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Individual, Church Initiatives Can Change Climate Trends

Climate change is not inevitable. So says the United Nations, countering the pessimism found in previous studies.

Their report is the product of a study seeking “to understand and show how individual countries can transition to a low carbon economy” in order to avoid a global temperature increase of greater than 2 degrees Celsius.

While previous studies have spoken of a 2- or 4-degree Celsius increase as nearly inevitable, the U.N. suggests there is hope if broad changes are made. Though it won’t be easy, it is possible.

This good news is coupled with a somber addendum: current efforts are not sufficient and “staying within 2 degrees C will require deep transformations of energy and production systems, industry, agriculture, land use, and other dimensions of human development.”

Understandably, much of the U.N. report focuses on the macro-level–what governments should do in order to curb emissions.

As I reviewed the report, I began to wonder why scant attention was given to the micro-level–what individuals and communities should be doing to help.

Focusing on the big picture when faced with a global issue is essential. Yet, failing to connect the macro to the micro is counterproductive.

Thus, an issue like climate change becomes a “government problem” that requires a “government solution” with little, if any, connection to my day-to-day life.

This perceived distance and lack of connection between my lifestyle and a global challenge exacerbates the problem.

Until individuals, families, churches, service organizations and communities see themselves as contributing to the problem, they will not see themselves as change agents who can be a part of the solution.

It will remain an abstract issue, disconnected from their daily lives.

Writing for the National Catholic Review, Melissa Nussbaum reminded me of the importance of urging individuals to address broader issues by bringing them to a local, personal level.

In speaking of her Texas roots, she reflected on the water shortage across the state–noting lower rainfall totals, decreasing aquifers and disappearing lakes. As a Texan, I am well aware of the water challenges facing the state.

Yet, it was a story about her grandparents that made the conservation of water a personal matter that I have a role in addressing, rather than a more distant problem that should be addressed by the state government.

“My grandparents knew the value of water. They both bathed in a single tub of water, and never every day. For most of their lives, they grew gardens, but never lawns, at their house. They raked the bare dirt by the door into neat patterns and kept it weeded and free of rocks. Water was too precious to waste on decorations,” Nussbaum stated.

My wife and I strive to be environmentally conscientious–we recycle, compost, use a reel mower and have a small vegetable garden, for example.

Yet, Nussbaum’s article confronted me with taken-for-granted realities–the grass in our yard and daily showers–that her grandparents had considered a waste of good water.

While I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to explore the “single tub of water and never every day” approach to bathing, the story caused the once-a-week yard watering restrictions our city has implemented to shift quickly from a nuisance to an essential requirement for the common good–rationing water so that there is enough not only for my generation but those to come.

Similar shifts in perspective must take place for climate change to be adequately addressed.

While reports like that from the U.N. urge governments to enact further regulations to limit pollution, I am convinced that this alone is insufficient.

Lifestyle adjustments at the individual, family and community levels are essential.

Restrictions on pollution during manufacturing, increased standards on automobile exhaust pollutants and fuel efficiency, efforts to find alternatives to carbon-based fuels and the like play an important role.

Nevertheless, governments cannot enact enough regulations to make all of the changes necessary.

For example, restrictions on the automotive industry cannot change the way individuals use their vehicles.

In fact, increased fuel efficiency and lower emissions might encourage more driving and offset any benefits if individuals do not perceive the greater good of using their cars more sparingly.

And in nations with democratically elected officials, until perspectives on environmental restrictions change, leaders who propose and pass them into law will be voted out of office if they are perceived as too much of a burden or if they require lifestyle changes.

Individuals, families and communities shape society even as they are shaped by society.

In order for climate change to be addressed sufficiently, micro-level changes will be as important as those made at the macro-level.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.