A Visit to 8 Percent in the Midst of Emergency

It has been one month since Bill McKibben's article, “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math” was published in Rolling Stone, and we became activated to do something about this emergency of climate change that life on Earth faces... Something, that is, other than what we'd already been doing, which was to make an example of our home and our lives, showing how to live joyfully, simply, and harmoniously, to have low impact.

As you know, we've decided to walk. What else can we do? We can't go on living our daily lives and pretending that some unseen butler is going to sweep away the mess when we naughty children are done playing with our coal and our petrol engines.

We are in good spirits, for the most part. We are eager to see the beautiful, steel-tired 38” Amish-made wagon wheels that we ordered for our covered Chuck Wagon of Doom, which we will pull like a rickshaw as we walk along. There is some support and encouragement coming from you who read these articles, and the good folks at the Possibility Alliance are hosting the second delivery of our presentation this Wednesday, August 22. They will also be helping us find our way on our journey, introducing us to their far-flung network of friends and contacts throughout the U.S.

Still, there are many paradoxes in this life, now. We close up the projects around our house half-finished, we gift away our waterfowl/foodsources, we consider that the maps show this area will be a desert within our lifetime -- within a decade, maybe, unless we (and others) are successful. Perhaps we were foolish to station here? We hoped we had time to offer an alternative lifestyle example to others. You don't know until you know. And, the end of summer whimpers itself away, the leaves on the trees half-fallen already, the temperatures so fine now, but a missing quotient of life is obvious if you look closely.

Then there are the many people we meet who are disbelieving, who laugh at us, who read bogus science, who think that climate change is a conspiracy amongst climatologists to somehow squeeze money out of carbon taxes that the Republican leadership in this country would make you cross their dead bodies to see.

Yet, there is some good news concerning U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide being reported this week, though you hafta kinda make a picture frame with your fingers to see it. Domestic CO2 emissions fell by almost 8% in the first quarter of 2012.

That is really neat. In fact, U.S. emissions have generally decreased since 2006, and the period from 2006-2012 has seen about an 8% decrease over our peak emissions level in 2005. The EPA (should Obama be re-elected) is scheduled to begin fully enforcing reductions by 2015, and we are on track to meet the Obama administration's pledge of reducing CO2 by 17% by 2020.

If only that were the end of the story. It's not. The context does dim the glow.

First, lest anyone is confused, global emissions of CO2 have risen every year – and the amount by which they have risen has increased every year. In other words, global CO2 emissions are increasing exponentially.

It is true that the U.S. has reduced its carbon emissions more than any other nation, in recent years. However, at the same time, the portion of China's emissions that are directly due to the manufacture of products for U.S. import has increased every year. So, our economy is effectively sending our dirty work offshore to China. China is not manufacturing these things for its own people. If those carbon emissions were added to our domestic total, U.S. emissions would be increasing, not decreasing.

Second, the decrease in domestic emissions is due to market forces: the cost of currently abundant natural gas has dropped from $8 to $3 per unit, making it a cheaper energy source than coal, wind, solar, and perhaps even hydro-power.

 Natural gas is still a fossil fuel, albeit cleaner than coal, in terms of emissions. However , in the “fracking” process to liberate natural gas, water and sand are forced at very high pressure into the same shale-rock formations where CO2 is being sequestered underground, capped by the rock that may or may not be fractured. Whether this is a stable arrangement in the long-term is an open question. For now, though, it is encouraging that electric companies are moving en masse away from coal to natural gas, even if natural gas is driving wind farms out of business.

The most troubling context for the U.S. decrease in CO2 emissions comes, once again, from Professors Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, of the University of Manchester. They have done an analysis of necessary reductions to worldwide carbon emission pathways, backcasting from a cumulative carbon budget that the world must stick to, if we have any hope of avoiding catastrophic temperatures.

By their reckoning, starting no later than 2015, the U.S. has to decrease its emissions by 8% a year, as do other developed, high-emissions countries, like Canada and Australia. This has to be done in tight coordination with countries that are developing their industry, like China and India, who have to make a similar decrease by 2020.

We are, therefore, generally off-target by a factor of 7. Our emissions reductions, while impressive to some degree, are not nearly enough. This is not surprising, because, although industry may be changing to a cleaner fuel, we as consumers are not really making different life choices about how we heat our homes, how and where and when we drive, what plane trips we take, what we expect to have delivered to us.

But then, there is this news about the first quarter of 2012. If that plays out the rest of this year in a similar trend, that would be a 8% reduction in one year. Well... remember that this past winter and spring were unseasonably mild, with very little snowfall. Part of the reduction accomplishment is due to the unusually small amount of fuel consumed in maintaining our internal environments. The figures aren't in for summer 2012, but it is hard to imagine that we stayed on track for an 8% reduction in 2012 as we endured the hottest temperatures on record, and the electrical demand to power indoor climate control was such that New York City, for instance, had to shut down its grid on at least one occasion, so it wouldn't be damaged by excessive draw.

We see that we can do it, though. (Sort of. There is that Chinese import issue.) We can, in fact, put a muzzle on our carbon pollution in this country, so that – even if only for a few months – we were able to point our ship of state toward the only (somewhat) safe port that's left it, on the wild coast of dangerous climate change.