Climate Bafflegab: the words Big Business uses to keep us ignorant

Bafflegab: language deliberately used to confuse, obscure, baffle

The Limits to Growth, a report commissioned by The Club of Rome, hit the book stands in 1972. Widely discussed at the time, it’s a study of industrial and population growth in relation to the supply of resources. It concluded that, unless the world changed its ways, limits to growth would become evident by the year 2072. Since its publication, more than 30 million copies of the book have sold, and it continues to generate debate to this day.

Photo of The Limits to Growth, 1st Edition cover

Question: why is the phrase ‘Limits to Growth’ so rarely mentioned in the press or elsewhere? What happened to it? Answer: Big Business, aided by its friends in government, buried it. Business leaders like to talk about growing their businesses, never about stunting them. Outside of academic circles, talk about limiting growth is considered bad taste, like spitting in public. How did Business manage to suppress the phrase so completely? Easy. It promoted an alternative phrase more to its liking. It’s called ‘Sustainable Development’, a masterpiece of bafflegab.

Google’s Ngram Viewer consists of a search engine and a database of about five million books published up to the year 2008. It provides a way to chart the frequency over time of any set of words or phrases appearing in the data set of printed texts. By choosing 1900 as the start date, and entering these three phrases, industrial development, limits to growth, and sustainable development, the Viewer generates the following chart.

Image of Google Ngram chart
Google Ngram Chart. (All) = case insensitive

The People who write books tend to use the words and phrases acceptable to the people they hope will read them. Books reflect what people are talking about at any point in time. When it was published in 1972, the Club of Rome’s book reflected the growing discomfort with industrialization. That’s when talk about ‘industrial development’ started heading downhill (see chart) and talk about ‘limits to growth’ began to gain traction. Big Business had to act fast and it did. By 1990, the new, business-friendly phrase ‘sustainable development’ had eclipsed the phrase ‘limits to growth’, and would soon take over from the phrase ‘industrial development’.

Does that mean Big Business is out of the woods, free to carry on as before? Not quite. There remains the question of global warming and its bafflegab replacement phrase ‘climate change’.  Yes, that’s right, ‘Climate change’ is a phrase chosen and promoted by Big Business in its ongoing attempt to bury the words ‘global warming’. Business hates the phrase ‘global warming’. The words imply that, not only is the world getting hotter, but that there’s no limit to how hot It will get. Business does not want to get blamed for cooking its customers. ‘Climate change’ by comparison, sounds positively benign. As President Trump has remarked, the climate could “change back again”.

Here’s what the Ngram chart shows when the phrases global warming and climate change are added.

Image of Google Ngram Chart
Google Ngram Chart (All) = case insensitive

‘Climate change’ and ‘sustainable development’, the two bafflegab phrases, are up there leading the pack, exactly where Business likes to see them. ‘Global warming’, the truthful phrase, although still in the race, is lagging.  ‘Limits to growth’, also a truthful phrase, remains lying in the dirt — for now.

New York City six years after Sandy. Is it ready for the next one?

More than six years have past since superstorm Sandy swamped New York City on October 22, 2012. If a storm of similar strength hit the city today, the streets that Sandy flooded would once again flood to the same depth. While there’s been lots of talk (and some planning), little actual construction work has been done to protect the city from another serious storm surge. However, parts of the city, lower Manhattan in particular, have been ‘hardened’ in a multitude of  ways that are generally invisible to the casual observer.

The city’s subway system suffered an estimated $4.8 billion worth of damage due to the flooding of tunnels with salt water. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced (May 16, 2013) plans to ‘flood-proof’ the subway and protect its critical elements against “similar storms that we expect to arrive in the future.” No easy task. The system is old and wasn’t designed with super storms and sea level rise in mind. Individual openings through which water can enter the system from the surface in flood prone areas are many — more than 3,500 according to an estimate made at the time — all of them requiring closure. The list of subway elements in need of flood proofing, included:

Station entrances, ventilator gratings, vents, elevator shafts and openings, access hatches, emergency exits, manholes, utility entrances, escalators, machine rooms, pump rooms, sewer lines, conduit ducts, utility services, lighting, HVAC systems, building entrances and other right of way equipment.

The smell and feel of fetid subway air puffing up through sidewalk gratings are sensations experienced daily by New Yorker’s. How to stop flood waters pouring down through those same gratings, was just one of the challenges faced by the Transportation Authority. One solution: metal hatches fitted under the gratings and ready to slide across the openings when needed. The following photo from 2017 shows MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, explaining the new system to the press.

Photo of MTA Chaireman and press examining subway grating flood prevention devices
MTA chairman Joe Lhota and members of the press examine subway grating flood prevention devices. Image: MTA

Because the openings are so large, flood proofing subway entrance stairways is critically important. The photo below shows an MTA employee deploying a stairwell Flex-Gate (ILC Dover Co) from its housing.

Photo of MTA employee deploying subway entrance flood prevention device
MTA employee deploying subway entrance flood prevention device. MTA Image

New York’s private sector business’s also suffered heavy damage from superstorm Sandy. Before Sandy, equipment such as electrical gear and emergency generators were typically installed in the basements of the city’s high rise buildings. That equipment was destroyed when basements flooded. Repairs took weeks, in some cases, months. Some older inhabitants of residential towers, unable to navigate dark stairwells, were trapped in their apartments for days. Architects and builders have learned from the reports. The American Copper Building provides a good example (photo below). This copper clad, residential duel-tower, built at 626 First Ave., incorporates several post-Sandy design features:

Photo of American Copper Bldg., New York City
American Copper Building.

(1) The building has no penthouse. Instead, the top floors are given over to emergency equipment designed to provide essential services to the whole building for at least a week in the event a serious storm shuts the City down. According to real estate sources, the owners, JDS Development Group (Architects: SHoP) are happy to provide the feature because, in this new age of climate change, they see it as a sales asset That compensates for the loss of penthouse revenue.
(2) Stone rather than wood is used as decorative material in the building’s lobby areas. The rational for its use is that stone will suffer less damage from being submerged in flood waters, and should therefore take less time to repair.
(3) Installing electrical gear on the second floor of new high-rise buildings rather than in their basements, guarantees that the equipment will remain safe from flood waters. This flood-proofing technique has been incorpoated into the design of the American Copper Building, as the building’s blank second-floor windows indicate (see photo below).

Photo of American Copper Building from E 36th Street
Americans Copper Building from E 36th Street. Google image

The storm that hit New York in 2012, was a category 2 hurricane. Is the city prepared for a category 3 or 4 hurricane? New Yorker’s do not want to find out.

Juliana v. United States: the battle heats up

My earlier post dated January 19th, outlined ‘Juliana v. United States’,  the youth climate lawsuit. The suit claims that the federal government, because of its ongoing failure to limit fossil fuel extraction and use, has violated the young people’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and failed to protect the country’s public-trust resources. The case is currently held up in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals following an appeal by the government, the latest of many attempts by the Trump administration to derail the action.

Photo: James R. Browning Courthouse, San Francisco CA
James R. Browning Courthouse, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, San Francisco CA. Image: Google

On February 4th., the court agreed to begin hearings on the government’s appeal next June, in Portland, Oregon. Also on February 4th., Donald Trump nominated David Bernhardt to head the U.S. Department of the Interior. Bernhardt had become acting head following the departure of scandal-plagued Ryan Zinke.

Photo of David Bernhardt
David Bernhardt. Photo credit: D. Zalubowski/AP

It’s expected that Mr. Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, will continue to work on advancing  the President’s “energy dominance” agenda for the country. According to the New York Times, this has already involved “some of the largest rollbacks of public-land protections in the nation’s history . . .  opening millions of acres of public land and water to oil, gas and coal companies.” The Guardian of Dec. 16, 2018 quotes Natural Resources Defense Council’s Bobby McEnaney: “It’s not so much who [Mr. Bernhardt] has helped, it’s who hasn’t he helped in industry so far. The notion that he could extricate himself from benefiting his former clients is impossible.”

Reduced to its essential meaning, the young people’s lawsuit is accusing the Trump administration of ecocide — the destruction of the natural world, including all the humans in it. Underlying that accusation is the fact that, while the plaintiffs are young, the people causing the destruction are old — like Trump. It follows that while the old people have only a few years left to live, the young people have their whole lives ahead of them, provided the old people can be prevented from killing them prematurely.

Despite the Juliana lawsuit, and perhaps in spiteful reaction to it, President Trump, with the help of Mr. Bernhardt and many others like him, has actively persisted in his objective, which is to open up every square foot of the country’s federal lands to fossil fuel extraction. His current push to open the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves to offshore drilling, has caused even some Republican legislators to become queasy.

Map of USA showing federal lands
U.S. federal lands. Map produced by Bureau of Land Management, Washington DC

On February 7th, reacting to the Trump administration’s nose-thumbing behaviour, the Juliana plaintiffs filed an “urgent motion” in the Ninth Circuit Court, asking it to grant an injunction preventing the government (pending the resolution of its appeal) from: mining coal on federal public lands; engaging in offshore oil and gas exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf; developing new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines and fossil fuel export facilities.

Accompanying and following the motion were supporting briefs from more than 30 diverse groups and individuals, including one from Zero Hour (zerohour.org) on behalf of 32,340 children who responded to an online petition.

The government filed its opposition to the plaintiffs motion on February 19th.

 

Big Oil rattled by Electric Vehicles; Senator Barrasso tries to help

Worldwide sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have been climbing steadily since 2010. While the proportion of EVs to new car sales is still less than 3% worldwide, the oil industry is disturbed by the trend in total numbers sold (see graph below).

Graph showing sales of EVs in leading markets 2011 to 2017
Sales of EVs in leading markets. Image from Wikipedia.org

Transportation is now the country’s largest source of global warming carbon dioxide. If CO2 emissions are to be reduced, EVs will have to play a major role. For oil refiners, that’s bad news. Electric Vehicles don’t run on gasoline, which means less profit at the pump.

What do giant corporations do when confronted by threats to their market dominance? The simple answer is, they buy political influence. But they also need to be helpful (in a practical way) to the politicians they aim to influence. That is, they need to show them exactly what legislation to adopt and pass into law. That’s where ALEC comes in.

ALEC, short for American Legistative Exchange Council, is a conservative, non-profit, bill-writing organization headquartered in Arlington VA. Its motto is, ‘“Limited Government, Free Markets, Federalism”. Membership includes state legislators and private sector representatives, people who get together to discuss and agree on their political objectives and then convert those objectives into the legislative language of government bills. These ‘model’ bills are then distributed to states that want to adopt them. The bills generated by ALEC reflect the politics of its right wing, conservative, Republican membership. Bills aimed at reducing corporate taxes, cutting environmental regulations, opposing gun control, introducing tough voter ID rules, and weakening labor unions, are typical of the organization’s output.

Several nations, including the U.S., have introduced incentives designed to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles. The U.S. offers a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 to people who buy new EVs., a measure that predates the Trump era. Last November, and again in December, oil industry representatives and state legislators held ALEC meetings to discuss (in private) how to kill the tax credit. According to The Guardian of 4th Dec., the participants secretly approved resolutions “supporting stripping tax benefits from electric vehicles and endorsing Donald Trump’s pro-fossil fuel energy agenda. And they voted down a proposal to limit monopoly control of the power industry, which backers said would give consumers more choice and help grow renewable electricity faster and more cheaply.”

Entities linked to the ALEC meetings included Marathon Petrolium, the nation’s largest refiner, and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers Association (AFPM). Marathon alone has reported spending close to a million dollars lobbying Congress about the EV tax credit and other issues. The fossil fuel industry’s man in Congress is John Barrasso, Republican Senator from Wyoming.

Photo of U.S. Senator John Barrasso
U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY). Image: Facebook

Barrasso heads the Senate Environment & Public Works Committe, and sits on the Energy & Natural Resources Committe. According to OpenSecrets.org Barrasso received $520,650 in campaign financing from the fossil fuel industry over the period 2013 to 2018. Last October, the Senator introduced a bill to Congress to revoke the EV tax credit and to impose a highway use fee on electric vehicles to make up for the fact that their owners  don’t pay a gasoline tax.

On March 6 of this year, Barrasso Spoke from the Senate Floor on the subject of the Democrats “Green New Deal”. He was responding to a challenge from Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), to tell the Senate what the Republicans planned to do about climate change. Here’s part of what Barrasso said (Senate Committee Press release):

It’s a plan: cut carbon through innovation, not regulation. The question is: do we believe the climate is changing? Do humans have an impact? The answer is yes to both. . . . Second, the United States and the world will continue to rely on affordable and abundant fossil fuel, including coal, to power our economies for decades to come. And we need to also rely on innovation. Not new taxes, not punishing global agreements. That’s the ultimate solution.

Interesting plan — Stick to fossil fuels and innovate. Innovate how? I’m guessing ‘green plan’ type innovations such as wind generators, photovoltaics, battery storage systems, and electric vehicles, are not what the Senator has in mind.

Four-door electric sedans currently sell In the U.S. for $30,000 and up. How will the oil industry react when prices fall? The image below shows the EV currently being built in China  by Great Wall Motors. It’s listed at around $9,000, little more than the tax credit Senator Barrasso is so keen on killing. That’s the future the oil industry will have to contend with.

Climate science bugs Trump — He reaches for the bug-off

Aerial photo of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Maine
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, one of several large military bases at risk from Sea Level Rise. Image credit: U.S. Navy

President Trump is vexed. Despite his well publicized positions on global warming — it’s a hoax; it doesn’t exist; etc., — elements within his own administration continue to insist that the phenomenon poses a threat to national security. For example, Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, recently submitted the agency’s Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee for its review. The report states that “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

The problem for Mr. Trump is what to do about these public servants who contradict his position on climate change. His natural impulse is to fire them — learned behaviour from his entertainment days. But taking that approach with the military would likely backfire. He would have to sack  a slew of senior officers. The country’s largest military bases are built on the coast and under increasing threat from sea level rise, storm surge, and hurricanes. The top brass know that and have said so publicly.

The following YouTube video from Democracy Now, shows damage caused by Hurricane Michael to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, on October 10, 2018. It also gets New York Times journalist Dave Philipps’s take on the reaction of the Trump Administration. Hurricane Michael was the first ever on-record category-4 cyclone to hit the Florida panhandle .

If there is one thing Mr. Trump has learned during his time in office, it is that it’s not easy in a democracy to silence dissenters. Silencing them can’t be accomplished simply by decree. To succeed, even partially, directives need to be justified in some way. That’s what Mr. Trump has lacked — justification for gagging, or at least quieting, the climate change chatterers in his administration. Now he’s aiming to rectify that situation.

Photo of professor William Happer, Ph.D.
William Happer, Ph.D. Image: Heartland Inst. website

According to the Feb. 20 Washington Post, the White House is assembling a panel to assess whether climate change poses a threat to  national security. The man slated to head the panel is William Happer. Happer is an emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University. He’s also a climate change sceptic with a bee in his bonnet about carbon dioxide (CO2). While Happer agrees that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, he claims that most of the atmospheric warming that has occurred over the past century is due to natural causes, not to humans actions. He further claims that the release of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, far from being bad for the planet, is actually good for it and for the plants and humans who live on it. Happer believes that CO2 has been unfairly maligned by the scientific community. He now fancies himself as the gas’s defender in chief.

While Professor Happer’s opinions are popular among fossil fuel producers, they are music to the President’s ears. Why? Because such opinions appeal to his support base. According to David Smith reporting for the Guardian, Mr. Trump, during his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on March 2, 2019, had this to say:

 “I think the  [Democrat’s] new green deal, or whatever the hell they call it. The Green New Deal, right? I encourage it. I think it’s really something that they should promote.” — laughter from the crowd — “No planes. No energy. When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric. ‘Let’s hurry up. Darling, darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.”   —  cheers and applause from the crowd.

When the President’s climate change panel concludes its work — if it ever does — will its findings add to humanity’s sum of useful knowledge? What do you think?

 

 

 

How to quit using fossil fuels the Hawaiian way

Just three days after President Trump announced his June 3, 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a bill committing his state to the goals of the international agreement. On signing the document, Governor Ige said:

“We are the testing grounds. As an island state, we are especially aware of the limits of our natural environment. Tides are getting higher, biodiversity is shrinking, coral is bleaching, coastlines are eroding, weather is becoming more extreme. We must acknowledge these realities at home. That is why Hawaii is united in its political leadership on tackling climate change.”

Hawaii Governor David Ige
Hawaii Governor David Ige. Image: Twitter.com – @GovDavidIge

A year later, Governor Ige signed another environmental bill, this time committing his state to achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. According to the new law, by that year, 100% of the state’s electricity must be produced from renewables — photovoltaics, wind, geothermal, biofuels — completely displacing fossil fuels in the process.

The following figure provides a measure of the task ahead. Prior to 2008, less than 4% of the state’s electricity was generated from renewables. By 2017, that had grown to about 26%. Today, the percentage is around 30%.

Figure from Rhodium Group, April 19, 2019 report
Image from Rhodium Group, April 19, 2018 report

Some might think that the environmental actions of a small, isolated state (pop 1.4 mil) is of little account in the grand scheme of things. They’d be wrong. The work involves more than simply replacing old technology with PV panels and wind mills. Hawaii has six power grids, one for each of its larger islands. The current mix of renewable energy sources includes at least 60 utility-scale plants and 150,000+ residential rooftop solar systems, all with outputs that fluctuate depending on time of day, weather conditions, and other factors. How to integrate such diverse systems in a way that maintains grid stability (no overloads, brownouts, shutdowns) — that’s the real challenge. And the project is being watched closely by other states keen on cutting  their dependence on fossil fuels.

The key to success will depend on energy storage — batteries that can store energy when the systems are producing an excess, and return it when they are not producing enough. Judging by the rapid pace of solar development now taking place in Hawaii, that should not be a problem.

A Jan 3, 2019 news release from the utility Hawaiian Electric, says it has submitted contract proposals to the state’s Public Utilities Commission for seven grid-scale, solar-plus-storage projects on three islands. “The projects – three on Oahu, two on Maui and two on Hawaii Island – will add approximately 262 megawatts (MW) of solar energy with 1,048 megawatt-hours (MWh) of storage. The energy storage can provide four hours of electricity that can further reduce fossil fuel use during peak demand in the evening or at other times when the sun isn’t shining.”

Solar array, Poipu, Hawaii
Solar array, Poipu, Hawaii. Photo from Scientific American. Credit: Getty Images

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has been helping the Hawaiian Electric Companies respond to their grid stability issues. Commenting on the work (NREL News, April 24, 2018) Martha Symko-Davies, program manager for NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility said, “We’ve helped Hawaii integrate not just solar, but also storage, electric vehicle infrastructure, and more. If this can be done in Hawaii, it can be replicated anywhere else—the question is not ‘if’ we can do it, it’s ‘how’ we can do it. How do we apply the solutions we’ve helped implement in Hawaii and translate those solutions into ones that can work in other, mainland states?”

Map of Hawaiian Islanda
Hawaiian Islands – Image: Google Maps

Idaho: safe from Sea Level Rise but not from Drought and Fire

Crown fire in mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016
Crown fire in a mixed conifer forest, southern Idaho, 2016. Photo by Karl Greer, U.S. Forest Service

Idaho, an inland State, most of which lies above 2,000 feet in elevation, is safe from Sea Level Rise, but not from the warming atmosphere that’s causing it. Average summer temperature across the Pacific Northwest are predicted to rise by several degrees in the coming years. That will translate into serious trouble for the regions forests.  The Seattle Times of Sept. 11, 2017, quotes Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington: “We expect to see more fires and bigger fires. People are just beginning to wake up to this, but public lands managers do think about this and the potential risks.”

The 2018 fire season validated that prediction. The  image below shows a satellite snapshot (as an overlay on a map of the U.S.) of dense smoke across the West Coast on the morning of August 20, 2018.  The smoke cover extends north into Canada, south to Texas, and east to the Great Lakes. Idaho is hidden.

Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018
Satellite snapshot of wildfire smoke across the U.S. Aug. 20, 2018. Image: NOAA

According to the U.S. Forest Service budget report for 2015, climate change has extended the wildfire season by an average of 78 days per year since 1970. Funding for fire fighting has remained flat for years, and rising costs have repeatedly broken the Service’s annual budget. Last year, Congress passed a ‘fire funding fix’. The bill, which will become effective in 2020, provides $2.25 billion to cover fire fighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. In addition, the bill contained half a billion in emergency fire fighting funds for 2018.

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho, was the principal backer of the ‘fire funding fix’. Speaking about the new funding regime at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on May 3, 2018, he had this to say:

“It’s taken us . . . thirty years to get here in terms of what was not the adequate management we needed to be putting into place on the ground. We are not going to solve it all in one fire season. So it’s true, we’re still going to be dealing with some of the things that have been building up over time and are giving us the problems that we have now. That being said, we are now going to start managing properly, and, as Vickie Christiansen, the Acting Chief of the [U.S.] Forest Service said, we are now going to move toward that point — which will take us some years to achieve — but to that point where fire is the servant not the manager of our forests.”

Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho
Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho. Image: McClatchy Videos

Senator Crapo doesn’t believe (or refuses to admit) that Global Warming is real, or that it’s an unfolding catastrophe caused by the burning of fossil fuels. That’s why he doesn’t mention the impact of climate change. As far as Crapo is concerned, the increasing number of wildfire disasters are due to the cumulative effect over thirty years of improper forest management practices, and that the problems will be solved because now, the Forest Service will have enough money to do a better job. You’ll recall how the Service has already received tips from President Trump on ways to improve their forest management practices.

Will increased funding enable the Forest Service to put a stop to the uncontrollable burning up of the western forests? It can help. It can delay. It can mitigate. But It can’t succeed until the root cause of the problem — the increasing temperature of our planet’s atmosphere — is brought under control.

On June 3, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. A month earlier, 22 Republican Senators jointly sent a letter to the President urging him to dump the deal. Mike Crapo and his fellow Idaho Senator, Jim Risch, were among the signatories. According to The Guardian of June I, 2017, the 22 Senators had collectively received $10.7 million in campaign donations from fossil fuel industries, over the previous three election cycles (2012, 2014, 2016). Mike Crapo’s share was $110,250. Jim Risch received $123,850.

America currently remains a party to the Paris Accord. Three years must elapse before its withdrawal becomes official. Is there any possibility that Idaho will support efforts to reverse President Trump’s decision to withdraw? Considering Idaho’s current standing as a solid red State, and the apparent fealty of its Republican politicians to the fossil fuel industry, that seems unlikely. Every stick of Idaho’s forests will burn before some minds are changed.

There is, however, an indication that light has begun to penetrate Idaho’s Republican darkness.  Brad Little, a Republican, was sworn in as Idaho’s 33rd Governor on January 4th. According to High Country News, the Governor, while addressing the Idaho Environmental Forum on January 16th, told the crowd that “Climate Change is real.” His statement reportedly reduced the crowd to stunned silence. Responding to questions later, he said, “Climate is changing, there’s no question about it. We’ve just gotta figure out how to cope with it and we gotta slow it down. Now, reversing it is going to be a big darn job.” (quote from Idaho Press)

Map of the United States showing location of Idaho
The red State of Idaho. Image: Wikipedia

The 1,000-year Tennessee flood of 2010 — what are the odds?

It started raining on Saturday, May 1, 2010. By the time the rain stopped 36 hours later, large areas of middle and western Tennessee were under water. Fiftytwo of the state’s nintyfive counties would later qualify for disaster assistance. The amount of water that bucketed down that weekend was epic. The meteorologists called it ‘a thousand-year flood.’ What’s remarkable about the weather system that caused so much damage is that it showed up unannounced. No named storm was involved.

Map of Tennessee showing rainfall distribution May 1 & 2, 2010

The rains that inundated Houston, Texas, in 2017, were carried in from the Gulf by hurricane Harvey. The rains that dumped on the Carolinas in 2018, were transported from the Atlantic by hurricane Florence. People knew those tropical storms were coming, days in advance. We could watch the approaching cyclones on our TV screens. The deluge that swamped Tennessee in 2010 arrived without any warning at all. Here’s what the Memphis Office of the National Weather Service had to say:

“A significant weather system brought very heavy rain and severe thunderstorms from Saturday, May 1 through Sunday morning, May 2. A stalled frontal boundary coupled with very moist air streaming northward from the Gulf set the stage for repeated rounds of heavy rainfall. Many locations along the I-40 corridor across western and middle Tennessee reported in excess of 10 to 15 inches, with some locations receiving up to 20 inches according to Doppler radar estimates.”

It was an ordinary weather system — except for the “very moist air.” Apparently that’s what made the difference between a typical Tennessee rain storm and a thousand-year flood.  What is a thousand-year flood, anyway? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website (climate.gov) contains an engaging article titled, “How can we call something a thousand-year storm if we don’t have a thousand years of climate observation?”  Here’s my interpretation of the statistics it covers:

Records gathered over the past 100+ years showing the correlation between rainfall amount and flooding are available for most parts of the country. Flood predictions are derived from the statistical analysis of these records. The term ‘thousand-year flood’ means that the chance for a flood of a certain magnitude to occur at a particular place, in any given year, is one in a thousand or 0.1%. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year (2019) or in any following year, is one in a thousand.

But wait a minute. If the meteorologists are doing their job, they are constantly updating the available records with the most recent data. And if (as news reports from around the world suggest) the existing records are being broken with increasing frequency, statistical predictions will eventually reflect that trend. Floods that were once labeled 1,000-year floods, may now more properly by labeled 500-year or 100-year floods. For Tennessee, it means that the chance for a 2010-sized flood to re-occure this year, could be one in a hundred rather than one in a thousand.

How should politicians, concerned about the safety of the people they represent, respond to an increasingly dangerous climate? Since the problem is global, the response must be global. Hence The Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the international effort to halt the rise in temperature of the world’s atmosphere and thereby limit its destabilizing effect on climate.

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a coalition of 16 (and counting) U.S. States committed to upholding the objectives of the Paris Agreement. What are the chances that the State of Tennessee will join the Climate Alliance? Considering Tennessee’s current political leadership, about one in a million. The following YouTube video, published December 2009, records the position of GOP House Rep. Marsha Blackburn, on the question of Climate Change — she says: it’s cyclical; the science is not settled; humans are not responsible. Blackburn is now a U.S. Senator representing Tennessee.

 

New Bridge across the Tappan Zee

“In the bosom of one of those spacious coves which indent the eastern shore of the Hudson, at that broad expansion of the river denominated by the ancient Dutch navigators the Tappan Zee, and where they always prudently shortened sail and implored the protection of St. Nicholas when they crossed, there lies a small market town or rural port, which by some is called Greensburgh, but which is more generally and properly known by the name of Tarry Town.”
— From: The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (1820)

Image of new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River
The Tappan Zee/Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. Image produced by American Bridge Co.

The new Tappan Zee Bridge — officially named the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge — crosses the Hudson River at Tarrytown, Westchester Co., New York, about 24 miles north of Midtown, Manhattan. The twin cable-stayed bridge replaces the original Tappan Zee Bridge, which was built during the Korean War. Opened in 1955, the old bridge was designed to carry 100,000 vehicles a day and last fifty years. By the year 2000, it was carrying 140,000 vehicles a day and had started to fall apart. The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in November 2008, injected a sense of urgency into the planning process for a replacement. The replacement project was added to New York’s list of projects eligible for federal funds in 2012 and “fast tracked” for approval by the Obama Administration (a concept foreign to the present Trump administration).

The design/build contract was awarded to a consortium comprised of Fluor Corp., American Bridge Co., Granite Construction, and Traylor Bros Inc. The bridge features a superstructure containing eight general traffic lanes, plus four emergency lanes (four + two, west bound; four + two, east bound). It also features a shared-use path for bikes and pedestrians.

Diagram of new Tappan Zee Bridge showing dimensions
Diagram of new Tappan Zee Bridge with dimensions. Image from American Bridge Co. website

The new bridge was built parallel to the old Tappan Zee bridge. The last of the old bridge’s structure was brought down by explosives on January 15th. The photo below, taken the following day, shows NY Governor Andrew Cuomo surveying the new bridge and the remains of the old bridge. Parts of the old bridge can be seen lying in the river immediately to the left of the new bridge.

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo surveying the new Tappan Zee Bridge from the air
Governor Andrew Cuomo surveying the new and old Tappan Zee Bridges. Photo credit: Melissa DeRosa via Twitter, Jan 16

The new bridge is operated by the NY State Thruway Authority. The Authority plans to introduce electronic (cashless) tolling later this year. This will enable tolling at highway speeds. Overhead surveillance equipment will read license plates and identify types of vehicles as they pass, then automatically send bills to the registered owners. The alternative for drivers who cross the bridge frequently will be to pay in advance by purchasing some sort of electronically readable sticker.

It’s impossible to see a bridge by driving across it. To see the new Tappan Zee Bridge, exit the I-87 via Broadway and head north into Tarrytown. Make your way to Pierson Park on the water front. You’ll find a scenic river walk there. Parking is available off W Main Street, beside the Tarrytown Recreation Community Center and close to Pierson Park (circled in yellow on the satellite image below).

Satellite image of Tappan Zee Bridge , New York
Satellite image of Tappan Zee Bridge. Pierson Park river view path area circled in yellow. Google Maps.

Is the federal government deliberately trampling on your fifth amendment rights? The young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States say yes

Photo of Kelsey Juliana, plaintiff
Kelsey Juliana, plaintiff in Juliana v. United States. Image from Ourchildrenstrust.org Photo: Robin Loznak

Kelsey Juliana is the named plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, which is currently on hold in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2015, Kelsey and twenty other young people (aged 7 to 18 at the time), sued the Federal Government in U.S. District Court, Oregon, for causing life-damaging Climate Change impacts. Listed in the lawsuit are the specific complaints made by each of the young people.

Here’s a summary of Kelsey’s complaint:

Kelsey was born and raised in Oregon. She depends on the resources of the state for her survival and wellbeing. For sustenance she drinks Oregon’s fresh waters and eats the food it produces, including: seafood from Oregon’s marine and estuarine waters; food grown by farmers in the Willamette Valley; and food grown by her family in their garden. For recreation and vacationing she enjoys outdoor activities such as visiting the beaches and tide pools along Oregon’s coast; snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snow camping in winter; hiking, canoeing, and backpacking in warmer weather.

The suit alleges that the affects of Climate Change — drought, warmer winters, declining snowpack, increasing summer temperatures, algal blooms on lakes, intense wildfires — are already harming Kelsey’s drinking water, her food sources, and all the places she enjoys visiting. The suit also contends that in the coming decades, Kelsey will suffer even greater harm from the impacts of ocean acidification and rising sea levels, all because of the federal government’s actions and inactions.

Kelsey’s complaint goes on to say that the federal government has “caused psychological and emotional harm to Kelsey as a result of her fear of a changing climate, her knowledge of the impacts that will occur in her lifetime, and her knowledge that [the government is] continuing to cause harms that threaten her life and wellbeing. As a result of the acts and omissions of [the federal government], Kelsey believes that she will not be able to continue to do all of the things described in this Complaint for her life, health, and enjoyment, nor will she one day be able to share those experiences with her children.”

Photo of Oregon coastal mountains and beach
Oregon Coast. Image from Unsplash.com Photo by Vasiliki Volkova

People blame the government for all sorts of things. What’s so special about Kelsey’s complaint? Nothing, except for the fact that the lawsuit links it directly to the U.S. Constitution.

The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment bars the federal government from depriving a person of ‘life, liberty, or property’ without ‘due process of law’. Kelsey and her co-plaintiffs are claiming that the federal government is violating their due process rights by knowingly causing the climate to change to such an extent that they are being deprived of their way of life and the things that make it livable. Items I & II of the suit’s statement of facts, spell it out:

I. THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HAS KNOWN FOR DECADES THAT CARBON DIOXIDE POLLUTION WAS CAUSING CATASTROPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE AND THAT MASSIVE EMISSION REDUCTIONS AND A NATION-WIDE TRANSITION AWAY FROM FOSSIL FUELS WAS NEEDED TO PROTECT PLAINTIFFS’ CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.
II. IN SPITE OF KNOWING OF THE SEVERE DANGERS POSED BY CARBON POLLUTION, DEFENDANTS CREATED AND ENHANCED THE DANGERS THROUGH FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION, PRODUCTION, CONSUMPTION, TRANSPORTATION, AND EXPORTATION.

Photo of the Navajo Generating Station , Arizona
Coal burning power plant, the Navajo Station, Arizona. Image from nbcnews.com

The federal government does not want to see this lawsuit go to trial. Government lawyers have, several times, petitioned the Oregon District Court, the Ninth Circuit Court, and the Supreme Court, trying to put a stop to it. The government hasn’t yet denied the claim that its climate actions have caused harm to the young plaintiffs. Rather, it has attempted to derail the suit by claiming that they have no right to bring their complaints to court in the first place.

The Ninth Circuit Court is expected to rule soon on the hold it placed on the suit last December. If the ruling is in the plaintiffs favor, the Oregon District Court will set a trial date.

Trump mulls funding for new Hudson River Rail Tunnel, but continues to balk

Photo showing scene inside Penn Station, NYC
Inside Pennsylvania Station, New York City

Every weekday, about 450 trains pass through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel carrying New Jersey commuters to and from NYC’s Penn Station, as well as Amtrak passengers traveling the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York, and Washington. The tunnel is over one hundred years old and seriously decayed, and it can’t be renovated until a new tunnel is built. The estimated cost for a new tunnel: $13 billion.

Chuck Schumer, Democratic Senator from New York and Senate Minority Leader, speaking to transportation planners in December 2016 (Bloomberg News report) said: “We don’t build this, and these tunnels fail, the whole economy will collapse. There will be a deep recession in the New York metropolitan area and a recession probably in the whole country.”

A year earlier, in 2015, the federal government reached an agreement with New York and New Jersey to split the cost of a new tunnel three ways, with the feds (who own the tunnel) paying fifty percent. But when Donald Trump assumed the presidency, what had once been considered a done deal, became undone. No federal funding is guaranteed these days. There are no done deals. Deals are fluid things, subject to cancellation on a whim.

The current president is like the ogre featured in fairy tails, the one pictured lurking under a bridge, blocking traffic and the way forward. What does the ogre want? He wants wins, personal wins, and federal funds are a means of getting them. Need federal funds? Give him a win. No win, no funding. And don’t forget, he’s armed with a bag of derogatory names and a veto-tipped cudgel. If you don’t give this ogre what he wants he’ll clobber you.

Last October, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo starred in a video in which he’s seen inside the Hudson Tunnel pulling loose chunks of concrete from its wall (see: Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits). The New York Times called it a stunt designed solely to win over an audience of one, the one in the Oval Office. Apparently the stunt worked because a month later, the President invited Governor Cuomo to a meeting in Washington to discuss the need for funding.

At a press briefing November 28, the governor described the meeting as “productive.” Did he a get a funding commitment? No. Will he get one? That depends on what’s in it for the President. Some sort of quid pro quo? Support for his boarder wall in exchange for a funding commitment perhaps? Governor Cuomo says no, not from him. What then? The tunnel project, even if it started today, will not be completed for 8 to 10 years. If there’s a win in that situation for Mr. Trump, I don’t see it. Will he support the project simply because it’s the right thing to do? What do you think?
The following YouTube video shows the Press Briefing held by Governor Cuomo following his meeting with President Trump. It’s worth watching in its entirety.

 

Climate Change in Florida — Seeing is Believing

Photo of Miami skyline
Miami, Florida. Image: Unsplash.com. Photo by Muzammil Soorma

Back in 2014, Rick Scott, then republican governor of Florida, was asked if he had a plan to deal with Climate Change. Here’s a 24-second YouTube video clip in which Scott gives his answer: No Plan. That was his position for the remainder of his term in office.

The threat posed by sea level rise to the future of Miami is known and it is dire. Yet people continue to purchase ocean front properties as if no such threat exists. The question is, why? Noah Smith, in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News dated May 3, 2018, suggested that “Increased probability of coastal flooding makes waterfront real estate a bit like a junk bond.” It’s an analogy that calls for elaboration.

A junk bond is a high-yield, moderate-risk security. For example, a city in danger of going broke, may raise money by selling ten-year junk bonds that pay a higher rate of interest (the yield) to attract buyers. The risk to the buyer is that the city may go bankrupt before the ten-year maturity date is reached, in which case the bonds become worthless. Waterfront property threatened by ocean flooding can be compared to that city. The property will continue to attract investors so long as it continues to offer a higher than normal quality of life (real or imagined). That’s the yield. The risk to the buyer in the short term — 10 to 20 years — is the unlikely chance that the property insurers (private or government) run out of money to cover damage when flooding does occur. In other words, the short-term risk to the buyer is negligible.

What about the long term threat posed by sea level rise (3 to 6 feet higher by the end of the century)? As far as Miami real estate transactions are concerned, it hasn’t yet become an issue. The immediate attraction of a higher quality of life (seaside living) has so far trumped whatever worries buyers may have about sea level rise. Furthermore, the prevailing political position has been to avoid giving the buyers reasons to to worry. State officials have taken a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to the threat. There are no zoning laws or other disincentives aimed at discouraging further development in the region’s  flood-prone areas. In effect, the politicians are sitting on their hands, apparently waiting for the ocean to force the issue. 

That raises another question: when forced to act by rising waters, what will the city or the state do to protect the people and their way of life? Move them to higher ground? Miami is built on land that lies barely above sea level. The average elevation of Miami-Dade County is about 6 feet. The highest point in the county is about 25 feet. This means that high-tide flooding already affects those parts of the city that sit at little more than a foot and a half above Mean Sea Level (the average level of the sea between high and low tide). And even conservative predictions say that in 15 to 25 years, sea level will be a foot higher than it is today.

There’s a geological feature called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge stretching along the eastern edge of the Florida peninsula. It consists of outcrops of limestone, which In some places provide marginally higher ground. For example, the North Miami communities known as Little Haiti and Liberty City are built on ridge limestone that rises a few feet higher than the surrounding land. Noah Smith, in his opinion piece for Bloomberg News, mentions studies showing that “higher elevation locations have risen in price faster than similar locations at low elevations.” Okay. But it’s a side issue. The population of the Miami metropolitan area is pushing seven million. The place can’t speculate its way out of the problems that lie ahead. It needs a real plan.

Florida now has a new Governor, Ron DeSantis, another republican. Here’s a YouTube video in which he says, “I see the sea rising, I see the flooding in South Florida, so I think you’d be a fool not to consider that as an issue we need to address.” That’s progress. Let’s see what he actually does about it?

 

Amtrak’s Vision for High Speed Rail scuppered by its own report on Climate Change

Photo: Concept Rendering of Amtrak’s NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station
Concept Rendering of NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station, Delaware. Source: AMTRAK

The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.

The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).

Map of Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment
Proposed Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment. Source: Amtrak

So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.

The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.

According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself.  For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).

Map of Wilmington DE ans area showing section of Northeast Corridor Rail Line beside the DelawRe River
Map showing section of the Northeast Corridor lying closest to the Delaware River. Source: openstreetmap

You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.

Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.

Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.”  Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.

New York takes baby step towards solving its plastic trash problems

NYC litter basket overflowing with plastic bags
NYC trash basket — only for litter? NYTimes image

New York City has a plastic-waste problem. Discarded carryout bags can be found clogging drains, hanging from trees, coating vacant spaces like tide wrack. According to the city’s sanitation department, New Yorkers throw away more than 10 billion — 10,O00,000,000 — single-use plastic bags every year — one thousand bags for each man, woman, and child. That works out to about 20 billion bags discarded every year in New York State as a whole.

Confronted by the scale of the pollution, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill last April which states, “BEGINNING JANUARY FIRST, TWO THOUSAND NINETEEN, THE PROVISION OF PLASTIC CARRYOUT BAGS AT ANY POINT OF SALE TO CUSTOMERS IS PROHIBITED.”
The law is unsatisfactory because of what it leaves out. The ban does not apply to plastic bags to carry uncooked meat, fish, poultry, or food sliced to order. Bags used to contain bulk items such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, or candy, are exempt, as are plastic bags sold in bulk, or repackaged for sale such as trash bags or bags used for food storage. Also given a pass are plastic garment bags, bags used to carry newspapers for delivery to customers, and bags provided by restaurants and similar establishments for carryout food. And there may be other exemptions whenever the government thinks of them.

The Law isn’t going to solve the State’s plastic trash problem any time soon. But it should at least improve appearances. It’s a baby step in the right direction. The question now is, will the bill pass? As of today, the bill is held up in the NY State Senate Rules Committee. The image below shows it’s current status and the steps it must follow before it can be signed into law by Governor Cuomo. Looks like that’s not going to happen by the intended date of January 1, 2019.

Image from NY State Senate website showing status of bill S8258
Image from New York State Senate website

When Governor Cuomo introduced the bill last April, the NY State Senate had a republican majority, so there was some doubt the bill would ever get passed. Come January, the democrats will be in control which should assure the bill’s passage. But one never knows. Politicians are not known for speed or reliability. Here’s a photo of the Senate floor showing Senators at work.

Photo of NY State Senate Floor
New York State Senate Floor. nysenate.gov image

While plastic packaging is an out-and-out evil, not everything found in garbage is ugly. In fact, some of it is good-looking and interesting enough to make up the contents of a fascinating New York City musium.

Treasures in the Trash Musium

The Treasures in the Trash Musium was founded by Nelson Melina,  a Sanitation Department employee for many years. The collection consists of about fifty thousand artifacts found in New York City trash by Molina over a period of thirty years. The museum is located in East Harlem, above a NYC Sanitation Dept. Garage at 343 E 99th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. It’s not open to the public on a regular basis. The department arranges tours from time to time. 

Musical instruments at Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC
Musical Instruments. Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC. Image credit : untappedcities.com

For more photos of the musium’s collection, go to Untapped Cities: Behind the Scenes at the NYC Sanitation Dept. Trash Musium on the Upper East Side.

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line
A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging
Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.
Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.

 

Climate Change threatens America; the U.S. Military responds; Trump feints

Cartoon. Trump with his finger in the climate dike
THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF STICKS HIS FINGER IN THE CLIMATE DIKE

The 2018 Federal Assessment for the U.S., was released on November 23rd. The report highlights likely impacts and risks from the changing climate.
An introductory statement says: “A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.” The report concludes that Climate Change threatens the “natural, built and social systems we rely on.” Disruptions expected to accompany Climate Change include: rising temperatures; extreme heat; drought; wildfire on rangelands; heavy downpours; transformed coastal regions; higher costs and lower property values from sea level rise; extreme weather events; changes to air quality; changes to the availability of food and water; and the spread of new diseases.

Here is President Trump’s initial response to the report:

During an interview with the Washington Post on November 27, the President was asked to explain his negative response to the climate report.
This is his verbatim response:

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.”

“Number two, if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.”

Despite Trump’s attempts to bury climate change, and his all-out support for fossil fuels, the U.S. Military is marching to a different tune. According to the Center for Climate & Security, since Trump assumed office in January 2017, eighteen senior officials at the U.S. Defense Department have recommended actions to address the security implications of climate change. These officials include: Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul J. Selva; and Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spenser.

James Mattis, a former United States Marine Corps general, has a history of supporting efforts to reduce troop dependence on petroleum. In 2003, he urged the military to develop ways to “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.” At his confirmation hearings in 2017, he said, “Climate Change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.” He also said, “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.”

Military War Room
Military War Room

The world is facing an existential threat. It appears the U.S. Military is ready and willing to engage the enemy. But to be truly effective, it needs a Commander-in-Chief willing or able to acknowledge the threat. The sooner it gets one, the better for all of us.

Rhode Island’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Can it handle a big one?

Photo of Huge ocean wave. Image by Ray Collins
Ocean Wave. Photo by Ray Collins

Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay sits like an open mouth, ready to swallow any hurricane that makes its way up the East Coast. Usually these northward trending hurricanes lose steam when they reach the colder waters off New England. Usually but not always. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 arrived over Rhode Island with a forward speed of 50 to 60 mph and wind speeds exceeding 120 mph. It carried with it an ocean swell that filled the bay to overflowing.

Map of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island
Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Openstreetmap.org

According to the National Weather Service (NWS-Boston), “The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The destructive power of the storm surge was felt throughout the coastal community. Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet.”

In 1954, Hurricane Carol produced a storm surge of more than 14 feet in Narragansett Bay. Downtown Providence was once again flooded, this time by 8 to 12 feet of water. All levels of government — local, State, and Federal — agreed that something had to be done to protect the low lying city center. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, completed in 1966, was the result.

Aerial photo of Downtown Providence and Providence River
Downtown Providence and the Providence River. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier is hidden behind the I-195 highway bridge. Image: providenceri.gov

All travellers on the I-195 Highway pass within feet of the Barrier as they drive across the eight-lane bridge over the Providence River. But those who want to look at the barrier and appreciate its design, leave the highway on the east side of the river, and make their way back to Bridge Street and its small riverside park (marked in yellow on the satellite view below)

Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier
Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier and vicinity. Google Maps Image

The barrier is located a couple of hundred yards up stream from Fox Point, and just north of the I-195 Highway Bridge. It consists of a concrete wall built across the Providence River and earthen dikes that extend flood protection about a thousand feet over the land on each side of the river. Built into the river wall are three, 40 foot wide gates, each weighing  53 tons. Under normal weather conditions, the gates remain open so as not to impede the flow of the river. The gates are located at the eastern end of the river wall. They can be seen in the satellite view above.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence, RI
Fox Point Hurricane Barrier’s three flood gates, looking down stream from park on Bridge Street. I-195 Hwy bridge in background. Providence RI. Image: Brown.edu

An essential component of the barrier system is the pumping station consisting of five massive 4500 H.P pumps, each as big as a grain elevator. When the flood gates are closed to keep a storm surge out, the entire flow of the river must be continuously pumped up and over the barrier. Otherwise the river would be held back, overflow its banks, and flood the city. The pumping station is housed in a building at the western end of the river wall (its roof is plainly visible in the satellite view). The five pumps, operating together, can lift 3.1 million gallons per minute and discharge the flow to the downstream side of the barrier.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence RI
View of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier from Bridge Street pocket park. Pumping Station at far right. Google Image

The barrier gates have been closed against storms several times since going into service in 1966. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the water crested at 9.5 feet. But the barrier has yet to experience a direct hit from a category 4 or 5 hurricane. As coastal flooding increases in the coming years, hurricane barriers of all kinds are going to be in the news.

North Carolina’s mobile Outer Banks and its new, immovable Bonner Bridge

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved in 1999. Image from International Chimney Corporation website

The iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse no longer sits on the ground on which it was built in 1870. Under threat from the encroaching sea, the 210 ft., 5,000 ton masonry structure was moved in 1999 about 2800 feet southwest from its original location. Masonry buildings, when shaken (during earthquakes, for example) tend to come apart along mortar lines, or even fall completely to pieces. So it isn’t easy to move them safely.

International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo NY and Expert House Movers of MD Inc., were awarded the moving contract. The job was carried out successfully; not a single brick was dislodged during the operation. The lighthouse is now about a third of a mile from tide water, distant enough, it’s hoped, to keep it safe from the sea until at least the end of this century. In recognition of the difficulties involved in moving the structure, the two company’s jointly won the American Society of Civil Engineers 40th Annual Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.

The following map shows the location of the lighthouse before it had to be moved:

Map showing shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras NC
History of shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina (map also shows pre-1999 location of the lighthouse). Image: pubs.usgs.gov (paper 1177-B)

To visit the lighthouse up close, drive south from Bodie Island on Highway 12. The H. Bonner Bridge carries the road across Oregon Inlet, linking Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. The economic life of Hatteras Island depends on it. By early next year, the new Bonner Bridge will be ready to take over from the old one.

Aerial photo ofOregon Inlet and old H.Bonner Bridge, Outer Banks NC
Oregon Inlet and the old H. Bonner Bridge. Photo taken from above Pamlico Sound looking east towards the Atlantic. Image: usgs.gov

Built in 1963 with a life expectancy of 30 years, the old Bonner bridge is in danger of falling down. The new bridge (due to open for traffic early next year) is built to last 100 years according to the designers, HDR Inc., an engineering company based in Omaha, Nebraska. The bridge is built on shifting sand, so that longevity claim is based on the company’s confidence in their engineering abilities. Domenic Coletti, HDR design manager, quoted in the company’s website, said this:

To our knowledge, no one has previously designed and built a [bridge] foundation where piles had to be jetted and driven through nearly 140 feet of soil [sand] in a way that still provided adequate capacity [stability] after 84 feet of scour occurs.” 

SCOUR is the anticipated tearing away of the sand around the support piles due to ocean currents in the inlet.

Photo of the old and the new H. Bonner Bridges, Outer Banks, North Carolina
The old and the new H. Bonner Bridges crossing the Oregon Inlet, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image from The Outer Banks Voice, 13/11/2018. Photo by Bob Moris

But consider this: although the new bridge may very well last 100 yeas, how many years will the inlet over which the bridge crosses remain in its present location?After all, storms have opened and closed numerous inlets along the Outer Banks since records began in the 16th century. A hurricane formed the Oregon Inlet in 1846. Another one could close it. The steady migration of the Outer Banks over time, may also cause problems. Here’s part of an October 16 email I sent to Pablo Hernandez, Resident Engineer, NCDOT, asking about that matter:

According to the US Geological Survey, the Outer Banks have historically migrated south at the rate of 60 to 70 feet per year, a process that sea level rise may speed up. This suggests that in 20 or 30 years, the Oregon Inlet may no longer be where it is now, thus leaving the new bridge without a function. I’m wondering what actions DOT plan to take to avoid such an outcome?” 

No answer yet. My guess is that the Army Corps of Engineers will be kept busy dredging the channel for the indefinite future. What other solution is there? Unlike a lighthouse, a bridge can’t be moved. When Mr. Hernandez gets back to me I’ll update this post.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks showing location of Cape Hatteras lighthouse and Oregon Inlet. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

When will North Carolina’s loathsome CAFOs be shut down?

Much of North Carolina’s eastern half lies within the continent’s coastal plain. Rivers flowing from the Appalachian foothills onto the plain, slow down and become sluggish. That makes them prone to flooding, particularly during and after the storms and hurricanes that blow in from the Atlantic carrying heavy loads of rain. The widespread flooding caused by last September’s Hurricane Florence is a good example.

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This soggy, low-lying land is home to about 2,200 industrial pig farms. Known in the trade as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the waste (pig shit) from these factory farms is not treated in any way, rather it is flushed into open pits (called lagoons) and eventually sprayed onto surrounding land, or, in the event of flooding, distributed far from its source by way of creeks and rivers. Each year, about 18 million tons of liquid pig shit (laced with pharmaceutical residues) are released into the environment from the state’s more than nine million pigs.

Pig farm sheds and lagoons
Pig farm (CAFO) sheds and lagoons. Image: Sierra Club

Most of North Carolina’s pig farms are located in the southeastern part of the state, with the heaviest concentration centred in and around Duplin and Samson Counties. This has created a life-threatening pollution problem for the people living in the area.

Map of North Carolina showing distribution of hog farms on coastal plain
North Carolina showing distribution of CAFOs. Coastal plain lies east of the blue line. Map by Steve Wing, UNC-Chapel Hill

A recent study by J. Kravchenco and others, published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, October 2018 (vol.79 no 5 287-288), concerning health risks to humans living near pig farms, has this to say:

“North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/ED visits of LBW infants. . . . Among North Carolina communities, including both high-income and low-income communities, the lowest life expectancy was observed in southeastern North Carolina. . . . The residents living in close proximity to hog CAFOs . . . are chronically exposed to contaminants from land-applied wastes and their overland flows, leaking lagoons, and pit-buried carcasses, as well as airborne emissions, resulting in higher risks of certain diseases. In fact, previous survey-based studies of residential communities reported significant health risks for residents, including higher risks of bacterial infections, higher frequencies of symptoms of respiratory and neurological disorders, and depression.”

To say that CAFOs stink is an under statement. Here’s Elsie Herring, who lives in Wallace, Duplin Co., speaking about what it’s like when spraying starts at the pig farm near her home:

“You stand outside and it feels like it’s raining but then you realise it isn’t rain. It’s animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover.” — quote from The Guardian, May 2018

Why do the human inhabitants of the region put up with being rained on by animal faecal matter to the point of dying prematurely? No need to look further than North Carolina’s 2018 Farm Bill recently passed into law by the Republican controlled legislature. While the bill allows pollution from pig farms to continue unabated, it, in effect, prohibits citizens from challenging the polluters in court. The focus is on protecting the $2.9 billion industry and its owners from interference by the citizens. The citizens need for protection from the industry’s filthy practices is not even considered. Yuck! Living downwind from certain politicians can really stink. North Carolina’s hog industry is run by Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which was purchased by China’s WH Group in 2013.

Sufferers from pig farm pollution are not the only people that have it in for the industry. Animal rights groups are also out to get them. If the farm operators were discovered treating dogs the way they treat pigs, they’d be in court facing animal cruelty charges. It’s my guess, however, that the environment will prove to be the industry’s most powerful enemy. As our warming world generates larger, more violent hurricanes, industrial pig farming on a waterlogged coastal plain will become untenable. Will the industry be allowed to move its CAFOs to higher ground, where the politicians live? What do you think?

Map of the USA showing location of North Carolina
North Carolina in red

North Carolina’s valuable pile of sand

This land isn’t permanent, it moves. This whole pile of sand moves with every storm with sea level rise, and it’ll continue to move for hundreds of years. And we’ve tried to engineer it like it’s Raleigh, like it’s a rock, but it’s not. It’s sand.” — Stanley Riggs, former professor of marine and coastal geography. — Courier-Tribune, Sept. 15, 2018

The pile of sand Riggs is talking about is the Outer Banks, the 200 mile string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. His concern is the continuing development on that long sand bank, and the general lack of interest in restricting it.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

Given that the Outer Banks consist of shifting sands, sit barely above sea level, and are located in a part of the world subject to violent ocean storms, why is there continuing development?

The developers know that building houses and roads on sand is asking for trouble. The difficulties associated with the stability of buildings have been researched for well over 2000 years. Matthew, a great authority on the subject, said: ”And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and Great was the fall of it.“ — The guy knew what he was talking about.

Image of fallen house on Hatteras Island, North Carolina
fallen house, Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image: Steve Early/ Virginia Post

North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission studied the situation in 2010 and wrote a report predicting a 39 inch rise in sea level by the year 2100, enough to flood coastal towns and wash away the existing built environment on the Outer Banks. Advocates for economic development in twenty of the State’s coastal counties formed the NC-20 group to lobby against the report which, they said, was based on bad science. It would, they argued, scare away business and tourists. The Legislature agreed, passed a bill prohibiting scary predictions, and ordered the commission to write something acceptable to the economic development people. The result was a 2015 report predicting a sea level rise of 6 – 8 inches by the year 2045. What a relief

As well as the thousands of year-round residents and summer-cottage owners, the Outer Banks attract several million tourists each year. It’s a big enterprise and an important tax generator. Of course government wants to support it, and they’ll continue to do so until the environmental situation becomes untenable. In the mean time, the real estate developers, estate, agents, house builders, private insurers, road contractors, shop owners, and rental accommodation suppliers, will all get paid. And the tourists will continue to enjoy fun in the sun.

What about the property owners? Well, in real estate, timing is everything. They’ll just have to watch the market and judge when to sell — that’s if they even care; purchasing beach-front property is not a poor man’s game. And if a hurricane happens to blow their stuff away, there’s always FEMA and the Feds (the American taxpayer) to help them rebuild their houses, on taller stilts if necessary.

Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene
Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene. Image: Telegraph/AP

If sea level rises faster and higher than the 6 – 8 inches currently mandated by North Carolina’s law makers, who will bare the cost? Probably the people living in towns along the State’s low lying mainland coast. The houses they live in are not summer homes or holiday rentals — it’s all they’ve got.

Map of North Carolina showing physical regions
North Carolina Physical Regions. Map image from NCPedia