Climate Sock

Climate apathy could mean disaster – but it isn’t inevitable

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on May 12th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by The Ecologist.

11 years ago the EU introduced wide-ranging rules regulating the manufacture and supply of chemicals. The rules imposed significant costs on businesses and, it’s hoped, will save many lives. But they were passed with little media coverage and have become a fact of life with few people being aware of their existence.

Given it’s been possible to restrict businesses and address a threat to public health without public debate when it comes to chemicals, could the world do the same with climate change? If that threat can also be tackled with rules that few people hear about, perhaps public opinion doesn’t matter.

Day-to-day life

Sadly for technocrats, this is unlikely. The challenge ahead, to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement and stop warming crossing dangerous thresholds, is enormous. Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising steadily since the Industrial Revolution; the world will need to reverse that rise, cutting emissions at an unprecedented rate until humans stop adding warming gases to the atmosphere within the next few decades.

That means not only cleaning up industrial sectors that are distant from most people’s lives, like electricity, chemicals and shipping (whose obscurity is reflected in the fact its crucial climate conference, happening this week, is getting almost no mainstream media coverage), it also means cutting emissions from most people’s day-to-day lives, like the ways we travel and the food we eat. Without cutting emissions from sectors like agriculture and aviation, the world won’t stop dangerous warming. It’s unlikely to be possible to clean up these sectors without most people noticing and agreeing to the changes.

So public support for tackling climate change will be essential, yet it’s far from assured. The problem isn’t climate denial: few people think the whole thing is a hoax, even in the countries where denial is loudest. A majority of the public accept climate science and believe it’s a threat that needs to be tackled. The problem comes when they’re asked to make sacrifices to deal with it – most are unwilling to do so and are suspicious when they hear about changes that would impose costs on them in the name of cutting emissions. Preventing dangerous warming may depend on public enthusiasm, but at the moment apathy is far more widespread.

This isn’t just a problem for the future – it matters right now. Take the UK: its emissions are falling fast but this progress has come without confronting the emission sources that would be less popular to cut. Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow would make the UK’s climate targets much harder to achieve, yet few politicians are prepared to acknowledge that cutting emissions probably means restricting flying. Similarly, the EU’s backing for TAP, a new pipeline that would bring huge volumes of Caspian Sea natural gas into Europe, suggests the bloc is also taking decisions now that will make it much more difficult to cut emissions in the next few decades.

Distant threat

If most people are worried about climate change, why does this kind of polluting infrastructure keep getting built, and why is there so little pressure for the measures that will be needed to prevent dangerous warming?

Psychologists have identified a host of reasons most people avoid thinking about climate change. Among these are the way the problem seems distant – its impacts are mostly in other places, it will mostly happen in the future – and progresses slowly, and the fact it requires sacrifices now to avert problems later. The barriers the mind puts up to avoid worrying about climate change might make the problem seem hopeless: Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes himself as “deeply pessimistic” about it.

But we must avoid confusing the inherent nature of climate change with the way it’s widely described and understood. For example, the fact the threat seems distant has more to do with the way its effects are described, notably the emphasis on ecosystems like the Arctic. The consequences for polar bears aren’t enough to motivate most people, and now climate change is hitting the people whose emissions need to fall – with storms like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York in 2012 made more likely by climate change – it’s no longer necessary to talk about it as a distant threat.

The same applies to the idea that climate change requires sacrifices for future benefits. It may well do, and, if that’s all that most people hear about it, there’s unlikely to be widespread enthusiasm. But there are plenty of ways in which tackling climate change can bring benefits beyond averting future problems, from cleaner air and new jobs, to better insulated homes and, perhaps, communities that jointly own wind farms and solar panels.

This is a matter of choice. Climate apathy could spell disaster for efforts to prevent dangerous warming but it isn’t inevitable. The fact it is so widespread is a result of various ways climate change has been, and continues to be, described. That can change. It will take a widespread shift in how the issue is talked about, but it’s still possible to turn apathy into action.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

UK worries about climate change are at their highest level since 2010

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 26th, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Worries about climate change have been slowly increasing in the UK for the last few years. This has continued in 2018, with the latest wave of the BEIS (previously DECC) climate and energy poll, out today, showing concern is at its highest level since the series began with 2012.

I’ve combined this with earlier polls that have asked the same question, going back to 2005, making the longest-running comparable series of data that I’m aware of on UK concern about climate change. (See here for links to the earlier polls.)

27% are now very concerned about climate change and 47% somewhat concerned, making a total of 74%. That’s the highest since 2010, if we look at the proportion who are very concerned, or equals the 2012 level if we look at total concern. On either measure it’s still behind the levels in 2005 and 2008.

 

This mirrors the trend of rising concern about climate change that we’ve generally seen in the US and Australia.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Can we be cheerful about climate change? Ed Miliband & Geoff Lloyd podcast

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on April 23rd, 2018 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I’m on this week’s Reasons to be Cheerful podcast, hosted by Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd, talking about what people think about climate change and what could influence public opinion.

The other guests were stellar: Christiana Figueres (architect of the Paris Agreement), Kim Holmen (head of the Norwegian Polar Institute) and Joss Garman (climate activist and policy thinker).

You can listen here.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on January 31st, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on I went vegan for January. Was I wasting my time?

It was the coconut cheese that did it. For most of January I’d believed that being vegan was no sacrifice – if anything it meant I was trying foods I wouldn’t normally think to eat. Some of them were very good. Jackfruit can be cooked into something like a sticky pulled pork that makes a superb burrito. But as I slathered pickle to mask the taste of the coconut-based fake wensleydale, it was inescapable that I would prefer to be eating the real thing.

Why had I bothered with Veganuary? It’s true I don’t want animals to suffer, want to prevent the toxic waste that comes from some farms, and hate the way so much land is used for raising animals, rather than for homes or wildlife. But none of that was enough for me to make the change. I did Veganuary for just one reason, and that was the climate change effect of meat and dairy production.

The world’s promise to avoid dangerous climate change is soon going to crash into its taste for meat and milk. By the time my seven-month-old is 40, the world should have become carbon neutral. Some parts of that switch seem hard but possible. The radical growth of solar and wind power and the arrival of electric cars that are better than petrol ones at least show how those sectors could eliminate emissions.

Food is different. Livestock farming is responsible for 14.5% of global emissions and it’s hard to see how those emissions go away unless a lot of people consume a lot less meat and milk. As more people move out of poverty, the world’s demand for animal products looks set to increase, when emissions should be going in the other direction.

That seemed a good reason for me to try being vegan for a month. It seemed obvious that, if I believe the world should cut emissions fast, I should deal with my own emissions. Climate change is an ethical problem, so it would be unethical for me to worsen it if I can reasonably avoid doing so, however small my individual contribution. I wouldn’t throw a plastic bottle into the vast ocean, so why should I be relaxed about releasing planet-warming gases?

But, midway through Veganuary, an evangelical free-marketeer – who is as worried about climate change as I am – told me I was completely wrong. He argued that my voluntary restraint would have no effect. Not even a tiny, insignificant effect. None at all.

His argument was that my voluntary restraint would reduce the price of the dairy I was avoiding, so others would consume it instead. If you bought a pint of milk last month because it was on special offer, perhaps you’ve got me to thank for it. Even if hundreds of millions become vegan, there are many more around the world who want to eat more dairy and would welcome to chance to buy it. Voluntary restraint is pointless (if the market’s working properly).

To quote Tim Minchin, “Hmm, that’s a good point, let me think for a bit. Oh wait, my mistake, that’s absolute bullshit”.

Ok, that’s a bit harsh, but here’s why the free-marketeer is wrong, and voluntary restraint is essential for the world to avoid dangerous climate change

There are two ways food emissions might fall:

  1. Billions of people decide to stop eating high-emitting foods.
  2. Governments apply taxes or laws or incentives that force farmers to come up with cleaner ways of producing the same foods or cleaner alternative foods.

Our free-marketeer believes only the second option can work, and I happen to agree with him. But he’s wrong to think this doesn’t involve voluntary restraint. (The only way I can see 1 succeeding is if breakthroughs in low-carbon foods are so astonishing that consumers prefer them to food from animals; given the ridiculous low cost of meat it’s hard to see artificial foods being able to win on price).

Imagine Michael Gove announced next week that he’s introducing a carbon tax and it’ll eventually be high enough that meat and dairy consumption will fall 90% unless the industry effectively eliminates its emissions. There would be outrage. There’s no way it would pass. (and now, for a laugh, imagine a left-wing party that didn’t have the support of most of the media doing the same)

The only way food emissions will fall is if there’s public support for the switch. That’s only going to happen if the problem and the solution are first normalised. Emissions from agriculture are far too high and have to fall, which means far more people will have to eat a low-carbon diet – and that low-carbon diet has to be much more appealing than it is now.

This is why it’s right – maybe essential – for people like me to eat less meat and dairy. We’re showing that cutting emissions is something that people do, which starts conversations about what dealing with climate change will actually look like, which will make it seem less bizarre when the time comes for a government to try to reduce emissions from food.

We’re also creating incentives for the food industry to come up with better alternatives to meat, which eases the way for others to follow. In short, someone has to try the coconut wensleydale, so that no-one else has to.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

The return of vote blue, go green? Polling Matters

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics, Polling Matters on January 20th, 2018 by Leo – Comments Off on The return of vote blue, go green? Polling Matters

On this week’s podcast, I talked with Keiran about the Tories’ push on environmental policies, how it’s backed up by polling and what it might mean for the electoral landscape.

We also talked about why Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are indicating support for another referendum on Brexit and what recent polling tells us about public opinion on the issue.

And what’s going on with Labour following the NEC elections, is a Corbynite succession now inevitable and will Corbyn’s age be an issue at the next election?

You can listen here:

How 2017 killed climate denial

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 29th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on How 2017 killed climate denial

Business Green have published my article about why 2017 was the death of climate denial and why we should worry instead about climate apathy. You can read it here.

 

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

 

Climate change, tropical fish and anxiety

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 21st, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Climate change, tropical fish and anxiety

I’ve got an article about how climate change affects me emotionally, in this month’s Resurgence magazine.

You can read it for free here.

 

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.

Four (other) climate change books to read

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on December 2nd, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Four (other) climate change books to read

I was asked to write a short piece on the climate change books on my shelf, for Big Issue North. It’s not online, but here it is, reproduced with permission:

 

Why public opinion about climate change is important

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on September 20th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Why public opinion about climate change is important

The Climate Majority is published tomorrow. You can buy it from the publisher, New Internationalist, or from Amazon etc.

This was originally published by Birkbeck.

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

 

No-one wants to talk about it but stopping extreme climate change will mean eating less meat

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Meat on September 17th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on No-one wants to talk about it but stopping extreme climate change will mean eating less meat

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn made headlines in a new way – expressing interest in becoming vegan, after being a vegetarian for decades. Although he later denied he was considering the switch, the episode provided a glimpse of a conversation that few people want to have – but which we can’t keep putting off if we are to avoid extreme climate change.

Campaigners have been trying to persuade the public to eat less meat for years. It’s more than four decades since Peter Singer’s consciousness-awakening book Animal Liberation was published. The Vegetarian Society has been going four times as long. Over those years, there have been countless exposés of cruelties in factory farms and of the damage that farming can do to the local environment, and doctors increasingly warn of the risks of eating too much meat.

But if the aim of all this was to reduce meat consumption, those efforts have failed. Vegetarianism might now seem part of mainstream culture rather than an eccentricity, but there’s little sign that more people are quitting meat. Nor is there evidence that many people are reducing the amount they eat – data suggests individuals around the world are eating steadily more of it. Even in the US, where meat consumption per person fell during the Great Recession, consumption is now rising again. It looks like economics was the driving force, not ethics.

The world won’t prevent extreme climate change if it doesn’t deal with this. Meat and dairy production is responsible for around a seventh of all of human greenhouse gas emissions. If this continues, livestock emissions alone will exhaust the world’s ‘carbon budget’, the amount the world can release before committing to the dangerous warming threshold of two degrees celsius, within around 100 years – even if every other source of emissions is cleaned up. And, with farming emissions set to grow 30% by 2050, meat and dairy may burn through the budget even faster.

There are solutions to this. There’s been a shift in tastes, with chicken becoming more popular and beef becoming less so. This has cut emissions – beef warms the planet about four times as much as chicken. But the switch has been so slow that population growth means the total amount of beef eaten is still rising. And, though cleaner than beef, chicken is still several times more polluting than vegetarian alternatives.

Technology might help. Meat substitutes like the vegan Impossible Burger, which release a fraction of the emissions of beef, could make a switch more palatable. As a recent convert to being mostly vegetarian I’ve found that even the limited range of meat substitutes now available help me cut down on meat, as vaping does for smokers (though I’m still far from convinced by cheese substitutes: they’re fine in cooking but on a cracker are about as appealing as their plastic packaging).

But technology won’t fix the problem on its own. Even if vegan alternatives keep getting better, most people will need more motivation to switch. As long as the substitutes are neither tastier nor cheaper, many people will wonder why they should stop eating cheeseburgers.

This could be one of the hardest problems the world will have to face as it tries to avert extreme climate change. Other possible ways of cutting emissions – like switching from coal to clean power, or ditching inefficient fridges – bring obvious benefits and are supported by most people. But it will be much harder to persuade nearly everyone to cut down on something they enjoy for the sake of the climate, when arguments about health, animal welfare and the local environment have failed.

My bookThe Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, sets out some of the ways that more people could be persuaded to do so.

The surprised response to Corbyn’s comment demonstrates how far public debate still has to come. If this is one of the world’s hardest problems, it’s also one of the most ignored – few people outside the green movement are prepared to admit that consuming less meat and dairy is necessary. All Corbyn did was saying he’s considering changing his own diet. Imagine the outrage if he’d suggested that others should do the same or mooted taxes on high-carbon foods.

But we can’t put off confronting the consequence of our diets for much longer. Cutting emissions is only getting harder, as targets get tighter and easier measures are ticked off. Soon we will have to look at our plates and admit it won’t be possible to prevent extreme climate change as long as we keep filling them with cheese and meat.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.