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L.A., Houston, Philadelphia Mayors Vow More Action On Climate Change

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Mayors of three of the nation’s largest cities are pledging to take more action against climate change by implementing new projects to curb greenhouse gas emissions and persuading other leaders to do the same.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter will announce the new initiative Monday in New York in advance of a United Nations climate summit being held this week.

Under the plan, the mayors will commit to set or renew aggressive targets for their cities’ greenhouse gas reductions, develop new standards to track and report pollution sources at least once a year, and draft or update climate action plans with specific strategies to control global warming and adapt to its effects.

The mayors will also pledge to identify and develop new emissions-offset projects that could be incorporated into existing carbon markets, such as California’s cap-and-trade program. Projects could include urban forestry, the destruction of ozone-depleting substances, and the capture of heat-trapping gases from landfills.

They vow to spend the next year recruiting other city leaders across the nation to sign on to the initiative, to be called the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda.

By joining, mayors also promise to support federal policies to cut carbon emissions and a binding global climate agreement, and to make equity and environmental justice a priority in climate action plans.

The announcement comes a day after an estimated 310,000 demonstrators marched through Manhattan to demand international action to control climate change, one of thousands of such demonstrations held around the world on Sunday. It follows a similar pledge by Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, in part by ordering energy-efficiency upgrades to city-owned buildings.

The U.N. summit of more than 100 world leaders in New York, set for Tuesday, is a step toward the next attempt to negotiate a sweeping international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scheduled for Paris next year.

The mayors’ plan says cities must act on their own because of the U.S. Senate’s unwillingness to ratify an international treaty to reduce emissions of the heat-trapping gases causing global warming. Cities are responsible for about 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, the mayors say, and are on the front lines of extreme weather events and other effects of climate change.

“Mayors must confront this challenge not only at the local level, but also by calling for binding emission reductions at the federal and global level,” Garcetti said in a written statement.
The three mayors lead the largest cities represented on a climate task force President Obama established last year. Their plan is an outgrowth of several meetings the group of governors, mayors and tribal leaders from across the country have held in Washington, Los Angeles and Des Moines.

Photo via Flickr

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Coastal Winds Intensifying With Climate Change, Study Says

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Summer winds are intensifying along the west coasts of North and South America and southern Africa and climate change is a likely cause, a new study says.

The winds, which blow parallel to the shore and draw cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean to the surface in a process known as coastal upwelling, have increased over the last 60 years in three out of five regions of the world, according to an analysis published Thursday in the journal Science.

Stronger winds have the potential to benefit coastal areas by bringing a surge of nutrients and boosting populations of plankton, fish, and other species. But they could also harm marine life by causing turbulence in surface waters, disrupting feeding, worsening ocean acidification, and lowering oxygen levels, the study says.

The shift could already be having serious effects on some of the world’s most productive marine fisheries and ecosystems off California, Peru, and South Africa.

At this point “we don’t know what the implications are,” said William Sydeman, president of the Farallon Institute for Advanced Ecosystem Research in Petaluma, Calif., who led the study by seven scientists in the U.S. and Australia. “On the one hand it could be good. On the other hand, it could be really bad.”

The windier conditions are occurring in important currents along the eastern edges of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In those areas, the influx of nutrients from coastal upwelling fuels higher production of phytoplankton, tiny plant-like organisms that are eaten by fish, which in turn feed populations of seabirds, whales, and other marine life.

Scientists said their results lend support to a hypothesis made more than two decades ago by oceanographer Andrew Bakun. He suggested that rising temperatures from the human-caused buildup of greenhouse gases, by causing steeper atmospheric pressure gradients between oceans and continents, would produce stronger winds during summer, and drive more coastal upwelling.

To test that claim, researchers reviewed and analyzed 22 published studies that tracked winds in the world’s five major coastal upwelling regions using data from the 1940s to the mid-2000s.
Scientists found a trend of windier conditions in the California Current along the west coast of North America, the Humboldt Current off Peru and Chile, and the Benguela Current off the west coast of southern Africa. In the Canary and Iberian currents off northern Africa and Spain, however, they found no clear signs of increasing winds.

Researchers can’t say for sure that human-caused climate change is to blame, but they said finding a pattern that was consistent across several parts of the planet gives a strong indication it is a factor. The study also found that the increase in winds was more pronounced at higher latitudes, which is in line with other observed effects of climate change.

The study’s conclusions are controversial among ocean scientists. They say the records used in the analysis do not go back far enough in time to rule out naturally occurring climate cycles such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which shifts between warm and cool phases about every 20 to 30 years and also influences atmospheric conditions.

“It doesn’t prove that global warming is driving this,” said Art Miller, a climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography who was not involved in the study.

Similar limitations in the data have made it difficult for other researchers to link increases in coastal upwelling to climate change.

A study published last year by Canadian researchers, for instance, found huge year-to-year changes in coastal winds and the timing and intensity of upwelling from Vancouver Island to Northern California and urged caution in analyzing trends over short time periods.

Photo: Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network via Flickr

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California Drought’s Upside? Better Water Quality At Beaches, Report Says

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — There’s at least one upside to the California drought: Record-low rainfall has resulted in cleaner water up and down the coast, a new report says.

Ninety-five percent of California beaches earned A or B grades for water quality during the summer of 2013, a 2 percent improvement over the previous year, according to the annual Beach Report Card released Thursday by Heal the Bay, an environmental group.

The grades ticked up largely because lower amounts of polluted runoff flowed down to the coast during the driest year on record, Heal the Bay says.

The analysis uses water-quality test results from hundreds of beaches to assign each a grade of A to F based on the level of bacteria in beach water, which can indicate pathogens that can sicken swimmers.

The report found improvements even at Los Angeles County beaches, which have long been among the most polluted in the state. Last year 90 percent of the county’s beaches earned A or B grades, compared with 84 percent during the previous year’s summer season, which runs from April to October.

The higher grades may seem like encouraging news for beachgoers. However, 2013 was the driest calendar year in 119 years of record-keeping and the runoff-diminishing effect of several years of low rainfall “may be providing a false sense of long-term beach water quality improvement,” the report says.

Water quality could turn for the worse if, as predicted, an El Nino develops in the Pacific Ocean later this year, potentially bringing more precipitation to sweep a greater volume of contaminated runoff to California beaches.

Santa Monica officials blamed the city’s dip in water quality on large rips in netting they had installed under the pier to keep pigeons from gathering and polluting the water with bacteria-laden droppings.

“We don’t have any sewage leaks or storm drain runoff during dry weather in the summer,” said Dean Kubani, sustainability manager for the city.

Santa Monica has since repaired the netting and expects to see water quality readings jump back up again next year, he said, adding that “if we don’t see improvement, we’re going to take every action that we need to ensure that the water’s clean.”

The No. 1 worst-polluted beach in California last year, according to Heal the Bay, was Cowell Beach near the wharf in Santa Cruz.

Water quality continued to improve in Long Beach, which was once notorious for its polluted shoreline. The city’s beaches earned 87 percent A and B grades during the summer, up 10 percent from the previous year.

Also significantly cleaner was the main beach at the Santa Catalina Island tourist hub of Avalon, which had ranked among the 10 most-polluted beaches for 12 of the last 14 years because of chronic leaks in its sewer system.

Water regulators in 2011 ordered the small city to address the problem by fixing its sewers, improving monitoring and correcting other problems. The city has since spent millions on repairs and adopted ordinances and pollution-reduction measures that have cleaned up bacteria levels enough to remove it from the “Beach Bummer” list.

Poche Beach, another long-polluted beach in San Clemente, also disappeared from the list of 10 dirtiest beaches.

City officials credited a falconer they hired last year to scare away seagulls polluting the water with their droppings, as well as coyote decoys deployed by the county and an ultraviolet treatment plant running that disinfects storm water before it spills into the ocean.

“It seemed to have an immediate effect,” city of San Clemente Environmental Analyst Mary Vondrak said of the falconer. “When he started working at the beach we had the gulls cleared out within a week and we started having A grades.”

Other popular beaches improved just enough to be removed from the list of worst-polluted beaches, but still have a long way to go before they can be considered clean.

“Malibu Pier and Redondo Pier may have missed this year’s Beach Bummer list,” the report says. “However, it is concerning that both locations earned C grades … during one of the driest years on record.”

For some of the cleanest beaches in the state, Heal the Bay recommends an “honor roll” of 33 beaches that earned A-plus grades for excellent year-round water quality. Among them are The Wedge in Newport Beach, Main Beach in Laguna Beach, Will Rogers State Beach at Pulga Canyon and several beaches in Carlsbad.

The leading cause of water pollution at beaches is urban runoff, which as a result of rain or irrigation sweeps a stew of contaminants from lawns, roadways and industrial sites through the region’s creeks, storm drain system and rivers and to the coast.

To address the problem, Heal the Bay recommends local governments adopt new fees and ordinances to build rain- and runoff-capturing infrastructure to prevent contaminated water from reaching the shore.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

EPA Targets Refinery Emissions

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Oil refineries would be required to cut emissions and begin monitoring levels of toxic air pollutants at their fence lines with neighboring communities under standards proposed Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The rules would require the nation’s 150 major oil refineries to upgrade pollution controls for storage tanks and reduce emissions from flares, which burn off gases to relieve pressure during startup, shutdown or maintenance. Facilities would have to meet other requirements to reduce emissions that can cause respiratory problems, raise the risk of cancer and contribute to smog.

“This will result in thousands fewer tons of harmful pollutants each year and improve air quality in neighboring communities,” said Janet McCabe, acting head of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.

The rules would for the first time require refineries to monitor and publicly report fence-line levels of benzene, a carcinogen they release into the air. The EPA proposal sets limits on concentrations of that compound, considered a marker of a variety of harmful pollutants, and requires companies to take corrective action if readings are too high.

The new standards were proposed under a court-ordered consent decree with national environmental groups and community activists in California, Louisiana and Texas who sued after the EPA missed deadlines to update its rules for refineries under the Clean Air Act.

Those groups largely praised the measures announced Thursday, saying that they would provide new health protections for low-income Latinos and blacks who predominate in neighborhoods next to refineries.

Emma Cheuse, an attorney for Earthjustice, called the proposal “a strong step forward to better protect public health, prevent cancer and provide communities important information they need to protect their families.”

Industry groups say that health risks from refineries are low and that emissions have been declining for decades under existing regulations.

A statement by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association, said the rules come “with a high price tag but uncertain environmental benefits.”

The EPA, however, said the new requirements “will have no noticeable impact on the cost of petroleum products” while cutting emissions of toxic air pollutants, including benzene, toluene and xylene, by 5,600 tons a year.

The EPA will take public comments on the proposal for 60 days and plans to hold two public hearings, near Houston and Los Angeles, before finalizing the standards in April.

Eric Schaeffer, who directs the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, said he hoped the restrictions proposed for flares at refineries would eventually be extended to chemical plants and oil- and gas-drilling sites.

Karen Bleier via AFP

Days With Unhealthful Air Will Soar Unless Emissions Are Slashed, Study Says

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Smog could worsen across the United States in the coming decades as climate change boosts summer temperatures and makes ozone levels more difficult to control, a new study says.

Americans can expect the number of days with unhealthful air to rise 70 percent by midcentury unless emissions of smog-forming pollutants are slashed, according to a study led by the federally funded National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Higher temperatures accelerate the formation of lung-searing ozone, the main ingredient of smog, and could set back decades of improvements in air quality, the study says. “It will hinder our progress,” said Gabriele Pfister, a scientist at the center and lead author of the study published last week.

Regulators, however, could keep the warming climate from degrading air quality if they adopt stringent emissions controls, the research showed.

To reach their conclusions, scientists used a supercomputer to simulate pollution levels across the nation as the planet warms.

They found a widespread increase in the number of days above federal standards for ozone by 2050 if emissions of smog-forming pollutants remain at their current levels. In that scenario, almost the entire continental U.S. would have at least a few days of unhealthful air a year, and the most heavily polluted metropolitan areas would see ozone levels exceed health standards for most of the summer, the research showed.

Cutting smog-forming emissions by 60 percent to 70 percent, however, would achieve big reductions in ozone pollution even as the climate warms, the analysis found, with the number of days above federal health standards falling below 1 percent of current levels. “If we can really cut back on our local emissions, then we can clean up our air,” Pfister said.

The link between higher temperatures and ozone was already known, but Pfister said it was the first fine-grain analysis of how the warming climate could affect air quality in all regions of the country.

Ozone is a harmful gas that forms when pollutants from vehicles, power plants and factories react in sunlight. Heat speeds up those reactions, so it will be harder to keep ozone levels in check as temperatures rise from the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Contributing to higher ozone levels globally is methane, a greenhouse gas emitted by oil and gas activity, landfills and livestock. Higher temperatures also cause plants to release more volatile organic compounds, which can boost smog formation when they mix with man-made pollutants.

Ozone can inflame and damage the body’s airways, trigger respiratory problems and aggravate asthma and bronchitis.

Based on robust scientific evidence that ozone is harmful at lower levels than previously thought, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering stricter health standards that would require state and local regulators to make further emissions cuts.

Recent reports by local air agencies and the American Lung Association have also warned of the effects of climate change on smog, particularly in California, where residents of the greater Los Angeles area and the San Joaquin Valley breathe the dirtiest air in the nation.

Flickr via Agustín Ruiz

Climate Change Is Already Felt Globally And Risks Are Rising, UN Panel Says

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Climate change is already affecting every continent and ocean, posing immediate and growing risks to people, an international panel of scientists warned Monday.

The longer society delays steps to cut the release of planet-warming greenhouse gases, the more severe and widespread the harm will be, said the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report, which collects and summarizes thousands of scientific studies, is the panel’s starkest yet in laying out the risks facing nature and society.

Global warming threatens food and water supplies, security and economic growth, and will worsen many existing problems, including hunger, drought, flooding, wildfires, poverty, and war, says the report by hundreds of scientists from 70 countries.

“Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” panel Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said at a news conference in Yokohama, Japan, where the 2,500-page assessment was presented.

As the Earth warms, snow and ice are melting, rainfall is shifting, heat waves are growing more intense and water supplies are being strained. Plants and animals are moving to cooler areas, and in a few cases, have gone extinct because of climate change, the report says.

Oceans are rising and growing more acidic, hurting marine life and threatening coastal residents with more destructive storms. By century’s end, climate change could displace hundreds of millions of people and cause trillions of dollars in damage to the world economy, the scientists say.

One of the panel’s most striking new conclusions is that rising temperatures are already depressing crop yields, including those of corn and wheat. In the coming decades, farmers may not be able to grow enough food to meet the demands of the world’s growing population, it warns.

Although the United States and other wealthy countries could probably adjust to the resulting surges in food prices, “this could really be devastating in terms of increased malnutrition and hunger” in the developing world, said Linda Mearns, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Much of the burden will fall on the world’s poorest people, who have done little to cause global warming. Coping with the effects could cost developing countries as much as $100 billion a year, according to a World Bank estimate cited in the report.

Although developing countries face the greatest loss of life, wealthy countries will experience greater financial losses, the report said. North America, for instance, can expect increasing damage from wildfires, flooding and heat-related deaths as temperatures climb, rainfall intensifies and sea level rises.

“It’s not the case that we in the rich world are protected and they in the poor world are not,” said Chris Field, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-chairman of the group that drafted the report. “You just have to look at Hurricane Sandy to get a picture of that.”

Scientists said their conclusions reflected growing evidence since the panel’s last assessment, in 2007, that extreme heat, dwindling snowpack, heavy rainfall and other episodes were becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change.

The more emissions climb and temperatures rise, the greater the odds of irreversible consequences, the report warns.

“Once a low-lying small island nation is flooded due to sea level rise, there is no turning back for people who lived there,” said Virginia Burkett, climate scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Earth has warmed by about 1.5 degrees since the late 1800s because of the buildup of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels, industrial activity, agriculture and deforestation. The U.N. panel in September projected temperatures will rise 2.7 degrees to 8.1 degrees if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere double, with sea level rising 10 to 32 inches by century’s end.

The report is the second in a three-part climate assessment, the panel’s fifth since 1990, and will form the basis for negotiations next year on a new global treaty to limit greenhouse gases.

The Obama administration responded to the study with a call for an “ambitious” new agreement to cut global emissions.

“Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement.

The report outlines some positive developments, including that many nations are already taking important steps to adapt to the changing climate. Some regions are restoring coastal wetlands, adopting resilient crop varieties, building coastal flood barriers and protecting energy infrastructure from disasters.

“If we can get emissions down and slow the warming, then through effective adaptation we have a chance to come out of this in reasonably good shape,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University. “If we don’t, then I fear for the future.”

AFP Photo/Ted Aljibe

Study: Rockies’ Wildflower Season 35 Days Longer Because Of Climate Change

By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

The Rocky Mountain wildflower season has lengthened by over a month since the 1970s, according to a study published Monday that found climate change is altering the flowering patterns of more species than previously thought.

Flowers used to bloom from mid-May to early September, but the season now lasts 35 days longer, from April to mid-September, according to researchers who collected 39 years of data at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte, Colo.

Earlier spring snowmelt and other climate shifts have changed the timing of blooms for more than two-thirds of 60 species of native wildflowers in mountain meadows, stands of Aspen trees and conifer forest that were surveyed from 1974 to 2012, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The scientific paper is the latest to document one of the strongest signs that global warming is shaking up the natural world. Scientists studying phenology — the timing of seasonal events in nature — are observing rapid shifts in when flowers bloom, trees leaf out and bees, birds and butterflies appear in the spring.

Scientists have documented the trend using historical records from writers and naturalists, including Henry David Thoreau, who in the 1850s began recording in his journal the first blooms of the season around Concord, Mass.

Previous studies largely have focused on the first appearance of flowers in the spring, but that probably underestimates the true extent of the changes they are going through, the paper says.

To go beyond that, researchers analyzed wildflower species throughout the season. They found that half of them flowered earlier, more than a third reached their peak blooms sooner and 30 percent flowered later into the year due to a warming climate.

“We don’t know if it’s good or bad for these plant species at this point,” said Amy Iler, postdoctoral biology researcher at University of Maryland and co-author of the study.

The findings nonetheless raise many questions about how disruptive the changing bloom times might be to bees, birds and pollinators and other plants that are adapted to flowers appearing at very specific times, she said.

“Climate change is reshuffling flowering plants over a short time period,” Iler said. “So it might be changing things that were set in place by natural selection over a long time frame.”

Wildflowers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, which sits at about 9,500 feet in elevation, bloom almost immediately after the spring snowmelt and stick around until the first hard frost in the fall. But as temperatures rise, snow is melting earlier and the first hard frosts are occurring later.

The study is the product of decades of work by David Inouye, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, who since 1974 has amassed an exhaustive record by systematically counting dozens of species of wildflowers at the research station in the mountains of Colorado.

“It is probably the most detailed, long-term data set on flowering times that exists in the United States and perhaps even the world,” said Richard Primack, a biology professor at Boston University who has used Thoreau’s records to study the effects of climate change on plants and animals.

Primack, who was not involved in the research, praised the paper as an “extremely innovative type of analysis” that would stimulate a flurry of new research.

“As soon as I read this paper I thought, my God, why didn’t we analyze our data that way?” Primack said. “This study shows us that if you don’t just focus on the first flowering date but also on the peak flowering date and the final flowering date, there’s a much greater impact of climate change than we previously suspected.”

Photo via Wikimedia Commons