Climate change isn't new. Since the first microbes, drifting in a bubbling prehistoric ocean, noticed it was getting a bit chilly, life on Earth has had to either adapt to changes in the climate or die. What is new is a rapidly changing climate driven by an enhanced greenhouse effect - humankind's uncontrolled experiment on the planet whereby we pump enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to double or triple its concentration and then see what happens.
The reason I've written this book is simple: I don't want to see what happens. I don't want my family and friends to see it, I don't want you or your loved ones to see it. Most of all I don't want our children and grandchildren to see it. I'm frightened by what climate change has in store, really frightened.
I haven't always been this worried. For years my interest in global warming was more professional than personal. As a fresh-faced graduate my research centred on the descendants of those chilly microbes in the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean, asking: how will they respond to a warming world?
(Some liked it, some died.) For the next seven years, I carried on counting the climate change beans in the belief that politicians would see the need for action, and act. When the Kyoto Protocol emerged in 1997 I knew that, by itself, the treaty wouldn't be enough. Nevertheless, I felt reassured that with so many nations on board something would finally get done. Then, in 2001, US president George W. Bush withdrew his nation - the world's single biggest greenhouse gas emitter -from Kyoto. For a while I just wandered about at work muttering "What the hell happened?". At the time it looked as though Kyoto was dead in the water, that there was to be no concerted action on cutting global greenhouse emissions, and all the scientific research (my own algae boiling included) counted for nothing.
It would have been easy to continue feeding George W dolls to my Labrador and moaning about politicians, but there was a way to fight back. Alongside the research I was being paid to do, I started to look into the greenhouse gas that I was directly responsible for, the emissions which were mine to increase or decrease as I saw fit. I found that I was a big emitter, but also that I could do something about it. The politicians may have been dithering, but I was going to cut my own emissions - to do my bit.
And so were sown the seeds of this book. First came a short paper in the journal Nature called "Kyoto Begins at Home" about a family of four in the USA who met their own equivalent of the USA's Kyoto commitment through a few simple lifestyle changes. During the subsequent years I researched everything from green burials to the global warming contribution of Labradors. Along the way our big car was swapped for a Smart car, low-energy bulbs spread through the house, and the mailorder composting worms arrived (a fun evening in, I can tell you).
During this time I was also running a website covering climate change research. Each month the workload increased as the column inches that global warming was attracting shot up. These stories were no longer only about its impacts in the developing world. There were now headlines about Alaskan communities sinking into the ground, heatwaves killing tens of thousands across Europe, flash flooding in the USA, drought in Australia, and even bankrupt ski resorts here in Scotland. Climate change, it seemed, was coming home.
All this, along with some severe sleep deprivation, led to this book. Climate Change Begins at Home takes a long hard look at life on the two-way street of global warming and brings our impact on the climate face to face with the shifting climate's impact on us, our neighbours, and generations of first-time buyers to come.
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the power of one
Meet the Carbones, a middle class family living in a typical street. A street, just like thousands of others in the Western world, with picket fences and trimmed lawns, with coffee mornings and a neighbourhood watch. The Carbones have worked hard to buy the house and cars they want, and to provide for their two young sons, George and Henry.
It's Saturday morning and the Carbones have just got back from the supermarket. They are unloading the week's shopping from their gleaming people carrier. The weather in Alabama is wiltingly hot again and it's a race to get the ice cream into the freezer before it melts completely. Once in the house, George racks up the air-conditioning and slides in front of the TV. Henry slopes off to his room, puts on some music and rejoins his online game. With shopping safely put away, and all the carrier bags stored for reuse, Mr and Mrs Carbone sit down with the newspapers and afresh cup of fairly-traded coffee. Life is good.
Soon though, their chirpy conversation trails off and their buoyant mood is punctured by the doom-laden headlines. The Greenville Herald warns of the heatwave intensifying and prints an appeal from the local Senator for restraint in electricity use at peak times to avert a power blackout. Health officials estimate that 2,000 people across the county have already been hospitalised with heat stroke and 30 have died. They urge the public to keep an eye on elderly neighbours and not to leave dogs or young children unattended in cars. Two boys have drowned trying to cool off by swimming in a local lake. The national news isn't much better. Across the Mid-West there is strict water rationing, many farmers are watching their top-soil blowing away in the wind, and up in Alaska thousands of homes have been lost to thawing permafrost.
This haywire climate, not that of some distant African state, but here, at home, has the Carbones worried. Just five years ago both would have dismissed any suggestion of taking action on climate change, citing the economic arguments of politicians and hinting at the vested interests of climate scientists. Then, the warnings were dire but the evidence appeared scant - and both could still remember 1970s predictions of our falling into a new ice age.
Now, although the Carbones still feel that the threat has been exaggerated, they cannot deny the ever-earlier start to spring in Greenville, the disappointingly snow-free winters, and the scorching summer, which at that very moment is finishing off the last few living patches of Mr Carbone's formerly immaculate lawn.
As their worry about global warming has grown, the Carbones have become increasingly keen to 'do their bit' to prevent it. For a while now, Mrs Carbone has separated the bottles, tins and newspapers from the rest of their household trash and, each Thursday, filled the special crates for kerbside collection. Mr Carbone has replaced a couple of their traditional tungsten light bulbs with low-energy bulbs, and is always on at the boys for leaving lights, TVs and computers on. They may not wear knitted trousers and eat muesli for every meal, but the Carbones feel they do what they can for the environment and would describe their lifestyle as 'really quite green'.
So what help are the Carbones' various actions in mitigating climate change? The blunt answer is: not much. Their weekly car trips to the supermarket produce more greenhouse gas than all that saved by their efforts to recycle and cut energy wastage. The Carbones have fooled themselves into thinking that they can help tackle climate change without making real changes to their lifestyles. In fact, the only purpose their 'environmental' efforts currently serve is to massage their uneasiness about global warming while allowing them to carry on living just as they've always done.
Why don't they do more? Well, apart from finding some lifestyle changes hard to swallow, like getting rid of Mr Carbone's gas-guzzling SUV, they've tended to see climate change as a developing-world problem. Sure, they felt bad about the increase in hurricanes, droughts and floods in Africa, Asia and South America, but until global warming came knocking on their own door it was all too easy to ignore.
For the Carbones and millions like them, it takes a home visit to really stir up some action. Warn them that their greenhouse gas emissions may harm people thousands of kilometres away and they might try to do a bit - some recycling for instance -but then they can always avoid TV when the news gets too bad. Make them aware that climate change is likely to threaten their own friends, family and way of life though, and they'll be the first in line for low-energy light bulbs at the local hardware store.
This is the challenge faced by all those calling for action on greenhouse gas emissions. They can appeal to our humanity, listing the devastating consequences climate change will have, or is already having, in the developing world - try to tap that guilty streak that runs through all of us living in the luxury of the West. They can, and do, warn of the famine, plagues and migrations of biblical proportions that could occur as climate change takes hold in countries with scant or no resources to adapt. But as long as the apocalypses are remote many people will drag their heels.
Only when climate change starts to squeeze us directly will we really begin to take notice - when it's not only drought-stricken Sudan or flood-ravaged Bangladesh in the news, but our own neighbourhoods and economies taking a hammering. The most severe effects are still some years away and we have kidded ourselves into thinking we have ample time to head off any big problems. We haven't.
Like most families, the Carbones assume that unlobbied governments will deal with such global issues, or that scientists will come up with a technological fix - a silver bullet to solve cli mate change. Neither of these head-in-the-sand solutions is realistic. In the end the buck stops with you, me, and the Carbones: our lifestyles and our emissions. So how much greenhouse gas does the Carbone family emit and how?
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