Tag Archives: climate change

Organics, flooding, plastic bags and climate change (and they’re all related!)

June 9, 2013

The Doctor is in the house–Milo Shammas, a.k.a. Dr. Earth

All you need to know about Dr. Earth products is that Ron Cowgill, host of Mighty House on Chicago’s Progressive Talk, is a huge fan. I introduced the Dr. Earth line to Ron a couple of years ago (partly because they have been a sponsor of The Mike Nowak Show for several years now) and he has never looked back. Regardless of the fact that his favorite gardening tool is a lawn mower (which he uses on perennials and shrubs, too), Ron has learned that the secret to healthy plants is healthy soil.

In fact, why don’t I let Dr. Earth himself–Milo Shammas–explain:

When we feed our plants instead of our soil, we lose all the benefits that microbes contribute. When we say” feed the soil” it means feed the microbes in the soil, because it is the microbes that make nutrients available for the plants. The way you feed microbes is through the addition of organic material. If you feed with a synthetic chemical fertilizer, you are feeding the plant, not the soil, or the microbes. Adding petrochemical synthetic fertilizer also drives up the salt index in the soil and changes the pH, which can have adverse effects on plants.

More importantly, chemical fertilizers only feed for a short period of time; organic fertilizers offer continual feeding because the microbes cannot digest all of the organic fertilizer at once. With chemical fertilizers, we also lose the microbes’ contribution to soil aggregation. Good soil aggregation leads to improvements in tilth, water retention, the rates at which water penetrates the soil, the amount of oxygen in the soil, and the reduction of runoff. All of these desirable soil conditions can be achieved by adding organic material. As you can see, microbes are immeasurably important and essential to the health of all productive soils.

Milo joins us on the show this morning via phone from the Left Coast.

Flooding problems? Don’t get in a snit…Wetrofit!

Regardless of whether the news operations you rely on have any clue, all you need to know about climate change is to look at the difference between Spring 2012 and Spring 2013. Last year, we had record warmth in March, followed by heat and drought. This year, it has been cool weather and flooding.

The Midwest was hit particularly hard by rain at the end of April, but an organization called the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has been studying this problem for awhile. Last fall, I attended the roll out of their Smart Water for Smart Regions Initiative, whick offers a blueprint for the responsible and sustainable utilization of water in the Great Lakes states. One of its publications is People, Water, and the Great Lakes: Ready for Change? which reveals these stunning facts:

Collectively the 55 Great Lakes water supply utilities we surveyed manage 63,000 miles of pipe that are, on average 50 years old and leak an estimated 66.5 billion gallons of water each year. That is enough to cover 318 square miles in water one foot deep.

As if that isn’t bad enough, CNT recently reported that, in urban areas, flooding is chronic and costly–no big surprise. What is a revelation is that they discovered that it makes little difference whether a property is located within a floodplain or not–meaning that our cities have actually been designed to cause flooding. You can find out more about that in a report called of The Prevalence and Cost of Urban Flooding.

So how do you fight bad urban design and planning? One way is something that CNT calls Wetrofit Service— simple, low-cost tools such as building rain gardens, repairing private lateral sewage pipes, installing water permeable paving, even collecting roof runoff in rain barrels.

Which leads us to a gathering–The Gross Gathering–that CNT is having this Wednesday. The idea is that if you have had flooding in your basement or backyard, you can share your experience with others who have gone through the same thing. It gives you an apportunity to vent on their their ‘Soap Box’, meet with contractors and officials, bring your wet basement photos for their montage and Civic Techarette, and even tell your story on camera

It must have struck a nerve, because the first Gross Gathering is booked solid. However, there will be more in the future. Just go to this site to RSVP and CNT will let you know when the next event is scheduled.

I’m pleased to have Ryan Wilson, Stormwater Program Manager for the Wetrofit™ and Sustainable Backyards programs at CNT on the show this morning to talk about this brave new waterworld.

Bring Your Bag Chicago hopes to slow the plastic bag pandemic

In 2008, because of my connection to the Chicago Recycling Coalition, I testified before the Chicago City Council regarding a plastic bag ordinance it was considering. The CRC was called into the process late in the game and our advice–which was to institute a fee on plastic bags–was ignored. The council passed a “plastic bag recycling” bill that was pretty mucn based on the then-current New York City law. In public testimony, I described it as “New York Lite.”

Regardless, the ordinance passed. In the five years since, it has pretty much been ignored and plastic bags continue to be an almost unregulated nuisance–not just in Chicago, but throughout the world. Consider these facts:

  • More than1 trillion plastic bags are used every year worldwide.
  • The U.S. goes through 100 billion single-use plastic bags. This costs retailers about $4 billion a year.
  • The average American family accumulates 60 plastic bags in only four trips to the grocery store.
  • Plastic bags are the second-most common type of ocean refuse, after cigarette butts (2008).
  • Every square mile of the ocean has about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in it. (UN, 2006)
  • The national recycling rate for plastic bags is no higher than 11% and could be as low as 3% (the EPA reports that paper bags are recycled at a 49% rate).
  • The average length of time that a plastic bag is used by a consumer is 12 minutes.
  • In good circumstances, high-density polyethylene will take more than 20 years to degrade. In less ideal circumstances (land fills or as general refuse), a bag will take more than 1,000 years to degrade.
  • Single-use, disposable plastic bags cost Chicago taxpayers an estimated $27 million dollars a year:

I could go on and on. To see more about the consequences of our addiction to plastic bags–especially in Chicago, check out this video called Plastic Bags: Not an American Beauty.

In an effort to encourage the use of reusable bags, 1st Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno, along with six co-signers, has proposed legislation called the Chicago Checkout Bag Ordinance. It would require that Chicago retail establishments larger than 5,000 square feet would no longer be able to provide free single-use plastic bags to customers. This ordinance, which will be introduced in the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection on Tuesday, June 18, encourages a shift away from disposables and towards reusables.

The intitiative is called Bring Your Bag Chicago, and it is the subject of a Change.org petition that has already garnered about one thousand signatures. I urge you–whether or not you live in Chicago–to add your name to the list.

If you’re even more inspired (and have the time), email Ashley Craig at ashleycraig913@gmail.com with your name and/or name of your organization, your intended petition location, date and time frame, and the names of the volunteers who will be helping out. Then print up this FAQ sheet and paper petition and gather signatures from friends, neighbors and others at public locations. When you’re finished, drop the signed petitions at Alderman Moreno’s office in City Hall before the end of the day Monday, June 17.

Alderman Proco Joe Moreno joins me this morning to discuss the ordinance he will introduce on June 18.

Want to make a difference regarding climate change?

For all you climate enthusiasts out there, Al Gore and team are coming to town in July to train new speakers for The Climate Reality Project . Shortly after “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, Al Gore began training an army of presenters to provide education via The Climate Reality Project.  The mission:  to spread the facts, motivate change and disarm intentionally damaging efforts to create denial and confusion in the public.

Over the past 10 years they have trained over 4,000 speakers worldwide, unleashing a global cultural movement demanding action on the climate crisis. Sadly, despite scientific consensus, the majority of the world does not understand the severity of the issues or necessity for immediate solutions. The Mike Nowak Show contributor Lisa Albrecht was trained in August of last year where she met Jim Sweitzer, one of the first graduates of the program. An astrophysicist and educator, he speaks regularly on Climate among his other responsibilities as owner of Science Communications Consultants where he advises NASA and international planetariums.

Luckily, Chicago is the host city for this years training program  with Al himself on July 3 – August 1st.  Applications are being accepted but the deadline is quickly approaching on June 15th.  The training is free with the commitment of speaking in public 10 times over the next year.

Not your bailiwick but still  interested in learning more on Climate Change?  Lisa will be presenting The Climate Reality Program on June 21st at the  Peoples Church/Preston Bradley Center at 7pm.  Or contact her, albrecht . lisa @gmail.com, if you would like to host a training for your organization–free!

Five years later, still crazy for the environment

April 21, 2013

Welcome to the 5th Anniversary Show!

Feel free to run out and buy me a two-by-four. The traditional 5th anniversary gifts are made of wood, representing strength and a solidified relationship, and silverware, representing connectedness. On second thought, lift some silverware from the next fancy party you’re at and pass it along to me.

Well, who knew that the grand experiment would last this long? Certainly not I. But as a lurch into another year at Chicago’s Progressive Talk, I would be remiss if i didn’t thank all of the good folks who have helped me along the way. People like Kathleen Thompson, Mike Sanders, Heather Frey, Joe McArdle, Beth Botts, Leah Pietrusiak, Mark Earnest, Jennifer Brennan and a bunch more, too numerous to name. And there’s the current team of Lisa Albrecht, Sarah Batka, Rob Kartholl and Denny Schetter.

On today’s show, we’ll get some work done but we’ll have a little fun, too. Since Denny has suggested it, I’ll pull out some of my favorite audio clips from the past five years. We’ll give away some stuff from my over-stuffed grab bag and who knows who might call in? And Jennifer Brenan will be here to talk about Dig In Chicago.

My thanks, of course, to my very loyal listeners and to all of you who log onto this website each week to read these words. We had 1.25 million hits on the site last year, and I’m sure we’ll crash through that number this year.

Okay, onto business.

Are yearly “once-in-a-century” storms the new norm?

A lot of you are bailing out from a week of near-apocalyptic rain in the Midwest. I knew things were bad when I walked out my back door early Thursday morning and saw the lake that used to be my backyard. Fortunately for me, just as the water started rising from the drain in the center of my basement, the rains stopped and the water in the basement–and the backyard–receded.

Many people in the area weren’t nearly so fortunate. So what is going on here?Jennifer and I will talk to Rick DiMaio, who will give us an overview of this week’s weather and a clue to what it means. To see the extent of the storm, take a gander at these graphs:


Another casualty of the rains was Lake Michigan. Friend of the show Josh Mogerman from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) blogged about the sewage-laden water that was released into the Great Lake as the relentless rain pushed our storm water system to the limit. Friends of the Chicago River wants even more photos of this rain event and wants to use the documentation to lobby for accelerating the timeline to complete the Deep Tunnel and Reservoir Plan. If you have pics of the flooding that you want to share, click here.

And there’s an unfortunate aftermath to all of this flooding if you have a garden–especially a vegetable garden. Now you have to determine whether your soil and/or plants have been contaminated by sewage-laden flood waters.

Check out this article from Franklin County, Kentucky Extension, this one from Purdue Extension, and this one from South Dakota Extension for some pretty good information.. I’ve culled some of their advice:

  • Consider the source of the flood waters. Rain water or water from a potable water source, or uncontaminated source does not carry the same potential hazards as water from a river, septic field, or other potentially contaminated source.
  • Following flooding, any leafy greens that are eaten fresh, such as lettuce or cabbage, should be destroyed. They are at risk of contamination for 90 days following a flood.
  • Leafy greens that will be cooked, such as spinach, should be cut back completely and allowed to re-grow before using. Cook them thoroughly before using.
  • Newly planted seeds and transplants may not survive even short-term flooding, and seeds may have washed away. Resist the urge to replant immediately; give the soil a chance to dry out first. Working wet soil will have long-lasting effects of soil compaction.
  • Gardeners should not attempt to make an unsafe, flooded garden product safe by using chlorine bleach or a similar product. The level of contamination on a flooded garden can be at dangerous levels
  • With rain and sunshine, the levels of the pathogens will disperse. After the first good rain, research shows that the majority of harmful cells are removed from the surface.
  • As for landscape trees and shrubs, it is difficult to say what the long-term effect of being underwater will be. When soils are completely flooded, oxygen is prevented from reaching the root system. Certainly, some trees are more tolerant of waterlogged conditions, but the longer the lack of aeration, the greater the chance of root death. The general thought is that most landscape plants can survive being submerged for about a week or so.

Ron Wolford, Cook County Extension Educator, provides even more links related to flooding and your gardens:

Safely Using Produce from Flooded GardensWisconsin Food Science
Repairing Spring Flooded LawnsMissouri Extension
Effects of Flooding on Woody Landscape PlantsWisconsin Extension
It’s raining, it’s pouring, it’s a good time for a site assessmentThe Garden Professors
Plants Tolerant of Wet Sites-Morton Arboretum

If you have more questions, consult your local extension office.

ComEd’s “Energy Doctor” is in the house

On this day before Earth Day, it’s a pleasure to welcome Sandra Henry from Commonwealth Edison to the WCPT studios on Milwaukee Avenue. Sandra is the program manager of ComEd’s Energy Efficiency Portfolio, and also serves as one of ComEd’s Energy Doctors. She is an elected regional director of the Illinois Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). She is also an LEED Accredited Professional.

You might have heard of Commonwealth Edison Company (or ComEd) before–and I say that tongue-in-cheek, of course. ComEd provides service to approximately 3.8 million residential and business customers across northern Illinois, or 70 percent of the state’s population.

Whether it’s winter, summer, spring or fall, there are always ways that you can make your home more energy efficient. That’s the reason Sandra is in the studio today. She’s using her 20 years of experience to make suggestions and answer questions about how you can save energy–and money.

Here are twelve quick tips that you might find useful from ComEd’s page on low-cost and no cost solutions to energy problems.

  1. Turn off the lights whenever you leave a room.
  2. Keep your home at 78 degrees in the summer, or at the warmest temperature that is comfortable for you.
  3. When leaving home for more than 4 hours, raise the thermostat 5 to 10 degrees in summer and lower it 5 to 10 degrees in winter. Do the same at night before going to bed.
  4. Close south-, east-, and west-facing curtains during the day to keep out solar heat during the summer.
  5. Clean the coils at the back of your refrigerator twice a year.
  6. Only heat and cool rooms you use; close vents and doors to rooms that are not being used.
  7. Keep windows closed and shades down when air conditioning is on.
  8. Check and clean air conditioning filters monthly and replace as needed.
  9. Unplug electric chargers, televisions, and audio/video equipment when not in use (or plug them into a power strip you can turn off and on). These devices use electricity even when they are not in use.
  10. Turn off your computer or put it in ”sleep” mode when it is not being used.
  11. Run energy-intensive appliances such as the dishwasher and clothes washer at night. The heat produced by these appliances will not need to be offset by your air conditioner during the day. Wait until you have a full load to run the dishwasher and clothes washer, and use cold water when possible.
  12. Keep lamps and televisions away from the thermostat. The heat they generate will cause your air conditioner to work harder. If you’re running an old refrigerator in your basement that isn’t being used, unplug it. Old refrigerators can use three times the electricity of modern ones.

Sandra has even more information on the show today. Call in with your questions: 773-763-9278.


Weather, climate, safe household cleaners, enviro films and working in Angola

February 24, 2013

In studio: the man, the M.A., the meteorologist…Rick DiMaio!

You spoke and I listened.

What I mean is that I get emails and Facebook messages and Tweets about the show meteorologist Rick DiMaio. And most of those folks tell me that they can’t get enough of the Rickster. In fact, they often chide me that I don’t give him enough time on the show! Geez, kids, he already gets more air time than they give Tom Skilling at WGN-TV! I can’t turn over my whole program to him!

Well, I suppose I could, but then it would have to be called The Rick DiMaio Show and I’m certainly not going to let that happen.

But I did invite him to the WCPT studios, where he has yet to make an appearance, and…he said “yes!” Go figure.

So get your meteorological and climate change questions ready this morning, because the first hour of the show is devoted to those issues. Some of the things we might cover:

Of course, in addition to his radio and TV appearances, Rick teaches at a number of colleges and universities in the Chicago area. So I’ll ask him about what is in his current lesson plans and what his students think about the connection–and the difference–between weather and climate change.

I hope you can join us.

Forward on Climate Rally–a post mortem

As you might know, show contributor Lisa Albrecht and I were in Washington, D.C. last week for the Forward on Climate Rally and march to the White House. 350.org is crowing about the great media coverage of the event.

Of course, The Mike Nowak Show covered it live from the National Mall (the only live radio coverage, as far as I can tell), and you can hear the podcast of that show here.

Lisa and I will take a few minutes this morning to talk about our reactions to this important gathering of environmentally minded people. By the way, if you want to know what’s at stake, you might consider reading this article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. about why he decided to get arrested at the White House a few days before the rally.

But the environmental community is not exactly one big happy family. I’m not exactly thrilled with the way the event was promoted, despite what organizers call great media coverage. Grist has a few choice words about how large a tent has actually been raised for this issue. Of course, President Barack Obama didn’t do himself any favors by choosing to play golf in Florida with Tiger Woods (no big deal) and two Big Oil executives (HUGE deal) on the same day that 35,000 people were marching to his Washington home to express their displeasure with the idea of pumping even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by constructing the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

How to clean your house…without poisoning the environment

In the past few weeks, show contributor Rob Kartholl have been talking about the “Big Commie Garden Fabcon,” otherwise known and Connecting Chicago Community Gardeners, which was held yesterday at the Chicago Center for Green Technology.

In a word, Wow!

More than 200 community gardeners packed the facility for a day-long conversation about how Chicago community gardeners can create and sustain the projects in their neighborhoods. I was proud to be part of this ground-breaking event, which I hope will lead to a permanent community gardening organization in Chicago.

One of the attendees was Qae-Dah Muhammad, who is with the Ashe Park Community Garden on the City’s south side along the lake.

On Saturday, March 9 at the South Shore Library, Qae-Dah will conduct a workshop designed to inspire people to do their Spring cleaning with non-toxic household cleaners that they can mix themselves. She will explain why they should consider doing this, and present some of the health and economic benefits.

In her own words, “I’m aiming to take the initiative & inspire people who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone to try something different — not new — but different and safer. After learning about some of the toxic chemicals that can hide out in household cleaners, we’ll mix up our own cleaners from safe ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.”

Today, Qae-Dah is on my program, along with her mentor in this crusade–Cassidy Randall from Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE). They wiill discuss the organization’s role in lobbying our legislators for policies to protect us from toxic chemicals, and demanding that the manufacturers who produce hazardous consumer products become more environmentally friendly. They’ll also discuss the impact that toxic chemicals can have on the health of infants, women, the elderly, and our eco-systems.

The One Earth Film Festival is next weekend

Last year I interviewed Ana Garcia Doyle about the inaugural One Earth Film Festival, created by Green Community Connections, which took place April 27-29, 2012 in Oak Park & River Forest. More than 500 people attended 30+ screenings of compelling environmental films. This great event is back this year, along with its mission to create opportunities for understanding climate change, sustainability and the power of human involvement.

Among the films that will be shown this year are “Chasing Ice,” “Genetic Roulette,” “Soul Food Junkies,” and, a new feature, the “One Earth . . . Our Earth!” Young Filmmakers Contest for students from upper elementary school through college.

I’m pleased to have Ana back with me, along with Léa Kichler, winner of the High School category. Lea’s film is called “Let’s Talk About Water.” You can view it  here.

Our man in Angola, David J. Zaber

David J. Zaber is the kind of guy who makes me humble. If you go to his Facebook page, you will see that he is an

“environmental scientist with expertise in natural resource assessment, planning, and management, regulatory policy, and science education. Award-winning science educator with research experience in field ecology, environmental and ecotoxicology, and landscape ecology. Author and/or co-author of numerous scientific articles and other publications. Background working with diverse groups including private business, governmental agencies (including Native American tribes), non-governmental organizations, and individuals on a range of natural resource issues.”

He is also a fan of my show, and for that, I’m grateful. He was recently sent to the country of Angola to do some social and environmental work. Here’s a report he sent to me:

There is so much to talk about but what continues to amaze me is the wonderful and happy and friendly people who persist in the face of the worst grinding poverty I have ever seen. The Agronomy station is 2000 acres of land with a large section of old growth Miombo woodland ecosystem. Low tree diversity but amazing bird and insect diversity and plants too. The soils are super acidic so there is problems with nutrient uptake etc. I’ve been teaching water quality and advising on lower risk pesticides and IPM. For example, they are doing research on potatoes but have problems with mildews and white flies. When I went to the potato section, I immediately saw the problem: plastic containers for individual plants that do not drain readily. Since potatoes need to drain each day, this is what is causing the mildew problems. I suggested they experiment with soil amendments that facilitate drainage to alleviate the problem and to allow birds into the facility for predation.

My main task, however, is to set up the station’s water quality monitoring program for human health and environmental protection. Huambo province is in the middle of the country on a plateau referred to as the “alta plana” and this is where the major rivers of the nation begin. The spring is the headwaters of the Cunene River, one of the most pristine rivers in the nation. We have now established permanent site markings for their long-term monitoring program and I’m teaching several technicians basic water quality sampling techniques and habitat assessment (benthic invertebrates). I am also providing guidance on protection of the spring orifice where people get their water but trample the shit out of the place. We’ve discussed placing a small access “bridge” (one flattened log) in a location that would provide safe access while protecting the spring pool and riparian zone for downstream users. I have now seen my first shade grown coffee tree, the biggest avocado tree I’ve ever seen, and several other fruit trees. I’ve also met the man who single-handedly saved the station from total destruction during the war but there is serious damage remaining.

Malaria is rampant here for several reasons -which DO NOT include the banning of DDT as the detestable right-wingers claim. First, I have not seen one screen (opps the electricity just went out in the city so I had to go start the diesel generator using leaded fuels….argh) on any window anywhere yet. Second, pooling polluted water during the rainy season (now) provides perfect habitat for Aedes egypti, the mosquito that carries the malaria disease) and these pools are everywhere since the entire infrastructure was destroyed and the sidewalks are torn up, sewers don’t work, etc. Third, they plant corn directly next to their homes and the mosquito eats corn pollen so they thrive in the degraded habitat that has no natural predators. I’ve explained to the station how Zygopterans (dragonflies) are critical for predation in small pools and we’ve seen several species at the spring albeit depleted in numbers. They quickly understood. Moreover, very few people have bed nets. Finally, the pesticides they are using in the urban areas are often ones banned in the USA. The one I quickly noticed was spray cans containing DDVP or Vapona. This is a Shell product (go figure) that used to be in the Shell No-Pest strips. It was banned because DDVP vaporizes and settles on cold surfaces with residues remaining for years and is metabolized to vinyl chloride if it doesn’t kill you first. It is a strong human carcinogen (one of the few organophosphate that do cause cancer) and toxic to the fetus. I have warned people about it and suggested alternatives. So, next time some a__hole blames Rachel Carson for millions of malaria deaths, I’m gonna……

Huambo province, despite extremely acidic soils, was once the breadbasket for Angola but now the production is much lower. That’s the main goal of the station: to help production in the face of these challenges and to provides services to help determine the safety of water supplies for human consumption and agriculture use (I’m addiing in environmental protection too). Entire families work at the station yet 8 people have been killed over the past few years from cobras (snakes). Im not sure what type but the research team immediately understood why I take a long stick with me and beat the brush before I tread.

Women appear to do much of the very hard physical work everywhere I’ve been and they are treated as second class citizens. Thus, I’ve made a point to ensure that women are not doing all the lugging of our “equipment” which the men appear willing to allow. They’ve laughed at me but get it when I insist they share the loads. I love these people.

There is so much more to say but I’ll leave it at that. I’m going to the country tomorrow to see a national park and hopefully see the national symbol: Hippotragus niger variani – the Giant Black Sable Antelope. As with virtually all the big animals (Angola used to be one of the best places to see them) have been poached out of existence during the war, there is a desperate attempt to save them that appears to be working. (ok, I did write more!)

We can discuss anything you think the listeners would be interested in. I promise I won’t speak in my terrible broken Portuguese (which is getting better now that I’m immersed in it).

I’m speechless. And I don’t even speak Portuguese. David joins me on the show today to talk about his experiences in Angola.