Joyce Fegan: It's not just plastic straws — make the powerful take action on climate crisis

Framing our climate change action only in terms of micro-steps lets those responsible for most of the damage off the hook 
Joyce Fegan: It's not just plastic straws — make the powerful take action on climate crisis

Cooling off at the Forty Foot in Dublin during the heatwave last week. It was a good news story. Finally. Some fine weather, that’s all it was — just a good news story. Until it wasn’t. Picture: Leah Farrell/

THERE was something about July’s extreme heat that didn’t feel quite right. Met Éireann put out a weather warning, not the usual one we’re used to — the howling winds and torrential rain — but because it was going to reach 30C-plus in Roscommon.

I don’t remember ever hearing a weather warning in the summer before. My mum said she doesn’t remember a summer where it was as hot. 

The front pages of our newspapers were covered in the usual photographs — teens in mid air as they jumped off piers and children licking already melted 99s. It was a good news story. Finally. Some fine weather, that’s all it was — just a good news story.

Until it wasn’t.

The effect of the pandemic or any other ongoing major news stories is that it pushes every other issue off the agenda; off the front pages and down the radio bulletins.

Until this day last week, when this newspaper ran with “Extreme heatwave ‘almost certainly’ linked to climate change, expert warns” as its main front-page story.

The crisis is worse than we'd imagined

One fact was that we’d experienced two tropical nights in a row in Ireland last week where temperatures fell no lower than 20C. This has only happened six times in 80 years of Irish records. The North reached its highest ever temperature three times in less than a week.

Climate expert Alastair McKinstry, environmental programme manager with NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for High-End Computing, went on the record to state that the extreme weather is “almost certainly” due to climate change.

This followed an open letter from Irish Doctors for the Environment (IDE) which said the scale of current extreme weather has led to the conclusion that the climate crisis is actually worse than has previously been understood.

But it’s grand. Just do stuff like put your plates in the dishwasher without rinsing them. These types of actions are what global leaders now call “micro steps”.

But you can only channel your eco anxiety through micro steps for so long.

That particular piece of advice came from Boris Johnson’s climate spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, last week, writing in The Telegraph. Other micro-steps she suggested included replacing shampoo bottles with shampoo bars and freezing your leftover bread.

While she did make a feeble attempt to add the disclaimer that these micro-steps alone would not solve the pressing issue of reducing our planet’s carbon emissions, the paltry clause was not enough to avoid the wrath of environmentalists.

Individual choice versus collective action 

The narrative that “individual choices” are to blame for any one problem — poverty (not inequality, not racial injustice, not gender disparity) or climate change (not huge fossil fuel companies’ emissions, not mass deforestation) — no longer holds water.

When we continue to make a problem about one’s individual choices, we do two things: We shift the focus away from systems and structures of power and we light fires of anxiety in ordinary citizens, who have absolutely no wherewithal to stem the tide of climate change by switching to a metal straw.

To make climate change about switching straws and freezing food is to let people and organisations in power off the hook.

Focus on those really responsible 

In 2017, a study found that just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global emissions. And, of that 100, more than 50% of global industrial emissions since 1988 could be traced to just 25 companies, said the Carbon Majors report.

So maybe every time our guilt spikes about the pile of unrecyclable soft plastics we accrued at the supermarket or each time our stomach flips as we read about another fire in the Amazon or a flood in Germany, we could channel that anxiety-induced powerlessness not into switching to metal straws but into asking those in actual power for concrete action.

Maybe that’s how we take climate action from now on. Instead of feeling paralysed by eco-anxiety and powerless to do anything about the very thing we worry about, we could channel it towards those who can make change.

Last Monday, RTÉ managing director Jon Williams sent a tweet about climate change.

“We were wrong not to make clear [the] connection between extreme weather events & climate change. Sin of omission & reported in good faith. But truth matters. So when we get it wrong, we should say so. Lesson learned. Work to do,” he wrote.

He posted a link to how RTÉ was covering climate change and how the national broadcaster would rectify its reporting.

Extinction Rebellion Ireland, the Irish arm of the international environmental group, reacted to his tweet saying the social media statement followed “weeks of mounting pressure from environmental NGOs, climate scientists, and climate activists”.

Prior to this tweet, the Irish group had been planning two separate actions of civil disobedience targeting the State broadcaster for its “lack of urgent discussion on the climate crisis”.

Extinction Rebellion Ireland said it was taking Mr Williams’ statement with a “healthy dose of scepticism” and called upon RTÉ and all other news organisations to enact recommendations made by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) when it comes to reporting on climate change.

The idea being that increased coverage of climate change and focus on environmental issues would “inspire green behaviour change among audiences”.

There are few people I know who don’t recycle, carry a reusable water bottle, compost, and consider their carbon footprint and, if they have young children, the amount of nappies that go out in the black bin every week. The masses want change, but the system has to change to enable us to have different choices to make.

Channelling anxiety into action  

We’ve lived through a year and a half of being on high alert, if not times of being hyper-alert, and we continue to live with the uncertainty of the pandemic — tackling climate change is not exactly going to provide a reprieve from that anxiety.

But instead of being crippled by climate anxiety at an individual level, let’s look to those people and organisations in power who can make changes that have major consequences.

Imagine a media landscape that holds systems and organisations to climate account the way it focuses on holding politicians to account. 

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