I’d Drive an Efficient Car, But …

… We need seven seat belts when Uncle Albert and Aunt Polly visit…
… I’m driving off-road sometime next year…
… I live in (insert your county name) County, and you know how our winters are…
… I want lots of steel and weight protecting my children…
… I surf occasionally, and need an SUV to drive on the sand…
We’ve heard – and thought – most of those excuses, and more.  Occasionally, it dawns on us how silly most  of them are.  People have driven for a century in my county with rear-wheel drive vehicles, let alone modern front-wheel-drive cars; your kids already know that the best thing you can do for their safety is to stop polluting the planet; annual visits from family can be handled by a second car, or a rental van; “off-road” is mostly a marketing illusion, and normal cars do just fine in most cases.  Here at Good Hand Farm, all we’ve got is off-road, and our cars do just fine.
Prius/54 mpg, Jetta/48 mpg for road ; Dodge truck for on-farm work
Yesterday, another excuse went by the wayside.  “I-need-a-big-car-to-pick-up-my-college-student.”  I took the Prius (54.5 mpg actual results) to Columbia Medical in NYC, where Nathan and I loaded it with a year’s dorm-room contents.  Here’s what we schlepped:
Nathan Elwood, Prius, and dorm-room contents
·         Small fridge
·         Microwave oven
·         Small chest of drawers
·         Bedside table/chest
·         Floor lamp
·         Folding shelf unit
·         Bedding and linen sets
·         Complete clothing wardrobe
·         Wall art (4 pieces)
·         Wall mirror
·         Ironing board
·         2 boxes of books
·         Fan
·         Kitchen pots/pans/cooking utensils…
·         … and more
Granted, we left mom, the other siblings and the dog at home, but we did it.  And here’s what’s at stake:
The EPA estimates that the average American car generates 5.5 metric tons (or 12,100 lbs.) of CO2 per year (click here for detailed info).  Over a four year college career, that’s better than 20 tons of CO2!  If you have an SUV, you’re probably emitting more than that – maybe 30 tons.  If you drive an efficient car, like our Prius or Jetta Diesel (48 mpg actual results), you’re doing much better – maybe 10 tons.
You can spare your children and grandkids the effects of 20 tons of CO2 during one college career, even if it means you need to adjust when Aunt Molly shows up.
Something – indeed, many things – need to change.  But we can do this!
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

11 thoughts on “I’d Drive an Efficient Car, But …

  1. Jamie Learn

    RE: Climate Skeptic Q& A “Since there’s so much carbon below the surface, wasn’t it once all in the atmosphere?” “Wasn’t all the Carbon once in the Atmosphere?”
    Dear John, I don't believe these questions reflect the true nature of the premise by the way you have framed them.
    The premise is: Fossil fuels are carbon sinks which have been sequestered from the atmosphere through photosynthetic processes.
    The Proper Questions:
    Question 1: Did the carbon which exists as fossil fuel originally exist in the atmosphere? Yes or No?
    Question 2: Will the carbon released into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuel exceed the atmosphere's pre-sequestration concentration? Yes or No?
    Jamie

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  2. John Elwood

    Answer to Question 1:
    The question reflects a misunderstanding. It is not relevant whether carbon in fossil fuels passed through the atmosphere, but whether they were there all at the same time. It would be like asking whether the water in my septic tank had once been in my bathtub. The answer would be “yes,” but it would be a bad idea to try to return it there all at once.

    So, did the carbon in fossil fuels come from plant matter that drew carbon from the atmosphere over billions of years? Of course. This is not a matter of serious dispute. Was all that carbon in the atmosphere at any one time? Of course not. The carbon cycle is still in full swing, as any visit to a peat bog or a swamp will tell you.

    Answer to Question 2:
    Again, the question reflects a misunderstanding. Sequestration cycles have no “pre-sequestration” period, as though a thing was once all loose, and now it's all sequestered. It's a cycle, with emissions (primarily volcanic activity, before human burning of fossil fuels) and removals (primarily chemical weathering of exposed rock and production of carbonate sediments).

    The carbon cycle points up the magnificent system by which the earth's temperature remains hospitable to life, rather than freezing or boiling all creatures to death with solar fluctuations. Less than 1% of carbon is in the atmosphere AND fossil fuels combined. Rather, the mechanism of weathering helps remove carbon in hot eras, and permits it to remain in the atmosphere in cool ones. These cycles take millions of years to operate, but absent massive interventions as we see today, they still work.

    So, will the burning of fossil fuels exceed concentration seen any time in the last million years? It already has. Will it exceed concentrations at any time ever? No. But there once were also crocodiles in Antarctica.

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  3. John Elwood

    I’m afraid my last response was not as helpful as it could be. My hope is to help inquirers find answers, not just point up misunderstandings. There are plenty of resources that explain the Carbon Cycle. Let me suggest two: First, a Federal government site makes it straightforward, and it’s surprisingly complete for a simplified discussion – http://tinyurl.com/yyvjb9n

    Second, a Woods Hole Research Center teaching aid, at http://www.whrc.org/global/carbon/. It has more statistical data, but focuses on short-term cycles, and is therefore incomplete.

    A look at the Keeling Curve (click here for a look: http://tinyurl.com/ykbb7n4) shows you the shortest-term carbon cycle: it’s saw-tooth shaped on its upward march. That’s because most plants grow in the Northern Hemisphere, and so seasonal plant growth absorbs CO2 in the northern spring and summer, but less so in the winter. But the short term cycle is mostly neutral: plants absorb CO2; some of the plants are consumed by animals; they both die or drop organic materials (leaves or manure); those things get incorporated into the soils or get washes into bodies of water. So much for carbon uptake.

    But soils, forests and other biomass also respirate carbon, and they burn. Over periods as brief as 10,000 years or so, much or most of the CO2 is back in the atmosphere. Only a tiny portion of it finds its way into oxygen-starved swamps and bogs where the fossil-fuel process can begin again.

    But the longer-term carbon cycle is the really amazing one. This is the one that explains why we’re not broiling like Venus, or frozen, like Mars (it's not, primarily, distance from the Sun — Venus is hotter than Mercury). It involves chemical weathering of rocks (removing carbon from the land surface), tiny marine organisms like diatoms (incorporating those carbon-rich chemicals into their carbonate shells, and falling to the ocean floor), the movement of tectonic plates (carrying that carbonate into subduction zones and down beneath the earth’s crust), and volcanoes (returning carbon to the surface and atmosphere). It’s slow, impacting climate over many, many millions of years. But it’s also a negative feedback loop: It cools us when we’re hot, and warms us when we’re cold. I can’t do it justice here, but the first website above touches on it.

    Better yet, try this wonderful book. (Websites are okay, but anyone can open a website and make any sort of crazy claim, silly books are a little harder to get published.) Here it is: The Two Mile Time Machine, by Penn State geoscience professor Richard Alley. (Click here to find a copy online: http://tinyurl.com/3h54x9o)

    I hope this is a little more helpful.

    Reply
  4. Jamie Learn

    Thank you for the other insights and links.
    I have some basic awareness of the carbon cycle but can always learn more.

    It appears that man's use of fossil fuels is interrupting or corrupting the natural carbon cycle. Would that be accurate?

    Since the fact that fossil fuels were formerly atmospheric carbon is not debated and that complete reintroduction is not the issue, but that the rate of reintroduction is the issue, what rate of reintroduction by man is ideal if any?

    Reply
  5. Jamie Learn

    I'm sorry, I had 2 other questions to ask regarding your first reply:

    1. Why should we assume that the atmosphere of the last million years is “ideal”?

    2. Apparantly crocadiles in the antarctic was at one time “normal”. Why would this be viewed as abnormal or unnatural in our future?

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  6. John Elwood

    I will try to respond to your three questions.

    First, there is no “ideal reintroduction rate” for carbon. All the water in the oceans used to be in the atmosphere. Suppose I asked: “What is the ideal rate of reintroduction of the oceans back into the atmosphere?” You'd be at a loss for words. The oceans and the atmospheric vapors are doing just fine without me to “reintroduce” them. They have a cycle that works just fine on their own, without man to dig or pump up all the water, and burn it back into the air.

    For better or worse, humans ARE reintroducing carbon into the atmosphere. At some level, the earth could handle it. But any serious look at the ice-core records must raise concern that current levels are way out of bounds for climate conditions under which earth's habitats and species can survive. 280-300 ppm CO2 is the cyclical top over the last 850,000 years at least. We are now pushing 400 ppm.

    One simple impact: I have three beautiful Sugar Maples in my yard. At 400 ppm CO2, they are toast (one gets cut down this summer). Maybe others will survive somewhere, but these trees are gone. It's no longer cool enough.

    (More to follow.)

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  7. John Elwood

    Continued answer:

    Why should we assume that the atmosphere of the last million years is ideal? Oh my. In a species-neutral sense, it's not necessarily ideal. Who's to judge between Earth and Venus (unless you happen to be an earthling)? But for species that exist on Earth today, the atmosphere we’ve enjoyed is absolutely ideal. Change the temperature in any habitat drastically, and — like my maples — the creatures that depend on it are gone. This happens at the end of every ice age. Massive extinctions occurred in North America 10,000 years ago. The climate wasn't “ideal” but the rapid change in climate created the conditions that killed virtually all the American megafauna. Today, WE are the American megafauna.

    You must know that you can't change the habitats of any creatures — including humans — without exposing them to terrible risks. For example, in all the world's oceans, the saltwater pH level is (or at least used to be) “ideal” for corals, the nursery of most fish species. But with today's atmospheric CO2 concentrations making the seas more and more acidic, corals don't thrive anymore, and many are dying. And there is nothing we can do to stop the seas becoming more and more acidic for hundreds of years. This will happen because of the carbon we've already pumped into the air. As the corals die, the nurseries disappear, and the fish populations die. Acidic seas may be “ideal” for some other species, like some jellyfish. But they're no good for the creatures that inhabit most of the seas today. And that's particularly bad news for billions of humans who get most of their protein from seafood.

    Why should crocodilians in the Antarctic be regarded as abnormal in our future? Oh my. For such creatures to inhabit the Antarctic, the ice would have to be gone. If the ice were gone, Antarctica would be a very different place, with all species which inhabit it today extinct.

    But something else would be very different as well. The polar ice, 7,000 feet thick on average, would now be in the ocean. That means sea levels would be 200 feet higher. So as you drive east on I-80 (assuming you'd still be alive to make the drive, which is doubtful), your new ocean beach would be in Montville, NJ. Now maybe this new reality might not seem abnormal to you, but for the 17.4 million people living directly to the east of Montville, this would spoil their whole afternoon. In fact, 2.8 billion human souls live on or near the seacoasts. I don't know how many billions more would be inundated along with them, but one can hardly imagine that any human with any sort of conscience would accept such an outcome as something other than “abnormal.”

    Your questions come back to the notion of what is ideal, or normal. The answer is always the same: Species flourish in habitats; ideal habitats are generally the conditions where we find them flourishing; the more (and faster) you change the habitats, the more you threaten living things, like people. That's why Evangelical Environmental Network's tagline is always, “Creation Care: It's a Matter of Life.”

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  8. Jamie Learn

    I see. For clarification:

    Is man's contribution of Co2 “for better or for worse”? If it is “unnatural” wouldn't “any contribution be for worse?

    Since “at some level the earth can handle it” what is that level of “man enabled” co2 reintroduction?

    Repeat question: Is man “interrupting or corrupting” the “natural” carbon cycle?

    Wouldn't the loss of sugar maples in our location give way to other beneficial and productive trees and plants that thrive in warmer climates? We can certainly move the sugar maple groves further north couldn't we?

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  9. Jamie Learn

    Dear John, As I know you are busy please disregard the last paragraph. I sincerely would like to know your answers to the first 3. And as I would not need exhaustive details and to save you time, you could keep your answers to one sentence?

    Jamie

    Reply
  10. John Elwood

    Your first three questions above are really all related to each other, and they can be answered as one, but not as a matter of yes-or-no. The real question is, “How can mankind live in a way that manages global carbon emissions at levels in ways that may avoid global climate catastrophe?” We’re no longer examining theories of whether a given thing is natural or corrupting. We’re asking if anyone can figure out how seven billion (and soon nine billion) of us can live on God’s good earth without making it uninhabitable for our grandchildren.

    Now if you’re interested in that approach, there are many attempts at an answer. The most widely discussed in a conceptual framework developed by Princeton professors Rob Socolow and Stephen Pacala. They introduced the “wedge approach” to frame this debate. The idea is elegant and simple. To stabilize emissions in the next 50 years, the world must reduce emissions by about 7 gigatons of carbon (not carbon dioxide) compared to “business as usual” scenarios. Socolow and Pacala identify 15 stabilization wedges that, if deployed at a significant global scale, could conceivably reduce emissions by 1 gigaton each. At 1 gigaton apiece, each technology wedge still represents a huge investment, but they are nonetheless conceivable.

    The reason they call this the wedge approach, is because the world needs to flatten a steeply upward carbon trend line, and each “wedge” is a way of flattening the line over time. 7 of the 15 wedges would, in theory, reach the goal of stopping further growth in carbon concentrations. If deeper reductions become necessary due to near-term inaction, additional wedges could be added to the mix.

    Here’s a simplified discussion of Pacala/Socolow’s 15 alternative strategies. http://globesavers.org/Pacala%20and%20Socolow%20details.htm

    Briefly, the 15 alternatives involve efficiency (4 strategies), decarbonization of power (5 strategies), decarbonization of fuel (4 strategies), and forest and agricultural soils (2 strategies). Examples include (over a 50 year time frame) increasing automobile fuel efficiency to 60 mpg; or reducing by 50% the number of private-vehicle miles driven; or cutting emissions from buildings by 25%, etc. Seven of the 15 are needed, so policy makers get to choose where to focus.

    Unfortunately, their proposals were made in 2004, and so far policymakers have chosen to do none of them. Every year we wait, the wedges will become bigger and more numerous – and presumably more disruptive on our economies and lives.

    And even though you have released me from the obligation of responding to your question of moving sugar maple groves pole-ward, no, this cannot be done with any confidence of success.

    Reply

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