Climate Change and Hell and High Water

Tom Ellis

ALBANY, NY: Hell and High Water: New York Responds to Climate Change was title of the talk given by Mark Lowery at the November 16 SPB dinner.

Mr. Lowery is a climate policy analyst in the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Office of Climate Change (OCC). He said OCC helps NYS mitigate and adapt to climate change. Prior to his talk, he told me he could speak for many hours on this topic. Toward the end of his one-hour presentation, he covered many topics quicker than he and we would have liked due to time constraints.

At least 97% of climate scientists, he said, believe human caused climate change is real. Greenhouse gasses are natural at between 240-280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect was first identified as a potential problem by French scientists in the 1800s, CO2 is the predominant greenhouse gas, and CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, perhaps 1000.

CO2 atmospheric concentrations are now above 400 ppm, and the increase in recent centuries is nearly all human caused. In the past three years, global temperatures have increased at faster rates than earlier. He said there will be “climate surprises” in the future, because not everything can be modeled.

Melted ice (water) can not reflect light as well as ice can and water absorbs more light and heat than ice, thus increasing the rate of melting in a feedback loop. He said methane is about 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and methane releases also have feedback loops. He mentioned clathrates (“combustible ice”) under the oceans as another potent greenhouse gas.

As climate change intensifies, he said wet places will become wetter and dry places drier. The US southwest is today as dry as in the 1930s but also much hotter now. Warmer temperatures lead to increased pest outbreaks killing forests that then burn.

He asked when will the Earth look like it has not looked before, or when the coldest year (global temperature average) be hotter than the coldest year of the past. He said based on data collected from 10,000 sites worldwide, under a high emissions track, this will occur about 2047; under a low emissions track, in 2067. He said the future New York will be hotter, wetter, with more extreme precipitation, more flooding, sea level rises, and stronger coastal storms.

Ocean acidification is “global warming’s evil twin sister,” he said. In response to a few questions, he said removing CO2 from the atmosphere to sequester it would be extremely energy intensive if it could be done at all, and annual CO2 emissions are 100 times volcanic CO2 emissions. He said human activities had caused more than 100 percent of the temperature increase in the past 60–70 years because there would have been a slight temperature decrease in the 1900s due to natural activities.

The “energy trap” is that we do not possess enough clean energy to manufacture the clean energy infrastructure.

With climate change, precipitation may increase 25 percent in New York. Since 1958 New York has had a seventy percent increase in its total rain that arrives in the heaviest one percent of rain events. Sea level rise in New York is twelve inches in the past 100 years. He said the lower half of the Hudson River is not really a river but an estuary; storm surges that hit NYC Battery will hit the Troy Federal Dam.

Global sea level rise by 2100 could be 6.5 feet due to heat already “in the system” even if we halted all climate change emissions today. Regarding hurricane Sandy, the question is not whether it was caused by climate change but whether it was worsened by climate change; the answer is yes due to the existing sea level increase.

Since 1970 the NYS winter mean (average) temperature increase is 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and the annual mean temperature rise is 2.4 degrees F. NYS may experience an increase from the average of ten ninety degrees days per year today to 14-23 by the 2020s and 27-82 in the 2080s, with more heat waves, and higher human mortality. NYS will also likely see more short term (two month) droughts in the future. Climate change will have many agricultural impacts including delayed plantings due to wetter springs and direct crop damage.

“Maintaining a livable planet is at stake,” he said. By the second half of this century, humans are on track to reach a doubling of CO2 concentrations (560 ppm) from the 1700s resulting in a 3.5 degree global Celsius (C) temperature increase. [1 degree C = 1.8 degrees F]

He said the Paris 2015 Conference of Parties agreement (COP21) is now in force. The US is supposed to reduce climate change emissions by 26-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, which is achievable, he said. The known world fossil fuel reserves are about five times the amount that if released would increase the earth’s temperature by two degrees C.

He said current New York CO2 equivalent emissions are 34, 32, and 17 percent from the transportation, housing, and electricity sectors, respectively, NYS has the cleanest grid (CO2 equivalent emissions) in the United States, and NYC is the most energy efficient place in the nation.

Among the steps we should take, he said, are the electrification of cars and space heating, better waste management, and removal of organics from the waste stream. He said the NYS greenhouse gas reduction goal is eighty percent by 2050, NYS has many programs including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), vehicle emission standards, among others.

Among the NYS climate change adaption programs are a state sea level rise task force, climate smart community (CSC) programs, and others. He said the DEC and state Energy Research and Development Authority (ERDA) have many funding mechanisms for localities interested in the CSC program. He said the City and County of Albany and the Town of Bethlehem are among the original six CSC communities; today there are nine. DEC provides guidance and technical support. Many rural communities have too few employees to effectively participate without help in CSC programs.

Regarding what we as individuals can do, he said to use the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas calculator to estimate your personal contribution to climate change, and join the CSC efforts in your communities.

In response to a question, he said National Grid probably owns most of the street lights in the City of Albany and it has no financial incentive to replace existing light bulbs with high efficiency bulbs. Susan Lawrence responded saying Assemblyman Fahy has sponsored legislation to allow communities to buy street lights which Albany is now doing. Former Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro added that the city owns the new lights on Delaware Avenue but few others. He asked, “Why does National Grid not install LED lights when they tell us to?”


Published in January/February 2017 Newsletter
Save the Pine Bush Newsletter