COP26 climate change summit: We can make our own hope by taking action over our diet – Philip Lymbery

The “last best chance to keep 1.5 alive” was how the COP26 climate summit was being seen, creating a huge focus for our collective hopes for the future.

As around 120 world leaders converged on the banks of the Clyde to set out plans for cutting carbon emissions, Glasgow became an intense melting pot of fears, expectations and hard truths.

The world is at “one minute to midnight”, having run down the clock on waiting to combat climate change, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of the conference. In the quest to limit global warming to 2C, and preferably the safer limit of 1.5C, the world was entering last-chance saloon.

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Yet, coming into this milestone UN conference, the gap between what is needed and actual national pledges for cutting emissions was stark.

The United Nations’ Secretary General, António Guterres, called out the mismatch, criticising leaders for failing to arrive with commitments ambitious enough to save the planet.

A UN study published ahead of COP26 had already analysed national plans for cutting greenhouse gases. The Emissions Gap Report found that the pledges added up to a world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7C by the end of the century – otherwise known as catastrophe. Now, I’m sure during the two-week conference more commitments will emerge; at least, I hope so.

However, it set me thinking about the nature of hope; that hope comes from a belief that things can and will change for the better. But is it really hope that changes things, or is the bigger driving force one of fear or even anger?

Previous social changes have often been driven, not by hope, but by indignation, disbelief and a sense of injustice. Looking at my own experience, I first got involved in animal protection issues not through a sense of hope that animals would be treated better, but out of anger at the cruelty involved in factory farming and live exports. I remember having a burning feeling that things were wrong, and a strong sense of wanting to be part of making them right.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg, seen at a protest in Glasgow last week, says people should look for action, rather than hope (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

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The nature of hope

Hope, for me, came from finding ways to get involved and from making my voice heard. I joined Compassion in World Farming and started to read more about the subject. I saw books as weapons – I armed myself with the facts and came out fighting. It wasn’t only animal issues; in my teens, I was also active on issues like global peace, pollution and the miners’ strike.

I didn’t want to be patronised with soothing stories about how things weren’t as bad as I feared – I wanted realism and honesty, but most of all, I wanted to help bring about change. And to me, a big part of feeling hopeful came from seeing that I wasn’t alone in wanting issues dealt with rather than brushed under the carpet. And that I could do something about it.

Perhaps that is what has galvanised my attitude professionally on the importance of helping people to get involved; to direct their anger, fears and frustration constructively towards changemakers at political, corporate and community level.

For me then, hope starts with believing that something must and will change. That if they don’t take action to make it change, we will. Through our powers of persistence and persuasion. In never taking no for an answer.

As the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg said from a Ted Talk stage, “We do need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”

The clock’s ticking

In a world where we have a matter of years to solve climate change, where nature is collapsing, and where our soils might disappear within decades, hope for hope’s sake isn’t enough.

Hope without the prospect of action is false hope, which should make us very angry indeed. So whatever the outcome in Glasgow, what is just as important is that people keep making their voices heard – calling on leaders to bring about the transformational change needed if we are to save the future for our children. And that change needs to involve all the tools in the box, not just the convenient ones.

Whilst much government focus has been on “coal, cars, cash and trees” – all essential measures for tackling climate change – food has been strangely overlooked. Yet food is one of the biggest contributors to global heating, responsible for up to a third of all emissions. The livestock sector alone releases more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions of all the world’s transport put together.

It strikes me as strange then that the need to eat less meat and move away from factory farming hasn’t featured on the global agenda in Glasgow. If we are to get serious about averting climate catastrophe, that needs to change.

At the same time, we should never let ourselves as individuals feel powerless. Much meaningful hope comes from people taking action to change things in their daily lives.

We can all take action on our plate, three times a day, by eating less meat. We can choose to eat more plant-based foods, and make sure that any meat and dairy we do eat comes from pasture-fed, free range and organic farms.

In this way, we can help unlock a healthier diet, reduce animal cruelty and head off the worst excesses of climate change, creating real hope. And in so doing, take action ourselves to bring about genuine hope of “keeping 1.5 alive”.

Philip Lymbery is global chief executive of Compassion in World Farming and a United Nations Food Systems Champion. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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