March 31, 2006

Build An Ark

Thedayafterseattle_1 A fascinating (and alarming) new way to procrastinate at work understand the effects of climate change: Flood Maps.

Using elevation data in combination with Google's map technology, you can create a visual depiction of rising sea levels right in your own neighborhood. Start at 7 meters and work your way up to 14. Truly, it's amazing. The satellite "photo" at left is what downtown Seattle would look like with a 7 meter rise in sea levels: adieu Georgetown, Harbor Island, Interbay, and SoDo. I copped this one from Alex over at WorldChanging.

Also at WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio has a good post on Flood Maps and the science of rising sea levels.

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March 24, 2006

The Gore-y Details

GoreI have PowerPoint envy.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see Al Gore's presentation on climate change. A remarkably thorough-going look at the consquences, Gore somehow managed to be simultaneously panic-inducing and inspiring. Not only was his slideshow easily the best slideshow I've ever seen on this, or any other, subject, but Gore himself was a study in mastery--at once funny and earnest, erudite and thundering. (Where was this guy during the 2000 campaign?) If you ever have a chance to see him speak on global warming, drop what you're doing and run, don't walk.

Trying to recap his talk in a blog post would be an exercise in futility. You know the drill by now anyway: collapsing ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, spreading diseases, hurricanes, and floods. The punishment that climate change promises to inflict is downright biblical in scale--a punishment that will fall especially hard on the poorest and weakest on earth. And so it was good to hear Gore's booming declaration that arresting climate change is not a political issue, but a basic moral one.

Gore was here in Seattle, you may know, because of mayor Greg Nickels' pledge to bring Seattle into compliance with Kyoto--a pledge that 218 other cities have joined. Today marked the release of the city's Green Ribbon Commission report that details how Seattle will get there. Media coverage here and here.

I'll wrap up with a quote that Gore included as a spur to decisionmakers today. This is Winston Churchill as the gathering forces of facism were darkening Europe:

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”

Update 3/24/06, 2pm: An alert reader informs me that Lawrence, Kansas joined Seattle's Kyoto pledge today, bringing the total number of cities to 219. (Incidentally, nearly 44 million Americans live in cities that have pledged to meet Kyoto's standards.)

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March 08, 2006

Shocker: Global Warming Bad For Skiing

Snow_5A new study from researchers at Oregon State University, showing that warming trends are likely to have significant effects on snowpack. (Good articles in the Seattle Times and the Oregonian.) The Northwest's coastal mountains are especially sensitive to climate change because temperatures frequently hover near freezing--so even slight warming can drastically reduce the amount of snow that accumulates. (For localized details, click on the image at right, from the Seattle Times.)

By 2040, if warming trends continue as predicted:

    • About 3,600 square miles of low-elevation terrain usually covered by snow during the winter would be dominated by rainfall.
    • Nearly 22 percent of the snow-covered areas of the Oregon Cascades and 12.5 percent of the snow areas of the Washington Cascades would shift to a rain-dominated winter climate.
    • More than 60 percent of the Olympic Range's snow-covered area would have rain-dominated winters.

The OSU findings aren't exactly revolutionary, but they are more evidence that the Northwest has particular reason to be concerned about the impacts of climate change. And the snowpack affects a lot more important aspects of life in the region than just skiing: salmon run, irrigated farms, residential water supplies, and so on.

(During last year's lousy winter, when my skis stayed closet-bound, I blogged about this subject a bit.)

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March 01, 2006

Beetle Battle

Beetle_trees_3From the Washington Post, an article worth reading on a subject that's depressingly well-known to Canadians, but probably unfamiliar to most Americans: the mountain pine beetle outbreak devastating forests in British Columbia. The damage has been colossal:

Surveys show the beetle has infested 21 million acres and killed 411 million cubic feet of trees -- double the annual take by all the loggers in Canada. In seven years or sooner, the Forest Service predicts, that kill will nearly triple and 80 percent of the pines in the central British Columbia forest will be dead.

Meanwhile, the beetle is moving eastward. It has breached the natural wall of the Rocky Mountains in places, threatening the tourist treasures of national forest near Banff, Alberta, and is within striking distance of the vast Northern Boreal Forest that reaches to the eastern seaboard.

Foresters and researchers agree that the principle culprit is global warming (because warmer winters, even by a few degrees, have not been severe enough to kill the native beetle and supress its now-exponential population growth). So the pine beetle infestation is worrisome, not only for the severe ecological impacts, but also because it appears to be an early sign of the devastation to be wrought by a warming atmosphere.

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February 08, 2006

The Church, Sweden, and Tom Friedman

In the US, January 2006 was the warmest January on record--and the records extend back to 1895. So it's apropos that today also heralded an unusual alignment of actors, all striving to address climate change (and accomplish some other things too).

Sweden vows to one-up President Bush's pledge to break America's addiction to oil. The Scandinavian country of 9 million pledged to end its dependency on oil by 2020, for economic as well as environmental reasons. Ambitious, to say the least.

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues strongly for a high federal gas tax--as a matter of national security. [Pay subscription required.] Friedman quotes a foreign policy expert saying, "We have a Marshall Plan. It's our energy policy. It's a Marshall plan for terrorists and dictators."

And perhaps most importantly, a group of 86 major US evangelical leaders signs onto an initiative to combat global warming. Among the supporters are such influential leaders as Rick Warren (megachurch pastor and author of The Purpose-Driven Life), Ted Haggard, (pastor of New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals), and Duane Litfin (president of Wheaton College).

The group's statement is worth reading. It argues that, "Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action."

The Cascadian leaders joining the pledge are...

  • Dr. Jay A. Barber, Jr., President, Warner Pacific College, Portland, OR
  • H. David Brandt, Ph.D., President, George Fox University, Newberg, OR
  • Brent Hample, Executive Director, India Partners, Eugene OR
  • Jennifer Jukanovich, Founder, The Vine, Seattle, WA
  • Brian O'Connell, President, REACT Services; Founder and Former Executive Director, Religious Liberty Commission, World Evangelical Alliance; Mill Creek, WA
  • William P. Robinson, Ph.D., President, Whitworth College, Spokane, WA
  • Richard Stearns, President, World Vision, Federal Way, WA
  • John Warton, President, Business Professional Network, Portland, OR

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January 30, 2006

A Post-mortem For Coastal Birds

Cascadians suffering through this winter's unending rain may hearken back to the balmy winter of last year, when the rains didn't really begin until spring. Last year's freak weather, however, together with changes in ocean current behavior, may have been an advance signal of climate change with decidedly unpretty results for coastal ecosystems, particularly for birds. 

By summer of 2005, food was so scare that murres starved to death by the thousands on the Olympic Coast, while Washington's colonies of glaucous-winged gulls produced less than 1 percent of their annual chick numbers. Up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver Island to central California, researchers reported bizarre ocean conditions, bird die-offs (with no analogy in historical records), and extremely low stocks of some key fish. 

A cadre of 45 scientists recently convened in Seattle to figure out what caused the bird deaths. It's possible that last summer's ecological catastrophe was just a freak alignment of several weather factors, but there's increasing evidence that it bears the fingerprints of climate change. Read all about it in a top-notch piece of journalism by Robert McClure in the Seattle P-I.

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January 23, 2006

Green Saves Green

A couple of new studies have found that California can meet its ambitious 2010 goals for reducing climate-warming emissions at no net cost to consumers.  And, even better, meeting the even more stringent 2020 goals could actually save consumers money:

"It's basically a very good news story," said Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, an environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C. "We found you could do this very cheaply."

Now, I haven't looked at the studies--and I might not really be able to judge their quality even if I had.  By their nature, studies like this tend to be speculative: they show what could happen, but not necessarily what will.

Still, this seems extremely plausible to me.  Despite a period of relatively high oil and gas prices, energy is still pretty cheap relative to our incomes.  And as a general rule, cheap energy means wasted energy. Consumers tend to demand very short payback periods for energy efficiency investments--usually, just a couple of years at most.  While most businesses would be ecstatic to take advantage of such fast rates of return, most households, apparently, aren't run to the same fianancial standards.  Which means that there's still a lot of very cost-effective energy efficiency investments out there--things that could easily pay back any initial investment in short order.  That's as true in the transportation sector as in the home:  we already know, for example, how to boost vehicle efficiency without compromising safety.

The benefits to consumers from energy effiency investments are, if anything, likely to compound.  Once you hit the payback period, energy efficiency is like a cash cow -- it just keeps saving and saving. (And saving.)  Plus, since most of California's energy from oil, gas, and coal comes from out of state, energy efficiency investments will tend to keep more of California consumers' money circulating in the local economy--which can be an effective way to boost demand for local goods and services.

All in all, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see a push to reduce global warming emissions resulting in a substantial boost to California's economy over the long term.  But we'll just have to wait and see how the state responds to the news.

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January 13, 2006

The Backyard Bog

BogNot quite two months ago, my wife and I became home owners. We love it. But in additional to the pride of ownership, there are also the worries: Can we really afford this house? Should we get earthquake insurance? Why does a small lake appear in the backyard when it rains?

That last one has been on our minds a lot lately. After 26 consecutive days of rain (and counting) here in Seattle, there's a frighteningly large pool of water that has swamped the roses and turned the lawn into something resembling the Everglades. My dad jokingly suggested that we stock it with trout. But I have a better idea: I'm going to landscape my way out of the problem.

There's a growing movement in sustainable landscaping that emphasizes not only native plants and summer drought tolerance, but also managing water runoff during our many wet months. Lisa Stiffler over at Dateline Earth (the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's environmental blog) puts it thus:

The gist of it is this: By creating some very shallow depressions in your landscaping and planting them with hardy grasses, shrubs and trees in well-draining soil and covering the ground with a thin layer of mulch, you can catch and slow the flow of rainwater. This "rain garden" gives the stormwater a chance to soak into the dirt, helping trap pollutants and preventing the water from harming streams where salmon and other cool creatures chill out.

Lisa also includes a bevy of links to handy resources. Check them out.

In particular, I'm fascinated by some advice from the Puget Sound Action Team. They describe how one home owner in Shoreline, Washington--who was similarly cursed with saturated soils--created a bog garden. He built a retention pond and used a variety of plants to create a yard that can process an estimated 10,800 gallons of water a year on his quarter-acre lot. Total cost? Just $600.

Landscaping for water management helps ameliorate some of the environmental effects of impervious surfaces: less pollution runs off roofs and city streets. And during storms, less water deluges the city drain system that discharges untreated sewage into the Sound when it gets overloaded. Plus, there's another benefit: I won't be freaked out about my basement flooding.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me. I'm going to start digging just as soon as this rain stops.

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January 03, 2006

The Year that States Took a Stand

States_climate_change_1 Here's something to celebrate as we begin a new year: With Oregon's decision to adopt clean-car standards late in December, all three West Coast states will be implementing this landmark program for reducing global warming pollution simultaneously, beginning with the 2009 model year. Six other states--including Massachusetts, which signed on last week--have also adopted the stronger standards.

This is a great example of the groundswell of state and local action that stood in stark contrast to the posture of federal negotiators during the recent UN Climate Conference in Montreal. While the negotiators walked out, a new America walked in for the world to see: States, cities, businesses, and citizens from all over the United States who are committed to this urgent campaign for solutions. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels was an especially strong ambassador for this new US engagement.

As 2006 begins, I remember what Frances Moore Lappe said: "Hope is a stance, not a calculation." But here's my calculation anyway: Across a very wide spectrum of our society, a consensus is emerging that we must end our dependence on fossil fuels and accelerate the clean energy transition, and it's our generation's job to do it. You can see it in Olympia and Salem and Boise and D.C., with electeds from both sides of the aisle clamoring to support new energy security initiatives. This issue will feature prominently in midterm elections. This is the beginning.

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October 27, 2005

The Coverage of Climate Change

There's this cheery bit from the Christian Science Monitor: as climate change continues, the Northwest is expected to warm faster than the rest of the planet. In fact, according to climate scientists, the Puget Sound region has already been warming at a "substantially greater" rate than the earth as a whole.

Apart from the usual dire ecological problems--shrinking snowpack, screwed up streamflows, rising sea levels--the news is precipitating considerable worry from some economists. As the article has it:

Economists in the region warn that this could come with a big price tag. Global warming "is likely to impose significant economic costs," 52 leading economists from around the country warned in a recent letter to government and business officials in Oregon.

"The adjustments that businesses, households, and communities will have to make are without precedent," the economists wrote. "Many changes seem largely unavoidable, and some are clearly imminent."

For just one example of the costs of climate change, remember the Northwest's ski industry, which took a beating last winter because of the lousy snowfall. Today's Seattle Times covers the ski industry's woes and, in a positive development for media coverage of this issue, the Times mentions the connection to climate change (though in an oddly elliptical way).

Readers of this blog may remember that I covered this ski-less season ad nauseum last winter (here, here, and here, for example). Despite tons of Northwest media coverage of the skimpy snowfall--and a pretty direct link to climate change--the media almost never attributed the shuttered businesses to climate change. But less than a year later, the media appears to have (finally) connected the dots--yet another promising sign that the public consciousness of global warming is evolving rapidly, if none too soon.

UPDATE: Seattle's conference, ""The Future Ain't What It Used to Be -- Planning for Climate Disruption" was attended by a number of heavy-hitters, including Christine Todd Whitman. Read the coverage in the Seattle Times, here, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, here.

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