‘You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make’ – Jane Goodall. This blog explores the links between poverty and the unequal effects of and efforts to address climate change. It covers the UN Climate Action Summit, regional and local climate governance progress, and making environmentally responsible personal choices.
I have thought long and hard about what to say about the recent UN Climate Action Summit. I have been searching for something different to report. Then, on reflection, I realised there has not been very much coverage at all about what was decided. It is like the millions of people round the world joining a huge climate strike was the big story and the Summit was business as usual. However, the Friday climate strikes have continued to take place with slightly less media coverage and those behind the Extinction Rebellion have been extremely active.
I can report that there were meetings and discussions aplenty at the summit and I picked up the following threads. 66 countries indicated their intention to enhance the ambition in their climate change plans by 2020. Another 66 countries are working towards long term carbon neutrality. Plus dozens of businesses, investors, banks & civil society organisations made further commitments. There was praise for the emergence of new dynamic partnerships from across sectors that together are moving faster together on novel solutions. The feeling I gleaned from all I have read is that action is being taken, but much, much more is needed, more quickly, especially from wealthy countries.
Now people in different political parties and in different countries are racing to set up new tasks forces and working groups. Scottish Government passed a new climate bill and immediately critics said it wasn’t enough. UK Government is supporting a landmark study into biodiversity loss and impacts on the environment with Sir David Attenborough as the public face. Irish Government has advanced the Climate Action Plan with radical ideas and large dollops of cash with the hope of becoming a carbon-neutral country by 2050. Councils up and down these islands are declaring climate emergencies, setting targets and putting plans in place. Councils are delivering sustainable transport solutions, low emission zones, electric charging points, energy-efficient street lighting, flood prevention schemes, feeding school children and many other services that contribute to tackling climate change. Friends of the Earth have recently rated councils in England for climate policies, however taking long term difficult decisions requires long term funding. Newspapers are full of ideas including: a frequent flyer levy, controlling use of concrete, zero carbon buildings, no new coal powered electricity generation, planting trees to banning single use plastics. All of those approaches are needed and might be necessary. My question to you and myself is – are these actions sufficient?
Some of the issues around climate crisis are the same long term prevention policies as are needed to tackle poverty and inequality. It is always the little guy, ordinary citizens, or the little country that suffer first. At the UN Climate Action Summit, it was acknowledged that smaller and more vulnerable countries are pushing harder and faster. I was reminded of a fabulous and unique study – the Avon Longitudinal Study of Pregnancy & Childhood – that shows transgenerational effects of smoking in pregnancy on grandchildren. That made me pause for thought. Impacts of climate change including poor air quality, flooding, loss of habitats and food contamination might well have a similar transgenerational effect. Countries who cannot fight the big corporations are the very countries that have recyclates and toxic waste dumped on them by so-called developed counties and those impacts we know will be long-lasting.
When Greta Thunberg arrived in New York I was there cheering her on, but I spent a lot time reflecting on my own choices and experienced some regret that I had flown transatlantic, despite buying carbon offsetting for that flight. I was deeply shocked at the food packaging and waste in the USA food system. I took my KeepCup and refillable bottle (a small gesture I know) and sought out cafes that used non-plastic plates, cutlery and cups. I could hear people in food places mutter “here come the Brits” as I said; we will share that drink, meal or sandwich. I guess because I have been thinking deeply about climate change I felt disgusted that people would willing to waste so much food and double or triple pack takeouts. I think I will probably reduce the number of flights I take; I much prefer to travel by train when I am able.
I did travel sustainably and used the subway, train and bus extensively in the US and it is cheap and fairly reliable, My sadness escalated one evening walking in a park right next to the White House, the richest city in the biggest economy in the world, when I noticed that homeless people were claiming their benches for the evening. I saw a socially patterned problem with a clear racial profile and evidence of mental illness. I gave money to volunteers who were feeding and handing out blankets. October is Scotland’s tackling poverty month, and one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is ‘No Poverty’, aimed at ending all of its forms everywhere. Yet in the UK and Ireland, and other rich countries like the USA, we walk past poverty every single day.
In conclusion, I ask: are we all so busy and so intent on being our own best selves that we forgot to care about the world and those who are less fortunate? In 12 short months the next UN Summit on Climate Change will be in Glasgow and I do hope there will be more measurable action to report by then.
Or in the words of Dostoyevsky, will we continue to think, “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea”.