Photo by NOAA Photo Library. Some rights reserved.
It seems like every bad thing that happens in the natural world (and some of the good things too – like extraordinarily good weather here in Seattle at a time when it’s usually still grey and cold) almost uniformly circles back to climate change. Flooding, tsunamis, tornadoes – these things aren’t just tragedies for the communities that they affect directly, they’re also harbingers of a grim future in which we’re dealing with these kinds of things on a much more frequent and perhaps more severe basis.
Case in point: Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown, a vocal supporter of climate change action, told reporters this week that the wildfires that tore across the Santa Monica Mountains at a much earlier date than usual could be blamed on global warming:
“Our climate is changing, the weather is becoming more intense,” Brown told the Los Angeles Times. “The big issue (is) how do we adapt, because it doesn’t look like the people who are in charge are going to do what it takes to really slow down this climate change, so we are going to have to adapt. And adapting is going to be very, very expensive.”
Hmm. Doesn’t sound particularly promising. On the other hand, maybe not all natural side effects of global warming are inherently bad things. This week, a report from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory highlighted a record low count for tornadoes in the U.S. in 2012, the lowest since recordkeeping on tornadoes began in 1954, and well below the previous record set in 1991 (197 in 2012 vs. 247 in 1991). While it’s not 100% clear that this dip in tornadoes has to do with climate change, there is a link to the lack of moisture in the air and the shortage of rainfall last year, weather abnormalities that themselves can be traced back to climate change. As Climate Central points out, “tornadoes are complicated beasts, affected not only by moisture and temperature but also by wind shear and other factors. So far, there’s simply not enough information to say anything definitive about the future of tornadoes under climate change.”
Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, some rights reserved.
Back in 1968, Congress stepped into the flood insurance market to provide coverage where private insurers would not. Today, taxpayers back $527 billion of assets in coastal flood plains insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. Run by the Federal Emergency Agency, the program paid out $16 billion of claims for Katrina; Sandy-related claims could reach $12 billion. The program is already $18 billion in debt, as sum the government acknowledges will probably never be covered by higher premiums.
Besides the program’s cost, what is the issue? In New York alone, 200,000 people live less than four feet above the high tide level. Nationwide, the number of people living in flood-prone areas has been increasing, so each natural disaster damages more property and displaces more people than the last. An op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times opines that the time for the federal government to subsidize the insuring of homes and businesses in high-risk flood zones is long past. If property owners cannot find flood insurance on the private market, which in many cases they cannot, they should bear that risk instead of transferring it to the federal government.
One of the implications of changing federal flood insurance would be increased cost of living in coastal areas. Another Times article covers how Sandy and the coming National Flood Insurance Program rate hikes will make “seaside living, once and for all, a luxury only the wealthy can afford.” Building requirements for homes in newly mapped flood hazard zones could effect a demographic shift in the northeast, because much of the development encouraged by subsidized insurance would only be affordable to wealthy buyers.
The wisdom of subsidizing status quo demographics on the Jersey Shore to the tune of $18 billion aside, the point of reducing or eliminating federal flood insurance would be to end the cycle of natural disaster and expensive rebuilding without internalizing the risks of development in flood-prone coastal areas, which in light of recent events are certainly expanding. This is a step toward affordable environmental risk-management most people can back in good conscience.
Photo by Lynne Kirton. Some rights reserved.
Following the nuclear incident at Fukushima in the wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami, the EU moved to assess its nuclear power plants for their readiness in a similar situation, as well as other potential major incidents both natural and manmade. Today, the results of those examinations were released.
For those looking for quick, easy-to-digest data, the European Commission’s memo laid out a short series of questions and answers: number of reactors tested (145); types of events checked (extreme weather conditions, plane crashes, and extreme natural events such as the tsunami hit suffered by Fukushima); and highlights of the findings (37% of EU reactors aren’t up to recent standards for earthquakes; 43% didn’t meet the standards for flooding).
The EC also made available both the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament (a succinct but informative 20 pages) and the Commission Staff Working Document (62 pages of extensive detail, including the key recommendations and a breakdown of results by country). While no EU nuclear plants were found to be in such poor shape as to require immediate closure, the findings still make it clear that more can be done to prepare for adverse events. The Working Document’s recommendations regarding “Station Black-Out” (a complete loss of power) include availability of an alternative cooling system; equipment and staff prepared to deal with an event affecting all onsite reactors at once; and supply/availability of mobile equipment including emergency lights, firefighting gear, and batteries or alternative power supplies – some or all of which could have turned the tide of events at Fukushima.
Photo by Marc Veraart. Some rights reserved.
In the midst of the coverage of Hurricane Irene, one post from the New York Times in particular caught my eye. As folks struggled to wrap their heads around a potentially massive hurricane making landfall in New York and the potential subsequent devastation, the post drew attention to “Category 7,” a 2007 work of fiction about a fictionalized hurricane of unprecedented strength unleashed (purposefully!) onto NYC by an evil master of “secret, cutting-edge weather science.”
While so-called “weather warfare” is officially banned (the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques – an international treaty adopted in 1976 – formally prohibited such activities), more innocuous weather modification techniques are surprisingly common. Cloud seeding is a process used to increase precipitation, reduce hail, or eliminate fog by means of spraying tiny particles such as silver iodide into the sky to trigger cloud formation.
Most weather modification licensing and regulation happens at the state level. For a good example of weather modification laws, you can see Title 9, Chapters 301 and 302 of Texas’ Agriculture Code. However, federal level law requires certain weather modification activities to be reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): “Any person intending to engage in any weather modification project or activity in the United States shall provide a report of his intention, to be received by the Administrator at least 10 days before the commencement of such project or activity.” (see 15 CFR Part 908)
A 2009 congressional bill (S. 601) would have established a Weather Mitigation Research Program within the National Science Foundation, and authorized a “research and development program to improve the understanding of processes relating to [weather modification activities].” While today’s weather modifications are mostly limited to those serving agricultural purposes, future activities are likely to focus on mitigating climate change and its effects (like deadly hurricanes!). A recently released GAO report assessed “climate engineering technologies, focusing on their technical status, future directions for research on them, and potential responses.”
Interested in reading more about weather control? Check out this great piece in Harper’s Magazine, Disaster aversion: The quest to control hurricanes by Rivka Galchen.
Law firm Bingham McCutchen has just published a legal alert focusing on the current landscape of Japanese financial regulatory policy amidst market disruptions and relief efforts.
You can see examples of public company disclosures to the SEC relating to the March 11, 2011, earthquake here.
Photo courtesy of @gletham GIS, Social, Mobile Tech Images. Some rights reserved.
While tornadoes dominate headlines, the EPA is looking forward a few weeks to the onset of hurricane season. As if your personal safety weren’t enough to look out for, a recent EPA news release reminds us that extra precautions should be taken to minimize chemical releases associated with natural disasters.
This is not only a gentle suggestion but a federal requirement. Under the Clean Air Act’s Section 112(r)(1) – 42 U.S.C. 7412(r)(1) – owners and operators of facilities producing, processing, handling or storing hazardous substances have a “general duty” to take the steps necessary to prevent releases of such substances (you can see a list of the regulated substances at 40 C.F.R. 68.130). Such steps typically include a mix of general safety precautions and maintenance, monitoring, and employee training measures.
Let a little something slip? Any release that surpasses the “reportable quantity” for that substance mandates immediate notification of the National Response Center pursuant to Section 103 of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (42 U.S.C. 9603). But just because you’ve notified the federal authorities doesn’t mean you can leave your neighbors in the dark – Section 304 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (42 U.S.C. 11004) requires owners and operators to alert state and local emergency response groups as well.
The relative predictability of hurricanes buys affected facility owners/operators a little bit of time – a rare opportunity not afforded to those in tornado zones. Of course, many of the precautions recommended are the same, it’s just that the schedule for implementation can be drastically different.
For more information, visit the EPA’s Natural Disaster and Weather Emergencies center.
It’s hard to even begin to address the devastation in Japan, but then again, it’s even harder not to address it at all. My colleague, Chris Hitt, has written a short piece on blogmosaic reflecting on his year teaching English in a small town that would come to be “ground zero” of this month’s earthquake and tsunami.
The death toll from the initial natural events was immediate and heartbreakingly extensive, but it will take years to truly understand the effects of the unfolding nuclear disaster in the same area. Meanwhile, regulators have scrambled to reassure Americans that the U.S. is “not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity” and that “NRC’s rigorous safety regulations ensure that U.S. nuclear facilities are designed to withstand tsunamis, earthquakes and other hazards.”
And what exactly are the NRC’s rigorous safety regulations? This Fact Sheet explains that,
“The licensing bases for existing nuclear power plants are based on historical data at each site. This data is used to determine design basis loads from the area’s maximum credible earthquake, with an additional margin included.”
But history won’t account for catastrophic anomalies like the one that washed away whole swaths of Japan’s coast. Will these recent events compel NRC to tighten their rules? The New York Times reports that many countries in Europe are suspending plans to build new plants until safety standards have been reviewed.
In the mean time, check out 10 CFR 100.23 to see the specifics of NRC’s “Geologic and seismic siting criteria,” and browse CFR Title 10 for the general design criteria for licensing a plant.
And, as Chris stresses in his post, please don’t forget to give help where you can.