goreCan you believe that Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was released ten years ago (in 2006)? The film catalysed the detail of a presentation he had been giving since 1989, and might be considered the pinnacle of 40 years of environmental and climate science. It did win an Oscar after all!

It sets out, in pretty stark terms, the mess we have created by burning fossil fuels for more than 200 hundred years. It was authoritative and scary and did a great job at persuading politicians, industry and the population at large that things needed to change and fast. It took 40 years, but the ratification of the UN Panel on Climate Change agreement is showing that many (but not all) of our world leaders are now on the case.

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The trouble with such challenging insight is that for some the implications and consequences are just too big to contemplate. We seem stuck between an impossible global task and the unthinkable consequences of not acting. It’s just too gross to deal with. Climate change becomes something someone else needs to deal with – usually the Govt.

… But not us – right? We are change makers!

Interestingly, the recent TED talk sequel to An Inconvenient Truth has received much less media interest. It’s a massively optimistic update on how we are making significant headway in responding to global warming. It’s well worth tracking down. And part of a sea change to a much more positive rhetoric on climate and sustainability.

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Global warming seems to be shifting in our consciousness from something quite distant to something much more local and pressing? Perhaps this is because the effects of climate change seem to be moving from the very distant issues of the ant-arctic ozone layer, melting ice shelves and the habitat of polar bears to the very much more local – disrupted travel, flooded homes and (god forbid) disruption to beer drinking!

Extreme weather events on our doorstep seem to be becoming more prevalent and more disastrous. 13 of the 14 hottest years on record (globally/uk) have occurred this century. This June has been the wettest on record in the UK…. And serious flooding across whole communities is now a common news item.  The effects of climate change are staring us in the face… although interestingly across the globe and even in Europe concerns about flooding come second to concerns about drought and water shortage.

There is a growing public realisation that we cannot hold back the forces of nature. But beyond activating our stiff upper lip and sense of humour, what can we, as individuals do? Responding to climate change requires a serious commitment to deferred gratification – building local flood defences, for example, is definitely a medium to long term solution.  Whilst significant changes to national power generation and other infrastructure projects play a significant role – there is also a growing recognition that social behavioural changes are also required.

So surely our concerns about climate change are growing?

Well actually… NO! A study by Ipsos MORI undertaken prior to the UK election in 2015 showed that, in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, concern about climate change was actually falling in the UK.  The environment and global warming hardly featured at all in people’s concerns – it didn’t even make the top 20 list of voter issues.

So is the UK population unusual compared to other countries?… Are we less concerned about climate change than other nations? Beware – here come the stats…

In 2015, the Pew Research Center in the US published research about public attitudes to climate change drawn from interviews with 40,000 people in 40 countries around the world. The results are fascinating.

People in countries with high carbon emissions are less concerned about climate change than lower emitters. In particular, China & USA.

People in more developed economies are less concerned than less developed economies.

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The Pew report from Nov 2015 (based on data collect between March-May that year) shows that Americans and Chinese, whose economies are responsible for the greatest annual CO2 emissions, are among the least concerned in general about climate change and that Latin Americans and Africans have significantly more concern about climate change compared to people in other regions.

More significant perhaps is the broad correlation between people in countries that are high CO2 emitters and lower concern about climate change. Is this a case of govt. cover up, ineffective pressure groups or a media blind spot; or are nations simply basking in the benefits of carbon use without taking the responsibilities? Is this a collective case of fingers in the ears???

In many places, however, climate change is certainly not viewed as a distant threat. The report shows that adults in the less developed nations are up to FOUR times more concerned about the impact climate change will have on them personally than people living in countries with more highly developed economies.

Across the nations surveyed, 50% or more of people are concerned it will cause harm to them personally during their lifetime in 39 of 40 countries. Which country is the exception? The United Kingdom – where only 46% of people are either somewhat or very concerned that global warming will affect them. The global median of ‘very concerned’ is 40%.

The UK has the lowest level of concern of all 40 countries surveyed.

Another interesting point is the significant divide in concerns between people who are left leaning politically and those that are right leaning. With politically left leaning adults expressing significantly greater concern about the harm global warming is already causing – this divide is deepest in the US with a 27% point difference. In the UK the difference is 15 % points and 10 % point difference in concern about personal harm.

The data also shows there is strong [3:1] support across the globe for the Paris Climate agreement and Govt. intervention on climate change – with women and young adults most supportive of all.

Like a growing body of academics and activists, a significant majority of people (a ratio of 3:1 with those who favour technology solutions) also recognise that social change is now more important than technological solutions – with women and the 30-50 age group being most supportive of this – particularly in a number of the advanced economies such as the UK and US.

Interestingly, there is virtually no difference between higher and lower income groups.

In a number of the advanced economies that are responsible for much of annual CO2 emissions, it is women, more than men, who believe major changes in the way they live will be necessary to reduce the effects of global climate change. [This gender difference on the contribution required from lifestyle changes is particularly large in the U.S. (18 percentage points), Canada (15 points), the UK (14 points) and Australia (14 points).]

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In advanced economies women, more than men, believe major changes in the way they live will be necessary to reduce the effects of global climate change.

But what is most striking about this study is the depth of concern that young people across the globe have about global warming. Amongst the top polluting countries support for governments to limit emissions is strongest in the young [18-30s] and make international commitment to change. It is the young who believe most strongly that the richer countries should contribute more than developing nations to combatting climate change. And it is the young that most strongly believe that climate change is harming people right now.

What I find more than slightly depressing is that so little is known about how the young generation views their future. When you search for children’s or young people’s attitudes to the future there are all sorts of hits – related to health, smoking, school, education, the police, sexuality, drugs, family life, violence, self esteem. But next to nothing about the nature of the future they aspire to create.

I wonder if we have internalised the (understandably) negative premise that the 50 year debate about climate change is based upon. Isn’t it now time to help our young generation reclaim a positive view of their future – away from the doom of climate change, forced migration, resource shortages and financial inequities?

A recent study for the NUS (by Drayson et al, 2013) showed that 80% of students want sustainability included in their university education and more than two thirds consistently want it included in their own courses. There is real thirst for knowledge.

But is knowledge enough?

I was a kid in the 1960s.. and have very happy memories of growing up in suburban Manchester. That’s not to say there were no concerns in those days. In the Cold War era there were real fears of nuclear holocaust and plenty of CND and ‘Ban the Bomb’ marches to capture my youthful indignation at the state my parents’ generation had left the world in. But, I also remember great optimism and excitement for the future – I have fond memories of TV shows like the Good Life, Star Trek and Thunderbirds, we sent men to the moon and read about what space age living would be like in the AD2000! And there was no time constraint on our generation solving the problems our parents had left us.

Like Bernardo Bertolucci

“I remember being young in the 1960s.. We had a great sense of the future, a great big hope. This is what is missing in the youth today.

This being able to dream and to change the world”.

Our dreams are coming to pass – every one of us carries one of Captain Kirk’s communicators (in fact our youth cannot live without one, it seems) – and driverless cars are now running on our roads.

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It’s really not easy to find much evidence of youthful optimism about the future. I’m wondering if we need to start asking more loaded questions:

Would you like to live in a world:

  • Buildings produce more energy than they consume?
  • Where energy prices fall over time?
  • Road deaths are unheard of?
  • Air quality is as good in cities as it is in the countryside?
  • Cities grow more food than they consume?
  • Everybody contributes to their own community

future-vision

One of my greatest concerns is that the pressing nature of climate change and the negative rhetoric developed over 40 years is robbing the young generation of their dreams. The UK’s most pre-eminent climate scientist, Lord Nicholas Stern and a host of the world’s economists and scientists have concluded that an economy based on renewable energy and sustainable business practices is not only possible – they argue that it can also be good for business (Better Climate, Better Growth September 2014).

BUT – and it’s a big but – we only have a generation (and perhaps as little as 15 years) to make the significant changes to our economies and way of life that are required to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This is THE challenge of OUR generation – and this is as much a social transformation as it is a technological and economic one.

So as change makers, educators or parents, I belief one of the most important roles we have, is to help our young (as well as ourselves) to imagine what a fabulous new future might be like – as well as identifying the things we already do that are helping us live sustainably, amplifying the many innovations that are already helping to create a way of life that delivers abundance – not merely survival.

This blog post replays a talk given by Dr Fred Paterson at the Royal Society for the Arts in London in July 2016.

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