Monday, October 29, 2018

Planning for Earth Day 2019 in Rochester, NY

For about twenty years, the Rochester Regional Group of the Sierra Club’s Earth Day forum has been a yearly opportunity to engage with the public on environmental issues. We’ve hosted local and state public officials responsible for our environment, local reporters, prominent speakers on protecting our Great Lake’s waters, and other issues like local food options. Our most attended forum was when Dr. Hansen talked to about 800 people on April 21. 2015 at Monroe County Community College. [Watch the entire speech, with an introduction by Dr. Susan Spencer. Very high-quality video.]
Clearly, who we invite to speak makes a difference. But we only have so many recourses at our disposal.

Each year we try to figure out the most important environmental issue that is most likely to attract a large audience. (What’s the point of trying to communicate with the public, if they don’t show up?) I’ve been writing about the journey to Earth Day each year for quite a while, trying to build momentum for the public to show up and demonstrate their environmental concerns and willingness to act. For example, when the City, county and state does have a transportation public meeting on say, transportation, the public can immediately prioritize Climate Change with useful information gotten from our forums. 

In recent years other environmental groups have helped the Sierra Club by tabling and even building their own events around the main Earth Day program, like the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition’s (RPCC) Earth Month 2017 that helped “participants with a variety of opportunities to take action on climate.”

This year our fellow environmentalists are joining together at the beginning of the process to choose the program for the forum and other smaller programs built around a central theme. At this point, we don’t know who will be speaking or what the focus will be. The process is very Zen because our forum committee cannot ‘see’ into the public’s mind to understand what programs will attract the most attention—especially since the main environmental priority, Climate Change, has become so politicized that trying to please one segment of society will invariably alienate others.

Even as the Climate Change grows in severity and certainty, only a small part of our local population is engaged on this issue. One of the assumptions we make here in Rochester, NY is that Climate Change won’t hit us as hard as other regions. However, in 1972 Hurricane Agnes almost topped Mount Morris Dam and flooded our city. Since 1958 heavy precipitation has increased by 71% in the Northeast according to the National Climate Assessment. Are we ready? [See figure Figure 2.18]    “In New York, the Olean, Elmira and Corning areas were the most severely flooded. Rochester was spared the worst of the storm because of the Mount Morris Dam, completed in 1954. The floodwaters of the Genesee River reached the upper brim of the dam and prevented massive flooding from covering the greater Rochester area.” (See below.)

Remembering the ravages of Hurricane Agnes Continuous rainfall from June 21 to June 23, 1972, swelled Canandaigua Lake about 2 feet to the highest elevation ever recorded by the City of Canandaigua. What started as a tropical depression in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico on June 14, 1972, became Tropical Storm Agnes in the Caribbean on June 16. Agnes slowly curved northward and was upgraded to Hurricane Agnes on June 18, making landfall near Panama City, Fla. Agnes weakened to a tropical depression upon crossing Georgia and South Carolina. Upon reaching eastern North Carolina, Agnes strengthened back into a tropical storm by June 21. Agnes emerged into the Atlantic Ocean before recurving northwestward and making landfall near New York City. Agnes ultimately tracked as a cyclone over parts of Pennsylvania and Canada before eventually merging with another cyclone northwest of Great Britain on July 6. The most significant effects of Agnes for our region were due to severe flooding and not winds. (September 25, 2013) Daily Messenger [more on Climate Change in our area]

We, that is our committee for the forum in 2019, know we must focus on Climate Change, for it is now the lens through which we must view all environmental issues. At this point, we are asking ourselves, should we have:

  • ·         A noted climate scientist, maybe a scientist who worked on the latest IPPC special report--Global Warming of 1.5 °C ?
  • ·         A speaker who can inspire Rochesterians to act on Climate Change and get people to come in large numbers?
  • ·         A charismatic figure who can play down the controversy over Climate Change and spell out the solutions we can all be working on now?
  • ·         A government official who can describe how our City, state, or federal government understands the risks of Climate Change and what they are doing?
  • ·         A worldwide figure who can educate Rochester how the rest of the world perceives the Climate Change crisis.
  • ·         A panel of local experts on various aspects of our environment to talk about how our region should respond to Climate Change?
  • ·         An expert psychologist, sociologist or communicator to help us frame how we should talk about Climate Change?
  • ·         A former congressperson who can characterize how addressing Climate Change might get through or around the madness going on at the federal level.

Rather than fear and hopelessness, the message we wish to covey from the IPCC (#SR15) is one of urgency. We don’t want the public to give up before they’ve even started.

The World Is Running Out of Time to Fight Climate Change, Warns the UN According to a new study, we’ve got one last chance to stop climate change before it becomes irreversible. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report concluding global warming is likely to reach irreversible and dangerous levels by 2030 if increased action is not taken to reduce C02 emissions. This could result in severe weather, higher sea levels, damage to crops, and the displacement of millions of people. The IPCC report states the plans laid out in the Paris Agreement aren’t enough to keep the global temperature from rising 2.7°F. “Limited warming to [2.7°F] is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics, but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” stated one of the report’s authors Jim Skea. (October 8, 2018) NowThisNews [more on Climate Change in our area]

What we do know about Earth Day 2019 is that no matter how the mid-term elections turnout, Climate Change is going to be more politicized than ever. Short of an extreme weather event that envelops all the developed nations at the same time, we aren’t likely to turn this slow (it’s actually blazingly fast for a climate change phenomenon) appearing disaster into a major attention getter.

So, if you have an idea who will bring into our local community to talk about the crisis of our age, please let me know:

Time passes. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Climate Change choices for your consideration

If it’s true that we are merely consumers (as some view our existence), and not the moral stewards of our planet, then consider humanity’s Climate Change options for our future. There are several climate scenarios to choose from—depending on your taste for disruption. Your choices are, as brilliantly and illustrated in this interactive chart, 1.5C, 2C, and beyond:

The impacts of climate change at 1.5C, 2C and beyond "Carbon Brief has extracted data from around 70 peer-reviewed climate studies to show how global warming is projected to affect the world and its regions. " 

Scrolling through the above list is fascinating, like strolling up and down aisles in a grocery store. For example, do you want a 1.5C world where winter minimum temperatures in France will rise .09C? Or maybe a 3C world where rainfall will increase by 21% in Eastern Europe? Lots to choose from.

But there’s a catch, actually many of them. First, costs vary considerably with your choices not only by dollars and cents but what you consider costs in the first place. It will be very expensive to suddenly shift to do what needs to be done to keep our temperatures to 1.5C. But you’ll save lots of money (and people’s lives and species) because waiting around for a 2C world will cost even more money (inflation and more efforts). The costs in savings on human misery, environmental damage, and species loss at 1.5C will be enormous compared to the disruption of a 2C world.

As for the cost of a 3C (and beyond) world, fuhgettaboutit. Not only will a 3C world cost more money than you can shake a stick at, but you may also well be throwing your (your children’s and grandchildren’s, actually) life and money down a great big hole—because when things get to this point it may be game over.  

One must marvel at climate scientists’ ability to characterize what the world will look like at different points of warming. The IPCC special report Global Warming of 1.5 °C probably gives many people the illusion (delusion, actually) that we have a lot of choices when we really only have one. (Not only that but the IPCC report is probably downplaying the dangers of global warming and our ability to meet various emissions thresholds.)

“The summary implies a Herculean effort. It notes that scenarios to avert an overshoot of the 1.5 C target would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” and would be “unprecedented in scale.” But some experts have pointed out that the full report, hundreds of pages long in total, may suggest an even greater challenge than the summary would imply. They point to a greater emphasis on carbon dioxide removal and a higher probability of overshooting the 1.5 C threshold. This suggests an even more urgent need for immediate global action to meet the target.” (Full climate change report shows bigger challenges than the summary, Governors Wind & Solar Energy Coalition)

We either get drastically moving on addressing Climate Change on a scale and time frame that will matter or we risk everything. If we cannot stop further warming at this point in time, we are less likely to stop it at a later, more desperate time.

When we see Carbon Brief’s chart above, we should see it not as a list of choices but as the skeleton of a Climate Change Bottleneck growing narrower. Things we might have been able to do or salvage if we got moving now will be less likely as time goes on.

Time passes. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What can America’s Dust Bowl tell us about Climate Change?

The Dust Bowl, the worst environmental disaster in US history, sent the soil from millions of acres of the Great Plains into the atmosphere ruining a major ecosystem and many people’s lives. The disaster occurred in the early 1930’s just after the stock market crash of 1929. But crash didn’t affect the farmers until wheat prices dropped below what would keep a farmer’s family alive and the farmer’s tractor payments going. Thinking that if they produced more wheat they could make ends meet, the farmers tore up more soil to plant more wheat, which didn’t work because the wheat prices just kept falling. However, removing more of the Great Plains precious soil dramatically turned the Dust Bowl into a decade of hell.

Instead of heeding the warnings of earlier dust storms and information from old timers that droughts were common, the farmers did exactly what would turn a problem into a major catastrophe.

The Dust Bowl was an early warning that humanity could, intentionally or not, cause great harm to our life support system. This lesson in bad environmental behavior is instructive given the many warnings humanity has had about Climate Change.

This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released Global Warming of 1.5 °C, a special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. In the summary of the new report this statement caught my attention, as it says that despite all the greenhouse gases (GHGs) we have crammed into our atmosphere thus far, if we don’t release any more GHGs, we wouldn’t hit 1.5°C.

A.2. Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence) {1.2, 3.3, Figure 1.5, Figure SPM.1} (September 8, 2018 GLOBAL WARMING OF 1.5 °C Summary for Policymakers, IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

Acting right now on Climate Change on a scale that matters could not be clearer.
Thankfully, media all over the world explained the impacts of 1.5 °C rise in temperatures and the overall importance of this IPCC report. (See this article for a quick look: The UN’s 1.5°C special climate report at a glance (October 8, 2018) The Conversation] So, it cannot be said that our policymakers were not warned. The report said stop with the fossil fuels now.  

This special IPPC report is at the end of a long list of warnings over the years, which many world leaders have ignored. And, while I understand the inclination to try and stimulate major action on Climate Change, our desire for renewed urgency for addressing Climate Change should not characterize each new study as another freaking starting point. We have been kicking the can down the road on Climate Change for so long that the road is almost at an end, leading to a cliff, from which we cannot turn around.

World leaders 'have moral obligation to act' after UN climate report Even half degree of extra warming will affect hundreds of millions of people, decimate corals and intensify heat extremes, report shows World leaders have been told they have moral obligation to ramp up their action on the climate crisis in the wake of a new UN report that shows even half a degree of extra warming will affect hundreds of millions of people, decimate corals and intensify heat extremes. But the muted response by Britain, Australia and other governments highlights the immense political challenges facing adoption of pathways to the relatively safe limit of 1.5C above pre-industrial temperatures outlined on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). With the report set to be presented at a major climate summit in Poland in December, known as COP24, there is little time for squabbles. The report noted that emissions need to be cut by 45% by 2030 in order to keep warming within 1.5C. That means decisions have to be taken in the next two years to decommission coal power plants and replace them with renewables, because major investments usually have a lifecycle of at least a decade. (October 8, 2018) The Guardian [more on Climate Change in our area]

We must stop and maybe even reverse GHGs. But it’s more than that. We must find a stable stopping point; that is we must “park” the planet’s climate at a stable temperature”(1) –and leave it there. It makes no sense to keep trying to reach the goalposts (1.5°C or 2°C) if those temperatures are unsustainable.

I suspect nobody, not even the experts, really knows if 1.5°C is a “relatively safe” temperature rise. The more we find out about Climate Change, the more our experts keep finding that they’ve underestimated the peril of quickly warming up a planet already inundated with centuries of environmental abuse from humanity like the Dust Bowl.

Time passes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

How the Climate Change gag rule adversely affects our elections and our survival

What set off John Quincy Adams to rail against slavery throughout his 16-year tenure at the U.S. House of Representative wasn’t necessarily the evils of slavery itself. The 6th President of the United States spent most of his life (and his presidency) quietly disapproving of this ‘peculiar institution’ but he was hardly a life-long abolitionist. Like many other white men of his times, he thought it would just go away. No, it was the “"gag rule," which had prevented the House of Representatives from debating petitions to abolish slavery”(Wikipedia) that really got Adams riled up because the rule was unconstitutional. Few cherished and held sacred our Constitution as Adams had. In pursuit of the gag rule’s appeal (which he won in 1844), Adams did become a fierce opponent of slavery doing much to embolden the abolitionists and hold our country’s feet to the fire over its original sin.

Our country, a couple of decades before exploding into the cataclysm of the Civil War, smoldered over slavery, uncomfortably tolerating this system of depravity because it was thought that keeping our country together was far more important than freeing millions of souls from hell on Earth. But the evil of slavery could not be contained any more than trying to keep the evil of not addressing Climate Change can be done in our time.

We don’t have a ‘gage rule’ on Climate Change, as such, though our federal institutions have been continually stripping ‘Climate Change’ from the EPA and other agencies. Like the CDC’s diffident report on the rapid spread of Lyme disease recently, which failed to mention Climate Change*, we are self-imposing gag rules by systematically avoiding the social pushback from those who find Climate Change objectionable. Our self-silencing on the consequences of Climate Change and not owning up to the ethical issues already inherent in a vastly unfair way of life harkens back to a time when a slave’s life just didn’t matter to the majority.

Our country’s present politics highlight another expression of the self-imposed Climate Change gag rule, where the public’s disinclination to vote for candidates who come out strong on addressing Climate Change still controls the national conversation.

Floods. Wildfires. Yet Few Candidates Are Running on Climate Change. In an election year that has included alarming portents of global warming — record wildfires in the West500-year floods in the East, a president walking away from a global climate accord — the one place that climate change rarely appears at all is in the campaigns of candidates for the House and Senate. The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans running for federal office do not mention the threat of global warming in digital or TV ads, in their campaign literature or on social media. Environmental activists and political scientists say it is a reflection of the issue’s perpetual low ranking among voters, even Democratic voters, and of the intense polarization along party lines that has developed around global warming, even as the science of human-caused warming has become overwhelming. (October 2, 2018) New York Times [more on Climate Change in our area]

It is unethical and suicidal for the public to allow political candidates to think addressing Climate Change doesn’t matter to them. The public must convince their candidates and leaders that the science and the ethics contained in this crisis are on the top of their priority list, or else we are going to vote ourselves into oblivion. Of all the consequences of Climate Change, humanity’s gag order regarding this great warming is the most pernicious.

Time passes.

Monday, October 01, 2018

What should we save from Climate Change?

One of the significant questions we must ask ourselves at this time (though many decades ago would have been even better) is what should we save from Climate Change? (Of course, for ethical reasons we cannot ask ((even in the darkest regions of our mind)) who should we save from Climate Change? No matter how drastic Climate Change becomes, I cannot imagine a point at which we would seriously contemplate a “Lifeboat Ethics” situation, where we save some but not others.) We should save everyone from Climate Change, especially people in the future.

Before I talk about what we should save from Climate Change, we should acknowledge that to even pose such a question is to recognize there is now enough widespread awareness that Climate Change is occurring on a scale and time frame that makes this question possible. It would have been considered highly speculative to bring this question up twenty years ago but now people are acting on this:

Saving Scotland’s Heritage From the Rising Seas Off the north coast of Scotland, Orkney’s soft green landscapes hold a trove of things from everyday life before history was written. More than 3,000 archaeological sites — among them standing stone circles, Norse halls and a Neolithic tomb graffitied by Vikings — have endured for millenniums, scattered across the roughly 70 islands that make up the Orkney archipelago. At Skara Brae, one of Europe’s best-preserved Stone Age villages, kitchens built around 3180 B.C. are fitted with hearths and cupboards, bedsteads and doors that could be bolted shut. Today, in forays to remote spits of land, people are working to save some of these places for posterity from the climate changes accelerated by human activity. (September 25, 2018) The New York Times [more on Climate Change in our area]

We should also acknowledge that what can we save from Climate Change may be limited. For example. we should save our coastal cities, but there may come a point when trying to keep back the seas and raising up the streets are no longer viable. In the archaeological example above, it may be more useful to photograph and create a data bank of information rather than trying to save the site itself.

As we go further into the Climate Change Bottleneck, where our past environmental abuses get cooked on a warming planet, our choices as to what we save are going to be more and more limited. We are going to need guidelines so that rich, gated communities aren’t the only things on our priority list.

We should prioritize ecosystems and the key plants and creatures that keep these systems—lakes, rivers, grasslands, forests, wetlands, coral reefs, etc.—healthy because they are the organs of our life support system.

We should be addressing Climate Change now so that as the boundaries of the bottleneck—more wildfires, more extreme weather, higher sea level rise, and less resiliency due to loss of biodiversity—close in, we aren’t simply throwing overboard the weakest, the poorest, and the least appreciated. 

Humanity has acted quite horribly when societies collapse, but we don’t have to. We can plan and act sensibly now, before things get beyond our control.  

We have some hard choices to make and these choices should be made through ethics and science. The clock has long been ticking.

Time passes.