Monday, October 23, 2017

Who will be held accountable for not addressing Climate Change?

Accountability depends on how you see it. Being held accountable, or responsible, depends on whether you accept responsibility, or if a more powerful agent (like your government) holds you liable. You can’t get blood from a stone.

The strange reversal of environmental accountability since our recent elections, where polluters got their champions to head our government and our lead environmental agencies, highlights this conundrum. 

War on the EPA How Scott Pruitt went from fighting the Environmental Protection Agency to running it and rolling back years of policy. (October 11, 2017, PBS Frontline)

Dreary as it seems at the moment, it isn’t likely that the polluters will win anything but a little more time for them to make more money. Renewable energy is burying coal economically along with natural gas—which, despite its “clean” reputation, is a polluting fossil fuel also.

However, physics still trumps politics on this planet and because the accumulation of manmade greenhouse gas emissions is growing dangerously high, something will have to give. Either the voting public in the USA begins voting in folks who are on board with the prevailing science or we all cook together. There will be an accounting, aka the balance of Nature.

Climate Change doesn’t get slowed by bad politics, only less greenhouse gases in our climate system can do that. So the time that the polluters have bought themselves is being stolen from you and me—stealing our health and perhaps our future. These people ready to rob us of our opportunity to address Climate Change on a scale and timeframe that will matter will be held accountable in one way or another.

What the folks who allowed the polluters to govern seem to have forgotten is that Earth is a closed system. Inside a hot pot, everyone boils.

History tends to eventually ferret out the truth. That is to say, polluters are more likely to be held accountable as the evidence of their complicity in our dangerously warming planet becomes clearer.

San Francisco Is Suing Major Oil Companies to Protect its Citizens from Climate Change Sea level rise could lead to catastrophic flooding, and the city blames ExxonMobil and BP. (October 14, 2017, Mother Jones)

Even governments may be held accountable if the generations who wish to have a future can muster the legal power to press previous generations to the iron.

Trial Date Set for Children’s Climate Lawsuit Against U.S. Government The judge also agreed to let the country’s biggest fossil fuel lobbies withdraw from the case, which may shield them from having to turn over documents. (June 29, 2017, Inside Climate News)

However, there is another sense of accountability on Climate Change that might make any kind of Climate Change blame moot. If we pass tipping points that we cannot recover from, where unmanageable social unrest comes as a response to climate disruption or cascading ecosystems collapses occur, pointing fingers won’t matter.

Judgement day on Climate Change is probably not going to come in the form of an all-knowing super being assigning blame and sentencing those who thwarted our efforts to address Climate Change. It will be of little consolation to know that fossil fuel companies and bad politicians brought us to perdition, that non-place where blame has no substance.

Time passes.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Optimism vs. pessimism on addressing Climate Change: does it matter?

Is it possible that much of the Climate Change news that optimists characterize as pessimism is simply realism? Independent of human sentiment, the Arctic is melting, the parts-per-million of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is steadily going up, and our oceans are absorbing much of the human-caused heat buildup —causing rising seas and more acidity. As scientists monitor and study the effects of greenhouse gas emissions being pumped into our climate system, the experts are finding that it is increasingly likely that our everyday weather, extreme weather events, our ecosystems, wildlife, and humanity itself are being negatively influenced by Climate Change. Scientists aren’t being pessimistic when they seek to unravel the consequences of Climate Change; they are reporting to humanity about a vital issue.

According to Google, optimism is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something” and pessimism is its antonym. That is to say, both optimism and pessimism are human emotions. They are important, but they are not facts.  It is with this observation that I mention this article on how humanity feels about addressing Climate Change at this point in time:  

NEW SURVEY FINDS THAT A MAJORITY OF PEOPLE GLOBALLY ARE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT OUR ABILITY TO ADDRESS CLIMATE CHANGE Climate Week NYC 2017 Opening Ceremony, New York, September 18: A new survey finds that a majority of people globally are optimistic about our ability to address climate change, with 64% of global citizens believing we can address climate change if we take action now. Overall, 33% strongly agree this is the case, and 32% tend to agree. Only 11% disagree that we can address climate change if we take action now. The survey, conducted by global market research firm Ipsos on behalf of non-profit organization The Climate Group and change agency Futerra, polled online adults aged 16-64 in 26 countries and is at the heart of a new campaign, #ClimateOptimist, launched today to change the dominant narrative on climate change. The campaign’s partners include Mars, VF Corp, Interface, Ashden and the DivestInvest movement. The survey found that people in emerging economies are especially likely to feel positive about solving climate change, with 71% of these respondents believing we can address it if we take action now, compared to only 59% in established economies. Countries with high numbers of optimists include Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Mexico, India, Peru and South Africa. (September 18, 2017) Climate Week NYC [more on Climate Change in our area]

It's problematic as to whether humanity is actually optimistic or pessimistic about addressing Climate Change because these kinds of studies are limited and even the people questioned may change their minds from day to day. So instead of trying to nail down whether the study above accurately sums up humanity’s opinion, I want to address a more interesting statement in the article:

“Solving climate change starts with the belief that we can, so on the one hand it is thrilling to learn that Climate Optimists already far outweigh Pessimists globally,” said Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder of Futerra, speaking at the launch.

It seems self-evident that to solve Climate Change we must believe that we can. But is it? Further, is it even possible to solve Climate Change and if so what does that mean?

I’ll comment on the second question first. If by ‘solving Climate Change’ we mean that we’ll be able to cut greenhouse gases so we can return to our way of life soon, that is unlikely. That’s not being pessimistic, it’s being realistic about the nature of Climate Change. This Climate Change, unlike those climatic changes before, involves over seven billion people together with the critical infrastructure necessary to their (our) survival. And it involves the accumulated environmental abuses—species extinctions, the proliferation of invasive species, pollution, and much more—that must be addressed even if we stop emitting more greenhouse gases right now. Of course, in my opinion, we aren’t going to stop emitting greenhouse gases right now, and we’re probably not going to bring them down to a safe level for a long time. This means we’ll have to adapt to a lot more extremes emanating from what we have stored in our atmosphere and oceans.

At best we might be able to manage the environmental problems ahead and adapt. But our way of life will have to be different. It’s quite a leap of faith to believe that we can or must remain optimistic about preserving a way of life that brought us to this crisis—especially in the face of a Trump administration back-peddling on all our environmental protections and a world distracted by everything else. Humanity is far from setting Climate Change as its top priority, which is what it will take to manage our warming world.   

Second question (slightly altered): Do we need to believe that we can manage Climate Change in order to address it? No. As in any disaster you don’t need to believe you’ll survive it in order to get moving. Ask anyone running from a fire if they only ran because they believed they could outrun the fire. If a fire, a hungry lion, or an avalanche is at your back, you run. It’s what we do, those who survive that is.

The problem with addressing Climate Change is not whether we feel optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome; the problem is recognizing the kind of problem it is. We should not be avoiding the information, dismal as it is, from scientists who are continually fine-tuning what kind of danger we are in.

Regardless of whether we feel optimistic or pessimistic, once humanity realizes that Climate Change constitutes the same kind of danger a hungry lion presents, an existential danger, we’ll get moving.

The question is whether we’ll address Climate Change on a scale and timeframe that will matter.

Time passes. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

Back to Paris Accord should be top Climate Change priority for US

As we go further into Climate Change, a wormhole of environmental impacts from which we may not emerge, our priorities are going to change. However, ultimately, we will be striving for a sustainable future. The Holy Grail, as it were, for addressing Climate Change is to quickly change our collective behavior towards our planet so that life for our species goes on as long as possible. Along the way through the wormhole, we will continually have to adjust our priorities and cut our losses to achieve our ultimate goal.

I don’t know if all people agree with this goal, but they should. Life loves life and does what it must to keep on living. Even when we develop artificial intelligence (AI), we are finding that if self-survival is not programed into the software it will either develop a form of self-preservation itself or we must do it if the artificial entity is going to achieve our goals. You cannot achieve any goals if you and those who were supposed to come after you are dead.

On the moral argument for addressing Climate Change

It’s senseless to argue about the moral imperative for the United States getting back in the Paris accord and leading universal efforts to address Climate Change, because there is no moral argument against it. No nation can thrive if all are overwhelmed by Climate Change. The US (along with other developed nations), which emitted most of the greenhouse gases that are now causing climate disruptions, has the economic and military might to lead. That infers a profound moral obligation.

If nations are not persuaded by the moral imperative for the world to act as one on this crisis, they probably never will. Presently we are seeing a last-ditch stance against life itself in favor of some irresponsible freedoms—like free-speech for climate denial and gun ownership--as our country is reeling from record-breaking hurricanes and the recent massacre in Las Vegas.

The moral arguments for addressing Climate Change and gun control are already obvious. We just don’t want to be held to these obligations. They are being ignored and still disputed despite overwhelming evidence. Pope Francis already made some of the clearest arguments for addressing Climate Change in his Laudato Si in 2015. More delay will probably not bear fruit. Humanity must decide if we are to be bound by the moral imperatives of addressing Climate Change, and not only because it’s the right thing to do. If we do not, we are likely to perish.

Violence and punishment, as our species has traditionally used to enforce moral dictates, will not work against those who would have their way regardless. (Not to mention that violence against those who disagree with us is itself immoral.) It would take only a few bad players, players who can achieve their selfish goals and poison our life support system in secret, to destroy the efforts of all. Market forces, which caused Climate Change, won’t solve this crisis either because many of the problems (like ecosystems collapse) cannot be priced adequately.

Why the Paris Accord must be our top priority right now

Much of the rational debates and discussions about Climate Change are about how to get to our ultimate goal on a scale and timeframe that will matter—to us. (Life in some form may well go on after we trash the place and we pay the ultimate price, but it won’t matter to us—because we’ll be gone.)

Trump, working his darndest to dismantle President Obama’s efforts to address Climate Change, and pulling out of the Paris Accord, has produced a flurry of climate activism. Cities (like Rochester, NY), states (like New York and California), environmental groups, and many businesses are doubling down on their efforts to adhere to the Paris recommendations: keeping humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions down, updating our infrastructures, and trying to get renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. So much is being done by these groups trying to shift the market forces towards favoring renewable energy, that these heroic efforts have spawned the belief that what Trump or the federal government does or doesn’t do about Climate Change doesn’t much matter. This attitude is mistaken. Further, the US pulling out of the Paris Accord would be a major blunder by our climate-denying president that humanity may not be able to recover from.

It is unlikely we will be able to work around a leader hell-bent on continuing an anti-environment, pro-fossil fuel agenda:

  •  THE TRUMP EFFECT, Tracking the impact of the president’s policies | Paris Climate Agreement, Trump announced in June that the United States would withdraw from the Paris accord, dealing a blow to international efforts tackling dangers for the planet posed by global warming. (Reuters)
  • 48 Environmental Rules on the Way Out Under Trump (10/05/2017, New York Times)
  • International concern as US moves to end clean power plan The Trump administration plans to repeal and replace landmark policy that underpinned US commitment to Paris Agreement and a key climate deal with China News that the Trump administration will move to repeal and replace the clean power plan (CPP) – a major initiative to cut emissions from the US electricity sector – has been met with concern overseas. On Wednesday, the Reuters news agency reported on a document leaked from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) outlining a plan to scrap the Obama-era measure. It also called for input on a replacement policy that would reduce carbon emissions in fossil fuel power plants. Industry is reportedly lobbying for a weaker rule. (October 4, 2017) Climate Home

First, Climate Change is a human-caused phenomenon that has no single remedy. Climate Change, though about warming our planet, includes a long history of human abuse to our life support system that will have to be addressed along with the great warming and our propensity to continually enlarge our numbers and needs on a finite planet.

Renewable energy use is growing in leaps and bounds. It may, as many proponents suggest, bypass fossil fuel simply because it’s doing better in the market. But this crisis involves more than switching to a non-polluting form of energy soon. We will still have to adapt to a lot of heat stored up in our atmosphere and our oceans.

Despite all the talk of cities and states binding together to address Climate Change and how compelling the market is for renewable energy, there is no substitute for all the nations of the world having a platform from which to share information and work on strategies for addressing Climate Change. Governments of the world must work together on Climate Change because there is no substitute for nations ratifying treaties, leading the public and business, governing their own nations, and making sure nations don’t thwart each other’s actions.

Science must be the guide to address Climate Change because it is a universal discipline that all nations respect—however dicey that may seem in the US at the moment. Tailoring or pandering our language so “hope” can shine through is problematic because there are so many ways hope can create delusional efforts, ones that don’t match the scale and scope of the problem. A respect for science is the only way we can ensure that our selfishness and our ideologies don’t take over. Science, with more scientists and their wonderful instruments, are the quickest way humanity can get in sync with nature. Anything else, like preserving our way of living on fossil fuels, is not likely to work on any time scale.

Nations of the world all share the same ultimate goal: to survive. They cannot do this by circumventing working together on the world stage. Many are thinking that it’s a given that the United States will completely withdraw from the Paris Accord, and therefore everyone who is not the federal government must work around the Trump administration -- businesses and individuals, cities, and states.

But there isn’t a work-around; there is the Paris Accord or there are ad hoc efforts that won’t be sufficient. All options are not on the table anymore and our options will get fewer as we drag our feet ever longer.

There are those who are putting their faith in human technology, the human spirit, and even super-smart AI. We’ve long known about the possible Climate Change scenarios, and even seen them played out in the recent record-breaking hurricanes. Yet, massive damage to people and their infrastructures are accompanied by a constant yammer that ‘this isn’t the time to talk about Climate Change.”

That is to say, being smart and knowing what to do are not enough. We must summon the collective will to survive in a warming world, which is different than what our traditional threats have been. We must become the world’s steward now, not at some hopeful time in the future. And what’s even stickier for us violent-prone people is that we cannot force the necessary change on an unwilling populace, like religious wars of the past. We must want to get through the wormhole, all of us.

Somehow, we must convince our world leaders that we work together or we perish separately. We cannot thrive anymore if our environment, our life support system, is not everyone’s top priority.

Time passes.

Monday, October 02, 2017

How will Climate Change impact Rochester, NY and what do we plan to do about it?

Local impacts of Climate Change

One of the ways a community gathers information about how Climate Change will impact them and how they will address the consequences is through a Climate Action Plan (CAP). It takes years of data gathering and collaboration to produce a CAP that diverse groups can sign on to. But it’s all worth it.

The disaster occurring now in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria highlights why Climate Action Plans are critical. In major extreme weather disasters, public health, insurance issues, infrastructure (transportation, water, wastewater, telecommunications) all reach a tipping point if communities are not ready for the worse. You really understand the vital connections between our infrastructures and Climate Change when you consider Puerto Rico’s power grid plight.
Why Puerto Rico faces a monumental recovery effort Almost a week after Hurricane Maria pounded its way across Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 155 mph, the outlook for anything but a long and arduous recovery is bleak. FEMA reported Tuesday that only 11 of 69 hospitals had power, and Gov. Ricardo Rossell√≥ said only about 5% of the island's power grid was operational. Less than half the population had potable water. Cell service was out in 95% of the territory, FEMA said. More than 11,000 people remained in shelters. President Trump will wait until next week to visit, saying he didn't want to disrupt the efforts of first-responders still saving lives on the storm-battered island. "The island was hit as hard as you could hit," Trump said. "The island is devastated." Several factors are slowing the recovery effort. Here are some of them: (September 27, 2017) USA Today

The City’s CAP explains that the following local impacts of Climate Change are coming: increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, impacts to the Great Lakes, reduced winter recreation, impacts to agriculture, and impacts to human health and equity. (Page 4, CAP). Each category has its own section in the CAP, but the following description of the public health issue gives a sense of how complex each impact can be. 

Climate change will have a variety of public health consequences, including heat-related illnesses, allergies, asthma, water and food borne illnesses, cardiovascular disease, and others. While climate change will affect the health of the entire community, some groups will be disproportionately more affected than others. For instance, low-income populations and the elderly may lack access to cooled spaces during hot weather--and those with respiratory illness may be more vulnerable to air pollution.

Not all Climate Change impacts are dire, immediate threats, like those in Hurricane Alley. Most impacts in our region are subtle but involve profound changes that alter our environment from one that was relatively stable for 10, 000 years to one whose trajectory is a threat to our future. These seemingly slow-moving threats are no less urgent because addressing them in time to matter usually means getting started years or decades before they become noticeable. For example, it’s the dickens trying to restore a complex ecosystem after it has crashed.

Through my own readings of climate studies that include impacts to our region,  the following are already occurring: annual temperatures increases, increase in intensive precipitation events, bird population shifts, reduced snowpack and earlier ice break up, increases in lake effect snowfall, increased plant frost damage, changes to plant growth and decomposition rates, species migration, streamflow changes, amphibians responding to Climate Change, invasive species thriving, wildlife affected by Climate Change, declining lake ice cover, increases in heat-related illnesses, increased incidents of ground-level ozone, livestock heat stress, changes to timing of seasons, northeast US extreme weather increases, which drives up liability claims, NYS coastal sea level rising, Climate Change causing plants to shift, and forest pests increasing. (For a fuller description of each item and resources, go here.)

The most immediate problems with Climate Change in our region are sewer overflows that threaten our water quality; toxic blue-green algae blooms that are increasingly showing up in our lakes, and our shoreline flooding. These issues are not covered by the Rochester’s CAP because they are outside of the City’s jurisdiction, not to mention Climate Change is a bigger problem than any one community can address.

What does Climate Change mean?

Many environmental, transportation, anti-poverty, and public health groups are making important inroads towards addressing Climate Change in our area, but often not under the name of Climate Change. It matters that we view our future as one that is warming because it will be impossible to manage our environment if we only do so by looking backwards. Over the years I’ve become philosophical about this crisis in the sense that our world has changed from a stable climate to one that may someday spiral beyond our ability to adapt. We must find out if Climate Change is truly an existential threat, one that will end our time on this planet. Despite the increasing clarity brought to this issue by science, it is more muddled than ever in the public’s mind by our politics.

We not only need sound data, like that provided by New York Climate Change Science Clearinghouse (NYCCSC), we need to view Climate Change as an extraordinary crisis for humanity. I see Climate Change as a moral, physical, and existential problem. We are entering a tumultuous time when the accumulated effects of past environmental damages are mixing with the consequences of a quickly warming planet filled with 7 billion people and their infrastructures (which are now an integral part of our collective existence). This means there may not be any ‘solutions’ to Climate Change. Instead, we must learn to manage the myriad consequences of Climate Change so we can make our life support systems sustainable for us. To manage all this, we must constantly be aware of the climate indicators that will give us objective feedback on whether we are actually moving in the right direction.

Too often, too many are relying on opinions, stances, and ideology for answers to a scientific/biological problem and coming up with delusional solutions. During this extraordinary time, when the consequences of Climate Change are exploding, we are losing our respect for science. (Indeed, when I marched with tens of thousands to support science in the March for Science in Washington, DC in April, it was an out-of-anything-remotely-normal experience.) Living in a time when science itself needs to be restored is beyond sad. Without science baked into Climate Change communications, everyone’s arguments, even the most specious, are considered equally, which fuels doubt, inaction, and communication blockage.

The City of Rochester views Climate Change solutions in terms of targets. Emission Reduction Targets (Page 32, CAP):

1. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2010 levels by 2020, and
2. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 2010 levels by 2030.

While these targets may be attainable politically, science is telling us we need to stop putting any more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere and waters right now. In fact, as the name describes, the organization suggests we reset our carbon dioxide concentration back to a time where our species thrived. CO2 concentration is now over 400ppm and likely not to go below that in any of our lifetimes.  

City’s Climate Change solutions are inherently limited.

Many communities (like Portland, Oregon) have long since passed and pro-actively set their CAP in motion—where one of the benefits is to have established benchmarks so that present efforts can be measured against past data. As I have long encouraged the adoption of a Rochester CAP, I don’t want to downplay the efforts put towards Rochester’s achievement that made it happen—or the quality of insights and solutions.  Rochester’s CAP is aware of the scope of the problem and is trying to work with local groups, businesses, Monroe County, New York State, and the federal government to address Climate Change.

But Rochester is late to the game. And, outside the CAP document itself, Rochester still has a ‘no regrets’ attitude towards Climate Change. Our leaders probably believe in the science behind Climate Change and believe that their policies will help make our infrastructures (like our transportation systems) more resilient to weather extremes and fair to all who need to get around. But our political leaders are not so willing to step up and publicly announce that they are trying to adapt to and mitigate Climate Change. Our leaders probably see this as the role of climate activists. The problem with that strategy is it encourages the notion in the public and our media that Climate Change is still a special interest for just a few.

The City’s Climate Change solutions (discussed in depth in “Chapter 4: How Do We Get There?” -- page 43) are detailed but aspirational and limited. Even if wildly successful, Rochester is only one community among hundreds of thousands around the world.    

The CAP talks about various infrastructures and the need to protect them. But even with water, gas, communications, and other conduits passing through it, the City can only do so much. Each infrastructure crosses many judications, properties, and enforcement. Take bus transportation, for example: The City sits on the board of Rochester Transit System (RTS) but cannot even force RTS to keep bus stops cleared of snow so folks with wheelchairs can use this system in the winter—which makes living on their own a great challenge.

Rochester can advise on how to treat local wildlife, but the authority to help wildlife adapt to Climate Change is not part of its purview. Rochester can help develop codes for how much greenhouse gases its own municipality can put into our air, but our air covers the entire planet. Our water comes, in part, from Lake Ontario, whose control is under the jurisdiction of several states and Canada.

In other words, there are many climate indicators missing in the CAP because of the inherent limitation of the City’s physical and legal influence. We can and are building partnerships locally, with other cities, states, and even nations. But there’s not much about ecosystem health, about addressing industrial agriculture (though the City can and is incorporating urban agriculture into its plan), and sequestering CO2 in our soil. Rochester can and is encouraging renewable electricity, and that will have ripple-effects through the private and public sectors. But, like with buildings’ energy efficiency, trying to solve even local stuff is incredibly thorny as the City authority is trumped by our major utilities and the government dare not get too pushy with private property owners, landlords, and tenants. 

These are the major venues through which Climate solutions are recommended by the CAP: (from Page 34, Overview, CAP)

  • ·         Energy and Supply includes stationary energy uses such as residential electricity and natural gas consumption. Strategies include increasing energy efficiency, implementing renewable energy, and fuel switching.
  • ·         Transportation includes all on-road transportation such as residents’ motor vehicles, commercial vehicles, and mass transit. Strategies include, promoting multimodal travel and adopting alternative fuel vehicles.
  • ·         Waste/Materials Management includes emissions from the breakdown of organic material in solid waste. Strategies include solid waste reduction and diversion.
  • ·         Clean Water includes all emissions associated with potable water production and delivery, as well as those associated with wastewater treatment and disposal.
  • ·         Land Use includes the emissions and sequestration ability associated with changing land use patterns. The CAP does not include specific mitigation strategies for this focus area because direct land use related GHG emissions were not measured as part of the CAP baseline inventory. However, the Land Use focus area includes actions intended to improve the community’s ability to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Rochester cannot address Climate Change alone

We in Rochester cannot address Climate Change without understanding the full implications of this crisis and working with the world community. To do that we need a local media that continually informs the public about Climate Change with reference to the CAP.

One of the more hopeful signs is that a now major organization, the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition (RPCC) with over 125-member organizations, is adopting the solutions strategies from the CAP.  The RPCC, a voluntary group, has even stepped up to the plate as one of the work groups for solutions.  

Finally, while “Monroe County and the City of Rochester have been proactive in addressing flooding problems.” (PEER-TO-PEER CASE STUDY: MONROE COUNTY, NEW YORK Designing Green Infrastructure Standards For Retrofits) they are not doing so under the rubric of Climate Change. For our region to play an important role in addressing Climate Change locally, we need all of Monroe County on board.

Rochester is now a part of the worldwide solution to Climate Change but we can only be effective if we’re part of a concerted effort involving every community.

Time passes.