Addressing climate change projects us into the future; looking back at climate mitigation highlights our inaction. Focusing on the future buys us more time to consume while we deliberate on the best course of action; knowing the past goads us into finally taking the action that was deemed necessary 40 years.
Global leaders will meet together for the 27th time in November this year to discuss what to do about climate change. The 27th Conference of the Parties (COP), a gathering of the states that have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)– the global agreement to do something about climate change.
The 27th meeting. They met for the first COP in 1995.
But 1995 was not the first time that governments had recognised the necessity to limit the impact of human growth on nature.
Back in 1992 governments met in Rio for the Earth Summit. This was the first post-cold-war effort to move forward together in a sustainable way, recognising the disastrous impact of unlimited growth on our environment. It was here that the UNFCCC was negotiated, with 154 governments committing themselves to “preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system”.
Page 2 of the UNFCCC is easy reading, making explicitly clear the threat our economic activity has on the very environment we need to survive.
Acknowledging that change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind.
Concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and humankind.
But the Rio Earth summit was also not the first gathering of concerned leaders. Back in December 1988, the UN established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as an independent body to provide scientific evidence on climate change, its impact and possible responses. Since its inception, the IPCC has delivered six comprehensive scientific reports about climate change, in addition to a plethora of issue-based reports as requested. Despite three decades of attempts by the fossil fuel industry to discredit its findings, the findings of the IPCC have, very sadly, proved correct.
And before the IPCC in 1988?
Just a few months earlier, in June 1988, Dr. James Hansen, then director of NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, made international headlines by stating, “Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming…In my opinion, the greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
And the precursor to this? In the previous year, 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), published what became known as the Brundtland Report. The culmination of 4 years of research, the report documented “environmental trends that threaten to radically alter the planet, that threaten the lives of many species upon it, including the human species.” In the Chairman’s Comments introducing the report, Dr. Gro Brundtland, stated,
‘…. If we do not succeed in putting our message of urgency through to today’s parents and decision makers, we risk undermining our children’s fundamental right to a healthy, life-enhancing environment. Unless we are able to translate our words into a language that can reach the minds and hearts of people young and old, we shall not be able to undertake the extensive social changes needed to correct the course of development.
We call for a common endeavour and for new norms of behaviour at all levels and in the interests of all. The changes in attitudes, in social values, and in aspirations that the report urges will depend on vast campaigns of education, debate and public participation.
1972 was also a big year: there was the Stockholm Declaration and the landmark report, The Limits to Growth, both of which brought to public attention the reality of climate change due to human economic activity.
We can look back across 50 years of scientific knowledge and yet we find ourselves in a far more precarious situation than when concerns were first raised.
We are living the prediction.
Greta Thunberg has every right to dismiss the process as blah-blah. Here we are on the eve of the 27th COP, and emissions are keeping pace with our scientific understanding of the very threat they pose to our existence.
And where was I?
Somewhere between the release of the Brundtland report and the Rio Earth summit, I was taught about the importance of sustainability. Not some dry lecture in a stuffy, overcrowded hall. I was taken on a tour of a sustainable farm run by a professor who explained to us the need for sustainable living due to the impact that our economic growth was having on the environment.
I saw real climate action. But I turned away because it wasn’t very sexy. I was on the cusp of my adult life and was determined to gather as many memorable experiences as possible. I lived my life, as was the craze at the time, according to the death-bed theory – will I regret not having done this when I’m lying on my death bed?
I have no doubt that I read about the COP gatherings each year, but I was caught up in the machine of our system. I travelled – I worked to travel and I travelled for work. I thought vegetarians were pretty fringe, and by the early 2000s when they were no longer fringe, I thought they were just hard to cook for. I don’t remember thinking too much about my consumption. If I did, I’m sure that any weak sentiment was conveniently quelched by doubts about the impact of my individual actions – although I voted in every election because I believed in the importance of my vote.
While I never got sucked into climate denial, heavily sponsored by the fossil-fuel industry, I also never voted green and I never demanded that the parties I voted for had a green platform. My government participated in the G7, G8, G20 and all the others without my mandate and explicit demand to decouple from the fossil fuel industry and do something about climate change.
Arrogantly assuming myself to be a free-thinker, I was gently lulled through the system by the culture of individualism, and economic and personal growth. Lulled and made dull by the comforts of being among the exclusive minority of the extremely fortunate who benefit from our global neo-liberal economic order.
Until recently, I didn’t play my part as demanded way back in the 1987 Brundtland report. I assumed and expected that it would be done by others – elsewhere – while I continued enjoying my growing list of privileges, which I had come to view as my right.
An explicit role for individuals
In February 2022, the IPCC released its 6th report on climate change mitigation and for the first time, a whole chapter was devoted to the role of human behaviour – specifically, how to get us in our roles as consumers, citizens, professionals, workers and business owners, role models, investors and policy makers to change to a low-carbon lifestyle. It stated categorically that changing individual action is an essential piece of the complex puzzle that is climate mitigation. We may find it convenient to believe that our individual actions don’t matter, but the very scientists who predicted the current environmental crisis are telling us they do.
We’re going to be forced to reduce our heating this year due to conflict in the Ukraine, just as we were forced to reduce our flying during Corona. But how do we get ourselves to do this, at the same time as shifting to a plant-based diet, for the long term? And permanently.
We can wait for nudges, but a nudge is a pretty mild, ineffectual action. They have been shown to work for smaller issues but not to make harder choices and sustain action in the long term. Anyone who grew up with Benny Hill and his ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ humour will see nudges as a free pass to do whatever they want.
We can wait for government-imposed price incentives. Unfortunately, we often have to vote for them and most of us don’t vote against our own back pocket.
For me, the penny dropped when my young teenagers demanded to know why they were being taught about climate change at school but not doing anything about it at home – not us, not our family, nor most of our friends. Of course, I could explain the very complex puzzle of international actors, treaties, sovereignty, corporate interests, lobby groups and permanent consumption-based growth that underpins anthropogenic climate change.
Yes, they said, very interesting. But why are we eating meat again for dinner?
And in these conversations, I found that after all the justifications I could find for my inaction, all I could really say was sorry. In saying sorry, I was saying two things. Firstly, I was acknowledging and expressing sympathy for the fact that they will have to make choices that I avoided taking for 4 decades. They will not be able to enjoy the high-consumption lifestyle that I have enjoyed and taken for granted. Secondly, I was apologising for the mistakes I had made and the things I had done – and not done – in these decades.
Research has shown that feelings of empathy and a belief in the power of one’s individual action underpins climate-friendly behaviour: if I feel for the suffering that climate change will inflict on others and I believe that my actions can make a difference, then I am more likely to adopt and sustain climate-friendly behaviours like reducing meat, energy consumption and flying, and voting for green policies.
But how do we trigger these emotions in ourselves?
I believe the solution is right among us – it is found in our relationship to the young people in our lives, and the responsibility we have towards them as elders, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents, colleagues and neighbours.
Perhaps our young people don’t want to talk about climate change or change their own consumption patterns – after all, we’ve raised them to be consumers as well. But we can’t use their reticence as an excuse to do nothing ourselves. In whatever role we hold as an elder, we have a responsibility to act in their best current and future interests: just as we send them to school when they don’t want to go, so we can reduce our family consumption when they don’t want to. This is essential to ensure their future environment is livable. But it is also essential in developing the resilience we are going to need to cope with the loss and damage that climate change is starting to unleash on our current way of life.
Why an apology?
Apologies are overused in our culture. However, they also carry significance and a weight that is appropriate to this crisis we face. I was told about the climate crisis 40 years ago and I did nothing. That is an incredible failure.
An apology acknowledges both the severity of this crisis and of my mistake.
It is a pause in my everyday habit of consumption.
It requires me to recognise the reality of the young people in my life – to empathise with them, as well as to acknowledge my role in the damage, thereby accepting the importance of my actions.
But most importantly, an apology is about changing the behaviour that has caused harm. And this is key. The apology is not about blaming ourselves or others. It does not seek to accuse and divide between who eat less meat and those who eat more, between those who flew this last summer and those who didn’t. The process is not linear and it is not the same for everyone. It is not competitive – it is not relevant what others are doing or not doing. Rather, it is a process that leads an individual towards making amends by changing their own behaviour because of their relationship with the younger people in their life.
So in the lead-up to this 27th COP, let’s commemorate our climate inaction by apologising to those we love. Individual action can be transformative. Together, we’ve got this.