Climate Change is Under Our Noses and Our Feet

July 9, 2019

While the Administration in Washington cuts staff at EPA,[1] it’s a good time to reassess efforts to save the climate that makes our life possible.

When we moved to Albany forty years ago people told us winters were hard here. Snow was heavy and stayed. Our yard had two feet of snow piled on it continuously for most of the winter. That hasn’t happened now for decades. Instead we get much more violent storms. I’ve had to console my secretary and others in the office when their towns were largely swept away. That wasn’t the pattern when we first came either. Global warming is right under our noses and our feet. And it’s already changing our lives.

It no longer makes sense to wait and see. People who’ve been studying this for decades are clearly right. The climate is changing, causing damage and will only get worse. Equally clear, we’re a major cause. Whatever else may contribute to the problem, we know the carbon humans produce, and the impact of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gasses, enough to identify the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere and the warming effects on the ground. All the measurement and data are just about confirmation and refinement so that we can model the speed.

Speed – it’s happening fast. The earth reinforces the trend. As the atmosphere warms, we lose glaciers that reflect heat back and we lose forests that absorb heat.

So what does it mean to deny the obvious? For powerful people who should know better, it means they’re lying and pursuing personal gain at everyone else’s expense. Conservatives, and their religious supporters, used to judge candidates by how they treat their families. That never made much sense to me – treating one’s family well can mean treating everyone else selfishly. Our children and grandchildren will be seriously affected by climate change. Maybe the rich and powerful figure they can provide a golf course for all their children and grandchildren. But as the world boils, they too will reap the whirlwind. It’s hard to believe their selfishness toward their own families.

I know I’ve described before my conversation with a very successful engineer whose home is only eight feet above sea level. But I want to drive home how interconnected we are in dealing with climate change. Everybody for himself doesn’t work. This engineer wouldn’t move to higher ground because the city wouldn’t function if the water rose that eight feet. The infrastructure would flood. The roads would be under water. They’d have to move again. Coming upstate where land and homes are hundreds of feet above sea level wouldn’t help. I’d seen the pain Irene and Sandy caused on high upstate ground so I knew that wouldn’t solve the problems of global warming, or from the violent the storms fed by a warming climate. But an eight foot sea rise would make coastal cities unusable, and the refugees from those floods would overwhelm the rest of us, overwhelm us the way Sutter’s Mill in California was overwhelmed after the discovery of gold was announced – Sutter never had a chance to protect his property.

In other words, we’re all in this together, and the best way to care for our own is to care for each other before it’s too late, to slow and stop the warming of the climate. We each have a role – voting for people who won’t just talk about but actually help us deal with the problem; and do our part in smaller ways, in our purchases and daily practices.

[1] https://blog.ucsusa.org/andrew-rosenberg/the-epa-cant-stop-polluters-when-the-trump-administration-cuts-enforcement-staff (Union of Concerned Scientists, September 13, 2018).

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How do you talk about climate change?

February 4, 2019

I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about climate change. It’s a scary subject. Climate change is likely to injure and embitter people we care a lot about, our children and grandchildren – hurt them with disease, draught, famine, floods and storms, destroying their homes, houses and business too, indeed their towns and communities. That’s scary all right, but what do people do when they’re scared? Fight or flight? But where do you go? Unfortunately a lot of people do neither. They just can’t bear to think about it. But climate change will find them and their children and grandchildren anyway. What they don’t know will hurt.

Climate change is a big problem. The scale of the problem leads people acting individually to come up with platitudes like don’t cross that bridge ‘til we get there. Of course, the bridge won’t wait. If we don’t plan in advance it won’t be there when we want to cross it, and that’s not just a statement about infrastructure.

My hybrid and my solar panels make me and my family feel good but they only make a small dent – of course they’d make a bigger dent to the extent that the example catches on and government organizes a much bigger, more wide-scale reaction. That after all is what we’re trying to do. Our hybrids and solar panels are like very large lawn signs saying “Join us.” Like lawn signs, the signs don’t make the difference but the cultural statement that this is the right thing to do can carry the day.

That’s the kind of problem government is for, the kind of problem that is way beyond our abilities acting individually. Handling climate change requires coordination on a scale that only government can make happen. When government takes charge, those of us trying to do something about climate change become part of a powerful movement, not weaklings and suckers. Even the most ideological free marketeers have a name for situations where only government can solve the problem – they call it market failure.

Government will organize a powerful response when the people make clear with their votes that they demand action. It will happen when people see their personal welfare, not in opposing climate change, but in demanding that government direct opportunities to those whose livelihoods may be injured by efforts to fight climate change. It will happen when the rest of us understand that we are all in this together and demand that we all have to share the benefits and burdens. This is a war against forces that will destroy our families, our country and our world and it’s not a private opportunity to make big profits at everyone else’s expense. This is a shared problem, a shared opportunity and a shared job. In the past we’ve used an excess profits tax to share the burden of war. And to build the weapons of war we spread the factories all over the country.

We can be fair. We can protect and provide for each other. What we can’t be is cowards looking the other way.

As we gear up for the 2020 election, the politicians must declare what they will do to stop climate change from destroying us all. I know some relish the opportunity to be a war president, to be the great leader that pulls us from the brink of disaster. OK then, this is the war we have to fight. Now lead the charge.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 5, 2019.


Choose Life

February 28, 2017

I want to focus on a serious issue that is being ignored in favor of all kinds of fake news and grandstanding. In college, I took a course on demography. That means we were looking at the explosion of population in parts of the world, which then leveled off, but at much higher levels than before. Everything we are struggling with in this twenty-first century is related to that explosion of population.

The most significant advances in our longevity were the result of public health advances, precisely the things that people don’t want to spend on right now, on our water and sewer systems. I remember my dad asking every owner of places where we stopped for the night whether the water was potable, meaning it was drinking water from which we would not get sick. That was new in his lifetime. And by the way, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City, using an outhouse. Sure many of us have used outhouses at one time or another but they are not the best protection for public health in large communities – septic systems take lots of space.

After water and sewer systems, penicillin probably made the biggest difference – it’s probably why I’m talking with you today but never met my sister who died at the age of three before the discovery of penicillin. Those advances added decades to our lives by comparison to very short advances from modern medicine and surgery.

And they are a large part of the problem of global warming. There are lots more of us burning things, driving cars, using electricity, getting what we need for business or pleasure from the furthest corners of the world. That takes energy. Energy has been produced by burning things. And so the world gets hotter, the oceans expand, tropical diseases proliferate, and life threatens to get nasty, brutish and short once again. And efforts to mitigate that will be overtaken if population continues to expand – worldwide it’s doubled in my lifetime.

So when I hear about advances in medical science, like the possible elimination of malaria, I think how wonderful for the likely victims, and then I wonder about the global impact. There is no free lunch. We can make lots of advances. But the world has its limits. More people will put more stress on the environment. And stress on the environment is already heading us toward the next major extinction – us, human beings, our children and grandchildren.

And so I think there is a trade-off between our health and our numbers. There is no human life after we are extinguished – only death and tears. So let’s be clear, I am very pro-life, but to be pro-life demands support for birth control, especially the kinds that prevent conception.

There is no so-called pro-life position that is not also a position about death. It seems to me that The Church and all houses of worship, must rethink their positions about death and destruction along with their positions about conception. The two are intertwined by laws well-beyond our ability to control. Yes the Bible says choose life, all our bibles say that in some form. But are we choosing life if we ignore the reality of death, destruction, and extinction?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 28, 2017.


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