Page last updated at 14:27 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Climate crisis needs empowered people

Professor McGlade (Image: EEA)
Jacqueline McGlade

People power is at the heart of the effort to beat climate change, says Professor Jacqueline McGlade, head of the European Environment Agency. In this week's Green Room, she says that the task is so great, and the timescale so tight, that we can no longer wait for governments and businesses to act.

People on a beach spell out SOS (Image: PA)
It is no longer sufficient to develop passive lists or reports to 'inform' citizens of changes in our environment
The key to protecting and enhancing our environment is in the hands of the many, not the few.

To adapt effectively to the challenges that will come with climate change, including biodiversity loss, water stress and forced migrations of species, we need to harness the information available and will to act at the local level.

That means empowering citizens to engage actively in improving their own environment, using new observation techniques and innovative economic ideas.

Sadly, the political, economic and administrative mechanisms that we design to tackle environmental concerns all too often leave citizens sidelined as silent observers.

Information is made available as lists of figures or spreadsheets that only experts can interpret.

Imagine if all the statistics that inform our evening weather forecasts were presented in this way, or all the data that drives popular software like Google or Windows.

A couple sitting in deck chairs (Image: Getty Images)
Inviting people to rate local bathing water quality has been a success

Do you think they would continue to be as popular?

To encourage and benefit from participation we need to present our information in a way everyone can understand.

To address this urgent need the European Environment Agency (EEA) is working with the European Union, developing new systems to engage citizens as suppliers and users of environmental data.

The Shared Environmental Information System is one such collaboration between the EU and EEA.

The initiative will guide Europe's collection and dissemination of environmental information over the coming years.

This new approach supports the shift from paper to web-based reporting, managing information as close as possible to its source and making it available to users openly and transparently.

For Europe's citizens, this will mean both greater access to information and a bigger role in reporting.

When EU bodies review members' compliance with environmental standards, they will increasingly refer to national websites where everyone can access the relevant data, rather than relying on confidential submissions.

Meanwhile, data collected pursuant to regulatory obligations will be integrated with information from voluntary, professional and amateur groups as well as from empowered citizens.

This will build a much more complete and nuanced picture of the state of Europe's environment.

Silent witnesses

Citizens have a role to play in data gathering the world over.

In the Arctic, for instance, indigenous people form part of the EEA's global observation network, providing evidence of the real change taking place to complement our observational data and models.

Inuit hunter on an ice float (Image: AP)
The impact of climatic shifts on Arctic communities has been widely ignored

We know already that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe.

Yet outside the territories, little is understood of the true cost to indigenous people of retreating ice or the impact of seasonal change on hunting.

We need to rectify this if we are to make the right decisions.

It is no longer sufficient to develop passive lists or reports to "inform" citizens of changes in our environment.

We need to engage with citizens and ask how they can inform us. Obtaining and using local knowledge will help us empower citizens, and will also give us a better indication of what we need to do to be truly sustainable.

To really engage the public, more co-ordinated and timely gathering of complex data needs to be complemented by "real time" delivery of the information, in language that is accessible to all.

The EEA's recently launched online portal, which is called the Global Citizen's Environmental Observatory, will enable European environmental information to be gathered and presented in a single location.

C-ROADS allows users to see how decisions on greenhouse gas emissions made by political leaders today will influence the climate over the next 100 years

The Observatory will give governments, policymakers and citizens easy access to clear, comprehensible data in real time.

It will provide information on all environmental media - from the global perspective to the view from the street - at levels of detail previously unseen.

Water Watch, which provides information on bathing water quality, represents an illustration of the services to come.

Launched by the EEA and Microsoft last summer, it was visited almost 265,000 times in the first three weeks of August; a clear indication of public demand for user-friendly environmental information.

Crucially, the Observatory will afford every one of us a role in the information process by prioritising two-way communication.

In the case of Water Watch, local people are encouraged to give their opinion on the quality of the beach and water, thereby supplementing and validating official information.

Information technologies offer new ways to use all available data to the full and to present findings in ways that engage citizens and policymakers alike.

An example is the Climate Change Simulator, known as C-ROADS, currently being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with support from the EEA.

C-ROADS allows users to see how decisions on greenhouse gas emissions made by political leaders today will influence the climate over the next 100 years.

If the world cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, 50% or 80%, what impacts will climate change have? The simulator provides some of the answers.

Importantly, it will be available to everyone, and isn't only for super computers and technicians.

That means each of us can use the same data as governments to model the change in his or her country.

From personal experience, I have noticed that people find the simulator simple to use and convincing in terms of its output.

It gives immediate feedback, which is essential when we want heads of state and ministers to see the consequences of their actions.

And it gives them and their citizens an insight into the scale of change that is needed.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade is executive director of the European Environment Agency

This article is based on a lecture hosted by environmental charity Earthwatch

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Professor McGlade? Do individuals need to be at the heart of the battle against climate change? Is the scale of the problem too much for political and business leaders to tackle alone? Or is it expecting too much for the people in the street to do anything about global climate change?

Good idea to get members of the public to record data to help them 'buy-in' and feel part of the process. But - never mind about collating more and more data, we know we need to cut our CO2 emissions so instead of collating more and more data, we need to encourage people to actually change their habits so we can collectively reduce our CO2 emissions. Ironic that continually flying to the arctic to see how bad it is, is actually only adding to the CO2 emissions and making it worse.
sarah webb, wallingford

What is missing from every article about climate change is any idea of the scale of the problem. Energy derived from sources such as coal and gas can be converted - for ease of use - into equivalent amounts of oil, called tons of oil equivalent (toe) or millions (mtoe). We currently use about 10,000 mtoe a year. Replacing this with renewables is virtually impossible. The Global Wind Energy Council, for instance, expect that with reasonable effort we will produce about 2.7 mtoe by the year 2050 - hardly scratches the surface of the problem and wind energy is easy to do. Tide and wave haven't made much contribution at all. Solar has a chance to make a more significant impact but still is producing very little energy on the global scale. We need huge efforts on a global scale to make a real difference and so far no government has large scale plans. (Our government thinks it can be solved by insulating homes). Cutting emissions by a few percent goes nowhere. Until all CO2 emissions are stopped the problem isn't solved. We must prepare for climate change. We just don't have the tools to stop it.
Michael Ayres, Bodmin

I would love to know where Mark got his facts from in relation to that rediculous throw away comment about man made global warming being alarmist rubbish. If he had read anything on the subject he would understand that more than 30 billion tonnes of extra carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere annually by human activities, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels. And we also know that about half of the CO2 emitted by mankind each year is taken up by natural sinks on land and in the oceans. He would also know that as CO2 builds in the oceans the PH level lowers, making the oceans more acidic. With a bit of reading he would understand that this point alone should be considered as an extremely serious threat to the majority of life in the oceans. This is just one of a growing number of problems facing us if we don't get our CO2 emmissions under control and i totally agree with Jacqueline McGlade that we need a single point of contact for environmental information that people can arm themselves with in order to make better lifestyle desisions. Once this happens maybe people like Mark will stop making uneducated comments like 'True man made global warming is complete alarmist rubbish'
John, coventry

Prof McGlade is right to say that we cannot win the battle against climate change unless the public is involved. Major private and public investment goes to the global energy industries which do not want small innovative companies breaking into their markets. While £billions (rightly) goes to subsidise wind farms, engineers trying to develop micro wind energy collectors are starved of funding. Micro wind systems, solar energy and energy from waste could enable individuals, communities, businesses and manufacturers to generate much of their own electricity, heat and transport fuel. At present fuel cells are backed if they fit in with the fossil fuel infrastructure, but more support is needed for 'green hydrogen' fuel cells. Battery powered vehicles could also be directly fuelled from renewable energy.
Jean Aldous, Bury St Edmunds

Everyone should start taking responsibility for the climate/peak oil crisis (both intertwined with one another) and for turning it around. If everyone started acting locally, which is how society is going to be in years to come once the crisis fully hits, the human race may stand a chance - check out the Transition Movement. I have found this so inspiring recently and the film Power Of The Community which shows how in Cuba they have survived such a crisis - local people on a local level, everyone having to do their bit because if they did not they would not survive.
Rosemary, Cambridge

I agree that it's important for people as individuals to get involved and even a little help here and there will help the environment. However this is one of those "easier said than done" and "actions and stronger than words" things. It's easy to propose this idea to people but what will make them adapt it? Some people have that "somebody else will do it" attitude that makes them indifferent to this issue. If there was some way to make this idea more likable then maybe it would be considerable. Like the 5 cents recycling, it helps especially here in hawaii because now what people considered trash is worth money.
Alan K., United States

It would be interesting to know whether Mark from Coventry has any basis for his assertion that man-made global warming is 'alarmist rubbish'. Is that simply his belief, or does he have any scientific knowledge to support it. If so would he please share it with those of us who have spent many years studying Earth sciences, because clearly we must have missed something important.

What really is alarming about this issue is that everyone seems to have an opinion on it, regardless of whether they know any of the fundamental science, which Mark clearly does not.
Philip Morgan, Cardiff

"True man made global warming is complete alarmisth rubbish..."

Thank you for sharing that completely unnecessary and unhelpful declaration of your own willfully ignorant delusions, Mark from Coventry. I'm sure that James Inhofe, Lee Raymond and the late Michael Crichton all appreciate your support in their efforts to artificially drag out a "debate" which, back on planet Earth, has been adequately settled for years.

I'm sure that your oil-soaked thank-you check is in the mail even now.
Matt, Lakewood, Ohio, U.S.A.

I fully agree. If we are respond to an uncertain future then we need to be prepared at all levels of society. A resilient society able to cope with and respond to future challenges requires the involvement of everyone. We all part of the problem and we all need to be part of the solution. Unfortunately the UK government seems more concerned with strengthening its institutional resilience - it does not seem able to think other than Command and Control.
Geoff O'Brien, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Some direction on what the individual can actually 'do' to help curb climate change (beyond the obvious turn off unnecessary lights, use low energy lightbulbs etc..)Many people who are aware of climate change and environmental issues as well as those who are less aware would welcome some sound advice on what can be done on an individual basis - a series of articles describing in relatively easy stages how we can lessen our carbon footprints, use less energy, make better choices would be welcomed at many levels.
Rebecca Taylor, Halifax, West Yorkshire

We are running into a very dangerous, unpredictable experiment in changing the climate and changing the atmospheric composition. Actions must be taken now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We must believe there are other, more sustainable ways.
Sam, Leeds

People need heart to tackle things and how words are used is at the core of whether they feel empowered to take action or not. Doing battle against climate change seems overwhelmingly impossible and about as effective as jousting windmills but doing something as an individual or as a political leader or person of industry to help stop global warming is quite doable. So if grassroots help by the man on the street to get someone elected President of the United States results in policy that for the first time invests billions and billions of dollars into energy efficiency, renewable energy and upgrades in communications infrastructure you can bet the power of the individual to affect the future is alive and well.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado, USA

Another layer between the people and the empirical data. Quality public information, or the ultimate tool of environmental propaganda? I guess we'll find out in due course.
Dave Ogman, Doncaster

I agree with Professor McGlade, this is because the environmental problems is caused by humankind and our numerous activities, so if each individual is aware about his or her actions towards destroying the environment, then each and everyone will be extra careful in dealing with the environment.
mariama zaami, Accra, Ghana

Marks comment that man-made climate change is "alarmist rubbish" is a great example for the need to translate the scientific facts that anthropogenic climate change IS happening into a format that is simple and easy to understand. Mark, will then be better informed.
Mark, London

It is our earth, so we all have a responsibility for it, and it's diversity. Technologically, we must provide for progressive human needs coupled with the protection of the earth's bio diversity on the way to fulfilling our destiny - space. Centuries of burning fossilised(millions of years of energy storage)fuels coupled with deforestation MUST affect our biosphere. Our courage and commitment will carve out a bright future for the little ones who are to follow us. So the battle is ours, rich and poor, healthy and sick, young and old.
peter price, LLandrindod Wells

Whether one 'belives' that rising CO2 levels are due to human activity (i.e. burning fossil fuels, deforestation, dehydration of wetlands etc) or not, we have to wake up to the fact that the age of cheap energy is over.

This means huge changes will come - whether we choose to prepare for such changes or live in denial and have them imposed by nature is another matter. But unless people are engaged with the facts, Government initiatives will be limited.

That said, people power alone is unlikely to be enough, because not enough people are acting now. We are all in this together and action needs to happen at all levels. Sadly, we cannot agree on the problem, let alone the solutions. But everyone should consider their reliance on fossil fuels and think about how they can reduce that reliance as costs will rise.

I saw Prof McGlade speak in Edinburgh recently and it is very encouraging to know that there are sensible people 'high up'. Sometimes it seems that only ecologists really get what's going on.
Mandy Meikle, West Calder/UK

Simulators have no skill, no knowledge. Their output is pre-determined by an inbuilt prejudice. Put in a ppm of a Greenhouse gas - out pops an alarmist headline. Humanity should stop fearing climate change, we should accept it and act on it.

The only word I can agree with Professor Jacqueline McGlade on is her use of the word "adapt" in reference to climate change. Humanity in the future has to adapt to climate change, not prevent, not mitigate.

Prevention and mitigation will be ruinous and wasteful, a conceit we cannot afford. Adaption is much more cost effective and timely.
Malcolm, Dundee

As Individuals we are at the heart of the problem, of course we need to be at the heart of the solution. I would go a step further and say the political and commercial leaders are too much in the way and need to step aside and let us lead!

An example, I wanted to put up solar panels as part of a new roof, they were planned as being effectively invisible, unlike my velux windows in the same roof. Local planning approved the velux but refused the panels! I appealed and won! Since then I have installed more panels and two wind turbines, no I didn't apply for permission! Locally I know of many other similar cases, individuals who want to get on and do their bit, and "jobs worth" planners!

Another example, do a search for - energy map - you will get my own growing review of renewable energy projects (renewables-map). You will also see restats, a high priced Govt alternative. These are my examples, there are 1,000s of other individuals and groups all doing their bit despite Govt and Commerce.
Simon Mallett, Maidstone, Kent , United Kingdom

Professor McGlade has certainly hit upon the problem that whilst many people may be aware of the effects; most of us are very dissassociated from our role as cause in all this.

But on top of all this is the fundamental problem, that even the poeple presenting us with the figures around our environmental effect. These same very eminent scientists are blissfully unaware of the "more more more" economic beahviours that are causing this damage.

In short; even better graphics, about how much enviromental damage we cause are still useless, if these very same environmental scientists have not figured out that it's the economists in the office next door that are driving us deeper into this problem.

Till the Economists and the Environmentallists get invited to each other's parties - we are still going to keep ripping up the planet.


steven walker, Penzance

Once again the 'environmentalists' are creating a climate of fear to justify their oppressive agenda.

I agree that ordinary people need to be mobilised.

People need to be mobilised against the biggest threat to our quality of life - the new religion of enviromentalism.

Lets see some serious alternatives to fossil fuels in order to mantain our quality of life - not a blind, unquestioning march backwards to a mediaeval, deindustrialised world.
John, England

Good article. Working with indigenous people who often have a strong connection to the natural environment (that many of us lack) is vital, but it needs to be backed up by legislation that supports and protects their rights.

I also think the role of local governments and community-based organisations is often overlooked; they could potentially have a massive role in engaging people with environmental issues - if only the power and resources to do so.
A Morrison, Edinburgh

I couldn't agree more with Professor McGlade, people seems they didn't give too much attention for the gradual change on there envioroment.

As you know enviromental pollution and golbal worming impact is not like a sudden jar on the envioroment. both of them has a gradual impact on the envioroment and many people the don't know that they are the cause of global warming also they don't know that the are the victim of globla warming so I think we have to push it harder.
keeyowler, Ethiopia

Man is basically a lazy beast, only working to individual priorities, with the exception of a noble few. Until all of us accept personal responsibility to contribute to a greener planet, and modify our lifestyles to help in the quest for a sustainable and balanced 'human ecosystem' as part of a planetary balance, then we will continue to see the detrimental effects.

An interesting idea that will further the cause of responsible participation, and i hope it has the desired effect, in creating a global society pulling in one direction. But until we find a personal balance of consumerism versus sustainability, we're in trouble now, and for future generations, it'll be even worse, and a lot harder to fix.

I admire the continued efforts of people like Professor McGlade, who are the front line of the fight against apathy, and irresponsible consumerism. Their determination, and creative ideas to get the bulk of people involved may well be the push we all need to go forward, and involve ourselves in a planetary management framework at a personal level.

Governments could do more, but it's ultimately down to the choices we make as individuals, that will have the most impact.
Alex Stone, Moscow, Russia

I am an anthropogenic climate change skeptic and see professor Mcglade's notion of total community "climate change"as more misguided left wing idealism.The climate change hoax is purely political;left wing political.

Green politicians here now have blood on their hands by way of legislating against firebreaks and sensible back burning in recent years.Huge areas of Victoria remain obscenely vulnerable to bushfire.Politics and science are different and shoud'nt become enmeshed.
geoffret cousens, melbourne australia

It is definitely true that the role of people is a priority in order to combat climate change, but what can we really do when most politicians and business leaders are not willing to leave their power and greed to do something that is, by no means, affecting their actions as well? Many people can support actions and be key witnesses in warning and making decisions, but if they are not allowed to be part of these decisions, then we become in passive witnesses. I hope we may become active actors in these decisions.
John, Chicago

The climate of the earth has been changing for hundreds of million of years. The sun is largely responsible for the cyclical warming and cooling of the Earth. Doing "battle" vs climate change is a truly Quixotic endeavour.

Man made pollution is, however, a totally different matter. We should direct a good portion of our financial resources to correct it, instead of attempting to stop something that is not influenced by us.
Harvey Spaven, Calgary

Acting locally is key to sustainable living. We already have all the tools we need to make every household in the world a positive contributor to a better world. All we need is a redistribution of resources: about the amount of the bank bail-out or the annual military budget would do quite nicely, for a start.
Pierre du Plessis, Windhoek, Namibia

Call me cynical, but perhaps the reason why nobody puts these climate figures into pretty graphics that "everyone" can understand is that it would make people care even less. In the current situation, climate scientists get funding on a relatively ambiguous "problem" that the public is willing to throw money to. However, if you put the results into easily understood form, people will see that: 1) the future climate "situation" is beyond help, 2) the cost to correct such a situation will require a substantial sacrifice, 3) we can barely predict the weather two weeks in advance, and we want to stake our future in these "computer models"? These kinds of results make people tune out more than they already do.

So if I were climate scientist, I'd probably just sit on my hands and keep publishing papers with ever more dire predictions based on my own "models" rather than stamp my name on something concrete the public can decide on.
Chris C, Salt Lake City, USA

I agree with Professor McGlade, however it is all to easy though to think that it is up to everyone else to make the changes. I believe governments have a responsibility to educate their people from a very young age into what the effects individual changes can bring about and changes will be required.
Bob Guinn, Reading

This is pretty interesting. True man made global warming is complete alarmist rubbish, but as a someone who is a Triathlete as well as a surfer and sailor this kind of portal would be great.

There is still to much pollution into our rivers and coastal seas and it's easy to spot the damage, and those using the water are first to know.
Mark, Coventry / UK

As previously reported "True man made global warming is complete rubbish...."

The C-ROADS climate simulator will provide a whole range of possible "models" all equally as likely, but as is the common practice in all things GREEN, only those outcomes that suit politicians and those employed directly in the "Green-industry".

Hopefully these new web-based climate portals will be less subjective/biased as reports tend to be at the present.
John, London

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