The Easy Way to Fight Climate Change? Not Likely

solar

The kind of lifestyle that would save us from climate change disaster might not be too hard to picture. I picture drastically reduced car usage and drastically increased mass transit options, heavy dependence on local food, gardens in most backyards, solar panels on roofs (for electricity, hot water, and heating), forests of wind turbines, a huge push for energy efficiency and conservation, completely revamped industrial processes, a change in entertainment from electronic and passive to social and engaged, and more than any of that, embracing a much less luxurious–but incontrovertibly happier–lifestyle.

To life so that we’re really fighting climate change, I believe we have to give up a lot of the assumptions and expectations we currently have, but that the things we’re giving up are the kinds of things that research seems to show are not nearly as important to us as they seem. Our culture is heavily focused on electronic entertainment, on heavy use of travel, and on consumption, consumption, consumption. None of that really makes us happy. Sure, it might provide some temporary pleasure, but it doesn’t address any of the basic human needs that contribute to happiness. (If you’re interested, take a look at my article “The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness.”)

So far, so good: living that kind of lifestyle doesn’t worry me at all if it’s according to that mental picture, everyone changing the way they live together, understanding and responsibility spreading throughout the culture.

As if.

That would be the easy way to deal with the problem–“easy” in terms of the toll it would take on us individually, not in terms of the cost or amount of effort involved, which of course would be huge, though manageable if we were all to pitch in together. In truth, though, I don’t think there’s much chance we’re going to take the easy way. People are used to living the lifestyles they have now, and people who have the most privileged lifestyle–and therefore who have the most impact–have the least motivation to wake up and smell the catastrophe.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

― Margaret Mead

So if it’s not going to be the easy way, what are the hard ways? I believe there are three of them.

Choice number one is nobody doing anything until it’s much too late. Many of us die; the rest of us are subjected, almost every one, to lifelong suffering as we scrabble to feed ourselves, maintain homes that won’t be destroyed by weather, fight off disease of spreading pest populations, and make our peace with all of the suffering and death we see in the lives of our loved ones.

Choice number two is a little better, though not much: choice number two is our culture waking up to the problem when it’s late, but not too late. In this situation, the poorest and least powerful people will have to give things up first, and the most privileged people will give things up last. We’ll be dragged, kicking and screaming, into some half-baked semblance of sustainability. It might be enough to save us, though not to shield us from all of the trouble we will have bought already. Food will be scarce, energy will be too expensive to afford, and infrastructure will breaks down in many places where nobody’s able to pay to keep it working. Dark Ages, here we come.

Choice number three is still hard, but as you can probably guess from choices one and two, it’s my favorite of the “hard ways.” In choice number three, some of us push very hard now to model how a sustainable lifestyle looks. We figure out in our own lives how to live sustainably and throw ourselves energetically into doing so even though almost everybody else will just go on partying as usual. We would need to be able to look around us at people who are still driving SUVs and blasting the air conditioning with the window open and chowing down on McDonald’s and to continue living with care and consciousness even when nobody else is required to.

"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

― Albert Einstein

It doesn’t really seem fair. After all, apart from a sense of satisfaction and maybe a certain amount of preparedness, living sustainably doesn’t benefit the people who do it any more than it benefits their unsustainable neighbors.

Yet the unfair way is the way to go. If it were easy, or fair, or obvious, everyone would already be doing it. It’s not easy, and it’s unfair, and most people will look at that sustainable lifestyle and dismiss us a eco-freaks.

Here’s what I’ve been asking myself: How do we think about that in a way that drives us forward rather than holds us back? How do we think about what we’re creating instead of what we’re giving up?

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

― Barack Obama

(We can debate whether or not Mr. Obama has embraced this point of view himself yet, but either way, that statement is on the money.)

I think I have an answer for that, for how we can look at all of this work and begin to feel all “Bring it on!” about it. I’ll post about that soon. In the mean time … your thoughts?

Photo by Wonderlane

We’re Eating Oil–Literally

plastic_food

I came across a disturbing statistic today: ten to one. This was in Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

It takes the equivalent of four hundred gallons of oil annually to feed an American, and that’s before packaging, refrigeration, and cooking. In 1940, our food system produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil fuel it consumed. Now, says Michael Pollan, “it takes ten calories of fossil energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases.”

I think I had actually read this once before and been disturbed by it then, but at the time I was still in blissful ignorance of how fast and how hard climate change would be coming down on us. Reading it this time was painful–but it also made clear an enormous opportunity. Look at this information from a 2009 sustainability report from NYU:

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimated that, using our current system, three calories of energy were needed to create one calorie of edible food. And that was on average. Some foods take far more, for instance grain-fed beef, which requires thirty-five calories for every calorie of beef produced. What’s more, the John Hopkins study didn’t include the energy used in processing and transporting food. Studies that do estimate that it takes an average of 7 to 10 calories of input energy to produce one calorie of food.

So that’s painfully depressing. It’s at least possible to imagine not driving a car everywhere and turning off extra lights, but how exactly do we survive without eating?

Fortunately, as I said, there’s a huge opportunity there–three, actually.

  1. Because most food production energy goes into transportation and packaging, eating local, minimally-packaged foods drastically reduces their negative environmental impact.
  2. The figures above are for mainly conventional farming methods. Sustainable methods have a much lower impact.
  3. Eating lower on the food chain (less red meat, more beans and veggies, etc.) also greatly reduces environmental impact.

I’m ridiculously relieved that there’s at least something I can do about this. We’re already following some of these practices, but it looks like this will be the first area of changes for our family, tentatively: going localvore, reducing packaging, and eating low on the food chain. We were going in the right direction, but we need to step our efforts way up. We can do that. Actually, practically everybody could do that. I wish everybody would–but I’d better start with myself.

Photo by C Jill Reed

Videos: A Massive Iceberg Breakup and One Day on Earth

Here are two online videos I came across recently, one of which shows what a calving iceberg looks like as ice is splitting off, the other of which gives a series of glimpses of life around the entire world.

iceberg breakup

click the image to go to The Guardian’s Web site and see the video

Where the Carbon Comes From: Getting a Clue

I’m only at the very beginning of a process of understanding how we’re individually contributing to the climate change problem, but in the past week or so, I’ve come across some useful information, and I thought I’d share some of it here.

Note to self: avoid airplanes
One of the miracles of the modern world is being able to step onto a plane and step off later that same day halfway around the world. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do. It’s also, as it turns out, a huge climate pig (no offense intended to pigs). According to this, Americans are individually responsible for, on average, about 20 tons (TONS!) of CO2 being spewed into the atmosphere every year. That’s bad enough, but according to the same page, one round trip transatlantic flight adds another 3-4 tons to the total. Just one trip! In around 16 hours of travel, we can do as much damage as we do with all the purchasing, plugging in, turning on, heating, driving, eating, wasting, etc. that we do for two entire months. For me, that’s way over the line: I intend to avoid air travel as much as possible unless and until fuel consumption for airplanes changes radically.

What’s the breakdown?
Fellow Codexian and writer Laurel Amberdine posted this chart, “Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2010,” which I found well worth contemplating.

EmissionsBySector2010

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about how emissions are broken down to draw conclusions about how we as individuals figure in. For instance, if I buy a set of placemats and have them shipped to me from Idaho, is the impact of the shipping figured under “Industry” or “Transportation”? Is electricity used by a light manufacturing site under “Electricity” or “Industry” … or even “Commercial & Residential”? Where do emissions having to do with building go? It’s clear to me that I need to learn a lot more about all of this.

I was dismayed to read that one British supermarket chain that had committed to carbon impact labeling for all of its products has given up the job as too difficult and time-consuming. I think carbon labeling is a desperately needed step, if it’s accurate.

A split within the climate change community
I also came to realize that there’s a quiet but problematic divide among people committed to fighting climate change. On one side are the people who think that we can go on living more or less as we currently do, consuming an enormous amount of energy and resources–but that we need to simply change over to more sustainable energy generation methods.

The other side, where I stand, is populated by those who believe that in order to make a real difference in the climate change problem, we need to radically scale back our lifestyles–to stop buying tons of cheap goods manufactured overseas, stop insisting on eating foods that are out of season a thousand or more miles from where they’re grown, stop jetting around the globe, and stop driving everywhere (among other changes).

Coal is worst, natural gas is temporarily acceptable [NOT!]
I hadn’t realized that there’s a big difference in emissions from different fossil fuel sources.  Coal, apparently, is the absolute worst–and it’s plentiful in many developing or partly-developed places around the world, where the need for energy and wealth of any kind is most acute. [Later note: A metastudy done after I originally published this article reveals that natural gas is just about as bad as coal as soon as we take into account the side effects of harvesting it, especially of fracking. Fracking can release methane, which is 20-25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in causing climate change. On the whole, gas might be a little better or a little worse than coal, but the best estimate puts it right about on par. Be wary of propaganda claiming otherwise! It is most likely based on an incomplete footprint assessment–a “toeprint,” as the term goes.]

I’ve also come across several reliable sources of climate change information now that recommend we adopt natural gas more widely for a short period as a transitional fuel until we can get to all-renewable or nearly-all-renewable sources.

All grist for the mill–although I guess we had better make that a water mill. Wish me luck getting a better handle on this. I wish the same to you.

Climate Change: Hope Is Vital–and Dangerous

First, a sanity check-in: over the past week or so, I had slowed down on my climate change studies (that is, on building an understanding of what’s going on and what we need to do, mainly by reading), because it was so stressful being buried under all of those grim statistics. This worked fine while I was completely preoccupied for three days doing a flooring project in our house, but as soon as that stopped, though, my stress level went up. The lesson for me is this: it may be stressful for me to learn about climate change, but since I have an idea how bad the problem is (thank you, Hurricane Sandy), it would be even more stressful to avoid it.

Reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet has continued to be punishingly difficult, but even just a few minutes after I’ve stopped reading, I find I can regain my balance. Working on climate change will require giving up a lot, and we may fail miserably, but we have the capacity to absorb and understand that and still come back fighting for our future and our kids’ future. In the end, we are very, very resilient.

There may be a solution
I was enormously relieved last week when I started investigating the idea of putting some kind of filter between the earth and the sun to cut down sunlight, a sun shade. At first I had some trouble with the geometry, but after a little while I did come to understand that the closer such a filter was to the sun, the smaller it would have to be. We don’t have to have a filter the size of the entire planet to cool everything down a little.

This will sound like science fiction, but keep in mind that as I write this, we have robots rolling around on Mars conducting scientific experiments. If our only challenges are technical and financial ones, we might be up to the task. And what is the task? It’s an approach called “geoengineering,” in this case maneuvering one big asteroid (or a bunch of smaller ones) to a place called Lagrange Point 1 (L1), the spot in space where the earth’s gravity and the sun’s gravity balance out, so that an object has the best chance of staying in place.

The asteroids themselves wouldn’t be the filter: that would be created by us putting some machinery on the asteroids to grind them up very slowly into dust. The dust would be spewed out into a cloud that would settle into orbit around the asteroid and filter out a little bit of the sun’s light and heat from earth, turning down the temperature just enough to get us back in the green zone. You can read about this idea (with some maybe-outdated climate change information) here.

creating asteroid dust: image by Charlotte Lücking, based on images from ESA and NASA, via livescience.com

Some more complicated (and expensive) versions of this project would require objects floating between the earth and sun that could be tilted or maneuvered, so that we would have fine control over where and how sunlight was filtered. With technology like that, we might even be able to refreeze polar ice caps and mountain glaciers, rolling the clock back in terms of actual warming, though not in terms of other environmental damage. We can do all of this–at least, theoretically–with many billions of dollars and with years of work.

Even with a working sun shade, we’d still need to make a fast and extreme change to much greener energy production and reduced energy usage if we wanted to stave off disaster. Yet shading the planet offers a real (though very complicated, expensive, difficult, worrisome, and politically improbable) fix that would stop the worst of the flooding, forest fires, superstorms, plagues (for instance, of malaria and dengue fever), and desertification.

The problem with hope
… all of which is great, and I hope we throw ourselves into creating a solution like this with desperate and concentrated energy. However, I worry that if we do, the average person will say “Yeah, we have problems with global warming … but why worry about green energy now? We’ve got that asteroid thing, and then we’ll have plenty of time to fix that energy stuff … later.”

Yeah, right: later. Because later everything will be different and the whole world will be excited about making the difficult sacrifices to change our energy consumption habits. Because later politicians won’t be so argumentative and short-sighted. Because later things certainly won’t have gotten worse, making action even harder. Right? Ugh.

Thanks for reading this, and keep on pushing to make things better. We need you out there.