The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change deliberately left making decisions about what to do to achieve change up to governments and relies on citizens to press their governments to do more.
This was a deliberate decision so that diverse governments could at least agree climate change was a problem (a first vital step in international change), but that decision not to impose expectations on governments places a huge burden on citizens who now have the responsibility to press their respective governments for more change. This burden can leave people feeling overwhelmed.
In reality, to tackle climate change effectively we need collective, organised responses – and this can leave individuals feeling hopeless; what can I can do as just one person in the face of such a big issue? Climate change can be particularly overwhelming for children, teens and the elderly. In the case of children and teens, they will experience severe weather disruption in their lifetimes, many already have and it can be daunting to think about. Many elderly people understand the impact of major disruption but also feel powerless or depressed at the thought of leaving this burden behind for grandchildren or future generations when they won’t be there to protect them.
For other people, climate change used to be easy to discount as a real problem until now, it was something we used to think about as happening in the future, and that it would cost a lot to fix so it was easy to not think about it. But there is early research showing that the IPCC report disrupted this logic, it clearly shows climate change is happening now, and that not doing anything about it will create serious damage, for example, we will lose the world’s coral reefs, and 10 million people living in coastal areas will be badly affected by sea rise of an extra 10 cm in a 2 degrees warmer world.
A lot of social scientists and humanities researchers from psychologists and philosophers to political scientists have been thinking about this problem of how people can be encouraged to take charge when individually taking change is not enough and when many people are locked into high carbon lifestyles (they lack convenient public transport, for example). To achieve far-reaching change we need individual citizens to act as moral agents, that is to take responsibility to do the right thing. I talk about this as our “social handprint”- if my carbon footprint is my impact on the environment, what am I doing about it, what’s my social handprint? What actions am I taking to tackle the problems? And how do I know if the changes I am making will be effective?
We can think about our actions in a SEEDS model: doing five kinds of things each week – irrespective of your political beliefs – can help make change: take social action, become environmentally aware (and act on that awareness), face up to everyday justice, discuss and listen to others, and practice self-transcendence – stop thinking it’s all about me, it’s our issue.
Social action: (in the technical literature we call it social agency, it means to take action with others). The current school strikes for climate, for example, are successful at the moment because by taking part many young people are learning how to take action with others about a moral issue and they are also learning how to dissent with others, that is how to say no to prevailing norms that perpetuate high carbon, unjust lifestyles. But if a school strike is a bit too far outside your comfort zone, just take a small action with a few friends. It can be as simple as deciding to always carpool to local choir or sport club, or writing a letter to invite your MP to meet a few of your neighbours in your street to talk about why you are worried about climate change. Encourage children to notice “other helpers”, seeing people volunteering to make a difference, even in a small way is a powerful antidote to feeling overwhelmed or scared.
Environmental Awareness: Educate yourself, first off, find and celebrate green places you love – if you don’t have a garden, or a marae, or a special camping spot, then adopt a local park, visit it often, (being outdoors in green space is good for our mental health) and maybe even consider joining a local group to care for it (helping social action too). And learn about what you are doing that makes the biggest climate impact and reduce it – if you are a New Zealander, research suggests it is likely to be your household transport and the food you eat. Try and replace two of your regular weekly car trips with a car share or a bus or train, and if you are making small local trips, walk, bike or car-share. And try to reduce your meat and dairy intake, replace two meals a week with more vegetables, if that is too expensive, try one. And if you have to fly, try to replace one of those trips with a local holiday or have your next business meeting on Skype. Overall, as Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for climate change estimates, if the top 10 per cent of emitters (and that includes many New Zealanders) could just bring our lifestyles in line with the average European, we’d reduce our global carbon emissions by 30 per cent!
Everyday Justice: It’s not always immediately obvious, but much new research shows inequality based on economic growth that simply uses more resources to create more wealth for fewer people, is also an important driver of growing greenhouse gas emissions. It is not sustainable or fair, so think about how we can change this. Using fewer resources, living well by consuming less, isn’t just some feel-good fantasy, it’s a powerful way of rethinking, and celebrating our future as a fairer nation.
Discussion & Listening: In research we call this centred-deliberation, connecting local conversations with other change. This means actually listening to people who aren’t like us, not just signing an online petition, or liking a Facebook page, but actually listening to people who see the world differently. If this is hard to do, break out of your social media bubble and go along to a local meeting or event and listen to people who don’t see the world like you do. Don’t preach, just ask questions to understand how other people see the world. One of the most alarming political trends in the USA is a deepening polarisation about climate change along party lines. Luckily this polarisation is less obvious in New Zealand where we have high rates of marriage and friendship across political, ethnic and religious lines, so take everyday opportunities to meet and listen to others with different views and don’t try to change their mind, just listen for common ground.
Self-transcendence: One of the key reasons why many people find climate change so overwhelming as a problem is that it is so big, and we live in a world in which there is significant emphasis placed on individualism. Everywhere individuals are exhorted to “be the change”, “become social entrepreneurs”, “make a difference”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s vital we act as moral agents and take responsibility for our actions, but the scale of the climate problem is bigger than any generation, let alone an individual. So, find sources of support beyond yourself. Some people find this in spiritual or religious thinking, others prefer visiting inspiring green places, or remembering how their family or iwi have undertaken change over generations. For others, volunteering or spending time with friends and loved ones in the holiday season is vital – whatever helps make you feel connected to a wider community who care is important.
Many of these actions can see small, slow and inadequate in the face of climate change but the big, far-reaching change we need to make starts from small seeds.
Bronwyn Hayward is Director: Sustainable Citizenship and Civic Imagination Research Group: Hei Puāwaitanga at the University of Canterbury. She was a lead author on the IPCC 1.5C report and is also the author of Children, Citizenship and Environment: Nurturing a democratic imagination in a changing world (Routledge 2012) and SEA CHANGE: climate politics in New Zealand (BWB 2017).