It’s hard not to think of a more personal political issue right now than climate change. It’s an existential threat to our very existence on Earth, so it should feel deeply personal.
Of course, some people don’t believe there’s a problem, and for the people that desperately want to act, having to confront that denialism and overcome it is deeply personal too.
But that’s not the debate in Guelph. As we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, our members of city council have been talking about how severe we want to be in our response. In a way, that’s kind of refreshing.
Having said that, let’s pause the policy discussion to talk about the nature of problem. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we’ve got a little over 10 years just to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees, or else things will really get bad. In other words, we have a decade to stop climate change from getting worse than it already is.
I mention this because a lot of people think that means we have a decade to get our act together, like some classic Hollywood movie scenario where there’s a bomb counting down, and as long was we snip the chord before the timer reaches 0:01, we’re golden.
Now, I’m all for incrementalism, but I’m also concerned that the time for taking things step-by-step is over.
Let’s look at this way: You go into an exam room at the hospital, and a hundred doctors tell you that you have cancer and it will consume and kill you in 10 years. They recommend a highly experimental and costly treatment that will slowly get rid of the cancer over time but will allow to live a long and happy life.
Instead, you choose the incremental approach. You’ll eat better, exercise more, get a full night’s sleep, and taking the stairs more in order to get healthier. It does nothing to attack the cellular problem, the cancer, just like, I fear, that the few changes we’ve made are doing nothing about the core problem of climate change.
The stinger is that people think they’re taking real action. I work at an area chain store where we charge 5 cents for a plastic bag, and many people think themselves environmental heroes for bringing their own bags or awkwardly carrying the dozen items they purchased out of the store.
While these people pat themselves on the back for their due diligence, they don’t seem to realize that just about everything they just bought was shipped across three continents in hardly the most energy efficient manner. They also, likely, drove their car to get to the store, which means that the one bobble or doodad you just bought has a huge carbon footprint between manufacturing, shipping and getting it into your home.
That’s not to diminish the need to eliminate single-use plastics. Every story about a whale being found beached with 20 pounds of plastic in its belly is an indictment on humanity and the disposable society we’ve created.
Still, there are people, and I see it everyday, that complain bitterly about that 5 cents for a plastic bag. They’ll rage at stupid governments and greedy corporations because they remember longingly about times when you just put all your garbage in a big black bag, when gas was cheap and you could drive as much as you want with much less congestion. And a carbon tax? Ha, that was that thing that happened to Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but these are older people that think this way, and the reason that incrementalism sells is because they vote. Human beings of all ages inherently hate change, but you hate it more as you get set in your ways.
Still, change must happen, and if it must happen, it can at least take time to happen and thus lighten the blow. This is what’s driven our reaction to the climate crisis so far and look how far we’ve gotten.
I worry. I worry about the Earth of my old age, and I worry about the Earth of niece’s old age and that of her unborn brother or sister. And I worry about the Earth that all of today’s young people will live in for years to come.
City council’s been pretty good at playing the politics of climate change – better than most – but I’m not sure this is the time for politics. On top of it all, this entire debate has been happening on social media and in the op-ed pages, which means we have our politicians talking at each other, not to each other.
The debate has always been framed as why do we need wide, sweeping action on climate change, but as the province floods, I think the people wanting incrementalism need to be the ones to do the convincing. Or perhaps a better word is persuasion.
It’s always appreciated when council acts with a united voice, but if you been watching the news lately, then this question must be asked: are we doing enough?