Individual action won’t prevent climate to change. To achieve 1.5℃ warming, we need social action

Awwwww. Image: Getty.

Following the 2015 Paris Agreement to hold the global increase in climate to below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was asked to produce a report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5℃. The report focuses on what must be done if we want to avoid warming above 1.5℃, and the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃ warming. The general message is that the ecological and social impacts of 1.5℃ are significantly more manageable than 2℃ – half a degree of warming is a big deal.

The IPCC thinks we still have a chance of keeping warming to 1.5℃. But current nationally determined pledges to take action to reduce warming, when combined, are emphatically “not on track to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. The window of opportunity is small and shrinking – perhaps 12 years before a 1.5℃ target is unattainable, assuming in the meantime there is concerted global action to rapidly scale back carbon emissions. Without that action “researchers find very few (if any) ways to reduce emissions after 2030 sufficiently quickly to limit warming to 1.5°C”.

The report is also pretty explicit in claiming that “unprecedented changes” are required to limit warming to 1.5℃. The language is dry and technical, so it’s easy to be lulled into a techno-fix mindset. For example, the required “system transitions” can be “enabled” by “an increase of adaptation and mitigation investments, policy instruments, the acceleration of technological innovation and behaviour changes”.

But look closer, and in an important sense, the IPCC report is all about change and upheaval, especially for the well-off citizens of the developed nations. But it is change on a scale we have never experienced before: “There is no historical precedent for the scale of the necessary transitions, in particular in a socially and economically sustainable way.”

Decision time

We appear to stand at a crossroads. And according to Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group that produced the report, the stakes could not be higher:

The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future... The next few years are probably the most important in our history.

So can the report and its coverage actually contribute towards making the changes it implicitly demands of us urgent and extensive? Perhaps, but first we need to think a little more about the kind of change that is required. What tends to happen with this kind of information is that it gets translated into a checklist of things we can do to make a difference – as individuals.

Those of us in affluent, “developed” societies – because those are the people to whom such lists are exclusively directed – can read the lists, think about what we can or already do individually, commit ourselves mentally to others, then park it and get on with our individual lives, busy, distracted, but doing our bit, and striving or hoping to do more.

Clearly, this is not enough. The need for this latest IPCC report is evidence of that. For some time now, many environmental activists and commentators have pointed out the limitations of individual behaviour and lifestyle change as the primary means of “making a difference”, and instead direct us towards “collective action”. As climate scientist Michael E. Mann pronounces, the “single biggest way to have impact on climate change and other environmental crises is through collective pressure on policymakers to act in our interest rather than special interests”.

There’s no doubt this is a key point. Change, of the speed and scope required, cannot rely on easily packaged discrete, simple, individual change checklists. We need to shift the story away from the individual towards what we can achieve together.

Bridging the gap

But where does that leave us – me and you – in terms of what to do? “Collective action” can feel alien, remote, even scary when it’s not already woven into our everyday lives. There’s a danger that we end up caught between the call to “act collectively” (which is difficult, uncertain) and individually (low-impact, compromised). To bridge this gap, we need to start by addressing the issue at the in-between level - with our family, friends, and the spaces and places of civil society. These, after all, are the spaces where climate change has a tendency to disappear once the headlines move on again.

We settle back into “socially generated silence” or “socially organised denial” around the issue. “What can we do about climate change” is a tangible taboo we politely talk around; not despite, but precisely because, of the reminders of scale of the problem we are exposed to.

But this is also the space where we can make the first mundane and tentative steps towards something as grand as “collective action”. And there are some historical precedents here, even if they don’t match the scale of the global warming challenge.


The women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, for example, were built on countless individual “choices” but not “behaviour and lifestyles changes” of the kind we associate with checklists. These movements depended on people starting (awkward) conversations in everyday settings. Collective action is here interlinked with individual choice – choosing to talk, perhaps through awkwardness and embarrassment at first, learning, voting, writing, protesting, divesting and investing, taking a stand and seeking out others to do it with; coming together, to demand societal and cultural change. This isn’t romantic – as the long grind that marked these movements attests, often in the face of virulent opposition.

Collective action in response to climate change does depend on changes in individual choices and actions, then, but not those we tend to find on “how to make a difference” checklists. Let’s live without them, and start talking.

The Conversation

Matthew Adams, Principal Lecturer in Psychology, University of Brighton.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.