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Braking in time for Climate Change in Rochester and everywhere else

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The time to consider braking your speeding car before a large, solid, immovable object is not at the moment of impact. Most of us, even those of us awful at physics, know that in order to avoid disaster, making the decision to apply one’s brakes involves knowing the braking distance of your vehicle, the speed you’re moving, and the varying weather conditions. We (who are still around to remark about such things) must decide to brake earlier in icy conditions. It’s physics. Same with Climate Change: If you want to stop anthropogenic accelerated Climate Change so that it doesn’t destroy your future, you must consider the braking distance (inertia in climate systems) between when greenhouse gases (GHGs) enter our atmosphere and when they leave, the speed which our climate is now warming (10 times faster than any time in the Holocene), and how much extreme weather your environment can weather. (Note: by ‘environment’ we mean our life support system.)

Failing to appreciate this feature of Climate Change means you cannot properly adapt to and mitigate Climate Change. For some, this inertia feature seems to mean that Climate Change is inevitable and nothing they do will matter. That is not correct. It’s more nuanced. The inertia in Climate Change means that the GHGs we put into the system will cause, for example, our region of New York State to get somewhat warmer, produce more extreme weather in the form of more flooding, and other stuff spelled out clearly in the ClimAID and many other climate reports. But if we dramatically lowered our GHGs and even found a way to sequester most of them, we will avoid many of the horrid scenarios synonymous with a higher emissions scenario. It’s not Doomsday if we decide now to apply our brakes.

Most already know this physical aspect of Climate Change—at least in theory. The point I’m trying to drive home is this: There are a many ad hoc, local efforts for adapting to and mitigating Climate Change, but these well-intentioned efforts are usually made with deference to other factors—economic, psychological, the public’s attention span, political interests, our personal bandwidth for activism, or other excuses—that are given a higher priority than the physics. This is tragic because the tyranny of Climate Change is that there are no excuses, no bargains, no appeasements, and no appeals with the laws of Nature. Put GHG’s into our atmosphere and the place warms up and stuff happens.

Your sustainability plans should be dictated by Climate Change predictions. Sustainability plans should not simply appease the usual stakeholders (landowners, political constituents, and industries), but include all the other stakeholders we rarely include in our climate planning, the biological architects of our environment and future generation of all species. (‘Stakeholders’ is an absurd term used in climate plans because these plans are thought to work better if they’re designed like business plans. But our environment still contains a lot of unknown unknowns, those creatures and plants whose activities are critical to our sustained survival. We don’t know who all the ‘stakeholders’ are and what priorities should be allotted to them. Think soil microbes. They don’t make neat gadgets, but without them we will have no future.)

Many of the decisions involved in proper planning to adapt to a warmer climate will be wildly unpopular. For example, it has taken 14 years to establish new Great Lakes target levels incorporating many competing (stakeholder) concerns, including those of shoreline property owners and the shipping industry. The International Joint Commission (IJC) just announced its decision, and it is assumed that their plan “…will be accepted and implemented”1. It’s the Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Plan 2014. This from an IJC spokesperson:

"As many of you may already know, yesterday the International Joint Commission announced its conclusions on the 14 year long process to update the regulation of water levels and flows for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to consider the needs of the natural environment while continuing to protect the diverse established uses and interests. The IJC submitted its conclusions to the federal governments of Canada and the United States to seek their views and concurrence. Plan 2014 protects against extreme water levels, restores wetlands, and prepares for a changing climate. I wanted to share the report, a video overview, the presentation overview, the response to public comments, and IJC newsletter articles on How We Got Here? And Reversing the Harm and Balancing Interests as well as additional information available on the Plan 2014 landing page. "

Many are not happy with allowing the water levels to revert to more natural levels in order to protect our environment, including: “One U.S. politician has said the strategy, first unveiled last year, puts the interests of “muskrats and cattails” above those of homeowners.” 2. Though a clever sound bite, this attitude towards our environment by someone in a position of power highlights a skewed sense of priorities in our leaders as we plan for Climate Change. The new plan, because it accommodates Climate Change, might be a good plan. It might set realistic goals even though we are well into the inertia of Climate Change. Have we applied the brakes too little and too late? Do we have to wait until our leaders catch up with what most of the public and our scientist already know?

The Finger Lakes Regional Sustainability Plan, which attempts “to lead the development of a regional sustainability plan and to implement projects that will significantly improve the economic and environmental health of our area.”3, also includes a section on Climate Change. But, though it too gives a nod to Climate Change, it seems far more interested in accommodating all kinds of existing businesses than preparing our region for a warmer climate. Many of the things in our region we cherish now, the grape industry, brown trout fishing, the skiing and snowmobile industries, apples, and maple syrup, may already be doomed because we did not apply the brakes sooner. And so pouring massive efforts and lots of bucks to sustain them, stuff that may not be critical to the sustainability of our life support system, may be delusional. In fact any plans for a sustainable future that are not dictated by Climate Change issues are probably doomed to failure and will squander vast resources. When the disasters come—extreme weather, frequent flooding, skyrocketing insurance rates, prolonged heat spells, and disease outbreaks —there may be no “cargo to throw overboard” (no resilience built into the planning to address immediate threats).

There is hope for better planning in a local watershed restoration project mentioned in the local news this week that captures the new normal of Climate Change concerns. It’s sounds reality-based, accounting for some of the recent issues that are affecting all our water ecologies:

“The plan addresses five major themes: research, education, restoration, open space protection and regulation. Existing and emerging threats to the lake include: substantial development in the watershed; more intense use of the shoreline; new invasive species; potential for harmful algal bloom; need for more local management of septic systems; climate change causing more intense rain events, prolonged droughts and other impacts; building on more sensitive steep slope sites; increased boat traffic; increased aquatic vegetation growth; and potential hydrofracking operations.” (Plan addresses threats to Canandaigua watershed ,June 19, 2014) Daily Messenger)

As with all sustainability plans, it’s not just about Canandaigua Lake, or the Rochester region, or even the US. Climate Change is a worldwide phenomenon and must be addressed in time, at the right level, and in concert will all other plans (top-down, binding agreements like that proposed for Paris 2015) or they too will be delusional.

Dr. James E. Hansen, arguably our greatest climatologist (and now to be one of our greatest climate activists) questions Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Are we braking for Climate Change quickly and robustly enough?

Too Little, Too Late? Oops? Many queries received: is Obama’s climate effort “too little, too late?” Closely related query: are we at an “oops” moment, a realization that we have pushed the climate system too far, so consequences such as ice sheet disintegration and large sea level rise are now out of our control? It so happens that I have been working, for a few years, on a paper aimed at a clear quantitative response to the “too late?” and “oops?” questions. I will be very scarce for the next couple of months, because I want that paper to be available by the time of the UN meetings in September. The answer re “too little?” is obvious from the fact that governments, ours included, are allowing and encouraging industry to go after every fossil fuel that can be found. Rather than dwelling on that fact, let’s consider the action needed to avoid “too late”. Citizens Climate Lobby just released a study by the non-partisan organization Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), as a 3-page summary and a full report. Their comprehensive analysis of the impacts of a carbon fee-and-dividend in the United States, with 100% revenue distribution of the money to the public in equal shares as direct payments. The fee would start at $10/ton of CO2 and increase $10/ton each year; 100% of the revenue is returned to households, equal amounts to all legal residents. This approach spurs the economy, increasing the number of jobs by 2.1 million in 10 years. Emissions decrease 33% in 10 years, 52% in 20 years (19 June 2014) Dr. James E. Hansen | http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/

Though well-intentioned, many of the plans rushing to include Climate Change may be more concerned with consensus building and pleasing all the known stakeholders than the actual matter at hand. Climate Change is like no other issue humanity has ever faced. Business as usual is unlikely to solve the very problem it created. Our leaders must understand that in order to brake for Climate Change appropriately, it must be given a new priority, a priority so high that it dictates how we address all other priorities. Keeping our GHG emissions to a sustainable level and doing so fairly is the challenge of our times. When we get our priorities straight, we’ll realize there is no more pressing issue than Climate Change. Let’s hope we brake in time.

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