Can We Avoid an Environmental Apocalypse?

December 30, 2016


A key threat to California and the Central Valley after five years of drought is easily identified as dangerous air quality conditions.

The latest State of the Air report from the American Lung Association lists the Fresno and Madera area as the No. 1 place for bad air quality. Fresno County is given an “F” rating in its air quality for particle pollution within 24 hours and has failed the annual pollution test.

Nearly 300,000 children under the age of 18 are at risk due to the menacing air quality that exists. Nationally, more than 35.6 million children under the age of 18 live in counties that have received an “F” rating for pollutants, and 6.7 million live in counties where all pollution tests were failed.

Are we headed into an environmental apocalypse?

The die-off of over 102 million trees in the California forests has left the state on the brink of massive fire eruptions as well as other threats to people. Some though, like biomass plants, have taken advantage of the dying wood and have used it to produce mulch.

As more and more trees are susceptible to wildfires around the state, forests could become deforested and barren. The Humane Society says forests are crucial to fight climate change and global warming.

Deforestation has the potential to lead to about 2.4 billion tons of CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions worldwide annually because the trees are not there to trap it. Their nonexistence allows the CO2 emissions to reach the atmosphere and become absorbed by the heat from the sun and lead to warmer conditions across the globe.

In “The Post-Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st century’s sustainability crises,” edited by Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, a section titled “A New World” examines the new environment that we live in.

Environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben writes that Earth has changed in profound ways, saying that every day the planet loses its oasis feel. And “this is not some mere passing change,” McKibben warned.

A NASA study currently holds the world’s current carbon dioxide emission at roughly 500 parts per million.

That means that the heat-trapping (greenhouse) gas that being released due to human activities like deforestation and burning fossil fuels — as well as natural processes like respiration and volcanic eruptions — have risen to the highest levels in history, according to NASA’s 2016 finding.

McKibben writes that since the Industrial Revolution, “we’ve been steadily increasing that total, currently raising it more than two parts per million annually.” McKibben write that for many years, the danger point was never known.

“Paul Roberts, in his superb book The End of Oil, was able to write quite correctly that ‘most climate models indicate that once concentrations exceed 550 parts per million we will start to witness dangerous levels of warming and damage, especially in vulnerable areas, such as low-lying countries or those already suffering drought’,” McKibben writes.

The largest fire that burned in the state this summer was the Soberanes Fire in Monterey. About 132,100 acres of wildland was burned between when the fire started in July and was contained in October.

California has taken initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state. Governor Jerry Brown made a stop in Fresno to sign what some called “sweeping” legislation to combat climate change.

Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 1613 and Senate Bill 859. Both bills detail how $900 million in cap-and-trade funds will be spent. Bee reporter John Ellis writes that the funds will also help gain biomass energy from the Sierra Nevada’s dying trees.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says an over-accumulation of the natural and human-made gas emissions have greatly contributed to global warming. Warming within the planet is caused when greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation. NASA estimates that 97 percent of scientists believe climate change is manmade.

Changing our ways

On a hot summer day, Fresno City College Jeannine Koshear was looking forward to getting home after a trip to the Bay Area, but she had come to a sudden stop on her way to Fresno along Highway 99.

What appeared like a serious accident halted traffic for miles and Koshear could only sit in her Toyota pickup, which lacked air conditioning and was something she could have counted on to overcome the day’s heat.

Neither the wait nor the hotness, which she dealt with as she drove 60 mph down the California highway by rolling down her two front windows, bothered Koshear as much as something she spotted during her stop in the traffic jam.

“Next to me was one of those transport trucks that takes caged chickens to the slaughterhouse,” Koshear said.

Koshear remembers seeing cages upon cages stacked on the truck, and a steady drip of thick chicken poop coating the birds in the lower cages and unto the sides of the truck. Some of the birds were dead; others were slumped in their cages, Koshear said.  She was witnessing the pain the chickens must have been enduring right before her eyes.

The towering chicken carrier cascaded air from above, down to Koshear’s truck, overwhelming her with the stench. She could not get over the cruelty of the way the chickens were being transported; it continues to bother the Fresno City College geography instructor to this day.

Koshear had heard of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and had now come face-to-face with the harsh reality that is poultry production. Thousands or tens of thousands of animals are typically crammed in tight spaces, unable to move, breathe or see light of day under that type of operation. She recalls the cages in the chicken transport truck on Highway 99 to be about 8 ½ and 11 inches.

The Humane Society of the United States says out of the nearly 10 billion land animals raised in the country, a great number of those animals are kept in the country’s nearly 18,800 CAFO factories.

“Faced with the reality of poultry and other CAFO production, I immediately became a vegetarian,” Koshear said, but admits that the switch was a little more complicated than converting solely to vegetable products. “I still eat meat, but I eat considerably less of it, and I really try to delve into how it was produced.”

The lifestyle changes Koshear made following the sighting was part of a bigger way of thinking — a way of thinking that benefits the environment. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from animal production, either from producing feed crop, creating fertilizer or shipping products.

She asked herself, “Do I want to be part of this system?” and “Do I want to be on the consuming end of this system?” Her answer to both of these questions was a simple one: “no.”

“The truth of the matter is the way we produce food is extraordinarily damaging,” Koshear says.

Much of the CO2 [emissions] that is generated from the animal production industry is primarily from the utilization of fossil fuels, according to a report from the University of Georgia.

“This may be from purchased electricity, propane use in stationary combustion units…and diesel use in mobile combustion units such as trucks, tractors and generators that are used on the farm,” the report states.

Koshear compares the conventional ways of American consumerism to that of indigenous and Native American cultures, realizing the latter group is much more connected to the land. She tries to explain of American ways that, “In a way we have made an artificial distinction between the environment and ourselves, by setting ourselves apart.”

The protests in North Dakota over a pipeline that was proposed to cross sacred Native American land is an example of how the land is treated differently by different people. The 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline would run from North Dakota to Illinois, carrying up to 570,000 barrels of oil a day.

Opponents fear water supply to millions could become polluted. But seeing little action from law enforcement to protect sacred land and the environment from dangerous oil production is what angers environmentalists.

Man-made climate change, Koshear believes, leads to planetary and environmental effects. The Central Valley may be one of the hardest-hit places in ongoing drought.  She says people and businesses in the valley must begin to rethink their way of living and work with nature, not against it.

“If we are going to build healthy economies, healthy societies, healthy individuals, healthy communities, we have to found that on the basis of a healthy environment,” Koshear said. “If we are doing things that are destructive to our environment, it comes back.”

SB 859, signed by Brown, is also expected to help lower greenhouse gas emissions created by farms and dairies.

Fresno a focus

A focus in cleaning up the air and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is built around Fresno in two other bills the governor signed. Assembly Bill 1550 and 2722 will direct cap and trade funds toward disadvantaged communities. Cap and trade funds are funds that come from the taxing of high-polluting companies as incentive to lower their emissions.

In September, outgoing Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin announced the governor had put aside $70 million out of $140 million in funds to help communities fight pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. That was half of the funds and the other half were to be split between two other cities.

AB 2722, which created the Transformational Climate Communities Program, made way for these funds to come to Fresno and Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula of Fresno is a co-author of the bill. With the third-highest poverty rate in the state, Fresno was chosen as one of the cities to lead efforts to reduce emissions while helping residents find work and live in cleaner, greener spaces.

In West Fresno, the tragedy of dangerous environmental effects are visible. In a Fresno Bee report by writer Mark Grossi, a close look is given to West Fresno, where “high asthma rates, widespread poverty and low birth weights” have been linked to the dirty air.

Nearly 300,000 people live in poverty in Fresno County. Those communities often face a much harsh burden of climate change affecting conditions.

Nine of the 12 worst places to live with bad air quality are in the Valley.

Rampant misinformation and ‘greed’

In a world feared to have rampant misinformation and obscured perceptions of facts, Koshear encourages her students at FCC to search for information and make their own fact-based investigations; She sees that as part of her responsibility as a college instructor.

There is no going back to the California of the 1830s and 1850s, Koshear admits; neither can the California return to the 1950s. Those days are gone, and the added stresses of climate change have increasingly made it harder to maintain a healthy environment, Koshear says.

“Our sustenance comes from the environment in a multitude of ways and by destroying and overtaxing ecological systems on earth,” Koshear said, “we are laying the groundwork for our own destruction and that is really, really sobering.”

Uprooted trees have sprung in the Valley due to five years of drought in California. Water has become scarce in many communities and concerted efforts have brought fresh, clean water to many impoverished communities who have gone without water for months at a time.

“We have to recognize that the likelihood is that what we’ve experienced for the past five years, is now the new normal,” Koshear said. “That is a very tough reality for us to grapple with in California and especially in the Central Valley.”

Koshear calls the state’s water problem the most pressing issue of our time. She adds that it is the most serious issue the nation and world face as a result of a changing climate which has diverted naturally-made resources and depleted the much-needed natural resources that have allowed the planet’s diverse ecosystems to survive.

“There has been a concerted disinformation and misinformation campaign that has been carried out by heavily entrenched fossil fuel interests,” Koshear said.

She warns it could continue with special interests continuing to fund political campaigns for special privileges.  “When we have one of our nation’s major political parties that eschews any notion of science-based information informing policy, we have a big problem.”

In a bleak report in Vox, reporters David Roberts and Brad Plumer believe the American people are underestimating the damage a Donald Trump administration could have on progress made for the environment. They write such administration could vanish the U.S.’s presence in climate deals, like the Paris Climate Deal, and that pollution regulations could be reversed.

In a New York Times meeting with Trump, the newly elected politician says however that there might be link between climate change and humans, something of a major difference to his comment that global warming was a hoax.

Trump’s website claims the U.S. will become energy independent, and reverse Obama’s “job-destroying executive actions” on the environment — many of those executive actions have received praise for efforts to protect the environment.

“Rather than continuing the current path to undermine and block America’s fossil fuel producers, the Trump Administration will encourage the production of these resources by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and water,” the Trump website on energy independence states.

The favorite to become the head of the EPA in the Trump Administration is a noted climate change denier. Myron Ebell, a candidate to head the agency, leads the Cooler Heads Coalition, whose mission is to dispel the “myth” of global warming. (Editor’s note: This article for print was produced before President-elect Donald Trump formally nominated his choice for the Environmental Protection Agency appointment, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. During production of this article, Myron Ebell was only a candidate to lead the agency.)

PBS reports that Ebell has been dubbed the No. 1 enemy to the climate change community by Greenpeace. A report of PBS’s Frontline says Eboll has a leading force in crafting challenging research to contradict the idea that climate change is caused by humans.

The Frontline report notes that Ebell said he had helped propel a shift in the political debate around climate change. That shift later contributed to the collapse of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress in 2009, the Frontline report says.

Ebell, who says the global warming idea is based on politics and not science, told Frontline, “We need to keep banging away on the science.”

In the Vox report, the writers suggest that perhaps Trump’s lack of understanding of the climate change issues may lead the legislations being crafted by the GOP held Congress.

“His ignorance on policy is near total and he’s shown no desire or willingness to learn anything about it,” Roberts and Pumer write. “So in practice, environmental policy under Trump is likely to be run by the GOP apparatus.”

Perhaps filibusters can prevent the GOP apparatus from acting against the climate, Roberts and Plumers write. The 47 incoming Democratic Senators in 2017 could refuse to support any anti-climate legislation, they write.

“If the filibuster survives, Republicans will be significantly constrained in what they can do, though they still have options,” they write. “They could, for instance, try to slip environmental measures that affect the federal budget into budget reconciliation bills — those only need 51 votes to pass.”

Koshear says key government figures have declined to endorse the idea of climate change or that carbon dioxide emissions, even as they continue to climb to catastrophic levels, are a problem; Ninety-seven percent of scientists have agreed it is an issue. Yet, funders like the Koch Brothers have invested heavily in an agenda of electing politicians to further a plan that isn’t always favorable to the environment.

Scientists, documentarians and informed politicians are urgently trying to get the message out, Koshear says. But a system degraded by Citizens United can no longer function properly to address the issues, like climate change, which have severe effects on the nation and world.  Koshear calls the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court the “death knell” of America.

Could politicians listen to climate scientists and, better yet, see the danger extreme pollution of the climate causes to children, our future?

“We have built our economic and philosophical foundation as a nation on the idea that facts are important and that facts matter; Now we have an entire political party that is trying to tell us that that isn’t the case,” Koshear says.

McKibbin reminds us of our final destination by saying, “Don’t let your eyes glaze over at this parade of statistics. These should come as body blows, mortar barrages, as sickening thuds.”

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