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Earth Day 2014: Climate Change probable scenario, Part 6

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This is part 6 of a series of essays leading up to a major public discussion of Climate Change in Rochester NY on Earth day. On April 17, 2014 at 7PM, the Rochester Sierra Club will host a community discussion on Climate Change in our region with Mark Lowery, Climate Analyst, and manager of the state’s Climate Smart Communities program. The program is called 2014 Earth Day Forum “Climate Smart Communities: Let’s Get With the Program." This “Earth Day” event (I know, April 22 is actually Earth Day) will be held at the First Unitarian Church, 220 Winton Road South, Rochester, NY. We hope to reach the entire public—community, faith, and business leaders, students, the unemployed, the employed, young and old, healthy and not so healthy, rich and poor, and folks busy with other stuff —and have an old-fashioned community talk about the world crisis called Climate Change. Join your neighbors in a town hall meeting free from activism, ideology, politics, and denial.

It’s good to hear about movements forward on addressing Climate Change locally. For example, in a recently released study, the Genesee Transportation Committee explores our transportation options in New York State—including “City of Rochester, Streets and Sidewalks” (Page 223)—as the consequences of Climate Change looms.

“Transportation sources such as cars, trucks, commercial aircraft, and railroads release greenhouse gases (GHG) that contribute to climate change. Climate change results principally from buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Climate change is altering the way people live, as the environment is becoming more variable and communities are forced to plan for the future like never before. More frequent flooding as a result of heavy precipitation events and more frequent heat waves are climate change impacts anticipated to be common to the Northeast Region. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources is one of the largest contributors—in 2011, transportation represented 27% of total U.S. GHG emissions. Local governments are witnessing the physical and fiscal impacts of climate change. Precipitation intensity is projected to increase in many areas, resulting in flooding and other stormwater runoff problems. Fiscally, local governments are spending more on emergency response and retrofitting infrastructure. Long-term planning that accounts for climate change is needed to ensure that money spent today will reduce future risk.” (Page 1, Planning for Transportation and Climate Change: Model Ordinances, Incentives, and Other Resources (March 2014, Genesee Transportation Council)

But the critical question is whether the planning and implementation of these options to address Climate Change are happening fast enough and on a scale that will bring down greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere. If not, it’s just making us feel good and probably keeping us from a sustainable environment. The above study that connects the dots with our transportation system and Climate Change did not make it to our local news, which is to say much of the effect of the study fails to get appreciated by the public.

This is what fails to get appreciated:

Scientists Sound Alarm on Climate Early in his career, a scientist named Mario J. Molina was pulled into seemingly obscure research about strange chemicals being spewed into the atmosphere. Within a year, he had helped discover a global environmental emergency, work that would ultimately win a Nobel Prize. Now, at 70, Dr. Molina is trying to awaken the public to an even bigger risk. He spearheaded a committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society, which released a stark report Tuesday on global warming. The report warns that the effects of human emissions of heat-trapping gases are already being felt, that the ultimate consequences could be dire, and that the window to do something about it is closing. (March 18, 2014) New York Times

Climate Change is a catastrophe like no other in history. It is difficult to convey the magnitude of this slow-motion disaster in a way easily comprehended by the public. Some think we’ll (eventually) respond to Climate Change the way we did to World War II. That is, when we finally ‘get it’, good ole American ingenuity will kick in and we’ll kick butt.

Rather, Climate Change is unfolding more like another disaster— the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. [Read: “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America”, by John M. Barry.]

In that preventable disaster, politics, engineering hubris, hope against evidence, and a media hell-bent on comforting people instead of warning them, created a perfect storm. “The flood caused over $400 million in damages and killed 246 people in seven states.” Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

Basically, the Mississippi River was flooding long before the Europeans came to America, but they wanted to farm the rich soil along it anyway. Engineers studied the situation and came up with a variety of options. For a set of complicated reasons, they choose the worst solution of all: a policy based solely on levies all along the great river. Other options, where the power of the river could be released instead of trying to contain it, were off the board. Then in the years before 1927, many heavy rainfall events and flood warnings were ignored until on April 15, 1927, when the heavens unleashed a biblical torrent of rain.

No, the example of the flood disaster is not a perfect model of the Climate Change disaster. But it offers some examples of human behavior in the face of a monumental environmental threat. Folks tend to want to live next to water and farm its rich soil; engineers tend to think they have the answer to an environment they don’t completely understand; politicians tend to push for policies that will get them more power regardless of their merit; and the media tends to pander to the public’s desire that, all evidence to the contrary, everything is OK. Except for a few sage souls, inevitably labeled alarmists, everyone tends to view mounting evidence in the form of near misses (floods nearing, but not exceeding the levee tops) as proof all along the way that our actions are the right ones. Lastly, the idea of living in harmony with a great dangerous environment, instead of forcing it to our will, seems never to have been considered.

Climate Change slams human behavior into new territory, so searching for answers in past disasters or triumphs may prove fruitless. There’s no comparable scenario where our species is warming up the planet by buring up the fossilized remains of all past species, heedless of its effect on ourselves and all present day species. Solving Climate Change is going to require that we exploit all our good attributes and bury our bad ones. Quickly.

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