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Climate Guilt is not obligatory: How to stop being paralyzed by fear, guilt and blame and take action on climate change
November 6, 2019
Do people really have to stop flying, ground their private jets, park their snowmobiles and ski boats and mothball their vintage cars, go vegan and stop having children?
If someone wants to save the planet but still uses a private jet or spends the weekend water-skiing, is it hypocritical?
Is the future all bicycles, solar power and hemp?
If that is the answer, but we aren’t doing enough, don’t my sacrifices just mean the deniers are having all the fun, eating all the steak, travelling the world?
Every individual has the same dilemma that every country has: if everyone else keeps adding CO2 to the atmosphere, then all my individual actions do is cost me, either in money, or in inconvenience or in time. Of course, if everyone therefore does nothing, it will be “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”—after food shortages and catastrophes create migration, ever greater border challenges, and very likely violent conflict, as human civilisation careens to its inevitable end.
This is a classic “tragedy of the commons”, where commonly owned pastureland is not conserved, as each member of the community takes as much benefit as possible for themselves, until the pasture is exhausted. No one has an incentive to conserve as it only benefits others to do so.
Most of us now think Canada must do its part and be an example on the international level. Should we apply the same thinking to our own responsibilities? And does it really mean denying ourselves the luxuries of modern life, like air travel? Should we go so far as to choose not to have children?
While on the international level, we do have agreement among 196 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nothing of the kind has happened on the individual level.
If we are waiting for enough individuals to sacrifice air travel, their fossil-fuel powered vehicles and toys, their hamburgers and having a family to make a difference out of the goodness of their hearts then we are doomed. Inequality notwithstanding, around the world more people join the middle class every day, driving more cars and taking more plane trips.
So how should a person who cares about the planet we are leaving for our children act in the face of the looming threat of irreversible climate change?
My prescription is based on the fact that, at least in the aggregate, people will act in their economic self-interest. The most important change that needs to happen is to align good actions for the climate with economic self-interest.
For example, in Ontario where electricity is produced with little greenhouse gas impact, it is better for the environment to heat your home with electricity than with natural gas. However, it is significantly cheaper to heat your home with natural gas. As long as that is the case, people will choose natural gas and accelerate climate change faster than if they used electricity. One answer would be for the government to tax natural gas and use the proceeds to subsidize electricity. Given that electricity in Ontario is used for lots of other things, and is notoriously and unpopularly expensive, this would likely even be a vote winner.
The implication of this is that the most significant thing you and I can do to turn the tide on climate change is get our governments to align our economic interests with positive environmental outcomes by using taxes, regulations and incentives.
This means vote, write to your elected representatives, and if you can bring yourself to do it, protest.
If governments do this properly, we will all naturally make better environmental decisions. We will harness market forces to save the planet.
Yes, but should I buy an electric car and is Leonardo di Caprio a hypocrite for being on a luxury yacht? What about having kids or travelling or eating meat or snowmobiling?
Here are my humble opinions.
Let’s talk about di Caprio first. If the carbon footprint of that yacht was priced into it and the funds went into planting trees or carbon extraction technology, then why shouldn’t he enjoy it? One of the big knocks on climate policy from deniers is that it is a backdoor way of taking away our freedoms. Telling people that they can’t enjoy the life they feel they have earned is no way to gain converts for the policy changes needed. Tell them they can live the way they want to as long as they pay the true costs, that they can stay on board the luxury yacht. Then you have a chance to get them on board with actions that can save the human life support system for the future.
If you need to replace your car and buying an electric car that makes economic sense for you can work for your driving needs, then buy one. To cut our overall emissions we need to electrify as many things that currently run on fossil fuel as possible, and then make sure our electricity is generated cleanly. If you are in the market for a BMW you can certainly justify an electric car on cost of ownership and operation and that is only going to get better. If it keeps going this way, the used value of internal combustion engine cars is going to drop too, so that should be part of your consideration. Driving an electric car is no sacrifice, they are fast, fun, and need much less maintenance.
Try to hold on to your internal combustion engine car or truck as long as you can though. Making, transporting and disposing of cars has a big carbon footprint. And the longer you wait the better and less expensive your electric options will be.
The planet’s human population is certainly a threat to its ability to sustain human life. Western humans have a much bigger carbon footprint than those in many other countries. Every child is another person breathing out CO2 and needing and wanting goods and services that burden the planet with greenhouse gases.
But from there to not having children and families? Western children also get educations that equip them to solve our environmental problems, and the other problems we haven’t even thought of that will come from our solving our environmental problems.
If only the deniers have children, where will we be then?
The more prosperous people become, the fewer children they have, and the more they care about the environment. That makes travel, tourism and trade, and therefore transportation, a positive contributor to the planet. It’s true that air travel has a major impact on an individual’s carbon footprint. Technologically, there are a lot of barriers to electrifying it. So, if you can do what you need or want to do without using a plane, you should. But we are going to need more international understanding, and not less, in the age of disruptive migration we are already facing, and travel opens the mind.
Even better, the technology already exists to remove carbon from the air and make fuel. It is beginning to scale to industrial levels. It can be done anywhere, and doesn’t need pipelines, trucks or rail transport or fracking. (see carbonengineering.com). With alignment of cost with environmental benefit, this can happen faster and make flying closer and closer to carbon neutral. Then your objections to private jets will come back to egalitarian ideology or good old-fashioned envy, instead of being buttressed by virtue.
Traditional agriculture, in particular meat production, produces major greenhouse gas emissions. Eating less meat is getting easier and easier to do. Go vegan if you want to and if you’re confident it’s compatible with the demands you put on your body, but certainly become more conscious of your meat intake and reduce it. Choose less beef in particular, as per ounce of protein it puts the most burden on the environment. The marketplace is already responding with alternatives that compare favourably for taste and texture. Vegan protein shakes with fruit and bananas taste great and are just one way to need less red meat.
Again, pressure government to ensure that the best environmental diet is the best value too.
Go snowmobiling, water-skiing, travel in an RV, go dirt-biking or off-roading in a quad. Have fun. Sure, find other ways to have fun too, like canoeing or sailing that have less of a carbon footprint. But if you like wakeboarding, then when the boat needs replacing get an electric one or one that runs on clean fuel from carbon capture. Bear in mind, if the true environmental cost of your hobbies is passed on to you, you may just make different decisions anyway.
Feeling guilty about enjoying the fruits of your success won’t save the planet, and neither will letting the deniers have all the fun. Set an example that shows that we can have it all and still protect our life support system. If all the people who believe we need to act to save the planet lead lives of ascetic abnegation, we will only turn off everyone else, when we need to demonstrate we can make changes and still lead rewarding modern lives.
With protests and international accords, we managed the nuclear threat to humanity to the point where, while it is still with us, we don’t live in constant fear. We must react even more strongly to this new threat to our home. Being paralyzed by fear and guilt will not help us achieve a constructive response.
One of the best resources on this topic is drawdown.org: 100 ways to get to carbon neutral and then start to reverse the damage we have already done. Many of the approaches are already available and have started to be implemented.
But don’t be complacent. Governments are not acting fast enough, and maintaining a liveable planet is their job. Business’s job is to deliver sustainable profits for shareholders, and only the word “sustainable” makes them think much past next quarter.
I can’t remember a single time when people protested government policy in the way we are seeing now, and it later turned out the government was right, and the protesters were wrong. From Vietnam, to Civil Rights, to Nuclear Treaties, protesters have changed the world for the better. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are on the right track. We need to support them and desire and work for their success.