When my Bolivian guide started throwing sticks at the howler monkey seated high above our heads, I joined him. Realising as he flung the fallen remnants of the rainforest that they were never going to split the entanglement of foliage and collide with our passive primate, I didn’t see the problem. The monkey was way out of range, and me, a foreigner, wanted to see that damn monkey move. There’s no tangible problem here, right? Yet I still felt a scratching discomfort, largely fermented by the deep gaze of the jungle resident, as if he held nothing but contempt for his supposedly intelligent cousins.
I’ll digress for a moment and be straight; I want to talk about climate change. But don’t click away; I understand your disillusionment with the subject, and I can’t match the humour of Imgur or offer bikini selfies, but this is, you shouldn’t be surprised to know, more important.
It’s no mystery why the melancholic helplessness of climate change hyperboles lose out to the more instagram-able, digestible and optimistic stimuli which are flung our way at cosmic speed. We seem eternally clasping for control of our runaway youth, defeating the omnipresent reality of its fleetingness by embracing impulsiveness, while trying to keep a wise eye on the treadmill below whose sharp edge reminds us not to fall too far behind in the economic rat race. Who’s got time to confront the mortality of the seemingly insurmountable challenge in trying to bed mother nature, when she seems ignorant to our own internal plights? There seems to be a bubble which we are living in, and we urgently need to find a way to pop it.
It’s the same bubble which subsumed me and my fellow backpackers in Bolivia last year. It’s not hard to fall unconsciously into propagating ignorance while subduing ethical responsibility, when these instincts are competing with a ‘traveler’ mentality concerned solely with maximising personal pleasure. We dismissed eco-friendly tour options based on price and failed to have one reflective conversation on the byproduct of compliance with our chosen tour’s operation, which I find rather analogous to our attitude towards climate change. Our justification for not engaging with it seems to come bound in acceptance that any single individual’s behaviour will change nothing.
Even more of a barrier with climate change is its abstractness. We tend to like more palpable targets for our outrage, like dentists who shoot African lions. Then we seem more than happy to open the floodgates to international vilification, signing petitions in protests and contributing to newsfeeds that resemble nothing more than the 21st century angry mob. A similar incident in my native New Zealand this year involved an X Factor judge who made some hatefully unhinged remarks to a contestant that sent the entire country on a hysterical witch hunt in the name of publicised bullying. Both of these events undoubtedly deserve our condemnation. But what’s a mystery to me, is how to channel this level of passionate rage onto the one issue that our generation desperately needs to grab by the balls and shake into submission. Much like the European refugee crisis, which has itself been contributed to by a global warming exacerbated drought, we appear to be sleepwalking towards catastrophe until some catalyst like the drowned toddler reprograms our mass attention to the seriousness of the challenge, albeit just late enough that humanity’s suffering is already well underway.
Taking New Zealand again as an example, approximately one third of 18–34 year olds don’t agree that there is a scientific consensus on human caused climate change, and the same amount are unconcerned with the potential impacts of climate change on society in general. Despite a clear concerned majority, that’s still one in three of us, the future leaders and hopeful saviors of our comfortable post-industrial existence, who still don’t grasp the perniciousness of our predicament. Either we’re still wading through the murkiness permeated by the deniers, or there’s a fundamental disengagement with today’s realities of a 97% climate scientist consensus, overwhelming endorsement of anthropogenic climate change by almost every major scientific body including, without failure, all national scientific institutions, and incredibly, the holiest of endorsements from the Pope himself.
Instead of becoming outraged at an overzealous X Factor judge, why don’t we get outraged at the inability of our elected officials to put in the necessary steps to protect us. In almost 30 years of structured climate change mitigation talks, we have failed to stop the rise of greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in a 2015 year set to be the hottest on record, with global average temperature about to hit 1C of warming since pre-industrial times, corresponding with record CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. The absolute maximum safe limit of 2C is wildly unachievable under current mitigation agreements, with predictions we’ll hit at least 2.7C even if current targets are met.
And just to drive the urgency home: CO2, as you may or may not be aware, takes hundreds of years to be removed from the atmosphere, via various natural processes. That means that just cutting CO2 emissions today, would not automatically normalise the climate. The hard truth is we are already committed to the effects of global warming for a minimum of two centuries.
Fact: We are the last generation with a chance to plug the damage before it sweeps away not only us, but our children and grandchildren, and we are obliged to do so. It is grossly naive, to think that the consequences of continued current trends will not burst through the illusion of the invulnerable civilization and tear it apart. Carbon emissions must be ripped from the persistent claws of capitalism now, so the truly punishing effects can be buried in the sand, in place of where our heads are now.
And now for the inspiration, because 2015 is not just literally steaming, it’s carrying the hottest positive momentum to date. You may of heard of the Dutch citizens who in June won a lawsuit, the first of it’s kind, forcing their government to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 25% within five years. Or maybe you’ve seen Leonardo DiCaprio advocating the revolutionary runaway fossil fuel divestment campaign, which today totals assets worth over 2.6 trillion dollars. There’s increasingly firm rhetoric and commitments from the world’s two biggest emitters in the US and China, and an aggressive shift to renewable energy from Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, which has resulted in energy prices from renewable energy comparable to gas and coal. Dealing with climate change isn’t only about avoiding disaster, it presents an opportunity renegotiate our fundamental relationship with the natural world, to create a balance between it’s needs and ours as the first steps towards a more sustainable and fair economy.
Most importantly for us today, COP21, the climate summit in Paris at the end of this month, where delegates from 196 countries will attempt to sign in universal commitments aiming to steer us off 2C of warming, is the capitulation of all momentum thus far, and needs to be the turning point in humanity’s management of climate change. If there was ever a time for our generation to stand up and be heard, it’s now.
This isn’t about being a ‘leftist greenie’, a tree hugger or a political nut. We don’t need to buy power saving lightbulbs, turn vegan and take shorter showers. We just need to become engaged with the defining issue of our time and understand that it will affect us all.
Surrounding these talks, over 1500 monumental demonstrations are planned across the globe with the aim of becoming the biggest climate mobilisation ever. Last year almost half a million people marched in New York alone, and this year is set to comprehensively dwarf that. If you only attend one protest or march in your life, make it this one, for a simple reason:
The leaders at the summit must be mortally aware, that they cannot leave without comprehensive, unprecedented, aggressive steps to fight climate change.
Do we want to stumble over answers to our children, who we’ve condemned to the harshness of Earth’s violent side through our inaction? They will not understand our tolerating the pillaging of the natural world any more than we understand history’s tolerance of slavery. They will ask why. Why we allowed ignorance to weigh on our foresight. Why we stigmatised the need for change under a cover of abundant superficialities. Our generation cannot be defined by an unanswered question.