I’m not going to Glasgow. I won’t be listening to David Attenborough, eating canapés with Leonardo DiCaprio, or watching my train be diverted via Llandudno. I’m OK with that, because climate action is not reserved for masters of the universe. It’s the one thing over which Jeff Bezos will never have a monopoly. If you’re tired of world leaders not doing more, don’t sigh at their ineptitude; show them how it’s done.
We can push the carbon transition. We just choose not to. Nearly one-quarter of Britons say they’d be willing never to fly for leisure, but only 8 per cent say they’re doing it. Half say they’d limit their meat and dairy intake to three meals a week, but only 14 per cent say they’re doing that. If you’re waiting for Bezos to give up his private jet first, you’re onto a loser; he’ll be fine whatever happens to the climate.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Changing yourself gets a bad rep. It’s joyless, say some climate foot-draggers. It distracts from the real task of holding politicians and companies to account, say some climate activists. It’s true that BP promoted the idea of a personal carbon footprint two decades ago, while dodging its own responsibilities.
But the cynics are wrong. In an emergency, you make every call you can. Changing your behaviour makes you happier, because it helps you grasp an otherwise frightening reality. Greta Thunberg was miserable until she took up activism and her family embraced low-carbon living. When I gave up meat, I found more satisfaction in food, because I felt part of the solution.
Your decisions matter. A return flight from London to New York melts three square metres of Arctic summer sea ice. If you reduce your emissions, others will follow. Studies in the US, Germany and Sweden show that solar panels spread in ripples: one household’s decision may influence the neighbours. If you order the vegetarian option in a restaurant, your companions may follow suit. Supermarkets, schools and employers respond to our signals. It’s slow, but how do you eat an elephant, other than one bite at a time? (Do not actually eat an elephant: they help forests suck up carbon.)
Behavioural change can be the springboard for new technologies. The Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, the best faux-meat burgers, were both created by vegans. Their adoption was spurred by vegetarians. They are now sold in Burger King and McDonald’s.
If you want revolution, fine. Some of the best political campaigners, like Gandhi, have been the most committed to changing their own behaviour. If you don’t live your principles, your activism will be undermined by charges of hypocrisy.
What’s more, our behaviour sets the parameters for politics. Government policies often follow our actions, rather than driving them. Britain banned smoking in pubs once a large majority didn’t smoke. It banned the use of wild animals in circuses once almost no one went to such circuses and only a few dozen animals were left. It’ll be easier to end the freeze on fuel taxes, once more people have given up cars or bought electric vehicles. It’ll be easier to stop airport expansion, if more people opt out of flying.
The critics are right about one thing: some action is ineffective. Boris Johnson last week said recycling plastics “was not the answer.” Globally, recycling is the most frequently cited way of fighting climate change, but it makes minimal difference to your carbon footprint. Do it, but focus elsewhere. Refrain from one return flight. Don’t buy new clothes for six months. Insulate your home.
“Do the things which lie nearest to you but which are difficult to do,” Henry Thoreau wrote in his diary in 1852. I’m still working out what he meant, but I think he’d agree: you don’t have to be in Glasgow to fight climate change.
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