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2016.

Not surprisingly, 2017 is also expected to follow the trend, even though February 2017 was slightly cooler than the same month last year.

During the 20th century, the average temperature on Earth increased by around 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 Celsius). That may not seem much. But for comparison, temperatures during the last ice age were only 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today, according to NASA.

Small changes in temperature mean huge changes for the environment, and the Earth's climate record shows such fluctuations have been extremely rare historically.

Infografik Temperaturen 1880-2016 englisch

Violent weather

Extreme weather events used to occur on average only once in 100 years, but climate change is increasing their frequency, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns. And people and ecosystems around the world are feeling the impact.

Hurricane Matthew  had devastating consequences in Haiti and part of the United States. Severe droughts and floods in 2016 have affected millions of people around the world. Australia recently saw a severe heat wave and after years of severe drought, California is now dealing with extreme floods.

In May, Canada suffered its most damaging wildfire - and most costly natural disaster - ever. Some months later, the United States also experienced its most destructive wildfire in modern history. Europe hasn't escaped either. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had their wettest winter on record. Intense flooding hit France and Germany during May and June 2016, while France had its driest July and August on record.

European natural wonders such as the Alps are also at risk. The mountainous area is heating up twice as fast as the global average, which could lead to fire seasons lasting 30 to 50 days longer by 2050. In March 2017, much of Peru is under a state of emergency due to devastating floods.

While some of these events are directly related to human activity and climate change, some remain under question.

Peru | katasrophale Verhältnisse in Lima (DW/E. van Nes) 
Flooding in Peru has precipitated a humanitarian crisis

Climate change to blame

The 2016 European Environmental Agency report on climate change impacts, stated that global climate change had significantly increased the probability of extreme climate events in Europe. Despite a range of factors leading to extreme weather, the vast majority of scientists have no doubt that extreme weather is connected to climate change.

While climate change may not be directly causing such events it is to blame for the increasing frequency and strength with which they hit.

Referring to Peru's recent floods, Mojib Latif, a professor of oceanology and climate dynamics at GEOMA (the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany), said El Nino events have indeed become more frequent and stronger in recent decades.

USA Extreme rainfalls in California (Getty Images/D. McNew) 
Hundreds of residents were evacuated in California during severe floods on February 2017

The extreme El Nino climate pattern corresponds to climate change models, he said. However, he emphasized, it is still unclear whether this will become a trend. While causes of recent natural disasters are still questioned, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change exposes a close relationship between global warming and concrete climate events.

Peak temperatures influence precipitation rates: For every additional degree Celsius, precipitation rates can increase from 5 to 10 percent.

For scientists, the link between fossil fuel emissions and global warming that is contributing to extreme weather is also beyond question. "With carbon dioxide reaching a record annual average concentration of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident," Petteri Taalas, WMO secretary general, said in the report. 

Disastrous consequences

Drought has left millions of people - mainly in Africa - starving because crops have failed, while flooding has displaced thousands of communities in Southeast Asia, the WMO reports.

Agricultural production is at risk in countries affected by flooding - not to mention those hit by natural disasters such as hurricanes. That not only puts food security at risk, but has broader economic impacts. For example, in Australia a threat to agricultural production could have major consequences, as it represents one of the main pillars of the country's economy, the Australian Climate Council reported.

Extreme weather events linked to global warming have reprecussions throughout society. The Union of Concerned Scientists mentions, among others: public health impacts, infrastructural and economic costs, and the destruction of biodiversity.

In cooler climes such as Germany, an early spring might put a smile on many people's faces. But its global consequences threaten to create a very bleak future.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Clean Water: One of the First Casualties of Partisan Attacks to Roll Back Regulations

English: Logo of the US Environmental Protecti...
US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Wikipedia)

Earlier last week it was reported that President Donald Trump is about to issue the next set of executive orders, this time targeting environmental safeguards for water and climate put in place in 2015.

The water rule - formally titled the Clean Water Rule, but commonly known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS) - and the Clean Power Plan are two of the most comprehensive environmental rules issued by the Obama administration. 

The Clean Water Rule stipulates which water bodies are automatically covered under the Clean Water Act.

Similarly, the Clean Power Plan was developed under the authorization of the Clean Air Act, which requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take steps to reduce air pollution that harms the public’s health. The Plan, for the very first time, provides carbon emission guidelines to existing power plants.

On the campaign-trail, Mr. Trump had promised to undo these rules, if elected. His first step towards this was to nominate Scott Pruitt - someone with a clear record of hostility for environmental and public health protection at both state and federal levels - to head the EPA efforts. Emails released last week shows close coordination between his office and fossil fuel interests in Oklahoma when he was the attorney general of the state.

Last week, Mr. Pruitt told Wall Street Journal that “he expects to quickly withdraw both the Clean Power Plan (President Obama’s premier climate regulation) and the 2015 Waters of the United States Rule.” This withdrawal carries out the 2017 plans of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which opposes rules such as the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule that are seen as regulatory over-reach by the EPA. This anti-regulatory agenda is shared by a many corporations engaged in manufacturing, mining, energy sector, agribusiness or construction.

In the meantime, Congress is using a formerly seldom used law, the Congressional Review Act (CRA), to attempt to nullify dozens of environmental and other regulations put in place by Obama administration in its last months in office. 

CRA: A stealth weapon to facilitate deregulatory efforts

The CRA is a little known legislative procedure - used only once successfully since its passing in 1996 - as a way to make it easier to overturn regulations, which are issued by executive branch agencies, pursuant to statutes passed by Congress in the first place. The CRA created  a period of 60 “session days” (days in which Congress is in session) during which Congress could use expedited procedures to nullify a regulation without going through the normal process to change or terminate the legislative authority for a rule.

Under that mechanism, Congress does not go through the politically hazardous process of killing the Clean Water Act itself, but instead kills a rule to implement that Act. CRA resolutions are not subject to the procedural requirements in the Senate, such as a filibuster and the 60 vote requirement to end a filibuster.

Technically, the President could still veto a CRA resolution, but that seems unlikely now with this administration. The CRA process also stipulates that no rules that are “substantially similar” to the nullified rule can be developed in future, unless authorized by a new law, even if an existing law demands the development of the rule.

The CRA mechanism is being utilized now to overturn rules that are the results of years of public consultations. For example, on January 30, Reps. Bill Johnson (R-OH), Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and David McKinley (R-WV) introduced HJ RES. 38-115 “Disapproving the rule submitted by the Department of the Interior known as the Stream Protection Rule.” With President Trump’s signature, this resolution became a public law on February 16, and nullifies the Stream Protection Rule finalized by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on December 20, 2016.

The Stream Protection Rule, developed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), had sought to address the impacts of surface coal mining operations on surface water, groundwater, fish, wildlife and the productivity of mining operation sites. It included reforms to revise 33 year old regulations for coal mining and was formulated after an extensive and transparent public process that spanned several years.

According to an  Associated Press report, “The Interior Department said the new [Stream Protection] Rule will protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forests, preventing debris from coal mining from being dumped into nearby waters.” According to the Stream Protection Rule Regulatory Impact Analysis by OSMRE, the “Proposed Rule is estimated to yield downstream improvements in 292 miles of stream annually” benefiting those communities living in the vicinity of polluting industries and mines, especially if they were accessing their drinking water from polluted sources.

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) points out that “the Stream Protection Rule limited the amount of mining waste that could be deposited into streams and required mining companies to monitor the water for coal contaminants and report the findings to the public. […] But now this protection has been stripped from these communities through use of the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rule.”

Even if the forthcoming executive orders targeting Clean Water Rule or Clean Power Plan are deemed illegal - as some Attorney Generals have suggested in late 2016 - these Congressional initiatives have the effect of undoing important regulations that would have improved water quality, public health and environmental health. Moreover, since the rule was reversed through the CRA mechanism, the EPA will be unable issue any new rules to ensure source water protections under the Clean Water Act - compromising the drinking water quality in these mining communities - for a very long time.

This is not an isolated example either: the 115th Congress has introduced more resolutions using CRA in its first ten days than any previous Congress has attempted in its entire term, as shown below in the Washington Post graph.

Community interest vs. corporate interests?

The need for better regulation to ensure safe waters and clean air for American people has been evident for decades. Then the question is: who is interested in the repeal of laws that protect our environment? Who wants corporations to continue their pollution?  Certainly not local communities who use the local waters.

Sen. Todd Young, of Indiana, said that “eliminating this provision”, would bring his constituency one step closer to the goal of better jobs that pay better.” In an opinion piece he wrote: “this regulation does nothing to protect waterways. Instead it’s an attempt to end coal mining operations that employ so many Hoosiers and sustain our communities.” The coal industry has been saying the same thing too.

The National Mining Association (NMA) has claimed that the Stream Protection rule would result in up to 281,000 job disappearing. However, they all seem to have ignored reports on analysis by the Congressional Research Service: According to their assessment, on an average, while the rule would result in reduction of 260 coal related jobs in a year, it would also generate an average of 250 new jobs every year.

This local reaction to Stream Protection Rule rollback from a retired tristate coal miner, Bil Musgrave is telling. Unlike Sen. Young, he was clearly in support of the regulation, and said: “I think that the coal companies and other industries have been abusive of the environment in the past.” He’s right: the lack of clean water and presence of sooty air is likely to be much more acute in the coal mining communities than among communities farther away. The Stream Protection Rule would have helped reduce the water related health problems faced by coal mining communities such as his.

However, to the industry executives, corporate lobbyists, and the Congress men and women who voted on their behalf to roll back the Stream Protection Rule, corporate profits are a priority over the health of the community - let alone the environmental impacts and the health impacts farther away. They and the President will use the language of job creation to justify this kind of assault on regulations. Who wins? Definitely not the coal mining communities.