Paths Not Taken

16 09 2018

florenceIt’s long been familiar this time of year. Hurricanes striking the US Atlantic or Gulf coasts, while typhoons maraud in the Pacific. The storms are well covered by all manner of news media.  They share the usual details – storm rating, wind speeds, actual and projected rainfall amounts and – saddest of all – casualty numbers.

One detail not covered nearly as often as it should is the climate change connection.  If it is discussed at all, it is in the most obvious detail – the prodigious quantities of rain these modern, super-powered beasts can deliver. As I write this, Hurricane Florence has already poured upwards of two feet of rain on parts of North Carolina, and has far from wrung itself out. And it is hard to ignore the record-shattering floods of rain that Harvey dumped on Houston one year ago. The climate change connection here, of course, is this – the worldwide melting of polar and alpine ice caused by our 150-year fossil fuel binge has released ever more water into the system. The most recent estimate I have seen is a four percent increase. That extra moisture in the atmosphere combines with the well-documented warmer ocean to create a double whammy of extra storm energy.  (Actually, there are even more whammies, but let’s hold off on those in the interest of focus.)

Watch this excellent four-minute video from CBS News, featuring meteorologist Jeff Berardelli.  About two minutes into the clip, he discusses the specific ways scientists believe man-made climate change is altering modern tropical storms.  Besides the extra rainfall (possibly 50% more for Florence than would have been expected absent our climate change!), he talks about blocking high pressure and the slowing of these storms.  But why are those two latter phenomena unfolding?

Cutting-edge (and not completely accepted at this time) research holds a clue.  It’s my opinion that this research will be fully embraced before too much more time passes, but whatever.  The research says this – Arctic warming has slowed and warped the jet stream, resulting in more of these blocking highs.  More worrying, the jet stream seems to be less able to push the storms that hit the American east coast onto their typical historical paths.  The result – further inland penetration to the west (as Florence is doing at this very moment), and stalling with catastrophic rain dumps (as did Harvey). Read about the research here, or take a deeper dive with a piece that I wrote about a year ago – in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Want some graphic evidence?  Check this layout of the historical path of major Atlantic hurricanes. Now look at Harvey’s – a video presentation that shows it lingering an unusual length of time before finally meandering off to the northeast – and Florence’s projected path. Note Florence’s unusually deep western penetration, causing severe inland flooding.

When I took to writing this piece, I had more “paths” in mind than hurricane tracks.  It is the entire track of the so-called “debate” about climate science that has unfolded mainly here in the good-old US of A. Here is a brief review.  When did the atmospheric effects of burning fossil fuels become clear?  Some might say 2005 or 1998, historically hot years in the climate record. Some would say 1988, that blistering American summer that brought NASA scientist James Hansen to a Congress that actually seemed to pay attention. Some history buffs might argue 1965, when US government scientists warned President Lyndon Johnson of the danger. But all those answers would be wrong. The accurate answer is 1896(!) when, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius published his findings.

So a logical question would be – how in blazes did we end up in today’s mess, where an entire political party has buried its snoot, figuratively speaking, in the tar sand, and joined in with corporate interests seeking to discredit, deny and subvert established science in the name of short-term, rapacious profits? When we have elected a president who is hell-bent on not just ignoring this colossal problem, but destroying all the meager efforts his predecessors have taken to try and stop and reverse it? If you want a concise answer to that question, I have a resource for you.  The New York Times’ radio program, called The Daily, ran a feature recently that recapped the whole sorry saga.  Listening made me nostalgic for the days when Republicans actually seemed to respect science, and believe we could act collectively to take control and mitigate its harmful effects.

So, is it too late? Should we just give up?  A new two-volume book, citing much evidence, seems to suggest just that.  I plan to read William Vollmann’s Climate Ideologies. But a read of this new Atlantic review of the book tells me that readers who care about the issue should keep the phone number of the crisis hot line handy before diving in.

I believe giving up plays into the hands of the deniers and liars who have polluted the discussion and stalled meaningful action for decades. Soon after I became aware of the danger of climate change – based on my own observations and starting with my read of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature – I made this prediction: the deniers and liars would stifle meaningful policy until the effects became widespread enough that a critical mass of people and governments recognized the reality and demanded action. But then it would indeed be too late. I did not want to be correct, but damn if I did not see the sad future.

Things are indeed bleak, but here are some organizations deserving support: Founded by Bill McKibben Seeks to build sustainable climate policy by lobbying Congress Non-partisan climate education program; author is a trained presenter Seeks to amend Constitution to disable corporate power Educational/activist organization seeking to inform and influence policy around population growth – the biggest cause of all our environmental problems

Sure, the climate change challenge is daunting. Fossil-fuel interests want us to do nothing, and use their resources that make nothing happen.

It is long past time for us to stop them and help save a livable planet for generations to come.


The ‘C’ Word

9 09 2018

Right TiltThe word I have in mind conjures certain images.  Tanks, overthrow, seizure of power. But sometimes that sort of violent upheaval is not necessary in order for a democratic nation to fall into being ruled contrary to the will of its citizens.

Consider some of what has happened here in our own United States over the past several decades. In no particular chronological order, here are some high and low points that prove my assertion.

  • Between 1992 and 2016, seven presidential elections have been held. In exactly one of those elections – 2004 – the Republican candidate won the popular vote.  And yet, here we are, nearly halfway into the third term (out of seven) of a Republican president. And remember, that lone popular victory was the result of the dirtiest of dirty tricks.  Remember the “Swift boating” of decorated war hero Senator John Kerry?  I do. Remember that when Ohio swung the election to George W. Bush, the election was overseen by the hyper-partisan Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, amid an array of voting irregularities?  I certainly do.
  • Since 2010, there has been a growing disconnect between total popular votes for Congressional seats and the makeup of Congress. This table with rounded numbers tells the story.
Year Division of House Seats –
by Rounded Percent
Total Popular Votes for Congress – Direct Comparison by Rounded Percent Percent Difference in Seats in Favor of Republicans
2010 56-44 Repub (49-vote majority) 54-46 Repub 2%
2012 54-46 Repub (33-vote majority) 51-49 Demo 5%
2014 57-43 Repub (59-vote majority) 53-47 Repub 4%
2016 55-45 Repub (47-vote majority) 51-49 Repub 4%


  • Back in 1987, something very big happened. The Federal Communications Commission, naturally with the support of President Reagan, abolished the Fairness Doctrine. At the time, this was sold as a way to open up the airwaves to more voices and points of view. In actual fact, it paved the way for what we have today. Trash talkers on radio and TV, spewing lies, half-truths and faux outrage 24-7. We have an entire network that trades in this currency, with occasional factual coverage to lend it some thin veneer of legitimacy. Naturally, it is our current president’s exclusive source of “news” that is not “fake.”
  • Voter suppression efforts have grown, with only occasional setbacks, through enactment of voter ID laws. These are sold by their proponents as a solution to a problem proven not to exist – “voter fraud.” But they have the very real effect of limiting participation by groups who tend to vote Democratic – minorities and young people.
  • This is not new, but did you ever think how the US government is already constitutionally gerrymandered? I mean the Senate, where representation is exactly this extreme. With two senators per state, each Wyoming senator represents about 290,000 voters. Each California senator? 19,750,000 voters. There’s balance for you. And surprise, surprise – of the four least populous states – those with excess Senate power – are reliably red. Of the six most populous, five are reliably blue. Texas, the only red state in that group, is widely predicted to turn blue in the not-distant future (provided persistent voter suppression efforts are somehow derailed).
  • After the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brazenly refused to even hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, President Obama’s decidedly moderate nominee to replace Scalia. Clearly behaving unconstitutionally, McConnell cited a fiction he called the “Biden Rule,” which supposedly prevented the Senate from considering a Court nominee during a presidential election year. McConnell, long revered by some as keeper of the Senate rules, showed his naked partisanship with this maneuver, but it was consistent with his stated goal soon after Obama’s first election in 2008 – make sure he served only a single term. That goal repeatedly played out in the Senate’s consistent refusal to approve Obama’s judicial nomination for courts at lower levels as well.
  • Our current president, elected via the archaic Electoral College by the thinnest of margins in several tide-turning Midwestern states, is now furiously filling many of those lower-court vacancies. And of even greater concern, he is on the cusp of installing a second Supreme Court justice – the extreme conservative partisan Brett Kavanaugh. The new justice has indicated his sympathy for the idea that a sitting president cannot be held accountable for illegal actions.  Will the new justice recuse himself should Trump’s case end up at the Court?  Is porcine flight possible?
  • Partisan gerrymandering has always been a stain on our political process, with both major parties guilty at various times. But modern Republicans have dragged this devious practice to new, swampy depths. As bad as the national gerrymandering for Congress is, some state legislatures are even more imbalanced when you compare total votes with actual seated representation.

So what does all this add up to?  In my mind, it is clear.  Over the past thirty years or so, moneyed interests have finally figured out how to halt the historical left-right political pendulum swing, in a big way. And the result is that, to an ever-increasing degree, the country is being ruled in opposition to the public will and the greater good. And with a hard-right Supreme Court that grows more extreme with each appointment, we are looking at a stamp on policies and laws that favor the wealthy and powerful corporate interests for decades into the future.

Here is what I find the sharpest irony in our current situation.  As we get locked ever more into a right-leaning approach to everything related to government, surveys show that, when asked direct questions about a range of issues – health care, fair taxation, rights for minorities, etc., the public overall is anything but conservative. Eric Levitz’s recent NY Times opinion piece explains this paradox quite well.

So where do progressives go from here?  Canada?  Just kidding. I think. Nationally, one solution is to reverse the Citizens United decision. After all, with pretty much unlimited election spending by private interests now allowed – including the most insidious of all – “dark money” whose source is not revealed – those with the big money control the message in a big way. And an ever more right-leaning Supreme Court will be loath to take such a non-corporate path as re-regulating political speech. This organization has been fighting the quixotic battle to achieve that reversal.

Maybe the only way out of this mess is through local action and solutions. Here is one of many organizations pursuing that path.

Back to the opening of this piece. Maybe it doesn’t take violent upheaval to seize democracy from citizens. Maybe all it takes is for enough people to disengage and not pay attention to how the rich and powerful are fixing the system to serve themselves, the public good be damned. Maybe all it takes is for the agents of greed to use their government-sponsored bullhorn to drive home truth-challenged messages to the degree that vast swaths of the public, swayed by hot-button issues, vote against their own interests and in favor of plutocracy.

The word I am thinking of is ‘coup,’ because that best describes this steady, inexorable, decades-long selloff of the public will and common good to wealthy, conservative, corporate interests.

Is this too extreme? Too alarmist? I think not. Left and right swings have occurred throughout the modern era, but I truly believe the current rightward tilt is a different beast.

The difference? Corporate-backed private interests have hijacked an entire party (and made serious inroads into the other major party as well) and made dramatic progress to lock in their greed-driven, public-be-damned gains for the longest haul, maybe perpetuity.

Until someone can prove that my take is indeed too extreme, that this will somehow correct itself, that some sort of balance will be restored, I will continue to use the word ‘coup.’ And continue to sound the alarm, because awareness is the first step in taking action.

Will you join me by sharing this post?

Completing the Cycle

3 09 2018

We Americans – often thought of as a throw-away society – have embraced recycling in a big way. Single-stream recycling – tossing all your material into a single bin – has made habitual recyclers out of so many who never would have bothered with the multiple containers of the past. Remember when you had to sort glass by color?zzzOceanGarbage_large

But the convenience comes with a cost, because we haven’t fully abandoned those throwaway habits.  We dump it all in one bin – leading to lazy habits and wishful choices. Such as improperly cleaned containers and stuff that never should be in the bin in the first place, i.e., material that just can’t be recycled.  So what is the cost?

Our intended recycling is piling up across the country since China – the main importer of our discarded recyclables, particularly plastic – decided to get tough with the US and other exporters of recyclables. Starting with 2018, China set a new maximum standard of 0.5% contamination for imported recyclables. Even the cleanest urban programs in the US struggle to meet that level of cleanliness. The result – bales of newsprint and shredded plastics are stacking up in many places around the country.  As of now, there is no solid plan to solve the problem.  Without a lot of commitment, creative thinking and concerted action, all that stuff will eventually “live” on for eons in our overstuffed landfills. And more and more of it will end up in the oceans, condemning wildlife to the terrible fate like what befell the seabird in the posted image.

So how did we come to this?  Think – why do we have to export this stuff in the first place?  I’d say there are three reasons.

  • First – we generate so much of this stuff – particularly plastic – without even thinking.
  • Second – even when we try to do the right thing – namely by dedicated household recycling – we are too careless to do it right.
  • Third – as a society, we have not committed sufficient resources to create systems for reprocessing this material into new products rather than shredding and bundling it all to export for someone else – mainly the Chinese – to deal with. Don’t blame China – it’s quite reasonable to want clean raw material for their manufacturing processes. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

So why do we end up with so much plastic waste? Single-use plastics – even those that can in theory anyway be recycled – are the biggest problem by far.  Globally, the Pacific Ocean garbage patch is an ever-growing diffuse mess of plastic waste, much of it bottles, packing materials and discarded fishing gear. Not surprising, when you consider how much plastic the world produces annually. Here in the US, we toss 22 billion plastic bottles each year, among so many other plastic disposables.

What can concerned individual Americans do about this?  Plenty.

  • Stop buying so many plastic bottles in the first place. Bottled water is often a scam. “Spring” often has little meaning. Why not bring your own municipal water in a reusable container? If you like to purchase caffeinated beverages at a Starbucks or Caribou or wherever, why not invest a few dollars in a refillable bottle that they all sell? It pays off in the long run, and every refill keeps one of those 22 billion bottles out of the waste stream.
  • When it comes to those ubiquitous single-use, flimsy bags at the grocery and other retail stores, just say no. There is progress here. I have been toting my reusable bags to stores for decades. I was once the Lone Ranger on this. But now, I actually see others on the team. Maybe one in ten or twenty shoppers. Small progress, but progress nonetheless.

And now about overzealous and/or wishful recycling. First, learn the rules in your area.  Here in my hometown of St. Paul MN, we of course have single-stream recycling. After a bumpy start, things are working pretty smoothly. Plastics with codes of 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7 are accepted. But I recently learned that those black take-out containers distributed by the likes of Noodles and Company, are not accepted – despite carrying code 5. Oops. Remember, even a single fouled container, or wishfully tossed non-recyclable item, can mean condemning an entire batch of material to the landfill or garbage burner. Though it may seem counterintuitive, remember that old adage about stuff in your refrigerator. It certainly applies here – “When in doubt, throw it out.”

But what about all that exporting?  That is, why can’t the US have its own manufacturing sector that uses recycled materials?  Though we are obviously not doing nearly enough – hence all the shipping to China (and also Malaysia and Vietnam, which have picked up some of the slack this year) – the news is not all bad. Here is a story with accompanying video about companies turning plastic waste into new products, even if some are outrageously expensive.  And here are some more examples, most quite reasonably priced, and some unusual.  Gym shorts from coffee grounds? Take a look.

Our problem with plastic waste is classic for two reasons. First, it is a fine example of ignored externalities.  That is, producing, buying and using plastic – especially single-use plastic – is “cheap” because its price does not include the long-term collective cost of dealing with the end result. Second, it reflects a much bigger problem with the entire American system – powerful lobbying organizations influencing policy for their own gain, the public good and the environment be damned. In this case, it is the American Chemistry Council as well as restaurant associations that have fought even the current movement to ban plastic straws.  Of course those straws are just a mote of dust in the proverbial mega-dumpster when you consider the global plastic waste problem. And there are other issues with the possible ban as well.

Progress is happening in various parts of the world. Australia is discussing eliminating most single-use consumer plastics by 2023. And up to 50 nations are considering some sort of plastic ban. Here is a group of 20 cities and countries that have enacted bans – some of which are, amazingly, in the US.  Of course, we are the land of all-powerful corporations. Care to hazard a guess as to which state passed a law preventing any of its cities from acting to ban plastics?  Hint: its former governor believes God wants him to be president, and may be on the way to achieving that divine wish. But that’s another story for another time.

What we need is something that often seems unachievable in our corporate-driven system. That is, public policy motivated by the common good.  Quixotic though that seems, we must continue to struggle for it.  Best idea?  Elect candidates whose record shows they can stand up to industry pressure and fight for a clean environment.  Though hard to find, they are out there. Go to this site, recommended by Bill Moyers, and search voting records.

Meanwhile, in this dark Trumpian era of wanton environmental destruction, we can at least do our best as individuals. Find out what the recycling rules are in your area, and follow them. Wishful thinking does not count. Your city probably has a site like this one. And while you are at it, don’t forget the other two R’s that come before Recycle: Reduce, Reuse.

In Defense of the “Enemy”

26 08 2018

It’s no secret that our news media of all kinds – TV and newspapers especially – are under attack by a president who regularly misrepresents “true but critical” as “fake news.” He follows the script of dictators past by labeling messengers of the truth as the “lying press,” and the “enemy of the people.”

news mediaI am a lifelong lover of newspapers. Since the middle 60s, when I started reading the now-defunct Long Island Press front to back (at age 8!), through my devotion to the New York Times, Milwaukee Journal and now the Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul, I have always supported my quality local paper. But newspapers face hard times. As this Pew Research report explains, recent bumps in digital circulation at the nation’s biggest papers have not arrested the downward spiral in circulation and advertising revenue afflicting nearly all other American newspapers.

Star Tribune’s Saturday 8/25 edition – usually the thinnest and weakest of the week – was so strong in so many ways that it prompted me to write this post.  The paper brimmed with relevant content, connecting local, national and world events. You might say it renewed my faith in the power of the regional press. I hope you might feel something like that, and perhaps take action to support your own local paper, after experiencing this whirlwind tour with me.

As is the case with most papers that retain some strength, Star Tribune regularly includes content written by its own reporters and material gathered from other sources. And note that this “tour” does not exhaust all content. Not even close.

For local news material, we have an article describing the glee that Brian Cornell, CEO of Target (Minnesota’s gift to the retail universe) is currently experiencing at consumer spending. The article includes typical Trump tweet-boasting without mockery, and also quotes Cornell’s concerns at the long-term effects of the tariff war that Trump has led us into.  Positive, truthful and balanced.  Hardly the slavish, Pravda-like, sycophantic reporting the president demands, but also not the work of a national “enemy.” Most of the rest of the local news reporting is what you might expect – coverage of items important to Minnesotans but not so important to many others. But isn’t that the point of having a vital local news source?

And how is this for news content from a wide variety of other sources?

  • A Los Angeles Times article covering Trump’s ongoing battle with his own Fed Chairman. Trump wants historically low interest rates (a main tool in the desparate recovery from the 2008 financial collapse caused by those greedy real estate speculators– remember?) to continue indefinitely. Does this show colossal ignorance of economic theory on the part of Trump? You decide.
  • An Associated Press report on the red-hot stock market, with next to no speculation on long-term effects of the escalating tariff war with China and other trading partners. Hmm, looks pretty positive to me – just the kind of reporting that Trump whines that the “lying press” will not deliver.
  • A Washington Post story on a rare and important victory for civil and voting rights in Georgia – which is developing into a red/blue battleground state. What happened? A proposal to close 70 percent of polling places in a mostly black county was driven back by public outcry. And who was ultimately responsible for that no doubt racially motivated exclusion effort?  Why, Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state. He just happens to be running for governor. No conflict of interest there, right?  Kemp will certainly receive a strong endorsement from Trump – both at rallies and via tweets. So, to quote the president, “We’ll see what happens.”
  • A New York Times piece on the Trump administration’s efforts to allow highly polluting, aging coal plants to renovate for “efficiency” without installing modern pollution controls. This of course is yet another try by Trump to erase his predecessor’s legacy, in this case the Clean Power Plan. That plan stands to achieve two goals – clean the air of coal-generated particulates, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. You know, to help alleviate the actual global climate crisis, referred to again and again by Trump as a “hoax.”  Leaving aside the climate change issue, what will be the impact on public health of this major rollback?  Trump gives not a flying feck, but you do, so please follow the link.

And now it’s on to the opinion pages, where this edition really shone. First the locally sourced:

  • Regular opinion writer John Rash compares current Russian cyber-attacks and social media disinformation campaigns to the Soviet quashing of Czechoslovakia’s “socialism with a human face” experiment of 50 years ago. His main point – Vladimir Putin is smart enough to capitalize on Americans’ political differences to further divide us. And undermine what remains of faith in our democracy. And what are we doing about it? As you probably know, not a hell of a lot.
  • A well-meaning local classical clarinet player touts a recent South African tour by the Minnesota Orchestra as filling the void opened by the Trump administration’s steady dismantling of our diplomatic corps. She makes some good points, but please read if you think this is genuinely constructive or just as quixotic as it sounds to me.

And here are the opinions from other sources.

  • An editorial from the Toronto (a city I just visited) Star that rightly ridicules the impending addition of a “space force” to America’s club of military branches. This “enhancement” was, of course, announced with typical pomposity by President-in-Waiting (sorry!) Mike Pence. Be sure to read the comments on logos and merch. Sad and hilarious at the same time.
  • Another justifiable shot (pardon the metaphor) – in cartoon form this time – at Betsy DeVos and her plan to substitute guns for education. You can’t make this stuff up.  Good as it is, this cartoon appeared in place of the Star Tribune’s resident award-winning cartoonist, Steve Sack. See his gallery of broadsides.

That’s it. I hope you enjoyed the tour. Think of it as an unpaid advertisement for your local newspaper. If you live in a city of any size, your, for just a few examples, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Boston Globe or Denver Post, opens a daily window to the country and the world with local and outsourced content.  And no matter the size of your community, your local paper is the main way to keep on top of the decisions your local officials – increasingly pressured by the likes of outside influences like ALEC and Sinclair – are making. Those decisions can have profound affects on your livelihood and your rights.

Whether you read via an electronic device or, like me, the old-fashioned broadsheet (or tabloid a la the NY Daily News), I urge you to support print journalism with a subscription. Despite my limited educator’s income, I subscribe to the paper Star Tribune, and the electronic NY Times and Washington Post.

Please consder what you can do to defend the “enemy of the people” against a leader who attacks it for having the audacity to tell the truth about his administration, the dramatic changes he is attempting to enact, and the unprecedented corruption that pervades it.

Our democracy depends on us.

Let it Snow . . . and Bake

14 04 2018

Pepperidge Farm is toying with me. I just opened a package of Chessmen cookies (their only product without palm oil, but that’s another story.) I found not queens, rooks and pawns.  Rather, tulips, bright suns and watering cans. It’s spring!

Here in Minnesota, not so much. A massive, howling, historically significant blizzard rages outside my window right now. Up to 15 inches are forecast by Sunday evening, burying my weekend plans.  But hey, it’s Minnesota, right?  Expect at least nine months of winter, right?  Just laugh it off, get shoveling and chalk it up to typical if a little unexpected weather in the Great Cold North, right?

April BlzzardSorry, no. Can’t do that.  Out-of-season storms like this have happened over the historical record, but not with the frequency they are happening this year.  Most important, storms of the past were not operating in the  greenhouse-gas rich world we have created. In fact, careful observers – even casual observers – have noticed an amazing convergence of climate news over just the past few months.  I suggest THAT is the lens though which we must view the regime of aberrant, unwelcome, lingering, wintry weather.

Yes folks, serial April snow-monsters are almost certainly related to that poorly named and too-often ignored phenomenon popularly and unfortunately dubbed “global warming.”  It would most properly be called ACD or “anthropogenic climate disruption.”  A mouthful, I know. So “man-made climate change” is better.

But about that barrage of climate news.  Try these items.   Alaska’s winter this year has been, once again, well above historical averages.  And this is no “fluke.” At the other end of the world, look at what is happening to Australia’s summer.  And back in the Northern Hemisphere, Greenland continues its inexorable,  accelerating melt. That massive shrinkage of the ice cover is known to be raising ocean levels – slowly – but it also may be having an insidious, little-noted and possibly even more consequential effect – altering ocean currents. Just in the last few days, news has arrived that the Gulf Stream has indeed been proven be steadily slowing.  Should that vital conveyor belt slow to a crawl, or halt altogether, no big deal, right? How about significantly higher sea levels on the U.S. East Coast, and a large part of Europe that cools so dramatically that it challenges food production in a big way.

And here is the 800-pound gorilla of climate change news.  Temperatures near the North Pole have been doing the high jump in the dead of winter this year. Fluke? Nope. Here is similar news from 2017 and 2016. Oh, and 2015.

So, I ask, how could all these trends NOT be connected? Scientists have been steadily teasing out the intricacies of our global climate system. That means, basically, breaking it down to how sunlight, the atmosphere’s chemical composition, the oceans and, to a lesser extent, land masses interact to produce the patterns we humans have come to rely on and take for granted, and built civilization on, over centuries. But as we see more and more out-of-phase phenomena – think catastrophic Hurricane Harvey, which came and stayed, showing retrograde motion (east to west) for days – scientists have been working hard to tease out what could be happening.  Now, surely, this fact – that human activity adds 100 million tons (and climbing) of CO2 to the atmosphere every single day – must be a factor. Probably the single most significant factor, of course, but that is a debate for another time. BTW, what weighs 100 million tons? 80,000 empty full-size school buses, that’s what.

Here is recent research that explains many phenomena quite nicely.  What phenomena?  Storms that “stall,” both winter storms and summer thunderstorms, as well as hurricanes, unrelenting heat waves, plus spillages of unusually cold air from above the Arctic Circle. It’s pretty straightforward, even for non-scientists like you and me.

The jet stream – high-altitude winds that circle the planet in high latitudes – pushes weather systems along. Research shows that the jet stream has slowed and wandered in recent years.
Still with me?  Good. Here is a nice, short article explaining the phenomenon. This research is still evolving – as my scientist friend reminds me when this self-educated rabble-rouser adopts arm-waving mode – but any fair-minded observer surely can see how this all fits together.  All manner of “stalled” weather, plus out-of-season Arctic cold spills – can be laid at the doorstep of the weaker jet stream.

So why is the jet stream weaker? That seems clear too. When the Arctic is cold – as normal – the temperature difference between the North Polar region and lands to the south speeds weather along, and mainly bottles up the Arctic cold, where it belongs.  Warmer Arctic, less temperature difference from lands to the south, a slower, “stuck” jet stream. Want to know more? Here is an article – with helpful graphics – featuring updated research from the scientist who first uncovered this phenomenon, Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University.

With all this climate news converging – and proving, if anything, the acceleration of dire predicted outcomes that our oil-soaked power elites have ignored for decades, you would think that we would have had enough.  Enough to take forceful action – rapidly changing our systems to develop ever more clean energy, dramatically conserve what we do use, institute a “carbon fee and dividend” system, etc. But as we all know, you would think wrong.

We have right now a president who (in)famously “doesn’t believe in climate change.” And he has installed the consummate oil stooge to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Sure, I am cheering the news about Scott Pruitt’s exposed ethical misdeeds and paranoid waste of public dollars on an absurdly over-the-top security entourage. If that forces him out, big cheer here. (It might speed matters if he were not a putty-faced, publicly pious Bible mangler, and slept with a porn star or three.) But what really matters is the agenda Trump has enabled at EPA – sneakily dismantling, disabling or ignoring every clean air and water protection imaginable.  And now, a coal lobbyist is heading to second-in-command at EPA.  Hard to imagine a bigger disconnect with developing scientific fact and a progressing climate crisis.

This is of course in addition to unified (thanks to partisan gerrymandering) rule by the Republican Party, which nearly unanimously denies climate science, lies for hire (yes, some Democrats too!) and conducts sick political theater rather than passing responsible legislation.

So what is an aware person to do?  Individual action is fine, but I am guessing many of my readers are already doing that. Still, driving an efficient vehicle (and as infrequently as possible), keeping the house cool and using alternative energy if possible, and eating less meat (or going vegan) can make an activist feel less of a hypocrite.

But collective action is where it’s at. So, don’t vote for oil liars, do support organizations like these to get the money out of politics (the root cause of the climate crisis and so many other intractable problems), and share science-based facts.

For instance, passing this blog post along wouldn’t hurt. Just saying.

A parting comment. Lest you accuse this author of having a tin ear for blogging about climate change on the same day the entire world seems focused on Syria, chew on this.

Want more turmoil, big-power confrontations, climate refugees destabilizing the developed world? Full speed ahead, then, business as usual. Build the damned walls, sea and border.

We know better. Or should.

Normalizing the Catastrophic

22 10 2017

I’ve been asking people these questions with increasing frequency.

InsectsWhen you’re out driving, have you noticed how few insects hit your windshield?  How many fireflies have you seen this summer?  Over the last few summers? At night, do you notice any difference in the number of moths gathering around floodlights?

Reactions have varied.  “Yeah, now that you mentioned it, there are fewer.” “Haven’t seen a single one.” “No, I hadn’t noticed.” And my favorite – one respondent said, “We’ve never had fireflies in the city.” That’s my favorite because it illustrates my point about normalizing stark change. More on that a little later. And for the record, I saw a single firefly this summer.

My observations say the change has been stark and accelerating. But until recently, I have heard and seen little notice in news reports. Until now.

PRI’s The World ran a story detailing long-term research in Germany that shows a dramatic drop in populations of ALL flying insects. That’s right, not just poster children like monarch butterflies or honeybees.  And when we say dramatic, we mean it – 75% decline. The story, including an interview with Dave Goulson, one of the scientists involved in the study, is actually pretty good.  But it includes a little of the uncertainty that is so damned annoying in these situations. As well as a few laughable suggestions.  “Grow your own food, and maybe eat a little bit less meat.”

A decline of this magnitude says something very big, and very widespread, is going on.  And the obvious answer is – agricultural chemicals.  That’s also something I have been saying for some time, in the face of happy talk writing.  This stuff says we can “solve” the problem by planting insect-friendly gardens. Sure, we plant our little patches of heaven while Big Ag continues to pickle the world with Monsanto chemicals. Hell, I even saw an article on firefly decline that suggested city lights could be the cause. Please.

Of course, those of us who give a damn about the natural world – far too few of us in my opinion – should be glad this research was done at all.  Note that it was done in Germany, and not here.  Chemical giant Monsanto does not own the German government the way it does the American Congress.

If you really want to dig in, here is the detailed article Goulson and others wrote for a scientific journal.

Personally, this is some vindication. Just as with climate change – about which I have been waving my arms since observing weather changes as far back as 1985 – my personal experience and judgment has preceded a more general alarm.  And we have to ask – will there be a general alarm on this?  And specifically, an alarm serious enough for us to do something about it?

Evidence indicates otherwise. Right now, we have an American administration hell-bent on demolishing every environmental protection.  And suppressing, maybe destroying, climate change information vital to state and local efforts at mitigation and protection.  So that means that, just when we most need science-based regulations, we are actually opening the door to more serious, free-for-all environmental harm.

Obviously, all this should be cause for serious concern. And the World story does detail that – insects are the bottom of the land-based food chain, and many flying insects pollinate our food. You can’t expect to have anything like a functioning world ecosystem without insects.

The lack of attention makes me increasingly pessimistic about our ability to summon the political will to do anything about this. Forget the science-denying administration that now hampers any kind of science-based policy in the US. The problem is deeper.  We humans seem wired to minimize this sort of catastrophic change.  And though insect decline is probably not related to man-made climate change, our reaction to climate change is a great illustration of our flawed nature and approach. Just like the fellow who made that ridiculous statement about no urban fireflies, we quickly normalize what should be obvious changes.  Here in the Twin Cities, we have had yet another long stretch of summer-like weather in autumn, with temps hovering about 20 degrees above long-term averages.  So what do you hear on the radio?  “Seasonably mild today, high 75.” (When the ‘normal’ high is 56.) Seasonably?! And this is on Minnesota Public Radio, which really ought to know and do better.  And the forecast for tomorrow?  “Much cooler. High in the mid-60s.”  (Only ten degrees above average, not 20!)

Last Christmas, we had a two-day rainstorm, for God’s sake.  I am sure that if we surveyed a cross-section of the local public, a majority would “remember” a snowy, Currier & Ives-worthy picture.  And then there is Trump.  Faced with the obvious – that hurricanes Harvey and Irma showed influence of man-made climate change – his response was simple.  “We had bigger storms in the 30s and 40s.”  Case dismissed. Back to business – taking away people’s health care, restoring coal and building a 70-billion-dollar boondoggle wall. With a few hours off for tossing paper towels to ingrates.

So what does all this add up to?  We are not inclined to make policy changes based on science if those changes inconvenience us in any way. So when those who lead us have no respect for science, and are even hostile to it, they just reinforce our tendency to simply carry on.

As with so many other problems, the real answer is to take corporate money out of the equation.  Here is an organization trying to do just that.

Back to the humble bugs.  If we think we can continue with our inexorable destruction of the natural world in the name of corporate profits, we ignore this wise quote from Chief Seattle. At our own long-term peril.

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

The Elephant in the Flood

29 08 2017

Houston FloodHurricane Harvey has become a storm for the ages.  Unlike old-fashioned hurricanes, the storm lingers over a particular area before sliding at a snail’s pace to another region to torment residents there. As of this writing, some three feet of rain has fallen in and around Houston, with a couple more feet predicted before the event is over later this week.  Tens of thousands have had their lives upended, with countless homes and businesses destroyed. Current death toll is 14, but that will rise, maybe significantly.

Mainstream media accounts are full of superlatives, and rightly so.  The hurricane itself was bad enough – strong category 4 as it came ashore near Corpus Christi – but the lingering, unrelenting tropical rain that has followed is what has caused the big pain.  You will read all manner of drama in media accounts describing the flooding – “epic,” “biblical,” “unprecendented.” But what you won’t hear, and won’t even read, unless you dig deep, is “man-made climate change.”

OK, critics, now before you say, “how callous,” or “this is no time to talk about that,” listen here. First – I do care about the humanitarian side of this. In fact, this lightly-employed substitute teacher just made a generous donation to the United Way of Greater Houston.  Second, to say this is not the time to talk about the science is to follow the same sort of mind-control thinking pushed by the NRA after a mass shooting.  You know, it’s time for “thoughts and prayers,” and then when the crisis recedes, there is nothing to talk about.

There is no better time to discuss the climate change connection with this out-of-control weather mess than right now, when it is smack dab in the middle of our faces. There are reasons why Harvey, and its remnants, are behaving in an unprecedented fashion.  A New York Times article (picked up by my local StarTribune but now not to be found on the Times site) explains the seasonally warm Gulf water, and the additional moisture – scientific fact – the atmosphere now holds thanks to our greenhouse gas emissions. But the authors go all mealy-mouthed when they devote a single paragraph to what they call “unknowns” around the climate-change connection to a lingering, monsoon-like hurricane such as Harvey. Here is the exact quote.  “Scientists are increasingly able to link some extreme weather events to climate change, but when it comes to hurricanes, many say there remain a number of unknowns.”

Bosh. No one in their right mind is saying that man-made climate change causes hurricanes, or even makes their appearance more frequent. But their behavior? That’s becoming clearer, disaster by disaster, if only we would learn the lessons.

For a quick update on the science – and Harvey’s strong climate-change connection – check this excellent new article from the Guardian, in question and answer format.  It takes on some of the inevitable objections of climate change deniers (we’ve always had hurricanes, right?), but also hedges when it comes to the question of stationary weather.  That is, the observed increasing tendency of weather systems – including catastrophic weather systems like Harvey – to stall, battering locales with unheard-of long-duration deluges.  This reminds me of cutting-edge research by Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis on the slowing of the Northern Hemisphere’s jet stream – resulting in many cases in stalled weather.  Here is one of her explanatory videos, and here is a blog post I wrote on this research several years ago.

Climate scientists have to hedge.  They are, after all, in the crosshairs of the best-funded, best-organized science denial (read: lying for hire) campaign since Big Tobacco was telling us cigarettes were good for our health.  Just ask Michael Mann about that.

I don’t have to hedge. I don’t care who attacks my fact-backed opinions. But I do want to go on the record as saying that this monstrous post-hurricane flood event is directly connected to man-made climate change.  People are suffering in the US and elsewhere. In fact, predictions show that, irony of ironies, US red states – home in many cases to science denying governors and senators – will suffer the most among American regions. The suffering is only going to get worse until we wake up to the need for a WWII-like struggle against the climate crisis, as argued by, among others,

Man-made climate change – better called man-made climate disruption – is a serious and growing problem.  It was already a problem when I discovered it and started investigating the science back in the 1980s. It was a problem long before that, back when Rex Tillerson’s ExxonMobil funded research that proved the fossil-fuel link.

You would think that we would have suffered enough, paid enough, learned enough by now to mount a consistent policy effort. But of course you would think wrong. We have elected as president a profoundly ignorant science denier who has called the climate crisis a “Chinese hoax,” and he has appointed a publicly pious, privately paranoid, lying oil shill as the self-directed wrecker of the EPA. And smilin’ Scott Pruitt – who sued EPA over a dozen times before his “triumphant” appointment – has gone on to become, by some measures, the most effective member of this government-ravaging Cabinet.

If the Houston flood of 2017 is not enough to turn the tide of policy, what will it take? Or, to quote the late, great Pete Seeger, “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”