Environmental & Sustainable Development 

  • 7 Sep 2021 7:35 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    September 2021

    When I tell people about my work in sustainability and climate resilience planning in the built environment, I am often asked this question: “Where would you go to stay safe from the impacts of climate change?” While there is no certain safe place from the disruptions of climate change—hence the importance of and responsibility for prevention and mitigation—some regions are expected to feel the impacts less than others. One of the first places I would have mentioned is my hometown of Seattle. Although there are other risks there—including the “Big One,” a magnitude 9 earthquake that’s said to be coming any time—the Pacific Northwest was expected to fare better than other regions.

    This, of course, was before the crazy heatwave in late June of this year. Instead of the relatively cool weather that’s characteristic of June in Seattle (locally known as “June gloom”), the temperature reached three digits and stayed there for three days, peaking at a record-breaking 108 degrees on June 28th. In the evenings, temperatures only cooled into the 70s. To put into context how unusual this is, there were only three days above 100 degrees in Seattle in the last century before the heat wave in June. Seattle’s average daytime high in June is in the upper 60s to lower 70s, and it drops to the mid to low 50s in the evenings. Typically, the mild temperatures and low humidity levels in the summer in Seattle meant natural ventilation was enough to cool most buildings. During the heat wave, however, most people were left to power through the 100+ degree heat without air conditioning. The heat wave was linked to hundreds of deaths across the Pacific Northwest.

    My family and friends in the area told me it would pass and things would return to normal soon. Sadly, less than two months of normalcy was all they were afforded. The temperature gauge hit the upper 90s again in mid-August, about 20 degrees higher than the monthly average. The word “abnormal” was starting to seem inappropriate to describe the extreme heat in Seattle. I started to hear friends and family who never had air conditioning say they were considering installing it in their homes. I completely understand where they are coming from, having experienced a rather swift shift in attitude towards air conditioning myself after my first summer on the east coast. That said, I also find this development worrisome.

    You might remember the state-wide power outage in Texas back in February. It was caused by surging demand for mechanical heating to cope with the unusual cold spell. In a similar way, thousands of residents in the Seattle area experienced outages due to the increased electricity demand for cooling during the heat wave. The outages in Seattle were nowhere near as large as those in Texas, possibly because most homes in the Seattle area are not equipped with mechanical cooling units to turn on and overwhelm the supply of electricity. Afterall, Seattle is the least air-conditioned city in the country. According to 2019 figures, only 44.3% of homes had air conditioning compared to the national average of 89%. Things have been quickly changing, however. In 2013, less than one-third (31%) of homes in Seattle had air conditioning; that’s an increase of over 13% in just six years (Figure 1). I expect the increase in air conditioning to continue, and, with that, the demand for electricity and the risk of larger-scale outages during the times when people need cooling the most.

    Even if the additional power supply is made available, I remain worried because of how the additional energy might be produced. Will there be enough renewable energy sources to meet the increased demand for air conditioning? One of the major sources for Washington State’s renewable energy production, hydroelectric power, has been in decline, and it has been challenging enough to try to close that gap with other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.

    Figure 2: Change in average global temperature relative to 1850-1900, showing observed and simulated temperatures

    The past five years have been the hottest on record since 1850, according to the new IPCC report on climate change which came out in August, 2021. The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a United Nations body charged with providing objective science-based information related to climate change. The report noted there was a 1.96°F (1.09°C) increase in the earth’s surface temperature observed over the last decade and presented concrete evidence that human factors have warmed the climate (Figure 2).

    I mention the human influence on the climate not to point fingers but to highlight the fact there are clearly things we as a society can do to mitigate problems we had a hand in creating. In the case of dealing with more frequent heat waves in Seattle, for example, doing our part could entail ensuring air conditioning units are as energy efficient as possible and that the additional energy needed is generated using renewable sources.

  • 7 Jul 2021 7:03 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    July 2021

    An important part of my job working as a sustainability and resilience strategist is to stay up to date on the latest scientific findings and studies. Sadly, this built up my tolerance for highly disturbing information, and it takes something extraordinarily bad to startle me. A few weeks ago, I found myself profoundly disturbed by a study on the chemicals included in cosmetic products. The study found over 50% of 200+ North American cosmetic products tested contained toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); most of the tested products did not disclose PFAS in their ingredients lists. To be clear, the study does not mention how much PFAS exposure would result from using these products, and, currently, there is no scientifically-based conclusion on what constitutes a harmful level of PFAS exposure for humans. That said, I feel compelled to share with you what I learned and why I am so concerned.

    Figure 1: How PFAS can enter the body through the cosmetic items that contain them (Source: Environmental Science & Technology Letters)

    PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally. This means once PFAS enter our bodies, they continue to accumulate. Research has linked PFAS to a slew of negative health issues, including increased cancer risks, liver impairment, decreased fertility, and weakened immune response. According to the study, the cosmetic items with the highest levels include waterproof mascara (82%), liquid lipstick (62%), and foundation (63%)—all products that could easily penetrate into our bodies both directly and indirectly (Figure 1). I had known and deeply concerned about PFAS in water systems for some time, but I clearly did not grasp just how universal their presence is. A 2005-2013 environmental study of over 69,000 people in the Ohio River Valley found that people who were exposed to higher-than-normal levels of PFOA (a type of PFAS) had increased risk of high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The findings helped over 3,000 affected community members reach a $670 million settlement with DuPont Chemical Company, which was accused of contaminating the local drinking water with PFOA. Knowing that, it made me feel sick to know I was actively introducing toxic chemicals of any amount into my body without realizing it every time I put on makeup.

    PFAS is widely used in fire- and water-repellent products (e.g., Gore-Tex, ScotchGuard, spill-proof carpets), nonstick pans (e.g., Teflon), fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, and firefighting foams used at military bases and commercial airports (Figure 2). As there is no regulation or treatment guidelines mandated for facilities that use or produce products containing PFAS, the chemicals have freely made their way into the groundwater, surface waterbodies, and even the rain. The most common way PFAS enters the human body is through drinking water, yet neither the utilities nor the drinking water agencies are required to monitor PFAS levels in the waterbodies they manage.

    Figure 2: Common items containing PFAS (Source: Earth Justice)

    In January 2020, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported finding PFAS in the drinking water of most major U.S. cities, including 34 that were not previously reported to the EPA. Among the previously unreported was Quad City, Iowa, where 109.8 ppt of PFAS was detected—1.5 times the EPA’s recommended limit of 70 ppt. Of the sampled cities, the highest level was detected in Brunswick County, North Carolina, at 185.9 ppt. All in all, 2,337 contaminated public and private water systems were detected in 49 states (Figure 3), serving over 200 million Americans.

    Figure 3: Map illustrating the prevalence of forever chemicals in our water system across the country (Source: EWG)

    In order to prevent mass paranoia, we need to understand the threshold at which PFAS exposure becomes harmful. After all, 97% of Americans, including newborn babies, already have PFAS in their blood. Unfortunately, scientists do not currently know the answer.

    In the meantime, I suggest we become familiar with the products that contain PFAS and be mindful about avoiding them. For my part, I started by tossing my waterproof mascara into the trash and researched PFAS-free makeup options (of which there are many). Below are some resources for your immediate use:

    In the long run, this is a grave issue that will continue to threaten our health and wellbeing unless the root causes are addressed. This would require all of us demanding regulatory action, at a minimum, to limit PFAS level in our drinking water supply and consumer products and cleaning up contaminated sites, including military bases and manufacturing facilities.


  • 5 May 2021 6:54 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    May 2021

    We have been managing through a pandemic for over a year now. Considering the suffering, loss, and disruption so many people are experiencing, it is difficult to think of anything that could possibly be considered a “silver lining.” That said, the pandemic has led to new insights in a range of fields. For example, stay-at-home orders demonstrated the impact human activities have on air quality and, given the chance, the speed at which air quality could be improved quite dramatically through the wide adoption of more sustainable practices, including clean energy. As I was researching for NFBPWC’s first Earth Day Summit (which took place on April 24th), I was struck by these satellite images from NASA of India (Fig. 1).

    Fig. 1: Annual level of airborne particles (aerosol) in India from 2016 to 2020. The frame “2020 Anomaly,” taken a week after a strict government-mandated lockdown, shows the lowest air pollution levels in 20 years.

    These images show the annual level of airborne particles, or aerosol, with the red-orange shade indicating high levels of particle air pollution and the blue indicating low levels. The last frame, labeled “2020 Anomaly,” was taken just a week after the government placed the country of 1.3 billion under strict lockdown measures on March 25, 2020. The lockdown halted many industrial and economic activities, including travel by motor vehicles, industrial manufacturing/production, and burning of croplands. The airborne particle level in northern India in particular showed a marked improvement compared to the pollution levels of previous years and was the lowest since monitoring began 20 years ago.

    While some aerosols do come from natural sources, such as dust storms, volcanic eruptions, and forest fires, human sources contribute most of the aerosols in our environment, according to the World Health Organization. It is also the aerosols from human sources that are more likely to do the most damage to human health because of their sheer volume and small particle size. While some airborne particles, such as soot, dust, and smoke, are dark or big enough to be visible to the human eye, most are not. The smaller the particle, the greater the potential for causing health problems, as very small particles are able to enter the lungs and even the bloodstream, impacting our lungs and hearts. Human sources of these aerosols include burning of croplands, the use of fossil fuels for motor vehicles and heat/power generation, and industrial facilities such as mines and oil refineries.

    With many of these activities that generate airborne particles on pause due to the lockdown, air pollution eased to the point where the visibility through the air noticeably improved. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, over 100 miles away from the Himalayan Mountain range, the Himalayas became visible for the first time in decades (Fig. 2).

    Fig. 2: Courtesy of @KangManjit via Twitter. “This was the view from our rooftop in Punjab India. For the first time in almost 30 years we can see the Himalayas due to India’s lockdown clearing air pollution.”

    As we in the U.S. hopefully start to climb out of the depths of the pandemic, you may have heard more chatter about “building back better” and how infrastructure spending could be used in more climate and environment-friendly directions. My hope is that this insight about air quality—and the brief glimpse of the mountains—will serve as a motivator to support these kinds of environmentally-friendly infrastructure improvements and other measures that could improve air quality and, as a result, our health.




  • 6 Apr 2021 6:43 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    April 2021

    It has been over a month since the winter storm caused power outages in over four million households in Texas, affecting about half the state’s population. The power outages meant no power to pump water and treat wastewater, disrupting the water supply. Even in areas where the water treatment system was not damaged, the cold weather caused distribution pipes and pipes in buildings to burst. This not only disrupted the water supply but also wreaked havoc inside the affected buildings, flooding people’s bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms and damaging their walls and ceilings. Many who were fortunate enough to still have running water found themselves under boil water orders. Days after the storm, over 14 million people—about half of Texas’ population—were left without access to clean, running water at their homes. News reports of Texas residents lacking water access continued to emerge well after 15 days post-storm.

    In Houston, 25% of the city’s residents were affected by the various water issues brought on by the storm. Many homes were left uninhabitable, leaving their residents essentially homeless until the plumbing and structural issues at their homes are addressed. There is a huge backlog of over three months for requests for plumbing repairs, which are essential for getting the homes back to livable states. In Dallas, a city of renters where only about four out of ten residents own their homes, renters were at the mercy of owners and utilities to take responsibility for the repairs and provide water. For the renters in uninhabitable units with water damage, including mold and leaky roofs, relocating to safety posed a logistical nightmare. All this hit the lower-income families the hardest, many already behind in their rents due to the economic peril from the pandemic.

    As a sustainability and resilience strategist, the discussion I would like to have in the storm’s aftermath is about how to address the vulnerability of the power grid to unexpected events, which are arguably becoming more frequent due to the changing climate. Possible strategies range across different scales and stakeholders. These include not only household-level energy efficiency measures (including proper insulation) and renewable energy-storage solutions, but also municipal approaches, including cold-proofing power plants and water pipes, and decentralizing energy and water supply and treatment systems.

    The members of the Environment & Sustainable Development Committee will dive more into this issue and others as part of celebrating Earth Day this year, on Saturday, April 24th at 1pm EST. More details for the event, including the registration link, are below:

    NFBPWC Earth Day Summit
    by and for Business and Professional Women

    Join NFBPWC, one of the oldest professional women’s organizations in the U.S., for an Earth Day Summit where we’ll discuss the interdependencies between the environment and the health and well-being of the communities we live and work in.  

    This Earth Day, you are invited to join the members of our Environment & Sustainable Development (ESD) Committee for discussions about the impact of the environment on our daily lives, including how seemingly distant events, such as weather-related disasters, are in fact closely related to the choices we make as individuals and as a group. 

    This event will showcase the stories of five professional women, each from different career paths and locations around the country, working together to make the communities they belong to more sustainable, equitable, and resilient. 

    The event will open with an original song and a visual presentation by Laurie Dameron, an award-winning singer-songwriter, followed by fast-paced presentations by four female leaders.  

    This event will be held via Zoom. The link to join will be emailed to all registered participants closer to the event date.


    • Welcome by Megan Shellman-Rickard (President, NFBPWC)
    • Opening Act by Laurie Dameron (Award-winning Singer-songwriter and Chair of Environment Committee, BPW-Colorado)
    • The Big Picture: Interdependencies by Hyon K. Rah (Sustainability & Resilience Strategist, Educator, and Chair of Environment & Sustainable Development, NFBPWC)
    • The Land We Share: Soil Health, Pollinators & Food by Marikay Shellman (Visual Artist, Author, and a Rancher)
    • The Water We Drink: Water Quality & Equity by Susan Oser (TESOL-Certified Teacher and an Editor)
    • The Air We Breathe: Health Impacts of the Environment by Daneene Monroe Rusnak (Registered Nurse and Vice President of Advocacy, NFBPWC)
    • Recap & Closing 

    There will be post-event breakout rooms for informal discussions.

    You can register for the event here: https://www.nfbpwc.org/event-4192255.

    Join us!

  • 10 Mar 2021 6:29 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    March 2021

    Texas in mid-February normally makes a warm, welcome escape from the bitter cold with average temperatures of upper 40s to lower 50s Fahrenheit. It is not unheard of to be basking in 80-degree heat in Texas in the winter. What is unheard of is the kind of winter storm that struck the state around Valentine’s Day this year and drove temperatures down by over 40 degrees Fahrenheit – to below zero Fahrenheit in central and northern Texas (Figure 1). The storm brought with it a thick blanket of snow, putting every part of the state under freezing conditions for several days.

    Figure 1: Below average temperatures all across the country on February 16, 2021

    Source: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/16/us/winter-storm-texas-power-outage-map.html

    People turned to their heaters to keep warm, which led to a sudden surge in electricity demand. The electric grid struggled to keep up. In the meantime, the power infrastructure responsible for generating the electricity to meet the demand froze over – literally. Most power generators in Texas are not accustomed to cold-proofing their assets, as conditions that would require such protection are viewed as few and far between and the associated cost too high. Unlike in traditionally colder regions in the country, where generators are enclosed inside buildings to withstand the cold, power generators in Texas are left exposed to the elements; there are no regulations or incentives in place to encourage weatherizing the assets.

    As a result, all types of power-generating facilities in the state, from natural gas, coal, and wind to even nuclear, stopped working. The failure of the thermal energy supply—natural gas, coal, and nuclear—has been found to be the biggest culprit for the outages. The number of homes without power peaked at four million, and, on February 23rd, about ten days after the power outages began, over 7,000 homes were still without power.

    The impact on people’s livelihoods has been grave. Over 40 people lost their lives in the crisis, unable to keep themselves warm or to stay warm without risking their safety, namely from open fires and carbon monoxide poisoning. People in already vulnerable situations, including the homeless and the hospitalized, found themselves in even more precarious situations. Those who were lucky enough to keep their heaters and lights on inside their homes were hit with astronomically high electric bills due to the highly unregulated nature of the Texas energy market.

    As witnessed in previous disasters related to extreme weather, a familiar domino effect repeated itself with the failure of the water systems. Large-scale water treatment and distribution systems depend on electricity to function properly (e.g., to pump water) and the power outages caused major systems to fail. Outside of the water plants, the cold caused water pipes to freeze then burst all across the state, effectively severing people’s access to clean water. At one point, 14 million people (nearly half of Texas’ population) were placed under boil-water order, when many had no water coming out of their taps during a power outage. People were spotted melting snow and fetching river water for potable use out of desperation, which, as we have seen during other disasters, could lead to a public health disaster – on top of the one we already have.

    With the weather warming up and the power starting to come back, it may be tempting to settle back into business as usual and not worry about the next cold spell, storm, or another strange weather condition to wreak havoc. Unfortunately, it is likely that more strange weather events are on the way (as discussed previously here and here) and we should only expect similar grim results if relying on the status quo that has clearly failed. Also, the water issue caused by the winter storm is going to be a longer-term problem, as the burst pipes need to be located and repaired in order to resume normal function.

    In considering ways to withstand the next crazy weather event, there are two important things to note from the current crisis.

    First, because Texas’ electric grid is independent from the rest of the country’s, there is no way of receiving backup power supply from outside of the state from functioning power generators. A centralized system with no backup for emergencies is hardly independent. In fact, it is extremely vulnerable (Figure 2-A). The task of updating the state-wide electric grid on a systemic level may be a daunting and costly task, but the human and monetary damage no action would cause is far greater.

    Second, there are smaller-scale measures that could be adopted on single building, neighborhood, district, and municipal levels without having to wait for the state-wide system to change. For electricity, this would be the move towards a distributed system (Figure 2-C), where buildings, neighborhoods, and districts can generate their own energy from renewable sources and supply others within their network and vice versa. A similar approach can be taken with water, using a combination of water collection measures, as well as reuse and recycling. Both approaches afford people to be resilient against unexpected threats and be truly independent. In both cases, reducing unnecessary energy and water use in the first place would be a logical starting point.  

    Figure 2: A is representative of the current electric grid in Texas as well as homes without backup measures for electricity and water. While B offers possible relief, C is the ideal scenario for achieving independence and resilience.


  • 11 Feb 2021 6:25 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    February 2021

    It’s been a while since I left my hometown of Seattle. Family ties, friends in the area, and making annual visits have helped me stay in the loop about the changes in and around the city. Change is inevitable anywhere, as much as I’d like some things to stay the same. That said, there is one change that’s been worrying me more and more: the drought.

    I know that might sound crazy – after all, Seattle has a reputation for being wet. Locals often joke that there are only two distinctive seasons: summer and rainy days. The rain in Seattle is of the drizzly variety though and, for how often it rains (over 150 days a year), the actual amount of rainfall is less than most places in the South and the Midwest. The average annual rainfall in Seattle is just over 37 inches, about half that of sunny Miami (61.9 inches per year).

    Some people I know are happy to see less rain. I can easily see the appeal of having continuously dry days in December and January over the usual grey and dreary ones. That said, I’m worried. I am worried because I regularly look up the map like the one you see below:

    As you can see, a large portion of the U.S. is in severe to extreme drought. Unlike extreme weather events and disasters such as hurricanes, storms, and tsunamis, droughts grab hold of a region gradually, locking in harmful impacts on the water supply and the ecosystem by the time they become noticeable. Dry conditions also provide thriving grounds for wildfires.

    Scientists predict many regions in the U.S. will see water supplies cut by a third within the next 50 years1. Because aquifers and watersheds are connected, it’s not only the dry regions that are in trouble. A U.S. government-backed study predicted as many as 96 out of 204 watersheds in the country are at risk of shortages over the next century; 83 of them could see shortages within the next 25 years2.

    So, what can we do? Water does not come out of thin air, and many attempts to engineer our way out of trouble can create more complications for the future. Drastic measures such as desalination and long-distance water transfer have detrimental long-term impacts. Various low-impact solutions exist to replenish used groundwater and avoid depletion. On a municipal level, leakage from established water supply systems results in a huge waste of water. London, for example, loses over 20% of its treated water through leaky pipes. Detecting and repairing these faults, as well as regularly maintaining the water infrastructure, is important.

    At home, water conservation is something all of us can do immediately without much hassle. Taking shorter showers and not leaving the faucet running while brushing your teeth or soaping your dishes in the sink are some of the small actions you can take. Other measures include installing aerators in your faucets and showerheads and choosing native or adapted plants that don’t require additional irrigation instead of water-intensive non-native species such as Kentucky bluegrass, which requires large amounts of water and is now commonly used on the West Coast. Placing a rain barrel to store rainwater that drains off your roof or gutter to use for watering your lawn and flowerbeds is another solution.

    There are also larger scale issues we can all address through raising awareness and advocacy, starting with learning about where your water is coming from and how the distribution and treatment infrastructure is being managed. Every water authority has an annual report documenting this accessible to the public. Knowing how water is being used in your own county or region is also helpful. I encourage you to check out the U.S. Geological Survey’s interactive data visualization for more information: https://labs.waterdata.usgs.gov/visualizations/water-use-15/index.html#view=USA&category=total.

    1 http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/widespread-water-shortage-likely-in-u-s-caused-by-population-growth-and-climate-change/

    2 https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2018EF001091

  • 9 Dec 2020 6:18 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    December 2020

    Several readers inquired about the pollinator tip from last month’s newsletter. I thought it might be a good opportunity to talk more about pollinators, the important roles they play, a new challenge they face, and another action we can take to help them this winter.

    What are pollinators?

    A pollinator is anything that helps transfer pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part of the same or a different flower, enabling the plant to fertilize and produce seeds, fruits, and young plants. While some plants can self-pollinate or rely on water or wind to carry the pollen, over 80% of seed/flower plants need help from external pollinators, such as bees, moths, birds, and small mammals such as bats.

    Why should we care about pollination?

    According to USDA, the survival of all terrestrial ecosystems, including the human race, depends on pollinators, such as honeybees (Figure 1). Virtually all seed plants on earth require pollination for survival and propagation. This includes almost 80% of the 1,400 crop plants that we need for producing food and industrial products. Frequent visits by bees and other pollinating animals lead to higher crop yields.

    Figure 1: How pollination works (Source: VectorStock)

    How else do pollinators help us?

    Pollination supports the fertilization and propagation of seed/flowering plants, which offset carbon dioxide from humans, animals and other sources by producing breathable oxygen. Seed/flowering plants also help purify water underground and prevent erosion through their root systems. Above ground, plants help balance the hydrologic cycle by returning moisture to the atmosphere through evapotranspiration.

    Where do the murder hornets fit in?

    You may have read about murder hornets in the news recently, and one of the reasons they are newsworthy is the threat they pose to bees, the main pollinator of our crops. Murder hornets, also known as Asian giant hornets or Vespa mandarinia, are among the newest invasive pests to arrive in the U.S. and, at 1.5 to 2 inches, are indeed gigantic (see Figure 2). The hornets pose a grave threat to pollination because they like to attack honeybee colonies. Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) reports that it only takes two hours for 50 murder hornets to decimate a honeybee colony (including all the honeybees and the bee brood). Losing honeybees en mass would have a detrimental effect on our livelihoods, as their role as pollinators contributes to the survival of plants that supply our food and maintain hydrologic balance in our environment.

    Figure 2: Size comparison of a honeybee (left) and an Asian giant hornet (right), aka murder hornet (Source: USDA)

    Murder hornets have so far been sighted only in Washington State, and WSDA has been actively trying to eradicate them before they become established. For those readers in the west coast of the U.S., if you see a murder hornet, please alert state authorities.

    I leave you with another piece of pollinator advice from Marikay Shellman, a valued member of the Environment & Sustainable Development Committee.

  • 10 Nov 2020 6:11 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    November 2020

    Wildfires, a natural part of life in many parts of the United States, were typically expected during the annual wildfire season, which started around May and ended by September or October. Until recent years, with some tragic exceptions, the fires tended to happen in uninhibited areas and remain largely under control. Not anymore.

    As many in the western part of the country would tell you from experience, wildfires have become larger, more intense, more frequent, and more prolonged. In California, the phrase “wildfire season” has become almost obsolete as the fires are raging year-around. Between the beginning of the year and early September, over 3.2 million acres of land—an area close to the size of the entire state of Connecticut—burned in California. Colorado is having a record-setting wildfire season in late October, which is normally the end of the wildfire season.

    The lack of forest management in wildfire-prone areas, many of which are protected national forests, is a part of the problem, but there are other important factors. For one, the western U.S. has been experiencing a severe drought (Figure 1). This has been caused by growing water demand, less rainfall and snow, and rising temperatures (Figure 2). Climate change is a root cause of the trend toward more frequent and severe droughts. One of its effects is the lower moisture level in the soil, which translates to drier trees and plant species reliant on that soil. This turns heavily planted areas such as forests into potential tinderboxes filled with dry bushes and shrubs at greater risk of burning.

    The dire consequences of wildfires reach beyond those directly affected by losing their homes, possessions, and loved ones. In parts of California and Oregon, the air quality index has shot up to over 600 because of the fires. To put that into perspective, the average air quality index in 2019 in Delhi, Indian, which arguably is one of the most polluted cities in the world, was 98.6. The threats to people’s respiratory health this poses is grave, especially during a pandemic that is known to degrade respiratory systems.

    PG&E, one of the biggest electric utility companies that serves over 16 million customers in northern and central California, announced its plans to shutoff power in over 360,000 homes and businesses in late October—the fifth time such a decision was made this year. The shutoffs are aimed to prevent worsening the on-going wildfires by removing the risk of downed electric wires during a powerful windstorm. Being plunged into darkness for wildfire safety is starting to become routine.

    So, what can we do? First, learning about wildfires and the interconnectedness of their causes—including forest management, water use, and the rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns caused by climate change--and sharing that information with others is important because t solutions will require changes in behaviors and policies. Communicating the risks with people you know, including your elected leaders, and encouraging them to take steps to conserve water is imperative. Contributing less to products and activities that generate greenhouse gas emissions would help address the root of the problem, which is the trend of heatwaves and droughts due to climate change.

    To be ready for wildfires, here are some resources for making an emergency plan and packing a “go-bag”. Also included here is a piece of advice from Marikay Shellman, a valued member of the Environment & Sustainable Development Committee and an avid gardener/rancher, on something simple you can do to help keep more moisture in the soil while helping pollinators thrive (more on pollinators later).

    If you want to share any of your ideas, tips, or feedback, we’d be happy to hear from you, at: environment@nfbpwc.org.

    Figure 1: Many areas under threat from wildfires fall in the zones with persistent or developing drought conditions.

    Figure 2: Many areas under threat from wildfires fall in the zones with rising temperatures.

  • 14 Oct 2020 6:02 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    October 2020

    To say that the year 2020 has been extraordinary would not be an understatement. For me, reflecting on the year to date from an environmental perspective has stirred up a sense of alarm and urgency I have never felt before.

    It started in early July when I came across an announcement from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) that reported the U.S. already had ten (10) billion-dollar disasters in 2020 as of July 8th. Just to put that into perspective, the average number of billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. between 1980 and 2019 was 6.6 per year. The number about doubles, to 13.8 events per year, for the most recent five years (2015-2019). Then, this August, four (4) more billion-dollar disasters joined that list over a span of just one month: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and the wildfires in California and Oregon.

    These numbers tell us the frequency and severity of weather and climate-related disasters are rising rapidly. Depending on the location, common threats include wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, extreme rainfall, sea level rise, and water stress. Each can wreak havoc in differently, and the impacts can be subtle and gradual or sudden and devastating. Either way, they can cause disruptions to our daily lives in ways large and small.

    The image below maps the intensity of different types of climate-related threats for each county in the U.S. I urge you to take a look to get an idea of the types of threats (yes, there can be multiple) where you and your loves ones live.

    Source: The New York Times. You can search for your county by typing in its name here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/18/opinion/wildfire-hurricane-climate.html

    Starting next month, I will take a deeper dive into the risks mentioned above, and how they could impact—or already have impacted—our daily lives. A number of you have reached out to me recently about water stress and infrastructure, so I will start there.

    You are welcome to contact me with any questions or local observations related to this topic at: environment@nfbpwc.org.

  • 22 Sep 2020 2:41 PM | Lea-Ann W. Berst (Administrator)

    by Hyon K. Rah – Chair, Environment & Sustainable Development Committee

    September 2020

    I am writing to encourage you to consider participation in the NFBPWC’s Environment and Sustainable Development Committee and to introduce myself as the new chair of the committee. Sustainable development has been a central part of my career, and I am excited to help promote environmental sustainability at NFBPWC, especially since it is one of the advocacy platforms for 2018-2020.

    As I write this, we are in the middle of a pandemic which has presented numerous challenges to us all. The pandemic also brought to the fore the inextricable connection between environmental, economic, and social sustainability through a revealing picture of inequity in the U.S. Owing to the advice of health experts to wash our hands often to prevent the spread of the virus, there is growing attention to the inequity in access to clean water.

    Today, over 2 million people in the U.S. do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation1, and this number includes 1.4 million people that live in homes without indoor plumbing (running water, a sink, a shower or a bath, and a flushable toilet). That is not to say that the other 328 million U.S. residents that do have access to treated water and indoor plumbing can rest easy. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the safety and quality of the U.S. drinking water system a "D" grade in its 2017 assessment.

    This stark reality is often attributed to a combination of factors. Contamination at the sources of the water supplies is a significant one, as shown in communities near coal mines or fracking sites in the Appalachian region due in part to relaxed wastewater management regulations. Cities such as Flint, Michigan are still paying for the lack of government investment in infrastructure with their health and lives. Forty percent of the nearly 180,000-person strong Navajo Nation does not have running water, which has been detrimental to their pandemic resilience. In many communities such as Baltimore, Maryland, water prices have increased dramatically, and many people simply cannot afford to pay their water bills and maintain their water access.

    On top of all that, weather and climate-related disasters have placed even more strain on our water resources and systems and the critical infrastructure that supports them. The U.S. had already had 10 billion-dollar weather disasters by the first half of 2020, well before peak hurricane season2.

    These things matter because they affect us all in the end, one way or another. But first, we need to be clear on the facts and how they connect.

    To put the issues of water quality and access into your own context, I encourage you to check out the two resources below:

    1. A map of the U.S. showing the percentage of housing units lacking plumbing by county – Where does your county stand?
    2. A link to check the quality of drinking water in your (or someone else’s) area by zip code: https://www.ewg.org/tapwater/

    If you have any questions or are interested in joining the Environment and Sustainable Development Committee, you can reach me by email at: hyon@rah.solutions.

    Percentage of Housing Units Lacking Plumbing by County

    Hyon Rah, the Principal of RAH Solutions, is a sustainability and resilience strategist based in Washington, DC. For more information about her work, visit https://rah.solutions/about/


    2 https://www.noaa.gov/news/june-2020-was-relatively-hot-and-dry-overall-for-us

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