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Our Shared Responsibilities

Hiking through the Virginia woods in the fall season may be one of life’s simplest – and greatest – pleasures. Pausing a moment to hear the pitter-patter of leaves falling through their stubbornly attached sisters is equal parts Zen and food for thought.

During that walk, it became impossible not to reflect on how we seem to be missing the mark on what ought to be our shared mission to conserve these spaces and their associated flora and fauna for future generations. In that spirit, I’d love to share a few thoughts that have bubbled up for me at the intersection of the fall season in Virginia and the recent completion of the twenty-sixth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26), where nearly 200 countries were represented the past couple of weeks in Glasgow, Scotland in order to solve global climate issues. While this topic can feel heavy for many, I’ll share practical steps for how each of us can make a material difference in our day-to-day lives! Considering the outcomes of the global conference as well as practical steps for each of us will provide a framework to view both our collective and individual responsibilities.


With the UK in a leadership role for this iteration of the conference, their stated goals for COP26 included the intent to secure global net zero (defined by having as many greenhouse gases removed as are released) by mid-century, and to avoid warming beyond 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).

Did COP26 deliver on that measurable goal? No, not definitively. A signed agreement was delivered, though it was widely described as “watered down,” resulting in a product that lacks the sense of urgency that this issue demands. The Washington Post reported unequivocally in their annotated version of the pact that “The agreement will not put the world on track to avoid catastrophic warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).” They go on to note that “officials said it represents a significant step on a path to a safer future.”

For a more nuanced look, The Climate 202 offers a summary of the five major takeaways from COP26 to include the “goods” and “bads.” There was important movement forward in symbolic terms (e.g., U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry highlighted the first-ever mention of coal or fossil fuel subsidies as a win); however, that so-called win must be considered in context. According to the

Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), “Conservative estimates put U.S. direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil. European Union subsidies are estimated to total 55 billion euros annually.” I recognize that even symbolic accomplishments must be acknowledged as significant, especially when achieved in a multilateral forum, yet symbolism is no replacement for science-driven solutions and a fundamental recognition of our shared responsibility as nations and individuals.

My take: in much the same way that European subsidies for fishing operations around West Africa serve to magnify the economic disparity between developed and developing nations while simultaneously harming the environment, subsidies for fossil fuels also seem to defy logic in 2021. Neither the fishing, coal, or fossil fuel subsidies account for the real costs of our actions, thereby undercutting both the principles of ethics (based on outsized negative impacts to disadvantaged communities) and the principles of capitalism within the free market. While it’s a win that subsidies got mentioned, it’s shocking that they continue…. much less are only now receiving mention.

Using the fossil fuel subsidies “win” as an exemplar, my assessment is that we cannot count on our governments to stem the tide of climate change within a relevant timescale. Given that somewhat damning assessment, I’d like to take the opportunity to ground the conversation with practical steps that we as individuals can take while our governments sort out their very real differences.

3-Step Plan to Save The World (AN INDIVIDUAL APPROACH)

OK, so a “plan to save the world” is a little ambitious, though it’s critical that each of us has a basic awareness of how our actions impact the environment. What can the average person do on any given day to increase awareness and help make a difference?

Step 1) Consume Less. Take a breath and buy less stuff. The Washington Post reported that: “The United States, which has the highest historical emissions of any country, was among the delegations that resisted” the mention of the concept of “carbon budget” in the pact, a concept that there is a limit to the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted before catastrophic warming occurs. I can’t help but read this annotation of the report and reflect on the over-consumption that defines American society. It stands to reason that a population that demands that any item – no matter how small – be delivered overnight by a fuel-burning vehicle – no matter how large – would dispute a catastrophic emissions limit. We don’t need three of everything. As pointed out in this thoughtful @Vox article, the affluent “should be on guard for excuses to avoid changing individual consumption behaviors; they’re often based on logical, arithmetic, and moral errors.” And if you’re reading this, you’re likely affluent. As we approach Black Friday, don’t fall for the holiday consumption trap. Be a mindful consumer. Just take a breath. Consume Less.

Step 2) Give Smartly. Thousands of scientists are supporting the efforts of hundreds of remarkable organizations working to tackle climate change and a host of other wickedly complex issues… from nuclear surety to alternative proteins. Support those organizations with your time, money and voice. I would encourage you to take the Giving What We Can Pledge, no matter your level of income, and set out to find the high-impact organizations that can take your donated dollars further. I was led to take that pledge based on a journey I began with 80,000 Hours. Think of the @80,000 Hours approach as a “work smarter, not harder” strategy and @Giving What We Can as a “give smarter, not harder” strategy. Giving What We Can singles out a select few organizations by name, and I’d love to highlight one of their recommendations that excites me: @The Good Food Institute (GFI) led by CEO and co-founder @Bruce Friedrich. GFI passes Giving What We Can’s test of charity effectiveness based on the opportunity for incredible impact. GFI is the connective tissue between scientists, industry, policymakers and academia on the topic of alternative protein… which takes “Eat A Vegetable” and multiplies it times “stunning innovation” and then solves the equation for “human nature,” building the argument for what Ezra Klein in @The New York Times rightly refers to as the “moonshot” for alternative protein.

Step 3) Eat a Vegetable. As reported by @The Guardian regarding @UN climate analysis, “Huge reductions in meat-eating are essential to avoid dangerous climate change.” The knock-on effects of simply substituting vegetables for animal-based products in our diets extend well beyond reduced methane gases and include:

- increased pandemic resistance;

- increased animal welfare;

- decreased antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which would otherwise negate modern medicine as we know it);

- increased social justice;

- increased biodiversity.

Bottom line: the planet cannot support an American-style diet for 2050’s estimated global population of 9.9B people. Read that sentence again and absorb the many implications. Eat a vegetable. For your heart. For the planet. For the poor person that no longer has access to their traditional diet because the available land is now being used to grow the vegetables that will feed a cow that will feed a steak to a rich person.


A walk in the woods is a remarkable way to discover what really matters. Quiet reflection (even when occasionally interrupted by a chatty 4-year-old adventurer) builds perspective and helps me envision what a better planet looks like. That better planet includes governments that work together, and individuals who proactively take meaningful steps to reduce their personal environmental footprint. That better planet protects those who are already being economically and culturally impacted by climate change, and protects the non-human species that would otherwise not survive our inability to work together. Finally, that better planet finds governments and individuals alike supporting strategic scientific moonshots in order to create revolutionary solutions.

I, for one, find hope in the fact that every person reading this post can choose right now to consume less, give smartly and eat a vegetable, and thereby positively impact the world for generations to come! I’m excited to learn what simple steps you believe we can each take to have an impact on the environmental and social challenges that face humanity today. Who makes your short list of high-impact people and organizations that deserve our time and money? Where do you go to become inspired? Please don’t hesitate to reach out and share your thoughts!

- Jared Johnson

(Special thanks to Michelle Veenstra Johnson, firstly for editing… but especially for joining me on a walk in the woods)

(Images by Jared Johnson ©2021)

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