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Behind "The Bicycle Diaries"

Q & A on the Author's Worldwide Ride for Climate Awareness

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All images c/o David Kroodsma.

In 2005, David Kroodsma left his Stanford climate research job and started a 17-month, 16,000-mile journey across Latin America. Documenting the experience on his blog Ride for Climate, Kroodsma immediately followed that trip with a similar ride across the U.S., bicycling another five months and 5,000 miles. That two-year journey is the subject of his 2014 book, The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate — a finalist for ForwardReviews' IndieFab Book of the Year and a Shelf Unbound Notable Book of 2014. 
 
Most recently, David was joined by his wife Lindsey Fransen on a 10-month bike journey across Asia, where locals interviewed en route lent broad consensus to his conclusion: people across Asia are experiencing climate change. They are currently editing a documentary and writing articles about that trip. 
 
In advance of two New York City speaking engagements — March 30th at NYC Velo and March 31st at Red Lantern Bicycles — BikeNYC spoke with David to learn about the local impacts of climate change, hear tales from his worldwide rides and find out how New Yorkers can make a difference.
 

There are doubtless a few NYC bike riders who’ve dodged Jaguars with Jersey plates, but you had to fend off the real thing while cycling through Central America. Can you tell readers more about your run-in with that big cat? 

A friend, Dennis, joined me for a week while I was biking through Belize. And like most days on the road, we started asking around in the late afternoon to see if there was somewhere we could camp for the night. We stopped at one house, knocked, and an elderly American who had apparently retired there answered the door. We asked about camping, and he said calmly, "You can camp in my backyard, but I'll have to put my pet jaguar inside."  

The man, named “Dutchman,” led us to his backyard, where he opened the door to his porch and called loudly, "Here Baboon!" A spotted creature, about three times the size of a house cat, ran into the porch from the bushes and Dutchman closed the door behind it. He said the 11-month-old jaguar had been abandoned and he was taking care of it.

As my friend Dennis and I started setting up our tent, Baboon broke open the door of porch and leapt on my friend, with its claws reaching up to Dennis' chest. The cat then jumped on our stuff and ran away with Dennis' helmet. We chased Baboon, who then dropped the helmet and instead grabbed Dennis' biking gloves.

Dutchman, hearing the commotion, hobbled out his backdoor with a fly swatter and yelled at the cat. Baboon jumped on Dutchman scratching his arms, and Dutchman in turn hit the cat with the fly swatter. Baboon then ran into the forest.

Dennis and I decided maybe we should find another place to camp. We packed up, half-heartedly thanked Dutchman and rode on.

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"Baboon" the jaguar gnaws on a stolen cycling glove. 

As part of your mission to document the effects of climate change — and to raise awareness — you've biked tens of thousands of miles throughout North America, South America and Asia. In your travels, what region(s) have been most noticeably impacted? 

People living in the mountains are noticing climate change more than anywhere else. In the Cordillera Blanca of Peru, everyone I talked with said that the snow line is lower than it used to be, and that the glaciers were disappearing. In the mountains of Tajikistan, everyone we interviewed said that there is less snow than their used to be, and a number of people said that this in turn makes farming more difficult because a good snowpack helps provide water during the spring and summer. And in the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas of Nepal, nearly everyone we talked to said it was much warmer than it used to be.

In South Asia and Southeast Asia — traveling through Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar — we found that nearly everyone said that the monsoon had become more irregular in recent years, and this in turn had made farming more difficult.

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David Kroodsma (far-left) meets mountain-dwellers in a remote region of Tajikistan.

Did you encounter any people or communities especially affected by climate change? 

Some of the most powerful stories are from people in the developing world who have experienced enormous storms. From a perspective of climate change, this story is a bit tricky, as it is impossible to say climate change caused any particular storm. But we do know that climate change increases the intensity of storms, and we're already seeing heavier rainfall as a result of climate change.

When in Honduras, I talked with a few families — subsistence farmers who will literally struggle to survive if they lose a year's crops — about how they weathered Hurricane Mitch, a devastating storm that killed tens of thousands of people and left about 100,000 homeless. The people I stayed with were lucky, as they had kept their homes and lives, but they told me about how they went hungry during the following year because they had lost their crops. 

Beyond committing yourself to pedal-powered travel, what other steps have you taken to reduce your own carbon footprint? 

The biggest step I take toward reducing my carbon footprint is voting and getting politically involved. Yes, I also keep car use to a minimum — let's face it, it's more fun to bike to work — use efficient appliances in my home, and restrict my meat consumption (restricting meat consumption is probably the quickest way to lower your personal footprint). But the most important thing you can do is to support politicians in setting rules to make it easier for us to be green, and, even more importantly, invest in making clean energy more affordable.

For American’s who’ve already relinquished car-dependency, what are the most significant steps one can take to reduce their carbon footprint?

Environmentalists in the U.S. focus largely on reducing our consumption and consuming more efficiently. And with regards to our lifestyle in the U.S., this is exactly the right approach. We waste so much energy. It's gross. And it is even grosser after you've seen how little most of the world uses.

You should do what you can to reduce your personal emissions (I recommend using carbon calculators and tools like oroeco.com). But the biggest problem in the world is that so many people have so little. About a third of the world's population lives on two dollars a day. Two dollars! People living that way rightfully want some of the basic conveniences that we enjoy, and they rightfully deserve to use more energy. So while it was distressing to see so many coal trucks pass us when we were traveling through China, it was also great to have reliable electricity (and even internet) in nearly every town we visited. Much of the world needs that basic level of development to improve people's quality of life.

But if everyone in the world were to increase their use to just half as much energy as the average American, the global energy use would (roughly) double. So the biggest challenge isn’t figuring out how to reduce American’s emissions, but figuring out how to provide more energy and services for people around the world without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The best way to accomplish this goal is to figure out how to make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels. If we fail to do that, then India, China and other poorer regions will use fossil fuels to grow their economies. And the best way to make clean energy cheaper is for those of us with the resources — rich countries like the U.S. — to invest in research, development and deployment of clean energy. In other words, tell your elected officials you want more clean energy. Give them a call!

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Biking through Bangladesh: a low-lying nation particularly vulnerable to rising tides.

If current emission levels remain unabated, what will life in New York City be like in 2050?

Hotter, wetter and a tiny bit underwater: according to a recently released report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change, global climate models predict a 4-6 degree F increase in mean annual temperatures by the 2050s, and a 4-to-11-percent increase in mean annual precipitation. In addition to changes in averages, heat waves and extreme precipitation will increase. 

Sea level rise is also getting a lot of attention. That is already occurring in NYC at twice the global rate, a trend that is expected to continue. By 2050, we can expect about one to two feet. To get a very general sense of what might happen to NYC’s shoreline in the future, check out NOAA’s SLR viewer or Climate Central's Surging Seas.

Finally, did you get [Talking Heads frontman and Bicycle Diaries author] David Byrne's blessing for the book's title?

Ha! Good question. I actually was planning on using this title before David's book came out. Then his book came out and I was quite upset (although I enjoyed reading it). After failing to come up with a better title, I did more research and found that you can't actually copyright a book title. Also, I'd like to note that his book is Bicycle Diaries, and mine is The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate. I hope he isn't too upset...


Meet the author and learn more about his global campaign to combat climate change this coming Monday, March 30th at NYC Velo in Hell's Kitchen, or Tuesday, March 31st at Red Lantern Bicycles in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

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