David Carlson is excited to show off how well his 2017 Prius Prime car, an electric-gas hybrid, gets around Bozeman relying on just electric power.

Driving through neighborhood streets, he points to the dashboard display that shows 199.9. That means the car has been getting at least 199.9 miles per gallon.

“We love it,” Carlson says. “We think it’s perfect for us.”

He and his wife, Mary Lou, can drive a distance of nearly 40 miles on a charge in summer, or 25 miles in the winter, so it’s fine for getting around town. When they drive to Yellowstone National Park, the gas engine kicks in over Bozeman Pass or when the battery runs down.

Back home, they simply plug the car into a regular 110-volt outlet in the garage. A full charge takes five hours.

The Carlsons care a lot about climate change. The 68-year-old son of a dairy farmer, he was originally an oceanographer, and has been concerned about climate issues for 30 years.

In recent years he worked as a United Nations senior diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland, as director of the World Climate Research Programme. The WCRP coordinates research between countries so that when it’s time to negotiate, for example, different nations’ climate models will compare apples to apples.

Carlson sees global warming as real and serious. “We are on the far edge of a crisis, about ready to fall into a disaster,” he said.

After working on climate change at the global level, he’s now semi-retired and trying to make a difference at the hands-on, individual level.

The Carlsons hope to demonstrate that you can enjoy a comfortable life and still avoid burning the fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases and worsen global warming.

“I wanted a chance to show you could live a low-carbon life – and not live in a cave,” he said.

Fifteen solar panels generate electricity atop the workshop the Carlsons built behind their modest three-bedroom house in south Bozeman.

The 5-kilowatt solar array generates twice as much electricity as the home uses in summer — which means they get a power bill of zero, plus energy credits — and generates about one-third of their electricity in winter. The solar panels cost $17,000 up front, but they got a $1,000 from the state and $5,000 from a federal program to offset the investment.

They were thrilled to find this house, Mary Lou said, because it was already set up to use exclusively electricity — rather than burn natural gas — to heat the home, run the hot water heater and cook food.

They went to Home Depot and bought efficient off-the-shelf Energy Star-rated kitchen appliances, including an induction cooktop. Friends often tell Carlson they could never give up their gas stoves, but he likes the electric version.

“It’s bright, it’s warm, it doesn’t smell, it’s quiet,” he said.

They are “climate migrants,” Carlson said. When he decided to retire from the UN job and return to the states, they sold their house in Boulder, Colorado, where it was becoming too hot in summers to grow tomatoes. Instead they picked Bozeman, where their sons attended college, they can hike in the mountains and enjoy a wetter, cooler climate.

Despite all their careful efforts to avoid burning fossil fuels, Carlson knows such individual actions won’t make a dent in global warming.

He can measure the carbon saved by his solar panels in grams, while the problem of spewing carbon into the atmosphere is measured in tons and gigatons.

“It’s very little,” he said. “It’s nothing.”

But to Carlson, that’s not the point. It’s important to set a good example — for his family, his neighbors and the world.

“If I don’t, I don’t feel I’m contributing to the solution.”

Managed catastrophe

Sitting at the kitchen counter, Carlson calls up charts on his laptop.

One shows the steady rise in carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. In his lifetime since the 1950s, CO2 has increased to levels not seen on Earth in hundreds of thousands of years — from 310 to 414 parts per million — off the charts.

And all the UN meetings and conferences and climate reports over his lifetime have done nothing to reverse that, as the world has warmed 1.5 degrees.

It may not sound like much, but some climate activists compare global warming to a person getting a fever, where a few degrees can make you very sick. They blame the warming we’ve already experienced for more droughts, more hurricanes, rising sea levels, dying species, more extreme weather and more deadly wildfires.

“Large parts of Montana are already above 2 degrees (Celsius) warmer,” Carlson said. “I don’t see any way we can stay under 3. If it goes to 4, I hate to think what our kids are going to live with. That’s the scary part.

“It’s either going to be a managed catastrophe, or unmanaged.”

He called up another chart showing how much CO2 is produced by the different countries. The United States has been at the top since the 1960s. About 2005 China surpassed the U.S.

In the last few years, U.S. and European emissions have actually started to head downhill as natural gas replaced coal in power plants. But preliminary data for 2018, Carlson said, shows trends going back in the wrong direction.

He scrolled to a chart showing how much carbon is generated per person, rather than per country. The USA is by far No. 1.

Americans generate on average 4.3 tons of carbon per person each year. That’s four times the global average.

So when people protest, “Why should we do anything about climate when the Chinese emissions are growing so fast?” Carlson answers that each American generates as much carbon as the average individuals in Europe, China and India put together.

That’s why he’s trying make a difference with his electric car, electric house and solar panels.

The Carlsons don’t see it as a choice — either take action at the global scale or the individual scale.

“It’s both,” Mary Lou said.

Gorilla in the room

Focusing on individual lifestyle choices might actually hurt the fight against global warming, some activists warn.

Greg Findley, a Bozeman tour company owner and co-leader in the local Sunrise Movement, argued that while individual changes matter, they’re not enough.

“Most climate scientists are saying the number one choice we can make is to join together with others to demand action,” he wrote. “We don’t get to global net zero emissions unless we come together and demand system change — putting a price on carbon, electrifying everything and then mandating that electricity comes from renewable sources.”

Findley pointed to Time magazine’s Sept. 12 issue, devoted entirely to climate change, and quoted from an article by Michael Mann, a Penn State University climate scientist, titled “Lifestyle Changes Aren’t Enough to Save the Planet.”

“There is a long history of industry-funded ‘deflection campaigns’ aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals,” Mann wrote. “Individual action is important and something we should all champion.

“But appearing to force Americans to give up meat, or travel, or other things central to the lifestyle they’ve chosen to live is politically dangerous: It plays right into the hands of climate-change deniers whose strategy tends to be to portray climate champions as freedom-hating totalitarians.”

The “gorilla in the room” is, Mann wrote, “civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions.”

So Findley’s personal list of things individuals can do about climate change starts with simply talking with others about the crisis, then voting for “climate hawk” candidates and becoming active “to force leaders to take action on climate.” After that he ranks flying less, eating less meat and driving less.

Anne Ready, co-leader of the Bozeman chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, is a neighbor of Carlson’s and said his enthusiasm inspired her family and another neighbor to put solar panels on their homes. That shows the importance of one individual taking action and sharing information with others, she said.

Ready is organizing Bozeman’s celebration of the 50th Earth Day Festival for April 24 and 25 at the Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture. The national and local theme is “taking action on climate change.”

They’re planning workshops, lectures, bands and beer, she said, to make it feel like a real festival.

Among the groups volunteering are the MSU Bridger Solar Car team, MSU Extension, Montana Science Museum, Southwest Montana Building Industry Association, Bozeman Health green team, Sacajawea Audubon, local farms, the winter farmers market, and the city of Bozeman’s sustainability department.

Ready said organizers hope to inspire people to:

--Buy local, sustainably grown food, and eat less grain-fed meat.

--Update home heating systems and weatherize.

--Buy electric or hybrid cars, bicycle and walk more, live closer to work and take the bus.

--Repair consumer items instead of buying new.

--Talk about climate change with friends and family, because breaking the silence can lead to greater acceptance of climate science.

--Join a climate group to have a larger impact.

There’s a wide variety of groups to choose from, she said, including the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Business Climate Leaders, Students for Carbon Dividends, Montana Interfaith Power & Light, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, RepublicEn and the Sunrise Movement.

To avoid “catastrophic climate events,” Ready wrote, “we must switch to a cleaner energy economy fairly quickly. The good news is we know how to do it. We just need the political will to make changes. There is power in numbers, so join a group.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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