Whilst the popular debate about whether climate change is real or not still rumbles, fuelled by the email leaks from climate scientists, and whilst advance on international treaties crawls along, progress is being made. Many governments, international agencies and major corporations are developing plans for action at national levels and the frameworks that are being laid down are a platform for a radical change in our society.
It was astonishing how little debate the UK Climate Change Act attracted given the far reaching implications of the commitments made, such as an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. (If 2050 feels like a long way away remember it is within the working lifetime of anyone you know in their twenties.) Distinctions are often made between mitigation of climate change (taking action to reduce the threat of change) and adaptation (adjusting to a changed world), but in many ways this is a fruitless categorisation. An 80% cut requires major adaptation. It will force transformative changes in society. Almost every aspect of our lives today depends on liberal use of cheap fossil energy and we can't even begin to imagine how the changes ahead will play out. All we can say with certainty is that its going to be a wild ride.
People’s lives are therefore going to be impacted by the solutions and responses to climate change as well as by the actual weather, and it’s likely to be the solutions that start to hit us first. Many of those who are vulnerable to future floods will have already had the letters from their insurance companies raising their premiums or removing their cover. As more and more responses unfold we will see shifts in our liberties and rights, in what we can afford, in the ways that resources are deployed and in the political climate. We need to spend more time focusing on these effects rather than just on questions of how the weather may change.
What appear to be relatively straightforward issues often mask socio-political choices that will dictate the impact of any solution or response. The question of our personal carbon footprints is a good case in point. Different sources will give a UK average of anything from 4-24 or more tonnes of carbon per person per annum. The differences are not due to uncertainties in the data: they reflect different views of what is our personal domain of responsibility. The lower figures represent attempts to identify what emissions are purely down to personal contributions, the direct impact of our daily lives. Medium figures typically allocate a share of the national overhead of emissions that support government, industry etc. The upper figures wrestle with the question of whether we should count a share of the emissions generated overseas by our economy and our actions – how many factories in China are using energy to supply goods for the UK?
Every carbon calculator embodies a series of hidden political judgements about whether the national emissions data should be averaged out or personalised. It’s not just an intellectual issue – these questions will start to matter as penalties or allowances for carbon emissions begin to appear. We have limited data on the distribution of emissions across society, but its clear that, for example, someone who is old, poor and in low quality housing and lives in a rural location far from services is likely to have a carbon footprint much higher than a well off urban professional. It’s well understood that the poor may suffer most as victims of climate change, but they may also suffer most as victims of the solutions we introduce.
In many ways the possibility of personal allowances throw up the most challenging questions. Carbon allowances are likely to be tradeable, quantifiable and a means of getting certain things done – to all effects they will be a new currency. The rules of this currency, including who will be the bankers, are going to be critically important as are questions of equity and distribution. Should the Queen have the same allowance as a homeless person?
To stand a hope of these 'solutions' playing out in equitable and humane ways we need to open discussion about the likely consequences and gather insights into social justice issues. Unfortunately too few civil society organisations are engaged in finding social solutions, and climate change is still seen as a technical or environmental issue.
This lack of real engagement from civil society matters in another way. The public politics of climate change remains mired in a one dimensional search for 'behaviour change', framed in depressingly individualistic and domestic ways. It’s as if our cultural identity as ‘consumers’ concerned with individual choices has become so deeply entrenched that we can't recognise the need to move beyond personal behaviour even when our lives depend on it.
When government information campaigns tell us to go home to change our light bulbs, no one addresses at the same time how we change our power stations. When we are told to drive less, no one explains how we will redress the decades of planning decisions that separated our homes from our workplaces, our schools, the places to shop and to meet. When we are told to consume less, no one reconciles the fact that any drop in retail spending is heralded as a national disaster.
This is all understandable – the bigger problems are harder to solve and awkward to talk about. But silence must be the worst tactic. It means we can't form a constituency that creates a space for political change. It also leads to a disjunct in the narrative that breeds cynicism and distrust or undermines belief in the importance of the issue. In rhetoric, climate change is seen as the “greatest challenge to our civilisation”, but the solution presented is for us to tinker with our domestic lives and ignore the big problems. Until we start to zero in on the hard problems, we are trapped in a disfunctional system of failed politics with confusion over responsibilities, no clear route map to change and no progress.
Our role in the chain
The things we need to do about climate change can be classed in three groups. There are those that we have complete personal agency over, actions or inactions that are within individual control. Flying or not flying is often highlighted as an important personal choice. Although aircraft emissions are not amongst the very top climate problems globally, they get a lot of attention because a single decision to not fly has a great impact. Reducing meat consumption is another where individual choices would matter a lot if enough people took them.
There are then things where actually we don't have total agency, but where our role as a link in the chain is essential and clear. These are often also presented as 'personal behaviour' issues even though they are more complex than that. Examples would be changing light bulbs, or recycling, or double glazing a house – all things that are only possible because someone has developed low carbon technologies we can make use of. More such innovation can unlock more personal action.
But the really big numbers, the major issues, are things that lie outside of our direct personal agency and where our role in the chain is much harder to see. These include how our entire food system works, how places and transport systems are planned that determine how, and whether, we need to travel, how effectively forests, especially rainforests, are conserved.
It’s these hard things that really matter. The simple, personal, behaviour change that does not depend on more complex solutions at a community level can only meet a small percentage of the need for reducing carbon footprints. Even if we all did everything we can as individuals we will come nowhere near the 80% reduction target we need to meet. That doesn't mean that these personal things aren't worth doing. In fact they are hugely important as totemic acts of commitment and engagement, but they will mean very little unless we use them as a platform for building changes at a societal level.
So how do we do big things like not cut down rainforests? Part of the answer does lie in personal behaviour – such as making careful choices about some of the things we buy – but effective action means also monitoring and challenging the behaviour of corporations, supporting NGOs, lobbying for and supporting social and economic change and especially creating a constituency that expands the window of political possibilities for international action.
So tackling climate change is ultimately a cultural problem. We have no hope of taking the steps that we need to unless we relearn the nature of community action and how a society works together to get the big, difficult, things done, and done in a way that protects vulnerable people.