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Karen Jackson: Don’t let fossil fuel giants blame you for climate change

There are things we can do individually, but polluting corporations must do their part.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Oil wells along the Nine Mile Canyon National Backcountry Byway in Duchesne County, Tuesday January 19, 2016.

Here in the West, folks drive a lot, sometimes using several gallons of gasoline a day. Each six-pound gallon of gas has a long history. Millions of years were required to compress organic material into the crude fuel mined today from the earth. How much material are we talking about?

Nearly 20 years ago, while at the University of Utah, Professor Jeff Dukes crunched the numbers and reported his findings in “Bad Mileage: 98 tons of plants/gallon.” It takes “a staggering 98 tons of buried plant material, compressed over millions of years to produce each gallon of gasoline,” he wrote.

That 98 tons equals 40 acres of wheat or 33 adult elephants.

”Can you imagine loading 40 acres worth of wheat – stalks, roots, and all – into the tank of your car every 20 miles?” Dukes asked.

That gallon of gas, when burned and combined with oxygen, emits 20 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2). A daily 20-mile trip in an inefficient car could emit about 6,000 pounds of climate warming CO2 per year. Worldwide, cars are driven millions of miles every day, so it is no wonder that our earth is warming. To be clear, this is only one source of carbon emissions creating this era of climate consequences.

Since the research paper was published in 2003, we’ve been told many lies about our changing climate; “it isn’t real...it’s a hoax”. But it is real. We have also been told that climate change is our fault, that we are wasting energy and we need to reduce our carbon footprint by choosing the staycation, going vegan and taking shorter showers. This disempowering blame game adds to the problem of inaction. We need to do our part, but so do fossil fuel companies.

It’s true, we need to reduce our “carbon footprint.” But where did this term originate? From polluting fossil fuel companies that spend more money on discouraging, misleading and blaming us, than on fixing the problem. Even more frustrating is that our communities not only suffer health problems from pollution but are held responsible for financing the cost to clean up the air and water, to fight wildfires and to build water-saving infrastructure.

Putting profit before the health of our common home has brought us to what some say is a “tipping point.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds “unequivocal evidence” that any delays in reducing emissions will cause us to “miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity for a globally livable future.”

It’s not too late to stop damage to our climate. In fact, we are in a better position now than at any other time. Affordable, competitive, available clean energy renders fossil fuels noncompetitive. Battery technology is much improved, and car makers are rapidly moving to manufacture affordable electric vehicles. Countries and communities are committing to electrification. In Utah, 23 cities and counties have resolved to adopt 100% net-renewable electricity by 2030 representing about 37 percent of Utah’s electricity load.

Tackling the climate problem is not so much a technical problem as it is a social and political challenge. On the topic of our changing climate, scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out in her book “Saving Us” that we need to talk about how climate changes have affected our daily lives, workplaces and communities, then implement solutions. And the next time someone asks what they can do to “save us,” kindly suggest that they vote, because it really does count.

But individual choices won’t prevent the direst effects of a changing climate.

Policy-makers need to implement climate solutions that consider the carbon footprint of fossil fuel companies, holding them responsible for their pollution. Many economists agree, the first best solution is pricing carbon and returning the dividends to households. This dividend or rebate lowers the impact of rising costs and expedites the transition to clean energy while decreasing reliance on oil that harms our health and security.

Let’s communicate our desire to be good stewards of our common home to members of Congress by asking for ambitious climate solutions. And we could each consider taking one small step like carpooling one day a week to save our planet from gaining that extra 20 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Karen Jackson

Karen Jackson, Salt Lake City, is a retired pediatric practitioner and volunteer for Citizens’ Climate Lobby.