According to Count Us In, here’s the concept: climate change is real, and we have to drastically cut our carbon emissions if we want to stop it. You can be part of the largest, most ambitious citizen-led effort to act. All you need to do? Take high-impact, achievable steps to reduce your carbon pollution and persuade other people to do the same. What we all do counts: it’ll have an impact in reducing carbon pollution collectively, and have the power of challenging leaders to act boldly to deliver global systems change. But is it really that simple?
What is “Count Us In”?
Count Us In is a campaign with a simple mission: “to inspire 1 billion citizens to significantly reduce their carbon pollution and challenge leaders to deliver bold, global change.” If you’re in, all you need to do is choose one from the 16 possible steps, across the categories of “travel”, “voice”, “lifestyle”, “home” and “food”. If 1 billion people made changes in how they travel, the energy they use and the food they eat, the campaign says, this will directly reduce carbon pollution by almost 1/5 of the total reduction needed. By doing so, it further adds, it’s “our way of saying to governments and businesses everywhere: we’re doing our bit. Now do yours.”
Sceptical about the 16 steps? The campaign has worked with experts from the UN Environment Programme and other partners to develop them. Which means that they’re not only crafted to be simple and doable, they’re also high-impact. As in: they’ll majorly reduce carbon emissions and also make politicians and businesses pay attention. Here are the 16 steps: fly less, drive electric, insulate your home, wear clothes to last, tell your politicians, walk and cycle more, cut food waste, green your money, repair and re-use, dial it down, speak up at work, talk to friends, eat more plants, eat seasonal, switch your energy, and finally: get some solar.
But wait a minute, haven’t we heard this before?
What makes Count Us In different?
You’ve probably seen countless campaigns for individual action on climate before. Count Us In is certainly not the first, following in the footsteps of traditional campaigns like Earth Hour and new campaigns like #MyEcoResolution. Accordingly, what makes Count Us In different is the fact that its steps will not only make a tangible carbon impact, it also aims at getting political and business leaders to sit up and listen.
The number 1 billion makes this campaign not only ambitious but also different. It’s arrived at this number by putting together data from two reports. The first: a recent Oxfam report “Confronting Carbon Inequality” that estimates that “the richest 10% of the world’s population were responsible for 52% of the cumulative carbon emissions [from 1990 to 2015]”. The second: another recent report “1.5 Degree Lifestyles” that puts the emissions directly related to individual lifestyles at 65 – 72%. Accordingly, this means that engaging 1 billion citizens will help us cut emissions by 20%. These 1 billion citizens are what it calls the “non-activist middle”, who have a significant carbon footprint, and who matter to political and business leaders.
Crucial here is the campaign’s theory of change. (As in how and why it thinks change is going to happen.) It assumes that, and we quote: “By acting, 1 billion people will create market demand, incentivising and rewarding business change. At the same time, they will create political pressure and a space for leaders to act more boldly on systems change.”
Two legitimate reports, big data, and a sexy theory of change. What’s not to like?
But who’s really causing the climate crisis?
This is the central question that ought to make us think twice about individual-focused campaigns. Count Us In points out: “You might think carbon pollution is only created by a handful of companies – but many of them do this to provide goods and services to individual citizens.” Which is to say: yeah, corporations rack up a lot of carbon debt, but they’re serving us. Which means we’re responsible, too. We reckon you’re already beginning to see the problem with this sort of approach.
To the campaign’s credit, it does attempt to address this unsettling issue. On its FAQs page, you’ll find this question: “Why does Count Us In call citizens to act on climate change, when the biggest emitters are companies and states?” Its answer? “We know less than 200 companies and powerful governments account for a huge part of global emissions. But what citizens do will directly influence business and political leaders. We buy from those companies and vote for those politicians. We can all do our part to make a direct difference. […] Taking steps together signals to political and business leaders that voters and consumers care, creating a cycle of positive change.”
To this, we say: not good enough.
Where’s the nuance?
Let’s start with the obvious problem: the use of the term “we”. Campaigns like Count Us In love to use the term “we” rather liberally. As author and climate communication expert Genevieve Guenther points out, “The guilty collective it invokes simply doesn’t exist. The we responsible for climate change is a fictional construct, one that’s distorting and dangerous. By hiding who’s really responsible for our current, terrifying predicament, we provides political cover for the people who are happy to let hundreds of millions of other people die for their own profit and pleasure.” What Guenther makes clear in her essay is that there are degrees of complicity.
To the campaign’s credit, at least it acknowledges that companies and states are the biggest emitters. But then to slap a “we influence companies and states” over that, and dress it up with a “we can signal to political and business leaders that we care”, and finish it off with a convenient “cycle of positive change”? It’s all too convenient. It squares the responsibility to take action on the shoulders of consumer-citizens everywhere, without acknowledging that many of us don’t have a choice but to use fossil fuels to some degree (directly or not). That’s how the economy was built, and that’s how it runs.
Further, “we” also blurs the line between different consumer-citizens. And again, to the campaign’s credit, it does cite the Oxfam report that highlights how the richest 10% are responsible for 50% of emissions. But then, it fails to make this clear in its communications. By saying that “we” all just need to take a small step, it bulldozes the nuances. Some of us need to take way bigger steps than others.
No more “we”
Guenther puts it this way: “Complicit people and institutions must be called out and encouraged to change. And the fossil-fuel industry must be fought, and the governments that support the fossil-fuel economy must be replaced. But none of us will be effective in this if we think of climate change as something we are doing. To think of climate change as something that we are doing, instead of something we are being prevented from undoing, perpetuates the very ideology of the fossil-fuel economy we’re trying to transform.”
Which is not to say that we should not be taking these steps. Certainly, these actions are necessary steps, and if you’re part of that 10%, you better start on more than one of those steps. But the reinforcement of this collective “we” serves only the interests of the political and business leaders, and institutions, who continue to profit as we speak. We need to be able to hold nuance: reflecting on our own complicity, while at the same time holding the system, and those in power running the system, accountable. Which brings us back to this: “You might think carbon pollution is only created by a handful of companies – but many of them do this to provide goods and services to individual citizens.”
This sort of narrative makes us scapegoats for companies. Which, lest we forget, have immense power to do more. Oh, and guess which companies are backing this campaign? For one: global retail behemoth IKEA. Whose mass-production model and low tax bill should make us think twice about lauding it as a sustainability leader. And: HSBC. Which, yes, has just made a bunch of climate commitments, but also remains Europe’s second-largest financier of fossil fuel companies. There’s so much more that banks like HSBC can do.
The final verdict?
Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Campaigns like Count Us In can go a long way in doing good. It eases us into climate action by making climate action achievable. Not to mention, the climate action steps it suggests are genuinely impactful, and we can’t deny that. But for such campaigns to be serious fixes for the climate crisis—we’re not getting into whether or not campaigns themselves can be effective—they need to stop glossing over the nuances.
In other words, count us in. But spare us the easy slogans and let’s talk about who’s really causing the climate crisis.
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