What to do now about climate change

I had been hoping that the energy/ climate problem would somehow be solved by market economics (since national politics and international cooperation don’t seem anywhere close to addressing the issue).

But this study (PDF) by the University of Iowa on local vs conventional food gives me doubts. Their study found “…fresh produce transported to Iowa consumers under the conventional food system travels longer distances, uses more fuel, and releases more CO2 than the same quantity of produce transported in a local or Iowa-based regional food system.”  But it also concluded that ” … fuel costs will need to rise significantly if they are the only factor considered in determining whether local and regional systems are economically competitive…”

I guess I should have understood that transportation costs are a small fraction of food costs, why else would we have wine from Australia and strawberries from Chile.

Juxtapose that with the fact that the price of oil is high enough to make Canadian tar sands profitable and as Bill McKibben notes, they open “the first huge oil play of the global-warming era, the first time we’ve dangerously stepped onto new turf, even though we understand the stakes” (see this summary for understanding the stakes).

“Global CO2 emissions and warming compared to pre-industrial times for a scenario without climate policy (red) and a scenario in which the emissions are restricted to 1000 billion tonnes of CO2 (blue) from 2000 to 2050. The intervention can limit the probability of exceeding the 2°C threshold to 25%. (Credit: Image courtesy of ETH Zurich)” From ScienceDaily.com

We have reached the fork in the graph above. From now on, its a zero-sum game. Globally, we can’t increase carbon releases, which, given rising population means we must reduce carbon per person. And, given rising wealth and consumption in developing countries, developed countries need to disproportionally reduce carbon per person to offset growth elsewhere.  Then by 2020 the planet needs to be reducing total emissions.

So what is a person, or a small town to do? We are faced with an instance of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Economics (and hence politics) seem to favor the status quo, encouraging environmental destruction on a planetary scale. I can choose to eat local and low carbon, but my neighbor might not. I can choose to walk or bike, but my friend just bought a big pickup. We both go to hell in the same hand basket.

I think we need to be taking three kinds of actions now:

  • Strategic investment to reduce carbon consumption without deprivation (the low hanging fruit that simply substitutes greener technologies without larger life-style implications (eg a Prius)). Given the graph above, society needs to do this substitution fast enough to prevent an increase in the overall rate of carbon consumption.
  • Make long term choices that do not compound the problem by bringing forward high-carbon assumptions. The building patterns we establish now will be with us for 50+ years and need to be tailored to future less consumptive patterns. (see South of Downtown Moscow).  This also impacts how we design our aid for others (NYTimes login required).
  • Start playing with resurrecting knowledge and lifestyles from low carbon cultures (existing and historic) and understanding the technical requirements and social changes required to implement them today (see for example my experiments with a mud oven).

(Ending to this post rewritten 6/29.)



2 Responses to “What to do now about climate change”

  1. Next Steps in Finding My Role « One small step for man Says:

    […] Community sustainability in the face of the multiple challenges we face is my broad answer [see What now about climate change]. These interests are probably a circle that connects to or encompasses the focus of the University […]

  2. Reflection on a Real Hero’s Questions « One small step for man Says:

    […] in June I wrote this summary of my thinking about what to do now about climate change. I think it is a description of my own […]

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