Climate change is not your fault, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook
If you’re sick of being made to feel like climate change is your fault and that you should be riding your bike to work to stop it, then you should have been in southern California last weekend.
At the inaugural West Coast Climate Crisis Symposium, panels of experts discussed topics ranging from how rising temperatures will alter the oceans to expected changes in water access, food production and risk of future pandemics on land.
A common thread was the question of who is to blame, and the conclusion, mostly, was that it’s not you. Not specifically.
“It isn’t realistic, in many cases, to ask people to reduce their individual carbon footprint to the point where, if everybody did it, it would actually solve the problem,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, as part of a panel discussion on climate blame Saturday morning.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, out April 4, noted that we are not on track to stay under the goal set by scientists in 2018 of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) average global temperature rise. Missing that target will lock in atmospheric warming that will catalyze disastrous and expensive storms, flooding, heat waves, drought and crop failures.
“On the green scorecard, we failed loud and clear,” said Inger Anderson, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, about the report in April.
The good news is that the 278 scientists from 65 countries who authored that report also concluded that there is still a narrow window of time to avoid the worst climate impacts, if enough systemic change can be coordinated to cut global emissions in half by 2030. They outlined four ways to pursue that. And individual average citizens do have a role to play in making that happen.
What is a ‘carbon footprint’ really?
The entire idea of an single person’s carbon footprint, Swain said, is an early-2000s oil industry construct meant to deflect responsibility for tempering the greenhouse gas emissions, released mainly by burning fossil fuels, that are known to be causing atmospheric warming.
It caught on, and for years, climate activists primarily asked people to drive fewer miles and use cloth shopping bags at the grocery store. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to help each of us calculate our household’s carbon footprint, by inputting our thermostat settings, the number of vehicles we own and whether we recycle our magazines.
These steps are, certainly, all helpful.
But the concept of an individual carbon footprint is straight from the public relations playbook of huge corporations that have historically launched ad campaigns to convince the masses that, to whatever degree their products do engender any sort of harm, it’s really up to consumers to contain it.
The blame for plastic pollution, for example, was placed on litterers in a 1971 ad campaign featuring a thoughtless trash-tosser, a “crying Indian” offended by the defiling of nature and a tagline that read “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.” The campaign was bankrolled by a coalition of corporations that call themselves “Keep America Beautiful” and include plastic-producing giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle and, more recently, Keurig and Poland Spring bottled water.
Even when the damage has been well-known for decades, corporations still spend big money on distracting consumers from the true costs of their products. In 2019, tobacco companies spent $22.5 million per day promoting cigarettes to customers, including young people and marginalized communities, despite the known health risks that are the reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track this spending. If you smoke and end up with cancer, you have only yourself to blame, the strategy seems to suggest.
The sham at hand in the climate blame game, Mark Kaufman of Mashable argues, is the “carbon footprint.” The term was invented in 2000 by British Petroleum (BP) oil, the same company that, in 2010 would spill 130 millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, changing the wellbeing of its wildlife and fisheries in ways still measurable 10 years later.
A source from Stanford Law School Kaufman spoke with said that “even a homeless person living in a fossil fuel powered society has an unsustainably high carbon footprint. As long as fossil fuels are the basis for the energy system, you could never have a sustainable carbon footprint. You simply can’t do it.”
That was also the point made repeatedly at Saturday’s climate crisis event: that, while individual action does matter, societal reorganization of energy systems matters first.
“It’s not because the problem is unsolvable,” Swain said. “But it’s because the systems that currently exist aren’t designed to make it realistic for individuals (to have) choices. What we need to be able to do is redesign lots of societal systems: transportation, agriculture, energy generation, such that it becomes almost trivially easy to make choices that are good for the environment that are low carbon.”
How to rewire the system
During a second panel at the climate event, energy experts discussed how an energy infrastructure revolution on par with changes made to manufacturing during World War II could get the electricity grid updated with renewable sources that would enable consumers to make decisions that would actually, significantly cut their carbon footprints.
“We need electrification and we need everything on the demand side to be electrified,” said Keishaa Austin, head of engagement and partnerships at Rewiring America and a former regulatory analyst with the energy division at the California Public Utilities Commission.
Benefits of widespread electrification, the nonprofit organization calculates, include an annual average savings of $356 per household on energy bills, a reduction of 166 million metric tons of CO2 emissions and 462,000 local green energy sector jobs. Switching away from gas-fueled stoves and other appliances would also address childhood asthma and premature deaths due to pollution, they say.
In Arizona, the value of electrification would be among the greatest for any state. They expect 99% of households in Arizona to see a reduction in their energy bill from electrification, compared to 39% for states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Average annual savings in Arizona would be $376 per household. Nearly 5,000 local installation jobs would be created.
“The lowest hanging fruit is renewable energy, which it makes sense to pursue most aggressively at first because it is probably the place where we can most quickly point things in a direction that is low or no carbon,” Swain said Saturday.
The way to get there, Austin says, is to create government incentives and rebate programs to help households and workplaces replace outdated appliances with higher-efficiency models that will use electricity from renewable sources.
Other initiatives they support include expanding programs to get more rooftop and community solar installed and working on improving access to affordable electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. It’s a sort of “if you build it they will come” mindset that is supported by studies showing that people are more willing to ride their bikes, for example, if their cities construct more safe places for them to do so.
“That’s what we have to do, is we have to sort of create the market for it,” Austin said.
A cold, hard look at change
Former technology and business journalist Molly Wood weighed in on the role capitalism has to play in restructuring individual access to electrification. After a career reporting on economic matters, Wood is now the managing director at LAUNCH, a venture capital firm that invests in early stage climate solution start-ups.
“When I take a cold, hard look at the history of change, it is the combination of innovation, advocacy and economics that leads to those real outcomes,” Wood said at Saturday’s event. “All three of those things are necessary.”
Middle and upper class people, those who are least affected by climate change because they have the money to insulate themselves, are responsible for helping to create the market that will enable climate solutions, Wood argued.
She gave the example of high-fructose corn syrup, which used to be much more widespread than it is now. The reason this cheap sweetener isn’t as common on grocery store shelves today is because science showed it was “essentially poison in any amount,” she said. Consumers demanded it go away, and it did.
Wood says the same approach can be used to drive the market toward sustainable climate solutions that, right now, might seem impossible to adopt at scale.
“Every single technology that’s ever existed started as unaffordable, got adopted, and became more affordable,” Wood said. “So it’s my job as an investor now to find the companies that will give you these technologies to buy. And then it’s your job as a person who can afford to buy it, to buy it. And that’s how we drive real change.”
So, as individuals, we can breathe easy that climate change isn’t all our fault. But we could breathe even easier if we upgraded our homes to run on renewable electric energy sources instead of polluting gas power. Add in voting for climate-conscious politicians, and we’ll each be on our way to doing our part to rewire the system and reduce society’s carbon footprint.”
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