The Climate Change Greatest Hits

Since I publish a sustainability tip in my company newsletter, I couldn’t let Blog Action Day go by without chiming in. The good thing about cranking out a tip every couple weeks is that a lot of good stuff comes across my desk. So I thought I’d share some of it.

In 2004, the Worldwatch Institute published a 35-page PDF called the Good Stuff guide, an outstanding primer on the environmental and social impacts of all kinds of … well, stuff.

One of the things the guide contains is a consumption manifesto, which contain some great principles:

Principle One. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This brilliant triad says it all. Reduce: Avoid buying what you don’t need—and when you do get that dishwasher/lawnmower/toilet, spend the money up front for an efficient model. Re-use: Buy used stuff, and wring the last drop of usefulness out of most everything you own. Recycle: Do it, but know that it’s the last and least effective leg of the triad. (Ultimately, recycling simply results in the manufacture of more things.)

Principle Two. Stay close to home.Work close to home to shorten your commute; eat food grown nearby; patronize local businesses; join local organizations. All of these will improve the look, shape, smell, and feel of your community.

Principle Three. Internal combustion engines are polluting, and their use should be minimized. Period.

Principle Four. Watch what you eat. Whenever possible, avoid food grown with pesticides, in feedlots, or by agribusiness. It’s an easy way to use your dollars to vote against the spread of toxins in our bodies, land, and water.

Principle Five. Private industries have very little incentive to improve their environmental practices. Our consumption choices must encourage and support good behavior; our political choices must support government regulation.

Principle Seven. Prioritize. Think hardest when buying large objects; don’t drive yourself mad fretting over the small ones. It’s easy to be distracted by the paper bag puzzle, but an energysucking refrigerator is much more worthy of your attention. (Small electronics are an exception.)

Principle Eight. Vote. Political engagement enables the spread of environmentally conscious policies.Without public action, thoughtful individuals are swimming upstream.

Principle Nine. Don’t feel guilty. It only makes you sad.

On the heels of principle nine is a remarkable interview with Peter Senge, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who dislikes the term sustainability. He says it “motivates out of fear, but it only motivates for as long as people feel the issues are pressing on them. Soon as the fear recedes, so does the motivation.”

He floats a substitute for ‘sustainability’: ‘All about the future.’ You just ask, what’s the world of your children or grandchildren going to be like? What would you like to see it be like? Do you have a sense of giving them a world that’s in better shape than your parents and grandparents gave you?”

If you’re looking for a reason to take action on climate change, that seems the strongest argument of all.

PS – Last but not least: three fairly easy ways to cut your carbon footprint in half.

Orange Juice: C02 in a Glass

I like orange juice. It tastes good, it’s pretty good for me, and it’s an essential ingredient in a screwdriver. Then I did my fortnightly sustainability tip for work about it. What a massive bummer that turned out to be.

OJ has been taking its knocks in the news lately, thanks in part to a new book called Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. The author, Alissa Hamilton, recently had some revealing things to say about OJ:

“In the process of pasteurizing, juice is heated and stripped of oxygen, a process called deaeration, so it doesn’t oxidize. Then it’s put in huge storage tanks where it can be kept for upwards of a year. It gets stripped of flavor-providing chemicals, which are volatile. When it’s ready for packaging, companies … engineer flavor packs to make it taste fresh.”

“The orange growing is moving to Brazil, which grows the most oranges for juice by far. Land is cheaper, and environmental regulations are almost nonexistent.”

Last month, Tropicana revealed the carbon footprint of its Pure Premium orange juice. Treehugger compared it to Fiji bottled water, which is about the worst of a bad thing.

  • 2 liters of Tropicana Pure Premium (.53 gal) = 3.96 lbs of CO2.
  • 2 liters of Fiji bottled water = 1.1 lbs. of CO2

And that doesn’t even count OJ’s water footprint (story and photo from the Economist)

water

Want a Sustainability Tip? Ask Anyone

I’ve been writing a sustainability tip for my company’s internal newsletter for about two years. When I started, I had to go searching for sustainability tips, and found some good ones from places like the Georgia Conservancy.

But things changed quickly, especially as people started to figure out that climate change might actually be a problem. Not long after I started writing my tips, magazines started running “green” features and “green” issues, with helpful tips like change to CFL light bulbs, and buy a designer reusable shopping bag. (The Onion nailed this with their “Obligatory Green Issue” — which I’d link to, only their archives suck.)

Nowadays green advice comes from everywhere, including the American Psychological Association’s annual meetings. Here are two tidbits of their advice I covered in my newsletter:

1) Walking outside rather than inside — even for just 15 minutes — makes you feel happier, more energetic and more protective of the environment, two studies found.

2) “One of the first things you think of is turning off lights when you leave a room or changing the thermostat settings in the house. They don’t think first of caulking windows or upgrading your furnace,” says Paul Stern, a researcher at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

“More insulation in the attic and tight windows make more difference than changing the thermostat setting. Having a more fuel-efficient car makes more difference than any amount you’re likely to decrease driving.” (Source: USA Today)

Two weeks later, I found three more. This is also from my newsletter:

1) The United Nations is hitting us where we eat. Last week Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that people should reduce their meat consumption. Though his comments are controversial, the UN estimates meat production accounts for nearly one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions (more).

2) Instead of “Drill, baby, drill!” the American Physical Society urged the US last week to insulate, baby, insulate. The 46,000-member group suggested that with current or almost-on-the-market technologies, buildings could be made dramatically more efficient — enough to cut projected energy use in U.S. buildings 30 percent by 2030.

3) Tinkerbell is teaming up with the US Dept. of Energy to help teach kids how to save energy — too bad Consumer Reports is arguing that one Tink/DOE recommendation, Energy Star, “saves energy but hasn’t kept up with the times.”

Now, when you Google “sustainability tip,” the advice comes from schools, magazines, newspapers, the American Association of Pediatrics, conservation nonprofits, the city of Canterbury in New Zealand, and even the San Diego International Airport.

This last one a delightful bit of dark irony. Why? Though the airport lists 30 sustainability baby-step tips (“Save old tattered towels and t-shirts for cleaning. Cut them into squares to replace store-bought rags and paper towels.”), they omit the elephant in the room that applies directly to them: flying.

How bad is flying? One transatlantic flight for a family of four creates more CO2 than that family generates in an entire year.

So it’s all well and good that the airport is telling me to save my t-shirts. But it’s also good to get your sustainability tips from places a little more credible than Tinkerbell and the airport.

John Tierney, the New York Times’ Staff Twit

John Tierney has worked for the NY Times since 1990. Why someone hasn’t fired him is news to me. First, he wrote “Recycling is Garbage,” which argued that it was more cost-effective to throw stuff away than recycle it. According to Wikipedia, that story broke the NY Times’ hate mail record. Imagine.

Unfortunately for the NY Times and the rest of the world, the Times hasn’t figured out what a dangerous dumb-ass he is. Case in point is a story running today, “10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List.”

Granted, some of the 10 are faux scares. But many more of these “scratches” are a thinly veiled libertarian (Tierney’s one) attempt to say “f–k the environment” in genteel Times verbiage. Example:

5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.

True, sort of. If you compare disposable bags to one another, plastic is a less energy-intensive bag. But the way you frame the debate is everything. He’s just comparing disposable bags, as if they’re the only two options. And he’s assuming they’ll end up in landfills!!

Tierney is blithely ignoring the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is toxic swamp plastic debris that’s twice the size of Texas. Let me repeat that: twice the size of Texas. Or this pithy little stat courtesy of Salon.com: “Every year, Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic bags after they’ve been used to transport a prescription home from the drugstore or a quart of milk from the grocery store. It’s equivalent to dumping nearly 12 million barrels of oil.”

Or this one: “According to the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, more than a million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die every year from eating or getting entangled in plastic.”

Or this one: “There are 46,000 pieces of plastic litter floating in every square mile of ocean, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.”

Oh, and while you’re having a good time in denial, might as well ignore …

8. The Arctic’s missing ice. The meltdown in the Arctic last summer was bad enough, but this spring there was worse news. A majority of experts expected even more melting this year, and some scientists created a media sensation by predicting that even the North Pole would be ice-free by the end of summer.

So far, though, there’s more ice than at this time last summer, and most experts are no longer expecting a new record. You can still fret about long-term trends in the Arctic, but you can set aside one worry: This summer it looks as if Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.

I “can still fret” about that, John? Gee, thanks you patronizing dickhead. I’ll feel so much better knowing “Santa can still have his drinks on the rocks.”

Want to know my biggest worry? It’s that the Times will continue to print Tierney’s asinine stories.

The Five Stages of Grief in Environmental Comments

A few of the blogs I follow had environmentally themed posts lately (here’s one about drive-throughs at Starbucks), and I’ve begun to see the same types of comments crop up. They’re tracking along the Kübler-Ross model, a.k.a. the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).

Denial

In the comments on another blog post (about green “noise”), someone complained about “Giving credibility to faulty and refutable science.”

Let’s pick that apart. First, all science it refutable. That’s what makes it science, and not Intelligent Design. Second, to call it faulty is a stretch. Grist did an excellent piece on How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, that parses out stages of denial, scientific topics, types of argument, and their levels of sophistication. And offers evidence to address each and every one.

My sense is that people who espouse this stuff are believing what they want to believe, and voicing the opinion that best fits, without reading the science. (Hardly the first time that’s happened.) I also suspect that this churlishness stems from a more fundamental urge, which is an outright rejection to have anyone tell them what to do.

Third, it’s an attempt to reduce all our problems to something really complex, like climate modeling. But what’s impossible to deny, without sticking your head in the sand, is the overwhelming evidence of loss of biodiversity, habitat loss, air pollution, water pollution, and the depletion of natural resources. It isn’t just carbon. It’s all the other ways our lifestyle is running roughshod over the earth. I blogged earlier about Mark Bittman’s excellent talk at the TED conference. Watching that is a good place to start.

Anger

Other people are “irked with the hypocrisy exhibited by celebrities.” True, Paul McCartney had his hybrid limo flown to London from Japan, and Al Gore travels in a private jet. But they’re celebrities, and everyone always watches them through lenses tinted green with envy.

Does it really matter if they’re saints? Or are you using their all-too-human behavior as an excuse not to do what you know is right?

Besides, someone like Ed Begley, whom no one could call a hypocrite, gets a ton of flak, because no one likes anyone who’s pious, even if they’re right. (As someone rightly noted, “A zealot is a zealot, regardless of the cause.”)

I was telling someone about the sustainability tip I write, and trying to educate people about sustainability, and how many little, easy lifestyle changes it entails. And he said, “The thing is, you mustn’t preach.” And that may be true, because of the resistance you’ll get from people who reject everything you say just because you’re not perfect.

Plus, anger goes both ways. If you’re going to drive a huge SUV and leave it idling while getting a hamburger at the drive-through, you’re going to piss people off. And rightly so.

Bargaining

This should actually be characterized as “bad rationalizations for bad behavior.” For example: “I suppose we should all stop reading books. I just read in Business Week that the production of one book results in 8.85 pounds of carbon emissions.”

Depression, Acceptance

We’ve spent our lifetime ingraining bad habits. Gas was cheap and US cities are optimized for cars, not people, so we drove everywhere. Then we believed we weren’t safe unless we drove around in behemoths. And because it’s tasty and convenient, we ate fast food, just like corporations wanted us to.

Problem is, all at once we’re starting to realize how ruinous many of these habits are. Which has sparked a dialogue about how we should live. And that means change, which makes people uncomfortable. On top of that, the changes are coming from everywhere, and the information is often conflicting, so people are reacting against changing too fast.

Or that it’s being touted as a “lifestyle,” that green is the new black.

So it’s a mess. But just because there are mixed messages and people in denial, it still bothers me when people think it isn’t their problem too … unless, they think they’re going to stop eating, drinking water, or breathing. Or they’re indifferent to the world their children will inherit.

The Consequences of Being Green

That’s the title of a guest post on the Freakonomics blog by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas.

The Freakonomics blog is usually interesting, quirky, thought-provoking … all that good stuff. Unfortunately, Hamermesh’s post is poorly thought out and poorly argued exception. Here’s most of it:

The actor Ed Begley Jr. has a widely-circulated OpEd piece touting his eco-friendly activities, featuring a proud announcement that his exercise on his stationary bicycle generates the electricity he uses to toast two pieces of bread.

Now those two pieces give him 200 calories, but he burns at least 100 calories on the bike. So half of his eco-friendly exercise is lost because he needs to obtain additional food from elsewhere to maintain his weight — food whose growth and distribution have environmental consequences too, as does the manufacture of his bicycle.

This illustrates the general equilibrium difficulties of so many pro-environmental activities about which the rich and famous boast.

There should be a rule: before helping the environment in one market, we should be required to think through the impacts on other markets.

Hamermesh is attempting to pick on the extra food Begley needs if he exercises, and the environmental consequences of the manufacture of his exercise bike.

Here’s why that’s a bad idea:

1) Begley is going to exercise anyway. Only a fool would argue that we shouldn’t exercise because it has “environmental consequences.” Thus, the extra bread is a non-issue. And from my admitted environmental perspective, bread isn’t a bad thing to eat, compared to, say, the carbon footprint of hamburgers. Or for that matter, how many volatile organic compounds are emitted to cook them at a fast-food restaurant.

2) The environmental consequences of the manufacture of his exercise bike? Is he smoking crack? By hooking up his exerbike to make toast, he’s taking something used for one purpose (exercise) and making it twice as efficient (exercise + electricity generation).

3) If you’re going to count the environmental costs of manufacturing a bike, let’s note that you can make 100 bikes with the same amount of energy needed to make just one car. Also, if you’re going to count the bike’s “costs” as an energy-generation tool, it’s only fair to compare it to the way that energy currently is generated: think of all the energy and emissions resulting from the mining, transport and burning of coal … and then transmitting it through the nation’s power grid, where 66% of the energy is lost! (Speaking of poorly thought out, there’s a perfect example, non?)

4) Hamermesh: “There should be a rule: before helping the environment in one market, we should be required to think through the impacts on other markets.”

Before helping the environment, we should think through a decision’s market impacts? The environment has always been an economic externality, the part not factored into the equation while CEOs, presidents and economists have been unthinking slaves to Economic Growth. And now we’re seeing that come back to haunt us. So Mr. Hamermesh is flat-out wrong here. Putting the market first is what got us into this mess; we can hardly expect that same thinking to get us out of it.

Yes, we should think through the environmental consequences, and the economic ones. But we should do so by first taking economics and markets out of its privileged place at the top of the decision-making pecking order. Think of it this way:

“Market change” doesn’t threaten the lives of billions of beings on the earth. But that’s exactly what climate change does.

Putting Red Meat out to Pasture

Even though I did a sustainability tip about this about a year ago, I’d forgotten what a big deal this was.

At the time I pointed out all these unsavory beef byproducts:
- A recent UN report concluded that livestock generate more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation
- US livestock consume 70 percent of America’s grain production
- Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface
- 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon are now used for grazing.

If 1,000 people ate one less meal with beef a week, it would save over 70,000 pounds of grain, 70,000 pounds of topsoil and 40 million gallons of water per year.

Sources:

  • Livestock a major threat to environment,” Food and Agriculture of the United Nations
  • newdream.org
  • Not long ago, the LA Times ran an op-ed piece that made the case even more fully:

    “A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization identified livestock as one of the two or three top contributors to the world’s most serious environmental problems, including water pollution and species loss.”

    “All told, livestock are responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, according to the U.N. — more than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet.”

    “A University of Chicago study examined the average American diet and found that all the various energy inputs and livestock emissions involved in its production pump an extra 1.5 tons of CO2 into the air over the course of a year, which would be avoided by a vegetarian diet. Thus, the researchers found, cutting out meat would do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than trading in a gas guzzler for a hybrid car.

    Pass the tofu, eh?

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