We Must Better Communicate the Health Risks of Climate Change

Climate change march / Safety Messenger
Climate change march / Safety Messenger

“Climate change is a complicated topic, which makes it anathema to clear communication,” explained Dr. Ed Maibach, who runs the center for climate change communication at George Mason University. At the climate and health summit at the Carter Center, Maibach said most Americans associate climate change with “plants, penguins, and polar bears,” and view it as a “22nd century problem.” Climate change is seen as a “scientific, environmental, and political problem, but not a public health one.” Given only about one-third of Americans are environmentalists, framing climate change as a health problem first and foremost could help spur more action. Everyone is concerned with the health of their communities and children.

Maibach is seen as a leading expert on climate change communications. His advice for how we can better reach the public is practical: “the less you say, the more you’re heard; say the things that have the most value; and use audience research to determine which messages have the most value.”

When crafting communications messages, it’s important to “repeat things over and over again,” adapt key messages, reinforce them, but also find a variety of trusted voices, like doctors and nurses, to convey them. “Aim simple, clear messages at target audiences. They will then share with their family members and friends.”

Maibach has been studying what messages will work with various segments of the public. He found there are a number of different Americas. “About 18 percent are alarmed by climate change, 34 percent are concerned, 23 percent are cautious, 5 percent are disengaged, 11 percent are doubtful, and 7 percent are dismissive.”

The messages that will resound with more of these groups include: “(1) 97 percent of climate scientists are convinced human-caused climate change is happening; (2) climate change is already harming our health now. All of us can he harmed, but some are more likely to be harmed, like children, the elderly, pregnant women, student athletes, the sick and poor; and (3) reduce energy waste and embrace clean energy, so we can clean up our air and water.” Maibach said even “the dismissive segment gets that last point, as many of them are enthusiastic about renewable energy.”

Dr. Susan Pachecho, University of Texas Health Science Center, said instead of focusing on tailored messages, communicators must create narratives with personal stories that really connect. “Stories of patients work. Less is better.” She also called for using the humanities — fiction, poetry, art, and music — to better reach students on the health risks of climate change.

And one of the most intriguing speeches came from Jerry Taylor, head of the Niskanen Center, and a Republican who was a climate denier at the Cato Institute for decades before he saw the light and started to believe the science. Taylor explained how to reach Republicans, who really are the ones who need to shift their views if we are going to have more support for climate action. “Democratic opinion on the left and center has been there [supportive of efforts on climate change] for 25 years. Republican opinion: What will move them?”

Taylor said “for the most part, tribal political leaders guide public policy. What drives Republican opinions on climate change are Republican political leaders.” In 2008, Senator John McCain promoted a cap and trade program to reduce carbon emissions. Positions have shifted farther to the right in just under a decade, as neither presidential candidate Mitt Romney or Donald Trump put forth any climate plan. (But, still, 49 percent of Trump supporters agree climate change is happening, and 62 percent want to see emissions regulated).

What’s needed are a few more McCains, Republican tribal leaders who will show some leadership on the issue, just like former Secretaries of State James Baker III and George Schultz, along with former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson did with their call for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

To reach more Republican and grow more of these leaders, Taylor advised against using phrases like “massive socio-economic transformation.” He said “that’s not going to happen, and Republicans like capitalism and the 21st century as it is.” Also, “unleashing the government,” like the environmentalist Bill McKibben has proposed, with a sort of New Deal for a new green economy, also isn’t going to fly, as that would be viewed as a “war on the economy.” He said for Republicans, “it’s not about the debate on the climate science,” but fear of government control of the economy.

Taylor also urged Democrats “not to overplay certainties. There is less knowledge of future scenarios” than many would like. “Will we reach a new climate stability in 60 years or 3-4 centuries? Will temperatures level out at a 1.5-3 Celsius or 8-10 Celsius increase? There is a lot we don’t know about how bad it will be.”

Instead, “risk management works well on Capitol Hill. There is a big distribution of possible outcomes, with one option being ‘no impact,’ and another being ‘big impact.'” Advocates can present the “most likely outcomes,” which will encourage Republicans to hedge their bets. Also, discussing the co-benefits of fighting climate change, like improved health, works. For example, we can have a cleaner and healthier planet.

But “de-industrialization, raising energy costs, massively increasing government spending — we don’t need to do this. Harnessing the market is a near-universal remedy that Republicans can put into play.”

The Climate + Health Challenge: “We Have the Solutions” (Part 1)

Wind and solar installation / Stanford University News
Wind and solar installation / Stanford University News

If we don’t reduce the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere each year, there will be significant health impacts, argued former Vice President Al Gore and some of the world’s leading scientists, at a summit organized at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first half of the conference explained the challenges facing the world if we surpass an increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is seen as a key thresh hold: the accelerated spread of infectious diseases, less nutritious food, more challenging mental health problems, and more dangerous air pollution. In the second half of the day, Gore and others offered some solutions — to mitigate climate change, and thereby reduce expected health impacts, and better anticipate and manage the coming public health challenges.

After hearing so much doom and gloom, Gore said “we have the solutions at hand. Hope is justified.” Just a few decades ago, environmentalists hoped we would achieve 30 gigawatts of wind power by 2010. In 2017, we have achieved 17 times that amount. The estimates were for 18 gigawatts of solar power by 2010. In 2017, we achieved 77 times that number.

Gore explained that three-fourths of new energy plants being created around the world are either wind or solar. And coal has fallen out of favor in many countries. India has issued a new policy that will stop all coal plants moving forward. China is retiring old coal plants and put a moratorium on new ones.

In addition to the climate benefits, there are real health benefits to shutting down coal plants. As has been described, coal energy generates more air pollution than other sources of energy, shortening lives. In his talk, Sir Dr. Andy Haines, London school of hygiene and tropical medicine, explained how a “7 percent increase in clean energy investments can save 3 million lives by 2040.” He said President Obama’s clean energy plan would avoid 175,000 deaths, while the tougher vehicle emissions standards finalized in the final days of the Obama administration would save another 125,000 lives. “The health benefits of this offset 25-1050 percent of the costs,” depending on how you calculate them.

Haines called for fixing CO2 prices worldwide, around $20-100 per ton, in order to create a consistent and transparent tax on pollution. “A tax wouldn’t have to be an overall increase. It could be non-regressive.” In Sweden, a ton of carbon now costs $160, but the country has still seen growth and is now shifting to a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, only 12 percent of the world’s emissions are now covered by a pricing scheme. Furthermore, most of the world currently rewards fossil fuel production, as governments give oil, coal, and gas companies some $5 trillion in subsidies per year.

The world’s cities account for 85 percent of the world’s economy, and some 71-16 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. If cities can reduce their emissions, as many are working on doing so, we can make a great deal of progress, regardless of the politics of any country. Comparing Atlanta and Barcelona, which each have about 2.5 million people, Haines demonstrated the potential emission reductions that could happen with better urban planning and design. In Atlanta, which is some 7,000 square miles, each car-owning resident spews out 7 tons of carbon each year. In comparison, Barcelona, which is just 648 square miles, each person release less than 1 ton of emissions a year. Barcelona is far more walkable and bikeable with more public transit, and cities like Atlanta need to become like Barcelona much faster. Not only is walking and biking better for the environment, but there are also major health benefits. And for those who don’t have the strength to bike, Haines made the case for e-bikes. (In another talk, Laura Turner Sydell, board member of the Turner Foundation, said “Atlanta has come light years in the past 20 years,” but still has much further to go).

Trends of urbanization in Atlanta and Barcelona / Morphocode
Trends of urbanization in Atlanta and Barcelona / Morphocode

Carbon dioxide stays up in the atmosphere for 1,000 years. But we can target short-lived pollutants now to reduce some of the worst climate and health impacts. Haines called for targeting black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and HFCs. “Regulating these gases can keep us well below a 2 degree Celsius increase.” Black carbon can be reduced with the distribution of clean cook stoves, which also cut back dangerous indoor air pollution. Cows are a major source of methane. In 1961, there were 2.4 billion of these ruminants; today, there are more than 3.8 billion of them. Encouraging a more vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce methane emissions without changing overall dietary profiles much. And methane from natural gas production and landfills can be easily captured and reused as fuel.

Forests are another important part of the solution. “Forests reduces air pollution, clean water, decrease malaria transmission and other disease risks,” while serving as important carbon sinks and sources of biodiversity. “We need to have stable forests to stay below a 2 degree increase.”

For the first time, carbon dioxide emissions have been flat the past two years, despite the fact that world economy grew, Gore said. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to start to go down. But we aren’t solving the crisis fast enough.”

For that to happen, Gore is pushing for more solar and wind capacity. He thinks renewable energy sources are good for the U.S. economy. “Solar jobs have grown 12 times, more than any other energy sector.” He also called for retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient. “Those jobs can’t be outsourced.” And as Haines explained, “cutting building-related CO2 emissions could prevent some 5,000 deaths” by reducing air pollution.

The UN Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions requires states to provide an update on their progress every five years. The idea is to use these five-year marks to ratchet up expectations and actions. Countries are already preparing for the first five-year mark in 2021, Gore said. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to meet the obligations of the agreement.

Read part 2.

The Climate + Health Challenge: “We Have the Solutions” (Part 2)

pollution
US Embassy in Beijing air pollution monitor app / Digital Journal

If we don’t reduce the billions of tons of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere each year, there will be significant health impacts, argued former Vice President Al Gore and some of the world’s leading scientists, at a summit organized at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The first half of the conference explained the challenges facing the world if we surpass an increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), which is seen as a key thresh hold: the accelerated spread of infectious diseases, less nutritious food, more challenging mental health problems, and more dangerous air pollution. In the second half of the day, Gore and others offered some solutions — to mitigate climate change, and thereby reduce expected health impacts, and better anticipate and manage the coming public health challenges.

A number of scientists called for boosting the amount of climate change adaptation funds that go to health. Of the $1.2 billion collected for adaptation by the United Nations, only 2 percent of that goes to health measures, said Dr. Kristie Ebi, University of Washington. And, unfortunately, there is almost no serious research being conducted on the health impacts of climate change.

Dr. Rainer Sauerborn, Heidelberg Institute of Public Health, made the important point that there is no one-sized-fits-all solution for climate adaptation. Every community’s challenges will be unique, which means support for local research and action is vital. He wondered why there were no researchers from the Middle East or Africa at the conference.

Public health officials made the case for increased spending on public health surveillance and early warning systems. In Beijing, for a period of time, the U.S. embassy provided the one reliable indicator of air pollution levels in the city. Its feed has spurred activism and Chinese government action to better monitor and reduce air pollution. If more developing world cities had more reliable air pollution monitoring and alert systems, those particularly vulnerable to poor air could be instructed to stay inside on really bad days. These systems also generate demand for air quality improvements.

With more funding, public health organizations can better monitor disease threats as well. For example, the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) is monitoring the precursors of vibrio, an aquatic pathogen, explained Dr. Jan Semenza, and sending alerts to communities before a vibrio outbreak strikes. Testing the system against Swedish data, they’ve found “there is an epidemic signal we can predict.”

Dr. Howard Frumkin, University of Washington, a leading environmental health specialist, and co-editor of Making Healthy Places, called for doctors and scientists in the public health field to seek partners “outside their comfort zones” and reach out to those working on the built environment, like planners, landscape architects, and architects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was represented by Dr. George Luber, who explained the tools the CDC has available for communities planning for health impacts, such as the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework, which also includes technical assistance. Luber said the role of the CDC is to provide accessible scientific guidance and decision-making support tools.

But it’s important that all communities get support for dealing with their climate and health challenges in the future. Catherine Flowers, with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, said parts of Alabama were like a “third world country,” with sewage bubbling up and contaminating front lawns. “This is where environmental justice and climate intersect.”

And Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm, thinks the healthcare sector can come together as a single force for good. Given the sector accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. economy, it’s poised to play a lead role. Gundersen Health in Wisconsin, which was almost entirely fueled by coal a few years ago, now runs on power generated from wind and bio-waste. Cohen said in more than 200 cities, the healthcare sector is the biggest employer. Associations of these firms are moving to renewable energy and divesting from any fossil fuel stocks.

These companies can help shift the U.S. to a more sustainable, less polluting form of energy production, and speak out about the health risks with climate change. “If we mobilize the health community, we have a massive army at hand. Doctors and nurses are among the most trusted people in America. We will be unstoppable,” argued Cohen.

However, despite all the positive talk about how we can manage the coming challenges, many scientists at the conference agreed that there are many “unknown unknowns” looming out there. For example, there are new worries about the micro-organisms now dormant under the vast permafrost. Just ten years ago, no one knew the nutritional value of many important crops would be reduced in a higher carbon atmosphere. What other impacts are lurking out there? There is much that still can’t be predicted. 

The most important investment now may be to dramatically boost funding on scientific research, and monitoring and early warning systems.

Toward a Unified Theory of Landscape Architecture

Island Press
Landscape Architecture Theory / Island Press

Our ecological practices tend to lag behind our ecological understanding. We know, for instance, the unmitigated release of greenhouse gasses destabilizes the climate, yet we’re slow to act on this knowledge. This can be frustrating. But often it benefits a cause to stop and reflect on what is known. This can help bring our knowledge and actions into alignment. Landscape Architecture Theory: An Ecological Approach by Texas A&M University emeritus professor Michael Murphy, ASLA, does exactly this, codifying what landscape architecture knows, so that thoughts and actions may one day be on the same page.

So what does landscape architecture know? More than you might realize. Landscape Architecture Theory is intended as a sort of textbook, so Murphy does his best to cover a lot of ground in relatively few pages. The reader is first introduced to terms like landscape, architecture, and design, as well as the importance of the cultural vantage point from which we view landscape. (Landscape is a tract of land, yes, but also a commodity). The rest of the book is divided into two parts covering substantive and procedural theory. The former “describes the knowledge used to frame and inform design interventions.” The latter gets at how that knowledge is applied.

The result of this approach is an instructional, highly-narrative book that strikes on the fundamentals while stepping lightly through complex subjects. Within a matter of pages, the reader is acquainted with the human propensity for resource extraction inefficiency, the prospect-refuge theory, and a systems approach to landscape. And, surprisingly, the progression feels quite natural.

This distillation of a huge number of important ideas into a quick and coherent format is the blueprint for a go-to book. Landscape Architecture Theory is eminently useful and widely applicable. It’s difficult to recall another book that serves as a primer on the behavioral dimensions of space, traffic circulation, and hydrologic dynamics, among other subjects. There is not a single landscape architecture student who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book cover to cover, and general readers will appreciate its simple and direct treatment of even widely understood subjects.

via_appia
The author refers to the Via Appia, in Rome, as an example of the human-dominated landscape. / Wikimedia Commons

Murphy outlines the knowledge that can help us reach goals. Here, he gets abstract, proposing landscape architecture’s purpose is “to change, with each new design, our concepts about how to learn from and reform the ordinary landscapes that shape and inspire our daily lives.” Experimental and innovative design, underpinned by theory, is what moves landscape architecture forward. But while designs may take on extravagant forms, the purpose of landscape architecture remains humble: to benefit “the streets, parks, neighborhoods, schools, shops, offices, and factories where people work and play each day of their lives.”

“We are still in the early stages of forming a coherent theory of landscape architecture,” Murphy cautions. Despite the impressive body of knowledge contained between its two covers, design excellence won’t be achieved by all those designers who read Landscape Architecture Theory. As Murphy acknowledges, one of the main challenges in achieving design excellence is the body of knowledge informing landscape architecture keeps growing while each design success pushes the bar for excellence higher. Viewed in a certain way, that’s a very exciting prospect.

We Can’t Ignore the Health Impacts of Climate Change (Part 1)

Aedes aegypti mosquito, a carrier of the Zika virus / James Gathany / CDC
Aedes aegypti mosquito, a carrier of the Zika virus / James Gathany / CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized a three-day conference on climate and health. As the Trump administration took power, the conference was abruptly cancelled. So former Vice President Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project, former President Jimmy Carter, the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin, and others stepped in to fill the gap, putting on a one-day summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week. ASLA signed on as a member of the summit’s partnership circle, along with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the U.S. Green Building Council. In Atlanta, Gore kicked off the conference by arguing that “too little attention is being paid to the health consequences of climate change.” And focusing on coming health impacts could be a more compelling way to persuade the public that more action is needed now. We couldn’t agree more.

“We are now using the open sky as a sewer,” Gore said. The billions of tons of carbon emissions spewed into the atmosphere have a warming effect equal to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every day. If unabated, the warming effect of all of this pollution will not only lead to ecological catastrophe, but a “medical emergency.” If we continue on a “business as usual” scenario, which could eventually warm the planet by 8-12 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, there will be dire implications for human health.

Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). Here below are the first four impacts; part 2 will have the rest:

Infectious Diseases: “Tropical diseases are on the move. With air travel, they can spread more easily, but with climate change, there are new areas where diseases can become endemic.” As regions warm, diseases like Zika, Chikungunya, West Nile, Dengue Fever, malaria, and others spread by mosquitoes, can take root. Many regions not currently affected by these diseases — places thought to be north of the “mosquito line” — should worry and become better prepared. Also, average global humidity is 4-5 percent higher than 30 years ago, and those numbers are only expected to increase. With higher humidity and heat, mosquitoes speed up their reproductive and metabolic rates, which means there are more mosquitoes biting more.

In India, “there were 39 million cases of Dengue fever per year.” Last year, a park in Tokyo was closed due a Dengue Fever outbreak. And in central China, “malaria has re-emerged” for the first time in ages.

The spread of the Zika virus in the U.S,, which the CDC considers a health emergency, has already affected Puerto Rico, Miami-Dade county, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And many scientists, Gore said, “suspect it’s now spreading up and down the Gulf Coast.” For most people, Zika causes relatively mild symptoms, such as a rash, fever, joint pain, and eye aches, for about a week and then clears up. For pregnant women, there are serious implications — the virus can cause miscarriages or fetal microcephaly and other birth defects.

Ticks, which are already vectors for disease transmission, are also moving north. “Virtually 100 percent of Canada will be within tick range in a few decades.” And we’ll also see new species — like snails — become vectors for transmissions.

Moving onto to other worrying scenarios, Gore said “runoff from increased flooding or extreme precipitation events will damage our water supplies.” With higher temperatures and more frequent storms, we will see the spread of cholera and other water-borne diseases. According to Dr. Glenn Morris, University of Florida, who conducts research on emerging infectious diseases, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some 50 percent of the water supply in Haiti was contaminated by cholera.

Vibrio aquatic pathogens, which infect shorelines and also make oysters and other shellfish very dangerous to eat, are also spreading. Morris, said “vibrios are extremely temperature sensitive and every one degree temperature increase can encourage their spread.” Already, the number of cases in the north Atlantic is increasing.

Morris said even slight temperature gains can increase disease transmission. “Climate change opens up new ecological niches for pathogens. These are the unexpected consequences when people play with the environment.”

Heat Stress: While flooding from storms and heavy rains is the extreme weather event that kills the most number of people worldwide, heat stress is the biggest killer in the United States, according to Gore. Mortality rates increase by 4 percent during heat waves, which are more dangerous for the elderly, children, athletes, outdoor workers, socially-isolated people, urban dwellers, the homeless, the poor, and communities of color.

For the past 17 years, the planet has just been getting warmer and warmer. Dr. Kim Knowlton, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, said 2016 was the hottest year on record, beating 2015, which at that time was the hottest year on record. Currently, New York City has about 670-1,300 heat deaths per year, with 65,000 heat emergencies. Dr. Jonathan Patz, University of Wisconsin, said New York City can expect triple the number of extreme heat days (up to 39 days) by 2045. Correspondingly, Dr. Knowlton anticipates heat deaths to also triple.

Heatwave in New York City / NY Daily News
Heatwave in New York City / NY Daily News

More broadly, higher temperatures mean reduced productivity. Outdoor workers experiencing heat stress can’t work. Knowlton said with higher temperatures, the “U.S. could see a reduction in economic output of $2 trillion; by 2100, a 20 percent drop in GDP from extreme heat.”

Many places are reaching all time highs, too, Gore explained. India hit an all-time high of 123 Fahrenheit last summer, and Sydney recently reached 117 Fahrenheit. In Iran, a city hit 165 Fahrenheit, with the heat index, in 2015. What makes this all worse: “night-time temperatures are also increasing, so there is no relief.”

Gore said in these conditions “no human can be outside for more than a few hours.” The projections show that vast swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are on track to reach some of these temperatures on a regular basis. “Areas of the planet could no longer be habitable. They could become beyond the limit of human survival. Mecca and Medina are in this zone.”

Dr. Knowlton said it’s time to take into consideration the health impacts of the world’s energy choices. Moving to renewable energies now may still result in a 3-4 degree planetary temperature increase, which will be “manageable,” while a 10-15 degree increase, under current fossil fuel-driven scenarios, would be “catastrophic.”

Air Pollution: Some 6.5 million people die each year prematurely from air pollution, reports the International Energy Agency. Carbon dioxide and related co-pollutants, otherwise grouped together as small particulate matter, found in vehicle exhaust and power plant emissions are behind these deaths.

Because of air pollution, the life expectancy of those living in northern China has been cut by 5.5 years. In Henan province, it’s estimated that air pollution takes the lives of 4,000 people a day. Pollution in Beijing, China’s capital city, has reached near “unlivable levels.” It’s not just China experiencing deadly air pollution though. New studies show that 99.5 percent of Indians breathe unhealthy air, as do 94 percent of Nigerians. According to one analysis, Tehran, the capital of Iran, was rated as having the world’s worst air.

Tehran air pollution / Green Prophet
Tehran air pollution / Green Prophet

Some sources of energy are dirtier than others. For example, deaths from coal-related pollution are higher than pollution from other sources. Gore said “coal creates $216 billion in health costs per year.” (Furthermore, coal burning is heavily damaging in other ways. Mercury, which is a co-pollutant that comes out of coal, has tripled in the world’s oceans. Some 16 percent of China’s cropland is also contaminated with it).

Dr. Patrick Kinney, Boston University, said “air pollution should be at the center of the discussion on health and climate.” Warmer temperatures make smog worse, as it increases the negative impacts of ozone and strong oxidant gases. Kinney also said areas impacted by wildfire, which are expected to double with climate change, will also increase harmful smoke inhalation.

Allergens: Another form of natural air pollution that will get worse: pollen, which is expected to triple in many areas by 2040. In areas with Ragweed, there will be an increase in pollen load by 320 percent by 2100.

Ragweed / Identify That Plant
Ragweed / Identify That Plant

Kinney said that in New York City, “pollen season is now coming earlier. That’s bad news for people with asthma and allergies.”

Read part 2 on mental health and food impacts.

We Can’t Ignore the Health Impacts of Climate Change (Part 2)

A farm that has been destocked for two years in Queensland, Australia / ABC
A farm that has been destocked for two years in Queensland, Australia / ABC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) organized a three-day conference on climate and health. As the Trump administration took power, the conference was abruptly cancelled. So former Vice President Al Gore and his Climate Reality Project, former President Jimmy Carter, the American Public Health Association (APHA), public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin, and others stepped in to fill the gap, putting on a one-day summit at the Carter Center in Atlanta last week.

Gore and leading scientists discussed key areas where climate change is expected to cause major human health impacts (due to time constraints, they left out discussing animal and plant health). In the first part, we covered the first four — infectious diseases, heat stress, air pollution, and allergens; here, below, are the rest:

Mental Health: Gore said except for Dr. Lise Van Susteren, with the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, few seem to be studying the mental health impacts of climate change.

Dr. Van Susteren gave perhaps the most powerful speech of the conference, as so much of what she said hasn’t been in the spotlight before. She said the most negative weather impacts of climate change — flooding, storms — result not only in injuries and property loss, but a sense of displacement, which leaves an incredible “emotional toll.”

Shifts in temperatures also have a mental health impact. In higher temperatures, studies have found, there is a “40 percent increase in conflict, and 14 percent jump in conflict between groups.” There is increased unrest among all ethnic groups. She imagined a future with higher temperatures and more refugees resulting in increased conflict worldwide.

Somali refugees displaced by flooding / How Stuff Works / Brendan Bannon /AFP, Getty Images
Somali refugees displaced by flooding / How Stuff Works / Brendan Bannon /AFP, Getty Images

And in societies facing an influx of refugees, there has been a “sharp turn to the far right.” In a time of peril, “people regress and give up on their values.” In a state of anger and aggression, “systems can be easily overwhelmed. Faith in government can fail.”

More deeply, she wondered what happens to people’s unconscious psychological states when “the place they call home goes away,” when they can’t return to a place that has been irreversibly changed. She argued that the “fear, anger, sorrow, and trauma” of that experience can “push people to the breaking point” and result in “abuse, drugs, and violence.” She said more and more communities are experiencing this type of nostalgia for lost, damaged lands.

Furthermore, we will feel the loss of the natural world. With some scientists estimating that 30-50 percent of species could go extinct in the coming decades, “we will lose that the awe and wonder we get from biodiversity. The cost is our souls.”

Many people not currently directly impacted by climate change yet may still have “climate anxieties.” A group of climate Cassandras see “future disasters coming,” which takes a psychological toll. She point to children in Australia who are having a hard time focusing due to fears associated with drought and climate change. It has become so common it’s considered a new condition. In a startling statement, she then equated climate change with child abuse, and burning fossil fuels with aggression that puts people in harm’s way.

Food: Important food crops are heat sensitive. Each day corn is above 84 degrees Fahrenheit, there is a 0.7 percent loss in yield, Gore explained. With wheat, there is a 20 percent drop with a 1 degree increase. All those crops also need water, which is becoming increasingly scarce in many places. And another little known effect of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the reduction of nutrient levels in important grains. Zinc, copper, magnesium levels drop by 10 percent of more in common grains as CO2 levels rise, Gore said. This bodes ill for the world’s poor who rely on these grains for these nutrients and can’t afford supplements.

Dr. Samuel Myers, an expert on climate and food at Harvard University, took a step back to look at the big picture. He said “food demand is the highest in history, but climate change is affecting all food systems, threatening the quality, quantity of food and where it’s produced.” Some scientists have posited climate change could have a helpful fertilizing effect by raising temperatures and humidity, but the positive impact will be “smaller than thought,” and be likely far outweighed by the negative impacts.

With rising temperatures, the tropics can expect a 15-25 percent drop in yields. On top of that, more heat is “incompatible with long outdoor labor.” Fisheries peaked about a decade ago and their capacity is falling about 1 percent a year. Fisheries will also now move further towards the north and south poles. Water scarcity threatens livestock. With all these changes, Myers predicts the world will become increasingly dependent on food trade. This hits the poor the hardest, as they are “most susceptible to food price shocks.”

Crops will have less nutritional value. A group of scientists around the world have been growing 41 cultivars over 10 years in open-field conditions, but have been circling them in a ring of carbon dioxide at the levels of 550 parts per million (ppm), which is the level expected in 50 years. The scientists found that with all C3 crops, which include beans, rice, wheat, potatoes, there has been a drop in iron and zinc values along with protein levels. “These deficiencies are already a huge problem today in the world’s population. The effect of climate change may be that 200 million more people will have a new onset of zinc deficiency, and 1 billion people will have an existing deficiency exacerbated. There will be a similar effect with iron and protein, particularly in Africa and South Asia.”

Carbon crop study / Phys.org
Carbon crop study / Phys.org

Myers argued said just a decade ago, “scientists didn’t know that food would have less nutritional value. These complex unknown effects are worrying.”

Read part 1.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (February 1 – 15)

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The design for Cleveland Public Square / James Corner Field Operations

Saving the TamarindThe Bangkok Post, 2/7/16
“For over a century, 783 tamarind trees have encircled the sacred ground of Sanam Luang. They were there, like stoic sentinels, during ceremonial pomp and political upheavals, come rain or shine.”

Channeling Steve Jobs, Apple Seeks Design Perfection at New ‘Spaceship’ Campus – Reuters, 2/7/17
“Apple Inc’s sprawling new headquarters in Cupertino, California, will be a fitting tribute: a futuristic campus built with astonishing attention to detail. From the arrangement of electrical wiring to the finish of a hidden pipe, no aspect of the 2.8 million-square-foot main building has been too small to attract scrutiny.”

Well-Designed Public Squares Can Enhance Tolerance During Volatile Political Times, Says James Corner – CLAD News, 2/8/17
“Speaking exclusively to CLAD, Corner explained how well-conceived public city squares can be “conducive to more tolerance” at a time when “democracy is being challenged.”

Rejuvenating SF Civic Center Plaza: A Challenge Beyond Design San Francisco Chronicle, 2/11/17
“Planners and politicians have long wrestled with how to “fix” Civic Center Plaza and the blocks around it — a grand governmental hub, but also an often troublesome void.”

Eleven Practices to Complete $2 Billion Waterfront Development in Washington D.C. – Arch Daily, 2/11/17
“Eleven of the United States’ most prestigious architects have been selected by developers Hoffman-Madison Waterfront (HMW), to commence Phase 2 of The Wharf, a $2 billion neighborhood situated on the southwest waterfront of Washington D.C.”

Waterfront Upgrade Phase 2: Time for Public to Pipe up The San Diego Union Tribune, 2/13/17
“Three years after jacarandas, a hip cafe and a widened bayside promenade transformed a section of the downtown waterfront, the San Diego Unified Port District is jumpstarting talk of Phase 2.”

Good Design Is Sustainable

Perk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land Studio
Perk Park, Cleveland by Thomas Balsley Associates / Land Studio

Good landscape design is intrinsically sustainable. While a certain level of ecological sustainability may be achieved by adhering to a checklist of environmental best practices, long-term sustainability is achieved by engaging broader cultural, economic, and socio-economic goals. It’s now widely recognized that city dwellers tend to live a less wasteful and more energy-efficient lifestyle than those who live in the suburbs or rural areas. So if well-designed urban public spaces are able to counteract the discomforts of high density, then more people will live happily, and sustainably, in cities. This was the crux of the argument made by landscape architects Martha Schwartz, FASLA, Ken Smith, FASLA, and Thomas Balsley, FASLA, in a recent panel discussion organized by the New York chapter of ASLA.

During the course of their long careers, these renowned designers have experienced two major shifts in the field of landscape architecture. One is the greater inclusion of ecological principles in design. The other is a shift in our cultural attitudes towards cities — from viewing them as unfavorable to celebrating them.

Each presented projects that engage sustainability on multiple levels and time scales.

Perk Park, a one-acre park in downtown Cleveland, was a vestige of 1970s-era landscape architecture, when parks were designed as places to protect oneself from the stress of the surrounding city. “What happened, in fact, is that the space became inaccessible, it didn’t have sight lines. There were places to hide. Eventually, people wouldn’t even go in there, so it really held back the growth and vitality of the neighborhood,” said Thomas Balsley. His firm, SWA/Balsley, re-designed the park so it celebrated and engaged with the surrounding environment, blurring the edges between the park and the city (see image above).

One popular element of Perk Park is its “urban porch,” a linear pergola covering seating that lines the sidewalk. “You can sit at the porch and be in touch with the streetscape but also the park and be in dialogue with both.” The park became so vibrant that local corporations and retail began to occupy the surrounding buildings, just to be near the park.

By preserving existing trees and including new permeable green space in the densest and most impervious area of a major city, basic elements of urban ecological sustainability were achieved. Moreover, by providing what Balsley calls “a stage for daily urban life to happen,” the park achieves a long-term and nuanced form of sustainability.

“Really great design makes a difference, and it makes more of a difference than OK design,” said Schwartz. “What we see affects us psychologically and emotionally. How a space looks can determine whether or not it will be used, and therefore maintained.” The public will become active stewards of a well-designed space, but if a space is not considered valuable, “all the technologies and the well-meaning environmental practices we bring to it will disappear over time.”

For Schwartz, a successful public space is both resilient and heavily used. She achieves these goals by weaving a narrative specific to each site, as well as creating landscapes that challenge and intrigue the public. Grand Canal Square by Martha Schwartz Partners in Dublin, Ireland, uses towering, off-kilter red poles, criss-crossing paths, and a paved red “carpet.” Built before much of the surrounding development, the square’s acclaim has ushered in economic resilience. The Dublin offices of Google and Twitter are now the square’s neighbors, and the property values surrounding the square stayed steady during a time of economic downturn.

Grand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz Partners
Grand Canal Square Dublin by Martha Schwartz Partners / Martha Schwartz Partners

As part of the East River Waterfront Esplanade in Manhattan, which Ken Smith Workshop has been working on for a decade, Smith and his studio designed and built a prototype mussel habitat. Working with ecologists and marine engineers, Smith selected a concrete-textured substrate and designed a gradient of rocks to encourage the growth of mussel colonies.

In terms of providing a measurable ecological boost in the context of the East River, this 65-foot-long prototype of a constructed mussel habitat is likely only a drop in the bucket. However, being able to see the tides move up and down a slope as it fosters aquatic life is a unique sight in New York City, where hard vertical edges dominate the waterfront. Reminders that these natural processes occur amid the industry and infrastructure of the city can bring a sense of wonder to visitors, and perhaps encourage stewardship.

East River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith Workshop
East River Waterfront mussel habitat pilot project / Ken Smith Workshop

The common belief is that good design means sacrificing sustainability or vice versa. But these landscape architects challenged this assumption. Schwartz said: “To have something work sustainably in terms of its ecological processes, it doesn’t have to look a certain way. Sustainability doesn’t have an aesthetic. If you use your creativity, there’s no reason why there is any separation between design and sustainability.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Republican Elder Statesmen Propose Climate Plan

Fossil fuel plant emissions / Wikipedia
Fossil fuel plant emissions / Wikipedia

A group of elder Republican statesmen — including former Secretaries of State James Baker III and George Schultz, along with former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson — have announced a new “conservative” plan to combat climate change. In an op-ed in The New York Times, their colleagues propose a new tax on carbon emissions, which they said would “steadily increase.” All funds captured from this tax, which could raise $200-300 billion per year, would be redistributed back to the public through the Social Security Administration in the form of a check to every taxpayer. They called this a progressive tax, as it would benefit poorer Americans more than wealthy ones. The tax would replace all Obama-era regulations on the climate. This appears to the first serious proposal from any Republicans to address the looming threat of climate change.

Here are the key aspects of their proposal:

“First, the federal government would impose a gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions. It might begin at $40 per ton and increase steadily. This tax would send a powerful signal to businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprints.

Second, the proceeds would be returned to the American people on an equal basis via quarterly dividend checks. With a carbon tax of $40 per ton, a family of four would receive about $2,000 in the first year. As the tax rate rose over time to further reduce emissions, so would the dividend payments.

Third, American companies exporting to countries without comparable carbon pricing would receive rebates on the carbon taxes they’ve paid on those products, while imports from such countries would face fees on the carbon content of their products. This would protect American competitiveness and punish free-riding by other nations, encouraging them to adopt their own carbon pricing.

Finally, regulations made unnecessary by the carbon tax would be eliminated, including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.”

In the op-ed — which was co-authored by Martin Feldstein and N. Gregory Mankiw, two former heads of the President’s council of economic advisors; Ted Halstead, Climate Leadership Council, and Harvard economist and former head of the White House; and co-signed by Thomas Stephenson, a partner at Sequoia Capital, a venture-capital firm; and long-time Walmart chairman Rob Walton  — they argue their plan would “achieve nearly twice the emissions reductions of all Obama-era climate regulations combined.”

The authors believe that “environmentalists should like the long-overdue commitment to carbon pricing. Growth advocates should embrace the reduced regulation and increased policy certainty, which would encourage long-term investments, especially in clean technologies. Libertarians should applaud a plan premised on getting the incentives right and government out of the way. Populists should welcome the distributive impact.”

A carbon tax has been a long-time goal of climate scientists and environmental leaders, like former NASA scientist James Hansen and former Vice President Al Gore, environmental organizations, and even some oil and gas companies.

Noah Kaufman, a climate economist with the environmental think tank World Resources Institute, told The Houston Chronicle: “It’s incredibly promising, the proposal itself and the fact that prominent, serious Republicans are doing the proposing. You don’t know exactly how people would respond, but it looks like it would actually cause quite a bit more reductions than (Obama’s) Clean Power Plan.”

But not everyone supports a full-scale repeal of all climate regulations. According to The Washington Post, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) president Rhea Suh said: “Putting a price on carbon could be an important part of a comprehensive program. It can’t do the job alone, though, and is not a replacement for carbon limits under our current laws.”

The op-eds many authors present their proposal as an opportunity to enshrine a conservative approach. “Republicans are in charge of both Congress and the White House. If they do nothing other than reverse regulations from the Obama administration, they will squander the opportunity to show the full power of the conservative canon, and its core principles of free markets, limited government and stewardship. This would be pro-growth, pro-competitiveness and pro-working class, which aligns perfectly with President Trump’s stated agenda.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Baker echoed a common Republican stance on climate science: “I really don’t know the extent to which it is man-made, and I don’t think anybody can tell you with certainty that it’s all man-made.” But he also seemed to argue Republicans have a responsibility to address the issue: “The risk is sufficiently strong that we need an insurance policy and this is a damn good insurance policy.”

It’s unclear whether their proposal will win support in the Trump administration or the Republican-controlled Senate and House. But it’s important to note Republicans are legally obligated under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon emissions and if they seek to repeal Obama’s clean power plan, they must replace it with something else.

A number of Republican Senators and conservative groups have come out against the proposal, but former Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has pledged his support. Baker just met with senior leadership at the White House, including Gary Cohn, head of Trump’s National Economic Council, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway.

But, looking to the public, Americans are increasingly clear they want action on the climate. A recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that “two in three registered voters (66 percent) support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to reduce other taxes (such as income tax) by an equal amount – a plan often referred to as a ‘revenue neutral carbon tax.’ 81 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Independents, and 49 percent of Republicans support this policy.” See more survey results.

An Ice Circle, a Rare Natural Phenomenon, Captured on Film

Photojournalist Kaylyn Messer discovered on Facebook that there was a rare, naturally-occurring ice circle on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River near North Bend, Washington, which is close to her house. She decided to check it out, and all nature lovers are glad she did.  Her videos offer a glimpse of a phenomenon most will never see in person.

Messner told This Is Colossal, “The ice circle was pretty captivating. You can hear the sound of the river flowing continuously. Sounds from the ice periodically interjected with very small sharp cracks and groans. Overall, it was a quiet experience to stand along the river watching the ice circle rotate.”

An ice circle is thought to happen in river bends or eddies. They occur in colder climates, like Scandinavia or North America, but have been seen in England and Wales. Some of the largest recorded discs were some 50 feet in diameter.

According to an article in a journal of the American Physics Society, the ice circles spin because they are melting. IFLScience writes that as the circle melts, “the water beneath the ice spirals slightly horizontally as it plumes downwards, much like when water drains down a sinkhole and sweeps around in a spiraling rotation.”

As the warmer water spins the chunk of ice, it bumps into surrounding ice and is slowly shaved into a circle.

Smaller ice circles are called ice pans, which are typically about a foot in diameter. In the River Llugwy at Betws-y-coed, North Wales, a set of them were seen in 2008.