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Everyday choices can affect carbon emissions

Tom Eastman commutes back and forth to his job at UND Facilities on a bike, year-round. He's made the 4-mile commute for the past nine years and does it to reduce his carbon footprint. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Almost every workday—no matter the weather—Tom Eastman suits up to ride his bicycle nearly 4 miles to his job at UND.

Only a blizzard forces him to abandon the bike and drive to work, "and that's only because I'm more concerned about cars hitting me," said Eastman, who's 55.

His cold-weather gear includes an insulated coat and pants, boots, a facemask, goggles and "of course, a helmet," he said. "And I've never gotten cold.

"For the first couple of blocks maybe it's a little cool, but by then I'm working and building up heat, and it's good."

Eastman has been doing this for about nine years, he figures, ever since he started working as carpentry supervisor at UND facilities division.

He's motivated by the desire to reduce his carbon footprint and save energy, based on concern for the environment and the impact humans have on it, he said.

"I think we can't help but be having an impact," he said.

He's noticed changes, over time, at ground level.

"The winters, to me, are different than they were when I first started out (bicycling to work). We still do have heavy snow years, but it doesn't seem like there's as much accumulation of snow.

"And I don't know if that has to do with what people are doing, or if it's just the cycle the Earth is going through, but it does seem different. The more years I'm out there riding to work or whatever, the climate seems different."

Eastman is hopeful that recognition of climate change will encourage others to act differently for the sake of the planet, he said.

"I think if people could do a little bit more—without using their vehicles or whatever—maybe that would help the Earth," he said.

"This is the only Earth we have, so whatever a person can do to make it last longer—reduce your carbon imprint, don't litter, take care of it—I think that would be good."

'Never drove to work'

Others share his concern, and have taken action.

David Yearwood, a UND technology professor, rode his bike to work every day for many years, "when I lived closer to campus," he said. "Sometimes, I got pretty wet."

After moving to the south end of Grand Forks, he switched to a motorcycle.

"It takes a lot less fuel, and I would get less wet and could keep warm," he said. "I never really drove to work."

In his classes, Yearwood has covered topics, including energy technologies, environmental science and global warming which generated "a lot of discussion about what we were doing to the environment," he said.

"It was always heavily focused on being responsible citizens, because I think that's really the problem. I think we have a lot of people who do things without consideration about what (their) actions really are doing to the environment.

"We're all using energy in one form or another. What can we do to reduce our energy consumption and our carbon footprint? We need to be more distance-oriented in terms of vision and not selfishly just thinking about ourselves."

But he has not seen that attitude take hold.

"I don't think, as a country, we're thinking about what our use and depletion of natural resources and pollution of the environment is doing," Yearwood said. "We tend to be too short-sighted—focus on the now, focus on the returns.

"And we can see long-term effects down the road—be it (in) health, from the displacement of communities because of ocean current or change in temperatures, or be it from natural disasters—it runs the gamut of why we need to be concerned, and we're not."

Impacts on health

In a recent federal report, public health researchers warn of the negative effects of climate change on human health—ranging from the introduction of new health threats caused by poor air quality to the spread of disease-carrying insects.

Midwesterners are already experiencing adverse health impacts from climate change, and these impacts are expected to worsen in the future, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released last month.

"One of the main takeaways of this report is that climate change is going to increase the frequency, duration and severity of extreme weather events (which) do have strong associations with adverse health outcomes," said Jesse Berman, assistant professor in the division of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Berman studies how extreme weather and drought impact human health, particularly in the western U.S. Aspects of his research are included in the report, he said.

The effects of extreme temperature events—such as heat waves and extreme heat—can lead to the worsening of problems associated with respiratory and heart disease, heatstroke and dehydration, Berman said.

Particularly vulnerable would be the elderly, those who work outdoors and whose jobs involve physical labor, pregnant woman, children and people with existing health issues, he said.

Distribution of disease-carrying pests and insects is expected to be modified by climate change, he said. "As the climate changes, it makes distributions and ranges either more favorable or, in some cases, less favorable for new species.

"In Minnesota, we've seen a lot of evidence that tick populations of certain species that carry disease are spreading farther north," Berman said. "A lot of these insects have been held back by long periods of cold and extreme winters, and as cold snaps become less frequent, it makes the environment more favorable for these pests to spread."

"You might also have pests that attack crops and other agricultural products" following the same pattern, Berman said. "As conditions become more favorable, you may see the spread of these harmful pests changing and spreading into new areas."

Energy-efficient home

The desire to live more lightly on the earth led Henry Borysewicz, of Larimore, N.D., to build a highly energy-efficient house about 10 years ago.

When planning the house, the goal of reducing his carbon footprint was "absolutely" a top priority, he said. "It was forefront in my mind to make it energy efficient."

Instead of conventional stick-frame construction, he used structural insulated panels, or SIPs, for the 3,600-square-foot home.

"Essentially, it's like an ice cream sandwich with styrofoam on the inside and oriented strand board on either side on the outside. (SIPs) are more air tight," he said. "Wood is not a good insulator."

To further enhance energy efficiency, Borysewicz installed a ground source heat pump in place of a conventional heating and cooling system.

Instead of using outside air for heating and cooling, "I buried about a mile of plastic pipe 10 feet underground," where an antifreeze-like fluid is circulated.

In winter, the system "extracts heat from underground" and in summer it's a source for cooling, he said.

"It's easier to extract heat and to dump heat, so it's a lot more efficient than any other heating system."

These environmentally conscientious choices were more costly than traditional methods, "especially the heating system," he said. "(But) I did the calculation. I found a 10-year payback—so as of last year, it's money in my pocket. I just looked at it as paying for my heat up front."

Borysewicz has a history of being environmentally conscious.

"I've always tried to be efficient," he said. "Having children really brought it home. When I had kids, that became even more important.

"There's a saying, which has been attributed to Native Americans, that says, 'We don't inherit the Earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.' "

He's convinced that, in general, when it comes to climate change,"people are in the dark—and mostly deliberately," he said. "People want to take the easy way out and don't want to do the hard stuff.

"As a society, we're wasteful—it's just what we know, and it's a shame," he said. "I think we have to wake up. If we were smart enough, this planet could be a Utopia. Whether we're smart enough, that's yet to be seen."

Everyday steps

The less energy you use, the fewer harmful emissions are released into the environment. Here are some easy steps you can take—with little investment and little or no do-it-yourself experience—to save energy:

• Get a programmable thermostat which can be set to regulate your heating or cooling while you're away. It can be set to start the heat, for example, 15 minutes before you arrive home.

• When you're updating the curtains in your house, buy the insulated kind. The savings will show up on your energy bills.

• Purchase energy-efficient windows.

• Increase the insulation quality of your windows and reduce interior drafts by applying inserts in winter.

• When you're ready to update your appliances, look for energy-efficient appliances—especially those marked with an "Energy Star" label, which use between 10 and 15 percent less energy and water than their conventional counterparts. They may be more costly, but in most cases they will more than recoup that additional cost through energy savings.

• Unplug appliances when you're not using them. Even if turned off, they're using energy—it's called "phantom energy" and it accounts for 6 percent of all national residential electricity consumption.

• Plug your biggest gadgets into a UL-certified power strip, then turn the switch off when they're not in use.

• Use fans to cool your home—stationery, ceiling or whole-house fans—to reduce your need for air conditioning. For every degree you raise your thermostat, you reduce your cooling costs between 7 and 10 percent.

• Take a shorter shower.

• Remove unnecessary items from your car, such as excess stuff in your trunk. A vehicle that's carrying extra weight is using more fuel.

Sources: Mother Earth News.com, Good Housekeeping.com and iSustainableEarth.com

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