With the Burning Man art festival in the Nevada desert starting Monday, a group of San Francisco scientists is busy calculating how much the event contributes to global warming.
Encouraged by the resurgence of the green movement, the scientists are taking a hard look at all those sacred flaming temples, gas-powered scooters shaped like cupcakes, and hundreds of rumbling RVs that converge for a week on the dry Black Rock Desert lakebed.
With an idea that would make Al Gore smile, the scientists have created Cooling Man, an online calculator that determines how many tons of greenhouse gases each of the 37,000 "burners" will produce with their art projects and community camps.
For the first time, Burning Man participants will be able to "offset" their global warming impact much the same way large corporations do, by investing in clean energy projects.
"We think Cooling Man is pretty cool," said Marian Goodell, Burning Man's director of communications and business.
Visitors to the Cooling Man Web site, www.coolingman.org, will answer a series of questions about their transportation to the playa, propane use, generator hours and how much wood they plan to burn, and the computer generates a total tonnage of greenhouse gases per person.
Then, like corporate America, artists will be directed to mitigate their pollution by purchasing greenhouse gas "credits," or "offsets," by investing in alternative energy that doesn't use fossil fuels: solar or wind power, methane capture from landfills and livestock. Tree planting also qualifies.
Burners are asked to pay $5 to $10 per ton of personal pollution to the nonprofit Trust for Conservation Innovation in San Francisco, which parcels the donations among various renewable-energy projects nationwide.
The money collected from 65 Burning Man participants so far -- $1,000 -- will help pay for a wind turbine that powers a casino on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota. It's the first American Indian-owned wind power plant in the nation.
"Burning Man does a great job of getting on the ground after the event and picking up every nail and speck of glitter, but we want to take that to the next level -- leaving no trace in the climate," said David Shearer, an air-quality scientist with California Environmental Associates in San Francisco who helped create Cooling Man in his spare time.
A burner himself, Shearer is promoting Cooling Man with help from a colleague and Burners Without Borders, a volunteer arm of Burning Man that recently returned from a six-month disaster relief trip to New Orleans. Aid workers used $60 generated by Cooling Man to plant trees to replace those that had been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.
Last year in a test run of the Cooling Man idea, a San Francisco fire art collective called the Flaming Lotus Girls gave $100 in offsets, which helped farmers in Tanzania replace their kerosene house lamps with solar lighting.
Now, Cooling Man is starting to gain momentum in the blogosphere. One person offered to give Cooling Man 100 trees to plant.
Cooling Man is on track in its pilot year to meet its $1,100 fundraising goal. Shearer calculated that's the cost to neutralize the 110 tons of global-warming pollution created by Burning Man's culminating event -- the burning of a 40-foot man made of wood, neon and fireworks.
The new Web site mirrors the effort of a new committee at Burning Man headquarters called Greening Man, whose members are looking for ways to reduce the event's reliance on fossil fuels.
For the first time in Burning Man's 21 years, organizers will replace some of their gas-powered generators with biodiesel versions, Goodell said. They are encouraging artists to build installations that run on clean power, such as the series of larger-than-life solar-powered sunflowers that will rise and fall with the sun.
Shearer, who has been studying climate change for the past two decades, is thrilled that others are starting to think about how to reduce their carbon footprint.
"Maybe one day Burning Man would add a small surcharge to the ticket price, less than $1, to offset all emissions from the event," he said. A ticket to Burning Man ranges from $185 to $275, becoming more expensive closer to the start of the event.
In the future, Shearer and colleague Jeff Cole hope to raise enough in donations to offset not only the pollution from Burning Man itself, but also from all the cars and planes attendees use to get to Nevada.
For now, the Lakota Sioux with the wind-powered casino in South Dakota will be the first to benefit.
NativeEnergy, the American Indian-owned alternative energy company in Vermont that helped the tribe build the wind turbine, may not know much about Burning Man, but it is happy to accept a small donation.
Switching to wind power will allow the tribe to reduce its annual reliance on fossil fuel by 97,000 megawatt hours. That translates into keeping 115,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the air per year.
"I myself have never heard of Burning Man, but we were only able to switch to wind power through the help of thousands of individuals and hundreds of businesses donating modest amounts," said Tom Stoddard, NativeEnergy's vice president and general counsel.
"Everyone who contributes gets their name on the wall."