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There is nothing democratic about the sacred, but there is definitely something sacred about democracy.

I felt that sense of the sacred intensely when I witnessed 84% of my country's electorate turn out to vote in Scotland on Thursday, and I felt it again on Sunday as I witnessed about 40,000 people in London march in solidarity with over 300,000 in New York, and a total of around 600,000 people around the globe, all calling for action on climate change.

You'll have heard the chant that tends to accompany any major political march of this nature: "Tell me what democracy looks like! - This is what democracy looks like!" Who could fail to be impressed, moved even, by people in unison, embodied, alive, emboldened, speaking truth to power. It was a staggeringly impressive organisational feat, and a much needed shot in the arm for an issue that suffers from lack of public concern and media oxygen.

Look at the image below. Sunday 21st September 2014 might even be marked as the day the world finally 'woke up' to climate change.

Climate Marches

But it might not.

In fact it almost certainly won't.

It gives me no joy to say this, but the problem with climate change is not so much lack of action, it's a lack of agreement about the kinds of action that are required. So when I heard that what united the marchers was that they wanted 'action' on climate change, the sense of hope and inspiration was tempered with a little sadness. Generic calls for action, I believe, are part of the problem; part of what prevents us from facing up to the monstrous complexity and embarrassing urgency of the problem.

 The cartoon below* tells you everything you need to know about why the marching is necessary, but also reminds us that the message of the march is by no means a new one:

Embedded image permalink

So what to do?

Emma Thompson appeared on The Andrew Marr Show - a refreshingly different face for a painfully old story- but she spoke mostly about Arctic ice, not human impacts we can readily identify with. She also quoted her daughter however, who elegantly captured the nature of the problem: "It's like we are being invaded by Martians", she said, "except we are the Martians".

And it really is an existential threat of that nature, albeit a slow-burning one. To be clear, the overwhelming impacts of climate change are not about a few cheeky if somewhat devastating storms, droughts and floods that we can handle with some good emergency services and a stiff upper lip. The relatively neglected point that we tend to forget is about is the concomitant impact on our food, water and energy supplies, and likely consequences relating to disease, poverty, inequality, immigration and war.

One should take care not to sound alarmist (even if it’s bl**dy alarming!) but it is worth considering that such impacts are not projected to take place at some point in the distant future in a far away land, but coming soon, one way or the other, to you, your family and friends, in a city near you.

After one of many major international climate reports a few months ago I gave the following response, which seems every bit as relevant today: 

  • Please don’t say: “The time to act is now!” Generic calls for ‘Action’ are utterly futile. Please, if you think we should act, have the courage to stick your neck out and say how you think we should act, keeping in mind our competing commitments to energy security and prices, and economic growth.

  • Please don’t blame the politicians. That is a weak willed form of projection. Advise, encourage, threaten, cajole, heckle if you have to, but don’t blame them as if they had nothing to do with you, or as if they knew what to do, but are too feckless or lazy to follow through. It’s not like that at all; most politicians don’t even properly understand that the core issue is about global fossil fuel production, not reducing national emissions. If climate change is a pivotal political issue for you, let them know, but also help them see a constructive way to act that is not merely tokenistic.

  • Please don’t blame the climate sceptics or deniers. At least they are consistent, and many give this issue far more of their intellectual and emotional energy than their opponents. You could blame the media for giving them too much air time, but I believe it’s the people calling for ‘action’ who have no idea what that means that really keep us where we are. Our report on ‘stealth denial’ begs a lot of methodological questions, but we are confident that the majority of the population can be described as broadly accepting the reality of the problem, but denying (technically, disavowing) the related emotions, agency and responsibility that we collectively need to acknowledge and build on. In other words, the deeper and subtler forms of denial are the real problem. 

  • Please don’t over-simplify. Climate change is complicated, but not impossibly so. I believe seeing it as a problem with seven dimensions (science, law, technology, money, democracy, culture & behaviour) is a useful map on which people can see themselves, and their scope to act more clearly. The RSA are currently working with COIN to develop this idea with a view to changing the public debate.

  • Yes, of course we need 'action' on climate change, but we are the people who have to decide what 'action' means, what it costs, and what is lost as a result of it. The rest is just sound and fury. 


Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA. He tweets @jonathan_rowson

*(I haven’t able to track the original source for this image, but will gladly do so if somebody else can.)


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