Fire in Our Back Yards and Our Children’s Future

I’m doing a slow burn. The Lake Christine Fire — which [as of this writing] has again flared up and prompted evacuation notices — strikes me as an apt metaphor for the reason why.

Our democracy, our shared future and our small planet are all aflame, but it seems that nothing immediate can be done to contain the blaze.

Like the firefighters who have convened to save our homes, we’re constrained: The flames are burning in territory too inaccessible for us to reach. The conditions were set by climactic forces long in play and largely beyond our control. They were sparked by dangerous attitudes. They will burn far too long.

All we can do is to carve out distant firebreaks, wait and tamp down the outbreaks.

Photo of the Lake Christine fire by my friend Jae Gregory. This was taken from her deck!

Appalled as I was by hearing the president toady up to Vladimir Putin and deny (again) that Russia tampered with the 2016 election — a crime now substantiated by 13 criminal indictments and four U.S. security agencies — those treasonous acts pale in comparison with ignoring the climactic conflagration breaking out near and far.

On June 28, Denver tied its all-time high at 105 degrees. On July 2, Montreal recorded its highest temperature ever. On July 5, the planet’s hottest continent reached the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, as the thermometer in Ouragla, Algeria soared to 124.3 degrees.

Global warming is here. It’s visible from my driveway in Carbondale.

I can see smoke from the Lake Christine Fire, which has now burned 12,000 acres, as it continues to consume Basalt Mountain. The pines and pinions there are tinder-dry due to drought. That drought, classified as “moderate” in our neck of the woods and “extreme” in Southern Colorado, came about because our snowpack was the poorest in 30 years.

This year’s skiing was often rocky, our season having shrunk by more than a month since I was a kid. Our views are currently hazy due to wildfires. Our rivers have shrunk, affecting boating and fishing. But we’re the lucky ones.

This month, international diplomats met in New York and Geneva to discuss what to do with a worldwide surge in refugees. There’s no official agreement yet on how to define a “climate refugee.” But since 2008, an average of 24 million people have been displaced by weather disasters every year. Those numbers are growing annually, and rapidly.

In our valley, the fire forced 1,793 people to evacuate. Three families lost their homes. Dozens of Basalt businesses had to close temporarily. The Temporary canceled several concerts, and dozens of flights to the Aspen Airport were scratched.

Those losses and inconveniences are related to global warming.

So are these: 2,300 Puerto Rican families have remained homeless since Hurricane Maria. Two million U.S. homes will be lost to a very-possible six-foot ocean rise by 2020. And climate change will likely displace 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America over the next 30 years.

That last number comes from a report entitled “Groundswell — Preparing for Climate Migration,” published by the World Bank early this year. In its introduction, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva writes, “Increasingly, we are seeing climate change become an engine of migration, forcing individuals, families and even whole communities to seek more viable and less vulnerable places to live.”

The earth is doing a slow burn. But our president is responding as Nero was fabled to have done while Rome burned: The U.S. pulled out of the United Nations-led Global Compact on Migration in December, just as our nation pulled out the Paris agreement on climate change in 2017.

The two issues are interdependent. We have seen that in microcosms since our local fire began (ironically enough) on Independence Day.

Although treasonous statements and refugee children in cages have fanned the current political flames white hot, I fear the worst damage wrought by this administration will come from fiddling away while the earth smolders.

By failing to act, we’re allowing parts of the globe to become uninhabitable. We’re sentencing millions to famine, disease and dislocation. And we’re saddling our “own” children (those of wealthy nations), with a debt of $585 trillion. That’s how much it will cost to mop up the extra CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere and return earth to livability, according to an international team of experts, headed by James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute.

It’s the hottest summer on record, and the feds should be responding to the climate crisis in the same way that local governments have responded to the Lake Christine Fire.

But they aren’t.

I, for one, can’t imagine how to explain this to the children.

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Originally published in the Glenwood Springs Independent on July 26, 2018

How do we face the coming worst hard time?

“The Worst Hard Time” was the title of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Great American Dust Bowl — a disaster that devastated a 100-million-acre area that reached from Texas to Nebraska and included southeastern Colorado.

Between 1930 and 1940, dust storms ruined crops, destroyed livelihoods and caused “dust pneumonia” that killed as many as several thousand — no one has a sure tally. Roughly 2.5 million desperate people fled Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, creating the largest migration in American history.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy US Library of Congress.

The disaster resulted from four naturally occurring droughts that were worsened by federal land policies, farm economics and cultural beliefs. Many settlers lived by the motto that “rain follows the plow,” believing that agriculture would permanently affect the climate of the semi-arid Great Plains, improving it for farming.

As their plows broke the soil, the opposite happened. Topsoil fled in the wind as plows removed the native grasses that anchored it, rising in black blizzards that blew across the nation all the way to Washington, D.C. Forced out of business, farmers lost their livelihoods, their homes and sometimes their lives.

It wasn’t the first time that humans committed “ecocide.” It probably won’t be last time, or even the worst. That will probably occur in the lives of our descendants, who will have to deal with the effects of global warming: rising seas, flooding coastal cities, increasingly virulent storms, hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires.

If that list of climate-related woes sounds a lot like this summer’s headlines, it’s not incidental. This is what scientists — the 98 percent who agree that human-caused climate change is real and happening now — have told us to expect.

Environmentally speaking, we’re living in the “end times” — the end of a geologic era that is going to impact everything from where we live to what we eat and how we make a living.

The question that faces us now is how to deal with it. Denial is a common human response; despair is another.

I have written about climate change before, and I have gotten both hate mail and denigrating comments in response. (Shooting the messenger is another common human response to bad news.) In reply to one column I wrote about global warming, one online reader scoffed, “I suppose this wouldn’t be happening if we had elected Hillary instead of Trump!”

That one gave me pause. While Trump’s climate denial has been infuriating in a “let them eat cake” kind of way, in the larger view, he’s a footnote. Over the past 250 years, much of human progress — the changes in diet, health, working conditions and material well-being that lifted us out of the brutish Middle Ages — has been due to the burning of fossil fuels. In terms of human lifetimes, two centuries is a vast span. In the geologic view, it’s the blink of an eye.

It has only been a couple of decades since we humans noticed that, climatically, we might be in for a hot time. Our collective response to that news, regardless of who has been in the White House, has been too little and too late to change the global climate trajectory.

Like farmers who reaped the whirlwind in the Dust Bowl, we humans will be forced to cope: to move, to alter public policies, to change technology, to somehow find the moral courage to move forward with generosity and inclusiveness while avoiding greed and despair.

I’m an agnostic. Sometimes, deep in the shadows of fear, I pray, but I have to address those entreaties “to whom it may concern.”

I have found myself both surprised and heartened by Pope Francis, who has said that global warming is a symptom of spiritual poverty — a myopic mentality that has failed to address climate change.

Francis has warned that the rich world’s pursuit of short-term economic gain in the face of environmental destruction is part of “a throwaway culture” that threatens not just unwanted things but also unwanted people — the poor, the elderly and the unborn — as waste. Frances has asked us to “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” entreating us to stand before God, or personal conscience, and examine the consumerist lifestyle that most of us live.

I’m 65. Although I won’t live long enough to fully reap the coming whirlwind, I struggle daily with how to spiritually face the coming worst hard time. Frankly, buying an electric car, putting up solar panels and growing vegetables has proved easier than avoiding selfishness and despair.

Results of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy of US Library of Congress.

 

Still I’m heeding the pope’s challenge, making daily changes that light a candle of hope, and remembering that wherever we’re going as a species, we’re in this together. Courage and cooperation is all that will save us.

Column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent September 21, 2017

Beach front property going cheap?

Psst, wanna buy some coastal property?

Despite the news of Harvey and Irma, I was surprised to learn that the husbands of two of my friends do—in Florida no less!

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The Yale Program on Climate Communication has found that nationally, while 69 percent of Americans think that global warming is real and dangerous, only 42 percent think it will harm them personally.

Personally, I think that buying property in Florida would hike the odds of personal harm considerably.

Real estate appraiser Orell Anderson, who works for Strategic Property Analytics in Laguna Beach, California, says that people “pay significant premiums to be on the water” but notes that most home-buyers arrive at the conclusion that storm-surge flooding “only happens to other people and not me.”

If you’re among them, you’d do well to visit the website CoastalRiskConsulting.com, owned by attorney Albert Slap, who lives in Snowmass Village, high and dry at 8,209 feet. Many of Slap’s clients are in Florida. Although cities and utilities form a large portion of his clientele, any potential property owner can plug an address into CRC’s website to discover its risk for storm-surge flooding and high winds. CRC mashes up scientific data from NOAA, USGS, USACE and other sources to create a comprehensive assessment of current and future flood risk to the property’s location.

Those risks are no secret. In April 2016, Sean Becketti, chief economist for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, issued a (largely unpublicized) warning that owners ditching their coastal properties could trigger another nationwide mortgage meltdown.

 Even so, neither sellers nor realtors in Florida (or most other coastal states) are required to warn potential buyers of climate-change risks.

Those risks are many and interrelated: rising insurance costs, the eventual likelihood that mortgage companies will refuse to write 30-year loans in low-lying areas, enormous spikes in real estate taxes as cities and struggle to relocate utilities, roads, bridges, even airports. And not just in Florida. In the San Francisco Bay Area, all three airports are at risk from rising oceans. New York’s La Guardia could be swamped with as little as five feet of rising water.

Although few owners have so far sold coastal property due to these woes — the longer-term recovery pattern in New Orleans after Katrina and in New York after Sandy saw property values dropping in badly impacted neighborhoods but rising in those that were less affected and thus seen as “safer”— Albert Slap thinks that sell-offs are inevitably coming. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he opined that people will eventually insist on disclosure for homes that suffer regular floods, just as they have for the risks of asbestos and lead paint. Then dominoes will fall. “There will be a large number of homes that will lose substantial value, and [owners] will default on mortgages, if nothing is done to help them.”

That brings us to politics.

Right now, your right to build or buy in a flood zone is underwritten by the U.S. government. As the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “Let’s all acknowledge one reason for the vulnerability of Americans who live in low-lying coastal regions of the Sun Belt: The federal government has been paying people to locate there.” The payment isn’t explicit, the newspaper explains, but comes in the form of flood insurance underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Under that program, private companies insure the homes, but the bills are ultimately paid by the Feds. After Sandy, Katrina and a rush of local floods, NFIP racked up a $25 billion deficit. Right now, the program, which was up for re-authorization this year, needs an infusion of cash.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas, is making a push for reform. “The NFIP in its current form is unsustainable and perverse,” he said. “It is a government monopoly that subsidizes people to live in harm’s way. With pricing structures that do not reflect the reality of risk, it actually encourages the building and re-building — and re-building again — of homes and businesses in flood-prone areas.”

Truly evaluating that risk would include projecting the impact of ocean rise and global warming. That’s something that the current climate-change denying administration is not likely to do, despite the fact that Florida property-owners Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump were both personally impacted by evacuations during Hurricane Harvey.

If you’re actually considering buying property in Florida — taking a risk this fixed-income senior would never consider! — I’d advise consulting Albert Slap’s website first.

Either that, or rent a beach house. And travel light.

 

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on September 21 , 2017

Paris Climate Pact Matters to the Economy

I didn’t need a scientist or even the Colorado Department of Transportation to tell me that global warming was real. I’m 65, a skier and a Colorado native. I have seen the evidence accumulating all my life.

I got a reminder last week when I noticed that the Fall River exit sign on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs now references only Alice and St. Mary’s. During my childhood, it also included “St. Mary’s Glacier.” Apparently CDOT doesn’t number among the governmental agencies now denying climate change.

As the Trump administration has disavowed the Paris climate accord, vowed to cut funding for climate-monitoring satellites and ocean buoys and undermined the EPA, my response has swung from heated anger to floods of despair. My moods mirror what meteorologists are recording: wild weather fluctuations, early springs, alarming increases in drought, flood and wildfire. Science has linked all these changes to the greenhouse gases humans have been injecting into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

But on June 1, Trump bailed on the treaty limiting those emissions. The reason, he says, is that the accord “disadvantages” the U.S. and causes “lost jobs and lower wages.”

But here in the Roaring Fork Valley, most of our jobs rely, in one way or another, on snow. That many of us owe our livelihoods to Aspen’s robust ski economy should be apparent. If Aspen failed to open one winter, what would happen to local restaurants, nightspots, clothiers? Not to mention our building trades, real estate and property values?

But it’s not just skiing that relies on snow. CU Boulder’s Environmental Center reports that 70 percent of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack. When we don’t have enough to meet the needs of fishermen, whitewater enthusiasts, ranchers, farmers and urban dwellers, we pump groundwater and, astonishingly, supplement the runoff with water from “ice holds” across the state.

Colorado holds 14 named glaciers and more than 135 “permanent” snow or ice bodies. Like St. Mary’s Glacier, they’re all shrinking. Of course, glaciers have retreated before and will return — sometime. Geologically, 100,000 years is no big thing, but we humans don’t have that much time to spare.

On the Aspen-Snowmass website, SkiCo puts it bluntly: “Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity, not to mention the ski industry. Because the problem is so big, the fix won’t come through changing light bulbs; government must act.”

The Paris accord represented 190 nations that promised to act to mitigate climate change. Sen. Michael Bennet said that bailing on the accord was “a catastrophic mistake,” and Gov. John Hickenlooper likened it to “ripping off your parachute when you should be pulling the ripcord.” Rep. Scott Tipton said nothing much about it and Sen. Cory Gardner, who generally opposes greenhouse regulation, quibbled about the treaty not having been sent to Congress for debate.

I, for one, cannot fathom how anyone who cares about jobs in Colorado can fail to also care about our climate. As state Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver said, “It’s our collective livelihood … The Paris accords are about protecting people. Declining economies and scarce resources are certain outcomes. Marginalized communities in urban and rural Colorado will be hit the hardest.”

In the coming decades, none of us has a snowball’s chance in hell of escaping the impacts. New York City has spent millions elevating power stations after Hurricane Sandy flooded a substation, causing a five-day blackout in Manhattan. Some coastal Florida and California homeowners have already been priced out of flood insurance. And Coloradans will be seeing the cost reflected in both wildfire insurance and water bills.

Collectively, many Colorado elected officials are moving to fill the Hurricane Sandy-sized hole in leadership left by the Trump administration. I’m thankful to know that mayors from Denver, Aspen, Boulder, Breckenridge, Edgewater, Lafayette, Lakewood, Longmont and Vail will continue to uphold the Paris accord. And that more than 40 Colorado elected officials attended a May conference convened by Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron where they began to create a compact that will enable their towns, cities and counties to collaborate on climate mitigation actions.

Little we do will be remembered after our lifetimes. But as I nervously watch summer nibbling away the snow on Sopris, I’m reminded of an aphorism: “Life is like a blanket of snow. Be careful how you step on it. Every step will show.”

It already does show in our on-again-off-again springs, our shortened ski seasons, the periodic droughts in our reservoirs. I’m praying that we’re careful, mindful and take the right steps in slowing this irreversible catastrophe. Because the steps we take here and now will show far beyond our lifetimes.

Fleeing the Surly Skies

Five years ago I elected to stop flying, at least for non-business trips.

I made that decision largely for environmental reasons. A single jet flight can wipe out all the contributions our plug-in/hybrid car and solar panels make toward reducing my annual carbon footprint.

But there were personal reasons, too. My airline experiences pale in comparison to the United Airlines passenger who was “reaccommodated” recently by being bloodied and dragged from a plane. Still, the last two business flights I took turned out to be aversion therapy underscoring my resolution to avoid “pleasure” flights.

It’s a big change for me; I was once a globetrotter. My passport carries stamps from 36 countries, and neither of those recent business flights ranks as my worst. That distinction goes to a 1978 Aeroflot jaunt from Moscow to Kiev: The “decadent” novel I was reading was confiscated. I had to hold myself upright because my seat back collapsed entirely. And for the entire turbulent two-hour flight, a passenger’s vomit remained untouched in the aisle.

But Aeroflot was an anomaly. I flew dozens of different airlines during the 1970s, enjoying nearly all my travels. What’s more, during grad school in Chicago, I earned freelance money by writing travel brochures, ironically enough, for United Airlines. I was treated well, and I was honestly able to extol the virtues of flying to Hawaii to surf or jetting to Colorado for a ski vacation. Back then, I believed in “flying for pleasure.”

But the thrill has gone.

Not coincidentally, my fond memories date from prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Deregulation occurred in stages through 1984, lowering overall fares about 25 percent (adjusted for inflation). As a result, rural areas and small airports suffered high fares and infrequent flights, while large, urban hubs experienced the reverse. Cheaper fares roughly doubled the number of people who could afford to fly.

Deregulation also led to an airline shakeout. Today, four major airlines­ — United, Delta, American and Southwest — account for roughly 80 percent of domestic air travel.

In the ’70s, planes flew about half-full. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the airplane “load factor” for 2016 was 82.76 percent. Domestic airlines now enjoy record profits, both because they’re carrying more passengers and because they’ve learned to manage what has become a price-sensitive commodity. Their business tactics include variable fares, charging for everything from extra bags and headphones to bottled water, and overbooking to ensure full planes.

Despite widespread grousing from consumers who dislike nickel-and-diming, bumping and crowding, the industry is sure that these aggravations, like the flurry of bad publicity surrounding musician Dave Carroll’s 2008 YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars,” won’t impact consumer behavior for long.

I won’t easily forget Dr. Dau’s shrieks; I had to turn off the sound to even watch that video. But all the airlines are pretty sure that travelers forget; experience shows that passengers will opt for airline X’s $199 fare over airline Y’s $200 fare in a month or so, despite today’s uncomfortable experiences or negative publicity.

My own airline travails pale in comparison to Dau’s, but they have contributed to me opting out of the surly skies entirely. Next month, my husband and I are making a business trip to San Francisco, and we’re traveling on Amtrak.

Environmentally, that’s a good choice. If we flew the round trip, we’d produce .8 tons of greenhouse emissions. Our plug-in electric/hybrid Chevy Volt, which has achieved a lifetime fuel average of 76 mph over 25,727 miles, would generate .24 tons of carbon. Our train trip will generate about .08 tons of greenhouse emissions.

Of course, the 26-hour rail trip takes longer than flying.

Then again, maybe not so much.

On my last San Francisco trip, I was bumped from seven planes on two airlines and made three trips through security. While American treated me far better than United treated Dr. Dau, my trip did feature a screaming match. After American bumped us from its fourth plane, workers informed us that they had no more flights. We would need to “come back tomorrow.”

I angrily responded that abandoning my 83-year-old husband overnight in the terminal without luggage was not an option. After a heated, hour-long exchange, the gate agent finally walked us to another terminal and onto another airline.

Because that plane was late, we missed connections. All told, it took us 19 hours to get home from San Francisco. (Not counting a drive back to Aspen a couple days later to retrieve our lost luggage, which had taken a trip to Dallas.)

So this time, I will be missing the excitement of air travel. But probably not much.


Guest Column published in the Post Independent on April 16, 2017.


Of Painting, Pikas and Politics – The Personal is Political

Right now, I’m pursuing two long-deferred callings: writing a personal column and becoming a fine-art painter.

Those two activities feel like yin and yang, emotionally balancing the scales: painting is a right-brain activity, writing is left-brain. When I’m writing, my mind is full of words. I never miss a publication deadline. While I’m painting, mind chatter disappears. I lose track of time. I sometimes even miss meals.

I started writing a column – this one – because all through my journalistic career, my first-person pieces have always seemed to resonate most with readers. I will soon stop editing a regional magazine not just because the writing I do there is less personal, but also because the editor’s role has kept me, in indirect ways, from expressing a political opinion. While this column isn’t intended to be political per se, recent events call to mind a phrase I remember from the seventies: “The personal is political.”

 Until recently, I thought that my painting was not political. I don’t make political posters like Shepard Fairey, nor satirical graffiti like Banksy. My paintings celebrate light and color, the natural world. I like to paint mountain landscapes and Colorado wildlife. When I resumed painting seriously last fall, I first painted a bighorn sheep, then a mountain lion. Then a pika.

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the pika. It’s a small round-eared relative of the rabbit. Pikas live in boulder fields above timberline, grazing on grasses and flowers, signaling one another with high-pitched whistles.

Because this cute, baked-potato-sized creature can be cooked by temperatures above 78 degrees, it’s considered an “indicator species” for global warming. The pika is desperately seeking higher ground. We still have pikas in Colorado, but in many western states, they have topped out of livable habit. They may be the first species that North America loses to climate change.

After learning that, it began to dawn on me that all of the mountain animals I was painting are threatened. Every life zone in the Rockies is warming, and the range of all our plants and animals is changing. That’s why scientists project that Aspen may become too warm for its namesake tree by 2030.

Considering all this, I began to think my paintings as an “elegy for the anthropocene.” That name has been coined to describe the current geological age, a time period when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and environment. I decided that when I exhibited the paintings as an ensemble, I would include a brief artist’s statement explaining that title.

It wasn’t until I began looking at an application for an artist’s residency in Glacier National Park that I realized that my paintings, are—or have become—unintentionally, but inescapably, political!

Glacier offers artists a chance to spend a month living and painting in the park. They’re expected to share their work by giving talks or demonstrations to visitors, and their art must support Glacier’s educational, environmental and cultural goals. Sounds benign…

But as I was pondering Glacier’s application, Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier, was being vetted to head the EPA. The new president was muzzling science-based government agencies, ranging from the EPA to the NOAA and the Forest Service. Republicans were also vowing to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (That’s a political rather than a fiscal goal, since the combined budgets of the two agencies equal less than .001 percent of the nation’s annual spending.)

It’s hard to even talk about Glacier National Park without acknowledging global warming. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, but only 25 larger than 25 acres remained by 2010. By 2030, the place may be known as Glacier-free National Park! I began to wonder whether painting Glacier’s scenery—let alone explaining the term “Elegy for the Anthropocene”—might be construed as political resistance.

My artistic goals this year are modest: to sell enough to pay for my materials and to become known as artist. The residency at Glacier would have helped me become more widely known; the work produced by resident artists is used in the park’s public outreach.

But in the end, I didn’t apply. I didn’t want to be away from home for a full month, so I decided to save this adventure for summer 2018.

I think the glaciers will withstand the planet’s climate that long. I’m wondering how well Glacier’s residency will hold up given the nation’s political climate.


Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 16, 2017.