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A New Shade of Green

By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Can Americans Be Green?

Uploaded: Feb 9, 2019
If you think the online comments in this paper can get snarky, you should read some of the popular climate authors. For example: “Rich people emit more carbon, even when they recycle and buy canvas tote bags full of organic veggies.” (1) Reading about climate is hard enough without the smack talk.

But the statement is essentially true. Historically the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions have come from wealthy countries. (2) And even today, the wealthiest 10% in the world generate 50% of emissions, while the poorest 50% generate only 10% of emissions. (3) Which begs the question: Can Americans be green?

There are basically two schools of thought on that: Yes and No. To add a bit more context… The “Yes” school of thought says it is perfectly possible for us to be green, because we are increasingly decoupling lifestyle from emissions. Technologies like electric vehicles and renewable energy and bio-engineered meat are here now, and many more are on the way. With the wealthy as early and eager adopters, emissions will get to where they need to be without much change in lifestyle needed. The “No” camp, on the other hand, refers to this as “magical thinking”, and warns that emissions are too pervasive and heterogeneous to be waved away by a technical magic wand. We are under too much time pressure to wait for new innovations, let alone proven ones without unintended consequences. Hope is not a strategy. Hair shirts all around, and Cut. Back. Now.

Not that there’s any real disagreement or anything...

My two cents: Of course Americans can be green, and even spectacularly green. But it helps to be smart about where we put our “green” effort, and we should extend a hand to others.

On that first part, our efforts to be planet-friendly are not always effective. As David Roberts of Vox puts it: “Study after study finds that the primary determinant of a person’s actual ecological footprint is income. After that is geography (rural versus urban), various socioeconomic indicators (age, education level, etc.), and household size. Self-identification as “green” is toward the bottom of the list, with mostly marginal effects.” (1)

That is easy enough to change. You can be (really, truly) green by focusing on just a few things: gas-powered car travel, air travel, diet (especially beef consumption), and home heating. Some may be easier to lower than others, but they are all significant. To simplify and magnify your emission reductions, tackle those things first.

But there’s also a next step. As Naomi Klein writes: “Plenty of people are attempting to change their daily lives in ways that do reduce consumption. But if these sorts of demand-side emissions reductions are to take place on anything like the scale required, they cannot be left to the lifestyle decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons and wearing upcycled clothing. We will need comprehensive policies and programs that make low-carbon choices easy and convenient for everyone.” (4)

So, in between contemplating your home heating, think about how to amplify your impact. Vote! Donate. Advocate at work. Talk with your neighbors. Realign your investments. Lobby your politicians. Whatever you can figure out.

Kermit was right -- it’s not easy being green. Especially in this area, where carbon-intensive activities are often taken for granted, be it how we live, vacation, raise our kids, or even feed our dogs (5). It can feel complicated and stressful. But if you are able to reduce just the top four or five sources of emissions to near zero, it will have a tremendous impact. And you don’t have to do it all at once. I haven’t figured out how to swap our home heating to electric yet, so I’ve adjusted the thermostat and will learn about my options. I’m not sure what to do about flights, besides offsetting. But I’m thinking about it, and will do better next year.

And that’s okay. The point is, anyone can make a real start at this -- American or not, rich or poor -- and keep at it. This blog is called “A New Shade of Green” in part because “green” needs to lose its sense of being an optional do-gooder luxury, and become more a mundane part of everyone’s life. Maybe it helps to think of it as being about planetary health. Or population safety. Or good citizenship. Maybe for you it’s all of the above. One thing it is, for sure, is doable.

Coming up next week: All about methane

References and notes

1. A 2017 article in Vox by David Roberts: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/12/1/16718844/green-consumers-climate-change

2. Over half the historical emissions (through 2011) have come from the US and EU: https://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/6-graphs-explain-world-s-top-10-emitters Today, developing nations, especially China, are having more of an impact, though the US and EU continue to be among the top few contributors.

3. A 2015 Oxfam report on carbon inequality: https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2015-12-02/worlds-richest-10-produce-half-carbon-emissions-while-poorest-35

4. Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”, chapter 2. https://thischangeseverything.org/book

5. Pet food has a surprisingly large (and growing) footprint. As always, there are many good options to reduce the emissions, starting with local sourcing, not overfeeding, and avoiding beef and lamb. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jun/26/pet-food-is-an-environmental-disaster-are-vegan-dogs-the-answer

Comment guidelines

I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines, or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
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Comments

 +   8 people like this
Posted by Lecture us not, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 11:36 am

Love how we have another [portion removed] homologue lecturing us on how we should or shouldn't be living our lives, so that we can confrm to their ideas on how everyone should be. [portion removed] And BTW, I know that climate change is an issue- I do what I can, but I do not need someone telling me what to do.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 11:47 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Lecture us not -- Thanks for the comment. Ugh, I am trying to avoid lecturing -- who am I to lecture?? -- and I rewrote this a few times to try to get away from that. But I get how it can come across that way. The blogs will be pretty varied, so I hope you'll still find something of interest if you keep reading.


 +   9 people like this
Posted by California leads the way, a resident of The Greenhouse,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 12:01 pm

Sherry - imo, your blog does not 'lecture'. [portion removed]


 +   6 people like this
Posted by Lecture us not, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 12:15 pm

California leads the way- unfortunately sherry removed my comment where I said that I understand that climate change is real. [portion removed]
My point was that we are constantly being lectured in Palo Alto on how we should be living [portion removed]


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 12:29 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Lecture us not -- sorry about the editing, still getting the hang of it. I put back that portion, intended only to remove the more ad hominem pieces.

I hope I don't have to moderate much(!) Just as a reminder to everyone, here are the guidelines:

I hope that your contributions will be an important part of this blog. To keep the discussion productive, please adhere to these guidelines, or your comment may be moderated:
- Avoid disrespectful, disparaging, snide, angry, or ad hominem comments.
- Stay fact-based, and provide references (esp links) as helpful.
- Stay on topic.
- In general, maintain this as a welcoming space for all readers.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 4:46 pm

Neal is a registered user.

Yes, Americans can be green. As our population increases, so does the demand for electricity. Solar and wind power are barely keeping up with increasing demand and they are not capable of functioning 24/7. We have to embrace the use of nuclear power. Where else can we produce huge amounts of reliable electricity with zero green house gases?Some people think it's too risky, but, if the consequences of global warming is as dire as the experts claim, then we should accept the relatively small risks associated with nuclear power. The disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima have turned people against nuclear power, but, consider this. The exclusion zones around these former nuclear power plants encompass about 2,000 square miles. The predicted catastrophic effects of global warming will harm the entire surface of the planet, approximately 196,900,000 square miles. Take your pick.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 7:46 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Neal -- great comment. There is indeed a lot of debate about nuclear, and you raise an interesting question about how to compare risks.

One minor thing to note is that retail (utility) electricity demand has flattened over the last ten years. See graph here: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/images/charts/electricity-generation-by-major-energy-source.png. You would think it would go up due to more demand (e.g., more EVs, more AC due to hotter summers, etc), but there are downward pressures from increased efficiency, increased extra-utility solar, and outsourcing of some heavy industry. So it's not clear how the trend is going to evolve.

Given that, there are definitely people who say wind/solar can keep up, esp since nuclear plants take much longer to establish. (I think I saw a stat of 30 years, which is very long given our push to decrease emissions significantly by 2030.)

So, lots of factors to consider. Great topic for a future blog!


 +   5 people like this
Posted by California leads the way, a resident of The Greenhouse,
on Feb 10, 2019 at 8:42 pm

> Solar and wind power are barely keeping up with increasing demand

Not what I've seen. Do you have a link?

> Some people think it's too risky

Yes, there is risk with nukes, but they have two bigger problems: long term waste (and it's own risks) and COST. Nukes are brutally expensive.


 +   6 people like this
Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Feb 11, 2019 at 2:35 pm

Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford has shown that the world can be powered by wind solar and water: Web Link. and we don't need nuclear power to combat climate change: Web Link. As was mentioned above, the waste and cost issues just have not been addressed add to this the long lead time and we are wasting time moving forward now with less expensive solar and wind.


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Sharon Boots, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 11, 2019 at 3:09 pm

PG&E can't even afford to shut down Diablo Canyon.

Prohibitive shutdown costs on top of ridiculous building costs. What was the last nuclear plant finished? Plus storage of the most poisonous substance on Earth....


 +   4 people like this
Posted by Anon, a resident of Stanford,
on Feb 12, 2019 at 12:23 pm

@Neal, a few comments to your thoughts.

Population increase does not always correlate to a higher demand for energy, or higher carbon emissions.

For example Berkeley's community-wide greenhouse gas emissions are 15% below 2000 baseline levels, despite a population increase of approximately 18% in that same time period.

San José has the potential become the first city in the world to produce 1 gigawatt of solar. California is well-suited to meeting its full energy needs through renewables (local solar and wind) without the need for nuclear.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Randy D, a resident of Stierlin Estates,
on Feb 15, 2019 at 9:30 pm

It does not really matter if "Americans can be green", since most of the world's population could care less about being green. Further, frankly, and sadly, even if the whole world were "green" (about as likely as the Earth colliding with another planet :-), it would not matter. Given the population growth, we are doomed....


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Almanac Online blogger,
on Feb 16, 2019 at 10:25 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Randy, ack, I don't think it's true (at all) that most people don't care. In fact, polls show that the majority of Americans are either alarmed or concerned about global warming (http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-are-increasingly-alarmed-about-global-warming/). And around the world, nearly every country has signed on to the Paris Agreement, which is a commitment to reduce emissions. And it's not just empty promises. The UK has reduced its emissions by 38% since 1990. And there are many other signs of commitment worldwide.

The crazy thing is, we know what we need to do, we just need to get going. In the US, some states are making a great start, particularly after the recent election. There's a nice writeup here with some examples: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/1/31/18204898/climate-change-policy-governors-oregon-colorado

There are many, many reasons to be optimistic, and to work towards a better future. That is the long tradition of America, right? But it doesn't "just happen" -- we all need to chip in.

With regard to population, there are a few things to be aware of. One is that population is largely growing in areas that are already low-carbon, so the impact is not as bad as it could be. Second is that education of women and girls, and making family planning available for those who want it, will go a long way towards addressing population growth.

We are far from doomed. In fact, we could turn things around today if we all got together and decided to do that. It's great that you are engaging, and I expect if you keep it up, you'll find a number of things you can do to help out...



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