Don’t let climate grief stop you taking action

Author: Mike Sefton

Date published

29 September 2020

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Don’t let climate grief stop you taking action

Date published

Mike Sefton

Date published

29 September 2020


Mike Sefton

In this blog Mike Sefton considers how attitudes and responses to climate change have evolved over the last 25 years. He encourages us all to take collective responsibility for tackling the climate emergency.

This year marks the silver anniversary of the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). While there was an awareness of climate change in 1995, for the first time this report stated “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate”.

This acknowledgement that humans were damaging the planet should have been a rallying cry for change. Instead we have spent 25 years arguing about the need for action. We have also compounded the problem by increasing annual carbon emissions around the globe.

11% of the world’s annual carbon emissions are associated with the embodied carbon in building and construction. This means as structural engineers we are as guilty as everyone else. Perhaps more so.

With this in mind, I found myself in a conversation recently, questioning why there had been inaction for so long. We concluded that perhaps humanity is moving through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief. We do this as we come to terms with the destruction we have wrought on “our own” planet.

From denial, to anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Where are you when it comes to the climate emergency and the part you can play?

Denial of the facts

The IPCC statement of 1995 proved to be very controversial. It was followed by years of vociferous denial from fossil fuel companies, many large businesses and some political bodies. Climate change was branded as only a ‘theory’ and alternative explanations were proposed. Many of these alternatives were based on dubious evidence and were designed to undermine action on climate change.

Although outright denial is becoming rarer, as individuals it is still easy to deny that our own actions can make a difference. However, as structural engineers we are beginning to realise that we can make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions through our work. This is explored in Will Arnold’s article, reducing carbon emissions every working day.

Anger about climate change

Anger about climate change comes in many guises. It is felt by deniers seeing a threat to their way of life. At the other end of the scale it is shown by the protestors fighting for climate action around the world.  

Hopefully the time for anger has passed and we can move to a more common purpose. Those still harbouring anger have the chance to channel it in positive ways. They can demand change through lobbying government for active climate and ecological legislation. They may also participate in campaigns advocating change.

In the construction sector we are beginning to see new opportunities to take action. An example is the RetroFirst campaign by the Architects Journal.

Bargaining over the actions required for change

The wider acknowledgement of human induced climate change has seen a shift from outright denial to bargaining about the level of action we are willing to take. Governments negotiate emissions targets. Projects balance cost and programme against environmental aspirations. At home we juggle how much change we are willing to make in our lives to reduce our impact on the planet.

As structural engineers, we might ask ourselves:
  • How much are we bargaining with the situation?
  • Are we making bold and big enough changes to combat the climate emergency?
  • Are we being brave and putting climate action front and centre of the design agenda?
  • Are we pushing those in the teams around us to take action too?
  • Are we reluctantly making small changes that feel more comfortable, because we don’t want things to change too dramatically?

Depression about a lack of progress

For those who are tired from 25 years of advocating for action, it would be easy to let depression creep in. Especially when reading about the effects of unchecked climate change described in the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Instead though, the report can be a beacon of hope. It tells us that we still have the chance to rescue the planet through action now.

With a recent groundswell of support, we have a sign that action can now take place on a big enough scale to have an effect. Indeed, a number of countries, including the UK, have passed net-zero carbon legislation. Many more are committed to working on net-zero targets which shows we have an opportunity to jam the door to climate action firmly open.

Acceptance of climate action

It is positive to finally see a growing acceptance of the climate. Proof of this comes from a survey carried out in the UK last year by the Kings College Policy Institute. It showed that 67% of people agree with the text of the UK Parliament resolution that we’re facing a climate emergency.

However, an acceptance of the emergency is not enough. We need to reach a point where there is a collective acceptance of the actions needed to make a positive impact on the planet. This means in our lives and in our industry. We can’t afford to passively accept the climate emergency. Instead we all need to drive change and be proactive advocates of real climate action.

Looking beyond the grief

A graph by UKGBC shows the annual impact of embodied carbon in the UK construction industry. It has remained at around 50MtCO2e/year for the 20 years after 1995. We can stop grieving and be part of slashing this figure. In 2018, the IPCC called for rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes.

Bargaining to maintain some form of status quo will not achieve this. We have to actively help our clients and collaborators to see what they need to do differently. This will mean that when we look back in a further 25 years, we can be proud of the change we made.

To be part of this change, I’d encourage you to take action and declare a climate and biodiversity emergency today.

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