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We know we face a climate emergency. Now what?
Written by Tom Gillingham, associate partner
7 November 2019
Blue Peter may seem an unlikely vehicle for delivering lifelong behavioural change. However, as an impressionable eight-year-old, a section of the BBC’s long-running children’s programme that gently explained the benefits of turning off the tap while brushing your teeth led me to obediently follow this guidance ever since.
It’s fair to say that the tenor of the environmental debate has evolved somewhat since then, but that simple demonstration of the power of effective communication to change behaviour has stuck with me.
Extinction Rebellion’s brand of climate activism has dominated the discourse in this area lately and, as awareness raising goes, the campaign has to be judged a rip-roaring success on the basis that almost 75% of people in the UK now agree that the world faces a climate emergency.
The problem is, it’s one thing making a lot of noise and getting people to agree that there’s an issue, but it is another one entirely to engender the kind of long-term mass action needed to address an issue once the initial flurry of attention has died down.
We know our metaphorical house is on fire, but the scale of the inferno is such that people are more likely to stand and gawp at the destruction, rather than take action to put it out. This risk of paralysis, of individuals being so overwhelmed by the terrifying enormity of the situation that they simply do not act, is very real.
With this in mind, would an approach that is more carrot and less stick not make more sense? To communicate the progress that has been made, and show people that tackling climate change is about more than telling people “you can’t, you shouldn’t, please don’t”?
The climate emergency demands drastic action, but I can’t help but feel the change necessary will only occur if there is a subtle shift in the language used to encourage it.
Perhaps the first priority should be to celebrate low-impact climate pragmatism.
The climate change movement – like almost every other campaign – struggles to make the mundane magnificent for people. It’s hard to get excited about things like the slow but steady switch to low energy lightbulbs, or the fact our household appliances are more energy efficient than ever before.
A new windfarm is a visually striking statement of climate intent, but consumers choosing an energy efficient fridge or opting for slightly thicker insulation when they move house could be almost as important in the long-term.
Similarly, turning off the tap while brushing your teeth isn’t as newsworthy as lying down in a road (sorry, Blue Peter), but it has huge potential impact in terms of water consumption. The estimated 909 litres per month it can save is the equivalent of the average person’s drinking water needs for 284 days.
In the past few days it’s been suggested that some – and it’s important to emphasise some – asthma sufferers could cut their environmental impact by the equivalent of giving up meat simply by switching the brand of medication they use. Metered-dose inhalers currently account for nearly four per cent of total NHS greenhouse gas emissions.
CFC phase-out in 1996 had negligible impact on consumers but has gone on to benefit our environment. In fact, many of these seemingly minor changes are driven by cost incentives, rather than ideological ones, which is a double positive that should be heralded.
These are just a few examples that can help create a sense that realistic change is possible, and that momentum is building. People might be more inclined to do more if they realise their almost unconscious choices are already making a difference.
But incremental change doesn’t make headlines, so the second climate communications priority should embrace and celebrate the most creative solutions to the momentous challenge we face, to acclaim human ingenuity, rather than falling into circular criticism of irreversible decisions that were taken years ago.
The inspiration provided by designs for pollution-eating buildings, or the fact that the costs of machines that directly capture CO2 from the air have fallen by two-thirds can be used to push government and corporates to pursue more radical strategies that don’t involve “you can’t” or “please don’t” messages.
What about re-freezing the poles through ocean spraying, investing in ocean greening projects or exploring asteroid mining as a solution to on-planet ecological disruption?
All of these seemingly out-there ideas capture the imagination and help encourage a new generation of thinkers, scientists and policy makers to be audacious in their approach the single biggest challenge this planet faces. Positivity need not equal complacency.
We are in the teeth of a climate emergency, but negativity and scare stories alone will not provoke the response we need. Only a combination of achievable changes by the majority, radical steps by the willing, and moon-shots by a brave few can prevent disaster on an unprecedented scale.
If you want to fight this fire, perhaps a good start is to turn a tap.