The Call, Column 60 – A Reminder

15 01 2017

(December 4, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

A Reminder

The Earth’s climate is changing, and human activity is the primary cause.          

            This statement is scientific fact, with no reasonable evidence against it. But it is also a call to action. And with each day that passes, as another 207 billion pounds of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere by human activity, it becomes a more dire warning.

Climate change is one of the simplest-to-understand atmospheric phenomena that exist. The Earth’s atmosphere undergoes what is known as The Greenhouse Effect. This is where certain “greenhouse gases”, which make up a small part of the atmosphere, trap the sun’s light as heat, preventing it from escaping back into space and warming the planet in the process. This is directly observable by the fact that you are not currently frozen solid. The Greenhouse Effect holds the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere stable around 58°F, quite a bit warmer than the -400°F of the surrounding space. It also prevents the temperature from changing significantly (by 100s of degrees) between the day and the night, as it does on the surface of the moon and celestial bodies without Earth’s type of atmosphere.

Despite being present in low concentrations, carbon dioxide has one of the most potent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Geological records indicate that the Earth’s average atmospheric temperature has moved in lockstep with its carbon dioxide concentration. This is due to another straightforward chemical mechanism: the molecular structure of carbon dioxide makes it very effective at absorbing heat energy.

Prior to the growth of human industrial activity, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would change by very, very small amounts, or on a very large timescale, and within a limited range if at all, so that it was effectively constant on a short time-scale, and cyclic on longer ones. There are natural events which produce carbon dioxide – like animals exhaling, decomposition of organic matter, volcanic activity – and those which sequester carbon dioxide – plants inhaling, the formation of topsoil, deposition of fossil carbon within the crust of the earth. In a stable, cyclic system like our Earth’s carbon cycle, these effects naturally balance each other over reasonable periods of time.

This is called a “steady state”, and the same, in fact, is true of the Earth’s atmospheric temperature. While temperature isn’t the same one day (or season) to the next, it has always moved cyclically and predictably; so for example, the temperature in the week around the summer solstice of 1000 BC would be expected to be roughly the same as it had been in 1001 BC, 1025 BC, and 8000 BC. And the same variation in carbon dioxide concentration and temperature is expected – and observed – through every Ice Age Cycle (take a look at this graph: A similar carbon dioxide concentration and temperature occur at the peak of every Ice Age Cycle, and at every trough.

As expected, historically any event that shifted the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, over any timescale, was met with a similar change in the average global temperature and, as a result, changes in the Earth’s climate.

Burning fossil fuels has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is simple chemistry. When you burn any hydrocarbon – the type of chemicals that make up fossil fuels – it releases carbon dioxide as a direct result of combustion. In the past 150 or so years, we have burned the better part of all the fossil fuel stored beneath the Earth’s crust. The carbon stored in those hydrocarbons was taken out of the atmosphere millions of years ago, when the concentration was higher, the atmosphere was warmer, and the planet had a lot less animals. The Earth has since created a new steady-state with a lower concentration of carbon dioxide. By burning that stored fossil carbon, we are increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This fact is also demonstrated by empirical observations. Carbon dioxide made up 280 ppm (parts per million) of the Earth’s atmosphere prior to the start of the industrial revolution, and has since increased by over 40%, to 400 ppm. This is likely the highest concentration in the last 20 million years, also shown in that graph I linked to above.

And that increased concentration of carbon dioxide over the past 150 years occurred simultaneously with an increase in average global temperature in the same timeframe.

Let’s review: The Earth’s atmospheric temperature is regulated by the Greenhouse Effect, which is driven by atmospheric greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is one of the most important greenhouse gases. Global temperature has historically moved in lockstep with carbon dioxide concentration, which itself has moved cyclically and predictably over large timescales. Burning fossil fuels releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, which was out of circulation for long enough that the atmosphere adjusted to its absence. Our use of fossil fuels over the past 150 years has been accompanied with a significant increase in carbon dioxide concentration – a 20-million-year maximum, well beyond natural geological cycles – and a similar increase in average global temperature.

Ipso facto…the Earth’s climate is changing, and human activity is the primary cause. This is the only logical conclusion to all of the evidence we have. And it is bar none the biggest problem we face as a species. The time to act is now.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.


The Call, Column 35 – Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

8 02 2016

(December 6, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Paris ’15: Making the Change We Wish to See in the World

As you probably already know, last Monday marked the beginning of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (“COP21”), in Le Bourget, Paris, France. The goal of the conference is to reach a comprehensive, global agreement, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, and halt the dangerous climate change that these emissions are causing.

Even if a global plan of action is not formed (the U.S. has been a notable holdout in the past), it does not change the facts: the climate has been altered significantly in the past century; we, and specifically our carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil, and natural gas, are the dominant driving force of that change; and it is easily the biggest threat that we face to the comfortable existence of life on Earth. Moving forward, we can either intentionally take strategic, preventative measures now, or be forced to take reactionary measures to ensure our survival in the future. Given the devastation that is often caused by a single hurricane, I hope it’s clear which action is the safer bet. And today, the engineer (and potential future political leader) in me is going to get really practical: What can we, lowly human beings on an environmentally-unstable planet, do about climate change?

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that you must “be the change that you wish to see in the world” – this is a good starting point. There is action that we can and must take within our own lives, in our own households, to help slow the progression of climate change.

The first step is to assess and minimize your household energy use. In Rhode Island, National Grid and private companies, like RISE Engineering, offer no-cost energy assessments/audits, where they visit your home, assess your energy use, and suggest ways to reduce your long-term consumption. You can find out more about these programs at their websites. And whether or not you get a formal energy audit performed, there are some key areas in home energy use where a small change produces a pretty huge effect. All of these solutions work for commercial buildings as well.

First, lighting uses between 10 and 15% of a normal household’s electricity, and by switching out incandescent light-bulbs for significantly more efficient LED bulbs, you can reduce that amount by 83% – a reduction of nearly 10% of your household’s total electricity consumption, and a savings of about $8.20 per year per bulb. In Rhode Island, we are fortunate that National Grid heavily subsidizes LED lighting, allowing companies like Ocean State Job Lot and many of the drugstores in the area to sell them for around $3 per bulb, yielding a 100% return on investment in as little as four months, on a bulb that will last over 20 years.

Heating, cooling, and refrigeration consume a combined 60% of residential electricity usage. Whether your water heater, refrigerator, air conditioners, and other such appliances are electricity- or gas-powered, there are very efficient versions currently available, which would drastically reduce their energy consumption. And with heavy subsidies from National Grid (, their cost is quickly returned by the savings in energy use. Furthermore, structural efficiency measures (like replacing windows and doors and adding insulation in key areas) can help to reduce heat loss.

In addition, finding ways to supplant current, energy- and carbon-intensive processes with less intensive ones – like switching to a clothes line, or from electric to gas heating – are good ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Also, supplementing or completely replacing fossil fuels with sustainable sources – by having solar panels installed on your roof, or paying a little extra to the energy company in order to guarantee better energy sourcing – may have the biggest effect of all.

Let’s change gears a bit: by driving less, and instead using public transportation, carpooling, and alternate forms of transportation like bicycles, you can significantly reduce your transportation-related carbon emissions. Personally, I take RIPTA whenever I can – on average, one-third to one-half of the times that I go to school in Providence are with public transportation. This and other alternative transportation is often pretty fast, costs less than gas, and doesn’t require parking. Also, because of their efficiency, electric cars (even running on coal electricity) produce less carbon dioxide per mile than gas cars.

Most products that we buy come with baggage, an invisible cloud of carbon dioxide (and other pollution) that was required in order to bring it to your home. By simply buying less stuff, buying used goods (which don’t have an additional footprint), buying locally (to reduce shipping), buying goods whose production methods you know were better for the environment, and throwing away less, you can help to reduce the fossil fuel that is burned by industry on your behalf.

That brings us to a very specific case – the food we eat. The knee-jerk response you’ll hear from some environmentalists is to “eat less meat”, citing a ridiculous, cherry-picked statistic and linking to a tofu recipe. If you couldn’t already guess, I don’t agree with this, and I think it indicates intellectual laziness and unwillingness to look deeper into the issue.

The actual carbon emissions of industrial agriculture come largely from the same place as in every other industry – burning fossil fuels. When industrial grain and soy monocultures are grown year after year, the soil’s fertility must be heavily supplemented with artificial fertilizer – this is made from natural gas, and releases carbon dioxide in its production. Huge amounts of fossil fuels are used in industrial farm machinery and artificial chemical applications. And the off-farm processing of these crops into “food”, and shipping them around the globe, uses fuel as well. When we (unnecessarily and inefficiently) feed animals these cheap grains, the effect is compounded.

Saving more detail for future columns, we need to eat diets that are environmentally-restorative – that have the net, lifetime effect of actually putting carbon into the ground (sequestration) rather than into the atmosphere. That means animal products that are raised on pasture, rotationally-grazed to build the topsoil, and fruits and vegetables that are grown non-intensively, on farms that use organic sources of soil fertility and don’t mechanically harvest, or otherwise in permaculture-type systems.

Buy these foods in season and from your local foodshed to eliminate long-distance transport; and rather than looking for “organic” or “natural”, ask the farmer yourself in order to ensure their practices fit these criteria. And, as always, grow your own using these methods.

We should all certainly make these changes, because they are the most direct and necessary ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s not enough to make them in our own lives, and be satisfied – there are 7 billion other people on Earth, who either already do, or are on the path to, contribute to climate change as much as the average American.

We need to do more than “be the change” – we need to make the change through collective action! We have to champion good politicians who make climate change a top priority. And we have to call and write to make it clear to our leaders (in every level of government) that action on this issue should be taken now, by choice, rather than later, out of necessity.

Whether or not COP21 is successful, we in the United States, with 4.7% of the world’s population that produces an unbalanced 16% of its carbon emissions, need to change our regulatory and legislative climate.

On the municipal and state levels, we need to ramp up incentives for renewable energies – subsidies and grants to consumers who install solar and other alternative energies, the removal of taxes and fees on those projects, and investment by the government itself.

On the federal level, we need comprehensive carbon legislation. Whether that’s a carbon tax on power companies, to incentivize the switch to renewable sources without significantly increasing energy prices, or a cap and trade system, where we catalyze this change through market mechanisms, allowing companies to choose their own paths, or straightforward regulations, directly promoting the use of renewable sources of energy, it has to happen.

We have to stop subsidizing dirty energy. We need to stop sacrificing the lives of our brave servicemen and women in pointless oil wars. We need to stop dragging our feet, entertaining useless politicians who are so blinded by ideology that they are unwilling to spend 1% of our GDP for a few years to ensure that there is a functioning Earth left for our grandchildren.

It’s time to act. In our homes, in our businesses, in our communities; with both our individual and our collective voice, we must demand action before it’s too late. Accelerated climate change threatens the general welfare of life on our planet, and inaction violates the oath that every politician takes to uphold the Constitution. It’s time to act.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.