Is it too late on Climate Change? Thoughts for a New Year

It’s a beautiful world… Trees, left, in Northumberland. But it’s a world we must not take for granted.

German friends of mine, now in their early 60s, wrote in their Christmas letter of asking some older fellow countrymen what it was like in the late 1930s when everyone knew disaster was looming.

“We just got on with our daily lives, and somehow hoped it wouldn’t happen. It was all we could do.”

How familiar. Annie Lennox was interesting on Jules Holland’s Hootenanny New Year programme on BBC 2. “We’re all heading for catastrophe,” she said, and had to make a joke of it. Duhhh, she added. No one else on the programme picked it up. 

Rather as with a piece I wrote a year ago for therapy today, the monthly journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). Editor Sarah Browne made it the cover article, but although I know that many read it, there’s been no exchange of letters, no follow-up. It’s all just too hot. 

There’s a curious lack of connectedness in how politicians, media, ordinary people are approaching climate change. As indeed the financial meltdown. It’s as if all the survival and sustainability issues now coming up to bite us are discreet, and separate, rather than being part of one whole, coherent narrative. Of which climate change and the threat of cataclysm for our species is just the biggest and most directly joined to everything else.

From the therapist’s perspective, it’s like working with a client who wants only to deal with the symptoms – anger with the boss, for example, hyperactive children, stress in a relationship – rather than seeing issues in the context of their root causes.

That is of course how people, on the whole, function individually. So it’s perhaps no surprise thatit’s the way mankind in its entirety continues to function.

Perhaps in 2009, people will start to talk in new ways, and begin to join the dots. The Earth will propel them in that direction, in the light for example of new research from Jim Hansen of NASA highlighting 350 parts per million (ppm) as the limit of CO2 concentrations which the Earth’s systems can cope with in the longer term while maintaining a climate that works for humans. That’s way below the assumed safe levels that governments have been working with, and we’re already at around 375.

The science is beginning to scream at us, and although there are many who caution against using the language of apocalypse, for fear of disempowering ordinary folk, in my view there’s no point in pretending that things aren’t extremely bad, and much worse than most people realise. Even if there is, possibly, hope that things might be turned around in time.

Indeed, every indicator of climate change, especially polar ice melt, is changing even faster than the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC. Which was predicting up to 6.5 degrees of warming, in worst-case, by the end of THIS century. And that’s scientists speaking at their lowest common denominator.

And people still don’t want to know, even those in the Green movement. My wife Sue was on retreat over Christmas, brought this up, and was in effect shouted down. “It doesn’t help” said one of fellow retreatants, incensed and very angry. He denied it, but Sue and I call that denial.

In psychology, this Head-in-the-Sand position is known as Cognitive Dissonance. Clients may know that something is killing them – addictions, or anorexia or whatever. But they can’t make the connection that would change their actual behaviour.

The Economist was interesting just before Christmas. If a meteorite was heading for the earth, and guaranteed to destroy civilisation, would the world’s governments work together to head off that threat, as a matter of extreme urgency? Of course they would. In which case, wondered the writer, if the science is true, which even the Economist now acknowledges it is, why can’t they do the same on climate change?

The coming months are critically important in this discussion, with the world’s governments preparing to meet in Copenhagen from November to work up, possibly, a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol. 

That was already fatally flawed, even without George Bush keeping the US out of it. But the process is politically the only show in town, and it might help concentrate minds.

Media punditry over the holiday period does not incline me towards optimism, predicting continued inability to reach agreement. And if people thought the economic meltdown was an opportunity for new thinking, the evidence so far is very disappointing.

Just some New Year thoughts.

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