Breaking the cycle of inaction

Impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world.
I felt compelled to become a climate activist in late 2018. The IPCC report on the damage that would be caused by failing to limit warming to 1.5 degrees had just come out. I have a young daughter: what does her future hold, I wondered? I was finding it hard to sleep, and my chest felt tight with anxiety. It took a bit of courage, but I contacted existing groups, got a notice in the Herald, and put up some posters. Stratford Climate Action emerged from that.

I wasn’t the only one afraid. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of ‘climate emergency’ declarations. Climate scientists, as well as pillars of the establishment like Prince Charles and David Attenborough, have been more explicit that this is an existential crisis of both the natural world and human civilisation. Schoolchildren and Extinction Rebellion protestors have taken to the streets. But still we struggle to decarbonise. Why?

Entrenched economic interests are a big part of it, but the economy is ultimately something we all do together. Why aren’t we organising ourselves to do it differently? There are plenty of ideas how, from authors like Kate Raworth, Ann Pettifor and Jason Hickel.

Explanations for inaction that focus on lack of individual concern are wrong. Polls in 2019 indicated that as much as 85% of the British public are either concerned or very concerned (52%). More recent surveys show this hasn’t been affected by the pandemic squeezing climate out of the news.

It seems more likely that we do not act because we cannot see how to do so effectively. As I found in 2018, thinking about climate breakdown is psychologically intolerable without a path to action. But reducing your own climate impact is hardly worthwhile unless others do too. Unfortunately, we live more isolated, privatised lives than ever before. We do not easily feel ourselves part of a collective ‘we’, strong enough to drive social change.

In this situation, we tend to push our fears aside, to think about something else or even to lie to ourselves. After all, our daily lives are busy and stressful enough! We can be reluctant to talk of the emergency we all know is there. It can even be seen as a social faux pas to do so, with those who do written off as ‘radicals’ or ‘alarmists’. Though we’re all concerned, we end up feeling alone and impotent. Realistic alternatives look like utopian pipe dreams, simply because they are not currently happening.                                                           

This escapism makes climate action more difficult. Our key institutions—big businesses, investment funds, national governments—won’t provide a strong enough lead unless they see money or votes in it. An escapist public doesn’t give them those signals. Both institutions and the public wait for each other to lead. How can we break this cycle of secret fears and public inaction?

We need to talk about our concerns, to turn private fears into publicly recognised problems. We need actions that are visible to others, and campaigns that give us faith that personal actions will be matched by others. In 2021, we will launch a Pledge for the Planet campaign, to help people identify and share actions we can all take together.

Remember, most other people are worried too, privately or deep down. There’s no need to feel isolated, and no need to blame others for not caring. But we also need to feel able to challenge bad faith accusations of ‘virtue signalling’. If you’re unsure how to talk about the climate, there is a really useful Talking Climate Handbook, which you can download from