But sometimes we need to change, and the current decade is one such time. Our climate is in a state of flux, ecosystems are struggling and people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to these pressures.
The scientific consensus on climate change is settled and this is not the time for ‘out of sight and out of mind’.
However, I believe that we can accept the need to change, and that we can collectively make such changes. History shows that with a mixture of individual and organisational action, technological innovation and political leadership and regulation, humanity can combat environmental threats.
Acid rain? Lead in petrol? CFCs and their damage to the ozone layer? Smog in our biggest cities? Threats to the Antarctic? We accepted the evidence, we raised awareness, we campaigned, we acted, we collaborated, we innovated, and we legislated. We can do it again in the case of the climate emergency.
But this time the challenge is global, and it is much more deeply ingrained into our way of life. It is potentially so overwhelming that it has led to denial by some, to helplessness and eco-anxiety in others, and to many of us, it has led to procrastination.
We should not despair. As geographer Danny Dorling has written, the world is already entering a period of slowdown in many respects. We are coming to the end of the period of most rapid globalisation, the end of a period of pursuing economic growth at all costs, and, thanks to an all-time low global average fertility rate of 2.4 children per woman (and falling), we are on trend to reach a peak population of less than 11 billion by 2100. But to reach the most important slowdown of all – that of greenhouse gas emissions – we all need to play our part.
We have changed our way of life before. Consider the ban on smoking inside pubs, which was accepted as a way of life until just 15 years ago, and laws about seatbelts, incandescent lightbulbs, and the adoption of facemasks in indoor and close-contact settings. At the time, these felt threatening or disruptive to many people, but in retrospect we came to accept these changes, and indeed we scratch our heads and ask ourselves why we didn’t change our ways earlier.
However, rapid change can be discombobulating, and it can turn us off the need to make any adjustments at all. So, it is time to embrace the word ‘transition’, to allow us to adjust our lives in an orderly and unthreatening way.
But we need to start the transition now. As the UK gears up to host the COP26 climate change conference in November, individuals, organisations, and governments need to make significant changes in the way we live in the next decade, as the first part of a process that will take the world to ‘net zero’ by 2050.
What might this mean for individuals? One of the key drivers of climate change is a meat-and dairy-rich diet. Of course, we could go ‘cold turkey’ (excuse the pun) by going vegan, but a gradual reduction in consumption of animal-based products would be more acceptable to more of us. Having meat-free Mondays in school canteens may be one way of achieving this in an organisational setting.
Stopping driving cars with combustion engines is another way to move to net zero, but it can be an overwhelming change in our habits. Cycling or taking public transport once a week can be a great way to start. Governments and organisations can also do more, by introducing more subsidies for electric bikes and cars, and public transport. I could go on and consider the necessary transitions in terms of housing, industry, energy and so on.
Mike Berners-Lee, author of There is No Planet B, places great store in the need to “spend more time working up visions of futures that we’d want and which are realistic enough to be exciting”. So, thinking about what really makes us happy – status-led consumption or spending time with friends and family – will also make us shift towards a more sustainable world.
Recognising psychological barriers to change, and promoting the idea of transition, will give us a reasonable chance of meeting the goal of a sustainable future for our planet. Looking back from 2030, we will wonder why we didn’t start the transition earlier.
David Alcock is a geography teacher at Bradford Grammar School. He lives in Guiseley.
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