Saturday, February 23, 2013

What would Massasoit decide on Climate Change?


DCRally2013While on a (full) bus out of Rochester, NY to attend the "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington, DC last Sunday, I got to wondering about this incredible time of ours. We sit on the shores of history on the precipice of world-transforming change. It’s time to reflect about what guides our thinking. I’m thinking it’s not mainstream media.

The rally in Washington included a stop at the National World War II Memorial where several hundred of us from New York State rallied against Fracking (drilling for fossil fuels) in New York that got almost no media coverage. Thursday’s anti-Fracking in downtown Rochester, as Governor Cuomo visited , got almost no media coverage either except for a short mention in an article in the Democrat and Chronicle (last three paragraphs) and a more robust article in the non-mainstream Rochester IndyMedia: Protesters Greet Governor With Message About Fracking

The "Forward on Climate" rally brought 50,000 concerned folks to the streets of our capitol on Climate Change. I could not find a vantage point from which to see all 50,000 the crowd was so large. Relatively few mainstream media covered this event, though many new media outlets like EcoWatch and Democracy Now! did. And a couple of weeks ago at the world premiere screening of COMFORT ZONE, a local film about Climate Change, the seats were full, yet there was no media coverage after the screening to get the reaction of local folks to this world-wide crisis.

Many folks are getting alarmed but still not enough to make a real difference in how much greenhouse gases we release into our atmosphere. (Good intentions by only a few won’t do; it’s a problem of physics.) What’s going on? Shouldn’t the warming of our planet merit more interest than a relative few who the mainstream media repeatedly ignores? What’s to tell seven billion people what to do?

The media tells us that only the next thing that moves is worthy of our attention. Philosophy tells us that neo-Darwinism (reductionism) may not fully explain reality and consciousness. Psychology tells us whether we are acting and thinking like everyone else. History tells us change happens. Economics tells us that only money matters. Politicians tell us only what we want to hear. Astronomy tells us that a lot of very intelligent folks are focused on something that won’t matter much if we don’t address Climate Change. Religion tells us to have faith. Our own senses tell us that here in Rochester, New York it’s cold outside. Science tells us the world is warming due to manmade emissions of greenhouse gases at a rate faster than ever in recorded history.

How do we (in the collective sense) filter what’s important from all the noise around us? Do we continue to wait and see if Climate Change cooks us? Or do we act now? If we are ever to get visited by aliens, as Dr. Sagan (of SETI Institute) suggested, now would be a good time. Their mere existence on our planet would prove intelligent beings can make it through rapid development without extincting themselves.

Massasoit of the Wampanoags watched the pilgrims in the early 1600’s perish in large numbers, as they struggled to survive during their first harsh winter in the New World. Far outnumbering these new people from afar, the Wampanoag chief wondered whether he should help them or just exterminate the invaders to his lands.

It would be interesting to know what his thoughts were as he sat upon the shores and looked into the rising sun. He was the leader of his people at a very important juncture of history. His people were being devastated by diseases and threatened by nearby Indians. If he helped these new people, a people with guns and many more to come across the sea, they might help him against his enemies. Or these new people, with their strange ways, might overwhelm his people. It must have crossed Massasoit’s mind that incredible changes, whatever he decided, were coming. What guided his actions at such a point in his history when there was nothing like it before to guide him?

After much thought Massasoit chose to help the pilgrims to survive their wintry ordeal.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Environmentalists will Occupy Our Capitol on Climate Change this Sunday


The #ForwardOnClimate Rally this Sunday has been billed as “The largest climate rally in U.S. history.” Environmentalists (those aware that we actually occupy our environment) are coming from around the country to demonstrate their commitment to adapting to and mitigating Climate Change. We have to adapt to Climate Change because even if we stop all greenhouse gas emission right now and get our carbon diet from our present 395 parts per million (ppm) to a sensible 350ppm, there is probably 50 to 100 years of warming coming anyway because we didn’t fix this sooner. Mitigation is stopping accelerated anthropogenic Climate Change in its tracks. And, as long as I’m defining things, an anti-environmentalist is a creature that does not occupy this or any other planet.

On Valentine’s Day 48 leaders got themselves arrested as a prelude to the rally to emphasize that the fossil fuel burning era must end. One of the 48 was “Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who was arrested in the first act of civil disobedience in the organization’s 120-year history.” (2/14/2013 Democracy Now!). We are wicked proud of Brune; listen to this news video after his arrest. (Complete disclosure: I am a proud card-carrying Sierra Club member, former chair of the Rochester, NY group, present webmaster, and present chair of transportation and Zero Waste committees.)

The specific goal of the rally is to push President Obama to stop the XL Keystone Pipeline from snaking its way through the US from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. To help you get your head around the urgency behind stopping this dirty pipeline, you have to watch this hour-long video, White Water, Black Gold, as explained by the great folks at EcoWatch. Putting all that dirty, costly tar into the world commons (our atmosphere to which every creature and every country has an indelible right) would be game over.

This massive rally, an absolute need nowadays if you’re going to grab our present dysfunctional media’s attention, allows us to hold a mirror up to ourselves and demonstrate that we are willing to move out of our comfort zone to change how we get and use energy. I’m sure the Climate Change deniers will be on the sidelines (though they will still experience a planet warming up and all that comes with that) carping about the hypocrisy of those who used fossil fuels to get to an anti-fossil fuel rally.

They have a point, I guess, if you think thousands of folks concerned about the fate of all of us should have started out on foot to get to the rally—a month ago. Truth is we are all complicit in our use of fossil fuel. We cannot escape it. Even those living a low-impact lifestyle have to have their homes heated, their electric grid fueled by something, usually fossil fuel, and even the bikes we ride had to have the metals forged by something burning. This truth should not obscure the larger truth that we have to move this system that we are all a part of to a system that uses renewable energy.

The problem of complicity on burning fossil fuels is that the fossil fuel industry, which takes billions in subsides (your tax dollars) each year and Congress, which panders to the fossil fuel industry like a hungry little lap dog, makes it difficult to get renewable fuel options. Unless you can live in a cave in the cold, at this point you have no choice but to live with burning fossil fuels. But don’t be crippled by this forced complicity. Not lifting your hand to stop the proliferation of greenhouse gas emissions because you had no other choice is like a freed prisoner keeping his chains on because he always had to wear them in the crowbar hotel.

Don’t fall into the guilty consumer conundrum. There’s really only one thing you need to know about Climate Change: We get our carbon addiction under control or we cook. Big changes to our present carbon-burning system happening right now are the only thing that matters.

Lincoln said at the beginning of his presidency, which coincided with the start of our Civil War:

My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.. .

The point is that Climate Change is the immediate threat to our future existence, just as winning the civil war was the immediate concern to Lincoln. For Lincoln, his first priority was about saving the union. He cared about the plight of the slaves, about hunger, about peace, about many, many things, but until he preserved the union he could solve none of these other problems. That was the point of the Gettysburg address:

…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

At this point in time, two-thousand and thirteen, we do not want to perish from the earth because Climate Change seems intractable. You can do things about Climate Change in a big way. If you cannot come to the rally and absolutely stun the media into recognition of the public’s concern on Climate Change by a turnout of thousands upon thousands, then read this: “Federal Advisory Committee Draft Climate Assessment Report Released for Public Review” and browbeat your media into connecting the dots with what you find in the study and what you experience locally. You paid good money for this federally-funded study that is backed by hundreds of climate experts and includes the climate concerns of 13 branches of the federal government. Don’t read about the study; read the study.

Also, help back this Boxer/Sanders bill to fill that gaping hole in our economics (externalities) that turns a blind eye to environmental destruction by loony corporations who believe money, not biology and physics, rules.

BREAKING: Senators Boxer and Sanders Introduce Climate Legislation On the heels of President Obama’s call to action in his State of the Union address and the arrest of 48 environmental, civil rights and community leaders at a protest of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have introduced the first serious climate legislation since cap and trade failed to pass the Senate in 2009. The bill would put a $20/ton fee on the dangerous carbon pollution driving climate impacts like Hurricane Sandy, raising trillions of dollars to offset any impact on consumers and create new investment in renewable energysources. “The leading scientists in the world who study climate change now tell us that their projections in the past were wrong; that, in fact, the crisis facing our planet is much more serious than they had previously believed,” Sanders told a news conference in the Senate environment committee hearing room. The proposal was drafted as two measures, the Climate Protection Act and the Sustainable Energy Act. For a summary, click here.  (February 14, 2013) EcoWatch

Talk to you after the rally…

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Getting the squirrel to see Climate Change in Rochester, NY


TheSquirrelThe squirrel doesn’t believe in Climate Change. As a matter of fact, as a squirrel, it thinks that today’s two feet of snow in twenty degrees has always existed. Yesterday means nothing to him. As for the future, fuhgeddaboudit.

The squirrel doesn’t care about Climate Change either. It mostly cares about nuts, its young, and interesting-smelling places where it might have buried its nuts. It’s very forgetful. Its attention is continually stolen by passersby, the latest bird feeder design, and cats. Climate Change, the accelerated anthropogenic warming of our planet since the 1850’s, is so out of its personal credulity zone as to be ludicrous. The squirrel cannot imagine Climate Change, so it doesn’t exist for the squirrel.

It should care about Climate Change. Clever though it is, the squirrel doesn’t realize that the trees that produce the nuts it likes so much may be jeopardy.

Tree species composition of northeast forests has shifted slowly in response to climate for thousands of years. However, current human-accelerated climate change is much more rapid and it is unclear how forests will respond to large changes in suitable habitat - Changing climate, changing forests: The impacts of climate change on forests of the northeastern United States and eastern Canada(2012) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

Unfortunately, the squirrel here in Rochester, NY doesn’t notice many of the Climate Changes that are going around it. “Spring bloom dates in the Northeast are now, on average, four to eight days earlier than in the 1960s”,from Climate Change and New York's Future; Lake Ontario’s ice cover has decreased by a whopping 88 percent since 1973, from Wildlife in a Warming World; less snow in the winter, from Protect Our Winters; changes in habitat suitability, from U.S. Global Change Research Program; changes in wildlife distribution, from Warming Winters Threaten America’s Outdoor Traditions - National Wildlife Federation; higher temperatures and increased heat waves, from Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID); more frosts and radiation frost and advective frost; from Indicators of Climate Change in the Northeast 2005; an increase in respiratory diseases, from Integrated Assessment for Effective Climate Change Adaptation Strategies in New York State; and, ozone pollution will get worse, from Report: Climate Change Could Worsen Ozone Pollution, Threatening Our Health and Economy | Union of Concerned Scientists .

In fact the squirrel is loathe to read long and drawn out studies of any sort, let along Climate Change studies. That’s too bad because if it did, it could plan for the changes.

The squirrel doesn’t notice these things because the squirrel doesn’t read the news, listen to it, or watch it. It’s very attuned to the present world around it, which it is why it will probably fare quite well in a warming world (provided the trees and the environment it needs are still sustainable). But it doesn’t think beyond the moment.

Actually, if the squirrel did think beyond the moment; if the squirrel cared about tomorrow’s nut; if the squirrel only listened to local media, the squirrel probably wouldn’t learn much about Climate Change. Except for a very few outlets, our local media does not connect the dots between the findings of Climate Change in our region and the news. Rochester City Newspaper has run several articles of this type recently: Taking stock of the changing climate, Climate change: extreme farming , and Climate's politics problem. But they are the exception, not the rule.

What does grab the squirrel’s attention are things that move very fast. If things are moving very slowly, it bores the squirrel to death. This is why cats and other creatures that like to stalk can actually catch the squirrel. To the squirrel’s limited attention span, stalking creatures, and seemingly slow-moving catastrophes like Climate Change, are invisible to it. They appear to be not moving, and therefore not threatening. In order to inform the squirrel about important things that move too slowly, you need to speed things up. You need make it flicker and dazzle the squirrel with information the squirrel finds critical to its existence, like the future of nuts, in an interesting and compelling way.

Take the squirrel to the world premiere of Comfort Zone on Wednesday February 13, 2013 at the Little Theatre! It’s part of the Greentopia Film Festival, where all who care about a sustainable existence get together and learn stuff that’s important to our existence—in a compelling, interesting way. The squirrel with thank you because the squirrel is very clever, very busy, and very much a part of the solution to our sustainable world.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Planning for Climate Change requires learning from ‘fortunate occurrences’


DontDrinkThe release this week of two more Climate Change Studies (NOAA, USGS: Climate change impacts to U.S. coasts threaten public health, safety and economy and Wildlife in a Warming World) got me wondering: how many have actually read a Climate Change report instead of reading about them? Though filled with data and dry statistics, they are not boring because they are scientific observations about warming and specific plans to deal with all that. What can be more compelling reading than the probable fate of everything you hold dear, and plans to sustain that, from experts who know what they are talking about? Sure, some of the information is educated guess work; but all are based on the best available scientific information. The sum total of this information is that we (meaning everybody) need to get moving on this. Proper planning is essential.

When engineers planned the Erie Canal back in the early 1800’s, a 363-mile ditch across our region’s environment, they rigorously tried to anticipate all the environmental and engineering problems that would arise in such an ambitions enterprise. Though only forty feet wide and an average of 4 feet deep, it had to run across hundreds of small streams and rivers, around and sometimes through mountains--without losing water. But most thought it would be well worth it because it would give folks a transportation system capable of carrying 30 tons of goods up to 2 miles per hour. It doesn’t sound like much until you realize that before the canal you could only carry one ton at one mile per hour on a wagon pulled by team of horses, but only if the roads were clear and dry.

The canal’s engineers (hydrologists) got some stuff in their planning right and they got some stuff wrong. At one point they got lucky. During the early stages, the engineer’s plans were interrupted by a flood, called a ‘fortunate occurrence’ from the perspective of many decades later.

A fortunate occurrence of a severe flood in 1817 when construction began provided such clear and present evidence of the flood potentials of the Mohawk River, which the canal followed for 100 miles, as to compel putting the canal at a high level in difficult terrain. Otherwise, there can be little doubt that the Erie Canal would have been of no more use for transport than the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was put out of service repeatedly by floods on the Potomac River. Hydrology and environmental aspects of Erie Canal (1817-99) 1976, Langbein, Walter Basil USGS Water Supply Paper: 2038 (Page 48)

In other words, without that flood the engineers wouldn’t have planned for big floods. At that time, they didn’t have a long enough time perspective on what our climate could dish out to make a sustainable canal. As soon as the flood of 1817 came along, two years after starting construction of the canal, they got the picture and adjusted accordingly.

This ‘fortunate occurrence’ offers a local lesson on how we should approach Climate Change here in the Northeast: a disaster isn’t much good if you don’t take advantage of it.

Getting an idea of what major floods in our region could do allowed the engineers to fortify the canal so that it would not be overwhelmed by a single flooding event. But what they didn’t anticipate were the thousands of cuts caused by the leakage of water through the sides of the canal. It would cost many times the canal’s original price to maintain that water loss. They worried about a lack of water due to the deforestation going on as farming took over our environment. But luckily one of the effects of deforestation was not, as they feared, water absorption by the soil, but rather the reverse, with added silt from erosion thrown in. They also thought deforestation would warm up the land and allow for more days of boat movement though the canal. But that did not happen either. In fact, a mini ice age occurred in the latter 1880’s, and in December of 1871 the “Canals suddenly closed by extreme cold; 800 boats laden with merchandise frozen in.” (Ibid. Page 54).

One of the things the engineers of the Erie Canal did not anticipate at all was the human factor. They thought that because natural, slow-moving streams were drinkable, a human-built canal would offer us an inexhaustible supply of fresh water across the state.

The quality of water had great significance to the Commissioners of 1811 who did the original planning. They saw the canal as a potential source of pure water, pointed (p. 21) to that "inexhaustible stream of limpid water which flows out of Lake Erie," and added there "is a strong temptation to use it exclusively until auxiliary supplies can be drawn from reservoirs equally pure." (Ibid. Page 57)

Obviously, that didn’t happen. It didn’t because the canal quickly became an open sewer for communities all along the canal. The public wanted a convenient toilet, not a fountain. The only reason it didn’t become septic (infected with bacteria) is that the unanticipated rate of leakage kept the canal’s water moving and oxygenated enough to prevent that. Today, while much cleaner because of strict laws against dumping garbage into the canal, it’s still not a drinking source.

Keeping this human factor in mind, all Climate Change studies fail to create plans on a scale large enough to convince a vast majority of the public about the urgency and scope of the Climate Change crisis. We are going to experience 10,000 years of warming in about 250 years. Without plans to change our media, our politics, and our economic system‘s insane idea of ‘externality’, none of the adaptive plans in any Climate Change studies are going to work. Not even close. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have offered us ‘favorable occurrences’ to plan properly for our future, but these messages are getting lost on a public disinclined to hear this very inconvenient message from leaders averse to stopping business as usual.