OPINION: Climate and society: Reflections on ways we can act

COP26 has seen an array of promises be made, but will they be kept? What I can do and what we can do as a collective?

Credit: NASA

As we approached the COP26 conference, I found myself thinking more and more about climate breakdown, the defining issue of our time, and what it means for us as individuals as well as our society as a whole. This article is the result of the connections I’ve made and the ideas I’ve been thinking about, ultimately sparking some thoughts on what I can do and what we can do as a collective.

COP26 has seen an array of promises be made, but will they be kept? The only way to live up to these pledges is if real transformation to our civilisation takes place, with countries that have contributed the most to this situation, through the industrial revolution and colonisation, committing to taking the brunt of the burden. We urgently need new systems which don’t depend on the exploitation of Earth’s resources and people; we can’t achieve what we need to achieve without changing our whole infrastructure. Despite what those who think we are doomed say, we now know that unparalleled change is possible. During the global pandemic, we’ve seen that countries are capable of acting quickly and radically when needed. The climate breakdown necessitates an even bigger and more coordinated response as this situation is far bigger than the pandemic, which research is now suggesting could in fact a symptom of the destruction of the ecosystems of the planet (more on this another time).

Illustrating the responsibility for the climate breakdown
Lancet Planetary Health journal.

One thing that’s become clearer for me lately is that we shouldn’t let those responsible deflect issues onto us. Since the beginning of our awareness of climate breakdown, there’s been a deflection of responsibility onto individuals by governments, media and corporations. Individual behaviour change, as promoted by those whose interests align with continuation of exploitation, is essentially a strategy to keep things the way they are. It’s important to be aware of this so we can continue to hold those who are capable of systemic change accountable to it. Individual changes are all well and good, but we need to change our infrastructure to make it possible for people to actually have the choice to make those changes. Every time I hear reporting on the climate crisis and someone mentions systemic change like heavily subsidising green power in the same breath as suggesting people make changes in their behaviour such as switching off lights at home, my heart sinks. The focus of the conversation should not be on individuals! It is far more useful to focus instead on the global, coordinated approach needed and what the science tells us we should be expecting from our governments.

Furthermore, we have limited power as consumers (I am what I buy), but we have much more power when we see ourselves as participants in a political power system which only continues to work because of our cooperation and buy-in. One way to influence wider change is through voting. By voting tactically, the UK could bring to power a coalition government more likely to support policies backed up by climate science. So register to vote!

An arguably speedier and more effective way to influence change is through organised social movements like protests and strikes, as in the tradition of the various historical movements that brought many countries including the UK the 40-hour week, human & employment rights and much more. The relative freedoms we enjoy today are the result of battles fought and won by those gone before. And if protesters and disruptors are typically hated at the time, the changes they push for are often taken for granted later on.

Credit: Tania Malrechauffe

Another approach we can take is to keep strengthening our communities by getting together and acting together. The lockdowns led to a blooming of Mutual Aid groups across the UK, mainly concerned around the distribution of food and care for vulnerable people. If more and more people take part in groups like this, we can make our own autonomous decisions about what’s right for our communities and act towards that together. This could become a powerful way to influence local and national government, or even lead to a break away from the power structures of the state to grassroots decision-making. This seems to me like a pretty sensible way to take ownership of our lives and futures. 

In my gut, I feel that the underlying cause as to why we found ourselves in this situation in the first place is how we’ve learned to disconnect from nature, which is actually an extension of ourselves. So we must get reconnected, in whatever ways we see fit. Taking your own responsibility for a situation, and acting on it, changes your reality, so in a way, any action, however small, counts. So perhaps the most important thing to do is to reconnect to the communities we find ourselves in, the land we live on, the food we eat, the resources and people we rely on, all of it.

Credit: Dmitry Anikin

This article is the product of the time I’ve spent digesting these ideas and threads, which I feel is a process that will continue as my understanding becomes clearer. Putting time aside to ponder these issues has helped me clarify that each person must come to their own understanding around what to do. I’ll leave you with a few different ideas for actions you can take. And a poem!

Vote and Protest

Join a mutual aid or community group

Reconnect to the planet and nature (get outside, plant and grow things)

Hope lies in action;
Action is the language of the physical universe,
Every action or inaction has a consequence.