With Earth Day upon us, millions of Americans will be looking for a way to observe the event and celebrate the planet’s bounty and resources. They could go down the high-profile path trod by politicians and celebrities, marked by United Nations negotiations, resolutions in Congress, and rallies with chanting crowds. Or they could resolve to go down the path less taken, and create a more personal and local experience for themselves and their communities.
The big political news this week will be coming out of New York, where international representatives will be meeting to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, a global warming treaty negotiated in the French capital at the end of last year. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has said that it will lead to a “transformation of the global economy,” and he may be right. But whether that transformation will leave us all better off is an open question.
It is an inconvenient truth that the cost of the policies being proposed to deal with climate change will likely land on those least able to afford it. The most popular political solutions tend to focus on limiting energy use rather than successfully adapting to a changing world. Artificially raising the price of energy through restrictions ends up raising the prices of the other vital goods we depend on, from clothing to food to housing. One environmental think tank estimates that the Paris climate treaty will represent a loss of $170 billion to the U.S. economy alone by the year 2030. Whatever challenges we face globally from a changing climate, preemptively making ourselves poorer and less resilient is probably not the solution.
Even with such a large hit to economic productivity, most people in the United States will feel relatively little pain from the decisions handed down this week by the world’s treaty negotiators. Our less affluent fellow human beings in developing countries, however, have less of a cushion in their household incomes. Using the political clout of the United States to bully them into a future of less energy and higher prices would be especially unjust.
Caring about the natural world, however, doesn’t have to be about forcing everyone else to adopt your own values and ideas. It can be about coming together with like-minded people to solve problems locally and voluntarily. One of the things that environmental science teaches us is that each locality is different. Plants that thrive in a rain forest will not do well in a desert, and an animal that lives in shallow waters won’t survive very long at the bottom of the ocean. Similarly, real solutions to environmental problems will come from all around the globe and in response to local conditions. The people who work on environmental issues at the United Nations are smart and capable, but by embracing voluntary, citizen-led initiatives, we can build a movement in which everyone can be involved in improving the quality of our air, water, and wildlife.
We can’t get all of that work done in one day, though, so when it comes to Earth Day itself, let’s treat ourselves to some of nature’s abundance rather than fighting over what law Congress should or shouldn’t be passing next. Support your local bird sanctuary or volunteer for an organization that teaches kids outdoor skills. Check out the exotic attractions at a wildlife refuge here in the U.S., or reach back to the pre-Earth Day tradition of Arbor Day by planting a tree or two. If you’re especially motivated by a desire to preserve wild places, explore the land trust movement. Property owners all across the nation have bought and preserved millions of acres of undeveloped land for posterity using easily-implemented legal strategies. Let’s focus on win-win efforts that protect natural resources while allowing us all to enjoy the benefits of them – a world where environmental and human values coexist in harmony.
For those people who are only satisfied by the high stakes and drama of a national debate, the political battleground will always beckon. But for most of us, the daily life that revolves around our families, our homes, and our communities presents enough challenges. On Earth Day we can do lots of small, but important, things to make life better in those orbits. This year I plan to let the world’s heads of state have their United Nations ceremony to themselves. I’m going for a walk in the park.
Richard Morrison is Senior Editor at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a non-profit public policy organization.