When the going gets tough, Congress gets weak in the knees. That's the lesson we can take away from the recent fracas over reforming government-subsidized flood insurance -- insurance that has encouraged people to build (and rebuild) in increasingly flood-prone areas along rivers and coasts.
In 2012, more than 400 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted for the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, sending a clear message to homeowners that if they were going to live in risky places, they would have to shoulder more of the cleanup costs when disaster inevitably struck.
This week, 306 representatives voted to roll back some of those reforms. Yesterday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to do the same. The White House says President Obama will sign the bill.
Shit just got real in the climate fight, people. Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project has teamed up with the company founded by legendary ski movie maker Warren Miller to bring you “I am Pro Snow,” an effort to save the white dust that has kept Miller and his protégés busy -- and skiers and boarders coming back for their cinematic antics and epic powder shots -- for decades.
Here’s the latest Pro Snow video, featuring one of our highest profile snow pros -- Ted Ligety, who just won his gajillionth gold medal in Sochi, Russia -- rocking the thigh drums with a slightly depressed cartoon snowflake.
Good news for you snow lovers out there: The ski industry finally seems to be serious about fighting climate change. In the past, I've written that the biz has been slow to respond to the threat, which could decimate U.S. ski resorts by the end of the century. Industry leaders have been busy dealing with more immediate threats, like the decline in ticket sales that are so important for covering the ever-rising costs of snowmaking, grooming, and high-speed lifts. And besides, ski resorts haven't traditionally been pumped to stump for global warming -- the more warm weather makes headlines, the less inclined people are to visit increasingly slushy slopes.
But when I referred to the industry as global warming's "reluctant poster child" in a recent phone conversation with Geraldine Link, public policy director for the National Ski Areas Association, she replied, "I strenuously disagree."
Link pointed out that her group, which represents 325 ski resorts and almost 500 ski equipment suppliers, adopted an official climate change policy in 2002. The policy called on resorts to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, educate skiers and boarders about the issue, and advocate for climate action. "It was cutting edge for the time," Link said. The policy, plus the association’s Sustainable Slopes program and recently launched Climate Challenge, have led many resorts to reduce their energy use, buy renewable energy “offsets,” and install a handful of flashy slopeside wind turbines and solar panels.
In the context of global climate change, these local efforts are a bit like throwing snowballs at an oncoming train. (“That doesn't stop climate change -- it just stops environmentalists from criticizing you,” says longtime industry critic Auden Schendler, Aspen Ski Co.’s sustainability chief.) To have a real impact, the biz will need to throw its full financial weight around in Washington, D.C., where more substantive change can be had.
As you watch the victorious athletes lean down to accept their medals in Sochi this week, consider this: Those podiums can become platforms for powerful political action. Think back to 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos flashed the black power salute after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meter sprint in Mexico City. They were demonized for doing it, but the image left an indelible mark: Two of the world's greatest athletes reached outside of themselves and took a stand for human rights, despite the inevitable backlash.
In the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia's draconian antigay laws sparked protests worldwide. Some called for teams to boycott the games. Billie Jean King, the U.S. envoy to the games, said that the LGBT community needed "a John Carlos moment." Athletes vowed to flash six fingers from the podiums, referencing Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which states: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."
The International Olympic Committee has stated that this type of political statement has no place at the games, and so far, we have seen only minor acts of defiance. But athletes surfaced another cause this week: More than 100 Olympians have signed a letter calling on world leaders to get serious about fighting climate change.
What happens at the Winter Olympics without winter? Imagine Sage Kotsenburg trying to pull off the Holy Crail over a course made of concrete, or cross-country skiers running to a dusty finish line. Triple axels on rollerblades? Make the pain stop! Vanishing snow is no joke to Olympic athletes, and they're calling on world leaders to do something to stop the climate catastrophe that could spell doom for winter sports.
More than 100 Olympians have signed on to a statement, released Tuesday, asking leaders to "recognize climate change by reducing emissions, embracing clean energy, and preparing a commitment to a global agreement at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris 2015."
The statement, called "An Olympian's Call for Climate Action," was spearheaded by cross-country skier and three-time Olympian Andy Newell, who placed 18th in the Men's Sprint in Sochi, top among the Americans. Its backers come from every winter discipline, and while 85 members of the U.S. team make up the bulk of signees, representatives of Australia, Canada, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K. make a stand, too.
These athletes have had a front-row seat to the fallout from a warming climate:
By now, I hope you've seen the video of American snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg's massive final jump in the Olympic slopestyle event -- the Holy Crail, as he calls it: a 1620 (that's four and a half revolutions) Japan air that won him the first U.S. gold of the Sochi games. (We'd post the video here, but NBC and the International Olympic Committee would sue us into oblivion. So if you haven't seen it, you'll have to click here, and subject yourself to 10 minutes of sappy advertising. It's almost worth it.)
Kotsenburg hails from Park City, Utah, home of the U.S. Ski Team and an epicenter of elite winter sports training. Fellow Olympians who also grew up or live in Park City include alpine skiers Ted Ligety, Steven Nyman, and Megan McJames, bobsledder Steven Holcomb, ski jumpers Sarah Hendrickson, Jessica Jerome, and Anders Johnson, cross-country skiers Liz Stephen and Billy Demong, freeskier Joss Christensen, freestyle skier Heather McPhie, snowboarder Lindsay Jacobellis, and speed skater Maria Lamb. Many other Olympic athletes train in Park City at facilities built for the 2002 winter games, including the ski jumps and bobsled and luge runs at Bear Hollow, and at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s Center of Excellence, designed to be an incubator for elite athletes.
Utah is gunning for another winter in the Olympic spotlight, in fact: In December, state officials announced their bid to host the 2026 games. But the Beehive State had better act quickly. If climate models are correct, winter won't be coming here for long. Among the Rocky Mountain ski hotspots, it turns out that Park City is among the hottest -- and I don't mean that in a good way.
As we reported Monday, the Senate has voted to delay rate-hikes for residents of flood-prone areas who currently enjoy cheap, government-issued flood insurance. Here's the reaction from one of those residents via Twitter:
But budget hawks, along with insurance industry reps and environmentalists, were doing a different dance. The Washington Post’s editorial board had this to say:
It takes some chutzpah for [flood insurance] beneficiaries to act entitled to subsidies from the vast majority of taxpayers who chose not to live on the beach -- or who never could afford it in the first place.
And here’s the kind of mood that this whole fracas has put lawmakers in:
(Rep. Michael Grimm [R-N.Y.] later explained that he threatened to toss the reporter over the balcony and “break” him “in half -- like a boy” because he was rattled from a day of debating flood insurance reforms.)
In case you're just joining us, here's why all this matters: The law that led to the rate hikes in the first place -- it’s called the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, and it passed in 2012 -- sent a clear message to Americans living along our increasingly storm-ravaged coasts: We, as a country, cannot afford to rebuild your communities every time a hurricane wipes them out. If you choose to live in a place that is vulnerable to storm surges or floods, you will have to take that risk upon yourselves.
Chris Bretherton's office on the seventh floor of the Atmospheric Sciences building at the University of Washington is like a scene from the Cloud City, only without the nonstop sunset. All that's visible outside the plate-glass windows is an endless stream of cars filing across the I-5 bridge through the soup of Seattle’s infernal January fog.
I've come to talk to Bretherton, one of the nation's leading experts on cloud science, because I'm hoping he can shed some light on a recent report, published in the journal Nature, that has generated some alarming headlines. The study used patterns of cloud formation in the tropics to project that we'll likely see warming of more than 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century -- that’s 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, a worst-case scenario in the scheme of broadly accepted future forecasts.
Here's HuffPo: "Climate Change Worse Than We Thought, Likely To Be 'Catastrophic Rather Than Simply Dangerous.'" The Washington Post's editorial board picked up on the study and proclaimed, only 30 years too late, that "to take no action [on climate change], on the hope that nothing too bad is in store, is to place a foolish bet with humanity’s future."
The study's lead author, Australian climate scientist Steven Sherwood, was happy to fan the flames: "This degree of warming would make large swaths of the tropics uninhabitable by humans and cause most forests at low and middle latitudes to change to something else," he told National Geographic, adding that the changes would take us "back to the climate of the dinosaurs or worse, and in a geologically minuscule period of time -- less than the lifetime of a single tree."
But could a single study really change our thinking this dramatically? And beyond that, could a single variable in our unbelievably complex climate models -- those puffy clouds the kids like to find animal shapes in -- really have that much impact?
Congress appears to be on the brink of undoing a remarkable piece of legislation that reformed the outdated and hopelessly underwater National Flood Insurance Program. It's a pretty weird situation, as I wrote in a post earlier this week: Some of the lawmakers who championed the reforms (including the representative for whom the law is named) have become its most incensed critics.
But the irony doesn't end there. First, the push to undo the flood-insurance reforms comes, in part, from the victims of Hurricane Sandy -- a storm that revealed beyond a doubt just how broken the old system really was. And second, the reforms, while bold, were only a small first step; if coastal residents think these changes hurt, wait 'til they see what's coming.
When a hurricane slams into the Jersey Shore, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gets the call to pick up the pieces. When a tornado lays waste to an Oklahoma community, guess where the phones start ringing? FEMA. And when a foot and a half of rain falls around Boulder, Colo., sending hundreds of homes into the drink? Yep: FEMA again.
But not all FEMA's shit storms are of the weather variety. When angry ratepayers blew up their elected representatives' phone lines recently, Congress hauled in a few of our chief emergency managers. The controversy swirled around rate hikes for property owners covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, which FEMA administers.
"Let me just say, all of the harm that has been caused to thousands of people across the country -- [who] are calling us, [who] are going to lose their homes, [who] are placed in this position -- is just unconscionable," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told the agency's director, Craig Fugate, during a recent hearing.
But here's the thing. As NPR's Christopher Joyce so astutely pointed out, Waters co-sponsored the law that directed FEMA to raise people's rates. In fact, it bears her name: It's called the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.
Here's the other thing: While Biggert-Waters contained only passing mention of climate change, it was the first real wake-up call for many coastal residents who had been living with the illusion that, if disaster struck, the federal government would always be there to pick up the pieces. As comforting as that might seem, it is becoming less and less realistic as the mercury, and the waters, rise.
Here's the story of how we got here -- and a few thoughts on how we might get out.