Tara Shine

is on the phone to her teenage daughter. “No. It’s a no. Look, it’s sunny, walk home… No. See you later, bye!”

When it’s your job to speak out on behalf of the environmental wellbeing of the planet, it’s clear there’s no such thing as taking a day off – particularly when it comes to teaching younger generations about climate change.

“See, this is real climate action: not taking the easy option of going and getting your daughter when she can walk on her own two legs home from school,” says Shine once she returns from the call. “You’ve got to lead by example, but it’s often your own family that are the hardest to convince.”

An environmental scientist, policy adviser and former UN negotiator on climate change, Shine has many strings to her bow: she is the special adviser to the chair of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, founder of the sustainable living social enterprise Change by Degrees and one of the speakers for this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.

Empowered by knowledge

The theme of this year’s series is Planet Earth: A User’s Guide – but amid doom-laden headlines about the state of the environment, Shine is keen to inspire, not scare, younger viewers. “My kids are 10 and 13, so it really matters to me how we communicate with a young audience,” she says. “I want them to leave feeling empowered by the knowledge and the science but also positive around the future that they can help to create.”

Even so, for those of us without a seat at the political table it can be difficult to feel that our actions are making any difference. Why bother switching to energy-saving lightbulbs at home when power stations around the world are still burning fossil fuels? “It’s true, turning off your lights isn’t going to save the planet,” says Shine. “But it doesn’t mean that individual action isn’t important.”

Her recent book, How to Save Your Planet, One Object at a Time, provides dozens of examples of this, from how to choose kitchen appliances, to opting for Tupperware over clingfilm. But the Covid-19 pandemic has provided “our best possible example of how systemic change and individual behaviour are intimately connected”, she says.

Seeing the bigger picture

“A government can make all sorts of laws and regulations around what we are going to do to manage the disease, but if individuals don’t take responsibility by washing their hands, it doesn’t work. Likewise, if people aren’t motivated to see the bigger picture of what they are trying to achieve, they won’t bother washing their hands; the whole thing falls apart. Climate change is no different.”

‘We are obsessed with owning things, but I really believe our children’s generation will think we were mad’

One small but important change we can make is shifting our attitudes towards “stuff”, as she puts it. “We are obsessed with owning things, but I really believe our children’s generation will think we were mad for owning our own cars and lawnmowers. If there’s ever an opportunity to share something or to rent, to reuse or repair – do that before you go and buy something new.”

“Another really important message is, if you make a positive change, share that with someone else. Telling five friends that you’ve saved on your electricity bills by chasing your family around the house turning lights off is more powerful than turning the lights off.”

Making the issue inclusive

This year Shine was appointed by the UN as a senior co-ordinator between climate scientists and policymakers to help meet the targets of the Paris Agreement on containing global temperature rise. She intends to use her position to change the way experts communicate on climate change, to make the issue more inclusive.

“The reason why we’ve failed for 30 years to make progress is because we haven’t made this something for everybody,” she explains. “It has to be emotive. We will never persuade people to take climate action by showing them graphs of rising CO2 concentration. But if we talk to them about their quality of life or the health of their loved ones, people start to care.” That this year’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – due to be held in Glasgow in November – was postponed because of Covid-19 was “a disappointment” but Shine feels positive about the “pause” Covid has provided.

Tara’s tips for a greener life

Girl looking at Houseplant Leaf. (Photo by: Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Having more house plants at home will help the air around you (Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty)
  1. Take the stairs: four rides in a typical office lift produces 0.3-0.6kg of CO2 per person per day.
  2. Only 5 per cent of household textiles are collected for reuse or recycling in the UK. Get a needle and thread, repair and repurpose things.
  3. Get green-fingered at home: use house plants to clean the air in your home and office. They do it on the international space station.
  4. “Be like my daughter and walk more,” says Shine. “Even if we replaced every car with an electric one we’d still have congestion. So walk and cycle above everything else.”
TOPSHOT - The Flower Supermoon rises over Curitiba, Brazil on May 7, 2020. - The supermoon is visible as the full moon coincides with the satellite in its closest approach to Earth, which makes it appear brighter and larger than other full moons. (Photo by DANIEL CASTELLANO / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL CASTELLANO/AFP via Getty Images)
Momentum is growing to save our planet (Photo: DANIEL CASTELLANO/AFP/Getty)

“We are seeing a little bit more momentum growing, more countries and companies coming forward with bolder ambitions… it also allows the US to come back into the equation,” she adds. “Collectively, countries are putting in trillions of dollars – every single decision as to how we invest that money should be checked against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, so that an investment for the economy is always an investment in the planet.”

She continues: “Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will reduce carbon emissions and make us more resilient overall.”

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