Scaring us stupid

My wife volunteers at both a local survival center and at a local hospital emergency room. In the first job she packages and hands out food to those who don’t have enough of it. In the second she offers comfort to those in the emergency room or in various bays, as well as makes a lot of beds in the ER after a patient leaves.

When she comes home I often tell her she is doing God’s work. This is true. God can’t be bothered to do it himself. He’s got bigger fish to fry. Manna is not going to come down from heaven to feed the hungry. God won’t magically protect you from covid-19 either. If any of this is to happen, it will take people doing good stuff. God is either absent, dead, never existed, or only works through people like my wife.

Ending covid-19 won’t happen through prayer, and reducing greenhouse gases won’t get solved by putting positive thoughts out there. We won’t cure our political dysfunction by doing more of the same. Doing nothing will only move us more quickly toward a dystopian future that is well underway.

The more you try to ignore the reality, the more is smacks you aside your head. That’s true of Southern states in particular right now as the covid-19 delta variant runs rampant across it. It’s happening in other states too, like here in Massachusetts, it’s just not as bad because more of us are vaccinated. When a local outbreak does occur, such as at Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, the cases tend to be mild and no one actually dies.

That’s our best case covid-19 future for a while. Hopefully vaccination rates will continue to creep up and most people won’t have a cow if they have to mask up again for a while. With luck enough will get vaccinated, not to bring about herd immunity (that now seems a pipe dream, given chronic obstinance to vaccination by many) but to keep a nastier and more lethal covid-19 variants from emerging.

The peculiar nature of these pandemics is they tend to evolve into something worse over time. That was certainly the case with the Spanish flu a hundred years ago, when the second wave was much more widespread and lethal. The delta variant is very scary since it is much more transmissible than previous variants, equivalent to the transmissibility of the chicken pox. It’s quite possible that the next variant will be even more transmissible and potentially resistant to current vaccines.

In short, the next variant may kill a lot more of us, including people like me who are fully vaccinated with one of the best vaccines available. What we can do is get vaccinated if we are not, wear masks when health experts recommend it, work from home if that’s an option and, oh, stop doing stupid stuff like allowing Florida children to go back to public schools maskless while the state is suffering the largest number of new cases per day in the country.

But if you are looking to bring about the end of days, as apparently many evangelical Christians are hoping to do, keep doing what you are doing. Just don’t expect you’ll be around to witness The Rapture. Covid-19 is but a harbinger. There are a full suite of other problems to address including climate change, overpopulation, deforestation and mass migrations that will only get worse if we sit on our hands. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and to fix or at least mitigate things can only be done by human actions.

There are times when I think maybe a little dystopia could be good for us. Appealing to reason or patriotism doesn’t seem to be working with a lot of people. Many people have lost the ability to see or care about anything beyond their immediate circle of family and friends. They think guns and lots of bullets will see them through any tough times, when it will actually take plenty of food, medicine and other people with skills they lack. They assume government is evil when government is the solution. There would be a lot more of us dead right now, perhaps even me, if government-funded vaccine efforts did not start shortly after covid-19 infected people.

If they are going to inadvertently self-select themselves for extermination, I often feel they should keep on doing stupid stuff. It will leave a lot of widows and orphans and innocent victims, but maybe survivors be cared for by others with more common sense than they are exhibiting. Because it’s clear they aren’t getting it now. The rest of us want to live.

Modern life should be scaring us straight. Instead it’s scaring us stupid.

Creating hell on earth

In Lytton, British Columbia the temperature reached 121F on Tuesday. Temperatures across the northwestern United States broke all sorts of records recently, not just by a little, but by a lot. The heat in British Columbia though really drove the nail in the coffin. Temperatures above 100F anywhere in Canada is exceptionally rare anytime in the summer, and summer has just begun. A massive heat bubble is to blame, but what’s really to blame in climate change, principally driven by humans largely dithering on mitigating its impact.

Excessive heat has become a standard feature of summer here in the northern hemisphere but also in the southern one during their summers. Accompanying it are large changes to precipitation patterns that that is making the west even drier and creating large-scale fires.

It’s getting hard to escape the heat. It used to be that we would travel in the summer, but lately the only places that hold any appeal this time of year are the cooler and more temperate northern latitudes. Except now you can’t even count on that. It was hotter in British Columbia on Tuesday than it was in Las Vegas, where the high was “only” 117F.

Where I live (Western Massachusetts) it’s pretty dang hot too, just not anywhere near these crazy temperatures out west. We’ve had highs in the mid to upper nineties since Sunday, which is horrible heat for this area. I make a point of going outside for a daily walk, but not these last few days. It’s too crazy hot for even me to venture outdoors for long. On Sunday I took an early morning walk, but even though I left before 9 AM and mostly stayed under the trees, the humidity was oppressive as the temperatures were in the mid 80s. I finished the walk drenched from head to toe. For a while, I am exercising indoors on the treadmill. I don’t even want to fetch the mail from the kiosk on days like this. Relief is expect to arrive late tonight.

Unfortunately, the United States is perhaps the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Our wealth also puts us in a good position to actually do something about it. While there’s lots to do, there are many quick wins that can be done rather inexpensively. It’s excessive methane emissions that are the worst pollutants these days. Fracking wells probably contribute most of this methane. We could require that these wells be fixed and not to flare excess natural gas, or to require them to be capped. Of course we don’t, although the Biden administration is starting to take steps in this area.

Like with covid-19 vaccine hesitation, so much of climate change could be mitigated, but there are obstinate political forces, almost exclusively controlled by the Republican Party, that make it excruciatingly difficult to do much about them. Congressional Republicans are all for infrastructure, as long as improving infrastructure is limited to roads, bridges and the like and, of course, doesn’t raise their taxes. Forget about caps on carbon pollution, investing in clean energy and reducing pollution by expanding broadband access. If these get through Congress, it will be through a reconciliation bill in the Senate where two Democratic senators (Manchin and Sinema) will control the bill and likely water down the serious provisions needed to address climate change.

The effect of all of this procrastination and obstinacy is obvious and all around us. Mother Nature could not be doing more to put climate change right in our faces, and yet we still dither and refuse to acknowledge reality. And as bad as things are now, it’s but a taste of what’s coming, which is much, much more of the same and for longer periods of time. All this will exacerbate human migration and sea level rise, which increases poverty, misery, strife, conflict and the likelihood of war. Climate change is obviously our number one national security threat. We should be working our tails off to lessen its impact here and working with other nations to reduce its impact elsewhere. No one can escape its effects.

As if to hammer in the point, there was the recent catastrophic collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Seaside, Florida, north of Miami. So far the official death toll is twelve, but 149 remain unaccounted for as rescue teams try rather fruitlessly to find survivors. There are two likely culprits to this collapse: rising sea levels and willful government ignorance.

The sea level around Miami is on average six inches higher today than it was when the building was constructed in 1980. This fact, tides and Florida’s plentiful rains caused mostly by salt water, wore away the footings of the building’s pool, garage and likely the tower itself. The problem has been known for at least three years. Local and state government weren’t on top of the issue, and the condominium’s owners seemed in no hurry to affect expensive repairs.

The whole Florida coast is being affected by sea level rise. The Champlain Towers example is a harbinger of much worse to come. These towering condos rest on limestone for the most part, not the most stable of foundations, and easily eroded by sea water which is now regularly encroaching on these properties. Sump pumps can keep water from eating away at the foundation, but like New Orleans it depends on extraordinary human engineering that is costly and ultimately just a delaying action.

Climate change is going to move us inland, whether we want it or not. The only question is how fast and at what cost. Given our dithering on the climate change issue, it’s not hard to figure out the answers: much more quickly than we expect, and at ruinous cost and a lot of pointless misery for millions of us. We are literally creating hell not just for us but for many generations to come. And much of it is wholly avoidable if we simply put the common good before our own selfishness.

I’m feeling sick and you should too

I was in Boston last week when the massive heat wave struck. I was there to attend a Wordcamp, a gathering of people interested in WordPress. (WordPress powers forty percent of websites, including this one.) While the “camp” was great (in part because it was indoors), the heat outside was oppressive. Walking eight blocks or so to dinner from my hotel nearly gave me sunstroke.

For a while, I walked beside a homeless man with a shopping cart. Inside were his prized possessions, such as they were. They included two plastic jugs of water that he kept drinking from. He put on a happy face though amongst his profuse sweating. “Love the heat, love the heat”, he intoned, moving down the sidewalk.

It was probably 98 degrees. To me it, was about as brutal a heat as I could ever remember, which included one 104-degree day in Virginia’s humidity. It was perhaps made worse by all the asphalt and concrete around me. I eventually found the Jewish deli where I had dinner. The threat of heatstroke went away when the waitress poured me glass after glass of ice water.

The homeless man proved to be more resilient than I was, but he had no choice. I figure it would have killed me had I had to stay out in it all day. I felt woozy, sticky, terribly uncomfortable and sweaty beyond belief. I couldn’t fathom how people endured this kind of heat before air conditioning. The truth is though that most of the time they didn’t have to because it very rarely got so hot. What I was experiencing was climate change in action. It is only going to get worse.

I remember back to the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency was first established. By the end of the decade, the skies were largely clean and the rivers largely unpolluted. We felt like we had pollution under control. Climate change was not on anyone’s radar, except by maybe some outlier scientists. No wonder that when Ronald Reagan declared Morning in America again in the 1980s we were so enthusiastic. Off went the solar panels on top of the White House that dopey Jimmy (“cardigan sweater”) Carter had put up. We went back to getting our energy the old fashioned way, which at the time meant importing oil from mostly corrupt Middle East countries that we supported. We did manage to modestly increase fuel efficiency standards over the decades, but mostly we tuned out Al Gore’s warnings. Trump, of course, is doubling down on willful ignorance. And he’s hardly alone. In Brazil, their new Trump-like president Jair Bolsonaro declared open season on what’s left of the Amazon.

Addressing climate change is not entirely hopeless, but nearly so. With the exception of the United States, most developed countries agree there is a problem but most are taking half measures at best to address it. It doesn’t begin to realistically address the crisis. To realistically address the crisis, we all need to work together. Moreover, there is no short-term solution. It will require generations of work and carefully nurturing of our ecosystems. In the best case there will be much more massive deforestation, widespread species destruction, mass migrations and added misery and poverty. There’s a lot to be afraid of as the crisis worsens. Most people react to fear by building walls like the Supreme Court decided Trump could do on our southern border on Friday. Countries will try to have their cake and eat it too, which will make things worse for everyone.

Heat and misery then are now the new normal, but the effects of 108-degree records in cities like Paris recently are just beginning. It’s already pushing sea levels to rise but this will get much worse too. There are ten million people in Jakarta, Indonesia but most of it is expected to disappear under rising seas as it sits at just (or below) sea level. And it’s but one of the cities to be impacted the worst by climate change. Everything is changing, and none of it is changing for the better because of climate change.

So I was feeling sick not just from the heat, but because of the legacy I am leaving to my daughter’s generation and all future generations. They may expect that their lives will closely resemble the lives they were born into, but that’s largely not going to be the case. Their lives are likely to be shorter, more miserable and with a lower standard of living than their parents’.

But it’s not just future generations but also my generation too. At least financially I am the exception, but I see plenty of people in my generation that are living precarious lives largely unknown by their parents. I learned this week that my friend from childhood, Tom, is working at a distribution center. He’s just another Amazon droid in a poorly air conditioned warehouse shoving things into bins for distant customers for a little over $15.00/hour. Tom is an extremely talented advertising professional, but at age 61 he simply can’t find much beyond spot work for doing what he does best and most profitably. He’s been aged out and his industry favors the young. So while you sleep, Tom is shuffling things into bins for a fraction of what he’s worth. The only good part for Tom is that Amazon was shamed into raising wages to $15.00/hour. Also, because he works nights he gets a small bonus. Tom is hardly alone. Maybe $15.00/hour is a living wage, but not for a man with a mortgage, a wife, and two kids, one of who is going through a gender transition.

I feel sick for Tom not to mention his friend Jeff who is in a similar situation, and that the economy is failing millions like them. I feel sick for that homeless man too. Being retired and comfortable financially, I spend a fair amount of my leisure trying to rectify the mess my generation has made, such as helping to create a community network. But it’s not nearly enough. The problem is so massive it looks hopeless. I know that fear is a very strong motivator. But since most of us are short-term thinkers, our fear will be used against us to make our lives even more miserable. Malicious idiots seem to be in charge everywhere, and most of us are stupid enough to keep allowing them to do so.

No wonder that I feel sick. I have a feeling though that this is a condition I will never recover from. Neither will you.

Future generations are going to loath Republicans

The Republican Party has been reaching something of a zenith lately. For a brief while they controlled Congress. They still control the White House and arguably they control the courts, at least the Supreme Court, the one that matters most. They control 33 governorships, the most since at least 1990 and have 22 trifectas: where they control both houses of state government and the governorship (Democrats have 13 trifectas.)

But it’s going to really suck to be a Republican in the future. Republicans will be loathed and it’s not hard to see why. The most obvious reason is that they did almost everything possible to not address climate change. Donald Trump will be the most loathed of the bunch, but anyone that supported his agenda will be (at best) hissed at. Fortunately, most of these prominent Republicans are wealthy enough to move to the Cayman Islands. I’d say they’d best move there ASAP. But having been to the Cayman Islands, I discovered it’s not far above sea level. As islands in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico go, it’s going to be one of the first to be mostly underwater as sea levels rise.

People will be looking for someone to blame, and you can basically indict the entire Republican Party. Moreover, they don’t seem to learn. In Oregon, a few Republican legislators are not showing up for work. They are trying to prevent a bill from passing that will help the state address climate change through lack of a quorum. Yes, they want Oregon to keep worsening the climate crisis. The optics of this already looks bad. Imagine how bad it will look like in ten years.

They are much worse than the No-Nothings of the 19th century. They either deny undeniable facts or believe them and simply don’t care to address them. It’s hard to say which is worse. Just not caring about the climate crisis is bad enough, but they actively support policies that will make our future even chancier and bleaker is much worse. A migration crisis is already underway, but it’s only 1% as bad as it’s going to get. Republicans are actively making it even worse.

We could be working to contain these crises, by doing things like investing in Central America so its governments are less oppressive and their citizens can have some hope for the future. Instead, to punish them we are taking away what little money we give them. And since at least Reagan, Republicans have been supporting dictators down there. The political repression in places like Honduras, Venezuela and Guatemala are driving the crisis.

Finally, the concentration camps we are creating along our border with Mexico are getting some attention. From a party that almost universally wants to force mothers to carry children to term, even if impregnated by rape or incest, they systematically abuse children in these camps. A Trump spokesman actually went to court to tell the court that these children don’t need soap or showers. It’s not just children who are being treated inhumanely, but most of the other adults too. Putting too many people into “camps” not sized for their population in the definition of a concentration camp. Yet many Republicans are aghast that some are calling them what they really are. No, they are not death camps, at least not yet, although apparently influenza and other preventable diseases are widespread within them, and many migrants have died under our custody. Still, it’s not hard to see a Donald Trump in his second term feeling empowered to turn them into death camps as yet another “final solution”.

Then of course was their rape and pillage of the rest of us: the obscene tax cuts for the wealthy, the constant cutting of benefits like food stamps and Medicare, mostly unsuccessful efforts to kill Obamacare, the dumping of more pollution into our atmosphere and waterways and the ensuing health affects they cause that are already underway. Trump apparently thinks if you can’t see the pollution, it doesn’t count: as if someone suffering from asthma won’t have worse asthma when more of these pollutants are thrown into the atmosphere. Worldwide, 6.5 million death occur annually from poor air quality. In the United States, it kills about 200,000 people a year, and those are 2013 figures. This is far more people than are killed in auto accidents annually (about 37,000 people). These numbers are likely on the rise. All this from the so-called Party of Life!

The Republican Party will be seen as the selfish death and greed party who were predominantly responsible for making our country a poorer and increasingly problematic place to live. They ignored all evidence that suggested they were wrong. Since Trump, they have labeled anything of this evidence as “fake news”, claiming it can’t possibly be correct and were deliberately faked. No one will want to be a Republican and at some point no one will admit to being a Republican because it will be too dangerous.

They are likely to get a comeuppance, and it will probably be in the form of radical income redistribution as we try, probably futilely, to save our nation and our planet. They will be lucky if people don’t come after them with pitchforks. So now would be a good time for Republicans to have sudden change of hearts, but it probably won’t make much difference to future generations that will try to cope with the wreckage they mostly caused.

Republicans, move to the Cayman Islands while you can but it’s unlikely that the citizens there will treat you any more kindly.

Snowbirding

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold out there … at least across most of the country. In western Massachusetts where we live we’ve been bearing much of the worst of it, enduring temperatures more familiar to North Dakota in January than even here in snowy New England. We’ve only been residents here two years, but we hear from the locals that this is cold even by New England’s winter standards. Cold and snowy. Christmas was picture perfect, with four inches falling starting around midnight. Since then we got above freezing just once, and very briefly. Mostly though it’s been cold and getting colder with daily highs in the low teens Fahrenheit if it makes it that far. When I went to bed last night, it was -4F. Overnight it got down to -12F, breaking the -11F low from the day before.

This kind of cold pretty much makes you stay indoors. Some poor buggers have no choice but to endure the elements. Workers spent last week at a house next to us under construction, doing what looks like putting in plumbing. With strong gusts of wind the wind chill was frequently in the minus teens. Even inside our house with the gas furnace going it still feels cold. Perhaps it’s aging, but unless I am under the covers my legs feel cold.

Which is why New Englanders with money hie thee hither this time of year rather than endure it. On our cul-de-sac except for a widow across the street we are the remaining residents. Fortunately this arctic blast that won’t go away is at least well timed enough to make us appreciate our first attempt at being snowbirds in many years. Come Thursday we fly south to Fort Lauderdale. Come Friday we board the MS Westerman of the Holland America line and spend 15 days and nights on southern seas. I am hoping when we return eighteen days later it might be somewhat seasonal around here again, which means highs around freezing and lows around 20F. Then I can do things like walk outdoors again. Right now when I go anywhere I’m almost immobile in my many layers of coats, scarfs, hats and gloves. I resemble a larger version of Ralphie’s kid brother Randy from A Christmas Story.

It’s going to take a lot of time in tropical climes and sitting on deck chairs for me to thaw out. Of course, to Donald Trump this is all evidence that there is no global warming. Being a moron of course anything that agrees with his predispositions proves him right. There are mostly higher than average temperatures elsewhere across the planet but these reports of course Trump cannot acknowledge. Doubtless he would call these reports Fake News. So what we are enduring this winter is likely to become even more exceptional, which suits me fine. I’m okay with winter as long as it doesn’t become crazy winter. This is crazy winter.

Since we have the means, we’ll escape it for a while and I’ll try to keep you posted. Cruise ships theoretically have Internet, but it’s cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest. I have discovered that you can rent WiFi hot spots that should work when we are in port. This beats the alternative of trying to find a free WiFi spot somewhere in port. We’ll see if it works out. So expect pictures and remarks of various ports of call over the next few weeks as we slowly sail through the Panama Canal eventually ending up in San Diego. It’s the longest cruise we’ve ever taken, with plenty of days at sea to enjoy on a desk chair and watch mighty oceans slowly slip by.

It’s not too hard to see us following the pattern here in our 55+ community of snowbirding for the winter. Winter in New England can be cruel and it is exceptionally cruel this year. The desire to get away to warmer climes is strong. I’m just hoping my shaking knees can make it two more days until we head south to Fort Lauderdale.

Happy 2018 everyone!

Climate change: is it time to head for the hills?

I’d like to say from watching the effects of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey on the Houston area that Mother Nature must be sending us a message. Mother Nature of course does not exist, but nature is sending us yet another message about climate change anyhow. It just doesn’t appear that we are listening quite yet.

Harvey is not a thousand year flood. This is the sort of storm likely to become much more frequent. My bet is that you will see one of these events about once a decade now in the United States, and probably more often. While it is impossible to attribute this particular storm to climate change, given that global warming has made the Gulf of Mexico a hotter body of water in general, it’s going to make any storms that form more likely to be severe. In this case, its arrival in Houston was particularly bad because of its huge population. Houston and environs is roughly the same size as New Jersey, and it is both densely populated and low-lying. Add a storm that doesn’t move much due to warmer Gulf of Mexico atmospheric conditions feeding it and it feels like we need Noah and his ark. Unfortunately at 300 x 50 x 30 cubits, it’s not going to hold the population of the Houston area, estimated at around 6.7 million people.

The reality is there is not a whole lot Houstonians could do to survive this flood other than just hang on and hope or head for the hills. Actually, heading for the hills was tried before, which is why Houston’s mayor didn’t order a mass evacuation. Over 100 people died in 2005 fleeing Hurricane Rita’s approach to Houston, mostly stuck in traffic trying to get out of the city. Maybe when Harvey’s casualties are totaled up, a mass evacuation will look sensible, even if those casualties are replicated again.

Of course evacuation is not always an option, particularly for the poor and displaced. Houston’s form of governance makes evacuation more difficult: the city has no zoning laws! Rita proved that its highways could not quickly empty the city but any transportation engineer could have told you that. A better-managed evacuation might have worked. If you didn’t have a car though you were largely out of luck. Houston is typical of most cities, which do second-class jobs at best of managing growth. If our cities were properly engineered people would not be allowed to move into the city until the infrastructure was there to ensure the safety of its inhabitants. Cities constantly play a losing game of catch up. In reality though they cannot afford to pay for every contingency or even the most likely ones. So when you move to places like Houston you must accept the downsides that storms like Harvey are going to wreak havoc on your life from time to time. Only now these events are going to feel more routine than exceptional.

All cities like Houston can really do are to try to mitigate the effects of storms like Harvey. Some people will throw in the towel after this event, seeking opportunities on higher and drier ground. Most residents won’t have that option. You go where you can find work. Cities will continue to be the best bets for finding good jobs. However, the internet does make it possible for many of us teleworkers to relocate if our bosses will allow it. Harvey will give many of those with this option incentive to head for the hills.

Eventually even Texans are going to have to acknowledge they can no longer deny climate change. There are actions government can and should take. One big change could be that the federal government stops issuing flood insurance in areas that are most prone to flooding, or at least new flood insurance policies in those areas. It’s rather harsh, but it does recognize reality and shifts the cost for those living in flood prone areas from the government to these residents. FEMA already produces flood maps so you can assess your vulnerability prior to moving somewhere. Some home insurers require federal flood insurance to issue policies.

Ideally no government would allow new houses to be built on likely flood plains. I used to live in Endwell, New York, a small village on the bank of the Susquehanna River. Floods in recent years have pushed the Susquehanna twice over its flood stage. It’s gotten so bad that pretty much all the properties close to the river have been abandoned or demolished. These floods twice reached the Catholic elementary school I used to attend, making it uninhabitable. This year the county finally got around to demolishing it. Expect to see more berms along rivers and coastal areas. They can reduce the likelihood of floods but not mitigate the risk to lives and property altogether.

With sea level rise though this simply buys time, necessary time hopefully for people to relocate to higher ground. Cities like Houston can’t relocate. Massive pumping stations like New Orleans has might help but it’s unclear that there is any safe place to discharge any water collected with Houston being inland. San Antonio is used to flooding and has adapted by constructing flood tunnels. I don’t think Houston has anything like this, but it should be studied.

As I noted two years ago, you don’t want to become road kill on the global climate change super highway. Climate change is here, coming at us quickly but not so quickly that most of us can’t make sensible long term plans to rearrange our lives to be minimally impacted by it. Think of Harvey as a harbinger of worse things to come. You want to avoid the rush because at some point climate change will become so undeniable that massive migrations to safer areas will start. So the sooner you pack up and leave the better off you will be and the less expensive it will be as well. You are also more likely to escape our climate crisis alive. Dead men tell no tales. If we could read the minds of the casualties from Harvey they probably would have wished that they had headed for the hills long ago.

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.

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.

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.

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.