Climate change requires global, systemic action if we are to save Earth. But each of us can help bring pressure for the painful changes needed.
Greta Thunberg at a climate strike outside the United Nations in New York, 30 August 2019 (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Some problems are so vast that a sense of perspective is the last thing anyone needs when facing them.
As in Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy,” The Total Perspective Vortex is designed to overwhelm not encourage.
Climate change is a perfect example.
Turn on the radio or television, open a newspaper or magazine or trawl the Internet. There is no escaping the climate-related catastrophes that are multiplying across the world — from devastating floods in Pakistan, to drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, raging forest fires in California, massive deforestation in the Amazon, heatwaves in Europe, deadly storms, disappearing glaciers and rising seas.
Global average temperatures are already 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and heading, inexorably it would seem, through the 1.5 degrees generally agreed to be the limit before the planet topples over the climate cliff edge and the current cataclysms pale into relative insignificance.
It could seem overwhelming for a single country — even a large one like the United States or China — let alone an individual, who could be forgiven for feeling powerless in the face of a tsunami of crises and human suffering.
Greenwashing as a COP-out
But giving up is not an option, or as Swedish teenage climate campaign phenomenon Greta Thunberg put it: “Despair is a privilege.”
“We have to promise ourselves we will never give up. We can never despair even if things go against us,” she told an audience in London last month at the launch of “The Climate Book,” a compendium she inspired that is a one-stop information shop on climate change.
The outlook seems irredeemably bleak, even as representatives from nearly 200 countries and institutions meet in Egypt over the next two weeks for the 27th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties, or COP, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Once again, delegates will try to stop and reverse the steady degradation of the climate, with ever widening gaps between high-flying rhetoric and slow-grinding actions.
According to Thunberg, the international negotiating process is well-intentioned but deeply flawed, designed more to protect the status quo than upend it. She maintains that, three decades after the Rio de Janeiro conference that started the global climate road show, the climate conferences are more a forum for greenwashing than for a green future.
“COPS are designed to try to achieve change slowly. That might have worked 30 years ago, but now it is too late,” the 19-year-old told her audience at London’s Royal Festival Hall. “COPs are now mainly used for greenwashing. Our leaders … are cheating.”
Cutting carbon emissions is challenging.
A report by UNFCCC issued in late October on the impacts of climate action pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement predicted that global emissions of carbon dioxide — the main driver of climate change — will have risen 10.6% by 2030 from 2010.
The Nationally-Determined Contributions synthesis report also said that even if emissions did not rise after that, they would still be more than 50% above levels negotiators had targeted. And the report put the likely global temperature rise by the end of the century at 2.5 degrees Celsius.
The room for decisive collective action seems small.
The world is grappling with energy price increases due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, forcing some nations to revert to coal, a major carbon contributor.
As economies contract, it is becoming more difficult for some nations to implement ambitious climate measures.
It’s time for total change.
Gone are the options for relatively pain-free measures. The time is now so short and the remaining options so limited that whatever is done, people will get hurt.
“We need to change everything,” Thunberg said. “Our current system is on a collision course. We are right now in a very desperate position. What we have been doing up to now hasn’t done the trick.”
There is no silver bullet. Resolving one problem is likely to create others with equally unattractive options.
For example, buying local produce while in season — a habit long forgotten by many Western consumers — can help reduce the distance food travels, but shifts in consumption can jeopardise the income of far-away farmers who expanded to meet export demand.
Planning must be comprehensive and flexible — a challenge for politicians and diplomats, who have often resorted to opaque language in the few agreements struck to date.
Billions of climate change activists
Although there has been backsliding on the part of politicians, there is hope — even if it is fading.
“To avoid the worst consequences, we have extremely limited time to do something,” Thunberg said. “The people in power have proved they are not the ones to take action without external pressure. We have to provide that pressure. We need billions of activists. I am convinced that when we are enough people to push for change, that change will come. All over the world, young people are stepping up.”
As with her solo school strike that snowballed into a global movement in just four years and catapulted her from a lonely vigil on the steps of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm to addressing the United Nations in New York, small actions can shake public opinion.
“We need a system-wide transformation,” Thunberg said. “Politicians need to accept and admit publicly there is a climate crisis.
“Individual action is important. We can’t have systemic action without individual action. For me, the thing that helped was to take action and to feel I was doing something. It can be small things that lead to bigger things. Get your friends involved. Unless we get engaged and try to change things, they will only get worse.
“Become an activist,” she urged. “Educate yourselves about climate change. Go out on the streets. Organise. We have to be there constantly putting pressure.”
She received a standing ovation.
Three questions to consider:
- For how many years have international climate negotiations been under way?
- Have the international agreements struck so far done enough or been effective?
- What kind of actions on climate change might have an impact beyond the local community, and how might they be organised and publicised to spread the word to like-minded activist groups and generate further movement?
Jeremy Lovell was a correspondent for Reuters for more than 23 years in Europe, Asia and Africa. He covered Dutch, Belgian, British and South African elections, the EU's Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis, Belgian pedophile murders, NATO going to war for the first time, Zimbabwean farm invasions and climate change, energy and the environment.