What You’ll Learn In This Module
- Why hasn’t there been more individual action on climate change?
- The reasons for inaction on climate change
- We couldn’t ‘see’ climate change.
- No one and everyone is responsible.
- The science is complicated + some groups have sought to confuse or discredit it.
- There were fears that bold action would harm the economy.
- Politicians and governments find it difficult to act on global issues beyond their time in office.
- Companies have protected their profits.
- We fear or refuse change, or we are too scared to face climate change.
- Why is the issue of climate change difficult to address?
- How can you make a difference?
Why hasn’t there been more individual action on climate change?
There’ve been many stumbling blocks along the path to tackling climate change.
The most important are:
- Until now, we couldn’t clearly see the effects of climate change. Many people didn’t believe it was happening.
- Everyone and no one is responsible. Even now, the prices we pay for goods and services don’t account for the greenhouse gas emissions our purchases are causing. These emissions come from the production, the distribution and the disposal of the things we buy.
- Climate change science is complicated, and power groups have tried to discredit it.
- People worried about the effects of measures to mitigate climate change on the economy (lost economic growth and lost jobs).
- Politicians have been slow or reluctant to act. Electorates have not complained enough.
- Companies have refused or delayed changes in their production and distribution processes in order to protect profits. Consumers have not complained loudly enough.
- Everyday people (like you and I) may have failed to take personal actions to change our everyday lives and help address the climate crisis.
While scientists have been warning us about climate change for around 40 years, we haven’t yet acted with enough concerted action to cut global greenhouse gas emissions.
On the contrary, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise.
The longer we ignore the problem, the more difficult stopping and reversing climate change will be and we will have less time to do it.
And we shouldn’t leave it until it’s too late…
The reasons for inaction on climate change
Let’s look at some reasons for why we haven’t yet acted sufficiently to address the climate crisis.
(1) We couldn’t ‘see’ climate change.
Until now, the link between greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere and changes to the environment wasn’t clearly visable. Many people didn’t believe it was happening.
Now, with frequent record temperatures, forest fires, floods and other severe storm events being recorded and reported around the world, we are becoming more aware of the effects of global warming.
(2) No one and everyone is responsible.
Every time we buy a bag of compost which includes peat, or take a cheap flight for work or leisure, or burn some coal, oil or natural gas to heat our homes, we are responsible for releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
This is called our carbon footprint.
We are mining and burning carbon which had previously been stored in the earth for hundreds of thousands of years.
This is having a negative environmental impact and contributing to climate change.
But at the moment, we are not paying with the cash in our pockets for the pollution created by our actions.
Neither are many companies, nor governments.
They are often not being charged, or held to account by their electorates.
Why is this?
Because no one owns the Earth’s atmosphere and there is no global government to make the rules or impose the global carbon tax.
And nature on the planet, such as the enjoyment of fresh air and water and our beautiful forests has been free.
Yet it’s the global carbon footprint is causing the climate crisis.
Economists talk about ‘externalities’.
An externality is a byproduct of a personal, industrial or commercial activity which can affect other people, but which is not reflected in market prices.
Since we have not had to pay the true cost of our actions, we have continued to purchase e.g cheap flights without considering or caring about the huge pollution that we are creating.
Especially if that flight was long haul, so the pollution was being spread far, far away from home.
If, for example, flight prices had been much higher, to reflect the pollution each flight creates, we might have changed our behaviour and the picture might have been different.
Or to take another example, forests.
Forests have been priced only based on the land that they stand on, and perhaps for their wood, but not for their intrinsic beauty, nor for the carbon that they draw down from the atmosphere, nor for the haven of biodiversity that they support.
If the price of clearing a forest to make way for e.g. pasture land had been higher, to reflect each of these values of a mature forest, our experiences with the preservation of forests may have been different.
For those destroying nature, mother earth hasn’t charged them to date…
….but we may all soon be paying the price.
(3) The science is complicated + some groups have sought to confuse or discredit it.
The science behind climate change is complicated.
It took over a century for scientists to fully understand it.
And it takes more than a few headlines to understand and take on board what is happening.
When the first scientists started to raise awareness, they were dismissed as doomsday predictors.
Certain vested interest groups and some prominent politicians questioned the science and even organized campaigns to confuse its message.
Particularly fossil fuel companies have opposed climate action for fear it would affect their business. Many banks still use a large part of their capital to invest in fossil fuel companies.
The most profitable industries in the history of humankind didn’t want to see systematic change.
And many transport manufacturers and operators have delayed changes that could have made our modern-day transport more energy efficient and less polluting.
(4) There were fears that bold action would harm the economy.
Before acting to reduce carbon emissions, many countries debated, for years, the potential effects of such actions on their economy.
Concerns focused on how much is it going to cost? In terms of new technologies, new equipment and the creation of new jobs.
There is now a growing global consensus on the economic impact of action – to reduce emissions, increase energy efficiency and help stop global warming.
Some technologies will cost more, some less, and money will be saved on others.
Over time, the costs will decrease. For example, between 2008 and 2019, the cost of solar panels decreased by 90%.
Economic experts tell us four things:
- We will not stop the economy growing.
- Any negative effects on growth will be small, compared to the alternatives.
- The sooner we start, the cheaper the costs will be.
- Policies that encourage innovation, deployed at scale and that encourage sensible behavior changes will ensure that we get to net zero cheaper than otherwise.
The low-risk action is to act now.
Scientists also estimate significant health benefits of reducing carbon emissions.
For example, breathing petrol and diesel fumes is linked to a wide variety of health conditions. These include low birth weight, stunted brain development and lung development in children. And diseases like heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and diabetes and obesity in adults.
Action to tackle climate change could also have a positive significant impact on our health.
(5) Politicians and governments found it difficult to act on global issues beyond their time in office.
While climate change is a global problem, governments are national, being in charge of only one country.
In addition, for some countries, the effects of historically high greenhouse gas emissions were less visible.
These factors meant that governments have been slow to take political action, and have not held sufficiently to account by their electorates.
The timeframe of global warming has also affected the speed of government response.
It’s a long-term issue, and the effects have not been seen within the timeframe of one government’s office, until now…
A common question is “why should we cut our emissions while other countries do not?.. They will just undo any difference that we can make”.
The truth is that every country must play their part. The climate-related problems faced, and the mitigating measures necessary, vary significantly by country.
(6) Companies have protected their profits.
Companies have been slow to make the necessary changes to their production and distribution processes.
A lack of certainty on the existence and the timeframe of climate change has made them slow to invest in new technologies.
Fears over increasing their costs relative to their competitors have prevailed.
They have protected their profits and also questioned the science.
Now they see that society is becoming more concerned about climate change.
For their customers, any non-green production processes may be less acceptable and they may risk losing customer base.
They also see that some governments are starting to regulate and legislate.
Some companies are starting to make real changes.
While for others, their latest tactic is to pretend.
To pretend that they care about the environment, using their large advertising budgets to green-wash their production and distribution processes and make them sound climate friendly.
There is an important role for us as consumers to question the claims that companies are making about their goods and services.
(7) We fear or refuse change, or we are too scared to face climate change.
Climate change can be a frightening topic to think about, especially when we see its effects unfolding in front of our eyes.
We are experiencing strange weather that we have never seen before.
This may worry you.
Particularly if you look ahead and start considering what could happen if climate chaos starts affecting your food or water supplies.
A common reaction is to think “this can’t be true”.
This has allowed entire populations to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the evidence.
It’s understandable, and it might help you feel better in the short run.
But it won’t find the solution to the problem, that will only get bigger and more urgent.
Or you might think “it can’t be as bad as all that”.
While this is also a useful way of coping with particularly frightening or difficult things, it can prevent us from acting in a determined way to real threats.
And it also won’t help us to step up climate action.
Another common reaction is to take a look around you at how other people are reacting.
You might look to family and friends, the media, role models, and other influencers in your life to see how they are reacting.
If they are not doing anything, you might conclude that you don’t need to either.
This can help keep you in step with social norms of behavior, or keep you following the party line.
But it won’t help stop climate change.
It’s a bit like a fire alarm going off. You might think “no one else is walking out of the building, so it must be a practice, and so nor do I”.
For climate change, all of these reactions lead to a delay in action, making the situation worse.
Climate action has also not been talked about very much within families, at work, across generations.
The less people talk about an issue, the less likely they are to act.
Finally, you may also be thinking that science or technology will offer a solution to fix it.
“If this was so serious, we would invent something new to tackle it.”
And its true that we have been inventing lots of new technology to help tackle the problems presented by climate change, such as solar and wind power technology.
But currently there is no silver bullet that will solve the problem fast and easy.
And there is not enough time to sit around waiting for it.
We will have to address the problem with a combination of lots of actions, by many people.
Ensuring the whole time that we become more closely in tune with nature.
Using ancient practices such as tree planting, along with new technologies and changes to our lifestyle.
And herein lies the next problem.
Our modern lives have been strongly dependent on fossil fuels to produce things in factories, to heat our homes, to fuel our cars, to fly to holiday destinations.
Fossil fuels have enabled us to reach what we have seen as a higher standard of living.
To do things and to achieve things that were perhaps not available to our parents.
It’s now much faster to travel a distance, thanks to airplanes and cars.
Cities have become designed for car use.
The societies we have now have grown up depending on large amounts of energy, mostly fossil fuels.
We can move away from fossil fuels, and reduce our carbon footprint, but this will mean systemic change for all of us.
For some, this change will offer enormous opportunity, and for others it can seem unsetting and difficult.
And there will be some who actively oppose that change.
Why is the issue of climate change difficult to address?
We have depended on fossil rules for such a long time and they have brought us prosperity and convenience.
But they have also polluted our planet, our cities and threatened our health and even our very survival.
Now is the time for systemic change.
We have the Paris agreement on Climate Change, where all the countries on the earth have agreed to act.
Each country will respond differently to the different emissions they produce in their economies and in the problems of climate change that they face.
Some will reinforce their actions with legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
We haven’t wasted the last 30 years, but it would have been so much easier to do something earlier.
Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and the problem is getting more difficult to solve.
How can you make a difference?
You might ask yourself “Why haven’t I acted sooner to help address the climate crisis?”.
- What’s been stopping you?
- Are you worried?
- Do you need to discuss your concerns with others?
- Have you been ignoring the evidence?
And then you might ask, “how am I going to react? What individual action on climate change can I take, today?“.
- What concrete personal actions can I take?
- What habits can I change to reduce my carbon footprint?
- What collective action is necessary to reduce carbon emissions?
This site is here to help you take personal action.
Read the Green Blueprints for more about carbon footprints and inspiration on climate change action and caring for the planet.
Consult the Greenliving Handbook for ideas on individual actions you can take to reduce carbon emissions. Over time, the posts will help you build up new habits, skills and thinking for a sustainable world.