We all know smoking is bad for you. Even if it doesn’t kill you, there is no argument that it seriously deteriorates your health. Despite this being a universal understanding supported by medical science, there are probably more smokers than ever. So why isn’t the compelling evidence making people change their behaviour?
There are of course lots of people who ‘get it’ and try to stop smoking. Whether it’s the health issues, social implications or the extortionate cost of smoking that nudges their decision to try and stop, there is no doubt that fully breaking the habit is hard. No one finds it easy to stop because their body has come to crave to the chemicals that come from smoking. While quitting brings long term benefit, the short term impacts make us feel frustrated and deprived.
And there we have it; the reason why people don’t always successfully stop smoking is because it is a basic human reaction to give in to short term demands. We avoid thinking of eventual consequences, especially if success is not certain.
Now, compare this attitude in the context of climate change. With just days to go until the UN Paris Climate Conference (COP21) the same circumstances apply – World leaders are meeting to resolve something that is not apparently urgent. Bad things are not yet happening on a consistent or unmanageable enough scale for it to be seen as critical. Plus, the long term prognosis for the world is uncertain because no one has ever experienced global warming before, so how can we be sure what is going to happen? Contrast this with the recent atrocities in Paris and Mali and the fragile state of the global economy. If you were a world leader what would be your immediate priorities?
The answer of course is that these issues all need addressing; they are all important to the world’s future, it’s just that some issues feel more immediate than others. I will be looking to Obama, Cameron et al for leadership on these big issues and trust that they put measures in place so that I can look forward to a safe, secure and prosperous future for me, my children and my grandchildren.
So – why am I telling you all of this? Well recently I have been asked by a number of Members to push IEMA (the biggest professional body for environment and sustainability professionals in the world) to have a louder voice than ever in the run up to the COP21 talks. We can of course tell the world leaders that they need to limit any further impacts of climate change, and that we have 15,000 experts worldwide who are better qualified than anybody to tell them what to do.
And herein lies the danger; before I rush ahead with this task because it something we are all passionate about - and let’s be honest, we are on the side of angels here - I will remind myself of how I had to act when I wanted my wife to stop smoking. I reminded her of the horrible things that smoking was doing to her body, that she was running the risk of developing a horrible illness and that in the meantime it’s a disgusting habit. My good advice (delivered with a finely honed Yorkshire subtlety, backed up with impeccable scientific research) received with a very clear and no-so-subtle “go and do one” rebuttal.
Let’s think through the psychology here; the advice I gave was based on sound and compelling evidence but it did not generate the response I was looking (hoping) for. I am sure my wife wanted to stop smoking but also knew that she was daunted by the difficulty of quitting and the likelihood of failure because her habit was so ingrained. And the timing was inconvenient as there were lots of other things going on.
Compare this with the leaders entering the COP talks. I am sure the world leaders understand perfectly well that climate change is a (if not the) big issue. But they also know that they must go through the difficulty, pain and resistance of reaching an agreement that will suitably address the issue. All this at a time when global terror and financial problems feel significantly more pressing.
So back to the point we must ask how does IEMA best make use of our 15,000 highly motivated and skilled professionals? Well let’s try to take the pain and fear away from the leaders about making significant commitments - we have this power. We can inform them that there is a worldwide community of individuals who have the skills and expertise to guide businesses and organisations through any amount of legislation and commitments they are ready to make. We are capable of making game-changing ideas come to fruition. We can therefore urge them to make these commitments because we can deal with the implementation and delivery of goals. In fact, I say ‘bring it on’ - we are up for it.
We will be writing to the leaders after COP21 to explain our position and offer our collective help to support their commitments. And should there be a need to go further, they can rely on us to turn the talk into an action plan.
I refer back to my wife one last time, who has now successfully stopped smoking. She stopped because she was sufficiently motivated and it was my job to make her feel sufficiently comfortable with failure. It took more than one attempt - in fact it took lots of attempts. Each time I hid the disappointment and instead offered praise for the effort and congratulated her on willingness to keep trying.
Our world leaders are human too they have a tough job on their hands - some are just more motivated than others to address climate change. But regardless of the outcome we will be there to provide the right support
Posted on 25th November 2015
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