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.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Health effects of climate change

"Global warming is spreading insect-borne diseases."  This was the headline of the May 12 Citizens' Climate Lobby Blog Post.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently released a report that found diseases spread by ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas more than tripled in the U.S. from 2004 to 2016, due largely to the Zika virus outbreak in 2015.  In analyzing this report we learn that:

·        Mosquitoes and ticks thrive in hotter temperatures caused by global warming.
·        Warmer temperatures tend to make mosquitoes get infected faster and be more infectious.
·        Higher temperatures allow ticks to spread into new areas farther north.
·        When the tick season is longer, people are exposed over longer periods.

A story from Newsweek on April 10 (Allergy Season 2018: Starting Earlier, Lasting Longer), citing a report by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, claims that "as the climate changes and temperatures rise, the amount of pollen in the air and the length of time it stays there increase. This combination means worsening allergy seasons to come for many."

These are only a couple of the impacts on human health that climate change causes.  Believe it or not, there is still a government website that hasn't been taken down yet, that addresses these impacts: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment. The Introduction begins:

Climate change is a significant threat to the health of the American people. The impacts of human-induced climate change are increasing nationwide. Rising greenhouse gas concentrations result in increases in temperature, changes in precipitation, increases in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. These climate change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments. As the climate continues to change, the risks to human health continue to grow.

Chapter 1 spells out how Climate Drivers produce Exposure Pathways giving adverse Health Outcomes.

Figure 1

Chapter 2 discusses Temperature-Related Death and Illness.  Chapter 3 addresses Air Quality Impacts.  The following chapters cover: 4-Extreme Events; 5-Vector-Borne Diseases; 6-Water-Related Illness; 7-Food Safety, Nutrition, and Distribution; 8-Mental Health and Well-Being; and 9-Populations of Concern.

The reality of temperature-related deaths was demonstrated recently in Karachi, Pakistan.  See May 29 New York Times story, Looking for a Bit of Shade as Intense Heat Wave Hits Karachi.  Karachi is accustomed to heat waves this time of year, but this year in mid-May temperatures soared above 43°C (more than 110° F)!  The heat radiated from roads and cement buildings well into the night.  The heat spiked on May 18, just days after the beginning of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset.  The death toll reached 65 that day. 

It's been worse.  In June of 2015, more than a thousand people died in the span of 2 weeks in Karachi.

Regarding food nutrition, a New York Times article from May 24, How More Carbon Dioxide Can Make Food Less Nutritious, reports that researchers in a new study find that increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is affecting the chemical composition of crops.  Not only do rising temperatures and frequent droughts damage harvests, but the extra carbon dioxide that humanity is pumping into the atmosphere is making some of our most important crops less nutritious by diluting their vitamins and minerals.  This latest study builds on an earlier one published in Nature in 2014, which found that elevated levels of carbon dioxide reduced the amount of zinc and iron found in wheat, rice, field peas and soybeans.

Beyond all this is the toll exacted on the mental health of the victims of extreme weather events.  There is the anxiety, despair, grief, and death that accompany hurricanes, floods, blizzards, and wildfires.  Who can count the tears witnessed on news reports of the October wildfires here in Northern California.  "We've lost everything!" is a lament repeated over and over.  Hurricane Harvey flooded square miles of the Houston area and caused the land to sink several centimeters.  Hurricane Maria killed over 4000 people in Puerto Rico during its rampage and aftermath.  Force 4 tornadoes rampage through the midwest causing death, destruction, and displacement.  Then winter comes with bomb cyclones, polar vortexes, arctic blasts, and more.  These extreme cold assaults are in fact a direct result of global warming, contrary to unscientific popular belief.  See Scientific American Earthtalk story: Why Global Warming Can Mean Harsher Winter Weather.  The devastation on ice-covered highways is only one source of loss and grief.

While it's true that earthquakes, volcanoes, and war (all of which can be indirectly caused by climate change) terrify, displace, and kill people, there is much less we as citizens can do about those.  But the disasters caused by climate change are within our power to mitigate.  We humans started the planet warming unnaturally, and we humans can stop it.

As was pointed out in the lead reference for this article, "people don’t often realize that climate change is already impacting us in adverse ways.  As a result, we tend to underestimate the urgency of the problem and consider it a low priority."  If you drop a frog into a pot of hot water, he will hop right out.  But if the water is cool and gradually heated to boiling, the frog will sit there, complacent, until he's cooked. 

Let's not sit here on this planet doing nothing until we're cooked!

Additional references:

Climate change and human health: Risks and responses

The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment

Monday, April 30, 2018

John F Nelson III, 1947-2018, My Oldest Best Friend

One thing about living on this planet as a human, that it takes a while to realize, is that it isn't forever.  I met John sometime over 60 years ago, I think.  When you've known someone for that long, it's hard to remember the details of your meeting.  I believe either Dave Buskness or John Ranney introduced me to John when we were 8 or 9 years old.  And I believe it was at Seventh Avenue Baptist Church here in Council Bluffs.  But I can't swear to it.

Anyway.  When most people are 8 or 9, they have little or no concept of death, especially personal death.  John and Dave and John Ranney who was a year younger than us, and Wink Longnecker, who was a year older, hung out together through high school.  It was in high school that John and I grew close.  We became like brothers… so close that we even fought like brothers sometimes.  

Wink graduated first and wound up flying helicopters in Vietnam.  When John and I graduated, I went on to college and John joined the Navy.  After college, I joined the Air Force and eventually found myself also in Vietnam.  It may have been around that time that we first began believing in death. 

John and I lost track of each other then for about a decade.  We both survived our military stints -- so did Wink -- so the thought of death visiting us personally faded from our consciousness.

When we reconnected, John and I were still drinking and smoking.  We did a lot of those over the next few years.  We were both living in Iowa back then.  We both married.  In John's case a couple of times.  :-)

I never met John's first wife, Ruth (until today) but I loaned John $125.00 to buy her a ring.  There were a couple more wives, Wanda and Julie, and finally Penny.  John was passionate about all his wives, but Penny was the only one who stuck with him through thick and think.  What love!

John got sober 33 years ago.  He was sober when he met Penny.  That may have something to do with their longevity.  I quit smoking 12 years ago, so I was a non-smoker when I met Sally.  And that definitely played a role in our getting together.  

John met Penny through my first wife, Vicki.  Penny and Vicki were friends in school and had stayed in touch.  Penny married John on December 31, 1989, and that marriage lasted.  He finally got it right.

My marriage to Vicki ended less than 2 years after their marriage began, and John stayed with me.  I was single for the next 19 years, but John always assured me that "she's out there."  John describes Penny as his best friend.  And, true to John's prediction, I finally met Sally 8 years ago.  That's when I finally got it right.  Sally has become my best friend.

John and I lived in different parts of the country for the last 30 years or so, but a couple of decades ago, we started hooking up around Presidents Day.  Which often was about half-way between our birthdays: John's in late January and mine in late February.  It was mostly just John and me.  We did this to celebrate the anniversary of our 50th birthdays.  When we got together, I would drink and John would smoke.  We knew each other well enough that it didn't jeopardize his sobriety or my smokefreeness.

We have rendezvoused in Vegas, Reno, Albuquerque, New Orleans, and various other places.  In 2000 we went to Belize.  John brought Penny and his son Roy.  I was single then, so I got to room with Roy.  Then in 07 we went to Australia, with Penny and my then girlfriend Judy.  She had taught school Down Under about the same time I was stationed in Vietnam in 1972.  She showed us around her old stomping grounds.  That's where this shirt I'm wearing came from.  It was the 10th anniversary of our 50th birthdays.

We had planned on getting together for our 20th, but John ran into a problem with his arteries, and we had to postpone.  Then, eventually, we had to cancel.

I did get to see him for our 21st anniversary, at his home in Colorado.  We went to Gunther Toody's.  That's the last time I saw him alive.  But I got to talk with him, laugh with him, touch him.  We'll resume our get togethers someday.

I now firmly believe in death.  But only as a gateway to a new life.

Rest in peace, John, my oldest best friend.