Sunday, December 27, 2009

Connecting the Green Dots

The Copenhagen Climate Conference is over and almost everyone, including President Obama himself, admits failure: “I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen.” (Obama on Health Reform Politics, Copenhagen Climate Outcome, 12/23/09 PBS: Newshour) Consequently, depending on how you connect the dots of this historic event, you will tend to view Copenhagen as positive, negative, or not relevant to your life.

‘Green Dots’, or specific environmental events like say an oil spill or an attempt by 190 nations to come to an agreement on how to tackle climate change, can be connected in many ways in the public’s mind. I mean this in the sense that one has the inalienable right to view these events in any way they wish. Logic or using science as your model for framing arguments may not be your thing.

A corporation might view Copenhagen as a success because it wouldn’t be compelled to conform to some arbitrary carbon capping. Just as possible, a corporation might view attempts to set a world-wide standard on carbon trading as positive since reducing carbon emissions on their own would be a corporate wildcard: there would be no way to measure and thus compete with other corporations on curbing these warming gases.

If you’re a climate change denier, you might relish Copenhagen’s dysfunctional status, as it simply confirms your conviction that climate change is all a hoax and better removed as a spoiler of our petroleum-based economy. Or, climate change deniers might just hate greenies, just because it’s fashionable in some circles.

If you are like many Americans, you might not care one way or the other whether Copenhagen was a success or not. Some may not find anything connecting Copenhagen to anything in their life. According to a “…recent Harris Poll, among the latest of several over the past year, shows that barely half of the American public believes that the carbon dioxide that's building up in the atmosphere could warm up our planet.” “For Public, Climate Change Not A Priority Issue : NPR Dec.7, 09) In other words, about half of us are not connecting the dots between the evidence and the word of most scientists about the causal relationships between the buildup of greenhouse gases and Climate Change in any rational, logical, or scientific way.

This is disturbing because if you were listening to the reports coming out of Copenhagen, many people around the world are getting annoyed at American intransigence on not making concessions to those who have not had a chance to develop their nations—as we have gobbled up much of the commons, especially our atmosphere’s and ocean’s ability to absorb any more carbon dioxide.

Actually, there’s only one way to connect the green dots. Our ability to connect the dots in our lives in any haphazard way we wish will become vanishingly small as we bump up against Nature’s uncompromising laws. Then, we’ll adapt (if we can) and our lives will be driven by those constraints whether we like it or not. Copenhagen’s failure was not Obama’s failure; it was ours.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Earth-fixing Gadgets

In the back of many modern minds there probably nestles the comforting conviction that science will get us out of our twenty-first century environmental mess. It must be so because despite all signs that world-wide pollution rages on, our climate changes, and our oceans are dying, we go happily along as if there were no tomorrow. Instead of making the hard ethical choices need to get six billion souls focused on our environment, we trust in technology.

That’s a curious attitude given most of our own experiences with technology. Most of the gadgets we buy work for awhile and then, as if planned, go kaput. Or, they work but too often with those irritating idiosyncrasies that make us wonder if they are really worth it.

For instance: I have this cordless vacuum cleaner that I’ve had for years and battle with weekly. First, I vacuum a room and the gadget eagerly eats every little crumb, cheerfully as you could imagine. But, when it comes time to reattach it to its power supply it consistently refuses to engage. Sometimes, I have to slam it into its cradle ten times before the light comes on and indicates that it’s feeding. Or, sometimes, it won’t connect until after inserting it twenty times. So, I give up and come back to it another day. Eventually, it works—almost as advertized. (Of course, if I had any Mr. Fix-it skills, I’d learn how to arrange the contact points so that it would work each time.) Anyway, my point is that our reliance on our gadgets is often an irrational one held by an imperfect being who designed these darn things in the first place.

Pursuing this notion further, are we ready to entrust the working of our planet to gadgets we make? I’m not talking about the innocuous gadgets like bicycles or energy efficient light bulbs, or those IPod Apps that show you the best route to the airport. If these things breakdown, our planet won’t go belly up. I’m talking about some of the more invasive technologies that assume we know a whole lot more about the working of our biosphere than we actually do.

Some enterprising individuals have marched out some ‘interesting’ technologies to combat climate change, including a mechanism to spew out volcanic dust into the atmosphere, or spray salt particulates into the air; a solar umbrella; a way to dump massive quantities of iron ore into our oceans; and carbon sequestration. None of which has been tried on a planetary scale and whose advocates have the neither the desire nor capability to test all the possible ramifications to our environment. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still believe in gadgets: once you wind them up they just keep doing their thing, often elegantly so, forever.

However, all the manmade concoctions in the world won’t make up for the collective brain power of people focused on sustainability. People using their brain power, which includes their knowledge of each other, science, reason, culture, business, governance, and their attitudes towards each other, must make the choices that will promote a sustainable environment. We cannot relegate that responsibility to gadgets. Yet, judging from the delusion that was Copenhagen (BBC News - Climate summit: Where's the beef? 12/19/09), we must still think that something other than ourselves can solve our environmental woes.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bat News

One of the many reasons why I believe our present mainstream media are mostly dysfunctional concerns this story about a major decline in bats in our area.  Seems to the press that bats aren’t too popular and won’t bring in the big bucks the media wants. 

So, connecting the dots about the major role bats play in our local environment (controlling insects, providing food for the predators we do like, etc.) and getting in the public’s face about this issue is not there.  We should care about this issue because it is a rapid change in our environment that may have grave consequences. 

Tt has nothing to do about what the press might think the public cares about bats.  The public is becoming increasing removed from knowledge about the working of their environment—which we need to survive—because our media doesn’t know how to present environmental issues—which need to be continual, focused on connecting the dots, and investigative reporting on all the possible consequence of any change or potential change in our environment.

More stories in the media about the decline in bat population would generate more interest in the public and perhaps more funding to get at the bottom of this issue and how it might change our environment here in the Rochester, NY region.

DEC Survey Shows Bat Populations down 90 Percent in Caves Impacted by "White Nose Syndrome" - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation Wide-ranging, Coordinated Research Effort Continuing; NY Gearing Up for Next Round of Winter Surveys Populations of some bat species have plummeted more than 90 percent in Northeast caves impacted by "White Nose Syndrome," according to an extensive investigation by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Commissioner Pete Grannis announced today. (December 16, 09) Press Releases - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation [more on Wildlife]

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bicycle Friendly Rochester

There are those who believe that Transportation in Rochester could be a bicycle friendly community as Copenhagen. That would be something to behold.

Check out: Streetfilms | Copenhagen’s Climate-Friendly, Bike-Friendly Streets "Tens of thousands of people from nearly every nation on earth have descended on Copenhagen this month for the UN climate summit. As the delegates try to piece together a framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they're also absorbing lessons from one of the world's leading cities in sustainable transportation. In Copenhagen, fully 37 percent of commute trips are made by bike, and mode share among city residents alone is even higher. "

Monday, December 14, 2009

Acid Rain

We haven't' heard much about Acid Rain lately. Back in 1998, when I started RochesterEnvironment.com, I had an entire page devoted to Acid Rain and it was very busy because many were concerned about dead lakes in the Adirondacks at the time. I don't know the state of Acid Rain now, but I suspect things have gotten better, not that it has fallen off mainstream’s agenda, or that it’s been solved.

What I do remember, is that Elliot Spitzer, our former NYS Attorney General, was instrumental combating this problem. Soon, I’ll do an article on this subject because I am curious as to why Acid Rain is not such a hot topic. Just because an environmental issue is not being reported on by mainstream does not mean that it should be an environmental concern.

Here's why I brought up the matter: Acid Rain Program 2008 Progress Reports | Progress Reports | Clean Air Markets | Air & Radiation | US EPA EPA has released a series of reports that evaluate progress under the Acid Rain Program (ARP) in 2008 by examining emission reductions, reviewing compliance results and market activity, and comparing changes in emissions to changes in pollutant concentrations. The first report was released in July 2009, followed by additional releases through December 2009.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

If Your Grid Is Dirty

If you are getting your power from a dirty electric grid, you are using dirty power. In other words, if your electric lamp is plugged into a system that is powered somewhere along your power line with a power generator that pollutes or emits greenhouse gases into our atmosphere (or otherwise harms our environment), your lamp is using dirty power. (Presently, we New Yorkers get 18% of our power from coal; 17% from hydroelectric, 1% wind, 1% biomass, 1% solar, 1% solid waste, 12% oil, 29% nuclear, and 22% natural gas.)

This is not an opinion or a particularly profound insight. But it is a quirk of human nature that our species, since it became a cultural being instead of a hunter gatherer, tends to see what it wants to see—if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. Meaning, in this case, if you don’t see that dirty power plant polluting the planet at the end of your plug, you can allow yourself to think that you aren’t significantly contributing to global warming. Hence, if you don’t wish to educate yourself about how we get our energy from mostly coal and gas and other non-renewable sources (or even to bother your pretty little head about it), our culture makes that chimera convenient .

Consequently, if you don’t wish to see it, it’s quite easy to miss. The coal power plant that runs your lights is far away, and the damage it’s doing not immediately apparent—in the way that it’s not immediate apparent to an uneducated mind that the earth is oblong spheroid not flat. But on the other hand, a wind turbine appears to some people to be very damaging, spinning its colossal blades, making odd noises, flickering sunlight if you look at it from just the right angle. And it may well be very offending to your sensibilities.

However, as annoying as wind or solar power may be to some, neither wind nor solar power contributes to global warming by polluting the atmosphere. This makes renewable energy quite a scale of difference from non-renewable or dirty energy. The neighborhood cat roaming your neighborhood, screeching at night and killing some birds at your feeder, is annoying, but a tiger on the loose is altogether different. Renewable energy options have their issues and need to be addressed, but we can deal with them. But, like the tiger analogy, there’s no way to make coal clean.

Our way of living, removed as it is from mere subsistence by labor-saving devices, has created an illusion out of our environment for some. Our houses, our skyscrapers, roads, and all the other stuff we have piled on to mitigate the harshness of nature has so thrown into the background the mechanism of our environment—wetlands, streams, lakes, our atmosphere--that many have conveniently forgotten or not educated themselves that we need a certain amount of these natural elements to sustain our environment. And, of course, there are those whose agendas include making darn sure you keep your illusions so their income and livelihood stays secure.

If you just don’t care if the power you use to power your stuff is dirty, that is another kettle of fish entirely.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Nature Doesn't Play Ball

It is an interesting (and scary) phenomenon that more that half of the people polled in our region don’t think Climate Change is serious enough to address now.  For one thing, if those who do think it’s a serious matter, but don’t want to see our country address it now for the sake of other matters, when do they think it should be addressed. 

Given the long lag time before much of the drastic effects of Climate Change will be observable by the untrained eye by the time the public does think it’s time to address Climate Change it will be long too late—as many of the conditions of climate change are already occurring and at a much faster rate than predicted. 

The question in the poll should have been not whether you think Climate Change is serious and should be addressed now, but “do you think our species is capable to addressing this issue at all.”  As evidenced by this poll and other polls, I don’t think most ‘get’ the problem of Climate Change.  

The Climate Change problem is like the person who takes drugs problem: regardless of all your other problems, there is going to come a point soon in which climate change will be our only problem because we did not address it at the appropriate point.

Readers are closely split on climate change issue | Rochester Business Journal New York business news and information By a narrow margin, respondents to this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll say they do not think climate change is a serious global problem that needs to be addressed now. (December 11, 09) Home | Rochester Business Journal New York business news and information [more on Climate Change in our area]

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Climate Change: Are We Off the Hook?

It must be heartwarming for climate change skeptics that the recent climate email flare-up in the news (In e-mails, science of warming is hot debate - washingtonpost.com) seems to question the validity of the current Climate Crisis. Nothing dilutes action like doubt. For action, especially wholesale planetary action on curbing global warming gases might have a devastating effect on the status quo of those thriving in our present economy. And that possible scenario must create great apprehension in the hearts of those whose ideology and values seem threatened by an abrupt, massive movement towards a sustainable way of life.

(On the other hand, maybe what this climate email frenzy is really about is the need some scientists feel to circumvent a dysfunctional media and take their sense of urgency straight to the public. However, that’s a formula for disaster. Scientists aren’t particularly good at shaping public opinion. Pandering to the public is the bailiwick of the press.)

In my opinion, a better model than bedlam in the media and Congress for addressing something as incredibly vast as the climate change debate is a two-tiered approach. Whether the planet is warming up is the job of the scientists and what to do about it should be up to the rest of us: the public, government, business, and the media. Lag time, how long it take Earth’s climate to actually change, means the latter group must act long before the probable consequences. Scientists need to have the space to do their vital task—determining all the possible consequences of forcing more global warming gasses into our atmosphere and offering a list of viable solutions.

Our mainstream media seems to be having both discussions at the same time and the same place. It’s like an argument between the pilots and the passengers on where to land the plane. The hard question is not “Is the science of global warming messier than they [the climate scientists] have admitted?”--it is whether humanity can actually work together to combat a common plight. At present, we aren’t doing all that well. Lots of finger-pointing, the blame game, who’s going to pay, and still (after two decades of research) ‘is Climate Change really happening’?

We’re going to have to get our act together on Climate Change soon. It’s humanity’s first real crack at taking responsibility for the entire planet. Likewise, what we do or don’t will have profound consequences on the future. We aren’t off the hook.

That is to say, we all have a role in this decision on how to combat Climate Change, not just those in Copenhagen. Whether it’s what you buy, what media you support, who you vote for, or just about anything you do, it will affect our planet. But not everyone is a scientist and has the skill, intelligence, training, or accumulative knowledge to make the case for or against this issue. Creating the illusion in the press that all opinions on the science of Climate Change have the same weight is not helpful—except to make money for the media, which thrives on controversy.