Sunday, March 11, 2018

Will Princeton's carbon footprint spur action?

Through a generous grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Sustainable Princeton has been able to fund a study of Princeton's carbon footprint, that is, how much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases we are collectively sending skyward. That number represents the extent to which we as a town are trapped in a carbon economy, and thereby contribute daily to a collective, chemical undermining of nature. The main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, plays important positive roles in the earth's atmosphere, oceans, and in delivering carbon to plants, but as in our bodies, a significant change in its concentration can have disastrous consequences.

Few of us pay any notice to the exhaust pipes and chimneys in our lives, even though their emissions are quietly day to day determining our planetary fate. We abuse nature because we see little choice, because everyone else does it, because each individual's contribution seems insignificant, and because we can. Abuse can be inadvertent or, as in the photo of an outsized exhaust pipe in the back of a Dodge Ram pickup truck, a brazen show of power.

I may have been the first to attempt a carbon assessment of Princeton's energy use, seven years ago, when I sought data from our energy provider, PSEG, on Princeton's consumption of gas and electricity. At the time, Princeton University was beginning to assess its own energy use, as was Sustainable Lawrence just down the road.

The premise, at least for me, was that awareness of our collective energy use as a town could help spur a move to use less, knowing the catastrophic global consequences of using carbon-based energy. We could compare our energy use year to year, and with other towns in the area, and thereby gain a sense of progress towards a shared goal.

My own experience with a home energy monitor, which displays how much electricity my house is using at any moment, suggested that knowledge is power. If I turned on the electric clothes dryer, our home energy use jumped by 3500 watts. Who knew? That's when we got clothes racks to hang-dry the clothes. A noisy, inefficient fan in the attic was replaced by passive ventilation. Turning off a few unneeded lights made the number drop even further. It was empowering and satisfying. We saved 35% on energy costs in the years that followed, with no loss in comfort or livability.

Immediate feedback seemed key in changing behavior. I dreamed of being able to go to a website where Princeton's energy use would be displayed in real time. Even more fine-grained data would allow neighborhoods to compete to see "how low we could go." But I quickly came up against the technical hurdles. PSEG was only set up to provide data every three months. Determining energy use by town government, or by the school system, required sending PSEG the meter numbers on every building. And then there's all the consumption of gasoline by cars and trucks driving through town. How to assess that?

I was stunned to learn that our town's biggest energy hog may be the incinerator that burns sewage sludge down on River Road. When natural gas prices were high, the town was spending more than one million dollars each year to fuel an incinerator most people don't even know exists. (I bet "Princeton's Finest" could outcompete Milorganite any day, and dramatically reduce our carbon footprint at the same time.)

Later, I passed the data to Sustainable Princeton's Christine Symington, who wanted to take the project further. Now, finally, a grant-funded professional study may yield some meaningful number for Princeton's carbon footprint.

The big question going forward will be what Princeton does with that number. If we've learned anything in this long struggle to get action on climate change, it's that numbers don't make people change their behavior. The number on my home energy monitor moved me to action only because of a feeling in my gut that it is ethically wrong to be using energy that risks the future of our children, our nation, and a livable planet. How, we must ask, if Princeton is to be an example to the rest of the world, do we plant that feeling of ethical revulsion deep within more than a conscientious few of its residents?

One heartening development over the past year or two has been the growing gut-level rejection of discrimination, sexual harassment, and most recently gun violence. These issues have gone from the level of intellectual and political objection to a cathartic, visceral imperative that such behavior must be purged from society.

The Academy Awards this week was emblematic in its conscious shift towards inclusion and respect. And yet, predictably interspersed throughout that program and many others are car commercials that not only tolerate but glorify our collective chemical abuse of nature.

Our senses, of course, will not help us to reject the daily practice of pouring more and more CO2 into the atmosphere from the underground fuels we burn. Invisible, odorless, it all seems harmless enough. But if we were doing to our closely regulated bodies what we are doing indiscriminately to the earth--raising its temperature, acidifying the waters that sustain its life--we would literally feel in our guts the revulsion necessary to drive change in behavior.

It will be interesting on Wednesday to see the numbers that Sustainable Princeton has come up with, how business, commercial, residential, school and municipal sectors compare, and to see if the numbers are fine-grained enough to help drive decisions that will lead to substantive, measurable change.

Climate change is deceptive on so many levels. It is human nature to cling to the status quo, and yet it is the status quo that now drives radical change that increasingly threatens the lifestyle we wish to preserve. The more we cling, the less control we will ultimately have, as rising oceans claim our cities and super storms devastate communities. Each of us is left to grapple with the personal predicament arising from a collective failure, as in some lines I read at a recent poetry event at the library:

I don't mean to
I don't mean to
I don't mean to be so mean
To the earth.

How I love so much about it
As I travel all about it,
Spewing all that carbon as I go.
Where will I go,
When all that I love so,
When all that I go to,
Is gone?

Pessimists will say that it's already too late, that too much change is already baked into the system. But that is just one more in a long line of convenient excuses for inaction. Ending abusive behavior helps everyone. It not only makes life better for the abused, but also makes the former abuser a better person. Reducing the incredible disrespect for nature embedded in our economy and our culture will free us from an existential predicament we face as individuals every day, and make us better people.

A version of this piece was first published by

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