Thursday, 5 April 2018

Low Carbon and Loving It

There is one thing that keeps me awake at night - climate change.  I don't worry about it in the abstract, I worry very concretely that my two little grandsons will inherit a world that is hostile to human habitation.

I spend a day with my grandsons every week, and they are cheerful, innocent little people.  They enjoy life in the moment, trusting that the adults in their lives are caring for their needs.  But I think, perhaps we are not.  What if we are taking away the possibility for them to have peaceful, prosperous lives and storing up hardship and danger for them?

It keeps me awake at night.  Which is silly.  Not because the anxiety is irrational or unjustified - the science is quite clear, my worries are absolutely within the possible future consequences of our current behaviour.  It is silly because it achieves nothing.  My tossing in my bed does not save a single gram of emitted carbon, does not take a single micro-meter off the projected sea level rise.  I may as well sleep soundly, for all the difference it makes.  But what can I do that is more useful, more constructive?  I feel powerless in the face of the forces that drive us onward and the scale of the problem.

Mark and Tom Delaney have written a book on this very dilemma.  You can check it out here.  Don't expect me to be objective, they are my friends.  But I think it's a fantastic book, so let me tell you about it.

Mark and Tom are like me in a lot of ways.  They are both well-educated people, but neither is a climate scientist.  They are lay people who are deeply concerned about the future of the planet.  Mark is about my age and was once a lawyer.  His son Tom is in his early 20s and part way through a university degree.  Along with the other members of their family, they have spent most of the last two decades living in poor urban communities in India, with intermittent visits to Australia to reconnect with family and friends.

Their plan is to provide a simple introductory guide to climate change.  There is no technical language here, no complex statistical analysis, just plain English and straightforward concepts which non-scientists can understand.  Nonetheless, they are careful in providing references for each point and the end of each chapter has a 'Want to learn more?' section with references for further investigation. This is a book you could confidently give to, say, a teenager who wanted to understand climate change, but it's also useful for more mature people like me in the way it brings together a lot of different strands of information in a simple, accessible way.

The early chapters introduce the science of climate change.  They explain how the release of greenhouse gases warms the atmosphere, and how we know this is happening.  Along the way, they respond briefly to some of the common climate denial myths.  Take home message: climate change is definitely happening folks!

They then move on to summarise the consequences of climate change - in brief, rising temperatures, changed rainfall patterns leading to changes in agricultural productivity, rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, species loss and the likelihood of greater social conflict and unrest brought on by large scale population displacement and food insecurity.  Take home message: it will not be pretty!

Up to this point, I was mostly reading things I already knew about, and it wasn't making me sleep any easier.  However, although they are uncompromising in their call for action they are much more focused on discussing solutions than alarming readers about the scale of the problem.  To introduce the type of solutions needed, they contrast the carbon output of a typical Australian with that of an Indian neighbour of theirs.  Overall, the average Australian produces 23 tonnes/year of carbon emissions, while one of their typical poor Indian neighbours produces just over two.  The sustainable level if we are to avoid catastrophic warming is between 2 and 3 tonnes per person, so as Australians (and rich people generally) we need to get closer to the Indian level than our own.  How is this possible?

They focus on two types of solutions - 'big picture' economy-wide responses which focus on the major sources of emissions; and 'small picture' personal changes which each of us can make.

At the big picture end, our emissions basically come from four sources - transport and travel, power generation, agriculture, and manufacturing and mining.  Hence we need policies and technologies which lower our emissions in all these areas.  In transport, we need to shift to more sustainable modes - walking, cycling and electric cars and trains rather than petrol cars, diesel trains and aeroplanes.  In power generation, we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewables, primarily solar, wind and hydro power.  In agriculture, we need to stop the process of land-clearing and shift away from methane-belching cattle.  In mining and manufacturing we need to improve technologies to reduce and contain emissions.  In most of these areas there are technological solutions available and in many cases - like power generation and transport - they are now at the point where they are affordable and scaleable.  However, we are adopting them slowly as a result of short-term politics, powerful vested interests and social inertia.

It's tempting to think that the problem can be solved with such technical fixes, and that we can leave it all up to the government and corporations without doing anything ourselves.  However there are two reasons why this won't do.  The first is that the technological changes will only come if politicians and corporations see it as in their immediate interests to make them - and this will only come from an engaged populace who show with their voices, votes and wallets that this is important.  Secondly, we shouldn't kid ourselves that we can get through the transition with our current lifestyles unchanged.  We are living unsustainably, and each of us needs to reduce our own impact on the planet.

These personal changes can be scary but it is largely fear of the unknown, a failure of imagination.  Mark and Tom already live a relatively low carbon life, both in India and in Australia, and as the book title suggests they find it more liberating than burdensome.  Hence the final chapters of the book outline practical things that ordinary people in the West can do to reduce our carbon consumption.  And indeed, there is so much that is easy and achievable - cycling or walking instead of driving, catching the train instead of flying, buying less stuff and using it until it wears out, eating less red meat, generating electricity on your roof.  You could be completely radical like them, living in a single room, not owning a car and not eating any animal products.  However, they don't recommend you try to start there if you are a typical high-carbon Aussie.  Take small, achievable steps and build up (or down) over time.

Where this book left me was with a sense of tentative hope.  We face a daunting task, and no matter what we do there will be climate change - it's only a question of how much.  There are powerful forces which want to keep things on their current mad trajectory.  Yet there are also solutions which can greatly improve our chances, if only we will use them.

Importantly for my own state of mind, this book provides an alternative to fruitless anxiety.  Instead of lying awake worrying about the state of the planet there is something concrete I can do.  I can lie awake, if I must, planning the public transport route to my meeting that week, or what else I can do to reduce power use around the house.

It's not world-changing stuff, but I shouldn't kid myself.  The world will not change much because of what I do.  It will change because of what we all do.  Low Carbon and Loving It provides a signpost towards what we should do together, and what each of us can do for ourselves, for each other and for our children and grandchildren.
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