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What Assures Consumers On Climate Change?
Sarah Rich, 24 Jun 07
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The mantra of businesses targeting and converting consumers towards sustainable purchasing patterns has long been "small steps make all the difference." At Worldchanging, we are generally of the mind that in fact small steps ultimately make no difference in the face of catastrophic environmental collapse and limited time to make real change. But it's never an easy argument, since everyone has to start somewhere, and our consumption choices matter a great deal in aggregate.

Last week, two UK-based organizations, AccountAbility and Consumers International, released an extensive consumer survey exploring the big problem/small action conundrum, among many other things. They surveyed 2,734 people in the UK and the US to get a better understanding of consumers' sentiments about how and what they buy, and most importantly to find out who they trust (and how much) for information about their decisions. The 64-page report (available as a downloadable PDF) contains some predictable findings, such as the fact that "climate change is a mainstream consumer issue," but it also delves deeper, investigating the problems inherent in current consumer trends towards "climate consciousness" and presenting solutions that might push us past a touchy transitional period between understanding the problem and learning to take effective action.

[I]n the context of the current patterns of consumer action and the urgency and scale of change needed, there is a clear danger that the explosion of consumer facing initiatives will fall short in achieving significant impacts...Another scenario is possible, however: a pathway of synergistic voluntary and mandatory action which succeeds in ratcheting up our response to climate change. It requires that businesses and others working with them effectively assure consumers that they can and should take action that not only reduces their own climate impact but which supports wider cultural change and the development of national and international norms. Such business initiatives also need to link to a foundation of progressively strengthened scientific consensus and public policy to ensure that action is based on sound science and international agreement as well as intergenerational equity, not just driven by 'what sells best' to consumers.
Such an approach seeks to create the conditions for synergies and collaboration, but without slowing down the process of innovation and engagement. If such a 'shuttle system' could be constructed from current fragmented developments, and if it could be made to cycle fast enough, it would drive the systemic and disruptive change needed over the next decade to step back from the brink of catastrophic climate change.

The survey pool strikes me as quite a bit too small to be highly representative of consumer culture broadly across the UK and US, but the conclusions presented in the report have lost nothing to the sample size. The call for movement towards consumerism that falls in line with and fuels "systemic and disruptive change" applies across markets of varying sizes and to businesses and consumers of all kinds. But the challenge is just that: movement. "Few issues generate so much international agreement and so little effective action," they say, "We remain in the grip of a series of inertia traps unable to envision or take bold action." The way to shake ourselves out of inertia will come from an integrated and collaborative approach between individuals, governments, businesses and civil society organizations.

Transparency and accountability form the levers for achieving consumer shifts that match the magnitude of the problem. They point to the effectiveness of marketing tools and labeling systems that make apparent companies' intention to provide their customers with authentic stories of corporate responsibility. They acknowledge, however, that such "voluntary consumer-facing initiatives" have always hit limits to their potential impact, perhaps succeeding in facilitating wide adoption of their gesture, but with little demonstrable change to the overall problem. Consumers either reach a point of fatigue with the decision-making process, or they readily opt for the more sustainable product, but then feel they've done their part and halt the progress towards wider shifts.

There are loads of statistics, research data and quotes from survey participants to comb through, and analyses of the effectiveness of emerging approaches, all of which are fascinating whether you're a policymaker, CEO or just a concerned consumer. They support continued innovation and creativity as key factors in moving far enough fast enough. What I found to be one of the strongest and most compelling statements in the report came in their Policy Recommendations section, where they lay a great deal of responsibility on global governmental policies to reconcile the issues of scale between consumer actions and industry-wide changes.

By 2015, a 'one planet lifestyle' should be a practically achievable and practiced reality, not the preserve of the committed few. For this to happen, governments around the world need to agree upon a basis for one planet governance of the global atmospheric commons...Industry level cap-and-trade schemes need to be complemented by mechanisms for securing carbon budgets at a household level. Crucially, this will require an understanding and agreement as to what an equitable and sustainable personal carbon budget looks like, clearly translated and communicated to consumers everywhere so they can understand their rights and responsibilities and how their actions and choices contribute to this one planet goal.

If there were one graceful phrase that encompassed the ecological, political, and social elements of this challenge, "one planet governance of the global atmospheric commons" might be it. It's a mouthful, but it pulls human rights and equal access to sustainable livelihoods into an environmental issue that can't be resolved on science alone. In the consumer context, this integration will be key to piecing together "fragmented debate and action" into a cohesive, effective force for change.

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Comments

I bet posting your letter 5 times in the same comment thread makes your message all the more credible.

But I'll humour you and assume that fluctuations in the suns output is to blame for climate change (I have never been completely sold to the religion of CO2 myself) We would still be ignoring about a million other issues that are caused by the lifestyle that produces high CO2 emissions. So by saying "It's not our fault", regardless of if it's true or not, we also wash our hands of any need to act on the million or so other problems we cause and go back to happily driving our oversized cars (Causing thousands of deaths every year in traffic accidents), eating our fastfood (Don't even get me started on that), Buying our cheap clothes (while people, among them children, in the third world work themselves to death making the clothes) and exporting our cheap subsidised grain (Knocking third world farmers out of the market.) Not to mention the impending dissaster that is Peak oil. I could go on.

Climate change is so far the biggest catalyst for changing these patterns. So even if we don't cause global warming by driving our SUV's I still think we need to take this opportunity to take a good look at what we are doing wrong and fix it.

So going around saying "All is well! For behold, it's the suns fault!" Does not help anyone.


Posted by: theCroc on 25 Jun 07

What it all seems to boil down to is: as a human community, we need to change our behaviors and the way we think. This doesn't sit well with many (I suspect Thomas is one) because it means big changes. People resist change, in spite of the fact that just being alive means constant change. It means giving up activities and amenities that we have come to take for granted. It means living more simply and lightly on the planet . . . or not living at all. Seems a pretty clear choice to me.

Regardless of whether climate change is being caused by rising CO2 emissions, sun spots, or some other agency, we need to change how we consume our non-renewable resources (including fossil fuels, minerals, and water). Our past experiences with diminishing resources have been relatively short lived and fixable. If we exhausted the soil, we moved somewhere else or fertilized. If there was drought, we moved or figured out how to store and move water from one place to another (ditches, wells, dams, aquifers). If we cut down forests for building and fuel, we moved to the next forest or figured out other ways to build and heat. With the advent of cheap oil, we just began shipping what we needed from one spot to another. The moving option is basically gone. That leaves us with figuring out how to adapt to having diminishing non-renewable resources. We must begin using our non-renewable resources carefully and wisely, keeping in mind that there are generations that will follow us . . . specifically your kids, your grand-kids, and their kids and grand-kids.


Posted by: Elmdea on 25 Jun 07

Yes, finally, this is the whole point, small steps in the aggregate can make a big difference. The problem has been that (in addition to making structural changes like moving to electric cars, renewable energy, cradle to cradle production, etc.) how to get more than 4% of the population (i.e. closer to 95% of the population) to be committed to making individual lifestyle changes. Some of the ideas you've reviewed here are good ones.

I especially like the idea of a "one planet lifestyle," but I'm curious, what would be an "equitable and sustainable personal carbon budget?" Is there a number above zero that would be acceptable?

It would be good to have something to shoot for besides zero because, without massive changes in power production and cars, zero is very difficult to reach if one can't afford PV panels and an expensive electric car.

For instance, my family reduced its electricity consumption from about 5,600 kilowatts a year to about 4,200 kilowatts by installing a gas stove instead of an electric one, installing CFLs throughout the house, never leaving any electric appliances on standby, and being committed to turning things off that are not being used. (A family of six.) So how much further do we need to go?

If there's an acceptable level of CO2 output per person per year (besides zero) that would be a handy number to know. Or is there a level that our CO2 emissions need to be at by some number x by some time y? If there are targets for countries I think targets for individuals could be useful as well.


Posted by: Tavita on 25 Jun 07

Consider what would it take for popularly elected governments to be able to push for "one planet governance of the global atmospheric commons". Even if Al Gore had wanted to, he couldn't have.

Nothing in the article hints at what is required so that electorates in rich countries will actually support such limits. Especially since they are still being sold on the idea that capitalistic and economic growth matter most for their wellbeing.

Its easier to sell them on different lighting solutions (consume differently) and to turn off standby devices at the plug. I think this is the core issue of big / little steps towards sustainability. Nowhere are leaders willing or able to step up with big changes - since others will stand up and exagerate what must be "given up". And neither rich nor poor electorates are willing to restrict their consumption or freedom (now - the future isn't their individual problem).

How do you change that?


Posted by: brad on 25 Jun 07

I too love the phrase One Planet Lifestyle but can't see that the inequalities amongst the peoples of the planet will ever be ironed out enough to allow it to happen.
While personal carbon budgeting is a sensible goal, the responsibility for much of consumer behaviour still lies with the manufacturers who provide the means for that behaviour. For instance, if manufacturers didn't build in standby systems, there would be no energy loss. If vehicle manufacturers restricted what they offered to lower emission models, albeit with high levels of luxury for the fat cats, then there would be a lessening of emissions. If carbon rich production techniques were not used and carbon producing products were not offered to the public, a significant impact on the probems of climate change can be made.
Government and business control most of what the public can and can't do. They can make the difference, individuals will follow.


Posted by: Mike Reynolds on 29 Jun 07

I too love the phrase One Planet Lifestyle but can't see that the inequalities amongst the peoples of the planet will ever be ironed out enough to allow it to happen.
While personal carbon budgeting is a sensible goal, the responsibility for much of consumer behaviour still lies with the manufacturers who provide the means for that behaviour. For instance, if manufacturers didn't build in standby systems, there would be no energy loss. If vehicle manufacturers restricted what they offered to lower emission models, albeit with high levels of luxury for the fat cats, then there would be a lessening of emissions. If carbon rich production techniques were not used and carbon producing products were not offered to the public, a significant impact on the probems of climate change can be made.
Government and business control most of what the public can and can't do. They can make the difference, individuals will follow.


Posted by: Mike Reynolds on 29 Jun 07

I too love the phrase One Planet Lifestyle but can't see that the inequalities amongst the peoples of the planet will ever be ironed out enough to allow it to happen.
While personal carbon budgeting is a sensible goal, the responsibility for much of consumer behaviour still lies with the manufacturers who provide the means for that behaviour. For instance, if manufacturers didn't build in standby systems, there would be no energy loss. If vehicle manufacturers restricted what they offered to lower emission models, albeit with high levels of luxury for the fat cats, then there would be a lessening of emissions. If carbon rich production techniques were not used and carbon producing products were not offered to the public, a significant impact on the probems of climate change can be made.
Government and business control most of what the public can and can't do. They can make the difference, individuals will follow.


Posted by: Mike Reynolds on 29 Jun 07

Mike, and if computer companies would make their energy saving software easy and fun to use there would be greater savings as well. Though there is one company that is trying,

http://co2saver.snap.com

And I agree, Mike, in addition to individual actions there has to be leadership from government and business. And if there isn't such leadership then we as individuals need to get active to replace those in government with people who will act and pressure business to do its part with protest and with a buying patterns.

And there are signs that things may change after the next election in the US,

http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=aaqEuN9qUYDs&refer=exclusive

Banks are snapping up UN carbon permits betting on the US getting into the cap and trade business sometime soon after the election. They hope to cash in on possible 200-300% returns on the investment. Imagine, banks with a vested interest in a president green enough to get a cap and trade system in place; apparently, that's what is happening.

So how does one buy a UN carbon permit?

Cheers


Posted by: Tavita on 29 Jun 07



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