Saving The Planet: Empty gestures

Do you recycle - and then fly to New York for the weekend? It's the inconsistency of our attempts to save the planet that really bugs Nigel Pollitt

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At Christmas I was given a copy of the book of the film An Inconvenient Truth, by the American politician Al Gore. It was from two people. One of them drives an SUV and both are frequent fliers. I was given the present at a gathering under recessed halogen spotlights, a popular system that, typically, doubles the electricity consumed by a room's lighting and greatly increases ceiling heat-loss. Few in the room were wearing anything that, by the standards of earlier ages, could have been considered winter clothing. Some of the food on the table - figs and blueberries - originated several thousand miles away. And, while tap-water in the area is quaffable, bottled mineral water from France accompanied our celebration.

The six adults and two children present were people who, if cornered, would probably say that Something Should Be Done about rising carbon emissions. As well as this, all the adults were cooks, and cooks are the people most likely to understand that doubling a very small but potent ingredient can have a very big effect on a result. Carbon dioxide is less than 1 per cent of the atmosphere. Yet doubling it, which is what we're heading towards, is sending the planet to the emergency room.

This month, the EU's environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, called the struggle to halt climate change a "world war". The Tories are pitching for an 80 per cent cut in UK carbon emissions by 2050. Even the Confederation of British Industry has a task force on it.

But we, in our homes and on holiday, go on as before. The friend who raved about the Al Gore film whacks up the heat and wears a T-shirt indoors. I bang on about halogen downlights but do nothing about the picturesque but colossally leaky wooden sash windows in my picturesque but colossally leaky Victorian house. If my 1880s stained glass was under threat, I'd get a handgun. What's going on?

"People see it as such a big, difficult problem. They ask how on Earth can they influence it in their day-to-day behaviour," says Nick Pidgeon, a professor of applied psychology at Cardiff University, and the co-author of several studies on attitudes to climate change. "They say overwhelmingly that the Government or international community should be responsible for action, but are not changing their own behaviour because it all seems too much."

It's also about connecting, he says. "We understand the consequences of climate change, but there's a disconnect with our actions. People don't think about climate change when they get in the car. And when taking a risk [of damaging the climate] has personal benefits, there's much less pressure to change behaviour. Getting in the car has an immediate benefit."

And although Commissioner Dimas talks of world war, Hitler hasn't invaded Poland yet. There has been Katrina and some extra drought, but the Gulf Stream still pumps Caribbean warmth to Europe. We haven't seen crop failure in Hampshire. Bread still comes from the supermarket.

There's also that tic that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. If reality has square edges, you file them down. You buy a diesel car. Then you read about the dangers of unburnt nanoparticles, but brighten up when a friend says that diesel cars have lower CO2 emissions.

Last year I was invited to India by a friend. I felt awful about burning, in a few hours, the equivalent of a couple of years of my normal carbon output and, for this among other reasons, did not go. But I could have filed down those square edges, couldn't I? Reduced the dissonance. After all, as one friend said, we only produce 2 per cent of global carbon in Britain. China and India are the problem. The friend who invited me commented: "I think the plane is going to fly that day whether you are on it or not."

My own response was to say, if there were rationing of long-haul flights to a globally sustainable level, I would go. There isn't, and I didn't.

The point is that, bizarrely, dealing with climate change is, so far, presented to us as a lifestyle choice. The current ads from the Energy Saving Trust urging us to switch off are the equivalent of wartime posters saying how it would be really helpful if you could black out your windows during air-raids. Accordingly, our response to the threat of climate change is lost in complex and contradictory individual responses. There's the sense too, of the futility of boycott. Why should I stop flying if no one else does?

As Mike Childs, a climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, points out: "At the moment the economic signals [to the individual] are that climate change doesn't really matter. The economic signals don't suggest you should do the right thing. So there may have to be punitive taxes on flying to India or Prague, so you say, 'that's a ridiculous amount of money, I can't afford to fly there'."

Should there be rationing? Coupons for carbon? "The idea of a trading scheme, with tradeable quotas, say in aviation, has its attractions," says Childs. "Then it's not all down to the individual." He accepts, however, that there may have to be "catastrophe that creates a groundswell of public pressure" for drastic action.

In the past, wars were won using the brutality of conscription. Cities were defended and populations fed through regulations and rationing. If human populations are to survive against a far bigger threat than Hitler or al-Qa'ida or avian flu, won't governments have to be brutal? Turn off the power, perhaps? It's been done before, so surely it's do-able. We won't fly for our holidays and we won't drink Evian and maybe we'll even enjoy the spirit of the carbon blitz. If we're lucky, the Gulf Stream won't turn off and we won't end up with the climate of Newfoundland.

But according to Professor Pidgeon, we're just not going to change our behaviour enough voluntarily. "We could all end up with low-energy lightbulbs but still flying to the Alps for the weekend. Under those circumstances, a government is going to have to take some pretty tough action."

We are challenged, morally, to change our behaviour, as individuals, but the bigger challenge is for our leaders to come up with a proper coordinated survival plan. They'll need our backing.

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