The Climate Challenge: Five Ways Forward

With the first installment of the fifth assessment report (AR5) from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) now published, it must be hoped that the job of exiting the carbon age can finally get serious.

If this is to happen, however, the prominent and erroneous doubts as to the reality of climate change that have been propagated by various sceptics and sections of the media and have proved so damaging to action since 2009 must be properly dealt with.

One important question to bear in mind in designing a plan to do this is why during recent years too many people have been prepared to believe the largely groundless claims coming from climate change deniers. I think I am correct in concluding that the reasons for this have had less to do with atmospheric chemistry than they do psychology.

The psychological rejection of what is implied by the idea of climate change in large part relates to how it appears to conflict with so many of the assumptions that people use to explain their world, culture and future.

We have, for example, become accustomed to believing that economic growth can continue without ecological constraint, how having more consumer goods is desirable, that individuals can pursue satisfaction without worrying about the wider impacts and that because of the march of progress that things can only get better.

On top of this it looks too big and complicated to deal with and this is not helped by the relentless attacks that have come at many of the solutions. From more ecological farming to the construction of wind turbines, a lot of people have been told that the solutions we have to hand can’t actually deliver.

Climate change and the apparent absence of solutions thus presents a very challenging narrative for many people. No wonder some are willing to believe that the whole thing is not proven, or even some kind of elaborate hoax (though not nearly as many as the media would have us believe, something which in itself discourages action - a sense of isolation and futility).

In dealing with this and other unhelpful perceptions that have recently blocked action on climate change, I believe we need a clear idea of where to go in following IPCC’s recent work. To commemorate AR5, I offer five headings that seem to me to be sensible things to think about.

1. Just do it 
Promote and do things that prove how cutting climate changing emissions is actually possible to do. This is about providing practical demonstration that it is not an insurmountable challenge. From cleaner cars to wind power, we have most of what is needed to make a good start. So let’s get on with it at all levels, local, regionally and nationally. In doing it, it will become clear that the economy is not collapsing. 10:10’s #itshappening project does just this. You can play a part on 10 October (or 10:10:13) by sharing the best examples of climate action with your friends, colleagues. Just visit the online gallery and find your favourites.

2. Keep it positive
In the process of doing it, let’s talk about the upsides more than the threat. Cutting carbon can go hand-in-hand with new jobs, reduced costs and healthier lifestyles. From cycling to growing food and from new renewable energy businesses to warmer homes, there is much to be gained that would be worth doing anyway. If more people look like they are enjoying cutting carbon, there will be cultural impacts that will help shift some of the unhelpful elements of climate change psychology.

3. Spread awareness
Maintaining a high level of awareness about the ins and outs of climate change and what to do about it is a job that will never be finished. Positive and engaging communications, rather than negative doom-mongering, is likely to encourage more people to listen and work needs to be done on how best to do this. Perhaps some of the top advertising executives, who’d otherwise spend their time promoting pointless consumer goods, could pitch in. We need them.

4. Make it economic
One reason for inaction on climate change is the perception that it is all about unaffordable costs. Its not, its about a low carbon industrial revolution that could lead to the biggest business opportunity in history. Do we want to be left behind in the race toward that new clean world, to the secure economy that will come with low carbon and resource efficient design and technology? Or do we wish to be at the front, leading the world in ways that will secure our economic success for decades to come?

5. Melt the polarized politics
One reason we are stuck in a rut in the UK and US right now on climate change is because of polarization in politics. Broadly speaking the left ‘believe’ it and the right is more skeptical. This is not helpful when it comes to the party political wrangling that accompanies nearly all policy choices. To do this a new narrative is needed, and especially one that can appeal to the political right that in some cases believes it must be against low carbon policies, just because these appear to some to have generally been demanded most loudly by the left. Perhaps this can best be done by right of centre environmentalists who know what motivates action on that side of the spectrum. Carbon cutting must be supported by all sides and we need to do work to make sure we get the broad-based backing to do it.

My five ideas won’t do it all, but I do think we need to take stock of where we are in the context of the stronger than ever science and build carefully on it with a good review of where we have reached in this long debate. That in part requires us to recognize that much of the recent rejection of the science was not really about science, but more to do with not liking what it said.

Further reading

First published by 10:10.