Tim McKay’s Climate Diary

From Great Lakes to Great Plains: Tim McKay’s Journey by Train

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel over 700 miles by train? Maybe not, but LSA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, Dr. Tim McKay, made the almost 18-hour trek by train for an astonishing carbon reduction (hint: it was around an 89% decrease in carbon emissions to ride the train (85kg CO2 vs. 800 kg CO2 by plane). This is a self-authored reflection of his journey.

U-M undergraduates are worried about climate change. Really worried. Almost all of our students are convinced that climate change is real, human-caused, and getting worse. And why not? Their young lives have been filled with accelerating temperature records, summer wildfires across the globe, extreme weather of every kind, increasing climate activism, an explosion of dystopian climate fiction, and serious suggestions from billionaires that we should get off the planet now.

In our Critical Issues in Climate Change course this term, we try to help students understand what’s going on. We share information about the history of climate change, and look ahead to the future. Given their fears, it’s important to be clear. This really isn’t the end of the world. But it’s equally important for them to know that the world and its climate will continue to change throughout their lives. In this class, we think together about how to prepare for the changes that are coming, and what we can still do to limit their scale.

To get a handle on what’s happening, we talk about the Keeling Curve, a remarkable day-by-day record of CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere, begun in 1958, a few years before I was born. Back then, CO2 made up about 320 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere, just a bit above the 280 ppm level that has been normal for the last 10,000 years. In my childhood, Michigan winters were a wonder, with ice fishing, pond hockey, and toboggan runs a regular part of Southeast Michigan life.

Since then, CO has risen, faster and faster, passing 340 when I started high school, 360 when I joined the faculty at U-M in 1995, 380 in 2005, 400 in 2015, and 420 in 2022. Every summer the CO2 level dips back down a bit, by about 7 ppm, as the remaining forests of the Northern Hemisphere grow billions of tons of leaves. But not even that incredible, continent-scale explosion of life is enough to slow this growth. Only we can do that.

When we discuss the Keeling Curve in class, most students expect that we’ll manage to slow or stop growth in carbon emissions, but virtually none expect to see zero emissions during their lives. If they’re right, the climate change we’ve seen so far will be only the beginning. We will have to expect continued warming, more extreme weather, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and more. That’s what our students expect.

What might they do? Fortunately, they’ve already made a start; learning in a serious way about climate change and its consequences. Coming out of the class, I encourage them to take two complementary next steps.

First, I hope they will take steps to seriously reduce their own climate impact. While per-person carbon emissions have recently fallen in the US, they remain the very highest in the world. On average, each American emits about 14.4 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere a year. Ideally, we’d cut this in half by 2030, and end most of it by 2050. To do this, we should all be pushing our electrical systems to shift to sustainable, low-carbon sources. If we do, many aspects of our lives can continue with little change. But some things, like air travel, emit a lot of carbon, and are very hard to electrify. To reduce emissions from those, we really have to do them less often.

Second, they need to talk about climate change, often, with all the people that they know. This isn’t so hard. Everyone likes to talk about the weather, right? And the weather now is clearly changing: 2023 was the hottest year on record, and in early March, we broke a previous Ann Arbor temperature record by nine degrees. I hope our students will make talking about climate change, and what they’re doing about it, an everyday thing.  

I’m doing just that today. During my 30 years as an LSA Professor, I’ve taken hundreds of work-related plane flights, connecting with colleagues at other universities, conferences, and telescopes across the country and around the world. To meet the mission of LSA, collaborative connections like these are essential. So now we have to find other ways to make them happen. Remote meetings help. If I want to deliver a one hour seminar at another university, I can do that, sometimes at least, from my own desk in Ann Arbor. But there are other ways to reduce air travel. We can be sure to do more on every trip. Rather than just give one talk, at one place, we can work to combine trips and do more on every visit. And once in a while, we can skip flying and get there some other way.

So when friends and colleagues at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln asked me to come visit and talk about U-M’s student success initiatives, I arranged to make meaningful visits with everyone I know there, then I looked for a low-carbon way to make the trip. Train travel in America is much more limited than, for example, in Europe. You often can’t get where you want to go. But you can get to Lincoln from Ann Arbor, with just one change in Chicago. What’s the carbon savings? A flight to Lincoln would add about 800 kg of CO­2 emissions to my annual budget. The train trip is more like 85 kg. Takes more time, for sure, but that’s a big part of why emissions from train travel are so much lower.

So now I’m sitting on Amtrak’s California Zephyr, cruising through eastern Iowa on my way home. It’s a friendlier form of collective travel, and I’ve enjoyed meeting fellow passengers from all walks of life, sharing breakfast and lunch. This is the slow road, but I’m getting a lot reading done, catching up on work, and listening through some old Blue Note jazz albums. I’m also having a lot of carbon and climate change thoughts, good and bad, all the time.

Much of the coal we’re still burning to create electricity travels by train. During my trip, I passed four coal trains, each including more than a hundred cars packed to the brim with coal, all of which would soon be burned up and put into the atmosphere.
Land use has an important impact on climate change, including the conversion of native forests and prairies to the cultivation of corn.

Agricultural land use is another big source of carbon emissions. Traveling across Iowa and Illinois by train provides a powerful reminder of just how much land we’ve converted from native prairie and forest to agriculture, especially corn. Looking at forests we pass through, I imagine all the CO2 they lock up, and dream of more. Two times, three times, four – we pass giant BMX coal trains, each with hundreds of cars filled beyond the brim with fossil carbon. It hurts to know they’re headed for power plants where we’ll burn it all, releasing hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Our climate is already changing. It’s too late to completely stop that, and the Michigan winters of my childhood are gone. But if we’re willing to learn what’s happening, make some adjustments to our lives, and talk about what we’re doing with others, we can slow this process, limit this change, and open the door to a gradual return of the climate we grew up in.

By stejenna

Jenna Steele is the Year of Sustainability and Carbon Neutrality Program Assistant for U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

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