With the last few weeks a bit hectic, and all the news coming from my brother with Hurricane Michael, I am coming late to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees C that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this month. I think it’s worth coming back to, though, so here’goes.
I set out to read the full report, but after seeing that it was in the neighborhood of a thousand pages, I decided to read just the Summary for Policymakers, because I am a policymaker of sorts: co-governor of the Adam Streeter household. The 33 page “summary” was not the most exciting reading, and I wonder how many policymakers will actually read even this. Nonetheless, the content was sobering, even as I expected (at a high level) most of what the report covered.
At a quick summary: even 1.5 degrees Celcius warming would be very bad for a lot of people and life. We’d see increased extreme weather events and coastal flooding, more problems with crop yields and food scarcity, human health threats as pathogens and pests expand their range, and more water scarcity. Warm water corals are just hosed. 2 degrees warming is definitely worse. If we continue spewing CO2 like we are now, we are doomed.
But, we might be able to avert 1.5 degrees warming and some of the impacts if we get to net zero carbon emissions in the next twenty to thirty years. Net zero means that we, as a global community, somehow manage to go from spewing around 40 billion tons of CO2 a year to emitting much less and sequestering or capturing an equivalent amount to our emissions so that it doesn’t go into the atmosphere.
With this existential threat to so many lives, our wellbeing, and our economic livelihoods, why don’t we as individuals pay that much attention to this, and why do we seem to weight it so low in our individual decision making?
Maybe it has to do with the dull factual tone of the prose. Each word is carefully chosen for a specific and defined meaning, backed up by associated research. Maybe they need to be more like Chris Tucker’s character in Rush Hour who calmly informs museum guests of a threat on the buliding, sees nobody moving, and shouts at them, “Didn’t you hear what I just said? … Hurry up! Get the hell out! there’s a bomb in the building!”
I don’t really think that’s it, though. There are enough news reports, pundits, and passionate experts out there that are speaking in more urgent and clear terms. What is it then?
It could be that the problem just seems too big, and too intractable, and that – although we recognize the enormity of it – we shut down and do nothing. Or, we’re just too busy living our lives to pay attention to something that isn’t blowing us up right at this very moment.
From there, cognitive dissonance and our rationalization starts in: “I’m a good person…and I wouldn’t knowingly destroy the planet for my children and cause the suffering of so many others…and, well, the science behind this global warming stuff isn’t really settled” (side note: yeah, it pretty much is) “…and, it probably won’t be that bad” (yes, it will) “…and I’m sure there are other people out there that will fix it, if it is…” The next thing you know, I’m back to my happy carefree ways.
How do we change that? Maybe we could frame global warming like a war effort: “Support our troops; take the bus!” Or we could gamify it: “Hey! I just made Level 15 Carbon Sequestration Master!” I may have some future posts along these lines.
I think the best solution may be one that is not a popular idea in the U.S.: carbon tax. By accounting for the true cost of carbon pollution, and global warming by extension, within our market system, we can continue living carefree AND save the human world from imminent self-destruction. Instead of agonizing over whether it’s better for global warming to buy locally grown tomatoes that might have been in a hothouse, or remotely grown tomatoes that were shipped, I can just look at the price tag as a good approximation, and buy whichever…or neither.
There are a lot of challenges with a carbon tax, to be sure, but I still think it is one of our best available tools to drive the change we need. Of course, we need to consider the impacts of such a tax on those less able to afford it and those that have not benefited from the historical carbon pollution that many of us have built our first world lifestyles on.
I need to put my money where my mouth is, then. I need to do my fair share. So…what does that look like?
Let’s start with net zero carbon emissions. If we want to avoid 1.5C warming, the IPCC report shows that we want to get to net zero carbon emissions by the year 2040. Okay, what would it take for me (and my family) to get to net zero? In a previous post about offsetting carbon impact of vacation trips, I used a carbon calculator, and I returned to it for this exercise.
The calculator estimates that my family is responsible for about 31 metric tons of carbon each year. That’s excluding vacation trips. I also excluded electricity, as we are already part of our utility’s program to buy wind power credits in offset of our power usage. One surprising thing about that figure was that the biggest contributor to it was our food and drink expenditures — one more reason to be more conscious of what you eat.
I can reduce that impact by changing our habits, energy usage, food consumption, etc. For the purposes of this exercise, though, I’m going to use carbon offsets as a stand in. Not just because they are more convenient, but also because I actually want a pathway to negative numbers.
Negative numbers? Well, I can’t stop at zero. For the last 100+ years, Western countries have been booming with industry that made us all comparatively rich. I, as a white cisgender heterosexual male with a great job, can hardly deny that I have reaped those cumulative benefits. It is my responsibility, then, as a matter of equity and fairness, to help shoulder the burden of those in developing countries and of those in my own country that have not benefited from history as much as I.
Let’s start with developing countries. According to Pew Research, 71% of the world is either “poor” (less than $2/day) or “low income” (less than $10/day). Most of these poor are going to be in developing countries. Roughly speaking, then, we have a 2:1 ratio of developing to developed world, and if we’re to allow the developing world to enjoy similar lifestyles to our own, we need to help offset their carbon, too. So, I’ll add an extra 2x to my burden. 31 + (2 x 31) = 93 tons I’m up to.
But even within the developed world, things aren’t equal, and I’ve enjoyed more prosperity than others. In the US, the top 20% of income earners account for over 50% of total income. I’m going to use that as an arbitrary point and say that the top 20% needs to help cover the other 80% to some degree. To what extent? Again, I’m going to be fairly arbitrary and say that the top 20% should shoulder the full burden of the bottom 40% and half the burden of the middle 40%. So, for every household in the top 20%, they should take on an extra 3 equivalent households.
I’m going to stratify that again, a bit further, because the top 20% has a lot of inequality within it. I’m going to distribute that, again fairly arbitrarily, like this across the quintiles of the top 20%: 1 equivalent household for the bottom quintile, 2 for the second, 3 for 3rd, 4 for 4th, and 5 for the highest. That way, it averages out to my 3 equivalent households.
Depending on the measure, I might barely be in that top 20%, so I’m going to add another 1 household equivalent onto my obligation. I’m up to 124 tons, now. But wait! I forgot that I also want a developed world household to take on two developing world households. So, I should add another 2 to my total. 186 tons. Carbonfootprint.com and others offer carbon offsets for $10 to $20 a ton, so it looks like my self-imposed carbon tax bill comes to around $2,700.
Yet, if I truly reflect on this, I think that is fair. And, if that is the price of preventing global catastrophe, I am willing to pay it. I owe it to my son and daughter, and to many future generations of humanity, to do what I can, now. I will not shirk this responsibility. My next task will be to find the best carbon offset investment and spread this tax across the year (that may be worth a separate post).
And there we have it. I know that many may disagree with this, and I myself can think of a dozen things at least that might be wrong with my rough calculation approach. However, I think it gets me in the ballpark and also the right frame of mind when thinking about the impact of my actions. I’d love to hear your ideas for refining it, or other ideas for calculating, or even whole different approaches.
How about you? What are your thoughts on global warming and the extent of our responsibility to take actions to prevent it? How would you calculate your fair share?