Call It 'The New Abnormal,' And Then Start Doing Something About It

Recent influential reports have made the direct link between the rise in extreme weather events and rising carbon pollution. More extreme weather events are becoming the norm, they’re costing companies money, and they’re putting electricity supplies at risk.

Plus people are getting pissed off.

Just ask Michael Frohne. As The New York Times reported on Wednesday:

First came the heavy snow in February that crushed the hangar and destroyed the vintage Piper J-5A airplane he housed in Dutchess County, N.Y.  Then came the tornado in June that ripped out an ancient oak tree in his backyard in Roxbury, Conn. When Tropical Storm Irene blew through in August, another huge oak fell — this time on his house, blasting a hole through a back bedroom. In each case, electricity was lost.

So for Michael Frohne, a home improvement contractor and musician, his sinking sense of familiarity was understandable when the October northeaster, which he calls the Halloween hell storm, hit.

Once again, Mr. Frohne,”…“was left with enormous tree damage and without power…”

“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Mr. Frohne, 63, said. “I’m going to Costa Rica in January, and I don’t know if I’m ever coming back.”

Frohne was one of the three million people in the Northeast who lost power during last week’s massive freak snowstorm. Hundreds of thousands  are still without heat or lights. The Halloween snowstorm in the NE brought the number of $1 billion weather disasters in a year to a record 14.

In Texas, the worst one-year drought on record is causing drinking water quality concerns as lakes and rivers shrink. Reuters reported, in a story titled “No One Drinks the Tap Water, Which is Unbearably Briny as the Lake Dries Up,” that residents of the East Texas town of Robert Lee are fed up—the lake that supplies their water is 99 percent dry. 

"It tastes ugly and it stinks," said Delfino Navarro, a mechanic and handyman at a local car dealership, who stood on his browning front lawn on a recent afternoon with a bottle of water in hand. "You can't drink that water or you'll get sick."

Half of all of the rivers in Texas are flowing at 10 percent or below normal flow, according to a story Tuesday in The Texas Tribune:

The worsening water quality could also become a concern for high-tech manufacturers in Central Texas, given their need for huge amounts of very pure water for memory chips. 

“Obviously, the higher the water quality, the better it is for us,” said Catherine Morse, a spokeswoman for Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

In a great, great story on NBC Nightly News about new studies definitively linking extreme weather to climate change, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said of the drought:

This is really the first time when the impacts of climate change has manifested itself in a tangible way within the state of Texas.

The folks at Samsung in Texas aren’t alone among businesses in their concern about climate and water. A survey by the Carbon Disclosure Project of 150 of the world’s largest companies found that 40% of respondents had experienced water problems that resulted in “detrimental impacts” to their businesses

The Carbon Disclosure Project on Tuesday announced it started adding questions about climate and water use and risks to a survey it sends to 140 cities around the world about their greenhouse gas emissions

"Cities are immensely vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, and water is the sharp end of the climate change stick," said Conor Riffle, head of CDP Cities, in a statement. "Measuring and reporting information on carbon, climate change and water brings cities greater insight, enables them to make powerful decisions and ultimately address the risk as well as capitalize on the many opportunities to bolster future sustainable growth."

In the Midwest, a report released Tuesday by the Great Lakes Commission, found that a quarter of the watersheds in the Great Lakes Basin may be vulnerable to water consumption by (mostly coal-fired, carbon emitting) power plants during dry periods that are expected to become more frequent because of climate change. That’s if these power plants continue to operate in a “business as usual” fashion. The Great Lakes Commission is made up of the eight Great Lake states, plus Ontario and Quebec.

A report released Thursday by the Pacific Institute says that climate change could exacerbate conflicts in the Interior West between the production of electricity--from fuel extraction to power generation--and water availability and quality. Coal-fired power plants in particular consume huge amounts of water.

But here’s where we shift to the good news. Both the Great Lakes Commission report and the Pacific Institute report say that moving away from burning fossil fuels for power to sources like renewable energy and energy efficiency will greatly reduce impacts on water supplies.

Companies are taking action too. For example, a front page story in Wednesday’s New York Times featured the efforts of jeans maker Levi Strauss to reduce water. According to the story, “a typical pair of blue jeans consumes 919 gallons of water during its life, cycle.” That’s enough to fill 15 spa-sized bath tubs.

The company wants to reduce that number any way it can, and not just to project environmental responsibility. It fears that water shortages caused by climate change may jeopardize the company’s very existence in the coming decades by making cotton too expensive or scarce.

Floods in Pakistan and China recently destroyed cotton crops and sent the price of cotton soaring. So “to protect its bottom line,” the Times reports, Levi’s has started funding water-saving programs for its cotton growers in India, Pakistan, Brazil and Africa, including the sue of drip irrigation and rainwater capture.

A three-year independent study of Indian farms found those adopting the new techniques reduced water and pesticide use by an average of 32 percent, the initiative says. The profit was 20 percent higher than that of a control group using traditional methods.

The company also started making stone-washed jeans with a process that actually uses rocks rather than water to make the jeans look worn in. Levi’s says that jeans marketed as less water-intensive have sold better than regular jeans, the Times reports.

The story goes on to add how other massive companies are taking climate-related water threats seriously, including Pepsico , which is sanitizing bottles with purified air instead of water, and providing farmers with drought-resistant potato strains and water-efficient soil monitoring methods to make products for Pepsico’s  Frito-Lay division.

Cities and states are taking action as well.  Our Thirsty for Answers report looks at what 12 cities around the US are doing to prepare for the impacts of climate change, many of which are water-related.

California, which published its first adaptation strategy in 2009, has developed a web tool called Cal-Adapt to help local decision makers. At least nine states have completed adaptation plans, and many more are in the process of completing them.

A study released last month by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental  Policy Solutions at Duke University gives a good overview of these plans, and policies to address drought, health, heat wave and intense storm impacts. NRDC also has an excellent website that addresses preparedness issues related to climate and health.

And Georgetown University yesterday launched a "toolkit" and website, three years in the making, with specifics about state and local policies to address everything from rising sea levels to the urban heat island effect.

It looks like we're dealing with a new abnormal, thanks to climate change and the increase of extreme weather events. But we can do something about it. Many cities and states already are, but a lot more needs to be done.