Greenpoint: Small steps not enough in climate change battle

Turn off the lights and carpool, sure, but more is needed
The Greenland ice sheet is one of the biggest and fastest-melting chunks of ice on Earth.
The Greenland ice sheet is one of the biggest and fastest-melting chunks of ice on Earth.

For years I’ve been counseling that if everyone takes steps to clean up their own act — carpool, recycle, turn out the lights, reduce waste and energy usage, avoid pesticides — in the long run it will lead to big changes in our world. Together we can reverse climate change, clean up our air, oceans and groundwater, save endangered animals — that was my thinking.

Then a friend who is an energy consultant and a thoughtful human being calculated her carbon footprint and realized everything she does to live lightly is offset by the impact of her annual trip to India to visit her family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. How much does our craze to refuse a straw change the fact that more than 8 million tons of plastic wind up in the ocean every year? Clearly straws are not going to be enough.

Same goes for me harping on my family to turn off lights and close blinds. How does that help anything when I commute 50 miles to work?

A major international scientific report issued last week offered dire warnings: If drastic changes are not taken to slow the rate of global warming, the effects on our planet may be irreversible.

The report is an analysis by 90 scientists from 40 countries of some 6,000 previous studies. It was issued by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and its conclusion basically is that previous warming targets are not enough to prevent permanent damage: coastal flooding, food shortages, increased wildfires, the death of coral reefs and forests, and the loss of Arctic ice.

“Rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are needed, the report’s authors say. That means reducing greenhouse emissions by 45 percent by 2030, reducing the worldwide use of coal plants from 40 percent to single digits and tripling reliance on renewable energy sources.

Are we already seeing these changes? Europe is coming off a record-breaking heat wave, the “wildfire season” in the Western states now lasts all year long, deforestation of the world’s rain forests means they are losing their ability to sequester carbon from the air, and we seem to be constantly setting new flood and rainfall records.

So what can we as individuals do? Turn off the lights and carpool, sure. But that won’t be enough. To make the kinds of changes to prevent permanent damage to our planet, our only home, will take policy shifts, lifestyle shifts and public and political willpower.

We can make changes in our private lives, but also advocate for bigger changes — more alternative energy, more mass transit, more protections for our air and water. We can arm ourselves with information and use our voices to push for change.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Oct. 28.  Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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