Warming Trends: School Lunches that Help the Earth, a Coral Refuge and a Quest for Cooler Roads

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

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Jordan Avenue, north of Hart Street is getting a new surface coating similar to slurry seal on May 20, 2017 in Canoga Park, California. Instead of traditional black asphalt, this coat is a concrete color designed to reflect heat. Credit: John McCoy/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images
Jordan Avenue, north of Hart Street is getting a new surface coating similar to slurry seal on May 20, 2017 in Canoga Park, California. Instead of traditional black asphalt, this coat is a concrete color designed to reflect heat. Credit: John McCoy/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

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Hot Cities, Cool Roads

A group of communities and organizations are partnering to find solutions to one symptom of a warming planet: the urban heat island effect.

Roads, buildings and other hard surfaces in cities can absorb heat from the sun and slowly release it, causing air temperatures to increase, especially in sweltering cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix, which are facing deadly heat waves as a result of climate change.

The Cool Roadways Partnership is a group including over 20 communities—many of them in the Southwest—that plans to spend nearly $5 billion in construction on 70,000 lane-miles of roadways over the next 10 years. The communities are looking to invest the funds in technologies that will increase a road surface’s ability to reflect solar energy, reducing the amount of heat that is absorbed.

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This week, the group issued a request for information asking industry partners to help come up with new ideas and technologies to cool roads and other surfaces.

Kurt Shickman, executive director of Global Cool Cities Alliance, the organization that spearheaded the partnership, said there are currently technologies to reduce the heat absorbency of pavement, like coatings and materials within asphalt that are reflective. But they are too expensive to be used on a large scale. 

“We felt like there was a real need to signal to the market that there is a real demand for a solution that could help cool down pavements,” Shickman said. 

Davis Koleas of GuardTop LLC, a member of the partnership, said in a statement that cooler roadways can reduce air temperatures by 7 degrees Fahrenheit, improving people’s livelihoods, especially in poorer neighborhoods that tend to have fewer shading trees and more asphalt-paved roads.


Climate-Friendly School Lunches? It’s No Baloney

School lunches could feed hungry children and also reduce food-based carbon emissions, if federal government nutritional standards were adjusted to include more plant-based proteins and less dairy and meat, a study published this week in the journal Health Affairs found.

The study examined more than 5,000 school lunches served in the United States under the National School Lunch Program standards and compared them to a diet, recommended by the EAT-Lancet commission in 2019, that meets nutritional needs while minimizing damage to the Earth. The diet emphasizes eating beans and other plant-based proteins instead of meat and dairy products. 

Researchers found that by the commission’s standards, the school lunches were short on  whole grains by an average of 67 grams, and on beans, lentils and peas by an average of 28 grams. The lunches overserved dairy products, however, by an average of 233 grams and beef, lamb and pork by 15 grams.

The study’s lead author, Mary Kathryn Poole, of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said that in the future, researchers should consider developing specific guidelines for children, since the EAT-Lancet commission standards were designed for adult diets.

“While we did adjust the guidance to meet the caloric needs of children, there may be guidelines that need to be tailored to specific needs for kids for proper growth and development,” she said.


A Coral Refuge

A coral reef newly discovered off the coast of Tanzania and Kenya could serve as a cool refuge for marine species as the oceans warm and devastate coral habitats, a new study suggests. 

That’s because the water in this area is colder than in the rest of the ocean. Cold water runs off Mount Kilimanjaro into deep river channels formed thousands of years ago when glaciers on the mountain melted. The cold water acts as a buffer against pulses of warm water, like El Niño, in the Indian Ocean, said Tim McClanahan, lead Wildlife Conservation Society coral scientist and the author of the study, published in the journal Advances in Marine Biology

“It would be like running hot water into a cold bathtub; if the bath is cold, it would take a long time to warm up,” he said. “By the time these hot water events pass, they haven’t really raised the temperature of the water all that much. So you maintain these coral sanctuaries where the water is cool.”

A coral reef off the shore of Tanzania. Credit: Michael Markovina
A coral reef off the shore of Tanzania. Credit: Michael Markovina

While other coral reef habitats around the world are threatened by warming waters, causing coral bleaching, this 12,000 square kilometer (4,633 square mile) area is protected from climate change. But the reef still is threatened by human activities, particularly destructive dynamite fishing, McClanahan said. The fishermen drop a stick of dynamite into the water to kill a massive number of fish, but this practice also destroys coral. 

“Some of the reefs that I’ve been studying suggest they can’t recover for many, many years after the dynamite fishing,” McClanahan said.


A Net-Zero Goal for New York’s Pension Fund

Months after saying divestment campaigners were playing “political football,” New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli pledged this week that the state’s $226 billion retirement fund will shift its investments to a portfolio with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

The fund will divest from companies that fail to meet standards for transition readiness and climate-related investment risk, the state comptroller’s office said in announcing the move on Wednesday.

“New York State’s pension fund is at the leading edge of investors addressing climate risk, because investing for the low-carbon future is essential to protect the fund’s long-term value,” DiNapoli said in his office’s statement. “Achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 will put the fund in a strong position for the future mapped out in the Paris Agreement.”

Climate activists have been pressuring the state to divest its pension from fossil fuel companies since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, but an increase in youth involvement this year appeared to play an influential role in DiNapoli’s decision.

“Although there is still much work left to be done in the ongoing fight against the climate crisis, today, we celebrate this historic, people-powered victory,” Hridesh Singh, executive director of the New York Youth Climate Leaders, said in a statement.

As one of the largest pensions in the nation, the move could help sway other retirement funds to follow suit. It could also accelerate a shift away from fossil fuels in the global market.

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