Stop moaning and start acting: Can ‘collective effervescence’ solve climate change?

Image: UNFCCC Flickr/ Kiara Worth

As an Australian who moved to the UK, I soon learnt a new turn of phrase: moaning.

To moan about something in British slang vernacular does not mean to ‘make a long, low sound of pain, suffering, or another strong emotion’, as the Cambridge Dictionary advises. It means to complain about something, often repeatedly. Or to be negative – much like Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh gang.

Having moved overseas to work in climate policy, I’ve noticed that people love to moan about climate policy, in particular. They moan that not enough is being done; that windfarms are an eyesore; that solar farms are detrimental to nature; that international cooperation is pointless; that subsidies are unfair… the list goes on.

Of course, Australians love to whinge too. But down under, the whole country is emerging from a kind of fever dream, where we pretended climate change wasn’t happening for decades, while everything literally caught fire around us.

We didn’t complain about it so much as ignore it.

So my question is: what does this negativity mean for climate action? I was thinking about this recently during the Bonn Intersessional, the halfway point between the COP climate conferences. It’s the annual meeting in Germany where mid-level government officials discuss the nitty-gritty points/policies ahead of the big negotiations at the end of the year (in Baku at COP29).

The Intersessional used to be considered a highly technical, uninteresting dialogue, but in recent years it has received more attention from civil society organisations and lobbyists alike. The first person I met when I arrived in Bonn last year was an employee of Exxon Mobil.

Bonn debrief

This year, a number of important issues were on the table at Bonn. Countries conducted ongoing negotiations about the ‘New Collective Quantified Goal’, the new climate finance goal which is due to be agreed at COP29.

They also discussed global adaptation measures, the carbon trading mechanism and how countries should align their domestic commitments to keep global warming below 1.5C.

There was no breakthrough moment or miracle solution. Progress was slow and frustrating. It was complicated by a diverse range of interests and aims, and undermined by countries – from Australia and the UK to the US and South Africa – who make lofty representations but don’t take action.

UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said himself: “Too many items are still on the table… we’ve left ourselves with a very steep mountain to climb to achieve ambitious outcomes in Baku.”

But there were a lot of positive things happening at Bonn too.

In the face of a global rise of populism and right-wing dog whistling, what we need is courageous leadership which is aligned with science. Simon Stiell is the perfect example- so is UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Both men have shown relentless determination and bravery in elevating the climate issue and calling for realistic solutions in a complex and turbulent world.

There is also a lot of talk around the need for women to be involved in climate negotiations, because equal representation ensures robust outcomes, and because women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than men.

It’s usually a case of ‘Where’s Wally’ trying to spot the women in the COP leaders photos. But COP28 and COP29 have seen some incredible female leadership. Razan Al Mubarak was COP28’s High-Level Champion, a complex role which involves connecting businesses, investors, civil society, cities and regions to the UNFCCC, in order to support climate action. Importantly, she is also the President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and was instrumental in weaving nature considerations into climate action at COP28.

The mindset shift which has led to widespread understanding that nature and climate are inextricably intertwined has happened rapidly and is certainly something to celebrate. This year, Nigar Arpadarai has taken on a High-Level Champion role to support Azerbaijan’s presidency, and it was inspiring to see these impressive women working together with a palpable sense of warmth and energy during several events at Bonn.

Energy shift

Warmth and energy are actually very important.

There is a phenomenon called ‘collective effervescence’, which refers to a mode of being which takes place when many people are engaged in the same thought or same action. It’s what we feel when we’re at a live concert and everyone in the crowd is singing along to the same song, at the top of their lungs. It’s what I imagine Silicon Valley tech bros experience when they’re creating their bitcoin start-up. It’s a really good thing to inspire if you want to create a sense of community, encourage people, and get things done.

The last time I remember a sense of collective effervescence in the climate community was at the Copenhagen COP, in 2009. Maybe also after the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. This surprises me, as, at the end of the day, we really are working towards the same goal.

Nobody wants to die in a fiery climate change inferno. Nobody wants to see the last polar bear sink to the bottom of a melted Arctic sea.

Don’t get me wrong; we do have reason to complain. We have reason to despair, even. The world promised to keep global warming under 1.5C and we’re on track for 3C – conditions that will make the world unliveable for most species, including humans. But I tend to think that complaining probably compounds despair, instead of easing it. It makes it harder to get our message through and make the most impact. Worse, it may even disincentivise people to join the cause and take action.

Most would rather play with Tigger than Eeyore.

Progress at Bonn was slow. And progress on climate action is sclerotic. But we’re dealing with an enormous problem – an elephantine one, if you will –  and the only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.

The elephant of climate change is tough, chewy and often bitter. The best we can do is add a bit of seasoning – maybe some chilli, a touch of paprika – and most importantly, keep chewing.

Katherine Quinn is policy lead at the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie