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Dr Tara Shine: Lots of people making small changes add up to a lot of impacts

Covid showed that successfully tackling something that colossal depended on everybody, from individuals to governments, playing their part. And climate change, according to Dr Tara Shine, is no different.

The scientist, explorer, presenter, author and leading authority on climate change explains why fighting humanity's greatest threat is not only everyone’s responsibility but is in everyone’s interest.

If we want more people to get involved in the conversation on climate change, we need to make it relevant to everyone. And that means finding a new language that no longer only speaks to that small number of people already on board.

We first need to stop talking about “green agendas” or things being “green”. Because if it’s just a “green” discussion, this doesn’t make it easy enough for people to see what’s in it for them.

Instead, we have to make them understand that climate change involves everything. It’s about human well-being; economic security; health; jobs; where you put your pension. It is about every kind of banal decision, as well as the huge decisions you make every day.

One way I showed this was by writing a book about how we can reduce our impact on the planet through everyday objects in all our homes. The book shows that no matter who you are, whether you live in a big or small apartment, whether you’re well-to-do or pinching your pennies, there is something everyone can do to be a part of the solution.

Individual actions are significant. Lots of people making small changes add up to a lot of impacts. But if we bring more people into the conversation - and help them see what’s in it - we also increase the chances of getting public support for the systemic changes we need to make.

It’s, therefore, a false argument to debate whether individual action or systemic change is more critical. We require both. If there ever was an example of that in practice, it is Covid. Right now when we’re getting back into high-level restrictions on our lives again, we need governments to heed scientific advice and set the right regulations and policies. But fighting Covid will absolutely not work unless we have individuals taking responsibility and action simultaneously.

I don’t see climate being any different from this. It needs to be grounded in science and fact; it requires governments to take difficult decisions; to set the direction of travel. And it needs each of us as individuals to play our part.

But a couple of things are needed to accelerate people’s understanding of the situation. Until now, most of us haven’t had a lived experience of climate impact, but that’s changing. Perhaps we haven’t faired too badly in Ireland and the UK recently, but if you’re living in the US or Australia, the fires have been a wake-up call. People were scared and have seen their lives ruined. This lived experience brings climate change to the forefront of people’s consciousnesses.

The other thing I think that’s been missing is a general peer-to-peer conversations on climate change. It’s not enough for people to hear it in the media or from politicians; they need to listen to it from their trusted peers. Climate change has to become a conversation you have with your friends or the mums in the toddler group you take your kids to. Here, you’re so much more likely to be influenced by them. When they tell you what they did to make their baby sleep at night, you listen with both ears open, and you know it’s the best advice you could get.

We also all need to become more curious. We are curious as kids and we don’t just suddenly stop being curious. We get too busy to stop and think, and I believe that busyness prevents us from questioning things.

Paradoxically enough, the thing that Covid has given some of us is a little more time to think. And when you have time to think, it’s a time to be curious and ask questions. Like, why can’t I recycle these things? Why will my pension advisor say he doesn’t have ethical pensions to tell me about? Why does a bank not offer me a green mortgage?

And if we can’t find out the answers, we need to demand greater transparency, particularly from companies. We need to be curious about why some things are so cheap. Why is Aldi, for instance, flogging £3 Halloween costumes right now? How could you possibly make a Halloween costume for £3? What’s it made of? Who made it? Were they appropriately paid? All around us there are things to be curious about, and if you can’t find the answers, if Aldi can’t explain how they can make the costume for £3, then don’t buy it.

We created the problem so we can solve it

We’ve entered into this Anthropocene where we are now the most significant influences as human beings. For me, there’s still an open question as to whether the anthropocene is going to go down in geological history as the time when human beings wiped themselves off the planet or whether it was a time when human beings almost wiped themselves off the planet and pulled themselves back from the brink. And they did this because they were an intelligent species; they realised where they were going wrong, and they did a U-turn. They started to invest in and work with nature and not try to be all-powerful over it. Simply put, we created the problem so we can solve it. And it’s completely in humanity’s self-interest to do so.

To stand a better chance of solving this comes down to the type of leadership and diversity of leadership. And one thing for sure is that women leaders bring a greater sense of legacy to the table. They’re far more legacy minded than men.

Take, for instance, that family photo from COP21 in Paris or any meeting of the G20. It’s all men in suits. Men lead all these negotiations in the UNFCCC, and the higher you go in seniority, the more men there are than women. Until we fix this picture, we fix nothing.

We also need greater collective wisdom and more women’s voices; we need Indigenous voices, the voices of people with disability and marginalised people at the table. We need to give a voice to the people on the frontlines of climate change because they’re closest to the problem and may also be closest to holding the solutions.

Imagine if we were to create solutions and decisions with all that diversity, thinking, and thoughts around the table. Of course we would be making better decisions. But to get there it requires patience and humility, which are two things we don’t have in great quantity. But if we use them, the rewards will be amazing.


Dr Tara Shine's book, How To Save Your Planet One Object at a Time (Simon & Schuster Ltd) is available now from all good bookstores.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 8th October 2020


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