What climate activists can learn from Sunday School leaders

Robert White is a development economics and planning consultant based in London. In this post he considers the need for increased public support of emissions mitigation policies and encourages  everyone to  play their part.

We can’t all be ‘young heroes’, but everybody can inspire change. To make a difference you don’t need to fly to Paris, work for a green start-up, or get teargassed by the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité.

It’s Sunday and after visiting COP21 I’m sitting in Charles De Gaulle airport about to leave Paris. As I type this I’m enjoying some excellent French cheese and sipping on a terribly bland espresso. In the background there is the sound of wheelie cases gliding across the glossy terrazzo floor and the faint beeping of airside vehicles moving around. Terminal 2E seems incredibly mundane compared to the energy of the COP21 centre at Le Bourget.

I’m a fairly ordinary person who visited the event to see what was going on and vote with my feet. I would have liked to have contributed to the deal. But like most people, I could only really influence my country’s leader as a voting citizen. Considering this, I was slightly concerned by how many of my friends didn’t recognise ‘COP21′, or at least particularly care about it. While leaders may need assistance in the details, as we learned in Copenhagen, I don’t believe they need to be told what is at stake with climate change. A much bigger problem is that leaders need to balance ambitious climate policies with citizens’ other demands. If the short term economy is top of peoples’ priority lists, then leaders’ hands are tied.

A Cardiff University study published last February showed that only 15% of people think climate change is one of the top three issues facing the UK in the next twenty years. For comparison, 34% included the economy. To seriously mitigate emissions, people need to shift from green consumption to less consumption and accept trade-offs. Higher taxes will be needed to discourage high carbon consumption and to pay for green infrastructure. In the grand scheme of things tuition fees may have to rise, high earners accept a 50% tax band and more. There will always be competing issues, so we really need to increase public support of emissions reducing policies if we want to see change. This is where a really important fight is, one everyone can play a part in.

While pondering over how we can achieve increased support for low emissions policies, it struck me that there may be a couple of transferable ideas from my old Sunday School teachings. Stick with me. My leaders had three main lessons on engaging people on something they may not be particularly interested in – lessons which I think can apply to many situations, whether it is Christianity or climate change mitigation.

Firstly, we need to get out there and engage. Evangelising isn’t going to happen if you are an insular group. Church goers of all ages can become comfortable, with attendance being more about socialising than sharing faith. I’m sure the same applies to environmental movements. Rather than preaching to the choir, we need to reach the 85% of people who don’t have climate change in their top three issues.

Secondly, engaging often works better at a personal level than a preachy one. Demonstrations and Facebook posts are not good enough, as I think we are a tad past the ‘awareness’ stage with climate change – at least in the UK. People have a rough idea about it, but need to be encouraged to take a deeper interest and practical action – friends can be great inspirations for this to develop. We should bring up these conversations with friends, family, co-workers etc. Maybe even lend a good book on climate change if the person is interested.

Lastly, we should practice what we preach and demonstrate our conviction through our day to day actions. People will be more inspired to act if they see a similar person to themselves actually living out what they say. It’s always frustrating to see unnecessary clobber being given out at environmental events, for example cheap plastic wind up torches, which are advocate for climate change to be taken seriously, yet opens itself for criticism. We can’t all be perfect but I’m sure we can all do more – citizens, organisations and governments alike. Take the plank out your own eye (something I admittedly need to work on myself)!

Winning voters’ minds is going to be difficult, but I believe it’s an important area that we can all make a difference to. When COP heads to Marrakesh next November, hopefully we will be talking about it excitedly with everyone we know – attitudes towards green policies will have warmed further, meaning the global climate doesn’t have to.

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What climate activists can learn from Sunday School leaders

by wearerestless Reading time: 3 min