From roads and bridges to power plants and gas pipelines, American infrastructure is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, according to a pair of government reports released Thursday.
The reports are technical documents supporting the National Climate Assessment, a major review compiled by 13 government agencies that the U.S. Global Change Research Program is expected to release in April. Scientists at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory put together the reports, which warn that climate-fueled storms, flooding and droughts could cause "cascading system failures" unless there are changes made to minimize those effects. Island Press has published the full-length version of the reports, which focus on energy and infrastructure more broadly.
Thomas Wilbanks, a research fellow at Oak Ridge and the lead author and editor of the reports, said this is the first attempt to look at the climate implications across all sectors and regions. Rather than isolating specific types of infrastructure, Wilbanks said, the report looks at how "one impact can have impacts on the others."
Development of natural gas and wind resources in the Marcellus shale region could cover up nearly 1.3 million acres of land, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, with cement, asphalt, and other impervious surfaces, according to a paper published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One.
On a cold, overcast day last fall, Jesse Logan and Wally Macfarlane hiked up Packsaddle Peak near Emigrant, Mont., not far from Yellowstone National Park. They had to climb high into the forest, at least 8,500 feet above sea level, to find the trees: tall, majestic whitebark pines, which grow slowly and can live more than a thousand years. A light snow started falling halfway up the mountain, the flakes getting heavier and wetter as they climbed. "You gotta want it to get up in here," said Macfarlane, 46, a researcher from the Department of Watershed Resources at Utah State University.
The last time Macfarlane and Logan, 69, a former entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service, hiked this peak, in 2009, they found the trees' normally bright green needles turning shades of yellow and red. Now, just four years later, all the needles had fallen to the ground, and there were few signs of life in the forest. Even covered in fresh snow, which can lend anything a beautiful luster, the dead trees gave the landscape a bleak, post-apocalyptic aspect.
All across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem -- a 28,000-square-mile area covering parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho -- a devastating beetle infestation has been killing whitebark pines. The consequences may stretch far beyond the fate of a single species of tree, however. The whitebark pine has been called the linchpin of the high-altitude ecosystem. The trees produce cones that contain pine seeds that feed red squirrels, a bird known as the Clark's nutcracker and, most significantly, grizzly bears -- a symbol of the American West and the current focus of a high-profile conservation battle.
Two months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City, Battery Park is again humming with tourists and hustlers, guys selling foam Statue of Liberty crowns, and commuters shuffling off the Staten Island Ferry. On a winter day when the bright sun takes the edge off a frigid harbor breeze, it's hard to imagine all this under water. But if you look closely, there are hints that not everything is back to normal.
Take the boarded-up entrance to the new South Ferry subway station at the end of the No. 1 line. The metal structure covering the stairwell is dotted with rust and streaked with salt, tracing the high-water mark at 13.88 feet above the low-tide line -- a level that surpassed all historical floods by nearly four feet. The saltwater submerged the station, turning it into a "large fish tank," as former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair Joseph Lhota put it, corroding the signals and ruining the interior. While the city reopened the old station in early April, the newer one is expected to remain closed to the public for as long as three years.
Before the storm, South Ferry was easily one of the more extravagant stations in the city, refurbished to the tune of $545 million in 2009 and praised by former MTA CEO Elliot Sander as "artistically beautiful and highly functional." Just three years later, the city is poised to spend more than that amount fixing it. Some have argued that South Ferry shouldn't be reopened at all.
The destruction in Battery Park could be seen as simple misfortune: After all, city planners couldn't have known that within a few years the beautiful new station would be submerged in the most destructive storm to ever hit New York City.
Except for one thing: They sort of did know. Back in February 2009, a month before the station was unveiled, a major report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change -- which Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened to inform the city's climate adaptation planning -- warned that global warming and sea-level rise were increasing the likelihood that New York City would be paralyzed by major flooding. "Of course it flooded," said George Deodatis, a civil engineer at Columbia University. "They spent a lot of money, but they didn't put in any floodgates or any protection."
And it wasn't just one warning. Eight years before the Panel on Climate Change's report, an assessment of global warming's impacts in New York City had also cautioned of potential flooding. "Basically pretty much everything that we projected happened," says Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, co-chair of the Panel on Climate Change, and the co-author of that 2001 report.
Scientists often refer to the "100-year flood," the highest water level expected over the course of a century. But with sea levels rising along the East Coast -- a natural phenomenon accelerated by climate change — scientists project that in our lifetimes what was once considered a 100-year flood will happen every three to 20 years. And truly catastrophic storms will do damage unimaginable today. "With the exact same Sandy 100 years from now," Deodatis says, "if you have, say, five feet of sea-level rise, it's going to be much more devastating."
On Thursday, the board of the U.S. Export-Import Bank voted against backing a new coal-fired power plant in Vietnam. The 1,200-megawatt Thai Binh Two plant was the first test of one of the policy changes President Barack Obama laid out in his big climate speech last month.
Reuters reports that Ex-Im said the decision came after "careful environmental review." In his speech, Obama called for an end to public funding for new coal plants "unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there's no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity."
Pretty much every power plant requires water to work. Coal, natural gas, nuclear, and even some types of renewable energy need water to create steam and to cool down. These plants account for more than 40 percent of the fresh water drawn from lakes and rivers in the U.S. each year. But climate change limits access to that water and poses a major threat to our ability to keep power plants running, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists [PDF].
If plants don't have enough water, they can't operate. The report notes that the summer drought in Texas in 2011 forced one power plant to cut its hours of operation, while others had to pump in water from new sources, which led to fights over rights to water. Last summer, a power plant in Tennessee had to shut down because it was too hot, while others had to scale back production because of heat and drought.
Major earthquakes thousands of miles away can trigger reflex quakes in areas where fluids have been injected into the ground from fracking and other industrial operations, according to a study published in the journal Science on Thursday.
Previous studies, covered in a recent Mother Jones feature from Michael Behar, have shown that injecting fluids into the ground can increase the seismicity of a region. This latest study shows that earthquakes can tip off smaller quakes in far-away areas where fluid has been pumped underground.
The scientists looked at three big quakes: the Tohuku-oki earthquake in Japan in 2011 (magnitude 9), the Maule in Chile in 2010 (an 8.8 magnitude), and the Sumatra in Indonesia in 2012 (an 8.6). They found that, as much as 20 months later, those major quakes triggered smaller ones in places in the Midwestern U.S. where fluids have been pumped underground for energy extraction.
The name Barry Goldwater is practically synonymous with conservatism in America. That's even more true in the late politician's home state of Arizona, which he represented for five terms in the U.S. Senate. Now his son, Barry Goldwater Jr., is putting the family name behind an effort to protect solar energy's growing share of the electricity market -- a struggle that has pitted him against entrenched utility interests and a right-wing dark-money group.
Goldwater, 74, is the chair of Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed (or TUSK, for short), a group launched in March to fight the state's largest electric utility, Arizona Public Service, on solar power. APS has been campaigning to get the state utility commission to change regulations dealing with net metering, a policy that allows homes and businesses with their own solar power systems to send excess energy they generate back to the grid and make money off of it. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have a net-metering policy in place.
APS argues that under the current arrangement, the 18,000 Arizonans with rooftop solar aren't paying enough to cover the cost of maintaining the grid. Even if a house has a solar system, it still uses the utility's infrastructure. It pulls energy from the grid when the sun is not shining and feeds energy back into the grid when the solar unit is generating more power than the house needs. The utility wants to lower the rate that it pays for solar power produced by these rooftop solar generators, or otherwise recoup the costs. "Our only point is that anybody who uses the grid should pay their fair share of the grid," said APS spokesperson Jim McDonald.
Opponents, however, say reducing the incentives for rooftop solar will make it a less appealing investment. They argue that APS is going after net metering because it is worried that solar might start to cut into its profit margins, as fewer homeowners are buying from the grid and more are selling to it. McDonald said net metering has "zero impact" on the utility's profit margins right now -- but it could down the line. "Eventually would it become a business issue? It probably would," he said.
Enter Goldwater. TUSK's sole concern is protecting net metering, and it has brought together solar industry and other business groups to push back against APS. If APS is successful, said Goldwater, "they may very well kill rooftop solar in Arizona, and that would be a tragedy."
A politician in his own right, Goldwater represented California in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1983. (He still lives in California, though he is active in Arizona-based conservative organizations like the Goldwater Institute, named after his father.) His support for solar, he said, comes from conservative, free-market principles rooted in "creating choices for the American consumer."
"Choice means competition. Competition drives prices down and the quality up," Goldwater told Mother Jones. "The utilities are monopolies. They're not used to competition. That's what rooftop solar represents to them."
President Obama laid out a detailed plan to address the causes and impacts of climate change in a speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing," he said.
A thread throughout Obama's plan is the idea that addressing climate change is a "moral obligation" to our children. The two-page outline of the plan [PDF] sent to reporters Monday evening came with the subhead "Taking Action for Our Kids," and mentioned "kids" or "future generations" a total of four times. The theme carried throughout his speech on Tuesday. "Your children's children will have to live with the consequences of our decisions," he said.
Here are the key components of the plan aimed at reducing U.S. emissions:
Directs the EPA to issue draft emission rules for existing power plants by June 2014, to be finalized by June 2015.
Asks the EPA to "work expeditiously" on finalizing rules for new power plants that the agency issued in March 2012 (though does not appear to include a due date for that).
Pledges that the federal government will draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.
Sets a goal of permitting an additional 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020.
Sets a goal of putting 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020.
Creates a new, $8 billion loan guarantee program for advanced fossil fuel projects at the Department of Energy (think clean coal, etc.).
Directs the EPA and the Department of Transportation to work on fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, buses, and vans for after 2018 (following up on the 2014-18 rules they rolled out in 2011).
Sets a goal of cutting at least 3 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030 through improvements in energy efficiency standards.
Calls for an end to U.S. funding for fossil fuel energy projects overseas unless they include carbon capture technology.
The rules for existing power plants could be huge news, as old, dirty plants account for 40 percent of all emissions in the U.S. But there are scant details on what exactly those rules will entail.
Rising seas and increasingly severe weather are expected to increase the areas of the United States at risk of floods by up to 45 percent by 2100, according to a first-of-its-kind report released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday [PDF]. These changes could double the number of flood-prone properties covered by the National Flood Insurance Program and drastically increase the costs of floods, the report finds.
The report concludes that climate change is likely to expand vastly the size and costs of the 45-year-old government flood insurance program. Like previous government reports, it anticipates that sea levels will rise an average of four feet [PDF] by the end of the century. But this is what's new: The portion of the U.S. at risk for flooding, including coastal regions and areas along rivers, will grow between 40 and 45 percent by the end of the century. That shift will hammer the flood insurance program. Premiums paid into the program totaled $3.2 billion in 2009, but that figure could grow to $5.4 billion by 2040 and up to $11.2 billion by the year 2100, the report found. The 257-page study has been in the works for nearly five years and was finally released by FEMA after multiple inquiries from Climate Desk and Mother Jones.
The report attributes only 30 percent of the increased risk of flooding to population growth; 70 percent is due to climate change. FEMA designates what are known as special flood hazard areas, where there is a 1 percent risk in any given year of a major flood occurring. (They're also known as 100-year floodplains.) If you have a federally backed mortgage on your home and it's in a special flood hazard area, you are required by law to carry flood insurance. As of 2013, the NFIP insures 5.6 million properties. But that number could double by 2100, to as many as 11.2 million, the report found.