We’ve got the money, we’ve got the knowhow, but averting the worst of the climate crisis needs radical change − by us.
Alex Kirby is a former BBC journalist and environment correspondent
Cross-posted from Climate News Network
With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging across the globe, plenty of thinkers are devoting their time to what comes next. The hopeful argue for an effort to Build Back Better. The less hopeful doubt that that will be easy, or perhaps even possible, and not necessarily because of the pandemic itself. The pragmatists say the future can be different, if humans can achieve radical change in themselves and their lives.
They start from where we are and try to plot a way through to where we want to be. One of these is a UK think tank, the Cambridge Sustainability Commission on behaviour change and the climate crisis, whose report is published by the Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA).
The RTA argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The Commission’s report notes that some of us need to change our behaviour more than others. “Globally, the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for roughly half of all greenhouse gas emissions, while the poorest half is responsible for less than 10%,” it says.
“The lifestyle emissions of the richest in society are actually increasing … Relying on conscientious individuals to ‘do their bit’ will never be enough to put society on a sustainable pathway without substantial shifts in the behaviour of the polluter elite.”
“I’d put a billion into law enforcement and the rest into reducing poverty and increasing opportunity”
The report looks beyond the problem of taming the polluter elite, identifying several other “behaviour hotspots”. One, described as high-impact behaviours and ways of life, not very surprisingly lists these as “car and plane mobility, the consumption of meat and dairy, and the heating of residential homes”.
Some readers, though, may gulp to see a fourth candidate suggested for the list − the need for a 25% reduction in average personal living space in order to stay below the stricter emissions limit adopted by the Paris Agreement, 1.5°C.
How should we measure lifestyle sustainability? The Cambridge report says that as “global meat production (which roughly mirrors consumption) has fallen for the past two years (FAO, 2020), strategies to reduce meat consumption could accelerate the move away from meat-heavy diets and food production, acting as a social tipping point.”
Earlier it defines these as small quantitative changes which “lead to a qualitatively different state of the social system”, and are therefore to be welcomed.
Eager for change
There are certainly grounds in the report for thinking that more Britons are ready to change the way they behave than to stay the way they are.
The authors report a substantial appetite in the United Kingdom for post-pandemic behavioural change, according to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) RESET enquiry, led by Caroline Lucas MP. This found that, from a sample of more than 57,000 people:
- 66% of UK adults want the government to prioritise the health and wellbeing of citizens over GDP growth
- 66% of the public think the Government should intervene to make society fairer
- 60% support a shorter working week
- 63% support a jobs guarantee
- 57% support some form of universal basic income
- 65% support rent caps
But these changes may be a long way from all that’s needed. Chapter 5 of the Cambridge report, Future intervention points, starts with a warning: “As things stand under a business-as-usual scenario, we are headed towards 3-4°C of warming by the end of the century, with catastrophic consequences for humanity and the ecosystems upon which we depend.”
The end of the century may feel comfortably far distant for much of humanity, but not everybody is confident that we have even that much time to change. In March the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) published a report, Global Trends 2040. The website Axios offered a summary: “This is not your typical grim climate report projecting disaster in the year 2100, i.e. the distant future.
“Instead, the climate change we will see through midcentury is already baked into the climate system, thanks to how the oceans absorb and redistribute heat. Studies show that even if emissions are sharply reduced now we are still in for additional amounts of warming through mid-century, which will lead to more extreme weather events, sea level rise, and other effects … Buckle your seatbelt, we’re in for a bumpy ride.”
Perhaps the NIC is right. But just possibly we’re overcomplicating one of our main problems in the UK − and even globally. How do you cut crime? It’s simple, says one of Britain’s most senior police officers, Andy Cooke, the retiring chief constable of Merseyside in north-west England, in an interview with the Guardian: you give people something to hope for by reducing poverty.
Asked what he would do if he had £5 billion (US$7bn) to cut crime, Cooke said reducing inequality and deprivation would be his priority: “I’d put a billion into law enforcement and the rest into reducing poverty and increasing opportunity.”
That would go a long way to stamping out the drugs war in Liverpool and the rest of Andy Cooke’s patch. Scaled up across the globe, it could stem the wretched flow of migrants struggling to survive. It would, in fact, give hope to people who have lost it. Is that really a radical change?