Sunday, June 10, 2012

Climate Change, a failure of leadership and courage

If you are accustomed to gathering environmental news from around this region, you must have come across this news that Syracuse has completed a draft Sustainability Plan.
Comments sought on Syracuse sustainability plan The city of Syracuse has published a draft “sustainability plan” and is seeking public comments. The plan sets goals for the city in five areas: energy and green building; waste and recycling; natural environment; food systems and education. (May 23, 2012)
There has been scant attention to it here in Rochester, except for this sour note:
Lofty goals for Syracuse's first sustainability plan | Innovation Trail The city of Syracuse wants to get half its power from renewable energy sources by 2020. That's just one of the targets laid out in a draft version of Syracuse's first sustainability plan [PDF]. (May 31, 2012)Innovation Trail
In truth this ‘sustainability plan’ is a ‘climate action plan’, and it’s a darn shame the authors and those who handled the authors failed in courage to call it what it is. These two sentences, buried in the first paragraph of the introduction, reveal this document’s true nature:

While the use of this energy has led to the success of Syracuse as a cultural, economic and educational hub in New York State it also comes at a cost. The burning of fossil fuels for energy is the single largest contributor to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. (Page 5, Syracuse Sustainability Plan)

Other than failing to own up to the fact that it is a climate action plan, it is not a lofty plan but a very realistic and environmentally sound position that a Northeast city in the midst of a warming planet should take. Just to emphasize what a myriad of official Climate Change Studies keep telling us, our planet is warming, and this spring was the warmest ever:
Warmest U.S. spring on record: NOAA | Reuters (Reuters) - So far, 2012 has been the warmest year the United States has ever seen, with the warmest spring and the second-warmest May since record-keeping began in 1895, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported on Thursday. Temperatures for the past 12 months and the year-to-date have been the warmest on record for the contiguous United States, NOAA said. The average temperature for the contiguous 48 states for meteorological spring, which runs from March through May, was 57.1 degrees F (13.9 C), 5.2 degrees (2.9 C) above the 20th century long-term average and 2 degrees F (1.1 C) warmer than the previous warmest spring in 1910. (June 7, 2012) Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News |
There are many wonderful aspects to this Syracuse draft, and I hope Rochester, when it gets around to it, adopts many of its provisions. For example, in this paragraph about food systems that are greatly influence by energy use, it mentions ‘social justice’:
What we eat seems like a matter of individual consumer choice. Yet, before food even reaches the table, it has been influenced by the decisions made by farmers, distributors, grocery store managers and other businesses, food banks, and government at all levels. Each decision has consequences not only for our health but also for the health of the environment, energy consumption, the economy and social justice. However it is difficult to see the consequences of these decisions, especially as they are often made in a piecemeal, isolated fashion. (Page 18, Syracuse Sustainability Plan
Holy cow! Did I actually read that a local government concedes that addressing food issues and Climate Change was also about social justice? Scotland was able to say it and not be vilified by the free market fundamentalists, but here in one of the major Climate Change denial countries, it just takes one’s breath away.
Scotland announces 'climate justice' fund for world's poorest | Global development | The scheme will focus on helping people in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia cope with the effects of climate change | The Scottish government has unveiled a £3m initiative to help people in the world's poorest countries adapt to the impact of climate change. The climate justice fund, launched in Edinburgh on Thursday, will disburse the money in equal instalments over the next three years to support water projects in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. The scheme, which provides new funding rather than drawing on Scotland's existing overseas aid budget, was announced by Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, and the former Republic of Ireland president Mary Robinson. Both called on rich nations to reduce carbon emissions, arguing that the developing world bears the brunt of flooding, drought and other natural disasters, despite doing little to cause such events. (June 6, 2012) Latest US news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | | The Guardian
There are other measures in the report worth mentioning for their insight and responsible planning. Get this -- they’re suggesting to “Create and implement a municipal street lighting energy reduction strategy...” because “…in 2010, street lighting accounted for 33% of all electric use at the City. It also represents the largest percentage of the City’s utility bill.” (Page 18, Syracuse Sustainability Plan) Holy cow, again. (Sorry, I’m running out of superlatives.) Who knew that street lighting gobbled up so many tax dollars and burned so much (fossil fuel) energy? I wonder what percentage of Rochester’s electric bill street lighting takes up. Some nifty solar panels atop each pole powering our street lights would look really nice here in Rochester.

There’s more: route optimization for example. “Fully implement DPW route optimization recommendations for trash and recycling pick-up. Identify other opportunities for route optimization across departments.”(18) Imagine how much tax payer money and greenhouse gases can be reduced by the entire City of Rochester, maybe even the Country of Monroe, if all stepped back and rethought and consolidated routes covered by their gas guzzling vehicles?

Improving active (walking and bicycling) transportation, as always, is recommended: “Encourage alternative modes of transportation by improving City infrastructure for multi-modal transportation that enhances appeal and safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and wheel chair users.” Rochester is doing their part with City of Rochester | ROC the Bike! But, again, there is no connecting the dots between active transportation and solving Climate Change by using these methods.

The report mentions deconstruction (which I’ve mentioned a lot in the past) and they mention education and training: “Raise a generation of environmental stewards to tackle the unique environmental issues associated with urban living and living with global climate change” (16). (See, they slipped in Climate Change again.) They also talk about urban forestry and capturing rainwater to ease the load on waste treatment plants.

In all it’s a very good report, but failing to call this plan what it is—an attempt by government to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change—creates the dangerous illusion in the public that the warming we are experiencing is normal. Failing to admit that conditions are so dire that major adjustments need to be made to our way of living enables our leaders to attempt the impossible: Solving Climate Change without informing the public.

The President of the United State is taking that tack by failing to even mention Climate Change in the 2011 State of the Union Address, and expressing that it is too toxic to talk about in this 2012 Address. Obama is using his energy policy Energy, Climate Change and Our Environment to wag the Climate Change dog. He thrusts energy solutions towards a problem that includes Climate Change but does not dare inconvenience the public, the media, or the political arena with all the implications of solving this issue. Because, presumably, it’s too toxic. So, we have to try and solve Climate Change by using just an energy plan, while we dragged our feet at the Durban Climate talks, and we are going to drag our feet at the Rio+20 - United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development coming up in a few days.

Closer to home, Governor Cuomo also dropped the ball on climate action and went for the energy switcheroo: The New York Climate Change Advisory Group, created under Governor Patterson, published an exhaustive Climate Action Plan The New York State Climate Action Plan Interim Report, which addressed the issues confronting our state due to Climate Change, but that effort has been quietly thwarted. The present governor won’t reconvene the New York Climate Change Advisory Group, according to NRDC’s Ready or Not report. This means Cuomo doesn’t have to mention Climate Change under his new energy plan--New York Energy Highway--and can push Fracking, which, if anything goes wrong (and it will), means he won’t even get elected dog catcher—let alone US President in 2016.

So does it matter if our leaders don’t use ‘Climate Change’ in their official language, but take on many of the policies that would address Climate Change anyway? Yes, it matters whether our government places Climate Change before energy, even though bad energy got us into this dismal state. It matters because we cannot just possibly get the public on board with the incredible changes to our environment, our economics, and our system of justice, if the government does not lead.
For example, locally there are three issues—off-shore wind farms, Fracking, and Great Lakes water levels-- that should be orchestrated under the rubric of Climate Change but are not. Instead, they are viewed in the public’s mind as ad hoc, special interests, and unconnected to anyone except those with enough energy and time to pursue them.

Off-shore wind, which is still being pursued despite the death of the New York Power Authority’s Great Lakes Off-Shore Wind Program (GLOW), is an important component of renewable energy. Renewable energy, on the scale that could be produced by off-shore wind power, could dramatically reduce our need for fossil fuels, if connected with battery storage, energy efficiency, energy conservation, and a smart grid. Without the governor leading a discussion with Climate Change as the lens through which to understand this issue, wind power becomes the prey of shoreline property owners who don’t want their view despoiled by those ugly turbines.

As for the current brouhaha over Fracking, natural gas is a fossil fuel, a greenhouse gas, and it can potentially harm our fresh water. Though this issue has been hotly debated for the last year in New York State, Climate Change never enters the argument, allowing the illusion that this dangerous energy option has nothing to do with our ability to survive. The failure of leadership on Climate Change and Fracking makes the conversation we are having about Fracking delusional.

And finally, with the International Joint Commission’s recommendation that the Great Lakes water level policy be changed, we are arguing about boat docks, shoreline beach property and boating but not about the fact that Climate Change is going to lower the levels of the Great Lakes anyway (see Landowners Tell Commission Not To Change Lake Levels - Climate studies (check out Confronting Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region Impacts on Our Communities and Ecosystems ) suggest that there will be reduced ice coverage on the Great Lakes which will increase evaporation and lower lake levels. But this is not discussed in town meetings, in the media, or anywhere else except between the covers of some unread Great Lakes Climate Studies.

My hope is that Rochester, NY doesn’t drop the ball when it comes out with its own Climate action plan. I know Rochester cares and understands Change (see City of Rochester | Climate and Environment Protection Resolution) but saying you care isn’t enough. You have to write the words ‘Climate Change’ into the heading of your official policy so the public and the media’ gets’ it. Then, Rochester’s plan needs to be linked to Syracuse’s plan, and then all the cities in New York State, then all the states, and then all the countries. It’s a planetary problem.

Whether Climate Change is considered too toxic for beltway politics or not, it is physics. Failure by our leaders to adopt comprehensive, planet-wide, policies to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change won’t even slow the warming down. Those who still think that Climate Change is far off and not something to worry about now have our leaders to blame.

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