The planet is burning - and you know it. How should you behave with family, friends, fellow citizens?
The IPCC - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the most authoritative body on the matter - has its latest research summary out later this week. According to this BBC report, it is set to be properly terrifying (even though it is often the most conservative of climate-change assessments).
Their task this year has been to estimate what 1.5 degrees centigrade of global warming does to our climate - and our societies, economies and cities. And what we need to do to limit warming to below that level. Early leaks suggest that these are likely to involve:
an intensification of cuts to CO2 emissions,
a rapid move to renewable energy
the deployment of technologies to suck greenhouse gases from the air;
lifestyle and dietary choices can make a significant difference.
One scientist said to the BBC that “our lives would never be the same if the world changed course to stay under 1.5C.”
So if we accept the absolute urgency of these assessments… how should we personally behave?
In this week’s Guardian, the veteran environmentalist George Monbiot is quite clear - we need to become evangelists in our own social circles. And take succour from how changing the conversation can change things:
No politician can act without support. If we want political parties to address these issues, we too must start addressing them. We cannot rely on the media to do it for us. A report by the research group Media Matters found that total coverage of climate change across five US news networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS) amounted to 260 minutes in 2017 – a little over four hours. Almost all of it was a facet of the Trump psychodrama (Will he pull out of the Paris accord? What’s he gone and done this time?) rather than the treatment of climate chaos in its own right.
There was scarcely a mention of the link between climate breakdown and the multiple unnatural disasters the US suffered that year; of new findings in climate science; or of the impacts of new pipelines or coalmines. I cannot find a comparable recent study in the UK. I suspect it is a little better, but not a lot."
The worst denial is not the claim that this existential crisis isn’t happening. It is the failure to talk about it at all. Not talking about our greatest predicament, even as it starts to bite, requires a constant and determined effort. Taken as a whole (of course there are exceptions), the media are a threat to humanity. They claim to speak on our behalf, but they either speak against us or do not speak at all.
So what do we do? We talk. As the climate writer Joe Romm argued in ThinkProgress this year, a crucial factor in the remarkable shift in attitudes towards LGBT people was the determination of activists to break the silence. They overcame social embarrassment to broach issues that other people found uncomfortable.
We need, Romm argues, to do the same for climate breakdown. A recent survey suggests that 65% of Americans rarely or never discuss it with friends or family, while only one in five hear people they know mention the subject at least once a month. Like the media, we subconsciously invest great psychological effort into not discussing an issue that threatens almost every aspect of our lives.
Let’s be embarrassing. Let’s break the silence, however uncomfortable it makes us and others feel. Let’s talk about the great unmentionables: not just climate breakdown, but also growth and consumerism. Let’s create the political space in which well-intentioned parties can act. Let us talk a better world into being.
Another veteran environmental campaigner, Andrew Simms, elsewhere comes to the same conclusion - but draws confidence, both from the past and present, that attitudes can be rapidly changed:
A mixture of new social movements and social media now seem capable of transforming gradual background shifts into defining moments of change.
They reveal that while change can take decades, these days new social norms can become established almost overnight. From the shift around single-use plastics, to the #MeToo movement and the rise of the vegan diet, things are moving fast. The male-only charity fundraiser went out of business following a single investigative report by the Financial Times into the Presidents Club scandal. Likewise, the tide turned rapidly against male-only conference panels once they began to be named and shamed online.
Things change. It’s the one thing that is reliable. The climate is changing faster than the attitudes and behaviour of the people most responsible for causing its disruption – but we now know enough to speed things up if we choose to.
After a summer of lethal, extreme weather events, it is also becoming clear that disruption of the climate is a public health issue on a much grander scale than smoking or drink-driving.
Rapid shifts in how we live, work and run the economy have to be made. We should be optimistic that changing our behaviour – to the extent required – is possible.