Monthly Archives: November 2016

Carbon GPA

My family and I have been working hard all semester to improve our carbon footprint grades. And we have succeeded!

Each of our footprints dropped by 1 ton of CO2 per year when compared to just two months ago.


Statistics of my food consumption

When I first calculated my footprint at the beginning of the school year, I had an idea of where I thought it would be. I knew my travel would be high because of my flying to and from Arizona and Emory. I also knew the home and services categories would be on the lower end because I live in a small dorm room. The category of footprint impact that I needed to improve was my food intake.

So I set the goal of monitoring my food intake to make smarter selections. Mainly, I reduced the quantity of beef and other ruminating meats in favor of chicken and other proteins that have a smaller footprint. Throughout the semester, I made active choices each time I ate.

This change alone contributed to a large portion of the 1 ton of CO2 per year that I shaved off my footprint. By further removing beef from my diet, and by substituting non-meat proteins as an alternative to meat-based meals, I could reduce my footprint even farther.


My carbon footprint food score dropped almost 1 ton of CO2 per year, making my score 50% better than the average single household. 


Statistics for my family’s home energy usage

My family’s initial footprint calculation was 58 tons of CO2 per year. Their main goal for reducing their footprint is to downsize their home now that all of the children are out of the house. That is a definite goal for the future, but not something they accomplished this semester. However, they did purchase a new vehicle. Their new Subaru gets much better gas mileage than our old van did, reducing their score by one whole ton of CO2.

Even though my family did not downsize their home yet, they are participating in a new program sponsored by their current energy provider. This program allows them to purchase 50% of their energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. After re-calculating the footprint score using this program for utilities, their footprint is expected to drop an additional 4 tons!


My family was successful reducing their footprint to be 25% better than average for a household of three.

Curious about your family’s carbon footprint? Calculate it here:

Recipe for a Climate Skeptic

Decades ago, the tobacco industry claimed that smoking was not correlated to health issues and that nicotine was not an addictive drug. Today, we acknowledge the opposite conclusion and view smoking negatively. It sadly took 50 years to arrive at this decision, simply because of the confusion and doubt that tobacco companies fed to the public.


Merchants of Doubt book cover

With the “tobacco is healthy” myth debunked, it seems that industry leaders have latched onto a new topic about which to sew doubt amongst the public—climate change. The 2014 documentary “Merchants of Doubt” based on the book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway seeks to connect the public with the facts behind the climate denial movement.

The film presents that scientists have been aware of climate changes since 1988. Yet 28 years later we are still debating whether or not climate changes are occurring, and if those changes are a result of human activity.

A major claim by climate skeptics is that there is not enough scientific evidence to back up climate change. The reality is that 97% of scientists believe climate change is occurring, and 87% think it is due to human activity. And there is a wealth of supporting scientific research.

But as was observed with the tobacco industry, if you confuse the public they will lose their own opinions. Unfortunately, the disconnect between public opinion and science leaves an opening for critics to sew further doubt, enough to create a skeptic.


The film points out that climate skeptics represent only a small sample of the population, and they have an economic interest in the continuance of climate change. These skeptics frequently are members of organizations that serve as fronts for the oil and coal industry. These organizations operate for profit, not for environmental protection. So climate skeptics prefer to bend the world to their opinions rather than loose revenue by admitting to scientific evidence.

Climate change is often improperly portrayed in the media. In order to present both sides, interviews usually include a climate supporter and a climate skeptic facing head-to-head. The same climate skeptics are featured repeatedly in the media, and climate supporters are usually scientists.

Both people have credentials that without further investigation seem to be important and relevant to the issue, leading the public to believe that both sides have credibility. Seeing both perspectives side-by-side leads the public to be unsure of which to trust more, thus creating public divide.

Only 50% of the American public believes that climate change is occurring and that humans are the cause. The urgent matter is to find ways to overpower the voices of the skeptics to show the other half of the country that climate change is an issue affecting them now.

This road is not easy. As shown in the film, many prominent climate scientists receive death threats because of their work. Protests for environmental justice are often shut down. One scientist was arrested three times during protests. The same occurs today, as with the protests at Standing Rock.


Signs at a climate protest


At this moment in history, our lives are being dictated by a select few who want to risk the planet for their own gain. If these merchants of doubt can be exposed for who they really are, and if the public works together to address this global issue, deniers would quickly lose the climate war. And just as the public has been enlightened to the dangerous impacts of smoking, so too can the world understand the dooming impacts of climate change.



Want to learn more about misrepresentation of climate change in the media? Check out this statistically accurate climate debate from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Science… Only Part of the Equation

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Category : Environment Blog

Every year, 2.7 million people die as a result of ambient, or outdoor, pollution. An even more astonishing fact is that close to double that number die from indoor air pollution.

photo from:

Photo of Professor Saikawa from:

This tragedy is the foundation of Emory University Professor Eri Saikawa’s research. I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently to discuss her work.

Professor Saikawa originally started her career as a modeler, studying the relationship between pollution and ambient emissions. When she learned that negative effects from indoor pollution are much worse than ambient, she wanted to explore it herself. She began a research project to study the impact of burning yak dung as a fuel for heating and cooking in Tibetan households.

Have you ever thought of culture as being an integral part of scientific research? It is what makes her work “interesting but challenging,” Saikawa says.

This study produced fascinating scientific results, and it also revealed a different side of science and the impact that culture can have. Science showed that purchasing chimneys, using alternative fuel sources, and improving ventilation would all help to decrease harmful indoor emissions in Tibetan households, but no one wanted to do it. Why? Culture.

Tibetans have been using yak dung as a fuel source for generations. Saikawa described that many families were aware of pollution within their homes but were not worried about the health impacts.

People often relate ambient pollution to its contribution to climate change, and Tibetans are very worried about climate change. There is a snowy mountain peak that the Tibetan people consider holy. They watch fearfully as the snow recedes further each year and disappears.

However, indoor pollution is a more serious and immediate issue for them than climate change. It is a problem of human health, and as a result should receive very different attention.

Photo by Qingyang Xiao

Photo of Tibetan household by Qingyang Xiao

Professor Saikawa described how one of her biggest challenges was getting the Tibetans to “perceive the environmental risk and see it as a problem.” Unlike the very visible cue of the mountain losing its snow, the impacts of indoor air pollution are not as easy for people to recognize as a problem.

In general, healthcare is not well promoted. When Professor Saikawa visited Tibet, she noted that the nearest healthcare facility was an hour drive from the rural villages. The people did not view it necessary to spend their time going to get healthcare.

The health risk caused by breathing in emissions from burning yak dung in their homes without proper exhausts and ventilation is immediate. In other countries having similar indoor air quality problems, scientists went in with fancy chimney and stoves but they have gone unused. People simply continued in the same ways they always had.

In addition to overseeing the research, Professor Saikawa has to balance her personal views of the situation with how Tibetans think and act. The difficulty resides in how much responsibility we have over the situation. It is important to protect people from negatives health effects while still respecting their culture.

In situations like these, it is not enough to rely on the science of the issue. Saikawa described this as one of the main problems facing the scientific community. She described her experience in Tibet as very positive and eye opening to their way of life and how “you can only understand how people live by going through what they do.” A good lesson for all of us!

Want to learn more about Professor Saikawa’s research? Check out this article on Emory’s eScience Commons:

Or read the full research article here:

The Upside of Downsizing

The challenges faced by a college student, such as myself, are quite different from those faced by a whole household. I don’t have to think about home maintenance or paying the electricity bill. The most I have to worry about is vacuuming the carpet in my dorm room that always seems to be dirty.

Many people would pass these differences off as the luxury of being a college student before being thrown into the real world, and in a sense it is. My family’s carbon footprint is about 5x larger than mine is as an individual living on campus. However, there are only 3 people currently in my family’s household, meaning that each individual takes on a larger portion of the footprint, each a whopping 19 tons of CO2 per year compared to my 12 tons. That is a lot even considering my family’s footprint is 18% better than the average household of a similar size.


Graph of my family’s footprint in tons of CO2/ year

What accounts for such a large carbon footprint in the household? It comes back to that luxury of being a college student, and simple common sense. A larger living space ⇒ more energy needed for things such as electricity ⇒ bigger carbon footprint.

This turned out to be one of the largest issues for my family’s footprint. The home section of the footprint calculation was 58% worse than average carbon emissions for a 3-person household.

This was a little surprising for my mother who thought that the extra insulation, low energy windows, energy-rated appliances, and other features purposefully installed in the house made for an energy efficient home.

However, the house was constructed 12 years ago, and it is really designed for a larger family, not the three people living in it currently.

My mom stated that this was one of the most important things she learned from calculating her carbon footprint.

Even if you make choices to be more sustainable, they must be done in the necessary scale to have the impact that you imagine them to have. My parents plan to look into other options to improve energy efficiency, and will be downsizing when they buy their next house.


My family’s footprint compared to similar households

So considering the size of the house and the maintenance required for upkeep, it makes sense that my family’s household footprint is larger than mine here at college. But how much do the individuals in the household contribute to the footprint? More than you might think.

As I discussed in the analysis of my carbon footprint, food was one area where I had a lot of room to improve. My family had similar results except now there are three people making those same carbon-emitting choices. If even one of those people is able to reduce his individual carbon footprint from food, it would lower the footprint for the whole household, and that is exactly the challenge my brother set for himself.

My parents set individual goals that will decrease overall footprint when accomplished. My dad plans to decrease the infamous vampire electronics (chargers that still use energy when not in use), and my mom will organize errand strategies to decrease overall driving time and mileage.

Surprisingly, travel was one area my household was below average, where many other families tend to be high. Although we rack in a lot of miles flying, our drive time is unusually low, especially now that I am out of the house. It helps that my dad seeks out fuel-efficient vehicles when purchasing a car. While there is definitely room for improvement in all areas of carbon emissions, travel is one where my family is already making great steps towards reduction.

Curious about your family’s carbon footprint? Calculate it here: