Too Little, Too Late to Save the Planet

FROM switching off lights, recycling waste to reducing our car use, government is encouraging us all to change our behaviour and reduce our carbon footprint. But are these actions too little too late to save us from ecological collapse?

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gary haqFROM switching off lights, recycling waste to reducing our car use, government is encouraging us all to change our behaviour and reduce our carbon footprint. But are these actions too little too late to save us from ecological collapse?

This month sees two events aimed at mobilising the public to take action. On 19 March there will be a national day of action on Climate Change in Coventry organised by Christian Aid. The aim of this day of action is to highlight the plight of millions of poor people in developing countries for whom extreme weather conditions are now a matter of life or death. On the 28 March WWF will hold the world’s first global election.

The public are being asked to use their light switch as their vote – switching off the lights is a vote for Earth, leaving them on is a vote for global warming. WWF is hoping it will reach a international target of 1 billion votes, which will be presented to world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009. These events are all well and good but do collective actions make any real significance in the long-term?

Despite international efforts the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are raising. As further evidence of the speed and magnitude of climate change comes to light a number of leading scientists such as Dr James Hansen, argue that time is running out and we need to take action now if we are to avoid runaway climate change. We can no longer put off changing our way of life and level of consumption. Current levels of carbon in the atmosphere are already too high.

gary haqThe public are willing to make small changes to their lifestyle. However, this can lead them into a false sense of security as they may think that this will be enough. They are unaware of the need for the more radical and less palatable changes.

Recently, the Northern Ireland Minister of Environment criticised the UK Government’s Act on CO2 campaign, claiming it was dangerous propaganda (See previous blog).

Only a small minority will truly make the radical changes necessary such as not flying or using the car. However, do unilateral sacrifices make any difference when the issue is of global proportions and requires global collective action?

Some environmentalists would argue that changes come from the grass roots. By raising awareness and mobilising action then individuals can be a collective force for change. Dr Mayer Hillman author of the book “How Can We Save the Planet” argued at a recent meeting on sustainable development in London that asking the public to switch of lights and voluntarily restraining their consumption was a waste of time. He did not believe individuals would voluntarily given up going to their holiday home in the South France for sake of the planet.

Dr Hillman argues that a considerable and rapid reduction of emissions will not be achieved on a voluntary basis. He concludes governments across the world must urgently set mandatory targets based on a global agreement on per capita rations, delivered in the form of personal carbon allowances. This notion is referred to as ‘Contraction and Convergence’ (C&C). This C&C strategy consists of ‘Contraction’ – reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level and ‘Convergence’ where the global emissions are reduced because every country brings emissions per capita to a level which is equal for all countries.

Such a radical framework may make politicians uncomfortable as the introduction of rationing would be unpopular with the electorate. However, Hilman argues due to the global ecological crisis governments need to form a War Cabinet and make these unpopular decisions if we are to win the war against climate change. Some environmentalists would argue that this is a form of “ecological dictatorship” and such constraints would result in a public backlash possibly on a scale never seen before.

(AFP photo/Remigiusz Sikora)There is an urgent need for World governments to have an international agreement that is legally binding and effectively delivers the cuts in greenhouse gases that is equitable and prevents serious disturbance to the global climate.

However, many politicians depend on their electorate for votes and it is clear that if we are to make the radical changes necessary then we need to convince the public of the urgency of the problem. This requires a combination of a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches. Our politicians need to lead by example and have the courage to make the difficult decisions that lie ahead. Equally, the challenge is so great, and the timescale so tight, that we can no longer wait for governments and businesses to take action. At the grass roots level individuals and community groups need to collectively work together and show what can be done and convince their neighbours to do the same.

The key to environmental protection is in the hands of the many, not the few. Therefore people power is the force which will allow us to tackle climate change. We can only avoid ecological collapse if everyone does as much as they can in the fight against climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009

Green Campaigns – Dangerous Propaganda?

The Northern Ireland’s Minister of Environment, Sammy Wilson, has taken the decision to block the government’s “Act on CO2” advertisement campaign on climate change to be shown in Northern Ireland claiming it to be “insidious propaganda”. Do green campaigns cause more damage than good? Do they go far enough in commuincating the message to the public about the scale of the real challenges ahead?

Act on CO2ARE public campaigns aimed at raising awareness of our impact on the environment dangerous propaganda?

Northern Ireland’s Minister of Environment, Sammy Wilson, thinks so. He has blocked the government’s “Act on CO2” advertisement campaign on climate change from being shown in Northern Ireland. Mr Wilson is reported to have described the campaign has “insidious propaganda” claiming that the campaign adverts were: “giving the people the impression that by turning off the standby light on their TV they could save the world from melting glaciers and being submerged under 40ft of water

It is not surprising that Mr Wilson is a climate change denier and does not believe man-made greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change. However, it is surprising that such a view is held by someone who holds the office of Minister of Environment.

wilson1

Mr Wilson’s view not only questions whether climate change is man-made but also the role of environmental campaigns to persuade people to change their behaviour. National information campaigns have been used for many years to raise environmental awareness. These have included the 1970s “Save It” energy campaign, 1990s “Are You Doing Your Bit?” and more recently “Act on CO2” (2007). Many regional and local government authorities have their own campaigns to address particular environmental issues. Such campaigns tend to provide the public with information to allow them to make informed choices and to persuade them that collectively they can make a difference.

In particularly Mr Wilson’s view challenges the green mantra of: “Think Globally, Act Locally”. When faced with such an overwhelming global phenomenon such as climate change we may feel that the individual actions we take are insignificant. If the cause of the problem is the collective impact of individual actions then surely working collectively is the solution?

Some environmentalists would agree with Mr Wilson that encouraging people to take small painless steps such as switching of lights gives a wrong impression. lightsThey would argue that this leads to a false sense of security that current lifestyles can continue with only small changes while in fact more radical changes are necessary. There is a need to confront the problem of our high consuming lifestyles head-on and tackle the underlying motivations of consumerism. Campaigns such as the Government’s “Act on CO2” are seen by some hard-line environmentalists as a deflection and waste of precious campaign and communication resources.

We have become so locked-in to a highly energy intensive, polluting, wasteful and inequitable way of life that materialistic values will not be able to deliver the systematic changes necessary in human behaviour. For example, not owing or using a car may not result in net environmental benefits if the money saved is used to fly to a far-flung holiday destination.

flightEnvironmental campaigns are guilty of failing to communicate the fundamental changes that are required in the way we live. Unfortunately, the public are not receptive to extreme messages such as banning car use and flying. A survey of British attitudes to flying by the National Centre for Social Research found that there were high levels of public concern about the environmental impact of air travel and a growing agreement that the cost of flying should reflect environmental damage. Despite this view the majority of the public still believe that people should be able to fly as much as they want. However, the size of this majority is falling.

Although public awareness campaigns have limitations they are a vital tool in tackling the environmental challenges ahead. It would be “dangerous” not to use all available means to engage and encourage the public to take action collectively. In the words of Gandhi “We must be the change we wish to see in the world” and that means each and everyone one of us doing our bit.

© Gary Haq 2009