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Copenhagen, Footprints, and Evolution

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Thumbnail image for copenhagen.jpgIn just a few days, negotiators and leaders from across the globe will meet in Copenhagen in an attempt to clamp down on the gigatons of greenhouse gases we're dumping into our atmospheric "bathtub" every year. The longer we fail to act, the more we risk crossing dangerous climactic tipping points, endangering global food security, and creating climate refugees.

Recognizing the immense scale of climate change can be disheartening. Hopefully Copenhagen will deliver the equally immense global commitment this issue requires. But what can a single person do? It's easy to feel helpless. Consider this: the average American emits 20 tons of CO2 every year. That's a lot of CO2 (check out the CO2 cubes project to see what a ton of CO2 looks like). But many coal plants emit more than 20,000,000 tons of CO2 every year! On the South Dakota - Minnesota border, a combination of poor credit markets and concern about climate change led to the demise of the proposed Big Stone II coal plant, but Minnesota still burns tons of coal every day to meet 60% of our state's energy demand.  The global picture is far more daunting. In China, as we often hear, a new coal plant opens every ten days.

Feeling discouraged? Wait! If we all do our part to save energy, won't we make a big impact? True, but the key is: "if we all do our part". Unfortunately, as Todd noted in his post, the general public's willingness to tackle climate change has been waning. Plenty of people really just don't care, and some actually vehemently oppose action (think "Drill, Baby, Drill"). So until policy creates strong financial incentive structures to motivate these individuals, why worry about lowering your carbon footprint? I believe the answer is clear: Even if the Chinese coal plant coming online tomorrow will emit more CO2 in an hour than you'll save by riding your bike to work for the next 20 years, your personal actions (bike riding, energy conservation, lowering meat consumption, etc.) are immensely critical for catalyzing others to act and thus establishing consensus and societal norms. Strong consensus is extremely necessary for gaining the political will to pass climate legislation in the Senate and strengthening the legislation in the years to come. Finally, I believe such consensus at home could help catalyze international agreements to cut emissions - like the one we hope to see in Copenhagen.

My reasoning behind these statement stems from some conversations I had with classmates of the Santa Fe Institute's 2009 Global Sustainability Summer School. Most of our conversations about sustainability eventually led to discussions of human nature, and I was fortunate to learn about Sam Bowles' work on the evolutionary origins of altruistic behavior. Bowles' interdisciplinary research suggests that intragroup cooperation within groups evolved (through group selection) as a result of intergroup conflict. In other words, humans are extremely good at cooperating with those that are within our particular group, partly as a result of being under attack by other groups. But when it comes to climate change, humanity is all in the same boat (although clearly the poorest in the world will suffer the most). We're under attack by our own actions and our own history, and all nations must work together to solve this problem on the scale it deserves. Thinking of the situation as us (Americans, developed world) vs. them (Chinese, Indians, developing world, etc.) only heightens our tendencies for intergroup conflict and obstructs cooperation. But if widespread consensus builds and societal norms are established, perhaps we could break through and make real progress on protecting our climate.

So ride your bike, take a staycation, and eat a few less steaks. Yes, you'll be saving CO2, but you will also be catalyzing global action!

(photo credits: olgite via Flickr)

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  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.

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