I’ve been concerned about climate change since I first read about it at school in a geography textbook, which included a map of how the world might look 100 years in the future due to rising sea levels.
This struck me as something that I should take seriously.
I was only about 13, was naive enough to assume that I would live to over 100 years of age and I knew that the school textbooks were already a little bit out of date. I knew it would affect me!
I’ve tried to be a pretty environmentally conscious person since that point, trying to “do my bit” wherever I see the opportunity.
Now almost 20 years has passed and our species is facing an existential crisis that almost none of us have woken up to.
97 percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that we are on track for serious global warming that will radically change the face of our planet, destroy entire countries and possibly caused the extinction of our entire species.
They won’t all word it like that because, well… you know… they want to be taken seriously and not seen as hysterical loons, but they are all pointing to the same conclusions.
Worse still, the window of opportunity to do anything about it is nearing its end.
The problem seems to be that as humans we have developed an unnaturally large amount of power over ourselves and the world around us but have not evolved to have the self control to use that power responsibly. We think we are clever, but we aren’t able to intellectually account for a long term future when making short term decisions.
When we do risk assessments in business, we rank issues based on a combination of likelihood and severity. Issues that appear in a matrix as most likely and severe are the ones that need to be taken more seriously for obvious reasons.
If we assess climate change, we see the likelihood as almost guaranteed based on a scientific evidence, and its severity as catastrophic with the potential to make our species extinct. It would be almost impossible to create a scenario more serious than this!
And yet we are doing almost nothing about it. In fact global emissions continue to rise while fuel companies invest in new oil, coal and gas reserves and consumption of animal products continues to rise at a time when we need to be making massive cuts.
I recently attended my local climate march where many of the most passionate and concerned citizens in my local area were gathered. An area was allocated for people to write what they were doing to fight climate change to help inspire others. The event made me feel good that there are people in the local area who actually care enough to turn up at an event like this, but it concerned me greatly that many of the things written on this display were as trivial as turning off light bulbs when leaving the room and switching off the tap when cleaning your teeth.
If this is what the most concerned and passionate people are doing about climate change then we are really in trouble!
So are we all screwed? As it stands, the science seems to be saying yes.
The best analysis of this has come from Dr Brad Werner in his presentation Is earth f*****? in which he explains that the only scenario able to save us is a massive global non-violent social revolution, where the people rise up to force governments and corporations to do what needs to be done.
I personally also see two other scenarios. The first is a catastrophic infectious disease that shrinks our population enough to reduce emissions and prevent the worst global warming. With modern travel patterns and growing resistance to drugs, this isn’t a scenario that should be completely ruled out but it would be almost as horrendous in the short term. The second is the wild card, that something positive could happen that none of us have foreseen yet. But waiting for that is simply dangerous wishful thinking.
With this in mind, I felt it was a good time for me to review what I am personally doing in my own life about climate change and whether I am really doing my bit at all.
So for my own reference more than anything here is a summary of what I’m doing at the end of 2014:
We purchase our home electricity from Good Energy, so money is going 100 percent to fund renewables. We don’t have a gas connection so we’re not directly using any fossil fuels. We also have 4 kilowatts of solar photovoltaics on our house (which also heats the water most days) we have funded the building of community renewables at Westmill Wind Farm and West Solent Solar Coop. Roughly speaking we have funded enough renewable energy to power about 1 and a half typical UK homes. A good start I think.
We heat our house with a wood burning stove, electric storage heaters which we hope to replace with a pellet stove before too long and to some extent through passive solar gain simply because our house has large south facing windows.
We try to use power hungry appliances during the day when our solar is generating energy rather than in the evening and night, although it is surprisingly difficult to develop this habit.
We have also draught proofed the house, improved the loft insulation, upgraded the outside door, replaced almost all bulbs with LEDs, installed a shower and replaced our only loo with a composting toilet (yes, mains water and sewage have a big carbon footprint).
We’re upgrading our old appliances when they break to new ones with the highest energy rating and have replaced our petrol lawnmower with a battery powered one that we charge during the day.
The next step is to install that pellet stove, insulate more and help to build more renewable energy supplies.
This is an area that we’ve really struggled with. We go to London regularly for work by train (luckily electric train not a diesel train), but most of our other transport is by car.
Of course we should walk and cycle more, but the reality is that we live in the countryside and have limited time. We have therefore just bought an electric car which I will talk more about in another post and I’m hoping that we will be able to build enough renewables to power it.
The missing link therefore is something of which we do far too much. The dilemma for us is that we have a lot of family in places but can’t realistically be reached without flying, including Australia, India and the US. On top of that we have work colleagues in Eastern Europe. We try to reduce the frequency of flights and are well aware that no one else is forcing us to fly, but the prospect of not seeing family is a compromise that I think few people would be able to make even if it is what we should all be doing. I don’t have a solution to this other than to keep it to a minimum and focus on the things that we can do well.
We have therefore decided to experiment with a self-imposed ration of one return plane ticket per year. This could be anywhere in the world, but limiting it to just one has already focussed our minds because in the last few years we averaged about 3 flights per year.
Food seems to be the most overlooked aspect of a low-carbon lifestyle, and yet our food supply is the thing we should be looking at the most for a huge range of environmental issues (not to mentioned health and ethical issues). The meat and dairy industry is the single largest contributor to global warming (estimates range from about 14% to 50% depending on what they include in the assessment), not to mention carbon released from soil by intensive farming and of course emissions from heating greenhouses and transporting food across the world. Despite being so serious, it is very rarely talked about and very hard to find sufficient and clear enough information with which to make an informed judgement.
I therefore try to follow a fairly simple system as follows:
1. Eat Mostly Plants
They generally have a far far lower impact than animal products even if transported from exotic locations, plus they are better for your health and animal welfare. A win-win-win!
2. Buy Organic
I try to buy organic food where it is available and affordable as it not only helps to lock carbon into the soil, but helps to protect for soil fertility that is essential for a long term health and survival.
3. Buy Local
Where possible, I try to buy food from the UK or Europe and when available I buy food from my local region. This is not only good for the environment but also good for the local economy.
I like this system because it is not only easy way to have a positive impact on climate change but it also makes it very easy to make decisions. Of course we can’t always afford to buy organic and buy local, but at the same time it is generally cheaper to eat plants than animals and so overall things seem to balance out.
We have also been trying to grow some of our own food with mixed success. This will be a long term learning process and we plan to gradually convert more of our garden to food production, which is as local and organic as it can get.
It’s really easy to overlook the issue of work with regard to environmental impact and shrug it off as “the company’s responsibility” rather than our own. I used to think this way, especially because most companies are recognised as separate legal entities. It sounds logical on the surface but I have realised that it doesn’t work in practice. Companies are not real people, they are just an abstract legal concept that represents a group of people who own and work for a company. therefore, these people need to take responsibility for the actions of those companies.
Since before I was at University I wanted to do a job that has a positive impact on the world, particularly relating to environmental protection. This has actually turned out to be surprisingly difficult but I have at least tried to create a business employing a number of people whose work is relatively neutral. As a web design company, we don’t manufacture anything physical and have minimal travel requirements. Most of us work from home a lot of the time, in my case using solar during the day, and our office is based in a shared workspace in London rather than a dedicated office space for ourselves so it is far more efficient. We rarely visit clients outside of London and those within London are usually visited by tube or on foot.
So the biggest impact is probably web hosting for clients and occasional trips visiting other team members in other countries, which as I have mentioned I don’t yet have a solution for apart from simply doing it less.
In addition to that, I hope to find a way to gradually transform our business into one that I can confidently say has a positive rather than a neutral impact.
Another big area impacting climate change is our general consumption of stuff. Most of the stuff we buy has to be manufactured, packaged and transported before it gets to us. Similar to food shopping, my approach to buying products is pretty simple:
1. Buy Less
I’m not a big shopper anyway, so for me this isn’t too hard.
2. Buy Second Hand
I will admit that I’m often not so comfortable with the idea of buying second hand clothes, but other things like computer equipment, homewares and garden items I’m happy to buy secondhand where available. In reality though it is still probably a minority of what I buy.
We also try to sell or donate our old products if they’re still usable so that other people can also buy second hand.
3. Buy Good Stuff
Whether new or second hand, I try to buy products that are likely to have a lower than average impact. Lower energy appliances, organic clothes, locally made products etc. See my sustainable design manifesto for more information on this.
What’s more, the things that I spend big money on tend to be things with an overall positive impact such as home efficiency improvements and things for the fruit and vegetable garden.
Finances are another area that gets commonly ignored, but our money is often doing a lot more in the background than we realise. The reality is that all of us are helping to fund climate change simply by keeping money in the bank, investment funds and pensions. These institutions are investing or lending our money for us, and due to high profitability much of this money gets invested in harmful industries such as fossil fuels, animal agriculture and ammunition. Even some of the big green charities have money directly invested in fossil fuels.
In addition, I personally believe that stock markets destroy corporate responsibility by making it the legal duty of the company directors to put shareholder profit before all other factors, especially when in most cases the shareholders are people who have little or nothing to do with the day to day running and services of the business. They an external people who have little interest in anything other than a financial gain.
In principle, my solution is fairly simple but in reality it is a lot harder to implement:
Keep my money in an ethical bank that won’t invest in really bad things. However, after the Coop Bank screwed up and got sold to a hedge fund, I need to find an alternative. I also need to do the same for our business but we are struggling to find a suitable option for business banking.
Don’t invest in the stock market. Simple. I’ll write more about this another day.
Make direct investments into positive things such as our own home efficiency and community renewable projects.
I have covered most of the things that I am doing directly in my own life above, but as mentioned at the start of this post, personal actions alone cannot solve the climate crisis. We almost certainly need a peaceful and global revolution to a clean economy, and we need it fast.
This will only happen if huge numbers of informed and passionate citizens put enough pressure on governments and to some extent corporations, to create the world that we need and want.
So what am I doing about it? To be honest, not a great deal.
But I have made a start as follows:
It is no doubt better than nothing, but what we need now is visibility of people on the streets and in the media, which is been something that I have never been very confident about participating in. But I can work on it.
On reflection, I’m actually doing a lot more than I thought I was, but clearly there is lots more to do!