Compare Climate Change Strategies

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

 

Caring for Mothers and Babies

October 22nd, 2017

I’m retired now, but one of the parts of my profession that I liked the most was delivering a healthy baby, giving the baby to the mother and then watching the new mom hold and love the new life. I miss that, although I must say that I like to sleep all night without having to wake up for a delivery!

This picture is not recent, but I like it because the people are special to me. The new mom was born breech in the middle of a very foggy night in January; the baby was born exactly 18 years later–on the mother’s birthday! I am still in touch with mother and son, and both are doing well.

It has been a privilege to be with people at the special time of birth. I am concerned, however, that the babies that I have helped birth will know a world that is very different from the world I have enjoyed. My goal is to do my best to help them and all people to be happy and healthy–the same goal as I had for the 40+ years that I practiced medicine.

Richard

Terminate Fossil Fuel Subsidies

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.