Susan Nugent | Columnist
For many, the start of a new year leads to examining our lives, to thinking about what we’ve accomplished and what we haven’t in the previous year. My Vermont roots make me think of these short days and long nights as “the November of my soul.”
My carbon reckoning has become part of this self-evaluation. With oceans rising because of the rapidly melting Antarctic ice and the United Nations’ COP26 calling for climate action, this year’s calculation feels especially significant.
But my calculated carbon footprint plays only one part in my carbon reckoning. Evaluation of what’s happening around me — where the effects of carbon are ignored or addressed in my neighborhood, in my city or by the businesses that I use — also enters into my reckoning.
The topics of travel, home, waste and diet always make the list of carbon footprint calculations. Most calculators will tell us exactly how many tons of carbon we’ve generated this year. Some tell us what the average American consumption is in each category and the global average.
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That global average is humbling. While our personal tons of carbon may be lower than the U.S. average for home energy use, for example, when we look at the global usage, we quickly realize how much we take for granted. Homes without air conditioning will most likely have a lower energy use than ones with AC.
However, the type of energy used also affects the numbers. Although a home may use lots of energy, if that energy comes from solar panels, the consumption of carbon will remain low.
Recently a Facebook friend queried his readers: “How can anyone justify an airplane flight?” Respondents said visiting relatives supplied reason enough. One of our city commissioners compared the carbon use of a plane, car and train as well as time involved for each as she made her decision on how to travel.
We are beginning to examine our choices and, hopefully, make appropriate decisions. I think of my Dad, living in Vermont, rarely seeing his mother in Nebraska. His decision was based upon vacation time and cost of that trip, not carbon. However, the process of decision-making remains the same with carbon use becoming a factor.
Diet also contributes to carbon footprints, but many ignore diet when discussing carbon reduction. Many vegetarians do not discuss the impact of their diet upon carbon. Rather, they focus on the abuse of animals as the reason they choose vegetarianism.
Another option is to be a locavore, choosing foods produced nearby. Usually this decision results in supporting local farmers for vegetables and meat. No long-distance transportation costs (think carbon) are involved.
Given our recent holiday celebrations, evaluating our purchases for the year seems nearly implausible. Despite my intentions to never purchase another T-shirt, the pile in the closet grows with gifts, souvenirs and remembrances of volunteer days. All the stuff we accumulate has increased our carbon footprints.
So, starting with a basic carbon footprint, the serious contemplation begins. The problem is not only what we have used, but also what we have aided and abetted.
Right now, for example, the Build Back Better Act sits in Congress. It contains several components that specifically address climate change. If passed, our country could make giant strides toward a clean energy future. Switching to clean energy would be encouraged with rebates. (I wonder whether Gainesville Regional Utilities would stop giving rebates for converting appliances to dirty, fracked methane-spewing “natural” gas.)
Florida would benefit from Build Back Better through coastal restoration as well as soil conservation and a focus on resiliency. The state could lower its carbon footprint. Passing the BBB bill would significantly change our climate future.
So my reckoning must consider what I have done and what I have not done to help in these efforts. Such a reckoning requires a commitment to support climate action at all levels of government. Now I must evaluate what I have done to change not only my ways, but influence others.
Sometimes this work will never reach fruition. Sometimes I will never know if my senator or representative or city commissioner has even listened to my arguments.
However, if our world continues using carbon at the rate it presently is, we will reach well above 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. Scientists recognize that the result will be an extremely unpredictable world.
The bottom line is that we must change and we must act diligently to change our world. I reckon we need to get to work now.
Susan Nugent is a Climate Reality Project leader from Gainesville.
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