As world leaders meet at COP17 in Durban to discuss the state of the global environment, it is worth asking who in the West still cares about climate change. It is apt that the meeting is being held in a continent already experiencing the ravages of climate change, as charities such as Oxfam have been vocal in highlighting. The increasing frequency of droughts and flooding caused by climate change has hit poorest communities in places such as East Africa the hardest.
Yet, in the grip of the worst economic crisis for decades, it seems that, in the West, environmental issues have been swept under the carpet as governments and individuals focus on their repaying their debt.
Green activists are increasingly concerned that the general public in many Western countries have tired of hearing about climate change. Some organisations fear that using the words ‘climate change’ will alienate members of the public to their cause and so prefer to talk about ‘sustainability’ which is viewed as less offensive.
Other green organisations feel they spend more time fighting suggestions that climate change does not exist than they do mitigating it. The so-called "Climategate affair" at the University of East Anglia in the UK, where thousands of emails were hacked into and accusations were made that scientists had sexed up the science, has not helped matters. Apathy and scepticism rule or so it seems.
However, while the financial crisis is a distraction and public scepticism provides a challenge to mitigating climate change, there are also currently some positives. Many companies large and small are taking the initiative to reduce their environmental impact by cutting energy use, insulating buildings and changing their working practices. Not all of it is necessarily green wash either. British Companies such as the Cooperative Society, Marks & Spencer, Turner Broadcasting, the Ecological Building Society and Riverford Organics appear to be working to reduce their carbon footprints with a dedication that suggests they are doing so for more than just a positive image.
In the UK, positive work is also going on in schools. Many children are learning to grow their own food along organic lines in school vegetable gardens and saving energy and reducing wastage by being classroom energy monitors. In some schools, children bring in their junk mail each week and write to the companies’ managing directors, asking them to stop wasting paper. Some pupils are learning how to engage with their local communities on environmental issues as part of their GCSE citizenship course. Perhaps this is small-time stuff but these young people are our future and, in the years to come, will have to deal first hand with the grim realities of climate change.
Motivating people around the world – especially those in affluent countries – to change their behaviour is not easy. The early days of climate change campaigns showed us that the public dislike being told what to do, whether by the government or what some see as ‘self-righteous’ campaigners. The frenetic pace of modern life is another obstacle. In many Western families where both partners work long hours and have lengthy commutes to work, there is little time left for saving the planet.
It may seem that there is little appetite for change, yet at the same time the Occupy Wall Street movements and its analogues around the world suggest that desire for new approaches is in the air in many areas of life.
‘You must be the change you want to see in the world’ is a phrase commonly attributed to Gandhi (although some dispute this) and the most powerful message environmental activists can send is indeed to set the example by being the change ourselves. When friends, neighbours or colleagues see how we live then they can identify with it and see that living a greener lifestyle is not so difficult after all. Then they may be tempted to grow their own vegetables, recycle more or turn their thermostat down.
People cannot always identify with melting ice caps thousands of miles away but they can see the sense in reducing their own energy use, cutting waste and improving the environments in their own locale, especially if their neighbours are already doing it. Let us hope that this is the case anyway because, however fruitful high profile meetings such as COP17 may prove, world leaders cannot fight climate change without our help.
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