Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, December 31, 2010

Is It Too Late?

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  
 Psalm 90:12

I looked around in the waiting room after cataract surgery a few weeks ago and was amazed.  Look at all these old people!  What am I doing here?  The doctor gave me a clue:  He began several sentences with the preface: “Given your age ….” 

It’s not easy coming to terms with the passage of time, is it?  We can all hope to do so, however, before having to confront those dreadful words: “It’s too late.”

This year, we think our country took a giant step in the direction of “too late.”  Warned by scientists everywhere of the tipping point in carbon concentrations – irreversible for many generations – we instead looked resolutely the other way.  Cutting taxes? Sure.  Stimulating the economy?  Of course.  And who can list all the other things that captured our national attention?

But here’s one thing that we probably weren’t watching: global atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations grew again this year, with CO2 levels reaching 391 parts per million.  At this pace, we’ll break 400 ppm by 2015.  Scientists are divided as to whether 400 or 500 ppm is the magic number for melting Greenland’s ice sheet, and West Antarctica’s in the bargain.  But here’s the point:  We’re hurtling toward both numbers with increasing velocity.  In the 1960’s, we added less than 1.0 ppm CO2  per year.  Now, we’re pumping the stuff into the atmosphere at twice that rate, and will almost certainly accelerate further.

CO2 levels increase every year, as does the rate of growth.
For as long as researchers have been able to measure, global temperature and global atmospheric CO2  have moved in lockstep, measured over hundreds of thousands of years (by testing air bubbles trapped every year in successive layers of snow and ice in 2-mile-thick polar ice sheets).  When CO2 is high, the global climate is hot; when CO2 is low, the climate is cool.  And for the period of human civilization, climate has remained relatively steady, while CO2 has hovered around 280 ppm.  But then, in the late 18th century, we learned to drive the tools of industry by burning coal – the carbon buried eons ago – and vented the resulting gases into our atmosphere. 

The right hand 1/4" of this chart shows the time of human civilization.  We've never seen carbon concentrations like today's.  What will it mean for us and our children?
By 1965 we passed 320 ppm.  Was it too late to head off climate calamity?

In 1988, we broke 350 ppm.  Or was this too late?

In 2006, we broke 380 ppm, 100 points higher than the highest level measured in the hottest of the last 800,000 years.  Surely the most concentrated greenhouse gas in about a million years is getting awfully late.

And this year – the year we got mad as hell about bank bailouts and socialized medicine – we broke 391 ppm.

Nothing you do in 2011 will alter the fact that we’ll be at 393 ppm next New Year’s Eve.  But whatever your concerns in the coming year, maybe you can find a little space to resist what our Father’s world hasn’t seen in a million years: greenhouse gases breaking 400 ppm. 

Give us, O Lord, a heart of wisdom, that we may number our days.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J.Elwood

Saturday, December 25, 2010

We Didn't Know Who You Was

Sweet little Jesus Boy
They made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child
Didn't know who you was.
 


Didn't know you'd come to save us, Lord;
To take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn't see,
We didn't know who you was.


Long time ago, you was born,
Born in a manger low,
Sweet little Jesus Boy.
 

The world treat you mean, Lord,
Treat me mean too,
But that's how things is down here —
We don't know who you is.


You done told us how, we is a tryin'!
Master, you done show'd us how,
even when you was dyin'.
Just seem like we can't do right,
Look how we treated you.
But please, sir, forgive us, Lord —
We didn't know 'twas you.


Sweet little Jesus Boy, born long time ago.
Sweet little Holy Child,
And we didn't know who you was. 









We greet you this Christmas morning with photos of the children of Nyahuka Town in Bundibugyo District, Uganda.  Many of these children are under the care of World Harvest Mission's medical staff, and Christ School in the town.  To learn more about Christ School, please click here: http://www.whm.org/csb

Merry Christmas! 


J.Elwood
 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Climate Calamity in My Back Yard?

Images of sea level rise often seem distant to American eyes.
A couple of months ago, one of our readers commented on the injustice of carbon gluttony by the developed world.  We had just written about the trauma facing the country of Pakistan:  160 million souls, wholly reliant on a single river which is flooding today but running dry in coming decades due to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers at its source.  The melting comes from climate change, and climate change comes largely from increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations.  Finally, the average American emits as much CO2 as 22 Pakistanis.

We burn the fossil fuels; they lose their only source of water, most of their crops, and their hope for the future.  (See yesterday's post: Archive, Pakistan Flooding.)

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?  And yet this is what permits us to ignore the issue.  All the people we talk about – Pacific islanders losing their homelands to rising seas, Inuit villages collapsing into the advancing Arctic seas, Bengali and Sindhi farmers watching their fields wash away in flood waters – they're all so different from us.  They don’t look like my mother, my wife, my kids.

Well, it’s with mixed feelings that we relay this unpleasant news: Climate calamity is coming quickly to your own American back yard.  This fact was driven home this week when we read an OECD report listing the world’s ten cities most vulnerable to property loss from sea level rise. (To read for yourself, click here: 
 

Not Venice: Routine Miami Beach tidal flooding.
Here’s the story:  As the world gets warmer, sea levels are rising.  This is happening for four reasons: (1) in some places, like New Orleans, the land is actually sinking; (2) the oceans are warming, and warm water expands; and (3) warmer climates are melting mountain glaciers all over the world, and these are pouring water into the seas -- water that has long been held captive in mountains. 

You thought I said four reasons, right?  I did.  But these first three are generally measurable with confidence.  Based on what scientists can project, they will cause seas to rise about two feet by the end of the century.  This is very bad.

Ah, but number four!  The world has three great “ice sheets”: Greenland, West Antarctica and East Antarctica.  Together, they hold enough water to raise sea levels 250 feet and submerge the entire state of Florida (among many other unpleasant effects).  We’ve seen signs that the first two are starting to melt.  But if they behave nice and steady, the world might manage for the next 50-100 years or so.  But they are touchy: once these giants wake, the prospects for catastrophe are enormous.  

And we’ve seen them stirring.  Two massive ice shelves in West Antarctica collapsed in the last decade.  Greenland’s melting rate has more than tripled in the last 15 years.  This summer we witnessed the collapse of Greenland’s massive Peterman Glacier outlet.  Massive forces have been unleashed.

But scientists don’t yet know how to model the collapse of the great ice sheets.  So the last UN report (2007 IPCC) simply left this effect out of its projections.  Experts in coastal management have reached their own conclusions about this, and are using estimates ranging from 3’ to 7’ for global sea level rise during this century.  And it could be much worse.

So who gets hurt by this?  You know the usual suspects: The Maldives disappear below the Indian Ocean, and the earth loses one sovereign nation; Tuvalu slips into the Pacific costing us a second; Bangladesh is awash in the Bay of Bengal, killing millions.  But the OECD has recently ranked the cities to lose the most property value to rising sea levels.  And – surprise! – three of the world’s top twelve are right here in the USA.

Miami tops the list, with $3.5 trillion in assets exposed to flooding by mid-century.  New York is #3 worldwide, at $2.1 trillion.  Little New Orleans is #12, at more than $1.0 trillion.  And we thought the banking bailout was expensive!

Lest there be any misunderstanding, these cities won't slip quietly under rising sea waters.  The calamity will come in storms.  Like Hurricane Katrina, most people will think it to be a stand-alone "act of God" (a singularly unfortunate term given the underlying causes of climate change).  We'll pour money into restoring what was lost.  And then we'll do it again, and again with greater frequency.  

Eventually, like New Orleans, these cities will give way in significant amounts to the waves, but not before we've spent trillions in ultimately futile efforts to defend our land from the rising seas.

In today's national climate, politicians readily pounce on any effort to put a price on carbon emissions as unaffordable new taxes. We wonder if they've given much thought to the cost of doing nothing?  Millions, billions and trillions are easily lost on us aren't they?  Let's just say this:  It's more than our country -- or our world -- can afford.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J.Elwood


More Images of Rising Seas in the U.S.
Routine tidal flooding on the New Jersey Shore.
Sea level rise isn't a theory; these are the historical increases over the last century.
The lighthouse at Cape St. George, FL used to sit high and dry; by 2005 it was awash in the Gulf of Mexico; and in 2007, it collapsed into the waves.



Friday, December 17, 2010

Archive: What do Pakistan's Woes Have to Do with Me?

[This post was originally written in August.  We are publishing it again, in advance of tomorrow's post regarding the impact of sea level rise on American cities.]

If you’re like me, you haven’t missed a day’s coverage of the unfolding flood disaster in Pakistan.  The monsoon rains have hit with unprecedented fury, flooding into an Indus River torrent already swollen by melting Himalayan glaciers.   The statistics are mind-numbing: 20 million people homeless; virtually the entire agricultural heartland wiped out; cholera outbreaks; food prices running up six-fold within a span of two weeks.  And as always, the poor suffer most heavily from the devastation.
Maybe I should do something to help, like contribute to World Vision or World Relief (see links at end).  But other than that, what does the Pakistani crisis have to do with me?
Well, plenty, it turns out.  But first, let’s review a few things we know for certain:
ü  Pakistan is about half as populous as the USA, with over 160 million people.
ü  Pakistan is overwhelmingly reliant on the Indus River system – for about 97% of its total water needs.
ü  Pakistan uses almost every drop that flows down the Indus, with little or none of it reaching the Arabian Sea in recent years.
ü  Pakistan has suffered increasingly intense monsoon storms in the last 40 years, with fewer total days of rain, but more days of torrential rain.
ü  Intense monsoon rains have caused a major increase in flooding in Pakistan in the last ten years, destroying food supplies and killing thousands.
ü  At the same time, severe droughts in Pakistan in the last ten years have led to sharp declines in the water table, leading to “mass starvation,” according to the UN panel on climate change.
ü  The UN’s climate panel has confirmed that climate change is a significant factor in these developments, hitting crop yields, fomenting extreme weather events and melting the glaciers that feed Asia’s rivers.
Those are facts.  We’re less certain about what lies ahead, of course.  But here’s what the world’s leading researchers are projecting for Asia:

 

ü  Less food: Decrease in total crop yields in South Asia of up to 30%. (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007 4th Assessment Report, Ch. 10)
ü  More intense monsoons: Increase in total South Asia monsoon-season rain by 15-26% by the end of the century. (UN)
ü  Worse flooding:  Tripling of heavy rainfall days in Asia within 50 years. (UN)
ü  Drying rivers: Loss of river water to virtually all Asian countries due to Himalayan glacier melt (UN); up to 40% less for Pakistan (World Bank).
ü  More water stress: 38% decline in available water per person in already-thirsty South Asia by 2050. (UN)
ü  More hunger and starvation:  266 million more hungry Asians by 2080. (UN)
And for Pakistan, the World Bank is projecting Himalayan glaciers to melt, causing a catastrophic decline in Pakistan’s water supply:  “It is now clear that climate change is already affecting these western glaciers in a dramatic fashion….  This is likely to exacerbate the already serious problem of flooding in the next few decades.  But then, the glacial reservoirs will be empty, and there are likely to be dramatic decreases in river flows … conceivably by a terrifying 30 to 40% ….”  (World Bank Report #34081-PK)
So one more time:  devastating floods for the next few decades, followed by a “terrifying” drying of the river upon which all Pakistanis depend for their lives.  And what, exactly, does this have to do with us?  Consider three final facts:
ü  All of this human suffering has been linked to the changing climate.
ü  Greenhouse gases are a major driver of global climate change.
ü  The average American generates more greenhouse gases than 21 Pakistanis.
Maybe we should take a look at those websites below.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood
Pakistan relief agencies:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Who Killed Shelton Kokeok’s Son?

It was a fine June morning three years ago, when 24-year-old Nathan Kokeok and a friend set out across the Serpentine River estuary to bring home fish for their families.  The sun almost never sets in the Arctic at this time of year, so the young men had plenty of time for the catch.  The wide bay where the Serpentine flows into the frigid Alaskan seas is teeming with fish, seals, and other marine life that had sustained Nathan, his father Shelton, and countless generations who lived on Shishmaref Island before them.

Shelton Kokeok and his wife Clara
Nathan was Shelton’s hope for the future.  He had taught the boy to hunt bearded seal and walrus.  He raised him to catch tomcod, salmon and herring.  Together they  sustained the family from the surprising abundance of this harsh land north of the Alaskan town of Nome. Shelton had passed on to Nathan his ancestral dances and songs.  And he had had taught him to speak the Inupiaq dialect, unknown anywhere on earth but Shishmaref.

Fishing in the estuary was good.  What’s more, the fishing grounds were easy to access, due to the thick layer of ice that blanketed them almost year round. In June, it was always safe.  Or at least, it used to be.  In fact, the ice had been breaking up earlier and earlier in recent decades.

It was late that night when Shelton and his wife Clara got the worst news of their lives.  The ice had given way.  Nathan had been swallowed up.  His friend could not save him. 

Shelton has never recovered.  “Something went wrong with me the last couple of years, after we lost that boy,” Shelton said.  “I think he’s taken most of my life.  I lost my baby.”

Nathan’s death was a terrible accident. 

Or was it?

Since the days of King David, Inupiaq Americans have lived on Shishmaref, a sandy barrier island facing the stormy Chukchi Sea. It’s cold.  The mercury regularly drops to -40 F during the endless winter nights.  But it turns out that the cold is what has held this community together over the millennia.  For starters, the sea was almost always frozen, smothering stormy Chukchi's angry waves.  Also, the sandy island was bound together in the grip of permafrost.  Even pounding summer waves could hardly make a dent in the frozen sands. And the villagers lived at the edge of the sea, hunting the abundant marine life, heedless of the dangers of coastal erosion and rising sea levels.

Large chunks of Shishmaref routinely fall away into the warming Arctic waters.
Then two bad things happened to the Inupiaq people.  First, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school, and required all children to attend.  Normally nomadic indigenous people had to settle down or break the law, so the Inupiaq adjusted and built permanent homes in Shishmaref.

Then, the climate began to warm.  Seas which were frozen for all but two months per year began to break up earlier and freeze later.  Waves began to take their toll on the island.  The permafrost began to thaw, accelerating the erosion.  As the bluffs fell into the surf, the people of Shishmaref began pulling their homes back from the water, and some succumbed to the waves.  The warming seas advanced relentlessly. 

Finally, in 2002, the people of Shishmaref voted to leave the island entirely.  But where to go?  For thousands of years, they have been subsistence hunters and fishers, with their own unique language and culture.  All nearby shore front locales are subject to the same warming-induced erosion.   

And should they leave, how to pay for the migration?  The U.S. Government Accounting Office and the Army Corps of Engineers both studied the problem, and determined that the bill would range between $100-200 million, an impossible sum for these subsistence hunters.

The Army Corps stiudied seven villages, each costing millions to move.  They gave Shishmaref only 10-15 years to live.
Eight years after the vote, the people of Shishmaref still haven’t found a new home, nor the means of paying to relocate.  Back in Shelton and Clara Kokeok’s home, dozens of pictures of their son Nathan adorn the room, a futile effort to soothe their loss.  But now, they stand to lose even more.  The island is living on borrowed time.  And without funding, their departure as climate refugees will likely spell the doom of their language and culture.  Anchorage, Fairbanks and Nome may have a few more disoriented strangers longing to offer their marine hunting skills in the big cities, but the Inupiaq will likely be gone forever.

And why should I care about Shelton Kokeok?  Well, like him, God blessed me with a son – two, in fact.  My youngest is Peter, and I am adjusting every day to his departure for college.  But I have another son also.  Like Peter, I taught him to tie a square knot, to field a baseball, to write an essay, to tell the truth, and to hate losing.  Like Peter, I taught him to sing the hymns of our faith, and to hope in the resurrection and the renewal of heaven and earth. Like Peter, he embodies many of my hopes for the future.

We’re not so different, Shelton Kokeok and I.

My son’s name, you may know, is Nathan.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J.Elwood

More Shishmaref photos:
Here's Shishmaref at the beginning of a summer storm.  Note the location of the black barrel on the right.
After the storm, see the barrel again.  The barrel didn't move; but it's now on the brink.
This house is hanging at least ten feet over the advancing waves.

Another view of the eroding coastline.

How long before these homes are washed into the Arctic waters?

It's too late for the family that once lived in this house.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I'm melting! Melting!

“Ohhh! You cursed brat! Look what you've done! I'm melting! Melting! Oh, what a world! What a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness!”

I loved that scene!  Didn’t you?  It only took a few seconds, and the Wicked Witch was nothing but a puddle on the floor. 

A 120-pound witch is one thing.  A 2.5-mile-wide glacier is another.  And there are – or were – thousands of them in Alaska.  And like the witch, they’re melting fast.  Take a look at these amazing shots taken by Bruce Molnia of the USGS.  Molnia painstakingly returned to the exact spot where earlier photographers had captured these once-great Alaskan glaciers. [Note:  Click on these images so you can get a better look.]













What jumps out in picture after picture is the radical change in the climate and ecosystem over periods ranging from a century to less than half that time.  Notice the meadows and forests that have sprung up.  And also notice the change in colors:  Light, reflective snow and ice have been replaced by dark, heat-absorbing water, rock and forests. This is one example of a positive feedback loop, where warming begets further warming.












































No one, not even the climate deniers (deny-ers?) dispute that sea levels are rising.  Three things are making this happen:  Thermal expansion (warming water actually expands), melting ice sheets, and retreating mountain glaciers.  In fact, the glaciers are the least threatening of these three causes.  But the others are hard to see in vivid imagery.  Perhaps the photography will accomplish what reasoned scientific warnings have failed to do so far.

I recommend that you visit the USGS website and look at Molnia's images for yourself:  
  
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Saturday, December 4, 2010

True or False: America Subsidizes Oil & Coal Companies?

 (Special thanks to Brad Burns for directing my attention to this study.)
 
Remember the beautiful wind turbines and the stirring background music?  During the last Presidential primary and general election campaign, almost every political TV commercial featured a bunch of windmills on picturesque hillsides, with the promise that so-and-so would nurture home-grown alternative power with tax breaks or direct investment.  We figured that the government must be pouring money into this sector.

Source: Environmental Law Institute
But a new study has painted a very different picture.  Over the seven years from 2002 through 2008, the Federal government gave $72.5 billion to subsidize fossil fuels (oil, gas & coal).  Less than half that amount - $29 billion – went to support emerging renewable energy.  But of that smaller amount, more than half went to subsidize corn ethanol, a fuel which almost certainly is worse for the environment than traditional fossil fuels.  In the end, only $12.2 billion – or 12% of the total – went to support things like solar, wind, geothermal and biomass.

I know what you’re thinking:  Do we really subsidize oil and coal companies?  After all, $72.5 billion is more than $200 from every man, woman and child in America.  Really?

Well, I read the report and it’s pretty compelling.  It’s written by the Environmental Law Institute, but relies heavily for its figures on the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and the Office of Management & Budget (OMB).  I hunted for sloppy logic or selective use of data, but found none.  But if you like, look for yourself.  Here’s the link: http://www.elistore.org/Data/products/d19_07.pdf

Here's the story in a nutshell

 §      Government subsidies come in two flavors: special tax loopholes given to one sector, but not another; and direct payments or concessions.  As promised, the renewable sector got some real money over the seven-year period: $12.2 billion for renewable energy like solar and wind, and $16.8 billion for corn ethanol.  But oil, gas and coal raked in the lion’s share of Federal outlays, with $70.2 billion in subsidies for normal production, and $2.3 billion for carbon capture & storage development, the illusory poster child of the “clean coal” advertising campaign.
§      Most of the subsidies to fossil fuels are written into the U.S. Tax Code.  They’re permanent.  By contrast, most of the subsidies for renewable energy are time-limited.  They expire on a short string, and this makes them much less useful to green-energy developers.
§      The majority of subsidies for fossil fuels come from just a few tax breaks.  The Foreign Tax Credit provided $15.3 billion, and benefits oil & gas companies.  The Credit for Non-Conventional Fuels benefited coal companies to the tune of $14.1 billion.  Below-market offshore oil & gas leases chipped in another $7.0 billion for oil companies.
§      The ethanol subsidies transferred more than $16.8 billion to grain farms through the Alcohol Credit for Fuel Excise Tax and direct per-gallon subsidies, to produce corn-not-for-food.  The debate rages whether ethanol produces zero net fuel (i.e. uses more than a gallon of gas and diesel to produce a gallon of ethanol), or whether it produces a little bit more ethanol than it uses in fossil fuels to make it.  In either case, every gallon of ethanol burned equals between 1.5 and 2 gallons of fuel emissions in the atmosphere.  (But the U.S. Senate has about 12 corn-belt members who get very touchy when these facts are mentioned, so we expect the subsidies to remain.)

And what about all those telegenic wind turbines and solar panels?  Well, for the most part, they’re being made now in Europe and China.  Despite brave talk, the American taxpayer is subsidizing the old fossil fuels, including those produced overseas and shipped to our shores.  Our most effective global competitors are doing the exact opposite.  Hard to believe, I know. 

Do you wonder if the newly-frugal U.S. Congress will take notice? 

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty. Prov. 22:16


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beating Our Swords into Ploughshares?

Quick:  What would today be like for you without – 1. the Internet, 2. personal computers, 3. fiber optics, 4. lasers, or even 5. silicon chips?   Well, for starters, you wouldn’t be reading this, but if you could, your secretary would have had to mimeograph it for you. (Mimeograph?  Secretary?)
It’s amazing how much we rely on innovations almost entirely unknown just a few decades back.  And what do many of them have in common?  They were developed with research funding from the U.S. Federal Government.  That’s right: the hated Big Government.  Every one of the five “essentials” listed above.
But today, budgets are tight, and we’re looking everywhere to save money from government spending.  This had us wondering, how much is the government spending to help develop alternative energy and break our dependence on fossil fuels?  Well, it turns out, not very much. 
As the chart above shows, we increased energy research back in the 1970’s when long gas lines and the OPEC oil embargo had us briefly worried.  But since then, there’s been precious little Federal support.   You’d think that energy wasn’t all that important to our country, wouldn’t you?
But then we got to wondering: Where do all the Federal research dollars go?  What we found was shocking.  While the energy research spending has flat-lined, we’ve poured Federal money into developing new weapons for the military at exponential growth rates – pushing $80 billion by 2006.
We can't help but ask: How many of our brave young men and women would still be alive today if we had committed ourselves to finding safe and sustainable energy sources here at home, rather than sending them all over the globe to protect our vulnerable trade routes and energy supplies?
The prophet Isaiah foresaw the day when we would reverse our priorities:   
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Is. 2:4) 
Sovereign Lord, we pray for that day to come soon.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Will Climate Change do to Your Nest Egg?

My, my, my!  How our little world has changed!  Just two years ago, only one of fourteen Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls denied the findings of climate science on global warming – and that was the “Law & Order” actor, Fred Thompson.  By contrast, last Tuesday’s elections showcased many states and districts in which climate denial – or a clouded mixture of skepticism and economic angst – was a virtual requirement.   Fickle folks, aren’t we?
But while American politicians and many voters may have closed their eyes the growing trove of climate research, the people they rely on for expert advice in every field – from city planning to national defense – have their eyes wide open.  One such group of experts has just warned us of a new threat – how climate change is threatening our retirement savings.
Here’s the story:  Millions of Americans put their nest eggs into stocks and bonds – or pension fund managers do it for them.  Every day in the U.S., about $300 billion in water and power utility bonds are bought and sold – bonds that financed municipal water and electricity projects.  The interest is often tax-free, so many of us like them.  But there’s a new report out that’s raising the question of whether some of those bonds will ever be repaid, because of looming water shortages.
Issued in mid-October, the report by Ceres and PricewaterhouseCoopers looked at utility bonds in cities where climate change has resulted in diminished water supply, and has concluded that some highly-rated bonds are riskier than anyone thought.  [Here’s the link:  http://www.ceres.org/Page.aspx?pid=1291]  What’s the problem?  Well, utilities need one thing that’s in increasingly short supply these days in many cities: fresh water.  The utility bonds get repaid from water and electric revenues, but with less water, there’s less revenue.  As water deliveries shrink, the bonds increasingly look like junk.
“Water is a linchpin of the U.S. economy,” says the report,”but its availability is being tested like never before. More extreme droughts, surging water demand, pollution, and climate change are growing risks that threaten water supplies in many parts of the United States. In some regions, water scarcity is already crimping economic production and sparking interstate legal battles. The stresses are especially severe in regions experiencing rapid population and economic growth, including the West, Southwest and Southeast.”
Among the more notable threats highlighted by the report are the following:
§      The City of Atlanta’s water supply could be cut by nearly 40 percent as early as 2012 due to prolonged drought, competition from other communities, and  the ruling of a federal judge allocating more scarce water to other localities;
§      Lake Mead, the vast reservoir for the Colorado River, is quickly approaching a first ever water shortage declaration that would reduce deliveries to fast-growing Arizona and Nevada;
§      Hoover Dam, which provides hydropower to major urban centers in California, Arizona, and Nevada, may stop generating electricity as soon as 2013 if water levels in Lake Mead don’t begin to recover;
§      More regular droughts and heat waves are likely to increase the operating costs of power generators in the Southeast, among them the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was forced to slash power generation for two weeks at three of its facilities in Alabama and Tennessee because of heightened water temperatures, costing the utility an estimated $10 million in lost power production.
“These trends have enormous implications for the thousands of public utilities—utilities managed by municipalities and counties—that supply water and electricity to households and businesses across the country,” said the report.
"Bathtub rings" on declining Lake Mead.
Water utilities generate revenue through the delivery of water to their commercial and residential customers. Electric utilities use water for hydropower production or to cool equipment in their coal or nuclear generating facilities. The power sector is enormously water-intensive and accounts for 41 percent of the nation’s freshwater withdrawals. The remarkable discovery in this report is that utility bond issuers don’t have to report the impact of climate change on their creditworthiness, unlike virtually all other issuers of stocks and bonds.  As an example, rating agencies have assigned Phoenix Water Authority bonds a AAA rating, despite the extreme vulnerability of the city’s water sources, and virtually certain future stress.  Investment managers snap these up for your pension fund, but when you retire, there may be no more water to generate the revenues to fund your pension.
What makes the experts think that climate change is cutting water supplies to cities like Phoenix?  It happens that the changing climate is actually increasing rainfall and runoff in some parts of the world, especially the polar regions and the southern oceans.  But the American West has recently experienced prolonged and ruinous droughts, and virtually every researcher and climate model is pointing to a still-dryer future. And that’s exacerbated by much faster spring runoff from the warming Rocky Mountains, where the winter’s snow melts much earlier than in the past.  That means less water overall, but more of it concentrated in early spring floods.
Here’s what the U.S. Climate Change Science Program – which coordinates the climate change research activities of all U.S. government agencies – had to say in 2008:
“Reliance on past conditions as the foundation for current and future (water) planning and practice will no longer be tenable as climate change and variability increasingly create condi­tions well outside of historical parameters and erode predictability.  The United States may experience … substantial decreases in annual runoff in the interior of the West.”
That’s our government speaking (under President George W. Bush, in case it matters).  But the UN’s 2007 global report says much the same thing:
“Climate change will constrain North America’s already over-allocated water resources, thereby increasing competition among agricultural, municipal industrial, and ecological uses…. Colorado River hydropower yields will be likely to decrease significantly, as will Great Lakes hydropower.”
The new Ceres/PwC report builds on the findings of the US and the UN, and applies them to investment risks borne by bondholders.  I found this map from the report to be extremely informative:  Looking forward 15 years, researchers point to key areas where people and cities will be in conflict over water resources due to severe shortages.  They include the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, Albuquerque, Houston, San Antonio (plus Atlanta in the east) and many more.
So, whatever the politicians say, let’s hope that that their retirement fund managers think that climate change is serious business.  And if you live in any of these great cities, this might be the time to begin planning on how to live with less water and less electricity.
Thanks for reading, and God bless you.

J. Elwood
Andover, NJ

Make A Difference!
We’re big coffee drinkers, and we use the traditional drip coffeemakers.  They use a lot of electricity for a short time to boil the water, and then more for a long time to keep the coffee carafe hot.  So we now turn the coffeemaker off as soon as the coffee’s brewed, and pour it into a thermal pitcher.   The coffee stays hot, and we use a fraction of the electricity we used to.  You can think of a half dozen common sense ideas in your own home that will do as much good as this.