The Washington, DC-based think tank World Resources Institute (WRI) has partnered with Google to release state-by-state greenhouse gas emissions data. I admit that when I first landed on this page, my thoughts were, “why did I agree to write about this?” But after spending some time here, I urge you to visit the Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, or CAIT. It will help you grasp the complexities involved in the debate over climate change—and it may challenge some of your assumptions.
The WRI designed the CAIT to provide updated data on greenhouse gas emissions, industry sectors that are emitting these gases, and for the United States, a geographic breakdown. The free site offered on Google is not detailed and you cannot download any data, but the information is still useful—though you need to be a member of the WRI to access more robust data. The industry sector is broad: it includes energy, industrial processes, agriculture, and waste. Greenhouse gasses are also split up into four categories: CO2, methane, Nitrous Oxide, and the potent F-gases. What caught my attention, however, was the geographic section.
When visiting the free Google site, select “by state,” then “per capita greenhouse gas emissions,” and click away. The WRI offers data going back to 1990, measured in metric tons. For me, some results were not surprising. Consider the US per capita average, 24 metric tons per person in 2007. California’s per-capital GHG emissions has flat-lined the past 20 years, barely moving at 13 tons. Densely populated DC is very low at 6 tons—not surprising considering that it is densely populated, and has almost no industry. But urban New Jersey’s per capita GHG output is not much higher than that of California’s, and at 17 tons per person, that could be explained by the colder winters and concentration of industry. And Texas, the land of mega-freeways and low-tax economic libertarianism, has had a per-capital output that has declined the last several years, from 40 tons in 1997 to 33 tons in 2007: could its success in reaching its renewable energy targets 15 years early had a role?
What was eye-opening when I looked at some rural states. Wyoming, our smallest state by population, was the GHG giant at a whopping 172 tons per person. North Dakota registers at 101 tons, and Alaska at 77. South Dakota trails its northern neighbor at 40. Why could this be and what does this mean for the climate change debate? Many states like Wyoming are highly dependent on coal, and farming states in the prairies depend on petroleum for fuel, fertilizer, and feed. High speed rail means nothing to a population that has no option except automobiles by which to travel, and renewable energy technologies do not make economic sense in sparsely-populated areas. So while states on both coasts are bracing renewable energy and increased public transport options, states in the rural middle are left wondering what is in it to them: and meanwhile, you have a structure in Congress where 11% of the population can stifle debate in the Senate, thanks to arcane filibuster rules.
I have written before that advocates for combating climate change, increasing renewable energy sources, and greater energy efficiency and independence need to engage the middle rural states in order for a comprehensive energy and environment policy to take shape. Dismissing this part of the country as “misinformed” or even “backwards,” which I have heard too often at conferences and events I have attended, is simply short-sighted (and condescending) when considering the political realities in the US. And this part of the country does have resources that can contribute to a new energy policy that can wean us off of foreign fossil fuels—biomass, natural gas, and wind come to mind. Spend some time on the CAIT/Google site, crunch the numbers, and send your thoughts. Your thoughts on this debate may change—or maybe intensify!