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January 2012 - Leadership In the Face of Climate Change: Steady but Slow Progress

Vaxjo. Now that is an interesting word. No, it is not a floor polish or a tooth paste. But it is the name of a city of 80,000 in south central Sweden [see map] that is frequently called “The Greenest City in Europe.” The background to all of this is that Vaxjo is knowledgeable about climate change and “has the ability to see solutions instead of problems.” In 1996 they made a unanimous decision to become a Fossil Fuel Free City by 2030. See www.unep.org/climateneutral/cities/vaxjo.

In the early 1990’s, with a growing awareness of the impact of burning fossil fuels, the city developed an Environmental Program [revised and approved in 2010]. This states, “Climate change is one of our time’s most urgent environmental problems. Mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide produced when burning fossil fuels, contributes to the climate change. With Vaxjo’s efforts to become fossil fuel free, it’s taking its global responsibility in terms of reducing its impact on the climate.”

When one looks at their initiatives and goals, with the collaboration of its businesses, politicians, organizations and citizens, and compares it to the discourse in the United States, it makes one think we inhabit an opposite but parallel universe.

In 1956, President D. Eisenhower suggested a program of people-to-people contacts that might lessen the possibility of future conflicts. This concept grew into the Sister Cities International program and Duluth, Minnesota and Vaxjo decided to partner with each other.

Indeed, in October 2009, Duluth sent a delegation to Vaxjo for an educational “technical visit tour”. The “delegation learned about the city’s world renowned sustainable practices, how those practices make an impact on economic development … and how Vaxjo earned the title of Greenest City of Europe.“ Their citizens produce about ¼ the carbon dioxide emissions of those in the U.S. See www.duluthmnsistercities.org/cities/Vaxjo. A return visit to Duluth occurred in 2010.

But wait, the news gets still better. Seattle was named as “Greenest City in North America” and was invited by Vaxjo to attend the Greenest Cities Worldwide Conference in Sweden on September 15, 2011. One city from each of the other 4 continents was also invited to share in the progress and opportunities for reducing our carbon footprint and consumption of fossil fuels. See www.conlin.seattle.gov for more details.

What do these community leaders see that so many others miss? One answer is, perhaps, data and information. The following map shows the global consumption of one form of fossil carbon, coal.

The information comes from the U.S. Energy Information Agency website. The illustration is actually part of a video that shows the changes over the 30 year period, particularly in Asia. The 7.8 billion tons of coal consumed in 2010 would fill rail cars that would stretch around the world at the equator 25 times. The train would have a total length of 619,048 miles. [This assumes railcars 50 feet long with a capacity of 120 tons.]

This fossil fuel consumption does not include that from combustion of oil and gas. This combined total amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide emitted goes into the atmosphere where it works to trap energy that impacts Earth’s climate system.

This information is only a small part of what is known with regard to climate change that virtually all active climate scientists agree with. Their research, publications in peer reviewed journals, and current observational data are very convincing to most policy makers and countries around the globe. In the U.S. some examples of progress and leadership in reducing our carbon footprint include Duluth, Seattle, California, New York, Massachusetts and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative [RGGI] in 9 Northeast states.
Of compelling interest is this graph of data by R. Keeling on oxygen levels in the atmosphere. The data points shown on the graph are in a decreasing saw tooth pattern starting in 1990, when measurements started, until 2006.

As we burn fossil carbon, of any kind, it combines with oxygen in the air and releases energy, with the formation of carbon dioxide. The decreasing amount of oxygen correlates very well with increased consumption of fossil fuels and is very convincing evidence that the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide is a result of man’s activities.

“And so it goes.”

The scientific career of Raymond N. Johnson, Ph.D., spanned 30 years in research and development as an organic/analytical chemist; he is currently founder and director of the Institute of Climate Studies USA (www.ICSUSA.org). Climate Science is published the first Sunday of every month.