Climate control made convenient, Eric Carlson '92

A few questions for Eric Carlson '92, founder of Carbonfund.org

by Andy Boynton

With the one-year anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol in mid-February, and President Bush touting new alternative-energy technologies, the topic of global warming has garnered a lot of recent attention. But for Eric Carlson, fighting for a clean environment has “always been in my blood.” He helped create the Students for a Better Environment group while at Puget Sound and has worked in the energy-efficiency and renewable-energy fields for the past 10 years. In 2003 he and his wife co-founded Carbonfund.org, a nonprofit foundation aimed at reducing the effects of climate change. Carlson spoke with Arches about the organization. 

Tell me a little about Carbonfund.
Carbonfund.org makes it easy and affordable for any individual or business to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions that cause global warming. We are a direct-action nonprofit organization.

Basically, people calculate their climate impact and donate to us to offset it. We support wind and solar energy, and other climate-friendly projects that cut carbon-dioxide emissions, reducing the threat of climate change. Businesses offset the impact of their offices and air travel. It is a great way to show you are a socially responsible company.

Can you explain further?
Greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere are what’s causing global warming, or climate change. And carbon-dioxide emissions are the prime culprit. They come from the burning of fossil fuels—coal, which powers most American power plants; gasoline in cars; jet fuel; and natural gas.

We are all responsible—when we turn on the lights, drive our car, fly in a plane, go out to a restaurant—and there are things we can do. We can turn the lights out. We can buy an efficient car. We can eat lower on the food chain. And there are emissions we can’t reduce. Driving, for instance. Using electricity. The average American is responsible for about 10 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

The people and businesses that are participating in Carbonfund facilitate efficient energy and reforestation projects where it is cost effective to do so. We support wind energy projects in South Dakota, for instance.

Since CO2 is a global issue; it doesn’t matter whether you reduce it in Tacoma, Texas, or Tanzania. Effectively, we’re saying: reduce what you can, offset what you can’t.

Some say global warming isn’t real.
Hogwash. The science on climate change is settled. It really is. In February every former head of the Environmental Protection Agency—five Republicans and one Democrat—met along with the current head. They were all asked the questions: “Do you think climate change is happening? And are humans responsible for it?” Every hand went up.

In a recent review of 928 articles that appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals, not a single one disputed global warming. It’s really a political issue right now.

There are also those who say these warming trends are just the result of cycles that happen naturally over time. You’re saying that’s been debunked?
It really has. The opponents to this are very well funded, and they have done a good job of marketing themselves. You also have a media that generally wants to present two sides of the case, which is a good thing, but it sometimes gives a disproportionate voice to misinformation.

What effects of global warming are we seeing now?
2005 was the warmest year on record, globally, and I think four of the warmest five years have all occurred since 1998. Twenty of the warmest years have all occurred since 1980. Those facts are quantifiable and not argued. Another example: Carbon-dioxide concentration levels are at their highest in 650,000 years, according to ice-core samples and [other evidence] around the world.

We can’t say what’s caused a specific incident, like Hurricane Katrina. But all indications show that climate change is happening, and one of the predicted results of global warming is more and more severe storms.

Can you give examples of the projects Carbonfund supports?
One we are very proud of is the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which has a wind farm. We supported a portion of that project, and it brings local jobs and local investment to a particularly disadvantaged area. We are also supporting a reforestation project in a tsunami-ravaged area of India, planting trees that will also provide bio-fuel for the local residents.

It sounds as though Carbonfund can help drive the economy, too.
Absolutely. Virtually all the projects we are supporting are based here in the U.S., using advanced technology. That means jobs that pay well, investment, reduced imports, and increased national security as a result of fewer oil imports.

On your Web site, you have something called a Carbon Calculator. How does that work?
Again, part of our goal is to make it easy, affordable, and popular for people to reduce their climate impact. The calculator is very simple to use. You can either use an average [carbon footprint], which we provide, or, if you know just a couple numbers—your electricity use, heat, car, and estimated air travel—you instantly get a calculation. Some of these things can get pretty complicated, but we have managed to keep it very simple.

So the calculator produces an actual dollar value?
That’s right. It produces your carbon footprint in terms of the tons of carbon dioxide per year that you are responsible for, and then the cost of offsetting that.

What are your goals for Carbonfund?
Our goals are to give people an accessible and affordable way to reduce their climate impact and to help reduce the cost of clean technology, such as wind, to the point where they are better priced than dirty sources, such as coal. If we succeed and all new energy production is clean, we may be able to tell our children we stopped climate change and changed the world. That’s the big picture.

We’re doing this by educating people about the danger of climate change and the relative simplicity of dealing with it is on an individual or business level. Most people are stunned to learn they can reduce their climate impact for about $5 a month.

We’re also going to offer green electricity so anyone in the country, regardless of their utility, can buy green power. It’s all about making the right choice accessible and affordable.

Besides contributing to Carbonfund, what are some day-to-day things people can do to reduce their carbon footprint?
Energy use in the home is the number-one thing that people should look at: lighting, insulation, buying an efficient appliance when they have to replace one, etc. There are numerous Web sites with information about this. Then obviously the second thing would be what kind of transportation you take—certainly, buying a more efficient car—but also considering alternatives for getting to work.

What do you think about the hybrid cars that appear to be gaining popularity?
Hybrids are great. If my wife and I were in the market for a car right now, we would definitely get one. A new concept is plug-in hybrids. A hybrid today only goes a few miles before the gas engine kicks in. A plug-in would add batteries to go further than the average car ride of 15-20 miles but also plug in at night. Effectively, the gas tank becomes the back-up battery. So, except for long trips, you’re never using the gasoline, enabling your fuel efficiency to go through the roof. Some are getting 150-200 mpg, and that is very exciting. And this is all possible today without any new technology.

Is there anything I’ve missed?
The important thing about climate change is that time is no longer our friend. A decade ago we had time to adjust but did not. Today, Greenland’s glaciers are melting 2.5 times faster than just 10 years ago, and the Arctic may be on an irreversible melting trend.

We started Carbonfund.org so our daughters might live in a clean and prosperous world. But along the way we developed this direct-action approach that makes it easy and affordable for people to live climate neutral. That makes this seemingly impossible problem appear quite solvable. And that is very exciting.

You can calculate the size of your carbon footprint at www.carbonfund.org.