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A Bright Idea

Restrictions on light bulbs are just the tip of a melting iceberg of energy changes

By Matthew S. Meisel

The snidely named “How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb” Act has a not-nearly-so-sinister goal: To reduce global warming.

Late last month, California Assemblyman Jim Levine introduced the bill, which would ban traditional incandescent bulbs from California by 2012. The goal is to force Californians to replace their scalding-hot, energy-wasting bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). You might’ve seen these new bulbs: they look like a fluorescent tube-shaped bulb curled up into a small coil about the size of, well, a light bulb. (As I look up from my computer, I’m happy to report that the chandeliers in the Adams House library are all using CFLs.)

California is not alone. The Australian government announced this week that it also plans to ban the sale of most incandescent bulbs by 2012. Cuba and Venezuela are distributing millions of free CFLs (with Fidel Castro sending out youth brigades to actually swap the new bulbs for the old). Even Wal-Mart is trying to ride the CFL wave, having recently committed to selling 100 million CFLs this year.

For California, the bill is another step toward an ambitious commitment to drastically cut its emissions of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which are released whenever fossil fuels are burned. In September, the state passed legislation calling on California to reduce its total emissions by a whopping 25 percent by 2020. The San Francisco Chronicle posited that the pledge “could lead to a dizzying array of changes in industry and elsewhere,” suggesting that “state regulators could require more public transportation, more densely built housing, a major new investment in projects that tap into the wind and sun to generate electricity, millions of new trees and even new ways for farmers to handle animal waste.”

That would be an unnecessarily enormous amount of intrusive government regulation if it weren’t for the increasingly obvious evidence that humans are causing global warming. Levine’s bill was overshadowed by the near simultaneous release of this year’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a massive review of research by over 2,000 leading climate scientists worldwide. Since 1990, the IPCC has released four reports, and the current one presented the strongest conclusions yet: one, that global warming is real, and two, that it’s very likely (90 percent) that human activity is the cause. Moreover, even under the most realistically stringent pollution controls worldwide, the IPCC projects that the greenhouse gas emissions will continue to warm the earth for another century. And warmer temperatures will mean all sorts of climate changes, particularly more extreme weather events and a higher sea level.

But stopping our greenhouse-gas spitting is a task that will require not only political will but also personal sacrifice. Not everyone is so thrilled with CFLs: many give off a harsher, bluish light, and, in my experience, they take longer to fully brighten than standard bulbs. The only reason they’re starting to catch on is that they actually save consumers money in the long-term. By using the new bulbs, the average California household saves $40 per year in decreased electricity costs, according to the California Energy Commission.

Levine’s bill is a no-brainer, but it’s only a small step toward curbing global warming. Lighting only comprises 9 percent of U.S. residential energy usage, and residential usage makes up only about one-fifth of all energy usage in the U.S. It will take more reductions in fossil fuel-supplied energy usage before our carbon dioxide emissions will see any real change. It will require culture-changing sacrifices of the magnitude that the Chronicle predicts.

The time to start thinking about more solutions is now, and not when Boston Harbor is lapping at the doorstep of Currier House. There are already ideas to curb global warming: regulations to cap carbon dioxide emissions, government investments in renewable energy technologies, and research into scrubbing excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But the results of most curbs will inevitably be the same: restrictions on the way we use energy, or a higher price of its consumption.

If you take a look at the laundry list of possible changes in California alone, the loser is clear: personal freedom. For two centuries, humans have essentially had free reign to pollute the atmosphere as they wish without consequence. But these days are no longer. Nearly every crucial human activity today—agriculture, transportation, heating, construction—ultimately adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than it removes, and our lifestyles will have to change drastically if we want our planet to survive. We’re about to lose more than just the freedom to choose light bulbs, but that’s the price we’ll have to pay if we want our species to last far into the future.

Matthew S. Meisel ’07 is a chemistry concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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