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Climate Change and the Place of Beauty: Reflections During COP21

By Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE, Master of Emmanuel College in Cambridge and Chair of the Green Alliance. This post forms part of NOW's Sharing Our World series

Until the floods this weekend I was feeling frustrated by the lack of news from the COP21 Paris Conference about climate change. Climate change seemed marginal to the more immediately pressing and vital concerns of Syria, refugees and terrorist attacks.  

Now however, as well as the desperate human stories of the devastation that flood-waters bring, the news is full of the links between the third 100-year weather event in a decade for the people of Cumbria, and climate change. Though it doesn't make it any easier for those on the ground to cope with, at last we are beginning to confront the challenges and their real-time impact.

But there's still something missing. Because the question that still tends to be asked about the UN climate change negotiations is whether this time, having failed so spectacularly in Copenhagen, 'they' are going to save the planet for us. I think this is the wrong question. Does responsibility for saving the planet lie in the hands of a few politicians? Surely it’s we who should be saving the planet? 

Of course our world leaders are important and whatever agreements they reach will have a profound influence on the actions and decisions of many institutions and people. So I don't want to take the pressure off anyone in Paris to reach worthwhile commitments. But I worry that the process risks distracting us from accepting personal responsibility for shaping the world our children will live in.

And here it matters enormously how we pose the questions we ask. If our dialogue is all in technology-speak about the emissions reductions we must achieve, the carbon we must save and whether we should build wind farms or burn gas, we should not be surprised that people are turned off. These questions seem remote from people’s lives and decisions that those in charge should make. On the whole they don’t feel personal, relevant or motivating.

But I think we underestimate at our peril people's capacity to act for the long term future. I believe people are far more sophisticated than we often give them credit for. In our heart of hearts most of us know that we are not going to get much richer, that our children will find it harder to get jobs (and won't keep them for life, with generous pensions at the end) and that many of us are less fit and well than previous generations were. And that we could all be victims of the severe and unpredictable events our changing weather can throw at us. 

So we may be receptive to new messages. Messages about the quality of life, not the quantity of our consumption. Messages about what makes life worth living but doesn't cost a fortune – time spent with family and friends, living rewarding lives, enjoying and contributing to the quality of our surroundings, doing things that refresh our spirit and keep us well. Messages, in other words, that appeal to us as citizens of this planet, rather than consumers.

And it is as citizens of this planet that we have a responsibility to look after it. Yet as David Attenborough once said "no-one will protect what they have not first experienced". So we need to give people, especially our children, first hand experiences of the natural resources on which we depend, including the beauty of nature and our countryside.

The love of these once motivated the whole population, rich and poor, urban and rural. At times in the past it has inspired our troops, led to the birth of the conservation movement and to the legislation that protects landscape, nature and cultural heritage. And politicians responded, creating National Parks, protecting nature and cultural heritage, developing environmental policies and establishing a planning system to help us manage change while protecting beauty and nature. Yet today the word beauty is scarcely heard in official language. We have reverted to techno-speak and apparently forgotten the power of motivation it can provide.

Whatever our leaders agree in Paris, we will need people to act. So we should start thinking about what will encourage us to do so. Ultimately it is us that will look after carbon, save or generate energy from renewable sources, and use renewable products rather than consume ever more primary resources. 

So let us harness motivating messages: striving for more beauty in town and country, bringing nature closer to people and people closer to nature, and an improvement in the quality of our lives rather than the quantity of what we consume.

The people whose homes have been flooded and lives have been devastated need our short term help. But they also need us to take the right long term decisions for our collective future. Beauty has inspired us for generations; now, as we face new challenges, perhaps we will realise that not only is it more than skin deep, it is potentially the source of our salvation.

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Huge thanks to Fiona Reynolds for contributing this post to NOW's Sharing Our World series, which is based on exploring the links between wellbeing, consumption and the environment.

Credits for images used in this post: Image 1 of Fiona Reynolds: Credit to David Levenson. Image 2 of morning light: Credit to Debbie Pugh. 

 

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