What on Earth Can We Do?

What on Earth Can We Do?

People pay closer attention to things when they cost money. My mother used to scold me for using too many sheets of paper towel to dry my hands, waving aloft the cloth alternative. My grandmother made sure we turned off the lights when they were no longer needed.

It was silly to waste money.

We Americans worry about rising taxes and inflation. They cost us money.

Some expenditures, however, are less immediate, less obvious perhaps, but no less real. For example, the bill for weather-related disasters — hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, mudslides, droughts, etc.— is rising relentlessly. You can see them every night on the network newscasts, although most of us also have had live encounters with extreme weather.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that in the 1980s there was an average of three weather-driven catastrophes annually that caused more than a billion dollars apiece in damages.

By the 2010s the annual tally had risen to 12. In 2020, there were a record-breaking 22 such billion-dollar cataclysms (note that inflation is not a factor in the calculations).

We all are sharing these costs, even when we are not in the eye of the storm. We pay through federal disaster relief aid, higher insurance rates, and expenditures by governments at all levels to make our communities resilient against the intensifying impacts of climate change, such as rising ocean tides and escalating storm surges.

There are less dramatic manifestations of our worsening environment, too: in 2021, haze from wildfires out west wafted all the way to Connecticut, and beyond.
Small world, indeed.

After the 2016 presidential election, my wife and I decided that it was time to go solar. Our house has a clear southern exposure, and there were (still are) federal and state tax incentives to generate your own kilowatts.

It was like buying an annuity (you can also lease panels): we paid up front and are reaping the benefits over time. In the past five years we haven’t paid the power company a penny. In fact, we send kilowatts back into the grid and enjoy a very modest return from that. In less than five years we will have covered our investment. The panels should be productive for more than 20 years after that.

With the local power companies threatening huge — nearly 50 percent — rate increases in 2023, our investment is looking better all the time.

And the savings just got bigger. In October, I traded in my 2001 clunker for a 2023 electric vehicle. There was a $2,250 rebate from the state, and as part of the deal GM paid for the 220-volt overnight charging station in the garage. My car is now powered by the excess kilowatts from our solar panels (there are also public charging stations that offer free electricity, and more are on the way).

I drive about 10,000 miles a year and will save more than $1,400 annually on fossil fuel at current gas prices. That will cover roughly half the cost of the car in ten years—and it’s about ten times what we were getting back from the utility.

Nice as the money is, it wasn’t the main motivation to go electric. This spring our son and his wife welcomed their first child, our first grandchild, into the world. There is no getting around the fact that we are bequeathing him, and his generation, a greatly diminished planet.

Thirty years ago, at the Rio Earth Summit, world leaders acknowledged the need to reduce and eventually eliminate the world’s annual CO2 emissions of 22 billion metric tons a year. Otherwise, the world would get too hot to handle, costing unimaginable human suffering.

Well, the suffering is well underway because, by 2015, emissions had not only not declined, but, rather, had increased by nearly 60 percent. In 1992, fossil fuels accounted for about 80 percent of the world’s energy usage. Today, the world is using more energy — and, still, getting 80 percent of it from greenhouse gas-emitting fuels.

It’s time for you and me to let “our leaders” know what they should be doing on behalf of our descendants. If they can’t lead, they shouldn’t, as Bob Dylan once cautioned, stand in the doorway or block up the hall.

Our son bought an electric car last month. Baby steps in the right direction.