2021 will be a pivotal year. We have a new American president, a new Congress, and abundant hope for progress in arms control and in mitigating the effects of warming atmosphere and oceans.
Each person can do something.
No matter your background, I encourage readers to consider participation in one of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps virtual trainings this year. The April 22 training is United States-focused to align with the opportunity our new government presents. There will be a virtual Latin America-focused training in July, and a virtual global training in October. Here is Al Gore’s announcement video and a link to the training page for more information.
This winter is shaping up to be a scary one. There has not been a substantial cold snap where the ambient temperature remains below zero for a week or more. We need that to suppress the insects living in the ground that feed on our plant life in the garden and yard when it gets warmer. Cold weather is also the best time to prune fruit trees.
It’s no surprise it’s getting warmer.
Atmospheric CO2 concentration hit 413.95 ppm at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in December 2020. In my birth year of 1951 the global average was 311.80. There is a direct correlation between atmospheric CO2 and planetary warming. Our best hope is it’s not too late to mitigate rising CO2 levels.
According to NASA, 2020 tied 2016 as the warmest year on record in global average surface temperature. According to this chart, the rise in global surface temperature is in an accelerating upward trend since the baseline period of 1951-1980.
In the general election of 2020, Americans took a necessary step toward climate action by electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the president and vice president willing to examine and understand the science of climate change and take action. Because Biden served as Barack Obama’s vice president, he knows what to do. It would have been better to elect a stronger majority in the legislative branch of the federal government, yet we didn’t. The majority we have will serve as we can’t wait two years to increase the majority of science believers in the midterms.
The United States rejoined the Paris Agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Like the election, it’s a beginning step. The Paris Agreement is flawed, yet it is difficult to see how the world makes progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions without the kind of cooperation it envisioned. Our country simply must be part of the discussion.
As a single citizen, or a small family, it is difficult to see how to help. We can and should reduce our personal carbon footprint, especially by doing things that don’t require a lot of capital: use less hot water, set the furnace thermostat lower, run the air conditioner at a higher temperature, use less gasoline and natural gas, eschew air travel and long automobile trips. The coronavirus pandemic kept many of us at home and that had a direct impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Eventually we will learn to live with the coronavirus and when we do, the need to control emissions will remain.
These are scary times. One view is there is nothing to be done about all this. The apocalypse is coming and the best we can do is mitigate its impact on us as individuals. It’s a vision of doomsday preppers, isolated and remote enclaves of the wealthy, and an attitude of preserving self as the catastrophe hits. I reject this view. We are stronger together and together we should remain in mitigating the impact of climate change.
It also seems important to focus on the big picture. Political leadership is required to make progress. For some of us, such leaders won’t be as bold as we want or feel is needed. We can’t relent on our politics.
Iowa has had its recent climate-related difficulties, floods in 1993 and 2008, tornadoes, straight line wind, a derecho, and drought. At the same time row crop yields were decreased due to climate change, as in the 2012 drought, a new, diverse agriculture remains possible because of our growing conditions. Gardeners like me contribute to resolving climate change by growing more of our own food. The process would be scalable if the importance of growing more local food were more generally accepted. We do what we can with local resources and conditions. We could do more.
Scary as it is, we can’t get depressed. It is human nature to be hopeful and hope is one of our most powerful attributes. It is important to be realistic about where we stand on mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases. For the next years, the picture isn’t going to be pretty. We can’t give up. We must persist in the effort to make our communal lives better. That’s what I plan to do.
As the coronavirus pandemic runs its course, governments are expected to spend trillions of dollars in stimulus to get the economy going again.
It’s now or never for the environment. Sustainability should be integrated into recovery plans because the health crisis, the economy and the environment are inextricably connected. There is only one chance to manage this recovery to improve environmental sustainability. There are only so many times trillions can be spent to jump start the economy. Sustainability must be considered and become part of any stimulus plan.
People have ideas on how to do that. The International Energy Agency developed a 174-page essay titled “Sustainable Recovery.” They revised “should” to “could” when recommending the plan, as a step toward political correctness in presentation. Sadly, no single logic applies to global matters. One is being political whether they say something about climate change or not when discussing the recovery.
Global carbon dioxide emissions reduced by 17 percent in April as people sheltered at home, industry reduced production, and automobile use slowed. Since then, emission levels are surging back. A conscious decision to integrate smart energy use into the recovery is needed. The issue has been politicized so thoroughly it seems doubtful any such action will be taken in the United States.
Fiona Harvey, environmental correspondent for the Guardian reported, “The world has only six months in which to change the course of the climate crisis and prevent a post-lockdown rebound in greenhouse gas emissions that would overwhelm efforts to stave off climate catastrophe, one of the world’s foremost energy experts has warned.”
No one know how long we have. It’s common sense we will spend stimulus money in the quantities planned only once. Ideas are out there. What’s lacking is political will.
The fact that almost no one is talking about addressing the climate crisis as we “open up” the economy is part of the problem. Oil and gas interests have so infiltrated our government politicians don’t want to hear about solar or wind generated energy, even if they are the least expensive and least damaging regarding carbon dioxide emissions.
Think about it though. When has doing what makes sense gotten so politically out of fashion? Among other things, that needs to change.
I noted the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with a letter to the editor.
“That’s it?” I asked myself this morning.
Next I reminded myself the essential environmental task between now and the general election is to remove as many Republicans as possible from office nationally, in Iowa, and locally.
When I attended Al Gore’s slideshow presentations and the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training I held certain assumptions about how government would work. What may have been isn’t or has been tossed out the window in the time of Donald Trump’s political leadership.
When I say we should “Act on Climate” it means getting involved in politics to elect people who will address the climate crisis. None of us can do much alone.
Our choices are few but to do the work of getting people to vote. Six months from the election Democrats can feel the wind at our backs. Nonetheless it will be a hard sail to shore and a foundation on which we can begin to face the challenges of the climate crisis more directly.
I helped organize my home town for the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders’ Dec. 24, 1968 Earthrise photograph changed the way we look at our lives. We became aware of the fragility of human society spinning through the void of space.
As we complete the 50th year since then, society changed.
The Environmental Protection Agency was created in December 1970. The Republican president led an effort to protect our natural environment through legislation including The Clean Air Act (1970), The Clean Water Act (1972), The Endangered Species Act (1973), and more. These laws made positive things possible.
50 years later our government seems ready to throw all that in the ditch because it is too much of a burden for business. Powerful interests infiltrated our government. Corporations write environmental laws that protect their interests first, rather than the common good. A form of nationalism is rising which says, “Put America first.”
We live in a global society in which we are intimately connected, as Anders’ photo suggests. Large American companies manage a global supply chain and produce much of their revenue in other countries. We are connected as the current pandemic suggests: the coronavirus does not recognize national borders.
We must transcend nationalism and consider the best interests of everyone. We must lead in a way only the United States can. On the first Earth Day we thought that was possible.
I hope it still is.
~ Published in the Solon Economist on April 16, 2020.
It should be no shocker that I attended a political event on Saturday. How could I miss it? It was six miles from our house.
State Senator Liz Mathis represents the 34th Senate District in the Iowa legislature. Alongside State Representative Molly Donahue, who represents House District 68, they hosted a legislative listening post at the Ely Public Library.
The closer one gets to Cedar Rapids, the more likely we are to encounter kolaches, a traditional semi-sweet roll originating in the Czech heritage of Iowa’s second largest city. Mathis pointed out the box of kolaches in the back of the meeting room soon after my arrival. About 16 people attended.
I was in graduate school in Iowa City when Mathis began her broadcast news career at KWWL at their then new Cedar Rapids bureau. She has been a broadcast anchor, television producer, college professor, and is currently an executive at the non-profit organization Four Oaks Family and Children Services. Donahue has been a teacher for 30 years with a current focus on secondary students in special education or those who have behavior disorders that can affect their learning. They were well qualified to discuss Iowa’s mental health system, school safety, the K-12 education budget, the school bus driver shortage, and related topics. I listened and tried to learn.
News on Friday was Pattison Sand Company of Clayton sought to extract 34 million gallons of water per year over a ten-year period from the Jordan Aquifer, according to Perry Beeman of Iowa Capitol Dispatch. The water would be shipped by rail to arid regions in the American west, potentially to New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Arizona or California. The Jordan Aquifer is also the source of municipal water for the city of Marion which lies within Mathis’ senate district.
Earlier this month Pattison proposed to extract 2 billion gallons per year from the Jordan Aquifer using wells they drilled to support their frack sand mining operation. This proposal was rejected by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The problem with tapping the Jordan Aquifer is it is prehistoric water, in other words, it has been there a long time. The aquifer does not recharge at the same rate as the Silurian Aquifer which lies on top of it. Once the Jordan Aquifer is drained, the water will be gone and communities that currently rely upon it could be left without a reliable water source.
The climate crisis is evident in the American west. Demand for water exceeds the region’s capacity to produce it through rainfall, snow melt, and underground aquifers. Something’s got to give for people who settled there to survive. Mining and shipping water from Eastern Iowa is not a good idea because what may be abundant to meet our current needs will be diminished by the extraction proposed by Pattison and others. It is easy to see how a discussion over water rights could escalate into regional conflict over this basic human need.
If we look at history, humans have continued to exploit natural resources until they are gone, in many cases leading to the collapse of societies. Our brains are not wired to perceive the threat shipping billions of gallons of water from Iowa to the west could have. We have to pay attention, and the role of government is to look out for the common good.
It is hard to image an overall plan to resolve the climate crisis at its root causes. Further exploitation of natural resources doesn’t solve anything and could potentially make matters worse. At least we were discussing it and in doing so raising awareness on a sunny morning in Ely over kolaches.
On certain days the weight of civilization is crushing.
Despite occasional good news, our steady decline into the abyss seems imminent.
Signs of it are everywhere.
Iowa is a manufactured place. The wilderness that once existed here is gone. It was the first thing to go after the Black Hawk War. A few stands of oak-hickory forest remain but not many. Instead we have endless miles of farm fields fenced neatly on the landscape. With the ancient forests so went our dreams.
It’s an ersatz life we created, lived in a wake of environmental destruction. We do the best we can. Row crop fields look dull, almost gray. It feels like we are in end times.
That’s not to say there is no hope of improving our lot. The political will to do so is in remission, gone like big groves of trees that used to live here. New trees could grow yet someone must plant them. It would take more time than is left in my life to restore what used to be. I wait. For what?
Snow lingers on the ground as I plan the gardening season. We have to eat and what we grow is better than what can be bought in retail outlets. The cycle of gardening and harvest inspires hope that our efforts will produce something. We keep at it.
All the while, the gray, predawn sky reminds us of a new day’s potential. Today comes down to what we will do to make the most of it, to get along with others, to be kind.
The climate crisis calls for us to dream big and fight hard because our future depends upon solving its underlying problems.
If I sound like Elizabeth Warren, it’s because last night I heard a presentation about her plans for climate action by staffers Spencer Dixon and Jackie Curnick at the campaign office in the county seat.
The expected positioning was present.
“What about a carbon tax?” one attendee asked. Dixon responded Warren believed with her plans a carbon tax wasn’t needed. The discussion drew in the Citizens Climate Lobby position of a carbon fee and dividend which friends have been lobbying in the Congress this week (HR763). Dixon wouldn’t endorse this plan.
“What about nuclear power?” another asked. Warren opposes construction of new nuclear power plants and plans to phase out existing ones. The suggestion of one attendee that current nuclear power generating stations continue to operate indefinitely belies the physical limits of reactors constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. Many pixels have been spilled explaining why.
Two things surprised me: Spencer’s assertion that public lands could be developed to help meet our electricity needs, and the U.S. should help colonize Africa and Asia the way China is doing to resist and potentially displace their hegemony. I don’t see how the former is different from what Republicans under Trump are already doing in their ways, and the latter is morally reprehensible. It’s not clear Warren herself would back these assertions and Spencer acknowledged that.
The top Democratic candidates have a plan for climate action. Republicans are coming along to a very limited degree. Former Republican presidential candidate Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) acknowledges a need for significant private sector investments and innovation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and switch to more green energy. Romney joined the newly formed, bipartisan U.S. Senate Climate Change Caucus. A president Warren would have to have some backing by Republicans for her climate plan to be durable. The Obama administration is a casebook in why executive orders can ultimately fail without legislative backing. Our participation in the Paris Climate Agreement was reversed with the stroke of a pen by the following Republican president. Obama may have had a plan for single-payer health insurance. Because of political realities what we got was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which thus far has proven durable despite countless attacks by conservatives. Any climate solution must be backed by legislation and according to Spencer, Warren has a plan for that.
The Republican elephant in the room is how does any presidential climate action plan go into effect when in a best case scenario Democrats, with two Independents, might in 2020 win a slim majority in the upper chamber, not enough to stop a filibuster. The immediate reaction, and Warren’s position, is a new meme for Democrats, “abolish the filibuster.” In other words, if one can’t win the traditional way, change the rules. If the filibuster were abolished, that action would originate in the U.S. Senate, not in the executive branch.
After the presentation I spoke to other attendees and avoided the discussion of which Democratic presidential candidate’s climate action plan was the best. We’re not at a grocery store comparing canned vegetables, after all. The next president, if it’s not Donald Trump, must act on climate change. Plans notwithstanding, the expectation is Republicans will resist, obstruct and delay any meaningful changes as they have since the rise of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as the Republican leader. Winning the U.S. House and Senate is as important as winning the presidency.
The benefit of last night’s meeting was identifying Warren’s plans for climate action so there will be something to talk about when door-knocking potential caucus-goers. Climate change appears to be on most Iowans’ mind so that’s necessary and important.
Republican U.S. presidents don’t like international climate agreements.
George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty we ratified, and yesterday Donald J. Trump notified the United Nations of our intent to withdraw from the global climate agreement signed in Paris when the mandatory one-year waiting period finishes the day after the 2020 general election.
The two Republicans said the agreements would hurt or restrict the U.S. economy.
If Democrats re-take the White House in 2020, there is a lesson to be learned from these agreements. A broader consensus is required for international agreements to be sustained over time. They can’t be subject to the vagaries of U.S. politics.
The answer is in engagement — in society, with friends and family, and with government. We can no longer survive alone in the context of these networks.
The sooner we realize it the more likely will we be to better implement solutions to the climate crisis. We can’t rely on government alone as its strengths wax and wane with political tides. We must use broader societal tides to our advantage, eroding recalcitrant shorelines when we can, and flowing back to the sea when we can’t.
From Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare:
O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circle orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
What shall I swear by?
Do not swear at all.
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee.
If my heart’s dear love—
Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.” Sweet, good night.
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night! As sweet repose and rest
Come to thy heart as that within my breast.
So it is, and so it should be. Now back to figuring next steps as Republicans ditch the work leading to near consensus on how to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Was yesterday’s gathering of a couple thousand people to support school strikers for climate action the equivalent of Evangelical Christian mega-churches?
Drawn to Iowa City by the arrival of 16 year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, people attended the event for a variety of reasons. Mostly they seemed interested in environmental action as well as in Thunberg and her celebrity. Such feelings fall at the intersection of an impulse to do something, political activism, and the real need to prevent human-caused climate change from getting worse.
By all accounts the event was positive, although I did not attend. I’ve been to mega-church revivals, one replete with Johnny Cash performing. It’s not who I am. Iowa City is the bastion of our state’s liberal elites, a group that includes many friends, but has proven ineffective in implementing the kinds of change needed to address our most significant shared environmental problems.
The presidential campaign of John Kerry, spouse of Teresa Heinz Kerry, scion of the Heinz ketchup family, gave rise to notions of liberal elites. Together the couple wrote a book titled This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and their Vision for the Future. While it was a New York Times bestseller, it did little to move the needle on climate action. It reinforced the idea that Kerry was of the East Coast liberal elite. Kerry’s campaign contributed to coalescence of a reactionary cult that eschewed all things liberal.
I don’t hear my liberal friends talking about this very much. In some ways, Kerry faded into the background in a male-dominated cultural environment that brought us Barack Obama, then Donald J. Trump.
R.F. Latta made a point on social media yesterday. “What liberals don’t understand about GOP reluctance to stand up to Trump is that conservatives fear the floodgates of culture change will burst open if they do and that will end of their way of life forever.” A similar sentiment is found in Lyz Lenz’ recent book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America in which she describes the male-dominated nature of white Evangelical churches. Rejection of Hillary Clinton as president was related to her female gender. Lenz wrote the 2016 election was an assertion of male power. Liberals must endeavor to understand the fears of conservative, evangelical Christians and others if we hope to avert the worst outcomes of the climate crisis.
Iowa City is home to Democrat Jean Lloyd-Jones, who along with Republican Maggie Tinsman, founded an organization called 50-50 in 2020, a “campaign school for women.” The organization has “a 10-year campaign with the goal of electing women to fill half the seats in the Iowa Legislature and half of Iowa’s Congressional delegation, and a woman Governor by 2020 – the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in this country.” The organization serves as an alternative to the churches of liberalism and conservatism. Jean and Maggie have kept the issue of moving women to a more prominent role in politics at the forefront of media attention. As Greta Thunberg’s visit to Iowa City fades into memory we need something similar for environmental issues.
We have some top drawer environmental activists in our area. I’m thinking of State Senators Rob Hogg and Joe Bolkcom, Mike Carberry, and members of the non-partisan 100 Grannies for a Livable Future. All of them would like nothing better than to bridge partisan divides to work on sustainable climate action. Without addressing conservative fears about liberalism, I don’t see how that can happen.
Yesterday’s climate strike was positive in many respects. The climate crisis will impact everyone so solutions must also include everyone. Otherwise, we could find ourselves kneeling at the altar of celebrity with nothing to show for it.