Conservative groups shrug off link between tropical storm Harvey and climate change

Myron Ebell, who headed the EPA’s transition team when Trump became president, said the last decade has been a period of ‘low hurricane activity’

National guardsmen rescue stranded residents after massive flooding from record rains overwhelmed roads and buildings throughout the city after Harvey. Photograph: Zachary West/Zuma/

Conservative groups with close links to the Trump administration have sought to ridicule the link between climate change and events such as tropical storm Harvey, amid warnings from scientists that storms are being exacerbated by warming temperatures.

Harvey, which smashed into the Texas coast on Friday, rapidly developed into a Category 4 hurricane and has drenched parts of Houston with around 50in of rain in less than a week, more than the city typically receives in a year. So much rain fell that the National Weather Service had to add new colours to its maps.

The flooding has resulted in at least 15 deaths, with more than 30,000 people forced from their homes. Fema has warned that hundreds of thousands of people will require federal help for several years, with Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, calling Harvey “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced”. Insurers have warned the cost of the damage could amount to $100bn.
Some scientists have pointed to the tropical storm as further evidence of the dangers of climate change, with Penn State University professor of meteorology Michael Mann stating that warming temperatures “worsened the impact” of the storm, heightening the risk to life and property.

Conservative groups, however, have mobilized to downplay or mock any association between the storm and climate change. Myron Ebell, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team when Donald Trump became president, said the last decade has been a “period of low hurricane activity” and pointed out that previous hurricanes occurred when emissions were lower.

“Instead of wasting colossal sums of money on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, much smaller amounts should be spent on improving the infrastructure that protects the Gulf and Atlantic costs,” said Ebell, who is director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian thinktank that has received donations from fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil.

Thomas Pyle, who led Trump’s transition team for the department of energy, said: “It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that the left is exploiting Hurricane Harveyto try and advance their political agenda, but it won’t work.

“When everything is a problem related to climate change, the solutions no longer become attainable. That is their fundamental problem.”

Pyle is president of the Institute of Energy Research, which was founded in Houston but is now based in Washington DC. The nonprofit organization has consistently questioned the science of climate change and has close ties to the Koch family.

Want to help those impacted by tropical storm Harvey? Here’s how

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The Heartland Institute, a prominent conservative group that produced a blueprint of cuts to the EPA that has been mirrored by the Trump administration’s budget, quoted a procession of figures from the worlds of economics, mathematics and engineering to ridicule the climate change dimension of Harvey.

“In the bizarro world of the climate change cultists … Harvey will be creatively spun to ‘prove’ there are dire effects linked to man-created climate change, a theory that is not proven by the available science,” said Bette Grande, a Heartland research fellow and a Republican who served in the North Dakota state legislature until 2014.

“Facts do not get in the way of climate change alarmism, and we will continue to fight for the truth in the months and years to come.”

Harvey was the most powerful storm to hit Texas in 50 years, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it is “premature” to conclude that there has already been an increase in Atlantic-born hurricanes due to temperatures that have risen globally, on average, by around 1C since the industrial revolution.

Scientists have also been reluctant to assign individual storms to climate change but recent research has sought to isolate global changes from natural variability in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.

However, researchers are also increasingly certain that the warming of the atmosphere and oceans is likely to fuel longer or more destructive hurricanes. A draft of the upcoming national climate assessment states there is “high confidence” that there will be an increase in the intensity and precipitation rates of hurricanes and typhoons in the Atlantic and Pacific as temperatures rise further.

Harvey may well fit that theory, according to climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, as the hurricane managed to turn from a tropical depression to a category four event in little more than two days, fed by a patch of the Gulf of Mexico that was up to 4C warmer than the long term average.

“When storms start to get going, they churn up water from deeper in the ocean and this colder water can slow them down,” said Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “But if the upwelling water is warmer, it gives them a longer lifetime and larger intensity. There is now more ocean heat deep below the surface. The Atlantic was primed for an event like this.”

While the number of hurricanes may actually fall, scientists warn the remaining events will likely be stronger. A warmer atmosphere holds more evaporated water, which can fuel precipitation – Trenberth said as much as 30% of Harvey’s rainfall could be attributed to global warming. For lower-lying areas, the storm surge created by hurricanes is worsened by a sea level that is rising, on average, by around 3.5mm a year across the globe.

The oil and gas industry has sought to see off the threat in the Gulf of Mexico with taller platforms – post-Katrina, offshore rigs are around 90ft above sea levelcompared to 70ft in the 1990s – but the Houston, the epicenter of the industry, is considered vulnerable due to its relaxed approach to planning that has seen housing built in flood-prone areas.

Barack Obama’s administration established a rule that sought to flood-proof new federal infrastructure projects by demanding they incorporate the latest climate change science. Last week, Trump announced he would scrap the rule, provoking a rebuke from Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican congressman who called the move “irresponsible”.

Curbelo, who has attempted to rally Republicans to address climate change, wouldn’t comment on the climate change link to Harvey. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Texas’s Republican senators, didn’t respond to questions on the climate link, nor did Abbott, the state’s governor, or Dan Patrick, Texas’s lieutenant governor. All four of the Texas politicians have expressed doubts over the broad scientific understanding that the world is warming and that human activity is the primary cause.

Is tropical storm Harvey linked to climate change?

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“It’s essential to talk about climate change in relation to events like Hurricane Harvey and it’s sad a lot of reports don’t mention it in any way,” said Trenberth.

“You don’t want to overstate it but climate change is a contributor and is making storms more intense. A relatively small increase in intensity can do a tremendous amount of damage. It’s enough for thresholds to be crossed and for things to start breaking.”

‘Hero’ of Paris climate agreement dies

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe former Marshall Islands minister Tony De Brum has passed away aged 72
Former Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony De Brum, who played a key role in securing the Paris climate pact has passed away aged 72.

At countless UN climate meetings, Mr De Brum was a passionate champion of the rights of small island states.

He was instrumental in securing the “high ambition coalition” of rich and poor countries that was pivotal to a deal in the French capital.

Mr De Brum died at his home in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands.

Born near the end of WWII, Mr De Brum grew up in an era when the tiny Pacific state was being used to host a number of US nuclear bomb tests.

When he was nine years old he witnessed one such detonation, while fishing with his grandfather around 200 miles away.

The resulting destruction of the atolls, the evacuation of many islanders as a result of the atomic tests became a hotly contested political issue. The islander’s push for independence and compensation played a large part in Tony De Brum’s political awakening.

Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionTony De Brum shares a moment with the President of COP21 Laurent Fabius
As one of the Islands’ first university graduates, Mr De Brum was heavily involved in the negotiations with the US that resulted in an agreement on independence and compensation signed in 1986.

However it was the threat of rising seas and a changing climate became the key issues of his time as a Marshall Islands foreign minister.

In the Paris climate negotiations, his warm, personal and relaxed style was very much in contrast to the stiffer, greyer faces of some teams.

He used his charm to build strong personal relationships with many of the political leaders from rich and poor countries alike.

This helped create the “coalition of high ambition,” a group that ultimately involved around 100 nations, including the US, the EU, African, Caribbean and island states.

This alliance of rich and poor proved critical in pushing the deal through.

The biggest win from Mr De Brum’s perspective, was that the Paris agreement committed to the goal of keeping global temperature increases close to 1.5C – “1.5 to stay alive,” was a phrase often used by Mr De Brum.

Tributes to the former minister have been led by the Marshall Islands’ President Hilda Heine.

“The very existence of the Paris Climate Agreement owes a lot to Tony De Brum,” she wrote in a statement.

“He was a giant of history, a legend in every meaning of the world and a custodian of our shared future.”

Others took to Twitter to extend their sympathies.

Work underway to improve teacher training on climate change education

Education International has injected the voice of teachers into a recent UN climate change event, highlighting the need for and ways to better train teachers to improve greater climate awareness curricula.

The global teachers’ federation joined the international community in Bonn, Germany, from 8 -18 May, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference was aimed at reviewing the progress made on the 2015 Paris Agreement and the implementation work conducted at the 22nd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22) held in Marrakech, Morocco, in November 2016.

Exchange of best practice

The mid-point review, held prior to November’s COP23 in Bonn, enabled interested parties to share their ideas and best practices on climate change education and training. This took place in the framework of the Dialogue for Climate Action, an initiative launched at COP18 which adopted guidelines on education, training, and awareness-raising for the greater public. This was in line with Article 6 of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which addresses the need to better inform, educate, and train people on the issue of climate change.

The work took place over the course of two sessions, enabling stakeholders to note that, despite sporadic yet major progress in certain countries, most teachers desperately lack the training and resources to provide quality climate change education.

Action-based resources

Marie-Christine Ghanbari, lecturer at Germany’s Münster University, and finalist of the Global Teacher Prize 2017, told attendees that “it is difficult to teach this subject whose abstract nature can easily put off students, and younger students in particular. This is why it is important to use teaching methods geared towards action and cooperation. Our teachers are currently teaching the future agents of change in our societies. Therefore, providing them with resources to match their responsibilities is a matter of urgency!”

This observation, shared by Education International (EI), could also apply to all issues related to the challenges faced by sustainable development education for which the teaching profession remains woefully under-prepared. This is particularly true in a global context of teacher shortages and mass recruitment of under-qualified staff.

Belgian success

However, while gaps in training and a lack of resources remain considerable, increasing numbers of climate change teaching tools make it possible to conduct promising experiments. In Belgium, for instance, a web tool called “Mon2050” (My 2050) targets the public and secondary school students and encourages discussion on climate change. It enables various scenarios of transition to a low-carbon society by 2050 to be explored. This and other examples demonstrate that although resources may be lacking, imagination and creativity are not.

However, EI highlights that these encouraging experiments should not overshadow the urgent need to mobilise sufficient financial resources around the world in order to ensure adequate teacher training, which is a prerequisite to quality climate change education.


Increased funding needed for climate change education and training

An insufficient allocation of resources to climate change education has drawn the ire of Education International during a recent contribution to the Dialogue on Action for Climate Empowerment, Education.

Education International (EI) raised its concerns about investment in climate change education during a panel discussion on 16 May at the fifth Dialogue on Action for Climate Empowerment held in Bonn, Germany. The panel discussion focused on the financial resources for climate change education and came at the end of the first session on climate change education.

Three major funding mechanisms were presented: the Global Environment Facility, the Adaptation Fund, and the Green Climate Fund. Although these mechanisms fund education and training activities, none of them is dedicated specifically to climate change.


Climate change raises urgent issues relating around adaptation for countries in the short and medium terms. However, this adaptation requires that current and future climate change be considered in current decisions and policy implementations in order to limit its negative impact. The costs relating to this adaptation are already estimated at several dozen billion dollars (USD) every year, and developing countries are particularly exposed in this regard.

EI: Need for long-term investment

Therefore, EI regrets that climate change education, which is seen as a long-term investment, is not considered a priority.

During the discussion, EI reaffirmed its stance that the economic, social and environmental benefits accruing from properly resourced and prioritised quality education, including climate change education, would largely compensate for the costs linked to often ill-advised political and economic decisions. Major net financial gains would be made, according to EI.

Over the years, the Dialogue on Action for Climate Empowerment, which brings together representatives of government and civil society, has become a crucial venue for international talks on climate change. It is a place where information on all aspects of climate change education and training is gathered and exchanged. Although the importance of education was acknowledged early in discussions on climate change and re-emphasised at several key moments, such as the recent signing of the Paris Agreement of 2015, EI believes that the resources allocated to education remain insufficient.

Climate Lessons from California

Stanford, Calif. — California faces serious risks from climate change. Some are already being felt, like the severe heat this summer and recent episodes of extremely low snowpack in the mountains, which the state depends on for much of its water. Those are among the key messages in a new climate science report now under review in the White House. The good news is that California has been working hard to catch up with the climate change that has already happened, and to get ahead of what is still to come.

The past five years have painted a clear picture of what is in store for California, according to numerous scientific studies that underpin the new assessment: Rising temperatures will bring more frequent and severe hot spells, intensifying heat stress; more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, increasing storm water runoff; snow that does fall will melt earlier in the year, leaving less for the warm, dry season; and more moisture will be drawn out of soils and vegetation, increasing stress on crops and ecosystems. All of this will lead to more frequent and severe water deficits, punctuated by wet periods with increasing flood risk.

Add rising sea levels, more extensive flooding during storm surges and the acidification of the coastal ocean, and California faces a phalanx of climate-related dangers to human health, agriculture, industry, economic productivity, and terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

As the new report makes clear, California is not the only state facing such risks. However, California has been particularly ambitious in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to build resilience in the face of climate change uncertainty. The state’s hard work over the past two decades has yielded several lessons for cities, states and countries that face intensifying climate-related stresses.

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The first is that it is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also enjoying a thriving economy. Since 2001, California’s economy has grown, while its greenhouse gas emissions have fallen. The state recently renewed its landmark cap-and-trade program, which limits total statewide emissions while allowing a marketplace to determine the price polluters must pay. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

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This goal is ambitious and provides a powerful example for those seeking to simultaneously create jobs, stimulate innovation and reduce emissions. But the reduction still won’t be enough to stabilize the climate. That will require bringing global greenhouse gas emissions effectively down to zero, so still greater reductions will be needed to meet the United Nations targets.

The second lesson is that adapting to climate change requires understanding how the climate is changing. California has mandated regular scientific assessments of historical changes and possible future trajectories. This scientific process has yielded deep insights about the nature of what’s happening in California. And those insights have provided a foundation for decision making, like incorporating trends in temperature, snowpack and runoff into managing the state’s crucial groundwater reserves, and the planning and operation of its infrastructure.

In contrast to the obfuscation and denial about climate science by the Trump administration and much of the Republican congressional caucus, California has invested heavily in understanding climate change and in finding “climate-smart” solutions that can create jobs, improve energy efficiency and decrease emissions, while also building resilience to the climate change that has happened and to a range of possible future outcomes.

The third lesson is that, despite all of the progress, we need to work harder to ensure equity and justice for all residents in the face of a changing climate. It is well documented that poverty increases vulnerability to climate-related stresses. For example, during severe heat events, those who cannot afford air-conditioning or who must labor outdoors are considerably more vulnerable than those who have access to indoor air-conditioning. Likewise, during the recent drought, thousands of Californians suffered without running water for months, highlighting the severe inequality and associated vulnerability in the state. The government has sharpened its focus on ensuring that revenues from the cap-and-trade program benefit disadvantaged communities, but environmental justice remains a critical concern.

The United States recently officially informed the United Nations that it plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, as President Trump vowed to do. His rejection of climate science and the international community’s efforts to address the intensifying risks of global warming stands in stark contrast to the extensive scientific evidence that climate change is now being felt across America.

In response to President Trump’s abdication of international climate leadership, many states, cities and corporations are searching for ways to fill the void. California offers lessons of what has worked, and what is still left to be done.

Researchers Use ‘Robomussels’ To Monitor Climate Change

Tiny robots have been helping researchers study how cli­mate change affects bio­di­ver­sity. Devel­oped by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity sci­en­tist Brian Hel­muth, the “robo­mus­sels” have the shape, size, and color of actual mus­sels, with minia­ture built-in sen­sors that track tem­per­a­tures inside the mussel beds.

For the past 18 years, every 10 to 15 min­utes, Hel­muth, pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and a global research team of 48 sci­en­tists have used robo­mus­sels to track internal body tem­per­a­ture, which is deter­mined by the tem­per­a­ture of the sur­rounding air or water, and the amount of solar radi­a­tion the devices absorb. They place the robots inside mussel beds in oceans around the globe and record tem­per­a­tures. The researchers have built a data­base of nearly two decades worth of data enabling sci­en­tists to pin­point areas of unusual warming, inter­vene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosys­tems, and develop strate­gies that could pre­vent extinc­tion of cer­tain species.

Housed at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass­a­chu­setts, this largest-ever data­base is not only a remark­able way to track the effects of cli­mate change, the find­ings can also reveal emerging hotspots so pol­i­cy­makers and sci­en­tists can step in and relieve stres­sors such as ero­sion and water acid­i­fi­ca­tion before it’s too late.

The research appeared in a new paper pub­lished Tuesday in the journal Sci­en­tific Data.

A barom­eter of cli­mate change

For eco­log­ical fore­casters such as Hel­muth, mus­sels act as a barom­eter of cli­mate change. That’s because they rely on external sources of heat such as air tem­per­a­ture and sun expo­sure for their body heat and thrive, or not, depending on those con­di­tions. Using field­work along with math­e­mat­ical and com­pu­ta­tional models, Hel­muth fore­casts the pat­terns of growth, repro­duc­tion, and sur­vival of mus­sels in inter­tidal zones.

Losing mussel beds is essen­tially like clearing a forest. If they go, every­thing that’s living in them will go.
—Brian Hel­muth, pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs

Over the years, he and his col­leagues have found sur­prises: “Our expec­ta­tions of where to look for the effects of cli­mate change in nature are more com­plex than antic­i­pated,” says Hel­muth. For example, in an ear­lier paper in the journal Sci­ence,his team found that hotspots existed not only at the southern end of the species’ dis­tri­b­u­tion, in this case, southern Cal­i­fornia; they also existed at sites up north, in Oregon and Wash­ington state.

“These datasets tell us when and where to look for the effects of cli­mate change,” he says. “Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble.”

The robo­mus­sels’ near-continuous mea­sure­ments serve as an early warning system. “If we start to see sites where the ani­mals are reg­u­larly get­ting to tem­per­a­tures that are right below what kills them, we know that any slight increase is likely to send them over the edge, and we can act,” says Helmuth.

It’s not only the mus­sels that may be pulled back from the brink. The advance notice could inform every­thing from main­taining the bio­di­ver­sity of coastal sys­tems to deter­mining the best—and worst—places to locate mussel farms.

“Losing mussel beds is essen­tially like clearing a forest,” says Hel­muth. “If they go, every­thing that’s living in them will go. They are a major food supply for many species, including lob­sters and crabs. They also func­tion as fil­ters along near-shore waters, clearing huge amounts of par­tic­u­lates. So losing them can affect every­thing from the growth of species we care about because we want to eat them to water clarity to bio­di­ver­sity of all the tiny ani­mals that live on the insides of the beds.”

Climate deniers in the Deep South aren’t ignorant – they reject the truth to save themselves

Louisiana is losing land at the rate of a football field every hour.Mario Tama/Getty Images

People don’t necessarily reject the science on climate change because they don’t have the facts straight. Sometimes it’s because accepting the evidence would undermine their whole livelihoods, not just the safety of their homes.

A clear fingerprint of climate change is emerging in south-east Louisiana. There’s more flooding, increased vulnerability to storms such as Hurricane Katrina of 2005, and rapid loss of land to the sea.

The region is set to experience a sea level rise of 4 to 5 feet by the end of the century. It has already lost an area of land the size of Delaware since 1930. But the people living here on the doorstep of climate change are less likely than the average American to accept that it’s real.

At first glance, this seems to make little sense. In parishes such as Plaquemines and St Bernard on the Mississippi River, residents are well aware of the immediate and growing hazards posed by their environment. But accepting the driving cause of these events is seen as an even greater threat to their livelihoods, according to research by sociologists at the University of Kansas.

The fossil fuel and commercial fishing industries are major employers in south-east Louisiana. Regulations to mitigate climate change and coastal erosion would impose restrictions on these industries. There is a fear that this would lead to local job losses and financial insecurity.

“The most obvious example of this is the instance of an individual who works for an industry, such as in oil and gas production, that may be negatively impacted by regulatory policy,” said PhD researcher Jacob Lipsman, who is presenting the findings at the American Sociological Association’s 2017 annual meeting in Montreal.

“This also functions on the community level; for instance, in southeast Louisiana, oil and gas represents a disproportionate source of revenue for coastal parishes.”

Rather than ploughing on blindly with scientific literacy campaigns and explaining the consensus on climate change, this research emphasises the need for strategies tailored to the social context of south-east Louisiana.

“If an individual or a community is resistant to the idea of climate change for economic or social reasons, climate advocates will not be able to effectively communicate with these individuals about climate change simply by presenting more data,” Lipsman said.

“By better understanding the processes of climate change denial, climate advocates will be better equipped to have an effective dialogue with individuals and communities that are sceptical of these ideas.”

A Louisiana resident catches a crab at Port Fourchon Beach.

Everyone’s Talking About That Leaked Government Climate Report. Here’s Why It Actually Matters.

A new report summarizes the latest science on how climate change is impacting rainfall and flooding.

A new report summarizes the latest science on how climate change is impacting rainfall and flooding.

A draft government report concluding climate change is already dramatically impacting the US and humans are largely to blame rests in the hands of a White House that is openly skeptical about whether climate change is real.

The report is making waves after the New York Times published two different versions of it, and cited concerns from scientists about whether the White House would try to censor it in some way.

The New York Times suggested that both versions of the Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) were leaked. However, the first was from December and released online for public comment between Dec. 15, 2016, and Feb. 3, 2017, and again posted online in March. The second version, dated June 28, had not been previously published.

This confusing timeline was criticized by Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s very disappointing yet entirely predictable to learn the New York Times would write off a draft report without first verifying its contents with the White House or any of the federal agencies directly involved with climate and environmental policy,” she said. (The New York Times reached out to the White House and Environmental Protection Agency officials for comment on the story.)

BuzzFeed News has confirmed with sources familiar with the process that the June 28 draft is currently under a planned review by an interagency group managed out of the White House.

“The White House will withhold comment on any draft report before its scheduled release date,” Sanders said.

President Trump has repeatedly questioned the scientific consensus on manmade climate science, as have many of his top officials. The Trump administration has also targeted climate research and programs for extreme budget cuts, and sought to repeal and replace many Obama-era rules for addressing climate change.

Developed by dozens of federal scientists and top climate researchers from universities across the nation, the final version of the technical report was planned to be published around October and feed into the next installment of the so-called National Climate Assessment, according to Robert Kopp, a climate scientist of Rutgers University and one of the report’s authors.

The National Climate Assessment, required every four years by Congress, breaks down the observed climate changes to date, as well as the predicted climate risks both by region and economic sector for the US. The last one came out in 2014.

“This is sort of the background document,” Kopp said, referring to the Climate Science Special Report. He explained that it wades into the physical mechanisms behind observed climate change and what’s projected for the future.

“I’m hopeful the review process will go forward as been planned for the last two years,” Kopp said. He declined to comment on the circumstances around the leaked report or concerns of political interference.

“The CSSR is a definitive update on what we know right now on the changing climate,” according to Katharine Mach of Stanford University, who did not contribute to this report but is familiar with the contents, and is one of the authors of the upcoming Fourth National Climate Assessment.

“It was developed, reviewed, and vetted by our nation’s top scientists through multiple drafts,” she added. “It confirms the fundamentals: consequential warming to date due to our emissions of heat trapping gases, with severe risks in the pipeline.”

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) also reviewed a draft, publishing its glowing endorsement in April.

“It also covers some of the most significant scientific advances as of late,” Mach added, “from the large amounts of sea level rise that could happen with ice sheet collapse, to repeat nuisance flooding now frequent up and down the eastern seaboard, to our increasing ability to identify the human fingerprint in individual extreme weather and climate events like heat waves and heavy rain.”

The most recent draft is more than 100 pages longer than the one published in December, and it takes into account both the public comments and the NAS review. The White House has until Aug. 18 to sign off on it, according to the New York Times.

“When national leadership on climate has flagged in the past, figuring out the state of the evidence through assessment was often prioritized,” Mach said. “The CSSR will be an important litmus test for this administration’s approach.”

Cold War-Era Spy Satellite Images Reveal Possible Effects Of Climate Change

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union routinely spied on each other using high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and space satellites.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. declassified tens of thousands of images obtained from its two major spy satellite programs, Corona and Gambit. Many of these highly detailed photographs, taken from 1960 through 1984, are of the massive and relatively little-studied western Siberian tundra. The government was looking for military installations and nuclear arsenals, but it found mostly undeveloped, wild terrain.

It occurred to University of Virginia environmental scientists that the imagery is a storehouse of information for better understanding how vegetation in tundra regions may be altering as a result of climate change and other factors.

“These spy images are a gold mine as a reference point,” environmental sciences professor Howie Epstein said.

He oversaw a study comparing old spy photographs from 1960 into the 1980s with environmental images of the same terrain made in more recent years from commercial satellite sensors. “We are able to look at the exact same locations, in close detail, across several decades,” he said.

Epstein and his graduate student, Gerald Frost, who conducted the study as part of his Ph.D. dissertation, tracked 11 sites in Siberia through half a century of imagery, and were able to distinguish the expansion of tall shrubs such as alder, willow, birch and dwarf pine. They found that tall shrubs and trees had expanded their range in some areas by up to 26 percent since the 1960s, though the overall expansion was less dramatic.

“We know from Earth-observing satellite data that the Arctic generally has been greening for 35 years or so,” Epstein said. “But the Siberian tundra had not been as closely observed until relatively recently. We now know that a lot of greening has been going on there, too, with tall shrubs and woody vegetation. The vegetation has been getting both taller and expanding in space and range.”

This possibly and likely could be attributable to climate change, he said – specifically, a generalized warming of tundra climate – but it also is more complex than that.

As the shrubbery increases its distribution, it creates its own warming effect by absorbing heat, rather than reflecting heat as snow does, leading to additional warming and perpetuating the effect. This also changes the distribution of landscape snow, the balance of plant and animal species in the warmed areas, and the normal ratios of plants to herbivores. As the species distribution changes, it also alters the amount of carbon cycled among the air, vegetation and soil, which in turn affects climate.

Epstein and Frost – now a scientist with ABR Inc., an environmental research and services firm in Fairbanks, Alaska – have also conducted ground studies in some of the same areas they’ve observed via satellite imagery. Some of their fieldwork is in a remote area near Kharp in the northwest central part of Russia. For several summers, they were able to secure rides on an old treaded armored vehicle across the tundra to exact sites they’d examined in photographs, allowing them to “ground truth,” in effect, what they’d seen in the satellite imagery.

“We found that shrubs were using circular bare spots on the ground, naturally caused by freezing and thawing, to expand across the landscape,” Epstein said. “By using those bare spots for expansion, the shrubs were taking advantage of the lack of competition from other species. The shrubs grow quickly and have tough roots.”

But while vegetation clearly has expanded in the tundra during the past few decades, as documented by the old spy imagery and the new commercial data, Epstein said the “greening” in some places might now be reversing.

“We’re starting to find a browning of the tundra in the last few years,” he said. “The progression of growth may be reversing. We’re not sure yet why, but it’s clear that vegetation dynamics are more complex across tundra than previously thought. We still have a lot of work to do to understand Arctic changes and how this affects and is affected by changes to the global climate.”

Climate Change Already Causing Suicides In India As Crops Fail

Climate change has already caused more than 59,000 suicides in India over the last 30 years, according to estimates in a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that suggests failing harvests that push farmers into poverty are likely the key culprits.

UC Berkeley researcher Tamma Carleton discovered that warming a single day by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) during India’s agricultural growing season leads to roughly 65 suicides across the country, whenever that day’s temperature is above 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). Warming a day by 5 degrees Celsius has five times that effect.

While high temperatures and low rainfall during the growing season substantially impact annual suicide rates, similar events have no effect on suicide rates during the off-season, when few crops are grown, implicating agriculture as the critical link.

This study helps explain India’s evolving suicide epidemic, where suicide rates have nearly doubled since 1980 and claim more than 130,000 lives each year. Carleton’s results indicate that 7 percent of this upward trend can be attributed to warming that has been linked to human activity.

Soaring temperatures, despair

More than 75 percent of the world’s suicides are believed to occur in developing countries, with one-fifth of those in India alone. But there has been little hard evidence to help explain why poor populations are so at risk.

“It was both shocking and heartbreaking to see that thousands of people face such bleak conditions that they are driven to harm themselves,” Carleton says. “But learning that the desperation is economic means that we can do something about this. The right policies could save thousands.”

The study demonstrates that warming — forecast to reach 3 degrees Celsius by 2050 — is already taking a toll on Indian society. Using methods that she developed in a previous paper published in the journal Science, Carleton projects that today’s suicide rate will only rise as temperatures continue to warm.

Optimists often suggest that society will adapt to warming. But Carleton searched for evidence that communities acclimatize to high temperatures, or become more resilient as they get richer, and found none in the data.

“Without interventions that help families adapt to a warmer climate, it’s likely we will see a rising number of lives lost to suicide as climate change worsens in India,” Carleton says.

Carleton, a doctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory and a Ph.D. candidate in agriculture and resource economics, says she hopes her work will help people better understand the human cost of climate change, as well as inform suicide prevention policy in India and other developing countries.

“The tragedy is unfolding today. This is not a problem for future generations. This is our problem, right now,” she says.

Which policies will help prevent suicide?

Debate about solutions to the country’s high and rising suicide rate is contentious and has centered around lowering economic risks for farmers. In response, the Indian government established a $1.3 billion crop insurance plan aimed at reducing the suicide rate but it is unknown if that will be sufficient or effective.

“Public dialogue has focused on a narrative in which crop failures increase farmer debt, and cause some farmers to commit suicide. Until now, there was no data to support this claim,” says Carleton.

More than half of India’s working population is employed in rain-dependent agriculture, long known to be sensitive to climate fluctuations such as unpredictable monsoon rains, scorching heat waves, and drought. A third of India’s workers already earn below the international poverty line.

This study’s findings indicate that protecting these workers from major economic shortfalls during these events, through policies like crop insurance or improvements in rural credit markets, may help to rein in a rising suicide rate.

Impacts beyond agriculture

Heat drives crop loss, Carleton contends, which can cause ripple effects throughout the Indian economy as poor harvests drive up food prices, shrink agricultural jobs and draw on household savings. During these times, it appears that a staggering number of people, often male heads of household, turn to suicide.

Carleton tested the links between climate change, crop yields and suicide by pairing the numbers for India’s reported suicides in each of its 32 states between 1967 and 2013, using a dataset prepared by the Indian National Crime Records Bureau, along with statistics on India’s crop yields, and high-resolution climate data.

To isolate the types of climate shocks that damage crops, Carleton focused on temperature and rainfall during June through September, a critical period for crop productivity that is based on the average arrival and departure dates of India’s summer monsoon.

She cautions that her estimates of temperature-linked suicides are probably too low, because deaths in general are underreported in India and because until 2014, national law held that attempted suicide was a criminal offense, further discouraging reporting.

Carleton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and is a recipient of the Science to Achieve Results Fellowship awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.