The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a climate change report stating that there are only 12 years left to keep rising global temperatures beneath a catastrophic level. If levels rise beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, by even half a degree, the panel warns risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and debilitating poverty will rise for millions of people. The UN panel cited more than 6,000 works in its report, and IPCC Co-Chair of the Working Group on impacts Debra Roberts called the document “a line in the sand” for the future of the planet.
There is no reason to dignify the idea that climate change, or global warming, is not real. Scientifically, that would make no more sense than arguing that smoking is actually beneficial for human lungs. The inaccuracy of that statement was established by science, by years of theories and studies, and the majority of human beings decided to believe the scientific evidence because, logically, there was no reason to doubt it and every reason to believe it. So too with global warming.
The biggest problem with climate change is not that the majority of people don’t believe in it, because most do, but that people consciously choose not to do anything about it. Believing in the seriousness of climate change requires people to care actively about something that, at the moment, does not affect their day-to-day lives. For many people, that is simply too much to ask.
Or is it?
Frankly, decreasing the amount of harm the average person does to the environment is not incredibly challenging. Everyday people can make many small changes to tread a little lighter on the earth. For example, go meatless a couple of days a week. Cornell University researchers, among others, wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2003 that a meat-based food system requires more energy, land, and water resources than a plant-based diet. Walk to places that are close. Cars are one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Use a recycling bin. Think about where trash actually goes, and recycling as much as possible seems much more appealing. Doing these simple things is so easy that not doing them can only be attributed to apathy, ignorance or laziness.
A classic argument is that corporations are killing the environment (a fair point). Another is that the actions of a single person do not make a difference. But these are moral cop-outs meant to free individual people from accountability for their actions. It is similar to parking in the handicap accessible parking spot because “it will only be a minute.” Trying to deflect the blame for a morally wrong action is a cowardly way to avoid personal responsibility, creating much of the complacency that prevents change in the world.
The “not my problem” concept is also an example of privilege breeding apathy, and Americans are perhaps more guilty of it than anybody. Temperate climates like the United States and Europe will not suffer the more immediate consequences of global warming, but rather the “equatorial” countries in the global south, which tend to already be poor and endure harsh climates. As Earth & Space Science News points out, the burdens of climate change will be most heavy for states that are already suffering, like those in the tropics. While the industrial powers of the world pollute the environment at dangerously high rates, the less developed nations will essentially be picking up the tab as they are battered by droughts, hurricanes and other natural disasters. This has an interesting parallel with colonialism, a practice that, although it is en vogue to denounce as a sin of the past, seems to be alive and well in principle.
Humans are destructive creatures. We live really destructive lives that, objectively speaking, are bad for the planet—but that does not mean that we should not do anything about it.
Unfortunately, the climate change debate has become politicized. Putting in as much effort as possible for the sake of the earth is in the interest of every race, political party and denomination in the world. Resolving this issue should have the same universal support as, say, curing cancer. However, unlike cancer, the science and technology already exist to reverse the climate change problem. The only reason the problem persists is that not enough people use the technology, and that is the true tragedy of climate change. Whether a farmer living his life working the land, a child swimming in a lake during the summer, a woman reading in a park on the fresh-cut grass, all people benefit from the environment, so it serves all our best interests protecting it. Stopping climate change is an act of basic human decency.
Making small changes in our lives to be environmentally responsible takes so little effort, and so little time. You don’t have to be a “bleeding heart liberal,” as many environmentalists have been labeled. You don’t have to go vegan or take up astrology or heal illnesses with herbs. You just have to be decent and want to leave a better world for later generations than the one we have now.