Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen campaigner, often uses the analogy of our house being on fire when she calls on us to panic about climate change. She used it again today in addressing the European Parliament. Some have criticized her for whipping up mass hysteria, saying that panic is exactly what we don’t need right now. If we all panic, politicians assume that all hell will break loose. Panic is an emergency response of the nervous system – fight or flight – whereas tackling climate change effectively, they tell us, requires a measured response.
Mass panic, moreover, is perhaps the greatest fear of democracies. After all, our open societies, particularly in cosmopolitan cities function largely on the basis of relative calm. If you have been unlucky enough to experienced a crush at a concert or fast spreading rumors of a possible terror attack, you know what it is like when mass panic ensues. It is truly frightening. Surely, this is not what Greta wants.
What, then, does Greta mean by “panic like the house is on fire, because it is.” Perhaps I can understand her more than many because, as I share in my story Climate Generation, I was seven years old I experienced a devastating house fire. It is due to that panic gene which Greta speaks of that means I can write this blog today. Moreover, that childhood experience – the sights, the smells, the emotions – is etched on my being. It drives me to panic in a good way, I hope.
Our house fire took place one September evening nearly 40 years ago, shortly after my father died. My mum had left myself and three siblings at home with a babysitter. All of us were upstairs. I was fast asleep. My youngest sister Annie, just one year old then, could not sleep because her comfort blanket was missing. My brother Kenny, still awake, knew exactly where to find it downstairs and went to fetch it.
As he went downstairs, he noticed thick black smoke coming from under the kitchen door. A fire had broken out in the kitchen due to an electrical fault and soon the entire kitchen, decorated with flammable polystyrene tiles (now banned), had turned into a fireball.
What did my brother do? Did he open the door to let the flames and smoke invade the whole house? Did he shrug his shoulders and keep looking for the lost blanket? Did he turn on the TV for a bit and just wait until the toxic, black, deadly smoke overwhelmed him and his baby sisters? Did he sit back and wait until the house burnt down with us in it?
Of course not. That would have been stupid.
My brother Kenny, at 9 years old, had the presence of mind to run back up the stairs as fast as he could and wake us all up. I was in a deep sleep. Had to shake me hard yelling – “Wake Up!!! Wake Up!!! The House is On Fire” – words that have rung in my ears ever since. Then with the babysitter, he then got us all to safety outside. We barely had clothes on – but that didn’t matter. Our lives were at risk. Nothing else mattered. Once everyone was safe, he ran to get a neighbour who had experience of fires. Thanks to his swift response, our neighbours and the fire fighters our home was able to be saved.
I know exactly what Greta means when she says panic like our house is on fire. We need to do exactly what my brother did. We need to let that instinct to save ourselves and those we love well up. Scientists tell us we have just one decade to totally transform our societies to low carbon. We have a meer 18 months now to peak global emissions to get onto that glidepath. In my book, given global politics, panic is now inevitable not matter what.
We must harness that panic. First, we shouldn’t do anything stupid that make the situation worse. In the case of climate change, opening the kitchen door means digging more fossil fuels out of the ground or deforesting the Amazon. It also means flying frequently, eating high meat diets and massively over-consuming for the sake of it. This literally pours fuel on the fire when the house is burning fast.
Second, as quickly as possible, we must wake everyone up, especially if they are in a deep sleep. People cannot wake up with polite words – waking someone up involves shaking, shouting, yelling, banging things…. We have to do whatever is needed, like filling the streets with noisy students or blocking the streets of big cities – even if it means getting arrested. It means doing whatever it takes to get the message out that our lives are in danger due to climate change.
Thirdly, we must get everyone to safety. We cannot escape our burning house – but we need to protect those already facing climate emergencies. Sadly, many people today are already affected by climate change. They are often the victims of huge injustices and climate change is just one. It is our responsibility to get them out of harm’s way.
Finally, we must call the emergency services. But don’t wait for them. We need to see if there are others who can help extinguish or at least control the fire. In the case of climate change, it means throwing all means possible at the problem to reduce our carbon emissions without delay.
Once you have experienced fire, it never leaves you. The acrid smell of burning clings to you for life. The propensity to panic lives uneasily under the surface and can be triggered by something as innocuous as burning toast. In many instances, that can be a hindrance. When it comes to tackling a planetary emergency, the ability to see danger and panic may be the only thing that saves us.