Archive for the 'Greenhouse gases' Category

We Have ALL Lost

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

 

Back in January, 2008 the Durango (Colorado) Herald published a unique challenge: “I offer a public wager of $5,000 that the Earth will be cooler in 10 years.” Dr. Roger Cohen, a physicist, proposed this wager.

I responded, and our bet started the next month. Cohen’s rules were reasonable, however, I am a Quaker. Members of the Religious Society of Friends are admonished to not bet, so I countered with a different structure. Each of us would donate $5000 to Durango Nature Studies, and the money would be held in escrow until the bet was over. We also agreed that the decision would be made by averaging the data for three years rather than by comparing 2007 with 2017.

After agreeing on the rules we each pulled out our checkbooks and wrote checks. We realized that neither of us would profit from the bet; we would just get “bragging rights”. The Herald ran an article that February: “I think part of Roger’s goal was to keep the issue of global warming in the public mind.…”

I was curious to know just what Dr. Cohen was thinking. I knew that he had been Manager of Strategic Planning at Exxon—which led me to believe that he must be quite intelligent. When we got together for an amiable lunch I asked him what he really felt about climate change. His answer surprised me: the true reason that he wrote the challenge was that he wanted people to really think about climate change and to question the media. I asked if he thought any of the climate change could be anthropogenic. His reply, as I remember, was that yes, maybe about a third was human caused. In private Cohen did not seem so sanguine about denying climate change.

The Herald printed an update in 2015. “We’ve all lost” ran the headline, accurately quoting me. It stated that Dr. Cohen had conceded that he had lost the bet because the climate was, indeed, warmer than in 2007. This implied that I had won the wager. My response: ‘Grossman, learning of the news, was not the least bit pleased or boastful. “I don’t think I’ve won,” he said. “I think I lost. I think we’ve all lost.”’ Indeed, climate change is probably the worst challenge that all life will face this century.

In correspondence with me after that 2015 article came out, Cohen clarified what he really said—that the climate’s temperature only appears to have increased because the deciding database had changed. We had agreed to use the British climate database, HadCRUT3, but it was replaced by HadCRUT4.

The HadCRUT data are available for public viewing on Internet, and they confirm what anyone who reads the news already knows. Climate is warming. The amount of warming is small in the ten years of our wager, but significant. The average of the 3 years at the end of the bet is +0.231° Celsius hotter than a decade earlier. This may not seem like much, but if this trend continues it means that the climate will be almost 2 degrees Celsius hotter in a person’s lifetime. That’s over 3° Fahrenheit!

Here we are at the beginning of 2018. A decade has passed since Cohen wrote his challenge, and sadly he is no longer with us. He died of a brain tumor in September, 2016. I would have loved to have asked him questions about the wager, but there are some things that we will never know.

Perhaps my biggest question is a seeming inconsistency between a document that Dr. Cohen wrote in 1981 and his wager that the climate was not heating up. Back then he was a scientist at Exxon and was asked to criticize a report another person had written. Cohen felt that the other person was too optimistic about climate change: “…it is distinctly possible that the CPD scenario will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).” CPD probably meant “Continued Product Development”.

Later in this same document he wrote that future data gathering and science “…may provide strong evidence for a delayed CO2 effect of a truly substantial magnitude….”

With the temperature rising, we can consider Earth as having a fever. We have overwhelmed the planet’s ability to deal with our carbon waste emissions. Unfortunately, the fever is a symptom of the illness of overpopulation and over consumption. We must do what we can to limit these for the sake of our grandchildren.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2018

Compare Climate Change Strategies

Monday, November 6th, 2017

 

Recently I asked some authorities on climate change: “what is the most effective way of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions?” They gave stock answers about decreasing consumption. “If you were my students, your grades would all be D’s” was my response.

They are, unfortunately, not alone. A recent study listed the 4 most effective activities that people can do to decrease their emissions. Three of them are what you might expect, while the most effective one—by far—might be unexpected.

The measure used by the authors of this article is tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year. The average person in the USA causes about 16 tonnes of CO2 to be released annually. (a tonne is a metric ton; roughly equal to our ton of 2000 pounds) Here are the 4, listed from least to most effective.

Eat a plant-based diet. This has health benefits as well as aiding the environment. It is clear that eating meat, especially red meat, is bad for your health. The effects on the world around us are also negative—excessive use of water, sewage lagoons that pollute ground water and dead zones in the ocean from animal waste. An individual’s annual saving by avoiding meat is almost a tonne.

Our transportation system depends on fossil fuels, which generate CO2 when used. It makes sense that avoiding air travel and not driving a car would decrease carbon emissions. Giving up both air travel and your car would keep 4 tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Buying “green” electricity is quite effective, and is inexpensive—thanks to our electrical cooperative. Switching from power produced with coal to renewable sources prevents 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions—and makes our air healthier.

The most effective thing that an individual can do to reduce his or her carbon footprint is to have one fewer child. The effect is strong because of the “carbon legacy” of a child born in a rich country. The carbon footprint of the individual child is significant, but the legacy of all that person’s progeny (who will go on for many generations) is huge. A child not conceived reduces a person’s carbon footprint by 58 tonnes! Yes, the one best action an individual can take to reduce his or her carbon footprint is to choose to have a small family—or no children at all.

Unfortunately, most people who study, write and teach about greenhouse gas reduction don’t consider the impact of childbearing. The authors of the paper mentioned above also studied governmental recommendations to reduce emissions from the EU, the USA, Australia and Canada. Not surprising, they found that the recommendations all focused on less effective actions.

Likewise, the paper examined the content of science textbooks. They searched several textbooks used in Canada for suggestions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Very few of the recommendations were for the 4 most effective actions named above.

To quote from this paper: “It is especially important that adolescents are prepared for this shift [to reduce carbon emissions]. They still have the freedom to make large behavioural choices that will structure the rest of their lives, and must grow up accustomed to a lifestyle that approaches the 2.1 tonnes per person annual emissions budget necessary by 2050 to meet the 2 ° C climate target.” They went on to write: “Furthermore, adolescents can act as a catalyst to change their households behaviour.”

They also compared less effective and highly effective interventions: “…a US family who chooses to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who choose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives.” The paper concludes: “Some high-impact actions may be politically unpopular, but this does not justify a focus on moderate or low-impact actions at the expense of high-impact actions.

I hope that the importance of childbearing gets across at the Climate Change Symposium to be held Thursday afternoon, November 9th. This Symposium will be a new venture for Fort Lewis College Lifelong Learning programs. It will feature 5 outstanding experts speaking on a topic of major importance. The keynote speaker is internationally known scientist Kevin Ternberth.

The Symposium is now history for most people reading this. I hope that the importance of population growth has been driven home by the article by Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas that I used as the basis for this column. It is “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions” and can be found at: https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541

© Richard Grossman MD, 2017

 

Terminate Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

Craig Generating Station, Craig, Colorado

            During a break at a renewable energy meeting sponsored by LPEA (our electrical co-op) several years ago, a friend and I discussed the pros and cons of generating power with coal. She said that she would favor renewable generation of our energy if it didn’t require subsidies.

We both are plagued by asthma and carry expensive inhalers to use if we have trouble catching our breath. My friend admitted that our air would be better if we weren’t downwind from coal burning power plants. However, it bothered her that some of the taxes she paid went to support a photovoltaic manufacturer that had recently declared bankruptcy.

She expressed surprise when I told her that fossil fuel companies also received tax support. Indeed, subsidies for fossil fuels are more than 5 times larger than subsidies for renewable energy! Worldwide subsidies cost an astounding $444 Billion. In the USA $24 Billion in taxes go to fossil fuel subsidies. That is more than $73 of our tax money for each American, every year!

But subsidies are not the only cost we pay to support the fossil fuel industries, which include coal, oil and natural gas. Burning fossil fuels also costs us all because they are one of the largest causes of climate change—but even that is not the most immediate cost. The most serious cost of fossil fuels is to our health.

It is estimated that 91,045 people die annually as a direct result of air pollution in the USA. In addition, air pollution increases the number of people who suffer from emphysema, heart attacks and strokes—and asthma. Figures from the World Health Organization state that 36% of lung disease deaths, 27% of deaths from heart disease and 34% deaths from strokes are caused by air pollution. That is a huge toll—much larger, but more insidious, than the death rate from terrorism.

What does this have to do with population? My goal is for people to be healthy and to have healthy children. Ideally children should be planned, loved and well cared for. This means that we need to keep our planet healthy, too. Access to voluntary contraception is one of the best ways of assuring these goals. It is also important to minimize our impact on the planet, for our children’s sake.

When people think that they are saving money by having inexpensive electricity, they don’t know the true cost of their power. What is on the bill from LPEA is only a small fraction of the real cost. It is estimated that health care necessitated by the air pollution from fossil fuel-generated power costs over 9 times what we pay the power company! The rate LPEA charges is 12.56¢ per kilowatt-hour. Therefore, the true rate is $1.14 per kilowatt-hour if you include the cost of health care necessitated by air pollution from conventional power sources.

What does this mean to our country? If you look at the period from 2007 to 2015, during which there was rapid growth of solar and wind generation, almost 8000 lives were saved by not generating electricity with fossil fuel. About $70 billion in health care costs was saved by this renewable energy rather than business as usual.

In addition to more immediate health costs, climate change is already causing damage through storms, forest fires and other destruction. It is difficult to put a value on money saved by averting greenhouse gas emissions, however the value of keeping 1 metric ton of CO2 out of the atmosphere is in the range of $35. The savings from slowing climate change in this 8-year period of increasing wind and solar is estimated to be $56 Billion!

Only about 7% of our nation’s “juice” currently comes from wind and solar. Think what a difference it would make to our health if 20% or even 50% of all the electricity used in the country came from renewables. A first step is to get rid of subsidies to the unhealthy fossil fuel industries.

I agree with what Davin Montoya, board president of LPEA, wrote last year: “In fact I think the entire board supports renewable energy; but it should be done in a responsible way. I will only support a program that benefits the entire membership not a select few.” My conclusion, knowing the hazards of air pollution from burning coal to generate electricity, is different from Montoya’s. Renewable energy benefits us all in helping us to be healthier and to spend less on medical care.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2017

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.