The unexpected and unavoidable consequences of living with climate change

At 18, Katie Sinclair has already decided she’s unlikely to become a mum.

That’s because of her determination to do her bit to fight the climate crisis.

“Children don’t really interest me,” Sinclair, who lives in the small South Taranaki town of Opunake, says.

“I think I’ve already decided I want to be the fun aunt, rather than the mum. Having children is such an impact on the environment.” 

Having one less child is the most effective personal greenhouse-gas reducing option open to anyone, rich or poor, as this can save 58.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, a study published in Environmental Research Letters and quoted by the Guardian says.

Sinclair says considers climate change in almost all decisions she makes.
ANDY JACKSON/STUFFSinclair says considers climate change in almost all decisions she makes.

The trend has been recognised globally as ‘birth striking’. A New York Times survey of young adults in America last year found 33 per cent had, or were expecting to have, fewer children than expected because they were worried about climate change. The movement has some famous backers. Singer Miley Cyrus and her husband Liam Hemsworth are on board.

This sounds radical but to really tackle climate change people will collectively have to live as if there’s wartime rationing, Professor Steve Trewick, a specialist in evolutionary ecology and genetics at Massey University, says.

Professor Steve Trewick from Massey University says we need to live as though our resources are rationed.
SUPPLIEDProfessor Steve Trewick from Massey University says we need to live as though our resources are rationed.

“It’s terrible to use that war analogy because that’s very negative, but in a way, we are at war with ourselves. As a species we are over-using our resources and those resources are definitely limited,” he says.

During World War II in Britain, food including eggs, meat, butter and sugar was rationed, as was fuel and later clothes and household goods.

At that time only a few families owned a car and people were more accustomed to ‘make do and mend’ rather than buying new items.

“Technology is not going to magic away that problem. The fact is, we’re using too much of a limited resource so we have to change,” Trewick says.

Transport is the fastest growing source of climate pollution in New Zealand.
BRADEN FASTIER/STUFFTransport is the fastest growing source of climate pollution in New Zealand.

And it’s required at all levels, right through business, economics, politics and personal decisions.

“I think that’s where the real struggle’s going to come because we will all want to listen to the politicians who say things that don’t require us to make much change to our lives. We don’t want to hear the people who say no, actually we have to radically change globally our behaviour as people,” he says.

And individual actions will help bring this about, Trewick says.

If far more of us recognised and started to accept the reality of the situation the planet was in and so were prepared to make tiny changes, he says we’d then be that much more receptive to the bigger changes that will came along.

The issues, encompassing air and water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, increasing climate change, biodiversity loss and loss of quality of life for many people around the world, are too big for us to comprehend, Trewick says.

“In nearly all situations you can track back the products you use and resources you use and  find that somewhere in the world these days, someone else is not doing very well out of the deal.” 

While having a collective sense of responsibility is healthy, beating oneself up is not, Trewick says. 

“What’s better is to take some level of positive action,” he says.

That means that even though your personal decision to use or not use a disposable coffee cup seems a pathetic little thing, multiply it out to how many people buy coffee each day in New Zealand. 

“And you start to get some very big numbers.” And you feel good about it, he says. 

There are many ways individuals can take small actions.

Minister for Climate Change James Shaw is keen to see people driving electric vehicles.
ROSA WOODS/STUFFMinister for Climate Change James Shaw is keen to see people driving electric vehicles.

In New Zealand, transport is the fastest-growing source of climate pollution, Minister for Climate Change James Shaw says. 

“The single best thing most people can take is to switch to a more efficient, lower-emission car – ideally an electric vehicle, if you’ve got the option. For people who live and work in cities, catching trains and buses, walking and cycling, rather than driving, can add up to a huge difference.

“Another is to choose a Kiwisaver provider that doesn’t invest in fossil fuel companies, because money talks and that helps shift investment into clean energy technologies.”

Ethical decisions about our lives confront us at every turn.

We should all be choosing natural fabrics and laundering less, because synthetics like our beloved polar fleece shed hundreds of thousands of microfibres (particles of plastic below 5mm in size) each time they’re washed, which pass through sewage treatment into the environment, according to 2016 research by the University of Plymouth.

Volunteers pick up rubbish in Fox River on the West Coast after a flood ripped open the Fox Glacier landfill in March.
Volunteers pick up rubbish in Fox River on the West Coast after a flood ripped open the Fox Glacier landfill in March.

According to Friends of the Earth, microfibres have been found in air, rivers, soil, drinking water, beer and table salt.

And should we feel good wearing cheap fast fashion items and ignore the likely awful working conditions for those that sewed them and the mountains of cast-off clothing clogging landfills?

Red meat and whether to eat it is another well-debated topic, with many people opting for veganism to reduce carbon emissions from farming animals for food.

Then there’s the surprisingly large carbon footprint of the fur children we take on as substitutes for the kids we’ve decided not to have.

Pet cats and dogs have a huge carbon footprint, research shows.
Pet cats and dogs have a huge carbon footprint, research shows.

A 2017 study published in the Public Library of Science found that in the United States companion dogs and cats ate enough meat to account for about 64 million tonnes of methane and nitrous oxide, two greenhouse gases. This has the same impact as driving 13.6 million cars for a year.

Sixty four per cent of New Zealand households have at least one pet, just one per cent behind the United States, according to the New Zealand Companion Animal Council. 

That’s a lot of food, most of which is imported, and a lot of poo picked up with plastic bags and sent to landfills.

Reducing the rate of dog and cat ownership, perhaps in favour of other pets that offer similar health and emotional benefits, would considerably reduce these impacts, the study author said.

Even if owning cats remains socially acceptable, holidaying overseas may not.

​In Sweden, there’s flygskam – or flight shame – a buzz word to describe feelings of guilt or embarrassment caused by stepping on board an airplane. In April, Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, a leader in recent worldwide student protests against climate change, toured Europe by rail calling on the continent’s leaders to do more.

The clash between our efforts to transition to a low-carbon economy and our tradition of the big OE as a kiwi rite of passage and the growing numbers of tourists flying thousands of kilometres to come here is an uncomfortable dilemma for New Zealand. 

Flying alone makes up more than eight per cent of global CO₂ emissions, according to research published in Nature Climate Change last year, and if it were a country it would be among the world’s top 10 emitters.

Sinclair has been organising beach cleanups to help keep the oceans free of plastic.
ANDY JACKSON/STUFFSinclair has been organising beach cleanups to help keep the oceans free of plastic.

Despite the grim news on every front, Sinclair remains optimistic about the future and firmly believes in personal action.

“Probably with 95 per cent of everything I do, I’m like, how is this going to impact the environment? 

“I one hundred per cent believe individual choices make a difference, changing your habits will make a difference and it creates a ripple effect.” 

Since she started organising beach clean-ups around her home town Opunake last year as a school project, she has been picking up rubbish wherever she goes.

If she changes her mind about having children, she will use reusable nappies and share toys with other families through toy libraries.

There are many other ways to take earth-friendly action, she says.

“Some of my friends are vegan for the environmental side of it and the animal rights, that’s what they’re really aware of.

“I love travelling and I think it’s such an important thing to do to experience new cultures and grow your mindset, but I guess there are more environmentally friendly ways you can do it. I know of some people who when they spend $800 on an airfare, they might donate $800 to a charity that plants trees or something.”

By Catherine Groenestein. This article first appeared on Stuff, see the original article. Steve Trewick is a member of the Centre for Planetary Ecology and a founder of this blog.

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