We have about 100 months left. If global greenhouse gas emissions have not begun to decline by the end of 2015, then our chances of restraining climate change to within the two degrees "safety line"--the level of warming below which the impacts are severe but tolerable--diminish day by day thereafter. This is what the latest science now demands: the peaking of emissions within eight years, worldwide cuts of 60 per cent by 2030, and 80 per cent or more by 2050. Above two degrees, our chances of crossing "tipping points" in the earth's system--such as the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, or the release of methane from thawing Siberian permafrost--is much higher.
Despite this urgent timetable, our roads continue to heave with traffic. Power companies draft blueprints for new coal-fired plants. The skies over England are criss-crossed with vapour trails from aircraft travelling some of the busiest routes in the world. Global emissions, far from decreasing, remain on a steep upward curve of almost exponential growth.
Sure, there are some encouraging signs. Media coverage of climate change remains high, and a worldwide popular movement--now perhaps upwards of a million people--is mobilising. But with so little time left, we must recognise that most people won't do anything to save the planet unless we make it much, much easier for them. This essay outlines my three-part strategy for stopping climate change--the easy way.
STEP ONE: Stop debating, start doing
Although there is now a very broad consensus on climate in the media and politics, opinion polls show that many people still harbour doubts about climate change. One of the peculiarities of the climate debate is that although more than 99 per cent of international climate change scientists agree on the causes of global warming, the denial lobby still only has to produce one contrarian to undermine the consensus in the public mind. Similarly, changes in our understanding can be magnified and distorted to suggest that, because we don't know everything, therefore we must know nothing. Thus, data from one glacier that apparently bucks the global trend can be wielded as a trump card against all the accumulated knowledge of climate science.
This partly reflects a perhaps healthy scepticism in the public mind about believing "experts". But there is also a darker force at work: doubt undermines responsibility for action. If you don't know for sure that global warming isn't caused by sunspots or cosmic rays, then it's OK to go on driving and flying without feeling as if you're doing something bad. When it comes to global warming, many people--subconsciously at least--actually want to be lied to.
This is where the psychology gets interesting. Most green campaigners assume that information leads to action, and that deeper knowledge will undermine denial. Actually, the reverse may well be true: the more disempowered that people feel about a huge, scary issue like climate change, the more unwilling they may be to believe it is a problem. This sounds illogical, but it makes sense. If people don't feel they can do very much about climate change, they will prefer to cling to any tempting doubts that are dangled their way. Presenting people with more gloom-and-doom scenarios, however true they might be, may thus serve to reinforce denial.
Most campaigners try to mitigate this by also offering people easy things they can do: the "just change your light bulbs" approach. However, most people intuitively understand that an enormous problem cannot be solved by a tiny solution; that changing your light bulbs will not save a single polar bear. They are right, of course. So how can we mobilise collective action on a sufficiently grand scale to make a measurable contribution to solving the problem?
The American political strategists Ted Nordhaus and …