Sunday, April 15, 2007

I went to a neighbourhood meeting on climate change yesterday. It was part of the national "Step It Up 2007" program, which saw over 1400 events around the country designed to teach people about climate change and hopefully get the U.S Congress to notice and increase their efforts to curb our impact on our environment. Here's what I wrote for the site afterwards.

About 20-25 people came to the church to hear three speakers, each of whom spoke for 15-20 minutes. Deacon Steve started with a message putting the issue into a moral framework; the "stewardship" approach that has thankfully taken hold in so many churches around the nation.

Next up was Associate Professor Bill O'Brien (Environmental Studies) who took us through the science. He emphasised the scientific consensus and how long it had taken to reach that. He described the IPCC process and how cautious the scientific establishment is about announcing large-scale findings. A simplified description of "radiative forcings" followed and a quick tour of several graphs, and a good look at different explanations for global temperature rise and why each was discarded, leaving human-driven climate change as the only explanation that fit all the data.

He also looked at a couple of the lingering questions that still get raised sometimes: discrepancies in data sets that were not eliminated until quite recently, such a satellite and weather ballon temperature readings that showed cooling instead of warming (in case you didn't know, it was design differences or calibration problems).

Graduate Rob Bates took the stage next to give a summary of what we could all do to help reduce our carbon footprints. He drew on the "Low Carbon Diet" book by Dave Gershon to give us a list of what we could do and a handout summarizing it was passed out.

Questions from the audience followed and it was a very interesting session. Almost all the questions were of the "but what about X" variety, where X was another possible explanation for increases in global temperature. X included volcanic activity and a warmer sun (Mars is warming slightly). There was also some mistrust of the UN (an "anti United States organization", and more than one question asking where the debate was; that the presentation seemed very one sided.

The questions were all answered well, I thought and the questioners were not aggressive; they were, shall I say, "skeptically curious", and rightly so. There's a lot of information to absorb and if a scientific body pokes it head out and says "we've discussed this since 1990 and yes, we all have to change, hard, now" then not everybody was ready to hear all the information at once. One gentleman asked what global warming actually was - just a 1 degree rise in temperature didn't seem much to worry about. The answer given was that climate change could be seen as an instability in the climate, making the future unpredictable - this is bad in a world of 6 to 9 billion people mostly depending on things to stay much as they are.

I commented privately to Prof. O'Brien that he seemed to stay away from the "catastrophe" scenarios - the melting Russian permafrost, the frozen methane on the Arctic ocean floor, the stopped Gulf Stream. He said that was on purpose, given that you didn't want to terrify people into acting (or worse, into NOT acting), and I agreed.

One suggestion I'd make to Rob is in his list of things we can do at home. He mixed the easy steps with some rather extreme ones (ride bikes to work, don't dry clothes with a dryer). Although he prefaced each of those with a "if you're really keen, you could...", I think it would've been better to just list the easy steps (change to CF bulbs, turn off lights when you leave room, raise a/c temperature when you're out and at home by as much as you can stand) and *then* move on to intermediate steps and then, if time allowed, some "hairshirt" steps for the hardcore carbon reducers. Give the overall light tone of the event, I think just the easy steps would have sufficed, but their mention was a little diluted by the "heavy" stuff.

Overall, a very good event and hopefully one that will have ripple effects in that church and its congregation.

I've done some of the easy stuff at home; I changed most of my light bulbs to compact flourescents and rearranged my PCs so that the main one is switched off most of the time. I also signed up for the power companies "Green Power" program and bought carbon offsets for the house and car from If you have room in your budget (probably around $10 a month) why not call your power company or look on their website for a green power program, or purchase carbon offsets. The more people reduce carbon emissions, the better off our children and grand-children will be.

If you still need convincing, please take a look at this FAQ. It's a good explanation of the questions raised by climate skeptics and why they are wrong.

And no, you don't have to ride your bike to work, or leave the a/c off in the summer :)


Daniel Bowen said...

Interesting to hear about this from the other side of the ocean. It's got a lot of momentum in some countries, since the Stern report etc.

I find it interesting that you flag "not using a clothes dryer" as hard/extreme... I suppose it depends on the climate, but I find this really easy, especially given the lack of rain recently, and use of one clothes line that's undercover (with the bulk of them not undercover).

Some things, like driving more efficient cars, and using energy-efficient bulbs, should be no-brainers because of the financial benefits, but of course some people will continue to hold out on these.

Be interested to know what the mix on US household emissions is: I covered the AU figures recently here:

Brian said...

Good call, Daniel, on the clothes dryer. When I lived in Oz 6-7 years ago it was pretty rare to have a dryer, perhaps its still unusual. But in the US everyone uses a dryer. I've not seen a single clothesline here - perhaps that's something that will need to change in the coming years, though this is a society that changes slowly.

The bulbs are easy, of course, but changing your car doesn't happen often :) I hope, though, as people come to the point where they need to change cars, they'll put gas mileage and/or emissions at the top of the list of criteria.

Not sure about the emissions levels of houses, but at the meeting they said the average house does 38000 pounds of CO2 per year, with a/c and heating being the highest power drain. Oh, and packaging of the stuff we buy and toss out. These both seem like fairly simple things to reduce.

Thanks for the comment Daniel :)