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What you can do about global warming

The global warming problem is too global for a few simple steps to solve it, but there are actions you can take.
By Jon Luoma
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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Environmental groups and government entities like the Environmental Protection Agency have been telling us for years about all the "simple" things we can do in our daily lives to save energy and cut pollution, including carbon dioxide emissions. But let’s face it: The global warming problem is too global for a few "simple" steps to solve it.

There’s no reason for despair, however. Controlling, if not completely solving, this problem is a goal we can reach. As one model, consider how, with great, focused effort over time, public health challenges that once seemed insurmountable—smallpox, cholera, polio, and more—have been surmounted.

Congregational study groups might want to consider how use of alternative energy technologies can be boosted. Costs have been declining steadily as manufacturing has improved. Solar cells now cost a small fraction of what they did two decades ago. Prices of power from high tech windmills are approaching that of conventional fossil fuel plants. And for both commercial buildings and many homes, geothermal heat pumps, which use the stable temperatures below Earth’s surface to provide both heating and cooling, already make economic sense in most of the U.S. One emerging technology, the hydrogen fuel cell, can produce electricity through an electro-chemical process that involves no combustion and can produce zero pollution.

Could an all-out push for breakthroughs in these technologies with massive government funding—a peacetime version of the Manhattan Project that produced that atom bomb—be an answer? Or are there ways to remain a fossil fuel economy and still get rid of excess carbon?

We do have difficult and complex work before us. We need the United States to stop being the world’s leading opponent of international agreements on climate change. We need a comprehensive national strategy. In democracies, politicians eventually tend to respond to constituents. So first and foremost: Get active, get involved, and cast off cynicism about the process.

Energy consumption

Action at the personal level is meaningful. Your own household can produce significantly less carbon dioxide, not only painlessly but often profitably. There’s even a way to, in effect, get the emissions from your house, and even your car, to zero.

Start by taking smart steps to curb carbon dioxide that save you money. You’ve been hearing this for years, but here are a few reminders:

  • Time to replace a car? Hybrid gas-electric cars—like the Toyota Prius, a hybrid version of the Honda Civic, and, recently, Ford’s hybrid Escape SUV—have hit the market, with more to come. Some get better than 50 miles per gallon, but you’ll pay a premium that might or might not pay for itself in improved gas mileage. There’s a less expensive way to do nearly as well: Go to the EPA’s fueleconomy.gov Web site and look for conventional cars with great mileage. A conventional car that gets 40 miles to a gallon (and yes, they’re out there) emits half as much carbon dioxide as car that only gets 20, reducing emissions of that pollutant alone by more than 25 tons over the car’s lifetime. (It will also save you about $3,000 in gasoline costs over its lifetime.) Transporting yourself via bicycle or your feet, of course, is greenhouse gas-free.

  • As you replace appliances, look for the EPA’s Energy Star label. A new Energy Star refrigerator uses 40 percent less energy than a refrigerator built in 1991. If the price on the Energy Star appliance looks a bit higher, get out your calculator. Chances are it will pay for itself in saved electricity costs over its life.

  • Some new natural gas furnaces capture well over 90 percent of the energy in the fuel, up dramatically from older furnaces.

  • Compact fluorescent light bulbs use a quarter the electricity of standard bulbs, and, although more expensive up-front, last for years and pay for themselves repeatedly.

  • LCD versions of flat screen televisions consume about half as much electricity as the plasma types.

Even the tiniest choices can make a difference. Choose a coffee maker with a thermal pot and no warming element. Mine paid for itself through reduced electricity consumption in four years. The coffee stays hot and tastes better, and at age twelve the thing’s still making great coffee.

Cleaner energy

If you live in a state with a choice of energy suppliers, you might be able to buy your electricity from a clean energy supplier like Green Mountain Energy, although you’ll pay a modest premium.

The truly committed now have a way to get their own net household carbon production to zero and for well under the daily cost of a cup of coffee at the local fast food joint. How? Subsidize wind or other clean-energy generators to offset carbon production. It’s surprisingly cheap. Your subsidies (sometimes called “Green Tags”) will guarantee that the cost of a given unit of power from a wind farm or solar facility is low enough to ensure that it will be injected onto a power grid, displacing dirty energy. Learn more about the process at www.green-e.org.


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