Idaho: safe from Sea Level Rise but not from Drought and Fire

Crown fire in mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016
Crown fire in a mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016. Photo by Karl Greer, U.S. Forest Service

Idaho, an inland State, most of which lies above 2,000 feet in elevation, is safe from Sea Level Rise, but not from the warming atmosphere that’s causing it. Average summer temperature across the Pacific Northwest are predicted to rise by several degrees in the coming years. That will translate into serious trouble for the regions forests.  The Seattle Times of Sept. 11, 2017, quotes Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington: “We expect to see more fires and bigger fires. People are just beginning to wake up to this, but public lands managers do think about this and the potential risks.”

The 2018 fire season validated that prediction. The  image below shows a satellite snapshot (as an overlay on a map of the U.S.) of dense smoke across the West Coast on the morning of August 20, 2018.  The smoke cover extends north into Canada, south to Texas, and east to the Great Lakes. Idaho is hidden.

Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018
Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018. Image: NOAA

According to the U.S. Forest Service budget report for 2015, climate change has extended the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970. Funding for fire fighting has remained flat for years, and rising costs have repeatedly broken the Service’s annual budget. Last year, Congress passed a ‘fire funding fix’. The bill, which will become effective in 2020, provides $2.25 billion to cover fire fighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. In addition, the bill contained half a billion in emergency fire fighting funds for 2018.

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho, was the principal backer of the ‘fire funding fix’. Speaking about the new funding regime at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on May 3, 2018, he had this to say:

“It’s taken us . . . thirty years to get here in terms of what was not the adequate management we needed to be putting into place on the ground. We are not going to solve it all in one fire season. So it’s true, we’re still going to be dealing with some of the things that have been building up over time and are giving us the problems that we have now. That being said, we are now going to start managing properly, and, as Vickie Christiansen, the Acting Chief of the [U.S.] Forest Service said, we are now going to move toward that point — which will take us some years to achieve — but to that point where fire is the servant not the manager of our forests.”

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho
Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho. Image: McClatchy Videos

Senator Crapo doesn’t believe (or refuses to admit) that Global Warming is real, or that it’s an unfolding catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels. That’s why he doesn’t mention the impact of climate change. As far as Crapo is concerned, the increasing number of wildfire disasters are due to the cumulative effect over thirty years of improper forest management practices, and that the problems will be solved because now, the Forest Service will have enough money to do a better job. You’ll recall how the Service has already received tips from President Trump on ways to improve their forest management practices.

Will increased funding enable the Forest Service to put a stop to the uncontrollable burning up of the western forests? It can help. It can delay. It can mitigate. But It can’t succeed until the root cause of the problem — the increasing temperature of our planet’s atmosphere — is brought under control.

On June 3, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. A month earlier, 22 Republican Senators jointly sent a letter to the President urging him to dump the deal. Mike Crapo and his fellow Idaho Senator, Jim Risch, were among the signatories. According to The Guardian of June I, 2017, the 22 Senators had collectively received $10.7 million in campaign donations from fossil fuel industries, over the previous three election cycles (2012, 2014, 2016). Mike Crapo’s share was $110,250. Jim Risch received $123,850.

America currently remains a party to the Paris Accord. Three years must elapse before its withdrawal becomes official. Is there any possibility that Idaho will support efforts to reverse President Trump’s decision to withdraw? Considering Idaho’s current standing as a solid red State, and the apparent fealty of its Republican politicians to the fossil fuel industry, that seems unlikely. Every stick of Idaho’s forests will burn before some minds are changed.

There is, however, an indication that light has begun to penetrate Idaho’s Republican darkness.  Brad Little, a Republican, was sworn in as Idaho’s 33rd Governor on January 4th. According to High Country News, the Governor, while addressing the Idaho Environmental Forum on January 16th, told the crowd that “Climate Change is real.” His statement reportedly reduced the crowd to stunned silence. Responding to questions later, he said, “Climate is changing, there’s no question about it. We’ve just gotta figure out how to cope with it and we gotta slow it down. Now, reversing it is going to be a big darn job.” (quote from Idaho Press)

Map of the United States showing location of Idaho
The red State of Idaho. Image: Wikipedia

The 1,000-year Tennessee flood of 2010 — what are the odds?

It started raining on Saturday, May 1, 2010. By the time the rain stopped 36 hours later, large areas of middle and western Tennessee were under water. Fiftytwo of the state’s nintyfive counties would later qualify for disaster assistance. The amount of water that bucketed down that weekend was epic. The meteorologists called it ‘a thousand-year flood.’ What’s remarkable about the weather system that caused so much damage is that it showed up unannounced. No named storm was involved.

Map of Tennessee showing rainfall distribution May 1 & 2, 2010

The rains that inundated Houston, Texas, in 2017, were carried in from the Gulf by hurricane Harvey. The rains that dumped on the Carolinas in 2018, were transported from the Atlantic by hurricane Florence. People knew those tropical storms were coming, days in advance. We could watch the approaching cyclones on our TV screens. The deluge that swamped Tennessee in 2010 arrived without any warning at all. Here’s what the Memphis Office of the National Weather Service had to say:

“A significant weather system brought very heavy rain and severe thunderstorms from Saturday, May 1 through Sunday morning, May 2. A stalled frontal boundary coupled with very moist air streaming northward from the Gulf set the stage for repeated rounds of heavy rainfall. Many locations along the I-40 corridor across western and middle Tennessee reported in excess of 10 to 15 inches, with some locations receiving up to 20 inches according to Doppler radar estimates.”

It was an ordinary weather system — except for the “very moist air.” Apparently that’s what made the difference between a typical Tennessee rain storm and a thousand-year flood.  What is a thousand-year flood, anyway? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (climate.gov) contains an engaging article titled, “How can we call something a thousand-year storm if we don’t have a thousand years of climate observation?”  Here’s my interpretation of the statistics it covers:

Records gathered over the past 100+ years showing the correlation between rainfall amount and flooding are available for most parts of the country. Flood predictions are derived from the statistical analysis of these records. The term ‘thousand-year flood’ means that the chance for a flood of a certain magnitude to occur at a particular place, in any given year, is one in a thousand or 0.1%. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year (2019) or in any following year, is one in a thousand.

But wait a minute. If the meteorologists are doing their job, they are constantly updating the available records with the most recent data. And if (as news reports from around the world suggest) the existing records are being broken with increasing frequency, statistical predictions will eventually reflect that trend. Floods that were once labeled 1,000-year floods, may now more properly by labeled 500-year or 100-year floods. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year, could be one in a hundred rather than one in a thousand.

How should politicians, concerned about the safety of the people they represent, respond to an increasingly dangerous climate? Since the problem is global, the response must be global. Hence The Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the international effort to halt the rise in temperature of the world’s atmosphere and thereby limit its destabilizing effect on climate.

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a coalition of 16 (and counting) U.S. States committed to upholding the objectives of the Paris Agreement. What are the chances that the State of Tennessee will join the Climate Alliance? Considering Tennessee’s current political leadership, about one in a million. The following YouTube video, published December 2009, records the position of GOP House Rep. Marsha Blackburn, on the question of Climate Change — she says: it’s cyclical; the science is not settled; humans are not responsible. Blackburn is now a U.S. Senator representing Tennessee.

 

Is the federal government deliberately trampling on your fifth amendment rights? The young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States say yes

Photo of Kelsey Juliana, plaintiff
Kelsey Juliana, plaintiff in Juliana v. United States. Image from Ourchildrenstrust.org Photo: Robin Loznak

Kelsey Juliana is the named plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, which is currently on hold in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2015, Kelsey and twenty other young people (aged 7 to 18 at the time), sued the Federal Government in U.S. District Court, Oregon, for causing life-damaging Climate Change impacts. Listed in the lawsuit are the specific complaints made by each of the young people.

Here’s a summary of Kelsey’s complaint:

Kelsey was born and raised in Oregon. She depends on the resources of the state for her survival and wellbeing. For sustenance she drinks Oregon’s fresh waters and eats the food it produces, including: seafood from Oregon’s marine and estuarine waters; food grown by farmers in the Willamette Valley; and food grown by her family in their garden. For recreation and vacationing she enjoys outdoor activities such as visiting the beaches and tide pools along Oregon’s coast; snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snow camping in winter; hiking, canoeing, and backpacking in warmer weather.

The suit alleges that the affects of Climate Change — drought, warmer winters, declining snowpack, increasing summer temperatures, algal blooms on lakes, intense wildfires — are already harming Kelsey’s drinking water, her food sources, and all the places she enjoys visiting. The suit also contends that in the coming decades, Kelsey will suffer even greater harm from the impacts of ocean acidification and rising sea levels, all because of the federal government’s actions and inactions.

Kelsey’s complaint goes on to say that the federal government has “caused psychological and emotional harm to Kelsey as a result of her fear of a changing climate, her knowledge of the impacts that will occur in her lifetime, and her knowledge that [the government is] continuing to cause harms that threaten her life and wellbeing. As a result of the acts and omissions of [the federal government], Kelsey believes that she will not be able to continue to do all of the things described in this Complaint for her life, health, and enjoyment, nor will she one day be able to share those experiences with her children.”

Photo of Oregon coastal mountains and beach
Oregon Coast. Image from Unsplash.com Photo by Vasiliki Volkova

People blame the government for all sorts of things. What’s so special about Kelsey’s complaint? Nothing, except for the fact that the lawsuit links it directly to the U.S. Constitution.

The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment bars the federal government from depriving a person of ‘life, liberty, or property’ without ‘due process of law’. Kelsey and her co-plaintiffs are claiming that the federal government is violating their due process rights by knowingly causing the climate to change to such an extent that they are being deprived of their way of life and the things that make it livable. Items I & II of the suit’s statement of facts, spell it out:

I. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HAS KNOWN FOR DECADES THAT CARBON DIOXIDE POLLUTION WAS CAUSING CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE AND THAT MASSIVE EMISSION REDUCTIONS AND A NATION-WIDE TRANSITION AWAY FROM FOSSIL FUELS WAS NEEDED TO PROTECT PLAINTIFFS’ CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.
II. IN SPITE OF KNOWING OF THE SEVERE DANGERS POSED BY CARBON POLLUTION, DEFENDANTS CREATED AND ENHANCED THE DANGERS THROUGH FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION, PRODUCTION, CONSUMPTION, TRANSPORTATION, AND EXPORTATION.

Photo of the Navajo Generating Station , Arizona
Coal burning power plant, the Navajo Station, Arizona. Image from nbcnews.com

The federal government does not want to see this lawsuit go to trial. Government lawyers have, several times, petitioned the Oregon District Court, the Ninth Circuit Court, and the Supreme Court, trying to put a stop to it. The government hasn’t yet denied the claim that its climate actions have caused harm to the young plaintiffs. Rather, it has attempted to derail the suit by claiming that they have no right to bring their complaints to court in the first place.

The Ninth Circuit Court is expected to rule soon on the hold it placed on the suit last December. If the ruling is in the plaintiffs favor, the Oregon District Court will set a trial date.

Climate Change in Florida — Seeing is Believing

Photo of Miami skyline
Miami, Florida. Image: Unsplash.com. Photo by Muzammil Soorma

Back in 2014, Rick Scott, then republican governor of Florida, was asked if he had a plan to deal with Climate Change. Here’s a 24-second YouTube video clip in which Scott gives his answer: No Plan. That was his position for the remainder of his term in office.

The threat posed by sea level rise to the future of Miami is known and it is dire. Yet people continue to purchase ocean front properties as if no such threat exists. The question is, why? Noah Smith, in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News dated May 3, 2018, suggested that “Increased probability of coastal flooding makes waterfront real estate a bit like a junk bond.” It’s an analogy that calls for elaboration.

A junk bond is a high-yield, moderate-risk security. For example, a city in danger of going broke, may raise money by selling ten-year junk bonds that pay a higher rate of interest (the yield) to attract buyers. The risk to the buyer is that the city may go bankrupt before the ten-year maturity date is reached, in which case the bonds become worthless. Waterfront property threatened by ocean flooding can be compared to that city. The property will continue to attract investors so long as it continues to offer a higher than normal quality of life (real or imagined). That’s the yield. The risk to the buyer in the short term — 10 to 20 years — is the unlikely chance that the property insurers (private or government) run out of money to cover damage when flooding does occur. In other words, the short-term risk to the buyer is negligible.

What about the long term threat posed by sea level rise (3 to 6 feet higher by the end of the century)? As far as Miami real estate transactions are concerned, it hasn’t yet become an issue. The immediate attraction of a higher quality of life (seaside living) has so far trumped whatever worries buyers may have about sea level rise. Furthermore, the prevailing political position has been to avoid giving the buyers reasons to to worry. State officials have taken a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to the threat. There are no zoning laws or other disincentives aimed at discouraging further development in the region’s  flood-prone areas. In effect, the politicians are sitting on their hands, apparently waiting for the ocean to force the issue. 

That raises another question: when forced to act by rising waters, what will the city or the state do to protect the people and their way of life? Move them to higher ground? Miami is built on land that lies barely above sea level. The average elevation of Miami-Dade County is about 6 feet. The highest point in the county is about 25 feet. This means that high-tide flooding already affects those parts of the city that sit at little more than a foot and a half above Mean Sea Level (the average level of the sea between high and low tide). And even conservative predictions say that in 15 to 25 years, sea level will be a foot higher than it is today.

There’s a geological feature called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge stretching along the eastern edge of the Florida peninsula. It consists of outcrops of limestone, which In some places provide marginally higher ground. For example, the North Miami communities known as Little Haiti and Liberty City are built on ridge limestone that rises a few feet higher than the surrounding land. Noah Smith, in his opinion piece for Bloomberg News, mentions studies showing that “higher elevation locations have risen in price faster than similar locations at low elevations.” Okay. But it’s a side issue. The population of the Miami metropolitan area is pushing seven million. The place can’t speculate its way out of the problems that lie ahead. It needs a real plan.

Florida now has a new Governor, Ron DeSantis, another republican. Here’s a YouTube video in which he says, “I see the sea rising, I see the flooding in South Florida, so I think you’d be a fool not to consider that as an issue we need to address.” That’s progress. Let’s see what he actually does about it?