Earth’s Hottest Month Lights a Fire for Progress
By John R. Platt
Well folks, we did it. July 2019 was the hottest month in recorded human history, with record-breaking temperatures in many parts of Europe, wildfires raging over tens of thousands of square miles of Arctic Alaska and Russia, and a staggering ice melt in Greenland that dumped 197 billion gallons of water into the ocean — 12.5 billion tons of which melted over a single day.
Europe's July 2019 heatwave.
European Space Agency (CC BY-SA 2.0)
All the while, the Trump administration has been actively suppressing climate science while pushing scientists and other officials out of their jobs. It also proposed weakening coal-burning power plant emissions rules, relaxed sage-grouse protection in land coveted by energy developers, continued to weaken protections for Bears Ears National Monument, and greenlit a controversial plan to allow drilling in Alaska's Cook Inlet that could harm beluga whales and other marine mammals.
The administration also appointed William Perry Pendley, a staunch foe of America's public lands, as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 250 million acres. The appointment could set the stage for the liquidation of public lands and unfettered fossil-fuel development around the country, further driving greenhouse gas emissions fueling the climate crisis.
Oh yeah, and Trump's reelection campaign also started selling plastic straws to "own the libs."
And internationally, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro — often referred to as the "Trump of the South" — fired the head of the agency responsible for tracking deforestation in the Amazon, which has increased sharply under that administration. Again, this will have a devastating effect on the climate, not to mention the wildlife and Indigenous peoples who live in these forests.
All of these threats and regressive actions are terrifying and all too real.
But at the same time, there are growing cracks in the anti-environmental shell game.
The number of lawsuits against the Trump administration is on the rise, as are ethical complaints against its appointees and potential investigations into their anti-environmental agenda. Meanwhile some states are also standing up to the administration and pushing back against regulatory rollbacks, and certain judges continue to stand up for environmental issues, most recently and most notably by halting the long-planned Rosemont mega-mine in Arizona.
The climate denial machine, although still quite active and dangerous, has begun to weaken. The Heartland Institute's annual climate-denial conference was sparsely attended, full of tired retreads of old arguments, and suffered from a dramatic drop in corporate sponsors. Meanwhile, desperate climate deniers are resorting to mocking 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg's autism, earning them well-deserved derision.
On the other side of the equation, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups continued to pick up steam.
Extinction Rebellion protestors in Brisbane on Aug. 6, 2019.
Larissa Waters (Public domain)
Even businesses are taking note. Utilities are closing coal plants, investment banks are pulling out of fossil-fuel projects, and a major credit ratings agency has started to pay attention to climate risks.
And with the 2020 election looming, more Democratic presidential candidates have rolled out climate change platforms, putting themselves in stark contrast to the Denier-in-Chief. Most of the plans so far don't go nearly far enough, but they exist, and candidates actually talked about climate issues at the last presidential debate, so that's a start.
These Democratic platforms, or what comes out of these initial discussions, are not just necessary for the planet — they're also wanted by a wide range of people. Republican political strategists recently warned that the party of denial could lose voters over issues related to climate change. That's a huge shift.
All of these positive changes and trends add up, although there's still so much further to go. And of course, the power of the Trump administration and other regressive officials around the world still have us all on track to possibly irreversible devastation, so we're kind of on a tight deadline here.
But every victory, no matter how small or personal, is a chance to save — and preserve — our planet's future. Those victories matter. They create momentum. They create change. They may seem too few and too far between in the face of the coming storm, but sometimes it pays to do just what I did in this editorial — list them, add them up, and then see the shape of a more positive future starting to emerge from the flames.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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Kevin T. Smiley
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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