Before Ukrainegate and the looming Trump impeachment took all the air out of the room, we were having an important conversation about climate change. Let’s not forget about it.
Friday marked the end of a week of crisis mobilization, awareness and political action designed to save the planet -- a longshot but why not give it one last try before we perish in a few hundred short years?
At the United Nations and in Connecticut, we heard from teenagers with choked-up voices and heartfelt beliefs about the sins of their elders laying Earth to waste.
We saw 300 media outlets vow collectively to step up their coverage. We saw countless people march for change on climate change.
What’s missing in all of this? Any talk of personal responsibility. We see almost zero about how people actually live their lives.
That’s a shame because the uphill battle against climate change isn’t just about policy and technology. Unless we change our routines — personally, in ways that mean deep sacrifice — then the Armageddon these passionate youths are talking about is a sure thing, sooner rather than later.
That means pain, folks. That does not mean recycling your drink containers and composting banana peels while flying to Aruba for the weekend. I’m the biggest energy hypocrite in America, so I’m talking to me.
The climate change movement aims at two main targets: First, forcing policymakers to boost regulations and allocate money in ways that severely curtail fossil fuel use and habitat degradation. Having president Donald Trump in office with his anti-science approach to climate makes the job that much harder, as we saw when his best response was to mock Greta Thunberg, the global face of the movement.
In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont seems to be out front on policy, pushing to eliminate carbon emissions in electric generation by 2040. Some say that’s not fast enough, we need to stop building gas-fired plants now.
That leads to the second goal of the movement: accelerating technology to make zero-emissions possible. Phil Levieff, a Westport tech entrepreneur and founder of TecKnow, stands at the leading edge. He built a zero-emission house and he’s talking about Tesla battery technology that makes solar and wind power viable day and night.
We need more Phil Levieffs and we need more political leaders pushing forward. Technology and policy are massive arsenals in the war and it’s good and right that the climate change movement leans in that direction.
And it’s very unfortunate that personal responsibility is almost entirely absent. Without that third leg of the climate defense triad, the other two cannot work and the war is lost.
The reason lifestyle change isn’t part of the discussion is simple: No one wants to hear it. It’s easy to point a finger at the White House, at the state Capitol, at corporations, at town hall. It’s hard to restructure our lives in a way that actually moves the dial toward preventing the threshold level of 2 degrees centigrade for global temperature rise.
Sena Wazer is just 15 but the Mansfield teen, an organizer and speaker at the Sept. 20 climate change rally in Hartford, understands the need to keep an audience happy.
“The goal of an event like a strike or a rally is really to get people motivated or inspired,” Wazer told me when I asked why so little is said about lifestyle changes. “And then the goal from there is really to harness that power, that people power.. and then from there, go into the legislature of from there go to an event.”
Credit Wazer, who’s already a UConn student, for knowing not to berate her listeners. “People are not going to take it onto themselves,” she said of profound lifestyle changes. “Some people will, and a plus to them.”
Clearly, there’s a long way to go in policy even without personal life changes. In fact, Trump is taking us backwards fast. Think about his move two weeks ago to revoke California’s right to set vehicle fuel emissions standards — ironic considering the Republicans fought former President Barack Obama bitterly on national regulations.
“That’s why the policy side is so important, because it has a much bigger impact,” said Samantha Dynowski, director of the Sierra Club in Connecticut. “It’s going to take a lot more awareness for behavior change.”
Many policy and technology people in the climate change war dream of a day when lifestyle changes are either automatic or painless. Levieff talks about Tesla technology for a can that can go 1 million miles on a battery that loses just 10 percent of its capacity, zero to 60 in 1.9 seconds.
Great. We still need personal change. The idea that we need more awareness before people start living differently reminds me of the famous line from Jaws, where Richard Dreyfuss’s character says to the mayor, “You’re going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you in the ass!”
I often tell the story of how two close friends of mine affect the environment.
One, let’s call her Jane, couldn’t care a whit about climate change. She can’t be troubled to recycle, buys a cold drink in a plastic bottle only to take a sip and throw the rest out every time she’s thirsty. She leaves her house air conditioned when she goes on vacation in the summer so she doesn’t have to come back to a hot abode.
The other, call him Jack, runs a nonprofit dedicated to ecologically sustainable medicine. He composts every scrap of waste, carries wooden forks and spoons around to avoid using plastic, eats and wears all organic and drives an electric car.
No question who’s better for the environment, right?
Not so fast. Jane, as it happens, works from home, lives in a small house, doesn’t eat meat and likes to stay put. Jack has houses on both coasts and two big dogs (look that one up on the carbon footprint charts), and he works in New York and Berkeley.
Who’s the responsible climate citizen? Almost no one.
I criticized my neighbor for using machines to do every task at his house while I shovel snow, rake leaves and sweep the driveway by hand and create virtually no trash, even washing and reusing plastic bags. He turned to me and asked how many people live in my 4-bedroom house. “Just me,” I said, as I’m divorced and my kid is grown.
He didn’t need to say anything. Our economy is built on profligate energy use and that drives our sense of comfort, our sense of self.
We know it. Enlightenment isn’t enough. Technology isn’t enough. Policy change isn’t enough. Selective action isn’t enough.
True sacrifice is what’s needed. As long as we live in a world where we don’t impose our values on others, the climate change problem lives someplace else. When it finally swims up and bites us in the ass, no technology or policy fix will stop the bleeding.