January 5, 2019

What Can We Do About Climate Change?

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When I was a child, it was the threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads as the primary existential threat. It seems like climate change is well on its way to achieving that status today. It may not be quite as scary, but it seems a hell of a lot more certain. Climate change has been in the back of my mind for a while now, but I have not written much about it. I now find myself thinking that it might not only be the next important political issue but also one which we should be hearing more about from humanists.

Climate change is not a Chinese hoax. It is real, and we are already experiencing its effects. It is going to get worse too. We've had our chance to prevent it, and we failed. We may still have some chance of lessening its impact, but it is not at all clear that we will do so in time to make much of a difference. For those who have children or are concerned about future generations for other reasons, it seems almost certain that the lives of future generations will be very different from ours. They will be the ones who pay the price for our failures.

Climate Change as a Humanist Issue

Since we are all being affected by climate change already and should anticipate these effects worsening in the not too distant future, what does it mean to suggest that climate change might be a humanist issue? All I mean is that I think climate change might be something about which most humanists are concerned for reasons that reflect the meaning of humanism. I think that compassion and empathy for others are important aspects of humanism and that giving a damn about what happens to others is something most humanists share.

Depending on your age and degree of investment in future generations, a number of different reactions are understandable when one contemplates climate change. Some of you might be extremely concerned about it, see it as one of the most important issues facing humanity, and be determined to make all sorts of personal sacrifices in order to slow its impact. Maybe you fear for your own future, the future of your children, or both. Others might not be worried at all. Maybe you know you won't live to see the worst of what is coming and do not have any children to worry about. Or maybe you think that there will be some sort of technological solution to the problem that just hasn't been revealed yet.

My guess is that most humanists will be concerned enough about climate change to do something about it. They will make personal sacrifices even if they do not anticipate living long enough to see the worst of it and even if they do not have children to protect. I don't know this, but I'd guess that this is where the love of humanity kicks in. I would expect most humanists to have some difficulty with the "it's not my problem" sort of approach. Just because they will not be part of the future does not mean they stop caring about the lives of those who will be.

What Are We Willing To Do About Climate Change?

The question of what we are willing to do about climate change is probably more important than the one I used for the title of this post. I must admit that I'm conflicted here. What am I personally willing to do to reduce the impact of climate change. I don't have children to worry about, and I do not expect to be around long enough to experience the worst effects of climate change. That does not mean I do not view climate change as a problem, but it might mean that the degree of personal sacrifice I am willing to make is limited.

There is also the question of how much of an impact any of us can have as individuals. What can we do that we aren't already doing? Even if we did most of what we could, would it matter? I drive a relatively fuel-efficient vehicle and do not put many miles on it. I have not been on an airplane in over 10 years, and I rarely eat meat. I don't waste food, water, or electricity, and I try to re-use as much as I can instead of throwing it in the landfill. There is no question that I could make additional changes, but I fear their cumulative impact would be rather small.

I suspect this is true for most of us. Making the sort of personal changes each of us has the power to make probably won't have much of an impact unless everyone else was making them too. And clearly, this is not going to happen. That doesn't mean we shouldn't consider making as many changes as we can, but it means we will have to weigh the sort of impact they may have against the sacrifices they entail. The kinds of things that could still have an impact will require political leadership, major changes to how most people live their daily lives that few are going to make voluntarily, sustained action from government and industry, not to mention significant international cooperation. None of this seems likely to happen within the time frame in which it has to happen, and that is a depressing thought.

Climate Change and Christianity

I saw an article the other day written by an evangelical Christian who was boasting (at least that is how it came across) that Christians have all the answers to climate change. It pissed me off more than a little. I sometimes wonder if we would be in this situation if it wasn't for Christianity. Why bother to worry about climate change when Jesus is returning any day now? The conviction that we are living in the "end times" has led to inaction in far too many areas, and this is an example of one that hurts us all. It is not that all Christians buy into this nonsense. The problem is that we keep electing those who do and putting them in positions of power. This needs to change and soon.

Sure, it would be great if the vast Christian majority suddenly woke up and decided to change this "our god gave us dominion over the Earth" crap. It would also be nice if they would stop interpreting their bibles as only requiring compassion and empathy for other Christians. Their numbers would make a difference, and I doubt that much can be accomplished without them. And yet, these necessary shifts seem unlikely to happen on the scale they would be needed.

What Can We Do As Individuals About Climate Change?

One of the most obvious things we can all do as individuals involves getting politically active. If we are worried about climate change, we can vote for candidates who promise to lead on the issue. That sounds simple, but not nearly enough people have been doing it so far. We can start there. There are many areas where our involvement and advocacy can make a difference. But of course, that does not get at the heart of the issue. What kind of changes can we each make in our daily lives? What is each of us willing to sacrifice?

We need to recognize that this is about personal sacrifice. This is about giving things up that we like because we are concerned about their impact on climate change. The good news is that we are all different with regard to how easy it might be to give up some of this stuff and make the sort of changes we need to make. For me, significantly reducing the amount of meat I consume is not terribly difficult. For someone else, it might be. But chances are good that there is something else that other person can do relatively easily that might be very difficult for me to do. We don't all have to do the same things in the same way.

Imagine that each of us generated a list of all the things we could do in our daily lives that would be helpful and then rank ordered them from easiest to most difficult. The content of our lists would be similar; the order would not. Now imagine that each of us made as many of the easier sacrifices as we could. It seems like it would be a step in the right direction. Doing something is better than doing nothing. If many people were taking these steps in the right direction, these small steps might begin to amount to something meaningful.