What Does It Mean To Be An American? Money, Carbon, and Climate Impact.
What does it mean to be “An American?” Please excuse my use of this colloquialism, which I realize may be offensive to all residents of North and South America not living in the United States. Perhaps no one ever came up with a good name for people who are US citizens because our country is really just a union of states, so let me rephrase the question: What does it mean to be a citizen of one of the most affluent countries in the history of human existence?
In aggregate, the US is the richest country in the history of the world. Numerically, that means we produce more than $17 trillion worth of goods and services every year. Unfortunately, that figure is basically meaningless to the individual citizen, so we often see relative measures of national affluence expressed as GDP per capita. The US ranks #9 in GDP per capita – behind 8 wealthy countries with much smaller populations (using purchasing power parity, which normalizes for currency exchange rates and cost of living). However, per capita GDP tells us nothing about a typical household in each of these countries.
Median household income measures the household income for which half of households have lower incomes and half have higher incomes. In the US, that number is $43,585 (2006-2012, Gallup) in US dollars. In other words, half of US households have an income of more than $43,585. Gallup also calculated median household income for other countries using purchasing power parity, converting to US dollars. Five countries rank above the US, specifically: Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Australia, and Denmark. Spain and Italy are ranked 29 and 30, respectively, with median household incomes of $21,959 and $20,085. On the low end, 10 African nations have median household incomes ranging from $673 to $2,000 per year. The worldwide median is about $10,000.
This is all to say that while someone making $43,000 in the US may not be considered rich in the McMansion-living, Audi-driving, caviar-eating sense; they are rich beyond the dreams of most humans living today, or at any time in the history of humanity. “Basic” items that we take for granted like a running car, a heated home, compulsory education, basic health care, internet access, telephone, multiple sets of clothing, a varied diet, and clean drinking water are not assumed by many people alive today, and certainly not throughout the course of human history. If you are a US household earning $43,000 per year today, you live at a standard of living that was not enjoyed by kings throughout much of human history. It’s remarkable, if not guilt-inducing, to consider all of this.
You can find out your own global percentile rank for personal income (not household income) and wealth at www.globalrichlist.com.
Given that US households save just about 5% of their annual household income on average, almost all of that $43,000 each year is spent on housing, health care, education, cars, fuel, utilities, food, clothing, consumer electronics, consumer durables, etc. Building and heating those homes, fueling those cars, manufacturing and transporting the consumer goods, and producing all of that food require massive energy inputs of gasoline, diesel fuel, coal, natural gas, and propane. That’s not to mention the jet fuel burned by the most affluent jet-setters among us (I’m talking coach class here, not private jets). The common denominator of all this activity is the production of carbon dioxide, to say nothing of more potent green house gases like methane which are produced by farming and drilling for oil and gas.
To provide a way to consider how much carbon dioxide (C02) all of this activity produces, we have carbon footprint calculators, which can calculate the CO2 emitted by engaging in all of these activities. Scientists and engineers have studied most day-to-day activities and measured how much CO2 gas is produced based on the size of one’s house, the fuel efficiency of one’s car, one’s diet (eating meat is very carbon-intensive), etc. There are also aggregate numbers by country, which are generally estimated based on total country consumption of fossil fuels.
In total, the US emitted about 5 million kilo-tons of C02 in 2013, second only to China, which emitted twice that amount. Of course, China has a population that is about triple the US population, so it is better to measure per-capita carbon emissions. US per capita carbon emissions were about 17.5 tons per person in 2013, surpassed by about 9 countries – mostly oil-rich nations in the middle east. China’s per capita emissions were about 6 tons in 2010, but they have climbed to about 7.5 tons by 2013. The per capita CO2 emissions for the global population is about 5 tons per person, which is to say that the average US citizen each year produces more than 3 times the CO2 as the average world citizen. There are several parallel forces driving climbing carbon emissions – exponential population growth, rising global living standards, and the carbon emissions of citizens of affluent countries. While the US may not have the highest per capita emissions, we do have the largest population of high carbon emitters.
You can calculate your own carbon footprint using a number of on-line calculators. My favorite is The Nature Conservancy’s calculator available here. My footprint appears to be about 11 to 15 tons, depending on how much fish I eat and whether or not we travel internationally in a given year. This calculator cites the US average at 27 tons per year, but this seems a bit high versus other statistics available.
The Effects on The Climate
Scientific consensus agrees that we have now reached a concentration of 400 PPM (parts per million) of C02 in the earth’s atmosphere, and that number is increasing by 2 PPM each year. This concentration is responsible for the 1 degree Celsius rise in global average temperature that we’ve already experienced. Scientists and many global governments agree that we must limit this rise to 2 degrees Celsius to prevent the worst impacts of climate change (loss of human life and biodiversity). Scientists project that this 2 degree rise would occur at 450 PPM, but many also say that this amount of warming is too much. Further, there is the risk that global human activity will increase C02 concentrations beyond 450 PPM, potentially leading to runaway climate change that could imperil all of human life on the planet. You can read more at www.350.org.
Closing the Circle
Coming back to “American Identity,” we can now see that the relatively affluent lifestyle here in the US is greatly contributing to the rise in atmospheric carbon concentrations. While other contributing factors like a growing global population and standard of living are also at play, we can’t ignore the impact that our western lifestyles have on the climate. I’m looking forward to sharing my own ideas for limiting my impact including: rationing air and car travel, making greater use of rail transit, moderating the amount of fish I eat (I don’t eat other meat), and living in an apartment. Feel free to share how you’re limiting your own carbon footprint in the comments below.