Climate Change: Why we need a fire station and fire engine before we can all sign up to be firefighters

March 4, 2021 8:16 PM

Jan Can Launch

Sarcasm and humour are a good outlet for anger and frustration. We all cope in different ways. However, the real challenge is to funnel that anger and frustration into constructive action. It is easy to tear an idea down or to advocate for it, but it is much harder to build an idea from the ground up or have a clear and credible vision to replace an idea you reject. Humour me for a moment. I am going to put forward an assertion, and then I'm going to try and demonstrate the point through examples and finally tie it all together at the end… something about taking the science out of the scientist.

If you are already familiar with the "Collective action problem" (Wikipedia page is a great summary), you can pretty much skip to the punchline.


My assertion is as follows: The initial burden for societal modal shift towards sustainability in terms of carbon emissions and climate change should be shouldered by our institutions and not individuals.

In other words: Climate Change action should place the emphasis on systematic action and not individual action.


Hear me out. I think it is fantastic that topics like 'red meat consumption' and 'plastic use' are on the agenda. Our reliance on certain creature comforts that we take for granted does prop up a very serious percentage of the global heavy carbon emission industries. Realistically, in any future where we are aiming for sustainability, such practices are going to have to be curbed significantly. Does that mean no one will be allowed to remortgage their house for a double cheese burger from Five Guys (assuming price inflation based on their current extortionate prices)? I don't think so. It will become a question of built-in-pricing, or in other words, the new price will reflect society's disapproval of the product (think sugar tax).

So I'm 100% behind personal lifestyle choices that are sustainability oriented. To be quite honest, most of the proposed life-style changes even come with health benefits so they make sense even without the climate change considerations!

However, I have some terrible news if you think we can curb the meat industry through individual action. Success for this strategy requires a critical mass of people to get on board; and unfortunately I don't think we have the time. We can't even get everyone to agree which way round the toilet roll should be hung (facing the wall or away from the wall?), or milk first or last in the tea cup... Similarly, the technology already exists to cut down carbon emissions from transport. Electric vehicles are no longer a niche purchase for the super rich… just marginally rich. Nonetheless, in theory, everyone could *choose* to switch over now (ignoring the impossible cost implications). However, we all know (especially if you already are an electric vehicle user) that the infrastructure (charging points) is simply not in place, and our electricity grid would struggle to cope.

I am not suggesting for a moment that personal decisions along the lines of the examples above are a waste of time. On the contrary, I believe very strongly in taking personal responsibility. What I am saying is that at an individual level, we cannot be expected to all conform in the face of this crisis. As a species we are fiercely individualistic at times. So why would we expect the solution to be derived from individual level actions? We cannot expect the average person to drastically restructure their life at the drop of a hat. They have to get the kids to school on time; ideally after a decent breakfast. Then they have to get to work on time and grind away all day, so they can afford the mortgage and the car repayments and put food on the table too. Perhaps even go on holiday to the coast for a week this year so that every holiday in the future seems amazing in comparison. We all have enough on our plates.

So, what am I suggesting? In a corn field, somewhere in Iowa, Kevin Costner said it best; "If you build it, they will come". When the combustion engine was miniaturised to fit on a reasonably sized chassis the world didn't change overnight. Millions of miles of asphalt had to be laid down to allow this new technology to be adopted by the general public and ohh boy did we like getting behind the wheel of a ten tonne metal death cage. When consumer grade electronics could finally fit inside the palm of your hand (instead of just the entire basements of universities and military research labs), nobody thought "everyone is going to need one of these giant bricks that let you talk to your accountant in the next city over". It took a hell of a lot of satellite launches and wire laying before the technological superglue was able to get those mobile phones fused to our hands.


The point is, as a society we don't just decide to do things differently or to take up a new technology. The infrastructure has to come first. There has to be an initial investment, often at great cost with very little or no return. For climate change action, I do not think it is right, for all the reasons above , to expect that initial investment to come from individuals who are already stretched thin. What is the point of having institutions, both private and public, if they are not there for the betterment of society?

Does it feel like the UK is prioritising climate change action-oriented infrastructure? Does it look like our government is preparing and investing in the infrastructure that would enable climate change action to happen at a rate that outpaces the looming catastrophe? Whatever they are doing, does it feel like a response which is proportionate to the scale of the Climate Change Crisis? I am the lead member for Climate Change at Guildford Borough Council and let me spell it out for you; N O T - E V E N - C L O S E. You want to know what the county council is currently occupied with? Whether the new climate change cooperation between the Boroughs in Surrey should be a summit style meeting twice a year or if it should be more meetings than that… they are discussing how to have a discussion… I don't know how I still have hair left on my head!

Last blog I told you the house (alright, alright, the analogy was actually a hospital) is on fire. This week I am telling you that we can't just expect everyone to suddenly stand up and volunteer to be a firefighter. I have a huge amount of respect for those that do and encourage people to do so. However, it cannot be an expectation, that would be neither fair nor just. Similarly, you can't just draft someone as a firefighter and expect them to perform like one without the necessary support and training. What I am saying is, the hospital board of directors ought to buy a couple of fire trucks, offer financial incentives to retrain people as firefighters and maybe even provide the tools and training for free. Yes, I know it is not their core business, BUT THE BUILDING IS ON FIRE. Yes, it will cost a lot of resources up front… and they probably won't make a profit this year, or even the next… but I don't know… the potential that someone might put out the fire someday seems like a worthwhile long term investment… at least to me… then again, I may be mad… I do spend a lot of time shouting into the void…

Then again, I'm certain I'm starting to hear voices in that void, perhaps I am not alone?......