By Steven Gorelick
By now there is little doubt that the effects of global warming will be calamitous within a generation or two, if not sooner. There is no way to predict precisely what the impact will be in any given place, though it is clear that human habitation will be exceedingly difficult in many areas, no longer possible in others. As a consequence, hundreds of millions of people will be displaced, creating tremendous waves of environmental refugees with nowhere to go. The Ladakhis may well be among them if the glaciers that are their only source of irrigation and drinking water disappear.
If all this comes to pass, I wonder what our children and grandchildren, living in that degraded world, will think of us and our actions today. I imagine them asking, “why didn’t you do something?” and wonder how we might respond. We certainly can’t claim ignorance, since by now we should all be aware that climate change is real. Nor is there any shortage of suggestions about what we can do: every large environmental organization provides them, as does the mainstream media.
Unfortunately, almost all of those suggestions are focused on what we as atomized consumers can do: we should buy energy efficient appliances, drive less, turn our thermostats down, add more insulation to our homes. These are reasonable steps that people should certainly take. The problem is that these individual actions will never make a big enough difference to slow – much less reverse – the pace of climate change if at the same time our governments continue to pursue policies that spread an environmentally-destructive, energy-intensive consumer culture worldwide. Even as we are being asked to properly inflate the tires on the family car, our tax dollars are being spent on still more road-building at home, as well as massive highway projects in China, India and elsewhere in the South, all in the name of ‘development’ and trade. There is no question which of these will have the greater impact on global climate.
The implicit message in every list of “Ten Simple Things You Can Do” is that climate change can be averted if greedy, irresponsible consumers change their habits. Rarely are we asked to question, much less work to change, the direction governments are pushing us and our economies through globalization. Instead we are led to believe that a carpool here and a few technofixes there will allow us to have our cake and climate too. There is even reason to believe that the persistent focus on individual responses is intended to deflect our attention from deeper root causes. This was the subtext of US vice-President Dick Cheney’s claim that “conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” In other words, citizens can go ahead and fiddle with their thermostats, but must keep their hands off government policy.
Even in the west, most people are more victims than perpetrators of the destructive system that is destabilizing not only the climate, but our families, communities and the ecosystems we depend upon. That doesn’t absolve us from responsibility, nor does it mean that individual actions have no consequence. The corporate executives that fund bogus ‘scientific’ studies debunking global warming have placed their allegiance to the corporation above their responsibility to the planet – even to their own children. Marketing professionals whose role is to turn 3-year olds into ‘greedy’ consumers that nag their parents for Happy Meals, Barbie dolls and Reeboks also have much to answer for. To some degree we all, especially in the industrialized parts of the world, bear some responsibility. But if we fail to do the right thing now, it will not be that we neglected to add an extra layer of insulation to the water heater, but that we made a ‘personal virtue’ of our actions, rather than demanding that crucial decisions made in our names be virtuous as well.