For decades, denial has been a river running through Washington, Albany, Buffalo and probably through your house. Harris polls conducted between 2007 and last year indicate Americans' belief in climate change has dropped from 71 percent to 44 percent.
Today, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and an election campaign that ignored climate change, we face an onrushing economic, cultural and environmental reality that will shape our future. If, for whatever reason, you don't want to call it climate change, then call it something else. Call it a "situation," because whatever you call it, we have a situation.
The question is: Are we in a position in Western New York to address and mitigate the potential consequences of climate change? Do we have a sustainable future? The answer is: Maybe.
During his election victory speech, President Obama said, "We don't want our children to live in an America … that is threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."
It's about time. Now he and other policymakers, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, are raising climate issues, understanding that if we do not, we face a precipitous decline in our future opportunities. This includes the potential for disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which made many of our friends and families refugees – without shelter, food, power, heat and water. Imagine the consequences of a storm-caused, prolonged, deep winter power outage in Western New York.
Since the Clinton White House sent Dr. Peter Sousounis here in 2000 to release the initial Regional Climate Assessment (Great Lakes), we have witnessed escalating global and regional change, including warmer winters and extreme weather events.
Sousounis said at that 2000 event held in the Statler, "We can predict increasing average temperatures, changing lake levels and extremes in weather conditions in the coming decades."
Last spring, NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies Director Dr. James Hansen, initially a climate skeptic, declared: "Now we can go beyond global and regional predictions because we have actual evidence that climate change has arrived, and is worse than we thought it would be."
This is all eye-opening.
What our region does in the coming months and years regarding climate change will help to characterize the future of our community. This is a collective responsibility. We have to educate ourselves and invest in personal, neighborhood and regional strategies that address our future. It must be a wide-ranging discussion that affects virtually every aspect of our lives. This will determine our ability to survive as a species. It is about you and me. We can make a difference.
There is a lot going on locally, and more is on the way. A primary strategy to dealing with climate change is to address renewable energy issues. Programs such as FIT (Feed In Tariff) help to incentivize renewable energy by guaranteeing markets and values to investors and making renewables competitive in the energy market. This is important. It is a no-brainer given our current political economy of consumerism and growth. But is it enough?
Sustainability rests on three pillars – culture, economics and environment – and understanding relationships between these three pillars with one caveat: The environment is the bottom line. Without a substantial environmental context, the others could not exist.
In the free market, where profit is the objective, the environment is considered to be an "externality." This means that the costs to the environment of economic development – including polluted water, air, food, soil, climate impacts and the very real costs of human health – are born by society and not the entities engaged in profit-taking. This socialized offloading of responsibilities and real costs is a fatal flaw of the free market and makes "sustainable development" an oxymoron. Climate change may be the biggest failure of free markets.
David Suzuki, an outspoken Canadian environmental activist, resigned from his own organization recently because of economic threats by big donors. He calls our economic system "brain cancer."
Naomi Klein, author of "The Shock Doctrine," said this system empowers what she calls "disaster capitalists" – those who make money by deliberately creating or taking advantage of economic shocks and then exploiting a distracted citizenry. She would argue that disaster capitalism took full advantage of Western New York after the surprise October snowstorm of 2006. Shocks include environmental crises and destabilizing events such as the austerity budgets now sweeping parts of the European Union.
We need to treat climate change as an "emergency situation," Klein said. "That means pulling out all the stops."
She said that many well-meaning environmental organizations are as much a part of the problem as part of the solution. Because of their own economic pressures, many enviro groups have promoted business-friendly solutions. If they rock the boat much, like Suzuki, they are threatened with defunding. Klein said that while important, simply changing light bulbs to be more energy efficient, planting trees or advocating investment schemes to make energy more renewable while ignoring the climate change elephant in the room – consumerism and growth – is not enough.
Klein said that most enviro-groups enable the economic and policymaker hands that feed them by addressing strategies that everyone in that bubble considers "winnable" and not strategies that push the envelope and demand solutions to the emergency that confronts our planet. Emergency declared. Now what can we do?
>Support local business
Many activists point to local economies as a way toward a more sustainable future. Large corporations treat communities like Buffalo as an extractable profit center. They invest relatively little, and take a lot. When they are finished, they leave behind abandoned buildings and neighborhoods, a looted environment and forgotten people.
Sarah Bishop, executive director of Buffalo First, which is laying the groundwork for a local economy, said, "A local economy is about local dollars staying local, and local businesses being more responsible, responsive and engaged about local issues, including local culture and environment."
"Choosing a locally owned store generates almost four times as much economic benefit for the surrounding region as compared to shopping at a chain," she said. "This is a hopeful statistic in a city and region that has seen significant divestment over the past quarter century.
Bishop recently co-sponsored a visit to Buffalo by Chicago activist Naomi Davis, founder of "Blacks in Green." Davis, whose focus is on livable and walkable self-sufficient neighborhoods, told us that a "city is comprised of many villages." Each village can create local jobs, benefit and investment, and support individuals and families. Can we do this in Buffalo?
The ecological services of habitat, including clean air and water, are fundamental to life and have a great impact on wealth. The atmosphere evolved as a part of a biodiverse system. Biodiversity helps to regulate atmospheric gasses, including greenhouse gasses, by absorbing and storing carbon. Protection of our remaining habitats – oceans, forests and freshwater ecosystems – is fundamental to addressing climate change.
Externalizing the environment in the name of economic development encourages the destruction of biodiversity. This destruction has both cause and effect. Science is pointing to an ongoing current extinction episode, described as the sixth great extinction, with climate change as an accelerant.
>Protect Great Lakes
One of earth's greatest natural resources is the Sweetwater seas known as the Great Lakes. Each year, more than 20 billion gallons of raw sewage are dumped into the Great Lakes, which contain one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water. This causes biodiversity loss and subjects humans to disease and the ravages of climate change. Western New York is responsible for between 2 billion and 4 billion gallons of raw sewage released each year.
Jill Jedlicka Spisiak, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, is working with the Buffalo Sewer Authority on a green infrastructure plan that, if fully financed, could reduce the release of raw sewage significantly.
"A major investment in sewer infrastructure is needed," she said. The cost of the project is estimated to be $500 million over 19 years. It is imperative that we find money to address this problem.
There is a new approach to land use modeling that is beginning to emerge in Western New York. The model would begin to evaluate land use from an ecological services perspective, rather than the traditional land use models that characterize land as an economic commodity, such as agricultural, mining, etc. This new model would help to quantify the real values and costs of land, and would help to inform zoning and tax practices that currently "externalize" environment.
These are just a few examples of solutions that are emerging locally. Finding a comprehensive strategy, including some of these projects, can make a big difference and help to create a sustainable future for all of us.
This situation is an emergency. If we don't treat it as one, and if we don't seize the reins, we can expect a future predicated on a globalized disaster economy that will turn our region into a Third World nation instead of the sustainability leader that we can become.
Jay Burney, a naturalist, writer and conservation activist, founded the Learning Sustainability Campaign and is chairman of Friends of Times Beach Nature Preserve.