How Much CO2 Is Too Much?

Being one of those analytical, left-brain, anal, dorky types, I hate it when people talk about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without putting real numbers on the problem. Oh sure, there’s beginning to be some sort of wishy-washy jello-like sort of consensus on numbers like “80% reductions by 2030″ but that says very little about just how much CO2 and other greenhouse gases our battered atmosphere can take.

The number that many really smart people want us to know more about is 350. This, in climate scientists’ considered opinion, is the atmospheric concentration of CO2, in parts per million (ppm) that we need to be shooting for now if we’d like to avoid some pretty awful consequences.

co2 simulation

Click on image for CO2 Simulation

One problem with this number is that, well, we’re at 390 ppm right now! And this concentration is growing at about 3% per year, so next year it will be about 400 ppm, and so on and so on.

So here’s the thing – and this is a thing that many many people truly don’t realize:  We’re already past the danger level as far as CO2 concentration is concerned and EVEN IF WE STABILIZE  CO2 EMISSIONS NOW THE CONCENTRATION WILL KEEP RISING.

There’s a good animation you can check out that does a good job of making this notion more obvious and clear. Click on the image in this post to see it. (The “danger” level that this animation uses is 450 ppm, a more politically palatable number…) For more on this animation, its designers and the science behind it, click HERE.

So why the more aggressive target of 350 ppm? This is how James Hansen puts it in his famous paper Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? (he’s head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and was the guy who famously warned the US Congress about climate change in 1988):

“Alpine glaciers are in near-global retreat [refs]. After a one-time added flush of fresh water, glacier demise will yield summers and autumns of frequently dry rivers, including rivers originating in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky Mountains that now supply water to hundreds of millions of people. Present glacier retreat, and warming in the pipeline, indicate that 385 ppm CO2 is already a threat.

Equilibrium sea level rise for today’s 385 ppm CO2 is at least several meters, judging from paleoclimate history [refs]. Accelerating mass losses from Greenland [refs] and West Antarctica [refs] heighten concerns about ice sheet stability.  An initial CO2 target of 350 ppm, to be reassessed as effects on ice sheet mass balance are observed, is suggested.”

Now these are just the 2 paragraphs where he sets this target of 350, but there’s a whole lot of science behind WHY this is so important. You can trust me on that, or you can read his paper. Come on, go read it. A half-hour well spent!

And then you’ll begin to understand who the crazy fools are:   the tree-hugging greenies screaming about the need to DECARBONIZE our economy fast, or those business-as-usual types warning us to be cautious in our emissions goals in order to not adversely affect jobs…

Jacques LeCavalier & Associates Inc.
Sustainability Learning that Sticks!
Kelowna, BC

What Stops Personal Action on Climate Change?

Everyone involved in some way in sustainability or environmental work can’t help but get pissed off  and frustrated at the bozos who still idle their monster pick-ups in July while they’re in the liquor store, or the penile implant warehouse outlet.

How bloody much more information, research, cajoling, scary facts, threats from David Suzuki, heat waves and forest fires do we all need before we’ll accept the urgency of climate change and actually DO something significant to stop gushing so much CO2 into the neighbourhood?

Well, according to the American Psychological Association and a huge new report on this very topic, it’s going to take a lot more. The 230-page report (whichi ncludes a 50-page bibliography!), with the nice user-friendly title of Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges – A Report by the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change, and written by no less than 8 PhD’s, lays out the picture in detail… and it’s not that pretty.

The authors spend a fair bit of time outlining the many psychological barriers to individual action and climate change, and the list is long, including things like:

  • Discounting the future and the remote
  • Numbness or apathy
  • Ignorance
  • Uncertainty
  • Mistrust and reactance
  • Denial
  • Judgmental discounting
  • Place attachment
  • Habit
  • Perceived behavioral control
  • Perceived risks from behavioral change
  • Tokenism and the rebound effect
  • Social comparison, norms, conformity, and perceived equity
  • Conflicting goals and aspirations
  • Belief in solutions outside of human control

Not surprisingly, a big part of the solution for the authors is, well, more research.

Wonderful. All we got is time.

Jacques LeCavalier & Associates Inc.
Sustainability Learning that Sticks!
Kelowna, BC

Simple is Good (Sometimes)

Sometimes, keeping things simple is just…. wrong!

findxBut then, sometimes it’s really helpful. As in the following graphic, that we used in a very short e-learning course for Nissan Japan employees. Even if you don’ t read Japanese, you can figure out the jist of the Greenhouse Effect pretty quickly.

greenhouse effect

The graphic seems to be all fun and games, with Mr. Sun being happy or really sad, but it does use some great information visualization techniques really well:

  • the relative sizes of the “energy” arrows make clear what’s escaping from the earth and what’s bouncing back
  • the relative thickness of the atmosphere, even if it’s not really representing reality, shows clearly the effect of all those human-made emissions

With so much video happening, we’ve lost some of the art and craft of scientific and technical illustration, and I really hope we get some of this back.

Jacques LeCavalier & Associates Inc.
Sustainability Learning that Sticks!
Kelowna, BC

Like, Everything’s Connected, Man

parachute catsOne of the difficult realities about sustainability is that it’s so huge and all-encompassing. So one key mindset we need if we’re learning about and working on sustainability issues is systems thinking.

There is a lot to this, but one basic idea is the notion that taking action in one part of a system can often have unintended consequences in another part of the system. Having good examples of this in the ecological realm is a great way to help people to be systems thinkers.

One of the best-known examples is the story of Cats in Borneo, which was retold by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute during RMI’s 25th anniversary gala in 2007. It goes something like this:

Cats in Borneo
A Cautionary Systems Tale related by Amory Lovins

In the 1950s, the Dyak people of Borneo were suffering from an outbreak of malaria, so they called the World Health Organization for help.  The World Health Organization had a ready-made solution, which was to spray copious amounts of DDT around the island. With the application of DDT, the mosquitoes that carried the malaria were knocked down, and so was the malaria.

There were, though, some interesting consequences.  The first was that the roofs of peoples’ houses began to collapse on their heads.  It seems the DDT not only killed off the mosquitoes, but it also killed off a species of parasitic wasp that had theretofore kept in check a population of thatch-eating caterpillars.  Without the wasps, the caterpillars multiplied and flourished, and began munching their way through the villagers’ roofs.

That was just the beginning. The DDT affected a lot of the island’s insects, which were eaten by the resident population of little lizardy creatures call ginkos. Overtime, the ginkos begin to accumulate pretty high loads of DDT, and while they tolerated the DDT fairly well, the island’s resident cats, which dined on the ginkos, didn’t.  The cats ate the ginkos and the DDT in the ginkos killed the cats. Without any cats,  the island’s population of rats multiplied and flourished, and we all know what happens when rats multiply and flourish.  Pretty soon the Dyak people were back on the phone to the World Health Organization, only this time it wasn’t malaria they were complaining about. It was septisemic plague, which, being universally fatal and untreatable, was way worse than the malaria.

This time, though, the World Health Organization didn’t have a ready made solution and had to invent one. The result, believe it or not, was to parachute live cats into Borneo.  “Operation Cat Drop,” courtesy of the Royal Air Force.

The moral of the story is that if you aren’t thinking about the system you’re working in and the relationships among its parts, your solutions are likely going to be the cause of  even bigger problems.”

NOTE:  My apologies to the owner of the great graphic. I’ve misplaced the info and can’t seem to find it again.

Jacques LeCavalier & Associates Inc.
Sustainability Learning that Sticks!
Kelowna, BC