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.