First published in the Yorkshire Post, 3 August 2021 under the title ‘Climate fight; how we can all play a part’
Realising that we need to make changes to the way we live is hard to accept on a personal level. It’s even harder on an organisational one, and it seems nigh-on impossible on a global scale.
But sometimes we need to change, and the current decade is one such time. Our climate is in a state of flux, ecosystems are struggling, and people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to these pressures. The scientific consensus on climate change is settled. There is no place for denialism. It is psychologically tough for us – residents of a wealthy and temperate country – to accept that our actions are causing so much damage, through incremental and invisible processes that mostly occur in far off places, to other people. But we must accept it. This is no time for ‘out of sight and out of mind’.
The need to change
However, I believe that we can accept the need to change, and that we can collectively make such changes. History shows that with a mixture of individual and organisational action, technological innovation and political leadership and regulation, humanity can combat environmental threats. Acid rain? Lead in petrol? CFCs and their damage to the ozone layer? Smog in our biggest cities? Threats to the Antarctic? We accepted the evidence, we raised awareness, we campaigned, we acted, we collaborated, we innovated, and we legislated. We can do it again in the case of the climate emergency.
But this time, the challenge is global, and it is much more deeply ingrained into our way of life. It is potentially so overwhelming that it has led to denial by some, to helplessness and eco-anxiety in others, and to many of us, it has led to procrastination.
A period of slowdown
We should not despair. As geographer Danny Dorling has written, the world is already entering a period of slowdown in many respects. We are coming to the end of the period of most rapid globalisation, the end of a period of pursuing economic growth at all costs, and, thanks to an all-time low global average fertility rate of 2.4 children per woman (and falling), we are on trend to reach a peak population of less than 11 billion by 2100. But to reach the most important slowdown of all – that of greenhouse gas emissions – we all need to play our part.
We have changed our way of life before. Consider the ban on smoking inside pubs, which was accepted as a way of life until just fifteen years ago, and laws about seatbelts, incandescent lightbulbs, and the adoption of facemasks in indoor and close-contact settings. At the time, these felt threatening or disruptive to many people, but in retrospect we came to accept these changes, and indeed we scratch our heads and ask ourselves why we didn’t change our ways earlier.
However, rapid change can be discombobulating, and it can turn us off the need to make any adjustments at all. So, it is time to embrace the word ‘transition’, to allow us to adjust our lives in an orderly and unthreatening way.
But we need to start the transition now. As the UK gears up to host the COP26 climate change conference in November, individuals, organisations, and governments need to make significant changes in the way we live in the next decade, as the first part of a process that will take the world to ‘net zero’ by 2050.
What might this mean for individuals? One of the key drivers of climate change is a meat- and dairy-rich diet. Of course, we could go ‘cold turkey’ (excuse the pun) by going vegan, but a gradual reduction in consumption of animal-based products would be more acceptable to more of us. Having meat-free Mondays in school canteens may be one way of achieving this in an organisational setting.
Stopping driving cars with combustion engines is another way to move to net zero, but it can be an overwhelming change in our habits. Cycling or taking public transport once a week can be a great way to start. Governments and organisations can also do more, by introducing more subsidies for electric bikes and cars, and public transport. I could go on and consider the necessary transitions in terms of housing, industry, energy, and so on.
There is No Planet B
Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘There is No Planet B’, places great store in the need to slow down, consider our habits, and “spend more time working up visions of futures that we’d want and which are realistic enough to be exciting”. So, thinking about what really makes us happy – status-led consumption or spending time with friends and family – will also make us shift towards a more sustainable world.
Recognising psychological barriers to change, and promoting the idea of transition, will give us a reasonable chance of meeting the goal of a sustainable future for our planet. Looking back from 2030, we will wonder why we didn’t start the transition earlier.
Postscript, 20 Sept 2021
I welcome all reasonable engagement with my writing. Some online response to this article (on Twitter) was supportive but some – from Paul Turner – was more critical. One part of Paul’s critique was that we need to transition faster than the article seemed to suggest, and I agree with this, but I wrote it for a broad readership, including people who may have not made many (or any) steps towards fighting the climate crisis. Governments and key corporate decision-makers need to have a more strident message rammed home.
Paul also critiqued my reference to the combatting of environmental threats, saying that “the examples of ‘successes’ aren’t [successes]”; however, I responded that I was careful to say that the problems weren’t ‘solved’ but were being ‘combatted’.
I agreed with Paul when he said that “a lack of understanding of the urgency and severity as well as just how simple and close the solutions are means society isn’t shifting as fast as it needs to” and I stressed that my article was meant to promote action and hope: once journeys towards a sustainable future begin, I hope they’ll gather momentum.
Excuse the immodesty, but I quite liked this sentence: “Thinking about what really makes us happy – status-led consumption or spending time with friends and family – should make us shift towards a more sustainable world”. However, I wonder whether placing it at the start rather than towards the end of the piece might have set the general reader off in a more philosophical mood, allowing them to consider the reasons behind making the fundamental lifestyle changes which climate activists believe are necessary.
But overall, I am happy with the piece, and I implore as many writers, teachers and other people who deal with ideas to keep the topic of climate change alive in the public’s consciousness – not just from the point of view of bottom-up behaviour change, but also to nudge them to ‘pass it on’, and to create a groundswell for governmental and organisational action too.
Further feedback is, of course, welcome!