Thursday, October 18, 2007

Defining Climate

The scientists, the experts on climate, they are doing their best to explain.

Over and over they call news conferences, stand in front of the cameras and speak into the microphones. They state with all the clarity and import they can muster that in the next century the global temperature will increase by at least 6 degrees Fahrenheit (When reading science papers, don’t forget it’s all metric) . Then they survey the reporters, expecting to see shock and fear.

Instead the reporters wait, pencils in hand, for the newsworthy part.

A few degrees of temperature increase just doesn’t sound all that impressive. When most people, including reporters, try to understand what a 6° rise in temperature means, they imagine the difference between a 60° day and a 66° day. Logically enough, they conclude so what?

The mistake they’re making is they’re thinking in terms of “weather,” rather than “climate.” Weather is the temporary atmospheric details of your local area. “The weather is rainy,” versus ”the weather is dry.” The difference between a rainy day and a dry one impacts you only in terms of whether you decide to bring an umbrella or not.

However if you change those sentences to ‘the climate is rainy,’ or ‘the climate is dry,’ you begin to understand. The difference between these two sentences encompasses the difference between a Florida swamp and Sub-Saharan Africa. Climate is the average weather conditions in an area over a long time, hundreds or thousands of years. And as scientists are increasingly discovering, the many aspects of climate –temperature, rain, wind, heat, etc.– are all so intertwined, that if you shift one aspect a little, a lot of others shift accordingly.

So if you want to understand why the scientists are so alarmed about global warming, instead of imagining the weather of a 60° day shifting into a 66° day, picture the average temperature of the world’s climate shifting. Let’s start with a small shift, say from 60° to 61°. That’s not such a hard example to imagine because up until the last few decades, the global atmospheric temperature of this planet we call home was 59°, quite close to 60°.

It’s important to note first off, not only is the average of 59° relatively comfortable for the planet’s residents as a whole, but perhaps even more importantly, this average has been extremely stable. If you don’t count the last few decades, it’s been 10,000 years since there’s been even two degrees of fluctuation in the temperature. With global conditions this consistent, regional conditions tend to be more consistent also: the range of temperature, the date of the first frost, etc. In the midst of such long-term stability, species can adapt better to the local conditions. Evolutionarily, they snuggle their butts into the stable couch of their local climate and get comfy. Increasingly well-designed for the particularities of their climate, they flourish.

But after 10,000 years, we humans invented the smokestack and tailpipe. We began to spew carbon into the atmosphere at an increasing speed, tucking a blanket of smog in around the planet’s neck, warming the world up a little more than one degree. What harm could a little change like that do?

First, logically enough, the increased heat means increased evaporation. In the hotter air, the soil dries out just a little faster; the water is sucked up into the air, into the clouds. Globally, the frequency and intensity of droughts have been increasing, as well as the frequency and intensity of rain.

Second, if you think of heat the way a physicist would, you understand we aren’t just warming up the world, but we’re ‘increasing the energy in the system.’ Remember your high-school physics textbook, all those diagrams of air molecules bopping around. Picture them heated up a fraction more, bouncing around a little more frantically. When you think of an entire planet worth of molecules, you begin to get an idea of how much energy we’ve pumped into the system. That energy needs to get released somehow.

The wind.

It’s increased in power and variability. This stronger wind blows the hotter air across the soil, drying it out faster, exacerbating the droughts and thus the rain. The now-heavier rainstorms are also being pushed along by the wind faster, sweeping into a region quicker than before. And the destructive potential of the wind --tornadoes and hurricanes--- has been magnified.

And since we’re on the subject of hurricanes, you should know they can form only over water that is 80°or warmer. A tropical rainstorm with its feet nestled comfortably in 80° water can begin to escalate. Deriving its power partly from the heat of the water, it can scoop up more and more wind, begin to swirl round into a massive circling knot of increasing violence.

A tropical storm with its feet in water that’s just a little cooler, say 79°, can forget all its ambitions. It’s staying just a rain shower.

What we’ve done with a twist of the global thermostat is heat up the oceans as well as the atmosphere. Actually, the oceans have been heating up a lot faster than the air, the seas selflessly swallowing a majority of the heat and CO2 we humans have so frenetically pumped out. A recent paper by Sydney Levitus from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has shown that the oceans have warmed well over 10 times faster than the atmosphere has. What do you get from these much warmer oceans? A) A much larger geographic area over which the seed of a hurricane can form. B) A much greater expanse over which the hurricanes can travel, continually gaining strength from the warmer water.
You want to know why a Katrina-level hurricane hasn’t hit New York City or Boston? By the time a hurricane travels that far North, it’s been dragging its feet through cold water for a long time. It’s a withered remnant of what it once was.
But the oceans are warming so fast.

I’ve got some advice for people living in all those coastal cities that have never seen a real hurricane before, I’d walk down to the harbor during the summer, during hurricane season, and stick a thermometer in the water. Remember that 80° mark. Remember what New Orleans looked like afterward. You should know also that the houses down in the Gulf have a different building code. The roof supports, the way the shutters are attached, it’s all designed with hurricanes in mind. Even the shacks of the poor legally have to be built to withstand winds people in New England have never imagined. If a sibling of Katrina gets a warm-water path up to the north, the destruction will be immense.

Munich Re is the world’s largest reinsurance company. It’s the one that ends up paying for any violent twitch in the planet’s weather patterns. According to its figures, the worldwide natural disasters for the decades between the 1940s and 60s all cost about the same when adjusted for increases in inflation and population. After that though, it’s like a switch was clicked. The weather-related natural disasters for the 1970s cost almost twice as much as the 1960s.

The 1980s cost five times as much as the1960s.

The 1990s 15 times as much.

Think about that. Put those figures on a graph. X axis = time, Y axis = expenditures. Connect the dots, then follow the direction of that line to where it leads. Up up up into the air we’re so busy polluting.

So far, the planet’s fever is just a little bit more than 1°.

By the end of this century, as the scientists said, the minimum its fever will be is 6°.

So with all these changes --greater heat, greater drought, greater rain intensity, greater wind and more extreme storms-- what happens to all those organisms that have evolved in their comfy evolutionary niches, relying on the relative stability of their local climates? Each of them, they struggle to adapt as fast as they can, but different species can adapt at different speeds, with different levels of ease. Let’s take the sand eels in the North Sea, off England. As the water’s heated up, they’ve adapted pretty easily. They’ve swum north toward cooler waters. For them the problem’s solved. In just a few years, they’ve shifted their habitat a long way north of the most northern shores of Great Britain. Unfortunately, they were the base of the food pyramid in the North Sea. They’ve left a lot of land-based species in the lurch. These species can only migrate as far as the northernmost British isle. After that, there’s no land to nest on. So, last year when the baby sea birds along the English coast hatched (skuas, arctic terns, etc.), their parents flapped off to catch some sand eels to feed to their babies, exactly as North Sea birds have done for millennia. But for the first time, they found there was nothing out there. The ocean empty of their prey. The resulting devastation has been intense. The 1,200 guillemots on the isle of Shetland had not a single surviving fledging.

The scientists have coined a term for this breakdown in the predator-prey relationship, “trophic cascade,” the damage rippling up the food pyramid.

Perhaps in terms of adaptation, trees are in an even more difficult position. Imagine a pine tree. It can’t tug up its roots and lumber toward cooler latitudes as the world’s temperature increases. It can’t even lob its seeds hard in a northward direction. All it can do is watch its pinecones drop right by its roots and hope some passing squirrel or human will kick them a little toward the north. By looking at historical records of how fast trees have migrated, botanists have found the average speed is under 10 miles per century. That’s not nearly fast enough. In 100 years, the city of Boston for example is projected to move south to something close to the climate of Georgia**. That’s 1,000 miles. Wander around in a forest down there; you won’t see a lot of New England trees. Too warm for the pine trees and the maples, the beeches and birches. So how can these trees react as the heat index increases?

They can get sick. Fungus, beetles and arboreal infectious diseases of all kinds are already intensifying because the summers in New England are getting longer, allowing these organisms to squeeze in more breeding cycles. This increased number of parasites will have an easier time finding food as more trees sicken and die from the heat; this in turn will breed more parasites. Vicious cycle. The dead trees serving as vast Petri dishes to grow more diseases.

If you’re in New England, look out your windows. There’s a huge fungus epidemic on maple trees right now because the rain this summer has been about double the average.

And from my unofficial survey of pine trees, about 20% of them look browned at the edges, singed by the heat and/or bark beetle infestations.

Prognosis? The EPA commissioned a report a few years ago that predicted in New England 30% to 60% of these tree species would die by 2100.**

I’m a writer. I’m interested in terms; I think they matter. The best term I’ve heard for what we’re doing to the planet is not ‘global warming’ (because some places will actually get colder as the climate variability increases), and not ‘climate change’ (because ‘change’ is as euphemistic for what we are doing to the Earth as ‘passing on’ is for death). The best term I’ve heard is ‘climate disruption.’

Disruption gets the message across. It sounds bad, sounds unhealthy, something to avoid.

And when it comes to that word ‘climate,’ what I’ve been trying to do in this article is clarify the sweep of that word, its power. The scientists, every year they learn more respect for its reach. However we non-scientists don’t tend to get it yet. When we hear the word “tundra” for instance, we imagine cold temperatures and snow. When we hear the word “marine,” we picture waves hitting a beach. We don’t tend to picture all the many interrelated mechanisms of storms and rain and wind that have to function well to create that climate, its delicate balance. Generally we don’t tend to imagine the occupants of a climate. We separate the musk ox from the tundra, the halibut from the sea.

But remember those sand eels and arctic terns, the pine tree and maples.

When you think of climate disruption, picture all your favorite organisms. The ones you plant in your garden, the ones you consume at your dinner table, the ones you hope to catch a glimpse of at a national park, the ones you hug each morning before they head off to school.

We are all as much a part of the climate as the wind is and the rain. The disruption we are causing will be felt far and wide.

Save Thousands of Dollars While Losing Weight

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From the day my first child was born, I began to take global warming personally. 

Before that, climate change had seemed a horrible but distant cataclysm, so difficult to imagine.  However with the birth of Corey, this future became mine to hold.  It snuggled into my arms, fragrant and vulnerable.  Every fiber of my being demanded I do all I could to protect it. 

Because Corey was born in 2000, all the scientific assessments (droughts, disease, forest fires, etc.) were all too easy to translate into how old he'd be.  2020 would be when he was in college.  2040 might be when he was trying to raise children.  Etc.  I tried to imagine him attempting to live out a normal life, finding a job and love, while (in the words of James Hansen, this country's pre-eminent climate scientist) the world started its process of becoming essentially "a different planet."

However what could I do?  With Bush in the Whitehouse taking dictation from oil companies, I felt powerless.  Every time a Hummer drove by, a blind fury rose in my chest.  Helpless, I picked vituperative arguments with relatives about climate disruption and American policy and I ground my teeth at night.

One night, having dinner with my dad, he happened to list all the countries he had flown to in the last month: Singapore, the Caribbean and the most distant reaches of Canada.  Horrified at his flagrant carbon emissions, I broke down into inarticulate tears.

Clearly something had to change.  In an attempt to improve my mood if nothing else, I took matters into my own hands.  Being a new mom, the only things I felt I had control over were my lifestyle and home.  Thus I signed the Kyoto Protocols for my house and, in order to implement the protocols, I set out to redo my section of the world.

Step one - Cars

The average American adult has a car that gets 25 miles per gallon and is driven 13,785 miles per year.  First thing I did was to get rid of my car.  I found I could work out of my home and buy everything I needed in the neighborhood.  I found I could travel to almost everywhere I needed to get to with my bike.  The once or twice a month I really needed to drive somewhere, I rented a Zipcar by the hour.

Curious about what a difference my choice was making, I looked up the info on CarbonFund's carbon calculator.  I was amazed to learn I'd decreased my annual carbon dioxide emissions by five tons.  Five tons.

I don't know if you've ever run your fingers through your car's exhaust, but if feels like nothing more than humidity, weighing nearly nothing.  I tried to imagine how big a cloud of gas would be that weighed five tons.  The size of a city block?  The size of a city?  I imagined how a cloud that big might help to warp the weather.  Single-handedly I had subtracted that damage from the world. 

I can't tell you how much better I felt.  I experienced a little less fear.  I began to find my car-less lifestyle had some other perks.  Since I now biked everywhere, I lost my pregnancy weight without paying for an expensive gym membership.  And I got so much enjoyment from biking.  I zoomed past all those traffic jams.  No car insurance payments for me, no being ripped off by a mechanic, no parking fees or tickets, or difficulty parking.  I could always zip right up to a meter within 10 feet of where I want to go and lock up.  With a squalling child in the backseat of the bike I could pull over in a moment and deal with the problem, instead of having frantically to find a parking spot first.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I found I was saving $7,300 per year (see BikesatWork's friendly chart if you don't like paging though vast PDF files) through lack of car insurance, car payments, parking, repairs, etc.

As a plus, in the seven years since getting rid of my car, my kids have gotten used to biking around town, so they are being raised more as active healthy kids than if they were members of the SUV generation.

 Carbon Saved Money Saved
Per Year5 tons$7,300
Over 7 years35 tons$51,100

Step two - Electricity

Excited by all the perks that came from this first adventure into carbon-cutting, I tried replacing an incandescent bulb or two with a compact fluorescent, ones down in the basement where my husband might not object.  It was so easy to change the bulbs and the light from the CFLs didn't seem very different. 

I replaced more of them, then began researching energy-intensive appliances.  I learned that running an AC for 12 hours a day for three weeks uses more energy than leaving a fridge open 24 hours a day for a whole year.  So I tried out what people in the South used to do before the invention of air conditioning: shutting the windows and shades of the house early in the morning to keep the cool air inside while the air outside heated up.  Using this system I discovered to my surprise my house stayed cool until the evening.  At that point I could open the windows again to let fresh cool air in. This technique works so well that the other morning in 90° heat, a contractor stepped inside and marveled at the power of what he assumed was my AC.

During the summer I began line-drying my clothes outside.  It was easy enough to do and my clothes smelled nice afterward.  By the time summer ended, it seemed unnatural to turn on the dryer and so before winter hit, I cleaned and painted the basement hot-water pipes.  Once it got too cold to dry my clothes outside, I draped the clothes on these heated pipes to dry.  Since these pipes are right next to the washer it's quite convenient.  This way the laundry dries within a few hours without any extra energy being used and as a perk the wet clothes release some humidity into the house (so needed during the winter).

I started to buy appliances paying attention to how much electricity they drew.  I found this really great gadget from Blue Line Innovations that lets me monitor our electrical use.  It displays the moment-by-moment household kilowatt use right in the kitchen in an easy-to-read display, so when my husband turns on the dishwasher, he sees the results.  This makes him less likely to turn the dishwasher on when it's half empty. 

The result of all this is an electric bill 20% of most American households, as well as eight tons of carbon saved annually.  I had erased another huge cloud of exhaust.  Also, I imagined I might be helping to save some mountaintop in Virginia that otherwise might be blasted for coal. 

I began to feel powerful.  Sure, not as powerful as Bush, but on the other hand these days I didn't have to wake up to his approval ratings. 

By now I wasn't grinding my teeth anymore and could have dinner with my dad without fear of breaking into tears.

 Carbon Saved Money Saved
Per Year8.57 tons$421
Over 7 years59.99 tons$2,947

Step Three - Heat

I requested a free energy audit from my energy company and as part of it, the auditor installed a programmable thermostat.  She also put in this plastic V-shape self-sticking liner (called a "tension seal") in between the moving parts of each window's frame to decrease drafts.  The thermostat thoughtfully turns the heat down for me on winter nights after my whole family is already cuddled up in bed and then it turns the heat back up before we have to get out of those warm beds.  I love thick quilts and cool noses at night and we noticed the decrease in our energy bills immediately.

I began the basement renovation that my husband and I had been discussing for years. I hammered off the un-insulated luan paneling that was there (demolition is great for anger management) and after my husband put in the studs for the new walls, I began to insulate. It's easy; you cut the rigid insulation with a knife to match the shape of the area between the studs and then shove it in so it fills the opening tightly.  After I'd finished, we put up the new walls and a floor.  Now the kids have a playroom and the floors of our house aren't always chilly from the freezing basement below.  We found we didn't need to even put in a heating system in the basement because with it so well insulated, those hot-water pipes put out more than enough to keep the room toasty.  The insulation itself cost about a $1,000 and took a few days of work.

In the attic, I had tin foil insulation stapled up against the inside of the roof.  Think of how cool tinfoil feels even when it comes right out of the oven.  It basically reflects the heat that hits the roof right back outward. It can decrease the temperature of the attic by up to 30 degrees on a hot day, and thus keep your whole house cooler.  During the winter, it helps in the same way to keep the warm air inside your house.  Cost: a few hundred. 

About a year after that, I got an insulation company to pump cellulose (recycled newspapers cut up into fluffy insulation and treated so it's not flammable) into the walls of my house.  It took only a day and cost $2,000 for an average-sized house like mine.  As a perk, I got a thousand of that back as a rebate from the government. 

The result of all this work is a 90-year-old house that was drafty and cold with chilly floors and rattling windows is now warm from top to bottom in the winter.  And a house that used to be hot as Hades in the summer now holds onto its coolness through day after day of a heat wave. 

The result of this is a gas use that is 40% less than that of most New Englanders.  As a plus we have a new room in the basement.

 Carbon Saved Money Saved
Per Year2.2 tons$493
Over 7 years15.4 tons$3,451

You might think I'm nuts for expending all of this biological energy to save fossil-fuel energy, but look at it this way. According to my calculations, with a bit of time and about $3,000 in expenses (most of which has gone into insulation), I've saved $57,498 over seven years.  Considering taxes I would probably have had to earn at least $70,000 more and that would have meant getting a job outside the house in a more corporate environment where I would have been miserable. Frankly I would so much rather save money this way than spend all that time working to send fat checks off to MobilExxon and Ford.

Now I'm living the life I prefer, with flexible hours and more time for my children. I am healthier and am raising my children to be more healthy and active.  I'm hurting the world less.  Because I'm doing something daily to combat climate disruption, I feel less bewildered and powerless and thus I act less anxious and angry.  Believe me, my family appreciates it.

I read the newspapers, those articles about how "ambitious" the goal is of 80% by 2050 and how difficult it would be.  Frankly, I just don't get it.  According to my calculations, I've already decreased our emissions by 55%. I'm planning on getting to 80% by 2012.  It all seems so doable.  It's better for us, for our waistlines and pocketbooks, for our children and their future, and for this planet that I'm rather fond of.  If I can do it, a middle-aged housewife without vast research or federal money behind me, why can't our country that is one of the most inventive, determined and technological? 

Why aren't we Americans demanding it?

 Total Carbon Saved Total Money Saved
Per Year15.77 tons$8,214
Over 7 years110.39 tons$57,498

Edged off the Earth

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On a beach along the Hudson Bay, I once snuck up too close to a polar bear and only realized my danger when she rose to her feet and looked at me, 30 feet away.  Polar bears are the largest land carnivore, weighing three times more than the average lion.  If she charged me, there was little chance I'd make it to my truck.  An animal like this could run down a galloping horse.

For several years before this trip I'd been writing a novel about polar bears and the research had culminating in my taking a trip up to the arctic to stand here openmouthed, facing a carnivore who on four feet stood almost as tall as I did on two.  From my research, I knew during the summer and fall, there wasn't enough sea ice for the bears to walk cross the ocean to get to the ringed seals they eat.  With a creature as large as these bears, there aren't a lot of other animals around that could satisfy their hunger.  During the ice-free months, the bears lost on average a third of their weight.  At this moment, it was October and the animal standing in front of me was bony with starvation. 

The reason I'd felt safe enough to sneak in this close was because she'd seemed to be so intent chewing on the body of a husky that she'd dug out of the ground.  From how flat and desiccated the dog's remains were -it looked a lot like a rather stiff bath mat-- it seemed clear the body had been buried for quite a while.  Unfortunately, I'd seriously misjudged the amount of time the husky would keep her occupied.

How can I describe this moment while she considered killing me?  Unlike a shark (that swimming dinosaur), her reactions weren't hardwired.  Looking into her dark eyes was more like returning the gaze of a gorilla or leopard, a creature with surprises.  She watched me, mulling over the pros and cons.

Polar bears live on the edge, the edge of the world and the edge of their ability to survive even during good times.  Spurred on by their harsh environment, they've evolved faster than almost any other mammal, diverging off from brown bears only 300,000 years ago.  In this short time, they've perfected their arctic selves, becoming so well insulated that one of their main problems during the summer is staying cool.  If you put on infrared goggles so your vision was all about heat loss, when you looked at a person, you'd see a fuzzy psychedelic silhouette of heat radiating out into the air (we furless humans are such immoderate folk).  Now turn to look at a polar bear instead.  The animal is utterly invisible except its nose, eyes and the slightly warm footprints it leaves behind. 

The bears are such superb swimmers and spend so much of their lives out on the ice, scientists classify them as marine mammals, similar to dolphins or seals.  They are capable of paddling more than 60 miles without stopping through the freezing ocean.  Their paws the size of dinner plates paddle onward, their dark eyes scanning the water for an ice floe on which to rest.

They also have a canny intelligence.  Churchill, Manitoba is the polar bear capital of the world, where the sea ice across the Hudson Bay forms the earliest because of an unusual confluence of fresh and saline waters.  The bears wait there in increasing numbers in the fall for the ice to thicken enough that they can stride off toward the seals.  Meanwhile, bony with hunger, they nap in garages or stand outside bakeries sampling the air.  Some of the worst encounters between humans and bears used to occur by the Churchill garbage dump, where a person climbing out of their car with their rustling garbage bags might find a polar bear stepping out from behind that old fridge.  In spite of their size and speed, the bears didn't have rifles and so they were the ones who frequently suffered from the interaction.  Decades ago Greenpeace helped shut the dump down, having the townspeople triple-bag their garbage and then incinerate it.  Still, the bears continued to visit the location of the old dump for three full generations.  The mothers taught their babies there'd been food there and even though those babies never found anything there themselves, in this low-caloric world they taught their own children to check out the possibility. 

Within three generations is also how soon the bears will be gone. The ice on the arctic sea has thinned more than 40% in the last five decades.  By 2100, because of global warming, scientists predict not enough ocean ice will remain for the bears to get to the seals to hunt them.  And even this prediction is fairly optimistic. Given the way the arctic is melting so much faster than expected, the bears will probably starve to death a lot sooner.  Greenland's ice melt alone has doubled in just the last five years. The ice floes on the open water are getting smaller and less frequent.  Already, a winter survey of the bear population performed by the U.S. Minerals Management Service discovered the drowned bodies of bears bobbing in the sea.  This was winter, in the arctic.  Still the melting ice floes had drifted so far apart the bears couldn't find one to rest on, not even after 60 miles. 

These same surveys have shown, in the last 15 years, the winter population of bears has shifted from hardly ever being on the land, to being there almost 70% of that time.  With the ice thinning, the animals are wandering far a field in desperate search of some new food source.

If you want to get a sense of how much polar bears live on the margins of the possible --at the very edges of where that big a carnivore can feed itself-- look at their pregnancies.  The pregnancies last eight months and after that the mother dens herself up with the tiny pups for four to six months before she can hunt again.  In order to decrease the risk that both the mother and cubs starve to death in their den or that they emerge too weak to hunt, the fetuses don't implant in the uterine lining until halfway through the pregnancy.  This way, if the pregnant bear can't manage to store enough fat to support herself and her cubs for half a year, she can simply spontaneously abort in hopes of better hunting next winter. 

According to NASA, over the last 25 years, the average polar bear weight has decreased by 143 pounds.  We are edging them bit by bit out of existence.  Long before the last bear has starved to death or drowned out on the ice, there will simply be no new bears born for too many years in a row, all the bears moving past their fertility, all of the cubs aborted in hopes of a better hunting year some time in the future. 

The bear staring at me, that day on the Hudson Bay, was starving and desperate.  Still, she sighed and turned away from me, letting me back away to my truck. 

Humans are not being half so kind to the bears.

(Note: The novel I wrote was "The Cage. " Published in 1994, it predicted the end of the polar bears from climate disruption.

Shoot your Car

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Last time I went in for a check-up, the nurse got angry.  She said she'd kill for my blood pressure. She was breathing a little heavy, weighed a lot more than I did and, personally, I didn't take her threat lightly.

"Hey," I said.  "It's not like I was born with freaky great genetics.  Three of my grandparents died of heart-related problems." 

Her eyes narrowed at me and she started flipping back through my chart and said,  "Damn it, you also haven't gained any weight in 20 years." Now her face got a little red. "What's your secret?" She asked.  "No fats?  No carbs?"

"No car," I said. I held up my bike helmet. "No money."

Over the last four decades in the US, the average number of cars per person has steadily risen.  On graph paper, try copying the angle of that rise while picturing the increasing number of miles each of us are driving per year, probably with our hands buried in a bag of Doritos.  On your graph, sketch in the rise of obesity in this country over those decades.  Surprising how neatly the lines mirror each other.  Add in data on health expenditures (per person adjusted for inflation).  You get the idea.  All three lines head up up up. 

Now take that graph and compare it to data from the Netherlands, where 25% of all transportation is done by bike.  There, obesity and health expenditures per person are one third to one half of the US's. 

Or, for a more personal and less scientific survey, step outside your front door.  Walk down the street and compare anyone you happen to see driving with anyone biking.  In my own unofficial survey, the bigger the car's rear chassis, the bigger the driver's rear chassis.  On the other hand, I hardly ever see anyone who's chunky on a bike.  Who wants to eat Doritos when you're huffing up a hill?

Being satisfied with the iron-clad nature of my non-peer-reviewed research --and in hopes of being asked on Oprah-- I'm announcing my brand-new diet regime.  You don't have to eat only lettuce and cube steak. You don't have to spend several months of rent money on a fancy gym membership. Unlike the Atkins regime, it won't take a few pounds off your gut and then slather even more weight back on once you start eating like a human again. 

You just need to follow these three simple steps: 

1)  Move to the city or close enough to it that you can realistically get around by biking, walking and public transportation (Considering that 75% of Americans are urban dwellers, probably most people can skip this step.) 

2)  Sell your car (Nice. Incoming money.  Not so difficult.)

3)  Now that you've done step  #2, it's really easy to make sure 25% of all the miles you travel is by bike.  From this point on, in order to drive, instead of just opening the door of the car parked in your driveway, you have to walk 10 blocks to the car rental agency and cough up $60. Under these circumstances you'll find exercising has changed from being a superfluous nicety at the bottom of your to-do list to an important necessity.  Suddenly you're only driving on those trips that you really need to drive to do.  Your willpower has miraculously become ironclad. 

And you'll start saving money.  According to data taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (see BikesatWork's friendly chart if you don't like paging though vast PDF files), the annual costs of owning a car is over $7,300.  BicycleUniverse points out that at the average salary of $14 after taxes, that seven grand takes three full months of work to pay for.  Three months of every year of your life devoted to paying for your car.  If you invested that money every year for 40 years at 8% instead of dropping it into the hands of Ford and MobilExxon, you'd end up with over two million.  Of course maybe you live in a more expensive than normal city like Boston or San Francisco.  Or maybe you earn more than the average.  Either way you can work out your particular savings at BikesatWork

So sell your car and join the ranks of the rich and healthy.  My diet doesn't take any extra time because the time you spend exercising is the time you'd normally be in a car.  If you live in a crowded city, you'll find you actually save a lot of time as you whiz by all those traffic jams.  Through regular exercise, you'll lower your blood pressure and stop getting irritated by monthly car-insurance bills, rising gas prices and the endless search for parking.  You'll stop fueling climate disruption and future Hurricane Katrinas.  Start planning what you'll do with that three-month-long vacation.

Try my No-Car Diet for two weeks and make your own decision. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back (Well, in this case, what you get back are all those expensive car payments and the road rage). 

Changing the Mental Climate

Undoing Global Warming  (Part II)

When I went to high school in the seventies, cigarettes were the most heavily advertised consumer product in the country. Then everyone smoked: in restaurants, bars, parties, in pediatrician's offices.  For hours after you hung out with other people, you could press your nose against your skin and there was the stale stink of human interaction.  Now, hardly anyone smokes.  What happened and what successful strategies from that fight can we use to help us fight climate disruption? 

The change with smoking first started when the Surgeon General began publishing reports about the dangers of this addiction.  Following this deluge of scientific information came the lawsuits.  During these cases, the tobacco executives were shamed as all the strategies and lies they'd used were revealed in court.  Memos were shown with the executives' names on them.  The memos explained how to muddy the public's understanding of nicotine addiction and lung cancer, and how to attract new users, especially children.

Yes, the companies lost a LOT of money in the settlements, but those memos hurt even more.  They were read on the news and reprinted in newspapers across the nation.  Before then, people in a store looking at a pack of cigarettes thought about the cheap price and the cool taste of the smoke in their mouths. However, after those memos, cigarettes began to look different.  Now people imagined stuffing their hard-earned dollars into the pockets of those arrogant execs who had manipulated them.  They pictured gasping for their lives in a hospital bed.  They imagined through taxes paying for millions of uninsured people to die in such excruciating pain. 

The psychological term for this is called cueing.  Through those memos, people were getting cued to remember their anger at the tobacco companies every time they saw a cigarette ad, a hospital or an ashtray.  The public understanding that started with the Surgeon General's warning was made uncomfortably vivid.  Stories hold power.  The narrative about smoking changed from being a fashionable habit that cool people did.  Instead it became a self-destructive addiction that funded the greedy lies of Big Tobacco.  And people started quitting smoking in droves. 

With the change in the narrative, the tobacco companies lost their hold on the American mind and anti-smoking laws were rapidly passed in cities and states across the country.  High taxes were levied on each box of cigarettes, cigarette advertising was tightly restricted and smoking in public buildings began to be legislated against

This shift in narrative is what we have to do for a different kind of smoking, the kind our tailpipes, chimneys and power plants do.  We have to make driving a gas-guzzling car, building an inefficient power plant, and leaving your lights on seem immoral, socially-destructive and all around stupid.  Conversely, we have to make it seem fiscally responsible, patriotic, planet-respecting, obedient of God's wishes, protective of our children's future and all around sexy to be highly efficient and mindful in our carbon emissions.

From Science to Lawsuits

So much of what happened to Big Tobacco seems set up to happen to the fossil fuel industries.  The IPCC and NASA and many other science organizations have issued their version of the Surgeon General's reports.  In their dry scientific way, they have screamed it from the rooftops.  Now the lawyers are stepping in to back them up.  There are a whole bunch of legal suits concerning climate change hitting the courts now, dealing with everything from:

* the Inuit suing the US for defrosting the very ground the culture rests on

* California suing the six biggest car companies for hurting the state's past and future earnings in everything from agriculture to tourism,

* 12 states suing the EPA for not regulating CO2 emissions.  This last case is the most exciting for it has reached the Supreme Court and the decision could reverberate across the nation in a variety of legal and financial ways.

The first few test cases about carbon emissions have set great precedents.  For instance, Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General sued a utility company because the emissions of its power plants impacted New York's air quality and health.  Those power plants were hundreds of miles away in Virginia.  Still, the case wasn't thrown out of court, but settled through the utility company sharply decreasing its emissions and paying over one billion dollars in damages. 

A billion dollars is no small amount of money for anyone to pay, but my hopes for the upcoming climate cases aren't so much for huge settlements as for some really seedy revelations getting trumpeted by the mass media.  For instance, it would be great if everyone knew about the 19 million dollars that MobilExxon's ex-CEO, Lee Raymond, paid out to confuse Americans' understanding of the science of climate disruption.  He used these millions to A) fund the science of climate skeptics, B) set up fake non-profits to disseminate this research widely and C) contribute to Republican politicians who obediently thundered about climate change being a hoax.  I'm betting a few of those in-house memos discussing these disinformation strategies would be juicy reading, rife with arrogance, greed and marketing data.  If excerpts of these memos were read while video clips were shown of Raymond getting into his stretch limo with all his corporate lawyers, the narrative about Big Fossil Fuel companies would change.  The story would shift from fossil fuels being a necessary industry that allows us to drive in our big safe SUVs in the all-American pursuit of happiness.  Instead we would have a narrative of big-oil fat cats deliberately misleading Americans so the future of our children is threatened.  Raymond's cynical disregard for the truth and the wellbeing of this planet would cue the public to feel rage every time they see a gas station or the heating bill.  Looking at a gas pump, instead of thinking of the cheap price of one gallon of gas, people should begin to imagine monster hurricanes and increased asthma and food prices soaring from massive droughts.  Turning on the air conditioner, they should think of species extinctions and New Orleans under water and smirking fossil-fuel execs. 

Given this sort of a narrative, I think a lot more people might begin to invest their money in renewables, insulate every inch of their house and vote only for politicians who are for getting us away from such an environmentally devastating, inefficient and old type of technology.

With any luck these court cases could create such bad PR no one would accept a job with MobilExxon (the same as they wouldn't accept one at RJ Reynolds) for fear their moms will take their photos off the wall and their spouses divorce them.

With these memos, the fossil fuel industry might lose their hold on the American mind.  Enabling a lot of legal and financial changes to rapidly follow.

Our Current Circus

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It was a hot July day in 1944.  The Barnum and Bailey circus was in Hartford, Connecticut.  Filling the world's biggest tent were over 8,000 people, mostly children with their mothers, watching the Flying Wallendas step out on the high wire.

Then the southwest tent wall caught fire.

Psychologists who study people's reactions to disasters talk about the difficulty of breaking out of normal behavior patterns.  Although we all know we're supposed to run from a fire, in an actual emergency we simply don't believe this is real.  We don't want to embarrass ourselves by running screaming from a hoax or misperception.  Dulled from a lifetime of safety, we glance out of the corners of our eyes to see how others are reacting.  Of course, they're struggling to look calm too.

John Darley of Princeton University became famous for his series of experiments into the 'bystander effect.'  He never told the subject of his experiment that the experiment had already started, but simply left the person in a room with instructions to fill out forms for the “upcoming” study.  After a few moments, he started pumping dark smoke into the room through the air conditioning vent.  The smoke got thicker and thicker, while he timed how long it took the subject to leave the room for help. 

The only variable was if there were other people in the room.  These people were stooges who Darley paid to act as if nothing was going on.  If the subject asked about the smoke, these stooges shrugged, as though it wasn't anything special. 

We all know the polar ice is melting, that the world's temperature is rising.  We can feel in our guts the weather is changing, becoming unbalanced. 

If the subject was alone, there was a 70% chance s/he would get help within four minutes. 

The coral reefs are dying, winter is getting shorter, rain and drought are becoming more extreme.

If the subject was with stooges, however, there was only a 12% chance s/he would get help.  Instead subject after subject stayed there for the whole experiment, filling out forms until the smoke was too thick to see the paper anymore, until s/he couldn't see a hand held in front of the face.  The results of this experiment have been confirmed and reconfirmed by different experimenters over the past three decades.

The arctic permafrost is made up of millions of tons of carbon in the form of frozen plant matter.  It's never had a chance to decompose into the atmosphere because it's always been frozen.  It's starting to defrost now.  This carbon could dramatically speed up the change in the climate.

The top of the circus tent was waterproofed with melted wax thinned with gasoline. One couple was talking with a pregnant woman and her children about what to do.  She said they should stay, the fire would soon be put out. 

All of us read about global warming and wonder what to do.  Looking around, we see our neighbors getting in their cars to drive to work, their expressions neutral.  At work, no one brings the subject up. 

William Moomaw, Director of Tufts University Institute of the Environment, said, "We see global warming as too monumental, our actions won't make a difference."  Even if we have the internal strength to keep conscious of what we believe to be a huge problem, we think we are all alone in our feeling.  Individually, we feel too small and self-conscious to make a difference.

Lauren Slater --celebrated psychologist and author of the book, Great Psychological Experiments of the 20th Century-- is an expert on Darley’s bystander effect.  “The feeling of safety in a crowd isn’t accurate,” said Slater.  “Research shows the more people around, the more you feel beholden to social etiquette.  If there’s the slightest ambiguity about the danger inherent in the situation, you won’t act.”

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The world's population is over six billion, creating the ultimate bystander effect.

When the flames reached the circus roof, they streaked up a waxy seam. The fire moved so fast, people stood up entranced, rather than run, a reaction psychologists call "collective disbelief." As soon as the fire reached the center pole it split in three directions, following the fuel along the seams.  Everyone who saw it had a different metaphor: cellophane on fire, tissue paper, a fuse.  It moved faster than the fastest man.

Darley has found in emergency situations, once one person starts to help, others are much more likely to act. In the case of the circus fire, a few people finally started to run, breaking the frozen horror of the rest.

Moomaw found the most effective exercise he ever had his Tufts environmental policy students do was to calculate the net result of their life style choices on the environment: the resources they consumed, the tons of carbon each of them individually emitted.  Twenty years after taking his course, he's had students approach him to say this resource exercise was the most transformative experience of their college career.

Slater explained this lasting effect.  “Moomaw is putting them through the first three steps of the five-stage model of stopping the bystander effect. Noticing the problem and taking responsibility for it are the first two steps.  Once they imagine their own impact multiplied by six billion other people, they reach the third step of recognizing it as an emergency.”  The final two steps of this process are deciding on an action and doing it.

Slater continued, “What’s interesting with Moomaw’s students is they managed to sustain the effect of the exercise all these years later.  Perhaps this is because of cueing.  For the rest of their lives, these students are being cued to remember the experience every time they eat or do their laundry [every time they use resources]. To give a different example, with nuclear weaponry, there aren’t constant social cues.  We don’t see streets lined with silos so we tend to forget about them.”

Slater added, “Environmental activists are people who are able to pick up cues to resource-depletion in their normal lives.”

In the 1944 circus fire, the stampede for safety started too late.  The temperature in the tent quickly rose, becoming unbearable, people screaming.  Burning pieces of the wax-encrusted roof began to fall.  Over 160 people (mostly women and children) were burned or crushed by the panicked crowds.  The rest managed to flee out the exits to safety. 

From a burning world, there is no exit.  What we desperately need now are more activists, a lot of them, ones who’ll jump out of their seats, scream noisily at the top of their lungs and lead the rush to safety.

How to Argue

(Undoing Climate Change - Part I)

It's finally happened.  According to a 2006 Pew Research poll, most Americans are convinced global warming is something to be worried about. And how much they're worried is increasing rapidly.  An MIT report found that climate change is now the most important environmental issue for Americans, dramatically up from its sixth place position three years ago. Even if you hadn't observed any opinion change in talking to neighbors, you might have noted a few other facts: that two climate-change movies came out this year ("An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Great Warming"), and that newspaper articles on the subject no longer automatically interview the climate skeptics, and that even the Bush Whitehouse and MobilExxon have finally admitted that humans are warming the planet.  Perhaps it was Hurricane Katrina that blew away much of America's remaining doubt.

Because of this shift in attitude, the battle for us environmentalists has shifted also. How we discuss the subject must be updated.  For me, up until this summer, when I talked about climate disruption with non-activists, I went on the assumption that most people weren't convinced it was happening or that it would be all that bad.  Thus I tended to give a scary list of facts showing that the planet was heating up.  I would follow this up with even scarier facts demonstrating what these changes unchecked might mean in the future.  However, in the last year or two as public opinion went through its tidal shift, I began to notice a change in how people listened to this information.  Instead of looking at me with narrowed disbelieving eyes, they began to slightly avert their gaze with a closed-down expression.  Assuming this reaction was the last remnant of a desire to turn away from the truth, I hammered away harder. 

Then one day in August, my sister with her eyes averted and her face fixed, asked me not to mention the subject again around her.  It was giving her nightmares, she said, making her stomach hurt.  The expression I'd taken as stubborn skepticism was actually an attempt to mask her growing fear.  Asking around I found out my sister's reaction was common.  I had been terrifying my audience without offering them any practical solutions, any ways to fight climate change.  Rather than creating new environmentalist allies, I was fostering a powerful urge in the listeners to avoid this subject in the future, to flip past newspaper articles, change TV channels and step away from any cocktail conversation.  By solely emphasizing the size of the looming planetary disaster, I was making people figuratively want to block their ears and loudly hum.  And the ones who are most likely to do this are the ones who like my sister are not natural activists but who still feel deep distress over what is being destroyed.  These exact same people would, if treated carefully, be the ones who would fight alongside me.

So I'm offering up my mistake and the research I did following it in hopes of helping you avoid a similar misstep.  Now that most Americans understand the problem exists and that it's worth avoiding, it's time for us activists to learn how to most effectively persuade others to take action on the issue.  Luckily the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others are way ahead of me.  Years ago they banded together to hire the Frameworks Institute to figure out how best to discuss climate change, how to `frame' the problem to most encourage people to stop it.  Frameworks assembled a blue-ribbon panel of social and cognitive psychologists including George Lakoff (author of "Don't Think of an Elephant"). 

The panel first surveyed the media to learn how environmentalists tended to talk about climate disruption.  They found most used one of two techniques.  The first technique was what I had done, bombarding the listener with horrifying facts about the natural disasters lurking just around the corner.  Using focus groups, Frameworks found this style was particularly unhelpful in motivating people to action.  The list of impending natural disasters makes the listeners associate the problem with the weather, which isn't thought of as something you can effectively lobby against.  You can't vote hurricanes out of office.  Droughts aren't something you can boycott away.  Instead people adapt to the weather, by bringing an umbrella or a parka or fleeing the area.  Thought about this way, the potential devastation of climate change isn't going to fill people with a can-do attitude, getting them out in thousands to march yelling in the streets.  Nope, instead they're going to make whiney noises high in their throats and search desperately for ways to protect at least their families, perhaps by storing several tons of food in the basement or moving away from the beachfront. 

Frameworks found the second way environmentalists tend to frame the climate-change debate is as an economic threat.  "It will cost 50 billion dollars in insurance claims," or "It will destroy thousands of miles of expensive ocean-front properties," etc.  Considered this way, the damage we are doing to our planet gets weighed solely on a scale of monetary transactions and on the other side of that scale goes all the vast gobs of cash the current fossil-fuel system creates.  Most listeners then assume the climate disasters are something to be endured in order to stoke the engines of progress and Wall Street. 

Having thus learned how not to discuss the problem, Frameworks experimented in focus groups and national surveys with dozens of different ways to broach the subject, searching for what would most energize normal citizens.  Here are the basic Cliff Notes to what they learned:

1. First off always repeat that global warming is human-made.  If the point is accepted that humans have created the problem, then it follows that we can unmake it.  The situation seems smaller and more manageable.  Getting people to accept that the warming is our fault will do more to get people fighting climate change than almost anything else we can do.

2. Mention solutions first off.  Many people don't believe there are reasonable ways to fight climate disruption.  Their stomachs knot with helplessness.  Decrease their tension as well as their future carbon emissions by naming some simple actions with which to fight the situation.  And don't just suggest compact fluorescent bulbs because even a child will know the problem is bigger than that.  Make the solutions seem doable but not a 20-second fix.  Talk about the long-term political and engineering solutions, as well as some carbon-cutting techniques anyone can implement today in their own home.

3. We all know how successful the Republicans are at framing issues:  Death Tax, Healthy Forests, Clear Skies, etc. Once we accept the Republican vocabulary then we find the moral ground cut out from under us.  How can we argue against healthy forests?  We have to use vocabulary to control the climate argument in some of the same ways. Describe carbon-emission cuts as the kind of long-term, innovative thinking that's smart for business and good stewardship for the Earth.  Frameworks suggests the vocabulary we should use.  We have to demand our leaders take "responsibility," show "long-term planning," spur "innovation," apply good "management," show "stewardship," and apply "problem-solving ingenuity."  Describing carbon-cutting laws in this way puts those who argue for climate inaction on very weak ground.  Frameworks found that when non-activists heard the issue framed this way, they felt most empowered to demand action.  We should all memorize that vocab, then write a few Letters-to-the-Editor.  Letters-to-the-Editor are very powerful.  Politicians and business leaders read them.  Many readers jump to that page even before the comics.  Writing a few letters like that might be the most effective thing we can do to ensure a relatively peaceful future climate for the next generation.

4. Don't get all partisan and angry. Sound reasonable and don't overstate things.  Otherwise we risk sounding like the stereotype Bill O'Reilly paints of crazed environmentalists who want to wipe business off the face of the Earth.  The more reasonable we sound, the more likely listeners are to really consider our points.

Using these techniques we should emphasize how decreasing carbon emissions would jumpstart American ingenuity into the new energy technologies of the future, strengthening our economy by creating many more jobs and keeping billions of dollars in the US rather than pouring them into the coffers of unstable Middle-Eastern regimes connected with terrorism.  Since the rest of the world long ago clued in to the dangers of climate change, by acting decisively to cut our emissions we can dramatically increase international goodwill toward the United States.  Good will is something we are sorely wanting these days.  We have to explain that undoing global warming is the responsible and moral action we need to do to protect the future of our planet and our children.  Framed this way, as not doom and gloom, but as a smart and moral action that's good for business, our arguments will be much more persuasive.

We've already come a long way.  Scientists and us activists have already won the huge fight of getting most people to admit climate disruption is happening and that it's bad news.  Now we have to quickly and effectively convince the majority of the population there are practical and smart ways to stop what we've created. The faster we can do this, the fewer people we will lose to loud humming.  The more species we can save from rising seawater, etc. 

The easier it will be to clean up our mess.

Note: This is Part 1 of at least a four-part series on solving climate change.  My next post will describe the political and social fixes that would significantly decrease US carbon emissions.  Luckily, a lot of these fixes are already in the works in our government and society.  The third part of the series will mention the changes you could make in your own life to start fighting climate change.  In the fourth part I'll talk about how to cut carbs out of the Earth's diet in a way that takes pounds of your own waistline. 

Please, in comments about this, tell me of climate-disruption solutions you've thought of or heard of.  We have to start disseminating these ideas.

Anyone want to use the Frameworks suggestions to write up a few Letters-to-the-Editors in the comments section that other readers can copy and send to newspapers?