“Yeah, but it won’t affect us.”
“Yeah, but we’ll adapt.”
“Yeah, but it won’t be that bad.”
For many people, climate change just doesn’t appear to be a big issue. Unless you happen to have experienced a wildfire, a drought or a flood, it still seems quite far off. We can spend a lot of time talking through chains of cause and effect but if someone – be they a member of a public, a businessperson or a political figure – has decided for themselves that climate change isn’t a big deal, it can be pretty difficult to convince them otherwise.
So maybe a different tactic is required. What if we just pretend climate change isn’t real? What if we pretend that sea levels aren’t rising, that oceans aren’t acidifying, that global temperature isn’t creeping upwards? This might seem perverse at first – the fundamental science is, after all, unequivocally robust – but as we have seen, people often just don’t respond to problems that don’t have an obvious or immediate effect. This explains a lot of life: it’s why we drink alcohol, eat cake, and spend way too much time on social media. People are great at discounting – that is to say, going for short-term gains even if they incur long-term losses. If we accept this as an unavoidable truth, the only way to prompt action is to focus on the short term. How could we make lives better – now?
Imagine a world without climate change. Sounds pretty rosy already. Now think about some of the big things that currently concern us from a climate perspective: energy supply, transport, and food production. Would these still be talking about these in a climate change-free world?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. The truth is, so many of actions we try to take to mitigate climate change also have other huge benefits, whether to people, the environment, or potentially even the economy. And – most importantly of all – these benefits can be realised practically immediately.
Energy – Solar, So Good
We all know burning fossil fuels is bad for the climate, but their impact doesn’t stop there. Oil extraction, for instance, is a messy process; just look at the havoc wreaked upon the Niger Delta. Oil spills are common, only making the news when they are especially catastrophic, such as the Deepwater Horizon incident of 2010. It’s also no secret that control over oil fields has driven conflicts for decades. Unlike climate change, we can directly attribute oil extraction as the driving cause of misery for thousands of people. We don’t have to bother with phrases like ‘a likely contributing factor’. It’s clear as day.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that these impacts don’t apply for renewable energy. It would be silly to say there would be no environmental impact – solar panels take up space, wind turbines kill birds, et cetera – but these effects quickly become negligible when compared to the alternatives. We would all rather have a solar plant in our backyard than an oil field, that’s for certain.
It’s also a lot more difficult to put a fence around sunlight or wind. With the right technology the energy they provide could be accessible to everyone. In fact, the sunniest parts of the world often overlap with some of the poorest. As the price of solar panels continues to fall, it is becoming more and more sensible to invest, even if you’re only interested in short-term gains. Solar panels tend to pay for themselves within a decade and after that continue to make profit for several decades more.
Not only that, renewable energy could liberate countries from interference from oil-loving nations (*cough* USA *cough*) and reduce dependence on unstable trade agreements. The only thing standing in the way is old money: the trillions hoarded up by fossil fuel companies, that would far rather lobby for business-as-usual than see renewables begin to take the lead. But these are not unassailable barriers; by showing people the immediate benefits they could see from supporting renewables, the tide could turn.
Transport – The Car Conundrum
The age of the automobile has given us many benefits. Cars give us freedom, autonomy, and open up new experiences for us. But they have their downsides too, even if we have become adept at ignoring them. The transport sector is the fastest growing contributor to climate change, and this increase is mostly being driven (bu-dum) by cars.
London is a nice case study of cars’ most pertinent short-term impact: air pollution. The UK’s capital is, by most accounts, a modern city. It is drowning in investment, has a diverse and talented workforce, and – most significantly – has a sophisticated public transport network. Many of its inhabitants have no need for a personal vehicle. Yet despite this, the effects of air pollution consistently kill thousands every year. This is principally from vehicle fumes.
That’s crazy. That alone – never mind the wider impacts on the climate – should be enough to stimulate action. And, lo and behold, it has done. The Ultra Low Emission Zone has been rolled out across the city, charging most vehicles for driving in central London. And it doesn’t end at just taxing cars: cycling is taking off on London, as access to bikes, cycle lanes and parking spots increases. So are plans to expand and streamline public transport systems.
Such schemes largely have the support of the public, as they have been framed around improving citizens’ welfare, in particular the health of children. This is an important lesson. It makes these issues personal. People will support change if they will benefit now. It’s a big reason why action on climate change has floundered for so many years – it’s always in the future, somewhere else, somebody else. It’s not easy to visualise.
Food – Taking Stock of Livestock
And so we’re on to food production. We’re going to focus on a biggie: livestock. The livestock sector is responsible for about 14.5% of our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s an awful lot. Although there a number of reasons for this – gassy ruminants’ methane production featuring highly – they can be largely boiled down to a question of efficiency. In other words, it takes a whole lot more resources to make a chunk of beef as it does an equivalent amount of non-animal product. And naturally, this doesn’t just apply to climate change but to everything else: land use, water use, resource use.
Livestock take up so much space. Over a quarter of our land is directly dedicated to them; a third of the crops we grow go to feed them. This land could be used for such better purposes. The crops could go to feed hungry people (if we sort out the logistics, anyway, which is totally possible). Forests could regrow, grasslands could be rejuvenated, wild species could begin to flourish again. We could easily feed the world – and feed them well, too – on far less land than we currently do if we just stopped eating such inefficient food.
And then, of course, there’s the direct ethical question. ‘Meat is murder’, and all the rest of it. It’s doubtless the easy relatability that often makes this the most publicised reason to cut meat: reducing demand reduces the number of animals killed, end of. There are plenty of hardcore vegans to carry that particular flag so I won’t dwell on it, but would perhaps summarise it as this: a world with less pain is surely a better world. If you don’t agree with that, I would be very interested to hear your counter-argument.
This only really applies to the developed world, by the way. If you have to eat meat to survive, you carry on. The industrialised nations are the ones driving demand, but also the ones most able to change. These positive changes are possible within a decade.
But… Climate Change…
The costs of transitioning to a carbon-neutral system are sobering. Yet it is silly to frame it simply as a climate change argument. Let’s face it, the chances of staying below 1.5°C are slim. We’re now just trying to make sure things are ‘the least bad’ for the future, and that’s quite a gloomy motivator. What we might have lost sight of is how to make peoples’ lives better in the here-and-now.
Switching to renewables can make environmental catastrophes less likely, empower poorer nations, and also make canny investors a tidy profit. Shifting to clean travel options makes our cities more pleasant and can improve our health and wellbeing. Transitioning to a low- or no-meat diet would free up vast amounts of land and other resources. Even if these are merely bonuses compared to averting the worst of climate change, that’s not the point. They are things people can see, hear and touch. You don’t have to rely on predictions or data analysis. They are just obviously true.
These things would all make life better now. It’s not just about ten, twenty, thirty years’ time. The changes suggested above could improve our wellbeing in a matter of months. In some ways – and bear with me here – climate change is an opportunity. It is an ‘umbrella issue’ nudging us to improve our lives in all sorts of little ways. It’s making us think about the things we take for granted, and whether those things are actually good for us after all. We could improve our lives now, whilst simultaneously guaranteeing our future. Two birds, one stone – why not? We just have to focus on the right bird.