Saturday, June 27, 2015

Pope Francis’s Encyclical and avoiding hell on Earth

Before I wear out my welcome or lose you entirely while trying to make my point: Read the Encyclical (ENCYCLICAL LETTER, LAUDATO SI’OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME).

Throughout humanity’s existence, there have been many attempts to warn ourselves about damaging our environment, a place we have increasingly become aware of as our life support system. From the reverence by native peoples around the world for the place they called home, to the holy books of many faiths demanding that we care for our fellow creatures, to the writings by St. Francis Assisi, George Perkins Marsh, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Leopold Aldo, Rachel Carson, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Al Gore, (and many more, of course), we have had only limited success in getting through to ourselves that our actions on our environment matter.

George Perkins Marsh, one of the most important and effective environmentalists you have never heard of, wrote Man and Nature in 1864 (revised in 1872 as “The Earth as Modified by Human Action) while he was US ambassador to Italy. This very influential book (it provided the foundation of our US forestry system under Gifford Pinchot who served under President Theodore Roosevelt) received worldwide acclaim as a most thorough assessment of past agriculture and forestry abuses in the hope of preventing future devastation just as the US was diving headlong into the Second Industrial Revolution. Many listened, but most (fueled by the allure of more stuff) did not.   

The public, especially the public in the developed world, has continued to believe itself to be in a position of security, not compelled to act to prevent environmental excesses. At various points in history, the warning of environmentalists have been ignored and massive development went on regardless of environmental and health impacts. It seems (because massive numbers did not immediately drop dead) as if the alarms from environmentalists about overpopulation and sustainability were all overblown. Which is the not the case at all. Pollution, the loss of biodiversity that is resulting in the Sixth Great Extinction, and Climate Change are all catching up with us. Until now, the mere size of our world and our technical prowess have helped mask our ravishing of our environment. But with Climate Change we are hitting a wall that has no historical precedent. Like the myriad debris gathering from a great flood quickly forming a dam, the accumulated mistakes from our past development are building up an impossible barrier. 

The most recent invocation for environmental attention is the widely anticipated Encyclical by Pope Francis. It is an extremely auspicious work, coming at a moment where there is still time enough to effectively communicate to the world the importance of a substantial agreement before the COP21 Paris Climate Conference in December. What makes the Encyclical so significant is not only the charisma of a religious leader of 4.3 billion people; it is a moral indictment of the collected environmental abuses of the past culminating in the present Climate Change crisis. It is perhaps the last chance to take stock of our moral Climate Change crisis and make a difference.

The Encyclical, while a religious text, is meant for the world. This is what Pope Francis says on paragraph #14 of the Encyclical:

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.” Encyclical

While worldwide media (not Rochester’s local media*, of course) have extensively quoted from the Encyclical (on the shortcomings of our economic system, the condition of the poor, and the part about “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth…” (161, Encyclical)), this paragraph that describes the interrelatedness of all life and our machinations grabbed my attention:

‘It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. Human beings must intervene when a geosystem reaches a critical state. But nowadays, such intervention in nature has become more and more frequent. As a consequence, serious problems arise, leading to further interventions; human activity becomes ubiquitous, with all the risks which this entails. Often a vicious circle results, as human intervention to resolve a problem further aggravates the situation.” (Paragraph 34, Encyclical)

But, and I want to stress this again, the public and our leaders need to read this critical work in full—not just a few showcase quotes. It took me several days to read the Encyclical, not because it was so long (it’s only about 80 pages including the references) but because I found myself pouring over every paragraph—sometimes reading them several times to absorb their insight.

I, as an Atheist, can appreciate the Pope’s wisdom regarding individual actions to address Climate Change, even though I believe in a practical sense our individual actions need to be accompanied by systemic societal changes and in a time frame that will actually make a difference; otherwise, our little experiment with life on this planet will be over.

There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. (211, Encyclical)

However noble our everyday actions, at this point in time they will not be enough to mitigate Climate Change. Those kind of actions must come from our leaders. Still, if we change our ways, Pope Francis implores “… any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.” (149, Encyclical)

Hell on earth doesn’t have to happen if we listen to the wise voices that focus our priorities on our life support system—and not try to bake in all our whims and desires into them before we act.
*Ok, there was a moment when folks in Rochester came together (albeit on the radio) and talked about the Pope’s Encyclical:

Connections: The Pope and Climate Issues We examine the meaning of Pope Francis' new encyclical on climate change. What does it mean for the Catholic Church? More broadly, what does it mean when an organized religion wades into climate issues? Our panel discusses that and more: (June 22, 2015) Connections 

There should be more platforms for local Climate Change discussions.  With Climate Change and the disproportionate suffering of those who did not cause this crisis, it will indeed be a very hot hell on earth.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Speak up for wildlife as they try to adapt to Climate Change

Several centuries too late, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) gets moving on establishing a baseline for freshwater mussels. Mussels are these incredible filter feeders that not only keep our waters clean, but provide a foundation for stream, river, and lake ecosystems in our region. And, according to the DEC “Almost all kinds of mussels and clams are sensitive to pollution and environmental stress.”1 Which is to say, mussels are not only excellent indicators of water quality but Climate Change too. Because, as you know, Climate Change can be very stressful.

So, why is our environmental authority just getting around to quantifying and measuring the impact of this critical wildlife species? Without a long-term baseline from which to compare then and now, we don’t know whether invasive species (like the incredibly damaging Zebra Mussels) are destroying our endemic mussels, whether the tons of industrial waste, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer run-offs are affecting them, or whether our warming waters from Climate Change are going to send these little creatures to oblivion. It is likely that one reason the DEC has been late to mussel research is that much of DEC funding comes from fishing and hunting licenses. Those who harvest our wildlife tend care about critters as game, not in their role in keeping our ecosystems healthy.

We need to find a way to make sure that ‘we the people’ get more of a voice in deciding on the DEC’s role in managing wildlife in a time of warming (hence the importance of public comment on this plan ((see below, I’m getting to it)) by July 17th). Those who have specific interests in keeping specific species plentiful for their sport should not have undue influence with our state environmental authority, a louder voice than the accumulated interest of all of us on a fragile planet as we try to adapt to Climate Change. Advocates for birds get heard, but there are no advocates for freshwater mussels—or beavers for that matter. But that is another essay.

This essay is about Climate Change and wildlife. Sorry, I got a little side-tracked, but so did Wednesday’s Proposed State Wildlife Action Plan public meeting at the local DEC headquarters in Avon. It took us awhile to get through the mussels before we got down to the plan. This is the plan:

“The proposed State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) to protect rare and declining wildlife species is now available for public comment, state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens announced today. The deadline for comment is Friday, July 17.”

The SWAP is a comprehensive plan for the next ten years to protect wildlife from such common threats as “loss of habitat, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.”2
Issues like loss of habitat (a euphemism for massive destruction of lands and wetlands from development) pollution, and invasive species get little consideration from the DEC because these wildlife threats tend to be baked into our way of life. It would require a very heavy lift to get a majority of the public and the DEC focused on wildlife threats that are exceedingly difficult and inconvenient to solve without disrupting today’s economic growth. So it goes.

Vanishingly small is the attention the DEC gives the threat to our wildlife by Climate Change. Yet, on paper the SWAP gets the connection between wildlife and Climate Change.

Climate Change & Severe Weather - Threats from long-term climatic changes which may be linked to global warming and other severe climatic/weather events that are outside of the natural range of variation, or potentially can wipe out a vulnerable species or habitat.
10.1. Habitat Shifting & Alteration - Changes in habitat composition and location.
10.2. Droughts - Periods in which rainfall falls below the normal range of variation.
10.3. Temperature Extremes - Periods in which temperatures exceed or go below the normal range of variation.
10.4. Storms & Flooding - Extreme precipitation and/or wind events. (Page 25, “Draft State Wildlife Action Plan for Public Comment”)

But in real life, the DEC rarely connects the dots. My impression is that the DEC only connects Climate Change and wildlife as they are related to mitigation (i.e., stopping greenhouse gas ((GHG)) emissions), not adaptation. The DEC heralds the ClimAID report, the New York State Climate Action Plan Interim Report, Climate Smart Communities program, and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as their way of addressing Climate Change. These studies and programs concentrate on lowering greenhouse gases, which in turn reduces the consequences to wildlife as mentioned above. In other words, helping wildlife to adapt to Climate Change is like President Reagan’s way of helping the poor by trickling down the wealth of the rich. These are not going to address the specific issues wildlife have with adapting to Climate Change in any time frame or on a level that will matter.

We know from the ClimAID and Interim Report that wildlife will have to move in order to avoid the heat. But much of their ability to move requires getting across the barriers of our transportation system (highways and canals) and adapting ten times faster than the 10,000 years of a stable climate before pre-industrial times. Part of adapting is that the ecosystem of which wildlife is an integral part must also ‘move’ with the creatures. In order for a frog to leave a wetland, its wetland must ‘leave’ with it. Cold water fish (trout) need to be able to move upstream or dive for deeper water to exist. Without a stream free of obstructions (dams) or an increase in shade and water deep enough for them to cool off, these fish will not adapt. (Note: restocking fish every year is not adapting; it only creates the illusion of adapting -- like thinking you can stay within your budget even though your parents keep bailing you out.)

Our wildlife require the ecosystems they evolved with. Let me drill down a little deeper on this point: wildlife not are simply individual creatures who just happen to ‘like’ living in a certain place. Wildlife are the place. Without frogs and bugs and fish and birds and all those little creatures that breakdown life and recycle it, a wetland is just a watery ditch that collects cigarette butts. A ditch not a biological system. A plan to protect our wildlife must be a plan to protect our ecosystems. And that plan should be a part of our climate plans. The SWAP should spell out exactly what our environmental authority is doing to help wildlife adapt to Climate Change—and be held accountable for their actions. The specific actions mentioned by the SWAP in Planning and Administration Projects should be formulated with Climate Change in mind—not as an afterthought. Adaptation strategies like creating transportation corridors so wildlife can move across our highways; removing dams and changing culverts so aquatic life can move to cool off; and preventing development in or near wetlands, these all need to demonstrate that they are helping wildlife adapt. If not, these actions need to be readjusted to that end. And (always mentioned last even though it is critical) educating the public about wildlife’s role in our environment and what the general public can do to augment the state’s efforts.

Educating the public on wildlife and Climate Change could have the wonderful effect of getting the public to tolerate wildlife in their backyards. Because much of what constitutes New York State is private property, this change of attitude towards wildlife would go far in allowing our property to be passageways to adaptation and maybe homes for those creatures we evicted long ago. The City of Rochester’s Wildlife webpage explains how urbanites can learn to get along safely with those beings we should no longer be calling a nuisance.   

Consider making comment to the SWAP by Friday, July 17. First, read the draft SWAP, then if you need more information, contact Joe Racette at (518) 402-8933 or Comments should be sent to or mailed to Joe Racette, NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, 5th Floor, Albany, NY 12233. Really, Joe and the DEC want to hear from you. Because if the public doesn’t speak for our wildlife, only the special interest folks will get heard.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Climate Change and the Monroe County Executive race

Much of the present focus on Climate Change is on the COP21 Paris Conference and mitigation—keeping greenhouse gases below 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial averages. Preparations for the COP21 are going slowly, as evidenced by the lack of real progress in Bonn recently. So we don’t really know if humanity will get its act together in time to make life sustainable as the window of opportunity quickly closes. 

But one of the aspects of the Climate Change crisis that environmental groups, local media, and local governments often ignore are the day-to-day preparations required to adapt to the consequences of Climate Change in our region. Because Climate Change has become so politicized, emotional, and fearful to our media, we often fail to appreciate the exceptional nature of this worldwide crisis locally. Of course, local government at every level always has a lot on its plate—poverty, crime, taxes, education, transportation, fires, social services, code enforcement, waste management, you-name-it. But the difference between the day-to-day responsibilities of local government and preparation for the consequences of Climate Change is like the difference between maintaining a busy household and keeping it all together during major (and increasingly intense) hurricanes—where complete failure is always possible.

Governments have a responsibility to protect their constituents from the vulnerabilities of clear and present dangers. They can and must be held accountable. The exceptional vulnerabilities from Climate Change are on a scale that requires the kind of government leadership that anticipates disasters before they become unmanageable. Some of these special vulnerabilities are spelled out in the NYSERDA funded “Responding to Climate Change in New York State” or ClimAID 2011 report.

The vulnerability of the people in New York State is largely determined by several key factors: behavioral norms that have been institutionalized through building codes, crop insurance, flood-management infrastructure, water systems, and a variety of other programs; socio-economic factors that affect access to technology, information, and institutions; geographic climate-sensitive health risks due to the proximity of natural resources, dependence on private wells for drinking water, and vulnerability to coastal surges or river flooding (Balbus and Malina, 2009); and biological sensitivity related to preexisting medical conditions, such as the sensitivity of people with chronic heart conditions to heat-related illness (Balbus and Malina, 2009). (Pages 52 & 53, ClimAID)

Other climate studies that pertain to our area (New York State Climate Action Plan Interim Report or National Climate Assessment, Northeast) validate the immediacy of local Climate Change preparation. They don’t prevaricate as to whether Climate Change is happening, whether it is human caused, or whether we can delay action. These studies are official certainties that should be expressed as mandates in our local government. Which is to say, our government should be held accountable for making our way of living robust and resilient as more extreme weather (floods, heat waves) and increased threats to the public health (West Nile Virus and Lyme disease) come upon us. Preparations cannot be put off. Our media should be monitoring our government’s climate actions continually.

However, at the Rochester level we are still responding to Climate Change as if we are waiting for someone or something to kick us into action. Citizens are waiting for their government to act and the government is waiting to be pushed, looking over its shoulder to see if anyone really cares about this issue, instead of providing the vision and guidance for the road ahead. The media is focused primarily on sports.

The race for Monroe County Executive is now underway.  

I sincerely hope we can have a public discussion on Climate Change during this critical race. Preparing the local public for the public health and infrastructural consequences of Climate Chang in our region should be a top priority of the Monroe County Executive position. Debates and discussions on this important election should not be completely hijacked by taxes and budgets. Ignoring Climate Change preparation, as it was completely ignored in the Rochester mayoral race, is immoral and impractical.  

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The true cost of the Fracking brouhaha in Rochester and New York

Despite six long years battling this fossil fuel option that hijacked the public’s attention on energy during Climate Change, every bit of news about Fracking continually sends our local media into paroxysms of hope and despair. 
We are halfway to the COP21 Paris Climate Conference in December. Bonn, Germany is now hosting a two-week conference on curbing carbon emissions so that these greenhouse gases won’t make life unsustainable. Pledges from many nations at this point are still falling short of a 2C limit, which many experts believe is way too high. But one of the positive updates to Bonn is a letter sent by six major oil companies asking for a price on carbon. (Don’t get too sentimental about this request because the Big Six are corporations after all and so their altruism is limited to their bottom line.)

With significant recent developments—including India blaming Climate Change for the deaths of 2,330 people thus far in a terrible heat wave, and the soon to be release Papal encyclical demanding that Christians around the world care about this crisis–you’d think the world would be riveted by this historic attention to the worldwide crisis of our time. Many are.

But not Rochester. Even though Dr. James Hansen spoke to over 800 of us on Earth Day about how the 2C goal is too high and our carbon emissions must go below our present levels soon, this issue has been mostly forgotten. Our press isn’t covering the worldwide effort to address this worldwide crisis. Our representatives aren’t talking about it, even to themselves. Think about it. We are living in an incredible moment, where our future is going to be determined by our decisions (and remember, not doing anything about Climate Change is a decision). But unless you get your news outside Monroe County, you’re probably not engaged with what the world is doing about Climate Change locally.

Locally, we are still bemoaning the loss of Fracking. Despite six long years battling this fossil fuel option that hijacked the public’s attention on energy during Climate Change, every bit of news about Fracking continually sends our local media into paroxysms of hope and despair. The long awaited EPA report on Fracking (“EPA Releases Draft Assessment on the Potential Impacts to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities”) gets the press while Climate Change languishes. For our local media, a battle, however moot and self-generated, is far more enticing to the media than the complicated story of Climate Change.

Both sides draw ammunition from EPA fracking report Hydraulic fracturing can pollute groundwater numerous ways, federal environmental officials have concluded, but the controversial process to extract gas from shale is not causing "widespread systemic impacts on drinking water." The conclusion came with the release Thursday of a five-year national study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The analysis involved a "robust literature review," in the words of the EPA's Tom Burke, of dozens of scientific studies, technical papers and records from industry and activists submitted as part of the contentious and ongoing battle over the wisdom of tapping shale gas to meet the nation's energy needs. (June 4, 2015) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

The truth is that there are more than two sides to this media-created Fracking frenzy. There is the side that is working diligently towards 100% renewable energy by 2030. Check out, especially the section on New York. This isn’t nuts, Hawaii is considering 100% by 2040 and science backs up our New York State effort: “Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight”.

There is the side that thinks New York is already moving steadily towards cutting carbon emissions via the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).

The Surprising Facts About the Clean Power Plan: Most States Are Already On Track to Meet 2020 Benchmarks for Reducing Carbon Emissions A new analysis released today by UCS shows that most states are already making progress toward cutting carbon emissions from power plants by shifting from coal-fired power to cleaner generation sources like renewable energy, energy efficiency, and natural gas. As a result of recent decisions and state laws that predate the proposed Clean Power Plan, 31 states have already made commitments that would put them more than halfway toward meeting the 2020 benchmarks set out by the EPA, and 14 of those states are already on track to meet or exceed them, including some unlikely suspects. States like Delaware, New York, and New Hampshire that are able to meet their benchmarks through collective action with the nine states that are part of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—a multi-state effort to collectively cap carbon emissions from power plants. (June 3, 2015) Union of Concerned Scientists 

There is the side that thinks the EPA’s recent study was very limited and actually says Fracking pollutes drinking water. There is yet another side (our state) that doesn’t think the EPA study addressed many of the other reasons why New York said no to Fracking in the first place:

NY agency: EPA report won't affect state's ban on fracking Business groups are calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to lift New York's fracking ban after the Environmental Protection Agency reported the technology hasn't caused widespread harm to drinking water, but the Cuomo administration says the ban will stay. Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Tom Mailey says the EPA review released Thursday focused on impacts to water related to high-volume hydraulic fracturing. But he said the state's review was much broader, evaluating impacts to air, water, public health, ecosystems, wildlife and communities. (June 5, 2015) WHEC Rochester

And there is the side that says that we are not addressing the true cost with any fossil fuels (including Fracking). The true cost of our energy is not the price you pay for this energy at the pump or your electric bill, which has been seriously bankrolled by your government to make it extremely addictive and deadly.

If we are to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change, we must adopt a more mature definition of costs than the one provided by a loony economic system that treats our life support system as an insignificant detail. 

Calls grow for full fossil fuel reckoning From the International Monetary Fund to doctors, voices calling out the fossil fuel industry over its health costs are becoming louder - and more numerous. But a lot depends on the definition of "cost." Six major European energy companies have called on policymakers to put global carbon pricing on the agenda at United Nations climate talks in Bonn this week. They describe this as the most effective way of encouraging greener investments. But as a growing movement shows, putting a price on fossil fuels could also provide a solution to the increasingly visible problem of their costs falling to taxpayers. (June 2, 2015) Deutsche Welle

The greatest cost of fossil fuels is the dangerous illusion that they are affordable and not responsible for this worldwide crisis of Climate Change. 

The True Cost of Fossil Fuels Fossil fuels reap profits in modern economies in part because the costs of their environmental and health damage are not included in their price. A new report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) finds that we're significantly underestimating society's subsidy for fossil fuel use worldwide. The report's co-author, IMF economist David Coady tells host Steve Curwood how they calculated fossil fuels subsidies worldwide annually cost taxpayers and consumers $5.3 trillion. (May 29, 2015) Living on Earth

The true cost of fossil fuels, including Fracking, is that it steals away our time, money, and attention as the window of opportunity to address Climate Change closes.

Time passes.