Climate Change and Flooding in Shiraz

April 16, 2019

Have you seen the pictures of the flooding in the city of Shiraz in Iran? I spent two years living in Shiraz, in the middle of the Iranian desert. Shiraz is near the ancient capital of Persepolis, its Greek name – the Iranians call it Takht-e-Jamshid, or the thrown of Jamshid. It was the winter capital of the legendary kings of Persia: Cyrus and Darius. It was the winter capital because it was warm, much warmer than their summer capital. My future wife was stationed in Hamadan, which the ancient kings used as their summer capital because it was cool. I visited her there and I can testify to the temperature difference.

Persepolis and Shiraz are in the great Iranian desert. It’s very dry. I’d seen it drizzle but you never needed to worry about covering up from the rain. My friends and I were once invited to an open house at an observatory and that was the only evening on which I remember clouds and a very few drops. In fact, it was so unusual that when we made a wrong turn and ended up in the ammunition dump of the Persian army and told the soldiers we were going to the place where you go to see the stars … sure, a likely story! So that was the time I was held at gunpoint in Shiraz until they called the General who was fluent in English and sent his jeep to rescue us. Except for that teaser, and what they piped down from distant mountains, no, there was no water in Shiraz.

But now I’ve seen photos of flooding in Shiraz. Cars and trucks literally swept along in water several feet deep, floating, pushed by currents of water – I hesitate to say downstream because there was no stream, so what’s down or up?

It’s not nice when it floods in the desert. People aren’t prepared for it. There’s no infrastructure to deal with it. People get carried to their deaths by sudden walls of water. And the water doesn’t stay and do any good. The land can’t soak it up.

The floods in Shiraz are more than a curiosity. They are another reflection of a changing and very unpredictable environment. Sharp environmental changes push people out of their homes, kill others, destroy ways that people earned their livelihood and sustenance. Even now the American military is thinking about the implications. But it’s a worldwide problem and they all need to think about it. People will need protection. Others will become refugees looking for places they might be able to live. Everything is up for grabs.

I once chatted with a very successful engineer about the fact that his home is 8 feet above sea level in New York City. Why not move to higher ground? Because when the water rises 8 feet, New York won’t function like a city; the infrastructure will be overwhelmed. How about moving up to this area where except right next to the Hudson the land is a couple of hundred feet above sea level? Because millions of people from New York City will overrun this area like the gold rush overran Sutter’s Mill in California. A world in climate change will be unpredictable and dangerous.

Maybe we should deal with the climate.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 16, 2019.

 

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Environmental Change and The Campaign Season

March 5, 2019

I’d like to start this campaign season by stating one of my primary objectives. Climate change is the rare major problem that has been warning us so that we could have had plenty of time to deal with it. Now in a film titled The Human Element, which is available on podcast, photographer James Balog shows global warming in time lapse photography.

But actually knowing what is going on seems to be a liability. Gore actually knew. He looked deeply into the issue of global warming and he understood. But the public reaction was horror – at Gore. He wasn’t like us. He knew stuff. In the first debate, Bush disposed of one of Gore’s points with a sneer, just calling it “fuzzy math.” I concluded on the spot that Bush was a bully. The American public apparently concluded that they couldn’t share a beer with someone who understood math. They judged sincerity as similarity – if he’s like us he’s sincere. So, if we didn’t study stuff, the president shouldn’t either. God. Try that for your choice of doctors. People got what they deserved except that they dumped it on the rest of us too.

Obama did know what he was talking about. Some of us loved him for it. Others were turned off because a Black man presumed to tell the rest of us what was going on – even if it was a loyal and dedicated Black man trying to save the rest of us from the hell we’re wandering into.

Hillary knew what she was talking about. She spent her life preparing for public office, not going to campaign methods and finance school but studying the public issues a president has to deal with for our sake. But her dedication to serving us, the people, was her apparent undoing. The guy or gal down the block doesn’t do that. So, she must be snooty because she knows stuff and proudly spent her life learning it for us. How bad is that?

Learned Hand, one of the great judges in our history wrote that elections are very hard to know enough about. I want presidents, senators, representatives and members of the Administration who have spent the time to know what they are talking about so that we don’t all fall off the cliff together, pulling our families off that cliff with us. This isn’t about my ego. It’s about survival.

Sincerity means to me that the candidate wants to take care of us, our health, our future, all of us.  Yes, experts disagree, and I spend some of my effort doing this commentary to distinguish between experts who have it right and those whose heads are screwed on backwards. But understanding issues is essential. Beyond what we can figure out ourselves, we have to be able to talk with experts who do understand. Lawyers have to do that all the time, from working with doctors to understand injuries to working with economists to understand how much money will have been lost. Expertise matters. Even to be able to talk with and explain the experts, one has to prepare. How better than by spending the time, energy and midnight oil to get things straight?

In this presidential campaign season, I want candidates who care enough to figure things out. Most important I want candidates who understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. And who build ways of dealing with the dislocations of capitalism by building their solutions onto the opportunities created by effective solutions to climate change.

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


What We Can Do About Climate Change

February 12, 2019

This is the birthday of Abe Lincoln who saved the country. It’s our job to keep it safe. My message last week was that government is the key to minimizing world-wide genocide by climate change. And of course, this president is not helping. Now let’s talk about our role.

First, the strongest step we can take is to join organizations that are working to reduce climate change. We can’t turn the ship of state individually, but by joining together we can force government to change. We can force each of the political parties to make a major commitment to the war against climate change.

Second, push industry away from release of greenhouse gasses. One of the best incentives is a carbon tax and every delay in imposing it means the tax has to be exponentially larger. We can strengthen the push for a carbon tax by using our power as consumers.

Third, over the past half-century we have changed agriculture until it is now one of the biggest emitters of carbon and methane, the two principal climate damaging gasses. One of the most important changes is to shift away from beef and other meats. Think about how much carbon beef production releases – initially from the use of power to produce crops whose only purpose is to feed the cows, and then from all the carbon production involved in raising the animals and then the fact that the animals themselves produce huge quantities of methane. And that doesn’t include all the carbon and methane from the transportation of the animals and their feed and the fertilizers used in the process. Farming has gone from relatively clean half a century ago to a major problem now. So cutting down on beef is an important start.

Fourth, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on carbon emissions from transportation but, many of us can improve our health as well as the environment by walking, bicycling or using public transit. Growing up in New York City I had to be a public transit user. One of my happy memories of childhood is standing with my nose pressed against the front window of the front car of the subways and feeling the excitement from the sight and sounds of the train gobbling up miles of track in front of me. Later, I went to work by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. That gave me a gorgeous two-mile walk to work which was definitely good for my health. Coming to Albany, I wanted to get back to walking so we bought within a two mile circle around my office so I could, and did, walk to work. I fully understand the attractions of the countryside but there are huge advantages to city living, especially for the climate.

Fifth, many of us can make our homes much more efficient with insulation, solar panels and other energy saving methods. Reducing what we buy, recycling what we don’t need, and reusing what can be used again, use much less energy than buying and replacing.

Sixth, one step less talked about is passive solar. Zoning and housing codes would help, but windows facing due south get zero summer sun and maximize winter sun. Once the house is designed that way it pays dividends forever. Add a heat sink inside the house and it will spread the heat around the clock in cold weather.

I’ve added some articles and organizations you can look at on the text version of this commentary. But the point is to take action. We need action above all. It’s that or genocide by climate change.

Recommended articles on climate change:

David Wallace-Wells, UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming. It’s Actually Worse Than That, Intelligencer, OCT. 10, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/un-says-climate-genocide-coming-but-its-worse-than-that.html

Overwhelmed by climate change? Here’s what you can do, The Guardian, October 8, 2018,

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/climate-change-what-you-can-do-campaigning-installing-insulation-solar-panels

Some of my personal favorite organizations which focus on science and the environment:

https://350.org/ co-founded by Bill McKibben

The Climate Reality Project founded by Al Gore

Union of Concerned Scientists founded by scientists at MIT

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 12, 2019.


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.


The Moral and Legal Meaning of Failing to Deal with Climate Change

August 30, 2018

I often wrestle with how gentle or how strong to come on. To get everyone’s support on climate change, I want to come on gently. But climate change is so big, urgent and underappreciated that I want to come on strong.

The experts tell us that we can make a big difference. We can take steps that will really slow down and even stop climate change beyond what is already inevitable. But nothing will happen by itself. The economy won’t automatically stop selling carbon-based fuels that produce greenhouse gasses. Government is necessary to do that. Without government coordinating our efforts, each of us individually make only a small difference and we can defend our bad choices by pointing out that it’s legal. But with government coordinating the move to more climate friendly products and methods, we can make a big difference.

Unfortunately, the current Administration is fighting against rules designed to reduce greenhouse gasses. It is rolling back automobile emission and engineering standards that would significantly reduce greenhouse gasses that we produce. The transportation industry produces a large part of greenhouse gasses so real progress requires action among auto manufacturers. But with the Administration working to roll rules back, auto makers say they’ll just wait and see. Meanwhile, Americans buy the largest vehicles they can afford. Progress on sedans gets wiped out by the market for SUVs, trucks and HUMVEEs. One way to control the impact of those market choices is to retain, not roll-back, those emission rules. Another is to introduce greenhouse gas taxes. Government is a necessary part of any real effort to control global warming, for ourselves, our children, grandchildren and posterity.

Failing to act against global warming will increase the worldwide refugee flow which many Americans fear, and turn many Americans into refugees in our own country, from the coasts and the great Midwest Mississippi River basin the where people will be forced to leave their homes and push into places ill-prepared to house, feed and employ them. Failing to act against global warming will magnify the onslaught of tropical illnesses on Americans who are ill-prepared to deal with them. Failing to act against global warming will send our parents to early graves in heat waves that stress their hearts.

The law makes a stronger point that reflects the stakes in global warming. Intentional, premeditated, criminally negligent or reckless killing of one or more human beings is murder.

The lowest form of murder is involuntary manslaughter. An unintentional, involuntary killing is nevertheless manslaughter if it was inherently dangerous or was done with reckless disregard for human life, and the defendant knew or should have known the conduct was a threat to others’ lives.

Does that fit the people who are tearing down the rules to slow or stop global warming and other forms of climate change? We know that climate change will kill many people, in this country and all across the globe. We know that greenhouse gasses from burning carbon-based fuels is heating the earth and additional burning of carbon-based fuels will heat it more. In other words, burning carbon-based fuels is inherently dangerous – it will kill people. The impact of government rules on death and survival is very clear. That will certainly bubble up in lawsuits. But the law also reflects powerful moral conclusions well worth thinking about.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 28, 2018.

 


Mankind’s Suicide Pact – The Sixth Mass Extinction

April 24, 2018

Last time we talked about how influencing our politicians to do the right thing can be fun. So this time let’s talk about some very serious issues with an eye toward enjoying the process of moving our politics to do the right things, even though the issues, like climate change, sometimes feel out of our control. But we do have power. We live in a democracy and can demand that our representatives deal with these problems first and foremost. Motivating them is our job. So let’s look and then return to our responsibility. Two issues involve the likely suicide of humanity: what has been termed the sixth mass extinction, this time of us.

We know about major extinctions that killed some 86% of existing species approximately 444 million years ago; killed some 75% of existing species, about 70 million years later; killed some 96% of existing species, approximately 251 million years ago. killed some 80% of existing species about 200 million years ago. And the fifth, about 66 million years ago, killed some 76% of all species including the dinosaurs. Extinctions have been recurrent, catastrophic, and resulted from climate changes, including changes in temperature, and levels of oxygen and other gasses. Biologists are suggesting we are headed for a sixth and this one is aimed at mankind, at us.

Mankind’s actions are changing the climate. Climate change doesn’t just drive the waters higher, create extreme weather events and disrupt the climate worldwide. Changing biodiversity affects the fundamental cycles of nature. The Atlantic described mass extinctions as “global die-offs that killed the majority of animal life on earth” and it explained that they were not simply the result of external shocks, but were ultimately caused by “the internal dynamics of food webs that faltered and failed catastrophically in unexpected ways.”[1] We know environmental changes are heating up the globe and interfering with the food chain in the oceans. So we have to control ourselves before our environment is totally out of control.

Another form of impending mass suicide comes from the nuclear power plants. That’s not just about rogue nations like North Korea, but lots of companies, corporations, workers and others have access to nuclear fuel and could do great damage with it. If you haven’t seen the pictures or stories of the so-called “survivors” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is worth doing to understand the seriousness of what we should be trying to protect our loved ones from. We have to stop that process before it destroys us all.

We should know by now that mankind is doing many things that are causing great damage to our world and our survival in it. Plastic bags and chemical run off are destroying sea life. Endocrine disrupters are all around us in the things we buy, eat and use and they affect our health, our ability to have children, and their growth without agonizing birth defects. Excess antibiotics are inviting super-resistant diseases and leaving us vulnerable to enormously destructive epidemics.

The over-arching issue seems to be the too widespread belief that civilization depends on allowing any of us to dump whatever we please into products, onto the ground and into the air and water until such time as someone is able to determine what damage it has been doing. There is a point when liberty becomes license.

As we talked about last time, influencing our politicians to do the right things can be fun. Enjoy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 24, 2018.

[1] Peter Brannen, “Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction,” The Atlantic,  June 13, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/06/the-ends-of-the-world/529545/.


God and Texas

August 29, 2017

I mentioned to Ian a couple of weeks ago, as I was preparing to take a brief vacation, that I thought I had enough commentary ready for a couple of months. Ian just smiled and said it might depend on what happened. He didn’t mention a biblical flood in Texas.

There are many ways that we each address what is going on in the world. One of those is through the lens of religion. So is there a religious perspective on the flood in Texas? Of course. One could just build an ark and pray but really the religious perspective is much deeper and more important. God has set up the mechanisms that have turned human abuse of the earth’s environment into global climate change. Floods are part of the punishment for our carelessness with our natural heritage.

Notice that there is nothing in a religious perspective which contradicts a scientific one. Many scientists, religious themselves, describe their own work as trying to understand God’s work. Whether you or they think about the consequences of carbon and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere through a religious lens or not, the results are the same. The world gets warmer and one of the consequences are storms of biblical proportions.

Biblical? A body of water the size of Lake Michigan now covers a part of Texas and the storm is far from over, still bringing waters from the Gulf and dumping them on Texas. That’s biblical. Lake Michigan is huge, over three hundred miles long and more than a hundred miles wide. Lake Michigan reaches a depth of nearly a thousand feet – I hope that doesn’t happen in Texas but parts of Texas have already had more than four feet of rain fall on them in just a couple of days and the rains still fall.

This is just one of many storms and floods that have inundated parts of the country from New York to Texas. We have a president that pulled us out of a worldwide climate agreement and scoffs at climate change. And yes it is a matter of personal as well as political responsibility. We can limit the damage by our personal behavior. And our elected leaders, can limit the damage by facing and dealing with the ways that America contributes to the changes in the environment, and the ways that America could lead and support worldwide efforts to limit the damage. Anything less merits the wrath of God.

For those who do not think of the world through a religious lens, you need only think of your families, parents, brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren. This world is on a course to become a much tougher place for all of us. The burning of carbon based fuels that are causing climate change, are also causing changes in the oceans, killing the reefs that are the basis of the oceanic food chain, killing much of the sea life that gives many of us nourishment and fishermen their livelihoods. The same process is enlarging the deserts, killing forests, and ultimately threatening the oxygen supply that we depend on for life itself. The same process is spreading disease and spawning new pathogens that will overwhelm our bodies and our medical systems.

This is murder on a global scale. And yes, people are responsible, elected politicians are responsible, and people in or out of office who willfully ignore reality and believe climate deniers’ drivel are responsible. It is our moral and religious responsibility to stop it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 28, 2019.


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