What are you willing to give up to offset the impacts of climate change? It’s a question that should keep us all up at night, and it’s one that could depend as much on our nationality as our individual personality.
In many ways, the European Union, where I currently live, has taken a leading role on answering this question — in stark contrast to how the United States has reacted. Last month, the European Commission approved what could be a precedent-setting decision from France. The country opted to ban flights between cities that could be reached by train in less than two and a half hours. In the US, that might eliminate plane journeys between major cities like Philadelphia and Washington, DC. The move was actually first proposed by a citizen assembly looking for ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Of course, it’s important to put this in perspective. When France first proposed the initiative, they hoped to eliminate eight total airline routes. In practice, the European Commission allowed for only three, based on which destinations had regularly available direct train options each day. The first proposal was also even more expansive — it would have banned all flights that could have been covered by a four-hour train journey or less.
Still, the idea of actually forcing consumers’ hand on transit might strike Americans as a regulation that would never work in our country. After all, this is a country that bailed out airlines almost immediately during the pandemic to the tune of more than $50 billion. When it comes to saving corporations, we move fast. When it comes to saving the planet, not so much. While Europe was cementing its Green New Deal plan last summer, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court was issuing a ruling that hampered the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
And France’s recent flight rule is just one of the ways Europeans have already changed their daily lives to acknowledge the climate crisis. In Italy, for example, residents cannot legally turn on their heat before a certain time of year and can only run it for a certain number of hours a day, depending on where they live. Last year, Germany banned plastic shopping bags in stores. (Some US states and cities have done the same.) As a whole, the European Union is pushing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and aims to be climate neutral by 2050.
That’s not to say that Americans don’t value the climate. In fact, a June 2020 study from Pew Research Center indicated that 65% of American adults think the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. Among young people between 16 and 25, almost 70% are “extremely worried or very worried” about the climate, according to a recent study of 10 countries published in The Lancet.
So, it’s not that we don’t care. One major impediment is the way the United States views climate as a partisan issue. In fact, in a survey of 13 countries on 5 continents, the United States had the biggest ideological divide when it came to climate action, according to a 2022 Politico Morning Consult Global Sustainability poll. About 97% of left-leaning voters were concerned about climate change compared to only 51% of those on the right. About 64% of Democrats said the US government was doing too little on climate change, according to the same poll, whereas only 26% of Republicans agreed with that statement.
But it’s not always the voters that make getting policy approved a challenge. Let’s just say that sometimes the call is coming from inside the house. After all, it wasn’t conservative voters that stopped some of the more sweeping climate provisions of this summer’s Inflation Reduction Act. It was conservative senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), who blocked them from being passed. And when it comes to Republican legislators, at best, many of them don’t want to act on climate. Some won’t even admit that climate change is happening.
There’s also the fact that America has another value that runs contrary to acting on climate at all — that of personal liberty. Just think of the protests and disputes that broke out across the country when masks were mandated in schools and certain public areas throughout the pandemic. A study of various countries, including Australia, Canada, China, India, and France, showed that the United States was the country second most likely—after Japan—to be unwilling to sacrifice their own rights for public health.
When it comes to climate, Americans seem a little more amenable to the idea of changing their daily lives. A 2021 CBS News poll showed that 58% of Americans said people should do things to shape and change the climate crisis rather than simply learn to adapt and make the best of it. Then again, when asked whether they would pay higher taxes to help stop climate change, 65% said no.
It might come down to what Americans view as a potential solution to the climate crisis. A 2020-2021 climate survey from the European Investment Bank showed 34% of Americans think technological innovation — rather than radical changes in behavior — is the best way to tackle the climate crisis. In the European Union, the split is the opposite: 39% think radical change is the right option.
All this said, we know that individual behavior can’t actually stop the climate crisis. Data shows that 76% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, like electricity, fossil fuels, and heating, according to ClimateScience. And we all know this infamous statistic: Only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global climate emissions since 1988, based on data from 2017. We need systemic change and government intervention, not just fewer people drinking from plastic straws. The solution likely encompasses broad policy changes that mandate individual lifestyle changes. Banning short-distance air travel is the kind of combination of government leadership and compelled acceptance of personal inconvenience that can actually make a difference.
Our approach to the climate crisis has to be a combination of everything, and there’s no question that corporations must be held accountable. But we live on a planet that needs saving from the very beings who inhabit it. The time has passed to put our own comforts above the mortality of the place we call home.
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