A dose of climate reality

The day I concluded reading The Uninhabitable Earth coincided with the news that Verkhoyansk, Russia, north of the Arctic Circle, had recorded its highest temperature ever – 38C (100.4F).  Another stark sign that climate change warnings have been surpassed by climate reality.

Not only is Wallace-Wells’s book timely, it’s replete with climate science written in a friendly journalistic style, expanding upon and updating what we have all been hearing about for years now. What will make this book stand out from the rest in the popular science subgenre of environmental disaster tomes is its self-awareness. A key moment follows some 100-plus pages, describing where the earth is now and the likely catastrophes ahead, with these brilliant lines:

‘IF YOU HAVE MADE IT THIS FAR, YOU ARE A BRAVE READER. Any one of these [past] twelve chapters contains, by rights, enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic of those considering it.’

From there on out, the book addresses why humans have done so little. Wallace-Wells is good at summing up the political explanations with the added narrative here and there, charting corporate and government collusion and how the economic arguments against green technologies are no longer debateable as the economic cost of climate change is being realised.

Another reason why we humans have done so little given the size and gravity of the climate crisis can be found in those hidden areas of infrastructure projects being untaken across the world. Wallace-Wells gives the example of the production of concrete. At first appearance it’s benign, part of the building of much needed homes or part of the urbanising and creating in areas where farming is no longer feasible. Concrete manufacturing is ‘the second most carbon-intensive industry in the world.’ This point is followed by the mind-numbing statistic that China has poured more concrete in the past year than the US used in the entire twentieth century.

The flipside of this – knowledge of the damage being done and how much worse life on earth is going to get – also freezes us into inaction. Bleak scenarios are hard to process. I have written in this blog before about solution aversion and how it has contributed to climate change denial, but Wallace-Wells goes beyond this by stepping into the psyche of the average person. Put simply, most of us don’t want to appear pessimistic. I know – I have been offended in the past by being called a pessimist, when I felt I was firmly in the realist camp. And then there are those who acknowledge climate change and relish the idea of the end of the earth is approaching fast. Luckily for us realists, Wallace-Wells battles with these ‘doomsters’, pointing to their inaccurate predictions and use of folk science. With that, Wallace-Wells does give the reader some hope for the future, but clearly if and only if we do something about it.

The psychological turn and look at human nature reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous poem, which speculated on how the earth would end – by fire or by ice. While it is easy to see the literal parallels with the climate crisis, the emotional interpretation of Frost’s poem – destruction by hate or obsession – holds here as well, and The Uninhabitable Earth is a worthy reminder.

Wallace Wells 2
Verkhoyansk, Russian, the coldest inhabited place on the planet, earlier this week.

Rethinking Nature

With the lockdown, many us of have had the pleasure of observing more creatures, breathing in palatably cleaner air and hearing birdsong on a scale never heard before. In some online circles, this has produced a ‘back to nature’ movement that goes far beyond the obvious need to reduce greenhouse gases to save our planet from becoming an over-heated death trap. Sorry to be so grim.

The Observer columnist Kenan Malik rightly criticised this wave of naïveté, its meme ‘The Earth is healing, we are the virus’ and much of the pro-nature public discourse around it (10 May 2020). It’s not that climate change or the toxic environment we live in are desirable. Far from it. But should we let nature take complete control?

For the first time ever I have seen goldfinches in a park and a private front garden in our town of Ely.

Nature is not entirely benign. I’m reminded of Tennyson’s image of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw.’ There is a litany of natural disasters that have destroyed homes and livelihoods and have brought about disease and taken lives for centuries. Humans have reduced some of the impact of these disasters by engaging in some nature-defying sciences and technologies for which any sentient being is grateful.

I inhale the cleaner air and notice the quieter streets as I jog through town.

Malik argues that romanticising nature is the preserve of those who live in rich countries with electricity, transport systems and access to medicine. I see the truth in this and saw this idea crop up a few days later when I was watching a lockdown YouTube video from the Royal Academy of Arts (Painting the Modern Garden: from Monet to Matisse). One of the expert horticulturalists pointed out that with modernity came the growth of the middle classes and the idea of creating gardens for pleasure.  That is, gardening was no longer just about growing the potatoes and other veg to sustain lives. At least not in richer countries and this is still true today.

I have never seen an orange-tip butterfly until two weeks ago.

I’m left both enlightened and uneasy with Malik’s conclusion: ‘It is the poor, whether in rich countries or the global south, who must suffer from industrial pollution, are most imperilled by climate change and most threatened by the consequences of coronavirus. This is not because humans are violating nature, but because societies are structured in ways that ensure that innovation and development remain the privilege of the few, while deprivation and ill health are the lot of the many.’

This could be misread as a denial of humans violating nature. I trust that Malik knows that humans have violated nature, but they have also fought it in order to save lives, as Malik notes in his examples. It is also true that social inequalities have played a huge role in the climate crisis we are now confronted with. I think we can acknowledge these points, stay clear of romanticising nature, while still appreciating the ways nature has been showing off while much of the industrial world is in lockdown.

ely jog

Watching flames through a firewall

As apocalyptic stories from Australia are already starting to play second fiddle to Trump’s war games, Harvey Weinstein’s trial and Harry and Megan’s flashy fugae , happenings down under and across the world are continuing to play out – even if we stop watching it or reading about it.

A couple of things are going on here. First, there’s the media’s coverage of these events. In ‘media’ I include social media and other spreaders of news – real and manufactured. These outlets inhabit the edges of the entertainment industry and will only repeat the same story so often. As the affects of climate change are becoming as common as the buddy movie, the media and their audiences quickly move on.

Of course, unlike the buddy movie, climate change is real and frightening. With that comes another reason why media coverage is waning and audiences are retreating. It’s what author Margaret Heffernan calls wilful blindness – there are things that we refuse to see. Taking insights from a range of people involved with deception, including whistleblowers, criminals, politicians and psychologists, Heffernan points out that people turn a blind eye to ‘avoid conflict, feel safe, reduce anxiety and protect prestige.’ To some extent the media is reacting to our putting on blinkers.

The other factor at work here still involves the media but runs deeper than that. Climate change deniers have gone into full throttle this past week to distance the catastrophes in Australia from man-made climate change.

When looking at neoliberal policies of recent decades, Naomi Klein points out the tremendous tax cuts to the wealthy classes and their corporations. Offsetting climate change involves investment in the public sphere – ‘in new energy grids, public transit and light rail, and energy efficiency.’ Given the scale of such projects, they couldn’t happen without raising taxes on the wealthy. Klein also points out that many green initiatives, such as ‘buy local’ to reduce CO2 emissions, clash with corporate free trade details.  Klein comes to this conclusion:NaomiKlein

‘In short, climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. To admit that climate change is real is to admit the end of the neoliberal project. That’s why the Right is in a rebellion against the physical world, against science.’

The fires in Australia is the story of our day, the one the media has grown tired of or sees dwindling profits in, the one neoliberals don’t want us to engage with, and the one story that we ignore or play down at our own peril.

Climate protests – has the time really come?

When I was a child I wrote a poem about pollution and I rhymed it with solution. My younger self believed that the problems of dirty air and toxic waterways would be remedied by the time I reached adulthood. I had already witnessed a change in the ways our Chicago streets were cleaner once the word litterbug entered our lexicon. For a decade or so, I allowed myself to be seduced by the view that the ecology movement (as we called it then) was finding that solution. We had unleaded fuel, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. We had taken the CO2 out of our refrigerators and attics were being insulated. It was just a matter of time.

Some forty years later, I find myself supporting Extinction Rebellion and last week, David and I joined in the Climate March in Nice. I was walking down Felix Faure heading towards Place Massena at an aging tortoise’s pace when I realised that this march was strikingly different from other marches. Unlike anti-brexit marches, there weren’t any protesters at the side lines swearing at us or calling us stupid. After all, who’s going to disagree with wanting to save our planet and improve our health and quality of life? That view hadn’t changed since my childhood.

But something else had changed. There are now climate change deniers. I know, I have waxed on about this sub-human form before.  But to date, the only ones I know are far-right politicians and the companies that sponsor them, those who have the most to lose financially by switching to clean energy. These are not the kind of protesters who take their arguments to the streets. Their methods are more insidious.

I also noticed a few gilets jaunes in the crowd in Nice. These are the people in highClimate 2

-viz yellow vests that have been protesting every Saturday across France for nearly a year now. Most of their protests have been aimed at tax reforms and the lack of spending power for low to medium income individuals. Ironically, the origins of the gilets jaunes movement were over the carbon tax on petrol,  a way of reducing France’s carbon footprint. The gilets jaunes were against it. Is it that they now join any protest that comes along? Or has the last year of climate protests and public discourse about our environment changed their minds?

I don’t want to be seduced into positive or complacent thinking again.

I’ll end this blog as I started it with lines from a poem. This from American poet Rita Dove:

Hold your breath: a song of climate change

The water’s rising
but we’re not drowning yet.
When we’re drowning
we’ll do something.
When we’re on our roofs.
When we’re deciding between saving
the cute baby or the smart baby.
When there aren’t enough helicopters
or news crews to circle
over everyone. When sharks
are in the streets. When people
are dying…


Some Advice for Environmental Activists

The psychoanalyst, writer and activist Susie Orbach, writing in This is Not a Drill, the Extinction Rebellion handbook, makes this cogent point: ‘The feminist movement taught us that speaking with one another allows truths to enter in and be held together.’ This is crucial when we are living in a time where evidenced reports are brazenly referred to as fake news, while lies and distortions are foisted on the public as undisputed facts.

Orbach notes the need ‘to create spaces in which we can share how difficult this hurt is and how to deal with our despair and rage.’ This might sound touchy-feely at first, but for those of us who live in Brexit-inflicted Britain, it rings too true. The Leave campaign created a public space for those hit by economic despair at a time when income inequality is writ large. The fact that these domestic problems had little to do with the European Union didn’t matter. The space for feelings of despair and rage had been created. The problem, of course, with this Brexit example, is that truths were not allowed to enter in.

Even though the environmental movement has science on its side, the selection and interpretation of the science can also be manipulated. Just listen to Pat Michaels, a climate scientist with legitimate credentials, who claims, often on Fox News, that human contribution to global warming is minor and that our planet is just going through a natural cycle.

I’m also bothered by the arguments that try to turn the climate crisis on its head. The growing interest in the Arctic by governments such as China, Russia and the US sees the melting ice as opening up sea passages and making undiscovered mineral and fuel resources accessible. I find this annoyingly paradoxical coming from the Trump administration that denies the existence of global warming.

Orbach’s advice to environmental activists is well-meaning, but doesn’t take into account all of these complexities. But she concludes her piece by encouraging us to ‘accept our own feelings of grief and fear and…to provoke conversations that touch the hearts of others.’ I think this is already taking place and can help to explain why the environmental crisis that has been talked about in some circles for decades is now part of our public discourse.

I’ll add to this my own advice to keep these conversations going and to translate them into actions. ExtinctionRebellion1

World Population Day

You missed it. It was 11 July and is every year on the same day. This year, I thought I’d write about it here in my blog, but then thought twice as the day approached – I didn’t want to write on a topic that the newspapers were covering ad nauseam. Or not, as it turned out. On the morning of 11 July, I started with my Guardian app, and found nothing, not even an editorial about our growing world population. Nothing about how the mere presence of humans is endangering our environment from a paper that runs climate change and ‘our toxic lifestyles’ stories on a near-daily basis. The only article of note was about a Sicilian town which is heading to extinction due to depopulation. The irony of publishing this piece on this particular day seems to have escaped the editors.

BBC Online – same thing. So, I did a quick search. While I didn’t find anything about World Population Day, I did find a news story from earlier this year about the shrinking population in Japan. I started to wonder if I was living in an inverse parallel universe.

I also checked a couple of the French papers, where I learned about the growing wolf population. And a couple of Italian papers – niente – before I ran out of languages.

I guess it’s up to me then. It’s quite obvious that this day isn’t a holiday as such. It’s not something to be celebrated joyously, and there’s no day off work for it. It’s one of those ‘awareness days’ marked on the calendar mostly by charitable organisations, NGOs and governmental bodies to bring population issues into the public discourse.

What are these issues? First of all, the date of the 11th of July isn’t just a random date chosen because there was a gap in the awareness day calendar somewhere between Clean Air Day and World Hepatitis Day. The 11th of July marked the day the world population reached 5 billion – in 1987. Today, world population is estimated to be 7.7 billion. In other words, it may have taken thousands of years to reach the first 5 billion, but at the current rate, we will reach the next 5 billion by 2050 – that’s less than 100 years between the 5 billion markers. You can watch the world grow in numbers at World Population Clock.

In some parts of the world overpopulation is creating poverty and contributing to global warming, pollution, overcrowding and the spread of diseases. Even if we live in a country that is experiencing a decline in its population, such as Italy and Japan, with world population growth, food sources are being drained from our planet while expanding urbanisation and industrialisation are heating it up.

Maybe this day of apocalyptic warnings hasn’t received the attention it deserves because the ways of tackling the problem seem beyond people’s control. It’s not as easy as recycling our bottles and newspapers or choosing public transport over driving our cars (though this isn’t so easy if you live in East Anglia, UK). The solutions involve healthcare and education systems across the globe, and we all know how difficult it is to get these systems working just within our own countries and communities. From an international perspective, it’s also a messy topic to broach. It clashes up against religions, cultural heritage and the rights of women over their own bodies.

My contribution to this cause – supporting NGOs, such as Planned Parenthood and Human Population Growth, along with not having children myself. Not to sound holier-than-thou, but the oversized world population was one of my reasons for choosing to not have children. (Of course, there were other reasons, e.g. dysfunctional families, student-loan debt and gay boyfriends.) And my minor contribution is today’s blog, albeit late.

Talking Climate Change

I’ve been wanting to write about the environment and climate change in particular for a while now but have hesitated at the mere thought of the complexity of the issues. I try to keep these blogs brief and digestible at one sitting.  I also hesitated because my background is in linguistics and literature and my -isms are feminism and political activism. What can I possibly say with any authority?

That all changed when I was watching a YouTube clip of Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and celebrity polemicist, answer a question put to him on climate change and the general state of our environment.

Gratefully, Peterson is not a climate change denier. His attitude was nevertheless flippant and defeatist, saying it was too complicated and politicised to solve. Enjoying the sound of his own voice, he couldn’t let it go at that. He went on, giving examples of the problems with solar and wind energy supplies and mentioning how Germany ended up using more fossil fuels as a backup to renewable energies. I don’t think these are reasons to give up. Naturally, there are setbacks. Think of how many failures NASA encountered before they could land on the moon. And of course, there are success stories, showing the efficacy of renewable energy sources.

Listening to Peterson, I couldn’t help but to think that he was putting up barriers because he might be suffering from a case of solution aversion. He certainly wouldn’t be alone. It’s no coincidence that among climate-change deniers are those who have the most to lose from the proposed solutions.

Another non-scientist, non-climatologist, to pipe into the debate has been David Wallace-Wells. He has often been quoted for the opening sentence of an article he authored in 2017: “It’s worse, much worse, than you think.” According to Wallace-Wells, as a result of climate change, the coming decades will bring floods, followed by drought and then disease and famine. As bleak as that sounds, Wallace-Wells is not the defeatist that Peterson is, finding hope in new technologies, such as carbon-capturing, alongside the many green energies being tested.

It appears I’m just another non-climatologist, non-oceanologist, non-biologist etc, to throw her hat into the ring. Perhaps my only right to be in this conversation comes from political activism. On this I’ll agree with Jordan Peterson and David Wallace-Wells, among others, who concede that the environment has become terribly politicised. It’s important to recognise this. While not eating meat and using public transport are steps in the right direct, real change is going to have to come from policy, getting governments to regulate emissions and invest in clean energies. This is not an original thought, I know. But so little is being done and some countries are going backwards and burning more fossil fuels, I feel it’s time to talk climate change and to turn words into actions.