Global environmental challenges
What can ordinary people do to slow climate change?
(Updates with comments from Knut Alfsen of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO))
Today’s expert panel discusses the question, “What can ordinary people do to slow climate change?”
Join the discussion and let us know what you think.
Gidon Eshel, physics professor at Bard College:
What can ordinary people do to slow climate change? A lot.
Which is extremely important as it appears increasingly unlikely that Obama the president will deliver what Obama the candidate promised.
Some obvious suggestions cannot be made quantitative because they are of “the less the better” type. For example, consider the number one global emitter, China. Some undetermined fraction of its emissions goes to manufacturing the cheap consumer goods the western world voraciously consumes.
Concerned about global emissions? Don’t buy, from China or anywhere else, stuff you don’t need. And think twice and thrice before you put anything in the “needed” category.
Or consider your shower. Switching from a 12 minute shower using a regular shower head to a 6 minute shower with an efficient head will lower your overall annual footprint by 1.1 tons CO2. If most Americans made this switch, the national emission savings will amount to over 330 million tons of CO2, more than Argentina’s total carbon footprint.
Or commuting. If your 5 days/week, 45 weeks/year, commute is 15 miles, the difference between using a 19 mile per gallon car (e.g., a slightly aged Camry) and a 52 mile per gallon car (a young and well tuned Prius) is again about a ton CO2.
If you live in the U.S., your personal annual overall footprint is on average about 24 ton CO2-eq (where this “-eq” is short for “equivalent”, and this sum tallies all greenhouse gases emitted due to one’s actions while considering the differing ability of each of those greenhouse gases to affect climate).
For those U.S. denizens, switching from a Camry to a Prius will reduce their overall emissions to 96 percent of their current value.
Unimpressed? Multiply this by 100 million commuters, and you get 99 million tons of CO2, comfortably in excess of Congo’s total annual carbon footprint.
Heating your home can give you another pause, and vindicate President Carter’s sweater (if it has ever fallen on hard times).
Consider two homes, 2,200 and 2,800 square feet, the former poorly insulated with an average of R value of 18, the latter reasonably well built (though by no means outstanding), with an average R value of 36.
The difference between heating these two houses in typical northeastern U.S. climate (90 days with an average inside–outside temperature difference of 30 degrees F) is 3.2 ton CO2.
If all 114 million American households switched from something like the inefficient house to the better one, we would save 370 million tons of CO2, or Poland’s total greenhouse gas footprint.
Still unimpressed? let’s talk about your diet. Imagine two people eating the same diet (same number of calories, same ratio of animal- to plant-based foods, same number of meat calories), but with one getting her meat calories from beef while the other from poultry. The difference between these two eaters is 1.4 ton CO2-equivalent per year. Convince 100 million Americans to switch from beef to chicken, and you have eliminated the emissions of 140 million tons of CO2-eq, the Czech Republic’s total annual greenhouse gas footprint.
Today’s high is 25 degrees F; it was 12 degrees F, and very windy, when I left home this morning to bike to work so I can write these priceless pearls of wisdom.
Biking to work no matter what, rain, snow or a scorcher, is my personal fun; it also saves (see above) roughly a ton of CO2 emissions a year (0.6 or 1.6 tons if you assume my bike replaces a Prius or a Camry, respectively). But, because I eat about 3,000 kcal/ day instead of what a man my height/weight would otherwise need (2,200 kcal/day), it also adds to my overall footprint the demand for at least 45 x 5 x 800 = 180,000 kcal/yr (assuming, as above, 45 work weeks with 5 work days each). Since I eat only plants, with average efficiency of about 2.5 (which means getting 250 edible calories for every 100 fossil fuel calories used in the production process), this means I require 180,000/2.5 = 72,000 additional fossil fuel calories a year. On average, this added caloric demand is equivalent to emitting about 0.02 ton of CO2… Biking to work is an extremely good, if hardly original, idea.
You get the picture – everything that you do has a cost, and thus can make a difference. Collectively, readily implemented personal changes can make a huge difference in your overall greenhouse gas footprint.
If there is anything wrong with climate scientists, it is most certainly not our email style (with which Sarah Palin took issue in her confused and asinine Washington Post Op-Ed of Dec. 9) but the fact that we are, like most other people, not committed enough to the cause.
In terms of requisite personal commitment, averting climate change is like waging war. When you assert, like former President Bush did, that it is possible to conduct a war without requiring widespread sacrifice, you not only brazenly and knowingly lie, you also guarantee failure. President Obama should refrain from perpetuating the myth that combating anthropogenic climate change can be nearly cost free, demanding modification of personal customs along the above lines instead.
Bjorn Lomborg, statistician and author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”:
This is a timely question. The protest in Copenhagen on Saturday showed a great deal of concern about climate change.
The unfortunate truth is that it is hard for ordinary people to slow global warming. It’s easy to make a gesture but difficult to do something meaningful.
I think it is great when people make an effort to change their ordinary habits in order to help the planet a little – I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t own a car – but I think it’s less great when we kid ourselves that little gestures are more meaningful than they are.
Consider, for example, the much-photographed Christmas Tree in Copenhagen’s central square for the COP15 summit. It is bike-powered: the lights only turn on falteringly when humans pedal the bicycles set up underneath. This is a nice gimmick. It demonstrates the amount of energy it takes to power Christmas lights. But could we say that it is slowing global warming? Not a chance. The bright billboards that surround the tree – and, for that matter, every other Christmas light across Copenhagen (the ones that don’t go out every few minutes, and that light up all the main thoroughfares) twinkle away because they are connected to the main grid.
It makes sense for all of us to save power where we can – it helps our own pocket-books, and in that sense is great, although the net impact on global warming is tiny.
Alternative sources of energy are not yet cheap enough or efficient enough to replace fossil fuels at scale. The real shame of the Copenhagen summit, so far, is that politicians are not acknowledging that point.
The delegates have a single-minded focus on an international deal to cut carbon emissions – targets that we know from Kyoto and Rio will not actually be met. Until serious alternatives are ready, promises of carbon cuts cannot be taken seriously. What the leaders should be doing is ensuring green alternative energy technologies are ready to replace coal, gas and oil. We currently spend a paltry $2 billion a year on research and development of green energy. Increasing it to about $50 billion a year could be a game-changer.
This is a solution that can only come from political leaders. Until then, all the rest of us can do is apply pressure so that the decision-makers realize that they’re on the wrong course.
David Suzuki, geneticist and journalist:
Ordinary people can do a lot to slow climate change. It involves making changes in our everyday lives, but also—maybe more importantly—getting involved politically to create change within our political system.
Probably the three biggest questions that determine the impact individuals can have on the atmosphere are: How do you get around? What do you eat? Where do you live? I’ll address them in order.
Getting in a car every morning is the most environmentally damaging thing one can do, and not just because of global warming pollution. Yet, most people can reduce the amount of pollution they create by living closer to work, using public transit more often, and making their next car much more fuel-efficient. Getting rid of your car would be even better. Extra money in your wallet is just a side benefit.
Eating a lot of meat or buying food that comes from far away can have significant impacts on the environment. One doesn’t have to become vegetarian overnight to make a difference. Cutting down on meat will reduce your impact and may even allow you to discover fantastic new foods. Avoiding overly processed food and out-of-season fruits and vegetables can take transport trucks off the road.
Finally, the kind of home one lives in also makes a difference. Large homes need a lot more energy and cost a lot more to heat and cool. Owners who have had energy audits and invested in solutions will save energy and money. Most energy-efficiency investments are quickly recovered through lower energy bills.
But getting involved politically is also vital. Our governments—local, regional, and national—have the ability to use public policy to create positive change across whole cities or societies. Voting for people and parties that take global warming seriously is a start. Writing letters to newspapers, organizing community groups, or running for office could create even more momentum.
Knut Alfsen, head research director, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO):
We all know what we can do: Drive less, take our holidays at home, eat less red meat, lower the indoor temperature (in cold countries), replace our fossil based heating system with renewable sources of energy, buy less material goods, give experiences or services instead of “things” when we want to give a present, etc.
The problem is that our personal actions and sacrifices seemingly amount to so little, as long as factories, power stations, refineries, freight transport and other big sources of greenhouse gas emissions go on with their business as usual.
However, if enough of us ordinary people actually start demanding more climate friendly solutions and goods, the manufacturing sector will take note and gradually change their way of operating.
Perhaps even more importantly, through these actions the public will give a mandate to politicians to introduce stricter control policies and regulations, and thereby reduce the emissions from the “big sources”.
So the answer is that ordinary people can do a lot to slow climate change.
It will seem small and perhaps futile in the beginning and it will take time. Nevertheless it is extremely important that each of us do our little bits.
If not, nothing will stop climate change.