The challenge facing a call to action to deal with climate change is that the issue is not an obvious problem on a daily basis. We might notice an unseasonal heat wave, or be inconvenienced by a drought that restricts our water usage; we might even have an intellectual awareness that the issue is a serious one, but most average consumers in our country don't really suffer as a result of it -- not yet.
The majority of people probably don't even see much of a connection between consumerism and climate change, but it exists. Every product that we consume requires not only the ingredients or components of the product itself, but also a manufacturing and distribution process for those components and the final product, all which have some sort of environmental impact. Often there's also an environmental effect during or immediately after the consumption of the product.
Probably the most obvious example that contributes to the climate change problem: a car. When we buy a car, we're not just buying transportation; we're buying the various metals, glass, fiberglass, rubber, etc. that were used to build the car, as well as the manufacturing process itself. Then we need fossil fuels to run the car. Fuel requires not only raw materials (which are extracted in an environmentally unfriendly way), but also plants to process them (also not environmentally friendly). When fuel is burned in the car (and in the giant tanker trucks used to deliver the fuel to our gas stations), the waste product contributes to pollution. The Environmental Defense Fund states, "U.S. autos emit more than 333 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, more than one-fifth of the nation's total carbon dioxide emissions. Any serious effort to fight global warming must include cutting auto emissions." (Click here for a detailed analysis on the EDF site about how cars contribute to global warming.)
Everything that we consume has some kind of environmental consequences, so limiting our consumption seems to be a simple way to lessen our negative impact (our carbon footprint) on the environment. And because we are such a wealthy society, our impact is substantial. Global Issues reported that "using the latest figures available, in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%" (See Material World: A Global Family Portrait, one of my favorite books, for some startling images that show the differences between us and consumers in other cultures.)
We may not have a lot of time to make changes in our patterns of consumption in order to halt and perhaps reverse the climate change trend. A recent British study predicts that the polar ice caps will be gone in twenty years. "Remove the Arctic ice cap and we are left with a very different and much warmer world. . . Loss of sea ice cover will 'set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself' . . . This could lead to flooding affecting one quarter of the world's population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emission from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes."
Well, that would get our attention, but let's not wait that long. We can get involved right now by supporting these or many other fine organizations that are making efforts to deal with climate change:
The Nature Conservancy
There are also opportunities for political involvement here:
350.org (sponsors of the International Day of Climate Action, October 24th)
TckTckTck (a cooperative umbrella organization working for an international agreement to address this issue at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 7-18, 2009. You can read more about the UN's effort to make this deal happen.)
And you can check out the other 7900+ blogs from all over the world that are participating in Blog Action Day. [Update at 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time: over 10,000 bloggers are participating and the event was kicked off by a topical post from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.]
I know, it seems a little overwhelming. I've written in the past about "shopper's compassion fatigue," that oppressive feeling of the weight of the world on our shoulders that we can get when trying to make the "right" decision about what to buy, or whether to buy at all. But as long as we're all traveling together on this small planet, it seems like a good idea to do what we can to keep that planet healthy enough to take care of us. And nobody ever said that being a thoughtful consumer was easy.
© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob