It’s way past time to stop asking people if they are willing to change, and time to focus instead on how those with the power can return to us what we have lost, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw
“What would future me feel, mum?” It’s something my eight-year-old asks. It’s actually useful to get me (and her) thinking long-term (usually about whether the dishwasher would be best emptied now or later, but sometimes on bigger stuff too). It’s something we desperately need more of our people in policy making to ask themselves as well:
“What would future ‘us’ feel, looking back at this point in time?”
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Most of us want future “us” to look back and feel we did it all, we tried everything we could, we came together across our communities, across political parties, across income groups, across cultures and ethnicities and prioritised the wellbeing of the ecosystems that sustain us. Future us would like to know we made the changes that made the biggest difference to the planet and, therefore, to ourselves and our children.
Are we on track to be able to do that? For future us to feel that? The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calls it – no. That comes as no surprise. Many of us know that people with the power to do so, in government, in business, in policy-making are not doing enough, not acting at the scale and urgency required to put in place the changes to our economics, to our industries, to our cities, to our work that will help us all respond. The changes that would make the biggest difference are there, they are known. We are just not making them.
One of the things getting in the way of action at the right level and scale is the framing of who needs to do what and how to make the biggest difference to our climate and biodiversity.
We keep framing individual level change, and it’s causing people to opt out
Ask any pollster these days about whether they think we will do anything about climate change, and most have a depressingly grim response “Oh people want change, but they are not willing to change themselves”. Ask the public if they want change and they say yes, but many don’t believe we will do what is needed. Fatalism about action is a massive barrier to actually acting.
Meanwhile, scroll through your social media feed, and organisations funded by government or even within government are telling us about the “better consumer choices” we need to make to save the planet. The words “behaviour or lifestyle change” are everywhere. As I have argued in this column before, when you engage frames of behaviour change, all we can see are some pretty limited solutions – certainly not ones that will make the biggest difference.
People need to see local impacts of climate change, understand the urgency and feel agency at the right level to respond.
Yet, most people know the massive problem of multiple tipping points due to ecosystem collapse won’t be fixed by individual consumer preference. The scale and size and urgency of the problem is way beyond the scope of choosing to use a different type of lightbulb (maybe it would have worked 40 years ago?). So the “be a better consumer” mantra is just killing people’s ability to act. Now, after decades of inaction, what people respond to are solutions at the right level to meet the huge size and urgency of climate change. To feel like something can and will be done and they can have a role in it. Not that they and their light bulb choices are all there is. Framing research shows that people need to see local impacts of climate change, understand the urgency and feel agency at the right level to respond. That right level is at the collective one: action from local and central government, community-wide, city-wide, country-wide changes. It’s especially important that people in those agencies stop talking about the changes individuals should be making and start talking about the changes they are making to make the biggest difference. That means less “choose to ride a bike” and more “we are rebuilding our cities to give you more active transport options, support us”. It’s about backing the policy changes that work and helping the public understand and support them. That is what future “us” would want.
Future us would also tell us that life is actually a lot better for most of us after responding to climate change.
We constantly frame what individuals must give up, not what most of us have had taken
“Feel the pain!” and make the change. Calls to act on climate change often sound like a Jane Fonda exercise video from the 1980s. We are asked what we (as individuals) are prepared to give up, to lose, to experience inconvenience for.
But why talk so much about what individuals must give up, instead of what we have already had taken from us (and need to be given back) through a series of policies and practices that support the wealth and wellbeing of a smaller and smaller group of people who are grossly wealthy?
Our public street space, where we could connect with each other, overcome loneliness, kids could play and be safe, has been taken and claimed by people in the car and trucking industries.
Effective climate action is about what needs to be done by people in policy, in politics and in business to give us back the things that have been taken from most of the rest of us, and the generations to come.
Our health and wellbeing has been eroded by people in the fossil fuel industry. Walking and cycling to get around is becoming harder and harder to do in cities built for cars and trucks, while the air we breathe is filled with the toxic particles of their products, causing many preventable deaths each year.
Our biodiversity, the ecosystems that support us, have been exploited and taken by people across multiple industries, to build their own and shareholders’ wealth. It started with us, in countries with wealth, and is now being continued as countries without wealth continue the practice. The Amazon rainforest, one of our most important global carbon sinks, now emits more CO2 than it captures due to large-scale deforestation. Currently it is at 15 percent deforestation. At 20 percent the entire ecosystem will collapse.
We know these impacts are not equally distributed. The extractive economy which was fuelled by the expansion of colonial projects across the world from Europe, has hurt Indigenous, black, brown and low-income communities the most, and now it is a fire that has inevitably burned through most of the rest of us too.
So it is ridiculous to constantly frame what we must now give up as individuals. We are looking at this through the wrong end of the binoculars: effective climate action is about what needs to be done by people in policy, in politics and in business to give us back the things that have been taken from most of the rest of us, and the generations to come.
The changes we need now, that the IPCC reminds us we need, are those that will make the biggest difference, and they are not individuals choosing to feel the most pain by making different consumer choices. They are making the changes that will give us back the things that ensure we all thrive: from our city spaces, to our streams, rivers, oceans, forests, and the very air we breathe. And the gain to the collective now and down the line is immense.
It is way past time to stop asking people if they are willing to change. It’s time to focus instead on how those with the power to do so, and especially those responsible for our “public good” people in government, will help us get back the things that have been taken from many of us. That is how future “us” will feel proud.