activism books climate change

Between chaos and catastrophe

I’ve recently read Facing up to Climate Reality and This is Not a Drill. On the review pile on my desk are books called This Civilisation is Finished and Against Doom. Losing Earth and Falter are two more that I might not get round to, because the will to live remains quite important to me.

This is the evidence from the publishing world. There is evidence of other kinds in the proliferation of Extinction Rebellion groups, climate strikes, declarations of emergency, and news outlets updating the language they use about the climate. Many sectors remain blissfully uninvolved, but something has changed in 2019. It’s all become a lot more serious.

That won’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the science and politics of the climate. A decade ago it was generally agreed that to remain within 2 degrees of warming, emissions needed to peak by 2015. For a moment it looked as if they had, as global emissions hit a plateau through 2013, 14 and 15. The Paris Agreement went through – far from perfect, but a big step in the right direction.

And then it all went out the window. The plateau turned out to be a pause and not a peak, and emissions resumed their usual rise. Trump’s withdrawal from Paris killed the ‘I will if you will’ dialogue that the US had begun with China and other major emitters. The emissions rise for 2018 is the biggest in seven years. We aren’t stopping climate change.

Where does that leave us? No doubt some will see a ‘catastrophist’ streak in the movement at the moment. I think it’s more nuanced than that, and it’s captured by the phrase ‘climate realism’. We should be recognising by now that it’s too late for 1.5 degrees. Barring a miracle or a massive global recession, it’s too late for 2 degrees as well.

That means that the ground has shifted under the environmental movement. The goal isn’t to stop climate change any more. It’s to prevent the very worst from happening. We are now between chaos and catastrophe. We will experience the disruption of climate change. Many have seen their lives turned upside down already, and the danger is all too clear and present. But perhaps the world can still do enough, prepare enough, to prevent a complete breakdown of what we call civilization.

Extreme? Yes – these are extreme times. Alarmist? Again, yes, but when did sounding the alarm become the wrong thing to do in an emergency? Defeatist? No, and that’s a key point to note. The people using the most worrying rhetoric on climate change – the language of extinction even – are not sitting on their hands. They’re throwing everything at the problem. Nobody should be seeing climate realism as a reason for inaction.

For myself, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I do, the sorts of things I write about, and whether it’s worthwhile. That has led to a lot more work in direct action circles, something I have been content to observe from the outside while I focused on my writing. I’ve taken part in protests and occupations in London, trained in non-violent direct action and legal observing. I’ve volunteered with Christian Climate Action and redesigned their website, and helped to set up a Luton branch of Extinction Rebellion. As a family, we continue to look for new ways to lower our impact.

That feels more proportional to the moment. Whether it makes a difference or not is another question. But then, I wrote an E F Schumacher quote on a notebook when I first started the blog: “We must do what we conceive to be the right thing, and not bother our heads or burden our souls with whether we are going to be successful.”

I still think that’s sensible advice.



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