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Screwed by climate change: 10 cities that will be hardest hit

Hot and Bothered - small x  200
Susie Cagle

Here at Grist, climate change is our bread and melting butter. But this month, we’re feeling especially hot and bothered. As part of our in-depth look at the warming planet, we’ve compiled a list of the U.S. cities that we think will be in the hottest water as the mercury rises -- in some cases, up to their foreheads.

A quick note about New Orleans: It’s hard not to include a city that’s already lost so much, but the Big Easy’s new $14.5 billion, state-of-the-art levee system is finally up-and-running just eight short years after Katrina. Some warn that the new system, designed to stop a once-in-a-century storm -- the kind that seem to be coming about every other Thursday these days -- is already out of date. But it’s better than nothing, especially when compared to the rest of the country, so we're giving New Orleanians credit as most-improved. That said, here we go!

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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In GOP-run House, has science left the building?

800px-United_States_Capitol_west_front_edit2I was optimistic when I began reading the Washington Post op-ed on climate change by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), current chairman of the House Science Committee. He began with a plea for a thoughtful and objective discussion of climate science. But like Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown, he quickly dashed my hopes as he proceeded to provide a one-sided view of the state of climate science.

Rep. Smith neglected to acknowledge that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and 18 U.S. professional scientific societies [PDF] agree that climate change is real and that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from human activities are now the primary driver of it. He also forgot to mention sea-level rise, which is already increasing the risk from every storm to coastal communities in Massachusetts and around the nation. There was no mention of the shift in rainfall patterns to more extreme downpours, or that the ocean’s chemistry is changing [PDF] as it warms up and absorbs carbon dioxide.

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Susie Cagle
The extreme weather events of the past few years go unmentioned in Rep. Smith’s piece. Americans have watched homes engulfed by wildfires, crops decimated by drought, and infrastructure twisted like a pretzel during Superstorm Sandy. Last week, an analysis estimated that U.S. taxpayers paid a $96 billion bill for cleanup after climate-related disasters in 2012 alone. I recently launched a new House Natural Resources Democrats app that shows the costs of extreme weather, both in terms of dollars spent and lives lost.

Curiously, Rep. Smith’s climate piece ignores the global temperature records of NOAA and NASA that show 2010 as the hottest year on record since 1880, and the decade ending in 2009 as the hottest decade on record. He also ignores the results of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study conducted by independent -- and formerly skeptical -- scientists who also found that global land temperatures have been increasing and that heat-trapping gases are driving that rise. Instead, he relies on a temperature record produced by U.K. scientists that he [PDF] and other Republicans have previously -- falsely, it turns out -- accused of conspiring to alter temperature data. Choosing the temperature record that best fits your argument, especially when it is from a group you questioned just a few years ago, hardly seems objective.

I would welcome, as Rep. Smith writes, a “legitimate evaluation of policy options” by Congress for dealing with climate change and its impacts. Indeed, it was my honor to lead then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, where we held more than 80 hearings and a rigorous bipartisan discussion on both climate science and climate solutions. Sadly, when Tea Party Republicans took control of the House in 2010, one of the very first things they did was eliminate the Select Committee.

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Manhattan to see more killer heat waves

Manhattan, one of the places where climate change will kill people.
Shutterstock / Joshua Haviv
Manhattan, one of the places where climate change will kill people.

Climate change is expected to boost homicidal heat waves in Manhattan, while cold snaps in the densely packed borough should become slightly less deadly.

Researchers from Columbia University and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention used climate models and two emissions scenarios to project seasonal patterns in temperature-related deaths in Manhattan. In all 32 of the scenarios developed by the researchers, the spike in summertime heat-related deaths was forecast to more than outweigh the decline in deaths caused by cold weather.

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Susie Cagle

The study was published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change. "Monthly analyses showed that the largest percentage increases [in deaths] may occur in May and September," the scientists wrote.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Just in time for summer: Budget cuts force Forest Service to skimp on firefighters, trucks

Let it burn, says the Tea Party.
Shutterstock
Let it burn, says the Tea Party.

Tea Partiers who watched gleefully as the sequester slashed government spending are welcome to douse forest fires near their homes with teapots full of Earl Grey this summer. Across-the-board budget cuts mean federal wildfire fighting efforts could be overwhelmed.

The U.S. Forest Service will hire 500 fewer firefighters this year and 50 fewer fire engines will be available than previously expected, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this week. The Interior Department also plans to pare back its firefighting crews.

Hot and Bothered - small x  200
Susie Cagle

The seasonal firefighting jobs are going up in smoke because of Congress's inability to come up with a national spending plan. President Obama called for spending cuts and tax increases to help balance the budget, but Republicans would have none of the latter.

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The most controversial chart in history, explained

Back in 1998, a little-known climate scientist named Michael Mann and two colleagues published a paper [PDF] that sought to reconstruct the planet's past temperatures going back half a millennium before the era of thermometers -- thereby showing just how out of whack recent warming has been. The finding: Recent Northern Hemisphere temperatures had been "warmer than any other year since (at least) AD 1400." The graph depicting this result looked rather like a hockey stick: After a long period of relatively minor temperature variations (the "shaft"), it showed a sharp mercury upswing during the last century or so ("the blade").

The report moved quickly through climate science circles. Mann and a colleague soon lengthened the shaft [PDF] of the hockey stick back to the year 1000 AD -- and then, in 2001, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prominently featured the hockey stick in its Third Assessment Report. Based on this evidence, the IPCC proclaimed that "the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years."

And then all hell broke loose.

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Even in the best-case scenario, climate change will kick our asses

Victims of Hurricane Sandy receive aid in Queens. Expect more scenes like this in the future.
Anton Oparin / Shutterstock
Victims of Hurricane Sandy receive aid in Queens. Expect more scenes like this in the future.

Ask Andrew Guzman, a professor of international law at U.C. Berkeley, why he decided to write a book about climate change, and he says it’s simple: It’s the biggest issue of our time.

“If I didn’t write about it,” he says, “for my grandkids, I’d sound like somebody who wasn’t interested in Nazi Germany in 1939.”

Guzman doesn’t want to be painted as an alarmist. That’s why, for the book, Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, he assumes that we will see a modest (and increasingly optimistic) 2 degrees C of warming. You know, so as to stay on the conservative side of things.

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Susie Cagle

But it turns out that 2 degrees is enough to sound some serious fucking alarm bells.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Will cities ever get smart about water use?

city water
wagaboodlemum

If the definition of insanity is making the same mistakes over and over, then many cities have taken a certifiable approach to securing their water supplies -- and they need some radical therapy before taking the big economic, ecological, and human hits that come with a permanent state of thirst.

Hot and Bothered - small x  200
Susie Cagle

That’s the conclusion from a new study in the journal Water Policy, whose authors compared the water supply histories of four cities -- San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Adelaide, Australia. Among the lessons learned? Urban water conservation, recycling, and desalination aren't silver bullets. In fact, the best solution may lie upstream with farmers -- saving just 5-10 percent of agricultural irrigation in upstream watersheds could satisfy a city’s entire water needs.

But the time to act is now, argues Brian Richter, a senior freshwater scientist at The Nature Conservancy and the study’s lead author -- he says a global urban water crisis is already here. Below, Richter tells us more about what cities need to do to say on the right side of dry.

Q. Many cities take a similar pattern of water development, according to your research -- going from exhausting local surface and groundwater supplies to importing water to implementing water conservation to finally recycling water or desalination. Why is this pattern unsustainable?

A. When we overuse a freshwater source, we set ourselves up for disaster. Each of the cities we reviewed in our study has contributed to the drying of a major river or important groundwater spring. That has obvious ecological impacts and social consequences -- it affects livelihoods and human health by compromising fish production, concentrating pollution, or curtailing recreational activities.

Our research is revealing that water scarcity also causes severe economic losses by limiting or disrupting agricultural, industrial, and energy production. Texas lost nearly $8 billion in agriculture last year due to water shortages; electricity generation from hydropower dams on the Colorado River in 2010 dropped by 20 percent due to water shortages. Some estimates suggest that China may be losing $39 billion each year due to crop damage and lessened industrial production, and hundreds of thousands of people around the globe are being forced to move due to water shortages.

Because these impacts are so pervasive and damaging, we need to begin investing in water supply approaches that don’t just minimize these adverse impacts but instead begin to reverse them.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Heat of the moment: Welcome to Grist’s May theme

Hot and bothered - article 470
Susie Cagle

Things are going to get a lot warmer around here. And everywhere.

Even if the entire global economy woke up tomorrow morning, drank its coffee, and swore off fossil fuels, our future would still unfold at higher temperatures than our past. You can dream up wisecracking variations on "Hot enough for you?" and "Getting hot in here!" all day -- believe me, we have -- and that fact would just sit there, staring dejectedly at you and refusing to crack a smile.

Here at Grist we looked at the news, eyed the calendar, and decided that it's time to turn our gaze in the thermometer's direction. Our theme of the month for May is Hot and Bothered -- which is not just how we feel about what our carbon emissions are doing to the climate, but also, increasingly, how we're all going to feel about what the climate is doing to us.

Here's some of what we're working on this month:

  • Not so hot? Not so fast
    Perhaps you've heard the statistic that's been going around suggesting that the planet has not, in fact, grown any hotter for 15 years? We'll untangle what's true in this claim, what's not, and why it's not a "get out of jail free" card for climate-change deniers. (Hint: It may well have to do with oceans.)
  • Hot towns
    As summers just keep getting hotter, which American cities are the most screwed -- and which best placed to ride out the rougher weather?
  • Wildfires
    Last year, they burned an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. How much worse can they, will they get? And why do we keep making our homes in places likely to be threatened by them?
  • Heat map
    All summer, our handy-dandy 50-state map will track wildfires, droughts, storms -- all U.S. disasters that are potentially related to rising temperatures. By autumn, we'll have a record of all the scars this season will have wrought on our landscape.
  • Now you see it
    We're putting together a stunning gallery of before-and-after shots of those places where once, there were glaciers, and now, there aren't.
  • Don't just sweat there -- do something??
    As warming trends continue, so does the rising chorus of can-do optimists who argue that we have the technical capacity -- and perhaps the moral obligation -- to geoengineer our way out of the climate mess. Can humankind somehow pull down the Earth's shades? Should it? Grist, along with Earth Island Journal, is hosting a live discussion on this question this Thursday in Berkeley, Calif., at 7 p.m. Join us for "Hack the Sky" if you're nearby!

These and other stories await you during Grist's Hot and Bothered theme for May. Got other ideas along these lines? Tell us below in the comments, or on Twitter or Facebook.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living