Opinion

Going beyond Buy Nothing Day

With climate change accelerating, we need to give our loved ones the gift of survival this holiday season

November 27, 2013 6:30AM ET
Black Friday
Black Friday at a Best Buy store in San Diego, 2011.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

As the days count down toward Black Friday and its opposite, Buy Nothing Day — both celebrated the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, by buying things or not buying things, respectively — it's time for the planet's most fortunate to mount more than a symbolic protest of refusal on the nation's favorite day of consumer excess. It's all well and good not to buy for a day, or even a weekend. But after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan, record droughts and mounting climate casualties, the logic of securing this year's latest toy just doesn't cut it. (Did it ever? Who remembers pet rocks and Chicken Dance Elmo?) Nor does a cashmere twin set and pearls. This year we need to give the gift of survival, to ourselves and the planet.

At last week's United Nations climate meetings in Warsaw, Kevin Anderson, one of the world's leading climate scientists, identified the pace of emissions reductions that wealthy countries must achieve to cap the anticipated rise in global temperature at 2 degrees Celsius: 70 percent by 2020. This date, only six years away, is a lot closer than the commonly referred-to 2050 deadline that's so far off we can easily ignore it. The 2020 target involves us, not the children and grandchildren we supposedly care so much about. Anderson is getting real, explaining that to have an "outside chance" of staying below 2 degrees, wealthy countries will need to cut emissions by 10 percent a year, and achieve full decarbonization between 2020 and 2030. That has implications for what we do this Friday, and every day up to Christmas, a period during which about 20 percent of the nation's annual retail sales occur.

So far, we're a long way from the kind of commitment that Anderson and other scientists are desperate that we make. At the United Nations-sponsored Copenhagen climate talks four years ago, the U.S. pledged a grossly inadequate 17 percent reduction by 2020. Officially measured greenhouse gases have fallen by 12 percent since 2005, but even that modest progress raises a host of questions.

One is about statistics. The decline in measured emissions is based on "territorial" emissions — that is, those that are created in production, rather than from consumption. Exhibit one is the offshoring of carbon pollution, particularly to China, where most of the toys under the tree are made. Estimates are that about a third of China's territorial greenhouse gas emissions are for goods it exports.

A second factor has been the expansion of fracked natural gas, which accounts for a good bit of the current emissions reductions. While the use of natural gas instead of oil or coal may reduce CO2 emissions in the short run, it does so at the expense of the higher and more climatically destructive methane gas emissions, as well as poisoned water and soil, that are produced from fracking.

I’m giving gifts that increase our chances of getting to 70 percent carbon reductions.

A third obfuscating trend is coal exports. As unfavorable economics and climate activism have dramatically curtailed coal use in this country, exports have soared. Last year the U.S. exported 114 million metric tons of coal, and beat the 1981 record by a whopping 12 percent. The two biggest buyers — the Netherlands and the United Kingdom — are rich countries that can and should do better. Whether coal is burned here or there means nothing to the ultimately disastrous climate impact of its use.

Finally, we've achieved lower emissions on account of the 2009 recession and its aftermath. According to the President's Council of Economic Advisers, just over half of the 12 percent emissions reduction resulted from the Great Recession, through lower than normal demand for energy, goods, transportation and other services. Rather than fritter that progress away with unnecessary gadgets, apparel and holiday travel, we've got to meet people's needs at lower, more sustainable levels of production. Instead of the Keynesian ideal of stimulating the economy that economists such as Paul Krugman are calling for, we should be focusing on putting people to work through investments in clean energy, education, ecological restoration and a new agricultural system that provides healthy food in ways that reduce our carbon footprint.

Climate emissions follow the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of emissions result from just 20 percent of the world's inhabitants. And half of all emissions are the result of actions by just 1 percent of the global population, as Anderson noted in his talk in Warsaw.

The good news is that we privileged Americans belong to that 1 percent.  So we can do something about our impact. And we can start this year, with the 2013 holiday season.

I'm not talking about small-bore actions such as reusing wrapping paper or switching to e-cards, but gifts and practices that actually increase our chances of getting to 70 percent carbon reductions. I'm thinking Holidays 2013: Extreme Makeover edition.

Here's what I have planned: I'm going vegan, I'll be driving less and I'm upending my giving habits. Every present will be a gift for survival, both here and abroad. For the 35-and-older crowd, I'm going with investments in clean energy cooperatives, carbon-sequestering farming methods and forest preservation projects that protect poor people's livelihoods. You can find these projects through environmental and development groups or through Kickstarter and other crowdfunded sites. For the younger generation, I'm sponsoring climate activists who are organizing actions to get our government on board with addressing the planetary emergency we currently face. I'm also planning on a big increase in donations to groups that are fighting climate change, such as 350.org and the Sierra Club.

I hope you do the same.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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