Collective action against the climate crisis is badly needed. Time for the green vests?
Save the children
Klassekampen, 28 December 2018
Save the climate, have fewer children! I regularly come across this advice, in the newspaper or on social media, often in a nicely designed graph. No need for shorter showers, getting rid of your car or to stop eating meat: no other action (or rather, non-action) reduces your CO2 emissions as dramatically as having one child less. But is this correct? Is that really the best thing you can do to save the climate?
Intuitively this doesn't feel right to me. I would assume that a greener future would be more difficult to achieve if the most environmentally conscious among us stop having children. But there is also little evidence from a scientific point of view. In the study that claimed this last year, they determined the CO2 emissions of a child by looking not only at that child itself, but also at his or her possible grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Those calculated CO2 emissions are derived from a previous study that looked into this for a whole range of countries, including developing nations.
For this study, however, only Japan, Russia and the US were selected, and the developing countries were ignored. Since the US has by far the highest CO2 emissions per capita in the world, this raises the average considerably. In other words, the advice to have one child less is based on an unlikely high CO2 emission from fictitious American offspring.
The polluter doesn't pay. On the contrary, they're getting paid extra
But even if we assume that having a child should be weighed in the same way as a flight to Bali, there is still a much more fundamental question: can you, as an individual, do anything meaningful to combat climate change? Does it, in the big picture, make sense to go through life without child or a car?
To be honest: campaigns that encourage us to separate waste, opinion pieces that encourage us to eat less meat, or news items about the effects of climate change: only a part of the population will adjust their lifestyle accordingly. Every CO2 molecule that doesn't end up in the atmosphere is pure gain, but the problem of climate change has become so great that only a collective change can still solve this. A change that everyone has to take part in.
A colossal challenge, because sustainable solutions do not get a fair chance. The website carbonbrief.org recently revealed that Norway is at the forefront of subsidies for fossil fuels, about 800 dollars per person per year. Worldwide, fossil subsidies are estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars. The polluter does not pay. On the contrary, they're getting paid extra. If we want to save the planet, that system has to change.
But how? Didn't the yellow vests in France show us that the majority doesn't want climate measures? But those demonstrations were mainly about social inequality, not about the climate. On Saturday, December 9, at the same time as a protest by the yellow vests, tens of thousands of people walked through the streets in Paris, and the rest of France, to demonstrate for a better climate. Yellow vests joined in, and they demonstrated shoulder to shoulder. But because the climate demonstration did not lead to riots, there was hardly any media attention for it.
The problem isn't with the teacher in his Peugeot, or the construction worker who is stuck in the same traffic jam next to him. No, they are trapped in a system that leaves them no choice and are tired of politicians who turned climate into a divisive issue, instead of a problem that needs to be resolved through the strongest shoulders carrying the heaviest burden.
How do we stop this division and convince both sides of the political spectrum that the system must change? According to climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, the solution is simple: Talk about it. Not by overwhelming others with scientific facts or by bragging about cycling to work, but by talking about the things that are important to them. Do they have children? Are they concerned about climate refugees? Or do they want to be able to ski in the future? Talk to your neighbors, with your colleagues – and also with your climate-skeptical uncle – about the hopes and concerns for the future that you do share. After all, a viable planet is important for everyone, regardless of political conviction.
Individual actions only make sense if others are encouraged to change as a result. If the yellow vests have shown us one thing, it's if enough people ask for change, even the most stubborn government leaders change their policies. Maybe time to put on a green vest?
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 28 December 2018