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A Sea Change in Ocean Policy Promised

Reed Galin

Photo: Reed Galin

A phalanx of high-level federal officials marched into San Francisco today to announce a major shift in the way the federal government oversees the oceans.

The top-level administrators from the White House and several agencies held a public meeting to launch efforts toward a first-ever National Ocean Policy, in which they say restoring a healthy ecosystem will be a top priority.

The newly formed Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force is led by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and one of President Obama’s top advisors on the environment. She arrived surrounded by representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), EPA, Navy, Coast Guard and Dept. of Interior (which, odd as it sounds, is responsible for vast tracts on the outer continental shelf).

Asked why we’re just getting around to a unified national ocean policy, Sutley said that “Too often the federal government sits in its stovepipes,” with each agency taking a narrow view. This effort is an attempt to break through traditional parochialism in favor of a more holistic approach to the challenges.

Task force member Jane Lubchenco, who heads NOAA, said that for the first time, policy makers are saying loudly that “healthy oceans matter.” And right now, she says, they’re not real healthy.

“At a global scale, I would say that oceans are in critical condition,” said Lubchenco. ” Most people are unaware of how much disruption and depletion has occurred within the oceans. We’re seeing the symptoms of much of that. It’s time to get on with the solutions.”

The task force will address a growing array of concerns, from shrinking fisheries to higher acid levels in the ocean—many of which are likely related to climate change.

Lubchenco, who is also an Undersecretary of Commerce, told me that “Climate change is exacerbating many of the existing challenges for ocean uses. There’s very good evidence that climate change is already having very significant impacts on oceans.” Lubchenco also cited “the related problem of ocean acidification,” and reeled off a laundry list of  climate impacts, including “loss of biological diversity, increasing transport of invasive species, nutrient pollution, habitat loss, and over-fishing.”

Lubchenco added “That sum total of stresses on ocean ecosystems means that we need to be taking new approaches.” The most sweeping of those “new approaches” will be “ecosystem-based management,” a term used repeatedly in the Interim Report issued by the task force this month.

According to the report:

“The implementation of ecosystem-based management embodies a fundamental shift in how the United States manages these resources, and provides a foundation for how the remaining objectives would be implemented…It would provide the opportunity to ensure proactive and holistic approaches to balance the use and conservation of these valuable resources. This broad-based application of ecosystem-based management would provide a framework for the management of our resources, and allow for such benefits as helping to restore fish populations, control invasive species, support healthy coastal communities and ecosystems, restore sensitive species and habitats, protect human health, and rationally allow for emerging uses of the ocean, including new energy production.”

The task force will also be taking its own stab at some long-term solutions for the troubled Sacramento River Delta. The interim report is open for public comment until October 10.

Parsing the White House Climate Report

At least one researcher cited in the 196-page climate impacts report issued this week by the Obama administration is not impressed with the final product. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research has written a blog post critical of the report and in particular, the way in which his work was interpreted. If you’d rather not plow through the entire post, John Tierney has an overview of Pielke’s critique on his blog for the New York Times.

California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

2004 California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

The report was arguably the first to break down both observed and projected effects of climate change into coherent regional summaries. For the purposes of the report, California was considered part of the Southwest region, which included states as far east as Colorado and New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, many of the points raised in the Southwest section (beginning on p. 129) have to do with water supply. Most have been reported or discussed in our Climate Watch coverage, either here or in our radio reports. Selected “highlights” include:

- Past climate records based on changes in Colorado River flows indicate that drought is a frequent feature of the Southwest, with some of the longest documented “megadroughts” on Earth.

- The prospect of future droughts becoming more severe as a result of global warming is a significant concern, especially because the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth.

- Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest. Recent warming is among the most rapid in the nation, significantly more than the global average in some areas.

- Projections suggest continued strong warming, with much larger increases under higher emissions scenarios compared to lower emissions scenarios. Projected summertime temperature increases are greater than the annual average increases in some parts of the region, and are likely to be exacerbated locally by expanding urban
heat island effects.

- Water supplies in some areas of the Southwest are already becoming limited, and this trend toward scarcity is likely to be a harbinger of future water shortages. Groundwater pumping is lowering water tables, while rising temperatures reduce river flows in vital rivers including the Colorado.

- Projected temperature increases, combined with river-flow reductions, will increase the risk of water conflicts between sectors, states, and even nations.

- Increasing temperature, drought, wildfire, and invasive species will accelerate transformation of the landscape.

- Under higher emissions scenarios, high-elevation forests in California, for example, are projected to decline by 60 to 90 percent before the end of the century.

- In California, two-thirds of the more than 5,500 native plant species are projected to experience range reductions up to 80 percent before the end of this century under projected warming.

- Projected changes in the timing and amount of river flow, particularly in winter and spring, is estimated to more than double the risk of Delta flooding events by mid-century, and result in an eight-fold increase before the end of the century.

- A steady reduction in winter chilling could have serious economic impacts on fruit and nut production in the region. California’s losses due to future climate change are estimated between zero and 40 percent for wine and table grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, and avocados, varying significantly by location.

By the way, Pielke’s critique does not directly address anything in this list, though his work does involve weather-related disasters, which would include floods. Asked by a commentator on his blog if he thinks the entire report should be dismissed based on the flawed interpretation of his research, Pielke replied: “I wouldn’t think so and would certainly hope not. At the same time the section which covers my research does not give me a lot of confidence in the process that led to the report.”

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.

Governor Gets His White House Climate Confab

Our Governor is a hard man to ignore. Less than a month ago, he and eleven other U.S. governors wrote a letter to the new President, reminding him of commitments he made to work in earnest with states on climate issues. Governor Schwarzenegger specifically recalled a line from President (then-elect) Obama’s remarks to the Governors’ Climate Summit last November: “Any governor willing to promote clean energy will have a partner in the White House.”

The January letter (this link is a .pdf download) requested a meeting with top-level members of the White House environmental team “as soon as possible…to discuss a state-federal partnership on clean energy and climate change issues.” This weekend the governors got their meeting.

The President didn’t show up but at least four high-level players did, including energy secretary Steven Chu, interior secretary Ken Salazar, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and the President’s energy and climate deputy, Carol Browner.

While no substantive announcements came out of it, Governor Schwarzenegger said afterward:

“Today’s meeting was the first step in creating a close and lasting partnership with President Obama and his administration on climate change. I look forward to working hand-in-hand with our federal partners to realize the ambitious clean energy and climate change goals I know we share, and that I know will provide a boost to our nation’s economy.”

Some remain skeptical that the path back to prosperity is paved with Green. California’s governor has been a vocal cheerleader for just such a strategy, to tackle both environmental and economic challenges.

The governors’ group’s stated goals include aggressive programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and harnessing “market mechanisms” (read that: “cap-and-trade”) to fund development of clean energy technology. They also want to “preserve and enhance state and local authority” in the regulation arena, and stave off “federal preemption” of what the states have already started.