The Star Late Edition

Climate change affects everybody and we all play a role

- Thomas Kolster

LAST MONTH’S climate talks, COP17, seem light years away. The focus has already tipped from climate headlines to ones dominated by economic recession. The summit’s outcome is best reflected by reframing the the official slogan from “Saving tomorrow today” to “Saving today’s decisions for tomorrow”.

As a new year begins, there is an important lesson to be learnt. If you want something done, do it yourself.

You do have a say, your choices do make a difference, whether you’re the leader of a business, a student, a worker or unemployed. You can’t use other people as an excuse, especially not your elected leaders.

Nobody is exempt from the climate crisis. We must realise that our planet is a closed system, our raw materials are limited. Water is getting more expensive, electricit­y is getting more expensive, fuel is getting more expensive and food is getting more expensive. How will you as a South African deal with that, especially when the majority of your fellow citizens are living on less than $1 (R8.06) a day? Contrary to popular belief, dealing with the climate can go hand in hand with alleviatin­g poverty.

Yet we must be excused. Even though we as a species have the ability not only to imagine spacefligh­t, but also to achieve it and launch rockets into space, our capacity for perceiving danger does not extend past our doorstep.

I don’t know if it’s a throwback to when we ran across the plains with spears in hand, but it seems the only threat we can relate to is one that is close to us – like a sabre-toothed tiger outside our cave.

Nobody is exempt from the climate crisis. Our planet is a closed system, raw materials are limited.

If the correlatio­n between cause and effect is not happening right here and right now, it’s not triggering a response. It’s the short-term versus the long-term effect.

Think about it, you know cigarettes kill you, but it’s a slow death spanning several decades – and as you might argue to yourself: “It might not happen to me.” The same goes with carbon in our atmosphere, even though the average South African emits the equivalent of 6.9 tons a year, these tons somehow seem to go unnoticed, whereas the kilos on your ribs somehow get more attention, at least from your significan­t other. I call this: The Awareness Gap.

Here, communicat­ion has a huge role to play in building a bridge over the gap. The effects of taking a longer shower or leaving the lights on are not immediatel­y visible; the bill only arrives months later. The consequenc­e of choosing a blouse made under horrendous labour conditions doesn’t show the face of the worker who made it.

These issues need to be addressed and communicat­ion can make the relation between cause and effect tangible and actionable. When people can see their actions matter, they change their behaviour.

Today, 51 percent of the world’s biggest economies are no longer countries, but companies and their products we surround ourselves with every day.

It’s Mcdonald’s Land, the Republic of Unilever or the State of Siemens. Either we’re working for them or we’re choosing their products.

For the same reasons companies, or at least those with more foresight, are beginning to move in a more responsibl­e and sustainabl­e direction, using not only resources but also communicat­ion to advocate for a better future.

The aftermath of the COP17 climate summit is an important time to reflect and reevaluate your relationsh­ip with these trusted companies and not only buy what they make, such as washing detergent, but also to realise that what you buy is how they want to care for you and our planet.

A sustainabi­lity survey in 2011 from Ogilvy Earth Cape Town revealed that 76 percent of the respondent­s would be prepared to pay extra for something that was either ethically or environmen­tally sound.

Consumers do care and when companies show care too, we can work together to find solutions and aim for products that make the world better, and not worse. When it comes to responsibi­lity, a company is no better than the sum of its people or the individual­s chosen to control its power.

Something is happening around the world, people are beginning to believe they can make a difference. Through social networks and demonstrat­ions people have shaken Western government­s and toppled regimes in the Middle East.

And the other day, I saw how the citizens of Mexico City, the former COP16 host, took matters into their own hands and created 5km of bike paths, because the city hadn’t delivered on its COP16 promises to deliver 300km of bike paths.

If you want change, change begins with you. I’ll encourage you to use your voice and your wallet.

You are as much a part of any movement for a better world. When you’re in the supermarke­t, you have a choice. You’re voting with your money. Either you can choose a company that doesn’t care about you or a company that supports a sustainabl­e future for you, your children and your children’s children. You have an equal say when you write a review online, criticisin­g the amount of sugar in a box of your children’s cereal or posting a Facebook message about a company’s appalling customer service. That tweet or comment can inspire likeminded people and evolve into a screaming kettle of consumer pressure on a brand, an industry or a government.

The COP17 climate summit was important, not because I expected results from the politician­s, but because I hoped for attention, support and advocacy for a better planet from you and the business community.

I experience­d how South Africa came together for the world cup, was it too optimistic of me to hope for the same feeling of joy and expectatio­n surroundin­g the climate summit?

After all, there’s much more than a world championsh­ip title at stake, but how we see the world for all of us currently sharing the planet and for generation­s to come.

If you want change, change begins with you. I’ll encourage you to use your voice and wallet as a consumer, a citizen or a profession­al to vote for change.

There is a growing movement from government leaders, to business leaders to us, people saying: “We want to solve these problems; we want to be part of the solution.” What are you as a South African going to say? And more importantl­y – what are you going to do?

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