Forty-thousand heat records have already been broken this year across the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here in Fredericksburg, Va., the signs of an unbalanced climate system have been felt in recent years not just in heat waves, but increasingly in the form of unusually severe wind storms. This past weekend’s storm brought 80 mph wind gusts that snapped three trees in our backyard like pretzels, even though they were each a foot thick. Once again, my insurance company is teaching me new weather terminology to explain the latest climate disasters. A few years ago, the term was “micro-bursts” (not quite tornadoes, but similar impact). Now it is “derecho” (not quite hurricanes, but similar impact).
Whatever you call it, we need to face up to the fact that our weather has turned dangerous because our climate is breaking down. Virginia has had 27 national disaster declarations due to storms in the past 20 years, three times as many as the prior 20 years. Meanwhile, wildfires and droughts are threatening people and wildlife elsewhere in the nation, particularly in the West, including the National Wildlife Federation’s staff in Colorado. More than two million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires already this year. Global warming has created longer wildfire seasons in the West due to heat and drought (warmer winters have also allowed pests to flourish, killing large numbers of pine trees that add fuel to the fires).
The current heat wave and climate disasters shouldn’t be catching us by surprise. Since the year 2000, we have witnessed nine of the ten hottest years ever recorded, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which tracks global surface temperatures. The first three months of this year has been the warmest first quarter ever in the U.S., and March was an alarming 8 degrees warmer than average. As the planet heats, weather patterns are destabilized. Warm air sucks more water from the ground and holds more water (about 4 percent more for every 1 degree F increase in temperature). That’s one of the reasons our warming planet has been creating historic droughts out West and dumping torrential rains in the Midwest (in Iowa, for example, there have been four “100-year” flood events in the past 5 years and 17 emergency disaster declarations for floods in the past two decades).
Scary Weather is a Warning: We Need to Act
For the moment, we are paying attention to the weatherman, and the weather is scary. But the media is still asleep at the switch when it comes to reporting the real story: What is causing this climate to unravel? The U.S. National Academy of Sciences completed an exhaustive review of scientific research and concluded more forcefully than ever in a landmark 2011 report that pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes is destabilizing our climate. Here is how they put it in scientific terms:
“Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. … The sooner that serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions proceed, the lower the risks posed by climate change, and the less pressure there will be to make larger, more rapid, and potentially more expensive reductions later.”
Clear enough? If not, here is a strong hint of what is going on: In the past 50 years, we have added one trillion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and natural gas (Source: U.S. Department of Energy). Over this time, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 23 percent, from 322 ppm to 397 ppm (Source: Mauna Loa Record, Scripps CO2 Program).
We can’t do anything about yesterday’s weather, but we need to be responsible stewards of the world we shape for our kids and future generations. We want to pass on a natural world full of abundant wildlife, but wildlife species are increasingly at risk as climate change threatens the very existence of thousands of species. Pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes is loading the dice and increasing the likelihood of more frequent and increasingly severe storms and heat waves. If we don’t talk about the source of the problems, then we can’t do anything about it. The decisions we make today will shape the future for generations to come. Why? Because much of the heat-trapping carbon pollution we put into the atmosphere will increase CO2 levels for centuries and even millennia. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report on the state of climate science:
“About 50 percent of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30 percent will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20 percent may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.”
So What Can We Do?
All we lack is the determination and leadership to change course on energy. We need more businesses to provide better energy options than are currently available to families. Some companies are out in front, including automobile manufacturers who have embraced goals of doubling the fuel economy of their vehicles by 2025. But other companies, such as Dominion Power here in Virginia, are dragging their heels and doing more to block the march to cleaner energy than help.
The best and first solution to reduce our “carbon footprint” on the planet is to stop wasting energy. Energy has long been taken for granted by consumers and businesses alike; we waste far more of it than we need to. We need to each do our part and pay more attention to how we use energy. But we also need to get more ambitious as a nation to bring to market the abundant ideas and technologies engineers and entrepreneurs have to cut energy waste.
To supply the energy we need, we have to rapidly accelerate the switch away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar—energy sources that don’t pollute and don’t run out. These homegrown energy sources create jobs installing and maintaining the technologies. America already has 2.7 million clean economy jobs building a healthier environment, and clean energy is one of the fastest growing sources of good paying jobs in the nation. In addition, we depend on America’s great outdoors for 6 million jobs in the outdoor recreation industries, contributing $730 billion to the U.S. economy.
Wishful thinking won’t make this happen. America has vast wind, solar and geothermal resources, and the affordability and efficiency of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar have been improving by leaps and bounds. But solar, wind and geothermal still account for less than 3 percent of U.S. electricity. The growth of these industries is being held back by the entrenched fossil fuel energy companies who are quite happy selling us coal and oil. American families and businesses spend $3 billion every day on oil, coal and natural gas.
It’s up to each of us to do what we can, but we won’t get the change we need unless we hold the politicians we elect accountable to make sure that energy companies everywhere are doing their fair share. Congress continues to dole out billions of dollars to oil companies while vital tax credits for renewable energy are set to expire at the end of this year.
But there is one bright spot that could mark a turning point in whether we are getting serious about carbon pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed clean air standards to limit industrial carbon pollution from new power plants. Polluters are launching a fierce counterattack and spending lavishly on lobbying and campaign contributions. One thing you can do right now is to join the more than two million Americans who have written the EPA to support their new carbon standards. More Americans have supported this rule than any other federal rule in history.
It’s only a start, but standing up now for a better future is the right thing to do. And who knows? Perhaps we can get some wind at our backs to take us where we need to go.
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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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