When I approached The Enterprise 12 years ago about writing a column on what was then referred to as “climate change” I struggled to find an appropriate title for the column. While watching Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” I was struck by how many times the term “per capita” came up in describing greenhouse gas emissions.

I thought then that individual action was the key factor to limiting emissions. If we all made minor changes to our lives, changed light bulbs and drove less, these individual actions would aggregate into significant reductions. This, in turn, would motivate local city councils and boards of supervisors to enact policies to reach energy savings beyond the reach of individuals.

The snowball would accelerate its downhill run, gathering more and more momentum that would pressure states to take actions beyond the reach of local governments. And, of course, actions by states would be the critical mass needed for meaningful action at the national level, setting our country’s house in order and positioning the United States as a leader in proposing and enacting treaties with other nations.

I’ve changed my mind about the basic premise of the snowball analogy above. I continue to think it’s important for all of us to do what we can, to be a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem, but I don’t think we should fool ourselves that our actions can trump (so to speak) the failures of governments and the self-interest of corporations.

We are no longer talking about climate “change.” A clear-eyed look at where we are today places us in a climate “crisis.” We, collectively, as a species, have wasted literally decades of opportunity to make small and incremental changes to our lifestyle and reliance on fossil fuels. Big changes are now necessary.

I don’t want to overstate. Not everyone expects individuals to shoulder the burden of responding to the climate crisis and certainly there’s a substantial amount of effort from governments and corporations. But I don’t think it too extreme to say that most of us, as individuals, feel overwhelmed, somewhat numb and ineffective in what we can do that will make a difference. And we can feel guilty if we are not ticking off every single box on the long list of actions available to individuals.

It’s time to lighten up on ourselves and what we can do in our personal lives and to refocus on placing responsibility and accountability with those who have the power to solve the problem, namely governments and corporations.

This isn’t to say we should stop putting solar on our rooftops, consider buying an electric vehicle when it comes time for a new car, or even stop replacing old light bulbs with new, more energy-efficient lights. But it does mean we elevate other actions to a higher priority.

Consider the following as an example of government action or inaction. In a recent forum, a state legislator was asked whether California should incentivize electric vehicles by requiring that all cars sold in California be electric by some date in the future. The response was no, that electric vehicles currently constitute only a small percentage of California’s vehicle fleet, and when more people buy them the market will respond.

A follow-up comment from the audience pointed out that many European countries as well as India and China, have enacted laws requiring electric sales by 2040 in an effort to, rather than wait for the market to transform, set a standard for the market to reach instead.

This is not a new concept. Governments set mpg standards, appliance-efficiency standards and other policies to create or move a market. These can reflect either a broad societal commitment to sustainability or, contrariwise, successful lobbying by corporations, for example coal companies, to instead reflect narrow financial interests.

Which direction rests in large part on who we elect. At the top of everyone’s list of “10 Things You Can Do to Combat the Climate Crisis” should be to vote for candidates at all levels of government who prioritize action on climate. Consider the difference between Chancellor Merkel in Germany, a climate leader, and Prime Minister Morrison, responding to the interests of the coal industry and denying that climate is related to the fires currently torching Australia.

Leadership matters, and not just at the national level. We also need it right here in Davis, Yolo County and California.

In addition to doing what we can as individuals, and voting for climate candidates, the times require a realization and acceptance that the world we knew, and know now, will have to change. Just a couple of examples: Buildings may be taller as we densify to reduce transportation miles. Fossil fuels, whether for cars or home heating, may be more expensive or not allowed in new construction. The point is, we are past the point where we can get by with small changes (think light bulbs). We will need structural changes to our infrastructure that will require us to adapt.

Some of those changes may require us to move out of our comfort zone and accept changes to our day-to-day lives.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on January 15, 2020 | Printed in the January 15, 2020 edition on page B3