A common refrain right now is that ‘the government’ or ‘the politicians’ are not doing enough to respond to climate change. It’s easy to point the blame at someone else – and there will be much debate after the publication of the climate change plan – but are our own actions following through on our words? If climate change really is an emergency, we need to face up to making some changes in lifestyle.
I’m trying my best to walk the walk on climate change, but it’s not easy. I love to see clothes drying on the clothes line, but some days the scattered showers get the better of the sunny spells, and the clothes go in the tumble dryer. There are days I’m too lazy to walk, and use our gas-guzzling car instead. I’ve just bought flights for a foreign holiday for the family – we’ll need to do a lot of trips by bike to cancel those carbon emissions out.
We feel better when we use efficient LED lights (and then forget to switch them off)
There are hundreds of ways in which we can each reduce our carbon footprint Here are three examples of behavioural change that would help: walking or cycling to school instead of driving; buying less clothing and making old clothes last; and making fewer journeys by aircraft.
Straight away we are into uncomfortable territory. Which of us wants to curtail our personal freedom? “I’ve been looking forward to this weekend in Paris for so long.” “I’m fed up with this coat, I want something brighter.” “I don’t want to be standing in the rain waiting for a bus.” It’s hard to renounce the comfort and convenience of modern living. We will need to be jolted into action.
Our lives are busy, and sometimes we don’t have the time to take the eco-friendly option. Dropping child A to creche, child B to school and then arriving to work on time is a carefully synchronised operation for which a car is the only option. Disposable plates are a godsend at a birthday party, because there is no time for washing up. Who has time to patch a pair of trousers? Our hectic lifestyle is a barrier on the road to sustainable behaviour.
What is missing is a powerful overarching call to action that unites the sectoral initiatives under way
Technological improvement offers solace. The school drop-off is less polluting in an electric car. We feel better when we use efficient LED lights (and then forget to switch them off). The electric leaf blower is a great tool (but could you have just used a brush to sweep the driveway?). But I’m afraid that technological advances alone won’t be enough to take us to the ‘de-carbonised’ society we are aiming for.
Right now, there is no strong voice from Government directed at changing personal behaviour. That is something I hope will be addressed in the Climate Change Action Plan, due out on Monday. Politically, asking people to change behaviour is a tricky challenge: hands up who wants to be the Minister for Frugality? Do we need a Department of Slowing Things Down? Who wants the job of telling us to buy less junk at Christmas?
Race Against Waste
When faced with a major waste problem in the early 2000s, the government ran the Race Against Waste campaign, which was dramatic and effective. You might recall the graphic television advertisement: a little girl is about to engulfed in a vile wave of rubbish, only to be scooped to safety by her dad at the last minute. It was shocking and exaggerated, but it sounded an effective wake-up call. For those of us working in waste management at the time, we experienced a greater appetite from people to be part of the solution. It helped achieve greater separation of waste streams for recycling and composting.
Or take the hard-hitting campaigns by the Road Safety Authority. Their television advertising is compelling, effective and sustained. It has changed behaviour in relation to drink driving, speeding and use of mobile phones while driving. Yes, there have been parallel improvements in enforcement, road standards and vehicle safety, but the strength of the communication programme has been vital. The campaign has delivered a reduction in road deaths.
A similar coherent public message is needed now to address climate change. Government agencies are already promoting behavioural change among citizens and engaging with communities and businesses. What is missing is a powerful overarching call to action that unites the sectoral initiatives under way. We need a more effective rally cry that stimulates positive action on a personal level. I promise I’ll do my best to respond.
Conall Boland is a former deputy chairperson of An Bord Pleanála, and a part-time lecturer in sustainable development at TU Dublin