It was announced last week that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere has reached a record high of 407.8 parts per million, according to a report released by the World Meteorological Organization. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen sharply, with the 2018 global average 47% higher over the pre-industrial level in 1750. Last week, 11,000 scientists from around the world stopped calling it climate change and now call it a “climate emergency.”
Although we have been warned about the dangers of climate change for about 20 years now, and much of the carbon emissions come from us as users of fossil fuels, not many people have changed their lifestyles to reduce their personal emissions. Locally, there are some excellent exceptions.
Ron Merkin, from Montpelier, noted in The Times Argus recently his observation that traffic volume has increased in central Vermont. But 76-year-old Ron “walks the talk” and hasn’t driven a car for around 15 years, and can often be seen walking and bicycling around Montpelier.
Harris Webster, also from Montpelier, gave up driving in 2015 and recently moved closer to downtown so it would be easier for him to do his shopping and run his errands. He also downsized his living space from 1,000 sq.ft. to 300 sq.ft. Jim and Diane Donovan, from Washington, didn’t stop driving because they need to commute to work in Montpelier. But, in 2019, they decided to buy an all-electric Nissan Leaf and love it because they never have to stop at a gas station, and they enjoy the really smooth and quiet ride.
Nancy Rae Mallery, from Bradford, grows 80% or more of her own food. Although she works some long hours a day as the publisher of Green Energy Times and lives at 1,300-foot elevation, she not only grows most of her own food, she enjoys doing it. She would welcome anyone who would like to visit her in Bradford to find out what she grows and how she does it. She also lives off the grid and uses a battery-powered “robot” lawn mower.
I can’t give you any names but I know there are some who have reduced the size of their lawn, hang out their clothes instead of using a clothes dryer, reduced the size of their vehicle, installed solar, take public transportation or carpool, are thoughtful about what they buy and where they buy it, have gone vegan, and minimize their recreational traveling. Finally, some couples are now deciding “to have one or none” in order to reduce future emissions. Population growth is the underlying cause of all of our environmental problems. If the population size was at 2 billion, which it was when I was born, instead of 7.7 billion, which it is now, we wouldn’t be facing the impending catastrophes we are facing now. Each new person born into the world adds 40,000 pounds of carbon to the atmosphere each year. The fewer children we have, the better our chances of cleaning up our atmosphere to reduce the damages of climate change and protect the lives of future generations.
Even though about 8 in 10 Americans say humans are causing climate change and approximately half believe action is urgently needed, why aren’t human beings more willing to change their lifestyle values and actions to personally reduce their greenhouse gas emissions?
A primary reason is our brains haven’t changed much since our primitive days when they were just focused on immediate threats and doing the things they had to do to survive at that point in time. Our emotional systems are set to deal with immediate dangers and in the industrialized world, climate change is just something that is happening to others in some distant place.
Another psychological factor is what economists call “sunk costs.” People don’t want to incur the costs that would be needed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, such as driving an all-electric car, forgoing the airplane travel trip, or becoming a vegan when the rest of the family would not be in favor of such a decision.
Another reason is people don’t want to get emotionally overwhelmed thinking about climate catastrophe, so they choose distraction activities to relieve any anxiety. This is called “behavioral momentum,” and people tend to do the same thing every day from cooking meals to watching TV. People just want to do what others around them do and to continue to live their lives as they normally do. Yes, we definitely need governmental action in response to climate change at the local, state and national levels, but for that to happen, our representatives need to know the greater population is very concerned about the climate emergency and is doing something about it personally.
A new study at the University of Pennsylvania finds when 25% of people in a group adopt a new social norm, it creates a tipping point where the entire group follows. So, a minority actively making changes in their lives does have the capacity to create social change in the larger population. We have a way to go to reach that 25%, but we are clearly on our way with all the organizational efforts that are taking place.
Let’s think about the reasons we haven’t changed and say to ourselves, “Oh, now I understand why I haven’t changed, but now I am ready to do so.” It is up to each of us to love and care for each other and all life on Earth, and one way to do that is to make changes in our life values and in our actions. We are running out of time and we need to make those changes now.
George Plumb, of Washington, Vermont, is a longtime climate activist. He organized the first central Vermont climate action as a citizen in Barre in 2007. Since then, he has also attended the climate walks in Washington, DC, and New York City. He is a board member of Better(not bigger)VT.