The Bigger Picture
Published on July 23rd in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
I closed last week’s column by asking how many of us as individual citizens in more developed countries are willing to take personal responsibility for the CO2 emissions that are a result of the lifestyles we live. I could be wrong, but thus far the evidence suggests precious few of us either have been or are willing to change our lifestyles in an effort to fix or pay for the environmental damage we are causing.
How can we blame politicians when almost half of us don’t even bother to vote? Judging by the lack of electoral success experienced by political candidates who are advocates of stronger measures to address climate change, even the roughly half of us who do vote have thus far shown little inclination to give politicians the power to do so.
Furthermore the response of most people to the idea of adding carbon taxes to the cost of the petrol, electricity and plastics, which are all derived from fossil fuels, has been decidedly negative so far. The main complaint I hear about proposals for carbon taxes is that these carbon based products already cost too much so we shouldn’t be forced to pay more for them even though we know using them is harming the global environment.
While I’m not happy about paying more for gas or electricity either, I also know that it is both selfish and irresponsible for me to continue to advocate getting a free pass for my CO2 emissions now that I know this is harmful to our global environment. It was one thing to use carbon based products to enhance our lifestyles before we knew there were negative consequences associated with using them. But it is quite another thing to continue using them without paying for the environmental costs associated with their use.
Most people are unwilling to face up to the fact that by not paying for the environmental costs associated with their continued use of fossil fuels today, their children and grandchildren will end up paying much more in the way of taxes to cope with the negative consequences of climate change in the future. How can sticking future generations with the bill for the consequences of climate change, due to our refusal to pay the costs of avoiding this, be considered anything but selfish and irresponsible?
We have already begun to experience some of the negative consequences of a warming world such as more extreme forms of weather in our lower latitudes including more intense tropical storms as well as longer lasting droughts. These more intense storms and droughts have also led to an increase in deaths caused by floods or starvation in many parts of the world. Rising sea levels have also led to increased erosion of costal areas around the world and made some tropical islands and costal areas uninhabitable. Furthermore the melting of permafrost in the northern hemisphere’s tundra areas has forced some natives of these regions to relocate their villages to more stable ground and disrupted the life cycles of native wildlife they depend on for their survival.
The reality of our current situation is that the governments of the world and their citizens as taxpayers have already begun to foot the bill for our unfettered use of fossil fuels and deforestation. After all, who do you think is paying for the costs of property damage and the household relocations caused by floods and costal erosion or the costs of crop failures caused by droughts? But the current costs of coping with climate change are only a small fraction of the costs and taxes that we and, to an even greater extent, our children will have to pay. If we expect our children to act responsibly and protect the global environment, then we must begin by examining the kind of example we’re setting.
Unfortunately what we adults have shown our children so far are that we are only willing to take relatively easy steps towards addressing the problem of global warming. Many of us do in fact turn down our thermostats and turn off the lights to conserve energy. Some of us have purchased more fuel efficient cars and or energy efficient appliances, while others have even gone so far as to install solar panels to provide for their homes or businesses electricity needs. I applaud those who have done these things, but the truth is these measures also usually pay for themselves within a matter of months or years so we have much to gain and little to lose financially by taking these steps.
Some people also like to point to various government mandates that have led a decrease in our usage of plastic bags or to an increase in the use of bio-fuels in our cars. But these steps are also relatively easy for us to implement since it merely means we pay a few cents more to bag our groceries and our car engines don’t have to be adapted to run on a blend of ethanol and conventional petrol.
But we have also recently discovered that the increased use of bio-fuels has not only resulted in increased prices for our food supplies but it has also led to an increase in CO2 emissions as well. That’s because we have cut down forests to clear land in order to raise bio-fuel crops like corn, palm oil, sugarcane or soybeans and released more CO2 into the atmosphere than we would had we left those forests alone. Yes, using food crops to produce atmosphere friendly petrol initially sounded like an easy way to help address global warming by cutting our use of conventional petrol. Unfortunately when something sounds too good to be true that is because it usually isn’t true.
The reality of the steps we have taken to address the problem of global warming is that few of them required us to change our energy wasting lifestyles. Parking the car and using public transportation is one of those lifestyle changes I’ll discuss next week.