The Climate in Emergency

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


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Climate Change and Food: Red Meat

I have talked about climate and food before in terms of how climate change influences the food supply, but what about the other way around? How does our eating influence the climate? As many readers are probably aware, a significant amount of our collective carbon footprint (about one quarter) comes from our food system and meat-based foods have a larger footprint than plant-based foods. But how much difference between foods is there? What is the best way to cut carbon emissions out of one’s personal diet? Does it matter whether the meat is local or free-range?

I didn’t know either. So I’ve done some reading.

The numbers don’t look good for meat

The short answers are that the difference is huge, the best way to cut emissions is to eat less meat, and free-range and local do matter but, as far as the climate goes, not very much. There are some complications and nuances, of course.

I found an article that includes a graphic showing the carbon footprints of various food types (chicken, beef, eggs, lentils, etc.) expressed in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of food. “Carbon dioxide equivalent” means all greenhouse gasses taken together and expressed in terms of their impact on climate. So these figures include methane. Logically, the numbers would be exactly the same with any other measure of weight–the point is there is a ratio between amount of food and amount of emissions.

The simplest thing is to read the article, which you should do anyway because it’s fascinating. Here is the link. But I’ll summarize the most striking parts–for simplicity, I’ll give a single numbers for this; instead of writing “5kg of CO2e per kg of food,” I’ll just write “five.”

Lamb is the most carbon-intensive meat by far, at 39.2. Less than five of that is transportation and processing, which presumably means that if you raised your own lamb in your back yard, killed it yourself, and then had a carbon-neutral barbecue, it’s number would still be around 36. The next-closest competitor is beef, at 27, and then the other animal-based foods on the list cluster between 13.5 and 4.8. In contrast, the various plant-based foods on the list all cluster between just under three and just under one. The importance of transportation and processing varies, but only in potatoes is it the majority of the total figure.

I can think of several possible complications (besides grass-fed vs. grain-fed, which I’ll get to later).

  • What if the animal is a by-product of another industry? For example, if a flock of sheep are managed for milk and wool as well as meat, so that only excess ram lambs are slaughtered, then the carbon footprint of the flock is the same as it would be if those excess animals were not eaten (letting them live as pets would actually increase the carbon footprint of the operation, aside from the other ethical questions involved). In such a case, the same kilogram of CO2e has to share meat, milk, and fiber,and the whole operation is much more efficient than it might seem, right?
  • Do the figures for animals include emissions from transporting animal feed?
  • Why is the footprint of cheese six times that of yogurt given that most of them are processed milk?
  • The study focused on food in Britain; are these numbers different in other countries, such as the United States?
  • What is the footprint of highly processed foods, such as candy or fast food?
  • Since different kinds of food have different nutritional profiles, how would this comparison work if the unit of comparison were nutritional value, rather than weight? Nutrition is complex, so it might be impossible to do that kind of study, but the issue could still be important.

I do not have answers to those questions.

In any case, clearly generally similar diets, such as two different versions of mostly-plant-based omnivory, might have extremely different carbon footprints. The study that released these numbers found that while the difference between eating a lot of meat and eating a little is huge, the different between eating a little meat and none is small.

What is so bad about meat?

The clear take-home message here is that giving up beef and lamb (except possibly where these are byproducts of dairy production?), and cutting way back on other animal-based foods, is one of the most powerful steps a person can take to address climate change (aside from voting!). So, why are meats so bad for the environment? We have to be very clear, here; this is not about animal rights, which is an important but separate issue.

I have not seen this issue addressed directly, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not to mention public tastes in food, is almost certainly relevant.

The Second Law states, in essence, that every time energy moves or changes form, some of it is lost. This is why, for example, a ten pound house cat needs to eat more than ten pounds of meat in its life. This is also why ecosystems always have more plant-eaters than carnivores and more plants than plant-eaters. Most of what an animal eats does not become meat–what happens to it? Some of it becomes bone or other tissues we don’t want to eat. Some of it is never digested and simply passed as feces–which decomposes into carbon dioxide or methane–or as flatulence, which is also methane. But most of that missing food is exhaled as carbon dioxide.

One way to think about this is that all carbon that is taken up by plants is ultimately either interred in long-term storage as fossil fuels, or released again to the atmosphere when the plant rots or burns or is metabolized and exhaled. Eating food is the exact chemical equivalent of burning fuel. So, when a human eats a pound of plant matter, “burning” that “fuel” results in carbon emissions. But when we eat a pound of meat, that meat represents all the plants that animal ate to grow that meat–and all of that plant-fuel is “burned,” whether in the meat-animal’s body or in the human’s. More plant-fuel burned means more emissions released.

Cattle and sheep are both ruminants, meaning they don’t actually eat food directly. The food they swallow is eaten by bacteria in their guts, which in turn create food for the cattle. So you get another layer of energy transformation and thus another layer of energy dissipation–the bovine gets less energy out of the food and has to eat more, so more plants are “burned” as “fuel” for somebody. And the waste product of these bacteria is methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

So, meat has a larger carbon footprint than vegetables and ruminants (cattle and sheep) have a larger carbon footprint than other animals (pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc.).

Does grass-fed matter?

Most animals raised for the industrial food supply spend at least part of their lives–and sometimes all of them–in some version of a small cage being fed some kind of grain-based, heavily processed diet. There are all sorts of reasons why this is a terrible, horrible thing and why if you are going to eat meat, you should really choose only free-range animals (please note that “free-range” is a legally slippery term and that finding meat that lives up to the intent of the phrase takes some research). Is the climate another such reason?

The answer to that one depends who you ask.

An animal’s personal freedom has no particular bearing on carbon emissions. What makes the difference is whether it is grazing or browsing, as opposed to being fed corn (as would happen in a cage or cage-like feedlot). Logically, feed carries a larger carbon footprint because it must be transported and processed, whereas pasture is eaten where it grows. In fact, one of the best ways to keep open land from being converted into housing developments is to put cows on top of it. All of that argues for grass-fed meat having either a smaller carbon footprint, or possibly a slightly negative footprint, if pasture sequesters more carbon than cattle release.

On the other hand, cattle, at least, have to live longer to get to slaughter weight if they stay on pasture. More time living means more time farting, which could mean a larger carbon footprint. And while cattle are healthier eating grass, they get more energy from eating grain (which must be why they gain weight faster that way). So a day eating grass presumably means more farts than a day eating grain, too.

Which argument is actually true seems unclear at this time and might depend on the details of the cattle operation in question. And I have not found anything on how free-range living might influence the carbon footprint of other food animal species.

Wait–haven’t there always been cattle?

This question was posed by one of my Facebook friends and it’s a good question. How could cattle be a factor in increased climate change given that cattle themselves are hardly new?

This was my answer:

xkcd land mammals

From XKCD, https://xkcd.com/1338/, used in accordance with the cartoonist’s policy

 

This graphic shows that almost half of the land mammal compliment of the planet, by weight, is cattle. The vast majority is either humans or animals that humans eat. The reason it makes sense to do this comparison by weight rather than by head is that weight is a good proxy for how much animals eat and, thus, how much plant “fuel” they burn and how much CO2e is released. Consider that the energy in a pound of mouse meat is probably similar to the energy in a pound of hamburger–about the same number of calories. There are some potential complications here, but two thousand pounds of mice probably eat very roughly the same amount as two thousand pounds of cow. So, the fact that our planet has a huge number of tons of cattle right now means that a huge amount of plant-fuel is being “burned” by cattle these days.

Now, I am fairly confident that while there have been cattle for millennia, there have not been THIS MANY cattle until very recently.

I also suspect that this massive pile of mooing would not be possible without fossil fuel–and it certainly wouldn’t be economical. Feed could not be cheaply moved in to feed lots and beef (grass-fed or grain-finished) could not be distributed widely enough to meet enough consumers to justify the size of the herd. If this is the case, then excessive cattle farts are simply another symptom of fossil fuel use.

But, even if the huge herd of cattle is new, surely something else was eating all those plants before, and releasing a corresponding amount of waste and flatulence? Like, all the wild animals we’ve squeezed out of existence lately? Maybe and maybe not. Perhaps a lot of those plants used to just not get eaten and to enter into long-term storage on their way to becoming fossil fuel. Or maybe the wildlife released more carbon dioxide and less methane and so had a lower carbon footprint. There are possibilities. Or maybe the farts of cattle are actually irrelevant to climate change and the real carbon footprint of food is only the fossil fuel use and the ecological degradation associated with it?

That one I do not know.


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Back to the Future

Now and then, someone complains that environmentalists want to “take us back to the stone age” and I feel compelled to explain why this is not anything we have to worry about. The time has once again arrived.

We’re not going back to any previous time period. History doesn’t work like that. For better or worse, the past is over. We will not somehow fall backwards five thousand years, five hundred years, or even fifty years, forgetting all we have learned and undoing all the changes we have made in the process. For example, turning off the machines of the Industrial Revolution will not reassert the 1700’s and make smallpox magically reappear.

But ending human-caused climate change might well involve adopting some practices from the past. Our lives might come to resemble the way people lived before the Industrial Revolution, or even before the development of agriculture, in certain key ways. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Fossil fuel use gives us a huge amount of energy. Most of the “advances” we have seen in the past two hundred years have not been the result of scientific and social development alone but have also involved a dramatic increase of the amount of energy we harness. Cars don’t go faster than horse-drawn carriages because they are technologically more advanced (although they are) but because they use a lot more fuel. Of course, horses eat hay whereas cars eat gasoline, so it’s hard to make the comparison, but just as a mental exercise consider why we don’t design cars to run on hay.

Basically, hay isn’t a very energy-dense fuel and so a hay-car would need an impossibly large fuel-tank. There probably isn’t enough hay in the entire world to fuel even a modest fleet of hay-cars anyway.

And the massive energy-use is part of the problem. As I’ve explained before, destabilized weather and dramatic biodiversity losses are just what we can expect from using more energy than the biosphere we live in can handle. An enhanced greenhouse effect is the way fossil fuel accomplishes these disasters, but if we invented an alternate way of using too much energy, an alternate path to the same disaster would develop.

So, in the climate-sane future, we’ll use advancing technology to live better on less energy. Greater efficiency will allow us to keep some of our high-energy luxuries, but others will have to go; better rather than more will be the watch-word of the day.

For example, turning night into day across entire cityscapes as we do requires a lot of energy. Even with more efficient lighting, cities that never sleep might have to go. But when people go home at night they need not illuminate their houses with whale-oil lamps as in days of old—they can use LEDs run off batteries charged by rooftop solar cells during the day. LEDs don’t require killing whales and they don’t set fires when they fall over. For the same small amount of energy, they unquestionably do a better job producing light.

But can we look forward to more as well as better?

We can—if we think about what it really means to have plenty. We’re used to thinking of plenty in absolute terms, where a person with thousands of dollars has more wealth than a person with hundreds of dollars. By this logic, a person who wants to have more must go about getting more. And if there isn’t more to get (the approximate situation of modern humanity), that person is stuck.

But in real life we know that’s not how plenty actually works. We know that a person who earns only a few hundred dollars in a week can be in a much better position financially than someone who brings in several thousand if the latter has a lot of unavoidable bills and a large amount of debt. What matters is not so much what you have so much as the relationship between what you have and what you need. It is possible to achieve a state of plenty even with a falling level of income by reducing expenses to the point where saving money is easy.

Think about the difference between a working professional trying to support three children in private school, a stay-at-home spouse, and a home big enough for the whole family, and the same person as a widowed empty-nester living in a small apartment with a modest pension and able to finally go visit Paris.

We can do that as a species in the distant but foreseeable future by radically shrinking our population.

How many people Earth can support is definitely subject to debate. There were certainly those who expected us to have fallen into chaos and horror due to resource shortages by this time and, by and large, they were wrong. I suspect that getting off fossil fuel will require shrinking our numbers (hopefully by attrition), but it’s possible that I am wrong. But trying to identify the maximum number of people who can cram themselves onto the planet—how little we can get by with per capita, in other words—is poverty-thinking. Let’s think about plenty instead.

If our species were, once again, very small—perhaps a few million of us scattered all over the Earth—our per capita Earth-shares would each be very large. So long as we kept our numbers contained and our needs modest, we’d all have more in the way of natural resources than we could ever hope to use. And we’d have some valuable things that money just can’t buy these days. For example, anyone who wanted adventure and freedom could walk out into the wilderness and just keep going as long as they wanted. And that beauty you see in National Parks and on nature specials on TV? It would be everywhere, basically for free.

True, such small population sizes might involve some sacrifice. You couldn’t go see a show on Broadway because New York couldn’t exist. In fact, population sizes like what they had in the Paleolithic might require something of the lifestyle of the Paleolithic.

But that wouldn’t be so bad. Historically, when stone-age peoples have met with so-called “advanced” cultures, they have fought very hard to retain their supposedly “primitive” way of life—these fights continue still. It’s not that these people want to maintain themselves as museum pieces, resistant to change forever—they generally accept steel tools, guns, snowmobiles, and whatever else makes their lives better by their own definition. The point is that there are aspects of Paleolithic (e.g., pre-agricultural) life that are worth more than life itself to the people who have it.

And some aspects are all that climate-sane future humanity would have of the Paleolithic, anyway. We can’t go back, and wouldn’t have to. Some communities might indeed be hunter-gatherers, or subsistence farmers or pastoralists. Horses and oxen and human feet might replace cars and trucks for most purposes. Leather, wood, and bone might replace metal and plastic for daily use. But we’d still have steel when we needed it—there’d be plenty of it available for recycling, just mine a landfill. And we’d still know how to make things like vaccines, antibiotics, and radios. Probably, technological advancement will continue and our hunter-gatherer descendants will be able to do things like replace their internal organs with synthetic ones when they fail.

Just something to imagine next time someone starts talking about the stone age.


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The California Drought Continues

California is still in a drought. It has been for four years straight. The rains in December, while dramatic, were not enough to break the drought. Voluntary water reduction has not worked, so the state has now enacted mandatory restrictions, but these do not apply to the heaviest users of water in the state. The drought is not likely to ease up.

There are a couple of subtleties here.

One is that California water years run from the end of September to the beginning of October–that means that the December rains count as part of this water year, not last, a point that could conceivably confuse some people who look at the records. No mere technicality, the concept of a water year reflects the principle that it is impossible to water the land retroactively–December’s rains could not have changed the dire straights of 2014 no matter how heavy they were. They could have eased the situation for 2015, but have not. Instead, precipitation for the year is already at or below average. To ease the drought, precipitation would have to be above average in order to make up the deficit.

Another is that the scary headline, that California only has one year of water left, refers only to stored water and not ground water or any new water that might come into the state over the next year. The figure also refers to a year of normal use and, thanks to the new regulations, use should be well below normal. So the situation is not quite as dire as it may seem. But it is dire enough.

Finally, droughts are relative. A drought is when there is less water than the users of water want–in practice, when there is less water than is necessary for whatever normally goes on at any given locality. That is why we don’t say deserts are in a state of permanent drought. But the relative nature of drought also means that any drought in California is worse now than it would have been a generation ago because there are more people in the state demanding water. This is one of the reasons the current drought is so historic.

And yes, climate change is relevant. These three years of drought have also been the hottest in California’s history. As the planet as a whole warms up, hot years like these become more likely. Hot weather increases evaporation and transpiration, meaning that the land needs more precipitation to get the same amount of soil moisture. That, too, makes any drought worse. It makes the possibility of another regional mega-drought, one lasting decades or centuries, even more serious.

But the very fact that demand makes drought worse also means that lessened demand could ease the drought. California could use less water.

Which is exactly what it’s doing now, of course, but I’m talking about something a good deal more radical. For example, California is an arid state, so why is it a major agricultural area? Why are there green lawns and swimming pools? I am struck by the fact that the water restrictions specify what people are allowed to do with water (e.g., not water lawns every day) not how much water they are allowed to use. The latter would, of course, make more sense–estimate how much water there is available, divide by the number of people, that sort of thing. But that is not how we normally do things–we don’t start with what we have and figure out how to adapt to those limits, we start with what we wished we had and go into debt in order to get it.

With water, going into debt means exhausting reservoirs and aquifers.

Much has been made of the fact that the water restrictions do not apply to California’s agriculture, despite the fact that it’s responsible for about 80% of the state’s water use. The simple, obvious explanation is that “big agriculture” has somehow gamed the system, although it is hard to see how it could, given that agriculture is only responsible for 2% of the state’s GDP. More likely, the fact that farming feeds people is relevant, as is the fact that almost, pistachio, and walnut trees, which together account for much of California agriculture, are long-lived perennials. If they die in a drought, that is a long term loss for the state–even for the country. If California’s agriculture fails, or if the industry has to pay a true free-market price for access to the region’s limited water, food prices across the country will respond.

California’s water woes are not just the result of global warming (in part), the situation also exemplifies why global warming is a problem to begin with–at bottom there is a fundamental refusal to treat the limits on our available resources as real. But layered on top of that are serious logistical, political, and moral complications that make a supposedly simple fix–use less–harder to realize. Is the US as a whole really willing to give up California’s agriculture? The irony is that, if we did stop sourcing our food from the other side of the country, we’d use less fossil fuel and contribute less to global warming.

The final thing that strikes me about the coverage of the drought is that while some people are clearly acknowledging that this is a new, climate-changed normal, I have not found anybody using the drought to call for reducing emissions. No one (that I have encountered) is demanding climate-sane political representatives and climate-sane policy to please save California. I hear people talking about maybe adapting to the new normal, but nothing about changing the disastrous course that is creating it.

California has 55 Electoral College votes, more than any other state in the country.


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Keystone Again

The Keystone XL Pipeline is back in the news.

For months, President Obama has been holding off making a decision about the pipeline, pending the results of a court case in Nebraska. A week and a half ago, that case was thrown out of court, ending one chapter of the story and beginning the next.

The case involved a state law that approved the pipeline route through the state and gave TransCanada the power of eminent domain. According to that law, if the pipeline corridor crosses your land in Nebraska, you can’t do anything about it. Three landowners fought back with a lawsuit claiming that such decisions should not be made by the legislature and governor but by the Public Service Commission. While a county court agreed with them, the state Supreme Court threw the case out because, somewhat bizarrely, the landowners don’t have standing to sue in this matter.

The new Republican-dominated Congress has meanwhile made it their first priority to pass a Federal law requiring approval of the pipeline at the Federal level. The House of Representatives has passed such a measure at least three times already, but it has always been defeated in the Senate. This time, with the same party in charge of both houses, the bill is likely to pass the Senate as well–not that it matters. To pass a bill requiring a President to do something he does not want to do is a bit silly, considering that the President has veto power.

The Senate is currently in the early stages of what will likely be a long, drawn out debate on the issue, with various individuals tacking various largely symbolic amendments on to the bill. Democrats have added an amendment that would acknowledge that climate change is real, a neat trick. Republicans have countered with an amendment that would prevent the EPA from considering climate in environmental impact assessments. If the Senate passes a bill that includes both these clauses, what kind of message will that send?

For so much time and effort to go into a bill that does not have the votes to override Mr. Obama’s promised veto is bizarre. It isn’t, after all, as though Congress doesn’t have anything else to do. For Republicans, Keystone seems to have gained nearly the same symbolic weight as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Why?

The Republican version of the Keystone story is that the pipeline will lower American energy prices and provide a large number of much-needed jobs if only Mr. Obama will get out of the way.  The Party has a long history of public concern over the unemployment rate. But estimating the number of jobs a pipeline will create is notoriously difficult–even the number of short-term construction jobs could end up being much lower than proponents claim. The State Department estimates that only 35 permanent jobs will be created. It is even possible that the pipeline could ultimately increase regional unemployment, if large numbers of people move into the area to take temporary construction jobs and are then laid off.

As to energy prices, pipelines in general don’t stabilize prices, and Canadian oil flowing through pipes to Texas for export does not directly effect American energy availability anyway.

If global warming and the likelihood of oil spills were not factors, the Keystone XL pipeline might well be at least marginally good for the American economy, but not to the extent that would justify the priority Republicans have placed on it. And that other major Republican bastion, defense against government “meddling,” should be totally at odds with the prospect of eminent domain–the Governor of Nebraska has given a foreign-owned company permission to take people’s land, essentially for its own benefit. Why isn’t the radical right up in arms about this?

The cynical might guess that, once again the Republican Party is kowtowing to Big Business–that concern over jobs, energy, and regulatory relief are all thinly veiled code words for a basic corporate friendliness. The cynical may have a point. And yet, in this case the most obvious beneficiaries of building the pipeline would be the Canadian oil industry. Is this a case of Big Business transcending boarders?

It may be, but my guess is that this is about narrative.

The Republican Party is trying to control the narrative, trying to be the one whose framing of events the public accepts. From that perspective, it is irrelevant whether Keystone XL helps the American economy and it is nearly irrelevant whether the pipeline even gets built. Votes in the House that go no place still count as strikes in the larger cultural war.

Why Keystone? Because liberals care about it.

Critics sometimes point out that for all the furor around the Keystone XL, other pipelines are being built across the country with little or no fuss. As a line in the sand, this one looks arbitrary to some. In point of fact, some of the other pipeline projects do receive a share of controversy, most people just never hear about it. Moreover, there is indeed a reason to focus on Keystone; out of all the pipeline projects, it is the one that President Obama has the power to say no to, because it crosses an international border. Mr. Obama constituency is the entire country and he is just one person. A national movement can speak to him in a way it couldn’t if final decisive power lay in the hands of dozens of state and local officials. And the President does actually pay attention to environmental issues. In order words, this one is winnable in a way that the fights over other pipelines may not be.

But all that being said, if KXL is defeated, a very large and multifaceted minority will celebrate a huge symbolic victory.

It seems likely that the Republican Party, which is very corporate-friendly, is trying to prevent that victory. They are also gunning for a national debate in which the economy represents the highest imaginable good, clean water and clean air are not considered relevant or important, and the homes, livelihoods, and families of farmers, ranchers, and indigenous peoples do not have meaningful standing.

If they achieve such a limitation of parameters, there are fights more important than one 36-inch pipeline that they can and will win.

It is true that much of the discussion around Keystone has been tangential to climate change, the main point of this blog. But within this one story are all the major sub-themes that govern what is going on in the atmosphere:

  • Who benefits from environmentally risky or destructive practices?
  • Who makes decisions about the use of land and other resources?
  • Who pays for environmental accidents when (not if) they occur?
  • What is the responsibility of those who use petroleum products, thereby creating demand?

And, perhaps most importantly,

  • Of all the things the United States has traditionally called its own, which are we willing to give up and why?


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Climate Change and Catholics

I’m planning to do a series on how different religious organizations are responding to climate change. Because the Pope is about to issue a major statement on the subject, I’m starting with Catholicism.

In the United States, at least, climate sanity has become a solidly liberal issue; Democrats occasionally run on an emissions-reduction platform, but Republicans often run against even acknowledging the existence of climate change, while simultaneously espousing culturally conservative views, such as opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. There is no obvious reason why climate denial should have become allied with traditional gender roles, but that is how the historical chips have fallen. Because the Catholic Church is also culturally conservative on key points, someone who didn’t know better might assume that Church doctrine includes climate denial.

That someone would be wrong.

Catholic teaching on the subject of climate change goes back to January 1st, 1990, when Pope John Paul II delivered an address that framed environmental problems as an important threat to world peace. Although he did not use the words global warming or climate change, he specifically cited fossil fuels and unrestricted deforestation among factors harming the “atmosphere and the environment,” and went on to say “the resulting meteorological and atmospheric changes range from damage to health to the possible future submersion of low-lying lands.”

That’s pretty unambiguous, and the Pope’s address even came out before the First Assessment Report by the IPCCC.

The Pope’s address precipitated other statements by Church officials, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in support of climate sanity and environmental action. Pope Benedict the XVI continued the tradition by speaking and writing on climate change extensively and by urging climate conference delegates to make progress in Rio in 2011.

The Church is not an anti-science body, its famously bad treatment of Galileo notwithstanding (the Church has since apologized for that, and hostilities could never have been as serious as one might suppose–Galileo’s older daughter, a nun, seems to have felt no conflict between her religion and her admiration of her father). The Vatican actually sponsors unfettered scientific inquiry, and the current Pope has made clear that there is no contradiction between Church teachings and foundational scientific theories, such as the big bang theory.

Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic Church has a deep and persistent commitment to the world’s poor. Pope Francis has now explicitly described climate change as a moral issue because of its impact on poor and otherwise disadvantaged humans. And he has given his considerable moral and political weight towards the success of the climate negotiations in Paris later this year.

American Catholics generally agree with the Pope about climate change and appreciate his leadership on the subject, according to polls. Individual churches are already getting involved in a variety of ways. A body called the Catholic Climate Covenant is working to educate Catholics on the subject and to get them involved. The pro-climate stance is not universal among Catholics–Rick Santorum is both a Catholic and a vocal climate denier, for example–but for better or worse, the Church is not a democracy. To a much greater degree than the other religions familiar to Americans, Catholic Christianity is proscriptive rather than descriptive; Catholic beliefs are what the Pope says they are, even if there are individual Catholics who believe something else. From what I have read about the Church and the current Pope, I do not think that belief in climate change itself has become a Catholic precept. Church leadership generally differentiates between matters of science and matters of religion, and they are probably aware that climate science is not a matter of belief anyway. Rather, the church acknowledges that disbelief in climate change (and the Big Bang, and evolution by natural selection) are not precepts of the Church. In any case, the meat of Catholic teaching on climate change is not that it is real but that it is a moral issue.

One hopes that, on this subject at least, the Church proves an able and powerful teacher.

Science and religion have long been estranged, with large pockets of suspicion on both sides. It is not difficult to find people who believe–incorrectly–that one cannot be both a Christian and a scientist (whether the same perception exists for other religions I do not know), and that scientific ideas and religious ideas are mutually exclusive. While there are, indeed, Christian denominations that do define themselves in these terms, and while there are a few vociferously atheistic scientists (notably Richard Dawkins), as a general rule, science and religion are not actually in conflict.

Religion and science do not conflict with each other because they do not operate in the same plane–they are different sides of a coin, different hands of a person, whatever metaphor you like. The job of science is to answer what? and the job of religion is to answer why? Functioning societies need some way to answer both types of question and neither question can stand in for the other. For example, if you don’t know whether a dog can suffer, then all the moral philosophizing in the world will not tell you whether it is ok to kick dogs. On the other hand, if you discover that dogs can suffer and you go ahead and kick them anyway, science can’t tell you to stop–although a scientist might, because scientists, being human, can think about morality as well. Religion is, among other things, a social structure for moral reasoning and instruction.

Science has informed us that human-caused climate change is real and that it hurts poor and persecuted people disproportionately. Pope Francis has joined his predecessors and colleagues in asserting that humans therefor have a moral obligation to stop changing the climate and to help the disadvantaged adapt to the change we have already committed ourselves to.

There are 75 million Catholics in the United States listening to him, and 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

 


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New Year, New Habit

Every year around this time, TV and radio shows about how to change one’s habits get popular. I’m hereby jumping on the bandwagon.

I don’t like New Year’s resolutions, especially not with respect to the climate. They are too often focused on self-improvement projects, an attempt to make ourselves feel better by escaping guilt or shame–quit smoking, lose ten pounds, whatever we feel bad about. Climate change is not about feeling bad. The sky doesn’t care whether we are good people. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball and not get distracted by our feelings. But doing something about climate change means making lifestyle changes and getting involved politically–in other words, changing habits. So, any advice that works for making New Year’s resolutions stick should help here as well.

I’m working off of two interviews from previous years with the author of Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them, Charles Duhigg, one on Talk of the Nation, the other on Fresh Air. My intention is not particularly to endorse this book, though it does sound good, but rather to endorse the approach that the author claims to have used; first research how humans establish habits and then use that information to develop ways to establish better habits. The more common method, as far as I can tell, is for a self-styled expert to develop a technique that makes intuitive sense based on his or her preconceived ideas. Some of these techniques work, at least for some people, but it’s kind of hit-or-miss.

Mr. Duhigg says that habits are essentially automatic behaviors–the brain saves energy by putting some tasks on autopilot. This is why it’s possible to drive to work and not remember anything about the trip and why it’s possible to watch oneself eat an entire package of cookies without actually wanting to eat any of them–habitual behaviors, like getting ready for work or pulling cookies out of a box while watching TV, are not directed by the part of the brain that makes conscious decisions. Habits automatically engage whenever triggered by a pre-arranged trigger, like the morning alarm-clock. The more times a habit is repeated, the stronger the neurological connections that make it grow, and the more fully automatic the behavior becomes.

Forming habits is not bad–our conscious decision power has better things to do than ponder every possible decision point in our day over and over again (when you brush your teeth, which tooth do you start with? Which shoe do you put on first? Do you put the cereal or the milk in the bowl first?). The objective isn’t to do away with habits but to make sure that the habitual behaviors are actually things you want to do.

Mr. Duhigg’s advice for forming new habits centers around avoiding the triggers for the old habits and creating triggers for new habits. I’ve done this–my trigger for exercising first thing in the morning is an alarm that goes off at six in the morning. If I sleep in, however, that triggers my old morning habit instead, one that doesn’t involve exercise. There is no magic time-frame for forming a new habit (any that you may hear, like 21 days, is made-up), but the longer you pair a behavior sequence with a trigger, the stronger the association will be in your brain.

In my experience, it is important to treat good habits as a thing one has to keep, not a thing that keeps itself. It’s like tending a small fire that might go out if not fed–the new habit has some momentum, so over time it begins to get easier to do, but you still have to work on it.  Think in terms of protecting the new-born habit by pairing the new activity with its trigger every single time. Do not try to break the old habit by an act of will–that won’t work, because habits are what we do when the will turns off. Instead, apply the will towards building the new habit.

Places where building new habits might be relevant to climate change:

  • Turning off unneeded lights
  • Planning car trips so as to minimize gas use
  • Planning meals so as to eat locally, seasonally, and largely vegetarian
  • Turning off the water heater and other household heating and cooling units before overnight trips
  • Doing laundry three days before you need the clothes so as to be able to line-dry
  • Reading about climate issues regularly
  • Writing letters to Congress-people regularly.

Of course, different people’s circumstances generate different lists–if you can’t afford a car, for example, then minimizing gas use might not be an issue….

But the point is that if you’re looking at changing your behavior, a good place to start is to learn about how human behavior works–how habits work and how decisions work. I’ve often noticed that many self-described environmentalists simply neglect seemingly obvious steps. For example, I was at an event this morning where the organizers provided refreshments complete with disposable Styrofoam cups. Why not recyclable paper cups? Why not encourage participants to bring their own? Maybe the foam cups are just an unexamined habit?

I started this discussion with a single book–but there are others. It’s that time of year, so you should have no trouble finding additional advice.

To whatever you might find, I add a piece from my own experience;

What you plan to change your behavior, plan what to do if you do the old behavior instead. For example, if you want to switch to re-usable shopping bags, establish a trigger for your new habit of grabbing the bags on your way out–but also plan what you are going to do if you do not grab your bags. What I do is awkwardly carry my groceries out in my hands, with no bags at all. Do that a few times and you will stop forgetting!

Some people agree to pay friends money if they slip up or otherwise establish some concrete motivator.

But do whatever works for you.

 

 

 


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A Modest Proposal

The Climate Action Network (CAN) has publicly said we need to phase out fossil fuels entirely, and soon. I’ve been saying the same in this blog since its inception. The recent climate march in New York City may have made the media sit up and take notice, and might possibly have encouraged our political leaders to take some meaningful steps, but most of those steps are still babyish.

As individuals, we can reduce our carbon footprint–and many of us have. But realistically, individual lifestyle change is a luxury of the relatively well-off. A person who is busy struggling to feed three kids and keep the heat on can’t buy a Prius or demand a job accessible by bicycle. It’s also true that even among those who are able, radical lifestyle change seldom appeals to more than a small minority of people. Individual change is therefore not enough. National and international leadership is necessary, but it isn’t enough, either. We need community-level change–towns, counties, states, and regions.

There is the Transition Movement, which I’ve written about before, but it is a fairly distinct thing–it has its own priorities and philosophy that might not appeal to everybody and might not be the best way to approach every community’s situation. I’d like to see a lot of transition movements, a lot of different interrelating approaches to the ultimate goal of getting communities off fossil fuel.

I suggest that such efforts work towards the following goals:

Oil-free Food

Modern food production has a huge carbon footprint, from agriculture itself to transportation to processing. Some people have access to gardens or farmers’ markets, but even where these options exists they don’t necessarily have the capacity to feed everybody in the area. If oil vanished tomorrow, a lot of people would starve.

A transition community can consider part of its goal met when it has the capacity to feed its entire population locally, sustainably, and without the use of factory farming or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. That doesn’t mean individuals can’t buy “imported” food. I’m not talking about a dictatorship, I’m talking about creating options.

Oil-free Transportation

A town should be walkable/bikeable, should have functional public transportation powered by something other than oil, and should have an economic structure such that people can live and work and shop within the town. Again, that doesn’t mean people can’t drive off, it just means they shouldn’t have to.

A Place to Call Home

A town ready for the post-petroleum age should have post-petroleum housing available. This is important, because the structure of a person’s dwelling has a huge impact on his or her lifestyle choices. For example, in a home with small, shaded windows, you can’t rely on daylight for lighting, even if you want to. In a hot, stuffy building, air conditioning might be a medical necessity in the summer. And so on.

Post-petroleum housing need not be reserved for eco-conscious people. Rather, just as building codes reflect the demands of fire safety (whether or not the people in the building care a bit about the issue), new residential buildings should make living with a small carbon footprint possible.

Besides the building materials and so forth, issues to consider include:

  • Heating and cooling; well-insulated buildings stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter with less energy. By using shade, sun exposure, and air flow properly, an architect can adjust a building to its climate and minimize the amount of extra heating and cooling residents need. Let’s shoot for buildings that can stay between 40° and 80° by themselves. If you want it warmer in the winter you can turn on the heat, but if you’ll never have to worry about the pipes freezing.
  • Lighting; lots of big windows, please. No house should need electric light on a sunny day.
  • Food storage; if a building has a root cellar, a refrigerator is a luxury, not a necessity. Refrigerators suck up electricity, since they run 24/7, and use chemicals that are also greenhouse gases.
  • Resource production; let’s put solar cells on the roof, or put them on walls between windows and put a vegetable garden on the roof. Green roofs are great for insulation.

A Vision for a Community

So, that’s my proposal; that communities work together on issues relating to food, transportation, local jobs, and affordable housing. Notice that these issues are interconnected–local food production and processing supports a more vibrant local economy, which means more jobs. Notice also these these things are all within the grasp of either local government or independent community groups.

Many communities are working along these lines already. Good for them. What I offer is a clearly articulated end-point to work for–the basic principle that the infrastructure of life should make it easier, not harder, for individuals to do the right thing.

Then more people would choose to get off fossil fuel.