Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Clogging The Works For Others

Some time ago there was a notice from the City of Santa Rosa that wet wipes were clogging the machinery in the water works.  This degrades the city's ability to provide quality drinking water and keep the sewer system running smoothly.  When the pipes are clogged, you get a nasty sewer backup.

So there was a plea to stop flushing wipes, paper towels, facial tissues, and feminine hygiene products down the toilet.  Their mnemonic catch phrase was "only flush the 3 P's: pee, poop, and (toilet) paper."  Personally, I never flushed paper towels or feminine hygiene products, but I stopped flushing kleenex and so-called "flushable" wet wipes.

Then came the coronavirus and people started using a lot more wet wipes for disinfecting purposes, and the City had to remind us all again that there was no such thing as a "flushable" wipe.  Not enough people stopped.  The original reminder had to be repeated yesterday.

Will enough people stop it this time?  If not, there could be a sewer backup or a disruption in our potable water supply.  And that would affect everyone, not just the rebellious or stupid ones.  I can stop doing something that's going to cause me harm but I may not be able to stop someone else from causing me harm.

There's a parallel here.  Worldwide, there are a couple million coronavirus cases.  Of those 2.5 million confirmed cases, over 800,000 have been resolved -- 650,000 recoveries, and 170,000 deaths.  That says 80% recover, but 1 in 5 die.  See https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ for the latest numbers. 

So, do I care if some states don't issue statewide stay-at-home orders?  My state issued one pretty early on, and we're still losing people, but not as fast as some other states.  Our president has ordered all immigration to stop, so maybe no one from another country can bring their infection to us.  But the highly contagious virus is already here and states can't block non-residents from entering their states.  So someone from a re-opened state could infect some of us in a locked-down state.

I wish there had been a coordinated, nationwide response to this pandemic.  Even it if was late, and a lot of people had to die unnecessarily, at least we'd be on the same page.  There might still be demonstrations against any lockdown.  The organizers of the first of those demonstrations advised people to wear their masks and keep their distance from each other.  That didn't happen.  And the signs the demonstrators waved and the chants they sang were directed against Democrats.  And then our President egged them on with his "LIBERATE" tweets.

I mourn that something that should be treated as a medical and economic emergency had to turn political.  We're going to lose a lot more people -- old people, people of color, poor people, most through no fault of their own -- before this is over.  If it is ever over.

Monday, March 30, 2020

COVID-19 Could Help The Climate

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has done, on the positive side, is prepare us for crises.  But, while the novel coronavirus is sweeping through the human population of this planet like a wildfire in Northern California, climate change is more like a slowly heating pot of water that we're all sitting in like frogs waiting to be boiled to death.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and global average temperatures are rising just as relentlessly, if not as rapidly, as coronavirus cases.

As of March 30, 2020, at 10:15 am Pacific Daylight Time there were 755,367 cases worldwide, with 36,273 deaths.  See Coronavirus Update for current figures.

Countries that have been under lockdown in response to the pandemic have seen a noticeable drop in greenhouse gas emissions.  Scientists have pointed to this as a lesson in how to prepare for, or avoid, the worst impacts of climate change.  CO2 comes from industry, electricity production, and transportation.  All of these have seen reductions since the stay-at-home measures have risen in scope.

"If we can think about how to prepare for climate change like a pandemic, maybe there will be a positive outcome to all of this," said Christopher Jones, lead developer of the CoolClimate Network, an applied research consortium at the University of California, Berkeley. "I think there are some big-picture lessons here that could be very useful."

Pollution-monitoring satellites operated by NASA and the European Space Agency observed drastic decreases in concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is also released by cars, power plants and industrial facilities, from Jan 1 to Jan 20 and again from Feb 10 to Feb 25. Studying NO2 concentration in the atmosphere can help scientists understand other heat-trapping greenhouse gases that drive global warming.  Both China and Northern Italy have recorded significant falls in NO2.  

Another noxious gas that has shown significant drops is carbon monoxide (CO).  The BBC found that in New York City, CO was down nearly 50% compared to last year.  

But experts warn that observed reductions are temporary and that as cities, countries and economies bounce back, so, too, will emissions, unless some major changes are adopted.  Jacqueline Klopp, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University in New York City said the pandemic could make companies and governments realize that other threats to humanity, including climate change, could be just as devastating and that it's imperative to develop protective measures. 

"As we move to restart these economies, we need to use this moment to think about what we value," she said. "Do we want to go back to the status quo, or do we want to tackle these big structural problems and restructure our economy to reduce emissions and pollution?"

Last month a poem written by Kitty O'Meara, a Senator in the Irish Seanad (Senate) hit Facebook and immediately went viral.  It's titled "And the people stayed home".
And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.
Let's heal the Earth! 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Earth Has Lung Cancer

According to the American Lung Association, smoking is the main cause of lung cancer.  The Amazon rain forest has been described as the "lungs" of planet Earth because it produces 20% of the oxygen supply we humans and other animals need to live.  And it has been smoking for a long time!

I went looking for data on wildfires in the Amazon, and it turns out to be very hard to nail down.  One source, NBC News, says Brazil has had more than 140,000 observed fires so far in 2019 and that at this point last year the number was about 75,000.  That's nearly a 100% increase in the number of fires. 

The New York Times reported that Brazil's own National Institute for Space Research (INPE) detected 39,194 fires this year which represents a 77% increase from the same period in 2018.

Whatever the actual number of wildfires in the Amazon is, it is growing.  But the trend is not smoothly increasing.  2016 saw nearly as many fires as 2019, due mostly to that year's El Niño, while the numbers in 2017 and 2018 were down.

Yet not only is the number of fires greater this year, but the size of the blazes is much bigger.  The INPE reported in July that 4.6 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon had been consumed by fire from January to July 2019.  This is a 62% increase over the same period last year.  For the first time smoke from the fires is darkening the skies in São Paulo.

Here in Northern California, we are accustomed to a yearly fire season.  But historically a yearly fire season in the Amazon Rainforest is about as likely as a hurricane season in Antarctica.  Wildfires are not supposed to happen in rainforests.

So what's causing them?  Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, wants to turn the Amazon into industrial farms -- threatening wildlife, indigenous peoples, and our chances of ever slowing climate change.  Brazilian landowners are clearing large areas of rainforest for agriculture, cattle grazing, and commercial development.  Loggers come in and take what they want, and the rest is deliberately burned.  The Amazon is on fire and it's no accident.

In the early 2000s the number of  manmade fires was higher, but it was then that the Brazilian government became environmentally conscious and passed laws protective of the environment, indigenous peoples, and the millions of species of plants and animals in the Amazon Basin.  But since Bolsonaro took office in January of this year, enforcement of those laws has been lax.  Also, the rhetoric from the administration has encouraged farmers to slash and burn in protected areas with impunity.

Bolsonaro claims other countries are trying to make his country a colony again because France, Ireland and Finland are threatening to scrap a trade agreement, and Germany and Norway are stopping contributions to an aid fund.

Rainforests breathe in carbon dioxide, sequestering it.  Thus they are essential allies in the fight against climate change.  They breathe out oxygen.  Thus they are essential for oxygen-breathing life forms on this planet.  They also produce water vapor through aspiration.  The water vapor returns as much needed rain (hence the term rainforest) in other areas.  There are about 390 billion trees in the Amazon which represents over half of the planet's remaining rainforests.  A tenth of the 8.7 million species of life on Earth reside in the Amazon.

The Amazon rainforest is key to keeping the Earth a habitable planet for mankind.  Burning it to create farmland will be pointless if there are no humans around to eat the food.

In order for life on Earth to prosper, we really need to help the Amazon quit smoking!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Red vs Blue on Climate

I remember a public service announcement back in the 90s by the Better World Society that featured a bunch of Muppets trying to share one house. Kermit the frog, at the beginning, says, "What if everyone in the world lived in the same house?"  At the end he comes back to say, "We do!" and the camera pulls back to reveal the "house" is the Earth. Republicans and Democrats all live in the same "house", nevertheless, they seem to have trouble getting along.

In Oregon, Republican state senators fled the state to prevent a cap-and-trade bill from being passed. Democrats dominate both legislative chambers in Oregon, and Republicans were unapologetic about their efforts to slow progress on the emissions-reduction program by keeping the Democrats from having a quorum to call a vote. The governor, Kate Brown, a Democrat, ordered the state police to find the Republican senators and bring them back. One state senator, Brian Boquist, threatened to shoot to kill any state trooper sent to get him. Ultimately, the state capitol was shut down by lawmakers after receiving threats from militia groups.

Last month the New York Times reported on the aggressive rollout of climate strategies in "blue" states and how "red" states are sitting back. Democratic majorities in California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Washington have all passed bills aimed at shifting away from fossil fuels, the major driver of global warming. Meanwhile the Trump administration has pledged to withdraw from the Paris agreement, with Republican backing, which makes the job of blue states trying to address the issue more difficult. Still, the opposition to President Trump’s plan to weaken pollution standards for automobiles widened when 24 governors, including three Republicans, urged the president to abandon his plan. In fact, 17 automakers, including Ford, GM, Toyota, Volvo, BMW, and Volkswagen, have co-signed a letter to Trump asking him to back off this plan.

The fact is we all do live here in the same "house", on the same planet. But we get sucked into a fight over who's gonna win, the Republicans or the Democrats, the Red states or the Blue states, the conservatives or the progressives. Then we find that some of these folks we oppose are our next-door neighbors. Most of us treat our neighbors much more kindly than we would if we considered them subversive political opponents. We only get nasty in the anonymity of printer's ink or social media. But across the driveway or over the back fence, we behave ourselves.

Clearly, the adverse effects of the changing climate affect our neighbors as well as ourselves, and the only way we can win is together. Maybe we could listen to each other politely, debate rather than argue, speak calmly rather than scream. Maybe we could all just get along.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Voting Rights: Fair and Fraud-free

Voting should be as fair and fraud-free as possible.  But voter fraud is such a rare event and seldom malicious even then, the efforts to combat it often throw the baby out with the bath water.  In just about every case, since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, heroic efforts have been made, mostly by states with a "history of discrimination", to fight imaginary voter fraud by making it more difficult for people to vote.  I actually agree with the Shelby County v Holder decision.  The Voting Rights Act itself was discriminatory, singling out certain states the lawmakers in 1964 didn't like.  The law should have required ALL states to get preclearance for any changes to their voting process.  But it did sustain the "solid south" voting block for the Democrats which lasted until 1980 (except for Nixon who capitalized on racism in 68 and his "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War in 72). 

My point is, in North Dakota (which actually wasn't on the preclearance list in the VRA) and Georgia, the practices and policies disproportionately affect minority voters.  White people don't have much of a problem providing a street address or matching the spelling of their name to their driver's license.  But even I myself had only an RFD box number when I lived in rural Iowa.  And there are black people named Keisha, DeShawn, or Tyrascius.  Native Americans have names like Jacy or Koko, and it’s not uncommon in Native American culture for a person’s name to evolve over time. 

Another example of this lop-sided practice cropped up in Dodge City, KS where there is a single polling place for 27,000 residents.  60% of those residents are Hispanic (a minority majority!)  As a result of there being just one place to vote, and the fact that many of the Hispanics have jobs that give them no time off to vote, turnout among those Hispanics is historically around 17%.  White voters show up at 61%.  Now Dodge City has moved the single polling place (due to road closures for construction) to a point outside the city limits that is a mile from the nearest bus stop.  Also of note, this 60% minority town of 13,000 eligible voters has one polling place.  Statewide in Kansas there is a polling place for every 1,200 voters on average.  Statewide the percentage of white people is 86.5%.  In Dodge City the percentage of white people is less than 40%.  In Dodge City it is 10 times harder to vote than in the rest of Kansas.

Republicans know they are in the minority nationwide.  Only 27% of Americans identify as Republican.  29% identify as Democrat.  When you look at "leaning" as opposed to "identifying" the ratio is 42% Republican and 47% Democratic.  So if everybody votes who can vote, Republicans lose.  But we white, middle- and upper class, employed (or retired) folks, get out the vote, and it's usually easy for us to do so.  And in that group, most vote Republican.  It's the lower class, marginally employed, still working past age 65, (maybe homeless without a residential street address!) people of color for whom it has been made difficult to vote.  Thus the Republican minority wins a lot more than it should.

When I was working at the newspaper, I just left my office on Election Day, voted, and came back.  I was salaried so I didn't even lose any pay.  The guys who loaded the paper in the presses didn't get any time off.  And they mostly spoke Spanish.  I wonder what making Election Day a national paid holiday, so people didn't have to choose between voting and losing pay or getting fired, would do to the turnout percentages.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Nobody Is Ever Told That

Yogi Berra once said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."  That always gets a laugh, but it's not much help when you're looking for guidance.  Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" describes a process for deciding which fork in the road to take, but shows nothing of what might have happened if you had picked the other road.  C S Lewis wrote, in The Chronicles of Narnia, "'To know what would have happened, child?' said Aslan. 'No. Nobody is ever told that.'"

So we all get one chance at each fork we encounter in the path of life.  Then "way leads on to way" and we never get to come back and see where the other path would have led us.

There are a few major decisions I've made in my life that I just know were life-changing decisions.  For example, I was 3 weeks away from receiving my commission as an officer in the U S Air Force in December of 1969 when the first Nixon Draft Lottery results were published.  I came up with a very high number and probably would not be drafted.  But I was already in the service.  My decision, though, was not made for me.  I could have dropped out of Air Force Officer Training School at that point and reverted to being a civilian college grad looking for a job.

What would have happened if I'd gotten out?  "Nobody is ever told that."

Okay, no question, choosing to complete my training and receive my 2nd Lieutenant bars was a life-changing decision.  That's easy to see.  But we make small decisions every day.  Like deciding to take a different route on the way home from work.  What would have happened if we'd taken the usual one?  "Nobody is ever told that."

I've been working on an autobiographical novel that will follow my life, relatively factually, up until that December 1, 1969, decision I made to stick with the USAF. I want to speculate (hence the "novel" designation) about what I would have become without the military phase of my life.

But how might my life have changed before that momentous decision?

I was an adolescent in 1960 when I figured out what girls were for.  Or at least one of the things girls were for.  I was with the neighbor girl in the woods in back of my house one summer afternoon and time passed swiftly and unnoticed.  When my mother called me for dinner, I was suddenly terrified of my folks finding out I had spent all afternoon with a girl in the woods!  I made her go back a different way and I showed up for dinner alone.  Turns out that girl didn't have much to do with me after that.

What if she and I had come out of the woods together?  What if Mom had invited her to eat with us?  What if she had got permission from her mom?  What if we had seen more and more of each other?  What would have happened to my life?

"Nobody is ever told that."

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Carbon Fee & Dividend: Variations On A Theme

Everyone has an opinion on climate change.  Opinions range from "the climate is not changing" to "the sky is falling and we're all gonna die".  Outside of opinions there's scientific fact, which, to be sure, changes as new data become available.  And while data points have margins of error, 97% of climate scientists are convinced by the data that the climate is changing due to human activity.  If the climate continues to warm (and, by the way, the rate of change is increasing) we are absolutely all gonna die!  The Earth, in time, will become a hothouse like Venus with surface temperatures high enough to melt lead.

But what can we do about it?  Well, it stands to reason that if humans can cause climate change, we ought to be able to stop it.  Citizens' Climate Lobby believes that we can stop the climate from changing before our planet becomes uninhabitable.  One way to do this is by implementing a policy called Carbon Fee & Dividend.  There are several takes on this plan promoted and supported by various organizations and luminaries.  Most of the proposals depend on bipartisan support in Congress, and these, frankly, are the only ones with a prayer of passing.

First off there is the Schultz-Baker plan, devised by the Climate Leadership Council.  This plan has Four Pillars:
1.     A gradually increasing tax on carbon dioxide emissions imposed at the point where fossil fuels enter the economy: the mine, well, or port.  This fee would start at $40 per ton and rise $5 per ton each year. 
2.     Carbon dividends for all Americans would be generated by the tax.  Initially a family of four could expect $2,000 in payments the first year.
3.     Border carbon adjustments would be made on the carbon content of imports. Imports from countries without a carbon tax would be taxed and those revenues also distributed to all Americans.
4.     Significant regulatory rollback would result since most regulations would no longer be necessary.  This would mean the phasing out of most of the EPA's regulations of carbon dioxide emissions and the repeal of the Clean Power Act.

Another idea put forth by former Senate leaders, Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) and John Breaux (D-Louisiana) manifests itself in the newly-formed PAC called Americans For Carbon Dividends (AFCD).  Lott and Breaux contend that,  due to their new approach to the problem, climate change is an opportunity for both parties to see eye-to-eye and come up with a bipartisan victory. 
1.     Pass legislation that puts a "meaningful" fee on carbon-dioxide emissions, say $40 per ton at the start.  This differs only slightly from the Schultz-Baker plan.  Whereas Schultz-Baker called for the fee increasing by $5 a year, Lott-Breaux leaves the increase, if any, nebulous.
2.     Return the monies collected to the American people. 
3.     Repeal existing carbon emission laws.  This is also in accordance with Schultz-Baker.
4.     But Lott-Breaux goes one step further.  Energy companies become immune to climate-based lawsuits.  This one is a head-scratcher until you realize that it was a carrot to get large energy corporations like Exxon Mobil, Shell, and BP to sign on.  You see, as a result of the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill explosion, BP faced more than 390,000 lawsuits. 

Still, something like this may outline what it takes to get Republicans and business interests to team up with Democrats and environmentalists in order to take real steps toward combating climate change.

Finally there is CCL's own Carbon Fee & Dividend (CFD) plan.  The Citizens' Climate Lobby was founded in 2007 with the mission to lobby for legislation that would end subsidies for the fossil fuel industry by taxing carbon when it comes out of the ground.  The group has grown since its inception with surges in growth recently as more and more citizens are directly affected by the consequences of a changing climate.

CF&D, as it's known, calls for the following:
1.     Place a steadily rising fee on fossil fuels, starting at $15/metric ton, increasing by $10/metric ton/year, imposed "upstream" at the mine, well, or port of entry.
2.     Give the money collected, minus administrative costs, back to American households monthly.  It is projected that at least 2/3 of households will break even or get more back than they pay out in increased prices of carbon-based energy.
3.     Use a border adjustment to stop business relocation, by placing import fees on products from countries without a carbon fee, and by giving rebates to US industries exporting to those countries.

CCL's CF&D leaves out any mention of repealing laws or granting immunity.  But when you think about it, the plan should see existing laws automatically complied with.  And if companies are, for financial and profit reasons, moving away from fossil fuels, lawsuits like BP suffered should automatically become much rarer.  So where do we go from here?  And how do we come together? 

Tony Sirna, the new Data and Strategy Coordinator for CCL, looks on the bright side.  Recently public awareness of, and congressional interest in. carbon pricing as a means to reduce CO2 emissions portends movement toward a national policy.

This momentum reveals itself in the number of new groups forming to address the issue.  There is the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), Students for Carbon Dividends, and now a new well-funded PAC, Americans For Carbon Dividends (AFCD). And some major corporations have signed on like GM, Pepsico, and Unilever, besides oil giants like BP, Total and Exxon Mobil.  Add to the list a few bipartisan political luminaries like George Schultz, James Baker, Trent Lott, and John Breaux.

Can we trust the giant corporations, though?  Maybe we can.  After all, we are all in this together.  Oil giants' CEOs have grandchildren too, and 97% of climate scientists, the "jury", have returned their verdict: Climate change is real, happening fast, and is caused by humans dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  People are generally good, democracy generally works, and everyone is a potential ally.

As you see, there are some incompatibilities among these plans, and not everyone is going to agree on all points.  But the fact that there is a bipartisan consensus on the reality of global warming is a bright ray of hope.  Neither party is likely to score a filibuster-proof majority anytime soon, so compromise is imperative.  And compromise and cooperation are showing themselves to be possible in the House Climate Solutions Caucus which now boosts 42 Republicans and 42 Democrats working together to find ways to slow, stop, and even reverse, climate change.
We can do this!  Together!

References upon which this article is based:

There are many, many more cogent articles.  Just google "carbon fee and dividend" and pick your favorite source.