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Director’s Dispatch: Stop looking for hope on the climate crisis. Try this instead

If we want to save our world – and ourselves – it’s time for an attitude shift, TNH Director Heba Aly argues, as COP25 talks unfold.

Students take part in a demonstration of the Fridays for Future movement for climate protection in Athens, on November 29, 2019. Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP
Students take part in a demonstration of the Fridays for Future movement for climate protection in Athens, on 29 November 2019.

Those who understand the severity of the climate crisis often embrace one of two attitudes: hope or despair.

Both are rather dangerous.

Hope suggests “this is a race we can win” – as UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September.

Guterres reiterated that sentiment this week as world leaders gathered in Madrid for the latest UN Climate Change Conference, COP25. “Our war against nature must stop,” he said. “And we know that that is possible.”

For all intents and purposes, that’s a lie. It’s possible in theory, but impossible in practice.

Despite the attention paid to the climate crisis in the last year, and the decades of scientific knowledge warning of the risks, we’re nowhere near limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – the level scientists say is needed to maintain life as we know it today. Instead, as the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation announced last month, greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2018.

At The New Humanitarian, we see the devastating effects of climate change in our reporting every day. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, plunged farmers into poverty, flooded remote communities, and increased the frequency and severity of life-threatening storms from the Bahamas to the Pacific islands, from Mozambique to the United States.

Yes, there has been some positive progress. A few countries have turned the tide: New Zealand’s gross emissions peaked in 2006. And parts of the private sector are waking up: a third of the global banking industry has agreed to shift lending away from fossil fuels.

But, according to projections released by the Climate Action Tracker a few months ago, even if governments fully achieved the emissions cuts they have committed to in policy pledges – and that’s a big if – warming is likely to rise to 2.9 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That’s nearly double the limit agreed at COP21 in Paris in 2015.

“We have reached a point where the best-case outcome is widespread death and suffering by the end of this century,” a UN human rights report stated in June, “and the worst-case puts humanity on the brink of extinction.”

Essentially, we’re too late.

But glossing over the inevitable outcome is not only patronising, it’s also counter-productive, because it allows us to find solace in abstract or idealistic hope, while imagining that someone else will get us there.

It’s refreshing to be honest about that. As author Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

Advocates may argue – understandably – that such messaging is disempowering; if we publicly admit that the problem can’t be solved, it will discourage people from taking action.

But glossing over the inevitable outcome is not only patronising, it’s also counter-productive, because it allows us to find solace in abstract or idealistic hope, while imagining that someone else will get us there.

I’ve spoken to so many people who say, with the best of intentions, that they are hopeful because a younger generation of climate activists is forcing the issue onto the agenda.

But even 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the teenager at the heart of the youth climate movement, sees that as a cop-out.

“You all come to me for hope?” she told world leaders in her speech at the UN in New York. “How dare you!”

So much for hope. Despair, on the other hand, seems a natural reaction if you accept the terrifying stats.

Accepting the ‘new planet’

Earlier this year, the Australian think tank Breakthrough sketched out a 2050 climate scenario that focuses on possibilities rather than probabilities (like many, it argues that much of the scientific knowledge produced for climate policymaking is misleadingly conservative).

In its scenario, climate change leads to armed conflict between nations over resources; nuclear war; eco-systems like the coral reefs, the Amazon rainforest, and the Arctic collapsing; poorer nations and regions becoming unviable; deadly heat conditions persisting for more than 100 days per year in several regions; and more than one billion people needing to relocate.

Read more → Why COP25 matters to the emergency aid sector

“In high-end scenarios, the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end,” the report said.

Journalist David Wallace-Wells, author of the recently published The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, compares it to “landing on an entirely new planet”.

So, if it’s too late, what’s the point of even trying?

Well, defeatism doesn’t get us very far, as the force behind the Paris climate agreement points out.

“[Optimism] is a decision,” says Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. “If we go into this with a defeatist attitude, I guarantee you that we’re not going to do it.”

So if neither throwing our hands up in the air nor blind hope serve us well, what can?

Kate Marvel, a climate scientist and theoretical physicist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has a suggestion.

Marvel says she is often asked to give people hope about this bleak subject. “The problem is, I don’t have any,” she writes. “The world we once knew is never coming back. I have no hope that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet.

“We need courage, not hope,” she concludes. “Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.”

Finding the courage

The good news is, I’m seeing more and more people – policymakers and regular citizens alike – show courage in the face of this impending doom.

First, they are daring to tell the truth.

On the sidelines of the UN Climate Action Summit in September, rather than cloaking climate discussions under the bureaucratic label of “preparations for COP25”, some attendees embraced the reality of “climate apartheid” – recognising that the rich will protect themselves from the impacts of climate change while millions of poor people simply die.

Climate advocates are finally getting past the narrative that we all just need to take the train and eat less meat, instead articulating that only a complete overhaul of our capitalist economic system – from energy to transport to agricultural production – will get us out of this mess.

But courage means making difficult choices – and sacrifices – in our own lives now before we are forced to do so later.

B&L évolution, a French consultancy that advises companies and local governments about how to grow sustainably, is honest about the scale of transformation that will be required for us to survive as a species. Its recommended list of measures needed for France to limit its emissions in line with 1.5 degrees of warming includes banning the sale of new cars, quotas on imported goods, and a national lottery that parcels out 500,000 flights per year to citizens.

A second sign of courage is getting comfortable with discomfort.

Each of us need to face “climate grief” or “climate trauma” head-on. It took me a long time to move from an intellectual understanding of the climate threat to internalising it on an emotional level. But when I did, my relationship with the issue changed dramatically.

I became much more ready to accept the inevitable: drastic, wartime-style measures that control what we eat, how we get around, the pace of our lives, and our expectation that we can have whatever we want, whenever we want it.

But courage means making difficult choices – and sacrifices in our own lives now before we are forced to do so later.

Think of it this way: the measures we must take today to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming are the same measures we will have to take in a few years to stay within 2 degrees of warming, and so on. It’s going to catch up with us, whether we like it or not.

At The New Humanitarian, we are beginning to provide only vegetarian food at business lunches and reduce the number of flights we take while offsetting their carbon emissions. But this feels miniscule in comparison to the scale of the problem. We need to reduce our consumption of energy and other goods, procure materials locally, examine the track records of partners and vendors we work with, and provide incentives to our staff to live sustainably. This will cost time, money, and inconvenience – and likely have a detrimental impact on our productivity. We need to accept that.

Finally, and most importantly, courage means taking action without knowing that it will lead to the outcome we desire.

Intrigued by its approach, I have recently attended meetings of the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, notorious for its colourful and unusual acts of civil disobedience (one man glued himself to a plane to prevent it from taking off).

Many of its members have risked arrest and imprisonment to urge governments to treat the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.

Seeking to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, they have borrowed from the playbook of Harvard University professor Erica Chenoweth, who argues that non-violent resistance has historically been the quickest, least costly, and safest way to fight injustice. Her research has found that no government can survive if just 3.5 percent of its population mobilises against it. This suggests that social change only requires a few courageous souls to step up.

In his opening speech in Madrid, Guterres called for accountability, responsibility and leadership. I’ll be interested to see if world leaders at COP25 tell the truth about the climate crisis; if they take drastic and, yes, uncomfortable measures; and if they do so without a guarantee that everyone else will do the same.

In the face of what is surely the biggest crisis the world has ever faced, many of us have been oscillating between hope and despair. I certainly have. But we have a third option: courage.

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