Saturday, October 26, 2013

Rochester, NY entering the Anthropocene with no leadership


Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only? (“A Charismas Carol,” Charles Dickens)

CCleadersTrying to predict what our environment will look like in fifty or one hundred years as Climate Change progresses has turned into a sort of cottage industry. [Note: Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas and The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, by Heidi Cullen] Nevertheless, they are useful thought experiments as they anticipate what changes warming might bring and what we might do to adapt. They also offer up a futuristic strawman, based on many climate studies, from which to think through some of the many long-term consequences of any one of the problems or solutions.

It will get complicated. For example, if you are looking ahead and following only one of the myriad threads of the consequences of a warmer Northeast, you might be expecting a longer and better growing season. (In the last century and half, our growing season has increased by about ten days.) The problem with that particular scenario is that crop pests grow faster in a warmer climate and some studies predict a limit to the carbon bump because high CO2 levels hamper nitrate incorporation by plants. Not to mention, our first reaction to more crop pests will be a dramatic ‘shock and awe’ of pesticide use, and climate studies predict this also.

In the Rochester NY area (Northeast America), we can reasonably expect some or all of these consequences of Climate Change in our region within the next 50 years or so:

...higher temperatures and increased heat waves have the potential to increase fatigue of materials in the water, energy, transportation, and telecommunications sectors; affect drinking water supply; cause a greater frequency of summer heat stress on plants and animals; alter pest populations and habits; affect the distribution of key crops such as apples, grapes, cabbage, and potatoes; cause reductions in dairy milk production; increase energy demand; and lead to more heat-related deaths and declines in air quality. Projected higher average annual precipitation and frequency of heavy precipitation events could also potentially increase the risks of several problems, including flash floods in urban areas and hilly regions; higher pollutant levels in water supplies; inundation of wastewater treatment plants and other vulnerable development in floodplains; saturated coastal lands and wetland habitats; flooded key rail lines, roadways, and transportation hubs; and travel delays. Sea level rise will increase risk of storm surge-related flooding, enhance vulnerability of energy facilities located in coastal areas, and threaten transportation and telecommunications facilities. Across the varied geography of New York State, many individuals, households, communities, and firms are at risk of experiencing climate change impacts. Some will be especially vulnerable to specific impacts due to their location and lack of resources. [Page 3, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)

There’s more:

  • The Great Lakes water will become more acidic, even faster than our oceans. Warmer waters will affect temperature-sensitive fish (like trout which evolved in glacial cold waters), forcing them to move or die. Warmer lake waters cause less ice cover and increase evaporation which in turn lowers lake levels, causes more erosions of shorelines, reduces the cooling waters for nuclear power plants, and changes duck migration patterns. Lower water levels affect Great Lakes shipping and will starve hydroelectric plants of some of their water power.
  • Wildlife will migrate northward to avoid heat. Some can escape up mountainsides where it is cooler, until they get to the top. Of course, it is very probable that most wildlife migration would be stopped by manmade barriers such as roads, canals, and backyard fences.
  • Invasive species, which are by definition opportunists, will probably fill the gaps left by indigenous species. Weeds seem to benefit better from more carbon in the atmosphere than crops.
  • There will be less snowfall and less snow cover, both of which are important to various local industries (skiing and snowmobiling). This means less protective blanketing for plants and animals that traditionally used this shield to weather the cold. The freezing and thawing schedule will be more erratic, making fruit growing more problematic. Also, not much is known about how the loss of snow cover will affect the microbes in our soil that evolved in a calmer climate.
  • There will be more droughts in late summer and more precipitation in the form of rain in late winter that will mean more flooding and more toxic chemicals washing into our streams from unattended Brownfields, muddier planting seasons, more sewer overflows from the prevalence of combined sewer systems in our region which will in turn will put raw sewage into our rivers and lakes.
  • Public Health issues such as Lyme Disease, Dengue Fever, Malaria, West Nile Virus, asthma, heatstroke, and ground-level ozone pollution will get worse (a threat to the healthiest athlete). Also it is possible that new pathogens will arise due to a disturbed ecosystem increasing the likelihood of insect-to-animal-to-human diseases.
  • Migrating birds will find their food not ready or already taken by other critters because the synchronization of the birds’ arrival and their food will be disrupted.
  • The weather will get whacky causing disruptions in the insurance industries that still use mostly historical data, instead of climate modeling, for predicting future costs. Home and property insurance could get prohibitively expensive, and put a tremendous burden on governments.
  • See Likely Changes in our region because of Climate Change.

We can and should prevent at least some of these probable consequences; some we can adapt to; but some, like the extinction of cold water fish (lake trout), are probably going happen--except for continual restocking. Some, if not most, of the consequences are already happening. As of this writing many of our lakes are experiencing Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB). But few in our local media connect the dots with Climate Change, despite information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms May 2013 US Environmental Protection Agency], thus rendering local efforts to prevent this threat to our beaches ad hoc and ultimately futile.

If this list seems overwhelming, there is nothing for it. We have been banished from the Holocene because we failed to realize we were living in an Eden that needed our keen stewardship to keep it sustainable. We now enter the Anthropocene.

And in Rochester, NY, because the mayoral candidates will not show us their Climate Plan, nor will the media press them on this, we will have no leadership in this new age. After all, Climate Change is all about planning. The shadows of things that may be are increasingly looking like they will be.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Living environmentally friendly in a warmer Rochester, NY


EVFriendlyThe New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), our environmental authority in New York State, offers several seasonal ideas for living sustainably: Make a Difference “Green Living - Tips and Resources for Making Environmentally Responsible Choices in Your Daily Life | Looking up at the sky through fall foliage on trees.” There are, of course, many places online and off that make suggestions on living more environmentally friendly. Some are merely trying to make a buck on the inclination of many to continue business as usual with a greener flare; while others are very earnest in their attempts to get us all to change course and get on a sustainable path to the future.

The DEC, which runs the voluntary Climate Smart Communities programs, for all their expertise and authority, seems focused on not aggravating anyone with more robust adaptive measures. Make a Difference misses many critical aspects of living green in a warmer world, including even mentioning that our environment is warming up. This oversight is a crucial distinction because without viewing all our environmentally friendly actions through the lens of Climate Change, none of them are going to actually work. It may feel good--recycling, mulching grass cuttings instead of curbing them, installing solar panels, and taking a camping trip (really?)—but unless these actions are part of a world-wide concerted effort to stop greenhouse gases from going into our atmosphere on a massive scale, they just aren’t going to matter much.

Things that will matter are probably a lot more inconvenient than what most Green Living sites suggest. Changing the local media so they reflect the world we actually live in, instead of the world we think we live in, would be a good start. If your information system doesn’t accurately reflect reality, you’re going to think that a tiger is a pussy cat. There are consequences for relying on bad information to plan your life.  Drop your media if they cannot inform you accurately about Climate Change. 

Mainstream Media ‘Balances’ Climate Science With Fossil Fuel Funded Propaganda USA TODAY became the latest mainstream newspaper to incorrectly “balance” the views of the hundreds of scientists behind a major climate report with the Heartland Institute, a fossil-fuel-funded organization that once compared those who accept climate science to the Unabomber. In an op-ed published by the newspaper yesterday, the head of the organization portrayed outright falsehoods as simply “opinion” in order to dismiss the United Nations (U.N.) panel behind the report as a “discredited oracle.”  (October 16, 2013) EcoWatch

Mainstream local media desperately presents a delusional world, a world devoid of objective reporting on the local effects of Climate Change, avoiding their responsibility to the public. The problem is that Climate Change means planning on a long-term schedule much further away than we are used to or comfortable with. Compare the world presented by this report Study: Climate change will significantly impact ocean health by 2100  (October 16, 2013 CBS News) with the local glitz on the Democrat and Chronicle’s new format. Or compare this week-long series--In Warm Water: Fish & the Changing Great Lakes—by Michigan Radio with the incomprehensive barrage of fluff on the Daily Messenger. Really think about how you get information.

Other big stuff we can do locally is demand that our candidates for office discuss their plans to address Climate Change. Stop Fracking in New York State altogether. Bug your elected officials to address Climate Change or get yourself elected. Start reconsidering your interests so they reflect the new reality, a reality in which our climate is changing rapidly and moving quickly to something unsustainable. Invite the DEC’s Smart Communities for a free talk about how our state is actually adapting to Climate Change. Attend or create a public discussion on Climate Change. Stop business as usual.

Climate Change is like no other issue humanity has ever faced so it is very difficult to find a historical example. I find similarities to the 1850’s, with the various states, the US Supreme Court, and the Presidency desperately trying to reconcile two desperate worlds, one where slavery was OK, and the other where slavery was not. These world views were irreconcilable. But many ordinary folks were playing ‘wait and see’ as they are now, waiting for someone or something to show them the way, or maybe just to make it all go away. However, the evil of slavery didn’t go away on its own; it came to a conflagration that changed our country and killed over 600,000 souls.

Climate Change threatens to send human civilization and most of the world’s biota into collapse, beginning with the poorest and the most vulnerable.

Living green in Rochester, or anywhere else, can only happen if all our actions are placed on a scale equal to the problem of Climate Change. How that is all going to happen, and happen fairly, is something we’re going to have to begin working on—quickly.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why Climate Change means big, really big government


CCBigGovtAt the core of those fighting our collective efforts to address and mitigate Climate Change is the fear of Big Government. Big Government means, by those who fear its name, more environmental regulations and more taxes on the so-called “producers”. Big Government means fewer jobs because burdensome regulations kill jobs that are only created by those ambitious individuals who magnanimously trickle some of their profits down to you. Big Government will take away your guns, take away your doctor and all those great health benefits you’re getting—or could get if you got a really good fossil-fuel job. Through regulations such as Fracking moratoriums, Big Government is stealing your absolute right to use your land as you want. Big Government is evil and does no good for society, only harm. And so it goes for those who haven’t really thought this issue through—or have thought it through and are too craven to admit it.

What’s odd about the rage against Big Government is that the very folks who continually rail against more government regulations and taxing are exactly the folks who will insure the hurried necessity for even Bigger Governments. Free market fundamentalism, which treats our environment as an externality (garbage dumps and magical resource provider), forces public monies to develop and maintain a transportation system that allows their industries to function. These publicly supported services, along with supplying water and removing waste, will force Big Government to grow Bigger because Big Business is certainly not going to do it. That would violate their prime objective, which is to only provide profit for their shareholders. Corporations are single-minded in a way that makes a mad dog seem as distracted as a puppy.

Brownfields, insurance for extreme weather events, public health measures to mitigate diseases, more military engagements to confront waster disputes that will come with Climate Change, and a lot more environmental disruptions will all have to be paid for and orchestrated by Big Government. There is no private option to replace the kind of planetary infrastructures needed to keep corporations or the rest of us thriving. Even if they had a desire to do so. Big Business, by maniacally focusing on ‘business as usual’, will lead all of us to Big Government (and probably Big Brother if we’re not careful). No amount of existential rage will stop that. Even if you continually vote out of office those politicians who create more environmental restrictions and up your taxes, you’re going to have to vote them right back in because you’ll be desperate. Your water will go bad from sewage overflows and pesticide pollution. Your roads will deteriorate and your bridges will fall down. You won’t be able to afford any health system, Obamacare or Fat Cat Care.

Planet Earth, 25,000 miles in circumference, is very big but not infinitely so. Free market fundamentalism has appeared to work well because, just as it was failing in Europe, we discovered the New World. The New World (of exploitation) seemed at the time to come with an endless supply of fresh water, lumber, beavers, soil, fresh air, and a ready supply of indentured servants to make it all work. Actually, because free market is a human idea, not accountable to the laws of Nature, it has created a destructive delusion. There has always been a cause and effect relationship between what we take and give to our environment. We just got really infatuated with the absurdity that we could conquer Nature, that is, until we bumped up against pollution and other environmental problems on a planetary scale. Now, with Climate Change we are threatening everyone and every living thing (except some bacteria, I suppose).

There is no private mechanism which addresses the environmental implications of the products we buy, even when used correctly. Stuff has to be transported and those carriers usually burn greenhouse gases (GHG’s). Anything made with paper depletes our forests, which reduces biodiversity and transforms carbon sinks to carbon emitters. Anything made with plastic creates environmental pollution that affects all life on land and sea—and in the air if you’re crazy enough to incinerate this stuff. Removing what little restrictions there are on using our waters for waste removal and our land for trashing cannot be replaced by any market force. Nor can we expect any sudden moral epiphany to sweep humanity from its love affair with unfettered consumerism and growth. It was a crazy idea in the first place to shape human behavior around greed.

Granted, it would be more politically savvy to frame the Climate Change issue as something that wouldn’t invoke the core ‘evil’ of Big Government that many fear the most. It would be more economically savvy to frame Climate Change as something bright with green energy jobs. And it would be more psychosocially savvy to frame Climate Change as something benign and remote, only the worry of those who need help.

Yet, for all the framing of Climate Change, only one thing will address it: quickly bringing down GHG’s in our atmosphere. Big Government is the only mechanism we have to affect that kind of large-scale and immediate change. Oh, I forgot, war accomplishes that too; but that won’t bring GHG’s down. Quite the reverse.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

How to talk to a climate change skeptic if you must


CCDenierAfter arrested we allow defendants to plead their case for only so long. They’re allowed expert help and ample time to convince a jury of their innocence. The jury deliberates and then decides. On Climate Change, the jury has decided. The verdict is in:

“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. The evidence for this has grown, thanks to more and better observations, an improved understanding of the climate system response and improved climate models. Warming in the climate system is unequivocal and since 1950 many changes have been observed throughout the climate system that are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850…,” (IPCC PRESS RELEASE, 27 September 2013)

I make this loose analogy of the US legal system for the case against Climate Change deniers to make a point about decision time on Climate Change. Of course the US legal system is fraught with inequities and injustice but, just for a moment, let’s pretend it works as intended. At a specific juncture in our legal continuum the defendant is judged guilty or non-guilty. A judge communicates the jury’s verdict, and at that moment either the defendant walks free or goes to the crowbar hotel.

We desperately need such a specific juncture in the public debate about Climate Change. For over thirty years, the merchants of doubt have kept the media and our public in a state of irrational doubt and confusion over the most important crisis of our age. I say ‘irrational’ because, even though Climate Change is a deeply complex science that has experts scrambling all over the world to accrue the kind of rigor required for world governments to act as one on bringing greenhouse gas emissions down, 95% of climate scientists have spoken with absolute clarity. Unless we bring our atmospheric temperature down, our planetary environment may be rendered uninhabitable.

Those not satisfied with the many climate studies (including the International Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), which substantiates the IPCC’s previous studies with more certainty) feel threatened by the implications of these studies to their beliefs. They will not stop their efforts to hijack our collective ability to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change to save their version of reality.

Someone who doesn’t appreciate how science works and finds 95% agreement among climate scientists not good enough, may ask: What if the Climate Change science is wrong and we upset our economic and political systems for nothing? This sounds like a sensible question except that the standard for measuring the state of our environmental health is to induce that 4.5 billion years of life on this planet defines a healthy planet, rather than deducing environmental healthiness from the absurd position of free market fundamentalism. It would be like asking if a group of people on a spaceship had the right to use the ship’s air system, waste system, and communication system for any purpose they wanted. The answer (regardless of one’s idea of Freedom) is clear; you cannibalize these systems for something other than what they were intended, and it’s game over.

Climate Change skepticism is a major hurdle in our efforts to solve this crisis and we need to address it. I’m not talking about serious scientists asking serious questions relating to the impossibly difficult science of climate. That’s how science works. I’m talking about those seeking to increase public doubt on Climate Change by cynical artifice and throwing our collective ability to act into an endless quagmire.

President-elect Barack Obama stated this problem emphatically years ago: “The science is beyond dispute… Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.” (Climate Progress, November 18, 2008)

So, the answer to how to talk to a climate change skeptic is not to argue with them at all. Providing these folks with more facts, more certainty, and more patience will be fruitless. The truth is that you cannot have a conversation with a determined climate change skeptic. Trying to change a climate change skeptic’s mind is like trying to teach a pig to talk. You can’t do it, and it irritates the pig. Their goal is to tie us up in knots forever for their short-term gain.

A climate change skeptic’s argument only makes sense if you haven’t done your homework and haven’t read any climate studies. The facts we do know about our climate system and the many unknown unknowns are enough to motivate nations to work as one to this common threat.

Climate Change means planning. We have to plan. We have to plan to save our way of life, others’ lives, and other beings’ ecosystems on a time scale very far ahead of the tipping points that make collapses inevitable. Doubt on the validity of Climate Change offers us a deadly hope because, like the songs of the mythic sirens, the beast within us will always yearn for lies that endless consumption and fossil fuel energy will lead us to the only thing that seems to matter, our own creature comforts.

We should talk to a climate change skeptic in the way one communicates with a rabid racist--with stone cold silence. A furious silence that pervades the media and all forms of public discourse so that climate denial becomes that which cannot be spoken aloud for it displays an abhorrent disregard to all people, plants, animals, and ecologies around the word. We don’t have the hundreds of years it took for most in this country to rise above racism; Climate Change will force us to be better stewards of our planet—or it won’t.