Is a social tipping point on climate within sight?

It is often said that nothing seems to happen for decades, then decades can happen within a matter of months or even weeks. Despite the overall pessimism, there is growing evidence that we are approaching societal inflection points that may take us on an altogether different trajectory. Whether this happens soon enough to avert climate disaster remains to be seen, as I discussed in the Irish Examiner in early December.

IN NATURE, tipping points occur when certain critical thresholds have been crossed and momentum into a new phase becomes unstoppable. Well-known examples of this include the vast ice sheets in Greenland or western Antarctica. While they can withstand some warming, rather like stepping off a cliff, full-scale collapse becomes irreversible beyond a critical point.

In the relatively recent past, drink-driving in Ireland was commonplace and widely regarded as more a misdemeanour than a crime. Attitudes to smoking have also altered radically in the last two decades, to the point where it is now almost unthinkable to light up indoors. Similarly, it is now taboo for parents or teachers to beat children, yet a generation ago, this was seen by many as essential and unremarkable.

Are we now approaching a social tipping point on the climate emergency? This is the question that is posed when reading two recent pieces of research on the Irish public’s attitude to and understanding of the crisis.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) interviewed over 4,000 people for its study. From this emerged what it calls its “Climate Change’s Four Irelands”, where respondents are grouped based on their overall attitudes.

Astonishingly, more than one in three (36%) self-describe as “alarmed”, with a further 48% “concerned”. In total, some 84% of the Irish public clearly believe climate change is a serious problem. One in eight (12%) describe themselves as “cautious”, and just 3% are “doubtful”.

When you consider that even among the “cautious” , almost half believe that the government should make climate action “high/very high priority”, you come to realise that the people writing to newspapers, posting on Twitter and texting radio programmes claiming that climate change is not an issue represent an absolutely tiny, albeit noisy, group of Irish society. Unfortunately, this group is over-represented within the media itself.

The EPA study slays the notion often stoked up by rural TDs that concern about climate change is some urban middle-class affectation. The study found no difference between urban and rural respondents in their level of concern.

This was also reflected in the ESRI’s study on the knowledge and perceptions of 16-25-year-olds on climate, which found that not alone is concern about climate change not confined to urban populations, it is as much an issue for poorer as middle class youths.

One major point of difference did appear in the EPA research, and that was between men and women. Of the “alarmed”, a majority (57%) are women, whereas among the small “doubtful” cohort, a strong majority (72%) were male. Women are clearly less blasé about the future.

While a growing disdain for expertise helped usher in both Brexit and the Trump presidency, this anti-intellectual contagion does not seem to have yet infected the Irish public, with extremely high levels of trust in scientists on climate change

And despite being regularly pilloried, around nine in 10 members of the Irish public trust environmental NGOs and the EPA as sources on climate.

On the other hand, considerably less than half of the Irish public trust our politicians. The only category to score lower than politicians in terms of public trust are celebrities and online influencers.

Among the one in three people most tuned into the climate crisis, those describing themselves as “alarmed”, only 6% “strongly trust” politicians, while religious leaders (8%) fare almost as badly. Journalists as a group are only strongly trusted by 17% of the alarmed, a clear indication they feel the media is failing them on this issue.

This research poses a warning to those politicians who choose to curry favour with special interest groups in seeking to water down climate action; the public is watching, and being identified as a climate laggard or denier is increasingly likely to become an electoral liability.

What both studies reveal are significant gaps in public understanding of the major sources of emissions. Only a minority of respondents to the EPA study were able to identify agriculture as our number one carbon polluter. This may at least in part reflect the significant investment made by agri-industrial lobby groups such as the National Dairy Council in providing “industry-friendly” materials to schools.

Among the young, only one in three were aware that eating a largely plant-based diet was a high-impact behaviour shift, while less than half understood just how bad the impact of long-haul flying was

On the other hand, a majority of the young support bans on domestic aviation, favour car-free zones in cities and environmental taxes on meat.

UN secretary general, António Guterres made headlines around the world last month when he stated bluntly: “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator”. The warnings being sounded by top climate scientists and institutions are no less unambiguous.

Despite clear evidence of growing public awareness, even alarm, in Ireland, there is still no clear indication that we are approaching a social tipping point. As I was mulling this over, an advert came on the radio for winter breaks to Dubai. I then flicked through the newspaper to find gushing write-ups on oversized diesel SUVs and last-minute skiing holidays in the fast-melting Alps.

We are all exposed to hundreds, even thousands of adverts every day, almost all of them urging us to spend, spend, spend, to shop till we drop, fly on a whim and display our social status by the brands we can afford and size of our car. Small wonder the occasional voices breaking through warning of climate catastrophe are quickly drowned out by the relentless white noise of consumerism.

The state itself even defines us primarily as “consumers”; in modern society, our main function it appears is not to behave as thoughtful citizens but rather as atomised consumers who “grow the economy” by devouring ever more resources.

This did not happen by chance. After World War Two, industrial output exceeded public demand for goods, so a whole new industry of marketeers sprung up to turn citizens into shoppers.

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption”, US retail economist, Victor Lebow wrote in 1955.

“We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate”, Lebow added. Tragically, this is exactly what has happened. In the intervening decades, the global economy has expanded eight-fold, and the ensuing orgy of consumption has ripped through much of the natural world and left the biosphere largely burned up, worn out and nature itself discarded.

So powerful is the modern myth of progress that many earnestly believe we can continue to plunder the earth indefinitely, as long as our ever-expanding appetites are slightly “greener”, whether it’s for keep cups, electric vehicles or organic beef. Our infinite desires are on a collision course with our finite and rapidly declining biosphere. You could call it a highway to climate hell.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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