In a last-ditch attempt at improving my fitness, I decided to use the training for the ride as an excuse to re-establish the diet that I had been unsuccessful at implementing over the previous 8 months. As I reluctantly swallowed a mouthful of unsweetened, tasteless porridge during breakfast this morning, I couldn’t help but compare my inability to shift my own eating habits with our collective failure to address that other stubborn consumption issue, global climate change.
The similarities between our addiction to calories and dependence on carbon have been discussed extensively, and for good reason. Not only are they both deeply rooted in hedonistic behavioural traits of overconsumption and excess, but our diet choices themselves are having a direct and devastating impact on the state of our planet.
However, one area that has received less focus are the common social dynamics that shape our behaviour to both food and energy consumption. Similar to dieting, our ability to reduce our emissions will not happen in isolation, but will be shaped by the social, economic and political pressures applied by those around us.
As I watched my girlfriend opposite me fill her face with mouth-watering pancakes, I wondered what the social dynamics of dieting could teach us about the challenge of reaching a binding global agreement in Paris, and better clarify what we hope to achieve out of this ‘ultimate global dieting pact’.
The urgency: Our global belt is buckling….
If our planet were a patient, our doctor would have kicked us out of their surgery in frustration long ago. Despite hearing it all before, the harsh reality is that we are addicted to dirty, carbon-intensive energy, and if we don’t drastically alter our global energy diet soon, our ability to alter our long-term health will soon be out of our control.
So, I hear you ask, if the prognosis is that bad, why can’t we simply change our diet?
As we’ve learnt from our own attempts at curbing self-harming behaviour, the answer to this question isn’t simple. However one thing has become increasingly clear; we cannot do it alone.
We know from experience that it’s almost impossible to diet when those around us are gorging on the harmful treats we know and love. Equally, it is almost impossible to eat healthy when all that’s available at the store is junk food.
We now recognise that in order to create fundamental lasting change, collective action is the only way forward.
The solution: A global ‘dieting pact’
In essence, the Paris conference is our last ditch attempt to establishing a lasting global ‘low-carbon dieting pact’. And, similar to my experience with the tasteless bowl of porridge, we’ve tried this several times before with no success.
Our previous attempts tried to establish a collective ‘calorie reduction target’ and stipulated various ‘menus’ to help us achieve it. However, like a pack of stubborn toddlers, we refused to be told what and how much we could eat.
This time however, we’ve come to negotiations a little wiser. We are now allowing each party to declare how many ‘calories’ they are committing to cut out of their diet, and the specific strategies on how it achieve it are left up to them.
Like any decent group diet, this strategy relies on a sense of interconnected destiny, with commitment and resolve being driven by peer pressure and guilt in equal measure. But more than simply a pledged commitment, this version of the ‘ultimate dieting pact’ aims to establish three key ground rules that will be crucial to ensuring long-term ‘weight loss’.
i) Prohibiting midnight snacks: Promoting transparency and accountability
This agreement will be used to define the clear legal basis to ensure that of the participants stick to their commitments. This will entail mechanisms that promote both transparency and accountability. In other words, participants will undergo the ultimate calorie counting exercise, with each agreeing to clearly and regularly report on their calorie intake. It will also aim to enforce some sort of penalty if the agreement is breached.
ii) Addressing the ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ issue.
Not all participants in our global dieting pact will enter with the same starting weight. It would therefore be unfair for the ‘leaner’ participants to have to commit to the same weight-loss as the more gluttonous of us. It would also be equally unfair to deny those less ‘well-off’ participants some of the more luxurious desserts that the fatter half has been gorging on for the last century.
The rules of our global dieting pact aim to address some of these issues of equity, recognising the different starting points of each participant. It’s aim is to place the ‘calorie-cutting’ burden on those participants with the means and capacity to do so, while at the same time ensuring that all participants remain well fed.
iii) Switching the cookies for kale: Restocking the global pantry
We know from our squandered dieting experiences that often will power alone is not enough. Instead, we need to remove those bad treats from our reach. This agreement aims to develop a collaborative funding mechanism that will alter the ‘menu’ available to each participant. It aims to establish a system that will make unhealthy options too expensive to eat, while making cleaner and greener options too cheap to ignore, changing our long-term diet for the better.
So while kale may not be seem as delicious or convenient as cookies, it is hoped that overtime we will come to love it, so much so that we might start growing it for ourselves.
While clearly overly simplistic, there is much that can be learnt from comparing our collective inability at slimming our bodily and planetary waste lines. It shows that in instances in which we rely on the support and commitment of others, a clear set of ground-rules must be put in place for any chance of success. Equally, it highlights that given the right conditions ‘dieting’ doesn’t need to equal suffering. A truly successful diet is one that provides positive encouragement through peer support and acceptance of cleaner alternatives.
Suddenly the porridge in front of me isn’t looking so bad.
- Max Van Biene
This Week in Climate Change (formally The Week That Was), a weekly review of climate change politics, policy, innovation and science from Climate Reality Leader Andrew Woodward. @climatecomm