Feeling Bleak About 2022? Top 3 Tips To Make It A Year Of Climate Action

January 26, 2022

A person lies behind an activated alarm clock

City Science CEO Laurence Oakes-Ash reflects on the state of play as we enter into a new year still overshadowed by the pandemic, and offers his advice on how to make 2022 a meaningful year in your relationship with climate action...

Do you feel it?

Did you feel a strange sense of Groundhog Day at New Year?

Did you feel that the whole affair just marked the passage of time with no real sense of change or achievement?

Are you worried about what 2022 might hold in store?

If so, you're probably not alone.

A Prediction I'd Forgotten

Our story starts on New Years Eve 2019. It wasn't a huge affair; we didn't do much. We had some friends round, ate cheese and drank wine. I'd be lying if I said I remember much of the conversation. But according to those present at a key part of the evening the conversation turned to our predictions for the next decade.

A simple question was posed: "do you think the 2020s will be better than the 2010s?"

Now according to witnesses, I was fairly adamant that the 2020s would be awful.

Whilst I have absolutely no recollection of my doom-mongering, this New Year - as we've approached 2022 - something strange has started to happen. People who attended that 2019 cheese and wine evening have all started contacting me, reaching out with more searching questions:

"How bad are the 2020s going to get?"

"Will 2022 be worse than 2021?"

"Is it possible for things to get progressively worse forever?"

Now I don't believe I'm a modern-day Nostradamus. I've got a few things right, and a lot of things wrong. And to be honest, being sought out for my new year prophecies was not something I was expecting. So, it got me asking - what on earth is going on? Where are all these expectations of doom coming from?

A National Pessimism?

It's fair to say that I also entered the 2021 Christmas and New Year period with a strange, intangible sense of pessimism, something I couldn't quite place. But I quickly began to realise that maybe that sense of negativity was bigger than just me - maybe it was something else.

Then I saw it. The FT confirmed what I'd been sensing.

"Most Britons are pessimistic about their immediate future and fewer than a third believe that Britain will be a better place to live in 10 years' time", read the headline.

This, they said, was the result of research undertaken before Omicron became the dominant coronavirus strain, a fact that shocked me further. "After a surge in optimism in the summer as lockdowns lifted, the public mood has turned bleak again — almost back to the depths we saw in late 2020" said research group BritainThinks, deliberating on the results.

But it's not just surveys. A lot of what I've read from friends and colleagues is despairing, repeating this question: "how on earth are things going to get better?":

  • A researcher I respect in biosciences stated: "I'd say I hope 2022 is better, but no one believes that anymore, right?"
  • Glenn Lyons, a professor in transport, tweeted: "I've seen two people I greatly respect recently refer to feelings of nihilism"
  • A friend and public servant described 2021, in a fairly detailed blog, as "the year hope died"

I need to be clear right now - this blog is not going to end on a pessimistic note. This is an optimistic blog but I had to set the scene. It's happening out there. People are pretty damn bleak about 2022.

I have also shared in this elusive sense of gloom. But surprising as it may be, I've now gone through the eye of the storm. This blog is the story of my salvation.

A tweet calling for climate action

Recognising my Frustration

I entered the Christmas period plagued by a general but elusory feeling of low motivation. I'd made a series of out-of-character mistakes. I had headaches. I found myself telling the dog she would never amount to anything. I wasn't particularly nice. I'd talked to my marketing team about a new year blog before the break and the ideas weren't coming. Nothing was flowing. Instead, what came out were frustrations - in particular, focused on how quickly time was passing.

"We launched City Science six years ago - what have we actually achieved?", I asked.

The marketing team rightly reminded me that we've been working hard, and people tell us we are having an impact. However, all I could say was that we are barely scratching the surface while time is moving so quickly.

I listed the following as evidence:

  • When we started, we tried to get people to commit to net zero by 2025. We knew they'd never make it, but without a 2025 goal, they'd have no chance of meeting 2030 (this was before people even started committing to 2030 targets). 2025 is now only three years away.
  • Last January we published "9 Years Remaining", a white paper focused on being EV-ready (the government had committed to no new petrol or diesel car or light van sales by 2030). How many people even read it? Now there are now only 8 years remaining. Are we really any closer to being ready?
  • For those regions that have committed to Net Zero by 2030, despite the thousands of pages of new government strategies that we've been ploughing through all year, how many new, tangible, fully developed measures have been provided to actually help them deliver that?

I sighed a deep sigh and sank into my chair.

Whilst in that moment nothing was resolved, it helped me begin to see the potential source of my own personal frustrations. For people involved in decarbonisation, maybe it's easy to get frustrated that the world is simply not moving fast enough.

We had a lot riding on 2021 and, frankly, it didn't deliver.

For all of us involved in decarbonisation, 2021 was a year when it became increasingly clear that holding temperatures below 1.5°C needs a miracle. For people involved in decarbonisation, this period feels like the moment in Jurassic Park where they realise that the T-Rex has escaped (or for younger viewers the moment in Avengers: Infinity War, where they realise that Thanos has already acquired the Reality Stone, effectively dooming the Avengers to failure).

If this was a film, you'd expect things to get worse, possibly much worse, before they get better.

At this point I did what any sensible person does when faced with such a realisation: I decided to wallow.

My particular self-prescribed remedy was to re-read books on decarbonisation written before 2010. I don't know why I was drawn to them - maybe I thought I could find solace in knowing that others had seen the writing on the wall and known what to do long before I had.

What I found however was the core timeless truth that I needed to help me re-focus.

Rediscovering the Power of Individual Action

I read a few books, none of them helped. But then, Eureka. I finally I found what I'd been looking for

How to Live a Low Carbon Life by Chris Goodall, originally published in 2007, told me everything I needed to know in order to get back on track.

In the first chapter Goodall makes a powerful and compelling case for individual action. His starting hypothesis is that governments and companies will never be incentivised to go further than the average citizen on their own. I'll quote directly from Chris and let you make up your own mind:

"Global warming has been recognized as a serious issue by policy makers for at least 20 years." (remember, Chris was writing this in 2007).

"It is not in the interest of any single government to act to reduce carbon emissions if most of the rest of the world continues to pollute in growing volumes."

"There is no electoral advantage in [...] applying real restraint in fossil fuel use [...] unless every country acts similarly."

"Neither government nor companies have much choice about climate mitigation measures. They can talk a good story, advertise their green credentials and promise future virtue; but they will remain obdurately set in their ways. They will follow what the voters ask for or what purchases require. We therefore cannot shift the responsibility for dealing with climate change onto others; the responsibility belongs to individual citizens of the world."

It all sounded so familiar.

Reading that sole chapter, it became clear and obvious to me what had happened.

For those of us involved in decarbonisation, 2021 was the year we hoped that government strategies would solve all our problems. 2021 was the year we hoped others would share our vision for a New Normal and seek to make it reality. 2021 was the year we hoped leaders would agree at COP26 and take urgent, decisive action.

My realisation was that 2021 was the year we simply placed too much reliance on the actions of other people, but in doing so delayed taking action ourselves.

A General Diagnosis

So whilst my own gloom originates from my disappointment on climate commitments, I think we can generalise further. My proposition is that 2021 was a year where we all placed too much reliance on things that are simply outside of our own personal control:

Those who at the start of 2021 wanted to return to the old normal placed too much reliance on the virus behaving nicely. The virus didn't behave nicely.

Those who at the start of 2021 hoped for a New Normal - more local living, a more purposeful life and permanent measures to reduce can emissions - placed too much reliance on everyone else to want those same things [1].

And if at the start of (or during) 2021 you were one of those that hoped that England would win the Euros - well, you placed too much reliance on something you couldn't possibly control.

At the start of this new year, it's essential to focus on things you can control, whilst remembering the incredible power we have as individuals to effect change. Maybe a key cause of our collective disappointment was simply the misplaced sense that we needed others to act for us to be successful. It's easy to feel powerless and despondent when the world feels stacked against you. But feelings of powerlessness and despondency can also be our worst enemy. Chris Goodall makes the case - it's precisely because the world isn't going to act for you, that you have to act.

Individuals are not powerless. Every major change that has occurred throughout history has been due to individuals. Individuals with ideas. Individuals who have shared and spread those ideas. Individuals with positions and resources that have enabled action.

The Power of Sustained Effort

Personal commitment and sustained effort make a difference.

I'm fortunate to be entering 2022 with a personal goal already partially in sight. In April 2022, I will play jazz piano at a wedding for the first time. This is a goal I set myself in late May 2021, knowing next to nothing about how to play jazz piano. Since setting that goal, I've practised every day. 10.5 months after making that commitment, I will perform to the best of my ability and hope that people tap their feet and maybe even sing along. If there is anything I can point to in 2022 that I'm excited about it's that.

But just like with any goal it's not been an easy journey. There have been times when I was pulling my (little remaining) hair out, pleading with my fingers to do what they need to do to sound good. And while I still wouldn't say I'm particularly good - what I will admit is that I'm getting better [2]. And surely that's the most important thing? I can point to tangible steps I've taken, and continue to take towards the goal I wanted to achieve. The whole exercise has reminded me that with a clear goal and sustained effort, individuals have a huge capacity to progress in whatever direction they want.

But more than that, it's been a positive achievement I can point to in 2021 - and maybe that's simply because it didn't require anyone else to achieve it.

2022 Then... A Year of Action

Through my reflections over the Christmas period, I've rediscovered the idea that individuals are the driving force for change. Whatever you want for 2022, I genuinely believe you have the power to achieve it. You might not get all the way there, but with sustained effort you will see progress. And that is the most important thing.

If, like me, you're disappointed by what you achieved in 2021, now is the time to identify things that you can do. You have the power to effect change for yourself and your household; you have the power to effect change within the organisation in which you work; you have the power to effect change within the region in which you live; and you have an amazing ability to influence every single person connected with you through your network. This is the time to do it.

If, like me, you believe that climate action is the number one priority for 2022, then these are my top tips.

1. Be Active

In 2022, don't delay. Don't wait for the next COP, or for the next strategy document. Identify the things that are within your control, things you can do now and get them started. Then identify the things you'll need to do next and start thinking about what you'll need to do to achieve them. For me, I'm going through How to Live a Low-Carbon Life. I'm building a spreadsheet so I can be confident in my own data, implementing everything I can, and I'll share the journey with you - warts and all. Some key highlights of things I need to do:

  • Absolutely no flying. Like many I've not flown for 3 years, but pressures are growing - I'm going to show how to not succumb.
  • Meat-free barbeques: as a barbeque lover, I need to find a solution to what I see as a very real personal dilemma. I'm going to create a meat-free barbeque menu that blows people's minds.
  • Retrofitting an Edwardian property. No one else is going to do it, so I'm going to start.

2.Use Whatever Platform You Have

As Chris Goodall states, ultimately, control of what companies and governments do lies with individuals. For those of us who want to see climate action, we need to make the right decisions and influence all of those around us to do the same.

To start with, make a public commitment. Write a blog or just put a comment on this one. If you've made a change (such as eating less meat), tell people why you've made that change. Work out what your company's doing. Make the business case for them to improve, even if they haven't asked for it. But most importantly, tell your MP that the climate matters. My vote at the next election will be won or lost on the basis of climate action. That is essential information for them to know.

Did you hear that politicians? My vote at the next election will be won or lost on the basis of climate action.

If you voted conservative in the last election, then repeat it even louder. Like this:

"I VOTED CONSERVATIVE IN THE LAST ELECTION. MY VOTE AT THE NEXT ELECTION WILL BE WON OR LOST ON THE BASIS OF CLIMATE ACTION."

If you agree with me, then tell them and keep telling them.

3. Speak the Truth

Finally, speak the truth. However you feel about the climate, tell people. If something's hard to change, say so. Share your stories. If things are being mis-represented - call them out [3]. And if you're worried about the future and about the path we're on - share it. You are not alone.

Hope was not lost in 2021. It was just distracted.

Let's make 2022 the Year of Action.

#2022YearOfAction

A City Science Commitment...

This is a very personal post, but City Science will also be following these tips in 2022. Over the coming weeks, we'll be sharing much more about our own journey to Net Zero.

Not only are we targeting a very ambitious date (2024) and the highest standards, but we'll also be documenting the whole journey - warts and all - so you can learn from what we do and keep us honest throughout.

Follow me (or @cityscience) on LinkedIn, @CityScienceUK on Twitter, or sign up to our mailing list to stay posted.

Footnotes

[1] My wife stopped cycling, kids parties returned, and BA is trying to convince us that can't possibly be happy unless we go to St Lucia (see here). The old normal is overwhelmingly trying to pull us back.

[2] If you're interested in booking the UK's first zero-carbon jazz pianist for a forthcoming wedding, then do get in touch.

[3] So far in 2022, I've written my first ever complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency.