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Reporter's Notebook

by Catherine Winter

When I started working on American Public Media's sustainability project, researching stories that had to do with climate change, I was already worried about global warming. I love to cross country ski. I ski every day in winter if I can, and I'd seen a series of winters that were weirdly warm, winters with very little snow.

A few warm winters doesn't mean climate change. Climate, by definition, has to do with long periods of time. But as I began reading and hearing from experts in the field, my worry deepened, rather than easing. And it moved from being a selfish worry about my ability to play outside to a sharper worry about what will happen to plants and animals, including humans, as the climate changes.

At one point, I asked a colleague who was working on this project how he could learn about this stuff and not be depressed. He knew what I meant. He told me he had gone through a phase where no one wanted to talk to him at parties.

Before I started reading up on climate change, I had hope that we could still do something to stop it. Now, I don't think that anymore. The evidence is strong that it is already occurring, and I am not hopeful that humans will find the will or the way even to avert its worst effects.

And yet.

And yet, I bought a Prius. And yet, I go around the house turning off lights. I've stopped flying, except when absolutely forced to for work. I hardly ever eat meat, partly because of the contribution raising animals for meat makes to climate change. We put in a wood stove to supplement our natural gas heat. We check the energy use of appliances before we buy them. I hang up the laundry instead of using the dryer. I unplug my cell phone charger, since I learned that it draws energy even when it's not charging my phone.

I don't think my little attempts at reducing my carbon footprint can stop climate change, but I'm trying to use less energy and produce less CO2 anyway.

It turns out I'm not the only one.

When we began our reporting on this project, our Public Insight Journalism team sent a query out to members of the public insight network. They asked a wide sampling of people whether they believed individual actions could have an effect on climate change, and whether they were changing their lives to try to have smaller carbon footprints. A surprising number said no and yes. No, they didn't believe their individual actions mattered. But, yes, they were changing their lives to try to produce fewer greenhouse gases.

We can't all be crazy, can we?

When I first thought about this contradiction, I figured I just didn't want it all to be my fault. The world might burn, but at least I could ease some of my guilt over my culpability. But the more I think about it, the more I think it's something more poignant than that.

I don't think my unplugging my cell phone charger matters. But if everybody did it, did that and just a bit more, I think sociologist Thomas Dietz might be right. As he says in the documentary, these little changes could buy us time to find a way to unhook from fossil fuels. If lots of people did them.

So maybe unplugging the cell phone charger is not an act of madness, but an act of hope. I don't know if it will matter. I hope it does.

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