Climate Change Literature That Made Waves in 2019
By Rob Moore
As the planet heated up to record-breaking levels, the seas continued to rise and wildfires, storms, floods or other manifestations of climate change made headlines every single day, the stream of climate change literature turned into a deluge.
The quantity and quality of research, journalism and fiction writing that revolved around climate change and its impacts in 2019 was impressive.
Admittedly, I was only capable of reading a small sliver of it all. This year-end list comprises the pieces I recommend you all read. Because my work at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revolves around the impacts of climate change, particularly the relationship to flooding, sea level rise and climate-driven disasters more generally, my annual reading list reflects that as well. It's a collection of research, policy papers, reporting by journalists and works of climate fiction.
And this year, because I'm insecure and fear someone judging me by what's not on this list ("How can you not have that on here?!" I know. I know. I hear ya.) I'm including a short compilation of the things that I still intend to read and you do should too!
Major Climate Reports
- Special Report on Climate Change and Land, International Panel on Climate Change
- Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, International Panel on Climate Change
- Global Linkages: a graphic look at the changing Arctic, UN Environment Programme
These reports detailed just how much the world has changed with 1 degree C of warming in the rearview mirror and how much more dire the situation could become. Widespread changes are already apparent on land, in the oceans, in the cryosphere (that's a fancy word for areas that are always cold), and for all life on Planet Earth. These reports are the most comprehensive view yet on the impacts we're already feeling, those that are unavoidable, and the ones we have to make sure we never realize.
Takeaway: The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge just how big of a problem you're dealing with. And we've got big problems. On the plus side, we've got a good idea of what the big solutions are.
- Climate Fiction: A Special Issue, Guernica Magazine, Amy Brady, Editor
- Issue 58: 2040 AD, McSweeney's, Claire Boyle, Editor
Climate fiction is the hot genre to be writing in these days! This year, both Guernica and McSweeney's elevated the profile of climate fiction with special editions. Addressing the multiple challenges of climate change isn't just a scientific or technical problem … it's also a cultural problem. That's why it's so encouraging that writers, artists and other creative-types are incorporating climate themes into their works, reaching broader and more diverse audiences and subtly helping bring about those cultural changes.
Side-note: I had the distinct privilege of working with Amy Brady at Guernica on an event around climate change and storytelling this year, and was part of a team of people at NRDC that worked with Claire Boyle at McSweeney's on Issue 58. These were such amazing enjoyable projects to be a part of and many thanks to the amazing Elizabeth Corr for coordinating NRDC's involvement in both.
Takeaway: Diving deep into climate science isn't for everybody, but everybody shares stories. The stories contained in these editions give all of us a new place that we can start the climate conversation from.
- Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh
This book had garnered an enormous amount of attention since it's release and is making many of the "Best Books of 2019" lists. Deservedly so, because it's an arresting and beautifully crafted novel that draws upon Bengali folklore, linguistic history and a globe-spanning story that intersects multiple manifestations of our altered climate.
Takeaway: "Amid the freak cyclones and oxygen-starved waters comes the story — or stories — of migration across the ages; tales of escapology, of deprivation and persecution, of impossible yearnings for a new world that bring us, inexorably, to the terrified refugees on the Mediterranean." — The Guardian
- American Climate: The Shared Experience of Disaster, Inside Climate News
Stories of people whose lives have been deeply affected by climate change aren't just the subject of fiction, they're an all too real part of the world we live in. Inside Climate News collected these first-hand accounts from survivors of the wildfires in Paradise, California; Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Florida; and from those affected by widespread flooding throughout the Midwest.
Takeaway: These personal stories are a visceral reminder that the impacts of climate change aren't some theoretical possibility but are already a reality for many in the U.S.
- The Other Kind of Climate Denialism, Rachel Reiderer, The New Yorker
When faced with the enormity of the challenges of climate change, people can enter a form of climate denialism. No, not denying that it's occurring or that humans are the cause; but denying that anything can be done about it. This essay examines David Wallace-Wells' book, The Uninhabitable Earth, and the work of many others, including NRDC's own Mary Heglar, to examine how we overcome this social-psychological barrier to action.
Takeaway: Hey, it's okay to be fearful, or feel overwhelmed, or be angry because those are the feelings that inspire us to act.
Despairing About the Climate Crisis? Read This, Earth Island Journal, Interview with Dr. Susi Moser by Laurie Mazur
Along the same lines, this interview with Dr. Susi Moser, "talks about communicating bad climate news, the benefits of 'functional denial,' the varied flavors of hope, and the better world we can build in the wreckage of life as we know it." Dr. Moser has been working on climate change issues for a long time from multiple angles. She's seen her share of failures, or at least things that have not come fully to fruition. Still, she remains hopeful because there are so many things we can do, but just haven't yet.
Takeaway: It's not whether you fall down or fail. It's whether you pick yourself up and keep trying.
NRDC Flood Reports
- Going Under: Long Wait Times for Post-Flood Buyouts Leave Homeowners Underwater, Anna Weber and Rob Moore, Natural Resources Defense Council
As sea levels rise, flooding becomes more prevalent and other types of hazards lead people to the conclusion that it's time to relocate, what assistance is available to help make that happen? This report examined more than 30 years of FEMA data on that agency's efforts to finance buyouts of flood prone homes. The typical project takes more than five years to complete after a flood happens. That's not gonna cut it — and the current paradigm for doing buyouts definitely can't scale up to meet the future demand driven by climate change. Inside this report you'll find several recommendations for how buyouts could become more equitable, more efficient and more widely available.
Takeaway: As the old saying goes, "Build it and they will come." With buyouts the corollary is, "If people want to leave, we should unbuild it." Okay, that's not too snappy a phrase, but we'll keep working on it. Meanwhile, you can hear about the buyout experience directly from Kentucky resident Olga McKissic, who pursued a buyout for years before her repeatedly flooded home was finally demolished this summer.
- Changing the National Flood Insurance Program for a Changing Climate, Environmental Law Reporter, Michael Burger and Dena Adler, Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law; Joel Scata and Rob Moore, Natural Resources Defense Council
This paper lays out ways to fix a program that we should already be relying upon to adapt to the growing number of floods that come with climate change. Some of the fixes? Give people accurate information about flood risks and past damages to their home or a home they're buying. Improve community compliance with minimum standards and codes. And if people want to move to higher ground (and doing so would actually save the flood insurance program some dough) then why aren't we doing that?!
Takeaway: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. And, currently, that's what the flood insurance program is all about: flood, rebuild, repeat. But it doesn't have to be that way. Congress just keeps it that way.
Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption, Alice Hill & Leonardo Martinez-Diaz
With the world already having warmed by 1 degree C, the impacts of climate change are being felt in the U.S. This insightful book offers up some real solutions for how communities can cope with the vulnerabilities that have already been exposed and those that will be in the future.
Takeaway: If you were to boil this down to two sentences: First, don't make your problems worse by making bad decisions that you'll regret in the future. Second, start figuring out how to address the vulnerabilities you know you have, then the ones that are foreseeable.
As the Trump administration has dismantled our nation's response to climate change, the Pentagon has been remarkably successful at continuing to address the issue in its own way. This fascinating book looks at why the Pentagon views climate change as a huge national security risk. Climate change threatens its bases, climate change puts additional operational pressure on the military, and climate change may hasten the destabilization of governments, exacerbating regional tensions.
Takeaway: Keep this close by for the climate throwdown with your conservative national security conscious family members. It may just bring them around.
What I Should Have Read, Am Still Going to Read, and You Should Read Too!
- Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America's Shores, Orrin Pilkey and Keith Pilkey
- An Ecotopian Lexicon, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, Editors
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By Melissa Hawkins
After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
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By Emma Charlton
Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
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