Saturday, June 07, 2008

Global Warming and Ranking Rochester

Rochester got an ego boost in May ranking 14th for the least amount of carbon emissions for major US cities. While it’s good to note that our fair Eastern city (Western cities on the whole ranked lower than Eastern cities) did well for less carbon emissions) it’s also important to note that this study was not comprehensive. It “used data from 2005 that measured only power-plant emissions related to residential energy use and emissions from cars and trucks” (-from Rochester ranks 14th best in national study of cities' carbon emissions) and left a lot of other factors out. Some of the things we despair about (like higher prices for energy here in our upstate city and our short summer air conditioning use) actually accounts for some of our good numbers.

This report, the Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America - Brookings Institution, would be dizzyingly optimistic if it were not for a sense of history and the wider issue of assessing environmental sustainability. We have had over the years many other reports that indicate troubling issues with Rochester’s air quality however you slice up the figures—carbon emission, smog, industrial pollutants, asthma data, or ground level ozone. And, because of the nature of environmental factors, Rochester’s air quality cannot be isolated from the rest of the world’s environmental indicators—climate, industrial pollution from Western power plants, lake effect weather, dust, other debris from faraway events (like volcanoes) and jet emissions--even if you can do so on paper. In the real world, trying to measure all the factors that influence our air quality is just about impossible.

One of the reasons I created was to counteract the inclination of science and the media to compartmentalize environmental news and information so that a clearer picture of how our community’s environmental profile fits into the mosaic of the world’s environment. Of course I understand that in order to measure what is actually going on in our environment producing measurable data and real-time reporting is crucial. But, studies and new reports that trump previous reports does not give an accurate picture of our environment-nor anyone else’s. In other words, Rochester is part of the whole. Earth’s environment is One and we cannot really isolate Rochester’s climate gas releases or anything else from our neighbors and beyond.

So, how do we reconcile this optimistic report by the Brookings Institution with some past stories on our air, including May’s environmental news that the New York State Attorney General is suing the EPA for adopting lax smog standards?

My point here is not to trash the Brookings report or Rochester’s efforts at reducing our carbon footprint. I merely want to point out that all studies on our quality of air, including our carbon footprints, have to be seen over a long time in order to get a real sense of what is actually going on. In other words, what does it all mean? Is Rochester’s air quality sustainable? Are our policies, our daily practices (which influence the release of methane gas), and all outside influences moving us towards the lessening of Global Warming on this planet?

Or, are we blinding ourselves with the most recent studies that come around? Not seeing the forest because of the trees? Have our studies (which will always be limited in one way or another) merely misleading us because they are only a snapshot at a particular point in time, only a piece in the worldwide puzzle of climatic influences, lulling us into a state of irrational comparisons with other communities with whom we share this planet? Like ink dropped into a glass of water, whatever we do or don’t do on climate change will be affect by all other communities’ air quality—what they do or don’t do. So, how can we really evaluate our carbon footprint if we cannot separate ourselves from every other community, state, or country—or measure every factor that affects climate?

Of course, we must have such studies and continually monitor our own efforts here in Rochester and try and tease out what things we are doing right in order to not only improve our own efforts but share that information with others. And yet, Global Warming gases are not one-dimensional, they are multidimensional: past, present, and another dimension which is a part of what everyone else does. Environmental studies reported to the pubic must be archived, and compared with all other studies, in all other communities around the world so that we can actually measure our footprints on our environment.

My point: Like it or not, taking over the machinations of the planet, like controlling our carbon output, is going to be a herculean task. Resting on the positive results of one study, admits the legacy of many not-so-positive studies is myopic.

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