I live in San Sebastian and have just been back to England for two months. In that time I tried to open a conversation about global warming with all my family and friends. I received the following responses:
- It's nice that you have something you're passionate about.
- Don't go on about this too much. People will just switch off.
- You should never regret having your son (I was talking at the time about my fears for his future), he'll help to come up with solutions.
- People just want to live a normal life. We can make changes if they don't affect our lifestyles.
- What's the point in us doing anything when China's doing nothing and they're causing most of the emissions?
- We're world leaders on climate change. We're already doing enough.
World leaders on climate change? Let's just address that for a minute: 97% of all our investments into energy projects in developing countries goes into fossil fuels, we're going ahead with Heathrow expansion despite declaring a climate crisis and we still haven't lifted the ban on onshore wind farms, even though a majority of the population are now in favour of them. We aren't doing too badly in terms of emissions at the moment (they fell by 2.5% last year) but there's a lot more we need to do.
"97% of all our investments into energy projects in developing countries goes into fossil fuels."
What I think all these responses demonstrate is a massive discrepancy between the reality we're faced with and the level of panic on the part of most people.
Let's take flying as a specific example of this lack of urgency. Here's what I heard when I tried to explain the effects of flying on global warming:
– Yes, but travelling is a part of my lifestyle and I don't want to stop.
– Flying is cheap.
– It would take me much longer to do the same journey by train, so why would I bother?
Why should we be panicking?
Let's briefly re-visit a few of the facts:
- An IPCC report was released last year stating that we must keep global warming to 1.5 C in order to limit 'substantial consequences' to human communities and economies, as well as ecosystems across the planet. Based on current governmental pledges, we are on course for 3 degrees.
- Because of global warming, our oceans are acidifying, which is bleaching our coral reefs, killing off ocean ecosystems and making our seas less efficient at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
- There were huge wildfires in the arctic this summer, in which more CO2 was released in a week than the whole of Sweden emits in a year. Also, the Antarctic is melting much faster than anyone had expected.
- Because of Bolsonaro's destructive policies regarding the Amazon, deforestation has tripled since he came to power and if we lose roughly 20% of what remains, a crucial tipping point will be reached in which the Amazon ceases to be a tropical rainforest and instead becomes a savannah. And it's also currently on fire. And forests absorb about 25% of all our carbon emissions. And contain 6% of the earth's oxygen.
- We used to make up 1% of the world's mammals but now us humans and our livestock make up 99%. All the earth's wild animals put together make up the final 1%.
Sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, doesn't it?
And what's being done about all of this? Well, global investments in fossil fuels are on the rise, as are emissions, believe it or not.
Then why aren't we panicking?
My best guess is that we are not panicking because we are not being made to confront the reality of our situation on an everyday basis. In the UK we have a few exceptionally hot days a year, a bit of flooding and some failed cauliflower harvests to deal with. We can even joke about how there won't be any sprouts for Christmas this year (my family did). I choose to believe that this is the main reason for the lack of panic, because it is the one we can actually do something about.
So, what can we do about this lack of panic?
When I say 'we' I am referring to those of us who fully understand the scale and depth of this crisis. And what 'we' can do is to make everyone else confront reality all the time.
When I arrived back in Spain, I found that I felt exhausted, and I realised that the source of my exhaustion was that every day while I was at home, I had made myself feel socially isolated by talking about things people simply don't want to hear. It's not even as though I was aggressive with my opinions. In fact, in some cases when people were talking about their recent holidays by plane, I didn't say anything at all, because nearly everyone I spoke to did tell me about their flights, even complete strangers, and I couldn't face tackling the issue every single time. Apparently, we Brits fly a hell of a lot.
It's not just talking that's exhausting though. Once you know how bad this crisis is, it is there all the time. It is all around you, in every conversation, every TV programme, every trip to the supermarket. There is no switching off from it, and if you do decide not to tackle climate change every time someone mentions their jet-setting lifestyle, you come away feeling like maybe you should have said something. But the truth is that saying something takes guts and it takes mental strength, because it isolates you. It makes you into 'that person,' the one who wants to kill the mood and inconvenience people. And sometimes I was just too tired to be that person.
"I had made myself feel socially isolated by talking about things people simply don't want to hear."
The notable exceptions to those reactions I got, which all showed a lack of panic, came from members of Extinction Rebellion. Exhaustion was a common theme among those I spoke to: exhaustion from still being in a minority and simply having more work to do than they can handle, exhaustion from understanding the crisis and not being able to escape from that knowledge because it's all around us, and exhaustion from trying to make others understand just how much shit we are all in.
Incidentally, while flicking through a magazine at Brighton train station, I read that 40% of all young people are suffering from 'eco-grief'. If I feel isolated when I'm with my family and friends, how must they feel? So much worse, I imagine, when being a teen is all about peer pressure and getting people to accept you. What are their options? Isolate themselves by trying to talk about it, or try to pretend everything is normal but secretly worry about it?
"40% of all young people are suffering from 'eco-grief'. If I feel isolated when I'm with my family and friends, how must they feel?"
But I digress. The point I wanted to make is that we must all talk to our family and friends about this all of the time, and at every opportunity. We must fill others' newsfeeds on social media with environmental information. We must even share every testimonial that is posted to Flight Free. In short, we must make sure that no one is allowed to get on with their normal life and forget that this crisis is happening and that we need to take urgent action. We must be brave enough to isolate ourselves, because the more of us who do that, and the more frequently we do it, the more quickly adapting our lifestyles to suit the planet will become the new normal, and those who feel isolated will be those who aren't willing to change.
Sometimes I feel a nostalgia for my 80s childhood (alright, maybe not so much for shell suits and mullets) because I was able to live in blissful ignorance. I could eat what I wanted, buy what I wanted and travel where I wanted, because I didn't know any better. I was, like us all, happily fulfilling my own individual wishes and desires.
To be honest, I was still doing all those things until very recently, but that time is over now, and it's never coming back, for any of us. We can't carry on thinking of ourselves simply as individuals, living in our own little bubbles. We are all a part of a much bigger community, for better or for worse, and we really do all need to stop flying, start following a plant-based diet and join the protests to make our government take immediate action.