Red state rural America is acting on climate change – without calling it #climatechange

One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray
One primary concern in rural areas: higher temperatures put strain on water and energy sources. AP Photo/Robert Ray

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, University of North Dakota

President Donald Trump has the environmental community understandably concerned. He and members of his Cabinet have questioned the established science of climate change, and his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has sued the EPA many times and regularly sided with the fossil fuel industry.

Even if the Trump administration withdraws from all international climate negotiations and reduces the EPA to bare bones, the effects of climate change are happening and will continue to build.

In response to real threats and public demand, cities across the United States and around the world are taking action to address climate change. We might think this is happening only in large, coastal cities that are threatened by sea-level rise or hurricanes, like Amsterdam or New York.

Research shows, however, that even in the fly-over red states of the U.S. Great Plains, local leaders in small- to medium-size communities are already grappling with the issue. Although their actions are not always couched in terms of addressing climate change, their strategies can provide insights into how to make progress on climate policy under a Trump administration.

‘Deliberate framing’

My colleagues and I did a survey of over 200 local governments in 11 states of the Great Plains region to learn about steps they’re taking to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to them. We found local officials in red states responsible for public health, soil conservation, parks and natural resources management, as well as county commissioners and mayors, are concerned about climate change, and many feel a responsibility to take action in the absence of national policy.

In terms of framing, using wind energy is a way to improve local air quality and save money on energy, while also reducing emissions from fossil fuels.
paytonc/flickr, CC BY-SA

But because it is such a complex and polarizing topic, they often face public uncertainty or outrage toward the issue. So while these local officials have been addressing climate change in their communities over the past decade, many of these policy activities are specifically not framed that way. As one respondent to our survey said:

“It is my personal and professional opinion that the conservation community is on track with addressing the issue of climate change but is way off track in assigning a cause. The public understands the value of clean water and clean air. If the need to improve our water quality and air quality was emphasized, most would agree. Who is going to say dirty water and dirty air is not a problem? By making the argument ‘climate change and humans are the cause’ significant energy is wasted trying to prove this. It is also something the public has a hard time sinking their teeth into.”

In order to address the vulnerabilities facing their communities, many local officials are reframing climate change to fit within existing priorities and budget items. In a survey of mayors, we asked: “In your city’s policy and planning activities (for energy, conservation, natural resources management, land use, or emergency planning, etc.) how is climate change framed?” The following quotes give a sense of their strategies.

“In terms of economic benefit & resource protection. This framing was deliberate to garner support from residents who did not agree with climate change.”

“We frame the initiative as: energy savings (=$ savings), as smart growth/good planning, and as common sense natural resource management. Climate change is only explicitly referenced in our Climate Protection Plan adopted in 2009. Most initiatives fall under the “sustainability” umbrella term.“

“We mask it with sustainability, we call it P3 (People, Planet, Prosperity)”

“The initial interest in climate change came about as a result of concern about the potential for poor air quality affecting economic development in the City. Air quality and climate change were framed as being extremely related issues.”

“Climate change is framed as one of several benefits of conservation measures. Other benefits of conservation, recycling, walking, etc. include it’s ‘good for the earth’ (regardless of climate change), healthful, economical, etc.”

The results show that energy, economic benefits, common sense and sustainability are frames that are providing opportunities for local leaders to address climate change without getting stuck in the political quagmire. This strategy is being used across the Great Plains states, which include some of the most climate-skeptical areas of the country.

Local needs and values

Every region of the U.S. will need to address practical questions of how states and local communities can reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Under the Trump administration, it is likely any progress on U.S. climate policy will continue at these subnational levels. That’s why a variety of experts argue that we should encourage the types of pragmatic strategies now being employed by local leaders in red states.

In the Great Plains in particular, local officials are facing severe impacts from higher temperatures, which will place greater demands on water and energy.

Capturing methane gases from landfill can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and be a local source of fuel for power.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, CC BY-NC

In our research we found local leaders focus on regional and local issues such as drought, energy and flooding. These are problems that are tied to climate change, but are already a priority on the local level. And the sought-for improvements, such as energy savings, health benefit and flood management, fit well with local needs and values.

For example, Fargo, North Dakota mitigates some of its greenhouse gas emissions and created a new source of city revenue by capturing the methane from its landfill facility and selling that gas to the electricity company. The city trash is now providing renewable energy for local residents and an industrial facility.

Perhaps the question facing us is: Should we reframe climate change and other environmental problems to fit the Trump administration’s priorities with a strong focus on practical solution ideas? For example, Trump has stated that infrastructure projects will be a high priority. That could easily translate into fixing the drinking water crisis experienced by Flint, Michigan and many other cities where it is likely to happen; Trump has also highlighted mass transit, which could help reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.

With an administration eager to expand fossil fuel development and consumption, the outlook for federal action on reducing climate-altering greenhouse gases is dire. Given that, reframing climate change to address cobenefit issues seems a logical strategy, and we can look for local government leaders in red states to show the way.

The Conversation

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Professor of Environmental Science & Policy, University of North Dakota

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Food Security: How Drought and Rising Prices Led to Conflict in Syria

EPA/Russian Defence Ministry Press Service
EPA/Russian Defence Ministry Press Service

 

Aled Jones, Anglia Ruskin University

In 2015 the Welsh singer and activist Charlotte Church was widely ridiculed in the right-wing press and on social media for saying on BBC Question Time that climate change had played an important part in causing the conflict in Syria.

From 2006 until 2011, [Syria] experienced one of the worst droughts in its history, which of course meant that there were water shortages and crops weren’t growing, so there was mass migration from rural areas of Syria into the urban centres, which put on more strain, and made resources scarce etc, which apparently contributed to the conflict there today.

Goaded on by the tabloids, Church reaped a whirlwind of public ridicule:

But what she said was correct – and there will be an increasing convergence of climate, food, economic and political crises in the coming years and decades. We need to better understand the interconnectivity of environmental, economic, geopolitical, societal and technological systems if we are to manage these crises and avoid their worst impacts.

In particular, tipping points exist in both physical and socio-economic systems, including governmental or financial systems. These systems interact in complex ways. Small shocks may have little impact but, a particular shock or set of shocks could tip the system into a new state. This new state could represent a collapse in agriculture or even the fall of a government.

In 2011, Syria became the latest country to experience disruption in a wave of political unrest crossing North Africa and the Middle East. Religious differences, a failure of the ruling regime to tackle unemployment and social injustice and the state of human rights all contributed to a backdrop of social unrest. However, these pressures had existed for years, if not decades.

So was there a trigger for the conflict in the region which worked in tandem with the ongoing social unrest?

Syria, and the surrounding region, has experienced significant depletion in water availability since 2003. In particular an intense drought between 2007 and 2010, alongside poor water management, saw agricultural production collapse and a mass migration from rural areas to city centres. Farmers, who had been relatively wealthy in their rural surroundings now found themselves as the urban poor reliant on food imports. Between 2007 and 2009 Syria increased its annual imports of wheat and meslin (rice flour) by about 1.5m tonnes. That equated to a more than ten-fold increase in importing one of the most basic foods.

Cereal imports by weight and value to Syria from 2006 to 2010. Source: UN Comtrade Database.

Complex system

There is a tendency these days to believe that global trade will protect the world from food production shocks. A small production shock in one region can be mitigated by increasing, temporarily, imports of food or by sourcing food from another region. However, certain shocks, or a set of shocks, could create an amplifying feedback that cascades into a globally significant event.

The food system today is increasingly complex and an impact in land, water, labour or infrastructure could create fragility. A large enough perturbation can lead to a price response in the global market that sends a signal to other producers to increase their output to make up for any shortfall. While increased prices can be beneficial to farmers and food producers, if the price increase is large enough it can have a significant impact on communities that are net food importers.

Additionally, food production is concentrated both in a relatively small handful of commodity crops such as wheat, rice and maize as well as from a relatively small number of regions, for example the US, China and Russia. This concentration means any disruption in those regions will have a large impact on global food supply. Reliance on global markets for sourcing food can therefore be a source of systemic risk.

Rising prices

In 2008 the global price of food increased dramatically. This increase was the result of a complex set of issues including historically low global food stocks, drought in Australia following production lows in several other areas over the previous few years, and speculation and an increase in biofuel production in North America.

This spike in global food price in 2008 was a factor in the initial unrest across North Africa and the Middle East, which became known as the Arab Spring. As prices peaked, violence broke out in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

In Syria a local drought which coincided with this global shock in food prices resulted in dramatic changes in the availability and cost of food. In response small groups of individuals protested. The government response, combined with a background of rising protests, existing social tensions and instability in the wider region, quickly escalated into the situation we are experiencing today.

The events in Syria, then, appear to stem from a far more complex set of pressures, beyond religious tension and government brutality, with its roots in the availability of a natural resource – water – and its impact on food production. This is worrying as decreasing water availability is far from a localised issue – it is a systemic risk across the Middle East and North Africa. Over the coming decades this water security challenge is likely to be further exacerbated by climate change.

To better manage these types of risks in the future, and to build societal resilience, the world needs to understand our society’s interdependence on natural resources and how this can lead to events such as those that unfolded in Syria. We need analytical, statistical, scenario or war game-type models to explore different possible futures and policy strategies for mitigating the risk. By understanding sources of political instability we hope to get a better handle on how these types of crisis arise.

The Conversation

Aled Jones, Director, Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

 

 

Earth on the docket: Why Obama can’t ignore this climate lawsuit by America’s youth

A group of youths are suing the federal government for action on climate change using a novel legal approach. AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, Photo by Robin Loznak, courtesy of Our Children's Trust
A group of youths are suing the federal government for action on climate change using a novel legal approach. AP Photo/Chris O’Meara, Photo by Robin Loznak, courtesy of Our Children’s Trust

Mary Wood, University of Oregon; Charles W. Woodward, IV, University of Oregon, and Michael C. Blumm, Lewis & Clark

At a time when humanity must reverse course before plunging over a climate cliff, the American public has elected a president who seems to have both feet on the fossil fuel accelerator. If there is a mechanism to force the Trump administration to put the brakes on dirty energy policy, a lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the Obama administration may hold the key.

Two days after the presidential election, on Nov. 10, a federal district court in Oregon issued a path-breaking decision in Juliana v. U.S. declaring that youth – indeed, all citizens – hold constitutional rights to a stable climate system.

The youth, aged nine to 20 years old, seek a court-supervised plan to lower carbon dioxide emissions at a rate set by a science-based prescription. The judicial role is analogous to court-supervised remedies protecting equal opportunity for students after Brown v. Board of Education.

The Juliana v. U.S. decision could be a legal game-changer, as it challenges the entire fossil-fuel policy of the United States.

Cruel irony

Environmental lawsuits typically rely on statutes or regulations. But Juliana is a human rights case that bores down to legal bedrock by asserting constitutional rights to inherit a stable climate system.

The court, which ruled the suit can proceed to trial, rightly described the case as a “civil rights action” – an action “of a different order than the typical environmental case” – because it alleges that government actions “have so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to life and liberty.” The litigation, variously called “a ”ray of hope,“ a legal ”long shot“ and a ”Hail Mary pass,“ yielded its groundbreaking decision not a moment too soon.

At a rally for action on climate in 2014. The decisions made by adults will have broad implications for the planet today’s youth will live on as adults.
Joe Brusky/flickr, CC BY-NC

The year 2016 is the hottest year on record, and Arctic sea ice has hit its lowest recorded level. Heated ocean waters threaten coral reefs and marine ecosystems.

To have any hope of reversing or stalling these effects of climate change, the world must restrict fossil fuel production and ultimately switch to safe renewable energy. Even continued production solely from currently operating oil and gas fields will push the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial temperatures, beyond the aspirational limit set by the global Paris Agreement on climate change.

President-elect Trump, who notoriously claimed that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has said he plans to immediately approve the highly contentious Keystone Pipeline, open public land to drilling, rescind Obama’s Clean Power Plan, eliminate NASA’s climate research, and withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. He intends to spur production of US$50 trillion worth of shale, oil, coal and natural gas.

The 70-year-old president-elect will not live long enough to witness the worst consequences of rapidly expanding fossil fuel development. The cruel irony for young people is that actions taken during Trump’s time in office will lock in a future of severe disruptions within their projected lifetimes – and sea level rise that could make coastal cities uninhabitable. James Hansen, formerly the nation’s chief climate scientist at NASA, has warned, “Failure to act with all deliberate speed…functionally becomes a decision to eliminate the option of preserving a habitable climate system.”

Sea levels are projected to rise at least three feet, and perhaps much more, in the lifetime of children today, inundating some locations and making storm surges more dangerous. The Juliana lawsuit and others like it argue that citizens have a right to a stable climate.
NOAA

Constitutional argument

For decades, the political branches have promoted fossil fuel consumption despite longstanding knowledge about the climate danger. President Obama ignored warnings when he charted a disastrous course of increased fossil fuel production early in office. In a last moment of opportunity to avert climate tipping points, Americans should recall an elementary school civics lesson: The United States has three, not two, branches of government. The founders wisely vested an independent judiciary with the responsibility of upholding the fundamental liberties of citizens against infringement by the other branches.

As the president-elect promises to ramp up fossil fuel production and dismantle Obama’s recent climate measures, and with no obvious statutory law to prevent him from doing so, only a fundamental rights approach carries any hope of trumping Trump.

The principle of public trust law, dating to the time of Roman Emperor Justinian, holds that natural resources, including the sea, the shores of the sea, the air and running water, are common to everyone. It has since become part of U.S. jurisprudence.
Petar Milošević/wikipedia, CC BY

In Juliana, the youth asserted their fundamental rights under the Constitution’s substantive due process clause and the public trust doctrine. This is an ancient principle requiring government to hold and protect essential resources as a sustaining endowment for citizens. They contended that government infringed on their rights to life, liberty, and property by promoting fossil fuel policies that threaten runaway planetary heating – thereby jeopardizing human life, private property and civilization itself.

Judge Ann Aiken’s Juliana decision in November upheld both public trust and substantive due process rights under the Constitution and allowed the case to go forward. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” she wrote, explaining that public trust rights, which “both predated the Constitution and are secured by it,” cannot be “legislated away.”

The opinion is bound to have a rippling effect. The case is actually part of a wave of atmospheric trust litigation (ATL) cases and petitions across the U.S. and in other countries. Launched by the group Our Children’s Trust in 2011, the legal campaign asserts youths’ rights to a stable climate system and seeks court-supervised climate recovery plans.

Recent victories in Massachusetts, Pakistan, the Netherlands and Washington state indicate widespread judicial concern over the political branches’ failure to confront the climate emergency. The youth plaintiffs hope that the dominoes continue to fall in their favor in time to thwart climate catastrophe.

As ATL moves forward globally, the Juliana case will proceed to trial as early as next summer or fall. The plaintiffs’ attorneys aim to show the government’s deliberate indifference to mounting climate danger.

Already dubbed “the trial of the century,” this is the first time that U.S. fossil fuel policy will confront climate science in court. Any government denial of climate change will have to confront the scrutiny of a fact-finding judge.

Consent degree from Obama?

The case also offers President Obama a fleeting opportunity.

Five days after the election, Secretary of State Kerry proclaimed that President Obama would use his last days in office to “do everything possible to meet our responsibility to future generations to be able to address this threat to life itself on the planet.”

If so, the most viable way might be to offer a partial settlement of the Juliana case before going to trial. One form of settlement could be an enforceable consent decree consisting of interim steps to halt further fossil-fuel mining and infrastructure development. Such a settlement would help secure Obama’s measures to close the Arctic to drilling and halt coal leasing on federal lands.

Young Americans could use a down payment on the colossal climate mortgage hanging over their future. And President Obama could use a climate legacy. It may be worth his time now to sit down with the “plucky millennials” who sued him to save the planet – before his time in office runs out.

The Conversation

Mary Wood, Philip H. Knight Professor of Law, University of Oregon; Charles W. Woodward, IV, Post Graduate Research Fellow, University of Oregon, and Michael C. Blumm, Jeffrey Bain Scholar & Professor of Law, Lewis & Clark

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What could the rest of the world do if Trump pulls the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change?

News of Drumpf’s election has had a deep impact on global climate talks now going on. IISD/ENB | Liz Rubin
News of Drumpf’s election has had a deep impact on global climate talks now going on. IISD/ENB | Liz Rubin

Henrik Selin, Boston University and Adil Najam, Boston University

Climate change negotiators from around the world – now meeting at the COP22 conference in Marrakech, Morocco – continue steadfastly with the task of putting meaning and action into the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement to bring down global greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, the tone in Marrakech has suddenly become more subdued. While many conversations remain staunchly defiant, others have assumed a funeral-like quality, as national delegates and civil society representatives try to assess the ramifications of the U.S. presidential election.

Elections have consequences for global climate change negotiations and the future of the planet.

 

President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly stated he does not believe in human-induced climate change. He has argued that climate change is an expensive hoax that was created by the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive. He has also declared his intent to roll back federal climate change and renewable energy policy. Most poignantly for Marrakech, he has loudly declared an intention to “cancel the Paris climate agreement.

 

Some cling to the hope that President Trump will forget pronouncements made by Candidate Trump just as Candidate Trump had ignored the pontifications of Citizen Trump. An important indicator of why this may not be the case is the appointment of Myron Ebell as head of the transition team for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ebell, also a front-runner to be appointed as head of the EPA, is an outspoken climate change denier who flat out rejects the Paris Agreement as unconstitutional.

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and likely head of the EPA in the Trump administration talks to Climate Home during COP21 in Paris.

Notwithstanding the mechanics of officially “leaving” the Paris Agreement – which stipulate a four-year process – how should the rest of the world respond if the Trump administration were to formally or informally disengage from the Paris Agreement?

We think there are at least four ways in which things can unfold.

Scenario 1: Walk out with the US

If the Trump administration decides to withdraw from the Paris Agreement then other major economies which are parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will have justification to do the same. This is de facto what happened with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol once it became clear that the U.S. would not ratify and was not serious about its implementation.

Not least because the Paris Agreement came together as a result of much diplomatic leadership by the Obama administration, other countries would feel a legitimate sense of anger and disappointment towards the United States if it were to walk away from the agreement.

 

Whether the walkout is a formal withdrawal from the agreement or an informal abdication from its responsibilities, the Paris Agreement would be effectively doomed as signatories fail to meet pledges to reduce country emissions made in Paris. The implication of such a scenario is that the UNFCCC negotiation process could just wither away and critical agreed-upon temperature goals would slip further out of reach.

 

Scenario 2: Kick the US out

As the world’s largest economy, although not by the margins it once was, and the world’s largest emitter of CO2, the U.S. remains central to the enterprise of curtailing global climate change, but arguably is no longer as indispensable as it once was.

Such a rationale and the anger that would be triggered by a U.S. walk-out of the Paris Agreement, particularly amongst the European Union (EU) and China, could induce the parties that remain serious about the agreement to adopt a retaliatory posture. While it would be unprecedented, countries could decide that a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement should have real consequences for U.S. involvement and participation in the U.N. climate change process.

If they were to do so, they would be taking a cue straight out of Donald Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal” and its key dictums of “fighting back very hard” and “using every leverage.” As Donald Trump puts it in his book: “The worst thing you can possibly do [is to] seem desperate… That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”

There has already been at least one suggestion that a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement should be met with not just forcing the U.S. out of all global climate arrangements but imposing “economic sanctions in the face of this [Trump’s] treaty-shredding lawlessness.”

 

 

Scenario 3: Wait it out

Even if a Trump administration is compelled to take early and visible action on the Paris Agreement to appease its political base, such action could be temporary – either because the reality of governance will eventually trump the necessity of politicking, or because the next election in four years could unseat the Trump administration.

Reasoning along such lines could compel the other countries to simply wait out any tantrums of the Trump administration. Essentially, this would mean ignoring U.S. theatrics in the hope that time will bring either sanity or a different president to the White House who would steer the U.S. back into support of the Paris provisions.

Other major powers, especially China, may also view this as an opportunity to assume international political and environmental leadership without fully igniting the wrath of a Trump White House by actively pushing the U.S. aside. Then the result could be a de facto sidelining of the United States as an essential player in global climate change politics, at least for a while.

 

Scenario 4: Engage the US

Unseemly as Donald Trump may seem to many countries on many levels, it is not easy – maybe not even possible – to ignore or sideline the world’s largest economy and still the only real superpower on the planet. On all sorts of international issues the world will have to learn to engage President Trump. This could also be the case for climate change.

Attendees at COP22 lament the victory of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and call on civil society to take greater action on climate change.
Photo by IISD/ENB | Liz Rubin

During the George W. Bush administration, other major actors kept negotiating with the United States even after its unequivocal rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. Back then other countries believed that the importance of the United States as both a leading political and economic power and greenhouse gas emitter was so great it was better to keep it inside the UNFCCC process.

Such engagement with the Trump administration can take place both through multilateral channels and in bilateral talks, mainly with China and the European Union. The question would be whether President Trump would be willing to remain engaged, and on what terms.

What should Marrakech do?

At one level the delegates at Marrakech can simply ignore the election results for now, especially when current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visits them Wednesday. After all, Barack Obama is still U.S. president. And no one – truly, no one – knows what a President Donald Trump might actually do, or not do, come January 20, 2017.

Perhaps it is wise for COP22 to remain mum for now. It would not be wise, however, for the world to not start preparing for different scenarios. The next COP does not meet until November 2017, somewhere in Asia. By then it may well be too late to think about options, probably from a negotiation perspective and certainly from the perspective of the planet’s health.

The Conversation

Henrik Selin, Associate Professor in the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University and Adil Najam, Dean, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.