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Climate strikes, demanding change…

September the 20th saw a wave of global “climate strikes” across the world, including one here in Cape Town, South Africa.  The general narrative behind these protests is that governments have failed “us” and the demand is for immediate, radical, action.  For a long time I’ve wondered about this narrative.  The characters in the story include the evil villain (the antagonist) played by big corporations and oil producers, the largely innocent protagonist played by the worlds population, and the mostly incompetent side kick of the evil villian, governments.  The problem with this narratives is that when you actually meet real people face to face its pretty hard to tell which character they are.  I’ve talked to people from big corporates who are passionately concerned about climate change and contributing to change.  I’ve worked with a lot with people in government who are not bad or incompetent, but are juggling a multitude of complex demands and issues, and the constant threat of the next election cycle.  And I’ve met “ordinary people” who deny climate change exists at worst, or at best, acknowledge its a problem, but deny their own responsibility or role in addressing the problem.  Yes of course, the world is far from homogeneous and there is plenty of evidence highlighting different dominant perspectives and views in different countries.  Actually some of that evidence points to some pretty surprising conclusions, but that’s another story.

How do we bring about the changes that science suggests are so critical to avoid negative impacts for many billions of people?  There is a dominant narrative behind climate protests that I think needs some interrogation.  How does change actually happen in this world?

The big corporates are responsible!

Why do corporations not do more to bring about change?  Well obviously that’s basically impossible to answer in the specific, but generically we have to accept that companies exist to make enough money to (a) continue operating, and (b) provide returns on investments to those who risked their money on the success of the company.  Making money always requires consuming energy and resources of some kind.  That is true of a factory manufacturing SUVs, a big tech company enabling people to share pictures of cats, or your retirement plan investments (which might own part of that factory, or that big tech company).  And of course companies employ people, that is virtually the definition of formal employment.  So is a coal mine “bad”?  Is a big tech company “bad”?  When we demand that corporations “take action”, what are we demanding?  Fundamentally we are very often demanding that someone, potentially many thousands of people, “take a hit” whether its losing their jobs, losing incoming, watching their retirement investment value fall. And as is the way in this inequitable society, those with the least power will lose the most, and those with the most power will ride the wave and move on.  Of course there are sometimes ways in which companies can change without negative consequences, and in the current political and cultural climate, why wouldn’t they?  A key piece of this puzzle is us, the consumer.  Without someone buying their products or services, companies do not exist.  Big multi-national corporations plough huge amounts of money into “market research” and into marketing.  Its possible that they know us as consumers better than we know ourselves.  They are constantly evaluating the consumers willingness to pay more for something, to buy a new version of something, to switch to a different brand etc.  We, the mass of consumers, drive corporate decisions.  But we are also subject to massive marketing campaigns.  In some senses, big corporates tell us what to want as much as they are trying to figure out what we want.  Its a mutual dance.

Governments must act!

What about governments?  In our protest narrative they are often presented as the giant in the room, the means of bringing about substantial change.  In a sense they are, they do have a lot of power to change policy and laws, impose taxes, etc.  Temporarily at least.  Because, at least in democratic countries, they can only keep doing so if they are re-elected.  By us, the mass of individuals.  I’m not going to get into political lobbying, that is a practice that to me completely destroys democracy, but is also to some extent “just” a blurring of boundaries and true democracy is something of a myth anyway.  Why do countries not impose huge carbon taxes on fuel, electricity, transport, etc. and invest the extra money into renewables?  Because we will only tolerate a certain amount of pain as tax payers, and significantly shifting a countries economic landscape will have casualties.  Companies will go out of business, jobs will be lost.  Yes, new jobs will created but not necessarily for the people who lost their jobs in the first place.  And so ultimately, we the mass of people decide how far a government can push.  Recent political shifts in Europe and of course the U.S.A are clear evidence that governments are walking a very fine line on many issues, not least of which is climate action.  Because ultimately we, the collective of individuals, will mark the limits to action.  And of course, in many countries, particularly developing countries, climate change action is pretty small on the list of issues voters are basing their votes on.

Holding up the mirror

At this point you may be wondering how we got from the title of this piece “We tried to write a climate change manifesto…” to here.  Well, the above is just laying out my background thinking on how change does or does not happen.  For me where it all points to is that, while corporates and governments definitely have a role to play in bring about the changes needed, ultimately it all comes back us, the collective of billions of individuals making our individual choices.  Whether its choosing what to buy, where to live, how and how much to travel, what to eat, where to invest our money (for the super privileged), and who to vote for.  Like it or not, corporations and governments dance to our tune (while subtly and not so subtly trying to get us whistle their tune of course).

And so, finally, we get to the crux of the matter.  If it all comes back to us, the individuals, then surely we need to be willing to take action that involves negative impacts, or at least the potential of negative impacts to us, through our finances or our lifestyle/quality of life?  Surely if we are asking for radical change of governments and corporations that, despite the rosy counter narratives of “green economies”, will result in negative impacts to (often anonymous and distant) individuals, we need to be willing to accept our own negative impacts?  With this in mind, I attempted to write a Climate Action Manifesto for our research group, CSAG.  The intent being to layout and commit to actions that support that changes needed.

The manifesto… draft

The manifesto started with an acknowledgement that (a) we as a climate science research group in Africa has contributed significantly to the local and global understanding of climate change and its impacts and hence to past and ongoing decisions aimed at reducing the associated risk of impacts.  In other words, we are part of the solution.  But it also acknowledged that most of us are living a typical middle class developed world life here in Cape Town.  Our per-capita carbon emissions are, by any estimate, well up there with Australia, Canada, USA, etc. While officially South Africa’s per capita carbon emissions are only around 9 tonnes/per person/per year, the vast majority of the populations lives in relative poverty, use public transport, have limited access to electricity and so likely have a much lower contribution.  That means that the wealthy fraction of the population of which we are part, with private vehicles, larger homes, imported food, using national and international air travel etc. are likely (and this is rough guess) more in the region of 15 tonnes/per person/per year?  The USA has an average of 16.5 so I’m giving us the benefit of the doubt here!

The manifesto also acknowledges the deeper systemic challenges of climate change in countries like South Africa with vulnerability to climate change being strongly aligned with inequality and access to basic services such as water, food, and health.  It acknowledges the role that the relatively wealthy, through our various choices, play in perpetuating these inequalities.  We do this, not out of lack of sympathy with those who have less than us, but out of a lack of willingness to accept a negative impact on our own lives, our children’s educations, our safety, etc.  These are complex and deeply rooted global challenges, but harshly illuminated by South Africa’s unique violent (in the narrow and broad sense of the word) past.

Not to sidestep that complexity, but returning to the fundamental question of bringing about climate action, the manifesto then considered what actions CSAG as a research group could undertake.  Continuing the idea that change comes down to individual choices, yes guided, informed, restricted, etc. by society and institutions, but fundamentally still individual choices, what actions could individuals in CSAG undertake to address the climate action challenge?

The most obvious action that sprang to my mind was reducing international flights.  Academics fly.  A lot.  It is not uncommon for an academic to undertake anywhere from 3 to 6 international trips a year.  A single return flight from Cape Town to Europe contributes around 5.8 Tonnes of CO2.   Lets be conservative and look at 3 trips a year, that straight away puts an academics carbon footprint at 15 + 17.4 = 32.4 tonnes/year, heading up towards Qatar levels.

A small (not many people engaged), but vigorous debate erupted.  The question of family/private travel versus work related travel came out, with many South Africans having significant close family across the world, giving up family travel is a very big personal cost.  So we narrowed it down to work related travel.  Could we agree to individually reduce our work related travel?

The answer was essentially, no we can’t.  The key objection was that it would involve risking career progression and missing out of personal/group opportunities (largely funding).  Others felt that including individual commitments in a group manifesto was not appropriate, that we need to separate collective responses from individual.  Another objection that was raised was that air travel only contributes around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions and so we have to keep some perspective on relative contributions. But surely emissions are emissions and we make cuts regardless of what piece of the pie we happen to be cutting?

To cut a short story shorter, we simply could not come to an agreement to include personal commitments to reduced work related flying in the manifesto.  In fact, at this stage, we couldn’t come to an agreement on any personal choice related commitments to reduce emissions.  But removing any personal choice related commitments (given the personal choice driven nature of universities), left us with essentially nothing to commit to…

How then do we bring about change?

There is now ample evidence that avoiding significant climate impacts (aka. exceeding 2C global warming) requires either (a) massive negative emissions, carbon capture technology roll out, something which is currently not feasible, or (b) significantly restricting per-capita carbon emissions.  Currently global average per capita emissions is around 5 tonnes/per person/per year.  To avoid 2C without negative emissions technology requires reducing that to around 2.3 tonnes/per person/per year.

Achieving that level of reductions is a massive undertaking and requires a fundamental shift in societies and economies.  It is hard to imagine that is achievable without some fairly significant impacts to lifestyles and personal finances.  It has long been held that education, awareness building, capacity building, and advocacy, are the tools by which we bring about societal change.  But if we can’t even commit as a group of highly educated, aware, capacitated, and advocating for change climate scientists, to actions that introduce some risk of personal negative impacts, then what hope is there for substantial change?  I guess the hope is that we are not typical members of society!?

This is not the end of the story and in fact this blog is part of the ongoing story, but it is a fascinating and sobering story about how hard it really is to bring about significant societal change.  I’m hopeful that the story will continue and the next chapter will be more hopeful!









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