Responding to potentially catastrophic climate change is a challenge unlike any other in our history. We have the technology to meet this challenge – the barriers are social, political and cultural. So how can we make it happen?
Evidence from behaviour change research suggests that inaction and apathy do not stem from ignorance or even indifference. Rather it is a result of the lack of leadership (both cultural and political), the lack of a framework that supports change (carbon lock-in), and inadequacies in the way we are encouraged to see the challenge in relation to our own lives (framing).
Perception management is a term originally coined by the US military. It broadly means framing key information given to any selected audience to influence their emotions, motives and objective reasoning so that it results in conclusions, behaviours and actions favourable to the originator’s objectives.
How we perceive the climate challenge is being skilfully managed. Despite extreme weather events increasing globally, the underlying climate science is generally kept distant from weather-related headlines, so we don’t make the connections. The prevailing climate silence across the mainstream media, including a lack of visibility in popular culture, can make us think that we are alone in worrying about climate change. And climate silence breeds climate silence: the perception that other people don’t care makes us less likely to talk about the issues, or to take action ourselves.
When the issue is addressed in the media, the choice offered is too often framed as between ‘things as usual’ or ‘sweeping changes’. These changes can be almost impossible for people to imagine. Given this framing, many will plump for things as usual – even though the reality is that there can be no business as usual if global warming is not addressed, so that action now is actually our best option for keeping things as we recognise them.
So how can we re-frame the issue and break the climate silence?
Providing clear evidence that workable solutions already exist is vital – it empowers citizens and gives hesitant policymakers no excuse for inaction.
Positive stories of collective action can counter feelings of helplessness, scepticism or detachment, and show that others care. From the Yorkshire ‘Nanas’ (see RP Aug/Sep 2016) to the Standing Rock protests in the US, more and more people from all sectors are coming together to say ‘No’ to what they feel is wrong. But there is also a growing passion for the essential ‘Yes!’ People are no longer content to campaign for a better world; they want a turn at building it for themselves.
Positive action unites us, and encourages those who don’t yet see the need to act. Individuals, families, communities and regional authorities have amassed a gold mine of experience of the complex interaction between land use, planning, renewables, food production, buildings, transport and waste. By bringing to life the sense of common purpose and the positive co-benefits offered by the zero carbon transition, we can re-frame how such solutions could relate to our lives.
For example, refurbishing homes to increase energy efficiency can have many additional benefits, including tackling fuel poverty, reducing damp and condensation, and improving the occupants’ wellbeing. Originating in the Netherlands, Energiesprong is an organisation that refurbishes houses to net zero energy, meaning that over the course of a year a house does not consume more energy for heating, hot water, lights and appliances than it produces. The upfront cost of the refurbishment is repaid over time by the difference in cost between the energy contract and the actual energy use. The work is completed within ten days so residents don’t have to move out.
Arno Schmickler, programme director at Energiesprong UK, says: ‘I’m an architect by background. Coming to Britain, it’s almost impossible what people put up with in terms of the quality of the building stock. It’s appalling to see what’s still being delivered today in terms of energy efficiency in the UK.’
Examples like this can help us to re-frame climate change in terms of the positive actions we can take to address the challenge and start to re-shape our collective future.
While individual behaviour change is clearly important, it must be connected to the broader changes that are required to support it at social, industrial, political and international levels. To achieve this, we need to recognise how we have become locked in to fossil fuels. The historical, technical, cultural and institutional co-evolution of high-carbon energy, housing, transport and agriculture systems creates forces that are hugely resistant to change. This is despite their impacts being known and despite the existence of cost-effective alternatives.
For instance, the current highly centralised method of providing electricity is not the only or even the best way of doing it, particularly when all the impacts are considered. Yet it has become very difficult to change because of the legal frameworks, institutions, financial support, investment models, consumer preferences and practices that have grown up around it.
We can challenge this by creating practical projects at a local scale, where there is flexibility to experiment and innovate and so help normalise new relationships with energy, transport or food. However, once proven, such initiatives must have access to the support strategies and resources needed to rapidly replicate or scale up.
Community energy projects are a clear example of how people can come together to challenge carbon lock-in. The Green Valleys (TGV) Community Interest Company is one such example. Set up by community members in and around the Brecon Beacons National Park in 2009, it inspires and supports communities to work together to reduce carbon emissions, generate income and deliver social and environmental benefits.
TGV Hydro offers a full design, permissions and construction service for small-scale hydroelectric systems. It has designed and built about 40 micro-hydro schemes across Wales, about a third of which are community owned. The projects raise awareness about renewable energy, together with energy-saving attitudes and initiatives.
TGV business development director Chris Blake says: ‘You can argue that perhaps energy is the defining commodity of the last 200 years. Where we get it from, who owns it, how it’s distributed and how it’s used is crucial to our social structure and civilisation. Having it local, municipal, socially owned, as it has been in the past, could be very liberating… [Community energy schemes] can build community cohesion – they don’t always, but they can.’
The co-benefits of action to overcome carbon lock-in is also a theme for Sheridan Piggott. She is the founder of York Bike Belles, which addresses the barriers to increasing cycling among women through activities such as bike maintenance workshops, group bike rides and bike loan schemes.
‘When they overcome those barriers, it leads to all sorts of other benefits,’ she says. ‘We’ve seen massive increases in confidence, independence, improvements in physical and mental health. We engaged about 7,500 women in the York area and at least 20,000 people have engaged with the project online… It’s grown from being just for women to being an everyday, friendly cycling community for everyone – one of the things that’s lacking in our cycling communities across the country.’
The zero carbon transition opens up a range of exciting opportunities. It can deliver significant additional benefits, including better housing, affordable transport, reduced obesity, improved health, better air quality and more jobs. Isolated, stressful, consumer-focused lifestyles can be replaced by a sense of connection with community and nature, delivering enormous benefits in physical and psychological wellbeing.
Although shifting cultural values isn’t easy, there are powerful examples from history that show that evolution in our collective thinking can happen over just a few years. If we are to meet the urgency of the climate challenge, we must unleash our collective intent, and in doing so reveal a sense of common purpose that many have been craving for a very long time.
The full report, Zero Carbon Britain: Making it Happen, can be downloaded at www.zerocarbonbritain.org