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.

COVID bivalent boosters

As you may recall, spouse B, daughter T, and I were all participants in the Phase III clinical trial for the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer/BioNTech. We then all participated in a follow-on third dose trial. B and I left the trial this spring because we were eligible to receive a fourth dose and wanted the extra protection before travelling. T stayed in the trial until its end earlier this summer.

Here in the United States, a new booster was recently approved which combines the original formulation with a new one designed to better combat the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants. BA.5 is the dominant variant currently in the US, accounting for about 88% of cases. About 11% are caused by BA.4. The new booster is expected to strengthen protection against serious illness/death and, one hopes, cut down on symptomatic infection somewhat, as well.

Given that I am still trying to remain COVID-free and that I have several trips coming this fall, I decided to receive one of the new boosters at my local pharmacy. I chose to receive the Pfizer formulation because all my others have been theirs, although there is a Moderna version which is also a fine choice. This was my first time receiving the vaccine in a pharmacy setting. My prior doses had all been in a medical office or a state vaccination site. I made an appointment online and everything was very fast and efficient.

Dr. Ashish Jha, who is the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said that it is possible that we may have reached a point where an annual booster will be enough to protect the vast majority of Americans from serious illness/death from COVID, similar to annual flu shots. Some people who are especially vulnerable due to age or medical condition might need more frequent boosters. The wild card, though, would be the emergence of a new strain that could evade our antibodies and current vaccines.

So, my message is to receive one of these new boosters as soon as they become available wherever you are. The US has been first to authorize them, but it seems they will become more widely available globally soon. Remember, though, that these are booster doses given to people who have already completed an initial vaccine series. If you haven’t completed an initial vaccine series, start NOW!

Meanwhile, here in Broome County, our community risk level is still medium. While I wait for the new booster to take full effect, I will still mask for indoor gatherings and shopping. I’ll be evaluating what to do after that, although these boosters are so new that data may be hard to come by.

I hope to stay well and hope that you do, too.

One-Liner Wednesday: This is scary.

A photo from Attachment F of the Justice Department’s court filing last night, showing a variety of secret government documents found in former President Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago, which was searched under warrant earlier this month.
*****
Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/31/one-liner-wednesday-youre-never-too-old/

US education

In the United States, some school districts have already started the new school year and the rest will follow over the next couple of weeks.

In many places, the situation is fraught.

First, an organizational primer for those outside the US. The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national education system. The various states exercise control over the curriculum and policies to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the state. The greatest degree of control usually rests with local school boards.

It’s a mixed blessing.

In some districts, the local school boards have bought into the notion that something as simple as having a book that includes a gay character in the library is akin to “grooming” students to be gay. Or that it isn’t permissible to discuss racism because it might make white students feel bad or guilty. This puts teachers in the uncomfortable position of being afraid to teach history, civics, literature, science, etc. in the way that they were trained to do as educators.

Some of these issues are even more pronounced when they become a state policy. The most prominent example of this at the moment is Florida. This school year marks the beginning of enforcement of the Parental Rights in Education Act, informally known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. The most prominent provision of the law is that there must be no classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The reasoning is that these topics should be totally controlled by (heterosexual) parents.

But, here’s the thing. We use gendered language ALL THE TIME. Some of the first sight words that children learn – mother, father, boy, girl, man, woman, he, she – are all gendered terms. Are teachers supposed to use gender-neutral words at all times, referring to students, parents, and siblings rather than using such common terms as boys and girls, moms and dads, and brothers and sisters? What if a student asks why the family picture a classmate drew has two moms or two dads? Will the teacher be sued if they say anything beyond “ask your parents”?

Florida is also facing what has been termed a “critical teacher shortage.” It’s hard to say how much is due to curriculum concerns versus low pay, lack of administrative support, large class sizes, contract provisions, etc. Teacher shortages are fairly common in the United States, especially in math and science. To fill gaps, some states allow people to teach subjects in which they are not certified or even allow people to teach who are not certified at all.

Meanwhile, teachers and schools are under COVID-related pressures. Although almost all students, teachers, and staff are eligible, many remain unvaccinated, raising the risk of illness. During the pandemic, some students fell far behind academically during the period of remote instruction and need highly qualified teachers and extra tutoring to help them catch up to grade level. Teachers are also struggling with the mental health and developmental needs of students who faced fear, uncertainty, and isolation for months and now struggle with inattention, misbehavior, and lack of age-appropriate social skills. Some teachers are opting to retire as soon as they are eligible rather than continue under these stresses.

In some areas, schools are dealing with church/state issues, as well. Because of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the government may not establish a religion. However, a couple of recent decisions by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court have poked holes in what had been termed the wall of separation between church and state. Both cases benefit the expression of Christianity; I wonder if the decisions would have been the same if they had been about public prayer by Muslims, for example. In some localities or states, there are even instances of (white) Christian nationalism creeping into school curricula, such as teaching that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, which it was not, and downplaying the role of enslavement and indigenous land theft/genocide in our national history.

A lot of this is supposedly done in the name of parental rights, that is, that parents are the ones who should determine what their children learn in public school. I don’t agree with that. I look upon public education as a public good. I want free, high-quality education for every student so they can grow into responsible, mature members of our communities. They need to learn wide-ranging skills in communication, quantitative and scientific skills, technology, social studies and civics, and the arts. Having a broad base helps to develop critical and creative thinking and to identify where a student’s interests lie. Learning in community teaches how to work together and solve problems in a civil way. That was my expectation when I chose to send my children to public school. If my priority had been to control what they were exposed to, I would have opted to home school them. If I wanted them to have learn through a faith-based approach, I would have sent them to a religious school.

I don’t believe that a subgroup of parents should be able to dictate the learning environment of all children in our public schools. If a parent thinks that a certain assignment is inappropriate for their child, the vast majority of schools have a mechanism to assign an alternative. However, that parent should not have the power to say that the other students can’t undertake the original assignment. If those parents don’t understand that in terms of community values, they should at least understand that the parents of the other students have the same right to direct their child’s education as they do. If a parent thinks that all/most of the assignments are inappropriate for their child, it’s time to either homeschool or send their child to a private or religious school that meets their needs.

With my daughters in their thirties and my grandchildren abroad, I admit that I am grateful to have been spared the personal pressures of education during the pandemic. There is a lot of ground to make up for students in the US. Let’s concentrate on that for the good of their future and our country.

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…

One-Liner Wednesday: Liz Cheney

“Today, our highest duty is to bend the arc of history to preserve our nation and its blessings to ensure that freedom will not perish, to protect the very foundations of this constitutional republic.”
~~~ Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) in her concession speech after losing her primary race because she is standing up for the Constitution and election integrity in the face of Trump’s lies

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2022/08/17/one-liner-wednesday-sorry-2/

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.

the aftermath of Dobbs

When I wrote this post after the leak of US Supreme Court Justice Alito’s draft opinion on an abortion law in Mississippi, we weren’t sure if there would be changes before the decision was announced.

When the decision was announced on June 24, it was little changed from the draft. The majority signed on to the opinion that Roe v. Wade had been “wrongly decided” and threw the matter of the legality of abortion to each state’s legislature.

It’s not that long-standing Supreme Court precedents have never been overturned or declared “wrongly decided” – the Dred Scott decision springs to mind – but the Dobbs case was the first time that such a reversal came at the expense of a recognized right.

Many lawyers and Constitutional scholars have faulted the majority’s decision on historical and legal grounds, as Alito seems to cherry-pick sources in support of his view while ignoring the mainstream history and scholarship to the contrary. For example, while it is true that the Constitution does not specify a right to an abortion, it also never uses the word “woman” or “family.” There are many rights that have been recognized by the courts over the centuries that are not specifically cited in the Constitution under the Ninth Amendment which states “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The right to privacy and to bodily autonomy belong to each person and should not be under the jurisdiction of the government at any level. The Alito opinion also seems to violate the Thirteenth Amendment against involuntary servitude and the Fourteenth Amendment which promises “equal protection of the laws.”

While Alito said that abortion was a unique situation in terms of privacy protections, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence that openly questions other rulings, such as those allowing contraception and marriage equality in all states. Somehow, he didn’t suggest that the Loving case, which forced all states to allow interracial marriage, had been wrongly decided, one assumes because he is a partner in one.

It’s now a little less than a month since the decision was handed down and there is upheaval. There have been many protests and public demonstrations. Some states moved to ban all abortions or all after six weeks of pregnancy. Some states are even trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care, as though being a resident of a state gave them ownership over you. While the House has passed legislation to codify abortion rights similarly to Roe and to allow interstate travel for medical care, the Senate Republicans have blocked both measures from coming to a vote.

Some states are protecting and codifying the Roe framework. My home state, New York, had done this previously and is now beginning the years-long process to amend the equal rights protections of the state constitution to include “sex, including sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive health care and autonomy”. Bonus: this will protect marriage rights and stand against all gender-related discrimination, as well as returning reproductive health rights to each individual.

Before the decision was handed down, those of us warning of the dangers to the health and well-being of pregnant people were scolded for being alarmist, but we were being realistic. Every day, there are stories in the news of delayed care for miscarriages that threatens the health and life of the mother. There are stories of rape victims having to go to another state for an abortion. The most heart-breaking of these is the case of a ten-year-old rape victim who had to travel from Ohio to Indiana to receive an abortion at six and a half weeks pregnancy. This child has had to endure not only rape and the severe threat to her health that pregnancy at such a young age entails but also the trauma of some politicians and commentators questioning the veracity of her story.

These cases show the dangers of trying to legislate what should be private medical decisions. While some are contending that it’s not really an abortion if a child is pregnant and her life is endangered or if there is an ectopic pregnancy or if there is an incomplete miscarriage, medically speaking, all pregnancies end either in live birth or an abortion. Miscarriage is not a medical term; on medical records, it is termed a spontaneous abortion. Health care providers are being put in the impossible situation to provide the best care to their patients or to be forced by lawyers to wait until their patients are clearly dying themselves before intervening to remove a doomed fetus. When the federal government reminded hospital emergency rooms that they are required to treat any endangered pregnant person to save their life, the state of Texas filed suit, saying that their state law against abortion should take precedence.

Some states are making moves not only against abortion but also against contraceptives, even though these are not abortifacient. They are trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care. As I mentioned previously, while the US House of Representatives has passed legislation to codify abortion rights and to affirm the right to interstate travel, the Senate is not taking these up because of obstruction by Republicans. Chillingly, there is talk of the Republicans passing a national abortion ban if they regain the Congressional majority. Meanwhile, Republicans fail to pass legislation that would uphold the health and dignity of each person, such as universal health care, living wages, social welfare support, etc.

As a Catholic woman, I knew this was coming. Alito was parroting the arguments that Catholic bishops have made against abortion and Thomas went even further down that road in his calls against contraception. I have struggled for years against a church that denies my full personhood as a woman, despite their lip service to the concept of human dignity. I did not expect my country to follow suit.

Like most women my age, I didn’t think we would still be fighting these kinds of equality battles, but we will. I can’t predict the manner or timing of victory, but we will not be demoted to second class citizenship by a skewed Supreme Court.

finally, but…

Broome County, New York, where I live, finally managed to get into the low community risk category on the CDC’s COVID map late last week, after many months in the high category with a few weeks of medium thrown in.

This is long hoped for news, but it is likely only a very temporary lull.

We had been high for so long due to our lower level of up-to-date vaccination and the fact that an Omicron subvariant that became dominant originated in central New York.

Unfortunately, another Omicron subvariant BA.5, is making its way into our area. BA.5 is already the most dominant strain in the US and carries the dubious distinction of being more contagious than other forms of Omicron. It may also have a tendency to more often affect the lower part of the respiratory tract, although this is still being researched; Omicron in general has been more likely to remain in the upper respiratory tract. It also appear to more easily infect people who are up-to-date on vaccination and those who have already had Omicron, even if the prior infection was only a few weeks ago. It’s difficult, though, to tease out which effects in the population are from the variant itself and which are from decreasing immunity that occurs over time.

It is also unfortunate that repeat infections increase the post-infection risk of stroke, heart attack, and other serious illnesses and bring the risk of long COVID.

Even with BA.5, though, being vaccinated and boosted is helpful. It lowers rates of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Pfizer and Moderna are each developing vaccines/boosters that are more effective against Omicron that will be available in the fall. Of course, masking, avoiding crowds, and other public health measures are also helpful if transmission is high in your area.

Remember: the pandemic is still with us. Another new variant is spreading in India and several other countries and could cause another global wave of infections if it can out-compete BA.5. Stay alert and do what you can to take care of yourself, your family, and your community.

I’ll be doing that here. Even though our current infection rate is low, it has begun to creep up. I’ll be watchful.

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