I spent some time this week with a group of students from the Carnegie Mellon University Urban Systems Studio and the North Braddock Residents For Our Future thinking together about the Past, Present and Future of the Edgar Thompson Steel Plant. It was a remarkable conversation, because the students reconstructed the history of this industrial operation from archives and historic records but wanted to include the lived experience of the people from the community. As the community conversation progressed, I began to reflect that we are once again at a major inflection point in the history of this place.
The Edgar Thompson Steel plant has been in operation since 1875, originally owned by Carnegie Steel Company. Generations of people have lived in the communities surrounding this 200-acre industrial site. At first, they were the workers, mostly immigrants who walked from homes on the hillsides and streets that bordered the plant to take their shifts. The Edgar Thompson plant was the site of the Battle of Homestead in 1982 when workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions. Carnegie famously broke the strike with Pinkerton Guards and scab workers. But the legacy of organizing and workers challenging managers for more equitable treatment stands as a hallmark in the struggle for workers’ rights. Even as they were reaping tremendous profits, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick successfully suppressed the movement for more equitable treatment of workers.[i] They treated workers as units of production to be paid as little as possible to maximize the profit margin. This industry has been the epitome of the extractive industry era that supported the Industrial Revolution.
Is there a better way forward for the future?
The Braddock Residents for Our Future believe there is. When invited to add their ideas to the scenario for the future of the Edgar Thompson Works site, several expressed the apprehension that US Steel would leave, and walk away from the mess that local taxpayers would have to clean up. Others were concerned that the operation could be taken over by an even less responsible foreign operator and conditions could become even worse. But several people thought about converting the area to farmed land, or to place a solar array with pollinator-friendly ground cover and beehives on the site to power the surrounding communities. Some thought there would be a good space for “green steel” instead. The possibility for non-polluting industries emerged as inquiries.
I felt that a pebble had been dropped in a still pool of despair and was now sending out ripples of hope. U.S. Steel ultimately owns this land, but perhaps there will be a moment of enlightenment with the catalyst of new federal dollars and programs to allow a new concept for industrial development to emerge. A new industrial operating system that includes community benefit agreements to build truly shared prosperity. A way forward that moves away from the extractive industries as a base of operation and adopts a system based on recovery of resources. Steel is ideally suited to a recovery and reshape operation. I thank the students of the CMU Urban Systems Studio for opening this avenue for imagination. Without a vision, nothing changes, but with a new vision, inspired innovation follows. If we are to achieve a vision for manufacturing based on “Made in America” it will be important to restructure the process. We cannot continue to use fossil fuels to power production- we need to look at technologies such as direct reduction using hydrogen from renewable resources to support manufacturing.[i]
Beyond looking at non-fossil fueled technologies, we need to examine the entire approach to generating economic activity. The process of producing inexpensive goods to be replaced frequently, with designed obsolescence, is inherently wasteful. To thrive into the future, we can return to a society that values durability, high quality and lasting usefulness, instead of the immediate gratification of convenience and buying things designed to be discarded. Made in America can be “Made to last.” It can be a hallmark of quality and legacy.
Presented at Chatham University, Mellon Administration Building on the occasion of the formal book launch for In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson – Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power.
Thank -you to President David Finegold, Dean Lou Leonard and Rev. David Carlisle to my friends, colleagues, students. Thank you for joining me today to formally launch my second book.
I begin with a Land Acknowledgment recognizing the people who lived in this place for generations before colonial times, and whose influence remains here, interwoven with our own history in many ways. We stand on the ancient tribal lands of the Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Osage, and Shawnee Peoples of the Iroquois Federation. We honor their legacy.
We are gathered here on the campus of Chatham University, called Pennsylvania College for Women when Rachel Carson attended here, graduating in the class of 1929. It is an honor and an obligation to follow the footsteps of Rachel Carson. She has been a formative force in my life from childhood, when I read The Sea Around Us as my family traveled back to the US from Brazil on an ocean liner. Awed and daunted by the vast mystery of the sea over which the boat traveled, I discovered Rachel Carson’s poetic descriptions of what lay under the waves, beyond the horizon and into the depths where only my imagination could penetrate.
Her book Silent Spring came to me as a high school graduation present, and inspired me to study to be a biologist, but with a sensitivity to contaminants in the environment. Her prescience in urging precaution in the production and dissemination of chemicals without knowing fully their effects on living systems stands as a challenge to us today. We cope all the time with spills, leaks, production pollution so that pollution from man-made toxins has become ubiquitous to the ends of the earth.
Now in my late life, as I have engaged four battles with various forms of cancer, I realized that Rachel Carson’s greatest triumph and manifestation of her courage and strength was in her own silent battle with cancer. Only as a scholar of her life did discover that as she wrote Silent Spring, she was in a life-or-death battle with breast cancer. What drove her to finish that book in the face of her daily misery? Why did she persist even when others had to read her words back to her and type her dictation? Rachel Carson lived every day to complete her mission, her moral obligation to speak out in the face of what she knew to be a clear path toward destruction.
In one of the last public speeches of her life, she spoke “On the Pollution of the Environment” to the Kaiser Permanente Foundation. She said, “Underlying all of these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility – responsibility, not only to our own generation, but to those of the future…to those who have no voice in the decisions of today, and that fact alone makes our responsibility a heavy one.” (Lost Woods. P 242.)
For my own perspective, I know I live on borrowed time. But for the wonders of modern medicine I would have been overcome by cancer long ago. I take my life as a gift to be spent in the service of the mission I share with Rachel Carson- to do all I can to make this world a place where our children, and their great-grandchildren- may thrive. A place where living in harmony with Nature is the mainstream. Where we are organized around renewable and sustainable energy systems; regenerative agriculture and food systems that restore the fertility of the land and sequester carbon too; where we value quality and legacy and make things to last with a circular system for managing materials.
I wrote this book to share what got me through my battles with cancer- connecting with Nature and opening myself to the healing power of the Earth. The essays in this book were condensed from a ten inch stack of hand-written journals. I did not speak of my misery while I was going through cancer treatments, but wrote out my fear, my anger, my sense of frustration and despair. And I wrote of the observations of the natural world around me and gathered joy from the intimate views of Nature, or the grand sweeping phenomena I encountered along the way. I did not give Cancer my words, and I kept my conviction that we are each on this world to make it better for those who come after.
The first part of the book draws vignettes from my childhood, motherhood and early life. Here I found the close grounding and connection to Nature as a part of myself, as a source of strength and a source of endless wonder in the intricacies of the living Earth around me.
The second part written during my time in Alaska reflects the time I spent healing from chemotherapy and surgery, absorbing with fascination the grandeur of the scenery and the intimate interactions with the wildlife that I live with, even in the city.
The third part is set here in Pittsburgh, in the experiences of my cancer battles in 2017 and 2018. I sheltered in the care of the two 100-year old pin oaks that preside as the elders of the neighborhood. Their wisdom and strength sustained me.
The fourth part is a selection of my blog posts written during this time and more recently. Here my writing urges pathways to a just transformation of our society to live in harmony with Nature. I continue on this journey through teaching, so I may keep my ideas fresh through interaction with curious minds; through my work with ReImagine Appalachia to give voice to the people who see a better way forward than plastic and hydrogen hubs that mire us in another thirty years of fracking; and I write for reflection on the wisdom of Rachel Carson in a look back at Silent Spring after 60 years.
I dedicate my work to the children of the 21st century, in honor of Rachel Carson with the hope that they will thrive in a beautiful, bountiful Earth for generations to come.
I see so many of you gathered here this evening, from such different parts of my life. I urge you to step away from the people you came here with and to meet and speak with three people you did not know before. Share you own stories and expand this community of caring. It is by extending the hand of friendship beyond our own circle of comfort, and by knowing that the living parts of this Earth are part of us too that we will find common ground to heal the hurts in our world.
On this Winter Solstice, I reflect on a time of closure, and a time for planning new beginnings. I have shared my life for the last 15 years with my partner, Tom Jensen as we had adventures to other countries, explored the places of his ancestors, and significant historical places. We found spontaneous dancing happened at any time, especially when we were both working at home. We took on several construction and reconstruction projects – and we laughed a lot…until he fell to a long and valiant battle with cancer. Chronic terminal illness challenges the character and erodes at the very soul of a relationship, but in lucid moments between bouts of delirium and rage, we were as close as ever. I will treasure those few precious times and remember the wonderful experiences we shared, and let the pain and sadness recede slowly into the past. I know I will miss Tom every day of the rest of my own life.
He was always there to cheer me on and encourage my work. It is ironic that my second book came to print the week of his passing. Writing “In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson- Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power” captured my own struggle to recognize my mortality. I am acutely aware that as a four times cancer survivor I am living on borrowed time. So, I make the most of every day.
All of the crises of the world have continued swirling around me as I have been in a cocoon of slow grieving and caregiving as Tom receded into the clutches of the tumors that consumed him over 18 months. I have swatted at them like irritating flies, keeping focus only on the most immediate and pressing needs. Now, I reflect on what is ahead, and set my priorities for this coming year.
Recognizing the amazing accomplishments of our collective action over the last year sets the stage for what comes next. Much of the ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint is now incorporated into law! (See https://reimagineappalachia.org ) Climate action policy, recovery of abandoned mine lands, broadband expansion, assistance for neglected communities, support for regenerative agriculture, requirements for community benefit agreements attached to federal grants, and many more actions now have the force of law. The tools for creating a more just, equitable and sustainable future are at hand. Now comes the challenge of implementing with intent and keeping the goals in the forefront.
The success story of ReImagine Appalachia needs to be celebrated, and documented. This is the subject of my next book, to be published through the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences. ReImagine Appalachia is quite a testament to the power of the people. It began with 45 listening sessions in which 1,500 people contributed ideas, concerns, life experiences, hopes and dreams – all on zoom because of COVID-19. With only a few paid staff and with amazing leadership from Amanda Woodrum, Stephen Herzenburg, Ted Boetner and Dana Kuhlein, and Natalia Rudiak, teams of working groups sorted the issues and ideas into issue papers, documented policy proposals and case studies illustrating the need for new laws. Visionary leaders like Rev. Marcia Dinkins inspired us to act. Fifty collaborating organizations across four states- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia – worked together to brief critical members of Congress, and their key staff. We were at the table when the laws were being crafted, when the budgets were being set, and we turned out hundreds of engaged citizens at all stages for comments, support, and intervention when things got sticky. Faith communities, people of color, local government officials came together to press for changes that would heal the land and empower the people.
As I sit in my 76th year of life, I recognize the need to mentor and coach successors in my path as a compelling drive. All of my activities and engagements align to build a better future for the coming generations. The legacy of the Baby Boomers has been a mixed bag, and I feel a responsibility to show a vision forward that corrects some of the mis-steps. I think our civilization is ready for a renaissance of attention to cultural and spiritual values reflected in care for the natural capital of the Earth – fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and the vast diversity of species that constitute the great Web of Life. Restoring our life support system ties so many conflicting factions together. Seeking common ground and shared purpose in building a better future for our children and for their grandchildren allows us to rise above the petty conflicts that impede progress.
I am honored to be drawn in to the efforts of my colleagues and friends in the Mon Valley- Tina Doose, Lisa Franklin-Robinson, Chad FitzGerald, Lori Rue, and Derrick Tillman. Rather than moaning with horrors hidden behind a veil of nostalgia for the “heyday of Steel,” we are working for a new vision for the Mon Valley. Rising from the ashes of the extractive industries of the past, we are creating a future built around renewable resources, non-toxic production systems that are compatible with healthy neighborhoods, and circular supply chains that conserve resources and build local and regional resilience. We are developing major projects with community benefit agreements, and including workforce development pathways to careers that include returning citizens, high school students, and recovered addicts. People will not move to a vacuum. But they will embrace a movement that meets community needs and builds on the endurance, resilience and determination of people long ignored and suppressed. The Mon Valley will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the past and soar to a finer future.
For this New Year of 2023, we step out of the dark shadows and into the light.
The landscape has changed with the season from green filled with flowers to brown, red and gold of the deciduous tree canopy in this temperate Pennsylvania community of Forest Hills. As we push forward with budget setting we struggle to implement the plans laid down over the past several years- A Comprehensive Plan for Development, a Climate Action Plan and an Active Transportation Plan. The local governments of America are on the front lines of addressing the great existential challenges of our time. But they do not appear as cataclysmic surges everywhere at once. While coastal areas may struggle with rising sea levels and extraordinary king tides, we in the middle lands have different problems.
Here we seek to reinvest in communities long abandoned by the extractive industries of coal and steel and petrochemical production that laid down the wealth of the 20th century. Here we seek to reshape a future built on the foundations of past systems, but with the resilience and ingenuity that has sustained the people of this land for millennia. Adaptations come slowly, but now more quickly as the tools of policy begin to take hold. The grassroots ideas compiled into the ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint during 2020-2022 are now being implemented through successful incorporation into the Infrastructure and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act adopted by Congress this year. Funds begin to percolate down to the communities, with the new concept of Community Benefit Agreements attached to federal funds. We are slowly dragging equity and inclusion considerations into the policies that drive progress.
What does that look like at the Borough level? Well, we see the prospect of upgrading our sidewalks and public transportation corridors for safer and more frequent bus transit service, and eventually bicycle lanes. We see funds for repairing pedestrian walkways connecting shopping and parks with communities. Walkways and stairways were once prolific in the days when the community was served by electric streetcars, but have fallen into disrepair, overrun with vines and the inevitable succession of saplings growing into the cracks. The remnants of a more active society remain and can be restored.
As the cost of renewable energy systems comes down and is better supported with incentives, more people and businesses are making installations, some linked with their electric vehicle charging stations. The community looks toward establishing micro-grids where solar on business and municipal buildings helps to meet energy requirements, and centrally located battery storage units can ameliorate the cost for the whole community as well as offer better reliability and resilience in storms. The electric grid is being evaluated and upgraded to accommodate the changes that are coming soon. Investment tax credits and production tax credits that are established in law for 10 years, instead of two or three requiring constant budget reauthorization, now make investors more interested in these projects. Stability in the market actually works where exhortation and pleading fell on deaf ears.
As the crises of extended droughts afflict many parts of the world and even significant and growing areas of America, we see the pattern of abundant water from storms in our area instead. Stormwater surges and landslides are our greatest climate change vulnerabilities. This pattern of storm water from climate change carries a huge opportunity and also an obligation. In Pennsylvania and our neighboring Appalachian states, we will have water for growing food, for domestic use and for other purposes. We will not have water to waste, or to contaminate by deliberately adding contaminants for fracking or industrial sewer discharge. Fresh water is essential for life. We must become adept at managing the storm surges, storing water for later use, and conserving its integrity from contaminants. Water can be reclaimed, reused and recirculated endlessly, if the laws that govern its distribution and flow are respected and not abused.
The COVID pandemic that has cost over one million lives in the US alone has reshaped our society. We carry the scars of this pandemic in our loss of social interaction, our pain and grief at losing loved ones, and our economic stress. We have seen our vulnerabilities magnified in the global marketplace when supply chains have been disrupted. People begin to look again to regional and local systems for things that are necessary. Will the homogenized global marketplace yield once again to regional and local specialization? Can we look forward to specialties that make places unique, that mark them as home? I hope so. The handmade homemade craft of folks who made much out of little has earned a place in our history, and may become a hallmark of our future. COVID also revealed the disparities in broadband access and affordability. Here again, new laws begin to address this issue that restrains participation in the virtual marketplace for many people in both urban and rural areas. Is it time for broadband access to be an essential utility service?
I attended the Forest Hills community celebration of Light Up the Hills on Friday evening. There were people from all around the neighborhood and surrounding communities as well. The faces of children telling their wishes to Santa, the people coming in for hot chocolate and donuts after watching young performers all came together to greet each other, and share a few moments of joy. That is what makes communities matter. Shared joy, shared accomplishments, and the sense of belonging in a special place that we can shape, but that also shapes us.
As we prepare for the Thanksgiving Celebration, this week, I think of this time for extending gratitude and appreciation among our kinsfolk, and to our neighbors and friends. And I hope that we can also extend a smile and friendly expressions even to strangers we may meet along the way. We are more alike in our humanity than different in race, gender, culture, religion, or even politics. It is a time to remember the deep history of this land and the Indigenous Peoples who thrived here for thousands of years before the European colonists arrived. Their resilience to changes over millennia gives testament to the ability of people to adapt, to find ways of cooperating through changes, and to share the love and respect for this bountiful land.
In one of the last public speeches of her life, Rachel Carson addressed the Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Permanente Medical Group in San Francisco. Her thoughts on that occasion resonate today with even more clarity, as much that she feared in 1963 has become our reality.
In that speech “On the Pollution of Our Environment” she said, “In spite of the truly marvelous inventiveness of the human brain, we are beginning to wonder whether our power to change the face of nature should not have been tempered with wisdom, for our own good, and with a greater sense of responsibility for the welfare of generations to come.” Rachel Carson used her knowledge of science and her early understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things to advocate for policy based on science.
The challenges we are facing today can be addressed by recognizing that the laws of Nature are not negotiable. We must adjust our laws, our ways of interacting with the living earth and each other to align more closely to accommodate the laws of chemistry, physics, physiology and ecology.
Here is a presentation I gave for the C.F. Reynolds Medical Historical Society on September 20, 2022.
Since the 1950s, man-made chemicals called PFAS have been used to make non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing and consumer goods, fire retardant coatings, stain-resistant carpeting and furniture, some cosmetics, and products to resist grease and oil. The per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of chemicals used to make fluoropolymer coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. They are long polymers including Fluoride molecules (perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). The next most commonly studied are perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA). PFOA and PFOS have been phased out of production and use in the United States, but other countries may still manufacture and use them.https://atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/index.html
This is one more category of man-made chemicals introduced into wide production and use in consumer products that have turned out to have unintended consequences for the environment, and for our health.
Now ubiquitous in fresh water bodies, in the ocean, even in raindrops collected in the Arctic, PFAS are also found in the bodies of most Americans.
PFAS- The Forever Chemicals now are global contaminants. Dr. Arlene Blum and her colleagues at the Green Science Policy Institute in Stamford University have studied these materials and explain why they are harmful and what you can do to protect yourself and your family from the worst of these chemicals. https://greensciencepolicy.org/harmful-chemicals/pfas/
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Arlene Blum is also author of mountain adventures documenting her incredible journeys to the heights of the earth. “Annapurna- A Woman’s Place” is my favorite of her mountaineering adventures. I thank her for permission to post this material on my blog this month. You can learn more about her here https://www.arleneblum.com
We, the people of 2022 are experiencing already the irreversible effects of global warming, global pollution and loss of biodiversity that herald the degradation of our life support system. Presented in the form of data, the statistics are frightening. Carbon dioxide measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory peaked for 2022 at 421 parts per million in May, now 50% higher than before the Industrial Revolution.
Most people notice incremental changes in the weather, and in trends in warming compared to recent past experience, but the gradual change does not cause a sense of danger for most people. The reality of the climate situation calls for an urgent transformative response, a Policy U-Turn. But the reality of the political situation portends the reverse of what is needed – a resurgence of regulation in favor of the fossil extractive industries. The oil, coal and gas magnates press for new investments based on hydrogen from fracked fossil methane and a further push for single use plastics to bolster the industrial petrochemical complex. These are false solutions perpetrated by short–term economic interests which, if pursued, will assure the even more rapid destruction of this living earth.
I want to scream in frustration at the misinformation and greed that perpetuates these disasters. I want to lash out in anger that so many in power refuse to see the needs of the people for now and for the future. I weep for what has been lost already, and for what will yet be exterminated from the face of the earth. Yet, out of this frustration, anger and grief comes a passion to intervene, to give voice to the solutions that are in hand, to organize for political action. This election. This summer. Now. Before it is too late.
No elected official would ever deliberately send hundreds of people into homelessness, but they decide that preventing wildfires is too expensive. No elected official would deliberately poison people, but every day decisions are made to allow uncontrolled pollution to continue in neighborhoods of marginalized people. We let injustice continue like a creeping blight –
Air pollution spreads asthma to one in five adults and one in four children in Clairton PA;
Chemical contamination spreads endocrine disruptors throughout the population until 93% of Americans have detectable levels of Bis-Phenyl A in their blood and a body burden of hundreds of synthetic chemicals in our bodies, even in newborn infants;
Obesity afflicts 33% of Americans who live in food desserts;
Water supplies in most major cities are contaminated with lead and other infrastructure failures.
The government has become powerless to change the laws to protect people now, and even less to protect people and other living things for the future.
If we were to govern FOR THE PEOPLE, the opinion of the majority of Americans clamors for urgent action on climate. “63% of Americans favor broad government action on climate. At a time when partisanship colors most views of policy, broad majorities of the public – including more than half of Republicans and overwhelming shares of Democrats – say they would favor a range of initiatives to reduce the impacts of climate change, including large-scale tree planting efforts, tax credits for businesses that capture carbon emissions and tougher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.” Even in the face of national opinion polls indicating that a majority of Americans believe that addressing climate change is important, Congress remains deadlocked. Inert. Ineffective. A few Senators, Manchin and Collins and McConnell, successfully block action on climate policy to protect fossil industry interests. Now the Supreme Court is eroding the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to rule on carbon emissions.
Local governments end up on the front line for dealing with the effects of climate change and protecting people where they live. Efforts at the local level can move forward a bit with climate action plans, however, for the sweeping structural changes from fossil fuels to renewable energy systems, there need to be changes in the underlying laws. This will not happen unless there can be a veto-proof majority of Senators willing to stand up for the future of our planet, for our children, and for the emerging industries of the clean economy: renewable energy systems; regenerative agriculture and permaculture; and circular materials management for consumer goods.
Many local and regional communities have put forward a vision for a better future critically needed to ameliorate the inevitable disaster that will occur if we continue on the current path. The ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint, the Marshall Plan for Middle America, internationally The Natural Step Framework, the German Energiewende and many others lay out a sustainable future. We know what the solutions are. We know they work. We need to amass the political will to make it happen. The laws of Nature are not negotiable: if we continue to add to the greenhouse gas burden in the atmosphere, we will experience global warming, ocean acidification and the consequences of ecosystem failure. Indeed, we are already seeing these effects beginning to accumulate.
We suffer from a failure to communicate effectively not only the urgency of the situation but the availability of the solutions. We cannot spare our children from the effects of climate change already in motion, but we can still shift to adaptations that can slow the progression and lead to a less disastrous fate.
What will it take to change the direction of the country? Earth Day 1970 brought 10 million Americans into the streets, the halls of Congress, the union halls, the city chambers to demand clean air, safe drinking water and protection from toxic chemicals. The Climate Convergence has mobilized fewer than five million, and the effort is scattered, fractured and fraught with infighting. Scientists leap to challenge, critique and shred each other, as good scientists do in the rigor of academic pursuit. But that very rigor of the scientific process is turned against the message in the public eye. The message of science is discredited successfully by pseudo experts and mouthpieces for the industry who cast doubt on climate findings and disparage the solutions by exaggerating minor flaws and disagreements.
We are indeed in a battle for survival as a species, as a civilization of Humanity. It is time to pull together and lift our eyes to what it is possible still to preserve for our children. It is time to see the vision of a finer future with a shared prosperity, equity and dignity for all people, a style of living that is sufficient but not profligate, where we can celebrate the richness of talent and spirit rather than race to consume and throw away more and more stuff we do not need.
Every election this November of 2022 presents a choice for decision makers and policy makers who will determine the fate of our country and our world. It is time for all of us in the science world, in the sustainability movement, in the arena of believers in the best that people can be to stand up and be counted. We need to make our voices heard and our demands recognized. Put climate on the agenda in the public debates. Build momentum to demand action on behalf of our children. Those who cannot vote yet are excellent ambassadors for climate change. We must stand for our youth and demand accountability from those in power or who wish to sit in seats of power.
And scientists- real ones – need to run for office and win.
Land Acknowledgment: I write from Pittsburgh, which occupies ancestral lands of the Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Osage, and Shawnee peoples.
For most of human history, people struggled to survive and thrive against the forces of nature, as is the case with most other species on the planet. Discovering and harnessing fossil resources to use as fuel released human civilization from the constraints of nature. The Industrial Revolution rested on coal, then petroleum to allow people to conquer seasonal weather challenges, nighttime darkness, travel and industrial operations beyond the scope of human or animal power and bio-based fuels such as wood and whale oil. Burning fossil fuels to support almost all human enterprises has now breached the limits of the natural ecosystems in which we live and upon which we depend for survival.
However, even as the calls of alarm for the rapid pace of global warming become more urgent, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has become the latest excuse to defer the energy system transformation to a renewable base. As noted by the Council on Foreign Relations:
The United States’ dependence on oil has long influenced its foreign policy. U.S. oil development spans three major periods: the rise of oil as a commodity, beginning in 1850; the post–World War II age of geopolitical competition; and the post–Cold War era of deregulation and diversification. Most recently, Russia’s war with Ukraine has aggravated geopolitical tensions and revived the debate about U.S. energy independence.
Calls for relaxing restrictions on drilling and increasing production for export set back policy momentum for reaching the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The increases in gasoline prices illustrate how interdependent the U.S. is on the global market which sets the price of petroleum. U.S. energy policy has long been driven by the concept of cheap gas at the pump. People have become accustomed to using the gas price as a barometer of our energy security. In fact, this is just another signal of our vulnerability.
Energy independence is a term of political manipulation with several definitions, all contested by economists and energy analysts. Those who define energy independence as exporting more than we import fail to acknowledge that even when exporting oil, the U.S. still imports oil. In 2021, the United States exported about 8.63 million barrels per day (b/d) and imported about 8.47 million b/d of petroleum, making the United States an annual total petroleum net exporter for the second year in a row since at least 1949.
As long as the U.S. participates in an international marketplace where the price of the commodity is determined by global geo-political forces, the concept of energy independence has no real meaning. Even renewable energy systems are interdependent in the global marketplace, as is evident in the arguments over tariffs on imports of solar panels from China, and the sourcing and trade of rare earth materials such as lithium.
Rather than seek an unachievable goal of “energy independence,” we can seek to reduce our vulnerability. It is critical to recognize that failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels to zero, at least by 2050, will be catastrophic for our economy and for the viability of the planet. The laws of Nature are NOT negotiable – the laws that support continued use of fossil fuels must change immediately.
Technology is not a barrier to achieving 100% renewable energy system in the U.S. by 2050. A 2015 analysis conducted by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley found that 100% wind and solar power — in conjunction with energy efficiency, energy storage and other advances to complement renewables — could provide electricity to the continental U.S. more reliably than the current system by 2050, and at lower projected costs.
The political will to move the legal and regulatory infrastructure to support this goal has not been mobilized, even though most Americans see climate change as an important issue. Three-quarters of Americans say that human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, contributes to climate change at least some, with 46% saying it contributes a great deal.However, opinions are sharply divided on partisan lines. Democrats say human activity contributes a great deal to climate change (71%), while just 17% of Republicans say the same. Major policy changes will be needed to achieve the necessary transformation of. Our energy system, but as the last session of Congress has illustrated, political conditions are unlikely to achieve the necessary level of action.
The complexity of climate change issues and the diversity of impact even within the U.S. complicates mobilization around climate action. A recent study by the Allegheny Conference Energy Task Force in Pittsburgh has chosen a middle of the road path, even though it recognizes that this approach will not meet the climate goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2050. The principal focus area for funding identified in this report relies on continued production of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing to produce “blue hydrogen” as an industrial fuel source, and applying carbon capture and sequestration technologies to control emissions. This approach locks in dependence on fossil fuels for another two or three decades.
People fear the loss of jobs in the energy sector, without recognizing that the skills and capabilities of workers in this sector are readily transferable to the clean energy economy. A federal investment package with annual average allocations of $11.3 billion to Pennsylvania, from 2021 to 2030, along with an additional $19.7 billion in private investments would generate approximately 243,000 jobs in Pennsylvania— enough to bring Pennsylvania’s high unemployment rate back down towards 4 percent.
The burden of immediate action has fallen to local governments to act. At the local level, people see the immediate effects of climate change vulnerability. In coastal areas, local governments have to address higher tides and more severe storm surges which have been highly dramatized in the media coverage of hurricane damage. Usually there is little or no discussion of the connection of larger, more severe and longer lasting storm systems to global warming and its effects on storm formation. Inland areas see drought and flood damage as well as landslides and stormwater damage. Federal assistance only comes when disastrous levels of infrastructure damage occur, such as in Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy.
For the gradual increase of climate effects, local governments have been adopting climate action plans individuallyand as regions. In all cases, local climate action plans will require federal and state policy support by at least 2030 to support the goals established. For example, in the Forest Hills Climate Action Plan, the predominant sector is Residential. Shifting the heating systems of most houses from natural gas to high efficiency heat pumps will require policy support as well as financial assistance in the form of tax incentives or grants. Local governments have not organized well to pressure state and federal levels of government to respond to these needs.
Forest Hills Borough net zero energy -Volpatt photo
The assumption that reducing energy consumption cuts economic productivity was reinforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Energy consumption did fall as pandemic restrictions limited travel and other activities. However, decoupling energy use from the economic productivity has occurred in many countries already. It is certainly plausible to decouple primary energy consumption growth from meeting the planet’s energy needs. For example, Denmark has 30 years of proven history in reducing the energy intensity of its economy.
It is important to recognize that we need to make a transformation of the energy system, not simply substitute renewable fuels for fossil fuels. The entire approach changes when we focus on supplying the work necessary to meet the needs for people, agriculture, and industry in a different way. There are at least three points here:
primary energy consumption automatically goes down when switching from fossil fuels to wind, solar and hydroelectricity, because they have no conversion losses according to the usual definition of primary energy;
living standards can be maintained while increasing energy efficiency;
renewables-based systems avoid the significant energy usage of mining, transporting and refining fossil fuels and uranium.
Ultimately, reducing our vulnerability to energy disruptions comes down to building energy systems that are in harmony with the laws of nature. We must change the dynamic of the conversation about climate change. It is critical for the survival of our planet and for the immediate well-being of every person to move rapidly to a sustainable energy system.
It is time to recognize the reality of our interdependence as human species to preserve the biodiversity of the planet and to restore the health of the ecosystems we depend on for our survival. Fresh water, clean air, and fertile ground support life on Earth as we know it. If we continue on this path, driven by greed and adherence to a fossil fueled economy, we will destroy ourselves, and all of the living Earth. I close with this reflection from Rachel Carson:
Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, with steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water. Perhaps he is intoxicated with his own power, as he goes farther and farther into experiments for the destruction of himself and his world. For this unhappy trend there is no single remedy – no panacea. But I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
 IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson- Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.
 IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/
 Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi, Mary A. Camerona and Bethany A. Frew. “Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes.” PNAS. December 8, 2015. vol. 112 no. 49 www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1510028112
PATRICIA DEMARCO | Wednesday, March 16, 2022 11:00 a.m.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has renewed calls for energy independence and increased domestic production of oil and gas. However, the call for “energy independence” is nothing more than a distraction, a disinformation campaign propagated by the fossil-fuel industry with the intentions of profiting off this crisis. Despite what they say, the answer isn’t at the bottom of a well. Drilling more oil and gas will only put more money in their pockets. Rather, the surest path to security is to fully ramp up our transition to clean energy.
Here in the U.S., domestic oil and gas production is already at record levels. Meanwhile, clean energy, like wind, solar and other renewable sources, creates good-paying jobs here in the U.S. and is homegrown — so we don’t need to import it and it’s not subject to the wild fluctuations of the global fossil-fuel markets and supply-chain disruptions. Clean energy is how we can achieve greater security, economic stability and a healthier future.
Of course, moving toward clean energy not only creates jobs and decouples the U.S. from its reliance on foreign oil, but also helps solve the climate crisis. There is no time to waste here. Just last month, another dire warning; the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that confirms that climate change is wreaking havoc on our communities and causing dangerous, widespread disruptions to life as we know it. Many ecosystems have already been irreversibly damaged.
Here in Pennsylvania, we have seen more frequent and severe extreme weather events. Just last month, floods in Western Pennsylvania forced many to evacuate their homes as others needed to be rescued. As flooding continues to worsen, the more damage there will be to our homes and businesses, and more lives will be put at risk.
As the IPCC report makes clear, delaying action will only make things worse. By 2050, the number of dangerous heat days Pennsylvanians experience per year is expected to triple. This is a major concern for all Pennsylvanians, but especially for the more than 310,000 people here who are especially vulnerable to extreme heat. To make matters worse, summer droughts are projected to increase in severity by 50% by 2050.
Tackling climate change in Pennsylvania must start with working to reduce our pollution. Pennsylvania is the 12th most polluted state in the nation. A study conducted in Allegheny County found that children who live near steel mills, power plants and other sources of pollution have three times the risk of developing asthma. In communities of color and low-wealth communities, which disproportionately live near these sources of pollution, over 22% of children suffer from asthma. To put that in perspective, the national average is 8%.
In 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives took bold action by passing $555 billion in investments in climate action, clean energy, justice and jobs. In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Biden called for the Senate to push these investments through as well. If passed, these investments will be of great benefit to Pennsylvania. We can be a leader in driving the transformation to a low-carbon energy economy. With a strong manufacturing tradition, skilled workforce, and existing infrastructure, Pennsylvania is primed to lead in replacing fossil fuels with solar energy and wind systems made here as well as advanced battery technology, fuel cells and electric grid upgrades for load management through artificial intelligence technology.
The window for making the transformation to a low-carbon future is closing rapidly. This is the time for people of vision and courage to stand together and demand our leaders act on behalf of our children and their grandchildren to assure a sustainable future for our nation and our world. Congress and Biden must immediately work together to get these climate investments over the finish line so that Pennsylvania can thrive like never before.
This article published in the Post-Gazette on February 23, 2022 was crafted by a strong coalition of labor, environmental and community leaders: Even though all authors were not published in the piece, very special credit goes to Matt Mehalik of the Breathe Project who has been working tirelessly for the Clairton air quality and environmental justice issues, and Mike Stout, a tireless organizer and author of steel valley history.
This is an important call for accountability and action, not patronizing assurances of “we are working on it” ENOUGH! We need to step up the pace on planning for a sustainable, just, equitable and robust future for the Mon Valley, the steelworkers who have given it their blood, sweat and tears for generations, and the communities that have borne the burden.
“We know the importance of good-paying union jobs. We support community and worker health, clean air, clean water and a clean environment — not just for us, but for our children and future generations.
U.S. Steel’s actions feel like calculated, abusive manipulation setting the stage for further abandonment, all facilitated by silent cynical “leadership.”
It’s time to go in a different direction. We want investments in the Mon Valley and its world-class, highly skilled workforce. We support high-tech manufacturing for the future. And we are proposing a plan that unites workers and communities can build from. (See the full article below to read the proposals for a better future.)
Here is the whole Team that has called for a strong response to US Steel’s continued pattern of betrayal to the Mon Valley:
Rose Bezy – Clairton Steelworker, USW Local 1557
Willard Jones, Clairton Steelworker, USW Local 1557
Matthew Mehalik, Breathe Project Director, descendant of 3 generations of Mon Valley steelworkers
Mike Stout– Former Grievance Chair, USWA 1397, Homestead Works, President, Izaak Walton League of America, Allegheny County Chapter
Patricia M. DeMarco, Ph.D. – Steelworkers daughter and veteran father and mother in AFT and Allegheny Administrators Union; and granddaughter of the UE and PA RR unions
Mark Fallon, former Clairton Steelworker, Steel Valley teacher