Climate change will not affect me: How we avoid the heat and how the heat will not avoid us
(Photo by Monica Valls on Unsplash)
Only occasionally does someone say something to me that sort of slips in under the skin. I am a climate activist, writer and musician. I think about climate change a lot. So when someone recently said to me that while he accepts the reality of climate change, it has no actual impact on his life … and didn’t expect it would, I was dumbstruck. You are kidding me? Well, he said, I live in the world’s richest country, we have the technology we need or can invent it to manage climate change. Besides, for years I have heard these warnings about impending doom. It is getting sort of tedious because life goes on regardless. Show me one way it has forced you to change your life. I was not expecting that. Has a warming planet actually impacted me? Not ‘potentially’, not at ‘some time in the future’, but in real life to this point? That was a good question. So I asked myself; was there anything that I wanted to do that I couldn’t because of climate change? I thought about it carefully and came to the surprising conclusion that he was right. My life has not been impacted by any event linked to climate change. None! But here is the thing. Life is not straightforward because while reflecting on this I also realised climate change has forever altered my life. Confused? It will make sense soon, but first, let’s talk about how I am not impacted by climate change. My life has not been changed by climate change These days life is pretty good. It hasn’t always been great and like most people I have had a few challenges throughout my life where relationships end, financial hardships arise, people die and so on. These are common and sometime inevitable parts of life. But none were caused by climate change. Regular life also seems unaffected. I have always been able to buy the food I want whenever I want. I can talk to my adult kids whenever our schedules line up, because the internet is a thing. My house has not been flooded or burnt out in a bush fire. I have rarely been without a decent job except by choice. I am lucky in love. We are comfortable in a simple-by-choice kind of way. We have a modest and sunny apartment, close to the city. Work has taken me around the world. It is a good life these days. So when we are walking through our Melbourne neighbourhood in the calm of a summer evening, sharing a meal with friends at a local vegetarian cafe, or camping under a magnificent river red gum in the desert, eating our beans and rice as the sun slides behind the horizon, it is difficult to take climate change seriously. When my own circumstances feel so rich and satisfying, how can we be facing an existential crisis that threatens our very existence? For many people climate change does not feel real and therefore lacks a clear sense of urgency. Here is an example: The Chair of the CSIRO (the Australian Commonwealth Science agency) recently gave a talk on the future of science and technology. Climate change was not mentioned once. Why? This guy has a key role in leading future science in Australia, so why was the most serious challenge to ever face our species completely absent? How we avoid the heat Humans are plagued by cognitive biases that are deeply unhelpful in the face of climate change. Unless bad news is in our face, we tend to ignore it. Because bad news is so troubling, our minds find escape routes so we don’t have to pay attention to it. This is particularly true if we are suspicious of the idea in the first place and people around us also minimise or reject it. What do we do with this ‘story’ that doesn’t fit the way we expect the world to be? Despite what we think, we are not primarily motivated by evidence and reason. The way we see and understand the world is pretty much determined by the cultural stories we have internalised. We grow up with these stories and they form a deep part of our identity and how we expect the world to work. For example, many of us have come to trust that science and technology will continue to make our lives better. So sure, the climate story seems bad, but we have faced challenges in the past. We solved the world food problem in the mid twentieth century and we also fixed the hole in the ozone late last century (that was a deadly serious issue that most of us had never heard of). This seems to ‘prove’ that we can fix the climate mess as well. Psychologists call this a confirmation bias, where we notice examples of what we already believe (we fixed stuff before) to confirm our new belief (we can fix stuff again). Our brains also like to focus on the ‘present’, pretty useful when our main goal was avoiding predators roaming the savanna. But this ‘present’ focus makes it harder to alter our behaviour on the basis of the ‘future’, especially if that future feels a long way off. Economists call it ‘discounting’ the future, where the future is less valuable to us than the present. So the idea that we ought to change what we do today for a better and less certain future is hard for us, especially when the present still feels pretty good. So our brains tuck away the cold calculus of climate change for the more pleasant present. For many people, me included, climate change is still mainly a concept whose reality hasn’t really impacted or disrupted us, at least not yet. The present moment is familiar and comforting. But not entirely … Not entirely, because this is only true at a rather superficial level. To see how this works, let’s briefly remind ourselves why the climate is changing. Burning fossil fuels for energy dumps billions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into our collective atmosphere, trapping heat that would otherwise escape to space (the greenhouse effect). The planet then heats up, which is all rather basic science these days. This warming changes the climate and this alters the weather we experience. In some places, it gets wetter, and with more intense rain comes more serious flooding. In other places it gets dryer, with longer and much more damaging droughts. Some places can experience both, though at different times. Bush fire seasons get longer and fires more frequent and destructive. Heat waves get more vicious and the rivers dry up with a vengeance not seen before. But does this really affect me? I am not a farmer reliant on the land and weather, and food is now globally sourced, so a lack in one place is balanced by a surplus in another place. I don’t live in the forest where bush fires rage, as they did recently in California, literally turning paradise into hell. I missed all the record floods in Pakistan, Northern Queensland and Houston. I missed the record damaging Hurricane Sandy and the slew of disastrous storms since then in the Caribbean. Season 8 of Game of Thrones was not disrupted, thank goodness. So climate change has not affected me. But this is only part of the story. While many of us have not personally experienced the direct impact of a serious climate event, it is now merely a matter of time before we do. The debt collector is heading over to our house, but because we don’t know this, we think all is well. We feel ok because we think there is more time to sort it out. It is amazing how quickly good feelings disappear when we are handed the repossession notice. My life has been forever changed by climate change The deeper reality is that I am already impacted by climate change, even if don’t feel it. The world is now radically different from when I was born. Until the middle of the 19 Century, CO2 levels hadn’t got above 280ppm for at least 800,000 years. Then they started rising and hit 315ppm when I was born, 350ppm when my kids arrived and a whopping 400ppm that greeted my grandchildren. This is a new world. In the last 30 years humans have killed off sixty percent of animal populations. SIXTY percent! And the extinctions continue. My grandkids will never experience the Great Barrier Reef, a living wonder of the world. My generation killed it by warming the oceans and making it more acidic. Insect populations are declining, spelling serious problems for ecological systems. There are many other tragedies we could add here. But does all this really matter? Western civilisation has created a unique story that humans are special, above and separate from nature. While it may be sad to see these species disappear and the Great Barrier Reef die, it will not really affect us, according to this story. But we now know this is not true. In fact, we are not only entirely reliant on the planet’s ecosystems for our oxygen, water, food, shelter, waste management and every other thing, we are also living beyond our means. Our species is now on notice that these debts will need to be repaid. We cannot take forever without giving back. That is not how ecosystems work. We humans are part of, not separate from, the life cycles — the reciprocity — of the earth. But climate change changes more than just the physical world; it changes our cultural, emotional and spiritual worlds. It changes us. Climate change may not have caused extremely flooding of MY home, but I no longer feel as secure about the future. And I am certainly less confident that my hitherto safe and financially well-off life style is secure. The Governors of the Bank of England and the Central Bank of France are so concerned that they recently warned the global business community that climate change poses an existential threat to the global economy, that is, a threat to its very survival. One recent analysis calculated that because of climate disruption, there is a 51 percent chance that world GDP will drop by 20 percent before the end of the century. The GFC in 2008 resulted in an estimated 2 percent decline in the global economy. I lost my house because of this crash (that was one of the most challenging times of my life, though climate change was not implicated). So imagine what a 20 percent decline would do to all our lives. But this is the global average. In Australia the chance of a 20 percent drop in GDP is 93 percent. It gets even more real when global insurance companies are increasingly jittery about the costs of serious climate disruption. Unstopped, climate change will overwhelm the global economy. Governments will struggle to cope. Who then will support those whose livelihoods and homes have disappeared under the incoming ocean swells and those who jobs have been outsourced to robotics and artificial intelligence? Supporting the under-employed can be done (Universal Basic Income is feasible, for example), but not when the costs of climate disruption start to seriously bite. What does that do to the economic chances for our kids? Moving from money to security, Harvard academic Steven Pinker argues we live in the least violent time in world history. His evidence is compelling, though not uncontested. Nevertheless, peace and safety are my default expectations. I grew up in New Zealand where police are honest and committed and have equally high expectations in Australia where I currently live. But such safety is not the historical norm (nor the experience for most indigenous people and for citizens in many countries). Continuing peace is not guaranteed.
Climate disruption will place serious pressure on our freedom and social cohesion. The systemic political chaos in Europe caused by the Syrian refugee crisis shows how unprepared we are for disruption. The Syrian conflict has multiple causes but the most severe drought in Syria’s history, strongly influenced by regional warming, forced millions to leave the land and seek refuge in the cities. The ensuing economic insecurity (and the callous Assad regime) resulted in the extraordinary human catastrophe we witnessed. The deeply troubling anti-immigration sentiment in the receiving countries does not bode well when massive climate-forced migration occurs. To say that I will not be affected by climate change under such circumstances becomes less and less convincing. I am worried for our future, for my children and grandchildren, for the poor who will be hardest hit, but also for the rest of us who will, sooner rather than later, wake up with a fright knowing that no one is immune. I know enough to realise the future is now shaped by climate. It is the main game and if we start to take it seriously, all of us, then we have a fighting chance that the worst predictions will not eventuate. The future is, mercifully, not yet determined, so it still rests largely in our hands. So while it is true that I have not been physically impacted by climate related disruption, it has changed my future. It changes all of our futures. It changes everything. Don’t stay on the sidelines for this, because there is now no other game in town.