Tim and Caroline Hand report on the significant sea-change in how we view climate change.

2019: the year of climate protest

Recent months have witnessed a drastic response from thousands of people, particularly the younger generation, to the dire prognosis for our world climate.

No one can have missed the dramatic protest movements that attracted worldwide attention this year. School strikes around the globe commenced on 15 March 2019, involving an estimated 1.4 million pupils. The youngsters demanded that their elders accept responsibility for the climate crisis and bring it to an end, promising to create change themselves if inactivity persists.

The Extinction Rebellion group then hit the headlines in April, and again in October, bringing London to a standstill through their protests. For example, they glued themselves to London’s Stock Exchange, caused more than £6000 damage at the Shell headquarters, and participated in a “die-in” at the Natural History museum by lying down under the blue whale skeleton, in order to force Government and society to face up to the urgency of what they term the “sixth mass extinction”. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who inspired the school strikes, became the public face of the protests. She addressed Parliament, and condemned world leaders at a UN climate summit, having already travelled to the European Parliament in Strasbourg and spoken with Pope Francis.

Success of the protests

The scale of the protests made them surprisingly effective in drawing a response from government. Despite initial reluctance, the UK Parliament eventually declared a climate emergency on 1 May 2019: Extinction Rebellion having viewed governmental truthfulness concerning the scale of the environmental crisis as a key goal. The Scottish and Welsh Governments had already agreed to make similar declarations. Local authorities followed suit, with 104 councils also declaring an emergency, and 69 committing to targets of net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

That said, it should be noted that the term “climate emergency” has no uniform definition and is subject to interpretation.

Extinction Rebellion also demanded legally binding pledges to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, to be achieved through the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly. This goal has been regarded by many as unrealistic, due to the radical changes that would have to implemented to make it a reality. It has been estimated by researchers at Zero Carbon Britain that 17,500 additional wind turbines would be required in order to achieve this target by 2030, as would significant reductions in meat and dairy consumption, and restrictions on flying.

However, key figures, such as Dr Gail Bradbrook (a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion), have argued that such drastic action is entirely necessary due to the severity of the situation.

New net zero target

As an alternative, the Prime Minister pledged to ensure that emissions reach net zero by 2050 — compared to the previous target of an 80% reduction in emissions by that date — but this target has been condemned as insufficient by Extinction Rebellion. The new net zero target is subject to a review in five years’ time to determine whether other countries are taking similar action and may be abandoned if the UK is believed to be facing unfair competition as a result of it. Furthermore, some doubt that the 2050 target itself can be reached, due to the poor progress in reaching the mid-term target for the previous 80% goal.

However, supporters of the target may be heartened to learn that France has also chosen to adopt it, lessening the possibility of unfair competition, and potentially heralding widespread commitment to the target.

A new phenomenon?

It is clear that the recent protests have had a far more significant impact than previous demonstrations by groups such as Greenpeace and Plane Stupid, which have usually only attracted comparatively small numbers of participants and have been regarded by the establishment as nuisances or even criminal acts.

For example, many were frustrated and irritated by the attempt of 13 Plane Stupid protestors to challenge plans for a third runway at Heathrow by chaining themselves to the northern runway. This caused delays and disruption in July 2015, with 25 flights cancelled at “astronomical cost”. After the protesters were told to expect jail, a senior police officer commented that: "These convictions send out a clear message that such behaviour will not be tolerated.” This contrasts greatly with the huge number of participants in the Extinction Rebellion protests — more than 1000 were arrested in the March protests — with even a few police officers joining in. A week after the protests began, a further 30,000 people had offered their support to the group.

Similarly, with the school strikes, many headteachers accepted that the pupils were expressing a valid concern and did not choose to punish those who missed school to join the demonstrations. Schools around the country used the strike days to educate pupils about climate change. A school in Matlock, for example, invited in the local MP, giving the young people an opportunity to express their views and hold the Government to account.

Changing public attitudes

The high level of public support following the demonstrations was highlighted by a YouGov poll in June indicating that the environment is now regarded as the third most pressing issue confronting the nation. Traditional attitudes of ignorance and apathy have been challenged by the protests, which forced many to face up to the gravity of the climate crisis and its potential ramifications both for those alive today and for future generations.

Even before the Extinction Rebellion protests, attitudes to the “climate crisis” had been changing. In an official survey by BEIS published in March 2019, 80% of people said they were either fairly concerned (45%) or very concerned (35%) about climate change. This is the highest proportion of overall concern since the survey started and is driven by an increase in the proportion of people “very concerned” about climate change.

This growing anxiety about climate change follows in the wake of the changing attitudes towards plastic, sparked by the distressing scenes in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II which graphically depicted the impact of plastic on marine life. Online searches for “plastic recycling” rose by 55% after the documentary’s final episode, following which the BBC pledged to ban single-use plastics by 2020. When the Treasury consulted on proposals for a tax on plastics, they received the biggest response in their history — 162,000 responses — of which the vast majority were from individual members of the public.

How green are millennials?

The idea that the protests reflect an increased engagement and awareness concerning the environment among young people is supported by the fact that 48.8% of 18 to 35-year-olds around the world declared that “climate change/destruction of nature” was their primary concern in a 2017 survey.

Many younger people have also chosen to adopt a vegan diet in order to reduce their carbon footprint (it was reported in May 2018 that 56% of those aged between 16 and 29 had experimented with veganism over the previous 12 months). Furthermore, they have also demonstrated strong interest in sustainable business; almost three-out-of-four millennial respondents in a 2015 survey stated that they would be willing to pay more for sustainable products.

However, it would be inaccurate to state that younger generations are providing the best example in all aspects of environmentally friendly behaviour. In general, millennial behaviour with regards to recycling is far poorer than that of their elders, as indicated by a 2017 UK survey in which 28% of 18 to 34-year-olds stated that they were unsure whether the items they placed in recycling bins were recyclable, and 19% stated that they gave little consideration to what they put into bins.

This concerning phenomenon is widespread, with only 62% of the 18-34 demographic in America believing that recycling was the right thing to do in 2014, as opposed to 78% of those aged 65 or older. As such, it must be concluded that young people should not be conclusively described as by far the most environmentally friendly generation and can, in some instances, display worrying attitudes which could have serious implications if left unchallenged.

Movers and shakers

The current level of awareness regarding the climate crisis does not merely owe its existence to the actions of Extinction Rebellion and the school strikers. Key individuals in a variety of areas of society have served as figureheads in order to raise awareness. While Sir David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have attracted particular attention and praise, they are by no means isolated voices. For instance, former US vice president Al Gore, a longstanding advocate of action concerning the climate, brought climate science to a worldwide audience through his Inconvenient Truth film. Celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk has — very successfully — innovated and championed electric vehicles and energy storage systems. His commitment to renewable energy led him to build a solar grid in Puerto Rico in October 2017, following the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, and oppose the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Showbusiness celebrities have also taken a stance on environmental issues: Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, has provided investment for a plant-based food company and participated in conservation efforts concerning the vaquita porpoise, the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Such actions highlight the important role and responsibilities of influential figures in the struggle to prevent climate catastrophe and reinforce the idea that the burden of combatting our destructive impact on the planet cannot be borne by campaigners alone. Indeed, the Extinction Rebellion protests were supported by Olympic athletes, actors, authors, academics and even the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Achievements behind the scenes

While the actions of protestors and celebrities may have raised environmental awareness to a new high, it would be a mistake to undervalue the long-term achievements of government and business in the move towards a more sustainable society.

Environmental Management Systems are now standard practice, and larger companies are eager to advertise their successes in reducing waste, shrinking their carbon footprint and eliminating single use plastics. The business community has responded to public opinion by withdrawing investment in fossil fuels — much to the chagrin of the oil industry. OPEC’s secretary general was reported in the Daily Telegraph on 6 July as complaining that Greta Thunberg’s young campaigners are “beginning to infiltrate boardrooms and parliaments” and that this “mass mobilisation of world opinion” is “perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward”.

The UK Government has led the world in introducing pioneering environmental legislation such as the Climate Change Act 2008, which commits the nation to achieving challenging carbon budgets. In 2019, 36% of UK electricity is generated by renewables, an achievement which would have seemed unattainable a few decades ago. And whatever views we hold on Brexit, it cannot be denied that the EU has enforced stringent standards of pollution control and has been a driving force in the decarbonisation of electricity generation. Ironically, Extinction Rebellion chose to challenge the government that has arguably done more to tackle climate change than most other countries around the world.

The fear, however, is that the current swell of concern could be “too little, too late”. This is of particular worry bearing in mind that the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the USA, have dragged their feet when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels. Amazon’s environmental best sellers include grim apocalyptic titles such as The Uninhabitable Earth and The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change — a reference to missed opportunities in 1980s America.

How ready are the majority of people to change their lifestyles? The 2018 Road Traffic Report from the RAC predicts that UK road traffic will grow between 17% and 51% by 2050. Global air traffic continues to grow by around 5% a year, and we have recently been shocked by revelations that many items of “fast fashion” are worn only once before being consigned to landfill.

It remains to be seen whether the recent protests mark a return to the dynamic, radical attitudes of the 1970s and 1980s, when the environment first hit the news. This era witnessed key milestones such as the first Earth Day in April 1970, the establishment of pollution control legislation in both the USA and Europe and the mobilisation of ordinary people to combat acid rain and ozone depletion — two battles which the planet has won. In recent decades, despite the inclusion of environmental issues on the school curriculum, environmentally friendly behaviour has often been dismissed by teenagers as bland and uninspiring, typified by frequently ignored exhortations to recycle paper and turn off lights and showers.

The school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests have woken up a new generation of teenagers to the urgency of the climate crisis. This could herald greater public engagement with environmental issues in the long term, as well as widespread adoption of sustainable practices, or could merely represent a brief moment of concern and dynamism that will eventually fade into renewed apathy or defeatism or be undermined by the unwillingness to make personal sacrifices.

Only time will tell.

Last reviewed 22 October 2019