945 Toxic Waste Sites at Risk of Disaster From Climate Crisis
The climate crisis has put at least 945 designated toxic waste sites at severe risk of disaster from escalating wildfires, floods, rising seas and other climate-related disasters, according to a new study from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), as the AP reported.
The country's most contaminated spots that pose an imminent threat to human health or the environment are designated Superfund sites. That means cleaning them up is a national priority. The EPA has identified more than 500 contaminants at Superfund sites, including arsenic, lead and mercury.
However, the GAO found that efforts to secure the toxic waste have weakened as the Trump administration plays down their threat, according to the AP.
Senate Democrats responded to the report in a letter to the EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler demanding an explanation for agency leaders' "failure to embrace addressing climate change as a strategic objective," according to the Washington Post.
"We believe that EPA's refusal to implement GAO's recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense," the lawmakers wrote to Wheeler, as the Washington Post reported.
The GAO report looked at 1,571 Superfund sites and found that six out of 10 are vulnerable to extreme weather caused by the climate crisis. The GAO produced an interactive map that shows each of the 945 vulnerable sites. It is color-coded to show if the site is threatened by wildfires, hurricanes, storm surge, sea-level rise, or coastal and river flooding, as the Verge reported.
The study recommended that the EPA start incorporating the climate crisis into its decision making for toxic waste sites and its risk assessments for the Superfund sites.
The EPA however has continued to deny the climate crisis as a threat to the Superfund sites, according to the GAO report. The EPA does not include the climate crisis in its agency-wide policies, which stops the EPA from tackling the risks at contaminated sites as the planet heats up and extreme weather events increase in frequency, duration and intensity, as Inside Climate News reported.
The EPA issued a statement that was largely dismissive of the report. The statement also managed to avoid mentioning climate change.
"The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program's existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, that may increase in intensity, duration, or frequency, are woven into risk response decisions at non-federal [National Priorities List] sites," EPA Assistant Administrator Peter Wright said in a statement Monday, as the AP reported.
The GAO decided to look into the safety of Superfund sites after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 brought record rains to Houston and caused one toxic site to spring a leak, as BuzzFeed News reported. Floodwaters there eroded an "armored cap" that sealed off dioxins and other toxins linked to cancer and nerve damage. In the wake of the storm, officials tested that water sediment. They found that dioxin levels in the sediment were 2,000 times above what the EPA allows, according to the Houston Chronicle.
"We can no longer ignore the fact that the climate crisis is here and it's in our backyard," Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat and one of the members of Congress that pushed GAO to investigate the issue, said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News. "This report underscores that protecting our communities requires us to demand that the EPA incorporates climate change into its cleanup plans for current and future Superfund sites."
The EPA's refusal to take the climate crisis into account has not only angered lawmakers, but also baffled experts.
"The report raises critical issues that are not being addressed," said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law, who was not involved in the GAO study, to the Washington Post. "It's a huge shortcoming not to take climate change into consideration."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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