Archive for February, 2005

The Difficulties of Change

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005

I met an old friend yesterday who is finally about to retire from a job she’s worked almost three decades. She’s not simply retiring, she’s freeing herself to be a full-time artist rather than a part-timer, to throw her energy and talent into the universe and see what emerges. The job itself is less than perfect, which makes it easy to leave. Yet she finds herself unwilling to give up the project she was working on, her baby.

My cochlear implant was activated September 13. At the time of my implant, people spoke into a microphone that went to an amplifier and then a neckloop which I wore on the hearing aid itself, to get a stronger signal. I could talk with one person at a time. Immediately after the implant was activated, everyone pretty much sounded like Darth Vader’s rendition of a woman’s artificial voice speaking Xhosa. Most of the information was the harsh whoosh with everyone sounding high-pitched with hardly any sound content, and gobs of clicks. Except for Dan Rather, who sounded normal. Now two out of three people sound normal; unfortunately, I’m not one of them. The largest changes in my hearing have occurred, but my hearing will improve for years. Others with cochlear implants describe changes at three years that can only be caused by changes in the nerves themselves. More people’s voices will sound normal, because of nerve improvements, increasing ability to decode the information sent my brain, and a greater ability to override what I hear with what I know I’m hearing.

People with implants sleep less than those who depend on lip reading and straining to eke out messages from highly distorted sound signals received with or without the help of an amplifier. I’ve negated that benefit by putting myself in situations where I use my hearing more.

I find that I sleep more since the implant was activated. I am in transition from disabled to almost able (I will likely never hear normally, and only have the one ear). Almost every night, I dream of changing dwellings, and difficulties in transportation from the old to the new. Now those of you have done deaf and regained hearing know there is little to miss about the old situation. But no matter how miraculous, how life-giving, how desired, transition is difficult.

In one of my interest groups on the environment, I asked people to talk about the process of making big changes. Several told stories of once having made a decision, opting for a new situation with no downsides, it took years to follow through. I personally have always felt sympathy for Pharaoh and how many times he absolutely decided to let Moses and his people go before he was able to follow through.

Most of us want to be people who can be proud of how well and how quickly we responded to concerns about the environment. Yet most of us are ambivalent; perhaps we will live a diminished life if we live with less.

When we sum up our lives we will want to be able to say, we heard what was important, and we responded. If we do not find ways to have dialogues, local, national, and world, about our ambivalence, about the difficulties of making change, change will be all that much harder.

No Time

Sunday, February 20th, 2005

Each religion and secular morality has a translation for this message. Please tell me how you would phrase it.

“I never have enough time,” began the ministry of a Berkeley Friend (Quaker) many years ago. “But time is all I have.”

People frequently tell me that they don’t have time to learn about the environment, to ponder their behavior and the policies they support, to move the environment high up on a long to-do list.

Friends have a simplicity testimony (testimonies describe how we testify to our faith in our lives). “Simplicity is the right ordering of our lives, placing God at the center. When we shed possessions, activities, and behavior that distract us from that center, we can focus on what is important. Simplicity does not mean denying life’s pleasures, but being open to the promptings of the Spirit.” (from Pacific Yearly Meetings Faith and Practice) Focusing on what is important, being open to the promptings of the Spirit.

Time is all we have.

Thomas Kelly quotes Meister Eckhart on Holy Obedience: “There is a degree of holy and complete obedience and of joyful self-renunciation and of sensitive listening that is breathtaking. Difference of degree passes over into utter difference of kind, when one tries to follow Him the second half. Jesus put this pointedly when he said, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:3), and Paul knew it: “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17).”

Not all of us are Christian, but we all know the joy that comes with walking in God’s path, living in a manner that we know is right.

Our task is not to do less, but to choose better what we do.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Michael Moore has a set of comments addressing evolution, reproduction, and a variety of other issues. Check him out on these topics.

Changes We’ll See/Technology as Part of the Solution

Friday, February 18th, 2005

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Robert has added a comment to the first post, asking, in part, where we in the US have begun seeing changes due to climate change, where we will see change, and what portion of the solutions are technological.

We don’t always see what’s obvious.

One Friend (Quaker) in an interest group complained that the birds disappeared from the San Fernando Valley during her childhood, and no one in her parents’ generation noticed. In the last 50 years, the number of large fish declined by 90%, and the size of large fish declined, yet even many older fisherman did not notice or are only partially aware. Today, many fishermen describe fishing as “sustainable” which is intended to maintain today’s level. I put myself firmly in the category of people who have no clue how many birds lived in and passed through Berkeley a generation ago.

The temperature in Alaska increased about 3 F last century, most of it in 1977. Alaskans are already seeing large changes, as is expected of climates nearer the poles. Summer precipitation has decreased, but snowfall is up 60%, which has led to tree canopy breakage, which (along with higher temperatures) has led to the success of wood-boring insects which has lead to widespread death of trees: most spruce trees are dead in 3 million acres of a federal reserve. This has ecological and social consequences. Wildfires have increased. Mosquitoes have spread to Barrow. Melting of the permafrost has produced sagging roads, tilting signs, and houses out of plumb. The effect on infrastructure is costly, and will only grow over the next 100 years, as pipes, roads, and buildings must be replaced or moved. The number of days annually with gale force winds is double that of 5 decades ago. As permafrost and sea ice melt, towns are no longer shielded from the sea; villages face bills of hundreds of millions each, either to build sea walls or move the entire village. Many of these villages have no tax base, some are thousands of years old.

Arizona legislators express interest in climate change because Arizona’s decreased precipitation and increased wildfires fit climate model predictions. Water systems in the West are fed by snow pack lasting late into the winter, with peak runoff in March. The size of the snow pack has decreased, and the peak runoff is shifting earlier. For those who think food comes from the store, farmers and trees and such prefer some overlap between water supply and times of much sunshine.

In Virginia rising seas and erosion have almost destroyed Poplar’s Island; 13 islands have disappeared in Chesapeake Bay.

Glaciers are disappearing rapidly from Glacier Park, as elsewhere, and may be totally gone by 2030.

The evidence is there if we pay attention. Peoples of the Arctic regions and vulnerable island nations have seen changes and publicized them.

What changes can we expect to see in the future?

Contemplate where you live today, what kind of climate you have. It has average and extreme temperatures for each season, a length for each season, precipitation that comes in bursts or regularly through the year. How do the local flora and fauna depend on this combination of factors? How do farmers depend on it? The water district and utilities?

OK, you skipped over that paragraph, here’s another chance to consider the climate where we live.

Now ponder the climate some more. Add in how trees increase the amount of rain, how some local ecosystems are better at absorbing water during storms and helping prevent runoff, and the effect of habitat destruction on the destructiveness of storms in so many parts of the world. How our local flora and bacteria clean the air and water, so we don’t have to pay. Yes, bacteria are at risk from climate change, you thought they have an exemption? How important insects are to the plants. Which of the local fauna carry disease, and which diseases might immigrate along with foreign fauna to my area if the climate becomes a little warmer and dryer/more humid. (Will take suggestions on how to communicate these ideas better)

A temperature change of a few degrees may not sound like much, but the difference between the peak of the ice ages and now is only 5 – 9 C (about 9 – 16 F). It may be that the temperature increase by 2100 due to the addition of greenhouse gases and deforestation exceeds that change. This will have unpredictable changes – the continents were in somewhat different locations the last time the atmosphere had carbon concentrations of 400 ppm or more.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes Working Group 2 examines Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Look at the summaries for policymakers (SPM) or technical summaries (TS). Choose one of their topics: hydrology and water resources; agriculture and food security; terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems; coastal zones and marine ecosystems; human health; human settlements, energy, and industry; insurance and other financial services. It will read differently to you if you read it at the source. Well, not the source, but the scientific consensus of all that was known in 2001 — the scientific community agreed with every sentence in the multi-thousand page reports.

What changes in technology will help, and what ?

Obviously, changing to energy sources that produce less carbon will help: nuclear power, hydroelectric power (a tad more), photovoltaics and other means of using solar power, wind power, and so on. I am not including biomass (plants) on this list because I suspect that all biomass will be needed for biofuels, to replace oil-based fuels such as gasoline and jet fuels, and because there are limits to how many acres we want to plant in order to save the local habitats from climate change. Carbon sequestration (injecting carbon back into the Earth for hopefully permanent storage, at least on the time frames that interest us) will allow us to continue using fossil fuels longer. Hybrid cars and possibly fuel cells (in the future) will reduce the use of oil; fuel cells may also come to be stored energy used in buildings. The National Commission on Energy Policy is the place to go for more information. Each of these technologies has a cost: solar power is expensive and requires substantial resources. Wind power also changes the climate. Fuel cells require energy to produce the hydrogen: they are a means of storing energy, not an energy source. Crucial on the technology to-do list is efficiency, decreasing the amount of energy needed by our vehicles, refrigerators, and light bulbs. Not only must appliances and cars become more efficient, we need to switch. Almost always, this will reduce our cost: we get back the extra costs in electricity or gasoline savings, and then some.

Reports by groups such as the National Commission on Energy Policy are meant to direct our national government; too often our presidents and legislators have other priorities. The public often does as well; we see more protests against nuclear power and wind power than against fossil fuel power. Yet many tens of coal power plants have been proposed.

In scientific analyses of how we can get to low carbon emissions, a sizeable percentage of the solution is described as “surprise”, either new technologies or proposed technologies working better than expected. Perhaps these surprise solutions exist, perhaps we need to change our behavior in case they don’t exist, or if the technology changes don’t work as well as we hoped, or if we don’t want huge amounts of land devoted to crops to power our transportation, and windmills in scenic areas.

We can’t take shortcuts. We will need to consider as individuals the changes to our lives, and the lives of others, before we begin to pressure ourselves, our legislators, family members, and neighbors. We need to educate ourselves, to ponder the science and human behavior. We need to work individually and in groups to see that we change, that society changes. Because the choices we make affect the choices others will be allowed to make, today and in the future.

Celebrating the Kyoto treaty

Wednesday, February 16th, 2005

Today Kyoto comes into effect, and we should celebrate.

Not because the Kyoto reductions will reduce carbon emissions significantly, but because if this tiny first step hadn’t been achieved, the likely success of future treaties would be even less.

It should have been a no-brainer: the richer countries most responsible for increased emissions since the industrial revolution make fairly cheap and minor reductions in their carbon emissions in order to start the process. The larger, more expensive steps will require significant international cooperation, both among the industrialized countries and with the developing world, to produce a reduction in emissions of 90% or more by 2050, and then zeroing out sometime later.

We can’t afford it, said the presidents of the United States and Australia. It will hurt our economy. Reducing carbon emissions will hurt key industries: coal (West Virginia is electorally important), oil, and SUV manufacturers. Reducing carbon emissions significantly will change our lives, but the tiny reductions specified in the Kyoto treaty would have a small effect, in part because Russia’s economic recession will be used in the accounting. The United States currently spends a fortune for energy because energy is so cheap: if the price of energy rose slightly, the total price of energy is expected to come down just because people would finally replace that light bulb with a compact fluorescent, turn off the heat and light in unused rooms, and buy more energy efficient appliances and cars.

Addressing climate change seriously costs money, and will limit our ability to fly out to see the family for the weekend. President Bush says we can’t afford it. Whenever I hear about the costs to us, the picture comes to mind of the Bengali woman trying to eke out a living on a piece of land near the ocean (National Geographic, September 2004, the global warming issue). As do the tens of thousands of Eurasians who died in the summer of 2003. Africans seeing their climate changed, and droughts increased, by the use of fossil fuel in the Western hemisphere.

In the absence of national decisions on carbon emissions, we will suffer a more chaotic implementation system. Utilities opting today for coal power will soon find themselves charged for that fourth pollutant, carbon dioxide; retrofits are expensive. Our current means of governing by fits and starts, even within an administration, and certainly between administrations, makes creating a rational system difficult. It makes all decisions expensive, but addressing climate change even more so: American opposition to phasing in carbon reductions will prove expensive.

The environment is not a priority in the United States. For some reason, we think this is an issue that will harm our grandchildren, not ourselves. Implicit in our unwillingness to act is that it is OK to harm our grandchildren. That like the Titanic, the turn can be made when needed. That solutions are simple, buy compact fluorescents and perhaps a hybrid. That consequences will be minor. That we can think about the environment when we have more time in our personal lives, after Iraq, after the social security distraction, once there are effective campaign finance laws, in the future. Later. Besides, my behavior is environmentally conscious because I…. and I resent that so and so gets to … while I am being asked to change. Some ideologues believe that scientists have an ideological background to their warnings on climate change and other environmental concerns.

There is more than a fierce battle with ourselves. Many in the developing world believe that concerns about climate change are a means of locking them into an underprivileged state. (People who live in countries where almost all have cars bemoan the Chinese shifting from bicycles to cars, and so we should. But the Chinese have TV, and know about our cars.) That concerns about climate change must rank behind more immediate concerns, such as low agricultural productivity (some of which is already being blamed on climate change and air pollution), disease, conflict, education.

To address climate change, we need to look at our own behavior, and at policies and politicians that impede reducing carbon emissions significantly. We need to find methods to reach out, to find common ground with other peoples in addressing how we change our lives in order to limit changes to the atmosphere.

Today Kyoto comes into effect, and we should celebrate. And get to work. Today, not later.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Michael Moore has made several more comments. In response to the post on carbon taxes, he opposes policies that hurt the majority.

Carbon Taxes

Sunday, February 13th, 2005

Thomas Friedman laments again our No Mullah Left Behind policies. By refusing to phase in a gasoline tax of $1/gallon, mandate better gas mileage, and generally address our oil profligacy, we help distort the decision-making of Irani mullahs. Fareed Zakaria expands on this in The Future of Freedom: governments that don’t need to tax for their money don’t need to account for their policies.

US oil policy does more than support foreign governments. We distort American fiscal policy because our imports exceed our exports; our trade deficit for 2004 alone was $617.7 billion. Oil accounts for $164 billion of that; add in automobiles and we’re talking real money. Per American, we import more than $2,000 more than we export. Per American, we imported $550 in oil last year.

President Bush meanwhile focuses on social security. His biggest concern is privatization, which, Bush says, doesn’t address the problems he sees ahead. Ignored are larger financial concerns, such as health care and interminable deficits. Let us add to the few trillion here and there we’re avoiding environmental degradation, which will be paid for by younger people and those not yet born, simply because taxes on carbon are inconvenient to today’s adults.

Comments that go beyond praise and nays Michael Moore’s comment to the February 12 post includes, “To be sure, scientific consensus is imperfect. But the consensus is far more accurate than revelation to a few human beings which can no longer be altered nor updated.” A Quaker belief in continuing revelation.

Subtexts in Discussions about Science and Scientists

Saturday, February 12th, 2005

I characterized the best understanding of scientists on the environment for a small group of people recently. We are changing the climate in places where people live and grow food. This may be beneficial in a few locations if the temperature increase is small enough, but if we do not limit greenhouse gas emissions, the changes are likely to cause problems most everywhere. The beginning of the sixth mass extinction of complex life is credited to the 1950s. While no scientific consensus exists on the threats to biodiversity, those in the field talk about a quarter or more species extinct or committed to extinction by 2050, and perhaps 40- 80% extinct or committed to extinction by 2100. Even as the population of the Earth increases, its ability to supply food and clean water is being degraded.

Their instinct was to discount what I said. Was I citing the most extreme predictions? Was I citing people who put forth their ideas because of ideology?

There was an undercurrent left unmentioned: scientists cannot be trusted. Scientists said DDT is safe and it isn’t.

This argument about DDT has validity. Industrial scientists have a vested interest in playing up advantages and playing down disadvantages. Scientists trying to understand the world and how it works would like to see their explanation be successful. But explanations are more likely to hold up if they survive challenges, and if they successfully predict the outcome of future experiments. This encourages intellectual challenge to a degree I have not observed outside of science. For example, one of the first acts after the creation of the standard model of elementary particles and interactions was to devise experiments to find flaws in it. When there was a disagreement about whether a meteorite could best explain the extinction of dinosaurs, proponents and opponents discussed together what could help them distinguish among competing ideas.

This does not mean that scientists are never wrong, nor does it mean that scientific consensus is never wrong. But wishful thinking is not a good method of catching these errors.

However, misunderstandings about science and scientists are a small part of the reason both the left and right are so eager to disbelieve ideas that have reached the level of scientific consensus.

The slew of death penalty laws that swept the nation a while back were put in place by people who felt crime made us unsafe. The laws did not make us safer, rather, they addressed the death penalty, and so people suffered also from having done something worthless. The death penalty laws, like much of the discussion about science and scientists, were a proxy for the real concern.

Opponents of nuclear power and transgenic (genetically modified) crops may be able to point out rational reasons, but more often what I hear is the refrain of the anti-fluoridation movement: scientists and the government are out to poison us.

I will talk about the factual issues on these topics more in later posts. Here it is enough to mention subtexts. Opponents of transgenic crops, for example, describe a slew of problems that are pretty nigh impossible or are minor. Even more frequently, I hear complaints about big business, or an uncaring society, or violations of “natural”. But if big business is the problem, focus on it, or on the video games industries, which has little redeeming social value. If our harsh society is the problem, tackle the lack of health coverage you just mentioned. It is easy and glib to project ones concerns onto a popular scapegoat, but it doesn’t solve our problems.

Many disbelieve evolution because, they say, they want the world to be more moral. (Recently numerous articles have discussed Christian attempts to prohibit or discourage science teachers from teaching science.) There are two steps in their reasoning: a lack of a belief in evolution will enhance the belief in God, and this will lead directly to a more moral, caring behavior/world. It is much easier to attack evolution (if no one I know studies it) than it is to address our personal behavior, and the complexities of the policies we support. A healthy desire to follow God’s will has gotten mixed up with a requirement that the Bible be literally true. But the Bible cannot appear to be literally true unless we ignore huge portions. It is likely not God’s will that we avoid reading material that will give us a richer and more textured understanding. If we want to focus on what takes us away from God, perhaps we would do better to start with the love of money and the love of consumption. It is easy to make evolution a scapegoat, but a belief in evolution is not the problem, and denying evolution doesn’t solve any problems.

McCarthyism, the movement more concerned about communists in the state department than those in the Soviet Union, was a tool used by members of a less successful immigrant group to attack the patriotism of others, particularly members of more successful immigrant group and those whose families had been in the US for centuries. Similarly, attacking scientists is a means to establish one’s self as more moral, more intellectually rigorous, more open-minded. Instead, it reveals a dark side of our nature, an attempt to build ourselves up by diminishing those who are more successful.

The attacks on patriotism, McCarthyism, had influence long after McCarthy himself lost power. Not only did individual China experts see their reputations shredded for having predicted the rise of communism, new China experts understood that they were not to share their understanding with the government. The people who conceived of and led our war in Vietnam did so with little understanding of Asia. The attacks on patriotism led to a decidedly unpatriotic result. But the goal was not to improve patriotism or the fruits of patriotism; the goal was to scapegoat others in order to avoid dealing with that which is really important.

Similarly, attacks on science and scientists may have dire consequences if we avoid dealing with environmental degradation. More than our individual integrity is as stake.

First post

Tuesday, February 8th, 2005

Occasional postings, mostly on the environment

A study of one group of highly religious people who believed that the Bible is the divine word of God revealed that the majority essentially never read it. We don’t put our time to what we value.

The goal of this blog is to explore the science of environmental changes, and the even more difficult psychological and spiritual issues. I hear from many a panic at the thought of changing our lives because we care about the Earth, because we care about people and other critters. There is an assumption that we are already living our lives so that we are happy with ourselves, that to live with less is to live a diminished life.

Many from both the left and right talk about government and scientists out to harm us. Yet the majority of US air pollution comes from transportation. The high level of divorce among conservatives is not a result of belief in evolution. Our behavior creates problems, changing our behavior is part of the solution.

Are individual choices on the environment important? Most important? Yes and it’s complicated.

Many of us in the US have bought into the dream of a long commute to a suburban wonderland, and high consumption in both day-to-day lives and vacations. Policy changes by themselves can only do so much. Many SUVs and other cars are now owned by people who can’t afford the car + insurance + fuel. So individual choices are important. Policy changes help many of us make choices we knew to be better: electric utilities implement 4-pollutant controls, and individuals use more efficient bulbs and appliances and more fuel-efficient cars, and use them less. Yet the individual aspect is important in another way: policy changes promoted by people who have examined their own lives are often more realistic and more important.

Questions on both personal and policy behavior:

Which of our consumption habits make us happier, and how? List all the positives.

Meeting the Climate Challenge recommends limiting our carbon emissions, keeping the atmospheric concentration below 400 ppm, or else. We are on track to reach that level by 2015. Who in the Senate and House is ready to implement every change recommended in the report, plus the recommendations included in the more comprehensive recommendations of the National Commission on Energy Policy?

(Senator Olympia Snowe was co-chair of the International Climate Change Taskforce, which produced Meeting the Climate Challenge. Aides from the offices of Senators Biden and Carper helped.)

Your patience requested — I am learning how to blog, and will be making many elementary mistakes for a while.