We’ve seen the disaster movies. We’ve read the frightening headlines and been scared by the documentaries. Why, then, are so few people standing up and shouting out for action on climate change?
Perhaps it is because we are unclear about what we want. We know what we don’t want: no sea level rise, no drought in Sudan, no melting glaciers, no loss of biodiversity, no Hurricane Katrinas, no food shortages, no water wars, please. But where is the vision in all of that? We’re running away from climate change, but what are we running towards? And is that somewhere we positively want to be?
The second issue is that scary scenes of climate change are having less and less of an impact. Like your ears beginning to block out an irritating whine that won’t go away, people are becoming impervious to predictions of climate catastrophe. That’s kind of understandable, because they haven’t been given the tools to deal with it. When you look at your little self in the face of the huge problem that is climate change, it’s hard to see how you can possibly change anything.
Another reason for this inaction is the way people conceive of the problem. It’s difficult to relate to events taking place hundreds of miles away in a continent you’ve never visited. There’s no use trying to connect people in the UK to climate change impacts as felt by a foreign person they’ve never met: the problem must be personalised. This has two dimensions. The first dimension (to be used sensitively) is fear. I didn’t feel personally worried about climate change until I went to the UN climate change talks in Poznan. I went there, as part of the UK Youth Delegation, because I knew there was a moral imperative for getting politicians moving on climate change: it’s going to affect the world’s poorest people most of all – those who don’t have the resources to cope with its impacts, nor the historical responsibility for filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. My experience at Poznan – listening to different peoples’ stories, getting to grips with the policy, solidifying my knowledge of the science – meant I began to engage with the issue at a deeper, personal level. The climate changes we’re hearing so much about are going to take place during my lifetime: while I’m working, having children… do I even want to bring more people into a world whose climate system has gone haywire?
The second, and absolutely essential, way of personalising climate change is helping people to discover their agency. Each one of us here in the UK has agency. We are told we live in a democracy: well, we must exercise our democratic rights and demand action from our government. We’re victims of our own (mis)conceptions about ourselves – what we believe to be true ends up being true. If we believe ourselves to be powerless, we will never try to exercise power. Yet we are all individuals, and we can all act. All of us individuals are part of society, and society can change.
Here, then, comes the vision. I want to live my life breathing clean air unpolluted by car fumes. I want to travel to work via a swift and competent public transport system, or enjoy a stress-free bike-ride along uncongested roads. I want my home to be powered by an offshore windfarm, rather than a CO2-belching coal-fired power station. I want to live in a well-insulated house that doesn’t waste energy and saves me money. I want to get fresh air and keep fit at the weekend by doing some digging at the community allotment where I’m growing some veg. I want to visit my friends in France by catching a fast, reliable train – none of the hassle or noise of an airport (and arriving with all of my baggage!).
And I’m excited by the challenge facing us. How lucky to belong to the generation that’s going to come up with the solutions to the problems created by our parents’ generation. We’ve got the opportunity to use our brains, be creative, and innovate, to find new technologies, inventive policies, and imaginatively different lifestyles. We have everything to win!