Saturday, April 27, 2013

No magical agreement on Climate Change possible | temperatures rise


OutSpotThose of us who have hoped for a magical, Big Bang, or global agreement on Climate Change, may feel disappointed at Christiana Figueres’s (Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) conclusion that we cannot have one. Certainly, the past attempts at Climate Change negotiations among the world powers have been dismal. So much so that we’re happy countries are still talking to each other about Climate Change at all—regardless of what they say. Progress on Climate Change, according to Figueres, will be ‘incremental.’ (From Global Meltdown: Christiana Figueres, Climate One.)

Incremental progress, a rate comfortable to nations around the world, sounds comforting, until you realize the intractability of this issue. That once-in-a-thousand-year heat wave that hit France in 2003 and killed 15,000 people is predicted by climate models to occur every other year by the 2040’s. (Read “The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet” by Heidi Cullen.) Our planet is also reaching a historic baseline soon, an ominous number that must come down. As of this writing (4/26/2013), CO2 concentration is a whopping 398.36 ppm. In 1850’s (and thousands of years before that) it was 280ppm. “So the hard reality is that we could be looking at 530 ppm by 2050 and a lot more ...” (Six degrees of separation for the planet). You can watch this figure rise on The Keeling Curve, a daily record of atmospheric carbon dioxide from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

It doesn’t sound like our environment is going to wait until we find some magical way of turning down our carbon-induced thermostat. Climate modeling, which is getting pretty accurate, is instead revealing a world predicted to get very warm. Those bottom-up strategies, where we do things only locally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a business-as usual-kind-of-way aren’t really going to work. Yet, we keep thinking they will.

I’ll admit that many of our attempts to clean up our air and make our transportation more environmentally and even pedestrian-friendly have come a long way. But they will not solve the problem at hand. They are not going to help us adapt to a very warm future (because of the lag time, where much of the heat we are generating now is getting absorbed by the oceans—for awhile anyway) or stop greenhouse gases from increasing.

There are things we should be doing locally, even incrementally, to prepare for Climate Change, but they’ll remain ad hoc and delusionary unless they are tied strongly to world-wide Climate negotiations.

One of the things we should be doing in New York State to prepare and adapt to Climate Change is cleanup those Brownfields, which will help make our environment more resilient and robust in a time of extreme stress. But we have a long way to go, as we won’t even do that without getting nagged by the NYS Comptroller: DiNapoli: State's Brownfield Cleanup Program Needs To Reach More Sites; Be More Cost-Effective

The just-released Genesee Transportation Council (GTC) DRAFT 2014-2017 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) Update Project List mentions a lot about road maintenance but not in the context of Climate Change, even though we know Transportation plays a critical role in how we will adapt to and mitigate Climate Change. Neither does the City of Rochester’s Complete Streets Policy—though both measures are well-intentioned and bottom up. And, the New York State Department of Environment Conservation just launched the Watchable Wildlife Program, where you can go places and see our vanishing wildlife, but nary a word about how all those wonderful creatures that designed and maintained our environment for thousands of years are going to be protected from Climate Change.

Incremental means doing things in increments towards a goal. If you don’t mention the goal, adapting and mitigating Climate Change, you aren’t being incremental, you’re dissembling.

Though Climate Change seems very fuzzy to many, it’s not so phantasmagoric to the experts. The IPCC - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collection of climate scientist from around the world, is coming out with the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on Climate Change this year and next. My guess is the reports won’t show that we have magically solved Climate Change by the lack of international cooperation, local solutions that avoid connecting the dots to Climate Change, or simply denying it altogether. If this all seems complicated and depressing to you, remember once we allow our carbon dioxide parts-per-million in our atmosphere to get to 530ppm, all our worldly problems will dissolve into just one. Nothing else will matter.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Air quality in Rochester, NY as we head into Climate Change

According to the American Lung Association’s report “State of the Air 2012”, Monroe County received a grade of ‘C’ for ground-level ozone. That means Monroe County had four orange-alert days.  That’s up from the 2011 report when we had got an ‘F’. Back in 2004, Rochester was ranked 43rd worst metropolitan area for air quality. (Dirty Air, Dirty Power.) And, the last time the EPA measured Monroe County for ground-level ozone in 1997, we received a ‘marginal’ grade, up from the previous ‘nonattainment’ grade.

This progress seems to be good news until you consider the complexity of air quality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone, lead, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and mercury.  But even the EPA only measures a fraction of the air pollutants that assault our lungs. There are at least 188 hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) that the Clean Air Act does not establish air quality standards for.  You can find out a variety of toxins (called a toxic release inventory (TRI)) being released in our Rochester area by checking the Right To Know Network. Or, go to Scorecard and punch in your zip code to find out who’s polluting near your home.

However, these air quality figures don’t explain their full impact on the flora and fauna in our region; and, none of them measure how all this will factor in determining the effects of Climate Change on our public health and our environment. Insects that feed on our agriculture, digest organic waste and provide nourishment for other creatures are affected by air pollution. Fish are affected by acid rain pouring down from nearby power plants. Birds, amphibians, our pets are affected by poor air quality.  All this gets magnified by Climate Change, but how?  It’s not that folks haven’t been trying to figure out the impacts of Climate Change on air quality, or even the impacts of air quality on wildlife, it’s that we know too little about how so many air pollutants that we don’t monitor or measure will react to each other as our atmosphere warms—a scenario our species has never experienced.

Sorry to be so dreary.  It’s nice when we can boil down figures like air quality into easy-to-comprehend grades of concern, but it’s also delusionary. If you only measure a relative few of the air pollutants in only a relatively few places (much of the world is not monitoring all air pollutants), on only a relatively few species (humans and some trophy animal species) and don’t factor in all this into your Climate Change studies, you are making plans for a planet that only exists in your mind.  In the real world this ocean of air that extends about seven miles up has been filling up with everything we’ve been throwing into it.  If you can picture how a fish might feel when a factory dumps PCB’s into its breathing apparatus, then you can imagine the contaminants our lungs have been sucking in besides fresh clean air.

In the real world our environment that doesn’t play politics, doesn’t heed economic rules, couldn’t care less about our ability to absorb and deal with bad news; it operates with what it has.  What it has, what our planet has been breathing in since the Industrial Revolution, is too many greenhouse gases mixed with too many manmade toxins. What does progress on improving our air quality mean if we cherry-pick air pollution issues according to our desire to monitor, measure, and police them?  What does sustainability mean if we will only consider endless growth fueled by greenhouse gases, which are mixed with god knows what?

Monday, April 15, 2013

The case against litter


Aliens from outer space could be excused for believing that our species is inordinately fond of littering. We litter a lot. We litter on the land; we litter on the beaches; we litter in the hills, on the seas and oceans; we litter on just about anything and anywhere. To get an idea of the extent of this crazy propensity of ours to litter see “Trashed |No Place for Waste,”coming to a theatre near you. Given all the activities about the universe a sentient being might engage in—eating, building, procreating, thinking, and fighting—creating and tossing waste products improperly, with complete abandonment, without consent, and in inappropriate locations must be the strangest of all.

Litter provides few nutrients, except to those creatures indiscriminate in their eating habits, like rats and some insects we rather not attract. Litter poisons animals and plants and befouls water and soil. Litter isn’t especially attractive, unless you’re a Dadaist hell bent on making a point about the absurdity of litter. Litter doesn’t provide jobs. As a matter of fact volunteers from around the world must give their time to pick up those cigarette butts, diapers, plastic wrappers, straws, instant trash (use once, then throw away) drinking cups, and the unimaginable remains from innumerable things we use and then discard.

Just this weekend, Monroe County brought over five-hundred folks together to PickUpTheParks. Soon the City of Rochester will begin its yearly Clean Sweep program to pick up other people’s litter. People in the thousands will pick up the litter of those in the tens of thousands. They will pick up litter along our walking/biking trails, litter in our gutters, which can get into our storm water systems and into our drinking water. Litter on our sidewalks, our lawns, our parking lots, our streets, our playgrounds, and those ubiquitous plastic bags in our trees that will remain blowing in the wind until someone else disposes of them properly.

If you are concerned about the state of litter, on Tuesday, April 23, 2013 from 4:30pm – 6:00pm @ Rochester Greenovation,1199 E. Main St, Rochester, NY 14609, our Zero Waste Committee Meeting will include the filming of “Bag It The Movie: Is Your Life Too Plastic?” We’ll have a discussion on local attempts to ban the plastic bag in our region.

Though litter seems to be everywhere and has always existed, this isn’t so. Plastic shopping bags, for example, didn’t exist before 1960. (Read Plastic Ocean by Captain Charles Moore.) . Litter is a relatively new human phenomenon with no worldly value, an externality of our economic system. There is no litter in Nature as there is no waste; everything gets assimilated, reused, or becomes part of a dispersal system for seeds and soil enrichment.

So why litter at all? Littering isn’t especially fun, as most litter simply flutters down to the ground in a lackluster way and doesn’t have a nice bounce to it like a ball. It doesn’t enhance our attractiveness. It doesn’t increase our chances of survival. It doesn’t convey information, except that we are a strange species who can oftentimes be seen as a bipedal creature with a hazardous trail of stuff soiling our existence.

I recommend that we don’t litter. Just saying…

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Earth Day 2013, stepping up to the plate in Rochester, NY

Earth Day events have expanded beyond just a single day.  April 22nd has morphed since the original Earth Day in 1970 into a quasi Earth Month. Eventually, I predict, this special day will transform completely into an Earth ForeverAfter Epoch. The time of a willful denial of our life-support system will be but a dismal parenthesis in our otherwise stellar existence.  We’ll practice Earth Day every day.  Or, we’ll perish.

In and around the Rochester, NY region (I’ve included our friends in Buffalo and Syracuse) we are noticing more and more environmental events coalescing around early spring.  This means many individuals, groups, schools, businesses, and governmental institutions are stepping up to the plate on taking responsibility for our planet by educating their communities and spearheading environmental actions.  

Actions you can take include joining a letter-writing party (free pizza) to stop Fracking near Rochester’s drinking water. You can help remove litter from our Monroe County parks at the 4th annual Pick Up the Parks event; host a local screening of Rochester’s very own Climate Change film documentary Comfort Zone by sending a request to; or comment by April 12th on this federal Climate Change report: Federal Advisory Committee Draft Climate Assessment Report.  (This last action is local in the sense that our climate on planet Earth is local.)   

Also, celebrate Earth Day at Greenovation’s Earth Week Celebration. Or see how Tim DeChristopher’s Release from Prison Inspires Earth Day Theatrical Release of Bidder 70 , a Rochester experience of this nationwide Earth Day event.  I’ve just been whetting your appetite; there are many more events, actions, and celebrations in our region.  Find out about them here.

While we celebrate progress on focusing humanity’s attention on our environment, we must realize that ad hoc progress on environmental health isn’t enough. We know more about our planet’s workings and plight than we did in the 1970’s. If the Climate Change crisis has done us any good at all, it has motivated scientists all over the planet to gather information about planetary temperatures and to learn in the process how Earth’s ecosystems work as a whole unit. We know that extreme weather events around the world are related to overall temperature rising.  We are starting to think about and see our planet as a single entity of which humans are only one component.  For example, in this NASA animation we can watch the Earth breathe.  Industries and communities that are starved for water have learned how to conserve, measure, and analyze water use in ways inconceivable years ago (read The Big Thirst: the Secret and Turbulent Future of Water). With new information and technology we are starting to realize that we must act as one to solve this single problem. 

This year’s Earth Day should also be a revelation that lines have to be drawn on environmental abuse.  Earth Day isn’t just about celebrating past successes and navel gazing about how wonderful things would be if we could just stop being our self-absorbed selves. It’s about setting benchmarks, reaching milestones, and creating lines that cannot be crossed if we are to survive. We must stop increasing greenhouse gases that are warming our planet too quickly for too many to adapt.  In the past, we have stopped our rivers from burning, our lakes from dying, and pollution from being sent untreated into our drinking waters.  Now, we must stop Fracking and increase renewable energy.  We must stop the XL Keystone Pipeline, a fossil fuel resource conduit so dirty and polluting it may spell game over for all of us. We must become aware, all of us, not just a few of us. Take someone who has never been to an Earth Day event to one this Earth Day and increase the odds of our kid’s having an Earth Day of their own.