Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A New Decade's Resolution

A note before we begin:
Some will argue whether or not the new decade is already underway.  I really don't care very much, but am casting my lot with it starting in a couple of days so I've got a better rhetorical gimmick.  And I know there was no Year 0.

The meat of the thing:
I'll start off by noting that I'm typically not a New Year's resolution kind of guy.  There's only been one resolution in my life that I've been pretty good about: Drink beer from a glass whenever practical.  You get to taste it more fully that way.

Maybe my problem with the whole resolution idea is that, as an Earth science kind of guy, the scale's too short.  But, the New Year is a good opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future and the New Decade seems like an even better opportunity.  Is it ten times better?  I'm not sure about that, but you may have noticed a theme in across many posts about difficulties associated with thinking in the longer term.

If you want to refresh your memory, or if you're just tuning in, see the posts that made analogies between thinking about climate change and thinking about issues of public health (especially smoking) and between climate change planning and planning for retirement.  Last week's post on where weight goes when you lose it touches on it too.  In fact, so does the post on using your Christmas tree to teach about carbon.  All of that deals, at least in part, with thinking beyond tomorrow or next week, and is intended to foster deeper understanding of the Long Now.

To understand climate and climate change, you need to have a grasp of things that take years, decades, centuries or millennia to play out.  Or longer.  Really.

I learned of this video on Andy Revkin's dotearth blog.

This is where having thought about and taught about the history of the Earth and Universe comes in handy.  With the Earth having an age of about 4.5 billion years and the Universe a few times older than that, what happens in the course of a single year doesn't usually amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

For some things, of course a year or a decade is a long time.  I am the father of a nine- and a six-year-old, after all.  A decade's made a huge difference in my life.  But to the Earth me and mine are just a blip.  And so are you.

Humanity, to the Earth, is just a blip as well, but we're a blip that's been important, especially in the time since we figured out how to get stuff out of the ground and burn it to give us power to do stuff.  We've changed the face of the Earth profoundly.  And that idea brings me back to the point of the entry -- to set a New Decade resolution.

Here it is:  By the decade's end (12/31/20) I resolve to make an evidence-based case that the carbon footprint of myself and my immediate family will be negative.  

How will I/we do that?  I'm not exactly sure, but it will certainly involve educating folks and institutions about how to reduce their carbon footprints.  And, deciding what's a reasonable cut for me to take of their cut.  Can I engage people in the Low Carbon Diet, and claim 1% of their reductions, for example?  If I come up with great ideas and post them here, or convey someone else's great idea to the readership of this blog that help people reduce their emissions, maybe than can let me know and I can take just a bit of credit for it.

And it will certainly involve reducing emissions for my household and my lifestyle.  It is easier, obviously, to cancel out a small set of climate impacts than a big set of climate impacts.  Right now, in spite of thinking about this stuff nearly all the time, I still have way too big a footprint myself.  That's highlighted by my travel.  In 2010, I've traveled to Chicago, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Smoky Mountain National Park (Tennessee & North Carolina), Monroe, MI, Victoria (British Columbia), and many trips within New York State.  One can't do all that travel without having a pretty big footprint, though I've done things on some of those trips to reduce it like carpooling and taking the train where practical.  We've done a fair amount to reduce household impacts -- Energy Star appliances, CFLs, and, more importantly, it's a fairly small house that's close to where we work (really close as I work in my home).

And, what do I mean when I say "evidence-based case?"  What I mean is that I want my claim to stand up to reasonable review.  I want to point to evidence that's compelling.  I welcome your help in figuring out what that is.

I think it's a pretty lofty goal, but my track record's not bad.  I still usually drink my beer from a glass, you know, and I think I made that resolution about a decade ago.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Lone Wolf's Guide to a Climate-Friendly New Years

I hate going out on New Year's Eve. Bah humbug, I say! Here are my (very sound) reasons for always staying at home on the year's most festive occasion:

1. Driving can be a nightmare.
2. I don't enjoy random traffic stops.
3. I don't enjoy not being able to drink because I'm worried about the random traffic stops.
4. I try to avoid situations that will increase the likelihood of me being hit by a drunk driver.
5. Every place is packed with annoying and overly zealous partiers.
6. I don't like occasions where I'm forced to wear something other than my flannel pj's.

All are legitimate reasons and they are unarguably solid. Since I've started helping with this blog, I can also use my interest in climate change as another reason to stay home. I mean, I don't want to needlessly burn fossil fuels just to go out and party. That would be selfish. Plus, a buffet would more than likely find me and I would consume a ton of food that took tons of fuel to harvest and prepare. (When I write 'a ton', I'm nearly speaking in literal terms here. I pride myself on my ability to eat massive quantities of food, which would explain my membership in the International Federation of Competitive Eating. No, I'm not kidding.) So it's better for me and the world to just chill out in my flannel, pour some bubbly into a beer glass, watch the ball drop, maybe put on some Prince and dance around, kiss my dog at midnight, and send out the annual midnight text telling everyone to have a happy new year. Comparatively, this course of action is a lot less harmful to myself, others, and the environment (and my dog will be thrilled). Is it lame? Heck yes. But it doesn't have to be. If you have the room, invite your friends over (and their dogs, of course). Then you won't have to text as many people at midnight and you can have dance partners. Make sure they bring some bubbly (chip in on a case--it's cheaper), pj's and a sleeping bag to pass out in. Just make sure they carpool and pick up a pizza party pack on the way. Now we're talkin! Think of all the gas you're saving, plus you didn't have to warm your stove up to cook anything (neither did your guests), your guests carpooled so that saves in fossil fuel use and emissions, and you are only using your electricity instead of several households worth of lights and tv's being on. Not too shabby for having a good time hangin out at home. 

Happy New Year!!!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Where does weight go when you lose it?

This may seem like a funny topic for a blog on climate change, probably because it is a funny topic for a blog on climate change.  But it does have some relevance that I'll tease out before too long.  I chose the topic partly because it 'tis the season to gain weight and mostly because I think it will get the gears in your brain spinning in a different direction.

If you lose weight, where does it go?  What does that lost weight become?  What is that fat the raw material for?

Stop and think about it, and come up with some tentative answers before reading further.

You know I'll wait.

See?  I'm waiting.

If you're like most people I've talked to about this, you assume you sweat it out.  Or maybe that it goes off as poop and pee.  (I hope I'm not being too vulgar for my readership!)

That's a bit of the answer, but just a bit, at least in terms of the stuff that stays gone.  None of that describes what most of the weight becomes.  If you're a regular reader here, you may be making the correct connection to a more Christmassy post a couple of weeks ago.

Indeed many people include things that make them sweat as part of their weight loss regimen.  And, typically, they drink plenty of water along with those efforts, so, that's largely a wash.  When you lose weight, you don't really sweat most of it out.  And, if you're looking for some way around the basic principle that to lose weight you need to burn more calories than you consume, I can't help you.  Sorry.

Have you picked up on where this is going yet?

Another aspect of those things that make you sweat is that they also make you breathe hard.  Most of the weight you lose is turned into carbon dioxide.(!)  Weight loss is something like photosynthesis in reverse.  Instead of taking in carbon dioxide and turning it into the hydrocarbons that make up the mass of a plant, you're taking the carbohydrates that make up the mass of you and turning them into carbon dioxide.  It's actually similar to burning fuel, but fortunately respiration is different from combustion, or I don't think many people would intentionally lose weight.

I'm simplifying quite a bit here.  If you want more details, here's one good place to look.

Sorry, this doesn't provide an eco-friendly excuse to keep carrying that extra weight around.  If you lose that weight, it will indeed turn into carbon dioxide, and, as with gasoline, the emitted carbon dioxide will weigh about three times as much as the weight you lost.

But you'll be emitting less CO2 on a daily basis, and hopefully that addition to the atmosphere (from your weight loss) is a one time deal.  So, every time you get in your car or on airplane, there's less of you for that vehicle to lug around so it will use a little less fuel and emit a little less carbon dioxide.  And you'll emit a little less directly.

You're also likely to be eating less and the carbon footprint of food is large.

So, if you're a tubbo like me and the majority of Americans, here's another reason to shed some pounds: It's good for the climate.

And, hey, some things that make you breathe hard are kind of fun.

In terms of reductions of carbon emissions, your own weight loss is really pretty small.

This post is more important for building a deeper understanding of the Earth as a system of systems, and especially for thinking about the carbon cycle.  I'm of the opinion that if you don't understand the Earth from a systems perspective, you can't really have more than a superficial understanding of climate change.  It's okay if you don't have that kind of understanding now.  I thought about following that up with a snide remark that it's the American way, but it's not at all unique to Americans.

I have a deeper understanding of this stuff than most folks because it's been central to my work for more than 20 years.  I assure you if you work on it, you can get up to speed a lot faster than I did!  (And hopefully I can help!)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What will our future illnesses be like?

Usually, I pride myself on being a very healthy person. I eat well, exercise and generally take good care of myself. My immune system has always been very good at its job. Cold and flu season can pass me by without a single cough...until recently. My mother went to a holiday party a few days ago and 10 out of 15 people at the party got sick. I'm not talking about a little cough. It's full on vomiting and diarrhea for several days. I thought I was going to have to take her to the hospital. Apparently the same illness has been spreading through the local colleges. So in my mother's case, the Health Department ruled that the food preparer had the illness and then contaminated the holiday party food. Unfortunately for me, since I've been caring for my mother during her sickness and I ended up getting it as well. It has a very inconvenient incubation period too. I was walking around for about three or four days after my mother became sick before I even felt anything. Think of how many people I unknowingly infected? It's upsetting to think that I could be ruining peoples' holidays.

So what does this have to do with climate change you ask? Last night I was lying, uncomfortably, in bed pondering what to write about when the words of an acquaintance of mine, who's a nurse, ran through my head about how this stomach bug gets worse every year. She said that this particular strain just keeps getting stronger and making more people sick with each passing year. Then I thought about the chytrid fungus in amphibians and how it's wiping out entire amphibian populations and climate change is certainly playing a major role in its spread. (Yes, my mind really is this scattered.). Are we facing a future where climate change will play a major role in the spread of every bacterial, fungal, viral disease? Nevertheless, if there is an ideal incubation temperature for diseases and we are bringing the atmosphere closer to that ideal, aren't we in big trouble? Can I count on being sick with this horrible stomach bug every year because it's being aided by climate change? And can I count on the symptoms being more horrendous with each passing year? It's just a hazy passing thought...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Saving (Civilization) for Our Retirement

A note before I really dig in:  It bugs me a little when people speak about saving the Earth, thus I refer to saving civilization rather than saving the Earth in the title of this week's post.  It strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that we'll do away with the Earth through our actions, or even life on Earth.  It's not Earth that needs saving.  It's about us, and the things we depend upon.  We're dependent upon nature and the services she provides, so we should be protective of nature for that reason (and, of course, because it's pretty jerky to destroy stuff).

My title still isn't quite on the mark.  I expect some semblance of civilization will live on.  I thought about  "Saving the Environment," but here too, the environment will still exist, but it might be less able to provide the services we rely on it for, like clean air, clean water, and sufficient food.  It's really about:

Saving a Reasonable Quality of Life for Our Retirement
Not quite as catchy, is it?

Now, on with the main attraction:
Yesterday I read The Importance of Risk Perception for Effective Climate Change Communication, a blog post on by David Ropeik.  (I cited a different Ropeik blog post in my post a couple of weeks ago).  Ropeik is an expert on risk assessment, and here he's talking about what his title implies, as one might expect.  Quoting at some length from his post:
The ho hummers: A majority (albeit fluctuating) believes climate change is real, but when you ask those people how much they’re willing to spend, or do, about it, broad support turns thin. Why?
  • We worry less about risks that we don’t think can really happen to us. Can you name one way that climate change will seriously negatively impact you in the next 10 years? Most people, even ardent believers, can’t.
  • We worry less about risks the further off in the future they are. Despite the changes already occurring, the dramatic disruptions of climate change are usually depicted as years, and decades, away. This softens even our extra sensitivity about risks to our kids. The immediate perils of abduction and vaccines (perceived) carry more weight than risks far off in the future.
  • We worry less about abstract risks, risks that are presented as ideas and “science,” hard-to-get-our-heads-around risks of global scale and centuries-long time spans, and risks depicted impersonally with facts and figures, rather than real human victims. 
  • We worry less about risks caused by choices that also produce benefits. The benefit of the behaviors that cause climate change are enormous – since energy from fossil fuels provides the comfortable way of life in which the developed world currently lives and the way the developing world wants to.
  • We worry less about risks over which we have some control.
How do we apply these insights to the challenge of encouraging public support for adaptation? 
I liked this image with Ropeik's post as well.  
And it gives me a nice image to post with the link on Facebook.  
And you can do that too, you know.
(Hint, hint).

Reading Ropeik's words got me thinking about a post I wrote a few weeks ago: What can we learn from public health education initiatives?  There are some clear parallels here.  And it got me thinking about another realm for useful metaphors.

Ropeik's bulleted list applies to climate change, selected health issues, and to saving for retirement.

I'm 47.  It will take a while for decisions about saving for retirement to have a huge effect on me.  

I'm 47.  It will take a while for decisions about climate change to have a huge effect on me.

I wonder what we can learn from effective campaigns to get folks to save for their retirement.  Unfortunately, like in realms of public health, there aren't as many successful campaigns to point to as I'd like.  My wife reminds me with some regularity that we're not saving enough for retirement.  That doesn't make us unusual.

I could snidely say that makes us American.  But I won't.

Each of those bullets above applies both to climate change and to retirement saving.  Read the list again and think about how they apply.

You know I'll wait.

Are you saving enough money for retirement?  If so, what has led you to do that?  If not, what's stopping you?  What do you think will get you to change your savings behavior?

Know that the most obvious answer, "make more money," tends to bring with it its goofy cousin, "spend more money."  Fortunately, you can shoo that goofy cousin away, if you're vigilant.  You can probably find some ways to cut spending now even if you can't make more money.

It just so happens, that many of the things you can do to reduce spending also reduce emissions.  My colleagues and I have written about programs that can reduce your energy costs in this space before (here's one post of many), and simply being more frugal in many ways also goes to saving a reasonable quality of life for your retirement.

You, acting alone, might save sufficient personal financial assets for the future, but we will have to work together to save the shared environmental assets for our shared future.

So, what can we learn from saving for retirement?  What can you teach us about it?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A tree in the living room as an opportunity to teach about carbon

Don and his tree.

I've got a tree in my living room.  It stands a little over seven feet tall, though it was probably closer to eight feet when it stood at the Christmas tree farm out in Clarence.  I was easily able to lift it onto the roof of the car, so I'm guessing it weighs less than 40 pounds.  You might have a tree kind of like it in your living room.  You might use that tree to help you and yours think a bit about carbon.  

Perhaps it could be a little fodder for making those family get-togethers a little more uncomfortable, but please be nice as you nurture understanding along.  Fortunately for me, holiday discussions in my family are decidedly geeky -- the most notable in recent memory had to with which one of my siblings had the greatest volume to surface area ratio.

But I digress.  Let's think about that tree.

A favorite question of mine is, "What's the raw material for a tree?"  It started as a little seed within a pine cone and now some eight or ten years later, it weighs in at about 40 pounds.  Where did those 40 pounds come from?  What did the "stuff" of the tree used to be?

Here's a picture of the tree cookie I cut off after I brought it home.  How old is it?  
The earbuds are included for scale.  It's not really a very big tree.

Lots and lots of people will answer the raw material question with something like, "It comes from the minerals in the soil."  Does that make sense?  What if that were true?  For one thing, it would mean that soil and trees are made of the same stuff.  Is that the case?  Living things are carbon-based.  Is soil carbon-rich?  

Um, no.  Not so much.  

And, if trees got their mass from the soil, wouldn't that mean that really big trees would need to be surrounded by really big pits where they pulled that mass from?  Those holes in the ground would grow over time.  Have you ever seen that?  I haven't but it would make for more interesting walks in the woods.  

Darn near every adult in the country took high school biology and was taught about photosynthesis.  We all learned that plants take in carbon-dioxide and release oxygen.  Then we forgot, or we never really understood it in the first place.  If we stop and think about it, and we remember that life is carbon-based, it ought to give us a little pause -- trees are made out of air!  That is, of course why, as many of you dear readers already know, that planting trees is a way to offset carbon emissions.  

If you already knew that, good for you.  Know that you've got at least a somewhat deeper understanding than the average American.  That's not surprising since you spend at least some of your time reading blog posts about climate change.  

But have you thought about what that 40ish pound tree implies about the scale of tree-planting needed for offsetting emissions?  I wrote a guest post before I was regular here on that in 2009.  I won't repeat that post here, but I'll briefly hit some relevant highlights.  Ten gallons of gasoline weighs about 60 pounds.  If you're burning 10 gallons of gasoline a week, you're releasing about three times that much carbon dioxide as the carbon in the gasoline combines with oxygen in the air to make CO2.  So, a typical driver might release 180 pounds of CO2 a week just by driving.  Photosynthesis does something like a reversal of that process.  Photosynthesis, in other words, can take 180 pounds of CO2 and turn it into something like 60 pounds of tree and 120 pounds of oxygen.  

Now it's time to remember that the 40ish pound tree in your living room is probably eight or ten years old.  So, it doesn't offset a typical driver's week of emissions.  Planting a tree is a good thing to do.  But planting a whole bunch is better.  A bunch of forests is more like what we need.  For each of us.  

Oh, we can't end a holiday post on such a downer.  Then again, maybe we can.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is climate too much of an abstraction?

[What is the] extinction of a condor to a 
child who has never seen a wren?
Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle
as quoted in Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods

What is climate change to someone who never goes outside?
Something that came to Don's mind as he was reading 

I've been intermittently reading Louv's excellent book, finally.* I'm reading it intermittently partly because it's so depressing that I prefer it in small doses and partly because I'm a distractible boy who just reads books that way.

There's a great deal to ponder about "nature deficit disorder" and much more within its pages.

I read it with some special attention to how our growing detachment from nature contributes to the difficulties of climate change education. I also read Climate Change Literacy Won’t Be Enough, a blog post by David Ropeik this week. Ropeik's post addresses the recent report, “Americans' Knowledge of Climate Change” and notes how that report suggests that one of the reasons that we're not making more progress on climate action is ignorance. As the title of Ropeik's post portends, he doesn't think that's the only reason. Here's a bit of the post:

Some of the psychological characteristics that make a risk feel more or less threatening are common to us all. (This comes from the research of Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff, among others). One of them is the subconscious question we instinctively ask ourselves about any possible danger; “Can it happen to ME?” If not, why worry? Can you name one way climate change might seriously, negatively impact your life in the next ten years? Most people, even the most dedicated environmentalists, can’t. Climate change doesn’t trigger the “ME” factor, so concern about it stays intellectual, and doesn’t hit us in the gut. You can see this in the “Americans' Knowledge” study. Sixty three percent of the respondents said they understand that global warming is real, and happening now, but only 16 percent say they are personally very worried. This mirrors the findings in most surveys of public opinion about climate change — concern about climate change is more broad than it is deep.

For most of us, climate change is an abstraction. I suspect for too many of us, climate itself is something of an abstraction.

As Louv so eloquently describes, we're not connected to nature in the way we once were. He focuses on childhood and, if you read the book (which you should), it will draw memories of your own childhood nature experience. For me, that includes work and play in the backyard tree fort and playing in the several different bits of woods I easily walked to from my childhood home. Some of those woods are gone now. They've become housing developments. The ones that remain don't see as many kids exploring them as fear of various things coupled with the draw of computers and video games keeps kids inside. And schools have less recess time, and more of that time is spent indoors, especially if the weather is very cold or hot. Wimps.

And, if people don't go outside very much, do they really have a deep, visceral knowledge of their own climate? If they don't go outside, do they really know what their climate feels like?

My gut says paying just a bit more attention to that as parents and teachers can be helpful. Watch the weather. Get your kids and yourself outside and talk about how the current weather compares to the typical weather for the time of year. Do this monthly and before too long, you'll build a deeper sense of what you're climate is really like.

Pay special attention to things that make your local climate different from other places. The video at the top of the post highlights one of the things that makes my (Buffalo, NY) climate famous or infamous.

The sky view is looking over the City of Buffalo from my home at the Town of Amherst line.

The time lapse video of lake effect snow from last winter shows one aspect of our climate. The ominous looking lake effect clouds are often visible low on the southern horizon when I look out my office window in late fall and early winter. They often just move like a conveyor belt parked to the south of me and my snowblower sits happily in the garage while folks just a few miles away get inundated. I laugh at them! Ha! Sometimes though, as in the video, those clouds move over me and stop my laughter.

The video was shot using Gawker for the Mac.

I'll note that we ought to also be known for our beautiful summers, where it only fairly rarely breaks 90 degrees F and the hottest day on record was 99 degrees.

What makes your climate special? Get out there and feel it!
*Various folks I trust have been recommending that I read it since it came out, and I saw him speak a few years ago. It's about time I got around to it... You should get around to it too.