Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Addressing climate change at the state level

During the past several days, I’ve spent time, as I often do, cruising through internet sites that are concerned mainly with environmental issues, especially climate change, and those that provide insights on the state of the body politic.  The snippets I’ve picked up make for a consistent picture.  For example, I’ve seen of late is that the moral and intellectual deficiencies of the Trump administration, including agencies headed by Trump appointees, are being countered in states across the country.  Here are several instances: 

Colorado and New Mexico have adopted new policies aimed toward capturing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from oil and gas operations in the state, a counter to the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era rules targeting those emissions.  Oregon is also taking aim at the Trump administration's rollbacks. Governor Kate Brown is expected to sign a bill codifying into state law federal clean air and clean water standards that were in place before Trump took office.  New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham recently signed a landmark bill that puts the state’s energy sector on an ambitious path. The Energy Transition Act accelerates the state's current renewable electricity standard of 20 percent by 2020 to 50 percent by 2030, 80 percent by 2040, 100 percent carbon-free by 2050. Two other states, Hawaii and California, have already set forth plans for a path to zero-carbon electricity.

California is mounting probably the biggest legal battle of all with federal regulators. The state, with some of the most smog-choked cities in the country, is trying to tighten auto emissions standards, even as the EPA and Transportation Department loosen tailpipe rules on new cars and smaller pickup trucks. Trump, of course, doesn’t like this. He took numerous jabs at California during an address at a National Association of Realtors’ legislative meetings on Friday, as reported in Politico. He repeated his criticism of the state’s high-speed rail project and said that inadequate “forest management.” was to blame for the state's spate of deadly wildfires. “He blames it on global warming,” Trump said of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. “I say, ‘Look, try cleaning the floor of the forest a little bit. So you don’t have four feet of leaves and broken trees that have sat there for 25 years.’" It hardly needs to be pointed out that Trump’s knowledge of best practices in forest management is on a par with his weak understanding of how global warming has ushered in major changes in rainfall and temperature patterns. 

A report released by the Louisiana state government concludes that as global warming worsens, flood-prone communities will have to shift inland. The state is losing landmass, is suffering repeated disaster-level flooding (see the picture of Baton Rouge) and will have to reconfigure its economy no matter how many levees are built, from one that focuses largely on fishing, oil and gas industries, which are vulnerable to changes that come with climate change, E&E News reports. “Louisiana is in the midst of an existential crisis,” the state government report says. “We must accept that some areas of Louisiana cannot be preserved as is and that some residents will have less land and more water, potentially impacting their livelihoods and communities.”

On a related note, it’s interesting that climate change is affecting the Panama Canal, which has experienced lower water levels because of a serious drought. Carlos Vargas, the Panama Canal Authority’s executive vice president for environment, water, and energy, called the last five months “the driest dry season in the history of the canal,” the New York Times reports. The shift has resulted in some shippers having to reduce how much cargo they carry. This drought is affecting more than the canal: it is responsible for tragic losses of crops in Central American countries, where most people live close to the edge in terms of their standard of living.
Many see no other choice but migrating northward and attempting to enter the US.  They should be treated as refugees, not only from war and brutal police but from conditions brought on by climate change. The way we treat asylum seekers should be informed by an empathic understanding of their situations, not the administration's cold-hearted practices.

Undark magazine reports that since 2007 the concentration of atmospheric methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, surged suddenly and unexpectedly.  Possible causes for the rising emissions range from the anthropocentric—leaky natural gas operations, landfill decomposition, livestock belching, and certain forms of agriculture,  to the natural—wetlands, rivers and lakes, wildfires, geological seeps, thawing permafrost and even the work of termites.  One possible source is tropical wetlands, which release methane as part of a natural decomposition process. That's a worrisome scenario. A warming planet causes natural methane seeps to accelerate, which in turn leads to yet more planetary warming.

I wonder if President Trump isn't showing symptoms of mental illness.  He recently went to southwest Louisiana, on an official taxpayer-funded trip, ostensibly to talk up his administration's effort to open U.S. natural gas to international markets. But--as he seems to do compulsively--instead of acting presidential, he went off-script to overtly attack his political rivals in his signature unpleasant style.  This even as the administration's trade policies threaten the growth of the natural gas export business Trump went to Louisiana to promote.  And of course, he failed to take notice of Louisiana's predicament vis a vis climate change, as described above.  Trump's behavior is of more significance than just party politics; the President of the nation, focused on his childish personal insecurities, is dismissive of the vast accumulated knowledge that climate change presents a present and long-range threat to the welfare of the country—indeed, of the planet.

It's encouraging that states are picking up the slack insofar as they're able, but there is such a lot that needs doing!  At some future time, when a politically critical level of awareness has been achieved at the national level, there’ll be frantic stabs at action, blaming, and unrest—and a good bit of human tragedy. The time is short before the pressures of climate change rather than reasoned forethought brings us to that place. When I feel frustrated about this, I’ve found it helpful to meditate at times on Lao-tzu’s philosophy. I read regularly in  A Path and a Practice­, William Martin’s very accessible rendering of Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching.  Lao-tzu teaches that while each of us is on a path, we live in the now:
                                               The present moment is all we have,
                                                  so we are not constantly seeking
                                                       a faster way to do things
                                                         or a better place to be

The Roman Stoic, Epictetus, opens his manual of ethical advice with the line, “Some things are in our control, others not.”  He follows with this: When something is not in your control, say to yourself, “Then it’s none of my concern.” Ah, but these Stoics leave us in an uneasy place.  How can we conclude that we have no control? It’s all too easy to let ourselves off the hook. So we keep at possibly quixotic efforts.  Until next time...write to me with your thoughts.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Where is agriculture headed?

You’d have to be really out of touch not to have heard of the microbiome, the community of microorganisms that share our body space.  The microbiome is composed of a very large number of microbial species, the vast majority of which live in our digestive systems.  In recent times we’ve come to appreciate the importance of these little fellows to our well-being. We’ve learned to pay attention to them, to feed them good stuff, such as prebiotics and yogurts. We’ve come to understand that the relationship of diet to wellness lies in the interaction of the microbiome with everything we consume.
It occurred to me recently that the human-microbiome relationship is similar to that between plants and the soil in which they grow.  The quality of soil from the standpoint of its capacity to sustain plant life very much depends on what’s in it.  Healthy soil isn’t just dirt—it contains a complex system of interconnected soil organisms that are essential to the capacity of soil to function as a home for plants, just as our intestinal microbiome is essential to our capacity to ingest food in maintaining whole body health. Soil organisms assist with the digestion of needed nutrients for a plant, keep nutrients in place, provide structural support and water management, and many other functions.

Industrial agriculture has been premised on the notion that we humans can sustainably provide just about everything a crop plant needs. In their model, it’s not necessary to preserve an abundant, deeply rooted community of diverse organisms that support the growing of food crops.  Industrial agriculture works on the assumption that it’s OK to continually plow up the soil, virtually stripping it of life other than the annual plantings.  Thus, the soil of industrially farmed land lacks organisms that exude sticky carbon substances that hold soil particles together, imparting to healthy soil a crumbly texture.  The structure of healthy soil has pore sizes that allow it to drain when it’s wet, and store water that would otherwise run off in heavy rains. The pores also bring air to the roots. Healthy soil is a complex ecosystem, an interconnected web of organisms and their physical environment.  

By contrast, industrial agriculture has made the soil into a lifeless structure that merely holds the plants. Big agribusiness supplies all the heavy machinery needed to plow and weed the fields, and of course, major nutrients for the plants, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified seeds, designed to compensate for the lack of a diverse and richly varied soil, with its abundant population of insects, fungi and the like that serve to protect plants.
Most farming operations in the US today buy into the framework supplied by industrial agriculture. There is a never-ending succession of fixes to invasions of insects, infestations of infections, massive runoffs and crop losses from flooding in heavy rains, and losses in dry spells because the soil has no capacity to retain water. The so-called green revolution has succeeded only by virtue of robbing the land of riches that must be preserved if agriculture is to be sustainable

Back in the 1960s, Kansas farmers found that a huge aquifer lay beneath the land they were farming. The Ogallala, located beneath the Great Plains in the United States, is, or was, one of the world’s largest aquifers.  It underlies an area of approximately 174,000 sq mi in portions of eight states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Anyone who has flown over the plains states in years past is familiar with the sight of center-pivot irrigators — the rigs that created circles of lush cropland by pumping water from the Ogallala onto the fields. Today, in many parts of the Great Plains those rigs are no longer running. They remain as mute reminders that plundering the world’s natural resources for short-term gain is ultimately a loser’s game. In many parts of the Ogallala aquifer, the water levels have fallen so far that it is no longer feasible to pump from it.  The irony is that all that water would not have been needed if the land been farmed regeneratively.

Meanwhile, in March of this year, the state of Nebraska was in a state of emergency due to heavy rainfall. A massive so-called "bomb cyclone" battered the central United States with heavy snow, howling winds and several tornadoes. Flooding forced evacuations in adjoining states as well. Conventional industrial agriculture leaves fields prone to massive runoffs following heavy rainstorms, with the result that stormwater washes fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and animal waste off the farmland (and, incidentally, off lawns and golf courses). Aside from the ruinous loss of crops, runoff carries pollutants into lakes and rivers used for drinking water supplies. When the runoff ends up in reservoirs, it promotes algal blooms which can become toxic. 
But it doesn’t need to be the way the agribusiness giants would have it.  We know that the plants and soils of a natural prairie absorb much, if not all, of the rain during a thunderstorm. Why can’t agricultural practices build on what we know works in nature?  It may seem counter-intuitive to look to pre-industrial practices, but it’s nothing of the kind, as has been demonstrated all over the world. I’ll mention here just a few examples. They all fit under the general heading of regenerative agriculture.

I recently read a fine book, Call of the Reed Warbler, by Charles Massy.  The author is Australian, with a long career in dealing with the tough challenges that Australia presents for conventional agriculture.  When Europeans came to settle, they brought with them strong opinions on how to farm successfully.   But most of Australia presented conditions they didn’t know how to deal with, particularly in the low amounts of rainfall, as well as its erratic nature, and soil types that they failed to understand.  Many attempts to farm ended in failures and abandonment of the land. But a few pioneers went against the conventional wisdom regarding water management. They found ways to conserve water and protect the soil with cover crops, proper rotations of grazing pastures and other methods.

Massy also refers to the work of pioneers in other places, especially Africa, where desertification has left so much land unproductive.  Allan Savory is one of the great pioneers in regenerative agriculture.  A native of Zimbabwe, he has concentrated his efforts in the restoration of land that has been desertified over time through human activities. His aim is to convert such lands to productive grassland through managing the land in concert with the grazing of livestock. His work is controversial in some circles, in part, I think because many would like to see less use of animals in human diets.  But for many of the people of Africa whose livelihood and diet have for generations depended on grazing animals, Savory’s methods, referred to as holistic management, have resulted in greening of huge tracts of formerly unproductive land.  Holistic management is far less of a threat to global warming than the industrial model of producing meat. The lush grasslands soak up CO2, thus helping to draw down the levels of the most important contributor to global warming. I recommend that you watch Savory’s TED presentation.  As TED's founder, Chris Anderson commented, it’s astonishing.

I’m a vegetarian, and I’ve long believed that an important step we could take to ward off global warming would be to shift the human diet from animal-based to plant-based.  I'm convinced that a plant-based diet is superior from a health perspective, but Savory has shown that warding off global warming does not require that we entirely abandon eating meats.  We must, however, cease industrial meat production, which comes at a high cost to our health and the quality of the environment. As recounted in The Guardian in 2017, in America food animal production has caused massive pollution of water.  Vast areas in the Gulf of Mexico, have turned into dead zones because of pollution flowing into the Mississippi River and thence into the gulf.  Industrial pig farming is a particularly egregious form of CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation).  CAFOs store swine waste in giant vats referred to as lagoons, which often contain pathogens—salmonella, antibiotics and antimicrobials that have been fed to the animals—as well as nutrient pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus. If the water from these lagoons leaches out into the soil and trickles down into the water table beneath, the surrounding communities suffer. Conditions have grown worse as climate change has brought on powerful storms that cause flooding of lagoons, and hurricanes that can wipe out the lagoons. There is really no satisfactory solution to the environmental deterioration caused by these industrial-scale operations that the corporations would be willing to invest in. Smithfield Foods, a huge corporation that operates pig farms in North Carolina has been cited numerous times for creating living conditions unbearable for anyone living anywhere near one of their operations.  The injurious effects on affected communities are a form of environmental injustice—most of the people affected have no relationship with the corporations.  But “big ag” is very big business indeed; it has tremendous pull with state and federal legislators. The Center for American Progress recently floated a novel idea to counter the effects of a rapidly consolidating agriculture industry: an independent task force at USDA charged with maintaining competitive markets and protecting farmers from the harms of consolidation. In a related vein, a bill from Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Mark Pocan would temporarily ban future ag mergers while Congress rewrites antitrust laws to strengthen enforcement against anti-competitive deals.

Farmer Gabe Brown provides another example of how regenerative agriculture can rewrite the rules for ecologically and economically successful farming. Brown and his family have employed regenerative agricultural practices on several thousand acres in North Dakota to produce healthy and highly productive soil without the need for fertilization, pesticides or herbicides. Their soil soaks up tremendous amounts of CO2, holds it long-term, and absorbs large quantities of rainfall without runoff. To learn more about how Gabe does it, and the background science, check out this video. Gabe is a really entertaining guy!  I was impressed with the sense of wholeness in the efforts around the globe to restore soils to their legacy conditions.  Gabe rotates animals on his holdings in a similar way to Allen Savory.  Half a world apart and with vastly different cultural underpinnings these two and many others are treading on common ground—healthy soil.
After learning about the work of these pioneers, I’m left feeling that I need to investigate further.  I don’t see how the use of grazing animals on farmland can, or even should be, scaled to the production of food across large areas such as America’s plains states. It seems clear that benefits accrue from the grazing.  There should be ways to simulate the beneficial effects of grazing animals on large tracts of croplands. In any case, it's certainly past time for industrial agriculture to adopt new practices if we’re to save the planet from environmental degradation and global warming while providing food for a rising global population.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Climate Change's slow emergence

I've been active with several projects related to climate and environmental change that affect Florida, where I now live. However, the commentary surrounding climate change I've read in the last few weeks has really bothered me, as I’m sure is true for many readers. I feel I should write about them now.

A New Yorker article entitled “The Other Kind of Climate Denialism”, opens with a photo of a landscape apparently devastated by a great fire--trees sticking up as stark skeletons against a befogged background. The caption under the photo reads: As uncertainty and denial about climate change have diminished, they have been replaced by similarly paralyzing feelings of panic, anxiety and resignation. The article itself, authored by Rachel Riederer, is prompted by David Wallace-Wells's new book, The Uninhabitable Earth.  I haven't yet read it, but I'm given to understand from the New Yorker and other reviews that it paints a pretty grim picture of what awaits us.  It begins, “It is worse, much worse, than you think.”  That’s followed by several scenarios that would make anyone feel terrible.  I wonder, though, whether books bearing down on a disaster theme will inspire readers to take actions that might mitigate the gloomy prospects. Wallace-Wells seems to think that fear can be a motivator to action. In an interesting TED talk, climatologist Katherine Hayhoe advocates a different, more engaging opening gambit for conversation. We can’t be sure, but any discussion that calls attention to a threatening future, that we have something to worry about, is welcome.

It's quite clear that attitudes about climate change are changing dramatically. Apathetic stances are being replaced by grudging admissions that something indeed is happening.  But many still find it possible to hold the view that the future’s by no means clear—we don’t know how quickly change is arriving, or for that matter what can be done about it. That’s wrong, of course. The science on climate change is clear—we’re building ever more reliable forecasts as new data accumulate and the models continue to sharpen their focus. We can be pretty sure about the broad outlines of what’s coming, and roughly when.  

But it's difficult to build a determination to take action when faced with consistent denialist pushbacks by the President and the largely unqualified appointees serving as his lap dogs in top agency positions. What sort of message is being conveyed to the American public when the Trump White House creates a panel to conduct an “adversarial” review of mainstream climate science literature and government reports concluding that climate change poses threats to the United States’ health economy and security? The panel is apparently going to be an informal group; I guess that it, therefore, won’t have to follow federal rules regarding transparency. But transparency about what? One can be sure that the panel will ignore every conclusion and estimate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  It’s to be led by White House aide William Happer, a professor emeritus of physics at Princeton University who has pitched the notion that carbon emissions have become demonized.  I don’t know much about Happer, but what I’ve read leads me to conclude that he has a warped sense of how science connects with other aspects of society.  For example, In a CNBC interview, Happer said that “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler — Carbon dioxide is actually a benefit to the world, and so were the Jews.”  All the scientists I know and admire would not speak in such terms.  I’ve been a working scientist all my adult life, and I feel ashamed to even read such conflating of scientific results and proposals with entirely unrelated human sufferings from the past. Happer seems to have abandoned whatever professional commitments to the ethical and intellectual ideals of science he may have had. 

The nonprofit organization Ecoamerica, in a recent American Climate Perspectives survey, found that 94% of Democrats, 71% of Independents and 64% of Republicans understand that climate change is happening. Those percentages are all up from a prior survey conducted a year or so ago. The survey also inquired as to where people go for guidance. It turns out that 63% of Republicans look most to scientists as reliable sources, 48% look to the president, 47% turn to environmental organizations and 44% to health professionals.  It's laughable, though tragic, that Republicans responding to the survey are as ready to listen to advice about climate change from the White House as from environmental organizations devoted to collecting and disseminating reliable information about climate change.  I wonder if these people realize that environmental NGO’s are heavily staffed by scientists. 
Unfortunately, our challenges are broader and deeper than the thoughtless ruminations of this (hopefully) one-term presidency. Control of the executive branch has allowed the corporate conservatives and alt-right to wreak havoc with many of the regulatory agencies, in terms of both policy changes and management structures. There have been many appointments of outrageously unqualified people. Consider Trump’s candidate for Secretary of the Interior: David Bernhardt is an oil and gas lobbyist who worked to destroy endangered species protections for decades.  As deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior under Zinke, he helped open our public lands and coastlines to mining and drilling.  There’s been plenty of damage done at the federal level by appointees such as  Bernhardt. But there’s also trouble at state and local levels. While the 2016 election put a good many more progressive legislators into the House of Representatives and state houses, many states still have substantial Republican majorities.  The Washington Post has flagged over a dozen bills this year that represent threats to the integrity of science education.  Many of these initiatives come at the behest of conservative think tanks, such as The Discovery Institute, founded in 1990.  It gained fame by advocating that the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design be taught in science classes as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. Recently, the Discovery Institute has been associated with bills in state legislatures that would require that climate change and global warming be stricken from state science standards, or presented as an unsettled matter of science along with alternative views.  The Heartland Institute, founded in 1984, is a similar not-for-profit organization.  It maintains a website Climate Change Reconsidered.  These conservative voices are using the same strategy they employed earlier in arguing that there are scientifically authentic alternatives to certain prevailing theories, notably evolution and climate change, and that these alternatives should be taught in the classroom.   But as the eminent University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles said with respect to climate change, “You can’t talk about two sides when the other side doesn't have a foot in reality.”

Though it’s too slow, change is coming.  A recent online poll taken by the St. Leo University Polling Institute in Florida revealed that about 65 percent of respondents strongly agreed or agreed that climate change should be taught in primary and secondary schools. However, it’s just a telephone poll.  Who’ll actually take the time to learn about climate change and what we can do to head off David Wallace-Wells’s harrowing scenario?


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The bumpy path toward lower greenhouse gases

The Rhodium Group, an independent research provider with a strong reputation for timely and reliable reporting, recently issued preliminary US emissions estimates for 2018.  After three years of decline, emissions are estimated to have risen by 3.4% in the past year.  The increase was spread across all sectors: electricity generation, where cheap natural gas played a big role; transportation, where demand for aircraft and diesel fuels increased substantially; and in the industrial and building sector, where there has been little progress in implementing decarbonization strategies.  This graph from the Rhodium paper illustrates that our national will to address the challenge of climate change has been steadily eroding, as evidenced by the trend from reductions in carbon emissions to an increase.

The documentary, “Paris to Pittsburgh”, available on TV from National Geographic, carries encouraging notes.  And, the new 2018 Farm Bill contains several provisions that directly or indirectly affect global warming. The effects on global warming are not huge, but they’re steps in the right direction, and every bit counts. The bill maintains the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) without new punitive work requirements. It expands funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives program, which helps low-income shoppers purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers. It also increases research and support for organic farmers, new farmers, and farmers of color, and includes a new Local Agriculture Market Program, which will strengthen regional economies and better connect farmers with consumers.  On farmland conservation, the bill maintains overall funding for programs that help farmers safeguard their soil and protect air and water quality. This provision is very much in line with the aims of the Drawdown initiative I’ve mentioned previously, though it should be much more aggressively promoting regenerative agriculture.

But real change comes slowly, and only in the face of a lot of pushback. To cite one salient example, big ag aggressively defends its right to continue polluting the planet with energy-wasteful and polluting practices in the production of animal meats.  The entire animal production enterprise is responsible for three-quarters of food-related greenhouse gas emissions. I wrote about one example of this in dairy farming in Wisconsin in a recent blog. 

Meat substitutes offer an alternative to animal-based products. In time, we'll have a high tech solution to the traditional wasteful expenditure of energy: it will be efficient to produce meat from cells. This is not the place to detail how this works or how much energy it would save, but it’s a technology destined to move on a fast track. Nonetheless, with all the health and safety issues that need to be put to rest, it is likely to be 5 to 10 years before cultured meat is a force to be reckoned with in the marketplace.  Predictably, the traditional purveyors of meat products will not go down without a fight.  In Missouri, legislators enacted a new statute that carries a fine of $2,000 and up to a year in jail for using the word “meat” to describe something that’s not “derived from harvested livestock or poultry.” I heard just a day or so ago that the Nebraska legislature is considering similar legislation.  I believe I hear the rumble of the ACLU caravan.

Finally, there was a very interesting post on ecoAmerica regarding shifting attitudes among Republicans with respect to climate change.  First off, it's clear that a majority of Americans believe that climate change--and concomitantly, weather--is changing.  94 % of Democrats, 71% of Independents and 64% of Republicans believe that climate change is real. As this bar graph shows, people are not only personally concerned, they see that others are as well. This would seem a good sign for the possibilities of new opportunities for change on the political level. 


Friday, December 28, 2018

When things go awry, something must change.

Wow, what a holiday season this has been! I've run across so much distressing news I can hardly process it. I should give myself a break from this computer. But here's one I have to write about. Read these three statements, which I grabbed off a website pertaining to dairy farming in Wisconsin:

Amish dairy farmers at risk of losing their living and way of life as their buyers drop their milk.
Wisconsin loses 14 percent of Grade B dairy herds in last year.
USDA program overwhelms Quad City-area food banks with milk.

These statements suggest that we have an overabundance of dairy farms in the land, especially in Wisconsin. But as with all changes in the economic world, it's tough for people to acknowledge that they should change their way of life. It's understandable, one can sympathize, but if people are permitted to continue with programs that have to be heavily subsidized, we all bear the burdens of their choices. Sometimes it's worth it, sometimes not. In the case of dairy farming, there is the obvious financial burden of subsidizing activities that produce unwanted excess, But there's more to the story, as the following little tale illustrates: 
The body of water known as Green Bay, which juts out from Lake Michigan on its west side, is becoming overcome with algal growths that stem from excess nutrients in the water.  A story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes dead zones in the waters as a result of nutrient-laden runoff from dairy farms along the western shore of the bay.
When I was a kid, we lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In the 1930s, my family often went to a beach on the bay, just on the edge of town. Later, when I had small kids of my own, we couldn't take them to that beach. It was closed because of pollution from the paper mills into the Fox River and thence into the bay. We went further north into Door County to find shoreline that was reasonably clean. Later the paper mills had to clean up their act, and the beach outside town could reopen. Now the more sinister pollution problem is agricultural runoff. I say "sinister" because the pollution from farmlands is spread over a large area, and it's likely to get worse as the Trump Administration rolls back environmental safeguards. The farming community seems to be totally in support of the rollbacks, in spite of their damaging effects on the environment.

There are solutions, but dairy farmers, on the whole, do not seem interested in changing their way of life, including practices with respect to the ways they use the land. We need fewer dairy cattle, which could come from the conversion of land to grow food crops using ecologically (and economically) sound regenerative agricultural practices. There is no mystery about how to do this. Regenerative agriculture is practiced very successfully in the Midwest in many situations. Watch Gabe Brown’s TEDx talk to learn more.  We can reduce greenhouse gases and thus mitigate global warming by reducing our reliance on animal-based food, and moving to ecologically sound methods of farming, such as regenerative agriculture and permaculture. We can also make a renewed commitment to the proper use of the world’s soils.  Change doesn't come easily when we're locked into traditional ways of doing things, but adapting to change is inherent in maintaining a viable social structure. 

This topic strikes close to home for me. My grandparents on both sides were farmers.  My maternal grandparents, Michael and Mary Kedinger, emigrated to the United States from Germany. They farmed for some years on 60 acres they owned in Kewaunee County, then owned a farm near Algoma not far from Green Bay.  My mother was born there.  I assume they sold that farm, but in any event, the records show them owning a farm near Cimarron, Oklahoma before returning to Wisconsin. They then bought a farm in Oconto County, which borders on Green Bay.  Eventually, Michael and Mary left farming and moved to Green Bay.  My paternal grandparents, Sam and Estelle Brown, along with my great-grandfather, also farmed.  They owned land west of Green Bay, near Mill Center. 

I don't know the details of my ancestors'  struggles to make a living,  Both couples had large families, nine children that grew to adulthood.  Eventually, they left farming, and none of their children stayed on the farms.  As a child growing up in my maternal grandparent's house in Green Bay during the depression years, I was aware of our somewhat straightened economic circumstances.  Coping with change must have been difficult then, as it is today. But they found the strength to meet it head-on. I suspect that in the process they learned something I found in a quote from  Stephen King: "The scariest moment is just when you start".

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

When will climate change start to matter?

Let me ask you something: Can you name an experience you’ve had, something that affected you or your family in the past year or so, that you would attribute to global warming? Maybe you recall that you couldn’t fly somewhere because of torrential rains, or that last summer was especially hot, or maybe you have a vacation home in Florida that was damaged by a hurricane. But you can’t be sure that those events were related to global warming. Such things have been going on for a long time. Chances are that if you’re concerned about global warming, it’s not a result of personal experience with it, but rather because you’ve read reports written by scientists that point to the existence of greenhouse gases and the manner in which they contribute to warming of the Earth’s surface. If you accept their reports, and the conclusions they draw from their data, that the Earth is warming as a result of human activity, you could be concerned—even a climate change activist. Or not, depending on your political and social history and present situation.

Paul Hawken
Ten years ago Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger authored an article in YaleEnvironment360, entitled Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change. They attempted to explain survey results pointing to a significant decline in the public’s belief that global warming is occurring, or that human activities contribute to climate change. For the most part their proffered explanations for the tepid responses to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth revolve around notions of political psychology: “many people have a psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be. This need manifests itself, not surprisingly, in the strong tendency to perceive existing social relations as fair, legitimate, and desirable, even in contexts in which those relations substantively disadvantage the person involved.” In other words, unless the driving forces are staring us in the face, we’re inclined to stick with the status quo, if departing from it requires sacrifices and uncomfortable changes that we’re forced to acknowledge.

As we greet the New Year we might ask whether things are different from a decade ago. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have definitely grown more urgent. The special report recently published is decidedly sharper in tone than those preceding it. It carries a sense of urgency and specificity that reflects the most recent results from the field: we will be experiencing the effects of global warming much earlier than previously assumed. If we don’t take substantial actions soon, things will get very bad a few decades down the line. And people still yawn and say, “more doom and gloom!”. That’s too bad, because the scientists are right.

Those involved in the effort to arouse the public to a heightened awareness of climate change find themselves struggling with how to do it. What will it take to get things moving toward mitigation? The tenor of many articles that deal with this question is surprisingly similar to Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s. For example, Laurence Tubiana, a former French ambassador to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and CEO of the European Climate Foundation, echoes their sentiments in an article in Project Syndicate. However, she goes on to emphasize the vital role that expectations play in human behavior. She writes of a convergence of expectations as an enforcement mechanism in changing human behavior. As an example, enormous progress is being made in implementing solar energy. In the state of Florida, where I live, Florida Power and Light is in the midst of one of the largest solar expansions ever in the southeastern U.S., with more than 3.5 million new solar panels added in the last two years alone and millions more on the way. Next year, solar will outpace coal and oil combined as a percentage of FPL’s energy mix. I doubt that most of the people in Florida would have predicted that shift, or that Google is close to supplying all its energy needs from renewable sources. That’s a pretty big deal; Google consumes more electricity in all its operations than San Francisco. To borrow a phrase from Tubiana, society is moving from a mindset of Impossible to Inevitable. Without question, large-scale implementations of existing technologies such as wind, solar, electric cars and vast improvements in energy storage capacity are moving from impossible to inevitable.

Social forces are very important. The idea of global warming is becoming a meme, an element of culture that spreads throughout society like something infectious. Nongovernmental agencies are peppering the developing world with devices and tools to confront climate change. People don’t always get it right, about what global warming will entail, but when they associate the occurrences of more powerful hurricanes, or forest fires in California, or flooding in Wilmington, North Carolina with global warming, they’ve moved a step closer to accepting the immediacy of climate change. That’s good, but it’s not good enough. If the developed world is to effectively counter the long-term consequences of global warming, we’ve got to stop thinking only in terms of what it might do to the resale value of a condo in Florida, or whether New York City will be a good place to live in twenty years. What happens in Bangladesh doesn’t stay there. We’ve got to think wide.

The present political climate across the globe does not look promising for fostering cooperation between nations. But we must have it if human society is to rescue the planet from global despoiling of its resources. If we’re fortunate, we’ll come to realize in time that justice and fairness, coupled with respect for nature, give us what we need. Which brings me to note that on January 7, one of my heroes, Paul Hawken, Executive Director of Project Drawdown, will receive a lifetime achievement award of the National Council for Science and the Environment, one more in a long list of recognitions for all that he’s accomplished. Let’s help celebrate by reading the book he's been instrumental in creating.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Theodore Roosevelt, we need you!

The Trump administration recently offered more than 150,000 acres of public lands for fossil-fuel extraction near some of Utah's most iconic landscapes, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and leased public lands for fracking near Bears Ears, Canyons of the Ancients and Hovenweep national monuments and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.  Environmentalists were not happy. Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah Sierra Club, said "Utah is our home and the reckless sale of our public lands with limited public engagement is simply unacceptable and short-sighted."
Fracking in these areas would worsen air pollution problems in the Uinta Basin and use tremendous amounts of groundwater. Utah just experienced its driest year in recorded history.  With its necessary networks of fracking wells, compressor stations, pipelines and roads, fracking is detrimental to the quality of public lands and wildlife habitat.  It involves injecting toxic wastewater into the ground, thus polluting rivers and groundwater.  And how about the fact that it may trigger earthquakes that damage infrastructure and property, and pollutes the air with dangerous toxins? The federal government's own report shows that oil and gas production on public land contributes significantly to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Why is the Trump administration, led in this case by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, hell-bent on ramping up fossil fuel extraction on public lands, threatening wildlife, public health, and the climate? This year the BLM has offered more than 420,000 acres of public land in Utah for oil and gas extraction. The agency plans to auction another 215,000 acres in March. The Trump administration also has issued new policies, which are being challenged in courtto shorten public-comment periods and avoid substantive environmental reviews.  And the leases are going for bargain basement prices. Recently, 134,000 acres were leased in Utah for as low as the federal minimum of $2 per acre.
This is pretty stupid behavior, even by the low standards set by the Trump administration.  Why sell off so much of America’s natural heritage in this way? It seems that Donald Trump is too self-centered to be able to entertain a notion of a national legacy of natural resources. Perhaps it’s just the work of calculating Ryan Zinke, building some credits for when he leaves his job at Interior at the end of the year.  But I think there’s more, and it’s to be found in the politics of the 2020 presidential election. Beginning in the early days of the 2016 campaign, Trump has been pushing the message that the United States will be first in energy, and completely independent of other nations.  Now that he’s President, he’s fixated on making fossil fuels the linchpin of a strategy to get us there. If he should be in a position to run for a second term, you can be sure that the theme of energy independence grounded in fossil fuels, regardless of what it costs in environmental terms, and in spite of the looming threats of climate change, will be a major element of his campaign. Meanwhile, we should do what we can to stop this absurd rush to sell off the nation’s national treasure on the cheap. Support the National Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Earthjustice and other environmental advocacy non-profits.
Maybe we can take a bit of heart from this quote from a Forbes Magazine panel discussion of energy policy under the Trump administration: “[I]t was agreed that the energy industry cannot “stand behind” the new administration, waiting on industry-favorable actions at the federal level; our industry must strengthen its capabilities to engage respectfully with local, state and federal agencies, local landowners, communities and other stakeholders.” We can’t get too excited by those sentiments, to judge by past behaviors, but there’s a ray of hope there.
Be sure to look for the documentary, “Paris to Pittsburgh”, available on TV from National Geographic. Kudos to Michael Bloomberg for sponsoring this lovely, encouraging note.

To finish this on yet another positive note (among which I count Zinke’s imminent departure), the new 2018 Farm Bill contains several provisions that directly or indirectly affect global warming. The effects on global warming are not huge, but they’re steps in the right direction, and every bit counts.  The bill maintains the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) without new punitive work requirements.

It expands funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives program, which helps low-income shoppers purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers. It also increases research and support for organic farmers, new farmers, and farmers of color, and includes a new Local Agriculture Market Program, which will strengthen regional economies and better connect farmers with consumers.

On farmland conservation, the bill maintains overall funding for programs that help farmers safeguard their soil and protect air and water quality. This provision is very much in line with the aims of the Drawdown initiative I’ve mentioned previously.  So, we keep on keeping on.