How to sue Big Oil for money and win . . . maybe

Photo of judges hammer and money
Image: from NY Post

Last year (Jan 2018) New York City sued five major Oil & Gas companies — ExxonMobil, BP, SheIl, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips — for contributing to global warming and the resulting physical damage to city property. It asked the court to hold the oil companies liable for the damage they’ve caused, and award the city monitory compensation. But on July 20, 2018, the court dismissed the lawsuit in favour of the oil companies.

In dismissing the lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge John F. Keenan, ruled that the city’s claims come under federal law involving greenhouse gas emissions that cross state lines, thus putting them under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Problems associated with climate change, the judge said, should be tackled by Congress and the executive branch. In its brief to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals November 12, 2018, the city claims that Judge Keenan misunderstood the lawsuit. The appeal argues that the city did not ask the court to regulate emissions but, rather, to award the city damages on the basis of Public Nuisance, Private Nuisance, and Trespass, which, to a non lawyer, sounds pretty mild.

If Judge Keenan misunderstood the city’s lawsuit it’s because the city framed its 67 page brief around global warming as an international threat instead of what was intended, a limited and local demand for compensation. The titles of sections IV thru VIII in the brief give the flavour of the thing:

IV. Climate Change Impacts on New York City
V. Fossil Fuels Are the Primary Cause of Climate Change
VI. Defendants Have Produced Massive Quantities of Fossil Fuels—and Have Continued to Do So Even as Climate Change Has Become Gravely Dangerous
VII. Defendants Had Full Knowledge that Fossil Fuels Would Cause Catastrophic Harm
VIII. Despite Their Early Knowledge that Climate Change Posed Grave Threats, Defendants Promoted Fossil Fuels for Pervasive Use, While Denying or Downplaying These Threats

Within the brief, ‘greenhouse gas’ is mentioned 29 times, ‘emissions’ 46 times, ‘global warming’ 48 times, ‘climate change’ 100 times. On the other hand, the word ‘damages’ appears in the brief only 7 times. The impression given is that the city is afraid that the judge might not understand the situation unless provided with multiple reminders that global warming exists and that it’s a serious problem.

The fact is, the judge understands the issue very well. New York City framed its complaint in terms of global warming, an international problem that requires an international solution. The judge ruled accordingly. Fossil fuel companies are happy to defend themselves at the national or international level. They know how slow and ineffective national efforts to limit global warming are. They know how to influence those efforts so as to slow them down to a crawl. They even go so far as to promote placing taxes on CO2 emissions, knowing that that distances the production of fossil fuels from the possibility of direct control. It’s a tactic that also gets others to pay what  the oil companies should be paying.

If New York City’s lawsuit fails on appeal, it will show that the Nuisance and Trespass laws are not sufficient. What then? How can any city structure it’s climate lawsuits in such a way that the trans-boundary issue is sidelined?

Here’s my contribution to solving the puzzle:

1. The science linking fossil fuels to global warming , climate change, increasing damage from storms, drought, sea level rise, etc., is settled. Global Warming is happening now. The judges know it. The Oil & Gas companies do not deny it. They most certainly do not want to wind up in court fighting the science. They would lose. Instead, when sued for climate damages, oil companies fight back by attacking the lawsuit’s legal right to stand. There’s no need to stress the existence and effects of global warming when suing oil companies.

2. Even though oil companies have known for decades about the dangerous effects that result from the use of their products, they deliberately kept the knowledge to themselves.

3. New Yorkers generate pollution while engaged in manufacturing, transportation, electricity generation, day to day living, etc. The energy used in these activities includes fuels purchased from the oil companies. New York takes responsibility for the pollution it generates and is working to abate it.

4. As New Yorkers use fossil fuels purchased from the oil companies, carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules are released into the atmosphere. All of those CO2 molecules released by New York to date, remain in the atmosphere and will remain there indefinitely, doing their part in causing the atmosphere to heat up. Once in the atmosphere, those molecules that originated in New York cannot be controlled or regulated by any agency. 

5. The CO2 molecules released by New York from the fossil fuels supplied by the oil companies, add to the burden of CO2 molecules that have built up in the atmosphere over time from other sources. It follows that the atmospheric heating and consequent damage has increased by some measure due to New York’s use of those fossil fuels. To put it another way, if New York had not used any of those fossil fuels, the amount of damage inflicted on New York would be less by some measure (see item 7).

6. The oil companies learned in the 2080’s or earlier about the dangers posed by their products.  Had they behaved honestly and, at that time, informed New Yorkers about the dangers, it’s reasonable to assume that the city would have acted earlier to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels by at least 50% of what it is today. The oil companies should pay the costs flowing from that failure to tell the truth.

7. According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (report dated Oct. 24, 2017), damage from Climate Change has cost U.S. taxpayers $350 billion over the past decade (2007 to 2017). When adjusted for population size, New Yorkers’ share of that cost was 2.6% or $9.1 billion. 

Considering all the above, how much money should the oil companies pay New York in damage compensation?

For the period 2007 to 2017 (see item 7), 50% of $9.1 billion = $4.55  billion in the form of a lump sum payment.

Since climate damage is ongoing, annual costs following 2017 will be one tenth of $9.1 billion = $0.91 billion per year (see item 7). Oil companies should therefor pay 50% of 0.91 = $0.455 billion per year starting in 2018. For how many years should the oil companies pay that annual amount. Idefinitely or until they go bust.

Photo of Verrazano bridge taken Oct 2012 during Hurricane Sandy
Verrazano bridge from Brooklyn waterfront, NYC, during Hurricane Sandy Oct. 29, 2012. Image credit: Carlos Ayala

Climate Bafflegab: the words Big Business uses to keep us ignorant

Bafflegab: language deliberately used to confuse, obscure, baffle

The Limits to Growth, a report commissioned by The Club of Rome, hit the book stands in 1972. Widely discussed at the time, it’s a study of industrial and population growth in relation to the supply of resources. It concluded that, unless the world changed its ways, limits to growth would become evident by the year 2072. Since its publication, more than 30 million copies of the book have sold, and it continues to generate debate to this day.

Photo of The Limits to Growth, 1st Edition cover

Question: why is the phrase ‘Limits to Growth’ so rarely mentioned in the press or elsewhere? What happened to it? Answer: Big Business, aided by its friends in government, buried it. Business leaders like to talk about growing their businesses, never about stunting them. Outside of academic circles, talk about limiting growth is considered bad taste, like spitting in public. How did Business manage to suppress the phrase so completely? Easy. It promoted an alternative phrase more to its liking. It’s called ‘Sustainable Development’, a masterpiece of bafflegab.

Google’s Ngram Viewer consists of a search engine and a database of about five million books published up to the year 2008. It provides a way to chart the frequency over time of any set of words or phrases appearing in the data set of printed texts. By choosing 1900 as the start date, and entering these three phrases, industrial development, limits to growth, and sustainable development, the Viewer generates the following chart.

Image of Google Ngram chart
Google Ngram Chart. (All) = case insensitive

The People who write books tend to use the words and phrases acceptable to the people they hope will read them. Books reflect what people are talking about at any point in time. When it was published in 1972, the Club of Rome’s book reflected the growing discomfort with industrialization. That’s when talk about ‘industrial development’ started heading downhill (see chart) and talk about ‘limits to growth’ began to gain traction. Big Business had to act fast and it did. By 1990, the new, business-friendly phrase ‘sustainable development’ had eclipsed the phrase ‘limits to growth’, and would soon take over from the phrase ‘industrial development’.

Does that mean Big Business is out of the woods, free to carry on as before? Not quite. There remains the question of global warming and its bafflegab replacement phrase ‘climate change’.  Yes, that’s right, ‘Climate change’ is a phrase chosen and promoted by Big Business in its ongoing attempt to bury the words ‘global warming’. Business hates the phrase ‘global warming’. The words imply that, not only is the world getting hotter, but that there’s no limit to how hot It will get. Business does not want to get blamed for cooking its customers. ‘Climate change’ by comparison, sounds positively benign. As President Trump has remarked, the climate could “change back again”.

Here’s what the Ngram chart shows when the phrases global warming and climate change are added.

Image of Google Ngram Chart
Google Ngram Chart (All) = case insensitive

‘Climate change’ and ‘sustainable development’, the two bafflegab phrases, are up there leading the pack, exactly where Business likes to see them. ‘Global warming’, the truthful phrase, although still in the race, is lagging.  ‘Limits to growth’, also a truthful phrase, remains lying in the dirt — for now.

Juliana v. United States: the battle heats up

My earlier post dated January 19th, outlined ‘Juliana v. United States’,  the youth climate lawsuit. The suit claims that the federal government, because of its ongoing failure to limit fossil fuel extraction and use, has violated the young people’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and failed to protect the country’s public-trust resources. The case is currently held up in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals following an appeal by the government, the latest of many attempts by the Trump administration to derail the action.

Photo: James R. Browning Courthouse, San Francisco CA
James R. Browning Courthouse, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, San Francisco CA. Image: Google

On February 4th., the court agreed to begin hearings on the government’s appeal next June, in Portland, Oregon. Also on February 4th., Donald Trump nominated David Bernhardt to head the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bernhardt had become acting head following the departure of scandal-plagued Ryan Zinke.

Photo of David Bernhardt
David Bernhardt. Photo credit: D. Zalubowski/AP

It’s expected that Mr. Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, will continue to work on advancing  the President’s “energy dominance” agenda for the country. According to the New York Times, this has already involved “some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history . . .  opening millions of acres of public land and water to oil, gas and coal companies.” The Guardian of Dec. 16, 2018 quotes Natural Resources Defense Council’s Bobby McEnaney: “It’s not so much who [Mr. Bernhardt] has helped, it’s who hasn’t he helped in industry so far. The notion that he could extricate himself from benefiting his former clients is impossible.”

Reduced to its essential meaning, the young people’s lawsuit is accusing the Trump administration of ecocide — the destruction of the natural world, including all the humans in it. Underlying that accusation is the fact that, while the plaintiffs are young, the people causing the destruction are old — like Trump. It follows that while the old people have only a few years left to live, the young people have their whole lives ahead of them, provided the old people can be prevented from killing them prematurely.

Despite the Juliana lawsuit, and perhaps in spiteful reaction to it, President Trump, with the help of Mr. Bernhardt and many others like him, has actively persisted in his objective, which is to open up every square foot of the country’s federal lands to fossil fuel extraction. His current push to open the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves to offshore drilling, has caused even some Republican legislators to become queasy.

Map of USA showing federal lands
U.S. federal lands. Map produced by Bureau of Land Management, Washington DC

On February 7th, reacting to the Trump administration’s nose-thumbing behaviour, the Juliana plaintiffs filed an “urgent motion” in the Ninth Circuit Court, asking it to grant an injunction preventing the government (pending the resolution of its appeal) from: mining coal on federal public lands; engaging in offshore oil and gas exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf; developing new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines and fossil fuel export facilities.

Accompanying and following the motion were supporting briefs from more than 30 diverse groups and individuals, including one from Zero Hour (zerohour.org) on behalf of 32,340 children who responded to an online petition.

The government filed its opposition to the plaintiffs motion on February 19th.

 

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?

 

Amtrak’s Vision for High Speed Rail scuppered by its own report on Climate Change

Photo: Concept Rendering of Amtrak’s NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station
Concept Rendering of NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station, Delaware. Source: AMTRAK

The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.

The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).

Map of Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment
Proposed Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment. Source: Amtrak

So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.

The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.

According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself.  For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).

Map of Wilmington DE ans area showing section of Northeast Corridor Rail Line beside the DelawRe River
Map showing section of the Northeast Corridor lying closest to the Delaware River. Source: openstreetmap

You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.

Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.

Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.”  Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.

Climate Change threatens America; the U.S. Military responds; Trump feints

Cartoon. Trump with his finger in the climate dike
THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF STICKS HIS FINGER IN THE CLIMATE DIKE

The 2018 Federal Assessment for the U.S., was released on November 23rd. The report highlights likely impacts and risks from the changing climate.
An introductory statement says: “A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.” The report concludes that Climate Change threatens the “natural, built and social systems we rely on.” Disruptions expected to accompany Climate Change include: rising temperatures; extreme heat; drought; wildfire on rangelands; heavy downpours; transformed coastal regions; higher costs and lower property values from sea level rise; extreme weather events; changes to air quality; changes to the availability of food and water; and the spread of new diseases.

Here is President Trump’s initial response to the report:

During an interview with the Washington Post on November 27, the President was asked to explain his negative response to the climate report.
This is his verbatim response:

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.”

“Number two, if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.”

Despite Trump’s attempts to bury climate change, and his all-out support for fossil fuels, the U.S. Military is marching to a different tune. According to the Center for Climate & Security, since Trump assumed office in January 2017, eighteen senior officials at the U.S. Defense Department have recommended actions to address the security implications of climate change. These officials include: Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul J. Selva; and Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spenser.

James Mattis, a former United States Marine Corps general, has a history of supporting efforts to reduce troop dependence on petroleum. In 2003, he urged the military to develop ways to “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.” At his confirmation hearings in 2017, he said, “Climate Change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.” He also said, “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.”

Military War Room
Military War Room

The world is facing an existential threat. It appears the U.S. Military is ready and willing to engage the enemy. But to be truly effective, it needs a Commander-in-Chief willing or able to acknowledge the threat. The sooner it gets one, the better for all of us.

The light at the end of the tunnel

My last post titled, ‘Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits’, elicited this question:

Is the tunnel as straight as the map suggests?

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC
Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC. Image from Draft Environmental Statement, June 30, 2017; Hudson Tunnel Project.

The answer is yes, it is in reality as straight as a die, at least in plan view. tunneling is a costly business; the least expensive way to dig a tunnel is to keep it absolutely straight. The following YouTube video created by Konstantin Gorakine titled, ‘Tunnel ride under Hudson River to Penn Station, NYC’, will convince you. It convinced me.

You’re a visitor and you want to experience ‘authentic’ New York City life. To the millions of people who live and/or work in the city, there’s nothing more ‘real’ than the daily commute. About one hundred thousand commuters pour into the city through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel every weekday. And that’s just one of the entry points. Get a feel for what it’s like; take the same train ride. But there’s no need to punish yourself; avoid the rush hours.

The NJ Transit train ride from Penn Station, NYC to Penn Station, Newark, NY, makes for an enjoyable excursion — about 20 minutes travel time, each way. If you leave at about 10:30 in the morning, you can be back by noon. Navigating Penn Station is an authentic New York experience in itself.

Map showing location of Penn Sta., NYC in relation to Penn Sta., Newark andNorth Bergen Tunnel portal
Map showing locations of Penn Sta.,NYC, North Bergen Tunnel portal, and Penn Sta., Newark, NJ

Sea Level Rise and how you can track it in real time

Washington DC
On checking the weather, we see a day-old Coastal Flood Warning issued for the District of Columbia which says: “more than a third of Roosevelt Island will be covered by water and back water flooding of Rock Creek in Georgetown will begin.” An unusual occurrence? Not any more. Most low-lying coastal cities, including Washington DC, have begun to experience a new phenomena: High Tide Flooding during quiet weather days, the result of a gradual increase in sea level over the past one hundred and forty year.
Climate experts say that the the rate of sea level rise is speeding up and that the long-term effects could be dire. It’s a challenging subject and we’ve decided to find out more about it, starting today.

Our first stop is Washington DC’s tide-gauge station on Pier 5 near the south end of Water Street, one of the many tide-gauge stations operated by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Map of Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage
Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage

It’s a cloudy, not-too-hot September day. From Independence Avenue we walk ten blocks south on 4th Street to where it ends at P Street, then eaby a short footpath to the Washington Channel shoreline. The Titanic Memorial (a large granite statue of a man with arms outstretched as if in flight) stands at that point. Pier 5 lies a few hundred yards to the north. We approach it by the waterfront footpath. We can see the tide gauge from the shore but cannot inspect it closely. The DC Police Harbor Patrol have their headquarters on the pier and they refuse to allow unauthorized access. No matter; we’ll look into how tide gauges work later.

NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC
NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC. Image: NOAA

Knowledge about sea level is based on information generated by a global network of about 2000 tide-level stations. A British organization called the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) is responsible for the collection and publication of the data produced by the network.

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From: PSMSL website (psmsl.org > data coverage)

There are two trends that give climateologists nightmares: global warming and sea level rise, the second the result of the first. The trend line for the rise in sea level is based on the data generated by the global tide gauge network since 1880. Here’s an example, one of many available on the web.

From: EPA website published 2016

The graph shows that since 1880, sea level has risen by about 9 inches, an average of about 1/16th of an inch per year. However, since 1993, the rate of rise has speeded up to about 1/8th of an inch per year, twice the rate of the long term average. What do the experts say will happen next? Many suggest 1.5 to 3 feet higher by the year 2100. Others, pointing to increasing global warming and the potential for rapid melting of the polar ice sheets, talk about six feet and up by the year 2100, enough to put southern Florida under water and swamp most of the world’s major cities.

Predictions that imply 2100 is the year the rubber hits the road, are not useful. Why? Two reasons: (1) predictions that are safe from being proved wrong within the lifetime of the predictors, are not impressive and easily ignored; (2) the year 2100 is eighty years in the future, much too long a time frame to be of practical use to most people. We need predictions that focus on the near term. We also need a way to keep track of the situation in real time and without having to depend directly on experts for information on which to base personal decisions, such as where to live, for example.
Help is at hand in the form of a paper titled ‘Sea level rise drives increased tidal flooding frequency . . . ‘ published Feb. 3, 2017 in the ‘open access’ journal PLOS ONE. Here’s an excerpt:

“. . . because the general public often perceives climate change as a temporally distant threat, we have chosen to focus on two time frames (15 and 30 years into the future) that are easily comprehensible within a human lifetime.”

In the paper, the authors have predicted the severity of tidal flooding at 52 locations along the U.S. east and gulf coasts by the years 2030 and 2045. They did this by first establishing a correlation between tide-gauge measurements and Coastal Flood Advisories (CFAs) issued by the U.S. National Weather Service. They then show that the number and frequency of CFAs for any  given location can substitute for tide-gauge measurnts as a predictor of future flooding severity.

This is great. We, or anyone else with access to the web, can easily keep track of the number and frequency of CFAs affecting coastal property. A daily check on the Coastal Flood Advisory section of the National Weather Service takes little effort. After two or three years we can crunch our numbers and decide for ourselves whether or not sea level rise is a threat to take seriously. We won’t have to depend on media reports about climate change to be in the know.

Here’s an example from the PLOS ONE paper. By 2015, the number of tidal flood events affecting the shore area of Annapolis, Maryland, had risen to about 35 per year. Based on the CFA record for Annapolis, the authors predict that that number will rise to 145 by the year 2030 (only 11 years from now) and to 180 by the year 2045. If those predictions become fact, who is going to put up with streets and shop fronts that get swamped by sea water every second or third day of the year? The report paints a similar near-term future for the waterfront areas of Washington DC and other cities.

Since we intend to keep track of the Coastal Flood Advisories issued for Annapolis, we decide to visit the city to see for ourselves how tidal flooding has affected it so far. Annapolis lies about 30 miles from DC on a different branch of Chesapeake Bay. We retrieve our car from its parking spot and head east out of Washington, aiming to connect with Route 50.

Map of Annapolis MD waterfront area
Annapolis MD waterfront showing area affected by intermittent tidal flooding
Map showing Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay
Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay