Guest Columnist Joe Silverman: It’s not easy being green

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Published: 12/29/2021 4:36:33 PM
Modified: 12/29/2021 4:36:05 PM

For years, the Daily Hampshire Gazette has done a great job of reporting news about climate change, which has included publishing many columns and letters on this important topic. I have traveled to other parts of the country and noted the absence of such news in their local newspapers. I’m also pleased to read of the Gazette’s interest in expanding their coverage of climate news.

The solutions to the climate crisis are usually focused on the systemic changes needed to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions; however, an overlooked x-factor is the importance of personal and community actions. Changing the source of energy from fossil fuels to renewables is absolutely necessary but probably not sufficient, as the choices made by the public are needed to reduce the demand for that energy. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) cited two studies that household consumption and lifestyle choices account for an estimated two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency agreed that behavioral changes are necessary for reaching the IPCC goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius.

While many are doing what they can to reduce their personal carbon footprint, to a large degree the “average” lifestyle has remained business-as-usual. For example, while it’s well known that trees are good for sequestering carbon, less than 2% of the toilet paper sold in America comes from recycled paper. Although the climate crisis is a highly partisan issue, carbon emissions from heavy traffic are more prevalent in urban and traditionally Democratic regions. Unfortunately, even among those who understand the urgency of the climate crisis, too many are waiting for others — politicians, the business community, and entrepreneurs — to “fix” the problem and the importance of personal decisions is minimized.

The other factor that impedes efforts by individuals and communities is that, to borrow a phrase from Kermit the Frog, “it’s not easy being green.”

In many instances it can be more expensive, which Bill Gates refers as the “green premium.” If it costs more to buy green products, they will have problems competing in the marketplace. However, the UNEP report also found that emissions of the top 10% of income earners is far above that of the lowest 50%. As a result, the green premium would — and should — mostly be paid by those who can well afford to do so.

In addition, it’s often hard to know what is the “right” thing to do. Products do not come with labels that report their carbon impact and consumers cannot factor that into their purchasing decisions. Even when motivated to make sustainability a factor in lifestyle decisions, it’s not always easy to know what choices will have the most impact.

A positive trend is that many “green” products are being produced by new, small companies. There are household cleaning and personal grooming products that are made without chemicals and do not come packaged in large plastic containers. There are more and more alternatives to meat that are acceptable substitutes for the industrial beef industry. However, the companies that create these climate-friendly products have problems competing with the multi-nationals because they do not have the established brand name or the funds for traditional advertising.

In addition to the crisis in our climate there is also a crisis in American democracy, and a factor is the decline of local newspapers. A Pew Research study found that from 2000 to 2018, weekday newspaper circulation fell from 55.8 million households to an estimated 28.6 million. Between 2008 and 2019, newsroom employment fell by 51% and, since 2004, more than 1,800 local newspapers have closed.

The decline in local news reporting has been correlated with an increase in corruption, lack of accountability by politicians, less competitive elections, and weaker town and city finances. And, in an era where our previous president consistently accused the major and reputable news sources as “fake,” the trust that people have in local news becomes even more important.

But there might be a way to both inform the public about ways to reduce their carbon footprint while supporting our local newspapers. There could be, for example, an article detailing the environmental impacts of laundry detergents in large plastic containers paired with advertising for sustainable alternatives or the impacts of cutting trees to make paper products with ads for toilet paper or napkins manufactured with 100% recycled paper. The climate impact of traditional grass lawns, including emissions from gas-powered lawn equipment, could be described with ads for battery-powered alternatives and advice on home vegetable and pollinator gardens as options to grass lawns. A report on the environmental damage from corporate beef farming could be described with ads promoting plant-based alternatives and promotions for cookbooks, meal delivery services, or internet sites with vegetarian or vegan options.

I believe that adding climate news as a regular feature in newspapers could generate a new source of income for newspapers while providing a public service that could attract a younger demographic of new subscribers that would appreciate this information.

This proposal would be most effective if the feature was adopted by multiple newspapers. There is obviously a precedent for syndication of content, such as comic strips, daily horoscopes and even news from the Associated Press and Reuters. The success of this concept, as well as the future of our planet, could be expressed in the adage that there is strength in numbers. If one person takes action to address the climate crisis, there is little impact but, if millions do the same, it makes a big difference.

Joe Silverman lives in Florence.

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