Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day Musings - Now is the time to act on climate change

Lainey Piland photo

Happy Earth Day! It's the one day each year set aside specifically for the appreciation of our home planet and for raising awareness about the multitude of environmental issues that threaten it.  Earth provides us with a livable habitat, food, water, clean air, and the other natural resources required to sustain our existence. Hmmm... seems as though it would be more appropriate for Earth Day to be every day, not just on April 22nd. And with the threats our planet currently faces as a result of destructive human activity, its isn't just a warm fuzzy suggestion that Earth Day should be every day.  It is an imperative.

Of all the threats to our planet, climate change is far and away the most pressing.  With grave consequences and widespread devastation in the form of heat waves, rising sea levels, species extinctions, acidifying oceans, drought, diminished agricultural productivity, declining water supply, increased conflict, and stronger storms, just to name a few, it is clear that the cost of inaction is too great to gamble with.

Unfortunately, after decades of dragging our feet despite countless warnings and pleas from scientists, we are well on our way to reaching the "point of no return" where human activity will have set in motion a warming of our planet that is well beyond  the 2 degrees Celsius limit that is considered "safe". Some scientists even suggest that we are beyond that point now. We are already well beyond the "safe" atmospheric carbon dioxide level of 350ppm.  Last year, we reached a sobering milestone when carbon dioxide levels reached 400ppm for the first time in human history.  And, just in time for Earth Day 2014, we have reached a new milestone as carbon dioxide levels were sustained at or above 400ppm for the past month. If allowed to continue, this trend of inaction and rising carbon dioxide levels will lead us into dangerous territory and leave not only future generations with a completely new planet, but those of us here, now, and today are already dealing with an imperiled environment which humans have never before faced.  And the worst part of it is that we could have prevented it.

And perhaps we still can, but it is going to take a lot of work. I think that we, as a collective society, are more than capable of taking on this task.  From my conversations with people from all ages, backgrounds, and political persuasions, it has been evident that we want a clean, healthy planet to live on.  We enjoy the natural scenery around us and we want to protect it.  We want clean air to breathe.  We want a reliable supply of food and water.  We want to be safe from natural disasters. We want these things to be available to our children and grandchildren.  If it were up to the people, I think that we would have a fighting chance against climate change.

Unfortunately, it is not the people, but government and corporations (namely, the fossil fuel industry whose product is largely responsible for our increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels) that are currently dictating action - or rather, inaction - on this issue. They have too much to lose, but so do we. As evidence of that fact, here are some numbers presented by Bill McKibben, founder of the climate change movement 350.org, in a July 2012 Rolling Stone article:
  • 2 - Our not-to-exceed target of global warming in degrees celsius, which will allow us to minimize the worst effects of climate change.
  • 565 - the amount of carbon (in gigatons) that can be emitted into the atmosphere by mid-century and still allow us to stay below the 2- degree target.
  • 2,795 - the amount of carbon (in gigatons) contained in the known coal, oil, and gas reserves of fossil fuel companies and countries.
I've always found math to be slightly frightening, but the numbers above are downright terrifying. These numbers are telling us that fossil fuel companies have FIVE TIMES the amount of carbon than is safe to burn.  And how much of this are they planning to burn? All of it.  Why? These fossil fuel reserves are valued at approximately $30 trillion.  It is very hard to convince a company or government to leave $30 trillion in the ground.

This is a huge obstacle to overcome, but perhaps if enough voices join the chorus, we can bring our government and the fossil fuel industry to a come-to-Jesus moment where they realize that the livability of our planet is worth infinitely more than their $30 trillion worth of fossil fuels.  That the cost of mitigating climate change now will be significantly lower than the cost of adapting to a wrecked climate in the future. That if those fossil fuels are burned, the industry will be responsible for the extinctions of countless species, and have the blood of millions of people on their hands. That we will not stand for it.

Check out the Sierra Club and 350.org for ways to get involved in the climate change fight. It is easy to feel helpless in the face of such an overwhelming issue, but every person's voice matters.  I also struggle with what to do about this issue, so I write about it, hoping that I can educate and inspire others to take action as well.

So there you have it.  I wasn't planning on writing on this issue for Earth Day, but this is what came out.  It wasn't the warm fuzzy recycle-and-save-the-planet Earth Day message that so many of us are used to hearing.  This is an urgent call to act-on-climate-change-and-save-the-planet-and-ourselves.  Don't get me wrong... recycling is good!  But that is not the only thing we should be talking about on Earth Day.

Take some time today to go outside, take a deep breath, and look at the landscape around you.  This is worth saving.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In the News: Governor's Plan for Washington State to Lead the Charge on Climate Change

Lainey Piland photo
Every once in awhile, a particular moment will remind me why it is so wonderful to live in Washington. A glimpse of Mount Rainier, the Cascades, or the Olympics on a clear day.  The peaceful sound of rain pattering on the roof.  A commanding Superbowl victory (go Hawks!). Blooming cherry trees on the UW campus. Watching our entire state rush to the aid of a fellow community devastated by a natural disaster.

Another of these pride-inspiring moments occurred recently as I tuned in to the live broadcast of a Climate Desk Live event hosted by the University of Washington, at which Governor Jay Inslee discussed Washington State's action plan for climate change. I felt my Evergreen State pride swelling as the discussions went on and the governor outlined his plan for Washington state, and the Pacific Northwest as a whole, to become global leaders in taking action against climate change.  Not only did I feel pride, but also an overwhelming sense of relief, that at least, our own state is under the leadership of someone who gets it.  Climate change is real, it's dangerous, and it's happening NOW.

Governor Inslee started off the discussion by insisting that Washington is the place to fight climate change because 1. It's kind of beautiful here (in case you haven't noticed), 2. Our families are here - this is our home and we will fight for it, and 3. With our abundance of natural resources, from apple orchards to oyster beds, action on climate change is not optional: our state's agricultural abundance is in jeopardy.  The governor also argued that Washington has the people to act on climate change.  We are world leaders, we are people who understand science, we are entrepreneurs, and we are people who have a moral obligation to future generations to pass along the same healthy Washington state that we know and love today.

Wow, so we have a governor who loves this state as much as we do and who believes that as a people, we have the fortitude and ingenuity to take on climate change? Sign me up, let's get this thing done!  Just what exactly are we going to do?  Here is the governor's plan:

1. Put a cap on carbon pollution.  This is a legally binding limit that dictates the amount of carbon dioxide emissions allowed, and is a mechanism that has been proven to work (with limiting the sulfur dioxide emissions that caused acid rain).

2. Get off "coal by wire".  14% of Washington state's energy comes from coal plants in Montana.  Time to bring that "in house" and obtain our energy from our state's own renewable resources.

3. Reduce carbon pollution from the transportation system.  Commuters need choices, and the accessibility and funding for public transportation needs to be improved.  Vehicles also need to utilize less-polluting fuels, and a low-carbon fuel standard should be set.

4. Buildings need to become more energy efficient.

5. Research and development on energy-reducing, efficiency-increasing, and renewable technologies.  Need to perfect existing and create new technologies.

These are a few simple, straightforward solutions that can have a big impact on Washington's carbon emissions and fight against climate change.  Another part of the discussion I loved: Inslee made no bones about the fact that he was going to get this done, and would use every tool at his gubernatorial disposal to make these actions a reality. He is not waiting for the federal government to take action, or for another country to set an example for us.  He wants Washington state to lead the world on this issue.

To underscore the urgent need for action, Dean Lisa Graumlich of the UW College of the Environment presented a few statistics specifically pertaining to climate change in Washington:
  • Since the 1880's the average temperature in Washington state has increased by 1.3 degrees F. Doesn't sound too significant, does it?  Well, not until you consider that as a result, we have lost 25% of our snowpack (ONE-QUARTER!), which has led to decreased summertime water supply, decreased hydropower production in the summer, and increased flooding.  
  • Sea levels are projected to rise 3" by 2030, and 7" by 2050.  Again, these figures don't sound very significant (as Dean Graumlich points out, normal daily tidal fluctuations result in larger sea level shifts than this).  However, a rising sea level means that agricultural land and deltas will flood, and saltwater will infiltrate coastal aquifers, leading to water supply issues.  Sea level rise will also lead to beach erosion.
  • Wildfires have increased sixfold in just the past 30 years.  The fires are more severe, last longer, and are fueled in part when trees are killed by pine beetles that are flourishing in our warming climate.
Bottom line: we need to adapt to our "new normal" in this era of climate change and mitigate carbon dioxide pollution as much as possible. We cannot change the damage that has been done, but we can work immediately to prevent it from becoming the "worst case scenario" that destroys our beloved Evergreen State and threatens our prosperity and survival.

Clearly, actions in Washington state will be meaningless against climate change if the rest of the globe does nothing.  However, if our efforts can be an example, a model, an inspiration, a tipping point for other states, countries, and continents to act, we will be well on our way to punching climate change in the face and transitioning to a more sustainable global society.

If you have the time, I highly recommend watching the hour-and-a-half long video of the discussion. I've summarized the main points from two of the four speakers here, but there is much more to listen to!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Going Green: A Day Without Waste on April 9th

Our society has a problem with waste. The culture of consumption, convenience and newer-and-better that dominates our society has led to an overwhelming and completely unnecessary amount of waste that harms our environment -- and ultimately, ourselves.

How much waste?  According to Global Citizen, the organizers of April 9th's "A Day Without Waste," approximately 75% of our garbage is recyclable, but only 30% of it actually gets recycled.  Additionally, One-third of global food production is wasted every year. More than one-quarter of our home water usage goes toward flushing toilets (and this is drinkable water!). In the Pacific Ocean, a swirling vortex of floating garbage has accumulated enough waste to cover an area one and a half times the size of the United States 100 feet deep with garbage. In 2013 alone, we used enough single-use "K-Cups" to wrap around earth 10.5 times.

The average American produces nearly 5 pounds of garbage per day!  Multiply that by 365 days per year, then again by the US population of approximately 318 million people, and that adds up to... well... a lot of garbage every year. With a growing population, declining natural resources, and increasingly polluted environment, it is critical for everyone to take at least a few small steps to minimize waste.

I would encourage all of us to participate in "A Day Without Waste" on April 9th.  For one whole day, do not throw anything in the garbage.  Use what you can, and then recycle or compost any leftover waste.  However, don't let your efforts stop there! If you can do it for a day, then you can do it every day, right?  The change may be challenging to get used to at first and will require a little more effort and forethought on your part, but eventually you'll find that you can easily live your life with less waste, while protecting our environment and actually saving money at the same time!

Here are a few simple and painless ways to get you started on reducing your household waste:
  • Ditch the disposables:  Plastic utensils, paper plates, plastic baggies... these are all unnecessary and wasteful. Take the time to wash and re-use plates, dishes, and utensils, and instead of packing lunches and leftovers in plastic baggies, invest in reusable glass food storage containers.
  • Say goodbye to paper towels and napkins.  What?? How will I live without paper towels? Trust me, it can be done! Replace your paper towels with cloths or rags that are washed and re-used (or get crafty and make your own roll of towels) and replace paper napkins with cloth ones. You'll save money, reduce waste, and even with washing, you'll still use less water than the 50-200 gallons used to manufacture a single roll of paper towels!
  • Bring a reusable cup for your coffee run.
  • Use a reusable water bottle. Just say no to bottled water. Please. 
  • Purchase groceries and food items that have minimal packaging. It is much less wasteful to purchase fresh produce (preparing, canning, and/or freezing it yourself if necessary) and buy in bulk (portioning it out yourself) rather than choosing prepared frozen foods or items packaged in single-serving packages. Buy the basic ingredients and make as much as you can from scratch rather than purchasing pre-prepared foods, which often come with embarrassing amounts of plastic packaging.
  • Purchase reusable shopping bags and actually use them. I will admit, there have been times when I have forgotten my reusable bags, or had to stop by the store unexpectedly and was forced to use plastic bags.  After too many of those shameful experiences, I always make sure that my reusable bags go straight back into my car when I'm done unloading the groceries!
  • Recycle everything that you can.  Paper, glass and metal... these items should always be recycled! Plastic is a little trickier... pay attention to the number printed inside the recycling symbol on your plastic items.  Numbers 1 and 2 are always recyclable, but other numbers may or may not be... check with your recycling service provider to find out what's recyclable and what isn't.
  • Compost food waste.  Whether it's in your home compost bin or a food waste bin provided by your garbage service, there are better options for disposing of food waste than in the garbage!
  • Look at your garbage.  Seriously, take a peek inside your garbage bag before hauling it out to the bin, and take stock of what's in there.  Is the bulk of it food waste? Or paper towels?  What items in there can be replaced with reusables, and which can be recycled or composted? And while we're at it, take a look at the bag itself.  There are options available these days in the way of biodegradable garbage bags, so consider making the switch and bidding farewell to plastic.
Just keep in mind when you throw something away that there is no "away".  Everything comes back to us... our garbage washes up on beaches, the chemicals and pharmaceuticals we flush down toilets and drains make their way into our drinking water, garbage incinerators (or backyard garbage burning) release toxic chemicals into the air we breathe and surrounding land that grows our food... the list goes on. 

Lainey Piland photo

These are but a few small ways in which you can decrease your contribution to our society's waste stream.  Try to put these into practice on A Day Without Waste on April 9th, and make a commitment to reducing or eliminating your household waste.