If the hot air generated at world climate summits could spin turbines, our power needs would be in pretty good shape.
The two-week United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow ended on Nov. 13 with no firm commitments and no enforcement mechanism. Compromising on one of the stickiest issues, diplomats from almost 200 countries agreed to “phase down” but not “phase out” coal production. But lest all hope is lost, nations agreed to meet again next year. For more talks.
All this transpired as the Northwest was hit by another bout of weird weather. Parts of Washington and British Columbia endured historic flooding so severe it could take weeks to repair. Just a few months ago, our region was beset by heat domes and catastrophic fires.
Climate change isn’t a theory. It isn’t something that we must prevent for the sake of our children. It’s here now, wrecking lives and the economy.
So how as individuals are we supposed to react?
Does taking personal action make a difference, or it is a distraction from the fundamental policy debates that climate experts say will determine the world’s fate?
Back in the spring of 2007, when I was a reporter for this newspaper, I spearheaded a reader-focused effort called The Seattle Times Climate Challenge.
The Times had recently published a story with the headline, “The truth about global warming,” which concluded: “Every major scientific body to examine the evidence has come to the same conclusion: The planet is getting hotter; man is to blame; and it’s going to get worse.”
The debate, it seemed, was over.
Instead of just passively processing these doomsday scenarios, I reckoned that people would want to actually try to do something about it. And so the Climate Challenge was born: a monthlong exercise encouraging folks to determine their carbon footprint and reduce it by 15%, which was about the same as the Kyoto Protocol, a U.N. effort which called for worldwide reduction of climate pollution by 2012.
The tips were fairly straightforward: switch out light bulbs, inflate your tires, turn down the thermostat, drive less.
At the time, there was quite a buzz across the country about taking simple, actionable steps. “Project Laundry List” out of New Hampshire, for example, advocated for clotheslines instead of dryers. If all Americans line-dried for just six months, experts said, it would save 3.3% of the country’s total residential output of carbon dioxide.
Battle lines were drawn: enviro-conscious families retained lawyers to tussle with homeowners’ associations that didn’t allow T-shirts, socks and bed sheets to flap in the breeze.
I left The Seattle Times in late 2007 to join the administration of Mayor Greg Nickels, who took on climate change as his signature issue. In September of that year, Nickels launched “Seattle Climate Action Now,” which was touted as a “grassroots climate protection campaign aimed at giving Seattle residents the tools they need to start making a real difference at home, at work and on the road.”
This was a centerpiece of Nickels’ call for cities around the country to join Seattle and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012, inspired by the Kyoto agreement.
Nickels wasn’t in office to see whether Seattle hit his goal. He lost reelection to Mike McGinn, the former Sierra Club leader who didn’t have much interest in “Seattle Climate Action Now.”
And the Seattle City Council moved on to loftier ambitions, declaring the city would be totally carbon neutral by 2050.
We will save the planet, government says, a few decades from now. But in the meantime, we’re not asking you to do anything different, except to remember to draw the window shades during extreme heat and make sure you stay inside during the occasional smoke emergency.
Even the “Project Laundry List” website hasn’t posted anything new on clothesline advocacy since 2014.
Some climate activists say focusing on personal actions actually plays into a deceptive PR ploy designed by Big Oil. Only dramatic reductions in fossil fuel production — no more exploration, drilling or refining — will make a difference.
That point of view seems too clever by half.
I understand that only big, fundamental changes will possibly avert the worst scenarios. Local, regional and state government have taken important steps, from adding new bike lanes to more zero-emission battery buses and statewide clean-energy standards.
But without personal engagement, fatalism takes root, which is as bad as apathy and ignorance.
I say: If you care about this stuff, go ahead and recycle that paper coffee cup (or better yet, bring your own!). Pay attention to state and federal elections, write letters, and don’t let up the pressure on governments and industries that have our collective fates in their hands.
During the last heat emergency, which hit local oyster farms particularly hard, observers made parallels between our insane weather and the other history-making global crisis: COVID-19.
“The pandemic was a big, scary intimidating problem, and most of us were willing to make a few small changes that really helped,” a marine biologist told The Washington Post. “We can do the same thing with climate change.”
The climate crisis was created by humans. Each and every one of us has the ability to make a difference, and we have the moral obligation to try.