22 November 2019

a tricky answer

Thank you all for your comments. I am relieved to read that I am just as bewildered and helpless as you are.
(Despite living with a science teacher who has been teaching students on this subject for 15+ years, despite following widespread media coverage on the subject and also, despite participating in an online course on the science behind climate change, despite long and loud discussions with friends and family members, despite marching with local students on Fridays, despite wishing for a bright and healthy future for my grandchild.)

I don't have a science brain, failed utterly in maths, chemistry, biology and physics in school, cheated my way through exams, twice failed the statistics 101 course that was a requirement to my useless degree (I paid someone to impersonate me for my third and "successful" try) and my mind fogs over when I read or listen to any science or nature program apart from David Attenborough's anthropomorphic wildlife films.

But here is my attempt to sort it out.

First, two things to clear up (and all scientific errors are mine):

  • Climate change is caused by the drastically increased emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 
The two main contributing greenhouses gases are carbon, aka CO2 and methane.

CO2 is released when we burn fossil fuels such as oil and coal. We mainly use fossil fuels for heating/cooling of buildings, for transportation (gasoline, jet fuel) and to generate electricity.

Methane is released by natural sources like animal digestion, soggy wetlands, natural gas and organic matter trapped below the surface of the soil. Main sources of high methane emissions are livestock farming, landfill waste, biofuel production and natural emissions such as the increasing thawing of previously ice covered landmass (in the Arctic, Siberia etc.).
While methane emissions are much lower than CO2 emissions, the impact is much more dramatic, about 20 times higher than CO2.

The only way to halt climate change is to drastically reduce and wherever possible, stop emitting these two greenhouse gases.

  • Plastics are mainly an environmental problem. 
Whether single use stuff or sturdy things, about 90% of the raw material of a plastic item is oil and like most industrial produce, fossil fuel is used as a source of electricity to manufacture plastic. However, the CO2 emissions caused by making plastic products are much lower compared to that of our other activities, like driving, flying, heating, cooling etc.

Plastic use is an environmental problem, because of the waste created by (mostly single use) plastic, be it incineration, land fill or dumping it any which way. While waste recycling is not a bad thing in general its impact on halting climate change itself is minimal.

What made me write my previous post was a survey carried out by a US/German consulting firm who asked randomly selected population groups in the US and Germany: What reduces our personal CO2 footprint?
It's been covered by a variety of media outlets here. I think this is the best of them.
Hint: we are all clueless and to quote,

Nobody is even willing to acknowledge that what is convenient to them is actually producing a lot of carbon (CO2). The Germans like their meat so it's not so bad. The Americans want to fly so it's not so bad. It's all sort of the reverse of virtue signalling.

But being clueless is a choice. We are better than that. I still want to believe it. I think young people all over the planet want to believe it.
Ok, what next.

First, calculate your carbon footprint. If only as a first exercise. Click here for a good place to do it, as it covers everything from shopping to travel to suggestion for taking action.

And then maybe have a short listen here:

and here:

Someone recently called my a spoilsport when I mentioned climate change in a conversation. I am beginning to consider being one a duty.


  1. I know travel and meat consumption are the two big CO2 producers but our main problem is too many people.

  2. Thank you for this, Sabine. I didn't know enough to be able to answer your question on the previous post and was hoping that your next post would help me to answer the question the next time someone asked. Because of my extremely low income and simple life, I know now (by using the calculator that you linked to ) that I have a very low carbon footprint. I live in a small college town where the two recent candidates for mayor cited doing all that is possible regarding the problem of climate change as a major part of their goal as mayor. We have a good public transportation system. Bicycle riding and walking are common. Many of the children who grow up here are concerned about climate change and marched to show their concern. I found hope in the first video because there are numerous small communities throughout the U.S. like ours that are actively lowering their carbon footprint and educating their children about climate change. My hope is that our far-flung communities in the U.S. will be a good part of the percentage of direct action that is needed to make a difference.

  3. Interesting. The thing is, climate change IS a complex issue with many different contributing factors (most if not all of them caused by humans). I'm not at all surprised most people are clueless about the causes. They're not always easy to grasp. For example, the evils of plastics have been drilled into all of us, but as you say, plastics are not really a climate change issue. This stuff gets tangled up in people's minds.

    Our industrialized food supply is a huge problem, but fundamentally I agree with Ellen -- there are just too darn many of us.

  4. I didn't know how to answer your last post so I didn't. Ignorance.

    I live in a northern climate, in a very large country that makes travel difficult. We don't buy much, only have one car and the next one with be a hybrid but still we live a long way from work, 20km, and can't afford to live closer to work. I want to do more but don't know how to so I do nothing, probably like most people.

    I feel paralyzed and impotent to make change.

  5. Awhile back on National Public Radio, I listened to a discussion about calculating the total impact of items, sort of like total cost of ownership of a thing, but really looking at the thing's impact on the planet. Turns out reusable cotton shopping bags have a negative impact, more so than plastic bags. One must grow the cotton (water and fertilizer, pesticides, farm machinery), harvest the cotton, ship the cotton to where the threads are spun, make the cotton, sew it into bags, ship the bags to the waiting consumers. Their put was that single use plastic bags have a lighter footprint than a reusable bag. I have no insight as to whether or not it's true, but it was an interesting discussion on how hard it is to know what is the right thing. The current US habit of ordering stuff on-line is certainly not helping the planet. We're about 5 miles from an Amazon fulfillment center and the number of trucks is just staggering. Like you I'm feeling paralyzed by it all.

  6. the quiz is interesting, and I think most of my answers were extremely 'ball park' as I truly don't know how many air miles I travel annually, and that number changes each year. My footprint turns out to be pretty small, but like am said above, I think it's because I don't have a lot of disposable income to play with. It makes me think of my friends who have a lot of money and who buy a lot of 'toys' and travel. Oh, yes, and those big houses. So, understandably, their footprint is much much bigger than mine. Though I don't think they'd like to hear this.

    The 'blessings' of prosperity that many western nations enjoy is also a main cause in climate change. Too many people, too many resources (yes!) and a false sense that we can go on this way forever.

  7. To the person who said you're a spoilsport (Who, en passant, sounds as if they hadn't fully grasped the meaning of that compound word) you might well have replied "What, then, would you have had me say?" Criticism carries its own obligation. Without a subsequent prescription it's far too easy. After all, within context a fart may be considered criticism.