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This is a new Blog page for Two Rivers Coalition (TRC).  Kevin Haight, TRC Board Member, will be periodically posting on this page.  If you are interested in contributing a post, please send Kevin an email.

 

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Tipping Points...Or Why I Rode a Bus All Night to NYC

by Kevin Haight
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
I was marching for my grandson Liam.
I was marching for my grandson Liam.

Tipping points have been on my mind a lot lately. Merriam-Webster defines tipping point as follows: The critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first known use of the term occurred in 1959, about the same time scientists started measuring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii.

                              Arctic Sea Ice

400,000 strong.
400,000 strong.

 You know there was a reason we stole Panama from Colombia and spent millions of dollars and thousands of lives putting a canal through the hellish, mosquito infested swamps of Central America. It was because you couldn’t sail around the top of North America. Explorers searched in vain for centuries for the fabled Northwest Passage but it didn’t exist. Too much ice, end of story; except now, because in this new climate era some call the Anthropocene, ships can navigate through the Arctic Ocean in summer. This is because the sea ice is melting, as evidenced by the fact that the extent of summertime ice in the Arctic Ocean is currently 500,000 square miles less than its long term average. The melting of Arctic sea ice is not just bad for polar bears. There is something called the albedo effect, which causes a bright shiny surface like a polar icecap to reflect most of the sunlight that strikes it back into outer space. But when that ice is no longer present and the sunlight strikes a relatively dark surface like open water, much more radiant energy is absorbed. So the bottom line is that if we ever lose the protection of our shiny bright Arctic ice cap, the planet will suddenly start absorbing a lot more sunlight and the earth will get a lot hotter. Yes, there was still minimal ice cover on the Arctic Ocean this summer, but the ice is very thin. Scientists warn that we could be within a few years of ice free summers in the Arctic Ocean, and no one can predict the outcome if that tipping point occurs.

Scientists marched and had something to say.
Scientists marched and had something to say.

                              Methane Emissions

 It was interesting spending a month in Alaska this summer. Alaskans realize they are on the front lines of climate change and one reason they know this is the permafrost is melting. It is somewhat ironic that Homo sapiens have to be incredibly creative to build a pipeline over the melting permafrost but never stop to think that the oil being transported through the pipeline is contributing to the climate warming causing the permafrost to melt in the first place. But the real scary thing about the melting permafrost is that methane gas previously trapped in the frozen ground is now being released in large quantities. Methane is a greenhouse gas just like CO2, except it is 30 times more potent. This means that methane gas in our atmosphere will trap 30 times as much heat as CO2. Again, scientists are concerned that there is a point where so much methane is being released from thawing permafrost that global climate change will occur regardless of any Johnny-come-lately efforts humans takes. [As a quick aside, one of the dirty little secrets about fracking that no one ever talks about is methane gas emissions. Fracking wells vent methane directly into the atmosphere. Therefore, while we definitely need to be concerned about protecting our ground water, it is important to realize the other ways fracking threatens our environment.]

So why aren't we slowing down?
So why aren't we slowing down?

                            Ocean Acidification

Do you know where most of our oxygen comes from? I was surprised to find out that as much as 70% of our oxygen is produced by microscopic plankton in the ocean, phytoplankton to be exact. Unfortunately, this basic building block of the ocean food chain is threatened by rising carbon levels in our atmosphere. Hold on, the skeptics and climate deniers are saying, what does excess carbon in the atmosphere have to do with the ocean? Well, it’s called ocean acidification. Basically, this means that some of the carbon humans are pumping into the air is being absorbed by the ocean and that carbon is actually changing the chemistry of sea water. Ocean water is now 26% more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution. And some species of phytoplankton are suffering from that increase in acidity. It doesn’t take a genius to understand what could happen to the ocean eco-system if a keystone species is eliminated from the base of the food chain.                                                 

A revolutionary concept?
A revolutionary concept?

                         Societal Tipping Point

All of which leads to how I spent last Saturday and Sunday nights. First, I was on a bus all night Saturday headed for New York City. Then, I got back on the same bus and spent all Sunday night riding back to Michigan. In between, I hope I helped push our society past a tipping point of its own. I am talking about the People’s Climate March in NYC on Sunday, September 21. Over 400,000 people marched for hours to protest global climate change that we all know is happening but few leaders are willing to confront. The immediate catalyst for the march was the U.N. Climate Summit of 125 world leaders which was beginning the next day in New York. A broad coalition of environmental organizations joined forces to show the world’s leaders that global climate change is a threat that ordinary people are not going to allow their leaders to ignore any more. The goal of the march was simple; create the broadest possible coalition and mobilize as many bodies as possible. This was a worldwide demonstration with over 2,600 events occurring in 162 countries. But the biggest event was targeted for New York because of the U.N. Climate Summit. All we were hoping for was an impressively large number of people. The reality was staggering: over 400,000 people showed up, waited for hours and hours, and then marched miles through the streets of the city.

"Resist Extinction!"

 My experience, I believe, was typical; I assembled at the back of the march on the west side of Central Park about one mile from the beginning point and 30 minutes before the scheduled 11:30 a.m. start time. I waited and waited and looked at all the groups around me carrying banners: people protesting mountaintop removal, fracking, the Keystone pipeline. I realized what all these groups had in common; they were all opposed to the headlong rush to squeeze the last hydro-carbons from the earth regardless of environmental or human cost. And those human and environmental costs are not just the obvious one like pipeline spills. All fossil fuels {coal, oil, natural gas} do double duty ravaging our environment, initially during the extraction and transportation and then, later, as a greenhouse gas.

The sign says it all.
The sign says it all.

After two hours, we still had not begun to move at the end of the parade because of the immense numbers of people in front of us. But it was impossible to get bored. There were small bands playing, people dancing, community organizers sharing ideas. Then, at 12:58 p.m., all up and down 8th Avenue everything stopped as people held up their hands and became quiet. It was a minute of silence to remember all the people in the front lines of climate change. People who have already suffered from extreme weather events, like the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and Pacific Islanders watching their homelands being slowly swallowed by the sea. And after that symbolic minute of solidarity came the LOUDEST NOISE I had ever heard: 400,000 people sounding the climate alarm with bells, whistles, drums and the power of their voices. Of course, our planet has been sounding its own climate alarm for years now, while most of us pretended not to hear. But the roar that erupted from 400,000 marchers that day may prove impossible to ignore.

Large crowds cheered.
Large crowds cheered.

Finally, at close to 2:00 p.m., our section at the rear of the march started moving. The people in my immediate vicinity had come from all over {California, Vermont, even Brazil} in order to participate in something they clearly hoped would be historic. The marchers near me were also impressively diverse: an artist from Brooklyn, a cleric from Petoskey, not to mention a retired lawyer, part-time environmentalist and full-time grandfather from Van Buren County. And there were so many witty banners and floats. Some of my favorite slogans: “Resist Extinction!”, “There is no Planet B”, and “Nature Bats Last”. We marched down 8th Avenue while helicopters zoomed overhead. We knew this had been promoted as a family friendly and completely peaceful march, so we were hoping the police helicopters were simply trying to accurately count the huge throngs of people protesting governmental inaction on this most important issue of our time. We marched past the headquarters of Fox News and gave it a figurative friendly finger salute in recognition of the role it has played in promoting misinformation about the impending climate crisis. In most places there were large crowds of New Yorkers watching and cheering us, even on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes marchers shouted at women coming out of the trendy stores, ”Stop shopping and join us!”

Finally moving...and not about to stop!
Finally moving...and not about to stop!

Apparently, there were celebrities at the march: people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore, and Sting. But they were long gone {as were the food trucks} by the time the tail-end of the march staggered into the finish area at 11th Ave and 34th Street around 5:00 p.m. There were no speeches; the NYPD had refused permission for any large scale speechmaking. And from a logistical standpoint, I could almost understand: exactly where could 400,000 people have assembled at the same time to listen to anyone? In retrospect, the absence of speeches didn’t detract from the experience at all. After the march, I read an interview with Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, who likely would have been a speaker. He said his message would have been simple and to the point: Climate change is a serious threat to humanity. It may soon be too late to do anything about it. Mass mobilization of people from around the world like the People’s Climate March is the first step in forcing our governments to take the actions we all know are necessary.

"I'm melting...."

And what are those actions to stave off climate disaster in the future? Well, that is the hard part. We have to use less fossil fuels; all of us. Remember, Americans on a per capita basis use three times as much carbon as the world average. The simplest way for our society to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels is to use the market economy we have in place. The problem is that we are all complicit in what economists call “negative environmental externalities”. This means the cost of the excess carbon accumulating in our atmosphere is not being paid by anyone currently. But if there is one thing Americans know, it’s that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH. If the government sends you a check, it is being funded by a taxpayer somewhere. If I dump toxic waste in the stream that runs through my land, my neighbor downstream will suffer. If we burn coal, gasoline, and natural gas, future generations of humans will pay a very high price in terms of climate chaos. So what is needed right now is to make everyone pay the full cost of the dirty energy that they use. One way to do that is to simply impose a carbon tax on industries that burn fossil fuels. Those industries will then pass that cost on to their customers. This will make alternative energy more competitive because wind and solar energy will now be on a more level playing field with coal and oil when the true costs of fossil fuels are taken into account. And the tax revenue collected by the government can be allocated to helping further develop clean energy {the same way we have subsidized dirty energy for decades through the tax code}. Also, it will be necessary to redistribute some of that fossil fuel tax revenue to ease the burden on the parts of our society least able to bear the additional, but true, cost of burning fossil fuels.

Truer words were never spoken.
Truer words were never spoken.

 Click here to read an interesting article listing some realistic ways Americans can reduce their carbon footprint by 20%.

Was the People’s Climate March a success? In the short term, the answer is clearly a resounding ”Yes!”. It was the biggest climate march ever anywhere on the planet. It also clearly had the attention of the dignitaries who were assembling in New York for the U.N. Summit. And I know President Obama was listening because here is what he said the next day at the U.N.:

” The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call.”

The long term effect is much more difficult to gauge. Was this march a tipping point for our society? Will the people who marched through the streets of New York be willing to pressure their elected representatives to make the hard, unpopular choices sometimes required of leaders? Time will tell but one thing is certain, those other tipping points involving melting sea ice, methane emissions and ocean acidification will continue to get closer and closer.