Deadly Confusions: Administration Doesn’t Believe its Own EPA Reports; That Could Cost Lives, Economy

In this blog I will continue to analyze the economic damage that the US government’s insistence on carrying on business as usual practices in the face of climate change will likely inflict on the country. Last week I discussed the recent NCA (National Climate Assessment) report and the damage it predicted.

I also incorporated some comments from the president and White House, including:

A White House statement said the report, started under the Obama administration, was “largely based on the most extreme scenario” of global warming and that the next assessment would provide an opportunity for greater balance.

Figure 1 from last week’s blog summarized the anticipated economic damages from a business as usual scenario. I am including it again here. Let’s look into the origins of the information it uses.

Figure 1 – Estimated annual economic damage by 2090 (NCA4 Ch29)

Figure 1 shows the economic consequences projected with the RCP8.5 scenario in 2090 and how much of that damage we could avoid by shifting to the RCP4.5 scenario. Chapter 29 of the report discusses this in more detail. The report cites its source for this information as the EPA’s May 2017 “Multi-Model Framework for Quantitative Sectoral Impacts Analysis: A Technical Report for the Fourth National Climate Assessment.”  It was peer-reviewed with data available here. That analysis came out five months after the inauguration of President Trump and three months after the Senate confirmed his pick for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt – one of the leading climate change deniers in the country.

Last week I also compiled a partial list of steps that the president and his cohort have taken to disband many of the previous administrations’ earlier policies meant to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Most of these policy changes stemmed directly from Mr. Pruitt’s EPA. Today I have narrowed last week’s list to these specific policy reversals:

  • October 2018 – EPA to disband air pollution review panel
  • September 2018 – EPA repeals Obama-era methane rules
  • August 2018 – Trump EPA unveils plan to nullify federal rules on coal power plants
  • April 2018 – EPA starts rollback of car emissions standards
  • February 2018  – EPA mulls shake-up to environmental research program
  • January 2018 – EPA loosens regulations on toxic air pollution
  • Report: climate change web sites ‘censored’ under Trump
  • October 2017 – Trump EPA poised to scrap clean power plan
  • May 2017 – EPA dismisses science advisors
  • March 2017 – EPA scrubs climate change website

The EPA report’s goal and general structure are as follows:

This Technical Report summarizes and communicates the results of the second phase of quantitative sectoral impacts analysis under the Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis2 (CIRA) project (for information on the first phase, see the CIRA Project Background section). This effort is intended to inform the fourth National Climate Assessment3 (NCA4) of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). 4 The goal of this work is to estimate climate change impacts and economic damages to multiple U.S. sectors (e.g., human health, infrastructure, and water resources) under different scenarios. Though this report does not make policy recommendations, it is designed to inform strategies to enhance resiliency and protect human health, investments, and livelihoods.

Here is how the report suggests we interpret the results:

This Technical Report presents results from a large set of sectoral impact models that quantify and monetize climate change impacts in the U.S., with a primary focus on the contiguous U.S., under moderate and severe future climates. The CIRA analyses are intended to provide insights about the potential direction and magnitude of climate change impacts. However, none of the estimates presented in this report should be interpreted as definitive predictions of future impacts at a particular place or time. Instead, the intention is to produce preliminary estimates of future effects using the best available data and methods, which can then be revisited and updated over time as science and modeling capabilities continue to advance.

The CIRA analyses do not evaluate or assume specific mitigation or adaptation policies in the U.S. or in other world regions. Instead, they consider scenarios (Representative Concentration Pathways or RCPs6) to illustrate potential impacts and damages of alternative future climates. The results should not be interpreted as supporting any particular domestic or global mitigation policy or target. In addition, the costs of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the health benefits associated with co-reductions in other air pollutants, are well-examined elsewhere in the literature and are beyond the scope of this report. For this reason, the analysis presented in this Technical Report does not constitute a cost-benefit assessment of climate policy.

Probably the most important paragraph in this section is the one that can serve as a direct rebuttal to the White House’s claim that the NCA report is the “worst case scenario.”

Furthermore, only a small portion of the impacts of climate change are estimated, and therefore this Technical Report captures just a fraction of the potential risks and damages that may be avoided or reduced when comparing the alternative scenarios. To better estimate impacts, this ongoing project continues to add new sectors, measures of economic damages, and adaptation scenarios, and to improve methods and assumptions within existing sectoral modeling. Impacts that are not covered by the modeling analyses and other important considerations or limitations are described in the discussion sections of each individual sector chapter.

The report’s Executive Summary covers the sectors of the analysis (the most important ones are shown in Figure 1), each with a specific example. For instance, this is regarding the cost to labor: 

Under both atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration scenarios modeled (Representative Concentration Pathways or RCP4.5 and RCP8.5), climate change is projected to significantly affect human health, the U.S. economy, and the environment. These climate change impacts will not be uniform across the U.S., with most sectors showing a complex pattern of regional-scale impacts.

For example, under RCP8.5, almost 1.9 billion labor hours across the national workforce are projected to be lost annually by 2090 due to the effects of extreme temperature on suitable working conditions, totaling over $160 billion in lost wages per year. More than a third of this national loss is projected to occur in the Southeast ($47 billion lost annually by 2090).

Figure 2 shows the projected temperature impacts of the two scenarios, based on the most sophisticated, internationally recognized computer modeling.

Figure 2 – Projected temperature rise across the US based on the two scenarios

Table 2.2 in the EPA report shows the economic indicators that are being used to monetize the health impact.

To demonstrate the consistency of the computer modeling, Table 5.1 shows the various estimates of changes in annual mortality by different computer models. It is, again, a great illustration that the report’s analysis is not based on the “worst case scenario” (i.e. it could be worse).

EPA 2017 Multi-Model Framework for Quantitative Sectoral Impacts Analysis, p. 55

Mr. Pruitt and President Trump had plenty of opportunities to change the report to reflect their own views on climate change. Fortunately, they decided not to do so. However, this decision leaves many of us with the strong suspicion that neither of them actually read these reports. In fact, the general opinions on climate change that they – and Andrew Wheeler (Acting EPA Administrator after Mr. Pruitt’s resignation) – express contradict the findings of the hardworking people they oversee. They are running roughshod over those trying to anchor political decision with facts. Most of us are confused by the results.

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Governing Through Denial

The consequences of continuing the business as usual activities that result in climate change are not a mystery. We are in the middle of an avalanche of credible reports about the present state of the world and near future prognoses if we stay on our current path. The most recent official example (to my knowledge) is the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) 2018 provisional report, a relatively short piece that recaps where the world stands in terms of our carbon footprint. A number of different organizations publish such reports, each summarizing peer-reviewed literature. I would like to focus here on the National Climate Assessment (NCA) report posted on Black Friday. It is part of a report that congress has mandated must be published every four years. This is part two of the fourth report in the series; part 1 was published last year (see my August 15, 2017 blog). These are official, government-issued reports put forward by the current administration. This one continues to reflect the science – in spite of the fact that the president often claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to weaken the US. This latest report spans about 1600 pages. I am quite sure that the president himself hasn’t read it. However, the more surprising element is that – according to the testimonies of people who took part in writing it – no one else in the administration interfered in the writing process or tried to modify its conclusions, all of which align well with every other recent report.

President Trump reiterated his denial in a tweet two days before the publication came out:

Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?

4:23 PM – 21 Nov 2018

The tweet echoed his sentiment from last year:

In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!


7:01 PM – Dec 28, 2017

He responded to questions about the report:

“I don’t believe it,” he told reporters outside the White House before boarding Air Force One for a flight to Mississippi.

The president also attempted to place the blame for global warming on China, Japan and “all these other countries.”

“Right now, we’re the cleanest we’ve ever been,” he claimed.

The White House also put out a statement about the issue:

A White House statement said the report, started under the Obama administration, was “largely based on the most extreme scenario” of global warming and that the next assessment would provide an opportunity for greater balance.

Instead, these people said, administration officials hoped to minimize the impact by making the assessment public on the afternoon of Black Friday, the big shopping day after the Thanksgiving holiday, thinking that Americans might be unlikely to be paying attention.

The last comment mentions that the report outlines an extreme scenario. In terms of extreme scenarios, we usually use the end of the century as our marker (for perspective, Barron Trump is now 12). The most extreme outcome possible is Doomsday (August 21, 2017 blog). The report consistently analyzes two scenarios: RCP (Representative Concentration Pathway) 4.5 and RCP 8.5. These scenario families were developed by the IPCC, as I explained in a previous blog (October 28, 2014). Wikipedia defines them in this way:

The RCPs are consistent with a wide range of possible changes in future anthropogenic (i.e., human) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and aim to represent their atmospheric concentrations.[3] RCP 2.6 assumes that global annual GHG emissions (measured in CO2-equivalents) peak between 2010–2020, with emissions declining substantially thereafter.[4] Emissions in RCP 4.5 peak around 2040, then decline.[4] In RCP 6, emissions peak around 2080, then decline.[4] In RCP 8.5, emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st century.[4]

In other words, RCP 8.5 is more or less a business as usual scenario; within the IPCC RCP scenarios, some do view it as the worst-case scenario. That’s not true, though. Under President Trump, the federal government is going backwards on environmental protections, meaning that, yes – it can get worse. Below are some of these measures, taken from the National Geographic’s more complete running list of changes that the president has initiated in his less than two years in office:

  • October 2018
    • First offshore oil wells approved for the Arctic
    • EPA to disband air pollution review panel
  • September 2018
    • EPA repeals Obama-era methane rules
  • August 2018
    • Trump EPA unveils plan to nullify federal rules on coal power plants
    • Trump announces plan to weaken Obama-era fuel economy rules
  • May 2018
    • White house cuts NASA climate monitoring program
  • April 2018
    • EPA starts rollback of car emissions standards
  • March 2018
    • FEMA expels “climate change” from strategic plan
  • February 2018
    • EPA mulls shake-up to environmental research program
    • Trump proposes cuts to climate and clean-energy programs
  • January 2018
    • Report: Trump mulling major cuts to clean energy research
    • EPA loosens regulations on toxic air pollution
    • Report: climate change web sites ‘censored’ under Trump
  • December 2017
    • Trump drops climate change from list of national security threats
  • October 2017
    • Interior department proposes largest-ever oil and gas lease auction
    • Trump EPA poised to scrap clean power plan
  • August 2017
    • Mining health study halted; climate advisory panel disbanded
    • Trump revokes flood standards accounting for sea-level rise
  • June 2017
    • US pulls out of Paris climate agreement
  • May 2017
    • Trump budget proposes steep cuts for the environment
    • EPA dismisses science advisors
  • April 2017
    • Order aims to expand offshore drilling
    • Interior department scrubs climate change website
    • Climate change staffers reassigned
  • March 2017
    • Climate actions undone
    • Keystone XL pipeline approved (blocked by federal judge)
    • Fuel efficiency standards reconsidered
    • ‘Science’ scrubbed from EPA’s Office of Science and Technology mission statement
    • Emissions info request nixed
  • December 2016
    • Scramble to save science data

We don’t yet have the scenario that will develop if all of these changes materialize. The next NCA report is due in 2021 – after the next presidential election!

Lastly, there’s a small entry towards the end of the NCA report that examines the economic consequences projected to 2090 with the RCP8.5 scenario and how much we can “save” by shifting to the RCP4.5 scenario.

Figure 1 – Estimated annual economic damage by 2090

Figure 1 represents 93% of the damage portrayed in Table 1’s slightly more detailed table. Sizes in the figure are proportional to the estimated damage. The total estimated damage amounts to $511B (in 2015$) globally. The total GDP of the US in 2015 was $18T. If we assume a constant average growth rate of 2%, we can use the equation for doubling time, where r is the growth rate, to understand the exponential growth.

dt= 70/r

A population with a 2% annual growth would have a doubling time of 35 years.

35 = 70/2

This brings us to an estimated US GDP of $72T in 2090. Assuming the same potential growth of 2%, we get $1.45T, so $511B represents a 35% decrease in such growth, attributable to climate change.

Table 1 – Projected Damages and Potential for Risk Reduction by Sector

To put this into context, the world lost 153 billion hours of work to heat waves in 2017.

This was a balanced report, but not the same kind of “balance” that this administration prefers.

The report includes a chapter with a “Consensus Study Report” from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, reviewing its entirety in a span of 200 pages. Many of the critical comments written there resulted in real world improvements.

Since this was a report that was officially produced by the administration it would have been possible to include its kind of “balance.” They could have farmed it out to somewhere such as the Heartland Institute, which has a wealth of experience in presenting denials to the IPCC reports.

In the next blog I will try to go into the methodology of these economic estimates, rather than continue the discussion regarding whether the RCP8.5 estimates reflect worst-case scenarios or are on the conservative side.

Meanwhile, Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate it!

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The Global Picture: Climate Hazards and Their Impact

More than three years ago, I posted a blog called, “What Do I Think of the World Bank Data? What Do You Think?” I showed the 41 indicators that the World Bank lists under its climate change category. I then asked my students to write in the comments section about why these indicators belong in this grouping. I am still doing this with new students. You can go there and try the exercise for yourself.

Last week, a much more useful, albeit convoluted, system came out. On November 19, 2018, a group of 23 scientists led by Prof. Camilo Mora posted a paper, “Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions” on Nature Climate Change. The paper demonstrates a relatively new method of study called meta-research:

Meta-research is a recent field of research that studies research practices with the aim of finding evidence-based improvements.[1][2] It is also known as “research on research” or “the science of science” as it uses research methods to study how research is done and where improvements can be made. It covers all fields of scientific research (including health and medical research) and has been described as “taking a bird’s eye view of science”.[1] It aims to improve scientific practice as summed up by John Ioannidis, “Science is the best thing that has happened to human beings […] but we can do it better”.

Here is how the paper’s authors summarize the methodology they used in their research:

Observed impacts on human systems

A systematic review of observed impacts was conducted by creating a table in which ten climate hazards (warming, precipitation, floods, drought, heatwaves, fires, sea level, storms, changes in natural land cover and ocean chemistry) were listed in columns and six aspects of human systems (health, food, water, infrastructure, economy and security) were listed in rows (see Methods). This table was used as a guide for all possible combinations of keywords to search for publications reporting the impacts of climate hazards on key aspects of human life. From over 12,000 references assessed, we identified 3,280 relevant papers that were read in full to find case examples of climate hazards impacting human systems. Our criteria for the selection of impacts required that impacts be observed and supported with traceable evidence (that is, there was a reference to a place and time that could be traced to where and when a given impact occurred). Impacts were subcategorized within each of the six primary aspects of human life to reflect the variety of documented impacts (for example, death, disease within human health; see Fig. 1 and Methods). In total, we found case examples for 89 attributes of human health, food, water, infrastructure, economy and security impacted by the ten climate hazards. Of 890 possible combinations (10 climate hazards × 89 attributes of human life), we found case examples for 467 interactions or pathways by which humanity has been impacted by climate hazards. For brevity, pathways are described and supported with at least one case example; however, very commonly we found numerous similar case examples of impacts, which are listed with their associated paper in a publicly available online database (

This list is intended to document the vulnerability of human systems to changes in climate hazards.

The researchers identified 10 climate hazards: warming, precipitation, floods, droughts, heat waves, fires, sea level rise, storms, changes in natural land cover (choice of land for specified activity), and ocean chemistry (acidification). They also found 89 impacts on humans, which fall into 6 categories: health impacts (27), food impacts (10), water impacts (4), infrastructure impacts (21), security impacts (11), and economic impacts (16). It gave them a total of 890 entries (many of them empty). Figure 1 summarizes the entries, but it is hardly readable even in the original paper.

Observed impacts on humanity from climate hazardsThe authors also provide a supplemental site that shows the climate hazards as columns in an interactive table with 89 rows. Many of the cells include citations of the original references and a short explanation of the connection between the hazards and the impacts. In most cases, the references provide a quantitative assessment of the magnitude of the correlation.

On Friday, the US government issued a new report (more than 1600 pages) that covers the same basic topics as the Mora paper. The two main conclusions are also the same: climate change is happening now and the impacts affect every aspect of our lives. Business as usual scenarios guarantee that those impacts will continue to compound (think of the two main fires currently raging in California). The reports are coming out at a much faster rate than any one of us can digest – certainly infinitely faster than we are taking steps to mitigate or adjust to climate change. The sad part is that this is an official US government report and yet the president made a comment that the unusual freezing cold weather on Thanksgiving was evidence that climate change is a hoax.

Science can be intimidating and confusing to some, especially when they’re not always in the know about methodology. Hopefully continued meta-research will help ease anti-science sentiments and let us move forward.

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Climate Skepticism and Schools?

A few days ago, my wife emailed me a piece from PBS about the state of climate change education in K-12 classes:

Dueling Books Compete to Educate Kids on Climate Change:

The group that mailed books and DVDs arguing that global warming isn’t real to science teachers around the country last year is redoubling its efforts: It plans to publish and distribute a new book — this one aimed at both teachers and students — in the coming months.

But this time, teachers looking for alternative resources will find far more options available than they did just last year: At least three books about how to teach human-caused climate change to middle- and high-school science students will be published by early next year.

The dueling education campaigns are the latest sign of the extent to which children’s understanding of climate change is seen as up for grabs — a fight FRONTLINE and The GroundTruth Project have been reporting on over the past year.

“The public school science classroom is where the majority of U.S. citizens will get any formal instruction on climate science — if they get any at all,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “So it makes sense that classrooms would be a battleground for those who want climate change to be taught — and those who want it to be mis-taught.”

A 2016 nationwide survey of 1,500 public school science teachers found that 31 percent reported they teach that causes of climate change are up for debate, 10 percent teach that humans have no major role in climate change and 5 percent avoid the topic. Less than half of middle-school and high-school teachers reported they understood that scientists are in consensus that humans are causing climate change.

Last year, the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that has dedicated itself for more than a decade to opposing action on climate change, said it mailed more than 200,000 copies of a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and an accompanying DVD to science teachers; the material was criticized by climate scientists for misrepresenting climate research and manipulating data. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives decried the campaign, and Democratic senators questioned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Now, Heartland senior fellow James Taylor says he is editing a new “global warming guide” that presents “brief summaries of global warming topics.” Details about the Heartland book are still scarce — Taylor did not provide its title, and the distribution plan for the new book is not yet finalized, though Taylor said another mass mailing campaign is under consideration. The initial book they mailed out was for a general audience; this will be aimed specifically at educators and students, he said.

The article continues to list denier publications that will put our schools, our children, and our future voters in greater educational peril than they are in already. It will likely be left to politicians to mandate the books used by schools under their jurisdiction, specifically those that are dependent upon them for manpower and budgets. We don’t have a constitutional separation of State and schools.

I will follow these new denier books and the marketing campaigns of their politically divergent publishers as they come out.

I have been teaching climate change at a university for many years now, offering both general education classes and more specialized advanced courses. I have come to believe that education of the voting public (or more accurately, those eligible to vote) is probably the most promising tool for effective mitigation and prevention of the collective disaster of further climate change. The potential fallout from our continued ignorance is immense.

This blog, which I use as a supplement for my classes, started as a direct consequence of my wish to have some impact on the issue. I have discussed the importance of educating students on all levels several times here (see the March 4March 25, 2013 blogs on educational transition, the June 14, 2016 blog on education in the Anthropocene, or search for “education” in the box above).

I have yet to do any in-depth research on where we stand in training our future teachers (and retraining our working teachers) to cover climate change. My emphasis up until now has been on the necessity of multidisciplinary training but the PBS article has convinced me we need more than that. We need database-anchored training, independent of conclusions drawn by others, regardless of their notoriety or political affiliations.

Agencies and societies that deal directly with climate change are also realizing the need for teacher training on this issue. Good examples are NASA and the American Meteorological Society. Hopefully they are just the start of a much larger movement.

I will try to contact the School of Education within my university and see what can we do. Meanwhile, keep pushing and have a happy Thanksgiving.

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Midterm Elections 2018: A Victory for the Constitution

NYC I voted stickersI posted early last week so I could emphasize the importance of voting to my students before Tuesday’s election. As of today, some states are still counting votes and some are proceeding to recounts because of the narrow margins. The available results indicate that Republicans have maintained control of the Senate, increasing their majority by one senator. Meanwhile, Democrats gained control of the House of Representatives, flipping 30+ House seats. They also netted about seven new governorships, even though the majority of the races featured Democrats trying to keep their seats in “red” states. The few climate change resolutions that made it onto ballots didn’t get voters’ approval. It was clearly not an overwhelming victory for either party, which just underscores how split this country still is.

A recent estimate put the number of eligible registered voters in the US north of 235 million. Current estimates of how many actually voted on Tuesday stand at roughly 114 million, which is below 50%. This means that yet again, more than 100 million eligible Americans decided that the issues were not important enough and it was OK to skip the voting booths. At Monday’s class before the election, I asked my students to bring their “I voted” stickers to the next class and promised to bring my own. I went to vote after work around 6pm. The media was already describing very heavy turnout with long lines at many polling locations so I was anticipating some waiting. There was none. However, after I voted, I went to claim my sticker. I didn’t get it. I was a bit upset and asked around, telling my local election staff about my promise to my students. They said that they’d run out, but after some pleading and intensive searching, a staff member was able to find me one to bring with me to class. Many of my students had similar experiences; instead, some of them took pictures of the stickers as a “receipt.” I viewed the shortage of stickers as evidence of a large turnout. Once the numbers started to come out, however, it was obvious that the turnout was only large relative to recent midterm elections – not nearly as high as presidential elections and not even close to the possible full participation. We still have work to do.

Well, what do these elections say about America, and what is the near-term prognosis? My view is that the Founding Fathers were near geniuses in that they were able to draft a document that can still serve as an example to the world of how governing states should work.

Our election process comes almost straight from the US Constitution, which was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1790. As it happens, the first American census took place the same year. Table 1 summarizes the results:

Table 1 – Population data in the US compiled on the first census (1790)

The population now (2017) is 326 million with no slaves. We are the third most populous country in the world and the richest one. We are still bound by the same document from 1790 and it works just fine.

Not everybody is happy with its enforcement, though. This unhappiness is especially loud when the popular vote delivers one message and the election’s result reflects another, as happened this time with the Senate vote and in the 2016 presidential election. Paul Krugman just wrote a sobering op-ed in the NYT: “Real America Versus Senate America: Some of us are more equal than others, and they like Trump.” The Constitution was written for a federation of states and needed to be ratified by three quarters of them (Article 5). Yet it has kept America stable for all of these years as the country grew (not counting “minor” events like the American Civil War).

Let’s use Congress as an example. House seats are allocated by population and we vote on their control in rounds every two years. If we are not happy with our congressperson, or with the party that he/she represents, we vote them out in the next election. Two years of being unhappy is not too long to manage. Congresspeople are elected to represent the people. Senators are elected to represent the land (i.e. the states). The distribution of people and land changes with time but the governing system is designed to keep the balance. Presidential elections also try to keep the balance between people and land, with overwhelming weight thrown behind the people (Electoral College).

Recent party composition of US Senate, 1993-2021

(Data taken from Markers for some of the congresses: 103 – 1993-1995; 116 – 2019-2021. As mentioned before, the data for the 116th Congress Senate elections are not final. In the 111th Congress, two positions remained vacant.

Figure 1 – Party composition of the US Senate in the last 12 Congresses

Each congressional election covers one third of the senatorial seats. The senators that stood for reelection in 2018 were last elected in 2012 (the 113th Congress), when the Senate was overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, so naturally most of the senators that were up for reelection were Democrats. The party affiliation of their last – 112th – congressional election is shown in Figure 1 (keep in mind that we’re reading the graph from right to left here). One can see that this system has “memory.”

The electoral map of these senators is shown in Figure 2. Many of the Democratic senators who were up for reelection represent states that are now considered solidly “red” because they usually vote Republican. This time around, Democratic senators from Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota lost their seats.

By the same token, the Republicans have held a majority since the 114th Congress. This means that most of the senators that are up for reelection in 2020 will be Republicans. Figure 3 shows the electoral map for the 2020 Senate election, which will feature more Republican senators defending their seats and a better chance for Democrats to regain control of the Senate.

2018 Senatorial mapFigure 2 – Senatorial map of the 2018 election

2020 senatorial map

Figure 3 – Senatorial map of the 2020 election

The net result of this memory effect? Increased stability.

Presidents are elected every four years with term limits of two terms. Again, if we don’t like the president that we elect, we only have to “suffer” him/her for a limited period of time and not elect him again. Provided that we vote.

The only governing arm without a term limit is the judiciary. The federal court system consists of District Courts, Circuit Courts, and the US Supreme Court, each of which are comprised of judges who have been recommended by presidents and approved by the Senate. These judges are markers of the political fluctuations in the other two branches of government. The assumption is that after gaining the security of lifetime appointments, they are free to practice independently of the political setting that was responsible for their election. Sometime this works, often it doesn’t. Brett Kavanaugh’s addition, for example, remains fraught with potential partisanship. Also, the recent hospitalization of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an acute reminder of the fragility of this arm of the government.

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Election Day – Think Big!

I usually publish this blog on Tuesdays but this time I have asked my editor to put up the week’s post today so that I can address everyone – including my Monday class of 150 students – a day before the election.

Two events inspired me to write this post:

One was an exchange with a 25-year-old friend who is now a student in medical school. She is much more liberal than I am and we discussed the upcoming elections. She proclaimed that she was not going to vote. We discussed her reasons. Her main point was her strong belief that her vote would not change anything and that furthermore, nothing short of a “revolution” could bring about real change. As it happened, I had just seen a new play (The Niceties) that responds to the same premise.

The other cue was Glenn Thrush’s  New York Times piece that I shared on social media:

CAMILLA, Ga. — Renee Moss was standing in her ruined cotton field, boot-toeing a fallen boll that looked like a dirty snowball and debating her husband, Clayton, about how maybe, just maybe, Hurricane Michael was a result of climate change.

“Nope,” was the immediate response from Mr. Moss, a third-generation farmer in rural Mitchell County, where the storm’s 100-mile-per-hour winds last week destroyed a robust cotton crop at the precise moment when the bolls were fattest, fluffiest and set to be harvested.

A few minutes earlier, Mr. Moss’s insurance broker had told him that his losses were likely to be in the 80 to 100 percent range, the same faced by nearly every other farmer in this part of southwest Georgia. The area, which was directly in the path of the storm, is one of the largest bastions of multigenerational family farming in the country, and a major national producer of cotton, peanuts, sweet corn, pine timber and poultry.

“Look, I know the storms are making it unsustainable. If what’s happened this year happens next year, we’re done,” Mr. Moss, 38, told his wife. “But we’ve always had bad weather. Is it getting worse? Have we had three bad years in a row? Yeah. But I’m worried about the weather, not about climate change.”

I have emphasized the last two sentences because they speak to the heart of the matter. The rest I simply included for background. In a move that likely echoed my own sentiment, the NYT “honored” this bit as a “quote of the day.”

I am not sure if Mr. Moss has fully realized the connections and differences between weather and climate but (at least to me) his disconnect reflected a central quandary of this election: how to reconnect the “big picture” with individual constituents.

Climate change is not necessarily the central topic of this election but there are some local climate change issues that will be decided tomorrow.

Only half of the nation’s Millennials voted in the 2016 election. I wrote two blogs here that together sum up the essence of this year’s election. I’m citing the relevant sections to hopefully help frame our collective decision-making process for Tuesday:

From my October 2, 2018 blog featuring NPR’s interview with Greg Myre about his book, “‘America First’: From Charles Lindbergh to President Trump”:

Before the Pearl Harbor attack, Lindbergh and his followers were isolationists. According to Mr. Myre, that term does not apply to President Trump. He quotes Trump’s inauguration speech:

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” Trump said at his inaugural on Jan. 20.

Mr. Myre instead defines the president’s philosophy in the following way:

Trump is more commonly described as a unilateralist — someone who thinks the U.S. can be engaged around the world, but on its own terms, unconstrained by alliances or multinational groups like the United Nations.

I also wrote a blog immediately after the 2016 elections that was posted on November 15, 2016:

As it stands now, climate change is not a genocide; nor is it a crime against humanity, much less inherently evil – but it has the prospect to be all three. That said, as decided at the Nuremburg trials, you don’t punish a possibility, no matter how dire. You try to change the outcome via education and other resources (Holocaust Remembrance Day). I am certainly not trying to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler or to argue that a repeat of a short-term genocide of any sort is coming. As I’ve said repeatedly, though, in my opinion, Trump’s election – along with the resurgence of nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, anti-trade movements in many parts of the world is an early sign of the Anthropocene (June 14, 2016).

I posted the ruined Berlin synagogue above because I fear that violence will start to raise its ugly head once it becomes obvious that the actual implementations of Trump’s promised changes to “Make America Great Again” are not necessarily welcome.

There are still absentee votes being tallied but as it stands, Hillary gathered 61.04 million individual votes and 228 electoral votes, while Trump won 60.37 million individual votes and 290 electoral votes. Hillary’s win of the popular vote amounted to a margin of more than ½ million votes – a margin that seems to be drifting ever-wider. Interestingly, while Hillary’s plurality was larger than that of Al Gore in 2000, Richard Nixon in 1968, and John F. Kennedy in 1960, she and Al Gore lost the presidency but both Nixon and Kennedy won their respective elections. According to the US Elections Project, only 133 million of the close to 232 million eligible voters actually voted. This amounts to 57.6% participation. That’s about 3% higher than the 2012 election (see my post on March 29, 2016) but it still means that almost 100 million eligible voters that didn’t give enough of a damn to exercise that right. The turnout in Pennsylvania was 61.1% (6 of the 9.7 million) and in Florida it was 65.1% (9.5 out of 14.6 million). Trump won Pennsylvania by 68,000 votes and Florida by 119,770 votes – numbers that would essentially equate to a tie within a margin of error. 

As I said, only 50% of the eligible voters in the same generation as my med student friend (Millennials) voted in the 2016 election. We can look at both the climate and the electorate as collections of individuals – of weather and eligible voters, respectively. But we experience and understand climate changes by gathering multiyear data of weather patterns and elections are much quicker to calculate. We also have more immediate, individual power over election outcomes (and therefore policy matters) than overarching climate patterns.

Passivity should not be an option in either case. Go out and vote, if you can! If not, encourage your friends and family to do so!

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My Anthropocene

Monument to nuclear weapons testing grounds at Trinity, NM

I went on a short vacation to southern New Mexico For Columbus Day weekend. Aside from the region’s great weather in this season, that was one of only two weekends per year when the Trinity site (see last week’s blog) is open to visitors. The photograph above shows the monument to the site of the first ever test of a nuclear weapon, performed on July 16, 1945. The site has now become a popular tourist attraction. The background radiation is about 10% higher than that of the rest of New Mexico; it’s considered to be safe so long as visitors limit their trips to one or two hours. Meanwhile, the background radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today is about the same as the global average.

I was interested in Trinity for two reasons:

  1. We teach a course at my school based on Richard Rhodes’ book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and I wanted to be up to date on the topic.
  2. I am scheduled to give a talk at a Sigma Xi meeting in San Francisco on the “Global Parameterization of Climate Change Indicators,” as they relate to the Anthropocene. My visit to New Mexico took place before the publication of the latest IPCC report but – as I mentioned last week – the AWG is working to define the beginning of the new epoch to coincide with the nuclear arms testing that took place in the middle of the last century. I thought that it would be appropriate to reduce that boundary to a single point in time and space: the first nuclear test at Trinity.

Table 1 shows the major anthropogenic changes in some of the most important global indicators. Most of the values in the table were taken from the World Bank database. Given a lack of prior data, I used the earliest dates I could find for the “early” column. But the general trends are obvious: we live in a time of major change.

Table 1 – Yardsticks for the global transition

Indicators “Early” Current
Population 2.4*109 (1945) 7.5*109 (2017)
GDP/Capita (1990 USD) $2030 (1945) $5950 (2017)
Global life expectancy 44 (1945) 71 (2017)
Urbanization (% of population) 28% (1950) 55% (2017)
Access to electricity (% of population) 71% (1990) 87% (2016)
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration (ppmv) 310 (1945) 409 (2018)
Energy use (kg oil equivalent/capita) 1336 (1971) 1921 (2014)
Smoothed average land-ocean temperature relative to 1951-1980 average (oC) 0.009 (1945) 0.99 (2017)

It is difficult to identify, much less describe, the transitions between geological epochs. Experts are still attempting to figure out the details of the start of the Holocene and what distinguishes it from the preceding Pleistocene. The main tool for tracking the transition is carbon dating of various soil components:

Some of the best-preserved traces of the boundary are found in southern Scandinavia, where the transition from the latest glacial stage of the Pleistocene to the Holocene was accompanied by a marine transgression. These beds, south of Gothenburg, have been uplifted and are exposed at the surface. The boundary is dated around 10,300 ± 200 years BP (in radiocarbon years). This boundary marks the very beginning of warmer climates that occurred after the latest minor glacial advance in Scandinavia. This advance built the last Salpausselkä moraine, which corresponds in part to the Valders substage in North America. The subsequent warming trend was marked by the Finiglacial retreat in northern Scandinavia, the Ostendian (early Flandrian) marine transgression in northwestern Europe.

One of the fascinating aspects of this business is that the way we mark the boundaries of geological epochs is targeted at future generations. In geological time, we measure the future in thousands of years. These markers will remain for a long time in the form of changes in the composition of rocks and the nature of fossils. But who will be here thousands of years from now to witness these changes?

I have addressed this issue before (January 17, 2017 blog) in the context of how we warn future generations about the burial sites of nuclear waste:

A few days ago I revisited the nuclear waste issue when I watched a PBS program. Most of the material was familiar however I almost fainted when I heard about an aspect about which I was totally ignorant – WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant). There is a site in Carlsbad, New Mexico that already has a license to store radioactive waste provided that one “minor” condition is fulfilled: Markers should be placed there that will be functional 10,000 years from now to warn whatever civilization may come next not to trespass on the site due to the risk of exposure to the deadly radiation. A large, multidisciplinary group was assembled there to try to figure out what kind of civilization will be around then so as to tailor make said warnings. We are already spending big money on a distant future 10,000 years from now to warn our descendants or extraterrestrials of damage that we are inflicting now. It’s not out of line to broaden the scope for damage that most of us consider existential within the lifespan of our grandchildren.

Attempts to predict the nature of future generations over geological time are fascinating and few can actively refute such extrapolations. Attempts to make sure that the present version of humanity and our descendants remain part of such a future are much more difficult.

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Two Anthropocenes

Image Credit: Ray Troll’s Ages of Rock

Image Credit: Ray Troll’s Ages of Rock

The alarming tone of the new IPCC report caught the immediate attention of the world’s media and triggered a quick dismissal from the president of the United States. The report, which spans about 1,300 pages, covers all the indicators that constitute early signs of the impending damage to the Earth. It emphasizes the amplification of damage expected between a global warming of 1.5oC and one of 2oC or higher. Since both temperatures are now becoming more and more questionable as achievable targets by the end of the century, the report also calls for a sharp acceleration in global efforts to completely decarbonize the world’s energy supply within one generation. This notion is an anathema to the current government of the US, the largest per-capita major global carbon emitter. But none of this came as a surprise to anyone who has been following the topic.

One big surprise (to me at least) was that the report finally included the concept of the Anthropocene. What’s more, it is featured at the very beginning of Chapter 1. This addition, in my opinion, is so significant and got such little media attention that I have decided to include it below despite repeated, “Do Not Cite, Quote or Distribute” warnings in the report:

Box 1.1: The Anthropocene: Strengthening the global response to 1.5°C global warming


The concept of the Anthropocene can be linked to the aspiration of the Paris Agreement. The abundant empirical evidence of the unprecedented rate and global scale of impact of human influence on the Earth System (Steffen et al., 2016; Waters et al., 2016) has led many scientists to call for an acknowledgement that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Crutzen, 2002; Gradstein et al., 2012). Although rates of change in the Anthropocene are necessarily assessed over much shorter periods than those used to calculate long-term baseline rates of change, and therefore present challenges for direct comparison, they are nevertheless striking. The rise in global CO2 concentration since 2000 is about 20 ppm/decade, which is up to 10 times faster than any sustained rise in CO2 during the past 800,000 years (Lüthi et al., 2008; Bereiter et al., 2015). AR5 found that the last geological epoch with similar atmospheric CO2 concentration was the Pliocene, 3.3 to 3.0 Ma (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2013). Since 1970 the global average temperature has been rising at a rate of 1.7°C per century, compared to a long-term decline over the past 7,000 years at a baseline rate of 0.01°C per century (NOAA 2016, Marcott et al. 2013). These global-level rates of human-driven change far exceed the rates of change driven by geophysical or biosphere forces that have altered the Earth System trajectory in the past (e.g., Summerhayes 2015; Foster et al. 2017); even abrupt geophysical events do not approach current rates of human-driven change.

The geological dimension of the Anthropocene and 1.5°C global warming

The process of formalizing the Anthropocene is on-going (Zalasiewicz et al., 2017), but a strong majority of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) established by the Sub–Committee on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on Stratigraphy have agreed that: (i) the Anthropocene has a geological merit; (ii) it should follow the Holocene as a formal epoch in the Geological Time Scale; and, that (iii) its onset should be defined as the mid–20th century. Potential markers in the stratigraphic record include an array of novel manufactured materials of human origin, and “these combined signals render the Anthropocene stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene and earlier epochs” (Waters et al., 2016). The Holocene period, which itself was formally adopted in 1885 by geological science community, began 11,700 years ago with a more stable warm climate providing for emergence of human civilization and growing human-nature interactions that have expanded to give rise to the Anthropocene (Waters et al., 2016).

The Anthropocene and the Challenge of a 1.5° C warmer world

The Anthropocene can be employed as a “boundary concept” (Brondizio et al., 2016) that frames critical insights into understanding the drivers, dynamics and specific challenges in responding to the ambition of keeping global temperature well below 2°C while pursuing efforts towards and adapting to a 1.5°C warmer world. The UNFCCC and its Paris Accord recognize the ability of humans to influence geophysical planetary processes (Chapter 2, Cross-Chapter Box 1 in this Chapter). The Anthropocene offers a structured understanding of the culmination of past and present human– environmental relations and provides an opportunity to better visualize the future to minimize pitfalls (Pattberg and Zelli, 2016; Delanty and Mota, 2017), while acknowledging the differentiated responsibility and opportunity to limit global warming and invest in prospects for climate-resilient sustainable development (Harrington, 2016) (Chapter 5). The Anthropocene also provides an opportunity to raise questions regarding the regional differences, social inequities and uneven capacities and drivers of global social–environmental changes, which in turn inform the search for solutions as explored in Chapter 4 of this report (Biermann et al., 2016). It links uneven influences of human actions on planetary functions to an uneven distribution of impacts (assessed in Chapter 3) as 29 well as the responsibility and response capacity to for example, limiting global warming to no more than a 1.5°C rise above pre–industrial levels. Efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions without incorporating the intrinsic interconnectivity and disparities associated with the Anthropocene world may themselves negatively affect the development ambitions of some regions more than others and negate sustainable development efforts (see Chapter 2 and Chapter 5).

I have frequently discussed the concept of the Anthropocene here (see February 3, 2015 blog, “Extinctions in the Anthropocene” and type Anthropocene into the search box for later entries). The IPCC report (Zalasiewicz et al., 2017) refers to a key publication in the journal Anthropocene ( 19, 55 (2017)) written by 25 participants in the AWG (Anthropocene Working Group) effort. However, the IPCC report does not include these crucial bits of the conclusion of the paper’s abstract:

Among the array of proxies that might be used as a primary marker, anthropogenic radionuclides associated with nuclear arms testing are the most promising; potential secondary markers include plastic, carbon isotope patterns and industrial fly ash. All these proxies have excellent global or near-global correlation potential in a wide variety of sedimentary bodies, both marine and non-marine.

The time scale shown above illustrates geological epochs – most of which last for millions of years. The latest epoch, the Holocene, has lasted approximately 10,000 years (11,700 years in the IPCC report) and spans the approximate history of human civilization (agriculture, urban settlements, etc.). There is no precedence for declaring the “beginning” of a new epoch. As the IPCC report mentioned, the Holocene designation wasn’t approved until 1885. Fuller accounts reveal that the period was only submitted to the International Geological Congress at that time. It was endorsed by the US Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (the same organization that is now considering the Anthropocene) in 1969 but it is still not universally accepted.

The suggestion mentioned in the IPCC report for a “boundary concept” is interesting but a boundary requires the definition of both sides – which we lack here. A much more appropriate measure is to declare an end of the Holocene – an action for which we have plenty of precedence in our mapping of the geological time scale.

The requirements for visible markers for the transition (the current geological epoch map is based on fossil and rock evidence) are logical; it is therefore appropriate that we use the anthropogenic radionuclides associated with nuclear arms testing from the middle of the last century as our guide. In the next blog I will discuss some of the markers for the Holocene and show that the primary marker for the Anthropocene can be traced to July 16, 1945 at the Trinity site in New Mexico – the very first test of nuclear weapons.

The AWG’s long gestation for this change (as of 2009) is nothing compared to that regarding the start of the Holocene – which as I mentioned, is still ongoing. Such a lag is understandable. It is a monumental job. The IPCC’s decision to acknowledge the period is welcome. Unless someone successfully claims ownership of the word “Anthropocene,” (suggested originally by Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer, 2000), it is a useful term to adopt to describe the era in which anthropogenic actions are responsible for deteriorations in the physical environment that are likely to lead to uninhabitability.

Data show that the difference in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide between the current reference (Industrial Revolution) and the end of WWII (1945) is small. The current reference is 280 ppmv while the 1945 concentration is recorded to have 310 ppmv. Shifting the reference to 1945 might remove some direct blame from industry and shift it instead to society’s inability to include environmental impact in its choice of tools to accelerate economic growth. Shifting the reference might also emphasize the culpability of a significant segment of the population (including myself) and encourage them/us to work a bit harder to make amends.

To conclude, there are two Anthropocenes: One is a full, official geological epoch that might last for thousands of years and requires markers that will only be observable throughout such a period; the other only requires recognition that the current epoch of the Holocene has to end to reflect humanity’s vast effects on the physical environment. Next week’s blog will expand on the latter.

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Burying our Heads in the Sand

clip art of ostrich burying head in sandOstriches don’t actually bury their heads in the sand in the belief that it makes their predators unable to see them – but many of us do. Unfortunately many such human ostriches occupy high level positions of our government, putting us all – including our children and grandchildren – in great danger.

In last week’s beautiful blog on Tucson, Sonya Landau wrote:

In addition, while in theory there is a law that mandates all developers must prove that there is a 100-year water supply before starting any large development, the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of developers, effectively gutting this protection.

The majority said the state agency need not consider other potential future claims for the same underground water — in this case, by the federal Bureau of Land Management — or even the possibility that those other claims could end up leaving the development and the people who buy homes there high and, literally, dry.

Arizona is not alone in ignoring the future. North Carolina, which was just starting to rebuild from the devastation that it suffered from Hurricane Florence, also had to endure the remnants of Michael, which had already demolished large swaths of Florida’s Panhandle as well as Georgia, and Alabama. Here’s a bit more about North Carolina’s efforts to rebuild – and whether doing so is feasible in light of future storms:

The privately owned Rodanthe pier has already undergone half a million dollars in renovation in seven years and the owners started a new round of repairs this week. Scientists have warned such rebuilding efforts are futile as sea levels rise and storms chew away the coast line but protests from developers and the tourism industry have led North Carolina to pass laws that disregard the predictions.

The idea of retreating is a tough sell for the people who live there and have invested in property. “You’re asking us to say, ‘Hey, 4,000 or 5,000 people on little Hatteras Island, it’s time for you to pack up and move,’ and that’s not a reasonable expectation,” said Bobby Outten, manager for Dare County on the Outer Banks.

Even though she acknowledges that sea levels are rising, Kelly is also among those who opposed making state policy decisions, including anything affecting home insurance or property values, based on the study’s dire 90-year forecast of sea-level rise. Kelly supported a 2012 state law that banned North Carolina from using the 90-year prediction on rising sea levels to influence coastal development policy.   The CRC released a second report in 2015 predicting sea level rise over a 30-year period, instead of 90 years. The new report was praised by developers as being more realistic and said sea levels would rise 1.9 to 10.6 inches. (

Florida is also in reconstruction mode after Michael. A piece in LiveScience describes some of the obstacles:

Florida, one of the States most susceptible to the effects of climate change and sea-level rise, verbally banned state environmental officials from using the term “climate change,” an investigation revealed. But the Sunshine State isn’t the only U.S. state that has attempted to “outlaw” climate science.

North Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee have all passed laws that attempt to cast doubt on established climate science in boardrooms and classrooms.

This sort of denial comes from the very top and continues in spite of  repeated proof of the grave reality of climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) posted its latest report on Saturday, October 6th. The report includes more than 1,300 pages. Here are some highlights from the IPCC’s press release on the 34-page “Summary for Policy Makers” (SPM). The SPM was approved by the governments of each IPCC member nation, including the US:

Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC approved by governments

INCHEON, Republic of Korea, 8 Oct – Limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society, the IPCC said in a new assessment. With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said on Monday.

“One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” said Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC, or more. For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2ºC.

The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

President Trump’s reaction to the report was as follows:

It was given to me. And I want to look at who drew it … Because I can give you reports that are fabulous, and I can give you reports that aren’t so good. But I will be looking at it, absolutely.

While his quote is somewhat garbled, he seems to be saying that he doesn’t entirely trust the report. It is a bit odd for him to claim he doesn’t know who created it though, given that – as I just mentioned – the US is a party to the IPCC and someone in his administration had to sign off on it.

On a positive note, the new report – for the first time in the IPCC’s history – discusses the transition into the Anthropocene (type Anthropocene into the search box of the blog to see previous coverage). Next week’s blog will explore that addition.

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Guest Blog by Sonya Landau: Unsustainable Desert: People Have Been Living in Tucson for Thousands of Years; How Much Longer Can That Continue?

I have been Micha’s editor and helped run this blog since the beginning. I’m excited to have the chance to contribute to Climate Change Fork.

Tucson is a magical place. Then again, I’m biased – it is my home town after all, and I am prone to bragging of its charms. One of the city’s most astonishing highlights its history: it’s been continuously occupied – and cultivated – for over 4,000 years (longer than anywhere else in the country)! Most people conjure up the Sahara when they think of a desert, i.e. a vast expanse of nothingness inimical to life. Others remember the armed saguaro cacti from the “Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner” cartoons – that’s where I’m from, I tell people. But even in that portrayal, which admittedly needs to be sparse for the whole premise to work, we don’t get an understanding of just how much life the Sonoran Desert holds. There are dozens of kinds of cacti, different trees, shrubs, and grasses, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, geckos, gila monsters, snakes, scorpions, pack rats, kangaroo mice, and yes – roadrunners (sadly, they’re neither 6’ tall nor purple). Overall, it’s been a home to many over the years. Still, it’s a desert, and while admiring the past, we also have to be aware of the future in light of climate change. Given that Tucson already reaches 100° F or more for most of the summer and gets less than a foot of rain every year, it’s hard not to be grim about what’s to come.

Micha has talked about climate refugees before. We are already seeing the effects of rising sea levels and bigger, more frequent hurricanes. Florence decimated North Carolina and Puerto Rico is still in shambles a year after Maria. Many low altitude nations are worried about their shores. Don’t forget, the president of the Maldives held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009 to highlight the problem. Meanwhile, other climate issues threaten populations around the world. As you know from reading this blog, global warming does not necessarily mean that the weather in every place is warmer every day of the year. Instead, it amplifies naturally occurring patterns, making extreme weather events both more intense and more likely. In this case, however, we are talking about heat.

You won’t be shocked to hear that it gets hot in the desert – some days in the summer it reaches over 110o F in Tucson (and Phoenix is consistently at least 5o hotter) – but like many places all over the world, that temperature is rising, and so is the associated death. Last year, there were officially 155 heat-related deaths in Arizona, five more than the previous record set in 2016. The desert proves especially dangerous for undocumented immigrants. The US’s increasingly vigilant stance at the border with Mexico has not stopped people from crossing outright. Instead, it has pushed many into crossing at incredibly treacherous stretches of the border. Some of these people are hoping for a better life for themselves and their families; most are fleeing violence in their home countries. I imagine it won’t be that long before residents of Arizona become equally desperate to permanently escape the heat.

Water is literally life in the desert. Given the state’s finite resources and record temperatures, it’s both surprising and somewhat alarming how many people keep moving to Arizona. The Tucson metropolitan area has an estimated population of 994,000, while the Phoenix metropolitan area is believed to have surpassed 4.5 million in 2015.

It makes sense to be worried – according to the University of Arizona, “as recently as 1993 Tucson was the largest city in the U.S. — and perhaps globally — to be 100 percent dependent on groundwater.” Since then, the state has diversified its water portfolio, reducing that to 40%, supplemented by 40% from the Colorado River and 4% reclaimed water, with the rest from other surface sources. But with the ongoing drought, there are major doubts about how much longer the Colorado River can continue to support multiple states. In addition, while in theory there is a law that mandates all developers must prove that there is a 100-year water supply before starting any large development, the Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of developers, effectively gutting this protection.

The majority said the state agency need not consider other potential future claims for the same underground water — in this case, by the federal Bureau of Land Management — or even the possibility that those other claims could end up leaving the development and the people who buy homes there high and, literally, dry.

Don’t get me wrong – people are working to mitigate some of these issues. They’re making advances in reclaimed water treatment and “banking” unused Colorado River water in aquifers. It’s also gratifying to see that the bevvy of golf courses incongruent with the climate are now required to use reclaimed water instead of potable water. And Arizona’s making great strides with solar energy, providing rebates and tax incentives for both businesses and homeowners, though there is still the expected pushback from nonrenewable energy proponents and those worried about the economics of the energy transition. There are more solar panels every time I go back to visit Tucson – all of the public school playgrounds use them for shade cover, and they make up the roofs of many parking lots – including the one at the airport!

But can these small changes completely forestall the exodus that will become necessary once we run out of water and the heat is consistently higher than people can handle? It is always impossible to predict the future but I wonder how long my beloved Tucson, and the Sonoran Desert as a whole can remain a home and haven for people.

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