Facing our climate contradictions

By Lauren Howe-Kerr
Graduate Student, Department of BioSciences, Rice University

We forgo the plastic straw but continue to use plastic utensils. We bring our own coffee mug while drinking coffee shipped from distant countries. We follow a vegan diet yet purchase heavily packaged food items. We reuse grocery bags but drive an SUV to the store. We fund environmental causes yet invest in fossil fuel company stocks. And, as climate scientists, we study our planet’s changing ecosystems yet contribute to carbon emissions through international flights. There is a fine line between using positive individual actions to contribute to sustainability and using positive individual actions to justify avoiding more difficult changes and conversations that need to occur. Our contradictions are an opportunity to realize that we must be in a constant state of change, continuously trying to find opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint to address the climate crisis.

As a coral reef ecologist, one component of my research is traveling to remote ecosystems for field work. My work focuses on the rapid demise of coral reefs due to human-induced impacts on our oceans. However, last year, I calculated that each round-trip flight to my field site in Moorea, French Polynesia, has a carbon footprint equivalent to melting approximately 120 square feet of Arctic ice. This number does not even include the carbon footprint of daily boat trips or the vast quantities of single-use laboratory materials that we must also ship out. While this realization has not made me value science any less, it has made me aware that I cannot simply find comfort in my contribution to climate change ecology research and stop there. If I do, where will I find motivation and awareness to investigate what I can do next?

Taking steps toward environmental sustainability is critical. While people may find comfort in doing small things to reduce their own carbon footprint, such efforts ignore the larger, structural problem of our reliance on fossil fuels. Oil and gas companies promote their ‘green energy solutions’ to appear more sustainable in order to divert attention from a problem inherently tied to consumerism and overconsumption. Undefined sustainability-related terms (e.g., “recyclable,” “fully sustainable” and “biodegradable”) send the message that we can take comfort in being ‘sustainable-enough’ and detract from informed discussion and progress toward products and processes with higher ecological integrity. No one is off the hook, and we cannot be satisfied with being ‘sustainable-enough.’ Climate change is teaching us that we must always be changing.

Small sustainable efforts are insignificant on their own; they only work if they lead to bigger changes, and it can be challenging to know what next steps to take. As hard as we try, there are some contradictory aspects of our individual lives that we cannot effectively address because of the scale of the problem. However, by challenging our individual contradictions and collectively pressuring companies, governments, and leaders to honestly address their contradictions as well, we can begin to address the climate crisis. For example, bringing your own coffee mug is a small step, but it could exert pressure on a company to eliminate all disposable cups, making a larger scale change. While I cannot eliminate international travel for my research, I can advocate for more sustainable investments at my university. Without acknowledging the larger core issues, our efforts to behave more sustainably can detract from recognizing the scale of change needed to build momentum for significant change.

To cope with the overwhelming climate crisis, it is easy to take comfort in small actions that are stamped as sustainable and find solace in the actions we are taking. However, we need to acknowledge our climate contradictions and use them to broaden participation and make larger scale changes toward reducing our collective carbon footprint. The imminent threat of climate change requires no less from all of us.

This blog post is part of the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program’s Developing Civic Scientist Leaders project.