2enty2 asked: Hey. Hiya. Hello. I've been reading your blog and I just learned from reading your most recent post about the relevance of Rural living (disheartening article) that you are based in Western, MA. I am too so just thought I'd say hello! Also I guess now I'm wondering how living in our region effects how you feel about the environment + climate change, etc. Thanks so much. - Fiona
Hey Fiona at 2enty2,
Thanks for the nice note. You’re referring to this post/article, which shines a cruel yet truthful bright-light on the plight of America’s rural communities. How has living in Western Mass., influenced my enviro-climatey thinking? Well, let me first set the stage for those not familiar.
I live in Northampton, Mass., and sometimes I post pictures from my windows. Chartered in 1654(!), it’s a funny, ruralish town of 29,000 people with that bricky, artsy, mill-town, adorable Main Street, colonial “New England charm.”
The surrounding towns are mostly conservative - small farmtowns that keep-to-themselves sort of places. Gun racks, American flags, farms, log mills, hunters, and big American pick-up trucks abound. Importantly, to me, is to relay to my readers that conservatives from New England are nothing like the characters in the media.
They’re (we’re?) passionate about upkeep of their/our homes, contributing to their/our communities, and stick by their/our families. And they/we work for what’s best for our neighbors.
I say “they/we” because I lean right on a lot of issues in a Kennedy/Reagan-esque way. So, to us Yankees, healthcare is not a left/right issue, it’s just the right thing to do. Access to food is not a left/right issue, it’s bloody ethics. Go to school, wash your hands, say please, and help your neighbor fix his stairs. So we vote in a pragmatic way, and try not to be hypnotized by repeating messages.
It’s not perfect. Not even close! But I assure you no one throws beer cans at bicyclists when you go for a 25-miler around the farms. We live together and that’s that.
Northampton is about 65% women and known as the lesbian capital of the U.S. (I’d argue possibly all of North America by ratio). It’s also very white. Like 90% white people.
The town is smack in the middle of 5 liberal colleges, Smith and Mt. Holyoke are all girls schools (they’re co-ed in name only, let’s be honest) and are part of the 7 Sisters College network. Smith campus is stunning. It was designed by the same dude who designed Central Park, among other notables.
Then there’s Hampshire College, which doesn’t even issue grades and charges something like $55k per year for undergraduate. Amherst College, which produces bros and, er, young professional women, is known as the mini-Yale and I swear you cannot graduate until you’ve mastered screaming “woooo!” out of your mom’s BMW’s window. And rounding out the five is UMass-Amherst, where I got two of my three degrees. It’s the flagship campus of the UMass system with over 27,000 students (about 70k in the whole system).
Northampton is in a fertile valley and lies along the Connecticut River, which is both beautiful and polluted. It’s surrounded by some incredible farms, from bison to tobacco (truth), squash to bamboo, asparagus to maple syrup, berries to apples, it’s all here. I can buy bacon, chicken, kale, beer, goat cheese, venison, all locally produced.
I love living here. And man I’ve lived in some great places - Hawaii, Copenhagen, Seattle, New Mexico, Providence (central Florida, but that’s not a ‘great place’). But most of my life has been lived in New England.
How has rural living influenced my thinking? I think mostly pragmatically. Like I think a lot about how the things I do affect other people. By no means am I great at it, but this I don’t know what to call it, maybe ‘pragmatic empathy,’ certainly bleeds into my work on many levels. I take the long view, which I guess is also influenced by having law and urban planning degrees.
Adaptation, my field, is about building good communities. It’s not about “stopping climate change” or protesting or any of that. It’s about making sure that cities, communities can absorb environmental shocks. Adaptation is sort of like building mini-shock absorbers throughout the systems and infrastructures that communities need to be healthy.
The opposite is systems built on individualism, or serving select individuals. These systems are myopic and built to fail. I can say with out a doubt that many our lifestyles are extremely problematic, not only on the local level, but for entire states and possibly the whole country. Suburbanism, gated communities, rugged individualism, survivalism, libertarianism, or other flavors of secluded, inward looking, competitive life-styles absolutely do not make a thriving community. They’re one facet, to be sure.
Only diversity in systems make good communities, and Northampton represents that to a tee. Now, I know that my readers think “diversity” means skin color. Nope. That’s not what I mean, at all. I mean diversity in economies, wealth, health, age, education, transportation, infrastructure, jobs, etc.
If you have a good mix of those systems, your community thrives. People get healthier and smarter. They care for each other more than not.
This is very important to grasp.
Compare to a place that has a uni-economy, like Detroit. Detroit collapsed because it had all its eggs - it’s systems - in one basket: the auto industry. Once that industry left, everything collapsed. And I mean everything! Schools, police, fire, roads, stores, food, real estate, parks, churches, ethics, health, all of it imploded. And, take my word for it, there is an ugly, ugly reckoning coming to communities that invest inwardly, that do only one or two things. Uni-economies are not resilient to shocks, and not prepared for change.
Environmentalists understand that diverse ecosystems are the healthiest, most resilient systems. The same concepts apply to the way we build and live in our communities. It takes a lot translating the science out to our social systems, but it’s based on the same principles.
That’s what I’ve learned most by living here. That diverse systems make for better places to live. All the rest is buttah n biscuits…
Here on my climate adaptation tumblr, I try (my best) to post about environmental issues that are roughly related to the impacts from shifts in the climate. Sea-level rise is the most obvious impact. Melting glaciers and Arctic ice are raising the levels of the ocean. And cities around the world are scrambling to deal with the impacts, which are mind-blowingly huge, incredibly expensive, and often politically vexing.
I have masters degrees in environmental law and city planning. The focus of my research was/is how land-use laws were able (or, rather, unable) to accommodate climate science. So, naturally, I’m interested in how climate will affect infrastructure, economies, demographics, ecosystems, etc.
For example, I’m quite interested how can coastal communities deal with a rising sea. Especially big cities like New York City or San Fransisco, which have thousands of buildings, roads, ports, and pipelines literally built inches from the ocean.
Cities are prepared for certain levels of disasters. There are sea walls and evacuation plans, flood pump stations and hurricane barriers. And buildings and infrastructure are generally built to high standards. But, cites are not prepared for higher oceans (why would they be?). Climate change changes the equations and calculations of managing disasters in cities. They’re forced to adapt, regardless of how many solar panels are slapped onto rooftops.
It’s a complicated issue. Greenhouse gasses trap in more heat in the atmosphere, causing a bunch of crazy environmental things to happen. So the obvious response is to stop pumping carbon into the air. That’s Al Gore’s primary message.
The problem with this is that storms and fires and diseases are increasing as a result from rising temperatures. Climate change is occurring regardless of mitigation. Thus, the impacts have to be dealt with. In fact, our troubles are only going to increase. I choose to be on the impacts side of this conundrum (eg, adaptation).
So, what’s my deal with oil leaks and spills? The short answer is that oil and gas infrastructure, such as pipelines and oil rigs, are very vulnerable to climate impacts. Oil - like it or not - makes the world go round. It’s in nearly everything we use - from plastics to medicine to soap. There is no stopping oil.
I wrote about this last year for GOOD Magazine. IBM and a climate consulting firm called Acclimatise did a study on the oil and gas industry’s vulnerability to climate change. I showed that oil pipelines in Alaska are more likely to break and leak oil than ever before, and that the oil industry is way under-prepared to deal with these new types of leaks:
In one of most ironic flip-flops in environmental history, the oil and gas industry is beginning to adapt to climate change. And it’s no wonder. The majority of industry’s infrastructure is located in some of the most climate vulnerable regions on the planet. Nearly 75 percent of the Alaskan pipeline, for example, is built over increasingly unstable permafrost, which is now thawing under warmer temperatures. The Mackenzie Valley in Canada alone has recorded over 2,000 sink holes, rock slides, and large depressions from thawing permafrost.
The pipeline’s famous elevated design was the result of a 20 year study (PDF) on the stability of climate and permafrost from 1950 to 1970. Based on the historic record, engineers designed the supports for the pipeline to withstand some fluctuation in permafrost, but not for the extensive melts now predicted. Indeed, that 20 year study was the one of the coldest periods in Alaskan history. Whoops.
The study I referred to, Global Oil & Gas - The Adaptation Challenge, showed that infrastructure was dangerously unprepared for climate impacts. Thousands of miles of oil pipelines are perched on permafrost in Canada, Russia, and Alaska.
Permafrost is permanently frozen soil - essentially the land is mixture of ice, rocks, and soil. Permafrost does move around a bit and any infrastructure built on it is (usually) engineered to handle a certain level of flex (the EPA has a decent primer on permafrost).
But, when the ice melts in substantial volumes, the soil shrinks and contracts. As a result, anything built on permafrost is in big trouble. Oil and gas pipelines could rupture, causing tremendous environmental damage, as well as incredible costs to economies in terms of clean up costs (who pays?), damage to fisheries and tourism, and lowered property values (and tax revenues). Not to mention health troubles for workers and residents.
So, that’s pretty much why I post so much on oil - infrastructure vulnerability. Oil spills are nasty, nasty creatures. Their economic and environmental impacts are super gnarly to deal with. And they’re expected, as IBM showed, to increase unless the infrastructure adapts to the “new normal”.
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nature-lust asked: Hi there, I need some help. My family is a bit on the conservative (denial) side and I don't know how to explain to them what's going with the global climate change. I just basically need help with putting everything in Layman's terms.
Hey nature lust,
Thanks for your msg.
I tend to believe that explaining is listening. I’ll talk a little about my approach below, but tbh if you’re just looking for bullet points to memorize, skip this post and go here.
In my experience, people like to be heard and hate being wrong. So, in my opinion, just take your time and listen to what your people are saying. Paraphrase it, repeat it back to them. Take their opinions seriously. Use empathy and be nice. No name calling. At the end of the day, they’re deniers because they’ve been convinced that climate change is code for government regulation. Their denial generally has nothing to do with the science.
After you’ve gained some trust and you want to deepen those conversations, follow the rules of debating.
Second, like lifting the Hammer of Thor, realize that it’s super hard to change someone’s mind. Most people accept their version of reality on authority. Understand, truly understand, that getting someone to stop watching Fox News is like getting a liberal to stop reading the New York Times - it’s epically impossible.
Sub to this is to realize that most people (e.g., the vast majority) really don’t care about environmental topics. It’s boring. So, approach your conversations with love and empathy, and realize that you’re more likely to fail to persuade or inform.
Third, and most importantly, deniers generally accept that the earth is getting warmer. This may surprise you! It’s getting warmer, they’ll say, because it’s “earth’s natural cycle” or it’s “sun spots/solar flares” or it’s “El Nino,” etc. Something along those lines. Basically, they place the cause on natural occurrences not on humans, and then rant about regulations. So, the real causes - human emitted CO2 and GHGs - are all but utter impossibilities to the denier.
Sure, you’ll hear conspiracy theories - like scientists churn out papers just for the research money. Or that a handful of dissenting scientists are being censored, and therefore the truth is being hidden. Or that tree ring data is a fraud. Or maybe you’ll hear some garbage about hacked emails. Or - my favorite - that the IPCC is run by the UN, which is out for world domination. Etc. People who take these tacks are not worth your time. Skip talking with them about climate and just enjoy their company (it’s more dignifying, trust me).
If you genuinely listen and paraphrase, you’ll find that most of the burden is ultimately placed on the denier. You can keep your set of facts on the back burner, and discuss what they want to discuss.
Instead of blurting out a list of science-bullets, which no one cares about, get them to talk talk talk. A lot.
Ultimately, it’ll come out that the reason they’re denying climate science is because they politically don’t like government regulation. Strangely, they may not even realize this. But, preventing the regulation of carbon emissions is what this whole thing is about. If the denier can safely point to “sun spots,” then they won’t have to support any regulations. Case closed.
What’s really bizarre about all this is why, really think about this, why would a group of people want to protect carbon emitters? All I can do is point you to the Oreskes fabulous book, Merchants of Doubt.
This may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but that’s how I approach deniers - by listening.
Good luck and cheers!
Update: http://nature-lust.tumblr.com/ is not a nice person and sends hate mail.
erina asked: I just finished reading a paper by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development called Business Solutions to Enable Energy Access for All (tumblr won't let me link to it). There's a short paragraph that mentions adaptation financing and how it could support access to energy objectives. Do you know anything about/ have any opinions on adaptation financing & how it could be used in conjunction with energy access? (sorry for the long question, love your blog!)
Solid question. To be clear to my readers, adapting to climate change really has nothing to do with reducing carbon emissions (e.g., mitigation). Adaptation is (mostly) about dealing with disasters, like floods, drought, famine, crop failure, infestations, infrastructure, etc. True, there’s some overlap between mitigation and adaptation, but not much.
So, your question about energy might confuse some people. What you’re asking about is increasing access to places that will need more electricity because the climate is changing. Since some communities will be, say, hotter, they’ll need new pumps for clean water, newer A/Cs for hospitals, better roads for ex/importing materials and food, etc. These projects need money and political will.
The high-level sources for adaptation finance for dev projects is the Adaptation Fund, USAID, and the World Bank. Much of these things will, sorry to say, be boondoggles for corrupt politicians. They love to misdirect econ-dev funds towards “local employers,” for instance.
By the way, I skimmed the WBCSD report. Good stuff! I especially like the highlight on page 10 that makes the case that hydro-electric dams will need to adapt to increased flows from climate impacts (floods/rains). Since there will be more turbidity, hydro-operators will need to update their turbines to withstand higher levels of abrasion. MY HEAD EXPLODED!
Not sure if that helped at all. Hit me up if you need narrower details.
My buddies bust my ass about being an environmentalist who “loves” big government. I get a lot of flack for it. Sometimes I’m dismissed as some lefty enviro-wingnut because of my willingness to support environmental regulations. Well, you know what? I do not love big government. I do not want more of it. And I’m deeply distrustful of certain factions of it (eg, BOEMRE, DoD, Dept. of State, DHS, Army Corps, USDA, etc.). I’m distrustful because of something called Regulatory Capture. That’s basically when private industry overtakes a agency’s or a department of an agency’s mission. A fresh and clear example of capture was the recent sex-for-oil scandal at Dept. of Interior.
Still, I look to the government for answers because there are no good alternatives. I don’t trust corporations to conduct business honestly. No one should. From lead-paint scandals to cancer/tobacco cover-ups to harmful oil-spills to e-coli and mad-cow in beef to natural gas fracking - the historical record shows - absolutely definitively shows - that corporations will always choose profits over both human and environmental health. I went to law school and studied environmental law. I’ve read, and still read, thousands of lawsuits describing most incredible, mind-boggling malfeasance by corporations imaginable.
Yes, regulation is a bitch, I agree. But the alternative - self-regulation - does not work. It just doesn’t work, man.
Who can I turn to to ensure that my godamned tap-water will be clean? Who can I turn to to ensure my tires on my car will not explode? Who can I turn to that will guarantee that my toothpaste is going to work? Who can I turn to to know that my frickin’ bowl of oatmeal is, well, oatmeal? It’s certainly not an unregulated corporation. And it’s certainly not my good-meaning libertarian neighbor.
So, with a clenched jaw and pinched nose, I look to the next best alternative - the law, the government, and environmental regulation.
No one has offered a better alternative…
Comments and photo reply on. What do you think?
Imagine a gadget attached to the dash of your car that calculated the per-second costs of driving. The “meter,” similar to a taxi-cab ticker, would not only flash on the screen the cost of gas, emissions, and wear and tear, but also your impact on public roads. How would such a meter change your behavior? It would certainly change mine if I really knew how much my trusty ol’ Benz costs per mile. Now, take this fantasy one step further. Imagine paying a tax dedicated to mitigating your impacts. Collected by the government, the tax would funnel towards alleviating impacts of pollution, wear and tear on roads, and lower emissions. Neat idea?
Well, it’s happening in pilot form in the Netherlands, and Elisabeth Rosenthal covered it in today’s NYTimes, In Auto Test in Europe, Meter Ticks Off Miles, and Fee to Driver.
“The car had been outfitted with the meter so that Mr. Van Dedem could take part in a trial of a controversial government tax proposal to charge drivers a fee for the miles they drive. The meter also factors in the cost to society in the form of pollution, traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and wear and tear on roads. Hooked up to the Internet wirelessly and to GPS, the system tabulates a charge for each car trip by using a mileage-based formula that also takes account of a car’s fuel efficiency, the time of day and the route. (Driving on busier thoroughfares costs more than driving on less-traveled roads.) At the end of each month, the vehicle’s owner would receive a bill detailing times and costs of usage, not unlike a cellphone bill, although participants in the trial did not have to pay the charges.” Again, In Auto Test in Europe, Meter Ticks Off Miles, and Fee to Driver.
Now, I can hear the scoffing through my screen, “That would never happen here!” Well, why the hell wouldn’t it? How do we know? If IBM sponsors a pilot and partners with a progressive city, it seems completely reasonable to do.
The process is democratic and the gadgets and tax would (at first) be voluntary. A handful of existing employees within a city’s government structure could dedicate a few hours per month on a special committee that would distribute the collected fees towards mitigating pollution and/or pooling the tax towards infrastructure. Piece of cake. Portland, OR seems ripe for this type of experiment.
In my state, Massachusetts, it doesn’t take much to draft your very own bill, file it, and get it into committee for review. In fact, I think that’s exactly what is missing from much of modern enviro-discourse: Just how can individual environmentalists draft bills, or get sponsors for bills, or even conduct basic lobbying? I’ve written my fair share of “Dear Senator Kerry, I oppose the GOP’s efforts to gut the EPA, you best do the same,” letters. But, with respect to creating solutions, I think getting a bill sponsored by a representative would have more impact because media is more apt to pick it up and bring it into the public square.
What do you think?
Update: The program displaces other fees, such as registration, excise, and gas taxes. It targets drivers who drive most, and would lower operating costs for low-income drivers.
Update II: It removes regulations (read the article), not increases them. It cuts government waste. It makes government more efficient by eliminating unnecessary and duplicative bureaucracies, such as registration and tax commissions. As far as government intrusion, vehicles are extremely regulated, from texting, to speed, to turning, to materials, to insurance, to annual inspections, to taxes. Why not remove some of these burdens, especially on those who drive less?
Thanks for the question, anonymous! This is an important question deserving careful thought. So, let me tell you a story about a coal plant near my place. I also made some maps for you.
Three miles south of me there is a coal burning power plant located on the edge of the Connecticut River. It’s a small plant, and it supplies electricity to poorest city in Massachusetts - Holyoke. It’s called Mount Tom Station.
Below is a map of Massachusetts. In the circle are the cities of Northampton and Holyoke, Massachusetts. Note a decent size river flows north/south here, called the Connecticut.
Below I zoomed in to the red circle. You can see the river, and the two cities on the left (Holyoke is at the very bottom). Right in the middle is the coal plant in the red box. (Hope that makes sense! Hit me up if it doesn’t, OK?). I zoomed in and marked it up so you can see what’s going on. Also, you can play around with it on google, here.
There are a couple of things to notice. First, the plant is sited on the Connecticut River. You can see the power plant, the coal pile, and trains cars. Those big rectangles are coal ash and slurry ponds. They’re full of toxins like mercury and arsenic and uranium (yep). It’s also high in radiation. Do you think it leaches into the river? You bet. And the EPA recently busted them.
Second, coal kills a lot of people (and it really pisses me off that the public doesn’t give a rats ass). See the IBM death calculator, here (see also, here). Emissions and dust from this plant lingers in the air longer than usual. It doesn’t dilute in the air like most plants because it’s located in a low valley (that’s what colleagues and I have discussed). So, the dust ends up settling locally. But look, this stuff contributes (at least) to asthma in children, especially poor children with little access to health care.
Third, you won’t believe this but it’s true. Guess where this plant gets its coal from? China. The plant gets its coal from the Drummond Company, which gets most of its coal from China, see here. This is cheaper than buying coal from Pennsylvania or Virginia, which are two states away. This is mostly because imported coal is classified differently, getting around U.S. environmental regulations (not kidding!). The plant burns 1,200 tons of coal every day. For perspective, my car weighs 3,500 pounds. 1,200 tons = 685 of my cars BURNED EVERY DAY, 24/7/365 since 1970.
Finally, water and river health are impacted daily. Water is sucked in from the Ct. River to cool off the turbines. Any left over water is dumped back into the river. It’s a marvel of human engineering. See here:
Look, this plant should be decommissioned. It’s old, and there are locals lobbying to convert it to burn biomass and woodchips (if only there were subsidies). Despite this, coal power plants average 30-35% efficiency. Around 70% of the coal is burned for no reason - that’s 70% burned away, making no electricity. I guesstimate around 70 to 100 wind turbines could replace this plant, with supplemental supply coming from the grid - a hard sell to locals and political leaders. People do not want turbines because they don’t like to look at them. If the public doesn’t see the deaths, the river, the air, or the asinine inefficiencies, then coal will always trump wind politically.
So, what do I think about wind energy? It is a moral obligation.