Climate Scientist Brenda Ekwurzel Part Three: What Individuals Can Do to Help Mitigate Climate Change Risk

In October I spoke at length with Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, the Director of Climate Science for The Union of Concerned Scientists. The entire interview is covered in three posts.

The first part of the interview was posted last week and addresses claims made by climate change skeptics. The second part of the interview discusses current thoughts about climate change. This short post covers the third and most important part of that interview. The focus of the discussion is on what we, as individuals, can do to help address this extremely important and intensifying challenge. Each post has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In addition, The Inspired Rationalist launched in August with a lengthy post addressing the climate change debate by focusing on what insights become apparent when we identify each side’s supporters (the believers and the skeptics).

Before getting started, here is some background on Brenda Ekwurzel. (This paragraph was also included in the posts of parts one and two of the interview.) Brenda’s path to climate science started at Columbia University when, as a graduate student, she took a paleoclimate class.  At that time Brenda had the opportunity to go to the North Pole on an ice breaker. There, the experience of observing the evidence of rapid climate change firsthand, inspired her to focus on this area of science. She did post-doctoral work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for two years. Later, as a member of the faculty at the University of Arizona, Brenda’s work included research with students on the changing precipitation patterns in the semiarid Southwest and how that is affecting groundwater supplies, mountain snowpack, and wildfires. Brenda has testified before Congress about climate change and has been widely quoted in the press and appeared on a variety of newsy shows including ABC News, CBS News and Good Morning America, among others. And because she is an equal opportunity expert she appeared on O’Reilly for the conservatives and The Colbert Report for the liberals.

Here is the part three of the interview:

The Inspired Rationalist: As individuals, if we take climate change risk seriously, we need to understand what we should be doing. You co-authored a book about that:  Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low Carbon Living. What’s the low-hanging fruit? What are the things that everyone should be doing?

Brenda Ekwurzel:  Start with the easy steps first. If you rent or have a home where the thermostat is old-fashioned, you are needlessly heating or cooling your home while you’re away.  It may come as a surprise that only about one-third of homes in the U.S. have programmable thermostats. Replacing the thermostat is a cheap and easy way to lower your carbon emissions.

Another easy one is not washing your clothes in hot water. Hot water uses five times the energy compared to the cool water setting. It’s a very quick switch to do and it adds up over time. If you have an old refrigerator, especially if older than 2003, get a new one. It’s really an energy hog. There were successive efficiency standards that brought down electricity use by 70% in a 2003 rule for refrigerators compared with the mid-1970s.

The bottom line of the book is that often the use of an appliance or a way of transportation or a way of heating or cooling your home is worth upgrading to the new technology. Because even if you include the energy to make a product, the energy efficiencies have really changed over the last decades.

And the other thing, make sure you recycle your aluminum.  For example, a recycled aluminum can is only 5 percent of the emissions from mining and producing an aluminum can from the raw materials.

IR: I’m sure there are many things we could be doing that involve less pleasant or easy choices but that have high impact. What are some of those?

BE: Vehicles are huge. That’s a big part of Americans contribution to heat trapping emissions. So, if you own a vehicle and you can replace it, it’s a big price point, but you will save a lot of fuel if you have a hybrid. And, as we clean up our electric supply in this country, an electric vehicle makes a lot of sense. But you have to consider where you live. If you have completely fossil fuel sourced electricity it’s worse to have an electric car than it is to have a hybrid.  In such cases, you might want to time your purchase of an electric vehicle to coincide with a cleaner grid.

IR: Right. So, for example, California doesn’t rely heavily on fossil fuel for its electricity so it’s a good state to own an electric car

BE: In California, yes electric cars, as much as possible.

IR: If someone can afford it, is it worth it, environmentally, to trade away one’s gas-powered car earlier than they otherwise would in favor of a hybrid or electric? Or do the resources required to produce a new car offset the benefit of much lower or no emissions from the vehicle’s operation?

BE: That was my big surprise. After working on the book, I immediately got rid of my fine car and bought a used hybrid. Do it as soon as you can. It’s the use of a car with traditional miles per gallon (mpg) that’s the problem. If you can switch out and cut your consumption of fossil fuels by half, it’s huge. The average American drives 12,000 miles per year.   Upgrading from a 20-mpg car to a 40-mpg car would save 300 gallons of gas a year.  This saves real money at the pump and you don’t have to fill up as often.   It makes a big difference.

The bottom line is we’ve got to upgrade to the more  efficient technology. The one appliance exception is dryers, they haven’t made much headway on standards for the prior few decades. I’ll dry my clothes for 10 minutes and get the wrinkles out and I hang them. But that’s labor-intensive. I am so aware of the consequences I do these things (laughs).

IR: What else?

BE: Improving energy efficiency in the home.  Upgrading to energy efficient windows, adding insulation, and replacing  heating and cooling systems in your home can go a long way.

Definitely start with the easiest stuff. But the big message is you’ve got to tackle the big stuff. This is really important to understand.  I didn’t quite appreciate this until working on the book Cooler Smarter. If we stop at the little stuff it’s not enough and we are resigning the world to quite dire consequences in terms of sea level rise, extreme precipitation (both drought and torrential rains or blizzards), etc.

Try to take a 20% cut from your personal emissions. If all of us did this in the US, we could have turned off a third of our coal-fired power plants. Once you’ve made your cut, tell your friends about the benefits you are enjoying (such as better fitness, or money for your children’s clothes).   Even if you don’t think about the climate, most of these changes in the book save you money, some initially and nearly all over the long run.

Harder choices…maybe not owning a car and choosing ride-sharing. That’s another way you can do it. However, we should ask ourselves is it these activities per se or is it the historical decisions that have led to the US continuing to power these activities primarily from dirty nineteenth century fossil fuels?

The clock is ticking on the climate risks the world may be locking in.  You can’t get complacent. However, if you don’t have as much control over your transportation or your building because you’re renting or other factors, then encourage your friends to take a 20% cut out of their carbon emissions.

Most importantly, ultimately, we need to stop voting for people who deny the consequences of climate change or slow the pace of solutions that can be deployed today.

IR: I’ve heard that flying is very bad in terms of fossil fuel emissions. So that’s a tough one. Should people try to cut back on their air miles?

BE: Most of us are in cars so that’s the biggest issue every day we’ve got to get a handle on. But those who do fly a lot, of course, that’s a different situation. One thing, it depends on the distance of travel. If every seat on the train is full of people, that is good for short haul.  If every seat on a plane is occupied, the plane is better for long haul. If you’re a single person going 3000 miles across the country the worst thing you could do is drive a fossil-fuel powered car by yourself.  It’s better to fly the long-haul flights.  It gets more complicated with short stopovers.  Check the CO2 emissions that airlines provide for each flight.  Airlines are phasing out inefficient planes and upgrading to better engines and wingtips that help save jet fuel.

IR: We can differentiate between travel that is unavoidable and travel this is at our discretion. It’s easy to hop on a plane. Sometimes it’s a quick weekend getaway and sometimes it’s a major trip. I’m sure people don’t want to give up any of that travel. But it is still a choice. Should people be more conscious about this and consider cutting back or is the impact not material?

BE: It all depends on the personal circumstance. For most people their home and the amount of vehicle miles that they travel fueled by fossil fuel, is larger than that vacation.  Let’s just put it this way, if most Americans stop flying and they kept doing everything else the same, we’re pretty much in the same boat. The biggest things are electricity use in our buildings and vehicle miles traveled powered by fossil fuel (see pie chart for the latest year data is available, 2015, from the Environmental Protection Agency for transportation-related emissions).


IR: What about beef consumption? That’s another one I hear about.

BE: Yes. It depends on where the beef came from but certainly beef is a challenging item. We have an example in the book that if the average family of four cut their beef consumption in half it’s the same as not driving their car for half a year. Some people do meatless Mondays or they shrink their protein and have more vegetables, which makes our doctors happy. So, yes, reducing protein consumption can help but it’s a small amount compared to the combined energy used in our homes, work and travel.

IR: Does it make a difference if it’s grass-fed beef versus not?

BE: Yes. The practices of grass-fed beef tend to sequester more carbon in the soil. If you are going to have beef that is a much more climate-friendly way to go. Pasture raised is really the gold standard. No forced grain over the entire life of the beef cattle.

IR: And healthier.

IR: For people who can afford to get solar panels for their home, I’d imagine that that’s a good thing.

BE: Yes. There are also places where the utility will put them on so you don’t have the upfront cost. There’s a lot of programs for solar in the home market that are helping allay that upfront cost.

Solar energy is really important. We have the problem of producing solar energy during the day so you also need abundant storage so that you can smooth out the supply and demand of the diurnal cycle.

IR: Right. We can’t go 100% solar but, we could have a lot more solar

BE: If you have the storage capacity you could probably go 100% solar. If we powered all our devices and cars, which are great storage devices for that energy during the daytime when solar energy is bursting, we could see price incentives that would reward this in a well-designed smart system. “Hey, it’s time to charge your device. It’s time to make sure you plug in your car right now. We really need you to pull some of that demand.”

A lot of our engineers are looking at that and it’s going to be efficient once we get to fully integrated systems of distributed power.

IR: How far down the road might that be if we want to be optimistic?

BE: I think about how we threw a lot of money at the Manhattan Project, and made some mistakes like the Hanford Project, but the U.S. built an atomic bomb in less than four years. We can do it. California is really leading the way and so are the Northeast United States.  I think states are going to be the laboratories for real innovation in the next few years and I’m really excited to hear The Union of Concerned Scientists vehicle engineers talking about advances with electric buses.

(IR note: Hanford is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production site on the Columbia River in Washington that holds tens of millions of gallons of radioactive waste. It has suffered leaks, contaminated groundwater, and is the focus of the largest environmental cleanup in the country. This recent article about the Dept. of Energy by author and investigative reporter Michael Lewis also includes discussion of the risks and challenges of the Hanford cleanup project – see the Fifth Risk section in this long article – though I encourage you to read the entire thing. It’s a good read.)

IR: How can people easily keep up on the current thinking and developments related to climate change, to keep this in their consciousness, and help them stay motivated to contribute in their own way?

BE: Have those conversations with your friends and family and find out what they’re learning and compare ideas. These conversations are important for sharing how life is better in many ways with these changes even though they seem hard at first. Then, I have to shamelessly plug our podcast called Got Science. There are fun interviews with people like our vehicle engineers who talk about some of the things with the electric car or automation, and UCS energy analysts are combining economic analysis with smart energy choices.  The podcast also features a variety of guest contributors.

(IR note: There are also a number of other great sources to keep up on this issue. One I find valuable, if you happen to subscribe to the New York Times, is their climate change newsletter that consolidates all their climate change reporting.)