Friday, May 25, 2007

80sF in yellow orange to 100+ deep red. And this is just May 25...
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The New Normal

The Solstice aside, this weekend is the official beginning of summer, and guess what--it's likely to be a long, hot one. But by now, we should be getting used to it. It's the New Normal.

“The New Normal” became a catch phrase in the months after 9/11, suggesting that international terrorism had changed the nature of daily life. But as we continue to shed our shoes in airport lines, we dance around the recognition of the true New Normal settling over our lives: the slow terror of the climate crisis.

We feel it now most persistently in summer. July 2005 to June 2006 were the hottest twelve months in U.S. history—and that was before the July and August heat waves responsible for some 225 deaths. California saw all-time records broken for high temperatures and lengths of heat waves last summer. But we weren’t alone: summer temperatures were above normal in all fifty states.

Though largely ignored in the U.S., the summer heat wave that hit western Europe in 2003 killed more than ten times the number of people who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In fact, after severral years of accumulating data, the Earth Policy Institute believes that it caused more than 50,000 deaths.

Yet in many European countries, last summer was even hotter. Though heat related deaths were higher than normal among vulnerable populations, this time communities were more prepared: responding to the New Normal.

Besides the direct threats to health (dehydration, strokes, heat-intensified pollution worsening allergies and other ailments), there are the burdens on the psyche—the anxieties, frayed nerves and tempers, the weariness of mind and body that heat waves engender. In their intensity and relentlessness, they can be terrifying.

As can other effects of extreme heat: rainfall patterns alter, leading to droughts in some areas and floods in others (as in the mid-Atlantic states last summer, which killed 16 and caused more than a billion dollars worth of damage.) Thunderstorms are more violent, wildfires are larger and more frequent, roadways buckle, water lines rupture and heavy demand for electricity leads to blackouts. Warmer air feeds tornadoes, and warmer ocean waters are likely to increase the ferocity of hurricanes. Apart from danger to life and limb, all of these stress services, government and the economy in general, as well as individuals, families and communities.

In an interconnected economy, disruptions caused by extreme weather extend far beyond their origins, as frequent flyers can attest.

We can hope this summer will be cooler, but these days that would qualify as unusual. Forecasters predict that in both the U.S. and Europe, this will be another hot summer (with a high number of Atlantic hurricanes.) The pattern of the past several decades seems well-established: hotter summers are becoming more frequent, with fewer years of less extreme temperatures between them. All seasons appear on average to be getting hotter, but the New Normal is most noticeable, and most threatening, in summer. A NASA study suggests that the eastern U.S. will see a 10 degree F rise in average summer temperature in the next 80 years.

If the consensus of climate scientists is correct, and global heating caused by greenhouse gas pollution is a major cause, it’s just the beginning of this New Normal. Our summers now are the product of fossil fuel emissions from years ago. Those emissions have accumulated and grown over time, and they appear to be growing ever faster: last week a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that annual carbon dioxide emissions have tripled in this decade. One hot summer after another should soon bring home this reality: the climate crisis is here and now, and it will be part of the rest of our lives.

Local municipalities especially are forced to prepare for the increasingly and persistently hotter summers, but while more people in general seem alarmed by the climate crisis, it’s not clear that they yet accept that it’s here: that this is the New Normal.

And what will the terror of overheated summers lead to? Perhaps to a new heated argument over what to do about the climate crisis. Until now, the efforts to address climate change have mostly been discussed in terms of a future crisis. Will there be pressure to shift attention from efforts to prevent worse heating in the future by cutting emissions, in favor of devoting resources solely to coping with heating effects in the present? Will the aborning committment to lowering carbon emissions fall to the urgent desire for air conditioning, by any means necessary?

Dr. Susan Solomon, one of the leaders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, made a little-noted observation during that organization’s convention in San Francisco earlier this year: “Changes already underway will require adaptation in the short term… while efforts to reduce or reverse change will only occur on a long term.”

These are the twin necessities of the climate crisis: anticipating and responding proactively to its effects in the present, while forestalling even worse consequences in the future—which experts tell us could include the end of human civilization, and life on earth as we know it. We need to face the urgency of the New Normal, but we also need to keep faith with the future. If we don’t, these long hot summers will look like paradise compared to the New Normal in coming decades, perhaps even in the lifetimes of today’s children.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"Gathering Spring Plants" by Eegyvadluk Ragee
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Get Busy: A Climate of Urgent Dullness

In his latest Viridian Note, science fiction author, futurist and eco-design advocate Bruce Sterling writes about his attendance at the recent Clean Energy Venture Summit of businesses involved in green technology, which was held in Austin, Texas at the same time as the Large Cities Climate Summit in New York. While Texas may seem the anti-environmental state, thanks especially to Lord Bushemort, Austin claims the title of the nation's top city for clean technology development. (In an earlier note, Sterling rightly focused on the otherwise unheralded but very important buyout in Texas that stopped the construction of eight coal-fired electrical plants, in a sweeping deal partly negotiated by the Environmental Defense Fund. Coal produces more global heating pollution than any other fuel.)

Here's what Sterling said about the conference itself:

The Clean Energy Venture Summit was an intensely dull event. There was scarcely a "visionary" to be seen. On the contrary: suited, duely-diligent lawyers and bankers were throwing millions of dollars at engineers. That's the work of the world, folks. This is our third swing at this particular baseball: 1970s: eco-consciousness raising; 1990s, global political accords; 2010s, cybergreen ecotech. They gotta win, they must not fail, because otherwise, by the 2030s it's gonna be Khaki Green all the way: a future of All Katrina, all the time, for everybody.

And that's the truth. Somebody has to dig into the dull details of technologies, and carbon cap and trade, and so on. The problem is not to lose the vision, not to lose the point, in all that detail and the politics of it, which is what I'm afraid largely happened to the environmental movement. But the "work of the world" has to be done. At the moment, there is still a role for people like me, to thread the information into the Big Picture, to keep badgering and coming at it from different directions until it all sinks in. Changing the world one heart&mind at a time.

Because every day brings impetus to urgency. While the Bush Death Eaters try to stop next month's Group of Eight summit in Germany from advocating urgent talks on a new deal to fight global heating, the National Academy of Scientists released a report Monday saying that carbon dioxide emissions increased worldwide three times faster after 2000 than in the 1990s, putting them at the high end of a range of forecasts by an international climate change panel. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

Monday, May 21, 2007

another classic pulp s/f cover
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Waste Not

The New York Times Magazine Sunday was largely devoted to articles about environmentally sensitive design, including an article about Shigeru Ban , whose ecological designs include elegant and useful buildings out of paper (from emergency shelters in Rwanda to a paper church now ten years old), and an interview with William McDonough about his obsession with renewable energy systems and recycling waste.

The article on Ban is headlined "Waste Not: The Accidental Environmentalist." Both the content of these articles and that title remind me of a position I've long espoused: that basic ideas behind "environmental design" and energy-saving processes are completely in line with some traditional practices and ideas. Some are simply traditional processes with fancy new names.

Years ago, when Pennsylvania was adopting its mandatory recycling plan, the editorial firm I worked for in Pittsburgh was responding to a Request for Proposals from the state government on how to effectively publicize the program. I developed the basic framework of a campaign that attempted to show that "recycling" was really a traditional idea with a new name and a larger purpose. To communicate that idea, I proposed using the Benjamin Franklin dictim of "Waste Not, Want Not" (which I thought would make a good reggae hook). Franklin was also the most prominent Pennsylvanian among the Founding Fathers.

Around that time I wrote an oped piece for one of the Pittsburgh dailies predicting (contrary to its official editorial opinion) that Pittsburghers would recycle with few problems. My reason was similiar: the immigrant frugality of just a few generations past in this very traditional and ethnic city would make this a common sense concept. And "recycling" in order to further a larger goal was also familiar from efforts during World War II to help the war effort.

We came in second to a much larger Philadelphia advertising firm on the recycling contract, but I was right about Pittsburgh's response to recycling. In fact, the willingness and even eagerness of people to recycle has been an unheralded success story almost everywhere.

For our grandparents and even our parents, it was simply common sense to reuse, reduce waste, and "recycle". You don't throw away socks when they get holes; you darn them. You don't throw old clothes into the trash--you tear them up for rags, which you use to clean. Though these attitudes would be ridiculed in the consumer "throwaway" society, they remained dormant but alive. "Waste not, want not" was a rule of survival, and it had a certain elegance and satisfaction to it at well. It was part of a traditional way of life that people seem to be paying a lot of money to emulate these days.

All that "waste not" requires is removing the stigma, the idea that it is shameful not to waste ( because it is a sign of being poor and therefore a failure.) That's the role of leadership and institutional support. It's how recycling happened, and it is a procedure that in general will work in other areas, such as energy efficiency, in addressing the climate crisis.
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Expanding Soul for the Future

Another intriguing article in the NY Times Magazine Sunday suggested that the American Evangelical movement is changing--moving away from obsession with gay marriage and God's Own Party to different and in some ways more traditional concerns. Though the issue of abortion continues to unite conservative Christians, some of the newer Evangelical leaders are also talking about poverty, health issues such as AIDS, and the chief illness of the earth: the climate crisis:

Members of the baby boomer generation are taking over the reins, said D. G. Hart, a historian of religion. The boomers, he said, are markedly different in style and temperament from their predecessors and much more animated by social justice and humanitarianism.

One example was the call to see the climate crisis as a moral issue which brought together some "mainstream conservative Christian leaders with prominent liberal evangelicals, such as the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners and the Rev. Ronald J. Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, who have long championed progressive causes."

Though some observers caution that this is only the beginning of a shift (and one Evangelical leader was forced to step down because of his climate crisis advocacy) and that it may take a generation to become dominant, it does suggest there is less enthusiasm for automatic party line GOP politics, which includes climate crisis denial and contempt for "bleeding heart" efforts to address poverty, disease and injustice. Within the Evangelicals (roughly a quarter of the U.S. population), this new "centrist group" is roughly equal in numbers to the far right group (according to Pew Research) and it is the centrist group that is growing.