Comment: On climate change, we must resist defeatism
In that period of ennui between Christmas and New Year, I spent a few minutes on a ‘calculate your carbon footprint’ site. Shame and disappointment prevents me from recording the result here.
Shame because it was well above the target. Disappointment because, for the previous year, I really had been trying to do better.
I had (more or less) stopped eating meat; plastic bags were a thing of the past; I had been using public transport more often. Hardly an environmental revolution, but enough for me to expect it to make some sort of difference.
The discovery that I was still treading heavily on the earth came as large swathes of Australia were being wiped out by bush fires.
Every night’s headlines brought worse news: a mounting death toll; hundreds of homes destroyed; animal corpses strewn along roadsides; acrid smoke stealing away air, infiltrating labour wards and endangering newborns.
The scenes were apocalyptic. They made you wonder what kind of a world the babies of 2020 would inherit.
Throughout 2019, the alt-right critics of Greta Thunberg have been accusing her of catastrophising.
And yet here, in the images of skeletal trees against a blood-red sky, was a prophesy foretold. Dante’s Inferno. The Fourth Circle of Hell. A planet consumed by its own greed.
Faced with destruction on a cosmic scale, what can individual sacrifices achieve? Hanging out your washing, unplugging your phone charger, switching to an electric car?
Such measures, the realists insist, make an impact so minuscule that it’s hardly worth bothering.
At best, they offer us an illusion of control. At worst, they are a conscience-salving exercise, allowing us to feel morally superior while passing the buck to others.
This stance is not without substance. Controversial Danish scientist Bjørn Lomborg says research shows a vegetarian diet reduces CO2 emissions by the equivalent of just 4.3 per cent of the average individual’s emissions and that the money saved is often spent on other emission-heavy products.
The International Energy Agency claims electric cars start saving emissions only after they have been driven 60,000 miles.
Most of us make the lifestyle changes we can most readily embrace.
How many of those who have turned vegan are still upgrading their mobile phones every few years? How many of those who take canvas bags to the supermarket are going on foreign holidays?
Thunberg-excluded, we are all hypocrites to a greater or lesser extent.
In any case, why should any of us beat ourselves up when US president Donald Trump will neither acknowledge nor take responsibility for climate change?
Ditto Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, who earlier this month called Thunberg a “screeching Scandinavian”.
“The Australian government will set our policies based on Australia’s national interest,” he said, as his country burned.
Boris Johnson couldn’t be bothered to turn up at C4’s pre-election climate change debate.
And earlier this month, Vladimir Putin announced a plan to capitalise on the “advantages of global warming”. What match are we for these powerful figures’ ignorance and apathy?
And yet, look around us, not just at Australia, but at the flooding in Indonesia. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting seven times faster than in the 1990s. In the UK, storms follow one another with such rapidity it’s impossible to remember all their names. Defeatism is not an option.
Later this year, Glasgow will play host to a major climate change conference. Up to 30,000 delegates are expected to attend the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November.
It will be met, no doubt, with (partially justified) criticism from the usual quarters.
The fact it is being chaired by Johnson is not reassuring. The flights bringing delegates will be a boon to the aviation industry but are out of tune with the conference goals.
It doesn’t help that the UN Environment Programme has said the goal of limiting a target set by the Paris agreement is “slipping out of reach”. Or that, last year Thunberg described COP25 as “an opportunity for countries to negotiate loopholes”.
But let’s try to be positive. This huge event is being held in Scotland, a country which, though far from perfect, has long focused on renewable energy and has set an ambitious target of zero carbon emissions by 2045.
Holding it here will surely pile pressure on the Scottish Government to demonstrate it is doing its bit.
Just last week, for example, it announced the introduction of new rules to ensure all new homes built in Scotland use renewable or low-carbon heating.
It also means there will be more debate about other policies, such as the pros and cons of a planned metro link to Glasgow Airport.
More broadly, conferences, and the protesters they attract, keep action/inaction on climate change on the agenda. They draw attention to our shortcomings, force us to confront our obligations.
This is as true of individuals as it is of leaders. And that is to be welcomed. Because how we live our lives must count for something.
The incremental changes we make may seem like a drop in the rising oceans. But they are a statement of intent. Together they demonstrate a collective commitment.
If world leaders won’t set an example for us, then we must set one for them. And shame them into following it.