My job, what I am paid to do, is to promote the idea of responsible waste management to businesses and people in Scotland on behalf of an independent environmental charity (Keep Scotland Beautiful).
You might therefore reasonably think that I am pretty one-sided when it comes to environmental issues and see Copenhagen (aka COP15 – the global conference on climate change currently underway involving 192 nations) as the last great hope for our survival. Not necessarily so, dear reader, for I was brought up to have an open, questioning mind and I too look at newspapers, read articles on the internet, watch television documentaries and I listen to the radio so know that the debate about whether we should be bothering to do anything about climate change, and whether climate change itself is even happening, remains unresolved as far as a lot of people are concerned.
Indeed a recent poll (PDF) as reported in The Times under the headline “Global warming is not our fault” suggests that only 41% of people in the UK “accept as an established scientific fact that global warming is taking place and is largely man-made.”
This means that 59% of people are unconvinced. Some might have an inkling that something is amiss but they aren’t yet willing to state confidently that they believe man-made global warming needs to be sorted out.
And little wonder. For every message we hear about the importance of reducing energy, water and waste is a potentially conflicting message about the benefits of consumption (for the economy, for jobs, for the country) coupled with a body of scepticism including well-known figures who are quite happy to stand up in public and deny man-made global warming because they believe the science is flawed.
What is an individual person trying to go about their daily life supposed to think? Should we buy new products to help the economy or should we get things repaired or buy second-hand to help the environment? Should we spend time recycling our household or business waste or should we just send it to landfill and let nature take its course? Should we spend extra on train travel or continue to drive? These are real life decisions facing people up and down the country and the combined effect of all these decisions very broadly places each of us into one of several categories:
- People who believe the climate is changing as a result of human activity and are actively trying to reduce their own impact.
- People who believe the climate is changing as a result of human activity but don’t think individual actions can make that much difference and will wait to see what Government and policy makers decide before acting.
- People who believe the climate is changing as a result of human activity but think that trying to resist it is futile in the face of big business determined to maintain economic growth.
- People who aren’t sure about climate change and want to see more data to show the truth one way or the other but feel, on balance, that trying to reduce energy, waste and water is probably the best thing to do for the long-term survival of our species.
- People who believe that climate change is a distraction from other more pressing issues such as population growth, peak oil, pollution, depletion of raw materials, war, famine etc.
- People who do not believe the climate can change as a result of human activities (such as releasing CO2 into the atmosphere) and are ambivalent about the action on climate change.
- People who do not believe the climate can change as a result of human activities and think that climate change is a conspiracy to raise taxes and seek global domination.
The truth is that some of us will fall neatly into these categories and others will fall between the gaps or find our viewpoint shifting depending on who we’re listening to at any given moment. What is certain is that it is difficult for people on the ground, “ordinary” members of the public, to know what is right.
My own perspective is that we need to concentrate on facts. Hard evidence should guide our behaviour, not rumour or supposition. Is global warming happening? Is it directly linked to CO2 emissions? One useful source of information I found on the subject is a website called Skeptical Science. I should say from the outset that it tends to support the view that climate change is real and that we are causing it, but it also considers evidence to the contrary. It isn’t afraid to deal with issues such as the recent hacked emails and the potential for this to undermine the science. Other articles on the website look at the “hockey stick” debate which, briefly, is a controversy over a graph produced showing recent dramatic rises in temperature which used different sources of data to plot points on the graph. Some have argued that the sources of the data showing before and after the dramatic rise are so different as to render the whole thing inaccurate. Anyway, I find the website useful and hope you do too. It’s certainly not my only source of such information but it’s consistently thorough.
Back to the point, will the Copenhagen conference change your life? The short answer is: “it already has”. Government policy makes a real difference to people’s lives. In Scotland we have already committed, in the Climate Change Act, to an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050. That’s massive! And it goes further than any global agreement currently in place. In fact it will be amazing if Copenhagen results in anything like that kind of agreement. But Scotland is doing it anyway. That is bold leadership and businesses and households in Scotland will be actively involved in reaching those goals. So your life will change, if it hasn’t already. But is change always bad? Scotland has tremendous renewable energy potential in tide, wind and wave power. It also has limited space for landfill so, climate change or not, placing all our rubbish in holes in the ground isn’t really a long-term solution.
Which brings me on to the other point I wanted to make, it’s not just global warming (whether or not that has been proven) that should impact on our decisions about how we act. There are a multitude of potential effects on our wider environment as a result of things we do. On a basic level it is anti-social to throw litter away because it is unsightly and someone has to clear it up. So it’s not always the environment that dictates our actions. That is why Keep Scotland Beautiful has such an important job to do. Even if we discover tomorrow that CO2 is completely irrelevant to the temperature of the Earth (roughly zero% chance of that happening) it doesn’t mean that power stations don’t pollute the air and make it less safe for nearby residents. It doesn’t mean that the raw materials used to make the products we use everyday aren’t going to eventually run out if we continue to send them to landfill. It doesn’t mean that rubbish from Scotland doesn’t end up in the massive floating plastic island in the pacific which leaches chemicals into the eco-system.
Being green isn’t necessarily about being fixated on one issue. It’s about wanting to preserve the good things that we have so future generations can continue to enjoy them. Pure and simple.
Just looking at the profile of the event in Copenhagen and how many column inches have been written shows how the environmental agenda has been brought to the forefront of people’s minds. And whatever we conclude about the effect of our activities on the wider environment we cannot dispute the importance of at least having the debate. On a practical level it matters hugely that 192 nations are sitting down and having discussions. It will be fascinating to see what they decide.