Biden: A Breath of Fresh Air on the Climate Front

Last Wednesday, after months of drama culminating in an insurrection, Joe Biden was peacefully inaugurated as our 46th president. For the environment, this was both a literal and figurative breath of fresh air, as on that same day he signed executive orders reversing key Trump administration actions on climate, including having the US rejoin the Paris climate accord.

And not a moment too soon.

The hottest years on record, with 2020 coming in second only to 2016. Graph courtesy of Climate Central.

As the above graph shows, 2020, now in the history books, was the second warmest year on record, coming very close to 2016’s record. More worrisome, the last eight years all cracked the top 10, a sure sign of a trend, and the hottest 10 years ever occurred in the 21st century.

“A cry for survival comes from the planet itself,” the new president noted very early in his swearing-in speech, “a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.” He’s right. 2020 began with huge wildfires burning through Australia, and ended with western American wildfires racing through the fiercest fire season ever. One megafire, California’s worst ever, torched more than 1 million acres; five of the six largest wildfires in that state’s history happened only last fall.

Meanwhile, a record number of storms made landfall in America, our named storms running out of the alphabet. In late June, the temperature of the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk topped 100 degrees, yes, a very scary record. A quarter of Bangladesh was flooded by monsoons in 2020, impacting four million people, and the Arctic Ocean saw continued record melt, measuring the second smallest ice cover ever since measuring began in the 1970s.

For me, someone who has been teaching and writing about climate change since the 1980s, the last four years were extraordinarily hard. I’ve been saying for years– and so have many others—that we have a small window of opportunity to effectuate change on climate. But the Trump team took the nation in the exact opposite direction, erasing so many gains we were making on so many issues like climate change and habitat loss, on energy efficiency and renewable energy. There is still a window of opportunity—but that window has been closing, and we just lost four precious years that we will never get back.

Just like with COVID, the metaphoric breath of fresh air is a team of professionals who believe the government plays a role in climate change and will use science to inform smart policy. No more lies about climate change being a Chinese hoax. Data will matter again, so will truth. Science has a seat at the Biden table; Biden and his team will tell us how bad it is getting, not tell us that black is white, green is bad, and everything will be fine. And no more science policy delivered via Twitter.

That Biden can even say the phrase “climate change” aloud in public speeches, is also, sadly a huge, welcome, and a necessary breath of fresh air.

So imagine my delight when the president named former Secretary of State John Kerry—experienced, polished, with every world leader on his speed dial already—as his international presidential envoy on climate change. He will be at the Paris accord table, along with 194 other nations.

We, along with Libya and Iraq, are among the very few holdouts, the world’s climate pariahs. How’s that for company? Not many democracies have held out from the climate accord. Even India and China have signed on, so with us back in the game, the world’s top three carbon polluters are at the table. Hallelujah. Just in time.

Even better, Biden has assembled a diverse climate team around him. Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy heads the new White House Office of Climate Policy, and New York’s Ali Zaidi will serve as her lieutenant. North Carolina’s top environmental regulator, Michael Regan, an African-Amercan gentleman, will lead the Biden EPA, and Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico will lead the Department of the Interior, a landmark choice as she becomes the first Native American to do so. And former governor Michigan Jennifer Granholm will become Secretary of Energy.

His climate team looks like America: men and women of all ethnicities. This is key on the climate front as environmental justice is another pillar of the Biden green approach. As communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution and toxic emissions, and will be disproportionately impacted by a warming world, another of Biden’s executive orders signed that busy first day notes that “where the Federal Government has failed to meet that commitment in the past, it must advance environmental justice.” And the Green New Deal sneaks in here, as that same order says the government needs to “prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

For decades, people like me have been arguing against the false dichotomy of jobs vs. the environment. To badly mix metaphors, we can have our environmental cake and afford to eat it too. Time to put that dichotomy behind us.

So the metaphoric breath of fresh air was the tone and content of last Wednesday’s speeches and actions, a refreshing change. But more important was the literal one, the cleaner air you and your children will be breathing if we—finally, at long last—take this greener path.

—Written by Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

 

News Flash: Beavers in Roxborough!

One of the feel-good stories on the environmental scene is the rewilding of large cities like Philadelphia, where suddenly peregrine falcons nest in church steeples and on Delaware River bridges, bald eagles pull large fish out of the Schuylkill River, and coyotes amble down Domino Lane.

In that vein, members of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy were somewhat startled to discover that the restoration plantings they’ve doggedly placed along the Schuylkill River have been devoured by…beavers! Wait, beavers in Roxborough?

Once extirpated—a fancy word meaning locally extinct—across Pennsylvania, hunted because their fur was remarkably valuable and because we did not appreciate their ability to rearrange landscapes to their own ends. But beavers have been returning to our state over the last century, and have been seen along Tacony and Pennypack Creeks since about 2008. And now they have taken up residence in the Schuylkill River and Manayunk Canal around Flat Rock Dam.

“I first noticed beavers and their lodge in the winter of 2018,” observed Suzanne Hagner, Roxborough resident and member of the Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy, “as I rode out the Schuylkill River Trail towards Shawmont. I could see where they had worn down a path into the woods on the far side of the trail and I guessed that was where they were going for food.” The lodge was near Flat Rock Dam, and they have been spotted—and photographed—as far down as Lock Street and as far up as past Shawmont Avenue, both in the canal and along the river.

“You can see their work from Lock to Cotton streets,” added Kay Sykora, another key Conservancy member, “particularly in the Cotton Street area; look for the damage on the banks and trees.” She offered that there was a “small dam in the wetlands near the upper locks” but that may have been damaged by heavy storms. Tom Landsmann, president of the Conservancy, offers that “the very best place to see the beaver or signs of the beaver’s visits is from the river. Take a kayak or paddle board and look for the damaged bark or the lodges. Look just above the flat rock dam on the Philly side, but on the Lower Merion side and up river as well. Can’t miss it.”

They famously cut down saplings and trees with their chisel-like teeth, building dams and lodges with the branches, chewing the inner bark of trees as their favored food source. That tree-cutting, of course, can sometimes interfere with our own good work.

“Beavers have good taste in trees,” Tom added, tongue in cheek. “They ate over 60 trees we planted along the canal last year. But we adjusted. Last spring, we painted the uneaten trees with latex paint mixed with a lot of sand,” the grit distasteful to the large rodents. “Many of the damaged trees grew out again this summer,” he continued. “We wrapped those trees in cages this fall. We installed 130 cages along the canal near both sides of Fountain Street.”

Bernard “Billy” Brown, author of Grid magazine’s Urban Naturalist column, told me that, in addition to the cages, Riverfront North, a group doing restoration work along Pennypack Creek, “has planted species that can rebound well after being cut down by beavers, like willow species in particular.”

The Conservancy recently hosted a walk-through of the area with a self-described “beaver believer” they brought in from central PA, and their takeaway was similar. “The other approach which I believe we will have to do,” continued Kay, “is to rethink our plantings. We need to put in more herbaceous plants on the impacted banks and see if we can add things like willows to the upper wetland areas to keep them in that area, which is better suited for them and for us.”

Suzanne Hagner agrees. “There are plants, several species of low growing willow that beavers eat that we can plant and hopefully, if we get them planted soon, we can entice the beavers to move further out the trail” and away from their restoration plantings.

Billy Brown has been writing about the beaver’s return to Philadelphia for a while now. “As a reaction, I’ll say that beavers and their return to Philadelphia show the importance of waterways in connecting urban habitat with the surrounding landscape. I think most people under-appreciate how severely our system of roads isolates habitat, an issue the Schuylkill Center contends with the Toad Detour project, for example. Waterways and the green corridors around them are exceptions to the fragmentation of habitat in urban landscapes. The ability of beavers to quickly disperse through the city shows that. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to imagine how different our urban ecosystems would be if we could more broady connect to the surrounding landscape.”

Suzanne Hagner has been reading up on beaver, passing books along to Conservancy members. “They are amazingly skilled at creating waterways and irrigation systems that lead to ecological health,” she said. “Our consultant offered that the return of the beavers was a very good sign in our area, as the beaver is an ecological system in itself. I had lived in Washington state, and had heard that beavers were being reintroduced in eastern Washington to help curb the arid areas that are prone to wildfires.”

“The return of the beaver,” notes Kay Sykora, “along with a wide range of wildlife like herons and turtles underscores the health of our river area, once one of the most damaged and polluted rivers in the country. Beaver were virtually trapped out of existence for their fur, and there was no understanding of the role they played in the environmental balance of nature. They are key to the health of our wetland areas and the range of wildlife that needs those areas to survive.”

Go for a walk along the Schuylkill River Trail, and find for yourself the pointed chiseled ends of tree trunks along the canal and river. It’s evidence of Roxborough’s newest neighbor, the beaver.

 

—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Photo/Video by Linda Lee McGinnis

White Christmas: Another Endangered Species

Last week’s snow was thankfully kind to us. Though 6.3 official inches fell at the airport, it was not the foot that might have been and was long predicted, nor the ice storm that was also possible, nor the gale force winds that were expected. My staff at the Schuylkill Center breathed easier on Thursday morning when they arrived to shovel us out, as snow, ice, and wind can conspire to cripple our work, toppling trees and branches while causing power outages. So frankly, we’ll take an easier storm.

But temperatures returned to New Abnormal levels this week, as predictions call for a balmy 61 degrees on Christmas Eve. No White Christmas this year. In fact, the last recorded white Christmas occurred in 2009, and even then it didn’t actually snow on the day, but earlier in the week. The last time we recorded an inch or more of snowfall on the holiday was 2002, with only an inch and a half. The record for snowfall on Christmas is a foot, which fell way back in 1966, more than 50 years ago.

And I’m sure you remember that famed Christmas Eve only five years ago when the mercury topped out in the mid-70s, breaking December records as carolers sang in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts.
So last week’s snowfall may be an odd time to revisit climate change. But it is timely: remember, last week’s snowfall was the first major winter storm in almost 1,000 days, and is 21 times the total amount that fell all last winter. The Schuylkill Center’s facilities team did not have to plow our driveway once last year.

Remember, one weather event is neither proof nor disproof of climate change, so a snowfall in December does not mean all is fine and the climate isn’t broken. What one has to do is look at long-term trends. As the accompanying graph, created by temperature measurements collected by Climate Central in Princeton, shows, Philadelphia’s winter temperatures have warmed by almost five degrees since 1970. Five degrees may not seem like much at first glance, but the planet’s finely tuned climate instrument reacts strongly to even tenths of a degree changes in weather averages. In fact, winter has changed more markedly in Pennsylvania than the other three seasons.

Globally, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies calculates that 2020 has a more than 90 percent chance of becoming the hottest year on record, while NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gives the year a 54 percent chance, possibly losing out by only a nose to 2016, as NOAA says the first 11 months of 2020 were a mere .02 degrees cooler than record-hot 2016.

Santa, gearing up for this week’s worldwide flight, is in trouble, as his North Pole is warming faster than the rest of the world. “One of 2020’s notable hotspots,” reported Scientific American last week, “has been Siberia… At one point the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk reported 100.4 degrees F. If this figure is verified by the World Meteorological Organization, it would be the first time recorded temperatures above the Arctic Circle have surpassed 100 degrees F.”

Imagine that: a measurement of 100 degrees in the Arctic Circle. Santa is quaking in his boots as the ice caps melt below his feet.

According to NASA, the Earth’s average temperature in November was 56.95 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.75 degrees above the 20th-century norm. Again, these small changes matter.

No matter where 2020 ends up in the standings, it will be warm enough to knock 1998 out of NOAA’s top 10. When that happens, all of the 10 warmest years in their records will have occurred in only the 15 years since 2005 — and the top seven will have occurred since 2014. The statistical odds that this is a random occurrence are slim to none, and each year is now as hot or hotter than the year before.

A 2017 analysis in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society offered that between the late 19th century and 1980, new records for the hottest year would happen about every eight to 11 years, a reasonable rate that makes sense. Since 1981, however, they have been occurring about every three to four years. New records are now the norm.

“So if 2020 takes the top slot,” concluded the normally staid Scientific American, “it will not be entirely unexpected — and will be yet another stark example of how far the Earth’s climate has deviated from its natural course.” As a Goddard scientist told the magazine, “I work for NASA, but it’s not rocket science.”

May all your days be merry and bright nonetheless, though no, all your Christmases will not be white. Yet another casualty of climate change.

—By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Biden: Changing the Climate on Climate Change

When President-elect Joe Biden assumes the presidency in two months, he takes the helm with as many front-burner issues as any president ever, even FDR and Lincoln. He’s got to handle a raging pandemic with its horrific economic fallout, a long overdue reckoning on race, and a collapsing climate. All at once.

Consider climate. As Election Day dawned, a typhoon with gusts of 235 mph plowed into the Philippines to become the strongest storm to make landfall in world history. Here in the Atlantic this year, we set a record with 29 big storms, exhausting the English alphabet and moving into Greek. As David Leonhardt reported in the New York Times, “Nine of those storms became much more intense in the span of a single day, an event that was rare before the planet was as warm as it now is.”

This summer, more than five million acres of the American West burned, and West Coast sooty air was more harmful to breathe than that of smog-choked Indian cities. Worldwide, September was the hottest month ever measured, and 2020 is tracking to be the hottest year ever (of course). The Arctic is melting faster than expected, and sea levels are rising too quickly too. Leonhardt again: “Glaciers are losing more ice each year than can be found in all of the European Alps.”

Climate-denying President Trump had famously withdrawn America from the Paris Agreement on climate, and ironically, the treaty’s timing was such that our participation ended the day after Election Day. No matter how you feel about the treaty, there are at least two relevant facts you should know. For one, 179 countries have formally adopted the plan—that’s out of 195 countries total—and among the few holdouts are Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iran… and us. Great company, right?

And two, the agreement is a loose framework designed to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius—a number scientists agree would be catastrophic. And two, the agreement is a loose framework designed to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius—a number scientists agree would be catastrophic. (We’ve already climbed 1.2 degrees.) Most close watchers of the accord have long agreed it was not enough, so even though the Paris plan was contentious, it would never get us to where we need to be. But at least it got the world around one table talking.                   

Biden has said all along that he will return to the Paris accord, which he reiterated when he was named the winner. In fact, he added Paris to his long list of Day One activities, and he ran on a $2 trillion climate plan, which, while ambitious in scope, was easily more centrist than those promulgated by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But still, it is a solid plan because it has been vetted by a long list of policy experts and scientists. (Radical idea: smart science leads to informed policy choices.)

He began to make good on this promise last week by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry to a new post, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, giving Kerry—who played a key role in brokering the Paris accord—a cabinet-level position and a seat on the National Security Council. Said the formal press release announcing the appointment, “This marks the first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change, reflecting the president-elect’s commitment to addressing climate change as an urgent national security issue.” 

The heart of the Biden plan is reducing greenhouse gas emissions through both subsidizing clean energy and setting tougher standards for polluting industries. If subsiding green power is problematic for you, remember we have been subsidizing coal and oil for decades. 

His plan is no Green New Deal, the progressive set of ideals that sets conservative hair on fire. For Republicans who fear a Green New Deal, the challenge is for them to place on the table an acceptable, different, science-based plan that still gets us to lower emissions. Lacking an alternative, the Biden plan is all we have at the moment.

But the Green New Deal is also meant to confront two front-burner issues, climate plus our intransigent racial disparities. The New Deal piece of it demands racial justice and economic equality, and wonderfully, clean energy can help immensely here, both by mitigating the impact of a hotter climate on especially poor and minority residents of large cities, but also by offering high-wage skilled-labor jobs. Win-win.

The bad news for Pennsylvania is that the age of fossil fuels is over, and needs to be over. Pennsylvania, of course, is where America’s oil was first discovered in 1859, where huge coal fields have been mined for generations, where coal powered the rise of Bethlehem Steel and the Pennsylvania Railroad, where fracking has been hailed as the future of fuel. But that storm slamming into the Philippines on Election Day reminds us of another reality. Carbon emissions are too high, and need to be drastically reduced. Now.

Sadly, the message that is continually lost in all the noise is that a greener energy future means MORE jobs for Pennsylvanians, not less, as wind and solar ramp up. Too many studies show that clean energy offers far more jobs than coal, which has been dying anyway.

For most of the world, climate change long ago crossed the threshold from heresy to conventional wisdom, and we have a quickly diminishing window of opportunity to address climate. In a Biden presidency, we thankfully finally have a shot, and for that alone I am grateful.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Wild Turkeys: The Truth Behind the Bird

Even in this crazy, complicated COVID year, Americans of all shapes, sizes and colors– maybe just fewer in number– will gather around tables overflowing with colorful cornucopias of food. And whether that table includes cranberry sauce or couscous, tortellini or tortillas, the centerpiece of the meal is likely that quintessential American bird, the turkey.

Consider that turkey, one of our biggest natural neighbors. Likely one of your holiday plates includes an image of the tom turkey, chest all puffed out, strutting its stuff. That’s not how turkeys appear in November. Sleeker, thinner, turkeys are now forming winter single-sex flocks, a tom and its brothers joining a fraternal order of other males. During this first winter, the toms spar viciously and violently to establish, yes, the pecking order, and a rigorous, fiercely contested one at that. They peck, wrestle, and strike with wings, feet and head until exhausted, and he who fights longest and hardest is the winner. To him go the spoils of war: the right to mate in spring.

For when the winter flocks break up, the brothers stay together. They pick clearings in the forest to strut their stuff, gobbling and fluffing like hyperactive mummers, calling attention to themselves while attracting harems of females. The bumps atop their heads turn various shades of reds, whites and blues—they are, after all, patriotic—and their wattles flap while their snoods bounce around: they have a face only a mother—and hens—can love. And when the hens arrive, only the big brother—top of the heap—mates, top gun mating with multiple females to spread his strong genes throughout the pool.

It’s not known whether or not Pilgrims and Native Americans dined on turkey that first Thanksgiving; one Pilgrim diarist mentions a whole litany of foods (venison, geese, shellfish, and more, but no turkey). But the Pilgrims knew about turkeys, encountering them in England, of all places. You see, the Aztecs domesticated the Mexican subspecies around 800 B.C., and Spaniards introduced the bird to Europe, where it came to England in 1550, and by the Pilgrim’s era was the centerpiece of large feasts held by the wealthy. The turkey we eat today is still a descendant of the Mexican subspecies—not the native North American bird we see at places like here at the Schuylkill Center, where turkeys are sporadically spotted.

Oh, one more turkey story. While wild turkeys are surprisingly common across Pennsylvania these days, the sight of these massive birds was unlikely even recently. Though turkeys had roamed a huge swath of America, because of the one-two punch of overhunting and deforestation, only 30,000 turkeys gobbled across 18 states by 1900; the animal had disappeared completely from Canada, New England, New York, and agricultural states like Indiana. While Pennsylvania was the northernmost state on the East Coast to retain a wild turkey population, there were none in Philadelphia or its suburbs.

So the wild turkey almost met the same fate as the dodo and the passenger pigeon.  Happily, three things altered its future. Too many hunters in too many parts of the country let wildlife agencies know they valued wild turkeys. Turkey hunters are a passionate lot, and whether or not you hunt or believe in animal rights, turkeys are here, in part, because of pressure from hunters. Second, wildlife managers learned how to use relic populations of wild turkeys in captive breeding programs—and re-introduced newly hatched turkeys to their former haunts.  

And finally, over the last decades, our forests have been slowly regenerating over the years, turkeys rediscovering new, viable habitat. Creatures of the edge, they crave forests for cover and nesting spots, then fields and meadows for seeds and insects to eat. As their habitat returned, so did they. Today, state websites indicate that turkeys nest in all but two Pennsylvania counties, Delaware and Philadelphia, and I wouldn’t be surprised if nesting turkeys return to my Schuylkill Center in Roxborough sometime soon.

The National Wild Turkey Federation now estimates some seven million turkeys range across the U.S., and National Audubon christened it one of the “10 Creatures We Saved” in its centennial celebrations a few years back. This is happily also true of the bald eagle, a creature we featured here only two weeks ago.

On Thursday, as turkeys decorate our possibly smaller tables, be thankful for one of the too-few conservation success stories we share, the return of the wild turkey.  

Happy Thanksgiving.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Pam DeLissio: ‘Voters Want to be Heard’

While razor-thin voting margins characterized so much of the electoral landscape this month, state Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-194, cruised to an easy reelection victory for her sixth term in Harrisburg, racking up more than 74% of her district’s almost 37,000 votes.

I talked to her last week over the phone, and she laughed when she told me that “a voter I met asked me if I had to work hard for this win. I told her I work hard every day.” And she does.

A self-described “moderate, centrist, middle-of-the-road” politician, she bristles when anyone suggests these traits show a lack of strength, or lack of an opinion. Clearly she has opinions. But she listens very hard to her constituents, and works to represent those interests in the capitol. “I take the input of constituents very seriously,” she offered, “because when citizens are informed about the process, they make better decisions.”

The COVID pandemic colors everything these days, including politics. “Here we are sitting and talking with 4,700 new cases only yesterday,” she said, pausing to confirm the number. “Yes, 4,711, higher than the highest high in the spring, and the legislature has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to correct the governor’s supposedly erroneous behavior. In an emergency like this, you need to be nimble, and putting the pandemic in the hands of the legislature is just not effective. As long as you have gerrymandering in place, you’ll have a skewed perspective on COVID.”

As an example, the state is currently sitting on a pot of $1 billion given to Harrisburg by Congress from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act with overwhelming bipartisan support back in March. “Our CARES money could have been 100% appropriated by the governor,” she told me, “but as an olive branch he gave authority to the legislature to spend it. So there’s still about a billion dollars to be spent that the legislature has not been inclined to deal with.” (They were waiting to possibly use it for deficit relief.) “And many sectors of the community – child care comes to mind – are acutely aware that this money has not been spent.”

Given that she is now a veteran of a full decade of service, she is in line for serving as a minority chair on one of the committees she belongs to. “I’m looking forward to that,” she said. Even though she will be minority chair, “if you do it well, do it right, and do it strategically, you could have some influence.”

When asked about her legislative priorities, she did not hesitate: “redistricting reform, because 2021 is a redistricting year. There is a transparency piece I am interested in, to direct the reapportionment commission to be more accountable by requiring public hearings and allowing public comments. I actually pushed for redistricting reform at one of my first town halls back when I was first elected, and people said, ‘Pam, that’s 10 years away!’ And here we are suddenly at the other end of that decade. But neither party seems very interested in this,” she added wistfully.

“I also see and hear a lot about equity and poverty. Our city’s poverty rate is 26%,” her voice rising. Philadelphia is often described as the poorest large city, not a badge of honor by any stretch. “Poverty stands in the way of our citizens breaking into the middle class.” For her, poverty becomes a lens through which she can examine other bills before her: “is this bill going to help or exacerbate the situation?” She noted that, “ I’ve spent some time understanding the social determinants of health, like the impact of housing, transportation, and food insecurity on health.” These play into poverty as well.

Pam easily connects education to the issue, and reminded me that an education commission made recommendations in 2015 to change the formula the state uses to distribute money for school districts. Of the 500 school districts in the state, almost 200 are underfunded, according to the state’s own math. The new allocation formula, she said, “takes into consideration things that have never been considered before, like poverty level, and there’s even a factor in the equation for deep poverty.” But Harrisburg got stuck on whether the new formula goes into effect automatically or steps down over time, and she signaled she would like to champion stepping down, a gradual drop over time to more equitable levels.

When asked about Pennsylvania being in the national crosshairs over our election’s integrity, she said, “Out of the blue this fall, there came an effort (in the legislature) to create a select committee on election integrity. The way the language was written – it was so poorly drafted – it would have given subpoena power to the majority Speaker. The pushback, no, the blowback,” she said, her voice rising on blowback, “was tremendous, and that was shelved.”

About the fraud allegations, she says “nobody has shared one scintilla of evidence. Oh,” she remembered, “one person from one polling place called me with a complaint, and I need to track that down. But that’s it.”

She would like to see election reform. “I’d like to memorialize the drop boxes– there was unbelievable voter engagement this year because of mail-in votes. Many many states have mail-in voting, so it’s not new, it’s just new in Pennsylvania. Interestingly, it eliminates straight-ticket voting, which is no problem for me. But this engagement may just be what many legislators want to avoid – they actually don’t want engaged voters.” She also supports mail-in votes that can be opened and prepped early, so they can be counted on Election Day, avoiding this year’s multi-day wait.

She’s not a big fan of legislation crafted “for the sake of the base. I’ve never played to a base; I haven’t done that and will not do that, and that’s how I ended up with a robust percentage of the vote in a divisive election. Voters tell me, ‘I know she listens to me.’ That’s what most voters want, to be heard.”

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Natural Selections: COVID at Cathedral Village

As COVID-19 deaths in America hit the 100,000 mark, there has been a lot of attention– TV news stories and front-page newspaper accounts– on senior centers and nursing homes, and rightfully so, as fully one-third of those deaths have occurred at these sites.

So as Roxborough wrestles with the virus, it seemed especially important to talk with Charles Gergits, who for the last five years has been the executive director of Cathedral Village, the continuing care retirement community off Ridge Avenue by the Andorra Shopping Center. How has Cathedral Village fared?

“We’re holding our own,” Charles told me last week, “we’ve been very fortunate so far. With 400 residents and a staff of 300, we’ve had a total of five residents and three staff contracting the virus, and there currently is one active case on staff and one active case with residents.” Sadly, he reports, “there have been two deaths here.”

But that’s– to me, neither skilled in journalism nor medicine– a remarkably low number compared to how the virus has ravaged so many nursing homes. How have they avoided what has happened elsewhere? “Our staff has talked about that a lot,” he told me, “ and we think it starts with a lot of little things. For one, our team is very experienced at infection control. This virus is more deadly than the flu, but we have not had a flu case in our skilled nursing facility in the last two years. We were also the first skilled nursing area to close to visitors.” They closed on March 8, almost a week earlier than many other centers. “We were proactive, which helped keep numbers down.”

He does worry about the reporting on his peers. “Senior centers have been villainized as far as reporting,” he offered, “because those who are elderly and those whose health is compromised are the ones hit hardest by the virus, and that’s who resides in skilled nursing facilities.” He feels that perspective has not been communicated in these pieces. Point taken.

For both residents and staff, there has been “a lot of anxiety” over the unknown path of the disease. “I feel bad and sorry for the residents and their families,” he continued. “It’s hard for the residents not to visit and socialize; hard for the families not to see them. I feel bad for what’s going on.”

But it has also “made the community stronger,” he told me. With the dining rooms closed, staff delivers food to each resident’s room, and one staff member’s job is to go shopping for three or four hundred people. When the deliveries were being made recently, “every door and window had a thank-you sign on it. Our residents are increasingly appreciative of the little things and very supportive of our staff– we’ve been flooded with letters and signs.

“And our staff,” he continued, “has a renewed sense of pride. It’s been good to see the emphasis nationwide on staff as frontline heroes– it’s good to see the pride. At the same time, there is this anxiety of not knowing whether you might contract it, of bringing it home to your family, or bringing it to one of the residents– and they couldn’t live with that.”

Knowing this has been unbelievably stressful on staff, he says they have tried very hard to be flexible with their staff, accommodating to adjustments like childcare, which collapsed for many in the pandemic. “We also have apartments we can put staff up in when we need to,” he said.

I called him from my home, where I am working, but Charles was at Cathedral Village. “Everything we do is hands-on,” he volunteered, “we’ve all been still at work, haven’t been able to work from home at all. And we’re all working long days, staying here when needed.” I joked about his frontline staff earning combat pay, and he quickly said, “yes, we’ve made adjustments to pay at times.”

His parent company, Presbyterian Senior Living, for whom Charles has worked for 20 years now, “has been very supportive, getting us the PPE we need. We have enough for our residents now. But if something happens, kike if there is a mad rush, getting more equipment worries me.”

Charles says “we are very thankful for the support we’re received from the Roxborough community– people have volunteered to make masks and shields for us, and there have been lots of posts online.” He’s thrilled at the outpouring of support from our community. As the hospital sign notes, we are #RoxyStrong.

Moving forward, he says “state and federal governments need to make sure skilled nursing staff have more support faster. People were really focusing on hospitals at first– they were not really focusing on skilled nursing facilities.” That needs to change.

And he confesses that “like everyone else in the United States, we’re getting a little tired of being inside, coming up on three months now. But I do believe that some of the guidelines have prevented the spread of the disease– social distancing and wearing masks have helped. And I’m nervous, as most people are, as things start opening up– will COVID rebound? Will there be an increase?”

He hopes not; we all agree. But here’s some love and prayers to the entire Cathedral Village community, staff and residents. We look forward to seeing you outside again soon.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Earth Day 1970 Changed American History

At 1983's Earthfest, the center's celebration of Earth Day, participants played with a 6-foot Earthball, one of the many activities at the event. Mike Weilbacher, then a  member of the education staff, organized the festival for the center.

At 1983’s Earthfest, the center’s celebration of Earth Day, participants played with a 6-foot Earthball, one of the many activities at the event. Mike Weilbacher, then a member of the education staff, organized the festival for the center.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Wednesday, April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a watershed moment in American history, and a day that continues to change with the times. While this is not the Earth Day anyone expected, as one billion people from almost 200 countries are NOT, as originally expected, gathering in large protests and celebrations, millions of people worldwide are instead taking to social media to produce an outpouring of hashtags and tweets; 2020 is a decidedly digital Earth Day.

It is worth remembering what happened 50 years ago, because it changed the course of the country.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans–almost one in 10 of us at the time at the time–gathered in what was decidedly a protest, then the largest mass demonstration in American history. People paraded down main streets in gas masks to plead for cleaner air and less smog, buried cars in mock funerals for the internal combustion engine, and held innumerable teach-ins, a phrase borrowed from the antiwar movement, at 2,000 colleges and 10,000 schools across the country.

The day catapulted the environment onto the front pages of newspapers and the lead story for national news shows, and words like “pollution” and “ecology” became quickly embedded in pop culture lingo.

A tidal wave of activism swept through Congress, which soon passed a bipartisan raft of legislation, addressing clean air and water, endangered species, toxic substances, pesticides, surface mining, and much more. They created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the National Environmental Policy Act that required the creation of environmental impact statements. Republican President Nixon signed all of these bills into law, as his people wanted him to better appeal to younger voters for his 1972 reelection; Nixon and his wife even helped plant an Earth Day tree on the White House lawn in 1970.

For me, few peacetime events in our history have had the legislative track record of Earth Day 1970. And it embedded environmental issues in American politics. “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970,” wrote Jack Lewis in a 1990 EPA blog. “When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2500 percent increase over 1969.”

Another child of Earth Day 1970 is the numerous environmental nonprofits that sprang up across the country like mushrooms after a rainstorm, so many tracing their roots to the first Earth Day.

The careers of innumerable scientists, activists, and nonprofit leaders was born as a result of the day; I was a seventh grader on Long Island, became captivated by the event, led a litter cleanup in my town’s park, and knew at ripe the age of 13 that I’d be doing environmental work. This story is not unique to me.

 

Belmont Plateau in 1970

Belmont Plateau in 1970

Philadelphia, by the way, rocked the first Earth Day, holding an Earth Week of events that included a huge demonstration at Belmont Plateau (image above) and a reading of a “Declaration of Interdependence” at Independence Hall. The Broadway cast of “Hair” left New York City to sing here, beat poet Allen Ginsberg read his acclaimed “Howl,” Maine Senator Edmund Muskie–then a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president–headlined at Belmont Plateau; the week’s speakers were a who’s who of American culture at the time: population writer Paul Ehrlich, landscape architect Ian McHarg, science fiction writer Frank Herbert of “Dune” fame, and more. When Walter Cronkite reported about the Earth Day phenomenon on his CBS news show, the image behind the iconic anchor was Philadelphia’s Earth Day logo.

So while COVID-19 has forced us to retreat into a digital Earth Day, radically reducing the visual impact of a billion people protesting around the planet, it is important to acknowledge what that first Earth Day was back in 1970:

A transcendent event that left an indelible mark on the American landscape. It literally changed the course of history–for the better.

Come See the Flowers Race the Trees

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.  Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

Red trillium, nicknamed wake robin up in New England, is one of the rarest wildflowers at the Schuylkill Center, and grows along the Ravine Loop.
Photo courtesy of Will Terry.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Like all forests around us, the Schuylkill Center is in full bloom right now. You really have to see it to believe it. In fact, you can, if you simply walk down our Ravine Loop.

Like the red trillium in the accompanying photograph, an elusive and rare plant that New Englanders dubbed “wake robin,” as it bloomed there about when robins return north from their migrations (robins are year-round residents here in Roxborough). 

Or the Virginia bluebells in the other photo– one of everyone’s favorites, as it is taller than many of the spring ephemerals and one of the bluest of them all. You can find it on our Ravine Loop and elsewhere across the property, and is happily one of our harder-to-miss wildflowers. I love its pink buds that open to blue flowers– two colors for the price of one.

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.  Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

In our Wildflower Loop near our small Pollywog Pond, Virginia bluebells grow profusely.
Photo courtesy of Anna Lehr Mueser

But that’s just the beginning of the parade. There are bright yellow trout lilies, named for the spotting on their mottled leaves that resembles a trout’s back. And shooting stars, white flowers blazing across the forest floor. Jacob’s ladder, a complicated lilac-colored flower with ladder-ish leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpit, poking through the forest floor, Jack dutifully staying inside what looks like his mottled purple lectern. Solomon’s seal, named for the Biblical king, its delicate bell-like flowers dangling from zig-zags of leaves. Spring beauties, each petal a tiny white surfboard with a pink racing stripe down its middle. 

And that’s just a start.

What’s amazing about these plants is the narrow window of time through which they slide. A forest in spring features trees without yet any leaves, so sunlight shines through and caresses the forest floor. Warmed by the sun, long-dormant roots and rhizomes suddenly come alive and send sprigs of growth up above the ground. These leaves photosynthesize– remember that from high school biology?– using sunlight to make sugars and send starches down into the rootstocks so they grow larger. When those rootstocks are large enough and have the resources, the plants send flowers into the world, often brightly colored to dazzle pollinating bees and butterflies.

And they coincidentally dazzle us too. 

But the flowers are in a race against time– and the trees. As trees leaf out, those leaves block sunlight, form a sun-proof umbrella across the forest, and block those flowers from growing. So there is a small window of opportunity for the flowers to warm up, grow, make leaves, make flowers, get pollinated, drop seeds– and disappear for another year– before the trees leaf out.

We’ve already missed the earliest bloomers like bloodroot and skunk cabbage. But every day or every week you visit, new and different flowers will appear.

While our Visitor Center is closed, our forest is still open– park in the Hagy’s Mill parking lot if there is room (if not, park at the ballfields and walk in). Hike past our Visitor Center and head downhill through the butterfly meadow, following Ravine Loop until it curves at Smith Run; the best wildflowers are on the section of trail that parallels the stream.

When we reopen (please, God, soon!), we’ll be selling these plants for you to place in your own yard. My yard, I am happy to report, is beginning to fill with both bluebells and Solomon’s seal, and a healthy stand of May apple– it looks like a little bright green umbrella– is spreading happily. These flowers require little water or chemicals, come back stronger every year, and provide vital pollen, nectar, and food for the small critters that hold up the world, especially those pollinators you read so much about.

Spring wildflowers are racing the trees right now– come walk down our Ravine Loop, while of course practicing the required physical distancing, and see them for yourself.

 

A Climate Striker Laments, “We Had to Stop our Education to Teach you a Lesson”

By Mike Weilbacher and Cyan Cuthbert ’23

gear-up-sept-20-27 On September 20, 2019, millions of people– most of them school-age children– engaged in a climate strike, leaving work or school to protest the lack of adult action on climate change. Looking for a student’s perspective on the issue, I approached Roxborough’s acclaimed Saul High School to find a student who might have participated in the climate strike at City Hall. 

Assistant principal Gabriel Tuffs steered me to Cyan Cuthbert, a 14-year-old freshman who lives in Germantown. She elected to leave school that day to join the millions of kids across the planet who climate-striked. I offered her a chance to write to tell you why she is worried about climate change.

Her reference to 12 years comes from a widely reported UN study that gives that number as the timetable to significantly lower carbon emissions– missing that window of opportunity would be hugely problematic, say the authors. But that number is now often used in discussions of climate change as a benchmark, like in the Democratic debates. The reference to Lil Dicky will likely pass most readers by. A Cheltenham native, Lil Dicky is a comic-rapper who released a video, “We Love the Earth,” featuring many prominent entertainers– Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Hart, to name a few– as animated animals in an ear-wormy song that steers kids like Cyan to a website with additional information. Not a fan of the weirdly R-rated song, but whatever it takes.

So with very little editing and in her own voice, here is a Saul freshman writing about her future.  Thank you, Cyan– and thank you Gabe.

I was born in Germany November 26, 2004 at 8:28 a.m. That’s when the world started. Endless Possibilities, the world revolved around me. I had my whole life ahead of me dot-dot-dot now I only have 12 more years.

Both my parents were in the Army. My mom did 13 years, my dad did 10. During this time, my parents did a lot of traveling. They’ve been to Hawaii, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and tons more. I’ve been to a few of those places with them when I was younger but I can barely remember; that’s why I want to travel the world when I get older and graduate college. If I’m doing my math right and I only do four years in college, I’ll be out when I’m 24 or 25. In 12 years I’ll be 26.

I’m pretty sure Lil Dicky said it best in his “We Love the Earth” website when he said, “Everything we do on Earth is having a chain reaction.” Everything we do affects the world in a cycle of things. Once you realize how bad it is you’ll see the sadness behind it too. When the world gets warmer, which is happening, the polar ice caps melt and the water goes into the ocean, then the ocean level rises, then floods occur and people die. The people that survived lose shelter and food. Meanwhile things in the ocean stop working right and people that rely on the ocean for fishing can’t get to it. The reality is they will die of starvation too.

Something crazy I learned throughout this whole thing was that if we let the temperature get only 1 degree Celsius hotter than it is right now there will be no turning back, because if we do, the damage is done.

  The reason I joined this movement and a thing that pushes me to do better is knowing that I am able to save people. We are able to save each other, ourselves, and our beautiful Earth.

September 20, 2019 was the climate strike. I saw so many kids, adults, and elderly people there. It felt so good to know I was a part of the change. It still isn’t right though. It doesn’t make sense, how come we had to stop our education to teach you guys a lesson. I want everybody to know that not all heroes wear capes. You can help and do your part. Every Saturday at 12 p.m. go outside to a nearby park or on your block and just pick up trash. Take a bus or ride your bike to school or work to save gas and help stop polluting our air. That’s what some of my teachers do at W.B. Saul High School.

I’m going to use Lil Dicky’s basketball analogy. We’re in the 4th quarter, a timeout has been called and we have the ball. We need a plan because we only have one more shot, if we make it we win (survival), but if we miss the shot we lose (death). We can win the game if we change three things; how we create our food energy and nature watch all of the welovetheearth.org videos to find out how.