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Let's be honest: consumers are the main contributors to climate change

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equalization paymentsThe euphoria in Paris in 2015, when 196 countries agreed to address climate change, was palpable. It should have been bottled.

Since then, despite the United Nation’s annual COPs (Conferences of the Parties) on climate change, very little progress has been made. After COP23 in Bonn, Germany, last month, disappointment, particularly among civil society groups, was the prevailing sentiment.

We could question the sincerity of governments that are negotiating the actions their countries will take. For example, the Canadian government’s top priority for Bonn (stated clearly on its website) was creating opportunities for Canadian businesses. Germany, which in many ways is an environmental paragon, still gets 40 per cent of its energy from coal and German drivers haven’t slowed down to reduce emissions.

These observations are not intended to ignore Canadian efforts to address the problem through carbon pricing and other measures, or Germany’s numerous initiatives to spur the development of alternative energy. Nevertheless, the promise of Paris remains unfulfilled.

There’s more than enough hypocrisy to go around. But what’s becoming increasingly clear is that governments can’t be expected to address the elephant in the room: consumption. And that contributes mightily to global warming.

This is understandable because consumption drives the economy. (Remember, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, George Bush advised Americans to go to the mall.) Without a healthy economy driving employment and generating the tax revenue that governments depend on, economies would collapse. Governments are also reluctant to institute unpopular measures to curb consumption lest they be punished in the next election.

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Against this backdrop, it appears the planet is doomed.

Or is it? Are we hapless passengers on a destructive path or participants in our own governance?

Many climate skeptics have pointed out that automobiles are a major source of air pollution, yet this issue is largely ignored. These critics have a valid point despite their views on global warming. Our lavish lifestyles certainly contribute to a warming climate because of the things we buy and the energy used to make them. Thus we have been enthusiastic participants in an obscene level of consumption.

In the last few months, we’ve had Halloween with its increasingly elaborate decorations and costumes, followed by Black Friday, which is becoming a global spending spree. Tucked in between was Singles’ Day in China, that country’s answer to Black Friday, on Nov. 11. On that day alone, e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba sold products worth US$25.3 billion! This was a 39 per cent increase over last year.

At the risk of sounding like a Scrooge/Grinch mashup, I must confess that the orgy of Christmas spending gives me nightmares. There’s no question that the Christmas season is suffused with wonderful and heartwarming acts of generosity, but these go hand in hand with excess.

There will be a veritable arms race in neighbourhoods with elaborate displays of giant Santas and other seasonal figures on lawns, and the blaze of Christmas lights. Then there’s the tsunami of gifts showered on young and old.

Nothing is further from the minds of shoppers than the effect of their purchases on the planet. The amount of garbage created by the plastic packaging alone is enormous. A recent documentary deals with this ubiquitous material. A Plastic Ocean describes the heartbreaking toll that plastic is taking on the oceans and aquatic life. Not only is it killing fish, those that don’t die are becoming dangerous for human to eat because of their toxicity from the plastic they’ve swallowed.

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As inhabitants of this beleaguered planet, we can’t stand idly by, feeling smug because we’re recycling and composting.

What we need to do and do urgently is refrain from gluttonous consumption and adopt mindful consumption instead. I don’t mean going into a meditative trance in a store. But it might help to take a few moments to ponder the impact of each purchase on the environment. Some refer to this as pre-cycling.

There are a few pinpricks of light in the gloom: many individuals are concerned about the sustainability of our resources and are making changes to their lifestyles. Unfortunately, we need a critical mass of citizens to do likewise if there’s to be any appreciable effect on consumption patterns.

Getting so many countries to agree, even in principle and perhaps grudgingly, to address climate change is an achievement to be celebrated. Although the motives of some governments might be suspect, it’s up to the citizens of developed countries to kick it up a notch and become more thoughtful consumers.

The health of the planet is in our hands.

Doreen Barrie is an adjunct assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of Calgary.

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