Climate change

Sustainable Development and Massive Tree Planting

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Earlier this year at a UN Assembly meeting in Beijing, Secretary General Antonio Gutteres stressed to world leaders that the time for transitional change is now; we have only 10 to 12 years to prevent the 1.5 degree global temperature change that indicates a point of no return, and “no country or community is immune,” as the Secretary General reminded the attendees. “As we know, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer, and the worst hit,” said Mr. Guterres. The solution lies in green and sustainable development, or projects that align with the Paris accord and the UN 2030 Agenda.

With this urgency serving as a global cultural backdrop, researchers at ETH Zurich, a university that specializes in science and engineering, have quantified a common question: can aggressively planting and developing forests absorb atmospheric carbon and buy us more time?

Researchers determined that the planet can sustain 2.5 billion additional acres of forest without including existing cities and farms, and that these additional trees could store 200 gigatons of carbon poured into the atmosphere by industrial activity.

The studies authors declared that 2/3 of historic carbon emissions could be reabsorbed by this massive development. While critics of the study maintain the amount would be closer to 1/3, the findings are still significant and even though it’s just a hypothetical thought exercise, the move could put a serious dent in the damage inflicted on the planet during the past 150 years.

“The new information simply allows us to re-prioritize investment into the restoration of forests and the conservation of existing forests as this has more potential for carbon capture than we could have anticipated,” according to the senior author of the study.

As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which is returned to the soil when the trees die and decompose. Just short list of countries with the space and terrain available for massive tree plantings could accommodate almost all of the 2.5 billion acres that would be needed to stave off climate change: Russia tops the list, followed by the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil and China.

Now the most important question remains: who will organize this effort, and who will plant the trees?

Climate Change and the US: Where to Move?

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This article published in the Guardian, while a bit sensational in tone, raises a question that many of us have been contemplating as the climate changes, weather becomes volatile, and policy actions fail to materialize: If certain parts of the United States become uncomfortable or uninhabitable, where will the occupants of those places migrate to? If our region of the country experiences untenable heat waves or flooding that we can’t properly insure our homes against, many of us may decide to move. But when we recognize that it’s time to pack up and go, how will we choose a destination?

For many of us, this remains a simple thought exercise. Our jobs, families and home equity determine our location for us, and we haven’t yet experienced any storms, fires or floods that have the power to permanently drive us out. But for those who live on vulnerable coastlines, the question takes on growing significance every year. And according to the researchers who contributed to the article, the answer can be summed up roughly in two directions: North and west.

Dangers Facing Southern and Coastal Homes

While Florida has experienced a sharp upward curve in population over the past few decades, most of the southern tip of the state will experience rising sea levels, increasing floods and a general increase in water-related damage and threats. Insuring homes in southern Florida will become more difficult and expensive, and most of what we now recognize as the coast will become submerged over the next ten years. The Gulf Coast will also become increasingly subject to flooding and storm damage, and the integrity of the coastline will become increasingly inappropriate for construction with every passing year as sea levels continue to rise. So Florida and Gulf Coast states are due for a population drift northward, in some cases to inland cities and in many cases out of the region altogether.

Why Go West?

Portland University climate change expert Vivak Shandas recommends destinations “above the 42nd parallel”, or the line that divides NY and PA in the east and Oregon and CA in the west. Moving north provides a buffer against blistering heat waves, and heading west can remove the threat of rising seas and property damage from elevated water tables. According to Shandas and also Jesse Kenan, a climate expert at Harvard, plenty of population centers inland and relatively close to the Great Lakes will offer a perfect refuge, especially those that fall east or west of the tornado corridors in the great plains.

Another things to consider: proactive municipal decisions that are likely to protect citizens from personal and financial damage. New York City, for example, appears geographically vulnerable (it’s a small island), but massive investments recently poured into infrastructure and flood protection are likely to minimize dangers over the long term. By contrast, unprepared urban areas will suffer a double impact as unrestrained flooding and storms drive residents away and weaken population and tax bases.

We don’t know what the future holds for population centers around the world, but the decision to move is often deeply personal. When the time comes to relocate, financial resources, family mobility, and destination choices will all play a critical role. Read more here.

2018: One of the Four Hottest Years on Record

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In 138 years of modern record keeping, 2018 appears to be the fourth hottest year so far. (According to NASA, modern records began in 1880, because previous observations can’t provide information about large enough sections of the planet.)

This appears on the surface to be nothing more than a dry statistical point, and in fact, we make an effort on this page not to post about data points like this, since they aren’t very memorable and carry little weight when left to stand on their own. The planet is hot and getting measurably hotter—On paper that’s not a surprise, and it doesn’t mean very much to those who aren’t feeling its direct effects.

But with each passing year, and each measurable but seemingly small temperature increase,

the circle of people who DO feel those direct effects grows wider and wider. Those who are trying to raise their families and make a living in New Delhi or Arizona can simply step outside to feel that this August brings pressures and strains different from those of previous years. But those who live in more temperate climates are also experiencing changes they may not fully recognize. Here are a few:

California is experiencing the largest fire in state history.

Staple grain harvests (wheat and corn) will be lower this fall than in past years, in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Heat related deaths have climbed sharply in Japan.

Electricity grids have crashed due to heat waves on four different continents.

17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001. Industrial emissions of CO2 grew to record levels in 2017, and sea levels continued rising by about three inches globally.

What does this mean for us, and why are we posting a blog about it? Our reason is simple: because the increase in global temperature is by no means leveling off. This increase isn’t an event in the distant future, or the recent past. The climb is taking place as we speak, and trends indicate that next year each of the lines under scrutiny (global temperature, sea levels, heat-related human mortality, etc) will only increase from its current position this summer. The impact of this year’s (and next year’s) heat waves and weather patterns will undoubtedly impact food supply and electricity grids just as they have this year, only more so.

In other words, the time has come to accept that climate change is our current reality—but not our current “normal”. Next year will not resemble this year, and the year after will also bring its own unique measurements and challenges to the systems and institutions that sustain us.

Support for Strategic Ethical Investing

We’ve shared posts in the past that deal with the subject of ethical financial divestment, or the act of divesting funds and portfolios away from the production and refinement of coal, oil, and natural gas. This move represents a comparatively low-effort, high-impact decision for many individuals and institutions, since the fossil fuel industry gains substantial oxygen from institutional portfolios (universities, 401Ks, health systems, etc). Ride-sharing and turning off unused appliances can make a difference, and so can similar moves on behalf of institutions and companies. But conservation should go hand in hand with broad financial decisions that reallocate funds to cleaner and greener businesses.

With that in mind, some conscientious investors are working toward both divestment from fossil fuels AND investment in solar and renewable money-makers that can still carry them toward retirement (in the case of individuals) and financial stability (institutions and non-profits.) The New York Times recently introduced us to an organization that facilitates this process, called DivestInvest (www.Divestinvest.org). Targeting healthcare institutions, trust funds, foundations, governments, private companies and individuals, the organization takes pledges from those who are willing to commit to its global clean energy goals. Not sure where to put your recently- or soon-to-be divested holdings? Check in with DivestInvest to find organizations who have taken the pledge.

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If you have the freedom to do so (which individuals typically do while institutions sometimes do not), review your portfolio and make some changes…but be careful. You’ll still need to choose funds and vehicles that meet your standards regarding returns and fee structures, and some commitments are more extensive than others. In total, the organizations and individuals who have taken the pledge have managed assets totaling six trillion USD, including foundations that have agreed to commit five percent of their holdings to clean and renewable technologies.

As is often the case, these efforts may not be quite enough to bring us closer to a collective tipping point at which we alter the trajectory of increasing fossil fuel use. But every action that slows the rise can be considered a move toward the ultimate goal: achieving a change in course before we reach an all-important global two-degree increase. Momentum in either direction matters as much as course and speed, and DivestInvest seems to be driving momentum by reducing the feeling of risk associated with investment shifts. By normalizing the process of conscientious reallocation, they’re paving the way for the rest of us.

 

Oh Honeybees, Where Have You Gone?

In 2006, honeybee populations began plummeting across the nation in a mysterious fashion—entire colonies would suddenly disappear or die, leaving behind a queen, a few larvae and a skeleton crew of workers to hold the operation together, a task they often failed to manage. The result (dead bees, empty hives and unpollinated plants) left a widening circle of stakeholders—beekeepers, biologists, agriculture industry monitors—scratching their heads. Over the next few years, the mystery evolved into a genuine crisis, and the circle of affected populations began to expand. Calculators were produced, numbers were entered, charts were drawn, and dollar signs entered the equation.

As bee-watchers know, colony collapse disorder (CCD) was recognized by 2013 as a major threat to agricultural production, national food distribution, and by extension, national security. On the way down that path, food prices were expected to soar to unsustainable levels while bee populations plummeted into extinction.

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But the path toward disaster—or toward salvation-- is never quite so straight and predictable as even the most highly trained experts imagine. As scientists began closing in on the root causes of CCD, a few consecutive hard winters accelerated the problem by killing even more bees, and then the decline appeared to slow. Bee populations have by no means recovered, but a stall in the downward slide has experts once again searching for clues.

While no single definitive answer has appeared that can easily explain the threat, here are a few of the top suspects:

·         An invasive species of pest called the varroa mite

·         Emerging diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis (a virus) and Nosema (a gut parasite)

·         Agricultural pesticide poisoning

·         Stressful changes to the bee’s habitat.

Two new developments are also intervening which appear to be affecting bee populations in real time:

·         Temperature and weather fluctuations have become more extreme as a result of rising global temperatures. While harsh winters have been shown to devastate populations of the bees themselves, how will extreme temperatures—from high heat to extreme cold, including unusually warm winters—impact populations of mites and gut parasites?

·         The EPA, the USDA and the Justice Department have taken on new leadership. Under the current administration, The EPA is working to reduce funding for the Justice Department, which relies on EPA support to prosecute environmental polluters. Here’s a brief update on these developing events.

The current EPA is also working to present itself as industry-friendly, which may undermine ongoing attempts to examine pesticide use, determine its impact on bee populations, and enforce appropriate regulations.

The release of this report  in 2013 by the EPA marked the high point of the pollinator crisis, but leadership changes in the EPA may alter the trajectory of progress made since the report’s release.

All the same, grant funding is still available for those who seek answers. If you’re working to resolve this mystery and follow the facts where they lead, get started by clicking here.  Meanwhile, contact our office for more information on where the honeybee crisis appears to be heading and why.