In January 2018, the Wetherspoons pub chain made the move to remove plastic straws from their restaurants throughout the UK, with McDonalds following suit in 2019. Widely praised by the general public across the UK, it appears that our mindless consumption of single use plastic is coming under scrutiny, and we are slowly beginning to become more aware of our habits. This is beginning to be reflected in legislation, the most notable being the 5p plastic bag charge. Widely seen as a success, it’s estimated that there has been an 85% drop in their usage since 2016. We are becoming more and more aware of the consequences of plastic pollution, leading to a large number of environmental campaigns focusing on the issue. While no doubt a serious environmental threat, are we equating our largely consumerist driven, relatively small scale strategies that we use to try to fix plastic pollution with overall climate change action? Does it encourage complacency - we bring our Bags for Life, our reusable coffee cups and metal straws - what more can we do?
On 16th May 2019, Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University spoke at the LSE regarding the climate change dialogue. When I asked her about whether micro-consumerist changes (such as moving away from plastic straws) are leadi, her response mirrored our collective need to produce a narrative that acts as encouraging, yet also as a necessary change. Hayhoe talked about how micro-consumerist changes “empower people to feel part of the solution”. Certain frames of the climate dialogue evoke feelings of futility and being overwhelmed due to the very severity and scale of the issue, yet this mindset is ultimately the most toxic of them all, similar to the belief that ‘one person won’t make a difference’. Therefore, the balance of empowerment and encouragement is vital.
In the context of global environmental change, single use plastic reduction is, unfortunately, one of the easier aspects of changing our behaviour. The inconvenient truth remains - giving up single use plastic does not require the significant cultural, social and economic change needed to create effective change, which changing, for example, our travel or consumption requires. Since the latter will be required to prevent severe and irreversible climate change, a cultural turning point will be needed in order to disregard needless consumption and unsustainable economic growth. This, unfortunately, will be extremely difficult to induce. Therefore in order to achieve this enormous feat, we not only have to consider how we change behaviours, but also opinions.
How to convey the issue of climate change remains instrumental in how we progress towards policy and law that can instill quantifiable and measurable change. The issue goes beyond debate of scientific facts and the influence of climate deniers, but how to adequately communicate the threat of climate change in such a way that it’s severity is not diminished, yet offers an optimistic view of the future. Eco-apocalyptic visions of a drought-ridden, storm-struck, dying earth does not necessarily may provoke a survivalist, ‘each-man-for-himself’ attitude, rather than rational political decisions - therefore validating the idea the climate dialogue needs to be positive. For example, we can emphasise the opportunities that the fight against climate change can create - for example, greener, more pleasant and less polluted cities that can, and need to be, more sustainable, and make far more pleasant living spaces. However, this isn’t just a utopian dream, this is a necessity.
And thus, what can be done? Perhaps it’s about changing opinions more than behaviours. Just by increasing an intricate awareness of how our daily choices impact the environment, rather than simply be complacent in the choices imposed upon us (such as removing plastic straws in restaurants) can steer us in an optimistic direction. After all, no one was born an environmentalist or a climate activist - it is something we observed, and chose to support. And it gives me great hope in the future we can encourage others, and break the chains of complacency, and inspire climate solutions we haven’t even thought about yet.