It’s Time To Give People The Climate Change Facts About What They’re Buying

Just tell me if this thing is good or bad for the planet.

My climate angst is something I’ve lived with for nearly a dozen years. In that time I’ve gone from passive despairer to active agitator. I couldn’t look my children in the eyes if I wasn’t doing everything possible to fight the climate crisis. Some days I still can’t.

I believe that individual action can lead to systems change. Of course, the burden of fixing the climate has been unfairly heaped onto individuals, by actors both nefarious and oblivious. Over the previous decades, corporations have turned a huge global challenge into "your personal problem." And we know that shifting blame from production to consumption is part of the climate delay toolkit.

But at the same time, if it’s individual action that catalyzes systems change, then my decisions matter. Government and decision makers don’t change unless we force them to change.

There’s just one small wrinkle in this plan. Individual action is a full-time job. Constantly weighing up how to live to help ensure our planet will be habitable for future generations takes more time than most of us have. It’s all the more difficult when we’re trying to pay our bills, keep the COVID at bay and, you know, not lose our minds.

If you’re old enough to remember life before food labels, you’ll understand the difficulty of trying to make good choices in a vacuum.

These days, thanks to nutritional labels it’s much easier to ballpark whether a food is healthy or not. However, without good information about a product’s environmental impact, it’s almost impossible to determine which choices are the most sustainable.

In a recent poll conducted by Leger/Clean Prosperity, three in four Canadians said they considered the carbon footprint of their purchases occasionally or less, but 71 per cent supported labelling products with the carbon emissions they generated. Some large consumer packaged goods companies like Unilever have pledged to carbon label their goods in the coming years, and this information can’t come soon enough.

Of course, all of this becomes much easier when the cost of a good or service reflects things like the impact its production and transportation has on air, waterways, wildlife, and people. (The fancy term for this is externalities. Externalities can be both negative — a car produces air pollution that kills people — and positive — education produces well-educated citizens that help grow the economy). If we bake the impacts of all products into their cost, these burdensome consumer decisions become a heck of a lot easier.

This baking-in of the true cost of our emissions is also called a carbon tax. This week, the Supreme Court of Canada begins hearing the case about the constitutionality of the carbon tax. Politicians with an agenda cite federal overreach as the reason why this tax shouldn’t be allowed. But it will be next to impossible to solve the climate challenge if polluting is free. The overarching argument in support of it is that we need collective national action to solve the climate crisis.

Anything less than a collective approach leaves everything up to the individual. Given how much is at stake, that’s a cognitive and emotional load too difficult to bear for most of us right now, however much we care about the environment and our families.

It’s also just not fair. It’s like giving people a pop quiz to take every day, in which there are no right answers. In recent years, behavioural scientists have explored decision fatigue and choice overload. We can only make so many decisions before our brains go fuzzy. Making the right decisions upstream, (through carbon pricing, better regulations, etc.) helps clarify and simplify the choices downstream, while not restricting consumer choice itself, when we’re pushing our carts around the grocery store.

Even with carbon pricing, regulation and huge amounts of innovation, our climate challenges are mammoth. The key is to simplify individual actions (with carbon labels, good information, clear incentives), so that we can solve this collective problem at scale, with all the attention it demands of us.

WATCH: Greta Thunberg issues climate warning in trailer for new documentary.