Our Changing Climate
This summer has been one climate related calamity after the next. So much so that it feels like sensory overload. Did all that actually happen in one summer? It began with unprecedented drought, heat, and wildfires in the American West. This was followed by devastating floods in Europe and China. Then there were more wildfires in Siberia and Turkey. Since then, Hurricane Ida unleased flooding in Louisiana and the Northeast, including New York City, leaving more than 45 dead. We could go on. The list of calamities is not exhausted.
In the August Climate and Energy News Roundup, I recalled how my wife Ruth and I experienced 118-degree heat in the city of Barstow on the edge of California’s Central Valley as we drove to Oakland to visit family in July. Farmers in the Central Valley face huge challenges as they contend with climate induced heat and drought. What I did not say was that the next day we visited the Sequoia National Park. At this high altitude, the temperature reached an unseasonably high 85 degrees but it was still relatively comfortable as we walked under the majestic giant Sequoias, some of which are more than 2,000 years old.
Now those Sequoias, which are among the most fire adapted trees on our planet, are being threatened by climate induced hot complexes of wildfires. More than 10,000 trees (about 14% of the population) have succumbed. These trees had survived and thrived in all kinds of extreme weather for thousands of years. It was especially jarring to recently see photos of the giant Sequoias we had recently walked under now wrapped in massive aluminum foil sheets in a desperate attempt to save them.
It is not only the Sequoias that are experiencing unprecedented stress. Native American communities that have lived in North America for thousands of years are also under threat. The Yurok Tribal Reservation is in a remote area along the Klamath River on the misty northern California coast. Now, due to a history of regional water mismanagement combined with a historic drought, the river is sick – and the Yurok are too. Earlier this year, a fish kill of enormous magnitude left 70% of juvenile salmon dead from a deadly pathogen which spreads when the flow of water is curtailed and water quality is low.
The Yurok have traditionally relied on salmon from the Klamath River for their livelihood and their diet. They have now had their fishing rights severely curtailed to protect the remaining salmon population, creating a financial and dietary crisis for them. The underlying problem, unaddressed by state and federal regulators, is that upstream dams severely restrict the flow of water and divert it for other purposes, thereby destroying the entire ecosystem.
The Hopi Native American tribe has survived for more than a thousand years in the arid mesas of Arizona. Now, the two-decade long megadrought gripping the Southwest is testing their resilience. Researchers have estimated that human-influenced climate change has contributed considerably to the severity of the drought, which is considered to be as bad or worse than any in the region over the last 1,200 years. In response, the Hopi tribal council has been forced to ask native ranchers to slash livestock numbers to avoid further catastrophe. They are also urging tribal members to do everything they can to preserve dry farming, an ancient practice in which crops grow despite scant rainfall through drought-resistant seeds, small fields, and terraced gardens.
Politics and Policy
A recent study published by Lancet Planetary Health finds that children and young people around the world are experiencing “widespread psychological distress” over the fate of the planet because of climate change. That fear and anxiety is real and tied to their concern that governments around the world are not doing enough to address the crisis. A first-of-its-kind study postulates that today’s kids will live through three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents.
This fear for the future propels the actions of many young climate activists from around the world. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a teenage climate activist from the Philippines says she cannot help thinking about it because our whole future is ahead. She has tried to channel the uncertainty into her work, talking about the environment at schools, helping farmers get irrigation equipment, and joining fishing communities fighting shorefront commercial development.
The Citizens Climate Lobby has been pushing hard for a carbon price as part of the fight against global warming. They are encouraged that both progressives and moderates are now seriously working to include that in the reconciliation “Build Back Better” bill. Major players in the Senate are now working on putting a carbon fee and dividend into the bill.
Governor Northam recently initiated the new commuter-friendly Amtrak train connecting Richmond-to-D.C. by being among the first to board the new line’s inaugural run. This line is the first project under the state’s $37 billion, 10-year program called Transforming Rail, which aims to expand and streamline commuter, passenger and freight rail systems.
California governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill that received bipartisan support, requiring carbon emissions per ton of cement produced to be cut by 40 percent below 2019 levels by 2035. Cement production is responsible for 7 to 8 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions globally. Climate activists are hopeful that this will spur innovation that can be emulated in other countries like China and India.
Energy is hard to come by as global leaders prepare to gather in Glasgow, Scotland for a climate conference. Some regions in China are rationing electricity, because of a shortage of coal and oil. The price of natural gas is sky-high in Europe and power plants in India are on the verge of running out of coal. The recent spike in demand comes after a year of pandemic related retrenchment in coal, oil and gas extraction, stretching global supply chains. Advocates for renewable energy argue that the crisis shows the need to move further away from fossil fuels while their critics contend that moving too rapidly to green energy has created the problem.
Coalfield Development, the largest nonprofit in West Virginia located in Huntington, West Virginia, is training former coal miners to transition to renewable energy jobs. They recently partnered with Solar Hollar, a local startup solar installer, to install a 294-solar panel project on the roof of their factory. The installation will produce enough power to offset the usage of all their operations on the site and save them over $135,000. The mission is to make solar affordable, accessible and achievable for everyone in West Virginia and to bring good clean energy jobs to people in this historic coal mining region.
The Harrisonburg school board decided to have Affordable Energy Concepts install new solar panels on the roof and campus of Bluestone Elementary School. The installation will include an interactive electric sign and a solar-powered water fountain, which can serve as teaching tools. The solar system could get Bluestone close to generating as much energy as it uses.
The latest edition of The National Geographic focuses on “the dream of a cleaner commute.” All the big automakers are moving rapidly toward an electric vehicle future. The more difficult challenge is going green in air travel. Alternative fuels such as electric batteries and hydrogen are too heavy or cumbersome for use in long distance flight. The airline industry and research centers are, however, experimenting with electric powered planes for short commutes and with non-fossil fuel sources such as algae for longer flights. That is still in the more distant future, forcing us to recognize that, at present, we may need to limit and find alternatives to air travel when possible (The National Geographic, October 2021: 38-83).
Various Climate Actions
Ahead of the global environment summit in Glasgow in November, Pope Francis, of the Roman Catholic church, Patriarch Bartholomew, of the Orthodox church, and Archbishop Justin Welby, of the global Anglican communion, issued an unprecedented joint declaration urging world leaders to work together to address our climate crisis. The statement urged all people – “whatever their beliefs or worldview” – to “listen to the cry of the Earth and of people who are poor. Today, we are paying the price [of the climate emergency] … Tomorrow could be worse.” It concludes: “This is a critical moment. Our children’s future and the future of our common home depend on it.”
Dominion Energy is currently undergoing a rate review, marking the first time since 2015 that the State Corporation Commission (SCC) will fully review and potentially adjust what Dominion customers pay for electricity.Dominion is requesting a significant authorized profit increase from 9.2% to 10.8%, which could raise energy bills if approved.
CALL TO ACTION: Sign on to this petition by Clean Virginia asking the SCC to deny Dominion’s request for a profit increase. The SCC rejected a similar request in 2019, estimating it would cost Virginians $1.4 billion in additional charges.
Most people naturally think of planting trees as a way to mitigate climate change. This overlooks the ecological benefits of native grasslands, which are also superstars of ecosystem services. Grasslands expert Elizabeth Borer, at the University of Minnesota, explains that natural grasses have enormous root systems (often far larger than the plant you see above ground) which hold the soil together and help prevent erosion. Such grasslands hold more than a third of the world’s land-based carbon while providing a rich habitat for wildlife.
In contrast, most lawns are resource-intensive monocultures doused with water and pesticides and mowed by carbon spewing gasoline powered lawnmowers. There are as many as 50 million acres of lawn across the US—an area roughly the size of Nebraska. An easy climate actionthat can have a significant impact is changing how we care for our lawns:
- We can learn how to maintain a healthy lawn without using lots of water, synthetic fertilizers, and herbicides.
- Planting white clover as part of our grass mix makes our lawns more diverse and supportive of insects such as native bees.
- We can convert some of our lawn to low maintenance native plant and edible landscaping borders in our bid to “bring nature home.”
- And you may want to trade in your old gas-powered lawnmower for a more ecological and much quieter electric lawnmower.
Environmentalist and Episcopalian priest, Ragan Sutterfield says that climate change is a symptom of a larger underlying disease. Borrowing a concept from family therapy, “the climate crisis is the identified patient of our planetary dysfunction.” He concludes, “In our concern, we should recognize the systematic pathology of industrial civilization that has brought us to a crisis with the climate. We need reconciliation with the whole, not just a solution for the identified patient” (The Christian Century, Sept. 22, 2021: 29).
CAAV Steering Committee