What I Told EPA About the Climate Crisis and Parenting

IMG_0753We ask our kids to be responsible. Brave, even. To venture out into the world with a sense that it is theirs — to explore, to learn about, and also to care for.

So today I asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do the same when it comes to developing new standards for carbon emissions for power plants. Working with the incredible Molly Rauch from Moms Clean Air Force, I testified at a public listening session downtown.

Here is what I said:

Good morning. My name is Laura MacCleery and I’m a public interest lawyer and blogger. But I’m here today as the mom of a wonderful three-year-old girl to tell you why the EPA should act for her and the other children here and around the world to quickly issue strong rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants.

Forty percent of U.S. emissions – 2.3 billion tons – come from power plants. This rule has tremendous power to address one of the major sources of climate disruption. It is an opportunity not to be wasted. Real leadership from EPA would allow the U.S. to act responsibly to address our role in causing a rapid, incipient change in global temperatures.

We don’t have much time. A study in the journal Nature last month found that by the year 2047 – when my daughter Maya is only 37 years old – Washington, D.C., will have a radically altered climate, in which even the coldest monthly dips will be warmer than over the past 150 years. Oxford researchers recently found the ocean’s rate of acidification is the fastest in 300 million years. An Australian researcher showed that by the time my daughter is middle-aged, large parts of the oceans will have slimy cynobacteria – basically black goop – where coral reefs should be. This is not the world I would like to pass on to my daughter.

I try to be a conscientious parent raising a responsible child. One who picks up after herself, and shares her toys without too many complaints. But I wonder, how will she look at me – how will our children think about any of us – if we don’t do what we can to stop climate change, right now? What will it mean to be human on this altered planet? And how will our children see themselves if we don’t act today: if we don’t do the most we can, using what we know, to curb climate change and to reduce the threat it poses to the systems that sustain our lives?

I’ll be 76 years old in 2047 – assuming I’m still around. Should I just tell Maya, then: sorry, we didn’t think it was worthwhile to even try to save your pleasant weather, or prevent asthma, or help prevent catastrophe to our agriculture, our wildlife and to the millions of people living in the tropics displaced by rising tides and violent weather?

I won’t be able to say we didn’t see it coming. The policy case, the scientific case, even the economic case have all been amply made. So I’m asking the EPA, on behalf of the many parents who couldn’t be here today, to act with real political gumption. To look past industry’s predictable objections and the facile compromises that could weaken a standard.

To make this moment – this rule – transformative, much like the fuel economy standards set in the 1970s that were aggressively front-loaded and ended up weaning the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil for several decades. There is no progress without some disruption, but we are choosing between reform today and catastrophe tomorrow.

Decisive government action in this area would be smart and responsible, but it would also be – and I’ll just say it out loud – an act of love. Your job on this one is clear, and has high stakes. We always tell toddlers to use their words. So here are mine for you: Be bold. Brave. Creative. Visionary. Carpe Diem. Change our lives, and those of our children. Use your words for good.

Basically, I’m saying, make us proud, EPA. Make me proud. Don’t muddle along. Don’t accept half-measures that cut our future short.

Instead, be a super-hero. Get right to work to save this world for my child, and for all the other children who are looking up to us to do the right thing.

Laura at EPA###

My panel partner was terrific — he actually sang his comments in a moving, minor-key ballad on climate disruption. It rocked.

You can weigh in too. There are still sessions this week on November 8th in Chicago and Philadelphia. Here’s how to sign up. There are also instructions at that link about how to submit online written comments if you can’t appear in person.

Please, join me in telling the EPA that it must seize this moment to act to reduce carbon emissions, for our children and our planet. Let them know you’re watching, and you care about this enormous opportunity to do something substantial to help prevent a climate crisis.

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A Shrinking Ocean: Parenting in an Era of Climate Crisis

Ocean Acidification and Coral ReefsOn this morning’s commute, I happened to tune in to NPR’s story about the impact on coral reefs from climate change. Scientists off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, on Heron Island, are conducting a kind of no-duh experiment on the subject of ocean acidification from carbon emissions. They set up a series of tanks to mimic various climate change scenarios from before the present day to now, and into the not-nearly-distant-enough future.

Richard Harris, NPR’s reporter, described one tank as “what the world’s oceans are likely to look like later in this century when the schoolchildren visiting this island today reach middle age.” So what was in that tank? Well, brace yourself.

By comparison with the “present-day” tank, which showed some continuing growth in the coral, or with the pre-industrial tank which contained a more vibrant eco-system, the future is a place we wouldn’t really want to inhabit, filled as it will be with swirling masses of bacterial detritus and dead rock:

DOVE: OK. So there’s lot of this slimy, yucky mess(ph) of cynobacteria.

HARRIS: Clumps of black gunk swirl along the surface of the tank.

DOVE: We find that cynobacteria tend to do really well in the future. The slippery slope to slime seems to be the way to go.

HARRIS: Not so for the coral. Most of it has either died or turned white, which means the organisms that live inside the coral have moved out.

The “skeptic” quoted for the program did complain that the experiment imposed these dramatic changes suddenly, saying that species could potentially adapt. But Dove, the scientist who set up the tanks, doesn’t see any evidence of the capacity for such adaptive changes in the fragile corals.

More to the point, the levels of carbon and heat in the tank were modeled on scenarios for this century, so the adaptation argument makes little sense. We just don’t have the time for transformation on an evolutionary scale, which takes thousands of years, to allow creatures to transform over generations to suit their new environment.

Instead, the future is almost upon us. Science has now advanced to the point where we can clearly see where this — namely, the fossil fuel economy — is headed. Given the revelations that the pace of change is likely sooner that anyone guessed, we’re way past “inconvenient” all the way to panic button. But our political institutions evidently lack the willpower to do much about this dystopian future in which Maya and all of our children — and certainly our grandchildren — will live.

When I imagine the oceans as dead, full of floating slime chunks of bacteria, I get both angry and panicked in more-or-less equal portions. There will little fish in that world, no snorkeling worth the time and expense, and few startlingly gorgeous sea-creatures flashing their brilliant colors. The millions of people all around the world who make their living from the reefs or the oceans will have to find something else to do.

I also wonder what it will mean to Maya and her peers: the uncomfortable fact that we have destroyed the life-sustaining capacities of these vast and complex ocean systems. Like the view of the planet from space, or the development of nuclear weapons that could obliterate the planet, our self-regard as a species will be inevitably and deeply altered by this enormous hubris. How will this unmistakeable evidence of our tragic inability to act impact my daughter’s view of what it is to be human?

It has always seemed obvious to me that the predators from outer space in movies like Alien are based on a deep concern about our own relationship with the planet. After all, we are the species out-of-line with the natural order. We are the ones that — as Avatar brilliantly showed — take without any thought of giving back. In Louie C.K.‘s hilarious new HBO show, he celebrates the fact that we got “out of the food chain” and are therefore not subject to attacks from say, cheetahs, while waiting for our morning train. This is doubtless reason to cheer.

Nonetheless, as I try to raise my daughter with a sense of her own power to shape her world, and as someone who chooses to take responsibility for her actions, I can’t help but think that the patent irresponsibility around her will create a world — literally — of depressing limitations. Once we’ve killed the oceans, how is it again that our self-concept as an empowered — or at least benign — part of life on earth survives? I don’t see it.

Another story on NPR a few weeks back discussed the challenge of adding climate change materials to high school science classes. The major problem, it seems, beyond the predictable non-sequiter from (non-scientist) deniers, was that high school kids, with their optimism and sense-making, truly struggled once aware of the facts with the level of puzzling inaction by politicians, as well as with their own complicity in a fossil-fuel system to, say, get to soccer practice.

You’ve got to love them for it. Once their attention is raised, these kids would like to get something done about the issue, given the alarming nature of the information. So our lack of a forthright response to the problem is already impacting our children, who are rightly struggling to reconcile their sense of moral right with the reality of our deep political dysfunction.

One of the great pleasures of going to the shore — where we all take our families — is of course to stand at the water’s edge and contemplate how small we are in the place of things, how vast and mysterious the expanse of water is as it stretches on forever.

Whether from exotic invaders, pollution and plastic, chemicals and oil spills, or rapid acidification from excess carbon, it seems certain that without decisive action, for our children and grandchildren in the foreseeable future the ocean will be smaller, far less full of life, and considerably more dangerous and dirty.

It breaks my heart, as both a parent and a person, that this moment, for Maya and others of her generation, will someday perhaps no longer be this essential experience of breathing in the fresh air of limitless possibility, and thereby finding our proper place in the order of things. Sadly, for our children, the ocean may — or will? — instead be tragic, like a crime scene or an horizon of another kind: a place where something important about who we are to ourselves, and to each other, was — perhaps irretrievably — lost.

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I’ll note that it is already difficult to responsibly eat from the oceans, due to both over-fishing and the gross levels of chemicals found in farmed fish (including dyes, PCBs, and antibiotics). The dearth of certifiably sustainably raised fish, healthy as it can be to eat, in both grocery stores and restaurants, is a real problem. We order bulk salmon from a certified sustainable seafood buying club, delivered locally directly from the fisherfolk who maintain a wild reefnet fishery around twice a year. They keep all of the mark-up, and we get a better source of Omegas.

And at least our stuff is never mislabeled! The enormous fakery around seafood, sadly, also conceals the ways in which we are strip-mining the oceans of the most valuable fish and other creatures.

I also try to harass restaurants with farmed fish or less sustainable fish on their menus into changing their offerings. And I won’t touch shrimp, due to both the chemicals in both Gulf and imported shrimp as well as the grotesque overseas working conditions.

It’s deplorable that such enjoyable aspects of living — and our connection with the ocean from which all life came — is now fraught with this sadness and human greed.

Update (4/26/13):

A few restaurant chains in my area — including Blacks, which is opening a location right here in Takoma Park, Maryland — are kicking off a traceability program to verify the sustainability of their seafood. (How I forgot to reference the This American Life piece above defies explanation, as pig bung now comes to my mind every time squid appears on the menu!). The program is called “REEF.” From an article about it:

Are you suspicious of seafood these days? It’s understandable. In January, a This American Life investigation questioned whether some “imitation calamari” is actually sliced pig rectum; not long after, an Oceana report revealed rampant fish mislabeling.

D.C.-based Black Restaurant Group and the Congressional Seafood Co. last week launched The REEL Story, a seafood traceability program, to address these concerns. The concept is simple: each menu item is associated with a QR code; scan the code with your smartphone to see a complete history of your dinner, from information on where and how it was harvested, to recipe ideas and cooking methods.

What a great idea!

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Space Invaders: Here Come the Jelly Fish

Beautiful clouds of undulating ooze, these jelly fish were the obvious stars of my recent trip to the National Aquarium. With hours to kill after finding myself in downtown Baltimore, visiting the museum seemed an ideal way to pass the time.

Stuck way off in a corner of the sprawling facility was a small but gorgeously menacing exhibition, which had as its focus the rapid population spikes of jellies in many U.S. waterways. While it was easy to admire their silent grace in the water and the incredible variety of shapes they formed while swimming, it was equally easy to imagine their tentacles creepily drifting my way in the surf. Below are the Lion’s Mane jellies, which deliver a nasty sting.

As the museum made clear, an over-abundance of jelly fish is not a good sign for the health of the oceans and waterways. Some are carried by ships into faraway waters, where they spread from a lack of predators in their new ecosystem, while others merely multiply in place from weakened environmental conditions.

The exhibition spelled out the causes in no uncertain terms: the warming seas from climate change, the death of natural predators like sea turtles from habitat loss and strangulation-by-plastic-bag-imitating-a-jelly (ugh), and the loss of oxygen in the water from pollution that allows jellies to move in by the cloudful.

In fact, the whole museum was, in one way or another, a sign that we could usefully re-examine the ethics of fish consumption. Set in between the tanks of cruising nurse sharks was a light-board that brightly illuminated the dire situation created by over-fishing and the lack of effective inter-governmental agreements in much of our global waters. Whether talking about the population crashes in ocean species expected by 2050, or showing breathtaking images of colorful snakes and fish from one of the only three healthy reefs in all of Indonesia, the underlying message about ongoing ocean degradation was inescapable.

Combined with pollution and the inter-dependency of life-systems that ripple changes up the food chain with brutal efficiency, it is hard to believe that the kinds of delicate arrangements that support a robust chain of ocean life will still be around for Maya and her children to enjoy, either as mere spectacle or food.

I still remember reading a chilling account years ago about what the take-over of invasive exotics would look like in a prescient Harper’s article, Planet of Weeds, detailing how kudzu and snakefish would decimate native systems. An ocean full of little else but jellies belongs in such an inverted Garden of Excess. After all, they go back 600 million years and are extremely well designed to persist.

And then, as a devastating benchmark for loss, there was this TED talk by a marine biologist who makes an incredible claim that is all too credible: coral reefs have been depleted by humans so profoundly over the last few hundred years that our view of what a healthy reef looks like is actually based on an already-degraded ecosystem.

We can do better in terms of creating marine systems that nurture both the fish we like to eat and life more generally, as another TED talk by chef Dan Barber (one of my favorites) shows, and I’ll post in the future about the debates over eating fish, which is a knotty problem from both a nutritional and environmental sustainability perspective.

But today, there were the jellies, and the slow dance of our doom. On the larger questions, I came away from the encounter with an eerie feeling that the political and social obstacles to saving our oceans from rapid destruction — particularly given the “natural” inclinations of exotics like these stunning jelly invaders to exploit any niches we open to their long arms — are steep indeed.

It’s a system after all, and a highly complex, responsive one that utterly disrespects the prosaic boundaries of our political arrangements. It will be merciless about our many, predictable mistakes, like failing to thoroughly clean the hull of a ship.

When I looked at all the jellies, with their mindless movements that somehow flow in the direction of our follies, I felt a little chill. And when I put my fingers to the glass to take a picture, it was cold, just like the ocean deep.

What Does “Green” Really Mean to You? Getting Environmental Health versus Sustainability Sorted Out

A still from the "Sad Kermit" video

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not easy being “green.” In fact, much of the time it’s not even clear what it means.

What we typically label “green-washing,” or the marketing of eco-high points without mention of the ecological costs, is a real problem. One aspect of this problem is that it’s often difficult to tell, when you are choosing a product, whether it’s “green” because it’s safer or healthier to consume, or because less junk was produced or used in getting it to you in the first place.

For a concrete example of this, I constantly see items marketed as “green” – say, the furniture from West Elm made with some percentage of soy foam – that nonetheless is full of toxic chemicals, such as the flame retardants I’ve been blogging about somewhat obsessively. It’s also not helpful that words like “natural,” “non-toxic,” or even “organic” outside the context of food, have very little meaning.

And then there’s the debate in the comments of that recent post on the Sofa Saga, in which an eco-textiles expert takes issue, rightly in many ways, with the green claims being made about some of the furniture. Her concern is for sustainability and to reduce overall pollution of the environment from textiles, as far as I can tell. Yet I began my sofa quest from the simpler place of merely trying to get toxics out of my house (a task which turned out not to be at all simple, sadly).

So there’s a definitional problem that flows both ways. But this is not an unimportant distinction. If we want consumers to care about the impact of their choices on either their own health or the environment, we could start by clarifying our terms.

While sometimes the benefits might be related, the motivations in these two areas are not the same, from a practical or psychological perspective. My desire to protect my child from toxics, at least for me, comes from a place where I’m basically kinda’ offended that some company wants to poison her. I just want to get that possibility to zero, and I’ll do a lot to make that happen.  (Including ordering healthier products shipped in individual boxes to my house, carbon miles, packaging and all. No one talks about these trade-offs!)

On the other hand, while I do feel deeply committed to whatever I can do to improve the health of the planet, on that scale, I’m also part of systems that do a lot of harm all the time, including everything from the electricity production that lights my house using coal-fired power plants, to, more directly, when I put gas in my car. Motivating real and significant change on these behaviors is far harder, in many cases anyway, and is more about my sense of wanting to do right by the earth than the highly personal health concerns that affect my direct actions in the first category.

Of course, the planet does provide a handy feedback loop, in that the stuff we use ends up in the environment eventually. But I would submit that this kind of secondary effect is merely a nice outcome – the icing on my organic cake – for choosing healthier products. It is a weak force when compared to the incentive provided by health or safety issues that far more directly impact what’s in my family’s life.

In either case, eco-products mostly come at a premium, and “greener” items tend to be green in a number of ways, all of which raise the price. If I’m paying more for better health for my family, I’d like to know that. Similarly, if I’m paying more as an investment in a cleaner environment for all of us, including my family, I’d like to know that too. Having a transparent range of options and a sense of their impact would make a big difference.

Because these triggers for change are so different, and imply very different behaviors and tolerance of costs, in my view, the consistent confusion in messages we receive on what “green” means –  i.e.,, whether it should be judged on grounds of environmental health or environmental sustainability, or a mix of both – actually demotivates change by potentially willing consumers, and obfuscates choices on price and other trade-offs.

It also creates a space where consumers are told they are helping to solve a problem by going “green” in shopping for an item with some improvement in features, without the full set of possible choices on either health or environmental grounds – choices the company has made – being clear.

Questions like – How green (or non-toxic) is it? In what ways? And how green (or non-toxic) could it be? – are rarely answered with any honesty. (For some recent evidence on this, see organic tomato company Muir Glen’s weasel-y response on Facebook, banished from their front page, when I asked about the new BPA-free materials in their can linings.)

When we later learn what was missing from the full picture, it can create cynicism, and the sense that, whatever we’re told, it’s not enough to make a truly informed decision. With so many choices to make in a day, and so little time to make them, most folks just make a call and move on. What else could they do, really?

The result is that the motivators on health are lumped in with vaguer concerns, and toxics continue being distributed, even through “eco” products. Savvy consumers have to become even savvier label-scanners, and the few hyper-researched worrywarts like me who do weed out stuff on health grounds, as we can, must peer through a thick haze of greenish claims to figure out what’s likely to be toxic or not, and better for the planet or not.

At a minimum, this is deeply annoying. But at worst, we’re blowing a chance to bring matters home that could be much more of a driver for consumer decisions. We could start to address this by putting companies – especially ones making claims to do better – through a much more exacting set of questions about what’s in stuff and why.

So, please join me in my persnickety questions and letters, and let me know what you find out. And what you can’t seem to get a straight answer about, even when you ask a highly specific question. I’ll post it all – the pursuit, the brush-offs and obfuscations, and the thrill of the chase. Or at least the exchange of impertinent questions and dodges.

If we could start holding companies far more accountable for their bogus “green” claims, and sorting out the ones who are willing to be accountable from those that clearly don’t want to be on health matters, that would be a decent start on addressing a few aspects of this problem. “Green” claims, at a minimum, should not shield companies from closer inquiries on the safety of their contents. (And if you’d prefer to work the reverse angle — figuring out sustainability issues for companies making health claims, that would be interesting too.)

Even if nothing else, please help me get real answers from Muir Glen, before they get away with covering over the information we deserve on BPA substitutes with a gloppy dollop of organic tomato sauce.

Tomato Twins

Tomato Twins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)