Environmentalists have long grappled with problems of ‘climate fatigue’ and the paralysis that can result from the threat of impending disaster, especially if that disaster is approaching slowly, “like a tidal wave of treacle”, as I’ve heard it described. But the need to come up with solutions is all the more pressing now as we contemplate the radical shifts needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The recent IPCC report showed that it is possible to do so within the laws of physics and chemistry, but only if there is societal change on an unprecedented scale. The question, then, is how to get the general population on board?
This was one of the key topics of conversation at our event this week with the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIEMAP). One of the key points that came out of the discussion was that large scale behaviour change is required. In fact, Professor Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III on climate change mitigation, described behaviour change as the “magic polyfilla” that allows IPCC modelling to successfully limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
People are frustrated and want government to act
At the same time, it was also clear that finger waving or simply telling people about the problem will not achieve the necessary change. Instead, the expert panellists at our event stressed the need to give people positive things to aim for and to go with the grain of change. We were encouraged to take heart from trends amongst millennials: changing diets, zero waste lifestyles and a disdain for driving.
We could also, perhaps, take heart from the anger that Janet Gunter, co-founder of the Restart Project, said people express when they attend their repair parties. At these, people learn to fix their electronics, but they also vent their frustration at how the products have failed long before they should.
This frustration was also reflected in research into public attitudes that Professor Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University presented, and which we have used as the basis of our new report By popular demand. The research found that nearly two thirds of people (65 per cent) are often frustrated by products that don’t last, and 62 per cent find it too difficult to get faulty products repaired.
What’s more, people know what they want government to do to address this frustration: put an end to shoddy products and unrecyclable packaging. The figures are striking: 89 per cent believe all packaging should be made of recyclable material and 81 per cent believe businesses should be required to provide repair, maintenance or disposal support for their products. An attendee at one of Cardiff’s workshops summed things up neatly when she said: “It’s bonkers that we’re not doing it.” She was referring to redesigning packaging to cut material use and increase recyclability, but the same sentiment was expressed about product design.
A mandate for change
CIEMAP’s research clearly demonstrates that government has a mandate for change. Using its forthcoming resources and waste strategy to make the shift would not only be hugely popular with the public, but would also lead to considerable carbon savings. CIEMAP has found that policies for resource efficient design also cut the embodied emissions of household products by nearly 20 per cent. Used in combination with policies that extend product lifetimes and encourage product sharing, potential carbon savings rise to nearly 40 per cent.
Of course, these steps on their own would not achieve the large scale societal change scientists say we need to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But giving people what they want when it comes to better, longer lasting products would be concrete and very popular. Going with the grain of people’s values and desires would get things moving positively in the right direction. If done well, it could help to combat climate fatigue and smooth the way for the bigger changes needed to protect us and our planet from climate change.