Go do a Google search on this phrase – “Target Atmospheric CO2” – and include the quotation marks, and you will find 2,400 links. The links point to essays discussing a scientific paper by James Hansen and other scientists called “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?“ The gist of the story: The likely safe high range for CO2 in the atmosphere is 350ppm, and we’re beyond that at 385ppm. Hansen is the NASA scientist that first alerted Congress to the global warming problem back in 1988. Randomly read some of those essays reacting to the paper and you’ll save me the time paraphrasing it. The paper itself is perfectly readable, if you’re patient, but it’s bumpy with scientific speak, so it might be easier to read the commentaries.
Many of the writers act like 350 is the magic number we need, and in some ways that’s true. It gives humanity a very specific goal. It tells everyone that if we want weather like the nice weather we grew up with, then everybody needs to go on a carbon diet and get the atmospheric CO2 below 350 again. However, that does not convey the sacrifice needed to achieve the goal.
I think we need another number. Scientists need to decide what is the fair share target number we all need to stay under personally to get the job done. Recycling paper and buying compact florescent lights are not going to do the trick. I think until we have a personal number to target, along with proper labeling on everything we buy, people won’t understand how much CO2 they need to cut out of their lives.
How much sacrifice do we need to make? If the nations of the world had a crash program to switch to 100% solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear and other sources of clean energy, would that solve the problem? Would that be one way to solve the problem without asking individuals to think about the details? Or should governments just kill off some of the most polluting industries? Do we need to give up the beef industry? Or the paper industry? Or the airline industry? Or all of them plus more? Or would it be better to ask the citizens themselves to take on their own share of global warming responsibility and let them make their own decisions on how to clean up their share of personal waste?
If we had a number to measure our personal use against, we could all decide the sacrifices we’d like to make. Some people might be willing to dry their clothes on the line outside for a year to budget flying to New York City for a vacation. Other people might buy high tech cars that put little CO2 in the atmosphere so they can enjoy living in a larger house. Others might choose to walk to work so eating steaks wouldn’t break their personal greenhouse gas consumption budget.
Many people have suggested having a carbon tax to help fund a Manhattan style project to convert to clean energy power plants. This would discourage waste and finance change. Having a tax would be one way to quantify for the public their duty to humanity. It could also simplify the decisions people make. If gasoline with a carbon tax was $12 a gallon, then you’d think long and hard about wasting it. If the price of electricity from coal went to 4x with a carbon tax, it would give utility companies income to build new plants and customers incentives to make their houses energy efficient.
This would be the easy route. What if in the next ten years we screwed around and didn’t do anything and it became frighteningly obvious we need to do something drastic? Would we make bigger sacrifices then? What if we had to outlaw the gasoline powered car? Or outlaw airplanes? Or ration electricity?
There are thousands and thousands of things we can do now by freely making the choices ourselves before the governments of the world have to get heavy. If we knew what our carbon allotment was, it would be easier to make those choices.
Take for instance paper. I have no idea how much paper contributes to the problem of global warming, but I have seen one number that says that junk mail adds 114 billion pounds of CO2 annually. My reaction is to give up paper completely. I’m phasing out my magazine and newspaper subscriptions, I’m doing my best to never print computer documents, I’m working to reduce junk mail, and I’m finding ways to shop for products with less packaging.
If everyone thought this way, paper magazines would disappear from society and everyone would read electronic periodicals. Is this good or bad? That’s a lot of jobs lost. Potentially, it could mean a lot of businesses would go under. I’d hate to see that, but on the other hand, paper really isn’t needed in our computer networked society. My local newspaper just started offering a weekly electronic edition that looks just like the print edition, but costs less than the Sunday only paper subscription. I’m moving to a paperless lifestyle, but even though it’s logical to me, is it what everyone else should be doing too?
I draw the line at magazines and newspapers, but feel that books are worth their environmental costs because we preserve them and consider newspapers and mags disposable. What if that’s wrong. What if there’s a way to have environmental safe magazines? Unless scientists tell us the values associated with all our consumption we won’t know how to make enlightened decisions. If a National Geographic subscription form came with a number – 24 – for 24 pounds of CO2 added to the atmosphere per 1 year subscription then that would be a big step in understanding the problem.
However, unless I know my allotment number, say 1,000 pounds per year, I wouldn’t be able to practically use the 24 figure I got from National Geographic. So Mr. Hansen, it you and your science buddies would be so kind, give us another number. 350 is cool for the world to know, but we all need another number, a number that would tell us how to live by so all 7 billion people riding on spaceship Earth pulls that 385ppm figure down to 350ppm. That number is the maximum amount in pounds of greenhouse gases we can each safely add to the atmosphere in a year.
President Elect Obama, you could help with this too. Instead of offering another general economic incentive package, offer us tax breaks on buying specific clean energy products and services. That would be another way to quantify a solution. Tax what’s bad for the environment, and subsidized what’s good. Get the U.S. to do more than it’s fair share to get the world below that 350ppm number. We owe the rest of the world.