I’m sure anyone that reads this will agree that the climate crisis is real, global, and an existential threat to humans and the Earth. I don’t need to run through a list of panic-inducing statistics:¹ the average global temperature rising by over 1°C since the 1800s, billions of tonnes of ice melting away from polar ice sheets, extinction happening at hundreds or thousands of times the natural rate, a doubling of the rate of sea level rise in the last twenty years compared to last century, an increase in frequency of extreme weather events since 1980 (doubling for droughts, fires and storms, quadrupling for floods), Indonesia moving its capital city due to flooding, etc.
Despite everyone knowing about it, and politicians occasionally giving it lip service, the climate crisis remains a crisis. If we carry on as we are, even with all the targets and regulations that have been put forward, we are still going to take the brunt of the damage that we’re doing to the environment. Why, in the face of perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever seen, do we do nothing?
Who leads the global movement to save the world? As far as I know there is no leader spearheading the push for change. Greta Thunberg is maybe as close as we have, but besides her sailing and Twitter fights with Trump, I’m not convinced that as a figurehead she’s achieved all that much.² David Attenborough, while universally loved and still pumping out top-quality documentaries, is running on fumes and Werther’s Originals. I was going to try to find another example, but I literally cannot think of any stand-out environmental leaders. (No, Caroline Lucas and the Green Party leaders don’t count.)
Maybe organisations do more? Greenpeace, having been around since climate change was bad-but-not-yet-world-ending, do cool stunts and occasionally useful legislative work (as well as the occasional questionable campaign). Extinction Rebellion is a newer kid on the block, commendable for bringing thousands more people into environmental activism, but with this come a number of overzealous individuals that do more to piss people off than to persuade them to be more green. There are plenty of other environmental groups, effective and not, but none of them step up to the role of ‘leadership’.
So, as it stands, there isn’t really much in the way of leadership in the fight against climate change. Perhaps that will change with Biden as the next President after he takes the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement, but I don’t have huge faith in a 78-year-old talking to people about the future.
Apathy and Inability
This one is a bit more abstract, but I think everybody is both guilty and conscious of it. You want to reduce carbon emissions, but you also need to drive to work. You want to save the planet, but just can’t give up bacon. You quite like turtles, but also prefer to sip your Piña Colada through a straw.
That’s the lighter side of it. A sustainability-focused chef³ (who I’d never heard of before Googling this quote) said: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” But while this is true, at the moment we have millions of people doing nothing—actively doing nothing. I see it as the Jeremy Clarkson mindset:⁴ someone being so bored and pissed off by the train-hijacking, bus-gluing “overzealous individuals” that I mentioned earlier that they actively behave in an anti-environmental way. People just don’t want to use less, eat more sustainably, have to charge their cars, or any of the other things that make more environmentally friendly living more difficult. Those people need to be brought on a journey from passionate anti-environmentalism, to apathy, to actively working towards a greener future.
And many people can’t afford to, or don’t have the time to go green. It doesn’t help to shout at an Uber driver who is just trying to earn enough for their family about using a petrol car.⁵ If “millions” of individuals are indeed to live sustainably, even if imperfectly, it needs to be easy. As easy, as cheap, as straightforward as the alternative. It needs to be the thoughtless default. Then we’ll see people changing their lifestyle.
Depending on who you ask, when, and where, you’ll find some statistic of “these X companies/countries produce Y% of global carbon emissions”.⁶ Individual action⁷ is not enough to save the planet. No matter how many people search with Ecosia (which is the search engine I actually used earlier when I said “Googling”), recycle their food waste, or grow a wild patch in their garden, it won’t make a significant difference unless large organisations play their part too. It is vital that large companies, and countries, make changes to their activities to reduce their emissions and effects on the planet.
In industry, simply put, less needs to be made and it needs to travel more effectively. There is huge waste in manufacturing and construction which produce emissions that just don’t need to be there. Then, freight is moved by plane or ship which produces even more emissions. In the economy, money needs to flow into green investments rather than fossil fuel companies. In government, there needs to be large changes such as a (progressive) tax on carbon, investment in green energy, and regulation to force industry to change. This needs to be done on a global scale but can be started on national levels or within international bodies such as the EU.
While it is important that individuals play their part in the fight against climate change, it is equally important that governments and companies pull their huge weight. Without it being clear that countries and international corporations are on the same side as people, they’ll feel like they can’t do anything to help. Everyone will return to normal, while the world burns around them.
So, what are the most important things we can do?
Pressure. Pressure everything and everyone that can affect the environment. That’s effectively everything and everyone on the planet. But rather than shouting at your neighbour for using an electric nose-hair-trimmer, maybe use your efforts to campaign against the climate-destroying actions of the government, or another government, or your university/workplace.⁸
Find a leader. Change needs to be spearheaded by an individual or an organisation. We need to find a leader and rally behind them. This is going to be near-impossible because few people want to be a leader, even fewer can be a leader, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a leader that both an Extinction Rebellion activist and a Tory-voting birdwatcher will back. However, leadership is important when fighting for anything, and the environment is no exception.
Vote with your wallet. Money is one of the most powerful ways to make changes. If you are in a position in which you are able to do so, buy more sustainable things. Eat less meat. Save your money in sustainable accounts. Take the train. Invest in long-lasting reusable items rather than single-use disposable ones. Above all, make sure that your money goes to companies with your best interest, and the best interest of the planet, at heart.
Vote with your… vote. Voting is one of the most powerful ways to make changes (or at least it should be). Think about what policies each candidate is putting forward at the next election (6th May 2021 if you’re in Cambridge, London, Wales, Scotland or one of the many other places across the UK with local/devolved elections. If you’re a student, you can register to vote at both your “home” and “university” addresses, and you can vote at both (if they’re in different places) in local elections, but only in one or the other in general elections). This is possibly the most effective way of having an impact on government-level decision-making, which is vital to stop climate change.
¹ I now realise that this is exactly what I did. Ah well.
² Of course, anything is better than nothing, and she’s definitely achieved more than I personally have. This comment is just from the point of view of Thunberg as a global leader.
³ Anne-Marie Bonneau, according to Ecosia.
⁴ Although it seems even Clarkson now accepts that something needs to be done about global warming.
⁵ It is likely to be Prius, however, which may be pretty environmentally-friendly as cars go.
⁶ While it’s nearly impossible to actually have any idea if a company that acts as a middle-man for selling plastics is responsible for all or any of the carbon emitted when those plastics are made and when they are disposed of, it’s important to note the sentiment.
⁷ By this I mean lifestyle changes specifically, not just any action an individual could take. Companies are run by individuals, so of course those individuals could (and should) take action to reduce their company’s emissions.
⁸ Don’t lose your job, though. It doesn’t help Polar Bears if you lose your job. Unless you hunt them. In which case, stop.