By Jesse D. Palmer
It’s rare to have a good feeling about the earth these days — but that’s the feeling I had as I turned the wrench and shut off the valve to my house’s gas meter on New Years Eve. “This house,” I thought, “is finally done with combustion.” I had just replaced all the natural gas-burning machines with electric alternatives — and around here that’s a big improvement since over 80% of the local electric grid is an emissions-free mix of hydro, nuclear, solar, wind and geothermal.
The only way to get to zero emissions is to stop burning fossil fuels — which means either not doing stuff we currently do with fossil fuels or converting machines to run on electricity, since it’s possible to make electricity without combustion. Wind is already cheaper than fossil fueled electricity and solar power is about to be cheaper. So the one-two punch is to convert to electric power and make electrical generation emissions-free. While electric power plants currently account for 27 percent of US emissions, the number is falling rapidly and could hit zero with enough public pressure and investment.
Individual acts may feel irrelevant in the face of the global, rapidly escalating climate catastrophe. But doing what you can helps avoid terror, hopelessness and paralysis — so you can stay focused on collective action that might help. I’ve found that I can’t live in denial of climate change. At the playground with my daughter, while taking a shower, riding my bike or cooking dinner, I’m always aware that the world is dying around me, that human society may soon be swept away if CO2 emissions continue at their current rate, and that complex ecosystems (and my life which depends on these ecosystems) will decline every year for the rest of my life because human are still burning fossil fuels.
When I boiled water for hot cocoa with my old gas stove, I could imagine the CO2 spewing into the air – to drift and blow – some absorbed into the ocean changing its chemistry, some warming the climate. My small act emitted CO2 that would remain in the environment for the next 100 years — long after both me and my cocoa would be cold and dead and gone.
Fossil fuels are collective mass suicide — it has been clear for 30 years that no level of CO2 emissions is sustainable. Climate change can feel overwhelming since it’s global and seemingly out of our control — as individuals we didn’t invent and don’t run all the systems dependent on burning fossil fuels. Addressing climate change requires systemic change — institutional change, political change — which is only going to happen because millions of people organize, agitate, protest, and create overwhelming pressure for transition.
Everyone can get involved in agitation for dramatic, immediate measures to cease fossil fuel combustion locally and nationally — stopping new pipelines, urging divestment, pressuring corporations and working outside and from within cultural and political systems.
Focusing on personal action in addition to collective action is a distraction — but also a paradox, because getting to zero emissions requires unprecedented and widespread levels of personal and individual change along with systemic change. Neither works on its own.
At my house, the most complex aspect of getting rid of natural gas was running a bunch of new 220 volt circuits. The biggest adjustment was swapping the gas stove for an electric induction one that uses a magnetic field to heat just the pot and that allows instant temperature adjustment. I love cooking and it is a fine alternative to gas — my food is just as yummy and it is just as fun to cook.
Converting to electricity is something individuals can do right now to get closer to a zero emissions world and perhaps to reduce personal eco-anxiety.
But the largest single source of emissions in the US is transportation — 28 percent — and individual passenger cars represent about 60 percent of that. So even more than changing home appliances, the greatest impact an individual can have is reducing transportation combustion by either moving less or moving without combustion.
The simplest, easiest way to reduce transportation emissions is to move less in the first place and focus on friends, events and places right around you — which is how humans existed until about 100 years ago. I’ve mostly given up trying to convince anyone to do this — we’re all so used to a car-based lifestyle that disregards distance. But it’s still right even if it requires re-training ourselves.
Mostly, I bicycle for transportation and I admit that being able to do so is a privilege. I live in California where the weather is nice and I’ve been able to arrange my life so I live close to stores and work at home. There are also lots of choices that I and other bicyclists make so we can bicycle — it isn’t all privilege and luck. Part of being a bicyclist is seeing distance differently than car drivers do. Going even 10 miles takes a long time on a bike — so cyclists figure out how to meet their needs closer to home and avoid frivolous travel. I rarely go more than 3 miles from my house without putting my bike on BART — which I haven’t done since pandemic started. There’s a richness in staying nearer to home — you discover a lot of stuff you would have missed whizzing around in a car.
When my daughter was born 8 years ago, she couldn’t go on a bike for her first year, so I mostly walked within a mile of home that year. Now we go on all our adventures and daily travels by bike. From ages 1-6 she rode on an iBert seat on my handlebars, and now she rides a tagalong third wheel that clips to the back of my bike. I can haul almost anything I need in bike bags or a bike trailer — I’ve even moved plywood and bags of cement. And each year I take about 20,000 Slingshot organizers to the post office via bike trailer. Once you think like a bicyclist, you realize how much is possible on foot, via bike and on public transit — and a lot of car travel most people do thoughtlessly seems silly.
But cars still dominate. So a question becomes “If millions of people insist on driving, and if gasoline powered cars is certain climate suicide, what can be done to promote cars that don’t emit CO2?”
Cars can run on hydrogen which only emits water when its burned — and it is possible to make hydrogen out of regular water with solar or wind powered electricity, but so far hydrogen cars are rare. A lot of energy is lost using hydrogen vs. batteries, so it takes a lot more energy per mile driven. Another article should address the topic. Most non-emitting cars being built now are electric battery-powered vehicles.
So even though I don’t care much for cars, my wife and I decided to buy an electric car last year. My 73 year old housemate Nora’s car was in decline, and I felt like if she was going to drive most days, it would be better if she drove an electric car not a gasoline one.
Okay — let me admit the full absurd truth: I had an extremely vivid dream one night about a VW bus. When I woke up I checked Craigslist and the first thing I saw was a VW bus converted to electricity. It was beautiful — but the number of miles it could go on a charge was terrible. While obsessing over the VW, I researched electric cars and realized that they are now a very reasonable option if you want to drive a car. If everyone switched from gasoline cars to electric vehicles (EVs), it would dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. Even if they were all run entirely on fossil fueled electricity, EVs would cut emissions since power to run them emit less CO2 per mile than gasoline cars. It would help even more if people drove less. Used EVs are selling for not too much money these days.
The 2 key things to consider if you want to get an EV are the battery range — how far can you go between charges — and where you can charge it? We got a 2017 Chevy Bolt with a range of about 230 miles. It has a quick charging plug that can recharge the battery in under an hour, but so far there are hardly any of those fancy quick chargers out there. Fast chargers use DC power and cost thousands of dollars — no one has one at home.
What people have at home is either a level 1 charger running on 110 volts, or a level 2 charger that needs 220 volts. The level 1 charger will take more than a day to recharge a car which isn’t going to work for most people. So I installed a 32 amp level 2 charger — which brings up another funny story. Most EVs in my neighborhood are parked in a driveway for charging. My house is a big old Victorian with no driveway — there’s only street parking. Where could I put the charger? I put it in the corner of the yard under the bike shed and then I ran the cord into some trees that hang over the sidewalk. When not in use, the cord is hidden in the tree. When you want to charge, you get out a ladder, disconnect a bungie cord holding the cord to a branch, and pull down the cord. It looks like the tree is charging the car.
Like any technology, EVs take an ecological toll on the earth and in particular their batteries require huge lithium mines. Half of global production is from Australia; 20 percent from Chile. Mines can release toxic pollution and gobble up scarce water resources. A good article by climate activist Jonathan Neale explains how lithium production must be made more just and ecologically sound — he thinks it is possible. Those who want to keep driving cars need to compare the damage related to gasoline cars — emissions, oil wells, pipelines and refineries — vs. lithium mines. Neither is perfect and both harm poor people and poor regions disproportionately. But overall lithium mines aren’t as bad — carbon emissions damage the entire earth in dramatic and not-yet fully understood ways.
As with any new technology, it’s important to compare the new technology (with new harms) against the technology it is replacing (with harms that might feel invisible because we are used to them.) Windmills kills some birds and change landscapes — but to really understand the harm you need to compare them to oil wells, coal mines, pipelines, and CO2 emissions — which overall harm more birds and will change more landscapes.
Since I’m so bike oriented, I’ve barely driven the EV since we got it, but Nora uses it most days. On a few trips to the beach it was easy finding places to charge — even a fun challenge. It’s also a funny feeling when you pass a gas station, because your gasoline car-brain thinks “do I need to get gas?” but then you realize the gas station is irrelevant.
The Bolt is peppy — since there’s no engine and no transmission, it accelerates super fast and goes up hills easily. There is no oil to change and many fewer moving parts than a gasoline car, so at least in theory it should require less maintenance. We’ll see.
I can’t believe I’m writing a car review for Slingshot but I strongly believe the climate crisis calls on all of us to be deeply flexible — open to change and the unexpected. The way we grew up and all the stuff we’re used to isn’t sustainable, and we have to dump it right away. More than half of all human CO2 emissions since the beginning of time have happened since 1988 — the year it became clear that human emissions were causing climate change and also, oddly, the year Slingshot started publishing.
Socially on a global and institutional level — as well as individually — it helps to have a vision for what a sustainable, non-fossil fueled work would look like. Socially, this is necessary to figure out very complex and long-term plans and changes.
Individually, having such a vision helps avoid terror, hopelessness and paralysis looking at an existential crisis that seems too big for any single individual. When I think about how the world could be better if it were sustainable, it gives me a giddy sense of excitement — even while I also realize getting there might be difficult or even unlikely.
Almost every human activity we’re part of day-to-day is killing the earth, so for almost everything around us, there’s an alternative we can imagine.
• Transportation – 28% of US emissions: Walking, biking, transit, electric cars, electric buses, electric trucks, people living closer to jobs and necessities, high speed trains running on electricity instead of airplanes, ships with high-tech sails. Cities redesigned to make it easier to bike and walk. Free and better public transit. More local production – less moving stuff around. A slower and more local pace of life that emphasizes seeing stuff along the way instead of being all being about the destination. Reclaiming the rich social experience of traveling by train.
• Electrical generation – 27% of US emissions: Wind, solar, geothermal, small hydro, tidal power. Storage that pumps water uphill when there is surplus power and that runs turbines when power is needed.
• Industry – 22 % of US emissions: Using less stuff and smarter methods. I want to better understand what this category means.
• Commercial & residential – 12% of US emissions: Phase out natural gas and electrify everything.
• Agriculture – 10% of US emissions: Less animal agriculture. Organic and sustainable farming techniques that sink carbon. Gardens and fruit trees everywhere.
Humans figured out how to harness fire — and now if we want to save ourselves we need to learn how to stop burning stuff.
A super weird part of the whole process is that in general, I hate buying stuff and when I do, I always feel a sense of regret knowing that I’m degrading the earth and feeding the industrial beast. But strangely, with the car and the other electrical stuff, I had an unfamiliar feeling of calm and being part of the future.