Friday, October 30, 2009

Passing the Planet's Redline

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Peter Russell, a British author and futurist, has a mesmerizing world clock on his website. This clock doesn't tell time, it measures global stress issues, such as population growth, species extinctions, deforestation, and CO2 emissions. I reset the clock, sat down to read the paper, and came back an hour later. What happened in my 60 minutes of leisure time?

  • 1480 hectares of forest were cut down (3660 acres)
  • 690 hectares of new desert were created (1700 acres)
  • 3.1 Million tons of CO2 were emitted
  • 3.5 Million barrels of oil were pumped
  • 3 species went extinct
  • The world's population grew by 8,800 people
In autoracing, the term 'redlining' refers to the maximum speed an engine and its components can operate at without causing damage to the system. Go over the redline and the damage is usually widespread and severe. Watching the numbers on the world clock continue to grow, can there be any doubt that there is a planetary redline for each of these metrics? We don't know where the upper limits are, but it goes without saying that our world can not support limitless population, greenhouse gas emissions, desertification, or oil. If we knew these upper limits, and watched as the needle slowly approached the redline, I wonder if we would take the issues more seriously.

On the climate front, the carbon meter currently reads 385 parts per million (ppm). Many of the world's leading scientists estimate that 450 ppm is our self destruct point. Still others feel that we need to drop back down to 350 ppm, and have already hit the redline -- we just don't know it yet. The number is rising by 2-3 ppm per year, and to get atmospheric CO2 to stop rising, scientists believe that global emissions need to be cut by at least 50%. Whether we are approaching or have passed the limit, we clearly need to take our foot off the accelerator.

There is of course a second definition of redlining, which is the practice of denying or increasing the cost of necessary services (health, food, jobs) to residents in defined racially determined areas. Sadly, in an indirect way the world clock also measures this. As the metrics increase, it is many of the poorest in the poorer countries who will be impacted most, exacerbating the differences between 'haves' and 'have nots'.

Because of both redline issues, we need to start thinking more holistically about our planet. As Russell says;

"The real crisis we are facing is not an environmental crisis, a population crisis, economic crisis, a social crisis, or a political crisis. It is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness. A crisis is an indication that the old mode of operating is no longer working, and a new approach is required. This is true of a personal crisis, a family crisis or a political crisis. In the case of the environmental the old way that is no longer working is our self-centred materialistic consciousness. It may have worked well in the past, when we needed to provide ourselves with the basic commodities necessary for our individual well-being – but it clearly no longer works today."

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Image copyright ClimatePath. Adapted from / CC BY-SA 2.0. Globe image courtesy of Nasa.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How You Too Can Be a Climate Superhero.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

The trouble with taking action on climate change is that the issue is so big. Unlike giving money to your church, supporting your local schools, or volunteering to build houses or work in a local shelter, it's hard to believe that your individual action is making a difference. If you're reading this blog, you're already conservation minded, encouraging action, trying to use your car less, and at least thinking of offsetting or buying green energy, etc. What more can you do?

Well I saw a story in my local newspaper that reminded me of the impact we can have as individuals, simply by refusing to accept the stupid things we see around us every day:

A regular commuter on BART (the SF Bay Area's light rail system) noticed that the lights were on all day every day in the parking lot at her local station. It struck her as a huge waste of electricity, even though it was a "drop in the bucket" to BART. She called and and was told that they must be testing the lighting system. Since she works across the street from the station, she doubted that this was the case...the lights had been every day for months.

Rather than accepting a brush off, she enlisted a local newspaper columnist, that recontacted the transit agency on her behalf. A BART crew visited the parking lot and determined that the master light switch had been inadvertently set to manual instead of automatic. The crew simply reset the switches to automatically shut off during the day and fixed the problem.

Parking lots use a lot of lights, and this simple citizen action had 10 or 20 times the impact vs. just reducing her energy consumption at home. By spending a few hours and showing a little determination, she had the strength of ten other words, she was transformed from mere mortal to superhero!

When you speak up, sometimes others listen. It's great to share these successes, to keep us all inspired that we can make a difference.

Photo: Adapted from / CC BY 2.0

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ecology or Economy? Singing the Climate Week Blues.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Ecology or economy? Do we really have to choose?
It's got me singing the climate week blues.

"Climate Week" - timed to coincide with last week's UN meetings and the Clinton Global Initiative - left me both excited and dreading the next few months.

The international community is solidly united behind creating a comprehensive climate change agreement, factoring in both economic growth and social justice while setting aggressive targets. As I mentioned last week, even President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao got in on the act. But the US economy is built on fossil fuel consumption, and even the modest reduction targets proposed by the House of Representatives are met with intense resistance.

I'd rather show than tell in this case, so take a look at the 2 minute YouTube video that ClimatePath put together.

The world needs, and world leaders demand, a 20-25% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 to avoid the critical 2 degrees (C) threshold, yet such a reduction seems to require changes far above what we're willing to pursue. The question leading up to Copenhagen climate meetings is: What happens when an immovable object meets an irresistible force? We'll soon find out.