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