Thursday, October 15, 2009

We are here to save the Erf! E-R-F!

Another year, another Blog Action Day, another topic that I feel unqualified to write about that I will nonetheless spend a post discussing!

This year there was a new wrinkle: the folks behind BAD offered a vote to choose the topic.  Previous participants could cast their ballot and guide the conversation.  There was some seriously organized lobbying behind it, including a passionate push for the topic of human rights.  In the end, climate change won, so that's why if you poke around the blogosphere today you'll see so many posts on the topic.

I believe that climate change poses the largest existential risk to humanity outside of rogue nuclear weapons.  I also find the topic incredibly boring.  I'm not sure how I can reconcile those two attitudes. 

Like most people, I rely on the research performed by scientists to make sense of the issue.  Based on what I've read, it seems obvious that our actions are modifying our atmosphere.  This is nothing new, of course... residents of Dickensian London went striding through pea-soup fog brought about by nascent industrialization.  In my own lifetime rock formations around the world were decimated by acid rain caused by sulfuric compounds pumped into the air by factories, and Antarctica's ice began melting due to the damage fluorocarbons from consumer products were doing to our ozone layer.

When people talk about "climate change" these days, they're referring to a much vaster phenomenon: the amazing mass of volume that we're transferring from our soil into the air.  The term "climate change" has replaced the earlier buzzphrase "global warming" to reflect the fact that the effects will be varied, leaving no part of the planet unaffected but affecting each in different ways.  Africa, already parched, will be desiccated.  Meanwhile, the melting of the Greenland ice shelf will likely freeze the Atlantic gulf stream, sending Europe back to the Ice Age.  Siberian tundra will be replaced with Siberian swamp.  North America actually will come out better than most, but that isn't saying much... many of our animal species will die out, and far more of our plants, which can't migrate nearly as quickly.  Locally, at least 2 of the 3 airports will be under water, as well as all of Foster City, much of Milpitas, Alameda, and large chunks of San Francisco, Oakland, and many more.

And yet - again, I just can't get too worked up about it.  I'm way more passionate about far more limited issues, like government surveillance of law-abiding citizens, copyright reform, patent reform, our transportation infrastructure, and so on.  I can't rationally argue that these things are more important than addressing the carbon problem, but I never tire of talking about them, while I rarely have the patience to even finish newspaper articles on climate change.

My theory?  My priorities are wrong.  Or, more charitably, I don't feel like I have much useful to contribute to the climate change debate.  (As opposed to climate change itself - more on that later.)  It seems like all the information is out there, people are getting the message, and politicians are slowly coming around to the need to act.  If I join the debate, I'm joining a chorus - all well and good, but I find it more rewarding to dig into issues that may not be as widely appreciated or understood outside the nerdy circles I frequent.

Of course, everything is connected.  Ever since moving to California I have become mildly obsessed with the water problems that this region (and, generally, America west of the Rockies) faces.  There's a lot that we can and should do to address these problems, but you know what?  In the long run, none of that will matter if we can't slow the course of surface warming.  Similarly, while I've long been a passionate believer in the need to move from an auto-based economy to a more sustainable one.  I've had many reasons for this - greater national independence from foreign dictators with oil reserves, a need to preserve the scarce resources available on this planet, the healthier lifestyle that comes with more walking and biking, more attractive urban layout, etc.  The climate change issue adds some really powerful arrows to this particular quiver.

While I hardly ever talk about climate change, I try to be a good liberal and do what I can.  To be fair, I probably would do most of these things even if it wasn't for the threat of drowning San Francisco or killing penguins.  Most of these are great ideas anyways as they save money, improve lifestyles, or more.
  • Transit.  I'm fortunate to live in a part of the country with good mass transit and fairly bike-friendly cities.  I used to put about 12,000 miles a year on my car; now, I put on about 3,000 per year.  This saves me a ton of money - I can cut way back on car maintenance, mainly just doing an oil change twice a year; I barely felt the enormous gas price spikes in late 2008 because I fill up less than once a month; and I even got State Farm to reduce my insurance price because of how little I drive.  I also feel better physically than I ever have before, thanks in part to the walking and biking that are built into my lifestyle now.  AND I'm happier and more productive; instead of the stresses of traffic, I can read novels and write blog posts while the nice train engineer drives for me.  (In all fairness: according to what I've read, any carbon savings I make in cutting back on car use are totally blown out of the water by the two airplane vacations I make each year to Chicago for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Sigh.  Well, maybe one day we'll have a bullet train that will get me there in a reasonable amount of time.  Or maybe teleportation devices!  That would rule.)
  • Energy use.  I learned good habits growing up from my parents.  I turn off the lights when I leave the room, I close the refrigerator door when I'm not using it, I strategically open and close the blinds and windows depending on the temperature inside and what the sun's doing.  These add up to a manageable electric bill.  Again, I'm lucky to live in a part of the country with temperate climate, but still, I'm usually able to keep my bill to around $20 a month in the summer and around $30 in the winter.  Lately I've gotten better about unplugging appliances when I'm not using them, and I'm already seeing those benefits as well.
  • Food.  Rather than driving in an air-conditioned SUV to purchase a paper-wrapped meal made from processed beef raised on gigantic feedlots and flavored with chemicals manufactured in New Jersey, I make virtually every breakfast and dinner in my own kitchen, generally from food purchased from small local farmers.  (Midgets!)  I had some false starts early on, but it's always been fun, and now it doesn't take any longer than it would to go out for food.  As a bonus, it tastes great, I know exactly what I'm eating, and I'm in control of servings so I can eat exactly what I want and not waste any leftovers or feel compelled to keep eating.  (Disclaimer: I haven't done the math on this one yet; I know the raw ingredients are more carbon-friendly, but it's entirely possible that the energy I spend by operating a burner or the oven is greater than my proportional share of the energy required to create 10000 fast food hamburgers.  If you were to walk to your fast food place, you MIGHT be more planet-friendly than cooking for yourself.  But you'd be missing out... there are plenty of good reasons to cook, and unlike most other items, this is something that humanity has been doing for thousands of years.)
  • Politics.  While individuals can make an impact, this is a global issue and it will require global solutions.  The talk about carbon credits is good; I think a carbon tax would be far better.  I doubt we'll get one, but I'll support a politician who's willing to try.  Ultimately, though, even a carbon tax won't be enough unless we can convince China, India, and all other countries to limit their emissions as well.  This will be the big challenge of our generation, and we'll need to elect strong, diplomatic, intelligent leaders who can pursue those negotiations with aggression and tact.  I'm nowhere near being a single-issue voter on this topic, but it's something I try to keep in mind when I'm considering candidates at the national or (because I live in this crazy wonderful messed-up wreck of an experiment) state level.

Sooooo, uh, that's what I think about climate change.  It's bad, but we know what needs to be done to fix it.  Just as we eliminated fluorocarbons and sulfurs to fix earlier environmental crises brought on by our industrial age, so we need to severely limit the amount of carbon to solve this crisis.  I'm hopeful that Richard Branson or microbiologists can come up with a technological solution to this problem, but I'm not willing to bet the planet on that.  We should hope for the best while preparing for the worst, and start taking action now to make sure this planet is in good shape for our descendants.

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