Iceland: World's Largest Clean Energy Producer Per Capita
In my entire life I have never breathed in purer air, drank cleaner water or felt so naturally energized. My family and I recently visited Iceland on a mission to encounter the country’s vast wonderland of geological extremes, and see firsthand how Iceland rose to become the largest clean energy producer per capita in the world. The small island nation’s energy use is impressively state-of-the-art, and their commitment to harnessing renewable energy resources is inspirational. A mere seven years ago, the country was on the brink of environmental and financial catastrophe.
Until the 1970s, Iceland was classified as a developing country by the United Nations Development Program. For centuries it was among the poorest in Europe, a nation dominated by sheep farming, fishing and a dirty energy mix of fossil fuel, imported oil and coal.
In the decades that followed, Iceland radically transformed its energy system to one that relies on domestic renewable sources. Today, all of Iceland’s electric power is generated by hydropower and geothermal energy, and about 95 percent of the nation’s heating demands are warmed by geothermal means. This was accomplished through localized, profit-driven initiatives led by communities, small villages and individual entrepreneurs.
Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, has had a great deal to do with the country’s turnaround during his 19 year tenure. Grímsson has been a tireless advocate of sustainable development and an outspoken leader in climate action. He encourages global discussion that positions the economy at the center.
“It’s about the economic transformation of the country to realize that the move from fossil fuel over to clean energy is fundamentally good business—it’s fundamentally the road to prosperity and economic achievement,” said Grímsson to an audience at Cornell.
In addition to enhanced quality of life and health of its citizens, Iceland’s clean energy economy helped its people survive the banking collapse. Thanks in large part to the cost of heating and electricity for ordinary families, homes and businesses being comparatively very low to other European countries. With the long-term availability of clean energy at fixed prices, Iceland has become highly attractive for foreign investments. Some of the biggest aluminum smelters, data-storage centers, high tech industries and other thriving enterprises are now based in Iceland.
It’s no wonder that Icelanders are the happiest people in the world, quite literally! Iceland is ranked the number two country in The Third World Happiness Report, released by the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s international team of economists, neuroscientists and statisticians.
In my role as chair of Mothers & Others for Clean Air, a chapter of the American Lung Association of the Southeast, I’ve worked tirelessly to fight for clean air and advocate for renewable energy expansion because we’re acutely aware that public policy and the health and well-being of the American people are intrinsically linked.
According to U. S. Surgeon General Murthy, climate change presents a "serious, immediate and global threat to human health.” I believe that President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the first ever federal rule to clean up carbon pollution from existing power plants, is a strong signal that the U.S. is joining Iceland and leading the world in addressing the threat of climate change at a critical time. While the primary goal of the plan is to reduce the country's outsized contribution to climate change, cleaning up the U.S. electricity sector offers a variety of other critical benefits to public and economic health as well.
By meeting the emissions goals for 2030, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the U.S. will experience up to 3,600 fewer premature deaths, 90,000 fewer asthma attacks in children, 1,700 fewer hospital admissions and 300,000 fewer missed days of school. The Obama Administration recently furthered its commitment to #ActOnClimate with new proposed standards for methane emissions to reduce pollution and protect public health.
Seeing the majesty of the deep blue icebergs up close during my exploration of Iceland was a stark reminder of just how much is at stake. Aggressive melting of the ice in the Arctic is not only affecting Iceland, but causing extreme weather events in the U.S., Asia and other parts of the world. According to NASA, Greenland and Antarctica are losing three times as much ice each year as they did in the 1990s. Summer sea-ice cover is half as big as it was from 1979 to 2000, and many scientists are predicting an ice-free Arctic by the end of the decade. Fortunately, important climate research has been underway to help us understand what’s happening as CO2 levels rise and the planet warms up.
Leading glaciologist, Dr. Jason Box, has been investigating Greenland ice sheet sensitivity to weather and climate as part of 23 expeditions to Greenland since 1994. His time camping on the inland ice exceeds one year. His Dark Snow Project investigates the forces driving the Arctic’s ice loss and looks at the causes of surface darkening on the ice sheet that's been observed over the last decade. The Dark Snow Project is important in that it’s bridging the communication gap with a wider public, connecting and informing a global audience on the key findings that give us a fuller story on climate change.
You can watch ice maverick Dr. Jason Box on Real Time with Bill Maher.
But this kind of critical climate research and communication needs to be met with action.
This year, the U.S. took on a two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council, the world’s primary intergovernmental multilateral forum on the Arctic region. We have a unique opportunity and responsibility to present a vision for addressing the impacts of climate change. Iceland’s transformation gives me great hope that we can not only transform our economy domestically and become a thriving clean energy economy, but catalyze climate action globally. The theme of the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council is a reminder that we’re all in this together: “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities.”
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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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