The last of the napkins, receipts, and assorted papers settled back down as I closed the door; sealing off the restaurant from the blustery, Pittsburgh night.
“Are you still serving food?” I asked of the bartender.
“Sure,” he replied. It seemed like a pertinent question at 11pm. Conferences let out so late.
This past October, I had the opportunity to attend a climate change summit put on by the Climate Reality Project. After a day of presentations on framing climate issues, lobbying Public Service Commissions, and climate efforts in cities around the nation, I needed food.
Around the time my assortment of steaming pierogis were placed in front of me, a pair of women clambered up on to the stools to my right. One, catching sight of the conference badge I had forgotten to take off, got curious.
“First time in Pittsburgh? How are the pierogis?”
“Yeah. And they’re pretty good.”
After a grab bag of light chit-chat, she motioned to my badge asking, “So, what brings you to Pittsburgh?”
“I’m here for a climate change conference.”
That was the point at which our generally aimless small talk took an interesting and unexpected turn. Instead of glazing over as I expected, her eyes lit up. She started asking me questions and pulled her reluctant friend into the conversation. She wanted to know what I did. She wanted to know what I was learning. She wanted to know if anything was actually being done about our climate woes.
Then, she asked me something indicative of the disconnected, near hopeless relationship many people feel with the climate crisis.
“So, I already recycle. But what else can I do? It feels so pointless!”
My impromptu dinner partner’s exasperation is rather understandable. So much of what’s communicated to people about fighting climate change relies on the individual. Recycle. Walk to work. Change your light bulbs. Buy a hybrid. While these are ultimately positive actions, their individual nature unfortunately implies a purely individual source of the problem. In other words, climate change is your fault. How dare you?
But as George Marshall points out in his fantastic book Don’t Even Think About It, this misses the larger picture of systemic emissions that you couldn’t reasonably say are caused by individuals. Consider an Amish farmer and his emissions. There are no cars, no planes, no mindless consumption. You may be able to trace some emissions from land use or livestock back to him, but ultimately this agrarian man should have a miniscule carbon foot print.
And yet, he has the distinction of being an American. With that distinction comes a government full of representatives who travel, presidents who make numerous international flights a year, tax payer funded public buildings that are typically energy inefficient, and a beefy military that vents CO2 day and night. That’s a lot of carbon that our Amish farmer is “responsible” for. But, clearly, to pin it back on him, tell him to recycle more, and buy an Energy Star refrigerator is preposterous at best; injustice at worse.
This is a concept that Marshall refers to as Wellhead versus Tailpipe emissions. By only focusing on individual actions like riding our bikes everywhere or hang drying our laundry (the Tailpipe emissions), we ignore the reality that we need changes to our larger governmental, social, and infrastructure systems. These are the Wellhead emissions; those that can be avoided by never taking the carbon out of the ground or altering the landscape in the first place. They are also emissions that the typical consumer is powerless to affect. But the typical citizen can.
So, I told my concerned and exasperated pierogi partner, there are several meaningful things you can do. Help tackle those big Wellhead issues.
For starters, the tried and true advice for public action still holds: contact your legislators. Let them know that you want to see strict emissions targets, more renewable energy, and more sustainable transportation options. Stay up to date with climate issues specific to your area, connect with groups that work on these issues, and speak up with phone calls and letters and Op Eds when you want your representatives to vote a certain way. It seems like the old standby of public action, but it really does have an impact.
You can also communicate directly with the officials facing climate issues on a daily basis: your public utilities commission and your county government. These bodies make decisions on energy and land use as a matter of course, and they lean on the public for input frequently. Learn about their initiatives and let them know which way you want them to go. Get others to call them and publish letters in local papers about why certain energy or transportation projects should be supported and others opposed.
Consider joining others to push your state legislature for the creation of a Community Choice Aggregation program, or CCA. Under a CCA, communities are allowed to combine the purchasing power of thousands of individual consumers to negotiate purchasing contracts for the whole community from energy producers; something individual consumers might not be able to do. A CCA is a more democratic way for people to get what they want in their energy mix rather than what a distant utility CEO decides is best for his bottom line.
But perhaps the single most important thing you can do is also the easiest thing to accomplish: talk. Just talk about climate change. Talk to your family. Talk to your friends. Share your concerns, your hopes, and your fears. Tell them know what you are doing. Discuss what should be done.
We live in a nation where nearly 70% of us are convinced that climate change is happening, 56% of us are significantly worried about it, and 65% or more of us support policies to tackle the problem. These numbers are steadily rising. But only a third of us actually talk about the issue to family and friends with any frequency.
This gap is a huge issue that you can easily help fix. The fact that so many of us are worried and think something should be done, yet so few of us talk about climate change, leads to misperception that no one but us really cares.
You can stop that. You would be amazed when you start talking to people about the climate crisis how worried they are as well. My Pittsburgh dinner mate was a prime example. Learn about the climate crisis, learn about what we can do, and learn about the progress we’ve made so far. Yes, as some are surprised to learn, we are making notable progress.
You have a voice in this. Don’t let parties interested in making the problem seem unsolvable distract you from their actions by making the climate crisis “your fault.” While I would always encourage people to change their light bulbs and turn their heater down, know that there is much more to solving this problem than just buying new “green” things. This is a problem of societal scale, and it’s going to take all of society working together to right this ship. You are a part of society. Use your voice.
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