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10 climate change reports speak volumes

By September 16, 2010

Enterprise columnist

David Letterman has his top 10 lists. The list here is not that: ItÕs not the top of anything; itÕs just 10 items, or pieces of information, organized by the numbers one through 10, taken from recent reports, each of which speaks to some aspect of climate change or sustainability.

IÕve often wondered: If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a number worth? Maybe not a thousand, but certainly more than one; call it 500.

One: National Geographic published an analysis of what the effect would be if, for one day, commuters in the city of Pittsburgh were to cut back on driving. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which did the analysis, assumed what appear to be reasonable and plausible increases in the number of people who rode a bus, telecommuted, took a car pool, or, when driving a car, used techniques to minimize fuel consumption.

The result is a dramatic illustration of the cumulative effect of individual actions. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 370 cars off the roads for a year and would save more than 200,000 gallons of gas.

Two: This is the number of degrees centigrade (equal to about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we must not exceed in order to avoid the worst predicted effects of climate change. While no one knows exactly what will happen as we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, reports from this group of scientists and experts formed by the United Nations to analyze the state of knowledge on climate change represent an international consensus within the scientific community. See No. 10 below.

Three: Sierra Magazine reported that Òvegetarians make up only three percent of the U.S. population.Ó The effect of meat production Ñ as opposed to grain Ñ on energy usage and climate change is complicated, but, in general, there seems to be a consensus that if people ate less meat Ñ particularly in the U.S., where the average person consumes more than 250 pounds of meat each year Ñ the effect on environmental degradation and climate change would be positive.

Food activist Michael Pollan recounted a story about how different people had indicated to him that they were reducing meat consumption. Some went for a ÒMeatless Monday.Ó Others tried vegetarianism. One person volunteered that he would, henceforth and forever more, only order one kind of meat on his pizza.

Four: Audubon Magazine indicates that producing and processing plastic consumes four percent of the energy used in the United States. In the same article, the magazine listed some numbers to draw a picture and give dimension to the use of plastic. For example: 60,000 plastic bags are used in the United States every five seconds; a 100-watt light bulb can run for 11 hours on the energy saved by recycling a one-gallon plastic milk container; and 80 percent of marine debris is made of plastic. See No. 6 below.

Five: Several media sources reported on a five billion metric ton Òice islandÓ that broke away from the Petermann Glacier, reducing it in size by 10 percent and causing concern that the remainder will move more quickly to also detach and contribute to sea level rise. The ice island is the largest iceberg formed in the Arctic since 1962 and is half again as big as the District of Columbia.

Six: A recent article in the journal Nature reported a nearly 40 percent decline (since 1950) in phytoplankton, the little Ñ even tiny Ñ ocean-living organisms that produce half the planetÕs oxygen and help keep the planet cool by absorbing huge volumes of carbon dioxide. The scientists used a half-million data points and found this decline in virtually every ocean on the planet. WhatÕs this got to do with the number six? A 2006 study by the United Nations found that in the central Pacific Ocean there are as many as six pounds of marine litter, mostly plastic, for every pound of plankton. See No. 4 above.

Seven: A 1962 Life magazine advertisement from Humble Oil (10 years later, ironically, the company changed its name to Exxon) bragged (double irony) that the oil company produced enough energy every day to melt seven million tons of glacier ice.

Eight: China accounts for approximately 85 percent of the growth in demand for coal, the fuel that it relies on to sustain an annual rate of economic growth of eight percent.

Nine: The ÒCash for ClunkersÓ program was, for many, a missed opportunity to increase the fuel economy of the U.S. fleet of automobiles. Participants could get a $3,500 rebate by purchasing a new car that got only four miles per gallon more than the clunker they were turning in. According to the government, however, Òmost participantsÓ actually traded up to an improvement of slightly higher than nine miles per gallon.

Ten: The estimated number of years we (nations, states and individuals) have to take actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to a level that prevents a global temperature rise that could trigger the Òtipping pointsÓ that would make adverse effects of climate change unavoidable. See No. 2 above.

Ñ John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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