By Hildur Palsdottir
The blue sky above seems to stretch into infinity, but our atmosphere is really a fragile film, thin like an apple’s peel. To power our modern lifestyle we’ve polluted the skies with an excess of heat-trapping gases responsible for global warming.
The burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) emits carbon dioxide that’s now consistently measured above 410 ppm, the highest it’s been in over 2 million years. Experts warn that if we continue “business as usual,” we’ll hit 500 ppm by mid-century and that will be felt as 3 or more degrees Celsius (C) warming of average global temperature with amplification of already rising sea levels, disruption of food supply, mass migrations and extreme weather events.
You may wonder why a few degrees present such a problem? A couple of degrees may not sound like a lot, but can decide between life and death. The human body only functions within a narrow range of temperatures. At phase transition, it only takes a degree to melt ice into water. More than 2 degree warming threatens sensitive ecosystems, including the melting of polar ice caps, resulting in feedback loops of unknown and at worst catastrophic consequences.
According to the latest United Nations report, in the worst-case scenario, emissions will steadily increase from 50 Gigatons (Gt) annually to 125 Gt by 2100, resulting in more than 4.5 degrees C of warming. To manage emissions, we must know how to measure them. A carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions we release with our actions per year as measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. According to the Nature Conservancy, an average American has an annual carbon footprint of 16 tons, while the global average is at about 4 tons. Experts agree that we need to be aiming for a carbon footprint of less than 2 tons per person to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming.
The decisions we make daily already affect the lives of many. Unfortunately, those least responsible for emissions are worst affected in a changing climate. Lower income communities can’t afford energy intense lifestyles and have smaller carbon footprints. Wealthy citizens are typically frequent flyers who heat and/or cool large homes and drive large cars, with resulting emissions causing a rise in sea level that is now threatening entire countries. The low-lying Pacific nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall islands, are already partly underwater and at risk of losing their land completely as a consequence of climate change.
Have you considered how your daily activities are driving climate change? Transition Town Port Washington (TTPW) partnered with Communities United to Reduce Emissions 100 percent (CURE100, https://cure100.org) to make a Carbon Tracker application available to our community so that you can at no cost calculate your carbon footprint. On this website https://www.transitiontownpw.org/ttpw100, you’ll find a recorded presentation hosted by TTPW and the Port Washington Public Library where the co-founder of Cure100, Chandu Visweswariah, explains why and how to use the Carbon Tracker. Chandu reported that the average Port Washington household has an annual carbon footprint of 60 tons.
The Carbon Tracker gives us an easy to use tool to calculate our contribution and make realistic goals towards reducing our carbon footprint. It also gives us suggestions on how to decarbonize. In my home, we installed solar panels a few years ago and reduced our emissions by 10.4 tons per year, equal to planting 157 trees or 23,000 miles not driven. In addition, steps to effectively reduce your footprint include a plant-based diet (eat less meat), driving electric/hybrid, transitioning to heat pumps, and reducing air travel. But don’t get stuck in navel gazing, make sure you communicate your climate concerns with your community and especially your legislators.
In the podcast “How to Save a Planet: Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?,” activist and author Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson states the main drivers of human-caused climate change include electricity generation (25%), agriculture and improper land use (24%), industry (20%), and transportation (15%). What these sectors have in common is they all rely on fossil fuel combustion.
How do we break free from fossil fuel dependency? The most hopeful action you can take today is to support the transition towards clean energy sources; solar, wind, waves, and geothermal. Independent economic consulting firms and academic research teams all agree that clean energy development would not just create millions of jobs, but also boost the economy with long-term benefits.
What are we waiting for? If we decarbonize the power grid, our existential problems would be largely solved. The technology is already here and renewable energy is now more affordable than ever. What’s holding us back is that we’re stuck in a gridlock by the fossil fuel industry that still dominates the energy sector.
According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the great majority of Americans are “concerned” or “alarmed” about the consequences of climate change and ready for action, while less than 10 percent are still in denial. This is great news given the large scale systemic transition asked of us.
We need political leadership to implement the needed changes in our energy infrastructure. To review New York’s nation-leading climate targets in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act visit https://climate.ny.gov. Call your local legislators and follow up on these goals. Stress the urgency of decarbonizing the power grid both locally and nationwide. For a script that may be helpful when conversing with your members of Congress visit https://call4climate.com/.
We must — and we can — collectively commit to a path towards zero emissions, while restoring health to living ecosystems that support natural carbon sequestration.