Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?”

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Greenpeace Shell BC

Illustration taken from GreenPeace

One of the benefits of having a blog – and one of its curses too – is that I get things in the email that other people want me to put on my blog. Or write about on my blog. This is one of those: it comes from The Nation which is a magazine whose web site operates behind a paywall. So I get a complimentary log in to see articles which they think I will direct you to. Many are worthy, and I understand why The Nation wants to stay in business and keep paying its journalists to provide content. But, as far as possible, I continue to try and find sources that are not paywalled.

Today the news is full of two things that everybody is writing about: the new Papal encyclical and the latest American shooting atrocity. The Nation has three, searing articles about that and how this church and this date were neither randomly picked. And a commencement speech by Naomi Klein to the College of the Atlantic on June 6, 2015.

Mine is not going to be your average commencement address, for the simple reason that College of the Atlantic is not your average college. I mean, what kind of college lets students vote on their commencement speaker—as if this is their day or something? What’s next? Women choosing whom they are going to marry?

So as it happens there’s a couple of things here that have resonance with me. Firstly the Atlantic has, very wisely, closed comments on the three articles about the Charleston massacre. After yesterday, I have been seriously thinking that might not be too bad of an idea here, but two comments from the Usual Suspects set me straight on that. We do have good discussions here, and one wingnut is not going to be allowed to upset that. Secondly, one of the topics that Naomi Klein addresses speaks to something I have been thinking about.

These days, I give talks about how the same economic model that superpowered multinationals to seek out cheap labor in Indonesia and China also supercharged global greenhouse-gas emissions. And, invariably, the hand goes up: “Tell me what I can do as an individual.” Or maybe “as a business owner.”

The hard truth is that the answer to the question “What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?” is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we—as atomized individuals, even lots of atomized individuals—could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system, or changing the global economy, is objectively nuts.

Recently Jane Fonda visited Jericho Beach and spoke there about pipelines and coastal tankers and whatnot, and of course the commenters weighed in as usual, being snide about how Jane chose to travel here, and thus was some kind of hypocrite because that trip used fossil fuel. Just as the same cabal has chided Al Gore for his campaigning on the same topic.

Maybe the Pope is going to be different. Maybe his speech will start the moral shift that is needed in the corridors of power to finally address the issue. Of course the fact that someone inside the Vatican leaked the encyclical (not a usual turn of events) and that Jeb Bush was already out front of it seem to point in the direction that the pontiff will be going. A bit like the way the President has had to acknowledge on gun control.

But continuing the “fair use “privilege, here is how Naomi Klein sees it towards the end of her speech

….the weight of the world is not on any one person’s shoulders—not yours. Not Zoe’s. Not mine. It rests in the strength of the project of transformation that millions are already a part of.

That means we are free to follow our passions. To do the kind of work that will sustain us for the long run. It even means we can take breaks—in fact, we have a duty to take them. And to make sure our friends do too.

And, as it happens you can also watch – for free –  what Naomi Klein said on YouTube

And also here is what she has to say about the Pope’s new message

One Response

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  1. I have noticed in my readings that there is a dichotomy of perception on certain topics, like climate change. Richard Heinberg criticizes Naomi Klein for couching what he sees essentially as an issue of energy and thermodynamics in overly political terms and for what he implies is her naiveté on economics and science. Perhaps he is right, but that is from a guy who seems hellbent on believing that we are heading for Total Collapse No Matter What.

    In my opinion we are headed down a path where we must plan to reduce the burning of fossil fuels before the price instability of supply and demand in the context of near absolute dependence involuntarily reduces our energy supply and destabilizes our economy before we can even develop carbon-free alternatives. This will impose itself on the Left and Right alike; it is a great disservice to society for either camp to emphasis politics over science. In addition, it will take a vastly more judicious use of fossil fuels to make the transition to a cleaner future. Planning the transition is one of the most important steps we need to take, and suggesting leaving all of it in the ground today will not result in a transition. It will result in a Heinbergian economic collapse into a warlord society (well, he is American) well before the next wave of climate tipping points are reached.

    Heinberg is a pessimist with an important message, but that also means that message does not adequately address the fact that optimism, innovation, creativity and adaptation can ease the slide. He draws attention to Mark Lynas for a belief in a “techno fix” for climate change and peak oil that seems to ignore the financial instability and levels of debt (notably in the USA) that will make technology unaffordable and halt progress. I’m not so sure about that because Heinberg, in my view, commits an egregious error in judgement in thinking that human behaviour will not change and adapt as it has over millennia when forced to.

    Lynas did his research and found that there were too many political and ideological roadblocks that organizations like Greenpeace place in the path. On one hand they give full credence to the scientific method (defining a problem, open testing of hypotheses, independent peer review, etc.) when it comes to climate change, but become a remarkably closed camp regarding the scientific method when it comes to next generation nuclear power. They even elevated scientifically discredited reports on nuclear while concurrently “exposing” the same kind of reporting on climate.

    That’s politics. And unfortunately it’s within the maelstrom of political irrationality where the decisions are made, and often set back things like building a low-emission energy supply large enough to support a new and sustainable industrial economy, or on the other side of the spectrum accept donations from industry and counter every effort to fight climate change. As the result, Germany is now burning the filthiest thermal coal to appease the Greens (who once held the balance of power) by eliminating steady nuclear power which, when used in conjunction with and to flatten the intermittency of distributed PV panels and wind, would have allowed Germany to rid itself of coal and a yoke held by Vladimir Putin concerning the Russian gas supply and achieve record low emissions rates while maintaining its powerful economy. Coal has a long history of killing hundreds of millions and is far more dangerous and expensive than nuclear when all externalities are accounted for, and is the main culprit in causing climate change when burned. The unintended consequences of the German Green Party’s policies are as deeply ironic as the climate denial of Canadian Conservative Party members is straightforward.

    Perhaps the greatest first step we need to take here in Canada is a simple one: allow oil price hikes to take cars off the road if pro-transit initiatives are defeated. Do not even try to replace the oil they burn with other fuels, be they biofuels or electricity because there just isn’t enough energy. Private transport is simply too costly to continue replicating, and refined petroleum fuels cannot be replaced one for one because they are too unique (high energy density, transportability, etc.). Therefore, let cars die a natural death, but be sure to have transit and walking-oriented urbanism and design initiatives well underway beforehand. A concurrent deep conservation program regarding buildings and consumer goods that waste energy would be extraordinarily beneficial. This way, you can live with ~1/3 less overall energy and still build a healthier urban society.

    But all the new transit will attract developers, and then that will cause the blogs to light up with the developer-appeasement accusations of the Left regarding funding transit. It can be a comedy of errors, but rational advocates must increase the clarity of their messages to leaders to lead with a clear head and not pass the buck. This is why Heinberg, Klein, Lynas and Greenpeace must still be heard, even though their messages can be confusing and contradictory.


    June 23, 2015 at 2:18 pm

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