A Bunch of Reasons for Which I’m Thankful…

This video is long, but if you really want to get a sense of where President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris are in terms of their approach to America’s place in the world–and the interrelationship between foreign policy and our nation’s families–it’s well-worth watching.

I’m thinking not only of American readers of my blog who may not have seen this presentation, but also our many friends around the world who have been fearful and flabbergasted as they’ve watched the current administration over the past four years.

The individuals in the above video are the choices to handle foreign affairs and national security, although some critical positions, such as Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA, haven’t yet been filled.

The emphasis is on diplomacy, and I view the inclusion of John Kerry in a newly created Cabinet-level post as US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate as a very welcome, important addition, showing the Biden administration’s seriousness on this most critical issue that must be addressed yesterday!

These people show that Biden prizes knowledge, governmental experience, and independent thinking. Keeping in mind the huge dilemmas that face him and us, I am not at all put off that Biden has selected people whom he knows well, who have solid relationships worldwide, and have previously received security clearance, meaning they’ll be ready on Day One (which means they’ve already begun working).

I expect some fresh new faces will be included when subsequent appointments are announced–though perhaps not on the Cabinet level.

Add to these appointees the previous announcements of Ron Klain as Chief of Staff, which gained nearly universal acclaim, and Janet Yellen, former Chair of the Federal Reserve, as Secretary of the Treasury, a choice that excited both Senator Elizabeth Warren and the stock market, and I think we’re starting off very well.

If you watch the video, you’ll hear some extraordinary personal stories from Antony Blinken, appointed Secretary of State, Alejandro Mayorkas as Secretary of Homeland Security, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US Ambassador to the United Nations, a position that now has Cabinet level status.

And you’ll meet Avril Haines, the first woman to be appointed Director of National Intelligence, as she tells the President-elect that she will deliver hard truths that he won’t always want to hear, and that she knows from working with him that he welcomes her doing so and will depend upon it. (Haines is such a fascinating person, a sort of Leonardo da Vinci in terms of her interests and capabilities, that I’m including this article about her.)

Now we just have to hope that the Senate, ideally with a Democratic majority, will act like a fair, truly deliberative body that defers to the President on his choices and confirm these highly qualified public servants. (Klain, Kerry, and Jake Sullivan, who will serve as National Security Advisor, do not need Senate approval.)

“America is back!” the President-elect told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview. He’s certainly doing his best to make that happen–while consistently and wisely stressing that we’re not going back to what was, that we need new thinking for the problems we face.

And I, watching these masked and socially distanced individuals, and continuing to hear each speaker greet “Madam Vice President-elect,” am filled with hope and gratitude right now.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody, and cheers to those of you elsewhere in the world.

Annie

“Something Is Not Right Around the Court…”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse speaking at the hearings for Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barrett

At the hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s ultra-conservative nominee to replace the late liberal giant Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Dem, RI) gave a remarkably clear and extremely important tutorial on the forces that are really moving the Supreme Court’s decision-making in ways large and small.

I hope you will view this video, which succinctly captures so much about why our government is failing to meet the needs of the American people.

With simple charts, Whitehouse clarified why the Republicans have placed such great emphasis on the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, and demonstrated the huge implications of the 80 decisions that were reached by the Roberts court with a 5/4 majority, unfailingly comprised of the Justices that had been appointed by Republican presidents.

Whitehouse outlined four issues: the influence of dark money originating from an overlapping series of sources; the “demeaning and diminishing of civil juries” (his description was eye-opening in its impact); the goal of total deregulation so these people can make their money unfettered by environmental, safety, or other concerns affecting the public; and voting–the Court reaching a decision “nobody needed against bipartisan legislation on no factual record.”

The latter, known as the Shelby decision, removed constraints that had prevented states from discriminating against minority voters–opening the floodgates for voter suppression and gerrymandering.

The impending outcome of these hearings will be the culmination of a 30-year campaign by right-wing influences to get a Court that serves their needs.

It’s worth noting that Whitehouse has focused his Senate efforts on two issues that he sees interrelated: climate change (which is critically important to Rhode Island, where the sea levels are predicted to rise by 9 to 12 inches this century) and the impact of money in politics.

He told Jeffrey Toobin in a New Yorker interview that climate change had once had bipartisan Congressional support until the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

That case and others like it, Toobin reported,

“freed corporate interests, especially oil-and-gas companies, to browbeat Republican legislators into withdrawing support for any climate-change legislation.”

After the primary defeat of a pro-climate change South Carolina Republican named Bob Inglis, Whitehouse stated, the group Americans for Prosperity, aligned with the far-right Koch brothers,

“said publicly that anybody who crossed them on climate change would be severely disadvantaged. They took credit for the political peril that they had created in stopping any Republican from going the green-energy route.”

I think Whitehouse did a huge service to the American public during these hearings by demonstrating why the Supreme Court has arrived at so many decisions that seem to be in opposition to majority sentiment and the public good.

With regard to the nominee, Judge Barrett appears to be a very knowledgeable and intelligent jurist--but one who has shredded her own integrity in her responses to questioning.

I’m not talking about her vague responses about Roe v Wade or Obamacare, though she was clearly nominated because her writings have demonstrated how she’ll vote on these issues of critical importance–sometimes life and death–to millions of Americans.

What troubled me is that, under oath, she couldn’t recall whether she’d heard Donald Trump’s comments that he planned to nominate Justices who would repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Of equal concern is the fact that this self-described “originalist,” ostensibly a devoted adherent to the Constitution as it was written, would not say whether Trump has the power to delay the election or what the Supreme Court might do if he refuses to transfer power peacefully.

The answers to those questions lie clearly in that very document: Article II, Section 1; and the 20th Amendment. She had to have known that.

Thus, she showed herself totally lacking in independence–winking her thanks at President Trump for nominating her and stomping on the will of the electorate and the cornerstone of American democracy.

If you haven’t yet voted, please make sure you do–as soon as you can!!

Annie

Continue reading ““Something Is Not Right Around the Court…””

A Tale of Two Calamities

Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
COVID-19; image courtesy of state.gov.

Oh, the irony! This is the week that my husband and I were scheduled to be in Alaska. The purpose of the cruise on a small ship was to learn from expert lecturers and see firsthand the devastation of climate change on the animals and environment. We felt a sense of urgency to make this trip while the locale was still viable. Obviously, the trip was cancelled due to COVID-19.

We were supposed to meet the tour guide and group in Seattle, where the air quality a few days ago was rated the third worst in the world.

In the scheme of things, I’m certainly not complaining about our lost vacation. We are safe in our home.

But in the larger sense…

The Washington Post headlined that the western wildfires destroying large swaths of California, Oregon, and Washington are “An ‘unprecedented’ climate change-ruled event, experts say.”

There are, of course, varying contributory factors. Wildfires are to some extent routine in these areas, a natural revitalization process. And in some cases, human carelessness has been the impetus.

But nothing like this has ever been seen before. Surely those who hold on to the belief that climate change is part of a natural cycle must at least pause and consider when the word “unprecedented” is repeatedly used.

According to the Post,

“These wildfires are what is known as a compound disaster, in which more than one extreme event takes place at the same time, across a varied geography. 

“While climate scientists have been warning that compound disasters are an inevitable result of human-caused climate change, a spate of simultaneously burning, rapidly expanding fires spanning the entire West Coast was not expected for several more decades if greenhouse gas emissions remain high.”

I have read any number of newspaper letters and tweets from people caught in the disasters consuming the West Coast who seem to feel abandoned by the rest of the country. As far as I’m concerned, they couldn’t be more wrong.

My heart is filled with grief at the destruction, death, and ongoing misery wrought by these fires. It is tough enough being confined due to the pandemic; now there are many thousands of people who, if they’re fortunate enough to still have their homes–or lives–are forced to stay inside, unable to open the windows.

And I am angry, very angry—though the only action that’s within my control is to send donations to charities helping those who’ve lost everything. 

And these fires—a horrific blend of drought, then harsh storms in which the lightning transforms the dried trees into accelerants—and winds that morph the flames into huge torches rapidly leveling everything in their paths, are just one vast manifestation of what we’ve seen taking its toll throughout our country.  

There have been so many hurricanes already this season, one forecaster reported, that after “Sally,” there’s only one name left in the hurricane alphabet list. And we’re only halfway through the season. 

My Weather Channel just told me “Condos have been ripped to shreds in Sally’s wake.”

Flooding has followed these hurricanes, wreaking its own havoc.

Tornadoes are appearing in areas that have never seen them before.

I’m angry because it didn’t have to be this way! Do those words sound familiar?

The New York Times reports:

“It’s interesting to draw the parallels between Covid and climate change,” said Philip B. Duffy, the president of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, who served on the National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the National Climate Assessment. “In both of those cases, Trump personally has refused to recognize the threat. In both cases, there is no plan to deal with crisis,” he added.

In fact, in both cases, the Trump administration has made things worse.

Just as he publicly denied that COVID-19 existed—though we now know from his own recorded words to Bob Woodward that he understood the danger of the virus early on—so has he denied the existence of climate change.

Most of the California fires are on federally owned land that is technically Trump’s responsibility. But  at a meeting with California officials seeking federal help, his response was: “It’ll get colder.” When he was told that’s not what the science says, he was emphatic. “Science doesn’t know.”

Just as he is in court trying to lessen people’s health care coverage in the midst of the pandemic, so has he withdrawn the US from the Paris Accords—the international effort to combat climate change. 

Just as he has touted unproven and even dangerous therapies for combatting COVID-19 (hydroxychloroquine, household bleach!)—and thrust all responsibility on the governors—so is he pushing the responsibility onto California for failing to “clean your floors” of leaves, and threatening to “make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us.”

And just as he has politicized the FDA, CDC, and NIH—hiring incompetent people who will do his bidding despite what the science and the scientists say—he has just appointed a climate change denier for a leading position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

In fact, in his anti-regulation zeal, Trump has even rolled back regulations against the wishes of the big oil companies and car manufacturers. 

Reports The Times:

“The president’s record is also more consequential, experts say, because the amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere has now passed the point at which scientists say it would be possible to avert many of the worst effects of global warming—even if tough emissions policies are later enacted.”

It’s been clear to many of us for some time that if this man gets another four years in the White House, it could very well mean the end of our democracy. And the COVID-19 death toll will continue to climb.

I hope it’s now clear even to those who have been climate change skeptics that if this man gets another four years in the White House, it could very well mean the end of sustainable life on our planet.

But it doesn’t have to be this way!

One piece of evidence concerning how dire that potential with Trump is viewed comes from the prestigious publication Scientific American, which will endorse Joe Biden in its October issue. This is the first presidential endorsement it has made in 175 years.

The editorial is direct and specific about both the President’s failures and Biden’s plans on a range of issues, including the pandemic and climate change. Here’s the opening:

“Scientific American has never endorsed a presidential candidate in its 175-year history. This year we are compelled to do so. We do not do this lightly.

“The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September.

“He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges.

“That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment. These and other proposals he has put forth can set the country back on course for a safer, more prosperous and more equitable future.”

I urge you to read the editorial in its entirety here.

I’m looking forward to a Biden-Harris administration beginning the long, hard work of collaborating with the other forward-looking world leaders to begin to reverse the damage done. This effort will take years, I know, but the important thing is that a serious, meaningful, coordinated campaign begins—yesterday!

And in two years, with COVID-19 well under control, I hope my husband and I can make that journey to Alaska—and return to tell you about some early, albeit extremely small, reports of progress.

Annie

Continue reading “A Tale of Two Calamities”

The Sun Shines on the Railways–and Thoughts About My Carbon BigFootprint

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Image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my carbon footprint. This internal exploration began after I’d written a quick little poem about a portion of President Trump’s beloved wall being blown down by a heavy wind, which you can read here.

One of the comments I received was from blogger Willedare, whose lovely posts at amusicallifeonplanetearth invariably bolster my spirits. Will combines recordings of his songs, research and anecdotal history about the composers, beautiful photos, and interesting insights. His blog is well worth visiting—and revisiting.

Here’s how Will raised my consciousness:

“…And due to our own desires to continue consuming fossil fuels (almost all of my friends continue to fly here and there as they have always done, taking vacations as they have always done, heating their homes and their hot water as they have always done, driving their cars — instead of walking or riding a bike or taking the bus or a train — as they have always done using FOSSIL FUELS) combined with the climate-change-denying leadership which we have elected to serve/lead us, we will all be receiving more and more ‘unmistakable jolts/From Mother Nature herself.’ Deep breath in. Deep breath out.”

And here’s my response:

“Ah, yes: we know a lot of the changes we really must make, but it’s so hard, isn’t it?

“I’m getting better at the little stuff: turning off lights, taking shorter, cooler showers, watching food purchases to try to reduce what gets thrown out and fuels methane in the landfills…

“But then I realized that the trip we just signed up for—to go to Alaska to see and hear about the impact of climate change on the glaciers and wildlife—will, in the plane trips back and forth and the small ship that hugs the land, give me a carbon footprint that’s larger than BigFoot’s, when I’m striving for one more Thumbelina-sized. Oh, the irony!

“Breathe in, breathe out—for sure! Thanks very much for your valuable reminder.”

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BigFoot, courtesy of Pixabay.com

This past week, as I exercised on a stationary bike at my gym, the delightful woman seated next to me and I began to talk. A former kindergarten/first grade teacher, now retired, she’s a full-time environmental activist.

As she described her group’s work, which is actually leading to legislative accomplishments, I told her that I’d written about climate change on my blog, but had had a rude self-awakening about my carbon BigFootprint.

The first wonderful thing she did was alleviate my guilt with some common sense real-world talk—giving me credit for the climate change discussions I’ve included on my blog as a contribution that had some meaning.

The second was to tell me about one of her organization’s efforts, which is gaining attention from powerful decision-makers and has a real chance to succeed: retrofitting the trains in our area to become solar-powered. “It’s happening in other countries, it’s feasible, economical, and it can happen here.”

Some Good News About Trains

This struck me as really big, good news. Since there’s so little of that on climate change these days, I hasten to share it with you.

It may not be happening as quickly as it should, but solar is being incorporated in trains in a number of countries—though not yet in the US, I must note. Some examples follow.

——“World’s First 100% Solar Powered Train”: The Byron Bay Train near Brisbane, Australia, 2017;

Screen Shot 2020-02-14 at 11.08.17 PM
Byron Solar Train, Australia.

——The first solar-powered diesel electrical multiple unit (DEMU) train, with six coaches and sixteen solar panels, launched by Indian Railways from a Delhi railway station; plus fully solar powered train stations in the city of Guwahati;

—— The world’s first solar-powered railway track in the cloudy UK, with a “solar farm” in the South of England powering the network, 2019 (article by Adele Berti, Railway Technology, as are the next several references);

——A planned Argentinian connection with Machu Picchu for tourists;

——A planned effort by Bankset Group, a British renewables financial investor, that may expand the potential significantly: with partners from Europe, China, and the US, Bankset has trials to attach solar panels to railway sleepers in many European and international locales;

—An Italian company, Greenrail, already has a range of solar-powered sleepers with photovoltaic panels “and also contribute to a circular economy—being made up of some recycled materials.”

But with the exception of Australia, I believe, the trains aren’t near-totally solar: they have solar panels on their roofs and are backed up by batteries charged in stations.

Still, a spokesman for Bankset Group said:

“We believe that solar panels on rails are able to provide 30% of national grids’ 24/7 energy load requirements, and that this is now the most cost-effective solution.”

But he added,

It is a political issue as most of the rail network belongs to regions and respective states; many rail lines are privatized.”

Some Muddling of the Issue

So there’s much to be hopeful about. But when we look at the carbon footprint facts concerning today’s modes of transportation—aren’t trains better than planes? Pretty simple question, yes?

No. That task took me down a dusty path that made my head hurt. It’s not so straightforward, and there are many qualifiers. “Flight-shame,” a new phenomenon among environmentally conscious folks, isn’t totally justified.

Let’s quickly pass over the wag who said the best carbon footprint comes from staying home and looking at postcards.

And we don’t need anyone to tell us that walking, hiking, canoeing, and biking are less damaging to the environment than other modes.

But after that, it’s hard to give a simple answer. Often, it depends…

This is important because around 1/5 of total greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, with the number closer to 30% in most industrialized countries, according to two researchers at University of California, Davis, reports Salon.

“Train virtually always comes out better than plane, often by a lot,” according to a BBC Science and Environment report. But the type of train and other variables factor in. The carbon emissions from diesel trains can be double those of electric trains.

The electricity source is also important. In France, for example, about 75% of electricity comes from nuclear power, compared with Poland, which is 80% powered by coal.

(I recognize how bad coal is, but nuclear power has scared the hell out of me since I read “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a book that describes a partial nuclear meltdown of the first commercial breeder reactor in 1966. Still, nuclear power is considered an important transitional fuel to get to a greener future.)

A 2009 study found that passenger travel on the Boston light rail, an electric commuter train in the US, produces as much as or more emissions per passenger than does a jetliner for the same reason: the electricity was generated by fossil fuels such as coal, while commercial aircraft burn kerosene, which is cleaner. I hope it’s improved since then.

The Most and Least Harmful Ways to Travel

A group called Indigo Park Services UK compared the ways to travel based on how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere per person, per kilometer (0.6 miles), reports Salon.

The single most harmful way to travel? Number 1 in this study are large ferries that carry freight vehicles and passengers—exactly the type onto which we shall drive our car this summer for our yearly island visit with dear friends (!).

They emit 0.85 lb of CO2 per kilometer, per person, compared to only 0.04 lb if the ferry just carries passengers on foot.

Oh no! My Carbon BigFootprint just grew exponentially. (Or maybe the ferry we take isn’t considered quite so massive…)

2. Long-haul flight, first class
3. Large gas/petrol car
4. Large Diesel Van
5. Large autogas car

A bicycle has the same amount of emissions as an electric car with solar panels—none.
So those are are 1. and 2. on the “least harmful” list, followed by
3. Electric car (no solar panels)
4. International rail (Eurostar)
5. Foot passenger ferry.

Cruise ship emissions appear to be similar to those from airplanes, though cruise lines have been pressured for years to reduce not only high emissions, but also the impact of waste disposal and air pollution, reports the BBC.

Some Interesting Data

*Traveling the same distance on a short haul flight, economy class, is environmentally better than traveling in a small car powered by gasoline.

*If you choose to go first or business class, the additional space between passengers throws off that calculation.

*Try for direct flights, as take-offs and landings use the most fuel.

*Pack lightly: “if all passengers packed one less pair of shoes, or roughly 2 lb/1kg, the aircraft’s fuel savings would be the same as taking 10,500 cars off the road for an entire year.”

*If you can’t avoid having your lap in luxury, you can check Atmosfair’s airline ranking for the most efficient airline.

*And you can actually purchase carbon offsets, which cancel emissions somewhere else in the world and are offered by most domestic and many international airlines. This New York Times article tells you how to do it.

*Though we’d all love to stretch out in a less-than-full plane, all those bodies smushed together is environmentally good, so peak-time flights are better than late-night ones.

When driving your car, you can increase your mileage by 33% on the highway and 5% locally by avoiding hard acceleration and braking.

Similarly, increased mileage occurs when you drive below 60 mph, reduce idling, and do regular maintenance on your car (oil filters, tires, etc.)

What Should Our Carbon Footprint Be?

According to the Nature Conservancy, which has a non-working calculator that I thought would help me find out my actual Carbon Footprint, the average for a person in the US is 16 tons, whereas the global average is closer to 4 tons.

If we’re to avoid a 2 degree Celsius rise, the average global carbon footprint must shrink to less than 2 tons by 2050.

“By making small changes to our actions, like eating less meat, taking less connecting flights, and line-drying our clothes, we can start making a big difference.”

(That last one about clothes drying is tough for me; I well remember the cardboard-stiff bath towels my mother would remove from the backyard clothesline. I’d happily pay carbon offsets to avoid those…)

As my new friend at the gym advised me, we don’t have to make ourselves crazy over all this, but if each of us makes some effort, we can collectively make a difference. I shall certainly pack fewer pairs of shoes next time I fly!

Any thoughts you’d care to share?

Annie

Continue reading “The Sun Shines on the Railways–and Thoughts About My Carbon BigFootprint”

Something There Is…

...That Doesn’t Love a Wall.
—-Robert Frost

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 3.58.13 PM
Photo taken by KYMA.

The President’s beloved wall

Designed to keep our borders “pure”

Of those who seek refuge from harm

Or starvation

Could not withstand a high wind

That mercilessly forced it from its moorings

And onto the trees of Mexico,

Where it tottered, not a sentinel of boldness,

But an homage to failure.

The President who denies climate change

And the humanity of brown-skinned people from

Not so far away

Received an unmistakable jolt

From Mother Nature herself.

She is not happy.

Continue reading “Something There Is…”