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.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.