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An Open Letter on Climate Change


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Family, Friends, Colleagues,

Happy 4th!  Wish I was with you all, but we’re of course spread all over the country.  I wanted to take this time, though, to write on something that has become deeply important to me.

Independence Day seems an appropriate time to reflect on America and our future.  I’ve been thinking on our country, built over the last few hundred years by our culture of innovation, foresight, and our willingness to, at times, join together to fight for what is right… acknowledging of course that we do have our share of issues.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that we are failing by these same measures on what is becoming the most important issue of our time, our changing climate… which has the potential to cost trillions of dollars in economic damage annually, stir political instability, cause massive loss of life and property, and destabilize agriculture and ecosystems.

This can be a tricky subject, but I ask you to give me a few minutes… this is something that I’ve struggled to get my head around over the last few years.  It has lead me to do a lot of reading, assumption checking, and debating… and at the end, leads me to want to share what I’ve learned.

This is an issue that deeply concerns me: if we fail to take serious action, we will likely be creating a fundamentally different and more volatile world for our children and grandchildren, and undermining the relatively stable climate that has enabled society to flourish over the last 10,000 years.  But through my research, I’ve become optimistic in some respects: we have the potential to take this emerging crisis, and leverage it for growth by putting our ingenuity to work.

The partisan politics that have to date surrounded this issue have been very frustrating, because at the end of the day, this isn’t a Republican issue or Democratic issue.  It’s a matter of the future of our society, a matter that we must come to terms with and address.

So, I’ve tried my best in the following text to distill the issue to basic facts and first principles. It starts with a summary for those in a rush… but I encourage you to read it through, as it is through the details that the issue has really become more clear to me.

Pre-apologies for any ‘preaching to the choir’, but I wanted to keep the letter ‘broad stroke‘.

So, please read on…

SUMMARY

The threat:

  • The best minds in the field almost unanimously agree that climate change is real and human caused.  In my research, claims to the contrary by dissenters have, for the most part, turned out to be ill-founded or based on misunderstandings
  • If we do not act, climate change poses a serious threat.  It has the potential to cause massive economic, ecological, and political damage, and great loss of life/livelihood, even in our lifetimes
  • The predicted temperature increases are similar to the differences in temperature between today and the last ice age.  That is, if we do not act, the predicted increases are not at all trivial
  • Major institutions such as the US Military and Insurance industry are on board and adapting
  • The Fossil Fuel Industry is spending a lot of money to try to sow confusion on the issue; slowing emissions is in fundamental conflict with thecurrent business model of the industry
  • We are not doing anywhere near enough to reduce emissions and slow warming

It is solvable:

  • Other first world countries maintain high standards of living with a quarter of the carbon emissions of the US.  If we could follow suit even by half, this would be a game changer
  • Technologies exist to drastically reduce the energy demands.  For example, homes that use almost no energy can now be built cost effectively
  • Conceptually bi-partisan political solutions exist, such as plans to change the way we are taxed using a revenue-neutral carbon tax system that puts the market to work to solve the issue
  • Individual solutions at home can be fulfilling

THE HARM CLIMATE CHANGE IS PREDICTED TO CAUSE

“Why should I care?”

No one can 100% predict the future, and of course the future depends on the action we take.  But the damage that climate change is predicted to cause if we do not reign in emissions is substantial, and both regional and global in scope.  For regional information, I highly recommend the US Global Change Research Program’s website (scroll to the bottom of their page for the map).  But, here are some of the predicted worldwide effects:

  • TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN ECONOMIC LOSS PER YEAR
    • “the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever.  If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more” – The UK Government Economic Service
  • RISING SEA LEVELS
    • Here in NY, the sea level is predicted to rise by up to 55 inches by 2100. More conservative global estimates have rises of up to about 24”.  This is concerning because approximately 100 million people live within 36 inches of sea level worldwide, so there is the potential for massive population displacement. A few years ago, I watched 500 year flood waters break bank from the tidal Hudson River and inch up the street toward my house, missing by a matter of inches of elevation.  The prospect of more frequent heavy storm events, combined with a few feet of sea level rise, is a disturbing one.
  • POLITICAL INSTABILITY
    • “Climate change will amplify existing social, political and resource stresses, shifting the tipping point at which conflict ignites”  - UK Ministry of Defense
  • STRONGER STORMS
    • Hurricanes are predicted to increase in wind speed by up to 11%, which translates roughly to a 60% increase in wind damage (not to mention flood and storm surge damage on top of that) - World Meteorological Organization
  • FOOD INSECURITY / AGRICULTURE
    • Droughts and rising temperatures are predicted to make agriculture less stable, and increase political instability – Center for American Progress
  • INCREASE IN DROUGHT AND WILD FIRES
    • Climate change has already brought drought and higher temperatures to the western U.S., thus increasing fire frequency by drying and warming landscapes” – Our Amazing Planet
  • HIGHER TEMPERATURES
    • Higher temperatures will simply increase heat related deaths and disease – The Nature Conservancy.  For context, the death toll in the 2003 European heat wave killed over 70,000 people.
  • ECOSYSTEM DESTRUCTION
    • “…ecosystems could disappear altogether, or they may undergo serious and irreversible changes, such as those happening to coral reefs.” –WWF

A FEW DEGREES CELCIUS CAN HAVE A HUGE IMPACT
“So, I’m not buying how a few degrees temperature change is a big deal?”

The largest and most comprehensive consensus of international scientists say that temperatures may rise by up to 6.4° Celsius if we do not control our carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissionsThis means that the entire globe, not just your local climate, may increase by up to 11.5° Fahrenheit

To put this in perspective, the difference in global temperatures between now and the last ice age were between about 8° and 14° Fahrenheit.  So what we are really talking about here potentially is warming on the magnitude of what brought us out of the last ice age – completely unprecedented in human history.  

As a side note, the argument often comes up that the climate is ‘always changing’ (with references to the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period) and therefore climate change is not a problem,.  None of the serious research denies that the climate changes naturally, the question is why and how much.  I researched and put together the following chart to show how the current warming and CO2 compare over the last millenium, as well as the projections for the next 100 years:

Temperature-and-carbon-dioxide-01

YOU CAN’T SEE IT, BUT CARBON IS A BIG DEAL
“I just can’t see how a little invisible gas can make a difference, the world is so large.”

Carbon dioxide (C02) and other greenhouse gasses are causing the earth to warm unnaturally, the research is very clear on this.  I was having trouble seeing how a gas that I couldn’t see could have any global impact, so I researched it.  The facts pretty much blew my mind, and immediately caused me to consider the way I act.

What I found was that the average American is responsible for the release of about 38,000 lbs. of (CO2) into the atmosphere each year.  This is ‘unnatural’ CO2 so doesn’t include the CO2 we exhale, volcanos eruptions, etc. – just greenhouses gasses we release, or that are released on our behalf because of the way we live.  Here’s a graphic to help visualize that amount:

Graphic elephants only-01

CO2 of course occurs naturally when we breathe out, and when volcanoes erupt.  And trees and oceans naturally absorb it.  So there is no fundamental problem with some level of C02 in the atmosphere.  Given.

What is new is the drastic level to which we are digging up the CO2 that has been stored deep under the earth for millennia (i.e. oil, gas, etc.) , and releasing it into the atmosphere in a fast burst, geologically speaking.  Scientists have proven that it is this human caused carbon that is heating up the atmosphere because the CO2 burned by fossil fuels has different isotope signatures than ‘natural’ CO2.

Here is a link to a video series that explains the basic science, which is a great primer if you are not familiar with the basic mechanics of how carbon is warming the earth.  

THE MILITARY GETS IT

The US Military and other institutions are already quietly planning for this internally because they know it is destabilizing our world.

“Climate change and energy are two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment. Although they produce distinct types of challenges, climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.”    The quote is not taken from some ‘lefty’ academic paper, this is from the most recent Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review, a key DoD strategic document.  Further, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III of the US Navy said, “[climate change] is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen… that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about”.

The insurance industry is also incentivized to look at the issue rationally, because it affects their bottom line.  “Climate change is creating more frequent and more unpredictable extreme weather events, forcing insurers to change how they assess the risk of natural disasters hitting a specific area”.  Quoted from a report the Geneva Association, the leading international reinsurance think tank.

Institutions that are incentivized to think long term, and that are not mired in ideology and special interest driven politics, are taking climate change seriously.  But like a business that refuses to adapt to new realities and market conditions then finds itself on a road to decline, we as a society are still for the most part sitting on our hands in the face of a great threat.

As a side note, there is also a large consortium of US government agencies, including the Dept. of State, EPA, Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Agriculture, that supports the science of climate change and has a website with great resources, though somewhat reserved.

IT SHOULD BE A BIPARTISAN ISSUE

“But I am a conservative, isn’t this just some lefty issue?”

For transparency, I’m politically independent – generally conservative fiscally, but more liberal culturally – that is, both ‘sides of the aisle’ inspire me and drive me crazy for different reasons.

But it perplexes me that climate change has become such a partisan issue.  The first great conservationist in our country was a Republican. Critical environmental law in the past, such as the Clean Air Act, passed with bipartisan support.  Both sides of the aisle worked together under President Reagan’s leadership to quickly stop the ozone layer from being depleted due to CFCs.  Yet, for some reason many conservatives have firmly blocked out the notion that climate change could be real.  This is tragic because the best solutions, in my opinion, are ones that use the markets to drive innovation, rather than relying solely on top down caps.  There seems to be a fear that, fundamentally, any response to climate change will undermine the economy and inflate the government, but this seems such a self-limiting stance for a party of innovators.

That said, there are some conservatives applying free market ideas.  The Energy and Enterprise Institute is a conservative think tank that has an interesting, revenue neutral plan to fight climate change (more later). Bob Inglis, a former Republican Congressman from Virginia, also has this great interview with his thoughts on conservatism and climate change.

Whatever your feelings, in the face of the evidence, we need to get to a point where we can leverage healthy debate to find balanced solutions, instead of arguing back and forth based on incomplete research on whether it is even happening.

“9 OUT OF 10 DOCTORS AGREE”

A thought Experiment: if 9 out of 10 doctors advise you that you will become very sick if you do not undergo treatment, would you ignore their advice because 1 doctor is uncertain?

Over centuries, our culture has developed modern science, an incredible achievement that has given us things like penicillin, modern medicine, and put a man on the moon.  Yet, now, when science unilaterally gives us news thatchallenges us, we as a nation put our heads deeply in the sand and ignore it, or pursue half-hearted symbolic measures.

In business, in the military, in politics, we never have 100% certainty when we make decisions, yet about 97% of climate scientist concur that climate change is happening and human caused.

By any normal measure we have a damn good idea of what is going on here.  As World War II was one great test of our society, I think this period is presenting a new test, to see if we can muster the foresight to rise above what we are coming to realize is self-destructive and near-sighted thinking.  The writing is on the wall.

THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY’S CURRENTBUSINESS MODEL IS IN FUNDAMENTAL CONFLICT WITH A STABLE CLIMATE

The fossil fuel industry is one of the largest and most powerful in the world, and I won’t mince words on this: its long term business model is in fundamental conflict with our climate.  Not that the individuals involved in the industry are all bad people, but they are caught up in a system where many are duty bound to maximize profits by any legal means.  So individuals aside, because of a convergence of factors, we as a society have borne an industry that is now in conflict with our stable future.

A nutshell explanation: according to the most robust research I have been able to find, we can’t burn more than 886 gigatons of CO2 worldwide to have a reasonable chance of staying below 2°C, which is the international consensus for a safe level of warming.  The deeply unsettling part is that there are 2,795 gigatons of CO2 underground and already accounted for in the books and financial projections of the world’s fossil fuel companies and governments.

So, the fossil fuels industry’s business model is reliant on us burning over three times the amount of fuel than is safe. It is no wonder then that the industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars to confuse the politics and public opinion on the matter.

And as a side note: by 2011, in 11 years we’d already used up a third of our 50 year 886 gigaton ‘budget’.  So we are on a fast track to vastly overshoot the established safe limits, if we don’t get our act in gear starting now.

HOW RELIABLE ARE THE CLAIMS OF THE PEOPLE WHO DENY THAT  CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL?

I’ve spent a lot of time reading the writings of people who deny that anything is wrong, and claim that scientists are either just incompetent or that the whole thing is a hoax.  Then I dive in, and research their claims and arguments.

What I’ve found across the board is that generally, these denial arguments are based on cherry picked data, or misallocations or misunderstandings of the science.  More insidiously, there is a high correlation between climate denial and funding from the fossil fuel industry.  To me, in a lot of cases, it starts to look and feel like the tobacco industry years ago: trying to manipulate public opinion, and denying that smoking wasn’t bad for you when the best science at the time said it was.

One classic example is Sen. James Inhofe from Oklahoma, who has produced many clearly inaccurate and mischaracterized writings on the subject (and ironically sits on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works).  To put his incentive structure in perspective, it’s enlightening to realize that throughout his career, the fossil fuel industry has been his largest contributor twofold, giving him almost $1,500,000 in contributions.

Another classic is the scientist Willie Soon, a Harvard Astrophysicist who is an outspoken denier of climate change.  Keep in mind, not only does being anastrophysicist not make you a climate expert, but he also received over $1,000,000 in funding from the fossil fuel industry, including ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute.  The list goes on and on with other individual and non-profit deniers funded by fossil fuel interests.

Educated skepticism is critical, and debate is important when based the best knowledge that we have.  I see no value, though, in paying heed to public figures who’s arguments aren’t accurate, that do not have the expertise to assess this complex issue, and which are commonly funded by industries who stand to gain from confusion on the subject.  Further, I think that generally these figurestake advantage of the fact that most people do not have the knowledge or the research time to properly assess their arguments, so an article can be made to look very well researched and professional, yet fall flat when you take the time to dig deeper.

Would you ask your car mechanic for advice on stock market investments?  What if he worked for a company that would lose money if you made money?

As for specific denial claims, it takes a lot of text to work through the research, so this doesn’t seem like the right time or place.  That said, I’d be glad to research any individual claim by request (and will keep any Q&A on this site), but also here are a few links with simplified, clear rebuttals to common denial positions: Scientific American, BBCSkeptical ScienceNew Scientist.  I would note also that much of the ‘controversy’ that is drummed up to cast doubt on the credibility of the science, such as the classic ‘climate gate’ and ‘hockey stick chart’ issues, go on to be independently audited and cleared.

IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE TO REDUCE OUR EMISSIONS?

Yes, definitely.  This is not an intractable problem, we just need to change our thinking.

We American’s are just about the worst polluters there are, and certainly the largest.  As I said above, each individual in the US is on average responsible for 38,000 lbs. of CO2 release per year.  But there are other first world countries that maintain a high standard of living on less than a quarter of the energy and respective CO2 that we do.  If we can even do half as well, the effect would be game changing.

One example of technologies that change the game is related to buildings. Buildings are responsible for almost half of the energy consumption in the country.   I have been learning, though, how to build and remodel ‘Passive Houses’ which decrease heating/cooling energy by around 90% while being comfortable and easy to maintain.  This makes it realistic to have a home that uses zero energy when combined with onsite renewable energy, like solar panels. In Germany, for example, they have been building this way for years – houses, apartments, school, etc. are all over the country and all working well.

This stuff is there for the taking, we just need to put our minds and shoulders into it.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

“So I am convinced there is a problem, now what?”

In World War II, the enemy was very clear and we as a country galvanized ourselves to an extreme degree to meet the challenge.  Climate change is more challenging in some ways: It is creeping up on us more slowly.  It requires us to act on foresight vs. a clear and present danger.  The risk/reward calculations for each of us are more opaque.  The enemy is less obvious because it is born fromour own way of life.

Fundamentally, the issue is that we as a society are releasing way too much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere because of the inefficient way we conduct society, and our appetite for fossil fuels.  It’s not just the cars that we drive, but how we heat our houses, the infrastructure that brings us goods and services, the food we eat, and the way our electricity is produced.  That is, the sum total of how we run our society.

So, we need to:

  1. Stop the future ‘bleeding’ by drastically reducing emissions as fast as possible, and
  2. Strategically adapt to climate change effects that is already ‘in the mill’ due to existing emissions, emissions which will take many decades to be reabsorbed

I’ll focus more on the first.

In my opinion, the most important thing each of us can right now is to internalizehow critical this issue is – that while it may not be personally punching us in the face right now, if we don’t act, it will have devastating consequences in the future.  If you are not convinced, fine, but do whatever research you need to come to an educated understanding of the situation (but be thorough and be careful with the claims of deniers).  I’d be glad to discuss and help out in any way.

If you are convinced, though, then start acting on it.  Or ramp it up if you are already on board.  Simply talking about the issue can help to change the politics.  Educate others.  Push for political solutions.  Start changing your habits to reduce your emissions, and have fun doing it.  Some ideas in more detail below…

WHAT SHOULD OUR GOVERNMENT BE DOING?

Or rather, what do we have to strong arm our representatives to do?

There are many things we can and need to do individually, but the issue can’t realistically be solved if it isn’t addressed aggressively on a national policy level.  So a large part of what we need to do is change the politics of climate change.

Unfortunately, the Oil & Gas industry spent over $70 Million in contributions during the 2012 elections and spent over $1 Billion lobbying our elected officials since 1998.  Lots of power concentrated against solutions here.  So, we really have to amply motivate our elected officials if we expect them to bite the hand that feeds them.  This is the sad and corrupt nature of our current campaign finance system, but it is what we have to work with at the moment.  But I think if there are clear and agreeable solutions, and enough voters make a fuss, it is possible.

In my opinion, what is needed most to come out of Congress is to essentially change how we are taxed, taxing carbon and reducing other taxes like the income tax.   This would disincentivize fossil fuel consumption, and motivating the markets to innovate on energy and efficiency, while on average not costing taxpayers any more.

The best concept I’ve seen is being rallied by the conservative group, Energy and Enterprise Institute, a concept which has the potential for bi-partisan support because it is revenue neutral, and does not grow the government.

There is a great quote on their video presentation, You’ve got to tax something to fund the government… why not make it pollution rather than income”.  Over time, the offset would continue to grow, continuing to disincentivize energy sources that create carbon emissions.  ‘God is in the details’ though, and i my opinion, this strategy must be strong enough to fundamentally change the economics and work in tandem with emissions goals, etc. Here is another recent article on the concept.

INSTITUTIONALLY, WE SHOULD STOP FEEDING THE PROBLEM WITH MONEY

Discussed above, the fossil fuel industries trajectory is in pretty direct conflict with our future as a society.   While we obviously can’t immediately get rid of fossil fuels (like oil, gas, and coal), we must quickly start transitioning off.  This is of course something the industry does not want to see happen.

So, if we need to start winding down an outdated industry, we should stop investing in the industry.  So, if you personally invest, consider pulling your investments out of that sector, or if you are part of a college or a non-profit with an endowment, propose it to the governing body.  There is a national campaign building around this idea, and their website can go over the issue a lot better than I.

AND WHAT CAN WE DO INDIVIDUALLY?

At the end of the day, government policy just serves to get each of us individuals incentivized to make wiser choices. The goal is to reduce the emissions that we create through our actions.  In each of our lives, then, we need to be aware of where we are creating the most emissions, and then change the way we do those things to reduce them.

I had always shied away from this type of advice because it just seemed over my head, but it has become an interesting and educating challenge which I now enjoy.  One thing I do is, when making decisions, I try to visualize how many gallons or barrels of oil I will be burning.  Our per capita oil usage in the United States was also a pretty sobering realization:

Graphic oil-only-01

Unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all prescription for reducing emissions, because we each have a unique ‘carbon footprint’ depending on where we live and our lifestyles.  Below are the breakdowns of the per capita emissions in mycurrent living situation.  You can actually calculate the same chart for yourself with this calculator:

Troy

So because I don’t know what your priorities would be, it probably makes more sense for me to outline some things that I’ve done.  This is definitely not nearly enough, I am the first to admit, but we have to start somewhere.  I’ve found too that once you take the first step, further steps flow naturally.  So I:

  • Travel:
    • Decided to live where I have good access to public transportation, and can walk, bike, and take the bus to local amenities
    • Take the train or bus for regional travel, rather than driving alone
    • Avoid airplane travel as much as possible because it is a huge carbon emitter
    • Carpool when possible and cluster car errands together into one occasional trip rather than running out all the time.  [As a side note: there’s an interesting report on vacation choices here if you want to read further]
  • Home:
  • Turn the heat way down at night and when no one is home in the winter (also planning to get the Nest thermostat, which is easy to program with your schedule and control from afar with a smart phone)
  • Decided not to install a whole house air conditioner, instead I use a desk fan for the hot days, night flush cooling, and a portable room heat pump (AC) for those occasional  horrible summer nights.
  • Keeping lights, computer, and appliances off unless actively using them
  • Checking my utility company annual use online so I can get a sense of progress
  • Planning and saving to hopefully do a home renovation to Passive House in the future
  • Eat less meat and dairy
  • Talk about the issue frequently when I am out and about, and clearly communicate my opinions on the subject, pointing out misunderstandings
  • Habits:

A lot of this may sound unsavory at first glance, but I’ve actually found it to be very rewarding: Now I vastly prefer to take the train or bus for regional travel, because I can work and relax rather than having to drive.  Walking/biking/bus has grounded and connected me more to where I live.  I’ve saved a lot in electricity and gas bills, and the potential of cutting my heating bill by 90% when I can upgrade our house to Passive House is pretty exciting.

———

Phew, so that is all for now, thank you for reading!
I hope to begin to build on this with you in the coming months and years.

If you have any questions, I am glad to answer… or if you have any contradictory sources or corrections, please forward along!  The idea is to get as close to the truth as possible, discuss, debate, and then act on our best knowledge.  So I’m always excited about grounded debate and new ideas.

And with that, happy 4th!

John


John Johanson is a young, upstate New York based designer and natural resource manager focused on sustainable architecture, historic rehabilitation, and stewardship of our forest resources.  John holds a Masters degree from Rensselaer, and is active in the conservation and arts non-profits. See more of John's thoughts at his blog: www.greyfoxes.org. Comment publically below or privately via member email.


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