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by Andrew Learmonth
09 November 2021
The campaign against big stuff: an interview with Dr Matt Winning

The campaign against big stuff: an interview with Dr Matt Winning

"Sorry, if I’m banging on,” Dr Matthew Winning says. Unnecessarily. 

We’re talking about talking, about how we communicate, particularly about how we communicate about climate change. 

It’s a particular bugbear of the Univesity College London researcher. 

I can’t think where I last saw Winning, but it would almost certainly have been in one of Glasgow’s comedy clubs, where about a decade or so ago he was part of a vanguard of brilliantly absurd and inventive comics coming through the Scottish comedy circuit. 

At the time he was combining the jokes with a PhD in climate change policy at Strathclyde University’s Fraser of Allander Institute.

There aren’t many comics with a doctorate in environmental economics, and there aren’t many doctors in environmental economics regularly being booked by the Stand. 

It’s a niche, one that’s become increasingly relevant. In recent years Winning has co-hosted his own BBC Radio 4 show Seriously, Though, The Planet and turned up as the environmental correspondent on Dave’s Unspun with Matt Forde and BBC Scotland’s The State Of It.

Winning’s talking to Holyrood ahead of the publication of his new book, Hot Mess, which “aims to both lighten the mood and enlighten readers on climate change” and offers “practical tips on how to stop the end of the world”.

“It’s about all the different aspects of climate change that I think people need to know about,” Winning says, “but it’s also about becoming a dad during a climate crisis, and as a climate change researcher, how I square bringing a child into the world at a time where I know that the world is dramatically changing and uncertain in the future.”

The book opens with the question the academic gets asked the most: “Are we screwed?” 

It closes with the second question he’s asked most often: “What can I do about it?”

“They’re both quite complicated questions and people often want quite simplistic answers or to defer to other people and I guess this is my attempt to sort of say, here’s lots of information but also really everybody has a part to play in this. 

“We can’t just defer to other people all the time or think that we can do just one thing. We have to play a role because unfortunately, it’s going to be part of our lives going forward whatever happens. There’s just no escaping it. And I think this is something that is sometimes difficult for people to understand, either climate change is going to happen lots, in which case it’s going to impact you, or we’re going to stop it, in which case, lots of change has to happen. 

“So, the main message that I tried to get across is that change is coming, regardless of whether you want it to or not. It’s how much should we take control of that change and shape the society we want versus how much do we continue doing what we’re doing and have our societies essentially shaped by a changing climate.”

He says the best answer to what we can do about climate change is literally everything and anything. 

“Even if you change the one thing or aspects of your life or if you help other people change things or you even, you know, vote in a certain way, whatever it is, the type of action that you take is nudging the dial, ever so slightly, away from screwed towards not screwed. 

“I know there’s bigger things, people will often come back and say, China’s not doing anything, there’s all these big questions, but stopping climate change requires everything. It requires everybody and every country and everything changing. 

“Even if you point to someone else, it’s like, well, yes, there might be other things that are much larger that will have more of an impact but if you do your bit, then that small nudge would go towards less of a bad future for all of us.” 

This is where we start talking about talking. His book is, he says, an attempt to talk about climate change in a “much more accessible way using comedy”.

I ask if that’s because he thinks a lot of how we talk about climate change has been inaccessible, distant and removed. 

“We need to find other ways to talk about climate change, broaden the conversation to bring people in,” he says. 

Winning is evangelical about the recent citizens’ assembly on climate change. 

Commissioned by six House of Commons select committees, the assembly brought together 108 people from across the UK and asked them: “How should the UK meet its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?”

Over six weeks, the members learned about climate change, what was causing it, and then came back with a number of proposals on travel, food, land, energy, electricity and greenhouse gas removal.  

The citizens were engaged, they were on a personal journey, Winning says, and they understood that difficult decisions need to be made, rather than being told that difficult things needed to happen. We need to encourage people to take that personal journey. 

Key to that is talking. Communication about climate change is a real problem, the comic says. Including some of the terms we use. 

“Net zero just means it’s difficult to get to zero”, Winning says. “You’re trying to get to zero. So, the two aspects of that are you reduce your emissions as much as you can, but say you can only do that by 50 per cent in the next 10 years, then you spend money getting someone else to plant some trees that will maybe soak up the other 50 per cent of your emissions. 

“You get a lot of things saying they’re net zero or are going to be net zero by this date and in reality, they’ve only reduced their own emissions by 20 per cent, and they’re just paying for forests or whatever to be planted elsewhere. 

“Which is better than nothing. In my opinion, you should be made to state how much of the net zero is net. How much of that is your effort and how much of that is someone else’s effort, because a lot of companies are using it to be quite misleading. 

“And that’s not to say that it’s not good to get them on board but again if everybody thinks that it’s being solved when in actual fact only 20 per cent of it’s really being solved and the other 80 per cent is someone planted trees somewhere that may or may not survive or be burned down in a wildfire.” 

Comedy, he says, is part of the solution to talking about climate change. It engages people in a heavy subject that they don’t necessarily want to engage in. 

“It’s been a good way of making it palatable for people, and it also holds their attention because they’re enjoying themselves and if they’re enjoying themselves, they’re paying attention. 

“Whereas if you’re just giving a lecture, and you’re depressed, your mind just goes wah wah…” 
Comedy also provides a “good coping mechanism at the same time because it’s quite a difficult thing to deal with,” he says. 

“Everybody should be talking about it, you don’t need to necessarily know loads about it to talk about it, so we should be having conversations about it and bringing it into society because it’s often seen as this other thing, it’s seen as an environmental thing, which, I mean, it is, but it’s also everything. 

“Every aspect of the economy is going to be touched by this. People’s lives, health is a massive thing that’s impacted by climate.”

He goes on: “Ideally we would all hope it would just go away. That’s essentially across the whole of society, how people have felt for the last three decades. It’s like, ‘yeah maybe we’ll just solve this, but maybe it’s something that will go away’. 

“Very, very much here to tell you is not going away, and the rest of your life will be dominated by climate change, whether you like it or not.” 

He’s hopeful about COP26. He’ll be up here as an observer with the UCL delegation and will be performing at a number of events, including Holyrood’s Green Giant Awards. 

Winning is hopeful that any agreement reached by the world leaders in attendance will include finance for developing countries. 

“It’s always good to remember this, the United States are responsible for a quarter of all warming that has happened through history. So of all the emissions that have occurred, the US has caused a quarter of that. That’s point two five of a degree celsius that the United States has warmed the planet by. 

“That is not the fault of Kiribati, it’s not the fault of all these other places that are disappearing because the United States historically – and Europe just behind that, it’s not that I’m singling the US out, they’re just the largest, Europe’s not far behind, and China’s caught up quite quickly – but it’s still half of what the United States has caused historically.”

He says he’s often approached after sets by middle-aged men who want to tell him that the real problem is that there are too many people in the world. 

It’s not overpopulation that’s the problem, it’s middle-aged men living in the west and their stuff, he says. 

“The UK average emissions is about 160 times that of someone in somewhere like Nairobi, for instance, so it’s not that there’s too many people there, it’s that your emissions here are far too high.

“Countries need to develop and so their emissions may increase a bit, but our emissions need to keep going down and the UK is actually doing quite well on that front. The main emitters per person are again the United States, Australia, Canada, which are big countries that drive a lot, that have big houses. 

“So again, big stuff is actually a lot of the problem. Big stuff, and too much stuff.  SUVs, for instance.”

He pauses. 

“SUVs are the thing that I hate in the world more than anything else. That not just because they take up two parking spaces or because they’re dangerous for children but they're just... they’re just unnecessary.”

He references a recent report from the International Energy Agency which revealed that increased numbers of SUVs being driven over the last decade were responsible for an uptick of 0.55 gigatons of CO2 over one decade, making them “the second-largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions since 2010 after the power sector.”

“The book refers to them as such unnecessary vehicles because there’s no need for those emissions to be happening. People in developing countries need electricity, we don’t need bigger cars.

“That would be one tip, if people are like, oh, what can I do about climate change, don’t drive a stupidly large car.”  

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - SNP minister's 'disappointment and loss' over Derek Mackay texting scandal

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