Understanding climate change and what to do about it

Climate change is a hot topic much in the news these days with increasing messages from our governments telling us we need to act now to save the planet.

We’re hearing new phrases like ‘carbon neutrality,’ ‘carbon footprint,’ ‘personal CO2 emissions’ and ‘climate forcings’ along with old favourites like ‘greenhouse gas’ and ‘ozone depletion.’

Does anyone really understand all this? Is anyone able to relate it to their personal circumstances, ie, do something that will make a difference?

I’ll come back to the personal aspect in a minute.

First, though, there’s a lot going on in business and government surrounding the broad topic of climate change, as I’ve discovered through a communication project I’ve just completed for Lloyds Register Quality Assurance (LRQA).

I’ve produced a first podcast for them containing interviews with some of the movers and shakers in business and government, including NGOs, who provide insight and opinions surrounding carbon emissions and emissions trading, and who’s doing what.

Those movers and shakers include Jos Delbeke, Director, DG Environment, European Commission; Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; William Weld, former Governor of Massachusetts; Kristalina Georgieva, Director, Strategy and Operations Sustainable Development, The World Bank; Bill Kyte, Chairman of the UK Emissions Trading Group; and Garth Edward, Trading Manager, Environmental Products, Shell.

The Carbon Emissions podcast is a key element of a new climate change website launched yesterday at BusinessAssurance.com, a knowledge sharing portal for management systems professionals sponsored by LRQA.

Take a listen to the podcast (or read the transcript) and see if it helps you gain some more knowledge about climate change.

The new website includes a blog; one of the first posts is by Dr Anne-Marie Warris of LRQA who has some additional insight on the challenges facing all of us as consumers

Which brings me to that personal aspect I mentioned earlier. Do people generally understand what the term ‘climate change’ actually means and what they can do about it on a personal level?

Here’s how Wikipedia explains climate change:

Climate change refers to the variation in the Earth’s global climate or in regional climates over time. It describes changes in the variability or average state of the atmosphere over time scales ranging from decades to millions of years. These changes can be caused by processes internal to the Earth, external forces (e.g. variations in sunlight intensity) or, more recently, human activities.

It’s mainly the last two words in that definition that’s the focus for so much current attention, often expressed as ‘global warming.’ Is it the same thing?

Wikipedia again:

Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s near-surface air and oceans in recent decades and its projected continuation.

However we as individuals understand it, one major difficulty is figuring out what you can do about it that actually makes any kind of difference to anything.

You could start by watching An Inconvenient Truth, the inspiring movie made by Al Gore, the former Vice President of the United States. Even The Day After Tomorrow. No, really – the overall story in that Hollywood movie may seem far-fetched but that story is all about the kind of catastrophic climate changes and the resulting consequences if we take no action that Al Gore’s movie convincingly addresses.

On a practical level, though, there’s actually quite a bit each of us can do to contribute in a meaningful way.

The most practical thing that I find wholly do-able is being able to work out my own carbon footprint and then take action to offset it.

That means I can work out what I’m personally contributing to global carbon emissions based on how much fuel I use at home and my annual travel (car, train, plane, etc), and then look at ways to offset it by doing things like buying verifiable carbon credits.

Visit Carbon Footprint to get started.

It may seem a small step for an individual. But if many individuals take that small step, it can make a measurable difference.

Just as business and government are doing.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. neville

    Seen by some, Stephen, especially those with an axe to grind. Or maybe I’m just cynical.

    I agree that reducing your carbon footprint is a good first step, as I mentioned in my post. But I like the idea in principle of doing a next step such as offsetting, which is one possibility.

    The good thing is that disagreement (such as reported in the BBC story you linked to) is a natural part of engaging conversation. If that gets more people talking and looking at ways to doing something concrete, then that’s the good thing.

  2. Phil Gomes

    Excellent and, i’m quite certain, rewarding work.

    I still don’t know what I think of this “carbon credit” business… Feels too much like the “indulgences” that the Catholic church was selling to its parishioners a few centuries ago. (“Give money, sins are forgiven, etc.”)

    Funny story… A relative of mine is a gov’t air quality inspector. One year, the district outfitted each of their inspectors with a hybrid Toyota Prius as their official gov’t vehicle. Things were fine until one of their veteran inspectors figured out with back-of-the-envelope math that a decent BMW had similar up-front costs, cost-of-ownership, and even emissions profile.

    Of course, they couldn’t be running around giving inspectors BMW’s…

    Right now it’s a nippy 60F degrees in southern California, where I’m due to speak at the PR Online Convergence ’07 conference. Days like this, I wonder about global warming. (Hence the quite in-vogue “global climate change” term, I suppose.)

  3. David Brain

    Hi Neville,

    that wonderful gossip site popbitch ( http://www.popbitch.com ) just released this little factoid. No idea what they base it on!
    An avatar in Second Life has a larger carbon
    footprint than the average Brazilian.

  4. Heather Yaxley

    Off-setting and carbon trading are not helpful at all. These are simplistic “feel good” strategies that support behaviour as normal. There is also too much propaganda and sloganising behind communications about the environment that prevents the public from understanding the more complex arguments.

    The bottom line is whether individuals, organisations and governments want to be seen to be “good” or if they are serious about behaviour change.

    But also let’s be honest about what kind of world we want – the public aren’t going to want to live the type of lives advocated by many extreme environmentalists. But we cannot substantiate ongoing consumption and pollution.

    We need corporations and governments to ensure products last longer and are capable of being repaired and recycled. They should use ensure the environment is a mainstream consideration in terms of building and community services. We have to reward the use of fewer original resources, reduce the need for pointless travel, offer more environmentally-sensitive alternatives and generally take the matter more seriously than rhetoric and a series of superficial, token activities.

  5. neville

    I couldn’t disagree with you more strongly, Heather.

    I don’t believe offsetting and carbon trading are at all simplistic. I also think they are extremely helpful. They are steps on the way, let’s say, where before there was nothing.

    You have nailed it on the head, though, when you talk about what kind of world we want. Once there’s some kind of agreed definition of what that is, the question is what are people willing to do to get there? There will be some (even many) who will make personal sacrifices, but that won’t be enough.

    One of the things democratic governments are supposed to do is create frameworks for people to make choices. (Undoubtedly they will also tax the hell out of us to force us to make some hard choices, but that’s purely my subjective and cynical opinion.)

    I agree, too, that people who produce goods have a responsibility to, as you say, make them last longer and be recycled. I think a lot is happening in those areas. Not enough, to be sure, but it will take time.

    Meanwhile, each of us can do something meaningful such as I suggest in my post. That’s what I’m doing, which is my choice.

    David, thanks for that link. I’ve heard that, too. No idea where it came from, though.

    Phil, I’m also not wholly sure about carbon credits. But it’s something and it’s also what I think is worthwhile. So until something better comes along, I’m supporting that.

  6. Anne-Marie Warris

    Good evening

    Interesting exchange because it mirrors so much of the concern and also wish for climate change to go away.

    We had a wondeful (hot and sunny!!) April in UK and now wet and cloudy May. Climate change is hard to understand.

    Is it real, in my book yes!

    Should we all do our bit ,yes but hm…. that is tuff do I want to not fly on holiday et al. Still struggling with that. Shold we have carbon offseting yes but controlled and as a last measure not as one ‘forgivness of sins’ we continue to create

    So how do we encourgae ourselves, firstly and others secondly to do something? Any bright ideas??

  7. Michael R. Bernstein

    Off-setting forces an accounting for the externalities otherwise ignored in the marketplace. They have little economic impact unless they are mandatory though. It is basically equivalent to a fuel tax.

    Emissions trading is good for reducing the economic impact of capping emissions, making it possible to ratchet down the caps year by year.

    In both cases, they are mechanisms that provide incentives toward reducing emissions, by make emissions fungible from an economic standpoint thus making the externality internal to the economic activity, but aren’t a replacement for such reductions.

  8. neville

    A brief news report in today’s Telegraph illustrates the steep hill to climb in terms of what people might be willing to do voluntarily:

    Almost three quarters of Britons have no intention of making their homes more environmentally friendly, it was disclosed yesterday.

    Only five percent say they would use renewable energy in the future, while 70 percent have no plans at all to make their homes greener, reports a survey of 1,192 people by the electricity supplier npower.

    Saving money was the main incentive for 77 percent of those who did want to go green, ahead of worries about the environment, which was the biggest concwern for 67 percent.

    Can’t see this story in the online Telegraph, but it’s on page 8 of today’s print edition.

    Perhaps some people’s views reflect a feeling of impotence about this whiole issue, as in “What on earth can my doing anything make any difference?” I just don’t believe everyone is as selfish as this survey suggests.

    So at the very least, there is an awful lot of communication needed to educate people about climate change and why they should take individual action and responsibility.

    Yet hand in hand with that is the larger responsibility of government (and businesses) to incentivize people through encouragement, eg, tax breaks for individuals and incentives for manufactuers and producers (per Michael’s comment). What I think’s more likely is more tax, the typical action of governments.

    In the meantime, I do think there are things each of us as individuals can do on our own initiatives, such as I suggest in my post.

  9. Anne-Marie Warris

    Good evening

    Have just added to my carbon footprint in the name of business by getting on a flight

    Agreed with Michael that trading et al only works if we also commit to overall reductions, witness the challenges of phase II EU ETS and getting Governments to accept on behalf of people it was elected to govern a reduction in carbon output.

    I do not think we as individuals or small groups are actually serious about carbon reductions we are happy to talk about it and suggest ways to reduce it as long as it does not hit us, cynical well probably. But I am not giving up on changing behaviour that is still the only way to do it.

  10. neville

    I think you’ve nailed it, Anne-Marie, in your last para. That reflects views like those in the survey in the Telegraph I mentioned earlier.

    There has to be something that incentivizes people on a large scale to do something. I wish I knew what that could be. Each of us can do our bit, and maybe feel a smug about it, but I wonder what real difference it will make without government leadership. Don’t see an awful lot of that anywhere in the political landscape.

    ‘Saving the environment’ isn’t really a vote-catcher for politicians.

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