Why we are constantly asked to fight climate change as individuals - and why it doesn’t work
Stop flying, stop eating meat, ditch your fossil fuel car. And please don’t have any kids. Every day citizens around the world are given plentiful advice by politicians, journalists, corporations, influencers and environmentalists about how to “solve the climate crisis”.
The problem is that they can’t.
One hundred companies are responsible for a staggering 71 per cent of all carbon emissions in the world. And while these companies continue to heat up our planet — in many cases cheered on by tax cuts or other subsidies handed to them by our governments — individuals are encouraged to fix the problem by buying eco-labelled groceries and riding their bicycle to work.
This makes the climate issue somewhat unique. Just think about it. When was the last time you were asked to personally solve your country’s health care crisis, or declining exam results among students?
And yet climate change — the greatest challenge of our time, a problem that demands structural change on an unprecedented scale — has somehow become the responsibility of you and me.
Why is that?
“The solutions that are proven to be effective are difficult for politicians to touch”, says Sverker Sörlin, Professor in Environmental History at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. “There are too many conflicts of interests involved.”
Professor Sörlin has acted as an advisor to several Swedish governments and is a member of the newly installed Swedish Climate Policy Council, an independent scientific council with the task of assessing whether the government’s overall policy is compatible with its climate goals.
Professor Sörlin says that political initiatives to tackle the climate crisis are seldom well received by voters. If new regulations or taxes are imposed, local industry might suffer. Jobs might be threatened and prices could go up.
In addition, climate issues are often seen as something that can be dealt with later.
”If citizens are not given proper hospital care it’s a problem here and now. The climate is typically perceived as an issue with a totally different time scale.”— Sverker Sörlin
Psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes, Associate Professor at the Center of Green Growth at BI Norwegian Business School, agrees with Professor Sörlin about the political difficulties in dealing with climate change.
“In principle, this is an easy problem to solve. Just put a high price on carbon; let’s say a thousand kroner (about 118 US dollars) per tonne of carbon dioxide, and then make sure the price increases steadily. But that would make petrol a bit more expensive, and if that happens the politicians responsible for increasing the carbon tax aren’t going to be re-elected. This leads to ‘the governance trap’. The politicians are waiting for support from the people, while the people are waiting for initiatives from the politicians.” — Per Espen Stoknes
In his book What we think about when we try not to think about global warming (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), he argues that the most effective way to change how people think about climate change is to change our narratives. People have to want to live in a climate-friendly world because they see it as better, not because they are scared or instructed to do so.
Ecologist Pella Thiel, co-founder and chair of the Swedish Transition Network, sees the complexity of the issue as one explanation for the lack of governmental responsibility.
“The climate issue collides in a fundamental way with how we have constructed society. We are embedded in a global economy that is heavily reliant on fossil energy. The politicians can’t solve this problem within the framework of the current structure. That’s why they dump the problem in the lap of individuals.” — Pella Thiel
According to Pella Thiel, we need to start looking at this not at a technical level but at an existential level. Instead of focusing on emissions, we need to rethink the way the world works, and our place in it.
“I am hopeful. But we don’t have time to wait for politicians to fix this, because that’s going to take too long. And we can’t deal with it as a question of individual choices, because that won’t be enough. We need to work together, in bigger and smaller groups, and start telling a different story.” se says.
A different kind of solution, on a decision-making level, is offered by Per Espen Stoknes. He suggests lifting the annual climate budget out of the parliamentary system, to be handled by an independent expert committee working according to climate law, and with no need to worry about opinion polls or the next general election. Similar to the way the central banking system works in many countries.
“In the meantime, we need to do what We Don’t Have Time and many other organisations and associations are doing, and build as much support as possible for the climate issue.” he says.
This might be the best option. Because, as Professor Sverker Sörlin puts it:
“Politicians are extreme opportunists. If opinion turns, politicians will turn too.” — Sverker Sörlin
Written by: Markus Lutteman
Proof reading by: Jane Davis
About the people interview in this article
Pella Thiel: http://pellathiel.se/about-me/
Per Espen Stoknes: http://stoknes.no/
Sverker Sörlin: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sverker_Sörlin
About We Don’t Have Time
We Don’t Have Time are currently building the world’s largest social network for climate action. Together we can solve the climate crisis.
But we are running out of time.