The green transition needs to happen at a local level, with citizens engaged in climate activism and policy, the European Commission said at the launch of the Climate Pact on Wednesday (16 December).
“We know at the Commission that, if it has to happen, it has to happen locally,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU executive’s vice-president in charge of the European Green Deal.
“Some of our climate ambassadors now are mayors or local government, their voices are so important because they can get things going,” he said at the launch event.
The Commission introduced its climate pact last week, creating a platform to connect people working on environmental activism so they can share knowledge, raise awareness of climate change and empower citizens to take action.
The pact aims to show that everyone’s contribution matters, said Timmermans, who warned about the risk of apathy about climate change issues.
“A couple of years ago, I was worried about climate deniers, who said there is no climate problem or the temperature rise is normal. They are disappearing very quickly because the evidence is becoming overwhelming even for people who are very sceptical,” Timmermans said.
“Today I worry more about climate despair,” he added.
The pact asks people to become climate ambassadors to spread news about climate change and gives a voice to people who can share success stories to combat this apathy.
“There is a psychological cost. People feel a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety, and this is blocking them from accepting the truth,” said Julia Fiedorczuk, a writer and lecturer at Warsaw’s Institute of Reportage.
“We need a lot of small stories, which are close to what people actually experience, which are close to their neighbourhood,” Fiedorczuk added at a EURACTIV debate on how to engage people in climate action.
At the launch of the climate pact, new ambassadors shared such stories. This included Katarina Luhr, the Vice Mayor for Climate and Environment in Stockholm, which aims to be fossil fuel free by 2040, Francesca Dandalo, who works to restore biodiversity to Paris and Martin Helseth, a Norwegian Olympic rower who raises awareness about marine pollution.
In fact, different messages are needed for different communities, otherwise people risk feeling alienated, said speakers at the EURACTIV event. For instance, the narrative of Europe as a world leader in climate policy creates an impression among Eastern European countries that it is a Brussels agenda imposed by Western Europe, said Julian Popov, a former environment minister of Bulgaria.
When those concerns aren’t addressed, people can easily turn against climate action. This has been the case in France with the “gilets jaunes” protests over fuel prices, and in Germany with local objections to onshore turbines and power lines.
“We cannot afford to leave people behind. We need to protect vulnerable people. We need to make sure that this is a just transition into a sustainable society,” said Timmermans.
People need to change their mindset
To succeed in the green transition, citizens need to feel part of it and take steps to change their lifestyle.
“We need to have a shift in mindset,” said Clara De La Torre, deputy director-general at the Commission’s climate department. “We need acceptance of the fact that it is urgent, but it is not too late. We can fix things, little steps like taking more public transport, eating a little less meat during the week,” she told participants at the EURACTIV event.
At the launch event, it was announced that the climate pact would be joining with Count Us In, a campaign aimed at mobilising millions of people across the world to make concrete changes to reduce their carbon footprint and promote climate action.
If one billion people – roughly double the size of the EU’s population – took practical action to live more sustainably, they could reduce global carbon emissions by as much as 20%, according to the UN Emissions Gap Report.
However, climate action needs to go beyond pledges and become a habitual action that is done regardless of what others do, said George Marshall, Founding Director of Climate Outreach, a British charity focusing on public engagement with climate change.
> Watch the full recording of the EURACTIV event below:
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]