17 October 2017
Major dam and irrigation projects are drying up the wetlands that sustain life in the arid Sahel region of Africa. The result has been a wave of environmental refugees, as thousands of people flee, many on boats to Europe.
Raging infernos in California are burning through shrub land and neighborhoods this week while inching perilously closer to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
This year is shaping up to be one of the state’s worst fire seasons ever, as windswept flames have scorched more than 190,000 acres, caused at least 29 deaths, and shrouded communities with the worst air pollution they’ve ever measured.
Though seasonal wildfires are a natural occurrence in the Golden State, humans are making them worse and increasing the harm from them every step of the way.
Firefighters are now working to contain 21 large fires across the state that have already destroyed at least 3,500 homes and businesses. The Tubbs fire in Napa and Sonoma counties alone killed 11 people, making it the sixth-deadliest wildfire in California history.
You can view a map of current wildfires in California below:
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says the deadly blazes are barely contained, and firefighters are now bracing for shifting winds that could drive the flames in new directions, putting more Californians at risk.
“Personally, I think it will be one of the worst disasters in California history,” Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano told a town hall in Santa Rosa.
For California, this may be just the beginning of a mounting disaster as stiff, dry air currents pick up throughout the state and many more combustible acres lie in the fires’ path.
It’s also just the latest unfolding tragedy in what has already been an epic fire season across the United States, burning through more than 8.5 million of acres of land and sending choking smoke throughout much of the West.
Fires are more damaging because we keep building in harm’s way
The California fires stretch the definition of “natural disaster” since human activities have exacerbated their likelihood, their extent, and their damage. Deliberate decisions and unintended consequences of urban development over decades have turned many parts of the state into a tinderbox.
This year’s blazes particularly stand out because of how close they are to suburbs and major cities.
“When we get wildfires close to residential areas, that’s what makes them extraordinary events,” said Heath Hockenberry, fire weather program manager at the National Weather Service. It’s also getting increasingly hard to keep people at a safe distance from the embers.
Harrowing scenes of flames and smoke have emerged, like this video from Santa Rosa, 55 miles north of San Francisco:
“We are definitely seeing [construction in fire-prone regions] happen more and more: 95 percent of the population of the state lives on 6 percent of the land,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Californians are drawn to views of mountains, forests, and grasslands and are building ever closer to these features that often have a propensity to burn. And places like Napa and Sonoma counties, picturesque regions that are now charred, have some of the fastest-growing property values and highest-priced homes in the United States.
This proximity is part of what’s driving the death toll. Tolmachoff noted that the ongoing fires galloped through neighborhoods in the middle of the night, riding gusts up to 70 mph.
And the embers haven’t discriminated between wealthy and poor residents. “Where these fires occurred, I think the risk is generalized all around,” Tolmachoff said. “They went from the rural areas to very urban areas. ... It affected everyone pretty much evenly.”
Residents reported waking up to the smell of smoke and were forced to race away from the flames lighting the road ahead.
This pattern of building in or near fire-prone regions has also led to land management practices to prevent fire that paradoxically increase fire risk. For instance, policies for preventing wildfires have in some areas led to an accumulation of the dry vegetation that would ordinarily burn away in smaller natural blazes.
“The thing that gets missed in all of this is that fires are a natural part of many of these systems,” said Matthew Hurteau, an associate professor at the University of New Mexico studying climate impacts on forests. “We have suppressed fires for decades actively. That’s caused larger fires.”
We keep starting these fires
A study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, or PNAS, found that 84 percent of wildfires are ignited by humans, whether through downed power lines, careless campfires, or arson.
“Human-started wildfires accounted for 84% of all wildfires, tripled the length of the fire season, dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning fires, and were responsible for nearly half of all area burned,” the paper reported.
Transmission lines appear to be the culprit behind the wine country fires, but officials are still investigating other causes.
Video shows heavy flames, smoke next to California power lines https://t.co/0Lw5ilJog3 pic.twitter.com/4vbE9Pa98i
— kcranews (@kcranews) October 10, 2017
The utility serving the region, Pacific Gas and Electric, has previously been billed for firefighting costs for fires stemming from its transmission lines.
“PG&E; meteorologists reported overnight gusts between 50 and 75 mph, which aided the fires in the Northern parts of the energy company's service area, especially Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties,” the company wrote in a press release about the current fires. “Those winds damaged PG&E;'s electrical system in some locations.”
John Abatzoglou, a climatologist at the University of Idaho who studies wildfires and is the author of the PNAS study, noted that some of the fires in California ignited in multiple places around the same time, hinting at arson. “That is a possibility in play here,” he said. Whatever the cause, these fires don’t seem to be “natural” disasters, he said.
We keep changing the climate, which makes fires more likely
There are some unique weather conditions that are driving the exceptionally swift California fires, like strong winds and high temperatures. But long-term trends linked to global warming also exacerbated this year’s fire season, not just in California but in other states too.
“Fuel, wind, and long-term dry conditions: Those are the three facts that are really what’s causing this right now,” said the National Weather Service’s Hockenberry.
California saw intense rainfall last year and then a cool, wet winter. The increased precipitation led to more growth in combustible grasses, shrubs, and trees.
What followed during the summer was a period of intense, dry heat throughout the state, including the highest temperatures ever recorded in the Bay Area.
California just finished its hottest summer on record. It's no coincidence that this week's wildfires are blazing out of control. pic.twitter.com/7zLOc2l1Bc
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) October 11, 2017
“When it dried out, it dried out really hard, and it got really hot,” Hockenberry said.
It was the warmest April through September on record, Abatzoglou said. “Big fires typically happen a year after it being quite wet.”
Lastly, the dry autumn Santa Ana winds in the southern part of the state and Diablo winds in the north pushed flames through dry kindling.
Unlike the cool ocean breeze that chills San Francisco year-round, the Diablo winds roll down the Sierra Nevada to the north and the east.
“Just like you pump up a bike tire, you’re compressing the air and heating it,” said Abatzoglou.
These winds were exceptionally strong this year and will likely continue to blow the rest of the year. They typically blow through California at speeds between 35 and 40 mph, but meteorologists reported hurricane-strength gusts this year as high as 70 mph.
Peak of #SantaAna winds expected Mon morning. Strongest winds for eastern Ventura and western LA counties. #LAwind #cawx pic.twitter.com/eWghEScy7d
— NWS Los Angeles (@NWSLosAngeles) October 8, 2017
“Those northerly winds were fairly well forecasted,” Abatzoglou said. “We did see this coming, though people did not probably expect the breadth of fire activity.”
Though the winds are seasonal events and it’s difficult to attribute any individual spike to climate change, humanity’s fingerprints are all over the fuel for these fires.
Abatzoglou co-authored a study last year that found that climate change due to human activity accounted for roughly 55 percent of the aridity in Western US forests between 1979 and 2015.
This led to a doubling of the area torched by forest fires than would have occurred in the absence of human-caused factors.
However, the California fires are burning through grasses and shrubs, not forests, and Abatzoglou was hesitant to make similar pronouncements about the current blazes.
“I would be cautious in saying climate change was a significant factor here,” he said. “This is very different from the fires we had [last month in forests] in much of the Western states.”
Nonetheless, the California fires do align with what researchers expect to see as average temperatures rise.
“The length of the fire season is increasing in the Mountain West,” said the University of New Mexico’s Hurteau. “The mechanism for that is in part because [as] the atmosphere warms up, the air expands and can hold more moisture.”
This warming draws moisture out of plants, creating drier conditions earlier in the season. It also causes an earlier snowmelt in the spring, leading to more arid conditions in the summer.
“We could have a lot more fire on these landscapes,” Hurteau said.
Wildfires also contribute to global warming: Flames coursing through woodlands and grasses send greenhouse gases and particulates into the air.
“When the plant material in forests combusts, we’re putting a lot of emissions of different types into the atmosphere,” said Hurteau.
Some kinds of particles trap heat while other particles have a cooling effect. Both pose a huge health hazard, and when they land on snowcapped mountains and glaciers, they accelerate melting.
The good news: We can take steps to reduce fire risks
Tactics like cutting fuel breaks — or strips of land where the vegetation has been cut back to block the spread of fires — between combustible vegetation and homes can help reduce risks. Better forecasts, early warning systems for fire risks, and mandatory evacuation can also keep people out of danger.
“It doesn’t solve the larger problem, but it does reduce the risk to property,” Hurteau said.
Firefighters are now bracing for more winds that will expand the range of these fires, but are hoping for a “season-ending” precipitation event to quench the dry grass and forests before the flames can ignite them.
“It’s sort of a little bit of a game of beat the clock,” Abatzoglou said. “What we typically see is the jet stream will start moving further south and it will start raining in California.”
“We’re hoping we get one of these juicy precipitation events pretty soon, because the longer we go without rain, the more tenuous the situation is,” he added.
NAPA, Calif. — Home Depot is sold out of face masks, people sleeping in shelters have bandanas tied around their faces and residents even 50 miles away from the fires in northern California find themselves coughing and hacking as smoke and haze blanket the area.
The air quality index for San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the area around the fires was predicted to hit 180 on Thursday, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or nearly five times what's considered safe.
That's even worse than famously polluted Beijing, whose southern suburbs were measured at 154 on Thursday by the U.S. embassy there.
"The federal (safe) standard is 35," said John Balmes,a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and expert on environmental health.
Residents who signed up for alerts from local authorities were barraged with air quality health advisories and Spare-the-Air alerts. Schools cancelled recess, teams cut sports practices and parents received notices that weekend football and soccer games might not be held.
The air quality level has been in the "unhealthy" to "very unhealthy" range since the fires began early Monday morning and is expected to stay bad as long as they continue. Wind and geography mean that the haze-affected area extends well beyond the towns where the fires are burning, putting millions of people in harm's way.
"It's smoke, it's particulate matter, it's even toxins from burning plastics and homes. All have very irritating qualities. People will have stinging eyes, trouble breathing, scratching throats and running noses," said Catherine Forest, a physician and expert on environmental toxins at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, Calif.
The levels of small particulate matter reported near the fires and further south around San Francisco are especially dangerous for those with pre-existing lung and heart disease, such as asthma, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and any kind of heart disease.
The best advice is to simply stay indoors with the windows shut and air conditioning or heaters set to recirculate air, said Forest.
"Don't go out if you can avoid it, don't exercise if you can avoid it. Keep the elderly, small children and anyone with heart or lung disease inside," she said.
But for the hundreds of thousands of people who have to go about their daily work, not to mention the tens of thousands in the fire area, that's impossible advice to follow.
A mask, but not just any mask
For them, the best bet is to wear a face mask. But it's got to be an OSHA-certified N95 particulate filtering mask.
"Not the flat hospital-type masks people sometimes wear. Those are worse than useless because they give you a false sense of security" and don't filter out the most dangerous small particles, said Forest.
The N95 masks have been in short supply in the Bay area due to the fires. At a Home Depot in Fairfield, Calif., where a fire was burning north of town and some areas were under evacuation watch, a steady stream of customers came in looking for masks. But the shelf was bare.
One man asked a Home Depot staffer if there were any left and when he was told no, asked if he could buy the one hanging around the staffer's neck.
"You're not the first guy who's offered that," said the staffer, who declined both to sell the mask and to give his name.
At an Orchard Supply Hardware in Berkeley, Calif., a woman answered the phone, "Good morning Orchard Supply, we are sold out of all masks, how may I help you?" The store was working on getting an emergency truckload of masks.
Johnston Medical, also in Berkeley, was one of the few stores that still had some of the masks recommended by the CDC on hand. Clerks scrambled to help shoppers find masks in picked-over boxes. After hanging up from yet another call, one clerk turned to the other: "Guess what they wanted?"
The empty shelves are only very local, unlike other times, said Balmes. During the global SARS outbreak in 2012 there was a global shortage.
"The Chinese were buying them all up," said Balmes.
When people do find the masks, there are tricks to making them as effective as possible. First is to get the right size. While hardware stores typically only sell the large size of the masks, they actually come in three sizes, small medium and large. Try medical supply stories for the smaller sizes that tend to work better for women and children, experts suggest.
Then bend the flexible metal strip at the top of the mask so that it fits the curve of the nose, to get it the tightest possible.
"They have to seal around, like a snorkel mask," said Balmes.
Such masks are commonly worn by people in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where residents live with dangerous air quality for much of the year. By Thursday, they were becoming a regular sight on the streets in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino.
For those in their cars, the best advice is to keep the windows rolled up and put the air system on recirculate rather than having fresh air come in from the outside.
"You can run the heater or the air conditioner, as long as you've got it on recirculate," said Balmes.
Overall, the poor air quality shouldn't pose a long term threat to healthy individuals as long as it doesn't last more than another few days, say the experts.
Healthy lungs are remarkably self-cleaning, said Forest. They’re lined with mucus-coated, hair-like projections called cilia. The mucus catches the tiny particles that we breath in and then the waving, beating motion of the cillium moves them up and out of the lungs.
“It’s kind of like a little escalator. It carries it up out of your lungs and you either swallow or cough it out. Either is fine,” she said.
Another option is to run a home air filter. As long as it’s got a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter can catch most, though not all, fine particles, defined as 2.5 microns in diameter or less, which can irritate lungs.
“They’re so small you can’t see them, but they’ll make you cough,” said Baumes.
The trick with HEPA filters is to change the filters, said Forest. You can’t just buy them and run them forever without putting in a new filter, "or they end up not doing anything at all," Forest said.
Contributing: Jessica Guynn, from Berkeley, Calif.
Big deadly fires are nothing new to California, particularly during fire season when the Santa Ana or Diablo winds blow hot and dry, making tinder out of trees and bushes that have been baking all summer long.
But the firestorm now raging through Northern California isn’t the typical wildfire. For one thing, it’s not just one fire but close to two dozen. For another, these fires are not only threatening hard-to-reach rural or mountains area, but they also have torn through suburban neighborhoods. More than 3,500 homes, commercial buildings and other structures have been reduced to ash. The Tubbs fire jumped across the 101 Freeway in Santa Rosa, for heaven’s sake.
The flames moved so fast that they caught people unaware and unprepared to flee. As of Wednesday, when the wind picked up and shifted the flames toward more populated communities, the death toll stood at 21 people, with more than 500 still missing. By Thursday morning, fire officials believe, some of the individual fires may meet and merge into one mega-fire.
At this point the fires rank collectively as the deadliest blaze in California since the Oakland Hills fire in 1991, which claimed 25 lives. The fires are also unusually destructive; they have burned more structures than the Oakland Hills fire, the Cedar fire that raged through rural communities in San Diego County in 2003, or the Station fire that burned through the Angeles National Forest in 2009. When this is over, it may well be the state’s worst fire catastrophe in recorded history by any measure.
This is not just bad luck. Coming on the heels of other large-scale natural disasters — Houston inundated by a slow-moving tropical storm, swaths of Florida and the Caribbean ripped to shreds by a monster hurricane, much of Puerto Rico leveled by an equally powerful hurricane, a handful of Western states swept by massive fires that burned up millions of acres — one can’t help but see a disturbing pattern emerge. Those superstorms that scientists warned would result from climate change? They are here. The day of reckoning isn’t in the future. It is now.
We don’t yet know what started the fires in Northern California, but we have a good idea of what made them so destructive. Authorities blame a combination of factors: winds so strong they knocked down power lines, extremely dry conditions, and an abundant supply of combustible material from a years-long drought that killed millions of the state’s trees or left them vulnerable to insect infestations. Ironically, this year’s unusually rainy winter probably contributed to the problem by producing burnable new growth.
All of those factors are exacerbated by the warming world. Hotter summers yield more fuel for fires and stronger winds to fan the flames. And this summer was California’s hottest on record, a milestone dramatically illustrated when San Francisco hit 106 degrees on Sept. 1 during a statewide heat wave.
Similarly, scientists say climate change doesn’t cause hurricanes, but it can make them bigger and more destructive. Higher air temperatures mean more evaporation and heavier rains outside of drought zones, and warmer seas intensify the size and fury of the storms themselves. It’s a double whammy that has contributed to an unusually severe hurricane season this year.
Burning fossil fuels is not the only human activity that contributes to the destruction wrought by wildfires and hurricanes. So does the relentless march of humans to develop land in danger spots — a 500-year flood plain, an unstable hillside or a historical fire corridor. And in California, aggressive fire suppression has impeded the natural burn cycle in the state’s wooded areas so that there’s more fuel when the massive fires do take hold.
“These kinds of catastrophes have happened and they’ll continue to happen.” Gov. Jerry Brown observed at a news briefing Wednesday. “That’s the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture.”
California is fortunate to have a governor who understands the perils of ignoring climate change and is aggressively pushing policies to mitigate its future harm. Unfortunately, that puts him at odds with a head-in-the-sand president who blithely disregards the obvious connection between the warming climate and the multiple federal disaster areas he’s been forced to declare in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and, now, California.
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As deadly wildfires continue to rage across Northern California’s wine country, with winds picking up speed overnight and worsening conditions to now include a combined 54,000 acres of torched land, it now seems more important than ever to understand how wildfires work, and their lasting implications on our health and the environment.
HOW A WILDFIRE STARTS
Though the exact source of Sonoma County’s wildfires is unclear, authorities have pointed to the fact that 95 percent of fires in the state of California are started by people, according to CNN.
Meteorologists aren’t yet able to forecast wildfire outbreaks, but there are three conditions that must be present in order for a wildfire to burn. Firefighters refer to it as the fire triangle: fuel, oxygen, and a heat source. Four out of five wildfires are started by people, but dry weather, drought, and strong winds can create a recipe for the perfect disaster—which can transform a spark into a weeks- or months-long blaze that consumes tens of thousands of acres.
Another possible cause of forest fires is lightning. Scientists have found that every degree of global warming sets off a 12 percent bump in lightning activity. Since 1975 the number of fires ignited by lightning has increased between two and five percent.
A TRICKY RELATIONSHIP
Historically, wildfires are actually supposed to be beneficial to certain natural landscapes, clearing underbrush in forests and triggering the release of seeds in some plant species, such as the Jack pine.
Unfortunately, the suppression of naturally occurring, low-intensity forest fires has actually aided in the ability for high-intensity wildfires to run rampant. (Watch a time-lapse of the beauty and danger of wildfires.)
In the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service suffered from what historian Stephen Pyne calls “pyrophobia,” or the desire to suppress all wildfires (even the good ones). Since the science of forestry first took root in temperate Europe, which is home to a vastly different forest ecosystem than those found in the United States, fire was seen by early U.S. foresters as a problem caused by people.
In some places, the path toward a safer, more ecologically sound relationship with fire is being blazed with prescribed fire, and what’s being called by officials as “managed wildfire.” Fire crews put their efforts to suppress wildfires around the most fire-prone areas, such as communities, municipal watersheds, and sequoia groves. Otherwise they are learning to let some fires burn themselves out, as nature intended.
WILDFIRES CAN HAVE LONG-LASTING IMPLICATIONS FOR OUR PLANET
Forest fires actually have the ability to heat up the entire planet, a NASA study from 2016 revealed. In ecosystems such as boreal forests, which store more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, the effects of climate change are playing out twice as fast.
Fires ravaged the boreal forests of Canada’s vast north woods in May 2016 and continued for months, consuming millions of acres of trees, and scorching the rich organic soil on the forest floor, which serves as a large reservoir for carbon. For every degree that our planet warms, the forest needs a 15 percent increase in precipitation to compensate for increased dryness. (See how megafires are remaking American forests.)
Similar to the case in Northern California, investigators believe that Canada’s boreal forest fire was caused by humans.
Barack Obama visited Alaska in 2015 to highlight the dangers of climate change, calling up images of the hundreds of wildfires that burned across the state just that summer. At the time, 2014 had been the warmest year on record, a milestone that has now been surpassed by 2016.
THE EFFECTS OF FIRE ON PEOPLE
Worldwide, wildfire smoke kills 339,000 people a year, mostly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, according to estimates. Tenfold increases in asthma attacks, emergency room visits, and hospital admissions have also been reported when smoke blankets the places where people live.
Common in places such as the western United States, layers of stagnant air called inversions can be created by fires and are responsible for holding smoke down where people breathe. Airborne, microscopic particles that slip past the body’s defenses and into the farthest reaches of the respiratory system can begin to coagulate the blood, forming a thick goo. Smoke also contains carbon monoxide, causing long-lasting damage to the heart. (Learn wildfire safety tips.)
Emergency room visits for heart failure jumped 37 percent, and saw a 66 percent increase for breathing problem-related visits following the smokiest days of a big 2008 peat fire in eastern North Carolina, EPA researchers found.
HOW FIRE IMPACTS WILDLIFE
Wildlife tend to have a very different relationship with fire. Some have evolved to live with it, and some even thrive after fires. That’s not to say all wild animals call fire a friend—there are some who can’t outrun the quickly moving flames, and young or small animals are particularly at risk.
Slow-moving animals such as koalas, whose natural instinct is to crawl up further into a tree, may end up trapped.
For many environments, fire doesn’t actually have to mean death, but instead change, re-birth, or new opportunities. For example, woodpeckers will fly in to feast on bark beetles in dead and dying trees, and leave when the beetles are gone.
A year-old forest will have a different set of flora and fauna inhabiting it than a forest that is 40 years old, and according to wildlife biologist Patricia Kennedy, “a lot of species require that reset,” which comes from a fire.
NO ONE KNOWS what sparked the violent fires ablaze in the hills of California wine country. In the last five days, the flames have torched more than 160,000 acres across Napa and Sonoma counties, reducing parts of Santa Rosa to piles of cinder and ash and leaving more than 20 dead and hundreds missing. And far from the white-hot embers of destruction, residents from San Francisco to Sacramento to Fresno have been waking up this week to choking fumes, commuting to work under skies tinged orange with dust and soot.
Now, in just a single fire season, ash has rained down on Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. That might seem like an anomaly—but it’s more a portent of the country’s new, char-coated normal. As climate-change fuels increasingly large and frequent wildfires that hit closer and closer to densely populated urban centers, the smoke they produce is becoming a public health crisis.
“Over the past two days we’ve experienced unprecedented levels of air pollution in the region,” says Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Quality Management District. Things cleared up slightly on Wednesday, but mercurial weather patterns make it hard to know if the worst is still yet to come. “It’s very difficult to forecast what the air quality will be at any moment because we’ve still got active fires.”
But in general, the forecast is not good. Roselius says they’re especially concerned about the elevated levels of PM2.5—very small bits of liquids and solids suspended in the air, no bigger than 2.5 nanometers across. Particles this small can be inhaled into the deepest recesses of the lungs, into the broccoli-shaped alveolar sacs, where they bypass the body’s filtration systems and slip directly into the bloodstream. What exactly is in those tiny droplets and specks depends on the source, the season, and atmospheric conditions. But it’s the amount of particulate matter more than the type that matters for health.
Good clean air will have fewer than a dozen micrograms of PM2.5's per square meter of atmosphere. Most people won’t notice anything up to about 55 micrograms, but folks with heart or lung disease will likely experience shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest pain. Asthma sufferers will become more prone to attacks. And as PM2.5 concentrations rise above 55 µg/m3, anyone working or exercising outside will start to notice.
Breathing will start to feel more difficult, and you might get light-headed. Children get hit harder, since they breathe faster than adults. Beyond 100 µg/m3 even healthy adults just walking around will start feeling a sting in their eyeballs and at the back of their throats, chest tightness, and the need to cough. Air monitors near the WIRED offices, 50 miles from the fires, were reading out 137 µg/m3 on Wednesday, and the mucous membrane burn was quite noticeable indeed. Symptoms like these will go away when air quality improves. But breathing in a lot of PM2.5’s can lead to serious long-term health problems.
So first things first: protection. Public health officials like Roselius are advising people with chronic respiratory illness to seek filtered air, either in the city or outside the region. That means buildings with high efficiency mechanical or electronic air cleaners, like these public libraries in San Francisco. If you’ve got air conditioning at home, set it to recirculate mode and make sure all your doors and windows are tightly closed. Three out of five households in California report having air conditioning, although most of these are in the southern parts of the state. Karl the Fog provides all the air conditioning the Bay Area has ever really needed. Good for the energy grid. Bad for those seeking a smoke-free haven.
As for facewear, a bandana worn around the mouth won’t do anything but making you feel like an outlaw. One-strap paper masks or surgical masks won’t help you either. Your best bet: disposable respirators, like the ones found at hardware stores and pharmacies. Look for ones labeled N95 and make sure they’re properly sealed around your face (that goes double for San Francisco’s bearded hipsters).
But the best thing to do is limit your time outside as much as possible. And don’t exert yourself any more than you have to. Because while it’s hard for scientists to predict how bad air quality will be in the aftermath of a wildfire, it’s even harder for them to predict the long-term public health impacts.
Over the years, researchers have tried unsuccessfully to measure the full health effects of wildfire smoke. The general consensus, based on hospital records, is that more smoke means more trips to the doctor for things like asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, COPD, and heart failure. Children, the elderly, women, African Americans, and those with underlying chronic diseases appear to be most susceptible. But it’s been tricky to prove causation, because air pollution comes from so many places—wildfires, yes, but also tailpipes and factories.
That’s one of the reasons the Environmental Protection Agency just launched a crowd-sourced study to understand the link between wildfire smoke and health impacts. Using an app called SmokeSense, anyone can now send the EPA a snapshot of the air quality in their zip code, report nearby smoke or fire, and list symptoms they're experiencing.
It’s work that’s increasingly important as more acres of American forests go up in smoke each year. “As the climate continues to change, we’re going to see much more smoke, at higher intensities in the future,” says Jia Coco Liu, an environmental health researcher at Johns Hopkins. Based on air pollution from past and projected future wildfires in the American West, Liu and a team of scientists at Yale estimated that by mid-century more than 82 million people will experience smoke waves—more than two consecutive days with high levels of wildfire-related air pollution. People in the new Smoke Belt—Northern California, Western Oregon, and the Great Plains—are likely to suffer the highest exposure.
And there’s one more bit of bad news: Just as fire behaves differently in a city than it does out in the wild, so does smoke. Urban areas, with their concrete roads and walls of glass and steel, tend to stop a fire in its tracks. All those buildings and alleyways prevent wind from blowing fresh embers around. But those same aerodynamics mean that smoke gets trapped in cities. Liu’s latest research, which will appear in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, found that metropolitan areas, even ones very far away from any actual wildfires, had much higher levels of particulate matter in the air than rural areas. An urban smoke island effect, if you will.
By looking at Medicare billing information, Liu was able to see a corresponding uptick in respiratory and other health issues. She hopes the research will help raise awareness that wildfire smoke is more than a nuisance. “People think of wildfires and they think about houses burning down,” she says. “From the city it can feel like a faraway problem. But actually, it’s the smoke that has a much higher impact.”
By Yasmin Bendaas
CHEMORA, Algeria, Oct 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Squinting under a relentless sun, Houssin Ghodbane watches his son tend a flock of 120 of their sheep. Heads bowed, the sheep slowly search for sparse vegetation poking through the parched, crunchy soil.
Fifty-year-old Ghodbane, his tanned face etched with deep lines, has been herding sheep for 20 years, having inherited the job and land from his father. But in this dry region, worsening cycles of drought are posing new challenges to an old profession.
According to a report Algeria developed as part of its contribution to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change action, average annual rainfall in the country has fallen by more than 30 percent in recent decades.
The country is also facing higher temperatures. Summer heat has soared in Batna province, in northeast Algeria, climbing from a maximum temperature of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit in 1990 to more than 107 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) in 2017.
For Ghodbane, that means his land now lacks enough fodder for his flock in drier seasons so he must purchase extra feed, at added expense.
In addition to selling his sheep for meat, he used to earn profits by selling animals to other herders expanding their flocks.
Those sales have stopped, as worsening heat and drought make herding less viable – and Ghodbane has had to limit the size of his own flock due to the increasing costs of caring for them.
"Drought stops everything," he said.
The solution to his falling income is simple. "Rain. That's it," he said.
LESS WATER, MORE HEAT
Algeria is not a big emitter of climate-changing gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. But warming driven by emissions from around the world is having big impacts here, including more extreme weather conditions.
"You don't have to be a source of emissions to be affected," noted Adel Hanna, a climate modeling expert at the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "That's why we call it a global effect."
Hanna, who is from Egypt, said that the two biggest climate worries for North Africa – water scarcity and higher temperatures – are feeding off each other, with limited rainfall rapidly evaporating from the soil in higher temperatures.
"The net effect is the loss of water resources," Hanna said – something that affects all forms of agriculture, including grazing for livestock.
For Ghodbane, drought has meant that he needs to water the wheat and barley he also grows using an irrigation system – something that takes time and money. He said he is becoming more heavily dependent on well water as rainfall disappears.
Around the region, herders are searching for water by digging new and deeper wells to reach aquifers. Some share water with neighboring landowners by taking turns using a common well.
"But by no means will this replace the need for better policy or support from government, and actually the global community, in addressing issues related to climate change," Hanna said.
Algeria's government has tried to help herders, including by providing limited subsidies to offset some of their increasing costs for water and feed. But for small-scale herders in Algeria's eastern Aurès mountains, such help may not be enough to offset quickening environmental change.
Ghodbane, who was born on the land he now farms, says the seasons are changing, with longer summers interfering with the spring and fall rains that are crucial to strong harvests and herding years.
Despite the changing climate, however, he remains committed to his work.
"This is the future of our region," he said. "There is nothing else in farming country."
His son, Abdel Hak, disagrees.
He started helping his father herd sheep during the summers between school sessions when he was 10 years old. After graduating from high school, he followed in his father's footsteps and has worked on the farm full time for the past five years, herding animals from six in the morning to eight in the evening.
"It teaches you patience and to be responsible," Abdel Hak said. But he wouldn't recommend the job. "It's very hard," he said.
Now in his early 20s, he would like to go back to school. He wants to be a pilot.
(Reporting by Yasmin Bendaas; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
There is a growing awareness about water risk for businesses in the food and beverage industry. A new report from Ceres shows which companies are leading and lagging, writes Ceres’ Kirsten James.
Oct. 12, 2017
Approx. 4 minutes
Worker shoveling a crop field in Fresno County, San Joaquin Valley, California. The state suffered millions in economic losses during the five-year drought. A new report highlights which food and beverage companies are working to assess and manage the water risk in their businesses.Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
After a punishing five-year drought in California that damaged harvests, caused job losses among farm workers and sent food manufacturers scrambling for commodities, many companies learned firsthand just how much of a business risk water scarcity can be.
The food and beverage industry is particularly dependent on water – indeed, agriculture uses 70 percent of the Earth’s freshwater supplies. In California, whose farms produce more than half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, that use stretches to 80 percent.
Consequently, water scarcity is one of the biggest risks facing the $5 trillion food and beverage industry, causing spikes in operating and procurement costs and influencing reputations. And it’s likely to get worse as climate change brings more droughts and continues to intensify storms, which means more floods.
The good news is that the food and beverage industry is starting to realize this, and some major corporations have taken significant steps in recent years to better manage and conserve water and reuse it where possible.
After all, water shortages in California resulted in a $2.7 billion hit to the economy in one year alone at the height of the drought and job losses of 21,000.
The sobering news is that despite their growing awareness of water risk, most companies are not doing nearly enough to match the magnitude of potential problems.
Those are the findings of a recently released Ceres analysis of the 42 largest food and beverage companies, “Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: Tracking Food Company Progress Toward a Water-Smart Future.” My colleagues assessed companies on how they are responding to water risks across four categories of water management: governance and strategy, direct operations, manufacturing supply chain and agricultural supply chain.
They found mixed progress. “Feeding Ourselves Thirsty” data indicates that companies in the packaged food business generally did the most to manage water risk and protect watersheds for the future, followed by beverage companies, while meat and agricultural products companies did less. And yet individually, companies vary widely on how well they do, even within one sector.
It’s gratifying to see in the data, though, that progress is being made in California.
General Mills, Coca-Cola Company, Molson-Coors Brewing Co. and Campbell Soup Company were all cited for working with agricultural supply chains, such as their work in California’s San Joaquin Valley. These companies are involved in a groundwater recharge project with Valley farmers, in which farmers allow floodwater to be captured and stay on their fields to recharge the groundwater underneath.
Campbell’s Soup Co., which relies on California for tomatoes and carrots, has engaged with tomato growers in its agriculture supply chain to help them conserve water. Campbell’s asked tomato growers to consider replacing sprinkler irrigation with drip irrigation. The majority have done so, and the switch proved to be beneficial in many ways: Tomato growers not only reduced water consumption by 20 percent per acre, but also increased yield, improving efficiency by some 40 percent, according to Dan Sonke, Campbell’s director of sustainable agriculture.
General Mills, which turns to California for nuts, dairy and tomatoes among other commodities and has manufacturing operations here, managed to improve its water efficiency by 20 percent in its direct operations between 2006 and 2015. It is working to improve watershed health in five key water-strained regions around the world including California’s Central Valley.
PepsiCo also achieved a 20 percent improvement in water-use efficiency – across global operations, and four years ahead of schedule. It reduced water use in its own operations like its California Frito-Lay manufacturing operations, as well as its agricultural and manufacturing supply chains. PepsiCo also works to replenish watersheds where it has operations, including broad swathes of Latin America.
Coca-Cola Company, which has 53 plants in California, saved 280 million gallons of water at those facilities by implementing water reclamation and waterless processing technologies. It also got high marks in the “Feeding Ourselves Thirsty” analysis for governance because it makes water risk management a board responsibility, and for its watershed work. Like its main competitor, it too replenishes water to watersheds and communities near its operations.
I’m happy to say that General Mills, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are Connect the Drops members.
Molson-Coors cut its water use per barrel of beer produced to half the industry average in its Irwindale, California, brewery and now is trying to produce the same water efficiency in all its breweries. Its management set a goal to reduce overall water use intensity by 20 percent by 2020. Molson-Coors is also one of 12 companies that links executive compensation to water management.
As such experiences show, prioritizing water in a state that promotes – and needs – water conservation is a savvy business move that also saves money. In fact, smart water management has become an imperative for food companies as climate change, water scarcity and pollution accelerate around the world, the “Feeding Ourselves Thirsty” researchers say.
Yet there are companies doing very little about water risk. Monster Beverage, based in Corona, California, scored 0 in the “Feeding Ourselves Thirsty” analysis. Although the company website describes water conservation efforts generally, Monster does not discuss water risk in its publicly filed reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and there is no evidence that it includes water risk as part of corporate governance for top executives or its board to consider.
Kraft Heinz, which has many plants in Southern California, scored 9 points out of 100. It does little to conserve water and assess risk in its own operations and even less in its supply chains.
As a generality, the food and beverage sector has made progress in setting water goals in direct operations and assessing progress there. The vast majority of companies have informed shareholders about potential water risks to their operations.
But the industry hasn’t made enough progress in elevating water risk to the board level, integrating water risk into procurement processes, managing wastewater to reduce water use and collaborating with stakeholders – including other companies – to protect and restore watersheds. These could make the difference between having enough usable water in the future or not.
In California, we went from an epic drought that cost the economy $2.7 billion at its height to torrential rains and floods that cost $1 billion in infrastructure damage. Water risk is very real here. We applaud what companies have done so far, but encourage them to do much more.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.
Why Southern Nevada Is Fighting to Build a 250-Mile Water Pipeline
Decades after it was first proposed, Southern Nevada Water Authority is still pushing for a pipeline to send rural groundwater to the Las Vegas area. But others are questioning whether the project is really needed.
Oct. 12, 2017
Approx. 7 minutes
A 'bathtub ring' in 2016 surrounds Lake Mead near Hoover Dam, which impounds the Colorado River at the Arizona-Nevada border. The white ring shows the effects of a drought which has caused the level of the lake to drop to an historic low.Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images
IN 2015, ALBUQUERQUE delivered as much water as it had in 1983, despite its population growing by 70 percent. In 2016, Tucson delivered as much water as it had in 1984, despite a 67 percent increase in customer hook-ups. The trend is the same for Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, said longtime water policy researcher Gary Woodard, who rattled off these statistics in a recent phone interview. Southwestern cities boomed during these decades, yet water demand fell far below projections. Efficiency and conservation worked better than water managers could have hoped.
“Everyone assumed that water demand was proportional to population,” said Woodard, a former University of Arizona professor who works for the water resource consultants Montgomery & Associates.
In the 1980s, before increased efficiency and conservation efforts, cities across the West saw an immediate need to secure reliable water resources for future growth. This thinking in part was what drove the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the Las Vegas area, to propose in 1989, a 250-mile pipeline that would pump billions of gallons of rural groundwater to Las Vegas. Farmers, ranchers and local officials near the targeted groundwater basins in rural northern Nevada called it a “water grab.”
The pipeline was never built, and Las Vegas, which gets 90 percent of its drinking water from the Colorado River, never experienced a water shortage. The opposite happened. As population boomed in the early 2000s, Southern Nevada pulled less and less Colorado River water from Lake Mead.
Decades later, Southern Nevada Water Authority is still actively pursuing the pipeline, despite legal challenges from a diverse coalition of ranchers, tribes and environmental groups. In a new round of state engineer hearings last week, opponents are again pushing to limit the scope of the water authority’s groundwater rights.
They believe that the project would undermine the area’s environment. And they often find themselves asking the same question: Las Vegas grew, and its per capita demand decreased without the $15 billion pipeline, first proposed decades ago. So how necessary is it?
The Falling Reservoir
“At some point, it is the only choice,” said Pat Mulroy, a legendary Colorado River deal maker and a forceful advocate for the project as the water authority’s first general manager until 2014.
Most of Southern Nevada’s drinking water comes from Lake Mead, the shrinking manmade reservoir that stores Colorado River water for the southwest. Compared to its neighboring states, Nevada is entitled to only a sliver of the river’s allocation. The Colorado River Compact, a treaty inked long before Las Vegas sprouted resorts, casinos, golf courses and vast master-planned communities, gives Nevada about 2 percent of the water.
This leaves the Southern Nevada Water Authority at a constrained starting point. Where many water agencies have a diversified portfolio – groundwater, Colorado River water, maybe in-state surface water – Southern Nevada is almost entirely reliant on one source, Mulroy argues.
And a changing climate is only expected to place additional stress on the Colorado River, according to recent academic studies. Thanks to higher temperatures, more water is expected to evaporate off the surface of Lake Mead while projections suggest that a shrinking snowpack will decrease supplies – all this, before the backdrop of further population growth not only in Las Vegas, but also across much of the southwest. Under those situations, having one source “is a very risky proposition,” Mulroy said.
But there is still a big economic incentive driving the push to build the pipeline. Las Vegas is projected to grow, and builders might be unwilling to back new developments if they don’t know that there will be a secure supply of water. The project’s backers point out that the state’s economy depends on Southern Nevada, which in turn depends on water. The 2.1 million people who populate Southern Nevada comprise most of Nevada’s population, about 70 percent.
Las Vegas officials see the pipeline as a form of hedging, to prepare for a time when getting 90 percent of its water from Lake Mead might not be sustainable. “When you live in the driest state in the union, you don’t take options off the table,” said John Entsminger, the water authority’s current general manager. “Whether something really is necessary is a question of time.”
Conserving What You Have
Joined by a coalition of farmers, ranchers and local officials, the Center of Biological Diversity has sued over the Southern Nevada pipeline twice, and the organization has had some success in delaying the project. Judges have ordered federal and state officials to consider narrow revisions to environmental impact statements and limiting the water authority’s groundwater rights.
Southern Nevada Water Authority hopes to build a 250-mile water pipeline to send groundwater from rural Nevada, near Great Basin National Park, to the Las Vegas area. (Photo by Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
Patrick Donnelly, the center’s Nevada representative, said the project and desert pipelines like it could dry ecosystems critical to sustaining wildlife in the deserts scattered across the southwest.
“These projects propose the wholesale dewatering of entire landscapes,” he said of groundwater pumping. “Before we start having the discussion about whether we sacrifice millions of acres of habitat [to adapt to growth and climate change], we need to reduce our consumption.”
With more efficient homes and conservation programs, most Western cities have reduced their consumption, but researchers and water managers agree that, in many cases, people are still using more water than they need. Since 2002, Las Vegas cut its per capita water consumption by about 40 percent, according to Bronson Mack, a water authority spokesman. In the mid-1990s, Las Vegans were consuming more than 200 gallons per capita, higher than many other cities.
That number is now at about 123 gallons per capita. The drop is not unique to Las Vegas. Most cities in the region have seen their per capita daily consumption drop as a result of efficient appliances, homebuilders placing a new emphasis on sustainability and conservation efforts. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, for its part, runs a cash-for-grass program that pays its customers to replace turf with desert landscaping. It credits the rebate program with saving billions of gallons of water.
Donnelly at the Center for Biological Diversity said such statistics can be misleading.
“They have cut their water consumption a lot, but they are still using water like crazy,” he said.
Las Vegas is lagging behind other cities, he argued. In July, Los Angeles’ average residents’ daily water consumption was at 59 gallons, according to KPCC. And San Francisco residents use about 50 gallons per day, according to its water agency. Howard Watts, a spokesman for the Great Basin Water Network, a coalition opposing the pipeline, said his organization has sparred with the water agency over whether its efforts are stringent enough. He said the agency should consider requiring customers to phase out front lawns or retrofit homes with more efficient appliances.
“They have been really hesitant to force requirement on older homes,” Watts said.
The uncertainty for water managers is how far they can push it.
“For any particular case, it’s different,” said John Fleck, who directs the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. But he added that “conservation has continually outpaced water managers’ projections of what their customer’s conservation would be.”
The incentive for water managers, Fleck said, is to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Politics on the Colorado River
There are also larger forces at play.
Arizona, California and Nevada are in the late stages of negotiating a drought contingency plan to voluntarily cut the amount of water they take from Lake Mead during shortages. In the past, Colorado River negotiations have played into Southern Nevada’s calculation that it needs to continue pushing for the pipeline. For years, Arizona, which banked a portion of Nevada’s Colorado River water, was “extremely adamant” that Las Vegas find a long-term water source.
“It doesn’t really matter that growth isn’t there,” Mulroy said. “The other states are not going to let Southern Nevada [Water Authority] draw its full allocation out of a reservoir that is crashing to zero.” Falling water levels in Lake Mead have come close to triggering a federal shortage declaration. Under such a designation, the basin states would be required to cut their usage.
Watts, with the Great Basin Water Network, said that underestimates the leverage Nevada has on the river. In 2015, the water authority uncapped a third intake in Lake Mead that would ensure deliveries for Southern Nevada even if the reservoir fell so low that water stopped flowing to California and Arizona.
California and Arizona would want to keep that from happening, Watts said. As a result, their incentive is to conserve the Colorado River and keep more water in Lake Mead. There are ways to mitigate dropping lake elevations: water banking, conservation or investing in desalinization.
“The only new source of water that we’re going to get that is going to have the most minimal amount of conflict is going to be from the ocean,” he said, noting that costs have come down for desalination. And even though Nevada is a long way from the ocean, more desalination could reduce California’s reliance on the Colorado River and leave more water in the lake.
Among water managers along the river, there is an increasing recognition that infrastructure in one state can affect water planning in another state. They are watching the Southern Nevada pipeline project, along with another large infrastructure project in California. Gov. Jerry Brown and Southern California’s wholesale water agency, Metropolitan Water District, is pushing to approve a $17.1 billion plan to build two tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The tunnels, meant to create more reliability in California’s water supply, play into how the state will position itself in the final negotiations of the drought contingency plan. If California can’t rely on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, it might be less inclined to accept cuts in Lake Mead deliveries.
“In general, projects that increase the water supplies … are good for the potential management of the [Colorado River],” said Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “It would create another water supply for them that they could use in a conjunctive and flexible way that could potentially conserve water and keep water in Lake Mead.”
Groundwater Nevada Southern Nevada Water Authority
With the fire season still on-going, Brazil has seen 208,278 fires this year, putting 2017 on track to beat 2004’s record 270,295 fires. While drought (likely exacerbated by climate change) worsens the fires, experts say that nearly every blaze this year is human-caused.
The highest concentration of fires in the Amazon biome in September was in the São Félix do Xingu and Altamira regions. Fires in Pará state in September numbered 24,949, an astonishing six-fold increase compared with 3,944 recorded in the same month last year.
The Amazon areas seeing the most wildfires have also seen rapid change and development in recent years, with high levels of deforestation, and especially forest degradation, as loggers, cattle ranchers, agribusiness and dam builders move in.
Scientists warn of a dangerous synergy: forest degradation has turned the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source; while globally, humanity’s carbon emissions are worsening drought and fires. Brazil’s rapid Amazon development deepens the problem. Researchers warn that mega-fires could be coming, unless trends are reversed.
Figures from the Brazilian government’s INPE (National Institute of Space Research) show that 2017 is shaping up to be the worst year on record for forest fires: 208,278 were detected by 5 October. Alberto Setzer, who runs INPE’s fire monitoring department, told Mongabay that 2017 was now on course to overtake 2004, until now the year with the most fires, when 270,295 were detected. More fires were seen in September of this year (110,736) than in any previous month in the 20 years that INPE has been recording fires.
Two rural districts in Pará state had the highest number of fires in the Amazon biome: 9,786 in São Félix do Xingu and 6,153 in Altamira up to the end of last month. The increase of fires in the whole of Pará has been astonishing: INPE figures show that there were 24,949 just in September, a six-fold increase compared with 3,944 recorded in the same month last year. In fact, 29,316 fires were recorded in all of last year for the Amazonian state.
While there is a high level of drought this year, it is clear that something other than dry conditions is driving the record number of wildfires. Setzer told Mongabay that the fires almost everywhere have a common characteristic: they are manmade.
Disturbed Amazon areas see worst burns
INPE, which has a sophisticated system for monitoring fires, has built up an impressive archive of satellite images of the damage done by the fires. This archive shows that the wildfires have increasingly been spreading into protected forests. Over fifty conserved areas have been impacted this year, almost twice the number damaged last year. And the list includes some of Brazil’s iconic nature parks.
Araguaia National Park is a highly important protected area on the island of Bananal in southwest Tocantins state. Covering 558,000 hectares (1.4 million acres), it is home to threatened species like the giant otter and jaguar, and stands out as an oasis in the midst of the parched savanna vegetation of the Cerrado that surrounds it. Earlier this month one of Brazil’s leading TV shows, the Fantástico programme on Globo TV, showed powerful images of the national park being devoured in flames. In all, 70 percent of it was destroyed.
Out-of-control fires have affected cattle ranches as well. In the region of Carmolândia in the north of Tocantins a fierce fire raced across eight farms, killing over a thousand cattle. Almost everywhere, fire brigades have been too poorly staffed and equipped to control the blazes.
2017 dry, but not a record drought
Setzer explained that when much of the vegetation is dry — the result of a prolonged drought, as happened this year — wildfires can rapidly race out of control. “In some areas of the center-west of Brazil, there hasn’t been a drop of rain for four months.”
Even so, the 2017 drought may not turn out to be exceptional. “It does not look as if the drought this year will be as severe as in 2005, 2007, 2010, and 2015/2016,” Luiz Aragão, Senior Lecturer in Earth Systems Science at Exeter University, UK, told Mongabay.
However, he added, his analysis was based on past oceanic conditions which could still change, with the 2017 drought getting worse: “This happened in 2015 when the drought intensified from October till December, but this is not usual in the Amazon.”
What seems to be occurring, he said, is that the Amazonian climate is changing — what was once regarded as an exceptional drought there, is now becoming more accepted as normal. “The dry seasons in Brazil seem to be becoming drier and more frequent,” explained Aragão, just as forecast by climate modelling, and as observed by scientists.
The Big Green Lie
The fact that there has been a record number of fires this year doesn’t necessarily mean that there has been an increase in the area deforested. Instead, fires are often the result of a different phenomenon: forest degradation, which occurs when loggers move in to extract hard timber.
Loggers only fell valuable trees they’re harvesting and those in the way. But what they leave behind under the forest canopy are heaps of dead limbs and debris — dry, flammable slash. However, that degraded understory left by loggers rarely appears in official deforestation figures, which only report on clear cuts, defined as deforested areas over 62,000 square meters (15 acres).
Antonio Donato Nobre, a visiting researcher at INPE, calls this hidden damage the Big Green Lie: “This wholesale forest degradation is not monitored and it affects massive areas, many times larger than those clear-felled in deforestation. Such degraded forests are very vulnerable to drought and fires. Indeed, it is the main reason why the fires spread so easily”.
For many decades scientists assumed major fires were unlikely in wet places like the Amazon, so scientific knowledge regarding tropical wildfire dynamics is still lacking. Ted Feldpausch, an expert in tropical ecology at Exeter University, UK, told Mongabay: “Understanding of how tropical forests change due to fire is still quite limited. This is partly due to fire being variable, burning downed trees in deforested areas and also entering standing forests, where fire movement and impact may be more cryptic, e.g. ranging from slow-moving fires that creep across the forest floor consuming litter, to high energy fires that arch through canopies and consume whole trees. This variation in fire can result in a large range of impacts on tree mortality, carbon storage in living and dead trees, and forest structure and composition.”
Lack of political will
Both Setzer and Nobre believe that, at heart, the failure to bring forest degradation and deforestation under control in Brazil is a lack of political will by federal and state governments. Setzer said: “It requires extreme political tolerance (to use a politically correct term) to allow 700,000 square kilometers [270,271 square miles] to be illegally cleared — and to know where this is happening in real time — without doing anything.”
Nobre is more outspoken: “The very agents of wanton destruction of the Amazon are now controlling the legislative and executive branches of the federal government and working day and night to increase deforestation and degradation via bills and acts that are being tolerated by the judiciary.”
Nobre believes that time is fast running out for saving the Amazon rainforest: “I was alarmed about the future of the Amazon years ago, in 2009, when there was still a good chance that we could stave off final destruction. In 2014, I published an accessible review of the scientific literature that showed that the unabated process of destruction in the Amazon was leading to disaster.
“Now I hear from colleagues studying forest degradation, on the front line and remotely, that multiple organ failure is underway in [the forests of] eastern Amazonia — that the forest is already collapsing in areas not directly affected by chain saws and bulldozers… Unless a very different government comes to power in 2019, it will be too late for huge areas of the Amazon,” he said, referring to next year’s Brazilian election.
This is how the world ends…
This year’s record wildfires are not only having Amazonian impacts. It is becoming increasingly clear to researchers that the fate of the Amazon’s forests is inextricably bound to the fate of the world — and vice versa.
While in the past Amazonian forests served humankind inadvertently by absorbing more carbon than emitted, delaying the worst impacts of global warming, Feldpausch says that has now changed. The Amazon has now become part of the problem: “The combined effect of continued droughts, fire, and forest degradation is reducing carbon stocks, resulting in Amazon forests being an estimated net source of carbon during the past decade.”
Indeed, a new, just published study by researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University, has found that human-caused deforestation, forest degradation and disturbance of tropical forests in Africa, the Americas and Asia have resulted in those forests now emitting more carbon into the atmosphere than they sequester on an annual basis.
More alarming still, some scientists believe that the speed at which Amazonian forests are being devoured by wildfire, plus the greenhouse gas emissions from those fires, will only aggravate global warming.
In truth, the very survival of the Amazon may depend on humanity’s rapid success in radically reducing its release of greenhouse gases planet-wide. Bruno Lopes, a Ph.D student at the Federal University of Viçosa, spells this out: A recently published scientific study, to which he contributed, created a model demonstrating how the collapse of the Amazon forest might occur. If the world continues on its present track, he told Mongabay: “More severe droughts are going to make the soil drier and make the trees lose their leaves and branches. This combustible material… will accumulate in the soil and make the forest more vulnerable to high intensity fires.”
Change, he says, will not be slow, gradual or continuous. Instead, “If we follow present trends and we move toward a 4 degrees Celsius [7.2 degrees Fahrenheit] increase in global temperature by the end of the century, forest degradation will probably increase abruptly by the middle of the century.” The accumulation of combustible material may trigger mega-fires that, in the intensity suggested by their model of 600 kW/m, [a measure of the amount of fuel contained within a source] will be lethal to most trees.
The intensity of the resulting Amazon mega-fires will depend in large part on the quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, he explained. “If the Paris Agreement is implemented and the increase in global temperatures is held to 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit], this will reduce the intensity of the fires by 68 percent.”
Unfortunately for the Amazon and humankind, current cumulative national commitments to carbon cuts under the Paris Agreement will undoubtedly result in an overshoot of the 2 degree Celsius limit — with near certain catastrophic results. This circumstance led climate scientist James Hansen to angrily label the Paris Agreement a fraud and a fake.
More than ever, the destiny of the world is interdependent on all humanity. If Brazil is to have a chance at controlling the intensity of fires in the Amazon, it needs all countries — including the U.S. — to successfully reduce carbon emissions. And if the world is to avoid disastrous global warming, it needs Brazil, sooner rather than later, to tackle and reduce forest degradation and deforestation that, if uncurbed, could create runaway mega-fires, greatly increasing carbon emissions. The clock is ticking. The fires are burning.
FUNAI. “Brazil indigenous lands.” Accessed through Global Forest Watch on October 9, 2017. www.globalforestwatch.org.
IUCN and UNEP-WCMC (), The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) [On-line], September, , Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC. Available at: www.protectedplanet.net. Accessed through Global Forest Watch in October 2017. www.globalforestwatch.org
NASA FIRMS. “VIIRS Active Fires.” Accessed through Global Forest Watch on October 9, 2017. www.globalforestwatch.org
Climate change did not cause Syrian war
October 11, 2017, by Tim Radford
Starvation is ravaging Syria, but climate change is not directly to blame.
Image: Tasnim News Agency
Drought brought on by climate change is not responsible for the Syrian war, scientists say, but it has helped to make conflict likelier.
LONDON, 11 October, 2017 – Climate change in the form of sustained drought is not to blame for the bloody and prolonged conflict in Syria, according to a new study.
But drought nevertheless plays a contributing role in creating the conditions for conflict – and a database of 1,800 riots over a cycle of 21 years delivers the evidence to support that hypothesis, according to a second study.
The idea that climate change, with consequential drought and famine in its wake, can drive conflict and topple kingdoms, empires and civilisations is not a new one: climate change has been identified as a factor in the fall of the ancient Assyrian empire and the fall of the Mayan civilisation, and the recent drought in the eastern Mediterranean has been identified as the worst in 900 years.
But, scientists in the UK argue in the journal Political Geography, there is no evidence to support climate change as a factor in the Syrian civil war.
This is an argument not likely to be settled by any one study. Researchers in the last three years have repeatedly warned that climate is likely to be a contributing factor to civil conflict or violence in some cases simply because hot weather and short tempers seemed statistically linked, in others because prolonged drought turns farmers and herdsmen into climate refugees.
And the flight from the land has been linked with the beginning of civil unrest in Syrian cities. This argument has been invoked by, among others, former US President Obama, Prince Charles of Great Britain, the World Bank and Friends of the Earth.
Not so, say the scholars in Political Geography. They argue that though the drought was severe, it was not necessarily caused by man-made climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels, and that although drought contributed to migration to the cities, this would have involved not 1.5 million people but no more than 60,000 families. Economic liberalisation in any case may have been the more important factor, they say.
“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning”
“Our paper finds that there is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war. Indeed, it is extraordinary that this claim has become so widely accepted when the scientific evidence for it is so thin,” said Jan Selby, who directs the Centre for Conflict and Security Research at Sussex University in the UK.
“Global climate change is a very real challenge, and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences, but there is no good evidence that this is what was going on in this case.
“It is vital that experts, commentators and policymakers resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims about the conflict implications of climate change. Overblown claims not based on rigorous science only risk fuelling climate scepticism.”
But the link between climate and violence remains. European researchers report in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that they studied the pattern of rioting recorded in sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2011, and found a systematic link between sudden depletion of water resources and the outbreak of unrest.
They used statistical reasoning to find that droughts raised the risk of rioting from 10% to 50% in a given month in any region. There were other factors: density of population, the presence of lakes and rivers and the local ethnic mix could all contribute to the probabilities of conflict. That did not mean that droughts “cause” conflict.
“In order of importance, it is political, economic or social causes that create tension,” said Jérémy Lucchetti, a professor in the University of Geneva’s economics and management faculty, who led the study.
“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning.” – Climate News Network
SOMETHING MONUMENTAL HAPPENED on August 25 in California water management that received almost no media attention: It became official policy to reconnect the state’s major rivers with their floodplains.
The action by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board, an obscure panel appointed by the governor, clears the way for the state to embrace projects that allow floods to recharge groundwater. This could include projects like breaching levees, building setback levees and creating flood bypass structures so rivers can inundate historic floodplains for the first time in a century.
In short, it means rivers must no longer be confined within levees as a standard practice.
The result could be not only reduced flood risk, but reviving severely depleted groundwater aquifers, restoring wildlife habitat and improving the capabilities of existing water storage reservoirs.
The state calls these “multibenefit” flood-control projects, said Mike Mierzwa, chief of the office of flood planning at the California Department of Water Resources. They’re a major focus of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, a massive policy document the board adopted at its August 25 meeting.
The plan will guide flood-safety improvements on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers – the largest in the state – and their tributaries for the next 30 years.
“It’s the first time that the state, from a flood-management perspective, has recognized there’s a significant opportunity here,” said Mierzwa. “It’s a very big signal to a local agency that if they are interested in a project that incorporates groundwater recharge, the state will be interested in partnering with them and paying for the public benefits associated with that.”
The plan identifies $20 billion worth of flood-protection projects, and priority locations for their construction. Many are focused on existing levees that are in poor condition, or in locations vulnerable to increased flood flows likely to be caused by climate change.
The plan does not require anything to be built, and it does not include any construction money.
“The plan itself is an investment strategy,” Mierzwa said. “It outlines what it is we hope to achieve in both the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins within next 30 years.”
In California, most of the levee maintenance and improvement is done by more than 50 small levee districts. Each oversees a local levee network that is part of the larger whole in the flood-prone Central Valley. Most operate using small property tax surcharges collected from local landowners – usually just enough to keep up with regular levee maintenance.
These local agencies rely on state and federal dollars to build larger projects, such as reconstructing a levee or building new levees. The Central Valley Flood Protection Board oversees many of these decisions, so priorities in the new investment strategy can drive a lot of change on the ground.
The timing coincides with two other major state programs.
First is the California Water Commissions’s process to award bond money from Proposition 1 for new water storage projects. The law allows this money to be spent only on the “public benefits” of new water storage projects, which can include things like flood protection and wildlife habitat.
The nonprofit group River Partners, for instance, has applied for $22 million from Proposition 1 to acquire land and remove farm levees as part of an expansion of San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. It would revive nearly 1,500 acres of historic floodplain, improve groundwater recharge and restore wildlife habitat.
The second is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires every aquifer in the state to be managed such that it does not suffer chronic depletion. The requirement means many groundwater management agencies will be looking for new ways to recharge their aquifers, which could include allowing floodwaters to inundate farm fields or dedicated floodplains.
“There’s no one silver bullet for our water supply problems,” said John Cain, director of conservation for California flood management at American Rivers, an environmental group. “And there’s no easy solutions for our flood control and groundwater problems. But one thing that helps all of them is multibenefit flood management projects.”
California’s efforts have been partly inspired by the Netherlands, which launched its Room for the River Program years ago. The program recognizes that confining rivers to narrow, levied channels is risky because levees will always be vulnerable to decay, climate change and other threats. Therefore, it’s better to reduce dependence on those levees by moving them farther apart. This reduces water elevation between the levees and creates a wider, more natural river channel.
“People assume levees function all the way to the top,” Mierzwa said. “But levees in the Central Valley of California are failing long before they overtop. It’s underseepage, through-seepage or a leverage force that eventually gets the levee. So the goal is to keep the water level down. Every little bit helps.”
The San Joaquin River region is a primary target of the state’s efforts because it suffers from severe groundwater depletion. This has caused major land subsidence that is damaging infrastructure, including levees and flood channels, which reduces their water-carrying capacity. In other words, groundwater loss is also increasing flood risk.
“In some places, like the upper San Joaquin River between Fresno and Merced, there’s a lot of potential there for groundwater recharge,” said Cain.
The Central Valley Flood Protection Plan identifies a number of projects in this area, including setback levees and floodplain restoration efforts.
One such project is already proving it can work. The San Luis Canal Company, a farm irrigation district based in Dos Palos, California, delivers surface water to a group of farms on the west side of the San Joaquin River. But they are affected by land subsidence caused by another group of farmers outside their service area, who depend on groundwater to irrigate crops east of the river.
So the canal company, led by general manager Chase Hurley, approached the east side farmers about trying a groundwater recharge project. One farmer decided to sign on, agreeing not to plant almond and pistachio trees on a portion of his land, so it can be used instead to store floodwaters for aquifer recharge.
The farmer plowed up berms around the recharge field to hold floodwaters diverted from the Fresno River and the Eastside Bypass, a flood control channel. It took two years before there was enough runoff to test the project. But finally last winter, the rivers rose and the field could be flooded.
“Just in this one basin, we sank a little over 30,000 acre-feet,” said Hurley. “Even the landowner was amazed how much water the ground took. Then his neighbors started watching it, so now there’s an organized effort to build similar structures.”
One goal of the project was to recharge shallow aquifers in the area so farmers don’t have to pump from a deeper aquifer, which is the cause of land subsidence. And that is exactly how the trial project worked out.
Because the trial floodplain captured so much water, Hurley said, the landowner didn’t have to tap very many wells to irrigate his crop this year. And when he did, he was able to use only shallow wells.
“It’s water we’re taking off the top of the system [during floods], and it helps the local flood control district to take some pressure off the levees,” he said.
The new Central Valley Flood Protection Plan ought to make more of these projects possible, Hurley said, because it stands as an official endorsement of the concept.
He also said the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act seems to have motivated some property owners.
“I think having SGMA, sort of as a small billy club over these guys’ heads, has helped us a little bit,” Hurley said. “We don’t use that as a threat. But the more we all understand what SGMA is all about, they know they’re better off trying to do something on their own rather than being told by Sacramento.”
WITH 17 LARGE wildfires in California igniting in 24 hours this week, October is shaping up to be a brutal month for wildfires, as it often is. It’s too soon to know what caused multiple conflagrations spreading across Northern California’s wine country, but elsewhere in the state dead and dying trees have been the subject of much concern. The five-year drought in California killed more than 102 million trees on national forest lands. That is a gigantic problem in itself that will lead to huge wildfire risks in the future and big changes in wildlife habitat.
With that huge number in mind, it is easy to forget that the forests were already in a sorry state. It’s now widely understood that a century of misguided – but well-intentioned – policies over the past 100 years produced forests that are too densely packed with small trees and too vulnerable to possibly catastrophic fires.
Water supplies are also a concern, because the forests are nature’s water-storage sponges. They capture snowfall and release it slowly, helping Californians survive long, dry summers. But there’s also a concern that overgrown forests consume too much water, and that thinning some forests could generate more runoff.
A new report by the Public Policy Institute of California proposes some different approaches to begin chipping away at the problem. It recommends some changes in state law and new contracting practices, among other things. It also suggests some changes in public attitudes.
To learn more, Water Deeply recently spoke with Van Butsic, the study’s lead author. Butsic is a land system scientist with a Ph.D. in forestry; he works as an assistant cooperative extension specialist in the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.
Water Deeply: How are California’s forests doing in the wake of the drought?
Van Butsic: The drought, coupled with the last century of management actions, caused a huge pulse in tree mortality. There are always dead trees in the woods, but the additional dead trees in the environment due to the drought is about 15 million a year.
One hundred years ago many, many large trees were harvested. Then we have a century of fire suppression, so we take fire out of the equation. So new trees are coming back and they’re not burning. Then, about 30 years ago, we stopped harvesting on most national forests. So we have a condition where the forests are of a much higher density than they’ve ever been before. Then we have the drought, and lots of trees on the landscape are susceptible to bark beetle outbreaks due to lack of water.
Water Deeply: How much additional prescribed fire is needed to bring the forests back to a healthy state?
Butsic: We didn’t quantify that ourselves. But what I would say is, the statistics we’ve seen from a number of good scientists have put the number of additional acres that need to be treated at somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 per year. So a very large amount. The numbers in those studies come from a historical look at what was normal 100 or 150 years ago. That’s more than a doubling of what’s going on now. So it’s a substantial increase. I want to say that right now the Forest Service is doing somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 per year.
Water Deeply: There’s also a need for more mechanical thinning, or logging. How do we get past the controversy over that?
Butsic: One thing that has happened in California is sort of a distrust of mechanical thinning. Often, when the Forest Service or private landowners say they’re doing mechanical thinning, certain environmental groups think that’s code for clearcutting. One thing we try to say in the paper is this is a valuable tool and it needs to be on the table if we want to get this work done. So making sure mechanical thinning is not written off as code for clearcutting is going to be important if we’re going to manage forests.
Water Deeply: How do we ensure that it’s not clearcutting?
Butsic: There are very strong forest practice laws in California. My understanding of the current regulations governing forest management on federal lands is that in Forest Service Region 5, which California belongs to, it’s really nearly impossible to harvest trees [with a diameter] over 30in (76cm). So these trees are not really at risk, I would say, as long as the Forest Service follows its own recommendations. And yet this is still a stumbling block in conversations about mechanical thinning. People are still very worried about these trees because they’ve seen in the past some large trees disappear. That’s a difficult situation to work with. The laws are in place to protect those trees, and yet people don’t really trust them.
Water Deeply: You recommend state and federal land management agencies justify their continued fire suppression. Why do you suggest that?
Butsic: Most ecologists would agree the long-term suppression of fire has led to a change in forest structure, and probably a decline in forest health. Typically, when agencies do any activity that might cause environmental harm, they need to justify it. We don’t see that for fire suppression. And there’s good reason why you wouldn’t do this on a case-by-case basis. If a fire breaks out around a house, you want to go and put it out. But making sure agencies explain their management choices around wildfire would lead them to use some of their tools, like managed wildfire, more often.
Water Deeply: You report that state law treats wildfire and prescribed fire differently in regard to air quality. Is that still appropriate?
Butsic: There’s a growing body of evidence that prescribed fires are less harmful to humans than non-managed wildfires, because they burn at lower severity, typically. And we know an area burned with a prescribed fire is less likely to burn at high severity in the near future. So clearly, there are long-term air quality benefits to prescribed fire.
But with prescribed fires, there are short-term costs caused by regulation. There’s a lot of planning that needs to go into conducting a prescribed fire for air-quality reasons. And the air-quality reasons are real. We’re not saying people with asthma are not affected by smoke. But we can manage it with prescribed fire and know when the fire is going to happen and know that in the future, we’ll have less risk of severe wildfire. Or we can just leave it to chance and, eventually, we’ll probably get a severe wildfire anyway.
So treating those differently under state law is just problematic.
Water Deeply: What kind of additional mechanical thinning are you calling for?
Butsic: We think mechanical thinning can be really useful in a few ways. If you’re near homes or near roads, mechanical thinning has a very key role to play in those instances. The other is where there are logs that could be harvested that could offset the cost of other treatments. Prescribed fire and managed wildfire are both costly.
There is a number of studies that show mechanical thinning with removal of some sawlogs can be a net profit in certain areas, and the largest trees we looked at removing in the report are 16in (in diameter).
Water Deeply: So why isn’t it happening?
Butsic: There is a number of barriers that we’ve identified to getting the work done. Part of it is the history of distrust. One roadblock is that it is somewhat risky for leadership to try to do these big treatments. If you’re going to do big prescribed fires or let wildfires be managed, there’s risk to the leadership that things could go wrong. And if they do, they look bad. So I do think these groups do not have a risk-taking culture. That’s just not the Forest Service culture. I do think that’s probably hindered them a little bit.
Another barrier is there still are issues with the infrastructure. In some parts of the state, there just are not great places to take the material: sawmills and biomass plants. Some people have said that’s the main roadblock. I’m not sure we agree with that.
Water Deeply: Will these things improve water supply?
Butsic: We think there’s real potential. There’s probably more uncertainty in that science than in other areas. But we do think there’s real potential for the maintenance of the quality and quantity of waters we have today under a healthy forest regime versus an unhealthy one.
Water Deeply: What’s the public’s role? Do we need to be more open-minded about prescribed fire and some kind of logging?
Butsic: I think understanding the role of fire and the necessity of it in the landscape, having the public appreciate the role that fires plays in keeping forests healthy, is something we could improve upon. We need to build the social license to do treatments.
The media often portray fire in the forest as a total destruction. After a fire goes through, it’s not pretty. You see a lot of charred and dead trees. It’s not an appealing landscape. But understanding the long-term importance of having that disturbance on the landscape is certainly something the media could help educate the public on.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt have a go-to argument they lean on when pushing for repeal of the Clean Power Plan or other government regulation: The red tape is costing America jobs.
To get the economy humming, Pruitt on Monday announced that his agency would take formal steps toward repealing the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era suite of rules meant to scale down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “The war on coal is over,” Pruitt boasted to a crowd of coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky, this morning. “The EPA and no federal agency should ever use its authority to say to you, ‘We are going to declare war on any sector of our economy.’”
Pruitt may be right about a connection between climate change policy and jobs, but he seems to have it backward. The United States shed 33,000 jobs in September, ending a seven-year streak in U.S. jobs growth — the longest-ever in U.S. history. Two of the main causes of that reversal?
Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
As Economic Policy Institute Senior Economist Elise Gould wrote, the drop-off in unemployment “was almost certainly due to Hurricane Irma, which struck smack in the middle of the reference period, and the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.” Over the phone, she told The Intercept that the storms had “a larger effect than I would have expected.”
While drawing direct correlations between warming and any single storm is virtually impossible, rising temperatures almost certainly shaped both Irma and Harvey. Each benefited from unusually warm waters in the seas where they brewed. The fact that sea levels are higher than they were just a few decades ago also makes storm surges higher. Worth noting as well is that Harvey was the third “once-in-500-year” flooding event Houston had experienced in just three years.
It wasn’t all bad news from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the federal body that collects employment statistics. Unemployment fell across race and ethnicity. Wages also grew by 2.9 percent over the same period, though Gould notes that this might be a misleading result of the storms. “Ordinarily that would seem like a nice boost,” she said, “but in the service sector, for instance, you had around 75,000 losses — greater than overall losses. That may be in part because workers who work in low-wage sectors like that are less likely to be counted as employed because they didn’t work any shifts in that period. If you take a bunch of low-wage workers off the market, it brings wage numbers up.”
Storms in general tend to hit low-wage workers the hardest, and not just in BLS accounting. On top of the hardship caused by wages lost by shuttered or destroyed workplaces, poorer workers and the unemployed have a much harder time relocating away from areas vulnerable to storm damage, let alone rebuilding after the fact — either in shouldering costs up front or in navigating the kinds of lengthy red tape required to get substantial aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Gould did caution against jumping to conclusions about September’s jobs figures too soon. “There’s a lot of taking with a grain of salt in this whole report,” she said and advised holding off on any scaremongering about recent unemployment data until more is available. “I don’t think any decisions should be made based on this report,” Gould told The Intercept. State-level jobs numbers, she noted, could show an uptick in industries, like construction, as rebuilding efforts get underway in Texas and Florida, though those figures have yet to surface in national statistics. (Notably, national jobs figures from the BLS do not show employment levels in Puerto Rico, which will appear in state-level reporting.)
So what can be made of this month’s jobs report and its relationship to our warming world? It’s not the case that climate change is already wreaking untold havoc on our economy: The economic shocks of Irma and Harvey are confined to specific areas, and climate-fueled storms have not somehow triggered a massive spike in unemployment, which remains around 4.2 percent. For any number of reasons, jobs figures themselves can be fickle; we’ll have to wait and see whether last month’s losses point to a longer term decline. And even if it is the case that unemployment is ticking upward, the main culprit likely won’t be a hurricane.
What the BLS did give us is a sign of things to come. Reading between the lines of last week’s report shows thousands of people thrown out of work by decidedly unnatural disasters, lives shattered by lost homes and lost paychecks, and climate impacts that fall unevenly. As the poorest Americans get hit hardest, the richest — corporations, developers, and more — could start swooping in as they did after Katrina to turn a profit from the wreckage, making the cities rebuilt after a storm still more unequal than the ones that preceded them.
Larger-scale economic impacts from climate change are also on the horizon. Worldwide, climate change could cost world governments as much as $8 trillion by 2030. Running 29,000 simulations based on the economic impacts of past weather events (droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc.), the authors of another recent study in the journal Science found that a worst-case scenario climate impact — 6 degrees Celsius of warming — could drive down GDP in the U.S. by as much as six points by the end of the century. “When you start changing the climate,” one of the report’s authors told NPR in June, “it starts affecting all these aspects of the economy, and it makes the future world harder to predict.”
Trump, meanwhile, is only making the situation worse. Just 100 companies — many of them fossil fuel producers and utilities — have been responsible for 71 percent of atmospheric warming since 1988. While Republicans go out of their way to give many of those same companies handouts in the name of job creation, their competitors are putting more people to work. Growth in the renewables sector has far outpaced that in the traditional fuel sectors Trump is keen to support, with solar alone adding jobs 17 percent faster than the economy as a whole. As of earlier this summer, there were 374,000 people employed in the solar industry, as opposed to 362,000 in natural gas. Coal jobs, by contrast, have declined steadily over the last few years as the industry has struggled financially. Moreover, there are potentially millions of jobs to be had — for coal miners and many others — in the transition away from fossil fuels and the construction of a low-carbon economy. Puerto Rico, for instance, could take advantage of plentiful sun and reliable easterly winds to reshape its energy economy.
So far, Trump has been predictably quiet about the latest jobs report, though officials were eager to conclude that bad jobs numbers could be chalked up entirely to the storms. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said he was “excited” about the numbers,” adding that “there is some noise in the number because of the hurricane, and as you said you discount that noise out.” The question is how much longer the GOP can discount the economic effects of the storms its regulatory rollbacks are helping feed.
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