Why Does Climate Change Matter to the Columbia River?
By Miles Johnson
Why does a river organization like Columbia Riverkeeper dedicate so much energy to fighting fossil fuel projects?
First, fossil fuels threaten clean water. Think oil spills, pipelines that degrade salmon streams, coal dust in the river, and aerial deposition of mercury from coal-burning power plants. But we have additional motivation to fight fossil fuel infrastructure: climate change is harming the Columbia River and our communities right now. And giant fossil fuel corporations want to build more infrastructure—pipelines, fracked gas refineries, shipping terminals—to lock our region into continued reliance on dirty energy. Together, we are taking a stand to protect clean water and our climate.
With each victory over fracked gas, oil and coal, we are protecting clean water and our climate. This article explores four (of the many) impacts of climate change—salmon in hot water, extreme heat waves, fire danger and streams running dry—harming the people, animals and plants in our region right now. In addition, the article describes scientists' projections of future impacts. Our work is urgent and full of hope. By defeating fossil fuel infrastructure today, we support the rapid transition to clean energy, which will increase prosperity in the Pacific Northwest.
Four impacts of climate change in the Pacific Northwest:
Salmon in Hot Water
The mighty Columbia River is synonymous with salmon. When tribes alone inhabited the Columbia River Basin, as many as 30 million salmon returned to the river each year. Despite significant declines, these salmon runs hold tremendous cultural and economic value for tribes and other river communities throughout the Pacific Northwest. While we struggle to restore the Columbia's imperiled salmon runs, climate change is warming the river, making it even harder for salmon to survive.
Salmon leaping of Lyle FallsColumbia Riverkeeper
Salmon need cool water. Warm water encourages disease-causing bacteria and fungi, delays salmon migration and depletes salmon's energy reserves. How warm is too warm? Adult salmon have difficulty swimming upstream when water temperatures approach 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Salmon that have stopped or slowed their migration, and languish for days or weeks in warm water, begin dying from stress and disease before they can return to their home streams to spawn.
Average summer water temperatures in the Columbia River have steadily increased over the past 60 years, and will only get hotter if climate change intensifies. Fifty years ago, the Columbia was too hot for salmon migration for only a week or two during the very peak of the summer. Now the Columbia frequently remains above 68 degrees Fahrenheit from mid-July until mid-September, making salmon migration during that time difficult or impossible. The Fish Passage Center, a federal science agency, explained that "under a climate change scenario, the long-recognized and largely unaddressed problem of high water temperatures ... becomes an ever-increasing threat to the survival of salmon in the Columbia River Basin."
That threat became a stark reality in the summer of 2015. Roughly 250,000 adult sockeye salmon, including 96 percent of the critically endangered Snake River sockeye run, died prematurely in the Columbia and lower Snake because the rivers were too hot. Though it's convenient to call 2015 an outlier, climate scientists predict that the air and water temperatures that killed so many salmon in 2015 will become increasingly common.
To protect salmon, we must stop burning fossil fuels. In addition, altering and removing dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers can help solve water temperature problems. The Columbia and Snake dams create large, shallow reservoirs that trap the sun's heat and warm up the rivers. If we operated the dams differently, and removed the lower four Snake River dams, we could directly address the hot water crisis that threatens salmon survival.
Free the Snake 2015 by Ben Moon for Patagonia
Across the Pacific Northwest, hotter days and nights are growing more common. Climate change will increase the intensity, frequency and duration of extreme heat waves during the summer, with dangerous consequences. Heat kills more people in the U.S. in most years than floods, tornadoes or hurricanes. Our region's cool, rainy reputation leaves many people unprepared to deal with extreme temperatures and heat waves.
The Pacific Northwest—like many other parts of the world—has seen record hot spells in recent summers. Climate change has already doubled the frequency of heat waves in some regions. And more extreme heat is on the way, even if we substantially reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. Government scientists predict that heat waves in the Pacific Northwest over the next 30 to 60 years will be roughly twice as common as they are now and last twice as long. Summer temperatures that would have been extreme in the 1950s will become commonplace in coming decades, and we will see more record-high temperatures.
Extreme heat waves are dangerous. Heat is among the top weather-related causes of death in the U.S., responsible for an average of 1,500 fatalities per year. One recent study in Washington state found a 50-percent increase in heat-related hospitalizations during summers with serious heat waves. Residents of the Pacific Northwest may be at particular risk, even though heat waves here are less severe than in other regions. Many Oregonians and Washingtonians don't think of heat as a health risk, may not know the signs of heat stroke, and may not have access to air conditioning. A nationwide study found that "areas along the West Coast showed very high vulnerability [to heat waves], even though their current climates are temperate.
Like many other consequences of climate change, extreme heat waves will cause the most harm to the most vulnerable members of our society. Because urban areas collect additional heat, elderly and poor people living in large cities face the greatest risks. Older people tend to be less resilient to the physical stress of prolonged heat waves. And in the Pacific Northwest, where many homes lack air conditioning, low-income communities may not have access to, or the ability to pay for, relief from the heat.
Residents of the Columbia River Gorge and the Portland metro area won't soon forget last summer's Eagle Creek Fire: weeks of smoke and haze; road closures; evacuation alerts and vacant downtowns in Gorge communities that usually bustle with summer visitors. And while we had it bad, the deadly fires that ravaged California communities later in 2017 were downright catastrophic.
Across the nation and the globe, climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of wildfires. Large wildfires in the U.S. currently burn more than twice as many acres each year as they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season now lasts two-and-a-half months longer. Less snow, earlier snowmelt and warmer air temperatures—all linked to climate change—lead to the hot, dry conditions that boost fire activity. Warmer, drier conditions also make fires harder to put out.
The Pacific Northwest's forests will be especially susceptible to wildfires as our climate changes. In Oregon and Washington, the mountains of the Cascade and Coast ranges traditionally have wet winters and relatively cool summers, leading to infrequent forest fires. But if the average temperature increases by one degree Celsius in this region—including the Gorge—the number of acres burned each year could rise by more than 400 percent. In the forests of northeastern Oregon, the number of acres burned each year could increase by more than 500 percent.
While we fight climate change, we'll also need to change the ways we manage and live with wildfire. Old ideas about wildfire suppression should be discarded; immediately putting out every forest fire, no matter the location, is incredibly expensive and allows dangerous amounts of fuel to build up over time. Forest management, like thinning around rural communities, may play a limited role. But powerful timber corporations and elected leaders should not use fire danger as an excuse to increase clearcutting and salvage logging that harm water quality, fish and wildlife.
Streams Running Dry
Washington, Oregon and Idaho are famous for beautiful, wild rivers and streams. The Wenatchee, Yakima, Deschutes, Clackamas and Selway—just to name a few in the Columbia Basin—evoke a powerful connection and sense of pride for many Pacific Northwest residents. We boat, fish, swim, and draw drinking water from our many rivers. Properly restored, these streams can once more support healthy salmon runs. But only if there's enough water to keep our rivers and streams flowing.
Climate change threatens to decrease water levels in western rivers, especially during the summer. Most surface water in the West comes from snowmelt, but snowfall is declining and projected to decline faster if climate change continues. With less snowmelt to feed rivers throughout the summer, and warmer air temperatures increasing evaporation, many rivers won't have much water left in the summer and fall. Some streams in the Columbia Basin may run dry altogether.
In response to declining snowpack, some suggest building new dams to trap rainfall and spring runoff. But dam construction would sacrifice the very rivers we seek to protect and restore. We already live with the legacy of thousands of large and small dams throughout the Columbia Basin. Dam construction is the past; dam removal and healthy, free-flowing rivers are our present and future.
One Columbia Basin stream already facing acute water shortages is Fifteenmile Creek. From its headwaters in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the creek flows into the Columbia River near The Dalles, OR, and provides an important spawning area for threatened steelhead. Fifteenmile Creek receives about 70 inches of precipitation each year—mostly as snowmelt—but irrigation already competes for scarce water in the summer, sometimes running the stream dry and killing young fish. Further decreases in snowfall and precipitation could push this imperiled population of steelhead over the brink of extinction.
Hope for a Brighter, Cooler Future
The threats from climate change are real and daunting, yet we see reasons for hope all around us. The Pacific Northwest is combating climate change by refusing to host coal and oil export terminals and by decreasing our reliance on fracked gas for power. Instead, your voice is driving a transition to clean, renewable energy and setting an example for the rest of the U.S. and beyond. Together, we can protect the Columbia Basin's people and places from the worst impacts of climate change while protecting clean water.
Report: Fracked Gas Project Could Undermine Washington’s Clean Energy Goals https://t.co/ecmCpLdYxJ @foodandwater… https://t.co/MjaiDBJS2Y— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1518042305.0
Miles Johnson is senior attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper.
Thousands of Superfund sites exist around the U.S., with toxic substances left open, mismanaged and dumped. Despite the high levels of toxicity at these sites, nearly 21 million people live within a mile of one of them, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Currently, more than 1,300 Superfund sites pose a serious health risk to nearby communities. Based on a new study, residents living close to these sites could also have a shorter life expectancy.
Published in Nature Communications, the study, led by Hanadi S. Rifai, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Houston, and a team of researchers, found that living in nearby zip codes to Superfund sites resulted in a decreased life expectancy of more than two months, the University of Houston reported.
"We have ample evidence that contaminant releases from anthropogenic sources (e.g., petrochemicals or hazardous waste sites) could increase the mortality rate in fence-line communities," Rifai told the University of Houston. "Results showed a significant difference in life expectancy among census tracts with at least one Superfund site and their neighboring tracts with no sites."
The study pulled data from 65,000 census tracts – defined geographical regions – within the contiguous U.S., The Guardian reported. With this data, researchers found that for communities that are socioeconomically challenged, this life expectancy could decrease by up to a year.
"It was a bit surprising and concerning," Rifai told The Guardian. "We weren't sure [when we started] if the fact that you are socioeconomically challenged would make [the Superfund's effects] worse."
The research team, for example, found that the presence of a Superfund site in a census tract with a median income of less than $52,580 could reduce life expectancy by seven months, the University of Houston reported.
Many of these toxic sites were once used as manufacturing sites during the Second World War. Common toxic substances that are released from the sites into the air and surface water include lead, trichlorethylene, chromium, benzene and arsenic – all of which can lead to health impacts, such as neurological damage among children, The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a blog.
"The EPA has claimed substantial recent progress in Superfund site cleanups, but, contrary to EPA leadership's grandiose declarations, the backlog of unfunded Superfund cleanups is the largest it has been in the last 15 years," the Union wrote.
Delayed cleanup could become increasingly dangerous as climate change welcomes more natural hazards, like wildfires and flooding. According to a Government Accountability Office report, for example, climate change could threaten at least 60 percent of Superfund sites in the U.S., AP News reported.
During the summer of 2018, a major wildfire took over the Iron Mountain Superfund site near Redding, CA, ruining wastewater treatment infrastructure that is responsible for capturing 168 million gallons of acid mine drainage every month, NBC News reported.
"There was this feeling of 'My God. We ought to have better tracking of wildfires at Superfund locations,'" Stephen Hoffman, a former senior environmental scientist at the EPA, told NBC News. "Before that, there wasn't a lot of thought about climate change and fire. That has changed."
In the study, researchers also looked at the impacts of floodings on Superfund sites, which could send toxins flowing into communities and waterways.
"When you add in flooding, there will be ancillary or secondary impacts that can potentially be exacerbated by a changing future climate," Rifai told the University of Houston. "The long-term effect of the flooding and repetitive exposure has an effect that can transcend generations."
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A weather research station on a bluff overlooking the sea is closing down because of the climate crisis.
The National Weather Service (NWS) station in Chatham, Massachusetts was evacuated March 31 over concerns the entire operation would topple into the ocean.
"We had to say goodbye to the site because of where we are located at the Monomoy Wildlife Refuge, we're adjacent to a bluff that overlooks the ocean," Boston NWS meteorologist Andy Nash told WHDH at the time. "We had to close and cease operations there because that bluff has significantly eroded."
Chatham is located on the elbow of Cape Cod, a land mass extending out into the Atlantic Ocean that has been reshaped and eroded by waves and tides over tens of thousands of years, The Guardian explained. However, sea level rise and extreme weather caused by the climate crisis have sped that change along.
"It's an extremely dynamic environment, which is obviously a problem if you are building permanent infrastructure here," Andrew Ashton, an associate scientist at Cape-Cod based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told The Guardian. "We are putting our foot on the accelerator to make the environment even more dynamic."
This was the case with the Chatham weather station. It used to be protected from the drop into the ocean by about 100 feet of land. However, storm action in 2020 alone washed away as much as six feet of land a day.
"We'd know[n] for a long time there was erosion but the pace of it caught everyone by surprise," Nash told The Guardian. "We felt we had maybe another 10 years but then we started losing a foot of a bluff a week and realized we didn't have years, we had just a few months. We were a couple of storms from a very big problem."
The Chatham station was part of a network of 92 NWS stations that monitor temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speed and direction and other data in the upper atmosphere, The Cape Cod Chronicle explained. The stations send up radiosondes attached to weather balloons twice a day to help with weather research and prediction. The Chatham station, which had been observing this ritual for the past half a century, sent up its last balloon the morning of March 31.
"We're going to miss the observations," Nash told The Cape Cod Chronicle. "It gives us a snapshot, a profile of the atmosphere when the balloons go up."
The station was officially decommissioned April 1, and the two buildings on the site will be demolished sometime this month. The NWS is looking for a new location in southeastern New England. In the meantime, forecasters will rely on data from stations in New York and Maine.
Nash said the leavetaking was bittersweet, but inevitable.
"[M]other nature is evicting us," he told The Cape Cod Chronicle.
By Douglas Broom
- If online deliveries continue with fossil-fuel trucks, emissions will increase by a third.
- So cities in the Netherlands will allow only emission-free delivery vehicles after 2025.
- The government is giving delivery firms cash help to buy or lease electric vehicles.
- The bans will save 1 megaton of CO2 every year by 2030.
Cities in the Netherlands want to make their air cleaner by banning fossil fuel delivery vehicles from urban areas from 2025.
"Now that we are spending more time at home, we are noticing the large number of delivery vans and lorries driving through cities," said Netherlands environment minister Stientje van Veldhoven, announcing plans to ban all but zero-emission deliveries in 14 cities.
"The agreements we are setting down will ensure that it will be a matter of course that within a few years, supermarket shelves will be stocked, waste will be collected, and packages will arrive on time, yet without any exhaust fumes and CO2 emissions," she added.
She expects 30 cities to announce zero emission urban logistics by this summer. City councils must give four years' notice before imposing bans as part of government plans for emission-free road traffic by 2050. The city bans aim to save 1 megaton of CO2 each year by 2030.
Help to Change
To encourage transport organizations to go carbon-free, the government is offering grants of more than US$5,900 to help businesses buy or lease electric vehicles. There will be additional measures to help small businesses make the change.
The Netherlands claims it is the first country in the world to give its cities the freedom to implement zero-emission zones. Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht already have "milieuzones" where some types of vehicles are banned.
Tilburg, one of the first wave of cities imposing the Dutch ban, will not allow fossil-fuelled vehicles on streets within its outer ring road and plans to roll out a network of city-wide electric vehicle charging stations before the ban comes into effect in 2025.
"Such initiatives are imperative to improve air quality. The transport of the future must be emission-free, sustainable, and clean," said Tilburg city alderman Oscar Dusschooten.
Europe Takes Action
Research by Renault shows that many other European cities are heading in the same direction as the Netherlands, starting with Low Emission Zones of which Germany's "Umweltzone" were pioneers. More than 100 communes in Italy have introduced "Zonas a traffico limitato."
Madrid's "zona de baja emisión" bans diesel vehicles built before 2006 and petrol vehicles from before 2000 from central areas of the city. Barcelona has similar restrictions and the law will require all towns of more than 50,000 inhabitants to follow suit.
Perhaps the most stringent restrictions apply in London's Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which charges trucks and large vehicles up to US$137 a day to enter the central area if they do not comply with Euro 6 emissions standards. From October, the ULEZ is being expanded.
Cities are responsible for around 75% of CO2 emissions from global final energy use, according to the green thinktank REN21 - and much of these come from transport. Globally, transport accounts for 24% of world CO2 emissions.
The Rise of Online Shopping
Part of the reason for traffic in urban areas is the increase in delivery vehicles, as online shopping continues to grow. Retailer ecommerce sales are expected to pass $5billion in 2022, according to eMarketer.
The World Economic Forum's report The Future of the Last-Mile Ecosystem, published in January 2020, estimates that e-commerce will increase the number of delivery vehicles on the roads of the world's 100 largest cities by 36% by 2030.
If all those vehicles burn fossil fuels, the report says emissions will increase by 32%. But switching to all-electric delivery vehicles would cut emissions by 30% from current levels as well as reducing costs by 25%, the report says.
Other solutions explored in the report include introducing goods trams to handle deliveries alongside their passenger-carrying counterparts and increased use of parcel lockers to reduce the number of doorstep deliveries.
Reposted with permission from the World Economic Forum.
The bill, SB467, would have prohibited fracking and other controversial forms of oil extraction. It would also have banned oil and gas production within 2,500 feet of a home, school, hospital or other residential facility. The bill originally set the fracking ban for 2027, but amended it to 2035, The AP reported.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed," State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), one of the bill's two introducers, told the Los Angeles Times. "California really has not done what it needs to do in terms of addressing the oil problem. We have communities that are suffering right now, and the Legislature has repeatedly failed to act."
The bill was introduced after California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would sign a fracking ban if it passed the legislature, though his administration has continued to issue permits in the meantime, Forbes reported. Newsom has also spoken in favor of a buffer zone between oil and gas extraction and places where people live and learn, according to the Los Angeles Times. The latter is a major environmental justice issue, as fossil fuel production is more likely to be located near Black and Latinx communities.
Urban lawmakers who want California to lead on the climate crisis supported the bill, while inland lawmakers in oil-rich areas concerned about jobs opposed it. The oil and gas industry and trade unions also opposed the bill.
This opposition meant the bill failed to get the five votes it needed to move beyond the Senate's Natural Resources and Water Committee. Only four senators approved it, while Democrat Sen. Susan Eggman of Stockton joined two Republicans to oppose it, and two other Democrats abstained.
Eggman argued that the bill would have forced California to rely on oil extracted in other states.
"We're still going to use it, but we're going to use it from places that produce it less safely," Eggman told The AP. She also said that she supported the transition away from fossil fuels, but thought the bill jumped the gun. "I don't think we're quite there yet, and this bill assumes that we are," she added.
Historically, California has been a major U.S. oil producer. Its output peaked in 1986 at 1.1 million barrels a day, just below Texas and Alaska, according to Forbes. However, production has declined since then making it the seventh-most oil-producing state.
Still, California's fossil fuel industry is at odds with state attempts to position itself as a climate leader.
"There is a large stain on California's climate record, and that is oil," Wiener said Tuesday, according to The AP.
Wiener and Democrat co-introducer Sen. Monique Limón from Santa Barbara vowed to keep fighting.
"While we saw this effort defeated today, this issue isn't going away," they wrote in a joint statement. "We'll continue to fight for aggressive climate action, against harmful drilling, and for the health of our communities."
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By Brett Wilkins
As world leaders prepare for this November's United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland, a new report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission reveals that the world's wealthiest 5% were responsible for well over a third of all global emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.
The report, Changing Our Ways: Behavior Change and the Climate Crisis, found that nearly half the growth in absolute global emissions was caused by the world's richest 10%, with the most affluent 5% alone contributing 37%.
"In the year when the UK hosts COP26, and while the government continues to reward some of Britain's biggest polluters through tax credits, the commission report shows why this is precisely the wrong way to meet the UK's climate targets," the report's introduction states.
The authors of the report urge United Kingdom policymakers to focus on this so-called "polluter elite" in an effort to persuade wealthy people to adopt more sustainable behavior, while providing "affordable, available low-carbon alternatives to poorer households."
The report found that the "polluter elite" must make "dramatic" lifestyle changes in order to meet the UK's goal — based on the Paris climate agreement's preferential objective — of limiting global heating to 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial levels.
In addition to highlighting previous recommendations — including reducing meat consumption, reducing food waste, and switching to electric vehicles and solar power — the report recommends that policymakers take the following steps:
- Implement frequent flyer levies;
- Enact bans on selling and promoting SUVs and other high polluting vehicles;
- Reverse the UK's recent move to cut green grants for homes and electric cars; and
- Build just transitions by supporting electric public transport and community energy schemes.
"We have got to cut over-consumption and the best place to start is over-consumption among the polluting elites who contribute by far more than their share of carbon emissions," Peter Newell, a Sussex University professor and lead author of the report, told the BBC.
"These are people who fly most, drive the biggest cars most, and live in the biggest homes which they can easily afford to heat, so they tend not to worry if they're well insulated or not," said Newell. "They're also the sort of people who could really afford good insulation and solar panels if they wanted to."
Newell said that wealthy people "simply must fly less and drive less. Even if they own an electric SUV, that's still a drain on the energy system and all the emissions created making the vehicle in the first place."
"Rich people who fly a lot may think they can offset their emissions by tree-planting schemes or projects to capture carbon from the air," Newell added. "But these schemes are highly contentious and they're not proven over time."
The report concludes that "we are all on a journey and the final destination is as yet unclear. There are many contradictory road maps about where we might want to get to and how, based on different theories of value and premised on diverse values."
"Promisingly, we have brought about positive change before, and there are at least some positive signs that there is an appetite to do what is necessary to live differently but well on the planet we call home," it states.
The new report follows a September 2020 Oxfam International study that revealed the wealthiest 1% of the world's population is responsible for emitting more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorest 50% of humanity combined.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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