Having children is, in many ways, an act of hope, a vote of confidence for the future. It’s telling, then, that large numbers of young people are having second thoughts because of climate change.
Some worry for their kids’ future, that they might find life increasingly difficult as the framework of the modern world begins to buckle and strain. Others worry about continuing the cycle of destructive behaviour: that having a child who will grow up to consume as they do is the single worst action they can take in this crisis. Procreation, for many, has been tainted.
Me? I’m worried that one day, years from now, I might have a child of my own who will begin to feel the real weight of our civilizational dilemma: the inescapable spiralling of natural calamities (fires, floods, droughts, famine) and man-made ones that follow (war, refugees, social upheaval, poverty); the mounting tolls on societies and the natural world; the ever-darkening prognosis for life in the next centuries; our part in all of it.
And my future kid will probably ask whether I did anything about all of this, and my answer will be that I didn’t do nearly as much as I should have.
How the oil industry made it personal
Hypocrisy has become a clichéd accusation among climate change skeptics, perhaps because saying one thing and doing another is a useful indicator of the seriousness of one’s concerns. If you were preaching about heart disease but scarfing down the same fast foods as the rest of us, I’d wonder how much you really cared.
The truth is that many of us don’t do very much to reduce our own personal emissions. I could, for example, stop flying or eating beef. I could use public transit more often, inconvenient though that would be. I could buy an electric car or install solar panels on my house. Would it be expensive? Extremely. But if the stakes are what I believe them to be, how could I not justify the expense?
The fossil fuel industry has been clawing at this little psychological incongruity for the past 30 years. Mario Molina, the executive director of the not-for-profit group Protect Our Winters, explains that in the 1990s, fossil fuel companies began funding concerted disinformation campaigns to cast doubt on the science behind climate change. “One of the lesser-known tactics was to shift the blame and responsibility from corporations to individuals,” Molina says.
“You can go back through archives and you’ll find records of ExxonMobil actually funding environmental organizations that encourage people to recycle and to drive less and to eat less meat, et cetera.”
Even the personal carbon footprint was an idea popularized by the oil giant BP in a 2005 campaign by the advertising firm Ogilvy.
All of which should make you wary, but — and I can’t believe I’m about to write this — are the fossil fuel companies wrong? Even if their intentions were dishonest (and they were), does the fact that they conspired to make us aware of our role in the climate crisis mean we don’t play a role?
Lifestyle choices do seem to matter. Per capita emissions in the richest countries are several times higher than those of poorer countries. Within those countries, those with higher incomes reliably emit far more than demographics that can’t afford carbon-intensive luxuries. Even this year’s IPCC report suggests that “Lifestyle options like heating and cooling set-point adjustments, reduced appliance use, shifts to human-centered mobility and public transit, reduced air travel, and improved recycling can deliver an additional 2 GtCO2eq savings in 2030” — double the annual emissions of Brazil.
“Having the right policies, infrastructure, and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behaviour can result in a 40 to 70 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” said IPCC Working Group III co-chair Priyadarshi Shukla. “This offers significant untapped potential.”
It’s easy to fixate on the imperative to change our behaviour. It seems to place the burden squarely on our choices. But the developing consensus among experts is that the key to realizing the “untapped potential” Shukla mentions is in “the right policies, infrastructure, and technology.” Because when those change, the necessary lifestyle changes will barely be choices at all.
The shape of the systems we inhabit
Catherine Abreu is the founder and executive director of Destination Zero, a group that coordinates non-profits working to accelerate the global transition away from fossil fuels. She, like Mario Molina, does not believe climate change is a problem that can be solved by adjusting individual behaviour, even if this happens on a massive scale. We’ve seen that kind of collective lifestyle change before, she says, and it didn’t make the difference it should have.
During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020, we all went inside and stayed there. Roads and skies emptied, an eerie quiet settled over major cities, and large parts of the supply chain ground to a halt. Daily global emissions dropped by about 17 per cent. “What does that tell us?” Abreu muses. “It tells us that, for basically everyone around the world, the things they were told they were doing to contribute [to climate change] actually contribute less than 20 per cent.”
Where does the other 80 to 85 per cent come from? According to Molina, it comes from a handful of corporations, about 50 of them, including the likes of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest fossil fuel company. Climate change is pretty unambiguously their fault, people like Molina claim. Those companies would, of course, object to this characterization, likely arguing that most of “their” emissions come not from the production of fossil fuels but from people like you and me buying and burning them.
But to say these companies are beholden to our appetites ignores that they have shaped the world in such a way that it has become impossible for us to live without them.
We can’t even begin to paint a picture of life without fossil fuels because they power the vast systems through which we move every day, like fish in water. Fossil fuel companies have tried very hard to stop that from changing. They like the water just the way it is.
Our own personal emissions have much more to do with the shape of these systems than our everyday choices within them. If you live in an area dependent on coal power, your emissions are higher by default, regardless of your consumption habits, compared to someone who lives on a grid powered by renewables. You can’t be reasonably expected to make low-carbon choices if your low-carbon option is “don’t consume electricity.”
Molina points out that in Denmark the carbon footprint per capita is about six tons per year. In the U.S., it is closer to 30 tons. This is not because Danes are making better choices than Americans, but because their electricity grid has been largely decarbonized, public transit is accessible, and the country has engineered countless other solutions. The Danish standard of living has not been greatly diminished as a result. One could argue it has been improved.
Molina puts it in perspective this way: Flying overseas for a ski trip emits about eight tons of carbon dioxide. That’s a lot for one person — several times the annual carbon emissions of the average resident of many countries. Not good. But not only are most people not taking overseas ski trips, in the grand scheme of things, all the ski trips everyone is taking every year hardly register. Some experts have compared these kinds of individualist concerns to theatre. “Completely ineffectual,” British economist Umair Haque writes. “Less than ineffectual, in fact. Feel-good egotism, frankly.”
“Now,” Molina continues, “let’s look at something like the Clean Power Plan … to actually cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants (in the U.S.) by 20 to 30 per cent of their 2005 levels. Just from the top 10 plants in the U.S., that would have saved over 200 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.” For context, in 2018 the entire aviation industry globally, meaning every person or thing carried through the air anywhere on the planet, accounted for just over one billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — a little over five times what that single policy in a single country could have stomped out.
“When you train to be a wilderness first responder, you address the hemorrhage first,” Molina says. “You don’t put band aids on the little cuts; you address the arteries that are bleeding first.”
The shift to pragmatic collectivism
None of this is meant to absolve us little people of our responsibilities to our environment. Conscientious lifestyle decisions still matter, but to extend Molina’s analogy, bandaging the deeper wounds could also help us to address some of our smaller ones.
Catherine Abreu is particularly frustrated that climate solutions have been framed as sacrifices when in fact many of them make our lives better.
“Who doesn’t want to live in a home that’s way warmer and way better insulated with lower energy costs? Or where you don’t need to fill up $60 worth of gas every two days?” Abreu asks.
Chances are, you don’t decide where your energy comes from. Most people will buy an electric car when it becomes a better, more cost-effective option than a gas-powered one. Public transportation is only a pain if it’s longer, slower, and less convenient than the alternative. It doesn’t have to be.
The encouraging news is that many of these systemic changes are accelerating. “A lot of the time we get this impression that the bigger climate action we’re trying to push is this boulder at the bottom of the hill not budging,” Abreu says, drawing on an analogy from fellow climate activist Katharine Hayhoe. “But the boulder is actually at the top of the hill and it’s already rolling down. It needs to roll much faster, but you need to be someone who puts their hand on the boulder to make it go faster.”
Individual acts of protest against a world powered by fossil fuels are not going to cut it. Driving less, buying rainforest-safe products, or cutting your twice-monthly steak out of your diet are all great ideas, but they’re great because they help alleviate that little psychological incongruity, the sense of hypocrisy. Truly effective action depends on shifting from this sense of radical individualism to a more pragmatic collectivism. This means paying close attention to the policies and politics that determine where your energy comes from, rather than being excessively fastidious about turning off your lights when you leave the room. It means that instead of going to great lengths to avoid the $250 a month you spend on gas, you should pay attention to how tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of your retirement savings are being invested, and whether they’re being used to help fossil fuel companies expand their infrastructure. It means rather than stressing privately over your own personal carbon emissions, you talk openly about the pit this crisis puts in your stomach and hope that your heartfelt concern leaves a lasting impression on the people in your life.
Then if, like me, you’re still wondering what you’ll tell your future children, maybe you can say you were part of something in your little corner of the world that accomplished more than you could have on your own.
Tristan Bronca is a writer and editor who has written essays on boxing, bodybuilders, rodeos, pyramid schemes, surfing, and the medicinal properties of both unicorn horns and psychedelics.