I have been reading books on climate change for quite a long period of time, a lot of the content is around along the same lines but it does give me a grounding in the current state of scientific research, this is supplimented by daily forages online in well respected articles and documents and I think this is going to stand me in good stead for my latest venture.
I have enrolled on a course which will lead to a diploma in Conservation and most of the reading I’m doing at this point I consider to be prep.
If you haven’t read a book on climate change I highly recommend ‘The Weather Makers’ by Tim Flannery. You can find a direct link to the Amazon listing in the right hand sidebar in the books section of my blog. It’s an eye opener.
So, anyway, at the end of this course I should, fingers crossed, have two qualifications. The Diploma and an ASET Level 3 Conservation Award. After which I should be beginning a course in Java programming with the University of Exeter.
So what’s in the new today, well this caught my eye:
Can this really save the planet?
We are constantly told to switch the TV off standby, recycle our plastic bags and boil less water – but does focusing on the small, easy steps distract us from the bigger picture, asks George Marshall
Why is everyone so keen to believe that tiny actions can prevent climate change? We are given easy household tips by campaigners and the government that will help “save the climate”. You know the kind of thing – recycle your plastic bags, turn your telly off standby, bring your own cup to work. There is usually a little clutch of them attached to the latest grim news about climate change: it’s not all bad news, they plead, you can take these simple steps today and they really do “make a difference”.
But do they? Take the plastic bags, for example. We are pestered to re-use them or use designer “bags for life” instead. People get very worked up about this topic. There are eight online petitions on the No 10 website calling for them to be banned or taxed, Ireland has imposed a special bag tax, and a town in Devon has banned them outright.
Yes, they are ugly, wasteful and deadly to turtles. But their contribution to climate change is miniscule. The average Brit uses 134 plastic bags a year, resulting in just two kilos of the typical 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide he or she will emit in a year. That is one five thousandth of their overall climate impact.
And then there is the issue of electronics on standby. This is an attractive example of consumer waste culture and has been aggressively challenged by, among others, the Conservative’s Quality of Life Group, which publishes its environmental policy document today. But it is hardly a major source of emissions. The electricity to keep the average television on standby mode for a whole year leads to 25 kilograms of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. It’s more than plastic bags, but still very marginal: 0.2% of average per capita emissions in the UK.
Here’s another tip that sounds more substantial: fill your kettle with the right amount of water. The government made this one of the core messages of its “Are You Doing Your Bit?” campaign in 1999. A very small bit as it turns out. According to the government’s own figures, even if you are constantly boiling full kettles this will save all of 100 kilos of carbon dioxide a year, less than 1% of average per capita emissions.
Please don’t misunderstand me. All of these actions are worth doing as part of a greener lifestyle. And I do all of them – I also turn off my tap when brushing my teeth, share my baths, and watch the telly in the dark – wearing three jumpers if need be. But it is a serious distortion to imply, as the top 10 lists of green living usually do, that there is any equivalence between these lifestyle preferences and the serious decisions that really reduce emissions – stopping flying, living close to work and living in a well-insulated house, for example.
Judging by the latest Mori poll data, people have already acquired a severely distorted sense of priorities. Forty per cent of people now believe that recycling domestic waste, which is a relatively small contributor to emissions, is the most important thing they can do to prevent climate change. Only 10% mention the far more important goals of using public transport or reducing foreign holidays.
The easy tips also undermine the wider message on the seriousness of climate change. In its report Warm Words, on climate-change messaging, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) argues that simple actions “easily lapse into ‘wallpaper’ – the domestic, the routine, the boring, the too-easily understood and ignorable”. The IPPR is especially critical of headlines such as “20 things you can do to save the planet from destruction” and said that putting trivial measures alongside alarmist warnings can lead people to “deflate, mock and reject the very notion of climate change”.
Lest you think I am being harsh, look at this from a different point of view. Imagine that someone came up with a brilliant new campaign against smoking. It would show graphic images of people dying of lung cancer followed by the punchline: “It’s easy to be healthy – smoke one less cigarette a month.”
We know without a moment’s reflection that this campaign would fail. The target is so ludicrous, and the disconnection between the images and the message is so great, that most smokers would just laugh it off.
So why then do well-intentioned schools, councils and green groups – and let’s face it, Live Earth was an eight-hour tip-fest – persist in promoting such ineffectual actions?
Their logic is as follows. Simple actions capture people’s attention and provide an entry-level activity. Present people with the daunting big-ticket solutions and they turn away. Give them something easy and you have them moving in the right direction and, in theory, ready to make the step up to the next level.
That is the theory, but, as plentiful social research confirms, it doesn’t work. For one thing, making the solutions easy is no guarantee that anyone will carry them out. The government spent £22m on the Do Your Bit campaign and has subsequently admitted that it produced no measurable change in personal behaviour.
And there is a greater danger that people might adopt the simple measures as a way to avoid making more challenging lifestyle changes. With recycling, Mori concluded that it was becoming an act of “totem behaviour” and that “individuals use recycling as a means of discharging their responsibility to undertake wider changes in lifestyle”. In other words, people can adopt the simplest solutions as a part of a deliberate denial strategy that enables them to feel virtuous without changing their real behaviour.
Governments and businesses are, if anything, even more prone to tokenistic behaviour than individuals. Encouraging small voluntary actions by the public, customers or staff looks good and is much safer than passing restrictive legislation or rethinking your entire business model.
So what we need is a sense of proportion. The great advantage that climate change has over other pressing issues is that the gases that cause it can be measured down to the last gram. People can make informed decisions in the knowledge that, say, a return flight to Australia will have the same climate-change impact as 730,000 plastic bags or 176,000 overfilled kettles.
We also need to rethink the way we talk about climate change. It is insulting to assume that people can only be energised with the pint-sized options. We need to present all lifestyle changes as part of a radical vision for a smart, healthy and just 21st century. And let’s be clear that voluntary action will never be enough – we will need radical political, economic and social change. So let’s start by doing away with that wretched phrase “you can save the planet”
· George Marshall is the founder and director of projects at the Climate Outreach and Information Network (coinet.org.uk). Read Bibi van der Zee’s response to this article at blogs.guardian.co.uk/ethicalliving
Well I do have something quite simple to say to that: I think there is a bigger picture involved that the writer of this article is missing. Sure we should look at doing things on every scale for the major to the minor to help avoid and slow down, with a view to stopping, climate change. But, and this is a big but, if the entire population of the UK actually do the small things, that does add up to a rather considerable CO2 drop in output. One person, maybe it seems like a small result, millions? Well that’s another story.