Xenophobia and Climate Change

Xenophobia, or fear of foreigners, is gaining traction globally as people grapple with the horrors of terrorism. Some politicians suggest stopping Syrian refugees from entering our country will keep Americans safe. Others recommend barring certain religions from entering. It sure sounds good to take a “tough stand” and stop terrorism by closing borders, but we know it’s much, much more complicated than that. And are we willing to compromise our values and beliefs that made this country great? To suggest that people are no longer welcome, regardless of what our Statue of Liberty in New York harbor has to say.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It’s good to remember we are a land of immigrants, and other than our Native American brethren, descendants of people who came to America with hopes for a better life for themselves and their families. Whether our roots are Irish, Italian, Guatemalan, Honduran, Chinese, Indonesian, Polish, Hungarian, … we all can trace our country of origin to one far away from the shores of America.

There is much to be concerned with in today’s society, including religious extremism. However, we must realize the Syrian refugee crisis stems from, among other things, a brutal, relentless multi-year drought tied to climate change. And when people can’t meet their basic needs for food, water, and shelter, all hell breaks loose. Today it’s Syria. Tomorrow it may well be Small Pacific Islander nationals seeking shelter. Will we turn away those that lost their homes due to climate change, or will we welcome them?  Let’s heed Pope Francis’ Encyclical which calls for action to protect God’s creation, particularly the poor, from the ravages of climate change.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a whisper of what’s to come in the decades to follow, and international agreements, protocols, and funding will be essential to adapt to climate change and mitigate the damages in the warming years to come. Let’s try to learn from our present refugee crisis so people fleeing homelands in the future will find a welcoming, supportive, and safe refuge. We can start with a successful United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held later this month in Paris.

Terrorism and Climate Change

Just 24 hours after the horrors of terrorism struck the City of Paris, Democratic Presidential Debate moderator, John Dickerson, asked Bernie Sanders, “Do you still believe climate change is our nation’s biggest national security threat?”  “Absolutely”, Bernie Sanders responded without hesitation.  Sanders commented that climate change threatens water supplies, arable land, and coastal communities, all of which increase the likelihood of refugees and destabilized governments. The worrisome outcome:  international terrorism.Screen shot 2014-05-24 at 6.56.16 AM

Climate change and terrorism’s close relationship is not a new concept. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review identified the growing geopolitical instability which accompanies climate change impacts as a major global threat. It all makes sense. When people can not meet their basic needs for food, shelter, water, and security, they pack up and move on. Out of desperation, they will cross militarized zones, ocean waters, and mountain ranges seeking a safer haven for themselves and their families. In the process, they become environmental refugees, and in so doing, unintentionally stoke global chaos. Think Syria as an example of a climate change-induced geopolitical struggle whose tendrils have now reached far beyond the dessertified farm region Syrian refugees fled. The Syrian government’s inability to deal with a pressing, endless drought were primary factors in the Civil War that has since enveloped the region.

THE global problem facing humanity is climate change, and it’s evil twin, international terrorism. We must and will have a multi-national attack on international terrorism, and so too will we have an equally aggressive war on climate change. Geopolitical stability can not be maintained in the years and decades to come if millions of environmental refugees are created by rising seas, punishing droughts, elevated temperatures, etc. We can do this. We will do this. We must do this.



Notes from Sixth Extinction Kolbert Talk

Earlier this week I heard Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert speak at Skidmore College about her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I attended the talk with my niece, a Skidmore student majoring in Environmental Science. My takeaways are to the point:IMG_7401

  1. With great peril, we are erasing the barriers (oceans and land masses) that separated species from one another. Under ordinary circumstances, ocean dwelling species can’t cross land masses, and terrestrial dwelling species can’t cross vast oceans. But when an invasive species can hitchhike on human travelers, anything is possible.
  2. We are going back in geologic time at breakneck speed as we unleash carbon stored over millions of years in a geologic blink of an eye. Carbon pools that took hundreds of millions of years to collect underground are being released in a few decades. The impacts are unparalleled in geologic history, and the threats equally unparalleled.
  3. We are dissolving corals and vulnerable calcareous zooplankton as oceans absorb carbon dioxide to form carbonic acid.
  4. We are confused. Much like the exotic Hawaiin crow or New Zealand Kakapao, we are dysfunctional in our economy and place in the biosphere. Either we wake up and act assertively, or go the way of so many species before us.

Below are some quick notes my niece took during the presentation.


  • Several species of crows in Hawaii many years ago
    • most of them did not last, they were killed off when Polynesians arrived in Hawaii; there are no wild Hawaiian crows left
      • habitat loss
      • introduction of mosquitoes–avian malaria
      • introduction of new species
    • “sharing our earth with other creatures” –rachel carson
      • we are driving species to and over the brink of extinction

What is the 6th extinction?

      • 10 b metric tons of CO2/year are added to the atmosphere
      • taking carbon deposits and re emitting them into the atmosphere
      • 25 ppm CO2 (as of October 28, 2015)
        • CO2 levels decrease during the spring and summer because of photosynthesis; in the winter CO2 increases
      • Look at ice cores to study ancient layers of snow
        • records of temperature
        • records of past atmospheres that are trapped as air bubbles in the ice
      • Scientists also study dead marine orgs to learn about atmospheric changes
      • (NASA heat map was very good)
      • the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet
      • changes in climate are more devastating for species in the tropics:
        • trees:
          • 1000 different species in 50 acres of land in the Andes Peru
          • Trees have a range of about 100 yards in the tropics (very narrow temperature ranges)
          • The trees would have to move 20 m up the mountain per year if they are to survive climate change; some trees are moving fast enough to track climate change
          • most species are not moving, so they are breaking down and new species are taking their places–what happens to the other organisms that live in the trees?!
          • surface water quickly absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, forming carbonic acid
          • The oceans have absorbed roughly ⅓ of the co2 emitted since the start of the industrial rev (~150 b metric tons)
          • Every 4 hours the seas absorb another million metric tons of co2
          • net result is that the acidity of the ocean has increased by 30%
          • ocean acidification destroys calcium carbonate shells of organisms
            • coccolithophores
            • sea urchins
            • starfish
            • shellfish
            • corals (stony)
          • ocean vents acidify the water, essentially pouring CO2 directly into the water (pH of 7.8)
          • One Tree Island, Australia
            • coral bleaching as a result of ocean warming
            • reefs will not survive this century if we continue on this path
              • “It is likely that reefs will be the first major ecosystem in the modern era to become ecologically extinct”–Charles Sheppard, Simon Davy, Graham Pilling, The Biology of Coral Reefs
            • INVASIVE SPECIES
              • Pacific rat: brought to New Zealand around 1300; multiplied
                • the English then brought different rats, which drove the Pacific rats to extinction
                • the English also brought rabbits, which multiplied (“like rabbits”) → the rabbits ate all of the farmers’ crops
                • they then brought Stoats to hunt the rabbits, but they ended up just eating NZ’s incredible and diverse birds
  • Little brown bats, killed by white nose syndrome
    • 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces
    • 300,000 bats used to hibernate in this certain cave from powerpoint; now about 90% of those bats are alive
  • 126 Kakapo left in New Zealand

Environmental Literacy and Climate Change Confusion

Are we environmentally literate? Do we understand the basics of science that define and explain environmental issues, particularly those associated with climate change? And what about our family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances? Do they recognize the biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) forces that define the “state of the planet?” How everything from bacteria to polar bears depend on a fragile balance between light, water, nutrients, and other non living factors? Are we aware of how disruptive humans are to the cycles that maintain ecological balance? Or that we are baking our planet and acidifying oceans to a breaking point with catastrophic consequences? Not really. In the words of Elizabeth Kolbert, we are “confused”.Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 4.04.50 PM

I recently heard the term, environmental literacy, at a Middlebury College event earlier this fall. The college was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its environmental studies program, and the urgency of graduating environmentally literate students was noted a number of times.  Engineering, business, criminal justice, psychology, education….are all important disciplines. Yet, without understanding the interactions between biotic and abiotic factors, or recognizing how humans have completely disrupted the planet’s ecological balance, we will continue to be “confused” about the looming tragedies that lay ahead.

Consider these facts: 1) 2015 will be the hottest year since we began using thermometers to measure temperature. 2) Nine of the ten hottest years occurred in the past decade. 3) Superstorms ravage continents with record-breaking ferocity. 4) Ocean acidity has increased 30%.  5) Species extinction rates are accelerating. There are two words that can explain these disruptions: climate change. If we were all environmentally literate, then our presidential candidates would be promoting their climate solutions. Our Gallup Polls would show 100% of Americans “very concerned” about climate change and the future. Fossil fuels would remain in the ground, and an explosion of carbon tax funded alternative energy projects would cover the globe.

Alas, we are not quite there yet. Instead, we sit idly inside our homes while the house burns around us.  Call it a “failure to communicate” or environmental illiteracy, the fact is we are more concerned about retirement accounts and fantasy football, than we are about acidifying oceans and a rapidly warming world. Sadly, we are environmentally illiterate and confused. And that is a dangerous combination during a time of great environmental urgency.


Middlebury’s 50 Year Environmental Studies Celebration

“Fight pollution and poverty at the same time,” urged Keynote Speaker Van Jones as he addressed students, faculty, and friends gathered in Mead Memorial Chapel to celebrate Middlebury College’s 50 years of environmental education and leadership. A CNN Correspondent and former green jobs advisor to President Obama, Van Jones challenged his audience to get out of their comfort zone and follow their dreams to fight pollution, end social injustice, and work with opponents. He reminded us the United States is a privileged nation which comprises a mere 5% of the planet yet contributes 25% of global greenhouse gases; a nation of incarceration, where 25% of the world’s prisoners reside. Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 4.13.12 PM

Van Jones spoke with humor, passion, and candor. His solar energy work in the blighted city of Oakland won national recognition as he put unemployed people and high school students to work installing solar panels on city rooftops through his Oakland Green Jobs Corps. Van Jones explained his work promoting green jobs and fixing the criminal just system was at times brutally difficult, incredibly frustrating, and with major setbacks. He offered that “sometimes dreams do come true” and that we all have tremendous opportunities to change the world. We just need to be mindful of the challenges.

There were so many important points made during Van Jones’ keynote and the following day’s panel discussion facilitated by Bill McKibben. What follows are my favorite lines which, though I hope represent what was said verbatim, may be better described as paraphrased statements.

  • “How can environmental literacy become a liberal art?” –Middlebury College President, Laurie L. Patton
  • “You can love your kids and your grandkids by taking care of the planet.” –Van Jones
  • “We’re finally seeing a path. We’re starting to work together. That the only viable solutions are to work together.” –Van Jones
  • “California spends more money on prisons than on universities.” –Van Jones
  • “No single discipline will solve all these problems. You can end up putting on blinders when you stay within your discipline.” –Panelist
  • “It’s okay to fail. A lot that we learned is now old. We must relearn.” –Panelist
  • “Environmental studies are just part of what you study to become a well-rounded person.” –Panelist
  • “Love your momma (creator). Love your house (Earth).” –Van Jones
  • “We need to learn to keep on persisting through failure and fatigue.” –Panelist
  • “Keep in mind how all you do fits into the bigger picture.” –Panelist

Greed: The Evil Root of Climate Change

“Money is the root of all evil”, I commented to Father after a powerful mass and homily on greed.  “It’s the love of money which is the root of all evil”, he responded. Ahhh. So it’s okay to think about money, just not love it. Greed is a demon. No question. And when it comes to environmental impacts or social justice, corporate greed can be especially demonic.P1000217

We know the story all too well. Corporate greed leads to lies, cheating, and buying whatever necessary to cover up the truth (can you say, “Volkswagen”?). Take the tobacco industry for example. In the 1950s and 60s, scientists reported the connection between cigarette smoking and cancer. Their simple message: smoke cigarettes, get cancer. However, it took decades before legislation was enacted and the general public made aware of smoking’s link with cancer. One wonders how many lives might have been saved if legislative leaders heeded the scientific research and enacted strict regulations back in the 1960s (500,000 American lives are lost to smoking each year according to the CDC).

The latest expose′ of a corporation (other than Volkswagen) doing what’s best for the bottom line at any cost is Exxon Mobil.  Hoping to dispel growing evidence during the 1970s that increasing carbon emissions caused climate change, Exxon funded its own research in the 1980s which drew the same worrisome conclusion: burning fossil fuels leads to increased climate change. And just as the Tobacco industry did in the 60s and 70s, Exxon hid the data and misinformed the public lest shareholders, executives, and board members lose the monies locked up in vast underground oil reserves. Exxon Mobil funded (and continues to do so) the campaigns of climate change denying politicians, conducted new “research” to challenge climate change science, and confused the public in strategic and cunning ways. And here we are 30 years later with the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.

What Volkswagen, Exxon, and the Tobacco Industry knowingly did to increase profits and share holder stock portfolios at any expense is sinful, destructive, and yes, evil. Perhaps it’s time we find a quiet place and think about what we value?  Do we value money over people? Money over the environment? Money over social justice?  We have the technology and know-how to arrest the spiraling levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We have the support of religious leaders world-wide, and we have a global community that recognizes the severity of climate change. We have all we need to fight climate change, so let’s remember our core values and do what’s right for the environment and our future.

Why I Chose Rooftop Solar

I chose rooftop solar for two good reasons: to save money and help fight climate change. Apex Solar, the installers of my four kilowatt system, told me I’d save $72/month in electricity bills at current power rates with a 30 year lifetime savings of $35,000.  Better yet, the system will be producing 85% of the electricity it is generating now in 30 years. In other words, sunlight to electricity conversion efficiency lasts a long time. I also chose to go solar for the environment. I calculated the moderate four kilowatt system located on my garage will annually reduce carbon emissions by three tons (6,000 pounds). The whole system costs $54/month (15 year loan), well below the $72/month in savings.P1000261

Solar energy is cheap relative to other electricity sources, which wasn’t always the case. During the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter installed panels on the White House at a module cost of $100 per watt.  Today, solar panels are $.50 per watt. Solar energy is less expensive than fossil fuels, and thanks to Moore’s Law, costs will continue decreasing as the technology improves. What’s not to love about solar? It’s inexpensive, reduces carbon emissions, and creates jobs.

I own my solar system thanks to the ITC Solar Tax Credit and New York State Tax Credit which reduced the price by 55%. Incentivizing renewable energy solutions through tax credits is evidence of good political leadership–which is why I’m urging my elected officials to extend the ITC Solar Tax Credit beyond its 2016 expiration date. The investments have led to thousands of solar installation jobs around the state, reductions in carbon emissions, and a general sense of good will as people grapple with ways to fight climate change. I’m also feeling good about the legacy I’m leaving for my daughter’s generation and those that follow. As my colleague at work commented after recently having a solar rooftop installed at his home, “Someone asked me, ‘At my age why would I do it.  Isn’t the payback too long?’  I’m thinking, “At the planet’s age, why wouldn’t we do it?  Aren’t the costs of not acting too great?”  He then added, “This one is for Cylas (his grandson).  Every little bit helps.”  Indeed.



What’s All This Fuss About Climate Change?

Seriously, things are good so what’s the fuss about the climate? I don’t really feel any big changes in my life. Yup, today is but another typical day. I woke up and brewed my Costa Rican dark roast coffee, had some granola cereal, ate a banana, and stopped at the supermarket for some California organic grapes and locally baked raspberry cookies. Then off for my 14 mile commute to work. There were no severe weather events to deal with. I didn’t have any water issues, and the sky is blue and temperatures comfortable. Life is good.Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 4.13.12 PM

I’ll fess up that I did hear a few things on the radio that briefly caught my attention. I guess California is doing a really good job water rationing as they cope with their historic drought (Thank God. Those red grapes from California are delicious!). The fires in Washington state have expanded to an area the size of Rhode Island (Isn’t Rhode Island like one of the smallest states in the US?), and New York has started this new downtown flood control project in preparation for the next Superstorm Sandy. Oh, and I did hear that Salmon runs in Washington and Alaska are down nearly 90% due to a lack of water from the drought (Yes, but did I mention how delicious my salmon dinner was?). This climate change stuff is far removed, and all in all, doesn’t seem to impact me.

C’est la vie. Many of us live comfortably with the discomforting news of climate change easily exorcised by the click of a button. News of the slow and steady churn of rising sea levels, dwindling species, increasing temperatures, etc… are such that they’ve become the new norm. And we proceed with our lives failing to realize the climate change urgency upon us. We know if we get too serious about the issue people will freak out and shut down, helpless to act or deal with this omnipresent force of nature–a force we tampered with. We opened up the Pandora’s Box of climate change through relentless extraction of natural resources, and it’s time to stop pretending everything is honky dory and start getting serious. We can begin by electing political leaders who understand climate change and have climate solutions that include a quick end to fossil fuels and a new market model driven by sustainability rather than consumption.





$44 Trillion Reasons Why We Need The Clean Power Plan

$44 trillion is a lot of money. Yet that is what research by U.S banking giant Citi-group projects the global price of climate change will be by 2060 if we fail to reduce carbon emissions starting now. Let’s forget all the environmental climate change nasties and consider just the bottom line: acting aggressively and globally to fight climate change is a very, very good financial investment. New jobs, improved energy infrastructure, clean air, reduced health problems, and more come with an end to fossil fuels. And, of course, $44 trillion in savings.Screen Shot 2014-05-07 at 4.04.50 PM

Each of us can do his or her part to reduce climate change costs, but political leadership will ultimately shape the necessary national and global policies and laws required to make the switch over to a carbon-zero energy system. And the U.S. Government is taking on that leadership role through its recently released Clean Power Plan, which for the first time ever sets national carbon emission standards for power plants. From the government website,

  • “The Clean Power Plan cuts significant amounts of power plant carbon pollution and the pollutants that cause the soot and smog that harm health, while advancing clean energy innovation, development and deployment, and laying the foundation for the long-term strategy needed to tackle the threat of climate change. By providing states and utilities ample flexibility and the time needed to achieve these pollution cuts, the Clean Power Plan offers the power sector the ability to optimize pollution reductions while maintaining a reliable and affordable supply of electricity for ratepayers and businesses.”

There will be upfront costs to the Plan, but those will pale in comparison to the $44 trillion in climate change damage if we do nothing.  And the upfront costs are an investment which the Economic Policy Institute predicts will create 360,000 new (and well-paying) renewable energy sector jobs by 2020. California is a good example of renewable energy’s labor benefits. According to UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, 10,200 renewable energy jobs were created in California the past five years to expand solar electric generation at state utilities–jobs that average $78,000/year with health and pension benefits.

Sadly, fossil fuel companies and coal-producing states are unhappy with the Plan, and 15 states have filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the Plan. Let’s not think blue state, red state, or neutral state. Rather, let’s think about our planet’s well-being. When a banking institution researches climate change and finds $44 trillion will be the cost of climate inaction, the solution is clear. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan is a significant step forward to reducing carbon emissions and reducing climate change. It is a Plan that this country needs now. Let your legislatures know you support the Clean Power Plan.


If You Think Science Education Is Expensive, Try Climate Change

Okay, that’s a play of words on one of my all time favorite bumper stickers, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” The motto suggests a failure to invest in education will lead to waves of ignorant high school graduates unable to fully contribute to a democratic society. Using that same logic, failure to educate our youth about climate change will lead to a populace cognitively unfit to address our very serious climate problem. In other words, our future graduates will struggle to make informed decisions on such things as supporting a carbon tax, believing climate change denying politicians, or proactively reducing their carbon footprints by driving less, eating lower on the food chain, etc. A 2015 survey showing 63% of Americans think global warming is happening is a clear indication we have a long way to go in educating our students about climate change (98% of scientists believe humans are causing our climate to heat up).Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 8.52.01 AM

People do better when they know better, which is why our schools must educate our youth about climate change science. And not just the foundational elements of climate science (energy flow, atmospheric and oceanic composition and processes, anthropogenic factors, etc…), but also the interplay of climate change with politics, social science, and economics. Schools need to develop/use rigorous and relevant climate change curricula that embed the Next Generation Science Standards with literacy, math, social studies, and the arts. Persuasive essays to make a case for carbon taxation; statistical analyses of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and temperature changes over time; artistic expressions of a futuristic renewable energy age or sustainable city; or phenological field studies exploring bud burst and insect hatch times.  The possibilities are endless.

Whether choosing the next U.S. President, voting on a carbon tax, or adopting carbon neutral lifestyle changes, our future high school graduates will need to know better the consequences of a climate-changed world. They will need to understand the difference between CFCs and CO2, between anthropogenic and natural sources of greenhouse gases, and between carbon taxation versus free market cap and trade systems. Otherwise, we are doomed to the follies of a fossil fuel industry committed to extracting every last bit of carbon in their vast underground holdings regardless of the long-term climatic implications. And that is a very high price for climate change ignorance.