January 22, 2007

Climate change has officially started scaring me

My 30th birthday is less than five months away. So, I still consider myself kind of young. But even I’m noticing how strange the weather is compared to the days of my youth. Heck, even 10 years ago, when I arrived in Ottawa, the town was still considered to have authentic winters. I lived in the Byward Market and often skated to university on the Rideau Canal once it was frozen in January or February. My friend Dave and I used to take off to the Gatineau hills outside Ottawa to go cross-country skiing on winter weekends.

Ten years later, things have changed. Ottawa, like most of Ontario, just got snow. In January.

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, who I interviewed from Ottawa this morning, mentioned Winterlude — the city's winter festival— looks like it will survive this year, as snow and cold weather has finally arrived. But so many recent winters have been the same nail-biting affair for Winterlude organizers. And this in a city considered one of the "coldest" capitals in the world.

Things are way too warm up here in Whitehorse, too. Watching the Weather Network last night, I was dismayed to see a forecast for the next few weeks that is way too warm for a city north of 60. This is January and we're seeing highs over 0C almost regularly. Will February see temperatures more often than not above 0? Will March see t-shirt weather? A swim at Long Lake in April?

Talking with longtime Yukoners, this sort of January weather was the stuff of fantasy 20 years ago. But if the last few years are any indication, it's only going to get more profound. Climate change is officially happening way faster than even I, cynic that I am, could have anticipated.

So here is the reason for my rant: I'm hopeful climate change will become the issue that reframes politics for people. We need to realize that our decisions as consumers now have more impact on global politics and the environment than our votes do. Think of yourself as a member of the mass consumer party of the world.

When we look for people to blame for climate change, and when we reflexively point our fingers at politicians, we wrongly let ourselves off the hook. In some ways we're hoping our politicians have the temerity to regulate us into greener habits. But why can't we just regulate ourselves? Why can't we start to realize that small decisions really do add up to big problems? Why don't more of us bike to work or live closer to the city and thus the places we need to go on a daily basis? Why can't we arrive at the supermarket with our own bags rather than requiring plastic bags made from petrochemicals, or turn down the thermostat when we don't need heat? Why is Ontario touting nuclear energy as the only way out of its "energy crisis” instead of telling people they have to use less?

Cutting back doesn't really hurt all that much. We're over-comfortable as it is. Would driving a bit less or wearing a sweater at home or buying less pre-packaged food, or heck, even growing our own food really make life hell? Nope.

Someone described climate change to me as an "existential issue." Climate change, unlike most issues — save ones like nuclear arms — threatens everyone equally. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor: your world is going to get warmer. And you can't buy your way out of this one. I hope more people, like me, wake up and realize that. As a result, I plan to do something I've never done before this year. Grow some of my own food. That will lower the world's temperature by exactly one billionth of a billionth of one degree. But at least I will be doing something positive, rather than adding to the problem.

Doing nothing and living as we have been now means doing harm. It’s as simple as that. Evil is more often than not banal. Watching like a spectator when someone like Hitler is taking power, or when the world's climate is dangerously warming due to carbon dioxide emissions, is the same sort of banal evil. Doing nothing is really doing something.

We’re going to have to change at some point very, very soon. Maybe when Tuvalu goes under the Pacific permanently, or when polar bears disappear from Hudson’s Bay, or when the Aral Sea goes the way of the dodo, we will realize, collectively, that we have no more time to ponder what to do. Judging by how profoundly the weather has changed in my 30 years here, however, I’m guessing that day is coming very fast. Better to start changing step by step now than waiting any longer.


Anthony said...

Hi Tim,

What really strikes me about climate change is that we, as individuals, are uniquely empowered to do something about it. We can be the change leaders, rather than looking to other levels of power.

In contrast to a lot of issues, if enough people are convinced to change our own behaviour, we can go a long way to solving the problem regardless of wether governments or corporations support it.

For example, if I decide to sell my car and walk everywhere, no one can stop me. If most Canadians did it, businesses and governments would be forced to adapt to this new reality. Urban and transportation planning would have to change.

The way I see it, it really comes down to a battle for meaning. You take your own experience, along with everything you hear from policy makers, scientists, activists, product marketers and media, and you have to make a personal decision.

Do I think this is really a problem, and am I willing to personally act on it? Once enough people answer "yes," we'll reach that tipping point where policy makers and corporations have no choice to respond.

I don't blame our lawmakers or corporations one bit. We keep consuming all this stuff, and we demand it. Why should they change? We as individuals need to change first.

T said...

I agree, Anthony.

But it's a chicken and egg sort of thing. Would we want as much without the super-sexed marketing images we're bombarded with?

I traveled through Laos last year. Laos is stuck in the past. There is very little one can point to and call "globalization" there, as you can across the border in hyper globalized Thailand. There are few ads, and the ones that do exist are handpainted, simple, and very quaint.

Being there for a month removed so much anxiety from me. The rivers, mountains and delicious beer Lao obvioiusly played a role, but the lack of marketing and the pressure to aspire to something else did, too.

So maybe without so much pressure to consume, we'd actually stop consuming so much?

Watching the news the other night, I realized that corporations, not governments, are getting the message that people want change. The CEOs of 10 major corporations jointly sent a letter to George Bush demanding a reduction in carbon emissions.

They know being green can be profitable, which tells me we've reached a tipping points of sorts with big business. Sad that it had to come from CEOs, not politicians, but it shows you the power of money to influence decisions.

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