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“Next year, when my youngest daughter goes to college, I wouldn’t mind spending more time in Hawaii” I mused over dinner with my friends Tom and Betsy. And quickly added that I felt conflicted about the idea. Given the climate situation, I told them, it felt irresponsible to engage in such gratuitous behavior. Both of my friends looked at me as if I was some crazy woman. Why wouldn’t I want to fly to Hawaii? No way would they change their habit of flying to Europe three of four times a year.  Tom started ranting about not subscribing to moralistic attitudes towards climate change. No, the solution lied in new technologies. What about all the predictions that keep getting worse and worse? I asked. Tom, an engineer with an interest in data visualization, expressed skepticism. There is a lot we don’t know. All those data are to be taken with a grain of salt. No, both he and Betsy were adamant they were not about to change their lifestyle, one bit. I was shocked. And changed subject.

This morning came this alarming news from the Associated Press:

The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man-made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push beyond leading scientists’ projected worst-case scenario, international researchers said Thursday.

The new numbers, called “scary” by some, were a surprise because scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use. Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007.

That’s an amount that exceeds the most dire outlook for emissions from burning coal and oil and related activities as projected by a Nobel Prize-winning group of international scientists in 2007.

Meanwhile, forests and oceans, which suck up carbon dioxide, are doing so at lower rates than in the 20th century, scientists said. If those trends continue, it puts the world on track for the highest predicted rises in temperature and sea level.

The pollution leader was China, followed by the United States, which past data show is the leader in emissions per person in carbon dioxide output. And while several developed countries slightly cut their CO2 output in 2007, the United States churned out more.

Still, it was large increases in China, India and other developing countries that spurred the growth of carbon dioxide pollution to a record high of 9.34 billion tons of carbon (8.47 billion metric tons). Figures released by science agencies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia show that China’s added emissions accounted for more than half of the worldwide increase. China passed the United States as the No. 1 carbon dioxide polluter in 2006.

Emissions in the United States rose nearly 2 percent in 2007, after declining the previous year. The U.S. produced 1.75 billion tons of carbon (1.58 billion metric tons).

“Things are happening very, very fast,” said Corinne Le Quere, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s scary.”

Gregg Marland, a senior staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he was surprised at the results because he thought world emissions would drop because of the economic downturn. That didn’t happen.

“If we’re going to do something (about reducing emissions), it’s got to be different than what we’re doing,” he said.

The emissions are based on data from oil giant BP PLC, which show that China has become the major driver of world trends. China emitted 2 billion tons of carbon (1.8 billion metric tons) last year, up 7.5 percent from the previous year.

“We’re shipping jobs offshore from the U.S., but we’re also shipping carbon dioxide emissions with them,” Marland said. “China is making fertilizer and cement and steel and all of those are heavy energy-intensive industries.”

Developing countries not asked to reduce greenhouse gases by the 1997 Kyoto treaty – and China and India are among them – now account for 53 percent of carbon dioxide pollution. That group of nations surpassed industrialized ones in carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, a new analysis of older figures shows.

India is in position to beat Russia for the No. 3 carbon dioxide polluter behind the United States, Marland said. Indonesia levels are increasing rapidly.

Denmark’s emissions dropped 8 percent. The United Kingdom and Germany reduced carbon dioxide pollution by 3 percent, while France and Australia cut it by 2 percent.

Nature can’t keep up with the carbon dioxide from man, Le Quere said. She said from 1955 to 2000, the forests and oceans absorbed about 57 percent of the excess carbon dioxide, but now it’s 54 percent.

What is “kind of scary” is that the worldwide emissions growth is beyond the highest growth in fossil fuel predicted just two years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Under the panel’s scenario then, temperatures would increase by somewhere between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4 to 6.3 degrees Celsius) by the year 2100.

If this trend continues for the century, “you’d have to be luckier than hell for it just to be bad, as opposed to catastrophic,” said Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider.

I read this, and I think about my conversation with Tom and Betsy. And I wonder, what is it going to take, for the reality to sink in, with people like them. The message is not getting through.

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Yesterday, in response to the picture I posted of my grandfather on the farm, Jeff asked,

When you have time, could you tell us more of the story of your grandfather and his family? Where in France was the picture taken? What did he farm? What would he have thought about all this climate change problem that we’ve created?

I lost my grandfather when I was 5. To this day, ‘Pepe Marcel‘ still looms tall in my memory. I realize I owe it to him to care so much for nature, and what’s happening currently. Times on the farm with my him are some of the most precious items in my green memory bank. Like my French blogging sister, Nadine, much of what I write is informed by these early moments.

I started writing a sappy response to Jeff’s question. A romantic interpretation of what I thought ‘Pepe Marcel‘ would be telling me now. Imbued with nostalgia about the old days, without cars, and planes, and supermarkets. Times when his old village was still very much a real community, and seasons dictated the rhythm of people’s daily lives. When organic was a word that did not exist, and yet everything we ate was organic. When tractors had not yet replaced the horse led ploughs in the fields, and the plots were still small and not cultivated to excess. When the bread we ate tasted like the real thing, and was not whitened artificially to make it ‘more enticing’.

Soon, my grandfather’s real voice came through, and it whispered a very different message. If I was living now, you can be sure I would be living just like you and your friends. I would drive a car and shop to Neuville at the supermarket. I would ride a tractor, so I could be home sooner. Actually, I am not even sure I would be a farmer still. Life on the farm is hard. May work instead as a cook in a restaurant  in Poitiers, and drive the 50 kilometers commute every day. I would have upgraded the farm, so that we have all the modern conveniences and your grandmother did not have to do laundry in the big old boiler, and hang it on the lines. I am sure we would have a TV. We may still have a vegetable garden and fruit orchard in the back, but I am not even sure. It’s so convenient getting that stuff at the store. For vacations, we would go on cruises, or fly to America, like all the neighbors. 

That’s when I realized there is no stopping ‘progress’, whether here, or in China, or India, or anywhere else. Moving forward means imagining new ways to live sustainably again, that may appear almost similar to the old. But the motivations, and the awareness are on a different level. Jungian analyst Aldo Carotenuto‘ s image of ‘The Spiral Way‘ comes to mind:

Book Cover for The Spiral Way

Book Cover for The Spiral Way

This time applied to healing not just one woman, but the whole world. 

PS- Jeff, to finish answering your question. My grandfather came from a long line of farmers in the Poitou region of France. The farm is in Champigny, a small village where I spent every summer when I was a child. Pepe Marcel cultivated about 40 acres, most of it in wheat and vineyards. After he died, we farmed it out to other farmers. Now there are only three farmers left in the whole village, and their farms are more akin to industrial enterprises. 

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