Monday, October 26, 2015

Testing the mood of insurance companies against Climate Change

Watching the past and present ‘behavior’ of the stock market then trying to predict its future behavior is (without trying to sound hyperbolic) mindboggling difficult. Lots of bucks along with much expert and non-expert prognostications go into predicting the market, which seems hell-bent on being unpredictable. Searching for a successful formula to make a profit on the market is like trying to cheer up a moody adolescent with candy. It could work, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Like the stock market, which tries to predict the future of wealth, insurance institutions try to predict the future of financial risk. That’s why I find this new study-- Economic losses from US hurricanes consistent with an influence from climate change, in Nature Geoscience--so interesting. The author of this study claims that insurance losses due to hurricanes mean that Climate Change is sending us a clear message.

“The study claims that the extra costs in recent decades do not just stem from more homes, businesses and infrastructure that have been built near the coastlines. "Increases in wealth and population alone cannot account for the observed trend in hurricane losses," according to the study, whose lead author is Francisco Estrada, an economist at Mexico's National Autonomous University. Estrada and two colleagues from Europe said that this unexplained increase in economic losses over time is consistent with a climate change signal.” (Study: Climate change adding billions to U.S. hurricane costs, 10/19/2015 USA Today)

Actually, what interest me about this study is the media coverage of it. In the USA Today coverage, much of the article concerns itself with reactions to the study, including a naysayer who thought the study was ‘flawed’ and ‘misleading.’ An article in Insurance Journal describes the same study without the misleading and flawed parts. The insurance media seems to be embracing the message being sent by the study.

Whether or not, and to what degree, hurricanes are being affected by Climate Change is still being debated by climate scientists. The study above may not turn out to be part of the scientific consensus that Climate Change is sending us a clear message through individual hurricanes. No one study is likely to prove this message because (as Andrew Revkin of DOT Earth likes to continually reminds us), we need to be aware of the “single-study syndrome”, the tendency to think a single study can answer a complex, multi-causal issue.

For our purposes at the moment, if this study is causing insurance companies concerns it should be causing us concern. Whether we, meaning the general public, care to follow the precautionary principle and plan for Climate Change is one thing. But whether we like it or not, the insurance industry must follow this principle or they will go belly up. As a matter of fact, the insurance industry worldwide is very concerned about Climate Change:

“Hurricanes, floods, fires, and heat waves resulting in millions of dollars of damage are no longer unusual events. They are now a fact of life, posing increased risk to life and property while driving up the costs of recovery. Both catastrophic and smaller-scale floods have been on the rise in communities throughout the country. The Western wildfire season has grown longer as warmer temperatures and longer periods of drought have become more common, and tropical storms and hurricanes have brought catastrophic damage to the U.S. over the past two decades. Disasters with a price tag exceeding $1 billion, previously limited to one or two per year, now occur at least five to 10 times per year. Recent payouts for events like Superstorm Sandy have shattered previous records, taking a toll both on the federal budget and on the National Flood Insurance Program, which is now more than $23 billion in debt. As the frequency, severity, and cost of these disasters grows and federal spending on recovery rises, individuals, communities, and state and local governments must do everything possible to ensure they can withstand the next storm.” Bracing for the Storm, How To Reform U.S. Disaster Policy To Prepare For A Riskier Future, Produced by SmarterSafer, April 2015

You can argue all day long with climate deniers and even climate scientists (if you don’t mind looking foolish), but you cannot argue with the insurance industry. If they feel the need to raise your premiums or drop you altogether because they think they need to get their funds ready for Climate Change, then you either pay up or go without insurance. The insurance business is not in the charity business.

The slightest wiggle will send the stock market soaring or plummeting, whether the wiggle was a result of rational or an irrational exuberance. Similarly, if the insurance industry thinks it’s going to be bleeding money profusely in the future because a study links insurance payouts with hurricanes, everyone should listen. Especially the media.

When the media covers climate studies and the insurance industry’s reactions, reporters should first test the mood of the insurers before scouring the Internet for a climate doubter to get the measure of the report’s importance to us all. How the insurance industry is feeling about humanity’s preparations for addressing Climate Change and the financial liabilities the insurance industry thinks that they may be held accountable for is probably a more sound form of feedback for the public rather than a single critic’s opinion about how a single study was conducted.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Rochester, NY’s role in Climate Change

Figuring out how to engage the local media (and thus the public) while planning local action around the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris has been a great challenge. Someone quipped that in order to get media attention on a march for Climate Change we would probably have to do something really crazy.

That’s a little over the top, but it does dramatize the frustration those concerned about Climate Change feel. Why won’t local media pay attention to Climate Change? We’ve marched in force through downtown Rochester in support of Pope Francis’s message; we’ve conducted a well-attended forum on addressing this issue for our local candidates; and we even orchestrated a rally in front of City Hall last year representing many diverse organizations to show solidarity with the busloads of folks attending the People’s Climate March last year.

But our local media didn’t show up for any of those events. That means that local concerns for Climate Change, a worldwide crisis that includes Rochester, occurs in an insulated silo where the public continues to believe this crisis is merely a special interest. It means our local elections will say nothing about addressing Climate Change locally. It means we’ll continue to address the probable consequences of Climate Chang in our region—more flooding, more harmful algae outbreaks, and more whacky weather—by doing the same things. 

Rochester is not engaged with Climate Change, even though, as an old industrial community, we’ve played a significant role in causing this crisis. You can say we didn’t know then that our fossil-fuel-burning way of life would warm the planet, but you cannot say it didn’t help warm the planet. It’s science. Now that we know that we’ve played a role in causing Climate Change, we should play a role in its solution.

From November 30th to December 11th, the COP21 Paris Climate Conference will determine our fate. Here’s the skinny:

WEBZINE "Have you ever heard about "ocean acidification"? Did you know that 20 to 30% of animal and plant species are under threat of extinction? To learn all about COP21 main issues, browse through our webzine and download the following fact sheets." -from COP21/CMP11 for a universal climate agreement"

Communities all around the world are working on local events just before the COP21 treaty to get our leaders to act.

“This will be our message as we take to the streets on 28-29 November: Keep fossil fuels in the ground — really, just stop digging and drilling — and finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.” Global Climate March

But in Rochester, here’s the problem: What kind of an event will get sufficient media attention to get Rochesterians engaged on this issue? A march? A rally? A public forum? A concert with a major rock star? Street theatre—like maybe a fake die-in where folks lay down in the streets demonstrating a bleak future if we continue business as usual? Standing along the railroad tracks with signs about dangerous crude oil being transported through our communities on rickety rails and railcars designed for corn syrup, not highly volatile fossil fuels? A vigil with candles and prayers? A program on how to divest from fossil fuels from a prominent business man who has already walked this walk? (We are already planning this program. Stay tuned.) A lecture followed by a film like “Merchants of Doubt” to prove climate denial has been an orchestrated, heavily-funded lie? Blue ribbons in our trees to show solidarity with Paris? Flash mobbing our media outlets to wake them up? Giving away free cell phones? (Just kidding, we don’t have that kind of money.)   

A relatively small group of local folks wouldn’t have to stand on their heads and spit nickels to get media attention if the local media had been doing their job all along: connecting the dots on the local consequences of Climate Change. And now, as the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic damage closes quickly, Rochester’s role in Climate Change threatens to be a pathetic lack of responsibility if we cannot reach our media.

Time passes.  

Sunday, October 11, 2015 endorses Sandy Frankel for Monroe County Executive

More than likely you’ve already decided which of the three Monroe County Executive candidates you are going to vote for in November. Or whether you’re going to vote at all. So I’m keenly aware that my chances of changing your mind are limited. Arguing that you should vote for Sandy Frankel and that you should do so based on Climate Change vastly decreases the likelihood that you’ll even hear me out. In our community, the phrase Climate Change deflates any election dialogue quicker than a pin poking a balloon.

Before your attention bursts altogether, let me march out the gist of my argument: This election is not about Ms. Frankel, it’s about you and your family and your future. You may think that your top priorities in this election are about your family, your jobs, your schools, taxes, guns, and our crumbling infrastructure—and they are. But none of these pressing issues can actually be solved unless the underlying reality of Climate Change is factored in. Because the job of Monroe County Executive is the most important political position in our immediate region, our community’s response to Climate Change will be orchestrated (whether intentional or not) from this position.

“The County Executive is the chief executive officer and administrative head of the Monroe County government. The County Executive develops policies, proposes legislation to the County Legislature, appoints department heads, directs the preparation of the annual operating budget and the Capital Improvement Program and coordinates the management of all departments. The County Executive also represents County interests to the local, state and federal governments.” Departments – Monroe County Government    

Sandy Frankel has spoken repeatedly about what she has done and what she plans to do in the future to help our community adapt to a quickly warming world. The GOP candidate has yet to even mention Climate Change, let alone defend her position. Rajesh Barnabas, the Green Party candidate, is a really great guy willing to move out of his comfort zone and busy life to inject some environmental and justice issues into this election—even though he has essentially no hope of getting elected. 

Even if you don’t believe in the science behind Climate Change (which, by the way, is the same science behind gravity), wouldn’t you want this issue debated so that the candidates were compelled to explain and defend their position? Sandy Frankel and Rajesh Barnabas have both attempted to bring this issue into this election at the Candidate Forum 2015: “Building an Economy for Climate Stability”. But the entire enterprise of informing the public by the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition was thwarted by a dismissive local media that couldn’t be bother to attend—and the GOP candidate who must think the best strategy is to sit this one out. The media, custodians of the public’s awareness of election issues, should not be deciding at this (almost too) late date that we cannot even have this crucial conversation about the worldwide crisis of Climate Change. A moral crisis as Pope Francis describes it:

“Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation.” (Pope Francis Addresses President Obama And Guests At White House (Full Transcript) 9/23/2015, The Huffington Post)

The Guardian, arguably the most responsible media in our warming world, has for the last year focused on framing the Climate Change issue as “keep in it in the ground”. ‘It’ being fossil fuels. That was phase one of their coverage. Phase two is Hope. Hope is essential in a world that is increasingly experiencing the consequences of a rapidly warming world, but irrational hope is counter-productive. An example of an irrational hope is when you know your car’s brakes don’t work but climb in the car and tear off down the road regardless, hoping that you won’t need to slow down or come to a stop. The Guardian is not advocating irrational hope. It’s advocating something like getting your brakes fixed then driving your car down the road.

“There is hope in the many voices who are now calling for action from their leaders. There is hope in the rapidly falling cost of renewable energy that is starting to transform our dirty energy system. There is hope in the pledge by G7 countries to phase out coal power. There is hope in the communities and innovators around the world who are getting on with the job rather than waiting for the politicians.” (10/05/2015, The Guardian)

Hope for our future, especially at the local level, cannot be based on climate denial, or a ”no-regrets” policy (which attempts to accomplish environmentally friendly actions even if Climate Change were to somehow prove to be false). Hope cannot be expressed in a sudden reversal of political strategy once it becomes clear that it’s your ox being gored—highlighted this week by Senator Graham’s about-face on federal disaster relief in the face of Climate Change disasters: Graham Opposed Sandy Aid, Now Wants Help For South Carolina. Hope expresses the best of humanity, the desire to prosper through a realistic appraisal of one’s goals. Hope cannot thrive if climate of denial has left us unprepared.   

Why ‘Once-In-A-Lifetime’ Flooding Keeps Happening Climate change is making rare weather events less rare At least nine people have died in flooding across South Carolina that has left city streets submerged in water, destroyed homes and closed more than 100 bridges. Nikki Haley, the state’s governor, described the disaster as one of such an epic scale that science suggests it would only occur once every 1,000 years. A flooding disaster of this scale was unlikely to be sure, scientists say, but climate change has transformed once-in-a-lifetime events into periodic occurrences. The flooding may have been hard to predict, but it should no longer come as a surprise. (October 5, 2015) Time

The job of the Monroe County Executive, as mentioned above, “represents County interests to the local, state and federal governments.” Many of those ‘interests’ fall under the bailiwick of our infrastructures, but it becomes very difficult to articulate the importance of addressing Climate Change locally if the public doesn’t understand the importance of our infrastructures. It’s pretty amazing that we have studies that have to ask, “What is infrastructure and why it is so important?” 

We aren’t even maintaining the infrastructures we have—water, waste water systems, telecommunications, transportation, and much more—let alone preparing them for more extreme weather (frequent heavy flooding, and heat) and all the other consequences that are happening and will happen with Climate Change in our area.  

Road and bridge funding sought by engineers and government leaders New York's infrastructure is crummy and getting worse, as anyone who drives on the state's roads probably already realizes. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the state's infrastructure a C- in a report card it released this morning (the report is attached at the bottom of this post). But the grade is boosted by B- grades on parks and solid waste infrastructure. The state's roads get a D- and its bridges a D+. In Rochester, the roads are in such rough enough shape that they cost drivers an average $402 in repairs annually, according to the ASCE report. In Buffalo, the roads suck a little less, apparently, since they cost drivers there an average of $293 annually.  The ASCE looked at other areas, too. Drinking water infrastructure receives a C, for example, and the state's waste water systems get a D. (September 29, 2015) Rochester City Newspaper

We should be voting in the up-and-coming local elections based on how the candidates will address real threats to our way of life. For those wondering in the back of their minds at what point Climate Change will affect them personally, it is at the level of massive and frequent infrastructure breakdowns that they will notice. Then they will be more than sorry they voted for leaders who hadn’t prepared them and their built systems that make our way of life possible. If you’re thinking that we’ll just address these infrastructure problems when and if they happen, you just don’t know Climate Change. (BTW: These Climate Change threats to our local infrastructure are not simply my opinion. My insights are based partly on three official climate studies that pertain to our region: Responding to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID) sponsored by NYSERDA, the New York State Climate Action Plan Interim Report, and the report on the “Northeast” by the National Climate Assessment, which is to say the US government.)  

We’ve barely had a dialogue during this critical year on Climate Change in our local elections even as the voting time draws near. In order for a democracy to work, its citizens must be well-informed. Accomplishing that has always been problematic—given that historically so many rich and influential entities (like the fossil fuel industry) have become the gatekeepers of our media--and even more so with an issue as inconvenient and complicated as Climate Change.

If we don’t have this critical public discussion locally, the position we will find ourselves in will be one of unpreparedness. No doubt anyone we elect will attempt to swat every fly, every flood, every heat wave, and every increasing Climate Change consequence. But once you take the time to discover the full implications of this crisis, you will realize a knee-jerk, ad-hoc reaction to these kinds of calamities is woefully inadequate. A leader is needed, one willing to take charge of an unpopular but critical issue that cannot be avoided. Going mum and sitting out forums on our environment in order to keeps one’s lead in the polls is not leadership.  

I have heard Sandy speak publically many times on the importance of addressing Climate Change locally—including her valuable support to those busloads of Rochesterians who marched in New York City for the 400,000-strong Peoples Climate March, September 21, 2014. As the former Supervisor of the Town of Brighton, one of the cleanest and environmentally conscious communities in our area, Frankel has a proven record of active transportation (walking and bicycling) action, action on urban forestry, educating and supporting greenhouse gas emission reductions in Brighton, and even spells out her position on Climate Change on her election page. Coming out on Climate Change during this election is breathtakingly bold considering Sandy’s GOP opponent has not dared mentioned a word about the elephant in our local election for Monroe County Executive.

At this point in time, even if you don’t believe in Climate Change, you should think the attention it has been given worldwide makes it worthy of our consideration in the race for Monroe County Executive. For the buck, as it were, on Climate Change will stop at the executive’s door. She must prepare us all for that. Sandy Frankel has proven that she is ready to lead. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

Climate Change in Rochester, we are here:

Scientists say we should bring climate temperatures back down to preindustrial levels. We’ve increased climate temperatures to about 1C above those averages. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks the world agreed to hold climate temperatures increases to 2C, which is what the COP21 Paris climate conference this year is struggling to achieve. But it looks like present efforts would only reduce climate temperatures to 1C from its present trajectory of 3.5C by 2100. If we fail altogether to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, we’re slated for about 4.5C.

Offers for Paris Climate Talks Would Reduce Warming by 1°C Warming could be reduced from 4.5˚C to 3.5˚C under INDCs submitted to date The current national offers of climate action submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) would reduce projected warming by approximately 1°C, according to a new analysis released today from Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan. A Paris agreement based on these offers would put the world on track for a global temperature increase of 3.5°C (6.3°F), with a range of uncertainty from 2.1 to 4.6°C (3.7 to 8.4°F), down from the 4.5°C (8.1°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels if nations continue on the business-as-usual track. (September 28, 2015) Climate Interactive

Some say that 4.5C is game over. Some say 3.5C is unendurable. Some say 2C is dangerously high and our lives will be dramatically altered. Some say the 1C we’ve already warmed our climate has set in motion catastrophic sea level rise, caused climate refugees and wars, produced extreme weather, and jeopardized our food production. And some say, humanity thrived in the Holocene which gave us a stable climate temperature for 10,000 years and that’s where we ought to reset the thermostat given that we haven’t a clue as to how our planet and all the beings on it will adjust to a tenfold increase in climate temperature changes.

Given all this and the media drama caused by Pope Francis’s spectacular climate-messaging visit to the US, you’d think we here in Rochester would be alarmed, exhilarated, and ready to join the world community on tackling this worldwide crisis. Many are. Most are not. The pope’s visit garnered a lot of media attention in Rochester. But local media did not connect the dots between the pontiff’s visit and his message on Climate Change. (Except one local media “Pope in D.C., calls for climate action” from the Daily Messenger, which to be exact was a reprint from AP.) In the local media there was no connection between the pope’s visit and how Climate Change is connected to our region. It’s as if the local media went out of their way to not report the obvious—if Climate Change is true in Washington, DC it must be true here also.

Despite the science, the danger of the COP21 Paris Treaty failing to deliver realistic goals, and the pope (with 4.2 billion followers) and the Muslim community (with 4.3 followers) pressing our leaders for Climate Change actions, Rochester is still, even at this late date, shrouded in climate silence. Local media ignore candidate forums on Climate Change, as well as a massive march through downtown (complete with police escort) highlighting the pope’s climate message.  It makes these heart-felt actions about as effective as a screen door on a submarine.   

It’s not hopeless. Many intrepid souls in Rochester are determined to get this community in sync with this global moral and physical disaster.

Thanks to Indymedia, Rochester, NY we got coverage of our local People's Climate March in Solidarity with Pope Francis. There were lots of labor and environmental leaders along with candidates for the up-and-coming local elections who validated the connection between what is going on internationally, nationally, and locally on Climate Change. 

People's Climate March in Solidarity with Pope Francis Marchers met at Rochester's Liberty Pole on September 24 2015 in an event to call attention to Climate Change.  The march coincides with Pope Francis' visit to the United States.  In June the Pope published an Encyclical (official proclamation) in which he said “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” (September 26, 2015) Rochester Indy Media    

Thanks to the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition and the League of Women Voters Rochester Metropolitan Area, we had an amazingly fruitful forum to educate the public on how and why our local leaders need to address Climate Change. Just in case you missed the “Building an Economy for Climate Stability Candidate Forum 2015” Wednesday, September 16th (which is understandable because only a couple of local media mentioned it coming and none of them covered it when it occurred), here are some photos and highlights of this critical forum before this year’s local elections: Candidate Forum 2015 Recap.  

So it’s curious that the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle editorial board started carping about a non-substantive campaign for Monroe County Executive amidst their own campaign to obfuscate the local issues related to Climate Change that will affect all our lives: “Dinolfo and Frankel: How about a campaign of substance?” (9/26/2015, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle). It’s 'curiouser and curiouser that the D&C editorial staff accuses Frankel of “… emailing reporters because you are wondering if Ms. Dinolfo might be a climate change doubter, you are not really doing the voters a favor either.”

Throughout this year, with harmful algae outbreaks (which the EPA links with Climate Change) in four of our Finger Lakes, 10 million gallons of raw sewage overflowing into the Genesee River on June 2nd due to the flooding that comes with heavy rainfall (now a feature of Climate Change in our region), and the pope coming to the USA to get our leaders to act on Climate Change for the Paris Climate Treaty in November, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and most of the other local media have been mostly mum. 

So when Sandy Frankel talks about addressing this crucial and substantive issue in debates, rallies, and discussions that are not attended to by this media, it’s no wonder that she must resort to constantly questioning whether her GOP opponent is a climate denier. One can and should wonder if our media and candidates are climate change deniers when they do not proactively report their position on this mother of all problems.

As the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Climate Smart Communities program points out, in Climate Smart Communities Guide to Local Action, leadership is going to be required at the local level. “Altering the built and natural environment in anticipation of predicted climatic changes, or in response to actual changes, which will alleviate the risks associated with unavoidable changes in climate.”

Ms. Frankel has been continually speaking on the importance of addressing Climate Change since this election began, but our local media have not been covering Climate Change and questioning how all the candidates will lead on this issue—which will have a great impact on all the other substantive issues in this campaign.

We are at a quite amazing point in Rochester as we head towards a very important local election that will determine our collective response to Climate Change. Most of us are unperturbed, uninterested, and unconvinced that this crisis includes us here in Rochester. There at least three more forums where our three county executive candidates will talk to the voters.

Time passes.