January 2009

Bigfoot….carbon that is

Author: Dave Kerns

Sasquatch. Ten foot tall. 500 pounds. His foot, double the size of a shoebox! Do you believe?

The scientific community considers Bigfoot to be a combination of folklore, misidentification, and hoaxes. But a bigger “Bigfoot” has come to life, and the scientific community considers it to be quite real and growing as each decade passes. This new creature isn’t quite as hairy as Sasquatch, but unfortunately it is something for more than just the folks in the Pacific Northwest to deal with. Carbon footprints have become BIG—big footprints that could trample the futures of our kids and grandkids.

By definition, a carbon footprint is the measure of the impact that human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide. Excessive greenhouse gases result from excessive burning of fossil fuels such as petroleum to power our cars as well as coal and natural gas to satisfy our daily electricity consumption. The scientific consensus is that the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases produced by the burning of these fossil fuels caused most of the global warming observed in the last 50 years. The burning of fossil fuels produces around 21.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, but it is estimated that the earth’s natural processes can only absorb about half of that amount, leaving the rest as atmospheric carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas believed to contribute most to global warming. Scientists agree that this will cause major adverse effects on our earth. It’s a complicated issue. There are carbon footprints, greenhouse gases, fossil fuels, carbon dioxide and global warming just to start. There’s your primary and secondary carbon footprint, life cycle assessments and carbon offsets. It goes on and on. Much more complicated than trying to figure out if anyone has really seen a big hairy creature running around the Pacific Northwest.

I am not a scientist, and most likely neither are you, so I am not going to take space naming and defining technical terms. I’m just a concerned guy trying to make you think about how your actions affect future generations. I do some research, I draw some conclusions and I pass it along to you in hopes that we can learn a thing or two together. So here’s my simple take on how global warming occurs and the problem of it. The sun’s rays pass through the earth’s atmosphere, warming the earth’s surface. The earth absorbs some of the sun’s warmth while emitting some of it back into the air. Greenhouse gases present within the atmosphere trap in some of this reflected warmth, while some of it escapes back into space. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases are important, because without this trapped warmth, the earth would be too cold for humans to exist. The problem comes when excessive greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, become part of the atmosphere and trap in more heat than is ideal for our earth. This extra carbon dioxide is a result of our excessive burning of fossil fuels; and the additional trapped heat is slowly causing our earth’s temperature to rise. This is global warming, and the earth’s climate is changing because of it. Glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising. Severe droughts are happening in parts of the world while excess rain and flooding are occurring in other parts. According to a 2004 study published in Nature Journal, between 15 and 37 percent of known plant and animal species will be extinct or heading for eventual extinction by 2050 because of climate change. Does this bother you as much as it does me? I don’t plan on getting a polar bear as a pet anytime soon, but I do know that it’s wrong for us to allow their habitat to be destroyed and the possibility of their extinction to exist because of our selfishness with energy consumption. And if that doesn’t bother you, how about that predicted increase in coastal flooding or the increase in intensity of hurricanes? After all we do live on an island so this might get your attention.

As I see it, the problem is not that most of us don’t care. I just think we often get caught up in our hectic lives and don’t think about the long-term consequences of what we do. As a whole we are not as educated as we should be about global warming. We could continue to ignore this or, worse yet, be like “that guy” we all occasionally run into around town who wants to “educate” us on his political views though they always seem baseless, tell us recycling is a scam or that global warming is just something for scientists to occupy their time and scare us about. You probably know “that guy.” It seemed he was everywhere as the election approached. The fact is that most scientists concur that global warming is a very real issue with very real concerns. Thirty scientific societies and academics of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries believe global warming is occurring.

It’s time to do our part to help. If your New Year’s resolution has been the same for years and you’ve yet to accomplish it, maybe it’s time for a change. Why not make a simple resolution that you can stick to that will make you feel good knowing you’re helping our planet? First, use less electricity. Even a little less from each of us will help. Electricity comes from power plants most of which burn coal and oil to make electricity and therefore produce greenhouse gases. It’s simple. If you plug it in, it uses electricity. You can easily come up with ways to save electricity. I’ll give you just a few ideas to get started. Try to be conscious of your heating and air conditioning use. Setting you thermostat too high or too low can waste a lot of electricity. Web sites of several energy conscious groups all seem to suggest setting your thermostat no higher than 68 in the winter and no lower than 78 in the summer. I sometimes air dry my dishes at night rather than used the drying cycle on my dishwasher. How about a book instead of several hours of TV each day? Reality shows…really? Take the kids out to play. Maybe even plant a tree. The kids will remember this much more than watching you while you watch Dancing with the Stars. And very simply, TURN OUT THE LIGHTS when you leave the room. It doesn’t get any easier than this!

Second, save petroleum by driving a little less. Plan your errands so you don’t end up driving back and forth all over the island. Maybe even walk or ride your bike on occasion. I was having coffee with a friend the other day as she was about to “run” some errands. She left the coffee shop only to drive about a tenth of a mile to the drugstore next door. I then observed the next 30-second drive from the drugstore to the grocery store before she ended back at the coffee shop because she forgot to tell me something. It reminded me of an old Cheech and Chong movie where the two of them left their house to visit the next door neighbors. They got in their car, did somewhat of a U-turn before ending up, 10 seconds later, parked on the neighbors curb in a cloud of smoke. I think it was exhaust! I doubt you would let Cheech and Chong set the example for your kids. You must take responsibility to set a good example.

Our earth needs our help. For 2009, resolve to use less electricity and drive a little less. I am, and I resolved to educate my errand-running friend about greenhouse gases and carbon footprints. I hope she’s reading this. If so, don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone who you are. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

E-mail me at dakgreenhh@hotmail.com with any thoughts. Thanks!

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