Climate change: It’s getting personal

Out of the six billion-or-so people on the planet, two out of three probably aren’t in much of a position to do anything about it right now. They’re either too busy trying to get their next meal together, or scratching a living off a few dollars or less a day. We’re talking climate change, and as citizens of the developed world we’re being told more and more that we should take our share of responsibility and act. After all, we’re the lucky ones who can.

In the UK, climate change is top of the agenda. I’ve been back only a week and the newspapers are full of adverts and government advice on how we, as consumers, should be doing our bit. We have an incredibly important role to play, yet many of us still don’t yet seem to realise it. Why aren’t we getting the message? Is asking people to walk the short distance to a local shop really such a problem? Or to not leave things on standby? Or to turn the heating down a notch or two and put a jumper on? On the plus side people at least seem more aware of climate change. But getting them to take that next step and change their habits seems, for many, to be an “ask too far”.

In an attempt to speed them along, Christian Aid have recently been running some hard hitting newspaper campaigns in the UK (I’m not sure if they’re doing the same in the US). At the same time, interest continues to grow in devices such as “standby savers”, which will do what most consumers appear resistant to do and kill the power to their beloved consumer devices when they’re not being used. As a recent Economist article explains:

“Strange though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle – in standby mode – more than 99% of the time. And they are not alone. Many other devices, such as televisions, DVD players, stereos and computers also spend much of their lives in standby mode, collectively consuming a huge amount of energy”

If doing something as simple as unplugging things at the wall at night reduces energy consumption in the home by as much as 20%, why are so few people doing it? Maybe breaking the global population down into segments may help us understand behaviourally why some people may or may not be interested – or care – about the climate change issue.

Here’s a very rough attempt for starters:

We start with a world population of: 6 billion
We deduct those unable to engage for economic reasons, leaving us with: 2 billion
We deduct those who don’t believe climate change is happening, leaving: 1 billion
We deduct those who believe in it but don’t think it’s ‘our’ doing, leaving: 600 million
We deduct those who believe it’s ‘our’ doing but not causing problems: 450 million
Deduct those who think it’s ‘our’ doing and a problem, but don’t care: 375 million
Deduct those who think it’s ‘our’ doing and a problem, but feel helpless: 300 million

On the basis of these very, very rough figures, it looks as though only 300 million people, or approximately 5% of the total world population, would actually be willing or able to change their behavioural habits based on the climate change issue. For the environmentalists, this segment would be classed as “in the bag”, so-to-speak. We have a number of segments above this hardcore group, and these are the ones needing to be targeted by advertising and educational campaigns. Clearly each segment would require a different ‘marketing’ approach based on a range of unique drivers for their non-engagement, and maybe this is what’s been missing.

I wonder if anyone is working on this?

What next for the Inconvenient Truth?

Al Gore has done an amazing job of publicising the global warming phenomenon. Road shows, documentary films and books have all at one time or another been conduits for his environmental message. And powerful it is. But the problem remains little understood, it seems, in the American press. Many of those that bother to take any interest still maintain that global warming is a myth, or some kind of conspiracy by the Greens, or just plain wrong. The truth, inconvenient as it may be, is that there is absolutely no dispute among scientists that the planet is warming. Whatever chart or computer model you look at quite clearly shows that the environment is warming, that it started to increase at an unprecedented rate following the industrial revolution, and that last year was the warmest on record (even beating 2005 which, ironically, was previously the warmest).

The dispute is whether or not human activity is the cause of this unprecedented warming, or whether what we’re seeing – or should that be feeling? – is just part of a natural cycle. But it makes a complex subject even more difficult for everyday folk to grasp when even the press don’t seem to be able to explain the basis of the argument properly. Maybe it’s another ploy by lobbyists, that strange ‘phenomenon’ that seems to dominate so much of American politics.

Today the west coast of the United States, around California, was several degrees warmer than it should have been. I had a great time chilling out in my VW camper van. Bees were busy pollinating newly bloomed flowers (not a good sign) and people were busy walking around in t-shirts, eating ice cream, enjoying the sunshine. Ski resorts further inland were shut just like many in Europe, with absolutely zero snow to speak of. And experts interviewed for one of the national TV stations didn’t seem to think it had anything to do with global warming. No wonder people on the street are confused. In a nation which more than any needs to take serious action, they aren’t even at the point of acceptance, let alone action. By all means dispute the causes of global warming, because democratic processes allow that, but don’t deny that it’s happening, please! That doesn’t help anyone.

If Al Gore was to write a sequel to his ‘Inconvenient Truth’ it should probably be called ‘Cruel Irony’. Because the cruel irony of the whole global warming saga is that it’s going to be those people, and most likely those countries, which have done least to contribute to the problem that will suffer the most. Once again, Africa looks like being particularly hard hit. But in one further twist, Australia – one of the few industrialised countries which sides with the United States and disputes global warming, and refuses to even discuss curbing greenhouse emissions – is right now suffering what many believe to be its most severe drought in a thousand years. Politicians, fueled by public opinion, increasing concern and a steep rise in farmer suicides, have finally begun facing up to the possibility that something really is happening. For many, if this is the future for Australia then something needs to be done, and fast. Better late than never.

The United States has suffered its fair share of adverse weather over the past year or so, with the destruction in New Orleans dominant in most people’s minds, and a record hurricane season to boot. But many Americans haven’t yet had their ‘Australia moment’, nothing major enough to cause a big enough shift of opinion. But how major does it have to be – bigger than Hurricane Katrina?

That change will come. Americans won’t be immune forever. But for all of our sake, please make it sooner rather than later. The clock is ticking for all of us.

Throwing ‘precaution’ to the wind

Over 150 years in the making, global warming – a theory first aired by a Swedish scientist back in the 1890’s – is well underway. In the midst of all the argument and bickering, one thing is clear. The planet is getting warmer, and getting warmer rather quickly. Two degrees is apparently the ‘critical point’ where irreversible damage will take place. The problem is that predicted rises fluctuate wildly between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade. We could be in a spot of bother.

While scientists do agree that the earth is warming up, they disagree on why. Some say it’s down to human activity, others that it’s a natural planetary cycle. Funny, because the facts do seem to speak for themselves. Since the industrial revolution, and the start of our addiction to burning fossil fuels, temperatures have soared in relative terms. And these are actual temperatures – real measurements – undisputed.

Is now really the best time to dilly-dally around? If human activity is potentially the cause then why wait for conclusive proof, which will probably never come? Or, if it does, too late? True, we won’t end our reliance on fossil fuels overnight, but it’s clearly unhealthy economically – if not environmentally – so where’s the logic in simply continuing the debate at the expense of taking action? What happened to ‘erring on the side of caution’? Fine, let’s make a real effort to reduce greenhouse emissions, and if it turns out not to be the cause of global warming, then we can just start burning again. Nothing lost, surely? But certainly all to gain.

A couple of years ago some colleagues of mine at Fauna & Flora International were working on the interestingly titled ‘Precautionary Principle‘. It really makes quite a lot of sense.

Precaution – the “precautionary principle” or “precautionary approach” – is a response to uncertainty, in the face of risks to health or the environment. In general, it involves acting to avoid serious or irreversible potential harm, despite lack of scientific certainty as to the likelihood, magnitude, or causation of that harm

It makes so much sense, why can’t we apply it to climate change? Perhaps it’s a little too obvious. Perhaps another 20 years of research is in order…