Fighting Climate Change in Your Own Backyard

My last column talked about divestment — how I believe that it has powerful symbolic value but that it must not be used as a substitute for personal or community-level changes that would directly reduce the amount of carbon emissions for which we are responsible. Although I appreciate Hannah Bristol ’14.5’s response, I can’t help but feel as though she missed the point entirely. Tellingly, she does not offer a single solution to climate change beyond talking to “folks.” At this point, education is not enough.

I am fully and painfully aware that we cannot solve global climate change by turning off our lights. But we also must not forget that those choices do have value. When I drive from my apartment downtown to Proctor dining hall in the morning, or crank up the air conditioning on a hot day or fly halfway around the globe to Australia, I am contributing to the problem of climate change by releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and increasing the demand for fossil fuels. That round-trip flight alone sent more carbon aloft than the annual car use of entire American families. Such choices should hardly be dismissed as trivial; to do so feeds into the gloomy fallacy that we are helpless against global warming.

I worry about the push for divestment or the protests against the Keystone pipeline not because they don’t have value, but because in these causes I see an unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for climate change. It’s not enough to point at others and cry “stop tempting me with this sweet, sweet gasoline.” Oil and coal companies are not forcing us to buy product that we do not want. I am the cause of climate change. You are the cause of climate change. Al Gore and George W. Bush, Bill McKibben and Rex Tillerson are all the cause of climate change.

The only way to break that cycle is to accept that the problem begins in our backyards. The iron grip of fossil fuels on the business of powering, heating and moving the population will only be broken by making the alternatives cheap and available. Instead, I see a national movement of environmental activists obsessed with negative action. William F. Buckley once said that conservatism means standing athwart history yelling “stop.” That’s a strategy bound to lose without clear alternatives. It failed to stop the implementation of healthcare. It’s failing to prevent marriage equality from spreading across the country. But it seems to me as though modern environmentalism has fallen into this same doomed strategy of screaming “halt” at the world around it.

In the meantime, Vermont is currently debating a bill to ban the construction of wind farms in a state high on outrage but short on alternatives. The Green Mountain State produces less of its electricity from wind and solar than states from North Dakota to Texas, and we have heard barely a peep from those who profess to truly care about climate change.

I know how much easier it is to oppose things than to build up the other options; I spent most of the fall election cycle endlessly mocking Mitt Romney. Creation is much more difficult than moral outrage. It requires far more time, money and energy.  But when a patient has heart disease, it’s not enough to tell him or her to simply stop eating, smoking and drinking. To survive, he or she will need to replace steak with salad and smoking with exercise. Without substitutes, stopping bad habits would still be fatal.

This is how to beat climate change: couple cries for divestment with a push for investment in small business solar companies or startups that aim to scrub carbon from the atmosphere. Oppose methods of fossil fuel extraction that cause excessive harm to the environment, but at the same time, encourage research in zero-emission vehicles so that there is no market for those fuels. We are the majority. It’s time to stop acting like the opposition.

It’s time to put solar panels on our roofs, wind turbines behind our homes and hydrogen powered cars in our garages. It’s time to plant more trees and consider seeding the oceans with iron, locking away carbon dioxide in algal blooms. That’s the type of movement we need: campuses and communities, cities and states, deciding to do things differently — not to complain, but to build and not only to divest but also to invest. The amount of money at this institution could do an incredible amount of good invested in companies like Solar Mosaic or First Wind. All of these projects will need to be in somebody’s backyard. You’re welcome to start with mine. Can we have yours, too?

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