Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Adapting homes to extreme weather changes

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The wooden stilts that used to prop up Francis Waskey's home have gradually sunk into the thawing Alaskan permafrost - leading the vinyl floor to split apart and sending icy drafts through shattered windows, The Washington Post reported. 

Residences like this one were imported from "the temperate Lower 48" during what the Post described as "home-building frenzy" that coincided with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline economic boom in the 1970s. Designed to meet those balmy southern environmental conditions, they're faring poorly in the subarctic climate of the 2020s.

So Waskey's home - located in the native Yupik town of Mountain Village - is being replaced by a prototype created by the Cold Climate Housing, a nonprofit based at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. This will be the newest of 22 prototypes that the Center has built to withstand "high winds, extreme snowfall and temperature swings from minus-50 to 80 degrees" in rural environments, the Post reported. 

"If we cannot predict what the climate is going to do, then all of our architecture should be adapted," Aaron Cooke, the architect leading the effort, told the Post. 

In the spirit of adapting to change, we'll take a look at new research that has identified the Northeast coast as one of the fastest warming areas in the U.S. - and what this might mean for the future. And we'll explore how wood from Canada's pristine northern forests is ending up as bright white toilet paper - and how that's causing pressure on paper makers from within.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let's get to it.

Northeast US one of the fastest warming areas

The coastal Northeast - from Maine to Delaware - is heating faster than most areas of the United States, due to dramatic shifts in the ocean and atmospheric conditions over the North Atlantic, a new study has found.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change on Thursday, showed that not only are Northeastern winters getting warmer, but there is also rapid summer warming occurring along the Atlantic coast.. 

In many parts of this region, which includes the highly populated cities of New York and Boston, the researchers found that warming over the past century had exceeded 2 degrees Celsius - the overall global figure that countries have committed to avoiding in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

That coastal warming is nothing less than "exceptional," lead author Ambarish Karmalkar, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst said in a press statement that accompanied their research.

Population centers enduring greatest warming: "Some of the biggest [population] centers in the U.S. are suffering the greatest degree of warming," said Karmalkar, who conducted the study with Columbia University climate scientist, Radley Horton. 

Karmalkar and Horton reanalyzed existing datasets to determine the connection between sea surface temperature rise and a slowdown of the Atlantic Ocean's system of currents - called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), according to the study. 

A "conveyor belt" of warmth: Describing AMOC "as a conveyor belt that transports warm, salty water from the tropics north toward Greenland, where it cools and sinks," the authors explained that this cooled water then flows south in deep-water currents. However, because the climate is warming and Greenland's glaciers are melting, that conveyor belt is slowing down and ocean temperatures are getting warmer.

And then there are the winds: AMOC is also connected to rising temperatures in the Northeast's coastal cities, due to a weather phenomenon called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which blows over the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S. to Europe, according to the researchers.

The NAO has settled into a pattern over the past few decades that has strengthened the impact of ocean air on the eastern seaboard, the authors explained. Coupled with the AMOC slowdown, this results in warmer ocean air blowing over the Northeast and accelerating land-based warming trends.


Read more.



What should scientists do next? Investigate more specialized models that delve into daily weather conditions, as the outsized impact of one or two unusual (or dangerous) days may be obscured by seasonal averages, according to the authors.

Without integrating improved high-resolution data into regional climate assessments, scientists and policymakers "may underemphasize warming in this populous region," Karmalkar said in the press statement.

Fortunately, he told Equilibrium, these capabilities are readily available to scientists, who now have access to high-resolution observational datasets that show temperature and humidity changes at local scales. 

"But in terms of understanding future projections, we need to better understand the ability of our current generation of climate models to capture these highly localized trends," Kalmakar said. 

"We can't limit our vision": Horton, the study's co-author, stressed that recent extreme weather events, such as the Pacific Northwest heatwave and flooding in the Northeast, have "exceeded climate model projections and led to outsized impacts for vulnerable urban populations."

"When considering how to reduce vulnerability, we can't limit our vision of the possible to the relatively narrow band of outcomes suggested by climate models," Horton told Equilibrium. "And we need to realize that impacts may cascade in complex ways that our sectoral models simply cannot envision." 

To read the full story, please click here.


How to wipe out deforestation from toilet paper

Wood from critical primary forests in Canada's north is making its way into major-brand toilet paper - just as scientists say those forests have to be protected.

The disturbance of these landscapes - even if the trees grow back - leads to both the expulsion of wildlife and increased carbon emissions, a Nature Climate Study found in April.

But there are few protections to keep primary forests from being "literally flushed down the toilet or thrown down the trash can," according to Shelly Vinyard, who directs campaigns around Canada's northern boreal forest - the largest intact forest on Earth - for the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). 

And that lack of protections is making shareholders at toilet paper companies restless.

Toilet paper is like sausage: It comes from everywhere. In the U.S., about a third of the blend is domestic (sourced from pine plantations), a third comes from South America and a third comes from Canada's wild forests - from which tissue companies get the Northern Bleached Softwood Kraft pulp prized for its blend of softness and strength. 

"In the U.S., the biggest paper brands, the one customers are most familiar with - Charmin, Cottenelle, Quilted Northern, then Bounty and Kleenex - are made using almost entirely virgin forest fiber," Vinyard told Equilibrium 

This means that the paper is made from newly-felled trees, which uses far more energy and releases far more carbon than recycled paper.

Then there's how the trees get cut. "The vast majority of logging that occurs in the boreal forest is clear-cut logging," Vineyard said, adding that areas previously lush with moss are transformed into "a barren landscape."

Logging leads to a far greater amount of deforestation than just the cleared areas: a study in Northern Ontario by Wildlands League found that the amount of land actually cleared was seven times greater than the amount reported - in part because so much land has to be cleared for roads and lots just to allow a cut to happen.


A shareholder movement: In September 2020, shareholders of consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble voted 67 percent to "increase the scale, pace and rigor of our efforts to eliminate deforestation and the degradation of intact forests."

The company's failure to do so already "poses material financial risk to the company and its shareholders," wrote Leslie Samuelrich, president of the fund that proposed the vote. Large investors like BlackRock also backed the proposal in an "investor rebellion," according to the Financial Times.

That effort pushed Procter & Gamble to agree to source three quarters of its paper only from forests certified by the high-standards of the Forest Sustainability Council. 

But that hasn't been enough to get the heat off.

Primary v. virgin: Last week, the NRDC released its third "Issue with Tissue" report, grading the environmental responsibility of America's toilet papers. Procter & Gamble's offerings - like the majority of those of its "Big Three" colleagues at Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific - received an "F."

The NRDC has two distinct goals: to see the pulp companies stop buying entirely from primary forests - those largely undisturbed ones that scientists say are so critical.

When it comes to the secondary growth in previously cleared forests, the NRDC wants to see companies "reduce their use of virgin forest fiber in tissue products by half," Vinyard told Equilibrium. 

So what does NRDC want to see from Procter & Gamble? Two principal actions, according to Vinyard:

  1. Reduce the use of virgin forest fiber by half
  2. Stop sourcing from primary forest entirely

That second one is a way to keep deforestation from "escaping" one protected region into another, so that preservation in the boreal is not "fueling forest loss somewhere else," Vinyard explained.

Takeaway: Print a copy of NRDC's toilet paper scorecard for some bathroom reading - and consider that these sorts of reports are becoming grist for the kinds of shareholder resolutions that are forcing companies like Procter & Gamble to go places they may not have been prepared to go willingly.


Read more.


Follow-up Friday

Our weekly tying-off of loose threads from the week.

America's ambassador to Haiti quits over deportations

Yemen 'marching towards starvation' as funds dwindle

  • A day before the U.N. Food Systems Summit, which we covered on Thursday, the head of the U.N. food agency warned that 16 million people in Yemen "are marching towards starvation" and that rations would dwindle by October, the Associated Press reported. 
  • The U.N.'s World Food Program is running out of money to solve this humanitarian crisis, its executive director, David Beasley, said on Wednesday, according to the AP. 
  • When a similar situation occurred earlier this year, he said, the U.S., Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia "averted famine and catastrophe." 
  • In major pledges this week, the U.S. announced an additional $290 million in humanitarian assistance for Yemen, while the European Union said it would provide about $139 million in humanitarian and development aid, according to the AP.

UN seeks to win over disaffected youth

  • The U.N. has announced the creation of a new Youth Office to "bridge the generational divide" and focus on issues relevant to those aged 15 to 29, the AP reported. 
  • It's a group that the U.N. calls the largest cadre of young people in history - and 60 percent feel "betrayed by their governments," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said, referring to the Lancet study we covered here.
  • "Those are the years when you're taking stock of your life," Connie Flanagan, a University of Wisconsin professor who studies youth activism, told the A.P. "And as a result, you're taking stock of your world."


Please visit The Hill's sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We'll see you on Friday.