On being ... something

By Ingrid Sapona 

The notion that something’s better than nothing has a nice ring to it. And, while I think the adage has merit, when it comes to climate change, I worry that the saying may actually be counter-productive. In other words, I worry that people will confuse “something” with “enough”. 

In the lead up to COP26 – the UN climate change summit that starts tomorrow in Glasgow – like many, I’ve been thinking about the changes that are required to prevent climate disaster. Another thing I’ve been thinking about is whether it’s appropriate to even convene an international, in-person gathering to “tackle climate change,” which is what Alok Sharma, COP President-Designate says the conference is about. It’s not that I don’t think the world needs to focus on climate change, or that I worry the conference might end up being a super-spreader event. What I wonder about is whether the conference will amount to anything more than a boon for those selling carbon offsets to attendees. 

Of course, a high-profile, UN-supported conference does (re)focus the world on the existential threat that is climate change, so I guess that makes having it a good thing. And it clearly has been an “opportunity” for countries, world leaders, and companies to announce (or reiterate) their goals and commitments regarding climate change, which is also good. (By the way, if you haven’t heard Pope Francis’ comments to the BBC on Friday about the need for radical change, you should have a look – his thoughtful comments are very compelling.)  

Because of COP26, various news outlets have also been running features about technologies and innovations aimed at mitigating climate change. One such story on the CBC this week really grabbed my attention. It was about walks led by people from the forestry faculty at the University of British Columbia. The walks are part of the Cool 'Hoods Champs Program aimed at bridging the knowledge gap between climate science and everyday people. 

During the walks, participants do simple activities that draw their attention to things in their own neighborhood that can help mitigate climate change and they talk about things that are contributing to climate change. For example, participants are asked to count the number of trees and to measure them, noting that bigger trees provide more shade, which helps keep homes cooler. They also look to see whether rooftops are dark or light (lighter roofs reflect light and heat), and talk about the impact of ground that’s paved over.

One participant talked about how the walk motivated him to try to germinate chestnuts and other seedpods he collected. He proudly showed a sturdy chestnut sapling he grew and will be planting, noting that by the time his children are adults, the tree will help provide shade to their house. He also talked about how the experience has motivated him to think about what more he can do to reduce climate change. 

The professor who came up with the walks explained that there’s a lot of anxiety around climate change because much of the discussion is focused on doom and gloom scenarios. He developed the walks because he wants to show people that a brighter future is built neighborhood by neighborhood. The lead researcher of the Program said she sees it as a way to turn a negative into a positive and as a way to bring ordinary folks into the climate change conversation. 

Getting people involved in their own community as a hedge against climate anxiety is a great idea. And clearly the Program motivated the guy with the chestnut sapling to take action and to focus on the kind of future his kids might have if we don’t address climate change. But I worry that such programs might lull people into thinking that achieving net zero emissions only requires small steps. It’s like thinking that donating a can of corn, a pound of pasta, and jar of peanut butter to the local food bank at Thanksgiving will solve hunger in your community. Such acts clearly help a hungry person get through a day or two, but it’s not a long-range solution. 

Change of the magnitude required to contain global warming requires action that extends far beyond the kinds of things each of us can do on our own. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t think we should all do what we can. It’s just that I think it’s important to also stress that such steps are but a start. 

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona 


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