Friday, June 28, 2013

To the bully pulpit, President Obama’s Climate speech


BullyPulpitCCPresident Obama’s Climate Change talk on Tuesday, June 25th, 2013 was historic because of the US President’s unique role as a de facto world leader. Once the maddeningly slow process of American Democracy finally came together on ending slavery, getting to the moon, and addressing civil rights, we become a beacon of hope. Now, after decades of delay on addressing Climate Change, a US president states: “I'm announcing a new national climate action plan, and I'm here to enlist your generation's help in keeping the United States of America a leader -- a global leader -- in the fight against climate change.”

Actually, the US has not been a ‘global leader in the fight against Climate Change’ but rather a reluctant and powerful bystander as many world Climate talks have languished for years, in part due to the US’s refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol and other global attempts to set comprehensive and decisive goals in slowing down our greenhouse gases emissions. Much of the blame for our country’s foot-dragging can be place squarely at the feet of a small, but effective group of Climate deniers with unprecedented political and economic clout. Even before President Obama’s talk was finished, many mainstream media dropped coverage—that’s if they even covered the speech at all. [BTW: You can watch the entire speech here.) Then the extreme end of the GOP marched out a retraction to the President’s message with the absurd position that solving Climate Change would hurt jobs. It’s an absurd position because no one will have jobs in a warmer world, not even the plant and animal species that have traditionally kept our environment, and our economy for that matter, working. It is absurd to put the daily machinations of an anthropogenic economic system before the four billion year old life system of our one and only planet.

Yet if we fail to move a majority of folks away from mainstream media propaganda on climate denial, where despite the rise of the Internet most Americans still sit, not only will the US fail the world, the US will fail the US. For years President Obama’s administration has been working on addressing Climate Change through his Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, collecting scientific data, and producing recommendations for various governmental agencies. But this work has gone unheralded because our politics and media are marching to the tune of a different drummer, a short-sighted, dollar-driven drummer mostly indifferent to the plight of the rest of the world. So when the president finally does step up to the bully pulpit, most Americans were watching game shows, commercials, and talking heads talking nonsense.

At the same time, it becomes difficult for those concerned about our environment (the media uses the term ‘environmentalists,’ as if understanding and appreciating the significance of science were but one of the voting blocs) to criticize the president’s speech. The deniers will only use useful criticism for more of their loony fodder. Nevertheless many in New York State are very uncomfortable with Obama’s devotion to Fracking, and not just because of a lack of faith in American engineering prowess. Obama and others think we can, in part, Frack our way out of Climate Change. But planetary warming is far more complicated than adding another dirty fossil fuel to the problem of our planet’s environment, an environment thrown out of whack by ten thousand years of warming in 200 years.

What everyone can take away from President Obama climate talk is the call for of us to act:

“Understand this is not just a job for politicians.  So I'm going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends.  Tell them what’s at stake.  Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings.  Push back on misinformation.  Speak up for the facts.  Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future. Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution.  Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices.  Invest.  Divest.  Remind folks there's no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.  And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.  Make yourself heard on this issue.” (Remarks by the President on Climate Change, June 25, 2013, the White House, Office of the Press Secretary)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

NYS hesitation puts an undue burden on the Fracking industry—Oh puh-lease


NYSCleanWaterWhile we here in New York State wait to see if Governor Cuomo Fracks us out of our economic woes, we should be entertaining more sustainable business models for our region. Rather than pining away for a Faustian bargain with the Fracking industry —where we sell our environmental soul for another fossil fuel quick fix—we could be doing something useful like jump-starting new businesses and jobs by preventing food waste from our landfills or making all events zero waste events.

An increasing number of New York State municipalities [see ‘Current High Volume Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing Drilling Bans and Moratoria in NY State’] and counties are saying no to Fracking. Soon Monroe County may join the wary ranks as Monroe County Democrats develop “plans to submit bills to ban fracking and all fracking related activities in Monroe County, including waste water and cuttings disposal in county dumps and treatment plants.” (R-Cause) The measure is getting some bipartisan support and maybe that’s because Fracking contamination knows no political boundaries.

At the risk of many other businesses in New York State—beer, tourism, and these 1,000 Businesses for a Ban—the Fracking industry is determined to undermine all bans on Fracking by relentlessly begging the NYS Court of Appeals to gut Home Rule.

Towns Fight to Cement Court Victory on Fracking Ban Two towns seeking to keep their local fracking ban on the books are fighting to cement their court victories over the oil and gas industry. The Town of Dryden submitted court papers yesterday arguing that the Court of Appeals—New York’s highest court—should reject the industry’s request for permission to appeal the closely watched case. On May 2, a state intermediate appeals court ruled in favor of the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, affirming lower court decisions upholding the towns’ right to ban oil and gas development activities—including the controversial technique of fracking—within town limits. On May 31, oil and gas industry lawyers filed papers asking the Court of Appeals to review the decision. (June 14, 2013) EcoWatch

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), which has been charged with refereeing this energy option train wreck, is soldiering on despite suffering the slings and arrows of public anger. Meanwhile, they are falling down on their crucial responsibility to report on sewage overflows to the public. [To get your heads around the full explanation of this raw sewage fiasco, read this very comprehensive Investigative Post report: DEC’s sewage discharge reports lack details]

If so many, including Governor Cuomo, were not so convinced that Fracking is the only way to get us back to economic health, we could leave it up to the EPA (whose dirty job this should have been in the first place) and let the DEC actually achieve their mission: "To conserve, improve and protect New York's natural resources and environment and to prevent, abate and control water, land and air pollution, in order to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state and their overall economic and social well-being."

But that could take until 2016. And, we wouldn’t want to put an undue burden the Fracking industry with our environmental and public health concerns, now would we?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

More water, sewage, and Climate Change in the Rochester, NY region


MoreCSOHome, the movie by artist-activist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, is quite an amazing film about our home, Earth: how we have radically compromised its health in a very short time, and how we have to fix it quickly as our planet warms from Climate Change. You can watch the entire film at no charge on YouTube (as a gift to the public) here, though I recommend getting a hold of the Blu-ray version because the photography and music are incredible. I mention Home to open this essay on waste, sewage, and Climate Change in our region because it provides the proper perspective (“HOME is the first film that has been made using aerial-only footage.”) from which we must now view our local environmental issues. There are no environmental borders that our planet understands.

Last year I wrote “Water, sewage, and Climate Change in the Rochester, NY region” to make the case that, according to various Climate Change studies, frequent heavy rainfalls in our Rochester, NY region should be high on our priority list. My thesis was, and is, that combined sewer systems, which dominate the urban Northeast, are going to be increasingly overwhelmed by frequent heavy rains, thus spewing raw sewage into the waters where we drink and fish. Alas, it was a very warm spring last year with little rainfall and many folks probably thought it too soon to worry. This year is different. Flooding due to heavy rainfall has inundated local news: Look here, here, and here, just in case you haven’t been outside traipsing through the mud in the last month.

But despite all the high-water stories that our local news loves to march out during flooding events, none of them attempt to connect the dots to Climate Change. Here are a few major Climate studies that do connect the dots:

  • Combined sewer systems, which collect and treat both municipal wastewater and stormwater, are disproportionately concentrated in the state’s older, urban areas (and particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income, minority residents). Combined sewer systems contribute to localized flooding and serious water quality problems during periods of heavy rainfall. These flooding events, known as combined sewer overflows (CSOs), are likely to become worse with more frequent heavy rainfall events under climate change. Adaptation planning needs to take into account the concerns of environmental justice communities that are affected by siting decisions and/or CSOs. (Page 68. Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)
  • “The current climate in New York State can be described as humid and continental. Key features of New York State’s climate include the following: Short-duration flooding, which can result from heavy rainfall and runoff from snowmelt, affects the entire state.” (Page 2-8, New York State Climate Action Council Climate Action Plan Interim Report (2010)
  • “The decisions and strategies used to reduce greenhouse gases and protect communities from climate effects also have important health implications. For example, reducing combustion of fossil fuels as a means of reducing carbon dioxide levels may lower the levels of many harmful air pollutants, like soot. And adaptation measures such as higher capacity storm water management systems may provide the opportunity to reduce health risks from combined sewer overflow events.” (Page 25, The National Global Change Research Plan: 2012-2021 )

The Investigative Post out of Buffalo is not so shy about linking heavy rains with sewage overflows.

Ugly month for sewer overflows in Erie County For the first time, the numbers are flowing in on sewer overflows across the state and it isn’t pretty. In Erie County, almost 7 million gallons of untreated sewage were discharged into local waterways in May. This information wasn’t publicly available on the Internet until the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law went into effect last month. Based on what’s reported so far, the biggest repositories of raw sewage were Ellicott Creek (2 million gallons), Scajaquada Creek (1 million) and the Niagara River (679,000). Heavy rain or snow melt is often the cause of these overflows. The ground water seeps through cracks in the sewer pipes or enters the sanitary sewer system through footing drains, sump pumps or improperly connected downspouts. (June 11, 2013) Investigative Post

The newly passed Sewage Pollution Right to Know for New York State is going to make it easier to discover when our sewage infrastructure contaminates our water. It will also allow the public (and hopefully our intrepid media) to track where and how much untreated sewage gets away from local waste treatment plants. Though this data system is just starting up, and many waste treatment plants are not reporting, it will eventually have the affect of connecting increasing sewage overflows with heavy rains as predicted—or not. One way or the other, we will find out whether this spring’s flooding is a fluke or the new normal.

This new law might lift, Escher-like, doubts about Climate Change in this region from its two-dimensional ‘wait and see’ approach to a galvanizing three dimensions. Along with folks who suddenly find they cannot get affordable house insurance (After Sandy, a new threat: Soaring flood insurance)  because Climate Change has tossed them onto a new floodplain, heavy rains overwhelming our sewer systems will turn doubters into believers.

The problem, as so artfully described in Home, is that by the time we discover those disconcerting red flags our environment has been trying to tell us for so long, we’ll have left ourselves very little time to address Climate Change. And then, “It is too late to be a pessimist.”

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Resurgence of Climate Change denial in US


ClimateChangeDenialThis unusually cold winter, which is to say what used to be a normal winter, has sparked a resurgence in climate change denial in the US:

After Cold Winter, American Attitudes Chill on Global Warming American opinion on climate change seems to rise and fall with the temperature | A cold winter may have caused Americans to change their beliefs on global warming, a study published Thursday suggests. As previous polls have shown, Americans' thoughts on climate change seem to vary with the weather. According to a new Yale University poll, 63 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, a 10 percent drop from the number who believed it was happening last September, when a similar poll found that 70 percent of Americans believed global warming is happening. (May 9, 2013) US News and Word Report

But not everyone in the Northeast seems to think a ‘good’ winter means our Climate Change troubles are over:

100+ Ski Resorts Sign Climate Declaration Calling for U.S. Policy Action on Climate Change  Today, 108 ski areas from around the U.S. joined with 40 other businesses, Ceres and its Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) project in signing the Climate Declaration, which calls upon federal policymakers to seize the American economic opportunity of addressing climate change. These ski areas join iconic American businesses, including General Motors Co., Nike and Levi Strauss & Co., as well as founding signatory Aspen Snowmass, in asserting that a bold response to the climate challenge is “one of America’s greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.” (May 29, 2013) EcoWatch

The ski industry is right to be concerned about less snowfall and snowpack for future winters, though it might be too late to save that particular industry. The predictions for New York winters say more rainfall, back and forth freezing, and not more snow. The warmth already built up from our dumping fossil fuels into our atmosphere with long-lasting carbon dioxide molecules and warmth being absorbed by our oceans (causing acidification) still has to work its way through the eco-system. A recent study Earth Warmed More at End of 20th Century Than in Past 1,400 Years (one of many) shows how not only is our climate increasing in temperature very quickly, but it will take time for that warming to play out. Some effects, like flooding, droughts, wildfires, and more extreme hurricanes, will happen sooner and seem more threatening than the oceans rising and a massive loss of biodiversity. But not really; it’s just that climate doesn’t register as alarming to us as freaky weather does.

Australia does not have this problem with occasional cold winters throwing them off:

Is Australia the Face of Climate Change to Come? Extreme weather Down Under may foreshadow events on a global scale. In early 2012 once-in-a-century floods submerged swaths of Great Britain and Ireland, causing some $1.52 billion in damages. Then in June record-high temperatures in Russia sparked wildfires that consumed 74 million acres of pristine Siberian taiga. Months after that, Hurricane Sandy pummeled seven countries, killing hundreds and running up an estimated $75 billion in damages. Just this week, a tornado of virtually unheard of size and ferocity tore through a small city in Oklahoma, leaving 24 people dead. Each of these one-off traumas was bad enough, wreaking havoc, but in Australia such events seem to be becoming commonplace. The Lucky Country has experienced a major spike in extreme weather in the past few years, with a string of devastating incidents just since January. That has people wondering if the island continent is somehow a perfect bellwether for the Earth's changing climate. So scientists are bearing down on the problem with intensity, investigating Australia's increasingly violent weather patterns and trying to figure out what they might portend for the rest of the world as our climate changes. (May 24, 2013) National Geographic [more on Climate Change in our area]

Having said all that, some folks here in the Northeast may ask, “So, if we are only experiencing longer growing seasons, a slight increase in hurricanes, some hotter days in summer, and a little less snow in the winter, why worry?”

The worry is that when we do start worrying it will probably be too late to stop the worst effects of Climate Change. We have done almost nothing since Dr. Hansen warned Congress about Climate Change in 1988 to address this planetary crisis. If we wait a few more decades to act, the odds are that folks in the future--who will be more desperate for more jobs, more thirsty for water, and more hungry for food--will not have the ability to adapt to or mitigate Climate Change.

Failing to understand the difference between weather and climate spells a disaster unlike anything humanity, which grew and thrived in the Holocene (a remarkable stable climate period), ever experienced before. It means no preparation time. It means continuing to operate recycling systems that include a landfill, a sort of delusional get out of jail free card for your waste. It means favoring a transportation system, dependant on huge tax expenditures for road and bridge creation and repair, which caters only to those able to afford fossil fuel guzzlers, forcing the less fortunate to fend for themselves.

It might mean this: If we in the Northeast who have incredibly fertile soil and massive quantities of fresh water ignore Climate Change, we ignore the plight of those around the world who are and will continue to have emergency issues with food and water. Some regions around the world that are presently having trouble growing food because of climate change (droughts and floods) might be unable to continue that. We may have to offer up our region for the plight of others.

I’m not making just a narrow moral point here about selfishness, denying Climate Change while others suffer. I’m pointing also to a practical problem of insecurity, as many of the 1% of the 1% must be feeling in these days of disproportional wealth, as they try to hold on to their riches while millions die of hunger and thirst. At some point, balance must be achieved – between the haves and the have-nots, between hot and cold. Some areas around the world, like our Northeast North American region (which will have plenty of our own Climate Change issues) might be forced to provide the water and soil for those who need it.

I know, ‘forced’ is not a pleasant word. It comes in many unpleasant flavors, including that nagging guilty feeling that you’re eating up all the food at the party. Yet the moral imperative does provide that redeeming quality of an enlightened empathy for those others (humans, plants, and animals) who share the same planet.