I was asked to submit an essay to include in an introductory climatology text by a colleague but what I originally wrote didn’t get accepted because it was decided they wanted to place it in another chapter with a slightly different take so I had to make some revisions and changes. I liked the original though and thought I would post it here.
In 2010 the burning of fossil fuels and the production of cement released 33.4 billion metric tons of carbon into the air. It’s a big number. An intimidating one perhaps, but what does it really mean? Can any human identify with such a number? A weight we can’t possibly experience for a gas that we can’t see.
As individuals we experience only a fraction of the surface area of the Earth at any one time. Our ability to experience change on a global scale is extremely limited. The detection of changes in temperature on such long time scales is masked by diurnal and seasonal fluctuations. We don’t experience average temperatures, yet the important environmental issue of our times asks us to take action based on things we do not perceive in our everyday life.
As individuals we are heavily biased towards survival from the pressures we face every day. Civilization has given us the comfort of living apart from environmental pressures that other species experience more acutely. It could be that civilization only gives us the advantage of delaying these pressures and gives us the illusion of comfort. As an evolved species of animals who depends on other life for our very survival, our ability to fight off the enormous pressures that nature can exert may be dwindling.
In a typical thunderstorm there are approximately 1 x 1018 droplets. Of course no one droplet means very much, but the collective of droplets in
the cloud itself can produce lightning, damaging winds and hail, and flash flooding. With approximately 7 billion people on the planet it is easy to view ourselves as a single drop. With the issue of climate change it may be time to focus on what we are in fact part of: As a species with a massive and growing global population with a great deal of power to change the world for better or for worse. The question then becomes, “What can we, as individuals, do?”
On September 27th meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus, in response to the 5th Assessment Report on Climate by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), vowed never to fly in an airplane again. He felt very strongly about his carbon footprint. A criticism often made against climate scientists who travel to conferences and meetings to discuss the issue. His gesture is extremely noble and perhaps sets a good example for the rest of us. He participates in many meetings now via Skype to avoid flying. There are probably many of us, companies and organizations alike, who may not be taking great advantage of the technology that is available to us. However, his case may also be an example of our disconnect between experiences as individuals without seeing the whole picture. A response by William MacAskill, an ethicist at Oxford, pointed out that while Holthaus’ individual footprint might be high, his active participation through face-to-face interactions with policymakers internationally may reduce carbon emissions so drastically that it more than offsets his carbon footprint. We all have different roles as individuals as part of the whole and although Holthaus’ sacrifice is well intentioned, perhaps he has not chosen the best way to reduce his carbon footprint given his abilities and role in this world.
Life constantly asks us to find that delicate balance between our individual needs and those of the collective. It asks us to evaluate how our individual freedoms impinge on the freedoms of others. The consequences of our actions as individuals have never had more far reaching impacts. Climate change impacts the largest community we are part of: the global community. The truth is, we all share the same space even if we can’t experience it. It’s important to remember that in the individual fight for survival we always do it best when we work together.