Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Climate scientists should not be our politicians

Scientists shouldn’t feel compelled to run for political office to save science. Politics in the United States has dipped so low that every time an environmental issue comes up in the media science must be defended. Science (especially climate science) is being undermined in our political arena by people whose political and financial agenda includes keeping everyone on the doomsday path of fossil fuel use for energy. But it isn’t, nor should it be, the job of our scientists to fix our present dysfunctional political system.  

2018 is the year of scientists running for Congress The rising activism among scientists is a turnaround for a group that has traditionally seen politics as “grimy and grubby,” said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. Many of these candidates have been recruited by 314 Action, a political action committee founded in 2016 to support policymakers who have scientific or technical backgrounds. Named for the first three digits of pi, 314 Action describes itself as the vanguard of “the pro-science resistance.” The group’s founder, Shaughnessy Naughton, said 7,000 people have responded to the group’s call to run for office. The group has also assembled a network of about 400,000 donors eager to support candidates who back science-based policies. (March 4, 2018) The Washington Post

Not that scientists wouldn’t be exceptional as politicians or communicators. Climate scientists have become very good at communicating the complexities of Climate Change. (Check out: “The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, is now freely available to download ” from Skeptical Science)

But society would be better off if scientists spent more time at what they do best. Because of their work, much is now known about Climate Change (it’s happening quickly and it’s us). Much more needs to be researched so our climate models will be more accurate and more predictive of what’s coming. That is to say, we cannot spare our scientists. We need more expert information on how to slow down global warming and adapt.

Part of the problem with communicating Climate Change is that while the principle is simple (you emit more greenhouse gases and the place warms up) the repercussions are very complicated—and the possible solutions politically inconvenient. However good scientists may get at speaking to the public, what they are really good at is communicating with each other, often in wonky but tight, uncolorful language focused on accuracy--not storytelling or exuding warmth to the general public. 

We have other disciplines for reaching the public and those institutions (media and education) should up their game on communicating this crisis.

Granted, communicating Climate Change is still very tough, especially with the small but very vocal minority whose worldview is being threatened:

[From a transcript] Lewandowsky: Now if you then, as a researcher or communicator, present them with more evidence that climate science is real, then chances are that the recipients of the message are digging themselves deeper into their existing position and actually believe even more strongly that that is not the case. We have the experimental data to show that in a lot of different circumstances. It doesn’t just have to be climate science. It’s whenever people’s world-views are at stake, then presenting them with corrective information can have a so-called “backfire effect” of making them believe the mistaken information even more strongly. (Professor Stephen Lewandowsky, Moving past barriers to change (UQx DENIAL101x

More journalists should be trained in climate science and how to effectively communicate all that to the public. More politicians should listen to the science coming from our climate experts and then leading the public towards solutions, sooner rather than later.

In turn, it would be nice if the public themselves would stop thinking of themselves as passive customers of information and ideas, but instead as enlightened stewards of our planet. We are at an extraordinary point in history where public responsibility on our climate crisis may determine if we get to have a viable future.

Time passes. 

Monday, March 05, 2018

Springtime in Climate Change

Springtime is inherently whacky. (‘If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb’ and all that.) But within this wackiness there has been a certain amount of climate stability that wildlife, plants, and even we have become accustomed to. Our plants and animals in our Northeast region can endure some extremes in Spring with higher and lower temperatures--for a while. However, if the trajectory is continually outside the comfort zone of our plants and animals, they probably cannot adjust.

Springtime is a time of renewal. As a metaphor, spring embodies the human heart’s yearning for hope after a long wintry absence. We expect in spring the seeds to grow and the animals to wake up, so they can cycle through their life’s great wheel of events.

But what if Climate Change is no longer a harbinger of rebirth, no longer evidence that our existence and every other being’s presence is but part of an infinite continuum? What if Springs henceforth bring a ratcheting up of more heat and more weather extremes? Instead of hope, despair?  

In the Washington, DC area, Spring is coming sooner and sooner:

Spring is running 20 days early. It’s exactly what we expect, but it’s not good. For the second year in a row, spring has sprung early. In the Mid-Atlantic, cherry blossoms started to pop out of their buds in mid-February, and the crocuses have all but come and gone. Temperatures have dipped below freezing on only five mornings this February in the District, and nature is playing along — albeit, perhaps, grudgingly. As much as spring is welcome when it arrives, it seems to feel better after a long winter. This year, winter never really started. December and January both got off to a cold start, but that quickly changed through the end of those months. By mid-February, we saw March flowers pop out of the ground. Winter is dead. According to the National Phenology Network, spring is running 20 days or more ahead of schedule in parts of the Ohio River Valley and the Mid-Atlantic. That will soon be the case in the Midwest and the Northeast. (February 27, 2018) The Washington Post [more on Climate Change in our area] 

Here in New York, our experts say Spring is coming about a week sooner than usual:

“Since the 1960s, the growing season has lengthened by nearly a week, as evidenced by observations of earlier spring bloom dates for lilacs, apples, and grapes at agricultural research stations across the state.” (Page 3, New York’s Changing Climate, Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)

Blooming early is not necessarily a good thing:

Fruit Trees Need Winter Chill for Spring Growth Apples, cherries, and peaches grown in the U.S. are worth more than $4 billion dollars annually. The trees that produce these and other fruits are increasingly at risk as winters warm from climate change. Fruit trees and certain bushes must go through a dormant period each winter in preparation for producing fruit the following spring and summer. This rest period, also known as a chilling period, is directly related to the temperature. For many varieties of trees, the most efficient temperature for chilling is 45°F, with little additional chilling effect at temperatures below 32°F. Brief warm spells in winter have a negative effect — temperatures above 70°F for four or more hours offset any chilling that happened in the previous 24-36 hours. (February 21, 2018) Climate Central [more on Plants, Food, and Climate Change in our area]

Climate Change is occurring far quicker than it ever has for a very long time—even faster than some great extinction events of the past—and we will have failed to act.  Without climate scientists, the public is not going to be able to separate the wackiness, or year-to-year noise, of Spring’s volatile weather and see the danger.

We need to act. We need more scientists. We need to fund more scientific research on how Climate Change will affect our future. We need more educators to communicate what climate scientists have discovered about our warming world.

Springtime in Climate Change will continue to crank around each year. Until it doesn’t. The time to fix Spring and our other seasons is now. 

Time passes. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Preventing the worst consequences of Climate Change ahead means action now

Climate action cannot be just any action. It must be on a scale and time frame that will make a difference. Effective action depends not only on sound science, but sometimes also requires pre-emptive action on issues not yet completely understood, such as permafrost melting. Our infrastructures must be maintained and updated according to projected Climate Change findings. If actions are thought to be too expensive, that cost must be measure against inaction. Finances should be made to fit the crisis, not the other way around, as many free-market fundamentalists would like. You can have life on this planet without our present economic system, but you cannot have our present economic system without life on this planet. We need to get our priorities straight.

The following transcript by climate scientist Professor Richard Alley explains in plain words the costs of inaction on Climate Change:

“Alley: Climate change in the short term is expensive but not hugely so, and as the climate change gets bigger, as we look farther into the future, the price goes up. The damages go up. Very crudely, each degree of warming costs more than the previous degree. The first degree was almost in the noise of what we're used to. It's not very expensive, but we've used that one. And the second degree will cost a little more. It's moving outside of your experience that's starting to stress things and we've committed to that one very broadly. The third degree costs more than the second and by the fourth and the fifth now sea level rise is going to get huge. We have real problems with crops, which may be bumping up against biochemical limits and the ability to feed ourselves gets a little worrisome. By the time you start running to the third, the fourth, the fifth degree the costs of damages and dangers go way up. What we're arguing now about the third degree because we've basically warmed up almost all of the first one and we really have committed to the second one.” (Professor Richard Alley, UQx DENIAL101x From the experts: Impacts on society)

Tipping points

Added to the costs of delaying climate actions are the increasing possibility of tipping points. When thinking about possible Climate Change tipping points (and we should be thinking about them), we should gain more certainty—not wallow in uncertainty. To do this we need more scientific equipment, more scientists, and more research funding. Dismissing climate science and not funding our collective need to monitor our climate makes it more likely we’ll pass critical thresholds, or tipping points, without even knowing we’ve passed the point of no return.

Are we reaching our climate change tipping points? Imagine cutting down a tree. Initially, you chop and chop … but not much seems to change. Then suddenly, one stroke of the hatchet frees the trunk from its base and the once distant leaves come crashing down. It’s an apt metaphor for one of the most alarming aspects of climate change – the existence of “tipping elements.” These elements are components of the climate that may pass a critical threshold, or “tipping point,” after which a tiny change can completely alter the state of the system. Moving past tipping points may incite catastrophes ranging from widespread drought to overwhelming sea level rise. Which elements’ critical thresholds should we worry about passing thanks to human-induced climate change? (November 8, 2018) World Economic Forum [more on Climate Change in our area] 

We need to understand the list of potential tipping points referenced above and how we can avoid them. Or if we cannot avoid them, then when to expect them and what we can do about them. Many people tend to understand that tipping points are possible in our environment, but don’t think they’ll be around when tipping points come--or their kids will deal with them somehow. But with a tipping point, it isn’t always like pulling a trigger where past a certain point a bullet shoots out. It can be like pulling a trigger on a gun now and a bomb going off in a hundred years. 

A while ago the West Antarctic ice sheet was said to have reached a tipping point; this big (really big) glacier has become unstable and will melt and make the seas rise by 4 feet (1.2 meters), but not for a number of centuries. [See: “The "Unstable" West Antarctic Ice Sheet: A Primer” (May 12, 2014 NASA)] ‘Unstable’ means all the kings men and all the kings horses will not put that water back on Antarctica again in our children’s children’s children’s children’s lifetimes.  

Tipping points are not just theoretical threats, they are possible (some very probable) scenarios that we need to better understand. Instead of sitting around debating their significance, we should be funding major scientific research to gain as much information as possible to find out what we are up against. Some tipping points can be averted, adapted to, or may be solved with new-and-yet-to-be-conceived technology. But all that will take time, in which case we’d need a good idea of how much time we have. The remaining uncertainty (for example, experts know the Arctic will be ice-free in summer at some point relatively soon, they’re just uncertain as to the exact time) in climate science at this point is a reason to double-down on experts finding the answers. Not trying to profit from and leverage present climate uncertainly, which only wastes our precious time. The time to act in a system that is slow to respond to our inputs is running out.

The next five years will shape sea level rise for the next 300, study says The world is far off course from its goals in cutting greenhouse gas emissions — and research published Tuesday illustrates one of the most striking implications of this. Namely, it finds that for every five years in the present that we continue to put off strong action on climate change, the ocean could rise an additional eight inches by the year 2300 — a dramatic illustration of just how much decisions in the present will affect distant future generations. “One important point was to reveal that sea level [rise] is not in the far future, it’s now, and because the system is so slow, we just can’t see it at the moment,” said Matthias Mengel of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the lead author of the study, which was published in Nature Communications. “But we cause it now.” (February 20, 2018) The Washington Post)

Time passes. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Climate Change stresses the stressors that stress wildlife

Climate Change can quickly undo many of the long, hard-won adaptations wildlife have accomplished to survive in a specific climate. Presently, our very quickly warming climate is changing too fast for some species to adapt: “…warmer temperatures equals spoiled food equals Gray Jay nests failing en masse.” (from article below)

Spoiler Alert: Can Gray Jays Survive Warmer Weather? They’re the warm-blooded creature that goes to great lengths to survive boreal cold blasts of minus 40 degrees, yet their future in Algonquin Park is threatened because the weather is getting mellow. It’s that last irony—the climate change connection—that Norris, an ecology professor at Ontario’s University of Guelph, is studying. He’s the third generation of principal investigators on a research project that stretches back over a half-century in Algonquin Park. For the past 40 years, the project has documented a stark downward trend: a 50 percent decline in the study’s Gray Jay population since 1977.. (January 8, 2018) The Cornel Lab of Ornithology (More on Wildlife and Climate Change in our area]

We need wildlife to keep our ecosystems healthy, but most wildlife cannot adapt quickly enough to Climate Change. We need to include wildlife into our Climate Change action plans.

To Survive, These Animals Must Lose Their Camouflage How can the snowshoe hare and Arctic fox thrive in a climate-changed world, where there’s less snow to blend in with? On December 4, 1920, a 14-year-old boy saw something extraordinary while walking in the central Wisconsin woods. Snowshoe hares, all of them with vibrant white fur, “were hopping about on fallen leaves that had no snow covering,” he wrote. “The month was unusually mild, with practically no snow until the middle of the period.” It was like a vision: The animals almost glowed against the sullen, early-winter soil. The sight so stuck with him that he described it in a scientific paper 13 years later. By that time, Wallace Byron Grange had demonstrated an intelligence, a precociousness, and a flair for prose style that matched his middle name. At 22, he had been appointed Wisconsin’s first-ever game commissioner; now, at 27, he was a publishing zoologist as well. He was particularly fascinated by snowshoe hares—and their mysterious annual change of costume. (February 15, 2018) The Atlantic [more on Wildlife and Climate Change in our area]

Many wildlife in our New York region are going to find adapting to Climate Change a serious challenge. Some, like amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, will need to move to cooler places but will find our myriad transportation infrastructures hindering them. (In fact, they already are, think roadkill.) Fish in our region, which have adapted to frigid waters, are going to need to swim to warmer parts of our streams and rivers without being impeded by our built obstructions. Think dams. Even birds, who you’d think would just fly where they need to go, have adapted to migrating to precise places where their meals synced with their arrival. [See “Migratory birds bumped off schedule as climate change shifts spring” (May 15, 201, Science News)] Adapted behavior in wildlife don’t turn on a dime; they take many generations to change.

Whether you like wildlife, like to hunt or fish them or just watch them, we need our wildlife. Their existence was instrumental in designing our environment. Herbivores ate the plants, carnivores ate the herbivores, and they all dispersed seeds, which helped determined which plants and wildlife thrived. And even though we have radically changed our environment, including developing land for cities and agriculture, drying up wetlands, killing off predators, and polluting our waters, we still need the creatures that make our environment work.

So, along with ourselves, we are going to have to help our wildlife adapt to Climate Change. How do we do that? Is there a comprehensive (for that is what it will take) state program for that? Kinda.

The New York State Environmental Conservation agency understands the perils of Climate Change. Check out New York Tackles Climate Change. But it’s not clear that this awareness extends to wildlife management. For example, when you check the DEC’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), you won’t find a whole lot of information on wildlife and Climate Change. Mostly, you see a vast compilation of information, regulations, and data on how to keep our hunters and anglers supplied with game.

But wait. When you check out the Wildlife Health section of the DEC website and scroll down a bit you’ll find this:

WILDLIFE HEALTH PROGRAM STRATEGIC PLAN 2011 – 2015 “Wildlife are integral to a healthy, diverse ecosystem and the health of wildlife is closely intertwined with that of human and domestic animals. While disease and death are part of the normal life cycle that maintains a balanced ecosystem, factors such as the introduction of an invasive species or new and emerging disease, climate change, habitat destruction and human development can alter the equilibrium so that the health and long term well‐being of a species is threatened. The goal of the Wildlife Health Program is to    identify and monitor both infectious and non‐infectious diseases in wildlife populations, put that information to use in making sound management decisions, and to be prepared to intervene where necessary to ensure that New York has sustainable, robust and diverse wildlife populations for the future. (NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION)

Ah hah, ‘climate change’! Though buried as one of the things that could potentially upset a ‘balanced ecosystem’, addressing Climate Change is clearly an aspect of wildlife management that the DEC understands. Wildlife that keeps our ecosystems viable or ‘balanced’ describes the environmental hegemony that makes Earth’s environment tick. 

This is an interesting point from the report: “The relationship between wildlife, domestic animals and humans in a shared environment is complex and interdependent.” The idea is that we now have a shared environment, which is to say, we didn’t used to. Although wildlife in no way were dependent on humanity to thrive before humanity came along, they are now especially dependent on us to keep them healthy. No aspect of wildlife life is unaffected by humanity and our infrastructures. 

Understanding that if our wildlife isn’t healthy, we aren’t likely to be either is a crucial aspect of adapting to Climate Change. When the engineers of our life-support system die, we won’t be around much longer either.

Climate change stresses the stressors (warmer climate, invasive species, droughts, floods, diseases, health, food availability, and habitat destruction) that stress wildlife

We and our wildlife friends are deeply connected. When contemplating the connection with Wildlife and Climate Change, we must not see Climate Change simply as one of the ‘stressors’ for Wildlife. 

Our management of wildlife needs to be viewed through the lens of Climate Change because the great warming will not only stress wildlife, it’s going to stress every being on this planet—just as past climate changes were a primary cause in Earth’s mass extinction events.

Alarming new study makes today’s climate change more comparable to Earth’s worst mass extinction “All in all, the parallels between the many mass extinction events in the geological record and today’s climate change offer no comfort about the legacy we’re leaving for our children and our grandchildren. Rather they stand as signposts for an increasingly scary future.” (April 2, 2014 Skeptical Science)

Time passes.

My articles on Climate Change and wildlife: Speak up for wildlife as they try to adapt to Climate Change (June 21, 2015)

Monday, February 12, 2018

The inconvenience of connecting harmful algae outbreaks (HABs) and Climate Change

Though Climate Change is moving quickly through New York and other regions, it’s still difficult for scientists to evaluate the precise consequences because changes in climate still take decades to play out. We know that our heavy rainfall events have increased 71% since 1958, for example, but we still don’t know the exact relationship between the recent outbreaks of harmless algae, harmful algae outbreaks (HABs), and Climate Change.

HABs are a danger to our drinking water, our pets, our shoreline properties, swimming beaches, and much more. [Check out Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation)

We know that there has been a dramatic increase in HABs in our Finger Lakes region.

“Unseasonably warm days in early and mid September have fueled a surge in harmful algal blooms, or HABs, in New York’s Finger Lakes, firmly establishing 2017 as the region’s worst year on record. Last year, the often toxic green scum was reported on the surface of six of the 11 Finger Lakes — then the most ever. This year, its been spotted on all 11.” (Posted on September 20, 2017 Water Front)

We know there’s been an increase in algae blooms in the Great Lakes, especially in Lake Erie. Though most algae outbreaks aren’t harmful (although the 2014 HABs outbreak in Toledo, Ohio certainly was), NYS’s environmental agency points to phosphorus, nutrient enrichment, aquatic invasive species—and Climate Change as the culprits.

 “What is causing the algae problems in Lake Erie? Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, the warmest, and the most susceptible to eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) and the effects of climate change. Lake-wide changes have occurred in Lake Erie due to phosphorus enrichment from both rural and urban sources, compounded by the influence of climate change and aquatic invasive species.” (Overview of HABs and Drinking Water in NYS, 2014, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC))

What we don’t know is the exact cause-and-effect relationship between any specific lake’s HABs outbreak and Climate Change. This 2013 factsheet from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives some insight into this HABs/Climate Change relationship, but hasn’t nailed it down:

Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms Climate change is predicted to change many environmental conditions that could affect the natural properties of fresh and marine waters both in the US and worldwide. Changes in these factors could favor the growth of harmful algal blooms and habitat changes such that marine HABs can invade and occur in freshwater. An increase in the occurrence and intensity of harmful algal blooms may negatively impact the environment, human health, and the economy for communities across the US and around the world. The purpose of this fact sheet is to provide climate change researchers and decision–makers a summary of the potential impacts of climate change on harmful algal blooms in freshwater and marine ecosystems. Although much of the evidence presented in this fact sheet suggests that the problem of harmful algal blooms may worsen under future climate scenarios, further research is needed to better understand the association between climate change and harmful algae. May 2013 US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water EPA 820-S-13-001 MC 4304T

There are many reports* besides the above one that suggest that warmer waters and/or Climate Change have and will play a role in more HABs in our lakes, endangering our health and environment. But most local media reports don’t reflect the possibility that the worldwide warming crisis could be affecting our region in this ominous way--now.

There are and should be a concerted effort to reduce phosphorus, nutrient enrichment, aquatic invasive species coming into our lakes. But it appears quite likely that HABs won’t get under control until we factor in, however inconvenient, Climate Change.

Shouldn’t we at least try and rule out Climate Change? Seems prudent. Avoiding the possible Climate Change connection in the rise in HABs would be like getting up in the morning and finding your backdoor wide open and just assuming it was the wind. Maybe it was the wind, someone could have forgotten to close the door. Or, it could have been a burglar. In which case, if there was only a slight chance someone broke into your house and was still prowling about, wouldn’t you want to check that out? Same kind of need to discover (if any) the connections with Climate Change and environmental anomalies.

Despite much certainty about Climate Change—our planet is warming, it’s us—there is also a lot of uncertainty about how the extra energy captured by our greenhouse gas emission radiates through our natural systems. Glaciers are melting, but how fast? And, how much does more water entering our warmer lakes affect the increase in algae outbreaks—let alone harmful algae outbreaks? In other words, does Climate Change amplify the known causes that lead to HABs? Not to mention, what else besides Climate Change could account for all the Finger Lakes getting hit by HABs recently?

The media, craving certainty and not upsetting their subscribers with what they perceive as speculations, are not likely to press Climate Change in an interview about HABs unless the interviewee makes a point of it. And the public isn’t going to demand that their media connect the dots between local indicators of climate Change and HABS until the public is comfortable with such discussions.

If Climate Change is warming our lakes (it is), can we address the HABs situation if we don’t also address Climate Change?

Time passes.

* Besides the EPA information fact sheet above, there are other sources out there on the relationship between Climate Change and HABs:

  •  Harmful algal blooms and climate change: Learning from the past and present to forecast the future (2015 US National Library of Medicine Nation Institutes of Health)
  •  Factors that Promote Growth of Harmful Algal Blooms “Changes in water temperature, particularly increases in temperature” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC))
  • “Rising air temperatures can also lead to declines in water quality through a different set of processes. Some large lakes, including the Great Lakes, are warming rapidly.30 Warmer surface waters can stimulate blooms of harmful algae in both lakes and coastal oceans,9  which may include toxic cyanobacteria that are favored at higher temperatures.31”(“ Climate Change Impacts in the United States” (Page 198, National climate Assessment 3rd report) https://s3.amazonaws.com/nca2014/low/NCA3_Climate_Change_Impacts_in_the_United%20States_LowRes.pdf?download=1
  •  “Over the course of the 20th century, regional seasurface temperatures have risen more than 1.0ºF. Water temperature changes can result in shifts in faunal assemblages (groupings of organisms) that affect marine ecosystems and economic activities in unknown ways. Every species has a thermally suitable range for habitat that, when compromised, induces a forced migration to seek another location suitable to its life cycle. Water temperatures influence organism survival and growth, 126 ClimAID egg and larvae development, and spawning and feeding behavior. When water temperatures rise, ecosystems become vulnerable to shellfish diseases, harmful algae blooms, and exotic species that force indigenous species to compete for resources, including dissolved oxygen (DO). Oxygen solubility will decrease as water temperatures increase, further stressing marine organisms.” (pages 125, 126 Responding to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID(, full report)
  •  Massive Toxic Algae Blooms May Prove a Sign of Climate Change to Come The blooms off the U.S. West Coast may become more frequent (2015 Scientific American)

  •  “Climate models project decreases of renewable water resources in some regions and increases in others, albeit with large uncertainty in many places. Broadly, water resources are projected to decrease in many mid-latitude and dry subtropical regions, and to increase at high latitudes and in many humid mid-latitude regions (high agreement, robust evidence). Even where increases are projected, there can be short-term shortages due to more variable streamflow (because of greater variability of precipitation) and seasonal reductions of water supply due to reduced snow and ice storage. Availability of clean water can also be reduced by negative impacts of climate change on water quality; for instance, the quality of lakes used for water supply could be impaired by the presence of algae producing toxins.” (page 251 Part A Scholarly articles for IPCC Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Designing Rochester’s transportation for a Climate Change world

We should place a top priority on enhancing City development that encourages more public transit and active transportation (walking and bicycling) to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation in the US accounts for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions according to the EPA. Rochester, in their Climate Action Plan, finds that figure to be 24% for our community. That’s a big chunk of our carbon footprint.

If Rochester’s new comprehensive plan, Rochester 2034, can design for transit corridors that are attractive, where development builds on the communities already thriving in our neighborhoods, that makes it more likely that the public will achieve a lower carbon footprint. A robust public transit system is key to making our future livable by encouraging human growth—not parking lot sprawl.

Transit supportive development encourages a mix of complementary activities and destinations (e.g., housing, work, shopping, services, and entertainment) along major streets and centers. Transit supportive development helps create compact, vibrant communities where it’s easier for people to walk, bike, and use public transit to get around. (ROCHESTER MOBILITY ENHANCEMENT STUDY)

Everyone needs to get around for the necessities of life, comradeship, goods and service, and much more. With humanity’s numbers now passing seven billion, our transportation infrastructures are now critical for our existence. All of us, even pedestrians and bicyclists, use this infrastructure of roads and bridges.

Those with disabilities can have their ability to get around stymied at any point between their friends, groceries, health services, and bus stops. A sidewalk or a bus stop not cleared of ice can determine whether someone using a wheelchair gets to have access to the opportunities most of us have. So, designing our future to address Climate Change includes Environmental Justice.

Those wanting a community more walkable, friendlier, and inexpensive to live will love some of the ideas for a future Rochester.

Take a moment to help Rochester plan for its future with Climate Change in mind. Addressing Climate Change when planning for our future isn’t simply another tick-off point. It’s a decision to approach our children’s future sustainably. 

Rochester needs your input on a transit supportive corroborators study.  Please take this survey: TransitCorridorsRoc.metroquest.com (it will go on until mid-March).  As part of its Comprehensive Plan, Rochester 2034, the City is studying which major streets have the best potential for “transit supportive development.”

Also, the City is conducting public outreach to get input the morning of Saturday, February 10th from 9am-noon at the public market (see flyer).

In 2034 Rochester will be two hundred years old. Let’s give our children and grandchildren something to celebrate.

Time passes. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cleaning up old Brownfields should not just be a developer’s opportunity

In Rochester, NY’s Climate Action Plan (CAP), the importance of cleaning up old Brownfields* as we go further into Climate Change is discussed. One of the four ongoing Brownfields--South Genesee River Corridor BOA (former Vacuum Oil site) Project—needing clean-up is mentioned in the CAP as a Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA).

New York State Brownfield Opportunity Areas (BOA). This Program is administered and managed through the New Yoneighborhood revitalization and brownfield redevelopment. The BOA program recognizes that brownfields, underutilized properties, and vacant sites can all have negative impacts on neighborhood vitality, property values and quality of life. The program provides a funding source to facilitate community and neighborhood-based planning, while creating strategies to improve overall conditions and opportunities for reinvestment and revitalization. (Page 10, CAP)
rk State Department of State (DOS). The program provides financial and technical assistance to complete area-wide strategies for

Incentivizing Brownfield cleanings is usually viewed as an opportunity, a chance to bring in developers with deep pockets and transform a region with a bleak future to one with a bright future. And, I suppose if you end up losing your legs because of a bad car accident, it can be viewed as an ‘opportunity’ for finally being able to take the time to write that great American novel you continually say you’ll get to. Of course, the use of ‘opportunity’ in this sense is so stretched as to sound absurd and craven.

But I get it: We create Brownfields with almost no effort, it’s finding the public will to get them cleaned up in our present economic system makes their disappearance extremely difficult.
Those neighborhoods who have long endured Brownfields might be forgiven if they find the word ‘opportunity’ unsettling as developers and governments try to find a way to pitch cleaning up a Brownfield in a positive light. Cleaning up a Brownfield smack dab in the center of Rochester near a major university, the Genesee River, and the Genesee Park can make developers almost giddy with the prospects.  

However, Brownfields should be cleaned up because they are contaminated land that is not good for nearby residents, the vitality of the neighborhood, the natural environment, and is not the way we should be thinking about land use under Climate Change. The PLEX neighborhood would like the abandoned Vacuum Oil site cleaned up for the health of it, not necessarily as an economic opportunity for others. They’ve been living with doubt and confusion about the repercussions for their children of growing up and living in the oldest Brownfield in Rochester. They don’t want their plight compounded by the lowest level of cleanup that would continue to leave them vulnerable or the highest level of cleanup that comes with strings so strongly attached to self-serving schemes that might quite likely drive current residents out of their homes.  

PLEX knows what they want. The highest level cleanup along with Safety, Neighborhood Stabilization, Corporate Accountability, Neighborhood Maintenance Teams, a P.L.E.X. Park, a Hardware store, a Supermarket, History of Place, Ongoing Community Engagement with all parties involved in the cleanup, a Nature Preserve, and a Raised Retaining Wall (which is protecting the area’s hundred-year flood plain [see Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement]). As you know, a hundred-year-old flood plain in a time of increasing floods in our region due to Climate Change ain’t what it used to be.

In an action email by Mother’s Out Front, the urgency to make public comment in support of PLEX is neatly encapsulated:

“Vacuum Oil Refinery, which operated in Rochester in the Plymouth-Exchange area (PLEX) from 1866-1935, left a toxic mess that has lingered in Rochester for decades. The clean-up proposals are on the table, and there is a comment period going on until January 30th. It is imperative that the city hear from as many residents as possible to ensure that this clean-up is done fully, safely, and responsibly, and that the PLEX community who has contended with this area for decades be able to benefit from the improvements to come.”

Find out more about this issue at PLEX’s website here that has lots of visuals and links to important background information. Then, when you are ready to make public comment, go here, where you can find a short list of “The most important community goals” and an easy-to-fill-out-comment form that will go to the City.

Most of all, let’s get this Brownfield cleaned up to the highest standards, just as you would want if your neighborhood contained an industrial waste land.

Time passes.

* Brownfields are abandoned sites, usually in urban locations, that are tainted by either real or perceived contamination, making them undesirable for private redevelopment efforts.

More local articles on this issue:

My previous essays on Brownfields and Climate Change

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don’t sacrifice Romulus, NY for trash incineration

On Jan. 7, 2018, I attended the Trash Incinerator Forum in Romulus, NY. (A complete video of the forum is here.) The forum began with an introduction by Judith Enck, former head of the EPA Region 2, for the main speaker: Dr. Paul Connett, Professor Emeritus in Environmental Chemistry at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY.

BTW: Judith Enck is a hero due to her outspoken criticism of the Pruitt EPA.

What EPA chief Scott Pruitt promised — and what he’s done But Judith Enck, a New York-based regional EPA administrator under former President Barack Obama, said Pruitt’s rhetoric doesn’t match his record. “You can’t have clean air and you can’t have clean water if you’re going to roll back crucial environmental rules and not enforce the rules we have on the book,” said Enck, who recently returned from seeing hurricane damage in the Virgin Islands. “We’ll see the effects very soon.” (11/19/2017, Politico)

There was much in the forum that suggested that installing one of the largest waste incinerators in the USA in a small community between two of the largest of the Finger Lakes (Seneca and Cayuga) was a bad idea. This from the forum’s handout:

“It’s Bad for our Environment: A 260-foot smokestack would emit dangerous air pollutants including: dioxin, lead, mercury, particulates, acid gasses and nitrogen oxides which are a real problem for grape production. To make the same amount of energy, trash incinerations emit 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide than coal power plants. Carbon dioxide is a major cause of climate change. Burning garbage does not eliminate the need for landfills. Just like a wood stove or fire place produces ash after wood burning, burning garbage creates ash that needs to be landfilled. The fly ash is very toxic. Circular energy says they will use the ash to create new products—a bad idea that often does not work. Seneca County is already home to the Seneca Meadows Landfill. Garbage is not a renewable resource and burning garbage is not legally considered a renewable energy source in New York State. Instead, we need companies to invest in real, clear renewable energy projects such as solar, wind, geothermal, small scale hydro and fuel cells and energy efficiency. Clean energy projects create local jobs that do not pollute communities. Rather than burning garbage, we need Zero Waste policies that prioritize was reductions (plastic bag bans, polystyrene bans) recycling, and composting green waste and food waste. These are the strategies that will protect agriculture, tourism and our health. (from Seneca Lake Guardian’s handout “Keep the FLX Beautiful…”)”

As the former chair of the Rochester Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committee, I’m glad that Dr. Connett took the time to explain critical alternatives to burning waste—Zero Waste. Many regions around the country and the world are gravitating towards eliminating waste altogether by not creating it. Cradle-to-cradle design, where industry takes responsibility for their products from conception to end-of-use, promises to do just that. We need to move towards Zero Waste. We are not going to have a sustainable existence if we encourage the delusion that we can continually buy stuff then throw it in a big hole or burn it.
Communities around the country, desperate for jobs and keen to preserving their healthy environment, are going to be lured into large industry proposals as our economy and the need to accommodate a growing population advances. Despite a push by the Trump administration there are going to be few communities considering large coal operations anymore because they just don’t pay. 
As we go further into Climate Change, communities are going to be asked to support good energy options (like wind and solar), and they’ll be asked to support bad options (like sacrificing their local environment to support landfills, pipelines, Fracking operations, and trash incinerators).  It is increasingly critical that we learn to tell the difference.

The inclination of local leaders concerned about their community’s welfare is to try to strike a balance between a healthy environment and jobs. But this historical attitude doesn’t make any sense as we go deeper into Climate Change. Climate Change, the crisis of our warming planet, is also about the accumulated effects of all our past environmental abuses. Climate Change has taught us that our environment is far more sensitive to pollution and temperature rises than we thought. Climate Change action plans, like Rochester’s Climate Action Plan, highlight the priorities communities must now adopt in order to responsibly address the challenges of energy use, land use, public health, and much more. The notion of a balance between nature and jobs is a historical stance—not science.
We need to go forward in adapting to Climate Change on a scale and time frame that will matter, and avoid backtracking into unsustainable practices (like landfilling and trash incineration) that seemed to get us by in an earlier age.

Check out these wise words by the great science communicator, David Suzuki:

Consumer society no longer serves our needs How did “throw-away”, “disposable” and “planned obsolescence” become part of product design and marketing? It was deliberate. Wars are effective at getting economies moving, and the Second World War pulled America out of the Great Depression. By 1945, the American economy was blazing as victory approached. But how can a war-based economy continue in peacetime? One way is to continue hostilities or their threat. The global costs of armaments and defence still dwarf spending for health care and education. Another way to transform a wartime economy to peacetime is consumption. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776, “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.” (January 11, 2018, By David Suzuki Foundation)

Time passes. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

Undermining the public good on Climate Change--online

It’s profoundly disturbing that a bad meme like climate denial still infects the minds of so many people.  The denialists’ objective is to sow doubt on the science of Climate Change and thwart a viable future for all of us. Much is being accomplished by many virtuous people around the world to alter our behavior, so that we can address Climate Change. But many of those efforts are being seriously undermined by the Trump administration and others using insidious online tactics that must be brought to light.

You might have missed this story in the New York Times or avoided it because articles about online search engines seem a little too wonky and ‘special interest’ for the general reader. (Wonderfully, Climate Change articles are now viewed by our mainstream media as quite fitting for general public consumption.) The climate denial aspects of the article below are plain enough, but how the deniers are gaming our internet via search engines might not captivate most readers.

How Climate Change Deniers Rise to the Top in Google Searches Groups that reject established climate science can use the search engine’s advertising business to their advantage, gaming the system to find a mass platform for false or misleading claims. Type the words “climate change” into Google and you could get an unexpected result: advertisements that call global warming a hoax. “Scientists blast climate alarm,” said one that appeared at the top of the search results page during a recent search, pointing to a website, DefyCCC, that asserted: “Nothing has been studied better and found more harmless than anthropogenic CO2 release.” Another ad proclaimed: “The Global Warming Hoax — Why the Science Isn’t Settled,” linking to a video containing unsupported assertions, including that there is no correlation between rising levels of greenhouse gases and higher global temperatures. (December 29, 2018) New York Times [more on Climate Change in our area]  

Back in the early 1990’s, before I started RochesterEnvironment.com, I began a blog, Green Solitaire. My agenda, as the internet was blossoming, was to bring together as much of the increasingly available environmental information, resources, and studies as I could. The media, universities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and even branches of government themselves were putting material online free for the public. To my mind, this was a giant leap forward in information/communication about our life support system, unparalleled in history. Suddenly, everyone had access to real-time and comprehensive data about the state of our environment. RochesterEnvironment.com, which I began in 1998, does more of this sort of thing than my first website, but views the now incalculable wealth of environmental information through the lens of one community—Rochester, NY.

One of the most popular things I did on Green Solitaire was to help other environmental websites get noticed by the myriad online search engines. (What good is your information if no one can find it?) It was a lot of work trying to pool as much information about how search engines located and displayed information so that the public could find it. Back then, the internet needed a good Librarian. Those in our loosely knit group would tweak our websites so that our chances of being found were more likely. We’d figure out how to jump through the many hoops the old search engines used in order to get a high ranking.

It was an especially difficult challenge for environmental websites, as we weren’t selling anything. We were not interested in hiring companies to place us prominently on search engines and we were not going to pay for ‘hits.’ We weren’t advocating for a special interest cause, or trying to amuse a growing internet community in thrall to what this new medium could offer. Environmental information, especially before Climate Change, wasn’t an automatic attention grabber. But we tried a lot of things, including listing each other’s site on our sites.   

Then Google arrived in September of 1998. In quick order, environmental sites, any sites really, that continually put up new information and got linked with other sites got noticed. Whether they paid anyone or not. RochesterEnvironment.com did well because when you searched for anything relating to Rochester and environmental issues, my site came up early in your search. Getting environmental resources to folks looking for them became a no brainer.  

Today, things are different. Social media has become what internet visitors attend to, while websites, especially environmental websites, are often stranded by their own inherent inactivity. In other words, social media is important in driving visitors to the websites where all the accumulated information resides. But social media postings are too ephemeral for studying an issue in depth.

So, it is with great dismay that we find that rather than trying to get important information to people, especially environmental information that has always had to struggle for attention, far too many bad players are trying to game the very system meant to bring us incredibly important information. The effort to control what information people get on the internet and how they get it seems as busy an industry as information gathering itself—making it less likely the public will be informed about our environment. Within the timeframe of the rise of the internet, our past environmental concerns have morphed into the mother of all problems under the planetary crisis of Climate Change.

But instead of having a thoughtful discussion in the US on the most important crisis in the world, we are still waging a war over the facts we already know. We could have used the time since Dr. James Hansen informed Congress of the urgency of Climate Change in 1988 to better purpose. Now, decades later, after little progress in addressing Climate Change, it’s more likely there will be a stiff penalty for the procrastination resulting from the corruption of our information systems, when we could have instead been making our information feeds more useful. Killing the messenger is another craven meme humanity is all too good at.

It’s in the public’s best interest to know as much as possible about Climate Change, as this warming phenomenon grows stronger every day. It will impact every aspect of our lives—everywhere you live on Earth. It’s not in the public’s best interest to have their minds poisoned with intentional misinformation from those whose agenda is immediate self-interest.    

Time passes. 

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Addressing Climate Change via land use issues

One of the great advantages of a community (like Rochester, NY) having a Climate Action Plan (CAP) is that addressing Climate Change is clearly spelled out for its specific region--what is happening, how it’s detailed, and recommended solutions. A CAP also offers the community and the media a precise, public strategy that, by virtue of its existence, holds our leaders accountable. If you know about a catastrophe and work out a plan to deal with it, then you’re morally compelled to act on your plan.

There’s a caveat, of course: If your government, say our federal government, is holding an irrational and irresponsible position on Climate Change, then no matter how specific, how detailed, how thoroughly and expertly a report (say, the National Climate Assessment ((NCA)) is, it will lie fallow unless you the public hold your government’s feet to the fire. (Even if the Trump Administration decides to ‘sit’ on the next NCA (this will be the fourth since the President Reagan era), the media and the public can still shout it from the rooftops.) Once you actually read the NCA, it’s more likely that you’ll be convinced of the science behind Climate Change and how it will affect our nation.  [Read my article Does Climate Change matter to you? (December 4, 2017) where I discuss the next NCA and how the Trump administration is actively ignoring it.]

Addressing Climate Change requires two critical strategies—mitigation and adaptation—that sometimes overlap but must be accomplished simultaneously. Humanity needs to bring down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the same time we must adapt to the GHGs we’ve already bloated into the climate system. [See my article I wrote in anticipation of the NYC People’s Climate March just before the Paris talks: Climate Change mitigation (People’s Climate March ==> Paris 2015) & adaptation: what’s the diff? (August 2014)

In the “Land Use” section of the CAP (pages 58 and 59), the City explains how our local government views both Climate Change mitigation and adaption: 


“To achieve the goal of reducing GHG emissions, transportation-related reductions can be achieved through coordinated land use policies. In addition, there are multiple co-benefits associated with land use planning, including improved environmental health, public health, and economic vibrancy.” (Page 58, CAP)


“In the context of adaptation, land use policy is critical to improving the community’s resiliency and ability to adapt to the effects of climate change.” (Page 58, CAP)

The core of the CAP on land use demonstrates how and why our government must lead efforts in this area. Governments can adopt land use policies, design regulations and zoning standards, adopt appropriate parking management and pricing policies, and help identify locations for best implementation.

The areas where land use comes into play in the CAP are: “Coordinated Land Use and Transportation Policies”; “Transit-oriented and Mixed-Use Development (TOD)”; “Redevelopment of brownfields and vacant or underutilized properties”; “Urban Agriculture”; “EcoDistricts”; and “Parks and Open Space Planning” (Pages 58 &59, CAP). Each area offers many opportunities for government to help shape actions that will make our region more likely to adapt to Climate Change and further reduce GHG emissions. 

Local groups and individuals can do much to amplify and accelerate the City’s efforts through neighborhood associations, environmental groups, and advocacy groups. Businesses, like the recent bike-share program and the recent rise of ridesharing apps, by their own successes and failures, also alter these land use components.

We cannot ignore the important role of government in addressing Climate Change, nor can we assume they’re going to do it without our constant vigilance. We must combine our own efforts and make sure our governments act on a scale and timeframe that will matter.  

Time passes. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Is Climate Change an immediate threat?

Climate Change is an immediate threat in the sense that we are experiencing the consequences of Climate Change now and we must adapt to them. Our military has expressed many times the nature of Climate Change as a threat amplifier; so, I don’t know how the Trump and our military are going to reconcile the absurdity of climate denial as a federal policy. [See Climate Security is National Security from the  AMERICAN SECURITY PROJECT and learn the myriad ways our military understands how it will be impacted by Climate Change.]

Trump confused on climate’s security threat The new US national defence strategy appears to leave President Trump in two minds on the risk from climate’s security threat. Confused about climate’s security threat? Don’t worry – you’re not the only one. Donald Trump seems to be having great difficulty in knowing what to make of it too. He’s even explicitly contradicted a senior colleague – and himself. And he’s prompted suggestions from retired military officers that America’s armed forces will continue to prepare for the reality of climate change undeterred. The Trump administration has dropped climate change from a list of global threats in a new National Security Strategy the president has launched. Instead, President Trump’s NSS emphasises the need for the US to regain its economic competitiveness in the world, with his “America First” plan focussing on four themes surrounding economic security for the US. (December 19, 2017)Climate News Network [more on Climate Change in our area]

Meanwhile, many individuals, businesses, communities, states, and nations are trying desperately to address Climate Change knowing that the Trump administration is making adaptation and mitigation more difficult.

This latest step, where Trump couldn’t wait to address the world with his removal of Climate Change as a national security threat, seems especially sad, horrible, alarming, ideological, non-scientific, mean, delusional, dangerous, ignorant, vulnerable, wrong, hopeless, dismissive, arrogant, belligerent, spiteful, and uninformed.

Trump drops climate change from US national security strategy President outlined new approach in unprecedented White House speech Obama administration added climate to list of threats to US interests The Trump administration has dropped climate change from a list of global threats in a new national security strategy the president unveiled on Monday.  Instead, Trump’s NSS paper emphasised the need for the US to regain its economic competitiveness in the world. That stance represents a sharp change from the Obama administration’s NSS, which placed climate change as one of the main dangers facing the nation and made building international consensus on containing global warming a national security priority. (December 18, 2017) The Guardian [more on Climate Change in our area]

Trump’s decision takes our eye off the ball in many important ways—one of which is that although the Trump administration doesn’t perceive Climate Change as an immediate threat, our military and many nations and business around the world do.

In the wild ("Nature, red in tooth and claw"), fear is often expressed as aggression. If a mother bear feels threated by strangers near her cubs, she attacks. We are probably witnessing this phenomenon in North Korea’s nuclear belligerence, a great national terror that its leadership might be threatened.
Sowing confusion on critical matters like Climate Change and nuclear war isn’t a sound political strategy—it’s the lack of one.  And a dangerous one at that.

Time passes. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Human inertia on Climate Change may kill advantages of farming in a warming Northeast

Whatever advantages one might envision for farming in the Northeast as our region warms—ability to grow new crops, longer growing season, greenhouse gas effect on plants, and more rainfall—seem to be offset by the disadvantages.

The disadvantages are numerous: more spring flooding (soil erosion), more episodes of summer drought, more plant diseases, more crop pests, more volatility in frost/freeze events, and a whole lot more.   

A recently released study examines all these variables, trying to give farmers a heads up on what’s coming their way:

Unique challenges and opportunities for northeastern US crop production in a changing climate Climate change may both exacerbate the vulnerabilities and open up new opportunities for farming in the Northeastern USA. Among the opportunities are double-cropping and new crop options that may come with warmer temperatures and a longer frost-free period. However, prolonged periods of spring rains in recent years have delayed planting and offset the potentially beneficial longer frost-free period. Water management will be a serious challenge for Northeast farmers in the future, with projections for increased frequency of heavy rainfall events, as well as projections for more frequent summer water deficits than this historically humid region has experienced in the past. (Wolfe, D.W., DeGaetano, A.T., Peck, G.M. et al. Climatic Change (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-2109-7)

But still, the study concludes that, despite the disadvantages, it may not be so bad:

“On the other hand, adaptation strategies that involve diversifying production systems to cope with climate uncertainty and building resilience to rainfall uncertainty by improving soil health, and improving IPM strategies to cope with new pest and weed dynamics could have an overall positive environmental impact.” (ibid)

True, farmers can do a lot to address this crisis, as described in the study. But. One of the disadvantages not mentioned in the study is the problem of human inertia on Climate Change. Too many in the public don’t openly support the science behind Climate Change, which means it’s less likely we’ll vote for leaders based on this crisis, less likely to prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuels (which will warm the planet more), and more likely we all will be overwhelmed by the disadvantages (consequences).

For example, the study recommends that farmers use less pesticides and herbicides for the health of our waters and soil. But farming, like any other business, is more likely to address their immediate problems producing food with the most efficient and least expensive options available. Pesticide and herbicide use are usually favored over the other methods of controlling crop pests because these risky chemical fixes are easier, cheaper, and quicker than conforming to sustainable methods that don’t degrade our soil and compromise our environment. Otherwise, organic farming would outweigh traditional farming in the marketplace, which it doesn’t.

Even if farmers take advantage of all the new technology being made available to them, they must try to keep back the floods released by a culture mostly indifferent to the urgency behind this crisis.

The take-home message from this new study for me is that farming in our region is increasingly going to find historical data and practices less useful. We’ll be farming on a warmer world. We all will be living in a warmer place. The study above (along with many others) should be a wake-up call that we in the Northeast are going to have to adapt quickly to the changes warming will bring.

Scientists can help predict what problem businesses, like farming, can expect with Climate Change and even present a variety of tools and methods to deal with the changes. But scientists still haven’t figured out how to change the political climate so that we’ll act on a scale and time frame that will matter.

Hardy as they are, farmers are unlikely to address the problems of food production in a warmer Northeast on their own; they’re going to need everyone’s support to lower the speed of temperature rise in order to keep us fed. Farming, as just about everything else in our world, must be viewed through the lens of Climate Change.

Times passes.

Previous articles of mine on food and Climate Change