Visualizing data on global warming

I was jokingly telling my partner that the best way to help prevent climate change is to just be dead because using water (processing drinking water and waste), eating (farm equipment and goat burps), and using electronics (outside of child labor, manufacturing them and connecting to data centers) all have carbon emissions.

So how much CO2 do we generate? The world is a big place, so I wanted to look at the data in the US. It turns out that the US alone pumped out 6,870 million metric tons of C02 in 2014 which is so much CO2 that you’d need 8 billion acres of forest or 1/5th of all the land on the Earth to sequester it.

I wanted drill down and visualize CO2 generation between different states, and thankfully there’s data on that from the EPA. Here’s the amount of CO2 production per state on a map in 2016:

Here’s another way to visualize this. (Inspired by the number of robocalls that annoyed Americans last year.)

If we stack the emissions of some of the biggest CO2-belching states on top of each other, we start to see why the US generates so much C02.

So what is producing all of these carbon? If we zoom in to a state like Pennsylvania, we can see that a large part of it comes from generating electric power and from transportation. The New York Times digs deeper into how each state generates electrical power piece and they show that Pennsylvania’s power is run by 22% coal and 34% natural gas.

With regards to the transportation piece, the EPA says that the “largest sources of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions include passenger cars and light-duty trucks, including sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and minivans.”

Of course the ratios aren’t always the same with every state. We can look into a different state like South Dakota which has smaller C02 emissions because it only uses 19% coal and 6% natural gas in the electric power sector. A lot of their energy now comes from 48% hydroelectric and 27% wind.

Speaking of wind, I found some good data on wind energy, too. I had recently switched my electricity supplier to The Energy Co-op, and they had pointed me to USGS because I had asked them where the power is generated. It turns out they let you download all the locations of the turbines in the US and the power that they generate.

So I downloaded that and plotted all 59,338 turbines that were listed in there! I didn’t know there were that many to begin with.

Actually, we can take it up a notch and show all wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, and geothermal power plants on the map using this data from the EIA.

This makes me hopeful for the future of renewables and data definitely shows that it’s growing, but right now that growth is being negated by the reduction of nuclear energy (a low-carbon energy source) so the net share of low-carbon electricity production is unfortunately the same as it was a decade ago.

So basically the Earth is still heating up.

What now?

I’ve also been looking into what I could do, and from what I’ve been reading, it looks like policy changes and regulations seem like it’s going to be our best bet to fight climate change.

In the end, though, experts do not believe the needed transformation in the energy system can happen without strong state and national policies. So speaking up and exercising your rights as a citizen matters as much as anything else you can do.

What is still largely missing in all this are the voices of ordinary citizens. Because politicians have a hard time thinking beyond the next election, they tend to tackle hard problems only when the public rises up and demands it.

The New York Times

To give an example, Britain protesters are urging politicians to declare a climate emergency, and it seems that the government is starting to listen.

Here in the US we can voice our opinions for politicians to push for policies like keeping the US in the Paris Agreement and the Green New Deal. Local policies are also important especially in states like Pennsylvania which generates and exports a lot of electricity.

I’ve personally been using 5calls, GovTrack, and ResistBot to contact state officials and congress, and I’ve started to donate 1% of my monthly salary to organizations that advocate for policy change ($1,080 per year):

Another smaller, but no doubt important, is through personal changes:

In Philadelphia, I learned that I could also choose an electrical power provider through so that I’m buying wind and solar power using my electrical bill. Philly also has access to composting through Bennett Compost and Circle Compost.

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