“It makes me want to cry. I can’t stand the idea that my baby’s going to die.”
I came up with these lines while walking to work one morning. The dangers of contemplating climate change while listening to hip hop after a sleep deprived night! They have haunted me ever since. They were my first attempt to put into words my developing feelings about climate change. They capture the awful realisation that we are ruining the world for our children and while I hope with all my heart that my children don’t die because of worsening climate change there is little doubt that somewhere children will die because of climate change and that I will have contributed to this. The idea that my actions will harm my children, my beautiful children, or others like them across the world is why I cry.
This blog, my first, is about why climate change is so upsetting when you really try to understand it and why honesty about this with ourselves and those around us is, in my view, a critical step in taking greater action on climate change.
It’s mind-blowingly big
It was when I started really listening to the numbers about climate change that I understood the scale of the change we will see within our lifetimes. At its heart climate change is about there being a finite amount of greenhouse gases we can emit to stay within a ‘safe’ level of climate change. (I am not sure safe is the right world here, perhaps survivable or less dangerous would be better.) This is our budget. We may be able to capture some emissions through natural carbon sinks or new technologies but basically once we’ve blown our budget we’ve blown our climate. There is no going back. Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, has in a recent blog said that the EU, for example, needs to largely decarbonise (>80%) its energy system by 2030 for a likely chance of remaining below a global target of 2 degree warming at the end of the century. *
To put this another way before our babies today turn eighteen years old we need to have radically transformed our society so that it doesn’t depend on fossil fuels. This means radically changing our energy system, our buildings, our transport system, our food system, and our behaviour. This is on us. We need to do this before today’s children grow up. This is not something we can leave to future generations. And if we don’t do this? Well we’re on track for something like 4-5 degrees or higher. Doesn’t sound like a lot until you realise that the last ice age was 4-5 degrees different from today (obviously colder) and at that point there was a mile of ice over places like New York!
It kills people
We depend on our climate for our lives, our food, our water, our safe homes, our stable societies. The worse climate change gets the more we will see food and water shortages, lives and business destroyed by extreme weather, and conflict triggered by a mix of poor governance and resource scarcity. The Lancet / University College London Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change described it as the biggest global health threat of the 21st century. That means many thousands of people suffering and dying because of our continued greenhouse gas emissions.
The American military in their Quadrennial Defense Review recognise that the effects of climate change are “threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”
In the UK a recent Climate Change Committee report stated that if we carry on as we are the heat wave that we saw in 2003 which killed thousands across Western Europe will become the norm in half our summers by 2050 (when a current 4 year old will only be 40 years old).
But it is when I imagine what these harms actually look like that I start to feel upset. This distressing image of a dead child from Typhoon Haiyan reminds us of what death looks like in reality. We don’t need to be able to attribute Haiyan to climate change to see it as a shocking example of the power of our environment. This happened in a world that has warmed about 0.8 degrees. Now think about what a 2 or 3 or 4 degree world could be like.
I feel responsible but change feels out of my control
As someone who lives in the developed world I have a high carbon footprint. I continue to have a footprint which is too high in spite of everything, in spite of having seen the photos of the dead bodies from extreme weather events, in spite of knowing the long list of impacts of climate change, in spite of knowing my children’s lives will be harder the worse climate change is. I have done more than most of my family, friends and colleagues to change but still my footprint is too high. I still use fossil fuels. And every time I do I’m harming someone and this pains me. I say I care about others but still I do this. Why?
In simple terms I think its because of how we have set up the world, and because I am human. That’s not to say I don’t have choices. Sometimes I make the better choice for climate change and sometimes I don’t. A personal example is when I want to visit family who live rurally. The public transport system is rubbish. It’s too far to cycle. There is no electric car sharing or charging where we live. What do we do? We make choices. Sometimes we drive. Sometimes I fill up the car with fossil fuel and burn it so I can see my family. If I had family on the other side of the world I would probably fly sometimes.
It’s the dissonance that this creates that is a struggle I live with everyday. My personal response is to do as much as I can but forgive myself when I don’t always make the lowest carbon choice. What we do isn’t just about our own choices but also the system we live in. We have a responsibility for our actions but we are not solely responsible. We need to work collectively to change the set up of the system we live in as well as looking to take action ourselves.
From tears to hope
Perhaps I should have put a health warning on this blog. This honesty with yourself about the scale of climate change, your responsibility for it and the difficulty in changing can take you to a difficult and depressing place. The challenge for each of us is to react positively to this, to be hopeful. It’s the only way we are going to get through it. If we are to take action on the scale required then I think this honesty is needed but so is hope so here are three things that have helped me become hopeful and positive about our future:
You are not alone. Understanding climate change like this can feel isolating. But you are not alone in feeling like this. Several authentic emotionally honest leaders on climate change have emerged in the last few years who have all publicly shed tears for climate change including Yeb Sano, Christina Figueres and Eric Holthaus. The latter prompted a media storm debating the appropriateness of his tears. Even more heartening was what happened on September 21st when people from across the world united in the biggest series of climate change marches the world has ever seen, including between three and four hundred thousand people in New York.
The world is already changing. From individuals to communities to governments we are seeing change happening across the world; the rise of renewables; the ever increasing efficiency of our technology; increasing bicycle use, the growing divestment movement. The list goes on. It’s nowhere near enough yet but it’s clear a social transition has begun. For stories of positive changes that are already happening check out the #itshappening page of the 10:10 website here.
This could be our greatest opportunity to create a better world. The scale of social response needed to avoid the worst of climate change means that how we live will change immensely. This is a great opportunity. We need to transform our food system and in doing so can change it to tackle obesity and feed those who currently lack adequate food. We need to transform our energy system and in doing so can ensure everyone has adequate heating and lighting and clean air to breathe. We need to transform our transport system and in doing so can ensure that everyone has healthy physically active lives and access to the services they need. We need to transform how we use goods and in doing so can change how we interact as communities so we share more and support each other more. In doing this we can create a healthier fairer world which is better for everyone.
Taking our heads out the sand and being honest about climate change and the way it makes us feel is the first step to addressing it. So next time you think about climate change, admit to yourself the scale of the challenge, the scary horrible reality of the impacts, the feelings of responsibility and dissonance you feel living your high carbon life but also take solace from the fact others out there care and cry, others out there are taking action and most of all that this is going to be the most exciting earth changing period of the world’s history. Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organisation recently wrote a blog describing climate change as the defining issue of the 21st century but to this we can add it is also the defining opportunity, not just of this century but of the present, for each and every one of us. We have the opportunity to create a better future for our children like never before. That is what gives me hope when in private I have a little cry about climate change.
Look out for my next blog in November on ten things we can do to take action on climate change and in the meantime please do follow me on Twitter @drjnsmith.
*Note this timescale is quicker than that set out in the UK Climate Change Act 2008 and associated carbon budgets. My understanding is that this is because it depends on the assumption made about what the UK’s allocation of the global budget is. I have chosen here to present the work of the independent researchers from the Tyndall Centre who have explicitly tried to take an equitable share of the global budget in line with the wording of the Copenhagen Accord.