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UAB alumni on the frontlines of climate crisis

by Whitney Sides, Editor-in-Chief

As images from COVID-19 fill the media, some of the most striking are of major cities all over the world — without pollution.

Los Angeles, notorious for it’s car culture, with bright blue skies. Cities on the Indian subcontinent now with crisp views of the Himalayas for the first time in over 100 years.

Government scientists announced last year was the hottest year on record in human history.

But there are those still working to make a difference before the climate crisis surpasses it’s tipping point.

And Birmingham is home to many. Here are their stories.

DR. JAMES McCLINTOCK

Dr. James McClintock has gained notoriety on campus and worldwide as “the Antartica guy”.

“I’ve spent 30 years of my life working in Antarctica” said McClintock.

“I spend a lot of my time in the cold learning about sponges on the sea floor, but I’m also very interested in climate change and how a warming world, paired with an acidified ocean, is affecting life everywhere on our planet.”

McClintock took his passion for climate change on the road as part of the Natural Conservancy’s “Let’s Talk Climate” campaign.

He says that even though 7 in 10 Americans believe climate change is happening, and 6 in 10 are at least somewhat concerned about it, two-thirds of Americans rarely, if ever, talk about climate change with the people they care about.

McClintock has no problem speaking directly about the effects climate change and making concise suggestions on where to begin.

McClintock said it’s a no-brainer to shift to a more carbon-free economy.

“We’re talking about using renewable energies like solar, maybe some nuclear, wind energy. I believe that there is actually a tremendous opportunity to develop jobs in these areas” McClintock said.

McClintock said there are no more jobs in the solar industry than the coal industry and it’s growing by leaps and bounds because the cost of solar has decreased. He also said recent advances in solar energy have ironed out some of the initial kinks.

“I think that battery technology is coming along to the point where we’ve eliminated limitations about solar that it doesn’t generate power during the night. You can now store your energy during the day and batteries and then use it through the night” McClintock said.

He said he believes this effects Alabama on a major level because where there’s economic opportunity, there’s hope.

“Solar energy could be a very important way to rejuvenate the economy of the Black Belt” McClintock said. “And in fact it would lend itself very well to solar fields like this. So I think Alabama has some potential to upgrade.”

McClintock said a lot of confusion about climate change is political. But it’s also simple.

Most people relate it to strictly weather, but he warns worrying about only the weather leaves you two steps behind.

“What we’re seeing happen across the world now and here in Alabama is we’re having dryer dries droughts. We’re having more torrential rainfall, so it doesn’t necessarily rain more here in Birmingham, but when it does rain, it comes down very, very hard in a short period of time” McClintock said.

That’s a concern to biologists like him because he looks at his beloved Cahaba River and instead of it running clear, it runs like chocolate milk filled with sediment. And when Alabama has torrential rains, we get scouring of the riverbanks and it causes more sediment to build up in the rivers.

“So we’re seeing dryer dries and we’ve had those polar plunges that come down in the winter and have unusually cold weather. These are all unusual sort of events that are tied to climate change that affect our weather, affect our economy, affect our health” McClintock said.

So what can people in Birmingham do right now to make a real difference?

“The more we can get industry to stop putting carbon pollution in the air, the healthy our lungs are going to be. And the more that we’re going to tangibly address climate change” McClintock said.

McClintock said that even though the burden of change is on industry, individuals can affect change in an obvious way.

“I think what you can do, probably the most important thing that we need to impress upon young people is that their vote counts,” McClintock said.

He encourages younger people to use their political power to contact their elected officials and let them know that they’re concerned about climate change and that this is a big issue for them.

THE COLSONS

Scotty Colson is a Birmingham staple.

The 6’9” UAB alumni and clean air activist worked for the city of Birmingham for 35 years and currently serves at a local non-profit.

His time on the board at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve and the well-known Sierra Club bolstered his reputation as an environmental advocate both at home and worldwide.

But for him, it’s more about family.

Meet Haley Lewis. She’s a UAB graduate, new mom and serves as Staff Attorney at GASP, a local non-profit working to hold industry and government accountable under the Clean Air Act.

She’s also Colson’s daughter.

“First of all, it’s personal for me. And I know it is for Haley too,” Colson said.  “I suffer from asthma and I know she’s seen it her whole life”.

Lewis said that while she received a first hand window into nature and it’s importance from a young age, human impact on the environment can be hard to grasp as a concept.

“We pair things,” Lewis said. “I think some people like to treat the air as disposable, when really, we are the keepers of it”.

Lewis said she feels compelled to speak out against industrial polluters because while people are familiar with local efforts in support of rivers, land and species conservation, air quality in Alabama often takes a back seat.

The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America ranks Birmingham No. 8 in its latest annual Asthma Capitals report.

The American Lung Association ranks the area No. 14 in year-around particle pollution in its latest State of the Air report.

When Birmingham has “ozone days,” this information is being collected from the various ozone monitors throughout JCDH’s ambient air monitoring network. JCDH, or Jefferson County Department of Health, is located right behind Hill Center on UAB’s campus.

As an attorney for a local clean air advocacy group, Lewis has been paying close attention to Alabama polluters.

Not only because of the crucial role ambient air monitors play in informing us about air quality, but also because a more robust, intentionally strategic ambient air monitoring network is a critical component of establishing everyone’s right to breathe healthy air.

“There were 15% more days with unhealthy air in America both last year and the year before than there were on average from 2013 through 2016, the four years when America had its fewest number of those days since at least 1980,” Lewis wrote publicly in response to a recent bad air report.

Colson said this is nothing new and that his health problems as a child in the 1960s and 70s brought on by Birmingham’s long history of industry, sparked him into a lifelong action.

“You could see it like a layer cake. Smog, soot, just bad air everywhere, driving over the viaducts by Sloss or U.S. Steel. And we were breathing it,” Colson said.

While Colson said there have definitely been improvements in the post-industrial age, Alabama needs to come together to figure out pragmatic policies tog.

“Economic, environmental… it affects everyone, from the folks in rural areas to the kids riding their bikes downtown,” Colson said. “Someone’s losing a job that could easily get hired on in clean energy and some kid from the other side of town could be writing grants to make that happen”.

And the Colson family’s work in advocacy won’t slow down anytime soon.

“I have a two year old and I’m worried about the world I’m leaving her,” Lewis said.

“The scientists are telling us we have 10 years to get this right and the time to act was 50 years ago” said Lewis. “So we don’t have the time for everything that’s being rolled back”.

Colson said the Clean Air Act — put in place on the federal level in the 1970s — gives people like himself, his daughter and any citizen who has a concern the power to make a real and lasting change. And Lewis agrees.

“I think it’s a beautiful piece of legislation and what I love the most is the cornerstone of it is citizen enforcement,” Lewis said. “So citizens are first in the Clean Air Act because it intrinsically tied to the ability of anyone to enforce something that’s forgotten a lot by regulators here.”

“Don’t count on the regulators to save you down here,” said Colson. “ADEM is just a permitting agency; passing out permits to whoever’s paying to pollute”.

“And it’s her job to put some sunshine on that and hold these folks accountable,” Colson said, speaking proudly about his daughter.

“Anyone can get involved. Don’t box yourself in and feel guilty about not using plastic straws or riding your bike to work,” Lewis said.

“You feel guilt as a consumer, but the ones doing the real damages are the polluters,” Lewis said. “You might as well raise your voice and say so”.

RIVERKEEPERS

Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s Charles Scribdner and John Kinney exchange a “Go Blazers” at every opportunity at work.

Kinney, the Staff Scientist for the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, graduated with his Masters in Civil Engineering in 2015.

“My degree in in MSCE, but it’s more specific than that. Most of my classes were in environmental engineering, definitely,” Kinney said.

Scribdner also graduated UAB in 2015, earning his Masters in Public Administration in 2015. He then went on to complete UAB’s graduate certificate program in Non-Profit management.

Scribdner said that while he had the passion for advocacy early on, his first job at BWR taught him that he knew nothing about running an organization.

“That’s very important when you work within a grassroots and citizen led group, ” Scribdner said.

“I knew I saw problems, I wanted change, I had the right people around me, but I didn’t have the specific knowledge I needed yet and I was lucky to get that at UAB.”

Scribdner started as a history major when he realized his love for environmentalism.

“I read this book called the “River Keepers”, which was about how an organization called Hudson Riverkeepers had cleaned my local river,” Scribdner said. “It was really inspiring for me to see that this was a nonprofit organization made of citizens.”

“This wasn’t the government, these weren’t necessarily scientists and I was compelled by that,” Scribdner said.

Climate change affects the Black Warrior and all Alabama waterways in ways that are not immediately obvious, said Scribdner. And he sees his job at Executive Director as a means to bring attention to our state’s inability to handle what’s coming.

“In our experience, our state does not do a very good job of actually writing permits that are protective of water quality,” said Scribdner.

Kinney said a big part of his job as staff scientist is reviewing those permits.

“We make our own determination as to whether or not we think that those permits are effective and letting the state know how we believe those permits should be strengthened” Kinney said.

UAB currently holds many state issued permits, one of which is the NPDES, allowing it to discharge certain chemicals into the water.

For instance, on campus, chemicals from AC cooling units are discharged into storm drains than run into Valley Creek and later the Black Warrior River.

Kinney says while the permit serves a purpose, the state often looks the other way.

“The idea behind the permit is that only pollutants and only concentrations of pollutants that are protective of the streams should be discharged. But we find that the state often overlooks certain pollutants in permits, whether that’s intentional or not” Kinney said.

Kinney said the levels of discharge allowed are arbitrary and can be omitted or including at the whim of ADEM. While traveling along the Black Warrior, Kinney tests the water for what he refers to as “signs of life” or it’s “vitals”.

He spends his time testing for healthy levels of oxygenation near the many coal ash ponds and industrial facilities that call the Black Warrior home. And in the past year, it has not been good news.

Last summer, the Tyson Fish Kill sent over 200,000 gallons of pollution downstream of the Locust Fork and killed over a million fish. The slough of dangerous water travelled from Hanceville all the way to Hale County, past Tuscaloosa.

ADEM and it’s commissioner received months of public scrutiny and Scribdner cites it as just another example of how the agencies set up to protect Alabama have failed catastrophically.

“We were able to document the wastewater and the dead fish as far down as 45 miles. It started in Cullman County, but it went through the most populated areas of Walker county as well,” said Scribdner.

“So you had a lot of different communities upset about it and all of those communities use the river, not just for industry, not just for drinking water, but that’s their recreation, that’s their beach, their greatest enjoyment source,” Kinney said.

“And so they, there a lot of people took it personally and rightfully so,” said Scribdner.

“This was not the first time our waterways will suffer at the hands of local polluters and it wont be the last.”

If any students at UAB want to become involved with BWR, they are encouraged to reach out to Scribdner or Kinney to learn more about their internship and water tester programs.

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