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Hearth & Home January 2020

Illustration: ©2020 Roy Scott.

Climate Change

By Mark Brock

How will a warming Planet Earth affect you?

Climate Change is one of the most controversial and one of the most consequential issues in America today, equal parts science and politics. The issue has become so contentious that many people are unable to utter the phrase, which has been deleted from federal government websites and documents.

Planet Earth has gone through many climate changes over billions of years, which we know from the work of archaeologists, scientists, and historians. The presence of ice has increased and then receded, and changes in climate have led to the extinction of plant and animal species as well as the emergence of new life forms, including humans. The essential difference in conversations around Climate Change today is the role of human beings.

Climate Change – Climate Change is the big concept here. The fundamentals of the Earth’s climate are shifting as reflected by the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, extreme weather events such as torrential rains, droughts, extreme tornadoes, and hurricanes. Climate Change has been part of Earth’s history for billions of years, but the new factor here is human activity. Again, a segment of the scientific community is behind the position that burning fossil fuels is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is warming the planet. This pace of Climate Change is projected to increase.

It’s difficult to deny that Earth’s climate is changing given a litany of observations – polar ice caps and Greenland’s ice sheet are melting; sea levels are rising and threatening Pacific islands and coastal regions; high temperatures are setting records each year all around the globe; wildfires are being fueled by dried vegetation and destroying entire communities; record-breaking rainfall, hurricanes and tornadoes are occurring beyond natural variability; the permafrost in Canada is thawing faster than expected; the United Nations has reported that one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction due to Climate Change; the world’s largest corporations have reported financial risks of more than $1 trillion caused by a changing climate; and the list goes on.

The question that fuels intense debate is centered not on whether Climate Change is occurring, but on what’s causing these changes – whether it’s just Mother Nature being Mother Nature or whether it’s the result of the activities of mankind. The central issue is the burning of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The global scientific community has reported that increased emissions of carbon dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases such as methane, are increasing temperatures on Planet Earth by trapping heat in the atmosphere, leading to the continual warming of the planet with a cascade of changes in weather events.

Not everyone agrees, however, that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are the culprits in a changing climate. The most prominent climate skeptic today is the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who has said that Climate Change is a “hoax” created by the Chinese to place American companies at a competitive disadvantage. He has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris agreement on Climate Change that set goals for reductions in greenhouse gases internationally. The New York Times analysis, based on research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, and other sources, counts more than 80 environmental rules and regulations on the way out under the Trump administration.

The controversy surrounding Climate Change is fundamentally about what humanity can do about it and who will pay. Fossil fuel industries – oil, gas and coal – have vested interests in promoting the continued use of these energy sources. On the other end of the spectrum are advocates for renewable energy – wind, solar, and even nuclear – who argue that sustainable energy sources must be embraced to lead us away from fossil fuels so that we can begin to reverse the harmful effects on our climate that have accumulated during the last century.

Ice at the South Pole is diminishing as the planet warms, contributing to overall global temperatures and rising sea levels.

Responses to Climate Change Occurring Globally

While the debate continues over the causes of Climate Change, a recent issue of the MIT Review (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) identified three strategic directions for coping – mitigation (reducing the impact of Climate Change), adaptation (making changes to cope with new climate factors) and suffering (feeling the consequences of Climate Change that appear to affect poor countries and poor people disproportionately to prosperous economies and the wealthy.)

This special issue of the MIT Review featured many of the ways that the realities of a changing climate are being addressed around the world. Corn and wheat growers in America’s heartland benefited from warmer weather during recent years, but long-term weather change, including this year’s spring flooding in America’s Corn Belt, is feared as a threat to world food supplies; New York City is making plans to protect its water and power infrastructures that are threatened by rising sea levels and severe storms; in Mexico thousands of dollars are being spent each year to collect fast growing seaweed that’s spoiling pristine beaches visited by tourists.

Greenhouse gases – The term greenhouse gas is derived from, well, greenhouses. As everyone knows, a greenhouse is a structure with a transparent roof that retains heat inside so that plants can grow in any season. A greenhouse gas, such as carbon dioxide, also traps heat, but it does its trapping in the atmosphere with molecules that prevent Earth’s warmth from dissipating into space. A certain amount of carbon dioxide is a good thing, keeping the earth from becoming an icy wilderness. Too much carbon dioxide, however, means too much heat trapping which then affects the fundamentals of the climate, including increases in average temperatures and extreme weather events.

For Central America, one of the main issues is developing a strain of coffee beans that can adapt to changing climate patterns; nuclear energy is being touted by some as a sustainable, low-impact energy source, but the cost and complexity of building new nuclear plants is mind boggling, with the 2011 tsunami in Japan still within recent memory; growth economies, such as India, Brazil, and China, are becoming larger sources of carbon emissions as they aspire to elevate their citizens to the sort of middle-class prosperity long enjoyed in America.

Australia has adopted stringent fire-resistant building standards in the wake of wildfires, and implemented a “code red” warning when everyone, including firefighters, should escape immediately; in the absence of federal leadership on Climate Change, many businesses, state, and local governments are taking action against carbon emissions; and the application of new forms of technology are being explored, including such radical ideas as spraying seawater into the clouds to reflect sunlight back into space and protect coral reefs that are dying due to higher water temperatures.

As the MIT feature illustrated, private enterprise and governmental agencies worldwide are taking proactive steps to address the impacts of Climate Change even as leadership in Washington continues to deny the need for action. New York State has adopted what is considered the world’s most aggressive plan for reducing greenhouse gases, and California state government also has been aggressive in steps toward reducing and ultimately eliminating carbon emissions. Much remains to be done, however.

For example, engineers estimate that it would cost more than $60 billion to repair the nation’s aging 91,000 dams that are ill-prepared for heavy bouts of precipitation. Many local communities are dealing with storm-water management systems that can be overwhelmed by heavy rain, resulting in flooding.

Even the small South Pacific island nation of Fiji has taken on an innovative and out-sized role in response to global warming. Rising sea levels are threatening Fiji, the Marshall Islands, and other small nations in the south Pacific. Fiji has been working diligently to relocate families whose homes have been swamped by rising sea levels, and the country’s leadership played a central role in the passage of the Paris Climate Change agreement. Fiji has also obtained funds from wealthy nations globally to aid in its fight against rising sea water.

Some climate observers believe that we are already in the midst of irreversible Climate Change and that our quality of life will steadily diminish over the coming years. Some go further, predicting an apocalypse within the current century when many species, including humans, will no longer find Earth habitable, particularly in certain geographic regions such as the Middle East and portions of Africa and Latin America. Mass migrations from these regions could lead to social and political turmoil, even armed conflict, some believe.

On the other side of the issue are those who believe that climate and weather are ever-changing natural phenomena that Earth has endured for millions of years. They believe that spending tax dollars in an effort to reverse Climate Change is a fool’s quest and that the planet will adapt and survive as it has in the past.

Rising sea levels threaten South Pacific islands, such as those of Fiji.

Scientist Working on Climate Change Skepticism

One of the many Climate Change specialists dedicated to communicating the scientific community’s view of global warming and Climate Change is Dr. Jeffrey Bennett, author of “A Global Warming Primer – The Science, the Consequences, and the Solutions.” Based on more than 30 years of scientific research, teaching, and writing, Dr. Bennett, an astrophysicist, maintains that global warming, the source of Climate Change, is as simple as 1, 2, 3.

Global warming – Earlier in the debate over the environment, you frequently heard the term global warming. This term simply reflects the documented fact that the overall average temperature of Earth has been increasing steadily, particularly during recent decades. The term global warming has generally been replaced by the term Climate Change because climate skeptics continued to point out that certain regions have extremely cold weather. As president Trump tweeted once, “We could use some global warming now.” Weather is not climate with temperatures varying widely. Climate is the baseline, and the scientific community is in agreement that fundamental shifts are occurring.

1. Fact: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, by which we mean a gas that traps heat and makes a planet (like Earth or Venus) warmer than it would be otherwise.

2. Fact: Human activity, especially the use of fossil fuels – by which we mean coal, oil, and gas, all of which release carbon dioxide when burned – is adding significantly more of this heat-trapping gas to Earth’s atmosphere.

3. Inevitable Conclusion: We should expect the rising carbon dioxide concentration to warm our planet, with the warming becoming more severe as we add more carbon dioxide.

Throughout his book, Bennett provides a step-by-step review of the science that underpins global warming and Climate Change, while also refuting claims by Climate Change skeptics. His approach is to break the issue down into question-and-answer formats that can be easily understood by readers who may have been challenged by high school and college science courses.

One of the book’s most telling explanations of global warming is a comparison of Earth to Venus. Both planets are roughly the same size and roughly the same distance from the Sun. Earth has just enough carbon dioxide in its atmosphere to keep it at a comfortable and livable average temperature of 59 degrees. Venus, on the other hand, has 200,000 times as much carbon dioxide as Earth, with a lead-melting average temperature of 880 degrees. A certain amount of carbon dioxide is a good thing so that Earth doesn’t freeze, but Venus shows that it’s definitely possible to have too much of a good thing.

During the past year, Dr. Bennett has been on a nationwide tour, giving lectures to help explain global warming in layman’s terms. He has discovered a diversity of understanding surrounding the topic, but a growing consensus that something is terribly wrong with the climate.

“Polls indicate that the vast majority of people believe that global warming and Climate Change are real,” he said. “There are people who understand the science behind global warming and they know it’s real. On the other hand, there are people who believe something is wrong, but they don’t understand the science. Despite the complexities, the basic science around global warming and Climate Change is easy to understand. Once people understand and accept the science, you can then shift the conversation to what can be done about it. The goal of my book and my tour is to help improve public understanding of the issues and possible solutions.”

The glacier on Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain, which has shrunk due to Climate Change and rising temperatures.

One of the eye-opening segments of Bennett’s book and lecture tour is a quote from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from a 1989 speech to the United Nations. Mrs. Thatcher, a leading conservative of her time, said: “What we are now doing to the world…by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate…is new in the experience of the Earth. It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.” Another leading conservative thought leader, President Ronald Reagan, who is also quoted in the book, said in his 1984 State of the Union Address: “Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or a conservative challenge: it’s common sense.”

“During my tour there are points at which politics enter the conversation, but one of the first things I point out is that major conservative leaders, many years ago, spoke out on the threats to our environment from human activities,” Bennett said. “This observation shocks people because the political divide on the environment, global warming, and Climate Change is fairly recent.”

Bennett’s book and lecture tour are not only dedicated to improving the understanding of the science behind global warming and Climate Change, but also intended to help readers and audiences focus on solutions.

“I believe it’s highly unlikely that Climate Change will lead to extinction of humanity, but we are certainly putting at risk the quality of life that we enjoy today,” he said. “On a positive note, there are technologies available to us that can lead us away from burning fossil fuels, provided there is the public and political will for change.

“When I talk to kids, I tell them the future does look bleak if we don’t solve these problems,” Bennett continued. “But if we do solve these problems with existing and new technologies, I tell these kids they can live in a world in which energy is more abundant and more affordable, and in which the standard of living is higher than they could imagine today.”

Wildfires in California and beyond have become more frequent and severe.

Climate Change Affecting Business Outlook

While Dr. Bennett and other scientists take a broad environmental view of the impacts of Climate Change, an organization known as CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) invites major corporations to disclose projections related to the impacts of Climate Change on the global business outlook.

A recent report from CDP indicated potential losses of approximately $1 trillion attributable to Climate Change as reported by major corporations. These losses relate to the costs of making technological shifts toward a low-carbon economy, extreme weather events, and changes in governmental regulations that increase the cost of operations.

At the same time, the CDP forecasts growth opportunities from Climate Change at more than $2 trillion; these opportunities are based on an anticipation of increased demand for low-emission products and services and enhanced competitive positions based on consumer preferences. According to CDP, Climate Change effects will vary greatly by industry segments and across geographic regions, necessitating deeper analysis and new strategic actions.

“Any company that produces goods for sale is at risk of having its operations impacted by severe weather events that are increasingly frequent,” said CDP North America president Bruno Sarda. “As we continue to damage our environment, extreme storms, wildfires, and droughts can damage facilities, jeopardize manufacturing, and interrupt supply chains.”

Sustainable energy sources – The world we have lived in since the Industrial Revolution has been fueled by the burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal. There’s no question that these fuels have created a standard of living for the U.S. and many other countries without rival in history. To address Climate Change, however, the focus is on how humans can shift from fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases, to sources of energy that don’t give off those gases – wind, solar, and even nuclear. These technologies, with the exception of nuclear, are indeed growing in use, but at the current pace probably not fast enough to stem the current carbon dioxide tide.

Sarda cites all types of businesses, including outdoor living product companies, as being at risk from the impacts of Climate Change as a result of rising and shifting temperatures, and changing consumer behavior. For example, it could become too hot to sit outside for long periods of time in parts of the continental U.S. during certain seasons.

“Though the risks are severe and numerous to both people and businesses, Climate Change also presents a financial opportunity that companies would do well to act on,” Sarda said. “One of our recent reports found that the world’s largest companies identify $2.1 trillion in potential opportunities from enacting sustainable business practices. Whether these gains come from saving costs by switching to renewable energy use or from creating new businesses to keep up with increasing consumer demand for Green products, companies stand to gain by transitioning alongside the growing sustainable economy.”

While the CDP disclosure report focuses primarily on large multi-national corporations, Sarda says that small businesses, such as specialty retailers in hearth, barbecue, and patio segments, and their manufacturing suppliers, are also at risk from the effects of Climate Change. Extreme weather events, for example, can disrupt supply chains, making the availability of products unpredictable and unreliable.

“Extreme weather is just one example of a risk that could disrupt the supply chain; another is water scarcity, a problem increasing in many global locales,” Sarda said. “It takes many gallons of water to create one pound of plastic. If a plastic manufacturer runs out of water, it may be unable to provide the raw material needed to create a patio furniture company’s products. Growing deforestation is another area of concern. Companies that rely on timber production to create wood-based products for outdoor use are vulnerable to the increasing scarcity of the world’s forests as mass consumption threatens their existence.”

Increased business risks resulting from Climate Change mean that smaller companies should remain in close contact with their key suppliers to ensure that these suppliers are sustainably sourcing materials and diversifying their raw material sources, he said.

“Smaller companies themselves should aim to set an example for suppliers by disclosing their own environmental impact which many small companies do voluntarily through CDP,” according to Sarda. “Only then can these smaller companies understand their risks fully, and take steps to prepare for our rapidly changing world.”

In addition to CDP reports, a survey by the consulting firm Deloitte found that 84% of businesses are well aware of potential dire consequences from Climate Change, and two-thirds of these companies are either reviewing or have changed their energy management strategies as a result. Many of these companies are directing their energy purchases toward wind and solar as these sources become more cost competitive.

Solar energy and wind power stations.

In releasing its report, Deloitte noted that advances in sustainable energy technology are increasing the range of options for major corporations in reducing their global footprints.

Yet another indication of the impact of Climate Change on business was a decision by Moody’s Corporation to purchase a controlling interest in a company that measures the risks of Climate Change. Moody’s, the international company that rates the credit worthiness of bonds issued by government agencies and corporations, purchased a majority share in Four Twenty Seven, a California company that tracks the impact of climate risks on 2,000 companies and 196 countries.

This purchase indicates that global warming can threaten the creditworthiness of governments and companies around the world, and is one of a series of moves by rating agencies to account for the effects of Climate Change on the ability of governments and corporations to make good on the bonds they issue to finance a wide range of investments.

New Building Material Touted As Climate Change Solution

Carbon 12 in Portland, Oregon, is the tallest building in the United States made with mass timber.
Photo: 2020 ©Andrew Pogue for Kaiser+Path.

A relatively new building material known as “mass timber” is being touted as an innovation that could revolutionize the building industry while adding an important element to Climate Change solutions, according to an article in “Yale E360,” a newsletter from Yale University devoted to environmental issues. While mass timber is increasing in use and has strong advocates, environmentalists maintain that the benefits could be overstated, particularly if responsible forestry management is not included as part of this product’s lifecycle.

“Among architects, manufacturers, and environmentalists, many want nothing less than to turn the coming decades of global commercial construction from a giant source of carbon emissions into a giant carbon sink by replacing concrete and steel construction with mass timber,” according to the article by Jim Robbins, a veteran journalist based in Helena, Montana, and writing for “Yale E360.”

“That, they say, would avoid the CO2 generated in the production of those building materials, and sequester massive amounts of carbon by tying up the wood in buildings for decades or even longer, perhaps in perpetuity.”

Mass timber encompasses large structural panels, posts, and beams that are glued under pressure or nailed together in layers with the wood’s grain stacked perpendicular for extra strength, according to Robbins.

Mass timber is not only prized as an innovative building material, superior to concrete and steel in many ways, it is also hoped it will come into its own as a significant part of a Climate Change solution. For example, a typical steel and concrete building has an emissions profile of 2,000 metric tons of CO2. With mass timber, 2,000 tons of CO2 can be sequestered in the building.

The adoption of mass timber is much further developed in Europe than in the U.S., Robbins’ article reports. Mass-timber buildings are located in London, Norway, Vancouver, Atlanta, and Minneapolis, including an 80-story high-rise proposed for Chicago. While mass timber advocates point to these buildings as part of the Climate Change solution, there are skeptics.

“There are big questions being asked about just how sustainable the new building material is – especially about how forests that produce mass timber are managed, and how much CO2 would be emitted in the logging, manufacture, and transport of the wood products used in the construction. So far, critics say, there aren’t good answers to those questions,” according to Robbins’ article.

While advocates and skeptics debate the merits of mass timber, the field is taking off.

“The burgeoning demand for mass timber posts and beams has seen sawmills open in the timber towns of the U.S. Northwest and loggers go back to work to harvest the pine, fir, and spruce used in the manufacture,” according to Robbins. “The first certified U.S. producer of mass timber – also known as cross-laminated timber – opened in Riddle, Oregon, in 2015. Other producers have either recently opened or soon will. Analysts call it a revolution in building and the next great disruption of the construction industry, for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the environmental aspects.”

Other benefits of mass-timber structures are how exposed wood interiors in these buildings are warmer than other materials and more aesthetically pleasing, according to Robbins. The dense, laminated beams also hold up well to fire, unlike other kinds of wood construction. Mass timber can be cheaper than concrete and steel, depending on where it’s sourced. When production is scaled up across the globe, experts say, mass timber should be considerably cheaper.

Click here to read the full article on mass timber.

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