What we do (as in you and I) for the next 2 years are critical if our children are to have a fighting chance of a safe future.
For the last two weeks, the international community has gathered – as they do each year – to agree how to deal with the impending climate catastrophe. The talks this year happened against a world which has darkened considerably since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. In three short years, the political alignment which had made that agreement possible has all but evaporated. President Trump, with his crazy anti-science rhetoric and backing from big oil, has thrown a grenade into the multilateral process. He hasn’t dealt a fatal blow – but lets say the patient is in a serious, unstable condition.
Trump’s behaviour, perhaps most worryingly, provided cover in Poland for other reluctant Paris signatories – Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait – to come out into the open. Their decision to block the conference “welcome” of the recent scientific report on remaining within 1.5 degrees was a highly symbolic and brazen act. It was met with shock and disbelief on the part of most, but allowed others like Brazil to piggy back on the tense political atmosphere to enter the fray as a wrecking ball – delaying agreement on what counts towards emissions reductions and carbon credits. Ultimately, it sewed division and discord at a time when unity was essential.
The talks this year, moreover, were sponsored by the Polish coal industry – despite the fact that we now know that coal is enemy number 1 when it comes to climate change, accounting for almost half of all emissions. To put it in perspective: that’s like Benson and Hedges sponsoring a conference on Lung Cancer. The choking smog from coal hung in the air of Katowice, like a stinging daily reminder of the power of the fossil fuel industry and the madness that annual climate negotiating has become.
Against this backdrop, the rhetoric on the impending emergency – and actual climate emergency – has been dialled up. There is always a sense of urgency at these events – and emotions can run high. This year, however, there was no beating about the bush. Sir David Attenborough talked of immanent breakdown of civilisation, and the talks ended with an utterly heart wrenching plea from 15 year old Greta Thurnberg, who gave the negotiators a dressing down of epochal proportions: “you are not mature enough to say it like it is. Even that you leave to us children.” “I do not care about being popular – I care about climate justice, about a living planet.” These were chilling, cutting words and an indictment on politicians everywhere.
For climate campaigners in Katowice, and those like me following negotiations all around the world, this COP has been a watershed of both despair and hope in a strange way. What little faith people had in governments to respond with due urgency has been shattered. Governments simply are not going to do this for us, for our children and for our planet. This was their last chance saloon and they have blown it. If the stark words of a 15 year old girl and an icon like Sir David Attenborough don’t work, frankly nothing will. The political and economic system is broken – and you can’t fix the world with that broken system.
Realising this is cathartic. It isn’t, of course, about discounting governments and the role they play. Rules matter. But it is about understanding that what is needed now to tackle climate change is not coming. Unless we change the ‘system’ and build a new one on its ruins. System change can seem nebulous – since it implies changing everything everywhere. But it is actually quite straightforward and much of it exists already. It is like building a new house – and choosing to live in a different space. That space is a much nicer one: where we consume far less, live sustainably in our communities, choose to eat less or no meat, fly far less and spend more time nurturing nature and each other. It is a space where we build communities together and stand up bolding for our children’s future and that of other species. It’s a space where we mobilise, organise and inspire each other for urgent change.
That system change is coming. The question is whether we can accelerate it now. Katowice also showed, through Greta and many others, that a popular rising is well underway. It happens when each and every one of us – from the oldest to the youngest – make bold choices and demonstrate loudly our willingness to change. Then political choices become possible and things can change fast. Most energy now has to be spent in waking up the world – in focusing minds on to the future we are denying our children. The climate movement is becoming more vocal and evidently more disruptive. I expect to find myself on the streets more often next year. In the absence of meaningful political action nationally and internationally, the ball is firmly in the court of ‘we, the people’ to protect human rights and planet for the future. And as Greta rightly says: hope comes when you start to act.
And everyone can act. We can all live lower carbon lives and in doing so shift the debate. If we did these we would go a long long way to reducing our carbon footprint and raising the bar for more political action. What we do in the next two years is crucial. Time is not standing still. This is our climate D-Day.
5 Key climate actions to take in 2019
- Begin to model the low-consumption behaviour we need – from energy efficiency measures, reducing flying, changing eating habits… every emission now counts. If you can’t do everything – pick one thing to focus on. See ecologicalfootprint.org for more ideas.
- Get informed and talk about climate change in our communities – and talk about what we individually are doing. If you need a little book to help become informed, read my story – Climate Generation to give you the words and inspiration. See veritas.ie
- Get your money out of fossil fuels – and demand that our churches, clubs, universities, societies, countries do likewise. Make a plan to contact your bank and pension advisor to ask about re-investing your money in funds which do not support the fossil fuel industry. gofossilfree.org
- Support legal cases to challenge government inaction on climate change. Give a donation to climatecaseireland.ie
- Make this our top political issue for 2019 – and organise to take action. Join the global climate strike movement and make #FridaysforFuture your mantra in 2019. Join the facebook group “Climate Strike Ireland” – or in your own country.