A Snowball's Chance...

Snow has been falling lightly more or less constantly the last few days and Oslo finally looks its familiar, wintery self this time of year. It seems most everyone has come out from indoors to ski and play - a collective sigh of relief in the form of queues up to Frognerseteren.

We spent new year's eve in the mountains with friends: three families in a state-of-the-art-yet-traditional ski cabin surrounded by dozens of other similar cabins and families - a very enjoyable and koselig (cozy) Norwegian way to ring in the new year.

So while it looks like we'll have a proper winter afterall, it came a few weeks later than usual. November and December were warmer, grayer and wetter than usual - something like typical Seattle weather and some of the warmest holiday weather Oslo has had on recent record. There were a couple days in December when I was actually outside in shorts (coming back from the gym) and it wasn't uncomfortable in the least. We could go for a hike in the hills above Olso with very little in the way of gear or winter jackets.

Average temperatures in Oslo fall 2015

Weather is not climate, as we often need to remind our climate science-denying friends. And climate change is a global (vs. local) phenomenon: the effects of the changing climate overall will vary from place to place (i.e. not everywhere is getting warmer at once). Indeed, our first full winter in Oslo six years ago was the coldest in 100 years with temps that hovered around -15 to -20C though it hasn't been nearly that cold since.

Average December temperatures in Oslo 2000-2015

The overall trend is toward warmer temps, more rain / less snowfall, shorter ski seasons. Globally, 2015 was the warmest year on record following 2014 which was the warmest year before that. And the northern latitudes / Artic are warming at twice the rate of the lower latitudes.

Paris Climate Agreement

You would hardly know it from the mainstream news (there's a lot more attention paid to the Kardashians) but a super historic climate agreement was reached in Paris just before the holidays. It's a big deal mostly because an agreement was reached at all. The actual details, and the impact, will play out over the coming months and couple of years.

There are a lot of reasons to be cautiously optimistic for the first time since, well forever, that real progress will be made. This agreement has a truly global (as in 195 countries) urgency element to it that we haven't seen before. It seems that as the existential threat has become more immediate and more apparent, cooperation has become more plausible.

The agreement calls for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century. In the adopted version of the Paris Agreement, the parties will also "pursue efforts to" limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. The 1.5 °C goal will require zero emissions sometime between 2030 and 2050, according to some scientists.

Highlighting the important bit here: to get there (the 1.5 C goal), we must get to zero fossil fuel emissions within the next 25 years. Or alternatively, quickly acquire some alien technology to scrub the atmosphere in a short amount of time. And 195 countries agreed. That's HUGE. If we were able to pull that off somehow the world (and the future) would look very different indeed.

On the pessimistic side, there are the political challenges. The agreement contains no binding rules on how to meet the temperature goals. All greenhouse gas emission targets are voluntary and left to the individual countries to determine. There is an ever increasing gap between the actual actions of countries and what the science is telling us we need to do to avert the worst. Similarly, in proportion to the urgency of the climate negotiations, there is a widening gap between what governments are commiting to do and the actual willingness of their citizens and industry to make the needed changes. It's not that the changes are impossible or too expensive relatively speaking. But the power of the status quo and existing fossil fuel paradigm is a tough obstacle to overcome.

The conference negotiated the Paris Agreement, a global agreement on the reduction of climate change, the text of which represented a consensus of the representatives of the 196 parties attending it. The agreement will become legally binding if joined by at least 55 countries which together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse emissions. Such parties will need to sign the agreement in New York between 22 April 2016 and 21 April 2017, and also adopt it within their own legal systems (through ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession).

I do some IT work with the energy industry and it's exciting to see the green energy initiatives in Norway and in Europe overall. Smart grids, green energy sources, better management and data are all coming on rapidly. This is the infrastructure needed for a modern, sustainable energy industry.

But one thing is clear from the data: per capita emissions in the U.S. and in Europe are disproportionately large and account for lot of the emissions. Government official commitments are not enough and will never be enough so long as consuming public at large in these countries believe and behave like it's just business as usual.

In other words, governments can't get to anything like the emissions levels required without asking citizens to make some changes to their consumption and conservation patterns. Any kind of change, however, is unpopular in a neutral environment and politically toxic in the fossil-fuel industry disinformation reality we live in. This has to be a grass-roots thing.

Time to stop arguing and just do my part

The scientific community is consistent that the time to avoid the critical above 2 degrees celcius warming is rapidly running out. Government officials, activists, actors, some philanthropic billionaires are doing their bit. What are we (you and me) doing about it?

I've long since given up arguing with science deniers. It's a waste of time and, quite frankly, laymen's opinion here simply doesn't matter - the science is clear and the seas are rising regardless.

Sure I have given some support to science-friendly causes and candidates in the form of campaign donations and charitable donations, comments on public forums. On the home front, we sort and recycle, have eliminated junk mail, use energy efficient appliances, share a single car, use public transportation or other alternatives fairly often. But I had to ask myself, what have I really done to reduce my carbon footprint? What are any of us really doing about it? The answer, truthfully, is not a hell of a lot or, at least, not enough.

I don't want to be a grinch but the gift / commercial activity at Christmas is a good example of needless waste and I think we all know it. Looking at the totally unnecessary and frivolous consumption, it's clear that collectively we're not really even trying, not making even the smallest of efforts. I doubt any of us would agree to trade that plastic thingy we got from Walmart shipped overseas from China for a livable climate and sustainable food ecosystem. Most of us don't think like that. But we should all be thinking like that.

Of the big drivers of CO2 in the U.S. and in Europe, only 40% of the average person's carbon footprint is due to direct energy use. The other 60% is indirect and comes from everything we buy and use — goods and services. We know well that there are some simple things we can all do to collectively make a large, critical impact. And these really aren't that big a deal. A lot of what we do is just out of inertia and force of habit, not necessity. If most of us made the basic, obvious changes, we'd be a lot closer to doing our part to meet those 2025 targets (scroll to the end to see my own 2015 resolutions and the money I’m putting down as stakes)


  1. Drive as little as possible
    This one is tougher for most Americans because American cities and lifestyles are built almost exclusively around the car. If you have to drive, drive a low-emissions, high mileage vehicle, e.g. a Honda Fit (Jazz). Here in Norway, I normally bike or jog to work several times a week. I need to take my kids to school in the mornings and a sports injury earlier this year has meant that I have been driving more recently but we could be making more use of Oslo's excellent public transportation system.

  2. Eliminate unnecessary paper
    Easy enough to do. Block junk mail. Get your news online. Digital solutions wherever possible.

  3. Eat your veggies and less meat
    A purely vegetarian diet saves approx 3,000 pounds of CO2 per year compared to meat diets. We meat eaters can simply decrease our overall consumption of meat and avoid beef as much as possible. Beef production require many times the resources for every ounce of meat and cows are a big source of the green-house gas methane.

  4. Don't waste food
    About one-quarter of all the food prepared annually in the U.S. for example, gets tossed, producing methane in landfills as well as carbon emissions from transporting wasted food.

  5. Don't buy things you really don't need
    Manufacturing products produces an average 4-8 pounds of CO2 for every pound of manufactured product. Skip the big-box stores, don't impulse buy, don't buy plasticy cheap things if at all possible. This is relatively easy to do here in Norway because there are no big-box stores and everything costs 2-3 times what it costs in the U.S. You tend not to impulse buy as much...

  6. Buy locally if possible
    Shipping burns fuel. A 5-pound package shipped by air across the country creates 12 pounds of CO2 (3 ½ pounds if shipped by truck). So while Amazon is great, if you can get it locally, do that.

  7. Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Your Home
    Use energy efficient appliances. Insulate. Use a smart thermostat. Etc.

My 2015 Resolutions

So what does this mean in terms of actual goals and commitments for me? Well I'm going to try to do a better job at what I'm already doing and do a few new things as well. To make these stick, I’m publicly commiting to a couple of concrete things using Stickk.com and putting real monetary stakes behind them. If I fail, I pay a substantial amount of money. I have a referee (my partner, since she's in the best spot to see if I'm on target). It's a bit sketchy on that angle but folks can track my progress on these commitments on Facebook and Twitter.

1. Zero beef for me

2. Get around without a car at least 3 days a week

So there it is, my new climate commitments for 2015 with over $1000 on the line. I'm expecting these not to be that tough to stick to but hope springs eternal in January. We'll see.

Your turn.

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