Huge Antarctic iceberg breaks off. Here’s why it worries scientists.

By Ilissa Ocko

The massive rift in the Antarctic Peninsula’s Larsen C ice shelf, photographed by NASA scientists in November 2016. Photo by Stuart Rankin.

This post was co-authored by Mason Fried, a Ph.D. student of glaciology at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. It originally appeared on EDF Voices.

Scientists watched with alarm this week as the fourth-largest ice shelf in Antarctica rapidly broke apart, causing an enormous, Delaware-size iceberg to float into the Southern Ocean.

Scientists had been observing the anomalous rift widening across a section of the so-called Larsen C ice shelf for the past several years. Now they’re left with some critical questions: What are this event’s broader consequences for the Antarctic ice sheet, what happens next, and – importantly – what role did climate change play here?

For now, it serves as yet another reminder that Antarctica is changing rapidly – and that action to curb rising global temperatures is critical. 

Antarctica: A frontline for climate change

So far, scientists have been hesitant to attribute the Larsen C ice shelf breakup to rising global temperatures.

Indeed, such events – known to scientists as “calving” – occur naturally and are essential for maintaining ice shelf balance. Without them, ice shelves would grow unabated to cover large swaths of the Southern Ocean.

Still, the magnitude and timing of this ice loss warrants attention.

The Antarctic Peninsula, where the Larsen ice shelves reside, has long been viewed as a frontline for climate change. Warming in the peninsula exceeds the global average, glaciers there are retreating, and two other ice shelves on the peninsula already collapsed over the past couple of decades after being stable for thousands of years.

Such changes will help raise global sea levels by 3 to 6 feet by 2100, projections show, affecting dense coastal communities along our Eastern seaboard and across the globe.

Ice breakup starts chain reaction

We do know that this latest ice separation could set in motion a string of chain reactions that further destabilize the ice shelf and surrounding glaciers, and ultimately contribute to global sea level rise.

Ice shelves are floating extensions of grounded glaciers and ice sheets that, importantly, buttress and impede inland ice flow. When an ice shelf collapses or becomes weaker, this defense disappears, allowing inland glaciers to accelerate downslope and transport more ice to the ocean, which can quickly affect sea level.

Scientists worry that the remnant Larsen C ice shelf will now be at considerable risk of further breakup.

The new ice berg reduced the ice shelf area by more than 12 percent when it broke off, leaving behind an ice shelf that is inherently unstable. This can, in turn, trigger new ice cracks and rifting, and cause more icebergs to break off – further increasing the possibility of runaway ice loss amid rising global temperatures.

Whether or not this latest calving event will be attributed to climate change, it’s safe to say that it will make the region more vulnerable to the impacts of global warming.

Climate change caused 2002 ice shelf collapse

The Larsen C ice shelf, named for a Norwegian whaling vessel captain who sailed the Southern Sea in the late 1800s, has two smaller northern neighbors known as Larsen A and Larsen B – both of which collapsed in the past 23 years.

Those events taught us that ice sheets, landscapes we used to think of as stable and slow to change, can actually transform rapidly.

The Larsen B collapse was particularly dramatic, with nearly the entire ice shelf disintegrating during a three-week period in 2002 after remaining stable for at least 10,000 years.

The speed of that event was unprecedented and attributed directly to increasing atmospheric warming, although rising ocean temperatures and long-term ice loss from surrounding glaciers may also have played a role.

A hint of what’s to come?

After the Larsen B shelf collapse, researchers observed dramatic increases in glacier speed, thinning and ice transfer to the ocean.

Some researchers are already drawing parallels between this week’s Larsen C collapse and the series of events that led to the eventual collapse of Larsen B. The latter experienced a similar large calving event in 1995 that foreshadowed further retreat and widespread disintegration in 2002.

While it remains to be seen if and when Larsen C will meet the same fate, warning signs are already in place. What’s happening to the Larsen ice shelves could, in fact, be a proxy for what’s to come across even larger sections of the Antarctic ice sheet unless we take action to slow warming.

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What’s behind President Trump’s mystery math?

By Susanne Brooks

This post originally appeared on EDF’s Climate 411

By this time, your eyes may have glazed over from reading the myriad of fact checks and rebuttals of President Trump’s speech announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. There were so many dizzying falsehoods in his comments that it is nearly impossible to find any truth in the rhetorical fog.

Of all the falsehoods, President Trump’s insistence that compliance with the Paris accord would cost Americans millions of lost jobs and trillions in lowered Gross Domestic Product was particularly brazen, deceptive, and absurd. These statements are part of a disturbing pattern, the latest in a calculated campaign to deceive the public about the economics of reducing climate pollution.

Based on a study funded by industry trade groups

Let’s be clear: the National Economic Research Associates (NERA) study underpinning these misleading claims was paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF) – two lobbying organizations backed by fossil fuel industry funding that have a history of commissioning exaggerated cost estimates of climate change solutions. When you pay for bad assumptions, you ensure exaggerated and unrealistic results.

In the past five years alone, NERA has released a number of dubious studies funded by fossil fuel interests about a range of environmental safeguards that protect the public from dangerous pollution like mercury, smog, and particulate matter – all of which cause serious health impacts, especially in the elderly, children, and the most vulnerable. NERA’s work has been debunked over and over. Experts from MIT and NYU said NERA’s cost estimates from a 2014 study on EPA’s ozone standards were “fraudulent” and calculated in “an insane way.” NERA’s 2015 estimates of the impacts of the Clean Power Plan, which are frequently quoted by President Trump’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and others, have also been rebutted due to unrealistic and pessimistic assumptions.

The study does not account for the enormous costs of climate pollution

In his speech about the Paris agreement, President Trump crossed a line that made even NERA so uncomfortable that it released a statement emphasizing that its results were mischaracterized and that the study “was not a cost-benefit analysis of the Paris agreement, nor does it purport to be one.”

The most important point embedded in this statement is that the study does not account for the enormous benefits of reducing the carbon pollution causing climate change. Climate change causes devastating impacts including extreme weather events like flooding and deadly storms, the spread of disease, sea level rise, increased food insecurity, and other disasters. These impacts can cost businesses, families, governments and taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars through rising health care costs, destruction of property, increased food prices, and more. The costs of this pollution are massive, and communities all around the U.S. are already feeling the impacts – yet the President and his Administration continue to disregard this reality as well as basic scientific and economic facts.

Cherry-picking an impractical and imaginary pathway to emission reductions

The statistics the President used were picked from a specific scenario in the study that outlined an impractical and imaginary pathway to meet our 2025 targets designed to be needlessly expensive, as experts at the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council have noted. The study’s “core” scenario assumes sector by sector emission reduction targets (which do not exist as part of the Paris accord) that result in the most aggressive level of mitigation being required from the sectors where it is most expensive. This includes an almost 40 percent reduction in industrial sector emissions – a disproportionate level not envisioned in any current policy proposal – which results in heavily exaggerated costs.

An expert at the independent think tank Resources for the Future, Marc Hafstead, pointed out:

The NERA study grossly overstates the changes in output and jobs in heavy industry.

Yale economist Kenneth Gillingham said of these numbers:

It’s not something you can cite in a presidential speech with a straight face … It’s being used as a talking point taken out of context.

The NERA analysis also includes a scenario that illustrates what experts have known for decades – that a smarter and more cost-effective route to achieving deep emission reductions is a flexible, economy-wide program that prices carbon and allows the market to take advantage of the most cost-effective reductions across sectors. Even NERA’s analysis shows that this type of program would result in significantly lower costs than their “core” scenario. Not surprisingly, that analysis is buried in the depths of the report, and has been entirely ignored by the Chamber of Commerce and ACCF as well as President Trump.

Study ignores potential innovation and declining costs of low carbon energy

Finally, the NERA study assumes that businesses would not innovate to keep costs down in the face of new regulations – employing pessimistic assumptions that ignore the transformational changes already moving us towards the expansion of lower carbon energy. Those assumptions rely on overly-conservative projections for renewable energy costs, which have been rapidly declining. They also underestimate the potential for reductions from low-cost efficiency improvements, and assume only minimal technological improvements in the coming years.

In reality, clean energy is outpacing previous forecasts and clean energy jobs are booming. There are more jobs in solar energy than in oil and natural gas extraction in the U.S. right now, and more jobs in wind than in coal mining.

The truth is that the clean energy revolution is the economic engine of the future. President Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accord cedes leadership and enormous investment opportunities to Europe, China, and the rest of the world. His faulty math will not change these facts.

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Delaying smog standards risks lives, jeopardizes Americans’ health

By Mandy Warner

Twenty-six. That is how many smog-related air quality alerts were forecast across our country for one single day earlier this week.

From Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, “action days” were called urging “sensitive groups” (including children, people who are active outdoors, older Americans, and people with heart or lung disease) to reduce their time spent outdoors.

Smog is a dangerous air pollutant linked to premature deaths, asthma attacks, lower birth weight in infants, and serious heart and lung diseases.

Smog forms when industrial emissions from power plants, factories, cars, and other sources react with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere.

There have already been many alerts across the U.S. this year for smog pollution, and “smog season” has just begun. That shows we have more work to do to clean the air and protect our families and communities.

That is why it is disturbing to hear that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has decided to delay implementation of the updated smog standards by one year.

According to the American Lung Association’s 2017 State of the Air Report [PDF], more than one-third of all Americans live in areas with unhealthful levels of smog. More than 116 million people live in counties that received a grade of “F” for smog levels.

A one-year delay in the implementation of anticipated pollution from the smog standards would mean:

  • 660 more deaths
  • 230,000 asthma attacks among children
  • 180,000 missed work or school days

These are real lives being affected by Administrator Pruitt’s irresponsible actions.

The smog standards are driven by medical science. Here are some of the medical and health associations that supported strengthening the ozone standards:

  • The American Thoracic Society
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American Medical Association
  • American Heart Association
  • American Lung Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • Children’s Environmental Health Network
  • National Association of County and City Health Officials
  • Trust for America’s Health
  • Health Care Without Harm
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
  • American College of Chest Physicians
  • American College of Preventive Medicine
  • American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
  • American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation
  • National Association for the Medical Direction of Respiratory Care
  • Society of Physicians for Social Responsibility

EPA’s mission is to protect public health and the environment. Administrator Pruitt’s decision to delay the smog standards runs counter to that bi-partisan, four-and-a-half decade mission. It also runs counter to the recommendations of leading medical and public health associations.

The successful history of implementing the Clean Air Act shows that states have the flexibility to design tailored solutions to address smog pollution, and that dramatic pollution reductions go hand-in-hand with a strong economy.

We need to reduce the amount of smog in our air – and to achieve that goal, we need EPA to lead.

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One year and counting: On its first anniversary, near-term threats abound to implementation of our strong new chemical safety law

By Richard Denison

Richard Denison, Ph.D.is a Lead Senior Scientist.

This week marks the first birthday of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemicals Safety for the 21st Century Act, which was signed into law by President Obama on June 22, 2016, after passing the Senate and House with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The Lautenberg Act significantly overhauled and substantially improved the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the core provisions of which had never been amended since their adoption in 1976.  Among the enhancements are new provisions that:

  • mandate safety reviews for chemicals in active commerce;
  • require safety findings for new chemicals before they are allowed on the market;
  • replace TSCA’s burdensome safety standard — which prevented the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even from banning asbestos — with a pure, health-based safety standard;
  • explicitly require protection of vulnerable populations like children, pregnant women and workers;
  • give EPA enhanced authority to require testing of both new and existing chemicals;
  • make more information about chemicals available, by limiting companies’ ability to claim information as confidential, and by giving states and health and environmental professionals access to confidential information they need to do their jobs; and
  • retain a significant role for states in assuring chemical safety, while strengthening the federal role.

Passage of the Lautenberg Act was made possible by the coming-together of members of both parties and a broad spectrum of stakeholders around two facts:  the old law wasn’t working for anyone, and a stronger federal chemicals management system was needed to restore lost confidence among the public and in the marketplace over the safety of chemicals.

At the one-year mark, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) remains confident that the law is strong and can and will ultimately deliver on its promises.  At the same time, its effective implementation in the near term is threatened on numerous fronts, unfolding as it is in one of the most anti-environmental and anti-regulatory climates this nation has faced in a long time.  

To be clear, aspects of the bipartisan and broad stakeholder support for the new law remain and are evident in spots:  Thanks to herculean efforts of career staff, along with calls from members of both parties for EPA to meet its deadlines, EPA complied with most of the early milestones set forth in the law.  The same appears likely for the next set of deadlines, some of which fall later this week.  To date, EPA’s reviews of and actions on new chemicals have been undertaken in a manner that adheres to the law’s new requirements, and appropriate additional resources are allowing the agency to eliminate the temporary backlog that resulted from the new requirements becoming effective immediately upon enactment.

This news pales, however, in light of the significant threats that implementation of the new law faces.  Among them:

  • EPA’s BUDGET: The President’s proposed budget would decimate EPA’s funding and staffing, including in areas critical for effective TSCA implementation.  Despite preserving funding for the TSCA office, core agency functions such as enforcement and information management are on the chopping block.  Scientific initiatives on which the TSCA office heavily relies are also proposed to be cut to the bone.  The Office of Research and Development would be cut in half. That office includes:
    • the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), which conducts hazard characterizations of chemicals subject to risk evaluations under TSCA, including more than half of the first 10 chemicals slated for such reviews; and
    • EPA’s ToxCast and related initiatives under the agency’s “Chemical Safety for Sustainability” research program, which has been shepherding the development of high-throughput testing and other predictive toxicology methods and computational tools that the Lautenberg Act calls on EPA to look to utilize in filling the major data gaps that exist for many chemicals regulated under TSCA.
  • ANTI-REGULATORY EXECUTIVE ORDERS AND PENDING LEGISLATION: President Trump has signed several executive orders aimed at severely constraining EPA and other federal agencies from carrying out their missions to protect human health and the environment.  And a variety of bills have passed the House of Representatives and are pending in the Senate that would impose even more severe constraints, including by limiting the scientific information EPA can use in developing regulations and the independent scientific advice it can obtain.  One of these bills – the Regulatory Accountability Act – would, among other problems, impose across the entire federal government some of the worst flaws in the old TSCA that were removed by the Lautenberg Act; see here and here.
  • INDUSTRY EFFORTS TO ROLL BACK EARLY TSCA ACTIONS: The Lautenberg Act authorized EPA to take action to address high risks it had identified in previous chemical risk assessments, including certain uses of trichloroethylene (TCE), methylene chloride (MC) and N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP).  EPA proposed such rules in December and January, but much of the chemical industry has sought to derail, delay or dilute these rules, after failing to halt their proposal.  The fate of these rules is uncertain at this point, despite compelling ongoing evidence of the need for them.
    Many in the industry are also urging this Administration to repeal, delay or weaken a modest information-gathering rule on nanoscale materials that was over a decade in the making and was repeatedly scaled back in scope based on the industry’s concerns.  In response, EPA has already granted an initial delay, and the rule’s ultimate fate is uncertain.
    The law’s allowance for EPA to take early action was widely seen as an opportunity to demonstrate that the new law was working, which now may be lost.
  • UNDUE INDUSTRY INFLUENCE OVER IMPLEMENTATION: A senior chemical industry official was recently appointed as principal deputy in EPA’s TSCA office, where, among other things, she has been active in drafting the final “framework” rules under the Lautenberg Act that will set forth the key procedures EPA will use to prioritize and evaluate the risks of chemicals under TSCA.  These rules, which are in their final stages and could be issued as soon as this week, will directly affect the financial interests of companies represented by her previous employer, the American Chemistry Council.

Each of these factors, which will heavily influence the early implementation of the Lautenberg Act, put at great risk the careful balance struck by the new law.  If that balance is lost to short-term priorities of the new Administration and the chemical industry, the common ground so many of us fought for and found to support last year’s historic passage of the Lautenberg Act will quickly dissipate, and the conditions that led the industry to want reform in the first place – retail regulation and state and local action in response to an ineffective federal system – will pick up even greater steam.  The crisis in confidence will remain unabated.

It was no accident that the Lautenberg Act built in many safeguards against inaction or unsound decisions, including deadlines, mandatory duties, public comment, mandatory documentation of EPA decision-making and judicial review.  All are meant to drive transparency and accountability.  EDF is prepared to use all of these tools to fight back against efforts to undermine scientifically robust and legally sound implementation of the law.

If this post seems too pessimistic, I hope I am wrong.  Even if I am right, I believe what has been created by the Lautenberg Act is durable and will survive the near-term threats I’ve noted, leading in the long run to a stronger federal system that better ensures the safety of chemicals on or entering the market.  Meanwhile, those of us who want to see health-protective implementation of the law certainly have our work cut out for us.

 

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Purchasing power over politics: American consumers buy more clean energy and electric vehicles

By Jim Marston

Americans are switching to cleaner cars and electricity. In addition to being smart purchases, these clean energy choices could be a political statement. Consumers are choosing to use their hard-earned dollars to show what they want: clean energy, a clean economy, and government policies that reflect their values.

Last month, electric-car company Tesla was valued higher than General Motors, making it the most valuable U.S. carmaker based on market capitalization. Despite low gas prices, U.S. sales of plug-in electric vehicles increased by 70 percent in January from the same month in 2016. The Chevrolet Volt alone saw an 84 percent increase during the same time.

The increase in electric car sales isn’t surprising in light of The Consumer as Climate Activist, a scientific article published by researchers from Yale University, George Mason University, and the University of Texas. They found that Americans are more likely to engage in consumer activism than political activism to combat climate change. And consumer activism for clean energy is on the rise.

According to Dallas-based Clearview Energy, which provides customers with electricity generated by water, solar, wind, and geothermal power, their web sales have increased by 500 percent since the presidential election in November.


Purchasing power over politics: American consumers buy more clean energy and electric cars
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Clearview CEO Frank McGovern says, “Every time Trump threatens to dismantle the EPA, our green energy plan sales skyrocket.”

These trends suggest that Americans could be fighting back with their purchasing power against the Trump administration’s assault on clean energy, which has been far-reaching since his inauguration in January:

  • Newly-minted Secretary of Energy Rick Perry recently ordered the Energy Department to study whether requiring coal plants to reduce their pollution while incentivizing cleaner energy sources is responsible for coal’s irreversible decline. The results of a study based on this premise are primed for use as propaganda to prop up the uneconomic coal industry, because government data clearly shows low natural gas prices, declining electricity demand, and plummeting costs for renewables are the reasons for coal’s demise.
  • Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, released in March, aimed to significantly defund a number of federal clean energy programs and energy efficiency efforts (including the broadly-supported Energy Star program). While Congress recently reached a budget deal to fund these critical programs through fiscal year 2017, September (when the 2018 budget must be voted on) is now the new showdown date for the future of federally-funded clean energy programs.
  • Trump said he would review car fuel-efficiency protections that require the industry to deliver a fleet average of at least 54.5 mpg by 2025. California Gov. Jerry Brown called the President’s move toward potentially axing clean cars an “unconscionable gift for polluters.” California and New York plan to challenge the action with a lawsuit against the EPA.
  • EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has publicly questioned whether carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to climate change.

As consumers, we can use our purchases to change the way power is made and change the powers that be. So let’s be smart, let’s be strategic, and let’s fight the good fight. You have choices as a consumer – whether you’re buying your next car, choosing your electricity provider, installing solar on your home roof, or replacing a home appliance. Make a statement and choose to buy clean.

Photo credit: John Rae

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