speaker and vice-chancellor on stageIn this joint University/WinACC lecture on 14 July 2015 in the ‘Is it the answer?’ series on climate change, Tony Stoller, the Chair of WinACC, explored the role of public opinion in ensuring effective action on climate change.

Almost a hundred people listened to a lecture they described as "outstanding", "powerful" and "thought-provoking". Tony started by summarising the urgent need for tackling action at once: 

"We know that our planet is warming at an alarming rate, and that the increasing warming and acidification of our oceans are having potentially disastrous effects on marine ecosystems.  We know that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has established that at least 70 per cent of current warming at least is a direct result of human activity, probably more. We know that the Earth has warmed by 0.8 degrees centigrade since the industrial revolution, already with negative impacts. We know that a failure to limit warming to 2 degrees centigrade would be catastrophic for the planet’s ecosystems, for the human race and for many of the plants and animals with whom we share our planet, and that we are today on course for 4 degree to 6 degrees warming by the end of this century."

There are examples of public opinion leading to massive change in attitudes and behaviour, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Irish referendum in favour of gay marriage. So there is still hope that humanity will step back from the precipice.

Tony argued that that there has been a significant shift in the opinions of almost all stakeholder groups. The science is now firmly established, effectively beyond contradiction. Politicians and governments are starting to acknowledge that, with many promising action, but not yet delivering it. Global business and its investors now seem equally aware of the scale and urgency of the problem, and are indicating their willingness to be part of the solution; but again, without much actual change yet evident. Faith leaders and faith groups are taking a lead in urging action. The traditional media are often criticised, but in fact most journalists are convinced of the reality of climate change.  And it appears that the great majority of global citizens understand that there is a massive, life-threatening problem and agree – at least in the abstract – that something must be done.

How therefore do we leverage this shift in hearts and minds, to deal effectively with climate change?  Tony
argued that we stand at a moment of crisis and opportunity, which brings with it a shared responsibility. 

We are the citizens of the world; together, here and now, we constitute a potential world citizen movement, if we choose to act rather than merely suffer.

The focus of the efforts of concerned people now needs to change. We should move away from simply describing the problem, and its consequences, to demonstrating a collective will towards action.

...We can create the space in which governments can act, and endlessly insist that they do so. We are entitled now to demand of governments and politicians, and of business and NGOs, that they act within that space, starting no later than now. We need to welcome rather than dismiss the comments of politicians, global business and other 'surprising friends', ensuring that those who speak the truth, act the truth. We need to encourage people to work with their friends and neighbours, to accept changes which they would not do on their own but which they will feel encouraged to do as part of a peer group. That lies at the heart of WinACC’s mission. We need to take forward the message of faith leaders and faith communities into the wider, secular world. We need to ask the academics and scientists who are so knowledgeable about these issues to find ways of speaking in the vernacular about the solutions, just as much is about the problems.

Above all, we need simply not to let up on our efforts. Keeping hearts and minds on the side of right needs constant, unremitting effort by each of us, as individuals and world citizens, and also as part of corporate or institutional bodies. This is the time. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, "if I am not for myself, who will be for me. And if not now, when?".

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Listen to Tony's talk

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Tony Stoller chairs the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a major independent social and public policy research organisation, as well as the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, and has served on public bodies as diverse as the Competition Commission and the Freedom of Information Tribunal. He has extensive experience in media and communications. He was Chief Executive of the Radio Authority, the regulatory body for all non-BBC radio, and played a senior role in establishing the communications regulator, Ofcom.