Why we need new stories of everyday climate action

Ed Atkins, from Ideas Exchange "Individual actions add up"

Whilst awareness of climate and ecological crises has increased, many are still unsure how they fit into the wider pattern of policy to address it. The question that many ask is ‘what can I do?’.

Answering this question is tricky and for a number of reasons. The first is systemic. Thinking in terms of individual carbon footprints is problematic, exposed as a term popularised by the fossil fuel companies that still emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases annually. The biggest polluters hide in plain sight – 20 companies are responsible for a third of carbon emissions.

For many, it is often difficult to see how the individual actions that we take contribute to the wider scheme of change necessary to address climate change. Particularly when carbon-heavy industries promise change but, behind the scenes, spend heavily to restrict it.

The second element that can stop us from seeing how we can make change is based on equity. As colleagues have recently detailed, the conversation around climate policy is often dominated by a narrow demographic group of white men.  This restricts many from seeing how they fit.

To have a voice in the future, you must feel like you have a place in it. Yet, contemporary environmentalism can often fail to make space for the voices, concerns or activities of other groups – such as minority or migrant communities. A focus on lifestyle environmentalism overlooks what other members of our community might be doing, even unconsciously, which fits into the fabric of climate action.

Recent work, as part of a Brigstow Ideas Exchange project, has explored how environmental messaging in Bristol can avoid this – showing people from communities across the city how their action, behaviour and aspirations can fit within a broader, more-inclusive vision of net-zero.

We have outlined our approach in a recent briefing paper published by Policy Bristol. Key is the need to broaden how we understand environmental action to include our diverse communities, highlighting actions that are already taking place, and grounding stories locally. Net-zero and climate justice are not objective facts, nor are they self-obvious. They hold different meanings.

Our answers to ‘What can I do?’ will always be different. Each of us seeing our own capabilities and actions – and how they fit within or contribute to wider systemic change – in different ways. We are grounded in context, history, and community.

The climate action available to us is varied and context-dependent. Be it rooftop solar or electric vehicles, divestment or lobbying and protest – we have many levers to pull. More must be done to illuminate this, harness it. To do so, space must be made and messaging must be altered.