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?

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