Climate Champions

My Carbon Footprint


If everyone in the world adopted what appears to be a relatively benign U.S. lifestyle, this would in fact lead to certain disaster for the planet, in terms of its climate system and destructive impact on biodiversity. Thus I've spent the past several decades trying to shrink my carbon and ecological footprints, to "live simply so others may simply live."

For the past quarter century I have largely eliminated meat, fish, fowl, cheese, eggs and most milk products from my diet. I mainly eat a low-fat diet of grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and a modest amount of fat-free milk. This plant-based diet shrinks the amount of agriculture land needed to feed me by 10-fold, relative to the typical American animal-based diet. The hope is that if enough people adopt (and retain) plant-based diets this will significantly reduce the pressure worldwide to convert biodiversity-rich forests into cropland to feed animals. Much of the 14 million hectares of tropical forest lost each year is converted to agricultural uses, permanently destroying essential habitat for diverse species while releasing more than a billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (For more information, visit the SafeClimate Action section on Food).

Like most Americans, I used to drink more than 400 bottles and cans of drinks per year, leaving a legacy of wasted glass, plastic and metal containers, and the considerable energy that went in to mining, processing, refining, shipping, shaping, storing, refrigerating and disposing the materials that went into them. I have reduced this by more than 90% as a result of mainly drinking freshwater out of a durable, reusable glass.

Virtually all the food I eat at home is organically certified. Organic farmers are the ecological stewards of the planet, using methods that give high assurance that these farms will remain fertile for centuries to come. They are carbon-preserving and soil restoring, and more biologically rich relative to petrochemically-based monoculture agribusinesses. (For additional information visit SafeClimate's Food section.)

For nearly two decades I have bicycled most of the year to and from work, which involves 25 miles of spectacular cycling through America's oldest urban national forest, Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. While the per capita U.S. average for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is roughly 12,000 per year, I have reduced that by 80 to 90 percent (saving upwards of 500 gallons of gas a year). I typically carpool when I do need to travel by car. (For ideas on how to reduce your car dependence check out SafeClimate's Action section on Transportation.)

My family and I live in an 80-year old home that was very energy inefficient when we moved in 15 years ago. As our income permitted, we have successively increased the wall and ceiling insulation, put in ceiling fans in place of air conditioners, replaced the windows, boiler, water heater, and kitchen appliances with EnergyStar models substituted two dozen incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), installed efficient showerheads, faucet aerators and toilets, and removed the garbage disposal and set up a compost system. (For information on upgrading your home and appliances go to SafeClimate's Home Energy section.)

I have cancelled my subscription to the daily newspaper, and read more news over the Internet. Each day that I arrive home, if I find a mail order catalog, I call their 800-number to be removed from their distribution list. And while I do print out many Internet articles for off-line reading, I print on both sides and use printer paper made of post-consumer waste. (For more ideas on how to reduce your paper use visit SafeClimate's Action section on Paper.)

Despite reducing my energy consumption, my home still consumes substantial electricity and fossil fuels. We did shift from an oil to natural gas boiler, somewhat reducing CO2 emissions. But because my state of Maryland doesn't yet enable consumers to select a fossil-fuel free or "green power" supplier, I am in the process of locating a school or non-profit group in a state that does offer green power, to purchase green power for this group in an amount sufficient to offset the carbon emissions from my energy use, at least until such time my state does allow me to purchase green power. (Go to the Green Power section for more info about green power.)

Like tens of millions of other houses in America, our home came with lawns in the front and backyard. I have replaced 90 percent of it with an organic garden and wilderness landscape, eliminating the use of petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, and reducing my mowing considerably.

When all is said and done, I still have a very large carbon footprint relative to most people in the world. My three-bedroom home is much bigger than it needs to be, especially now that my kids are grown. My job takes me around the world working on biodiversity preservation, ironically causing the largest share of my carbon footprint to be emissions from air travel. Unfortunately, my frequent plane trips swamp all my other attempts to conserve energy. And, quite simply, I still have many habits that are energy and resource intensive, including relying on the public infrastructure of roads, transit systems, commercial and institutional spaces, etc. all of which incur their own impact on the environment. So I have chosen to donate 20% of my annual income to purchase offsets of my carbon footprint, by protecting and restoring threatened rainforest and biodiversity-rich habitat, which will soak up carbon in an amount equal to my yearly emissions.

For holidays, birthdays, weddings and births, in an effort to offer "gifts that keep on growing" I have started presenting certificates that showcase a threatened rainforest or biodiversity-rich habitat that I have given funds to, in order to protect and/or restore its ecological integrity. In each case, I donate an additional amount to that effort, sufficient to offset some fraction of the person's lifetime carbon footprint. (Check out the conservation links in the SafeClimate store for creative gift ideas.)

Stabilizing world population as rapidly as possible is the single biggest long-term, footprint-reducing action humanity can promote. I have joined the growing ranks of families who adopt children rather than have their own biological offspring. I have become the father of a wonderful stepdaughter and stepson, both of whom have accepted me as part of their family since the early 1980s.

I have no illusions that these individual actions are sufficient. Yet I see them as highly effective, as well as immensely rewarding and emotionally satisfying. However, there are many people in this world who don't have the power, the information, or the income it takes to make these sorts of changes in their lives. Hence, in my professional life, I have joined with other committed individuals to try to persuade governments, institutions, and corporations, both locally and globally, to harness the collective will and wisdom that will help ensure a safe climate for ourselves and future generations. 

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