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

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
Living in Society

Radio in the Hinterlands

Field corn.

When a person lives in Iowa it is hard to avoid noticing the harvest.

74 percent of Iowa soybeans and 38 percent of corn had been harvested as of Oct. 17. We are running a few days ahead of historical averages because it has been exceedingly dry. The entire state is experiencing drought conditions. I held off burning the brush pile because there is a Red Flag Warning, which means extreme fire conditions combined with high wind and low relative humidity. Everything is parched.

As I write this post on a Saturday afternoon, the ambient temperature is 78 degrees with a high of 82 expected in a couple of hours. The average high temperature here is 61 degrees in October. For Oct. 22, it is warm. One needn’t be a scientist to understand something is going on.

On Thursday I delivered my spouse to her sister’s place in Des Moines. We had a lot to talk about as we passed fields with farmers harvesting corn and beans. Between Williamsburg and Altoona, Interstate 80 is a hinterland of row crops, wind turbines and the detritus of retail establishments grown up to service a few locals, but mostly travelers. Towns and cities are hidden from sight.

On the way back, I turned on the car radio and began searching for channels. I avoided the religious stations and settled on a couple of country music and classic rock programs to help me make it back within range of my usual ones. From the ads, it became clear that Republicans dominate rural Iowa.

Governor Kim Reynolds has a substantial campaign war chest and attorney general candidate Brenna Bird just got a major donation from the Republican Attorneys General Association to defeat incumbent Tom Miller. These two Republicans have money to burn on their campaigns. The radio ads repeated during my trip. Whether any farmers were listening while running the combines and grain wagons, I don’t know. Republican messaging filled the vacuum left by Democrats.

To be effective, radio advertising must exist and be repetitive. In the Iowa hinterlands, it is the domain of statewide candidates and big money. Tom Miller was unlikely planning to spend millions on his campaign. Republicans are trying to buy an attorney general.

Our gubernatorial candidate, Deidre DeJear, simply doesn’t have the money for radio advertising even though it is cheap. My worry is her television advertising goes dark as we enter the last two weeks of the campaign, leaving Republicans the only voices heard there as well. During the primary, another Democratic candidate for governor dropped out of the race because he couldn’t get a meeting with major Democratic donors.

As the miles fell behind me the ads repeated. Running down President Biden and associating the Democratic candidates with him because of his unpopularity. Every sentence repeated was a pack of lies. When it is the only political voice rural people hear, it’s hard to stand up to it.

The election is in 17 days. Whatever the outcome, we have to do better to dig out of the hole we dug for ourselves. It’s possible, yet without the rural areas, I’m not sure how that happens.

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

Environmental Round Up – It’s Getting Hotter

I’ve written about the environment on Blog for Iowa since my first post on Feb. 25, 2009. Never in the time since then has there been more happening regarding degradation of our environment. As Scott Duncan’s graphic above indicates, it is getting a lot hotter on most parts of Earth. Methane and carbon dioxide emissions are rising, the oceans are getting warmer, ice sheets at the poles are melting, and there is a general lack of political will in the United States and elsewhere to do enough reverse our course.

More than 40 percent of U.S. population lived in counties affected by climate disasters in 2021, according to Sarah Kaplan and Andrew Ba Tran of the Washington Post. In a report issued June 27, Kayrros, a firm that analyzes satellite data, said methane emissions have climbed despite the launch of the Global Methane Pledge at the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, last fall. The firm said that “global methane emissions so far appear to be going in the wrong direction.”

“Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told delegates at the June opening of the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. “We must turn the tide. A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future.”

Despite substantial evidence of environmental degradation that affects human life and society, President Biden’s plan to address the climate crisis fell flat in the Congress because there were not enough votes to pass it with a divided U.S. Senate.

“The reality we face implores us to act,” Al Gore said.

In Iowa we tinker around the edges of addressing the climate crisis. Decisions like the one I wrote about in 2009, which stopped Interstate Power and Light from building a coal-fired electricity generating station in Marshalltown, have been driven by economic factors rather than any concern about the environment. “You don’t like coal? Fine! We’ll use natural gas which is cheaper anyway,” they might have said. Neither the government nor industry in Iowa takes action on the climate crisis unless there is a positive, monetary effect on someone’s bottom line. Human health and well being has been a secondary consideration despite the warnings of public health officials like I was back in the day.

A lot of Iowa environmental activist bandwidth is being taken up by the fight to stop three different Carbon Capture and Storage proposals. Art Cullen cut to the chase in a July 15 editorial in the Storm Lake Times, saying, “The pipelines will get buried. The Iowa rainmakers will get theirs as we pretend that we are addressing the planet being on fire.” It is hard to give up on the fight against CO2 pipelines, even if it plays out like some of the other transportation proposals to take oil, electricity, liquefied CO2, or other commodities across county lines.

What is a climate activist to do? I would start by learning about big scale solutions and getting involved in electing candidates willing to take action on them. I reviewed The Decarbonization Imperative: Transforming the Global Economy by 2050 by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff here. It’s a good place to start. A couple of things seem clear. Individual action is unlikely to solve the climate crisis. Large scale solutions take technical skill to design and political will to implement.

I recommend readers become part of the solution to the climate crisis by getting involved in efforts to implement large scale environmental projects. In most cases, that begins at the ballot box with voting for candidates willing to do the work.

~ First published on Blog for Iowa

Categories
Environment

Crops in Northwest Iowa Suffer Due to Drought

Photo credit: Josie Taylor | July 6, 2022.

Ten years ago I posted about the impact of the 2012 drought on Iowa agriculture. Read the post here, yet the crux of the article was climate change was absent from public discussion of the drought. Nothing has changed since then.

Drought conditions continue to affect Iowa crops. Josie Taylor with Iowa Environmental Focus writes about how the current drought impacts crops in Northwest Iowa:

“Corn and soybean plants are continuing to suffer in some parts of Iowa from excessive heat and drought,” she wrote. “This has been seen especially in far northwest Iowa where drought conditions are worsening. Large areas of Plymouth and Woodbury counties are in extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.”

Read the entire article here.

Isn’t it time, ten years later, we acknowledged the 800-pound gorilla in the room? Climate change is real and Iowa agriculture won’t discuss solutions to it. We are running out of time to address the climate crisis before it is too late.

Learn more about The Climate Reality Project and how you can get involved in solving the climate crisis by clicking this link: https://www.climaterealityproject.org.

If Iowa agriculture won’t take action to mitigate the effects of climate change on their primary industry, the rest of us must.

~ First posted on Blog for Iowa

Categories
Kitchen Garden

Garden Cycles

Red Norland seed potatoes.

“Extreme (weather) events are becoming more numerous in every season, so Iowans should anticipate more floods, droughts and heat waves,” Iowa State Climatologist Justin Glisan recently said.

Farmers and gardeners recognize this. What I didn’t realize is a third of the major natural disasters hitting Iowa since 1980 have occurred in the last five years. Tornadoes, derechos, severe thunderstorms, heat waves and drought have become commonplace. While adaptation in small garden plots like mine is possible, the scale of the problem is much bigger than any one person’s experience or ability to cope.

The last few days have been colder that usual. By that, I mean the historical average high has been 52.5 degrees and today the forecast is ten degrees colder than that. There is expected variation year over year, so it’s not time to wig out about extreme weather just yet. All the same, by now I’d have something in the ground besides garlic planted last fall if ambient temperatures were closer to normal. Adaptation serves gardeners as there is a wide range of suitable conditions for growth.

Ten days before Good Friday, I’ll cut seed potatoes for seasoning before planting. I have a notebook of previous gardening years that serves as an indoor planting guide. It is time to start Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, according to last year. Following the agenda is the kind of activity gardeners relish. It creates a sense of understanding that helps us get by in a turbulent society.

When I was working full time, there was no time to work through seasonal climatic variation in the garden. Vegetables either made it or they didn’t. Attention to earning an income in a career blinded me to what was going on around me. We each avoid unpleasantness in order to preserve the secure bubble we create and in which we live most of our lives. This type of insularity is a main reason governments take inadequate action on climate change: people are caught up in their personal world construct. The real world is too ugly to contemplate so we avoid thinking about it and in some cases enable disaster.

Even with climate change and increased frequency of extreme weather events, garden cycles remain. We work through them each year and recognize variations. Producing a harvest is always rewarding. A garden can give us grounding in reality. It’s something sorely needed in this household and in society more broadly. At present, most are oblivious to garden cycles as Earth continues to orbit the sun, grocery stores have food on shelves, and our nest seems protected from the ravages we see on media coming into our devices.

It is easy to turn away from garden cycles, yet we shouldn’t.

Categories
Social Commentary

It is Spring

Portable greenhouse, 2022.

On walkabout, garlic poked through the mulch. It is spring.

I assembled the portable greenhouse yesterday afternoon. The extra space and light will make a difference, another step toward planting the garden.

A big batch of vegetable soup simmered on the stove most of the day. We ate it for dinner and filled five quart jars. Three of them are to take as my spouse returns to her sister’s to finish packing.

My daily routine is disrupted by spring. That’s good. Like grass greening in the lawn, it is a sign of renewal. Without it, sustainability is elusive.

Opening statements at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee were yesterday. It was as if I wandered into a retirement home occupied by committee members. My conclusion, after listening to most of them? We need younger senators. Thankfully, in Iowa we have three suitable candidates to replace Senator Chuck Grassley during the November election.

War in Ukraine continues. The Ukrainian government refused to surrender even though most of Mariupol has been bombed to ruins. The Russian war machine will rapidly wear down, yet not before more destruction. Somehow Ukrainian farmers will get a crop in the ground this spring.

This week, António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, pointed out what most should know: we are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe. The upshot is there is time to act on climate, although not for long.

Categories
Living in Society

Late Winter

Garden in Winter

Snow fell and a day later it began melting. The ground is partly snow-covered in today’s predawn darkness. With a forecast high of 30 degrees, there will be more melting in sunny areas. Eleven days remain in winter.

With President Biden’s March 8 announcement, “We’re banning all imports of Russian oil and gas and energy,” U.S. gasoline prices increased immediately. I’m planning to round up our gas cans, take them to town, and fill them. I expect prices to continue to climb because of Russia’s continuing aggression in Ukraine. The country should get completely off fossil fuels, although there has been a lack of political will to do so.

Lettuce and herbs are beginning to germinate on the heating pad. As soon as the snow melts I can build the burn pile and clear the first planting plot. As the growing season begins, I’m ready.

Nonetheless, a few more days of winter remain.