Monday, December 26, 2016

Musings on U.S. election’s failure to highlight Climate Change

As we watch lead science agency positions being taken over by folks who are diametrically opposed to the missions of the institutions they will soon take over, we might pause and figure out how this disaster came about. Make no mistake, this is a disaster, one that even its most ardent proponents did not believe would actually happen. However Pollyannaish your take is on Trump’s ability to unravel years of environmental regulations, undo efforts to address Climate Change, and put science itself into Limbo, this year’s elections results are the worst case scenario for our chance at a sustainable future. Spending our time trying recover what we had, when we should be moving drastically forward, may well spell irreversible damage to our life support system. As climate Scientist Michael Mann has said, “Trump's Policies Are 'Game Over' for Our Climate.” (Climate Scientist Michael Mann: Trump's Policies Are 'Game Over' for Our Climate, November 13, 2016, The Real News Network) (Also: Check out this article by Mann: I’m a scientist who has gotten death threats. I fear what may happen under Trump., (December 16, 2016, The Washington Post))

Now that Trump has been deemed the winner and is packing his cabinet positions with anti-environmentalists, Americans are going to be talking past each other on Climate Change even more. Our sense of priorities, which are always undergoing public examinations in a democracy, are now more likely to veer away from science and our biological obligations to live sustainably. An historical fluke, a troubled election, means that climate denial will now seem more legitimate to many more people than before the election. It will seem normal to silence people from saying ‘Climate Change’ in public discourse because it is a divisive issue. To rant and rave against environmental regulations and champion more unsustainable ideas (that our species has tried to overcome since we’ve been a species) is likely to become the new normal. 

Science is humanity’s light in a biological system often hidden in deep interconnected complexity, billions of years in the making. And now this light is growing dim in the United States. Climate denial is not just another worldview with different priorities and values; it’s crazy.

Pulling out NASA’s ability to monitor our environment is suicidal. The US, together with the rest of the world, depends on NASA’s information. Our new political landlords who think Climate Change is a hoax might be able to scrap all previous efforts to address Climate Change, but this will not stop the physical impacts of this crisis—just seriously thwart our ability to do so. 

TRUMP’S PLAN TO DEFUND NASA’S CLIMATE RESEARCH IS ... YIKES CLIMATE CHANGE DOESN’T CARE ABOUT POLITICS Today, The Guardian reported that President-Elect Donald Trump plans to defund NASA’s Earth Science Division to cut down on what a campaign advisor referred to as “politically correct environmental monitoring”. NASA may instead focus on a Cold War-era throwback space race to explore the cosmos, leaving climate research to other agencies. But NASA’s unique position as a space agency means that it has a view of Earth that other agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are rarely afforded. Indeed, NOAA and NASA often partner on climate-monitoring projects like the recently launched GOES-R satellite or the DSCOVR climate observatory, which watches for space weather that can knock out electrical grids (among many other things). (November 23, 2016) Popular Science

This change coming at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is just chilling.

An Enemy of the E.P.A. to Head It Had Donald Trump spent an entire year scouring the country for someone to weaken clean air and clean water laws and repudiate America’s leadership role in the global battle against climate change, he could not have found a more suitable candidate than Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, whom he picked on Wednesday to run the Environmental Protection Agency. This is an aggressively bad choice, a poke in the eye to a long history of bipartisan cooperation on environmental issues, to a nation that has come to depend on the agency for healthy air and drinkable water, and to 195 countries that agreed in Paris last year to reduce their emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the belief that the United States would show the way. A meeting Monday between Mr. Trump and Al Gore had raised hope among some that the president-elect might reverse his campaign pledge to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord. The Pruitt appointment says otherwise. (December 7, 2016, New York Times Editorial Board)

We can conjecture all day long (or for the next four years) about how and why climate deniers were able to defeat science and reason. They have won and their ideology will cloud most media attention on Climate Change. Rather than focusing on the actions needed to address Climate Change, our media will likely use the new administration to frame environmental issues and Climate Change. At the very least, mainstream media will feel compelled to include climate denial as a fact of life in the United States instead of focusing on the problem itself.   

Time passes. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Get EPA’s climate indicators 2016 while you can

If you only have about forty-five minutes to learn everything you need to know about Climate Change, a good source would be the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Climate Change Indicators in the United States 2016 Fourth Edition. Considering the massive changes coming to the EPA (probably not in a good way), I highly recommend you download this report soon. Very soon. You can both view and download the full report here. This report is peer-reviewed, amazingly easy to read, and organized for quick comprehension. It’s the fourth since the EPA started publishing them in 2010.

The report is framed around 37 climate indicators.

Why Use Indicators? One important way to track and communicate the causes and effects of climate change is through the use of indicators. An indicator represents the state or trend of certain environmental or societal conditions over a given area and a specified period of time. (Page 3, Climate Change Indicators in the United States 2016 Fourth Edition)

Considering all the rubbish being bandied about by those who either don’t know or care to know about this present warming phenomenon occurring on our planet, you’d think everyone would want to go check out the most accessible and compelling facts by the most respected (at least for now) environmental agency in the world.

It isn’t the EPA’s job to create the data for these reports, it’s their job, their responsibility (at least for now), to assemble the facts behind our government’s obligation to inform and protect the public. Because this report is the fourth, it builds on what has happened with our climate since the first three.

If each editor of each mainstream media outlet took a few moments to read this official document, it might go far in producing responsible reporting on Climate Change. Responsible reporting on Climate Change might well have avoided putting a climate denier into our country’s highest office, along with his cabinet choices who will most probably do their utmost to undo what centuries of science has attempted to do—inform humanity correctly as to what’s going on in our world.

How Is This Report Useful? Climate Change Indicators in the United States, 2016, is written with the primary goal of informing readers’ understanding of climate change. It is also designed to be useful for the public, scientists, analysts, decision-makers, educators, and others who can use climate change indicators as a tool for: Effectively communicating relevant climate science information in a sound, transparent, and easy-to-understand way. Assessing trends in environmental quality, factors that influence the environment, and effects on ecosystems and society. Informing science-based decision-making. (Page 4, IBID)

There is a tendency towards focusing on the fine details when reading reports. But in this case, while the numbers themselves are cause for concern, it’s the bigger picture humanity needs to understand: We have put into motion a planetary event that we barely understand and whose outcome we cannot entirely predict and may not be able to stop. 


Sunday, December 11, 2016

The ‘best’ way to fight Climate Change?

While protecting our forests is crucial, it is delusional to think any single or even a hundred separate, specific actions are the ‘best’ way to fight Climate Change.

Protecting forests is the best way to fight climate change' With the CancĂșn Declaration adopted at the Convention on Biological Diversity summit, DW talks to an indigenous leader on how native peoples are defending the Earth's forests - and through that, biodiversity and climate. At the 13th meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD CoP13), representatives from more than 190 nations are discussing conservation in Cancun from December 4 to 17. Already on Saturday (03.12.2016), delegates agreed to adopt the CancĂșn Declaration to ramp up efforts to protect the world's biodiversity. At the conference, indigenous groups' role in protecting biodiversity will be among the topics in the spotlight. Leaders from the Amazon region, Congo and Indonesia, among others, are unifying their voices in demanding greater respect and support for their communities, which they believe to be key actors in the fight to protect our planet. (December 5, 2016) Deutsche Welle 

Along with protecting our forests are voting climate deniers out of office, ramping up renewable energy, blocking fossil fuel infrastructures, pushing our media to do a better job reporting on Climate Change, enacting a worldwide carbon tax so that burning fossil fuels becomes prohibitively expensive, ceasing oil drilling in the Arctic, developing a Climate Action Plan in every community, helping our wildlife and plants to adapt to the warming, enhancing our ability to monitor the changes that come with warming up a planet by making sure agencies like NASA are capable of maintaining crucial equipment, keeping scientists focused how our climate system works, backing environmental groups who are at the legal forefront of beating back bad environmental legislations, organizing local groups to stop bad environmental decisions, growing food locally so that we can produce as much good food as possible, preparing our communities for climate refugees who will need a place to live, making sure the Green Climate Fund helps support those nations that did not cause Climate Change but will experience the consequences more quickly and worse, increasing public education about Climate Change and how our public health will be affected so that we when plan for warming we do so comprehensively, and on and on and on and on … 

The point being that however overwhelming people may find addressing Climate Change to be, there is nothing for it. We have to both adapt to the changes and stop anymore warming—at the same time and all at once. We must attempt to accomplish this even if doing so will increasingly consume most of our lives. The more we drag our feet the more likely our children’s and grandchildren’s lives will be but desperate attempts to deal with this crisis. And a less likely their being successful. Climate Change will get worse unless we change course immediately, and this is true whether we like it or not.

However convenient or psychologically comforting folks may find seizing on the ‘best’ solution for themselves, there is no single way to fight Climate Change. It’s one of the reasons why communicating Climate Change is so very difficult and unpopular. But dumbing the problem down to a just few actions you can take is not the answer to this problem. (I cannot ever say ‘this kind problem’ because there is no problem like Climate Change.)

To put forth the psychological position that too many action items needing immediate attention will overwhelm and paralyze folks into doing nothing is a stance, not a fact. (‘We cannot do anything to address Climate Change that will harm our economy’ is also a stance and so is ‘We cannot address Climate Change unless the actions are fair’ (albeit a good and moral stance).  Military personnel preparing for battle are not told to leave the battlefield and chill if they feel overwhelmed. As we have witnessed in humanity’s many wars, we can do incredible things to save ourselves and our loved ones—however inconvenient and numerous they may be.

I understand the psychosocial reasoning behind trying to tamp down the urgency and plethora of actions needed and putting acting on Climate Change all into a doable package of some sort, but it’s backwards psychology. To address Climate Change properly, you must first assess what Climate Change is (an existential problem threating our life-support system) and help humanity move towards solving it on a scale and time frame that will matter. Not deciding first your level of commitment.

Watching the world pass tipping points where the consequences of this warming are irreversible cannot be alieved by shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, “Well, we tried.” We cannot decide first what our capacities are for taking action and then try to solve the problem. Nature is not designed for our convenience. Our ancestors, going all the way back to the beginning, either adapted or perished.

So what can we do? We can fully embrace this challenge and prioritize our actions so that they are equal to the task. We aren’t trying to save the planet so much as we are trying to save our place on it.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Some notes on our transportation future

Transportation (26 percent of 2014 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation primarily come from burning fossil fuel for our cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. Over 90 percent of the fuel used for transportation is petroleum based, which includes gasoline and diesel. (EPA, Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions)

At a recent public meeting about our transportation future in the Rochester region, I arrived expecting that there wouldn’t be much discussion about Climate Change. My expectations were confirmed, except that I brought up the specter of the link between Climate Change and transportation issues. It only got a respectful but gloomy nod of recognition.

The meeting was the Community Symposium on the Future of Transportation Technology, sponsored by the Genesee Transportation Council. Though I’ve tried to connect the dots between transportation and Climate Change in a couple of leadership capacities (chair of the local Sierra Club’s transportation committee and the Center of Initiatives’ alternative transportation group), I haven’t had much luck. The prevailing zeitgeist about transportation among local officials seems to be: there isn’t much money around to address transportation issues and what money there is has to go for road or bridge repair. As for the need to change attitudes about connecting transportation and Climate Change, fuhgeddaboudit.

To be fair, there has been a lot help getting active transportation (walking and bicycling) moving from local officials. It’s about as much that one would expect from our public servants with little money to leverage and little interest demonstrated by the public for anything other than cars. It’s no secret we really, really like cars and our eyes grow dim when someone mentions alternative transportation. Those eyes grow even dimmer if you mention the most boring word in the English language: infrastructure. (Which reminds me, we did not talk about trolleys, public transportation, or electric buses, or bus mass transit, though someone (in jest) mentioned drones.)

Anyway, I’ve written about local transportation and Climate Change before—Viewing local transportation plans through the lens of Climate Change, Rochester’s transportation system light-years away from Climate Change solutions, Connecting the Climate Change dots on Rochester’s transportation, Active Transportation attitudes in Rochester, NY, We need you on a bike to Greentopia September 17th, Will salmon-cyclists destroy Rochester’s chances for greatness?, Wanna do something about Climate Change in Rochester, NY? (Hint: bike.)--and though this vital link is of critical concern, this particular essay only touches on all that tangentially. The Mathew Effect (where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) predominated the meeting about our future transportation concerns. This means the rich or well-off will like what the movers and shakers are thinking about our transportation future, while the rest, not so much.

We mostly talked about sensors, connectivity, and Big Data. Sensors are those little electronic gadgets that ‘sense’ a variety of concerns transportation experts use to monitor traffic density, infrastructural integrity, and a lot of other things traffic engineers would tend to care about. ‘Connectivity’ was not used in the touchy-feely sense that drivers may or should have with each other as they barrel down the highway; it is literally how vehicles communicate with each other and transportation infrastructures. Big Data is about the incredible amount of information transportation encompasses—traffic density, road and bridge data, bumps in the road, and that kind of stuff.

I had the feeling throughout the meeting that what everyone really wanted to talk about (but were uneasy to do so because there were a couple on greenies there) was self-driving cars. Really, these ‘intelligent’ new cars are alluring, they’re sexy, and if your career has focused on roads and bridges and traffic lights all your life, autonomous vehicles are really exciting. Insane, perhaps, but exciting. Yet, one thing I learned is that we are a long way from introducing autonomous vehicles on to our existing highways because these digital vehicles don’t work when there’s a lot of dust and dirt flying through the air. It ‘confuses’ present-day software when bad weather presents a lot of known unknowns, like how many dirt particles are flying around in storm and what their potential trajectory might be. If you know anything about software, this would be so mind-bogglingly difficult to accurately ‘digest’ as to make climate modeling child’s play.   

Ok, I’m getting a little too snarky…, We talked about many important aspects of future transportation technology …, what people are going to be driving in and on in the future because when you think about it we’ve gone from horse and carriages to gas-guzzling steel projectiles to electric/computerized vehicles in a relatively short time …, about transportation safety and health …, about land use because when you think about it, depending on your transportation system, urban and rural communities will thrive or die …, and we talked about predictability, which has a lot to do with traffic safety because when you think about it, when you know whether a traffic holdup is going to be a long wait or a short one, you are more likely to respond rationally, but if you’re in a long line of traffic backup on the highway and haven’t a clue about what’s going on or how long you’ll be trapped, you are more likely to do something crazy—like tear along the shoulder to get by everyone, or make an illegal U-turn …, and how Big Data can help alleviate some of these potential situations by you getting on your Smartphone and using some app to let you know what’s going on …, and we talked a little about how there might be a trickle-down effect with all this futuristic gadgetry for those with transportation challenges, like living in rural poverty and needing a city job, or getting those darn traffic signals to be more hospitable to pedestrians (who as you may recall are also part of our transportation future) …, and some other interesting stuff like dangerous slowdowns that Big Data interprets as an accident, therefore getting emergency crews to the scene sooner and saving more lives …,  some talked about whether some of this technology can be tailored to individuals with particular needs, loss of hearing, crossing a street in a wheelchair, riding a bike in heavy traffic …, and we talked about many more forms of transportation on demand choices that apps might be able to give you once they tap into this great, big, wonderful, and seemingly infinite, aggregation of Big Data. 

It was all kinda fun, though a bit frustrating for us trying to find a way to communicate our concerns about another future, the future where the future of transportation and just about everything else is going to be greatly affected by the consequences of Climate Change. Our existing transportation infrastructure, which must remain largely intact until we’re on to the next great idea (maybe flying autonomous drones with a pub), must be resilient enough to handle more extreme weather and the disinclination for the public to support a transportation system they now take for granted.