This post was prompted by a comment from a contact of mine on LinkedIn in response to an article on societal priorities in addressing (or not) climate change as opposed to other, less critical, threats.
There can be no doubt that climate change poses an existential threat to human society and the continued survival of many of our fellow organisms on Earth, and I’ve covered it in past posts such as ‘Something in the Air’ and COP Out?’. However, the inherent short-termism of our species (now enshrined in most of our political institutions) inevitably creates the danger that we will collectively allow ourselves to be distracted by other issues which it seems that we can ‘fix’. In this case the word ‘we’ certainly means society collectively, but necessarily also means a critical mass of the individual citizens which society comprises. The relatively recent focus on marine and other plastic waste (also covered in previous posts such as ‘It’s Not in the Bag Yet’), over two decades after the first physical confirmation of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ which was itself a decade after its existence had first been postulated, may be viewed as one of those distractions. Alternatively, it could be taken as an opportunity to engage the wider public in a cause which can be ‘won’ by collective effort and thereby perhaps build enthusiasm for tackling climate change and the other areas where planetary boundaries are being exceeded.
Another recent LinkedIn exchange demonstrates the difficulty in making headway in some areas on making the consequences of climate change real enough to warrant not just action, but potentially significant sacrifice in the everyday lives of those of us in privileged wealthy industrialised economies. Along with two others, seeking to explain why the two are not incompatible, I responded to a post trotting out the tired old trope that the presence of some unusual snow somewhere casts doubt on the fact of global warming. To illustrate the point, the picture below shows the unseasonably low snowfall in Tallinn, capital of Estonia, in February 2019. Whether the author of the original post doesn’t want to face the inconvenient truth, didn’t understand what they were being told or were simply trolling, they represent a vocal minority. Even in the US, which has the world’s highest emissions per capita, climate change deniers are in the minority. A survey by Yale and George Mason Universities conducted in December 2018 and published in January 2019 found that 73% of Americans accept that global warming is happening, against 14% who do not. A smaller majority of 62% understand that it is primarily anthropogenic, against 23% who think it is natural. Less positively, only 20% understand the strength of the scientific consensus on causality and 51% feel ‘helpless’ in the face of climate change.
Recognising the need for multiple responses to multiple challenges does not preclude linking them (carefully, so as not to make the whole seem overwhelming) and showing how progress in one area can also have a positive effect elsewhere. Indeed, the structure of the UN Sustainable Development Goals makes this inter-connectedness very clear and many of us who speak to audiences who are not immersed in sustainability regularly make that point. The plastic bag legislation in Kenya, often touted as the world’s most draconian, serves as an illustration of how responding to plastic waste can have other positive outcomes. The reduction in environmental littering benefits wildlife and the quality of citizens’ lives, and it has been reported that abattoirs have noted a significant reduction in the proportion of livestock which have ingested plastic – from 30% to 10%. Improved animal welfare and human health are clear benefits of such a change.
When asked which of the SDGs is the most important, Climate Action (SDG13) routinely appears at or near the top of the list for corporate respondents, including sustainability professionals. My choice, however, is Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16), with the emphasis on strong institutions – recognising that peace and justice are necessary conditions for them to function. Global climate action cannot succeed without the supporting regulatory framework both existing and being implemented. The recent proposal by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change that new homes should no longer be connected to the mains gas grid by 2025 is a case in point; this would not spontaneously happen without regulatory intervention, and there will be no support from citizens without alternative provisions for comfort in the home. Although the UK is warmer than it used to be (back to climate change) it is still an uncomfortable place to live, for at least part of the year, without domestic heating, as the icicle-scape below (from Cumbria in early February 2019) shows. The fact that the views of US citizens captured by the survey mentioned earlier are not being reflected in their Federal Government’s policies, is a clear example of an institutional failure.
Nevertheless, the Yale/Mason survey shows that there is some cause for hope (indeed 48% of respondents stated their view as “hopeful” against the “helpless” 51%), but there is also a need to provide agency for those who could otherwise feel overwhelmed in the face of such a powerful force as climate change. ‘Sustainability’ features in many of the 2019 agri-food trend predictions from the likes of IGD, Mintel, Just Food and others, and individual citizens regularly do what they feel they can (domestic recycling, support for bans on single-use plastics) but there are many institutional and infrastructural barriers even then. The UK’s Waste and Resources Strategy, published in December 2018, represents some progress in this area, but will need financial resources to make it a reality. If it delivers on its ambitions, improvements around Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12) will inevitably lead to progress on Climate Action alongside further decarbonisation of the country’s electricity grid and developing practices in agriculture. The UK’s National Farmers Union is taking a commendably holistic view on the role of agri-food system incorporating several of the SDGs (see the ‘Moral Maize’ post) thereby also reflecting Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17).
It can be difficult to make the abstract tangible, but 2018’s Northern hemisphere heatwaves and wildfires have gone quite some way towards demonstrating the realities of a warming future in the here-and-now. In conclusion, then, I believe that we should welcome the public mood that marine plastics have engendered and try to use the fact to leverage that enthusiasm into building momentum on the planetary-boundary challenges, not just of climate change but biodiversity loss and the nitrogen cycle too.