Thursday, June 19, 2008

Rant about the Urgency of Action

I wrote this for International Design Magazine, where it appeared in the June 2008 issue.

You’re in a deflating raft. You have 4 minutes and 30 seconds until the black storm on the horizon reaches you. Only some of you can swim. Do you: a) organize time-intensive swimming lessons? Or b) ask everyone to fix the leaks nearest them with the repair kits they have in their pockets?

Curiously, when it comes to climate change, where the states are worse than bleak, the answer seems to be swimming lessons: Invest more in alternative energies. Establish higher standards for fuel efficiency in cars. Invent carbon-capture technology. Force big businesses to come up with plans that will change the way they do business. None of these measures is capable of effecting change in the here and now.

Many of us know that we’re currently facing 50 percent species loss this century; five meter sea rise this century; and 10 to 20 percent reductions in corn, wheat, and rice yields – despite a more than doubling of population – this century. But way too few of us have paid attention to the timetable required to avoid this possibility, as laid out by the U.S.’s two leading climate scientists. James Hansen director of NASA’s Space Goddard Institute, released a new paper in March that says we have close to zero percent change of avoiding “catastrophic effects of climate change” if we continue with “business as usual.”
And in his report to the UN last September, John Holdren, director of the Wood’s Hole Institute, projected that we could improve those odds to 50 percent if we begin curbing emissions by 2015. If you ask me, 50-50 odds of facing major worldwide catastrophe are unacceptable.

Regardless, with heads firmly embedded in the sand, we continue to focus on what the scientists tell us needs to be accomplished by 2020 and 2050. And because there is no action at the federal level, cities and states, and companies and universities and institutions, are one by one setting 2020 and 2050 goals for CO2 reduction. Even presidential candidates give us these benchmarks, and talk about capping and trading emissions so that power plants will figure out a plan and make new investments that will start reducing their emissions.

But in fact we have only two to three years to get worldwide CO2 emissions to stop growing and begin their downward crawl if we want to improve our odds of averting disaster. Which means we only have to change our ways enough to avoid the 3 percent annual emissions rise driven by “business as usual,” and then next year we need to reduce our rate by 3 percent again. It isn’t that hard. Just focus on the ways you consume energy.

The difference between long-term strategies and immediate behavioral change can be easily visualized using the example of cars. If everyone in American bought a fuel-efficient car when it was time to replace their current model, 10 years from now (well beyond our critical period for action), demand for fossil fuel would be reduced by 5 percent. But if we shared 1 out of every 20 trips, we would reduce demand by 5 percent this week.

So turn your heat down 2 degrees, turn your air conditioner up 2 degrees. Feeling just a teeny bit uncomfortable? Pick half the species in the world –humans, animals, vegetables, insects – and imagine them gone. Don’t drive for single errands, don’t drive if the place you are going is less than a mile away, ride with a friend once a week. Mildly put out? Imagine the worldwide suffering of even fewer basic food staples than exists today. Use the dishwasher and dryer only for full loads. Hang your laundry on a line! Walk or bike more. Don’t like having to think about energy all the time? Imagine the political and economic unrest that will result from the immigration precipitated by a 5 meter sea rise.

We all have life-raft repair kits in our pockets. Put them to work.


Dave Reid said...

Yea it is unfortunate that so many people that they can do nothing to help out. How about bike to work just once a week, or carpool one more day a week. Maybe switch out your light bulbs for efficient ones. Many small changes can help!

Robin Hadley Ketro said...

While voluntary action helps, it isn't enough. In this way, high gas prices are helping because more people are making changes because they have to. But both the US and China are still building new coal power plants... How do we, through public policy changes, and perhaps through additional actions by those of us motivated enough to make voluntary changes, make a larger impact?