Disclaimer: I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything. This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
I have finally gotten around to talking about two books I recently read, tomes that have greatly expanded my knowledge of the details and difficulties of reducing carbon emissions drastically. These books are Peter Kalmus; “Being the Change” and David Owen’s “Where the Water Goes”, and I’d like to discuss the new thoughts I believe they give rise to, very briefly.
Kalmus and the Difficulties of Individual Efforts to Cut Carbon Emissions
“Being the Change” is a bit of an odd duck; it’s the personal musings of a physicist dealing with climate change at the level of cross-planet climates, on his personal efforts to reduce his own greenhouse-gas emissions. Imho, its major value is that it gives perhaps the best explanation I have read on the science of climate change. However, as promised, it also discusses Kalmus’ careful dissection of his own and his family’s lifestyle in terms of carbon emissions, and his efforts to reduce these emissions as much as possible.
At the start we find out that Kalmus has been successful in reducing his emissions by 90% over the course of a few years, so that they are only 10% of what they were at the start of the effort. This is significant because many scientists’ recommendations for what is needed to avoid “worst cases” talk about reductions of 80-90% in a time frame of less than 25 years. In other words, it seems at first glance that a world of individual efforts, if not hindered as they are now by business interests or outdated government regulations, might take us all the way to a carbon-reduced world.
When we look at the details of Kalmus’ techniques, however, it becomes apparent that a major portion of his techniques are not easily reproducible. In particular, a significant chunk of savings comes from not flying any more; but he was flying more than most, as a scientist attending conferences, so his techniques extended worldwide are more likely to achieve 50-70% emissions reductions, not 80-90%. Then we add his growing his own food while using “human manure” as manure; and that is something that is far more difficult to reproduce worldwide, given that perhaps 50% of humanity is now in cities and that scavenging human manure is a very time-consuming activity (not to mention borderline illegal is some jurisdictions). So we lose another 10-20%, for a net reduction of 30-60%, according to my SWAG (look it up).
The net of it is, to me, that using many of Kalmus’ techniques universally, if it can be done, is very much worth doing; but also changing business practices and adopting government policies and global efforts is necessary, whether we do our individual efforts or not, to achieve the needed drastic reductions in carbon emissions, over a short or a long time period. There are two pieces of good news here. First, Kalmus notes that he could have achieved further significant personal reductions if he’d been able to afford a solar-powered home; and that’s something that governments (and businesses) can indeed take a shot at implementing worldwide. Second, I heard recently that my old junior high’s grade school was now teaching kids about individual carbon footprints ("pawprints") and what to do about them. Yes, the recommendations were weak tea; but it’s a good start at spreading individual carbon-emissions reductions efforts across society.
Owen and the Resistance of Infrastructure, Politics, and Law to Emissions Reductions and Sustainability
Nominally, “Where the Water Goes” is about the Colorado River watershed, how its water is allocated, and changes due to the evolution of the economies of neighboring state plus the pressures due to increasing climate-change water scarcity, increased usage from population growth, and the need for sustainability and carbon-emissions reductions. What stands out about his account, however, is the weird and unexpected permutations of watershed management involved. Here are a few:
· The Colorado originally did not provide enough water for mining, except if it was reserved in large chunks for individuals. As a result, a Law of the River set of water-use rights has grown up in place of the usual “best fair use”, where the older your claim to a certain amount of the water is, the more others whose use of scarce water you pre-empt.
· An elaborate system of aqueducts and reservoirs that feed water to cities from Los Angeles to Denver.
· Rural economies entirely dependent on tourism from carbon-guzzling RVs and jetskis used on man-made lakes.
· Agriculture that is better in the desert than in fertile areas – because the weather is more predictably good.
· A food-production system in which supermarket chains and the like now drive agriculture to the point of demanding that individual farmers deliver produce of very specific types, weight ranges, and quality – or else;
· A mandated cut in water use can lead to real-world water use increase – because now users must use draw more water in low-water-use periods to avoid the risk of running out of their “claimed amount” in a high-use period.
Owen’s take is that it is possible, if people on all sides of the water-scarcity issue (e.g., environmentalists and business) sit down and work things out, to “muddle through” and preserve this strange world by incremental adaptation in a world of increased water scarcity due to climate change, and that crude efforts at quick fixes risk the catastrophic breakdown of the entire system. My reaction to this is quite different: to change a carbon-based energy system like the Colorado River is going to take fundamental rethinking, because not only the “sunk cost” infrastructure of aqueducts, reservoirs, and irrigation-fed agriculture, plus rural-industry and state-city politics reinforces the status quo, but the legal system itself – the legal precedents flowing into real-world practices – metastasizes and elaborates the carbon excesses of the system.
For this particular system, and probably in a lot of cases, I conjecture that the key actors in bringing about carbon reductions are the farmers and the “tourism” industries. The farmers are key because they in fact use far more water than the cities for their irrigation, and therefore carbon-reduction/sustainability policies that impact them (such as reductions in pesticides, less meat production, or less nitrogen in fertilizers) on top of water restrictions make their job that much harder. It is hard to see how anything but money (correctly targeted supports and incentives) plus water-use strategies focused on this can overcome both the supermarket control over farmers and these constraints to achieve major carbon-use reductions.
Meanwhile, the “tourism industries” are key because, like flying as discussed above, they represent an easier target for major reductions in energy and carbon efficiency than cities. On the other hand, these rural economies are much more fragile, being dependent on low-cost transport/homes in the RV case, and feeding the carbon-related whims of the rich and semi-rich few, in the jetski case. In the RV case, as in the farmer case, money for less fossil-fuel-consuming RVs and recreation methods will probably avoid major economic catastrophe.
However, I repeat, what is likely to happen if this sort of rethinking does not permeate throughout infrastructure, politics, and the law, is the very major catastrophe that was supposed to be avoided by incrementalism, only in the medium term rather than in the short term, and therefore with greater negative effects. The tourism industries will be inevitable victims of faster-than-expected, greater-than-expected water shortages and weather destruction. The farmers will be victims of greater-than-expected, faster-than-expected water evaporation from heat and weather destruction. The cities will be the victims of resulting higher food prices and shortages.
What Owen’s book does is highlight just how tough some of the resistance “built into the system” to carbon-emissions reductions is. What it does not do is show that therefore incrementalism is preferable. On the contrary.