With control of one-fifth of the land area of the United States, the Interior Department is expected to be challenged by more intense wildfires, rising seas and other effects of climate change over the next fiscal year, a new internal government watchdog report has found.
In a report released Monday, Interior’s Office of the Inspector General listed climate change as among the “most significant management and performance challenges” facing the department, noting the “[e]ffects from a changing climate are a cross-cutting, complex issue.”
To date, however, the Trump administration has taken few -- if any -- steps to address the emerging threat.
Instead, under the leadership of Secretary Ryan Zinke, Interior has reoriented its mission around boosting the extraction of fossil fuels and other resources on the more than 500 million acres under its management as part of the Trump administration’s sweeping “energy dominance” agenda.
The new IG report underscores the wildly differing assessments from career employees and political appointees of the risks posed by global warming on the economic and ecological well-being of the United States.
The IG report isn’t a one-off from career employees when it comes to the environment. In October, a report from the Government Accountability Office urged the Trump administration to start paying attention to the price tag of climate change. This month, the National Climate Assessment found “no convincing alternative explanation” to human influence on the observed warming over the 20th century.
While career employees warns of the growing economic toll wrought by global warming, members of the Trump administration, including the president, have expressed doubt about that scientific consensus, reversing Obama-era efforts aimed at planning for climate change. Trump made waves when he announced the United States wouldn't remain in the Paris climate accords.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Zinke acknowledged climate change is not a “hoax” as Trump once claimed in a pre-presidential tweet. But when testifying before the House in June, Zinke said that “the problem is that we don’t understand what the effects [of climate change] are.”
In contrast, Zinke's own inspector general says it does know what those effects are — and lists them.
The forest fire season, for example, will continue to grow longer because of warming and drier conditions, the report said, further straining the department’s finances. Interior, it said, “will continue to struggle with the increasing financial and logistical difficulties of preventing and fighting wildland fires.”
When a federal agency, either in or outside Interior, runs out of funds to fight forest fires, it must borrow money from other activities to make up the difference. For years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed fixes to the “fire borrowing” problem without coming to a consensus.
Interior also oversees Native American tribal lands — and there, too, the costs are mounting. For example, two Alaska Native tribes, the Newtok and Kivalina, have requested help from the federal government to relocate from coastal areas facing shoreline erosion and the loss of sea ice essential for hunting. According to the inspector general's office, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates it would need up to $130 million to relocate the Newtok and as much as $400 million to move the Kivalina.
Whether the federal government can afford to fund such moves was an open question under the Obama administration. It is even more so under Trump, who proposed cutting Interior’s budget by about 12 percent.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, inside n Interior, has scrubbed mentions of climate change from the website of its Tribal Climate Resilience Program (now just “Tribal Resilience Programs”), which helped tribes study climate change impacts.
Other global warming effects the report said Interior would contend with in the future include water scarcity in Western reservoirs managed by Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, and sea level rise, ocean acidification and erosion in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and other islands.
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-- Let’s break down what happened here: On Tuesday, Zinke tweeted that the “only thing I’ve hunted in Africa is terrorists."
The Tuesday tweet appears to be in response to a debunked viral image of a man who looked like Zinke posing in front of a dead elephant. Fact-checking website Snopes.com wrote the image of the hunter with the elephant is genuine, but it is of a different man — not the interior secretary.
Photographs of big game hunters' kills can stir up controversy (see: Trump, Donald Jr. and Eric), so it was not surprising such an image would circulate after the Trump administration announced it intended to lift a ban on imports of elephant trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe. President Trump has since put the decision on hold and signaled he would leave a version of the ban in place, tweeting elephant hunting is a “horror show.”
Sierra Rise, which was launched by the Sierra Club, responded to the tweet to criticize the administration’s initial move on the elephant trophies:
We trust that the man in the dead elephant photo isn't you, but that doesn't excuse @Interior allowing hunting trophy imports for endangered species. Please restore the bans!— 🔥 SierraRise (@SierraRise) November 21, 2017
Also, why are you stacking the International Wildlife Conservation Council with those would further undermine foreign endangered species? Why not keep going with the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking?— 🔥 SierraRise (@SierraRise) November 21, 2017
The public uproar shows that these import permit changes need more explanation and full public comment periods.— 🔥 SierraRise (@SierraRise) November 21, 2017
-- ANWR > ACA: On Tuesday, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) announced she would support repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandate, boosting the likelihood Senate Republicans can strike a deal on tax cuts. “I believe that the federal government should not force anyone to buy something they do not wish to buy, in order to avoid being taxed,” Murkowski wrote in an opinion piece in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Left unsaid: That concession is one fewer obstacle toward achieving her higher political goal of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.
-- Missing money: The Federal Election Commission is looking into a discrepancy in an account from a leadership PAC previously affiliated with Zinke after an election to represent Montana in the House. The FEC wants details on a $200,000 discrepancy in the PAC’s account, Politico reported. It is also looking for missing information related to donors, excess contributions and potentially misclassified spending, per the report. The SEAL PAC, which Zinke launched after his first congressional win in 2014, has until Dec. 26 to provide information requested by the FEC.
-- Comment period extended: The National Park Service is allowing an additional month for the public comment period on its proposal to increase visitor fees for 17 national parks. The comment period was supposed to end on Thursday, but will be extended until Dec. 22. More than 65,000 comments have been submitted already, according to the Associated Press. The proposal would increase visitor fees to $70 per vehicle, up from $30 at some popular parks, and from $25 to $70 at others. Most of the 17 national parks are out West and include the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion and Mount Rainier.
-- Despite the United States' withdrawal, nations say they're committed to the Paris climate deal. But...: Trump’s intended withdrawal from the agreement “will take a real bite out of funding for climate mitigation,” writes Johannes Urpelainen writes for The Post. Urpelainen, a professor of energy, resources and environment at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes if the United States won’t help finance climate mitigation in developing countries, industrialized countries will have a harder time keeping a promise to offer $100 billion in climate financing every year from 2020.
What’s more, he writes, “[t]here’s a real risk that developing countries will no longer trust the governments of the industrialized world on climate issues. The broken promise could poison climate negotiations in the future.” Although other industrialized countries could acquire goodwill for stepping up and filling the void left by the United States, that depends on whether those nations are able to pick up the financial slack.
The latest on Puerto Rico:
- Following a CNN story finding funeral homes on the island reported nearly 500 deaths related to Hurricane Maria, local officials are asking for help in calculating the official storm-related death toll, which stands at 55 as of Nov. 16. “As I have expressed since the beginning of the emergency, any citizen or relative who has evidence or proof that a death is directly or indirectly related to Hurricane Maria, and still has not been accounted for, can send information for our consideration to investigate," Héctor M. Pesquera, secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Public Safety, whose department oversees the count, said in a statement, per CNN.
- FiveThirtyEight examines a history of problematic contracts by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority in the wake of the controversial $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy. “In the mainland U.S., this story has primarily been framed as the result of conflicts of interest between the administration and corporate entities. But there’s another context worth considering: Puerto Rico’s public electric utility has a long history of sloppy management,” writes Maggie Koerth-Baker.
- Reuters looks at why new management at Puerto Rico’s electric utility may not solve all of its problems. “There are still challenges pre-Maria that need to be addressed as well as challenges right now,” Jose Roman, interim chair of Puerto Rico’s Energy Commission, which regulates PREPA, said, per Reuters.
- And from Slate, a new normal on the island: "These days in Puerto Rico, life is conducted on a farmer’s hours. Get up at sunrise, operate during daylight, and return home before night falls. Some merchants are now able to take credit cards, but cash is king. Planning is reduced to the next 24 hours: how to get power, gasoline to fuel the generator, ice, cash, and a phone signal. At night, the constant hum of generators blends with the clarion calls of the onomatopoeically named coquí frog. Traffic signals don’t work, and electric repair crews are greeted with applause at their destinations."
-- The world produces more than 3.5 million tons of garbage a day. By the end of the century, that number will rise to 11 million tons. Landfills and waste dumps receive 10,000 tons of waste each day. By 2050, the plastic trash floating in the ocean will outweigh the fish. And on average, a person living in the United States or Western Europe uses about 220 pounds of plastic every year. Those are just some of the striking data points photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen lays out in this stunning project for The Post.
Van Lohuizen traveled to Jakarta, Tokyo, Lagos, New York, Sao Paulo and Amsterdam to look at how waste is managed in those cities.
In Jakarta, there is no space for another landfill and scavengers play an important role in recycling; New York is “more advanced than many other American cities,” but the sheer amount of garbage is a major obstacle; Lagos, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, “struggles not only with how to deal with its own waste but with garbage sent to Nigeria illegally from Europe and the United States”; in Tokyo there are 48 incinerators and 12 landfills; in Sao Paulo, garbage pickers and scavengers who collect recyclables to send to companies that can handle them are seen as a solution to an ongoing problem; and Amsterdam is looking to move away from the reliance on trash incineration and is opening a facility that will separate out recyclables.
See the rest of the story with the incredible accompanying visuals here.
-- "Rivers that come from the skies:" The warming climate probably will result in larger, wetter, more frequent summer thunderstorms in North America, according to a new study. The amount of rain in the southern United States is expected to increase 80 percent between now and the end of the century if emissions are not limited, according to a federally funded study published in Nature Climate Change, the Associated Press reports. Andreas Prein, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who led the study, told the AP that “you can really think about these storms as rivers that come from the skies … The largest ones are several times the Mississippi River discharge.”
--We told you this might catch on: Since a small New York-based tech company, Fog Creek Software, announced a “climate leave” policy this month, others have started to adopt similar ideas, BuzzFeed News reports. Fog Creek said it would provide up to five days for anyone who can’t work because of extreme weather. The company’s chief executive, Anil Dash, told BuzzFeed that five tech companies have asked to learn more about the policy. And California-based Cylinder Digital has adopted it, as well.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts an event about the “Status of Carbon Capture 2017” on Nov. 28.
- The New York Times hosts a climate summit in San Francisco on Nov. 29-30.
- The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on "Conservation programs, the waters of the United States, and the Renewable Fuel Standard" on Dec. 6.
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