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Climate Changes

Ready to take action

The English know what to do to fight global warming

carlos fioravantiThe church of St. Giles: new light on man’s limitscarlos fioravanti

From Oxford

In England, talk about climate change has come down out of the clouds and entered the kitchen, the bedroom and the bathroom, as plans for reducing energy consumption and the emission of gases that are accelerating a rise in the planet’s average temperature. The proposals that have been made imply sacrificing both comfort and status: keeping the heating at a lower temperature, having cooler baths, using the microwave less often, changing incandescent light bulbs for fluorescent ones, changing the refrigerator for a more economical one, using the bus more and the car less, stopping traveling by plane and (for those who have not yet bought one) forgetting all about the much coveted plasma television, which uses much more energy than an ordinary one.

You think this is a lot? It doesn’t stop there. Using the argument that people should act even though governments may not yet have adopted a clear position about how to deal with climate change, Chris Goodall, author of the book How to live a low carbon life (published by Earthscan), a manual for reducing individual greenhouse gases, also suggests reducing the daily consumption of food and industrialized food products, stopping going to the supermarket so frequently and using public transport more, or when possible, a bicycle. At work, avoid air-conditioning and reduce electricity consumption by switching off computers and lights when going to lunch, for example.

Goodall detailed and justified these recommendations when, under the watchful eyes and attentive ears of elegant ladies who are no longer concerned about hiding their white hair, he gave a talk in front of the altar of St. Giles, one of the dozens of churches in Oxford. No, he was not a clergyman in the strict sense of the word, even though he was tacitly preaching humility and resigning oneself to adopting more modest habits. Goodall was just one of the speakers invited to talk in this small church, with its stone walls and powerful peal of bells, which was constructed between 1123 and 1133, about a subject that was of interest to habitual church-goers and at the same time might attract more people to  church services, the choir and  church bazaars.

Discoveries and concerns about the probable impact of climate change were not only restricted to newspapers and television. Over the last few months dozens of talks and debates have brought people together, fueled dialogue and mobilized this lively medieval English city. The lectures, as these meetings are called, which almost always comprise  half an  hour for ideas to be expressed and another half hour for questions and answers, occupied not only St. Giles, but also the auditoriums of the colleges and institutes of Oxford University. They also reached the main offices of the mayor. There, during the afternoon and evening of June 5, 2007 the region’s residents heard (and questioned) specialists, learned about the local authority’s plans and saw what they could do to reduce energy consumption.

Weeks before, on a cold and rainy Saturday, students and professors from Oxford University’s Exeter College, environmentalists and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari Maathai, staged a happy demonstration led by a man in dark glasses, a gray morning suit, with a large red sash across his chest and a blue umbrella with a fringe, who danced in front of a small jazz band.

As in every good demonstration the group gained new supporters as it passed through the narrow streets. The crowd moved on to another college, as Oxford University’s schools are called. Wangari Maathai then put on the boots she was offered, picked up spade, dug a hole and planted a tree.

“Anybody can contribute to improving the world”, she said. “Anyone who plants a tree can plant a billion trees.” This is more than a duty, “We have the right to protect the world”, she emphasized. “If you don’t have money you’re even more valuable, because you have to rely even more on self-governance.”

The English are worried. They live isolated geographically on an archipelago and are subject to not very friendly weather, distinctive for its unpredictability: a relatively warm winter was followed by an abnormally cold spring and the summer promises to be hotter than normal. According to an exhibition of 90 photos from the National Trust and the Magnum Agency, which started in London in April 2007 and toured other cities until January 2008, higher temperatures are already drying out the fields, throwing plant reproduction into disarray, attracting pests, in short, damaging the landscape and compromising life in England.

There is also no lack of arguments for encouraging more austerity in the already Spartan habits of day-to-day living. According to Goodall, considering that each house has on average 20 incandescent lamps, exchanging them could reduce the consumption of electricity used for lighting by almost three quarters. Some of his proposals may sound somewhat impractical or radical, like using a wood-burning stove instead of a gas one for heating water or even the house itself.

Goodall believes that these transformations in our habits to reduce the impact of climate change will only advance if there is an agreement that can draw together all social, political and economic classes. In principle, this is not an impossible task in his opinion, because England achieved something similar between 1787 and 1833.

This was when opposing religious and political groups united in a national campaign that became a patriotic cause to put an end to slavery. “Without a campaign like this, which values the sense of moral obligation as well as individual or group differences, life on Earth may become intolerable in 50 years”, he commented.

Today there is intense coverage in newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, starting with the BBC, the public network, and dozens of books and websites, dealing with the consequences of global warming and the possibilities for actions that will avoid abrupt changes in people’s lives. This climate of concern has been slowly building because of episodes like the presentation of the Stern Report in October 2006. This study of almost 700 pages forecast costs in the order of 20% of the global GDP as a result of natural catastrophes resulting from global warming.

The debate then spilled over from its strictly scientific circle and mobilized environmentalists, politicians and ordinary citizens in their search for responsibilities, answers and actions. Newspapers and websites showed how to calculate – and reduce – energy consumption, but so far, perhaps because of the complexity of the problem, there seems to be a certain disharmony between consciousness of the problem and effective action. Companies, for example, have still not shown results in keeping with the plans they announced to contain greenhouse gas emissions.

In May the heads of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting together in Bangkok, Thailand, reinforced the idea that changes are going to be necessary in life styles, along with the initiatives of governments from each country to reduce the impact of climate change – more severe droughts and heavier flooding, the loss of agricultural crops, mass population migrations and even conflicts for the possession of fertile land.

But it is not easy to transform concern into action. In an investigation carried out by the Energy Saving Trust, half of those interviewed from 1,192 households are still not doing anything to contain these probable impacts, although 80% of the interviewees believe that climate change is already affecting England. The majority proved not to be prepared or willing to change their life styles and put aside their holiday trips or their dreams of owning a plasma TV: 40% have still not done anything to economize energy, but 39% said they are prepared to make small changes in their lives. Only 4% had made any radical changes in their day-to-day lives.

George Marshall, director of the Climate Outreach Information Network, spent years trying to understand why people do not react more intensely and why it is so difficult to change, even when faced with the prospect of so much loss and so many tragedies. One of the conclusions he reached is that “The lack of connection between what people know and what they do is a socially constructed cultural problem”.

According to Marshall, the responses are more intense to threats that are visible, immediate, with an historical precedent, arising from simple causes, caused by other social groups and that have a direct impact. The problem is that, on the contrary, the dangers arising from climate change are invisible, unprecedented, happen slowly, are complex in cause and caused by everybody, with indirect and unforeseeable effects.

Out of this came the nine strategies for denying climate change, as presented by Suzanne Stoll-Kleemann, Tim O’Riordan and Carlo Jaeger in 2001 in the journal, Global Environmental Change. These are the metaphor of displaced commitment (when someone says “I protect the environment in other ways”), condemnation of the accuser (“you have no right to demand this of me”), the denial of responsibility (“I’m not the cause of this problem”), a rejection of blame (“I did nothing wrong”), ignorance (“I didn’t know”), the feeling of lack of individual power (“I make no difference”), generic limitations (“there are many obstacles”), pessimism (“society is corrupt”) and over- attachment to comfort (“it’s very difficult for me to change my behavior”).

What to do, given so many barriers? “We can recognize this  trend of denial, encourage emotional responses and develop a culture of engagement that is visible, immediate and urgent”, said Marshall. The following week, reading passages from Genesis, Deuteronomy and Jeremiah to show that human beings also have a role as guardians of nature, the vicar of St. Giles, Andrew Bunch, remembered: “We change nothing by merely thinking that we’re good”.