The TakeAway: Yet another deadly tornado has ripped through Oklahoma, killing at least 24, including 9 elementary school children. It came on the heels of severe weather yesterday, which generated at least two dozen tornadoes across Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois. We can’t continue to let this happen, so many innocent people dead or damaged by Mother Nature’s fury because of what we’ve wrought. Before yet another tragedy strikes, please consider a series of 14 concrete actions we can take to fight against the destruction created by these catastrophic weather events, and the human-made climate change that helps create them.
The images are horrifying as whole sections of the Midwest are destroyed by massive tornadoes that wreak fury on land, lives, and livelihood, leaving “pockets of fright” (as one newscaster put it) remaining in their path. This afternoon, a massive tornado estimated to be two miles wide ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, shortly after an earlier round of storms the day before. Strong atmospheric winds—meteorologists call it “wind shear”—fuel the intensity at levels unheard of in regions familiar with tornadic destruction. A “tornado emergency” was declared, which means, Run for cover underground, there’s no likelihood of survival.
Schools were hit, children are being pulled from an elementary school in a desperate rescue mission, and hospitals are evacuating patients to ready for the rush of injured.
At this writing the full scale of the carnage remains unclear, but 24 people have died, 8 of them children from the Plaza Towers Elementary School. Emergency workers and neighbors go from house to house to see who’s in the rubble.
Those of us who grew up in the Midwest know that sickening feeling when a tornado “watch”, or “warning”, is issued. You don’t mess with these things, and everyone is taught from an early age where to seek shelter in the basement. Midwesterners, like most people, are a resilient bunch, and come together when emergency happens. We know that tornados are vicious and deceptive: when they touch the ground, they can leave unspeakable damage on one side of the street, while things are unchanged on the other side.
Having lived in New England for 42 years, I’ve never experienced this kind of fear—until a couple of years ago, when the first tornados in anyone’s memory landed in central and Western Massachusetts, killing four people and devastating 19 communities.
Those of us in the Boston area once again, just 5 weeks after the Marathon bombing, watch moving images as the tornado stories unfold, helpless in the face of sudden catastrophe, our hearts going out to those whose lives are changed forever. I live in Watertown, so have special knowledge of the ripple effect of the Marathon bombing, the bizarre chase for the bombers, their death and capture. (I swim where the kid brother used to work.)
But you don’t have to live in Boston to know that the Marathon bombings were caused by human hands and warped minds, and as people try to come to terms with cause—how do you prepare for the actions of a madman?—we know, deep down, that you can’t always prevent these kinds of terror.
But we can be more vigilant, more aware of the little things that add up to crazy, erupting with sudden force in ways that dwarf our petty self interests and apathetic “Whatevers”.
Natural disasters, it seems, are also caused by human hands and ignorant minds, as people refuse to come to terms with cause—how else do you explain the utter failure of our national leadership to pass comprehensive climate policy?—yet believe, deep down, that we’re not doing enough to prevent this kind of terror.
We need to be more vigilant, more aware of the little things that add up to crazy—our addiction to a carbon economy, our refusal to move our politics beyond gridlock, our apathetic, “It’s too big to address.”
Well, hell, that’s just downright dumb.
There’s a lot we can do, in addition to cleaning up the mess and donating to the inevitable rescue / recovery funds, helping to piece together broken lives, and praying for the dead and injured. We know their tragedy will live on, long after the media spotlight turns elsewhere.
Six years ago, while a fellow at Tufts University’s Institute for Global Leadership (IGL), an extraordinary program founded and led by the extraordinary Sherman Teichman, I wrote a White Paper on the need for businesses and government to address the immediate catastrophes posed by climate change, the immediate challenges to existing modes of disaster management, and the immediate need for better civilian-military partnerships.
The impetus for doing so was my disgust, shared by many, as the way in which Katrina was handled, and the fact that even as the corporate and investor responsibility movements place climate at the top of their agenda, the focus generally remains on long-term reductions of carbon emissions, rather than immediate calamities experienced by people throughout the country—and world.
Because of the complexity of the phenomenon, my monograph was a multi-sector analysis that identifies some of the major players, enabling platforms, and activities with respect to government, the military, the private sector, institutional investors and foundations, and social enterprise. The basic premise: Climate change, by definition, has created instabilities in business environments, so preventing and mitigating their impact becomes a part of the fiduciary duty for business and investors.
What we can do to fight nature’s fury.
The quick takeaway: Tackle “opportunity gaps” that could be filled by innovative ideas, programs, and strategies. It also advances a number of program ideas, intended to:
- strengthen military – civilian education while encouraging greater participation from the private and social sectors;
- engage citizens more fully through new initiatives as well as with existing planning groups and volunteer networks, in tandem with international, federal, state, and local emergency management teams;
- engage specific industries more fully—specifically the media and entertainment, real estate development / engineering / construction, pharmaceuticals and health, and utilities sectors;
- develop new industry-specific metrics that supplement current reputable reporting platforms (such as the Global Reporting Initiative, which is meeting in Amsterdam this week for its bi-annual conference) that can help guide responsible corporate and investor behavior on disaster mitigation and resilience matters. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) is establishing industry-based sustainability key performance indicators that are considered “material” according to the SEC’s view of materiality. Disaster mitigation needs to be included in that framework.
- cultivate pragmatic and flexible partnerships with responsible institutional investors, foundations, social entrepreneurs, and companies (especially defense contractors within the military industrial complex), as well as with the military;
- engage the media, including journalism, entertainment, and other interactive media, to encourage the incorporation of disaster management and food crisis issues into content and storylines, as well as public education;
- fortify existing professional development, education and training programs, in partnership with the emergency management education system, led by FEMA, as well as academic centers and programs, to develop curricular standards, education and training modules, and forms of evaluation and assessment, while developing new knowledge and pedagogical approaches;
- tap the power of Web 2.0, virtual software, gaming technology, and social networking in service to disaster management and prevention, and identify areas showing promise for future work.
A laundry list, yes, but there it is. I also periodically wrote about this here on MurnPost.
But there’s more, not just from 2007 but the last few weeks. It makes me want to scream.
The earth is choking. Ten days ago, we learned that that the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) trapped in the atmosphere reached a milestone unseen in millions of years. Carbon dioxide analyzers at the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano recorded CO2 levels of 440 points per million, a reading first seen at the Arctic last year but recorded on an hourly basis at Mauna Loa, the world’s oldest monitoring station that sets the global benchmark. On Thursday, 9 May 2013, the average CO2 reading for an entire day surpassed that level—the first time in human history.
Largely, if not entirely, attributable to human consumption patterns, specifically the use of fossil fuels, the rise “symbolizes that so far we have failed miserably in tackling this problem,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the monitoring program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that reported the new reading. “The increase is not a surprise at all to scientists,” he said. “The evidence is conclusive that the strong growth of global CO2 emissions from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas is driving the acceleration.”
“There’s no stopping CO2 from reaching 400 ppm,” said Ralph Keeling, a geochemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. “That’s now a done deal. But what happens from here on still matters to climate, and it’s still under our control. It mainly comes down to how much we continue to rely on fossil fuels for energy.” Ralph Keeling is the son of Charles David Keeling, who began measuring carbon dioxide at Mauna Loa in 1958, initiating now what is known as the ‘Keeling Curve’. Ralph Keeling has continued the Scripps measurement record since his father’s death in 2005.
Washington continues to fiddle. Last Thursday, the nomination of highly-qualified Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator-designate, was finally approved by a Senate committee Republicans abandoned their boycott of a vote; her nomination now awaits a full vote on the Senate floor. According to ClimateWire, “McCarthy has assured anti-regulation lawmakers that EPA has no immediate plan to craft such a rule, though she refuses to close the book on action down the road.
“In the event that EPA does undertake action to address [greenhouse gas] emissions from existing power plants, the agency would ensure, as it always seeks to do, ample opportunity for States, the public and stakeholders to offer meaningful input on potential approaches,” McCarthy said in recent written comments submitted to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Jeff Holmstead, the former EPA air division chief under the George W. Bush administration and now head of a Washington environmental strategies group, said the consensus view within the utility industry is that EPA will attempt to regulate CO2 from existing coal plants. But he said there is considerable doubt over whether the agency can cap such emissions at every utility smokestack, or whether rules will have to account for a variety of other factors, including how a utility’s overall fleet is maintained and operated.
Meanwhile, new policies throttling greenhouse gas emissions are waiting in the wings. A December 2010 settlement among administration officials, environmental groups, and states required the Obama administration to address utility carbon emissions. In January 2011, the EPA was granted authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) by setting new emissions standards for fossil fuel power plants and petroleum refineries, two of the largest industrial sources that generate nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gases in the United States. (The EPA is authorized to set new source performance standards for industries that cause, or significantly contribute to, air pollution that poses a danger to public health and welfare under the provisions of the Clean Air Act, in accordance with the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency). EPA set a “modest pace” for this planning process, due to significant industry and Republican opposition as well as Presidential election politics.
Now, however, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue final regulations bringing new coal-fired plants under some form of carbon regulation. The first phase began last year with a proposed “Carbon Pollution Standard for New Power Plants” that remains in draft form.
>>>The EPA extended its date to May 24th for two public hearings on the new Carbon Pollution Standard, to occur in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. A 30-day public comment period follows, until June 25th.
Entities covered by the proposed rule “are strictly limited to new sources” and would restrict coal plant carbon emissions to 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. Most experts agree the rule would make construction of new coal plants impossible for at least another decade until carbon capture and storage technologies are proved to work and then commercially deployed.
A second phase involves emissions controls on existing plants. The new EPA administrator has yet to assume her duties, and opposition to regulations remains robust.
Students are demanding change. And over the last few months, students have joined a fossil fuels divestment movement, calling upon colleges and universities (and other institutional investors) avoid or to sell their holdings in 200 of the largest fossil fuel companies. Sparked by last year’s “Do The Math” 21-city campaign led by the (350.org derives its name from 350 parts per million, the safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) and its founder, longtime climate advocate Bill McKibben, organizers say the effort now includes more than 300 campuses. 350.org recently launched an off-campus effort to rally support among pension funds, religious investors, foundations, companies, and other institutional investors with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
It’s not worth the risk: Unburnable carbon and carbon bubbles. The fossil fuels divestment campaign uses evidence of “stranded assets” from the Carbon Tracker Initiative. The Carbon Tracker Initiative was co-founded by Mark Campanale, founder director of the UK Social Investment Forum longtime expert on sustainable investment, and Cary Krosinsky, former VP of Trucost for North America and currently executive director of the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets.
Stranded assets can pose a significant, systemic risk to institutional investors, say Carbon Tracker researchers, while posing the threat of a “carbon bubble” bursting—much like the subprime bubble that led to the financial crisis.
According to Carbon Tracker, publicly-traded companies spend money totaling $674 billion dollars each year to find and develop more reserves. If they keep spending at this rate over the next decade, that’s $6.74 trillion of investor dollars that will be exposed to this looming carbon bubble, rather than being diverted to low-carbon growth. Capital can be diverted to low-carbon growth—an argument divestment proponents are making. An excellent short video prepared by Carbon Tracker shows how companies on various stock exchanges throughout the world are exposed to carbon risk and the carbon bubble, industry. It can be viewed here.
What we can do to fight climate change
So where does that leave us as we watch the news, grateful for our own safety but heartbroken at the knowledge that life as they know it is shattered for countless thousands affected by the monster tornado?
- We need to get the Senate to confirm Gina McCarthy’s nomination.
- We need to ramp up organized pressure on federal elected officials and policymakers to get a cap on carbon emissions for existing power plants and refineries.
- We need to get a carbon tax passed.
- We need to ask our pension fund manager (if we have a pension fund) what they’re doing to address climate risk and the carbon bubble.
- We need to ask those institutional investors that we’re underwriting—all those hospitals, educational institutions, museums, social clubs, and more, that are tax-exempt and have enough money to invest in a portfolio—how they’re addressing climate risk and the carbon bubble. You say you don’t know who these groups are? Stay tuned—I’ll help you identify them
Most of all we need to blend science with sustainable stewardship—across all sectors and at all levels, local to global—and put our heads together to figure out all kinds of ways to confront Mother Nature’s fury throughout the 21st century.
How many more people need to die before we do so?
Update / Correction: As of 1.00 pm, 5/21, the death toll was revised downward due to inaccurate estimates at the scene. a high of 91 to 24 people. including 20 children; in my original post, only 7 children were identified. According to The New York Times, “Officials said Tuesday that it was far too early to say how many people had been killed. On Monday night, Amy Elliott, the spokeswoman for the Oklahoma City medical examiner, said at least 51 people had died and 40 more bodies were on their way, but on Tuesday, Ms. Elliott said that count ‘is no longer accurate.’ As of Tuesday morning, the medical examiner had confirmed 24 deaths, nine of them children, she said. Local hospitals reported at least 145 people injured, 70 of them children.”
 Quoted in Justin Gillis, “Heat Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears,” The New York Times, 10 May 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/11/science/earth/carbon-dioxide-level-passes-long-feared-milestone.html?pagewanted=all. See also the daily Mauna Loa tracking at NOAA’s website, http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/.
 NOAA scientists with the Global Monitoring Division in Boulder, Colorado have made around-the-clock measurements there since 1974. Having two programs independently measure the greenhouse gas provides confidence that the measurements are correct.
 Lenny Bernstein, “”Senate committee approves Obama nomination of Gina McCarthy to head EPA,” The Washington Post, 16 May 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-05-16/national/39303593_1_senate-vote-gina-mccarthy-committee; Erica Martinson, “Barbara Boxer, David Vitter wage verbal war,” Politico, 17 May 2013, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/05/barbara-boxer-david-vitter-gina-mc-carthy-epa-vote-91516.html..
 Daniel Cusick, “High-stakes poker: plotting the future of coal-fired power plants,” Climate Wire, 20 May 2013, http://www.eenews.net/climatewire/stories/1059981406.
 For a short summary of these developments, see Marcy Murninghan, “Climate Change-Makers,” Murninghan Post, 29 December 2010, http://murninghanpost.com/2010/12/29/climate-change-makers/.
 Justin Gillis, “To Stop Climate Change, Students Aim At College Portfolios,” The New York Times, 4 December 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/business/energy-environment/to-fight-climate-change-college-students-take-aim-at-the-endowment-portfolio.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hpw&&pagewanted=all
 Brooke Jarvis, “Can A Divestment Campaign Move the Fossil Fuel Industry?” Environment 360, 18 March 2013. http://e360.yale.edu/feature/can_a_divestment_campaign_move_the_fossil_fuel_industry/2629/.
 The Carbon Tracker Initiative is a project launched by a UK nonprofit called Investor Watch, established in 2009. A “Carbon Bubble” interactive tool accompanying the Unburnable Carbon report enables the user to explore the different fossil fuel reserves and resources across the world’s stock exchanges and discover the levels of capital companies are committing to maintaining these unsustainable business models. http://www.carbontracker.org/unburnable-carbon-interactive.
 The Network for Sustainable Financial Markets, according to its website, is an international, non-partisan network of finance sector professionals, academics and others who have an active interest in long-term investing. Its focus is on “well thought-out reform” to address “deep-rooted design flaws” of financial markets so they can better serve their core purpose of creating long-term sustainable value. “The Network’s goal is to foster interdisciplinary collaboration on research and advocacy projects between market professionals, academics and other opinion-leaders. We seek to fill the gaps between existing initiatives, to engage on problems which have received attention but have not still been solved and also to involve many more opinion-shapers than has previously been the case. We also intend that the Network be time-limited – our ultimate goal is to embed the Network’s guiding principles into the approaches used by other entities involved in research and public policy, then dissolve.” http://www.sustainablefinancialmarkets.net/about/ and http://www.sustainablefinancialmarkets.net/principles/
 For more on the use of these terms, see Andrew Revkin, “On ‘Unburnable Carbon’ and the Specter of a ‘Carbon Bubble’,” DotEarth (blog), The New York Times, 3 May 2013, http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/dotearth/2013/05/03/on-unburnable-carbon-and-the-specter-of-a-carbon-bubble/.