Climate Change

June 29th, 2009 by Steve Pavlina

Recently the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) released a new report on how climate change is already affecting the United States, plus predictions for the next 100 years based on different scenarios. If you care to read the report, you can find it online at www.globalchange.gov/usimpacts.

This group is comprised of respected U.S. scientists from a variety of disciplines. According to their web site, the USGCRP “coordinates and integrates federal changes in the global environment and their implications to society.” They’ve been conducting heavy peer-reviewed research in this field and reporting their findings since 1989.

In this article I’ll share with you some of the latest findings from this report. This report is limited to how climate change is affecting the USA, but some of these impacts can be generalized to other parts of the world as well.

Is climate change happening?

The USGCRP scientists report that climate change is already occurring in a measurable way, and those changes are primarily caused by human activity. They were very clear and direct about that.

During the past 50 years, average U.S. temperatures have risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. This change is due to human activity, most notably from the rise in greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. During the 50-year period before that, there was no net change in average temps.

This recent increase isn’t due to natural fluctuations — the scientists were able to rule that out as the cause. Human activity has caused this increase.

Even a slight increase like this is causing measurable side effects, including more heat-related deaths (especially in the elderly), melting glaciers and permafrost, more flooding, more demand for energy used for cooling during hot months, stronger and more frequent wildfires, and more insect problems.

The scientists concluded that climate change isn’t merely something that threatens to create consequences decades from now — those changes are already taking place, they can be measured, and they’re a result of human activity.

Predictions for the future

The scientists shared their collective predictions for the next 50-100 years. To do this they employ a variety of predictive models. Where multiple models agree, they have stronger confidence vs. when their models disagree. Consequently, many of their predictions deal with general trends where they have high confidence as opposed to specific details where confidence is lower.

Here are some of those predictions, in no particular order:

  • Average U.S. temps will rise by 2 to 11.5 degrees over the next 100 years, largely depending on what we do or don’t do to slow global warming.
  • Cities in warm climates will see more days over 100 degrees. (According to the maps I saw, Arizona will be especially hard hit by temperature increases.)
  • Oceans will become more acidic.
  • Coral reef destruction will continue.
  • We’ll see fewer fish in the ocean.
  • Wet areas will become wetter; dry areas will become dryer.
  • More precipitation will fall as rain; less will fall as snow.
  • Snow will begin to fall later in the year, there will be less of it, and it will melt sooner.
  • Ski resorts will have fewer days to run their operations.
  • Some crops may become ungrowable in certain regions where they’re currently grown, such as maple trees and apples in the NE. This will especially affect crops that require a certain minimum number of cold nights per year.
  • Problems with invasive insects will increase.
  • There will be more and potentially larger wildfires.
  • The demand for cooling energy during hot months will increase.
  • We’ll see more heat-related deaths, especially in aging baby boomers.
  • Destruction of wetlands will increase.
  • Coastal homes and buildings will be threatened by rising sea levels and storm surges.
  • There will be more droughts in the SW.
  • There will be more torrential downpours and flooding in the Midwest and NE, especially near the Great Lakes.
  • We’ll see hurricanes that are more intense.
  • If sea level rises by up to 3 feet, large portions of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico will be underwater. Global warming causes sea level to rise for two primary reasons: (1) warmer water expands in volume, and (2) hotter temps melt more ice that flows into the oceans.
  • Many shipments, including much of the country’s oil, come through ports and railways in the Gulf region. These transportation gateways will be threatened by flooding from encroaching sea water.

If you want to see a list of the top 10 findings of this report from the scientists, you can find it here.

If you want to know how this report was specifically prepared and who was behind it, you’ll find that info on this page.

How to cope with climate change

I watched a press conference where these scientists delivered their report to the media. They delivered these findings rather matter-of-factly, not with the sort of passion or appeal to emotion you might see from Al Gore. The main emotions I picked up from them suggested that they were proud of the hard work they did to analyze the data and prepare this report. I didn’t detect any hidden agenda from them other than wanting to share what they believed was the truth, so that our political leaders can use their information to make better decisions.

The scientists who created this report are not politicians, so they don’t set government policy. Their role is limited to an advisory capacity.

A member of the media asked during the press conference if the scientists were influenced by the White House to alter their findings. The scientist who answered the question responded, “There was no political pressure for us to change anything in this report. This is about scientific integrity. None of the authors would participate in that kind of a process.”

Their advice on how to deal with climate change focused on two primary strategies: corrective action and adaptive action. They gave some examples of each.

Their main suggestions for corrective action to combat global warming were to: (1) reduce usage of fossil fuels, (2) increase energy efficiency, and (3) increase the supply of clean energy. They concluded that any or all of these actions would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby helping to slow global warming.

They indicated that climate change happens naturally too, and that such change isn’t necessarily a problem. Problems arise when climate change happens too abruptly, and societies or species don’t have sufficient time to adapt. Even if we can’t reverse global warming, slowing it down is still a worthy pursuit because it gives populations more time to take adaptive action.

The scientists also suggested that government and businesses can use the information in this report to make better adaptive decisions in preparation for expected climate changes. For example, one sewage plant on the East coast is being built a couple feet higher in anticipation of a rise in sea level over the next 50 years, which is the expected operating life of the plant.

How can individuals deal with climate change?

At this point I’m shifting from sharing the scientists’ findings to offering my own thoughts about what we as individuals can do to deal with climate change.

First, there are many competing interests that have an agenda with respect to influencing what you believe about climate change. This unfortunately spreads misinformation and half-truths, which creates confusion. For the most part, confusion benefits those in favor of maintaining the status quo.

I recently shared a small piece of data from the climate change report on my Twitter and Facebook accounts, and I saw some very strong opinions offered in response. Some backed up the data, while others claimed that climate change is a myth promoted by the green industry.

Since I’m not a climatologist, and since I have no interest in becoming one, I have to rely on others for much of my information in this area. In that case the challenge becomes figuring out whom to trust. Personally I think the USGCRP is a strong source to get at the truth with minimal filtering and bias. They’re the people who are actively researching climate change, so I’m inclined to trust their findings more than what is shared by a politician who may have serious conflicts of interest based on who’s financially backing him/her.

My first suggestion then is to be skeptical of information that comes from secondary and tertiary sources like the media, your friends and family, from politicians (including Al Gore), or even from me. Get your information as unfiltered as possible. Visit the website of the USGCRP and have a look around. You can read their reports for free, and I believe they update their findings every year. They do a good job of making their information digestible — after all, they have to present their findings to politicians — so you don’t have to worry about drowning in incomprehensible terminology.

Now let’s consider the corrective and adaptive changes you can make to your own lifestyle. How can you as a conscious human being respond to the challenge of global warming?

What can you do to help mitigate the effects of climate change?

What’s the most significant corrective action the average American could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Go ahead and take your best guess, and then I’ll share the answer with you.

Is it to buy a hybrid or alternative-fuel car? Nope. That’s not a bad guess, but we can do better.

What about changing your home to use only clean energy, such as by installing solar panels? Nope.

The answer is actually quite simple.

The answer is to reduce or eliminate your consumption of animal products.

Do I say this because I have a hidden agenda to turn you into a vegan because I care so deeply about the pigs, chickens, and cows? No, if you want to go out and hunt down your breakfast, be my guest.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the main problem isn’t that animals are being killed and eaten. The major culprit here is the factory farming system and the Americans who fund it.

What contributes to global warming is how you decide to get your fix of animal foods.

If you still want to eat meat, as far as global warming is concerned, that’s okay. Go out and hunt some wild game that forages for its food, or pay someone to do it for you.

The worst thing you can do from an environmental perspective is to regularly consume factory farmed animal foods. Meat and meat products are the worst by far. Dairy and eggs aren’t quite as bad. It’s estimated that dairy consumption increases greenhouse gas emissions by only 2%, and most of that is coming out of the animals’ behinds. However, by giving the cows less gas-producing foods, even those emissions can be reduced significantly.

The real greenhouse gas monster is commercial meat production. You can look into the facts and figures like many others have done to reach the same conclusion I have, but if you prefer not to do that, I don’t think it’s necessary for most people to recognize the truth of it. Just employ some basic common sense, and consider how the process works.

Think of all the resources that must be expended in order to raise a food animal to maturity. First you have to give it water. Lots of water!

To produce one pound of meat requires, on average, about 5000 gallons of water. Compare that to 25 gallons for a pound of wheat. To produce their daily food, a vegetarian needs 300 gallons of water per day, while a typical meat-eater needs 4000 gallons. It takes energy to transport all that water too, and this means more greenhouse gas emissions.

Then you have to feed the animal. The vast majority of commercially grown animals don’t just roam around grazing on grass. Most animals eat a lot of grain. This requires fields to grow the grain, fertilizers, and lots and lots of water. It also requires transporting and refining the grain, often over vast distances. Growing grain requires tilling the soil, crop dusting, transporting the grain in gas-guzzling trucks, running feed mills, and transporting it to the factory farms.

Then there are the hormones and antibiotics the food animals are injected with. It takes resources to manufacture, transport, and administer those too.

Moreover, you have to transport the animals too. They have to be trucked to the slaughterhouse — more fuel. It takes energy to operate the slaughterhouse. Then the animal flesh is taken to processing plants — more fuel. Those plants require energy and maintenance to operate as well. Then the meat has to be trucked to grocery stores — more fuel. Then it has to be frozen or refrigerated — more energy. Every step in this lengthy process consumes massive energy and causes enormous pollution.

And this is what we get when everything is working properly. When it goes awry and there’s a problem like a mass recall of contaminated meat, all of this energy is wasted completely, and even more energy and pollution are required to conduct the recall.

Snaring a wild bunny rabbit and snapping its neck is starting to look a whole lot better.

Compare this unwieldy process to growing an apple tree in your backyard. You pluck an apple from the tree and eat it. More apples grow back. You don’t even have to snare the apple. Apples are such easy prey.

Growing grain is energy intensive enough. To feed that grain to animals reduces the efficiency of the operation by an order of magnitude, and that loss is irrecoverable.

Now imagine if you don’t buy the meat directly, but you buy it in the form of a prepared food, like a burger at a restaurant. This adds even more waste. Now you’re basically bitchslapping the atmosphere.

It’s hard to design a more wasteful and polluting process than this even if you try.

Consider the massive scale on which this polluting operation takes place. The majority of Americans consume animal products daily, including children who can’t drive a gas-guzzling SUV for the first 16 years of their lives.

These billions (yes, billions) of farm animals also produce tons of waste. The EPA reports that the run-off from factory farms pollutes our waterways more than all other industrial sources combined. Food animals in the USA produce 45 tons of animal excrement per second. That’s 130 times as much excrement as our human population produces. Some farms have so much excrement to deal with that they actually liquefy it and spray it into the air, so it gets carried away by the wind. This can cause serious health problems when people breathe the polluted air.

One third of all fossil fuels in the USA are used to raise animals for food. 80% of our agricultural land is consumed by that industry as well.

A 2006 United Nations report found that the meat industry produces more greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined. If we’re going to combat global warming, doesn’t it make sense to work on the #1 source of greenhouse gas emissions? Shouldn’t we strike at the root of the problem instead of just hacking at the branches?

The University of Chicago reports that going vegan is 50% more effective than switching to a hybrid car in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine how much better it gets if you incorporate lots of raw, unprocessed, and/or locally grown foods too. You can be vegan and still eat mostly processed foods that require more energy to produce, but you’ll still be causing much lower emissions than someone who buys commercial animal foods.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, eating one pound of meat is equivalent to driving an SUV 40 miles.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) isn’t the only greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Two others are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is 20 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping atmospheric heat, and nitrous oxide is 300 times more powerful than CO2. EPA reports show that animal agriculture is the #1 source of methane, and the United Nations reports that it’s responsible for 65% of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions.

It’s reasonable to conclude that you cannot be a committed environmentalist these days without eating a primarily vegan diet. Otherwise you’re clearly not walking your talk. How can someone claim to care about reducing their emissions if they won’t make the single most important change an individual can make? To eat commercially produced meat these days is to say “F— you” to the environment with every bite.

The good news is that eating vegan will save us all money. I could get into issues like reducing health care costs and the strong links between animal products and preventable lifestyle diseases, but fortunately we don’t need to go that far. The true cost of meat and the wastefulness of the animal products industry is largely disguised because of government subsidies; the meat and dairy industries have deep pockets to fund their lobbyists. This makes their products less expensive in the stores, but we all pay for their kickbacks in the form of higher taxes. If there was ever a good time for the government and individuals to start saving money and cut waste, this would be it. Who do you think pays for all the resources that go into producing animal products? We all do.

It’s good to make other changes to your lifestyle too, but your diet is the #1 place where you can reduce your personal contribution to global warming. If you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, you need look no further than your dinner plate.

I don’t expect you to change overnight, but you can certainly make some reductions if you eat a lot of animal products or processed foods. Eat foods that are closer to nature, foods that required less energy and which yield less pollution. Even better is to eat locally grown foods if you can. Although I live in Las Vegas where the temps can get pretty extreme, I have a small garden in my backyard. It’s nice to walk to my garden and pick some produce instead of having to buy items at the store which were transported from California or South America. It saves me a little money too.

I’m definitely not perfect when it comes to reducing my greenhouse gas emissions. There are surely other things I could do to reduce my environmental impact. However, this is an area where I apply the 80/20 rule. What’s the 20% I can get right that will yield 80% of the value?

I’ve been vegetarian for 16 years and vegan for 12.5 years. Erin has been vegan just as long, and both of our kids have been vegan since birth. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten over the years, it’s safe to say that I’ve influenced hundreds of people to make dietary changes that will significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, I’m confident that my net environmental impact is positive, and my lifestyle and influence are creating a net reduction in our usage of water, energy, fossil fuels, and other resources. I’m sharing this to point out that you don’t have to be perfect to make a difference. You just have to care, and you need to focus on making the most beneficial changes you can. Use your common sense to reduce or eliminate the most destructive elements of your lifestyle, and don’t get distracted by trivialities. If you can influence your family and friends to try eating lower on the food chain too, that’s a very positive and constructive influence indeed. It means that your lifestyle is producing a net gain for the planet rather than a net abuse.

I think the best thing you can do here is to lead by example. Live as consciously as you can, so you can serve as a positive influence for others.

A great place to start is to kick off a 30-day trial of a specific lifestyle change. Even if you decide not to continue beyond those 30 days, your temporary trial will still produce a net gain for the environment.

What can you do to adapt to the effects of climate change?

What if global warming continues as the scientists predict? How can you prepare for the future?

Whatever you do, do NOT move to Florida! ;)

If we can’t fully prevent global warming, we can still adapt to the expected climate changes.

I suggest you review the regional impact assessments from the USGCRP. You can click on the region where you live and see a summary of the expected impacts from climate change. Let those assessments inform your decisions regarding where you plan to live.

If you don’t like the trends where you live, consider moving to a region where the impacts won’t be as troubling for you. For example, if you have serious problems with the heat, you probably won’t want to live in Arizona.

The most extreme changes will happen in the coastal areas and in the northernmost and southernmost states. The area near the Great Lakes is expected to see a lot more precipitation and flooding.

In Las Vegas where I live, it looks like we can expect fairly mild changes compared to some states. Most likely we’ll have more days over 100 degrees in the decades ahead (today’s high is 107). Nearby Mt. Charleston might not see as many ski days. The most serious problem for this city is going to be water, especially if the population keeps growing and Lake Mead keeps shrinking. There may come a time when the city’s population will outstrip its water resources.

Most likely you’ll review the changes that are expected to affect your area, and you’ll say to yourself, “I can cope with that.” All in all, it doesn’t look like the U.S. will be hurt by global warming nearly as badly as some countries. But the big picture is that we need to consider how our actions as individuals are affecting the rest of the planet. Just because our hometowns may not be hard hit doesn’t mean we should ignore our responsibilities to Mother Earth.

Regarding Al Gore

As you can probably guess from the above, I have my doubts about Al Gore. I loved An Inconvenient Truth, and I’m glad to see that he’s been raising awareness about climate change. I think he deserves his Nobel Prize for his efforts. However, I question the advice he’s suggesting for individual action. He’s wasting time hacking at the branches and isn’t serving as a good example of how we can realistically tackle this challenge. We Americans in particular must change our lifestyles. We can’t blame everything on the energy sector.

Apparently Al Gore is still a heavy consumer of animal products, and I know that some groups have been pressuring him to go veg, to talk about going veg, and to set a proper and congruent example. His apparent unwillingness to walk his talk gives me serious pause. I cannot fathom that he’s ignorant of the massive negative impact caused by animal agriculture, so I must conclude that (1) he’s intentionally misleading people for some hidden agenda; (2) he lacks the knowledge, motivation, or support to navigate this lifestyle change; or (3) he thinks it would be political suicide to tell the whole truth. What do you think the reason is? I suspect it’s a combination of (2) and (3).

Al Gore helped organize and promote the Live Earth concerts. Their official handbook stated that “refusing meat” is the “single most effective thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.”

Clearly something doesn’t add up here.

So here’s my offer to Al Gore. If he’s so inclined, I will personally help him transition to a vegan or mostly vegan diet. He can stay at my house for a while, and I’ll bring in some experienced vegan chefs and educators to prepare food for him and teach him how to live as a vegan, at my expense. I’ll pay for all the food too.

Whether he succeeds or not, just for making the attempt, I’ll give him the opportunity to make a guest post on my blog about anything he so desires. Perhaps he’ll be interested in sharing a positive message with a couple million people, half of which are Americans.

Al, if you happen to read this, my phone number is on my contact page. This offer has no expiration date.

Home

If you haven’t already seen it, I encourage you to watch the movie Home (it’s free). It’s a fascinating 93-minute documentary on the ways in which human activity is impacting the planet. After my daughter Emily watched it, she asked Erin, “Mommy, will the planet still be alive when I’m a grown up?”

Let’s intend a yes. :)



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