Sunday, October 26, 2014

Climate Central - News

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  1. 6 Degrees: Rising Seas, Shrinking Goats & Zombie Ice
  2. How Low Oil Prices May Impact GHG Emissions

    Pull your car into a New Jersey filling station, and the low prices might give you a shock at the pump.

    Gasoline was less than $2.90 per gallon at many stations in the Garden State this week. So, compared to a year ago when regular unleaded in New Jersey averaged about $3.20 a gallon and $3.62 across the Hudson River in New York, gasoline is cheap.

    Oil tankers transporting crude oil to market.
    Credit: Pieter van Marion/flickr

    The national average is about $3.08 today. A year ago, it was about $3.36.

    That kind of a break at the pump comes courtesy of crude oil prices that have plunged from more than $105 in July to about $85 today because of a weak global economy and ample crude oil production both in the U.S. and worldwide.

    Low crude oil and gasoline prices, along with how changing global oil markets affect both of those, have a direct effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

    The cheaper gasoline is, the more people drive and use fuel, leading to more and more greenhouse gas emissions.

    There are economic benefits to that, especially if it means, for example, that it costs less to transport goods across the country. But with the increased oil consumption, the climate suffers.

    “People who think that you can get large economic benefits by pushing down oil prices but not have substantial climate costs are mostly kidding themselves,” said Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. “These are two things that go together.”

    Why have oil prices dropped so quickly?

    “Supply is greater than demand,” Levi said. “Weak global economy, strong global production, (and) lack of confidence Saudi Arabia will make up the difference.”

    Demand for oil in China and Europe has dropped because of economic woes in those regions and the U.S. is producing a lot of its oil domestically. Thanks to the shale oil drilling and production frenzy in North Dakota and Texas, U.S. crude oil imports are the lowest they’ve been in more than 14 years.

    Gasoline prices follow tumbling international crude oil prices, leading to the lower cost of a gallon of gasoline at the pump today.

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    But as for how that impacts greenhouse gas emissions, a few months of low gasoline prices aren’t likely to inspire people to rush out to buy gas guzzling SUVs right away, and energy companies aren’t likely to make any major decisions about expanding or cutting back oil exploration and production.

    “Short-term price fluctuations don’t have a large impact on the kind of greenhouse gas numbers that matter,” Levi said.

    Low oil prices that remain stable are what drive increased demand for oil — and which in turn could then have a bigger role in emissions, said Peter Erickson, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle.

    “If it really is a short-term effect, it may not be that significant,” he said. “It’s when the oil price stays stable for a long time and when gasoline prices stay stable for a long time when investors and especially consumers notice and make decisions based on that.”

    One of the things that could affect the long-term stability of oil prices and whether they are high or low is the fate of restrictions on U.S. crude oil exports put in place in 1975 in response to the Arab oil embargo.

    A new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examining what might happen if the U.S. crude oil export ban were to be lifted says global greenhouse gas emissions could increase and the environment could suffer if U.S. oil could be exported overseas.

    Part of the reason is that although international oil prices would drop, U.S. oil prices would actually increase, encouraging more shale oil and gas exploration and production here, affecting air and water quality, the report says. And because U.S. gasoline prices follow the international price of oil, the prices at the pumps would drop.

    “It will encourage extra (oil and gas) development,” said Charles Mason, a petroleum economist at the University of Wyoming whose research for the group Resources for the Future was cited in the GAO report. “You’re going to have local (oil) producers get a higher price. That higher price will encourage keeping projects going a little bit longer that might otherwise have been shut in.”

    Oil drilling off the coast of California.
    Credit: cclark395/flickr

    Though the GAO reports that exporting U.S. crude would mean more domestic crude oil development and production, it may not amount to much in terms of CO2 emissions.

    Lifting export restrictions could lead to an increase in global CO2 emissions by a tiny fraction — less than 0.0007 percent of total 2012 global CO2 emissions, or nearly 22 million metric tons annually, the GAO reports. Global CO2 emissions from burning energy totaled more than 32.7 billion metric tons of CO2 that year.

    The federal government has taken no action on lifting the crude oil export restrictions, and with oil prices still dropping, experts have conflicting opinions about where crude oil prices are headed next.

    If the European economy improves and China’s economy stabilizes, crude oil prices will bounce back, Mason said.

    If those economies don’t improve, oil prices will stay low.

    “Lots of factors have suggested that demand was much weaker than maybe what the industry had been planning for,” said said Andrew Logan, director of the oil program at Ceres, a nonprofit group focusing on sustainability in business. “I don’t see prices going back to consistent highs anytime soon. The picture seems like it’s going to get worse going forward.”

    This may be the beginning of a new era of volatility in crude oil prices after years of stability, he said.

    “You go back 10 years and the consensus was that higher oil prices were what we all wanted to see,” he said. “We’re not going back to triple digits. It recalibrates the scope of the shale (oil) boom in the U.S. Shale is not going away, but it may become a smaller piece of the pie for better or worse.”

    And that means the U.S. may be entering a new era of uncertainty both in the shale oil and gas fields and at the gas pump. Stay tuned.  

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  3. Europe Reaches Climate Deal, Sends Message

    The first big piece of the upcoming United Nations climate deal has fallen into place. The European Union on Friday became the first major party to the negotiations to declare how far it will go in reducing its climate impacts under a global post-2020 treaty, which is scheduled to be finalized next winter in Paris.

    Credit: Dave Chidley/flickr

    The European Commission’s vote to reduce greenhouse gas pollution levels by 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, “will put pressure on all countries,” said Jake Schmidt, the Natural Resources Defence Council’s climate negotiations expert, “including the U.S. and China, to be ambitious when they announce targets next year.”

    The European Union’s (EU) 28 countries are responsible for about one-sixth of the greenhouse gas pollution that’s created by humanity every year. The EU is on track to meet its commitment to reduce its climate-changing pollution by 20 percent in 2020, compared with 1990 levels. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 95 percent by 2050 — something the entire world may need to do if it's to avoid blowing a goal of keeping global warming to less than 3.6°F.

    Friday’s vote by European heads of state, who were meeting in Brussels, puts pressure on the rest of the world to crank up climate action under the upcoming treaty — and not just by setting an example. If the rest of the world continues to flounder in fighting global warming, the Guardian reports that the EU may review its own commitments. Then again, Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council's president, said any such review could see the 40 percent figure actually increased, as some countries and environmental groups have been pushing for.

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    “The European Council calls on all countries to come forward with ambitious targets and policies well in advance of the Conference of the Parties 21 in Paris,” reads a conclusions document from this week’s meetings. “It will revert to this issue after the Paris Conference. The European Council will keep all the elements of the framework under review.”

    Here’s what else the document says:

    Intended Nationally Determined Contributions

    That’s climate talks wonk-talk for the EU’s 40 percent reduction plans. The U.S. and China are still trying to decide on their INDCs under the climate treaty. The European Council, meanwhile, has now “endorsed a binding EU target of an at least 40 percent domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” the conclusions document states. All EU countries will “participate in this effort,” and the target will be met “in the most cost-effective manner possible.”

    Renewables and energy efficiency

    The EU will draw on an energy mix in 2030 that includes 27 percent renewables. And it will improve its energy efficiency by 27 percent by 2030, compared with current projections. Some EU countries are global leaders in energy efficiency, and the new efficiency targets were criticized by some as being unambitious.

    Grid improvements

    To help EU countries trade clean energy among themselves, “urgent measures” will be taken to improve a continental electricity grid, with minimum interconnectivity levels to be met by 2020 and by 2030.

    Help for coal in some countries

    EU countries with GDP that’s lower than 60 percent of the union’s average will continue handing out free carbon credits to energy companies until 2030. That concession helped prevent coal-dependent Poland from vetoing the deal, but it drew anger from environmentalists, one of whom told The Guardian that it was a grave mistake.

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  4. Picture This: Wavy Clouds & A Gnarly Nor’easter

    Well the nor'easter that lashed the Northeast this week is finally over, though it made for some pretty awesome satellite images. And it wasn't the only weather or sky event that made for pretty pictures. A partial solar eclipse, some rare clouds and even last weekend's Hurricane Gonzalo also yielded some images that will make you "oooh" and "aaah." Scroll down to see them all!

     

    Weird Wave Clouds

    We’ve all looked up at the clouds and found the shapes of a fish or face, but these clouds actually are a version of what they look like — breaking waves. But instead of cresting in the ocean and splashing the shore, they form in the atmosphere.

    Ocean waves form as winds push on the water’s surface, and they break when the difference between the speeds of the winds and the waves reaches a certain point.

    Surf's up in the skies over Yellowstone! Kelvin-Heimholtz clouds captured by Evelyn Rose. #clouds #weather pic.twitter.com/hMveNWDj1U

    — YellowstoneNPS (@YellowstoneNPS) October 21, 2014

    The cloud waves, commonly called billow clouds, form by a process called Kelvin-Helmholtz instability, for its co-discoverers. These waves occur when there is large wind shear, or change in speed and direction of the wind with height in the atmosphere.

    With the clouds, the stronger winds aloft drag over the slower-moving air below, and when the difference between those speeds hits that right point, they break.

    These Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds were photographed forming above the already stunning scenery of Yellowstone National Park.

     

    Gonzalo’s Sediment Signature

    We featured Hurricane Gonzalo last week just before it was set to make landfall in Bermuda. When the storm first hit the shores of the tiny island, it was still a Category 3 hurricane boasting winds of 115 mph. While it weakened to a Category 2 storm before the center of its eye was over land, and the island faired better than it did during Hurricane Fabian in 2003, Gonzalo still likely caused somewhere between $200 million to $400 million in damage, according to catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

    NASA satellites caught signs of some of the storm’s lingering effects when they snapped images of the ocean sediment stirred up by the tempest.

    NASA satellies looked down on the island of Bermuda on Oct. 4, 2014, before Hurricane Gonzalo hit, and just after the storm's punishing waves and winds had passed, on Oct. 19. In the after image, the sediment stirred up in the ocean by the storm is clearly visible.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

    When the water is clear, the island’s reefs and the light blue of the shallow waters that surround them are visible. After Gonzalo tore through, sediment plumes fanned out in colors from tan to light green. The nutrients in those plumes may also have fed surface-dwelling ocean plants that made waters appear turquoise, according to NASA.

     

    Nor’easter

    Another type of storm rolled through the Northeast this week, appropriately called a nor’easter.

    The GOES East satellite took this image of the swirling nor'easter lashing the Northeast with winds and rain on Oct. 23, 2014.
    Credit: NOAA

    While nor’easters are often associated with buckets of snow, ones that happen before temperatures have dipped low enough to support snowflakes can still dump a lot of rain. This nor’easter deluged some parts of New England with up to 6 inches of rain and stirred up gusts that knocked down trees. Satellites caught some awe-inspiring views of the swirling storm as it did so.

    Beautiful satellite imagery this morning showing our significant coastal storm moving off the coast of New England. pic.twitter.com/EXN3XV2ijo

    — NY Metro Weather (@nymetrowx) October 23, 2014

    Nor’easters get their name from the strong northeasterly winds that blow across coastal areas ahead of the storm.

     

    Sunny Sky Treat

    For those in the U.S. whose skies weren’t obscured by the grey clouds and seemingly unending rains, Thursday afternoon held a special sky treat: a partial solar eclipse.

    The eclipse lasted for about three hours and led to plenty of spectacular photos.

    We agree! RT @JoshuaTreeNP One word: WOW. #eclipse #SolarEclipse pic.twitter.com/t2kbjqopa2

    — US Dept of Interior (@Interior) October 24, 2014

    RT @ObservingSpace: Composite pic of the Oct. 23 Partial #SolarEclipse created from the Griffith Observatory feed pic.twitter.com/4QgJT7r4QP

    — Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) October 24, 2014

    Solar eclipses happen when the sun, moon and Earth line up in such a way that the moon passes between the other two bodies, covering up either all or part of the solar disk.

    Great shot Cody MT @CodyHudson_KNWA: Despite clouds, it was fabulous. Above Boxley Valley, Buffalo National River pic.twitter.com/QJg736n7S6

    — Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) October 24, 2014

    Just wow! MT @LowlightImages: .@BringMN Partial eclipse 10/23/14 Buffalo MN pic.twitter.com/bfqyIw1sgb

    — Jim Cantore (@JimCantore) October 24, 2014

    Hopefully the weather will be nice across the country on Aug. 21, 2017, when a total solar eclipse graces U.S. skies for the first time in nearly 40 years.

  5. One of Sao Paulo’s Biggest Reservoirs Is Nearly Dry

    Drought is taking its toll on the water system that quenches the thirst of Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, to such a degree that it is visible to orbiting satellites.

    Sao Paulo is facing water rationing as the worst drought to hit the region in decades reduces reservoirs to muddy waters surrounded by cracked earth.

    The Cantareira Reservoir System provides about half of the overall water to the city’s 20 million residents. But a series of months with below average rainfall have seen water levels plummet. NASA Landsat 8 images published by the NASA Earth Observatory show the precipitous decline of the Jaguari Reservoir, one of a handful that make up the system, from mid-August last year to early August this year.

    Since the images were acquired, the water levels have only dropped further. As of Thursday, Sabesp, Sao Paulo’s water utility, reported that the Cantareira system was operating at only 3 percent of its capacity. That’s essentially considered “dead water,” which Sabesp has only been able to tap after building an extra 2 miles of pipeline to the reservoir’s center.

    During the height of last year’s rainy season, which is December-February, the region around Sao Paulo saw deficits in excess of 15 inches according to data from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI).

    For this month, the watershed that the system covers has received only 18 percent of its normal monthly rainfall, a worrisome total on the cusp of the rainy season. But there’s a slight glimmer of hope for the peak of rainy season. IRI’s seasonal forecast for December-February shows the odds tipped slightly in favor of wetter conditions in parts of the region, which would help refill reservoirs and ease water restrictions.

    In the long-term, climate change could further exacerbate Sao Paulo’s problems. A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in late 2013 showed that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, September-November are likely to become drier in the region. Some models indicate the rainy season could actually get slightly wetter by century’s end but there’s still a high degree of uncertainty associated with those projections.

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  6. What Will Winter Hold for Drought-Plagued California?

    California really needs this winter to be a wet one.

    The state is now at the beginning of the fourth year of one if its worst droughts on record. The drought has been fueled by a spate of disappointing winter rainy seasons that have left meager snowpacks and diminished reservoir levels, combined with record-warm temperatures that have driven demand for the increasingly precious resource, and spurred a series of conservation measures around the state.

    Shasta Lake, the largest manmade lake in California, was at 36 percent of capacity when this photo was taken in January 2014. As of Sept. 28, it was at 26 percent of capacity.
    Credit: USGS/Angela Smith

    Hopes that the coming winter could finally bring some relief were raised when the first murmurs of an impending El Niño began to emerge in March. The climate phenomenon can be associated with amped up rains in the southern part of the state, and so the words “El Niño” became something of a mantra across the parched lands.

    “People have latched on to the notion that El Niño will bring about relief,” California state climatologist Michael Anderson told Climate Central. “That seems to be something they’ve grasped onto quite firmly.”

    But this winter likely won’t be the one Californians so desperately need, as the budding El Niño is expected to only be a weak event and unlikely to do much to bolster those dwindling water reserves.

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    However, that news doesn’t necessarily mean that this winter will be as dire as those of recent years past — though that’s a possibility. By virtue of not being under the drying influence of El Niño’s counterpart, La Niña, it’s also possible that California will at least see a wetter winter than they have in the past few years, the first step on the path out of the drought.

    “We can’t rule anything out,” said Michelle L’Heureux, a meteorologist with the Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who helps put together monthly El Niño outlooks.

    California’s predicament

    The drought that now has California in its iron grip didn’t happen overnight, and no matter what happens this winter, it won’t end overnight either, experts say.

    The dry conditions have accumulated over the past three years, but really began to metastasize across the state this past winter. Coming in to the season, California had just seen its driest year on record, with some cities measuring precipitation deficits of 30 to 40 inches.

    California generally gets about half of its precipitation (in the form of both snow and rain) from December to February. Most of it falls as snow in the Sierra Nevada range, and this portion is critically important, as it provides a sustained flow into reservoirs for much of the state when it gradually melts in late spring and early summer.

    But the 2014 water year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014, “has been one of the driest in decades and follows two consecutive dry years throughout the state,” according to the California Department of Water Resources. The past three years are the driest such stretch on record in the state, Kevin Werner, the western regional climate services director at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, said during a NOAA teleconference earlier this month.

    The 3-year precipitation record for California for 2011-2014 compared to the 30-year average.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA 

    As the rain and snow failed to fall this past winter, the drought spread its tendrils. At the beginning of December 2013, while almost the entire state was in some stage of drought, none of it was in the worst stage recognized by the U.S. Drought Monitor, exceptional. By April 1, 2014, one quarter of the state was in exceptional drought, and two-thirds was mired in the two highest categories, thanks to the tremendous precipitation deficit.

    While late spring and summer are typically dry in California, drought can still spread in those months as the heat increases water usage among the state’s large population and ramps up evaporation. And spread it did, as the state experienced heat wave after heat wave in what is shaping up to be its warmest year on record. Currently, a stunning 58 percent of California is in exceptional drought, and more than 80 percent is in the worst two categories.

    That is why the possibility of an El Niño-fueled wet winter is gripping California’s collective imagination.

    Hopes hard to quash

    The El Niño phenomenon is marked by unusually warm waters in the eastern and central tropical Pacific Ocean. The warm ocean in turn impacts the circulation of the atmosphere, and can alter weather and climate patterns around the globe. El Niños, for example, typically quash the Atlantic hurricane season, while boosting global temperatures.

    Not long after the CPC and their partners at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society declared an El Niño watch in March, a plume of very warm water worked its way across the tropical Pacific, drawing comparisons to the monster El Niño of 1998, which brought a series of February storms streaming across California, causing flooding and mudslides and breaking precipitation records.

    That comparison — coming at a time when it was actually far too early to reliably say anything about the likely strength of the coming El Niño — still buoyed the spirits of Californians.

    But in the intervening months, that surge of heat hasn’t been sustained and it has become increasingly clear that this El Niño, if and when it forms, is unlikely to be a strong one, let alone come close to the record-breaking 1998 event.

    Alan Haynes, a service coordination hydrologist at NOAA's California-Nevada River Forecast Center, said during a September press briefing that looking at all of the El Niño years on record and the precipitation associated with them, “it really takes a strong El Niño” to get “drought busting” rains. “Weak and moderate El Niños end up not getting you the precipitation you need to end the drought,” he said during last month’s briefing.

    Still, residents have clung to the possibility that El Niño might change their precipitation fortunes, Anderson said.

    When he goes out into communities to do outreach work and encounters people who say they’re just waiting for the El Niño, Anderson, the state climatologist, tries to set them straight. He explains that both California’s wettest and driest years in the past six decades have been associated with an El Niño, so “just saying it’s an El Niño year doesn’t really tell you anything,” he said. But still El Niño has stayed on people’s minds as winter approaches.

    Wet winter?

    So, what can California expect this winter? Good question, and one even forecasters can’t yet definitively answer, as seasonal forecasts are notoriously tricky.

    With no strong El Niño or other climate signals to help guide them, forecasters don’t know what to expect for precipitation. In its recently released winter outlook, NOAA gave most of the state equal chances of above- or below-average rainfall. (A small part of Southern California does have increased odds of above-average rains.)

    “We don’t know if it’s going to be a wet year or not,” Haynes said.

    If it does turn out to be a strong El Niño, that only has a significant relationship to Southern California precipitation — not the snows that fall in the north and that are so critical to recharging depleted reservoirs.

    To completely make up for the missing rains of last season, the state would need two winter’s worth of rain over this wet season, which is unlikely. It will most likely take years for California’s reservoirs to reset, making the mandatory water restrictions that many cities have adopted all the more necessary to ensure that there is enough water to get the state through the next few years of recovery.

    Right now, with the expected weak El Niño, the best California can hope for this winter is that some storms materialize in November “that kind of wet the watershed up a bit,” Anderson said. Those storms would provide a base to support later rains and snows by moistening the underlying soils. (A system is expected to bring rains and snows to the Pacific Northwest this weekend, including parts of Northern California, especially near the coast.)

    Expected trends in precipitation during the 2014-15 winter.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA

    Then regular storms throughout the winter could bring further moisture — but you don’t want too much at once, as torrential rains falling on drought-hardened soils tends to run off and cause significant flash flooding.

    The difference such storms can make can be seen when looking back at one of the few bright spots of last winter, when “atmospheric rivers” brought rains late in the season “and you can see the temporary improvement that they noted” on the Drought Monitor map, Anderson said. Of course once the rains stopped, those areas fell back into the drought’s clutches.

    There is some hope that these atmospheric rivers could be more frequent this winter than they have been in recent ones, as warmer Pacific waters will likely cause a high pressure system that hangs out over the subtropics to be weaker than normal, said climatologist Kevin Trenberth, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. That weakening lets storm systems wander farther south than they have been lately, meaning precipitation for California.

    Because of that potential setup, “I think that some relief is likely,” Trenberth said in an email.

    And, of course, the situation could turn out to be better than expected, because “El Niño is not the only game in town,” said Mike Halpert, the CPC’s acting director, during the winter outlook briefing.

    Other climate forces could play a larger role in California’s winter precipitation than forecasters currently think, allowing for rains up and down the coast. “An above-average rain season . . .  is not out of the cards,” he said.

    It’s not the favored outcome this winter, but it’s one of the best the state can hope for, Halpert said.

    Even if climate forces align and bring about these best-case scenarios, the state is still in for a long recovery. Given the sheer magnitude of the drought, as Halpert said, “there’s still going to be large parts of drought in California when the winter’s over."

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  7. San Francisco Rising to Threat of Swelling Seas

    The fog of uncertainty cast by rising seas is starting to lift from $25 billion worth of public projects planned in San Francisco.

    The City by the (rising) Bay, where bayfront shorelines will continue to experience worsening high tide flooding, where the nearby international airport is among the nation’s most vulnerable to floods, and where Pacific Ocean shoreline erosion could be accelerated by sea level rise, has adopted a first-in-the-nation approach to assessing potential infrastructure risks posed by rising seas.

    San Francisco's downtown was built along its waterfront.
    Credit: Sudheendra Vijayakumar/flickr

    The new guidance, which includes a simple project checklist, will help officials incorporate sea level rise into decisions about building and upgrading everything from pipes to police stations to streets. Seas have risen 8 inches since industry started burning fossil fuels, although long-term ocean cycles have temporarily spared the West Coast from some of those impacts in recent decades. Two or three more feet of sea level rise is forecast globally this century.

    “I haven’t seen anything this comprehensive,” said Jessica Grannis, the Georgetown Climate Center’s adaptation program manager, after reviewing San Francisco’s new approach. “This is pretty unique, and a cool new step forward in mainstreaming climate adaptation into city capital budgeting processes.”

    The guidance was adopted last month by the city’s capital planning committee, a group of lawmakers and city officials formed nearly a decade ago to guide and prioritize byzantine capital spending by departments and agencies. According to the committee’s most recent biennial report, such spending will slightly exceed $25 billion during the next decade.

    The checklist process is simple, designed to create a high-level picture of a proposed infrastructure project’s future flooding risks. Some facilities, such as parks, can easily withstand occasional flooding. A hospital or fire station, by contrast, could be crippled if the land upon which it was built became permanently inundated. The new checklist helps figure out where a project’s flood risks lie between those extremes.

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    The checklist requires a city official to review sea level rise inundation maps to determine whether their infrastructure project will be located in a floodplain under different sea level rise scenarios — or on land that could become permanently inundated. If either of those is the case, then the official ticks a series of “high,” “medium,” or “low” boxes. The boxes indicate how severely anticipated floods would affect operations at the project, how well the infrastructure would recover from a flood, and the extent of projected costs associated with cleaning up after it is waterlogged.

    Finally, the official jots down sea level rise adaptation measures that are being incorporated into the project.

    The process is straightforward, but not prescriptive. A project won’t automatically be abandoned if sea level rise risks are found to be high. Rather, the findings from the checklist will be used to guide decisions by officials and lawmakers regarding whether a proposed project makes sense, whether it makes sense where it is planned, and whether it needs to be redesigned to reduce flooding hazards — or constructed in such a way that it can be easily adapted later. The capital planning committee doesn’t have the power to veto or approve a project, but it advises lawmakers on whether they should approve its costs.

    The guidance was adopted five years after San Francisco-based urban think tank SPUR published a report highlighting the need for Bay Area cities and counties to start planning for climate change impacts, and less than two years after San Francisco’s mayor assembled a city committee to do just that.

    Downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.
    Credit: ah zut/flickr

    In the U.S., much of the work needed to adapt to climate change and improve resilience is occurring within cities, a trend that’s being pushed along by 100 Resilient Cities and similar initiatives. Following Hurricane Sandy, New York launched a $19.5 billion climate resiliency plan, and just this month it released new building guidelines for those living in floodplains.

    The Georgetown Climate Center recently concluded that 14 U.S. states have adaptation plans in place, and another nine have some planning underway. President Obama has proposed spending $1 billion in 2015 on climate resilience at the federal level. The U.S. has not yet committed anything to what is imagined to eventually be a $100 billion a year Green Climate Fund, designed to help the world’s poor and developing countries adapt to climate change, though it has been reported that a pledge might be made next month. So far, the fund has raised about $2.3 billion from other national donors.

    SPUR policy director Laura Tam, who has spoken out in the past about the dangers of lackluster and uncoordinated climate adaptation planning in the San Francisco Bay Area, praised San Francisco’s new guidance.

    “Five years ago, this topic was virtually unknown,” Tam told Climate Central. “Today, many city departments have not only participated and worked together to produce this guidance, but they are working collaboratively to develop solutions.”

    A representation of what San Francisco's Crissy Field would look like under 12 feet of sea level rise.
    Credit: Nickolay Lamm. Data: Climate Central

    The guidance currently relates only to public projects. San Francisco capital planning official Brian Strong, who helped write it, said he hopes that it “leads to reforms” within the city’s planning and building inspection departments, which could use similar processes when assessing risks associated with proposed private developments, such as new homes and neighborhoods.

    But individual assessments for projects won’t be enough. City officials say sea level rise will start figuring in neighborhood-wide planning efforts, including along its vulnerable northern bayfront, which is a thriving hub of tourism — the city’s most important industry.

    One major decision that the city is going to start trying to make in the coming months, through what planning department staff say will be a public process, will be how to manage flood risks at Mission Bay, a booming redevelopment area close to the ballpark and near the city’s downtown. The city is building its main public safety building there, in what could become a flood plain. Flood gates are being considered to reduce flooding risks, along with various urban design solutions.

    As conversations such as those proceed in the coming years, they will be accompanied by an evolution of the new sea level rise guidance and checklist. The city plans to review the guidance in four years, or sooner if need be, as lessons are learned and science advances.

    “I think that this has to play out a little,” Tam said. “We’ll see how well it works in practice over the next 5 to 10 years as we build projects.”

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  8. To Shrink a Goat, Warm the Globe

    If a young Italian goat magically joined Alice in a climate-changed Wonderland, new research suggests it would skip the fattening cake and suckle instead at the body-shrinking potion.

    As global warming’s grip strengthens around the Italian Alps’ already-diminutive chamois — as the goat-antelope species that was studied is known — temperature rise appears to be wringing the body weight out of the population’s yearlings.

    "Dude, where's my body mass?"
    Credit: Umberto Nicoletti

    Between 1979 and 2010, as spring and summer temperatures in parts of the Italian Alps rose by more than 5°F, the average weight of the 1- to 2-year-old chamois that live there shrunk by what Philip Stephens, a Durham University professor, described as an “astonishing” 20 to 25 percent.

    “It does look like there’s a direct relationship to temperature,” said Stephens. He was part of a team that analyzed the body sizes of 10,455 yearlings shot by hunters during the study period. The findings were published in Frontiers in Zoology.

    The average weights of juveniles were analyzed because there was a lot of data on them — the hunters bagged more Bambis than Bambis’ mothers. But the paper’s lead author, Tom Mason, now a postdoctoral researcher at Laval University, said the data he has seen on older chamois suggests to him that they, too, are shrinking.

    If that’s true, then greatness is being baked out of the ungulate princes of Italy’s montane forests, with potentially ecosystem-rattling consequences.

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    Global warming tends to spur animals to evolve to become smaller to help them cope with heat. That has been the case both in recent and prehistoric times. The phenomenon is pronounced in mammals, with larger species generally faring better in cold environments than in warm ones. National University of Singapore researchers reviewed scientific literature on this several years ago, reporting in Nature Climate Change that they found reports of 36 animal species shrinking as temperatures rose, compared with nine of them getting bigger:

    Click to enlarge. Credit: Nature Climate Change

    But it’s not known whether the chamois are shrinking to adapt to the changing climate, or whether the warmer conditions are simply leaving them hungry and undernourished.

    During the study period, hunting pressures within the three studied areas declined, which increased herd sizes, potentially increasing competition for food. Mason, however, says the trend toward smaller chamois continued even after population densities stabilized during the second half of the study period.

    It’s also possible that the young chamois are becoming less frantic about piling on pounds during spring and summer, because the winters are less brutal than they used to be. But Mason points out that the region does still occasionally experience severe winters.

    The researchers wondered whether food was in shorter supply than it used to be. But when they analyzed satellite imagery, they found that the vegetation upon which the chamois feed did not decline during the study period.

    Could it be that it’s just getting too darned hot to eat?

    The team speculates that the rising temperatures during the key feeding seasons of spring and summer might be forcing the animals to be slothful when they would otherwise be eating — though more research would be needed to confirm whether that’s the case.

    “When it gets really hot, they can’t forage for as much time,” Mason said. “It forces them to sit around in the shade and rest more.”

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  9. Massachusetts, California Lead U.S. In Energy Efficiency

    Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont are the most energy-efficient states in the U.S., according to an annual ranking released Wednesday by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, or ACEEE.

    The least energy-efficient states are North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Mississippi and Alaska according to the ranking, which is based on each state’s energy efficiency policies for utilities, transportation policies, building codes, appliance efficiency standards and other factors.

    The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy's ranking of U.S. states based on energy efficiency. Credit: ACEEE

    The ACEEE, which receives funding from the U.S. government, utilities and other sources, issued a ranking in July of the most energy efficient of the world’s largest economies. The U.S. ranked 13th on that list, far behind Germany, Italy and the European Union because the U.S. resists widespread public transportation and lacks a national energy savings plan and a national greenhouse gas reduction plan.

    Energy efficiency, including building codes and power plant efficiency measures, is a major part of the Obama administration’s strategy to reduce CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants — rules that are in the process of being finalized.

    States are often far ahead of the federal government in taking measures to use energy more efficiently, ACEEE state program director Maggie Molina said Wednesday during a conference call.

    The rankings account for each state’s electricity and natural gas efficiency program budgets, annual savings from efficiency programs, greenhouse gas emissions standards, electric vehicle registrations, transit funding and legislation, the strictness and enforcement of state building codes, use of combined heat and power, state financial incentives for energy efficiency and other factors.

    Massachusetts has led the country in energy efficiency for four years in a row, mainly because the state has begun to save energy by setting annual electricity savings targets of up to 2.6 percent through 2015 and natural gas savings targets of up to 1.2 percent per year through 2015.

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    In 2013, the state reduced its electric power consumption over 2 percent through the use of energy efficiency measures, one of the highest power savings rates in the country.

    “In Massachusetts, we simply made energy efficiency our first fuel,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told reporters.

    The report applauded California for stringent building codes and transportation policies promoting efficiency.

    Two states, Ohio and Indiana, have rolled back some of their energy efficiency policies. A law repealing Indiana’s energy efficiency standards went into effect earlier this year, removing a fee added to residents’ power bills helping to fund efficiency programs. A law passed this year in Ohio froze all the state’s renewable and energy efficiency standards through 2017.

    States at the bottom of the list have not made energy efficiency a priority, Gilleo said.

    “I think for laggard states, we have some great examples of states that had been laggards in the past — in the South — embracing energy efficiency as an economic development tool,” she said.

    An energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulb. Credit: p.Gordon/flickr

    Arkansas, for example, ranked as one of the most improved states for energy efficiency. Its budget for electric efficiency programs jumped 30 percent between 2012 and 2013, tripling energy savings there, the report says.

    Other states that improved the most over the previous year’s ranking were the District of Columbia, Kentucky and Wisconsin, which saw increases in energy savings.

    When asked what Wyoming — ranked 50th for energy efficiency — needs to do to improve, Gilleo said the Cowboy State should embrace utility efficiency programs and new building codes.

    “It is the states, not the federal government, that holds most of the energy efficiency policy levers in the country,” Kathleen Hogan, U.S. Department of Energy deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency, said. “They’re just such great places for innovation.”

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  10. What’s The Deal With Europe’s Climate Talks?

    Energy and climate change are figuring prominently in the news on the other side of the warming and acidifying pond this week. European leaders are set to meet on Thursday and Friday to decide how aggressively their countries will work toward slowing global warming.

    "It's a big week for the EU,” said Tim Nuthall, spokesman for the European Climate Foundation, a nonprofit that works to slow the rise in greenhouse gas pollution. “This will be a landmark decision that has big consequences, both domestically in the E.U. and internationally."

    The EU 2030 climate framework talks aren’t getting much airtime in the U.S., though, so you might have questions about them. That’s OK, because we’ve got answers.

    Wind turbines in the Netherlands.
    Credit: jinterwas/flickr

    How do you make a European scoff?

    Try gushing to them about President Obama’s year and a half-old leadership on climate change. Most of Europe has treated climate change as a serious matter for decades, while the U.S. spent most of that time regarded as a global pariah on the issue.

    Example?

    In 2007, European Union leaders committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. The EU is on track to comfortably surpass those goals, in part because of aggressive renewables programs and in part because of a widespread recession.

    (For comparison, the U.S. might achieve the less ambitious goal, set in 2009 by President Obama, to produce 17 percent less greenhouse gas pollution in 2020 than was the case in 2005.)

    Under its goals for 2020, the European Union also aims to produce at least 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and to improve its energy efficiency by 20 percent. There are so many twenties here that the plan was dubbed 20-20-20.

    Super. So what’s left to decide?

    The future beyond 2020, and beyond 20-20-20. During meetings in Brussels this week, the European Council is set to decide on its climate commitments for 2030. The European Commission has proposed a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 compared with 1990 levels. Renewable energy and energy efficiency goals will also be negotiated.

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    Environmental and clean energy groups and some EU countries, including Sweden and Germany, want Europe to go further — perhaps a 50 percent reduction. Some coal-burning and less developed members of the EU, most notably Poland, have been angling for a less ambitious target.

    What does a council of Europeans look like?

    The European Council is made up of the heads of state of all 28 EU countries. It receives advice from the European Commission, which is the EU’s executive branch. When the European Council makes decisions, such as those that are expected this week, they are called council conclusions. Those conclusions are used to draft bills that eventually bloom into laws at the European Parliament.

    What’s Europe doing to the climate right now?

    After China and the U.S., the European Union is the world’s third-biggest greenhouse gas polluter. Its 28 member states release about 4 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, which is a sixth of the world’s total. Those countries are home to 500 million people — about one fourteenth of the world’s population.

    According to numbers compiled by the Global Carbon Atlas, the average European Union resident is responsible for a little less than half as much greenhouse gas pollution as an average American or Canadian. Each European produces slightly less climate-changing pollution than an average Chinese resident (though it’s worth noting that most of China’s pollution is caused by industry manufacturing products for export), and four times as much as the average Indian.

    Greenhouse gas pollution comparisons. This chart excludes Croatia, which became the 28th EU member in the middle of 2013.
    Click image to enlarge. Credit: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

    Would all EU countries have to commit to the same reductions?

    No. Meetings this week are also supposed to figure out how responsibility for meeting the EU’s new pollution reductions will be divvied among its member countries. Some countries might accept commitments that go beyond the average; others might do the opposite.

    What’s the end game?

    The European Union aims to reduce its emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. The 2030 targets could help it get there.

    Jim Skea, a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the BBC that a pollution reduction of 40 percent by 2030 would be “too little, too late,” if the EU wants to meet those 2050 goals. The office of Connie Hedegaard, European Commission’s climate action commissioner, disagrees.

    How would this week’s decisions affect the UN climate negotiations?

    Under a global climate pact due to be finalized at meetings next December in Paris — which is supposed to cap global warming at 2°C, or 3.6°F — each “party” to the United Nations process, such as the U.S. and the EU, is expected to commit to a reduction in greenhouse gas levels. (Or, in the case of India, for example, to perhaps do something about slowing its rise in emissions). The decisions made this week will shape Europe’s commitments under this upcoming international treaty. And that, in turn, could shape commitments made by other countries.

    “We hope that the Europeans keep leading,” Jake Schmidt, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program, told Climate Central. “The international effort has been very dependent on Europe pulling the rest of the world.”

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