The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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It’s Time

Funny how the tricks of the calendar can have such an effect on the mind. It’s like that old joke—you have a birthday everyone asks how it feels to be a year older. Of course, you are nothing of the kind—but it feels meaningful. Jimmy Buffet had a birthday yesterday. So did Jesus Christ, at least according to many of his followers….

And because of a trick of the calendar, those followers now feel as though the baby, Jesus has just now been born. As though everything that baby stands for is just now irrupted into the world, and for his sake many of them make a serious attempt to live love more deeply now.

What changed? Nothing, except the minds of those willing to use a trick of the calendar to foster change.

Today I’m tired, and perhaps somewhat grumpy, and I’ve spent several hours now in from of the computer, ostensibly working, unable to think of anything.

I’ve spent most of the past year mired in my own head, unable to do much of anything, despite our living in a world where so much needs to be done.

But New Years’ Day is coming up, and there are ways to make changes stick, ways to instill new habits, new practices—you can look these things up on line, there are plenty of ways to make a New Years’ resolution more likely to stick. Let’s use the time we have in which to act; make climate action a priority.

Who’s with me?

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Hope in the Darkness

Today I’m re-posting a post from last year, in honor of the Winter Solstice post, which is later this week. It seems as relevant as ever.

The thing is, this has been a hard season for those of us who care about the climate. It’s hard to keep hoping, and it’s hard to keep believing that anything any of us do will really help. I’ve been drawing a lot of comfort lately from Solstice imagery, from the idea that when the world looks darkest is sometimes literally the moment when light and life return.

I’ve also been drawing comfort from The Little Drummer Boy.

Yes, I’m aware that some people harbor a special hatred of this over-played song, but I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with them to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well, yet. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you


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Deck the Halls

Do you have your holiday shopping done yet? Your gift list completed, your menu planned?

On the off-chance that you don’t (it’s ok, I’m not done yet, either), I thought I’d say a few words about keeping your holiday carbon footprint down. There are a lot of sites out there recommending “green” tips, but many of them don’t have much in the way of context–sure, this or that practice might be “green,” but which is the most important? Where is most of the holiday footprint located? What changes can give us the biggest bang for our buck?

I was able to find one article that provides that context–it is about ten years old and British, so there might be some discrepancies with the situation these days in the United States. But many of my readers are not in America anyway, and would have to make some adjustments even if my source material was from the same country as I am.

The reason I’m focusing on Christmas is not just an attempt to be seasonal on my part–for one thing, not all my readers celebrate Christmas. But this one holiday inspires more consumption–and thus more carbon emissions–than almost any other time of year. According to The Carbon Cost of Christmas, 5.5% of Britain’s total annual carbon footprint occurs over Christmas alone. Note that 5.5% of 365 is just over 20. Since the author of that article was counting “Christmas season” as only three days long (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day), that means cramming 20 days’ worth of emissions into the equivalent of a long weekend.

By the same token, a significant reduction in your Christmas carbon footprint could have a significant influence on your whole year.

Where Does Christmas Carbon Come From?

Cost of Christmas lists four categories of Christmas activities with their average per person carbon costs in kilograms as follows:

Christmas shopping = 310

Decorative lights = 218

Car travel = 96

Holiday food = 26

Since the article doesn’t list exactly how these numbers were derived, it is difficult to be sure how accurate they remain ten years later. I suspect the footprint of lighting may have shrunk somewhat with the popularity of LEDs–though it’s also possible that people have simply added more lights and still use just as much electricity as ever. Also, those inflatable lawn ornaments, the ones that must be constantly hooked to a running blower, have gotten popular in the last five years (at least in the US) and must be demanding a significant amount of electricity.

Still, I suspect that even if the numbers have changed, the order of these categories has not–simply because shopping and lighting each remain extravagant at this time of year (for those who can afford extravagance). That means these are the areas where reduction can give us a very satisfying bang. Not that we’re going to ignore the other two areas.

Cost of Christmas estimates that a reduction of per-person holiday-related emissions of 372 kg of carbon dioxide is not unreasonable. Since their original carbon cost estimate was 650 kg, that’s almost cutting emissions in half–which still leaves the three days of Christmas responsible for over a week’s worth of emissions, but still, that’s a huge improvement.

(Note that these kilograms of carbon dioxide probably do not all come loose during the three days of Christmas–holiday travel, for example, must occur before and after the holiday, not during–but these are emissions made for the sake of those three days.)

Lowering the Cost of Christmas

What strikes me reading the Cost of Christmas is that much of the cost is attributable to things that don’t really add to anybody’s enjoyment: Brits evidently spend a total of £4 billion every year on unwanted Christmas gifts, an average of 92 per person. More to the point, those gifts are responsible for 4.8 million tonnes (that’s almost 5.3 million American tons) of carbon dioxide, or 80 kg per person.

And those lights? A lot of people keep them on all night long, sundown to sun-up. During the majority of those hours, most people are either asleep or inside their dwellings and not looking at anyone’s outside lighting. That suggests that something on the order of two hundred kilograms of carbon emissions per person per season are emitted in order to make light that nobody looks at.

More emissions (the number is significant but much smaller) involves food that nobody eats.

Are there places we can cut our holiday extravagance that actually might involve some personal sacrifice? Yeah, sure, and since said sacrifice is not very painful (and much less painful than climate change), we should have at it. But the low-hanging fruit here is definitely the emissions that bring nobody any use or pleasure at all.

Practical Tips

As you go through your holiday preparations this year, be sure to take certain steps–or, if you’ve already made those purchases, take notes for next year. Some of these steps are fairly obvious–if your electric bill normally spikes in December, adjust your light display so that it doesn’t. My husband and I have a modest display, but we also get all our electricity from landfill gas generation, meaning that our electricity is actually carbon negative. See if something similar is available in your area.

You can get a lot of useful tips from lots of great websites. One advantage of holiday “greening” is that it’s a fairly simple way to introduce possible lifestyle changes to other people. For example, you can show up to holiday parties with gifts in reusable decorative bags, rather than wasteful wrapping paper. If the party is likely to involve plastic plates and silverware, bring your own table setting from home (yes, my husband and I do this). And so on. If people ask why you’re being weird, tell them.

As far as gift-giving goes, part of the problem is doubtless poor judgment on the part of the giver. If you have no idea what to give someone, don’t guess–ask, or give a gift card. But I suspect part of the problem is a certain sense of obligation. You don’t really want or need much, so you ask for something you don’t really care all that much about.

Am I right?

Seriously, most people I know–myself included–have to be begged for Christmas wish lists most years. This year, there are some things I want, but not many.

So, if you’re in the position of not really wanting anything, don’t ask for things you don’t really want. Don’t say “I don’t want anything” either, as no one will believe you. Instead, ask for experiences you’ll enjoy (dinner at a favorite restaurant, for example) or ask for charitable donations made in your name.

My go-to wish-list items are requests for donations to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Environmental Defense Fund. If I add a fourth, it’s the ACLU.

The other thing to consider is carbon budgeting–if it’s really important to you to travel hundreds of miles to go see family at this time of year (highly understandable), then go by the lowest-carbon means of travel you can, and cut back your travel at other times of year in order to leave room in your carbon budget for the holidays.

It Came Without Boxes, Ribbons, or Tags!

In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the moral of the story is that Christmas does not require anything in the way of materialistic splendor. Even if you have nothing, you can have Christmas.

It’s worth noting that a lot of people pretty much do have nothing. There are a lot of people who simply can’t afford to spend large amounts of money on unwanted gifts or lights nobody looks at. I realize that being asked to scale back for the sake of the planet is very disheartening when you don’t have any back to scale.

If that’s your situation, then let me say you’re not alone. Plenty of folks don’t have a lot of fat to cut. The good news, if there is any, is that you’re already there. You’re green.

 


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Oh, Christmas Tree!

The other day, my mother asked me whether she ought to switch to artificial an Christmas tree, for environmental reasons. This question has been addressed by other authors (please check those links for my source information), and the short answer is “no.”

(Don’t you like straightforward answers, Mom?)

But why the answer is no is interesting, as are the exceptions–my husband and I use an artificial tree, for example.

Natural Christmas Trees

You’d think this would start with a side-by-side comparison of pros and cons of each option. After all, using a natural tree involves cutting down a tree, and that can’t be good, right? But while I admit that cutting is bad for the individual tree, that’s not how conservation works. The health of the land as a whole doesn’t depend on the longevity of individual trees, but on the functioning of a whole system. While it’s possible to imagine Christmas trees being cut in environmentally destructive circumstances, I’ve never actually heard of the Christmas tree trade being a major driver of deforestation. Instead, Christmas trees are generally grown on farms–and a Christmas tree farm is a much better bet, environmentally speaking, than, say, a housing development. The growing trees do provide some wildlife habitat, protect and develop soil, and sequester carbon.

Most of the carbon sequestered by a growing tree is, of course, released when the tree dies and the wood rots or burns, but the farm as a whole holds carbon as generations of Christmas trees grow there. And while transporting the cut tree does involve carbon emissions, but depending on how far the trees have to travel and what happens to them after Christmas, these emissions can be minimal. Typically, half of a tree’s total carbon footprint comes from the trip the family makes to bring it home. If you drive less than ten miles to get the tree, and especially if the tree is mulched afterwards, rather than landfilled, your Christmas tree can actually be carbon-negative–that it, it fights global warming, rather than adding to it.

Even if you do drive farther for your tree, its carbon footprint is still dramatically smaller than that of an artificial tree.

Artificial Trees

It might be possible to produce sustainable artificial Christmas trees, but that’s not what is available in the stores. Artificial trees are almost always made of a combination of PVC plastic and steel, which are both carbon-intensive materials. They are recyclable, but virtually no recycling centers are prepared to disentangle the two, so artificial trees are typically treated as trash. The trees are also almost all made in China, meaning that they travel much farther (at a much greater carbon cost) than real trees normally do.

It is true that real trees are used only once and artificial trees can be used over and over–but if the live tree you’re comparing it to was carbon-negative, that’s irrelevant. The real tree is always going to be better. As for comparisons with live trees that do have carbon costs, estimates vary from five to 20 years, as to how many years an artificial tree must be used before its annual carbon cost starts to equal that of the real tree.

Most people replace their artificial trees after only six years.

Exceptional Trees

Whether artificial or real trees are better in the abstract is one question. “Which tree should I use?” is a completely different question. For example, our artificial tree is second-hand, and it likely would have been thrown away had we not taken it. Arguably, the environmental cost of the tree belongs at the feet of its original owners, since their decision not only paid for its manufacture, but also made certain it would one day need to be disposed of. We got the tree for free, environmentally speaking, and it saved us from having to buy any tree of any kind for well over ten years, now (my husband doesn’t remember when he got it, but it was here when I arrived).

You could also make your own artificial tree out of sustainably-sourced materials. You could also decorate a houseplant as your Christmas tree–balled and burlapped trees usually die, and spruces grown in pots as Christmas trees are only slightly more likely to make it, but you could decorate a Norfolk pine or another species that does well as a houseplant. You can do a little research to determine whether locally-grown trees are available in your area, whether Christmas trees can be mulched in your area (if you have a yard, you can also set your post-Christmas tree outside to provide cover for wild birds) and, if you want a live tree, you can make sure to pick it up from someplace less than ten miles from home (depending on the gas mileage of your vehicle).

In short, which tree you should use (assuming you want one at all) depends, in part, on your situation.