A CLIMATE SCIENTIST TAKES HIS COMPUTER MODEL SERIOUSLY
At the University of Wisconsin's program on Climate, People and Environment
Jonathan Foley makes computer models to study what might happen if the
economy continues to emit greenhouse gases. Like hundreds of other climate
scientists, he is deeply worried about global warming. Unlike most
I know, he carries that worry into his personal life.
For some time Jonathan and his wife Andrea and their three-year-old
Hannah have been cutting down the amount of carbon dioxide they produce --
which means the amount of coal, oil, and gas they burn.
They used to live 25 miles out in the country and drive two cars. Now
moved to a house four miles from the university with a bike lane at one end
the street and a bus line at the other. They've sold one car and rarely
the other. "I was sick of all the driving anyway," Foley says. "Now I
more time, a beautiful bike ride and no car payments."
The Foleys have done "all the usual things" to their house to reduce its
and electric needs. Compact fluorescent light bulbs. Much better
and ventilation. They found an electric utility that makes power with
windmills, so they're not contributing to climate change every time they
on a switch. The house came fitted with a solar water heating system, so
sun heats about two-thirds of their showers and dishwater, even in cold
That is already climate responsibility well above the call of duty, but
New Year's Eve the Foleys decided to go all the way. They thought about
new millennium and decided to make a millennium-sized resolution to enter
21st century emitting no net carbon dioxide.
How can you do that? I asked in disbelief.
Well, to start, Foley is compiling the numbers on how much carbon he emits
every mile he drives, every computer he buys, every plastic bag he throws
He's constructed a spreadsheet to calculate his carbon budget and to
it with his money budget, so his family will march toward zero carbon
one step at a time, as they can afford it.
"This month we're trading in our electric washer and dryer for a more
front-load washer and a lot of clothesline. We'll get a gas dryer for
wintertime. Next our goal is a more efficient refrigerator -- the new
models are pretty good. The EPA Energy Star website lists all the
Foley aims first at high energy efficiency, then renewable sources. He
there will be unavoidable carbon dioxide emissions left, mainly embedded in
things the family buys. He intends to offset those emissions with green
that will absorb the carbon dioxide.
A group called American Forests, Foley tells me, has calculated that the
average American would have to plant 30 new trees every year (and keep them
growing) to suck up the carbon dioxide he or she emits. There's not enough
room for us all to do that. But Foley figures he's already cut his
emissions in half and can get down considerably further, to a point where
can pull off the necessary planting. Living in southern Wisconsin, he
to plant not just trees, but prairie.
Every square meter of forest, Foley tells me, stores 10-15 kg of carbon in
biomass above ground and 10-15 kg in the soil. A prairie stores only 3 kg
above ground, but 30-40 below. Midwest soils are deep and fertile because
prairie built up humus there for millennia. Prairie restoration is a
community activity around Madison, so the Foleys will help do the work and
contribute money to prairie and tree planting groups.
"It's not all that hard," Foley says. "Our quality of life has improved.
We're saving time and money, though some things, like the wind electricity,
more expensive. Zero carbon emissions is something anybody can do, just by
making a few simple choices. People choose to spend tens of thousands of
dollars for a sports utility vehicle with leather seats and a CD player.
could just as easily choose to buy better insulation or an efficient
refrigerator or a solar water heater. Helping to prevent climate change
a matter of our ABILITY, just our CHOICE. We're not stuck. It's not
"But whenever I talk about this stuff at scientific meetings, my
look at me dumbfounded. We seem to think we should testify to Congress
the Kyoto protocol and do nothing else. I'm surprised that other scientists
aren't more personally aware of their own actions. Airline travel to
meetings is still my single largest emission of carbon dioxide -- I'm
work-related emissions in a separate budget. Isn't it crazy that 100
scientists will fly to some remote place to discuss changes in the global
"I know my personal actions are only a drop in the bucket (or in this case
atmosphere). But as a scientist and teacher I feel I have a moral
to lead, even in a small way, to show you can achieve a zero net carbon
and still live comfortably and productively. Maybe if I set this kind of
example, folks will begin to take the science I do a little more
"Something about putting your emissions where your mouth is."
(Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an
professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)
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