Categories
Environment

Getting Beyond Coal

Move UI Beyond Coal, near Jessup Hall on the University of Iowa Pentacrest. Photo by the Author on Nov. 16, 2011.

In 2019, the University of Iowa signed a 50-year contract for a consortium of private companies to operate their coal-fired power plant and more. They should have phased out the coal plant and initiated a plan to transition to alternatives to provide the electricity and steam required. No one was listening to any of the advocates for shuttering the plant. They hadn’t been listening for years. It was an inside deal in an increasingly less than transparent state government.

In return for a $1.2 billion cash payment to fund an endowment, the university assumed different responsibilities regarding the facility. The consortium attorneys contend they didn’t understand their role and did not meet contractual obligations, according to the lawsuit. For Pete’s sake, not even three years in and there is a lawsuit? Shaking my head.

In November 2011, there was a demonstration at Jessup Hall on the University of Iowa Pentacrest urging then president Sally Mason to cease operation of the coal-fired power plant. We delivered a petition to her office. There were speeches on the steps of Jessup Hall. I gave a speech, among others.

Our deeds that day fell on deaf ears.

I remember when mass mobilizations and demonstrations could accomplish positive things in society. The best example was in 1974 when we drove Richard Nixon to resign from office as president. Those days are no more.

Instead of making social progress, big money politics of a wealthy consortium wielded their power to make more money. Filing a lawsuit is just part of the deal, even if the details over which they are suing should have been clarified well before a signature was inked.

Because the state, and the board of regents, is involved, taxpayers will ultimately pay for the suit. That’s not the future we had hoped for when we advocated for the University of Iowa to go beyond coal.

Categories
Environment

Climate Slog Begins

Sky during a January tornado warning. Two tornadoes touched down in Iowa County, the first winter tornadoes in 56 years.

There is a lot of climate-related stuff going on in Iowa. The presumption that made Iowa an agricultural center is there would be enough naturally occurring rain in the growing season to support our major crops of corn, soybeans, and hay. I’m not sure where winter tornadoes fit in. On Jan. 16, two tornadoes were sighted near Williamsburg, Iowa, the first winter tornadoes in 56 years.

There is an ongoing drought about which some local buddies and I talked on Tuesday. Our discussion centered around good yields with drought resistant seeds, pivot irrigation rigs found near Marengo, and the need to protect the Silurian aquifer where our village well draws its water. We shouldn’t want to become like western Nebraska where they are drawing down the Ogallala aquifer. Things appear to be akilter as far as atmospheric moisture and precipitation goes. Corn and beans won’t grow without rain.

It is important for our government get involved with mitigating the effects of climate change. Doing something significant is beyond the power of a single citizen or community. I wrote our U.S. House Representative this week to encourage what she’s doing already.

Congratulations on being assigned to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and for providing some history of the committee’s work in your last newsletter.

I’m writing today to encourage your work on the House Conservative Climate Caucus. I also note your participation at COP 26 and COP 27. Thank you for engaging in one of the most important issues facing our society.

While you and I may not always agree on how to approach climate solutions, I believe the science will out. If anything, you have repeated you believe in science-based solutions. I agree with that wholeheartedly.

Good luck in the 118th Congress. I’ll write again if I have any more specific requests.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback.

Email to Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks on Jan. 16, 2023.

If I hear back, I’ll post the response here. I’m not hopeful she or her office will respond, as they did not respond to my last email in 2022.

With Republicans assuming the reins of government in Iowa, everything about addressing the climate crisis will be a slog. Because political work to gain more climate friendly representation during the last three cycles proved futile, we have to make do what what we have. That means staying in tune with what’s going on in the atmosphere and spreading the word as it is revealed. It will not be super-sexy work, yet it is what is needed and climate action takes a back seat to tax cuts for the wealthy.

I have confidence we’ll slog through it no matter how difficult.

Categories
Environment

Eschewing Avocados

Avocado from Mexico.

It is my minority opinion that avocados should be avoided in the United States. Don’t buy them, don’t eat them. The fruit has become popular, and because of it, Mexican growers can’t keep up with demand. This creates a problem.

To meet surging demand in the U.S., farmers in Mexico have cut down swaths of forest in the western state of Michoacán, one of the most important ecosystems in the country. By some estimates, as many as 20,000 acres of forest — the area of more than 15,000 American football fields — are cut down each year and replaced with avocado plantations. The rapid expansion of orchards will threaten forests in Mexico for years to come.

The bad news about your avocado habit by Benji Jones, Vox, Feb. 13, 2022.

Dishes like guacamole, avocado toast and smoothies taste delicious. Refined oil from the fruit is popular among foodies and nutritionists because of its unsaturated fats. By one estimate, sports fans eat through 105 million pounds of avocados on Super Bowl Sunday. The deforestation problem is directly related to such consumer demand.

The immediate catalyst for this post was a project to reduce my cookbook collection. I found many recipes for guacamole and felt we needed a reminder to moderate consumption and address the deforestation their popularity causes. I can hear long-time readers asking, “Didn’t you cover this before?” Yes, I did in the post titled, “Can Hipsters Stomach the Truth about Avocados from Mexico?” Not much has changed.

What can consumers do about deforestation which creates high-margin avocado plantations? Solutions are complicated. Ecosystem Marketplace outlines some of the challenges here. In the meanwhile, go light on the guacamole and avocado toast, and find another oil for cooking.

It is something we can do to contribute to efforts to solve the climate crisis.

Categories
Sustainability

Autumn Days

Autumn morning at Lake Macbride.

I drove across the Iowa hinterland on Saturday. Soybeans look to be harvested with corn not far behind. With dry ground, minimal wind, and cool temperatures, it was as good as it gets for a row crop harvest. Dozens of tractors, combines and grain wagons were deployed across the autumn landscape.

The trip took longer than expected because I stopped three times to check in with a political organizer. I had been done with door-to-door canvassing after the Hillary Clinton campaign, yet I’m working a couple of shifts this cycle because I feel it is needed. The organizer said he expected a lot of people to help this weekend. I’m going out this afternoon.

I have a bag full of cowboy cards to take along. Most candidates running in our district are in there. A door-knocker gets only a couple of sentences at each door. One of them is encouragement to vote on or before Nov. 8. This is paramount. Whether they will is uncertain, yet it is the best we can do in a free, midterm election.

Nine days remain before election day. Already I’ve turned to what will be next. On autumn days one thinks about the future. In a fleeting few days we will try to do something about the future by electing candidates who will pursue what is right for our community. Whatever the outcome, there will be life after the election.

The better question is whether it will be a better life. During this autumn day it is an open question.

Categories
Environment

Kitten Diversion

Warning on the Hoover Trail near Solon, Iowa.

I occasionally hike a section of the Hoover Trail that branches from the North Shore Trail along Lake Macbride. It is a longer walk and with fall weather, I seek to spend more time outdoors. It was perfect for a long Sunday walk.

A couple of gray kittens were sunning on dirt next to the trail. “What are you doing here?” I asked. It was half a mile or more to the nearest building.

They were not just born yet still very young. I talked to them, but didn’t touch them. If I had a bag or backpack with me, I would have picked them up, brought them home, and had them checked out by a local veterinarian. Lacking suitable cat transportation, I left them where I found them, hoping for the best.

The next day, my spouse and I discussed the kittens and decided if I could find them again I would bring them home for processing and potential domestication. That is, as pets. We decided they were not yet feral cats, because if they were, they would have hidden when they saw humans on the trail. Our fear was that someone dumped them, a common occurrence in rural Iowa.

Grabbing an old moving box, I put a couple of old towels and a pair of gloves in it and walked back to the spot. It is inaccessible by automobile and took a half hour or more to make it back.

I stopped by the benches and bike racks near the pond to cool down. The sound of birds was all around. There were squirrels, grasshoppers and other insects on a bright afternoon. It was peaceful and restful. The kittens were nowhere to be found. I will assume that is good news although was a little sad when I left. The lesson is to pay attention to one’s surroundings. I doubt bicyclists noticed the kittens while they sped by.

We seek to do good in life, yet sometimes it works out differently.

Rest stop on the Hoover Trail near Solon.
Categories
Sustainability

A Vision For the Future of Iowa Food Systems

Wilson’s Orchard

I worked for seven seasons at what is now Wilson’s Orchard and Farm near Iowa City. At the time it was mostly an apple orchard with seasonal imports of cherries, peaches, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries from other farms.

During the coronavirus pandemic they expanded their offerings and yesterday announced they bought a 115-acre farm near Des Moines as a further expansion of what is proving to be a successful local food concept.

The grand opening of the Des Moines farm is spring 2023 with the strawberry season. Paul Rasch, owner and grand poobah of the farm described his first strawberry crop in Iowa City to me as “money.”

I don’t know if the proposed transition is possible, yet it may be our best hope to break the cycle of growing row crops in Iowa. Wilson’s Orchard and Farm is an idea whose time has come.

Here is the announcement video released this week that describes Paul’s vision of an Iowa food system transformed.

Categories
Sustainability

Approaching Danger

Flood water from Lake Macbride reached within 600 feet of our home on June 14, 2008

We did not fear the 2008 flood, even though it rendered roads and bridges near us impassible and destroyed significant parts of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. There was a lesson to be learned from it.

As the water level rose, flowed over the Coralville Dam spillway on June 10, then back-filled Lake Macbride, it would have taken much more than there was to flood our home near the lake. When the flood crested on June 15, we were relieved.

Lake Macbride is part of the water storage system for the Coralville dam and the reservoir created behind it. 2008 flooding was greater than any in recorded history, yet the system worked as well as it could have given the volume of water. Because news media were focused on the natural disaster, we had plenty of information upon which to make decisions: Should we sand bag the house? Should we move everything to the upper level? Should we evacuate? By closely monitoring the news, we were able to survive with minimum disruption in our lives.

The Aug. 10, 2020 derecho was another catastrophic weather event, only this time, there was little advance warning. The City of Cedar Rapids may never be the same after much of the tree canopy was destroyed. Straight-line winds have become a repeating occurrence on our property. The 2013 event did more damage than the derecho, yet in the latter electricity was out for four days. It took time to recover from this event, have a tree service remove broken limbs, and clean up debris. Everyone in the neighborhood had piles of firewood after the storm.

To what extent were the 2008 flood and the 2020 derecho made worse by climate change? In his essay on the 2008 flood, Eugene S. Takle summarizes where we are.

When rare and extreme weather events seem to increase in frequency, either locally or regionally, both statisticians and thoughtful lay people begin to wonder if something unusual is going on. They ask not only whether climate change was involved, but also — and more urgently — whether such extreme conditions will be repeated soon or nearby. The question is much more than academic…

Was Climate Change Involved by Eugene S. Takle. Published in A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008, edited by Cornelia S. Mutel.

Our troubles as a society lie elsewhere, outside the rational thinking of scientists.

The lesson learned from these natural disasters is to be alert and pay attention to what one can’t control. The lesson applies to more than natural disasters.

Sixty years ago I did not foresee where we would arrive in our politics and society. The idea that corporations could and would spend countless fortunes to manipulate voters to support candidates who did not serve their best interests is mind-boggling. Yet here we are.

Everything is corrupt, including political office holders, news media, law enforcement, our judiciary, our distribution system, and an extraction economy that impoverishes people who remain out of plain sight. It is a harsh judgment, yet is increasingly and undeniably true. We may have been able to survive floods, derechos, and straight line winds, yet our biggest problem is one we made for ourselves.

The approaching danger to be addressed is one of our politics. Republicans controlled both chambers of the Iowa legislature and the governorship after the 2016 election. They used their majority to advance policies that serve interests which align with right-wing conservatives and business concerns. At the same time, 45 of 150 Iowa legislative races have candidates running unopposed this cycle. The apparent lack of interest in running for office is as much a problem as the Republican trifecta.

This year, because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, the number of female voter registrations is up. It is hard to know what this means, other than that women who value the right to an abortion, to make their own health care decisions without intervention of politicians, are taking action by registering to vote for candidates who support that right. Whether this movement will persist after the Nov. 8, 2022 election is an open question.

The American political system is far from perfect. If we want to address the dangers of climate change in the form of extreme weather events, as we must, that political system is our only, best hope. We must all get more engaged than we have been.

Categories
Environment

Global Warming is Real

Drought-stressed corn crop in Cedar County, Iowa, 2012.

2022 has provided evidence in plain sight of the consequences of burning fossil fuels. The Greenland ice sheet is melting and expected to raise global sea levels by a foot. Such melting is already in motion and even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, it would have no effect on this destruction. A melting Greenland ice sheet cools the Northern Atlantic Ocean, which in turn slows the Atlantic Gulf Stream circulation and could lead to climate disruption on a massive scale.

From the American West to Europe to China, rivers are drying up. Our oceans are warming, causing fish and water-bound mammals to migrate to cooler places, disrupting fishing stocks. The upper Midwest is home to the largest global concentration of field corn. Continued high temperatures and lack of rainfall are expected to reduce yields. At $6.73 a bushel, corn is now roughly 50% above its 10-year average price.

None of this is good news. It is the truth.

In part, we got ourselves into this situation by ignoring scientists about the dangers of global warming. Here’s some more truth: President Lyndon Johnson, in a Feb. 8, 1965 special message to Congress, warned about build-up of carbon dioxide that scientists recognize today as the primary contributor to global warming.

“Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

LBJ Presidential Library, speech on Feb. 8, 1965.

What’s a person to do?

There is little an individual can do. A solution will take governments addressing the physics of the issue at the highest level. It has become clear Republicans are the party of the fossil fuel industry and won’t take serious climate action. While some Democrats have fallen under the influence of fossil fuel interests and money, they were able to pass the Inflation Reduction Act which is the first legislation that addresses the climate crisis. We need more legislation to address the climate crisis, and that means electing more Democrats today.

The evidence of global warming is all around us. While everyone should get involved in what has become an obvious, global problem, the path forward in the United States is in retaining a Democratic controlled Congress and Executive Branch. No one wants to change their quality of life. However, life would be much better if we took action to control the changes caused by global warming by engaging in society.

Categories
Environment

Wildflower

Wildflowers on the state park trail.

Some days I’m thankful for the ability to walk the state park trail and see the ever-changing plant, animal and insect life. Being thankful is enough for this Saturday.

Categories
Sustainability

Hiroshima Day 2022

Hiroshima, Japan after U.S. Nuclear Attack. Photo Credit: The Telegraph

On the 77th anniversary of the United States dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, hundreds of diplomats representing the states-parties to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), along with representatives from civil society, are convening at United Nations headquarters in New York for talks that will shape the future of the international nuclear arms control regime at a time when the risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear competition are growing.

Godspeed to the delegates!

I have been writing about nuclear arms reduction since the nuclear freeze days in the 1980s. We don’t seem to be getting anywhere. When the 45th president was in office, he contemplated re-introducing so-called tactical nuclear weapons into our military arsenal and would likely have withdrawn from the NPT if given the chance. He rejected the idea of the U.S. eliminating nuclear weapons.

Where do we go from here?

Nuclear weapons should never be used again. Conservative forces that came to power in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 have been steadily deconstructing the nuclear arms protocols that took so much work to put in place. Unchecked, they will continue their work. It seems clear people with common sense about nuclear weapons need a new narrative. This gets to be a worn sawhorse, but we need to elect politicians willing to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons in accordance with Article VI of the NPT, an agreement the United States willingly signed and ratified. Who knows if the treaty could be ratified again in today’s polarized U.S. Senate?

So another year passed without progress on reducing our nuclear arsenals. If anything, the war between Ukraine and Russia heightened international tensions and has nations keeping their arsenals in place until we know the outcome.

Let’s hope the NPT Conference produces significant results and a viable plan for compliance with Article VI. The United States should lead this effort, although we have been recalcitrant about hanging on to our nukes.

Today we must consider what it will take to make needed change.