Humankind is sleepwalking toward an apocalypse and until a few years ago I was one of the zombies. I had been aware of climate change for decades, first learning of it in the late 1980s through the work of NASA climatologist James Hansen. In 2006, I watched with considerable alarm An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary in which Al Gore called global warming “a planetary emergency.”
But at the time there were hockey games to coach and college tuition to pay. Most of my writing on social issues focused on racism and race history. I never doubted that climate change was a serious issue, but it was a future serious issue.
I can’t point to a single moment when I was shaken from my relative ambivalence. It probably had to do with the undeniable realization that climate change had come calling early—the fires, the floods, the hurricanes, the droughts. Not a future serious issue, at all.
“The warming is more than what the climate scientists expected,” Camille Parmesan, one of the world’s leading ecologists and climate change experts told me a few months ago. “We weren’t expecting this level of impact at this time, the 2020s. It’s something I really thought of as happening in the 2050s. We thought we had more time.”
After my awakening, I took a deep dive into the topic, and what I learned was horrifying. We have less than a decade to cut carbon emissions by half, or the world of our grandchildren will likely resemble a Mad Max movie. But initially I held my tongue. I didn’t feel entitled to speak publicly about climate change when I was still driving a car powered by fossil fuels. Then, two months ago, my wife and I bought a fully electric bright blue Chevrolet Bolt. And I’m in love.
I had assumed that because it was a relatively new technology, the owner of an electric vehicle would have to sacrifice performance and comfort. Just the opposite has been true. My Bolt is the best car I’ve ever owned, peppy and reactive, roomy and comfortable, whisper quiet, and, in my opinion, great looking.
I’m happy every time I drive by signs advertising five-dollar-a-gallon gas. I haven’t been at a gas pump in two months.
But I’m happiest about what I am no longer putting into the atmosphere. The average vehicle powered by fossil fuels emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. Small wonder that the transportation sector of our economy is responsible for more carbon emissions, 27 percent, than any other.
Here are some practicalities. For many, myself included, hefty price tags had previously precluded the purchase of an EV. But there are now much more affordable options and the Bolt is one of them. After a modest trade-in, we paid just over $30,000 for ours. Prices for the 2023 model are forecast to come down even more, starting at about $26,000. That’s competitive with anything in its class.
The Bolt has a range of about 260 miles on a full battery. It can be a little more or a little less, depending on how it is driven. Every night I plug my car into an electrical socket in the garage, the same way I plug in a vacuum cleaner. (I’ve read that vehicle charging adds about forty dollars to the average monthly electric bill.)
About fifty miles of charge are added to my battery overnight, which is sufficient for me because I have a short commute and drive less than thirty miles on an average day. An option for those with longer commutes is a high-speed charger that can be installed at home. Other options are high-speed public charging stations that are increasingly common in urban areas, but much less so in rural places. At a high-speed public station, it takes about a half hour to add 100 miles of charge.
To me, the biggest downside of EV ownership is long-distance travel. One of the first things I did after buying my Bolt was to try and plot out the drive for my annual camping trip to Colorado. It includes long stretches through rural areas where there are few charging stations. As such, I learned that taking the Bolt to the mountains is not yet practical.
I’m hoping that will change in the next few years. In the meantime, hybrids are an alternative, but their carbon emissions can be difficult to calculate, and vary depending on how they are driven.
My trade-in two months ago was a 2013 Mazda 3, a car that I loved and had driven for nearly a decade. It was long paid off. Earlier this year, I figured it would be sometime in 2023 before I traded in my old car for an EV. Like everyone else, I enjoyed not having a car payment. It was my wife, Catherine, who shares my grave concerns and heartbreak over what is happening to the earth, who prodded me to take the plunge earlier. I’m so grateful that she did. For the first time since I became aware of the dire state of things on our planet, I felt like I was making a difference.
But my long and happy life with my old Mazda also illustrates a problem for the climate. Cars these days are very well-made. The average life of a new vehicle is eight years and 150,000 miles. The earth doesn’t have eight years or 150,000 miles. I realize that for many people, buying an electric vehicle is financially impossible. It’s hard to worry about the climate when you’re struggling to pay the electric bill at the end of the month. But today, more than ever, EVs are a reasonable option for a larger portion of the population.
It’s logical to ask: Even if I bought an EV, how much difference can one person make? My answer is a lot. When others learn you have gone electric, seeds are planted. I love watching eyebrows shoot up when I tell people what I’m driving. I see their mental wheels turning. That is my purpose in this newsletter, to plant seeds.
There are so many hard things to distract us in our troubled world and roiling society. But however bad it gets, we cannot afford to ignore global warming. As I write, it’s 110 degrees in Fort Worth and temperatures have been in the triple digits for weeks. London is burning. Ancient sequoias are threatened in California. Portugal is on fire. This is a modest foretaste of what is to come unless we act.
“So you are asking people now to make quote-unquote sacrifices while the first benefits will accrue to their children and the real benefits will accrue to their grandchildren,” another eminent climate scientist, Vaclav Smil, said recently. “You have to redo the basic human wiring in the brain to change this risk analysis and say, I value 2055 or 2060 as much as I value tomorrow. None of us is wired to think that way.”
I have been rewired, as it were, no longer a zombie. I fret about our planet, every day. But I’m also hopeful. I have gotten a taste of a better future—the happiness I feel every time I get behind the wheel of my new, beautiful, blue car.
To read my essay, When Climate Change Hits Home, recently published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, click here.
To purchase any of my books, including The Burning, the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921; I’m Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers, Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Story of Loss (with grief therapist Patrick O’Malley) and Extra Innings: Fred’s Claire’s Journey to City of Hope and Finding a World Championship Team, visit my Amazon page at this link.