Morning traffic in Sweden on “Dagen H” in 1967, the day the country switched to driving on the right-hand side of the road. Image: Classic Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

We can adapt to climate change. But do we have the will to do it?

The pandemic has proven we can accommodate huge societal upheaval, and fast. The challenge will be doing it again
March 3, 2022

What stops us making changes at the speed and scale needed to preserve a habitable planet? There are obvious factors that any observer might list. Vested interests dig their heels in to protect themselves. There’s an ever-present, sticky, lava-like weight of inertia in human affairs that finds the status quo less effort than doing things differently. It’s one of the reasons that energy and banking markets fail: to the chagrin of mainstream economists, people don’t “efficiently” shift accounts, even if it’s in their interests to do so.

But there’s also a critical failure of imagination. First, we fail to fully grasp what we’re about to lose. Joni Mitchell captured it in her oddly upbeat lament “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” sung in 1970 amid an earlier wave of environmental concern. The second failing, perhaps more forgivable, is in the struggle to visualise things ever being radically different to how they are now.

With the occurrence of extreme weather events like floods and fires increasing—and movies like Don’t Look Up mocking human inaction in the face of global catastrophe and communicating urgency to a mass audience—there is now some progress on the first problem. The second was proving much harder. Then along came the pandemic.

Fiction may be full of people waking up in worlds suddenly changed, but you just don’t expect it to happen in your own—especially when the mantra for decades has been that “there is no alternative.” Then, one day, you’re forbidden to go to the office, there’s a good chance the government has stepped in to pay your salary, roads are virtually empty of traffic, whole streets of people are out applauding nurses and doctors, and only essential goods are available for purchase in the small number of shops left open.

Stuff happens. Of course, prior to the pandemic no mainstream political party would have run for election with even the more attractive changes in a manifesto. But the remarkable thing is how instantly people did adapt to the change. The pandemic itself has wreaked trauma and tragedy. But it’s also revealed one of the best-kept secrets in politics: that once something is understood to be necessary, people are in fact really good at rapidly adapting to radical change.

There are countless piecemeal examples of deliberate, planned (rather than reactive), sudden change. On 3rd September 1967, Sweden woke up with the challenge of remembering to drive on the other side of the road to the one it was used to. It was done to bring the country in line with its neighbours, but meant that overnight the nation’s street signs, road markings and infrastructure had to be switched. The day was called Högertrafikomläggningen, (the right-hand traffic reorganisation) or just Dagen H (H-day). It makes the huffing and puffing in the UK about bike lanes, and low-traffic neighbourhoods to stop the streets from becoming rat runs, seem quaintly hysterical. There is a pattern that repeats over decades and across cities as diverse as Stockholm, Paris, Madrid, Nuremberg and Milan: measures to reduce traffic are at first resisted, then accepted, and then eventually welcomed.

We’re now living through another fuel price spike, with the UK especially vulnerable to the price of gas as so many homes are dependent on it for cooking and heating. But the speed with which the country got hooked on domestic gas is another bit of lost recent history that shows how quickly infrastructure can be changed. It took a little longer than Sweden’s road switch, but in a largely forgotten episode over eight years between 1968 and 1976, 14m UK customers—largely households—changed their fuel supply and 40m appliances were switched from “town gas” to the relatively cleaner natural gas. For more recent cases, look to how the Dutch dashed away from gas, or how Finland has jumped to heat pumps that save on energy, cost and pollution.

The Climate Change Committee which advises the government now says that the UK’s homes are “unfit for the challenges of climate change.” The new imperative is to drop gas altogether as a polluting, costly and volatile fuel, and move to better insulation and renewables, including use of heat pumps. What can be learned from before? The switch to natural gas was made possible by a centrally co-ordinated and state-led operation, aligning the makers of appliances, the infrastructure for producing the fuel itself, a skilled workforce, consumers and homes, as well as a major information campaign.

It’s exactly the kind of package that fits the “levelling up” agenda and was at the core of the original Green New Deal policy proposal, first made in 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis and energy price shock that reverberated at the time. The response to the financial crisis itself offers another example of action taken that went almost overnight from being unthinkable, to unthinkable not to. A magic money tree was found in the financial forest. Great swathes of the banking system at the heart of neoliberal economies were nationalised. Imagine how much better our situation would be if the billions thrown at keeping the banks afloat—which ended up boosting the markets for yachts, art and high-end property—had instead been invested in the UK’s low-carbon transition, creating jobs, better homes and insulating us from the current fuel price shock.

In just this handful of examples, it’s possible to see that from transport to energy and the economy itself, we have demonstrated an ability for rapid transition that seems beyond the imaginative grasp of current policymakers. Since 2018, I’ve been working with colleagues in the Rapid Transition Alliance to gather cases from different times and places that reveal the human capacity for change. When working through the inexhaustible supply of examples, we found ourselves in the middle of the pandemic. We started cataloguing what was happening and the lessons it might have for responding to the climate and ecological emergency.

We have demonstrated an ability for rapid change that seems beyond policymakers’ imaginative grasp

There were endless revelations and reminders that people are  not  the selfish, competitive, consumption engines of the old economic imagination. Most fundamental perhaps is that people will put looking after each other before short-term economic interests. We will change our behaviour at short notice, and are prepared to give priority to groups with particular needs, accept rationing of essential items, shop at odd hours, wear face masks and work from home. Extraordinarily, given its tenacity as a problem, we can rapidly end street homelessness with focused resources and attention. The Everyone In scheme, introduced during the first peak of the pandemic, saved many lives by providing rough sleepers with accommodation and was lauded by campaigners as “extraordinary,” an example of what focused action can achieve.

Built on the foundations of publicly funded research, the development and mass deployment of the vaccine itself is another demonstration of effective, rapid action—stained only by the failure to ensure equal access in the Global South. The speed with which industries ranging from fashion to brewing and Formula One repurposed production lines to make hand sanitiser, PPE and breathing aids echoed factory conversions in war time, showing how quickly an economy can pivot to a new objective.

Meanwhile, a lot of travel has been revealed as unnecessary—with the appropriate protections and support for workers in place, the internet and flexible working can cut commuting for all kinds of office-bound jobs—saving time and money and cutting pollution. Flying for work in particular, an expensive, time-consuming and heavily polluting habit, is becoming a thing of the past. A new culture of convening online has emerged, not without its own unintentional comedy superstars and glitches, but hugely beneficial in many ways.

We learned too how choked and cramped urban populations can benefit from more space, green areas and more breathable, less polluted air. With the vehicles temporarily gone, who knew children were still happy just to sit on the pavement chalking pictures? The speed with which towns were able to redesign their centres, creating more room for pedestrians, cyclists and businesses was an astonishing display of rapidly deployed municipal agency, especially when compared to the more customary slow progress. But now the truth is out. More humane local environments really are just a wave of the council wand away. 

But it was far from just authorities demonstrating a previously unknown agility in adapting to new circumstances. It was people too. Yes, at the height of the first lockdown, social media posts by proud first-time bakers showing off their carefully nurtured sourdough loaves probably justified a little crusty British sarcasm. But new skills weren’t limited to baking; people found themselves remembering how to mend half-abandoned household items, repairing and making clothes, writing, playing, exercising and reskilling more broadly. Not only do these things have environmental benefits, they make people feel better about their lives. It just so happens that they also align with the great reskilling that is at the heart of most versions of a green, transition economy.

Even with the time and opportunity for online shopping, people have bought fewer consumer goods. Local shops selling essentials became important again and the key role of local supply chains was demonstrated. It is not to deny the great difficulties many faced to note that a combination of changing behaviour, doing new things, having more time and getting more exercise improved health and wellbeing.

The government’s own polling reported 87 per cent support for renewable energy

Resources can be found for us to sustain all these things. With the right approach, they could be turned into the new normal. But can we hold on to new habits and an awareness of the greater possibility for change? Always afraid of frightening a culturally conservative supporter base, mainstream policymakers favour small behavioural “nudges” to more radical measures.

But, where the climate emergency is concerned, even the Behavioural Insights Team—dubbed the “nudge unit” and formerly based in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—concluded that “nudging” isn’t enough. “We do not have time to nudge our way to net zero,” concluded a report by the unit. As if to underline the tentativeness of decisionmakers, the report was published briefly online before being quickly withdrawn, but not before it was widely shared. And, typically, the government appears behind the curve in judging the public appetite for change.

For example, YouGov polling in late 2021 showed over 80 per cent support for measures ranging from taxing polluters to banning single-use plastics, public subsidies for home energy efficiency measures, tough regulations on wasteful packaging and doing more to protect ecosystems. Two thirds favoured banning any energy from non-renewable sources, 60 per cent behind a frequent flier levy to tackle aviation pollution and nearly half—48 per cent—believed a ban on making and selling petrol and diesel cars would work. The government’s own polling reported 87 per cent support for renewable energy, compared to just 17 per cent support for fracking.

Climate change is the greatest existential threat human civilisation has ever faced. But we are also living through one of the greatest demonstrations of the possibilities for rapid transition. Not just in terms of our own behaviour and habits, but economic policy and infrastructure too. To make change happen, vested interests need vigilant confronting, but we also need to believe in the opportunities for change. Looking and being able to see them can help with that.

“If one could make visible the possibility of alternatives, viable alternatives, make a viable future already visible in the present, no matter on how small a scale,” wrote the great ecological economist EF Schumacher, “then at least there is something, and if that something fits, it will be taken.”