Can We, The Little People, Actually Do Anything About Climate Change?

Climate change has rocketed up the public agenda. Many citizens around the world now believe climate change to be the greatest threat to their country. People are worried not just about their children’s futures, but also their own, as the effects start to show themselves: heatwaves, hurricanes and floods are becoming ever more common, and can no longer be dismissed as natural trends. The age of denial is over; now the struggle between apathy and action is in full swing.

All of which raises the question of what we, the little people, can do about it. Most of us are not privy to government boardrooms, G7 summits or multinational executive boards. It’s easy to feel powerless, or to have some vague idea that we would have power if only we knew how to find it. It’s overwhelming. There is no panacea, no universal answer, no straightforward solutions. It’s all too easy to shrug our shoulders, tell ourselves that it’s human nature, that it’s inevitable, and try to get on with our lives without thinking about it too much. If anyone’s going to sort it out, it’s not going to be us.

And yet, we are constantly assured we can help make a difference: chirpy brochures vaunt the merits of recycling, of using public transport, of taking shorter showers. This ‘every little helps’ narrative has been merrily recited to us for decades, and yet things have only gotten worse. The root of the climate change problem remains intact and unthreatened by these efforts. We all recognise this to some degree, and a lot of people have grown very suspicious that there’s any merit behind this approach at all. Even if everybody in the entire world agreed to compartmentalise their rubbish, to purchase their very own bus pass and to shower at the speed of sound, we would still be in a fix. Fossil fuels would continue to burn. These little lifestyle changes only lessen our impact. That’s not enough.

So, if these ‘traditional’ measures are largely ineffective, do we hold power anywhere? In the Western world, our votes count towards electing some of the most powerful people on the planet; our consumption patterns govern the activities of the world’s most impactful companies, very much including the notorious top 100. In theory, our votes and our wallets can change the world.

Yet, when it comes down to it, we don’t feel that our vote counts for much, or that what we buy has much influence. And in many ways they don’t, not really. For starters, trends in supply and demand are often convoluted and easily distorted. This applies to politics just as much as economics and means that our hand is often forced. In elections, if we can only choose between a politician with a terrible climate policy or one with a simply bad climate policy, we will pick the latter, but that doesn’t mean we support bad climate policy. If we want to visit family overseas, we might like to take a plane running on renewable energy — if it existed. But it doesn’t, so we have to take the fossil fuel-burning airplane, but that doesn’t mean we support fossil fuels over renewables.

This is not always the case, and collective effort can influence things to some degree: just look at the rise in vegan products in supermarkets, or the growing call for a ‘Green New Deal’. Votes count, obviously, and we should do all we can to elect effective and responsible leaders, but they cannot be relied upon. We know consumption patterns influence mega-corporations, but it involves a lot of effort just to push a percentage point one way or another. The power of the free market is all well and good but relies on intrinsic assumptions — in particular that there are interchangeable potential choices, that everybody is well-informed, and that everyone acts in their own long-term self-interest — that are simply not true. We can’t depend on our consumption habits, or our votes for that matter, to change the world. Sweeping solutions are unattainable. We need to start looking at what’s directly in front of us.

Extinction Rebellion gathers outside Westminster, London: the potential for actual change.

That means we need to start working more tactically. We know we need rapid and dramatic systemic change. Looking at when this happened in the past is always instructive: invariably, revolutionary moments involved civilian uprisings and mass protests. The suffragette and civil right movements are the most obvious examples. This is happening again: people are now taking to the streets, in the form of Extinction Rebellion and related movements. The sheer magnitude of so many people in unison demanding political action will generally lead to exactly that: political action. If a democratic government wants to appear to be on the side of the people, it has to at least give the impression that it’s listening to them. If this doesn’t come up to scratch, by the time the next elections roll around the incentive for the opposition to have a decent climate policy has increased dramatically.

Despite these promising trends, as individuals we can still feel a little lost. We know we need a new system, but very few of us have a clear idea of what shape it might take. But that’s alright — we know some key aspects that will be intrinsic parts of it, and that’s enough for most of us. The system will need to be regenerative, supportive and community-focused. If we pay attention to these aspects, we can tell when we’re heading in the right direction.

There are many ways we can progress towards this. Calling for changes to your local travel infrastructure, such as by advocating more cycle lanes or better public transport networks, is a key one — and has the added benefit of making your community a more pleasant and inclusive place to live. Encouraging local councils, educational institutions and other large bodies to divest from fossil fuels also helps usher in a different system approach. Simply raising the issue of climate change in your community, and most importantly promoting the ways in which people and local organisations can get involved, is another.

This is a completely different message to the ‘every little helps’ story that has been chugging away for so long. You might remain a small cog in a large machine, but small cogs are crucial. You’re not just mitigating impacts, not just making things a little less bad: you’re changing the structure on which society is built, even if it’s just your local corner of society. Every community holds individuals passionate about making the world — globally and locally — a better place. If these people all work on replacing the old, dangerous system with something new, something regenerative and inclusive, then we stand a chance.

So no one of us is going to ‘save the world’. There is no easy fix. But, on a world of over 7 billion people, there doesn’t have to be. It’s not ‘every little helps’ — that’s a perilous gateway to complacency — but as individuals we don’t have to bear the whole burden. This is why interlinked communities are important: we all can, and should, make a difference as part of a larger network, if we individually strategically focus on what is close and dear to us. These efforts add up, fast, and suddenly the whole of society looks different. That’s what counts.

Having studied zoology at university, I have now turned to scientific communication. I write a bit of everything, but climate change features most strongly.

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