Happy first birthday buddy! This was published in 2015 on the anniversary of your entry into this world. Maybe it’s twenty years later when you’re reading this. Kinda’ weird, right? Time capsule letter. So, beware, this is kind of long. Don’t feel like you need to read it all in one sitting. Maybe you’ll come back to it a few times, maybe you’ll have to do some research to get some of the background and details. Please excuse any confusion in tense, tough to write from past. Anyway, I hope this is useful to you.
By the time you are five, your climate footprint will be larger than that of 95% of people living on Earth, regardless of age. You’ll have been on at least a dozen overseas international flights and at least twice as many domestic flights. Your air travel alone makes you liable for relocation costs for ten percent of the residents of Palau.
You are also a product of the relentless globalization that started when I was your age. Parents from two continents, grandparents a minimum of a five hour drive or a four hour flight. You Skype, but come on, is that a substitute for a cuddly hug from a grandchild? What’s your choice, really, in this situation you’ve been put in? Maybe the bio-kerosene thing will take off, maybe it won’t compromise food supplies and food costs or lead to more Amazon deforestation, maybe. Maybe not.
On the other hand, your offsets look pretty good. You managed in your short life to date to use less than eighty disposable diapers, most during our week long summer vacation when we opted not to trudge 40 pounds of soiled diapers back in the trunk of a very warm car. You cloth diapered so early, it was more like a diaper blanket.
What else? For your first year your food was almost exclusively very local. You breast fed and all your solid food was homemade, primarily made with food from within a three hour (or five, depending on the math and traffic) radius of your home in Brooklyn. No packaging, minimal shipping and almost no land filling resulted from your diet. Compost galore. You’ve been in a car maybe fifteen, twenty times, in the subway or bus at least a hundred times. You’re main mode of transportation is quite pedestrian. You like warm baths, but with the summer it seems like you enjoy cool ones as well. About ninety percent or more of your wardrobe is reused from generous families. Really, same goes for your furniture, toys, accessories and accouterments. You are already a poor consumer.
Where does that leave you? Well, truth is, your footprint is/will be too big. Above all, you’re a citizen and perhaps still a resident of the United States of America. Except for fulfilling a desire to see your grandparents, all of the other stuff that you do to move CO2 emissions in one direction or the other, is irrelevant. Offsets can make us feel good if we squint the right way and don’t ponder too long. By the nature of your time and place in history on this planet in the US American society of the early 21st century, your footprint is out of control and it’s too big and you can’t really do anything more about that. Off-the-grid fantasy fulfillment? That, too has downsides, and would require that your land footprint grow dramatically so that you had enough to eat, discarding the good efficiencies the free market agro-economy has to offer.
Essentially, if we continue on the same path we’re on, which I unsurrendingly but sadly believe we will, climate change will be one of the potentially very awful things that you witness and experience in your lifetime.
This inevitability is what I want you to have the chance to think about and prepare yourself for. Watch “Hunger Games,” think post-apocalypse, and figure out which side you want to be on.
Not to belabor the point, but a few illustrations of why I think you should couch any optimism in a healthy, reality-based blanket of pessimism.
Starting with what I’ve been working on for the past eight years, the sustainability plan for New York City. In 2007, then mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg launched the city’s first sustainability plan – reducing emissions by 30% by 2030 was central to the plan’s ten stated goals. A keystone of the plan was increasing the energy efficiency of buildings across the city. Based on city carbon accounting, buildings are responsible for 80% of city emissions. To great fanfare the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan – new regulations, reporting and tracking systems – was released. Training programs were launched. As the building plan’s momentum and visibility grew and the recession of 2008 wore on, a plethora of new green jobs should have helped employ those hit the hardest. Something for everyone and the planet too!
After the launch in 2009 of the Buildings Plan, the NY Times reported and the city’s website states that the improvements resulting from 100% implementation, over about a decade, would result in a five percent dent in the city’s emissions. The regulation covered only buildings greater than 50,000 square feet and after pressure from the real estate industry did not include mandatory incremental reductions and improvements. A recent report by the city indicated that in the first four years of implementation, only 5-10 percent of buildings have implemented any energy related improvements. There have been decreases in total electricity consumption citywide, but an increase similar in magnitude in natural gas consumption occurred in the same time range.
On top of this, total emissions based on city accounting at the time, did not include emissions resulting from individual consumption, waste transportation outside of city limits, freight, air travel, and so on. The 5% reduction from buildings was based on a partial accounting, not all emissions that could be traced back to NYC.
The building plan – into which so much time, effort, lobbying had been poured – could barely keep up with growth of emissions in the city. New city data indicate that reductions have flat lined over the past couple of years. Reductions to date were related to the economic crisis and to changes to (fracked) natural gas-fired power plants from coal and oil. City building policy’s impact wasn’t discernible in the data.
That was the energy and emissions baseline for the city at publication in 2015. There are discussions about expanding the current regulations to smaller buildings, but these stumble on the regressive taxation downside, weakness of voluntary compliance mechanisms or are discussed as the need to create a market. The city has made additional commitments to its own building stock since the first regulation, but these official changes don’t touch privately owned buildings to date.
In NYC, things look the same for other sectors, too, though there, plans are even further from implementation. In the land use and legacy environmental problem sector that I work in, similar issues plague true progress that would be universally beneficial; voluntary compliance, preference for property owners, unanticipated side effects of incentives, etc. Regarding other sectors, looking back recently to 2011, a team of scientists calculated that the metro area had the highest per capita levels of electricity consumption, waste production and auto fuel consumption of any of 27 mega-cities. NYC can’t be viewed as exclusively responsible for this. However, it’s economic and social power exist in large part because of the agglomeration. As one of the richest cities on earth, NYC is a symbol, a leader – and that’s what we’ve accomplished in nearly ten years. This is 2015. Let’s look back to when I was about the age that you might be while reading this, thinking about these things in the mid-nineties of the last century.
That’s local, what about global? Humanity – yes it was essentially that big, the greatest international consensus in my lifetime (at the time of publication) – set itself the goal in 1997 of reducing CO2 emissions over time and cooperatively from 1990 levels. By 2005, 192 countries had ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
However a few small countries -including the US and China – refused to ratify and outside of Europe almost no progress was made for nearly two decades. Progress meant slowing growth of and stabilizing, rather than reducing, emissions. Then a few economic recessions, wars, hyper aggressive neoliberal capitalism disasters and conservative backlashes later, in 2015 a great deal of the emitting world is haggling over 2005 levels or later.
A recent bilateral move, outside of the traditional negotiating context, between China and the US unofficially moved the goal posts at the international level. The US is committing to 2005 levels and China has committed to stabilize at 2030 levels, guaranteed growth of emissions.
Note again that the Kyoto reductions targets were based on 1990 emission levels. 2005 was when, to date, peak US emissions occurred, about 25% higher than fifteen years earlier in 1990. Time and ground lost. This disparity in accounting, an enormously important technical ‘nuance’, is almost nowhere to be found in the press.
Now we’re rushing towards the Paris negotiations this year and it seems that the desperation is so great, that we’re going to collectively swallow that 25% loss and worse from the world’s biggest emitters.
How will the US ultimately meet these commitments should they be made? Real reductions or shell game accounting? Only time will tell, but evidence so far, based on accepted international accounting standards, suggests the latter. Accordingly there will have to be an international stalemate – short-term economic competitiveness almost demands it.
Ironically, in 2013, US emissions had decreased substantially from 2005 peak levels. Still 10% above 1990 levels, however. One of the primary causes? Decreased industrial energy consumption.
Is that energy efficiency or outsourcing of manufacturing (and emissions) to other countries? (China loading up until 2030?) Is it shutting down old coal fired power plants? California’s attempts to stay true to Kyoto’s 1990 baseline? Probably a little of everything. Our fracking boom of the early 21st century helped, too, to make it profitable to shut down those old coal fired power plants and replace them with gas-fired plants.
Lower emissions! Fewer good jobs! More miniature earthquakes (see Oklahoma) and more contaminated ground water (see Pennsylvania)! This is us, your parents and grandparents, having your cake and eating it, too. And really, that reduction of emissions in 2013? Probably another outsourcing exercise and a fortunate side effect of an otherwise undesirable economic circumstance.
A side effect of the immense international climate change management apparatus, like in New York City, is that the focus on emissions causes other parallel environmental and social regress and harm to be placed less prominently and subordinated. And we’re not even aiming at reduction.
With that one step forward, two steps back framework in mind, one last example.
The environmental movement won a, perhaps temporary, victory when movement towards permitting a major pipeline extension – Keystone XL – that would have carried Alberta, Canada tar sands petroleum to the US Gulf Coast was indefinitely postponed. Tar sands require enormous energy and water resources for extraction and also have similar effects on the land to surface strip mining. Not a lot of bang for the buck, and not financially viable when oil prices are low.
An enormous amount of environmental political capital was expended to attain the current standstill. Despite that, there has not been a formal rejection of the pipeline, just an interim non-decision.
Meanwhile, President Obama has recently signaled substantial support to the drill baby drill mantra in opening up the Arctic off the coast of Alaska to exploratory drilling, allowing Royal Dutch Shell to characterize oil reserves there. The area of the Arctic targeted for exploration, the Chukchi Sea, is one of the most productive ecosystems on earth and within one of its most dangerous and unpredictable climate zones. The impacts of warming to date in these upper reaches has also further compromised the situation, likely destabilizing the ecosystem and making it more susceptible to impacts from events such as deep sea drill rig blow
As a backdrop to the permitting of deep sea drilling in this hostile and unique environment, we can’t help but look to British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. In those relatively calm and sunny waters, it wasn’t the climate, it was technical failure and human incompetence, greed and corruption that lead to the accident. Eleven workers dead and 210 million gallons of oil released. Those factors are not going away, and will only be compounded by the Arctic elements.
So, it was possible to stop Keystone XL, maybe, but in a move to stake a flag in the Arctic, probably partially in response to the petro-oligarchy Russia’s moves in the past decade, the United States has taken an even riskier and less economically viable gamble. Doubling down on the Chukchi Sea and the Shell version of BP’s Horizon, the Polar Pioneer, phantom rig leaks, accidents and all. Geopolitics and oil money trumping your generation’s future, with the full collusion of the sitting US president.
So where does that leave us? You? The solutions to global warming that are proposed almost never mean less. The aim to optimize the triple bottom line is a noble, if not evasive, goal. It’s the least disingenuous of the efforts to have it both ways. This and lesser ideas directed at reducing our emissions are currently aiming low; uncompromising, continuous economic expansion, targeted to increase with greater efficiency, bend the curve, not shave the peak. But really, simply put what’s missing is sacrifice and redistribution to cushion those who don’t have enough and who don’t have outsize carbon footprints.
At some point the decision will be yours to make. Will you decide not to visit your parents, to Skype instead? Will you consume as little as possible, going into a monastic existence? I think it’s important to remember the primarily symbolic nature of these acts in the short-term, but not to discount their educational and socio-cultural value. These will help you fine tune, learn to appreciate the complexity of the action of the individual and guide higher level systematic thinking.
I think that there are three approaches to consider.
-always aim to do good, be disappointed or delusional
-do well then do good, simultaneity not realistic
-do well, don’t worry
I hope you don’t choose the last, but it’s all subjective and relative anyway, so categorical thinking is helpful but not definitive – one person’s single good deed can outweigh another’s fifty. But honestly, I think the pragmatic middle road will yield the greatest impact if not the greatest moral clarity, if that’s your goal. That will be a persistent, sometimes daily decision that I hope you have the luxury to make.
Look, I truly hope that you do what makes you happy, I now know that that really is more important than anything else. But, just remember, if you don’t do better than me, I’ve failed -and so have you. Ha!