Equilibrium/Sustainability — Preparing for unavoidable floods

·10 min read

Houses on stilts, sacrificial ground floors and a floating garage.

These are some of the tactics homeowners in the Philippines are using in an attempt to adapt to floods and a changing climate, The Washington Post reports.

Such efforts to boost resilience could offer a path forward for those in similarly threatened areas, like the U.S. Gulf.

“It becomes a personal responsibility,” architect Leandro Poco told the Post. “They do not want to evacuate.”

There are a variety of practical steps residents in the Philippines are taking to adapt to a wetter and more dangerous environment.

Some residents are essentially lifting their houses by building additional floors, so more living space is out of the flood zone, the Post reported.

Others are encasing the edges of their homes in special coverings to block water, and replacing interior plasterboard with more impervious drywall options.

And one family survived 2020 typhoon floods with their possessions and car intact thanks to an innovative floating garage, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll look at California’s long-term climate plan and why it’s generating ire on all sides. Plus: Why wildfires are surpassing experts’ worst models and why air pollution could help predict death risk.

Contention over California climate plan

California’s goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045 may be among the most ambitious in the world, but Californians themselves are widely dissatisfied with the state’s plans for getting there, The Associated Press reported.

What’s in the disputed plan? The so-called “scoping plan” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions aims to scale back the use of fossil fuels by 91 percent by 2045, while boosting the use of electric cars and renewable energy, CalMatters reported.

  • The plan would aim to fulfill state mandates to curb emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2045, according to CalMatters.

Fulfilling these aims won’t be easy: Air board officials projected that the state would need about 30 times more electric vehicles on the road, six times more electric appliances in homes, 60 times more hydrogen supply and four times more wind and solar capacity, CalMatters reported.

Some say it’s not enough: Environmental activists, academics and Californians who live in heavily polluted neighborhoods argued at the hearing that the state’s plans don’t do enough to curb fossil fuel use, according to the AP.

“How we achieve our climate goals matters as much as when we achieve them, and we need a plan for real zero, not net zero,” said Catherine Garoupa White, a member of the plan’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee.

For others, the plans are too much: Labor, business and industry representatives contended that such a transition could raise prices and harm workers, according to the AP.

George Peppas, president of a chamber of commerce group south of Los Angeles, warned that the plan’s shift away from gas-fueled cars would reduce gas tax revenue that is critical to road maintenance, the AP reported.

Pollution exposure may help predict death risk: study

Environmental factors such as air pollution could help predict people’s chances of dying — particularly from conditions like heart attack and stroke, a new study has found.

Exposure to above-average levels of outdoor air pollution increased risk of death by 20 percent and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease specifically by 17 percent, in a survey published in PLoS One on Friday.

  • The use of wood- or kerosene-burning stoves without proper ventilation increased death risk by 23 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

  • These sources raised the specific risk of death by cardiovascular disease by 36 percent and 19 percent, per the study.

Rural village health: To arrive at these figures, researchers from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai combed through personal and environmental health data from 50,045 rural villagers in northeast Iran, beginning in 2004.

Mapping out risk factors. The researchers mapped out eight environmental risk factors using data from NASA and geographical information systems technologies:

  • Fine particulate pollution

  • Household cooking, heating and ventilation

  • Proximity to traffic

  • Distances from sites that perform heart procedures

  • Socioeconomics

  • Population density

  • Land type

  • Nighttime brightness

Not all had the same predictive impact: They found that unlike air pollution, some of the other factors included in the analysis — such as population density, nighttime light and neighborhood income levels — did not independently predict risk of death, the authors said in an accompanying statement.

Distance mattered: Residents incurred a 1 percent increased risk of death for every 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of distance from cardiac catheterization labs, which are capable of unblocking arteries, the study found.

In Golestan, Iran, the largely-rural region where the survey took place, most residents live more than 50 miles away from such facilities, the authors noted.

Living within about 0.06 miles of a small roadway and 0.25 of a large highway was linked to a 13-percent increased risk in all-cause mortality, according to the study.

Mitigating impact: “These results illustrate a new opportunity for health policymakers to reduce the burden of disease in their communities,” lead author Michael Hadley, of Mount Sinai, said in a statement.

Such opportunities should focus on “mitigating the impact of environmental risk factors like air pollution on cardiovascular health,” Hadley added.

To read the full story, please click here.

Wildfire problem worsening faster than expected

Federal officials say climate change is intensifying droughts, leading to wildfires far worse than experts or models have predicted.

That is adding to the danger that accompanies one of the U.S. Forest Service’s primary methods of mitigation: the prescribed burn.

  • “Fires are outpacing our models,” Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in a statement this week.

  • Moore pointed to escalating climate conditions as the reason why an otherwise routine prescribed burn in New Mexico earlier this year escaped to ignite the largest wildfire in state history.

That is forcing the agency to use more caution around controlled burns.

  • Prescribed fire is a method of deliberately burning forests — particularly the fire-dependent conifer landscapes of the West — to remove flammable debris that otherwise helps create massive fires.

  • Despite changing conditions, Moore said prescribed burns remained one of the Forest Service’s most valuable tools against the new age of destructive fire.

Go deeper: The agency laid out its explanation for why the fire escaped and what it is doing to prevent future mistakes in a report released Wednesday.

Unsettling, unstable conditions: Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered,” Moore said.

  • For example, he noted that “a pile burn of hazardous logs that started in January, smoldered underground for months, persisting through multiple snowstorms and freezing temperatures, before resurfacing as a wildfire.”

  • “That type of event was nearly unheard of until recently,” he said.

  • But persistent drought — which a study in Nature in February called the worst in 1,200 years — has complicated that picture.

Losing water, losing resilience: In a wetter ecosystem, water evaporating from the landscapes cools it — and in a dry one, drought lets it get hot.

  • Once water has all evaporated from the landscape, “it just keeps getting hotter and hotter, drier and drier,” Marc Castellnou, a fire scientist in Spain’s Catalonia region, told Equilibrium.

  • “It just keeps getting hotter and hotter, drier and drier,” said Castellnou, who consults frequently on fires in the U.S. West. “It’s a feedback loop.”

Turning wet logs to firewood: Fire forecasters could once assume that the water in a living tree trunk — or even a dead one — would keep it from catching fire, even during a large blaze, fire ecologist Matthew Hurteau of the University of New Mexico told Equilibrium.

  • Fire ecologists and forecasters rarely paid attention to such material, he said, “because it just wasn’t available to burn.”

  • Instead, models assumed that things like small trees, shrubs and fallen branches played the dominant role in transmitting fire.

That view has since changed. “A lot more energy stored in large logs and dead trees is available to burn,” Hurteau said, adding that this results in bigger, hotter fires.

In California’s 2020 Creek Fire, for example, hundreds of thousands of combusting logs powered the formation of a colossal pyrocumulonimbus cloud, NASA reported.

That meant the emergence of a fire-created storm system that pulls in air, causing it to grow ever larger in a destructive feedback loop.


Firefighters facing a dangerous cluster of blazes can win if they use discipline and avoid dividing their resources, Castellnou of the Catalonia fire corps told Equilibrium.

  • That’s particularly true when facing the scattered assortments of small, growing fires that can be caused by lightning storms that often accompany heat waves and drought.

  • Such a collection of fires led to California’s 2020 Lightning Complex Fire, which ultimately burned more than 360,000 acres.

Heading off a cataclysm: When 307 lightning-sparked fires broke out on the edge of Spain’s Pyrenees, Castellnou’s team realized that 5,000 hectares (about 12,000 acres) were certainly going to burn.

  • But by containing it and focusing on fighting smaller fires, they could avoid the growth of a fire that might have reached 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) and burn across sensitive ecosystems for months.

  • “If we focused on saving that 5,000 hectares,  we would have left the other fires without resources,” he said.

Attacking a big fire while small fires burn behind you is a good way to lose control of a landscape, according to Castellnou.

“If you just leave small fires to fight bit ones, you’ll have two big fires, then the next day four, then more,” he added.

To read the full story, please click here.

Follow-up Friday

Taking another look at issues from the week.

Just a fifth of engineering degrees go to women

‘Achilles heel in the Arctic’

  • We looked at how a thawing Arctic could open shipping routes that might compete with those controlled by Russia. Moscow may now be eying the largest island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, dubbed “NATO’s Achilles heel in the Arctic,” Agence France-Presse reported. A global treaty allows citizens of 46 countries, including Russia, to mine the island’s resources — and Moscow is hinting it wants a bigger say, according to AFP.

Another option for plant-based plastics

  • We reported on how plant-based cling-wraps can be used to replace polluting plastics. Now researchers have derived a plastic substitute —derived from wood or agricultural wastes — that provides most of the practical attributes of petroleum-derived plastics while remaining biodegradable, according to a study in Nature Chemistry.

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you next week.


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