Saturday, February 22, 2014

Earth Day 2014: Getting your head around Climate Change, Part 2, the problem


CCMotherThis is part 2 of a series of essays leading up to a major public discussion of Climate Change in Rochester NY on Earth day. On April 17, 2014 at 7PM, the Rochester Sierra Club will host a community discussion on Climate Change in our region with Mark Lowery, Climate Analyst, and manager of the state’s Climate Smart Communities program. The program is called 2014 Earth Day Forum “Climate Smart Communities: Let’s Get With the Program." This “Earth Day” event (I know, April 22 is actually Earth Day) will be held at the First Unitarian Church, 220 Winton Road South, Rochester, NY. We hope to reach the entire public—community, faith, and business leaders, students, the unemployed, the employed, young and old, healthy and not so healthy, rich and poor, and folks busy with other stuff —and have an old-fashioned community talk about the world crisis called Climate Change. Join your neighbors in a town hall meeting free from activism, ideology, politics, and denial.

However your favorite group may frame Climate Change, it is the mother of all problems. It is unlike any other problem humans and all life on this planet have endured thus far. It is a problem where one species (our own) is putting all life on Earth through a wormhole, a possible collapse where none but a few hardy bacteria might emerge on the other side. For some reason or another [20 Excuses US public uses to dismiss the urgency of Climate Change], most of us in our Rochester region don’t appreciate the urgency of Climate; we feel no alarm. I know, this January we almost froze our butts off here, but in Australia, Argentina, Austria, China, France, Spain and Switzerland—not so much. To get a sense of the big picture, check out this one-minute animation of “Amount of old ice in Arctic, 1987-2013”by NOAA.

Climate Change is not a problem where you can simply vote the solution into office, or send in the marines, rage against the fossil fuel companies, change your light bulbs, attend a rally, browbeat your representatives online, travel less, eat less, recycle more, increase your taxes, or have fewer kids—though certainly these would help tremendously. Your government already knows Climate Change is happening, and they know about it in exhaustive detail. They’ve got lots of solutions. But these solutions aren’t going to work unless you and the majority of humankind are on board. A few angry activists with signs and a lot of passion for their planet isn’t enough.

Here are some reasons why Climate Change is the mother of all problems and needs your attention—and why in order to understand what to do, you have to get your head around the kind of issue this is:

  • The US military is spread around the world ready to address major conflicts. Wars--big ones or a lot of small ones at the same time--begin over things like water shortages (caused in part by Climate Change). These wars could quickly overwhelm our financial resources rendering us incapable of addressing other issues like extreme floods of our own.
  • Unlike the threat of nuclear war, where a small mistake or misunderstanding between warring countries could end the world as we know it, Climate Change unfolds even if we do nothing, if we continue business as usual.
  • Climate Change is occurring as the accumulated abuse from our past environmental problems are catching up with us: The Sixth Great Extinction, the collapse of our ocean’s biota, ocean acidification, and toxic pollution of our air, water, and land.
  • Ad hoc solutions won’t work for a worldwide crisis dependant on bringing greenhouse gas (GHGs) concentration to a level we evolved and thrived on in the Holocene. Only top-down, worldwide binding agreements to bring down GHGs to a sustainable concentration level (many say 350ppm, as opposed to our present 398ppm) will truly address the problem. That will take unprecedented cooperation among nations still mostly concerned about short-term self-interests.
  • The warming that has occurred since the 1850’s is ten time faster than any point in the last 10,000 years. This means very few plants and animals can adapt to this warming quickly enough to survive.
  • There is no reason to believe that the present economic system that got us into this mess can carbon-tax or greenize-its-transportation out of this mess. For too many centuries, our economic models have treated our environment as an externality. This gap is too big to fill using our modern dysfunctional economic models.
  • There is no example we can point to where we have demonstrated that we can muster the will on a large enough scale to turn warming around. It would mean that all of us on this planet would have to change how we consume, what we consume, what we build, and how we get around.
  • There are a lot of unknown unknowns (including tipping points whose consequences we don’t understand) about how our planet’s environment works, plus centuries of information missing about when we began drastically changing it. So we are trying to plan for a problem we still don’t completely understand—and the deniers are no help.
  • There are innumerable legal issues and national boundaries limiting our ability to act comprehensively on an issue that is ignorant of arbitrary human borders.
  • While energy needs grow, and our population grows, there is little indication that folks will accept lower energy consumption despite the cause-and-effect relationship between energy use and Climate Change. Even if we find more efficient and cleaner energy, this may only enable more vehicles and gadgets that require more energy rather than an overall decrease in per-capita energy consumption. We might not be able to grow ourselves out of this problem, and that may cause many to lose interest.
  • Climate Change is not a problem that we can high-tech or engineer around because we have perhaps centuries of warming that will play out even if we stop more GHGs right now. Adaption means we will have to undergo a lot of extreme weather and do so in a way that doesn’t further exacerbate the condition of the poor, animals and plants—Climate Justice. Even if we invented something that would suck carbon dioxide right out of the air, we’d still have a major problem.
  • Most politicians will balk at difficult adaptation and mitigation strategies. Even if they succeeded, the public (without adequate information) will vote them out and install someone who’ll pander to their comfort level—as has happened recently in Japan, Canada, and Australia.
  • It is unlikely that endless growth, a tenant of our present economic system, can survive on a finite planet. As a matter of fact, FEMA is already reeling from trying to pay of Hurricane Sandy. Not only is our ability to prepare for Climate Change in our telecommunications, transportation, and water infrastructure in jeopardy, we might not be able to afford the insurance bill for Climate Change.
  • In the past, a relatively few environmentalist have helped address some of the localized symptoms—accumulated toxins, floods, loss of forests, lead poisoning, and much more—of environmental abuse. But with Climate Change, everyone will have to work on the fundamental causes of environmental problems. Only lowering GHGs will solve Climate Change—it cannot be reinterpreted or framed in any other way that will lead to an adequate solution.
  • Climate Change has a time limit. We have avoided taking worldwide comprehensive action and that has only made the warming accelerate. But past a certain point, say 6C increase since the 1850’s, we may reach an upper limit where no actions will work.
  • Climate Change makes our previous philosophical values questionable. What will Freedom, Justice, and Equality for all actually mean if surviving through the wormhole of Climate Change trumps everything we have come to cherish? We should be figuring out what values we have the potential to save and work on those and cut our losses with a lot of values that we thought we believed in. For example, many of our wildlife may not adapt quickly enough to save or put in a zoo because we won’t have the resources to put their environment back together again once it’s gone. We might have already gone past the point to save much wildlife—except as artifacts in a zoo.
  • There are no winners in Climate Change. Anyone or any corporation that thinks they will flourish as Climate Change moves our planetary environment towards collapse hasn’t thought through all the implications. Climate Change cannot be segmented; it is a continuum where breaking it apart (say, into something quantifiable like air quality or water quality) only blinds us from the big picture, since solving it will be ‘all of the above.’ The rich will still need clean air and water. Corporations will still need a healthy workforce. Food production will only benefit a little from more carbon and heat. After that, the insects and weeds take over.
  • Even if a large proportion of us work full-throttle on adapting to and mitigating Climate Change, a relatively few polluting nations can thwart the efforts of all.
  • Climate Change, unlike the world wars, will have to be waged decade after decade, perhaps century after century—if we can keep the major tipping points at bay.
  • Many of the rich and powerful who will fight the efforts of everyone else every step of the way—which may render the efforts of the rest null and void.

If we seize on solutions to Climate Change without seeing the big picture, we may fail altogether to address and mitigate Climate Change. Ad hoc solutions, ones that aren’t comprehensive enough or waste precious time and resources, may doom potentially workable strategies. On the other hand, ‘business as usual’ will inevitably speed up our arrival at the point of no return.

Instead of adopting a grand strategy to solve Climate Change, we might have to change who we are in order to solve this problem. We have no issues in the past to compare with the issue coming at us.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Earth Day 2014: Engaging the public on Climate Change, Part 1, the media


CCEarthDay2014On April 17, 2014 at 7PM, the Rochester Sierra Club will host a community discussion on Climate Change in our region with Mark Lowery, Climate Analyst, and manager of the state’s Climate Smart Communities program. This “Earth Day” event (I know, April 22 is actually Earth Day) will be held at the First Unitarian Church, 220 Winton Road South, Rochester, NY. We hope to reach the entire public—community, faith, and business leaders, students, the unemployed, the employed, young and old, healthy and not so healthy, rich and poor, and folks busy with other stuff —and have an old-fashioned community talk about the world crisis called Climate Change. Join your neighbor in a town hall meeting free from activism, ideology, politics, and denial.

Through a series of essays before this Earth Day event, I will spell out why it is so important for the public, not just a few activists, to be engaged in this discussion. This first essay concerns the failure of our media to adequately inform the public of this worldwide crisis, which feeds the illusion that Climate Change is only one among many special interest issues. Though a majority of Americans support climate and energy policies, this is not reflected in media coverage. See Study: 83 Percent Want Action on Global Warming, Even With 'Economic Costs' from US World and News Report (February 12, 2014): “A large majority of Americans say 'the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming,' even if it impinges the economy”.

A good example of poor media coverage on Climate Change is the failure by local media to put this present cold snap in the proper context of a world that is warming. Just last year, USA Today (a Gannett company, like the D&C) remarked that “Lake Ontario saw the most dramatic decrease with an 88% drop in ice coverage” … “since the 1970’s”. (Shrinking ice worries Great Lakes scientists) But this article only talks about the present massive ice cover, which is an anomaly as Climate Change continues to influence the Great Lakes: Freeze pushes Great Lakes ice cover toward '79 record  (February 14, 2014) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle). It is as if the previous five decades of shrinking ice cover never existed. Or, if the local media were to distinguish meteorology from climatology, they should see that the trajectory for Great Lakes ice cover is for less ice: 

Seasonal ice cover has decreased on the Great Lakes at a rate of 8 percent per decade over the past 35 years; models suggest this will lead to increased lake effect snow in the next couple of decades through greater moisture availability (Burnett et al., 2003). By mid-century, lake-effect snow will generally decrease as temperatures below freezing become less frequent (Kunkel et al., 2002). (Page 3, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)

The loss of ice cover (or snowpack and snow cover for that matter) will have profound effects on our local environment. Cincinnati’s local media (though, not our local media) doesn’t misrepresent Great Lakes ice cover and Climate Change: “Great Lakes become nearly covered with ice” (February 14, 2014) WKRC Cincinnati) There will be more water evaporation which will cause lower lake levels, no matter how many local battles there are to get the government to put lake levels at the most popular levels. This is information that the public needs to know to prepare properly for infrastructural changes that will cost of lot of money and need to be sustained through election year after election year.

My experience working to advance alternative transportation (walking and bicycling) and more recycling as local adaptation strategies for adapting to and mitigating Climate Change has been met with an indifferent public. Actions, such as waking and recycling, are understood in our region to be environmentally friendly, but not as part of a coordinated effort to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). Climate Change is an issue that cannot be adequately addressed by a few activists with good intentions. The problem is too big; the vast majority of the public around the world needs to be engaged. Without a media that understands its critical responsibility to provide this public service, a service required in a warming world, the public will continue to think we can simply ‘green’ our way out of this issue with new technologies, fighting the big polluters, and donating to special causes. Only ‘all of the above’ and more will work.

I have observed that many climate studies, community plans on Climate Change, and even the efforts of environmental groups do include Climate Change communications. But rather than given top priority, communicating the pervasive threat of Climate Change and the need for public education is given almost no financial allotment, little staffing, and usually only targeted to special audiences. The need to raise public awareness about Climate Change exists as the weakest link in any climate plan because the media has not done their job. Local media seems far more interested in merging with larger and larger media corporations, which provides less news about unpopular issues like Climate Change.

So, this Earth Day, as our Arctic melts and so disrupts its climate system that it dips down and disrupts our climate patterns, come and talk about Climate Change. There will be a short presentation on Climate Change and how the state understands this to impact our region. Then, you and hundreds of your neighbors, the media, and community leaders can share concerns and ideas on this most important issue ever faced by humanity. Just like back in the day when we came together to face common threats.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Climate Change and our future challenged in the courts


CCIllegalSome of our greatest environmental victories have occurred in the courts. The enactment of the 1963 Clean Air Act in the United States has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to sue carbon polluters. Sadly, that constitutes the EPA’s power in addressing Climate Change. There are many more court cases—including those that stopped lead going into our gasoline, stopped the destruction of endangered species, protected our water, and many other environmental victories. One gets taken to court and sued (maybe jailed) for dumping toxic chemicals into the public’s drinking water supply. We are a litigious society.

Environmental groups, now almost as thickly populated with lawyers as the corporations they battle, have become more than the watchdogs of our precious environment; they have become watchdogs with a considerable bite. (Read: Foes of Keystone XL Begin New Legal Battle Against State Department] Many companies understand the power of these groups to stovepipe environmental violations to the media and then to the courts, making polluters think twice about sloppy environmental practices that could ruin a year’s worth of profit. Increasingly, companies are becoming aware of their environmental responsibilities, so much so that they seek guidance of all sorts to make sure they do no harm. Someday we may even witness a universal standard like the ISO 14000 become the norm and require universal green certification for all business practices. The consequences of violating environmental laws can be so burdensome (ask BP about their legal struggles after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) that most corporations will do quite a bit to avoid the legal consequences, including adopting the best environmental practices.

Let’s be clear: Corporations came to this environmental epiphany kicking and screaming though our legal system not because they suddenly appreciated that our environment is our life support system. (Check this quote from the business sector just this week: "But there needs to be a balance that allows manufacturers to thrive." as expressed in this article: “New smog limits could squeeze Chicago

However, the door swings both ways. Our laws, a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced at various levels of government, provide many a polluter a chance to win in the courts and gainsay our environment. That’s because our laws don’t necessarily tend towards the protection of our environment. Our laws, including some really bad ones (laws helped slavery endure for far too long), are neutral on our environment. If a community believes that it desperately needed a very polluting industry’s jobs, it’s quite likely that any environmental laws would be rendered toothless.

From this recent discussion, The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy, with top environmental reporters around the world chiming in, one sees continual battles in the courts on Climate Change ahead. For one point, although brought to its knees in the US, king coal isn’t remotely dead. Coal is abundant and the economic mainstay of many economies around the world. Coal for energy, the reporters say, will continue to thrive, regardless of the courts, regardless of the deadly affect burning this dirty fuel has on our planet. (For example, China, immune from our courts, imports 15% of its coal and that is more coal burnt for fuel than the rest of the world combined.)

Even what environmental laws we have may get complicated further if this new trade deal slips into existence and relinquishes our own sovereignty over our own laws:

Fast Tracking TPP Would Mean More Corporate Control of Our Democracy Do you care about having access to local and sustainably produced food or protecting your drinking water? Are you concerned about corporate influence distorting our elections? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you should be worried about legislation Senator Max Baucus and Rep. Dave Camp recently introduced that would grant the Obama administration fast-track authority. Those measures would allow the White House to quickly push the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and another trade deal with Europe through Congress with a simple up or down vote. Fast-track authority would give the Obama administration the unchecked power to promote future trade deals. Those pacts would allow corporations to challenge any democratically enacted federal, state or local laws and regulations that would limit their narrow financial interests. The TPP and the U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement are really corporate power grabs disguised as trade agreements containing provisions that would undermine basic consumer rights, including issues related to our food, water and local sovereignty. (February 3, 2014) EcoWatch

Rather than any great strides towards adapting to Climate Change -- major infrastructure changes or policies for mitigation that greatly reduce greenhouse gases (GHG’s) emissions -- our court dockets will be filled with pro-polluters fighting tooth and nail in our courts to keep doing what they do. Lawyers will get rich. The media will have showy legal battles to showcase. GHG concentrations in our atmosphere will rise.

This sparring in the courts, the back and forth haggling between perceived economic forces and advocates for a healthy environment, seems quite consistent with the natural competitiveness of our own nature and Nature’s nature for that matter. Except that this legal tension in our courts over our environment is not sustainable for us. If we continue in this way, fighting every bad chemical unleashed into our environment and every smoke stack spewing out greenhouse gases, we’ll cook ourselves, even in our air-conditioned courtrooms.

There isn’t enough time to fight every environmental assault in the courts as we have done in the past. However lucrative for lawyers and successful for environmentalists, past a certain point, say 4C or 6C rise in Climate Change, fighting individual cases of environmental abuse in our courts won’t matter. The laws of physics trump our legal system. No lawyer or judge or cleverly-written law can stop a force six hurricane from pummeling your coastline. The laws of physics say if we don’t get our global temperatures down to a sustainable level (what is believed by many experts to be 350parts per million of carbon dioxide) then you lose—and you don’t get to come back and appeal the decision.

We are going to have to find another way to shift to a sustainable existence rather than daily skirmishes in our courts. They are but distractions along the road to perdition, not where life will flourish.

It is interesting to me that our best and our brightest environmental reporters seem far more interested in the legality of environmental practices than their effect on their own survival system. Were this not so, and environmental reporters truly appreciated the predicament Climate Change puts us in, they might not be so inclined to focus solely on the judgments of our courts on environmental issues, and more disposed to heed the continual warnings of a way of life that is not sustainable.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Climate Change, the second phase


CCPhaseIn his State of the Union Address last week, President Obama stated that ‘…the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact.” Yet many folks in our country are not convinced that the debate is over. Some of those still spewing uncertainty on an issue long settled by world climate scientists are powerful folks with serious political clout. They don’t intend to give an inch on what is for them an ideological issue and is for us actual reality.

Unlike the other issues hijacked by rich and powerful merchants of doubt—the dangers of cigarette (including second-hand) smoking to one’s health, acid rain, ozone layer thinning, and DDT (Read “Merchants of Doubt”)--Climate Change threatens to quickly overwhelm our ability to sustain our environment, which despite having been rendered an externality by economists, is our life support system.

While most agree that efforts to address Climate Change must include a political strategy to work around and through obstructionists, many environmental groups think the President has gone too far in appeasing the fossil fuel corporations. Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, which translates into a “have your cake and eat it too” policy by increasing both renewable energy and fossil fuels, is pure folly:

Jekyll And Hyde: The Two Sides Of Obama’s Energy Strategy In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama once again tried to reconcile the split personality of his energy policy. On the one hand, the President clearly stated his Dr. Jekyll commitment to cutting carbon pollution and fighting climate change. But not before he pushed his Mr. Hyde expansion of domestic fossil fuel production, starting early in the speech, where he touted this success: “More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world –- the first time that’s happened in nearly twenty years.” (January 28, 2014) Think Progress/Climate Progress

Obama’s action on reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs), which may or may not be accurately portrayed by his boast that “the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth”, is nevertheless a leap forward from his predecessors. [You can fact check the President’s carbon claims here, but that still won’t cover carbon emissions from CAFOs, Fracking, and existing natural gas pipeline leaks.] Especially heartening is the possibility that he may be able to “…continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it, so that we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.” Hurrah! Even though it has long reached advanced adulthood, the fossil fuel industry is still suckling on our shriveling tax base.

The President said nothing about whether he would stop the XL Keystone Pipeline through the US. A decision to approve piping this dirty fossil fuel through our country and into our local gas tanks alone would negate most what of he’s accomplished so far. But even if Obama stops the pipeline dead in its tracks, he will ‘own’ the Climate Change issue only until 2016. Then it will be another American president’s problem.

The first phase in understanding Climate Change has come through the collected work of scientists, intrepid reporters and editors, environmentalists, writers, teachers, business leaders, bloggers and heroic political leaders who have brought us to this point, a point where Climate Change is understood to be a world crisis. No small feat that. Wherever you stand on this issue, no one who calls themselves educated can at this phase be unaware of the science behind Climate Change and the level of gravity it implies.

Climate Change, the second phase: Beyond Obama the possible election of a leader heedless of Climate Change and willing to cut back what meager efforts have been accomplished thus far is likely the next dramatic phase in what portends to be a long slog towards a planetary solution to this problem. Already in Japan, Australia, and Canada, previous measures to tax carbon and move towards producing less greenhouse gases have been thrown back. Just this week a less than robust European Union (the leaders in addressing Climate Change) effort has caved into economic and political realities:

New EU climate plans not good enough, say the experts The European Union's new proposals are simply inadequate for a climate pioneer like Europe, say the experts. Many suspect that big business is getting preferential treatment. For years Europe has been seen as a world leader on climate issues, but economic constraints are now hitting environmental policy. That was the subtext of José Manuel Barroso's presentation on Wednesday (23.01.2014) as the head of the EU Commission outlined proposals for new climate goals for the bloc. For Arthur Neslen, a European energy policy expert and journalist with the EU affairs website EurActiv, the proposals are disappointing, but understandable. "It's politically safe to propose the minimum, most painless, climate protection solution for industry now," Neslen said. "But, ultimately, we are just storing up problems for down the road." (January 23, 2014) DW

Here’s the question for this next phase of Climate Change: How in this world are we going to sustain our commitment to those who come after us if we undercut what little gains we’ve made every time there’s an election? It’s taken us several decades since we began to think seriously about this issue to get where we are—and that’s still a place where manmade GHGs are steadily accumulating and extreme weather events are increasing.

What is it that will keep us focused on bringing down GHGs year after year, decade after decade, election cycle after election cycle, until it’s sustainable—and keep it there? What is there inside us that we can muster to become the kind of species we need to be to do that? Whatever that is, we’d better figure it out soon.