Too Much at Every Level

I think that action to mitigate climate change has been so slow (in many cases, nonexistent) partly because the problem is just so massive. At every single level – individual, politician, government, country – people think that they can’t possibly solve it on their own, so there’s no point in trying at all.

It’s not the same kind of problem as something like world poverty, or disease in developing countries. In a way, I wish it was. It’s not really possible for a single person to solve these problems either, but at least they can solve it for someone. They can pay for a child’s education in Africa. They can build a well with clean water for an entire community. These types of problems are measured in increments, rather than gradients – just like the corpuscular theory of light. The problem comes in small packages of one person each, and even if you can’t eliminate the problem for everyone, you can chip away.

Conversely, climate change is a gradient, and one that is very resistant to reversal. Even if a family manages to completely eliminate all sources of carbon emissions in their life, they’re only preventing a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a degree of warming. 2.999997 C warming isn’t very different to 3 C. And that difference of 0.000003 C isn’t changing the life of a child. (These are just arbitrary numbers, don’t quote me on them!) Really, it isn’t having any impact at all. So most people don’t even bother. They feel so powerless – after all, this problem is far too big for them to solve.

I believe that individual action on climate change is definitely worth it, but in a more symbolic manner. No, composting your kitchen waste isn’t going to eliminate enough methane to make a difference in the global radiative forcing of greenhouse gases. But it gets you in the right mindset. It makes you stop and think about the planet and the future. And the chance that you might inspire all your friends and neighbours to compost as well, who would then inspire all of their friends, and eventually start a chain reaction that could, conceivably, start to make a difference, is just too good to pass up. (Besides, composting is fun to watch. We get some very cool slugs hanging out around ours this time of year.)

Regardless, the feeling of powerlessness becomes the norm, to the point where even politicians don’t think they can make any difference. I have a friend who asked his MP, a Liberal, what she was going to do about climate change. Her response was, “What can I do? I’m only one person.” I find it absolutely astounding that a politician who represents tens of thousands of people, and who helps to govern the entire country, could have this attitude. It’s kind of sad when even our Members of Parliament feel powerless.

Of course, Canada’s national position on climate change action is “whatever the States decides, and we won’t do anything at all unless and until they do”. The federal government feels powerless too, because (as they constantly remind us) Canada produces only 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. What’s the point of reducing them if the U.S. isn’t going to do the same?

We all know that the U.S. isn’t going to pass cap-and-trade any time soon. It looks like the Republicans are keeping their promise of preventing Obama from passing any more sweeping legislation, after the health care bill. And a big reason (or at least a common excuse) for this lack of initiative is that India and China will soon produce most of the world’s carbon emissions. What’s the point of the U.S. making any mitigating effort if the soon-to-be-major-players won’t?

What federal governments fail to realize is that they have far more power than they give themselves credit for. If the U.S. decides that they want a global economy of clean energy, they have enough influence over the market to make that happen. If Canada decides that tar sands actually aren’t such a good idea after all, all the countries that import from us will have to find alternatives. But this hasn’t happened, because governments are far more concerned about the next election.

At times like these, I just want to look politicians in the eyes and tell them to wake up. Stop playing games, pointing fingers, and sabotaging your enemies. Remember that your job is to look out for us, and start getting serious on a crisis that is unprecedented in all of human history – one that we could all avoid, even now, if you just got your acts together.

I am now a voting member of the public, a legal adult. And I don’t have a clue who to vote for, because nearly every politician has lost my support. If they cared at all about the kind of world I will live in after they are gone, and the kind of world the children I hope to have will live in after I am gone, they would start doing their jobs. I think I will find myself voting against politicians, rather than for politicians. I will vote for those who are the least bad, so that the worst don’t get into office.

I am not optimistic about climate change, but I know that we have a chance to prevent the worst of it. I am not optimistic, but I do not feel powerless. I believe in the power of knowledge and inspiration and culture. I believe in the potential of accomplishing a great deal in a short period of time. At some point in this chain of people who are overwhelmed or apathetic, something needs to give.


22 thoughts on “Too Much at Every Level

  1. The distinction between gradual and incremental change is a very useful one and I hadn’t heard it put so clearly before. I’m sure I’ll use it in future.

    Finding a reason to keep going, even when it seems hopeless, is one of the great spiritual challenges in life and if you are going into a career in climate science you will probably need to think about how you’ll keep your head above the waters of despair.

  2. Spot-on, Kate. To continue on our present course would fulfill Einstein’s definition of insanity. To overcome the international malaise of inaction we must begin with the insignificant efforts of the one. As Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” The time for debate is over. We must either lift ourselves up and chart a new course or founder under the tide of mankind’s inertia.

    The Yooper

  3. Is the 0.000003 C figure the actual amount an average individual on the planet will raise the temperature by in their life time??

    To be honest that is quite scary.

    The problem people have is that the temperature scale is an ‘absolute’ one. It is designed for science and extends well outside the human capacity to live. Hence when figures between 2 and 4 C are quoted for global warming, people think it sounds OK. Unless a joe average person forces themselves to think about the relationship between the temperature numbers and the impacts small changes have, then they are likely to focus on just the numbers only and forget to make the connection to the impacts/results.
    Indeed, the small numbers involved are often politically exploited, eg. ‘CO2 is just a trace gas’ and others such often deliberate misunderstandings.

    What we really need (although it is probably far to late to introduce such a metric) is a temperature gauge that is based on human capacity to survive on the planet. It would need to take into account the population size and it’s spread across the planet. This would factor out issues of migration due to climate change within its mechanism. eg. a planet where a few million survived in Norway or Greenland would be outside the upper limit of the scale.

    So you would have a lower limit which I guess would be zero on the scale and an upper limit which would be say 100. Maybe a percentage is appropriate.
    Then you could indicate where we are now on the scale and where we might be if CO2 is doubled. This would give people a clear picture of where they stand and what impact their actions have on future generations.

    Sorry for the delay in replying. No, the 0.000003 C figure is completely arbitrary, don’t quote me on it! -Kate

  4. Nice article, Kate. Two comments:

    “… people think that they can’t possibly solve it on their own, so there’s no point in trying at all.”

    I think it’s worse than that.

    Faced with the realisation that they can’t possibly even begin to consider how such an enormous problem can be solved, many (too many) people become open to a mindset that allows them to believe that there isn’t a problem anyway. This mindset is immensely seductive, as it allows off-hand dismissal of even contemplating the awkward thought that of introducing change into a way of life one has been brought up to believe is normal. (Just what is ‘normal’ anyway? All indications so far are that this thin film of life around our tiny planet is about as abnormal as it gets.)

    To put it another way, faced with a simple choice between an inconvenient truth and a reassuring lie, they’ll take the latter every time.

    The result is that the problem becomes even more intractable, because a solution relies upon the political will to address it.

    Which leads me into my second point: a knock-on effect is that democracy is perverted.

    “I think I will find myself voting against politicians, rather than for politicians.”

    Tactical voting is not a new idea, but it makes itself felt more when the stakes are so high. So much for the concept of electing the right people to get us out of this fine mess.

    In short, we’re screwed. Good for you for continuing to believe that a solution is possible: as for me, it seems clear that after more than two decades of denial and obfuscation, Einstein’s definition of insanity is apt indeed.

  5. “They feel so powerless…”
    Only if they’ve swallowed the Tea Party tripe that government can’t solve problems.

    When your framing isn’t helping to solve the problem, it’s a good time to choose a different framing. So….

    Re “increments vs gradients” – I disagree that we’re stuck with a “gradient”, IMO this problem – or rather, the *solution* to it – is still incremental. Remember, “We have everything we need to get started; all that’s lacking is the political will.” And the “political will” problem still “comes in small packages of one person each”.

    So we work on *that* problem, by informing other people about a) the problem (even just via links to reputable sources) and b) the solution, including c) how it can be achieved politically.

    Think of your climate actions (that influence other people) like buying a lottery ticket, where the prize is the world.
    – Greg Craven

    Or – best of all – turn it into a game, as Jane McGonigal did.

    Who else wants to play?

  6. If I was to put a number on my personal impact on temperature rise I would start with the notion that my existance contributes someting like 1/6,000,000,000 of the total temperature change. To get a better idea you would need to make a ratio of the total greenhouse gas increase atributable to human action (what Kim Stanley Robinson calls the carbon burn) with your personal contribution to date. Given that number (a fraction) you could multiply it to the total temperature change that has happened as well as all further change that could be expected as a result of our influence, if we halted our modification of the atmosphere.

    This question is a good example of what Fermi (and lots of other people such as me) called a back of the envelope type calculation.

    Given that we live in North America, which is the per capita carbon emision King of the world, we have a disproportionate influence. To fair there are others that are worse than Canada and the United States of America. I am curious why Luxembourg of all places should have such a high per capita rate of emisions.

    If you are curious you could compair your own work with a carbon calculator.


  7. I’m curious as to what policies you think the US can implement that would change the temperature of the planet substantially.

  8. Create solar power or some other clean energy at 10 cents per kilowatt hour unsubsidized, and the problem is solved.

    Why unsubsidized? Fossil fuels are subsidized. One way or another, clean energy and fossil fuels need to be on an equal playing field if they want to compete. 10 cents per kwh is also kind of arbitrary as the price of fossil fuels will go up with time (barring another recession) as supply diminishes and natural disasters get in the way (remember what happened to the price of gas after Katrina?) All we really need is for the market price of some clean energy to be equal to or lesser than the market price of fossil fuels.

    For the nitty-gritty, George Monbiot, in his book Heat, has a great explanation of how Britain could reduce their emissions 90%, and many of the policies could also work for the US. A lot can be done even without turning away from fossil fuels – dramatically increased efficiency, cogeneration, and the retrofitting of coal plants to natural gas could reduce emissions substantially. -Kate

  9. [citations needed – developing countries are going to produce 3/4 of global emissions at some unspecified future time]

  10. Mike N’s comments have been pulled due to a lack of citations, but I will direct climatesight readers to some resources on his topic of ‘current emissions of developed countries’ as the comparisons between developed and developing nations GHG emissions (primarily CO2) was a topic discussed at the Copenhagen climate treaty meeting (the one that was derailed by ‘climategate’).

    This article in Nature Reports: Climate Change provides a useful perspective and directs its readers to some primary data sources on both recent emissions and projections of both emissions and resulting climate states:

    This web-article is not what I would consider high on Kate’s ‘credibility spectrum’, but is based on a reliable source, the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Readers should note that the amounts cited in this web-article are from 2006:

    A note in passing; when considering GHG emissions by different nations, a recognition of intensity (per capita) versus total national emissions must be made, as well as who are the emissions being produced for. The US is in the top 2 for both intensity and total emissions, but China tops the US for total national GHG emissions (see article above). Both Australia and Canada are in the top 3 for per capita GHG emissions. But the US and other industrialized nations (e.g., Australia, Canada) have moved much of their manufacturing (consumer electronics, toys, furniture, many cars etc.) to China so a big proportion of China’s industrial GHG emissions are actually attributable to the US, Canada, Australia and in part Europe as that is where those manufactured goods are used – and you must add in the GHG emissions produced shipping the raw materials to China (Canadian and Australian coal, iron ore, wood for paper and cardboard etc) AND the GHG emissions produced shipping those goods to their destinations (USA, Canada, Australia etc.). A similar argument must be made for some other developing nations (Central and South American agricultural products e.g. Chilean blueberries sold in Canada in our winter, Chilean wine; garments made in India; computers manufactured in Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam etc. – pick-up your Blackberry or iPhone or PC and see the country of manufacture).

    So we can’t sit back and say ‘China must cut back and do its share’ as their GHG emissions maintain our consumer lifestyle. But I would argue strongly that China and Mexico and similar nations must continue to be brought to task in dealing with their GHG emissions at source; energy efficiency (i.e. lowering per capita use) is a global citizen responsibility. China is building inefficient coal-powered power stations. But those power stations provide the electricity for the factories making TVs, iPhones, furniture, toys etc destined for Canadian, Australian and US consumers. Similarly, the coffee you’re drinking, unless it came from a ‘rainforest alliance’ or similar source, likely came from an area that supported tropical forest within the last 20 years, and deforestation is a major source of GHG emissions (17–25% of anthropogenic emissions: see Strassburg et al. 2009, Global Environmental Change V.19 (2), May 2009, pp. 265-278 doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2008.11.004). Soy products are popular in Canada, Australia and the USA, but be sure the soy is not from a country that is clearing large tracts of tropical forest to grow ever more soy.

    So the GHG emissions in developing countries AND in developed countries is the responsibility of us, citizens and consumers in developed countries, as well as the ordinary people in developing countries and their business owners and government officials. A collective responsibility.

    David G.

  11. Yes indeed, fossil fuels are subsidized.
    In the U.S., oil has been subsidized since 1918 and coal since 1932, both nonstop.

    According to a recent report from the IEA, fossil fuels get 12 times as much in subsidies and various tax credits as renewable energy does, worldwide.

    Last year, renewables got $46 billion
    Last year fossil fuels got over $500 billion.

  12. What I have advocatd for, with comments at various blogs,
    is a – made for TV movie- about the climate change denial PR industry. Something along the lines of the books on this topic. Like-

    “Climate Cover-Up” by James Hoggan

    “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming”
    by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway

    “Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate”
    by Stephan H. Schneider and Tim Flannery

    “The Boiling Point” and “The Heat Is On”
    by Ross Gelbspan

    “Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change”
    by Clive Hamilton
    He outlines the decade-long, coal-industry funded campaign in Australia to deny climate science

    It would need some help from Hollywood people, who know how to make hard hitting movies that will keep people’s attention. Maybe featuring bloggers, from Desmogblog, Skeptical Science, Open Mind and others, and climate scientists of course.

    People need to understand who it is, that Republicans and others are listening to, – Monckton, Steve Milloy, Steve Goddard etc.

    I recommend posting comments along those lines at articles in the mainstream media that you see online.

    Tell them that FOX News favorite climate expert, Steve Milloy is not a scientist, but a professional PR man, and a registered and paid lobbyist for fossil fuel interests, and whose Junk Science group also aided the tobacco companies in their quest to deny the science of tobacco’s dangers.

    There are 31 other groups that have done the same thing.

  13. What can one person do?

    Just reflect on what one person did. In 1979 President Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof, with lots of positive comments about how this installation would still be providing hot water for the building in 2000, with no costs and no emissions. In 1986, in accordance with his views on power and the environment, President Reagan had these panels removed.

    Had President Reagan done the other thing and gone around bragging about the fact that the White House had unlimited hot water at no cost, how much difference might that have made to the power generation debate in the USA?

    If one man can choose to have such a bad impact, other people can choose to have a good impact. Make a choice. Have an impact.

  14. 46 billion vs 500 billion? Considering the amount of renewables in use, those numbers do not look like a disparity, or at least one in favor of fossil fuels. Important to note the type of subsidies. Is it a subsidy specifically for that industry, or just a general business subsidy, like the deduction for business expenses, buying equipment, depreciation, etc?

  15. Although the subsidies of fossil fuels might be less per KWh than for renewables, the fact that fossil fuels would be subsidised at all is crazy when they are amongst the most profitable businesses in the world. Subsidies should be used for new industries still getting underway (renewables) or industries of particular national/international benefit (renewables) or industries of particular long-term strategic importance (renewables).

  16. Re: ‘What can one person do?’ and ‘1/6,000,000,000’…

    Me, I decided a couple of years ago never to fly by commercial airline again. This has led to some raised eyebrows when I’ve mentioned it in passing, but the ones expressing surprise, I’ve no doubt, are thinking “so what? one person not flying will make no difference” – whereas the real point is that this ‘strange’ decision may make others, who perhaps know me better, begin to wonder exactly what has led me to make such an ‘abnormal’ decision.

    Arrogance on my part? Perhaps. My actions don’t have anywhere near the impact of those of the POTA. But if one wants to start a ball rolling, one has to begin to push and hope that others will come help.

    David Greenwood’s point about China’s emissions being a direct result of the West’s consumerist behaviour is a good one. I just wish there were a way to make the point more succinctly. Me, I no longer buy into the cheap throwaway birthday gifts mentality. No doubt to some, this just comes across as me being a cheapskate. But somehow, the reality of the global impact of the sum of our individual behaviours has to be acknowledged before it can be changed.

    The next step, for me, will be to find the willpower to give up on my coffee addiction, representing my personal action to save the rainforests. That one will be a toughie.

  17. Colin Reynolds speaks about his personal convictions to make a difference as ‘one person’, and I salute you. My job makes it hard to stop flying. But we can all take small steps to reduce our personal carbon footprints, most of which don’t affect our quality of life and in some cases may actually improve it and certainly in the long run save us money. On the coffee, I too struggle with that. There’s no coffee grown in Canada!

    My wife and I choose rainforest alliance and fair-trade coffee (sometimes a brand is both) as there is a commitment by some mostly smaller coffee producers (usually only whole bean) to source from sustainably managed coffee plantations, and to ensure their growers and harvesters receive a good payment for the work / product. Rainforest alliance ( certified coffee is grown beneath a canopy of rainforest trees, which provides habitat for rainforest birds and other animals. These plantations are often organic, so an added benefit (both for local wildlife and reduced use of hydrocarbons). Rainforest alliance certifies a range of products and is also involved in general efforts to protect tropical forests and stop climate change. (I have no link with this organization)

    The question of organic vs local food often comes up, and in Canada, especially the Prairies where I live, this is difficult. If you want a balanced diet year round based on fresh food, you must eat food grown from far afield. In summer, choosing to buy from a farmers market (choose organic or biodynamic if available) means you are buying local and supporting local small farmers; small farmers tend to have smaller carbon footprints. I think pressure from consumers has forced the big grocers (Safeway, Sobeys etc) to offer more Canadian and even regional Canadian fresh produce, but as recent articles in the popular press have shown (, they sometimes are not really convincing in their efforts. But we need to keep pushing the big stores to provide these choices. I am no expert on this, but the advice I have read says buying local always has a lower carbon footprint than imported, so choosing conventional local produce over imported organic is better for the environment; the farther the produce has travelled, the bigger the footprint.

    I am no fan of WalMart (it is a rare day that I enter that store; their labour practises are reprehensible), but across North America WalMart claims it is forcing its suppliers to cut back on packaging and demonstrate environmental savings. The jury is still out on WalMart’s ‘green credentials’ (, but its a start.

    Energy use is high in Canadian homes because of our winters, but governments at all levels are encouraging home-owners to become more energy efficient: low-flush and dual flush toilets use less water, but also cut energy use (a lot of heat goes out with every flush in winter); CFC light bulbs etc.; better insulation is a no-brainer. My favourite; do you need to live in a 3000+ sq foot home? (mine is 1800 sq ft) And, do you need 2 big screen TVs? I have been in restaurants with big screen TVs in the washrooms; that is just weird.

    Do most western Canadians really need to drive a pick-up truck? The nice lady who cuts my hair does, and when I asked her why she replied “Well, I grew up on a farm.” When I asked her what she used it for, she replied “Driving to the salon and picking up groceries mainly.” She lives in town and her husband also owns a pickup. My choice? I own a 10 year old station wagon and its the only car my family owns. That’s my personal contribution.

    Every little bit helps, and we can save money along the way. Replacing old appliances with energy efficient ones saved my family $30 every hydro-bill and we use less water. I own an electric lawn mower. These appliances had to replaced anyhow, so the choice was about the degree of efficiency of what we purchased. So I feel I am contributing to the environment and saving money.

  18. “[T]hat difference of 0.000003 C isn’t changing the life of a child. . . . Really, it isn’t having any impact at all.”

    I think this is a major source of the problem: people confuse “very little impact” with “no impact at all.” Perhaps one person’s impact is very small, but it’s still there. Reducing your own personal emissions, even if no one follows your lead, is helpful — not very helpful, but it definitely has at least a small effect.

  19. Oh that the world had more people like Kate.

    So young and informed, and maintaining this website while carrying a full college load? Amazing. You are doing more for the world than any politician could ever hope to. Maintaining this website looks like an overwhelming undertaking to me. If you feel the need for help, maybe your next step would be to contact Susan Gunelius. I don’t know what assistance, if any, she could provide, but she may have some good advice.

    Related to this post and the dilemma facing people of this continent and the world, Pat Murphy in Plan C outlines four potential Plans of Action or paths we could go down:

    Plan A—Business as Usual
    Plan B—Clean Green Technology
    Plan C—Curtailment and Community
    Plan D—Die Off

    We are now in Plan A, Business as Usual and destined for Plan D, Die Off. Politicians and optimists give lip service to Plan B, Clean Green Technology, but Green won’t provide anywhere near the resources and energy needed to sustain expanding world economies. This leaves only Plan C, Curtailment and Community.

    The success of world economies depends on perpetual economic expansion, like the universe. And continued economic expansion depends on continued increases in consumption, both of material and energy resources, which are nearly all nonrenewable. The world’s population has been growing exponentially at the expense of perpetual increases in the consumption of nonrenewable material and energy resources. How long can this exponential growth continue before nonrenewable material and energy resources meet the “halfway” or “peak” point, which I’ll take to mean the point where it becomes more and more difficult and expensive to obtain these ever-diminishing nonrenewable material and energy resources?

    Murphy refers to this tightening of material and energy resources as Peak Everything. Peak Everything can have only one consequence; exponential growth will be replaced by contraction, perhaps exponential contraction. World economies and populations that depend on diminishing material and energy resources will contract.

    Now this contraction can happen either haphazardly and violently, with potentially horrendous outcomes, or it can be carefully planned and implemented with potentially desirous outcomes. Planned and controlled contraction is the basis for Murphy’s Plan C, Curtailment and Community. He argues that it will be much better if we plan for this contraction than to have it forced upon us. If we accept that energy consumption must be reduced by 85-90% to mitigate climate change (or that reduction will be forced upon us by peak oil, gas, coal, and uranium), which can happen only if production and consumption are reduced by similar amounts, then we will feel obligated to devise less painful ways to ease into it.

    So which path will we choose? I hope that pioneers like Kate will lead us down the right one. Keep up the good work, Kate, and may your concern and dedication inspire many to follow in your footsteps.

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