Saturday, May 25, 2013

Finding out what climate adaptation looks like at the local level


LookCCI am intrigued by this statement by Kirsten Howard, who just received her master’s degree in environmental policies from the University of Michigan: “We wanted to see adaption to climate change through the everyday decisions of people and communities,” Howard said. “And we wanted to get that perspective to inform our future policy work.” (Aspiring policymakers hit the road to learn about climate change adaptation, 5/23/2013) Great Lakes Echo)

Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein’s summer project Great American Adaptation Road Trip is “Uncovering stories of people and places using their wits and resources to adapt to the impacts of climate change.” An idea marvelously simple and profound, these two intrepid thinkers are actually going out and asking folks around the country what they’re doing about Climate Change. It’s so obvious one wonders why climate scientists and policy makers haven’t done the same thing: Instead of just gathering environmental data, modeling it, and suggesting policies for adapting to Climate change that assume the public will hop on board, go and find out what the public is already doing and is likely to do.

Most Climate Change studies include recommendations on adapting to and mitigating Climate Change. And while ambitious and certainly reasonable these recommendations have almost no chance of getting widespread public support, as many are draconian and costly, like updating or replacing our water, transportation and telecommunications infrastructures. Widespread public support isn’t just a neat idea. You aren’t going to solve Climate Change without it. It’s like deciding to change your country’s currency; if the public doesn’t buy it, you’ve got a lot of useless paper lying around.

Many groups are noodling through this lack of public support on the Climate Change conundrum:

The US disconnect over climate change Amid growing scientific proof that global warming is man-made, we look at why the public gives credence to the sceptics. As scientists become more overwhelmingly convinced that climate change is man-made, why do politicians and the public give credence to global warming sceptics? A review of scientific literature published this week has found that 97 percent of peer-reviewed papers taking a position on global warming say humans are causing it. Yet, a large proportion of the US public still seems unconvinced.  (May 18, 2013) Aljazeer

This American Life devoted an hour program-- 495: Hot In My Backyard --trying to get at the Big Disconnect. In one segment, a climatologist who is supposed to be helping farmers plan for the future hesitates mentioning that the recent spate of floods and droughts might be due to Climate Change, thus sustaining the delusion that these extreme weather events are cylindrical instead of a spiraling out of control. Yes, it would be alarming to talk about climate change to a room full of farmers who need to believe that better days will come, but what’s the whole point of the Climate Change issue except to raise alarm about an unprecedented situation that needs all hands on board?

Many leaders seem to fear that if they evoke the words ‘Climate Change’ in their community they will suddenly get thrown out of a closet of sorts and their lives will dramatically shift from their comfort zone to a very uncomfortable zone—the Unknown Zone. Recently, President Obama and NYS Governor Cuomo have outted themselves on Climate Change. But if Obama allows the XL Tar Sands Pipeline to pass through the US and Cuomo allows New York State to get Fracked, they might as well go back in the closet and close the door.

Solar power, a good climate/energy solution, is exploding in Rochester, NY but the media is loathe to mention Climate Change, even as we lay in limbo on the NYS Fracking decision, a bad climate/energy solution. In fact, there is much going at the Rochester, NY level and around country on Climate Change, but it’s not exactly what the recommendations of all the Climate Change studies suggest will actually solve the problem. So, taking a trip around the country and finding out what Climate adaptation looks like at the local level is a really good idea. It could be a great insight as to what our collective will to address this challenge will look like.

Find out more about Climate Change at the local level:

"Do the Math | The Movie" The “Do the Math” documentary is a 42-minute film about the rising of the movement in the United States to change the terrifying math of the climate crisis and challenge the fossil fuel industry.  You’ll come away inspired to act! Sunday, June 30th at 7:30PM at the First Unitarian Church, 220 S. Winton Rd. Rochester, NY 14610 Additional Details: See Bill McKibben at this best.  Panel discussion follows the movie.  Free and open to the public.  More Info at

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Combating invasive species in Rochester, NY during Climate Change


CCInvasiveSpeciesWhile we continue to battle the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) that is devastating our ash trees, we should ponder the issue of invasive species as our Rochester, NY region warms. This is alarming because ash trees are almost 8% of all trees in NY State. Back in 2008 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) put out a public comment on trying to stop this bug that was making its way north, but by 2011 we had our first sighting. We have since enacted laws prohibiting the transporting of firewood and many learned how to save some favorite ash trees (a chemical inoculation), but this is a battle we are going to lose. By the time you notice infestations like the EAB, it’s probably too late to do anything but control the rate of tree loss. On top of that, Climate Change will allow the EAB to spread faster.

Also, looming over our Great Lake’s water is the probable infestation of the Asian Carp that could potentially transform the lakes’ ecology. A species like the Asian Carp is able to do this by stripping the food web of plankton, the lakes’ fundamental resource (from National Wildlife’s The Asian Carp Threat to the Great Lakes.) We’ve known for years that the carp has been making its way up the Mississippi River towards our precious waters. And we’ve tried many ways to stop it from entering the Great Lakes, but the inconsistent funding to thwart its infestation means we’re probably going to get them any day now. (Some, who are checking Great Lakes’ water for carp DNA, think they’re already here.)

And it all makes you wonder: When is a good time to start planning for invasive species? For example, when should we have started searching for the Zebra Mussel, an invader from the Baltic Sea that made its way to the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes via ships’ ballast tanks coming through the St. Lawrence Seaway? Should we have considered all possible hitchhikers that might make it to the Great Lakes, from all parts of the world, then try and figure out which ones would be the most likely threats? Seems impossibly daunting.

Compound all this with Climate Change. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines invasive species as “…an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” (Invasive Species, EPA). [Note that not all non-native species are ‘invasive’: the honey bee is not currently considered ‘invasive’.] But others think invasive species have always infiltrated ecologies by air and water--and humans. Invasive species are just part of the evolutionary process that makes everything more robust. According to this view, we’ve just become too comfortable with our cushy surroundings and should learn to see the big picture:

“The good news from all this is that nature emerges as resilient and adaptable, able to bounce back from the worst we can throw at it.” (True Nature: Revising Ideas On What is Pristine and Wild, 5/16/2013 Environment 360)

The trouble with this ecological laissez-faire attitude is that even if this view is true (and arm-chair environmentalists just don’t understand the science of the matter) is that Climate Change renders a lot of historical adaptation scenarios null and void. While it is critical in Climate Change planning to revisit just what invasive species are and what a pristine environment is, it is a fantastic leap of faith in nature’s resilience to think nature can handle anything thrown at it. The speed at which the planet is warming is unprecedented, requiring both native and nonnative plants and animals to adapt far quicker and with more variables than they have had to before. Think about thousands of manmade chemicals that have entered our environment since the Second Industrial Revolution. There are no precedents to the kind of Climate Change we are going to experience. Our best bet for combating invasive species during Climate Change is to get our heads around the comprehensiveness of the Climate Change issue, and then act accordingly.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Hopeless trying to adapt to Climate Change without saying it


CCCO2While many of us were pleased with the nod to our environment in the 2013 State of the City Address by Rochester’s Mayor Richards, there was no mention of Climate Change. Devoting a paragraph to park, trail, and water system improvements is not enough in a time of warming. Mayor Richards’ heroic efforts (unheralded in his address) in improving Rochester’s active transportation system, which really will lower greenhouse gases, still need to be directed towards connecting the dots regarding the greatest peril to our city--and all cities in the world.

Syracuse has no such reservations about the critical need to plan appropriately: City of Syracuse Sustainability Plan. They get it:

While it is important for the City to minimize the impacts of climate change through ag­gressive climate action and sustainability initiatives, scientists conclude that communi­ties will inevitably be impacted by climate changes that are already occurring. Impacts such as variations in the frequency and intensity of storm and drought events, which ef­fect aging water, transportation and energy infrastructure, increased demand for public health services due to heat stress, and the introduction of foreign and invasive species to natural systems, agriculture, and forest ecosystems, are likely to affect the Central New York region as a result of climate change. (Page 22, Syracuse Sustainability Plan)

Some may say that the political and economic climate is not ripe for taking action on Climate Change, so don’t kill the good in the pursuit of the perfect. It is true that these are hard times for addressing something as wildly controversial (controversial in the US, that is) as Climate Change. President Obama cannot even get his nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (his own cabinet post) installed: Gina McCarthy's nomination in doubt, angering Democrats. Thus, a political party is willing to threaten our environment for their gains. I’m beginning to think that the GOP in the last decade has been just as wrongheaded on Climate Change as the Democrats were on slavery in the 1850’s.

But without connecting present environmental issues with Climate Change, we will continue to suggest ad hoc solutions to a world that no longer exists. Doing some good will not be good enough on a planet that is warming quickly. Note this week, SCHUMER LAUNCHES PLAN FOR FIRST-EVER RAPID RESPONSE GRANT PROGRAM TO COMBAT AQUATIC INVASIVE SPECIES BEFORE THEY SPREAD. First of all, many aquatic invasive species have already spread so completely that extracting them may do more harm than good. Trust me, we are not going to ratchet back the Zebra Mussel’s pervasive effect on our lakes. Even more so in a time of warming, the term invasive species will become blurred as endemic and invasive species both struggle to gain a foothold on a planet dramatically shifting:

Higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels can potentially increase growth of many plants, particularly those with the C3 photosynthetic pathway growing under optimum conditions. The magnitude of the carbon dioxide effect varies widely among species and, even without climate change, could alter species composition in some ecosystems by favoring some species over others. Many fast-growing species, including many invasive plants and aggressive weed species, tend to show greater growth stimulation than slow-growing species and can gain a competitive advantage at high carbon dioxide concentrations (Ziska, 2003). (Page 125, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)

We keep trying to solve environmental problems in the same old way we always have by eliminating the symptoms instead the cause. (For example, we dump more pesticides on crops instead of finding out if there are more insects migrating to a warmer climate and living longer because it’s not as cold here in NYS as it used to be.) Climate Change will force us (hopefully, sooner rather than later) to solve environmental problems realistically and sustainably instead of our fruitless attempts to have our way of life and force the environment to comply with it.

Not going to happen: Breaking news: Humanity’s ‘wait and see’ approach to Climate Change is not working: Carbon Dioxide Level Passes Long-Feared Milestone The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone, scientists reported on Friday, reaching a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years. (May 10, 2013) New York Times

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Zero Wasting events in Rochester, NY


ZeroWasteRochester, NY has a lot of outdoor events, especially in the summer. It’s one thing to make these events recycling events, where your guests feel good about their environmental footprint. It’s a step beyond to make your event Zero Waste. That means hundreds, maybe thousands, of folks come to your event and leave with little impact on our environment. Food, plates, silverware, packaging, wrappers, drinking cups, and all those tasty ingestibles and their accouterments we bring to bear on special occasions get sorted, recycled, or composted.

Properly speaking, zero waste is where you design products so that the end-of-pipe diversion gets transformed; it is a system designed with environmental health in mind from the very start-- "cradle to cradle." But until we reach that sustainable Holy Grail, we can design our consumption-intensive events as environmentally friendly as possible.

It takes a little more planning than the business-as-usual way of creating events, where you call up all sorts of vendors who bring stuff to your event and then hire a single trash hauler to take it away to who-knows-where. A Zero Waste event requires that you get everyone, especially the event planners and coordinators, on board with thinking environmentally. Without this vision thing, it won’t work. If the key players come to the table kicking and screaming about all the extra trouble this will make, it’ll be a dud. (In the future, if we’re lucky enough to have one after a couple of centuries of seriously trashing and warming* our planet, environmentally friendly events will be the norm.)

First off, to even approach zero waste, you’ll need to start planning early. You’ll need a recycling company, a waste company, a composing company, vendors with recyclable containers, lots of bins, lots of signs (to direct and educate the public), and lots of volunteers to help instruct your guests where to place waste properly. It sounds a bit much, but check out this guide from the great state of Connecticut: “An inside guide to event recycling.” Each region will be different depending on how dedicated businesses, government, and the public are to maintaining a healthy environment--and what the recycling market is like.

Some events in our Rochester region that have gone nearly Zero Waste are the annual Greentopia and Ganondagan Festivals. There are probably more. Presently, our Rochester Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committee and a local enterprise dedicated to sustainability called Epiphergy are helping to make the Rochester Tour De Cure event on June 2nd a zero waste event. Zero Waste always looks good on your event.

I’m not going to rhapsodize much on the value of making your event as environmentally friendly as possible—except to say that much of our trash is toxic to our children, and improperly dealing with trash will make adapting and mitigating Climate Change more problematic. Not to mention, landfills are really, really bad for our environment:

“Landfills are the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S., and the impact of landfill emissions in the short term is grossly underestimated — methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time frame.” (Page 7, Stop Trashing the Climate)

Key to a healthy climate of zero waste events is a political and business environment that has the incentive and desire to help make our region’s events trash free. Without easy access to recycling services (i.e., hauling and sorting), it will be more difficult to orchestrate all the elements needed to make our events zero waste.

It’s also crucial that the local media keep a keen eye on how recycling is actually being accomplished. For example, The Investigative Post in the Buffalo region holds its leaders and institutions accountable for increasing the recycling rate: Housing authority ignores recycling mandate.

It’s easy at this point in time, where environmental concerns are thought to be external to our existence, to create events that throw all trash into a single stream and create the illusion that everything is being taken care of properly. More difficult is steering this great wasteful system of ours towards a more sustainable path, where environmental knowledge rules over political, business, and social convenience.

* As of this writing, the Carbon Dioxide on our atmosphere is passing 400 parts per million. “The speed at which Earth’s atmosphere has reached that density of carbon dioxide, a known greenhouse gas, has scientists alarmed.”(Earth's greenhouse gas levels approach 400-ppm milestone   (May 1, 2013) LA Times)