Posts Tagged ‘Climate Change’

The Thinker

Dear Pope Francis: you are half the way there

Presumably Pope Francis is now back in Rome and settling in after a whirlwind tour of Cuba and the United States. He’s a pope who is hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes out of the Jesuits. For a pope he is also suspiciously pragmatic.

He was not shy expressing his opinions while in the United States. Mostly they gave Republicans heartburn as he preached to them on subjects they did not want to hear: that poor people had equal rights, that income inequality had to be addressed and that global climate change was a serious problem. He spoke passionately of the refugee crisis affecting mostly Europe and asked America to do its part compassionately. He complained that corporations were not working in the interests of the people as a whole.

Democrats did not wholly escape his preaching. He spoke passionately about the family, but his idea of a family looked a lot like June and Ward Cleaver’s and seemed to exclude marriage for same sex couples. Still, overall it was refreshing to hear messages from a pontiff that were truthful and people-centric. Francis is a catholic in the apostolic and universal sense of the word. He even acknowledged that those who do not believe in God could be good people simply by acting as good people.

It’s not enough to make me return to the Catholic Church. It’s a lost cause in my case, as I don’t believe Jesus was God, and I don’t believe in miracles, saints and most of the peculiar beliefs of Catholics. I’m too left-brained. But his words as well as his actions (like having dinner with homeless people and riding in the back of a Fiat instead of a limousine) convinced me he is a much different pope, beloved as few will be, and acting in the spirit of Jesus. Pope John Paul II was much loved and is even on his way to sainthood, but Pope Francis’ appeal extends significantly beyond the Catholic faithful to much of the world at large.

I really tuned into his message on climate change. He introduced a small ray of hope into a problem that looks gloomy at best and catastrophic to humans and most species on the planet at worst. Perhaps some of his grounding on the matter came from outside the church. Before becoming a priest, Francis worked as a chemist. He earned the rough equivalent of an associate of science degree in chemistry in Argentina. Francis understands enough about chemistry to know that when you introduce too much carbon dioxide into an atmosphere, with no other changes to the system then temperatures will increase and it will affect most living species. He sees the obvious costs of our industrialization and acknowledges that the earth is finite and we cannot continue to exploit the earth’s resources so unintelligently.

What he did not acknowledge was that population growth is a major driver of climate change. Without an end to population growth and probably a long-term effort to reduce the earth’s population, climate change cannot be reversed. Humans drive almost all climate change because we all put demands on the earth simply to survive. The problem is much worse in industrialized societies because with increased standards of living we want more stuff, and this consumption also feeds climate change.

It’s not enough to practice “natural family planning” as a population control solution. The Catholic Church advocates refraining from intercourse during a wife’s fertile period and abstinence as the only non-sinful ways to limit family size. The rhythm method of course is chancy at best, which leaves abstinence as the only foolproof and sinless methods of birth control for devout Catholics. It makes it virtually impossible to be both a devout Catholic and an environmentalist. If you are familiar with Catholic theology then you know that using birth control pills, IUDs and prophylactics are sinful.

If Francis truly wants to take a concrete action to address climate change then simply giving Catholics permission to use these and similar forms of birth control would be a huge step forward. Of course in many parts of the world, people are too poor to afford birth control, so also stridently arguing that governments should make birth control universally available for free to all citizens is as necessary as giving birth control devices church sanction. Among the many benefits will be a reduction in abortions. Children never conceived cannot be aborted.

China’s somewhat loosened one child per family policy was effective at limiting its population growth, but at a horrendous cost. It meant forced abortions mostly of females and arguably wreaked a lot of psychological damage. It’s not hard to envision a time when climate change becomes so pressing that something like this becomes policy in most countries. While it may be necessary to do this simply to survive as a species, such policies would be the opposite of humane.

This doesn’t have to happen. With over a billion adherents, if the Catholic Church were to change its policies on birth control then it would do a huge amount in the medium term to limit population growth and subsequent climate change. It would be a humane step forward. Francis has the power to do this today.

I am not a praying man by nature, but I pray that Pope Francis will see the light on this and very soon. Our future, and the perpetuity of the Catholic Church may depend on it.

The Thinker

Anarchy at our doorsteps

The refugees keep pouring into Europe. Who can blame them for leaving? What sensible person would not want to escape war and poverty? It’s heartbreaking just to read about the hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and Northern Africa trying to find sanctuary in Europe. They take trips on overloaded ships out of Libya, Morocco, Syria and other countries. Many of these ships are deliberately sunk near shore. Thousands of refugees and migrants have likely drowned at sea this year. Others try to escape over land — a difficult journey at best. After being holed up in Hungary, about 20,000 refugees won passage through Austria and arrived last week in Munich, Germany. They were the lucky ones. They made it and even luckier they were greeted warmly upon their arrival with food and shelter.

But Germany is already warning that these refugees are straining their services. England plans to take 20,000 migrants. France is preparing for 24,000. Germany expects that it might host nearly a million refugees this year. Other European countries are turning refugees away. The United States is largely looking the other way and will only accommodate a few thousand. In spite of Pope Francis’s call for kindness and sanctuary for refugees in its churches, it is likely that the world’s goodwill will quickly run out.

I have a feeling of foreboding, but it’s not paranoia. It’s a matter of simply looking at world trends and projecting them forward. There have always been refugees, but what we are likely to see in the first half of the 21st century is mass migration on a scale we simply have not experienced in modern times. This will have a profound effect on us, calling us toward our better selves, but it’s likely that we’ll move in just the opposite direction. Here in the United States, Donald Trump is its clarion. He’s calling for the United States to build a wall on our Mexican border not to mention somehow deport 11 million people already living here, but he’s hardly alone. All nations can help mitigate this crisis to some extent, but at some point it becomes too much. The drawbridges are raised and each nation declares, “Sorry, we can’t help anymore.”

Walls or not, it’s not going to stop. Desperate people do desperate things. We have much more coastline than we have borders with Mexico. If a wall works, which I doubt (tunnels will simply be dug under them), other tactics will be used to get into our country. Like Cubans did fifteen years ago, and Haitians still do sporadically, we can expect boats full of refugees on our doorstep too, washing up on our Gulf, Pacific and Atlantic shores. The wealthier ones will simply arrive on a tourist visa and overstay their welcomes. They will keep coming to Europe as well. Many will perish in the process. They want what all reasonable people want: freedom, prosperity and a better life for themselves and their children.

We will try to keep things the way they were, but it will increasingly become impossible. The numbers coming will make cultural conflict inevitable, likely fueling race and religious divides. Most of those streaming into Europe are Muslim, and Muslims frequently feel unwelcome in Europe. In France, the National Front Party’s rise has been linked to the discomfort many French are feeling to the Muslims in their communities. Arguably Donald Trump is feeding the same paranoia here in the United States, but this discomfort is what is driving the Tea Party. Trump has simply become its ringmaster.

The immediate cause of the crisis is political instability, particularly in Syria. Larger macro forces, particularly climate change, are feeding political instability. It’s made worse by overpopulation. We keep adding people but the size of the earth doesn’t change. It creates a downwardly vicious cycle. We consume more resources and deforest more of our planet, making problems that much harder to solve. Sea level rise will force people to move, including many here in the United States. If you look at the areas of the world that will be most affected by sea level rise, you are also looking at some of the most populated areas of the world, which also happen to be among the poorest parts of the world, places like Bangladesh. Sufficiently large numbers of poor and desperate people will overwhelm local governments. In fact, they will be able to change national boundaries and start their own states. This conflict will inevitably breed many wars where the competition will simply be to see who survives and gets to control the remaining resources. It may look a lot like a Mad Max movie.

The tendency will be to close our gates and protect what we have. Real solutions though require international cooperation that has so far eluded us. Addressing climate change is a big part of the solution but this must be done while knowing temperatures will still increase over the next century no matter what we do. Outside of China, no serious attempt has been made to address population control but it will have to be done and it fill feed religious outrage. Industrializing countries are likely to not be interested in ways to industrialize cleanly. We must do all this while trying to act humanely toward the living and while coping with the increasing presence of the other in our midst.

It’s pretty clear to me that government as we have known it so far is not up to this challenge. To address it, you have to give up the idea of having autonomous countries. Decisions need to be made collectively and worldwide. Survival of the species becomes a unified struggle or it devolves into widespread war, poverty and anarchy. Which one is more likely based on our history?

So the gates will go up instead and this will feed the problem rather than solve it. Those that have will effectively push more misery on those that don’t, which will feed the drive of those that don’t. There are many more of those that don’t have than those that do. In their quest to have what the rest of us have, we that have will compromise our values and fundamentally change society. We will become a meaner, harsher and more class-divided society.

I pray for sensibility in the decades ahead, but I sense anarchy at our doorsteps. I sense it will arise within us as we tighten the screws. Pray that our better half wins, but it is likely to be in vain.

The Thinker

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

The Thinker

If you care about the environment, choose your realtor with care

The Koch Brothers have been much in the news lately, at least if you follow political news. The two brothers own Koch Industries, which itself is a holding company for a lot of other companies it owns. The brothers are Charles and David Koch, but Koch Industries was actually built up by their father Fred, who long ago went to his reward.

Aside from their obscene wealth, the Koch Brothers have been known for their extremely conservative views. Moreover, they have not been afraid to put their money where their mouths are. Their money helped elect Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor. Together their political action committee, KochPAC, spent huge amounts of money on the 2012 elections, to little effect. As an investment, it was an unwise one, but its magnitude was stunning: over $400M. Their PACs alone spent nearly three times more in the 2012 election than the top ten labor unions combined.

Koch Industries is into lots of industries, principally industrial in nature. Their profits depend on getting natural resources cheaply to market. It’s not surprising then that Charles and David are premier anti-environmentalists, who vehemently deny that global warming is a problem and are trying to keep their industries from being impacted by pesky and costly pollution laws. Koch Carbon has created a lot of petroleum coke as a byproduct from refining oil shipped from Canadian tar sands. The product, called petcoke, has been piled up many stories high along parts of the Great Lakes. A huge noxious cloud of dust from a petcoke pile was captured on video last year. Its presence doesn’t bother the Koch Brothers, who don’t have to breathe the stuff, but it was of great concern to residents of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, who were on the receiving end of these polluted dust clouds.

While primarily into industrial activities, the Koch Brothers have influence in some surprising areas. One thing the Koch Brothers do well is create PACs and network related companies to contribute toward these PACs to achieve common goals. For the Koch Brothers, this is principally electing conservatives with an anti-environmental bent.

Many parts of the country are controlled by a handful of national realtor firms. Ever hear of Realogy? I hadn’t. There is a good chance you have heard some of these real estate firm names: Coldwell Banker, Century 21, Southbys, ERA and Better Homes and Gardens RE. It just so happens that Realogy gives heavily to Koch Brothers-related PACs. And Koch Brothers PACs give money principally to candidates that are anti-environmental, not to mention anti-union.

Real estate commissions are quite profitable, typically six percent of a house’s purchase price. A house selling for $250,000 actually costs $265,000, when you add in the typical real estate commissions. (It’s more than that, of course, when you add in all those other fees that come with buying a house.) Often the fee is split between two realtors: the seller’s agent and the buyer’s agent. If you consider how many houses are sold across the country annually, you can see that real estate commissions amount to a huge amount of money. Of course the individual agents keep a lot of it: it amounts to their salary. However, they also kick back a lot of it to their companies. Companies like Coldwell Banker ship their profits back to Realogy. Realogy’s in turn uses some of those profits to fund Koch-related PACs. It helps explain why the Koch Brothers-related PACs can find more than $400M to spend influencing elections in 2012 alone. For a company this big, $400M amounts to the change found under the family’s sofa cushions.

Curiously, most of the agents who work for these companies have no idea where these profits go. It’s likely that many of them are like me: environmentalists. They would probably be aghast to learn a substantial amount of this money is spent to help elect politicians who will be anti-environmentalist. I’m not a realtor, but I am a likely home seller and buyer in the next year or so. I would have known none of this had I not spoken to a realtor, who shall remain anonymous, with progressive leanings, who gave me the inside dope on all this.

What this means for us home sellers and purchasers is that unless we are very careful we are indirectly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If next year when I expect to put our house on the market I choose a realtor who works for a company controlled by Realogy, I could be indirectly contributing to PACs controlled by the Koch brothers, which will go principally to electing people who will further harm the planet.

I am so glad to get this insider information. If you are an environmentalist and in the housing market, then you should be glad to be reading this post too. In fact, I hope you will take a moment to “like” it or hit one of the share buttons for this post, and broadcast it to your friends. Perhaps, before listing your house, you should choose a realtor firm not associated with Realogy. Among the national firms not part of Realogy are ReMax and Keller Williams. Perhaps, before hiring a buyer agent, you should do the same. That does not necessarily mean that ReMax and Keller Williams may not be channeling some of their profits into these anti-environmentalist causes. But it seems less likely that they are.

Deciding who to hire as your realtor or buyer agent of course is a complex decision. Typically you are more interested in the agent than the company they are affiliated with, and his or her track record. If you are an environmentalist, you can look for good agents that simply aren’t associated with these firms. You can also choose small, local and independent realtor firms. These firms don’t have to send their profits to a national office. They can keep the money in their community instead. And that sounds environmentally friendly.

You can bet that before I sign a contract with a realtor, I’ll be assured that my money will not indirectly support any Koch Brothers PAC, or any anti-environmental cause. I hope you will do the same.

Updated 3/9/14 – I initially published this with some incorrect information. I had suggested that Realogy was owned by the Koch Empire. This is not true, however Realogy does give heavily to the Koch Brothers’ related and approved PACs. The full extent is hard to determine, since individuals working for Realogy can make contributions to any organization they choose under their own name. As for the official Realogy PAC, you can see how it spent its money here. As you can see, a lot of it went to the Madison PAC, whose Facebook page indicates its purpose is to get conservatives elected to Congress.

The Thinker

Cruising into denial

The good news is that our cruise was perfectly timed. We missed a second massive polar vortex by escaping to the Caribbean via a cruise ship. Moreover, we did not spend it vomiting by catching the Norovirus, unlike the unlucky passengers of the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas and the Caribbean Princess. Despite these risks, I am definitely starting to see the appeal of being a snowbird. Winter is not bad and it can be pretty and invigorating. But when it goes on too long, or it gets too cold, or when there are no breaks of cold weather, and when you are sick of the sun slipping behind the horizon by five p.m., maybe it’s time to be in southern latitudes for a while. It worked for us. I am still red in the face, despite the sunscreen. With luck it will last for a while.

The bad news is when we came home on Monday we were back into the thick of the cold weather. We missed the worst of the recent cold and snow. But it was still in the mid 30s, and this was sure not Aruba. Our car, twelve days on the BWI long-term parking lot, anemically came back to life. We were greeted to the traditional slow traffic on the beltway and by a mixture of snow and frost covering the front lawn. We may need to deal with a massive snowfall next week too. In short, we’ve been vortexed. We should get above freezing tomorrow but for three mornings in a row it was 8, 9 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning. Temperatures in the 40s will feel like a heat wave.

Earlier on Monday morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast in the dining room of our cruise ship as we waited for our call to disembark. Unless you holler, you usually get paired up with some other couple. You know you have been on a cruise ship too long when you recognize people and some of their names because you had long conversations with them over dinner. I had a few passengers call me by name on the cruise ship. Most of these people are fine to dine with.

Occasionally you get a crank. We got a couple from southwest Florida on Monday morning in the Vista Dining room of the Noordam. After a long digression about the man’s stroke fifteen years earlier, we of course talked about the cold weather, although weather in Fort Lauderdale was already nearing eighty. Doubtlessly parroting Fox “News”, the gentleman we were with expressed the opinion that global warming and climate change were bunk. Look at that polar vortex freezing most of the United States. Case closed.

It’s quite a challenge for me to remain civil in these circumstances. Most people choose to see what they want to see, particularly viewers of Fox “News”, which is fair and balanced, as long as you don’t count the “fair” and “balanced” part. But when you are a white couple in your sixties like this couple, you live in a deeply red part of the state and you have been on 64 (yes, that’s what they said) cruises, you are obviously swimming in money and, when not on a cruise ship, probably living in a gated community somewhere where you can spout crap like this with conviction.

I gently pointed out news reports that temperatures in Rio de Janeiro recently reached a crushing 110 degrees. The southern hemisphere is in its summer, which also means out in Oz (Australia) temperatures are close to these stratospheric levels too. 106 degrees is forecast in Adelaide on Saturday, and there are the now usual brushfires to deal with, meaning there is a catastrophic fire rating in southeast Australia. Hopefully, these brush fires won’t destroy more Australian homes, but it’s becoming usual to have summers where hundreds of homes down under succumb to flames caused by fires created by these long and excessive heat waves. When we returned home and read the news, I learned that the temperature in Alaska reached 62 degrees in Port Alsworth. In general, the west coast is warmer and drier this winter than normal, due to the shifting jet stream, which is pumping the warmer air northward along the west coast, but otherwise is freezing the east coast. More than half of California is experiencing a severe drought. But of course, because the news is full of reports about negative degrees Fahrenheit across most of the northern states, it means to some that global warming must be bunk.

People wonder why scientists are overwhelmingly Democrats. It’s because they cannot deny the obvious, and they examine the totality of evidence before making assertions. For a Republican, if there is a polar vortex it means there is no climate change. If there is an excessive heat wave, it’s an aberration and evidence of nothing. Democrats though are looking at the earth as a system. And on average, in spite of the polar vortex, the earth is warm and getting warmer. It obviously doesn’t mean the world in general is cooling down.

I didn’t press my logic too far with this couple. I knew from experience it would engender some hostility. We simply had to finish a quick meal and the price was right, even if we had to sit with a couple that admired Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Keep pleasant. Keep positive. Keep civil. Smile, but don’t smirk.

It may be inconvenient, but neither Fox “News” nor Rush Limbaugh can change the laws of chemistry. When you keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is going to be retained from the sun, on average, than otherwise and that means it’s going to be hotter. Rent a chemistry lab and do the experiment for yourself. So things are going to get warmer until we stop pumping these gases causing global warming into the atmosphere. Maybe God can move mountains, but he never has, at least not unless you count over eons. God isn’t going to change the laws of chemistry and physics simply because it disagrees with our prejudices.

I hate to give up cruising. Fortunately, this couple was not typical of those we sat with. But I may need a special cruise next time: where only sane people are allowed to board. The stupid: sometimes it does not just burn; it flares.

The Thinker

Not quite the end of the world as we know it

Sigh. Today was another day when the world was supposed to end, but here I am still alive and frankly feeling rather disappointed. Granted that most end of the world scenarios are bleak. Fire, brimstone, wailing and gnashing of teeth are all usually assumed at the end of the world. In some scenarios the elect (usually those who accept Jesus Christ as their Personal Lord and Savior ™) at least get raptured. In general, it’s not the end of the world unless huge numbers of people suffer violently and in blistering pain, then die noisily, painfully and traumatically. It all over in a few hours.

So why was I rooting for the end of the world? Well, at least it would be different. Instead, it’s same old, same old.

There was no brimstone falling this morning when I walked to my car. 7:30 AM found me at the chiropractor for another round of traction to make sure my painful sciatica does not come back. At 10 AM, I was getting my haircut by Basma, who had to reschedule for doomsday because she is flying home to Jerusalem on Monday, three days after the end of the world! Thence I tootled to Wells Fargo Bank, not because I am a customer, but because a check from my money market account won’t process electronically. Finally around 11 AM I made it into the office and I realized the day was a huge disappointment. Another day parking in the same parking lot. Another morning flashing my badge to the security guard as I entered the building. Another trip up the same quiet elevators to my fifth floor office. On my desk was the same peace plant in need of water. Lunch was the same too: salad with chicken pieces dropped on top, with the only variant being the soup de jour (vegetable beef).

It was all the same stuff on the news too. Fiscal cliff. Dysfunctional congress. A snowstorm was moving across the Midwest. The NRA was making the same tired noises, this time in response to the Newtown massacre a week ago. (Their “solution” is to put an armed guard in every school.) And of course there was the usual slow moving climate crisis: melting polar icecaps, loss of biodiversity and most Americans living happily in denial.

Sharon at least found her own exit. Sharon was a lady in our office who died of complications from heart surgery a week ago, at the premature age of 51. She was a sweet lady, a huge Redskins fan, always the first to help others and good at herding us cats: people like me who put our time into our payroll system. It was part of her job to manage us cats so we could actually get paid on time. She did a great job of it because our payroll system is a crappy web-based system seemingly put together by trolls. Her funeral was yesterday and most of us in her herd went to it. We pondered our appreciation for having her in our lives and offered sincere condolences to her grieving family. But during the service we also learned of a blessing from her premature passing: she was spending Christmas with Jesus this year.

That sounds pretty awesome. Rapid climate change and fiscal cliff diving are no longer issues she has to worry about, although I don’t recall her being worried in particular about any of these things. And Jesus sounds like a pretty neat dude. I can think of worse things than hanging around him for eternity, like, say, hanging around this world and watching with daily horror as we slowly kill it.

Ask a Mayan (as we did in January when we went to see Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula) and you learn that they never said the world was going to end today. Rather, their calendar starts afresh. Today is like January 1, 2000 was to the rest of us. It’s a day for celebration, and the Mayans have plenty to celebrate. They may have been about four feet tall when their calendar was invented (their height was limited due to limestone water they drank) but they were amazing in many ways: astronomers and mathematicians arguably more advanced than the ancient Egyptians were at the same time. No, as our Mayan tour guide told us, it’s us Westerners who chose to hear what we wanted to hear. So today became yet another day to proclaim the end of the world and sell a few more newspapers. I won’t hold the Mayans to blame, just shoddy journalists who can’t be bothered to do basic research.

If you were to pick a day when Armageddon actually started, today would probably do, although any day would meet the criteria. Here’s the thing: barring some sort of large asteroid hitting earth (something we would know about) Armageddon is not something that happens quickly. Rather, it happens very slowly. It’s like boiling a frog by putting it in a pan of water on the stove and slowly increasing the heat. Feeling a bit sweaty? I know I am. The end of a world with us humans in it strikes me as an inevitable consequence of global climate change and our dogged determination to largely ignore it. It’s coming at us way faster than we can adapt to it. While it’s impossible to say any one particularly extreme event is a direct result of climate change, Hurricane Sandy sure felt like Mother Nature was giving us a wakeup call. So for me Armageddon began officially on October 30, 2012, the day when Sandy made landfall on the Eastern Seaboard.

The earth will survive, of course, but humans won’t. There are far too many of us to keep the Earth in something resembling a natural balance. We make it worse on ourselves by craving a first world lifestyle. It’s not hard at all to see how this ends, and it won’t be with a joint Kumbaya. Sandy should have been our wakeup call but we will rebuild along our coasts anyhow, only to see these areas get soon wacked again by the next Sandy. Eventually we will figure out we need to move further inland and build on higher elevations, but that of course doesn’t solve the problem, it just lessens our pain.

Our whole ecosystem is rapidly changing, and not for the better. Lowlands are surrendering to the sea. Storms are becoming larger and more destructive. Farmlands are becoming deserts. Crop yields are lessening because it is simply too hot or too parched during the summers for food to grow to maturity. In good years the Obamas of the world will try to inspire and lead us. We may cheer them a bit but mostly we will prefer to wallow in our own issues rather than wrestle with the macroscopic ones. In bad years the John Boehners of the world will tell us to plug cotton into our ears and pray about your concerns at church.

We already know what causes this real Armageddon that is unfolding: reliance on fossil fuels, cravings for first world lifestyles, humans breeding like bunnies and succumbing to greed. These actions make the world hotter and it makes people meaner. Climate change is killing us and the species we rely on to survive.

The fiscal cliff diving of the moment inadvertently reveals the real end of the world underway. There are too many of us and the world cannot increase in size just because we keep having too many babies. So we enter a resource competitive era and that means someone has to take it on the chin. No one will volunteer to be the first to reduce their standard of living, so we will duke it out instead, and most likely this means the poor will get more wretched and the rich will get richer. The last bloodied man standing can keep his SUV and iPhone but there will be no place to go and no one to call. Eventually he will die, Armageddon will end, but because we won’t be around to tip the balance perhaps the Earth will finally have a chance to restore a natural balance.

The Thinker


Winter never really arrived this year. Typically we don’t get much in the way of snowfall in a given winter, but the snowplows tend to come out at least a couple of times during the season. And they were out a couple of times this winter as well, but they were mostly sitting by the side of the road waiting for conditions to worsen, which they did not. Most of our snow this winter, to the extent we had it, was flurries. None of the snow that we received lasted a day or exceeded an inch. To the extent we saw snow, it was on the top of cars that had driven in from the Shenandoah Mountains or points further north and west.

Temperatures also were moderate. There was a cold day here and there. I only recall temperatures dipping into the teens once. I usually go through six to eight weeks of scraping the frost off my windshield most days. This year I performed the chore only a half dozen times. Technically it was winter, but in reality it was some new amorphous season for which we have no name. Neither fall nor spring but feeling not at all like winter, it was full of short days, with highs mostly in the fifties but sometimes in the seventies. March brought a couple of days with temperatures creeping into the low eighties. The grass in my yard started growing in early March. The wild onions were peaking up in January. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin bloomed over the weekend: a surreally early start to spring that was (and still is) winter.

Thanks to climate change, we are likely to have to come up for a new name for winter because it no longer fits. On the plus side, our heating bill was manageable. No need to worry about frozen pipes, or being stuck in a snow bank. Only twice did I put on the heavy winter coat. A light jacket and some gloves were all I needed.

My wife wants to move further north to some place like Boston where winter is still cruel and still bites, and where you spend most mornings relocating snow off your driveway and digging a path to your mailbox. I’m pretty sure Bostonians did a whole lot less of that this year as well. Ski resorts spent much of the winter hunting for snow and customers. They created ski slopes loosely packed with artificial snow, which mostly vanished shortly after application. Out west, the usual mountain snowfalls largely never appeared. Westerners are already anxious about the probable drought they will be facing this summer.

One year does not a trend make, but one trend that is unmistakable is the rise in average global temperatures. There is about a one in three chance that this summer will be the hottest on record, again. It clearly won’t be much longer before the last of the Arctic sea ice melts during the summer. Much of it will reappear in the winter, but its gradual disappearance will lead to the extinction of many species that depend on the ice, like the polar bear. It is likely that extinction driven by climate change is already very much with us but we are simply not looking for it. Like a horse running a race with blinders, most of us simply choose to ignore the evidence all around us. The planet is fundamentally and rapidly changing, and not for the better.

You would think conservatives of all people would be alarmed. You cannot go back to those mythical good old days when the climate is so radically different. Instead, they are the ones aiding and abetting climate change. They do it through well-practiced and obnoxious denial of indisputable facts. Science is irrelevant because if you can acquire power you can legislate the science you want, such as they are doing in Texas where teaching “creationism” and a six thousand year old earth to public school students is considered on par with teaching evolution. Facts simply get in the way with the way you want things to be. Ignoring facts gives you the opportunity to not only keep climate change going, but to make it worse. Gas prices are approaching record levels and naturally it’s all Obama’s fault. It has nothing to do with demand worldwide by a wealthier and overpopulated planet that is taking off, as predicted, exceeding available capacity. $2.50 a gallon gas if you elect me, promises Newt Gingrich. Yet doing more to stimulate demand simply raises prices higher.

Acknowledging what is happening at least lets you ponder what can be done about it. Natural gas is not a long-term solution, but it can be a bridge that can move us to a carbon free energy future. It is plentiful and cheap as well as clean, but with the exception of some city buses, it’s hard to find any motor vehicles using it. No automaker that I am aware of is working to create cars powered by natural gas. Why should they when it’s so hard to get a fill up? Presumably Republicans think the free market will solve the problem but no one in the free market seems to be stepping up to the plate. Those few Republicans that acknowledge the problem know what is really required: government regulation and the (horror!) spending that comes with it. We need to require carmakers to build cars powered by natural gas. We need natural gas filling stations along all our major interstates. In populated neighborhoods, there should be a requirement that you should not have to drive more than five miles to fill up your tank with natural gas. Require it and Americans will start to drive cars powered by natural gas. Why wouldn’t they when natural gas will cost half as much, or less, than gasoline? Moreover, there are few things we cherish more than our mobility. If we can reliably fill up our cars with natural gas, we’ll take to it like a duck to water. But to do so requires the hand of government, and that must be socialism or something.

We are saying in effect that we are okay with our extinction, in spite of our so-called reverence for human life. I’d say in retrospect we’d have to say we saw our extinction coming. However, there won’t be any of us left to ponder these preventable mistakes. One thing is for sure: we cannot change the future until we acknowledge the present and let the facts instead of uninformed prejudices drive our policy.

The good news for the planet is that our extinction is likely to come sooner rather than later. Then maybe the planet can recover. We seem to be incapable of being stewards of our planet. Indeed, we believe it is our job to rape it. It’s in the Book of Genesis, and we must let nothing like inconvenient facts contravene our sacred scripts.

Our sacred scripts are also destined to disappear into the dust with our extinction and will thus ultimately mean nothing, except that our species was a foolish accident of nature whose extinction, fortunately, we hastened. We will have painfully destroyed ourselves as well as much of the species we depend on. That which we claimed to conserve and cherish, we will ultimately squander on the altar of reckless human selfishness.

Unless, very improbably, we take to heart the lesson of The Lorax now in theaters. Unless. The hour is very, very late.


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