World Environment Day: What action can I take to tackle the climate crisis?

·12 min read
<p>Cycle more, love nature, fire up your empathy and put pressure on the government</p> (Getty)

Cycle more, love nature, fire up your empathy and put pressure on the government

(Getty)

The climate crisis is the biggest existential challenge modern humans have ever faced, and judging by our progress so far we’re not coping with the threat of annihilation very well.

Ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall, it bears repeating that those seven nations have, since the Covid-19 pandemic, pumped billions more dollars into greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels – worsening the crisis – than they have into clean energy.

Despite decade after decade of increasingly desperate warnings from scientists and activists, and more and more promises from politicians and corporations, the amount of greenhouse gases being emitted through human activity is still going up, the temperature is going up, and the risks are going up too.

However, despite the hole we’re in, there is hope. Huge levels of recognition of the climate crisis mean practically every country on Earth officially recognises that their emissions are a problem and must be reined in. The key is to ensure that this happens as rapidly as possible, and here is where we can all make a big difference to the health of our planet.

So what can we do to help fight the climate crisis?

Understand the issues and talk about them

The causes of the climate crisis and its effects are numerous and largely intertwined with one another. They include the mass industrialisation movement which took hold in the 18th century and the use of fossil fuels, as well as deforestation, the deteriorating health of our oceans, the expansion of intensive agriculture and the growth of transport and infrastructure (among many others).

The knock-on effects are that we live in a rapidly warming world where sea levels are rising, biodiversity is collapsing, desertification is increasing, and life as we know it will have to change in many fundamental ways.

Understanding the impacts we have on our planet helps us to know how we can reduce those impacts, or even stop them from occurring.

As a start point The Independent has recently published a clear guide to the causes and effects of the climate crisis and what it means for the world. Also look at our new list of books about the natural world, environment and the climate crisis.

Nasa monitors the planet’s “vital signs”, using satellite technology and the latest scientific research, and their climate website also features learning tools, articles, studies and interactive pages designed to help understand what is happening around the world and why.

Dedicated climate websites such as Grist, Carbon Brief, Climate Home News and Greenpeace’s Unearthed site also cover science, policy and investigative work on the environment and related issues. The Independent also has a dedicated climate page and Twitter account providing the latest news and analysis to keep you up to date.

But as well as reading, talking about the environment is equally important.

Talking to friends, family and colleagues about the climate crisis is a vital means of learning, raising awareness of the problem and helping to build the confidence needed to take action.

This communication is vital as it can change behaviours with little effort.

For example, in one study, diners eating at a restaurant in the US were told that 30 per cent of Americans had started eating less meat. As a result these customers were twice as likely to order a vegetarian dish.

A Birkbeck University survey found that people who already knew someone who’d given up flying because of the climate crisis meant they were 50 per cent less likely to fly as a result.

And in California, the same study found that households were much more likely to install solar panels in neighbourhoods that already have them.

Ask the government to take action

Following the coronavirus pandemic, governments around the world are pledging to “build back better”, with many green initiatives at the top of the list for action.

But at the same time, fossil fuel companies and other powerful organisations invested in maintaining the status quo are lobbying governments not to take the major steps required to restructure our economies and save our planet, and instead merely allow them to continue their damaging practices.

As a result it’s vital for people around the world to urge their governments to take the difficult decisions needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Through contacting MPs and local councillors, people can make major differences to local and national environment policy.

Take direct action

Groups such as Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate and Extinction Rebellion have become global phenomena in an incredibly short space of time, successfully arguing for national and local governments to declare climate emergencies, pushing institutions to divest from fossil fuels, winning high-profile supporters and hugely changing the political landscape.

Extinction Rebellion’s stated aim is to use nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid reaching tipping points in the climate system, halt biodiversity loss, and reduce the risk of social and ecological collapse.

Before the global coronavirus pandemic limited public gatherings, on 29 November 2019, three days before the start of the UN’s Cop25 climate summit in Madrid, mass protests took place in 2,400 cities across 157 countries to protest government inaction on the climate crisis. Total numbers were estimated to be 2 million people, including around 630,000 people in Germany.

Other long-established groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have also seen major successes recently, including forcing fossil fuel company Royal Dutch Shell to slash its emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, following a landmark court case in The Netherlands last week.

Learn to appreciate the natural world

Today around 55 per cent of the global population live in cities, and this is forecast to leap to almost 70 per cent over the next 30 years, according to the UN. It is therefore not surprising that our connection to the natural world is becoming increasingly dysfunctional.

Understanding and appreciating the natural world helps us make sense of the mess we’re in, and will help us to get out of it.

Forging a greater kinship with other animals and with plants helps us understand how even small human impacts – both positive and negative – can cascade through ecosystems and food chains. It also helps keep us aware that we are part of the natural world – not separate from it – and that our species’ continued existence is dependent upon the continued existence of healthy ecosystems which support us.

The immediate ramifications of living in a rapidly changing world has already forced us to question our relationship with nature, with a greater focus on ecology becoming common across academia, philosophy, healthcare, and in our culture.

The Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher is one example, in which the unique bond a man forms with an octopus he goes swimming with every day, ends up changing his entire outlook on life and how he understands humans’ place in the world.

During the lockdowns, many people noticed increased animal activity, with the time away from work enabling people to spot the creatures around us. Bird spotting may seem like an a-political activity, but as we become aware of birds’ inherently precarious lives alongside their increasingly fraught battles for survival due to the climate and ecological crises, they serve as a reminder of what we are trying to protect.

Increasing our awareness of how plants and animals interact also helps us understand larger and longer ecological processes and human roles in them.

For example, the hunting of wolves and lynx to extinction in the UK has resulted in a deer population boom. The growing numbers of deer devastate upland landscapes – grazing the seedlings which could have grown into trees, would have replenished our forests, supported huge numbers of species and helped fight the climate crisis. Instead, many landscapes are largely barren grasslands.

Similarly, modern fishing techniques have erased 95 per cent of the UK’s oyster beds, which are vital for cleaning sea water and would once have been teeming with life. While kelp forests have also been wiped out – also due to fishing – and are considered vital carbon stores.

Conversely, the reintroduction of beavers to the UK is helping boost biodiversity and repair critical ecosystems.

Change your psychology - and try to understand people, and the planet, better

A 2015 paper by philosopher Roman Krznaric, titled The Empathy Effect, explains how empathising with others “is coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges ranging from humanitarian emergencies and violent political conflicts to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss”.

In the paper, which was produced for Friends of The Earth, Krznaric compellingly argues that empathy can transform our underlying mental framework, and draw people towards prioritising the “common interest” over “self interest”.

While the hyper-individuality of the capitalist free market is the dominant ideology of the present day, through heightening levels of empathy we can move beyond the limitations of our own egos and attempt to imagine ourselves in the position of oppressed minorities, future generations or even other species.

Through this process we can begin a cultural shift from “buying” to “belonging”.

He adds: “Feeding people a barrage of facts and information about the extent of global inequality or environmental degradation is not enough to motivate action, and may exacerbate levels of denial. So it is vital to work at the more profound level of using empathy to shift our mental frames.”

Reduce your own impact on the world

Many lists suggesting how best to tackle the climate crisis focus heavily on what buying decisions to make, such as reducing meat consumption, cutting numbers of flights, driving less and using less plastic. While they are all excellent and valid suggestions, they often serve to shift the blame from the producers of pollutants to the humans buying these products or services.

Should it be incumbent upon every citizen of the planet not to buy goods and services which damage the planet, or should legislation and responsible business practices mean we are not sold damaging goods and services?

Last month, analysis by Harvard academics of oil company ExxonMobil’s communications strategy accused the firm of deploying tobacco industry-like propaganda to downplay the seriousness of the climate crisis, shift blame onto consumers and protect its own interests.

The researchers said Exxon had taken people’s demand for energy as an indefinite need for fossil fuels, and cast the company as a passive supplier working to meet that demand - when in reality the science had long ago pointed out the company is one of many selling a highly dangerous substance in massive quantities.

This point standing, many people – particularly the wealthy, who as a group do the most damage to the planet – have tremendous power to demand change through changing their buying habits.

Here is a list of excellent ways to personally reduce your impact on the planet:

Reduce eating meat and dairy

Meat and dairy production is responsible for a massive 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Walk and cycle more

As well as getting fit, avoiding congestion and reducing the burden on healthcare services, active travel reduces emissions of fossil fuels. In the UK, the vast majority of journeys undertaken by car are under five miles.

Transport is the largest emitting sector of the UK economy, accounting for 28 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

Fly less

Flying in aeroplanes is bad. Global aviation accounts for two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that figure is forecast to rise. In the UK every major airport is pursuing expansion plans which will bring yet more pollution into our atmosphere.

Make your home more efficient

Just six months after it launched, the government has already ditched its Green Homes Grant, which would have provided people with money for putting in insulation or low-carbon heating.

If you can afford to improve your insulation and means of heating your home, then do so – heating the UK’s draughty homes makes up about 14 per cent of the country’s emissions.

Otherwise, switching off lights, unplugging devices and appliances, turning down the heating and instead wearing an additional layer, and using energy efficient bulbs are all good ways to reduce energy bills and your emissions.

Switch to a green energy provider

Ecotricity, Green Energy UK, Bulb, Bristol Energy, Octopus Energy and OVO Energy are all among the UK suppliers which offer 100 per cent renewable electricity, and some of them claim to supply less damaging gas too.

Plant trees

Trees are amazing. They pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it for centuries, while also offering habitats for innumerable other species. The UK has among the least tree cover of any European country, and major targets are now in place to attempt to boost tree cover. Whether you can join planting schemes, as run by The Woodland Trust, or plant a single tree in your garden, it will make a difference.

Buy second hand clothes

Fashion is among the world’s most polluting industries, producing more greenhouse gas emissions than all the maritime shipping and international flights combined.

Producing one organic cotton t-shirt can require as much as 5,000 litres of water. Dyes, manufacturing processes and transportation all have environmental consequences, and at the end, enormous quantities of clothes produced are not even sold.

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Minimise waste

We are used to the concept of “throwing things away”. Except, in a global world where much of what we produce is not biodegradable, “away” simply doesn’t exist anymore. Our plastic waste is washing up in its millions of tonnes on tropical beaches.

Avoid food waste, which if incorrectly composted – for example in landfill – can create huge aerobic processes which create methane – a highly potent greenhouse gas.

Read The Independent’s guide to how to do a more environmentally-friendly supermarket shop.

Finally, The Independent’s senior climate correspondent, Louise Boyle, highly recommends the podcast How to Save a Planet, which contains actionable, realistic ideas on tackling the crisis. Check it out!

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