Sunday, July 28, 2019

Frogs in the Pot

During our first heat wave of 2019, you may have heard terms on the news like “real feel temperature” or “heat index”, both of which are used to express the stress on your body from the combination of heat and humidity.  The temperature in the shade may be 90, but the temperature may feel like 113 when humidity is 80%.

Why are these indices important? If the combination of heat and humidity are high enough, sweat cannot evaporate off your skin. Sweating is how we reduce our body temperature when it exceeds normal. If sweat doesn’t evaporate, you can’t cool off. If you can’t cool off – you will get heatstroke and probably die without medical intervention.

On Saturday, July 20th, during the middle of the heatwave that smothered a large portion of the US, the high temperature in Westborough was 96 in the shade with about 50% humidity, translating into a heat index of 108, clearly in the danger zone.  Another index called the wet bulb temperature, which uses the temperature in the sun, had a value of 92, considered extremely dangerous for any outdoor physical activity in the sun of more than a few minutes duration. 

Bottom line – that heatwave was life threatening.

Only one region on the planet frequently has these deadly heat conditions – the Persian Gulf.

The rest of us just have to cope with “occasional” heat waves. 

“Big deal,” you may say. “It’s summer time, of course there will be heat waves.” That’s true as far as it goes. 

But here’s the problem – the world has had more major heatwaves during the first two decades of this century than in all of the 20th century. Three major heatwaves in the 80's, five in the 1990's, 16 last decade and 34 so far this decade. roughly a doubling every decade.

Mathematically, that rate of increase is called “exponential”: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256. . . you get the picture.

So yes, more summer heatwaves, but worse, their frequency is increasing rapidly. They are longer and hotter. Heatwaves are no longer occasional. 

“Big deal,” you may say. “We have air conditioning.”  

I have air conditioning and most of you have it, but billions of people don’t and couldn’t afford it even if it was available.

South Asia just went through a brutal heatwave that lasted a month with temperatures as high as 124, compounded by water shortages due to an inadequate and late monsoon.  Even if the humidity was a bone dry 5%, just being outside in the sun would have led to heatstroke. Think of what we just went through and imagine it lasting a month. Then imagine no AC and little available potable water. Hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis did not imagine it, they lived it.  

By the way - As I write this, Europe is entering its second major heatwave of this summer, which probably will extend above the Arctic Circle.

A recent study calculates that by 2050, Boston will have 11 to 25 days like we just had EVERY SUMMER if current trends continue. And there is no reason to think they won’t as long as we do nothing. 

Al Gore, in his book “An Inconvenient Truth” likened our attitude about climate change using the metaphor of a frog in a pot of slowly heating water. The frog would stay in the pot until it was too late because it would not notice the slow temperature increase, which is actually not true. A real frog would jump out. 

We are not Al Gore’s metaphorical frog, but we are doing a damned good imitation. 

The thing is, the pot is no longer slowly heating. The burner is on high. Why are we still sitting in the pot?

Ignoring rising temperatures is no longer possible, even with air conditioning. 

Climate scientists predicted this outcome decades ago. We can’t say we weren’t warned. We were.

So, the question is: Now what?

The answer: Change course, change the trend. It is within our power to do so. 

All that is lacking is will. 

All that is lacking is leadership.

Published in the Village News, August 2nd, 2019

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The New Normal – Rising Waters

Noted author John McPhee wrote a book called “The Control of Nature” containing stories about how humans battle nature, whether by channeling the Mississippi River, stopping a lava flow in Iceland or trapping landslides in the mountains surrounding Los Angeles.

His book came to mind amidst the continual flooding throughout the Midwestern U.S. last spring. If living on the floodplains of the American Midwest is a battle with nature, nature is winning. Levees were breached, farms drowned, and towns were turned into islands.

A recent article in the Washington Post showed satellite photographs of the upper Midwest from Missouri to the Canadian border, one from Spring 2018, the other this year. Normally green, the 2019 photo displayed vast areas of brown because so much farmland was flooded that crops either died or were never planted.

In a comment on the article, a heartland farmer stated: “In my 40 plus years of farming nothing has come close to this one. Nothing will grow in floods every week. It makes all the microbes, worms, and life in our soils die.  Even the old guys 80 plus say this has never happened before.  Many of my friends and neighbors aren't going to make it financially this year, some aren't going to survive physically, lots of emotional pain.“

Towns and cities along the Mississippi and its major tributaries saw repeated flooding last spring unlike anything before. According to the NY Times, in heartland cities like Davenport, Iowa, mayors and officials are loathe to officially associate the floods with climate change - the euphemism is “weather-related challenges.”  Regardless, they are just looking for ways to deal with a new normal, but climate change is the specter looming over their shoulder though, and they know it.

Nashville, Tennessee, realizing the cost of funding flood response, initiated a new policy I have long expected cities would eventually pursue. Instead of repeatedly and futilely attempting to protect and repair all homes and businesses, they are buying out, demolishing them and turning the neighborhoods into parkland. I have no doubt that this policy, partly funded through the National Flood Insurance Program, will spread.

On the coasts, towns and cities are moving from “if” to “when” regarding rising waters. The title of another recent NY Times article says it all: “Which U.S. Cities should be saved first?” The numbers are huge. By 2040, it will take $42 billion to provide basic storm surge protection for municipalities with populations greater than 25,000. Barnstable, Mass will require over $899 million for seawalls - over $20,000 per person. The cost for Jacksonville, Florida? A staggering $3.5 billion.

Smaller towns aren’t even on the radar screen.

Where is the money going to come from? All eyes of course look to Washington DC, which has plans for $16 billion in grants to help cities, a shortfall of $26 billion. The program will be forced to perform triage, deciding which cities would be the best investment, or as the article states, the biggest bang for the buck. 

Take New Orleans, for example. The Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt its levee system after 2005’s Katrina at a cost of $14 billion. Due to subsidence, the upgrades may be useless as soon as 2023. Not sure the Big Easy would be worth further investment by the above criteria, since most of it is already below sea level and sinking fast.

Expect a competition by cities to prove they are worthy of these grants by starting local resiliency programs, including moving people out of harm’s way, like Nashville.

Another option would be to divide up the funds by the economic or historic importance of a city. Is Barnstable more important than Boston? Massachusetts will likely have to make that call in our lifetimes.

The former chair of the Massachusetts Sierra Club told me she talked to legislators in Boston, who admit that their districts are vulnerable, but their focus is still on more immediate problems demanding their attention. Very soon, the rising waters problem will be immediate. 

Ignoring rising waters is no longer possible, even if you don’t want to admit what is causing it. Governments at all levels and locations will have to confront the reality of “weather-related challenges” whether they be in Davenport, Barnstable, Boston, Jacksonville, and especially Washington, D.C. 

Welcome to the new normal folks. You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Published in the Westborough News, July 19.2019

Recycling Revisited

Recycling is supposed to be good for the planet – right? It would be, if we did it correctly. Sadly, most of us don’t, that is the portion of us who even bother to do it at all. In Westborough, participation in recycling is about 20%, which is pathetic.
If you are going to be serious about recycling, you have to be serious about doing it right. It’s not all that hard, you just have to know what to do.
The Westborough Environmental Collaborative sponsored a talk back on June 2nd with Doug Harvey from E.L. Harvey & Sons, which was very instructive, even for a veteran recycler like me. Harvey’s processes recycled materials collected from throughout the region, so they are the experts.
Harvey’s has a very sophisticated single stream recycling process to sort recyclable material which is put in one large container. It is sorted via a system using mechanical and electronic machines, as well as humans. The end products are bundles of plastic, paper or metal that can be sent to factories which use them as raw materials.
In order to makes this work, there are some rules.
Rule 1 – Single stream recycling does not mean that your trash is processed. If it’s in a bag – it’s considered trash and is burned at the Wheelabrator Waste to Energy power plant in Millbury, MA.
Rule 2 – Don’t put your recyclable bottles, cans and paper in a trash bag. See Rule 1.
Rule 3 – Make sure your recyclables are clean. Leftover food or liquids in the container can contaminate a half ton bale of potentially recyclable material, making it useless for anything other than landfill or incinerator feed stock.
If the container was used for chemicals such as oil, paints, solvents, herbicides or pesticides, cleaning it is not practical and can be downright dangerous, so my strong recommendation is to toss it into the trash.
Rule 4 – Don’t crush your plastic bottles. Rinse them and put the caps back on. This goes for milk jugs, juice bottles, water bottles – all plastic bottles. Key words to remember – “RINSE THEM”. See Rule 3.
Rule 5 – Just because it is plastic does not mean it’s recyclable. Plastic bags, wrap, hoses, pipe, toys, and rope are not recyclable. These things literally gum up the sorting system.
What plastics can be recycled?
Plastic containers with the recycling triangle containing a number. Harvey’s accepts 1 through 7, but the only types that are truly recyclable are numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5.  Styrofoam (#6), PVC (#3) and Other (#7) are not recyclable and will be sent to the incinerator. Also, see Rule 3.
Rule 6 – Just because an item has a little recycling triangle on it does not mean it’s recyclable. Companies stick that symbol on just about everything. When in doubt – throw it out.
What else can you recycle? Tin cans and aluminum cans. Paper. Cardboard. Again, see Rule 3.
Harvey’s accepts glass, but not all glass – just glass bottles and jars. Not light bulbs, fish tanks, glassware, windows, or ceramics. Also, see Rule 3.
China is no longer the world’s biggest consumer of recycled materials. They stopped accepting imported recycled plastic and paper a couple of years back. It is tougher to find domestic mills or factories that will accept our recycled paper and plastic, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. These facilities are now picky about what they will accept. Any bit of contamination can lead to the rejection of an entire bale of material. See Rule 3.
Last main point, it’s not just about recycling. If you have an item you no longer want but is still usable, it can be recycled by giving it to someone else, or donating it to a charitable organization such as Savers – which can resell it. When you’ve finished a magazine, drop it off at the Westborough library. Other people will read it.
The US generates more waste per capita than any other country in the world. We can make a difference by truly adopting the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
The three Rs have been around since the first Earth Day in 1970. They are as relevant now as they were then.
Recycling by itself is not going to save our environment. We need to do much more, but it’s important.  It also reminds us that we are part of a greater whole.
“I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” – Edward Everett Hale
Published in the Westborough News, June 14, 2019