Sustainability in a Turbulent World

Earthrise 1968

Earthrise 1968

An approach toward sustainability begins the way Hollywood movies sometimes do—with a view of Earth from space, successively narrowing the frame until we arrive at street level. In U.S. cinema the final shot is of individuals, characters mis en scene.

A new perspective is possible with the launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory last week. Aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, the 1,250-pound satellite was sent on a 110-day trip toward the L1 Lagrange point, a gravitationally-stable location nearly a million miles from Earth in line with the sun. While monitoring streams of particles from the sun, it will also look back to Earth. That’s a beginning point.

In a life one has to make choices. Using the Hollywood convention, my public focus can be narrowed as follows:

In the global community I make two engagements: nuclear abolition and dealing with the consequences of global warming. This means continued involvement with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the Climate Reality Project. IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, and the Climate Reality Project’s founder, Al Gore, won it in 2007 along with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These organizations have standing, and are worth engaging.

Nuclear weapons and global warming both impact people’s health and survival, which aligns my view with that of public health. On Tuesday, Pamela Mollenhauer of the State Hygienic Laboratory told me, “One can’t speak of the environment and health separately because they are intertwined.” Issues relating to nuclear weapons and climate affect us all and are likewise different sides of the same environmental coin.

My involvement in nuclear abolition is being part of the international humanitarian campaign. This movement has not gained traction in the U.S., but around the world people and nations are calling for nuclear weapons abolition.

The U.S. position is abolition will come through the established Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty process. Advancing the NPT has stymied because the nine nuclear states fail to take their obligations under the treaty seriously enough to make progress. Quite the opposite is happening. The Obama administration is about to launch a massive modernization program expected to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the U.S. nuclear complex over the coming three decades. If I spent all my time with the humanitarian campaign, it would be a full time job.

The effects of global warming are becoming increasingly evident, requiring action.

“We’re here to remind people that a changing climate is resulting in environmental degradation that is having severe health impacts we can’t afford to ignore,” said Dr. Maureen McCue of Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility on Tuesday. The PSR advocacy targets are also mine.

“Climate change poses enormous threats to our health. Heat waves, immense storms, floods, droughts and expanding disease ranges are just some of the dangers we face,” said an article in the Fall 2014 issue of PSR Reports. PSR enumerated four main targets for advocacy.

The Clean Power Plan is a proposed national plan that will build on a rule proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. States would be required to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. EPA is expected to finalize the rule this year and then states would implement. In Iowa, the Clean Power Plan would be administered by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. A few Iowa legislators are aware this rule is coming, but many are not.

Moving beyond fossil fuels is a key concern and Iowa has been a leader in promoting renewable energy. Iowa must move from coal-fired and nuclear power plants to renewable energy for electricity generation. A key possibility is distributed generation.

More wind, more solar, and distributed generation of electricity are part of Iowa’s energy future. Our state is a leader in using wind resources to generate electricity. Solar powered electrical generating stations offer cost-effective potential. A constraint has been an electrical grid fraught with partisan issues between land owners, regulated utilities, merchant plant advocates and investors, and complex contracts and agreements regarding distribution. Logically, it makes sense to use the sun directly to generate electricity, but so often industries invested in other processes drag our collective feet. This complex work calls for our attention.

Energy efficiency is about more than changing light bulbs. Demand for electricity has been dropping in Iowa, partly because the generation, distribution and use of electricity has become more efficient. This is a complicated issue, but taking steps toward energy efficiency is doable. Advocating for changes in building codes, expansion of mass transit, creating bike friendly communities, and recycling, reduction and reuse strategies all help take us there. We must also deal with related issues in the rural landscape that dominates our state but each census has fewer people.

There is a lot to be done beyond economic survival and maintaining our personal good health. Getting things done requires recognizing and setting goals that create a path toward what is possible—to sustain our lives on the blue-green sphere that is our only home.

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