Innovation Ecosystem

Love your momma, and your papa, too

Five decades after Earth Day was born, when activist citizens took to the streets, environmental laws are under attack by the Trump administration, yet the threat to Narragansett Bay from climate change is strangely absent from political dialogue in the 2018 state elections; why is that?

Photo by Richard Asinof

A large public mural, from the photographer by James Balog, attached to the brick facade of the School of Engineering at Brown University, portraying Birthday Canyon and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/23/18
On Earth Day 2018, there is a widening gyre between political discourse and the growing threats to the innovation ecosystem from the man-made world. The large public mural by James Balog documenting the melting ice sheet in Greenland offers a poignant reminder of the climate changes underway.
Which Republican candidate running for office in Rhode Island attacking waste and fraud in government will be the first to call for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to be fired? Will The Providence Journal run a front-page story featuring the public mural by James Balog on display at Brown? How does public health and health equity connect with environmental protection in Rhode Island? As the threat from e-coli contamination of lettuce spreads, what kinds of environmental safeguards do we need for our food production system? When will political reporters include questions about environmental policies as part of their repertoire? How can environmental groups in Rhode Island become more adept and savvy at attaching their messaging to economic development?
There is a moment in the movie, Erin Brockovich, where actor Julia Roberts, portraying Brockovich, offers the lawyer from PG&E a glass of water, saying it came from the community where the water had been contaminated. The lawyer refuses the water, in a telling scene.
I have often wondered if that scene could be translated into an effective political action campaign, where potentially contaminated water in special bottles is offered to politicians, asking them if they would like a drink?
The quality of life in Rhode Island, one of the strong selling points in the efforts to rebuild Rhode Island’s economy, is dependent on the environmental quality of Narragansett Bay and all of its watersheds and tributaries.
We measure job growth as an economic indicator, but we do not have a way of measuring the quality of life through a series of longitudinal benchmarks, one that would be accessible and transparent to all neighborhoods and communities and residents.
The stunning public mural by James Balog, much like Narragansett Bay, demands our attention. It is also a reminder that prosperity, health equity and environmental justice begins in our own neighborhood and in our front yards.

PROVIDENCE – The large public mural by photographer James Balog, attached to the front of the Brown University School of Engineering brick facade on Brook Street, captures the image of Adam Le Winter, a tiny, solitary dark figure atop a wall of brilliant white ice, standing above turquoise waters and below azure skies, as Le Winter surveyed Birthday Canyon on June 22, 2009, part of a team recording the Greenland Ice Sheet as it melts away.

The striking image, taken nearly a decade ago, is part of a series of exhibitions and public art projects focused on ice melt and climate change, entitled “33 Degrees,” organized by the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown.

The work by Balog is part of a project the photographer created in 2007 called the Extreme Ice Survey, an initiative to merge art and science to give a “visual voice” to the planet’s changing ecosystem, according to Balog’s website. The imagery seeks to preserve a visual legacy, a baseline, for revealing how climate change and other human activity are impacting the planet.

Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
On Sunday, April 22, the 48th celebration of Earth Day, the import of the public mural has a resonance often missing from the current political dialogue in Rhode Island – it serves as a warning shot across the bow of our everyday political consciousness. The Greenland glaciers are melting much faster than anyone imagined, from above and below, with dramatic consequences for life on Earth – and for life here in Rhode Island surrounding Narragansett Bay.

The photography of ice melt is measurable; the cause-and-effect is observable in real time, in days, weeks, months and years: the thick layer of frigid, fresh blue water in Birthday Canyon, running some 1,000 feet deep, which comes mostly from Arctic river runoff, has a temperature of 33 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1 degree Celsius.

Beneath the fresh water is a warmer layer of salty, ocean water, about 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the layer of fresh water. That warmer layer of ocean water is projected to rise another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit this century, accelerating the speed of the ice melt.

A new Ice Age?
Despite those that would deny climate change or that human activity causes it, we are still an integral part of an innovation ecosystem that is not man-made, as Balog’s large public mural reminds us.

The consequences of this dramatic sea change are not metaphorical; one need only look at the “facts” surrounding our own recent turbulent weather patterns. The increased frequency of severe storms, many meteorologists agree, has been tied to the lowered path of the jet stream across North America. The lowered path of the jet stream, in turn, has been linked to the melting of the polar ice cap, caused by warming ocean temperatures as a result of climate change.

[The apparent demise of Rhode Island’s lobster population, migrating further north to colder waters in response to the rising temperatures in Narragansett Bay, is another “tangible” disliked fact of climate change.]

All too often, our response – including from many news media – is to gripe and moan about the inconvenience of the weather, to tweet “no, no, no, no” in response to a forecast of more snow and sleet in spring, to rush out for milk and bread, and then complain bitterly on talk radio if the forecasted snowstorm doesn’t materialize after schools are cancelled.

Sharing forecasts, photos and outrage on Facebook and Twitter are the way we define our emotional connections to the communities where we live. Jet streams and melting ice caps are inconvenient facts for most consumers, removed from daily life.

But wait, there’s more
A further dramatic change in the patterns of the ocean currents has also been detected. The colder water released from the melting Greenland ice sheet is shifting the path of the Gulf Stream, slowing down the great patterns of ocean circulation.

The key driver of ocean circulation occurs in the North Atlantic ocean, where the warm Gulf Stream flows northward into cooler waters and splits into what is known as the North Atlantic current, according to a recent story in The Washington Post by reporter Chris Mooney. The North Atlantic current flows further toward the northern latitudes, until it reaches the point where colder, salty water sinks due to its greater density, and then travels back southward at depth, according to the narrative of Mooney’s reporting.

This “overturning circulation,” Mooney continued, plays a major role in the climate because it brings warm water northward, helping to warm Europe’s climate, and also sending cold water back toward the tropics.

Mooney’s story was prompted by a new study, published in Nature Climate Change by a group of researchers led by Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change Impact Research, which found that the consequences of the melting ice sheet in Greenland have resulted in a slowdown of the great ocean circulation patterns.

Translated, the very real effects if the whole ocean circulation pattern were to break down, according to Rahmstorf, would be “seriously” bad news for cities such as New York, Boston [and Providence].

Much like the frogs in the oft-cited [if not apocryphal] scientific experiment that do not jump out of the water when the temperature is raised slowly, we have become acclimated to the changes in the sea around us.

Naming names
No one disputes the importance of Narragansett Bay to the sustainable fabric of life in Rhode Island. We celebrate the quahog; when the last steel beam was hoisted in place at the Wexford Innovation Complex last month, a caterer served lobster roles and clam cakes to dignitaries and reporters.

Few dispute the fact that the threat to Narragansett Bay from climate change is real. Yet, on the April weekend that Earth Day was celebrated, few if any questions were asked about climate change, the threat to the Narragansett Bay, or even the emerging corruption of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt by local political prognosticators. Why was that?

There was nothing on the agenda of anything related to environmental politics on “A Lively Experiment,” recorded on Friday, April 20, hosted by Jim Hummel.

There was no commentary about environmental politics in Ted Nesi’s Notes, published on Saturday, April 21. Nesi interviewed Cranston Mayor Allan Fung as part of his regular newsmakers feature, but, once again, there were no questions asked Fung about whether he believed in climate change and whether he thought climate change was a threat to Narragansett Bay.

There was nothing to be seen or heard as part of Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ian Donnis in his column, TGIF: 22 things to know about politics and media in RI, published on Friday, April 20.

The question is: environmental politics do not seem to resonate as an important topic with political reporters, but do they resonate with voters?

The recent political polling in Rhode Island did not ask potential voters any questions about health care, the number-one issue for voters nationwide. Do environmental politics matter to Rhode Island voters? You won’t know until you ask the questions and do some digging.

Greediest crocodile in the swamp?
Here in Rhode Island, our politics often appear to have a cultural affinity to crime and corruption. Yet, the continuing strange tale of corruption afflicting EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has garnered little attention in the local news media, despite his attempts to dismantle existing environmental protections under the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, remove any mention of climate change from the agency’s websites, and rewrite regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act to favor the chemical industries.

What has come to light in recent months – and what may prove to be his undoing – is his own peculiar corrupt style of a lavish lifestyle at the taxpayers’ expense. [Remember, the crime that Al Capone went to jail was for federal income tax invasion.]

If nothing else, it would seem to be appropriate to ask politicians running for statewide office in 2018 whether or not they believe that Pruitt should be fired.

Boot Pruitt
In an April 12 letter to Pruitt written by Sen. Thomas Carper, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Rep. Gerald Connelly, and Rep. Donald Beyer, the members of Congress demanded documents related to the serious alleged charges enumerated by Kevin Chmielewski, a long-time supporter and campaign aide of President Donald Trump, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff of Operations at EPA.

As the letter details, Chmielewski confirms many of the details of Pruitt’s decadence and paranoia:

The $43,000 secure soundproof phone booth installed in Pruitt’s office

Pruitt’s insistence on the use of sirens and lights to transport him more quickly to airports, meetings and social events.

Pruitt’s misuse of a personal assistant to serve as his personal real estate representative to contact rental and seller’s agents.

The details behind controversial salary raises given to two favored aides, using the Clean Water Act to do so.

The attempt to rent a private jet at $100,000 a month for agency use, far exceeding the $450,000 annual agency travel budget.

And, there is the rental of a condominium at a ridiculously low price in Washington, D.C. as his residence, from the wife of a lobbyist doing business with the EPA.

And, the first-class travel to Morocco to promote the import of liquid natural gas from the U.S., totally outside the purview of Pruitt’s job as administrator at EPA, including a two-day layover in Paris.

Here in Rhode Island
There are, of course, issues closer to home in terms of environmental politics. The questions to ask candidates running for office in 2018 include:

Where do candidates stand on the proposed Invenergy power plant in Burrillville?

Where do candidates stand on building the proposed National Grid liquid natural gas facility in South Providence?

Do candidates support the creation of microgrids in Newport and at the URI campus in Kingston?

Does Rhode Island need to conduct a study of the threat of lead in drinking water?

Should Providence be allowed to privatize its water supply?

Does the R.I. General Assembly need to increase funds for environmental enforcement on Narragansett Bay?

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