We were very lucky to have as our guest speaker this month Jen Gale, author and podcaster. We have recommended both her books and podcast on CA-WN Exchange in the past. Jen’s podcast and website go under the name Sustainable-ish1 and the title of her talk was “How individuals can make a difference in the climate crisis”.
This meeting was recorded and can be watched on the CA-WN YouTube channel2.
Present: Alexina Cassidy, Briony Askew, Clare Robertson-Marriott, Clare Slater, Ella Sage, Emmie Williamson, Jane Wood, Harry Mellor, Leigh Mitchell, Leonie Beale, Mick Lorkins, Rupert Frost, Rupert Knowles.
Apologies: Eugenia Wilson, Jonathan Harris
How individuals can make a difference in the climate crisis
Jen started by explaining how she got into sustainability. By profession she was a vet, but randomly decided in September 2012 to spend a year buying nothing new. This led to what she calls her ‘eco-piphany’, which she summed up as: there is a tendency to say ‘somebody ought to do something’ about the climate crisis. We need to do more to help people, i.e. us, understand we are somebody and can do something.
During the year of buying nothing new Jen set herself the additional challenge of blog posting every single day. She came out of the year not only having changed her shopping habits but also with recognition that her actions do make a difference. What we all do as just one person, or just one family, makes a difference because people see us and we have conversations about what we are doing. We have all become familiar with climate tipping points but there can also be positive social tipping points; we need about 25% of a population doing something differently for that to become the new social norm.
We need to make more of the co-benefits of being more sustainable, including saving money and being more healthy.
More than 10 years after that first decision Jen has published two books, issued over 170 episodes of a podcast, is a qualified carbon literacy trainer and speaks at events such as corporate ‘lunch and learn’ sessions.
It’s about imperfect action. People want to be more ‘green’ but then think that because personal circumstances make it hard for them to give up their car, stop flying or go completely vegan, that they might as well give up. But we can all do something - the first step is very important and can be the hardest step to take, regardless of how small.
Especially online there’s a tendency to criticise people for not doing something exactly right – we need to be more kind and encouraging. To quote Jen directly: “Leave the big green bashy sticks at the door!”
What’s the problem?
Jen shared the climate stripes – or warming stripes – created by Ed Hawkins, Professor of Climate Science at the University of Reading3. These show the variation from average temperature for each year since 1850, the start of the industrial revolution. With temperatures above average being shown in red, it is very clear that the world is heating up. One of the things we can do as individuals is talk to people and this graphic is a great communication tool. Ways of using it include as a Zoom or Teams background, Reading football club have it on their strip (which prompted a conversation about climate on live primetime TV!), and it’s been put on the wall at primary schools.
In a similar vein there are also biodiversity stripes created by Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby4. Climate gets 8 times more media coverage than biodiversity loss, but we are absolutely reliant on nature despite the fact that as a human race we have become quite detached from it. In the UK there has been a 69% decline in biodiversity since 1970. Typically we can remember seeing more bugsplats on the windscreen when we were young, simply because there were far more flying insects then.
There are lots of separate but overlapping issues having an effect on the planet, which can be quite overwhelming to think about.
So what do we need to do?
We are aiming for no more than 1.5 degrees of warming but what does that mean? To help put it into context Jen shared an analogy by Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climate scientist5 – what if our body temperature was 1.5 degrees higher than it should be? We would feel pretty unwell. 1.5 degrees doesn’t sound like lots but in reality it has a big impact.
To achieve that 1.5 degree goal, we need emissions to peak by 2025, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about half (43%) by 2030.
We have all the technology we need to make this happen. We don’t yet have all the technology to get all the way to net zero but we do have the capability to deliver a 50% reduction. What is lacking is political will and international co-operation! However there are lots of actions we can take as individuals, communities and organisations without waiting for politicians and governments to catch up with us.
The Biodiversity COP last year produced a framework setting out a number of targets including that we need to preserve 30% of land and sea for nature by 20306. So to bring the focus back to us, we can think about what we can do to preserve 30% of our gardens, and of the green spaces in our villages or towns, for biodiversity.
What we need to do requires massive action by all of us - businesses, government and individuals. We need both individual change and systems change, but individuals drive systems change because businesses and governments are all made up of individuals. If we can reach the 25% tipping point to change the social norm in businesses, local councils and so on, that will help to drive systems change.
Jen then tested us all using a poll on menti.com to see what we thought is the most effective action individuals can take to tackle climate change. This was based on research done by IPSOS in 20217. At that time 59% of the general public believed the most impactful thing they could do was recycling, whereas in fact the top 3 actions in terms of impact are living car-free, cutting out one long-haul flight, and using energy from renewable sources. People have been given really strong messages about recycling for 20 years, so it is understandable that they think it is important.
We now need to help put that misunderstanding right and get across what the big impact actions really are. Remember - sustainable-ish - we can do our best and not go the whole way e.g. meat-free Mondays vs being completely vegan.
Jen shared a social media post from Katharine Hayhoe8 highlighting other things we can do alongside reducing our own carbon footprint:
· Start a conversation. Jen showed a short video ‘Talking about Climate Change’9 and then encouraged the group to go away and have a conversation with someone about climate change, starting by asking them ‘how do you feel about Climate change?’
· Join a climate action group. Many things can be defined as a climate action group (as well as CA-WN, of course!) – a sustainability group at work, eco-council at your child’s school, a neighbourhood litterpicking group
· Finances. Check how green your bank is; switch your bank account and your pension. Encourage someone else to switch too! Pension funds invest a lot of money in fossil fuels so this is a very impactful change10
· Spark ideas at work and school. For example, see if your child’s class at school can each do one card to the class instead of one for every child in the class; second-hand Santa at work instead of secret Santa…. Or perhaps your employer could run carbon literacy training for your workplace11
· Hold politicians accountable. A 2017 study found that MPs weren’t hearing from constituents that climate was a problem for them. Climate is slipping down the list of concerns so we need to push it back up. Organisations working on this include Greenpeace, Hope for the Future and ClientEarth12
When thinking about what we are going to do, try to apply a climate version of the Japanese concept of ikigai (feeling of fulfilment from pursuing your passion). What brings you joy, what are you good at and how can you apply that in the context of the climate and work that needs doing to create the world we want?
The biggest impact we can have is to influence those around us to step up and take action, and to do that we need to throw a better party, rather than making people feel it is going to be bleak and all about giving things up.
Can you talk a bit about ‘Climate shadow’?
This idea originated in an article by journalist Emma Pattee13. It’s about how our influence can be much more important than the direct impact of actions to reduce our own carbon footprint. It encompasses all the actions we do that don’t tick a box on a climate footprint calculator, as well as so-called ‘contagious behaviours’. For example, the biggest predictor for someone having solar panels is that their neighbours have them. If people who give up flying talk about what they're doing, 50% of people in their immediate circle also cut down on flying.
Growing your climate shadow can be something to think about if you have been working on your footprint for a while and want to know what to do next.
Where did the quiz come from?
The Perils of Perception study by IPSOS7. Where do the wrong perceptions come from? Some information may be suppressed by the media and perhaps also there is an unconscious bias towards things that people prefer to do and are easier. Recycling waste and plastic are an understandable way in – recycling has become a social norm. We need to get better at selling co-benefits and do less finger-wagging.
What about things that are going to cost a lot of money? How can we persuade people to do those things?
There is a frustrating perception that living more sustainably will cost more money, whereas the point is to use less so should result in spending less money. Some changes such as travelling by train and home improvements do cost more money so they need government action. This has been done very well in some countries in Europe eg cheap train tickets. If we are in a position to afford to make changes we should go ahead as this may help bring down the price for others in the future. As individuals we need to come together to lobby politicians for the actions that we need. Bear in mind that the costs of action in the short to medium term are vastly outweighed by the costs of inaction in the longer term.
One of the most difficult conversations is about use of cars and the individual freedom they are associated with. There are lots of angles to take on this – 20mph zones and air quality for example. This really does need pressure on the government. Electric vehicles are not going to solve the problem because of the cost issue. Look elsewhere for examples to follow, e.g. to Paris which is progressing towards being a car free city. There was a shift away from cars in Amsterdam in the 1970s and 80s as a result of a campaign by mothers concerned about road safety. In the UK there is the Shorelands Bike Bus in Glasgow14.
Do you have a view on home heating?
Overall we need to be transitioning towards air source heat pumps; this has been done well in Scandinavia. Hydrogen for home heating is a bit of a red herring, more likely this will be used for aviation and construction. Wood burning is another difficult topic – Jen loves her log burner but cannot continue to use it in the face of research into indoor and outdoor air pollution. Reliance on wood burning as a main source of heating is a different matter to lighting a fire in her centrally heated house.
1 Sustainable-ish https://www.asustainablelife.co.uk/
2 CA-WN YouTube https://youtu.be/8mB-09bRFw4
3 Climate Stripes https://www.reading.ac.uk/planet/climate-resources/climate-stripes
4 Biodiversity Stripes https://biodiversitystripes.info/global
5 Katharine Hayhoe https://www.katharinehayhoe.com/
6 Biodiversity COP framework https://www.cbd.int/article/cop15-final-text-kunming-montreal-gbf-221222
7 IPSOS survey https://www.ipsos.com/en/ipsos-perils-perception-climate-change
8 Katharine Hayhoe social media post https://twitter.com/KHayhoe/status/1678118380786659329
9 The Secret to Talking About Climate Change https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHPZw0zbHNE
10 Green your money www.bank.green https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk/
11 Carbon Literacy Training https://carbonliteracy.com/
12 Hold politicians accountable:
13 Climate Shadow https://www.mic.com/impact/forget-your-carbon-footprint-lets-talk-about-your-climate-shadow
14 Bike Bus https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=29605