Derek Larson on “Moving Toward Climate Resilience”

As south Texas begins the recovery process in the wake of hurricane Harvey and Irma bears down on south Florida, good reporters have been careful not to claim these storms are the result of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. That of course is true: human-driven climate disruption cannot be said to have caused these or any other specific extreme weather events. But it almost certainly has increased their severity; in the case of tropical storms directly as a product of higher ocean surface temperatures lending more energy  to developing storm systems. A multi-decade study published last year in Nature Geoscience found an increase in storm frequency of 2-3 times the baseline rate and increases in average storm intensity of 12-15% across a wide region of the Pacific, giving us some idea of how much worse tropical storms have become within our lifetimes. Neither of those figures may seem that impressive unless you have experienced a Category 3 or 4 hurricane directly, then imagine such events coming more often and with even greater force.

Harvey from space (Image: Colorado State University)

For decades climate scientists warned that we were running out of time to prevent serious disruption of the global climate system, and today the consensus is that our time has expired. We can no longer speak hopefully of preventing climate change, but instead must speak of mitigating its effects and adapting to a new baseline climate. Mitigation refers to efforts to reduce emissions and ideally limit the scope of future warming. Dramatic reductions in fossil fuel consumption, strict controls over greenhouse-gas emissions, and widespread efforts to sequester carbon outside the atmosphere and oceans will be required to prevent catastrophic climate disruptions a century from now. But what of the shorter term, which in the geosciences might mean a generation or two?

Ultimately adaptation to a changed climate will be required because we cannot easily reverse the consequences of actions taken over the last 150+ years as ancient fossil carbon was liberated into the atmosphere. We have, as some climate scientists like to say, “baked climate change into the cake.” At this point some level of overall warming is guaranteed, and indeed we are witnessing its effects already in the form of rising average temperatures on every continent, rising surface temperatures in the world’s oceans, and other signals that a “new normal” is developing around us. Like a massive ocean liner steaming straight ahead, simply turning off the engines can only slow, but not stop, this forward momentum in the short or medium term. We now need to exhibit the critical human trait of adaptation: we must plan for, prepare for, and accept the reality that climate in which our common future plays out will not be like that of our past.

Global fossil carbon emissions, 1800-2000 (Graph: Wikimedia Commons)

The key to climate adaptation is resilience. Both scientists and planners speak of “climate resilience” when asked what we must do to adapt to climate change. This quality of resilience refers to the ability of a society to survive disruption and manage change. It could be local; a coastal city like Houston could intentionally plan to become more resilient to hurricanes, for example by improving infrastructure and limiting new development in flood-prone areas. It could be national; a government initiative could fund both research on and implementation of resilience efforts on a broad scale, from coastal erosion controls to disaster preparedness. It could even be global; bodies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization could work to secure the global food system against future climate disruption as insurance against famine. Unfortunately, far too little time and energy is actually going into such efforts, and with the ascendency of Trumpism in the United States progress has actually been reversed. Today the U.S., and as result the entire globe, is actually headed in the wrong direction, toward being less resilient, less prepared, and less adaptive to our changing climate. This will not only make things worse for current generations, but will make the challenges faced by future generations even more daunting, surely a moral failing that will not easily be forgiven by our grandchildren.

What we have seen in Houston and surrounding areas was not in itself a direct result of anthropogenic climate change. But human-induced global warming amplified the severity of the storm, and our failure to prepare adequately—to take the idea of resilience seriously –has made the consequences more severe as well. Like other metropolitan areas Houston is a product of urban sprawl that dramatically reduced the capacity of surrounding natural systems to absorb water from major rain events. The unchecked expansion of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs ensured that even more water rushed into overburdened drainage systems, streams, rivers, and soils than otherwise would have. Despite suffering three five-hundred-year storm events in three years, life in coastal Texas has continued under a business-as-usual approach in the era of climate change. This is not to single out Houston; no major US city is prepared for the new normal or has shifted either its resources or policies toward resilience to the degree necessary to do much beyond responding to short-term crises. Adaptation, for all of us, lies well into the future, and perhaps farther off today that it was six months ago.

Visit the Climate Resilience Toolkit

Extreme weather events like hurricane Harvey are part of our new normal. In North America we will see more hurricanes, more flooding, more precipitation records broken—and also more heat waves and droughts, because climate change does not yield similar effects across all geographical boundaries. All we can count on is disruption: more, bigger, stronger, and costlier weather events will take their toll even before the impacts of global sea level rise, new patterns of disease, severe agricultural declines, mass extinctions, loss of the polar ice caps, or other projected threats from climate change are realized. Indeed, responding to the localized weather impacts of climate change may be among the easiest challenges we face at this juncture. We have the capacity to adapt, to become more resilient, and to stop making the problem worse—but we need to muster the collective will make a move in the right direction. The clock has been running since the Industrial Revolution, and our opportunities to keep hitting the snooze button are clearly running out. The political leadership of the federal government has failed America and the world. The responsibility to address climate change and to develop a more resilient society now rests firmly with the states, municipalities, and individuals who are already suffering the consequences of our inaction.

Derek Larson on “Trump’s War on the EPA”

House Republicans recently introduced legislation to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Sponsored by freshman Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, House Resolution 816 has one operative line of text: “The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

Normally such a bill might be shrugged off as an act of political theater. Soon after it was introduced Trump transition team member Myron Ebell told The Guardian the president’s campaign pledge to eliminate the EPA was “aspirational” because “You can’t abolish the EPA by waving a magic wand.” But what if he could?

The roots of the EPA go back to the late 1960s when rising public concern over air and water pollution, urban sprawl, and a series of high-profile environmental disasters put pressure on Congress to act. By 1969 a full-blown environmental movement was evident, a complex mixture of suburban residents awakened by Rachel Carson’s 1962 pesticide exposé Silent Spring, urban residents choking on smog and disgusted by dirty rivers, and traditional rural conservationists tired of seeing farms and forests plowed under for development. The war in Vietnam dominated the headlines, but with images of Cleveland’s Cuyuhoga River in flames (it was so polluted it caught fire), a pictures of a massive oil spill on the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara, California, and the flurry of photos of the Earth from space sent back by the Apollo astronauts also caught the public’s attention. The fragile appearance of the planet from afar, combined with regular news of environmental decline in Americans’ backyards, created a powerful sense of urgency around the environment that registered in Gallup polls as a greater concern than racial tensions or crime.

Congress responded to public demands for action with a sweeping piece of legislation, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which was signed into law by Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970. In his comments at the  signing ceremony, the President noted that “A great deal more needs to be done [on the environment]. It is a question of whether you put it off or do it now. This is an area where we have to do it now. We may never have a chance later.”

NEPA established a new priority for the federal government: “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.” As an initial step toward this lofty goal, NEPA established a new Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in the White House to “to formulate and recommend national policies to promote the improvement of the quality of the environment.” One of the first actions the CEQ took was to recommend the creation of a new federal environmental agency, which Nixon did by executive order, establishing the EPA in 1970.

Richard Nixon on the beach, near San Clemente (undated)

Early in its history the EPA established a project called “Documerica,” sending a group of professional photographers around the country to capture images of the American people and landscape in the early 1970s. Much like the famous images of the Great Depression produced by the Farm Service Agency in the 1930s, the Documerica collection offered a warts-and-all portrait of a country striving to move forward despite great challenges—in this case, the challenges of pollution, sprawl, and environmental decline.


These images—and thousands like them –illustrate what the nascent EPA was up against in its early years, and how far we have come from the days when our skies, rivers, lakes, and land were routinely used as dumps for chemical wastes, manufacturing byproducts, and the various effluents of modern living.

Weyerhauser Paper Mills and Reynolds Metal Plant, Longview,WA. 1973

Along Route 580, near San Francisco. 1972 (EPA)

Today the Environmental Protection Agency is headquartered in Washington, DC, and operates ten regional offices under a mission that combines regulatory enforcement, environmental research, and public education derived directly from NEPA. Its 15,000+ employees are responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, regulating the transport of toxic materials, monitoring facilities that generate hazardous waste, and investigating violations of federal environmental laws. Perhaps most prominently they aid state and local agencies in developing and implementing policies intended to bring them into compliance with federal regulations on environmental quality and human health—a direct bridge between Congressional directives to “clean up pollution” and action on the ground.

Waste drums piled near home in Jamaica Bay, NY. 1973 (EPA)

Illegal Dumping Area off the New Jersey Turnpike, Facing Manhattan Across the Hudson River.1973 (EPA)

The drive to eliminate the EPA comes not from the impulse to advance “productive harmony” between humans and nature, as NEPA sought in 1969, but for purely ideological and political reasons. The Congressional sponsors of H.R. 816 all hail from southern states with significant constituencies hostile to regulation of the energy and fossil fuel industries. Donald Trump’s selection of Scott Pruitt to lead the agency stems from similar animus; Pruitt is a long-time opponent of the EPA who in his former capacity as Oklahoma’s Attorney General sued the agency thirteen times to prevent it from enforcing regulations on air quality, drinking water safety, and clean energy. Ultimately,  while Trump may not have a magic wand with which to wave the EPA in oblivion, his administrative appointments and proposal to slash the agency’s budget by over 30% would render it ineffective at its most basic task: keeping our air, water, and land safe for human life.

The impact of these proposed cuts would be felt most dramatically in programs aimed at studying, preparing for, and adapting to climate change. The new administration began slowing down or shuttering climate-related work at EPA and other agencies even before transmitting a budget outline  to Congress. In January, Trump administration officials instructed the EPA  to remove all information related to climate change from its web site, triggering fear among scientists that critical data might be lost. In March, employees of the Department of Energy were told the words “climate change” could no longer be used in official written communication. Less than two weeks ago the President signed an executive order striking down many of the Obama-era programs intended to prepare the nation for the now-inevitable impacts of climate change and dismantling the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of our commitment to international climate agreements.

All of this has happened  before the EPA’s budget is cut and the reality of having a climate-change-denier in charge of the nation’s primary environmental agency fully sinks in.

Almost a half-century ago the public demanded Congress act to ensure access to clean air, clean water, and healthy environments for all Americans. Legislators responded with a forward-looking law that promised to “Fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations… and assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.” In the decades since, the Environmental Protection Agency has held primary responsibility for that work. That we can breathe freely in our major cities, safely drink our tap water, and even see wildlife like bald eagles and timber wolves without traveling to Alaska all point to a record of relative success—we no longer live in the dirty, stinking, unhealthy world the EPA’s Documerica photographers illustrated in the mid-1970s. But without a functional EPA going forward we may well once again, and likely won’t need another half-century to get there.

Derek Larson on “Lame Ducks and the Antiquities Act: How (most) Presidents Use a 1906 Law to Ensure Their Environmental Legacies”

derek-larsonIn a 1999 episode of the NBC political drama The West Wing, President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) found his efforts to preserve a prime piece of Montana wilderness from development blocked by a coalition of Republican Senators and mining-industry lobbyists. Just as all appeared lost, one of Barlett’s aides rushed into the Oval Office shouting “I’ve got it! We’ll use the Antiquities Act!” As with the fictional president of The West Wing, many real presidents—including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton –turned to the same century-old law to establish or preserve their environmental legacies. In recent months President Obama has exercised his authority under the act to extend permanent protection to federal land at an almost unprecedented level, as congressional opposition left him with few other paths to advance his environmental agenda.  Continue reading