IT’S been a summer of doom. A swathe of unprecedented events – smoke from Siberian fires reaching the north pole, record temperatures, rain for the first time on record falling on the peak of the Greenland ice cap – combined with the latest IPCC report, a “code red” for humanity”, could, if you stick to just the headlines, lead you to believe that it’s all over already. But, it’s not. Often I think each and every headline around climate change should end with the line “but our actions can stop the worst of this crisis”, and, of course, some of them do.
Alarmism is one thing – we need plenty of alarm-sounding, including the blare of protest that Extinction Rebellion is set to bring over these coming weeks – but doomism is the thing that bothers me. Read too many climate stories of a doomist type and you can find yourself struck by vertigo, paralysed. The fight for our minds, in terms of climate, is no longer between those that state that this current climate change is chiefly human-caused and those that deny this. Instead, it’s around those that would have us give up, because it’s all too late or insurmountable and those that say it is possible to avoid the worst of this crisis, even if already we are seeing its impact around the globe.
Doomism, as the climate scientist Michael Mann has described, has replaced denialism as a root of our inaction. It creates a kind of inertia, a helplessness, and alongside it what Mann calls “inactivism”.
I often think a big question right now is what messages will make us act, and with the speed and urgency required – what, above all will create serious government and systemic action, but also make us act as individuals, voters, workers, consumers?
The balance is a tricky one – since we also can’t afford to make it sound easy. A distinctly non-doomist report was published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change recently. A headline in the Times declared, breezily, “Only small cuts in flying and driving needed to beat climate change, says Blair institute”. The article told us, we can also “continue eating meat and dairy”.
What bothered me on reading the article was that such lines make it seem as if we need actually do little other than cut back on the flying and driving a little, while we wait for the ground source or electric heating to be installed.
But, of course, that was not the overall message of the report, whose title is Planes, Homes and Automobiles: The Role of Behaviour Change in Delivering Net Zero, and whose aim is essentially to explore how government might enlist the public in behaviour change.
It notes how UK Government analysis shows that between 2009 to 2019, 87 per cent of emission reductions were delivered through measures requiring no behaviour change, but that “from 2020 to 2035, and emissions savings from behaviour change (either ‘pure’ behaviour change, or via deployment and use of new technologies) rises from 13% to 59%”.
Behaviour change, the report essentially says, is going to be necessary, but it’s not going to require total transformation of our lives – in fact, we can merrily keep on flying, since, it notes, “we need to reduce average kilometres travelled per person by plane by a maximum of around 6% between 2019 and 2035”.
That kind of comment is worrying in a report that is all about how we inspire behavioural change – since it seems to suggest change is so little many of us might not even bother to do it or push for policies that would create it. It’s particularly worrying given the current UK aviation strategy involves increasing aviation emissions into the 2030s, whilst carbon offsetting. Much as we don’t want the kind of doomist narrative that says necessary change is too big, and impossible to achieve, we can’t afford to make it seem like a tinkering around the edges.
We are a long way off creating a proper path towards net zero, but a path is possible. There’s a line to be found between the doom that causes inertia and the positivity which can also cause inaction. That is where action happens. We need to galvanise around it.