Open Letter to Parents: Protect Your Children from Climate Change (Part 3)

Skip Spitzer is a Portland-based single dad of super groovy son, Sander. The following article is the third in a series of articles calling on parents to recognize the threats posed by climate change.

Dear parent,

Governments have been unable to do what is needed

The response by the nations of the world to the climate crisis has been atrociously inadequate. There is an international climate treaty with an agreed goal of limiting warming to 1.5-2°C. But it is not binding and most nations are very far from meeting their stated emissions commitments—which are in any case collectively much too small to reach the goal.[55]

Since the treaty process began in 1992, annual CO2 emissions have actually risen more than 60%[56] and atmospheric concentrations have hit all-time highs in every subsequent year.[57] Few governments are even talking about the other causes of environmental breakdown.

Why has the response been so inadequate?

The reason for lack of real action is that capitalism causes societies to shortsightedly pursue perpetual economic growth. Economic growth means that an economy produces more than it did before. When this doesn’t happen (even for a pretty short time), capitalist economies fall into recession or depression, causing extreme hardship.

The resulting mandate for growth—despite clear and reliable information about cataclysmic consequences—enables production and consumption propelling all the drivers of environmental breakdown. Not surprisingly, even climate scientists (who usually steadfastly steer clear of politics) are increasingly saying that modern capitalism is not compatible with averting climate catastrophe.[58],[59],[60]

Government officials are compelled to promote economic growth because it’s difficult to advance political agendas (noble or otherwise) in hard times. Liberal or further to the right, virtually all mainstream politicians agree on at least one thing: A rising tide lifts all boats.

Many officials also take pro-business positions due to lobbying and other corporate influence, and personal gain from their own ownership in corporations. Growth is so paramount that, just hours after the September 11th attacks, George W. Bush announced that America was “still open for business.” At international climate negotiations, the Trump administration bluntly declared that economic growth should not be sacrificed for the environment.[61]

Owners and managers of corporations are compelled to promote their own businesses’ growth because wealth, power, and prestige are vigorous motivators and competitive pressures threaten these rewards.

From deregulation to thwarting pro-climate policies, corporate decision-makers agitate for a favorable business (not planetary) climate. They produce in ways that minimize their company’s costs, while virtually ignoring costs to society and environment (externalities), unless forced by law or social pressure.[62] They work industriously to focus us on consuming, by stoking our desires and—perhaps worse—fortifying beliefs that all is well, at least well enough for business as usual.

News media are an especially important case of corporate self-interest. Largely because climate is a “ratings killer,” most news outlets have grievously under-covered it. For example, only 22 of the 50 biggest newspapers in the U.S. had any coverage of the dire warning issued to humanity by the IPCC in October 2018.[63]

When there is climate coverage, it is often harmful, for example, understating the problem, treating it as just another issue, and giving unwarranted attention to deniers. The result, representing a devastating failure of the news media’s responsibility to inform, is that as recently as 2016 less than half of the U.S. public believed that human-caused climate change was real.[64]

The very wealthy—when not focusing on enhancing their wealth and extremely high-footprint consumption—generally appear to be overwhelmingly more interested in elite disaster preparedness than fighting climate change.

There are many signs of growing effort to save themselves through strategies like militarized, corporate and personal security and disaster management services,[65] specialized insurance, private firefighters, buying land, stockpiling resources and gold coins,[66] getting bunkers (including commercially available “survival condos”[67]), and salvation ventures like Blue Origin, Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos’ aerospace project to “enable private human access to space.”[68] At least some of the 1% are fretting about issues like, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”[69]

Most of the rest of us are enmeshed in the culture of busyness, parochial attention, and distraction that thrives under capitalism. Amid working, commuting, caring for loved ones, eating, managing finances, shopping, and selecting and consuming our news, social media, and entertainment, it’s easy to turn away from distressing issues like the climate. This is a problem because it’s not the climate change-denying minority that most threatens us—it’s the believing-but-passive majority.

We are not equally able to contribute to change

Individuals, social groups, and nations have differing wherewithal to fight climate change. In general, the greater there is struggle for subsistence, the less there is capacity to help address the problem. Conversely, the greater the conditions of wealth, the greater the means to help.

We are not equally responsible for the problem

Not surprisingly, those less able to help also typically contribute less to the problem. For example, the poorest 50% of people in the world account for only about 10% of greenhouse emissions from “lifestyle consumption.”[70] Being poorer is relative: Because of higher living standards and services provided on behalf of all citizens, even an average homeless person in the U.S. has a carbon footprint that is more than twice the world average.[71] At the national level, the bottom 100 countries account for only about 3.5% of global greenhouse emissions.[72]

Likewise, those more able to help can do so owing to greater capacity, but also because they contribute more to the problem. The richest 10% of people in the world account for a wildly inordinate 49% of greenhouse emissions from lifestyle consumption.[73] Only about 100 private and state-owned corporations produce the fossil fuel responsible for about 71% of all greenhouse emissions.[74]

There is evidence that men, at least in the U.S. and China, are less likely than women to embrace pro-environment behavior because it is associated with being feminine.[75]

Nationally, the top four greenhouse emitters in 2014 were China (27.5%), the United States (14.8%), the European Union (9.3%), and India (6.4%). But per person figures put things into better perspective. For example, China’s emissions drop to 8.5%, while that of the U.S. rises to about 20%.[76] Since greenhouse gases build up, culpability depends even more on cumulative emissions. Since the mid-1800s, the U.S. has emitted 29% of all CO2 emissions in the world, more than three times that of populous China in second place.[77]

People, corporations, and nations are also responsible insofar as they have promoted policies and ideas that undermine awareness and action. For example, between 2000 and 2016, fossil fuel, electrical utility, and transportation corporations spent at least $1.2 billion to influence climate-related legislation in the U.S. congress.[78]

Just pointing at others is counterproductive

Demanding accountability for the climate crisis is useful. But, given the stakes, bogging down in debate, ignoring our own responsibility, or depending on those most culpable is a grave mistake. Better outcomes require that everyone look, eyes wide open, and—to the actual degree possible—respond.

For most of us, responding in a meaningful way means exploring and making good on commitments to work with others for social change and to change how we live. Substantial personal change, however, can be very easily derailed. You might post this letter somewhere conspicuous until you have made your choices and begun to make them real.

Lifestyle changes are important

It’s easy to sidestep changing the way we live by believing that a single person’s lifestyle choices are inconsequential or amount to self-interested “virtue signaling.” In fact, making the most substantive lifestyle changes can help:

1) Lower personal emissions considerably, building toward critical mass of similar reductions;

2) Support development of new standards and modes of living that will be required in a sustainable world (should we create one);

3) Resist the habits and rules of consumption that the system prescribes and depends on (what Czech playwright Václav Havel calls “living within the truth”[79]);

4) Create effective entry points into participating in the climate movement;

5) Overcome cognitive dissonance, hopelessness, and other psychological barriers to taking action;[80]

6) Alert and move others; and

7) Break the “spiral of silence” (in which even people who care about climate change shy away from talking about it because they rarely hear others doing so).[81]

In developed nations at least, the most important lifestyle choices are:

1) Have no more children (avoiding emission, on average, of 58.6tons of CO2-equivalent[‡] of per year)[82];

2) Live car-free (1 to 5.3 metric tons);

3) Avoid flying (up to 2.8 metric tons per flight); and

4) Eat a plant-based diet.

Consuming less generally can also be significant, but does not rival these choices (except for high-income consumers). Traditional “green” lifestyle choices, like recycling, have positive environmental benefits, but only a very small effect on emissions footprints.[83]

A plant-based diet, as say scientists at the University of Oxford, is “probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.”[84] The biggest cause of environmental breakdown, destruction of natural habitat, is primarily caused by animal agriculture.

Animal-based food uses a staggering 30% to 45% of the world’s surface area[85],[86] (for livestock and the crops needed to feed it). The second largest factor, killing for food (like fishing), is also primarily caused by the animal food system. From 18 to as much as 51%[87] of the emissions causing the third factor, climate change, stems from animal agriculture. Shifting to a plant-based diet therefore almost immediately ends your contribution to the activities most responsible for the top two drivers of environmental breakdown and to what could be the largest source of greenhouse emissions causing the third.

Being part of the movement is essential

Whatever lifestyle choices you make, it is crucial to get involved in the climate movement. That’s because although our own footprints matter, it’s the industrial system as a whole that is driving planetary environmental breakdown. The system is also producing a wide range of deplorable social outcomes—like starvation, poverty, discrimination, violence, crime, animal cruelty, greed, inequality, and lack of awareness of and distraction from social and environmental problems.

Only a very large social movement can fundamentally change the system—it’s clearly not structured to transform itself for the greater good. Thankfully, the climate change movement is global, determined, and growing. Extinction Rebellion, a relatively small organization in the United Kingdom, actually compelled its government to declare a national climate emergency.

Responding to climate change can be personally beneficial too

Some good news is that responding to the climate crisis potentially also has many personal benefits. It can help you do right by your (and all) children, have substantially better health, save money, experience less stress, deepen sense of purpose and self-esteem, build social connection, develop new skills, raise more-prepared children, and increase your personal, family, and community resilience.

Responding can help alleviate the needling distress of knowingly living in denial. It can put us more deeply in touch with what we are losing, inciting greater appreciation for the unbelievably majestic beauty of life and the world that enables it.

Responding is also the best way to protect your children

It’s tempting to try to shelter children from the reality before us and guard them from growing environmental harm as best we can. But what children need most is a world they can live in and the capacities and resilience to manage the challenges even best-case scenarios bring.

Through movement and lifestyle action—and including children in age-appropriate ways—you can support both of these needs. Making action a family affair helps children gain real and manageable awareness through positive experiences. It enables you to model for them. It supports essential values; self-esteem; critical thinking; collaboration skills; social connection; sense of purpose, agency, and possibility; and other possibly decisive personal resources.

Conversely, sheltered children will eventually hear the truth, likely with little preparation to help them cope or take effective action. They may also be saddled with the debilitating dissonance that comes from growing up with expectations and standards of living that are incompatible with the world we are handing to them.

It is very possible that it is too late to stop runaway climate change. It is also possible that it is not too late and that what we choose will help make an important difference. Whatever the outcome, responding to climate change is about loving our children, fulfilling our responsibilities, and making the best choices we can—even when they are very, very hard.

Sincerely,

Skip Spitzer[§]

Read more from Skip Spitzer at Respond to Climate Change.

[55] Brad Plumer, Nadja Popovich. “Here’s How Far the World Is From Meeting Its Climate Goals.” New York Times. 11-6-2017.

[56] Calculated from data from Global Carbon Atlas at http://www.globalcarbonatlas.org.

[57] Based on data from 2° Institute at https://www.co2levels.org.

[58] For example, see: Järvensivu, Tero Toivanen, Tere Vadén, Ville Lähde, Antti Majava, Jussi T. Eronen. Backgrounder for UN Global Sustainable Development Report 2019. BIOS Research Unit, Helsinki, Finland. August 14, 2018.

[59] Also see: Ripple, W. J. et al. 2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. BioScience. 76(12):1026–1028.

[60] Also see: Scientist Kevin Anderson: Our Socioeconomic Paradigm is Incompatible with Climate Change Objectives. https://www.democracynow.org/2017/11/15/scientist_kevin_anderson_our_socio_economic.

[61] Brad Plumer and Lisa Friedman. “Trump Team Pushes Fossil Fuels at Climate Talks. Protests Erupt, but Allies Emerge, Too.” New York Times. Dec. 10, 2018.

[62] Spitzer, Skip. "A systemic approach to occupational and environmental health." International journal of occupational and environmental health 11.4 (2005): 444-455.

[63] Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope. “The media are complacent while the world burns.” Columbia Journalism Review. April 22, 2019. https://www.cjr.org/special_report/climate-change-media.php.

[64] Funk, Cary. The Politics of Climate. Pew Research Center. October 4, 2016. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate/.

[65] Noah Gallagher Shannon. “Climate Chaos Is Coming—and the Pinkertons Are Ready.” New York Times. April 10, 2019.

[66] Benjamin Powers. “How the Wealthy Insulate Themselves from the Worst Impacts of Climate Change.” Medium. June 9, 2017.

[67] http://survivalcondo.com.

[68] https://www.blueorigin.com.

[69] Douglas Rushkoff. “Survival of the Richest: The wealthy are plotting to leave us behind.” Medium. July 5, 2018.

[70] Gore, T. (2015). Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first.

[71] Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Carbon Footprint Of Best Conserving Americans Is Still Double Global Average.” ScienceDaily. 29 April 2008. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080428120658.htm.

[72] Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), version 2.0. World Resources Institute. 2014. These figures do not include emissions from land-use change and forestry.

[73] Gore, T. (2015). Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first.

[74] Griffin, Paul. "The carbon majors database: CDP carbon majors report 2017." Inglaterra: CDP Worldwide (2017).

[75] Brough, Aaron & E.B. Wilkie, James & Ma, Jingjing & Isaac, Mathew & Gal, David. (2016). Is Eco-Friendly Unmanly? The Green-Feminine Stereotype and Its Effect on Sustainable Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research. 43. ucw044. 10.1093/jcr/ucw044.

[76] Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT), version 2.0.

[77] Joseph Romm. “U.S. responsible for 29 percent of CO2 emissions over past 150 years, triple China’s share.” Grist. June 2, 2009.

[78] Brulle, R. J. “The Climate Lobby: A Sectoral Analysis of Lobbying Spending on Climate Change in the United States - 2000 to 2016.” Climatic Change. August 2018.

[79] Vaclav Havel. “The Power of the Powerless (essay).” International Journal of Politics. 1979.

[80] Sara Wanous. “Use psychology for better climate communications.” Citizens’ Climate Lobby. https://citizensclimatelobby.org/use-psychology-for-better-climate-communications/.

[81] Maibach, E., Leiserowitz, A., Rosenthal, S., Roser-Renouf, C., & Cutler, M. (2016). Is there a climate "spiral of silence" in America? Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

[82] The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Seth Wynes and Kimberly A Nicholas. 12 July 2017.Environmental Research Letters. Volume 12, Number 7.

[83] Moser, S., & Kleinhückelkotten, S. (2018). Good Intents, but Low Impacts: Diverging Importance of Motivational and Socioeconomic Determinants Explaining Pro-Environmental Behavior, Energy Use, and Carbon Footprint. Environment and Behavior, 50(6), 626–656.

[84] Olivia Petter. “Veganism is ‘Single Biggest Way’ to Reduce Our Environmental Impact on Planet, Study Finds.” The Independent. 6/1/2018.

[85] UN Food and Agriculture Organization. “Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options.” Rome: UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2006).

[86] Thornton, P., Herrero, M. and Ericksen, P. “Livestock and climate change. Livestock Exchange Issue Brief 3.” Nairobi, Kenya: International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). 2011.

[87] Goodland, Robert, and Jeff Anhang. “Livestock and climate change: What if the key actors in climate change are... cows, pigs, and chickens?” World Watch Magazine. November/December 2009. Volume 22, No. 6.

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