build back smarter

The United States is having a rough couple of weeks on the hurricane front. First, Fiona caused major damage in Puerto Rico, and now, Ian has cut a huge swath of destruction across Florida and is making a second landfall in South Carolina.

There have been massive flooding, wind damage, and major infrastructure impacts, including roads, bridges, and electrical, water, and communication systems. Sadly, there have also been injuries and deaths attributed to the storms and their aftermath.

Aid is being rendered by governments at all levels, by utilities, by charitable organizations, and by volunteers.

After the immediate emergency needs are met, attention will turn to rebuilding.

The first question to ask is “Should we?” There are places where the answer may be “No.” I’m thinking about places like barrier islands and directly on shorelines that are geologically unsuitable, being vulnerable to both storms and sea level rise. Further, the sand that characterizes these areas is meant to move and their natural structure serves to help protect inland areas from the worst of the storm surge and winds. Building there is asking for trouble and re-building there is setting up for losses in the future. With stronger and more frequent storms forecast due to global warming, it may be wisest at this point for government and insurers to buy out property owners in these vulnerable places so that homes and businesses can move to safer locations inland.

In other places, rebuilding may be possible but with much stricter requirements. For example, buildings can be elevated so that flood water can rise beneath them without damaging living space. Structures can be designed to be wind-resistant so roofs don’t blow off during storms. Mobile homes, unless they really are mobile, i.e. on wheels so they can be easily relocated away from danger, should not be allowed at all in storm zones.

It’s vital to rebuild infrastructure with resilience in mind. Five years ago, hurricane Maria destroyed the power grid in Puerto Rico. It was still fragile when Fiona hit but locations that had switched to solar power with battery backup were able to keep their power on. Tropical coastlines are great places for solar power and also for offshore wind, which could have the added benefit of reducing wind speeds from storms.

These changes won’t be easy but they are necessary. The alternative is to continue the cycle of destruction and expensive rebuilding over and over again.

Some of you may be thinking that I don’t understand the difficulty and trauma of leaving a beloved location instead of trying to rebuild there, but I have seen it up close in my town. After the last two record floods of the Susquehanna in 2006 and 2011, many people here faced the decision to rebuild in the same place, perhaps with elevation, or move elsewhere. If people took buyouts, the sites of their former homes were converted to greenspace. There are two neighborhoods near me that are dotted with these lots that used to be homes and yards.

My family lives with the realization that our home, on which we carry flood insurance even though we are not technically in a flood zone, could be impacted in the next record flood. (We are just a few blocks from places that flooded last time.) Depending on the damage incurred, we could be faced with the same decision to take a buyout or repair and elevate our home. It’s painful to think about and I don’t know which we’d choose.

We’ve been here for over 35 years. It would be hard to leave the neighborhood. I do know, though, that we wouldn’t ignore reality/risks and try to rebuild as we are now.

I opt for safety over sentiment.

One-Liner Wednesday: Pakistan

A third of my country is under water right now – bridges, roads, schools, and other critical infrastructure sinks, and people run to evacuate their homes.

Anam Rathor, writing about Pakistan in this important post

Note: In the comments, there is a link to a post from Sadje with information on organizations that are helping Pakistan. Check it out here: http://lifeafter50forwomen.com/2022/09/07/my-country-needs-your-help/ and help if you are able.

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/09/07/one-liner-wednesday-alert-creature/

SoCS: meetings

Earlier this year, I joined the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and was somewhat shocked but definitely honored to be offered a seat on their board.

I’ve never been on a board before, although I’ve been on lots of committees. Even though I don’t think being on committees is my strong suit, I did accept.

I haven’t had enough time to figure out yet if it was a mistake.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas to contribute. It’s more the incredible stress of trying to get them out.

I’m an introvert who finds talking to more than two people at a time really stressful. So a board meeting where I know almost no one is daunting. Add in being thrown into the midst of discussions that had been ongoing and for which I have limited background and the stress level goes up exponentially.

I am, however, determined and dogged and faithful, so I will try to do my best to contribute and be a good board member.

At least, for now.

We are coming up on the one year anniversary of my father’s death. After the months of having to deal with all the paperwork and estate settling, I had been trying to re-prioritize my commitments. I thought that I would be doing mostly solitary activities, other than poetry workshopping. Well, and rehearsing with Madrigal Choir.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Besides Madrigal Choir Board, I’ve been involved with the Creation Care Team at my church, which has now also morphed into involvement with the diocesan creation care task force. Dealing with anything on the diocesan level is fraught for me for more complex reasons than I could possibly tackle in SoC.

For sanity’s sake, I know I should scale back, but will I?

Probably not.

Well, not at the moment, anyway…
*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “board/bored.” Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/26/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-aug-27-2022/

a helpful provision

When I wrote this post on environmental policy in the United States, I hadn’t realized an important section of an earlier House version on Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases had made it into the final version of the Inflation Reduction Act.

The language amends the Clean Air Act and is very specific that the EPA has the authority to regulate all greenhouse gases and to reduce them through the promotion of renewable energy.

This should blunt the impact of the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA which held that the Congress had not been explicit enough in defining the scope of the EPA’s work in moving the country away from fossil fuels in order to limit global warming.

One more step in the right direction…

US environmental update

Trying to get the United States back to a better position regarding climate change and environmental issues in general has been a major task for the Biden administration. While some things were relatively straightforward, such as rejoining the Paris climate accords, others have been much more difficult.

Unwinding the changes that the prior administration had made to regulations was sometimes blocked by the courts. The biggest blow was the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, in which a 6-3 majority found that the EPA can’t regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants unless they have been given specific direction by Congress. It was odd that the Supreme Court heard the case because it was brought against the Clean Power Plan, which was proposed by the Obama administration, but never enacted. The Biden administration had no intent to revive that plan, as circumstances have changed, so it appears that the conservative majority heard the case for the purpose of striking down the manner in which executive branch agencies and departments go about executing the laws that have been passed by Congress. This ruling could bog down not only EPA work but also the regulatory work of other Cabinet departments. [Please note that this is my layperson understanding of the case and its implications. There has been a lot of legal commentary which can be found in myriad places online, if you are interested.] An August 26 post with an update on the impact of this case can be found here.

Legislation to address the climate crisis was an important cornerstone of the Biden agenda. The House of Representatives passed a strong bill dealing with climate change and the care economy, including health care, universal education for three- and four-year-olds, provisions for child and elder care, permanent expansion of a fully refundable child tax credit, and other measures for social justice and equity. The bill was paid for by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Unfortunately, the 50-50 split in the Senate combined with Senate rules gave a couple of Democratic senators power over what was in the bill and they opposed some of the financial and energy provisions, so it looked as though it would not pass.

This was extremely discouraging to millions of people in the US, as well as to millions in the rest of the world who are depending on US action to cut carbon in the atmosphere and provide leadership for other countries to do the same.

And then, a surprise announcement that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who made his money from coal and had shot down prior versions of the bill, had reached an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on a version of the bill that he could support. Additional changes wound up being made to get Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona on board. Senator Schumer kept the Senate in session in Washington into their August recess to pass the bill with Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. House Speaker Pelosi called the House back into session to pass the bill last Friday and President Biden will sign the bill into law this week.

While the Inflation Reduction Act is not as strong as the original legislation, I’m very happy that it will become law. It should bring down energy costs over time. It is projected to lower US greenhouse gas emissions by about 40% of 2005 levels by 2030; the United States goal in the Paris accord is a 50-52% reduction, so we hope that additional measures will be enacted to reach that goal. However, before this bill, we were on track for only a 25% reduction, so this is a major improvement. This article is a good summary of some of the main environmental/energy provisions of the bill.

I am grateful and still a bit shocked that this bill is about to become law. Yes, there is more to do, both on environmental and economic justice issues, but, at least, we have made a good start. This is important because people and the planet need this help and because it shows that the Democrats are actually serious about governing in a bipartisan way when it is possible, such as with the infrastructure law, and alone, if necessary. I hope that the progress in the last 18 months will encourage voters to keep the Democrats in the majority so more can get done in the next session. Perhaps, it will even give more Republican Congresspersons the impetus to support popular, commonsense measures that benefit the public. We have all witnessed past Republican majorities who were unable to pass much substantive legislation; for example, the Trump administration announced multiple “Infrastructure Weeks” but never got close to passing legislation. We have also, sadly, seen Republican minorities block action on legislation and appointments through the filibuster and other holds and delaying tactics. I think these need to be reformed so that the Congress is not bogged down and unable to do the work our country needs to function.

As the new programs ramp up, I encourage people in the US to be on the lookout for provisions that can help them make their lives greener, whether that is rebates on efficient electric appliances, incentives to buy used or new electric vehicles, or the opportunity to purchase renewable energy at lower than current rates. Support candidates who make the health and well-being of people and our environment their top priorities. We need representatives who are looking out for us, not just corporate profits and tax loopholes.

In my district, that means voting for the Democratic candidate. Make sure that you know the candidates’ positions in your area before casting your ballot.

inflation and energy

As the United States Senate passed a major budget reconciliation bill dealing with climate change, energy sources, health care, and corporate taxes this weekend, there has been a lot of public whining from Republicans and industry, saying that the bill will increase, not lower inflation.

Judging from my family’s experience, the bill will lower inflation by decreasing energy costs.

As regular readers may recall, my household has spent years in efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. We have electrified everything in our home, including a geothermal heating/cooling system. We reduced our demand by increasing our insulation and installing LED lighting. We drive our fully electric Chevy Bolt for local driving. (For trips over 200 miles, we drive our plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica, which gets better mileage in gasoline mode than the non-hybrid version.) We own panels in a solar farm because our home was not a good candidate for rooftop panels.

So, this summer, our monthly electricity bill is $17.35, which is the delivery charge from our electric utility. This covers all our household lighting, cooling, laundry, electronics, water heating, etc. plus all our local and short-trip driving.

Meanwhile, many households are burdened with paying $100 to fill their gas tank for the week, plus the cost of their household electricity and methane, propane, or other fuels that they use for heating water, cooking, drying clothes, etc.

A large share of recent inflation is due to increased fossil fuel prices. For our family, that has been felt mostly in the higher cost of food, which is largely driven by the expense of fuel.

I realize that not every household will be able to follow our exact path to be nearly free of fossil fuels but the Inflation Reduction Act just passed by the Senate, which is expected to be passed by the House and sent to President Biden to sign into law later this week, will go a long way to reducing expensive fossil fuel use for residents. As more renewable power comes on line, electricity costs will come down because it is cheaper to produce than fossil fuel electricity. There are rebates targeted at lower-to-middle income folks to help move to electric vehicles, which are much cheaper to run than internal combustion engines. As battery costs have fallen, electric cars are already around the same price as some conventional cars/trucks, so the rebates may make them cheaper to buy.

It’s true that inflation will not suddenly disappear, but this bill has provisions that will bring it down and will help to decrease future inflation spikes by removing inherently volatile fossil fuel prices from the center of our economy. The bill is projected to save average households about $500/year in energy costs. Some households, such as ours, will be able to save much more than that.

So, let’s get this done and enacted! The sooner we do, the sooner it will help people and the planet.

birthdays and Jubilee

As I mentioned in this post, spouse B, daughter T, and I were recently in London, UK, visiting daughter E, her spouse L, and granddaughters ABC and JG, who live in East London with L’s parents.

The main reason for the timing of the visit was that it was half-term break for ABC and her fifth birthday. We were so happy to be there to celebrate with her. Due to a number of health issues – thankfully, not COVID – and other complicating logistical factors, we spent most of our time visiting between their house and our apartment hotel. ABC was thrilled to even have an overnight in our unit.

Because ABC lived with us in the US for her first couple of years, she is very comfortable with us. For JG, who was born in August 2020, we are virtual strangers or, at best, figures from a computer screen who inexplicably appear in person. Still, she was able to relate to us better this time than when we visited last December/January. Both ABC and JG relate more to Auntie T than to Nana and Grandpa. Aunties are obviously much better playmates!

It’s also nice that JG is finally able to be out and about more in public. As a pandemic baby, she wasn’t able to go visiting or go to stores, libraries, churches, etc. for a big chunk of her life, so people beyond her household can still be daunting, exacerbating the developmental stranger anxiety that waxes and wanes throughout infancy and toddlerhood. As she gets older, we expect that she will warm up to us more quickly when we visit.

The timing of our visit also meant that we were there for Queen Elizabeth’s seventieth Jubilee. As we are crowd averse even in non-pandemic times, we didn’t go to any celebrations in person but watched them on BBC One. I saw the trooping the colour, the lighting of beacons, the service of thanksgiving, the Derby, and the Jubilee concert. There were also various block parties. There was so much celebrating that there was a shortage of decorative bunting!

It was ironic that as soon as the Jubilee celebration concluded, there was a no-confidence vote among the Conservatives in Parliament on the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson survived the vote, but the narrow margin suggests that he may have to step aside as PM in the coming months. We’ll see.

It was nice to see people being so supportive of their aging monarch, even as she, understandably, needed to pass on some of the hosting duties to her heirs. It was also touching to see the Tree of Trees sculpture that celebrated the Queen’s request to plant a million trees in honor of her platinum Jubilee.

We had a bit more celebrating to do, as T’s birthday was the day we returned home. While we could not have a “tree of trees” to celebrate her, part of her birthday gift was a donation in her honor to a project that is working to preserve the ‘ōhi‘a trees of Hawai’i. The trees are being killed by a fungal disease for which there is no known remedy so there is an ongoing seed banking project in order to restore the population after the fungal disease has run its course.

I appreciate that these commemorations celebrate the past by looking to the future. There is so much to do to secure a future for the younger generations and the planet. Our history gives us both positive and negative examples of how to react to and make change. Instead of rosy nostalgia, we need to be clear-eyed about our past and present and use that knowledge to improve the situation. especially for those who are now children, teens, and young adults.

One-Liner Wednesday: hope in community

Until we find the communal meaning and significance of the suffering of all life, we will continue to retreat into our individual, small worlds in our misguided quest for personal safety and sanity.

Richard Rohr

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/04/13/one-liner-wednesday-creepy-enough/

a just peace

Last weekend, after I published this post, I attended mass at St. Francis of Assisi, where we offered prayers for those suffering from the war in Ukraine and heard about the situation in the homily. There was also a lovely tribute to the people of Ukraine in the form of a framed artwork with sunflowers on a blue and gold draped table. We are also preparing to take up a special collection to assist the Ukrainians.

I have been continuing to reflect on the meaning of the “just peace” for which we hope and pray and what elements would be part of that. This post is a reflection of those hopes. I realize that it is not at all likely to be a practical course of action but I wanted to share what is in my heart and mind.

The obvious first step is the immediate cessation of all violence. This will enable desperately needed aid to flow to places that have been besieged or occupied, as well as making safe evacuation possible for the sick, injured, vulnerable, and those whose homes and communities have been destroyed.

All prisoners of war must be released so they can return home.

The Russians must withdraw from the entirety of Ukraine, taking the bodies of their dead with them. This includes Crimea which Russia invaded in 2014 when the current war began. Russia should not control any part of a sovereign nation that it took by force. Any residents of Ukraine who prefer to live under Russian control should be welcomed by Russia into its own territory. Any residents of Ukraine who were voluntarily or involuntarily evacuated into Russia or Belarus and wish to return to Ukraine should be repatriated immediately.

There is widespread devastation, suffering, and death in Ukraine for which there is no just remedy as they cannot be undone. The international community will certainly rush in with humanitarian aid but the responsibility for paying for rebuilding should fall primarily on Russia. Because so much of Russia’s wealth is held by Putin, his family, corrupt government officials, and Putin’s select circle of oligarchs, those are the funds that should be tapped to rebuild Ukraine. Some of those assets are already frozen under international sanctions, some of which should stay in place while the rebuilding process continues. I would hope, though, that the sanctions that make life difficult for the average Russian could be eased so that they don’t continue to suffer because Putin chose to break international law by invading a sovereign neighbor and extensively targeting civilians.

I believe that there will continue to be an investigation and an eventual trial for war crimes in The Hague. I also think that Russia should lose its seat on the UN Security Council or, at least, that the UN should change its policy so that a nation brought before the Security Council must abstain from voting on that issue.

There also needs to be redress for the environmental/climate justice issues highlighted by the war. Russia has long used its fossil fuels as a weapon. The best way to address this problem is to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, blunting Russia’s power and moving the planet in the right direction in terms of the climate crisis. I wrote about some ideas for doing so in this post.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also highlighted the security and environmental risks of relying on nuclear power, with Russia threatening the already contaminated site of Chernobyl as well as the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is the largest nuclear facility in Europe. While nuclear power does not emit carbon, the mining of uranium, the lack of secure long-term nuclear waste disposal options, and the vulnerability of the plants to natural and human-caused disaster is too great. As more and more renewable power becomes available and as efficiency gains reduce energy demands, nuclear power plants should be phased out.

The free flow of truthful information has also taken a hit in this war, especially in Russia. Putin has shut down all independent media in print, over the airwaves, and online and many journalists have fled the country. Protesters have been arrested. Apparently, some of the Russian soldiers were not even told what their mission was as they invaded. As part of a just peace, Putin must restore independent media and allow the free flow of information as well as free all prisoners, both Russians and foreign nationals who have been jailed for dissent or trumped-up charges. The Russian people should also have an independent judiciary and the rescinding of unjust laws, such as the recently passed one that can bring up to fifteen years in prison for calling the war in Ukraine a war or invasion instead of a “special military operation.”

The democratic government of Ukraine must have the freedom to choose its own path going forward. It should be able to apply for membership in the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or any other entity it sees fit. Because the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn Russia and support Ukraine’s sovereignty, United Nations peacekeepers should be assigned after the Russian withdrawal to help give security and support as Ukraine rebuilds.

As I said at the outset, this is my own thoughts on some elements of a just peace for Ukraine. I know the reality is that Putin hasn’t really been willing to negotiate, although a swap of ten prisoners on each side is a very small beginning. My fear is that Russia will eventually force Ukraine to accept Russian control of the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine connecting through Mariupol to Crimea in exchange for not bombing all the major cities of Ukraine into dust. If that happens, I think that all the international sanctions should remain in place. The world must let Putin and Russia know that it will not recognize or tolerate countries taking the territory of sovereign nations by force.

the definition of energy

I wish that US politicians and the media would stop using the word energy as shorthand for fossil fuels. The United States is banning the import of Russian oil, gas, and coal, which, while they can be burned to release energy, are not themselves energy.

Equating the word energy with fossil fuels only distorts our perception of the problems and possible solutions. Politicians and pundits panic and look for more oil and gas to replace the Russian supply, even though drilling for additional petroleum and building LNG facilities are time-consuming processes which we must not expand but scale back quickly and dramatically if we are to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the recent IPCC report alarmingly illustrates.

Rather, if we consider energy more broadly, we can see other ways forward that are cheaper, quicker, and better for the environment. A couple of weeks ago, Bill McKibben published a piece outlining how President Biden could invoke the Defense Production Act to churn out heat pumps to send to Europe so that they can break away from dependency on Russian methane for heating. Bonus: this would create jobs in the US and help our country in its own transition away from fossil fuels after the immediate crisis in Europe has passed. Amazingly, McKibben’s eminently practical and sustainable idea is gaining traction and is being studied by the Biden administration.

It’s also wise and practical to take energy efficiency seriously. It’s been said that the cheapest kilowatt/therm is the one that you don’t have to use. It’s helpful to weatherize and retrofit existing buildings so that their heating, cooling, and lighting needs are lessened, making it easier to run them with available and developing renewable energy resources.

At this point, some of the electricity needed will be generated from fossil fuels and nuclear plants but it is shortsighted to expand these rather than phase them out. Developing new drilling and mining sites is a long, expensive process, as is building new plants, which come with decades of environmental and public health consequences. It is quicker, cheaper, and healthier to move to renewable energy.

The same argument goes for the electrification of transportation. Many countries are already moving toward this goal, which helps in both the environmental and political realms.

While Russia is uppermost in everyone’s minds right now, the truth is that fossil fuels have been used as a political weapon by autocrats and oligarchs around the world. (Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout tells this history in fascinating detail.) Their power will be greatly reduced by a rapid phaseout of these fuel sources in favor of wind, sun, water, and geothermal sources.

These gifts of the earth are a common inheritance.

No one owns the sun or wind.

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