In 2013, energy was rarely far from the headlines. From the Treasury’s enthusiasm for a new dash-for-gas based on ‘fracking’ underground shale rock, to the announcement of a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point, policy-makers’ minds were focused on ‘keeping the lights on’ as Britain’s creaking energy infrastructure comes up for renewal.
For the rest of us, it is the relentless price-hikes in energy bills that stick in the mind, as power companies’ profits soared and the spectre of fuel poverty raised its ugly head again.
But if energy was ubiquitous in 2013, then climate change was virtually invisible.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its 5th Assessment Report, detailing in ever more gory detail the risks of unchecked climate change. Save for a brief ripple of news interest and commentary, the report was ignored.
Rising bills should have placed the increasing costs (and carbon impacts) of finite fossil fuel resources at the heart of the debate about energy. But instead, green charges were axed from energy bills in a short-sighted strategy to deflect public anger.
Even protests against ‘fracking’ in Balcombe focused on the risks of contaminating ground water, rather than the much greater climate risks of burning more gas. Climate change has been conspicuous by its absence – and for all our sake’s, this has got to change.
In a report published at the end of the year for the Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) we argued that the challenge for anyone invested in re-igniting public interest in climate change – from businesses to community groups – is to start talking about it again.
The vast majority of the public are not sceptical about climate change, or opposed to taking action to tackle it. For most people, the issue has simply fallen off their radar. But in the vacuum created by the absence of a climate change narrative from public figures, the appeal of sceptical arguments grows. It is understandable that people assume climate change is not such a big deal if they never receive the social signals that tell them that it is.
Genuinely sustainable businesses – organisations that want to make sustainability their central organising principle – have a role to play. Channels of communication exist between companies and their customers that do not exist elsewhere. It is not possible to ‘sell’ climate change to people like physical products, because the challenge is one of collective action not individualistic consumption. But businesses have the ear of large numbers of people.
The signals they send out – that climate change is real, that they want to play their part in tackling it – provide the background against which people form their own views. We don’t all need to agree on what the best way of dealing with climate change is – just getting everyone to agree that it needs urgent and radical attention would be a start.
If, instead of climate silence, the public received a chorus of climate change messages and signals from not just businesses but politicians and other public figures, then 2014 will hold a great deal more promise for getting to grips with sustainability than 2013 did.
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