Bringing the Fight for Climate Change Home, Minnesota Style

Shreveport   There’s no real debate about whether climate change is huge threat. You don’t have to believe the science, but you can’t deny what Richard Pryor famously called the evidence available to your “lying eyes.” We see it everywhere around us from the diminishing coastline to earlier Springs and more violent storms. The problem for many people is figuring out what they can do to be effective besides turning down the thermometer, putting out their recycling, sending the occasional donation, and answering the call to march when it’s made. So much of the problem seems global past our reach, so how do we have impact on such a huge crisis locally?

One answer to this question was provided by Kevin Whelan when I was talking to him recently on Wade’s World. Kevin after years as a community organizer and communications specialist with ACORN and others, is now executive director of Minnesota 350, and in our conversation it became clear that he and his associates there are trying to develop an organization and action model that translates the horror of global climate change into local action.

350.org is a well-known campaign and advocacy formation focusing on climate change, started as Whelan described it, by a professor, in this case Bill McKibben, and “seven students.” 350 refers to the level at which carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere passes the critical point at 350 parts per million. It is now over 400.

As Kevin described it, Minnesota 350 is a rarity though. It is not an affiliate of 350.org nor was it organized by 350.org. Rather, there were some activists in Minnesota who saw climate change as a critical issue and wanted to figure out a way to respond to the crisis, and decided to organize and reached out to 350.org and essentially asked if they would mind if they used 350 as part of the name of the organization they wanted to build. So, yes, the website says Minnesota350.org, but that’s more of a website thing than anything else. They are certainly federated and allied with 350.org, but an independent and autonomous operation in Minnesota.

This has translated in recent years to a lot of involvement and organizational action in pipeline fights. They played a key role in opposing a pipeline from the controversial and dangerous Tar Sands area of Alberta, Canada that would have run to Lake Superior, that is stopped for now. They were also heavily involved in supporting the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which galvanized a movement, though thus far has a less happy ending. Kevin movingly described four visits to Standing Rock and how much it meant.

Minnesota 350 has learned many lessons in how to bring this global catastrophe to the level of local action but in talking to Kevin, they believe they need to bring-the-fight-home by figuring out a way to inject the issue into local and state politics, which would also mean holding representatives elected to represent Minnesota in Congress accountable on this issue. It’s hard to argue with that conclusion, and it is worth keeping an eye on Minnesota 350, because we might all need to follow their lead.

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No Place to Hide from Climate Change

Baton Rouge area

Baton Rouge area

New Orleans   For the second time this year Louisiana has been hit by unexpected flooding. The latest and most horrific is the so-called 1000-year rain and flooding event that has already pushed more than 87,000 to apply for FEMA relief and has decimated homes and communities in East Baton Rouge, Livingston, and Tangipahoa Parishes. A cloud formation hung over these areas on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, overfilling rivers, canals, and bayous with rising water with no place to go, and actually pushing water backwards against and reversing normal flow. So many of these areas were outside – far outside – of normal flood maps and low-lying areas that the vast majority, in some cases more than 90%, had no flood insurance meaning that the likely $30,000 cap on assistance will leave tens of thousands of families far short of recovery.

It’s not the Katrina of 2005, but it’s a big league disaster. Taylor Swift has committed one-million. Lady Gaga has come in with a big pledge. Trump and Pence have been down. Obama is coming next week. Many are thanking the “Cajun navy” of volunteers in skiffs running up and down the waterways for rescuing thousands. Big retail, like Walmart and Home Depot, are stepping up. Sadly, this is a scene we’re seeing repeated too frequently now. This is more like “standard operating procedure,” than emergency preparation or reaction.

Is there any place to hide from this level of emerging climate change and the disasters it triggers? How many times does a 500-year or 1000-year rain become so common that such an event becomes a 100-year rain or just something we see with regularity? Will this kind of rain become the “new normal” in Louisiana and elsewhere?

One of the morning papers speculated on what the difference might have been if several proposed diversion and reservoir projects had been implemented or completed. Looking at the charts, it might have saved 30% of the homes in some areas, but these would have been big-time infrastructure projects, and the experts seemed to be saying that it was probably cheaper to let the water come than make a place for it. That’s a sobering conclusion. The reality of climate change may be to keep your valuables on the second floor and keep a canoe on your patio and a generator at the ready like I do in New Orleans. You get the message: we’re on our own now, less citizens, and more survivalists.

And, we’re not talking about temperatures rising and their impact as well. A map the New York Times showed the distribution of the coming heatwave of over 100 degree days by 2060 and 2100. 77 days in Hot Springs, 98 in Dallas, 62 in Houston, 77 in Jackson, 64 in Memphis, and even 39 days in the home of humidity, New Orleans. Outside of the upper northwest and upper northeast around Maine, the only areas not sweltering ran along the western slope of the Rockies and nearby areas from northern New Mexico through much of Colorado and western Wyoming into southeast Montana from the Centennials to the Bitterroot Mountains.

We’re past the point of arguing about what we read and hear. It’s now come down to what most of us can feel and see for ourselves. There are few places left to hide from rising water and heat, so before all of this is an everyday deal, we better change not just our “where,” but our ways.

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Climate Change on the Creek

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Chaco sitting in the shallow, warm water of Rock Creek

Rock Creek, Montana   Weather is warm in the middle of the day even in the mountains of the northern Rockies, but at the end of July and early August, that’s hardly a surprise. The nights are still comfortable and the dawn is cool. There was smoke coming up the canyon so there must have been a fire somewhere, but the fire season has not been terrible this year in Montana, and the skies have been sunny all day.

This is our seventh season on Rock Creek in the Silver Bullet. There have been a lot of changes over these years, and we have not been exempt from the impact of climate change. In fact we have a close-up view.

The beetles continue to thin out our tree stand from the rock strewn mountains to the creek. Sixteen trees were lost to them last year. Timber is stacked all over the acreage wedged in short stacks between trees. Longer lengths of pine are stretched along the camp road trying to convince a miller of their value or to find some useful way to contribute. Thirteen new trees have been planted here and there. A former tree planter from the old semi-hippie cooperatives who won a number of bids decades ago from the Forest Service planting throughout the West, spent some time yesterday putting rocks in a wagon, rolling them over, and then placing them around the seedlings for protection. These trees are the scout troop for fifty that are planned. An arborist has been consulted, so now there’s a tighter regimen on walking the trails marked with wood chips and a different view of the brush in the undergrowth with more concern for the reclamation project and less for the threat of fire the same undergrowth represents. Grass has been seeded on some bare spots.

Conserving the land is ambitious. Success for such stewardship is less certain. Water is needed for all of this to grow. Some of the trees already seem challenged. We spent some time witching for water. There’s supposedly a well driller who believes he can get over the bridge now. Witching seemed like magic, so of course I was skeptical, but balancing the copper wire, I couldn’t deny the fact that the copper crossed, feeling the magnetic forces that indicate water below, especially when four of us had the same results in the same spots.

Chaco and I fish Rock Creek, widely reckoned as one of the top ten trout streams in the United States and first in the minds of many fishermen. Three straight hot summers with early melts of the snowpack due to climate change have made Montana streams warmer. We’ve been told about “hoot owl” restrictions on many streams closing them at noon to allow the trout to recover because the water is too warm. On catch-and-release, you have to be quick about getting the fish back in the water in such conditions. Rock Creek is still open, but we noticed the water was warmer by several degrees from our first step off the banks. The water is also shallower than any other time we have been here.

Climate deniers need to get out of their penthouses, private planes and limousines and look around, maybe put their feet in the water, or walk along a forest trail. We can see the West changing right before our eyes, and it’s not pretty.

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Weird Science and Climate Change

China Beijing pollutionLos Angeles    Photographs of Beijing are arresting these days, providing a disturbing vision of what pea soup fog almost feels like, complete with walking robots in gas mask contraptions trying to make their way about the city the best they can. Meanwhile, the headlines from Paris, where negotiators from countries all over the world are trying to parse the pollution numbers and finagle the timeline when the climate debt comes due, are little more comforting that the front page pictures from China.

I find myself equally amazed and confounded by falling factoids here and there.

For example, work is being done to develop something called “scuba rice,” which can survive being underwater for two weeks in more that might sustain a country like Bangladesh where 40% of the land area for 110 million people currently is subject to extensive flooding and tidal waves. If rice won’t work, then agronomists recommend they grow sunflowers. Think about it.

Of course, also keep in mind that other scientists note that unless somehow Earth were able to amazingly alter it’s orbital path then in a lot less than half-a-billion years the sun will get larger and hotter and pretty much fry us anyway on land and turn the ocean into a boiling cauldron. Of course that’s such a long time, it is years past the outer range of most of our imaginations, give or take a couple of hundred million years, but tempus fugit, memento mori, it still might be worth making our best effort now.

Some geo-engineers have notions for how weird science might cool down the earth somehow by triggering the formation of more clouds at the right elevations. Thin cloud “streams’ were discovered in the wake of ships. Salt particles in the right proportion could create a cloud called a “marine stratocumulus.” The technical problem for the technological Utopians is how to produce nozzles that could reliably form the right size mini-droplet that would work. Oh, and of course, there are risks when you start geoengineering, as we might imagine. Others suggest spraying Sulfur into the atmosphere because that would be even quicker and more sure fired, and would cool the earth, but only for a year or so at a time. Some naysayers warn that the cost would be stupendous. There’s also the problem, as the bankers used to say once upon a time, of “moral hazard,” by allowing governments, industries, and citizens to believe there’s a technical trick in the future that allows us to avoid all of these complicated, confusing, contentious climate problems now.

Somehow this all sounds to me a little bit like Donald Trump suggesting that we give old Bill Gates, the Microsoft mogul, a call and get him to work with us on how to shut down the parts of the internet that are most scary and stirring up mayhem around the world. Here’s a thought, rather than worshiping at the idol of unknown machines and moving to tech utopia, it seems easier to do get some backbone and civic will to crack the whip and do what we know how to do now, rather than putting our heads in what’s still left of the sand, and believing that hope is a plan

 

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Insurers are Running from Climate Change

Stormy Futures MapNew Orleans      Fair enough, I call New Orleans home and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, I still pay way more attention to climate change than the average Joe, partially because I’ve been there, done that, and think it’s coming again someday both here and to an area near you.  So, when Ceres, a heavily established and institutionally backed nonprofit, did a report on how big insurance companies were preparing for climate change, I knew it was worth a hard look.  Here’s a spoiler alert:  it’s almost all bad news!

            Ceres surveyed most of the insurance companies in the USA and more than 300 replied, giving them very good response.  Importantly, several states, including California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and Washington, are now requiring insurance companies writing more than $100 million in policies to disclose their climate related risks, so part of the response may have been part of their own “get up to speed” drill in some of these larger markets.   The results on the Ceres grading system were pathetic.  Of the companies replying only nine ranked in the “leading” category while 83% or 249 companies were minimal or only beginning.  Only Hartford and Prudential were US-based companies in the top nine.

            Living in the swamp with receding coastline all around us in Louisiana and levees hardly reinforced up to a Category 3 storm, those grades were confirming what we already knew in our hearts.  We’ve essentially been left not high-and-dry, but in the soup to swim.  Even though I didn’t flood, sitting high and dry on the alluvial flood plain only three blocks from the Mississippi River, our home was forced into Citizens, the high-priced, high-risk last resort insurer.  Ceres essentially confirmed that’s the “new normal” everywhere.  The main response from most “property and casualty” insurers after Katrina and Sandy, has not been to prepare for climate-change risks but to abandon the markets and the risks entirely leaving it to whoever and whatever is left behind to fend for themselves.  This abandonment is especially pronounced along coastal areas in Long Island, Virginia, Delaware, and of course Florida.

            Ceres makes an interesting point, that the insurers and major businesses can run but they can’t hide, especially given the supply chain inherent in globalization.  Flooding in Thailand disrupted deliveries and production adding up to $15 billion in business losses.  With droughts in California and elsewhere in the west and everyone and their cousin from the National Geographic on down writing about the impact of climate on agriculture and food supply, this is also an area where insurers seem asleep at the switch from the board level and the executive suites down to the agents on the block.  According to the Ceres report most companies are simply behind the eight-ball in taking climate change seriously.  I’m not sure whether ideology is clouding their own self-interest and creating a weird sense of denial or whether we’re just talking about high level, major corporate incompetence.  Warren Buffet, I thought this insurance thing was your baby, what’s happening here, dude?

            The recommendations from Ceres were predictable.  They want, and we should all agree, all fifty states to require the same insurance disclosures that the first five have mandated.  Not surprisingly they also want a grading system, similar to their own report, to be adopted nationally so that consumers and regulators are on the same page, and, heck, why not?

            This climate change thing is already real, and it’s past time for insurers and everyone else to catch up before we get caught up in it any deeper.

 

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Marching for a Climate Change Turning Point

2014-09-21t181449z_242980738_gm1ea9m064l01_rtrmadp_3_usa-climatechange-march.jpg_1718483346New Orleans    The march in New York demanding action on climate change was hard to get a handle on from a distance.  The Associated Press called the number 100,000.  The New York Times studiously avoided ever giving a number in the aftermath of the march, simply saying there were tens of thousands.  Finally, a week later the Times’ editorial page tagged the number at 300,000.  Between police, press, promoters, and regular people, it’s very difficult to get a handle on facts when it comes to organizing, and when we are looking for the heartbeat of a movement, it’s actually not just a question of engineering, but a way to measure passion, so it is actually very important.  So many mainstream institutions and media are so punctilious about not seeming to support protest that it is virtually impossible to benchmark the truth as opposed to the promotion.

            Talking to Dean Hubbard, national director of the Labor Project for the Sierra Club, on Wade’s World on KABF recently, opened up a different perspective.  Dean said they were astounded by the numbers.   They had expected 100,000 in New York City, but instead they thought the numbers had topped 400,000.  We’ll never know.  He argued, perhaps more interestingly, that the wider footprint of the march could be found in the hundreds of cities throughout the USA that did something on that date and the thousands of cities, large and small, that stepped up to the mark globally.

            President Obama seemed to have used some of this energy to argue more aggressively for action, not only in the USA, which as the worst of the worst, has to be a leader here, but also to challenge China to join the fight as the largest bulk polluter even though we are the greatest per capita polluter.  India, the next in line, seems still unwilling to join the fray.

            It’s Dean’s job to argue that the fight between jobs and the environment is finally reaching détente, and he made the case as best he could, and there’s merit to his argument.  His weakest point might have been the fact that there were 10,000 marchers under union banners in New York City, led by some predictable unions like the Service Employees, but also importantly the giant Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electricians, a critical chink in the armor of the construction trades which have been stubbornly resistant to many environmental arguments with a “jobs are everything” and the devil take the hindmost attitude.  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he supported retrofitting all of the buildings in New York City before he personally joined the march, was a key piece of leadership moving the NYC trades.

            Where Dean and the Sierra Club’s case improved was as he recited the increasing amount of alternative energy development that is replacing standard generation methods, and the number of jobs that are, and will be, produced by such construction, energy creation, and distribution.  It seems impossible to argue whether on the threat of climate change or the ticking time bomb of contemporary resource depletion that no matter the math now or the facts on the ground, that the tide of history is now flowing in the direction of Dean’s argument with the opponents cries simply being the gurgles of dinosaurs on their way to extinction, hopefully not bringing the rest of us with them.

 

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