Dealing with climate change means transforming society

Tues., Sept. 5, 2017

We have to understand that climate change is not a separate issue from most aspects of everyday life, Matthew Hoffmann writes

The gulf between the enormity of the climate change challenge and our readiness to undertake it is staggering. This is painfully obvious when climate change is visible, when we are faced with the evidence that the impacts of climate change are happening now with devastating consequences. But this gulf is also evident in society’s failure to internalize climate awareness and concern. As a society we are simply not fully “woke” to the idea that climate change is not some discrete problem to solve; it is, as characterized by climate scientist Mike Hulme, a part of the modern condition. Addressing and living with climate change requires serious transformation of society. We have a lot of work to do and it will not be easy.

Consider the seemingly innocuous juxtaposition of two articles in Saturday’s Star. In the World section, there was an article on the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. In the Wheels section, the front-page story was on a Kelley Blue Book ranking of the “Top 10 Back-To-School Cars of 2017.” These articles seem entirely unrelated.

A reader coming to the hurricane article could feel a sense of urgency about acting on climate change — “We have to do something. It is clearly devastating lives already and it is only going to get worse!” Then, a few sections later, the same reader comes to the list of best back-to-school cars. Climate change concern recedes into the background or disappears altogether. This is a fun read on the new cars out this year that are good for families — “Maybe I should look at a Kia Soul this fall.”

The failure to internalize climate change is in this juxtaposition. Not a single car on the top-10 list is hybrid or electric (though some have decent fuel efficiency). So either the list makers at Kelley Blue Book do not factor climate change into their rankings, or hybrids/electrics are not considered “student-friendly choices” that “are affordable and will meet with your kid’s approval” as per the article’s description of what cars make the list. It’s probably both. That’s the problem.

Climate change and the need for decarbonization is not yet fully penetrating into this kind of everyday thinking and decision-making at an individual, corporate or societal level. Many people, corporations and governments care about climate change and want to deal with it, but still treat it as a separate issue from everyday life. Everyday life is not yet about climate change, whether that means considering what car to buy, what cars to manufacture, or what cars to extol as the best.

This is obviously not just about cars. We have to understand that climate change is not a separate issue from most aspects of everyday life. Climate change is everyday life and decarbonization has to become a part of that.

This is not a plea for individuals to make consumer choices to save us from climate change. Consumers have some control over the choices that they make, though these are constrained by income, marketing, culture, etc. Consumers have less control over the range of choices that are available (only indirectly through market demand); that is the province of corporations and governments. It is a call to internalize the challenge of climate change and decarbonization and to make both visible and conscious. Individuals, corporations and governments have to realize that there are relatively few decisions unrelated to climate, because climate change is our reality.

We are making progress. From the rising public concern about climate change, to increased availability of renewable energy and climate-friendly technology, to emerging municipal, provincial and federal climate plans, climate action is more visible and possible than ever before. After all, page 2 in that same Wheels section had a glowing review of a 2018 Hyundai that comes as both hybrid and electric that looked awfully family friendly to me.

We still have to do more. Climate action needs to be front of mind and we have to normalize it not just in our big political decisions, economic planning, and in everyday life. Otherwise we face the prospects of normalizing articles on the tragic aftermath of climate-related disasters.