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No Shockers in White House Climate Report

The Obama Administration released a much-vaunted update on climate change today. In its nearly 200 pages, the report contains no new data and few new conclusions on the pace and impact of climate change across the U.S. Rather it affirms the core findings of recent research and sounds the alarm for rapid, definitive action to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for changes already on the way.

In a statement from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Evan Mills, one of the report’s 28 co-authors, calls it “the most thorough and up-to-date review ever assembled of climate-change impacts observed to date as well as those anticipated in the future across the United States.” Mills is one of two northern California scientists listed in the report’s credits, along with Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

One clear signal from the report is that it’s time to move adaptation strategies to the front burner; preparing for climate effects already in the pipeline.

Louis Blumberg directs the California climate change team for The Nature Conservancy, and told me in a telephone interview this morning, “I would say it’s a very clear signal that even if we dramatically reduce emissions immediately, which we need to do as soon as possible, we’ve already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere where we’re going to have have significant changes to our way of life. And we need to begin now and plan to adapt to these unavoidable impacts and I think this report underscores that urgency.”

But neither Blumberg nor Mills have given up on the mitigation side. Mills says “the good news is that the harshest impacts of future climate change can be avoided if the nation takes deliberate action soon.”

Here is a summary of  “key findings,” taken directly from the report:

1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.

Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow.

Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase.

Climate changes are already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, and health. These impacts are different from region to region and will grow under projected climate change.

4. Climate change will stress water resources.

Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage.

5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.

Agriculture is considered one of the sectors most adaptable to changes in climate. However, increased heat, pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production.

6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.

Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected.

7. Threats to human health will increase.

Health impacts of climate change are related to heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Robust public health infrastructure can reduce the potential for negative impacts.

8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses.

Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone.

9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems.

There are a variety of thresholds in the climate system and ecosystems. These thresholds determine, for example, the presence of sea ice and permafrost, and the survival of species, from fish to insect pests, with implications for society. With further climate change, the crossing of additional thresholds is expected.

10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable.

On KQED Public Radio’s Forum for Wednesday, 6/17

9am Forum with Michael Krasny
White House Climate Report
We discuss the report, as well as federal climate change legislation from Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. Guests include Dan Kammen, professor of energy at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment; and Katharine Hayhoe, professor of geophysics at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the climate study.

Transportation’s Tricky Carbon Footprint

Kristine Wong is our Climate Watch intern for the current term. She’s a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

interchange_0145_blogStudy comparing environmental impact of transportation modes yields surprising results

By Kristine Wong

You may not believe that during peak commute hours, Boston’s light rail system generates more greenhouse gases (GHGs) per person than a gas-powered, fully occupied SUV–or a commercial airliner filled to capacity, traveling the same distance.

Yet this is what UC Berkeley researchers found in a study released this week. Mikhail Chester and Arpad Horvath compared the environmental impacts of cars, buses, planes, and rail after adding up all the energy costs and emissions (both GHGs and local air pollutants) over their entire life cycle–not just by what came out of the tailpipe. The authors say no such comprehensive study had been done before.

The researchers developed a method that evaluated each transportation mode based on the energy inputs needed for production and maintenance of the vehicle itself. They also looked at the infrastructure for each mode, such as construction of supporting components like rail station platforms and airport runways, bus and rail station lighting and parking, and the source of  power for each mode (e.g. gasoline, jet fuel, diesel or electric–and the costs of distributing and producing these inputs).

In total, Chester and Horvath compared 79 components across all transportation modes. Within each they also selected a few variations to represent differences, depending on factors such as vehicle make and mileage, passenger occupancy, and size.

The results were both logical and surprising. Most of the energy consumed and GHG emissions from auto, bus and air travel originated from the operational period, not from the materials needed to produce and maintain the vehicles. Rail produced the greatest amount of GHGs compared to all other modes over their life cycle. But Chester and Horvath point out that there is a big difference in GHG emissions from light rail systems in the Bay Area versus, say, Boston due to the portion of fossil fuel-based electricity used. Boston’s fuel mix is 82% fossil, while the Bay Area’s BART system clocks in at just 49% fossil fuel–a major factor in efficiency and GHG emission rates.

Finally, passenger occupancy was a key factor influencing efficiency. Not surprisingly, each mode was most efficient when used to capacity. But the researchers caution that boosting passenger occupancy is not a magic bullet. They say minimizing fossil fuel inputs and adding pollution filters and controls would have a greater effect on efficiency.

Chester and Horvath say that they hope their results will provide a framework for more comprehensive analysis of the environmental impacts of transportation, and to assess the impact of hybrid or electric vehicles and alternative energy sources such as biofuels, solar power, and wind power, none of which were included in the study.

There are more details of the study posted at the websites for Green Car Congress and Sustainable Transportation.

Change Your Diet, Change the Climate?

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Climate Watch contributor David Gorn has been looking at the link between climate and the food we eat. His latest report aired recently on NPR’s All Things Considered.

So I have to admit, when I first got this story assignment from National Public Radio, my reaction was mixed. You want to reduce global carbon emissions by changing your personal DIET? Oh, come on. I mean, how much of an impact could diet change have on climate change?

Quite a bit, apparently.

A United Nations report says livestock accounts for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses, much of it from the methane produced by cows, as well as goats and sheep.

Shipping beef and dairy products across the country and around the globe also contributes heavily to that carbon footprint, in the form of emissions from trains, planes and trucks.

So the idea is that by cutting out beef and cheese from your personal diet, you can significantly reduce your personal carbon footprint. Chris Jones, a staff researcher at UC Berkeley’s Institute of the Environment, says the production and distribution of beef, pork, lamb and cheese are particularly high offenders on the greenhouse gas emissions chart.

In my story for All Things Considered, I focused on an Earth Day event where the University of San Francisco cafeteria and about 400 other food service outlets across the country, managed by Palo Alto-based Bon Appetit, were cutting all beef and cheese out of the menu for one day. Yes, no cheeseburgers in a university cafeteria. Scary thought, eh? The students didn’t seem to flinch, though.

It looks like this approach to the low-carbon diet it may be catching on among Bay Area hospital cafeterias, as well.

It’s unclear what effect the current efforts might have on climate patterns but it’s a familiar pattern to Americans; using personal buying power to influence public policy decisions.

Climate Change and Public Health

Photo by Genie Gratto

Photo by Genie Gratto

Many believe that climate change presents us with opportunities to tackle multiple problems with a single well-designed response. The authors of this guest post suggest that public health presents one of those opportunities.

Public Health and Climate Change: A Shared Agenda

by Marice Ashe and Richard Jackson

Climate change may be the greatest threat to human health in this century. More intense heat waves will make bad air even worse. More severe droughts and floods will further imperil the water supply California is already struggling to protect. The world is going to see a rise in the number of water-, food-, insect- and animal-borne diseases we have to fight.

Who will suffer most? The elderly, children and the poor—populations that are least able to and can least afford to adapt to such extreme conditions. Although public health leaders have a responsibility to protect and enhance the well-being of the entire population—and especially those most at risk—we have lagged behind in considering climate change as one of the threats that we must confront.

In March, we released An Action Plan for Public Health: Initial Recommendations for Involving Public Health in Climate Change Policy, assembled after talking to more than 150 experts in public health, climate science and environmental law. We hope it helps the public health community think in new terms about their mission.

We must work faster, because making communities healthier can prevent climate change. For example, we work with communities all around California to create safe walking paths and bike routes throughout cities. We encourage these changes to prevent obesity and increase community safety. But when people get out of their cars, they also put less carbon emissions in the air. We call this a “co-benefit:” by taking one action to improve physical health, we gain other benefits to improve planetary health.

Other co-benefits happen when we encourage the development of new housing and retail centers close to public transit. This increases exercise while keeping people out of their cars. But why stop there? Transit-oriented development also preserves agricultural lands for food production and protects our food security. With anticipated changes in rainfall, agricultural pest and disease patterns will shift, too.  Safeguarding a regionally based and resilient food system should be a primary public health goal in addressing climate change.

We are working with communities to make it easier to hold farmer’s markets, get more healthy foods in corner markets, and increase fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. This is particularly critical in poor and under-served areas where it’s harder to find healthy and affordable food. The public health goal is to lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, which are epidemic in those communities. As a co-benefit, it expands opportunities for local and regional growers who bring the food a much shorter distance on the way to market, thus dropping transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Improving public health will mitigate climate change, and fighting global warming will make people healthier. By approaching this impending public health disaster from many directions, we stand a better chance of making a real difference.

Marice Ashe, JD, MPH directs Public Health Law & Policy, which partners with advocates, health departments, and policy-makers to create healthier communities. PHLP provides in-depth research and analysis on legal and policy questions, and translates complex information into practical tools and model policies for community action.

Richard Jackson, MD, MPH is the Chair of the Environmental Health Sciences division of the UCLA School of Public Health. He is the former director of CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and California State Public Health officer.  Dr. Jackson is a member of the PHLP Board of Directors.

Ag Rules: Heading Off the Heat

Water cooler imprinted with heat safety tips. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Water cooler imprinted with heat safety tips. Photo: Sasha Khokha

It was like a pageant of farmers in plaid shirts; nearly a dozen speakers  in a Fresno County meeting hall, surrounded by vineyards. Farm leaders offered glowing praise of Cal OSHA’s new guidelines and training seminars that will help them comply with the state’s first-in-the nation heat safety rules–passed three years ago.

The love-fest with Cal-OSHA sets a new tone for agriculture. Growers have traditionally been at odds with the agency tasked with protecting the state’s workers. Farmers have challenged fines and complained about inspections. But despite the regulations,  six workers died last summer, including a pregnant teenage farmworker (some of the victims worked in construction or other outdoor jobs).

Part of the problem was that neither Cal-OSHA inspectors nor farmers had a very clear understanding of how to implement the rules. Is it enough to have an umbrella folded up in the back of a pickup in case it got hot? How hot? How much shade and water is enough?

Today, Cal-OSHA chief Len Welsh made it clear: when it’s 85 degrees or hotter, shade tents or umbrellas have to go up. And that shade should be no more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk away, according to the rules, which also require enough shade so that one-in-four employees are protected from the sun at any given time.

That’s still worrisome for leaders of  the United Farmworkers Union, who were conspicuously absent from the press conference. There are times, they say, when the temperature soars well above 100 or spikes suddenly and everybody should get a break. The UFW says the new guidelines are too vague, and Cal-OSHA’s publicity campaign to educate farmers isn’t enough. Union leaders say the state should impose more fines and criminal penalties when workers die in the heat.

Selling the Benefits of AB 32

Well-timed would be one way to describe the pair of rosy forecasts from the state’s Air Resources Board today. For Californians beleaguered by the slumping economy, both reports were choc-a-bloc with good news. The only drawback is that we’ll have to wait a while for the payoff.

The ARB is the “lead agency” for implementing California’s comprehensive plan passed in 2006 to combat climate change, known affectionately as AB32. The primary objective is to get a 30% reduction in greenhouse gases statewide by 2020. The two reports released today attempt to gauge the long-term economic and public health benefits from fully implementing the plan.

Over time, the reports point to creation of more than 100,000  jobs and higher per capita income on the economic front. Estimated health benefits include fewer premature deaths (mostly related to heat waves) and asthma cases.

Some of the touted benefits are relatively small incremental improvements over programs already in place. For instance, ARB anticipates that by 2020, all the provisions of AB32 combined would mean 67 fewer hospital admissions per year (statewide) for respiratory conditions. That compares to the 770 admissions spared in 2020 that would result from existing air quality measures.