Cutting into carbon; everyday actions can help stem warming, sea rise

A 2014 NOAA study concluded that Charleston floods four times more often today than it did in the 1960s, and it’s going to get worse. Rob Kramer, of Charleston, removes debris from a drain during tidal flooding this fall. Kramer said he had never seen it flood like this badly during the nine years he has lived here.

An S.C. National Guard second lieutenant raised his hand as retired Marine Gen. Stephen Cheney spoke recently about the global security threats emerging as the climate warms. The question was deceptively simple:

“What should we be doing?”

It’s a question more Lowcountry homeowners — skeptical or not — are wrestling with as the consequences of global warming and sea rise start to strike home, and as the United Nations Conference on Climate Change works toward a landmark international carbon emission limit agreement in Paris. World leaders are looking at ways to hold climate warming to less than a 2-degree Celsius threshold considered catastrophic.

Power use by the average household in the Lowcountry is responsible for about 30 tons of carbon emissions each year, according to the Duke University office of Sustainability. It would take planting 14 million trees to remove the emissions from a single coal-fired power plant each year.

The impacts — drought and famine, disease, flooding, more severe weather and fires, among others — already are hitting home, experts in the field say.

A 2014 NOAA study concluded that Charleston floods four times more often today than it did in the 1960s, and it’s going to get worse. Sea rise was among a number of causes cited, exacerbated by glacial melting in warmer air.

Cheney, speaking at the College of Charleston for the American Security Project, said the terrorist strangleholds in the Mideast and Africa were made possible at least partly because of the drought killing crops, driving farmers into the cities in poverty.

The project is a nonpartisan organization working to improve public understanding of critical national security issue. Cheney is a former artillery commander and Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot commanding general.

Given the economic growth engines of the developing world, it might already be too late to keep the global climate from passing the 2-degree Celsius threshold. Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute suggested as much in a recent Bloomberg View column.

The problem, in other words, can seem too big for an individual — doubter or not — to do much of anything about.

“We’re so used to convenience we consume without thinking,” said Jennifer Mathis of North Charleston. “I try not to get discouraged. But it’s definitely discouraging sometimes.”

Cheney struggled a little to answer the lieutenant, saying the solution is bottom up.

“If you get a good idea, speak up,” he said. “You are going to see the impacts here whether you like it or not. We need to get (climate warming) out of politics, get it into the mainstream where people understand how it’s going to impact their lives.”

Here are a range of options — from simple to life-changing — that can make a difference. Others are easily found in a web search at organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Saving gas, taking a few degrees off the thermostat, reducing plastic use, unplugging appliances not in use, recycling and buying recycled goods and clothing — any number of things homeowners do daily to save money also contribute to easing emissions. Mathis buys local food as often as she can, to reduce the need to move food across the country and world.

Improving insulation cuts energy costs and in a small way reduces demand on the power grid. Sally Newman of Charleston put two layers of recycled insulation in her attic for $4,000; Mathis installed structural insulation panels, which can range from less than $20 per panel to more than $100. Buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and devices. Look at renewable energy options such as solar power.

Recent clean energy regulations passed in South Carolina have made solar a more cost-effective investment, said Hamilton Davis, S.C. Coastal Conservation League Energy program director. The units can pay for themselves in less than 10 years, he said, using options like multiple ownership, tax and utility power feedback credits, leasing and low-interest financing.

Carbon offsets, the hotly debated “green” investments paid to renewable energy companies to compensate for burning carbon fuels, are available and affordable for homeowners. A handful of organizations such as Green-e Climate rate, certify and act as third-party brokers for buyers. Sustainable Duke is considering a similar program. Offsetting 30 tons of carbon emissions should cost $150 to $300 per year, said Charles Adair, institute program manager.

People can also invest directly, buying stock or funds specializing in renewable energy initiatives.

Use less. Make changes, little to big. Mathis and her husband have progressively downsized their house even as the two teenage daughters have grown, from 2,400 square feet to a current 1,730 square feet. Henry Street left the U.S. Coast Guard earlier this year after 11 years as a cook. In a lifestyle about-face, he and his wife bought an old 10-acre cornfield in Berkeley County. They’re living in a camper, raising livestock and produce. They’re building their own energy self-sufficient barn and cabin in an attempt to get completely off the power grid. His idea is homesteading, growing the food he eats.

“Be more independent and less reliant on outside resources,” he said.

For most people, making any transition would be a struggle and involve compromises.

Mathis’ interior designing business makes usage and vehicle demands she’s not comfortable with, but “it’s life, right? It’s how I’m making money.” Street drives far more than he would like to work for an organic gardening business. You have to pay the bills, he said.

But Newman points out that warming impacts will force transitions anyway, like it or not.

“In my view, climate change is here. It’s honestly too late to stop it. We have to adapt. Wouldn’t it be smarter to make that transition earlier?” she said.

“If there were even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack, wouldn’t you do something about it?” Cheney said. “We understand we have to limit our carbon emissions. We’re pumping carbon (emissions) into the atmosphere big time. Let’s put a stop to it.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.