As a Londoner, this year we’ve acutely felt the impacts of climate change. Execssive heat, for excessively long periods combined with minimal rain, has transformed the parks from lush gardens into barren savannahs. Lack of A/C in flats and houses combined with most of us working from home has led to some pretty sweaty days and suffocating nights.
The fact we can actually feel climate change has rightly led to more discourse. There is one common theme of nearly every conversation — pessimism.
Most people seem to think in one of a couple of paradigms when thinking about how to tackle climate change
- In order for us to stem climate change, consumer habits need to change (be limited). We must move to plant-based diets, stop spending on fast fashion, forgo holidays, consume less and limit travel.
- We need massive government intervention. More corporate taxes on carbon, financial incentives for solar panels and EV adoption. We need top-down leadership and long-term thinking from the governments we elect.
Regarding consumer behaviour, I think it’s justified to be pessimistic if thinking that behaviour change needs to happen to solve climate change
First, consumers don’t really know what’s good for the climate and what’s not. Let’s take an example of the typical east-London yuppie who ostensibly cares about the environment (of which I’d put myself into the bucket). This type might make a few changes to his life to become a more responsible citizen. He might stop using plastic bags, and buy an organic cotton tote bag for his shopping, he’ll not purchase groceries from Tesco, moving instead to an organic-first store such as wholefoods. He’ll cook his food using some herbs grown in his garden of his victorian terrace flat, choosing this as the more environmental option than living in a cement and steel new build flat. To most these would seem like intuitively good, positive impacts. The problem is consumer decisions around carbon are nearly never intuitive.
You’d have to use a cotton tote bag 20,000 times for it to reach parity with carbon emissions of a single-use plastic bag
. Organic food is significantly worse for the planet than non-organic due to the vast amount of land it takes up (that could otherwise be left to nature). Living in a new-build flat is by far the most carbon-forward choice due to increased energy efficiency and reduced land. Educating consumers on what they need to change in order to be better climate citizens is nye on impossible, I spend hours a week reading about this topic and are still not really any the wiser on positive actions an individual can take except flying less and walking more.
But suppose we did have a playbook for consumer-driven actions that would mitigate climate change, then couldn’t we all act together to drive some kind of change? Maybe — but it would be obscenely difficult. Perhaps in developed countries, where we’ve reached ‘peak consumerism’ something could be done to encourage people to consume less and consume more mindfully, you’d be battling against centuries of consumeristic brainwashing but it might be doable.
But how about in developing countries? Over half the world lives on less than $7 a day (and that’s accounting for the difference in purchasing power in different countries) are we really in any position to tell these people, as they are lifted out of poverty that they can’t have access to the life improvements that the developed world has been enjoying for centuries. It’s nonsense.
What about government intervention? Isn’t there something our elected leaders can do to prevent climate change? Again, it’s easy to see why with this view we’d be pessimistic. In the last decades, government has been grossly ineffective at thinking about any problems with any sense of longtermism. From international energy policy to the COVID response, to providing a fair education system, the government has failed on nearly all fronts. You just need to talk to any 20 or 30-something to realise that faith that government will have any meaningful positive impact on significant issues is at an all-time low.