Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Solving Our Problems Together (and with Science)

This article appeared in print on Sunday, 1.21.18:


John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a self-described conservative/ libertarian think tank, has written several thought-provoking pieces for the Asheville Citizen Times over the past few months. Recently, Hood argued that Gov. Roy Cooper should approve the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline through North Carolina, and that progressives should stop fighting against work requirements for Medicaid. On Jan. 1 of this month, Hood lauded North Carolina politicians for their role in the recent tax overhauls in our state and at the federal level.
What has stood out to me from Hood’s recent columns is not the policy details — though I have read and considered them carefully — but the call he made in his Jan. 1 column for respectful discourse on policy matters. Hood writes, “… our political discourse suffers from the same malady evident in most of the rest of the country: a coarseness, a nastiness, an inability to argue one’s case forcefully and passionately without accusing the other side of evil intentions or rank stupidity…. Of course we are going to disagree. You may well think some of the policies I’ve just discussed in this column deserve condemnation, not praise. Fine. Argue your point. Don’t just hurl insults.”
I could not agree with him more! In my column of a few weeks ago (“Non-partisan communication in a partisan world,” Nov. 25, 2017), I argued that it is incumbent upon each of us to seek common ground with those seemingly from the “other side,” and that at heart, most of us want to listen, grow, and work together.
Extending the conversation, I believe that when debating important policy issues, we must be willing and eager to search for the best possible science available. In this context, “best possible science” cannot be a single scientific article or book published by one researcher working independently, or worse, from a think tank or other organization with questionable motives.
Take one area of most interest to me — climate change. If someone engages me in a discussion about climate change science or energy policy, and what he brings to the table is an argument from an “expert” from a biased organization with ulterior motives, then he is not coming to the table with an open mind or even with good intentions.
This not an abstraction. I recently saw what appeared to be a serious article about the aspirations of some North Carolina counties and municipalities to move towards 100 percent renewable energy, but the only climate change/energy policy “expert” quoted in the article is from the Heartland Institute, an organization clearly not wishing to pursue the best available science on climate change and energy. Not surprisingly, the “expert” presented a quite negative view on the aspirations of these counties and municipalities. Why did the author not ask a scientist from NASA or the Department of Energy, or seek information from the National Academy of Sciences? The reason is that he is not welcoming reasonable debate about the issue.
On climate change, there are numerous extremely credible summative reports available to the public. For example, the Climate Science Special Report was recently released by federal agencies under the Trump administration. Part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, the comprehensive report was written by our country’s top scientists, including a couple of experts from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville. Quoting the report, “This assessment concludes, based on extensive evidence, that it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming [increase of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit] since the mid-20th century. For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”
Given the overwhelming scientific evidence that man-made climate change is real and poses a serious current and future threat to human livelihood, the public debate should instead move toward mitigating the effects, and how to best transition away from polluting fossil fuels and towards cleaner sources of energy. Here again, we must be willing to seek the best available information and science. I have recently heard well-intentioned people railing against the Trump administration for killing the regulatory Clean Power Plan created under President Obama, but not wanting to listen to alternatives, such as solutions based on free-market principles. (To be fair, no alternatives have been offered by the Trump administration.)
The truth is, most of the world’s leading economists conclude that the most effective means for making the transition to cleaner fuels is a carbon pricing program, which is market-based. (The non-partisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby and the conservative Climate Leadership Council both advocate for carbon pricing, with the stipulation that all revenues collected are returned as dividends to American households.) Further governmental regulations, a non-starter with Republican leaders of Congress, is simply not the most effective means for doing this, anyway.
What I’m suggesting is that we must suspend our judgment and even set aside some of our deeply-held values, seek the best available science on the subject, and throw in a heavy dose of critical thinking. It is with these skills and an open mind that together we will solve our society’s largest problems.
Michael Hill, Ph.D., teaches mathematics and environmental science at Asheville School. He is a volunteer and congressional liaison with Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Non-partisan communication in a partisan world

This article appeared in print in the Asheville Citizen-Times on November 26, 2017:


Non-partisan communication in a partisan world

We live in an age of partisanship. We feel it at our core, and research supports our impression that Americans are more divided now than at any other time in recent memory. For example, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans the same ten political values questions seven times since 1994.
Today, there is a 36 percentage point difference between Republicans and Democrats across the ten questions, whereas in 1994, there was only a fifteen-percentage-point difference. Worse still is that the gap appears to be on an exponentially-increasing projection over time. 
But this does not have to be our destiny, and I argue that this cannot be our destiny if we want to pursue anything together that will have lasting and positive effect for all.
Last week, I returned from Washington, DC, where I had traveled with five other Asheville-area residents for the semi-annual conference of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the nonpartisan organization for which we volunteer. After one day of training, planning, and educational sessions, more than 600 citizen volunteers from around the country lobbied our members of Congress once again to enact the revenue-neutral carbon dividends proposal of CCL, which the world’s top economists agree is the most effective means for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Before I made another such trip to Washington, DC in June 2017, I was told by a few close friends and associates that I was wasting my time, that Congress would never act on climate change, and that our elected officials would not even listen to me. I heard similar whisperings before the most recent trip. However, our data and our experiences suggest that Congress is listening to us, and that there is a chance that Congress —divided as it seems to be when we peruse the newspapers and our partisan news sources — will indeed act in a bipartisan manner to correct the nonpartisan issue of climate change. It all comes down to creating political will, that elusive notion which requires us to bridge the seemingly cavernous gap that separates us.
Bridging the gap will require some old-fashioned tools latent within each of us, such as the desire to seek first to understand the other person’s viewpoint, to listen first not for differences, but for common ground, and, most important, to enter these conversations with empathy. For CCL, interacting with our friends and neighbors and with members of Congress in this manner is slowly but surely leading to progress on the issue of climate change, which has historically divided Americans and has been the source of some serious partisanship.
CCL volunteers have had productive and respectful meetings with the offices of each member of Congress representing WNC — Representatives Mark Meadows and Patrick McHenry, and Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. It certainly helps that CCL’s proposed solution to addressing climate change is a market-based system for placing a price on carbon emissions, and then returning all proceeds to Americans, rendering the proposal revenue-neutral. But it is equally important that we have entered these conversations with the staff and members of Congress themselves with the desire to seek to understand their positions and values as related to this sensitive issue. I have said in public writing before that for years I just wanted to scream and shout, “Why have you all not done anything yet to address climate change?!” But to what end would I continue to scream into the abyss? Seeking solutions to address climate change and many other big issues requires not shouting, but hard work and dedication to continued engagement with others, plus a lot of patience.
If we can engage in respectful dialogue and seek common ground, others — even those with, on the surface, completely opposing viewpoints — will likely seek that common ground with us. This “common ground communication” can begin in our homes with our loved ones, with our colleagues at work, with family and friends over the holidays, and, yes, even with members of Congress. It’s the only way forward if we are to heal the deep wound that divides us.
Michael Hill, Ph.D., teaches mathematics and environmental science at Asheville School.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Shout-out to our Republican Members of Congress

This appeared as a letter-to-the-editor in the Asheville Citizen-Times on June 20, 2017:


I’m writing to give a huge shout-out to Congressmen Mark Meadows and Patrick McHenry, and Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, and their Washington staffs. I was fortunate to travel to DC recently with ten other Asheville-area residents, all volunteers with the nonpartisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
Along with more than a thousand other volunteers from around the country, we descended upon Capitol Hill on June 13 to lobby for our market-based, revenue-neutral proposal of carbon pricing that would send a monthly dividend check to American households. If the CCL proposal were enacted at the federal level, studies show that climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly reduced — more so than with an enactment of the regulatory Clean Power Plan — and that the U.S. economy would improve, with jobs created and growth in GDP, along with decreasing national security threats.
Our Republican leaders and their staffs were happy to engage with us in respectful dialogue about our proposal to address climate change, which would help transition us towards renewable energy systems and improved energy efficiency. But you don’t have to take my word for it — please call their offices and see for yourself.
Michael Hill, Asheville

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Working towards climate change solutions: Why do we do what we do?

I'm at the Citizens' Climate Lobby national meeting in Washington, DC, which runs today (Sunday) through Tuesday, including lobbying our members of Congress on Tuesday. I plan to make a few posts during my stay here, between meetings and presentations.

We were greeted this morning at 9:00 a.m. with a rousing performance by the Howard University Gospel Choir--"When the Saints Go Marching In," and "Hold On, Change is Coming, You Can Make It." A thousand people in attendance stood and clapped, an uplifting beginning, to be sure.

CCL Executive Director Mark Reynolds had the opening remarks. One question he asked us to answer for a neighbor or two was, "Why are you here?" Basically, why are you choosing to work with CCL to affect change?

A few answers from nearby:

  • "The climate deserves the very best we have to give."
  • "For biodiversity ... for all the plants and animals of the world."
  • "For the most vulnerable among us ... for the people of the world who'll not be able to pick up and move if it is too hot or dry or the sea levels rise to far ... who'll not be able to simply crank up the A/C or drive to the supermarket for food. (This was my answer.)
  • "For all the children and our grandchildren across the globe."
Mark showed a video of his two-year-old grandson. Little Elliott was standing seaside, squealing with joy as he ran towards the incoming water. What shear joy he showed! I know that this is how Harper sees the world, and how Claire and Aggie have also seen it, and still do from time to time. THAT'S why we are doing what we are doing.

What do you think? Why is this a worthy cause? Why should we work to engage every member of Congress to implement a carbon fee and dividend plan that will lead to lower emissions and a quicker transition to a zero carbon future? Why talk, write, call about climate change? What do you value most in the world?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Listen up: Escape the effects of noise pollution

This appeared as an original post for Blue Ridge Outdoors on May 17, 2017:


I’m awake early this morning, and I walk to the end of the driveway to retrieve the papers. The sky is clear, the air fresh and cool. But the drone of the highway hangs in the air, too, the monotonous, dull sound of trucks, cars, and motorcycles passing through Asheville on I-40, just a few hundred yards to the west of me. Even through a dense forest of mature trees, the drone is continuous and palpable. My neighbor and friend has begun recording birdsong on our campus, and the resulting sonogram reveals that, even at times when we are not quite conscious of the highway sounds, the drone is present, ever titillating our senses at a deep level. And I wonder: What effect has this had on me and my family over the past thirteen years?

Environmental health researchers report that tens of millions of Americans suffer adverse effects from noise exposure, including sleep disruption, stress, hypertension, and even cardiovascular disease. Many readers of this magazine are probably especially susceptible to noise exposure, given that we live in the populated eastern United States. Our exposure to noise is unrelenting, stemming from road and rail traffic, air transportation, and industrial and occupational sources. And, of course, there’s always the ubiquitous leaf blower and the yapping dog down the street.

Mostly, we are not even aware of some or any of the effects, as we have become desensitized at a conscious level, accepting noise exposure as a tradeoff for the benefits of modernity. The good news is that many people are working at all levels of society to help reduce noise exposure for Americans, too. For example, the technology exists now for quieter leaf blowers, and police and fire sirens are being developed to focus on horizontal sound, so that people in high-rise buildings will not hear them. There are nonprofits dedicated to the cause of reducing noise exposure, such as Noise Free America. Of course, when we all drive electric cars—and some day we will—there will be almost an overnight transformation of the urban soundscape.

A recent study published in Science and summarized by the national news outlets, found that almost two-thirds of protected areas in the continental United States suffer from significant human-induced noise pollution. Still, these wilderness areas, national forests, and urban parks may be our only reprieve from the unrelenting noise we hear in our urban/suburban residential and commercial areas in which many of us spend most of our lives.

I am fortunate to live less than an hour’s drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Driving to the crowded Clingman’s Dome or Cades Cove areas will not suffice, but obtaining a backcountry permit and spending a couple of nights deeper in the wilderness may. Most of us have access to a quieter area in our region, even if it takes some effort to get there. A few days of hearing cascading brooks and wood thrushes may be just the antidote to modernity all of us need. Go outside and play … and listen.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


This appeared as an original piece for Blue Ridge Outdoors on May 9, 2017:


About three years ago I was introduced to phenology, the study of the cyclical timing of natural phenomena. One interested in phenology looks at the exact timing of the emergence of milkweed shoots from the soil, the bursting of leaf buds on a red maple, and the sudden appearance of the black-throated green warbler from its Central American winter breeding grounds. Stated simply, phenology is the study of nature’s calendar.

I was introduced to phenology during a trip with a colleague and our environmental science classes to the Appalachian Highland Science Learning Center, located on the eastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sitting at just over 5,000 feet in elevation on Purchase Knob, the center offers educational programs for students and houses scientists collecting data on air quality, salamander health, phenology, and other topics. In addition to its functional capacities as a research site, Purchase Knob is beautiful, affording visitors stunning views of the Southern Appalachians.

I read the supporting pre-lab materials offered by the program, but it took a while for me to grasp the essence and importance of phenology. “Why would anyone want to spend time studying phenology?” I wondered.

Here’s why: Climate change is not only about warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and stronger storms. Quite subtly, climate change affects the timing of spring and fall events, such as when oaks leaf out and flower in spring—and then drop their leaves in the fall—and when insect larvae (caterpillars) hatch. Climate change threatens to alter these timings, and scientists are already gathering evidence of phenological mismatches. For example, what happens to worm-eating warbler populations if, after their long flight across the Gulf of Mexico in spring during their annual northerly migration, they encounter forests with decreased populations of caterpillars, which have begun their reproductive cycle earlier due to climate change? It may be that the worm-eating warbler may alter its timing, too, but it may also be that the warbler cannot adjust as rapidly as events change due to climate change. Hence, the study of phenology.

After the trip with my class to Purchase Knob, I returned to Asheville School and set up our “phenology circuit,” a 20-minute walk with six forest trees tagged for us to monitor over the years. Throughout the school year, my classes and I walk the loop with clipboards and pencils, and we note the various phenophases of each of our trees—flowering dogwood, two red maples, Northern red oak, American hornbeam, American beech—looking closely at the leaves, flowers, and fruits. We enter our data on our Nature’s Notebook page, run by the USA National Phenology Network, which organizes the phenology data collected by students, researches, and volunteers, and then makes the data and developed models available for use available to the public.

Here are some reasons why I like this simple project, and why I encourage you to consider participating, too:
  • We are participating in citizen science, collecting data with thousands of others across the country for the greater good. Through studying years of collected data, scientists will be able to understand the effects of climate change on many different living organisms.
  • The project is a great excuse to get outside. Inevitably, many other observations and learning opportunities arise during a phenology walk.
  • One’s observation and estimation skills are sharpened. For example, it is not enough to note the white “flowers” of the flowering dogwood, because these are not the reproductive parts of the tree. What we generally consider to be flowers are leaf-like bracts, and the flowers are the small reproductive parts in the center of the bracts. As shown in the figure above, our flowering dogwood had 25-49% of its flowers open on April 13, and 75-94 % of its flowers open six days later.
  • These observations allow us time to appreciate the trees. One of our trees is a small Northern red oak, and I have enjoyed simply watching it grow since the fall of 2014.
Participation in this project is easy, and I encourage everyone to participate. Find a tree (or herbaceous plant or even animal) in your yard, neighborhood, or a nearby park; sign up on the Nature’s Notebook website; print out some data sheets; and get started. You’ll have one more excuse get outside, have one more reason to practice mindfulness through observation, and you’ll collect valuable research data all the while. The climate is changing, and we can all take part in helping to understand the impacts of climate change on the other living organisms in our midst.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Response: Climate of Complete Certainty

An April 29 op-ed piece by newly-hired New York Times writer Bret Stephens, a neoconservative formerly of The Wall Street Journal, has caught the attention of many. Mr. Stephens pretends to accept the claim of climate scientists that the planet is warming and that humans are causing it, but that he is above the fray and holds a healthy skepticism concerning the certainty of scientists as to exact direction we are heading. Here we have the simple tactic used by climate change deniers: obfuscation—let’s use some fancy language and a few strategically-placed statistics to cast some more doubt, delaying our action even further down the road. (Four more years?)

Perhaps the most troubling sentence in the article is this one: “Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.” Modest? We continue to pump out greenhouse gases every second of every day, Mr. Stephens, and we are essentially adding to this “modest” temperature increase every day. We are already more than halfway to the globally-accepted target of no more than warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, to stave off the worst possible effects, and we are not doing nearly enough to meet that target.

One more thing: This is not about probabilities, but about basic physics. It is about energy imbalance and energy budgets. NASA’s description of the basic physics is informative:

Carbon dioxide forces the Earth’s energy budget out of balance by absorbing thermal infrared energy (heat) radiated by the surface. The absorption of outgoing thermal infrared by carbon dioxide means that Earth still absorbs about 70 percent of the incoming solar energy, but an equivalent amount of heat is no longer leaving. The exact amount of the energy imbalance is very hard to measure, but it appears to be a little over 0.8 watts per square meter. The imbalance is inferred from a combination of measurements, including satellite and ocean-based observations of sea level rise and warming.

When a forcing like increasing greenhouse gas concentrations bumps the energy budget out of balance, it doesn’t change the global average surface temperature instantaneously. It may take years or even decades for the full impact of a forcing to be felt. This lag between when an imbalance occurs and when the impact on surface temperature becomes fully apparent is mostly because of the immense heat capacity of the global ocean. The heat capacity of the oceans gives the climate a thermal inertia that can make surface warming or cooling more gradual, but it can’t stop a change from occurring.

The changes we have seen in the climate so far are only part of the full response we can expect from the current energy imbalance, caused only by the greenhouse gases we have released so far. Global average surface temperature has risen between 0.6 and 0.9 degrees Celsius in the past century, and it will likely rise at least 0.6 degrees in response to the existing energy imbalance. As long as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise, the amount of absorbed solar energy will continue to exceed the amount of thermal infrared energy that can escape to space. The energy imbalance will continue to grow, and surface temperatures will continue to rise.

Have even one climate change denier explain to us how our understanding of this basic process is all wrong—and use decades of peer-reviewed science to back up his claim—and then we’ll stop marching in the streets and go back to our day jobs satisfied that everything will be just fine for future generations, after all.

The conversation has shifted, Mr. Stephens, from “Is climate change really happening?” to “Ok, what do we do about it now?”. We can certainly have intelligent discussions about what policies we should enact to ween ourselves from fossil fuels (and ween we must), but we can’t waste more time questioning the proven science. No climate scientist claims to know to the hundredth of a degree how much we will warm and when, and no climate scientist states exactly where the worst effects will occur, but no real climate scientist will tell us to sit back and wait for it to all play out so that we can obtain this precision. It’s called the Precautionary Principle (“When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.”), and the beings of this planet—and future ones—deserve precaution. We have enough data and enough science to act now, even as the science continues.