“We believe in science. We believe in climate change.” These were statements that US Representative Katherine Clark opened with at a Green New Deal Town Hall last night in Framingham, MA. She and Senator Ed Markey spoke about the Green New Deal and took questions from the audience. Not all the questions were on topic, but it was clear from the standing-room only situation that people are anxious for a change of course in this country.
The theme of science was carried on by Markey. He made it clear that the Green New Deal is first and foremost rooted in science. Science published by our government agencies in the fall of 2018 (over Thanksgiving, with no fanfare from the White House of course) and by the IPCC around the same time, warning of catastrophic consequences (e.g. 10 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century) if we don’t take extreme action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Markey also made it clear that the Green New Deal was also heavily influenced by FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” (sometimes referred to as the “Economic Bill of Rights”) which speaks of economic equity for all. A goal of the Green New Deal is to provide jobs, opportunities to increase energy efficiency, and increase environmental quality for all. He provided concrete examples of how to get this work done, including paying for many of the programs by revoking the tax cuts for the super wealthy, which would bring in trillions of dollars. Of the tax cut he said “They didn’t need it. They didn’t deserve it.” So true. Our country has gone into a deficit again, in part due to these tax cuts. I don’t understand why people never remember this pattern: Republican presidents run up the deficit, Democratic presidents tend to end their terms with budget surpluses. But I digress.
One question from an audience member was “The House is passing lots of legislation (about climate change, etc) but that legislation doesn’t make it to the Senate floor for votes. What are you planning to do about this?” To which both Markey and Clark agreed that Mitch McConnell needs to be voted out of office in 2020. He has refused to bring any climate change (or gun control) legislation to a vote (and let’s not forget he refused to hold confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court at the end of Obama’s term...another digression). Markey had a long answer, including that the Democrats will “create a legislative graveyard to run against the Republicans in 2020.” Clark simply summed it up in this way “Ditch Mitch.” (If you want to help on that front, you could donate to the Democratic National Party or directly to McConnell’s opponent, a veteran fighter pilot, Amy McGrath.)
Another audience member noted that animal agriculture is a huge producer of greenhouse gases and one of the most environmentally destructive industries. (I was happy that she got a lot of applause; as you know, I feel that this issue needs much more attention.) She noted that if everyone went to a plant-based diet tomorrow, global warming would stop. Clark and Markey acknowledged the contribution but of course softened the message. Clark said just reducing your meat intake by 20% has a big impact and Markey mentioned the Impossible burger. I wish someone had referenced the recent IPCC report that indicated the benefits of a plant-based diet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and feeding the world (see the summary in a BBC report).
Another audience member brought up a piece of legislation called “We the People” that will create an amendment to the Constitution that will overturn the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court which says that corporations are people and thus can contribute to political campaigns. Markey stated that this was one of the worst rulings in the history of our country. He promised that he would introduce the legislation in the Senate (it’s already in Committee in the House, Clark is a cosponsor). I recommend writing to your legislators to encourage them to support this amendment. Corporations lobby against environmental regulations so that they can make more money. They should not be able to buy the votes of politicians with campaign donations.
Overall, I was glad I went. I learned a lot about my legislators and was heartened to see so many people turn out to support climate change legislation. Now I know a bit more about the Green New Deal so that I can answer student questions about it. I also met some members of “Renewable Natick” who are doing great work on the local scale. Plus, there were some great sound bites:
“There are no emergency rooms for sick planets.” (Clark, quoting Markey)
“Don’t underestimate the power of your vote to change course. We have to change course on this issue.” (Clark)
“If he (Trump) wins, it’s a death sentence for the planet.” (Markey)
“We know the NRA holds the Republican party in a vise-like grip.” (Markey...a few times he digressed a bit to gun control issues, the crowd didn’t mind.)
On the local news this morning I saw a report about the increasing incidence of mosquitoes found to be carrying the EEE virus in Massachusetts. EEE (Eastern equine encephalitis) is a virus that infects the body first and may infect the brain. It has many symptoms and is fatal to approximately one third of people who have the infection progress to the brain. Those that recover could have permanent neurological damage. Scary stuff. Read more about it on the CDC website. Not all mosquitoes carry the virus, but since it’s hard for anyone but an entomologist to distinguish between mosquitoes, you should try to avoid all of them.
Avoiding mosquitoes is getting harder. This is thanks to, you guessed it, climate change. Tropical and subtropical mosquitoes are expanding their ranges north and south as conditions improve for them in temperate areas. Here in New England for example, our summers are getting longer (not astrologically of course, but the warm period is expanded) and our winters are erratic, temperature-wise. We have also been getting more intense precipitation and that trend will likely continue into the future (IPCC 5th Assessment, National Climate Assessment). Longer summers means that mosquito populations can reproduce more often, there is greater hatching success, and higher biting rates (Scientific American). Populations can migrate over those extra generations to new areas. Data shows that the Asian tiger mosquito, known to carry over 30 viruses including EEE, yellow fever, dengue fever, and Zika, are expanding into the Northeast. This tropical mosquito is likely to make it all the way up into Maine by the last quarter of the century.
So, what to do? We can’t stop them from coming. That ship has sailed thanks to our fossil-fueled selfish behavior and refusal to change. Here are some things you have probably heard a million times: avoid being outside during mosquito-laden hours such as those between dusk and dawn, wear long-sleeves and pants (very comfortable in the summer), and make sure there is no standing water for eggs to be laid in. Often the response of local governments is to spray pesticides and encourage the personal use of bug spray products that contain deet. While the EPA deems deet safe to use, I am wary of anything that comes with all these warnings:
Let’s talk about pesticides for a bit. Many pesticides kill helpful insects such as pollinators and mosquito predators. In terms of human health, many pesticides are endocrine disrupters. They cause problems for reproductive systems. Pesticides also tend to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in food chains, particularly aquatic food chains. This could lead to reduced predator populations and increased exposure to pesticides by humans who eat fish. For more on this, see my previous post about microplastics (7/2/19). So needless to say, I’m not a fan of blanket-spraying of pesticides, which is what many towns do when something like West Nile or EEE is detected in local mosquitoes.
Chemical-free alternatives to keeping your environs mosquito-free include putting up bat houses in your yard (if they are still around where you live, bats have some problems of their own...too much of a digression for this post) and saturating your outdoor seating areas with citronella candles and plants that repel mosquitoes like. Plus there are lots of “natural” alternative bug sprays. I’ve tried a lot of the “natural” sprays and lotions and I like Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent the best. It works well and smells good.
But of course we have to circle back to the Big Picture. We have to deal with more and more mosquitoes and other insect disease vectors because of global warming. Healthcare costs are going to increase, more pesticides will be put into the environment, we might even see the reemergence of malaria in this country. It’s time for drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For that we need to have a sea change in the political leadership of our country and a sea change in the behavior of individuals. On the politics front, of course we need an administration in the White House next time around that cares about the environment and the future of humanity, that goes without saying, but there are also a lot of old-guard politicians across both parties in the House and Senate that are beholden to fossil fuel companies and other big industries that lobby against climate change action. Those legislators need to be replaced with a new generation of future-thinking ones. People who care more about the future of humanity and the rest of the natural world and less about enriching themselves with money and power. (Side note: the current White House gang has managed to do a lot of damage to the environment on the DL. Fortunately Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law is tracking these setbacks. Click here for some depressing shit.)
On the individual level, you all know what you need to do. (If not, see my previous posts for suggestions!) Spread the word. We need more people talking about making change and also showing change through their actions. Change catches on. Think about how many places carry vegan foods now. When I ask if something is vegan in a restaurant now, people know what that means. That was not the case even a decade or less ago. When I was in high school, I was the only vegetarian, let alone vegan, and I got made fun of a few times by some ignorant peers. Now, typically a handful of my students are vegan and a dozen or so, at least, are vegetarian every year, and many more talk about eating fewer animal products for the sake of the environment; keep in mind I only see a small fraction of the school’s population. Change happens. Not nearly fast enough so far, but any progress is still progress, so I have to keep a bit of optimism alive.