A new report on melting Antarctic ice sheets has dire implications for communities and infrastructure in the United States and across the world. Even if global warming is contained to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the stated goal of the Paris Climate Accord that President Trump backed the U.S. out of in 2018, loss of Antarctic ice is still projected to cause sea levels to rise about 2.5 meters across the world. Ice loss is imminent even if temperatures fall after rising by 2 degrees Celsius because of an array of feedback loops that permanently destabilize the ice sheets, causing glaciers the size of Florida to fall into the ocean. If greenhouse gas emissions do not drop fast enough and the global average temperature rises 4 degrees above pre-industrial levels, melting ice could cause more than six meters of sea level rise, devastating coastal cities around the world.
The report, published in the journal Nature this week by an international team of researchers from Potsdam University and Columbia University, comes as researchers release more bad news from the opposite end of the globe. Sea ice in the Arctic reached its seasonal minimum extent last week after a summer of melting, leaving about 1.44 million square miles of frozen ice, the second-lowest extent observed since satellites began measuring ice coverage 42 years ago, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
“The rapid disappearance of sea ice is a sobering indicator of how closely our planet is circling the drain,” said Laura Meller, a Greenpeace campaigner currently on board an Arctic observation vessel at the edge of the sea ice, in a statement on Monday. “As the Arctic melts, the ocean will absorb more heat, and all of us will be more exposed to the devastating effects of climate breakdown.”
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The melting ice at the Earth’s poles is just the latest evidence that climate systems are tipping toward irreversible disruption. Sea levels are already rising at an increasing rate.
While many nations have at least pledged to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Accord, the U.S. has moved in the opposite direction under the Trump administration, which has catered to the fossil fuel industry, rolling back numerous federal regulations aimed at reducing climate-warming emissions. The administration boasts that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell by 2 percent in 2019 after increasing the year before, but that small drop is largely due to market forces, not the administration’s policies. Utilities have closed some older coal-burning power plants in favor of renewables and dirt-cheap natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, but the administration has consistently fought to keep the dirtiest coal plants up and running. Overproduction of fossil fuels in the U.S. is driving up consumption globally, according to Inside Climate News.
For many climate advocates, the immediate task at hand is removing Trump from office and replacing him with former Vice President Joe Biden. Climate change is a top issue motivating Democratic voters, and Biden’s climate plan reflects some central themes of the Green New Deal framework for transitioning toward clean energy and restoring communities harmed by pollution. However, there will be no Green New Deal unless Democrats win the White House and a firm majority in Congress. Serious climate action at the federal level may very well remain tied up in partisan gridlock, and advocates note it will be further delayed if Trump is reelected president.
“Unfortunately, federal policy over the last several years has reflected the administration’s denial that climate change exists and that is a problem,” said Sara C. Bronin, an expert on land use and climate change at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Energy and Environmental Law, in an interview.
Building New Infrastructure
Bronin, who is an attorney, professor and landscape architect, points out that action is needed on multiple fronts. In addition to climate change mitigation efforts, she says, policymakers must act now to prevent climate change from damaging critical infrastructure. Bronin works closely with the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, where researchers are mapping out sea level rise for policymakers on the East Coast, in preparation for climate change’s impacts.
Global investment in infrastructure must double from $3.4 trillion to $6 trillion per year in order to protect everything from neighborhoods to energy grids, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, an intergovernmental group with a mainstream agenda. Up to $9.4 trillion must be spent defending coastal communities from rising seas.
The U.S. is behind, when it comes to the infrastructure changes necessitated by the climate crisis. People in other wealthy nations get around on energy-efficient high-speed trains, but the U.S. has an ancient railroad system and infrastructure that is literally crumbling. House Democrats passed a wide-ranging, $1.5 trillion infrastructure package in July that would fund clean water and energy initiatives, but it went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate despite Trump’s promises to deliver on infrastructure improvements.
However, Bronin said there are plenty of changes that activists can demand far from Capitol Hill. For example, state and local policymakers in the U.S. must also completely rethink land development and transportation. For decades, Bronin said, policymakers have “subsidized the suburbs” with zoning and land-use laws and regulations that incentivized sprawl and the widespread use of air-polluting cars to for transportation. Exacerbated by climate change, the deadly wildfires that recently forced mass evacuations in Western states reveal how reckless development into wild areas destroys forests that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Across the west coast, communities must now update building codes to prevent wildfires from contaminating drinking water systems with pollution. Bronin calls for “transportation efficient land use” that emphasizes efficient public transportation and encourages walking and biking. If the government spent a fraction of what it spends on roads for cars on bike and pedestrian infrastructure, more people would choose to live in neighborhoods where driving a car is not constantly necessary. Local communities can also act to protect “natural infrastructure” such as open green spaces and wetlands that improve water quality and prevent flooding.
“The way that we’ve developed land across the country is exacerbating our climate challenges,” Bronin said. “So, zoning, for example, requires lot sizes and minimum parking requirements, and what both those do is encourage us to build into green fields and promote driving that promotes greenhouse gases.”
Zoning laws also erect barriers to the widespread deployment of solar and other renewable energy sources. Bronin is a longtime advocate for “solar rights,” the idea that laws regulating buildings and development should protect the right to access sunlight, especially now that solar panels can turn sunlight into electricity. Across the country, local zoning laws often written to uphold a community’s aesthetic standards inadvertently prevent the installation of solar panels on homes and businesses. In some parts of the U.S., lawmakers are writing “solar access laws” that limit private restrictions on solar installations and creating “solar easements,” which allow property owners to negotiate for unobstructed sunlight. Without such reforms, Bronin said, developers and homebuyers have little incentive to outfit buildings with solar panels. What if the developer next door builds a taller building and blocks out the sunlight? Along with zoning and land-use reforms, policymakers must also invest in localized “microgrids” that allow for renewable energy to integrate into the existing system.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and Congress must ultimately provide the funding necessary for upgrading the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure — everything from roads and bridges to outdated wastewater systems that spew pollution — to prepare for the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. However, there are also plenty of changes that must occur at the state and local level, and activists everywhere can put pressure on city councils, energy utilities and zoning boards now.
“Activists should encourage state and local officials to stop zoning for sprawl, start investing in natural infrastructure, and loosen housing laws so we can get more people near the places that are useful to them,” Bronin said.