In my first blog post, I shared a challenge posed to me by Sierra Club activist Steven Sondheim, who said we were both among the “worst” of climate change deniers, since we truly believe global warming is a serious problem, yet neither of us have done enough to help reverse it.
A mixture of concern and guilt led me to attend his talk at a Memphis Friends Meeting in June, when he shared insights gained as a delegate to the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. That gathering produced a global consensus agreement to work together on slowing the rate of human-caused warming. (Yes, it’s the same agreement from which our president-elect is considering withdrawing the US.)
Several points caught my interest in Steven’s discussion. I had hoped to publish these months ago, but work and family concerns took priority. Perhaps some of this is now even more relevant now than when it first was drafted last summer…
- Of the 20,000 delegates in Paris, most were businesses, and many were asking “Who goes first?” when it comes to spending money. This is partly because local responsibility for climate change is not as clear-cut as second-hand smoke or air quality. So US emissions contributors tend to rationalize: if China has been getting away with making stuff cheaper while spewing out lots of carbon, why should we?
- Facing possible serious disaster as the planet grows warmer faster, the people sitting in boardrooms at most major corporations worldwide realize they won’t be able to continue doing business the same way in 30 years. And if corporations are looking at global warming this way, shouldn’t we citizens also spend more time taking actions to cut back our energy consumption.
- Emissions perpetrators like to paint a picture in which excess regulation will lead to cold, dark and lonely lives, in which more of us will be jobless and hungry. But actions required to stop climate change could lead to better lives. For example, in terms of transportation and where we choose to live, instead of spending our morning driving 10 miles through traffic jams, looking at each other from our vehicles, we could be having a cup of coffee sitting on our front porches, talking with neighbors. We could also be enjoying simpler ways of living, with real enhancements that don’t necessarily require sacrifice.
- Even though personal action is crucial if we expect to slow down the rate of global warming, we also must take action on a larger scale, both locally and nationally. For example, even though renewable energy and cleanup industries are maturing after 20 years, and are no longer “pie in the sky”, our representatives in congress don’t think we should support solar panel industries. Yet the federal government subsidizes fossil fuel industries to the tune of $4.6 billion annually.
- Despite the potential comforts and economic promise of renewable energy, sustainability activists face a “monumental” battle, and it’s still uncertain who will win. Though Steve doesn’t consider himself a socialist or anti-capitalist, he believes our version of capitalism has “run amok” in terms of emissions industries actively resisting reasonable regulation. As an example, he pointed to the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which is advancing legislation to pull back emissions efficiency regulations in every state.
- Action at the state level may become increasingly important. Case in point: the success of strong public opposition to a proposal to bail out New York State’s aging, unprofitable nuclear power plants, rescuing an industry that jeopardizes public health and safety. (That opposition apparently wasn’t strong enough: the $7.6 billion package went through in August.) A more recent example: Politically-powerful Exelon, the largest US operator of nuclear power plants, is now attempting to get Illinois residents to bail out aging reactors through legislative action instead of a regulatory proceeding, which would require careful economic evaluation and stakeholder involvement in the process.
- Community will be important in achieving significant change, partly because it’s easy to get discouraged when you see, for example, that not everyone is recycling. Working together in community can also remind us of important values like simplicity and environmental stewardship, both of which can make life more rewarding, fulfilling, and meaningful.
Though I’ve never considered myself an “activist”, Steven’s talk reminded me I have made a few contributions to slow global warming. In a pre-Internet career, I taught people how to select and prepare food in ways that support sustainability; created compost for a restaurant organic garden, and demonstrated composting methods to elementary school students, some of whom may now apply those skills to their own gardens. I also recycled–when I lived where curbside recycling was available.
Steve’s talk also helped re-surface some long-simmering concerns I’ve had about what’s happened to our democracy, and the extent to which corporate interests have been allowed to exert excessive control over whether and how they are regulated—sometimes to the detriment of individual citizens’ rights. I know a little about how those dynamics have influenced diet-related health in the US, but have a lot to learn about what’s happening on the energy emissions front.
Having worked for a few corporations over the last ten years, I know the people running them are decent, considerate people—but they also have a mandate to protect the bottom line, just like you and I do, for our own personal and financial health. So can the market be relied on entirely to maintain a sensible balancing act between corporate and individual rights, and the need to protect our planet? And what happens when monied interests amass significant political and legislative power? Our president-elect supposedly thinks it’s a problem. So what’s up with his pick to head the EPA?
I’m certainly in no position to forgo use of cheap fossil fuels any time soon. And I’m all for wisely managing urban sprawl, but having been mugged and robbed at gunpoint twice in one year in the same neighborhood, the thought of someone telling me where I should live isn’t too appealing. (OK, so that was back in the mid-90’s, during a sudden infusion of crack cocaine into Memphis, and I was way too naive, despite news accounts of increased crime in our neighborhood.)
Since attending Steven’s talk, I’ve been looking around for new opportunities to help support the Paris agreement, starting with my own household “emissions”. Since moving to an apartment complex that doesn’t provide pickup service, I lost access to curbside recycling. After seeing how full the dumpsters get when everything is tossed in together, I decided to take a look at how much I contribute to that pile. Here’s a month’s worth of recyclables, spread across my washer and dryer…
That was enough to get me taking trips to the nearest drop-off center, and talking with other residents about sharing some of that work. Looking at my recyclable waste, there are definitely some extra “food miles” built into my current diet–not to mention the added cost. There’s certainly an opportunity here to buy, grow and forage more of my food locally, and support the local economy while reducing the energy needed to stock my kitchen.
Thanks to Mr. Sondheim, regardless which direction the new administration takes on climate change, I’ve been inspired to help slow the rate of global warming in my own daily life. Seems like the least I can do to support the first global treaty addressing climate change.
Now, what–if anything–should I be doing about ALEC?