Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A New Decade's Resolution

A note before we begin:
Some will argue whether or not the new decade is already underway.  I really don't care very much, but am casting my lot with it starting in a couple of days so I've got a better rhetorical gimmick.  And I know there was no Year 0.

The meat of the thing:
I'll start off by noting that I'm typically not a New Year's resolution kind of guy.  There's only been one resolution in my life that I've been pretty good about: Drink beer from a glass whenever practical.  You get to taste it more fully that way.

Maybe my problem with the whole resolution idea is that, as an Earth science kind of guy, the scale's too short.  But, the New Year is a good opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future and the New Decade seems like an even better opportunity.  Is it ten times better?  I'm not sure about that, but you may have noticed a theme in across many posts about difficulties associated with thinking in the longer term.

If you want to refresh your memory, or if you're just tuning in, see the posts that made analogies between thinking about climate change and thinking about issues of public health (especially smoking) and between climate change planning and planning for retirement.  Last week's post on where weight goes when you lose it touches on it too.  In fact, so does the post on using your Christmas tree to teach about carbon.  All of that deals, at least in part, with thinking beyond tomorrow or next week, and is intended to foster deeper understanding of the Long Now.

To understand climate and climate change, you need to have a grasp of things that take years, decades, centuries or millennia to play out.  Or longer.  Really.

I learned of this video on Andy Revkin's dotearth blog.

This is where having thought about and taught about the history of the Earth and Universe comes in handy.  With the Earth having an age of about 4.5 billion years and the Universe a few times older than that, what happens in the course of a single year doesn't usually amount to much in the grand scheme of things.

For some things, of course a year or a decade is a long time.  I am the father of a nine- and a six-year-old, after all.  A decade's made a huge difference in my life.  But to the Earth me and mine are just a blip.  And so are you.

Humanity, to the Earth, is just a blip as well, but we're a blip that's been important, especially in the time since we figured out how to get stuff out of the ground and burn it to give us power to do stuff.  We've changed the face of the Earth profoundly.  And that idea brings me back to the point of the entry -- to set a New Decade resolution.

Here it is:  By the decade's end (12/31/20) I resolve to make an evidence-based case that the carbon footprint of myself and my immediate family will be negative.  

How will I/we do that?  I'm not exactly sure, but it will certainly involve educating folks and institutions about how to reduce their carbon footprints.  And, deciding what's a reasonable cut for me to take of their cut.  Can I engage people in the Low Carbon Diet, and claim 1% of their reductions, for example?  If I come up with great ideas and post them here, or convey someone else's great idea to the readership of this blog that help people reduce their emissions, maybe than can let me know and I can take just a bit of credit for it.

And it will certainly involve reducing emissions for my household and my lifestyle.  It is easier, obviously, to cancel out a small set of climate impacts than a big set of climate impacts.  Right now, in spite of thinking about this stuff nearly all the time, I still have way too big a footprint myself.  That's highlighted by my travel.  In 2010, I've traveled to Chicago, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Smoky Mountain National Park (Tennessee & North Carolina), Monroe, MI, Victoria (British Columbia), and many trips within New York State.  One can't do all that travel without having a pretty big footprint, though I've done things on some of those trips to reduce it like carpooling and taking the train where practical.  We've done a fair amount to reduce household impacts -- Energy Star appliances, CFLs, and, more importantly, it's a fairly small house that's close to where we work (really close as I work in my home).

And, what do I mean when I say "evidence-based case?"  What I mean is that I want my claim to stand up to reasonable review.  I want to point to evidence that's compelling.  I welcome your help in figuring out what that is.

I think it's a pretty lofty goal, but my track record's not bad.  I still usually drink my beer from a glass, you know, and I think I made that resolution about a decade ago.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Lone Wolf's Guide to a Climate-Friendly New Years

I hate going out on New Year's Eve. Bah humbug, I say! Here are my (very sound) reasons for always staying at home on the year's most festive occasion:

1. Driving can be a nightmare.
2. I don't enjoy random traffic stops.
3. I don't enjoy not being able to drink because I'm worried about the random traffic stops.
4. I try to avoid situations that will increase the likelihood of me being hit by a drunk driver.
5. Every place is packed with annoying and overly zealous partiers.
6. I don't like occasions where I'm forced to wear something other than my flannel pj's.

All are legitimate reasons and they are unarguably solid. Since I've started helping with this blog, I can also use my interest in climate change as another reason to stay home. I mean, I don't want to needlessly burn fossil fuels just to go out and party. That would be selfish. Plus, a buffet would more than likely find me and I would consume a ton of food that took tons of fuel to harvest and prepare. (When I write 'a ton', I'm nearly speaking in literal terms here. I pride myself on my ability to eat massive quantities of food, which would explain my membership in the International Federation of Competitive Eating. No, I'm not kidding.) So it's better for me and the world to just chill out in my flannel, pour some bubbly into a beer glass, watch the ball drop, maybe put on some Prince and dance around, kiss my dog at midnight, and send out the annual midnight text telling everyone to have a happy new year. Comparatively, this course of action is a lot less harmful to myself, others, and the environment (and my dog will be thrilled). Is it lame? Heck yes. But it doesn't have to be. If you have the room, invite your friends over (and their dogs, of course). Then you won't have to text as many people at midnight and you can have dance partners. Make sure they bring some bubbly (chip in on a case--it's cheaper), pj's and a sleeping bag to pass out in. Just make sure they carpool and pick up a pizza party pack on the way. Now we're talkin! Think of all the gas you're saving, plus you didn't have to warm your stove up to cook anything (neither did your guests), your guests carpooled so that saves in fossil fuel use and emissions, and you are only using your electricity instead of several households worth of lights and tv's being on. Not too shabby for having a good time hangin out at home. 

Happy New Year!!!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Where does weight go when you lose it?

This may seem like a funny topic for a blog on climate change, probably because it is a funny topic for a blog on climate change.  But it does have some relevance that I'll tease out before too long.  I chose the topic partly because it 'tis the season to gain weight and mostly because I think it will get the gears in your brain spinning in a different direction.

If you lose weight, where does it go?  What does that lost weight become?  What is that fat the raw material for?

Stop and think about it, and come up with some tentative answers before reading further.

You know I'll wait.

See?  I'm waiting.

If you're like most people I've talked to about this, you assume you sweat it out.  Or maybe that it goes off as poop and pee.  (I hope I'm not being too vulgar for my readership!)

That's a bit of the answer, but just a bit, at least in terms of the stuff that stays gone.  None of that describes what most of the weight becomes.  If you're a regular reader here, you may be making the correct connection to a more Christmassy post a couple of weeks ago.

Indeed many people include things that make them sweat as part of their weight loss regimen.  And, typically, they drink plenty of water along with those efforts, so, that's largely a wash.  When you lose weight, you don't really sweat most of it out.  And, if you're looking for some way around the basic principle that to lose weight you need to burn more calories than you consume, I can't help you.  Sorry.

Have you picked up on where this is going yet?

Another aspect of those things that make you sweat is that they also make you breathe hard.  Most of the weight you lose is turned into carbon dioxide.(!)  Weight loss is something like photosynthesis in reverse.  Instead of taking in carbon dioxide and turning it into the hydrocarbons that make up the mass of a plant, you're taking the carbohydrates that make up the mass of you and turning them into carbon dioxide.  It's actually similar to burning fuel, but fortunately respiration is different from combustion, or I don't think many people would intentionally lose weight.

I'm simplifying quite a bit here.  If you want more details, here's one good place to look.

Sorry, this doesn't provide an eco-friendly excuse to keep carrying that extra weight around.  If you lose that weight, it will indeed turn into carbon dioxide, and, as with gasoline, the emitted carbon dioxide will weigh about three times as much as the weight you lost.

But you'll be emitting less CO2 on a daily basis, and hopefully that addition to the atmosphere (from your weight loss) is a one time deal.  So, every time you get in your car or on airplane, there's less of you for that vehicle to lug around so it will use a little less fuel and emit a little less carbon dioxide.  And you'll emit a little less directly.

You're also likely to be eating less and the carbon footprint of food is large.

So, if you're a tubbo like me and the majority of Americans, here's another reason to shed some pounds: It's good for the climate.

And, hey, some things that make you breathe hard are kind of fun.

In terms of reductions of carbon emissions, your own weight loss is really pretty small.

This post is more important for building a deeper understanding of the Earth as a system of systems, and especially for thinking about the carbon cycle.  I'm of the opinion that if you don't understand the Earth from a systems perspective, you can't really have more than a superficial understanding of climate change.  It's okay if you don't have that kind of understanding now.  I thought about following that up with a snide remark that it's the American way, but it's not at all unique to Americans.

I have a deeper understanding of this stuff than most folks because it's been central to my work for more than 20 years.  I assure you if you work on it, you can get up to speed a lot faster than I did!  (And hopefully I can help!)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What will our future illnesses be like?

Usually, I pride myself on being a very healthy person. I eat well, exercise and generally take good care of myself. My immune system has always been very good at its job. Cold and flu season can pass me by without a single cough...until recently. My mother went to a holiday party a few days ago and 10 out of 15 people at the party got sick. I'm not talking about a little cough. It's full on vomiting and diarrhea for several days. I thought I was going to have to take her to the hospital. Apparently the same illness has been spreading through the local colleges. So in my mother's case, the Health Department ruled that the food preparer had the illness and then contaminated the holiday party food. Unfortunately for me, since I've been caring for my mother during her sickness and I ended up getting it as well. It has a very inconvenient incubation period too. I was walking around for about three or four days after my mother became sick before I even felt anything. Think of how many people I unknowingly infected? It's upsetting to think that I could be ruining peoples' holidays.

So what does this have to do with climate change you ask? Last night I was lying, uncomfortably, in bed pondering what to write about when the words of an acquaintance of mine, who's a nurse, ran through my head about how this stomach bug gets worse every year. She said that this particular strain just keeps getting stronger and making more people sick with each passing year. Then I thought about the chytrid fungus in amphibians and how it's wiping out entire amphibian populations and climate change is certainly playing a major role in its spread. (Yes, my mind really is this scattered.). Are we facing a future where climate change will play a major role in the spread of every bacterial, fungal, viral disease? Nevertheless, if there is an ideal incubation temperature for diseases and we are bringing the atmosphere closer to that ideal, aren't we in big trouble? Can I count on being sick with this horrible stomach bug every year because it's being aided by climate change? And can I count on the symptoms being more horrendous with each passing year? It's just a hazy passing thought...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Saving (Civilization) for Our Retirement

A note before I really dig in:  It bugs me a little when people speak about saving the Earth, thus I refer to saving civilization rather than saving the Earth in the title of this week's post.  It strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that we'll do away with the Earth through our actions, or even life on Earth.  It's not Earth that needs saving.  It's about us, and the things we depend upon.  We're dependent upon nature and the services she provides, so we should be protective of nature for that reason (and, of course, because it's pretty jerky to destroy stuff).

My title still isn't quite on the mark.  I expect some semblance of civilization will live on.  I thought about  "Saving the Environment," but here too, the environment will still exist, but it might be less able to provide the services we rely on it for, like clean air, clean water, and sufficient food.  It's really about:

Saving a Reasonable Quality of Life for Our Retirement
Not quite as catchy, is it?

Now, on with the main attraction:
Yesterday I read The Importance of Risk Perception for Effective Climate Change Communication, a blog post on by David Ropeik.  (I cited a different Ropeik blog post in my post a couple of weeks ago).  Ropeik is an expert on risk assessment, and here he's talking about what his title implies, as one might expect.  Quoting at some length from his post:
The ho hummers: A majority (albeit fluctuating) believes climate change is real, but when you ask those people how much they’re willing to spend, or do, about it, broad support turns thin. Why?
  • We worry less about risks that we don’t think can really happen to us. Can you name one way that climate change will seriously negatively impact you in the next 10 years? Most people, even ardent believers, can’t.
  • We worry less about risks the further off in the future they are. Despite the changes already occurring, the dramatic disruptions of climate change are usually depicted as years, and decades, away. This softens even our extra sensitivity about risks to our kids. The immediate perils of abduction and vaccines (perceived) carry more weight than risks far off in the future.
  • We worry less about abstract risks, risks that are presented as ideas and “science,” hard-to-get-our-heads-around risks of global scale and centuries-long time spans, and risks depicted impersonally with facts and figures, rather than real human victims. 
  • We worry less about risks caused by choices that also produce benefits. The benefit of the behaviors that cause climate change are enormous – since energy from fossil fuels provides the comfortable way of life in which the developed world currently lives and the way the developing world wants to.
  • We worry less about risks over which we have some control.
How do we apply these insights to the challenge of encouraging public support for adaptation? 
I liked this image with Ropeik's post as well.  
And it gives me a nice image to post with the link on Facebook.  
And you can do that too, you know.
(Hint, hint).

Reading Ropeik's words got me thinking about a post I wrote a few weeks ago: What can we learn from public health education initiatives?  There are some clear parallels here.  And it got me thinking about another realm for useful metaphors.

Ropeik's bulleted list applies to climate change, selected health issues, and to saving for retirement.

I'm 47.  It will take a while for decisions about saving for retirement to have a huge effect on me.  

I'm 47.  It will take a while for decisions about climate change to have a huge effect on me.

I wonder what we can learn from effective campaigns to get folks to save for their retirement.  Unfortunately, like in realms of public health, there aren't as many successful campaigns to point to as I'd like.  My wife reminds me with some regularity that we're not saving enough for retirement.  That doesn't make us unusual.

I could snidely say that makes us American.  But I won't.

Each of those bullets above applies both to climate change and to retirement saving.  Read the list again and think about how they apply.

You know I'll wait.

Are you saving enough money for retirement?  If so, what has led you to do that?  If not, what's stopping you?  What do you think will get you to change your savings behavior?

Know that the most obvious answer, "make more money," tends to bring with it its goofy cousin, "spend more money."  Fortunately, you can shoo that goofy cousin away, if you're vigilant.  You can probably find some ways to cut spending now even if you can't make more money.

It just so happens, that many of the things you can do to reduce spending also reduce emissions.  My colleagues and I have written about programs that can reduce your energy costs in this space before (here's one post of many), and simply being more frugal in many ways also goes to saving a reasonable quality of life for your retirement.

You, acting alone, might save sufficient personal financial assets for the future, but we will have to work together to save the shared environmental assets for our shared future.

So, what can we learn from saving for retirement?  What can you teach us about it?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A tree in the living room as an opportunity to teach about carbon

Don and his tree.

I've got a tree in my living room.  It stands a little over seven feet tall, though it was probably closer to eight feet when it stood at the Christmas tree farm out in Clarence.  I was easily able to lift it onto the roof of the car, so I'm guessing it weighs less than 40 pounds.  You might have a tree kind of like it in your living room.  You might use that tree to help you and yours think a bit about carbon.  

Perhaps it could be a little fodder for making those family get-togethers a little more uncomfortable, but please be nice as you nurture understanding along.  Fortunately for me, holiday discussions in my family are decidedly geeky -- the most notable in recent memory had to with which one of my siblings had the greatest volume to surface area ratio.

But I digress.  Let's think about that tree.

A favorite question of mine is, "What's the raw material for a tree?"  It started as a little seed within a pine cone and now some eight or ten years later, it weighs in at about 40 pounds.  Where did those 40 pounds come from?  What did the "stuff" of the tree used to be?

Here's a picture of the tree cookie I cut off after I brought it home.  How old is it?  
The earbuds are included for scale.  It's not really a very big tree.

Lots and lots of people will answer the raw material question with something like, "It comes from the minerals in the soil."  Does that make sense?  What if that were true?  For one thing, it would mean that soil and trees are made of the same stuff.  Is that the case?  Living things are carbon-based.  Is soil carbon-rich?  

Um, no.  Not so much.  

And, if trees got their mass from the soil, wouldn't that mean that really big trees would need to be surrounded by really big pits where they pulled that mass from?  Those holes in the ground would grow over time.  Have you ever seen that?  I haven't but it would make for more interesting walks in the woods.  

Darn near every adult in the country took high school biology and was taught about photosynthesis.  We all learned that plants take in carbon-dioxide and release oxygen.  Then we forgot, or we never really understood it in the first place.  If we stop and think about it, and we remember that life is carbon-based, it ought to give us a little pause -- trees are made out of air!  That is, of course why, as many of you dear readers already know, that planting trees is a way to offset carbon emissions.  

If you already knew that, good for you.  Know that you've got at least a somewhat deeper understanding than the average American.  That's not surprising since you spend at least some of your time reading blog posts about climate change.  

But have you thought about what that 40ish pound tree implies about the scale of tree-planting needed for offsetting emissions?  I wrote a guest post before I was regular here on that in 2009.  I won't repeat that post here, but I'll briefly hit some relevant highlights.  Ten gallons of gasoline weighs about 60 pounds.  If you're burning 10 gallons of gasoline a week, you're releasing about three times that much carbon dioxide as the carbon in the gasoline combines with oxygen in the air to make CO2.  So, a typical driver might release 180 pounds of CO2 a week just by driving.  Photosynthesis does something like a reversal of that process.  Photosynthesis, in other words, can take 180 pounds of CO2 and turn it into something like 60 pounds of tree and 120 pounds of oxygen.  

Now it's time to remember that the 40ish pound tree in your living room is probably eight or ten years old.  So, it doesn't offset a typical driver's week of emissions.  Planting a tree is a good thing to do.  But planting a whole bunch is better.  A bunch of forests is more like what we need.  For each of us.  

Oh, we can't end a holiday post on such a downer.  Then again, maybe we can.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is climate too much of an abstraction?

[What is the] extinction of a condor to a 
child who has never seen a wren?
Naturalist Robert Michael Pyle
as quoted in Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods

What is climate change to someone who never goes outside?
Something that came to Don's mind as he was reading 

I've been intermittently reading Louv's excellent book, finally.* I'm reading it intermittently partly because it's so depressing that I prefer it in small doses and partly because I'm a distractible boy who just reads books that way.

There's a great deal to ponder about "nature deficit disorder" and much more within its pages.

I read it with some special attention to how our growing detachment from nature contributes to the difficulties of climate change education. I also read Climate Change Literacy Won’t Be Enough, a blog post by David Ropeik this week. Ropeik's post addresses the recent report, “Americans' Knowledge of Climate Change” and notes how that report suggests that one of the reasons that we're not making more progress on climate action is ignorance. As the title of Ropeik's post portends, he doesn't think that's the only reason. Here's a bit of the post:

Some of the psychological characteristics that make a risk feel more or less threatening are common to us all. (This comes from the research of Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff, among others). One of them is the subconscious question we instinctively ask ourselves about any possible danger; “Can it happen to ME?” If not, why worry? Can you name one way climate change might seriously, negatively impact your life in the next ten years? Most people, even the most dedicated environmentalists, can’t. Climate change doesn’t trigger the “ME” factor, so concern about it stays intellectual, and doesn’t hit us in the gut. You can see this in the “Americans' Knowledge” study. Sixty three percent of the respondents said they understand that global warming is real, and happening now, but only 16 percent say they are personally very worried. This mirrors the findings in most surveys of public opinion about climate change — concern about climate change is more broad than it is deep.

For most of us, climate change is an abstraction. I suspect for too many of us, climate itself is something of an abstraction.

As Louv so eloquently describes, we're not connected to nature in the way we once were. He focuses on childhood and, if you read the book (which you should), it will draw memories of your own childhood nature experience. For me, that includes work and play in the backyard tree fort and playing in the several different bits of woods I easily walked to from my childhood home. Some of those woods are gone now. They've become housing developments. The ones that remain don't see as many kids exploring them as fear of various things coupled with the draw of computers and video games keeps kids inside. And schools have less recess time, and more of that time is spent indoors, especially if the weather is very cold or hot. Wimps.

And, if people don't go outside very much, do they really have a deep, visceral knowledge of their own climate? If they don't go outside, do they really know what their climate feels like?

My gut says paying just a bit more attention to that as parents and teachers can be helpful. Watch the weather. Get your kids and yourself outside and talk about how the current weather compares to the typical weather for the time of year. Do this monthly and before too long, you'll build a deeper sense of what you're climate is really like.

Pay special attention to things that make your local climate different from other places. The video at the top of the post highlights one of the things that makes my (Buffalo, NY) climate famous or infamous.

The sky view is looking over the City of Buffalo from my home at the Town of Amherst line.

The time lapse video of lake effect snow from last winter shows one aspect of our climate. The ominous looking lake effect clouds are often visible low on the southern horizon when I look out my office window in late fall and early winter. They often just move like a conveyor belt parked to the south of me and my snowblower sits happily in the garage while folks just a few miles away get inundated. I laugh at them! Ha! Sometimes though, as in the video, those clouds move over me and stop my laughter.

The video was shot using Gawker for the Mac.

I'll note that we ought to also be known for our beautiful summers, where it only fairly rarely breaks 90 degrees F and the hottest day on record was 99 degrees.

What makes your climate special? Get out there and feel it!
*Various folks I trust have been recommending that I read it since it came out, and I saw him speak a few years ago. It's about time I got around to it... You should get around to it too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Teachers: An opportunity to join a learning community focused on climate change education

I (Don Duggan-Haas, your Wednesdaily Climate Change 101 Blogger), am part of a project that is bringing together teachers who want to work with one another to more effectively teach about climate change, its causes and its effects.  That's what today's post is about.  It's really intended as a recruitment tool for interested teachers, and I hope you either are one, or know someone who might be.

Climate change is perhaps the most important issue in our curricula, though its place within the curriculum is small.  Our students and people more generally commonly hold misconceptions about climate and climate change that are difficult to dispel. How can we be more effective in building our students' understandings of climate change and its implications?  

Would you like to talk about these issues with your colleagues, working together to share approaches in a group with access to peer-reviewed resources?

Climate change and its effects aren't limited to science, so this group isn't limited to science teachers.  

I am leading Lifelines for High School Climate Change Education for Western NY (I telecommute to Ithaca from Amherst).  There are groups doing this around the country, and I can connect you to those groups. There isn't yet a single website listing the different programs.  As the meetings are virtual, you don't actually need to be in the geographic region for the group, though there are advantages to being connected to other educators in your region.   

Here are the details:

Lifelines for High School Climate Change Education (LHSCCE) is a project to establish professional learning communities (PLCs) to share curriculum resources and best practices for teaching about climate change in grades 9–12. The PLCs meet either in-person or via telecon/webinar (tele-meetings), depending on local preferences, but in light of desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, tele-meetings are encouraged. This is a NASA-funded project organized by the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) at the University of California, Berkeley.

The program will fund 20 PLC groups across the United States.  Each PLC group will have a maximum of 15 members who will work together as a professional learning community over a period of two years.   Each PLC will have a leader who will facilitate and coordinate the group’s online sharing activities.  Teachers participating in a PLC will receive $100 each year.

Our group will meet on the first Monday of the month at 7:00 pm EST, beginning December 6, 2010.

PLC’s are open to high school teachers teaching in any subject area who wish to collaborate resources to incorporate climate change into their curriculum.

PLC’s are generally geographically located around the home-base of each PLC’s Leader.   However, location does not restrict which group a teacher may wish to apply to join.

If interested in applying to join the Western New York State group under the leadership of Don Duggan-Haas click on the link below to apply online:

                Lifelines for Western New York State Application

        Questions?   Contact Don:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

It's Rebate Time!

If you are in the market for a high efficiency natural gas furnace, indirect water heater, boiler or duct sealing, please read on. NYSEG and other utility companies are offering a rebate on these items. For example, if you were to purchase a 94% efficient natural gas furnace, you could be eligible to receive a $340 check in the mail. Not too shabby! Plus, add that with the Federal 30% tax credit (see last weeks post) and you can get a nice chunk of money back. As an added bonus, they even give you $15 each for up to two programmable thermostats installed at the same time as the heating system.

It's important to note that even though you can take advantage of both this rebate and the Federal tax credit, you cannot use this rebate with other NYSERDA programs such as Assisted Home Performance with ENERGY STAR. If you are eligible for both, you would have to crunch some numbers and choose between the two (usually if you need more than just a heating system, Assisted Home Performance is the better choice).

Eligibility Requirements:

*Items must meet efficiency standards.
*You must be a residential natural gas customer of a participating utility (such as NYSEG).
*Items have to be installed by a contractor (you will be asked for proof of contractor installation, such as a valid Tax ID number).

You have to reserve your spot in line for this rebate. For more information and to reserve the rebate, click here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What can we learn from public health education initiatives?

A few weeks ago, I attended the fascinating Climate Change Education Roundtable meeting sponsored by the National Research Council's Board on Science Education.  A series of papers were commissioned for the meeting that give a picture of the diversity of approaches to climate change education discussed at the meeting.  There's some good stuff in those papers -- do give them a look.

One session at the meeting included discussion of what we can learn from successful public health campaigns, noting successful efforts that have substantially slowed the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and decreased the number of unwanted pregnancies.  I'm pretty confident we can learn some things from that body of work, but the particular health campaigns used as examples probably aren't the best ones to look to.  I suggested as much at the meeting, making the connection to obesity.  Unfortunately, I'm a poster child for the failure of that public education campaign, and there are a great many fellow poster children out there.
Me, being fat in front of the White House.

And, unfortunately, I think this largely unsuccessful effort is a closer analog to climate change education.

If you're healthy and have unprotected sex tonight with an STD-infected partner, you've got a pretty strong chance of having that STD tomorrow.  If you're thin today and have an extra brownie after dinner, you're still thin tomorrow.  You have to keep up those bad behaviors for a while for it to make a noticeable difference.  Likewise, to undo the damage, you've got to drop those obesity-inducing bad habits and hopefully pick up some good ones and keep them going for a while to notice much difference.

That sounds a lot like the problems of climate change.  Buying a big house in the exurbs doesn't do much to the climate immediately, but add up the effects of a bunch of people over a bunch of years, and you've made a difference in the climate system.  And, as with obesity, figuring out what to do with that big house and killing your long commute won't make much of a difference tomorrow.  But it will eventually.

And, unfortunately, obesity prevention programming hasn't worked very well so far.

(As I type this, I'm telecommuting to a birthday party at work.  I don't think virtual cake is any part of the answer.  It's not very satisfying, and has me thinking of actual cake.)

We should keep watching those efforts and pay attention to what works and what fails to work, and we should look for other analogs.

How about smoking?  

Like climate change and obesity, the most serious effects of partaking in the activities that lead to big trouble don't get you in trouble right away.  And it takes a while to recover from the damage (if you can recover from the damage).  Unlike obesity and climate change, public education has actually decreased rates of smoking in the broad population.

What's worked in anti-smoking campaigns?  Importantly, it's not just one thing.  Smoke-free workplaces and public places, comprehensive advertising campaigns, increased taxation on tobacco and strong graphic warning labels on cigarette packages quickly reduce tobacco consumption.  Additionally, supporting smokers in the quitting process matters.  Counseling and pharmaceutical aids help, as do access to toll free support services.  Call 1-800-QUITNOW if you're looking for support in stopping smoking.  (See more about smoking reduction here).

Most of those strategies (and the idea of using many strategies simultaneously) are translatable to efforts to reduce carbon emissions.  Making places smoke-free is akin to regulating emissions, and perhaps more directly to making city centers automobile-free. Advertising campaigns are in existence on some scale already.  Taxation on carbon emissions is a direct analog.  Support lines are imaginable too.

Graphic warning labels is an interesting proposition.  The link above and here takes you to the proposed FDA graphic labels for cigarette packaging.  Ick.  But maybe it's an effective ick.  What would the greenhouse gas reduction parallel look like?  Graphics added to the price stickers on new cars?  Images of sea-level rise, famine, hurricanes, or drought printing out with your boarding pass?  And how about putting such stickers on fighter jets to discourage the government from making those purchases?  Hmm...

I don't know about that, and I don't know if we can come up with a pharmaceutical aid to help us wean of carbon emissions, but it does seem that are lessons that can be learned here.  What do you think?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Get Credit for Doing Something Good

If you’ve made energy efficient upgrades to your home in the last two years you may be able to receive a tax credit for 30% of the cost of upgrades (up to a maximum credit of $1,500). Here are the general ins and outs of the credit:
  • If you already claimed the $1,500 maximum credit on your 2009 taxes, you cannot receive the credit again in 2010--no matter how energy efficient you’ve been in 2010.
  • All upgrades need to be purchased and installed by December 31, 2010.
  • Energy efficient upgrades such as windows, doors, water heaters, heating systems, insulation, air sealing materials, air conditioners and biomass stoves are included.
  • Not all Energy Star products are eligible.
  • Rental units and new homes do not qualify for this credit; it just pertains to an existing home that is considered your primary residence.
  • You can claim installation costs on certain upgrades, such as furnace installation, but you will need to check the Energy Star website to see which ones they are. From memory, I can tell you that installation costs are not covered for insulation, air sealing, windows and doors.
  • You can do the work yourself and still get the tax credit; however, you can’t factor your installation costs into the credit.
  • Last but not least, if you don’t pay Federal taxes, you cannot take advantage of the tax credit.
To receive the credit, fill out IRS form 5695 and submit it with your 2010 Federal Income Taxes. Make sure you save your receipts (itemized with installation costs separated) and the Manufacturers Certification Statement (most can be found online) in case you get audited (knock on wood that that never happens!).

Click here to find out more.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Complexifying the simple

There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.

Educators spend a lot of time simplifying the seemingly complex.  That's great -- when it's the right thing to do, but methinks we do it too much.  Maybe we need to spend more time complexifying the seemingly simple.  An awful lot of things that are really important to understand, like human contributions to climate change, for example, aren't simple, but we seem drawn to seeing things in black and white.

As much as we might want simple answers about where to get our energy, the simple answers aren't really answers.  Darn it.

I'm guilty of sometimes oversimplifying: In a bit of frustration at a meeting about a certain energy source under consideration for development in New York State I suggested that we just need to park our cars and turn off our lights.  If only.

Of course, our personal energy use is very important and there's a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of energy and carbon emissions reductions.  My wife and I have had a Prius for 10 years.  We've upgraded the insulation and replaced the lighting with more efficient CFLs in all five of the houses we've lived in over the last 16 years.  And you should do that stuff too.

It's simply the right thing to do.

Efficiency is key to conserving not only energy, but also key to conserving something that approximates many of the things we like about our lifestyles.

If that's as far as you get, that's better than not taking those steps.  But what are they steps toward?  Well, I'm a strong believer that what you do is what you learn, and working to reduce your energy use pushes you to understand your energy use in the context of the broader world, at least if you let it.  It's a way of looking at what you're doing in the right way.  And:

"I have yet to see any problem, however complicated, which, when you looked at it in the right way, did not become still more complicated."


How do you judge when to complexify and when to simplify when you're trying to help someone understand something?  When is nuance helpful and when is it harmful?  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Save Energy, Save the Planet

Over the past few weeks I’ve been discussing things you can do yourself to improve the energy efficiency of your home. But there will be times when the job is just too big or overwhelming to do yourself. Have no fear! I have an economical solution for all of the big jobs that need to be done. There are state and federal tax credits, rebates, loan programs and grants available to people of all income levels. Yes, all income levels. You don’t have to be considered low income to take advantage of energy efficiency incentives. Every Tuesday I will present you with a new incentive that can potentially save you money.

This week’s incentive is the Assisted Home Performance with ENERGY STAR Program. It’s a subsidy that pays for 50% of energy efficiency upgrades up to $5,000 for single family homes and up to $10,000 for 1-4 unit homes. Covered upgrades include energy efficient furnaces/boilers, hot water heaters, a/c units, insulation, air sealing, programmable thermostats, etc… (Appliances are also covered but not up to 50%.) So, for example, if you received $10,000 worth of work, you would only have to pay for $5,000. The program pays for the other half. Plus, you don’t have to pay the full price and wait for a rebate. You just pay for your half and the contractor bills the program for the rest. There are income guidelines and they vary by county, but eligibility includes 80% of the state or area median income so that covers many of us. Also, you have to be a major utility customer such as NYSEG or National Grid (our Systems Benefit Charge pays for this subsidy).

So how do you go about getting into this program, you ask? First of all, begin the application process. Once you’re approved, a Building Performance Institute (BPI) Accredited Contractor has to perform a home energy audit. An audit consists of checking home insulation levels, testing the efficiency of electrical appliances, testing the draft and efficiency of heating systems and water heaters, performing an air leakage test (blower door test) and performing a general safety inspection. Most contractors have a fee for audits but many discount the audit fee off the cost of work once you decide to do business with them. Once the audit is complete, the contractor will send you the audit report in the mail with their findings and a cost estimate for suggested improvements. Don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t have to do all of the suggested things on the audit report. You can pick and choose as long as the work meets the programs efficiency standards. If you can only do a few things, the subsidy doesn’t go away. For example, if you only use $1,500 of the $5,000 subsidy, you still have $3,500 but you would just have to reapply.

You also get a tax credit on your 50% and there are loan programs out there to help you pay for your half but more on that next week.

County income guidelines
Eligible measures
BPI Accredited Contractors in your area
Assisted Home Performance application

Submit the application to:
Energy Finance Solutions
431 Charmany Drive
Madison, Wisconsin 53719
Phone: 800.969.9322

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

You may have seen Greg Craven's The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See.  It's been around for a few years and has been viewed millions of times on youtube.  In that video he steps through a way for figuring out which risk is greater:
  • Failing to act on climate change if the dire predictions turn out to be correct; or;
  • Acting on climate change when it isn't needed (because the dire predictions are wrong)
It redirects the question away from (sort of) whether the scientists are right or wrong to a question of how do you appropriately manage risk.  

By attending to the feedback on the original video, he reshaped his argument and briefly simplified it in a newer version of the video.  That's the video embedded below.  He also wrote a book, What's the Worst That Could Happen? that very nicely helps you to evaluate your own and society's risks.

The book steps you through how to answer the fundamental question of the title, for yourself.  It pushes the reader to consider (and reconsider) the positions they hold and evaluate the credibility of the authorities they rely on.  You are led to develop your own "credibility spectrum" as well as filling in your own chart, akin to the one in the video.  Watch the video to see what I mean by the chart.

Throughout the book he pushes the reader to judge for him or herself, to come to his or her own conclusion about whether it makes sense to act as though the scientists are right or that the economic cost of action is too great a risk to bear.  While his own position is clear, his approach should be palatable to any reader who wishes to apply logic to the problem.

He notes that he asked many "skeptics" and "warmers" to read drafts of the book and was told by both that he gave too much credit to the other side.  That leads him to believe (and I concur) that his presentation is even handed.

I highly recommend the book, though some may find his approach a bit cheesy, in a science teacher sort of way.  I admit to being partial to that sort of cheesiness.

I think the approach works for stepping through various risk-laden decisions -- like deciding what to do regarding the Marceullus Shale, for example.   

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Don’t Believe the Hype

I may not be very popular for saying this but anyone in the market for a new appliance needs to know this; ENERGY STAR appliances are not always the most energy efficient, nor are they always the most cost effective. Last year the following articles came across my desk and I would like to share them with you. This is stuff you should know if you are shopping for a new appliance.

ENERGY STAR has lost some luster

Energy Star Appliances May Not All Be Efficient, Audit Finds

Although ENERGY STAR is an honorable concept, the execution of the program has been less than ideal. I first became suspicious a few years ago when my mother went to replace her old 16 cubic foot refrigerator. She visited several stores hoping to purchase an ENERGY STAR fridge of the same size; however, as she found out, 16 cubic foot ENERGY STAR refrigerators are either not made or extremely hard to find. Her dilemma was to either purchase a larger appliance (18 cu.ft.) than she needed just because it was energy efficient or purchase a 16 cu.ft. non-ENERGY STAR model because that was the correct size for her kitchen and her needs. She went with the 16 cu.ft. model and when she compared the efficiency of both, the 16 cu.ft. model used less energy and was priced less. So basically, the moral of the story is to do your homework before you step into the store. Also, if you're in the market for an energy efficient fridge, never purchase a side-by-side or a bottom freezer, they may have the ENERGY STAR seal of approval but they are 10 to 25% less efficient than a top mounted freezer. These configurations are only considered energy efficient when compared with fridges of the same configuration.

If you do happen to find the ENERGY STAR appliance of your dreams, the New York Appliance Swap Out is still going on. Click here for more information. This program has seen its fair share of disorganization but hopefully, since this has been going on since February, the kinks have been ironed out of the rebate process.