Two years ago, Taylor and I road tripped to Glacier National Park, on the northern U.S. border where cell phone reception doesn’t exist. In early June, the crowds were sparse, the wildlife was abundant, and the views were spectacular. It instantly became one of our favorite destinations.
Yet, in the week we spent hiking up, down and around the mountains, lakes and waterfalls, we saw just one of the park’s eponymous glaciers. To do that, we had stay at a lodge at the heart of the park, boat across a lake, hike a quarter mile to a higher lake, then boat to the other side. After all that, we finally could see through the early summer fog the Salamander Glacier clinging to the backbone of the continent. An incredible sight, undoubtedly, but as our boat captain pointed out, one that was more than 20% larger just twenty years ago and in another twenty may be gone completely.
When Glacier National Park was dedicated in 1910, it featured nearly 150 alpine glaciers, but 2014 estimates now put that number at just 25. Almost assuredly, my children will be visiting a glacierless national park, and much of the plant and animal life dependent on the glaciers to regulate the high climate will have no place left to go.
Since that trip I’ve not thought much about glaciers, humanity’s carbon footprint or the resulting accelerated climate change we’re causing. Every time I read an article or dig out from another massive snow storm, I feel like it’s such a huge problem I can do nothing about. Some people even think our impact is closing in on – or even past – the point of no return. Not to mention, multitudes of people stand to gain from misinforming and obfuscating the seriousness of the issue, and even those who agree on the causes can’t agree on the remedies. But last year’s historic Paris accord, which requires nearly every nation to drastically reduce its carbon emissions, got me interested again. If even the United States government can get in line with the rest of the world to combat climate change, then surely I could do my part. So how do I begin to make smart decisions for mitigating our damage?
I figured the first step would be to educate myself. Last fall while in Nebraska City – Home of Arbor Day ™ – I saw a copy of Robert Henson’s “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.” I thought to myself, “hey self, you are a thinking person, you should read this,” and then that is what I did. Smug title aside, I wanted to comprehensively learn about the history, the debate, the science and the solutions – all topics I knew very little about. After finishing Henson’s book, I still know little, but I understand a bit more than I used to.
The book is about a mile wide and a foot deep. Also, it included no list of sources, which I found frustrating (all references were informally cited in line with the text). However, it touched on just about every aspect of the climate change we’re currently facing. Though it looks like a nonfiction paperback, if you think of it more as a textbook, it’s a comprehensive resource.
Though we tend to associate much doom-and-gloom with the topic, I finished the book feeling rather hopeful. Despite what you see in American media, the consensus is growing that action needs to be taken immediately, and most major actors around the globe take the threat seriously. I personally think it’s an issue that eventually can transcend petty politics in this country, if each side is willing to make some concessions. Conservatives need to admit this isn’t a socialist conspiracy to strip shareholders of profits, while liberals need to be more pragmatic in their approach. For example, while both nuclear power and fracking are problematic, they have major potential to cut into coal power, which accounts for nearly 1/4 of all greenhouse gases emitted in the United States.
Having educated myself somewhat on the topic, my next step in saving the planet was to list the ways I could reduce my impact. Henson’s guide again helped, as it ends with a litany of actions any normal person can take.
The first step, of course, was to know what exactly my yearly carbon contribution is! To do this I used this online calculator. My annual carbon footprint was estimated at 9.66 metric tons of carbon – not bad considering the U.S. average is 20.4. Yet the world average is four metric tons per year, and even in industrial nations the average is 11. Experts say world average needs to drop as low as two metric ton per capita to slow global warming to the established 2°C target.
Given that info, my list became daunting, because it means serious sacrifices in how I live my life. The list has two parts – ways I think I’ve been doing my part all along, and new commitments I need to make:
How I currently combat climate change
- Driving – I drive probably once or twice a week. Lucky for me, I live close enough to my office to walk to work every day, and I have plenty of food and entertainment options very close. It’s one of the major advantages I’ve found about living in the heart of the city. Not only do I avoid using gasoline, I get some exercise.
- Lighting – After we moved in to our house, I started slowly replacing all the fluorescent lights with LEDs. People complain about the cost, but I can get like a half dozen at Lowe’s for $2 each. It’s worth it. I’m also a stickler for shutting lights off, which I’m sure annoys the bejesus out of my wife.
- No red meat – I gave up eating beef, pork and any other mammal meat about two years ago (a post for another day). The benefits are myriad, but one of them is environmental. Methane is 21 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and livestock pumps a lot of it into the atmosphere quite literally through cow farts.
- Avoiding extra plastics – Why use a water bottle when there’s likely a tap a few meters away from me somewhere. We also tend not to eat prepackaged or frozen meals, and we always take our cloth bags to the grocery store. For that plastic that we do use…
- Recycling – We are fairly avid recyclers. We probably recycle twice as much by weight than we throw out each week. Paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminum, glass – it all goes in the green bin.
- Buy local / farmers market – We try to buy fresh produce, and in the summer we are regulars at the Farmer’s Market. As an added bonus, we can walk there, so we don’t offset ourselves by driving! We also like to grow our own veggies in the summer if we can. These are really small things, but the small thing add up. Every pepper or tomato I grow is a pepper not transported hundreds of miles in a truck or airplane.
How I need to better be a global citizen
- Heating and air conditioning – Honestly I don’t think we do too bad in this area. The winters can be cold, but we try to keep the thermostat as low as tolerable. In the summer, we keep the AC off as long as possible, too. Usually it’s not the heat that gets me but the humidity. Either way, I end up running a fan or seven. Considering that home natural gas and electric use accounted for 7.86 out of my 9.66 metric tons of yearly carbon, this is an area I need to do better.
- Hot water – Related to the above, I need to use the water heater less. Turn down the temperature, cold washing clothes, shorter showers, fuller dishwasher loads – all of it will help.
- Gadgets – Consumer electronics all ding home energy costs more than we admit. Coal plants are murder, I type from my laptop as my phone buzzes and the TV is playing a “Castle” rerun that I’m not even watching. I need to engage with home devices less, and enjoy other pastimes more.
- Air travel – This is a tricky one, because I don’t know the right alternative. Domestic round-trip plane rides can be 1-2 metric ton a pop. But is driving better? The obvious answer is to limit travel. I mean, I only take a 2-3 air trips per year anyway, and half the time it’s for work. But there’s a big world to see out there.
- Driving – Yes, this is listed as a personal win above, but I can’t ignore the fact that my car is a 20-year-old V8 Ford Taurus with a leaky engine block and a Swiss cheese exhaust system. Hello 18 mpg! I would love if my next vehicle were a used hybrid.
- Renewable energy – If personal solar power becomes more affordable, sign me up! I would love to put a few cells on my roof, even if just to heat our water or something.
Hopefully over the course of the next year I can make some headway with this list. Imagine if I could halve my carbon footprint! I know I am only one person, but I want to prove to myself that small sacrifices today from all of us could add up to future spectacular trips to the remaining wonders this world has, like Glacier National Park.