Door County, Wisconsin

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Climate Corner: Peninsula Pulse


Earth Care – A Moral Imperative

By Dick Smythe and Gwynne Shultz

On Sept. 16, an event titled “Earth Care: A Moral Imperative,” was sponsored by 12 Door County churches, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and the Climate Change Coalition of Door County. It took place at the Calvary United Methodist Church in Egg Harbor. The event featured two speakers, Steve Coleman and Deborah Schneider, break-out discussion groups, a lunch provided by Main Street Market, and a wrap-up encouraging continuing awareness and supporting activities.

People from many different faith communities attended this six-hour forum. They engaged in a lively discussion of our moral responsibility to our planet and future generations. The experience was uplifting and filled with hope and good will.

The premise of the Sept. 16 event was the need for ethical values, moral guidance, and principled reasons for doing the right thing for the future of our planet, its animals, its plants and its people. There are good reasons, powerful reasons, for people of all religions or worldviews to respond to the imperatives of climate change, to take themselves seriously as moral agents, to reclaim the right to live the lives they believe in as people of integrity – conscientious, compassionate, joyous, and just.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, however, that information alone is not enough. What is needed is to grasp the moral imperative:  the conviction that assuring our own comfort at a terrible cost to the future is not worthy of us as human beings.

Dealing with climate change presents economic and technological challenges, but those challenges also hold the promise of great opportunities in our transition to a low carbon economy that harnesses the power of the sun, the wind, our tides and so much more.

Fundamentally, we are called to prevent the enormous harm climate change is likely to cause, particularly for poor people and less developed nations. The price of the lifestyles we lead is being, and will continue to be, paid by millions of others through drought, famine and water shortages. We cannot hide from the fact that less fortunate people may lose their livelihoods and even their lives. We are all called by our different faiths to prevent the suffering of innocent people, especially of hungry children.

Leading environmental scientists predict that as many as 185 million Africans will die this century as the direct result of climate change. The reality is that it is countries and peoples the least responsible for causing climate change are paying, and will continue to pay, the heaviest price – the cost of our waste and huge fossil fuel consumption.

The average U.K. citizen consumes resources that result in nearly 50 times as much carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere as any citizen in the developing world. In the United States our per capita emission of carbon dioxide is much higher than in the U.K. The consequences of this disparity are rank injustice.

Even if we reject any sense of moral imperative, we must acknowledge that we do not exist apart from our environment. We cannot live without green plants. We cannot live without clean water, clean air and fertile topsoil. We and the rest of humanity are utterly dependent on a healthy planet Earth.

As the Pentagon has recognized repeatedly, chronic food and water shortages are likely to grow substantially due to climate change – threatening our national security and economy. To be blunt, our self-interest coincides with the moral imperative that should drive our response.

What, then, is the bottom line to this discussion? It’s really quite simple.

  1. An overwhelming number of scientists agree that if we do not act soon and decisively, human-caused environmental changes will bring serious harm to most forms of life, including human life.
  2. We have a moral obligation to leave the world as rich in life and possibility as the world we inherited.
  3. Therefore, we must act and act now. How? By each one of us, to the best of our ability, living a life that is consistent with our moral obligations and values. That means a life focused on the principles of sustainability – conserve energy in our homes and businesses, recycle and cut waste, and evaluate our decisions based on the impacts on others, now and in the future.

Most importantly, we must demand that our political leaders stop hiding and denying, and stand up and lead.

The Sept. 16 event provided both challenges and hope. We can make a difference. Many people already have and are continuing to do so. Will you help?

 

Gwynne Schultz lives in Sister Bay. She is a retired UCC pastor with a deep concern about the world we are leaving for our grandchildren. She is on the steering committee of the Climate Change Coalition of Door County and is actively involved in trying to increase awareness of the perils of global warming. Since moving to Door County full time in 2006, she has taught several classes at The Clearing, as well as classes in various churches.

 

Dick Smythe and his wife Mary live in Sister Bay and are also on the Climate Change Coalition steering committee. Dr. Smythe spent his professional career with the U. S. Forest Service, first as a research scientist, then in a series of administrative positions. His final position was Director of Wildlife, Fish, Water, Soils, and Atmospheric Science (acid rain and climate change) Research for the Forest Service in Washington, D. C.

Smythe and Schultz planned and organized the Sept. 16 event, with the help of many others.


Knowns and Unknowns of Climate Change

By Dr. Stephen Vavrus

Widespread flooding. Rising sea levels. Another global temperature record. We are awash in news of extreme weather and climate change, but the topic of climate change has become a political football. The unfortunate result is a perception of greater uncertainty than actually exists.

We would like a simple answer to the simple question, “Is the science settled?”

Here I suggest a more nuanced query: What do we know, what do we think we know, and what don’t we know?

What we know:

  • Earth’s climate is changing. The warming trend is more than a century old and unmistakable. Even if one questions older temperature measurements, there are many other indicators of a warming climate. They include increasing ocean sea levels, less snow and ice cover, and earlier flowering of plants.
  • Humans have altered the composition of the atmosphere. Ancient air bubbles trapped in polar ice caps dating back hundreds of thousands of years demonstrate that current concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are well outside natural bounds. Present high concentrations of COprobably last occurred a few million years ago.
  • Extreme weather has become more common. Although hurricanes, droughts and heat waves have occurred throughout history, reliable data show weather extremes have become much more widespread and frequent. In the past two decades, extreme weather events in the U. S. have exceeded historical bounds established over the past hundred years.

What we think we know:

  • Humans are mostly responsible for recent climate changes. Scientists have searched in vain for explanations besides carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels to explain the recent warming trend. We’ve looked into sunspots, aerosols, land-use changes, and astronomical factors, but the only way we can account for the long-term warming trend is greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.
  • Warmer and wetter in Wisconsin. Climate projections are an inexact science, but state-of-the-art computer models clearly depict a warmer and wetter future for our state. We can expect warmer conditions in every season and wetter weather during winter and spring. Fortunately, the buffering influence of Lake Michigan should help temper the rise in summertime heat across Door County.
  • More extreme rainfall. Because warm air can hold more moisture than cold air, we expect a pronounced increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfalls. A recent local example occurred in Door County just three years ago, when a storm system dumped five to seven inches of rain in Northern Door.

What we don’t know:

  • Will future climate change be gradual or abrupt? Computer models are considered reliable in revealing how different our climate is likely to eventually become, but they aren’t able to predict the precise trajectory of how we will get there. Think of it like the seasonal transitions that take place each year. We know the weather will warm up from winter to spring, but no one knows in January if the upcoming shift will be slow and steady, a sudden jump, or alternating periods of cold and heat.
  • Will summers become wetter or drier? While climate models agree that future Wisconsin winters and springs will be wetter, there is no consensus about summer rainfall due to the difficulty of predicting the scattered thunderstorms that typify our summers.
  • Will Great Lakes water levels rise or fall? One might expect that a warmer climate with less ice cover will cause more evaporation and lower lake levels. Or instead, that wetter winters and springs will raise lake levels. These alternatives also make climatologists uncertain about future shorelines in Door County, in contrast to the nearly certain rise in ocean levels globally.

So, how should society proceed amid this mix of knowns and unknowns?

This critical question falls outside of science, but as a citizen I know we need to act and I am hopeful we will do so promptly and prudently.

First, renewable energy has surged during the past decade because of huge declines in the cost of wind and solar power. This trend should continue, due to both economics and customer demand. Second, support for economic incentives to transition away from fossil fuels is increasing. California recently extended its cap-and-trade emissions program, and interest is growing among businesses and in Congress for market-based solutions spurred by a carbon fee. Finally, technological advances such as new extraction technology, increasingly popular electric/hybrid cars, and stronger energy efficiency measures have helped to lower America’s net carbon emissions in recent years.

Even greater “game changers” in the future, such as new storage technologies and tidal electric generation, may help to put the brakes on climate change.

Dr. Vavrus is a senior scientist in the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He uses computer climate models to understand how climate is changing across the Earth, including the Great Lakes region. Dr. Vavrus is an active member of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) and was an invited speaker at last year’s United Nations Conference of the Parties Climate Change Summit in Morocco.


Taking Action on Climate Change is Good for Business

Peninsula Pulse, July 21st

By: Roy Thilly

While some may assume that businesses will shy away from taking a position on climate change for fear of offending customers, that has not been the Climate Change Coalition of Door County’s experience. On June 30, the Pulse printed a half-page advertisement thanking the 124 Door County businesses that have signed the CERES Climate Change Declaration, recognizing that climate change is real, driven primarily by burning fossil fuels and that action needs to be taken. Of all the businesses approached, only six have declined to sign.

The Declaration signatories include two of the 10 largest employers in the county and many small- and medium-sized businesses. More are likely to join over the next year. If you don’t see the name of a business you are fond of on the Declaration page of the Climate Change Coalition’s webpage at climatechangedoorcounty.com/climate-declaration, please ask that business to sign on.

The Door County Climate Change Declaration signers are part of a much larger movement by highly successful businesses across Wisconsin and the U.S. that respect climate science and understand that prudence, risk management and stewardship require action.

In Wisconsin:

Kohler Company has adopted a goal of “Net Zero by 2035” which includes sending no solid waste to landfills, reducing or offsetting 100 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reducing water usage.

MillerCoors assesses the carbon footprint of its entire value chain, including GHG emissions from its breweries, as well as emissions from upstream activities such as growing barley and hops, malting and sugar processing, and downstream activities such as the manufacturing of packaging, distribution to retailers, and recycling or disposal of empty bottles and cans at end of life. The company has reduced GHG emissions by 22 percent since 2010 and has a 2020 goal to reduce its value chain carbon footprint per barrel of beer by 25 percent compared to 2010.

Gundersen Health Systems in western Wisconsin became the first major healthcare provider in the country to offset 100 percent of its fossil fuel use with locally produced renewable energy and conservation measures.

SC Johnson Corporation in 2013 received a Climate Leadership Award for Aggressive Goal Setting from the EPA and in 2016 was one of only seven organizations nationwide to receive an Excellence in Green Power Use Award. Through 2015, SC Johnson had cut greenhouse gas emissions for its global manufacturing sites 51.7 percent versus 2000 (indexed to production).

Menasha Corporation’s goal is to achieve a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions, water consumption and waste by 2020.

SCA (Tissue) at year-end 2016 had reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 18.4 percent from 2005. Going further, SCA has committed to setting a science-based target in 2017 for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in its hygiene operations. Reduction targets are considered science-based if they are in line with what is needed in order to keep the global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, as agreed by world leaders at the UN climate change conference (COP 21) in Paris in 2015.

And there are many more, including Weyerhaeuser, Madison Gas and Electric, Johnson Controls, Xcel Energy (NSP), American Family, CUNA Mutual, Organic Valley Coop, Kimberly-Clark, Proctor and Gamble, Quad/Graphics.

There is a reason that Wisconsin’s and our nation’s most successful companies are publicly committed to dramatically reducing their carbon footprints and moving toward using 100 percent renewable energy in their operations. Nationally, climate leaders include Walmart, Google, Bank of America, Coca Cola, Best Buy, Allstate, Walt Disney, and Mars. Many others are also tracking and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and moving to clean energy sources. A short list includes Goldman Sachs, Colgate, General Mills, Kellogg, UPS, Lockheed Martin, Levi Strauss, CVS Health, Wells Fargo and Nike.

The websites of these companies show that none are shy about supporting the need for climate change action. They are science-based and it’s good for business. Using less energy and water, relying long term on energy sources with no fuel costs, and reducing waste saves a lot of money. A clear commitment to a clean and healthy environment is what customers want and is critical to attracting a talented workforce for the coming decades.

At some point, our state and federal government leaders will catch up with our business leaders and figure out that prudence in the face of scientific consensus, economics and stewardship, all demand a transition to a clean energy and natural resource conservation economy. What needs to be done will improve, not harm, quality of life.


Disciplined Disregard for Conventional Wisdom

Peninsula Pulse, July 20th

By: Jeff Thompson, MD

You could argue that all we need to solve our impending climate catastrophe is a great deal of courage and the foresight to think long-term. Many global climate change skeptics who are in positions of power and influence lack the courage to admit that their stands are on thin ice.

Governments, businesses, and individuals have long relied on short-term plans and short-term thinking for the sake of getting elected, making a profit, or making a living, but in doing so, they do not prepare for their own futures, let alone their grandchildren’s.

I would suggest that in addition to courage and long-term thinking, we need a third component to really move forward. What we need is a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom. I don’t mean to suggest that we throw out all the great truths of the past. Surely over the ages, science and our grandmothers have accumulated great wisdom. However, there is much in the public dialogue and social media that cannot be considered wisdom. Commonly repeated “truths” are not wisdom. With a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom, Gundersen Health System set out to lower the cost of health care, improve our local economy, and reduce our negative impact on our environment.

Conventional wisdom said you had to choose between the environment and your bottom line, or between the environment and your local economy. We did not believe that either current science or the creativity of the workers at Gundersen would be held to such a limiting worldview, so we pressed on.

Conventional wisdom said that no governing board would allow us to move down such a path.

Why would a health care organization consider focusing on energy conservation in the face of other such pressing “real” health issues?

We eventually convinced the majority of the board members to support the concept that sustainability and the environment are real health issues. We convinced them that pollution causes illnesses that we’re trying to treat, such as cancer, asthma, and chronic lung disease, and that our waste pollutes our water and our soil. To ignore the environmental burden of the waste we created would have been irresponsible and contrary to our mission.

Conventional wisdom said that health care’s only mission should be to take care of sick people. To disregard that piece of wisdom was a big leap, and our board took that leap long before it became popular for health care organizations to focus on population health.

They also ignored the financial advice that said you should put your savings only in some distant treasury bills, stocks, or bonds. They agreed that local investing could be disciplined and sound.

And they ignored the pressure to make finances look perfect every month or every quarter. They believed that investing in the region could have both long-term health and financial benefits.

This is not to imply that everyone completely believed, but enough believed that we could get started. Even our skeptical chief financial officer had to be convinced that this was a strong investment.

When it comes to energy, conservation should be our first fuel – especially in Wisconsin, where we import $15 billion in fossil fuels each year. With our first $2 million investment we saved $1.2 million every year thereafter. In the course of eight years, we have decreased the energy requirement per square foot in the organization by 57 percent.

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that it is impossible for any one of us to make a major difference in the enormous amount of energy consumed in this country. But what if Gundersen’s efforts were replicated? What if each hospital and clinic in this country exercised a disciplined disregard for the conventional wisdom and decreased its energy use by 57 percent? The nation’s overall energy use would decline by three to four percent.

If health care were then joined by businesses and schools, pretty soon you would have a market-changing event. Add in residential housing and apartment buildings, and we’re changing how many pipelines will be built, how many transmission lines will be erected, and how many power plants will be put online. The keys are the power of economics and the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom.

To drive our vision forward, in 2008 we set an outlandish goal: By 2014, we would be completely heated, powered and cooled by renewables that we own so that we can decrease the cost of health care as well as markedly decrease our environmental footprint. This goal required that we further challenge the conventional wisdom by finding partners willing to work on alternative sources of energy – wind, dairy biogas, landfill gas, geothermal fields, and biomass (details of this work can be found at gundersenenvision.org/envision).

Our approach was to get an environmental return as well as a competitive financial return. Conservation was easily the most lucrative of our energy initiatives, but the biomass boiler, geothermal field, and dairy biogas sites all generated positive cash flows. In aggregate, we showed that from 2008 to 2014 our routine investments in cash, treasury bills, bonds, and stocks had a five to six percent return, but our investment in energy infrastructure had a 10 to 12 percent return.

It is important to mention that we didn’t just say this is what we’re going to do and hope it would work out. Rather, we exercised a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom:  We adopted a strong, thoughtful, measured approach. When we had failures, as we did, we recalculated, re-organized, and drove toward continuously improved higher performance.

You cannot accomplish goals such as these by thinking only of the next month or the next quarter. You have to think long-term, as I outlined in a recent post on Forbes.com. I used the United States backing out of the climate accord as a prime example of short-term thinking.

You must have the courage to take a stand, long-term thinking to develop a plan, and a disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom to achieve the outcomes I describe.

Our results are no accident. With considered intention, we aimed for and met targets that produced our strong financial performance and decreased our particulate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent. Instead of coal from Wyoming to make electricity and natural gas from Texas for heat, we were heating and powering our organization with renewable sources that improved our local economy, saved money for the organization, and markedly improved our environmental footprint.

A disciplined disregard for conventional wisdom supported by courage and long-term thinking has helped us inspire others and has given rise to new wisdom: We can take care of our communities and the environment at the same time.


How Can We Effectively Communicate About Climate Change?

Peninsula Pulse, June 16th

By: Dr. Sharon Dunwoody

My years as a science journalist taught me to value evidence. When I became a social scientist, I continued to assume that evidence had real power. Learning about a warming climate should prompt individuals to “buy” into the problem and do something about it.

Boy, was I wrong. Understanding a problem is an important first step, but facts often fail to inspire behavior change. I learned that when information collides with a person’s beliefs, that collision is more likely to strengthen those beliefs than to modify them. This led me to study ways to influence strong believers, and I offer a few suggestions here.

Beliefs become very hard to change when they become politicized. Unfortunately, the science of climate change has been trapped in our highly partisan politics, solidifying the positions of those who are unwilling to accept the science as part of their belief system. This has created a political standoff over whether the problem exists, despite the fact that scientists are in almost unanimous agreement that the planet is warming as a result of burning fossil fuels.

If simply educating people about a warming climate won’t change minds and behaviors, what will?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Listen and acknowledge the plausibility of other beliefs. While many climate change skeptics know little about the issue, a number know a great deal. Studies of knowledge about contentious topics routinely find the most knowledgeable folks sitting at the “for” and “against” ends of the belief continuum. So take time to listen to doubters and, importantly, to acknowledge the plausibility of the reasons they offer. Plausible reasons are not necessarily “true,” and you may then have a chance to make that point in a shared, deliberative conversation. For instance, the polar vortex that created a frigid Midwest a few years ago may be cited to prove the planet is not warming, but all other parts of the globe experienced a warmer-than-average winter when we didn’t. Despite our experience in Wisconsin, the data are irrefutable: temperatures on a global basis were significantly higher than average, and have been year after year.
  • Emphasize links between a warming climate and personal experiences. When it comes to risks, we are likely to act when we become worried about our own likelihood of coming to harm. Climate change is no different. Although many fail to see a link between climate change and their personal lives, such connections are plentiful and can serve as conversational starting points. Increasingly serious and frequent storms, heat waves, drought, increases in disease-transmitting pests such as ticks, all are associated with climate shifts. It is no mystery that the strongest advocates in the Republican Party for climate action are from Florida, where the ocean is rising due in part to glacial melt.
  • Model the beliefs and behaviors you would like to spread. We are social animals who continuously monitor the attitudes and behaviors of others to assess appropriate next steps. If those we observe accept the validity of climate change, express concern about its consequences, and act to limit their own impact, we may follow suit. This “social norms” approach takes an odd path, relying on first changing peoples’ behavior, which then can change their attitudes and beliefs. If I engage in a behavior often enough (say, following my neighbors’ lead by leaving my fall leaves piled on my lawn rather than raking them into the street where they can be carried into the storm sewer and harm our lake), there is a good chance that I eventually will come to believe that I am doing this because I care about the health of the watershed, not because I feel pressured by my neighbors.
  • Finally, don’t forget to commune with the converted. While most Americans believe that climate change is real, this fact does not lead them to believe it is a serious concern. In a Gallup poll earlier this spring, 68 percent of Americans indicated that they believe that “global warming is caused by human activities” while only 42 percent believe that “global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime.” This means that even sympathetic neighbors may feel little need to change their behavior in the face of this distant, amorphous risk. The strategies for communicating with skeptics will work even more dramatically with those whose beliefs are already aligned with yours. Moving this large cohort of Americans to action may be one of the most important things we can do. We need to make the consequences of warming real for our neighbors, and in our own lives, we need to model behaviors that will reduce the carbon emissions that are driving our warming climate.
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