I’ve been pondering for some time how to approach this subject but maybe the best way is to come right out and say it:
People, it's time to make the hard choices.
This article appeared in my inbox some weeks ago, outlining the four most effective ways we can cut down our carbon footprint, and it’s got nothing to do with plastic bags.
Before dealing with these, let's look at the easy options first. There are a lot of wonderful, committed people around who are doing fantastic work in minimising plastic use in order to stop the flood of plastic waste getting into our waterways and the ocean. Initiatives such as reusable ‘Boomerang’ shopping bags in supermarkets and stores, lobbying supermarkets to stop prepackaging fresh produce in plastic and taking reusable containers to the deli counter instead of taking the disposable plastic ones are all good moves, but really, using glitter in kids' facepaint is not the most pressing environmental issue we're facing.
Governments are getting on board: the Queensland government has recently banned the release of helium-filled balloons in an effort to reduce litter and waste, the ACT government has had a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags for years and the NSW government has recently introduced a container deposit scheme – Return and Earn – to encourage more recycling.
Solar panels are proliferating on roofs all over the place, and in a country with more sunshine than we know what to do with, this is a no-brainer. Renewable energy is economically smart, efficient and reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.
While there is much more that can be done in these areas, programs to encourage renewable energy and recycling, and community-driven initiatives in reducing waste are still the easy options when it comes to reducing our impact on the environment.
The Big Decisions however, the ones that, as individuals, will give us our best shot at reducing our ecological footprints, are the ones that government can’t legislate. There’s no passing the buck on these: we can’t lobby our local councils or blame government for inaction.
It’s not about plastic bags
Let’s look at the hard choices we need to make one by one:
1. Having fewer (or no) children. Obviously this is not an option for people who have already had their families – it’s not like you can sell one kid off for the good of the planet. I think there might be laws against that sort of thing. However, for people who are considering having children, this is a major decision. It is a fundamental human right to have a family and this is not something that can be regulated in a democracy. Having one child instead of two will save, according to the article linked above, 58.6 tons of carbon emissions.
2. Not having a car. Again, this is not something the government can regulate: this is an individual decision and for some, having a car is a necessity. However, people who live in urban areas where public transport is available need to assess their travel requirements. During the Second World War, the British government published posters asking people to reconsider their need to travel by rail (presumably in order to keep the trains free for military travel). "Is your journey really necessary?" is a question we could ask ourselves before turning the ignition in the car. Certainly, government can assist by ensuring that mass transit is efficient and affordable and let’s face it, some governments do this better than others. The ultimate decision, however, is ours.
3. Not traveling by air. It’s fast, efficient and relatively cheap, but it’s also a major source of carbon emissions. As an academic I was often required to fly to the other side of the world for a conference only to turn around and fly back two days later. This is madness (and deeply ironic, considering that frequently the topic of said conferences was environmental policy!), but it is also the reality for people in a lot of professions where travel is simply part of the job. We have the technology to do meetings and conferences via a number of electronic platforms, yet the mindset persists that it is necessary to undertake long journeys that are inefficient in terms of time and resources. Can we, as individuals, take the decision to cut back on air travel?
4. Not eating meat. This is the one that seems to cause the most angst – particularly among meat-eaters who don’t want to change their habits. Yet there are mountains of research articles on why a plant-based diet is environmentally more responsible than eating meat – for example, here, here and here. And this is aside from the ethical arguments.
These are choices we can – should – all make, yet we continue to play around the edges of the problem of climate change by taking up the easy choices and ignoring the really hard ones. It’s not about plastic bags. It’s about big, hard and unpopular decisions that we can’t flick to the government.
Personal report card
For the record – I score two out of four. I have no children and I’ve been vegetarian since the early 90s. Living a considerable distance out of town, not having a car is not an option for me (I've considered making biodiesel on-site but really, with my technical skills the potential for blowing myself up is pretty high), and since retiring from full time academic work my air travel has reduced considerably.
Assessment: good but room for improvement. How's your personal report card?
The following exchange appeared recently on a local rural community Facebook page regarding local weather patterns and the current drought in the region:
“…one flood in 50's washed bridges away. We were isolated for months. We have had very wet times droughts before and will have them again. The climate is a dynamic thing always changing. Greenies have just realised it is dry. 25 years before european [sic] settlement worst drought Australia has ever had. No co2 then.”
“I look forward to things getting back to wet times again (if it happens) will sort a lot of ppl [sic] out.”
It’s hard to know where to begin explaining the concept of climate change in the face of such wilful ignorance, and even harder to believe that such attitudes still exist against the mountain of scientific evidence supporting what is no longer just a ‘theory’, but a proven and accelerating climatic phenomenon.
In her 2014 book, Global Warming and Climate Change: What Australia knew and buried...then framed a new reality for the public, Dr Maria Taylor explains that our understanding of climate change in the 1980s and 90s was better than it is now. There was widespread acceptance of the scientific facts on climate trends, a better understanding of the difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ and social and political willingness to address the issue.
Over the past two decades, vested interests have hijacked the policy and political agendas and manipulated public attitudes via compliant media, allowing discussions such as the ridiculous one quoted above to be taken seriously in the public domain. The issue has been framed as a 'debate' as though there is doubt that needs to be questioned. It's worth remembering that the tobacco lobby did precisely the same thing when medical evidence pointed to the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
The premise of climate change deniers appears to be that somehow ‘greenies’ manufactured this whole climate change thing for some hidden reason and the fact that there have been extreme weather events in the past disproves the whole shebang. That these attitudes are promulgated within rural communities that rely on the environment and climate for their life and livelihoods is even more astounding. These are precisely the communities that should be (and many are) aware of the trends in climate and should be pushing the policy agenda towards specifics such as emissions reduction, renewable energy and revegetation. Pointing to isolated weather events (a flood in the ‘50s) or suggesting that the end of the current drought will put an end to all this climate change folly (will sort of a lot of people out) is, at best, simplistic shortsightedness, and at worst, dangerous ignorance.
The current drought will end. Drought is a cyclical event in this country and very dry times are typically broken by very wet periods. This is not climate change: this is climatic variability and is a feature of this country.
Climate change is global and complex. It is evidenced by warmer sea temperatures which, in turn, affect the movement of air masses across the landmasses; melting glaciers and polar ice caps; rising temperatures; more frequent extreme weather events such as tropical storms.[Graph from NASA GISS]
The willingness of people to dismiss climate change as a greenie plot is a symptom of the human reluctance to deal with change of any kind. Change is big and scary and there is no bigger or scarier change than one that affects the entire planet. Addressing such change means making big decisions at individual, community and political levels. Yet rather than accepting the need for such decisions for the sake of future generations and the Earth itself, we are seeing a rear-guard action fighting against such decisions on the flimsiest of arguments.
There is no climate change debate any more. The time for debate is over and has been for some time. There are now only facts and evidence; and that evidence is no longer just theoretical, it is empirical. Anthropogenic climate change did not appear overnight. It was first acknowledged and studied at scientific level in the 1950s. Over six decades the statistics have been mounting. It’s time for the phony ‘debate’ to be silenced and the perpetuators of the phony debate to be shown for what they are: either greedy industrialists who profit from polluting the environment, or simple-minded lemmings.