A Healthy Way to Travel

August 24th, 2009 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

The use of the automobile for personal transportation brings considerable benefits to individuals, such as the ability to travel quickly, easily and independently over long distances. However, car travel also contributes to health problems and societal threats such as physical inactivity, obesity, air pollution, climate change, habitat degradation, oil dependence, political instability, and economic insecurity.

These problems are particularly pronounced in the USA, which currently consumes roughly 27% of global oil production and produces approximately 25% of global carbon emissions, and where roughly 65% of adults are overweight or obese. Other countries throughout the world that replicate or hope to replicate the automobile-based lifestyle of the USA face similar problems now or in the near future.

Diet, genetic makeup, culture, and politics predispose some individuals to obesity and overweight. However, weight gain or loss is determined by the balance of energy intake (eating) and energy expenditure (exercise). Therefore, increased physical activity, assuming no other changes, would translate into a loss of weight.

In a recent paper, I explored the relationships between the distances that could be travelled through recommended daily exercise by walking or cycling with weight loss, oil consumption and carbon emissions. Straightforward calculations demonstrate that an average individual who substitutes the recommended daily amount of exercise for car trips would burn 12.2 and 26.0 kg of fat per year for walking and cycling, respectively. If exercise based transportation were adopted by the population as a whole, this rate of weight loss is sufficient to eliminate obese and overweight conditions in a few years without dangerous or draconian diet plans.

At the same time, substituting exercise for car travel would reduce the USA’s oil consumption by up to 38%. This is a potential saving that far exceeds the amount of oil recoverable from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, suggesting that exercise can reduce foreign oil dependence and provide an alternative to oil extraction from environmentally sensitive habitat.

Finally, if the savings on health care that result from increased physical activity were applied toward reducing the risks of climate change—roughly US$ 117 billion is spent annually in the USA on health care for obesity and overweight health problems alone—a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of roughly 35% is possible. Of course, alternative uses for any health care savings may make sense.

These are highly simplified calculations, of course, that overlook significant barriers to the adoption of exercise-based transportation. For example, given the option to drive, people are often reluctant to walk or cycle even short distances under ideal conditions. Poor health, disability, weather, time of travel and previously developed infrastructure all pose additional obstacles to the substitution of exercise for driving. Furthermore, driving distances are unequally distributed throughout the population and many individuals do not drive sufficiently far (or even at all). This makes the assumption of substitutability of driving questionable in some cases.

On the other hand, urban planning could facilitate a transportation approach that combines public transportation with exercise and that offers even greater potential for reaping co-benefits. For example, individuals could walk or bike short distances to bus or train stops and then take mass transit for much longer distances. This would amplify the potential to reduce oil dependence and carbon emissions.

Most importantly, these calculations appear to contradict three widely-held views: (1) meeting current and future energy needs requires either extraction or technological development, (2) addressing the threat posed by climate change requires social and economic sacrifice, and (3) dieting constitutes the most effective weight-loss strategy. Instead, exercise based transportation offers a favorable alternative to the energy and diet plans that are currently being implemented in developed countries like the USA and may lead policy-makers to better development choices in developing countries.

For individuals, these calculations illustrate that by integrating exercise into daily our lives, we can dramatically improve our physical activity and health and help solve several of today’s most challenging social problems. Given the crushing burden of obesity on individuals and society, we need to tap all potential sources of motivation.

This post is adapted from: Higgins, P.A.T. 2005. Exercise based transportation reduces oil dependence, carbon emissions and obesity. Environmental Conservation. 32(3):197-202.

How to Prevent Climate Change Summit from Failure

May 6th, 2009 <-- by Scott Barrett -->

In December 2009, the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Copenhagen. Their aim will be to conclude an agreement that will succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which terminates in 2012. Given the abysmal failure of Kyoto one may be permitted to ask, Will Copenhagen succeed any better? The answer depends on expectations of what can be achieved in this short amount of time; the answer depends on how “success” is defined.

It is easier to define failure. Most climate watchers would define failure to mean lack of an agreement by states to “commit” to limiting their emissions dramatically. I would define failure to mean repeating the mistakes made in Kyoto in 1997. The worst outcome would be for the United States to “commit” to meet quantitative targets and timetables of emission reduction without being sure that these obligations will be approved by Congress. (more …)

Science and the Carbon Market

March 29th, 2009 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Science and the Carbon Market

With the change of U.S. administrations, there is renewed discussion of climate change policy. Ideas at the forefront are environmental pollutant markets and tax-based controls. The market-based approach, called cap and trade, is posed in opposition with the tax-based approaches. This polarization is not a useful or correct way to advance policy.

The advocacy of a cap and trade market follows from the success of the sulfur market, which controls acid rain. The amount of pollutant that can be tolerated is informed by scientific investigation. This leads to a “cap” on the amount. (more …)

Science, Belief and the Volcano:

March 8th, 2009 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Science, Belief and the Volcano:

In January 2008 there was an article in the National Geographic called the The Gods Must Be Restless. The author, Andrew Marshall, describes Mbah Marijan, who has the job of satisfying the ogre that inhabits the volcano Merapi in Indonesia. The volcano is about to explode, the government has ordered an evacuation and Marijan is not convinced. Quoting the article:

“The alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano. The lava dome collapse? ‘That’s what the experts say,’ he (Marijan) says, smiling. ‘But an idiot like me can’t see any change from yesterday.’ ” (more …)

Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence

January 28th, 2009 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Opinions and Anecdotal Evidence:

Here at the beginning of the Obama administration there is a shift in mindset unlike any I have ever seen. During my years in the U.S. government, the science agencies didn’t get significant attention until a year or more into the new administration. This year we see science getting attention from the beginning, and, for example, there was a nominee for NOAA administrator announced prior to the inauguration. (Jane Lubchenco from Wikipedia, Professor Jane Lubchenco, More on Obama science appointees). Along with this new emphasis on science there are people and groups trying to position themselves. This includes those who fight against the government taking action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. (more …)

An Insightful and Provocative Keynote

September 4th, 2008 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

Herman Daly delivered a fantastic keynote address to AMS’s workshop on Federal Climate Policy. The text is reproduced here in full.

Climate Policy: from “know how” to “do now”

Herman E. Daly

The recent increase in attention to global warming is very welcome. Most of the attention seems to be given to complex climate models and their predictions. That too is welcome. However, it is useful to back up a bit and remember an observation by physicist John Wheeler, “We make the world by the questions we ask”. What are the questions asked by the climate models, and what kind of world are they making, and what other questions might we ask that would make other worlds? Could we ask other questions that would make a more tractable world for policy? (more …)

How Optimism and Pessimism Shape Our Views on Climate Policy—Part II: Evidence

August 20th, 2008 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

In my first post on this topic, I explored how optimism and pessimism can influence policy preferences for dealing with climate change. I mentioned two key issues relating to policy choices: 1) society’s sensitivity to earth system disturbance, and 2) our potential to mitigate. Each can be viewed with optimism or pessimism, which leads to four possible perspectives: the true optimists, true pessimists, earth system optimists (who are mitigation pessimists), and mitigation optimists (who are earth system pessimists).

Today I’ll focus on the evidence that can support or diminish the standing of each of the four perspectives. (more …)

How Optimism and Pessimism Shape Our Views on Climate Policy—Part I

August 12th, 2008 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist probably influences your views on how society should deal with climate change. Today I hope to open a running discussion that explores how our outlook affects our climate policy preferences.

I see two key areas where our views on climate policy may be influenced by whether we’re optimists or pessimists. (more …)

Science in the policy process: rational decision-making or Faustian bargain?

August 4th, 2008 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

As a scientist who works on policy, my mantra is, “public policy advances the interests of society most effectively when it is grounded in the best available knowledge.” It is, in my view, a logical philosophy for someone trained in science and committed to the advancement of science in society. Science provides us with an understanding of the universe and can thereby underpin rational and informed decision-making. Without a rational basis, our choices are left to rely on superstition, guesses, or narrow interests—key ingredients to outcomes that are sub-optimal.

Yet colleagues from both the science and policy communities often seem to challenge this view, at least implicitly, when confronted with the most contentious and challenging issues facing society. Most recently, several have questioned my efforts to develop a workshop series on Federal climate policy—and thereby contribute to a more fully informed policy discussion—because the series will include some contentious topics (e.g., carbon fees and geo-engineering) that, if implemented rashly, could pose dangers to society. (more …)

An Essay Following Many Blogs

July 30th, 2008 <-- by Richard Rood -->

This blog is an essay / analysis that follows from comments on both this blog and my blog on Wunderground.com .


The predictions of climate change provide us knowledge of the future. These predictions are not like those from a crystal ball; they are not magic. Neither are the predictions speculation nor are they opinion. The predictions are based on scientific investigation of the physics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean, land, and ice. The predictions include the role of chemistry and biology. There are uncertainties in the predictions, but the core of the predictions, that the Earth will warm, that sea level will rise, and that the weather will change is of little doubt.

The predictions are grounded, ultimately, in observations. The quest to explain the behavior of the observations and their relation to each other leads to the development of scientific hypotheses that are formed into theory. These hypotheses and theories are testable; they change with time; they are not speculation nor are they opinion. The theory can be expressed as mathematical expressions, and the mathematical expressions are solved to provide predictions. The collection of mathematical expressions which represent the theory are called models. (more …)

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