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How the West was warmed

by Eric de Place

There was some hubbub a couple of weeks ago when researchers produced a carbon emissions map of the US. Using direct CO2 emissions, we saw this first-of-its-kind map:


Unfortunately, the map looks a lot like a population density map. That's for obvious reasons, since the larger share of cars, buildings, and industry tend to be where the people are. But by turning major cities red, it leads one to the wrong conclusion. Looking at the map, you might think that the northeast was the nation's big carbon problem, while the dessert West and the Rockies were doing something really right. And I suppose that's true on one level: there's not a lot of carbon being emitted in the wide open spaces of the West.

But check out what happens when the researchers added population density to calculate per capita carbon emissions. It's a completely different perspective:


On this reading, the real problem is the West. The nation's cool spots are the relatively densely-settled eastern areas.

Now, we all know that per capita emissions don't matter a whit to the atmosphere. All that matters is the total amount of carbon. But without understanding the population-based side of the equation, we're unlikely to understand how to fix our emissions problem. The key, as it turns out, is not for our economy to function like it does in West Texas or Wyoming, but more like it does in cities.

Links to bigger version and explanations are here

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What? This turns everything on its head. I thought the West was a place where folks lived good, clean lives. Maybe there's a cattle factor?

The West also is running out of water. Here's another reason not to pipe it in from the Great Lakes: They're the big carbon polluters!

Posted by: Jeff Kart on 26 Apr 08

Ultimately where CO2 is produced is not the's where it's consumed. If there were less demand for CO2-rich products, there would be less need to supply them. The world's consumer's - in the U.S. more than any other country - need to change consumption habits before we will make a significant dent in the climate problem.

Posted by: Kent Ragen on 28 Apr 08

I live in El Paso and we are not running out of water in the west. This map is puzzling because the highlighted areas are not inhabited with large cities nor are they used for cattle.

Posted by: pam on 28 Apr 08

A failure of unimaginable proportions is bound up in the the willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism of so many opinion leaders, economic powerbrokers, politicians and business tycoons who do not speak out openly, loudly and clearly about the world we inhabit as bounded and limited in space with finite resources. Their idolatry of the endless expansion of the global political economy is not only selfish, arrogant and unrealistic, they are also simultaneously choosing to perversely espouse a "primrose path" to our children, a path to the future that a relatively small planet with the size and make-up of Earth cannot possibly sustain much longer, much less to the year 2050.

At least to me, this failure by my not-so-great generation of leading elders is a "sin of omission" that is tantamount to a passive criminal act against the family of humanity, life as we know it and the Earth God blesses us to inhabit....and not ruin, I suppose.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001

Posted by: Steve Salmony on 29 Apr 08

How, you ask, can people in sparse Western areas be higher per-capita CO2 emitters? The Wired page suggests it's not the cities but outlying areas that have the highest per-capita CO2. Probably a big part is driving a pickup truck and living in areas where everything is thirty miles from everything else. We can anticipate that a really major rise in fuel prices will tend to make people flock from edge cities and remote places toward more central, dense cities, or else to stay on the farm and travel less.

I've been reading a bit on new developments in compressed-air-powered cars, such as Tata in India are developing. Since the exhaust air comes out very cold from expansion (as low as -15 degrees!) it can be used to air-condition the car in hot climates, making it a tempting product in India and Arizona alike.

Imagine yourself living way out in, say, West Texas, with a windmill driving an air compressor to power your truck. Simplify!

Posted by: Tom Buckner on 3 May 08



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