Friday, 31 May 2013 17:25

Money Talks Even with Global Warming

You would think that out of all the industries in the world, the one that would be most concerned with climate change would be the insurance industry.  Take a look at the costs for Superstorm Sandy alone.  The extreme hurricane caused damage estimated at nearly $75 billion.  According to a press release last month by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, 2012 cost insurers $35 billion in privately insured property losses, which is $11 billion more than the average over the last decade.

Insurers, and the reinsurance companies that shoulder much of the ultimate risk in the industry, heavily rely on scientific thought and not which way the political wind is blowing on global warming.  They are comfortable with the scientific consensus that the rampant burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of climate change.  Despite their confidence, the question remains, what is the insurance industry doing about global warming considering the problem directly impacts their own interests?

Surprisingly, the answer is not much.  Insurers mainly focus on zoning regulations and disaster alleviation since the industry is disinclined to enter energy policy’s controversial fray.  Furthermore, insurers are more insulated from climate change’s devastation than at first meets the eye.  The federal government covers flood insurance, which is an enormous risk during extreme weather.  Additionally, insurers adjust to higher risks by raising premiums or dropping coverage.  So successfully that despite Superstorm Sandy and the protracted drought that ravaged the Midwest Corn Belt, property and casualty insurance in the United States was more profitable in 2012 than in 2011.

However, there are signs that the insurance industry is looking increasingly favorably on a carbon tax.  The true costs are placed on the polluters with a carbon tax rather than being passed on to the rest of us.  Also, they’re encouraged to pollute less.  Most insurers would prefer a carbon tax over a host of additional regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Although the industry is warming to the idea of a carbon tax, they’re still hesitant to throw all of their weight behind it.  Again, money talks; insurers haven’t yet experienced heavy losses from climate change.  The exception is 2004 and 2005 when a series of hurricanes including Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, caused damage worth more than $200 billion.

So the bottom line is that if these storms continue to hit people and businesses in the wallet, then eventually even the staunchest global warming disbelievers will admit the obvious.  However, we need to do what we can in the meantime to avert global disaster.  We don’t want to pass the point of no return.

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In a previous blog post about The Art of Climate Change Communication, I covered the six American publics and how they perceive climate change.  The Dismissive is one of the smallest groups, making up a mere eight percent of the American public.  They do not believe climate change is happening, nor do they believe it is human caused or a serious problem.  Although small, they are very vocal.  Sometimes it’s easy for climate change communicators to be discouraged by this group.  Nonetheless, now there is evidence that more than half of Americans (58%) say, “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”

The Extreme Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind report is based on findings from a nationally representative survey – Climate Change in the American Mind – conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.  These two organizations interviewed 1,045 adults between April 8 and 15, and found that “many Americans believe global warming made recent extreme weather and climatic events ‘more severe,’ specifically: 2012 as the warmest year on record in the United States (50%); the ongoing drought in the Midwest and the Great Plains (49%); Superstorm Sandy (46%); and Superstorm Nemo (42%).”  The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Typically, climate scientists avoid making a connection between climate change and the day-to-day weather.  Their stance used to be that no single weather event is caused by climate change.  In recent years, however, climate science has advanced to the point where researchers can see climate change’s impact on individual heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and other storms.  At the very least, many are ready to admit that climate change makes extraordinary weather worse.  And most of the American public agrees.

The report released this week also highlighted that, “overall, 85 percent of Americans report that they experienced one or more types of extreme weather in the past year, most often citing extreme high winds (60%) and extreme heat (51%).”  It is part of The Psychology of Climate Change that humans need to tangibly experience phenomena in order to connect with it on a deeper level.  We comprehend global warming is a serious threat more easily when we see the effects of extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy.

While it is vindicating to climate change communicators that our country is beginning to make the important connection between climate change and extreme weather, I am hoping the knowledge coalesces into further global warming realizations and ultimately stimulates a grass-roots movement that engenders meaningful change.  Knowing there is a problem is an important first step.  Doing something about the problem is an even more important next step.

Published in carbonfree blog
Friday, 22 March 2013 13:43

The Psychology of Climate Change

Regular readers of this blog are all too aware of the dangers that are starting to manifest regarding global warming.  Given the reality of 2012 being the hottest year on record, and other climate change related disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, why isn’t more being done domestically and globally to avert this crisis?  The answer is in our psychology as humans.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University, specializes in human behavior, in particular the psychology of risk perception and decision making as it relates to global warming.  He is an expert on U.S. and international perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change.  Leiserowitz points to humans’ needs to tangibly experience phenomena in order to connect with it on a deeper level.  The first problem with the issue is that we cannot see carbon dioxide.  Perhaps if we could see blue smoke, for example, billowing around us we would be more motivated to immediately tackle global warming.

The climate change problem is further complicated by its faceless nature.  There isn’t one country or person we can point to as causing global warming.  We are all responsible on a daily basis.  Then add to that there’s the fact that climate change is not an immediate threat.  It’s certainly becoming one, but it takes time for the planet to heat up and we are fast approaching the point of no return.

Many people do not understand how a few degrees one way or the other will make a difference to the planet.  Leiserowitz likened it to a fever in an episode titled, “Encore: Ending the Silence on Climate Change” this month on Bill Moyer & Company.  “People often will say, ‘Wow, you know, four, five degrees, that doesn't sound like very much. I mean, I see the temperature change more from night to day.’  But it's the wrong way to think about it. I mean, think about when you get sick and you get a fever, okay. Your body is usually at, you know, 98.7 degrees.”

He continued to say, “If your temperature rises by one degree you feel a little off, but you can still go to work. You're fine. It rises by two degrees and you're now feeling sick, in fact you're probably going to take the day off because you definitely don't feel good. And in fact, you're getting everything from hot flashes to cold chills, okay.  At three you're starting to get really sick. And at four degrees and five degrees your brain is actually slipping into a coma, okay, you're close to death. I think there's an analogy here of that little difference in global average temperature just like that little difference in global body temperature can have huge implications as you keep going. And so unfortunately the world after two and especially after three degrees starts getting much more frightening, and that's exactly what the scientists keep telling us. But will we pay attention to those warning signs?”

My next blog post will discuss how to effectively communicate about climate change to overcome some of the psychological challenges humans face outlined in this post.  There are ways to get the public to pay attention to, and in fact, engage on the issue of global warming.  However, there is an art to it.

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) delivered the yearly update of the High-Risk Series report to Congress this week, which officially elevated the threat of climate change.  The report contains the greatest threats the government faces in carrying out federal programs, and the GAO is responsible for identifying items such as flaws in the defense contracting process and health care program fraud.

This year the GAO believed it had to highlight the risk from climate change despite some members of Congress’ dismissal or outright denial of global warming.  Regardless if some in Congress do not like the move, the GAO is supported by the information coming from the National Academy of Sciences and even from the federal government's own global change research program.  The GAO did, however, sidestep the issue of what is causing climate change.  Instead they focus on urging lawmakers to prepare, and most of all, budget for more disasters.

The number of disasters in 2012 was above 90, a record number.  The federal government’s exposure to the increasing number of disasters from extreme weather brought about by global warming includes owning hundreds of thousands of buildings, the operation of defense installations, financial disaster assistance to local governments, and managing crop and flood insurance programs.

Even if the lawmakers cannot agree on climate change, the fact is that a wide variety of disasters are on the increase and Congress has not planned or budgeted for them.  The time for ignoring the issue is past.  Hopefully Congress will heed the warnings and begin addressing our country’s part of global warming in a meaningful way.  If they do not, the issue may be taken out of their hands.  President Obama said in this week’s State of the Union address that, “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed this week that 2012 was officially the warmest year on record in America’s contiguous 48 states, based on 118 years of temperature records dating back to 1895.  Despite this fact, news coverage of climate change actually declined in 2012.  According to The Daily Climate, worldwide climate coverage decreased by two percent between 2011 and 2012, which represented the fewest number of published stories since 2009.

Last year the US was experience droughts in more than just rainfall.  During the presidential election there were accusations of a “climate silence” until Superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast in the days leading up to the election.  In President Obama’s acceptance speech he said, “We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

However, President Obama’s statement has not reassured everyone that he and Congress are going to make any meaningful efforts to tackle carbon pollution and climate change.  In fact, the League of Conservation Voters and a coalition of 70 environmental organizations recently wrote an open letter to President Obama, which encouraged him to spotlight climate change during his second term.  A quote from the letter includes, "Cutting carbon pollution at home and rejecting dirty fuels will establish America’s leadership and credibility, enabling [President Obama] to create clean energy jobs in the United States while forging an effective international coalition to cut global carbon pollution."

Whether or not President Obama and Congress heed the global warming warning signs, the bright spot is that local governments are undertaking real strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change right now.  ICLEI USA, a network of local governments working to address climate and sustainability challenges, recently highlighted 20 communities across the continental US that are leading the efforts to plan for the future and respond to extreme weather.  Some particularly prominent examples by local governments include:

  • Atlanta, GA – Urban heat island effects worsened by hotter seasons. Addressing the problem with a climate action plan, including cool roof/pavement standards and 10,000 new planted shade trees.
  • Chicago, IL – Responding to extreme heat and flooding with the milestone Chicago Climate Action Plan and the most installed green roof square footage in the country.
  • Eugene, OR – Ravaged by major wildfires and mega-dry conditions.  Mitigating these issues by increasing water conservation, reducing hydroelectric power demand and planting drought-resistant trees.
  • Miami Dade Count y, FL – Known as the most vulnerable city in the world to sea level rise as demonstrated by severe flooding.  Urban planning now addresses sea level rise and disaster response, and they’re also investing millions in flood mitigation projects.
  • New York, NY – Suffered $19 billion in damage from Superstorm Sandy.  Taking positive action with a $2.4 billion green infrastructure plan, restoring barrier wetlands, and initiating a climate risk assessment requirement for new developments.

It’s wonderful to see these steps being taken towards a more sustainable future.  It would be even better if federal leadership ensues, taking their cues from local governments.  Media silence or not, climate change is here and further delayed action will only result in catastrophic results.  The time is now to secure a low carbon global economy and thereby the planet for current and future generations.

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This year offered several events that shone a spotlight directly on the important and urgent issue of climate change, but the question remains, “Was it enough to bring about meaningful efforts to reduce climate change?”

June of 2012 presented the United Nations Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil which disappointed many as international representatives hemmed and hawed instead of establishing true endeavors to tackle global warming.  Meanwhile the continental United States embarked on summer heat waves that were some of the hottest in its history.

This year also saw drought cover more than half the country; farmers suffered as their crops and animals died.

Then October of 2012 brought superstorm Sandy, this year’s biggest example of extreme weather and a deadly harbinger of the devastating effects of climate change.  Can we continue to sit idly by in the face of all these signs that global warming is making broad changes to our planet?  Should we leave these environmental problems for our children to face as we continue down an unsustainable path? 

The close of the year is a time to reflect on the previous events of the year and make resolutions for the coming year.  Let’s pledge to make 2013 the year where we confront climate change in every possible way.  We can all embark on energy efficiency efforts; reducing what we can and lowering our carbon footprints.  Every bit helps.  Then it is a powerful combination to offset the rest of our carbon emissions.  It would be a genuine shame to let the lessons of this past year slip from our consciousness while there is still time and so much that can and should be done to address climate change.

Published in carbonfree blog
Saturday, 22 December 2012 09:42

What is on the Planet’s Climate Wishlist?

The Earth cannot use words to speak for itself, but if it could what would be on its climate wishlist this holiday season?

Environmental activists and climate scientists have done a good job of communicating the risks of climate change.  Part of the issue is that it’s a delicate balance between scaring people so thoroughly that they don’t think there is anything they can do about global warming and encouraging people to make any changes that positively impact the environment, even small ones to start.  Perhaps we’ve also underestimated the importance of personal experience. 

The facts on climate change alone are not enough.  We’ve had solid, scientific evidence for many years that global warming is man-made and happening right now.  However, many people need to experience the effects for themselves in order for the light bulb to go off in their heads.  Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather events are helping people to connect the dots, but now that process has begun the question then becomes, “What next?”

We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the planet.  That is what the climate needs and wants this holiday season.  There are two main changes that we can undertake to fulfill the planet’s climate wishlist.  The first is to lower our carbon footprints.  Ask yourself, do I really need to leave my lights on all day at home when I am not there?  Can I combine trips in the car to drive less or take public transportation instead?  What simple steps can I take to save energy and myself some money as well?

The second change is to offset the rest of your carbon footprint.  There are many affordable options to make this holiday season a reality, not just for the planet, but for future generations also.  Any positive steps you take are welcome and really do make a difference.  Although the planet cannot use words to thank you, reducing what you can and offsetting the rest is a beautiful gift and a wonderful place to start this holiday season.

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In a telling and ironic move, coal industry giant BHP-Billiton, is replacing one of its coal export facilities in Queensland, Australia because of its vulnerability to increasingly frequent hurricanes from global warming.  BHP-Billiton is an Australian coal company that produces one-fifth of globally traded coal for steel making and is the largest mining company on Earth.  The upgrade represents a major investment in planning for climate change.  In fact, the company’s coal operations are led by Marcus Randolph, who confirmed they are planning, “to rebuild the facility to be more durable to climate change.”

Readers of this blog already know that increasingly extreme weather events are the result of climate change in addition to the fact that many businesses are planning now for climate change’s effects.  Why not a coal company too?  The announcement makes it obvious that BHP-Billiton understands that climate change is real and the time is now to begin making changes even if the manufacture of their product contributes to the issue.

Randolph has even warned investors about the implications of remaining dependent on the non-renewable resources of fossil fuels by saying, “In a carbon constrained world where energy coal is the biggest contributor to a carbon problem, how do you think this is going to evolve over a 30- to 40-year time horizon? You'd have to look at that and say on balance, I suspect, the usage of thermal coal is going to decline. And frankly it should.”

When a company that mines and exports coal starts planning for climate change it means the writing is on the wall.  Businesses and individuals alike should all be working to decrease carbon footprints and offset the remaining carbon emissions.  Let’s give the planet a holiday present and start doing all we can this season to embrace a cleaner energy future.

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The issue of climate change has re-entered the public’s conscious in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.  In fact, there were accusations of a “climate silence” on the part of the presidential candidates until the megastorm hit the Northeast a week before this month’s election.  Now both parties are talking about a potential carbon tax.

Last week  a carbon tax was once again the topic of discussion at the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think-tank) and the Brookings Institution (a more liberal think-tank) released a paper on it.  The Congressional Budget Office also published a report on potential ways to make a carbon tax less of a burden on lower income people.

A carbon tax works by making those that use fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas pay more.  When they are burned, fossil fuels contribute to global warming by producing carbon dioxide, which traps heat.  Some experts estimate the price tag of a tax of $20 per ton of carbon dioxide emissions to add 1 or 2 percent to the price of gasoline and electric power.  Other pundits view a carbon tax as a tax on economic growth.

Whether or not a carbon tax will have the political backing to make it through a divided Congress is questionable.  However, environmental advocates are always interested when climate change is a hot topic.  Extreme weather has been linked to climate change.  So it’s important to warn people that if we continue on this unsustainable path of dumping 90 million tons of pollution into the atmosphere on a daily basis that the future will include more superstorms with increasingly devastating consequences.

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Climate change is causing sea levels to rise, and this week’s super storm Sandy gave us a preview of the devastation that this kind of flooding can cause.  In fact, five years ago, a study named, “Nation Under Siege” constructed a series of 3-D maps using federal science agency and the United Nations' climate panel data that demonstrated what areas of the Atlantic coastline will look like as sea levels continue to rise.  The maps from 2007 are eerily similar to the destruction we saw from super storm Sandy.  The main difference being that the flooding from Sandy is beginning to recede and the rising waters from global warming are permanent.

There’s no denying that sea levels are rising.  Since 1900, the world’s oceans rose an average of seven inches, according to data from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Those of us that live on the East Coast are seeing higher than average sea level rise.  According to a report by the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force, sea levels along New York's coast range between 9 and 11 inches over the last 100 years.

Super storm Sandy painfully demonstrated that coastal cities are woefully unprepared for flooding and other dangers from extreme weather, which is increasing due to climate change.  According to Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University, there are three reasons why climate change made Sandy that much worse.  The first is already higher sea levels made the storm surge more severe.  The second is higher sea surface temperatures from global warming provided more energy for the super storm.  The third is Sandy may turned towards the coast because of a record loss of sea ice in the Arctic this year.

Preparing at-risk communities for coming floods and coastal erosion includes determining the best way to heighten sea walls or whether to construct surge barriers to protect flood-prone areas.  These preparations require study and then construction costs in the billions.  However, the latest estimates from IHS Global Insight, a forecasting firm, calculate that super storm Sandy will end up causing about $20 billion in property damages and $10 billion to $30 billion more in lost business.  It sounds like the time is now to make those investments before further extreme weather from global warming costs more in the long run.  We can couple those investments with our own efforts to lower our carbon footprints, which contributes to slowing down climate change.

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