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Counting the cost of climate change – why huge numbers don’t register

Is one of our problems with tackling climate change our inability to understand the scale of – and therefore the impact of – our population on this planet? Is it a case that counting the cost of it all is a little beyond the grasp of us mere mortals?

Relating the phenomenon of climate change to our own individual lives is a problem in of itself; it is such a vast concept that the issue appears to exist ‘out there’. We wish deforestation to end, and petrol companies to reign in their drilling, but grasping their reliance on us is as much a leap of the imagination as understanding how we – individually – are damaging the planet.

In short, and to a large degree, climate change feels like something that we are powerless to influence.

VENICE, ITALY – OCTOBER 29: Tourists carry a stroller through the flood waters on October 29, 2018 in Venice, Italy. Today due to the exceptional level of the “acqua alta” that reaced 156 cm schools and hospitals of Venice remained closed the authorities have also advised citizens against leaving their homes (Photo by Stefano Mazzola/Awakening/Getty Images)

A relocation of blame is in order. Recognising that our consumer culture is the source of the problem puts us in a position where we can make actual change.

It is easy to dismiss the imperilled climate as the victim of multinational corporations or pollutant nation states. We may not burn plastic in our fireplaces, or personally go out and chainsaw down acres of trees but, as consumers, we have to understand that our choices enable those who do act in ways that harm the world.

Our demand is what creates the supply, and therefore creates the damage. It is consumer culture that is poisoning the planet, and to differentiate between ourselves and the dubious corporations is to relinquish responsibility.

The Lakewood megachurch in Texas boasts a weekly attendance of 52,000.

In order to grasp our contribution to an extreme climate, we first need to accept that our individual actions – in a very tiny way, sure – are negatively affecting the planet.

Do you eat meat? More than likely you are supporting an industry that requires damaging over-farming, or helping to keep livestock numbers at an unnaturally high number.

How plastic-free are you? You might be very good but, in this society, it is almost impossible to be perfect. Buying things in plastic only increases demand for more items in plastic to be sold.

Again, personal impact can very small, but – for the majority of people – it does exist.

The difficulty is one of imagination. The difficulty is in understanding the scale of human activity on the planet.

Counting the cost My Good Planet
Wildfires devastated the state of California over the past few weeks, leaving almost 100 dead and a further 1,000 missing. Thousands of homes, as well as a massive amount of woodland habitat were destroyed in the blazes, some of which which lasted several weeks.

Have you ever sat on the beach, grabbed a handful of sand, and wondered – how many grains must there be on this beach? The sheer quantity boggles the mind.

Once the quantity of something goes over a certain level, it becomes its own entity – sand-dunes, or fields of grass, or an ant hive. There might be millions of pixels on your screen, but all you see is the image.

It’s easy to image ten or twenty people, or a hundred.

We start to get disconcerted as we go higher – a packed sports event, for example, might be  50 or 60 thousand people. Double that, and you have only just reached the hundred thousands.

It might be impossible to judge whether a mass of people was 500,000 or a million. Ten million individuals strains our imagination. Our failure to think in these terms lends the idea of a massive population an ineffable quality.

And yet there are 7.7 billion people on this planet.

The size of the number is daunting – 7.7 billion is the amount of hours 11,000 people will live for.

Think about it this way – if you took a single cent from every person on the planet, you would have 77 million euros, enough to buy numerous luxury cars, several mansions with extensive land, and a couple of islands. One cent may not seem much, but when you add it up, it’s significant.

If everyone contributes only a tiny proportion of the damage, the overall damage becomes colossal.

The scale of the population creates a further problem of compassion. When we are told that 2 billion people don’t have access to clean water, how does someone interpret that kind of figure? It’s challenging to empathise with such a number.

Counting the cost My Good Planet
Flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in the USA left thousands of homes without clean water, but this pales in comparison to what’s happening in the developing world.

The paradox of it is that as the number of people suffering increases, our empathy decreases – ‘psychic numbing’ in the words of psychologist Paul Slovic.

Not only can we not imagine the quantity of people that are harming the world, but we also can’t sympathise with the number of people who will suffer as a result of it. 30 to 80 million people displaced due to rising sea levels. 400 million people in urban areas affected by extreme water shortages. Do these numbers mean anything? Or do we just shelve it somewhere in our brain as ‘a lot’?

Meeting a family that doesn’t have clean water is understandable, frustrating, and ultimately tragic. But 500 million families?

Imagine one square kilometre – maybe a small town or a large park. How can you relate this to 7.7 billion kilometres? Well, if you multiple the size of that town or park by the human population, you get the total area of 15 planet Earths. And think – each of those square kilometres is adding to the problem.

We are responsible, individually. Daily, by the choices we make, or don’t make. However. the same logic applies to making a change; if 7.7 billion people made a small improvement, that becomes a gargantuan positive action. That’s counting the cost.

The world is in our hands.

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See how a 2 degree change can affect coastal areas.

If you’re still trying to visualise a million, this might help.

Steve Wright

With a masters in Science Communication and a background in media, Steve Wright is an authority on all things scientific, as well as sustainability and consciousness. A Junior Designer and Contributor to My Good Planet, Steve specialises in making complicated material seem accessible and simple for all.