Happy Earth Day!

Today is Earth Day! Every year since 1970, Earth Day has been a day set aside to increase our awareness of the environment and learn what we can do to help better sustain the planet.

Please take some time out of your day to consider what changes you can make to decrease your carbon footprint. Try one of these carbon footprint calculators to see where you stand: Nature Conservancy, TerraPass, or EPA. In addition, the Sierra Club has a lot of green living tips and several quizzes you can take to see how green you are in a variety of areas like food, travel, exercise, etc. Also check out Earth Day events in your area. The U.S. government's EarthDay.gov website has some great tips for taking action to protect the environment at home, work, or schoool. NASA's Earth Day website has loads of great photos and information, including a HD video of Earth views from space.

Climate change is a big and growing problem, and I am happy that it is now receiving mainstream recognition by governments and the population at large. Here are some of the impacts of global warming. For more details, see the UN IPCC reports, which represent the consensus of over a thousand of the world's top climate scientists. The summary of those reports is that: (1) the planet is warming; (2) humans are the cause of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; (3) climate models predict past climate variability quite well; (4) climate models predict relatively large increases in warming, sea level, etc. in the next century. Below, I've plotted some temperature data to show you the temperature record. Direct measurements go back to 1880, but indirect evidence like tree rings and ice cores allow us to reconstruct the record for thousands of years (more details). I've also included the IPCC data showing the dramatic greenhouse gas increases.

I'd like to share with you some of the things I do to minimize my impact on our natural environment.

  • Avoid driving.
    I have lived within a mile of my school or workplace my entire life, and as a result I've always walked or biked on a daily basis. Living in a walkable community near work or school is an important value of mine. What's your neighborhood's Walk Score? Mine is 52 (not too bad). I bike to work, nearby stores, and restaurants whenever possible and carpool when going farther away. My family owns only one car. Note that The Bicycle Commuter Act went into effect on January 1, 2009 as part of the big economic stimulus package. It states that bicycle commuters can receive a monthly $20 reimbursement from their employers.
  • Buy responsibly. Buy locally.
    I generally try to avoid chain stores/restaurants (especially Wal-Mart) and look for Fair Trade accreditation on the products I buy. There is a good website and video called The Story of Stuff that I recommend for anyone who wants to learn more about the environmental and social impacts of society's consumption. The video is long-winded and little preachy, but it has good information in it. I try to frequent farmers' markets at least once per month to buy fresh, local, healthy produce and meat. I recommend the books Real Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma to learn how you can choose food options that maximize health while minimizing adverse environmental effects. For choosing which seafood to buy, I always try to reference the excellent resources over at Seafood Watch to avoid fish harvested in irresponsible ways or containing high levels of mercury.
  • Shop with reusable bags.
    This is very important to me. I keep a stash of reusable shopping bags in my car so they're always there when I need them. When asked the question, "Paper or plastic?" say "NEITHER!" (otherwise, choose paper!). If you're just buying one or two things, do you really need a bag anyway? I reuse the plastic bags that I do accumulate many times before eventually recycling them.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
    When faced with the choice of an item in a lot of packaging and one in less, I choose the one with less, even if it costs more. I also check to see if the products I buy are made with recycled materials or are recyclable themselves. If not, I won't buy it unless it's really important. Whenever possible, I try to reuse things rather than throwing them away, but when I no longer need something, I always try giving it away on freecycle or recycling it before throwing it in the trash. I've been doing this since I was a kid. In fact, my Eagle Scout project many years ago was helping set up my hometown's first recycling center.
  • Don't buy bottled water.
    It doesn't make sense at all. Instead, I use re-fillable (BPA-free) bottles like the Kleen Kanteen.
  • Green parenting.
    Since my son was born, my wife and I have started buying many more organic foods, natural soaps & cleaners, and sustainable products. Additionally, we use only cloth diapers on my son, and highly recommend this practice to all parents. Why waste your money on toxic, expensive, land-filling disposable diapers?
  • Lower your home's impact.
    We all know that our homes are a big part of our carbon footprint in addition to travel and consumption. In the yard, I planted native plants (which generally require less water) and use no chemical fertilizers on them. Often, I have clothes hanging outside to dry, so I don't have to use electricity running the dyer. Inside, I installed an environmentally-friendly bamboo floor, and when it was time for a kitchen makeover, I had the counters resurfaced instead of ripping out the old ones. All light bulbs in my house are CFLs, and I have installed Energy Star ceiling fans in every room. The fans are on all of the time, and this reduces the need for air conditioning. Something else that helps keep the house cool is a solar attic fan, which keeps the roof and attic cool in the hot Hawaii sun. Speaking of the roof, I had a solar water heating system installed back in October 2008. Note that Hawaii is leading the U.S. by requiring all new single family homes to have solar water heaters starting in 2010, and about 50% already have them. My solar water heating system works great (sometimes too hot!), and it's already paid for itself with the 30% Federal and 35% State tax rebates. Up to 40% of a home's energy use goes to heating water, and I've already seen a 27% energy savings compared to this time last year. I won't bore you with a plot of my energy bill (although I was tempted.); instead, I'll just show you a photo of the solar panel and attic fan on my roof.

Also check out what other people are doing to be more environmentally-responsible. While I do more than the average person to be green, I'm no Ed Begley, Jr. Things I don't do/have but wish I did:
  • photovoltaic solar - If the economic situation now were better, I'd have them installed in a heartbeat. Where I live it's so sunny that solar can provide 100% of my electricity needs.
  • composting and gardening - There just isn't room for it in our small yard, and the homeowner's association doesn't allow it. I do, however, grow some herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce in pots.
  • chickens - I wish we had room for chickens to run around, which is common in Hawaii. We'd have ready access to fresh, free-range eggs (and eventually chicken meat) anytime.
  • no-VOC paints - When I painted the interior of my house, low- and no-VOC paints were hard to come by. Now they're common.
  • carbon offsets - I haven't been able to stomach the extra expense yet, but I plan to in the future.
  • Energy Star appliances - When I replace them, I will upgrade them to be Energy Star.
  • electric car - Give it a couple of more years.

In closing, I'll leave you with a video of Obama's April 14 speech at Georgetown University. This speech was important because it classifies carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Finally, note that today isn't only Earth Day. It's also Administrative Professionals' Day and the unofficial National Jelly Bean Day! Give some jelly beans to your favorite administrative professional (aka: secretary).


space-monkey said…
Nice post, Brian!
SteveandAlina said…
Brian, love the idea of keeping the reusable bags in the car. We use reusable bags but sometimes make unplanned stops!
Anonymous said…
Brian, I appreciate your post, and love all of your suggestions on how we can improve our environment, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. However, please see this link regarding man's influence on global warming:

BrianShiro said…
Dear commenter: I appreciate the comment. I suppose I did open myself up to the global warming debate by posting those plots in my post. As your link points out, there is a relative minority of scientists who aren't convinced that humans have effected global warming as strongly as the consensus does.

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