Expanding Environmental Impact Statements


cartoon, mom, kid, entropy, EIS, environmental impact statement, epa, thermodynamics

Cartoon by Hugh Brown

I use the cartoon above to teach my students one of the most fundamental tenets of physics, unimaginatively called the “Second Law of Thermodynamics.” A quick Google search will tell you that thermodynamics is, “the branch of physics that has to do with heat and temperature and their relation to energy and work” (Wikipedia). The law states that, “left on their own, systems tend to maximize their disorder.” Disorder in physics is measured with a function called entropy (you can Google that as well). We don’t need the exact definition of entropy here; we can all grasp the concept of disorder. One of the better-known examples is the room of a small child, when left on its own. The room, obviously can be cleaned by adults—or if the child is a bit older, by incentivizing the child to do it himself. But this kind of “fixing” doesn’t defy the law because it means the room is not being “left on its own.” The point of an Environmental Impact Statement (usually employed when a structure is scheduled to be built or a massive project is underway) is to predict how a project will impact (create “disorder” in) the rest of the system or surrounding area and what kind of intervention will be needed to mitigate those detrimental effects.

Policymaking on all levels is now (very slowly) starting to factor in the impacts climate change has (or will have) on almost every global economic activity. I have described some examples in earlier blogs (just type economic impact into the search box above). The current political climate in many countries is not exactly encouraging for productive consideration. Nonetheless, these discussions are still taking place, with the hope that global environmental considerations will play increasing roles.

In the US, federal laws and regulations require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to evaluate the effects of certain actions on the environment and to consider alternative courses of action. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) specifies when an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared. NEPA regulations require, among other things, for federal agencies to include discussion of a proposed action and the range of reasonable alternatives in an EIS. Sufficient information must be included in the EIS for reviewers to evaluate the relative merits of each alternative. The Council for Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) regulations provide the recommended format and content.

In the European Union permits are required for activities such as:

  • the mineral industry (including the production of cement and asbestos and manufacturing glass);
  • production of organic and inorganic chemicals;
  • waste management (ie, the disposal and recovery of waste); and
  • other activities, including the production of pulp, paper and cardboard, pre-treatment and dyeing of textiles, tanning of hides and skins, disposal or recycling of animal carcasses, and intensive rearing of poultry or pigs.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg terminals now include ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) information (“Integrating Sustainability into capital markets”) that can be incorporated into many economic decisions.

Perhaps the most climate change-relevant information that can be incorporated in any of these search tools is the social cost of CO2 (SC-CO2). The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently initiated discussions about possible related regulations and published a paper about it “Valuing Climate Damages: Updating Estimation of the Social Cost of Carbon Dioxide.

A recent court case examines incorporation of climate change in the EIS and is worth examining at some length. Below are selected paragraphs from the article, “Including Climate Change in Environmental Impact Analyses”:

D.C. Circuit holds federal energy regulators must consider pipeline project’s impact on climate change.

Is climate change a “reasonably foreseeable” consequence from a government agency’s approval of a natural gas pipeline? What if an entirely separate agency regulates the facilities that will actually burn the transported gas? And what if the construction of the new pipeline would enable the retirement of older coal-powered plants and thus lessen overall climate impacts?

A three-judge panel of a federal court of appeals recently grappled with these questions and determined that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—in considering and approving the construction of a natural gas pipeline project—should have considered the eventual burning of natural gas when weighing environmental concerns.

In addition, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) requires that federal agencies produce an “environmental impact statement” (EIS) for all “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” The EIS must address potential “adverse” consequences of the action and possible alternatives to it.

Shortly after FERC completed its EIS for the natural gas pipeline at issue in Sierra Club v. FERC, the agency issued a certificate authorizing construction of the project.

The environmental groups challenging FERC’s approval of the project argued that the agency failed to perform a proper EIS. The groups expressed concern that the burning of the natural gas being transported by the pipelines could “hasten climate change and its potentially catastrophic consequences,” and that FERC had failed to take those effects into account when developing its EIS. After FERC denied the groups’ request to halt construction of the project, the groups sought review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit—the federal court expressly granted authority by the Natural Gas Act to hear challenges to FERC’s orders.

The question for the court was whether FERC was required—in completing its EIS—to consider the fact that the natural gas carried by the pipelines would ultimately be used in Florida power plants, which would generate electricity and emit greenhouse gas.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis is an investment theory that I have discussed here before (February 21, 2017 and November 21, 2017). It states that in free markets, prices reflect all available information.

It’s high time that we make it mandatory to factor in the impact of climate change on every economic decision that we make.

Technically, this is feasible by using the dominant future scenario—currently based on the business as usual scenario (RCP8.5 in the IPCC lingo – see October 28, 2014 blog). The EIS can be examined periodically to reflect changes in the prevailing scenario. The scope of such a policy change will be narrower than that of the “Green New Deal” and it has a higher probability of attracting Republican votes and being effective in its contributions to mitigation and adaptation of climate change.

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To Make America Great Again, Please Stand Tall

I interpret standing tall as holding your head up and meeting oncoming challenges rather than burying it in a pile of sand to avoid reality (see the October 16, 2018 post on ostrich myths and the American government’s deliberate obtuseness on certain matters).

Last week’s blog focused on the “Green New Deal” and whether or not it’s viable. The proposed resolution for the new House of Representatives enumerates strategies for dealing with climate change. One of the matters Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, included in her proposed resolution was the stress that environmental refugees will impose on the United States. I added in another relevant source:

Since the resolution also directly addresses climate refugees in this ‘Whereas” and security threats to the US in subsequent ones, the authors could have also included the recent report by the US intelligence agencies (see May 23, 2017 blog)

Recently, Chuck Todd made the following pronouncement on his program, Meet the Press:

“Just as important as what we are going to do this hour is what we’re not going to do. We’re not going to debate climate change, the existence of it. The Earth is getting hotter, and human activity is a major cause. Period. We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.”

A few days later, The New York Times reported that the White House has taken the opposite view:

White House Climate Panel to Include a Climate Denialist

The Pentagon and federal intelligence agencies have said that climate change is a threat. Now, the White House is planning a panel to study whether that is true.

WASHINGTON — President Trump is preparing to establish a panel to examine whether climate change affects national security, despite existing reports from his own government showing that global warming is a growing threat.

The article informs us that one of the last remaining climate change deniers resides in the White House, and is about to impact official reports—ones that fortunately, up to now, had remained disconnected from politics. In related news, on the same day, the media cited sources who claimed that Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, is about to be fired. The reasons given did not include the recent intelligence report that I mentioned above but rather his public statements about US interactions with North Korea. That said, nobody that I know has any doubts about what this will mean for future reports on the topic. The intelligence reports are published every four years (see May 23, 2017 blog) so the next one will come out after the coming presidential election. We will see how that will play out.

To stand tall, we have to believe our own data and act on them—not give deniers the opportunity to “objectively” refute scientific evidence. Nor is this trend of denying data restricted to the federal level. The October 16, 2018 blog, which I mentioned above in connection to ostriches, lists a few cases on the state level—including Arizona, North Carolina and Florida—that actively oppose the use of scientific findings about climate change and its impacts to create legislation that would affect essential economic activities.

It is within Congress’s power to ban such practices. A legislation directed at mitigation or adaptation to climate change has a chance to pass both houses of Congress – provided that it maintains a narrow purview. Republicans who already believe in climate change would have the chance to jump on the bandwagon—and possibly reap political rewards. Many Republican senators are facing tough elections in 2020 and public opinion now favors standing tall with regards to both acceptance of and action against climate change. As you can see in Figure 1, about 60% of Americans are either alarmed or concerned; any politician that runs against this trend might face electoral consequences.

standing tall, America, public, climate change, alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, dismissiveFigure 1 – American attitudes toward climate change

These attitudes are starting to extend to awareness of local and personal impacts in addition to the wider acceptance of those on a national and global scale. Based on a recent Pew survey, this trend should have major electoral consequences:

local impacts, climate change, survey, public, US, standing tallFigure 2 – % of US adults who see local impacts of climate change

Effective legislative action doesn’t have to be revolutionary. In next week’s blog, I will try to show that expanding and enforcing requirements for Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) to specifically incorporate climate change impacts could do the trick.

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The Green New Deal Resolution: Is it Viable?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, Green New Deal, resolution, mother jones

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presents her “Green New Deal.” Image: Mother Jones

The “Green New Deal” that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, have proposed has became the talk of the town. People are alternately warning it could spell disaster and praising it as our potential saving grace. To start the discussion from a factual place, and leaving aside political considerations, I am including key excerpts from the actual resolution that Representative Ocasio-Cortez submitted to the House of Representatives. The full resolution comprises 14 pages and consists of the requisite two main sections: “Whereas” describes the background problems, and “resolved” proposes solutions. I am posting the beginnings of both sections, along with summaries of the rest:



Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.


Ms. OCASIO-CORTEZ submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on —————


Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.

Whereas the October 2018 report entitled ‘‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 oC’’ by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment report found that—

(1) human activity is the dominant cause of observed climate change over the past century;
(2) a changing climate is causing sea levels to rise and an increase in wildfires,
(3) global warming at or above 2 degrees Celsius beyond preindustrialized levels will cause—

(A) mass migration from the regions most affected by climate change;
(B) more than $500,000,000,000 in lost annual economic output in the United States by the year 2100;
(C) wildfires that, by 2050, will annually burn at least twice as much forest area in the western United States than was typically burned by wildfires in the years preceding 2019;
(D) a loss of more than 99 percent of all coral reefs on Earth;
(E) more than 350,000,000 more people to be exposed globally to deadly heat stress by 2050; and
(F) a risk of damage to $1,000,000,000,000 of public infrastructure and coastal real estate in the United States; and

(4) global temperatures must be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrialized levels to avoid the most severe impacts of a changing climate, which will require—

(A) global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from human sources of 40 to 60 percent from 2010 levels by 2030; and
(B) net-zero global emissions by 2050;

The two reports referenced are recent and fully credible, and were approved by the current US government; I have discussed both on this blog. The Fourth National Climate Assessment was officially and directly approved by the federal administration. Separately, the American representatives to the IPCC gave their approval to the IPCC 1.5oC report.

Since the resolution also directly addresses climate refugees in this ‘Whereas” and security threats to the US in subsequent ones, the authors could have also included the recent report by the US intelligence agencies (see May 23, 2017 blog). Let me just quote the heading of the second “Whereas”:

Whereas, because the United States has historically been responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, having emitted 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions through 2014, and has a high technological capacity, the United States must take a leading role in reducing emissions through economic transformation;

This paragraph also focuses on the responsibilities that the US bears for climate change. From here the resolution shifts gears to address the economy, income inequality, stagnation, general injustices, etc. within the country. It looks at our history, from the New Deal to WWII, and moving forward.

After listing the many conditions that make the resolution necessary, the document enumerates its suggestions for remedying the problems:

Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives—

(1) that it is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal—

(A) to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers;
(B) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States;
(C) to invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century;
(D) to secure for all people of the United States for generations to come

(i) clean air and water;
(ii) climate and community resiliency;
(iii) healthy food;
(iv) access to nature; and
(v) a sustainable environment; and

The first resolution covers a great deal of territory, spanning well beyond the environment. The second one, that I am not showing, specifies over 10 years’-worth of steps in national mobilization necessary to accomplish all of these goals.

The submission is a congressional resolution:

In each chamber of Congress, four forms of legislative measures may be introduced or submitted, and acted upon. These include bills, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and simple resolutions. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate follow similar rules when making decisions on any of these actions. Both bills and joint resolutions are used when the focus is on making laws; a joint resolution can also be used to propose an amendment to the Constitution. Both concurrent and simple resolutions are used to delegate official internal Congressional business.

I assume that this is submitted as simple resolution for official congressional business, not as a bill or joint resolution intended to become the law of the land. I also imagine that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez can count probable supporting votes and thus doesn’t presume that even if approved by the House of Representatives, Senate approval will follow.

However, the resolution is now clearly entering the political dogfight:

  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the Senate would vote on the “Green New Deal” introduced by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., last week.
  • The proposal, which is not expected to pass the GOP-dominated upper chamber, could force some Democrats to make a politically awkward calculation.
  • Ocasio-Cortez welcomed McConnell’s maneuver, saying that he and the GOP are “terrified of this winning vision of a just and prosperous future.”

Omitting some of the specificity in terms of timing, the resolution resembles the UN’s “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) that I described in the October 6, 2015 blog. The resolution could be much more effective if it separated the “green” part from the “New Deal” part. Next week I will look at possible alternative strategies that might achieve similar results while possibly attracting more bilateral support.

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Wisdom from Australia: Are You Reading This?

comic, weather, denial, climate change, global warmingIn my first blog that I posted more than six and a half years ago, I described my early Holocaust experiences and their connection to my interest in climate change. I was born in Warsaw, Poland three months before the German invasion. We were liberated by units of the American army less than two months before my sixth birthday. After our liberation, I went with my mother to Israel (it was British-controlled Palestine at the time). One of my cousins who is a few years older had similar experiences in the Holocaust (September 13, 2016). After liberation, his family also emigrated to Israel. After a few years, they moved to Australia. While he was in the Israeli army, he learned to be a draftsman. After he arrived in Australia, he got married, produced a wonderful family, and started to use his army-acquired skills to become a very successful builder.

We chat regularly and sometimes travel together (the September 13, 2016 blog describes our joint trip to Malta; the August 1, 2017 describes our joint trip to Thailand). Naturally, in addition to talking about what’s currently happening, we also discuss the past and the future. Our experiences from the Holocaust come up occasionally, as does my preoccupation with climate change—usually in the context of what is going on in Australia. The northern hemisphere usually only takes note of Australian summers during the Australian Open that takes place in Melbourne in January (it’s winter in much of the northern hemisphere, but it’s scorching summer in much of Australia). The last few summers in Australia have been exceptionally rough. I described the bush fires there (January 14, 2013 and October 3, 2017) twice.

It is becoming more and more obvious that attempts to mitigate climate change are no longer just an effort to make the lives of our children and grandchildren better—we are seeing climate change directly impact our own lives. The current US government’s attitude is well known. Every time that we have a cold spell like the recent polar vortex, our president prays for some global warming; he uses the brutal winter to refute climate change (don’t be surprised if these attitudes sound a bit contradictory). The comic at the top by Drew Sheneman sums up the attitude especially well. The Australian government’s approach is a bit harder to pin down because of the much higher frequency at which it changes hands. I remember an early visit to Australia when the issue of a carbon tax was on the agenda. At the time, many of my Australian friends were of the opinion that given the the country’s relatively small population (only 25 million people) they should be left alone, unregulated. But the impact on Australia is getting worse every year. The photo below shows a devastating photograph published a few days ago.

horse, dead, brumby, Australia, heat

A mass brumby death has been discovered in a remote location near Santa Teresa. Source: Facebook/Ralph Turner

The article provides a list of key points about the context of the photo:

  • Around 20 feral horses have been discovered in a dry waterhole in remote Central Australia
  • Arrernte man Ralph Turner said it was the first time he had seen anything like it
  • The region is heading towards its 13th day in a row above 42C [107.6oF]

Independent organizations including NOAA, NASA, the UK’s Met Office, and the World Meteorological Organization all just published detailed analyses of the most recent (2018) global impacts of climate change. All of them provided quantitative proof that 2018 was one of the four hottest years in the more than 130 years since we started tracing this indicator. Table 1 lists NOAA’s results of the 10 hottest years and their anomalies relative to the 1880-2018 average.

Table 1 – Ten Warmest Years (1880-2018)

With all of that, it is not surprising that my cousin and his family often follow my blogs. However, during our last chat, he admitted to me that he doesn’t read all of them. The essence of his complaint was as follows: when the blog deals with the Holocaust or with familiar European or Australian issues that he is familiar with, he is fine; when I deal with scientific issues, he hits a wall that discourages him from reading future blogs until I nudge him. His comment hit a sensitive point with me that convinced me to write this blog and ask for your collective help.

The main reason that I write this blog is to translate the science related to climate change into more accessible terms. I want to encourage people to mitigate the consequences of climate change on themselves, their children, and their grandchildren. Specifically, I am calling for both individual and collective actions, including participation in voting wherever it applies.

Throughout the almost seven years that I have been running this blog, I have gotten hundreds of comments. Almost all of these either agree or disagree with what I have written. I don’t remember getting a single comment that was focused on better understanding what was written, that would allow me to respond and improve my writing. I promise you I will directly answer every comment that does so. I want you to get what I’m saying.

Please help by letting me know if there are points upon which you need me to elaborate. Thanks!

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Living in Ice and Trees: Interesting, But How Can it Work Year-Round?

I am starting to write this blog at home in NYC on Thursday, January 31st. The temperature this morning was 3oF (-16oC) and by early afternoon it went all the way up to 6oF. I started to read the paper and found out that in the Midwest, the temperature went below -50oF. I have a very close relative who is now a student in Madison, Wisconsin. I offered to give her some of my warm clothing that we used in the Arctic but she politely refused. Regardless, our trip to the Arctic served as good preparation for what we have been experiencing here.

In this blog, I want to focus on another aspect of the trip, aside from catching sight of the northern lights and investigating the thawing permafrost. Specifically, we experienced two unique hotel accommodations: the Icehotel and the Treehotel. Both of them are in Sweden; the first is located north of the Arctic Circle in Jukkastarvi (see map in the January 15 or January 22, 2019 blogs), while the second is just south of the Arctic Circle in Harads (100km from Lulea). The photographs below show rooms in both hotels (Figures 1 and 2 are from the Icehotel and 3-6 are from the Treehotel).

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Figure 1 – Icehotel room with jellyfish sculptures

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Figure 2 – Icehotel room with sculpture of head

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Figure 3 – Treehotel room

tree, hotel, treehotel, Sweden, treehouse,

Figure 4 – Treehotel terrace

tree, hotel, treehotel, Sweden, treehouse,

Figure 5 – Treehotel walkway

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Figure 6 – Treehotel view from ground

Both places enjoy the distinction of being listed among the most interesting hotels in the world.

During our visit, the outside temperature at both locations was well below 0oF (-18oC).

Both hotels advertise themselves as year-round lodgings. It is not difficult to imagine this for the Treehotel but it is much harder to picture how this could be true for the Icehotel. Here is how it works:

As advertised, the Icehotel is constructed from ice. In January, when we were there, it was well below freezing outside, while the inside was kept at 14oF (-10oC). Sleeping bags were provided (along with warm sleeping clothes) to keep the temperature comfortable and the ice stable. I was OK with this; my wife was less so. Many of the structures are designed to melt in the spring and be rebuilt as the next winter approaches. Rebuilding starts in the late fall, using ice extracted from the nearby river. After it melts, the water returns to the same river. There are global architectural and sculptural competitions each year to design the next iteration. There’s wonderful art in the winter (see Figures 1 and 2).

I was surprised to find out that some of the structures—including the one that we stayed in—don’t go through this cycle but remain stable year-round. They accomplish this by keeping the interior at 14oF (-10oC) all year—with air conditioning, when needed. The outside remains stable via heat insulators. These modifications are achieved with a large supply of low-cost energy, 100% of which comes from an array of solar devices. Obviously, these only function when the sun is shining. The Arctic as a region experiences at least one day a year when the sun either never shines (winter) or never sets (summer).

This dependence on a large supply of electricity is even more visible at the Treehotel. As you can see in Figure 3, the rooms are large and modern. Figures 5 and 6 show how they are anchored to the trees in the forest. Figure 4 shows a very attractive and innovative tree-anchored terrace through which trees can actually grow. In theory, one could sit or stretch out there and observe a wonderful view; obviously, this is not the case at 14oF. In January, the terrace was locked. When we arrived, they emphasized the toilets—they do not use water for flushing. Instead, you press a button and the waste (confined to a paper bag) gets incinerated at 600oC (1112oF). It works, but not without a few obstacles (we were left to ourselves to navigate those).

Globally, such a solution is interesting. Around 60% of the world’s population does not have modern, flushing toilets available and has to use outhouses of one sort or another. One large impediment to improving this percentage is access to sanitary water sources. This proposed solution basically makes even the most modern toilet facilities operate like an outhouse, with no use of water. The idea would put less strain on our predicted increased water stress worldwide but it does necessitate significant amounts of electricity and/or gas.

When we were driven from one place to another, often in the middle of a snow storm, I couldn’t escape seeing the many electric cables hanging on the side of the road. I asked the driver how often the cables are affected by storms, with electricity shut down until they can be repaired. The answer was 4-5 times each winter. I asked how the toilets are used in those cases. He replied, “there is a plan B,” but we were never told what that entailed.

Meanwhile, to my fellow New Yorkers: enjoy this week’s reprieve from the bitter cold!

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Permafrost in Danger

My October 16, 2018 blog started with an ostrich burying its head in the sand; I talked about state legislations that did not allow for serious consideration of climate change, sea level rise, or assured water supply when granting construction permits. As I promised last week, I will refocus here on our deliberate collective blindness to the dangers currently facing our permafrost. The January 15 blog this year featured a global map of the extent of permafrost melting caused by climate change.

85% of Alaska’s surface area includes permafrost. The impacts of permafrost melt are being felt keenly; the state has already implemented several new regulations aimed at mitigation:

Companies drilling oil and gas wells in Alaska will now have to dig deep enough to avoid problems stemming from thawing permafrost.

Alaska’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission announced a regulation change on June 19 that requires companies to set surface casings for wells below the base of the permafrost.

The surface casing is basically a pipe that protects the well from outside contaminants and keeps the sides of the well from caving in.

The change in regulation comes after a BP well failed last year, and leaked oil and gas on the North Slope. The company blamed the spill on a piece of the casing that buckled after thawing permafrost put uneven pressure on it.

After that leak, and the revelation that the company had five other wells with similar designs in operation — state regulators called for a review of thousands of wells on the North Slope.

At the same time last year, the federal administration announced a seemingly contradictory policy:

Trump administration poised to undo Obama protections and open more of Arctic Alaska to oil drilling

The Bureau of Land Management is rewriting a 2013 plan, with the aim of opening up previously protected lands on Alaska’s North Slope.

The Trump administration on Tuesday launched a plan to overturn Obama-era protections and open up more Arctic land will be open to oil development.

To accomplish that goal, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said it is kicking off a rewrite of the 2013 Integrated Activity Plan for the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, or NPR-A. That Obama-era plan for the western side of Arctic Alaska, the product of years of study, put about half of the approximately 23 million-acre reserve into protected status; the rewrite, announced in the Federal Register, will replace that with a more pro-development plan, the BLM said.

The action follows up on part of a 2017 order by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that seeks to promote more NPR-A development and provide for ‘‘clean and safe development of our Nation’s vast energy resources, while at the same time avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, and prevent job creation.”

Here is National Geographic’s definition of permafrost:

Permafrost is a permanently frozen layer below the Earth’s surface. It consists of soil, gravel, and sand, usually bound together by ice. Permafrost usually remains at or below 0C (32F) for at least two years.

The figure below shows the near-surface permafrost area as a function of various future socio-economic scenarios laid out by the IPCC. In a business as usual scenario, continuing our current practices, permafrost is projected to disappear (melt) toward the end of the century.

 IPCC, near-surface global permafrost, melt, projection, scenarioFigure 1 – IPCC near-surface predictions of global permafrost through various scenarios 2013– WGI-AR5 Figure 12-33

The starting point in this IPCC figure consists of about 13% of the global land (taken as 130 Mkm2).

Permafrost in Scandinavia is shown in Figure 2:

map of permafrost zonation, scandinavia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Figure 2 – Permafrost zonation in Scandinavia

Permafrost thawing is a vital issue especially when you are trying to construct essential infrastructures such as buildings and roads on top, often without sufficient research as to the nature of the land that you are building on. But collapse is not the only threat. Permafrost warming also has the potential to amplify global climate change, because when frozen sediments thaw, they unlock organic carbon from the soil. Almost every known permafrost site throughout the world in which a borehole was drilled and the temperature was systematically measured over the last 30 years or so, has shown a constant increase in the temperature of the layer, steadily approaching the melting temperature (see “State of the Climate in 2017” by the American Meteorological Society – fig. 2.11).

As we traveled, we inquired about problems with the local permafrost. Unsurprisingly, for people in Tromso and around Lulea (see the previous two blogs) it was not an issue but around the high mountains—in Kilpisarvi, Finland where we took the beautiful pictures of the aurora borealis (last week’s blog), in Jukkarsajarvi, Sweden where the Icehotel is located (more on that next week), and in the ski resort of Bjorkliden—it is a big issue.

To get some sense of the enormity of this important consequence of climate change I will finish this blog with excerpts from two short pieces. The first is taken from the same site as Figure 2 and focuses on Scandinavia; the second concerns Russia—the country that at least until now has led all attempts to build on top of permafrost.

Here is the one from The Norwegian American:

Permafrost in Scandinavia: Permafrost thaw threatens mountains

New research shows in greater detail which parts of Scandinavian earth is permafrost. A more alarming challenge has recently arisen in the High North. Global warming may destabilize the mountains of Scandinavia as it progressively thaws the permafrost that binds them together. Unstable mountain slopes threaten roads, railroads, buildings, and lives. Moreover, thawing of the permafrost areas of the marshes of the High North may release enormous quantities of greenhouse gasses. The contribution from Scandinavian marshes is small compared to the contributions from the far larger marshes of Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon. But it’s a substantiated threat, as clear signs of the degradation of Scandinavian marshes have been observed over the past 50 years. The challenge then is to understand how permafrost in mountainous areas will respond to future climate change.

This piece by Russian scientists looks into the requirements for building infrastructure on top of permafrost. It is taken from the interdisciplinary journal, Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Volume 44, 2012 – Issue 3:

“Permafrost, Infrastructure, and Climate Change: A GIS-Based Landscape Approach to Geotechnical Modeling”

by Dmitry A. Streletskiy, Nikolay I. Shiklomanov & Frederick E. Nelson


Increases in air temperature have occurred in most parts of the Arctic in recent decades. Corresponding changes in permafrost and the active layer have resulted in decreases in ground-bearing capacity, which may not have been anticipated at the time of construction in permafrost regions. Permafrost model was coupled with empirically derived solutions adopted from Soviet and Russian construction standards and regulations to estimate the bearing capacity of foundations under rapidly changing climatic conditions, in a variety of geographic and geologic settings. Changes in bearing capacity over the last 40 years were computed for large population and industrial centers within different physiographic and climatic conditions of the Russian Arctic. The largest decreases were found in city of Nadym, where the bearing capacity has decreased by more than 40%. A smaller, but considerable decrease of approximately 20% was estimated for Yakutsk and Salekhard. Spatial model results at a regional scale depict diverse patterns of changes in permafrost-bearing capacity in Northwest Siberia and the North Slope of Alaska. The most pronounced decreases in bearing capacity (more than 20%) are estimated for the southern part of permafrost zone where deformations of engineering structures can potentially be attributed to climate-induced permafrost warming.

The Russian authors add:

Climate change may, however, have already been taking its toll through deformation of engineered structures in Arctic regions. A survey of infrastructure in industrially developed parts of the Russian Arctic (Kronik, 2001 Kronik, Y. A. , 2001: Accident rate and safety of natural-anthropogenic systems in the permafrost zone. In Proceedings of the Second Conference of Russian Geocryologists , 4: 138–146. [Google Scholar]) indicates that 10% of the buildings in Noril’sk, 22% in Tiksi, 55% in Dudinka, 35% in Dicson, 50% in Pevek and Amderma, 60% in Chita, and 80% in Vorkuta are in potentially dangerous states. Analysis of related accidents indicates that in the last decade they increased by 42% in the city of Noril’sk, 61% in Yakutsk, and 90% in Amderma.

For clarity, here is how Wikipedia describes “bearing capacity”:

In geotechnical engineering, bearing capacity is the capacity of soil to support the loads applied to the ground. The bearing capacity of soil is the maximum average contact pressure between the foundation and the soil which should not produce shear failure in the soil. Ultimate bearing capacity is the theoretical maximum pressure which can be supported without failure; allowable bearing capacity is the ultimate bearing capacity divided by a factor of safety. Sometimes, on soft soil sites, large settlements may occur under loaded foundations without actual shear failure occurring; in such cases, the allowable bearing capacity is based on the maximum allowable settlement.

In next week’s blog I will try to extract some useful information from the most unique Arctic living (or tourist) structures that might be useful in the global adaptation to a changing global climate.

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Tromso, Norway: I’m Back!

Micha and Louise in front of the northern lights, aurora borealis

Picture taken by Jussi Rauhala from Kilpissafarif

This is my first blog after returning from the Arctic. As you can see above, I successfully crossed the northern lights off my bucket list. Our guide in chasing the beautiful phenomenon took the photo at our stop in Kilpissafarif, Finland (#1 below). I am reposting the map from last week to help you follow along.

map of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway

Figure 1 – Map of northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway

Here I will focus mainly on Tromso, Norway, where we started the trip. It’s the northernmost point in the map above—well into the Arctic Circle. Indeed, during our stay in Tromso, the sun was down all day. That said, from 9am-2pm, there was something called “civil twilight”—the period in which the sun is just below the horizon—when there is generally enough natural light to carry out most outdoor activities. The taxi driver that took us to our hotel strongly recommended that we buy ice grippers and put them on our shoes. For those of you who, like me, have never heard of these gadgets, I am showing an example in Figure 2.

ice gripper, shoe, ice, snow, Tromso, Norway

Figure 2 An ice gripper (there are spikes on the bottom for traction on ice)

It was evening when we arrived so we couldn’t see much but in the morning, the streets looked like wet ice-skating rinks.

ice, snow, Tromso, Norway, streets

Figure 3 – Tromso streets

After two falls—one of them resulting in a big bruise and broken pair of glasses—we sheepishly decided to follow the taxi driver’s advice. He was right: once we got our ice grippers we were able to navigate the terrain much more comfortably.

Arctic, temperature, temperature change, raise, history, ice, Tromso, Norway, day, night, warming

Figure 4 – History of December day and night temperatures in Tromso

Tromso sits on the shores of the Norwegian Sea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean. It enjoys the comforting influence of the Gulf Stream. Figure 4 shows the history of December temperatures, both day and night, from 1931-2017. The recent warming is visible and almost everybody that we met in town attributed it to climate change. Not too many people remember 1931 personally.

You begin to feel the “real” Arctic once you leave the coast and drive inland. I will start to discuss the impact of the climate change on permafrost in the area where the first photo was taken. I’ll also look into some unique housing opportunities that are available there.

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The Arctic: We’re Going to Lapland!

I don’t have too many things on my bucket list but my wife and I have decided to use our winter school vacation to cross off one item from both our lists: going to see the aurora borealis (northern lights). As an added bonus, I’ll try to observe the impacts of climate change on the Arctic and report my findings to you.

This blog will be posted three days before we return from the trip but I am writing it two days before we leave.

Our destination is the area of Lapland, located at the northern part of Scandinavia, where Norway, Finland, and Sweden meet.

Map of LaplandFigure 1 – Lapland faces the Arctic Ocean

Figure 2 shows the specific locations that we will visit as we travel from Tromso, Norway to Lulea, Sweden. I used someone else’s map since we’re going to the same places – I didn’t bother to erase the original Japanese markings.

map of northern Finland, Sweden, NorwayFigure 2 – Our two-week trip from Tromso, Norway to Lulea, Sweden with the three stopovers in between

Figure 3 shows NOAA’s readings of the rising temperatures in the Arctic, as compared to the global average.

Graph of Arctic warming vs global averageFigure 3 – Time variation of Arctic temperature vs. global temperature

NOAA issued an Arctic report card last year:

– Surface air temperatures in the Arctic continued to warm at twice the rate relative to the rest of the globe. Arctic air temperatures for the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900.

– Atmospheric warming continued to drive broad, long-term trends in declining terrestrial snow cover on land, melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and lake ice, increasing summertime Arctic river discharge, and the expansion and greening of Arctic tundra vegetation.

– Despite increase of vegetation available for grazing, herd populations of caribou and wild reindeer across the Arctic tundra have declined by nearly 50 percent over the last two decades.

– In 2018, Arctic sea ice remained younger and thinner, and covered less area than in the past. The 12 lowest extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last 12 years.

– Warming Arctic Ocean conditions are also coinciding with an expansion of harmful toxic algal blooms in the Arctic Ocean, threatening food sources.

– Microplastic contamination is on the rise in the Arctic, posing a threat to seabirds and marine life that can ingest debris.

The NOAA report only marginally mentions permafrost but a recent article by Jan Hort et. al. in Nature Communication posits that, “Degrading permafrost puts Arctic infrastructure at risk by mid-century.” The abstract of this article is given below, along with Figure 4, which maps the hazard potentials across the Arctic.


Degradation of near-surface permafrost can pose a serious threat to the utilization of natural resources, and to the sustainable development of Arctic communities. Here we identify at unprecedentedly high spatial resolution infrastructure hazard areas in the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost regions under projected climatic changes and quantify fundamental engineering structures at risk by 2050. We show that nearly four million people and 70% of current infrastructure in the permafrost domain are in areas with high potential for thaw of near-surface permafrost. Our results demonstrate that one-third of pan-Arctic infrastructure and 45% of the hydrocarbon extraction fields in the Russian Arctic are in regions where thaw-related ground instability can cause severe damage to the built environment. Alarmingly, these figures are not reduced substantially even if the climate change targets of the Paris Agreement are reached.

map of Arctic circle and degrading Arctic permafrostFigure 4 – Hazard potential from permafrost melting

Scandinavia looks small on this map but one can see a red dot in the area where we will be traveling (just left of the bottom right-hand inset). One of the most important points in my trip will be to observe the impact of the melting permafrost. More on that next week.

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Climate Change Complementarity: Optimization?

Last week I looked into complementarity, including the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition:

A relationship or situation in which two or more different things improve or emphasize each other’s qualities.

I’d like to follow up on the question posited there: do countries really have to break the complementary relationship between economic prosperity and environmental sustainability? Or can we try to establish an optimized balance?

Climate change’s impacts on almost all global economic activities are now (very slowly) starting to penetrate policymaking on every level. The current political climate in many countries is not exactly encouraging for productive consideration of the matter but it is still under discussion, with the hope that global environmental considerations will play increased roles.

In theory, the US Environmental Impact Statement is the perfect tool for visualizing that added responsibility:

Federal laws and regulations require the government to evaluate the effects of its actions on the environment and to consider alternative courses of action. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) specifies when an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared. NEPA regulations require federal agencies, among other things, to include discussion of a proposed action and the range of reasonable alternatives in an EIS. Sufficient information must be included in the EIS for reviewers to evaluate the relative merits of each alternative. Regulations for the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) provide the recommended format and content of Environmental Impact Statements.

You can see similar legislation in other countries via Wikipedia.

The EIS is mandated procedure, meaning that it represents the law (as with other laws it can be modified by executive orders or legislation); in  the US, however,  it has been running into some issues.  The executive summary of a paper from Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law starts with the following:

In its first year, the Trump Administration undertook a program of extensive climate change deregulation. The Administration delayed and initiated the reversal of rules that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from stationary and mobile sources; sought to expedite fossil fuel development, including in previously protected areas; delayed or withdrew energy efficiency standards; undermined consideration of climate change in environmental review; and hindered adaptation to the impacts of climate change. However, the Trump Administration’s efforts have met with constant resistance, with those committed to climate protections bringing legal challenges to many, if not most, of the rollbacks.

We do have other resources for checking up on the damage, though. In industry, for example, Bloomberg terminals now include ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) information that can be incorporated into many economic decisions [Park Andrew and Ravenel Curtis: Integrating Sustainability into capital markets. Bloomberg LP and ESG’s Quantitative Legitimacy. Journal of Applied Corporate Finance 25, 62 (2013)].

Perhaps the most climate-change-relevant information that can be incorporated in any of these search tools is the social cost of CO2 (SC-CO2). The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published some discussions about possible implementation [The National Academy of Sciences and Engineering Valuing Climate Damages: Updating Estimation of the Social Cost of Carbon Dioxide. (Washington, DC 2017)].

The SC-CO2 is a measure, in dollars, of the long-term damage done by a ton of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in a given year.  This dollar figure also represents the value of damages avoided for a small emission reduction (i.e., the benefit of a CO2 reduction).

Some are using game theory to push for a version of global sustainability that does not require choosing or prioritizing between countries’ economic development. I have mentioned game theory throughout this blog. Just put the term in the search box and you will find that wherever an apparent conflict shows up, game theory has something to say. For instance, I discussed Peter John Wood’s application of game theory to issues focused on climate change in my March 31, 2015 blog.

Mr. Wood looked at climate change as a two-person game of the Prisoner’s Dilemma [Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1219, 153-170, (2011)]. The two players have two choices: pollute and abate (equivalent to keep quiet and cooperate). The Nash equilibrium is pollute, pollute (equivalent to cooperate, cooperate).

To those of us who need some reminders about the Nash Equilibrium and the Prisoner’s Dilemma here are some brief refreshers:

Nash Equilibrium is a solution concept of a non-cooperative game involving two or more players in which each player is assumed to know the equilibrium strategies of the other players, and no player has anything to gain by changing only their own strategy.[1] If each player has chosen a strategy and no player can benefit by changing strategies while the other players keep theirs unchanged, then the current set of strategy choices and the corresponding payoffs constitutes a Nash equilibrium.

Prisoner’s Dilemma: Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge, but they have enough to convict both on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

  • If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves two years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve three years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve one year in prison (on the lesser charge).

Once expanded to a global conflict between all states, that game can take the following form:

Pi = Ai(ei) – Bi(∑ei)

Where the index i refers to the individual countries. P is a utility function, a term economists often use to model worth or value. Here it can signify economic growth that almost all economists view as something of value. ei represents the pollution that every country generates in the use of energy to power its economic growth and the negative impacts from every country that such pollution can generate. Ai and Bi are the coefficients of the two impacts on every country.

One can try and solve for the Nash Equilibrium by maximizing each utility function subject to constrains that the other utility functions are maximized. The social optimum can be calculated by maximizing ∑ Pi for all players.

To my knowledge a satisfactory solution for our current situation is a work in progress.

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Climate Change Complementarity: the US Government

Oxford Dictionaries define complementarity in the following way:

A relationship or situation in which two or more different things improve or emphasize each other’s qualities.

‘a culture based on the complementarity of men and women’

Given how broad this definition is, it’s not surprising that it can apply to many disciplines, each with its own collection of elements. Wikipedia has a slew of such examples:

Complementarity may refer to:

Physical sciences and mathematics [edit]

Society and law [edit]

See also [edit]

Since the physical sciences are close to my heart, I will use the Encyclopedia Britannica to expand upon both the meaning of the complementarity principle in physics and its origin, which lies with Niels Bohr (one of the most important architects of modern physics):

  • Complementarity principle, in physics, tenet that a complete knowledge of phenomena on atomic dimensions requires a description of both wave and particle properties. The principle was announced in 1928 by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Depending on the experimental arrangement, the behaviour of such phenomena as light and electrons is sometimes wavelike and sometimes particle-like; i.e., such things have a wave-particle duality (q.v.). It is impossible to observe both the wave and particle aspects simultaneously. Together, however, they present a fuller description than either of the two taken alone.
  • In effect, the complementarity principle implies that phenomena on the atomic and subatomic scale are not strictly like large-scale particles or waves (e.g., billiard balls and water waves). Such particle and wave characteristics in the same large-scale phenomenon are incompatible rather than complementary. Knowledge of a small-scale phenomenon, however, is essentially incomplete until both aspects are known.

The Oxford Dictionaries entry and Bohr’s complementary principal both require a unifying element of beneficial overlap with which to bridge two (or more) distinct populations. In the OD, that unifying property is culture; in Bohr’s principle it’s the complete knowledge of phenomena on atomic dimensions.The two populations in the dictionary definition are men and women, while those under Bohr’s principle are wave and particle properties (assigned to the same objects).

Now let’s shift to the present time and analyze the recent behavior of the US government:

My recent blogs (December 4, 11; October 16, 23 2018) have enumerated an avalanche of detailed reports about current realities and near future projections of the impacts of climate change on the US – and on the planet (NCA, WMO, IPCC SR1.5). The US government issued these reports under the present administration (NCA, EPA); the international organizations (IPCC, WMO), in which the US remains a member, participate in writing and approving the reports. At the same time, the official response from the highest US administrators is a complete denial of climate change and they have been actively reversing measures that were previously put in place to mitigate its damage and adapt to its impacts wherever possible.

There is probably no clearer marker for the US government’s complementarity on the climate change issue than the actions of its representatives in the mid-December international negotiations that took place in Katowice, Poland (COP24).  Vox describes the meeting’s conclusions below: 

UPDATE, December 15: International climate change negotiators announced late Saturday that they have reached an agreement at COP24 in Poland. The text charts a path forward for countries to set tougher targets for cutting greenhouse gases under the Paris climate agreement, as well as stronger transparency rules for countries in disclosing their emissions. However, questions on how to use markets to limit carbon dioxide remain, and discussions will continue next year. Read on for the context around these negotiations and why environmental groups, governments, and private companies were so concerned about the outcome of this conference.

The Washington Post specified the role that the US played in these negotiations:

KATOWICE, Poland — President Trump’s top White House adviser on energy and climate stood before the crowd of some 200 people on Monday and tried to burnish the image of coal, the fossil fuel that powered the industrial revolution — and is now a major culprit behind the climate crisis world leaders are meeting here to address.

“We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability,” said Wells Griffith, Trump’s adviser.

Mocking laughter echoed through the conference room. A woman yelled, “These false solutions are a joke!” And dozens of people erupted into chants of protest.

“There are two layers of U.S. action in Poland,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and former Clinton White House climate adviser.

One is the public support of fossil fuels, which Bledsoe said is “primarily aimed at the president’s domestic political base, doubling down on his strategy of energizing them by thumbing his nose at international norms.”

The quieter half is the work of career State Department officials who continue to offer constructive contributions to the Paris climate agreement that President Trump loves to loathe.

Which facet of the American presence proves more influential in Poland could have a big impact on whether this year’s climate summit, now in its second week, ends in success or failure?

Wells Griffith proposes a complementarity between economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. His conclusion is that we don’t have to choose. Andrew Light, in a USA Today piece, tries to explain how it works:

Andrew Light, a professor of public policy and atmospheric sciences at George Mason University, was one of the Obama administration’s climate negotiators in Paris. He said the deal cut Saturday, which requires developed and developing nations to follow similar guidelines, was a crucial outcome that could encourage the United States to return to the accord. 

Light said it is important that rules on transparency and record keeping be “flexible” for small, poor countries that might struggle to comply. But the rules must be fundamentally the same, he said.

“We wanted an agreement that would make it easy for the U.S. to get back in,” Light told USA TODAY. “This is a deal that we would want to be part of, a deal where China, India, other big, developing countries don’t have different rules from the U.S. It does make all the countries play by the same rules.”

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State, said the transparency requirements coming out of Poland are important in light of indications that China’s carbon emissions increased over the past year in a manner that is inconsistent with its Paris commitments.

He said the United States and China reaching agreements with the other nations should “help to create an atmosphere of good faith” and encourage increased emission cutback commitments required in 2020.

Next week I will look into the complementarity of economic prosperity and environmental sustainability on a more fundamental level.

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