Earth Day 2021 – A riff on being green
Green is a lovely color. We associate green with growth – in plants and in money. Green is the color that represents money (in the US at least). In this Earth Day blogpost, I am going to riff on an area where money and the natural world intersect.
What does money have to do with nature?
Money does not grow on trees. In that sense, money is not natural. Yet, humans are part of nature, and money is a system designed by humans. So, in that sense, money is natural. There are many ways to think about money- what money is and what money does. For the purpose of this blogpost, I will focus on only one of the jobs of money – as a translator between different goods and services.
I imagine that the concept of money arose as two people bartered for goods and services:
“I’ll trade you this hair-bone for a handful of your jerky,” offers Arag.
“No way, I want those beads on your necklace,” replies Brag.
“You can’t have them! They took me a whole day to make! Well, ok you can have one of them. How about I give you one bead and some help curing that skin you have hanging outside your door?”
The rest of the story unfolds from there – humans seeking to make use of the goods and skills of others in a fair way leads to trade and a monetary system. It seems natural. I can’t be sure that is actually how money started, but I would not be surprised. Of course, in today’s world, money plays far more roles in our human drama. However, it is still an effective tool to translate between disparate goods and services. This brings me to the subject of this post – the cost of a threat to the natural world.
Climate change and the “social cost of carbon.”
Climate change is probably the most talked-about threat to our natural world. It is a problem that continues to garner writing and attention because the downstream impacts are likely to be massive, and the problem is very difficult to solve. The causes are diffuse, so it’s not easy to point a finger at any one culprit. The most devastating impacts are still decades in the future, so it’s easy to ignore the problem. Solutions generally involve a significant change to how we currently live and enjoy living, so it’s easy to look to others to make the solution happen. Furthermore, it is difficult to “see” any impacts. To many, seeing is believing, and you just can’t see the Carbon Dioxide or other greenhouse gasses that are driving climate change.
One way to envision the impacts of Climate Change is to use money as a translator. Future impacts can be quantified by the cost to remedy them. If a ski resort no longer gets snow, or beachfront property becomes flood-prone, or entire communities are displaced, there will be economic costs. Economists try to quantify the impact by forecasting future costs. The resulting number is called the “Social Cost of Carbon,” or SCC. Estimates range from a low of $30 to $300 per ton CO2 equivalent (source ). The number hinges on a large number of assumptions and projections, so unsurprisingly, the result is a range.
I like quantifying things, so when I read that number, I wondered how it relates to decisions I may make and my own Carbon footprint. Here are a couple of lifestyle choices, and the associated “social cost of carbon.”
- Driving. Every gallon of gas we use releases about 20 pounds of Co2. The resulting “Social Cost of Carbon” would be between $0.30 and $3.00 per gallon. Compare that to the current gas tax of about $0.60/gallon, which helps pay for the roads I drive on. Interesting.
- Eating. Every pound of beef we eat is responsible for nearly 27 pounds of CO2 equivalent of emissions. Thus, the SCC score for four quarter-pound hamburgers (yum!) is between $0.40 – $4.00. Source . Not so tasty.
- Flying on a plane. A flight from Seattle to London generates approximately 2,200 pounds of emissions of CO2 equivalent (per traveler). This results in a SCC of between $33 and $330 for the flight. Ouch.
The problem I have with writing each of these bullet points, is that I like doing all three activities!! Thinking about solving climate change can easily spin me into a place of guilt and sadness. But, the worst thing we can when facing challenging situations is to give up. There are steps I can take:
- Driving. I can decrease the use of fuel by carpooling, or biking and walking when I don’t need to take 3500 pounds of metal with me.
- Eating. Burgers are delicious, and I will continue to eat some beef. Maybe just less. My kids already push our family towards this choice. Perhaps they are more acutely aware of how the world they will inherit will be affected by the actions of those living today.
- Flying. This one is tough, we like to travel. There are some ways to buy carbon offsets, I am curious to learn more.
Green is the color of growth, and many living things in nature. But it is also the color associated with envy and the puking face emoji. On this Earth Day, let us be thankful for the green carpet across the globe that takes in CO2 and spits out Oxygen. Without that free service (photosynthesis), we would not have Oxygen to breathe and food to eat. Life would not exist. Go Earth! Go Green!
If you’d like to read my other Earth Day posts from the past, check out:
“The Value to Time and Time Choices. It’s Earth Day!” April 2020
*Science side note* – From a plant’s perspective green is the opposite color of growth. It’s the color of light that is least useful to a plant for photosynthesis. It is the color that is not absorbed by the chlorophyll, thus green is the color that reflects back to our eyes and gives plants the beautiful hues we see. Fascinating!
 – “What is the Social Cost of Carbon?” Chi, Joseph; Pellerin, Mathieu, PhD; Rodriguez, Jacobo. Published by Dimensional Fund Advisors, February 2021.
 – “Meat Eater’s Guide: Report” by the Environmental Working Group. https://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/a-meat-eaters-guide-to-climate-change-health-what-you-eat-matters/climate-and-environmental-impacts/