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.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.