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2014 Science News: Where the Wind Bloweth

The challenge of climate change at home and abroad


Kiribati

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The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released reports in March and April 2014 that predicted dire environmental and economic consequences if the world's leading economies do not act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately. Climate change has already caused the melting of glaciers, coral reef damage, and drought, according to the IPCC. Near-term repercussions include a rise in sea level, a shrinking of ice and snow cover, crop loss, destruction caused by coastal storms, and increased poverty. In addition, one report said drought caused by global warming could contribute to geopolitical conflicts over water and land. In fact, several scholars and experts blame some of the current political instability in the Middle East on drought.

"Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger," the report released on March 31 said. Some 1,250 experts from around the world contributed to the 2,500-page report.

In order to prevent such crises, the IPCC said the world's wealthy nations must begin to cut global emissions by 40% to 70% by 2050. If that goal is not met, then the global atmospheric temperature will increase by 2ºC (3.6º Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, the point at which scientists think their worst fears will be realized. Emissions have increased twice as much between 2000 and 2010 as they did in the second half of the last century. The panel recommended reducing the world's reliance on fossil fuels and turning to renewable sources of energy. It said fracking for natural gas is an attractive alternative to coal. The report said given the decrease in costs of solar energy and hydropower and making vehicles more fuel efficient, reaching the goal would not create a financial burden for most countries and businesses, nor would it require individuals to sacrifice their quality of life. "There are those who say we can’t afford to act," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic."

The U.S. Response

In 2014, the U.S. released its own evaluation, the third National Climate Assessment, a report that assesses climate change on a national level. While noting that some climate changes reap short-term benefits, such as longer growing and shipping seasons, the consensus is that the negative effects of climate change are being felt now and, if left unchecked, will permanently damage our country’s health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, and ecosystems. As a path toward a solution, the report suggests mitigation, “reducing the amount and speed of future climate change by reducing emissions of heat-trapping gases or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere“ and adaptation “actions to prepare for and adjust to new conditions, thereby reducing harm or taking advantage of new opportunities. For example, building codes and landscaping ordinances could be updated to improve energy efficiency, conserve water supplies, protect against insects that spread disease (such as dengue fever), reduce susceptibility to heat stress, and improve protection against extreme events.“ And our country, on both the local and national level, is responding, but so far, these efforts are proving inadequate as the mountain of evidence for climate change grows.

The U.S. Climate Action Report (2014) included the first-ever Biennial Report, which is a commitment to hold ourselves accountable to the pledges made to our country and the international community and to play a significant role in the efforts to slow and stop climate change. This year’s biggest action?: “the ambitious but achievable goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.“

On the Supreme Court

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two rulings that supported the EPA’s authority to enforce Clean Air Act regulations. . .to a point. In EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 on April 29 that under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the authority to regulate air pollution emitted from coal plants that crosses state lines. Smog from coal plants in 28 Midwest and Appalachia states blows toward the east and increases pollution in states that are downwind of the plants. "Some pollutants stay within upwind states’ borders, the wind carries others to downwind states, and some subset of that group drifts to states without air quality problems," read Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, which also included an apt excerpt from the Book of John: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.“

In a companion case, the Supreme Court was divided in the June 23 decision, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA. In a part of the ruling decided by a 7-to-2 vote, the Court said the EPA could regulate sources of greenhouse gases as long as the sources would already need permits for emitting conventional pollutants, mostly large corporations and plants. In another part of the decision, the Court rejected the EPA’s effort to reinterpret the Clean Air Act in a 5–4 vote. The result is a “victory“ for the EPA, explained by Justice Antonin Scalia: “It bears mention that EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case. . .It sought to regulate sources that it said were responsible for 86% of all the greenhouse gases emitted from stationary sources nationwide. Under our holdings, EPA will be able to regulate sources responsible for 83% of those emissions.“ In the final analysis, the Supreme Court is coming in on the side of the EPA’s efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions, mainly by targeting coal plants. At the same time, the Court wants no misunderstanding: the EPA may do its job as outlined in the Clean Air Act, but no more.

Downwind: Climate Change Is an International Issue

Just as the winds can carry toxic air across state lines, so too does our nation’s environmental impact affect the global community. The United Nations Summit of 2014 met in New York City on Sept. 23 and carried the theme “Catalyzing Action.“ Of major concern is the problem that poor and developing countries, which contribute the least to global warming, are the most at risk and require some $100 billion in aid each year to adapt to climate change. These nations must begin to adapt to climate change as they wait for help from the international community, otherwise they may cease to exist. For example, Kiribati consists of 32 low-lying islands that are only about 10 feet above sea level and a mere 1.2 miles wide, leaving little room for residents to retreat from the eroding shoreline. A rise in temperatures, drought, and the attendant depletion of freshwater has put a strain on the economy and the well-being of residents. Costs associated with the effects of climate change could run as high as 34% of GDP in the coming decades. Scientific models suggest that Kiribati may become uninhabitable by 2050 if measures are not taken to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Kiribati has embarked on an ambitious multi-phase adaptation plan that it hopes will avoid the relocation of its inhabitants. The plan involves assessing potential risks and areas of most vulnerability, improving infrastructure to prevent floods, developing a plan to improve the management of water supplies and prevent deforestation and coastal erosion, and managing population settlement. But President Anote Tong has also taken steps in case resettlement is required; reaching out to Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia, asking them to accept Kiribati residents-"climate refugees." As part of a plan for "migration with dignity," President Tong finalized the purchase of 6,000 acres on the Fiji island of Vanua Levu for more than $8 million during the summer of 2014.

Climate Resilience

President Obama’s response to the UN Climate Summit was an affirmation of our country’s commitment to mitigate, adapt, and help the global community in the face of climate change. He announced a new Executive Order calling on federal agencies to “factor climate resilience into the design of their international development programs and investments“ and offered a set of tools to facilitate the sharing of scientific and technical resources to “help vulnerable populations around the world strengthen their climate resilience.“ These tools include releasing powerful new data such as higher-resolution elevations for Africa (and collaborating to provide international training to interpret the data), increasing NOAA’s 14-day outlook period to a 15–30 day timeframe to assist international decision maker to prepare for extreme weather, and providing meteorologists in developing nations with current information and equipment. Finally, the U.S. committed to launching a public-private partnership with developing countries for information sharing and climate resilience development and entered into numerous international partnerships to further enhance global cooperation.

by Catherine McNiff
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