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Monday, November 8, 2021

Think like a debater #10 - what should we do about climate change?

Climate change is beyond debate. We have (mercifully) put behind us the times when the BBC felt obliged to put up a climate change denier in every discussion for the sake of ‘balance’. It is real, it is happening, and it is an existential threat to humanity. But that doesn’t mean it should not be the subject of debate. On the contrary, debaters, being people who care about the world and want to understand it, should be debating about climate change now more than ever, discussing what we should do about it, and how we should do it.

Climate change is a problem of such vast scope and size that it is easy to feel overwhelmed by it, to have no idea where to start. One way to break down the problem is to consider the different frames within which it can be tackled. This can also help as a focus when debating which actions should be prioritised.

These can be considered as:

  • Personal
  • Local
  • National 
  • International

1. Personal

How much difference can one person make? Does taking a keep cup to the coffee shop help? Putting out the recycling every week? Putting another sweater on instead of putting the heating on? Cutting out (or down on) meat and dairy? Cycling or walking instead of driving? Holidaying in the UK rather than taking a long haul flight? Is it really worth bothering, or are all these actions just gestures, which make us feel good and look good?

No, one person reusing a coffee cup isn’t going to stop climate change. But the world is made up of lots of one persons. If enough one persons reuse their coffee cups, it will make a difference. The more people who do it, the more it will become the normal, accepted way of behaving, and then the more people will do it, and so the more difference it will make. What is sometimes rather sneeringly dismissed as ‘virtue signalling’ could also be known as ‘setting an example’. 

Imagine a musician who posts a track on Spotify. For each stream she receives a fraction of a penny. One stream won't be enough to live on. Nor will ten. Nor will ten thousand. But the more streams there are, the more visible the track will be on Spotify's algorithms, leading to more streams, until after a while the musician has many millions of downloads, and suddenly she's got something resembling an income.

Individual actions on climate change, aggregated, can be like this. Greta Thurnberg said ‘No one is too small to make a difference’; she could also have said ‘no action is too small to make a difference.’

What’s more, personal action can give people a sense of agency, and a sense of solidarity with the rest of humanity; no bad thing when climate change can engender a sense of hopelessness and despair.

2. Local

It is often said that all politics is local. In other words, people tend to care far more about what happens in their immediate environment than they do about wider issues. Someone who in principle accepts that there is a housing crisis in the UK and something needs to be done about it might change their mind when the builders move in to the field at the end of their house. 

Local action on climate change can have the advantages of personal action, in that it feels very immediate and present and manageable, while also having a wider impact. It can take the form of communities taking action on their own initiative, e.g. cafes offering discounts to customers bringing their own cups / businesses making space for bikes to park / local charities collecting and recycling unwanted clothes and books, or it may stem from legislation passed by local councils, e.g. creating cycle lanes or enforcing lower speed limits for cars. 

An advantage of local action is not only in the difference that it makes to the climate (remember, it’s about small steps, aggregated) but also in the way in which it makes immediately present to people what a more sustainable world might look like. The London borough I live in has recently introduced a 20 mile an hour speed limit on all its roads. Driving down a main road at that speed is a completely different experience; it makes you feel out of place as a driver, making you think you might better have walked or cycled. It also makes areas around main roads much safer and pleasanter.

3. National

We are most used to being told what to do by national governments. If they want to stop people doing things (banning petrol and diesel cars) or make people do things (insulate their homes) they can back up their decisions with the full force of the law. They can also change people’s behaviour by helping them financially (subsidies for renewable energy sources) or by hampering them financially (higher taxes on petrol and flights). They can do these things at scale, to several million people at the same time, and by spending several billion pounds. 

National governments also have the advantage (in democracies at least) of being accountable via elections and discussion of their actions in the media. Most people feel some sense of connection with and loyalty to their national identity, so a sense that their country is doing the right thing can be a powerful motivator. 

The disadvantage with action on a national level is that the decision making process can feel quite remote from our lives. It can cause frustration if the government either goes less far or further than we would like. At that level, there will never be 100% agreement with the government’s actions; but that is an issue with democracy that will never go away.

Another disadvantage is that no matter how committed a national government is to tackling climate change, the nation it leads is still going to be affected by the actions of other governments over which it has no control. Which leads us on to the final frame of action.

4. International

In one sense, all action on climate change is international. It is a phenomenon that makes a mockery of the whole concept of nations. The Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t do borders. 

International action on climate change is ultimately the only sort that can make a difference. But it is also the hardest to achieve, as anyone observing the current discussions in Glasgow can testify. It raises so many difficult questions. Should richer nations, who have benefited more from industrialisation, make bigger cuts in emissions? Should developing countries be allowed to go on polluting for longer? Should rich countries support poor countries financially in their transition to a low carbon future? What happens when powerful countries (such as Brazil under Bolsonaro or the US under Trump) are led by a climate change denier? The compromises and trade offs between over a hundred different national governments are bewilderingly complex. The good news is that when international action works, it really works. And the climate crisis, like the Covid pandemic, might have the silver lining of reminding us just how interdependent we really are.

What, then, must be done?

So which frame of action is the most important?

The answer of course is ‘all of the above’. They all matter. However, thinking about the comparative opportunities and challenges of the different frames can be a very helpful way of considering what the most urgent priorities in tackling this existential issue should be.

Motions that go with this topic

  • This house would be vegan / vegetarian.
  • This house would never fly.
  • This house would add cycle lanes to all urban roads.
  • This house would tax meat.
  • This house would impose a 20 mph speed limit in all urban areas.
  • This house would ban cars from city centres.
  • This house would make public transport free, funded by taxation.
  • This house would impose a 100% tax on all long haul flights.
  • This house would pay for all homes to be fully insulated, funded by taxation.
  • This house would oblige rich countries to subsidise poor countries for the cost of transition to a low carbon economy.
  • This house would make climate change denial a criminal offence.

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