Earlier this year I became fascinated by the idea of having a different kind of conversation about climate change, as a way to move forward and break the cognitive dissonance spoken of elsewhere on this blog – we do not doubt, in most circles, the reality of climate change’s impacts and threats, but still we do not act to change our lifestyles and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
In an elegant article on Vox, David Roberts pointed out that nations too suffer from cognitive dissonance: in his words, no country on earth is taking the 2 degree Centigrade target set out in the Paris Agreement seriously – let alone the 1.5 degree aspirations. A recent study by Oil Change International provides evidence for the argument that 2 degrees should be the absolute upper limit of allowable warming. Impacts on society and ecosystems will be severe enough at 1.5 degrees, and in some cases are proving extremely hard – if not impossible – to deal with at current levels of warming of around one degree.
What are the pathways we could use to stay below 1.5 degrees? Recent modelling by Glen Peters of the Cicero Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research has shown that to have a 66% chance of staying below 1.5 degrees, without drawing on untested and currently unfeasible negative emissions technologies, we have to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2026 – oops, that’s in just 10 year’s time. This would mean an immediate and drastic cut in emissions, and austerity measures beyond the scale of wartime economies. Hmmm, seems unlikely. Even drawing on untested negative emissions technology such as BECCS (bioenergy carbon capture and storage), which Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research so cogently slammed, in an opinion piece in Nature Climate Change as the wishful appearance of “a carbon guzzling fairy godmother”, we still need to stop all new fossil fuel exploration and use, just to stay below 2 degrees.
Any signs that this is happening? Well, China’s coal use is down, and likely to continue in that direction, which is good news. But according to the International Energy Agency, coal demand beyond China over the next five years is expected to increase, driven mainly by growth in Southeast Asia, where countries like Indonesia, Viet Nam, Malaysia and Philippines are building new coal power plants. Many of these use more polluting older technologies. Whatever the moral case for developing countries continuing to fuel their economic development with coal-fired power, it is not good news for the Paris Agreement targets. And the large sums of money needed to assist growing nations to transition to clean energy, and to safeguard their vulnerable populations, are not forthcoming.
So, coal is not dead and buried, not yet, and cognitive dissonance is very much still the main game in town. This is where, to avoid a high state of panic, I go back to the idea of a new kind of conversation on climate change, one that cuts through the stale statistics and dry prognostications that we find so easy to ignore, and helps to galvanise us – at all levels – into carbon-cutting action.
One of my inspirations for this is the writing of Karen O’Brien and others on the need to engage in conversations that talk about climate change as a social and cultural issue, so that we can find common ground for more collaborative solutions. I also keep coming back to the increasing despair experienced by climate scientists, as expressed by Camille Parmesan in a recent article on Grist, also written about on this blog. If this is how climate scientists feel, how are they dealing with the psychological toll, the ongoing anxiety as their work reveals ever-greater impacts and risks, and the global community, even when it seems to be acting, is not quite hitting the mark?
I don’t know what others working in the field do, but I know where I look for solace – in the arts and in nature. I find it in the great natural areas of our world, but also in the little corners of my garden, where carpenter bees feast on wisteria flowers in a brief few weeks of spring, or almond trees, yet again, miraculously turn dainty pink blossoms into hard green carapaces sheltering their prized kernels. And if the works of poets, musicians, and visual artists can confer comfort to me and to lost souls the world over, how do the creators of these works self-soothe, those who care about our changing global environment? And what about other people on the frontline – small farmers, islanders, indigenous leaders, young people?
I have set out to have these new kinds of conversations on climate change with people from different parts of the world, and to write about them. I hope that these dispatches – from the frontlines, from the studios and ateliers, and from the laboratories and offices – will provide some comfort and hope for us all. And, daringly, that they may also inspire us to act in new ways together, for the good of our home, this planet. Look out for my first conversation with a Tanzanian water expert who grew up in the foothills of Kilimanjaro, and has some wise and wonderful things to say to us.