Archive for October, 2013

Weighing Sandy One Year Later: The Good, The Bad

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region. Some rights reserved.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region. Some rights reserved.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast at this time last year, we looked at how climate change and global warming played a role in the havoc. One year later, we now know that it was the second most costly hurricane to hit the U.S. in the last hundred years ($65 billion and counting), and that its lasting influence will continue to affect everything from public health to public transportation. This week, however, National Geographic takes a look at Sandy’s silver lining: specifically, that the storm has done some small amounts of natural good amidst its destruction.
For instance, the massive amounts of water that hit the east coast helped clear out massively-polluted waters in places like Bellport Bay where the lack of water flow has caused extremely low water quality. Additionally, the storm helped clear out beach grass across the coast, unintentionally aiding shorebirds who nest on the beach and whose nesting areas were being encroached on by said beach grass. This is a crucial development specifically for the adorable-yet-endangered piping plover, of which there are only 17 couples in the area, so in the words of National Parks Service biologist Hanem Grace Abouelezz, “every egg counts.”

On the other hand, these scraps of good news do nothing to balance out the net-negative effects of Sandy, and Grist argues that we are woefully under prepared for the next mega-storm that will inevitably reach our shores. According to their articles, our shortcomings have to do with everything from mismanaging federal emergency aid spending to rebuilding properties in places we probably shouldn’t (re: water adjacent areas attractive for their location but vulnerable to future weather catastrophes). The message (and I think it’s a good one) seems to be that as we hit the one year anniversary of this tragedy, its important to reflect on what happened and how we reacted, but its just as important if not more so to give some serious thought to better preparing ourselves for the next go ’round.

The LED Takeover

Photo by Dan DeLuca. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Dan DeLuca. Some rights reserved.

If you’ve been to a major city in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. in the last five years, chances are you’ve been introduced to LED street lights. You know, they’re the ones that beam bright blueish light (instead of the traditionally warm, orange glow of high pressure sodium lights) and save tons and tons of energy! For anyone unfamiliar, a quick (like, one sentence quick) introduction: LEDs (light-emitting diodes) require only half the energy (48 to 62 percent less, according to Seattle City Light) output of traditional light sources and require much less maintenance or use of greenhouse gases in their production. In Seattle, we were early adopters of LED street light technology, with plans dating back to 2007, only a year after other U.S. cities like Ann Arbor, MI put plans down to try out LED lighting. In 2010, the Department of Energy announced that Seattle would be leading the national charge in replacing all streetlights with LEDs. Three years later, we’re ahead of schedule and much of the nation has followed suit, and while there is some resident-based push-back against the lights for being too bright and disruptive, the general consensus, especially among the greener-minder among us, is that these new lights are generally a good thing.

And the movement is picking up momentum internationally as well. It was just announced this week that Buenos Aires, the second largest city in South America, will replace 70% of its streetlights with LED technology, in an effort to cut energy consumption citywide by 50%. Philips has been chosen as the corporate contractor for the project, and have already replaced 10,000 of the total 91,000 street lights expecting upgrades. Having just visited Buenos Aires last year, I can personally attest that it is a beautiful city and that much of its charm comes from its old world, European design scheme, an aesthetic that surely spreads to its street lights. However, I can also say that much of the city felt particularly dark at night, and that as a tourist, I certainly would have appreciated a bit more light to navigate by. Philips has given themselves three years to complete the project, and the city of Buenos Aires hopes to save up to $180 billion annually by switch to LED.

FEMA Fiddles on Future Flooding

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

Remember when Congress did things? Just last year, it passed a bill requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out how the National Flood Insurance program should handle rising seas brought about by global warming. Congress wasn’t going all touchy-feely about the environment. The provision was tucked into a 584 page transportation funding bill.

The first step required by the bill was for FEMA to establish an advisory panel, called the Technical Mapping Advisory Council which was to consult with scientists to help ensure that flood insurance rate maps incorporate the “best available climate science” to assess flood risk, and to ensure that FEMA uses the best available technology to consider the impact of rising sea levels. How’s that working out? According to an investigation by ProPublica,  the entire program has stalled before it got out of the gate. ProPublica tells us that, to date, FEMA hasn’t named a single member to the council.

This may sound like an obscure bit of bureaucratic delay in an agency that has had more than its fair share of bad press. But if any part of the federal government will be impacted by global warming and rising seas, it’s FEMA. The agency itself estimates that sea levels will rise an average of four feet in this century, increasing the portion of the country at risk of flooding by 45%. The National Flood Insurance Program is the country’s first line of financial defense, but it is currently $25 billion in debt after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Many of the maps FEMA and the insurance program rely on are decades out of date and were drawn up long before anyone thought of rising seas presenting a threat.

ProPublica quotes Jimi Grande, the senior vice president for federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies who says, “We need to know what the risks are to have an intelligent conversation as a country.”

ProPublica tried to have an intelligent conversation with FEMA’s press secretary. That conversation went nowhere because the agency was on furlough due to the government shutdown.

Seattle, the City of Bikes

Photo by Sally M. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Sally M. Some rights reserved.

Earlier this year (May 27th, to be exact), the privately-owned bike rental company CitiBike unveiled their service to the people of New York City. For the first time, following the lead of DIY car rental services like Zipcar and Car2Go, NYC residents had the option to rent a bike for the day (or week, or year) right off the street, to run the kind of stealth commuter errands that a car simply won’t work for. The service has taken off there, and other major American cities scrambled to jump aboard the trend – as of 2014, over 30 major North American cities will have such programs in place. Overall, these easy bike-rental services seem like a great idea for the average city dweller – whether you don’t own a car, don’t want to park, or just want to feel the wind in your hair on a beautiful day, these services allow an easy, cost-effective way to promote urban cycling.

Of course, there are bound to be issues. Complaints regarding CitiBike have trickled in since its launch, pointing out that there are major areas where there are no rental stations, and also that the program is having an adverse effect on local bike shops. In Chicago, where a similar service was recently unveiled, local residents are complaining that the rental stations in residential areas are disrupting the otherwise tranquil atmosphere and potentially leading dangerous people to their sleepy burgs and into their otherwise-secure buildings.

While these complaints seem a bit snoody and out-of-touch, here in Seattle we are struggling with launching our own bike-share program with a different set of obstacles (I’ll give you a hint – $$$) in the way. Yes despite Seattle already being a very bike-friendly city, especially amongst the younger, tech-employed masses, the newly minted Puget Sound Bike Share program is running into funding issues even before getting off the ground. It seems local mega-employers like Amazon, Starbucks, and Microsoft have (thus-far) refused to sponsor the program despite  support from the mayor and city council. The effect this under-funding would have on the program could be dire – the company would have to vastly reduce its number of rental bikes AND rental stations, therefore practically eliminate certain Seattle neighborhoods from their coverage area and drastically lowering the usefulness of the service for many bikeless Seattlites. Local alternative paper The Stranger has the full scoop.

Arsonists in the Fire Department

Image by Pink Floyd

Image by Pink Floyd

We are now four days from a possible default on the national debt, a seemingly unimaginable turn of events brought about by the willful intransigence of a small minority of Tea Party Republicans in the house of representatives. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the financial industry or the business world who wouldn’t describe the prospect of the United States refusing to pay its bills as anything less than disastrous. But that vociferous minority has seized the debt ceiling as a hostage in order to – well, to do what, exactly?  At first the demand was to achieve what they have not been able to achieve at the ballot box, by the legislative process, or in the courts: repeal of the Affordable Care Act. When Obama Care went live, the Tea Party caucus in the House moved seamlessly on to other hostages; social security and Medicare “reform”, tax reform, and (in a triumphant elevation of regulatory minutia) the elimination of the medical device tax which is a minor appendage of the ACA. Yes, in a desperate attempt to salvage something – anything – out of this sorry episode, the stability of the global economy is being threatened to roll back taxes on stethoscopes.

One of the cornucopia of ironies this lethal temper tantrum presents is that a number of the members of the house holding the debt ceiling hostage are now blithely dismissing the disaster default would bring. Why, welching on our debt might even calm the markets and bring order to the global economy. In other words, let’s go ahead and shoot the hostages – nobody likes them anyway.

It should come as no surprise that there is a significant and very influential group of lawmakers who would parade their ignorance of economic affairs at a time like this. Ignoring expert opinion has become obligatory, even a matter of pride, within much of the Tea Party. As Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have written,

“However awkward it may be for the traditional press and nonpartisan analysts to acknowledge, one of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Nowhere is this willful ignorance more obvious than in the party’s response to global warming. The Republican Party generally, and the Tea Party in particular, have long been riding the climate change denial train. But they are now moving beyond mere denial to active hostility to the evidence itself, going so far as to legislate against facts. The North Carolina legislature, taking a page from King Canute’s play book, has banned the state from basing coastal policies on scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise.

Not to be outdone, Kansas has hit what Bloomberg News calls “the self-destruct button”. The Sunflower State is proposing to ban all state and municipal funds from being used for anything related to “sustainable development,” which it defines as “development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.” Preserving the environment for generations to come? The horror. I look forward to a state ordering people to burn briquettes indoors when they barbecue because carbon monoxide poisoning is just a global elitist scam.

This would all be risible fun if we didn’t all have to breathe the same air and suffer through the same droughts and mega storms. It’s one thing to have substantive policy differences, it’s another to simply shut the conversation down and go home. Because with global climate change, there is no separate home to go to. As senator Patrick Moynihan famously said, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

It’s not as if there haven’t been “conservative” responses to global climate change which appear to have been drafted by inhabitants of planet earth. The American Conservative Magazine is certainly conservative – the word is right there in the title – and it was founded by the conservative Republican stalwart and one-time presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. This month’s issue has an article by Andrew Moylan arguing that conservatives can fight climate change without growing government by instituting a gasp! carbon tax. Good luck getting that through this Congress Mr. Moylan, you cockeyed optimist, you.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report concludes unequivocally that financial markets are the only hope in the race to stop global warming. An international organization of climate change scientists calling for a market-based solution? What could be more “conservative” than that? This should be right in the Republican Party’s wheel house. But a party that declares its willingness to crash the global economy to prevent millions from getting affordable health insurance, while simultaneously denying that the hostage is even worth troubling about, is not a party we can look to for any constructive response to the fire roaring about our heads. Relying on the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party as a partner is like calling the fire department and finding it’s staffed with arsonists.

Let’s Us Talk Lettuce

Photo by leeksandbounds. Some rights reserved.

Photo by leeksandbounds. Some rights reserved.

It’s perhaps not the most exciting vegetable in the world, but no healthy American would deny that lettuce (in all of its wonderful varieties) is a crucial component of American cuisine. Hard facts seem to back that up – in terms of production value, lettuce is one of America’s leading crops, with the value of exported lettuce coming in at a whopping $439.3 million in 2010, with 327,628 metric tons exported. That makes the U.S. the second largest producer of lettuce (behind China – we’re a distant second, but still) and the second largest exporter of lettuce (behind Spain). We’re pretty heavily invested for produce that some Americans might consider “the food their food eats!

On the other hand, the majority of our lettuce in grown in California – the Salinas Valley on the central California coast. specifically. 60% of our lettuce is grown there, and while its an agriculturally fertile region now, it’s susceptible to the effects of climate change and could see very real effects in the next hundred years. Last year was the hottest year on record. Lettuce requires a temperate climate to grow, but with spiking temperatures, lettuce has no choice but to adapt – either that, or we lose our most crucial salad vegetable forever.

Modern Farmer magazine has the story of Beiquan Mou, a research geneticist for the Department of Agriculture who’s currently stationed in El Centro, a small Southern California town just miles from the Mexican border where daily temperatures peak at over 100 degrees. Mou has been working on growing “superlettuce” – a federally funded (to the tune of $38 million) project testing the growth of all different types of lettuce in severe heat conditions, grouping varieties of lettuce by their tolerance to heat and taste, and growing mutant lettuce breeds (that may be less exciting than it sounds) that could be more durable in the more extreme weather conditions of the semi-near future.

Climate Change Is a Wallflower at the Risk Factor Ball

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Rising seas. Extended drought. Raging floods. Market disruptions. Food scarcity. All these, and more, are predicted consequences of global climate change. Last month’s deluge in Colorado was another foretaste of what may be in store for us.

Publicly traded companies are no less immune to the consequences of global climate change than anyone else. Some companies have largely ignored the implications; others have seized on environmental transformation as a business opportunity. The insurance industry has been notably forward thinking in this respect. But then, insurance companies have a vested interest in assessing other companies’ risk factors. Either way, it’s a rare industry which won’t be affected one way or another.

Three years ago, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidance on how publicly traded companies should disclose the climate change risks they face. Recognizing the current and potential effects on companies’ performance associated with both climate change and with efforts to ameliorate the change, the commission laid out steps companies should take to inform the public how they intended to deal with future environmental disruption.

The SEC’s guidance seems to be honored in the breach by the great majority of U.S. companies.  According to a report by Inside Climate News, nearly 75 percent of  the nation’s publicly traded companies are ignoring the commission’s disclosure requirements.  This figure comes to us compliments of a retired database developer named Lawrence Taylor, a one-time assessor of air pollution data for the Orange County and San Diego land planning departments. Taylor spent five months and 1,100 hours poring over company filings on the SEC website. Of the 3,895 companies whose most recent annual reports he reviewed, only 27 percent mentioned “climate change” or “global warming” at all. Of the businesses which mentioned climate change, fewer still provided any real specifics. The general exceptions to the rule were carbon-intensive businesses like coal, oil, and natural gas companies, but even they tended to shy away from discussing long-term environmental or regulatory risks. For the most part, the disclosures focused on taxes or changes in market demand.

Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW followed up on Taylor’s research and found that the heavy corporate hitters in Washington State likewise tend to ignore the disclosure requirement. KUOW’s reporter searched the annual 10-K filings of Washington’s biggest companies, looking for the words “climate,” “warming,” “greenhouse” and “carbon.” Of the Fortune 500 firms based in Washington, only Weyerhaeuser revealed how climate change will affect its operations, which makes sense given that it’s a forest products company at heart. Microsoft contented itself with noting that “Changes in weather where we operate may increase the costs of powering and cooling computer hardware we use to develop software and provide cloud-based services.”

The SEC guidance covers a sobering list of climate change disclosures, including the impact of legislation and regulation, international accords, the indirect consequences of regulation and business trends, rising insurance costs, and the myriad physical impacts of climate change including violent storms, rising sea levels, the arability of farmland, and the availability and quality of water. The commission points out that the consequences of climate change can cause catastrophic harm to physical plants and facilities and can disrupt manufacturing and distribution processes. In understated terms, the commission concludes that, “Registrants whose businesses may be vulnerable to severe weather or climate related events should consider disclosing material risks of, or consequences from, such events in their publicly filed disclosure documents.”

But apparently the great majority of firms are breezily ignoring the SEC’s guidance. General Mills, for instance, mentions climate change only in passing as one of a list of disruptions (along with fire, terrorism, strikes, and import restrictions) that might “adversely affect” its business. For a company so heavily dependent on grains from a region experiencing record-setting drought, this seems like whistling past the graveyard.

Ignoring the potential impacts of climate change isn’t going to make them go away, and it isn’t doing investors any favors.

I would like to underscore the 1,100 hours Taylor spent searching filings on the SEC website. If he had gone to our Risk Factors page, he could have finished his research in a fraction of the time. 

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