The dark, the light and the case for stubborn optimism
We got it darker….
It’s not easy to find positive environmental news right now, especially if your social media algorithms know you’re interested in climate change. When I switch on my phone in the morning, the onslaught of articles (some from reliable sources, some not) predicting imminent Armageddon requires a very strong cup of tea. Amazon deforestation the worst in 10 years, 5 mile sea of plastic in the Carribbean, Ecological genocide, etc. Meanwhile the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has announced that concentrations of key gases in the atmosphere that are driving up global temperatures reached a new high in 2017, with carbon dioxide levels reaching unprecedented and irreversible highs. Eurgh.
For those of us whose nightmare began with the latest IPCC report, it’s like waking up and finding out the reality is even worse than the bad dream. I can’t help wondering what Leonard Cohen would have made of it…the news of his death in November 2016 reached me the same day I heard Donald Trump had been elected president. It was more than a Bad Hair day, I can tell you. Cohen’s last album, “You want it darker” feels prescient…we sure have got it darker, whether we wanted it or not. I used to love Cohen’s sexy pessimism (“I don’t consider myself a pessimist at all. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel completely soaked to the skin.” I still do [love his sexy pessimism], but given our reality I’m beginning to understand the popularity of the Spice Girls.
I’ve been speaking to friends and acquaintances about levels of awareness of climate change, trying to gauge the validity of my impression that locally at least, a good chunk of the population hasn’t the faintest idea how serious it is. It doesn’t help that the BBC news coverage a few days ago suggested we might get British summers up to 5 degrees hotter by 2070, possibly misleading people into thinking that the planet would be any way habitable with a 5 degree global increase. A dear friend, a retired psychotherapist and one of the wisest women I know, simply said calmly, “It’s too big.” Others have too much going on in terms of health and family issues to take on any more grief. Some are so worried it’s affecting their mental health. And then there are those who have been warning us about this for decades, quietly carrying on their good work with calm and dignity. So, hardly empirical research but it does explain why we aren’t having emergency meetings all over the country. Although I’m hoping it’s on the cards…
But there’s light out there…
There is good news, both in terms of the way in which ordinary people are making themselves heard, and in the world of politics. The Extinction Rebellion, which is using civil disobedience and peaceful protest to drive home the urgency of the existential crisis that is posed by climate change, has seen massive support from the concerned public in gatherings in London and other British cities. Senior British academics, the West Country Green Party leader Molly Scott-Cato and the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, are just some of the ultra-respectable figures who have also publicly declared their support. This is no lunatic fringe staging an attention-seeking sit-in and our political leaders would have to be blind and deaf not to notice.
Provision has also been made for the “people’s voice” to be heard at the forthcoming gathering of world leaders for climate change talks in Poland this December. Sir David Attenborough, who is risking cuddly National Treasure status to Get Political, told the BBC, “The people’s seat is meant to represent the hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives are about to be affected by climate change.” It’s also our chance for a bit of media exposure, as we are invited to submit our experiences and opinions to an online poll and conversations on social media, using the hashtag #TakeYourSeat. Do it now, because the deadline is December 1st. And look forward to Sir David socking it to them big time on our behalf.
Bristol and Manchester lead the way
Meanwhile, Bristol City Council has just followed Manchester in accelerating its targets for carbon neutrality, declaring climate change an emergency. Bristol is the first city in the UK to plan for zero carbon by 2030. Just brilliant. Encouraging too that there was unanimous cross-party support for the motion put forward by Green party councillor Carla Denyer.
Positive political news abroad
I’m sure there are lots of significant political green victories outside the UK, not many of which we hear about. Isabella Lovin, the Swedish Green party leader and minister for international development has pushed through more than 50 new policies, including a flight tax, the so-called Swedish Proposal, which tripled the price of EU emissions credits, and a climate change bill. The latter was signed last February and a photo of Lovin, surrounded by seven other women went viral, a week after Donald Trump had signed an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by seven men. Nice one. Lövin is one of the leading figures in what she says is a resurgence in environmentally conscious politics across the continent. “There is a green wave going on in Europe, in Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, and in Finland as well,” she says. I say, Please God make it come to the UK and beyond…
Like the USA, Australia is suffering from a big disconnect between climate scientists (and most of the electorate) and their political leaders. So I was particularly pleased to learn of the recent humiliation of coal-obsessed Scott Morrison’s ruling party in the Victorian state elections, and moderate MPs voicing their concern at the way in which the move to the far right is alienating the voters. MP Tim Wilson attended the polling booths and is quoted as saying “Every second person either gave me deadly silence, a very cold, deadly silence, or there was people mentioning energy, climate or the deposing of the [former] prime minister”. I guess this is democracy in action, and I give thanks for it.
The case for stubborn optimism
So, the news on climate change is grim. But more and more people are getting it, changing the way they live and pushing hard for policy change. It’s up to us to keep raising awareness, act as role models in sustainable living and get those who don’t know or don’t want to know on side in terms of doing something positive. And in order to do that, we need to be both bloody minded and “stubbornly optimistic”.
I take this term from Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework for Climate Change. If you’re struggling with the dark stuff right now, I urge you to listen to her memorial lecture “What now? Next steps on climate change”, delivered at the Oxford Martin School this November. (Her lecture last about 35 mins, the rest is the Q&A that follows.) Figueres is Costa Rican and she reminds me of a little terrier, small in stature but large in heart and absolutely tenacious in her belief that we can and must create the world we want, overcoming the major challenges ahead. She doesn’t deny the huge distance we have to travel in terms of reducing carbon emissions and getting on board with renewables, but she does give an encouraging overview of the “exponential curve of solutions” in energy use and production worldwide. She is also funny and not boring.
According to Figueres, in order to make it happen, we need the following: passionate engagement, radical collaboration and stubborn optimism. Okay, it all sounds better in a Puerto Rican accent with lots of Latino gesticulation, so watch the real thing, and take her energy and determination with you.