Taking responsibility for climate change



What are we willing to do?

At the weekly meeting of our Spirituality and Environmental Conservation class, UMass Professor Dr. Erin Baker introduced us to the basics of climate change. She explained the connection between burning fossil fuels, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and severe disruption of climate patterns worldwide. And then she asked us what we were willing to do. Big question!

I was not surprised when this group of concerned students and local community members expressed a willingness to make personal changes to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere. Among the changes either suggested or currently practiced were bicycle riding, reducing meat in our diets, investing in renewable energy, turning down the thermostat and turning off the lights, composting waste, ride sharing, etc. Dr. Baker herself walked to the evening class from her home, which is her common practice. The class is largely made up of individuals who see a direct connection between our own personal behavior and “something bigger than themselves” such as family, community, mother nature and/or the divine. This is a motivated group that feels responsible for our contribution to climate change.

Personal change is necessary but not sufficient!

Although Dr. Baker reminded us that personal change can have only a very limited impact on the global crisis, most members of the class continued to believe that a personal commitment to changing behavior was important. From a political perceptive, we recognize that personal change is necessary but not sufficient. We know it is unlikely that the significant policy and economic shifts required to reduce carbon emissions will be possible without widespread citizen action. We know that politicians will see us as hypocrites when we advocate for policy change but do nothing ourselves to change our lives Finally, we know that without a change in campaign finance laws, politicians who are directly influenced by major financial donors are are unlikely to pass any meaningful legislation.

So…… we are left with taking personal action, building a political movement from the ground up, and continuing to point out that the impact of climate change will be unevenly distributed on the poor and most vulnerable people on the planet. We cannot afford to wait for politicians to make responsible social decisions. So we begin with the question……

How much carbon do I contribute to the problem

How much carbon dioxide do we release as individuals each year. Well, the average U.S Citizen contributes about 24 metric tons per year as follows:

  • Home Energy (36.8%)
  • Driving & Flying (43.5%)
  • Recycling & Waste (4.4%)
  • Food & Diet (15.3%)

If we were serious about changing our behavior, perhaps we should also be willing to invest an amount of money equal to our personal share of the Social Cost of Carbon in making things better. For most adults this would be 24 metric tonnes x $39 or almost $1,000 per year.

But what about those of us who ride bikes?

Right, many of us already take actions to reduce our carbon footprint. Personally, I ride a bike (well, when the weather is nice), dry my clothes in the sun, have solar hot water and electricity on the roof, use an electricity provider that guarantees they purchase power generated by the wind, have a big garden, rarely fly in an airplane, buy local food, etc. I’m a good guy! Nevertheless when I did a rough calculation of my carbon footprint, all of this good behavior only reduced my impact by about 8 metric tonnes. So using my calculation, I still “owe” about $624 toward my own Social Cost of Carbon.

For the past few years, I’ve used a carbon calculator to “offset” the cost of my behavior. One of the speakers in our class, Dr. Daniel Greenberg, however convinced me that I need to invest in the future rather than try to offset my behavior. His organization Earth Deeds was created to help. Rather than trying to “buy a clean conscious” with an offset, Dr. Greenberg convinced me that we need to “pay it forward” by investing in solutions that address the causes as well as the impacts of global climate change.

If I am willing to take responsibility for my own behavior I need to invest at least $624 in local projects that help the planet both adapt to the impact of climate change and reduce the amount of carbon we release. I might consider supporting projects that create more wind and solar power, or plant trees to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, or raise animals on well-managed pasture which puts carbon into the soil. Anyway, this would be a good beginning.

What is the carbon cost of our class?

As individuals, there is much we can do. But as a class, there is one more thing. We might to try to model better behavior by taking responsibility for the social cost of the carbon emissions generated by the class itself. I did a simple and crude calculation.

A rough estimate of the carbon footprint for everyone in our class can be calculated from the UMass Climate Action Plan. This study suggests that each person on campus accounts for about 4.2 metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere per year, mostly from burning of fossil fuels for heat and electricity.

If we use the EPA figure on the Social Cost of Carbon ($39/mT), we each would have a carbon cost of (4.2 mT x $39) or $163.80 per person for the year. Then, if we assume that a student might take 16 credits per semester or 32 credits per year, a rough calculation would find that the social cost of carbon for our one credit class was about five dollars ($5.00). Members of the local community would have a slightly higher cost because we generally drove a few miles to get to class (although this is a small cost).

Where do we go from here?

We have a choice. We can leave this problem to someone else or we can take action ourselves. Our class is in the process of planning several action projects. One of them is to invite participants to contribute an amount of money they choose to support projects that will address the impact of climate change. Individuals might want to contribute $5.00 to account for the impact of our class. Others might want to contribute more to account for other aspects of their lives.

This project is being supported by Earth Deeds. Contributions will be collected and distributed according to guidelines determined by our class. It is a beginning……