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January 08, 2007

Climate Changes

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I watched An Inconvenient Truth over the holidays. Having read a fair amount on climate change already, most of the information didn't come as a real surprise to me, but it did discuss a couple of things that really shocked me.
One of the most alarming things that the film talks about is the break up of the Larsen B ice shelf, a 3250 square kilometre chunk of ice in Antarctica. Scientists once believed that, even taking global warming into account, the Larsen B shelf would take about 100 years to melt, but in 2002 it broke up and slipped into the ocean in just over a month. The day after I watched the movie, there were reports on the news about the break-up of the Ayles ice shelf in the Arctic region of Canada. This is very scary to me, as these things seem to happen very quickly, much faster than anyone previously thought, and these events will be the main factor behind the rise of sea levels.
Arctic ice also serves to reflect the sun's radiation back into the atmosphere, keeping things a little cooler here on earth (especially in the summer in the northern hemisphere, when the earth is tilted toward the sun). Snow reflects up to 90% of the sun's radiation, whereas water and bare soil have the potential to absorb up to 90% of the radiation that it hits it. The more snow and ice we lose to global warming, the faster things are going to heat up.

The movie does well to dispel the myth that current warming trends are a result of normal climatic swings that have occurred over the course of the earth's history.

Graph from Mongabay.com

This graph is not exactly like the one in the movie, but it shows the same basic trend (present day is on the left). Carbon dioxide levels during the periods between the Ice Ages and the warmer cycles would typically swing from just under 200 ppmv during an Ice Age, to around 300 ppmv during a warm cycle, but never had CO2 levels gone much above three hundred (that is, until about the mid 1960's). As you can see from the graph, levels are now at almost 400 ppmv.

What this chart doesn't show that the one in the movie did was the relationship between global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels - there was an almost exact correlation (when CO2 levels went up, temperatures went up, and vice versa). If 100 ppmv can mean the difference between an ice age and a warm period, what kinds of temperatures can we expect in the future? CO2 levels continue to rise at a consistent rate every year, so it's inevitable that our temperatures will too.


The above graph is called the Keeling Curve, which shows atmospheric CO2 levels since 1958. Levels wax and wane throughout the year in relation to winter and summer cycles - CO2 goes down when it's summer in the northern hemisphere and there are more plants to absorb it, and it goes up in the winter when plant life goes dormant and the trees lose their leaves. The problem is, each year the levels never go down quite as far as they were the year before, causing the levels to gradually creep upward. If this trend is projected into the future, levels of this greenhouse gas are expected to double over normal levels to almost 600 ppmv. That scares me to death, but it also give me hope. If the change of seasons can have such an immediate effect on CO2 levels, then imagine what we can do if we stop putting it out there in the first place

So what am I going to do about it? We've been making efforts to reduce our impact for a long time now, but the more I learn about it (and the more we get pummelled by wild weather), the more hard-core I find myself becoming.

Here are some of the things we've done so far:

  • Bought a fuel efficient car (a Toyota Echo) several years ago. Its mileage is similar to some of the hybrids out there but the sticker price is much lower.
  • Our lovely fuel efficient car remains parked most of the time (making me wonder why we even have it). We get a large percentage of our groceries delivered, and we save our errands up so we only make one trip out instead of multiple trips.
  • My husband rides his bike to work instead of driving (45 minutes each way). It keeps him fit as a fiddle and is a great way to burn off the day's frustrations (earning him a reduced rate on his life insurance because he's so darn healthy).
  • We've replaced most of our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (click the link if you think you hate them). I'm also pretty tough about only turning the lights on when absolutely necessary.
  • We keep our heat turned down to just above 15 degrees C (about 60 degrees F). Our bodies seem to acclimatize as we tend to find most other buildings overly warm. In addition, we all wear slippers (which make a huge difference; we never had them growing up, so I had no idea!), as well as cardigans or a hoodie, and if we start to feel chilly, we grab a cozy blanket before cranking up the heat.
  • We quit using our inefficient 35 year old gas furnace and have been using small electric space heaters instead. Here in BC that's a much more green option, as our electricity is all hydro generated (not that hydro power is totally light on the planet, but it doesn't produce the greenhouse gases associated with oil or coal generated power).
  • We only heat the main living areas. Rooms that aren't used during the day (like our bedroom) are kept closed until just before bedtime (when the heat goes off).
  • We're slowly replacing our old inefficient appliances with Energy Star certified ones, and we occasionally choose to live without them. Also, we've decided to choose better quality (if slightly more expensive) appliances and pay to repair them instead of replacing them when they die (our defunct washer/dryer is being repaired and sent to live with my in-laws, who need a more efficient machine).
  • Most of our electronics are plugged into surge protectors. They remain switched off until we actually need to use them, and are turned off right away when we're finished. Up to 50% of electricity used in a home is in the form of a phantom load, which results from the slight draw of electricity used by LED lights when in standby mode, or digital clocks on electronic devices.
  • We live in a tiny house (770 square feet). This takes less energy to heat, and less stuff to fill (and less time to clean!!). We're thinking of going slightly larger (although I'm struggling with this), but we are real believers in the not so big house.
  • We're growing as much of our own food as we can, and purchase the rest of our food from local sources as often as possible. I was shocked when I read in The Omnivore's Dilemma that a box of organic mixed greens (the quintessential green food) is a huge waste of energy, providing us with 85 calories of food value in a one pound box, but requiring over 4000 calories worth of fuel to reach our stores (and that's doesn't include the oil required to make the plastic box). We also try to make most of our food from scratch, rather than buying foods that are packaged in all that cardboard and plastic and shipped from who-knows-where.
  • I keep cloth shopping bags in my purse so that I never have to take a plastic bag while shopping.
  • We use a push mower to mow our lawn instead of a conventional lawn mower. A gas model produces as many emissions in an hour of use as a driving a car 100 miles.
  • We eat very little or no meat. Factory farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, so if you can't produce your own milk, eggs, and meat, cutting back on these things will reduce your carbon load.

Here are some of the things that we hope to do in the future:

  • Replace our drafty, single-paned windows with good ones.
  • Get rid of our car and either join a car co-op or buy an electric model.
  • Replace our gas hot water tank with an electric tankless model. They use a lot less power because they only heat water when you need it, rather than keeping a large amount of hot water at the ready.
  • The increase in crazy weather has inspired use to get a wood stove for heating instead of our electric space heaters (if the power goes out, we're screwed!). We've already got the stove, we just need to finish installing it (the fireplace retrofit is almost complete!). Wood heat is essentially carbon neutral.
  • I would like to try following the guidelines of The Compact pledge for a year. We already try to live like this for the most part, but I think setting myself the goal of not buying anything new for a whole year will really make us more aware of how much we don't need those shiny new things we like to think of as necessities. This will be interesting with regard to the renovations we've got planned for the house (I guess we'll be making good use of the Habitat ReStore and demo sales).

That's not a complete list, but it's all I can think of for now. If you've read this far, I'm sorry to have been so long winded, but I really wanted to see these things written down (I think better when I can see something in front of me).

I'm currently reading The Weather Makers and am finding it very informative. Other books that I'd recommend include The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, and The Long Emergency (not technically about global warming, but another look at the problems with oil dependency).

For a list of movies that you can watch for free online (including An Inconvenient Truth), click here.

What kinds of things are you doing that we haven't thought of yet?

6 comments:

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

I thought about blogging about surge protectors. We have used those for years and I really really get onto my children if they forget to turn it off after using the appliance of choice.
By the way---I too am for living smaller. On the other hand somehow we ended up this time with a big house. (almost too big for us) The only thing going for it is that it is "recycled" and now updated with better insulation/windows and on-demand hot water heater. We hardly use heat/ac unless really needed (I FREEZE in the summer since everyone uses a/c more than we do) and it's south facing--good potential for the eventual solar water/electricity. I wish more retirement couples would quit building those 4500 sqf retirement homes for two people ARGH!

Chelee said...

You sound like you're on top of it efficiency wise. I'm doing the compact with a friend right now. It's been an amazing journey so far.

I truly can't think of a darn thing except maybe rain barrels for irrigation. We also live in a small house 900sq ft for the four of us. I love how long it takes me to clean. My sister who lives in a much large house with 3 bathrooms is always complaining of the upkeep.

Way to go!

Niobium said...

Wolf and I have made the following changes which you can see listed here.

We watched the same film about a month ago and enjoyed it. Like you, I wasn't particularly surprised by the information imparted. But what I did notice after watching the behind the scenes was the producers built a set for him instead of using an already built one. And that he didn't drive an econo car by any means.

Carla said...

Great post! Those carbon dioxide levels are pretty scary and are just going to get worse as countries like China continue to develop. It's great that we're all making big efforts, but at some point government and industry are going to need to get actively involved if we are going to see any real progress in these areas.

The Fool said...

Carla pointed the way for me to this post. I'm glad she did. It is very informative, and well written. Kudos.

Cheryl said...

Monica - It sounds like you've done a lot of great things with your house. Good luck with the solar thing - I don't think we get quite enough sun to do that full time (wind power on the other hand, we could do!).
I agree, it's frustrating to see the monolithic homes that are the fashion these days.

Chelee - Yay for small houses! Do your kids still share a room? My only reason for wanting a bit more space is to get them each their own space. My daughter would love to have a retreat away from her "pesky" brother.
I'll be reading more about your compact experience for inspiration.

Nio - Great list, you guys are doing a lot (love the quote at the top of Wolf's blog, by the way)!
They say that Gore makes up for his lifestyle by buying carbon offsets so he's essentially carbon neutral, but I don't know why he can't buy offsets and live lightly at the same time.

Carla - It's scary to think that coal-fired plants are still being built (did you hear that they want to build two here in BC?).
Hopefully more people getting on board will make global warming a political issue.

Fool - Thank you, I'm glad she did too.

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