What Does it Mean to Face Up to Our Climate Reality?
Whether we want to admit it or not, climate breakdown is already upon us: record-breaking heat waves, flash floods, wildfires. Climate change does not cause all of these things to happen, it amplifies them. This is not happening in some far off place, it is the weather where you are.
If we read the science and we acknowledge climate breakdown to be true, what is our response? What does it really mean to face up to our climate reality?
It’s so easy to put our heads in the sand and make exceptions for ourselves and for our families. Because we work hard. Because we deserve it. Because everyone else is doing it. Many people would appear to be continuing to live as normal – driving cars, taking international flights for work or holidays, contributing to shipping and aircraft emissions through the purchasing of goods online. The reality is that ‘normal life’ – a privilege we in the West have enjoyed for the last seventy years or so – cannot continue.
I read an article recently from the point of view of climate scientists, describing the experience of being on the front lines of contending with the fear, anger, despair and even panic that the rest of us will have to deal with in years to come. David Corn writes,
“[There is] a distinction between denialism and bystanderism, which takes the form of people saying “they care about it” but not engaging in meaningful action: “That’s when I want to shake people and say, ‘You know how little time we have?’”
There would seem to be an unnerving level of cognitive dissonance here – a collective inability or unwillingness to grasp what climate breakdown really means for our lives, our communities, our planet, let alone the vast effort that is required to steer this supertanker on a different course.
In the course of my adult lifetime, we could have stopped this. More than half of the carbon emitted through burning fossil fuels has happened in the last thirty years, and knowingly. If we had been going to prevent climate breakdown, we would have put in place genuine constraints on emissions world-wide, soon after this first became a live issue, following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 or the Paris Agreement in 2015. We didn’t.
The Scottish Government’s recent net zero target by 2045 is ambitious, but it does not go anywhere near far enough; the government’s own official climate change advisers have warned that there’s a ‘substantial gap’ between government’s ambition and the lack of policy to deliver it.
In my experience, at professional events or conferences, while ‘climate change’ is almost always acknowledged, conversations continue on as if ‘business as usual’ is an option (it’s not). As an example, on the morning an article came out the recognising Edinburgh as an overtourism hotspot – a serious issue in many parts of the world – I sat in an industry meeting of experts at XpoNorth in Inverness, the focus of which was to gleefully discuss how we could maximise profits through increasing our international visitor numbers. The message was clear: more people, more products, more cars, more international flights.
There was no programmed session here on how we might face up to our ‘climate emergency’ as if it was a real threat. In full knowledge of the facts, why on earth is this not always the central focus? Climate is not a fringe environmental issue: this is a question that every industry and every profession must engage with and face up to, immediately.
We’ve had enough
Over the past year I have been working with a collective of activists called Enough! – a Scottish response to our global social, economic and ecological crises. We see that our current economic system and climate crisis are fundamentally linked. We see that inequality, oppression, injustice, power and ecological breakdown are all connected by the same story: that the economy must keep growing – no what matter what the cost.
The deep logic of capitalism is to grow more capital, achieved through the processes of exploitation, accumulation and extraction:
“We’re already taking far more than can be replaced and we can see the consequences all around us: climate change, deforestation, soil depletion, perpetual war, mass extinction of species. It has got so bad that we are threatening the very basis of all of life itself…We have a choice to make: prioritise growth, or prioritise life. We can’t do both.” (TheRules.org)
Any climate action must therefore challenge and prefigure alternatives to economic growth. If we don’t, our economy will be our endgame.
Mainstream approaches to climate solutions, however, have been based on maintaining current economic systems. Policymakers have responded by advocating ‘sustainable growth’ or ‘green growth’ – the idea that we can somehow keep growing our economy while simultaneously reducing our impact by ‘decoupling’ GDP from the use of natural resources. A new report published this month by Make Europe Sustainable for All (MESA) concludes that there is no empirical basis for this approach. It is impossible.
If we are serious about the climate, our only option now is to degrow. We need to explore new economic models that undercut the drivers of growth and find new ways of measuring progress and wellbeing. We need to discuss caps on resource use, tradeable energy quotas and targeted down-scaling of specific industries. The kind of transformation that is called for is much more radical than a large-scale de-carbonisation and conversion to renewable energy, as many imagine. It’s about radically relocalising, drastically reducing the amount of transportation of goods and people around the world, changing our approach to agriculture and much, much more.
A story of the future
There is an enormous unpredictability about what we are facing. On our current trajectory, the science points to runaway climate breakdown. This means that even if we manage to halt the damage now, the climate will continue to deteriorate for a long time to come. By the time global temperatures reach 2°C, the consequences will be catastrophic. Hundreds of millions of people will die from air pollution alone. In his book Uninhabitable Earth (2019), David Wallace-Wells writes,
“This is what is meant when climate change is an “existential crisis” – a drama we are now haphazardly improvising between two hellish poles, in which our best-case outcome is death and suffering at the scale of twenty-five holocausts, and the worst-case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction.”
Many people think climate change is something their kids or grandkids will have to deal with. We need to drastically reframe our understanding of the timeframe in which things can change, and how quickly they may change. Some would say that some form of collapse or social breakdown is likely in our lifetimes; others say this is inevitable. We live in a highly complex, hyper-connected globalised world reliant on a ‘just in-time’ supply system. Because of this complexity, our system is susceptible to shocks that can reverberate and cascade through it very fast. Think of the 2008 financial crisis, fuel shortages, or even the chaos of disrupting flights at Heathrow.
Climate change is already affecting crop yields and shrinking global food supplies. India, previously self-sufficient in cereal crops, saw huge drops in its harvest this year. India needs to feed 1.2 billion people. What happens if this happens again next year, or the year after that? Whether due to food and water shortages or extreme conditions, millions of people will move. People are already moving. Justine Huxely writes,
“The enormity of climate breakdown, social collapse and the danger of mass extinction can easily overwhelm. We may know the facts about the melting of the polar ice caps or the destruction of species in our minds, and we may understand the threat of global conflict or the likelihood of unprecedented displacement on a mental level, but allowing that knowledge in, as experiences we as individuals are likely to face before the end of our lifetime, is a different matter.”
The ecological philosopher Timothy Morton calls climate breakdown a ‘hyperobject’ – something that surrounds us, envelops us and entangles us, but that is too big to understand or grasp in its entirety. Hyperobjects exist everywhere at once, but we can only experience them in the local environment. This might be the reason for this gulf between thought and action, this cognitive dissonance, denial and profound psychological disconnect. If we have not experienced the effects of climate change directly in our localities, in our bodies, how are we expected to grasp the enormity of what we face?
One of the framing ideas for our work with Enough! is deep adaptation. Deep adaptation confronts the likelihood of near-term social collapse, asking that we look beyond mitigation alone and face up to the reality of climate change, both personally and in community. Based around the ideas of resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation, this is a framework that prepares us for and develops our shared capacities to deal with what’s to come in our changed and changing world.
Deep adaptation asks us to stop and reflect, rather than reacting only from anger or shock. If you are willing to go through this process, you will undoubtedly experience despair, fear, sadness, grief, anger, futility, a loss of hope. This is why it is so vital to talk and not keep this struggle within the confines of your own mind. On my own journey, I have found many people who are desperate to have this conversation.
Thinking like this completely re-frames your life, which, from now on, is lived in full conscious relationship with the knowledge of the very real consequences of climate breakdown. Things that once mattered fade into the background of a past life – a successful career, well-paid job, recognition. Life quickly becomes about letting go, finding and building supportive networks, forging a path outside the status quo, learning new skills, really reflecting on what is important. In a strange way, this process is life-giving. You start to see all the wonderful, creative and humbling things that people across the globe are doing to restore life and community. Transformation becomes a possibility.
Of course, many will argue that none of this matters unless the world’s most populous countries and developing economies – Africa, Asia, the Americas – are committed to decarbonisation. This is a sort of climate brinkmanship in which we all lose.
Within the capitalist system, right now, we have enormous agency as consumers: the food we eat, the products we buy, the flights we take, the services we use. We cannot underestimate people power when it comes to politics either, and legislative policy is still where the most far-reaching impact can be made. Extinction Rebellion has brought this issue into the mainstream. Look at what happened in The Hague last month, when 886 Dutch citizens took their government to court to make them act on climate promises and won, setting a precedent for the rest of the world. We can make a difference.
Across the globe at this historical moment, democracy is facing huge challenges in terms of legitimacy and capacity. Democracy is not fixed; it must evolve with us. In Scotland this week, an event in Edinburgh discussed the potential and power of extending participatory democracy through Citizens’ Assemblies. One of Extinction Rebellion’s three demands is to establish a citizens’ assembly on climate. You can sign the declaration here.
I will leave you with this:
“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
As long as we don’t despair, if we find ways to channel our anger, build our resilience, if we are both incredibly lucky and very courageous, this crisis could yet become a transformative moment for the good of humanity into the future.