Climate Change Threatens Cherished Sites around the Planet
May 25, 2016
Seth Shulman / Catalyst Magazine & Union of Concerned Scientists
Ancient buildings, wilderness, and historic in virtually every nation -- from the Taj Mahal to the Great Barrier Reef – are now at risk from unprecedented climate-driven storms and floods. In the US, much of America's natural and cultural heritage – from the Statue of Liberty and Mesa Verde National Park – face imminent threats from climate change and extreme weather events.
Cherished Sites at Risk around the Globe
UCS teams up with the United Nations to assess climate threats to key World Heritage sites
Seth Shulman / Catalyst Magazine
(Spring 2016) -- The Union of Concerned Scientists broke new ground with its 2014 report National Landmarks at Risk. Focusing on imminent climate threats to iconic American destinations such as the Statue of Liberty and Mesa Verde National Park, the report forcefully brought home a message that the effects of climate change are already occurring -- endangering beloved pieces of America's natural and cultural heritage.
Picked up widely by the media, including coverage on network television's nightly news, the report helped transcend the partisan divide over climate change because the undeniable impacts it chronicled were occurring at places cherished by all Americans regardless of their political affiliation.
National Landmarks at Risk started a conversation in the United States and abroad that has spurred action in some surprising circles. Most recently, UCS was approached by UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- to partner on a new report looking at climate threats to World Heritage sites around the globe.
Forthcoming later this spring, the report will be a joint production of UCS, UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
UNESCO began designating World Heritage sites in 1972 to recognize and protect natural and cultural properties around the globe deemed to hold "outstanding universal value."
The buildings, wilderness, and historic ruins listed in virtually every nation confer recognition, prestige, and often tourist income for some of the globe's most distinctive places, from the Taj Mahal to the Great Barrier Reef. Now, many of these places (including those pictured here) face unprecedented climate-driven challenges.
"One of the important messages of this work is that the effects of climate change are all around us, affecting not just places we know and care about, but the whole fabric of our cultural heritage that goes along with that," says Adam Markham, deputy director of the UCS Climate and Energy Program and head of the UCS climate impacts team.
"Many climate scientists are so focused on the natural threats we face that they tend to overlook the very real threat to cultural resources. By focusing on World Heritage sites in partnership with UNESCO, we're able to collaborate with a whole new set of players."
With its extraordinary medieval and Renaissance architecture, Venice has been a tourist magnet for centuries, but the city is now under severe threat from climate-driven sea level rise.
Despite an elaborate network of 79 floodgates due to be completed in 2016 at a cost of some $5 billion, high-tide flooding in the city has already increased seven-fold in the last century, with much worse flooding anticipated in the years to come.
The health and future of thousands of native villagers, their traditional practices, and cultural heritage hangs in the balance as rapid climate change tightens its grip on Alaska.
Of the state's 213 native villages, 184 are already experiencing severe problems related to flooding and erosion. Many will almost certainly have to relocate within the next decade, and more than 30 were identified six years ago by the US government as already facing an "imminent threat."
The Great Barrier Reef
The world's most extensive coral reef ecosystem, covering an area of more than 134,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef comprises some 2,500 individual coral reefs of varying size and more than 900 islands ranging from small, sandy cays to large, rugged continental islands that collectively include some of the most spectacular marine biodiversity in the world.
Like other coral reefs worldwide, the Great Barrier Reef now faces enormous stress from higher sea temperatures and ocean acidification, which kill coral and therefore threaten the entire ecosystem.
Hotter temperatures and drier conditions driven by climate change led to massive wildfires in early 2016 that burned more than 260,000 acres of northwestern Tasmania.
Though some of Tasmania's vegetation, such as eucalyptus, has adapted to wildfires, many of the recent blazes raged through ancient forests -- with trees often more than 1,000 years old that have not adapted to fire -- killing the trees and their seeds, making natural regeneration all but impossible.
Gullah-Geechee Nation, Southeast United States
Members of the Gullah-Geechee Nation are descendants of African slaves who, living in relative isolation on the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina, developed their own unique language and culture. Today they face rapid sea level rise and coastal erosion. UCS has met with members of the community to share information and help develop climate resilience plans.
America's Post-Paris Climate To-do List
Nine Experts' Top Priorities for a Low-Carbon Future
Union of Concerned Scientists
Note: The Paris climate agreement of December 2015 was a milestone of truly historic proportions as nearly 200 countries committed to the goal of holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2°C above preindustrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.
However, scientific analysis has shown that the specific commitments made so far by the United States and other countries will likely fall far short of meeting these goals. In other words, we have our work cut out for us.
What exactly do we need to do to live up to the Paris agreement? What should our priorities be? To help envision the road to a low-carbon future, the Union of Concerned Scientists consulted some of the world's leading experts.
The nine responses included here present some of the key steps we need to take now. But we at UCS also want to hear from you, our members, about the steps you think are most important -- and the ones you're taking now -- on the road to a sustainable climate. See the box below about how you can join the discussion.
Accelerate the Shift to Renewables
William Moomaw is professor of international environmental policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He was a coordinating lead author of the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report's chapter on greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and of the IPCC special report on renewable energy in 2010.
A remarkable transformation has begun as the world moves swiftly away from the unsustainable fossil fuel economy of the 19th century into a resilient clean energy economy today. Although much work lies ahead, this transformation is already occurring with strong bipartisan support and business leadership.
For example, 53 of the world's largest businesses -- including Apple, BMW, Google, Microsoft, and Walmart -- have pledged to source 100 percent of the electricity they use from renewable sources. A few firms have already met this goal.
Consider that solar power comprised 32 percent of all new electric generating capacity in the United States last year -- a 12-fold increase in the amount of photovoltaic installations since just five years ago.
Wind power now generates about 5 percent of our nation's electricity and, in some regions, already costs less than natural gas– and coal-fired generation. Texas alone nearly doubled its wind energy generation between 2009 and 2014.
The important message is that a low-carbon future is well within our reach at a modest cost. The United States has the technology to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 and, according to a recent study by Energy and Environmental Economics, could achieve these reductions with outlays of around 1 percent of the nation's gross domestic product per year.
In addition to a safer climate, moving away from fossil fuels will reduce deaths and disabling health impacts from air pollution, lessen destructive extraction practices, improve America's trade balance, and increase our energy security.
Such reductions, coupled with end-use efficiency gains and increases in carbon uptake by our nation's forests and soils, can bring us to an economy free of carbon pollution and a climate that will sustain us.
Increase Clean Energy R&D
Ernest Moniz is US secretary of energy and the former Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems at MIT, where he was a faculty member since 1973. This contribution is excerpted, with his permission, from a speech he gave at the United Nations Environment Programme's Sustainable Innovation Forum in Washington, DC, in December.
At the Department of Energy, where our responsibilities include the majority of US government support for clean energy technology innovation, our theme has been innovation as an enabler for pursuing our climate agenda successfully over many, many time scales.
From the short time scale where we need to continue the impressive deployments of clean energy technologies, to the intermediate, to the very long time scale when the kinds of ambition that we are talking about in the context of current commitments will not look nearly ambitious enough as we get to midcentury and beyond, when we are talking not about 25 or 30 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but about 80 to 100 percent reductions in emissions.
Our view is that there is a very important kind of virtuous cycle of innovation, of increased deployment, and of cost reduction of these technologies. That paradigm is well established.
If I look at just the time period from the Copenhagen conference to [the Paris] conference, we have seen cost reductions of wind, solar, batteries, LEDs that range from 40 to 90 percent. And it's no accident that, certainly in the United States, we have seen deployments increase three-fold for wind, 20-fold for solar, 200-fold for LEDs.
This is the paradigm that I believe we have to sustain. We have to keep working at it. It will be, in my view, a very critical foundation for the kind of increasing ambition that we need to see, year-by-year and decade by decade.
Put a Global Price on Carbon
Steven Chu is a Nobel laureate in physics and former US secretary of energy. He is professor of physics and molecular and cellular biology at Stanford University and a member of the board of Inventys, a carbon capture company. This is excerpted, with his permission, from his op-ed "Making a Fair Deal on Carbon," which appeared in the Boston Globe on January 15, 2016.
As we move to make good on the commitments nations made in Paris, global carbon emissions need to be capped below 3.7 trillion tons of carbon dioxide if there is a 50 percent chance of staying below the 2°C target. More than half of this allotment has already been used up since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and, at our current emissions rate, the remainder will be gone in about 30 years.
Clearly, the remaining carbon budget is a precious resource, but cap-and-trade allocations start from existing levels of emissions. It is prima facie unfair to allow developed countries to pollute more because they were historically the biggest polluters.
A global carbon tax avoids the intractable problem of how to allocate carbon emissions credits between developed and developing countries, and levies the highest taxes on the biggest emitters.
If countries are unwilling to levy a cost on carbon, the playing field can be leveled with suitable border tariffs on goods imported into participating countries. In addition, the wealthiest countries still need to help less developed countries in this transition.
The most important aspect of a carbon tax that rises inexorably is that it will unleash scientific ingenuity, innovation, and market investments that are still needed to combat climate change. In the last six years, the cost of solar modules plunged to 20 percent of 2008 prices and, in many areas of the world, the life cycle cost of wind and solar energy is dropping below the cost of fossil energy.
However, the cost of decarbonizing the first 25 percent of the world economy is far less than the cost of decarbonizing the last 25 percent. A meaningful, and timely, global price on carbon is essential to get us to where we have to be in the coming decades. Otherwise, to quote Martin Luther King Jr., "There is such a thing as being too late."
De-carbonize the Transportation Sector
Margo Oge worked for 32 years at the Environmental Protection Agency, most recently as director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality, where she led President Obama's initiative to halve global warming emissions from light-duty vehicles by 2025. The recipient of presidential awards in the Clinton and Bush administrations, she is currently a distinguished fellow at ClimateWorks and a UCS board member.
We have many tools available to meet the commitments made in the Paris agreement, but none is more important than cleaning up the transportation sector, which currently consumes more of the oil used in the United States than all other sectors combined.
When the Environmental Protection Agency set 2025 limits for carbon emissions for cars at half of 2010 levels, automakers were given flexibility on how to reach the target, relying largely on proven technologies available today.
Many automakers have developed innovations including more-efficient gas engines and lighter construction materials. Some companies are also investing in plug-in electric vehicles; others are focusing on hybrids or fuel cells.
So far, all have met their interim goals and they do not have to invent anything new to meet the 2025 standards. Continuing to strengthen these standards is critical.
Paris should be viewed as a waypoint on a longer-term trajectory. That trajectory will require deployment of new advanced technologies and fuels that propel further reductions into the midcentury.
Passenger cars will not only have to go farther on less fuel, but will need to travel more of those miles on cleaner alternative fuels. Federal fuel standards are supporting the use of more advanced and cellulosic biofuels, and states are showing leadership on clean fuels policies.
We will also need new standards to encourage the widespread adoption of low-cost electric vehicles (EVs), with a goal of having these EVs make up 20 percent of new car sales by 2030. We need strong incentives such as tax credits, federal funding for battery research, and government commitments to buy electric and low-emissions vehicles.
The next US president will have a big responsibility: to honor the commitments we made in Paris and to reduce the risk of climate change for generations to come. Any successful approach will need to cut oil use, spur innovation, and make steady progress on lower-emissions fuels.
Protect -- and Restore -- Earth's Forests
Doug Boucher is a scientific advisor for, and former director of, the UCS Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative. He has participated in United Nations (UN) climate negotiations since 2007, and used his expertise in the preservation of tropical forests to help shape US and UN policies that curtail global warming emissions.
The historic agreement reached in Paris included provisions that make the land sector -- essentially, our planet's forests and farmland -- central to how humanity will deal with climate change in the rest of the 21st century.
To stabilize the climate, nearly 200 countries in Paris determined that global emissions of heat-trapping gases have to peak and begin dropping as soon as possible.
Critically, the agreement requires emissions to reach a balance with sequestration -- the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by forests and other vegetation -- in the second half of the century. The scientific shorthand for this goal is that we need to reach net zero emissions after 2050.
In other words, we'll no longer be contributing to making climate change worse. One essential way to accomplish this, as outlined in the agreement's Article 5, is by protecting today's forests and, through restoration, creating new ones.
Currently, deforestation is responsible for about 10 percent of the planet's emissions of heat-trapping gases. Not only does that have to end, but we'll also need new growth of forests and other natural ecosystems if we're to reach the long-term goal of balancing emissions with sequestration.
Humanity has been destroying Earth's forests for millennia; the Paris agreement means that we've reached a fundamental turning point in that relationship.
Ratchet Up Nations' Climate Commitments
Alden Meyer is director of strategy and policy at UCS and the organization's principal advocate on national and international climate policy. He has attended the UN climate negotiations since their inception in 1990 and his expertise has helped shape US and UN policies.
The Paris agreement made history with its aggressive goal to hold the increase in the global average temperature to "well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels."
But numerous analyses show that the emissions reduction commitments made by more than 190 countries in Paris -- while representing a significant improvement over business-as-usual trends -- are collectively nowhere near what's needed to meet this goal.
Moving beyond Paris, we need to make sure nations ratchet up their commitments in the years to come. Recognizing the current gap between nations' commitments and the overall global temperature goal, the Paris agreement commissions the IPCC to prepare a special report by 2018 on the implications of the long-term temperature goal.
This report will help countries at the climate summit at the end of that year take stock of how their collective efforts match up with the overall emissions reductions needed. Following that summit, countries will be expected to review and, if possible, increase the ambition of their national commitments before formally submitting them in 2020.
By design, these milestones combine to create a global political moment at the end of this decade, when countries can be pressed to do more. The good news is that, from wind and solar electricity production to super-efficient LED lightbulbs, the cost of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies has been coming down at a breathtaking pace, and these trends are likely to continue.
This should enable all countries to significantly increase the ambition of their post-2020 emissions commitments. They will surely need to if we are to successfully address the mounting climate change crisis and leave our children and grandchildren with a habitable planet.
Build on the Groundswell for Climate Action in Blue -- and Red -- States
Katharine Hayhoe is an atmospheric scientist, an associate professor of political science, and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She served as lead author on key reports for the US Global Change Research Program and the National Academy of Sciences, including the Second and Third US National Climate Assessments, and attended the UN climate negotiations in Paris.
Bipartisan politics in the United States has gone the way of the dodo -- and our climate may be one of its greatest casualties. Attacking the basic fact that Earth is warming has become the topic of farcical congressional hearings, the goal of vituperative witchhunts, and the focus of harassment campaigns underwritten by the fossil fuel industry. Bridging this gap in time for meaningful action on climate change would require a miracle.
Here's a radical proposal, though: What if we don't have to agree that humans are the reason the world is warming today? What if we only have to agree that carbon dioxide is bad, clean energy is good, and supporting energy efficiency benefits us all?
That would require an even bigger miracle, you may think. But that's not what the public opinion polls show, nor what's in the business news these days.
For three years, new renewable energy has outpaced coal, gas, and oil. From small towns in Texas to some of the biggest corporations in the world, decision makers are choosing renewables: not only for environmental reasons but because it makes "cents" too.
A majority in every state supports regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant -- yes, even in the red states. There isn't one congressional district in the country whose constituents wouldn't require their utilities to use clean energy. And across the nation, 44 percent already support a tax (yes, a tax) on carbon.
Who's building this groundswell of support? Conservatives for Clean Energy is campaigning for energy choice, the Green Tea Coalition is fighting for solar energy freedom, the Niskanen Center advocates libertarian principles, the Energy Enterprise Institute pushes free-market solutions, and the grassroots Citizen's Climate Lobby has quietly initiated a genuine bipartisan dialogue already -- to name just a few.
The bipartisan consensus on climate action already exists. To make Paris a reality, we just need to tell our elected officials it's here.
Stop Fossil Fuel Companies from Blocking Progress
Peter Frumhoff is director of science and policy at UCS, and chief scientist of the UCS climate campaign. He has published and lectured widely on climate change impacts and climate science policy, and was a lead author of the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.
As exposed by UCS and others, the major fossil fuel companies have served as a serious impediment to climate progress over the past several decades by (among other tactics) surreptitiously funding misinformation about climate science in order to confuse the public and maintain the status quo.
One of the largest of these companies, ExxonMobil, is now under investigation by the attorneys general in California, Massachusetts, and New York to determine whether it broke the law and committed fraud by concealing climate risks from shareholders and the public.
Fossil fuel companies now generally acknowledge the serious climate risks of their products and some pay lip service to a need for a global price on carbon. But they continue to spend an estimated $700 billion per year to identify and develop new fossil reserves.
Simply put, as nations of the world build on their Paris climate commitments, fossil fuel companies face a major choice: will they play a constructive role as we work toward a low-carbon future?
If so, they need -- right now -- to unequivocally denounce and distance themselves from climate and clean energy disinformation and from the industry-supported trade associations and lobbying groups that continue to disseminate it.
They need to build on the generic calls some of them have made for a global price on carbon and actually work toward a strong, specific economy-wide carbon price in the United States and other nations.
They need to join with other leading corporations that have committed to adopt science-based targets for reducing emissions across their operations and detail these plans for investors and the public. And they need to substantially increase their investments in clean energy technology research and deployment.
UCS will continue to work with policy makers, divestment activists, socially responsible investors, scientists, and others in leading the effort to make sure fossil fuel companies stop standing in the way of swift climate progress.
Start Close to Home and Scale Up
Ken Kimmell is president of UCS, and former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Too often, we assume that solving the climate challenge is largely a job for national governments; the Paris agreement itself reinforces this "top-down" view. We need to amend our thinking.
While national governments have a critical role to play, success also requires a "bottom-up" strategy that mobilizes people to become active in their communities and through their local and state governments worldwide.
Just look at where most of the policy innovation has come from in the United States and Canada over the last decade: Farsighted people working through state government developed renewable energy standards requiring utilities to purchase growing percentages of clean energy.
California, Quebec, and nine eastern states piloted cap-and-trade programs, while decision makers in British Columbia instituted a successful carbon tax. State leadership transcends party and geographic lines.
For example, Texas invested billions in transmission lines and now the state is one of the world's largest generators of wind energy.
We see similar leadership at the local level. People working within city government have committed to some of the world's most ambitious climate goals. Stockholm, Sweden, for example, has pledged to be free of fossil fuel emissions by 2040 and has a credible plan to get there.
UCS staff members and supporters are working with local governments across the United States because we understand that they control some of the key levers to drive change such as building codes, land use planning, waste disposal, parking, and mass transit. And we're partnering with communities most at risk from climate impacts to develop the locally based solutions they need.
Equally exciting, state and local successes are spreading by sharing their stories through coalitions like C40, a network of some of the world's largest cities, and the Under2MOU coalition, a group of states, provinces, and other subnational governments.
So, one of the most promising paths forward post-Paris is to nurture innovation at the state and local levels, pioneer bottom-up solutions, and scale up the best of these ideas as rapidly as possible.
What do you think are the most important steps we need to take toward a low-carbon future?
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