Categories
Environment

Year of Climate Disaster

Chestnuts on the ground.

If my posts about the climate crisis have been scarce this year it is because of a decision to focus time on political outcomes.

Under Republican governance needed action to protect the environment and take bold action to reduce the constant stream of inputs that warm the atmosphere and oceans seems unlikely. If anything, Republicans are taking us the wrong direction. I spend time each day working to elect Democrats in hope of a government that will take the climate crisis seriously and address the existential problem.

Weather in Iowa continues to be crazy. There was drought, a derecho, and now a few days of almost continuous rain expected to produce flash flooding. This is what the climate crisis looks like. It is not located in a misty future, it is now.

California fires have already burned 2.2 million acres, more than any year on record according to CBS News. It is only September. Half a million people are evacuating parts of Oregon due to fires there. Hurricane Laura brought devastation to the Louisiana and Texas oil patch. Record high temperatures are being set from Florida to California. If you think this is a new normal, you would be wrong. This is the beginning of a very turbulent period of extreme weather. From here it is expected to get worse.

Our current government makes no pretense about addressing the climate crisis. They are simply not going to do it, consequences be damned. That’s why it is important to change our governance and through the ballot box has been a dependable first effort. If we do elect Joe Biden president with a Democratic House and Senate, our work is only beginning. He and his potential administration must be held accountable to make needed change that positively impacts the environment.

Absentee ballots are to be mailed from county auditors in Iowa beginning Oct. 5. The period from then until Nov. 3 will be one of tracking down ballots. In addition we’ll spend time getting people to register to vote and cast their ballot. That will take most of our time and energy.

The climate crisis is urgently important. Just as a lifeguard sometimes must subdue a drowning victim to save them, so we must focus on the election. There will be time to set priorities after we win at the ballot box. If we don’t win, the priorities become much different and the climate crisis more dire.

We are stronger together and it will take all of us to turn the government around in 2020 and beyond. It is past time to act on the climate crisis.

Categories
Environment

Sustainability in the Coronavirus Pandemic Recovery

Garlic and onions from a test dig on June 17, 2020.

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.

Categories
Environment

Climate Change in 2020

Image of Earth 7-6-15 from DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory)

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.

Categories
Environment

Earth Day 50 Years Later

Earthrise by Bill Anders, Dec. 24, 1968

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.

Categories
Environment Living in Society

Mining the Jordan Aquifer

State Senator Liz Mathis (L) and State Representative Molly Donahue at the Ely Public Library, Ely, Iowa. Feb. 29, 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.

Categories
Environment Sustainability

Nuclear Power Transition

Google Maps Image of Duane Arnold Energy Center

In 2018 NextEra Energy Resources announced plans to retire the Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) — a 615-MW nuclear power plant located in Palo, Iowa — before the end of 2020.

NextEra’s main customer at DAEC, Alliant Energy, will buy out its contract in September for $110 million, sourcing electricity instead from NextEra’s wind generation fleet. The move is expected to save Alliant Energy customers $300 million over 21 years.

There are no plans to replace Duane Arnold with new nuclear generating capacity.

Two essential problems with nuclear power plants are they cost too much, and a lack answers to the question of what to do with spent nuclear fuel. These problems are political. In our current political climate that makes them unsolvable, practically speaking, even though potential solutions exist for both.

Certain environmental groups favor nuclear power to replace coal as an emissions reduction tactic. On its face this is belied by the urgency of the climate crisis.

“Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change,” climatologist James Hansen said on Dec. 3, 2015. “The dangers of fossil fuels are staring us in the face. So for us to say we won’t use all the tools (such as nuclear energy) to solve the problem is crazy.”

The challenge for nuclear energy is the timeline for market penetration in the industrial age. It will take too long.

Cesare Marchetti of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis did research which suggests the historical trend on implementation of new technologies such as wood, coal, oil and gas takes 40-50 years to go from one percent to 10 percent of market share. Nuclear energy occupies about 12 percent of current global market share. It will take almost a century for an energy source to occupy half the market. The world doesn’t have 50 years, and likely longer, to wait for nuclear energy sources to gain acceptance and growth the way coal, oil and gas have.

Even if political issues surrounding nuclear waste disposal could be resolved, the financial cost of building out a fleet of new nuclear power plants would likely follow the course of the Georgia Power Vogtle Plant expansion, which, when they broke ground, was the first nuclear power plant contemplated in 30 years. Despite proclamations of “making American nuclear cool again,” by then Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the Georgia Public Service Commission questions whether the plant will be economically viable if going on line is delayed much longer. New nuclear energy remains too expensive, especially when compared to renewables and natural gas.

Renewable energy (wind, solar, hydroelectric) is further along than nuclear in its evolution as an energy source. At 31 percent of global market share, we remain decades away from achieving 50 percent market penetration, according to Marchetti’s analysis. At the rate we are going, elimination of coal, oil and natural gas from the energy production mix for electricity won’t occur in my lifetime, and likely not the lives of the millennial cohort. By then all of this electricity talk may be rendered moot by the climate crisis.

There are no big-picture answers to the trouble of an over-heating planet in a 500-word blog post. What remains clear is our problems are driven more by politics than by technology and reason.

It is critical we root out influence and corruption in government. To do that it will take voters who care about our future and are willing to make the hard choices necessary to address the climate crisis.

In any case, from my vantage point, it seems unlikely nuclear power plants will be part of our energy future.

Categories
Environment

Climate Change Plans Before the Iowa Caucuses

Al Gore in Chicago, 2013

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.

Categories
Environment

What’s Next in Mitigating Climate Change?

Earthrise by Bill Anders, Dec. 24, 1968

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.

What then?

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:

JULIET
O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circle orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

ROMEO
What shall I swear by?

JULIET
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.

ROMEO
If my heart’s dear love—

JULIET
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.

Categories
Environment

Church for Liberals

Greta Thunberg in Iowa City, Iowa Oct. 4, 2019. Photo Credit: Greta Thunberg Twitter feed.

Was yesterday’s gathering of a couple thousand people to support school strikers for climate action the equivalent of Evangelical Christian mega-churches?

Maybe.

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.

Categories
Environment

A Climate Action for Every Iowan

Image of Earth 7-6-15 from DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory)

Iowa Public Television devoted its weekly Iowa Press program to climate change.

Dr. Gene Takle, Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University and Dr. David Courard-Hauri, Professor and Director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Drake University faced reporters David Pitt with Associated Press and Katarina Sostaric of Iowa Public Radio.

No new ground was broken in the 27-minute program because the nature of climate change as we experience it in Iowa is reasonably clear: it’s about moisture, too much in the spring, or too little during the growing season. World-wide warming atmosphere and oceans contribute significantly to extreme weather in Iowa.

Some don’t believe what goes on in Iowa falls into a broader trend or context. Courard-Hauri made an important point about this.

And one thing I’d add is that we focus a lot on this question and if you look at surveys it’s about 20 percent of the people who actively argue that climate change is not caused by people. And the majority of people either, well the majority of people believe the climate is changing, you can see it now, it’s at that level. And then the large majority are aware and concerned and so when we spend a lot of our time focusing on that really small minority, it’s a larger minority of lay people that (sic) it is scientists obviously, but if we spend a lot of time talking about that then I think we miss the fact that most people are wondering what can we be doing, what should we be doing?

What can we be doing about the climate crisis?

A few years ago State Senator Joe Bolkcom made the best case I’ve heard on what to do: join with like-minded people around a cause.

In a society where the myth of rugged individualism persists, and the expansion of media in the form of radio, television, smart phones and computers brought with it a new form of social isolation, that is hard to do. Do it we must and it’s not just me saying it. At some point the climate crisis becomes so obvious and threatening almost everyone wants to answer Courard-Hauri’s question.

An article by Cathy Brown at Yes! magazine last week pointed out there is a climate action for every type of activist.

“Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, says getting involved with a group can help lift your climate-related anxiety and depression in three ways,” Brown wrote. “Working with like-minded folks can validate your concerns, give you needed social support, and help you move from feeling helpless to empowered.”

Bolkcom’s point was similar to Clayton: groups are more effective than individuals.

The reason I’m involved with environmental groups is to work on inter-generational issues. I won’t likely be around when the worst of the climate crisis hits but people I know and love will be. As I ease into retirement it is important to allocate some time to work on the issue.

When Iowa Public Television is doing a program on the climate crisis, the concerns are mainstream. While we expect a lot from our government, politicians need nudging from voters and that is where joining with others in our communities is important. As Brown’s article suggests, there is a way to get involved for every personality.

View Iowa Press episode on climate change here.

Read Cathy Brown’s article at Yes! magazine here.