Who can explain the 5000 pound life?

Burning one gallon of gasoline produces 20 pounds of CO2; 5000 lbs then works out to an annual budget of 250 gallons of gasoline, for all one's fossil fuel energy needs.

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Seaport City, a concept proposed for housing atop a sea wall in southern Manhattan. (Image: SIRR)
Seaport City, a concept proposed for housing atop a protective sea wall in southern Manhattan. (Image: SIRR)

A year after Hurricane Sandy and months after the release of the city’s comprehensive plan for the future (the SIRR) much discussion continues on the need for building “resilience” in the face of a predicted increase in extreme weather. But is a public conversation focused on resilience too narrow?

Behind climate change are our CO2 emissions, and our CO2 emissions are a product of our lifestyles, our economies, and our existing energy infrastructure. In September the UN panel on climate, the IPCC, included a carbon budget as part of their latest report; this is the “trillion tonne” estimate of the total amount of carbon that can be added to the atmosphere while keeping temperatures likely within the 2° C “safe range” in warming.

The global ‘limit’ on CO2 emissions, for the climate to stay in the 2° C range, will be reached within decades at our current rate of burning fossil fuel (coal, oil and natural gas). Some experts are converting this limit into terms we can recognize in our personal lives.

Physicist Klaus Lackner describes the safe share of fossil fuel energy allotted to us each as a single tanker truck of gasoline to be spent over a lifetime (with some to spare for one’s children, if needed).

Inventor and engineer Saul Griffith changed every tally of energy use in his life into one unit, watts, to better compare the energy he used in ways as different as air travel and his consumption of newspapers. Then Griffith pared his life down from a constant use of 17,000 watts to 2500 watts, which is a number that could be sustainable for everyone on the planet. (His brilliant and thorough overview can be seen here.) More energy can ultimately come from solar, wind, or nuclear — but we need a full national commitment for decades to build the new infrastructure to replace our enormous demand on fossil fuels.

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus, who covered Sandy for the Wall Street Journal and who now writes for Quartz, read the latest IPCC report and made a public vow to quit flying

Economist Nicholas Stern chose the number of pounds of emissions as his baseline: by his calculation, when fairly divided across the world’s population, we might each get to emit 5000 lbs of CO2 per year. Stern’s figure provides the framework for the Architectural League’s new lecture series, “The 5000 Pound Life.” To quote from the League’s introduction:

“Change seems impossible, yet change is essential. Where do we go from here?”

The opening lecture, here described by Nicholas MacDonald, centered on the first step for a sustainable future: the challenge of informing the public.

What would life be like for a New Yorker if over a year, each one of us were allowed only to produce 5000 pounds of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide? Burning one gallon of gasoline produces twenty pounds of CO2; 5000 lbs then works out to an annual budget for fossil fuel that can roughly be gauged by the energy stored in 250 gallons of gasoline. Out of that 250 gallons, we’d each have to accomplish the entire sum of annual driving, flying (probably not much), cooking, and electric generation that we currently derive from CO2 emitting fossil fuel. (Presumably, one could consume as much solar or wind power as one could pay for.) And we’d need to cover our fractional share of agricultural uses and government, including fuel for police cars and jet fighters, out of the same resource.

The transformation of society to achieve these goals is enormous; for instance, not mentioned in the SIRR is New York City’s dependence on international tourism by air — which is problematic, at least until most other global emission sources, like coal powerplants, can be taken offline.

This is the subject which drives the Architectural League’s ambitious new series of talks, “The 5000 Pound Life.” How will climate change affect New York, and how do we build a new economy that is sustainable?

The first of the talks, “Climate Change in the American Mind,” focused on what the speaker Anthony Leiserowitz calls the “public relations problem.” Leiserowitz is the director of the Yale Project on Global Climate Change Communications; since 2009 his project has provided benchmark research on public opinion on the subject. His core insights are shared in the talk, which is worth watching in full to comprehend the real story of New York City and everywhere else vulnerable to the perplexing challenge of climate change:

The Five Thousand Pound Life: Climate Change in the American Mind | Anthony Leiserowitz | Recorded October 2, 2013 | Running time: 17:14

The conversation in the United States still stumbles on the question “Is global climate change occurring?” On this, public opinion lags expert opinion by a huge amount; even understanding of what experts themselves think lags reality. As Leiserowitz puts it, “Only about four in ten of Americans understand that most scientists think climate change is happening.”

[pullquote align=”left”]Only 4 in 10 Americans understand that scientists think climate change is happening.[/pullquote]

The majority of the world accepts that central premise, but the United States belongs to a small group of English-speaking nations (the others being Canada, Australia and to some extent the UK) that have become politically polarized on the topic, blocking a national consensus that could lead to changing views and to action.

Leiserowitz attributes public indifference or lack of awareness in the U.S. to several causes: our faltering economy, declining media coverage, the polarization of the political parties, variable weather, and an effective denial campaign, including the trumped-up attack on the science during ‘Climate-gate.’ A coordinated denial campaign is nothing new, Leiserowitz notes, as the tactic was employed by the tobacco industry even while medical research steadily pointed to a link with lung cancer.

Despite the inertia in public opinion nationally, in the case of post-Sandy New York and the 13 other areas in the United States affected by local climate change opinion is shifting more rapidly.

In an effort to break down the statistics Professor Leiserowitz divides the “American public”–an entity that never really exists in this politically and socially fragmented country–into six different groups, or “Six Americas.”

Opinion on climate can be visualized in six groups, as shown here. Via: http://environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/
The range of opinion on climate can be divided into six groups. Via: environment.yale.edu/climate-communication/

The spectrum is something familiar to anyone in market research, a range that includes the audiences ready to take action, those dismissive of climate change, and those in between. The key, he proposes, to putting more people in the groups ready to take action is to talk about it. And to give the groups that want something to do a plan of action.

[pullquote align=”right”] To shift core beliefs requires con­ver­sa­tions between peo­ple that trust one another. [/pullquote]

The problem and solution is that to achieve a shift in these core beliefs requires conversations between people that trust one another. This information can’t come directly from the news, or a stranger. It needs to be someone they believe in.

Soon after the “5000 Pound Life” talk, we came across another Yale professor who looks at forces that shape public opinion in a different way. Gregory Huber is one of the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. His study raises a very interesting question: what if people are lying to pollsters to feel good about their “team”? The researchers found that when you pay people to answer a question more accurately, or to admit if they are not sure of the answer, the opinion gap between Republicans and Democrats narrows by half.

Huber’s hypothesis for this effect is that people may often use surveys “not as a chance to tell you what they really think, but as a chance to cheerlead for their partisan team.” This leads to distortion, and to the appearance of even greater polarization. Huber recently discussed his findings on the NPR show “On the Media.”

Considering the partisan nature of climate change it matters greatly what respondents’ motives are while being polled. Huber’s work suggests that the true understanding of Americans may not be as different as it seems across the “Six Americas.” Climate arguments in America may be as much about maintaining status and identity among one’s peers as in understanding the scientific information itself. Huber’s work might support the idea that a trusted messenger can get around the partisan game-playing that seems to amplify differences in opinion polls.

Similar conclusions come from Dan Kahan at Yale Law School, where his Cultural Cognition Project studies how people’s cultural identities shape their beliefs about scientific subjects. And research from the University of Toronto finds that often people don’t even like activists, which would mean the people who most want to be communicators could be the least successful. This research meshes with Leiserowitz and Kahan, who both suggest that familiar, trusted faces are the best communicators on volatile subjects. [Leading by one’s own actions, as Saul Griffith and Eric Holthaus have, may also be an effective way to win trust across partisan lines, and may be the first, necessary step to true communications in a democracy.]

Even the idea of pursuing ‘transparency in government,’ cited as an unalloyed good by progressive groups, may in fact be counterproductive to breakthroughs when facing a polarized public. The startling second segment of an episode of “This American Life,” from May, 2013, features former conservative Republican congressman Bob Inglis, who broke with his party on climate and lost his next primary.

The radio show includes off-the-record interviews with House staffers that indicate there could already be enough Republican votes in the House of Representatives to pass a carbon tax this year, if only the vote could be taken anonymously. Under the scrutiny of rightwing media, reprisals in the form of primary challenges (as Inglis experienced) prevent any breakthroughs otherwise.

Leiserowitz’s data also offers insight for ways around partisan barriers. Americans all like renewable energy; on that it doesn’t matter which of the “Six Americas” groups you belong to. The majority of people don’t mind reducing fossil fuel consumption and they don’t mind removing subsidies to oil and coal.

Likewise, a majority opposes a reduction in subsidies meant for renewable energy. The idea of achieving independence via renewable energy strikes a chord with all groups; conservatives view even a tax to pay for energy independence a necessary evil. While many established conservative economists have pushed a carbon tax, that solution is still a steep climb for the public. Yet a revenue neutral version is something which has widely been discussed as the most viable and least regressive tax option for recovering the external costs of fossil fuel consumption.

Despite the public’s feelings on a carbon tax, according to a recent Deloitte study the majority of businesses believe a carbon tax is coming. Furthermore, besides believing it is coming, 79% of businesses think that the cost of carbon should be figured into the use of electricity. A strong majority from what could be characterized as an area often unconsidered by business. The caveat to this belief is the majority also agree that the cost of carbon is difficult to measure. A value held by the public as well.

This vital conversation continues through the Architectural League on 10.29.13, with political scientist Melissa Lane discussing Sustainable Citizenship, and on 12.10.13, with philosopher Steven Gardiner discussing the The Perfect Moral Storm of our collective role in climate change.