This post introduces what will be a weekly check-in on climate and sustainability news and trends highlighting observations of journalists, scholars and doers with a variety of perspectives. I'll draw from those I've come to value in my decades on the beat - and those you identify, as well.
These posts will mostly come on Mondays, but as is obvious here, not always.
I've stressed from the beginning of this Sustain What dispatch and in my Columbia Climate School webcasts that reality most often emerges in the space around tough, consequential issues - not in any single view (including my own; consider me a cross check on others' bullet points and proclamations).
My eagerness to track a range of views grows in part from lessons I learned many decades ago during an unlikely journey crossing several oceans and seas on a very unusual sailboat called, yes, Wanderlust.
The voyage took place in 1979 and 1980, well before the miracle of GPS (the global-positioning system in your pocket) so we used celestial navigation to get the best possible fix on our location, especially approaching dangerous coasts.
Here are a few "lines of position" on the issues of the day, most of which are from Twitter (which I still see as invaluable despite the dark side):
James Temple, senior editor for energy at Technology Review, via Twitter: "I've read two stories in recent days that suggested time's running too tight to take bold bets on climate tech – that we have to focus all our investments on things we know will work. And that's just fundamentally wrong, wrongheaded – & a terrible way for humans to ever think."
One big reason: Addressing climate change requires simultaneous work spreading and advancing established technologies while pushing as hard as possible to devise, test and spread new technologies and policy innovations required for the much deeper emission reductions or withdrawal that will be needed in coming decades (decades when humanity's population heads toward 9 billion and energy needs continue to expand).
Leah Stokes, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made several important points in testimony before the Joint Congressional Economic Committee hearing “Examining the Economic Benefits of Electrifying America’s Homes and Buildings." Her overarching call: "This is a pivotal moment in history. The world is watching. Either Congress will pass a bold climate investment package this fall or we will lose the last best opportunity we have and wait another decade. We don't have any more decades left to waste to act on the climate crisis."
Donnel Baird, the founder and CEO of BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based energy retrofitting company, followed right behind Stokes, starting his compelling testimony with childhood memories of a noxious heat source that inspired his career path: "I grew up in a Brooklyn apartment building that did not have a working heating system. Like many of our neighbors..., mostly immigrant families, we heated our apartment with a gas oven and so every night we would turn on the gas burner, open up the oven door and that was kind of how we heated everything.... We knew that the oven produced carbon monoxide and other toxins and and was not safe so we opened up all the windows every night to clear the air. You don't need to be the an engineer or the CEO of a clean-tech startup to know that releasing toxic gases into your family's bedrooms is bad for public health and that leaving windows open to mitigate the impact is is a waste of resources."
As Stokes said, this is indeed a vital moment for the Biden administration agenda on climate and energy, much of which hinges in enormous investments aimed at clean-energy deployment and resilience investments built into the $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill. Track the shifting debate and strategies via Twitter here.
There are a million buildings just within the five boroughs of New York City, most of them many decades old, and without a surge of investment and fresh policies, most will remain antiquated sources of energy waste and carbon dioxide emissions for decades to come. Baird's testimony is queued up here:
Personal note: We've been cutting oil use in our 1860's-era home in the Hudson River Valley through insulation and other steps, but have a long way to go in our own transition given the steam heating system that, like a few million such homes around the Northeast, can't be converted to, say, a heat pump. I'll be writing here about our energy journey, just as I wrote about the work we did on our previous house - where I uncovered a snakeskin in a gap where insulation should have been.
Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, author and chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, tweeted this quote: "We spent a long time thinking we were engaged in an argument about data and reason," @billmckibben says about the climate movement over the last three decades. "But now we realize it's a fight over money and power."
Alexandria Villaseñor, the 16-year-old climate campaigner and co-founder of Earth Uprising, retweeted Hayhoe, adding this generational angle: “I think this is another way generations are different. We always knew it was about money and power. Why? Because we were raised in this hypercapitalist culture—where almost EVERYTHING is about money and power.”
Christopher Flavelle, climate adaptation reporter for The New York Times, from Twitter: "FEMA is about to start charging people the true cost of their flood risk, partly to warn them about the dangers they face as climate change gets worse. The shift could reshape coastal real estate markets — unless Congress manages to kill it."
Flavelle here is covering a long-overdue step by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to save the federal flood insurance program by setting rates (finally!) based on actual risk and trends in specific places, with rates in many parts of the country set to fall even as those on increasingly vulnerable coasts rise sharply. Explore the Risk Rating 2.0 website here. More importantly, click here to check where premiums are poised to rise or fall at a searchable site developed by the Association of State Floodplain Managers and The Pew Charitable Trusts and in another searchable by zip code here.
The problem is that bipartisan opposition is quickly building, as happened almost a decade ago when Congress passed flood-insurance reform then rolled it back. As I tweeted, "One sure way to get bipartisan action (*against* something climate-related~) is for FEMA to make flood insurance rates rational and data-based."
What trusted guides do you follow, and where?
What conversations turned you in a fresh direction?
How do you avoid just listening to those who already share your view?
Please comment below.
As a bonus, here's a bit more context from my time at sea.
I serendipitously joined the crew of the 55-foot cutter Wanderlust in 1978 in New Zealand. I was in the South Pacific on a post-college research fellowship and couldn't resist the "Crew Wanted" sign on Marsden Wharf in Auckland. We sailed across the stormy Tasman Sea, up Australia's Great Barrier Reef, through Indonesia and across the Indian Ocean, then up the Red Sea and through the Mediterranean before I disembarked 17 months and 15,000 miles later, in what was then Yugoslavia, to head home and pursue a career in journalism.
The boat had a commercially-produced hull of ferrocement (cement smeared on a meshwork of steel bar and wire) but had been fitted out by enthusiastic amateurs (the mast was a repurposed highway light pole). It was an eternal work in progress and had luckily ended up with the perfect hired skipper, Lon Bubeck.
Lon's adaptive capacity and ability to avoid freaking out were astounding, and essential back then and a great model for for all of us now.
Earlier in life, he had been a repair-anything hippy in Santa Cruz, California. He was almost surreally unflappable facing all manner of crises, from fixing a porthole that imploded in a Tasman gale on our first crossing to repairing and relaunching the fractured boat after I ran us aground in a midnight gale in Greece 15,000 miles later. My penance included jack-hammering out the crumbled parts of the hull before a Greek mason applied new cement.
In this fast-forward life, I try as hard as I can to emulate Lon Bubeck's attributes. I usually falter, but I do try.
In 1984, between magazine jobs, I rejoined Lon to deliver an oil-rig diver's sailboat from Dubai in the Persian Gulf to the Republic of Maldives. Yes, we had to sail out through the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war.
The close brush with a waterspout in the banner photo at the top of this post came near the north end of the atoll nation of Maldives, best known now for its vulnerability to sea-level rise.
Now we are all navigating a turbulent and dangerous global climate and, at the same time, a shape-shifting, dangerous and often-chaotic information environment.
At sea, using lines of position from bright stars can be the difference between life and death.
In today's tough debates, finding common ground amid a meshwork of positions is similarly consequential.
Sometimes, on the ocean or in the sea of debate, you'll need other skills of course. A sextant is useless facing long stretches of cloudy days. Direct observation is required.
In situations like that on the Wanderlust, I climbed the light-pole mast to sit for hours in the spreaders, watching for any physical clues of a shore ahead, trying to draw on wayfaring methods refined by Polynesian explorers - including spotting the green glow on the underside of cumulus clouds that could indicate the presence of shallow waters beneath.
I spotted that glow hundreds of miles west of the northernmost tip of Australia and we were able to safely visit, instead of run aground on, the low glowing shoals and reefs of Ashmore Reef.
We didn't linger long because, within moments of jumping in we realized that this atoll, with barely a sand bank exposed, was an aggregating spot for venomous sea snakes.
As a recent expedition by the Schmidt Ocean Institute found, the snakes there appear to be hanging on despite a mysterious decline observed a decade ago.
Let's work together to spot reefs, share wonders and identify safe passages.
Thanks for reading.
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