Taking one action


in Law, Politics, Science, The environment

Talking with my friend Meaghan, the question arose: what is the single most useful thing individuals can do easily to help address climate change? Almost certainly, it is taking some action to influence the politics in their country. For those living in democracies, there is probably nothing more useful they can do than nudging their elected representatives a bit toward understanding climate change, wanting to curb it, and being aware of how to do so.

As BuryCoal argues, the key to dealing with climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels. The more coal, oil, and gas stay underground, the less the climate will change. At the moment, I think that is probably the most important message people can convey to their representatives.

Of course, anyone who you tell that to is likely to come back at you with various objections. Fossil fuels power the world economy, for instance. It may be unrealistic to expect the average citizen to prepare counter-arguments for the major objections they will hear – which range from the realistic to the completely deluded. This major counter-argument, however, seems to have two responses. First, we do have alternatives. The total amount of renewable energy out there is huge, and we have many different ways to capture it. Second, nothing about the universe guarantees our current level of energy use. It may well be that future generations experience leaner times. That is far preferable to a world where they are trying to deal with catastrophic or runaway climate change.

The degree to which members of the general public need to understand climate change and its solutions is debatable. It may well be that the problem can be solved by stealth, without much input from the average individual. My fantasy climate change policy doesn’t call for much in the way of voluntary action. For those individuals who are concerned, I would say that first and foremost they should be expressing their deep concern to their elected representatives, highlighting how climate change is the challenge facing humanity and the most important current force that will determine how future generations live.

Once you have done that, you can go on to take actions that reduce your personal contribution to the problem, like improving the efficiency of your home, going vegetarian, reducing travel, etc. Ultimately, the emergence of society-wide mandatory solutions seems to have a much greater chance of addressing the problem than hoping for bottom-up voluntary actions to do the job.

One North American group focused on encouraging ordinary citizens to lobby their representatives for action on climate change is the Citizens Climate Lobby.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan January 13, 2011 at 9:11 am

“there is probably nothing more useful they can do than nudging their elected representatives a bit toward understanding climate change, wanting to curb it, and being aware of how to do so.”

You really need some political analysis for this to be convincing. Why is encouraging our elected representatives a way of influencing government direction and policy?

Milan January 16, 2011 at 9:41 pm

I think politicians correctly sense that climate change isn’t a top-of-mind issue for most of their constituents right now. It seems like the tide of concern peaked a couple of years ago and has dwindled since. That’s a big problem, given that climate change has only become a more serious concern in the interim.

It’s plausible that there are other better actions people could take – but I definitely think political advocacy is a better use of time and resources than reducing personal emissions is for most people right now.

Tristan January 17, 2011 at 1:24 am

My general attitude is that while direct political advocacy may be of some value, working towards creating public awareness and outrage about climate change is the ultimate driving force which would make any such advocacy valuable.

But perhaps I shouldn’t presume that politiciens will respond to public opinion, however, as this is often incorrect. Maybe what we need to create is not just public opinion, but public passion.

Milan January 18, 2011 at 11:33 pm

It seems to be extremely challenging to make people genuinely concerned about the fate of future generations of humans.

Ascribing real value to that future seems be be intuitively and emotionally challenging.

Tristan January 19, 2011 at 11:58 am

It seems extremely challenging because it is. That’s one of the reason I think alienating those who want to fight climate change because of the environmental effects which are happening right now, which you might believe are in a theoretical-moral sense orthogonal to the “real” problem, is dangerously foolish.

Some serious thought on what it takes to bring about real change:

Milan January 19, 2011 at 6:07 pm

By all means, people should point out the effects that are occurring now – we just shouldn’t overstate them.

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