Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Designers, planners and serious thinking about climate change

Two university teachers in planning and design wrote an article in the current Harvard Design Magazine titled Design for Rising Sea Levels. In spite of its title, the most important subject of the article is "our apparent inability to comprehend change that occurs not in dramatic steps, nor at a steady linear rate, but rather exponentially, starting out with a low slope that steepens over time."

This inability to comprehend is, most disappointingly, shared with the people who are responsible for planning the spacial and physical changes to the infrastructure and facilities we depend on as residents of our local areas. Sea level rise is an apt climate change impact to use because the preponderance of projections for how fast it will rise make it seem like not much of a threat. When most planners accept a pace of a foot of rise over the next 40 years, there's not much urgency there. A few sea walls, some levees, some pumps...no problemo.

But such estimates ignore the low percentage risks that the sea level might rise much faster than that. The two authors, Jonathan Barnett and Kristina Hill, have studied the actions of local planners and have concluded that for the most part, climate change has not yet shown up on their radars.

As far as we can tell, most designers and planners aren’t thinking seriously about climate change in the U.S. unless they work closely with the insurance industry, which is dropping tens of thousands of East Coast customers and raising rates on the rest, in part as a result of climate predictions. Ecologists all over the world also know that it’s a very big deal. The World Bank knows. But building and landscape architects, engineers, and planners don’t seem to have connected the dots. Jonathan, the other author of this article, worked on the first reconstruction plan for New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and saw the devastation from a storm surge that could have been prevented if the flood walls had been properly constructed. He became frustrated with the many comments from people outside New Orleans that the city had simply been built in the wrong location and ought to be a write-off, and he began to wonder what would happen if we applied the same standard to other places. Biloxi and other Gulf Coast cities also suffered severe damage from Katrina and Rita. Key West had flooding comparable to that in New Orleans from Rita. If we looked around the country at other vulnerable cities, we’d have to write off many more than New Orleans.
As I've blogged repeatedly in the past, the authors point to the insurance industry as the real bellweathers of change in perspective. They recommend that government policy-makers begin working with insurance companies to implement realistic planning for coastal areas subject to sea level rise.
By working with large insurance companies, government regulators could encourage rationality when either the private sector or public agencies make major investments in coastal urban futures. Important dialogues could begin about how to share the significant investment costs of adapting coastal areas to sea-level rise and new flooding patterns. Because they would bring insurers and institutional leaders together, these new investment and cost-sharing discussions provide a way to allow flexible design and planning solutions to emerge that would be insurable, politically feasible, and recognize the need for social equity in how citizens are protected from immediate and longer-term dangers.
This article makes it clear that even with minor sea level rise and occasional storm surges, the planning required to protect low-lying infrastructure is far from simple and affordable. The impacts on natural and man-made systems will be far-reaching. This is not the time for local planners to be sitting back and waiting for more dire predictions to come from climatologists. The changes are happening now and even best-case forecasts deserve serious mitigation efforts.

ESPACE learns what doesn't work in local adaptation planning

ESPACE (European Spacial Planning Adapting to Climate Events) is an international project acting on the belief - as stated by German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel - that,

"We have to start adapting to climate change now so as to not be overwhelmed by its economic and social consequences later."
Part I of this project took place between 2003 and 2007. It aimed "to promote awareness of the importance of adapting to climate change and to recommend that it is incorporated within spatial planning mechanisms at local, regional, national and European levels. Focussing on North West Europe, ESPACE [looked] at how we manage our water resources and plan for a future with a changing climate."

What ESPACE participants learned in those first four years was that adaptation planning - and the implementation of the resulting plans - come with problems, at least in the context of that chunk of time. Of course, our context is rapidly changing. Part II of the ESPACE project has begun and extends into 2008. Part II is introduced as follows:

Through the delivery of ESPACE Part I, we have found that there are some major obstacles to the delivery and implementation of adaptation to climate change at the local level.

ESPACE Part II will build on the earlier ESPACE work by developing some of the ideas and challenges that have been uncovered. Through a combination of research and two focused case studies, work will be undertaken to:

  • Examine why policies at higher levels promoting adaptation fail to be translated into actions on the ground. This will improve our understanding of what is needed in terms of co-ordination and management to achieve adaptation to climate change.

  • Develop an ‘Organisational Change Tool’ through in depth evidence and theory based research. This tool will give organisations a clear understanding of the things that need to work together and be supported for them to be able to respond to climate risks.

This is an important effort, because it applies some science to the exploration of how important and urgent action needs to be shepharded throught the maze of different agendas, value systems, priorities and perspectives. What things need to work together to achieve response? Hopefully, ESPACE will discover some answers for all of us who focus on local adaptation planning.

Local adaptation: making new water where there's not enough

The idea has been raised several times in the 25 years I've lived in Marin County, but this time there seems to be much more resolve around it - to build a desalination plant to provide potable water to supplement the county's watershed-collected source.

We've been through dry periods here since 1983; I distinctly remember a 7-year period spanning the late '80s and early '90s when low-volume showerheads were distributed and we all put bricks or filled plastic containers in our toilet tanks to conserve water. If we don't get at least our average rainfall this winter, we'll certainly be facing a water shortage next summer.

According to the drought forecast map maintained by the U.S. Government's National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) , Marin County sits near the northern boundary of the "persistent drought" region in the American Southwest. Just north of us is the region labeled "dought ongoing, some improvement."

The prospects look threatening enough that the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) has released a report to begin the environmental impact study of the various energy sources required to power the plant. The project is proposed to roll out in three progressive stages, each adding 5 million gallons a day to the county's supply. In addition to adding water, the project adds substantionally to the county's energy needs.

The energy requirements summarized in Table 1 indicate that the projected electricity demand for operation of a new desalination plant will be substantial, representing an 85%, 162% and 246% increase above current MMWD electricity needs for the 5 mgd, 10 mgd and 15 mgd capacity phases, respectively.
The county is considering many alternative energy sources, from methane harvested at the county landfill to photovoltaic arrays and even tidal energy generators. This could be a good test case of how fast adaptation planning can progress at this time, when a crisis may be looming within the next year. We've got the situation in Georgia staring us in the face - a stark illustration of what happens to a region without a backup plan for drought.

Even in the best case scenario, Marin won't be harvesting potable water from the San Francisco Bay in time to alleviate a water shortage in 2008. But will there be enough public support to fast-track this alternative water supply? Or will the project entail too many environmental questions and compromises to gain the support of Marin's varied constituencies?

Monday, November 26, 2007

And then? A writer dares to ask the question

Tom Engelhardt, creator of the TomDispatch website and fellow at The Nation Institute, wrote a moving essay that questions why major American media have been so obviously avoiding the question of What if Atlanta - a city of 4.5 million - actually runs out of water?

I'm not simply being apocalyptic here. I'm just asking. It's not even that I expect answers. I'd just like to see a crew of folks with the necessary skills explore the "and then" question for the rest of us. Try to connect a few dots, or tell us if they don't connect, or just explain where the dots really are.
Of course, I've been asking this question all along in Climate Frog. I just don't qualify as "major media," or even - at this point - "minor media." I'm a guy looking at the reality and wondering when - like the frog - we're going to cop to what's going on and start making some contingency plans. For Atlanta, it's late in the game. The plans should have been made long ago. Engelhardt is not judgmental in his essay; he's looking at the big picture, where many regions are facing the "what then" question and many millions of people stand to be affected to a life-or-death degree.
I know answers to the "and then" question are not easy or necessarily simple. But if drought -- or call it "desertification" -- becomes more widespread, more common in heavily populated parts of the globe already bursting at the seams (and with more people arriving daily), if whole regions no longer have the necessary water, how many trails of tears, how many of those mass migrations or civilizational collapses are possible? How much burning and suffering and misery are we likely to experience? And what then?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Agricultural Adaptation in the Central Valley

California's semi-arid Central Valley is one of the great garden regions of the world, but its fertility depends almost entirely on water transported over distance to irrigate its fields, vinyards and orchards. In recent decades, many farmers have converted acreage from annually-planted field crops to permanent crops such as nuts and grapes. But as this L.A. Times story describes, the current drought and changes in state water allocations is forcing many farmers to consider reversing the process. The impact will first hit the farmers themselves, forcing them to adapt their businesses to a more uncertain future water supply. But in the short run, it doesn't seem that consumers will need to adjust to shortages or higher prices. There are still fruits and vegetables being produced in Central and South America.

"My water manager calls it an impending Armageddon, and I would probably agree with that," said Bob Polito, who grows avocados in Valley Center in San Diego County.

California farmers probably will take 82,000 acres out of cultivation next year if the state gets an average amount of rain and snow this winter, according to a study commissioned by Western Growers, which represents the California and Arizona produce industries.

The economic loss would reach at least $69 million in farm production, according to the study.

Prices for consumers probably wouldn't change because cuts in supply could be replaced by imports. But the state's overall agricultural output would be affected, said Chris Scheuring, a lawyer with the California Farm Bureau Federation's natural resources and environmental division.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A UK Q&A - "Can we avoid more flooding?"

The BBC invited its Web readers to submit questions to an expert on urban flooding about the chances that the widespread and severe flooding of this past spring and summer would repeat itself in the future.

Given the wake-up call from the extensive damage, localities and the national government have said all the right things about improvements in flood mitigation and readiness. Professor Tom Coulthard, of the Department of Geography at the University of Hull points out some of the all-too-human obstacles to the most obvious solutions.

First there's the issue of who owns the responsibility for factors like flood water drainage.

There is an interesting split in responsibilities here, as gulleys at the edge of the road are the responsibility of the local council. However, the sewers that the gulleys drain into are the responsibility of the local water utility.
Then there's the issue of whether property owners will consent to having their property registered as being in a flood zone.

Your local water utility should have a DG5 register of properties/areas liable to flooding from sewers, and it may help to be registered on that. But people are reluctant to do this as it may blight houses when it comes to re-selling them.

There were several questions - of course - about allowing development on flood plains. This is being made more difficult by zoning restrictions, but some places still seem to be able to force development through, based on local economic benefits. Professor Coulthard described the following idea as one way to develop a flood plain with minimal land use and coverage by paving.

Multi storey development, with water resistant garages in the ground floor - that can be flooded is one idea that could allow for development on floodplains. I think we need to be creative and think more about living with flooding rather than just trying to stop it.

For most of the questions, the professor had no clear black and white answers. His final sentence summed it up: "It is a difficult issue though and there is no simple answer." We've made so many changes in the natural shape of the land in our watersheds, that property rights get in the way of wise land use. Only if Nature reclaims its natural flood plains through repeated destruction will we let loose of the lands we've occupied so boldly.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Adapt: more smart people agree

The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment (yep, THAT Heinz - of the 57 varieties, the late U.S. senator and Teresa Kerry) published a survey in October examining adaptation planning guidebooks and frameworks and adaptation planning efforts that are currently underway. I've blogged one of the guidebooks, written by the U. of Washington and King County, WA here. In this article, I'm pointing to a second guidebook featured in the survey.

Cities Preparing for Climate Change: A Study of Six Urban Regions, was written and published in May 2007 by the Clean Air Partnership of Toronto. As stated in its Executive Summary:

The study provides lessons from the experience of six of these early adapters: London, New York, Boston, Halifax, Vancouver and Seattle. The report also outlines a systematic process for municipalities to adapt to a changing climate and provides many examples of municipal adaptation policies and specific adaptation measures and actions from the cities studied.
The six city study was meant to serve as an initial scan of Toronto's climate risk exposure. Ian Burton, Scientist Emeritus, Environment Canada wrote the Introduction and he states the overall case for adaptation - as differentiated from mitigation - very well.
The benefits of adaptation fall largely where the costs are expended. If a city protects itself from storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, invasive pests, species, and diseases, it is the people of the city that benefit. Their environment is better, their health is more protected, and their economic activities are less liable to damage and disruption. Many political leaders and business managers in cities have enlightened attitudes to the problem of climate change and would like to make a contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and so they should. However, mitigation requires action at senior levels of government – provincially, federally and internationally. The primary task of municipal leaders is to care for their own citizens. That is what they are elected to do.

Why should the leaders of Toronto and other Canadian municipalities grasp the threats and opportunities of climate change adaptation vigorously with both hands? They should act because adaptation is now an imperative, and because it is primarily their responsibility to see that it happens. This research by CAP is therefore timely and appropriate.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Adapt or Croak

That's the Climate Frog speaking, but don't you think she has a point? If only because a frog (not an alarmist blogger) is saying it, it's not a scary statement. It's a plain and simple choice.

In fact, it's the next great human adventure, but this time - unlike with other historic societal cataclysms - we've got the benefits of science, research, forecasting, high tech inventions and the Internet to help us prepare intelligently for what's coming down the pike.

I say adapt locally, for that's where you can have the greatest effect. But network globally, for that's where you get the big picture.

It's a mistake to think that you're adapting only for new weather patterns in your neck of the woods. You're adapting to the impact in your neck of the woods of changes that are happening elsewhere, miles or thousands of miles distant, not all of them climate-driven:

  • changing climate all over the world, which will affect the global economy
  • changing climate where your food comes from, which will affect what you can buy and eat
  • the inexorable rise in fuel prices, which will make everything you buy (and everywhere you go) more expensive
  • the increasing level of dysfunction in national governments (I'm sure you've noticed) that puts responsibility for smart decision-making in the local community
  • the distraction of global leadership and sidetracking of big money into war and wealth maintenance rather than environmental restoration
Yes, we've had a comparatively affluent and stable ride (at least we lucky few) for most of the years since WWII. But as Jared Diamond points out in his exceptionally illustrative book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, societies tend to be both short-sighted and near-sighted. Leaders set the wrong priorities and followers, well, they tend to comply with those priorities.

There's no guarantee that the increasingly fragmented and stratified American experiment is going to last in its current state until its 300th birthday. Certainly not if it we don't all do our parts - in our own local communities - to prepare intelligently and collectively for how things are going to be, and to prepare our kids and grandkids for the world they'll inherit from us.

This is a good thing, folks. It will be challenging, but uplifting. Frustrating but inspiring. Disruptive but oddly comforting. Adaptation is what we do now, in how we live sustainably.

But adaptation is also voting loudly to demand that our governments and our big industries reset their priorities and lead the world in the right direction for all, not just for the elite few. There's still time for our society to choose to succeed.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Voting on local transportation - Get your assessments straight

Gristmill provides a great article on Seattle regional transportation initiatives voted on in the recent election. In "Transportation and climate get hitched," Eric de Place describes how "voters just sank an $18 billion transportation megaproposal that would have built more than 180 lanes miles of highway and 50 miles of light rail."

The local media seems to have missed the most significant factor in the vote - the extent to which climate impact concerns drove voters' choices. And that voters on both sides of the issue - for and against the proposal - considered that their votes were pro-environment.

In the run-up to the vote, a surprising amount of the debate centered on the package's climate implications. (The state has committed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and many cities, including Seattle, have been national leaders on climate.)

The opposition argued global warming. So did the measure's supporters. If you don't believe me, see, among others, the Seattle P-I (yes), The Stranger (no), the Yes Campaign, the Sierra Club's No Campaign, the right-leaning Washington Policy Center (no), and even the anti-tax/rail No Campaign, which oddly enough kept trumpeting the Sierra Club's opposition as a primary reason to vote no.

The turning point may have been when King County Executive Ron Sims suddenly withdrew his support. He cited the climate-warming emissions from added traffic as one of his chief objections -- he was thinking about his granddaughters, he said, not just the next five years.

King County, of course, is one of the more active American counties in doing local adaptation planning, and is a primary contributor to Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments.

But as Gristmill points out, even in such an environmentally conscious area, there was no comprehensive impact assessment done to inform the voters of the tradeoffs of supporting or not supporting the proposal. If voters are going to be in control of local adaptation planning, it's essential that such huge issues as highway expansion and widening and light rail systems be put under the microscope so that voters understand the short- and long-range impacts of their implementation.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

California water shortage warnings

It's not just Marin, with its plans to start desalinating Bay water, or just southern California with its record dry spell, but it's the rest of the Sierra snowpack-dependent portion of the state that's facing possible rationing. So say the water authorities in this SF Chronicle piece. La Nina is back and it's being blamed for the prolonged drought in the American Southeast already.

California needs an especially wet winter if it is to fill its reservoirs and abide by court-ordered restrictions to reduce pumping by up to a third from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, said John Leahigh, a top administrator with the State Water Project.

That is particularly true in the Sierra Nevada, which stores much of the state's water supply in its winter snowpack. But so far, there is no indication of wintertime salvation.

Government experts predict much of the country will have a warmer and drier winter than normal because of moderate La Nina conditions, in which air cools over the Pacific and the jet stream gets pushed farther north.

But it's already been drier than normal, and unless we get way above normal rain and snow this winter, we'll already be starting with a deficit come next year's dry season. The environmental protection of the Delta Smelt has also prompted a court order to pump less water out of the Sacramento river that would normally go to agriculture and domestic users.

The amount of rain and snowfall California received during the 2007 water year — measured between September 2006 and Oct. 1 of this year — was the lowest since 1988. Southern California is experiencing a record dry spell, leading officials in Los Angeles to warn about mandatory rationing for the first time since 1991.

The dry conditions have left state and federal reservoirs below normal levels. Additionally, state water managers over the summer had to draw down reservoirs to make up for the court decision that halted pumping from the delta for several weeks.

Adaptation would entail learning to use less water in all applications at home, for business and for recreation. But some lawmakers don't seem to want their constituents to have to change habits, and are now writing legislation that would allow - and fund - localities to build their own dams.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session to address the state's water supply, although those efforts have stalled over a disagreement about building dams. He has proposed a $10.3 billion bond to add reservoirs and underground storage, increase water recycling and promote conservation programs.

Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, has floated a $6.8 billion bond that would allow communities to compete for state grants to build their own dams, improve water efficiency, recycle water and store more water underground.

Monday, November 5, 2007

No salt, please. Desalinating the Bay for Marin

My home county does not, like most of California, depend on snow melt from the Sierras for its water supply. Nor does it, like most of the remaining regions, rely on water from a river. Marin - specifically southern and middle Marin - gets its water from seven reservoirs in the hills covering the central region of the county. These catch run-off from Mt. Tamalpais and its greater water shed. But the rising population and the needs of more large houses with expensive landscaping have combined with the acknowledgement of a greater chance of drought to create a need for another source of water.

I've mentioned the option of a desalination plant, sucking water from the San Francisco Bay and filtering it by reverse osmosis. Now, the talk has escalated to a public environmental impact hearing at the Marin Municipal Water District HQ, where the $115 million first stage plant will be described. No, there are no funds available for the plant; new taxes and/or higher water bills would raise the money. And no, there is no firm plan for mitigating damage from the return of concentrated brine to the bay after the pure water is extracted. Nor is there a plan for generating the electricity required to run the plant, especially in the case of drought, when the plant would need to produce up to twice as much drinking water as during more normal times.

So, lots of unanswered questions. But at least it's a sign that my county is thinking adaptively. Hopefully, this proposal will be accompanied by more public education about conserving the water we have now, when we're only in a mildly drier than normal period.