Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Climate Change Endangers Our Cultural Resources - Another Social Cost of Carbon

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a report on the dangers that climate change pose to our cultural resources. The report is summarized here - History Under Water: Climate Change Imperils Historic, Cultural Sites. It's another example of the social cost of carbon (SCC). We could put some dollar estimates on this, from the lost National Park jobs and local economic dollars that flow from visitors (Mesa Verda had over a half million visitors in 2011) to the money required to repair, relocate and/or protect existing sites. But there’s another impact that’s much more difficult to assign a dollar value to. These sites help define, display and educate regarding our local, regional and collective national identities. Through the stories, landscapes and artifacts associated with these sites they help us remember where we came from, what mistakes not to repeat and the best part of our collective selves to pass along to future generations. Without them, it becomes that much easier to forget the what, why and how of who we were – the good and the bad. The loss of existing and undiscovered sites also represents a loss of future discovery as archaeological and other associated methods advance. And of course this same story applies globally. Follow the link to the actual Union of Concerned Scientists’ report and you’ll find a take action link for contacting your senators.

As an aside, the article reports that our National Parks have $11 billion dollars of deferred maintenance needs now, without even accounting for the resilience measures necessary to address the impacts of climate change. Our schools have $271 billion dollars of deferred maintenance just to get them back up to minimum standards. To actually modernize our schools would require $542 billion. Our drinking water infrastructure – $1 trillion+. Our bridges -  $20.5 billion annually spent through 2028. And the list goes on and on relative to our national infrastructure. Plus there’s over $500 billion dollars of work out there to improve building energy efficiency, representing $130 billion dollars of savings annually in energy costs. A vast untapped reserve of jobs and economic boost is out there and energy efficiency itself represents a major wedge for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But we don’t seem to have the political will to do it. And in the meantime our infrastructure and cultural resources will continue to deteriorate, more rapidly with worsening climate change impacts, and with major ramifications to our safety, economy and national identity.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kansas Legislature's Efforts to Stop Implementation of Common Core and NGSS Misguided

Below is my submitted testimony to the Kansas House Education Committee in support of continued implementation of the Kansas College and Career Ready Standards (our state's version of the Common Core) and Kansas College and Career Ready Standards for Science (our state's version of the NGSS), and opposition to the bill designed to render them null and void.

Many of the legitimate concerns with implementation and assessment are a result of, or exacerbated by, a lack of adequate funding/resources. And a recent poll shows that most Kansans (by a wide margin) believe public schools are underfunded and want the Kansas Supreme Court to order additional funding (http://www2.ljworld.com/weblogs/first-bell/2014/feb/21/poll-shows-most-kansans-want-court-to-or/).

Dear House Education Committee Members,

As a member of the Kansas Review Committee for the Next Generation Science Standards (providing a business/industry perspective), I urge you to vote no on HB 2621. I believe that this is a bad bill for our students and teachers, and Kansas in general, for the following reasons:

1. According to various news reports, it would appear that at least some of the main proponents of this bill and previous efforts to defund implementation haven’t even read through Kansas’ version of the common core and NGSS (or any version for that matter). Some of them apparently haven’t spoken with any of the educators, administrators, scientists or business/industry individuals who were involved in their development. To author or support a bill that seeks to render null and void standards one hasn’t read or sought to gain a broad understanding of is irresponsible and unbecoming of an elected official.

2. The standards’ detractors keep arguing that the Common Core and NGSS are the results of Federal mandates. While the Federal government may desire to see them implemented (because it, too, would like to get rid of No Child Left Behind), these were state driven enterprises – and this is pretty easy to verify. Participating in the NGSS process, I personally know that Kansas concerns and criticisms from our states review committee were reviewed and incorporated into the NGSS standards – and that’s documented for anyone who would like to see.

3. Our state board of education adopted these standards (with large majority support). Education standards fall under their domain, not the state legislature. This bill is an attempt by one elected body to circumvent the authority of another elected body.

4. Continued attempts to stop the implementation of these standards (and defund K-12 in general) essentially create a foundation of shifting sand for our educators in terms of moving forward with working through all of the legitimate concerns with implementation and assessment. There is a hesitancy to fully commit if they think there is a chance the standards will be rendered null and void.

5. A portion of the bill also challenges a statewide database that collects information on students past high school graduation. One of the criticisms revolves around privacy concerns and worries that the Federal government will “grab” this information. First, you need this kind of longitudinal data to verify the effectiveness of your education system – you can’t verify and improve upon what you don’t measure. Second, the state department of education doesn’t share personal information with the Federal government, only aggregate numbers. Nor has there been any indication from the U.S. Department of Education that they would even want that information.

6. And another part of the bill seeks to bar the state education department from collecting and delivering biometric data about students to federal agencies, including their DNA sequences and retina patterns. This is a straw man argument – shifting focus from the standards issue to a hypothetical issue/threat that hasn’t even come up yet in this context in order to scare people. Government spying and data collection is a separate issue and bigger than our state’s education standards issue. It doesn’t belong in this bill.

Per my understanding, the whole point of the common core (math, reading), NGSS and new social studies standards was to improve public education (particularly relative to No Child Left Behind) and establish a STATE driven K-12 framework that allows some level of standardization across the nation while still allowing flexibility at the state and local levels. From my involvement in the NGSS process and reading through the rest of the standards, that seems to be precisely what they’re set up to do. To me, the concerns mentioned above aren’t an argument for trying to render there implementation null and void, but for how we work together to make sure they’re implemented in the best possible manner at the local level (including assessments, which I agree is a tricky and contentious issue).

I also believe that a lot of the concerns with implementation and assessments are driven in part by the general lack of adequate funding/resources in K-12 schools. I know if I was a KS teacher, I would be wondering how I’m supposed to implement this given the current state of funding and political climate.

Sincerely,

Marcel Harmon, PhD, PE, LEED AP O+M
Lawrence, KS

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Creation "Science" - The Nye/Ham Debate

Creationism Vs. Evolution: The Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate

I listened to most of the debate tonight, and it will be archived at debatelive.org for the next several days for those who are interested. The world view of creationists is so foreign to me. Creation Science seems an oxymoron – so much of it ignores fundamental aspects of science – it picks and chooses what it wants. Creationists twist and contort everything that science and history tells us to fit within their very narrow view of the world. Because their view is absolute truth, nothing contradicts it – they simply find a way to twist it to fit their view; and God is the final answer.

For example, in the debate Ken Ham stated that all animals were vegetarian prior to the “great flood”, prior to their ride on the ark. There is absolutely NO evidence for that, and countless evidence to the contrary.

And certainly there’s nothing in religion that requires a denial of evolutionary theory. There are so many Christians out there who have a fundamental belief that God created everything, so many Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc., who all are devoted to their religion, who all accept the Theory of Evolution and other aspects of science. They do so without feeling any threat to their belief.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Assessing the True Cost of the Holcomb Power Plant

My op-ed "The True Cost of Holcomb" appeared in the 1/30/2014 Wichita Eagle, but the editing of the last several paragraphs unfortunately deleted some key subtleties and acknowledgement that transitioning to a renewable economy is difficult. Though I recognize space restrictions drive such editing decisions. I've included the full text of the original below for those that are interested:

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is attempting an end run around the state Supreme Court’s ruling last October that the Holcomb coal fired power plant permit did not demonstrate compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) or the newer Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) emission limits (http://ht.ly/sJyaP). The KDHE’s permit addendum (subject to public comment through February 19) questionably claims that new modeling would demonstrate compliance with the NAAQS without requiring any additional modeling. And the addendum requires compliance with the HAP emission limits, but we have no clear understanding how Sunflower will accomplish this.

Nor does any of this address green house gas emissions or research questioning the need for additional power plants at all. According to analysis by Architecture2030 (http://ht.ly/sLaco), assuming the Building Sector makes modest improvements in energy efficiency (a conservative estimate) the U.S. won’t need additional power plant generating capacity until 2025.

The fossil fuel lobby continues to support actions against renewable energy, clean technology and associated energy efficiency and environmental regulations/standards. Another Kansas example includes efforts last session (and likely again this session) by state legislators and related interests to modify or repeal the Renewable Energy Standards Act / Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).

Nationally such efforts are exemplified by the recent attacks on the US Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) revised “social cost of carbon” (SCC), which is an estimate of climate change damages resulting from carbon pollution (http://ht.ly/sJygz).  As pointed out by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the criticisms leveled against the SCC fall flat, with most economists who have weighed in pointing out the SCC is an overly conservative estimate of the cost to society. The real motivation for these attacks stems from the increased SCC values tipping things in favor of cleaner energy. Once these revised climate change costs are added to the cost of electricity generation, society pays less for cleaner versus dirtier forms of energy (i.e., coal).

We have subsidized fossil fuels for decades by not accounting for their true costs to society in the fuel/energy costs we pay. Government involvement, through such things as the SCC or Kansas’ RPS, simply begins to level the playing field. And as regulatory agencies increasingly account for climate costs, this will inevitably lead to fewer profits for the fossil fuel industry (unless they adapt).

Yes, there are economic and social/cultural implications. Fossil fuels are, unfortunately, still the life blood of our economy. A transition away from them will impact industries and jobs, as well as intellectual traditions focused around the extraction, transportation and burning of fossil fuels. And it’s true the Holcomb power plant would mean new jobs for this area, but we haven’t adequately accounted for its true cost. A publication by the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://ht.ly/sJL3Z) points out that the Kansas consequences of climate change within a generation include increased aquifer depletion and severe weather, decreased agricultural production, increased air pollution and associated respiratory illnesses. Flooding increases alone could cost Kansas farmers an additional $150 million annually by 2032.

It’s time we recognize that fossil fuels are a dead end and accelerate the shift to a more energy efficient, renewable economy. The transition is already underway with many organizations spear heading the process, including the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

For the skeptics, why do you think fossil fuel corporations hedge their bets by investing in renewable/clean tech (http://t.co/EEpmhcHyH1) while also funding the opposition? They understand the science of climate change, see the writing on the wall and are attempting to position themselves for the inevitable transition while delaying it for as long as possible.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

More Comprehensive Assessments of Human Activity Needed

I’m not aware of what long term economic/environmental & social/cultural impacts went into determining how much the royalty fee should be increased, but in general I support such actions. While I know many in the building/construction industry will disagree, there is a growing recognition that we must do a better job accounting for the true financial costs of the environmental and social/cultural impacts our actions have - short term and long term.
One example of this that takes a long term view is the social cost of carbon (SCC - http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/EPAactivities/economics/scc.htmland http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/ljohnson/omb_issues_call_for_additional.html), the government’s very conservative estimate of climate change damages resulting from carbon pollution, given in dollars per ton of CO2.
The negative reactions to such broader, more comprehensive assessments of human activity are understandable - it impacts the financial bottom line for many companies and individuals. But its the only way to ensure a long term viability of not just our physical environment, but also for society as a whole.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Scientists have an obligation to speak out

If You See Something, Say Something: By Michael E. Mann, Jan. 17, 2014

"If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Coal Fired Power Plants Still S.O.P.

Sobering news: AP Enterprise: Old-style coal plants expanding.

My own public comment to the KDHE to deny Sunflower Electric Power Corporation's permit for the Holcomb Power Plant expansion project is below:

As a Kansas citizen, I’m urging you to deny the permit for the 895 MW coal fired power plant proposed by Sunflower. Over this comment period I’m sure a great deal of opponents have provided a variety of health, environmental, economic, and energy related reasons for denying the permit. I myself did so during the last go around. But this time I thought I’d provide a narrative of what life might be like for one Kansan 30+ years from now if we don’t step up and start making some really hard choices. And the only way this is going to happen is if we have some very strong-willed leaders (from local levels all the way up) to pull us down this path.

7:43 AM and it already feels like a sauna. Beads of sweat begin to roll down Dan’s back as he waits for the bus. The high is predicted to reach 111, with a heat index near 122. It’s the 17th day in a row of over 105 degree heat, with no end in sight. And the sea of asphalt and concrete surrounding him only makes it worse as the hot days drag on. For the umpteenth time last night, the weatherman discussed how their asphalt jungle’s nightly dissipation of heat at these temperatures is too slow to fully recover by the time morning rolls around. And so each day seems to start out warmer than the last. Add to that the multitude of city air conditioners rejecting interior heat into the outside air and you have a local urban climate up to 20 degrees warmer than surrounding areas on any given day. Dan looks up at the bus stop sign and thinks to himself, “Next stop, hell on earth.”

He briefly glances at those next to him, taking care to stay outside of everyone’s personal bubbles as they wait. Tempers flare much more quickly in this kind of heat – yesterday two people were stabbed at a bus stop across town as an argument spun out of control. A sudden sneeze snaps Dan to attention; its then followed by a few coughs. He slowly inches away in the opposite direction. The respiratory infection going around was another reason to stay clear of strangers. This was the third time in the last 2 months a large scale illness was making its way through the city. He recalled his doctor’s declaration that such occurrences were now the rule as a result of the warmer climate, particularly in the close quarters of a city.

As Dan waits, he tries to will the beads of sweat back into his skin – coming into work soaked with sweat doesn’t exactly help generate clothing sales and the resulting commissions he desperately needs. “Clothing sales,” he says to himself and mentally shakes his head. Working in retail was a far cry from his life growing up on farm near Greensburg. Though he was never really sure whether or not he wanted to take over the family farm, that decision was made for him by the farm’s ever expanding costs and dwindling profits.

Every year rain seemed that much more unpredictable, increasing their use of irrigation as well as more frequently delaying getting into the field when it was needed. The stress resulting from agricultural, residential, and industrial water use (including the region’s coal fired power plants) on regional groundwater sources and the once vast Ogalla Aquifer had resulted in irrigation related water use taxes. New and increasing weeds, pests and diseases meant increasing pesticide costs, as well as antibiotics for the cattle. Crop yields were steadily declining despite trying more expensive drought and pest resistant wheat. Cattle were underweight and sometimes sickly, and they lost more calves every year. Beaten down by the constant stress and a mountain of debt, his dad finally sold the farm.

With no future in farming and no money for college, Dan needed a job. He could probably have gotten some scholarships and government assistance, but it wouldn’t have been enough and his family had long ago blown through the little college savings he had trying to keep the farm afloat. So he needed work. The local wind turbine manufacturer would have been a great option, but the manufacturing floor wasn’t hiring anyone, at least no one with his limited skills. Had the U.S. jumped on the renewable energy bandwagon 30 years ago, US manufacturers might now be the dominant players in wind power. As it turned out, China has had that title since 2015 and the US was still playing catch up. Though he’d heard a Chinese manufacturer was looking at purchasing the Greensburg plant. If so, they likely would expand, start hiring, and maybe even implement some extensive on-the-job training programs.

But for now Dan needed other options and so he turned to family. His cousin lived in Olathe and could get him a job at one of the local clothing retailers, as well as put him up to save some expenses. And so now he found himself in the greater Kansas City area, waiting at a bus stop, futilely trying to keep from sweating.

Finally the bus arrived and Dan made his way onto the air conditioned oasis with the rest of the crowd. As he made his way down the aisle to an empty seat, he passed a young mother and her crying toddler, a look of sad resignation on her face. He wondered what her story was – was she a recent immigrant into the city as well? Did she have a job? A place to live? Was she squatting in one of the many abandoned buildings throughout the city like so many of the new arrivals?

He took a seat as the bus pulled away. So many looks of resignation, sadness, and apathy on his fellow passengers. “What did the future hold for any of them?” he wondered. Dan settled in and stared out the window towards his destination. “Was it really going to be hell on earth?”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Taxes Fund Education & Other Services That We All Use

To my fellow Kansans:

Taxes – a word that generates loathing among many; at best it’s often portrayed as a necessary evil. George Lakoff, linguist and UC Berkeley professor, has pointed out that politicians like to promise us “relief” from taxes, as if they’re providing relief from a headache. But that relief comes with the price of cutting our services and benefits.

Taxes fund our police and fire departments, parks, public libraries, armed forces, and the list goes on. Particularly important is public education, one of the bedrocks of U.S. democracy. Every time we cut taxes we degrade the quality of these services. “Taxes, after all,” as Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.”

While we Americans subscribe to the ideal of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we never-the-less are social creatures. We live in large groups, relying on others for many of our needs. We don’t build or maintain our own roads, we have but to turn on a faucet for good quality water, and most of us don’t school our own children. This pooling of resources and the resulting services and benefits (and jobs) provided, are part of our written and unwritten norms; they help bind our society together.

To be sure, balance must be maintained between inadequate vs. overbearing taxation. However, our state has generally moved farther into the inadequate side over the last decade. During that time, according to Rep. Jim Ward, our legislature has cut taxes by $12 billion, with an additional $4 billion in sales tax exemptions.

Yet many in the legislature refuse to consider that additional revenues are required to maintain needed services and benefits. Instead we are to rely on additional cuts and a reduction of state employee salaries and benefits. And since the majority of our state’s budget goes to education and social services, you can see where the brunt of the burden will fall – squarely on the backs of those with the least say.

Whether tax cuts and exemptions generate jobs is debatable. At best it’s a highly contextual outcome dependent on a mix of factors – social/cultural, economic, and otherwise. What isn’t debatable, however, is the job loss resulting from continued cuts and exemptions. According to a February 28th Wichita Eagle article, Wichita estimates it would cut 320 full-time education positions. And tragically such scenarios are being repeated all over the state.

As a Kansan, I’m willing to pay for the service of quality education for my children and for my neighbors’ children. I’m willing to pay for the benefit of higher property values resulting from having good quality neighborhood schools. And the last decade of cuts and exemptions surely has allowed for revenue generation that distributes the burden fairly across the state relative to income, and minimizes negative impacts on business creation and growth. If you feel the same, I urge you to contact your legislators with this message – otherwise we’re putting our state’s future, and that of our children, at risk.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

We Must Have Health Care Reform

With all of the evidence out there regarding the dire need for health care reform, I find it extremely distressing that pundits, certain corporate interests, some politicians, and a portion of our misguided public seem to be having their way in killing the current effort at reform.

See the following graphic to hit it home: Infographic of the Day: How Bad Is U.S. Health Care?

And see the following article for the personal side of what the status quo will continue to give us: A day at Lawrence’s Health Care Access clinic reveals need for affordable medical care