The New York Times Magazine recently dedicated an entire month’s issue to climate change – a 30,000-word long-read. Diligently researched by Nathaniel Rich, the narrative describes the decade when despite abundant and clear scientific information, our species refused to act on the existential problem of carbon emissions and associated climate change.
Peppered with horrifying yet stunning visuals, the two-part article spans 1979 to 1989, when climate science was understood and conclusive, scientists were very sure, world powers were close to doing something about it and even the then Republican party of the US deemed it an urgent problem. The article is a work of history, specifically American history, but also points out the failure in larger humanity to grasp the problem and work towards collective long term welfare of our species.
Since the story was published, many historians, climate scientists and journalists have come out with criticism over the apparent whitewashing of the role of fossil fuel companies and the resource-heavy, regulation-free neoliberal economies. Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein wrote about the neoliberal “supernova” occurring parallel to Rich’s narrative, where deregulation, privatisation and profits ruled over planetary health. Robinson Meyer wrote about the details of climate politics and US administration during that time which didn’t find a mention: solar programs were defunded, climate agencies were censored and shuttered and projects closed.
The crux of the criticism, rightly, remains that it’s wrong to blame human nature and humanity – a world exists beyond the US – when disinformation campaigns are rampant, corporations are let off the hook, and climate politics remains broken, not only within high emission countries but in the wider world as poorer countries grapple with the effects of a changing climate they had little hand in creating.
Climate change is a complicated topic both in its scope and impact. We are still refining our models, discovering new feedback mechanisms (plastic trash is now a source of greenhouse gases) and calculating real time impact on geographically constrained disasters. Its impact on our politics, economy and technology is a work in progress.
At the same time, some things are clear: carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, etc.) are heating up the planet. Reduce their emissions and we have a shot at saving ourselves from long-term negative impacts. And we have had some success. The Montreal Protocol, signed almost 30 years ago by 197 countries, is a rare example of collective action that saved the ozone layer and helped mitigate the emissions.
A similar effort was achieved with the Kigali amendment to curtail the emission of hydrofluorocarbons used chiefly in air conditioning, refrigeration and foam insulation. The Montreal Protocol worked due to a rare consensus in the global political forum and because their sources were few and concentrated. The messaging was clear: depleting the ozone layer in the stratosphere will increase the incidence of cancer; there are alternatives for these products; action needs to be immediate.
There are lessons to be learnt for climate and environment action, but carbon emissions don’t have just one source and there are problems to solve at every stage – technology, economics, politics and, finally, in our messaging.
“What can we do to help planet and our environment?” is easily one of the most frequently asked questions by people who want to participate in humanity’s biggest challenge. What can I, as an individual, do to make that change? The more challenging among us would question, rightly so, how the responsibility of solving climate fell on individual action when the scope transcends individuals to much larger actors, governments and industrialised world? Even if we do choose to do our bit, would it ever make a dent? Will it ever be worth it?
In the last couple of weeks, many companies have pledged to stop the use of plastic straws, a common single-use plastic commodity. Coffee shops to high-end bars provide a paper straw that turns into mush before you’re done with your drink. The move was lauded because plastic is an environmental cancer that has now spread to the pelagic depths.
Others highlighted the inherent ableism behind the move – differently abled people depend on straws to consume fluids – and the minuscule share that straws take up in plastic waste in our oceans (0.03% of eight million tonnes). In contrast, fishing gear currently makes up around 46% of the oceanic plastic waste. Your skipping a straw would have practically no impact but maybe eating sustainably sourced tuna and advocating for better commercial fishing gear, its disposal and recycling by fishing companies might make a difference.
There are plenty of similar instances. Recycling and waste segregation is almost a futile exercise since trash today is complicated and not everyone can segregate according to raisin codes. We are appealed to to reduce our carbon footprint, often in extreme ways; a headline in The Guardian last week read ‘Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children’. While we’re expected to limit our procreation, only a 100 companies around the world belched 71% of the total emissions (Coal India is at number #6).
Saving the world is tough not only because of our reticence to change behaviour for common, long-term good, as Rich suggested, but also because it is hard to do it in our material economies. People will take a car if public transit is unavailable or bad. They will eat foods produced through economies of scale because they are cheap, and they will use air conditioning as the world is bathed in heatwaves.
The solution for humans in a carbon-heavy culture is not symbolic asceticism or demanding that people forgo their next generation but to decarbonise our economies.
Think global, act local
The enormity and impact of our environmental and climate crises doesn’t always invoke the required urgency but it can often increase anxiety, apathy and detach individuals from their actions. What is the point of flying less or eating less meat when the impact is minuscule? The mass transformation of unsustainable systems – carbon heavy industries, commodity-driven financial systems and commercial livestock operations – can be even more difficult, especially when advocacy from consumers is not effective enough.
Recent studies tackling the exact same question – of moving beyond individual behaviour and focusing on a collective human interface with the environment – have found the transformational role individuals can play by “stepping outside the norm” and “inspiring collective action”.
Some of the more inspiring stories emerging from this paradigm are in our neighbourhoods. A group of concerned citizens revived the Kaikondrahalli lake in Bengaluru, led by a newly transplanted resident named Priya Ramasudan. The Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom (economics, 2009) planted a jackfruit tree at the rejuvenated premises of the lake, a testament to her belief in community-led solutions.
Last month, in a dangerously polluted Delhi, citizens and activists prevented 16,000 mature trees from being cut through vigils, protests and petitions. In Mexico, a nuns formed an unlikely partnership with British conservationists to save the indigenous and very rare salamander. A niche but thoroughly enjoyable Facebook group, New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens, has discussed some relevant issues on transportation, urban spaces and un-sprawling our cities in a playful and engaging way.
Take your pick – action, advocacy, awareness – and there are individual-led communities working successfully, online and offline, in making an impact to their micro-climates and, by extension, the world. Actions only seem meaningful when there is visible impact. In this context, it is disingenuous to expect that only individual actions would (or could have) reversed emission release, but it is reasonable to expect them to transform urban spaces, reduce household electricity consumption, help create green spaces and work towards solving location-specific problems like heat islands, pollution, air quality and water harvesting.
Our climate messaging has come a full circle. It started with a distant polar bear perched atop a shrinking ice block in the north, invoking nonchalance, to currently leaving many disappointed with their efforts. Our planet is lucky to be situated in our Solar System the way it is: just close enough to provide energy for sustaining life and far enough to not get toasted. A similarly fine balance is needed to save it: being worried enough to make urgent changes and hopeful enough to have the courage to see them through. We might just make it.
Madalsa Singh is a researcher working on issues of energy, climate change and mobility. She is currently based out of Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.