In recent weeks, “biblical” floods across Europe, China and the Middle East have killed and displaced thousands, “heat domes” over Canada and the US have sparked wildfires so big they are creating their own destructive weather patterns, and alarming research has revealed that the Amazon is no longer a carbon sink, but a source.
It is against this backdrop of death and destruction that governments must take decisive action to rid us of the fossil fuels driving global climate breakdown, and put in place legislation that must have far-reaching implications for energy, industry, transport, agriculture, and impact how people live their lives.
So the headline suggestion from Boris Johnson’s Cop26 spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, that the British public can help tackle the climate crisis through “micro-steps” such as not rinsing dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, or by putting bread in the freezer to help it last longer, has drawn a broad array of criticism.
In an article in The Daily Telegraph, she also suggested that consumers might buy shower gel in bar form, packaged in cardboard, and could consider walking rather than driving to the shops.
She does acknowledge that “we need to see substantial movement on coal, cars and trees to bring carbon emissions down by 2030 and ‘keep 1.5 alive’”, but the “micro-steps” she outlined, and which were the focus of the piece, were criticised for shifting blame for the climate crisis on to individuals.
The article has provoked considerable backlash. On social media, Twitter users pointed out that just 100 companies around the world are responsible for 71 per cent of emissions.
Luke Pollard, the shadow environment secretary, called for “proper leadership” from the government.
He told The Independent: “The planet is on fire and we are living in a climate and ecological emergency. If the government’s best answer is rinsing dishes, we are in serious trouble.
“We need the government to show proper leadership – starting with investments in green industries at home, as well as global leadership ahead of Cop26.
“The Conservatives have delivered neither. They are failing to meet our climate targets, and are putting our futures at risk with their reckless approach.
In a phone call to The Independent, Ms Stratton defended her article, saying she was trying to reach people who were currently doing nothing to acknowledge the environmental crisis.
She said: “We’re busting a gut to make Cop26, which is the last best chance to tackle runaway climate change, deliver the change that all of us need.”
Asked why she thought other parties and organisations were critical of her article, she said: “When people say to me, ‘what can they do?’, they can do many things, they can join Greenpeace, they can join the Green Party, they can join the Tory Party, so there’s lots of ways they can get involved in politics, but for those people who wouldn’t [do that], how do you start to change your life in manageable, achievable, feasible, small ways?
“I was trying to connect with people who – my understanding is – feel that it’s too much and too overwhelming to process.
“You will have a net-zero strategy from us before Cop26. You’ll have a series of strategies from us in the next few months. We are doing the heavy lifting.
“What I’m trying to do is speak to people who may not be doing anything.”
Asked why she chose the four “micro-steps” and didn’t expand on any further things people or governments might do to address the climate emergency, she said: “Believe you me, I know very well what the steps are and what the efficacy is associated with each of them, but I am communicating to the widest possible audience that I can communicate to because I want the greatest number of people to start to think about the change that is coming in British society over the next 10-15 years.”
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, told The Independent: “The focus on what individuals should be doing to increase their climate credentials is typical of this government – pushing responsibility elsewhere and simultaneously trivialising the huge efforts people are making to help tackle the climate emergency every day to rinsing plates.
“What we really need to see is some serious investment and action at a national level, and the government showing some leadership to make headway on a global scale at Cop.”
Promoting her article, Ms Stratton tweeted: “Could not rinsing dishes b4 the dishwasher be your #onestepgreener ahead of Cop26? If that’s too hard a habit to kick, pick something else.
“At Cop26 we have big asks for the world on cash, coal, cars and trees but the micro matters too. Change is coming.”
Green MP Caroline Lucas responded: “Yeah, that’ll fix it”.
The Labour MP for Bristol North West, Darren Jones, wrote: “Freezing leftover bread is not going to decarbonise our buildings and heating and transport infrastructure. Time to get serious.”
Ms Stratton replied to suggest he may not have read her whole article, saying: “Time to be deeply serious. At Cop26 we want action on cash, carbon, coal and cars + trees, to keep 1.5 alive.”
She said plans to decarbonise buildings were “coming”.
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK, told The Independent that Ms Stratton’s suggestions could be seen as “displacement activities”, instead of using her platform to outline the big changes required.
He said: “Whilst one should not belittle individual efforts to help tackle the climate crisis, not rinsing plates and freezing bread is about as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to the enormity of the challenge that it presents.
“Success at the global climate conference depends on government leadership to phase out fossil fuels and roll out zero carbon solutions to slash emissions and create thousands of new green jobs. These ‘micro-steps’ are in danger of looking like displacement activities rather than a big-picture vision from the prime minister.
“Failing to use this critical time to explain the changes that are needed and highlight the huge economic opportunities that will come with climate action misses an opportunity and misses the mark for what this global moment needs.”
Chris Venables, the head of politics at think tank Green Alliance, told The Independent: “The climate crisis is the greatest challenge facing humanity and there are no quick fixes, but we know we can’t win without transforming every part of our economy.
“We hope the government publishes an ambitious climate plan as soon as possible and, most importantly, delivers a deal in Glasgow that keeps the all-important 1.5 degree target alive. That is by far its more urgent task.”
He added: “In the meantime, engaging the public in a fun, lighthearted conversation around what we can all do at home is all part of the changes we need to see.”