Roundup: A Glacier State Congressman Changes Tone, Minority Rights in Asian Glacier Region, and a New Early Warning System in Peru

A Glacier State Congressman Cites Climate Change as Basis for Nuclear Energy Legislation

Senator John Barrasso, a Republican representing the glacier state of Wyoming, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. On April 24, Barrasso released a draft act reforming U.S. nuclear waste policy, to ensure the federal government’s legal obligations to dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste are fulfilled. His reason? Climate change.

The New York Times writes:

“When John Barrasso, a Republican from oil and uranium-rich Wyoming who has spent years blocking climate change legislation, introduced a bill this year to promote nuclear energy, he added a twist: a desire to tackle global warming.

Mr. Barrasso’s remarks — “If we are serious about climate change, we must be serious about expanding our use of nuclear energy” — were hardly a clarion call to action. Still they were highly unusual for the lawmaker who, despite decades of support for nuclear power and other policies that would reduce planet-warming emissions, has until recently avoided talking about them in the context of climate change.

The comments represent an important shift among Republicans in Congress. Driven by polls showing that voters in both parties — particularly younger Americans — are increasingly concerned about a warming planet, and prodded by the new Democratic majority in the House shining a spotlight on the issue, a growing number of Republicans are now openly discussing climate change and proposing what they call conservative solutions.”

U.S. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Major UN Meeting Raises Minority Rights Issues in Asia’s Glaciated Mountain Areas

The United Nation’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held its annual meeting in New York City April 22 – May 3. There was significant debate about China’s treatment of minority peoples in the glaciated western provinces, Tibet and Xinjiang. The UN Press reports:

“Despite scattered gains in land, language and legal rights, a glaring lack of political will around the world is inhibiting fundamental change on the ground in thousands of communities in every region, delegates told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today as it continued its work.

Achievements outlined by Member State representatives today were starkly overshadowed by grave concerns – including high youth suicide rates, social exclusion and widespread political apathy – raised by many speakers, as the Permanent Forum concluded its general discussion on “implementation of the six mandated areas of the Permanent Forum with reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.  The six areas are economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights.

Across these areas – from land marred by war or extractive industries’ activities to ignorance about indigenous history and languages – speakers called on Governments and the Permanent Forum alike to urgently take the kind of actions that will have a direct, positive impact on their communities.”

Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on April 22, 2019 (Source: United Nations/Flickr)

An Early Warning System for Peru’s GLOF-Prone Lake Palcacocha

In northwestern Peru, government officials announced plans to install an early warning system to alert downstream populations of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) from the Andean glacier lake, Palcacocha,

The lake has a history of GLOFs . Most recently, an avalanche from a calving glacier above the lake on February 5 triggered a wave that tested the moraine holding back the glacial meltwater. The regional capital, Huaraz, which lies downstream, is the second most populous city of the Peruvian Andes.

Peruvian news outlet El Comercio reported on the new warning system, which is expected to take one year to complete.

Lake Palcacocha above the main city of Huaraz is drained using siphons to avoid Glacier Lake Outburst Floods. In 1941, a GLOF leveled Huaraz to the ground (Source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen).

Read More on GlacierHub:

Palcacocha Icefalls Demonstrate Hazard Vulnerabilities in Peru

Will Climate Change Be Responsible for More Glacial Lake Outburst Floods?

Powerful Glacial Lake Outburst Floods in the Himalayas

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Court Advances Case Against German Greenhouse Gas Emitter

Last month, a German court ruled that it will hear a case brought by a Peruvian farmer against Germany’s largest energy producer, RWE, potentially having huge ramifications in so-called climate justice cases. Farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya sued the company in 2015 for emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases, increasing the threat of glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) that endanger his home in Huaraz, in the foothills of the Andes.

This is only the second time a case against a greenhouse gas emitter has reached this stage— the first coming in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, which was swiftly reversed— says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, who spoke to GlacierHub about the proceedings. Gerrard noted that this case is “very unusual,” and added, “We’ll see what happens with this one.”

The claim cited a 2013 report that stated RWE emitted 0.47 percent of worldwide carbon and methane emissions from 1751-2010, since industrialization, partly due to its use of coal-fired power plants. To reflect this figure, Lliuya is only seeking reimbursement of 0.47 percent of the damages, or $20,000, out of a total cost of about $4.3 million, to help pay for his home flood defenses. 

Justin Gundlach, staff attorney at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told GlacierHub, “Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the case, the court’s order to the parties to submit evidence is highly significant. Effectively, the court is announcing that it is theoretically possible to trace liability for harms arising from climate change, in part, to a particular corporate defendant.”

“I think the case is mostly seeking to establish legal precedent,” said Gerrard. “He’s alleging very significant injury with a clear causal to climate change.”

Huaraz, a city of population 200,000, was struck by a GLOF in the past from nearby Lake Palcacocha. In 1941, about 5,000 were killed from a GLOF event, and another flood in 1970 also killed thousands following a 7.9 earthquake. While pipes have been installed to lower the water when it gets too high, climate change continues to melt glaciers, some by 90 percent, and increases the size and threat of glacier lakes.

A report in The Guardian indicated that the judges in the case said “Even people who act according to the law must be held responsible for damage they cause to property.”  

According to Deutsche Welle, a German news organization, a representative for RWE stated, “We don’t believe it’s possible under civil law to hold a single emitter responsible for something that countless human and natural resources also contribute to.”

Gundlach told GlacierHub that while RWE may not be liable, “Its decision to admit evidence indicates to would-be plaintiffs around the world that they might prevail if they can present the right set of facts.”

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Roundup: Climate Change and Poetic Geology

Trump Administration Disbands Climate Advisory Committee

From Nature: “The advisory group’s charter expired on 20 August, and Trump administration officials informed members late last week that it would not be renewed. ‘It really makes me worried and deeply sad,’ says Richard Moss, a climate scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and co-chair of the committee. ‘It’s another thing that is just part of the political football game.'”

Read more about this political football here.

Trump administration will not renew the charter for the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment (Source: Michael Vadon/Wikimedia Commons).

 

A Climate Change Adaptation Laboratory

From the Washington Post: “Lake Palcacocha is a mile long and 250 feet deep, and the effect of a large avalanche would be similar to dropping a bowling ball in a bathtub. Modeling scenarios predict a 100-foot wave so powerful it would blow out the dam. Three billion gallons of ice water would go roaring down the mountain toward the city of Huaraz, burying its 200,000 residents under an Andean tsunami of mud, trees and boulders.”

Read more about lessons from the laboratory here.

As glacial melt flows into Lake Palcacocha, these plastic pipes prevent Huaraz from burial by mudslides (Source: Niels Ackermann/Lundi13).

 

Clarence King’s Glacial Poetics

From CEA Critic: “What is unusual, especially given what is most obvious to the viewer, is King’s choice to write so little about the serpentine path of the glacier, one that climbs its way easterly towards Shasta’s peak. Perhaps surprised by the discovery, King is more subdued in his description, foregoing hyperbole and remaining more artistically constrained.”

Read more about the geologist’s mastery of language here.

Clarence King, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, is remembered for his mastery of language (Source: USGS).

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Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and a Sherpa protest

Roundup: Avalanches, Droughts, and Sherpas

 

Calving Event in Peruvian Lake Damages Infrastructure Designed to Reduce Flood Risk

From El Comercio: “Small ice avalanches have damaged the system of syphons in Lake Palcacocha, Ancash, Peru. Marco Zapata, the head of the Glacier Research Unit at INAIGEM, stated that on May 31, around 8 p.m., a calving event occurred at the glacier front on Mount Pucaranra, releasing ice into the lake. This event generated waves 3 meters in height, which caused 10 of the syphons to shift and which destroyed three gauges and a water level sensor.”

Find out more about Lake Palcacocha and ice avalanches here.

Locals treating the material that was shifted due to the ice avalanches (Source: INDECI).

 

Asian Glaciers Fight Against Drought

From Nature: “The high mountains of Asia… have the highest concentration of glaciers globally, and 800 million people depend in part on meltwater from them. Water stress makes this region vulnerable economically and socially to drought, but glaciers are a uniquely drought-resilient source of water. Glaciers provide summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers that is sufficient for the basic needs of 136 million people… Predicted glacier loss would add considerably to drought-related water stress. Such additional water stress increases the risk of social instability, conflict and sudden, uncontrolled population migrations triggered by water scarcity, which is already associated with the large and rapidly growing populations and hydro-economies of these basins.”

Find out more about Asia’s drought-resilient glaciers here.

Central Asia’s glaciers may lose half their ice by mid-century (Source: Twiga269/Flickr).

 

Sherpas Demand Summit Certificates at Protest

From The Himalayan Times: “Hundreds of sherpa climbers who met at Mt Everest base camp [in May] asked the government to immediately issue their summit certificates… Sherpa climbers who made it to the top of several peaks, including Mt Everest, have not been getting their summit certificates since last year after the government refused to approve their ascents citing a clause of the Mountaineering Expedition Regulation that bars them from obtaining such certificates… For most of the foreign climbers, summiting a mountain without sherpas’ help is almost impossible in Nepal… The new amendment to the regulation will recognize high-altitude workers as a part of the expedition to get certificates.”

Find out more about the Sherpa protest and resolution here.

Members of the Sherpa community have recently protested to demand summit permits (Source: Pavel Matejicek/Flickr).

 

 

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Peruvian Demands Payment for Climate Change

Lake Palcacocha, 2002. As the lake absorbs glacier melt, it threatens to flood Huaraz. "Lago Palcacocha 2002". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Lake Palcacocha, 2002. As the lake grows from glacier melt, it threatens to flood Huaraz. “Lago Palcacocha 2002“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Peruvian farmer and mountaineering guide Saul Luciano Lliuya, and the town of Huaraz where he lives, long known as the “Switzerland of Peru,” may go down in climate-change history.

The hundreds of tropical glaciers that blanket the mountains above Huaraz are melting, and Lliuya lays partial blame on German energy company RWE, Europe’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Last Friday, Lliuya sent a letter of complaint to RWE, demanding that it pay $21,000 in compensation for its role in climate change, pocket change for a company that earned $1.38 billion in 2014. According to Lliuya’s claim, all the carbon RWE emits into the atmosphere contributes to glacial melt that threatens to flood his town, destroy his home and displace his family.

Saul Lliuya, a small farmer and tour guide from Huaraz, Peru, who is seeking compensation from a German company for increased flood risk due to greenhouse has emissions.
Saul Lliuya, author of the letter of complaint. source: Germanwatch

It is the first such claim in Europe and is backed by a German environmental NGO called Germanwatch, a representative of which met with Lliuya during the Lima Climate Change Conference, COP20, last December. Lliuya sent the letter to RWE through his lawyer Roda Verheyen, a Hamburg-based environmental attorney. If RWE is not willing to pay or does not answer his request by April 15, Lliuya will evaluate the possibility of suing the company.

“This move is unparalleled in Europe,” said Christoph Bals, Germanwatch’s policy director, in a statement. “It is unprecedented both in legal and political terms.  It empowers potential climate change victims. It implements the ‘polluters pay’ principle, a step which is long overdue. A company which creates risks to others has two obligations: stopping to hurt them and limiting the damage.”

Michael Murphy, a spokesman for RWE, told GlacierHub via email that the company could not comment on the letter because it had not yet received it. There is no chance a lawsuit would turn into a class action, because Germany does not have a legal framework for such cases, Verheyen said, also via email. “I do not know whether this will spur similar cases,” she wrote. “My client takes a very courageous step.”

Cordillera Blanca, © Diego Giannoni
Cordillera Blanca, © Diego Giannoni

Given the timing, the case could have an impact on negotiations at the climate treaty meeting in Paris this December. According to the most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retreat and melting in the tropical glaciers of the Andes are caused by climate change. In fact, there are few environmental risks in which climate change can as clearly be faulted as Andean glacier melt, says Germanwatch.

“We do think that both the present claim and a potential lawsuit could lend new momentum to a climate agreement and in the international climate debate,” wrote Stefan Küper, Germanwatch press officer, in an email.

Huaraz is the capital of the region of Ancash, which is a site of great social unrest in Peru, in part due to the environmental impacts of mining mega-projects, which have long been charged with contaminating local water resources. Ancash registered the highest number of social conflicts of any region in Peru during February, with 24 cases, according to the Peruvian government’s Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo).

Flood Risk

The mountain range that towers over Huaraz is known as the Cordillera Blanca, or white mountain range, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world. These dramatic white peaks are covered in 722 glaciers and 296 lakes, according to some estimates. But as the glaciers melt, they threaten not only to deplete a critical water source for the region, but to overwhelm the lakes below, causing torrential and devastating flooding in what are known as a glacial lake outburst floods. One of these lakes, called Lake Palcacocha, sits directly above Huaraz and is thought to pose major flood risk to the town. Over the past 40 years, the lake has grown in size by eight times and in volume by 30 times, according to Lliuya’s claim against RWE.

Plazuela Belen, city of Huaraz, Peru, at night. ©Dtarazona Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Plazuela Belen, city of Huaraz, Peru, at night. ©Dtarazona
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Two glaciers could collapse into the lake, that would cause a big flood wave which would destroy the house of my family and many other houses in Huaraz. This is an unacceptable risk,” Lliuya told the Guardian. About 40,000 people live in the high-risk zone for flooding from Lake Palcacocha, according to the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1941, the lake banks were breached by flooding, and within a matter of minutes Huaraz was inundated.

Lliuya says RWE owes Huaraz $21,000 because that sum is equivalent to 0.47% of the estimated cost of protecting the town against flooding and other risks associated with glacier melt. According to the Institute of Climate Responsibility in Colorado, RWE is responsible for 0.47% of all global warming emissions produced between 1751 and 2010. The cost of protecting Huaraz would include drainage of Lake Palcacocha until safety works can be completed, including the building of new dams and the repairing of old ones.

A mutual friend of Lliuya and Germanwatch first introduced them, prior to the meeting at COP20. A small Germanwatch team including Christoph Bals subsequently visited Lliuya and his family in Huaraz, and made a joint visit to Lake Palcacocha. Lliuya could not be reached for comment.

To read more about glacial lake flooding, check out these glacierhub.org stories.

Satellite Images Offer Clues to Glacial Lake Flooding

Glacier Hazards Linked to Prolonged PTSD in Kids

Bhutan’s Fortresses Yet Another Victim of Glacial Floods

For more about Peru’s glaciers, read these glacierhub.org stories

As Peru’s Glaciers Vanish, Villagers Appeal to the Gods

Photo Friday: COP20 Voices for Climate

Artists Stage Glacier Worship to Fight Climate Change

 

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