Let’s stop pretending we give a damn about climate change.


As I write this, 15,000 delegates from around the globe have congregated in Durban, South Africa to take part in a magisterial game of pretend. Officially called the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, this recurring charade provides an opportunity for scientists and citizens threatened by climate change to give impassioned speeches about the urgency of the climate problem while representatives from the world’s biggest emitters pretend (or not) to listen before refusing to agree upon any meaningful action.

COP17 continues through December 12, but no one expects it to yield any significant agreements. That’s not to say that it won’t have an effect on the climate. According to the Telegraph, COP17’s carbon footprint is estimated to reach 15,000 tons of CO2 equivalent, and that’s without considering what may be the meeting’s biggest carbon source — the flights attendees take to and from Durban. All told, the Telegraph estimates that COP17’s carbon footprint will reach something akin to “the annual footprint of a small African country.”


Maybe it’s time to stop pretending that we can find an agreeable solution to this global problem. We’ve known about climate change for decades now, and we’ve failed miserably in our attempts to do anything about it. Last year, global carbon emissions grew at the highest rate ever recorded, even in the wake of a recession.

In 2010, U.S. carbon emissions climbed more than four percent, totaling 1.5 billion tons, while China spewed 2.2 billion tons into the atmosphere — a more than 10 percent increase. This trend shows no immediate signs of slowing. We are on a collision course, and science won’t help us. Science has provided the data. It’s up to us to interpret those data and decide what course of action to take in light of them, and that’s where things fall apart.

Our minds filter information through our pre-existing belief systems, and in light of this, denial is a perfectly predictable response to climate change. It’s simple human nature to reject facts that conflict with our self identities. Most of us consider ourselves rational, compassionate beings and the idea that our way of life could be harming the planet or threatening to push poor people out of their homes presents a stark contrast to our self-images as good people.

And so, we pretend that it’s not our fault. We disassociate our actions with their far-off consequences. Some people pretend that climate change is just a big hoax, created to swindle money from suckers. Others pretend that they can make a difference by purchasing better stuff. (Don’t worry about driving less, just buy a hybrid car!) Some fall prey to single action bias, taking small steps to reduce their carbon emissions and then concluding, like the self-proclaimed environmentalists in one study, that one good deed, like recycling, entitles them to indulge in a much bigger bad one, such as flying.

A 2009 Reuters poll found that people say they want to “save the planet,” unless it requires significant lifestyle changes like eating less meat or giving up air travel.

Most of us (myself included) draw the line at personal convenience, but the ugly truth is that we won’t fix the climate problem without fundamental changes to how we live. In a world with seven billion people, there will be winners and losers, but we can’t continue to consume energy at our current rates.

A hard look at the numbers shows that there’s simply no way we continue on the energy- intensive path that we’re on. “We’re going to have to plan for a future where we use less energy,” Richard Heinberg  told me at the Aspen Environment Forum a couple of years ago. Some groups, like Heinberg’s Post Carbon Institute and 350.org are already working toward this reality.

The problem can seem insurmountable, and it’s possible that it is — not because there is no solution, but because we are incapable of choosing it. There’s a one-word solution to the climate (and energy) problem staring us in the face —restraint. Simply consuming less. It’s too late to talk about carbon emissions. With a population catapulting toward nine billion or more, it’s time to focus on carbon omissions.

Restraint is not the easy, no-need-to-change-a-thing solution that people keep pretending we will find. But it’s a reality-based solution that will happen whether we want it to or not. We can plan for it and make the hard choices ourselves, or we can wait for them to be forced upon us. Using less doesn’t necessarily mean lowering our quality of life, it means redefining how we measure our wellbeing. As I learned first-hand when I gave up travel, some of the things we consider essential simply aren’t.

We are so far into this problem now that making any significant difference will require change on the grandest scale. We’re all in this together. We need collective action. And yet individual actions still matter. When you absolve your personal contribution and put the responsibility for change on government and society, the issue becomes an abstract problem that’s impossible to solve. Yes, we need change on a societal level. We need to pressure decision-makers to take bold action. But if each one of us would also take back our little part of the problem, there would be no parts left.


Our leaders have failed. It’s up to us. We can pretend to care about climate change, or we can buckle down and actually do something about it.




Photos: Oxfam International 


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24 thoughts on “Let’s stop pretending we give a damn about climate change.

  1. “Our leaders have failed.”

    In a democracy, our “leaders” are giving us what the people want. If people did care, elected officials would care too.

    Other than that, good post.

  2. Restraint is a political slogan (obviously a good one), but so can only be promoted through the political process. And that process may be tainted beyond salvation. I do hope not, but the signs aren’t good, given that the short term benefit for some has more or less usurped the science and the common sense and the long term benefit for all.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comments Luis and Tim.

    Tim, I disagree that restraint is a political slogan. Sure, it could be, and we definitely need restraint on a society-wide basis, but restraint is something that we can all practice on an individual level.

    What I see when I look around is everyone waiting for someone else to act. But someone has to be first. I’m suggesting that people who care about climate change should lead by example.

    Al Gore would be much more convincing if he downsized to a small house and gave up his private jet. Talk all you want, but it’s personal actions that speak most loudly.

  4. This is a species of argument which is hard to dispute, only it doesn’t quite capture the contradictions people face when dealing with how to personally address climate change. That’s because, science or no science, the equation of restraint often doesn’t make technological sense.
    Let’s say Christie’s mother is dying. Everything in her says, fly out and be by mom’s side. Only if she does that it will increase Christie’s carbon footprint and in so doing violate her commitment to climate change travel restraint. What does she do? My guess is that she says: Screw restraint. Seeing my mother is more important at this moment than very, very slightly slowing the earth’s atmosphere from heating up. And – this is probably the most compelling thing – flying is so easy to do.
    So then the question becomes when is one permitted to break with their vow of leading a restrained global warming lifestyle in order to do things which empower them and make them feel better? The answer is there is no answer. Or if there is an answer, it is something completely unpalatable like: You can go to your dying mother’s bedside if you promise not to turn on your lights for a month.
    That’s what is so terrifying about the politics of restricting climate change. It argues that to live in climatological harmony with the planet we have to stop assuming that human existence is on a course in which life keeps getting better and better. We have to cease believing in progress and start believing in regress. And selling technological regress as not just global politics but as a personal lifestyle change is not just hard it is almost hardest.

  5. The problem with “climate change” is how too many people look at it. They see it as a totally manmade problem that we have power over. In fact, it is not. While we may have done things that change how climate change is happening, we do not have control over the underlying cycles that we are currently facing the end of . . .

    That’s right. Climate change would have happened without us. Maybe a little quicker. But by climate change, I mean the next Ice Age.

    In the past, humans migrated to places that suited them better. During the last Ice Age, humans in what is now Europe started developing technology to survive . . .technology not seen anywhere else in the world because no other people were trapped and unable to escape the cold.

    We are faced with the end of an interglacial period. Ice cores that show the last few million years of climate tell us that interglacial periods are typically erratic and extreme, weatherwise. This last one was very stable, allowing humans to develop agriculture and cities. It is now entering the erratic stage as we prepare to head into another Ice Age. An Ice Age that has been, perhaps, delayed some by human activity.

    So what are we going to do? Well, I like that we are making noises about behaving better, even if it is useless stuff like controlling CO2. But what are we planning on doing to ADAPT? Because, one way or another, adaptation MUST be something we do. Whether it continues to get warmer, eventually reaching the highest temps of the last few cycles in 4 or so centigrade average world temperature. Or whether we are faced with another Ice Age where most of our agricultural land becomes tundra. In any case the BEST plan is to adapt.

    I think we should consider building mega cities in the hearts of the continents, away from seas that could rise . . or fall . . and hurricanes that could get worst and the edges of tectonic plates, where earthquakes could get worse as the weight of ice is eased. We can stop growing all our food in open fields, building vertical farms to feed our cities. We can be sustainable, using every solar collecting trick we know to generate power and abandoning the clearly polluting fossils fuels we have used for over a century. We can recycle our water through the vertical farms, to decrease our impact on local water supplies. We can discourage the use of private cars, replacing them with efficient and free public transportation. We can encourage folks to work where they live, building our new cities with retail and recreation underground (to protect the night from lights) and business and manufacturing on the first few floors and housing above that. We could stop consuming so much . . who needs 100 outfits and 30 pairs of shoes and new decorations every holidays REALLY?

    If you started addressing things that the average person can do. If you started building cities and encouraging business to take part in them, providing jobs for folks to move to. If you stopped pretending that we have any real power, EVEN over CO2, and that our best option is to CHANGE with the climate . . .more folks would join you.

  6. Stephen:

    You raise a good point about the difficult tradeoffs. I addressed this issue in a Mother Jones article I wrote about the year that I spent entirely inside my “hundred mile habitat.” http://bit.ly/myjetblues

    The last plane trip I took before beginning my year without travel was to attend my grandmother’s 90th birthday. I didn’t get on a plane again until more than two years later when I went to her funeral.

    You also said: “That’s what is so terrifying about the politics of restricting climate change. It argues that to live in climatological harmony with the planet we have to stop assuming that human existence is on a course in which life keeps getting better and better. We have to cease believing in progress and start believing in regress.”

    This is the problem in a nutshell. We’ve come to equate progress with more travel, more technology, more stuff. I’d argue that we should define progress in terms of human well-being, and by this measure, much of the things we will have to scale back on are not things that represent progress at all.

    I like what Christian Schwägerl wrote in this piece about how to improve the UN Climate summit. http://bit.ly/tc1amv

    Schwägerl says that “The entire UN negotiating process has two major flaws in its design. It doesn’t assess the real causes of CO2 emissions, and it presents the goal of CO2 reductions in an entirely negative light.”

    “The very language of the UN convention describes climate protection as a “burden” and international measures of CO2 reduction as ‘burden sharing’….Little is spoken of positive goals, and there is virtually no discussion of the economic opportunities that emissions reductions present. The only countries considered to be winners in the negotiations are those that succeed in forcing the other nations to agree to greater emissions reductions rather than taking action themselves. It should be the other way around: The winners should be those nations that endeavor to adopt the most progressive policies.”

    I intend to discuss ways that we can promote carbon omissions in a future post. Stay tuned.

  7. “we can’t continue to consume energy at our current rates”

    You are wrong, and I’ll happily make a (non-Romney sized) bet with you. Ever hear of Julian Simon? How many times do you Malthusians need to be proved wrong?

  8. Shane

    To my knowledge, Julian Simon was an economist with conservative leanings, not an ecologist, biologist or demographer.

    It seems obvious to me that, on a local scale at least, we Malthusians are consistently proven right.

    Ever heard of carrying capacity? Its when any single population grows so large that the surrounding ecosystem cannot support it.

    If you have any infallible evidence to support your opinions, please provide us with a link.

  9. Nathan,
    Christie is here discussing energy, not biology. Economics is the proper organizing principle. Your point might, in some distant future, become valid if life on Earth bumps up against its absolute energy availability from all sources.
    I hope you see that asking for me to cite “infallible evidence” is rather silly. Perhaps that was meant to be the spirit of the conversation.

  10. Shane

    My point was that Simon’s knowledge of biology (or energy) must have been rather limited. His field is in economics.

    Simon is not the only economist ever to draw breath, and there are certainly many economists who dispute his beliefs.

    Your inability to provide evidence reinforces my point; that we are talking of opinion and belief, not solid fact.

  11. It is a fact that in 1990 Malthusian alarmist Ehrlich (aided in both his population alarmism and general misunderstanding of scarcity by current Obama science advisor and all-around misanthrope, Holdren) paid cash money to Simon to settle a wager with him concerning scarcity of a set of commodities chosen by Ehrlich. Will that do?

  12. This from Wikipedia; It’s not clear if Ehrlich consulted with economists. If he had, the flaw in using commodity prices as the best way to understand biophysical limits might have become obvious.

    I agree. Ehrlich made a bad bet, but that did not disprove the overpopulation argument. You are simplifying quite a lot here, Shane.

    Again, I must say that your argument is motivated by your personal beliefs, which is fine, except that you present those opinions as fact.

  13. What opinion have I presented as fact? That Malthusians are always wrong? I only asked how many times this had to be demonstrated. Like with Malthus, whose predictions were proved wrong. Or with Ehrlich, who was wrong in his scarcity bet with Simon and wrong on every dire prediction of The Population Bomb.

    Originally, you’ll recall I commented on Christie’s assertion that “we can’t continue to consume energy at our current rates”. You recognize this is an opinion, right? And furthermore has nothing to do with “biophysical limits”. Energy is a commodity with availability and scarcity best described by economics, not physics, or chemistry, or biology.

    And if we do reach a point where we are not consuming “energy” at something like our current rate, then we’re talking the collapse of civilization. Maybe that’s what the neo-Malthusian, Marcusean misanthropes really want. Or perhaps it is just the threat of same they whip up for their own “personal” “political” beliefs.

  14. The simple, underlying truth is that every resource we have on this planet is finite, because the planet itself is finite. That is a biophysical limit.

    One way or another, mankind will use up all of the resources that are currently available. There is nothing inherently misanthropic about wanting to curb the world population growth.

    Even if non-renewable resources were unlimited, at the current global population, food and water supplies are stretched thin, and land space is limited. Yet you insist we are not facing any future problems?

  15. You’re right: there’s nothing misanthropic about wanting to curb population growth, just every method ever conceived or forced upon us to make it so.

    Yes, when the sun explodes and burns the Earth to a cinder we are going to have a biophysical resource problem.

  16. Ask the Chinese. For those only (as yet) conceived, consult the fevered imagination of Eco-fascist Ehrlich.

  17. The Chinese reside in a very different country, and most people are extremely poor in that country, despite its incredible economic growth.

    The very rich democracies are, in many cases, experiencing population decline. That is because of personal choice, not rule of law.

    The argument most commonly made to slow population growth around the world is to educate women, increase their access to contraceptives and improve child care.

    Can you complain about that?

  18. The Chinese reside in a very different country, and most people are extremely poor in that country, despite its incredible economic growth.

    The very rich democracies are, in many cases, experiencing population decline. That is because of personal choice, not rule of law.

    The argument most commonly made to slow population growth around the world is to educate women, increase their access to contraceptives and improve child care.

    Will you complain about that?

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