Climate Change and Individual Action

The IPCC report last year stated that we need to cut carbon emissions in half in the next 12 years to have any chance of keeping under 1.5 degrees of warming. We’re at about 1.1 degrees of warming now and there is currently a record heatwave in Australia with temperatures nearing 50 degrees. There are endless deadly natural disasters you could chose to highlight from 2018 that were exacerbated by climate change.

I am so tired of reading articles like this ‘Best of a bad Situation’ one in which you think they get it and understand the dangers of climate change and how monumental the changes are that we need to make, and then the end is a cop out of pushing for full renewable energy and dissing individual action. Or tweets like this from Michael Mann himself who I have the utmost respect for but that easily be used to deter someone from making individual changes or from even thinking they are necessary!


What do we think is going to happen at this mythical point when fossil fuel behemoths are forced out of business by regulation/lawsuits/governmental action? Or when they have to pay a massive carbon tax for existing that they then pass on to us, the individual consumers?

We have to acknowledge that:

  1. There are some huge industries that contribute massively to greenhouse gas emissions that either cannot function without fossil fuels like aviation (electric planes that can go any kind of distance are not happening any time soon and biofuels are an environmental disaster), or industries which emit greenhouse gases directly. For example the meat and dairy industry whereby cows fart out methane (a greenhouse gas 27 times more potent than C02) not to mention the deforestation necessary to grow animal feed which also contributes massively to C02 emissions, and the cement industry (which is estimated to make up to 8% of annual C02 emissions) in which the chemical reaction to create the main ingredient of cement, clinker, releases C02. These are things for which there are no low carbon renewable energy powered replacements and so we are going to have to look at reduction- i.e. those individual lifestyle changes of not flying, cutting down dramatically on meat and dairy and living in smaller, more densely packed houses that allow for a reduction in necessary road networks and building materials. (Bill Gates has an interesting talk on this subject here, although of course his solution is not to curb our lifestyles or more pertinently his in any way, but to rely on new low carbon technology such as Hydrogen fuel and Nuclear fusion neither of which is remotely feasible right now)
  2. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy to power as much of our homes and businesses as possible is in itself going to be incredibly energy intensive. It is going to require a shitload of fossil fuels to upgrade our electricity grid so it is compatible with renewable energy, to change our infrastructure so that we can electrify as much of our energy as possible (e.g. changing our commercial and domestic heating systems from running on natural gas to running on electricity or switching to district heating systems), to produce and install the massive number of renewable energy devices required e.g. wind turbines (which are often supported by massive concrete foundations, concrete being a mixture of aggregates and oh yeah cement) and solar panels along with giant battery storage devices as renewable energy is intermittent or (depending on what you think of the other environmental consequences) building new/maintaining existing nuclear power plants. Not to mention changing urban infrastructure to allow for more journeys to be done by public transport, cycling or walking, and to upgrade currently energy inefficient homes so that they have more insulation and require less heating and/or cooling and to build the new low carbon homes required for people who are going to have to abandon where they live because of the climate change effects that we have already locked in. We also have to contend with the fact that the fossil fuel we are extracting at the moment itself takes more energy to extract than it used to, and so the net energy per barrel is less. We are therefore going to have to be very careful that in making the transition to renewable/clean energy we don’t blow our entire remaining greenhouse gas emission budget and head for runaway climate change. This means we most certainly can’t replace fossil fuels by the same amount of renewable energy. We are instead going to have to cut down dramatically on the amount of energy we use in the first place.
  3. It’s not just climate change we have to worry about in terms of overstepping planetary boundaries that could lead to civilisation collapse, we also have to think about air pollution (ironically the better our air quality the less cooling effect pollutants in the air will be able to provide), biodiversity loss, land conversion, freshwater withdrawal , nitrogen and phosphorous loading (by synthetic fertilizers), chemical pollution, ozone layer depletion and ocean acidification (from Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth), none of which we are doing particularly well on.

Given these factors I think it’s fairly clear that it’s not just a simple case of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, lifestyle changes are going to be necessary for AT LEAST those in the global top 20% income bracket who cause 70% of all emissions. (As per Oxfams Extreme Carbon Inequality report. A study has been done to show that if the top 10% cut down their lifestyle to that of an average European, carbon emissions would drop by a third  – which would obviously help but is not enough to keep within 1.5 degrees of warming, especially if additional emissions are created in the transition to renewable energy).

I don’t know if remaining carbon budgets on a per country/per capita basis have been calculated, or if these calculations have made allowances for people who currently emit very little carbon to increase the amount they use to raise their standard of living. From what I have read of the Green New Deal proposed in the U.S. to transition away from fossil fuels I don’t think that they are checking whether the infrastructure changes in the deal proposed would tip the U.S. over its remaining carbon budget/make it impossible for other countries to do a similar thing without tipping us into runaway climate change as I’ve heard no mention of lifestyle changes. There was a little bit about a potential Green New Deal for the UK being proposed by the Labour party which definitely hasn’t done the calculations given in the article it says that by doing this we can focus on structural changes rather than lifestyle changes- which if I’m right about points 1,2 &3 is impossible!

We have to ensure that people who are pushing for the transition away from fossil fuels and to a low carbon future understand and talk candidly about the implications on people’s lifestyles, not just sweep them under the carpet and hope that a series of extremely unlikely technological fixes are going to happen within the next 11 years.

We need to get to a point where the majority of people are willing to make these changes. Willing to cut down on meat and dairy, willing to stop flying, willing to stop driving and switch to public transport or cycle, willing to repair and mend and re-purpose old items instead of buying new each time, willing to live in smaller more energy efficient low carbon homes.  Willing to shut down vast swathes of our energy sucking surveillance capitalism giant internet platforms (are we really going to use huge amounts of energy to store years of people’s likes and selfies and purchasing history when it could be better used to save our future?).

Maybe they aren’t able to do these things now because there aren’t the public transport options or cycle paths available, or vegan/vegetarian options in their schools and places of work or fresh fruit and vegetables available locally at affordable prices or the right homes don’t exist, but they WANT those changes to be made.

And if it sounds like making those changes would mean the end to endless growth and capitalism itself and the current global power dynamic as we know it then yes you are right. The implications are huge.

At the very highest income, sure you can imagine them going vegan without any loss of power or influence but can you imagine them ditching their private jet and binning all their accumulated air miles to #staygrounded? There was a reply to the parody @DavosMan account that you could rank the powerful by their air miles and I think he hit the nail on the head. Mobility and speed of that mobility is key to power.

‘The New Spirit of Capitalism’ by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello tries to map out how capitalism has changed and responded to artistic and social critique by moving to a connexionist world where:

‘ a connextionist world, mobility- the ability to move around autonomously not only in geographical space, but also between people, or in mental space, between ideas- is an essential quality of great men, such that the little people are characterized primarily by their fixity (their inflexibility).’ pg 361

‘In a connextionist world, where high status presupposes displacement, great men derive part of their strength from the immobility of the little people, which is the source of their poverty. The least mobile actions are a salient factor in the profits that the mobile derives from their displacements. In fact, in a world where everyone moved around, movements would be uncertain; and with the sites it is possible to move between losing all particularity, all singularity (since they would no longer be maintained in their specificity by actors who have remained in situ), the profits produced by displacement, and particularly by creating connections between beings or worlds that are distant because they are different, would tend to disappear.

If it is true that some people’s immobility is the precondition for the profits others derive from their ability to move around, and that mobility procures incomparably greater profits than those who remain in situ can aspire to, then we may say that the immobile are exploited in relation to the mobile.’ Pg 363

If you were to ban private jets and levy an incredibly hefty frequent flyer tax (your first return flight of the year would be frequent flyer tax free, the next would have an addition of thousands to the ticket price) , end all airport subsidies so baseline ticket prices would have to increase (add in a carbon tax while you are at it),  and halt all airport expansion plans and cut flight numbers dramatically  so they could only run between 7am –7pm on weekdays  (to avoid noise pollution and allow the thousands and thousands of people globally who are detrimentally affected by airports the peace of sleep), what would this do to the amount of power one person could accumulate?

Think about it in terms of Ed Sheeran. If he wasn’t able to fly and do concerts and publicity events all around the world would he be able to be a global superstar worth millions? Would I have to listen to him at every fucking wedding I go to? Or would there be instead hundreds or thousands of just as talented musicians who were able to carve out a living in their own regions? Would power and influence and knowledge HAVE to be more evenly distributed without flight?

Without flight and the ability to escape the consequences of your actions would people in power have to behave more ethically? Again from Boltanski and Chiapello:

In a domestic world, honouring debts that have been contracted is based upon the coexistence of the same persons in the same space, and the reciprocal control they exercise over one another. Now, in a connextionist world, mobility which constitutes a fundamental requirement, makes it largely possible to elude the collective reprisals entailed in the former domestic world by defaulting and displaying ingratitude towards those whole support one enjoyed….. the actual realization of such mechanisms presupposed the definition of a framework in which a relationship between the misfortune of those who suffer and the good fortune of the prosperous can be established. Such a framework is precisely what was provided by the very notion of society, largely resting on a spatial conception of the nation-state… Now the logic of networks, on which the connectionist world is based, does not of itself make it possible to design such a framework. Despatialized, bereft of a representative body or overarching position, and dominated by the requirement of a boundless extension of networks, it does not permit integration into the same body of the networker who succeeds, and those whom his success helps to exclude, in such a  way as to create a debt between them. As a result, this logic remains indifferent to justice and, more generally to ethics. … Hence, in particular, networkers succeed in exploiting others by establishing relations with them that can be interpreted in terms of the logic of the domestic world (trust), but in contexts where they can extricate themselves from the forms of control on which the stability of the domestic world was based. ’  pg 379

At the upper middle/high incomes where loss of power is not quite so much of an issue (but still at play) perhaps the fear becomes more ‘How will anybody know that I’m better than they are if I don’t have a bigger house and go on more expensive holidays? If I can’t buy those things what is the point of doing my bullshit finance/consulting/marketing job?

What status symbols will we move to having if we don’t have consumer items? What will we be aiming for if it is not more material goods?

And then there’s the middle/lower income precarious class for whom consumer goods and cheap holidays and the myriad of on-screen entertainment is the panacea for living with high debts, short-term or zero-hour or gig work or just plain bull-shit job , with no chance of buying a house or having any kind of retirement. What happens when you take them away?

Anne Helen Peterson’s article on millennial Burn Out was interesting not just in terms of what it says about the nature of work and life and the complete lack of distinction between the two for our generation (I wish I had read it before I broke down in 2013), but also because of how often she mentions travelling and being able to book travel plans whilst being incapable of carrying out other bureaucratic tasks. Cheap holidays are big part of the Faustian bargain our generation has signed up to. Without them as an escape what do you have? A shitty rental flat that has mold in the bathroom, expensive avocado toast and nothing to look forward to.

How do you get to the point where these different groups of people are willing to make varying degrees of change to their lifestyles? So that our remaining carbon budget can be used to make the infrastructure changes necessary to move to a low carbon future for us all?

And what of the people working in terrible conditions to make the shiny trinkets and clothes and wearable devices, and who pick the vegetables and slaughter the animals and clean the toilets in resort hotels for which demand needs to dramatically decrease, leaving them with less than nothing?

If you have a situation where people have not been convinced of the benefits of changing and/or have not been given an affordable option to switch to/or equivalent benefit to replace what they have lost you will have a gilet jaune riot on a grand scale.

As Katherine Hayhoe (an eminent Climate scientist) says, many people fear the solutions to climate change more than they fear climate change itself. Unless you have had that direct wake up call, the water lapping at your coastal property, the forest fire that destroyed your home town, the heat wave that caused your elderly relative to die, a deadly haze of smog that caused your local schools to shut, the (in my case) aeroplanes that wake you up at 3 am with a thunderous rumbling that portends the end of the world, maybe you still think that you will be fine and the changes necessary are not worth it. That it’s better not to rock the boat.

The people in power certainly fear the solutions more than they fear climate change – they have their private security team guarding their self-sufficient farm in New Zealand paid for, they are not handing in their private jet. Sure, some of them are funnelling their money into technological solutions that could help save us (nuclear fission/hydrogen fuel/geo-engineering/carbon capture and storage/ escape to Mars) and yes we need in a global non-competitive fashion to invest in those ideas (except the Mars one which is idiotic and geoengineering which could easily bring about the end of the world much faster), but given the time scales we have left and the amount of global warming we have already locked in we need them most to take the train and let go of the reins of power.

This is unlikely to happen, and the politicians who could potential legislate to force them to do this are instead paid off by them and in thrall to them and fear the rest of us staging a riot.

So how?

As Will Davies writes in his perceptive book ‘Nervous States’ about the breakdown in trust of experts, facts and statistics and how feelings have come to shape the world around us:

The seventeenth-century model of the scientist was of the gentleman who’d learned a certain manner of formal speech, and was able to speak about what he’d witnessed while simultaneously excluding himself from the narrative. It rested on a delicate balance of anonymity and identification. However, this unavoidably elitist model preserves for a select group the task of representing nature and society. A small and privileged minority are granted the right to express the truth. The rage it inspires from some disenfranchised political quarters speaks of something real. In the digital age, we now have a full spectrum of media outlets and quasi-experts, between those still straining towards the seventeenth-century ideal of apolitical facts and those seeking to subvert it. We can side with the former, but it is no longer possible to ignore the latter. For a large part of the population, it is becoming impossible to distinguish between ‘authentic’ expertise (understood in terms of credentials, methods and transparency) and the alternative offered by lobbyists and think tanks serving vested interests.

 This confusion points towards a different perspective altogether: should the defenders of science and rationality mount a more nakedly political defence of their procedures and values, as occurred with the 2017 march for Science, for example? Or is that to cave in to the agenda of their antagonists and demonstrate that experts really are no better, calmer or more ‘objective’ than anyone else? The reality is that experts have no choice, given how their monopoly over the means of representation has been disintegrating over time. They cannot simply expect that monopoly to reassemble itself – not without political engagement, anyway. But this is where the defenders of expertise are often at their weakest. Precisely because they have spent much of the past 350 years refusing to incorporate politics in their project, they are unable to understand why people become politically alienated from it.’ Pg 210

‘As participants in a popular mobilisation, experts need to express their political commitments and feelings more openly. This is uncomfortable territory, as it confirms the populist suspicions that experts have an agenda- but then all the more reason to articulate it properly.’pg 215

What I take from this is that scientists, engineers, individuals who are experts in all the myriad of things that people can be experts in that are ALL affected by climate change need to step into the fray and implement the solutions they are suggesting in their own lives. They need to do this to a)show that it can be done and show that they are walking the talk and therefore what they say can be trusted b)to sing and dance about the benefits of making those changes and c) to bloody well say that this is necessary.

They cannot act in ways in which go against all of what they are saying and expect to still be heard. And they cannot lie and pretend it’s not going to be necessary for those who live high carbon lifestyles to have to make changes.

We need them, we need as many individuals as possible to understand the situation and take the actions that we can take and shout and scream at our politicians that we WANT the other changes to happen. That we are willing and understand the consequences of asking them to fight climate change. That we will not riot when the frequent flyer tax is passed, instead we will march on parliaments and strike from school if they DON’T agree such a tax.

I myself have given up flying. In 2017 I took one and half return flights, in 2018 one return flight and this year I’m aiming for zero. For some reason I’ve found this very easy, I quit Facebook and Instagram and stopped having what were essentially continual holiday advertisements from my friends in my face all day and tada done, no itchy feet. Of course it helps that I love (when there are no planes directly overhead, so about 80% of the time) the area I live in, and our house and the forest next door. It also helps that we have other available transport options to visit family and friends, which I appreciate some people do not have. I publicise this action on twitter and my blog and sometimes even in person (although it is much more difficult talking to friends about their flying habits than strangers). However, living in Belgium where vegetarianism might as well not exist let alone veganism, I find it very difficult to cut down on meat and dairy. Meat substitutes like Quorn sausages are not available in my local supermarket. Out of the 30 odd + restaurants in walking distance from us none of them are vegan or vegetarian, and I only know of a couple near the centre of Brussels which are. In this area I can’t be someone who inspires someone else to change, I need help.  I need nudges/shoves of more available substitutes, more vegetarian and vegan restaurants, school cafeterias and work cafeterias, less advertising of meat and dairy products, less availability of those products, and I will be very happy when these changes happen. In the meantime I will do what I can and stop eating red meat and try to learn more vegetarian recipes. And I will shout about this too!

The reason so many lists of individual actions get published with the same solutions on them: don’t fly, take public transport, insulate your home, use renewable energy , cut down on meat and dairy, go zero waste  etc etc is because those are WHAT THE SOLUTIONS ARE scaled up to the global level. Yes we need to government actions and policies in place to ease the transition for individuals to be able to live like this and to retrain huge swathes of the workforce out of industries that are going to become obsolete,  but we also need to accept lifestyle changes are necessary and to WANT them. Want them so much that we will prise the keys to the private jets out of the billionaire’s hands and go forward without them and their pie in the sky technological promises that we can continue as we are.

Maybe we got a bum deal being the humans that have to sacrifice in order for future generations to live. Maybe these next generations will discover some new technology that allows them to have rampant economic growth decoupled from carbon emissions, and meat grown in laboratories and electric planes and we’ll somehow build energy efficient homes from compacted rubbish, but also maybe this isn’t sacrifice. Maybe it’s just change and the gains of cleaner air and quieter skies, reduced inequality, decentralized power, of living in harmony with other living creatures, of working together, of believing ourselves worth saving and a having a meaningful goal to work towards is in itself is what we need to really start living.


One response to “Climate Change and Individual Action”

  1. […] limit climate and ecological breakdown. (I’ve described the reasons why I think this in this blog post) In […]

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