July 14, 2008 | General

Climate Change Connections: Local Action Is Our Warp Drive

BioCycle July 2008, Vol. 49, No. 7, p. 20
Sally Brown

EVERYTHING looks the same. When I walk my dog around the neighborhood, there are maybe a few more for sale signs than there used to be, but the gardens look as beautiful as they always do in Seattle in the spring. The people I see wave or nod. My dog Sadie still tries to attack anything that moves including, but not limited, to squirrels and cats. But there is an eerie feeling. Just like in the Buffalo Springfield song: “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Now you all know how ancient I am.
This feeling that something is different comes mostly when I read the newspaper. It may be exaggerated for me because I tend to be a worrier and I love to watch Star Trek. Star Trek is great because there is always a happy ending. If you remember, in the Star Trek movie “First Contact,” they discover warp drive. This was after the apocalypse. In Star Trek it was a nuclear apocalypse, not a climate apocalypse. These days it seems like we’re heading for big changes, scary changes. I don’t know if these are Star Trek magnitude changes. In the happy endings characteristic of Star Trek everything got much better after the apocalypse. Warp drive was discovered, the humans made first contact with the Vulcans. The Federation was established, poverty was eliminated and all was well with the world. To me, there is no indication that our potential climate apocalypse will have the same happy ending. And that is what has me worried.
I may just be nervous about these things because of watching too much Star Trek. They may even resolve themselves. But to me, they are signs that our world is changing in fundamental ways. Let me give you a few examples, and you can decide what you think. The first few have to do with water:
With our fallen dollar, more U.S. retirees are going to Tucson, instead of abroad. However, due to climate change, rainfall in this area has been lower than what had been normal. Temperatures are also about three degrees higher. As rainfall was marginal at best in this region, these changes in climate, coupled with the new golf course land use, have resulted in severe water shortages. There is now a black market for illegally pumped water. Farmers who had changed what they planted to high value high water crops like lettuce are changing back to olives, a high drought and salt tolerant tree.
Hunger strikes are happening in many parts of the world including India, Haiti, Egypt and Indonesia. These strikes are partly about the spike in commodity prices, due to shortages in staples such as rice. Australia, for instance, was one of the largest rice exporting countries, but persistent drought has killed its rice growing industry. Grapes have now been planted in former rice paddies, as they are a high value crop able to be grown with much less water.
In California for the first time, developments in fast growing counties have been put on hold due to the inability to demonstrate sufficient water for 20 years post construction. Laws requiring that proof of sufficient water be demonstrated prior to construction have been on the books for a while, but only recently have these laws been used to halt development.
The energy stories may be more familiar:
Fuel prices averaging over $4.00 per gallon are having their biggest economic impact in the central and southern parts of the U.S. in rural areas where median incomes are low and large pick-up trucks are common. Poor mileage in these vehicles, coupled with high commuting distances, means some people can’t afford to get to work.
A glut of SUVs has hit the car dealerships. People looking to trade in their SUVs for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles are having a hard time finding takers. Some car dealerships are no longer accepting SUVs as trade-ins, because nobody is buying them.
A wide range of products that have at least some part of their make up in fossil fuel based chemicals are seeing high price increases. This includes road paving using asphalt, as well as tires, toiletries and plastics.
People have voluntarily cut down on gasoline consumption. High prices have resulted in a decrease in demand for the first time ever. Gasoline purchases are down close to 10 percent as people reduce their driving in response to increases in fuel costs.
One of the things that really gets me when I read these stories, and worry more and more, is the vacuum in energy and conservation leadership. It must have occurred to someone when construction permits were being issued in Las Vegas, Tucson and in other desert development boomtowns that water might be an issue. For example, grey water reuse might have been seen as an option.
On a national level, we could have made huge inroads in energy conservation starting on 9/12, if not before. Investment in energy could have already started reaping rewards. Instead of reading about growing poverty as a result of energy shortages, we could have been reading about economic expansion as a result of green energy industries. People are looking for options, and are willing to do something if just given some tools. In the absence of a national policy, action on a local level can help to fill the vacuum. Here are two examples:
I was chatting with the girl at the pool here in Seattle where my son goes for diving lessons. She had just returned from a road trip to Florida. Despite the rain and gloom that characterized our spring here in Seattle, she said that she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Not because of the coffee, but because of recycling. Seriously, this is what she said. She doesn’t know me as the Climate Change columnist, she knows me as the lady whose kid comes to dive who pays with cash sometimes and other times by check.
Last week I went to Tucson for a conference. I went for a swim one morning and the ladies were lingering in the shower, just like we do in Seattle. At the meeting, which was held at the University of Arizona, the windows in the classrooms had regular shades, not like at the new library in Seattle with the photovoltaic cells. There was only one garbage container in each classroom. All of the food waste, all of the empty plastic bottles and cans, and the plastic plates, all went into the same black plastic bag. After lunch we’d filled several of these. I might add that the one place where I found a good cup of coffee was also selling “I heart recycling” t-shirts, where the heart is a recycling symbol.
I would bet that the people in Tucson are not fundamentally different from the people in Seattle. Just blonder and tanner and less dependent on caffeine. If given the opportunity, they would put the cans in one bag, the bottles in another and even the food scraps in a third. They just aren’t given the chance. That chance may not come on a national level for some time. If you can start on a local level, it will only make changes on a national level easier to implement when and if they come.
Local action may not have the power of warp drive, and it may not be the silver bullet. However, this time we may not have the luxury of finding that silver bullet. It may be that a wide range of solutions, each with some impact, are required to meet the threat of a climate apocalypse. Local action can have a sizable impact. Our time for action is the present, even if the action means mundane things like water conservation measures, sensible planning, high-density developments and high-visibility recycling programs. I would suggest that the time for action on these things is right now.
As Jean-Luc Picard would say, “Engage.”
Sally Brown – Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle – is a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board, and authors this regular column on the connections of composting, organics recycling and renewable energy to climate change. E-mail Dr. Brown at

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