Science Frictions

Waste Not

By Priscilla Long | August 15, 2012
Melting LeConte Glacier, Alaska (NOAA)


We can’t stop global warming, but we can—if we put ourselves on task—slow its perilous progression. And we can do it without freezing our butts off or resorting to rollerskating to work. Individual and local (neighborhood, municipal, state) actions matter—a lot. This is the core message of Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, a handbook of climate science and practical advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Corporate and national government actions matter too—we know that. We can and should bring pressure to bear, but in no way should that prevent us from making individual and local efforts. As Paul Ehrlich et al. write in a truly scary issue (June 7, 2012) of Nature devoted to climate change: “For at least two decades, the scientific community has largely agreed that humanity is in the midst of an unprecedented slow-motion global emergency.”

First, the science. It’s natural during blizzards and cold snaps to think global-warming talk a bit wonky. But climate is not weather. Weather is local and variable. Climate is weather averaged over decades, from myriads of measurements taken in myriads of locations. Since the mid-1800s, reliable temperature measurements have been recorded in many parts of the world. During the past century, scientists say, Earth’s surface has gotten warmer by 1 degree Fahrenheit. And 15 of the past 16 years have been the warmest ever measured.

Greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, build up in the layer of the atmosphere closest to the ground—the troposphere. Even in trace amounts, carbon dioxide retains heat beamed down by the sun. (Also heat-trapping are methane and nitrous oxide.) It’s as if we were sleeping under a too-hot blanket we can’t throw off. And this is personal. Each of us in the United States puts, on average, 20 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That’s four times the world per-person average and twice the per-person average in most industrialized Western European countries with high standards of living.

Could Earth be warming naturally during the course of a climate cycle? After all, shifting is the dance climate does. And the complexities of climatology are staggering, involving Earth’s orbit, the sun’s intensity, the carbon cycle, plate tectonics, archeology, and ancient history. But the evidence that the culprit is our burning of fossil fuels is more than convincing. It’s overwhelming.

Life is carbon-based. Almost all molecules found in life forms (except H2O) are based on carbon. The carbon atom is one of those promiscuously combinatory atoms, due to its four unpaired electrons. The energy of life is glucose (C6H12O6), made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. And coal is made of carbon. Oil and natural gas are made of carbon. Gasoline is made of octane (C8H18), which is made of carbon (and hydrogen). Living forests hoard carbon. So does all life on earth and all its dead remains. Carbon released into the atmosphere mates with oxygen and becomes carbon dioxide. This is a good thing. It makes Earth warm enough to live on.

But these days, the amount of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere per second is 800 tons—much of it by way of our burning fossil fuels. We wrench the carbon cycle way out of whack.

The evidence. In the troposphere, the amount of carbon dioxide has risen by 25 percent since 1958. Ice cores that preserve ancient atmospheres tell us that never in 800,000 years (since before Homo sapiens were around) has the concentration of CO2 been so high. The particular isotopes of carbon in this CO2 are those specifically associated with the burning of fossil fuels. And finally, the pattern of warming (of the troposphere, not the high stratosphere) points the finger at fossil fuels.

We know the costs—coastal flooding, extinctions, ocean acidification, extreme storms, a possible “state shift” that would “override trends” and produce “unanticipated biotic effects.” (See that same issue of Nature.)

But to act we need hope. We need good news.

And there is good news. Global investments in renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power are beginning to exceed investments in carbon-based energy. Some cities and towns (Salina, Kansas, for instance) are working to reduce carbon emissions—with great results. Thirty-six states have climate action plans. In numerous buildings, energy-efficiency retrofit projects build hope. The green retrofit of the Empire State Building reduced its carbon emissions by 100,000 tons a year, with a utility bill savings of $4.4 million a year. More and more people get that energy efficiency represents an enormous national resource that reduces not only carbon emissions but also costs.

The scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists ask: Can each of us reduce our personal carbon footprint by 20 percent in the next year? They say don’t think sacrifice and martyrdom; it won’t work. Just do the best you can, and work on improving.

  • The most effective single action: The next time you get ready to buy a car, think carbon emissions. And drive less. And whatever you drive, keep your tires fully inflated.
  • The second most effective action: replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-saving light bulbs. (Constantly turning off incandescent lights is nice but ineffective.)
  • Don’t buy water in disposable plastic bottles.
  • Buy fruits and vegetables from local farmers’ markets, as much as you can.
  • Exchange that clunker of a refrigerator for an energy-efficient model.
  • Improve the insulation of your house as you can afford it.
  • And my favorite, because it costs nothing and we lose nothing: electronic devices such as laser printers and TVs draw power on standby, consuming 5 to 10 percent of all electricity consumed in the United States. We should plug these devices into a switched power strip and after turning them off, turn off the power that keeps them humming while we sleep. (But don’t sweat the cellphone charger.)

I don’t care for token moves or symbolic gestures. But actions like these make an actual difference. To date, I’ve been pretty good, but not great. Now I will try harder.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus