Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Babel Fish and Global Warming
distributed 9/22/06 - ©2006

The infamous science fiction/social satire work, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, has given us the remarkable species of the Babel fish.

In that infinitely improbable setting with intergalactic travel, multitudinous life forms, and countless languages, the Babel fish is a universal translator. Just stick one in your ear, and you can easily understand what anyone (anything?) is saying.

Thankfully, our daily lives don't have the same sort of communication challenges that are found in Douglas Adams' fictionalized universe. But neither do we have such a convenient way of translating between different modes of expression.

A person who cares about global climate change, and who wants to be responsible in their energy use, needs something like a Babel fish to make sense out of the many different ways that our society measures energy. To get a clear sense of how much energy you are using -- and how much carbon dioxide you are adding to the atmosphere as a result -- it is necessary to deal with many odd units of measurement. Much of our energy use is so hidden, and so taken for granted, that it takes a special effort to track it down.

Think about all of the ways that different forms of energy -- most of them derived from fossil fuels -- enter your life.

  • Our cars use gasoline. We do get an up-close-and-personal sense of how much of that is being used when we stand at the pump and watch the gallons pour into the vehicle. The climate impact of burning that gas is still well hidden.
  • Some of us have furnaces, water heaters and/or stoves which use natural gas. The gas comes into our homes through a pipe, and the appliances regulate their own use of the fuel. We rarely notice that it is being burned, and we certainly don't have a gut feel for the therms and the CCFs (hundreds of cubic feet) which show up on the monthly bill. Heating oil and propane are delivered in trucks, but are about as invisible in their routine use.
  • Electricity is there at the flick of a switch. It is used in so many different appliances that it is almost impossible for us to know how much is being used, and where to conserve most effectively. (See a previous Notes on that topic: Itemized Bills). Your utility bill tells you how many kilowatts you use each month.
  • And who thinks about the jet fuel for airplanes, unless you're in a long holding pattern and hoping that they still have enough to get you safely to the ground?
It is a real challenge to put all of the pieces together. But that's what it takes to develop an idea of how much energy you are really using, how many fossil fuels were burned to provide it for you, and how much of an impact the carbon dioxide from that burning is having on the global climate.

Enter the modern equivalent of a Babel fish: the carbon calculator. These translators range from sophisticated computer programs to a simple sheet of paper. In whatever form, the purpose of these calculators is to take all of those confusing measurements of energy use, factor in how much of each type of energy you personally use, and give a single figure at the end about how much damage you are doing to the world's climate. Plug in all the figures, and find out how many tons of carbon dioxide you generate in a year. Sounds like fun, huh?

Learning the truth about your carbon footprint isn't supposed to be enjoyable, but it certainly is enlightening. Knowing that information is essential if any of us are to make appropriate choices about our personal impacts. It is important, too, if we are to have an awareness about how to shape public policy decisions. If we're oblivious about how much energy we use, and if we're unaware of the massive quantities of the invisible greenhouse gasses we create, we can't possibly be responsible in our energy stewardship.

Changing light bulbs is good, and having an efficient car is great -- especially if you don't drive it much -- but all of that care can be overwhelmed by an inefficient old furnace or refrigerator, or lots of air travel. The calculators help us make sense of the many different ways we use energy, and give a coherent way to understand our impacts. It can be eye-opening.

My friend Ted, who is a technically sophisticated and conscientious environmentalist, was astounded when he did his calculations this summer. Over the years, he has worked hard to reduce his energy use at home and with his car. He discovered, though, that all of his careful reductions in greenhouse gasses in those areas would be more than cancelled out by one vacation flight to Hawaii. He knew that air travel was high-impact, but he'd never been able to compare it with his home energy use before.

The carbon calculators help us understand the relative impacts that we have from our different kinds of energy use -- an important insight in and of itself. They also reveal where we can change our equipment and behaviors. They inform us about how many carbon offsets it would be appropriate to purchase (as I described in last week's Notes).

I have links to four different carbon calculators at the end of this article. When you go to do you calculations, here's what you'll need:

  • Know where you live. That's the easiest part, but very important. The fancy calculators know how much of your electricity comes from burning coal (dirty!) or gas (better), and how much comes from non-carbon sources like hydropower and nuclear. My carbon impacts from electricity in Colorado are ten times what they would be in Oregon, because of the different energy sources in each region. The calculators take that into account.
  • Total up your utility bills for the last year to know how many kilowatts, therms, or gallons you used. The price doesn't matter -- just the energy units.
  • Have a good estimate for how many miles you drive per year, and what sort of gas mileage your car (or cars) get.
  • Think through how much you flew in the last year. Some of the calculators want to know the total number of miles, one wants that broken down by the length of the flight, and one will figure it out for you. I've found that this is the place where the calculators give the largest variation in their results -- there are very different assumptions used about energy used per passenger mile.
Knowing how many tons of CO2 were generated in your name is important anytime. Now is an especially good time to have that information in mind. Within the next few weeks, many of us will be viewing and discussing An Inconvenient Truth and/or The Great Warming. Those films about global climate change call us to take account of our personal and collective impacts. They stir us to take action about the ways that we live.

Knowing our impacts as we watch the films makes the experience more personal and more powerful. So gather your utility bills, and calculate your impact. You don't have to stick a fish in your ear to do it -- just spend a few minutes at one of the websites below.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Here are links to four carbon calculators (Native Energy and Bonneville are recommended by Presbyterians for Restoring Creation as reputable sources of carbon offsets):
  • TerraPass -- This is the most user-friendly of the sites, and is designed to show the impact from specific types of impacts (driving, flying, home) instead of putting the whole set together. It will calculate your air miles (and plot the trips on a map), and figure your gas mileage based on your car, so it may help you get information to use in other calculators. TerraPass gives much smaller impacts for flying than the other calculators.
  • Native Energy -- This calculator is certified to meet the requirements of the Climate Neutral Network. It is the one that asks about the length of your airline trips, so do your research carefully.
  • The Bonneville Environmental Foundation -- You can use your own figures, or go with US averages.
  • The Vermont Earth Institute -- This is a very simple worksheet that can be printed out and done by hand, but the figures for electricity do not take into account the regional differences from different kinds of power generation. The sheet includes interesting figures to help you compare your impact with Kyoto guidelines (5.4 tons per person) and what would be needed to really control global warming (2.35 tons per person).

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