Monday, April 19, 2010

Climate change and individual behavior

(Let's open that oven door a little less often.)

Where did this crisis come from? I stand by the 2,500 scientific expert reviewers who signed off on the IPCC 3-volume report in 2007, which was written by more than 800 contributing authors from over 130 countries, and which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. The report concluded that we have met the enemy and it is us. Realize that about 30 billion tons of CO2 enter the atmosphere each year due to human activities, in addition to vast quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. It would be astounding to me if that did not have an effect on earth’s climate. But this essay is not going to deal with the issue of whether humans caused the climate change problem, or whether it is due to aliens, or farting cattle, or the most recent Milankovich cycle. I want to focus on our individual behavior.

The carbon cycle is an important one for life on earth. Plants need carbon dioxide, which is given off every time an animal breathes, to conduct photosynthesis, and photosynthesis produces oxygen, which is needed by animals. So there is really a gigantic symbiosis there between those two groups of organisms. Everything went along just fine until the past century. We discovered the fossil fuels of coal, oil, and natural gas, which are comprised mostly of carbon and, of course, when carbon mixes with oxygen we get carbon dioxide. These fossil fuels were safely sequestered hundreds of feet below ground for about 200 million years. We dig them up, bring them to the surface, and burn them, which releases carbon dioxide into the air.

It is a worthwhile exercise to think about how to get rid of all that new carbon now that it is on the surface. Basically, you can not. You can let more plants grow, which sequester carbon in their tissues, but eventually they die and decompose and release the carbon back into the cycle. Much of it falls into the ocean, but it is eventually released again as well. One far-out suggestion is to cut down millions of tons of trees and sink them to the bottom of the ocean, which would take carbon out of the system for centuries. Not recommending that. I don’t have the answer, but we need to keep thinking about how to reduce the carbon that is already out of Pandora’s Box.

But what can we do to reduce the amount of additional carbon we put into the already burdened atmosphere from the package in which it is now sequestered—chunks of coal or barrels of oil? We can reduce the annual flow of CO2 into the atmosphere as individuals. I recently bought two books (can you guess where I bought them?) that have helped me get my head around the companion issues of what are the specific sources of CO2 and what can I do about them. Chris Goodall’s “How to live a low-carbon life: the individual’s guide to stopping climate change” has been the most informative piece I have read yet on this topic. Goodall works for a software company, was a Parliamentary Candidate for the Green Party, and holds an MBA from Harvard. The other book is “You can prevent global warming (and save money!)” by Jeff Langholz and Kelly Turner. Langholz received his Ph.D. in my home department at Cornell, and is now at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies.

Goodall estimates that about half of all CO2 emissions to the atmosphere are due to what individuals do in their daily lives: heat and light their homes, travel, etc. The other half comes from producing the food we eat and shipping it to us from afar, heating and cooling office buildings, and construction. His thesis, which is supported with numerous examples, is that we can not count on the governments of our respective countries (Goodall lives in the UK) to reduce emissions by as much as they are needed. Thus, we need to take responsibility ourselves for reducing our individual contribution from about 12.5 tons of CO2 per person per year to 3 tons per person per year, to use his numbers from the UK. (Remember, you can talk about carbon or you can talk about carbon dioxide, but do not mix the two in an apples to oranges comparison. One ton of carbon equals 3.6667 tons of carbon dioxide).

Goodall does an excellent job at taking each of the “systems” of our lives (e.g., lighting, car travel), explaining the contribution of that component to the overall problem, and offering sound advice on how to minimize our impact. The Langholz and Turner book is like a “saving energy for dummies” guide. What exactly and specifically can you do in your home, and what products are available to do it, to minimize your contribution to the problem of climate change. I find that the two volumes in combination (for a total price of about $25) have armed me for my personal attack on this vexing problem.

So I admit there are actions we can take as individuals, even given my usual pessimism about the quantities involved in these global problems of the environment. Much of it seems to be reprogramming our usual habits. If you want to make a real difference, never fly on a plane, and I mean never. But according to Langholz and Turner, if every oven owner in the U.S. peeked at their dinner cooking one less time per year, we would save 7,000 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year. For starters, I think I can manage that.