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

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Empowered and traveling

The Thinker by Rodin

One of the weird but nice things about my current job is that I am empowered. In all my other jobs, I was what amounted to a flunky. I was often a well-paid flunky, but a flunky nonetheless. While I had influence over decisions, I had no actual control over them. In fact, more often than not my suggestions were given short shrift. I usually did not usually have the inner ear of the decision maker.

In my current job, I am empowered. Of course, I too have a boss. Sometimes she will put the kibosh on my suggestions. However, increasingly (particularly when there is money available) she will flash green lights. She has chosen to delegate real authority to me. While she controls the overall budget and makes key financial decisions, she largely leaves me and the other managers alone. She does her best to give me the tools (time, money, executive sponsorship) so that I am my team can soar. Even when she is very busy, she will take the time to listen to me.

After eighteen months or so on the job, I still find this exhilarating. I wonder why there is not more empowerment in government and industry. Why are so many managers micromanaging? Why are they not instead putting trust in their employees? I too am learning to empower my employees. I find that empowerment is not always easy for me. It turns out that I am a bit of a control freak. However, I am unlearning my “trust no one” habits. You do not always have to watch behind your back.

For example, I have a team leader. I do my best not to interfere with the way he does his job. I see my role as more of a coach than a boss. As my boss does for me, if he wants something, I do my best to get it for him. I try to use this same strategy on all my employees. I try to let them feel like they have a sense of ownership for their areas of responsibility. I let them know what I expect from them but try not to worry them about how they accomplish it. “Holler if you want an opinion,” is what I tell them. I already have more than enough on my plate with routine work. I cannot worry about their work too. I have to let it go.

My employees do not always want to be empowered. They often want me to make the decisions for them. Why is this? Perhaps not everyone is comfortable with empowerment. Perhaps they want to disclaim responsibility if something goes wrong. I am not always comfortable making these micro decisions. Typically, my employee has a far better understanding of the problem and the solution than I do. Unless I have a strong reason to do otherwise, I will ask for their recommendation and implement that. As much as possible I will ask them to manage it too.

Sometimes I am dinged for actions. Being empowered apparently does not mean not being insensitive to my boss’s needs and concerns. While she wants to be hands off, she needs to be very hands on in a few areas. In those areas, she is not afraid to micromanage. She is legally accountable for how our money is used. As a result, she is aware of subtleties that I am not, such as what the Inspector General might be looking for in an audit. Consequently, she is quite concerned about how and where money is spent. She insists on personally approving every financial transaction. She wants to know down to the penny (if possible) how much money is obligated, whom it is obligated to, and what the obligation means for the future. This becomes an obsession at the end of the fiscal year.

She is also concerned about the image of our department. She does not like mixed messages presented to her management. I have learned that even in innocent emails to her boss it is a good idea to CC her. It is usually better to forward a draft to her first, let her weigh the political aspects, and let her present the situation to her management.

I have also learned through a number of painful lessons to stay on my own turf. I interact with a couple peers who run their own units. Of course, our employees work intimately with one another on a daily basis. It is easy to forget to make their boss aware of these discussions. I have been known to task employees outside my unit from time to time. Tsk, tsk. Apparently my empowerment has limits. After all, I don’t want my employees doing tasks for others if it might impact our commitments.

Last fiscal year our budget was quite tight. My boss was always looking for corners to cut. One consequence of her concern was that travel became less frequent. We held planning meetings via teleconference rather than in person. The result was probably not quite as good as if we had done it in person. As a new fiscal year dawns we find ourselves in a fortunate position. Congress, for the first time in many years, has actually passed our appropriation bill. In addition, the president signed it into law before the start of the fiscal year. Amazingly, there is some, but not a whole lot more money to spend beyond cost of living raises. We frankly did not see this coming. We are now putting our brains together to figure out how to best use the money over the coming year.

With money flowing a bit freer than before, I am finding it easier to get travel approved. This puts me into a small dilemma: do I travel or not? I do not mind a couple business trips a year, but lately my business trips have been nightmares. This is perhaps symptomatic of the stress our airlines are under these days. However, it is also not hard to make a business case that I need to do a lot more traveling than I do.

So more and more I have to decide whether I need to travel on business or not. Tonight I find myself in Cupertino, California. I was invited to attend a customer advisory board meeting for a database that we use. It would have been easy to say no thanks. The conference after all is in California and I am on the East Coast. The conference lasts a day but by the time I travel there and back, it will consume three days out of my week. Cons: a lot of time in airplanes and the usual three-hour jetlag hangover. Pros: having significant influence in setting the future direction of this product we use extensively. Deciding factor: money. Since we have more of it this year, I decided to go to the meeting. It may be a waste of my time, or it may be the start of a closer relationship. It may allow us to get our needs addressed more quickly.

This too still seems strange. I can elect to travel anywhere I want for business, providing there is money to do so. I realize I am fortunate to have such freedom in my job. However, particularly when the travel seems to go back-to-back, or when the airline gods have been especially nasty, I wish I was unempowered again. Eventually the feeling passes.

I am going trying to look on business travel as a perquisite rather than a pain. I am going to try to tell myself that it is okay to empower myself by sending myself across the country to follow a hunch. When I can afford to do so, if the destination has amenities, then I will try to arrive a day early to see a few sites or to do some local hiking.

Alas, it will not happen on the Cupertino trip. It seems I have meetings to run when I get back to the East Coast, and my To Do list will doubtlessly grow longer in my absence.

Crazy in California

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m fortunate I don’t live in California.

To recap: in about two weeks a special election will be held. Voters will have the option of throwing out Gray Davis, the twice elected governor of the state. Davis has never been a very popular fellow. He’s about as smooth as sandpaper. Nonetheless, there would be no special election had not a disgruntled Republican with lots of spare cash organized a state wide voter effort to force a special election for his recall. They can do that in California. The rest of the states for some reason figure that if the guy was elected he should serve out his term, unless he committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

But anyhow in California with enough signatures you can force a special election about anything and dictate the terms. This one though is particularly egregious because you get to pick a replacement at the same time you are throwing the guy out. And no majority or run off election is required. Whoever gets the most votes gets in. Consequently a Republican who might well lose a general election in this Democratic state can get swept into office with 30% of the vote or less. This is democracy in action, California style.

Such is life in that peculiar state. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man whose career consisted of lifting enormous weights and starring in testosterone laden action movies, who has never run for public office, and whose sole claim to politics is being married into the Kennedy clan, figures he can do a good job as governor. And maybe he will win because the polls currently show he is leading, although I can’t figure out why. He looked foolish in the one debate he participated in, and he seems to have the same high opinion of women as his character had in the latest Terminator movie. Arnold even alluded to it when during the debate independent Arianna Huffington gave him a hard time. Arnold said he had a part for her in her next movie: presumably the next lady to have the terminator put her head into a toilet.

It’s quite a collection of gadflies and eccentrics in this election, with the exception of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who by rights should assume the office anyhow if Davis were removed. We have another Republican candidate Tom McClintock who is so far to the right he is likely to fall off the planet, porno publisher Larry Flint, columnist Arianna Huffington (whose voice makes you want to put your fingers in your ears), and Mary Carey, a porno star with great hooters who has no chance of winning but whose videos can’t stay on the shelves of adult video outlets. Them and 130 or so other candidates. I guess there is plenty of choice for voters.

Meanwhile, the legislature, controlled by the Democrats, can’t address a $35B budget deficit very well because a law requires any new taxes to pass by a two thirds majority, which they don’t have. That effectively leaves the Republicans in charge during fiscal emergencies and they won’t, god forbid, allow any new taxes to be incurred. Davis was able to triple car taxes only because of the way that law was written long ago. That extra money, plus borrowing billions of dollars, is how Davis balanced the budget this year. The Republicans couldn’t be bothered to even try because all they kept saying was “No new taxes.”

Meanwhile in flusher economic times California voters basically took away most of the discretionary spending from its legislature. Education, health care and prison spending are dictated by California voter referendum, state law and federal laws, leaving little money for the legislature to cut to fix $35B budget gap.

And yet of course all the candidates are denying this reality. Schwarzenegger is just one of many promising to balance the budget somehow, even though Republicans will slit their own wrists before they vote for a tax increase, and there is not enough money to do it while the economy remains sour in California. And of course by law California must also balance its budget.

In short voters have boxed politicians into a no win situation. They are saying we will have our cake (education, prison, health care spending) and eat it too (but they won’t pay for it when revenues go down). No one can win.

So take it all out on Gray Davis. Put someone else in charge. Just don’t expect the underlying problems to be solved.

A candidate with courage would be leveling with California voters. For example either the referendum which requires educational spending to be at certain levels has to be repealed, or the legislature have to vote to raise taxes, or the state must continue borrow billions of dollars at increasingly high interest rates. This will eventually bankrupt the state or cause California’s debt rating to go to junk bond status. At some point no creditor will lend the state any more money.

It is fitting that Fantasyland started in California. I suggest the capital of California move from Sacramento to Anaheim, and the legislature should meet there in Cinderella’s castle. Clearly Californians are comfortable living in a fiscal fantasy anyhow.