Finding Opportunity in Crisis: 3 Essential Reads About Environmental Solutions
By Jennifer Weeks
From climate change to omnipresent plastic waste, 2019 delivered a lot of discouraging environmental news. Several special reports this year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change documented how global warming is altering the planet's lands, forests, oceans and frozen regions.
Another U.N. report warned that the Earth is losing species at an alarming rate, with around 1 million animal and plant species facing extinction. Key causes include changes in land use, such as clearing forests for agriculture; unsustainable fishing rates; climate change; pollution; and the spread of invasive species.
Governments may seem unable or unwilling to confront these challenges, but scholars are proposing innovative solutions. Here are three articles that we published this year that put forth responses to urgent environmental challenges.
1. Cooling the Planet and Saving Species
Climate change and biodiversity loss are interconnected problems that together can seem overwhelming. But in a study published in April, 18 scientists proposed a "Global Deal for Nature" that can help avert both catastrophic climate change and mass extinction.
The plan identifies about a thousand "ecoregions" on land and sea that each contain unique ensembles of species and ecosystems, and also help curb climate change by storing carbon.
"Our plan would require a budget of some US$100 billion per year. This may sound like a lot, but for comparison, Silicon Valley companies earned nearly $60 billion in 2017 just from selling apps," Arizona State University conservation scientist Greg Asner, a co-author of the report, wrote for The Conversation. "Today, however, our global society is spending less than a tenth of that amount to save Earth's biodiversity."
"Forests, grasslands, peatlands, mangroves and a few other types of ecosystems pull the most carbon from the air per acre of land," Asner noted. "Protecting and expanding their range is far more scalable and far less expensive than engineering the climate to slow the pace of warming. And there is no time to lose."
2. Stemming the Tide of Plastic Trash
Global markets for scrap material, including recyclables, have been in turmoil since early 2018, when China — which was importing a large share of the world's scrap — shut that window almost completely. This year other Asian countries followed suit, saying they would no longer accept materials they were ill-equipped to handle.
These shocks have left U.S. scrap dealers searching for markets. Many are sending plastics – the hardest materials to recycle — to landfills.
Alarmed by these developments and the growing scale of plastic waste, many communities and businesses are intensifying the search for new solutions.
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"Recycling authorities have launched public education campaigns, and investment in recycling infrastructure is on the rise," reported Kate O'Neill, professor of global environmental politics at the University of California, Berkeley. "There is palpable energy at trade meetings around improving options for plastics recycling. Chinese companies are investing in U.S. pulp and paper recycling plants, and may extend into plastics."
This process won't be quick, since it also requires action at the global level to connect national policies. And reducing production and use of plastic remains key. "But as one Asian country after another shuts the door on scrap exports, it is becoming increasingly clear that business as usual will not solve the plastic pollution challenge," O'Neill wrote.
3. A New New Deal for U.S. Farmers
Severe weather, corporate consolidation in agriculture and a trade war with China put heavy pressure on U.S. farmers in 2019. Farm bankruptcies are at historic highs, and many experts wonder where the next generation of farmers will come from.
Speaking in Wisconsin, Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the small dairy farmer might not be able to survive in today's economy: "In America, the big get bigger and the small go out."https://t.co/IXWLCmY0Y7— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) October 3, 2019
Social scientists Maywa Montenegro of the University of California, Davis, Annie Shattuck of Indiana University and Joshua Sbicca of Colorado State University see this convergence as an economic, environmental and social crisis for farming communities. In response they propose a "just transition" to a system that cuts carbon emissions from agriculture, makes farmers less vulnerable to the effects of climate change and delivers economic justice to rural communities.
"Two elements are essential: Agriculture based in principles of ecology, and economic policies that end overproduction of cheap food and reestablish fair prices for farmers," they assert.
To picture what such a transition would look like, they point to New Deal agriculture policies adopted in the 1930s that directed public investments to rural communities, set price floors for crops and paid farmers to adopt conservation policies. This system was largely scrapped after World War II in favor of rules that promoted large-scale commodity production and maximized output. Today, the authors argue, farmers are locked into an economic model that is "unsustainable for farmers, eaters and the planet."
But in political and agricultural circles, new proposals are emerging for reducing corporate power in agriculture and restoring parity for farmers — payment that reflects production costs. Redirecting an industry this large is a long, slow process, but Montenegro, Shattuck and Sbicca asserted that "if policymakers can envision a contemporary version of ideas in the original New Deal, a climate-friendly and socially just American agriculture is within reach."
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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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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