Metta Spencer

Getting Personal about Climate Change

By Metta Spencer

in Energy Security & Climate Change: A Canadian Primer. Cy Gonick, ed. (BlackPoint, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 2008), pp 118-127.

We're going to face some disagreeable social dilemmas if we're serious about limiting global climate change. Every social movement is prodded along by "moral entrepreneurs" -- gadflies who challenge previously accepted ways of living. In this case, that means promoting new, draconian measures to reduce the use of fossil fuels. But personal confrontations are not nice, so we avoid them. Thirty years ago I didn't object when someone smoked near me. Only non-smokers braver than I took responsibility for establishing a new social norm. Nor did I ever refuse to serve coffee to male colleagues. I let other feminists speak up against gender discrimination. So now it's my turn -- and yours -- to be militant. Some of us have to become moral entrepreneurs, changing our personal habits of consumption and -- especially -- assertively urging changes in others and in our political and economic institutions.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with its 2,500 scientists, has been releasing its fourth report in several segments in 2007,[1] and the projections are grave. Our challenge is unique in human history. We confront a crisis that has come upon us gradually, imperceptibly, but suddenly has become urgent and life-threatening.

The Crisis

The planet's climate is changing, largely because of human activities, especially our use of fossil fuels, which produce "greenhouse gases" (GHG): methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated and chlorinated gases, ground-level ozone and, most notably, carbon dioxide (CO2), which trap heat in the atmosphere.

Throughout most of human history, atmospheric CO2 was about 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv), but now it approaches 400 ppmv. The other GHGs have also increased dramatically.[2] According to some scientists, these are the highest levels in twenty million years.[3]

Between 1750 (when the Industrial Revolution began) and the present, GHG emissions have grown, with an increase of fully 70 percent between 1970 and 2004.[4] Accordingly, the earth's temperature has increased by about .6 degrees. Our challenge is to limit the earth's additional increase to 1.4 degrees above the present level, or 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.[5] Unfortunately, it is virtually certain that the 21st century will see additional warming over most land areas. We can expect increasing extremes of weather, including droughts, cyclones, high winds, and high sea levels. For the next two decades, a warming of 0.2 degrees C per decade is projected.[6] Even if GHGs could be kept at present levels, a continuing warming of 0.1 degrees per decade would occur because the effects on the oceans take a long period and some gases remain active for as long as a century.

As carbon dioxide concentrations increase, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidified. Widespread melting of glaciers, ice caps, and the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contributed to the faster rising sea level between 1993 to 2003. There is a possibility that 90 percent of the top 10 feet of permafrost will thaw during this century.[7]

Other factors of both human and natural origin also affect the climate. For example, aerosols (e.g. from volcanic eruptions) had a cooling effect during the mid-twentieth century, mitigating the increasingly warm trend for a while, despite also depleting the stratospheric ozone. Among the other warming factors is animal agriculture, the source of 15 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions -- especially nitrous oxide and methane.[8] Deforestation also exacerbates the warming because trees, along with oceans, serve as "sinks" that sequester carbon dioxide. [9]

There are many complex interactions among the determinants of climate -- including feedback loops that may exacerbate or reverse trends. For example, snow and ice reflect sunlight, thereby helping to keep the planet cool (the "albedo effect").The melting of icecaps exposes dark land and water to sunshine, thus absorbing rather than reflecting solar heat. Another example: Immense fields of a GHG, frozen methane, lie beneath the oceans and polar soils. When permafrost melts, the methane below it can also melt and enter the atmosphere, compounding the warming effect. It is about twenty times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.[10]

The IPCC report has projected ranges of warming during the 21st century for six alternative scenarios of GHG emissions. The worst scenario would show a temperature rise of 4.0 degrees C. and a sea level increase between 0.26 and 0.59 meters. The most favorable model would give a temperature change of 1.8 degrees Celsius and a sea level increase between 0.18 and 0.38 meters. Even in such a "favorable" outcome, many millions of people will lose their homes to floods.[11]

No person and no society will escape the effects of climate change. Probably it is already too late to save the world's coral reefs, which are the habitat of about a million species.[12] Low-lying coastal lands will all be especially vulnerable. For example, the homes of some 60 million human beings living in the vicinity of Calcutta may be under water if the temperature increases by two degrees or more, the tipping point into intolerable and irreversible changes. The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 persons are already dying each year of diseases that can be attributed to climate change.[13]

The Arctic is particularly affected, so Canada is already experiencing some of the early effects of global warming. For example, caribou herds and polar bears are declining, Nevertheless, Canada continues to emit more GHGs per capita than any other nation. All other industrial societies, including the United States, have been trying to reduce GHGs significantly -- but, as of early 2007, not Canada. Canada originates 5.5 tonnes of carbon emissions per person per year,[14] whereas, according to George Monbiot's convincing calculations, our biosphere can be sustainable only if the average person on earth limits emissions to about .33 tonnes per year.[15]

A major explanation for Canada's bad record is the mining of tar sands in Alberta, which yield a substitute for petroleum. Regrettably, the oil product itself, as well as the fuel used to melt the tar and separate it from the sand, emit vast quantities of carbon dioxide -- five times as much as the production of conventional oil -- and require huge quantities of water from underground aquifers.[16] Australia and the United States itself, as indeed, all other democratic societies besides Canada, have decided against producing this dirty oil. Nevertheless, under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada is obliged to export the same proportion of energy to the United States as it has over the preceding three years.

Meanwhile, with the publication of the IPCC's fourth report, the crucial scientific questions have been answered. Very few people still dispute the IPCC conclusions. Lawrence Solomon wrote a series profiling ten scientists who had questioned some technical aspect of the third IPCC report.[17] None of them, however, denied the reality of global warming or that it results largely from human activity. Only one big question still has to be decided, namely: What shall we do about it?

Looming Political Controversies

Canada's Conservative government has decided against trying to fulfill the GHG objectives of the Kyoto Protocol, claiming that it would cause an economic catastrophe. However, a different opinion was expressed in October 2006 by the former Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern, who predicted that climate change could cut every country's economy by one-fifth and that only drastic interventions can prevent that outcome.[18] He argues that delay will cost far more than timely action. Still, financial factors were considered so compelling that not until 2007 did either the United States or Canadian governments begin responding to the growing political pressure for change.

For the George W. Bush administration, this lag reflected the priority assigned to war. According to Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, the accrual cost of the Iraq War (i.e. the total, long-term committed cost, not just the amount authorized by Congress) is $2.3 trillion.[19] For this amount of money, the country could have installed wind turbines providing about 10 kW for every US citizen -- enough to generate all the electricity now being used in the United States, with extra left over to run electric cars or to produce hydrogen as a transportation fuel.

To limit the earth's warming, almost all nations have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which assigns mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to signatory nations. Moreover, Kyoto requires all industrialized countries to protect sinks and reservoirs -- the forests and bodies of water that store carbon. Yet the targets that countries have adopted are not all equally challenging. France aims to reduce emissions by 75-80 percent by the year 2050. California has set its own reduction target for that year: 80 percent. Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy proposed a reduction of GHG emissions by 60 percent, though environmental organizations insist that this target is too low. To be safe, 90 percent is a better goal.[20]

Political Controversies

Fortunately, renewable energy is abundant. What is scarce is the time required for harnessing it in sufficient quantities. Decades will be required, and we face painful political dilemmas. For example, although few nuclear power plants have been constructed lately because of the dangers they pose, there are now calls for additional reactors, since they do not directly emit GHGs. Unfortunately, the mining and processing of fuel for nuclear plants does emit a lot of CO2. Alternatively, gas could be exploited more to replace coal or oil, since gas does not contribute as seriously to global warming. It may buy us enough time to develop genuinely renewable sources of energy.

A number of countries are already participating in a type of rationing called "cap-and-trade." GHG emission limits or "caps" are set for all industries, with specific credits allocated to each organization. If a firm fails to use up its allocated emissions, it can sell the surplus back to the system, so that a different company (perhaps even in a different country) can buy those rights. Thus the buyer is, in effect, fined for polluting, whereas the seller is rewarded financially for reducing emissions. Over time, the system's administrators will gradually reduce the caps. Countries signatory to the Kyoto Protocol have been assigned caps. In 2003, corporations began trading GHG emissions voluntarily on the Chicago Climate Exchange, and European Union nations have their own trading system underway. This system has been used successfully in controlling other types of pollution, such as reducing acid rain. However, it has not yet been effective in reducing GHGs. Some economists, including Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, believe that it cannot. According to Greenspan, to have dramatic effects on industry as a whole, a cap would have to be set so low that "companies could not buy their way out of having to make production changes." [21]

In the years ahead much deeper cuts in emissions must be made, not just by businesses, but also by individuals and households. Without publicly committing to it yet, the British government has quietly been exploring a plan for rationing emission credits.[22] Individuals would receive a card each year. Thereafter, when buying a fossil fuel by, say, purchasing an airplane ticket, filling up a car's gas tank, or ordering heating oil for a home, the corresponding number of credits would be subtracted. This system would presumably increase socio-economic equality somewhat, for the poor are less likely to use up their emission credits than the well-to-do, who would pay dearly for the privilege of living extravagantly.

Still, it seems unlikely that most societies will adopt rationing schemes. An alternative is simply to let the market price of fuels determine the distribution of gasoline, electricity, heating oil, and the finished goods and services that depend on these fuels. Agriculture, for example, now uses a lot of oil in producing food, and even more for transporting it to stores and hence to our homes. If oil prices increase dramatically -- say as a result of heavy carbon taxes -- those other commodity prices will increase correspondingly and consumers will begin rationing themselves by revising their own household budgets. In principle, rationing is unnecessary if the market is allowed to function without subsidies and if prices are kept high. However, such a free-market system worsens the hardships of low-income families.

Each society will choose among these differing approaches through its own political processes, depending on its values. For example, military activities account for a sizeable portion of GHG emissions. An F-16 fighter jet uses twice as much fuel in one hour as the average motorist consumes in a year. Emissions from military operations account for 6-10 percent of global air pollution. In 1988, Pentagon activities produced 46 million tons of carbon -- 3.5 percent of the US total. When the need for cut-backs become urgent, citizens whose values are peace-oriented may force their governments to reduce military activities for the sake of a habitable climate. [23]

In Canada, an especially contentious issue involves whether to permit the continued development of the Alberta tar sands. No issue is more likely than this to pit environmentalists against economic interests. The labor shortage in Alberta, for example, has enabled unemployed workers throughout Canada to move to that province and find jobs. There will be great resistance, therefore, to any proposal to shut down the tar sands operation -- a policy that has must be adopted if Canadians are to stay within the necessary limits. It is folly to continue spending money to exploit fossil fuel technologies when alternative, renewable sources of energy could just as readily be developed.

Governments will be deeply involved in numerous other programs that will determine the success or failure of our global future. For example, there are already debates about whether new electrical power plants should use nuclear power, say, or wind turbines, or old-fashioned coal, with its carbon emissions sequestered in abandoned mines or at the bottom of oceans. Some governments are now offering special loans for families and businesses to install solar panels and other renewable sources of energy, as well as insulation and other retrofitting schemes. It is governments that create new transportation systems, as well as zoning ordinances and building codes that determine the shape of the towns we will inhabit. About one-third of energy use goes into heating and cooling buildings. Therefore, setting higher standards for new buildings and incentives for upgrading older buildings can have a huge impact.

Technological Prospects

Our way of life is about to change abruptly in response to radical technological developments. We require vast breakthroughs in efficiency, which are forthcoming as new models of appliances, vehicles, and housing appear, reducing fuel requirements. But besides such incremental means of conservation, there must also be radical and surprising new inventions that generate large quantities of renewable sources of energy.[24]

There is one major obstacle: At present, most renewable energy is of low intensity or low quality. For example, an immense amount of solar radiation strikes the earth's surface -- but it is dispersed over such a wide area that it is hard to collect in sufficient quantities. Likewise, wind and sunshine are intermittent, not consistently available, and batteries are not able yet to store much energy for later use. Large amounts of energy must be invested in order to produce and deliver adequate renewable energy. Indeed, for some products, such as ethanol made from corn, the output energy only slightly exceeds the amount of the input energy. Nevertheless, ethanol production is booming in the United States and is expected to become profitable as soon as cellulosic waste products, such as straw and switch grass can become the main feedstock.

Fossil fuels are richer than most renewables as sources of energy -- or at least they were until depletion gradually made them harder to obtain. Even now, the net energy of coal is high -- about 25 (i.e. its energy output is 25 times greater than the energy input that produces it). Therefore, to shift from coal to most of the existing renewable fuels would be unprofitable. But coal is the dirtiest source of energy; its GHG emissions are appalling, even when it is converted to liquid fuel. The most urgent necessity is to develop new alternative technologies that offer vastly superior net energy than current ones.

Already, the net energy of wind turbines is quite good -- superior to most oil wells, since nowadays new wells tend to be located in the deep ocean, the Arctic, or tar sands. However, wind's intermittency is a drawback. One solution, now being developed, is to tether big kite-like turbines high in the jet streams, where wind is always strong.[25]

These kites can generate enormous energy. (Their significant disadvantage, however, is that the tether is a perfect lightning rod, so they have to be pulled down whenever a storm approaches.)

I'll mention three other radically new technologies that are being developed. One involves the sequestration of CO2 by single-cell organisms: algae. There are many different species of algae, including some composed largely of oil that thrive on carbon dioxide and sunlight.[26]

A Boston company's method involves running the emissions from a local power plant flue through clear plastic tubes full of water and fast-growing algae. Every day, some of the algae are harvested and squeezed, yielding bio-diesel fuel plus dry green flakes that have other uses. While moving through the plastic tubes, almost half of the CO2 and 85 percent of the nitrous oxide is removed from the flue's emissions. Thus the system triumphs in two ways: both by removing GHGs and by generating a substitute fuel.

Another promising technology uses "Concentrating Solar Power" (CSP), which may efficiently generate enough electricity for the entire planet from sunlight.[27]

Its principle is entirely different from the more familiar photovoltaic solar cell. It is a mature technology, for one such installation has been operating in the California desert for twenty years. Now a huge CSP electric power plant is being built in the Sahara. A tower will stand in an open field, surrounded by hundreds of mirrors that track the sun and direct its rays toward the tower, where a fluid is flowing and heating up to 1000 °C. This heat will be transferred either to a power generator or into molten salt, where it can be stored for a few hours at night. This is a highly efficient source of electricity, which can be sent to Europe as high voltage direct current.

Finally, I'll mention an altogether different technological solution to the problem of global warming: the capture of ambient CO2 from the planet's atmosphere. Klaus S. Lackner, a Columbia University physicist, has developed a device in which sorbents capture carbon dioxide molecules from free-flowing air for sequestration. Since the CO2 in the atmosphere is evenly distributed around the globe, it is possible to set up such devices at any convenient location, not just at smokestacks or exhaust pipes where GHGs are emitted. Global Research Technologies has tested a prototype of the system and will develop it for commercial production. According to,

"A device with an opening of one square meter can extract about 10 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. If a single device were to measure 10 meters by 10 meters it could extract 1,000 tons each year. On this scale, one million devices would be required to remove one billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to the U.K. Treasury's Stern Review on climate change, the world will need to reduce carbon emissions by 11 billion tons by 2025.... Air capture devices are small and require much less land area than the wind mills that would be needed to offset an equal amount of CO2 emission."[28]

Personal Decisions

We cannot wait for these technological and political developments. As individuals we need to begin changing our lifestyles. George Monbiot's book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, suggest how to priorize the various changes available today. He suggests, for example, that we consume locally grown food rather than squander energy on transport. Fortunately, it is possible to grow lots of produce in cold climates without using a heated greenhouse.

Monbiot also suggests that we create an inter-urban bus system with routes through the city, picking people up in several sites so passengers don't have to burn energy going to centralized terminals. Likewise, he would do away with most grocery stores. Today, food is transported from warehouses to local shops, which must be heated and well-lighted. Then we use our cars to go grocery shopping. Instead, Monbiot favors the system that I've been using for years --shopping by Internet. Each order is packaged up in the warehouse and delivered directly to my kitchen, eliminating the retail store and my trips to it.

Only the challenge of "sustainable flying" leaves Monbiot at a loss. Aviation has been growing by 5 percent a year since 1997 and there are no technological breakthroughs on the drawing board to reduce emissions. Propeller-driven planes are better than jets, but there are few such airliners of that type. (Richard Branson is devoting his profits from Virgin Air's transport businesses to the search for solutions, but none have appeared yet.) By Monbiot's calculations, we will have to reduce air travel by 96 percent. Go by train, bus, or ship and, if you visit distant loved ones, expect to go rarely and to stay there a long time. As a fervent moral entrepreneur, he writes bluntly that "long-distance travel, high speed and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible. If you fly, you destroy other people's lives."

Such appeals to our ethical idealism are necessary. We all must become moral entrepreneurs, for habits will not change unless they are forthrightly challenged. Still, this does not have to demoralize anyone. There is another way to look at it. The basis for living a full, rich life is not ease, or comfort, or affluence, but meaning. We all want to contribute to something larger than ourselves, but ways of doing so are often obscure. Climate change is not obscure. It's real and it's happening now. It presents an opportunity for every human being on the planet to become a hero. You too. Start today.


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I Fourth Assessment Report: "The Physical Science Basis"; Working Group II Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007: "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability"; Working Group III, Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007: "Mitigation of Climate Change."

[2] M. Meinhausen, "What Does a 2 Degree Target Mean for Greenhouse Gas Concentrations? in Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Wolfgang Cramer, and Nebojsa Nakicenovic, eds. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 392.

[3] Paul N. Pearson and Martin R Palmer, "Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the past 60 million years," Nature, Aug. 17, 2000. Also, ice cores from Antarctica contain levels of CO2 and methane that are higher than ever before in the past 650,000 years. See Urs Siegenthaler et al., "Stable Carbon Cycle-Climate Relationship During the Late Pleistocene," Science Vol. 310 (Nove 25, 2005, pp. 1313-17.

[4] IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group III, "Summary for Policymakers" p. 3.

[5] George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2006), p. 15. Monbiot reviews the research justifying this projection.

[6] For an overview of projected effects, see ibid, p. 5.

[7] National Center for Atmospheric Research, "Most of Arctic's Near-Surface Permafrost May Thaw by 2100," Dec. 19, 2006.

[8]Center for International Earth Science Network, Columbia University. "Methane Emissions from Livestock,"

[9] Karl Mallon, Greg Bourne, and Richard Modd, Climate Solutions: WWF's Vision for 2050. World Wildlife Fund. Paper prepared for WWF's Global Energy Task Force. p. 3.

[10] Methane accounts for about 19 percent of the GHG emissions into the environment. A catalytic converter could convert it into carbon dioxide with some potential advantages. See "Prof Creates Catalytic Converter to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions," University of Alberta report by Technology, Entrepreneur, and Company Development.

[11] IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group III, "Summary for Policymakers," pp. 12-13.

[12] Report of Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA) -- a partnership between Conservation International and the World Conservation Union, 15 June 2007.

[13] World Health Organization, Climate Change, 2003.

[14] Sierra Club of Canada, reported at:

[15] Monbiot, p. 16.

[16] Paul Chastko, Developing Alberta's Oil Sands, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004), pp. 100-12.

[17] Lawrence Solomon in The National Post, Nov. 28, 2006.

[18] Sir Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change (Report to Treasury of UK government, 2006). "Summary of Conclusions:" p. vi.

[19] Tom Regan, "Report: Iraq War Costs Could Top $2 Trillion," Christian Science Monitor, Jan 10, 2006.

[20] The case for this high figure is argued brilliantly by George Monbiot in his book Heat, probably the best practical review of the world's climate change challenge yet published.

[21] The Globe and Mail, February 12, 2007, p. B7.

[22] Gwynne Dyer, "Getting Radical About Climate Change: The Shape of Things to Come," 14 December 2006.

[23] Michael Renner, State of the World 2000. (Washington, D. C.: World Watch Institute, 2000)

[24] An especially encouraging view of these prospective efficiencies can be found in Ernst von Weizsaker, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use (London: Earthscan, 2006). See also Alex Steffen, ed. World Changing: A User's Guide for the 21 (New York: Abrams, 2006).

[25] Keay Davidson, "Scientists Look High in the Sky for Power: Jet Stream Could Fill Global Energy Needs," San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 2007.

[26] Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, "Green Algae for Carbon Capture and Biodiesel, Institute of Science in Society, Press release Mar. 3, 2006.

[27] National Renewable Energy Laboratory, "Concentrating Solar Power Research,"

[28] Columbia University's Earth Institute, reported here by at