Rachel's Democracy & Health News #888, January 4, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Global warming is the greatest threat to human well being and the greatest issue of justice on the planet. To fix the problem, we just have to dive in.]

By Tim Montague and Peter Montague

Scientists now agree that we have to make huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for the next twenty five years and beyond if we want to limit, then reverse, global warming. This means burning fewer fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal). It also means acknowledging that global warming is not mainly a technical problem, but a social and political problem -- primarily an issue of global justice.

Humans, worldwide, currently use a steady 13 trillion watts of power. By 2050, an additional 30 trillion will be needed, according to U.S. government energy experts. Even if these projections are exaggerated because they fail to account for conservation opportunities, the challenge of our era is to provide sufficient power without creating a climate catastrophe -- or covering the planet with nuclear power plants, which create opportunities for nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, so far, the people most affected by global warming have generally been excluded from the discussions of how to solve it.

Global warming will increase the average global temperature but it will also cause the sea level to rise, change agricultural patterns, and increase the size and frequency of "natural" disasters such as floods, droughts, intense storms, and epidemics of disease like malaria and dengue fever.

As hurricane Katrina showed us, the impacts of these changes will disproportionately affect women, youth, coastal peoples, local communities, indigenous peoples, fisher folk, small island states, poor people and the elderly. Hardest hit will be people in the global south and in the southern part of the global north -- the people who are least responsible for creating the problem. As a result, a people's movement for "climate justice" is now growing worldwide.

Time is getting short for devising solutions. In September, 2006 NASA scientist James Hansen warned "I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change... no longer than a decade, at the most," to limit the increase in global temperatures to 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

The main global warming gas is carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 levels in the atmosphere are now 382 ppm (parts per million) up from pre- industrial levels of 280 ppm -- a 36% increase. If we pursue business as usual, CO2 levels are expected to pass 500 ppm by mid-century, which would could cause warming of 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit). If this happens, many parts of the earth will become unpleasant -- even deadly -- places to live.

We in the U.S. have a special role to play -- we are 5% of the global population producing 25% of all global warming gases. To make room for needed economic growth in other parts of the world, we will need to shrink our carbon footprint drastically. Right now the United States is a global outlaw -- we have refused to endorse the Kyoto Protocol (the United Nations [U.N.] strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) through improvements in energy efficiency, public transit, and clean energy production). As China and India industrialize and seek the good life -- a new coal burning power plant goes online each week -- we could be reducing our energy use accordingly

Despite the absence of leadership at the federal level, some locales in the U.S. are starting to take action:

** From Boston to Seattle, city governments are pursuing plans to meet and beat the Kyoto Protocol

** Boulder Colorado recently adopted a 'climate tax' -- an extra fee on electricity use (also called a carbon tax, because most of our energy produces carbon dioxide). Seattle has imposed a new parking tax and the mayor hopes to charge tolls on major roads to discourage driving (if you want to enter the city in a car, you pay a toll). Boston recently passed a green building ordinance requiring all new buildings over 50,000 sq. feet to meet strict energy efficiency standards.

We can create a climate safe economy through organized collective action at all levels of society from the neighborhood and community to the national and international policy level.

Global warming is the result of unsustainable economic practices. To make our economy sustainable, our per capita consumption -- energy, forest products, metals, plastics, etc. -- has to shrink roughly five- fold. Those changes will only happen when organized residents send a resounding message to their elected officials. The size of the needed commitment is similar to the effort the U.S. made in World War II. The changes in energy, transportation and food systems we discuss below are changes that will require national solidarity and collective sacrifice.

Energy efficiency

According to the World Resources Institute energy accounts for 65% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (this includes electric utilities, transportation, industrial, residential and commercial uses). Much of this is used for heating, cooling and lighting buildings, which together make up 12% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to energy efficient fluorescent lighting which uses 75 percent less energy (and last ten times as long as incandescent bulbs) is a first step consumers and businesses can take immediately. Much greater savings are achieved by upgrading a building's thermal insulation, machinery and appliances -- applying what Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute calls 'whole- system' design -- whereby buildings can be made 75 to 90 percent more energy efficient. Lovins reports that energy efficient homes in Davis California cost $1,800 less to build and $1,600 less to maintain over their lifetime than a conventional home of the same size. Energy efficient building designs allow us to build homes and offices without a furnace or other traditional heating system, even in cold climates (and vice versa with air conditioning in warm climates). There are high tech solutions like using thick layers of polystyrene insulation and triple layered windows; and low tech solutions like building strong, beautiful homes out of straw- bales.

Switching to energy efficient buildings and consumer devices will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but will also create huge dollar savings. Industry, which accounts for 17% of U.S. emissions, is already cashing in on advances in energy efficiency by installing energy efficient motors and other machinery. According to Lovins, DuPont has reduced its heat-trapping emissions by 72 percent over the last decade, saving more that $2 billion so far. All said, we could easily reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors applying today's know how.


Transportation generates a third of our nation's greenhouse gas emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that the fuel efficiency of the U.S. auto fleet improved by 70 percent between 1975 and 1988, saving American consumers $92 billion. Federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards have since stagnated. Doubling the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks is doable and would reduce total heat-trapping emissions by 10 percent. That improvement could be made today if everyone drove a vehicle getting 55 miles per gallon, as some cars can now do.

Simply driving less is a cheaper and healthier alternative. We could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions again by 10 percent by driving half our normal annual distance of 10,000 miles and taking public transit, biking and walking instead. (Public transit accounts for less than 1 percent of American's miles traveled according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.) Emissions from U.S. light trucks and cars are the fifth largest global source of greenhouse gases -- more than many large countries -- according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Even when carbon-neutral hydrogen powered vehicles become available, living on less land with better public transit and pedestrian- friendly designs is the obvious way to go. And don't get swept up by the biofuel craze (ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy). Brian Tokar of the Institute for Social Ecology reports, "The entire corn and soy harvest combined would only satisfy 5.3% of our current [fuel] needs." Converting precious food crops to fuel for hugely inefficient cars and trucks just doesn't make economic or ecological sense. Conservation is by far the cheapest, easiest way to reduce our contribution to global warming.

The food we eat

When asked what's wrong with our food system today, Berkeley professor Michael Pollan answers, "I'd have to say the most serious problem with the food system is its contribution to global warming." Our food production system is unsustainable for many reasons. How we grow our food, how far it travels and what kind of food we eat all impact the environment. Agriculture (not counting transportation costs) generates 8% of our greenhouse gas emissions.

The Worldwatch Institute reports that our food regularly travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to plate. Growing our own food and buying it from local farmers and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms are first steps to reducing our food footprint. Cuba is a good example of a country that has developed urban agriculture and alternative energy for food crops.

The Crossroads Resource Center reports that in Minnesota if consumer's purchased just 15 percent of their food from local farmers it would generate as much income for farming communities as two- thirds of farm subsidies. Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs that offer consumers a variety of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables are a great way to support the local food economy. The CSA Learning Center on Chicago's south side educates youth and residents about local farming and helps low-income families get healthy food.

Meat is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions too. Methane is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2, and livestock are a major source -- about one sixth -- of atmospheric methane. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock's contribution to global warming is greater than that of transportation on a global basis. Global meat production is expected to double in the next 45 years. So it's clear that reducing meat in our diet is a key step as well as localizing our food sources.

Clean, renewable energy

Energy from wind and sunlight is abundant and relatively clean, and it reduces global warming. Wind energy is the fastest growing source of electricity in the world today. According to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) we could meet all our electricity needs if we harnessed the wind resources of just three states -- North Dakota, Texas and Kansas.

Solar photovoltaic cells have considerable potential too. More solar energy hits the earth in 60 minutes than all of humanity consumes in a year. However, harvesting that energy will not be simple or easy. We could meet 10% of our electricity needs by putting solar cells on existing rooftops, according to a report in Science magazine. State programs like the California Solar Initiative aim to make electricity from solar cells cost-competitive with coal and nuclear -- industries that have collected more than $500 billion in subsidies over the past fifty years according to Environment Illinois. In the next ten years California is expected to more than triple its solar power capacity to 3,000 megawatts, but even this is a still drop in the bucket.

If we converted our economy to 100% wind and solar power -- which we might be able to do in 30 to 50 years if we made it a national emergency goal -- we could avoid at least 50% of today's greenhouse gas emissions and vastly reduce fine-particle air pollution, which is killing 60,000 Americans per year. As Coop America's report on making the transition to a climate safe economy suggests, this requires an immediate moratorium on all new coal and nuclear power plants, something corporations are not prepared to do without enormous pressure from community groups.

Luckily, community groups are on the case. The international climate justice movement has established a set of principles to guide its work, and the movement is growing.