David Roberts writes to middle schoolers about what they can do, changing systems and technologies
A few days ago, a couple of middle schoolers in Colorado wrote me about their class project. “We are trying to learn more about ways to stop the burning of fossil fuels,” they said. “Is there any way that we, as middle schoolers, can stop this?”
I thought I would share my reply, in case there are other young people out there reading.
Dear [earnest, adorable middle schoolers],
Sounds like a cool project!
You are definitely asking the right question. If we want to slow or stop global warming before it becomes a worldwide disaster, we have to figure out a way to power ourselves without fossil fuels. We need to reduce and ultimately eliminate the use of fossil fuels, and we need to do it quickly — as in, by the middle of this century. That’s pretty soon.
I have some good news and some bad news.
The bad news: There’s a lot of fossil fuel energy to deal with
The bad news is, eliminating fossil fuels is a really, really big job. Big enough to blow your mind, if you think about it too much. It still blows my mind, and I’ve been thinking about it for years.
Here’s one way to think about the bigness:
The average lightbulb (not the fancy new fluorescent or LED bulbs — the old-fashioned kind) uses about 60 watts of power. If you leave it on for an hour, that’s 60 watt-hours of energy consumed. Since there are 8,760 hours in a year, if you leave the lightbulb on all year, you use 525,600 watt-hours of energy.
(Note: Don’t leave lightbulbs on all year.)
In 2012, the world used the equivalent of 104,426 terawatt-hours of energy. That is 104,426,000,000,000,000 watt-hours, enough to power 198,679,604,262 lightbulbs for a year.
And about 80 percent of that energy — 83,541 terawatt-hours — came from fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas.
The rest comes from biomass (burning wood, mostly), hydropower dams, nuclear power, and — still a tiny, tiny sliver — renewable sources like wind and solar. We’ve got a long way to go.
What makes the challenge even bigger is that the amount of energy the world uses isrising, mainly because hundreds of millions of people in China, India, and other developing countries who used to be really poor are getting a little less poor. And as they get less poor, they use more energy.
That’s good news! Being poor is no fun. And it’s not very fair, when so many other people (like us Americans) are living so well. We should be happy that all those people are doing better.
(By the way, they still don’t use anywhere near the amount of energy the average American uses — it’s going to be a long time before they catch up to us.)
But it means that global energy use is climbing, which means fossil fuel use is climbing. This is how it looks:
Those fossil fuel lines are just going up, up, up. And what we need to do, within the next decade, is reverse that trend and send them down, down, down.
It might have been a little easier if the adults of the world had gotten started earlier. We’ve known about global warming since at least the 1980s, but we’ve done almost nothing to stop it. Mostly we’ve talked and argued, argued and talked, blah blah blah.
Sorry about that.
Anyway, that’s the bad news: You’ve got tons of work to do. Your generation has to transform the world, faster and on a bigger scale than anything that’s ever happened in human history.
How’s that for an inheritance? No pressure.
The good news: Everyone can contribute to the solutions
The good news is that there are millions of ways for you to chip in and help solve this problem. Because fossil fuels are everywhere, opportunities to reduce fossil fuels are also everywhere.
Typically, when young people ask how they can help, adults respond by telling them all the ways they can reduce their own personal use of fossil fuels. You can take the bus more, or carpool, or your family can buy an electric car. You can insulate your house better, or put solar panels on the roof. You can eat more vegetables and less meat.
All that stuff is great. Truly. Knock yourself out. The more people see other people doing it, the more they will do it themselves. (Did you know that rooftop solar power iscontagious? True fact.)
But here’s what the adults won’t tell you: Those little lifestyle changes aren’t going to amount to much in the grand scheme of things. Even if you and everyone you know cut personal fossil fuel use — even if everyone in America did it — it wouldn’t turn those rising fossil fuel lines into falling fossil fuel lines.
To really change things, you can’t just reduce your own fossil fuel use. You have to make it easier and cheaper for other people to do the same. You have to change the systems and the technologies that people use.
I know, it’s a lot for a 13-year-old to deal with.
- Finish homework.
- Do chores.
- Change sociopolitical systems and technologies.
But don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t have to change everything. You just have to change the little piece of the world you’re involved in.
We need new ways of getting around, new ways of generating electricity, new ways of powering factories, new ways of raising food, and new ways to prevent rainforests from being cut down. And we need to get more people using the clean technologies that have already been invented.
All that will require contributions from scientists, business people, teachers, activists, politicians, and even celebrities. (In case y’all are hoping to become celebrities.)
No matter what you do in life, no matter what interests you pursue or career path you follow — lawyer, contractor, artist, video game developer, whatever — you will have some influence. Use it!
Make sure that your little corner of the world is reducing fossil fuels, increasing clean energy, and helping other people do the same. Change the systems and technologies that you have some control over. That’s all you can do. But that’s a lot. You can’t tackle this problem by yourselves — it’s going to require everyone, in every country, for many years to come — but you can definitely make a difference.
It sounds like you’re off to a great start. The first thing you should do is just keep thinking about it. Keep talking about it. Make sure your friends, teachers, and parents don’t forget about it.
And remember, as long as there are bright people like you out in the world, puzzling it through, changing how the world works, there is hope.
Write me if you have questions — or just to tell me how your project went. You’re going to do great things. Thank you in advance.