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EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo: Alamy

The people’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a new leader. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler took the helm of the agency on July 9 following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. And now Wheeler has the opportunity to move past his predecessor’s scandals and return the agency to its science-based mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Like many other Trump administration department and agency heads, Mr. Wheeler is there to implement President Trump’s anti-regulatory, industry-first agenda—and he has clearly indicated his intention to do so. Yet in his address last week to a whipsawed and often demoralized EPA staff, he also acknowledged the agency’s “collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people.”

If Wheeler is truly sincere about returning the EPA to its core mission, here are nine critical actions he will need to take to achieve that goal.

1. Abandon efforts to restrict the agency from using the best available science to protect public health

Former Administrator Pruitt pushed forward a dangerous proposal that would effectively restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking. Under this proposal to restrict science, the EPA would be unable to use a range of public health research that relies on personal medical records and other information that must be kept confidential to protect individual and patient privacy rights.

Developed by political appointees with no input from scientific organizations, the proposal is a key part of the administration’s real goal: weaken air pollution rules that protect the quality of the air we breathe.

There is not a single mainstream scientific organization that supports the proposalPublic health organizations and experts have expressed significant concern about it. Dozens of scientists and advocates testified against the proposal at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. on July 17.

If the new acting administrator is serious about listening to science and scientists and to protecting public health, he will immediately withdraw the proposal to restrict science at the EPA.

2. Halt rollbacks of vehicle standards and close the “glider” truck loophole

The evidence is clear. Efficiency and emissions standards for vehicles are working, across the country, to cut emissions that impact our health, while saving families money at the pump. But former Administrator Pruitt willfully ignored the evidence, disavowing years of work by his own agency, and declared his intention to roll back these standards and effectively end the progress we’ve made on delivering cleaner cars of every size.

The administration has not yet issued a new proposed rule, which gives Wheeler the opportunity to listen to the evidence and change course. A growing number of states support strong standards, and we have the technology to continue to improve efficiency and cut emissions in a cost-effective way. Wheeler should halt efforts to roll back these successful standards.

In addition, Scott Pruitt’s final action in office was to announce that the agency would not enforce pollution rules for “glider” trucks, which often use higher-polluting older engines. The EPA’s own research shows that closing the loophole that allowed glider trucks to use old engines would save 1,600 lives every year by cutting dangerous pollution. The choice is clear: Mr. Wheeler must keep enforcing rules that keep high-pollution “glider” trucks from endangering hundreds of lives every year.

3. Improve transparency

In his address to EPA staff last week, Wheeler vowed to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor. But to greatly improve transparency at the agency, he will need to go beyond ditching Scott Pruitt’s soundproof booth, unlocking access to the administrator’s office area, and making his public calendar actually public (some of which is now online). It will mean allowing reporters full and unfettered access to EPA scientists; affirming the rights of scientists to communicate the science publicly without first asking for permission; and fully complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

It also means fully detailing how the many political appointees with current or former financial ties to industries that the EPA regulates—including Wheeler himself—will recuse themselves from decisions that affect their former employers and clients.

4. Support the facts on climate change

Unlike his predecessor, Wheeler acknowledged the facts on climate change in a recent interview, saying that “I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate.”

That is encouraging to hear. But Wheeler should show leadership by more clearly and frequently articulating the urgent need to cut carbon emissions to limit the harmful effects of climate change, as well as highlighting the key role his agency must play in that effort.

To address the growing threat of climate change, the EPA can and should set strong standards to cut heat-trapping emissions from the power sector, the transportation sector, and from industrial sources.  To support those efforts, it is also essential that Wheeler restores science to its rightful place at the EPA and removes all implicit or explicit barriers for staff working on issues related to climate change.

Last week, Wheeler noted the importance of communicating risks and related information to communities and the public, including the need to improve risk communication to lower income communities that are often most impacted by environmental threats. It is critical that his clearly articulated priority on risk communication also extends to the science, the risks, and the impacts of climate change to public health and the environment.  An easy first step would be restoring the web pages on climate change that were taken down or buried on the EPA website under his predecessor.

5. Stop efforts to weaken and delay the Clean Power Plan

Under Pruitt, the EPA began efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan—the nation’s first-ever standards to limit power plant carbon emissions—and replace it with a substantially weaker standard.  

It makes no sense to turn back the clock on the nation’s transition to clean energy, especially when the nation is facing worsening climate impacts—including flooding, heat waves, and wildfires—and the renewable energy industry is providing one of the fastest-growing sources of employment. What’s more, cutting carbon emissions from power plants will also decrease air and water pollution, which will bring significant public health benefits to communities around the country. 

Mr. Wheeler must know that, despite the administration’s claims, undoing the Clean Power Plan will not bring back coal. Indeed, a recent analysis shows that many operating coal units in the country are increasingly uneconomic relative to cleaner generation sources. If the administration truly cared about coal miners and coal communities, it would work with Congress to pass legislation to help with transition assistance, worker training, and the creation of new economic opportunities in these communities. 

Wheeler knows that the EPA is legally bound to act to limit carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act because they are a threat to public health. Rather than looking for ways to limit EPA’s role in addressing climate change, as he has indicated in recent interviews, he needs to make good on the agency’s legal obligations and deliver a strong power plant carbon standard without delay.  

6. Acknowledge and account for the health benefits of improved air and water quality

The EPA recently issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking signaling its plan to substantially change the way the agency accounts for the benefits of pollution standards that improve public health.

The proposed rule would essentially use a deceptive approach that reduces or eliminates the way these substantial health benefits are accounted for in formulating new policies. And then use that as a back-door way to weaken rules that protect air and water quality. For example, the EPA’s 2017 proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan used this type of crooked math to artificially lower the benefits of the pollution reductions that the standard would have brought. In particular, the EPA failed to account for the fact that actions to cut carbon emissions also pay large dividends by reducing other forms of harmful pollution like soot and smog.

If implemented, this proposed rule would have far-reaching consequences for the public’s health and well-being. Wheeler should halt this blatant attempt to fudge the numbers at the expense of the public’s health.

7. Require chemical companies to tell communities and first responders about the potential risks they face

 In early 2017, the EPA finalized changes to the Risk Management Program that would have provided the public and our nation’s first responders with more information about hazardous chemicals at industrial facilities in their neighborhoods. Beyond supporting and advancing the agency’s community-right-to-know responsibilities, providing this information is just plain common sense for planning and preparing.

Under Pruitt, the EPA delayed implementation of these changes and then proposed a new rule that would roll back these improvements. In his speech to agency staff, Wheeler said that he wanted to improve risk communication, especially for low-income communities and communities of color. Reversing course on this rollback will demonstrate his sincerity, his leadership, and his willingness to put public health and safety ahead of chemical industry pushback.

8. Work with independent stakeholders

To ensure the EPA is upholding its fundamental mission to protect human health and the environment, the agency must be informed by the best available science and ensure that the well-being of communities affected by pollution are prioritized.

Wheeler’s predecessor, however, focused almost exclusively on engaging with business interests. He failed to engage with other stakeholders, including scientists and affected communities. Regulated industries are important stakeholders as well, but is it in the best interests of public health and the health of our economy for the EPA’s decisions to be informed almost exclusively by this narrow perspective? I don’t think so.

To ensure a broader airing of perspectives, issues, and concerns, Wheeler should commit to engaging with a wider set of stakeholders. This includes scientists with relevant expertise, environmental justice and other community groups, and public health professionals. Wheeler must elevate the mission of the agency above the interests of the regulated of industry groups. It also means rescinding a ban on science advice from the very scientists whose work the EPA has found most promising.

Wheeler must also provide adequate opportunities for public hearings and comments—and clearly demonstrate his commitment to serving the American public first and foremost.

9. Fight to protect and increase the budget of the EPA so it has the resources needed to do its job

President Trump and former Administrator Pruitt repeatedly proposed sweeping budget cuts to the EPA, threatening the ability of the agency to carry out its mission. In 2017, President Trump and then-Administrator Pruitt proposed cutting the spending by nearly a third, which would have taken the agency to the lowest level in 40 years. The administration followed up in 2018 with proposed budget cuts of over 25%.

These proposed cuts—which Congress ultimately rejected—would have had severe implications for the health and safety of the American public. As just one example, as I’ve written about before, such budget cuts would have gutted EPA clean air programs that allow EPA staff to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, and provide tools and guidance to states that help ensure that Americans can breathe clean air.

The EPA needs a leader who sees the critical value of the work and the staff of the agency and will fight to protect—and actually increase—its budget so that the agency can carry out its mission and protect the health and safety of the American public. It makes no sense to hobble the agency’s ability to deal with current threats, let alone anticipate and plan for the future risks which are sure to come.

Waiting…and watching

Over the coming weeks and months, we will be watching how Wheeler lives into his new role. Will he take the steps needed to put human health and the environment first and foremost in agency policy and decision-making? Will he stand up and ensure that the agency is guided by independent, unconflicted science in what it does and what it says? Will he restore agency morale—and integrity, trust, and credibility in the eyes of the public he is duty-bound to protect?

While the Trump administration’s track record gives us ample reason to be skeptical, Wheeler now has the opportunity to put duty to the public and to the country first.

There will be ample opportunities to encourage and insist that he do so in the months ahead. And we will be there with you to hold him accountable for his actions.

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The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is up for re-authorization by the end of July. As flood risks grow around the nation, it’s time for Congress to reform and update this vital 50-year old program to better protect people and property. Without appropriate action, a warming climate coupled with rapid development in floodplains will raise the human and economic toll of flood disasters while taxpayer dollars are squandered on risky, business-as-usual investments.

Why the NFIP is so important

Last year’s devastating hurricane season brought unprecedented flooding to Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. This year, we’ve already seen terrible floods across the nation, in the Midwest, in Ellicott City, MD, in California and many more places. The NFIP is critical to getting people back on their feet after these types of disasters. And now Congress must pass reforms to the program also help ensure that it works to limit harms going forward.

In previous blog posts here and here, I’ve explained how the NFIP is more than just an insurance program, it’s intended to be a floodplain management and flood risk mitigation program. And today, with just over 5 million flood insurance policies in force, it’s the single largest source of flood insurance for homeowners and small businesses—making it vital for the economic well-being of communities.

Why reforms to the NFIP are essential

Unfortunately, over the years, Congress has failed to make adequate investments in accurate flood risk maps. That means that many Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood risk maps are seriously outdated and even the updated ones don’t reflect future conditions such as projections of sea level rise. It has also underfunded and failed to incentivize measures to encourage homeowners and communities to reduce their flood risks.

Outdated maps, subsidized flood insurance premiums and repeated payouts for business-as-usual rebuilding in floodplains after disasters have masked communities’ awareness of their flood risks and blunted incentives to reduce those risks and limit development in areas prone to flooding.

The NFIP was originally conceived as a program that would help homeowners access affordable flood insurance coverage (at a time when the private sector was increasingly unable to provide this service) and reduce future flood risks by incentivizing risk-mitigation measures and discouraging development in floodplains.  It was never designed to cope with the types of extreme flood disasters the nation has experienced recently, relying as it does on affordable insurance premiums and modest Congressional appropriations for its budget.

A series of major storms—including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria—have had a dire effect on the program’s finances, forcing it to borrow ever-increasing amounts from the US Treasury. Last year, $16 billion of the NFIP’s debt to the Treasury was forgiven, the first time this has happened. The program’s debt stands at about $20.5 billion now, although claims from last year’s hurricane season are still not fully resolved.

Meanwhile flood risks are growing in many places around the nation. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that, in just the next 30 years, hundreds of thousands of coastal homes and commercial properties worth billions of dollars are at risk from chronic flooding worsened by sea level rise. In many inland areas, heavy rainfall events are also on the rise due to climate change, contributing to growing flood risks in non-coastal communities.

Another recent study found that the total US population exposed to serious flooding is significantly higher than previously estimated. According to the study: “Nearly 41 million Americans live within the 1% annual exceedance probability floodplain (compared to only 13 million when calculated using FEMA flood maps).”

Both along the coasts and in inland floodplains, growing development in flood-prone areas is exacerbating exposure to flood risk by putting more people and property in harm’s way and reducing the ability of our landscapes to naturally absorb water.

All these challenges together are threatening the viability of the NFIP in its current form. But with the right reforms, the NFIP can play a vital role in making our nation more flood-resilient. What’s more, Congress can ensure that taxpayer dollars invested through the program are spent wisely to limit the costs of future disasters.

How Congress can fix the NFIP

These five reforms to the NFIP would go a long way to making the program more effective, equitable and science-based, while ensuring taxpayer dollars are well spent:

  • Updating flood risk maps nationwide using the latest technology and to reflect the latest science, consistent with the recommendations of the Technical Mapping Advisory Council. Congress will also need to appropriate sufficient funds to make this possible.
  • Phasing in risk-based insurance premiums and expanding the number of people carrying insurance to ensure adequate coverage for the growing numbers of homes exposed to flood risk, and to put the program on a more financially and actuarially-sound footing.
  • Addressing affordability considerations for low- and moderate-income households through targeted vouchers, rebates, grants and low-interest loans for flood mitigation measures. FEMA’s recently-issued affordability framework provides some useful guidance, as do reports from the National Research Council.
  • Providing more resources for homeowners and communities to invest in reducing their flood risks ahead of disasters, including expanding funding for voluntary home buyout programs especially in places that flood repeatedly. Budgets for FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation program and flood mitigation assistance programs should also be expanded.
  • Ensuring that a well-regulated private sector flood insurance market complements the NFIP without undermining it, including mandating that private insurers contribute to flood mapping fees and provide coverage at least as broad as NFIP policies.
Bills before Congress

There are several bills under congressional consideration currently, including three in the Senate—the Cassidy-Gillibrand bill (S.1313 – Flood Insurance Affordability and Sustainability Act of 2017), the Sustainable, Affordable, Fair and Efficient National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization Act (SAFE NFIP) 2017 co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators, and the Crapo-Brown bill (The National Flood Insurance Reauthorization Act of 2107)—and the House (the 21st Century Flood Reform Act).

More details on the bills’ provisions are here.

None of these bills on their own deliver the full set of reforms needed and there are clearly deep differences in the House and the Senate versions.

Of particular concern are attempts in the House bill to promote private flood insurance at the expense of weakening the NFIP, rather than ensuring that the private insurance market and the NFIP work side-by-side to increase the number of people with robust insurance coverage.

Efforts to move toward risk-based insurance premiums must be accompanied by strong affordability provisions for low and fixed income households, as well as enhanced resources for flood mitigation measures. Without these provisions, those who can least cope with the impacts of flooding will be unable to afford insurance or unable to take steps to reduce their risks. There is bipartisan support for better flood risk maps, but Congress must commit to adequate budgets for FEMA to carry out this important work.

Reasonable people on both sides of the aisle should recognize that communities need help coping with growing flood risks, and a robust, reformed NFIP must be an important part of the solution.

Legislation requiring the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the issue of voluntary home buyouts is also pending and should be passed.

Time to stop punting on much-needed reforms

Since the end of the last fiscal year in September 2017, the NFIP has had six short-term re-authorizations—the latest of which ends on July 31. Each time, Congress has failed to wrestle with much-needed reforms. The version of the Farm Bill that recently passed the Senate included a provision for  “straight re-authorization” to extend the NFIP for six months without any reforms. It is unclear as of now if the House will adopt a similar proposal.

Congress must stop punting on much-needed reforms to the NFIP so that the program can serve the nation well in the decades ahead. Communities on the frontlines of worsening flood risks need help now and they don’t have unlimited time to wait as Congress dithers.

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Photo: Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

Battle lines over President Trump’s nominee for a new US Supreme Court justice are now being drawn, as they should be, over crucial issues such as a woman’s right to choose, health care, immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice. In past nomination fights, little attention has been paid to the court’s role in shaping environmental law and science-based regulation. But it would be a major mistake to overlook these issues now. The Supreme Court has an enormous impact on how US environmental laws are interpreted and enforced, and a new justice could tip the balance against science-based rules on climate change, clean air, and clean water.

This threat is especially potent now because the current court is composed of four conservative and four liberal justices who typically vote in their respective blocks, with retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle. Mr. Trump’s nominee is highly likely to align with the conservative block, and therefore to create a five-justice majority to take the court in a sharply rightward direction for decades to come. To get a sense of how much hangs in the balance for the environment, consider three cases decided in the past decade on 5-4 (or 5-3) votes in which Justice Kennedy sided with the majority.

EPA’s duty to address global warming

In 2007, the US Supreme Court issued a decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that many consider the most important environmental decision in its history. The court ruled that the term “pollutant” in the Clean Air Act included the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming. This ruling, which sounds obvious now, was momentous then; it required EPA to make a determination about whether these heat trapping gases threatened health and the environment, and if so, to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. The ruling was the legal foundation for the bulk of the climate action plan issued by President Obama in 2013, and the key regulations to implement that plan (limits on carbon dioxide from power plants, controls on methane leaks from oil and gas operations, and EPA fuel economy standards for cars and trucks). The ruling enabled President Obama to offer an ambitious US emissions reduction pledge to the world which, in turn, made possible the Paris climate agreement.

This case was decided on a 5-4 vote, with Justice Kennedy joining four liberal justices. Justice Kennedy’s “swing vote” was therefore a lynchpin to the federal government’s necessary push to address climate change.

Three of the four the dissenters to that ruling (Roberts, Alito and Thomas) are still on the court, and the fourth dissenter (Scalia) has been replaced by the like-minded Neil Gorsuch. If President Trump picks a Supreme Court nominee aligned with the four dissenters, as seems highly likely, that decision—and with it EPA’s authority to address climate change—stands at risk, either of being overruled directly, or chipped away at via subsequent court decisions. In other words, a newly constituted court could damage the federal government’s fledgling efforts to address climate change at least as seriously as the EPA under Scott Pruitt tried to do—and that is saying a lot.

The role of science in water protection

In the key 2006 Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States, a landowner was sued by the federal government for filling a wetland, but contended that the government did not have jurisdiction over his land under the Clean Water Act. The case raised a recurring question—does the Clean Water Act apply only to standing bodies of water such as rivers, perennial streams, ponds and lakes, or does it also protect upstream wetlands and intermittent tributaries? The court’s decision was complex and confusing, as four conservative justices opted for a restrictive test for federal jurisdiction and four liberal justice supported a more expansive test. Justice Kennedy issued a concurring opinion that eschewed the jurisdiction line that the four conservative justices promoted, noting that wetlands and intermittent tributaries can have significant effect on downstream water bodies. His opinion was a paean to good science; he reasoned that to exclude these lands would conflict with the overall purpose of the Clean Water Act. As he wrote:

Important public interests are served by the Clean Water Act in general and by the protection of wetlands in particular. To give just one example…nutrient-rich runoff from the Mississippi River has created a hypoxic, or oxygen-depleted, “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that at times approaches the size of Massachusetts and New Jersey [and] scientific evidence indicates that wetlands play a critical role in controlling and filtering runoff.

In Justice Kennedy’s view, upstream wetlands and tributaries could be regulated, if they had a “significant nexus” to the downstream waters. Ultimately, science, and not arbitrary lines, would determine the issue of jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, the question of federal jurisdiction has not been settled. The Obama administration issued a rule that tried to clarify the question, but that rule was put on hold by the courts and is slated for repeal. So, more litigation is likely, possibly before the Supreme Court, and the question is this: Will a replacement justice demonstrate the same respect for science when considering the issue? If not, we could be left with a highly restrictive interpretation of the Clean Water Act that does not do justice to the complex science involved and fails to ensure clean water.

Drawing the line on governmental compensation for environmental regulations

The constitution provides that government may not take private property unless there is a lawful purpose and the government pays compensation to the landowner. The provision was put place to prevent physical seizures of property, but it has long been understood that sometimes a government regulation can be deemed a “taking” if it “goes too far” by leaving the landowner with no viable use of the property.

This was the issue in the Supreme Court tackled in the 2017 case Murr v. Wisconsin. In the case, a landowner who owned two adjacent riverfront lots claimed that environmental restrictions prevented him from developing the lots and wanted the government to compensate him for “taking” one of the lots even though the landowner could combine the two undersized lots into one larger, buildable one.

In that case, the court decided that it did not need to treat the two lots as separate, but instead would look at the value of the property with the lots combined. The court then ruled that the state had not “taken” the landowner’s property, because the owner still had viable use of it by combining the two lots.

Here again, the court split in a 5-3 decision, with Justices Alito, Thomas and Roberts dissenting, and Gorsuch not participating (presumably because he joined the court too late to do so). The case is important because, for those who favor radical deregulation, the takings clause could be a potent weapon when applied expansively. As the former Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Government hardly could go on if, to some extent, values incident to property could not be diminished without paying for every such change in the general law.”

What’s next?

These three cases illustrate the importance of the Supreme Court in environmental law, the court’s deep division on ideological grounds, and the key role Justice Kennedy’s independent vote has played. A new conservative justice is highly likely to tip this very delicate balance in ways that threaten continued progress on climate, clean air, and clean water. In addition to undermining the fragile decisions in the case above, the court will likely rule on many new cases of major environmental import. In the next term, for example, the court will take up the authority of the Fish and Wildlife service to designate “critical habitat” areas on private land to protect endangered species. Further down the road, if the Trump administration follows through on its threat to try to take away the right of California and other states to establish their own global warming emissions standards for cars and trucks, no doubt the court will be asked to weigh in on this crucial question.

Given how much is at stake, the public debate over the next nominee needs to include these issues. Just as nominees should be thoroughly questioned on a woman’s right to choose and civil rights issues, the nominee’s record on matters of science and environmental regulation deserves careful scrutiny. Senators should be prepared to ask probing questions, such as whether the nominee considers Mass. v. EPA to be “settled law” and therefore disfavored from being overruled under the doctrine of stare decisis. More generally, a robust discussion about whether the nominee accepts the scientific consensus on climate science, and whether and how a judge should consider scientific evidence in statutory interpretation, is needed. If this scrutiny reveals the nominee to be hostile to science-based regulation, this should establish a bright line which senators should refuse to cross.

Photo: Lorie Shaull
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Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Lock the Gate Alliance (Flickr)

Nineteen extraordinary places were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list this week, including Buddhist temples in South Korea, the forests and wetlands that form the ancestral home of the Anishinaabeg people in Canada, and the ancient port city of Qalhat in Oman. But amongst all the congratulations and good feeling that comes with adding sites to list of the world’s most important places, there was little or no serious talk about the implications of climate change. Last year, the 21-nation World Heritage Committee, the Convention’s governing body, raised the alarm about climate change and called for stronger efforts to implement the Paris Agreement and increase resilience of World Heritage properties, promising to revise its own decade-old climate policy. In Bahrain, however, the issue received short shrift, making it vital that the Committee make it a key agenda item at its next meeting in 2019.

Climate threats were not anticipated when the Convention was signed in 1972

Added to the World Heritage list in 2018, Pimachiowin Aki in Canada, part of the ancestral lands of the Anishinaabeg people. Photo: Bastian Bertzky/IUCN

Adopted at the General Council of UNESCO in 1972, the World Heritage Convention’s core mission is to protect and conserve the World’s most important natural and cultural heritage. Back in 1972, there was no hint that climate change would become the systemic threat to World Heritage sites that it has since proved. To be inscribed on the World Heritage List, a protected area must demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) under at least one of ten criteria. For example, in the US, the Statue of Liberty is listed under two criteria, as a “masterpiece of the human spirit” and as a “symbol of ideals such as liberty, peace, human rights…”. Yellowstone National Park is listed under four criteria, including for its scenic splendor, unparalleled geothermal activity, intact large landscape and role as a refuge for wildlife.

If a site should come under threat from, for example, mining, deforestation or urban development, it can be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger, with the possibility of being de-listed if the problems are not addressed. This year, Kenya’s Lake Turkana was added to the Danger List, because of an immediate threat from upstream development of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia.

Climate change is a major threat to the OUV to many World Heritage properties, but the Danger List does not seem an appropriate tool for addressing the issue, as no one state party can address the threat on its own. Neither does the nomination process for new World Heritage sites require any assessment of whether the OUV may be degraded as a result of climate change. It seems absurd that site nomination dossiers which are extremely detailed, take years to complete and require the inclusion of comprehensive management strategies, have no obligation to include even the most basic assessment of climate vulnerability. Consequently, UCS is working with partners to try and identify ways to better respond to climate risks within the World Heritage system.

Climate change is the fastest growing threat to World Heritage

At a workshop in Bahrain last week, we asked a group of natural and cultural World Heritage site managers from around the globe whether they were experiencing climate impacts at the site where they work, 21 of 22 said yes, and 16 of the 22 described actions they are taking to monitor or respond to climate change  And that makes sense, because we know from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and a host of country and site-level studies that the impacts of climate change are everywhere. But it also drives home the point that this issue is not getting as much attention as it needs at the higher levels of the Convention. Climate impacts are clearly being under-reported by states parties under the official mechanisms of the Convention – the State of Conservation (SOC) reports, and IUCN’s World Heritage Outlook 2 report, published in 2017, identified climate change as the biggest potential threat to natural world heritage and estimated that one in four sites is already being impacted. This also must be an underestimate. In fact, virtually all properties must be being impacted in some way, the key question is how severe the threat to OUV is for each site, and over what time-scale?

UCS, with UNESCO and the United National Environment Program (UNEP) has published 31 representative case studies of World Heritage properties being impacted by climate change, including Yellowstone National Park and the Galapagos Islands. In Bahrain, we heard many new stories about how climate change is affecting World Heritage properties, including for example the immediate risk of flooding and erosion to the Islands of Gorée and Saint-Louis in Senegal, vulnerability to changes in rainfall patterns at Petra in Jordan, and the potential loss of cave paintings & petroglyphs in Tasmania. The historic city of George Town in Penang, Malaysia suffered unprecedented damage from a typhoon in 2017, the kind of extreme storm that the area has not normally had to face in the past.

Map showing highest level of heat stress for the 29 World Heritage reefs during the third global coral bleaching event, Image: NOAA Coral Reef Watch/UNESCO

Although there was a 2014 independent analysis of long-term sea level vulnerability to cultural World Heritage sites that identified 136 out of 700 , the only group of World Heritage properties for which a comprehensive scientific assessment of climate risk has been undertaken, are the coral reefs. There are 29 World Heritage reefs, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Belize Barrier Reef, and Papahānaumokuākea in the Hawaiian archipelago. According to UNESCO’s 2017 analysis (for Scott Heron and Mark Eakin, both of NOAA, were coordinating lead authors, along with Fanny Douvere from the World Heritage Centre), coral in 21 out of the 29 properties (79%) have experienced severe or repeated heat stress during the past three years. Projecting impacts into the future, under the IPCC’s RCP 8.5 scenario, with a global average temperature of 4.3C by 2100, twice-per-decade severe bleaching would be apparent at 25 of the World Heritage Reefs by 2040.

Why we need a Climate Vulnerability Index for World Heritage

What is needed is a simple, standardized methodology for top-line rapid assessment of climate vulnerability that would work for all World Heritage sites, whether listed for natural, cultural or mixed values. Such a tool would enable the World Heritage Committee to determine which World Heritage properties are most immediately at risk from climate change, where the problems will likely be in the future, and where resources are most urgently needed for more detailed assessment and monitoring, and to undertake resilience and adaptation activities. The methodology needs to be repeatable so that periodic reviews can be undertaken.

Island of Saint-Louis, Sénégal – a World Heritage site at immediate threat from sea level rise. Photo: Dominique Roger/UNESCO

To meet this need, a Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI) for World Heritage properties has been proposed. If adopted by the World Heritage Committee, it has the potential to influence responses to climate change at the World’s most important natural & cultural heritage sites. The concept emerged at an expert meeting on the Baltic island of Vilm, Germany, in 2017, which UCS participated in, and was proposed in the meeting outcome document.  The meeting which was called in response to a decision at the World Heritage Committee in Krakow earlier in 2017 to prioritize climate action and resilience, to investigate the implications for the OUV of World Heritage sites, and revise the Convention’s decade-old climate policy.

At the Bahrain meeting of the World Heritage Committee, the CVI concept was presented at a side event organized by two of the Committee’s three official advisory bodies (IUCN and ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites)) in which UCS participated, and at a meeting of the ICOMOS Climate Change & Heritage Working Group co-organized by UCS at the National Museum of Bahrain. The CVI idea is gaining traction. Its value to the Committee would be that it could help quickly identify thematic groups of properties – such as Arctic sites, coastal archaeology, or high mountain ecosystems – at risk, then provide for a deeper dive into all sites within a threatened category, flagging individual sites in need of urgent action or further assessment at the national level.  Critical for the success of the CVI is that it can be applied to both natural and cultural sites, so that a methodology that works for coral reefs, can also work for earthen architecture or cave paintings.

Outside of the side events and the workshops of the advisory bodies and NGOs, where it was a bigger topic than ever before, climate change was hardly mentioned in the plenary sessions of the World Heritage Committee. Only Committee members Trinidad & Tobago and Australia substantively raised the issue, the latter offering an amendment to the Bahrain decision document which was adopted without objection, and which requires the revised climate policy to be presented at the 43rd Committee meeting in Azerbaijan in 2019. Now there is a window of opportunity for civil society to influence the policy revision, and for the vulnerability index concept to move forward. It’s an opportunity that, if taken, could influence how the World Heritage Convention deals with climate change for decades to come.

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An old whaling site on Svalbard, Norway. Photo: Adam Markham

There are at least 180,000 archaeological sites in the Arctic. Many are already being lost to climate change – virtually all of them are vulnerable. A new study by an international group of archaeologists and experts (including from the National Park Service and UCS) and published in Antiquity Journal, provides the first synthesis of climate threats to the Arctic region’s unique archaeological record. The cold and wet conditions in the Arctic have resulted in extraordinary preservation of organic materials such as bone, fabrics, animal skins and wooden tools for hundreds or thousands of years. But the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, and the changing conditions are proving disastrous for many archaeological sites.

Working in Greenland, Jørgen Holleson (lead author of the new study and an archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark) has demonstrated at Qajaa in West Greenland that warming soil temperatures and changes in soil moisture are accelerating microbial decay of organic archaeological materials. Also according to Holleson, at some Thule Culture grave sites in southern Greenland, where organic remains including mummies, kayaks and hunting implements were present as late as the 1970s, recent field work has revealed that little or no organic material still remains.

Coastal erosion is washing away our heritage

Perhaps the most urgent issue in Arctic archaeology is that of coastal erosion. Permafrost thaw, changes in the freeze/thaw cycle and wave action during storms are combining to accelerate erosion processes. The loss of seasonal sea ice which protects the coastline from winter storms in some parts of the Arctic is also a major factor.

On Alaska’s North Slope, co-author Anne Jensen is engaged in a major rescue effort at Walakpa to study and document the archaeology of land occupied by semi-sedentary Alaskan Natives for at least 4,000 years which is eroding alarmingly rapidly, taking with it structures, artifacts and graves. Severe erosion is also wiping out archaeological sites on the East Siberian Sea coast and in North Western Canada where the most important sites of the aboriginal inhabitants, the Inuvialuit are endangered. “We’re losing the history of large areas of Canada” study co-author, Max Friesen of the University of Toronto told the Globe and Mail. The site of Nuvugaq on the Mackenzie River delta, for example, where 17 large houses and a communal structure used by an Inuit bowhead hunting group group known as the Nuvugarmiut, which was first reported from the Franklin Expedition in 1826, has already been completely washed away due to thawing permafrost and storms.

A 2016 photo of the remains of a large Inuvialuit house on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula on Canada’s Beaufort Sea coast, which has since been completely washed away. Photo: Max Friesen

Loss of sea ice, tundra fires and uncontrolled development

Also directly threatening archaeological sites in the Arctic are worsening tundra fires and the spread of shrubby vegetation as temperatures warm. Additionally, loss of sea ice in the Arctic is opening the region to more shipping traffic, military activity and industrial and urban development. It is also enabling increased tourism, including on larger cruise ships. The potential for uncontrolled tourism development causing damage to archaeology in a warming Arctic is very real. Tour companies will likely seek new landing areas for small boats carrying more visitors into fragile areas in the high Arctic, and in parts of the region there is expected to be increased pressure from tourists walking on sites, camping and using motorized vehicles.

Treasure hunting and looting of archaeological sites is also becoming a more serious problem with warming. Co-author Vladimir Pitulko of the Russian Academy of Sciences has documented “mining” of mammoth ivory at important “kill sites” in Siberia, where poachers use high pressure pumps to extract ivory from the thawing ground to sell on the black market. The increased numbers of tourists in the Arctic means that more people are able to casually pick up and keep (often illegally) artifacts they find eroded from coastal sites or melting ice patches and glaciers. And increased storm damage and erosion means that more artifacts are emerging.

A rapid assessment is needed to prioritize actions

In the face of unprecedented changes to the Arctic environment, the study authors argue that there is an urgent need to rapidly assess the vulnerability of key Arctic archaeological sites and develop strategies for prioritizing the use of scarce resources most effectively. With every storm, important archaeological remains are being washed into the ocean, whilst throughout the region organic materials are being rapidly lost to decay in warming soils after being preserved for centuries. Undoubtedly the assessment that there are 180,000 archaeological sites in the Arctic is an underestimate, and many important sites are likely to be lost or damaged before they have even been recorded. The impact of climate change on Arctic archaeology represents a catastrophe for world heritage, and one that requires urgent mitigation and adaptation action to respond to the scale of the crisis.

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Photo: Alan Grinsberg/Flickr

This week, U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed lawsuits by San Francisco and Oakland seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to climate change. Judge Alsup’s ruling dangerously rested on balancing climate harms with fossil energy benefits, deferred to legislative- and executive-branch solutions that major fossil fuel companies have spent millions opposing, seriously underplayed the role of ExxonMobil and others in spreading disinformation about climate science and policy, and punted on the question of who should pay for climate damages.

With apologies to Harper’s Index, here’s a Fossil Fuel Company Climate Liability Index, followed by six key facts illuminated by these numbers.

FACT: Fossil fuel companies are the main beneficiaries of our fossil-fueled energy system and economy

The benefits of fossil fuels have not accrued equitably, and the fossil fuel industry has compounded its advantage by externalizing its costs. Major fossil fuel companies profit handsomely from an energy system dependent on their products. The five defendants netted more than $40 billion in 2017, alone. Maintaining the status quo may be in the fossil fuel industry’s interest, but a low-carbon pathway is necessary to protect the climate and renewable energy is increasingly competitive. Judge Alsup’s ruling presented a false choice between climate action and energy access, echoing the rhetoric of defendants ExxonMobil and Chevron that fossil fuels are necessary to support economic growth, health, and education in low-income countries.

FACT: Fossil fuel companies exercise undue political influence to block policy solutions

The defendant companies have invested some of their enormous profits in political contributions, direct lobbying, and indirect lobbying through such trade associations and industry groups as the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). NAM’s ironically named Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (MAP), the fossil fuel industry’s attack dog on climate liability lawsuits, did a happy dance about the dismissal of the suit.

Thus, the judge’s conclusion that climate change is a matter for the legislature and the executive branch is a Catch-22 that makes my brain hurt. Yes, Congress and the White House should take decisive action to curb climate change, but the fossil fuel industry has pulled out all the stops in an effort to block strong federal policies. The industry has friends in high places in the Trump administration: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to name just a few. Just this week, Buzzfeed broke the news that Pruitt urged fossil fuel executives to apply for EPA regional administrator positions.

The defendant companies are not just responding to consumer demand. They do what they can to fix the market through undue political influence, which has forestalled the development and availability of renewable energy. And the duty of the legislative and executive branches to act does not absolve the judicial branch of responsibility.

FACT: Fossil fuel companies are investing significantly more in oil and gas exploration than in R&D for clean energy

Investments by ExxonMobil, Chevron and other oil and gas companies in low-carbon research and development are a drop in the bucket compared to their spending on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure. Even a former ExxonMobil engineer has argued that what is needed is research focused on how to supply affordable low-carbon energy while also reducing fossil fuel demand. ‘Nuff said.

FACT: Burning fossil fuels is the single most significant contributor to global warming, and scientists can increasingly quantify how much

Judge Alsup earned praise for acknowledging that the magnitude of the climate change problem is vast and urgent. Yet his description of carbon dioxide as “a gas produced by, among other things, animal and human respiration, volcanoes and, more significantly here, combustion of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas” is more than a little misleading, given that the burning of fossil fuels is the most significant contributor to global warming by far.

Scientists’ ability to quantify the damage due specifically to human-caused climate change is growing quickly. A UCS-led study published last September in the scientific journal Climatic Change for the first time links global climate changes, including the sea level rise at issue in the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits, to the product-related emissions of specific fossil fuel producers, including the defendants. Importantly, the study also quantified the climate change impacts of emissions traced to these companies’ products from 1980 to 2010, when these major fossil fuel companies knew the risks of burning fossil fuels and not only failed to take steps to reduce those risks but also funded a concerted campaign to deceive the public and block action.

The top five investor-owned companies ranked in terms of cumulative emissions — Chevron, ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Shell, and ConocoPhillips — are responsible for one-eighth (12.5%) of all industrial carbon emissions from 1854 to 2010.

FACT: Taxpayers are already footing the bill for climate damages

According to recent analysis by my UCS colleagues, accelerating sea level rise in the lower 48 states is putting as many as 311,000 coastal homes with a collective market value of about $117.5 billion today at risk of chronic flooding within the next 30 years, the lifespan of a typical mortgage. Chronic property flooding could translate not just into eroding property values, but also into unlivable houses and falling tax revenues that fund local schools, roads and emergency services. The properties at risk by 2045 currently house roughly 550,000 people and contribute nearly $1.5 billion toward today’s property tax base.

The contribution of any single fossil fuel company to a climate impact such as sea level rise may appear small, but the costs of dealing with and preparing for these impacts are enormous and mounting—and taxpayers alone are currently on the hook.

A few inches of sea level rise might not seem dramatic, but it could be the difference between a minor event and a human and financial catastrophe. For example, scientists have found that sea level rise contributed an additional $2 billion in damage to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy in New York City.

FACT: Lawsuits and paying fines aren’t the only way that fossil fuel companies can be held accountable for making climate change worse

It is critical that San Francisco, Oakland and other communities can seek compensation through our courts for the costs of climate-related damages and preparedness. And as tobacco litigation has shown, ensuring that companies pay their fair share of the costs imposed on society by their products is not the only remedy to be secured through judicial action. To be sure, the settlements of state lawsuits against Big Tobacco included billions of dollars in payments to cover health care costs. But the settlements also ordered the public release of millions of pages of previously secret internal documents; brought an end to certain advertising, promotion and marketing practices; and shut down the tobacco industry’s lobbying and junk science shops forever. The reduction in the tobacco industry’s political and economic influence helped clear the way for policies such as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and US Food and Drug Administration tobacco regulations.

Judge Alsup’s dismissal of the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits is a setback, but the cities can appeal—and their city attorneys have signaled that the case is not over. Likewise, lawsuits by several other communities in California, Colorado, New York and Washington state are now working their way through the courts. The public demand for major fossil fuel companies to be held accountable for damage they knew their products were causing will only grow louder as climate impacts get worse.

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U.S. Army photo by Michael J. Nevins

On Monday, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by San Francisco and Oakland against the five biggest privately owned oil companies for climate change-related damages. Why? He believes the problem is too big to be decided by the federal courts and that Congress and the administration should take care of it.

Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, and the courts are at least partly to blame.

In his ruling, US District Judge William Alsup agreed with the plaintiffs that there is a “vast [scientific] consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has … materially increased carbon dioxide levels,” which has driven up average global temperatures and raised sea levels. Likewise, he noted that the oil companies “have allegedly long known the threat fossil fuels pose to the global climate,” but nonetheless funded public relations campaigns that “downplayed the risks” and disparaged climate scientists.

At the same time, however, Alsup insisted that environmental harms attributed to burning fossil fuels have to be balanced with the fact that “the industrial revolution and the development of our modern world has literally been fueled by oil and coal.”

“Having reaped the benefit of that historic progress,” he wrote, “would it really be fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded?”

The answer to the second part of the question is emphatically yes (and it doesn’t require ignoring our own responsibility).

The oil companies knew

Alsup is of course correct that industrialization would not have happened without fossil fuels. But he neglects to take into account the pernicious role the defendants—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell—have played to block government action to curb carbon emissions over the last three decades. If the United States and other industrialized nations had begun the necessary transition to low- and no-carbon energy back then, the likely consequences of climate change would be significantly less dire.

Rising sea levels alone will wreak havoc along the California coast. San Francisco, Oakland and six other California jurisdictions that have filed similar climate lawsuits can expect accelerating sea level rise to threaten some 8,800 homes by 2045, representing $76 million annually in today’s local property taxes, according to a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. By the end of the century, some 52,000 homes that currently contribute $435 million in annual property taxes will be at risk.

As Alsup pointed out in his ruling, the alarm bells about climate change began ringing in the late 1980s. Thirty years ago—on June 23, 1988, to be precise—NASA scientist James Hansen generated front page news when he warned Congress about higher temperatures and rising seas. That same year, the United Nations convened the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

A year later, 50 US corporations and trade groups founded the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) to discredit climate science. Its charter members included none other than British Petroleum (now BP), Chevron, Exxon, Mobil and Shell.

Until it disbanded in 2002, the GCC conducted a multimillion-dollar lobbying and public relations campaign to undermine national and international efforts to address global warming. One of its fact sheets for legislators and journalists encapsulated its main talking points, disingenuously claiming that “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood” and that “scientists differ” on the issue.

Thanks to a leaked internal GCC memo from 1995, we now know that the coalition’s own scientific and technical experts were telling its members that greenhouse gases were indeed causing global warming. “The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established,” the document stated, “and cannot be denied.”

Exxon scientists, meanwhile, were aware of the threat posed by fossil fuels as early as 1977, according to a 2015 investigation by InsideClimate News. Nevertheless, the company purposely chose to emphasize “uncertainty” and, since it merged with Mobil in 1999, it has spent tens of millions of dollars on a climate disinformation campaign that .

Courts need to take responsibility

Alsup concluded that the courts are not the proper venue to address climate damages. Given the US Supreme Court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, Alsup contends the issue is best left to Congress and the administration to handle.

Alsup’s conclusion presents us with a Catch-22. Kicking any decision about curbing global warming emissions to the political branches of government ignores the fact that both Congress and the current administration are tightly tied to the coal, oil and gas industries. And that hand-in-glove relationship is largely due to questionable Supreme Court decisions.

The genesis of our predicament can be traced back to the early 1800s. Since then, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that have granted corporations the same rights as people. More recently, in 1976, it ruled that limits on campaign contributions violate the First Amendment, essentially equating money with free speech. And in the 2010 Citizens United case, the court ruled that the government cannot limit a corporation’s independent political donations.

These decisions have enabled the fossil fuel industry to exert undue influence over federal energy policy. Not only have coal, oil and gas companies collectively spent tens—if not hundreds—of millions of dollars over the past few decades to manufacture doubt about the reality and seriousness of climate change, they have spent considerably more on campaign contributions and lobbying to stymie efforts on Capitol Hill to combat climate change.

In the 2015-16 election cycle alone, for example, the five defendants in the San Francisco-Oakland climate case together spent $9.8 million on federal candidates and another $58.3 million to lobby Congress and the administration, according to government data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Our three-branch system of government ostensibly rests on the concept of checks and balances. When Congress and the executive branch are hopelessly corrupted by petrodollars, it is incumbent upon the judiciary to compensate for this imbalance, which utterly fails to serve the public interest.

Fortunately, Judge Alsup’s ruling is not the last word. Similar climate-damage lawsuits have been filed by cities and counties in California, Colorado, New York and Washington state.

A recent press statement by Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell puts these lawsuits into perspective.

“In almost all large-impact litigation, the courtroom doors are usually shut in the beginning, but if plaintiffs are persistent and keep knocking, the doors will open up,” said Kimmell, an attorney and former head of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “This was true in the fights against Jim Crow and Big Tobacco, and we expect that the same tenacity will be necessary to overcome the entrenched political and economic influence of this deep-pocketed industry.”

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Photo: Darla White (NOAA)

It has been a tumultuous couple of weeks for ocean aficionados like me.

The Acting Administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, made a presentation to leadership at the Department of Commerce, NOAA’s home, on possible changes and priorities for the agency during this administration. The second slide appeared as follows:

The text clearly describes a shift away from scientific work on climate and efforts to conserve and manage ocean and coastal resources.

Further, the presentation went on to describe strategic priorities, with no mention of climate change and stewardship of resources, but primary focus on weather forecasting, deregulation and economic development.

To me, this mission and these priorities make little sense. In an era when the climate is changing with dramatic effects on our nation and the world, how can the principal agency tasked with understanding our oceans and atmosphere not strategically address climate? We simply can’t develop the ocean economy, including increasing fishery and aquaculture production, without both conserving resources and addressing the ongoing effects of a changing climate. As we’ve seen in the past with species like cod, haddock, some tunas and even shellfish stocks, overfishing without regard to conservation crashes fish populations and harms coastal economies. As a former NOAA scientist, then regional administrator and then Deputy Director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, I know well the challenges of managing ocean resources, including fisheries and aquaculture. We have made extraordinary progress in ending overfishing, as well as conserving marine mammals and endangered species. And we can’t let up now, because maintaining functioning ecosystems is the key to productive fisheries AND aquaculture.

Following press reporting based on the presentation slides obtained by UCS, Adm. Gallaudet swiftly backtracked. His press office issued a statement saying, “The PowerPoint was intended to share new ways NOAA could augment the DOC’s [Department of Commerce] strategic plan. It was not intended to exclude NOAA’s important climate and conservation efforts, which are essential for protecting lives and the environment. Nor should this presentation be considered a final, vetted proposal.”

He then sent the following email to NOAA staff:

June 25, 2018

Last week, I gave a presentation at an internal meeting within the Department of Commerce (“DOC”) where I shared some of my thoughts on NOAA. My presentation, which was not reviewed by the Office of the Secretary prior to the meeting, was intended to share new ways NOAA could augment the DOC’s strategic plan. It was not intended to exclude NOAA’s important climate and conservation efforts, which are essential for protecting lives and the environment. Nor should this presentation be considered a final, vetted proposal.

Secretary Ross, the Department, and I support NOAA’s mission to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts; to share that knowledge and information with others; and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. We are also fully aware of the congressional mandates and will continue to adhere to them.

With gratitude and respect,

RDML Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., USN Ret.
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and
Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

It is a huge relief if NOAA and Department of Commerce back away from this misguided effort to redirect the agency. But we must be vigilant. Because at the same time, the President issued an “Executive Order Regarding the Ocean Policy to Advance the Economic, Security, and Environmental Interests of the United States” which rescinds President Obama’s Executive Order establishing a national ocean policy. That policy, which was essentially based on the work of two national commissions (I served on one of them), established principles of conservation, management and stewardship of our ocean ecosystems and resources, promoted regional and federal agency cooperation, and called for national programs to advance ocean science in concert with addressing the ongoing effects of climate change. The new order from President Trump seems to set no clear policy direction other than economic development, no matter how many times I read it. Economic development without conservation and management is simplistic, short-term thinking that will harm the ocean economy in short order.

And the President’s Office of Management and Budget proposed a reorganization plan that would remove the National Marine Fisheries Service from NOAA and merge it with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of Interior, effectively severing the ties between marine resource management and the ocean science agency (NB: to do so would require an act of Congress). And, the Executive Office of the President released a draft report for public comment entitled, “Science and Technology for America’s Oceans: a Decadal Vision”.

Now, Adm. Gallaudet may have backed away from his presentation changes in NOAA’s mission and strategic priorities, but the ocean science plan from the White House contains those very same priorities. There is no mention of climate science, and the second goal reads, “Goal II. Promote Economic Prosperity: 1) Expand Domestic Seafood Production; 2) Explore Potential Energy Sources; 3) Assess Marine Critical Minerals; 4) Balance Economic and Ecological Benefits; 5) Promote the Blue Workforce” with no mention of conservation and stewardship.

A plan that focuses solely on unregulated fishing and energy squanders the great progress we have made in understand our ocean and atmospheric system and recovering, conserving and managing ocean ecosystems. I hope we don’t, but I will be watching, and you should too.

Photo: Darla White (NOAA)
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Esta semana, la Union of Concerned Scientists publicó un informe que analiza los impactos de las inundaciones debidas a las mareas crónicas en las propiedades costeras en los 48 estados contiguos de los Estados Unidos. La cantidad de hogares y negocios, el valor de estos, junto con la cantidad de base impositiva y, lo que es más importante, las personas en riesgo, es sorprendente. Descubrieron que para el año 2045, 311,000 hogares, por un valor de $ 117,5 mil millones de dólares según los valores de mercado actuales, estarán en riesgo de inundaciones crónicas provocadas por el cambio climático. Para el año 2100 2,4 millones de hogares, por un valor aproximado de 912 mil millones de dólares, y 4,7 millones de personas estarán en riesgo. En ninguna parte más que Florida, que soporta el 40% del riesgo, estas realidades se sienten ahora y se sentirán  más en el futuro a medida que los niveles del mar continúen aumentando. Los impactos de las inundaciones crónicas provocadas por el cambio climático podrían afectar desproporcionadamente  a las comunidades de bajos ingresos.

Mientras estuve en  UCS tuve la suerte de poder trabajar en mi ciudad de residencia, investigando cómo las inundaciones crónicas causadas por el calentamiento global están cambiando a Miami. Trabajé con residentes locales para comprender mejor cómo ya estaban lidiando con las inundaciones crónicas y cómo podían planificar para un futuro incierto.

Las dos caras de la gentrificación climática

Paulette Richards. Photo: The Solutions Project / Celia D. Luna

La activista y líder comunitaria Paulette Richards, de Liberty City en Miami, me presentó el concepto de gentrificación climática. Cuando me reuní con ella en 2014, habló sobre cómo su comunidad estaba cambiando bajo la presión de las ejecuciones hipotecarias aceleradas. Ella entendió que estaba en un terreno más alto y sabía que esto se estaba convirtiendo en un lugar deseable para los promotores inmobiliarios  que buscaban capitalizar la creciente conciencia del público sobre el aumento del nivel del mar. En palabras de Richards:: “He visto la gentrificación, pero el término que yo uso es gentrificación climática”.

Con los años Richards  ha monitoreado este cambio. Los residentes expulsados de Liberty City están siendo dirigidos al punto más al sur del condado, reubicándose en un área que está a una elevación mucho más baja y al lado de la planta nuclear Turkey Point. Ahora más personas se están dando cuenta y verificando lo que Paulette Richards ha sabido por muchos años. En 2017, Scientific American publicó una historia titulada “Un terreno más elevado se está convirtiendo en una propiedad caliente a medida que aumenta el nivel del mar”. El artículo detalla cómo la gentrificación impulsada por el clima está ocurriendo en Miami y cómo más personas , incluyendo los académicos, finalmente están tomando nota y haciendo seguimiento a estos cambios.

A solo cuatro millas de la casa de Richards  se encuentra el barrio de Shorecrest, parte de la ciudad de Miami. Es una comunidad de ingresos mixtos y de baja elevación, que representa cómo se vive la inundación crónica a nivel local. Al igual que Miami Beach, Shorecrest se inunda constantemente durante las mareas mas altas del año. Sin embargo, a diferencia del opulento Miami Beach, no tiene el mismo acceso a los fondos necesarios para abordar adecuadamente las inundaciones crónicas.

Frente a una franja de apartamentos de alquiler asequible, me encontré con residentes que me hablaron sobre su frustración con las inundaciones crónicas. Muchos relatan que sus trabajos se ven afectados por las inundaciones que a veces son intransitables; existen problemas para acceder al transporte, a la recolección de basura y a posibles impactos en la salud relacionados con vadear en aguas que han probado contener altos niveles de bacterias.

Los residentes de bajos ingresos de comunidades de baja elevación sin los recursos adecuados para adaptarse al cambio climático se enfrentan a las preguntas más difíciles. ¿Nos vamos? ¿Tenemos presupuesto para irnos? ¿Cuánto tiempo tenemos para tomar estas decisiones? Los funcionarios locales también se enfrentan a preguntas difíciles. En algunos casos, los proyectos de desarrollo que se construirían de manera adaptativa y podrían generar los ingresos fiscales necesarios para financiar proyectos de adaptación en toda la comunidad suelen ser los mismos proyectos que conducen a la gentrificación. ¿Cómo pueden las áreas costeras encontrar los recursos para adaptarse mientras mantienen la integridad de sus comunidades?

La ciudad de Miami había aprobado bonos que proporcionan $ 200 millones en fondos para hacer frente al aumento del nivel del mar. Esta iniciativa es similar a la iniciativa de la Ciudad de Miami Beach de $ 500 millones d para enfrentar su problema de aumento del nivel del mar. Comparativamente, la Ciudad de Miami enfrenta un desafío de adaptación mucho más complejo. Solo en términos de millas cuadradas, la Ciudad de Miami es aproximadamente 8 veces más grande que Miami Beach. A esto se suman los complejos canales y sistemas de agua potable y las variadas necesidades de muchas comunidades diferentes, y el desafío es abrumador.

Los desafíos tienen un sentido de urgencia adicional si la Ciudad se enfrenta a cambios en la calificación crediticia cuando el real riesgo de propiedad se refleja en el mercado inmobiliario. Esto podría llevar a dificultades para asegurar la financiación de nuevos proyectos de adaptación a medida que los mares continúen aumentando.

¿Qué se puede hacer?

Me pregunto, ¿puede la ciudad de Miami seguir siendo la metrópolis increíblemente diversa y multicultural que conozco y adoro, o se convertirá lentamente en una cadena de islas que existe solamente para satisfacer las fantasías recreativas de los ricos? Cuando se eleva el nivel del mar, no solo eliminará millas de costa y propiedades, sino décadas e incluso siglos de cultura, al mismo tiempo que desplazará a millones de vidas para fines de siglo.

Nuestra mayor esperanza de evitar lo peor es que nosotros, como comunidad global, nos adhiramos al Acuerdo de París, que mantiene el calentamiento a menos de 2 grados centígrados. En este caso, la gran mayoría de las viviendas en riesgo en Florida (93%) se salvarían.

No solo los propietarios, sino todos los residentes y empresas de las comunidades costeras deben ser conscientes de su vulnerabilidad y de cuándo este tipo de inundación causará trastornos en sus vidas cotidianas. UCS proporciona una herramienta para reunir esta información.

Finalmente, los funcionarios electos deben asegurar que la equidad sea una prioridad al diseñar y planificar para el futuro a fin de garantizar que los recursos se distribuyan no solo a los ricos sino también a aquellos que tienen menos recursos para planificar e implementar soluciones.

Para obtener más información sobre el estudio, que incluye una discusión sobre soluciones, visite: https://www.ucsusa.org/underwater.

Para ver información en español, visite: https://es.ucsusa.org/bajo-agua

Nicole Hernandez Hammer is a sea-level researcher, climate change expert and environmental justice advocate. A Guatemalan immigrant, Ms. Hernandez Hammer works to address the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities across the US. Most recently, Ms. Hernandez Hammer served as the climate science and community advocate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She was the Florida field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, and an environmental blogger for Latina Lista. Before that, she was the assistant director of the Florida Center for Environmental Studies at Florida Atlantic University, and coordinated the Florida Climate Institute’s state university consortium.

She has co-authored a series of technical papers on sea level rise projections, impacts and preparedness. Her activism and initiative on climate change earned her an invitation from First Lady Michelle Obama to be her special guest at the 2015 State of the Union address.

Nicole speaks across the country on climate change issues. Most recently, she presented at the 2018 National Hispanic Medical Association Conference and the MIT Cambridge Science Festival. She has done extensive media work and has been featured in National Geographic’s The Years of Living Dangerously,  Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, The New Yorker, MSNBC, the Miami Herald, Telemundo News, Univision.com, The Huffington Post, PRI Science Friday, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Grist, NPR and other major news sources.

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Last week the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report revealing that sea level rise puts over 300,000 homes in the United States at risk of increasingly frequent, disruptive flooding in just the next 30 years. Along with the report, UCS published an interactive map tool that lets you explore the exposure of coastal real estate in your state, your community, or your ZIP code to chronic flooding, or flooding that occurs 26 times or more per year (an average of every other week). It also highlights the implications of this massive risk to our economy and the importance of both acting quickly to curtail our carbon emissions and using the coming years wisely to prepare for the changes to come.

Here are a few questions you can explore with the tool:

Which states are most at risk from sea level rise?

If you’re interested in a broad overview of which states have the most homes–or the greatest property value, most people, or largest tax base–at risk of chronic flooding due to sea level rise, check out the “By State” tab of the tool:

In this tab, you can click on any state to pull up statistics on things like the number of homes at risk and the current value of those homes. You can also use the brightly-colored buttons to view the stats for different variables like the current population and tax base of at-risk properties.

The information is organized by year so you can see how this risk grows over time. The opening maps show results of our analysis of a high sea level rise scenario, but you can also scroll down to view results from a moderate sea level rise projection.

Will homes in my community or my ZIP code be affected by flooding due to sea level rise?

Similar to the “By State” tab, you can explore the risk of chronic flooding to your hometown or your neighborhood in the “By Community” and “By ZIP Code” tabs. Click on any community or any ZIP code to bring up information about the number of homes at risk, their value, the number of people living in them today, and their current property tax contribution. And like the “By State” tab, you can change the map to show the variable or year you’re interested in by clicking the buttons, and you can scroll down to see results from the moderate sea level rise projection.

When exploring the data in these two tabs, keep in mind that the way communities are defined on the ground is not always the way they are defined by the Census boundaries we used in this analysis. In some smaller towns the community boundaries we show may encompass a few small towns.

If we cut carbon emissions and future ice loss is limited, would a slower pace of sea level rise mean that fewer homes would be at risk?

The answer is a resounding YES, and the “Homes in the Balance” tab lets you explore which communities have the most to gain from a slowed sea level rise pathway. The map in this section shows how many homes could avoid chronic flooding in each community by comparing the results of our analyses of the high and low sea level rise scenarios. The low sea level rise scenario is one we should strive for, but not one we should count on. It is predicated on global carbon emissions being reduced drastically within the next decade and also requires future ice melt to be limited. Click on any community to get information on what’s at stake.

How will chronic flooding due to sea level rise affect the real estate sector and what can we do about it?

The “Challenges and Choices” section of the tool explores the broader economic implications of chronic flooding and describes how different actors in the real estate sector–from mortgage lenders to insurance providers–could be affected. It also outlines the steps we need to take, as a nation, to address this profound risk.

Improving the maps based on data and feedback

Let us know how you’re using the interactive maps to better understand the risks of sea level rise and please do send any suggestions for improvements.

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