New, Engrossing Climate Visuals Site Boosts Climate Change Communication

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The new Web site ClimateVisuals.Org offers both copyrighted and free images that explain the causes, consequences, solutions, and stories behind climate change. It’s a remarkable new resource developed from thoughtful and careful research into how people respond to and understand … Continue reading

Better Gifts for a Smaller Footprint

presents

The holidays present a whole different set of circumstances compared to daily life, so they also come with a whole different set of sustainability challenges. Top among these after  travel and food (see my previous post) is gift-giving. Recycled wrapping paper or reusable gift bags are great, but be sure the gift in that wrapping takes sustainability into account too.

Here are some tips for carbon-smart gifting:

Start early!
Early planning alone can save both carbon and money. By giving ourselves time to work out good options in advanc, we can avoid unwanted or wasteful gifts as well as rush shipping and other flailing around. In this instance (and many others, as it turns out), organizing and planning make for more affordable, more sustainable presents.

Make sure your gift will be used
In measuring the emissions of a gift in proportion to how much happiness it brings, the biggest loser is a gift that isn’t used at all. We’ve all gotten (and given) them: whether a seemingly genius idea that didn’t pan out or a gift bought at the last minute in desparation, a present that isn’t used damages the climate without helping anyone. Even a returnable present often feels bad to the recipient while creating more travel and/or shipping, which has its own footprint.

Some ways to ensure a gift isn’t a duplicate or a misfire include discussing it with someone else close to the recipient, erring on the side of conservative gift-choosing (for instance, with gift certificates), or even involving the recipient in the gift choice. I know it’s traditional (and fun) for gifts to be surprises, but both as a gift giver and a gift getter, personally I’d be much happier about a gift that’s a hit but not a surprise than a gift that’s unexpected but a flop.

The driving gotcha
Think twice about gifts that involve much driving, whether it’s you getting the gift or the recipient using it. On top of the gift itself, the extra driving creates a bigger negative impact on carbon footprint that’s easy to miss or discount. Since travel is the number one source of emissions for individuals and households, it’s entirely possible to give a gift that has a much bigger impact in terms of driving than is embodied in the gift itself.

Of course, not all driving raises a gift’s impact. For example, if you pick up a gift while driving but are combining that errand with others, the extra driving attributable to that particular gift is lessened or eliminated. Similarly, if the gift-getter is already going to do the driving your gift would entail (for instance, you buy a ski pass for someone you know already plans to go skiing), driving again stops being an issue.

Types of presents
Some categories of gifts, such as electronics, tend to have a much worse impact than others. Even some seemingly-harmless gifts, like clothing and shoes, can come with a heavy climate toll. Here are some ways to approach more sustainable gift choices:

  • Favor gifts that will be used more. An item that is seldom used, even if it’s enjoyed when it is used, is contributing much less for its cost in carbon than something that’s used regularly.
  • Favor gifts of necessities over luxuries. A gift that solves a problem is not only welcome, but also does a much better job of justifying its climate impact.
  • Steer clear of upgraded replacements. For instance, a slightly newer, slightly better smart phone as a gift wastes much of the carbon cost of manufacturing the phone that’s already in use.
  • Prize quality. With so many things so easily replaceable these days, we tend to think of quality as an indulgence. In fact, a durable, high-quality item will often pay for itself much better over time than a cheap item that will wear out and need to be replaced.

Used = more delight for the recipient, less trouble for the climate
My son is interested in animation, and for his recent birthday we bought him a high-quality graphics tablet, the kind of device animators connect to computers and draw on to create their art. There’s no way we could have afforded it if we’d tried to get him a brand-new one, and the climate impact of electronic devices in general is often terrible. Buy buying him a used unit from a reputable seller, we not only got him a much bigger gift than we otherwise could have–one he’ll have a real use for–but we also avoided buying something that had to be manufactured just for him.

Buying used goods doesn’t usually make for a zero carbon footprint, even if we disregard shipping. It’s always possible that if we hadn’t bought that graphics tablet, someone else would have who instead decided to buy a brand-new one. At the same time, it’s also possible that by buying that graphics tablet, we contributed enough to the demand for used items like that that somebody somewhere took one out of the closet and dusted it off for resale rather than letting it sit unused. On average, the impact of buying a used item will be significantly less than that of buying a new item, just not zero.

It’s true that some people may be put off by getting or giving used gifts. We certainly tend to prize the new and shiny in our culture. However, I think we can consider this more reason to give used gifts, not less. If we want to reduce waste and therefore climate change damage in our culture, we need to get used to fixing things, reusing things, and sharing things rather than insisting that everything we have be the latest, private to us, and previously untouched by human hands. Buying used has its limitations, but by encouraging reuse, we help to change both our own and the gift recipient’s ways of approaching consumer goods … for the better.

Photo by Liz Brooks

“Kic”: A Universal Unit for Climate Impact

scale

UPDATE: Since originally publishing this post in November of 2013, I’ve done a lot more inquiring into and asking people about terms, and I’ve eventually come to the conclusion that my original term “k-coe” can be improved on, as it’s a little too strange to write and to say. I’ve settled on the new word “kic,” to mean the same thing: Kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Apart from the change in the exact term, the rest of this article, explaining why the unit is important and helpful, still applies.

In my last post, I mentioned how useful I found Mike Berners-Lee’s book on carbon footprints, How Bad Are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything.

I also mentioned that there are some things about the book that I think fall short. One of those is units of measurement. Almost everybody I’ve read on the subject of carbon footprints, so far, does this same problematic thing, so I don’t blame Berners-Lee specifically, although he’s worse than most.

Here’s the thing: people use a whole bunch of different units to measure carbon footprint depending on the situation. This habit comes very reasonably from scientific tradition, in which it makes sense to have micrograms, milligrams, grams, kilograms, metric tonnes, etc. so as to keep numbers manageable. Berners-Lee, in publishing the American edition of his book, makes it worse by also converting many numbers to so-called “English” units and talking about pounds and tons of CO2 equivalent right alongside kilos and metric tonnes.

But if having these different units is common practice among scientists, grocery stores, governments, cooks, and many other relatively sensible sources, what’s the problem? In a word: impact.

The conversion to English units is the worst in this respect, because it throws two numbers at us simultaneously. For example, Berners-Lee gives these numbers for an average hotel stay: “24 kg (53 lbs.) CO2e: $100 spent on dinner, drinks, bed, and breakfast in a hotel with average eco-credentials.”

Don’t blame him for all the of details and qualifications: as described in my last post (“Measuring Carbon Footprint: Flawed, but Essential“), they’re important.

However, not counting the price of food, he throws two different numbers at us: 24 and 53. Since most of us don’t have a clue what the impact of either a pound of CO2 equivalent or a kilogram of CO2 equivalent means in terms of climate change, what sticks out are the raw numbers. By comparison, here are Berners-Lee’s numbers for a couple of other items:

  • bananas: “80 g CO2e imported from the other side of the world (or 480g per kilo/240g per pound)”
  • a hectare (2.5 acres) of deforestation: 500 tons CO2e.

With all of those units thrown at us, we may intellectually understand that we’re counting things differently in each example, but our brains are not configured to easily distinguish between differing units when we’re being presented with a list of numbers. On some level we have to fight against the intuitive idea that a hotel stay is 24 or 53 whatevers, a banana is 80 whatevers, and a hectare of deforestation is 500 whatevers.

If we want people to really understand the relative climate change impact of different choices, we need to standardize on a single unit and not try to keep numbers small by changing what we’re counting. Let’s adopt the single most widely-used and well-understood unit, kilograms of CO2 equivalent. Further, let’s call it something short and easy and distinctive so that normal people can use the term: I advocate for “kic,” pronounced like “kick.”

I know that’s a weird word, but I think a weird word is necessary. We could abbreviate to “kce” and call them “kaceys” or something, but that sounds much too cute and innocuous. It would be like calling a nuclear bomb “Mr. Kablooie.” It’s a bad idea to make life-threatening destruction sound friendly. We’ve even got a number in there, so a straightforward acronym like “KCO2E” is unpronounceable. So is “KCDE” for “kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.” My first attempt at a compromise was “k-coe” or “kcoe,” but it’s just too unwieldy. People can say, spell, and remember “kic,” even if the spelling is odd.

One benefit of a strange (but easily-pronounced) word is that it draws attention to itself. If I say “Hey, we could save 5 kics if we take our bikes instead of driving,” the natural response is “What’s a kic?” (or “what are we kicking?”). That gives an opportunity to answer “A kic is an easy way of comparing climate change impact. It stands for ‘kilograms carbon dioxide equivalent.’ I’m trying to get mine down to 2,000 kcoes a year, but it’s a long, hard slog.”

Most normal people, on hearing this, will almost instantly forget the technical details, but the word and how it’s used may stick, and the numbers make easy reference points. Anyone can see that saving 5 kics if you’re trying to keep your impact down to, say 10 kics per day, is a smart move.

So what do the above examples look like if we use kics?

  • A hotel stay: 24 kics
  • A banana: 0.08 kics
  • A hectare of deforestation: 500,000 kics

To me, that’s much, much clearer. I instantly understand a lot more of the relative impact of these different actions than I did with the differing units.

One thing Berners-Lee does that I think is very smart is to compare a lot of things to what he calls the “ten ton(ne) lifestyle,” which is to say a lifestyle in which a person’s footprint is 10,000 kics per year. (Note that I can say “footprint” instead of “carbon footprint,” because the term “kics” already tells us that we’re talking about greenhouse gases.) Berners-Lee is much more comprehensive than many sources in carbon footprint estimation, so while that may sound high, it’s a good bit lower than what most of us in the developed world are actually doing. Regardless of whether we choose that target or a much more ambitious one, like 2,000 kics per year per person, using kics for both the target and the impact of each choice becomes very useful. We can compare apples and oranges and bananas and cheeseburgers and make informed decisions. We can look at how we’re doing in comparison to a goal and figure out what scale of change is necessary to meet it.

All of this becomes hopelessly complicated with multiple units for everything. Let’s stop making a confusing subject even harder to understand.

I know that something as picky as how we talk about climate change numbers seems trivial, but I think it’s the difference between the subject being permanently vague and confusing and it being crystal clear. I believe that clarity and understanding are desperately needed if we want to see any widespread improvement in how people think about climate change.

If you agree, please spread the word about this term. You don’t have to link to this site or give me credit for the idea or spell it the same way: for all I care, attribute it to Tom Hank: that might even be better for popularizing it. Let’s just agree to line up our numbers and talk in a language everyone can understand.

Photo by sidelife

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