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“Simon Says” – The failures to turn around climate change

March 31, 2017

Europe’s biggest glacier

During a rest day on a skiing holiday to Chamonix in France this spring my family and I visited the famous glacier at the back of Mont Blanc – the Mer de Glace (sea of ice).  To get to it you travel up the mountain-side in a rack-and-pinion railway.  Once there you are blessed with panoramic views of France’s biggest glacier.  To continue down to the surface of the glacier you descend from the train station by cable-car built in the 1960s.  Imagine my surprise to learn that to get to the glacier itself you have to descend (and then climb on your return) 430 further steps down a hundred or so metres.  How incompetent of the engineers to build a cable car that stopped so far short of its destination.Mer du glass 1

As I climbed down all those steps it soon became evident it was not the engineers who were incompetent.  At regular intervals, I passed signs that indicated the height of the glacier during different years.  Even since I lived in the area 10 years ago there has been a huge retreat in the length and height of this fabulous feature.  From glacier looking up

The 1990 sign, just a quarter of a century ago, was a great height above the current glacier level (note the size of the people walking on the glacier).

In my lifetime this imposing, fabulous natural wonder has become a shadow of its former self.  The reason of course is climate change.  Never before have I seen climate change at such a personal, visceral level and it is pretty shocking. Glacier steps 1990 level

Backsliding on climate

This started me thinking about why we aren’t making more progress with combatting climate change.  We have known about the concept for several decades.  Science has, in recent years, been amassing more and more evidence that the cause is man-made – by burning fossil fuels at a hugely faster rate than they were originally laid down.  This “inconvenient truth” is therefore beyond reasonable doubt, as is the likely damaging effects on nature, our environment, people’s health and business.  The Copenhagen (2009) and Paris (2015) agreements marked important steps to protecting our planet and our own place within it. Since then though there has been considerable backsliding to the point where a US Republican government is actively rolling back Obama’s climate change actions.  In our own country, development funding is being hurled at projects with only the scantest of regards for climate change mitigation (reducing emissions).  Where climate or carbon footprints are actually mentioned, they tend to be entangled in cost savings for business rather than emissions reduction.

Why are we failing?

I have a, perhaps controversial, theory as to why we are losing ground, and it goes like this.  Reducing our carbon footprint so that climate change impacts are reduced permeates all aspects of our modern life.  We use energy or resources, which also consume energy, in almost everything we do.  Therefore if we are to make significant, meaningful changes to our carbon use that will bring global temperature changes below the desired 1.5°C change, we have to make significant, meaningful changes to the way we go about our lives and our businesses.

This is where I believe at least one problem arises.  Climate campaigners have in the past been too worthy and too aggressive.  Not all of course, but during recent years people and businesses have been made to feel increasingly guilty for living their lives.  Now admittedly most of us live well outside of anything that could be considered sustainable.  There is then no arguing with the need for us and our businesses to greatly reduce our carbon footprints in as many ways as possible, but I believe the climate campaigning has been too harassing and unrealistic.  If a goal appears unachievable then people give up.  Worse still, as we are currently seeing, business and some governments seek other theories and may even work to undermine climate change mitigation.  Environmentalism gets a bad name if it becomes too strident and this can cause the sort of backlash we are seeing at the moment.


Working with climate not against it

We need a balanced and reasoned approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation just as we do for so many other environmental issues.  We must find ever more innovative ways for working with communities and business rather than just campaigning against them.  The same end needs to be achieved, but we have a better chance of success if we look for overlapping aims and priorities.

Not all of this is bad because carbon emissions are inexorably linked to efficiency, which in turn is linked to cost savings.  Climate change mitigation is the smart commercial thing to do because it makes your company more efficient and competitive.  Working, as now to make available measures of success in reducing our carbon footprints and technology to do so, such as greater access to renewable energy and reductions in waste, is the way forward, not purely strident, guilt-laden criticism.

Playing nice won’t always get us there

The key is to provide the right incentives and disincentives to push industry and commerce in the right direction. In the case of market failure, where the invisible hand of the market fails to provide and protect public goods, such as a stable climate and oceans, there is still a need for government and the public to push it in the right direction. Much of it will be collaborative, but where the costs to specific industries (i.e. fossil fuel industries, transportation) and the profits being made, are too high, playing nice won’t get us there. The measures will have to be more drastic.  We the public can therefore make small individual contributions to reducing our own emissions, but the real power of working with individuals is harnessing public demand for change in industry so that they want to pursue the benefits of a more sustainable approach.

That French glacier may only be a highly visible symptom of the problem, but we must ensure we hand on glaciers to our children.  I don’t want to lose them on my shift.

DWT Chief Executive, Simon Cripps.

Photos (in order):

  • France’s Mer de Glace glacier © Simon Cripps
  • View from the glacier © Simon Cripps
  • Height of the glacier in 1990 © Simon Cripps
  • Climate change demonstration


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