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It’s Friday 22nd September, I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report. Welcome to listeners across the world and a special mention to my patrons. If you too would like to be a patron, please keep listening.
This week’s episode is devoted to an interview. My guest today is Professor Karl S. Coplan who is professor of law at the Pace University, White Plains, New York and he's also director of the Environmental Litigation Clinic. Karl enjoys an American lifestyle on a four-ton carbon budget. Among other things he’s going to tell us how he does it.
Before we start, just a word of warning. In this interview you’ll hear Karl refer to carbonfootprint-dot-org. Unfortunately that appears to be a malicious site. The one you want is carbonfootprint.com.
ANTHONY: Karl thank you very much for joining us today. Would you like to start off by telling us a bit about your work at the Environmental Litigation Clinic.?
KARL: The Environmental Litigation Clinic is part of Pace Law School and we train law students to be lawyers and perform a public service by basically having them take on environmental enforcement cases and pollution control cases on behalf of our primary client which is the Hudson River keeper. And so, our primary focus is been cleaning up the Hudson river and a lot of cases enforcing the Clean Water Act against industries and municipalities that were operating in violation of the permits; cleaning up hazardous waste sites, but I’m also involved in larger planning issues; power-plant issues, anything that affects the water quality and the recreational opportunity in the community of the Hudson river basically.
And then through that I've been involved and the clinic has worked with other water keeper organizations around the country and around the world. Though our focus is in New York, we've involved in cases, involved mountain-top removal mining in Kentucky and even years ago on stopping the naval bombing exercises on the Island of Vieques in Puerto Rico. And so I'm also on the board of water keeper alliance and services treasure, so I work with water keeper organizations around the world.
ANTHONY: Okay, well there’s quite a wide range of things and I noticed from your page on the university website that you've done a lot of publications in quite a lot of different areas. We first got in touch when Kim Nicholas and Seth Wynes from the University of British Columbia published a guide to cutting your carbon footprint [see Sustainable Futures Report 21st July 2017] and they set out the four things that you should do which were;
- Have fewer children.
- Get rid of the car.
- Avoid air travel.
- And eat a plant-based diet.
Now that caused quite a lot of controversy and you certainly picked it up and you wrote about it on your blog which is livesustianablynow.com . Just back-track on that and explain to people that may not be aware of the controversy what that was all about?
KARL: Well, first off I think Kim Nicholas and Seth Wynes did a great public service by pointing out kind of how environmentalists and government agencies working on climate change are focusing too much on these small ticket items and ignoring the big ticket items. But where I disagree with them with a controversy is, as they came up with a number for the impact of having one child in a developed world which is just completely a fantasy and I'll explain why in a moment and way too high. And I think that's a disservice because people who care about climate change, but have not focused on the details and the numbers of how things compare. Look at this chart, I'm sure I printed it out, you probably cannot see it there, but there's a chart where that number for having one child is just enormous compared even to giving up air travel or giving up your car. And that’s misleading because that number they come up with 60 tonnes per year is not a real number, there's no year in which you add 60 tonnes by having one child.
Unfortunately, if it was simply have fewer children in the developed world, that might be one thing, but the implication seems to be that if you’re having any children at all right, even if it's your first child, that's somehow even more irresponsible than getting on a plane 12 times a year. And I think that actually disserves the climate cause because people outside the climate movement look at that and say; oh my God, these climate activists, they are telling us that we should just stop having children. So let's end civilization, let's have no more human beings on the planet, because that's the only way to solve climate change and forget about it because you're actually never going to be successful, you're never going to have a political movement that is based on ''have no children ever again''.
So I think that's really a disservice and it also makes it look if you actually haven't reduced your flying. So you're a childless person who hasn't reduced their flying, so see I'm better than the people who don't fly but have a child because their impacts are huge. But those impacts just have nothing to do with the actual underlying paper calculating the impacts of having one child in a developed world and are really misleading I mean it. It's a challenge actually when you're trying to get down to the numbers of your carbon footprint because at some level it becomes an accounting problem. You get on an airplane and some people say the impact of me getting on an airplane is zero because that airplane was flying anyway, which means that airplanes have no climate impact, but that's not true, we know it’s not true. And so they did an accounting trick in this chart which had a result of making the impact of one child many multiples of what it really is under any normal accounting process.
ANTHONY: Well, I did ask Kim Nicholas and Seth Wynes if they would appear, but they were unavailable. But we're all aiming at the same thing; we all want to cut carbon footprints, now you say that you can live well on a 4 ton carbon budget, which is quite ambitious really because the average American is pushing nearly 20-22 tons I think.
KARL: That's right.
ANTHONY: And a lot of people say “Oh, four tons, well that means you must be living in a tent by candlelight and eating grass”, but I don't think you are. But what do you do, how do you achieve this level?
KARL: I think actually if you're trying to reduce your carbon budget, it will be just like if you are trying to reduce how many calories you eat in a day. The best thing you can do is start keeping track and so when you make choices in life you know what the actual impact of that choice is and how that fits into your diet. If it's a calorie restricted diet or under your carbon budget if you’re trying to live on carbon budget. And so when I looked at it and drill down and really you can tell, I like to look behind the supervision numbers and see what's behind them. It became obvious to me that the big ticket items in my life before I started doing this were; getting to work on a regular basis, heating my house, electricity consumption and air travel. This has been, I can’t say I’ve one day had a big awakening, I've been environmentally conscious for decades, but it really came about 10 years ago; I went on sabbatical and started thinking and used the time to think a little about what could I do to improve my own footprint and that's when I kind of thought air travel is a big one. When I look at it at the end of the year, my 4 ton carbon budget, a quarter of that goes to heating my house with natural gas. And even that, now I've reduced it to about a ton, but a typical house in the New York area heated with natural gas even if you've got every energy efficiency improvement would actually work out to be more like 3 tons per person in the house.
And so I do some things, like I do keep the temperature lower in the house and I do supplement it with a wood stove, but that's one thing I can do. The other thing is, got rid of my gas powered car, actually for several years I didn't own a car at all, but about a year or two years ago now, believe it or not electric cars became so cheap. I know it's hard to hear me say that, but the little Smart car; I don't know if you've seen them, they were big in Europe before they came to the States.
ANTHONY: That's interesting because Smart launched an electric car and then they discontinued it, but now they've re-launched the Smart range as electrics. So you have one of those, one of the first ones?
KARL: I've got one of those and only it costs me $130 a month for a lease and it’s a wonderful little car and it has plenty of range to get to work and back. And then again, right now there are some really simple things to do that may cost you a little bit, actually don’t cost much at all. So I found out that many people put solar panels on their house; my house is in a wooded area so there’s not enough sunlight really to justify that and having them professionally installed. But you can get a renewable energy contract where basically buying the energy from in my case wind generation, but they are a combination of wind and solar and of course hydro has its own environmental problems too. But right now you can count that as zero carbon impacts when you’re buying electricity from a green source. And in the United States, almost all electrical consumers now have the option of choosing their electric source and so that’s another very simple thing you can do that reduces that impact. And with an electric car and a renewable energy contract, all of a sudden getting to work is now zero on my carbon budget.
ANTHONY: Right, but what if you want to go longer distances, I mean if you want to go to remote places in the States, it is very difficult to do it without air travel, isn't it? And even electric cars won't take you very far.
KARL: That's true and so in living well on my 4 ton carbon budget, I really try to get my daily impacts pretty much down to zero or very close to it, which means I have some carbon budget to use on some luxuries. And so we have a little cabin up in the mountains about a 4 Hour drive from here, my electric car won't make it there. We have a Hybrid, my wife's car is a Hybrid, it's 50 miles per gallon and I can't convert that into kilometers.
ANTHONY: No, in the UK we're still on miles per gallon, but our gallons are different size to yours.
KARL: Do you go a little further on one of your gallons?
KARL: So that ends up being a significant part of my actual carbon budget for a year as we do get to go places that way. I can usually get away with one either transcontinental or I haven’t been to Europe a little while, a transatlantic flight per year and still stick to my 4 ton budget, but that's a limit. You know the other thing actually that can be a big one is meat eating, and so but I still like some beef every once in a while, but I just limit it and say if I'm going to have a steak, that 12 ounces of beef which works out to something like 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, that goes on my budget and I'll do it when it's really worth it, but not every day.
ANTHONY: Right, so you haven't gone vegan like Al Gore?
KARL: No, I'm impressed and I respect people do and you know it’s funny how even among environmentalists people look at me and say you know, what difference are you making, you reduced your own footprints, but somebody else is still on the plane and you know you’re not going to stop climate change with individual action. And I look at them and say, when you meet a vegetarian, do you tell them why bother, that cow was still going to be slaughtered anyway? Of course not, it's right because, once you recognize as a personal matter that fossil fuel consumption is part of an entire system that is going to cause extreme devastating impacts on human beings and the environment around the world, then this is a personal matter. You say, I want to not participate in that system any more than actually necessary to have a decent life, right. And as to me it’s very much like vegetarianism, we can call it climaterianism and have that same kind of philosophy.
ANTHONY: Just going back to your lifestyle, what do you do in your spare time? You find things you can do which don’t actually significantly impact your carbon footprint.
KARL: As I said we go up to the mountains and then we go cross-country skiing or hiking in the mountains. I’m very lucky and I've been a sailor, sailing is one of my hobbies since I was a teenager in high school and so we actually have a sail boat that we've sailed transatlantic on a couple of times. I know not everybody can do that, but the money I saved by not buying a big car right and not having a big house more than means that I can have a luxury like a sail boat in my life and that's when we want to go on big adventures, that’s what we do. Two years ago we sailed from New York to the Azores in Spain and Iberia and came back via Dakar in Senegal and the Caribbean and nobody can say I've got a ……?
ANTHONY: Well, it's not what most people will expect from a 4 ton carbon level at all, now that's really interesting. There are concerns of course I'm afraid with the current American administration, they've decided to turn their backs on the Paris Climate Accord and we've seen in these last few weeks these terrible hurricanes in Florida and in Texas. And the response from the EPA was, this is no time to talk about climate change, but do you think that public opinion is going to force them to start thinking seriously?
KARL: I think we're moving in that direction, I think we are and you know it is going to take unfortunately; it may take a humanitarian crisis in the developed world. We're talking about Harvey and Irma which had casualties in United States that are numbered in dozens. But at the same time there were floods in Asia which killed thousands of people and it barely got a mention on the world media and certainly United States media. And so, unfortunately you know the developed world as the biggest emitters of carbon and the ones that will have to be the leaders in doing something about it, unfortunately, I'm afraid our political system and human nature and the nature of human political systems - you'd like to think it could be proactive, but it usually takes some kind of obvious crisis. And so, Irma and Harvey will keep the conversation going and that’s good and I think I have no hopes for the Trump administration, though Donald Trump has so little in the way of actual beliefs of his own, you just never know what's going to come out of him. I mean at one point he was saying that it was his proposal that in the wall he wants to build with Mexico he'll put solar panels on it, I don't know if you heard about that.
ANTHONY: Yeah I read about that, I thought to myself, they'll have to put the panels on the Mexican's side, so will they be allowed to go into Mexico to maintain them.
KARL: I don’t know, I could picture it to get the angle on the sun they'd have to be leaning over to the US's side so they're facing towards the angles of the sun, but I don't know. I could get behind the wall on that if they were going to put that much solar infrastructure in, so you just never know what's going to come out of this administration, but there's no reason to be hopeful on the Federal US political level. But that is in a way there's a reaction to it that is hopeful that people said; wow, we didn't know it will be this bad. Somehow in November 2016, we didn’t realize that it was a choice that was going to take us out of the Paris Accord. And so there’s hopefully a chance for a backlash that will get climate back on the map and on the map for the first time. And if hurricanes get people talking about it, I think that’s a good thing.
I've got to say the little bit of irony there; I’m actually married to a geophysicist who's involved in climate issues, my wife is Robin Bell; she's the President-elect of the American Geophysical Union and she is involved in Antarctic ice research which is her primary research focus, but in trying to figure out whether you can pin Irma and Harvey on climate change, you can't say that those hurricanes were caused by climate change. You can say sea level is higher definitely because of climate change. You can say that the kind of thing that there is a good chance we'll see from climate change. I like to be very strictly scientific, that’s maybe I'm not the best advocate because I’m not going to exaggerate. Scientific community is very certain that climate change is going to happen, the temperature is going to rise, sea level is going to rise, ocean acidification is absolutely happening, they don’t agree that it's going to result in more or stronger hurricanes. The people who are hurricane specialists basically say that warmer oceans tend to make stronger hurricanes, but a warmer upper atmosphere at the same time might suppress hurricanes and they can’t really say.
Yes, some scientists will come out and say yes you can say that Harvey was wetter because of climate change, but that's unlike the actual fundamental conclusion that climate change is happening, it's devastating and it's human caused. There is no scientific consensus on the relationship between climate change and hurricanes, so it's kind of the little ironic that this might be what gets us talking about climate change, but the one thing that scientists don’t actually agree about might be the thing that gets us talking about climate change and I guess that’s a good thing.
ANTHONY: Is there anything in particular that you'd like to add while we're on?
KARL: I think that the climate movement in a way has to get over its own challenges, which is the risk of being more of a value-based movement rather than a grievance-based movement, which is more about kind of virtue signalling rather than actually addressing a problem. And I think to me, I get more grief for making a big deal about living on carbon budget from environmentalists than I do from the handful friends I have who are kind of conservative you know not really right wing, but conservative free-market economics, even Trump voters I do know a couple. I'd say the people I know who are considerable Trump voters types they respect me for living according to my beliefs and my firm belief that climate change is real and that we're all responsible. I think my environmentalist friends, many of them feel like I’m trying to out-ideal them and they're a little put off.
I mean I heard another environmental law professor saying; I'm not going to give up flying and you're ridiculous for giving up flying because that’s not going to solve the problem. But I actually think it does, but until climate advocates walk the talk and show that they personally believe that climate change is such an important issue with such huge ramifications, they are willing to change their own life and give up things that are important to them, then I don't think we have much credibility. And that’s why I think that individual action just like cities are committing to the Paris agreement even while the United States as a nation has pulled out of it or is pulling out of it, I think individuals should have their own Paris agreement. Here are the voluntary actions I’m going to take that are consistent with the world meeting a 2°C limit on climate change and I'm going to take them now even though I'm under no legal obligation to do it and the government systems haven't come into force yet to make me do it.
ANTHONY: Do you think that individuals like you, governments, and countries will actually do enough in time to stop the worst consequences of climate change?
KARL: I don't want to make a prediction. I hope so, if I think too hard about it, it's very depressing, but I know what I can do as an individual and to try and say; you know you can live a good life with a modest climate budget, carbon budget that fits within a global framework that will get us there. And in a way we have to redefine the good life so that people understand that you can have a great life, but it does not necessarily mean flying, guess what, that's something that's not sustainable.
You know if you and the work you’re doing, strikes me that there could be some organizing done here, there’s room for more organizing. People taking that kind of individual action, I haven't personally been involved much in 350.org because is not my personal style to be in that kind of demonstrative public direct action, which I think has a place in raising public awareness, but I don’t think it's ultimately going to carry the day. I'm a lawyer who might be representing people who were arrested for blocking a pipeline, but I'm not the kind of person who's likely to camp out on the pipeline myself.
But it seems to me that there is room for more organizing and I know there's a handful of people that I've just come across through Twitter and the Internet that are doing similar things. I don't know if you've come across Peter Kalmus who's a climate scientist up in California. I'll tell you, I've got my own book project on this which it's still out to some publishers which I hope I'll find a publisher for. He's got a book that's out called ''Being the Change''. I think I tried emailing him and didn't get a response, but if there is room for organizing people to turn...I can see a picture where there could be like a social media connections and just like people brag about their fitness, their exercise, the Fitbit - you know it goes on the internet; this is how far I ran today and how many calories I burned.
If you could get the similar bragging about carbon footprint, even if it just starts with a handful people, if that gets to be something they're aware of because I think the one thing I would try and get people to do, the number one thing is ''just be aware''. Just once a year, go to carbonfootprint.com ; I have problems with each of the online calculator including carbonfootprint.com , but figure out what your footprint wants from you, take a look at what your big-ticket items really were. Look at your footprint as an environmentalist compares to the average US or average world's footprint. Because I think actually United States environmentalists probably on average have a higher footprint than the average American, which is really a scandal in a way.
ANTHONY: Well Karl, thank you very much for sharing your ideas with us, I think this will probably raise quite a lot of controversies and questions and I'm very grateful for your time. I'll put links to your Facebook page and your blog and so on on the blog version of this and thanks again.
KARL: Thank you very much; it was great to talk to you.
My guest was Karl S. Coplan, professor of law at the Pace University, White Plains, New York and Director of the Environmental Litigation Clinic. His blog is at livesustianablynow.com , you can find him on Facebook and he tweets @kcoplan.
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Next week I’ll be back to sustainable current affairs, but there are more interviews in the pipeline and in November, for the first time ever, there will be a guest presenter.
For now this is Anthony Day signing off, thanking you for listening and why don’t you go to carbonfootprint.com and see what changes you can make?
Let me know how you get on!