Rare Floods No Longer Rare

By William S. Becker It happened in July 2016. A flash flood roared through Ellicott City, Maryland, killed two people and caused tens of millions of dollars in damages to the historic buildings along Main Street. The experts said it was one of those rare 1,000-year flood events. The city set about the job of rebuilding. It takes a long time – often years – for a community to recover from a devastating flood. Then last May, while Ellicott City was still getting over the 2016 disaster, it happened again, another one of those “extremely rare" 1,000-year floods. For something that has only a 0.1% chance of happening in any given year, there are a lot of those floods going around lately. There have been nine 1,000-year events since 2010 in the United States. Three of them took place in the first seven months of 2016. In the likely event we'll have more of them, it will be important to make a distinction between 1,000-year floods and 1,000-year rains. A record rain does not necessarily result in a record flood. For

September 20th, 2018|Commentary|

“We’ve never seen anything like this…”

In case you haven’t noticed, several new words and phrases have become more common in newspapers and on the evening news lately. They are used so often, in fact, that they are replacing “war torn nation” and “’tis the season” as the tritest phrases in the news business. This would be trivial except for one thing: The words reveal something very important about our times and about our upcoming elections. Here are some of them: Unprecedented Record-breaking Not in my lifetime Disaster Tragic Loss Victims Deaths Homeless Floods Heat Wildfire Firefighter Drought Evacuation Everything lost New normal These are part of the emerging lexicon of climate change.  We don’t have to rely on computer models and climatologists anymore to know whether global warming is real. Millions of Americans, as well as billions of people worldwide, are experiencing it first-hand. The people who still deny that climate change is real -- including the President of the United States, his Cabinet and more than half of the members of Congress -- are looking more and more ridiculous, like the proverbial ostriches with

Getting America Back on Course

By William S. Becker With important elections coming up this fall and in 2020, the American people will have opportunities to correct the mistake of putting Donald Trump in the White House, where he has used his office to undermine some of our most important institutions and laws. Trump’s damage has been widespread. Others have spoken about his impact on international relations; the stewardship of public lands; the press and the courts; the government’s divorce from science; and so on. Of special importance to those of us in the environmental sector is Trump’s great leap backward on environmental protection, energy policy and climate change. The question now is what we can do to rebuild what Trump and his minions have weakened or destroyed. On these and other issues, there seems to be three levels of volume in national politics right now. There is virtually no sound coming from the Democratic Party. It seems to have no message beyond an implicit “We’re not Trump”. Perhaps party strategists are content to remain quiet and hope that Trump will hang himself along with

More Mosquito Bites? Blame Coal

By William S. Becker I’ve said it before: If you follow the latest information about global climate change, you’ll get the impression that it might cause everything from swimmers’ itch to male- pattern baldness. The speculation can seem ridiculous. However, it is true that the consequences of climate change are ubiquitous and pervasive. After all, climate determines the weather and the weather is everywhere all the time. The impacts get as small as those mosquito bites you’ll get this summer. That’s the buzz from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of many agencies around the world that monitor “vector-borne diseases”, the illnesses spread by insects such as fleas, mosquitoes and ticks. Climate scientists have warned for many years that warmer weather would allow the insects to thrive in places that used to be too cold for them. As a result, more Americans are falling ill from diseases that we associate with the tropics. The CDC reported this week that the number of Americans who get diseases from these insects has tripled since 2004. About 300,000 people

GOP Alienates Young Conservatives on Climate Change

Commentary by Kiera O’Brien and Ben Zollinger published originally in February by CNBC  New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designate, listening to questions during US Senate confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, January, 2001. The Republican Party is alienating an entire generation of young conservative voters by continuing to downplay climate science and sidestep solutions. Among the many internal battles over the heart and soul of the GOP, the most overlooked yet consequential may center on energy and environmental policy. Here, party leaders risk driving away the millennial generation that is the future of both parties, and already the largest voting bloc. As the presidents of the College Republican groups at Harvard and Yale, we have witnessed this play out on our campuses, where climate change and clean energy have become defining issues that often stymie our recruitment efforts. Environmental issues significantly influence the voting patterns of most millennials, and polling indicatesthat nearly three-quarters of young conservatives support addressing climate change. It should come as little surprise, then, that 23 percent of Republicans under

April 19th, 2018|Commentary|

The Debate of the Century?

William S. Becker, Executive Director   Picture this: Former President Barack Obama challenges incumbent President Donald Trump to a televised debate about global climate change and whether the leader of the free world should be doing something about it. Trump’s advisors threaten to handcuff him to his desk, but he accepts. Game on. This scenario might be more plausible than it seems. It breaks with the tradition that past presidents do not interfere with their successors, but this is not a conventional successor and these are not normal times. Why would Trump agree to the debate? The official reason is that the American people and the international community both deserve an explanation from Trump about what leads led him to the conclusion that climate change is a hoax. The unofficial reason is that Trump says he loves a good fight. He regularly trashes Obama and the former president’s policies from the safety of twitter and the White House. The question is whether Trump is willing to face Obama mano a mano? Why should Obama want to debate? He is watching

April 9th, 2018|Commentary|

Wrong Driver, Wrong Road

Donald Trump has acquired several nicknames since he decided to run for president, but the one he most deserves today is “President Pollution”. With the help of a willing Congress, he is presiding over the biggest rollback of federal regulations in a generation. This week's rollback involves the tailpipe emissions from our cars and pickups. During Trump’s first year in office, his Administration scaled back, reversed or attempted to reverse more than 60 environmental rules ranging from protection for whales to anti-dumping regulations for coal companies. Whether killing a regulation is good or bad depends on the benefits and costs of the regulation. But Trump’s criteria seem to be whether a) the Obama Administration developed the rule or b) oil industry CEOs and shareholders might lose money. To understand the consequences of this week's decision, a little background is in order. Tailpipe emissions from today’s vehicles include particulates that can cause illness or death from heart disease, asthma or lung cancer. They also include CO2, the pollutant most responsible for global climate change, a crisis that is no less real because

The World’s Biggest Climate Outlaw

By William S. Becker, Executive Director March 14, 2018 James Richard “Rick” Perry, best known to the American people as a former governor of Texas and contestant on Dancing with the Stars, has become one of the world’s more important people when it comes to energy. As Energy Secretary in the Trump Administration, he can influence the future of the world’s richest economy as well as the future of the world at large. Perry’s influence derives from the fact that fracking technology has unlocked large supplies of shale oil in the United States. The U.S. produced more oil than any other country except Saudi Arabia in 2016 and far more natural gas than anyone else. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says the United States is at the center of a “sea change in the global oil trade” and on a trajectory to be a major fossil energy exporter by 2040. Donald Trump would like that distinction to be larger and happen sooner. He has given Perry clear marching orders: The United States should achieve international energy dominance and assert global

March 14th, 2018|Commentary|

We can battle climate change without Washington DC. Here’s how

By Bill McKibben The most telling item in Donald Trump’s State of the Union address may have been what wasn’t there: any mention of climate change, the greatest problem the world faces. And just as telling was the fact that official Washington seemed barely to notice. Understandably preoccupied with his vile attacks on immigrants (or cheering his ability to actually stay with one task for one hour), press, pundits, and other politicians treated the omission as not even worthy of note. The Democratic response from Representative Joe Kennedy didn’t touch on global warming, either, though it did avoid Trump’s oddly intimate ode to “beautiful clean coal”. This means many things, but for climate campaigners one of them should be patently clear: if we’re going to make progress on climate change it’s not going to come through Washington DC – not any time soon. Even if Democrats manage to take back the House and Senate in the midterm elections, they wouldn’t be able to get meaningful legislation past Trump – and there’s nothing much to suggest they’d try very hard. Winning

February 20th, 2018|Commentary|

Part 1: Infrastructure Modernization – What Should a Modern Infrastructure Be?

Bill Becker offers a three-part series on what the nation's infrastructure should include in this age of global climate change, and the holes in the infrastructure plan released by the Trump Administration. The United States is a first world country with a third world infrastructure. That in effect is the judgment of people who ought to know, including the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In its most recent report card for 16 different types of infrastructure, the ASCE gave us a D+. The last time our infrastructure scored any better was in 1988, when it was given a lowly C. It’s not only that many of our bridges, dams and waterworks were built before many of us were alive and that much of our infrastructure is crumbling from a bad case of deferred maintenance.  It’s also that our infrastructure is exposed to stresses that did not exist and were not even contemplated when they were designed and built. Think of Katrina, Rita, Alex, Bonnie, Hermine, Matthew, Maria, Harvey, Irma and Maria, just a few of the tropical storms and

February 20th, 2018|Commentary|

Part 2: Infrastructure Modernization – A Resilient Infrastructure Checklist

There are times when opportunity and obligation come together. That is the case with the modernization of America’s infrastructure – the built environment that supports our productivity, competitiveness and quality of life. From the little we know about the $1.5 trillion infrastructure improvement plan that Donald Trump has announced, however, there is little new to address the nontraditional but very important opportunities and threats that planners and investors should be considering today. On the contrary, Trump’s emphasis on speeding up the environmental reviews for infrastructure projects combined with his refusal to acknowledge that global climate change is not only real, but also a clear and present danger to the American people, does not bode well for this massive investment to result in a more safe and resilient nation. Much of our infrastructure must last for 30, 50 and in some cases nearly 100 years. So, it must be built with the future as well as the present in mind -- and the future today is arriving much more rapidly than it used to. If we were to design a set

February 20th, 2018|Commentary|

Part 3: Infrastructure Modernization – The Blind Spots in Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

Donald Trump has finally released the details of an infrastructure modernization plan he says would build “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.”  To the Administration’s credit, there are some interesting proposals in the 53 pages of ideas the White House wants Congress to consider. Unfortunately, though, the plan is near-sited. In fact, it is as blind as Trump himself to one of the most important factors in infrastructure investment today: the need to take the impacts of global climate change into account. Before getting into that, the ideas with merit include federal funding of “bold, innovative, and transformative infrastructure projects” in rural America, and permission for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be involved in flood control and prevention, hurricane damage reduction, and environmental restoration in water projects – all of which are now the sole province of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Those ideas come close to an admission by the White House that violent weather needs our attention even if it is a Chinese plot. But the plan stops short

February 20th, 2018|Commentary|