COP26 – #LetsGetReal

In case you have not heard, world leaders are meeting in Glasgow in a few days to discuss what they can do about climate change. If you want to learn more about this, there are lots of resources already online. I want to talk about some of the challenges we face but also why I feel there is a lot of cause for hope.

The two big challenges fall into the categories of psychology and system. They are not unrelated. Let’s start with system. I recently read “Less is More” by Jason Hickel. What I realised more than anything else is that the systems we have in place go back centuries. Everyone alive today has been born into cultures, laws and economies that were defined a very long time ago.

The way we work now, where our food comes from, the laws that protect business interests – it is all underpinned by things that happened a long time ago. So now we have people born into a situation with a set of expectations and seemingly pre-determined outcomes. If you are born into wealth, your money has the ability to accumulate more wealth without the need to work for an employer. This might be through renting land or property or through investment. You might feel a sense of duty to look after your inheritance and safeguard it for your children. You might also feel the need to protect the system and traditions that have been handed down through generations. 

In developed nations, if you are born into the working population, then everything from the first day you go to school is geared towards you being a useful member of society through your employment. You might add to that usefulness by being a carer or in some other capacity. The messages you receive might be that if you work hard and are good at what you do, then you could progress to the higher levels, where you have employees or investments. However, it might also be that you are born into a situation, where your expectations of such a thing happening are very low indeed. This expectation may be set by the colour of your skin, for example. In developing nations, there is not necessarily even an expectation that you will go to school.

What does all this have to do with COP26? It is about the systems which hold these expectations in place. The richest 1% of the population are responsible for more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions of the poorest 50%. They have a vested interest in keeping these systems in tact. In fact, economic inequality (the gap between the richest and the poorest) has been growing. Politicians are lobbied by fossil fuel companies and as a result, according to the IMF, they received $6 trillion in 2020 – that is $11 million per minute of every day. For the people who are not in the richest 1%, every day is concerned with making ends meet. There is a push for growing GDP and therefore growing productivity. People bemoan parents doing the school run by car, but so many of those parents are working to a very tight schedule, where the kids get dropped off before they rush to work. Seemingly everything is packaged in plastic, but the alternatives, where they are even available, are expensive. We are told that protecting the economy means protecting jobs and encouraged to do our duty and spend our earnings. It is almost impossible to escape advertising and, as computer algorithms are employed for targeted marketing, the ways that we are drawn into consumerism become increasingly sophisticated.

The second challenge, the psychology, is perhaps a function of the system we find ourselves in. It is set by those expectations – the things our parents and education and various media tell us about how the world works. With climate change we have a number of issues. Firstly, that people do not trust the science. Whether this is because of campaigns to protect the fossil fuel industry by casting doubt on climate science or whether it is because people have other reasons not to trust scientists, there are many who do not believe the 99.9% of scientists who agree that humanity is causing catastrophic climate change. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking – that we do not need to act and can continue to operate on a model of unbounded growth.

On the other hand, we have people who believe that it is so hopeless that it is not worth trying to do anything. Some believe that we should focus on adaptation rather than mitigation. Others think even that is a waste of effort. In between these two groups, we have large numbers of people who feel overwhelmed and powerless. They see the influence wealth has on politics, they see themselves as just one lowly individual in a society that is become increasingly divided and isolated. They perhaps look at the scale of the task before us and struggle to know where to start. Thankfully, we are not alone. One of the most beautiful things to come out of the crises we are facing is the coming together of communities. You cannot fail to notice the millions of young people taking to the streets to demand action. Parents, scientists, faith groups and all manner of others are joining together to make a difference. Whether your interest is in permaculture, active travel, pollution, reducing plastic or in getting political, there are so many places to get involved. For individual actions, I highly recommend the Sustainable(ish) book by Jen Gale. It is very much around doing what you can, not about trying to do everything perfectly. For a wider community there is the Sustainable(ish) Facebook group. You can also try an internet search for groups in your community – perhaps an energy cooperative, activist groups, conservation volunteering, tackling food waste (a huge source of methane, which is a really potent greenhouse gas) or litter picking. What does litter picking have to do with climate change? Plastic gets from the streets and parks into the drains and rivers and from there into our oceans. It is then consumed by marine animals, including whales. Did you know that a single whale can capture the same amount of carbon dioxide as 30,000 trees?

Our governments are doing far too little, but we have made very significant progress. The amount of power produced by renewables far exceeds expectations. We need to do more and urgently. If you can, please contact you elected representatives (perhaps your MP in the UK) and ask that we have:

  • a just transition from fossil fuels
  •  concrete plans to phase out the use of fossil fuels, including the end to subsidies
  • financial support for developing nations 

We do need to get past the guilt and blame culture of individualism. We were all born into these systems and, while it is our collective responsibility to fix them, it is not helpful to hold people in the stories of their past. We need to give them a chance to change and do better, rather than spending all their energy defending themselves. That is not to say that we should not be mindful of delusion and greenwashing. It is hard to disrupt our mindset – we need to be asking ourselves and each other at every point whether we are thinking and acting from the old paradigm or a new one. I read Charles Eisenstein’s book “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Knows Is Possible” recently. It is a rich book and frequently challenged me, which you would expect when there are places where I am caught up in the old mindset. 

What gives me hope? That there are so many people, coming together already; that we have made significant progress; that nature can and will heal rapidly (estimates suggest that if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, the temperatures would stop rising in 3-5 years) and that we do not understand so much of what nature is capable of; that you have read this entire post – thank you! Hope is not a feeling though, it has to be an action. We do not have much time, but we do have some if we act now.

Finally, I made a few videos for the 24 Hours of Reality on 29th October 2021:

The image for this post is from the Climate Reality Project for the 24 Hours of Reality October 2021

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