3 Key Issues Governments Must Agree On at Lima Climate Talks
This is the year that you, and people like you, turned the latest, frightening warnings from climate science into a message of hope and defiance. More than 400,000 people marching in New York to call for fast and just climate action were the powerful symbol of a climate movement reawakening all over the world.
As historic as the march in New York was, the end of China's coal boom, the very boom that made the first ten years of the 21st century the worst ever for our global climate was also important. The latest data shows coal use falling faster than thought in China. If this turn into a long term trend, China's emissions can stop their relentless rise soon.
China and the U.S. have together, for the first time, agreed to reduce carbon pollution and to drastically increase the use of clean energy. Their agreement—just like the new goals that the European Union has set for itself—are painfully inadequate in the face of the urgency we face. But they change the dynamic of the global climate conversation.
For years, global climate meetings were the place where countries would say to each other: “you go first, you know this issue is important.” Now we are moving to a different world. Now countries say: “I can act, if you can act.” This is a major mental shift. This thinking makes collective action a possibility.
To deliver actions that can actually prevent climate chaos, though, we need to go further. We need more countries to say, “I want to act faster than you, because that will be better for me (and you).” This is not a pipe dream because acting on climate change delivers jobs, livelihoods and opportunities. The days when acting against climate change could be considered a burden are over. Clean, renewable energy is getting bigger, better and cheaper every day and can provide the solutions the world needs. Renewables are the most economical solution for new power capacity in an ever-increasing number of countries.
100 percent of new power capacity added in the U.S. in August was renewable and countries such as Denmark and Germany are producing new clean electricity records almost every month. China is installing as much solar this year as the U.S. has ever done.
As the warnings are getting louder and louder—this year will, it is predicted, be the warmest on record—the bricks are quietly being laid in national policies around the world, that could deliver much more decisive climate action—and a meaningful agreement in Paris next year.
For that to happen, governments in Lima must agree a few key issues:
- They must get the direction right and call for 100 percent renewables for all and a phase out of fossil fuels by 2050. There is already a sentence in the draft negotiation text setting out a “long-term goal of reaching zero carbon emissions by 2050.” That needs to stay. In addition, governments need to spell out that they are committed to the just transition to renewables for all that the goal implies.
- Lima must agree that governments can't delay action. That means that all governments must tell us what they plan to commit to in Paris before March 2015. It also means agreeing that targets are set for 5 years at a time—and be reviewed after 5 years regularly. All countries must say at Paris what they will do between 2020 and 2025. Targets must not be locked in for 2030, which could delay actions (after all, politicians in many countries will no longer be in power in 2030).
- Lima must also agree that the fairness and adequacy of what countries are putting forward in the next months (we expect by March 2015) is reviewed before governments meet again in Paris in December 2015. The world deserves to know in Paris who is doing their fair share and who is to blame if there is still a big gap between what governments put forward and what a safe climate for our children needs
Of course, there is no guarantee that Lima will deliver these key demands (and the many other things the conference could make progress on). Over the next two weeks, governments will often make me despair and remind me of the absurd theatre that the climate negotiations often are. Sometimes, I may even wonder if there really has been progress made at all this year … especially when listening to the governments of Canada and Australia, whom I expect to speak on behalf of the oil and coal industries, not their people. And who will have many—too many—supporters, as with too many countries, the polluters of the past dominate domestic politics.
But, as Kumi Naidoo said at a recent TEDxAmsterdam talk:
"When people in large numbers start believing that change is possible, only then does change become possible.”
We are getting there on climate change. The urgency of the climate science, the increasingly attractive economics of renewables, and the rising global climate movement, means that progress on climate action is now inevitable. Leaders in Lima can do their job on behalf of their people speed up the transition to a world run on renewables for all. But even if they dither, they will not be able to change the fact, that the momentum is on our side as we end 2014.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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