We caused climate change; only we can fix it

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On Monday, a new and dire United Nations report concluded that some of the effects of climate change are past the point of no return — and there’s only a small window of time to prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius per decade. UN Secretary General António Guterres described the report as “code red for humanity.”

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/08/2021 (474 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On Monday, a new and dire United Nations report concluded that some of the effects of climate change are past the point of no return — and there’s only a small window of time to prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius per decade. UN Secretary General António Guterres described the report as “code red for humanity.”

Seems the world’s nations have dragged their feet on curbing fossil-fuel emissions for too long, and now we all get to wait and see if they will actually heed that code red or just, you know, treat it as a “strong recommendation” and just keep doing what they’re doing.

It’s been an anxious few days for headlines. The ‘code-red’ UN climate report follows Manitoba’s transition to ‘code-yellow’ on its pandemic response system, and all of it has me thinking about many responsibilities that end up falling on individuals.

The Canadian Drought Monitor has declared “exceptional drought” in many parts of the province. According to Environment Canada meteorologist Sara Hoffman, the rating is as high as it can go. (Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press files)

With the reckless rolling back of the mask mandate, and restrictions being supplanted by recommendations, the pandemic is now being dealt with the same way other macro issues such as climate change and burnout are dealt with, which is to say, at the individual level. It’s up to business owners to author their own mask mandates, and it’s up to workers to enforce them. It’s up to individuals to do the calculus of whether or not they will see people inside or not, wear a mask or not, go to a movie with unvaccinated people or not.

The pandemic has made clear the Venn diagram that exists between the pandemic, climate change, and burnout — massive, interconnected problems that are perpetuated by systems and institutions, yet blamed on the actions of individual people.

After all, we did this to ourselves, right? We spread the virus because went to school and work and we infected each other. We ruined the Earth because we want everything right now and we worship at the altars of oil and gas and plastic. We’re burned out because we tie our worth to productivity and can’t “handle” the stress.

And so, it’s mostly fallen to individuals to make modifications to their personal behaviours in an attempt to reverse course. Use a canvas shopping bag. Do yoga to manage your stress. Keep six feet apart. Use a metal straw. Do a breathing exercise. Wear a mask. Recycle. Meditate. Get vaccinated.

Of course, taking personal responsibility and individual action is important and necessary. But we cannot, as individuals alone, metal-straw our way out of a climate crisis any more than we can meditation-app our way out of burnout, or handwash our way out of a pandemic. Global problems need co-ordinated global responses. When individual actions are stymied and undermined by larger systems that don’t actually support them, not only is it very difficult for those individual actions to become collective ones, but the governments, corporations, and Scrooge McDuck billionaires in their swimming pools of money who keep us in these messes are largely left off the hook.

And not everyone will be willing to change their behaviour — in some cases, in the large, life-changing ways required, such as eating less meat or trading in the SUV — and that’s precisely where “strong recommendations” fall short. We need guidance and leadership. We need governments and corporations to step up.

I’ve often thought that the phrase “burn out” was a clever rebrand for “exploitation.” But it’s all exploitation. Exploitation is the throughline.

The pandemic has been allowed to rage because things like paid sick leave and equitable vaccine distribution are, for some reason, bridges too far. Humans have exploited the earth’s resources and we have exploited each other, demanding labour for low or zero pay. Instead of mental health coverage, we get platitudes saying “It’s OK to not be OK” — unless, of course, you want to keep working, then you should probably keep the fact you’re not OK to yourself. We are trapped in systems that allow this exploitation to continue.

But don’t misunderstand: we are not helpless. The pandemic has shown how quickly humans can adapt. We can demand better for ourselves and each other through our votes, our wallets and our voices. Our future depends on us.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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Updated on Tuesday, August 10, 2021 7:52 AM CDT: Adds photo

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