Climate lawyers to use UN 1.5C report to sue governments

Climate lawyers to use UN 1.5C report to sue governments

By Megan Darby

A major UN science report on global warming published [last week on] Monday will bolster climate lawsuits, according to legal experts and those seeking redress for government inaction.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sets out the difference in severity of climate impacts between 1.5C and 2C. It also indicates what would be needed to stabilise temperatures at the lower threshold.

That fuels a range of legal strategies to seek compensation or stronger climate action through the courts, lawyers say.

Roda Verheyen is representing ten families in a lawsuit against EU institutions, dubbed the People’s Climate Case. She will argue in the European General Court that the EU must adopt a more ambitious 2030 climate target to defend their human rights – drawing on the UN assessment of the science.

“There is a huge difference between 1.5 and 1.9 or whatever is ‘below 2C’, especially for the people I represent. The impact prognosis is very, very different,” she said.

In a letter to EU politicians, published in Climate Home News on Tuesday, the plaintiffs said the IPCC had confirmed that only European emissions targets that hold warming below 1.5C were compatible with their “fundamental rights”.

The signatories included Maurice Feschet, 72, a fourth-generation farmer in the south of France. He told CHN climate disruption has become more frequent since his youth.

Repeated drought has hit the lavender harvest, making it harder for his son to continue the family tradition, Feschet said. “It is very difficult to live now on this… we joined the ten other families to ask Europe to protect our way of life.” He added: “It is not for me I do it, it is for my children.”

What the IPCC special report does not do is fundamentally alter anyone’s legal obligations. These cases still rely on a mixture of existing national and international legal principles.

“It doesn’t change the law,” said Jonathan Church, lawyer at London-based firm Client Earth, “but at the same time it does potentially provide a lot of ammunition for those of us seeking to use the law to effect change in this area.”

National climate pledges under the Paris Agreement put the world on track for 3C of warming this century, according to the IPCC report, substantially exceeding the overall targets of 1.5C or below 2C.

The volume of climate lawsuits is increasing, as action to tackle climate change fails to keep pace with the impacts. “We expect more and more climate litigation in the coming years,” said Church.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia has a “climate justice” team. It is primarily focused on a petition to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, seeking to hold major historic coal, oil and gas producers to account for their role in causing climate change.

People who have borne the brunt of intense tropical storms and other climate-linked damage have given testimony in a series of hearings in Manila. The inquiry continues with a session in London on 6-8 November.

Louise Fournier, a lawyer involved in the project, explained in a briefing note how they see the 1.5C report applying to climate litigation.

“States have positive obligations to prevent foreseeable violations of human rights,” she wrote, adding in bullet points:

  • “The IPCC special report outlines the very foreseeable risks of a world that is not aligned with 1.5C.
  • “Governments are put ‘on notice’ that their climate and energy laws and policies are not aligned with the latest IPCC science;
  • “Failure to align climate and energy laws and policies with the latest IPCC science exposes governments to climate lawsuits.”

Some climate lawsuits have already made a mark. Notably, campaign group Urgenda forced the Dutch government to tighten its 2020 emissions reduction target in line with international goals.

The government appealed, arguing it was a matter for policymakers to set such targets. The court of appeal is due to publish its ruling on Tuesday.

Previewing the appeal judgement last week, Urgenda director Marjan Minnesma said in a statement: “It’s disappointing that the Dutch government keeps fighting a judgement that has brought so much hope and inspiration around the world. The upcoming special report of the IPCC emphasises that we need to reduce emissions with much greater urgency.”

Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres backed the campaigners, saying: “The judgment in the Urgenda case recognizes the critical importance of early action on climate change. If global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, the temperature goals negotiated in Paris, will almost certainly become unattainable.”

This article was originally published on Climate Home News and is shared under a Creative Commons license.

Further reading:

New study finds legal sector demand for climate services very likely to increase in near future

Conference at The Collider: The nexus of climate data, insurance, and adaptive capacity

Conference at The Collider: The nexus of climate data, insurance, and adaptive capacity

From 8-9 November 2018, The Collider in Asheville, NC, is hosting an exciting conference on the nexus of climate data, insurance, and adaptive capacity.

This workshop will facilitate a national, interdisciplinary scientific research discussion on modelling and managing climate change risks between three different but related research communities: the climate modelling and data community, statisticians, and researchers within the insurance and reinsurance industries. This workshop will be aimed at active scientific researchers in each community, with the goals of sharing perspectives, methods, and databases; defining gaps of existing research; and forming actionable research paths which can only be addressed by teams which are new, collaborative and interdisciplinary.

Speakers include: Deke Arndt (NCEI), Dan Cooley (Colorado State), Stephanie Herring (NOAA), Jeremy Hess (U-Washington), Jennifer Jurado (Broward County, FL), Lysa Porth (U-Manitoba), Doug Nychka (Colorado Mines), Raghuveer Vinukollu (Munich Re), and Roy Wright (IBHS).

The conference is organised by the Statistics and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute, Reinsurance Association of America, Renaissance Computing Institute, and Wake Forest University, with support from the NSF, Society of Actuaries and Casualty and Actuarial Society.

Registration is $100/person, and $25/person for students.

Click here to register and access the agenda.

Protecting wetlands helps communities reduce damage from hurricanes and storms

Protecting wetlands helps communities reduce damage from hurricanes and storms

By Siddharth Narayan, University of California, Santa Cruz and Michael Beck, University of California, Santa Cruz

2017 was the worst year on record for hurricane damage in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean from Harvey, Irma and Maria. We had hoped for a reprieve this year, but less than a month after Hurricane Florence devastated communities across the Carolinas, Hurricane Michael has struck Florida.

Coastlines are being developed rapidly and intensely in the United States and worldwide. The population of central and south Florida, for example, has grown by 6 million since 1990. Many of these cities and towns face the brunt of damage from hurricanes. In addition, rapid coastal development is destroying natural ecosystems like marshes, mangroves, oyster reefs and coral reefs – resources that help protect us from catastrophes.

In a unique partnership funded by Lloyd’s of London, we worked with colleagues in academia, environmental organizations and the insurance industry to calculate the financial benefits that coastal wetlands provide by reducing storm surge damages from hurricanes. Our study, published in 2017, found that this function is enormously valuable to local communities. It offers new evidence that protecting natural ecosystems is an effective way to reduce risks from coastal storms and flooding.

Coastal wetlands and flood damage reduction: A collaboration between academia, conservation and the risk industry.

The economic value of flood protection from wetlands

Although there is broad understanding that wetlands can protect coastlines, researchers have not explicitly measured how and where these benefits translate into dollar values in terms of reduced risks to people and property. To answer this question, our group worked with experts who understand risk best: insurers and risk modelers.

Using the industry’s storm surge models, we compared the flooding and property damages that occurred with wetlands present during Hurricane Sandy to the damages that would have occurred if these wetlands were lost. First we compared the extent and severity of flooding during Sandy to the flooding that would have happened in a scenario where all coastal wetlands were lost. Then, using high-resolution data on assets in the flooded locations, we measured the property damages for both simulations. The difference in damages – with wetlands and without – gave us an estimate of damages avoided due to the presence of these ecosystems.

Our paper shows that during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, coastal wetlands prevented more than US$625 million in direct property damages by buffering coasts against its storm surge. Across 12 coastal states from Maine to North Carolina, wetlands and marshes reduced damages by an average of 11 percent.

These benefits varied widely by location at the local and state level. In Maryland, wetlands reduced damages by 30 percent. In highly urban areas like New York and New Jersey, they provided hundreds of millions of dollars in flood protection.

Wetland benefits for flood damage reduction during Sandy (redder areas benefited more from having wetlands). Narayan et al., Nature Scientific Reports 7, 9463 (2017)., CC BY

Wetlands reduced damages in most locations, but not everywhere. In some parts of North Carolina and the Chesapeake Bay, wetlands redirected the surge in ways that protected properties directly behind them, but caused greater flooding to other properties, mainly in front of the marshes. Just as we would not build in front of a seawall or a levee, it is important to be aware of the impacts of building near wetlands.

Wetlands reduce flood losses from storms every year, not just during single catastrophic events. We examined the effects of marshes across 2,000 storms in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. These marshes reduced flood losses annually by an average of 16 percent, and up to 70 percent in some locations.

Reductions in annual flood losses to properties that have a marsh in front (blue) versus properties that have lost the marshes in front (orange). Narayan et al., Nature Scientific Reports 7, 9463 (2017)., CC BY

In related research, our team has also shown that coastal ecosystems can be highly cost-effective for risk reduction and adaptation along the U.S. Gulf Coast, particularly as part of a portfolio of green (natural) and gray (engineered) solutions.

Reducing risk through conservation

Our research shows that we can measure the reduction in flood risks that coastal ecosystems provide. This is a central concern for the risk and insurance industry and for coastal managers. We have shown that these risk reduction benefits are significant, and that there is a strong case for conserving and protecting our coastal ecosystems.

The next step is to use these benefits to create incentives for wetland conservation and restoration. Homeowners and municipalities could receive reductions on insurance premiums for managing wetlands. Post-storm spending should include more support for this natural infrastructure. And new financial tools such as resilience bonds, which provide incentives for investing in measures that reduce risk, could support wetland restoration efforts too.

Improving long-term resilience

The dense vegetation and shallow waters within wetlands can slow the advance of storm surge and dissipate wave energy. USACE

Increasingly, communities are also beginning to consider ways to improve long-term resilience as they assess their recovery options.

There is often a strong desire to return to the status quo after a disaster. More often than not, this means rebuilding seawalls and concrete barriers. But these structures are expensive, will need constant upgrades as as sea levels rise, and can damage coastal ecosystems.

Even after suffering years of damage, Florida’s mangrove wetlands and coral reefs play crucial roles in protecting the state from hurricane surges and waves. And yet, over the last six decades urban development has eliminated half of Florida’s historic mangrove habitat. Losses are still occurring across the state from the Keys to Tampa Bay and Miami.

Protecting and nurturing these natural first lines of defense could help Florida homeowners reduce property damage during future storms. In the past two years our team has worked with the private sector and government agencies to help translate these risk reduction benefits into action for rebuilding natural defenses.

Across the United States, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, coastal communities face a crucial question: Can they rebuild in ways that make them better prepared for the next storm, while also conserving the natural resources that make these locations so valuable? Our work shows that the answer is yes.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 25, 2017.The Conversation Siddharth Narayan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Coastal Flood Risk, University of California, Santa Cruz and Michael Beck, Research professor, University of California, Santa Cruz. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover photo by NPS Everglades/Flickr (public domain)
How do you make the financial business case for the private sector to invest in resilience?

How do you make the financial business case for the private sector to invest in resilience?

By Climate Finance Advisors

Last week’s Climate Week NYC played host to 35 official events on private investment for climate change and countless satellite gatherings, from the Sustainable Investment Forum to Climate Infrastructure. The topic has gained currency as municipal governments grapple with deferred maintenance of infrastructure, public pension liabilities, and other expenditures, ten years after the Great Recession local budgets remain tight. Add to this mix a growing and urgent need for climate-proofing local infrastructure, and it’s not hard to see why government officials and policymakers are searching for solutions that share the costs of climate-resilient infrastructure investment with the private sector.

On September 12, the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) hosted a panel on resilience financing that focused on how the public and private sectors together could develop resilience funding mechanisms for Houston. Stacy Swann, the CEO and Founding Partner of Climate Finance Advisors, joined by other five national thought leaders from the financial sector, shared insights on resilience bonds and how they may provide the necessary financing to future local infrastructure projects.

One year after Hurricane Harvey, Houston is clearly in need of climate-resilient infrastructure to prepare for future damaging flood events. This second costliest storm on record caused $125 billion worth of damage and put one-third of the city underwater. The estimated loss due to business interruption is $26 billion, and around 500 businesses are reported to have major damage. During the disaster, Harris County Flood Control District infrastructure sustained significant damage and will require an estimated $155 million for assessment and repairs. Within a network of 2,500 miles of bayous, creeks, and drainage systems, 1,200 sites were reported to damage such as erosion, slope failures, silt deposit, and concrete failures. However, as pointed out during the panel, the potential capital expenditure for infrastructure repair and development exceeds the public funding available.

The question on everyone’s mind is: How to catalyze private capital as a complement to public funding sources? With consensus on the importance of resiliency continuing to build, the need for capital and emerging partnerships between governments, industries, and communities may offer opportunities for innovative financing mechanisms.

Besides public infrastructure, many industries are vulnerable to such extreme weather events too, suggesting they have a business incentive to be proactive on climate resilience. As hurricanes rage, industries from fossil fuels to agriculture to Internet infrastructure are grappling with the impacts of climate change on infrastructure and other real assets. But are they ready to open their pocketbooks and invest in public and private infrastructure that delivers resilience solutions?

Let’s examine some of the affected industries. Representing 40% of the nation’s petrochemical manufacturing capacity, refineries, chemicals and plastic manufacturers along the Gulf Coast suffered substantial losses and posed threats to the environment. At the peak of the Hurricane Harvey flooding, more than 25% of the U.S. refining capacity was shut down, equivalent to the processing capacity of 4.8 million barrels per day. Domestic gasoline retail prices jumped more than 10% due to supply disruptions and refinery outages. Besides economic impacts, ExxonMobil, Shell, Valero, and Kinder Morgan were reported to experience storage tank failures, leading to leaks and spills of more than 620,000 pounds of hazardous chemicals including crude oil, benzene, and volatile organic compounds.  Leak incidents from natural gas and anhydrous hydrogen chloride pipelines were also reported, according to the National Response Center. While these immediate problems will be addressed, and manufacturing facilities will return to normal production eventually, the environmental damage as well as corporate costs and lost revenues underscore these industries’ vulnerability to extreme weather events.

It’s increasingly clear that Harvey is hardly a unique event. On the East Coast earlier this month, Hurricane Florence brought rainfall of more than 30 inches to Wilmington and other parts of eastern North Carolina. Besides road closures and power outages, the hurricane also caused a coal-ash breach in a landfill owned by Duke Energy, leaking 2,000 cubic yards of material containing mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances. While the exact impacts of the breach are yet unknown, this incident, following similar coal ash pond discharge events in 2014 and 2016, clearly illustrated how vulnerable fossil fuel infrastructure can be, particularly during extreme weather events.

Buffeted by Florence’s winds and catastrophic flooding, agriculture took a hit as well. As one of the nation’s largest poultry- and hog-producing states, North Carolina lost 3.4 million poultry and 5,500 hogs, according to preliminary estimates, and there have been widespread reports of manure lagoons flooding, leading to untold environmental damage from toxic contamination. Tobacco and sweet potato crops were affected as well. Before Florence made landfall, only half of tobacco and a quarter of the sweet potato crop were harvested. North Carolina accounts for 50% of the U.S. tobacco production and is the largest producer of sweet potatoes.

And the impacts of substantial physical climate risks are not limited to the fossil fuel, petrochemical, and agriculture industries. In as soon as 15 years, a significant part of U.S. Internet infrastructure will be underwater due to sea level rise, including over 4,000 miles of fiber conduit and 1,000 nodes, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Oregon and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among all service providers, CenturyLink, Intelliquent, and AT&T are identified at the highest risk with a significant amount of infrastructure located in coastal regions.

These imminent and material risks call for immediate action from a wide range of corporate actors. However, a report published earlier this year by CDP and Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB) suggests that most companies are not yet ready to take strategic actions to address climate-related risks. This study looked at more than 1,600 companies across 14 countries and 11 sectors. While 82% of the surveyed companies acknowledged the risks and opportunities associated with climate change, only 12% of them address these issues by providing incentives to the board. Furthermore, a second survey released by HSBC during this year’s Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) suggests that less than 10% of 1,731 issuers and investors are aware of the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which last year released guidelines on corporate climate-related risk disclosure.

Businesses vulnerable to changes in climate and weather need to make long-term and strategic investments that are climate-resilient, which will not only help mitigate potential risks, but may also transform business threats into opportunities, and develop core competencies by committing to climate-smart investment. While the TCFD’s recommendations for corporations on disclosure are an important first step, fully integrating climate change considerations in corporate strategy and risk management is a much more comprehensive and holistic process.

This year, as a first step, Climate Finance Advisors, in collaboration with Acclimatise and Four Twenty Seven, published a Lenders’ Guide for Considering Climate Risk in Infrastructure Investments to address questions shared by banking institutions and infrastructure investors. This report provides a framework to help investors understand climate-related physical risks, such as from weather damage and natural disasters, by linking them to projects’ revenue, cost, and asset value. This and other climate risk identification and management tools are helping to bring climate risk considerations into C-suites and investment committees, the first step in climate-proofing business models and investment portfolios, and mobilizing capital for public and private resilience solutions. In future blog posts, we will explore the business case for private investment in resilience that can help mobilize much-needed capital – stay tuned.

This article was originally published on Climate Finance Advisors and is shared with kind permission.

Cover photo by US Navy: In the wake of Hurricane Sandy debris and destruction can be seen in and around the houses in Breezy Point, N.Y. Over 100 houses burned to the ground as flood waters isolated the community from fireman. Hurricane Sandy was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and caused the most damage in New York and New Jersey Oct. 29, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ryan J. Courtade/Released) Photo by Ryan Courtade – Nov 13, 2012 – Location: Breezy Point, NY. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
William Nordhaus wins Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for work on economics and climate change

William Nordhaus wins Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for work on economics and climate change

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

On Monday 8 October, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced its decision to award William Nordhaus the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences “for integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis.”

Currently a faculty member of Yale University, which he joined in the late 1960s, Nordhaus has focused his research on economic growth and natural resources, and the economics of climate change. One of his main contributions are his models to determine efficient paths for coping with climate change.

While his earlier work (e.g. Reflections on the Economics of Climate Change, 1993) somewhat underestimates climate change impacts on booming economies like the United States of America or Japan, his integrated assessment model (IAM) was groundbreaking. In the mid-1990s Nordhaus became the first to create a quantitative model that described the global interconnectivity and mutual influence of physics (climate module), chemistry (carbon-circulation module), and economics (economic-growth module).

The model, also known as the Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy model, or DICE model, allows a weighing of the costs and benefits to curb climate change. It is used to simulate how the economy and climate co-evolve, and what the consequences of different climate policy interventions are (see figure below).

CO2 emissions over time for four climate policies (explanations in the text). Predictions from the DICE-2016R2 model, according to Nordhaus’ own simulations. Source: Royal Swedish Academy of Science, Popular Information: Integrating nature and knowledge into economics (PDF).

The Nobel Prize announcement came on the same day the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its special report on the importance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Nordhaus is sharing this year’s Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with Paul Romer, who is receiving it for integrating technological innovations into long-run macroeconomic analysis. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences sees both their contributions as crucial additions towards addressing central questions of our time and adds “we do not yet have conclusive answers to these questions, but the laureates’ methods have been fundamental in allowing current and future researchers to improve our understanding of the best way to progress towards sustained and sustainable global economic growth.”

Cover photo by BBVA Foundation: Professor William Nordhaus.
New report by IPCC finds world faces huge risks if warming is not kept below 1.5C

New report by IPCC finds world faces huge risks if warming is not kept below 1.5C

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released a special landmark report on the impacts of 1.5 °C warming above pre-industrial levels. The report finds unprecedented changes would be necessary worldwide to keep warming below 1.5 °C but that it would massively decrease global climate risks.

The half-degree difference between 1.5 °C and 2 °C, the target range set out in the Paris Agreement during COP21, is a significant one. “Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” Hans-Otto Pörtner said, who leads the working group on impacts and adaptation.

At the current rate of warming, we could reach the 1.5 °C target as early as 2030 and 2052. Keeping to that ambitious warming target would significantly lower the risks of droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for millions of people across the globe. For example, the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress would be 50% lower at 1.5 °C than at 2.0 °C.

Climate adaptation needs will be much lower at 1.5 °C, above it there are limits to adaptation and adaptive capacity for some human and natural systems, meaning losses would become inevitable.

However, keeping to that target and not exceeding it would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions across all sectors and human carbon dioxide emissions would have to be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050.

“We have presented governments with pretty hard choices. We have pointed out the enormous benefits of keeping to 1.5 °C, and also the unprecedented shift in energy systems and transport that would be needed to achieve that,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of the working group on mitigation. “We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We cannot answer that. Only our audience can – and that is the governments that receive it.”

At the moment the world is on track for disastrous 3 °C warming. Amjad Abdulla, IPCC board member and chief negotiator for AOSIS (Alliance of Small Island States) said “the report shows that we only have the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life as we know it.”

Download the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5 °C by clicking here.

Cover photo by Zooey/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
‘Eternal’ Swiss snow is melting faster

‘Eternal’ Swiss snow is melting faster

By Paul Brown

Scientists say stretches of “eternal” Swiss snow are melting faster than 20 years ago, with serious impacts for water supply and tourism.

Parts of Europe’s alpine mountain chain are undergoing accelerating melting, as the “eternal” Swiss snow thaws ever faster, threatening both the skiing industry and the nation’s water supply.

Over a period of only 22 years, thousands of satellite images have provided irrefutable evidence that an extra 5,200 square kilometres of the country are now snow-free, compared with the decade 1995-2005.

Researchers from the University of Geneva and the United Nations Environment Programme have used data from four satellites which have been constantly photographing the Earth from space, compiling a record published by the Swiss Data Cube, which uses Earth observations to give a comprehensive  picture of the country’s snow cover and much else besides, including crops grown and forest cover.

It is the loss of snow cover that most disturbs the scientists. What they call “the eternal snow zone” still covered 27% of Swiss territory in the years from 1995 to 2005. Ten years later it had fallen to 23% – a loss of 2,100 sq km.

The eternal snow line marks the part of Switzerland above which the snow never used to melt in summer or winter. It is also defined as the area where any precipitation year-round has an 80-100% chance of being snow.

“We have stored the equivalent of 6,500 images covering 34 years, a feat that only an open data policy has made possible”

Other parts of the country, including the Swiss Plateau (about 30% of Switzerland’s area), the Rhone Valley, the Alps and the Jura mountains are also losing snow cover, adding up to the 5,200 sq km total. These areas, below the eternal snow line, have until now usually had lying snow in the winter.

The study was launched in 2016 on behalf of Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment. Knowing the extent of snow cover and its retreat is essential for developing public policies, the researchers say.

Beyond the economic issues linked to the threat to ski resorts – a familiar area of concern, heightened by this latest research, as many of them now face shortened seasons or outright abandonment – other problems such as flood risk and water supply are coming to the fore. Snow stores water in the winter for release in spring and summer, for both agriculture and drinking water.

Currently the increasing loss of ice from glaciers in the summer is making up for the missing snow, but previous work by scientists has shown that in the future, when glaciers disappear altogether, Switzerland could face a crisis.

The researchers have relied on the information available from the Data Cube to establish what is happening on the peaks. By superimposing repeated pictures of the same place over one another they have been able to observe small changes over time.

Wealth of data

The data was made freely available to researchers. One of them, Grégory Giuliani, said: “We have stored the equivalent of 6,500 images covering 34 years, a feat that only an open data policy has made possible. If we had had to acquire these images at market value, more than 6 million Swiss francs would have been invested.

“Knowing that each pixel of each image corresponds to the observation of a square of 10 by 10 meters, we have 110 billion observations today. It is inestimable wealth for the scientific community.”

Apart from snow cover scientists are worried about many other changes taking place in Switzerland because of climate change. They already know that glaciers are melting at record speeds and plants, birds and insects are heading further up the mountains, but there is much else to be gleaned from the new data base.

The Data Cube offers the possibility of studying vegetation, the evolution and rotation of agricultural areas, urbanisation and even water quality, as satellite images can be used to monitor three essential indicators in lakes and rivers: suspended particles, whether organic or mineral; chlorophyll content; and surface temperature.

The data are freely accessible, not only to scientists worldwide but also to the public, making it easy to compare data for specific areas of the territory at different times. “Our ambition is that everyone should be able to navigate freely in Swiss territory to understand its evolution”, said Grégory Giuliani.

Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.

This article was originally published on Climate News Network.

Cover photo by Steve Evans/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Wildfires in Mediterranean Europe will increase by 40% at 1.5°C warming, say scientists

Wildfires in Mediterranean Europe will increase by 40% at 1.5°C warming, say scientists

By Cristina Santin,Swansea University and Stefan H Doerr, Swansea University

Europe’s Mediterranean regions have strong sunshine, bright blue seas, beautiful beaches, and pretty holiday houses immersed in pine forests that provide welcome shade. It sounds very inviting, but such a scenario is also perfect for severe wildfires such as the ones that killed 99 people this July in the popular holiday resort of Mati, in Greece.

Now, new research in Nature Communications suggests that the summer fire season in Mediterranean Europe is going to get worse. Under the hottest climatic predictions of 3°C warming, the area that is currently burned every year would double. Even more worryingly, 40% more area would be burnt even if the Paris Climate Agreement is fulfilled and warming stays below “only” 1.5°C.

So, time for Europeans to start looking for other holiday destinations? Hang on. Let´s look at the new study in more depth first.

In this modelling exercise, a team of scientists led by Marco Turco, a fire researcher at the University of Barcelona, predict the area that would burn in future summers in Mediterranean Europe following different degrees of warming. They base their approach on the findings of a recent study from some of the same authors, which looked at Portugal, Spain, southern France, Italy and Greece, and established a direct association between the area burnt in the summer months and summer drought in recent decades (1985-2011). They use that “fire-drought” relationship to estimate the area burnt under the drought conditions forecasted in three different warming scenarios (1.5°C, 2°C and 3°C).

The climate obviously has a direct effect on fires, as hotter conditions lead to drier vegetation more susceptible to burning. But the authors also account for indirect effects such as drier conditions reducing plant growth, meaning there is less vegetation to “fuel” the fires. This “non-stationary” climate-fire modelling is important because if the indirect effects were not considered the predictions of area burnt would be even higher.

So, are Turco and co-authors right? Will the future look blacker for the Mediterranean? Will tragic events, like those in Mati, become more frequent? Turco’s predictions, even if in many ways the most advanced to date, still carry a huge uncertainty, but they add to the growing list of studies that forecast more Mediterranean fire activity in future.

Climate change is not the only factor

What their study is unable to predict is the influence of perhaps the most important factor behind the future occurrence of fires, also the very same factor that is responsible for accelerated climate warming: humans.

Humans are the main source of ignition in most of the Mediterranean, and the main modifiers of vegetation cover. Including them (or us) in scientific models of fire is very challenging, and can radically change the results. For example, at the global scale, models that rely on climate change tend to predict a very substantial increase in area burnt – a hotter world means more fires, as you’d expect. But when human effects are incorporated, the estimated total area burnt can actually decrease to levels even below current ones. This is essentially because more and more land worldwide is being urbanised or converted to agriculture, resulting in smaller and more fragmented “wildland” areas that can burn.

We still have plenty to worry about, however, as global averages form only a small part of the story. In some parts of the world, such as Canada and the US, the area burned is already on the increase. Meanwhile, some houses are being built further into forests and other flammable vegetation, while other houses are finding themselves now surrounded by vegetation as nearby fields are abandoned and left to nature. Both situations leave more people exposed to fires.

In Mediterranean Europe the situation is particularly complex as the ongoing abandonment of traditional land uses is changing the vegetation more dramatically than climate change. Intensely grazed or cultivated land is becoming overgrown with shrubs or replaced with fire-prone forest stands, a trend that makes the landscape more flammable. This, combined with climate warming, can provide the perfect recipe for fire disasters. For example, Greece has seen less than half the area burned so far this summer than the 2008-17 average), but lots of dry vegetation for fuel, strong winds and a high population density combined to cause Greece’s deadliest fire on record.

The future of fire in Mediterranean Europe ultimately depends on the decisions we make. That means complying with the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce global warming but also adapting effectively to the increased risk of fire. And this does not necessarily mean suppressing all fires, which is often not possible, but managing the fuel and how we live among it. Policies aimed at removing fire completely from the landscape have long proven to fail, even if many countries still follow them.

Instead we need to create fire-resilient landscapes and fire-resilient societies. A holiday house in the middle of a pine forest may sound idyllic, but it can be a death trap when a fire occurs, and the study by Turco and his co-authors suggests that this will be even more likely in the future.The Conversation

Cristina Santin, Sêr Cymru II Fellow & Senior Lecturer, Geography & Biosciences Departments, Swansea University and Stefan H Doerr, Professor of Geography and Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Wildland Fire, Swansea University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

The Conversation

Acclimatise CEO to speak at Eye on Earth Symposium

Acclimatise CEO to speak at Eye on Earth Symposium

From 22-24 October 2018 the Eye on Earth Symposium will be held at the Mina A’Salam Hotel in Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Acclimatise’s CEO John Firth will be participating remotely in a session “Application of Earth Observation data to support robust investment decisions in the face of a changing climate” together with moderator Tanzeed Alam, Managing Director of Earth Matters Consulting, and panellists Jed Sundwall, Global Open Data Lead at Amazon, and Steven Ramage, Head of External Relations from the Group on Earth Observations Secretariat. The session will be transmitted live, register below to watch the live stream. Find the abstract below the registration link.

The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, as co-founder of the Eye on Earth movement, in partnership with the UAE Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority and the Eye on Earth Alliance are inviting all who support evidence-based decision making for environmental and natural resource aspects of sustainable development to convene, converge and collaborate at the Eye on Earth Symposium. Participation in the Eye on Earth Symposium is free of charge.

Register to attend the session online by clicking here.

GoToMeeting meeting ID: 781‐633‐691

Application of Earth Observation data to support robust investment decisions in the face of a changing climate

Monday 22 October from 17:30 to 19:30 (UTC+4 )

Many sectors of the economy are sensitive to weather and climate, and climate change is already having profound effects which need to be understood and managed effectively to ensure sustainable development. Growing numbers of heat waves, more droughts and floods, rising sea levels, and increased losses from extreme weather events are occurring globally. Evaluating the risks posed by climate change and making decisions about how to adapt requires sound science and data as a foundation.

At present, the potential of Earth Observation (EO) data to support sustainable economic development in the face of a changing climate is significantly underutilised. EO data can be used to monitor urban growth, sea level rise, harmful algal blooms, river discharges, and the state of critical infrastructure, among many others. Applications based on EO data can help to identify climate change hot spots and to develop forecasting systems for extreme climate‐related events.

This session will highlight the value of (EO) data for evaluating climate risks and ensuring that investments by public and private sector decision‐makers are climate resilient. Drawing on examples of global best practice, the session will demonstrate how EO data, combined with socio‐economic data and climate change projections, can provide powerful applications and analytics to improve the design, preparation and management of investments in many economic sectors, including industry, commerce, real estate and infrastructure.

The session will provide examples of international initiatives which are building capacity to access EO data and create EO applications that help to manage changing climate risks. It will discuss the exciting potential for EO data to transform the way decisions are made.

The full programme is available by clicking here. Follow the Eye on Earth Symposium on social media using the hashtag #EyeOnEarthSymposium.

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Cover photo by NASA on Unsplash
After the storm passes: the reality of hurricane aftermaths

After the storm passes: the reality of hurricane aftermaths

By Georgina Wade

On 20 September 2017, an onslaught of catastrophic weather changed the lives of 3 million people forever. One year later, residents of Puerto Rico are still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that resulted in economic losses of nearly $140 billion and killed nearly 3,000 people directly and in its aftermath.

The tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record and the most intense tropical cyclone worldwide of 2017, it was a mix of highly favourable environmental conditions that allowed Maria to undergo explosive intensification as it approached the Caribbean islands.

It was the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years with sustained winds of 155 mph (ca 250 km/h) resulting in a blackout across the entire island and dumping six months’ worth of rain in less than four days. Trees were uprooted, homes were destroyed, and widespread flooding caused more than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans to register for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid. With no power, running water was cut off for much of the population. Communications to and from Puerto Rico became nearly impossible for days. And when the cloud cover finally broke, the chaos during the storm was only matched by the disarray following it.

The aftermath

With the island’s power grid knocked out, it was only last month that electricity was finally restored to all customers. Emergency health services were left paralysed trapping people in need of care in their homes without access to medication or telephone service.

While previous government estimates had the death toll at 64, an independent study from George Washington University, released 11 months after the storm, found that an estimated 2,975 had died after Maria. The analysis suggested that Hurricane Maria was the second-deadliest storm to ever hit U.S. shores, following the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 that killed an estimated 6,000 people.

Maria demolished 87,094 homes, with another 385,703 sustaining major damage. Up to a quarter of a million people were displaced. A year later, blue tarps covering damaged houses can still be seen by overpassing aircraft. What were supposed to be temporary fixes, are now tattered and fading in the sun as the island struggles to rebuild.

More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans left the island temporarily, with about 11,000 currently living in New York. However, housing funds set aside for Puerto Rican families forced to flee have now ceased. Just last month, a judge ruled that families had to move out from temporary FEMA housing by 14 September.

A long road ahead

Long after a storm dissipates, people still face a harsh reality. A single hurricane can undo years of development and plunge prosperous households into poverty from one day to the next. And while people are quick to focus on the immediate physical costs from hurricane strikes, the resounding social costs can be felt for decades to come.

Grenada, for example, is still dealing with the consequences of being hit successively in 2004 and 2005 by Hurricanes Ivan and Emily. Estimated losses amounted to 200 percent of gross domestic product and Grenada remains in “debt distress” according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Caribbean happens to be the most tourism-dependent region in the world. More than 47 million international visitors travelled to the Caribbean in 2016, spending $31 billion, according to an Oxford Economics study. When hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the Caribbean last fall, the region lost nearly 1 million visitors and an estimated $900 million USD in tourism-related spending. As tourism infrastructure is restored, further losses totalling more than $3 billion USD are expected over the next four years.

Such disasters also have an effect on mental health. Psychologists estimate that 30 to 50 percent of the Puerto Rican population is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or anxiety following Hurricane Maria.

“The storm takes away the foundations of society. Everything you thought gave you certainty is gone,” says psychologist Domingo Marques, an associate professor at Albizu University in San Juan. “You see people anxious, depressed, scared.”

Everyday routines that once included work and school commutes can come grinding to a halt, only contributing to the semblance of disarray many feel following such catastrophic events. Survivors may bounce back after a few months, or they may experience ongoing stressors, such as financial issues or problems finding permanent and safe housing.

While early disaster recovery efforts often focus on physical reconstruction, psychological recovery efforts typically end up on the back burner.

Building back better

Work towards a more resilient Caribbean starts with building back better. With a changing climate promising more intense storms in the future, it’s increasingly important that action is taken to not only recover from a storm, but to increase resilience to future ones.

In January 2018, following the Caribbean’s devastating hurricane season, The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) held its eventBuilding Back Better: A resilient Caribbean after the 2017 hurricanes”. The conference addressed four pillars for resilience building: Ecosystems and planning; Codes and practices; Economies; and Governance. Tying in with The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the central idea is that stakeholders should share responsibility in reducing disaster risk and that growing disaster risk is putting a stronger emphasis on better preparedness and overall resilience.

Roundtable discussions included a debate on best approaches to financing and implementing post-disaster resilience building. As noted by several of the presenters, the damage caused by an extreme event can be two to three times higher than the annual GDP of the countries affected. This can mean that funds get diverted from other annual budgets such as education, transport or general development. And with a short timeframe between immediate disaster recovery and preparation for the next event, efforts to build long-term resilience are especially challenging.

Despite this, disasters caused by storms like Irma and Maria open windows of opportunity to rethink the measures needed to ensure a sustainable future. In some cases, disasters can be used to generate political momentum to increase climate resilience. For example, following the almost total devastation to the island of Dominica due to Hurricane Maria, the country responded with its intention to be the “first climate resilient country in the world”.

But many things are needed to build back better. To begin with, it requires a deep understanding of the causes of disaster, recovery processes and future climate risks. Additionally, it requires high levels of commitment from policymakers, the international aid agencies and donors supporting recovery, and from communities already engaged in recovery.

In their briefing paper, ODI introduced four principles that can help guide stakeholders as they transition from immediate responses to longer-term recovery.

  • Learn from history and avoid repeating it: understanding the historical and cultural factors that led to disaster is critical to identifying solutions.
  • Develop a holistic recovery framework: recovery frameworks should be based on priorities and activities in existing development strategies and land-use plans, to avoid creating a parallel planning system.
  • Create transparent, accountable and participatory processes: building consensus on key issues requires involving the widest possible array of relevant stakeholders
  • Leave no one behind: Certain types of intervention can deepen marginalisation. Recovery efforts should be built on the principle of ‘leave no one behind’.

Ultimately, disasters can be both a crisis from which to learn and an opportunity to do things better. While hurricanes are a common feature of the Caribbean, there has been limited investment in resilience building to address the many social repercussions of such storms. To avoid further human suffering, ‘building back better’ must become central to development efforts. Climate-related disasters should be used to challenge current decision making and promote investment on long-term climate resilience in the Caribbean and globally.

Cover photo by US Government (public domain): While conducting search and rescue in the mountains of Puerto Rico a Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Black Hawk located this home with HELP painted it is roof.