Climate Talk – Kristen 11/2/12

Those glasses always reminded me a little bit of Marvel Girl.

Kristen and I met a few years ago by way of our mutual affection for Catholic priest/Harvard icon/dirty joke enthusiast Phil King.  She and Phil are Harvard colleagues who together managed the White-Levy Program for Archeological Publications, and in accordance with that, Kristen works at the Harvard Semitic museum.  As if that weren’t enough, she’s also a well respected academic tutor in the greater Boston area.  When I was looking for a second job a few years back, Kristen was kind enough to hook me up with the tutoring agency where she works.  After a while, I couldn’t hack it and went back to my day job, but Kristen grinds on.  She’s basically their best employee, and gets flown all over the world to assist high-powered clients.  These days when we hang out, we’re fond of chess.  I usually beat her, but she’s getting better every time.  :)

I just want to crawl inside and live there.

I get the drools just looking at that thing…

Our meeting was scheduled for a weekday afternoon, since these days we both keep somewhat irregular schedules.  For food we decided on sandwiches from Cafe Kiraz, a local deli.  I championed this place because they make my favorite sandwich in the whole wide world, the Patriots:  corned beef and pastrami piled high on foccacia, snugly tucked under a bed of  homemade cole slaw and drenched in Thousand Island dressing.  Everybody’s got their comfort food, a meal that brings happiness and a sense of well-being, and this sandwich is mine.  Kristen was nonplussed by my enthusiasm, however, and decided to order vegetarian chili instead.  Seriously, I lay the god’s bounty at your feet, and you reject it for soup?

After eating, we hung out and chatted for a while, and when I had exhausted my supply of soup jokes, we got down to business.  Hurricane Sandy had happened just a few days prior to the talk, so that was clearly weighing heavily on our minds.  Video highlights of our Q&A below.


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We get started by discussing 2012 and all the weird weather it contained.  What struck Kristen during the talk (and what has struck others similarly) is the idea that there’s a “tipping point” after which climate change feeds on itself to make the world hotter no matter what humans do.  In the talk, I put that date around 2050 based on projections for when we’ll hit 2 degrees warming above pre-industrial levels…but more recent data is indicating that point could be as soon as 2030.

Costs of Renewables
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We talk about renewables for a little bit…how their price point is now matching fossil fuels in many ways and how they often have greater success at the local level.  (I’ve written recently about successful wind projects in Gloucester and throughout New England)

Costs of Climate Disasters
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In light of Hurricane Sandy, we talk about the exorbitant costs of cleaning up climate disasters, comparing them against the costs of changing the world’s energy infrastructure.  In line with this, we touch upon the problem of human short-termism, and how that relates.

Natural Gas
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Kristen asks about natural gas, so I explain a little bit about how fracking works and why (to me at least) natural gas looks like a good transition fuel as we move towards a future of 100% renewable energy.

Not So Optimistic
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It turns out Kristen isn’t quite the optimist that I am, she worries that humanity won’t wake up to the problem until it’s too late.  She goes on to explain her theories about climate change being a sort of an “immune response” from the planet, in attempt to protect itself from humanity’s destructive impacts.

Population vs. Economic Growth
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Population is one of the first issues on which people focus with regards to solving climate change, so once again I feel compelled to compare the impact of population growth against the impact of our exploding per capita human consumption.  I’m always happy to have this debate, because it lets me play philosopher and ponder the big idea:  can any of us envision a managed economy that maintains zero growth?

(click to watch)

Here Kristen inquires about water, so I talk for a bit about the water crunch we currently have and how it gets even worse going forward.  Water is a great example of how climate change and Limits to Growth dynamics overlap — climate change reduces our supply and our unsustainable usage habits mean we’re burning quickly through our existing stocks.

Climate Change and Culture
(click to watch)

I run through a brief history of our cultural understanding of climate change, and how entities peddling climate change denial have played into it.

Many thanks to Kristen for sitting down to discuss this stuff with me!  I’ll see you for some chess very soon, and don’t forget:  stay flexible, and use those pawns to control territory!

  • John Crapper

    And as you chomped on your Patriots meat sandwich did you mention that cutting back on meat consumption is the most impactful thing an individual can do to mitigate climate change?

    • EricKrasnauskas

      No, I try not to be preachy, and it’s awfully hypocritical when I’m such an enthusiastic carnivore myself. I do Meatless Mondays (and mention it elsewhere on the site)…that’s the extent of my meat-preachin’

      • John Crapper

        I’m not a vegetarian either but I’ve been doing a progressively better job of cutting back. I’m a member of Meatless Mondays on Kos . It’s a matter of balance I think. You’re doing some great stuff on this site!

  • John Crapper

    This is one of my best references regarding population.

    Cairo, 5 -13 September 1994
    Weighing Relative Burdens on the Planet
    by Paul Ehrlich

    Concern about population problems among citizens of rich countries generally focuses on rapid population growth in most poor nations. But the impact of humanity on Earth’s life support systems is not just determined by the number of people alive on the planet. It also depends on how those people behave. When this is considered, an entirely different picture emerges: the main population problem is in wealthy countries. There are, in fact, too many rich people.

    The amount of resources each person consumes, and the damage done by the technologies used to supply them, need to be taken as much into account as the size of the population. In theory, the three factors should be multiplied together to obtain an accurate measurement of the impact on the planet. Unhappily, governments do not keep statistics that allow the consumption and technology factors to be readily measured—so scientists substitute per capita energy consumption to give a measure of the effect each person has on the environment.


    In traditional societies—more or less in balance with their environments—that damage may be self-repairing. Wood used for fires or structures re-grows soaking up the carbon dioxide produced when it was burned. Water extracted from streams is replaced by rainfall. Soils in fields are regenerated with the help of crop residues and animal manures. Wastes are broken down and reconverted into nutrients by the decomposer organisms of natural ecosystems.

    At the other end of the spectrum, paving over fields and forests with concrete and asphalt, mining the coal and iron necessary for steel production with all its associated land degradation, and building and operating automobiles, trains and aeroplanes that spew pollutants into the atmosphere, are all energy-intensive processes. So are drilling for and transporting oil and gas, producing plastics, manufacturing chemicals (from DDT and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to chlorofluorocarbons and laundry detergents) and building power plants and dams. Industrialized agriculture uses enormous amounts of energy—for ploughing, planting, fertilizing and controlling weeds and insect pests and for harvesting, processing, shipping, packing, storing and selling foods. So does industrialized forestry for timber and paper production.


    Incidents such as Chernobyl and oil spills are among the environmental prices paid for mobilizing commercial energy—and soil erosion, desertification, acid rain, global warming, destruction of the ozone layer and the toxification of the entire planet are among the costs of using it.

    In all, humanity’s high-energy activities amount to a large-scale attack on the integrity of Earth’s ecosystems and the critical services they provide. These include control of the mix of gases in the atmosphere (and thus of the climate); running of the hydrologic cycle which brings us dependable flows of fresh water; generation and maintenance of fertile soils; disposal of wastes; recycling of the nutrients essential to agriculture and forestry; control of the vast majority of potential crop pests; pollination of many crops; provision of food from the sea; and maintenance of a vast genetic library from which humanity has already withdrawn the very basis of civilization in the form of crops and domestic animals.


    The average rich-nation citizen used 7.4 kilowatts (kW) of energy in 1990—a continuous flow of energy equivalent to that powering 74 100-watt light bulbs. The average citizen of a poor nation, by contrast, used only 1 kW. There were 1.2 billion people in the rich nations, so their total environmental impact, as measured by energy use, was 1.2 billion x 7.4 kW, or 8.9 terawatts (TW)—8.9 trillion watts. Some 4.1 billion people lived in poor nations in 1990, hence their total impact (at 1 kW a head) was 4.1 TW.

    The relatively small population of rich people therefore accounts for roughly two-thirds of global environmental destruction, as measured by energy use. From this perspective, the most important population problem is overpopulation in the industrialized nations.

    The United States poses the most serious threat of all to human life support systems. It has a gigantic population, the third largest on Earth, more than a quarter of a billion people. Americans are superconsumers, and use inefficient technologies to feed their appetites. Each, on average, uses 11 kW of energy, twice as much as the average Japanese, more than three times as much as the average Spaniard, and over 100 times as much as an average Bangladeshi. Clearly, achieving an average family size of 1.5 children in the United States (which would still be larger than the 1.3 child average in Spain) would benefit the world much more than a similar success in Bangladesh.

    Mr. Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University in the United States. His most recent books, both co-authored with his wife Anne, are “The Population Explosion” (Simon and Schuster, 1990) and “Healing the Planet” (Addison-Wesley, 1991). The feature originally appeared in Vol. 6, No.3, 1994 of “Our Planet”. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of UNEP.