Superstorm Sandy Leaves a Lot of Questions

Nov 2, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

President Barack Obama hugs Donna Vanzant, the owner of North Point Marina, as he tours damage from Hurricane Sandy in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 31, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The full impact of this hurricane is still becoming known. The storm has taken at least 94 lives, including those of two small boys who were recovered after several days of searching. As a father of two young children this sent a shock wave through my psyche. I feel very fortunate that my extended family and friends along the Atlantic seaboard suffered no more than a power outage and a few lost roof shingles.

As if the floods of early 2010 and Hurricane Irene weren’t enough, the latest photos and news accounts from New Jersey and the New York City area create a smashing realization that the really massive hurricane disasters, the Katrina-like disasters which take years to recover from, aren’t just relegated to the Gulf coast and the Deep South. New England, New Jersey and the other Mid-Atlantic States, and even inland towards the Great Lake states, are all going to have to create new contingency plans for hurricane season.

The immense size and increasing ferocity of the storm’s descent on New England could be both felt and measured. On Monday afternoon a little before 1:00pm the wave height at Cashes Ledge, as indicated by its resident weather buoy 80 miles off the coast of Portland, registered 15.1 feet. About one hour later the wave height was up past 23 feet. This was about the time the trees outside my office in Washington DC started to shed small branches and the same time I’m on the phone with colleagues in Boston over 400 miles away and we are all experiencing the same storm. Do the effects of climate change create a storm such as Sandy or only increase its size and strength? Is that even a pertinent question anymore?

After a decade and a half of the issue of climate change slipping further off the edge of the political and public debate, we see media outlets this week claiming its resurgence. Bloomberg Businessweek gets the full story. The Washington Post has two columnists noting that the climate change issue is back. And, is if timed to make a couple of points, Mayor Bloomberg himself made climate change the centerpiece of his endorsement of the President. Will Sandy really help shift the dialogue, or will the climate deniers and polluters just double down?

Our reaction in the wake of the Superstorm can provide a clear indication of the future and how quickly we can embrace a more realistic, mature approach to crisis management and recovery. Can we start with an honest assessment and some better planning? Or are we going to be stuck – still – in the blatantly self-serving political posturing that avoids real measures to address climate change and its exceptionally well-predicted impacts? There are number of us in New England who both love the ocean and love to use it, and believe that better scientific information and a better process to site new and replaced infrastructure is a great direction to go. We need to develop clean energy sources. We need a healthier ocean and protected habitat. We need existing and new coastal businesses and ocean industries.  The National Ocean Policy is now ready for full implementation. Is there better time to start?

Change is Hard, Necessary: Rethinking Our Electricity System Post-Sandy

Nov 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Change is hard.

And the larger, more important and more entrenched the thing being changed, the harder it is.

There are few things that are larger and more important than our electricity system. Just ask a parent of a child who was in the intensive care unit of a New York City hospital when Hurricane Sandy wiped away the electric grid and the emergency generators failed. In some moments, like that, electricity is quite literally a life-saver.

In 1882, the world’s first practical coal fired electric power plant came online in New York. For the last fifty years coal has been the dominant fuel and backbone of our electric generation system, spawning a  massive industrial process of extracting coal from the earth, transporting it to power plants, burning it to make heat, transforming it into electricity, and finally disposing of the plants’ waste products into the air, land and water.

Given coal’s longstanding role in maintaining a stable electricity system in this country, it is not shocking that some reasonable folks find it hard to contemplate life without it – despite the evidence of the harm it causes both to human health and the environment.

But ending our dependence on the most harmful fuels to generate electricity is part of the change we need to make if we are going to avert full-on climate disaster. The hard truth is that past emissions of greenhouse gas pollution from coal plants and other dirty fuel sources have already transformed our world, warming our oceans and increasing the water vapor in our atmosphere. As a result, the weather dice are now loaded in favor of catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy, among many other effects.

Propping up and retaining our obsolete and inefficient old coal plants so they can continue to spew global warming greenhouse gases into the air is not an option – and thankfully, the economic tide in this country is starting to turn against them. But after decades of depending on coal for electricity, many wonder how we are going to keep the lights on without it. The answer, to borrow a phrase, is: “Use less electricity, mostly renewable.”

The first step is very clear: we must be much smarter and careful about how we use electricity. This means going all out in our deployment of  energy efficiency that slashes energy use at all times, and also reducing electricity demand at the moments of greatest need when the system is pressed hardest. We are evolving towards a world where highly flexible demand will simply be a routine part of our energy system – our dishwashers, cell phone chargers and air conditioners will ramp up or down their energy use based on price signals and energy system conditions.

Second, we need to redouble our commitment to develop zero emissions renewable electricity generation like wind and solar. Every watt of energy we get from those sources displaces the need for energy that comes from the burning of fossil fuels. Eventually, we will be able to store enough of that clean power to meet demand even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. But, until that technology matures, we will still require some “firming” power to fill in the gaps.

Here in the Northeast, that power is likely to come from sources like hydroelectric dams, or natural gas fired power plants, which are cleaner and cheaper than coal, but  come with their own environmental price tags. The specter of over-dependence on natural gas is the cause of much consternation in environmental and energy expert circles. And for good reason: locking ourselves into dependence on a finite imported fossil fuel would be a mistake. Instead, we need to carefully manage our transition to a new and cleaner power system, ensuring that we maintain a sufficiently diverse portfolio of resources and keep the lights on as we move surely and steadily away from fossil fuels.

The transition from dependence on coal to natural gas in our electricity system is crudely analogous to a heroin addict moving to methadone. It is a step in the right direction and movement away from a dangerous addiction, but it is still only a partial step toward toward the full recovery we need: elimination of greenhouse gas pollution from our electric system.

Fundamental change is indeed hard, but the roaring winds of Katrina, Irene and Sandy loudly remind us that we have an absolute obligation to step up and manage the transition to a better, safer and cleaner energy future.

Sandy in New England: We Can and Must Change The Pattern of Loss

Nov 1, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity are rongly in evidence in New England. Credit: Block Island Times.

Each of us personally experienced in some way Superstorm Sandy slamming into our communities all along the East Coast. For many of us, the destruction has been widespread and severe and will be long-lasting. In New England, our neighbors in Rhode Island and Connecticut have been dealt a particularly devastating blow.

It has been encouraging to see communities coming together to help those in need, neighbors helping neighbors. Resources are being devoted efficiently to alleviate human suffering and to mitigate economic and ecological harm. At times like these, when tragedy falls indiscriminately among us, it’s wonderful to realize that the sense of community and generosity, and can-do attitude, that are noble and exhilarating elements of  American society are still robust, and strongly in evidence in New England.

We are also a prudent nation, and New Englanders – conditioned by harsh winters and stony soils – have long been among the most pragmatic of Americans. We watch the weather carefully (remember the Farmer’s Almanac?) and we adapt as necessary. As Robert Frost noted, we mend stone walls, both for the sake of better functioning walls and for stronger communities. We try hard to see things clearly. And we respond with a town meeting-inspired desire to promote the general public good, with as much wisdom as we can muster.

With that perspective in mind, let’s be clear: Our climate has changed, and will change further, in ways that only encourage extreme storm activity. (Insurance companies believe this because they look at the evidence objectively – we should be just as prudent.) Furthermore, we have built more and more infrastructure in increasingly perilous places, and we have less and less money to repair and replace it. It is imperative that we start re-planning our coastal and other vulnerable zones and re-building infrastructure in them for greater resiliency, expecting more extreme weather in the future. Doing otherwise would be reckless.

Over the last four decades, the number of tropical storms that are big enough to be named has tripled. Hurricane Sandy is the 19th such storm this year alone. With a month to go before the end of the so-called hurricane season, a season which itself now starts earlier and ends later than it did four decades ago, it’s possible we will run out of letters of the alphabet before we run out the season.

Higher sea levels, warmer ocean temperatures, and ice melt off Greenland – all were factors that made this storm a “Frankenstorm.” The literary reference is not accidental, either: in significant part we made this storm ourselves, by failing to dramatically reduce climate emissions. (For more on this, see this roundup of CLF stories on climate change and Sandy, on the implications for our economy and insurance, as well as here, here and here for information on hurricanes and climate science.)

While it is true that climate change and increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are not the sole cause of this specific hurricane, they are certainly the root cause. To borrow a line from Dave Roberts at Grist, the direct cause of the pain in my knees after I run on any specific afternoon may not be the fact that I am over 50, but my advancing age certainly has the most to do with that pain. That you cannot rationally deny.

So as we help our neighbors to clean out a flooded basement or garage, as we help to clear away debris or rebuild a wall, we must also think about what we can do to change the conditions that have made these 100-year storms an almost annual event. To simplify the problem, ask yourself:

  • What is it that you can do individually to reduce our collective contribution to the root cause?
  • Can you reduce the amount of energy you use at home?
  • Can you take public transit or car pool to avoid driving alone to work?
  • Can you contact your state representative or senator, your Governor, your Congresswoman or Senator and urge them to take some action to reduce our dependence on expensive and unfriendly fuel sources or develop an actual energy plan for our country?

In addition to all of this, we must to adapt to the changes that clearly are already underway. This is an economic imperative:  there isn’t enough money in our entire economy to keep rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels, sewage treatment plants, airports, energy systems, buildings and homes where and as they currently exist.

We must improve the resiliency of our coastal zones, for starters. We’ve all seen the images: homes in Rhode Island reclaimed by the sea, seawalls in Massachusetts moved by the waves, and once dry neighborhoods turned into wetlands overnight. That’s only the destruction we can see: imagine what the seabed looks like following all of the sewage overflows, all of the debris from homes and industrial yards, and all of the traps and equipment lost by fishermen, lobstermen and boaters.

Too little attention has been paid to the state of our coastal zones, and how likely they are to ride out major storms – and storm surges – in a way that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.  We’re throwing money at maintaining public infrastructure out of habit, and in some cases we might just as well dump cash into the ocean. And risks to private property – if it’s insured we’re all sharing the costs one way or another. How long can we sustain that?  In the tradition of a New England town meeting – where a community really decides how to spend its resources, for the benefit (and cost) of current and future generations – we need to start a serious conversation about what we’re going to invest in and why.

And let’s recall that a year ago – in the wake of Irene – it was flooding in Vermont, and western Massachusetts and Connecticut that presented these questions. All of the parts of New England that are sensitive to our changing climate need our attention: we need to make decisions now that will reduce costs and enhance the quality of our lives and our environment, for generations to come.

Now is the time. Now, more than ever before, our region needs to plan and act to reduce the impacts of these storms, as well as their frequency. CLF has been working on these issues for decades. Now, we will redouble our efforts. I hope you’ll join us in doing just that.

The New Normal: A Post-Sandy Point of View

Oct 31, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

A cottage teeters on the shore at Roy Carpenter's Beach in South Kingstown, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: NBC News 10

What do the 2010 March Floods, Hurricane Irene, and Tropical Storm Sandy all have in common? These three 100-year events (meaning there is a 1% chance of this type of storm happening once a year) have all occurred within the past two and half years.

Failing to change how we view significant storm events (e.g., it’s just a fluke), affects how well and whether we plan for future storm events. Viewing these storms as “just a bad run,” or “ a freak storm” denies the reality of a changing climate and its effect on weather, precipitation and the severity of storms. In this way, our point of view can threaten our ability to change our approach to development and planning in a way that preserves our assets for future generations. Ultimately this short-sighted point of view is used to justify an unwillingness to move away from static planning concepts, like planning for a 100-year flood, which, to be sure, allows for more development short-term, but, is of little use when planning the life expectancy of coastal development or construction already along our river banks and in our flood plains.

After the March 2010 floods submerged and disabled three major municipal sewer treatment facilities for more than a week, wiped out dams and bridges, destroyed homes and business built along the banks of the Pawtuxet River, and pushed massive areas of pavement up with surges of water from swollen rivers, and, after incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, what did we do? We left our sewer treatment facilities where they were; continued to plan for and permit development for 100-year storms; rebuilt the bridges; repaved the parking lots that were built within the flood plains of major rivers; talked about how we could get environmental regulations out of the way of job creation and economic development, and; tried to get back to normal.

We did the same after Hurricane Irene (a category 1 storm that left half of state’s residents without power, many for more than a week, and which resulted mandatory evacuations for low-lying communities including Charlestown, Narragansett, South Kingstown, and Westerly over storm-surge related concerns. We fixed the roofs, removed the trees, restored power, and petitioned the coastal management agency for the construction of 202 foot seawall (price tag, about a million dollars) in Matunuck to guard against storm surge and erosion.

The goal always the same:  just try to get back to normal as quickly as possible.

Piles of sand plowed from Matunuck Beach Road, South Kingstown, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Credit: NBC News 10

In the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Sandy, our third major storm event in less than three years, and a storm that resulted in more serious damage in some of our coastal communities than was experienced during the Hurricane of 1938 (portions of the seawall in Narragansett dislodged; homes and businesses shattered all along the coast; infrastructure, like the bath house and boardwalk in Galilee, washed away; mounds of sand covering roads throughout South County, and breakers compromised) – maybe we should start asking ourselves, “What is normal?”

Because to “get back to normal” under a planning regime and system-wide frame of mind that does not understand, appropriately consider, or strategically plan for the effects of climate change on our coastline, our natural resources, our communities and our economy; well, that is not  “normal” at all. If all we’ve learned as a result of these past three storms is to get milk and water, buy a generator, install a sump pump, get flood insurance, trim down branches and trees that might fall on power lines; and bring in more line and more contractors to assist with power outages, then we haven’t really learned anything at all.

Does it makes sense to rebuild infrastructure, at a significant cost to the taxpayers, in areas that we know will continue to be vulnerable? Should we seize the opportunity to undo a past planning decision that undermined the ability of a natural system to absorb flooding or protect against storm surge and erosion, like removing parking lots that were paved over marshes, and wetlands, or removing hard shoreline structures that accelerate erosion along the beaches? Should we be planning for 500-year or 1,000 floods (the Netherlands and Japan protect their residents against a 10,000-year flood)?

We cannot continue to plan and build according to standards that don’t contemplate climate change and its effects on our built and natural environment. Ignoring the policy and economic conversations that need to happen about the costs of coastal protection versus costs of land-use relocation as well as the potential for movement of populations and infrastructure is irresponsible and will come at a great price.

Sandy Roundup: CLF on Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

Oct 31, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

A wave crashes over a seawall on the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy in Kennebunk, Maine, on October 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

By now, you have undoubtedly seen the photos – Manhattan’s flooded streets and subway system, fallen trees in Massachusetts, debris littering beaches and towns up and down the Eastern seaboard. Sandy’s impacts were not only widespread, reaching from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia, but they were record-breaking in severity. It is no exaggeration to say that the effects of climate change are being felt – not tomorrow or in any other vague future – but right now. Today.

We have rounded up a selection of CLF’s articles on Hurricane Sandy, on climate change and on the connection between a warming climate and increasing weather volatility.

Here is a selection of our articles:

On Sandy:

On Climate Change:

On CLF’s Advocacy Work related to Climate Change:

On Hurricanes:

 

Reacting to Sandy Across New England: News Coverage

Oct 30, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Thrill seekers at Hampton Beach in Hampton, N.H., on Oct. 29. Cheryl Senter For The Boston Globe

As Hurricane Sandy, the “Frankenstorm,” bore down on the East Coast Monday, the widespread and devastating impacts were immediately felt. With 30 deaths confirmed as of writing, 7 million people without power, and an anticipated $20 Billion in damages, the severity of the impacts cannot be exaggerated.

We have compiled a selection of great coverage on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts state-by-state across New England, as well as the connection between increasingly volatile storm systems and climate change.

On Hurricane Sandy and its Impacts:

Rhode Island:

Massachusetts:

Maine:

Vermont:

New Hampshire:

On Sandy, Hurricanes, and Climate Change:

Brace for Impact – Heavy Weather Ahead (and a Changing Climate is Part of the Reason It is Happening)

Oct 25, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

If you have a sense that this business of hurricanes becoming routine in October is new and that we didn’t use to have to worry about such storms with names starting with S, T and higher in the alphabet so much in the past then you are correct.

As Hurricane Sandy (no relation to CLF’s ace Vermont Senior Attorney Sandy Levine) moves up the coast it is worth noting that some of the sharpest observers of our climate and weather, like the founder of weather website Weather Underground the redoubtable Dr. Jeff Masters, are seeing a very real relationship between our changing climate and the advent of these “perfect storms” that bring tropical and winter weather into a fiendish collaboration.  As Dr. Masters writes (note sentence I have underlined in particular):

The Northeast U.S. scenario

If Sandy makes landfall farther to the north near Maine and Nova Scotia, heavy rains will be the main threat, since the cold waters will weaken the storm significantly before landfall. The trees have fewer leaves farther to the north, which will reduce the amount of tree damage and power failures compared to a more southerly track. However, given that ocean temperatures along the Northeast U.S. coast are about 5°F above average, there will be an unusually large amount of water vapor available to make heavy rain. If the trough of low pressure approaching the East Coast taps into the large reservoir of cold air over Canada and pulls down a significant amount of Arctic air, the potential exists for the unusually moist air from Sandy to collide with this cold air from Canada and unleash the heaviest October rains ever recorded in the Northeast U.S., Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. This Northeast U.S. scenario would probably cause damages near $100 million dollars.

 The story is clear and frightening.  Warmer water (a clear part of the story of global warming) is keeping these tropical storms alive later and later in the year and putting water into the atmosphere that then pours down on us in these storms.

And you were wondering why we were so intent on taking the steps needed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming? The answer is very clear: self-preservation.

Really Cool Event About “Doing the Math” and Taking on the Fossil Fuel Forces of Doom

Oct 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

There comes a time when you just have to say that enough is enough.

That is where we are in the world of climate advocacy.

As Bill McKibben laid out in his essay on Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math we can no longer ignore the deep and fundamental need for action to save our climate, our families, our communities and our environment from catastrophe – and that there are powerful, entrenched and well-financed forces who will do just about anything to thwart our efforts.

The primary tools that CLF employs in the fight for climate protection are law, science and economics.  We fight for a thriving New England in court and work with smart business people to build markets for renewable energy like wind farms and to foster energy efficiency, the clean resource all around us.  And we are fighting to ensure that the governments of the region live up to their pledges to create great places where there is more walking and less driving and more of the remaining cars pollute less. We know that this work is essential if we are going to win the war to save our climate.

Courtesy 350.org

But sometimes we need to do more. One thing we need to do, in addition to our calm and civil lawyerly work, is to get angry and push back in the right ways at the right times and in the right places.  This is the spirit behind the Cape Wind Now! campaign that CLF and its partners have launched to call out the fossil fuel powered interests fighting against renewable energy. It is also the driving force behind the Do The Math tour and campaign led by 350.0rg.

And now it is coming to a concert hall near you. This event is a unique blend of “multimedia lecture . . . organizing rally [and] live musical performance” that is not to be missed. CLF has helped to arrange for this important effort to land at the historic Orpheum Theater in Boston on November 15 – tickets are still available!

Before coming the Boston the tour stops in Portland Maine on November 13 and then off on a cross-country odyssey from New York to Los Angeles, to Seattle and then Colorado and many stops in between and on the way.

The Price of Cranberries: Other Crops Rise & Fall With Changing Climate

Oct 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

New England Cranberry Harvest. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs @ flickr

Cranberries. Fall is the season for the sweet-tart fruit from this New England crop, grown and enjoyed across the region for generations. According to a recent story in the Portland Press Herald, this year’s crop looks especially abundant due to unusually warm weather. But these changes could come at a cost that’s greater than the price of cranberries to accompany your holiday turkey.

According to a Cooperative Extension cranberry specialist quoted in the Press Herald, the reason for the bumper crop may be warmer weather related to climate change. What’s more, this trend could make it possible to successfully grow other crops not usually found in northern New England, like peaches. One farmer has already decided to plant kiwi.

CLF is partnering with the American Farmland Trust and the New England Sustainable Agriculture working group to advance the regionally-produced share of agricultural products in our grocery stores, and to sustain New England’s working farms. With that goal in mind, this expansion of crops and diversification of business may seem like good news.  As any working farmer will tell you, adapting to changing conditions by selecting new varieties and hedging against loss is something they do all the time. But as that same farmer would tell you, gaining the opportunity for one new crop will likely come at the expense of losing another.

Cranberries did well this year because of an exceptionally early thaw. Many maple syrup producers, on the other hand, struggled with a much shorter tapping season, a situation that is becoming more likely every year. The maple trees will still be there (they grow as far south as Virginia), but the sap we love as syrup won’t flow if the ground hasn’t frozen for the required time.

Up with cranberries and down with maple syrup – the rise of one may come with the fall of the other. Is this a cost we are willing to accept?

Even though the exact path of climate change affecting both New England and New England’s agriculture remains uncertain, one thing is clear: our climate is changing – a reality already documented in the northern migration of harmful insects and the redrawing of the USDA plant hardiness map.  While we may applaud the efforts of New England farmers to adapt to changing circumstances and become more “climate resilient,” we can’t afford to ignore what’s causing the changes in the first place.  We need to do more to reduce the greenhouse gas pollution causing global warming. Our current climate trajectory involves risks, the scope of which we’re still trying to understand – and likely won’t be able to fully map until it’s far too late.

And so, as much I enjoy Maine peaches, it’s important that we recognize that there will be climate change winners and losers. Not only will this be on the farm: it will be true across New England’s economy. CLF’s support for sustainable regional agriculture, whether in a vacant lot in Boston or northern Aroostook County, Maine, will be critical.

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