Talking Climate Change with Climate Mama ED Harriet Shugarman

Talking Climate Change is an interview series focused on the variety of people addressing the issue of our changing climate. Participants run the gamut of professions, from scientists to artists, and together we discuss the subject from a multitude of perspectives. For this installment, I spoke with Harriet Shugarman, the Founder and Executive Director of Climate Mama.

Melissa Fleming: Tell us about yourself. How did you get involved with climate change? What motivated you?

“Climate Mama”, Harriet Shugarman. Source: ClimateMama.

Harriet Shugarman: Most days it seems that working on climate has been a part of my life forever. I worked in and around climate change policy at the international level way back in the early 1990’s for the International Monetary Fund at the United Nations. Part of our job was to participate in drafting the first Earth Summit documents for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Then, for the next 10 years or so, I attended meetings at the UN headquarters in New York and around the world that looked at how the international community could expand and define its role on climate change impacts and policy.

But, I wasn’t emotionally attached to the issue yet and these meetings seemed so far away from how they would actually impact people and their communities around the world. My motivation and my passion for personally getting involved were first ignited in the spring of 2007 when I trained with former Vice President Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project, to become a Climate Reality Leader. For me, this was the transformational moment when I knew that working on climate change would become the primary focus of my life moving forward. I had two young children and my eyes were opened to the fact that their future really was in our collective hands and that this issue must be my focus. It has become my life’s work.

MF: You started an organization called Climate Mama. Tell us about it.

HS: A few years after my Climate Reality training I decided I would jump in with both feet and I founded ClimateMama in late 2009. As a mom, I realized that many of the parents I was meeting and speaking with in the playground, in my community, my house of worship, and at my children’s school had no idea how urgent the climate crisis actually was.  Having left the big stage at the UN, and being engaged in my community, I could see ways that those international agreements could and should be enacted at a local level.

Even when the parents I was meeting did have an inkling to the climate crisis we faced, they seemed frozen, not able to speak to their children about it, or really grasp how they could be involved in climate solutions. ClimateMama began as an online place for parents to learn more about the climate crisis and what we all can do about it. We showcased climate parents so that others could learn from them and see how each of us could be empowered to take action.

As time has evolved, and my personal interests and actions have taken a more activist tone, we have become more active on the ground, resisting fossil fuel infrastructure and connecting the dots between fossil fuels and our children’s health.

MF: Why did you choose to focus on “Mamas and Papas”?

HS: Becoming a parent changed me forever. The realization that our children’s future will be increasingly difficult and in fact is directly threatened because of our lack of action today, is something that parents should and must become emotionally connected to. I felt and still feel that empowering parents to take action is a critical part of our success. Regardless of where you live or your political or religious persuasion, as a parent, our hopes for our children remain similar. We want them to live healthy, happy, and productive lives. If we can fully understand that climate change threatens every part of those dreams for our children, then there is hope that parents can and will be spurred on to solve the climate crisis.

MF: What have you found to be the biggest challenges in communicating climate change?

HS: To me, the biggest challenges seem to be around helping people understand the urgency and seriousness of the crisis before us, without creating a sense of paralyzing fear and helplessness. I think that all of us in the climate communication world deal with this issue on a regular basis. We need to help empower and promote the opportunities because climate change does pose endless opportunities to take action, create change, and build hope.

Climate change is the most complicated issue that the human race has or will face, and as such, there is an endless myriad of fixes. I wish there was a “silver bullet” or even a “top three”, but there isn’t. So, we need to turn the discussion around and help each of us understand that we must be part of the solution in any way that we can. This isn’t to say that we don’t need big solutions. We do. We need them now and we need to support, elect, and promote those people working on and creating them. In “UN speak”, we say that we each have “common but differentiated abilities and responsibilities.” Those of us that can “go big” must.

MF: Climate change is a politically charged topic these days.  Do you ever have to deal with climate skeptics?  If so, how do you handle it and what advice would you give to others who do?

HS: When faced with climate skeptics or outright deniers, I would say that – it depends. Some people have dug in so deep, there is no changing their minds. You can either politely “agree to disagree” or just choose to ignore them, but this can be hard if they are a good friend or in your immediate family.

That said, this group of deniers is small but very vocal. We need to marginalize their voices and get the truth out.  In this age of “alternative facts”, we need to make sure that at every opportunity we share facts and reality. If you have time, send people peer- reviewed studies and factually based information. Especially with friends and family, I would recommend starting from a position of love and mutual respect – not from a combative place. Find common ground (for me this is our children ) and work from there. Make it personal and emotional. We each intuitively live, see and feel climate change all around us. Help people make those connections, and then follow up with the plethora of facts.

The reality is that the material that skeptics use to back up their so-called “facts” all come from the same 5-10 sources and the same small number of so-called “experts.” There aren’t a plethora of “alternative facts” on climate change, the reality of its causes and effects are clear and there are thousands and thousands of fact based, scientific data to back this up, as well as real world examples that mother nature is showing us every day.

MF: As someone who has been involved in a number of different climate related marches and demonstrations, have you seen a change in these types of public events over the years?

HS: Good question. Yes and no. Marches and demonstrations in their own right have always been important. They connect people to one another directly and help us all feel part of something big and powerful. But organizers are now realizing that we also need to provide people with tools, ideas, and opportunities to become more engaged once they return to their own communities. This, I see as a change.

MF: Thank you, Harriet!  For more information about Harriet and her work, visit www.climatemamma.com

Climate Mama, Harriet Shugarman, and supporters at The Clean Energy March in Philadelphia, 2016. Source: ClimateMama

Panel Discussion: Art and Sustainability in the Anthropocene

Climate change is a complex scientific subject with a plethora of data-rich reports that detail its causes and diverse impacts. Not everyone, however, responds to facts and figures or charts and graphs. That is why art, which taps into human emotion, can help create new pathways of understanding and raise awareness about this critical issue.

On Thursday, July 13, I will be discussing the intersection of art and climate change as part of a panel at the 24th International Conference of Europeanists in Glasgow, Scotland. Moderated by Julie Reiss of Christie’s Education, the panel is titled “Art and Sustainability in the Anthropocene”. My fellow panelists include Martha Schwendener (New York Times), Weiyi Chang (University of British Columbia), and Patrizia Costantin (Manchester School of Art).

This annual conference is organized by the Council for European Studies (CES), whose mission is to produce and support multidisciplinary research about Europe. They are “particularly committed to supporting research that can play a critical role in understanding and applying the lessons of European history and integration to contemporary problems, including those in the areas of global security, sustainability, environmental stewardship, and democracy.” The theme of year’s event is sustainability and transformation.

Credit: CES

A Brief History of How We Know CO2 Drives Climate Change

The US Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, recently denied that CO2 is the main driver behind our changing climate. Nominated by President Trump, his comments are in line with the Administration’s rollback of the Clean Power Plan and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The fact is, however, the scientific fundamentals of the greenhouse effect have been understood since the 1800s.

One of the first scientists to look into the planet’s energy balance was Joseph Fourier, a French physicist, in the 1820s. Given the Earth’s distance from the Sun, he was curious to know why its temperature was not cooler. Fourier felt that something other than incoming solar radiation was keeping the planet warm and hypothesized that the atmosphere was somehow acting like an insulating blanket. Working with the limited technology of the day, however, he was unable to make the detailed measurements needed to carry his idea further.

Decades later, in the 1860s, an Irish scientist named John Tyndall picked up Fourier’s theory. An alpine adventurer, he was interested in glaciers and the then controversial idea of ice ages. Wanting to know more about how they formed, he devised an experiment to see if the Earth’s atmosphere was acting like a thermostat. For this, he built a spectrophotometer – an instrument that measures the amount of heat that gases can absorb. His experiments showed that water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane were all very efficient at trapping heat. This essentially proved Fourier’s idea of a greenhouse effect.

In the 1890s, Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish physicist, followed up on Tyndall’s idea of an atmospheric thermostat and ran with it. Ruling out water vapor as too transitory, he focused on carbon dioxide, which tends to linger in the atmosphere for a long time. His calculations showed that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would raise the average global temperature by 5°C (9°F).

To understand if such a large-scale change in atmospheric CO2 was possible, he turned to Arvid Hogbom, a colleague studying the global carbon cycle. This is the natural geochemical process where volcanic eruptions and the chemical weathering of rocks release CO2, while plants and oceans absorb it. Hogbom confirmed that CO2 levels could change dramatically over long periods of time. However, he also noted that industrial processes were releasing a significant amount of CO2 relatively quickly. Using this information, Arrhenius calculated that human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, could alter the composition of the atmosphere and increase global temperatures. In the 1890’s, however, fossil fuel use was only a fraction of what it is today and he believed it would take more than 1,000 years for the level of atmospheric CO2 to double.

Jumping ahead to the 1950s, Charles David Keeling, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, found a way to directly monitor levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. He created an instrument called a gas chromatograph and installed it on top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. At an elevation of more than 11,000 feet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it is removed from both direct CO2 sources like factories and sinks such as forests that could skew the data. Still in operation today, the information recorded at this station is known as the Keeling Curve. It shows the steady increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere from 1958 to present.

Keeling’s measurements provided solid evidence that CO2 levels were rising and validated the theories of Tyndall and Arrhenius. More recently, scientists were able to extend his curve back in time by analyzing ancient air bubbles trapped in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica. This lengthy record shows that pre-industrial CO2 levels in the atmosphere were about 280 ppm. Today, they are over 400ppm – the highest they have been in more than 800,000 years.

Seeing this dramatic rise in CO2 and realizing the impact that a warming climate could have on society, the UN formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. They assess the peer-reviewed research of thousands of scientists from around the world and publish a synthesized view of the current state of the science. The latest IPCC report (AR5 published in sections in 2013/2014) unconditionally states that human activities are the main drivers of modern climate change.

Therefore, while it is the nature of all science to evolve with time and research, it is safe to say that role of CO2 does not require further debate. Today, the impacts of different feedback loops within the climate system are an active area of investigation. Science is following the evidence and moving ahead. Politics needs to catch up.

Scientists have been studying the climate since the 1800s.

As CO2 levels go up, so does the temperature. Credit: Climate Central

Thomas Jefferson and the Weather in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776

Thomas Jefferson is well known as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, but he was also an astute and systematic weather observer.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805. Credit: NYHS

In the summer of 1776, Jefferson was in Philadelphia, PA to sign the Declaration of Independence.  While there, he purchased a thermometer and a barometer – new and expensive weather equipment at that time. For the next 50 years, he kept a meticulous weather journal.  He recorded daily temperature data wherever he was – at home in Virginia or while traveling.

On July 4, 1776, Jefferson noted that the weather conditions in Philadelphia were cloudy with a high temperature of 76°F.

In an effort to understand the bigger picture of climate in America, Jefferson established a small network of fellow observers around Virginia as well as contacts in a few other states. According to records at Monticello, he hoped to establish a national network for weather observations. While this plan did not come to fruition during his lifetime, today’s National Weather Service considers him the “father of weather observers.”

Happy Independence Day!

An excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s Weather Journal, July 1776. Credit: NCDC

What are the Dog Days of Summer?

The “Dog Days” of summer have arrived. This popular saying refers to what are traditionally the hottest and most oppressive days of the season.

Rooted in astronomy, the phrase is linked to Sirius, the brightest star seen from Earth. As part of the constellation Canis Major, it is known as the Dog Star.  During most of July and August, Sirius rises and sets with our Sun. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed it acted like a second Sun, adding extra heat to summer days. Today, we know that light from this distant star does not affect our weather, but the name has endured.

Varying by latitude around the globe, the so-called “Dog Days” of summer typically run from July 3 to August 11 in the United States.

Sirius, the “Dog Star”.  Credit: EarthSky/Tom Wildoner

Aphelion 2017: Earth Farthest from Sun Today

The Earth will reach its farthest point from the Sun today – an event known as the aphelion. It will officially take place at 20:11 UTC, which is 4:11 PM Eastern Daylight Time.

This annual event is a result of the elliptical shape of the Earth’s orbit and the slightly off-centered position of the Sun inside that path. The exact date of the Aphelion differs from year to year, but it’s usually in early July – summer in the northern hemisphere.

While the planet’s distance from the Sun is not responsible for the seasons, it does influence their length. As a function of gravity, the closer the planet is to the Sun, the faster it moves. Today, Earth is about 152 million kilometers (94 million miles) away from the Sun. That is approximately 5 million kilometers (3 million miles) further than during the perihelion in early January. That means the planet will move more slowly along its orbital path than at any other time of the year. As a result, summer is elongated by a few days in the northern hemisphere.

The word, aphelion, is Greek for “away from the sun”.

Earth is farthest from the Sun during summer in the northern hemisphere. Credit: TimeandDate.com

June 2017: A Temperature Roller Coaster in NYC

June 2017 felt like a temperature roller coaster in New York City. Highs ranged from an unseasonably cool 58°F to a balmy 94°F. June also brought the city its second heat wave of the year. In the end, however, the cold and warmth balanced each other out. The city’s mean temperature for the month was 72°F, which is only .06°F above average.

 

In terms of precipitation, the city was wetter than normal. Overall, 4.76 inches of rain was measured in Central Park. Of this total, 84% fell during three separate heavy rain events that each produced over an inch of rain. On average, the Big Apple gets 4.41 inches of rain for the entire month of June.

Credit: The Weather Gamut

Hot Temperatures and Strong Winds Fuel Western Wildfires

Summer is wildfire season in the American West and this year it is off to an explosive start.

As of Wednesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, thirty large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres – are burning in ten western states.  These include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

The largest is the Brian Head Fire in southern Utah. It has burned approximately 50,000 acres and forced the evacuation of nearly 1500 people. Ignited on June 17, the massive blaze is only 10% contained.

Another hard hit state is Arizona, where six large fires are currently burning. The governor, Doug Ducey, has declared a state of emergency in Yavapai County in response to the Goodwin Fire, which has burned more than 20,000 acres near the Prescott National Forest. Local officials have ordered the full evacuation of the town of Mayer, AZ.

These huge fires are being fueled by extremely hot and dry conditions that have left the region’s vegetation susceptible to any type of spark. Just a few days ago, excessive heat advisories were in effect for a large swath of the area as temperatures soared into the triple digits. Now, high winds are fanning the flames and helping the fires to spread.

Year to date, 2.7 million acres in the US have been charred. The country’s worst wildfire season on record was 2015 when more than ten million acres burned.

Brian Head Fire, UT. Credit: Desert News

Weather and Safety: Kids in Hot Cars

Summer has only just begun and it seems like every few days there is a report of a child dying from heatstroke in a hot car. These types of tragedies, however, are preventable.

Since 1998, according to kidsandcars.org, there has been an average of 37 hot car deaths in the US every year. That is one every nine days. This year, there have already been 15 deaths reported.

Credit: USA Today

On a sunny day, the interior temperature of a parked car can increase 19°F in just ten minutes. That means if the outside air temperature is a seemingly comfortable 70°F, the inside of the car can heat up to near 90°F in a very short span of time. The situation is even worse when the outside temperature is higher and the car sits in the sun longer.

According to the Mayo Clinic, if the human body reaches 104°F, organ damage and death become a real risk. Children are even more vulnerable because their smaller bodies can heat up between three to five times faster than an adult. Most hot car victims are under the age of three.

These dangerous situations develop in a number of different ways. Children can sometimes find their own way into a car while playing outside or a guardian leaves them alone in a vehicle for what seems like a quick errand. However, the majority of hot car deaths occur when a parent or caregiver gets distracted and simply forgets that a child is still in the back seat when they park their car.

To avoid a heartbreaking tragedy, remember to Look Before You Lock!

Credit: KidsandCars.org

Tropical Storm Cindy Batters Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Cindy, the third named storm of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season, made landfall between Cameron, LA and Port Arthur, TX early Thursday morning. It battered the area with heavy rain and winds measured up to 40 mph.

With rainbands spreading out across the Gulf Coast, flash floods were reported from New Orleans, LA to Pensacola, FL. The storm also downed trees and knocked out power to more than 32,000 customers across six states.

Moving inland, the storm was soon downgraded to a tropical depression. However, it still spawned a destructive tornado in Fairfield, AL. The NWS has given the twister a preliminary rating of EF-2.

The remnants of Cindy are expected to travel northeast over the next several days, unleashing even more torrential rain as it moves along.

Tropical Storm Cindy in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NOAA/NWS