Saturday, August 31, 2013

Reading IPCC’s 5th Climate Change study in Rochester and elsewhere


IPCCAR5If we were suddenly brought to the brink of extinction, as my favorite sci-fi fable (The Day the Earth Stood Still, the 2008 version) suggests, we’d quickly change our destructive behavior towards our planet’s environment. But alas, we don’t have to answer to Klaatu, or any intergalactic representative of a haughty group of aliens who think Earth needs saving from mankind. Too bad. A group of aliens bent on Earth’s salvation, who cannot be threatened by bullets, offers an interesting thought experiment about what it would take to get us to live sustainably with the rest of the beings on this planet. The fable falls down at the end where Klaatu, convinced of humanity’s contrite reconciliation, climbs back in his spaceship and goes away. Let’s get real. As soon as the threat of annihilation passes, we humans will go right back to trashing the place.

The closest thing we have to Klaatu, perhaps, is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. In the same year, the UN General Assembly endorsed the action by WMO and UNEP in jointly establishing the IPCC.

Granted the IPCC doesn’t have the ability to rid Earth of humanity’s pollution, or issue any threats. But they do have the ability to speak with one expert voice on the state of the human-affected climate at any one point in time. They are as close as we are ever going to get to objective feedback on Climate Change.

The fifth report, THE IPCC´s FIFTH ASSESSMENT REPORT (AR5), is coming out in early 2014. It will try again to reach the public and their leaders around the world on addressing and mitigating Climate Change. “AR5 will be the most comprehensive assessment of scientific knowledge on climate change since 2007 when AR4 was released. It will put greater emphasis on assessing the socio-economic aspects of climate change and its implications for sustainable development.”(AR5 Contents IPCC.)

Advanced word of the AR5 is that climate scientists around the world are more (95%) convinced of human-caused Climate Change than the last report (90%). Also, as mentioned in this recent article by The Guardian, the AR5 will probably not include this finding “Cooling Pacific has dampened global warming, research shows” because it just came to light. The Pacific decadal oscillation, of which the El Niño and La Niña weather systems are a part, is a possible explanation to the dampening in global average temperatures in the last decade. Climate deniers have seized on this lower-than-expected rise (but a rise nevertheless) as their latest attempts to kill the messengers of the science that is upsetting their agendas. However, what’s very troubling about this report of the slow rise of temperatures is that it may be the harbinger of something worse: “The scientists warned, however, that when the current cooling phase turns, the upward march of temperatures is likely to resume, perhaps at faster rates than before as greenhouse gas emission rates are higher.”

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The AR5 doesn’t come out until 2014. You should give yourself this opportunity to read the AR-5, unsullied by the beliefs and opinions of nonexperts, and the private agendas of others, in order to get the best possible feedback on what’s happening to your planet, your life support system. The report, like all the others, is a free download.

Earth is after all your planet, not any one country’s or corporation’s. It’s in trouble like never before, and finding out about the unprecedented character of that trouble will take some precious hours of your time. Pledge that you will read the AR5 so that when you are called upon to explain your response to Climate Change, you’ll be able to do so with some measure of competence.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Agriculture in the Rochester NY region during Climate Change


TomatoesMany expert reports conclude that in New York’s Rochester region, agriculture will fare well as Climate Change kicks in. One study says, “…though there will still be risks of early-season frosts and damaging winter thaws, warming is expected to improve the climate for fruit production in the Great Lakes region.” (Page 73, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States) By the end of this century our growing season could lengthen by a month. If we manage our incredible water resources properly, studies suggest there’s hope that the $4.5 billion dollar agricultural sector of our state’s economy will thrive.

That bodes well for our (thus far) Frack-less region, despite contentions that we cannot be saved financially unless Fracking is allowed to proceed. Let this be a warning: Fracking in Texas portends catastrophic issues we here in New York State might have if we lift the moratorium on Fracking. Because climate models predict more droughts occurring near the end of our summers and early autumns, we could be pitting our agriculture and the Fracking industry against each other for our fresh water. (See: “Drought-Stricken Texas Fracks Its Way to Water Shortages”)

Other regions of world will not be as lucky as ours in food production:

“All of the studies suggest the worst impacts will be felt by the poorest people. Robinson, the former Irish president, said: "Climate change is already having a domino effect on food and nutritional security for the world's poorest and most vulnerable people. Child malnutrition is predicted to increase by 20% by 2050. Climate change impacts will disproportionately fall on people living in tropical regions, and particularly on the most vulnerable and marginalised population groups. This is the injustice of climate change – the worst of the impacts are felt by those who contributed least to causing the problem." But from Europe to the US to Asia, no population will remain insulated from the huge changes in food production that the rest of the century will bring.” (Climate change: how a warming world is a threat to our food supplies, The Guardian, April 13, 2013)

But the rosy projection for our region is no reason for us to get complacent. For one, those without will come to those who have. We cannot just talk about agriculture in our Northeast region, but must talk about agriculture around the world. Food demand, because of dramatic population increases in the next few decades, will increase at the same time many regions are severely challenged by Climate Change. Even genetically modified foods (GM foods, or biotech foods) cannot increase food production in areas where the soil has been destroyed by lack of rain and continual floods that will wash away all the over-fertilized dirt. There will be incredible moral, political, and economic pressure for our region to clear our lands for food production—as there will be for all potential farming sites around the world. This restructuring of our region for food could be a great economic boom for us if we haven’t already Fracked our waters, failed to cleanup all those Brownfields, or compromised critical ecological features like wetlands and forests.

Secondly, there’s no guarantee that we’ll be able to handle the myriad issues that will confront our own region’s agriculture—which include our state’s predominant role in the dairy industry. Cows, a cold weather animal, fail to produce milk as readily when it gets hot or the humidity rises. If we want to stay number one in dairy production, the public will have to help farmers keep those cows cool—you know, subsidies.

But overheated cows aren’t the half of what may befall our agriculture. We’ll get more rainfall in the spring, which may come in the form of frequent flooding that will challenge soil retention efforts, and make it more difficult to keep fertilizers and other toxins out of our water. Agricultural pests like weeds and bugs will thrive in a higher CO2 environment causing us to dump more pesticides and herbicides on our crops, which will in turn wash away into our rivers, lakes, and streams causing more public health problems. Daily weather patterns will become more radical, putting more stress on crops. Along with all this comes the problem of biological timing, where the timing between plant development and pollinators and between pests and pest eaters (like migrating birds) will get thrown out of whack causing unforeseen issues with plant development. Most of these ecological relationships that keep our environment in tune took thousands of years to come about—but Climate Change is happening on a much more rapid schedule.

In future heat patterns, where night time temperatures will remain high, one of our favorite crops, tomatoes, may not have such a happy time of it.

Temperature extremes will also pose problems. Even crop species that are well-adapted to warmth, such as tomatoes, can have reduced yield and/ or quality when daytime maximum temperatures exceed 90°F for even short periods during critical reproductive stages For many high-value crops, just hours or days of moderate heat stress at critical growth stages can reduce grower profits by negatively affecting visual or flavor quality, even when total yield is not reduced. (Page 75, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States | The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) 2009)

Agriculture itself causes the release of greenhouse gas, and only works as a carbon sink if our crops stay in the ground. “Recent global assessments conclude that agriculture accounts for about 10 to 12 percent of total global human emissions of GHGs. With the intensification of agriculture that will be required to feed the world’s growing and increasingly affluent population, these emissions are projected to increase.” (Page 61, Advancing the Science of Climate Change (2010)

Even in our endemic region it is not going to be all peaches and cream for one of our most important and historically solid industries. If we intend to not only survive Climate Change but prevail, we need to get busy restoring our region’s environmental resiliency with comprehensive climate plans that the public will accept.

Assuming that our region will do well during Climate Change is a dangerous delusion that can only be combated by doing our due diligence. Start by reading climate studies to get a sense of the complications coming. We’ll need to stop wasting food and start using food waste for composting, renewing our steadily compromised soil. We’ll need to anticipate all the issues our food production systems will face in the looming warming world that our environment has no time to adjust to.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Adapting to and mitigating Climate Change with green energy in Rochester


GreenEnergyCCMuch of Rochester NY’s Climate and Environment Protection Resolution involves “increased use of alternative energy sources;” so if alternative energy sources aren’t really helping reduce greenhouse gases (GHG’s), then our focus on green energy could be wrong-headed. Of course, the use of alternative energy (renewable or green energy: solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) is not Rochester’s only strategy for ‘adapting to and mitigating Climate Change’* in our region. Nor is it the single silver bullet for other communities. There are also measures to “…reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase energy efficiency…, green space preservation and Brownfield redevelopment, air and water quality improvements, reduced traffic congestion, economic development, [and] energy conservation.” (City of Rochester, NY)

However, many environmental groups, businesses, and governments herald green energy as the ‘we-can-still-have-it-all’ solution, the way to continue with our current lifestyle while solving the most important issue of our times, i.e., have our cake and eat it too. President Obama spoke on July 25, 2013, in his Remarks by the President on Climate Change, about the critical role renewable energy will play in reducing GHG’s and producing jobs for our country’s future. In doing so, the President probably triggered a political push-back on the green energy movement by deniers, because much of our country’s attitude on Climate Change is shaped by our dysfunctional political and communications systems.

Right here at home, a poorly written and badly researched article in our predominant newspaper despairing of renewable energy got a lot of attention: Rochester man puts solar panels on home to show waste (August 13, 2013) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle). First of all, I am sure the man who spent thousands of dollars to put solar panels on his house did not do so to ‘show waste’. Few have that kind of money to throw around merely to prove a point. The man in the article put solar power on his house to save money and live a sustainable lifestyle, but was dismayed that things didn’t work out. The article also failed to interview the solar industry, which knows how to install and place solar panels to maximize effectiveness. It failed to talk about the elephant in the room, the background that rules energy choices today, i.e. Climate Change. D&C’s national sibling, USA Today, has no issue with it: Satellite to track climate change (August 10, 2013 USA Today.) Nor did this article provide any opportunity for knowledgeable people to answer the negative allegations on green energy. Thirty years of evidence has shown that when the media provides data supporting Climate Change, they also unfailingly scour the planet to find a merchant of doubt to provide an ‘objective’ rebuttal for ‘balance’. Apparently, the converse does not hold in our warped media environment.

Yet, there is a reasoned backlash against the movement towards green energy, such as “Green Illusions | The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,” which chronicles the inherent problems in creating a green energy infrastructure that needs the fossil fuel industry to build it. There are admittedly many problems with putting all our hopes on green energy. We’ll have to address the many limitations of a nascent energy industry in a billion-dollar-subsidized, fossil-fuel-driven economy, along with a public very disdainful of any form of inconvenience. And yes, we’ll have to solve the problems of creating a green energy infrastructure that doesn’t heat up the planet even more. We’ll have to move all the parts (solar panels, wind turbines) for this new system around to where we need them using the present transportation system that is the cause of 38% of our greenhouse gas emissions. The list of problems goes on.

But here’s the thing. While green energy is problematic, there’s no doubt that fossil-fuel energy has to go. In a warming world, we’ll have to make green energy work or do without any energy to make and move our stuff—if we want a livable planet. I don’t have all the answers for those asking questions about the limitations of green energy. Environmentalists didn’t promise the public that green energy would solve Climate Change. What environmentalists said was that the last thirty years of scientists investigating this problem has long ago convinced 98% of climate scientists that Climate Change is happening, and that we humans are the cause of it, through manmade GHG emission from our agricultural practices, our energy use and production, our individual-vehicle transportation system, and more. If we reduce or reverse manmade greenhouse gases, the future for our children won’t be so dismal. We say, reductions in GHG’s and a sustainable lifestyle could be attained by the methods mentioned in the City of Rochester’s plans above—plus an increasingly better green energy system.

For environmentalists, trying to frame Climate Change as a doomsday consequence of our lifestyle will get us nowhere. Folks will shut down. Green energy is being marched out by environmentalists to give us a real hope that we don’t have to trash our kid’s future—without a whole lot of going backwards. With a lot more R&D, more subsidies for renewable energy and less for the bloated fossil fuel industry, and some new ideas—like 3D printing parts instead of transporting them, microgrids instead of today’s centralized electric grids, mining our dumps instead of our environment for materials, making solar cells with glass instead of plastics , and a whole lot more cooperation from others, instead of the endless carping about solutions to Climate Change that challenge denialists’ economic and beliefs systems, we just might pull it off without a whole lot of that doomsday stuff. As for green energy, it will be an engineering problem, not a greenie problem. We must make it work!

Of course, we should have thought about the really big problems that underlie Climate Change, that of unbridled consumption and overpopulation, and addressed the GHG issue long before a high-consumption lifestyle became entrenched. But we didn’t. Nor we did we listen to the folks like John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold who a long time ago thought destroying nature because it got in the way of prosperity might be a really bad idea. Having let free market fundamentalism go hog wild on our environment means that today we need to make some real adjustments in our lives if we want to survive. Blaming the messenger, while cathartic, just won’t fix the consequences of Climate Change.

I suggest the most intractable problem in solving Climate Change will not be the solvable engineering problems with green energy, but the unaccountability of those using billions of dollars thwarting the efforts of the rest of us trying to solve this problem. Let’s address the problems with green energy, and not allow ourselves to let this engineering problem throw us into another excuse not to act. Let’s leave behind the emotions of both hope and despair on Climate Change as we move headlong (as if a tiger were on our tail) out of danger.

* I continually use the phrase ‘adapt to and mitigate Climate Change’ because this two-phase approach to solving Climate Change is critical. We have to adapt to Climate Change because even if we stopped putting any more manmade greenhouse gases into our atmosphere we have hundreds of years of warming we will have to adapt to. Mitigation means using measures to stop Climate Change, which if it goes unchecked threatens to raise our CO2 levels by 6C by 2010 and that means our environment would have experienced 10,000 years of warming in about 300 years, an unendurable rate of rise.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Readying our Finger Lakes for Climate Change


CCReadyOrNotWhen you search scientific studies on how Climate Change will affect the Great Lakes you get quite a bit of scientific material. These studies explain how warmer weather will increase evaporation, which will lower water levels. Temperature sensitive fish will move to colder regions of the lakes, if there are colder regions. Warmer waters may affect the cooling ability of nuclear power plants. Extreme weather events (lake-effect snowstorms, for example) will likely change even more radically as the change to a warmer climate further influences local weather near the waters of the Great Lakes. Some studies, like this report Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms from the EPA, attribute more toxic Blue-Green Algae outbreaks to warmer waters, especially in the shallower Lake Erie.

The Finger Lakes do not seem to have as much information available on how they will be affected by Climate Change, though we can probably extrapolate some from what we know about the Great Lake’s materials. For example, fish distribution might be more affected in the Finger Lakes because temperature sensitive fish have fewer choices in the shallower lakes. The NYSERDA funded Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID) mentions how agriculture (especially the wine industry), tourism, invasive species, and water withdrawal around the Finger Lakes will be affected by a warmer climate, but not much about how the various lakes’ ecologies themselves will be influenced. All lakes in the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes regions will have phosphorus pollution to deal with.

This all matters because most of our Finger Lakes’ ecologies are heavily influenced by shoreline property owners. Of course, our various environmental authorities, like the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), control what can and cannot be done to these ecologies. But the DEC is not located at all the eleven lakes and unless something significant, like a local septic systems breach, sewer overflows, or the destruction of a wetland, catches their attention, it probably goes unattended.

We as a society have allowed most of our lakes’ waterfronts, including the Finger Lakes, to be owned by individuals and businesses that de facto control some of our most precious waterfront ecologies. While waterfront properties are very popular, they are also critical to the health of our lakes, providing a natural barrier from land to water. Property owners are primarily responsible for what wetlands get to exist, what animals get to get to the water, what manmade chemicals get to flow into the water, and a lot more.  Thus, we have allowed a critical part of our environment to be almost entirely purchased privately and consequently controlled by individuals who are not experts on lake ecologies, nor compelled to act as such. (Note: on Hemlock Lake, waterfront property ownership was changed from private to public because it became a water source for the City of Rochester, NY.)

In a time of accelerated anthropogenic Climate Change, we should ask ourselves this hard question: Are shoreline property owners the best stewards of our lake ecologies? As this article suggests, while their intensions are often good, shoreline property owners, may not be the best caretakers of our lakes.

Survey reveals why lawn trumps native shoreline, and what to do about it Property owners believe their waterfronts are more natural than they really are, according to a recent University of Wisconsin survey. That’s why governmental and environmental agencies have a hard time convincing them to adopt native-plant shorelines that are critical to a healthy lake ecosystem. Those are among the findings from a research project to identify why property owners prefer a manicured lawn and to learn how best to persuade them to go natural instead. Now in its fifth year, the research centers on two small lakes ­– 519-acre Long Lake and 229-acre Des Moines Lake – in northwestern Wisconsin’s Burnett County. (August 6, 2013) Great Lakes Echo

As our region warms so will our Finger Lakes’ ecologies. And while, each of the eleven lakes is unique, they will probably have similar environmental concerns—concerns which should be addressed at a comprehensive level, not an ad hoc, private-property basis. For example, the way that we address weeds in our lakes tends to be driven by the local interests of the shoreline residents. What is the heuristic that is being used to best judge Finger Lake’s ecological practices on weeds? Is it aesthetics? Is it fishing? Is it boating? Shoreline property owners tend not to like weeds (even endemic water plants), as a weekend of boating brings loads of weeds to their shore. But are these concerns environmental concerns?

Honeoye Lake debate rages on When the blue-green algae reared its ugly head again this summer on Honeoye Lake, the all-too familiar menace again riled lake homeowners and others with close ties to the lake. While troubles this year bear resemblance to past seasons — think 2010, 2002, and blooms that made headlines as far back as the 1940s and '50s — this year experts and average observers alike are taking a closer look. It has generated debate, fueled social media hype and put Honeoye Lake at the forefront of a campaign to “fix it.” At the center of the debate is what should be done, if anything. “There is over 200 years worth of pollution on the bottom of the lake, and it would take an ice age to remove it,” said Bruce Gilman, professor of environmental conservation and horticulture at Finger Lakes Community College. (August 7, 2013)

Shouldn’t the control of the weeds and other environmental concerns in our Finger Lakes be viewed through the lens of Climate Change? How are harmful algae outbreaks in our Finger Lakes related to Climate Change? How do we get the myriad interests of shoreline property owners around our Finger Lakes to act as one to increase the resiliency and health of these lakes as Climate Change increases the challenges?

I should mention briefly the critical role of Finger Lakes associations that educate residents on or near their lakes about invasive species, phosphates (fertilizers), pesticides, and herbicides, conduct water testing, and sponsor trash pickup events. You can check individual Finger Lakes associations here or check with New York State Federation of Lake Associations (FOLA). However, their bailiwick is not Climate Change, nor do they have the force of the law behind them.

Even the DEC, while they are Working on Many Fronts on Climate Change, have no comprehensive climate plan for all our Finger Lakes. I suggest they start with conducting their own climate studies for the Finger Lakes and accumulate whatever other studies they can find to provide New Yorkers with an overall plan that would help our Finger Lakes adapt to Climate Change—something with some teeth in it. Defaulting to present practices in our Finger Lakes, where so many private property owners surrounding our lakes are either ignoring these precious ecologies or battling for their own private interests, is unlikely to do anything but create another environmental tragedy of the commons, where everyone fights for their last piece of these precious resources.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Climate Change enters Rochester, NY mayoral race, one way or another


2013CCraceThere are three candidates running in Rochester's mayoral race--Lovely Warren, Alex White, and the incumbent Tom Richards. Two represent the Democrat Party and one is the Green Party candidate. There is no GOP candidate and it’s probably just as well because their unscientific position on Climate Change has rendered their usefulness to the public null and void.

At this writing, the issues surrounding the race are economic troubles (like many cities, Rochester is in deep financial trouble), schools/education, gender discrimination, tax assessment, economic development, public safety, neighborhoods, and jobs. However, because the local media does not mention Climate Change, does not connect the dots of local incidences with Climate Change predictions for our region, the public is mostly blind to the most critical concern of this race. The issues mentioned above are important, but unless they are viewed through the lens of Climate Change, attempts at solution will fail as soon as the consequences of Climate Change steal away our finances, our public health, and our future. Already, the money printed to address Hurricane Sandy will probably never be paid back.

The city of Rochester under Mayor Richard’s leadership has adopted a Climate Action Plan and subscribed to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)’s Climate Smart Communities. But it’s all very milquetoast, meaning that the measures to lower greenhouse gases, boost energy efficiencies, and reduce municipal transportation are not mandatory. Nor do they compel the public and businesses to comply—which is to say the largest sectors of our population aren’t even aware of the programs. It’s milquetoast because whatever is happening to alleviate Climate Change is occurring too slowly to matter and happening too quietly to engage the public.

Local information from the Green Party includes no position on Climate Change. However, their idea “to use acres of empty land which dot our city for Urban Agriculture” in Green New Deal for Rochester holds promise. If any one of the mayoral candidates were really insightful, they’d consider the big picture and prepare our city for the wave of climate refuges that will be coming to our water- and soil- rich area. As much as those in the South and West hate our cold weather (which is not so cold anymore) they must have water and good soil. Industries have to consider their ability to get water in their long term planning. If it had strong leadership on Climate Change, Rochester could leverage its rail, canal, and industrial wizardry to become a major player in the dicey world ahead. That’s as long as we don’t Frack-up our fresh water.

Admittedly, it would be politically risky for any of the candidates to put forward addressing Climate Change as their top position. It would take leadership. It would display a profound understanding of this worldwide crisis and the courage to combat the dismal tide of denial that has plagued this issue for several critical decades. (As a result, the consequences of warming have put our children’s future at risk.) The challenges ahead for any mayor will be daunting, and manageable only if they are addressed in the context of Climate Change.

Whether addressed or ignored, Climate Change is key in this election and all elections henceforth. It is, after all, a result of our putting greenhouse gases into our atmosphere at a maddening pace for the last two and a half centuries. Physics.