Extreme Weather and Resilience: An Ounce of Prevention

A recent Senate hearing highlighted some of the progress U.S. communities are making, and the major challenges they face, in better coping with costly extreme weather events — including those, such as heat waves and coastal flooding, whose risks are heightened by climate change.

Sen. Tom Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, noted that the “frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events are costing our country a lot - not just in lives impacted – but in economic costs, as well.” Nearly 130 weather-related events in 2013 caused more than $20 billion in losses in the United States.

Extreme weather is costly, not only to federal, state, and local governments, but also to businesses and individuals.

Much of the Senate testimony echoed key findings in our report, “Weathering the Storm, Building Business Resilience to Climate Change.”  Three key points made at the hearing were:

The Other Carbon

Most development and analysis of climate change policies have focused on reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs), which are widely recognized as the major contributors to climate change. And as we blogged about last year, far less attention has been given to black carbon (BC). However things may be changing. Inspired by University of California – San Diego professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan’s Foreign Affairs article, “The Other Climate Changers,” the United States House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing last Tuesday to investigate the impacts of black carbon pollution. The takeaway message from this hearing is that BC policies should be complementary to efforts to reduce GHG gases. Reductions in emissions of black carbon would have near-term effects on reducing global warming that are not possible from actions directed at carbon dioxide and other long-lived gases. Reducing BC is good for the environment, public health, and creates jobs. We recently published a detailed primer on BC science and policy.

Both professors Ramanathan and Tami Bond of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gave an overview of the science of black carbon – uncombusted materials like soot and smoke. A growing body of evidence indicates that soot and smoke are major contributors, possibly second only to carbon dioxide, to human-induced global warming. BC warms the air by absorbing sunlight in the atmosphere, changes rainfall patterns and, when deposited on snow and ice, accelerates melting. According to Professor Ramanathan, BC’s warming effect is around 40 to 70 percent of that of carbon dioxide. However, unlike carbon dioxide, black carbon does not accumulate in the atmosphere; it stays in the atmosphere for a few weeks, so the impacts are more concentrated in the areas where they are produced, and reducing BC emissions would have near-term benefits in those areas.

BC is produced by both natural processes and human activity from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. According to Professor Ramanthan, the regional effects of BC are particularly large over the Arctic, Africa, and Asia. BC leads to increased melting of snow and ice in the Arctic, Sahelian drought, and decreased monsoon rainfall. Primary sources include diesel engines, small industrial sources, residential coal and solid biofuels for cooking and heating, and agricultural and forest fires.

Since the impacts of BC are regional, there are significant local environment, public health, and economic benefits of reducing BC emissions. Reducing BC emissions in India for example, would not only produce environmental benefits of cleaner air and negate rainfall loss, but would also save lives. Professor Ramanathan’s calculations indicate that replacing cook stoves in India with advanced biomass stoves could prevent 2 million deaths from the reduction of particulate matter produced by traditional stoves. Mitigating BC emissions would also prevent reduced rainfall and reduced agriculture yields.

According to another panelist, Conrad Schneider, Advocacy Director of the Clean Air Task Force, reducing BC emissions can create clean jobs here in the United States. Even though BC isn’t much of a climate forcing in the U.S. and a potentially expensive source of reductions, there is a billion dollars worth of work to reduce diesel’s BC emissions. For example, retrofitting 11 million diesel engines in the U.S. today could achieve the same environmental benefit as removing 21 million cars from the road, would save approximately 7,500 lives through reduced particulate matter pollution, and create tens of thousands of domestic jobs.

In order to get the environmental, economic, and public health benefits of reduced BC emissions, all the witnesses agreed that action must be taken. For more information, please check our white paper on the climate impacts of black carbon.

Hearing on DOE R&D budget request

Research and development (R&D) is an essential component of any climate change policy, in that new technologies are needed to cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And so in this vein, we were very interested to see Energy Secretary Steven Chu defend DOE’s increased R&D funding request for Fiscal Year 2011. Much like his “Daily Show” appearance last year, Chu proved that he has the pizzazz to match his Nobel Prize... Of particular note during his testimony for the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee was the discussion of energy innovation hubs and how Yucca Mountain would affect nuclear expansion.

The issue of innovation was a prominent topic of discussion during the hearing, with the Secretary outlining several new Administration priorities. Chu explained how developing innovative sources of clean energy will allow us to develop new technologies and new industries, creating domestic jobs that can’t be outsourced. To help get the ball rolling, Chu wants to see the creation of three energy innovation hubs modeled after Bell Labs and MIT Radiation Labs that developed radar, and the Manhattan Project. The hubs will combine scientists and engineers to advance highly promising areas of energy science and engineering from the early stages of R&D all the way to commercial viability. Complementary to these hubs, Energy Frontier Research Centers would be university-based and link small groups of energy and basic science researchers across the country to develop new materials and technologies. And finally, Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), modeled generally on DARPA which brought us the wonders of the internet, would finance high-payoff, high-risk projects to help push for the development of new energy technologies that could radically alter how we get energy.

The most controversial topic at this hearing was the future role of nuclear power. We’ve blogged before about nuclear power and the significant role it’s projected to play in decarbonizing the U.S. electricity sector. (For an overview of nuclear, check out our Climate TechBook brief on Nuclear Power.) Committee members from both sides of the aisle peppered Secretary Chu with questions about the Administration’s position on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility. Chu reiterated that the withdrawal of Yucca Mountain would have no impact on the Administration’s plan to expand nuclear power. He argued that Dry cask storage can provide safe on-site storage for decades after long-lived nuclear power plants are retired, so we have time to find long-term solutions for dealing with spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

For the long-term, Secretary Chu is interested in better options for the storage, processing, and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. As we posted before, a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is to provide recommendations for a safe, long-term solution for used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. Secretary Chu is interested in what the Commission recommends. According to the Secretary, we know more now than we did when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed and Yucca Mountain was selected as the site for disposal.

Secretary Chu noted that Yucca Mountain was designed to store waste materials for 10,000 years, though it may not be able to do that. Depending on future weather patterns and the levels of precipitation, Yucca Mountain may not be an ideal option. Increased rainfall would increase the likelihood of water reaching the waste materials via fissures, which could then contaminate the surrounding environment. Secretary Chu noted that salt domes, a different type of geological formation than Yucca Mountain, have been radioactively dated to be around 10 million years old, and would create a “seal” around the nuclear waste so they could make for suitable long-term storage of nuclear waste that we don’t ever want to access again. Presumably, the Blue Ribbon Commission will provide useful insights into this and other issues.

Based on Wednesday’s hearing, innovation and nuclear power are going to be a key component of the DOE’s R&D budget this year. As we frequently note on this blog, achieving large-scale reductions in U.S. and global GHG emissions can be done at the lowest cost by exploiting a portfolio of commercially available and emerging technologies.

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