After a long (and, we hope, relaxing) summer, GLOBUS Editor-in-Chief, Todd Olive, is kicking off the new year in search of solutions, as he attempts to provide insight into one of climate change’s most bewildering questions; what can we all do in the face of the Climate Emergency – and, how on earth do we go about doing it?
When we talk about dealing with climate change, there is a general acceptance that we must implement systemic changes in the way we behave… which is a great intellectual position to start from – but where do we actually go from there?
In a more concrete sense, the question I find myself being asked most commonly when talking about preventing climate change is ‘how can we make a difference? What actual steps can we take?’ The trouble with “systemic changes” is that they are, by definition, massive in scale: in the same way as many find it difficult to visualise or understand colossal distances or time periods (such as, in extreme examples, the size of the universe, the age of the Earth, or the weight of Boris Johnson’s ego), comprehending systemic changes represents a hitherto unprecedented intellectual challenge for any one individual. The question remains, therefore – how do we translate systemic change into concrete steps that everyone can understand and undertake?
As I’m sure is self-evident, this is always a challenging question to answer. Every audience, every questioner has a different background, a different lifestyle – a different set of circumstances that ‘require’ certain actions. For example, for an A Level student living in a rural area who needs to travel thirty miles to and from school every day, the common suggestion of cycling or walking to work is not a great deal of use, as it’s arguably a lifestyle change that they are incapable of making. As a consequence, it’s impossible to come up with a hard and fast rule for what material actions any given individual can or should take in the face of the Climate Emergency.
Which presents us with a dilemma. Many sustainability success stories in the UK are attributable to simple, straightforward messages regarding things within all of our grasps: taking a reusable bag to the supermarket (plastic bag sales dropped by 86% to the 2017/18 year following the introduction of a 5p levy) or avoiding single-use plastics are good examples of this – so how, given that there’s no one all-conquering action for fighting climate change, can we seek to replicate these same successes in climate action?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t have a universal answer to this question either – and, I suspect, if any of the plethora of individuals and organisations working to tackle the Climate Emergency did have one, we’d likely be in less of a mess than we are currently.
Which suggests, I think, that we need to be asking different questions. If we can’t give people a hard and fast rule for determining what actions they should be taking, then perhaps we need to be helping them determine those actions for themselves?
Let’s consider that a little further. How is it that, for example, the UK’s Climate Change Committee, or the IPCC, determine what actions need to be taken to meet emissions targets? Setting aside the question of data-gathering and empirical research, there are really three steps:
- What adjustment in emissions needs to be made to meet targets?
- What currently contributes to emissions, and by how much?
- How can those contributions be reduced?
Steps 1 and 2 are, in most cases, likely beyond the scope of what you and I need to be aware of to determine our own actions – provided that we assume that we need to make as many reductions as possible, which, given significant media attention paid recently to Extinction Rebellion and similar groups, should be the case for a significant majority of people in the UK.
Step 3, however, poses an interesting opportunity. Rather than assessing system-wide characteristics, like the proportion of energy generated by fossil fuels, could we instil a philosophy of “reductions everywhere reductions are possible” through a simple, straightforward message?
Essentially, what we’re asking here is whether we can encourage the public to adopt a ‘problem solving’ attitude to their everyday lives – no small challenge. Framed like this, the challenge seems different: we must (simply?) reverse the pervasive attitude of “this is how it’s always been done” – in effect, make everyday activities that are usually done without thinking, in the same way as yesterday and last week, into something that we actively try to do with less of an impact than the day before. Broken down like this, and viewed as lots of small improvements one after another, it’s perhaps much easier to comprehend how systemic change can really be achieved.
So really, then, we only need to encourage each other to do one thing: to ask why. If we understand why our habits have formed, then we all, as a society made up fundamentally of individuals, can start to understand how we can change them.
And once we’ve done that… well, then the sky’s the limit.